Monthly Archives: July, 2011
Every person matters.
That was a phrase that speakers came back to, over and over again, at breakfast on Friday. I got to sit proudly with about 25 other Westminster folks at a breakfast in support of Housing for New Hope, a remarkable organization that fights homelessness in Durham and Orange Counties.1 They build apartments, create networks of supportive services, meet immediate needs, advocate for affordable housing in all levels of government. We ate and heard powerful stories, stories that remind us that there is deep human need, that the right combination of passion and understanding can have a tremendous impact but that, through it all, we must not forget that every single person matters. From the formerly homeless man who was given an apartment but didn’t sleep there for 2 months – he went back to the park he had slept in before – because the apartment reminded him too much of solitary confinement in jail. To the board members in Washington a few weeks ago meeting with our congressional delegation. To the new tenants learning to read, to write their own stories, to learn what it is like to have hope about their lives. Speaker after speaker, the theme was strong. Every person matters.
Jesus sets up a majestic scene. We are in the heart of it now, right in the middle of Holy Week. Matthew gives us 20 chapters on Jesus’ birth and baptism, preaching and teaching from village to village, town to town. In the final 8 chapters Matthew slows things down, focusing us in tightly. Jesus enters on a donkey on Palm Sunday in chapter 21; he moves right into the temple and begins throwing tables over, with the moneychangers who have made it, he says, ‘a den of robbers.’ He speaks right to the Pharisees and Sadducees, answering those who challenge his authority, warning them, through his parables, that they should be careful. They aren’t the ones who get to decide who is in and who is out, who gets invited to the wedding feast. He turns from the religious leaders to the crowds, calling those crowds to see through those religious leaders’ hypocrisy, to see through their greed and their legalistic pronouncements.
In chapters 24 and 25 he moves into his closing argument. In these two chapters, Tom Long notes, we find Jesus’ fifth, and last, major section of teaching. This time the main theme is the final judgment and the ultimate victory of God at the end of time.2 This section includes the last things Matthew has Jesus say to his disciples. Immediately following he records the plot to kill Jesus, then we move right into the Last Supper, Jesus betrayal, and his arrest. We are right on the edge of the end of this part of the story, and Matthew records Jesus reaching out, far beyond, even in some wild apocalyptic language.3 He is trying to help them understand that, as hard as things are about to become, there is a promise even beyond this age that matters, that gives them hope as they fight through each day. They don’t know it yet, but He is giving them promises they will cling to long after He is gone.
And here, at the end of that final teaching section, Jesus draws us a scene of the final judgment. He has been swimming in arguments with the religious leaders about the law and the promise, about who is truly grafted into the tree of the descendants of Abraham. In some ways they were not terribly different from the theological debates that raged throughout the Reformation, and that remain in play in many corners of the church. Who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’? Who gets to decide? Who has gifts they get to use to serve, who gets to be ordained, and who has to sit outside as the arbiters of righteousness clang the gates shut in their face? Jesus draws a magnificent portrait of the throne room, angels bathed in glory. All the nations are gathered, and there will be a sorting, like a shepherd sorts the sheep from the goats, the chosen from the not chosen, to sit at the right hand of God. The king, Jesus says, will issue his invitation, and then he tells them why: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” I was naked and sick and in prison and you reached out and helped. You did something for me.
But the blessed sheep still don’t get it. When did we see you that way? When was it? They repeat each situation exactly. And then comes the punch line, the line they didn’t see coming, the line that would make the gathered crowds gasp. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me.” I imagine they sat in silence for awhile.
This dramatic disclosure, Long again argues, that Jesus Christ is present in the world in the least of these, is the focal point of this parable. The world will be judged according to whether it did or did not show hospitality to Jesus Christ, the Messiah clothed not in royal majesty but coming to the world hidden among the least of these.4 Jesus is always to be found hanging out in places we don’t frequent, with people the world shuns and discards. With the old woman sitting in a nursing home alone. With the homeless man huddled over a trash can. With those who are poor and sick, left out and mentally ill, with those society shoves aside because they can’t do anything for us, can’t get us anywhere, can’t influence anyone powerful on our behalf. With the young woman who checks us out at Harris Teeter with a sad look in her eye. With the teenager who wonders if he is gay, but fears his family, fears his church, will tell him he is damned, instead of holding him close and telling him that we love him, that God loves him. It is easy to quote this passage as a rationale for serving a shelter meal. ‘We do it for the least of these,’ we say. And this ministry of service, which is at the core of our identity as a church, is crucial. But even below that, I believe Jesus is telling us – here at his last opportunity before he moves towards his death – that he is, even now, transforming each and every one of our relationships. They don’t have to be what they were. I am among you, he says. Beside you, in front of you, in the line with you at the post office. My Spirit is alive in every single person you meet, alive in a special way in those who the world ignores, uniquely present in the poor and powerless. The church that seeks to follow this Jesus MUST be in those places, with those people, looking and listening, bearing witnesses, seeking that Christ alive and loose in the world.
