Does Jesus ever confuse you? I’m not alone in this, am I? Sometimes Jesus seems like the perfect hippie flowerchild—so relaxed, so enlightened, so loving and forgiving. This Jesus is best summed up by a bumper sticker I saw once: “No, Obama is not a foreign-born, brown-skinned, anti-war socialist
who gives away free healthcare: You're thinking of Jesus.”
But that’s only half the story, right? There’s this other Jesus who comes with fire and a sword. He shouts out, “Repent! The time is near!” He battles with demons and evil spirits! This Jesus is maybe best summed up by a sandwich-board sign I saw a guy wearing once in Times Square Station. It said, “Turn to Jesus or Burn in Hell!”
So, what gives? Which one is it? Will the real Jesus please stand up? Let’s take this morning’s scripture reading as another example:
I can’t imagine a more openminded, non-defensive, and (in the broadest possible sense) liberal approach to life than the saying, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Can you imagine how the world might be different if everyone believed this? I mean, how many of the world’s conflicts are really about hopelessly irreconcilable differences, and how many are simply about a psychological desire for power—for me to be in control, for our side to win? What wars could we have prevented? What political dead-ends could we have turned into compromise and cooperation?
If they’re not against us, then they’re our allies and colleagues. If they’re not against us, then we count them as our friends. And we count their victories as our victories. And we mourn their losses as if they were our own. And we will trust that the path they’re taking up this mountain of life, although it’s not the same path that we’re taking, will inevitably lead them up to the same peak.
At the same time, I can’t imagine a more harsh, exacting, damning approach to life than the words, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it’s better to enter life maimed than to have two hands and go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” Can you imagine what the world might look like if everyone behaved like this? It’d look like the Taliban justice system out there. It’d look like a Civil War field hospital. Everywhere you looked, people would be cut to ribbons. There’d be little bits of us littered all over the place. You’d’ve been stepping over hands, and eyeballs, and tongues, and hearts, and God knows what else just to get to church this morning. It’s a scene from a horror movie.
Beloved, how is it possible that the same person said both of these things—practically within the same breath? And what can we learn from it, about who Jesus is and what he expects from us?
Let’s begin where Jesus concluded—with salt. Jesus said, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Obviously, Jesus isn’t really talking about salt. This is your bible, not a cookbook. That means Jesus is speaking metaphorically. But what does he mean by it?
Well, first it helps to know that back in ancient times salt actually could lose its flavor, it’s saltiness. Back in the day sometimes salt was harvested with other crystals that weren’t salt. They’d all go in the same bag. And maybe the bag, in storage, would get wet, and the true salt crystals would dissolve away leaving behind a bunch of stuff that looked like—but didn’t taste like—salt.
Remember when Jesus said, don’t store your treasures on earth where moths and rust and thieves get at them, store them in heaven instead. Well, this is similar. Jesus is saying don’t store your salt in the kitchen cabinet where it might lose its flavor, store it inside of yourself, and you be the flavor of salt. Salt is a metaphor for faith—faith loses something when you identify it with the external world, keep your faith within you.
Many of us learned this lesson from the Disney movie Dumbo. Dumbo is this little baby elephant with big ears. His ears are so big that he can fly! But he only flies when he’s blackout drunk, and in the morning he can’t remember, and he doesn’t believe it. You know—a children’s story. Anyway, his friend, a mouse named Timothy, gives him a “magic” feather and tells him that anyone who holds that feather can fly. So, whenever Dumbo holds the feather in his trunk, he flies, and he becomes the star of the circus. But one night during the high dive, Dumbo drops his feather and goes plummeting towards the ground. Timothy yells in his ear, the feather is just a fake! Just a regular ol’ crow’s feather to make you believe in yourself. The power was within you all along! And at the last possible moment Dumbo pulls out of the dive and flies without the feather. The feather is on the inside now where it can never be dropped. So, Jesus says, put your faith on the inside where it can’t lose its flavor. Put it on the inside where it belongs, and be at peace with one another.
Be at peace with one another, that’s an important part of this. When you put your faith in its proper place (on the inside, not the outside), then you’ve got the right perspective for being at peace with other people. Your faith, your essence, is safe and secure on the inside, and what other people may or may not be doing on the outside of you doesn’t have to be so threatening to who you are and to what you believe.
