A friend sent me an article from the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine with an arresting title: “Power Causes Brain Damage” (www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/07/power-causes-brain-damage/528711/). In it, Jerry Useem explores some of the latest research about the effect of power on the brains of people who have it. We’ve understood for centuries that power seems to change people: think about common phrases like “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “The power went to her head.” Now, there is actual proof of some of the effects on the brain of having power. Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, has studied this subject for twenty years. He has found that people under the influence of power act as if they’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury. They become more impulsive and less aware of risks. And perhaps most crucially, people under the influence of power become less adept at seeing things from other people’s point of view. Keltner studies behavior, but his observations have been borne out by other scientists who study the brain. Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, put the heads of the powerful and the not-so powerful under a transcranial-magnetic-stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring,” that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Mirroring is a sub-conscious activity that we all engage in to some extent. For instance, if we see someone squeezing a rubber ball with their left hand, our brain sub-consciously fires up neurons and nerve pathways that would enable us to squeeze a rubber ball with our left hand. Mirroring is why we wince when we see someone smack their elbow on a door jamb or get a paper cut: our brains sub-consciously light up in those areas where we would feel pain if the same thing had happened to us. Normal brains go through life living vicariously through the experiences of those around us. This mirroring is the foundation of empathy, because we mirror emotional reactions in a similar way. If we see someone crying, part of us feels sad; if we see someone who is anxious, we begin to to feel anxious as well.
The problem with having power is that the mirroring activity of the brain seems to slow down. It’s as if the brain of a person with power stops paying attention to world around it, stops noticing and copying what other people are doing and feeling. The brains of power people stop mirroring the actions and emotions of those around them, so they no longer feel or sense what others are experiencing. Feeling happy when others are happy or tense when others are tense helps provide a window into where they are coming from. Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an “empathy deficit.”
Maybe you’re like me when I first read this and thinking “Well, that explains the behavior of some of those folks we see on the news, politicians/bank executives/celebrities, etc. Thank goodness I’m not a powerful person so it doesn’t apply to me!” Here’s the rub, though. This effect, this empathy deficit, is not tied to actual power. Rather, empathy deficit kicks in when you’re feeling powerful. So, when you’re particularly proud of something you’ve accomplished, or you’ve been lavishly complimented about your work or your looks or your appearance, or you’ve just won an argument with a friend or co-worker, or for whatever reason you’re feeling on top of the world, your brain spends less time and energy on mirroring and you begin to feel less empathy for others. For most of us, most of the time, that’s a temporary situation. We trip on something and feel foolish, or make a stupid mistake, or talk to someone who subtly or not-so-subtly reminds us that we’re really not all that. That feeling of power slips away, and our brain function returns to normal. It’s when we become used to feeling powerful over a long period of time that our mirroring and empathy can become seriously impacted. Hubris, feeling overly self-confident and powerful, makes us less able to empathize and leads us to become dis-connected from others in unhealthy and potentially destructive ways. Remembering times when we didn’t feel powerful, listening to and accepting constructive criticism, focusing less on our accomplishments and achievements, lets our brains function they way they should and strengthens our empathy for and connection with others.
History, not to mention our current culture, is filled with examples of leaders whose sense of power and hubris got the best of them, as well as leaders who figured out how to stay grounded. Take Winston Churchill, a man for whom the term hubris almost seems to have been invented. Churchill was indeed a powerful leader with an ego that often threatened to get out of control. He had, however, a great gift: his wife, Clementine. When she observed his hubris getting the best of him, when he stopped paying attention to the advice of other leaders, when he started trampling on the feelings and dignity of his subordinates, she knew how to take him down a notch or two, knew how to pull him back from the brink. She’d write him a note, or corner him while he was in the bathtub, or remind him while dinner was being served that he was getting entirely too full of himself and needed to remember that, for all his gifts, he was still only a human being.
In this morning’s reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is wrapping up his extensive, and really pretty harsh and disheartening, commissioning instructions to the disciples. They’re to travel light, take no money or food or extra clothing. He tells them people won’t like what they’re saying, that they’ll be attacked and hated. If you were here last week, you heard Jesus say some very difficult things about what it means to be a disciple. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” he says, and “whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” He concludes by saying “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Jesus sets the bar for discipleship impossibly high. But then, I think, his natural sense of empathy kicks in. He looks around at his disciples. There’s Peter, trying to look resolute and determined to follow Jesus no matter what, but we know what happens when the going gets tough: Peter ends up denying even knowing Jesus. There’s James, whose jaw has dropped in shock. How can Jesus be saying that following him will tear families apart; doesn’t Jesus care about keeping families together, building up relationships between husbands and wives and sons and daughters, don’t families come first? John looks angry. He loves Jesus, and he gave up a pretty decent living as a fisherman to follow him. He’s dealt with the complaining letters from his wife about no money coming in, about where she’s supposed to find food to feed their children. He’s listened to Jesus for hours and hours, even when it’s hard to make heads or tails of what he’s saying, hoping that someday he would come to understand him. And now, he’s supposed to take up a cross, follow him to his death? It’s too much, it’s not what he signed up for, and even if he did die with Jesus, what would that accomplish? The other disciples are mostly just depressed. Mary Magdalene is almost in tears, because she knows as much as she wants to follow Jesus, she’s not willing to risk her life for him.
Fortunately for the disciples, and for us, Jesus looks at their reactions, he empathizes with their sense of being of overwhelmed, frightened, not up to the task. This leads him to realize that they need something simpler, something concrete they that can work on, some kind of task they can accomplish. So he says to the disciples, and to us, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.” Even this is still too vague, and so Jesus says, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” The disciples look around at each other, and they all begin to breathe easier. Discipleship may sometimes require huge sacrifice or great feats, but Jesus says that most of the time, it’s nothing more complicated than giving a cup of cold water to someone who is in need. Maybe it’s offering a hug to someone who is grieving, or listening to a friend who is in need of a little support. Maybe it’s offering a ride to someone without a car, or donating a little food to the local food bank. Maybe it’s volunteering your time so that your church is a warm and inviting place to worship, or leading a support group for people struggling with a disease. Maybe it’s giving money to agencies that help folks in need, or helping out in the community garden that provides healthy food to people in need. As David Lose, a Lutheran writer I read a lot, says, “Discipleship doesn’t have to be heroic. Like all the small acts of devotion, tenderness, and forgiveness that go largely untouched but tend the relationships that are most important to us, so also the life of faith is composed of a thousand small gestures. Except that, according to Jesus, there is no small gesture. Anything done in faith and love has cosmic significance for the ones involved and, indeed, for the world God loves so much.”
The author Elizabeth Gilbert tells this story. “Some years ago, I was stuck on a crosstown bus in New York City during rush hour. Traffic was barely moving. The bus was filled with cold, tired people who were deeply irritated—with one another; with the rainy, sleety weather; with the world itself. Two men barked at each other about a shove that might or might not have been intentional. A pregnant woman got on, and nobody offered her a seat. Rage was in the air; no mercy would be found here. But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom. "Folks," he said, "I know you've had a rough day and you're frustrated. I can't do anything about the weather or traffic, but here's what I can do. As each one of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don't take your problems home to your families tonight—just leave 'em with me. My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I'll open the window and throw your troubles in the water. Sound good?" It was as if a spell had lifted. Everyone burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who'd been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other's existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, is this guy serious?
Oh, he was serious. At the next stop—just as promised—the driver reached out his hand, palm up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm. Some people laughed as they did this, some teared up—but everyone did it. The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop, too. And the next. All the way to the river.” (www.oprah.com/inspiration/Elizabeth-Gilbert-May-2016-O-Magazine)
Gilbert goes on to reflect that that bus driver wasn’t some big power player, he wasn’t a spiritual leader, he wasn’t a media-savvy “influencer.” What he had, though, was the ability to empathize with his tired, wet, cranky, frustrated, and generally hostile passengers. He connected with where they were at, and figured out the little thing, the light-hearted, easy, simple thing that he could do in that moment to lessen their burdens.
Mirroring and empathy are gifts from God, hard-wired into our brains to help us connect with and understand one another. We are meant to look out for one another, help each other out, see things from the other’s perspective. When we’re not overly impressed with ourselves, when we’ve kept our egos in check, when we remember that we’re not the most important person in the room, we are naturally inclined to empathize and connect with people around us. It’s so much a part of who we are that we’re not even conscious of it: our brains do it automatically. Jesus shows us, time and time again, that this gift of empathy is the foundation, the bedrock, of discipleship. Jesus lived his life and ministry with a keen awareness of those around him, sharing their experiences, sharing their feelings, seeing life from their perspective. He felt the loneliness of the woman at the well in the heat of the day, the anxiety of the widow searching frantically for a lost penny, the desolation of the outcast lepers, the hunger of people who never had quite enough to eat. That empathy led him to do what he could for the people he came in contact with. He invites the disciples, and he invites us, to do the same. It’s not difficult, he tells us. It’s as simple, as natural, as offering a cold cup of water to someone who is thirsty. Amen.
I’m sure you’re aware that the first debate between Donald Trump Hillary Clinton is tomorrow night. I can’t say I’m looking forward to it. Actually, it’s not the debate itself I’m not looking forward to, I will probably either find a bar or a friend’s house to watch it at, or if I’m not feeling very social, I’ll listen to it on the radio. What I’m not looking forward to is all of the post-debate analysis, both the ‘professional’ analysis by the media, and the responses by folks on Facebook and Twitter and the proverbial water cooler conversations over the next few days. I’m not looking forward to it because in this election season and with these two candidates, more so than any other election in my lifetime, the negativity and vitriol have been overwhelming. Both sides share the blame here: both candidates, and their supporters, have said things and used language that has virtually guaranteed that there can be no civil exchange of ideas, no reasonable discussion, no conversation about this election unless you’re on the same side. In fact, some of the most upsetting conversations I’ve had this election cycle have been with people who share my views. I’m astonished at how ready they are to paint the other side in broad, negative strokes, how dismissive they are of what I know are real concerns and fears held by millions of Americans. One study by VitalSmarts, an organization that studies how people behave and function in the workplace, found that nine out of ten potential voters said the 2016 elections are more polarizing and controversial than the 2012 elections, and 81% said they avoid political discussions are all costs (see footnote). They also found that one in three of us have been attacked, insulted, or called names for sharing our opinions about this election; one in four have had a political discussion permanently damage a relationship.
The researchers at VitalSmarts wondered what it would take to talk politics without losing friends. Are there reliable ways to both express our views and keep relationships? They started by asking people to describe the voters who support a candidate they oppose. The most common adjectives they used were (in order): angry, uneducated, ignorant, uninformed, racist, white, narrow, and blind. Small wonder these discussions turn into fights! Next, they invited people to participate in an online experiment. They asked 3,500 people about their political opinions, then asked them to watch one of two versions of a video of someone advocating a strong political position opposite of their own - for example, those who said they were in favor of immediate deportation of illegal immigrants watched a 60 second video of someone describing why they thought such a policy would be both immoral and damaging to the economy. In one version of the video, the actor used four simple skills to talk about their position; in the second version, the actor spoke in absolutes and villainized the other point of view. They then asked those who had watched the videos to judge how diplomatic, likable, knowledgeable, and persuasive this person appeared, as well as how willing they would be to continue this conversation.
The results are astonishing. When the actors used the four simple skills, they were:
-five times more likely to be seen as diplomatic
-four times more likely to be seen as likable
-three times more likely to be seen as knowledgeable
-140% more persuasive
-140% more likely to stay in dialogue with others
-180% more likely to maintain relationships with others.
When the same actors didn’t use the four skills, observers labeled them as “abrasive,” “unlikeable,” and “ignorant.”
What were those four simple skills? The first is to the “focus on learning.” Frame your conversation as a chance to learn from each other, not to change each other’s minds. Simply being curious about another’s position is sufficient motivation to engage. For example, “I know what I think about immigration, but I’m curious about why you feel so differently. Would you be open to sharing your position with me?” I actually tried this a few weeks ago with my dad, before reading about this study. We have been on opposite sides of the political spectrum since the late ’80's and more conversations over the years than I can count have ended in yelling and stomping around. It took some effort on my part to not argue or even comment on what he was saying about why he is supporting who he is supporting this year, but in exchange for that effort, I got a deeper sense of where he’s coming from and what his concerns are. Plus, we didn’t have another loud fight.
I haven’t really tried the other three skills, but they sound pretty good to me. The second skill is “Ask for permission” to talk about the sensitive topic. That may sound like, “I’m not wanting a debate, and I’m not trying to change your mind. I just want to understand. I see this issue very differently. Would it be okay if I explained my perspective?” Third is “Show respect.” Others will not engage with you if they on’t feel you respect them. Over-communicate your respect for the other person and his or her opinion: “I value you and your perspective. I want to hear from you. I don’t assume I’m right.” Finally, “Focus on common ground.” Look for areas of agreement rather than disagreement. If or when the conversations takes a more dramatic turn, look for the great principle governing bother opinions and you’ll likely find a mutual purpose behind your convictions. Say things like: “I want to find the goals we share, and then look at the issue with those goals in mind.”
