Living this life is like building a tower.
I’d like to start with a quick survey: how many of you here have done a renovation project? (I’m defining the term renovation fairly broadly here – so as big as adding or altering a bathroom and as small as, I don’t know what, insulating your attic or putting drywall up in your basement or adding gutters. A project, in other words, that involves a drill gun and maybe a contractor and encountering the interior parts of your home, parts that you don’t normally see.)
So, a good number of us.
What you will know as a veteran of renovation is, with a handful of exceptions, renovations take longer than you planned, they are more complicated than you planned, they are more expensive than you planned. To open a wall in an old house is almost always to find problems or hurdles that you didn’t see coming.
I’m thinking about this, I guess, because I spent a good part of the last week working on running a new electrical receptacle to the narthex, to the wee lobby area just inside the front doors. It was more complicated than I had planned. That thing that looks like an arch around the door to the narthex, that appears to be holding up the ceiling? That’s actually hollow, at least down at floor level. The thing that looks like a plain-old wall beside it, that you would reckon would be lath and plaster with a hollow interior? That’s solid concrete, most likely the pillar that bears the load of the building.
That reversal of my expectations made running wire more challenging and differently challenging than I had expected.
I may have said some words that you are not supposed to say in church.
If the tradition is correct and Jesus followed his Dad into the carpentry business, if Jesus worked in construction, maybe building roads or houses in the city of Sepphoris, just a few miles north of Nazareth, then it is curious that in his parables and his other teachings Jesus reaches for imagery from construction so infrequently. He talks about agriculture a lot, about domestic service a lot, about money a lot. But not often does he talk about building things.
And so it is intriguing that, today, he talks about building a tower:
Who among you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and estimate the cost? Because if you don’t, if you pour a foundation and then run out of money when you’ve built a third of the tower, everybody is going to mock you.
And you will forever be known around the neighbourhood as The Tower Loser.
On its face, this is pretty fine advice, the sort of thing that your uncle or your grandma might say to you as you are heading off to college: be careful about taking out credit cards; learn to cook your own meals, you’ll save a fortune; make sure you estimate the cost before building a tower.
And while that is highly sensible advice, advice that I am inclined to heed both here at Grace and in my own family’s life, I am not convinced that it is Jesus’ advice. Because while Jesus is a lot of things, he is just about never sensible. Jesus is not the guy who is going to tell you how to judiciously navigate the stock market or how to advance your career or how to dress for success. The things that Jesus has to say are way more beautiful and way more dangerous than that.
And so any time we hear Jesus say something and we respond, “Well, isn’t that nice,” that’s a clue that we may be missing where Jesus is going.
A few things in particular make me suspect a more wonderful, frustrating, confusing, complicated, holy message behind Jesus’ words. The first is the question itself: Who among you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down and calculate the cost first?
This question is almost a trick or a trap. There is a temptation to answer it reflexively and fast and say No one or at least Not me Jesus! But the actual answer, as the fully human Jesus well knows, is, well, a lot of people. Who among you does not finish your taxes well before April 15th? Who among you does not finish your essay a week before it is due so that you have ample time to proof read and get feedback? Who among you has not laid in your Halloween candy, pre-ordered a turkey for Thanksgiving, and finished your Christmas shopping?
Sometimes we are pretty good at planning ahead. But a lot of the time, because life happens, because we get overwhelmed, because we just forget, stuff sneaks up on us. It is the day when we are supposed to break ground on the tower, all of our friends are there with their shovels, and our plans amount to three lines written on a napkin.
The second thing I notice about Jesus’ saying has to do with the history of towers themselves in scripture. If you have access to that old-school tool called the concordance, an enormous book that lets you find where and when and how many times any word shows up in scripture, or if you have access to that new-school tool called the computer, you will know that, a whole lot of the time, towers in the Bible correlate with hard news.
What is the most famous tower in scripture? Babel. A symbol of human arrogance and Divine anger and totally not up to code engineering. And while towers elsewhere sometime stand for good news – 2 Samuel 22:50 and Psalm 61 describe God as a “tower,” and the erotic poem that we call Song of Solomon speaks of breasts like towers – that is by no means the rule. In Judges, the tower of Shechem is burned in war with great and horrifying loss of life. In Isaiah and Ezekiel, destruction looks like hyenas crying in a city’s towers and towers being pulled down. Ecclesiasticus speaks of a tower of death. Jesus himself mentions a tower in just one other context. Does anyone know what that is? It is also the Gospel of Luke, the previous chapter, 13. And there Jesus tells of the tower of Siloam, which falls and kills 18 people.
In scripture the tower is, at best, an ambiguous symbol – and maybe a symbol of things going spectacularly, disastrously wrong.
Last – and here I would like to return to where I started, to renovations – a tower is, by necessity, a product of building stuff. And as everyone here who has done a renovation knows, and as everyone in Jesus’ audience knows (generally speaking, your grandparents and our ancestors still further back were more handy than us, they knew how to do things), building stuff is hard. And so the crowd before Jesus, like us, knows in their bones about the joys and the wild frustrations and the confounded expectations of digging out a hammer and a saw.
And this is what, Jesus says, following him is like. Discipleship, saying yes to Jesus, saying yes to the Kingdom: it’s like being caught off guard by the first day of construction; it’s like a tower falling over in war; it’s like starting to dig and opening the walls and finding out that your project is going to cost more and take more time and work than you had imagined.
How is this good news?
Well, it’s good news because it is the truth. Faith, hanging out in community with other people, doing this beautiful messy thing that we call church, having friends and family, being alive, building our real and our metaphorical towers: these things are all so much harder than we planned for them to be.