Now, Jesus cares a lot about the circumstances of our lives. He cares about how much money we do or don’t have. He cares about what we do with that money. He cares if you’re sick and suffering. He cares if you’re hungry or in prison. He cares if you’re marginalized and lonely. He cares about justice and kindness and love. He drinks at weddings. He cries at funerals. He cares about the external stuff. But for Jesus, it’s the inner journey we ignore that matters the most.
We tend to externalize the meaning of our lives. We look for meaning in success on the job, or in education and learning, or out playing on the football field, or in a beautiful home, an expensive car, nice stuff, maybe we look for meaning be standing in a pulpit, or through having a loving family, close friends, meaningful relationships. Now, some of these are worthier than others. Some lead you in the right direction, some in the wrong direction. But Jesus reminds us that true purpose, true love, true faith cannot ultimately be found outside of yourself. Your most genuine voice, your most fulfilling destiny, your deepest capacity to love, and your biggest life must eventually be found within yourself. That’s what Jesus means by salt.
Moving backwards now, we’re in a better position to understand all this hand chopping, foot sawing, and eye plucking. First, Jesus is being symbolic. Salt was not really salt. Amputation is not really amputation. No, Jesus does not want you to cut your hand off. We know this because there’s no story in the Bible of Jesus hacking somebody’s leg off to save their soul. That’s not how it works. There’s no story where someone runs up to the disciples all happy because they just poked their eye out for Jesus. It’s the opposite. Jesus is the one who heals bodies and restores sight, not the one who breaks bodies or causes blindness. And I would push it even further than that and remind you that Jesus is also the one who saves and not the one who damns.
But that doesn’t get us off the hook here. Jesus gives us this disturbing, gripping metaphor because he wants us to pay attention to something. And what are we supposed to be paying attention to? “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” We’re supposed to be paying attention to the inner journey,
and we’re supposed to be paying attention to our peaceful relationship to the world.
Once some Pharisees criticized Jesus for not following their custom of washing his hands before he ate. Maybe they had a point. But Jesus is emphatic about it. He says, It’s not what goes into your body from the outside that defiles you, it’s what’s on the inside that comes out of you that defiles you. The greatest meaning of your life is not outside of you, and neither are your biggest sins. Chopping off bits and pieces on the outside won’t solve your inner problem, will it? It doesn’t get to the root—to the spiritual problem. And so Jesus pleads with us to cut out and cast away the resistance within us to God’s love and salvation, the resistance within us to loving our neighbors, the resistance within to loving ourselves and to fulfilling our destiny as children of God. Pay attention to the inner journey.
And “Be at peace with one another.” One of the heart-rending stories that has gripped many of us over the last week or so was the US military admitting that a drone strike in Kabul that killed 10 family members, including seven children, was a “tragic mistake.” It was the wrong person, he was not in any way a terrorist, it was the wrong car, there were no explosives, there was no threat. This admission almost certainly never would have happened had it not been for the large number of journalists in Kabul covering the US withdrawal who were able to investigate. And so one has to wonder: How infrequent are these deadly mistakes? And one has to wonder if it was truly necessary to add such a tragic exclamation point to the end of our nation’s beleaguered legacy in Afghanistan.
Gen. McKenzie, after offering condolences to the devastated family, assured us Americans that, although ultimately mistaken, the strike was carried out “in the profound belief” that the target posed a grave threat to US security. It’s not easy being great. It’s not easy being Christian. We must ask ourselves, “Is our safety and security worth a drone strike that incinerates an innocent man along with his children?” If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it’s better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell, where the fire is never quenched. Christians must wrestle with the question: Is it better to risk the bodies of my neighbors, or is it better to risk my own body? Our “profound belief” in the righteousness of our strike must be mirrored by an equally profound skepticism in all of the choices that led us to the murder of someone else’s children. We must ask ourselves, where does our true security lie? Does it lie outside of us in drone strikes and missiles? Or does it come from God?
And so part of the inner transformation Jesus calls us to is to reevaluate our actions and relationships in the world. Be merciless with the blockages of sin and you might save the troubled heart. Even if it feels like you’re cutting off your right foot, do it, because once that old habit—that old crutch—dies, we’re on the path to freedom.