I suspect these skills might not only help us bridge the chasm of politics these days, but they may well help us in other areas of our lives, other situations where opinions vary and emotions run strong. VitalSmarts calls these skills simple; the skills may be simple, but I know that remembering to use them can be hard. In the heat of the moment, our back is up a bit and we speak without considering too carefully the impact of our words. Our spouse is late home for dinner and we light into them for being rude and inconsiderate. A friend makes a comment about the behavior of children in public which we hear as a criticism of our own kids, and we take offense. Or we are faced with the latest news, a suspected terrorist attack, another report of police using lethal force, the latest remarks made by a politician, I’m sure you have your own list. Before we have thought through the consequences, we spout off about it to our friends, to our co-workers, on Facebook or other social media. Predictably enough, our comments are misconstrued or heard through someone else’s filter, and without intending to, we’ve given offense. I sometimes wonder if the better thing to do, for ourselves, for our relationships, for the sake of community, wouldn’t be to say a lot less.
Jeremiah has gotten to that point in first reading this morning. For most of the book, thirty chapters, Jeremiah has spoken up. To anyone who would listen, even to people who didn’t want to listen, Jeremiah talks and talks and talks. He says he speaks for God, and maybe that’s the case, but after awhile, the people don’t really care. According to Jeremiah, nothing that anyone in Israel, from the king to the priests to the merchants to the shopkeepers to the farmers right on down to the poor, nothing anyone has done has been right in the sight of God. God chose Israel as the nation favored among nations, and in response, Israel failed to do anything that God asked in return. Israel worships the wrong gods in the wrong places in the wrong ways with the wrong prayers and the wrong offerings. The people lie, they connive, they cheat, they steal, they do evil after evil after evil, generation after generation. And you know what? God’s sick of it. Even now, Jeremiah proclaims, God is plotting Israel’s destruction. God is sending pestilence, storms, earthquakes. God is even raising up armies of Israel’s enemies to overthrow them. When God is finished with them, it will be like Israel never existed. The country will cease to be, the people will be scattered like sheep. In a generation or two, no one will even remember the name of its mighty capital Jerusalem and Israel itself will be a vague memory, a rumor.
I’m guessing that for most of Jeremiah’s life, people ignored him the same way we ignore those pamphlet wielding street prophets proclaiming “The end is near!” today. It’s not that we don’t think there are things wrong with the world, ways God is calling us to do better. It’s just we’re on our way to Wegmans, or the kids have to be picked up from soccer, or we’ve got to get to work, or we’re worried about the declining health of our parents. Plus, they look and sound kind of crazy, not the sort of people it would be fun to get to know or to have dinner with. So we do our best to ignore them, we cross to other side of the street, try not to make eye contact.
People did that to Jeremiah, too, until one day one his prophecies starts to come true. The Babylonian army, a huge contingent of well-armed soldiers, sweeps down out of the north and lays siege to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is a fortress, a walled city built high up on a hill, easy to defend. In the early days of the siege, there’s still hope that the Babylonians will get tired and pack up and go home - armies have given up before. But as the months wear on, people remember that Jeremiah said this was going to happen, Jeremiah said that God was raising up the nations against them. Then they start to listen to Jeremiah a little closer. Jeremiah tells them that God is going to give Jerusalem into the hand of the king of Babylon and he will take it. Not even the King of Israel will escape, he and all the rest of the people will be taken to Babylon. Israel will cease to be. Resistance is futile. What the nation should do now, Jeremiah says, is give up, cut their loses, surrender to the Babylonians, beg for mercy.
Proclaiming that the end is near during peace time makes you kind of a lunatic, but proclaiming that surrender is the only option when the enemy is at the gates makes you a traitor. You can’t have someone shouting those things on street corners, it scares people, undermines their confidence. The king has Jeremiah arrested and confined to one of the inner courtyards of the palace where at least his ravings won’t be heard by the people. The king asks Jeremiah what was he thinking, proclaiming that the Babylonians are going to win? In response, Jeremiah finally stops talking and does something. His cousin is having some financial trouble, and in order to pay his debts, he wants to sell a field he owns in Anathoth, Jeremiah’s hometown. In such cases, the option to buy the land goes to relatives first, so at the least the property stays in the family. The option to buy the land falls to Jeremiah. Now, remember, the Babylonians have Jerusalem surrounded and Jeremiah himself is imprisoned. He can’t go check out the land, he’s got to buy it sight unseen. And, he’s spent the last decade proclaiming that Israel is going to be overthrown and the people hauled off into exile. This is hardly the time to be buying real estate. But that is exactly what Jeremiah does, in a very public transaction completed right there in the king’s court in front of the king’s guards and advisors. He has the deed sealed up in a jar, the ancient world’s equivalent of a safe deposit box. And then he says: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
None of this reverses the earlier prophecy of Israel’s destruction. Jeremiah knows the Babylonians are going to win, they’re going to destroy Jerusalem, haul the people off in exile. But Jeremiah knows that’s not going to be the final word, he knows that God will restore Israel, God will bring them back from exile to their homeland. He buys the field in Anathoth to express his hope, to proclaim his faith in God’s power to redeem even the worst things that life brings. Jeremiah somehow knows that words won’t proclaim that message as powerfully as action. Jeremiah proclaims his faith in God, proclaims his reliance on God and God’s promises in a concrete way.
There are opportunities in our lives to have constructive conversations about difficult issues. Remembering to listen more than we speak, to really make an effort to understand where others are coming from, can help us remain connected and build community and work together to bring about the kingdom. There are other times in our lives when it is probably more appropriate for us to talk less and express ourselves through action. Feel strongly about this election? Cast your vote in November. Concerned about poverty? Work in our community garden or volunteer at the food shelf to make life better for those in need in the Hilton Parma community. May God grant us the wisdom and presence of mind to know what to say and how to listen to our friends, neighbors, and colleagues. May God grant us the strength to act in ways that express our beliefs and values. May we do our part to build up God’s kingdom in our world today.
*Information about the VitalSmarts study is from this website: https://www.vitalsmarts.com/press/2016/09/how-to-disagree-with-your-friends-about-politics-and-keep-them-too-new-research-shows-your-delivery-matters-more-than-your-position/ Accessed 9/24/2016.
"And his master commended the dishonest manager because he has acted shrewdly...You cannot serve God and wealth." Luke 16: 1-13
I’m curious about your responses to this simple scenario. You go to Best Buy to shop for a new coffee maker. You find a model you’re happy with; it costs $50. You’re about to pick it up and take it to the register when the sales clerk says to you, “You know, I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but there’s a special promotion running on this model at another store across town. You can get this exact coffee maker for $40 instead of $50.” The other store is about thirty minutes away. Do you make the drive?
Or consider this variation of that scenario. Instead of a new coffee maker, you go to shop for a new dishwasher. This is a higher ticket item, obviously, but you find a model you’re satisfied with for $500. You’re ready to check out when the sales clerk says to you, “Hey, I’m talking myself out of a commission here, but you should be aware that there’s a special promotion running on this model at another store across town. You can get this exact dishwasher for $485 instead of $500.” Are you more or less likely to drive across town for the discount on the coffee maker or the dishwasher?
Here’s the problem that most of have in evaluating these scenarios and making a wise decision. We look at the percentages: in the case of the coffee maker, we’re ‘saving’ 20% by driving an extra half hour. In the case of the dishwasher, we’re ‘saving’ a measly 3.75% for the same amount of time. In reality, though, what goes in our savings account is not percentages: it’s dollars. With the coffee maker, we save $10; with the dishwasher, we save $15. If we have to choose, it makes financial sense to take the drive for $15 rather than $10, even if somehow it doesn’t feel like that’s smart choice.
We make these kind of decisions all the time, and many of us get them wrong. Consider: economists asked consumers how much they would need to save, in real dollars, to justify spending an extra twenty minutes. For a $10 dollar pen, consumers on average needed to ‘save’ $3.75 to make it worth their spending the extra twenty minutes. For a $30,000 car, they had to ‘save’ $277.83 to make it ‘worth’ their time. Somehow, psychologically we tend to get percentages and dollars confused: $3.75 on a $10 dollar pen seems like a much better deal than $277.83 on a $30,000 car, but they’re both costing us the same 20 minutes of our time.
A final example, one I’m definitely guilty of. We’ll spend hours online searching for the best deal for relatively small ticket items and virtually no time at all looking carefully at our retirement investments. The result is I’ll save 30% on a pair of khackis, resulting in a few extra bucks, but put my savings in a mutual fund that charges .25% more in fees, which over time, costs me thousands of dollars in lost returns. All of this is neatly summed up in the title of a paper by the economist Ofer Azar: “Do Consumers Make Too Much Effort to Save on Cheap Items and Too Little to Save on Expensive Items?” The answer is an overwhelming ‘yes!’
The bad news is that this poor decision making seems to be hardwired in our brains. It’s related to our tendency to think in relative rather than absolute terms. For instance, we’re more likely to notice a drumbeat is loud if we’ve just been listening to violin music. The other day, I picked out a pot of asters that I would have sworn was blue, only to get it home to realize it is in reality a pale sort of purple. It had been tucked in with a bunch of deep purple asters at the store, and I mistakenly interpreted the lighter shade for a different color. Add a little weight to an almost empty suitcase and you’ll notice it; if you add the same weight to a full suitcase, you probably won’t be able to tell the difference. We tend to think and evaluate in relative rather than absolute terms.
There is good news, however: correcting this tendency, at least when it comes to financial decisions, is fairly straightforward. When it comes to money, stop looking at relative values and start looking at absolutes. Dollars, not percentages, matter. And the interesting thing is that people lower down on the economic scale seem to understand this more than people who are relatively well-off. When every dollar matters, when each dollar could make the difference between eating and going hungry, you tend to see it for what is is: a dollar, not a percentage or a seemingly better deal. It’s not that poorer people pinch pennies more than folks who are wealthier: it’s that they’re better at it. They understand the value of a dollar in concrete, absolute terms, not as a percentage of something.
Jesus tells the perplexing story we just heard about a rich man and his manager to people who almost certainly were the expert penny pinchers of their day, the folks at the bottom of the economic ladder, the people who knew the real, concrete value of a dollar. They had to know this, because they were poor, really, really poor. Nearly everyone in Jesus’s day was really, really poor. You’ve heard the news stories about the growing gap between the 99 and the 1 percent, how wealth in this country is being consolidated in the hands of the very, very few super rich. I’m not saying it isn’t a problem for us to today, but it was an even bigger problem in Jesus’s day. As Jesus traveled around the countryside, most of the people he talked to were subsistence farmers. You’d lease a bit of land from a landowner, you’d grow your crop, and at the end of the harvest, the landowner or his manager would show up to collect their ‘rent.’ The rents are exorbitant, usually 90% or more of the harvest. If you’re lucky, after you pay the rent, and set aside seed for the following year, you have enough to provide for your family. But you don’t get lucky most years. It’s a brutally hot, dry summer, not enough rain, and the crop yield is lousy, or the locusts swarm through and devastate the fields, or some kind of blight you didn’t spray for causes the fruit to wither on the vine. When the landowner shows up to collect the rent, you don’t have quite enough, and so you beg for a little mercy, beg for a little more time. The landowner makes a great show of his generosity and magnificence and says, “That’s alright, I understand. You can pay me the 20 bushels you owe me next season, but of course, it’ll have to be 30 bushels: I’ve got my own family to feed, a business to run. After all, this isn’t a charity.” A few seasons of this sort of thing, and pretty soon you’re so far behind that there is no chance of ever catching up. All hope that you once had of saving up enough to buy your own plot of land and working for yourself dries up. You come to face the depressing, soul-crushing reality: You’ll live your life the way your parents did before you and their parents before them, breaking your back to barely put food on the table, always wondering if there will be enough to feed your children.
That’s life for the people who first hear this parable firsthand from Jesus. They know the situation well. They can picture the rich man living far off in his big comfortable house overlooking the sea of Galilee. They might get a glimpse of people like him once in a blue moon, at a festival or religious holiday. He’d be dressed in fine robes, surrounded by servants; he’d travel in a covered caravan with his beautiful wives. This guy is so rich his tenants may never have met him face to face. He’s more of an idea than an actual person. It’s hard to hate an idea; in fact, most of them envy the rich man. They dream about what his life must be like, the fancy food he must enjoy, and the parties with famous people, and all that time he has to play golf and go skiing and travel and do whatever he pleases without the pressure of tending to the fields. Deep down inside they dream of somehow becoming rich themselves and enjoying that kind of life for themselves.
They know the manager, too. The manager is not an idea of a person, he is very, very real. The manager shows up randomly throughout the year, acting cheery and asking how things are going. He commiserates with them when the weather is bad, congratulates them when they have a baby, sometimes even manages to remember their birthdays. It’s all fake, though, and it’s all they can do to keep up that inane small talk without punching the guy in the face. He doesn’t care about them, not one bit. The only visit that is real is the one in the fall, after the harvest, when the manager shows up to collect the rent. It’s always more, more than it was last year, more than they can afford, more because the landowner built a new pool this summer and wants to pay it off, more because the manager adds a little commission for himself so he can feed his family. They never have enough to pay it all, and they have to swallow their pride and their bile and do their best to grit their teeth and act grateful when the manager agrees to hold off collecting what they can’t pay until the following year, with the extra tacked on. They don’t envy the manager, or dream about having his job: they just hate him, hate that he lives off of their hard work, hate that he tries to cozy up to them when all he’s really doing is working for the rich man, hate that they’re never sure if he’s taking more off the top than he should. Jesus’s hearers know all about the rich man; they know all about the manager.