Or maybe that is not 100% accurate. Sometimes these things are exactly as hard as we planned for them to be. But we discover that it is one thing to plan for an experience and quite another to live that experience.
How often does someone say, I knew my spouse’s death was coming. And so I got ready. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.
I knew that the job loss was coming. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.
I knew that growing up or going away to school or moving to another city or retiring or getting old was coming. But when it happened I wasn’t ready at all.
We knew that building this tower, that standing in the hot sun and, then later, in the cold rain would be hard. We planned. And somehow it turned out that we hadn’t planned at all.
So Jesus’ words are good news because they are true. And they are good news as well because, while the tower of Babel did not get anyone to heaven, the hard work of building these towers does get us closer to God.
My old boss, Bill, would often ask folks at a funeral a question. The question went something like this:
Imagine that I have the lamp with the genie inside. When I rub it, the genie comes out and he says,
I can take all of your grief away.
There’s only one catch. You have to agree to change your past so that you never met the one who died.
How many of you,
Bill would ask,
Would take that deal?
No one ever, ever put their hand up.
Living this life is like building a tower. Sometimes we are ready for construction to begin, a lot of times we could not be less prepared. Sometimes the tower falls over partway through construction. Always, always, there are tests: things that we didn’t see coming and things that we did see coming but that push us to and beyond our limits anyway.
But who would wish it different? Who would wish our towers away? Even when they fall, even when they lean like Pisa, even when they take more than we could have imagined, they remain glorious and holy, evidence that we have lived our lives, that we have said yes to love, to possibility, to God. Our towers are proof that we are here.
Well, it’s that time of year when we’re thinking about Back to School. That may not be
relevant to all of you, but I’m going to suggest that perhaps it should be.
After having retired from teaching a year ago, I find myself getting ready to go back to
the classroom once more. This will be the start of my 57th year in school, as either student or teacher.
I’ll be teaching high school Religion as an academic subject. I think there’s a strong
argument for the importance of studying religion – because of its central role in the world today as well as for the skills it can promote, like understanding different cultural perspectives.
But I think the ultimate purpose of studying religion – as is true for math or science or
English – is exploring the nature of reality and our own human nature.
From a Christian perspective, teaching and learning is a divine practice, because if God is the foundation of all reality, and if we humans are made in God’s image, then deepening our understanding of reality means coming closer to understanding the truth about God and about who we are in relationship to God. And this should be a joyful activity for all of us.
Education as divine practice is something that Jesus models throughout the Gospel, and we have a fine example in today’s lesson from Luke.
Consider the story: Jesus frees a woman from a crippling infirmity on the Sabbath. Some of the people present, based on their concept of honoring the Sabbath prohibition against work, object to this. Jesus responds to them by asking them to reflect on their own experience, and the crowd, having done this, seems to come to a new understanding. The story ends in the people rejoicing.
The story’s message seems to focus on two things: freedom and transformation. For the
woman, her new freedom and transformation are physically obvious. But the crowd is also freed – from an inadequate understanding of the Sabbath and of what God wants from them. They are also transformed, because they gain new insights, through Jesus’
questioning, into God’s truth – and this becomes a joyful experience.
I occasionally encounter former students of mine, now in their twenties or thirties, and as we talk they sometimes say that they don’t remember anything of what they have learned in my class. But as I listen to them talk about the meaningful work they do now, how they serve others, how committed they are to social concerns, the loving relationships they are in, I think – that’s okay. They have grown since high school, they have been freed from some of their narrow-mindedness and teenage anxiety, they are growing into the kind of mature and thoughtful people we need. If my teaching has contributed even the tiniest bit to that transformation, then I don’t really care if they can’t remember the significance of the 14th Amendment, or why the Council of Jerusalem was important in early Christianity.
Sometimes, as a teacher, you do get to see a moment when “the light comes on,” when a student struggling with a difficult concept – whether how to solve a quadratic equation or how to use the preterite tense in Spanish or whatever – they suddenly get it. It’s a joyful moment for both student and teacher. They’ve gained a little deeper understanding of the nature of reality, and they may have gained self-understanding as well.
True learning is not about repetitive drills, studying for tests or endless assessments.
None of these produces true joy. True learning is about pursuing a goal of what the Greeks called “Sophia” or “wisdom,” which is a deep understanding that comes from reflecting on everything we’ve learned and experienced, which pulls together and integrates everything, which enables us to become the people that God has called us to be. And that is deeply joyful.
And this is a goal for all of us, whether in school or not.
So my hope is for this coming year to be a year of deepened understanding and joyful
learning – not just for kids in school but for all of us, that we may be on the path to Sophia, or wisdom, as a way to draw closer to God and to the image of God that lies in each of us.
On Wednesday morning I attended a rally organised by the mayor’s office. The rally was downtown at Pioneer Courthouse Square and I was there as a representative of the Interfaith Alliance on Poverty, an organisation to which Grace belongs. The purpose of the gathering was for folks from a whole variety of contexts (there were representatives in attendance from business groups, from other faith communities, from political and law-enforcement organisations, from unions) to together say that we condemn and we reject white supremacy and we condemn and reject the violence that it brings. As a group we declared that if folks are coming to Portland with the goal of nurturing violence and hate that they are not welcome here.
