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.
Have your Bible phones or Bible Bibles open to John 9 and 10 to stay with me, as I move through the text today. Like most stories, chapter ten makes more sense if you’ve read chapters 1-9, especially chapter nine, in John’s gospel. Because in chapter nine there is an awesome story where Jesus heals a man who had been born blind, and the Jewish leaders are so upset about it, they get into a big argument about whether the man was actually blind in the first place.
So they call in his parents as witnesses, who testify that yes, he was born blind, but about whether he was healed, you’ll have to ask him about that. So they do, and the man essentially taunts the Jewish leaders no end, which ticks off the Jewish leaders so they throw him out of the Temple – the irony being, his blindness kept him out because it was thought to be a sign of his sinfulness; but now that he can see, they throw him out for being a liar.
So Jesus goes and find him, asks him if he believes in the Son of Man, and the man born blind says, “Tell me, so I can believe in him.” “You have seen him,” Jesus says, “the one talking to you is him.” To which the man replies, “Lord, I believe.” Friends, check out the wordplay between hearing and seeing. The blind man who has only ever heard, asks to be told. Jesus reminds him he can see. Realizing AGAIN that he can see, he believes.
And then Jesus begins to tell. He tells from verse 39 in chapter 9, all the way to verse 30 of chapter 10. Now his disciples and some Jewish leaders are leaning in to overhear, but it matters to note that Jesus, speaking in our passage today, is talking specifically to a man who has asked to be told who the Son of Man is. A man born blind and healed. A man who has settled for the scraps of this world his whole life, never knowing how very rich he really is. Do you believe in the Christ? “Tell me,” the man said. And Jesus did. That’s the story we are listening to today.
First, let’s pray. We need you, O God, but then, we reach for everything else instead. If only we could be with you as sheep are with their beloved shepherd, ever listening, ever trusting, ever following as you call, as you lead, as you go, or as you stay. Helping ourselves to the abundance so freely given by your great sacrifice on our behalf. Amen.
I AM the Good Shepherd, Jesus says, maybe to differentiate himself from that long list of shabby shepherds in Israel’s past. Some were downright godawful, and I mean that literally. Remember Ezekiel 34, which I sometimes preach around Thanksgiving? Nobody ever likes it.
The word of the Lord came to the prophet Ezekiel saying,
prophesy against the shepherds of Israel,
prophesy and say to them, the shepherds,
I will take my beloved flock
from your filthy, lying, corrupt mouths
and I will tend them myself.
But you I will feed with justice.
The prophecy goes on to promise a new shepherd, David:
and he shall feed them;
he shall feed them and be their shepherd.
And I, the Lord, will be their God,
and my servant David
shall be prince among them.
The prince became the king and, while he was better than all the shepherd kings who came before him, David also stole and killed and destroyed sheep, didn’t he? Not for God or country, but for the same itchy reasons as the others: greed, gluttony, and lust. He saw something that he wanted, and the voice inside his heart and head told him he should have it.
Bushi Yamato Damashii is a Buddhist Christian whose podcasts and writings I find useful. He comes to mind here in his Buddhist teaching on when to speak. He says that before speaking, the words we say must pass a three-question test: Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? On this, he very much reminds me of the Quaker, John Woolman, whom we just read in our Lenten reading group. Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? If I pressed all my words through the sieve of these questions, friends, most of the time, I don’t even need questions 2 or 3!
So I got to thinking, what would preaching, what would Bible study, what would spiritual life be like, if we pressed our hearing of the word of God through the hermeneutics of these three questions: is it necessary? is it true? is it kind?
IS IT NECESSARY? Today is Good Shepherd Sunday in the Lectionary. Is that necessary? Maybe. How else will we ever get through the 590 hymns about shepherding published in English? And yet, Jesus doesn’t even say that in the assigned text for today. Rather, he says, I am the door. But unless you are reading from the King James Version, your Bible says “gate.” But the Greek is “door.”
I AM the door of the sheep. Why would Jesus say “door” to a man born blind? Maybe door is the exactly right and necessary word to say to a man who has been shut out of everything meaningful his whole life: shut out of the economy, begging for his daily bread; shut out of his own family (his parents won’t even stand up for him in public); shut out of his religious community, twice! Most of all, shut out of the very idea of divine compassion! Jesus’ own disciples parrot what they’ve heard of Jewish law, that his blindness can only be the consequence of sin – his own or his parents’.
That might have been a pretty powerful word, don’t you think:
I AM the door of the sheep,
and if any man enter in,
he shall be saved,
and shall go in and out,
and find pasture.