So I need you to help me make sure we are that kind of church. One of the many things I love about you is how well you greet people here, the strangers that come into our midst for worship. You are great about welcoming them, bringing them through the line so Betty and I can meet them afterwards. But I have learned about a couple of times recently when folks have come to worship and no one greeted them. When or who or why don’t matter. What I need you to do is make sure this never happens again. Even more, I think this could be an opportunity to practice what this text calls us to do – to welcome each person we meet as if they were Jesus Christ himself. You wouldn’t ignore Jesus in the pew beside you, would you? So I want us to be serious about it. I, like Haywood did before, ask the officers-elect to meet one new person each week. They come to officer training on Tuesday night with their notes. They have met one of you, and tell us a little about you. The group this summer has done a great job of it. I emailed all of our officers last night and asked them to do the same thing throughout the fall. We are going to come back to it at session meeting and deacon’s meetings, learn who they met, who else they are getting to know. You can’t be in community with people you don’t know. I want to challenge you ALL to join us, to really pay attention every single person in this community in the month coming up. I am going to bug you and ask you when I see you. I want you to stop me in the hall and tell me. I want you fill up my email inbox with messages. I met Sally, I don’t know why I hadn’t met her before, we realized we lived near each other, that our kids knew each other, that she has some wonderful gifts. I want you to do it in three ways. 1) In worship. Right here. 2) Not here. Folks who aren’t here who you haven’t seen in awhile. Go home and call them. This is really important. 3) Out there. In the world. Particularly those that seem powerless, pushed to the margins, that nobody else seems to be paying attention it. This can be tough. It is really hot outside. We are so often tired or late, making lists in our heads. But we must be at work in those places. The church must be at work in those places.
Last week we all gathered in the fellowship hall to say goodbye to our dear friend and youth director Rebecca Mattern. She stood up, after some people said some nice things about her, after the youth sang, and thanked you. For loving her, for seeing her through some really hard times. You all have transformed my life, she said. Because that’s what real community does. It makes us better than we would be otherwise, freeing us to continue to push and serve and make a difference in the world. As you did it for Rebecca, I know you will do it for Taylor, for Kara and Katherine, other new staff members starting soon. I wonder who else, in the pews beside you, standing at an intersection, in line with you at Target, that we might get to know, that you might meet with extraordinary kindness. You never know, she might be Jesus.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- Learn more at www.housingfornewhope.org
- Tom Long, WBC: Matthew, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996), 265.
- “In order to teach people who were fully in the stream of history about a divine victory that is anchored out beyond history’s edge, Jesus’ language is stretched almost out of recognizable shape.” Long, 265.
- Long, 285.
He hadn’t had a moments’ rest from the beginning.
It began before they were born, as God was knitting them together in their mother Rebekah’s womb. It was then the struggle began. She could feel the wrestling. I had a call from a friend this week whose wife is pregnant with twins. She was hurting, uncomfortable, and finally got a little worried. A trip to the doctor and an ultrasound revealed one twin sitting on the other’s head. Just take it easy for a few days, the doctor said. They’ll work it out.
Rebekah didn’t have that luxury of medical technology. I wonder what it was like for her as they fought within her. Instead of her OB she asked God, early on, “If it is to be this way why do I live?” And God told her God was in the struggle, that these boys would be divided, two peoples, two nations, full of conflict.1 And it remained that way as they grew up in very different ways, in the same house but not really knowing each other. Esau came in from the field, famished from a day’s work and Jacob, before placing the stew in front of his older brother, made him promise to give up his birthright, that sacred blessing a father gives to his oldest son. Esau doesn’t care, he was hungry, and hastily agrees. He didn’t care. But Jacob did.
The conflict festered for years, and in the next chapters the scene shifts from the sons back to their father. Isaac settles into the land to which God directs him, and he becomes quite wealthy. This privilege causes conflict with his neighbors, who encourage him to move on, and he does, and he forms new relationships, tries to do the best he can. But Jacob remembered the promise Esau made, tricking his elderly father for that birthright, that blessing Esau cared so little about, that love Jacob wanted so desperately. He fools his father, who speaks great words of blessing to Jacob, words the people believed released the power of God to shape their lives from that point forward. This was to be the crucial moment of both Isaac and Esau’s life, and Jacob has supplanted him. And Esau hated his brother, the text says, and said to himself: “The days of mourning for my father are approaching; then I will kill my brother Jacob.”2
And so Jacob runs. Rebekah stuffs some clothes in a bag and shoves him out the door, sending him to her brother Laban. Run, my son, run away. Get away from here. You can’t be here anymore, this conflict is too much, take some time, get some space, until we all can breathe again. Run away, son, please run away. In an awkward section, inexplicably, Jacob returns to his father for another blessing, and then he runs, heading north, the text tells us from Beer-sheba, at the southern end of the land, toward Haran.
