Despite the title, today’s sermon is brought to you by the letter P. You are invited to list all the “P” words as you hear me say them. In the 1960s a white church in our town had a statement on their sanctuary wall that went something like this: “Christ died for all; thus, all men are brothers.” At the time it was a bold statement of racial justice. But times change and it began to seem too sexist to keep it on the sanctuary wall. Feminism notwithstanding, I think a case could be made to keep it. Brothers do have such a terrible time of it. Some of the worst injuries I ever heard of were inflicted by brothers playing or fighting with each other.
My husband put his little brother in the dryer once. His brother loved the WWF, and body-slammed him so hard, my husband thought his back was broken. They were in their twenties. I know three brothers whose mom caught them jumping out of an upstairs window to practice different falls, always making the little one go first. Literature has not yet exhausted the topic – all that love and jealousy and rage between brothers, the bottomless competition for the father’s approval and affection.
Outside the Bible, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden has to be the best American novel on the subject of brothers, and it borrows from the Bible copiously. My son Ben said that finishing it is sad because you know no other novel will ever be as good. The brothers in Steinbeck’s story all have names beginning with “C” and “A” for Cain and Abel. But “J” and “E” work equally well. Jacob and Esau, a template for all brothers, bound by blood and otherwise, in a world with just one birthright. I plan to spend three weeks in the Jacob and Esau story – the story of birthright and brothers; what it might have to say to people who have chosen the gospel of Jesus Christ as the story of our lives.
It hardly ever happens this way but, I was doodling around with sermon ideas Friday morning and in that net of purple ink the words primogeniture, pregnancy and porridge were sitting there like three little candy Easter eggs tied up with a bow. Primogeniture is just what it sounds like: the primacy of being born first, the firstborn of the same two parents. In the Genesis narrative, primogeniture goes by the name birthright – the rights to which one is entitled by virtue of being born first. Those rights consist mainly of privilege, power and property. Each one of those – privilege, power, and property – contains a great deal more rights in and of itself.
As the story of these brothers will show, birthright is both a gift and a terrible burden. Biblically, the birthright belongs to the oldest son in a family. But as Numbers 27 details, God is clear that daughters without brothers are entitled to their father’s property. The fact that people didn’t follow the Bible doesn’t mean the Bible doesn’t say it.
As Isaac’s firstborn son, Esau would inherit all of the promises, privileges and power of Abraham along with two-thirds of his possessions – possessions that had greatly increased in value over Abraham’s lifetime and will again in Isaac’s. It was the way of things in the Bible that the older got the most. Just the way things were – and are still, lots of places, in lots of families.
Esau was born with his brother’s handprint on his heel, making him firstborn by no more than a minute or two. Say what we will about Jacob, he was scrappy. He was grabbing for the birthright before he could breathe.
The Bible is big on barrenness, because in the Bible pregnancy isn’t a biological predicament but a theological one. Pregnancy results not from procreation but from Divine promise and faithful prayer. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. This is how Bible babies get made, how Bible people become parents.
And while she may have prayed for a baby for twenty years, Rebekah didn’t even have one before she was praying the universal prayer of parenting, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” The sentence takes many forms: These kids are going to be the death of me; I don’t know why I bother; Are you kidding me; Never mind, I’ll be fine; I can’t have anything nice. Her baby tumbled and kicked her so much, Rebekah didn’t even know she was praying, until God answered. Not with a promise this time, but with a proclamation, a prophecy if you will: the truth at hand, in her belly, coming into the world.
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”
And when she delivered, it was twins, which explained all the kicking and pressure, her heartburn and backache. I wonder how long it took to realize only one of her kids caused most of those pregnancy problems? 95 percent of her pregnancy problems? Weeks, probably, if that. Jacob was probably a picky eater. (We know Esau wasn’t.) I bet he was a fussy baby and a terrible toddler. The Bible says he was Rebekah’s favorite, which isn’t surprising at all. He needs her more, so she worries about him more. She’s the one who sees him banging his head against an unlocked door, always making everything harder than it has to be. She’s the one who sees his sadness and disappointment, when other people only see his deceit and his rage – like with the porridge, the red lentil stew Jacob had ready the exact moment his brother would come home starving – this word for “red” being one of those Hebrew play-on-a-word moments we don’t understand when reading in English. The essence of which is that Esau was too simple-minded to realize what is happening to him, while everyone listening does understand and has a glorious laugh along with Jacob. Which just makes the prank that much meaner, but also funnier. But also sadder.
The boys had to be teenagers at this point, young men. So no way could this have been Jacob’s first mean trick. Nor the last. How was Esau to know it was the one that would break everything? His own heart first of all; and his father’s. Break up his family, to keep him from killing Jacob. All that comes later. All because, the Bible says – or will say – God meant Jacob to have the birthright’s worth. Even now, for all his trickery, only Jacob seems to know the birthright’s worth.
Esau just wanted to eat. And the Bible says Esau despised his birthright. “Despised” is tricky. “Hated” isn’t quite right. He hated Jacob. Instead of despised, Eugene Peterson translates the word shrugged off. He shrugged off his rights as the firstborn. He didn’t care about it. Didn’t care about it, not as if it were not important, but rather as if it were something presumed, this destiny of privilege and power and property. He could leave it lying around, knowing it would be there when he needed it.
Everyone knew whose it was. As much as his hand or his foot, it belonged to him. Trading it for porridge was just another one of his brother’s stupid pranks. He has no idea, of course, how wrong he is. Birthright may sound redundant to Esau, and to his parents for that matter, but only because they’d never been invited to imagine otherwise – or don’t realize they’ve already been informed otherwise in their own prayers some fifteen or twenty years earlier, back when they discovered pregnancy to be a theological predicament. And birthright itself was not a thing, remember? The elder shall serve the younger. God said that, thus rendering the word birthright an oxymoron.
There are no rights attached to birth order, as far as God is concerned. No privilege, no power, no property – essentially a dismantling of life as they knew it, had they believed and acted accordingly. But naturally, they didn’t. Instead, they did – what? They did what people benefitting from the system always do: they blamed Jacob. Jacob the problem. Jacob the trickster. Jacob the troublemaker. Jacob the agitator. Jacob the liar. Jacob the cheater. In a system wherein no matter how good he was, Jacob was never going to reap the benefits of that system, Jacob figured out how to work that system to his own advantage.
I kid you not, this happened on Friday as I sat in my bedroom writing this sermon. My high school friend Alan, a woodworker, made and sent me this picnic table which I filled with seed for the squirrels on my deck. This squirrel’s name is Pancake, because he lies flat as a pancake to take his naps after he eats copious amounts of seeds. He gets the table and the seed and the shade and the water for free. But when another squirrel comes along, what does Pancake do? Yep. He is a selfish jerk. The other squirrel gets the crumbs that fall from Pancake’s table.
He has no prior privilege or power. The seed is a gift – to him, to his brother, to the birds, even to a raccoon. And yet, here’s Pancake, in the middle of the table, as though getting there first gives him the right to decide who else is welcome. I expect you get the point. The only thing new going on in this Bible text is our recognition that nothing new is going on here.
As the wise women of Thursday Bible chat said, This has something to do with Jesus, I can tell. The one who says the first shall be last, who also told a story about two brothers, who focused on the shady younger one; who struggled to get his own listeners to imagine a God who sided with the poor and the prisoner, the last, the lost, the least and the left behind. To believe that the word said they matter more to God than property or power or privilege, and that anybody who wanted to be in his party better get that straight. You bet brothers and birthright has to do with Jesus.
Sarah was 127 years old when she died, so God knows she needed the rest. At 175 years old, Abraham had one foot in the grave himself, but not before he gave his son Isaac one last gift: a wife. Her name was Rebekah. The story would have been told aloud for years and years, to a people who would have caught its bawdiness and slapstick in ways we miss, not knowing Hebrew, and also because of the uptight way we read the Bible in general. So, after we pray, my idea is to read a little, talk a little, and see what we might find useful from this story in Genesis, chapter 24.
I am grateful for the Word, O God, showing us that folks are folks and that so little in this world changes outside the details of time and place. When the world is changing all around us, help us be flexible of heart and mind and personality. Help our faith lean into the future with no other expectation than that you are with us. Amen.
Beginning with verse 1:
Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac.”
Summing up the whole next part, the servant asks, What if she won’t come with me? Should I take your son back there? To which Abraham replies, Absolutely not. The Lord was clear that this land right here is the land I am to possess. So if you can find a girl, you’re free from the oath. But DO NOT take my son back there. So the servant put his hand under the thigh of Abraham his master and swore to him concerning this matter.
Okay, so, nobody is actually putting their hand under anyone else’s thigh. It’s much worse than that, which is why English won’t translate it precisely. Let’s just say handshaking hadn’t been invented yet, and what was going on was more intimate, but also more threatening when it happened between two warriors. But remember, Abraham is 175 years old. Sooooo,
10 Then the servant took ten of his master’s camels and departed, taking all kinds of choice gifts from his master; and he set out and went to Aram-naharaim, to the city of Nahor – in modern Syria. Nahor was Abraham’s brother. The servant made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water. And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show stead-fast love to my master Abraham. Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’-- let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac. By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but here we have a man, a foreigner, hiding outside a known gathering place for young women – a stalker essentially – praying a creepily specific prayer for God to help him catch the right one. Before he had finished speaking, there was Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, coming out with her water jar on her shoulder. The girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin, whom no man had known. So creepy.
She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. Then the servant ran to meet her and said, “Please let me sip a little water from your jar.” “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and gave him a drink. When she had finished giving him a drink, she said, “I will draw for your camels also, until they have finished drinking.” So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough and ran again to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels. Okay, seriously. I have seen camels up close. They are enormous, and a little revolting. But they are work animals. They weigh 1500 pounds and can carry 900 pounds for 25 miles a day. Want to guess how much they drink?
Did I do the math? Of course, I did. 53 gallons at a go. And the Bible says she watered ALL of them? Until they were finished? No way! That’s 530 gallons of water! One gallon of water = eight pounds. 4248 pounds of water!! If she could carry ten gallons at a time, that’s 428 trips to the spring and back, which at five minutes each would take 35 hours. It’s comic relief! Biblical hyperbole. Teenage girl watering ten camels, Haa! Haa! (Check out this camel video.)