The folks coordinating the rally positioned me in the front row, just behind the dignitaries, somewhere to the audience’s right of the lectern; I wasn’t there to make a speech, just to look good, something at which I am excellent. And I was charged with the task of holding a giant letter “H,” part of a collection of giant letters that together spelled “Our city, our home.” (I was never a cheerleader, so finally getting to hold a giant letter, even if I had to wait ‘til middle age to do it, was kind of cool. Gimme and H!) Along with a lot of other folks, I stood there with my letter, looking out at a wall of cameras, at a whole bunch of reporters.
I don’t know how much the rally swayed the nouveau Nazis who want to come march in our streets. But I think that it was important for us as a community to say that white supremacy is not a part of who we want to be, not a part of who we are called to be.
The experience at the rally was mostly awesome. Except that, whoever designed the square, whoever designed what is sometimes called Portland’s living room, did not give a whole lot of thought to shade. And friends, I am not built for the heat. Even with a substantial hat on my head, even keeping myself well hydrated, standing still in the direct August sun was heavy going. And so about an hour into the rally and still only two-thirds of the way through the speeches, my knees just gave way. And me and my big “H” were suddenly half-kneeling, half-sitting on Pioneer Square’s brick floor.
Now, I am someone who not only really wants to be in control of myself but, more than that, I am someone who really wants to appear to be in control of myself. I did not care very much for adolescence, when my body frequently had its own ideas about how it was going to behave: without any permission from me, acne showed up on my face and my eyesight fell off of a cliff and I was listening to unbidden comments about how much my voice had changed. And to this day I don’t like it at all when the visible evidence of my control slips, when I am vulnerable. I want to be the one who gives help: I don’t want to be the one who needs it.
I totally understand what the writer David Dark means when he says that his sense of composure is almost sacred to him.
So, if I am going to be ill, or if I my knees are going to give way and I am going to fall, I’d really prefer to do so in the privacy of my own home.
But here’s the problem:
Standing in the front row of a press conference with several dozen cameras pointed your way is the possibly the least private place to do anything.
A lot of people noticed that I had fallen and came to help, to offer their kindness and their concern. The folks near me, several police officers and, fascinatingly, someone dressed like a national park ranger, like Smokie the Bear, all gathered around me, all of them sincerely, generously compassionate.
Other than sitting on the ground, I was actually doing okay: I didn’t hit my head, I wasn’t feeling dizzy. And I reckoned that the best plan was to sit there, to drink as much water as I could, and to trust that, in half an hour, my legs would be willing to hold me up again.
I told what felt like four dozen different people that this was my plan. And then my neighbour held up my “H” for me and I sat in its shade.
Today, in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, we hear this protracted meditation on faith. Paul gives one example after another from scripture of what is possible when you have faith, of what people across history have done who have faith. Here are the folks who have endured much and have done much, who have walked through across the seabed and who have caused walls to come tumbling down and have seen resurrection.
And then Paul shares with us what, on some days, I think just might the most beautiful words in scripture:
We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.
Now if we want to, I guess we can read Paul’s words as those of a kind of First-Century motivational speaker: David defeated all those armies, so you can too; I am a rock star or an NBA player or a billionaire entrepreneur, so you can be one too. In this reading, Paul is sharing a quintessentially Western and quintessentially modern message: say your prayers, work hard, set goals, and you will be rich and famous. You will win. Never mind that being rich or famous are, by definition, something that only a tiny fraction of us can do.
But what if that isn’t what Paul means at all? What if, rather than being a celebration of individual achievement, of rugged self-reliance, Paul is offering a repudiation of that philosophy and a celebration of something way better? Why if Paul is saying that faith is what happens when we realise that we are not alone, that we never were, and that we were never meant to live life without anyone’s help. More than that – and this is hard for a lot of us – we are incapable of living life without anyone’s help.
There is this cloud of witnesses.
To paraphrase that 20th-Century Saint, Mr. Rogers: some of the people in the cloud are here; some are far away; some are even in heaven. So, some of the people in our cloud of witnesses have died, maybe years or decades or even centuries ago. And I believe, I trust that our relationship with them remains. But the cloud is not comprised only of those who have died, not just of the angels in heaven. It is comprised as well of everyone around us. Our friends right now, our family right now, our loved ones right now, our neighbours right now, the strangers who makes a cameo appearance in our lives right now.
They are the cloud of witnesses for us, the ones on whom we lean. And we get our turn to be the cloud of witnesses for them.
And it is a failure of holy gratitude – or maybe that it is not strong enough language – it is heresy or idolatry to look at the cloud and say: I have no need of you. This heresy damages us and damages those around us.
I read a fascinating article, maybe ten years ago, about the ethics of organ transplants. And it featured someone making the case for paying people to donate their organs. The reason that the person wanted to pay donors was not to make them more likely to part with a kidney. But rather it was, so that after transplant, the recipient wouldn’t owe the donor anything. I’m just not comfortable, the person said, owing another person that much.
As though any amount of money given to the person who gave you the internal organ that allowed your life to continue would make you even, any more than you could be even with your parents or the others who loved you into being. A gazillion dollars wouldn’t make you even.
My friend Brian said something a while back that I have thought often. Brian recounted how folks who were sceptical of church would sometimes say to him Religion is just a crutch.
To which Brian, marvellously, replied:
Yes, it’s a crutch.
And I need a crutch.
Acknowledging the cloud of witnesses, acknowledging our dependence upon them, means putting away the story that says, so long as our credit card goes through or our cheque clears, we don’t owe anyone anything. It means acknowledging our profound and utter dependence on one another and on God.
