This is one of the great consolation passages in the Bible. The greatest. And as much as I revere the wisdom I find in other religions of the world, you know, there’s nothing like this in any of them. Other religions, like Buddhism for instance, give you techniques to deal with suffering – effective ones, but they don’t wrap you in a blanket of sheer love like this passage from the mouth of Jesus. Nothing else comes close.
A year ago I worked with one of our young scouts on his Duty to God badge. We looked intently at the teachings of Jesus, and this was one of the verses we discussed. With no introduction to it, I asked my young friend what he thought of those words on face value. And he said, “It makes Jesus sound kinda braggy.”
I had to agree. It makes Jesus sound arrogant, and exclusive. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
The family story that we, in my family, are most proud of is the story of a cousin of mine who is now 87. She’s more like an aunt, really, and I go out to Sacramento to see her a couple of times a year. Without going deeply into her story I will just say that, at the age of fifty, living in a jungle in one of the regions of the Amazon River, she lost her husband and only child, a daughter, to a terrible strain of malaria, a strain which she also contracted and survived. Then, all alone, she survived for 5 more months until those who regularly supplied the family with staples, found her, having been unaware of her plight. I will add to that that she was legally blind and legally deaf since childhood. My daughter grew up with that story as an assurance that there was a vital strength in our family line, and people to be fiercely proud to call your own.
Somewhere in the gospels a man traditionally known as “the rich young ruler” comes to Jesus, and trusting that Jesus is someone who teaches with profound authority, he asks him a question that haunts him. He must fear, to some degree, that his riches mean that he has already received his reward in life, and that heaven may be a slim prospect, so he asks Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?” Those are the words he uses, but what he, in fact, is asking is, “What is the minimum requirement I have to do for God to smile on me?” Or, to use a variation of the title I adopted for the sermon, “How good do I have to be?” It’s an honest question, and one that all of us could benefit from asking from time to time – especially in these times when people go about toting guns in the name of some unholy cause they believe gives them purpose in life.
You know, it takes four years for light from the nearest star, Sirrus, to reach us. It takes centuries for light from Orion to reach the earth. That thought just makes the relationship my daughter and I struck up with those stars all the more charming; forging a bond of sorts with all that light we saw that is so much older than we are, and that is still traveling on now and will continue on after we both are gone from this earth, and her daughter, too.
Fear of abandonment is also called, separation anxiety, and it is the context of a passage of scripture that is paired today with the story of Jesus’s ascension. The occasion is the last evening of Jesus’s life. Jesus and his disciples are at table, at what would be their Last Supper. It is time for summing up. The occasion is pregnant with significance. in a long prayer, Jesus asks God to protect his friends, to keep them together, to give them joy, and to send them into the world in his name. The line he says that touches readers the deepest is this, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
In today’s scripture Paul has been travelling all over the Mediterranean, preaching. He’s been pretty successful but can the good news of Jesus get a hearing in a university town? I mean, among sophisticated people? Thinking people? Will it play in a town with the highest percentage of PhDs in Utah. I mean, Greece?
There’s more than one way to be a martyr, and you don’t even have to be particularly religious. I think of Senator Edmund Ross, the deciding vote in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson, held in 1868. No Senator in the history of our republic has known the pressures he bore when it came time to a floor vote. He didn’t like president Johnson, successor to Abraham Lincoln. He didn’t respect the president, but he also didn’t believe that Johnson was guilty of an impeachable offense. As Edmund Ross said later of the moment when his name was read and it was his turn to vote, “I felt I was looking down into my open grave.” He followed his conscience, and as a result, lost his Senate seat, but he would not sell his soul.
I wonder if anyone in our government, or the congress, the Department of Justice, or the F.B.I, might, in the next months, maybe, face a similar choice – to follow his or her conscience or bow to pressure. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.