When the camels had finished drinking, the man took a gold nose-ring weighing a half shekel, and two bracelets for her arms weighing ten gold shekels, and said, “Tell me whose daughter you are. Is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” She said to him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel son of Milcah, whom she bore to Nahor.” Rebekah is the great-niece of Abraham, thus Isaac’s second cousin. She added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder and a place to spend the night.” The man bowed his head and worshiped the Lord and said, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master. As for me, the Lord has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.”
Obviously, the servant prays A LOT! because he’s the only narrator for the God of Abraham in the whole story. All of Rebekah’s people are polytheists. At least they were, until they see ten camels carrying 9000 pounds of presents for the family with a marriageable daughter. As soon as Rebekah’s brother, Laban, saw the nose-ring, and the bracelets on his sister’s arms, and heard the words of his sister Rebekah, he went to the man; and he said, “Come in, O blessed of the Lord. Why do you stand outside when I have prepared the house and a place for the camels?” Then food was set before him to eat; but he said, “I will not eat until I have told my errand.” Laban said, “Speak on.”
And for the next sixteen verses, the food goes cold while the spotlight shines exclusively upon the servant retelling the whole story, with himself as the hero, naturally. He wraps it up in verse 49. Now then, if you will deal loyally and truly with my master, tell me; and if not, tell me, so that I may turn either to the right hand or to the left.” Then Laban and Bethuel answered, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you anything bad or good. Look, Rebekah is before you, take her and go, and let her be the wife of your master’s son, as the Lord has spoken.”
At this point, lots more gifts come out; and of course, there’s lots of drinking and eating. And everyone goes to bed. The next morning the servant was ready to hit the road, but Rebekah’s brother Laban, who we will find out soon enough was not a good guy, tried to talk him into staying longer. But the servant said, “No, we really need to get back.” And Laban said, “Let’s let Rebekah decide,” no doubt imagining she’s on his side.
Instead, she says, “Let’s go.” And they go, but not before her family gathered around her and blessed her, saying, “May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” Thousands upon thousands, that’s a myriad, may your family grow and grow. Then Rebekah and her maids rose up, mounted the camels, and followed the man; thus the servant took Rebekah, and went his way. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she fell quickly from her camel. That’s what my favorite translation says: “When she saw Isaac, she fell right off her camel.” She fell quickly from her camel and said to the servant, “Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?” The servant said, “It is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
Such a great story. And I spent so much time just reading it, I hardly have any left to talk about it. Just this, then. Five minutes before the stranger and his ten camels showed up, what do you suppose the teenage girl Rebekah was thinking about? A math problem maybe? Maybe a prank she was working on for her brother? They were both conniving pranksters.
I doubt she was thinking that she was destined to be a major player in the history of her husband’s people, Israel. Rebekah was Israel’s mother. Grandmother to the twelve tribes that became the kingdom God had promised. The kingdom of her own people’s blessing. I doubt she was thinking about that, standing there with her water jar. She didn’t know her future, any more than we know ours. And it cannot be said that she was faithful to this God she had not met. We know, don’t we, that God was faithful through her. Faithful to the promise God had made and to the people to whom God had made it, including us.
God is faithful whether we are or not. I’m glad about that; you know why? Because these days, more than most days, I have absolutely no idea what I am doing. At this moment, for example, I am preaching, if you want to call it that, to my tomato plants. And before you roll your eyes, remember: you are watching me preach to my tomato plants. And we are all acting like it’s the most ordinary thing in the world to do this and call it church.
“Folks can get used to anything,” writes Toni Morrison in her novel The Color Purple. I hope so. That would mean it’s possible to get used to having no idea what I’m doing, to get used to not knowing what tomorrow will bring. If I’m learning anything, I’m learning I don’t know anything about the future. I can buy airplane tickets and book a hotel. I can leave my office one Thursday, and the next Tuesday I’m moving it home because of a newscast about a virus hijacking its way around the world. The joke’s on me and you, friends, if we think we know a single thing about tomorrow. And all the faith that is required is the same faith Rebekah showed, even when she didn’t know she showed it, when she said Let’s go – the faith to do the next thing, however crazy the next thing seems. Climbing on a camel, preaching to tomato plants, or saying our prayers. Let’s do that, in fact. Let’s pray. For all we know, O God, there’s so much more we don’t. For the peace of not knowing, we pray. Amen.
Hi friends! This is Scout. Scout’s my girl. She’s a six-year-old golden retriever. Dogs don’t get any sweeter than a golden retriever in its prime. Scout is a good dog. Or, shall I say, Scout knows what it means to be a good dog. A good dog stays on the driveway or in the yard, even when she’s not on her 40-foot chain. A good dog does not sneak around the house when I’m not looking and run off to wallow in the septic field.
She will be good dog for days on end … until one day, she smells something on the air and she’s gone. Usually only for twenty minutes or so. But it takes thirty more to give her a bath. And then another thirty for me to take a bath and start the laundry. She knows what’s going to happen after one of her breakouts. It’s back on the chain for her for days and days. She cries, but she accepts her punishment.
I can’t trust her, but I do love her, because she’s my girl. I’d put her in every sermon if I could. But today I can make it work, because in today’s text, the prophets talk a lot about yokes. Not egg yolks. This kind of yoke. The kind that keeps animals tied to something else, like Scout’s chain for when she chooses not to be a good girl. The people of Judah and Israel hadn’t been good like God wanted for a long, long time.
That’s what I’ll be talking about today, right after we pray. We want to be good, O God, most of the time and when we don’t want to be good, we want you not to mind. But that isn’t how anything works in this world. May we so thrive in the joy that comes with being good, that it becomes the deepest, widest, highest desire of our hearts. Amen.
King Josiah was the next-to-the-last king of Judah before Babylon wiped them the rest of the way out. He was probably also the best king of the lot of last kings. He did try to make some reforms. Then he died and his son Zedekiah came to power. Of course, every prophet rushed to the palace to get his two cents in as soon as possible, before King Zedekiah picked who his favorite prophets were going to be. It didn’t really matter, because Judah didn’t last very much longer and everyone got deported. But Jeremiah was one of the first prophets there, and chapter 27 of Jeremiah is his long two-cents sermon – more like $2. The gist is this: his word from God is that the whole earth belongs to God, including all the wild animals. Therefore, God can choose whomever God pleases to run things.
No doubt Zedekiah thought Jeremiah was going to say, “You, boss! God has chosen you to run things.” But he didn’t. Instead, Jeremiah says that God has chosen Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, to run the world. You can imagine how that went over. And the whole time he’s preaching this $2 sermon, Jeremiah’s holding a yoke in his hands and drilling down on the point that Judah will either submit to the yoke of Babylon or the one God is going to visit on them through the people of Babylon, through the armies of Babylon, through the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. With the sword, with famine, and with pestilence they will suffer the consequences. War, famine, and pestilence are the three he mentions.
And just in case King Zedekiah was not already convinced, Jeremiah goes on to say, God also told me to tell you not to listen to any other prophets but me. Not prophets, diviners, dream-ers, soothsayers, or sorcerers. Only me. Which is bold talk, even for Jeremiah. Only not really, because he was crazy. Or, more likely, depressed. See if you can find a copy of Rembrandt’s portrait of him – a portrait of misery. Who would want to be Jeremiah? War, famine, and pestilence are a hard sell in any administration – amen? Amen!
And of course King Zedekiah didn’t do what Jeremiah said. No sooner was Jeremiah off the dais than along came the next prophet – Hananiah, a one-hit wonder of the Bible. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says the quickest way to spot a false prophet is to listen for the one saying what kings and presidents most want to hear.
That’s Hananiah. His sermon went something like this: Babylon is defeated. The people and the property already in exile are on their way back to Jerusalem. Within two years Jerusalem will be back to normal. There is nothing, nothing to worry about. All will be well; all will be well; all manner of things shall be well. Whose sermon do you think the king liked most? Whose do you think the people liked most? “Good times are just around the corner” or the one which said “surrender and submission are our only hope!”?
Jeremiah’s response to Hananiah’s response is our text this morning.
It begins with “Amen!” And, as I understood the Commentary, if we knew Hebrew we’d laugh at that very first word. We would hear Jeremiah’s sarcasm, “You wish!” we might hear, You wish! Don’t we all wish God would make this situation disappear and life go back to how it was. But listen to what I am telling you, you Hananiah, you King Zedekiah, you Judah: God has never sent a prophet to tell us everything is fine just the way it is, that there’s nothing to worry about, that there is nothing required of us. When the word of the prophet who preaches this comes true, everyone will know what prophets God has sent.
He also said one more thing the lectionary never includes. He says directly to Hananiah, Oh, and you will be dead in a year. And Hananiah was. It’s not critical to our story, but too good a detail to skip since we are in the neighborhood. Not every day was a bad day to be Jeremiah. But I feel for Hananiah, I do. I’ve preached that same sermon, more or less. That “God will not abandon God’s people, no matter what” sermon. That word is all over the Bible. It’s a word we like a lot.
Thing is, the word Jeremiah preaches is also all over the Bible. Times when God put up with and put up with people’s disobedience and Israel’s corruption – until God didn’t: Adam and Eve, remember; that bunch in the desert, forever fussing and complaining; that one time God just sent out poisonous snakes to bite and kill them; then King David, remember – the very height of Israel’s power and glory – that one brief shining moment she held every inch of dirt promised to Abraham.
But then, like Scout off her chain, David caught the scent of something, And stood on that roof sniffing the air, deciding what kind of man and what kind of king he would be next. He knew it was wrong. He knew it would defile himself and his country. He didn’t need it; he had plenty of it already. And yet, he took it anyway. He raped a woman and he killed her husband and he straight-faced lied about it to God and to his people. And from that moment, from King David to King Zedekiah, anyone who can read can trace the continual descent of Israel from glory to destruction.