Think of that, friends, born broken and living your whole life shut out. Hearing it from everyone who passes by, whatever offering they toss your way reeking more of pity than kindness. Until one day you hear a different voice say about you, It’s not his fault. God is using him for something good. And half an hour later, you can see. In just enough time to get your hopes up that life might turn out differently, you’re tossed out on your own again. Seeing, sure. But as cast out, alone, and marginalized as you were when you were blind.
Question Two: IS IT TRUE? It was necessary that Jesus say, I AM THE DOOR. Is it true? What happened when Jesus heard that the man had been tossed out? He went and found him. Became the door he said he was, so that man could walk right back through the promise and into the hope he’d heard an hour before. If any man enter in, he shall be saved. Twice in that same day, Jesus found him and called him. Twice in that same day, Jesus saved him. As many times as it takes.
Jesus said I am the door. For our coming and our going. These days there’s precious little of it, except for all the crazy places our minds take us. Doesn’t matter. Jesus is still the door that we enter to find our way back to him. This passage ties directly to two others in the same Johannine neighborhood. In chapter 20, the disciples behind locked doors after Jesus’ crucifixion, that word “doors” is the same word translated gate in chapter 10 by most English translations. The one who said, I AM THE DOOR is now here among them. And through Him they leave that room in faith and joy.
And in John 14:6, which we will look at next week, Jesus’s goodbye discourse around their final supper table, promising they will meet again. Thomas asks, Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? And Jesus answers: “I AM the way – he might as well say, “I am the door” – “I AM the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Friends, don’t hear judgment. Hear promise.
Hear the same necessary truth the no-longer-blind man heard when he SAW and heard Jesus say “I AM the door of the sheep, and if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.” And there is the kind word: abundance. The kindness of God is no small thing, friends. The kindness of God is abundance.
Friends, if we could go back in time and interview that man, ask him what he most wanted in the world, what do you suppose he’d say? If he could choose either seeing or feeling like he deserved the space he occupied, the air he breathed and the food he ate, what do you suppose he’d choose? If he could choose either being able to see or earning a living and being respected by his community, what do you suppose he’d choose? If he could choose either seeing or having his parents claiming him and being proud of him in public, what do you suppose he’d choose? How about choosing between seeing and being accepted and useful to his neighbors and his friends? How about between seeing and being part of a faith community where he was welcome to worship God, serve God, and share the goodness of God with the world?
If all Jesus had done for the man was heal his optical vision, that would have been a big deal! But if the man had been asked, he might have said his vision wasn’t his greatest need, his deepest longing. And the reality is, Jesus didn’t just heal his eyes. Jesus came to give the man what he needed and longed for most. He did for the man, what Jesus does for all of us who believe. Abundance. God’s kindness is abundance.
He comes to us, wherever we are, in whatever condition we find ourselves. He. Finds. Us. And he opens the way to that abundance he has prepared for us – eternal life. Life in him beginning the moment we believe. Ending, never. Changing, ebbing, flowing. Ending, never.
For a sheep, honestly, it’s not much. Grass, really. And water. Like the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23. But everything else is for us. His rod and staff protecting us through the valley of death, the constant mist of goodness and mercy falling over us – sheep don’t care about that; that is for us. Jesus didn’t just give him sight, he gave him everything: dignity, community, family, intimacy, freedom, faith, and a future.
The kindness of God, given in abundance to those who believe, no matter what brokenness we’re born with or told we must bear through this world, no matter the mistakes we’ve made or the mistakes made against us, the door is long open friends, and calling your name, your own name. Just waiting to pour out the kindness of God upon your life, whenever you are ready to listen.
Let’s pray: Loving Shepherd, calling, guiding, tending us through this world, may we hear your voice through all the others; may we hear our own name; may we hear the belovedness in your voice. Amen.
Simeon and Anna waited for Jesus their whole lives. Waited the way all people do at one time or another, hoping, praying that what we know of this life, this world, cannot possibly be all there is. A world where institutional government is corrupt and institutional religion is complicit, where the economy is steered by the rich to make them richer, and the poor get blamed for being poor. A world where every single day, kids die of starvation and illnesses a $5 IV can cure, while other families take their pets to daycare.
They waited and they prayed in the Temple constantly, Luke says, watching for the Messiah who would redeem Jerusalem. God promised I will see him before I die, Simeon believed. And while I doubt Simeon was the only one who believed such a thing, it turned out to be true for him on that day. Him and Anna both. The Bible scholar Shively Smith says every Christmas crèche should include a Simeon and an Anna, as they complete the infancy narrative no less than shepherds and wise men.