Then the story takes a delicious twist: the manager is in trouble! He’s going to lose his job! Maybe he stole something, maybe he was cheating the rich man, maybe he had skimmed too much off the top, who knows, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is he’s out, he’s fired. Jesus’s listeners imagine the tenant farmers raising a glass at the pub to his unlamented memory: it couldn’t happen to more deserving fellow, what do you know, guys, sometimes people do get their just desserts after all.
Then Jesus’s story really takes a turn. The manager calls the tenants in, one by one. He asks them how much they owe his master. One says a hundred jugs of olive oil, and he slashes the bill to fifty. Another says a hundred containers of wheat, and he slashes the bill to eighty. One after another, the tenants come in and the manager cuts their bill. Jesus doesn’t say whether the manager is just taking off what he had added on for his own take, or if he’s removing the interest from past years when the tenants couldn’t pay the full rent, or if maybe he’s got some sort of other calculus in mind. Maybe the manager has figured out who’s more likely to help him after he’s lost his job and he’s trying to butter them up. All of his life, the manager has had to figure out how to keep the rich man happy; now, overnight, he’s got to figure out how to keep everyone else happy. These tenant farmers will hopefully remember what the manager did and they might give him a little something to eat, maybe even find a job for him. Anyway, the rich man is so impressed by the dishonest master for figuring out how to deal with his situation, he commends him.
I imagine Jesus’s original hearers, the subsistence farmers, the fishermen, the shepherds, the peddlers, the craftspeople, heard this story as good news, every way they looked at it. The rich man ends the story with a little less, but he can afford it. The manager is out of a job, good riddance. And the little guys, the tenant farmers, the ones at the bottom of the ladder? They finally catch a break. Their bills got slashed; the dream of someday being free from the rents is once again tantalizingly in reach: just a couple of good growing seasons, and they might be able to pay off everything they owe and buy a little plot land for themselves. True, the manager is going to come around looking for a little handout, a little quid pro quo, but he’s doesn’t have any power or authority anymore. If he shows up on a day when the tenants are feeling good and light-hearted and generous, maybe they’ll ask him to stay for dinner. If not, they’ll send him on his way without feeling too guilty about it.
But as they walk away, I’ll bet they start to think a little. Wait a minute, they think. Did Jesus just say that justice came to the farmers through the dishonest actions of the manager? Is that how justice works? Is that really how God’s kingdom works? Is God sneaky? Does God work the system to God’s own advantage? And if God works that way, maybe I could, too. I loaned my neighbor a measure of grain last year on the condition that he pay me back a measure and a half this year. I mean, it seems like that’s the way the system works. But maybe by buying into that system, I’m no better than the manager or the rich man. Maybe I’ll slash that half measure from my neighbor’s bill and let a little justice prevail for once, help my neighbor out in a pinch. Maybe I can help God’s kingdom break in today, sneak in under the radar. Maybe that little seed of justice will grow into a tree.
How do you hear Jesus’s story today? Is there good news here for you? As I lived with this story this week, I began to hear a bit of good news for myself. I think about the manager. He’s caught in the middle: he’s not a wealthy guy like the landowner. Probably he was born into a poor family, and somehow caught the landowner’s attention at some point, who gave him this job. It’s a lousy job, really. He knows all the tenants hate him. He tries to be friendly because it just seems like the nicer thing to do. He envies the landowner, desperately wants the life that he has, but knows deep down inside he’ll never have it. And here’s the thing: I’ll bet he feels compassion for the tenants. He sees their living conditions, he sees how hard they work, he sees how the system that he’s a part of is rigged against them. He hates the harvest season, hates having to go collect he exorbitant rents, but that’s his job, he and his family have to eat. He wishes there was something he could do for the tenants, someway he could make life better. But the problem is his compassion for the tenants is drowned out, squeezed out of him by the fear he has of being forced to someday live like them. He knows he’d never survive that kind of life, he couldn’t do the back-breaking work. And so he plays his part. He tries to convince himself that the tenants deserve to live that way because they’re lazy, or they lack courage to set out on their own, or they’re too stupid to do anything else, but really, he goes to bed every night feeling ashamed, feeling sick to his stomach.
When the rich man fires him, it’s the most amazing feeling. What should feel like a death sentence instead feels like the chains holding him place are broken. Freed from having to keep his position, freed from having to collect the rent, freed from working for the rich man, the manager can finally do something for all those tenants, take a little pressure off of them, give them a little hope. Jesus ends this story by saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Freed from serving wealth, the manager can serve God by making life better for the tenants, for the people no one is trying to help.
Maybe you feel caught in the middle yourself. It would be great to make the world a better place, great to change life for those in need, great to really do something about the big problems of poverty, hunger, racism, you name it. But we’ve all got to have someplace to live, we all have to put food on the table, we all need to provide for our families. That’s alright. Fred Craddock, a preacher I like a lot, says, “Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more than a chance to write a note, visit a nursing home, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, and feed the neighbor’s cat.” May we prayerfully consider how best we can serve God, how we can plant seeds of justice, how we can help the kingdom of God sneak in in unexpected ways. May God give us the wisdom to make good decisions, courage to do the right thing, and the strength to do the work set before us. Amen.
“This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” Amos 7: 7-8
Back in the days when I still studied music formally, with a teacher, most of my time at the instrument would be spent by myself. Sure, in the very early days, when I was in kindergarten, my mom would sit with me at the piano during my practice sessions to make sure I was doing things right. After a few months, though, instead of sitting with me, she was in the other room, working in the kitchen or helping my sisters. She was listening with half an ear, to be sure, and ready to come in and correct things, or more often, to remind me of what I was supposed to be working on instead of reading ahead or playing the piece I really liked over and over again. As the years passed, my time at the piano gradually got longer, from 20 minutes to half an hour to an hour or more. A lot could go wrong in all that time I spent at the piano unsupervised. And that’s why once a week I’d go off for a lesson with my teacher. I was blessed with great teachers, teachers who knew how to coax me along and get me to do my best. They would praise me for the few things I got right, for the things that had gotten better during the past week. Then, they’d gently point out all the things that hadn’t gotten better, or that somehow had gotten worse. The wrong note that snuck in while first learning the piece had become so ingrained in my ear and muscle memory that it sounded and felt right to me. The dynamic markings, printed in the score, then marked with a little reminder asterisk one week by my teacher, then circled the next week, then circled more insistently in red pencil the next week, finally with an exclamation point for good measure, still blissfully ignored by me. That spot on the top of page three where, despite repeated admonishments to practice with the metronome, I gleefully rushed, playing as fast as I could. Overtime, with great patience, my teachers would convince me to fix most of these problems. But at the year-end recital, my performances usually featured the ‘little flaws,’ as I thought of them, the wrong notes, the little memory slips, the inconsistent tempos. For the most part, frankly, I didn’t really care. I wanted to make music, and music, I thought, was more about connecting with people, touching their hearts and souls. Any robot, I figured, could be taught to play the right notes at the right time; it took a real musician to play music. My playing, I believed, was good enough; it was, to borrow the image from the prophet Amos, plumb enough. And my teachers nurtured that belief in me, while doing their best to encourage me to clean up my act.
When I finally got serious about being an organist as a student at Eastman, I was again blessed with a fantastic teacher. He worked tirelessly to convince me to pay closer attention to all those pesky little details, the right notes and the proper touch and articulation. He forced me to spend the pain-staking hours of slow practice and study that leads to more consistent performances, filled with the sort of fine details that begin to make the difference between ‘good’ music and ‘great’ music. I worked hard in the practice room, and part of me dreaded lessons with my teacher, because I knew I wasn’t going to measure up to his standards, my playing wasn’t going to be plumb enough by his measure. And my playing never was plumb enough, which kept me driven to practice more, to concentrate harder, to bring the best that I had to the task.
In the years after school, years when I worked as a professional musician, plump enough was harder to define. What is plumb enough for a choir of volunteers? I remember rehearsals in my early years as a choir director when singers cried because I made them repeat a phrase over and over and over again, demanding too high a standard that they simply couldn’t meet, especially late in the evening after a long day at work. I weighed my own time, trying to figure out if it was really worth the effort to chase down those last few wrong notes in the postlude, that, let’s face it, most people wouldn’t hear. And now, as I play for myself at home, I wonder what my plumb line should be, what amounts to a level of playing that is plumb enough.
Here at St. George’s, as we’ve worked on projects around the building and grounds, we’ve had to answer that same question. I think most of you know that the floor in the sacristy is sinking towards the outside wall; I’ve come to understand that this started shortly after the building was completed over twenty years ago. We’ve had long, thoughtful discussions about the problem. What’s causing it? Is it still sinking? Is there anything to be done about it? And maybe the most important immediate question, asked in the reality of our limited resources, can we live with it as it is? Is the floor plumb enough? For the time being, we think it is. The counter, on the other hand, was sloping so much that pens would sometimes roll off: not plumb enough. Thank you to Mark Spath and Paul Puckett and George Lake and all those who worked through these questions and spent all those hours making sure our sacristy is plumb enough. You may have noticed that the sign on Wilder, our newly refurbished sign, our sign installed less than a year ago, looks a little off-kilter. I wasn’t sure it actually was off-kilter, to be honest. The ground underneath it slopes, the road curves, the utility poles definitely look like they’re leaning. But, sure enough, we took a level out there, that modern version of the plumb line, and it is definitely leaning to the south. It’s also not quite square to the road. We’re still thoughtfully talking through all of this, and we’ll figure out what to do about it, how to make our sign plumb enough, and thanks again to Mark and Rich Maier and everyone who has been putting their minds to this.
Ancient Israel thought it was plumb enough. Israel believed it was a nation set apart, chosen by God to be a light to world. Its capital city, Jerusalem, was glorious, set high on a hill, surrounded by a wall that had kept it safe from its enemies for centuries. In the center of the city rose the great temple, with white stone columns and white walls that gleamed in the sunlight and could be seen for miles around. The inside of the temple was magnificent, rooms laid with polished cedar floors and walls covered in gold and intricate decoration. The Holy of Holies was separated by gold doors and chains and a veil hung from ceiling to floor made of red and blue and purple silk. The courts of the temple were filled, night and day, with priests in fine robes, all carrying out the rituals and ceremonies that Israel believed maintained its relationship with God. Most Israelites came to the temple only maybe once a year for a festival, to offer their sacrifice, but they fell asleep each night secure in the knowledge that God was watching over Israel, that God was protecting them from the enemies that surrounded their country on every side, that God was their God and they were God’s people.
And then Amos comes along. Amos isn’t a prophet, not officially anyway. The official prophets worked for the temple; they belonged to guilds and were organized; they were paid by the temple authorities. Amos is not a prophet like these. Amos is a shepherd and a dresser of sycamore trees, a simple country man, a man God calls to proclaim a sort of warning to Israel. Amos speaks the word of God to the people, and the word could hardly have been more bracing or less welcome: “Thus says the Lord your God: You think you’ve got everything right just because of your beautiful temple and your rituals and your offerings and your sacrifices? Think again! Look at how you treat the weak, the widows and orphans, those who have no voice and no one to look out for them, no one to protect their interests! Look at how you trample on the poor! Look at all the people begging for food in the streets while you have so much to eat you throw food away! I, the Lord God, I hate your festivals, I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. I will not accept your offerings; I won’t even look at them. I don’t want to hear the noise of your songs; I won’t listen to the melody of your harps. You know what I do want from you? I want you to seek good and not evil, that you may live. I want you to hate evil and love good, and establish justice in your society. I created you to be a holy people; I used a plumb line when I created you; you were plumb in the beginning. You’re not plumb any longer; your foundation has shifted, your walls are leaning, everything is about to come tumbling down. Here’s a plumb line: use it and bring yourself back into alignment. Seek good and not evil, that you may live. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice, and do it today. Because one way or another, justice is going to come rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. You can either do your part to bring it about, or you can be swept away in the flood. Get yourself plumb: Seek good and not evil, that you may live.”
I suspect if you look at your life, in big ways and small, you will find you’re not quite plumb enough. I have my own list of ways I’m not plumb enough; maybe some of these will ring true for you as well. Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind. That’s not too hard when it’s a sunny day, with a clear blue sky, when my sermon is written, when I’m feeling well, and my friends and family are safe. But let those blessings, big and small, slip away and pretty soon I’m like Job, sitting in a pile of my own misery cursing the day I was born. Not plumb enough.
I know I am called to love my neighbor as myself, but it’s just hard sometimes. Neighbors let their dogs run all over your gardens, or they park too close to your driveway, or they make too much noise at inconvenient times. It’s easy for me to remember all the ways my neighbors have been inconsiderate, and even easier for me to forget all the times I’ve been just as inconsiderate or worse. And God is annoyingly expansive about just who our neighbors are. I’m afraid that when I read the bible carefully, it turns out that my neighbor is just about anyone I meet, and boy, I don’t like that. There are all sorts of people, not just in my community, but across our country and around the world, people whose political beliefs and religious views I strongly disagree with, people who I don’t care to spend time with, people who I plain don’t like, much less want to try to ‘love.’ And just what does ‘love,’ mean, anyway? I love my family and friends, at least most of the time, but that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes say and do things to them that are downright awful. Or sometimes what they need from me I just don’t want to give: too much energy, too much time, too much forgiveness, too much of what I’m holding onto too tightly. Not plumb enough.