This is the spiritual gift of falling down in a public place, whether that fall be figurative – a diagnosis, a job loss, a grave disappointment, an enormous grief – or whether, as in my case, it be as literal as literal can get. In the fall the illusion of self-sufficiency is stripped away, the illusion that we were ever 100% in control, that we were ever 100% composed, the illusion that we could stand on our own two feet and owe nothing to no one. In the place of the illusion is the hard but also glorious and freeing and joyous truth that our falling was always inevitable but, when that fall comes, the cloud of witnesses will catch us.
My suspicion is that Jesus was not always fun at parties.
I mean I know that Jesus could be fun, a lot of fun. There is no question that he could tell amazing stories and that he knew something about making fine wine. And there is no question either that, even more than fun, he could be awesomely, almost impossibly kind and generous, inviting the loneliest and most lost and most hurting person to know that they were safe and they were home, that this was a party at which they belonged.
He could say to you: This is your table. You belong here.
And you would know in your bones that it was true.
But there is no question either that Jesus could turn on you and turn on you hard. You would be in the middle of telling or asking Jesus something that seemed kind of normal and everyday and fair and those eyes of his would suddenly be looking at you and looking through you. Abruptly he would say to you, Let the dead bury their own dead or Get behind me, Satan or It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.
Something like that happens today. This man comes up to Jesus and he says to him:
Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.
And I want to emphasise how thoroughly reasonable this guy’s request is. Inheritances, the reading of wills, these questions after a death about what is fair and about what is just and about which possessions appropriately go to which family member and about what all of that means about how the deceased loved or didn’t love those who remain: well, when they go wrong they go really, really wrong. This is a moment in the life of a family that can leave you with resentments, with scars, that will last forever. Getting an inheritance right is super important for the long-term health of a family. Asking a teacher to help you with that makes a lot of sense.
Let’s add to the reasonableness of this request the element of grief. If this man says to Jesus, Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me, then what he is also telling Jesus is that his parents have died, that he is in mourning. And let me digress a little here to say for the record that it is hugely unfair that in our seasons of deepest loss we also have to navigate our seasons of deepest paperwork. There you are in the vortex of grief, unable to focus on much of anything, and the world says to you: your grief is not enough, here is probate. Please plan on spending the next several months fighting with forms and listening to hold music and writing cheques.
This is what the man brings to Jesus. This really reasonable, possibly family-saving request. And this grief. Together. He says to Jesus:
Please tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.
Maybe there are tears in his eyes as he speaks.
And what does Jesus say in response? He says:
Or, more accurately, he says:
Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?
Which, if you think about it, is not only a harsh response but also kind of an odd one. Because if the man knows who Jesus is, if he knows that Jesus is the son of God, then his reply to Jesus might well be:
Well, Jesus, God the Father set you to be a judge or arbitrator over me. There is literally no one more qualified than you. You, Jesus, are going to judge the living and the dead – I think I heard that somewhere in the creeds. So please start judging right now.
Here’s what I’d like to wonder about along with you this morning. Actually, that’s not strong enough language. Here’s what I’d to struggle with along with you this morning. As Jesus responds to this man’s reasonable question with what sure looks like an unreasonable and angry answer, is it possible for us to understand why Jesus speaks this way? And more than that – and this might be asking too much – through even these staggeringly harsh words, can we permit Jesus to teach us?
One reason that Jesus might respond to the man with the anger that he does is because, well, Jesus and his friends are poor. If the scholars are right who say that the job title in the Bible that we often translate as carpenter is better rendered as day labourer, if Jesus’ disciples are living cheque to cheque doing subsistence jobs, then neither Jesus nor anyone else in his posse is going to be receiving an inheritance from anyone. And so asking Jesus to arbitrate an inheritance is a bit like you or me approaching someone who is sleeping on the pavement and asking them for advice with our stock portfolio. Maybe it’s not deliberately cruel – let’s assume good intentions. But it is totally clueless. No wonder Jesus snaps at him.
A second reason that Jesus maybe responds with such harshness – and this is where I would like to spend a little more time this morning – is that the man is asking a question that seems mistaken or just wildly unimportant to someone like Jesus, someone who knows that, in a matter of months or maybe even weeks, the cross is waiting for him.
In all four of the Gospels, Jesus talks with this startling clarity about his death. The Son of Man, he says, must suffer and must die. Death is not an abstraction for him, it is not years away or decades away. He is not like the person – I don’t know if you do this, I do sometimes – who is calculating what percentage of his life is likely left, who is saying to himself, maybe 20 or 50 or 70 percent of my life remains. No. By the time of this conversation, Jesus may well be counting in weeks until his dying.
And I wonder, therefore – and forgive me if this is an odd idea, but it’s one that I have been sitting with this week and in which I have been finding insight – if we could listen to Jesus in conversations such as this one and understand his words as being spoken by someone who is terminally ill.
By terminally ill I don’t mean that Jesus is in any way sickly. To the contrary, he is just past the prime of his life, he is delighting in friends and food and wine and stories and walking across God’s good earth. By that I mean that he is like the one who has the test results in hand, the piece of paper that says that people don’t get better from what he has. Jesus knows that, this time next year, he will no longer number among the living, that one day soon the sun will rise and it will not shine upon him.
In Jesus’ case, his terminal illness is called Empire.
There is a difficult gift in this kind of knowledge. Those who are terminally ill, those who know that death is neither far away nor an avoidable misfortune that happens to other people, can, if they allow themselves, find clarity in this knowledge. I don’t want to be glib about this – and let’s be clear, there is a huge danger of glibness any time that we suggest that there are gifts to be found in suffering and grief and loss. I do want to name the reality that knowing that you will die soon can sometimes make it beyond clear what does and does not matter in life. There is a reason that the spiritual masters invite us to imagine our deaths, to write our own obituaries.