Having completed their civic duty in Bethlehem – the Roman census, you’ll remember – the Holy Family now embarks upon the sacred duty, thus their presence in the Temple. Those sacred duties were circumcision for the baby when he was eight days old and blood purification for the mama, when her boy baby was 33 days old. For girl babies, she was unclean twice as long. But with the sacrifice, she was restored; she could both worship and be with her husband.
They come in – Mary, baby, Joseph, pigeons in a basket. The pigeons make the socio- political-economic truth of the incarnation self-evident: the Messiah of the universe chose poverty as his venue within humanity. Pigeon was the sacrifice for people who could not afford a sacrifice.
See the poor. They are everywhere among you, Jesus told his disciples later, always and forever. To miss them is to miss him. Because he WAS them. His father, mother, brothers, sisters. Grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
Do not miss this point of the gospel, friends. The one who comes as the great sacrifice comes from and to those too poor to afford a sacrifice. And so pigeons must suffice. He IS the poor. To miss the poor is to miss him. Simeon and Anna didn’t miss him. They knew where to look apparently. Were they even watching for a newborn? I wonder. Did Jesus see them too? Already, eight days or maybe one month old, his simple presence moves people.
He’s no bigger than a loaf of bread, silent save maybe a burp or yawn or squeak. And yet, by His simple presence, the gospel is drawn forth in ancient words Simeon had no doubt been practicing for decades – the gospel ringing round Him, while He blinks or sleeps, or roots or toots (seriously, babies don’t have a huge repertoire) and His parents are amazed. Simeon’s poetry has two gospel notes to play: one moment in His presence is enough to last a lifetime; being in His presence exposes our inner thoughts, for better or for worse.
Let’s pray: O let the ancient words impart, O God. That we might be changed. We have come, with open hearts. Amen.
The Spirit led Simeon into the Temple, and after doing what was customary according to the Law, Luke says Simeon prayed out loud:
now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.
Having seen the baby Messiah, Simeon didn’t want or need another thing to be happy in this world; he could die in peace. Think about that for a second. Think about never wanting, needing, asking for anything else, ever again. No healing. No political changes. No new shoes. No extra courage. Nothing else. Ever.
How long could they have visited, Simeon and the baby Jesus, before He wanted His mama back? Ten minutes? An hour? Did they talk theology? Probably not. Peek-a-boo? Maybe. Definitely no miracles. No death and resurrection. Whatever it was, it was enough for Simeon.
I keep imagining Simeon’s waiting life and comparing it to ours, how he waited all his life for this meeting and lived the rest of his life from it, never wanting, needing or begging for more. Luke’s church was waiting. Everyone I know is waiting, waiting for some- thing, some change we think will make life better for ourselves or others. The large- hearted among us waiting for change we are convinced is absolutely necessary for the well-being of humanity. Economic. Political. Environmental. Social. Familial. Personal.
Luke’s first readers had just lived through a Roman crackdown. The destruction of the very Temple Luke writes about here. With it the sacred tradition of sacrifice. How bittersweet this story would have been for them. You can bet they wanted change and had invested those expectations in the one called Messiah. Not Simeon, it appears. Just His baby self was enough. Whatever else that baby chose was fine by Simeon. He could live his days in contentment and die in peace.
Friends, I want to love Jesus that much. I want to trust Jesus that much. I want to live from this day forward never needing, never wanting, never asking more from Christ than he has already given. I want this heart and mind of Simeon, that can rest in that once-in-a-lifetime presence of Christ in the midst of the world he describes in his next breath:
“This child is destined for the falling and the rising
of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35
so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--
and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
It’s a new way for me to think about Messiah – a simple, silent presence by which our inner thoughts are exposed to us and we respond, as we choose, in gratitude like Simeon and Anna, or in fear like so many others. By following him or opposing him, either way, our hearts will surely be broken for the ones who choose differently from us. For the violence and the pain involved for everyone when even a few people choose fear instead of faith. Most especially when those in power choose to live and rule by fear. There’s little people won’t do when confronted with their fear. Little they can’t justify and explain and try to sell as right.
Your own heart will be cut in two, Simeon says to Mary directly. But not just hers. The hearts of all who choose love instead of fear eventually get broken. That was Simeon’s sermon, more or less. One sip of the Messiah’s presence was enough to last a lifetime. A sermon, by the way, that Jesus will preach to a woman at a well later in the gospel. That sip reveals a person’s deepest hopes and fears, Simeon says, for better and for worse.
Exit Simeon, stage right. Enter stage left, preacher #2.