I know I’m supposed to look out for those less fortunate than me, and I’m happy to do my part, as long as I still have my fairly comfortable life. But there are so many people in need, and they approach at such awkward and inconvenient moments. And working for justice is a never ending job; just when you think we’ve made progress on racism, South Carolina happens, and for all the work we do to help the homeless, it seems there are always more of them. It makes me tired just thinking about it, makes me wish I could bury my head in the sand and pretend the problems don’t exist. Not plumb enough.
Well, friends, there’s the task, there’s the good news, if you will, for this absolutely spectacular summer day. God has set a plumb line in our midst. God’s word spoken through Amos rings true today: Seek good and not evil, that you may live. Scripture testifies, over and over again, to our call to love God, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to care for those in need, to speak for those who have no voice. The person and teachings and ministry of Jesus call us into alignment with God, into alignment with our own best selves, into alignment with who God created us to be. May we stand a little straighter in faith, a little truer in service, a bit more plumb in our life in God.
It may have escaped your attention, but this past week was officially “Banned Books Week.” It escaped my attention: before hearing a commentary about it on the radio, I had never heard of “Banned Books Week.” “Banned Books Week” is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read, sponsored by the American Library Association. After hearing the commentary about “Banned Books Week,” I got online and did a little research, and I was pretty surprised by a lot of what I found. I knew vaguely, that, oh, say, a hundred years ago or so, books were sometimes removed from libraries in this country because their content was deemed unsuitable or offensive. I remembered hearing that books like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been taken off library shelves because of their language or subject matter, but I really thought that only a handful of books had ever been targeted and that all of this was long in the past. Not so. The American Library Association tracks challenges to books, times when various groups around the country have attempted to restrict access to certain books or get them removed from libraries. The list just of banned and challenged classics is astonishing. Topping the list is The Great Gatsby, which was challenged as recently as the 1980’s. I read The Great Gatsby for I think a ninth grade English class (which would have been back in the ’80’s), and I don’t remember it being all that racy. I suppose I can see the reasons behind the challenges to some of the other classics in the top 10, which include The Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, The Color Purple, The Lord of the Flies, and 1984. But for the life of me, I can’t figure out how Charlotte’s Web and Winnie the Pooh make the list of the top 25 most challenged books of the last hundred years.
Challenges to books continue today. From 2000 to 2009, the American Library Association tracked over 5,000 challenges to books on library shelves. Most challenges are on the grounds that material is “sexually explicit” or contain “offensive language;” other challenges are because books are deemed unsuited to a certain age level or have references to subject matter considered offensive, such as violence, homosexuality, or the occult. The most challenged book in 2013 was the Captain Underpants series for kids, which I had never heard of, but I’m definitely going to check out. The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey made the top ten, and I guess I can understand why some people would be concerned about them, but The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison? And that, of course, gets to the heart of the matter. How do we make decisions on which books are appropriate and which books are too offensive? Just who gets to decide which books should go on the shelves and which should be banned? Who has the authority to determine what we can and can’t read?
Fortunately for us here in the United States, that question has largely been answered. The First Amendment protects free speech, and books are a form of free speech. As Supreme Court Justice Brennan writes, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” The American Library Association maintains that parents, and only parents, have the right and the responsibility to restrict the access of their children - and only their children - to library resources. Censorship by librarians or any other group, whether to protect children or for any other reason, violates the First Amendment. At the end of day, we, you and I, the citizens of the United States, have the authority to decide what we and our children will and will not read - not the government, not the libraries, not some other group, but you and I.
On the face of it, this morning’s gospel lesson from Matthew seems to hinge on the question of authority. Specifically, the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem want to know by what authority Jesus is acting, and who gave him his authority. They’ve got good cause to ask their question. For most of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches and preaches and heals out in the countryside, in Galilee, far away from Jerusalem, the capital city. But at the beginning of chapter 21, all that changes. Jesus does three things that get everyone’s attention. First, he enters Jerusalem in a big way. He doesn’t just wander in some side gate with his disciples. Instead, he comes in riding a donkey, and in front of him is a crowd of his followers spreading their cloaks on the road and covering them with branches and palms. The crowd shouts, “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” This procession puts the whole city in turmoil; everyone is asking just who Jesus is, and stories about him are spreading like wildfire.
Next, Jesus goes to the temple and overturns the tables of the money changers. This is a direct affront, an assault, really, on the temple authorities because of the role of the money changers. Here’s how that systems works. At festival times, faithful Jews come to Jerusalem from all over the countryside. They try and sell their wares in the marketplace and they buy goods they can’t get at home. They also go to worship at the temple, and worship means offering a sacrifice. They take the money they’ve made in the marketplace, the Roman currency with Caesar’s face on it, but they can’t use that currency in the temple, they have to exchange it for the special temple currency. That’s what the money changers do, but they charge an exorbitant mark-up in the process. Jesus kicks over their tables and calls them the robbers and thieves that they are.
Finally, as the dust is settling from all of that uproar, some blind and lame people seek Jesus out, and he cures them. This really gets the temple leaders’ attention. Just who is this guy? Why is everyone so excited about him? Where does he get off calling our money changers crooks? How does he have the power to heal people? So when Jesus returns to the temple the next day and starts teaching, they ask him outright, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” By rights, the temple leaders, the chief priests and the elders, are the authority in the temple. They’re the ones who can tell the crowd who they should shout and cheer for. They’re the ones who can regulate that money changing system. They’re the ones who can tell the blind and the lame how they might be healed. They’re the ones who have the authority to teach in the temple.
Jesus, like any really good teacher, answers their question with a question of his own, a question that is also about authority. “Remember John, that crazy guy out in the desert who preached repentance and baptized all those people?” he asks the temple leaders. “Where did he get the authority to baptize? YOU guys didn’t give it him. Did his authority come from God, or did he just make it up himself?” The temple leaders are caught in a bit of trap here. Hundreds, thousands of people, even, had sought John out in the desert and gotten baptized. So many people were following John around that the Roman government got worried, worried enough that they arrested and executed him. A lot of John’s followers are now following Jesus around. If the temple leaders say John’s authority came from heaven, then they’re as much saying that Jesus’s authority comes from heaven. If they say John was making it up as he went along, the temple authorities worry that the crowds will turn against them. And so they say, “We don’t know.”
Jesus asks them another question, “What do you think?” and then he tells this simple parable. A man has two sons. He goes to the first and says, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” His son answers, “I will not,” but later he changes his mind and goes to work. The father goes to his second son and says the same thing. His second son answers, “I go, sir,” but actually doesn’t go. Which of the two did the will of the father?” Jesus asks, and the temple leaders say, “The first.” And with that, Jesus has changed the conversation. It’s no longer about authority; now the conversation is about the kingdom of God. “Look,” he says to the temple leaders, “You’ve got it all wrong. You think because you’re the leaders of the temple, respected leaders of this community, that you’ve got life figured out, but you don’t. God doesn’t care who you are, or what position you hold, or how much money you have, how much authority you command here. Remember when John was out in the desert with his crazy clothes and his wild hair and his weird diet of locusts and honey? Remember what he said? ‘Repent,’ John said, ‘Repent,’ John shouted, ‘Repent,’ John bawled until he was hoarse. You thought he was crazy, because he smelled bad and looked funny and because you hadn’t ‘authorized’ his preaching. Remember who did listen to him? All those people you look down on, all those folks who you preach at every week urging them to be more like you, all those people with jobs you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, people like tax collectors and prostitutes: they listened to him. They listened to John because he offered them a chance to come clean, to stop pretending they were somebody else; he offered them a chance to start over. John offered to wash their old selves away, to clean them off in the river Jordan. Those tax collectors and prostitutes stood next to this bizarre, smelly, unpleasant man and let him dunk them in the cold water. And when they came up, they saw what you haven’t seen, what you can’t see, what you won’t allow yourself to see. You don’t have to continue living the way you are. There are options. You’re not stuck going forward, you can turn around entirely, go in a wholly new direction, free from your past, free from everything you are carrying but don’t really need, free from all those voices telling you how you don’t measure up. That’s the good news that John brought, that’s the good news that I bring, authorized or not, because that is what repentance really is. It’s not about beating our breasts and wailing about what miserable sinners are. Rather, repentance is about God’s desire to realign us in the way God would have us live; it is about God’s desire and God’s power to transform us. Repentance is about accepting God’s invitation to new life.
I don’t like to face up to it, but I’m afraid that more often than not, I’m more like those temple authorities than I am like the tax collectors and prostitutes who followed John out into the desert and followed Jesus into Jerusalem and up to the cross. I’m pretty sure I’ve got life figured out, I know what’s right and what’s wrong, the problem isn’t me, it’s all those other folks out there. If everyone would just see things like I see them, the world would be a better place. Thank goodness that just when I’m getting too comfortable with my place in this world, a reminder like this reading from Matthew comes along. Thank goodness there’s still time to go and work in the vineyard, even if I said earlier I didn’t want to. Thank goodness God’s offer of repentance, God’s offer of a fresh start and a new life, is still good.
Maybe this sounds like good news to you, as well. Maybe you are hearing God’s invitation to repent, God’s invitation to new life, God’s invitation to transform your life. But, if on this spectacular autumn day, you’re comfortable where you’re at, that’s okay, too. God will be there tomorrow with the same offer of repentance and a new life, so no worries. Get out and enjoy the day. Take advantage of your first amendment rights and read a banned book - there are a lot of good ones to choose from. Go out and work in the vineyard, even if you already said you didn’t want to. God loved you yesterday, God loves you today, God will love you tomorrow, and God will transform you and bring you to new life. Amen.
This week was the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Technically, it’s the 200th anniversary of the words of the “The Star-Spangled Banner;” the tune is a bit older, but we’ll get to that in a moment. You probably know the story. Francis Scott Key was a lawyer, author, and an amateur poet (and, by the way, an Episcopalian, go team!). During the War of 1812, that attempt by the British to retake what they thought of as the American colonies, he was sent to negotiate the exchange of prisoners of war. After a dinner on a British ship in Baltimore harbor, he and his negotiating team were not allowed to return to their own ship because they had become familiar with the strength and position of the British units, and with the British intent to attack Baltimore. Because of this, Key was unable to do anything but watch the bombardment of the American forces at Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore on those September nights in 1814.
At dawn, Key was able to see an American flag still waving above the fort, and he reported this to the prisoners below deck. When he got back onshore, he was still inspired by that image, and he sat down and wrote a poem about his experience, which he called “Defense of Fort McHenry,” and it was published just a few days later in a newspaper called The Patriot. Now, Francis Scott Key had no thought that he was writing what would become the national anthem, and in fact, his words did not become the national anthem until a hundred years later, first by an executive order by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and then by Congressional resolution in 1931. And I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the reason why. Francis Scott Key had a tune in mind while he was writing his poem. It’s the tune we still sing, or for some of us, we try to sing, today, that tune in 3/4 time with a very wide vocal range including very low and that very high note at the end. It was a familiar tune of the time because it was the official song of the Anacreontic Society, a popular gentlemen’s club. It was popular because it was somewhat bawdy, at least by the standards of the 18th century. The refrain of each of the six stanzas, all of which celebrate the pleasures of wine, women, and song, that refrain which we’re used to singing with the words “O say does that Star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave,” in the original drinking song went, “And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s Vine.” Such lyrics hardly raise an eyebrow here in the 21st century, but they were pretty racy stuff back then.
It took a hundred years, but the Anacreon Club ultimately disbanded, over time the memory of the original drinking song faded, and the tune took on the solemnity and patriotic association we have with it today. You can hear the original Anacreon song sung to the tune we call “The Star-spangled Banner” on the internet, and it is unsettling, if not a bit scandalous sounding. We have clear expectations for the tune and for the words, and it feels wrong to hear either in a different context. Another, sort of silly, example. Imagine sitting down in front of the TV flipping around the channels. You come to TV Land, that channel that features re-runs of old shows, and to your delight it’s the beginning one of your favorites from the ’60’s, starring Bob Denver, Alan Hale, and Jim Backus. There’s that island with the palm trees in the middle of the ocean, and as the title “Gilligan’s Island” flashes up on the screen, you hear: (to the tune Amazing grace)
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship.
Or, imagine you’re here in church and you’re asked to turn to Hymn 671, but instead of the familiar, well-loved tune, the congregation starts singing, (to the Gilligan’s Island tune)
Amazing grace! how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
In the first instance, you’re probably just confused, because the almost mournful tune of “Amazing grace” doesn’t fit at all with the light hearted comedy of Gilligan’s Island; in the second case, you may be a bit offended and have a couple of choice things to say to the rector at coffee hour.