We all of us have two storehouses in our lives. This is implied in the parable that Jesus tells us today and he makes it explicit in a similar saying in the sixth chapter of Matthew, the one where he contrasts storing up your treasure on earth versus storing it up in heaven. The first storehouse is named something like success. It holds money – credit cards and 401(k)s and, yes, inheritances – it holds degrees and awards and other accomplishments, it holds property, it holds status, it holds all of the stuff that you put on your resume. And this storehouse is important. I love The Beatles, but I am kind of suspicious of people who say that they don’t care too much for money, especially when, like the Beatles, they have enough money to live comfortably for 100 lifetimes.
While there are lots of things that money can’t do, there are also totally ways in which it can buy you happiness. To have enough money to live indoors is almost always to be way happier than to live under an overpass beside the I-84. To have enough money to never wonder where your next meal is coming from is almost always to be way happier than to me walking in broken shoes from one soup kitchen to another. Similarly, your resume matters. If you can find a vocation in which you find stuff like meaning, belonging, and joy, then you have got a whole lot of life figured out.
As important as it is, the storehouse of success has its limitations. It turns out that private yachts or jets don’t necessarily make you happy. And most of us – all of us? – have had the experience of achieving a goal and saying: Is this all? I thought that I would be happy once this happened. These limitations become more and more apparent as you remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, as you realise that you have the terminal illness that is called having a body. Any moment, God may demand our lives of us.
Because of these limitations, we need the second storehouse. Let’s call this storehouse love. This is the storehouse that holds acts of kindness, what the Jewish tradition calls Mitzvahs, a word that means something like both service and blessing. This is the storehouse that holds friendship, that holds joy, that holds love of God and love of neighbour. This is the storehouse that holds the stories that, you hope, will go into your obituary and be spoken at your funeral, the storehouse that you hope will be spoken of when we step into heaven.
Here’s the hard news. Or maybe it is the good news. I haven’t decided yet. The first storehouse, the one called success: we don’t get to keep it when we die. All of the grain in it either gets forgotten or goes to someone else or gets eaten by rust and moths. The second storehouse, however, the one called love: we get to keep the stuff in there forever.
Maybe that is why Jesus speaks so harshly at this man, why Jesus is no fun at this particular party. Jesus, our terminally ill saviour, recognises that, reasonable though this man’s request for arbitration may be, his fixation on money and stuff is keeping him from seeing his all but empty storehouse of love. And that emptiness isn’t what Jesus wants for this man, it isn’t what he wants for you or me. Both now and at the end of our days, Jesus wants all of our storehouses to be overflowing with the love of God.
Lord, teach us to pray.
No Lord, really, teach me how to pray because I am actually not sure that I am doing it right.
Because I pray pretty much all the time and I hear people talk about it all the time. I see politicians tweet thoughts and prayers after some awful, terrifying thing happens again. And I hear people talk about their prayer life and I do it all the time but Lord, I am not sure that I am doing it right.
I mean I realize there are all sorts of ways to pray Lord. I read about them…we can contemplate, we can do liturgical prayer, we can even pray through movement and dance, but Lord I am not sure that I am doing it right.
I mean I know all the metaphors for prayer: prayer is like incense, prayer is like oil, prayer is like breathing, prayer is like jazz, prayer is like a kiss.
But Lord, teach me how to pray because I am not sure that I am doing it right. Because what you said today in today’s Gospel lesson is not exactly my experience of prayer. I literally want to believe these texts that I heard this morning.
I want to pray like Abraham. I want to be able to go up to God and I want to say “Hey, God, I know you are God and I know you are powerful and just but I have a few ideas I want to run past you. And I think if you listen to me we could kind of work this whole thing out.”
And I want to pray like Jesus, the way you told the disciples to pray. I want to ask and have it be given to me, I want to search and I want to find it, and I want to knock on the door and know it will be opened.
I want to go up to God and say: “Hey God, this friend of mine has stage 4 lung cancer, can you heal him? And hey God, my kids are struggling and could you do something about that? And hey God, I am a little worried about this whole situation in Iran and can you do something about that? And hey God, while you are at it can you do something about the folks who have to sleep outside and make sure they have a place to go and make sure every child goes to bed with a full belly?”
And God will open that door and smile at me beautifully and say “Yeah, sure Jeanne, I hear you. I got it. Don’t worry.”
But I am not sure I am doing it right because that is not actually my experience of prayer.
Because if that was how prayer worked then I think the world would look like a really different place. Because if prayer worked like that then every biopsy would come back benign, and every marriage would be a happy one, and every promotion we want would come through, and my mic would never stop working in the middle of the service, and George RR Martin would finish the last Game of Thrones novel and our dogs would live forever.
So Jesus, I am really not sure that I am doing this prayer thing right so can you help me out? Oh, right, you said a few other things in this passage so maybe I should think about those. After the disciples said “Lord teach us to pray” Jesus says to them (maybe you are saying it to me too) “When you pray say”
Father, hallowed be thy name
So maybe when I pray I am supposed to remember that you’re God, and I’m not and that you’re holy. And in this relationship I have with you there is the potential to be loved and cared for the way a parent cares for a child. In this relationship is the potential for me to learn what it feels like to be loved and cared for the way a parent can care for a child.