Then a second preacher-prophet enters the scene – Anna. Technically I am named for Annette Funicello, but I gladly claim this Jewish contemplative preacher, Anna. The great age of 84 — if I am still preaching at 84 it means I’m now just at the halfway mark. Maybe I haven’t even peaked. There is something about this business I have still not gotten hold of. Anna is more noted than quoted, but as eager to preach Messiah as her colleague was. Redemption was her interest, the redemption of Jerusalem. Could be she was also a religious activist. Luke says she spent her time praying and fasting. Not for herself to be redeemed, it seems, but for her religion, the Temple, their faith.
By the time Luke wrote his gospel, the Temple was a pile of rubble. Sacrificial Judaism was just a memory. And I wonder what the word redemption meant to the early church, given what they’d been through, what they felt they were owed. I wonder, does the church today pray for our own redemption? And what do we mean by that? Do we mean being great again, even if we’d never call it that, or do we mean holiness?
All we have of Anna is that she did not fast and pray for herself, but for the redemption of her people, expecting that redemption from the single source from which such redemption comes: the creator of the universe, the promiser of salvation. She isn’t in Rome, nor at Herod’s palace. She is in the Temple, from which the moral courage necessary to break the reign of fear upon the world shall be found, if it is to be found.
God knows our own land is begging for redemption. Every op-ed piece I read seems to pontificate on the lack of moral courage among our elected leaders, like it’s some new thing. Friends, you do remember that the 13th Amendment passed the House of Representatives by something like two votes? We pretend otherwise, but the evidence bears out the truth.
We use language like “national interest” and “global interest,” but governments and institutions do not behave morally. They behave in the personal interest of the persons who stand to benefit most, usually economically. Reinhold Niebuhr has written about this extensively. It could be that having our inner thoughts revealed to us exposes us to the futility of our expectations of each other, our hope that a congressional action, another election, will somehow be the moral solvent for the problems that stress us.
That, friends, is one way our slavery to fear dresses itself in the morning. That wishful thinking that some other politician or preacher could fix this mess we’re in. Maybe. But that’s not the basket believers’ eggs go in. The place for praying for redemption is here. The redemption for which we pray begins here – the redemption of the church, the redemption of the people of God. This is Anna’s sermon. What she does, how she lives, is her sermon. We need not quote her words; let us quote her life.
What’s done is done, and praise the Lord for that, I say. It’s almost like a dare to suggest we believe it, that Jesus has done for us what needs doing; that it’s enough to live on, no matter how many days we have left – not just this election cycle, but for all the days of our lives. All we need of him, he has done. All we can ever ask of him, he has given. We live now and forever in the joyful, graceful light of his presence.
Would you pray with me?
Once I was making a cake to take to Scott Smart’s house for supper. Don and June Lewis were also going to be there. I didn’t have all the ingredients, so I sent Carl to my neigh- bor’s house to borrow a cup-and-a-half of sugar. She wasn’t home, but her husband went to the kitchen and brought back a ziplock with an exact cup-and-a-half inside. I dumped it in my batter and just happened to lick the spatula before I threw it in the sink. It was horrible. I got the ziplock from the trash and licked that too — salt! I decided it was easier to throw away cake than batter, so I baked it, thinking we’d pick up something else on the way. But my cake was so beautiful, I took it. And I warned June and Susan not to eat it. Scott, who is a cook, took a bite and looked stunned. He just kept swallowing. Don and Carl, however, just ate cake and never said a word.
That’s the thing about salt, don’t you know? Too much is revolting. Not enough tastes like—what? Bland, yes. But also empty. Another time I forgot the salt in my yeast rolls at Thanksgiving. It ruined the whole meal for me. They were both beautiful and altogether disappointing.
Salt. It causes a strange and wonderful reaction in all the food it touches, so that bread is more bready, and chocolate more chocolaty, cheese more cheesy. Mashed potatoes, fried chicken, pie – none of them come out right, if the salt content isn’t pretty close to perfect. Too much or too little will ruin the dish.
It might be Jesus’ best metaphor for how to give away this faith life of ours. Measure it. Calibrate it. Don’t overwhelm, don’t hide it. Eugene Peterson translates it: You are here to make this life taste better to the people you affect. You’re not here to do the heavy lifting of saving their souls; Jesus has taken care of that, once and for all – for all time and all people. We know this from the epistles. Ours is the lesser calling, also older, found in the prophets: to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.