Only the prophets could see it at the time, of course. 500 years of pleading with the kings to reform their ways. If it was a contest, we’d have to call Jeremiah the winner. Sword and famine and pestilence. Occupation. Deportation. Exile. His litany is terrible, and spot on.
Yet, Hananiah was right in ways he himself did not figure. Babylon was defeated. He was right about that. Mostly it was his timing that was off, 70 years more or less. And then the remnant of exiles did return to Jerusalem, along with a wagonload or two of treasures and the story composed by the priests in exile, sitting and sifting their history through the sieve of that exile to find the essential truth of their lives and their life together in God. No wonder we’re in exile under a yoke we do not like. We spent 400 years resisting a yoke under which would have thrived.
They finally understood. And of course, this is but a sliver of what they understood. This is but a sliver of the prophets we have to read. There is no book of Hananiah, amen? What they understood is that as much as they hated hearing prophets preach about war and famine and pestilence, what they hated even more was prophets preaching submission. They hated being told they had to do what they didn’t feel like doing, what they didn’t want to do. It just burned them up. So they simply turned their ears to different prophets who told them what they wanted to hear.
Guess who didn’t care who they listened to? Babylon. Babylon just kept being Babylon until it got eaten by a bigger Babylon named Persia. And the Jews who didn’t die in Judah died in exile, most of them still kicking their feet about the unfairness of it all.
But some didn’t. Some submitted and lamented and repented and grew into the lives, the life together with God, that God had been offering since Sinai. That’s the best treasure they brought back. The gift of covenant. A relationship with God that is not made of this world and cannot be taken from us by any threat this world might muster. Not war or famine or pestilence, not disease or quarantine or a failed economy. This covenant, this relationship with God, is breathed to life and kept alive by fidelity and obedience. What is fidelity? Trusting God for what we need. Trusting that all we need is what God gives.
Obedience, organizing our thoughts, words, and deeds according to what God desires of us: justice, kindness, and humility. We are living in a kind of exile now, aren’t we? Exile from the lives we had six months ago, from lives we very much want back. And maybe, like those kings and citizens in Judah, we’d very much like someone with authority to tell us what we want is on the way, that this crisis is almost over. It won’t be me. For all I know this could go on for years. For all I know that old way is never coming back. It would hardly be the first time, for our country, for humanity.
Here is what the Word tells me: Every day we breathe upon this earth is another day spent in exile, a day we have not yet known what it really means to be in the presence of the Lord. And time spent pining and wishing for days gone by or different days to come, whatever freedom or happiness we think those days hold, is wasted time, time that we might have been brave and faithful and full of joy at how God is with us here and now, showing us how to love and be loved in the world as it is NOW. Not yesterday and not tomorrow – NOW! in a world aching to be loved.
We can kick our feet all we want, friends, and when we’ve worn ourselves completely out, right here’s where we’ll be, with the same choice God’s people have faced over and again, to resist these days, or months or years, of exile by being mad about it or denying it is even real or pretending it really isn’t all that big a deal, not really. Or we can submit ourselves to the yoke of covenant, wherein we may just discover God trying to teach us something important, something we have had all wrong for a long time and didn’t even know it. Or maybe God is about to do a brand new thing and has in mind for us to be part of it, if we can only let go of our death grip on the past and the future.
Wouldn’t it be something to be part of that, friends? Wouldn’t it though? Let’s pray.
In chapter twenty, verses 7-13, we hear Jeremiah praying. He’s just come off two really hard days of preaching. He’s both furious with God and completely in love with God. All at the same time, he wants nothing more to do with God and he’s grateful God will never leave him.
That is kind of the whole deal, isn’t it – our life in God? We can’t stand it and we can’t get out of it? We’d leave in a heartbeat, if we had anywhere else to go? Like a strong marriage. Like daughters with their mothers. Like preachers and the Word. “I love you. I hate you. I love you. Leave me alone. Thank you for always being here.”
I want to pray first, then look at those two tough days of preaching; then Jeremiah’s prayer; then reflect on at least some of what it means.
We mean to love you without hesitation, O God. But honestly, sometimes you give us too little to go on. Or what you do give seems crazy. And, of course, we can be so weak and cowardly sometimes. Thank you for not getting too fed up with us. Thanks for so many chances to try and try again. Amen.
Jeremiah loved God. Jeremiah loved his country. And Jeremiah loved his religion. When he could see the three diverging, he chose to love God with all his heart and all his soul and all his mind and all his strength. Supposedly his country and his religion also loved God most. They had the same history Jeremiah had. The same commandments and the same covenant. Had they chosen to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, Jeremiah likely wouldn’t have been a prophet, as God wouldn’t have needed any. But they didn’t, so he was – a prophet, one of those voices crying in the wilderness. In the end, it cost him everything: his country, his religion, his friends. His life.
You can read the larger story of Jeremiah on your own time. I’ll tell you just this one, from chapters 19 and 20, as context for his prayer. It was the middle of the 5th century BCE. Assyria was declining and Babylon was rising, making incursion into the Middle East. Egypt was in the mix, promising protection against the two larger empires. Little countries like Israel and Judah were entertaining offers, playing empire against empire.
Yahweh had forbidden foreign alliances. And one shape these alliances took was that Jewish kings married foreign wives and built altars to their gods, then worshipped at them – also strictly forbidden by Yahweh. Jeremiah drummed on these issues – as did other prophets, major and minor, through the decades – along with others, like how they treated the poor and hoarded national wealth unto themselves, all the while continuing to call themselves God’s people when they ought to have known better.
How many preachers had gone before to remind them (and us), only two things qualify people to call ourselves “God’s people”: Obey the commandments and keep the covenants. In his practice of the same, Jeremiah came to believe God would act through Babylon to correct Israel. The day before Jeremiah prayed this prayer, he went to a market and bought a clay jar, maybe one sort-of like this, and then he rounded up a few priests from the Temple and a few local officials and had them follow him to a valley outside the city gate of Jerusalem, an ancient place called Topheth, where once upon a time, supposedly, the Canaanites would have child sacrifices. But at the time Jeremiah preached, it was a garbage dump. A burning garbage dump.
And there he held the jar. Preached another version of his usual sermon about how defiled and faithless they and the nation were and that there was coming a measure of suffering and destruction they could not imagine. Siege and starvation, slaughter and deportation. It’s as graphic as British crime TV.
He goes on for a bit, and then he smashes the pot to the ground like this and he says, “Thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended. In Topheth they shall bury until there is no more room to bury. Thus will I do to this place and to its inhabitants; and the houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah shall be defiled like the place of Topheth—all the houses upon whose roofs offerings have been made to the whole host of heaven, and libations have been poured out to other gods.’”
It was all very dramatic, as you can imagine. And then he goes back inside the city and into the Temple where people have apparently already heard about the whole thing, because he announces to them, “Yep, I said that and I meant it,” and as he’s winding up for a second wind, a senior priest named Pashhur comes up and punches him in the mouth and has him put into stocks for the rest of the day and night.
Is this a great story or what? I love the Bible so much. It doesn’t actually say he punched him in the mouth. I made that part up – but it doesn’t say where he punched him and that does make sense, given that he wanted to shut him up. Anyway, he failed to shut him up because as soon as morning comes, Pashhur lets him out of the stocks, and through his split lip and broken teeth comes a new sermon for a new day. Except, it was pretty much the same one he’d been preaching from the beginning, which was: Your name is no longer Pashhur (or Judah, or Judaism, or Temple) but rather Terror All Around.
As Walter Brueggemann says it, “You have mouthed peace and embraced terror!” Now you shall watch as your city is crushed, your temple is razed, your wealth is looted and your people are deported. You yourself will be deported and buried in Babylon.
For whatever reason, Jeremiah isn’t rearrested then and there. Maybe he went home. What I know is that preachers who preach to nice people go home exhausted as ditch diggers. I can’t imagine how the ones who get punched in the mouth and locked up even find their way home. Good for Jeremiah for not taking it out on his dog. He takes it out on God. Not that that English Bible is that helpful. “You have deceived me. I am deceived” is at least ten degrees too weak a translation. Some will use “abused”: You have abused me. I am abused. “Assaulted” would not be too strong. Jeremiah has clearly been assaulted, after all, by one who claims to speak for God. Think of all the uses for that verse, rightly translated, these days!
The second half is translated some better. You overpowered me and I am overpowered.
Personally, I see no reason to let God off the hook if Jeremiah doesn’t. He’s the one with the stuffing knocked out of him for being faithful. He gives God credit, why shouldn’t he give God the blame? If God demands the truth, surely God can hear it. I did what you said and got my face bashed in. Thanks for that, God. Seems fair to me. And you know what I really hate, God? I hate how if I preach what you tell me, I get my face bashed in. If I don’t preach it, I get a burning in my gut that hurts just as bad and I end up saying the very things that get my face bashed in. My mother called this hell if I do and hell if I don’t.
And then Jeremiah goes down the most terrible preacher rabbit hole of all, the what I think other people are thinking about my preaching rabbit hole. This is a very dark place, friends. It’s the place where preachers believe that their friends or their listeners believe the real problem is the preacher themself. They call me “terror all around.” Not the Temple; not Judah; not the faithless, disobedient people of God; not Babylon. Jeremiah. Jeremiah is the problem. If he would just be quiet, everything would be just fine.
And not that preachers can’t be the problem. Of course, they can. We can. We can be irrelevant. Because irrelevancy is exactly what some folks most appreciate about their preachers. But we can also be afraid and weak and cowardly, and we can listen to our own worst selves – the disobedience and the infidelity in our own hearts and minds always whispering to us. Jeremiah turns it off. Maybe he ate lunch. Maybe he took a nap. Maybe he just took a breath. Whatever he did, he got enough perspective and light to start again and call up a new name for God: The God of Angel Armies or, as the NRSV chooses, Dreaded Warrior.
Dreaded Warrior sounds like a video game my nephews would play. Except this Dreaded Warrior runs a backwater country in the middle of nowhere, about to get creamed by one of three empires at her borders. Do you know the movie True Grit? The remake with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon is far and away better than the John Wayne one. Near the end, Rooster Cogburn single-handedly prepares to gunfight the entire Ned Pepper gang. He yells across the valley, “I mean to kill you or see you hanged in Fort Smith.” To which Ned Pepper responds, “I’d call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.”