And so he runs, filled with anger and confusion, resentment and fear, unsure of when he was going to look up and see his brother coming after him in the distance. Even as his father was dying. And he ran, from everything he thought he was, from all he had previously known. I wonder if you have ever tried to run away like that. Not out of fear for your life, but running from who you were, who you were raised to be, the expectations heaped upon you. And Jacob, dusty, exhausted, finds some brush, a spot up high, covered, secure. He finally had a moment to rest. He laid his head on a stone and fell fast asleep.
And then he dreamed. A ladder, a stairway, set up on the earth, the top of it reaching up, he couldn’t even see the top of it, high up towards heaven. And the angels of God, the text says, were ascending and descending on it. This is a marvelous image, a beautiful and comforting one, the angels going up and down, back and forth, keeping communication open between heaven and earth. But the image is only the setup for God’s remarkable words. The promise is the heart of the passage. God reminds Jacob who God is: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac.” I am the God of your parents and your grandparents; I have claimed them before you. The land on which they live is the embodiment of that promise, and God makes clear that promise continues with Jacob. “The land on which you lie,” God says. The land that is holding you now as you run from all of your troubles, even there I am beginning the working out of my promises in you. Even this land, God says, “I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in your and in your offspring.” In ALL that is happening, as desperate as it seems, God is STILL working out God’s purposes.
But it gets better. The promise is not only about the past, and the future, it is about the present. My guess is Jacob can’t see much farther than where he is right now. That is how it works in those times, it seems. When things are at their most desperate it is hard to even imagine a future. But God gives Jacob something to take with him. From all he has been through, all the poor decisions he has made and will continue to make – the rest of Genesis is about Jacob and Jacob’s family, his beloved son Joseph. Jacob dies at the very end of the 49th chapter. We have a long way to go here, and God knows it. So he makes Jacob this promise: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
I want to take a minute to let that promise sink in. It is extraordinary. And Jacob, despite his many faults, wakes up and seems to get it. “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it!” God had been with him, but he had forgotten. And he had lived like he had forgotten. But Jacob seems to see how important this promise is, in its power to change him. What if he were to live as if it were true? How awesome is this place, he says as he stands, stretching out his neck and back – he has been sleeping on a rock, after all. This, he says, this is none other than the house of God. The ladder has demonstrated that, too. There is no, ‘down here,’ and ‘up there.’ God has brought God’s own self down, among us, infusing all of creation with God’s glorious presence, calling us to lives of faithfulness and courage in response. And he rose, and took that stone that was his pillow and marked that place, named it, blessed it, as a place of worship. Here I was reminded of what I know is true each moment.
And it also got me thinking about those times in our lives we need God to break in and remind us of God’s own presence. God is going to work regardless of our awareness of God’s presence. God doesn’t need us. But the less aware we are of this gracious presence, the less attention we are paying, the greater the likelihood we aren’t our best selves. So I wonder what this world would be like if we KNEW, really knew, that God was embracing us, that all of our surroundings were infused with God’s grace? I wonder what it would mean at the White House as the debt ceiling talks continue with all their relentless childish posturing. I wonder what it would mean to people sleeping under bridges, who some of you served last month and who our new officers will serve again down at Urban Ministries in 10 days. I wonder what it would mean if they knew God was holding them? What about all of us over at presbytery meeting on Tuesday, as people figure out how to live into the new openness in our ordination standards? What if we dared to believe God was at work shaping the church? As we thank God for the gift of another morning, as we lose our temper with the kids as we rush out the door, as we complain to coworkers, as we make decisions that impact other people, as we think about what we do with our time and our gifts and our money? Do you think we would make decisions differently if, like Jacob, in good moments and more difficult ones, that we could be SURE that wherever we go, whatever we do, God is doing something in and through and despite you that you cannot even imagine? As we continue summer travels, as we say goodbye to our dear friend Rebecca, as we juggle the chaos of this life. It sounds simple, but is a radical, radical thing. The God who formed us and knew us, who knit us together as the psalmist says continues to claim us and promises to never, ever let us go. Surely the Lord is in this place, he said. And I didn’t even know it.
Jacob is in a pretty tough spot. His grandfather is Abraham, the model of faith, his father Isaac, noble and pure. And then there’s Jacob. He’s not a particularly likeable fellow. But maybe there’s something like us in Him. I don’t feel noble and pure much of the time. I am much more likely to feel like Jacob, when I can’t get it together, when life continues to pile up. But it is in those moments, when I am most aware of my own weakness, that I, that we all can be reminded that God’s promises remain. That the purposes of God, as Walter Brueggemann writes, are tangled in a web of self-interest and self-seeking.3 That grace shines through despite us. That when we least expect it, we may be jolted awake and exclaim: Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not even know it! And God will have been there with you the whole time.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- Genesis 25:19-26.
- Genesis 27:41.
- Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 204.