The context in which we hear words matters a lot. If we’re singing words, the tune matters. The memory of the bawdy drinking song had to fade before “The Star-spangled banner” could become the national anthem. The familiar tune for “Amazing grace” supports the text and helps convey its message of forgiveness and redemption made possible through God’s grace and mercy, where the cheerful and bouncy Gilligan’s Island tune makes the words sound silly and trite. But even if we’re not singing words, the context matters a lot, it shapes how we hear words; the context shapes how we understand their message. Words often have multiple contexts, and that is usually the case with the words we hear from the bible. This morning we heard another parable told by Jesus, a parable sometimes called “the laborers in the vineyard.” Originally, Jesus told this parable, this story, to his disciples. He tells this parable to his disciples in the middle of a sort of simmering concern the disciples are having about what, exactly, their reward will be for faithfully following Jesus. Just before Jesus tells this parable, Peter asks that question out right, reminding Jesus that he and the disciples have given up everything to follow him; what can they expect in return? Jesus promises them twelve thrones in the world to come; pretty good deal, the disciples think, as they stand up a little taller and puff their chests out. But Jesus deflates them again when he says, “But many that are first will be last, and the last first.” Then he tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
That’s what happens just before our reading this morning. As soon as Jesus gets done telling this story, the mother of James and John comes up and asks Jesus to give the best the thrones to her sons, to give them the thrones right next to him on his left and on his right. Jesus pours cold water on her hopes as well, once again reminding his friends that the thrones he is talking about are not comfortable seats with velvet cushions laid on gold and silver chairs encrusted with jewels. Rather, Jesus’s throne is made out of rough wood and iron nails and is in the shape of a cross.
So that’s the original context of the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, at least as Matthew remembers it when he gets around to writing all this down years after Jesus dies. Then there’s the context of the original readers of Matthew, who would have listened quite intently to this parable because it describes a situation very familiar to them. Life in Jesus’s time was a system of haves and have nots. The haves, folks like the owner of the vineyard, had all the money and property and possessions and power. The vast majority of people, though, 99% of the population, were have nots, folks like those day laborers hanging out in the marketplace hoping for work, needing work because if they don’t get any work that day there’ll be nothing to eat for dinner that night. As Jesus describes the scene in the marketplace, Matthew’s readers can picture it because they’ve been there. The sun isn’t even up yet, and everyone is still a bit groggy from sleep. They’re either achey and sore because they were fortunate enough to get work yesterday, or they’re very, very hungry because no one hired them. There are some farmers from the countryside unloading their carts and setting up their booths, making big stacks of vegetables, corralling sheep, laying out cages with squawking chickens. The laborers are looking at all of that food longingly, hoping to be able to afford to buy something later for dinner, maybe even splurge a little. Finally, as sun is just starting to peek over the horizon, a well-dressed man rides up on a horse. Everyone knows what he’s there for, and they crowd around, standing up tall, trying their best to look strong and young and like their backs don’t hurt. The guy on the horse turns out to be a landowner with a vineyard, and that’s good. Vineyard work is at least quiet and not too dirty and you’re not bent over all day. To their amazement, the landowner doesn't hire three or four men, but all of them, all ten of them standing around. This must be some vineyard, they say to each other as they follow the landowner of out town into the countryside. Thank goodness we forced ourselves to get out of bed at that ungodly hour and made it down to the market place in time. Maybe its big enough we can work for him for a few days and not have to go back that humiliating marketplace. Maybe there are even a few permanent positions here, with housing and health benefits! The day is really looking up, and the men set to their tasks with energy and good cheer.
Matthew’s readers, as I said, know this situation well, and they know the next scene as well. At nine o’clock, there are some more laborers standing around in the marketplace. These guys slept through their alarm and didn’t make it down in time for the choice jobs, but they’re still hoping to get some work; it won’t be a full day’s salary, but hopefully enough for them to get a little something to eat. Today is their lucky day, because the landowner comes back and hires them, promising to pay them whatever is right for their time. I think, though, it’s around here in the story that Matthew’s readers begin to wonder what is going on. No laborer would delay getting to the marketplace until noon to look for work, unless maybe they were hungover. There’s no point, the folks looking for workers are all set for the day. But, according this story, the guys at noon get hired. Now, by three o’clock, everyone knows the only folks who are going to be in the marketplace looking for work are the guys who were so lazy or bad at their job that they got fired earlier in the day. No one in their right mind would hire them, but the landowner in this story does anyway. And at five o’clock? The guys hanging out there at five aren’t really looking for work anymore; they’re hoping someone who did get work that day will buy them a sandwich or loan them a couple of bucks. Nevertheless, they get hired, too, and off they go to work as the sun is already beginning to set.
Matthew’s readers have some questions now about what is wrong with this landowner. He must have a screw or two loose, they figure, or maybe he realized that his grapes were beginning to rot on the vine or there was bad weather on the way and he had to try and wrap the harvest up today. In any case, they’re on the edges of their seats, wondering what is going to happen next. The landowner has his manager get the laborers to line up to get paid, but he has them line up so the guys who worked the least number of hours are at the front and the guys who’ve been there all day are at the back. This just seems inconsiderate; the guys who’ve been there all day are hot and tired and ready to get back to town and get something to eat, but now they’re going to have to cool their heels as the guys who came a couple of hours ago and have hardly broken sweat are paid first. They’re grumbling amongst themselves about the typical thoughtless behavior of the landowner, the guy who’s never done an honest days work in his life, when one of them notices something. The guys at the front of the line are laughing and slapping each other on the back and looking very cheerful indeed. The landowner is paying the guys who came at five o’clock, and who only worked a couple of hours, he is paying them, each of them, a denarius, a whole days wage! That good feeling they had early in the day comes rushing back as they do a bit of quick math in their heads. Why, if those guys get a denarius, we should get, what, maybe five, maybe even six or seven denarii! Maybe I’ll go buy a whole chicken for dinner, won’t that make my wife happy! And a bottle of wine, heck two bottles, and good wine, too, not the cheap stuff. I can pay back that merchant what I owe him for my kids’ back to school clothes, pay him back early and save the interest! And you know, tomorrow, I think I’m going to sleep in until noon, and then get up and do…nothing! A day off, at last! Man, did we luck out today, or what?!
Their good mood lasts right up until they get to the front of the line and they stretch out their hands and the landowner gives them…one denarius. One lousy, measly, denarius. Sure, it’s what they got for yesterday’s job. And the day before that. And the day before that. Any other day, they’d stick it in their pocket and head back to town satisfied, but today, it really irks them. Of all the nerve, what is the landowner thinking, paying them the same as those lazy idiots who didn’t come until five o’clock? They worked eight, ten, almost twelve hours more than those guys! It’s not fair!
The landowner speaks up, but I doubt very much that what he says satisfies either the workers, Matthew’s readers, or the disciples. “Friends,” he says, “I am doing you no wrong; didn’t we agree on the usual daily wage? Aren’t you getting what’s coming to you? I haven’t cheated you out of anything. Take your wages and go. I choose to give to the last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I want with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” “Generous,” the guys snort as they walk off. “You’re not being generous with us!” “Generous?” Matthew’s readers ask incredulously. “How is that generous, giving more to people who deserve, no, people who have earned, less?” “Generous” the disciples think to themselves, afraid if they voice their concerns out loud that Jesus will tell another story that makes them feel even worse. “Is he saying we’re not getting thrones after all? Is Jesus going to give those thrones to somebody else when we’re the ones who’ve stuck by him all these years?” Nobody, in any of those contexts, likes this story or its implications for themselves.
Of course, we hear these words in our own context today, and I’ll put good money down that no one here much likes this story, either. It violates our innate sense of what is fair and what is not. Equal pay for equal work is fair; equal pay for unequal work is not fair. Rewarding those who do the most work is fair; rewarding those who do the least is not fair. Treating everyone the same is fair; treating everyone the same when they are not the same is not fair. And life is so often not fair. Your boss decides that instead of merit increases this year everyone will get the same amount, because it will be better for group morale, even though you’ve worked harder than all those other lazy bums in your department. Your kid doesn’t make the varsity squad, even though she’s as fast and strong and hard working as any of the other girls; she’s just not a favorite of the coach. You’ve been caring for your elderly parent for years while your siblings are living it up halfway across the country, and really, you know it’s not worthy of you to feel this way, but when you’re all sitting in the lawyer’s office as he explains that your father has divided the estate equally among his four children, you can feel the resentment and anger boiling up inside.
As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “Life is not fair, which is why it seems all that much more important that God should be. God should be the one authority you can count on to reward people according to their efforts, who keeps accurate track of how long you have worked and how hard you have worked. God should the one manager who polices the line, walking up end down to make sure that everyone stays where they belong, so that the first remain first and the last wait their turns at the end of the line.” But that’s not what this parable says.
I think our problems with the parable boil down to two issues. First, we don’t like this parable because of how we understand our context, our place within it. Who are we in this story? Why, we’re the ones who have worked our fingers to the bone and broken our back all the hot, miserable day long, only to get gypped! Everyone else has lucked out, but not us. Look at all those people ahead of us in line, riding on the back of our hard work! But here’s the thing that none of us want to do. Instead of looking forward at that crowd of lazy, lucky schmucks, take a deep breath, turn around, and look behind you. No matter how many people are in line in front of us, I promise you, there is an even bigger line behind us, a line stretching all the way down the street and around the block, three abreast, all grumbling and getting red in the face because we, you and I, got a better deal than we deserved. And the hard thing to hear is that they’re right.
Our second problem with this parable is the context in which we put God. We put God in our own context, with our own sense of right and wrong, our own sense of fairness and how things should work. But God doesn’t belong, God doesn’t fit in our context. God’s context is completely different. God doesn’t have a clipboard in one hand and a red marker in the other, God doesn’t put pluses and minuses after our names to keep track. God is not fair. For reasons we can’t understand, God seems to love us indiscriminately. God is not fair; God is generous, and generous in a way that we can’t quite get our hearts and minds around. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we’d prefer that God would be fair with other people, but generous with ourselves.
It’s my job to preach the good news, so here it is in this parable that sounds like anything but good news. The good news is that God is not fair, God is not keeping track. The good news is that God pours out blessings on us all in ways that is anything but fair. The good news is that God is generous, generous with love and generous with life and generous with grace, generous beyond our comprehension, generous beyond any meaning we can put to that word. I pray that we may all remember this about God’s generosity, that we’ll remember it late in the day, as the sun sets and we’re tired to the bone and convinced of our own worth, certain of our own righteousness. I pray that we’ll remember it as we line up and watch the manager start handing out the daily bread. I pray that we’ll have the presence of mind to remember it as we watch those in front of us get more than we think they deserve, that we’ll remember that there are many, many people behind us who think we’re getting more than we deserve. I pray we’ll remember this about God’s wacky sense of fairness, God’s all-in commitment to generosity, and that when the manager gets to us, we’ll accept what he offers with good cheer and surprised laughter and a renewed sense of gratitude for all our blessings. Amen.
In his column last Wednesday in the New York Times titled “It takes a mentor,” Thomas Friedman explores the findings of a recent research project of the Gallup poll. Gallup spent a year interviewing parents of 5th through 12th graders as well as the students themselves, business leaders, teachers, superintendents, college presidents, principals, college graduates, and workers of all ages in a variety of fields. In all, they talked to close to one million Americans. Gallup was trying to figure out what are the things that happen in school, in college, or in technical schools that, more than anything else, produce “engaged” employees on a fulfilling career track. What are the factors that shape students into adults who are happy and successful in the workplace?
The findings are pretty interesting. It turns out it doesn’t matter where you went to school, whether you attended an elite private university or you went to community college. Rather, two factors stand out. Happy and successful workers had one or more teachers when they were in school who were mentors, people who took a real interest in their dreams and aspirations. They also tended to have had an internship that was related to what they were learning in school. For students, personal interaction with a teacher who genuinely cares about them and is personally involved with their education, and the opportunity for some hands on, real world experience in their field, trumps everything else, including the student’s socioeconomic background, how well they did on standardized tests, or how expensive their education was. Students who had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams are twice as likely to be engaged with their work and thriving in their overall well-being today.
As positive as this news seems on the surface, it points out a real weakness in our education system. Only 22 percent of college grads surveyed said they had such a mentor, and only 29 percent had an internship where they applied what they were learning. Less than a third of our students are exposed to the things that matter most in determining their future success and happiness. This probably explains why Gallup found that while 96 percent of college provosts surveyed believed their schools were successfully preparing young people for the workplace, only 14 percent of recent college grads in the work force say they feel their education prepared them adequately, and only 11 percent of employers say they are getting enough college grads with the skills they need.
I spent a little time this week thinking back on my life and the years I spent in school. I probably wouldn’t have come to this conclusion before reading Friedman’s column, but it is clear to me now that I’ve had the good fortune to have mentors who cared about me and offered support and guidance all along the way. Two in particular come to mind. My piano teacher in high school helped me develop from a kid who kind of liked playing the piano but had never really worked that hard at it, into a real and (somewhat) more disciplined musician. As I began walking down the path towards ordination, I was blessed to have a friend and mentor in Winifred Collin, who I worked with for many years at Christ Church. Those are the big ones, but I’ve had other folks who played smaller but important roles mentoring me at various times in my life. I imagine if you think back on your life, you’ll be able to identify some important mentors who’ve cared for you and helped you along the way. Maybe they were teachers, or colleagues or supervisors at work, or neighbors who helped you adjust to a new town, or friends who helped you along and taught you how to get through hard times. It’s good, I think, to take time to remember these folks, and to thank them if they’re still around. It can help us appreciate how we came to be the people we are today, help us recognize how we have been helped along and shaped by others, help us be grateful for how fortunate we are to have known these people.