God is the one-eyed fat man in this illustration. The outnumbered, outgunned God of this tiny nation about to be crushed beneath all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood, as Isaiah, one of Jeremiah’s fellow prophets, described it. A tiny nation with just one God. JUST ONE!
Calling all these tiny little prophets to preach their silly little sermons, with their silly little props, to convince a surrounded, terrified people that they don’t need any military protection; that simple obedience and fidelity is the only protection they require. Obedience and fidelity to the one God who – Who, mind you! – doesn’t protect his own prophets from getting punched in the mouth.
Of course, God is not only the one-eyed fat man in the movie illustration. God doesn’t have to be just one character, ever. He is also the Texas Ranger on the ridge no one knew was there, with the Sharps Carbine Rifle, a rifle capable of things no one knew a rifle could do. Through all of this, the one-eyed fat man prevailed. As did the Dreaded Warrior, or so the biblical story goes. All Jeremiah preached did come to pass. Invasion. Slaughter. Siege. Devastation. Occupation. Solomon’s Temple razed to the ground, its wealth looted and carried off. Deportation and exile – exile that lasted more than seventy years.
When Babylon was defeated and Persia came to power, a remnant of Jews went home. Israel was rebuilt and fully believed herself to have prevailed. Which is a funny word to attach to a people who was forever after a remnant of who she had been, who never again had her own homeland. And yet, what has the world’s definition of “prevailed” ever had to do with faith and fidelity? With keeping the covenant and obeying the commandments? Isn’t that what always gets God’s people sideways with God – our appetite for this world’s version of safe? I bet I say the words safe or safety ten times a day in the context of church these days. Staying safe. Keeping people safe. What does that mean? How shall we know if we are accomplishing it?
Jeremiah never spoke of safety. He spoke of faith. When I was a student, I’d hear missionaries say, “The safest place in all the world to be is in the center of God’s will.” Twenty-year-old me had no idea what that meant. Fifty-six-year-old me suspects it’s probably true. Jeremiah loved God more than he loved his country or his religion. He lived as obediently and faithfully as he knew how. You know what happened to him in the end? He was deported to Egypt by other Jews who worried about him offending the Babylonians. Tradition says he died there when some fellow Jews stoned him to death, because they were sick of his constant preaching about their wicked ways.
He was as faithful as he knew how to be and still didn’t escape a single consequence of the infidelity of his people. That stinks, doesn’t it? It also foreshadows a Savior who came and suffered the sins of his beloved people, so that we might inherit grace upon grace. And maybe just maybe, along with that grace the courage to be just a bit more patient, and decent, and kind, and humble toward the people around us still coming to the faith we already know.
There is a good word in all this, friends. The word of the Lord is a strange word in this world, calling humanity to a kind of courage that seems more crazy than brave. And yet the word stands, without apology, for those willing to believe that God never, ever, ever means to leave us on our own with it. Would you pray with me?
Hey friends, as you probably have heard, a group of UBC folks is meeting to plan returning to in-person worship later in the summer. Doing our part to keep our congregation and our com-munity as safe as possible is our first priority. We also really want to hear from you about gathering again. Hopefully, by now you’ve either filled out a survey or talked to your deacon about it. You are also welcome to call or email me if you have questions or thoughts to share. Whatever our return to in-person worship looks like, friends, we will continue to produce some version of online worship service every week for people who cannot join us on Sunday mornings. That said, let’s pray together and then turn to the scriptures for today.
We pray for people the world over, O God, who call themselves – ourselves – the people of God. May we hear your voice above all others, directing our lives, focusing our vision, so that we see humanity as you see them, desperate for the compassion only you can give. Find us at work in this world, O God, like people who have been moved by that same compassion, to live according to your word. Amen.
From Exodus 15, I want to pull one thread, from verse 5. The Israelites are a few months out of Egypt and have arrived at Mt. Sinai. Through Moses, God says to them, 5 “Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” If you obey my voice and keep my commandment, you shall be my treasured people out of all the peoples. This is one of the earliest biblical statements about what it means to be the people of God. The people of God are the people who do – what? Listen to, or obey, God’s voice.
Listen and obey are the same in our lingo, right? If a child doesn’t do what we tell her, we say she isn’t listening. People of God are people who listen to God and who keep God’s covenant. A covenant, mind you, they don’t even know yet. And yet, as Laura Beth read to us, the people agree, 100%. Why wouldn’t they? They don’t need to read the small print. The offer comes from the One who set them free. They are all in. But what else do we know about them? Listening turned out to be harder than they imagined. Keeping covenant, the same.
Two years later they haven’t moved ten miles, are on the verge of open rebellion, and God has set fire to their camp. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will be my people, the people of God. This arrangement is warp and weft of the entire Bible story of God and God’s people: the people knowing what they are supposed to do, and being mostly incapable of doing it two days in a row. Jesus enters the story as Messiah, in the gospel of Matthew, chapters 8 and 9. He has been healing person after person. He looks up from that work and sees – what? Crowds more people waiting to healed. “Harassed and helpless” is how Matthew describes them, “like sheep without a shepherd.” Harassed and helpless, especially the word harassed, has a very sheep-y meaning. It means to be flayed open, as by a predator, a wolf maybe. Also torn, injured, crippled.
The people Jesus sees aren’t just needy. They are mistreated. Abused. Unprotected. Sheep without a shepherd. “Sheep without a shepherd” is Matthew’s political nod, for the readers quick enough to catch it, to remember it from the prophet Ezekiel speaking of pre-exilic Israel, when God saw the people abandoned and abused by one corrupt king after another, calling them sheep without a shepherd. [Ezekiel 34]
God did not stand for it then. Jesus cannot stomach it now. He was filled with compassion, Matthew wrote. In English, “compassion” is a synonym of sympathy, pity or soft-heartedness. The Greek word has nothing to do with the heart, but rather the gut. Literally, he was moved in his bowels. We don’t like thinking Jesus had bowels. But I rather like the literal translation here, the idea that the sight of human beings beaten and torn up by the predators of this world turns God’s stomach, makes God sick – nauseating, gut-wrenching, nasty sick, right-down-to-the-very-pit-of-God’s-self sick.
Once upon a time, before I actually ever had food poisoning, I thought I’d had it. I’d get a belly-ache, throw up a few times and then fall asleep. Sometimes I’d just lie really still and make it go away. And then I’d think, “Oh, I must have had a touch of food poisoning.” Then two summers ago, I was flying to meet Carl for vacation. At the Detroit airport, I bought what turned out to be a poisoned sandwich. I ate it later on the plane. Later still, in the middle of the night in a hotel room in Seoul, South Korea, the poison in that sandwich poisoned me. The details I will not share, except to say that my body’s singular purpose was to rid myself of that poison.
Invoking the literal translation of the Greek word for compassion as the deep discomfort, or suffering even, that comes with seeing his beloved sheep mistreated and abused – and seeing it, he himself suffers – brings it into new focus for me. Suffering, he must correct or relieve the cause of the suffering before he can proceed. He does not rename what he sees or what he feels. He does not turn away from what he sees. He sees it. He suffers. He must address it. He turns to his disciples and he says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
This is a statement by the Jesus I call “the tricky Jesus,” asking his disciples to pray God would send some workers, when he already knows who those workers are, and suggesting those workers will be gardening or farming. The workers are them. The work is not gardening. Our scripture reading for today stops at verse 8, but Jesus keeps talking, saying things about how they should watch out for predators who will be after them; wolves in sheep’s clothing, he calls them. He talks about being dragged into court, being questioned and beaten; he talks about not being afraid of those who can only kill the body. I know gardening, friends. That’s not gardening. There are no wolves in gardening, just stickers and chiggers. No wolves.
Jesus picks out twelve of the people listening, and here in Matthew we learn their names: Simon Peter and his brother Andrew; James and John, another set of brothers; Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas; Matthew, the author of this gospel; another James and another Simon; Thaddaeus and Judas Iscariot. Some fishermen, a tax collector, a doubter and a spy. Not a seminary graduate in the lot. Not a single credential among them, except that they listened; they heard him when he called their name. They could not possibly have been ready for what he was about to send them to do. They had only ever watched him at this business of healing other people. They go, not because they are ready, but because Jesus’ compassion requires it. Compassion must be relieved. His compassion trumps their inexperience. It trumps their fear.
Matthew calls them apostles, his one and only use of the word, a word they themselves had never heard. Apostle means one who is sent. (It came to mean one who knew Jesus personally and was sent by him.) They were sent exclusively to the lost sheep of Israel – a sermon in and of itself I wish I had time to preach. Sent with instructions to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God has come near; to bear witness to that kingdom in real time, in the most physical, hands-on ways: by curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, casting out demons, AND – maybe by the most outrageous instructions of all – by taking no payment for their services. If you want to be different from this world, Jesus says, do what you do for free.
As Matthew tells it, these newly-minted apostles trot off one way and Jesus another. Their partnership relieves his suffering. However convoluted his power became by their fear and inexperience, Jesus is relieved and, for the time being at least, he can proceed with his mission. The apostles for their part, go – to learn to see with his eyes; to feel with his gut, if you will; and to flex the power of his spirit within them and among them, to relieve the suffering this world inflicts.
My husband has taught in Korea every summer for years. After I’d been sick for a day and a half, he called up one of his former students who, along with her mother, came ‘round to the hotel and collected my sorry self and took me to a clinic where my hero, Dr. Yoo, pumped me full of antibiotics and new fluids. Then they took me to the pharmacy for my medicine. Then they took me to a tiny porridge shop, and explained my predicament to the owner, who went to her kitchen and cooked up a bowl of chicken-y mush that felt like life flowing back into my body. In their way, the student, her Oma, Dr. Yoo, and the Oma who made my porridge, “raised me from the dead.”