Your kingdom come
Hmmm. Well I am wondering here because in Luke I do not hear anything about heaven so I am wondering about where this kingdom is. It sounds like this kingdom is right here and right now. Maybe the kingdom is here amongst us and I am called, and we are called, to look at creation the way God imagined it when the world was first born. Maybe I am called to be what NT Wright calls a ‘kingdom bearer’ to the world.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Ok. So maybe God I am called to trust you, to recognize that I am utterly and completely dependent on you and really all I should be concerned about is what I need in this moment, in this time, in this place. And I will trust that you will provide.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone indebted to us
I think maybe Jesus is calling me, is calling us, to see the way we are with one another as an extension of the way God is with us. God loves and forgives us, God gives us mercy and grace, and we in turn are called to offer that love and mercy and grace to everyone we meet. Maybe Jesus you are telling us, like the words of Dorothy Day, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”
Save us from the time of trial
This is going to be hard sometimes. We are going to suffer. We are going to be scared. But when I pray I must remember that you are always with me God, that you will protect me, and that I will never be alone.
So Jesus, help me to pray because I am not sure that I’ve got it right. Because it sounds like what you are saying is that God is less of prayer vending machine that I put my prayer into and I pull the lever and out pops my answer. But instead prayer is more about being in relationship with God, prayer is more about being in relationship with my community and prayer is more about how I am called to be a disciple of Christ in the world. I think it was Pope Francis who said “Pray for the hungry. Then feed them. This is how prayer works.”
So Jesus, teach me how to pray because I am not sure I am doing it right but I am beginning to get a sense of what you are asking me to do and it is a little less satisfying than “Knock/Seek/Receive” I have to tell you. It sounds mysterious and it sounds hard and I don’t really understand why some people’s prayers seem to get answered and others don’t and that seems kind of unfair.
But I guess, like all we do, it is a mystery we only get the smallest inkling of and we have to trust that your presence is what we receive when we pray. It kind of reminds me of the words of Thomas Merton that I read once. Thomas Merton when he talked about prayer he said the following:
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
I used to bake pies. I used to bake a lot of pies. I do not really remember why I started. Maybe I took up the challenge implicit in the article I read that said you could tell the skill of a cook by how well they roast a chicken and bake an apple pie. Maybe it was after I learned that my great-grandmother baked a pie for her family every single day. Every. Single. Day.
I did not match my grandmother’s output, but I did bake a lot of pies. I had pie parties with friends when the fruit was ripe and plentiful. We would buy flats of blueberries in July and bushels of apples in October and we would make pie after pie and freeze them to be baked later at Thanksgiving or Christmas or just any time we wanted to eat pie. I am pretty certain that my husband considers these pie years the best years of our marriage.
I do not remember why I started but I do remember why I stopped. The crust. The crust broke me. I tried for years to master it. I tried every recipe possible, shortening, butter, shortening and butter, adding vodka or vinegar to keep it tender. But instead of rolling out smoothly and easily it would crack and break. Instead of being tender and flaky, it became tough from overwork.
And I would get so anxious and angry. I would curse and stress. This thing that I was trying to make which was meant to feed and give pleasure became a source of resentment and anxiety.
So when I read today’s Gospel my heart goes out to Martha. I mean, I know this is not the same as my pie challenges, after all I was making dessert for my family and friends and she was cooking for, you know….God. But I can imagine she is trying so hard to make things just right for Jesus. And the bread has burnt or the goat is tough or she just broke something in the kitchen and she freaks out.
But it is not just tough goat or burnt bread going on here I think. This is far beyond a pie crust tantrum. If you look at the Greek something much bigger is going on. The words in Greek indicate that this is not simply Martha being annoyed or slightly stressed, she is (as one commentator put it) practically in a panic attack.
And that makes sense, right? I mean God showed up in her living room that morning and started sharing. And while we do not know what he was talking about that day, I can imagine it might not have been easy to hear. Maybe he is talking about something hard, something really hard, like about setting his face toward Jerusalem and what will happen there and she tries desperately to ignore that, ignore him.
Because when God shows up, and God always shows up so maybe I should be a little more clear….when we recognize God in our midst, sitting in our living room or knocking on our door as God does in today’s reading from Genesis….it is huge. It is a big thing and it can be as disconcerting and frightening as joyful and wonderful.
I mean, how human are these women? How relatable? When God shows up in their homes they do the things that we humans do when we are confronted with something wild and uncontrollable, something that asks more of us than we think we can handle…we hide in a corner and eaves drop like Sarah and laugh instead of cry when God speaks to our deepest desire and longing. When God asks us to do something hard or listen to a hard truth like ‘I am your friend and I am going to die but death will not have the last word’ we freak out and offer Christ a sandwich.
Because when God shows up we have to recognize that we are not the ones in control. And we can try to fit God into a box, try to double down on our own ideas of what Christ needs from us and forget to listen, to take a breath, to sit a minute. And that is what Jesus is doing, I think, when he suggests Martha be more like Mary, Mary who is sitting and listening.
I do not think that means, though, that what Martha was doing was wrong. Hospitality was an essential part of the culture in which Jesus lived. We see this in the Genesis reading. We see that Abraham offers the best, or at least asks Sarah and his servant to offer the best, he can to God when God comes knocking. And that was culturally expected at the time these stories were written. These were hard places to live and hospitality was a matter of life and death.
So it is worth saying what this Gospel text is not because it has been used badly over the years. This is not a text about women’s behavior. This is not a text that should be used to correct or scold those whose call it is to provide hospitality to others. It is not a blueprint for female discipleship. In fact, I might suggest there is no such thing as female disciples. Just like there are no female doctors or lawyers. There are simply disciples. And this is not a text that should dissuade us from working and offering hospitality to those who show up at our door.