As I reflected on the important mentors in my life, I remembered, with no small amount of shame, the ways I let each of them down. And not just once or twice, but regularly. These folks really stuck with me even when I didn’t deserve it. We’ve all had similar experiences, times when we’ve missed the mark, we’ve let people down, and even though we didn’t deserve it, we’ve been given second and third and fourth chances. Probably in most cases we didn’t use the word ‘forgiveness,’ but that was what was at work in all those situations, whether we called it forgiveness or not. Forgiveness is essential for our relationships with others; it’s essential for our relationship with ourselves; it’s essential for our relationship with God. Forgiveness is of course what our reading this morning from Matthew is all about.
Jesus has been talking to his disciples about how to respond when people don’t treat you right. You may remember last week’s reading with it’s careful instructions about how to deal with someone who sins against you. Jesus lays out a process, starting with taking up the issue with the person privately and finally leading up to airing your grievance publicly. Peter finally speaks up, asking the question that is really on all our minds. Peter asks Jesus, “How many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me?” And because Peter is always anxious to get it right, he answers his own question. He comes up with a number that he thinks is so over the top that he’s certain Jesus will approve. “Seven times? Surely seven times is enough. No one, not even God, could expect me to forgive someone more than seven times!” I say thank goodness for Peter, who’s brave enough to ask what we’re all thinking. Of course we know we should forgive others, but there’s got to be some limit, right? At some point, can’t we just give up?
As reasonable as that seems, as generous as Peter’s seven times is, Jesus says, no, that’s not enough. “No, Peter, not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” and I’m sorry to say that in reality our translation lets us off the hook by a lot: the Greek really says, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” For any one still trying to keep score, that’s 490 times, or 483 times more than Peter proposes. Then Jesus tells a story, a parable which raises the stakes even higher. This is what forgiveness is like in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says. There was a king who wanted to settle things up with his slaves. He had a lot of slaves; most of them had become his slaves because they owed the king money that they couldn’t pay back for one reason or another. At the top of the king’s list was a slave who owed him ten thousand talents. Now, ten thousand talents was a lot of money, a fantastic, almost unimaginable amount of money. One talent was more money than a day laborer could hope to make in several years. According to records of the time, the total yearly taxation for the whole region of Judea during the Roman occupation was only 600 talents. Ten thousands talents is like when your child says a “gazillion jillion” dollars. Of course, there’s no way the slave can pay the king back, so the king orders the slave and his wife and his children and all his possessions sold off. It won’t amount to much, barely a fraction of one talent, but at least it will clean up the king’s books a little bit. The slave falls down on his knees and begs the king, saying “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything I owe.” I don’t how the slave got that far in debt, but I do know, just as surely as the king knew and Jesus’s listeners knew, there’s no way, no matter how patient the king is, that the slave would be able to pay even a tiny portion of what he owes before both he and the king come to the end of their lives.
The king looks at the slave weeping and pleading on his knees in front of him, embarrassed and annoyed by his behavior. He looks at his accountant, who always seems a bit uncomfortable during these proceedings. Then, I imagine may he looks out the window and sees the dappled sunlight and shade in his orchard. He gazes at the clear blue sky through the leaves, and smells the fresh, crisp autumn air. Then, off in the distance, he hears the song of a nightingale. He’s transfixed for a moment, his mind far, far away from the pressures and hassles of kingship. Then his accountant clears his throat, and the king is brought back to the situation at hand. And even though he’s never done this before, never before even considered for a second doing this, the king lets the slave go free and wipes his debt clean. If he had to reason it all out, he might explain to his incredulous wife later that evening, “Well, all of that guy’s possessions aren’t worth anything, it’s going to cost more to run the auction than I’d get at the end of the day. And really, if I have to listen to his excuses every month for the rest of his life about why he doesn’t have more money for me, it’ll drive me to an early grave. I just want to be clear of him.” But really, whatever reasons he put to it, the king, I’ll bet, had one of those fleeting moments in life where he knew how very, very fortunate he was. Not fortunate in money or possessions or power. Just fortunate to be alive, to be a witness to a spectacular fall day, to be the audience of a nightingale who was singing for herself for the sheer joy of it. In that moment of gratitude, the king sees the true value of that ten thousand talent debt. I hope you’ve had at least one of those moments in, and that you keep it very close to your heart.
The poor slave, however, if he’s ever had one of those moments, has long forgotten it. You’d think being freed from his astronomical debt would have put him in a good, even a great, mood, but no. As he walks out of the king’s chambers, he sees a fellow-slave who owes him a hundred denarii. It would take an average peasant about a day to earn one denarii, so a hundred denarii is a few months work; nothing like ten thousand talents, but nothing to sneeze at, either. The slave seizes him by the throat and demands his money, and the guy falls to his knees and pleads for patience. And though everyone, the other slaves standing around, the king who hears about it later, even those of us reading this story hundreds of years later, everyone expects the slave to show the same mercy that the king showed him, he doesn’t hesitate for a moment before throwing him in prison until he gets his money back. I suspect the slave has been unable to forgive himself for getting into the mess of the ten thousand talents in the first place, can’t get the taste of having to beg for mercy from the king out of his mouth, and so he’s determined to never let anything like that happen again. But now, he’s really stuck. He’s never going to get that money, because the guy in prison has no way of making any money. Plus, his actions have infuriated the king and made him decide to force the slave to pay back his entire, impossible, ten thousand talent debt. Worst of all, he’ll spend the rest of his miserable life blaming the other slave for not paying him back, blaming himself for getting into such a pickle in the first place, blaming the king for going back on his word, resenting everyone he knows for their good luck and better fortune, resenting the universe that things have turned out so badly for him.
Through this over the top story, with its outlandish sums of money, and the extravagant, over the top behavior of the king and the slave (although in completely different directions), Jesus tries to hammer home a point about forgiveness. Forgiveness is important, not just for the person who is forgiven, but it is important for the one who does the forgiving. The king is better off kissing his gazillion jillion dollars goodbye rather than spending the rest of his life squeezing a few drops of water from that rock of a slave. And the slave would have been so much happier, so much more content, if he had only been able to do the same. I suspect this is a lesson that we acknowledge, deep down, to be absolutely true. We know it does us no good to hang on to resentments, to continue to blame others, whether they are strangers or colleagues or friends or family, for treating us badly. But if you’re like me, you’ve got a list of things you’re holding onto, slights and insults and hurts that may go back years. They’re eating us up from the inside out, little by little. We think we’ve let them go or that we’ve forgotten about them, but a little reminder or a trigger, and pretty soon, we’re red in the face and our stomach feels sour and we can taste the bitterness in the back of our throat.
Rob Voyle is an Episcopal priest and psychologist. He has published a great book called Restoring Hope: Appreciative Strategies to Resolve Grief and Resentment. It’s a workbook, really, and in it he describes an exercise he teaches to help people learn to forgive. It starts with identifying your resentment. Resentment, Voyle writes, is something we do, it isn’t something beamed to us from Mars, it’s not something imposed on us by people who have hurt us. Rather, resentment is something that we do to ourselves today in the darkness of what others have done yesterday. Resentment occurs when we demand of someone today that yesterday they would have acted differently. To forgive, Voyle says, we simply have to turn that demand, which gets us all tied up in knots and negative emotions, into a preference. He suggests picturing the person in our imagination and saying to them, “I would have preferred for you to act in another way,” and then describing specifically how we wanted them to behave. For example, you might picture your friend and imagine saying to her, “You said you were coming to my presentation, but you didn’t show up. I would have preferred that you had come to support me. Now, I release you from my demand that in the past you should have shown up.” Finally, Voyle says that the last step is to wish the person well. Voyle does this without defining what that ‘well’ might look like; rather he surrenders them into the goodness of God, knowing it will be good for them and good for him. Voyle is able to do this because he understands that forgiveness is not necessarily about trust and reconciliation. Forgiveness doesn’t mean trusting people who have clearly demonstrated they are not trustworthy. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you’re reconciled with the other person, that you’ve agreed to live or work together in the future. Forgiveness doesn’t mean becoming a sort of Christian doormat and accepting abuse forever. Forgiveness means letting go of our resentment, letting go of our demand that someone would have behaved differently in the past. As Lily Tomlin put it, “Forgiveness means giving up the hope for a better past.”
Maybe this exercise seems a little hokey to you, as it did to me when I first read it. I’ve tried it on and off, with varying degrees of success. For me, I find I’m much more likely to be able to let go of my resentment and shift my demands for the past to a preference, I find I’m more able to truly forgive someone when I am more aware of all the things I have to be truly grateful for in this life. Maybe you can try this exercise this week. I hope, with a little reflection, we can all bring to mind and keep close to our hearts the things we have to be grateful for, the big things and the little things. The mentors who have helped us along the way. People who have given us second and third and fourth chances. The miracle of life and the world around us. The chance encounter on an early fall afternoon that takes us outside of ourselves for a moment or two and opens up the day in a new way. May we learn to let go of our resentment, may we learn to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven. May we find that letting go of our demands for the past opens up the future in new and life-giving ways.
In the back of my closet, I have a plastic tub with about three dozen LP albums. I bought these records as a teenager. Back then, I thought I wanted to be a concert pianist, so most of them are recordings by some of the great pianists of the 20th century, people like Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, and Claudio Arrau. The turntable I played these records on in high school is long gone, replaced by a somewhat nicer one when I was in college, but already CD’s had begun to takeover. It never made sense to me, financially, to replace the LP recordings with CD’s, and in any case my musical interests expanded in other directions and I listened to less piano music. I know the new turntable came with me to Rochester twenty years ago, but in some move or other, it got left behind, and I haven’t had a way to play those old records since. I have finally replaced some of them with downloaded mp3 recordings, but I’ve held onto the records anyways. Every once in awhile, usually during a frenzy of cleaning and re-organizing the house, I open up that tub, and look at those records, and somehow, I’m connected to the kid I was all those years ago. I can remember listening them records endlessly in my room, probably to the dismay of my sisters. I remember daydreaming of someday playing those same pieces. I can even remember, or I think I do, how Horowitz played that demonic Etude by Scriabin; how Rubinstein played the opening of that Chopin Ballad; how Arrau played the cadenza of the Brahms concerto. I keep an eye out at rummage sales for decent turntable, thinking it would be nice to hear those records once again, scratches and all.
I read an article this week in The New Yorker about a physicist who figured out a way to play old wax cylinders and aluminum disks. These are recordings from as long ago as the late 1800’s, kept in archives around the world. The recordings aren’t playable, because they are too fragile. Most are so fragile that to even handle them risks destroying them. The physicist, Carl Haber, was stuck in traffic in northern California one day, and he heard a story on the radio about these archives, recordings of aboriginal music, of speeches, of sounds from well over a hundred years ago, sounds that haven’t been heard by anyone now living. Haber works for a group that conducts experiments at the CERN collider in Switzerland, that seventeen mile underground tunnel that physicists use to accelerate atoms and subatomic particles and collide them with one another in order to learn more about how matter is put together. Haber works on the detectors that line the supercolliders and track the paths of the subatomic particles. He developed a device he calls the SmartScope which photographs the detectors in microscopic detail, then analyzes the images and the placement over and over again. When he heard the story about the unplayable archives, he wondered if he couldn’t use the device to scan the old wax cylinders and aluminum disks to make a precise digital image of the grooves which could then be converted to sound. He experimented with an old 78 of “Goodnight, Irene” by the Weavers, and found it worked great. He expanded into reading wax cylinders and aluminum disks, and now people can hear tribal music from a century ago, from around the world, and speeches by famous figures of the early 20th century, and people speaking languages that are no longer used. Haber even used this technology to play a recording made in soot on a piece of paper in Paris in April of 1860; a recording of a man singing “Au clair de la lune” before the outbreak of the Civil War. Haber now spends most of his time bringing these old recordings back to life. He recounts being able to play dance music recorded in the early 1900’s in an Indian village on Vancouver Island. He took that recording to the descendants of that tribe, the Kwakitul people, and they were able to hear their ancestors singing their tribal songs.
I think all of this is pretty amazing, how technology can help us keep and recover memories, whether from our own life or from past generations. Sounds and images provide us deep insight into ourselves and into our past, but of course, we don’t have either of those when it comes to the foundation of our faith. All we know about Jesus comes from the words of the bible. Over the centuries artists have painted millions of pictures of Jesus, but of course we have no idea what he looked like. Dozens of actors have portrayed Jesus in movies and on television, but of course we have no idea what he sounded like; in fact, the language he spoke, Aramaic, hasn’t been spoken in hundreds of years. And even the words of the bible, the things we read that Jesus said, weren’t transcribed by someone as he said them. The gospels weren’t written down until decades after Jesus died. The things Jesus said, the stories he told, the things he did, all of that was handed down by word of mouth, repeated from one person to another and then another and another. Finally, people thought it would be a good idea to write some of it down. Maybe they were worried that they were forgetting some of what Jesus had said and done; maybe they realized, like anyone who has played a game of Telephone at a party finds out, we’re not very good at repeating things verbatim. We tend to change things, sometimes adding a word here or there, sometimes leaving things out. And so, people decided it was time to put things down on paper, to create a sort of permanent record of what Jesus said, what Jesus did, who Jesus was.