I don’t think a “miracle” is necessarily or even usually a supernatural miracle, like the widow’s son at Nain or the ten lepers on the border of Samaria. More often than not, I think it’s just a whole lot of ordinary work that takes up a lot of time and sometimes costs a bit of pocket too. Remember the Good Samaritan? – remember the man who took two days out of his ordinary life and who-knows-how-much money out of his pocket to take care of someone he didn’t even know?
The compassion of Christ may be a state of being in which we expect to be interrupted by the things God cares about, a state in which we are prone to see because we listen to God’s voice and see with God’s eyes. And seeing what God cares about, we aren’t surprised when our bellies start to bubble. Can you imagine, friends, what kind of world this would be, what kind of church this might be, if the sight of human beings suffering stopped us in our tracks, made us so sick we could do nothing until we had relieved ourselves and relieved this world of it? Until we had obliterated the source of that suffering?
But, instead of relieving the suffering, I wonder if we haven’t just relieved ourselves of the meaning of the words? Making compassion synonymous with sympathy? Or maybe even pity? And soft-heartedness? Because that allows us to feel bad and keep on walking. Allowing us to shake our heads and say a prayer, while staying focused on our own business? And relieving the term people of God from any instructions that we consider too embarrassing, scary or inconvenient to obey. Even the word obey makes us more itchy than we want to be, doesn’t it?
So what’s the takeaway? That the compassion of Christ is somehow like a bad sandwich from the Detroit airport? That Jesus wants us to go over to Bloomington Hospital and start raising dead folks in the morgue? Head up to the 2nd floor, healing the ICU patients? That’s not my ministry.
How about this: Jesus Christ has called his church to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near, and that we proclaim it best when we move through this world seeing with his eyes, hearing with his ears, and feeling with his gut. What hurts him, hurts us. And what hurts the Lord is seeing his beloved sheep constantly flayed and crippled by the outright meanness this world not only inflicts, but tolerates and justifies. It hurts the Lord to see people helpless and harassed. And if we are his people, if we are listening to him, it hurts us too. Hurts us in a way that won’t let us just keep living our lives and our life together as if nothing is wrong.
And listening isn’t easy. Hurting over the things that hurt God isn’t fun. But who said life was supposed to be easy or fun? Our privilege. Who else? Nobody. Not your mama and certainly not the Lord. The compassion of Christ may have us feeling anxious and scared sometimes, especially at the thought of getting closer to a person’s pain or trouble and suffering, when we’d much prefer to get further away.
The thought might come: That seems like something for the pastor to do; she seems better at this kind of thing. Maybe. But if you are even having that thought, I suspect there’s a good chance God means for you to step up. Why would God put on your heart what God means for someone else to do? And remember Matthew 10: Jesus calls people to do stuff they have no idea how to do, that they have not been trained for, and that they never imagined themselves doing. Their only credential is that they heard their name called when the Lord began to call.
So if you take the call, friend, the job is probably yours. And the job: it’s the compassion of Christ. Let’s pray.
Nature is not aware that there is such a thing as indoors and outdoors, which probably explains why there is a king snake living under the floor of the porch that I’m sitting on right now.
I visited India last fall and spent a few days with some friends who live in the far northeast state of Manipur, a startlingly beautiful place. It’s a hot place too, and their house is built to catch every possible breeze. One day there was a lizard in my room. Not a tiny lizard. Not a komodo dragon. But a respectable lizard, all the same. I remained very calm and went to the sister in the family – a doctor. “Joshila,” I tried to sound super calm, “hey, there’s a lizard in my room and I’m just checking to see if we do anything about that.” Equally matter-of-factly, she said, “Oh sure. We cohabitate.” “Right,” I said.
Even our notions of indoors and outdoors are culturally bound. Nature is not aware of it. Which is why there is a giant king snake living between my deck floor and my porch ceiling. The snake doesn’t know she’s not in the forest. My Indian friends told me she has come as a protector of our house. They would even have a priestess or a priest come and interpret the message, maybe, that the snake was bringing. I haven’t had anyone over to interpret its message, but I’ve decided to regard the snake as our protector. I talk to her sometimes when I sit out there, telling her I am glad she’s here, and I offer her some Western insight about the idea of indoors and outdoors. Friends, if nothing else, Genesis chapter 1 ought to send us outside or at least to a window. To hang a birdfeeder. To situate our own existence within the context of so much life.
Come take a walk around my yard with me so I can show you some stuff. Is there anything prettier than a squash blossom? A blackberry blossom maybe. Or collard greens ready for harvest? How about flowering sage? Is there anything more amazing than putting a bean seed in the ground on May 25 and nine days later there is a tiny little plant with tiny little arms? And on the little arms are tiny little fingers that reach out and grab a string, so it can grow up and make hundreds and hundreds more bean seeds? Is there anything more hilarious than but also as efficient as chickens at their dust baths? They are scratching up the dust to coat their skin and feathers, so that mites and mosquitoes will not bite them.
It would be arrogant to show off one’s own garden if I did anything to make it happen. But a gardener can’t make a single flower grow. I can’t make a single seed pop open. I can poke it in the ground, but I can’t make it grow. I have columbine in my front flowerbed that I didn’t even plant. The Bible doesn’t tell us how it works – only that God is the Creator and all of us are the created. Bugs, beans, and human beings – our task is to learn to live here and to learn to pray.
Let’s pray: How we long to see you, O God, and to keep our safe and pretty world intact too. We long to know and be known Divinely, and yet we long not to be changed too much. We pray, O God, for the courage to let go of the life we have, to receive the life you have offered. This is our prayer. Amen.
English struggles to translate Genesis 1:2, when the Spirit of God was ALL that was; hovering like a wind over the watery abyss; calling that time before time “chaos and disorder.” Our language for God, without us alongside God. In her work translating the Hebrew, Old Testa-ment scholar Karla Suomala writes, the universe was a watery chaos into which God blew a bubble. Within the bubble is creation as we know it. The story was first told, then eventually written in Hebrew, by the people of Israel, hundreds and hundreds of years into their existence when they were exiles in Babylon. My seminary professor Jon Johnsson (he was Dutch, but he grew up in South Africa, so he had the most unusual and musical of accents) always said, “If not for the exile, ladies and gentlemen, our Bible would read, ‘In the beginning God created Jerusalem.’”
If not for exile, Israel might still have known themselves as the center of the universe. Exile taught them otherwise. And so they began the story of themselves: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, the bubble in the watery abyss, and within the bubble a sort of order: night, day, light and dark, land, sea, sky, plants, fish, birds, animals of every kind. And human beings finally – the caretakers of it all. Caretaking, we know, was supposed to mean hands off, leaving well enough alone.
With the night and the day came time, and time consumes every page of the story thereafter. Time spent becoming a people – Israel. Then a people with a land. Then a people with an empire. Then an empire divided, two kingdoms. Then a people with not a kingdom between them, then a people without a land. Exiles in a foreign place full of foreign gods, lots of gods, of every kind. One for the sea. One for the sky. Another for the earth. A god for every element. So many gods, Israel began to wonder about her own. It took a long time and great suffering to understand, to get the story straight, that God did not belong to them. They belonged to God.
Long before they were a people, God was. Long after they ceased to be a people, God still would be. God is, they learned – a redundant phrase. And no amount of clinging to their empires or their land or their fear, or even clinging to their notions of what it meant to be the people of God, could change that. But knowing that God is, that God ever was, and that God ever will be does change everything about life in this world. And we know it, friends, by praying. We learn it by becoming people who pray. By becoming people who pray, we grow the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the hearts and minds to care about the things God cares about, to become the caretakers, the proper caretakers, the Christ-like caretakers of this creation within this bubble.
Things feel really crazy these days, don’t they? Pandemics and protests. So much violence and death. It’s tempting to imagine that because our world is upside-down, THE world itself is more upside-down than usual. But it is not. Syria is not suddenly more upside-down than ever. The US-Mexican border is not suddenly more upside-down than ever. The poverty-infested communities all over our country are not more upside-down than ever. The violent households in our city are not more upside-down than ever. That we are shocked by the events of this spring speaks more of our privilege than it does of the state of the world. The fact that disease and racism and violence are aberrant to us does not make them aberrant. They are not. Our shock is what is aberrant.
Normally I read and pray and write my sermons in a cozy room full of light from a picture window looking out onto a forest. My best books are there and all my favorite pens and note-books. One time, circumstances required me to write my sermon in the waiting area at the county jail. I was writing away when I felt something on my head, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. A few minutes later, a very big cockroach walked down the front of my shirt and dropped onto the writing pad of paper in my lap. You could say that I got excited. But I have to tell you that I probably also never wrote a clearer, tighter, better sermon than I wrote in the waiting area of the county jail.
No doubt a bird’s-eye view of the creation has its advantages. It’s physically safer for sure; it’s much cleaner (not nearly as many bugs). But it also lends itself to misunderstanding, for which the people of God have at times paid dearly in the past. It could be that these days are days in which we might understand ourselves to be paying the cost of that misunderstanding. A misunderstanding in which we are coming to the hard truth that our faith does not belong to us. We belong to it. We do not set the terms of our faith. It sets the terms of our lives. We will take gentle care of the creation or we will suffer the consequences. It doesn’t have to be a warning. It can be good news. Jesus showed us how it’s done. It’s done with a life of prayer.
Modern saint Josemaría Escrivá wrote that an hour at study is an hour of prayer. He’s my indoor saint. My favorite outdoor saint is and ever will be St. Francis, who preached to birds and who is said to have worked out a deal between a wolf and a village wherein the wolf promised not to attack the villagers and the villagers promised to feed the wolf. St. Francis called the animals his brothers and sisters. Friends, up close a life of prayer is a life of kindness, justice, and humility, lived inside this bubble of creation with all other living things. Bugs, bushes, bears, human beings. It is a life that is never surprised by and never shies away from the grief and the brokenness around us, because we don’t need to and we don’t have to; because we have nothing to fear and nothing to lose; because always and forever we belong to the Lord. Now. Always. Forever. And nothing, nothing, nothing will ever, ever change that. So I invite you to be wise; be brave; be full of joy this day, knowing that you and we belong to the Lord. Amen and amen. Let’s pray.