But it is a text that should make us wonder who, ultimately, is offering that hospitality. Because I do not think it is us. In Genesis, while Abraham is ostensibly the host, God knows all about him and Sarah. God offers the one impossible thing to them, a child, and it is not because they provided him with a good meal it is because that is what God does.
And when Jesus whispers ‘Martha, Martha’ perhaps that is an invitation to her and not a scolding, perhaps it is an invitation to all of us. To remember that we are God’s guests here, that Christ is our host and our hope and that it is not our job to take care of God but it is our job to be vulnerable enough to sit down at the feet of Christ and let him take care of us.
Near the end of the Genesis story God says “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann suggests that this is not a rhetorical question. He says that it comes as a question because God is looking for an answer from Abraham and Sarah, God is looking for an answer from us. Brueggemann says this is the fundamental question of faith, can we really believe that God can do anything.
Answering yes is hard. Answering yes is stressful because it means you might end up serving dinner to Jesus or having a baby when you are 90 years old. Answering yes means believing that, with God’s help, the impossible is possible. Answering yes means believing that love is stronger than hate, believing that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice no matter how dark things seem, and believing that death leads to new life.
Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?
A man on his way to Jericho was left by thieves to die by the road. A priest came along and passed him by; a Levite saw the man, but left him to die. But then came the good Samaritan to help the needy man, and as the law was written, he followed God’s command: Love the Lord with all your heart, Love the Lord with all your mind, Love your neighbor as yourself, and to everyone be kind.
I have a question for you – how many of you think that when you were growing up, the world was a safer place? How many of you think it feels less safe now than it used to when you were little?
Where does that idea come from, that we are not safe? That we live in a place of danger, and in a time of danger. Because, I have to push back on that a little. In this time, in this country, we are the safest we have ever been. Violent crime is at an all time low. In the mid 1970s, you were twice as likely to be the victim of a violent crime than you are today in the United States. We are safe. Rest in that for a moment.
I know, because of the power of the internet, that yesterday, very near to this exact story of the Good Samaritan repeated itself in Poughkeepsie NY, Omaha NE, and Portland OR. And people who have medical bills set up GoFundMes everyday to ask kind souls to contribute to their care when they can’t do it on their own.
Why am I telling you this? Because nothing has changed from the time of Jesus. Yesterday, a man on his way to Jericho was left by thieves to die by the road. A priest came along and passed him by; a Levite saw the man, but left him to die. But then came the good Samaritan to help the needy man, and as the law was written, he followed God’s command: Love the Lord with all your heart, Love the Lord with all your mind, Love your neighbor as yourself, and to everyone be kind.
How do we decide where and how to help people? My best answer is through spending time with God, and spending time with God’s people, you may figure it out, for yourself, and for this community. Dr. Martin Luther King will inspire you to be active in this discovery process: “We are tied together in a single garment of destiny. We are caught in a network of mutuality, And I can never be who I ought to be until you are who you ought to be.” Religion that undermines the ways that we are divided is religion worth taking notice of and diving into.
A person I really admire talks a lot about how what we take in and value and how that contributes to what we think, and how we spend our time, and what we put out in the world. If the only time you pray, or hear the bible, or think about God in your life is on Sunday mornings, it’s very possible that NPR is responsible for your spiritual formation more than this church. What I’m trying to encourage you to consider is how you might find and build even more of a rhythm into your life that is healthy and life giving. We are shaped and changed and made whole by repeatedly paying attention to things that give us life. Those things change us and make us act and behave differently in future.
I’m not sure we talk about that enough: your formation as a Christian is important. We need to do liturgical acts – liturgy – public worship regularly because that is how liturgical acts work.
We can encourage one another in regular weekly holy habits of coming to church. it is the repetition that gives the experience greater depth and somehow unlocks things inside us.
When we do things again and again, we become part of the thing we are doing. Instead of us doing something to the thing, the thing starts to do something to us. We become the body of Christ.
We might start to love God more, and to prefer nothing whatsoever to Christ, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We become counter cultural. We center our lives on our values of welcoming the stranger, feeding the poor, and making each other feel less suffering.
I know a woman named Kathy who has been arrested more than 60 times. When the US embargoed Iraq, she and others traveled there with food and medical supplies to give to hospitals in defiance of the US government. She’s just one person, but she believes that war is wrong, and she’s shaped her whole life around that belief. She asked her employer to pay her such a low wage that she will not be taxed, so that she does not support any war efforts that happen in our country. She lives in a deliberate, faithful way that seems scary to me. Kathy is not very popular with the US government, or with the IRS. Kathy has also been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Sometimes when people set themselves on the path to loving God and loving their neighbor, it starts to look a lot like being insane. But God isn’t calling us to be safe, is God? God isn’t calling us to be the most efficient, the most comfortable, the one with the most money. God is calling us to be faithful. God is calling us to love. Radical love. Insane love. Love that scares us, challenges us, might get us arrested. That kind of love.
So what’s your thing? What is God calling you to love for? To live for? What’s worth dying for? The ethics that I care about, the center of my life, what it means to do the right thing is … guess what? I’m not going to tell you. I’m not going to tell you. Jesus is. Speak out for the downtrodden. Welcome the stranger. We have to be concerned about the well-being of everyone, most particularly the vulnerable. Compassion for the marginalized is an imperative for those who would identify as Christian (and fully human in my book). The gospel is a mirror held in front of each of us said Verna Dozier.
Love God and Love your neighbor – that is God’s will for your life – it’s bigger than one person’s opinion. Who is my neighbor? YOU don’t decide that. God has decided that already when he made us all, together, the body of Christ. But what you do decide, and this takes some soul searching, is – what are you going to do about it?