Now, I hope that you heard that right. I didn’t say be ruthless, or cruel, or unforgiving to yourself. I didn’t say beat yourself up, make yourself miserable, mire yourself in guilt. Jesus never called anyone into self-hate. Jesus simply calls us to be vigilant in the practice of love and virtue, and vigilant in our opposition to our vices and our personal and collective smallness. That is not an invitation to self-flagellation, it’s the beginning of a fulfillment in God that goes way beyond self-anything—it’s bigger than you!
And so now we arrive back at the beginning, and we’re ready to answer our original question—Which is it?Sweet, forgiving, doe-eyed Jesus or judgey, strict, fire-breathing Jesus? Will the real Jesus please stand up?
Well, we’ve seen it for ourselves: Jesus is a little bit of both, right? The key is to apply the right attitude to the right situation. When it comes to other people, Jesus says, be as tolerant, as kind, and as forgiving as possible. “If they’re not against you, then they’re for you.” Live and let live. Be gentle with the world. The place for hand-chopping and hellfire is not when you’re interacting with the world around you, it’s for when you look within yourself. When it comes to yourself be as vigilant as you can. Don’t beat yourself up, but be ready to fight for yourself—for your soul, your goodness, your joy.
For others—tolerance, forgiveness, and, of course, love. For ourselves—vigilance, repentance, and, of course, love. May Jesus’ way of love (a love which is both gentle and challenging, and always good) lead us all within and without to be closer to God and to all God’s children.
I wouldn’t mind being great. I think it might be nice. And I don’t mean, I wanna be really good at one particular thing. I don’t want to be great at something. I mean, that’s fine too, but I’m really talking about general greatness. I’d just like to be great. It seems like a classical and nobly virtuous thing to work towards, doesn’t it?
Nothing too crazy. I don’t need you to call me “Jeff the Great” or anything like that–not if you don’t want to. But you know that fantasy about the end life, about how you’ll be remembered: I hope there’s a long obituary with a flattering picture from my youth, a wonderful funeral, lots of people crying, some funny stories, a couple really amazing eulogies. “He was a great man,” someone will hopefully say, and the room will hum with agreement, “Amen, yes he was, a great man.” I mean, really, that would be something to work towards, wouldn’t it? That’d be good. That’d be an honorable life well lived. But the problem is that it seems sometimes like Jesus doesn’t like greatness very much.
I mean Jesus is always smacking down the great ones, isn’t he? He’s always arguing with them, challenging them, telling them to give all their money away. Jesus prefers the widow’s two cents to all the riches of the wealthy. He prefers the sinner’s table to the tables of the righteous and the well-heeled. He prefers Samaritans to priests, prefers tax collectors to Pharisees, and prefers children to the learned and the wise. What’s going on? Jesus, why? What’s the problem with greatness?
And then I hear it. Then I hear it, all right. I hear the bickering little whispers of Jesus’ disciples on the road. We’re arguing. We’re novices who Jesus pulled from fishing boats, and from loafing on street corners, and from collaborating with the enemy, but now we’re arguing about which of us is the greatest. We’re arguing about who will collect the honors, which of us will lead the victorious charge in the battle to come, which of us will sit at the right hand of the Messiah at the end of history. And, yes, I say “us” because as I’m hearing those disciples quarreling, I distinctly hear my own voice in that squabble—wrangling for position, for recognition, for exceptionalism and power—fighting for the place I believe I have earned in the favored vanguard of holiness and righteousness.
And so when we reach the house, and Jesus is sitting there with a child in his lap, he looks at us, and he says, “I do want you to strive for greatness! Of course, I do. But first, you dummies have got to see that you don’t know what greatness is yet. You’re all mixed-up about greatness. People who argue and bicker about who’s greater than who don’t have any idea what greatness really is. People who confuse power and prestige for greatness do not yet know what greatness is. There’s more greatness sitting on the floor with a child in my lap than there is in all your feverish dreams of glory. Don’t seek the greatness that singles you out; seek the greatness that brings you closer to me. Don’t seek the greatness that puts you on top; seek the greatness that welcomes God into your life. Greatness is never apart from God! Seek that greatness that mixes you up with God.”
There are a few special moments in life when we feel our greatness and God’s greatness getting all mixed up. The mountaintop moments of life when the clouds part and the sun comes streaming down on you in a shaft of light—those experiences that fill you with memories and emotions to last a lifetime. These transcendent encounters where we feel great in the great presence of God are relatively rare.