It’s good to be with you this Pentecost morning, friends, as we look at Numbers chapter 11 and Acts chapter 2. In Numbers, chapter 11, Moses and the people of Israel have been in the desert, in the wilderness just over two years. Two years out of Egypt. They are not much past Sinai which is really not very far past the Red Sea, so – good thing they didn’t know they still had 38 years to go or they would have been really discouraged. At that moment, Moses himself is very discouraged – he is more than discouraged; he is fed up. He’s fed up with the people, because they can’t stop complaining about their free food – manna! – that falls from the sky every morning. And he’s fed up with God who has set the camp on fire because of the food riots. And he is ready to quit.
Being ready to quit, Moses has a speech for God once the fire’s out, and the speech for God goes something like this: Listen, God, you conceived of these people and you birthed them. And honestly, I don’t think I should have to be the one who carries and nurses them from here to Kingdom come. So either you can treat me better, or you can just kill me now, because I am done being a nanny to these rotten kids of yours. There was some more stuff in that speech – stuff about dead bird meat coming out of people’s noses. But for our purposes here, it was Moses’ promise to quit that is important.
God, like any mother about to lose her childcare, hurries around saying “Okay, okay, okay, okay! I’ll get you some help!” and so God proposes what I would call a men’s retreat. He says, Moses, go find seventy men, take them on retreat, and when you all get out to your retreat, I will come out there as well, and the spirit that I placed on you, I will spread out over those seventy people. So Moses agrees to this plan and it goes according to plan – except that the Spirit (as the Spirit is prone to do) doesn’t stay where she is expected to stay, and she ends up blowing back over to the camp and landing on these two guys named Eldad and Medad – and they just start prophesying there in the middle of the camp.
Somebody sees that happening and runs to tell Joshua, who is Moses’ assistant, and Joshua tells Moses, thinking that Moses should make them stop it – because that’s a theme of the scriptures, you know, that only certain people should preach and everybody else should just be quiet and listen. But Moses says, “Would that all God’s people were prophets.” And I love this for Pentecost Sunday; I love that the Lectionary puts this Numbers passage here.
I love it for the way it stitches so much of Scripture together. It stitches Moses to Joel, who talks about who the prophets shall be – the young men and the old men, the working women and the working men, and the sons and the daughters, which is stitched to the New Testament – because the apostle Peter quotes that in his first sermon that Pentecost Day, a sermon in which the Apostle Peter was so nervous he stood up to preach and his first line was “I am definitely not drunk!” – already seeming to recognize that what he was about to say was so crazy, was so outrageous, that it could be mistaken for something a drunk man would say when he thought he had a really good idea.
Historically, people have treated preachers and drunks with about an equal measure of seriousness. And Peter, like other Spirit-filled preachers, doesn’t care. And what the Scriptures tell us is that at the end of his sermon, 3,000 hearts were cut by the sermon that he preached. A sermon in which the Spirit of God blew the church wide open. And it might have been something new in the life of God but it was the same old spirit, the same old spirit that met Moses in the wilderness.
His sermon, Peter’s sermon, preached in the echo of Moses’ longing that all of us would be prophets, is my interest for this morning, especially on a morning after a week in which I think American history shows the lack of prophecy in the history of God’s people.
Would you pray with me? Humanity is both saved and still so very broken, O God. Redeemed by your divine and endless grace, yet clinging to this world’s treasures – nothing so much as our privilege – while those with so much less go about their lives in fear of real and present dangers that we cannot begin to imagine. Having you, we need nothing else. Would that the courage to believe it come to life in us, among us, O God, we pray. Amen.
In his book The Half Has Never Been Told, Edward Baptist goes through reams and reams of economic research and historical research to explain how human torture was a critical factor in the explosive progress of the cotton industry in the first half of the nineteenth century. Black people, enslaved human beings, who did not meet daily cotton picking quotas were methodically whipped and beaten, i.e. tortured, until the cerebral function that controlled right- and left-handed dominance was essentially severed from their bodily function, so that they could pick faster. They essentially became like machines. They had no dominance, they had no left- and right-handed dominance. Their mind was detached from their bodily function, allowing them to pick more and more and more.
Of course, enslavers at the time did not know any of that neurological information. They just knew that the more they tortured their workers, the faster they picked. They knew it and they knew they knew it. And the way Dr. Baptist knows they knew it is based on the records they kept and shared, plantation to plantation, in order to share methods that worked. The faster the pickers picked, the earlier the cotton got to market. And the earlier the cotton got to market, the better the price.
Over the years between 1829 and 1840 – that’s only eleven years – the increase in the average amount of cotton picked has never been replicated in any industrial process improvement. What that means is that in the last 200 years, no mechanized factory process has improved with the same degree of efficiency that human cotton-picking improved between 1829 and 1840. You cannot torture a machine to work better. Now it doesn’t sound believable, does it? And the first two times I read it, I still struggled to believe that that’s what Dr. Baptist really meant. But it is what Dr. Baptist really meant. And I encourage you to read Dr. Baptist’s book, so we can talk about it.
Dr. Baptist uses this information to suggest that one mistake of American history is its failure to apply certain vocabulary words to the management of enslaved people, and torture is one of those words. Theft is another. People may believe slavery is wrong or slavery is okay, but nobody believes that theft is okay – theft, as in the theft of a mother from her children. His thesis is that in its time, slavery might have been less tolerable to more people had words like torture and theft been the common descriptors for the business of slavery.
Today I wonder if the word torture had been applied then, would we apply it now to the treatment of black people that persists in our country? Did the lack of the right language plant in us a tolerance for the mistreatment of our black brothers and sisters that has lasted for 400 years? Because, while the word mistreatment is sour – I mean, it tastes bad – the word torture is a word we don’t want in our mouths. I want you to imagine that Peter stands to preach, already having claimed to be fully sober and he says the most outrageous thing he could possibly say: he says as white people, you have tortured and murdered the Christ himself.
Now, he didn’t say “white people.” What did he say? I’m reading verse 36 from chapter 2, which is still Peter’s sermon, but well beyond the text as read earlier – he says this: 36 “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now Rome ran the world then and there, and Rome carried out the crucifixion of Jesus. But if Jews could have, they would have killed Jesus.
More than once they attempted to kill him by stoning or throwing him off a cliff. And they tried not because they were Jews, friends – please don’t quote me as having said that exactly – they tried and they wanted him dead because they were human beings, and human beings time and again are perfectly willing to momentarily forfeit their humanity to retain their worldview. It is a common human phenomenon, especially when people get into groups, and especially when those groups feel like their identity or their privilege is being threatened.
Which brings us to this week. Another black man tortured, his windpipe slowly crushed beneath the knee of white supremacy. At least one white man forfeiting his humanity and another generation of white people just staring and wondering why it is that change takes so long. James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree is four hundred pages thinner than Dr. Baptist’s. Read The Cross and the Lynching Tree and you will see the neck of Jesus below that policeman’s knee.
And you will see the face of Christ against that pavement. You will hear the voice of Christ begging, begging for what has been freely given by the Creator to all creatures: air; breath. Friends, trees and ants are given air for free, and we have a human being begging.
You will also see the Christ taking upon himself the sin of all people. We say it every Sunday. But if that’s true, friends, that means that we can see the Christ in the one whose knee is on the neck of his brother. We can see the Christ in the one momentarily forfeiting humanity, the one willing to torture a brother rather than give up a worldview that keeps us safe in our thinking.
Peter’s sermon sets the footers for the book of Acts and the entire New Testament. It is the story in which Jews who follow Christ must come to terms with the reality that in order to follow Christ they must abandon the privilege of their Jewishness. Friends, when we read that, we must read whiteness. In order to follow Christ, we must abandon the privilege of our whiteness.
Now, in the New Testament, eventually we know that Jew and Gentile were not able to keep it together as they started out. The church became Gentile, as it moved into the world. It moved into Europe, and the Western church – the white church, our church – became ally to the system of theft and torture that we are still dealing with now. And friends, not just ally, but the theological framer, the theological defender of the system itself. Our church explained why slavery was God’s will for the world, why black people were meant to be slaves and why white people were meant to be enslavers. None of us believe that now. But some thread of that has woven its way into our thinking and our talking and our tolerance of the world as we know it.
It has embedded in us the idea that this is just the way the world is – that racial disparity is just the way the world is, that a certain degree of prejudice is just the way the world is, that a certain level of violence is just the way the world is, that “a few bad apples” is just the way the world is. And I would offer, friends: no, absolutely not.
We are amazed. We are outraged. We are appalled that one man could keep his knee on another man’s neck as that man begged for life. And yet what finger have we lifted to ease the burden on that man while he lived? I have no idea why that policeman did not take his knee off that man. But I know why I don’t move, I know why I don’t change: because change is hard and change is expensive. And the truth of what white supremacy has allowed me while at the same time stealing from others is so shameful to me, I no more want to dig into that than I want to put my hand in a fire.
When I begin to think about the deep, systemic change that is required to bring about even a measure of justice, I know that I do want others to have what they deserve; I just don’t want it to cost me what I value most. And I’m not proud of that. But I have to tell you, even that is easier to say than the truth of what is inside, which is the actual content of the cost of that change. I almost think that I’d gladly just sort of skip over to the reparations part of the process, if we could sort of not do the truth-telling part. But there can be no repairing, with0ut the truth-telling. And see, there it is. Because, the truth-telling: that is prophecy. Prophecy is not telling the future. Prophecy is telling the truth.
No wonder Moses said, “Would that all God’s people were prophets.” Think of a world in which all God’s people tell the truth. Think of Moses’ world, if all those people had told the truth. Yeah, we don’t love manna, but it beats being a slave!
If God’s people had told the truth 400, 300, 200 years ago, there might still have been theft and torture of African people. But it would not have been countenanced and justified by the people of God. Because the people of God know – what? They know the truth of God never enslaves people. We’re the people of Jesus. We know the truth does – what? The truth sets us free. If we want to be free of the burden of white privilege, maybe the first step is telling the truth about it. White privilege, white supremacy – it has never set a single person free. Never. Not even white people. As long as one person has a knee on the neck of another person, neither of them can go anywhere. Not until the one lets the other go. Only then is either of them truly free, this side of heaven at least.