For thus says the Lord:
I will extend peace to her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bones shall flourish like the grass;
There is a certain way you can hold a child in your arms. A certain way you shift
your weight from one foot to the other, a certain angle at which you can position your hip. You might sway slowly side to side or bounce if the child needs settling.
This can feel like the most natural thing to do, to pick up a child and rest them on the
little perch your body so easily creates, you don’t have to think about it really, your body knows instinctively what to do.
There is a certain way a child can just collapse into your body, a certain way their
weight can just sink, so utterly, into your chest when they lean back. There is a certain way their feet dangle, a way they can squirm until they find just the right spot.
Holding a child on your hip or the crook of your arm or your on your lap, to give love
and comfort, to receive love and comfort in return, is as basic a human need as to sleep and eat.
And there is a certain moment, sometimes, a moment when you are holding a child
and you and the child are in sync, your limbs relaxed, your breath matching theirs…and in that moment there is peace, such deep and inexorable peace.
Peace…. like a river, to quote the prophet Isaiah in today’s reading from the Old
Testament, a river full to almost overflowing, meandering slowly past the bank. And while our translation of this verse renders the phrase ‘prosperity like a river’, the word in the Hebrew is shalom, peace. This word in Hebrew is not, according to one commentator, a peace that is simply the absence of malice…it is the peace that is the wholeness that comes only through proper relationship with God.
And the people the Old Testament writer was writing for are a people desperately in
need of peace. A people driven from their home, from Jerusalem, in 587 BCE when the
Babylonians invaded and destroyed their city. A people who spent decades, generations, in exile and now, when this text was written, are returning to their home, a home they might not recognize, a home changed and ravaged by years of foreign occupation. But like a child returning to their mother, they are returning to their God who will be there to comfort them and offer them peace.
In today’s Gospel Jesus also speaks of peace. In this commissioning of the 70 to go
out as lambs amidst wolves, Jesus tells these disciples to carry nothing with them, to greet those they encounter with the words “Peace to this house.” They are offering no simple peace however, but like the Hebrew shalom, this is a peace which is about wholeness and relationship with God.
We have lost that sense of the word peace I think. The German theologian Dorothee
Sölle, in her book “The Window of Vulnerability” writes that this Biblical concept of peace has, in this current world order, been absorbed by and become synonymous with security., that we now look to a person with guns and ammunition to provide us with peace.
This kind of thinking leads to walls and tanks and guns. This kind of thinking sees
those fleeing the violent insecurity of a home they once knew and crossing the border of another as a threat. This kind of thinking, which prioritizes security over wholeness and love, separates families and locks up children in cold, crowded dirty cells instead of picking them up, rocking them gently.
But the kind of peace we find in Christ, the kind of peace he talks about in today’s
Gospel, is found in letting go of those things the world tells us lead to security – armies and guns and walls and money and things and achievements- and instead opening our arms wide and embracing those in need of comfort, feeding those who are hungry, holding the hands of the sick and the dying.
Jesus calls us to a kingdom peace, a peace which asks us, each and every one of us, to
leave the security of our comfortable places (our homes, our cars, and yes even our pews) and venture into the world carrying nothing but the Best News Ever that in Christ God entered the world. And in and with and through Christ we too can participate in bringing peace to a broken world.
Taking part in the kingdom peace that Jesus is talking about today also asks us not
only to offer hospitality to those who come through our red doors, but to accept the
hospitality of others in the world, to stay with them a while, to share the stories of our faith and the way the kingdom of God has come near us.
And that is scary, my friends. It scares me. It can feel just as Jesus described, as if we
are lambs being sent out into the midst of wolves. But in the upside kingdom of peace that Jesus proclaims, the lamb carries the blessing of God with them and that kingdom comes near everyone, all we encounter, even the wolves of the world. That does not mean that we will always feel secure, we will always feel safe, but we will have the blessing of the peace of Christ with us.
One of the things I was most looking forward to upon being ordained to the
priesthood was offering God’s blessing at the end of the Eucharist and it is still just about my favorite ‘priestly’ thing to do. And the words that are often offered at the moment are from Paul’s letter to the Philippians which offers the peace of God, which passes all understanding to the community of believers to which he was writing and to us.
And while I love and am deeply grateful for the privilege to offer God’s blessing, I
think that we all should leave here blessing one another, blessing everyone we meet,
reminding the world that the kingdom of God has come near.
So I wonder if, this week, you can offer a blessing to someone or something. It can be
small. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book An Altar in the World suggests starting with a stick you might encounter as you walk down the sidewalk. Take a moment, recognize that you did not make this stick, imagine the stick’s story (did a bird once sit on it? did a flower bloom at its edges just a little while ago?), wonder at the miracle of this piece of wood that once was an artery of a tree, and she suggests you can say (whisper perhaps) a blessing:
“ “Bless you, stick, for being you.”
“Blessed are you, o stick, for turning dirt and sun into wood.”
“Blessed are you, Lord God, for using this stick to stop me in my tracks.”
And then maybe, after some practice, you might try a bird, a cat, a friend, the man you
encounter sleeping on the sidewalk…offering the blessing of Christ’s peace, which is really just a recognition of the belovedness of all creation, to the world.
And in these blessings we offer one another, in the relationships we build, in the comfort we give and receive, the comfort like a mother might offer her child, picking her up, adjusting her on the side of her body, swaying side to side….that is the comfort that overflows from God.
That is peace that shall make our hearts rejoice and our bones flourish like grass.
That is the certain way that God holds us all.