But Jesus commends to us another way, a simpler way, a more down-to-earth, practical way, something you can do every day—become a servant to the world. Become a servant and your greatness and God’s greatness will get all mixed up.
I’ll tell you when I’m not a servant. When I’m fighting for control of the TV remote with my wife, Bonnie. It’s like I’m fighting for my life—but the shows she watches. I’m telling you: Not a zombie in sight! It’s sad.
A few years ago, she was binging through Downton Abbey in our little one-room Brooklyn shoebox apartment, so I couldn’t escape it. Some of you have watched this show, right? I’m sure you’ve all at least heard of it. It was this wildly popular historical drama taking place in the early 20th century on a beautiful old British estate. Aside from the aforementioned disturbing lack of zombies in this program, I also didn’t like the social divide in the show: The Aristocrats live and play upstairs in their sprawling mansion home, the servants live and work downstairs taking care of the people who live upstairs. I don’t find that social arrangement particularly romantic. Doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t like seeing the world divided into the lower class of servants and the upper class of those-who-must-be-served.
And, so, when Jesus tells me that I must be a servant—the servant of all—I don’t like it. You want me to move downstairs? You want me to line up outside as the master motors up in his new auto or whatever? You want me to stand at attention? To be seen and not heard? To fade into the background when I’m not needed? Really, Jesus?
And the difficulties of being a servant go far beyond Downton Abbey, right? I mean, just think of who is expected to be a servant here in the 21st century. Aren’t women still expected to serve men more than men are expected to serve women? And don’t race and immigration status play a big role in who is waiting upon whom? And aren’t people in the service industry so frequently exploited and disrespected that millions of them are using the pandemic as an opportunity to escape the industry? And aren’t domestic workers facing a plague of sexual harassment and assault in an industry that has very few protections? And aren’t the tips that waitstaff depend upon for their living a direct cultural descendent of slavery? Isn’t there a dangerous power imbalance baked right into this system? And, Jesus, are you sure it’s really great to be a servant?
But sitting there with a child in his lap, Jesus, as he so often does, flips the script. Jesus’ servanthood isn’t about making the weak serve the powerful. It isn’t about making the meek serve the great. It isn’t about making the last serve the first. Sitting there with a child in his lap, Jesus tells us that being the servant of all is something like a roomful of grownups welcoming a child. Who has the power? The roomful of grownups do, of course—grownups so powerful they were just recently arguing about who’s the greatest. And who are the most vulnerable among us—in Jesus’ day and in ours? It’s the children, right? It’s not the child who serves the parent. It’s the parent who serves the child.
The word Jesus uses when he talks about welcoming a child and welcoming God is the Greek word dechomai. Dechomai can also more archaically, more accurately be translated into English as “to receive,” or even “to pick up.” So, when you’re a servant to someone, according to Jesus, you’re receiving them into your power. Jesus’ servanthood isn’t like being a butler. It’s like being a host welcoming a guest. Or it’s like picking up and holding a child. Jesus’ version of servanthood is not about serving others to your detriment. It’s about serving God’s children from your power. Those who use their power to clamber their way to the top of some majestic heap do not know what greatness is. Those who become true servants, who serve from the power that they have been given, are walking Jesus’ way to true greatness.
So, Beloved, let’s not be afraid to be great. God wants us to be great! And maybe we don’t need to worry so much about it all going to our heads. You know, it’s not always arrogance that gets in the way of servanthood. It’s not even most often, I don’t think, egotism or narcissism or megalomania that stops us from being servants.
No, for most of us it’s far softer sins: bitterness or hopelessness, lack of imagination or an inability to let go of old habits, pettiness or a little too much comfort. It might not even be your sin. Maybe it’s someone else’s sin against you: some wound you were given, and the cautiousness, the mistrust, the reluctance and doubt that scarred it over. Maybe this is why Jesus recommends a child to us as a spiritual icon—for their trust, their eagerness, their fresh-faced optimism.
My son, Romey, turned two yesterday, and let me tell you I would not describe this child as humble or as particularly helpful, nor do I think that he spends much time at all considering the feelings of others or the consequences of his actions. On the spectrum of greatness he is, for the time being, a bit of a tyrant. But, when we’re at the playground, I have to stick to him like glue, because if I’m standing anywhere within ten feet of him, he’ll jump off the top of anything, because he believes so fully that his Dada will catch him no matter what.