It’s Pentecost, friends. The Spirit of God has blown our lives and our life together wide open. And everything is possible in a world so free of fear, so full of truth – and that truth is on the very tip of our tongues. We know it, because we know that the spirit has already done her work. What happens next is up to us.
Would that all God’s people were prophets, including us. Amen? Amen!
First Peter is a pastoral letter written from Rome to churches in Asia Minor some time in the first century. Some say before the Apostle Peter was martyred. Others say no way could it be that early. Silvanus is mentioned in the signature. He was a known associate of Peter. It’s possible he wrote it on Peter’s behalf. Whoever wrote it uses symbolic language here and there, referring to Rome as Babylon. John does the same in the book of Revelation. The churches are addressed as parademos, exiles, temporary residents of a place that is not their home – like the Jews in Babylon or, in the case of the New Testament church, believers, Christ-followers, anywhere this side of heaven.
Those churches were going through something the letter described as a fiery ordeal. Writing from Rome, we can assume the apostle was in prison, so fiery ordeal probably wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Around that same time, the Apostle Paul was in/out of prison, shipwrecked, beaten, snake-bit, and it wasn’t Romans harassing him so much as his fellow Jews. Suffice it to say, fiery ordeal probably covered a multitude of situations and conditions folks were going through then – and now. Situations and conditions people are always going through. The churches had need of encouragement. Our text today is one tiny slice of that encouragement.
Let’s pray and take a look: Never beyond your reach, O God, never any place you cannot find us. Never lost. Never too far gone. Forever fully known. Always in your sight and covered by your love, made plain to us in Jesus Christ. Make us ever humble enough and wise enough to put ourselves back into your light. Amen.
My oldest child was one year too old to be vaccinated against chickenpox. She got a hateful case of it before she was two. My mother sent her a Barney-the-dinosaur toy which we had to bribe her to wash. My mom reminded me that in 1972 or 1973, when I was in third or fourth grade, she (mother) and her best friend, Eileen, decided to vaccinate their five young kids against chickenpox. They had us visit and play with some kids who already had it, with the plan that we’d be sick over Christmas break and not miss too much school. It mostly worked. My sister Cathy was sick the whole Christmas break, and then my brother Tony and I missed two weeks of school in January after all.
Two hundred years before I had chickenpox, Abigail Adams decided to vaccinate her four kids against smallpox, at their country home outside Boston. After she made them throw up every day for a week, Dr. Bullfinch came over, cut a little incision into their arms and inserted a pus-tule of active smallpox from another patient, then waited for the children to get sick, hoping they’d only have a mild case. One of her boys had to be re-infected three times before he got sick, but in the end they all survived. It’s gross to think about, definitely. Not as gross as the terror that your children will die in agony of an incurable disease.
It is our time, friends. Our time to be brave and to be patient. And to see our own lives in light of human history. The fact that this is the first quarantine of our lives does not make us special – either in light of history or in light of the world right now. And it is not the task of the church to prop up some illusion or delusion that life will soon be back to normal. This IS normal. For the beloved of God around the world and in our own city, hardship dictated by forces outside one’s control is normal.
All over the world, US included, parents drop bleach tablets in their water to kill the parasites that cause the dysentery that will kill their babies and make their kids really sick. Typhoid, cholera, Ebola; HIV AIDS and tuberculosis; hookworms – all diseases with good treatment, for people who can get it and afford it. To them, a new virus to navigate is just one more thing.
And the afflictions that decimate populations like a disease: gun violence, drug addiction, drug trafficking, drug crime, mass incarceration, human slavery, war – for all the people dealing with these, a new virus is just one more thing. And then there is corruption. Corrup-tion. Corruption. Corruption. Political Corruption, Economic Corruption, Social Corruption, Religious Corruption – anywhere, any time power given for the benefit of everyone is wielded to benefit oneself. And to the people navigating the frustration of corruption, this new virus is just one more thing.
As well, friends, as well, I would invite you to recognize this pandemic of ours as just one more thing come ‘round in history to invite us to open the door to that roaring lion the writer speaks of in chapter five. He was in prison in Rome, remember. Maybe he could hear the lions from his cell. I don’t hear lions. I hear the ice cream in my freezer. Maybe you hear the talking heads on cable news. Maybe you hear the poet of Proverbs 24 calling from your bed: A little sleep and a little slumber, a little folding of the hands.
The pandemic may sound like a new song. It is actually just a new verse of the same song with which the world continues to invite us to be anxious, to lose heart. The world has no incentive to stop inviting. The more it invites, the more we buy. But neither will the Word, neither will the Word cease to invite us, as it has invited all the generations of God’s people before us. The Word invites us to hear and to take up its call NOT to be surprised at the fiery ordeal taking place among us. I really, really, really like that he calls it the fiery ordeal. A fiery ordeal IS a big deal, but also IS common to all – as much an experience of his grace as the joy and beauty also common to being human.
We are pretty good at glory, amen? Time and again through any given worship service we preach and pray and sing, “He rose and we will too!” But he didn’t rise from nothing, did he? He rose from death. Suffering, hateful death. He rose and we will too. He suffered and we will too. There is no way around it. But thank God there is a purpose in it. A purpose our privilege can sometimes tempt us to forget. Fifty-plus years without a single quarantine. Fifty-plus years going anywhere we want, anytime we want. That’s privilege, friends.
And the question of suffering is this: Will we resent it as some offense we don’t deserve? Or shall we receive it as an ordinary part of being human and, in particular, common to the experience of being exiles in a suffering world? Forward, backward, inside and out, the gospel teaches us that Jesus came to us and took human suffering upon himself. He took death upon himself. And by his death and resurrection, suffering has found its purpose, and death lost all its power. Death was put to death.
“How can such a thing be?” any rational person will ask, as well they should in light of this world’s continued suffering. To which Fred Craddock, my preacher-teacher would reply with this parable: A farmer and his son were working in a field when the son stepped on a venom-ous snake. The farmer quickly cut the snake’s head off with his hoe and flung the rest over a fence where it continue to writhe and quiver. “Is it dead?” his son asked. “Yes,” his father answered, “but it’s gonna keep shaking until the sun goes down.”
The faithful answer, of course, is we will receive it. But receiving it is itself the work, the activity of faith. Work we will not accomplish on the first day, and probably not on the eleventy-first either, as hobbits count. But by bits and pieces, three steps forward and two steps back, through the days of our lives, remembering – as the writer points out – that it is not personal, this suffering, but common to humanity. Just one more thing, as the wise one said in Bible Chat last Thursday.
Just one more moment in the long history of God’s people adjusting to our God-given place in this world. Parademos: exiles, temporary residents, whose purpose in this place is to love our neighbors, generously, fiercely if need be, as Jesus taught us with his words and his life. We make it our way of life. As the world continues to shift into the next phase of pandemic in the coming days and weeks, our task does not change: to seek God’s will in the best ways to love one another. We are not to worry about tomorrow.
Today’s text reminds us to remain alert and sober and to resist this world’s temptation to consider our own suffering in some other, more special light than common, as something we – for whatever reason – cannot endure. Because we can, beloved; we can. If the suffering we endure these days is the shape loving our neighbors takes, we can do it for as long as need be.
10 And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.”
Then some far day, we also will remember this season as just one more thing which God brought us through. Will you pray with me?
Jesus hasn’t stopped talking. He’s still at the Last Supper table with his friends. They are no doubt nibbling on leftovers, checking wine bottles to see if they’re all empty, while Jesus continues explaining his departure. He’s promising that he will return. He’s telling his brothers to believe what he’s telling them, while they wait for all these things to happen. Abide. Abide was Jesus’ particular word for the waiting. To abide is to wait believing, assuming, knowing – the way one knows the sun will rise – that Jesus will do what Jesus says he will do.
And we know he did. We know that he left that last supper table, and everything that he told his friends was going to happen happened. He was arrested, tried, executed and buried. He rose and came back to them. And knowing it ought to have made believing it easier. But it didn’t then. And it doesn’t now.
We have these same promises from Jesus. We know he kept those promises and yet, when our own lives get sideways, we get sick, our loved ones get sick, the whole world gets sick, 20 million people lose their jobs, kids can’t go to school, or any of the non-pandemic troubles and tragedies which come through the door, we find ourselves at that same Last Supper table with full bellies and empty hearts, grieving, and afraid, and maybe a little bit angry that Jesus couldn’t leave well enough alone.
Reading the gospels, it matters to remember that John wasn’t writing for the disciples. He was writing for the church. For us. For the friends of Jesus trying to remain friends with Jesus in a world where the ways of Jesus sometimes seem absurd, if not impossible. I’m not here to tell you otherwise. I’m here to say you are exactly right. The commandments of Jesus are impossible for people as timid and fearful as us, for people as prone to grief over the little and the huge losses of our lives.
Impossible. And Jesus knew that. It’s why he promised what he promised. Another paraclete, he called them. Someone to abide with us, to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
First let’s pray, then take a look: The Shy God, some call you, O Holy Spirit. Ever-present One who waits to be invited, to take up more space yet, within us, among us. We cannot do without you. Thank you that we never have to. Amen.
I re-watched one of my favorite movies this week: Lars and the Real Girl. You can find it on Netflix, and it is positively precious. The preacher says there’s only one law that matters: to love one another. Then an entire community is put to the test of obeying that law. It’s a practically perfect cinematic example of people trying and failing to live out Jesus’ commandment to Love me by keeping my commandments. Jesus knows how difficult it will be, yet commands it anyway and promises to help.
Most English translations read something like this: And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. The tricky word there is paraclete. Another paraclete. It’s definitely not Holy Spirit, the term Luke uses in Acts. “Para” is beside or alongside; “clete” is caller or one who calls. “The caller beside you” is very awkward. Your Bible might use Advocate, like “the one who stands next to us in court”; or Helper; or Comforter. My favorite is by Johannine scholar Karoline Lewis. She translates it accompanist.