It was a good idea, of course, and thank goodness they did write things down, these documents called ‘gospels’ or ‘good news.’ And thank goodness that we have more than one gospel; in fact, there were dozens of gospels written, but when folks got around to figuring what was going to be put in the bible, they chose four, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I say thank goodness that we have more than one gospel because each of them looks at Jesus in a different way, each of them has its own perspective. As a result of having all of these perspectives, we get a fuller picture of who Jesus was than we would if we only had one gospel. We read this morning from John’s gospel. John is perhaps the most theological of the four gospels. It makes John sometimes a bit of a slog to read, because Jesus gives lots of long speeches that seem to twist and turn and can be confusing. We’re not the only ones confused; everyone around Jesus, including his own disciples, seem to have trouble understanding exactly what Jesus is saying. In our reading this morning, Jesus is talking to the disciples about his coming death and resurrection. In the verses right before our reading, Jesus has told his friends that he’s going to die. Then he tells them not to be troubled by that, as if it were possible for the disciples not to be troubled by such disturbing news.
Then Jesus offers an image to comfort his disciples. He says, “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” This image of God’s house having many dwelling places, many rooms, each prepared for us, has offered generations of faithful people a sort of glimpse of what life after death may look like. We can imagine a large, comfortable home, with a place prepared specially for ourselves, with rooms for all those who we have loved but who gone on before us, and with rooms for all those we will leave behind. Somehow, we will remain ourselves, we will be who are now, but in a different way, and we will dwell with God in God’s own house. Thomas, however, wants more information, he wants some concrete details. He wants to know where this house is, maybe what it looks like. He wants to know what it will be like to dwell with God. He asks, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus answers him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” Now its Philip’s turn to question Jesus, and he says, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you'll this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
This is the central theme of John’s gospel. You may remember that we read the beginning of John’s gospel way back on Christmas Eve, that familiar passage that starts, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God.” The passage ends with with John’s thesis, his statement about who Jesus is. He writes, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” In other words, if you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Look at Jesus who surrounded himself with the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the untouchables. Look at Jesus who was criticized by the religious elite for hanging out with sinners. Look at Jesus who treated women with dignity and respect at a time when that was unheard of. Look at Jesus who taught his disciples to love their enemies, to give without expecting anything in return, to overcome evil with love. Look at Jesus who wept when his friend died, who suffered on the cross, who forgave those who persecuted him. In Jesus, we understand that God suffers, God forgives, God cares for the poor, God cares for the sick, God loves God’s enemies.
This passage from John’s gospel, this conversation with Thomas and Philip, is a reminder to us that Jesus is the best lens we have into the nature of God; Jesus is the fullest expression of God’s self. God is revealed in the beauty and wonder of the natural world, a revelation that is easy for us to appreciate during these spectacular spring days. God is also revealed in the person of Jesus, but this revelation may be harder for us to appreciate. Jesus lived so long ago, and the memories we have of him are limited to words written down years after his death by people in another culture and time. What we would give for a picture of his face, the sound of his voice.
On Tuesday, former Army Sgt. Kyle White was awarded the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for combat bravery. In November of 2007, White and his fellow soldiers were sent to a meeting with village elders. They arrived in the village, and things didn’t seem quite right. The meeting was delayed, there were an unusual number of young men around, and there was enemy chatter on the radio. They decided it wasn’t safe and they left the village, trudging back up a steep, rocky trail. White recounts, “"It started off with a single shot, two shots, and then it seemed like the whole valley erupted. There were rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire from every direction,”
A rocket-propelled grenade exploded just behind White's head. He was hit, shrapnel peppering his face and hands. He says he didn't see how any of them could survive. "I told myself I was going to die because I just had that feeling — the amount of fire, I was already wounded — I'm not going to make it through this one. And I knew that if I'm going to die, I'm going to do what I can to help my battle buddies until it happens. And that's what's running through my mind," he says.
As others in the unit went down, White ran back and forth — dodging bullets — to care for the wounded. One of them was Spc. Kain Schilling. "That's when I got shot in my arm. It went numb. And I thought I lost my arm, thought an RPG or something took it off," Schilling says. Schilling found cover under a small tree. White ran after him. "He had to run through overwhelming fire just to get to me. It was... shale type of rocks, so when bullets hit, it was a cool-looking spark. So everywhere he's going you could see these sparks flying up around him," Schilling says. White wrapped a tourniquet around Schilling's arm. Then he spotted another American down, Marine Sgt. Phillip Bocks. White ran to help — straight through the Taliban fire. Schilling saw it all happen. "Tons of sparks, puffs of dirt coming up. He kind of just acted like they weren't there or it wasn't going to hit him. It was for sure he was going to get hit," Schilling says. The bullets ripped away pieces of White's uniform, but somehow he didn't get hit. He reached Bocks, who was badly wounded. White tried to calm him.
"The only words he ever said to me was, 'I don't think I'm going to make it through this.' Nah, you're going to be fine, Medevac is on its way — just trying to reassure him," White says. For twenty hours, White tended to the wounded under unceasing enemy fire. When the helicopters finally arrived, he made sure all the wounded were loaded up before he got onboard to be taken to safety. 'When you're deployed,' he later said, 'those people become your family. What you really care about is, I want to get this guy to the left and to the right home.”
So, maybe we have pictures of Jesus after all, maybe we do know what Jesus sounds like. In the self-sacrificing heroism of the our men and women in uniform; in the spirit of those who, in the aftermath of the flooding this week in Penn Yan and around the state, have stepped up to volunteer to clean up and help those who have lost their homes; in the work and generosity of those in our community who to try to make life better for people who are hungry or ill or lonely; in all these folks, and hundreds of other examples, we get a glimpse of Jesus here in our time, we get a glimpse of God at work in our world. These week, may we be on the lookout for the ways Jesus is working in our world today, and may we be ready to join him in ministry. Amen.
Edward Snowden was back in the news this week. You’ll remember he was the National Security Agency staff person who revealed the extent to which the United States government is listening in on the conversations of world leaders and its own citizens. It was announced this week that Snowden will receive the Ridenhour award for truth-telling from the Nation Institute and the Fertel Foundation. I know the views about Snowden’s actions and the consequences he should face are all across the board, but we can all agree that his disclosures have sparked a robust conversation about our expectations of privacy and how much information the government should be able to collect about us. In some ways, this is not a new conversation. As an article I read in The New Yorker this week by Kathryn Schulz points out, the flip side of democracy is bureaucracy: if everyone counts, everyone must be counted. Along with the right to vote goes a need to make sure that everyone is who they say they are, and that requires identification and proof of birth and proof of citizenship and a census to determine who lives where and so on. As far back as the 19th century, this troubling dark side of democracy was acknowledged by the French political theorist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who observed that “to be governed is to be noted, registered, enumerated, accounted for, stamped, measured, classified, audited, patented, licensed, authorized, endorsed, reprimanded, prevented, reformed, rectified, and corrected, in every operation, every transaction, every movement.”
The most macabre way we track our citizens is through the death certificate. If you die in the developed world today, your death is documented on a single piece of one-sided paper. It lists your legal name, gender, social security number, last known address, where the death occurred, who pronounced the death, and most importantly, the cause of death. The cause of death is the whole point of the death certificate; it’s the information that the public health system wants so they can figure out how to best allocate research and resources toward the diseases that are affecting the greatest number of people. When governments started tracking deaths like this, back in England in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were about 80 generally recognized causes of death, although many of them would look a bit odd to us today. In her article, Schultz writes that “you could die of Cramp, Itch, or Lethargy. You could be carried off by Cut of the Stone, or King’s Evil, or Planet-struck, or Rising of the Lights. You could succumb to Overjoy, which sounds like a decent way to go, or be Devoured by Lice, which does not. You could die of, basically, death, either “Suddenly”, “Killed by several Accidents,” or “Found dead in the Streets.”
Today, things are bit more scientific and a lot more complicated. The World Health Organization maintains the list of possible causes of death, known as the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, or the ICD-10. The ICD-10 comes in three forest-green volumes, can be purchased for $562.82 through Barnes & Noble, and runs to twenty-two hundred pages. It lists some eight thousand officially sanctioned ways to die. Unfortunately, this makes the death certificate fantastically difficult to fill out, so there are some two hundred and fifty pages of instructions dedicated to explaining to physicians, most often young interns or residents to whom this bureaucratic task falls, how to account for the cause of death. And the death certificate doesn’t list just one cause. Rather, there’s an immediate cause on the top line, due to another underlying cause on the line below, and so on, with four lines that need to be filled out. So, for example, the immediate cause of death might be the rupture of the lining surrounding the heart, brought on by a heart attack, caused by a clot in an artery around the heart, with the underlying cause of death being heart disease.
All of that information, if correctly documented, provides a sort of explanation for a death, but it also leaves a lot of critical information out, such as the person’s two-pack a day smoking habit, or that they were extraordinarily depressed due to the recent death of a spouse, or refused to take medication prescribed for their condition. Unfortunately, this document which is crucial to proving to banks and various government agencies that the person is actually dead, and which helps drive public health spending in this country, fails to get at the true underlying cause of death as much as 50% of the time.
I doubt whether the editors of The New Yorker planned it this way, but this article about death certificates coming out just before Holy Week got me to thinking about what some young resident or coroner might have written on Jesus’s death certificate. Crucifixion was a brutal method of execution practiced throughout the Roman empire. The condemned was nailed or tied to the cross, and hung up in a public place as a warning to others. Often the victim was tortured beforehand. In Jesus’s case, he was flogged, whipped with bands of leather embedded with sharp glass or metal objects that tore at his flesh. The victim could hang on the cross for days, or could succumb in a few hours. Most often, the immediate cause of death was probably asphyxiation, because the victim would have to hoist themselves up in order to breathe, and would eventually become too exhausted to do so. Others probably bled to death from their wounds, or their heart gave out, or they went into shock, or they died of dehydration.
However it happened in Jesus’s case, he died of severe trauma to his body. But to go to the next line, the underlying cause of death, to dig deeper into the behaviors and factors in his life that led him to the cross, I think we have to look at the two readings from Matthew’s gospel that we hear today, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem we heard a moment ago, and the long and painful account of his passion, his arrest, trial, and crucifixion, which we’ll hear in a moment. We hear both of these very different stories today, jammed up right next to each other, because I think they are intertwined. This Sunday can give us a bit of spiritual whiplash, with our joyful cries of “Hosanna” just minutes later becoming bloodthirsty cries of “Crucify him.” That whiplash can give us some critical insight into why Jesus died and what his death means for us today.
Jesus spends most of his ministry out in the country, in Galilee north of Jerusalem. When he decides to go to Jerusalem, the capital city, the home of the temple and the religious authorities and the place where the Roman governor Pontius Pilate lives and where most of the Roman army is located, he tells a couple of his disciples to go get a donkey for him to ride in on. News of Jesus has reached the city, and everyone wants to see this man who heals people and preaches about the kingdom of God. There is a festive atmosphere in the air because it’s almost Passover, and Jerusalem is filled with visitors from the country side. The Roman soldiers are on alert for any kind of trouble, and the religious authorities who try and keep the peace so that the Romans don’t have an excuse to crackdown are anxious that things don’t get out of hand. Neither the Romans nor the religious authorities are thrilled about this crowd shouting “Hosanna!” about Jesus, because they know how quickly crowds can get out of hand. The smart thing, the prudent thing, for Jesus to do would be to keep a low profile, but instead, he walks around the city preaching and teaching and criticizing the religious authorities. He does this because the kingdom of God will not wait for a safe time; it is not cautious, it is not prudent, it is not careful. This week there was a three-day civil rights summit at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, TX. Johnson of course is most often remembered for his record in Vietnam, a black mark which has overshadowed his landmark accomplishments in civil rights, his work to get voting rights and comprehensive civil rights bills passed through Congress. Shortly after becoming president after Kennedy was assassinated, LBJ spoke to congress and told them that passage of a comprehensive civil rights bill was a fitting and proper tribute to Kennedy’s memory. Most of his advisors urged caution, warning Johnson that civil rights, however worthy it might be, was a lost cause, and that he should go slowly. Johnson responded, and I’m paraphrasing, “Then what in the world is the presidency for?” Jesus knew that convincing the world to love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself, was a lost cause, but that didn’t slow him down or make him play it safe. He spoke out for what he knew was important and for what he knew was right, and it got him killed.
The crowds who are so enthusiastic when Jesus enters Jerusalem show up again when he is taken before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. The festival is at its height now, and tensions are running high. Pilate couldn’t care less who Jesus says he is, what he’s been preaching about over the last few years, couldn’t care less what he’s done that has so enraged the religious authorities. As was the custom at the festival, he’d been planning to release a prisoner, Barabbas, a bandit who’d been annoying the Roman army but was pretty popular with the crowds. But crowds are fickle; crowds are dangerous. The chief priests know just the things to say, just the rumors to spread, just the way to get the crowd riled up and to demand that Jesus be crucified. Who knows how they did it, it seems incredible, hard to believe that they could be so easily manipulated. Twenty years ago this week, on April 7, 1994, members of the core political elite in Rwanda known as the akazu instigated a genocidal mass slaughter of Rwandan citizens known as Tutsis. They convinced tens of thousands soldiers, police, and civilians to arm themselves with machetes and clubs to maim and kill their Tutsi neighbors. In a hundred days, nearly one million Tutsis were killed, often by people they had known well and lived next to peacefully for years. Who can explain how that happened? Who can explain the Holocaust, or the genocides in Cambodia or Armenia, or the lynchings by the KKK, or the wartime atrocities around the world? As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” There were good people in all those crowds gone bad, in every crowd that becomes a mob, but they either got swept up in the furor or they were afraid to speak up or their voices were drowned out or they figured everyone else was doing it so why not them. Mob mentality makes it possible to do the impossible, the unthinkable, the awful thing. Mob mentality got Jesus killed.