But us grownups, we’ve fallen face-first in the woodchips too many times, we don’t have enough trust, enough faith, enough hope to invest ourselves in serving the wellbeing of people we don’t much believe in. So, our greatness dies in our low opinion of our neighbors. It’s becoming a national affliction.
But Jesus tells us—you, me, everyone of us—that we have the power to serve! And when we serve, Jesus is there with us. And where Jesus is, there is God also. Just take a moment to look around this sanctuary at your church—at the people who make up your church. This is where our greatness begins. It begins right here in service to one another. And as we serve one another we’ll get better at it. One day we’ll find we have a whole extra helping of service to spare. And so we will learn, relationship by relationship, risk by risk, to serve more and more of our neighbors.
And won’t that be a beautiful thing to see, Beloved? Our greatness, and our neighbors’ greatness, and God’s greatness all mixed up together in this place? Isn’t that what you’re here for? Isn’t that the greatness that you came here hoping to find?
I’m not much of a follower. I’m not. I’ve never been. Come on: You know this about me. Right? I’m an original. I’m unique. I’m interesting. Followers aren’t any of those things!
Take a look at this little thing I got hanging off the back of my head! Look at this haircut I have. You see this? Do you know anybody else with a haircut like this? You know what my barber calls me? Minister with a mullet… I can’t tell if it’s a compliment or not. It might be! Maybe not! I don’t care. My wife, Bonnie, she calls it my “rat tail.” I don’t think she’s a fan, but I don’t care! It’s my thing—for the moment. And I’m not following anybody’s fashion trends—I’m making my own, you know?
And, hey, let’s face it, you’re probably something like me. In some way, right? You probably don’t have a little minimullet, but there’s some part of you that doesn’t want to be a “follower.” Who wants to be a follower? We want to be leaders, we want to be innovators, we want to be influencers, right? There’s a whole new profession out there: social media influencer. Our status in this world is not based on how many wise, intelligent, funny, decent people we follow, it’s based on how many followers we have. We want to be in the lead.
And, frankly, I know you people by now. If you’ve been around GRCC a while, you already know, but if you’re new here I’ll tell you: You can’t tell these people what to do. We have minds of our own. We do things our own way. We’re in charge of our own business. So, no wonder “Come and follow me” doesn’t feel like a very comfortable invitation to people like me, and maybe like you. Right?
Fifteen years ago, when I was just a little minister, and the advantage of a little more youth helped me to believe even more that I could never be a follower, I was walking with a colleague in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village. There was a big crowd of people gathered around some street performers—acrobats or dancers or magicians or something. We could hear them, but we couldn’t see them because of all the people. My friend said, “You wanna check it out?” And I said, “No, way! If there’s one thing New York City has taught me, it’s that you don’t want to be where all the tourists are!” Then I explained to her my philosophy of making my own way, forging my own path, taking the road less traveled, and never being a follower. And you know what she said to me? She said, “Everybody’s following something.”
Everybody’s following something… We sat down on the fountain in the middle of the park, and I started to look around, and I started to see it. It’s not just the hungry eyes of the tourists looking only where they’re told to look. It’s that hippie folk singer over there. Would he be able to be who he is, play like he plays, dress like he dresses, if Pete Seeger hadn’t sat on a box in the same exact spot with his guitar fifty years before? It’s the NYU students swarming off to class in pursuit of a dream, paying for the knowledge of experts to get them there. It’s the suits weaving through the crowd on their way to another meeting not even glancing up from their phones at the wild joy of this park all around them. The truthers sitting at an info table with a banner hanging from it that says “9/11 was an inside job,” the teenagers who are laughing at them and making fun of their flyers, the handsome sailors recently disgorged from their ships for the weekend running together in packs, the scruffy activists trying to hand them anti-war pamphlets—we all follow something, somebody. The people playing speed chess in a corner of the park—they all learned the game from somebody else. The man sitting on a bench covered in pigeons—I asked him, “How’d you get so good with pigeons?” He told me, “There was another guy who used to sit here before me, and he fed the pigeons. He died, but the pigeons were still all hanging out by the bench like they missed him. I felt bad for them. So, one day I sat down, and I started feeding them.” We’re all following somebody. The question is: What do you follow? Where is it leading you?