Sit with that a minute – the Holy Spirit as your life’s accompanist. Holy Spirit within and among us as our Accompanist: the One who brings the music so we know what we are supposed to sing; the One who tells us when to sing and when to keep silent, when to sing loudly and when to sing softly; the One who patiently teaches us the sound of our own voices; the One who keeps us in tune, on key and in harmony, always exactly the right distance in the background but leading everything we do. Honestly, the metaphor seems never to run out.
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. And then Jesus goes into this long sentence about how the world doesn’t know the paraclete while you do, he says. I used to imagine this line as yet another with which Jesus shoves me out the door to go tell other people how lost they are. Now I realize he’s comforting them, being the very comforter and accompanist he’s telling them about.
You have seen me. You have heard me. You have known me. You don’t have to be afraid like someone who has no idea what I’m talking about. The word he uses here is orphan. At least one translation uses bereft. Also good. Both are words for people without what is most essential to life. What is that essential, that essence without which we won’t survive – which is, someone who cares whether you live or die? Another person in the universe upon whose mind you are.
Years and years ago, an auntie trying to adopt her orphaned nieces and nephews told me, “Every child should have someone who checks his shirt in the morning, who looks at him in a way that says he matters.” Parents die. That can’t be helped. But orphans – whether or not people become orphans is a choice human beings make toward one another, a choice Jesus made toward humanity. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you.
Again, depending on the day (right? – depending on the day), believing Jesus is with us actively abiding in the truth that he does what he says he will do, it depends on the day. When life serves up a healthy family, paying work and the freedom to do whatever makes us feel useful, abiding in Jesus comes pretty easily.
But when life starts taking back the good stuff, and we get stuck, or we get sick, or nothing seems to be working like it’s supposed to, we can feel pretty alone, and if not alone, cut off from the One who promised to help us with all this crap. Then what?
Then, maybe, it’s time to dial down the volume of the anxiety and worry, and turn up the volume on what we have known before and remember who we are. We are not sheep without a shepherd, friends. We are not the people of this world who have neither seen nor heard the spirit of truth.
The advocate, the helper, the comforter, the accompanist who has been alongside us again and again, through other trials and troubles, who has been alongside God’s people through far harder times than these, is here now. Their presence does not depend upon our hearing, seeing, believing. Their presence is a promise kept.
And I know you know this part, just like his first friends gathered round that table. We often don’t recognize him with us until the moment has passed, when we can look back and say, “Oh right. Now I can see God was in that mess the whole time.” Whatever you are going through, I promise God is in the mess with you. And as messes go, this pandemic is bad, but God has handled worse. And God will handle this one.
What remains to be seen is whether we shall behave like orphans, whether we shall treat one another like orphans, like sheep without a shepherd, or like a choir, listening, watching, holding this note for as long as our accompanist deems necessary. So, you know the song, I bet, about the people in this world who need the Lord. It’s a pretty good song, so long as we remember there is no one in the world who needs the Lord more than you do, more than I do.
And the Lord is already within and among everybody. Jesus says so right here: I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. The work of faith is abiding in that truth. It sounds so simple. It’s so hard. But, thanks be to God, Jesus has not left us on our own to accomplish it. In our lives and in our life together, we have all the patience, faith and courage required to face whatever this day brings.
Would you pray with me?
One evening in November, when it’s dark by 5:00, I left work and ran by Target for something on the way home. I was sitting at the light next to the Chick-Fil-A, in the far right lane to go straight across Third Street, when suddenly a white pickup truck was spinning in circles right in front of my car and slammed broadside into the car next to me in the left turn lane. Everything in the truck bed spilled on top of the little Honda. The truck kept spinning until it came to rest in the grass of the Chick-Fil-A. It was terrifying.
I was positive he’d run the red light and suspected he was drunk. To get out of the way I had to cross Third Street but I went around the block and went back, in case the police wanted witnesses. The Honda and the pickup truck were in the Fifth Third Bank parking lot. I talked to the woman in the Honda. She said she was fine. And that the man driving the pickup was really shaken but not hurt either.
“I’m worried about her though,” she said, pointing to the street. There was a very young Indian woman standing by the back door of her car, talking to her toddler in a car seat. She was a hysterical mess, because she was the one who’d tried to make the light. The truck had the arrow, and she slammed into him as he turned, sending him spinning. Her car was still in the road; cars were laying on their horns for her to move. She was crying so hard she could barely breathe. And the toddler was refusing to get out of her car seat.
Two things about myself quickly became clear: First, when the danger is low, I excel in a crisis. I hugged the mom and let her cry on me a minute. I then held her firmly by the shoulders and said, The other drivers can just deal with it. Ignore them. But the baby can’t stay there. It’s dangerous. Then I got the kid out of the car seat and we sat on the curb. The mama cried and we sang songs until Daddy and the police arrived. Then I went home.
The second thing I learned, and I am not proud of this: I was grateful she was a hysterical mess, because it gave me something to do. Without something to do, I’d have gone home with nothing but the embarrassment of having been arrogantly, pridefully wrong. I truly was certain I knew exactly what had happened at that intersection. I knew whose fault it was. I actually said to myself, “I should go back in case they need a witness of that guy’s recklessness.” When in fact, as facts go, I saw nothing at all.
Our text today comes from Jesus’s farewell discourse, at the table of his last supper together with the disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. The dinner had already been weird. Judas walked out. Peter made a scene about dying for Jesus. And Jesus said, “Yeah, no.” Maybe the wine bottle goes around the table again. Maybe they drift to other subjects. But eventually Jesus begins to speak again, and he says,
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house, there are many places to abide. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”
And however much they don’t mean to, or want to, or know they shouldn’t, his friends cannot resist asking for more. I wonder if we don’t live in similar times, knowing we are supposed to be more faithful than we are, resisting (or maybe not) the temptation to ask for more from God than God seems to want to give these days.
Let’s pray: We want more faith, O God. We also ask for your guarantees before we will put our hearts out. We are deaf to our own hypocrisy and blind to your goodness. Goodness that has brought us this far. As you and the Father are one, let us be one with you, fearlessly sure you are here, and now. Amen.
As Jesus and his disciples sat around that table, a cohort of soldiers is gathered in an armory somewhere else in the same city, suiting up, anticipating resistance when they go to arrest Jesus. As it turned out – and not surprisingly, given his I will gladly die for you speech – one of Jesus’s own, Simon Peter, is the first to draw blood. I wonder how knowing those soldiers were out there played in Jesus’s mind, as his followers at that table asked him again to please show them the Father, so they would be satisfied enough to believe the things he said. I wonder if Jesus ever got discouraged, and especially there, near the end of his incarnation, when literally nobody seems to have a clue what his mission was.
He’s going away to prepare a place and coming back to get them. He needs them to believe he will do what he says he will do. And yet, all they seem to know how to do is argue. But where are you going? We don’t know the way. Please, just show us the Father. Then we will be satisfied. Then we can do what you ask.
As John tells it, Jesus doesn’t even blink, let alone smack his own forehead in frustration. He starts over. At this late hour (the soldiers, remember) he starts over, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him. I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
In the time that he has, in as many ways as he can say it, Jesus brings them back to what they have seen and what they have heard. Hopefully the irony isn’t lost on us. Phillip is asking Jesus to show him the Father after Jesus tells him I and the Father are one – Jesus ever so gently telling them to notice what they are looking at now, to remember what they have seen and heard while with him.
A friend with two little boys told me that regularly at supper the little one will ask, with his mouth full of food, “Mom, what are we having for bedtime snack?” Who among us hasn’t done the same? Worried that what we already have won’t be enough for what we might need later? Searched and longed for what was right in front of us but didn’t measure up to some expectation born of fear and anxiety? Or assumed what we saw was all there was to see, like the car wreck last fall, about which I was so very, very wrong?
Show us the Father, Phillip says, and truly believes he hasn’t seen Him – because his heart isn’t ready to see Him. His heart isn’t ready to let go of everything he has to let go of to see the Father right in front of him. The disciples around that table with Jesus imagine that foreknowing will make the future easier to bear, that it will make faith easier to muster. No, it won’t. It only tricks us into believing we are in control of things that cannot be controlled.
It’s the bane of quarantine, isn’t it? This not-knowing, in which we only get to know what will happen today. Not knowing is a loss to people like us: people with plans to make, calendars to fill. We can manage a week or two or three. But after a month, we start feeling a little offended, a little put out. We find language we didn’t think we had, about necessary risks and necessary sacrifices, as if being told we must bide these times, is some brand new suggestion to the human race and to people of faith in particular.
To bide our time is to do the very act of faith Jesus calls forth from his unborn church gathered around this table in John 10. His part is about to be complete, then their part will begin. In between they abide; they stay in one place and believe that what God needs doing is getting done without them. And when they are needed, they will be summoned. I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.
Jesus even says that the work they will do will be even greater than what they saw him do. Which, in volume, was true – but I bet it was hard to imagine when he said it. It’s that indefinite in-between that we hate so much, isn’t it? And God’s reluctance to share details – details we would argue about, even if God did share them. That gets us crazy. Friends, during a pandemic or not, the same is true. We can’t know tomorrow. We can pretend we do. But that’s all we are doing. Pretending. And squandering the joy that is to be had in this moment.
Here and now is the time to know God with us, keeping us, carrying us, loving us in everything that is good, kind, and graceful. Abundance, remember. We don’t have to worry or be afraid. All of God we need, we have. Right here. Right now. But we shall only see and hear and find, by resisting the temptation to be elsewhere, embracing the gift of abiding, each moment, each day, in faith.
For our closing prayer, I want to read a few lines from The Tao of Healing. The meaning of “tao” is way or path – The Path of Healing.
Quiet the mind
And watch the breath of God
Rise and fall in all things.
Allow God’s breath to be your breath;
Allow God’s nature to be your nature.
The nature of God is to love and be loved;
Your desire to love creates intention
Intention focuses attention
Attention illuminates understanding
Understanding manifests forgiveness
Forgiveness is the fountainhead of love.
Intend to be Love
And know death for what it is:
The in-breath of God.