I can’t help but think that in addition to the physical injuries he received at the hands of the Romans that Jesus suffered from emotional and spiritual injuries he received at the hands of his friends. There’s Peter and the two sons of Zebedee who couldn’t keep their eyes open in the garden and keep Jesus company as he waited for the inevitable. There;s Judas, who betrays him with a kiss, a gesture of friendship. There’s Peter who denied even knowing him when it got too dangerous. None of his disciples were around to help carry his cross, so a stranger, Simon of Cyrene had to be pressed into service. And Jesus was left alone on the cross, surrounded by criminals and the mocking soldiers and bystanders. It would be easy if we could just point the finger of blame at Peter and Judas and the disciples, accuse them of character flaws and cowardice, but it’s not that easy. Craig Barnes, a Presbyterian preacher, reminds us that the Judas chromosome, and by extension, the Peter chromosome, the disciples’ chromosomes, run deep in all of us: we’re still betraying and denying and abandoning Jesus today. We betray him by deciding where we stand when the weak speak the truth to the powerful, by keeping our mouths shut while others are bullied or discriminated against. We deny him by closing our eyes and ears to those in need in our community and around the world. We betray him by failing to speak the truth about our world, and failing to recognize the truth about ourselves. We abandon him by slipping away in the dark, by running from things that are too painful to witness. In some ways, Jesus died of a broken heart, broken because of the betrayal of Judas, the denial of Peter, the abandonment of the disciples; broken because we’re still doing the same things, centuries later.
Holy Week is a hard journey. It’s hard because we’re called to witness the suffering and death of Jesus, and it’s hard because we’re called to acknowledge our own complicity in it. Let us not be afraid to face up to the truths that Holy Week speaks. Let us be reminded that the triumph of good over evil requires our willingness to put ourselves on the line. Let us not abandon ourselves or each other in the dark journey this week, or in any of the dark times that may lie ahead.
Some of you may remember Sam Levenson. He was a comedian, author, and television personality, appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, What’s My Line?, and The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson throughout the 1970’s. He told this story about the birth of his first child. The first night home from the hospital the baby would not stop crying. Dr. Spock’s landmark book The Common Sense Book of Baby & Child Care had just been published, and so Sam’s wife Sarah took the book off the shelf and began frantically flipping through the pages to find out why babies cry and what to do about it. The book is quite long, running to almost a thousand pages, and so the baby cried for a long time.
Levenson’s mother-in-law was in the house, but in the way these things often seem to work, she was not consulted because she had made some fairly disparaging remarks about her daughter needing a book to know how to care for baby. In her day, Grandma sniffed, they had just known what to do; there was no need for books. This had led to a bit of an argument earlier in the evening. Dinner had been served in a sort of frosty silence, and afterwards Grandma had retreated to the guest room upstairs. Even with the door closed, however, she could hear the baby crying and crying and crying until she could stand it no longer. She opened the door, went to the top of the stairs and shouted down to her daughter, “For heaven’s sake, Sarah, put down the book and pick up the baby!”
Of course, we expect infants to cry, and children to cry when they fall and scrape their knees or elbows, and the mother of the bride to cry at weddings, and everyone to cry at funerals. Those sorts of tears are expected and acceptable. Other times, we have a more ambivalent reaction to crying. It’s gotten somewhat more acceptable for men to cry in public, but it’s still news when politicians cry: Barack Obama’s tearful thank-you to his campaign workers was widely covered, and since being elected Speaker of the House, John Boehner has been taken a lot of guff about his tendency to wear his emotions on his sleeve. At the Olympics a few weeks ago, NBC’s Christin Cooper was roundly criticized for pushing skier Bode Miller about the pain of his brother’s death, and the network was pilloried for letting the camera linger on him for over a minute as he tried to regain his composure. On the one hand, Miller’s obvious emotion and tears over his brother’s death humanized him and showed how he has matured over the years; on the other, the balance of opinion seemed to be that he should have been allowed to have that experience in private, away from the camera.
In our reading this morning of the familiar story of the raising of Lazarus, no one seems to be able to make sense of Jesus’s tears at the death of his friend. In our translation, “Jesus began to weep” when Lazarus’s friends and family tell him to “Come and see” where they have laid him. “Jesus began to week” is more faithful to the original Greek, but perhaps not as memorable and profound sounding as the King James’s concise “Jesus wept.” Seeing Jesus’s tears, some in the crowd are amazed. “See how much Jesus loved Lazarus! See how moved he is!” they say. Others are confused. “Couldn’t Jesus have saved Lazarus from death? Couldn’t he have cured him of his illness? After all, he turned water into wine, he healed the crippled man at Bethesda, he fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fishes, he walked on water, and he opened the eyes of the blind man! Why didn’t he save his friend?”
I don’t know about you, but I find myself falling in with the second camp, the confused folks. Up to this point, Jesus has shown a remarkably cavalier attitude about Lazarus’s health and well-being. Jesus had spent a fair amount of time with Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. Their house in Bethany had served as a sort of refuge for him, a quiet retreat away from the crowds, and it will again shortly before his death. The Greek text tells us Jesus loved Lazarus as a friend. But when Lazarus falls seriously ill and his sisters send word to Jesus, his response is sort of bizarre. He says, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Then he stays where he is for another two whole days.
When Jesus finally decides to go see Lazarus, he tells the disciples that Lazarus has fallen asleep and he is going to go wake him up. It’s the disciple’s turn to be confused. “Jesus,” they say, “if he’s fallen asleep, he’ll be alright.” Jesus tries to clarify the situation. “Lazarus is dead,” he says. “I’m glad I wasn’t there, because now it gives me the opportunity to show you who I am. Come on, let’s go see him.” It’s a risky journey for the Jesus, because Bethany is in Judea, and the religious authorities in Judea have just tried to stone Jesus. They don’t know what to make of his healing people on the sabbath, his criticisms of the temple authorities, or his claim that he and God are one. Most of the disciples aren’t too keen to go back to Judea, but Thomas says, “Oh come on, let’s go. If Jesus is going to die, I’d rather die with him than stay here.”
When they arrive in Bethany, they find out that Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days. In Jewish tradition, it was believed that the soul hung out near the body after death for three days, hoping to get back into the body. On the fourth day, it was believed, the soul would give up and leave. So Lazarus is really, really dead. Lazarus’s sister Martha hears that Jesus has come, and she runs to meet him. She says, and you can almost hear the hint of reproach in her voice, “Jesus, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She immediately thinks better of it, and says, “Never mind; I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha gives the good answer, the correct answer for a faithful Jew, saying, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jews believed that on the day of judgement, all the dead would rise from their graves, they would be resurrected in their flesh and see God in glory. Jesus says to Martha, “That’s not what I’m talking about. The resurrection I’m talking about is not some sort of magic trick with bones and skeletons. I’m talking about a resurrection that is here and now, that has begun already. I am the resurrection; I am the life. If you want to experience life, truly experience life, abundant life beyond anything that you can imagine, believe in me. You don’t have to wait for the grave to experience resurrection, to experience new life. I am the resurrection; you can experience new life here and now through me.” It doesn’t seem like Martha quite gets it, but then, almost no one else in John’s gospel has gotten it, either. Jesus has performed miracle after miracle, sign after sign, he’s talked until he’s blue in the face about how he is the bread of life, the living water, the good shepherd, the gate to the abundant life, the way, the truth, and the life, and almost no one has been able to understand what he’s talking about.
Martha goes to get her sister Mary. Mary comes to Jesus, and says the same thing that Martha did, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” On seeing her, and the other people there weeping, Jesus finally seems to have a normal, human response. He is greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. It may be that the reality of the situation has finally come home for him. He’s known from the beginning of the story that God planned to raise Lazarus from the dead, but somehow, it hadn’t occurred to him that in order for that to happen, Lazarus would have to die first. Lazarus had to go through the suffering, the painful and difficult process of letting go of this life, the only one he knew. It was hard for him, painful for Mary and Martha, devastating for everyone who loved them. Throughout John’s gospel, Jesus has been seeing the world through God’s eyes, seeing it for what it can be. Lazarus’s death forces Jesus to see the world through our eyes, to see it for what it is. He asks where they have laid Lazarus, and the crowd says to him, “Come and see.” This is just too much for Jesus, and he weeps. Throughout John’s gospel, people have been invited to “come and see” who Jesus is, to “come and see” who God is, in all of God’s healing and life-giving glory. Now Jesus is invited to “come and see” the death that is inextricably entwined with that promise of new life. This is the turning point in John’s gospel. This is the last sign, the last miracle that Jesus will perform. He tells the people to move the stone out of the entryway to the tomb, ignoring Martha’s objection that it’s going to smell pretty bad in there. Tears still running down his cheeks, he cries, “Lazarus, come out!” Out comes the dead man, barely able to move because his hands and feet are bound with strips of cloth, barely able to see because his face is wrapped in a veil. He tells the crowd to unbind Lazarus, and let him go. No one is paying attention to Jesus anymore - all eyes are on the dead man returned from the grave, all eyes are on Lazarus. Through his tears, Jesus finally sees the truth he’s been trying to get everyone else to see, he sees the way forward, he knows what is at the end of the road for him. Jesus is not going to be exempt from the suffering and disappointment and death that we all experience. The days ahead will be filled with betrayal and shame and misunderstanding and agony. And after that he’ll be laid in a tomb, a tomb like the one in front of him now. He’ll be bound up with bands of cloth like the ones being unwrapped from Lazarus now. And a stone like the one the crowd moved away will be rolled into place, shutting out the light and the fresh air. Yes, on the third day it will be alright. But the road to Jesus’s resurrection on Easter morning goes straight through the brutal crucifixion on Good Friday. There is no easy road to the empty tomb, there is no detour around the cross.
Jesus weeps at Lazarus’s grave, he weeps for a friend he has lost, he weeps for the trials he will soon face, and he weeps for us as we go through the dark times in our lives. As Fred Craddock, a preacher I like a lot, writes, “Is there any place where this text, Jesus wept, does not fit? Spray paint it on the gray walls of the inner city: “Jesus wept.” Scrawl it with a crayon on the hallway of an orphanage: “Jesus wept.” Embroider it on every pillow in the nursing home: “Jesus wept.” Flash it in blinking neon at the bus station where the homeless are draped over pitiless benches: “Jesus wept.” Carve it over the door of a mountain cabin at which a fifteen year old girl stands with a crying child: “Jesus wept.” Sky write it over every greed raped landscape: “Jesus wept.” There seems no place where this text does not fit.”
On Friday morning I was almost brought to tears by a story I heard on NPR. It was a Storycorps interview with Elisa and Bobby Seeger about their son Aidan, who died of adrenoleukodystrophy, or ALD, in 2012 at age 7. ALD is a very rare genetic disorder that attacks the nervous system; it mainly affects young boys and can be fatal within a year. Elisa remembered that her son Aidan “Always liked be be ‘fancy,’ as he called - he liked to dress in shirts and ties. He had a really strong personality, and he could not be told what to do. We’d find him at 7:30 in the morning, watching cartoons with a bowl of M & M’s, and he’d be drinking a can of Coca-Cola.” The first sign of trouble came when he was age 6 and Aidan was having trouble reading. The pediatrician recommended a neurologist, and the MRI came back revealing large white spots on Aidan’s brain. In a few days, he lost his vision, and then the ability to walk or eat. His father described holding him in his hospital during his last days and hours.
After Aidan died, Elisa and Bobby found a spot to bury him in a cemetery near their home in Brooklyn. Then they began lobbying the New York State legislature. If ALD is detected in newborn babies, a bone marrow transplant can help them survive. In 2013, the legislature passed Aidan’s Law, requiring screening for the disorder in newborns. Several infants have been diagnosed wight he disorder since the new law was passed, including Matthew Hunter. When his parents, Nick and Lindsay, were told their son had ALD, they quickly learned about Aidan and his family while searching on the Internet. Lindsay said, “We have to find Aidan’s mom and just hug her.” They did, and Lindsay told Elisa, “You didn’t even know Matthew, and you fought for his life. And there’s no way to repay that.”
Jesus’s presence at Lazarus’s tomb, no matter how late he was, meant new life for Lazarus. God’s presence at our tombs, the little tombs we experience through the end of a relationship, the grief at the loss of a loved one, the addictions that are slowly killing us, the patterns of behavior and responses in ourselves and those around us that drain the life out of us, or the inexorable decline of our physical and mental health as we age, God’s presence throughout the worst that life has to offer us means that none of that, not even death, will have the last say. God works through the little deaths and the big deaths in our lives, God creates life in the midst of grief, creates love in the midst of loss, creates faith in the midst of despair. God is working even now to call us out of our tombs, God is working even now to call us to new and abundant life, God is calling us even now out of darkness and into the light. That is the Easter story, but it is also the Good Friday story. Amen.