I remember the first time I ever climbed a mountain as a kid. Every time I came to a pretty view, I thought I’d made it. This must be the top! I dropped my pack and sat down. But my camp counselor, Mark, up ahead of me, would turn around, and laugh and say, “You call that a view? Kid, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Keep it movin’!”
How often we pretend we’ve arrived when we have not yet really arrived. How often we make believe that we have become fully ourselves, we have reached our full potential, when really we’re still just caterpillars pretending that we’re butterflies. We might say it about our country: We’re a perfect democracy! Can’t get any more free, any more just, any better opportunities, any better healthcare, any better than we are. If one of those protesters or prophets or preachers starts shouting about how there’s some higher plane up above us that we could all get to together with just a little more effort, plug your ears! Roll ‘em down the side of the mountain if they don’t knock it off. We like things just the way they are.
We might say it about our church: What more could God possibly have in store for us besides what we’ve already done? We must have reached the mark by now. We’re going to pitch our tents and stake them down, there’s nowhere left for us to go. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” As we say in the UCC, God is still speaking! And in the big picture God is always on the move. So, if we’re gonna hear what God has to say, we’re going to need to follow along.
The question is not, “Do I follow?” It’s “What do I follow? Who do I follow? Where do they lead?” The question is: Have I arrived at the fullness of being God created me for, or am I just stuck somewhere on the side of a mountain?
OK, you might be thinking right about now, sure. Nobody’s an island. We’re all being led and influenced by different ideas and people—some better than others, probably. But do I really want to follow Jesus? Jesus? Did you hear what he just said? “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Really? Deny myself? I like myself. Crucifixion? I hope that’s just a metaphor, but even if it is, it doesn’t sound particularly liberating. I don’t know if that’s a path I want to take. I want to build myself up! I don’t want to tear myself down, do I?
Otis Moss III told a story in his Beecher lectures at Yale about visiting New Orleans and stepping into a painter’s studio. He asked the artist, “How much are these paintings over here?” And the artist said, “Those are $20 apiece.” “Wow. That’s a good price for a canvas of that size. How about those over there.” “Oh, those are $1,500 apiece.” What?! Explain that to me, please. How could one painting by an artist sell for $20 and another painting, same size, by the same artist sell for $1,500? The artist explained it to him, “These over here I painted myself, but those over there, God designed. I did the work, but God gave me an assignment to paint something. Then while the paint was still fresh, God would tell me to take it outside and leave it out in a storm. When the rain beats on the canvas something unique will be created in the process.”
Here's an artist—a unique and creative individual who marches to the beat of his drum—who understands what it means to follow and who understands the power and the place of sacrifice. He sacrificed his $20 painting to God and was given the gift of $1,500 painting. Following Jesus’ way means giving ourselves to God, maybe even sacrificing ourselves (our small selves, yeah?), so our truly unique, priceless self can be revealed. That is a kind of “art” that we cannot create on our own because it’s bigger than us! It can only be done in collaboration. It can only be done if we’re willing to walk out in the storm and let God have her way with us.
On the other side of sacrifice, Jesus promises us the biggest kind of life. This world leaves us always feeling like we’re lacking, feeling like we need to be more, to have more, to win more, to impress more. And after a life of perpetually serving your own ego, you die, and the lights go out. End of story. That’s what happens when you follow this world. That’s what happens when you keep your nose in this world and you never glance up at God’s wild joy all around you. What would happen if you followed God’s wild joy? You know you’re already following something. The question is, WHO do you WANT to follow?
You don’t have to give up on being you to be a Christian. You don’t have to give up on being you to allow yourself to be led into the future. Sure, we’ve all seen friends who get a new girlfriend or boyfriend and they kind of disappear into the private room of that relationship. From our perspective, they maybe loose a little bit of themselves. But we’ve also known other people who get into good relationship, and it helps to bring them to life, to accentuate their unique gifts, to encourage them to be more fully who they truly are. Getting together with God is not about losing our lives. It’s about losing the life that doesn’t ultimately serve you to gain a life that serves everything. Now, that’s special.