The Law is an expansion on those three, all of which Jesus is careful – intentional – to say, here in Matthew 5, still holds. Is not to be trivialized, as Peterson puts it. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Is it, though? Is the Law more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at our feet? What do we actually DO with the Law? Or the Sermon on the Mount, for that matter?
I would offer that by and large the church has overthought it, that it really need not be as complicated as preachers like me have made it out to be. Being salt, it seems to me, is simply one way to describe how we are to live with the abundance of grace that is ours in Christ Jesus, by his life, death and resurrection. Here’s how you live with that reality, Jesus says. Be salt. Be light.
Let’s pray and consider it just a little more: Ancient words, O people of God, Changing me and changing you, Let us come with open hearts, That the ancient words may impart to us new vision and new strength for being God’s people in this time and place. Amen.
How do we know how salty Jesus would have us be? In cooking, less is always better, because it is much easier to add more salt than take too much away. That cup-and-a-half of salt could not be taken out of my cake batter once I stirred it in. However, I come from a church tradition that believed people needed as much Jesus as could be poured into them from the start – no approach too assertive, no assumption about their lives too insulting, no question too personal. Hesitation like mine was considered weakness of faith. It took me a long time to separate that evangelistic style from Jesus’ example in the gospel – because that’s how we know what Jesus means: by watching what he does.
Once not long after our second baby was born, I was home with both kids, exhausted all the time. It was summer, but way too hot to be outside. A pair of Latter-Day Saints missionaries came by the house, both of them very young men. I was way too tired to invite them in or even be very nice to them, and as they started to leave they stopped and turned back around and said, “Ma’am, is there anything we can do to help you? You know, we could mow your grass or something.” My thought then was, “Gee, I am worse off than I thought, if 19-year-old boys are worried about me.” But mostly I felt so noticed, so loved by those two kids.
My thought now is, “Why do we think we have to guilt and overwhelm instead of notice, love and help people? As if they can’t figure out the reason we do what we do, when we offer to make them a meal or cut their grass?” You want to know why you are here? You are here to be salt. To make life better for the people around you, the people whom your life touches.
Jesus says a wrong thing about salt. He says that if salt loses its saltiness it’s useless and is thrown out. But salt is stable. Salt doesn’t lose its saltiness. Twenty-year-old salt, still salty. Fifty-year-old salt, still salty. But salt isn’t salty to the rest of the salt. Salt in its jar isn’t seasoning anything. It isn’t ruining anything, but neither is it making anything better or more flavorful, more enjoyable. Which, as Jesus’ metaphor goes, is apparently the same as useless. Might as well throw it out, Jesus says. It’s a good word, of course, that as his people we are forever useful, so long as we are being used.
I love reading obituaries of really old people: how they loved cooking big family meals and crocheting baby blankets; how they had three favorite dogs in their lifetime; how one worked at RCA for 30 years and was also a farmer and a preacher. Friends, isn’t it just an amazing thing to be a human being? To be set upon the earth in a certain place and time, among a certain set of other people with whom we will live out our given span of days? And to have the opportunity to choose how we will spend this time?
We can make the space we occupy gentle or chaotic. We can be content or forever irritated. We can choose to be kind or be nasty, to reach out to others or to avoid them, to help people feel welcome and included, or as if they are mostly to be tolerated. We can spend every dime and moment on ourselves and our own agendas, or we can tune our lives to what others need that we might be able to provide, like those sweet boys on my porch twenty-five years ago this summer.
I am as aware as you that Jesus was telling his first audience so much more than this. That he was speaking religiously and politically. That he was unlocking the Bible they thought they knew to a way of life they had not yet imagined. They’d always read the Bible to find out how to love. He was showing that love teaches people how to read the Bible. They kept the rules hoping someday they would one day be counted as righteous. He told them that one day was here and now and righteousness was a way of life. Everything they needed, they already had – in the Law and prophets, of course. But even more than that, in him.
That’s Matthew’s message, over and over and over again to folks whose country was upside down, ruled by a king and empire who seemed unstable on a good day. They never knew what to expect. Leaders of their own religion were in cahoots with the crazies in the government. And those religious leaders couldn’t get along with each other. The more history we read, the more we know for sure that nothing really changes, does it?
Today I want to draw a difference between religious leaders and religious loudmouths, and it’s the loudmouths who are making a public joke of our faith. Maybe it’s for the best, I think. Once we’ve lost all public credibility, it will be up to each one of us to be salt or light in our own little circuits on the earth. We ought not wait and hope for a new Billy Graham or some other Mother Teresa, as if the jar of salt right here isn’t full to overflowing with all manner of usefulness, to make life better for the people we already know.
Amen? Amen. Let’s pray.