The Christian churches of the day were little communities made up of women without husbands, slaves without masters, and foreigners living in someone else's country. They were viewed with suspicion and hostility by many of those around them – all except the Christians whose churches dotted the urban Mediterranean world. Fact is, the Christian Church was initially established because of the fact of the twin facts of migration and homelessness that were ever-present realities in the first century world
On the last night he had a mouth to eat with, Jesus sat down with his disciples to enjoy a meal. He took bread in his hands and broke it and said something they found puzzling. He said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” He was talking about meals they would eat later without him, and the fact that the simple act of breaking break and giving it to one another has in it the possibility of bringing him back. Like running your hand along a fence you ran your hand along fifty years before can bring back the smell of your grandfather’s beard. Sacred moments . . .
For decades I flirted with the idea of becoming a college professor. Early on I got an MA in English, and figured one day I would do the PhD, but one thing after another interferred. I’ve loved being a pastor, but I have an aversion to leaving big things like that unfinished. I was thinking seriously of finishing that course of study up until 8 years ago. But deep in me, I think I knew that wasn’t really for me. The field had changed so much since when I was in college. Finally, I realized that what I wanted was NOT to be a professor who talked about literature. What I wanted more than that was to write literature myself. Once I invested myself in writing, well, I felt like I was lucky to find my true path. But it had taken me an awful long time to bury the body of that old obsolete dream. This kind of thing happens to lots and lots of people.
Let me begin with this: Matthew’s account of Easter morning is unique among the four gospels in one regard: it includes an earthquake. Luke’s gospel includes a Sunday evening meal shared by Jesus and two disciples. John’s gospel includes Mary Magdalene who, incidentally gets a bad rap from those who say she was a prostitute. More likely, she was part of the tight circle of those surrounding Jesus who stayed with him to the end. Well, enough on that. But, for Matthew, Easter is an earthquake with doors shaken off their hinges, dead people out walking the streets, and a huge stone blown away from the tomb in a terrific seismic rumble.
Is it any wonder, then, that on the first Palm Sunday people asked “Who is this?” That day Matthew tells us that Jesus entered the Golden Gate riding on a donkey, or a colt, or both. “Who is this?” the urban folk ask, and the answer is, “the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” that tiny town that rested on the jagged brow of a windy hilltop, that “inconsequential and utterly forgettable place.”
Dry disconnected bones. A brother in a tomb four days. Come on, how much hope can we really afford to have? Because frankly, sometimes it's painful to go on hoping. Sometimes it's best to just move on; just leave our tattered hopes behind and get on with a new life. It starves the heart to hope and hope when all seems lost. But the text this morning argues that there are times when the spirit of God takes us by the hand and leads us to the private cemetery each of us keep, where the spirit took Ezekiel; where Jesus took Martha and her sister Mary in the other story read this morning. It asks us to look more closely at what may be difficult to behold.
As I have said many times, the Bible does not speak with one voice. On this matter, the matter of the cause of a man’s illness, The Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible tells us that if you are well and rich it is because God has blessed you. Yes, and if you are poor and blind it’s because you must have sinned. This is why the disciples ask the question. But there is also a book in the Hebrew Testament that objects to this understanding and it objects to it strenuously. It’s the Book of Ecclesiastes. There the writer says, whether you are rich and healthy, or sick and poor is most often a matter of chance.
I love this about the Bible. It is such a living library of books, books that often correct one another. Yes, and by doing this, it gives us a record of a lively debate that has been going on for a several thousand years. What is important is not your circumstances, it’s your attitude to them. Jesus clearly sided with Ecclesiastes.
In an interview Nadia Bolz-Weber once said, “My congregation is a place where difficult truths are spoken out loud about ourselves and about the world. And beautiful truths about God are spoken out loud as well.”
And listen to this. She says, “There's so much pretending out there. We have to pretend that we're not smarter than our boss. We have to pretend we love our partner more than we do. We have to pretend that everything is fine. There's just so much pretending in our lives we have to muster up, I think the church needs to be a place where that doesn't have to happen. Just for one hour during the week, they can exhale and the truth about everything can be spoken in a sacred space.”
I suppose they will long be talking about how the Academy and Price Waterhouse messed up in 2017. But look, Jordon Horowitz brought it Sunday night, and it will be there for all time. When people look for an example of supreme grace, they will remember that man and that moment in front of an audience of a billion. Jesus was Jesus because among other things, he knew the difference between the truly great and the merely good. He captured the moment. He rose to the occasion.