In fact, who could be more of an individual than a follower—like a pilgrim hiking her way through the mountains, from village to village, kingdom to kingdom, heading intentionally and passionately, mile after mile, toward the heart of the great cathedral? Being a follower of Jesus means that I am an individual. It means I’m not going to let myself be swallowed up by this world. I’m going to separate myself out just a bit, raise my eyes a little higher. I also haven’t been swallowed up entirely by God. God gives us a choice. God calls us—calls us to follow because God refuses to just snatch you away erasing the gifts and the challenges that make you uniquely you. Jesus calls followers—but not to be automatons, mindless dependents, but to be something more like delegates of his way, deputies of his power, stewards of his Kingdom.
And I am an individual, unique and original. And so are all of you. And if you’re like me, you’re seeking and finding a way—a way whose promise moved your heart to commit yourself to a path that is bigger than you, beyond you, that will stretch you, train you, cut you down to size, challenge you, and encourage you to live the biggest, boldest, best life that can be lived—a life so full of joy and potential that we could never have reached such heights on our own.
So, Beloved, let me ask you one more time: Who do you follow? Who do want to follow?
& Mark 7: 24–37
When I look back on my Sunday School education as a kid, the overwhelming message I got out the experience was “God is nice. So, you be nice too.”
I don’t know if any of you received a similar message at some point. Maybe some of you are even teaching your kids this message today. I want my son to be nice, after all. But part of growing up and moving forward into adult spirituality, involves confronting whether this statement, “God is nice,” really captures the full picture of God. Is the God of the Bible a nice God? An always-nice God? To steal a phrase from Douglas Adams: Is God “mostly harmless?” Or is the God of the universe and the God of our hearts, a God who turns lives upside down for the sake of a vision of a better tomorrow? And can that be accomplished by niceness? By a nice God? Nice disciples?
We live a not-always-nice existence, in a not-always-nice world, full of not-always-nice people. I’m sure you’ve met a few them, right? Even I’m not always nice. Sometimes we’re just having a bad day. And there are some folks out there who are just confirmed meanies acting out their own inadequacies and fears on the rest of us. But sometimes, even the sweetest among us, find ourselves in situations where there’s no nice option, no easy answer, where the mantra “God is nice, so I’ll be nice, and everything will be nice for everyone” falls down the stairs with a THUD so loud that all we can hear afterwards is a devastating silence. Can niceness fix racism? Can niceness fix the trafficking of children? Can niceness fix global warming? Thud. Thud. THUD!
Sometimes we realize that the best or the most moral outcome we can hope for requires us to be not-so-nice. We’re going to have to be loud. We’re going to have to be demanding. We’re going to have to set and hold boundaries. We’re going to have to challenge someone, pressure them, push them, overthrow them for the good of everybody. And while it might be for the best, it ain’t gonna be nice.
In our Scripture reading this morning nice-nice Jesus isn’t very nice. I mean, Beloved, it’s more than that—he’s downright nasty. An unnamed Gentile woman—meaning she wasn’t of Jewish origin like Jesus and the disciples—asks for healing for her little daughter and Jesus tells her that it isn’t right to throw the children’s bread to the dogs. Which is an awful thing to say to a woman lying at your feet begging you to heal her little girl. What if Jesus said the same thing to you? What if God answered you this way when it was your own child you were praying for? “Sorry, no dogs allowed.”
Not only is it nasty, it’s also confusing. I mean, isn’t this the same Jesus we’ve been following along with all year? The Kingdom of God is like a sower throwing seed, he said. The sower THROWS THE SEEDS ALL OVER THE PLACE. They land where they will land—scattered indiscriminately! And if they find fertile ground, the seeds will grow! Jesus, what did you think was going to happen when you told a story like that?
Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like a seed—a mustard seed—a seed that only an idiot would plant in their field, a tiny seed that takes over the farm you thought belonged to you with great bushy weeds and gives your land away to the birds—to the pests. Jesus, what did you think was going to come of telling a story like that?
We want another story like that here, don’t we? We want nice Jesus back. We want a story about some bozo who refuses to treat people equally, and Jesus floats over to him and says, “God is nice, so you be nice too.” But that’s not what we’ve got.
Instead, Jesus travels for days without explanation to Tyre, a Gentile city, and hides out in a house wanting no one to know he’s there. The sower puts his bag of seeds in the closet, locks the door, puts on a sour face, and waits. Jesus is hiding. But this Syrophoenician woman finds him. Jesus insults her, refuses her, turns her away. He is not nice, and that troubles us deeply. But, thank God, the Syrophoenician woman has discovered a faith that empowers her to be step beyond niceness and into Gospel truth telling. The power within her that told her to seek Jesus out now stands in opposition to Jesus, challenges him, won’t take NO for an answer. She rescues Jesus with his own Kingdom. And she shows us the way.
Whether he knew it before or not, the Syrophoenician woman shows Jesus that the Kingdom of God looks in part like this: A woman, a Gentile (a non-Jew), a Syrophoenician Greek living in TYRE (Tyre, of all places, that despised city, seat of Roman imperial economic and military power, beachhead of colonialism and oppression—TYRE!), a woman living in Tyre who because of her nationality should never have heard the Good News, a person who because of her religion should never have known of such grace and such healing, a person who because of her gender should not have spoken like that to a man. To this unnamed woman belongs the Kingdom of God because she has heard the Good News that God is with us so powerfully and grown the seeds so fully that she is empowered to stand up to challenge Jesus to recognize her place at God’s table. She has heard and she will not be still. She will not be deterred. She will not be quiet. And it is in her action— standing up to Jesus—that the Kingdom of God is more fully realized. She shows us the way.
Then what happens? A man who is deaf and unable to speak—though he is disadvantaged in hearing—has heard, in the truest sense, the Good News. And that Good News heals him so that he’s opened up—transformed from a person who could not speak into a person who cannot shut up, cannot stop talking zealously about the Good News, cannot be stilled, deterred, or quieted. Even though Jesus ORDERS him to tell no one, the spread, the opening, the Good News cannot be controlled.
Jesus, what are you teaching us here? That even you aren’t entirely in control of what the Kingdom is doing? Even you can’t quiet what you’ve opened? Even you can’t turn away what you’ve invited? You’ve scattered the seed and even you can’t control where it lands. It has begun to grow and even you can’t control its takeover of your fields. What if we felt the same way about our religion? Our church? Our ministry and our resources? Maybe Jesus is offering us another opportunity to follow him—Jesus who lets the oppressed, the marginalized, the outsiders (the people not here yet) change his mind, Jesus who thinks twice about slamming a door shut when someone sticks her bold foot in his holy way.
The Syrophoenician woman demonstrates to us more about what James means when he says, “Can faith save you? Faith without works is DEAD.” Christianity takes more than private belief. Sometimes, we need to stand up for what we believe in. Jesus doesn’t say to the Syrophoenician woman, “Your faith has healed you!” He says, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” As Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Being a Christian is not about being nice or feeling nice or believing that God is nice. Being a Christian means taking the Gospel or the salvation or the love or whatever you call that seed growing like a weed inside of you and translating it into activity in this world. And for us, as a church, to translate the very nice feeling of love that we feel inside of us into love on the outside of us will require us to have goals, and a vision to reach to reach those goals, and the persistence to live out that vision. And that is challenging. And when God challenges us, is God being nice? Thank you, God, that you are not always nice.
One way of reading the Syrophoenician woman’s response to Jesus, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” is to see it as a sort of consent, “Sure, sure, we’re dogs, the kid’s a little dog, now will you heal her?” But I think there is a fundamental Kingdom of God, good soil, not-at-all-nice, faith-with-works, pushy-field-of-weeds challenge in her words. Jesus says that the one true God, the only true God, the omnipotent, all-powerful God favors his people to her exclusion. An astute theologian, the Syrophoenician woman challenges the logical flaw in this belief.
If your God is truly so powerful, she says, and there is not so much as a little crumb of mercy left over for my little daughter, then your faith in your God is foolish. If you think you have bread, but you have no crumbs for me, I do not believe that you really have the bread you claim to have. The Kingdom of God that I have felt growing inside of me, she says, cannot be contained—it scatters and spills and is thrown down in the places you would least expect it. Send me away with nothing, and you will have nothing, and you will have wasted the Kingdom potential here in this moment.
Beloved, where are the crumbs? Where are the seeds? Sometimes I wonder about myself—am I sharing my bread adequately? Am I vacuuming up even the crumbs? Have I sealed the pouch of seeds inside of me to keep them safe and secure in faith? Or am I scattering them? Am I willing to take the risk of discipleship—of throwing what I have been giving to the winds? And am I willing to follow those seeds—to follow them into rocks and thorns and scorching sun? Am I willing to follow them into a Kingdom of God that is so much bigger than me?
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations