May 08, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
In the flow of John’s Gospel, what we see in John 14 takes place before the crucifixion. Yet in the Year A Lectionary we read this a month after Good Friday and in the Eastertide season. So what do we see here in John 14 that is startlingly instructive? As we will note, the disciples were no doubt startled by what Jesus said that very night and that would only deepen in the next 24 hours. So how do Jesus’ words here “sound” in both the context in which they were originally spoken and now to also our ears given what we know was coming next for Jesus?
First, a note on the “acoustics” of this chapter. So often we read the “Let not your hearts be troubled . . .” lines here with confidence and some gospel bravado. But do you think that is how Jesus spoke those words? I doubt it. It was a dark and gloomy night for Jesus. He knew and sensed what was up. Further, back up into what we call John 13 and we will see Judas’ sad departure and the foretelling of Peter’s tragic denials. Things were falling apart fast around Jesus and so I think it is at least as likely—if not from a human point of view far more likely—that Jesus spoke the words of John 14 with a quivering chin and with tears forming in the corners of his eyes.
After all, Jesus is telling them not to let their hearts be troubled but the main reason he needed to say that is because in reality, trouble was all around. And as Gethsemane will soon prove, Jesus’ own heart is in turmoil enough as it is.
But even before that grim evening on what we now call “Maundy Thursday,” the disciples had seen Jesus’ distress before. Just recently he’d wept over Lazarus. He’d welled up with tears on other occasions, too. The disciples had also seen Jesus laugh, of course, and they’d seen him be surprised and delighted over life. They’d watched him eat, seen him nod off when sleepy, watched him clean his teeth and turn aside to void his bladder. They’d seen his love and compassion for the little people they encountered and sensed his grace and forgiveness for almost everybody.
But lately they’d also seen him take steps that were getting him ever closer to something they all feared: Jesus’ own death. Maybe they repressed that fear most of the time but soon and very soon Jesus’ demise would be on display for all to see and it would cause every last one of them to flee Jesus liked frightened school children.
So when Jesus says “I am the way” in response to Thomas’ question about what the “way” was, what Jesus was telling them was that the way to life abundant was down the path he was walking that very moment, and it was not a fast track to the top! Very soon the disciples will see Jesus crossed out by the Romans, writhing on a cross of despair, pain, dereliction, and finally death. Surely Thomas was not alone in wondering across the next couple of days, “If Jesus is the way, then how can his ‘way’ lead to anything good?” Golgotha surely won’t look like the path to the heavenly “dwelling places” to which Jesus refers in John 14. The cross was the end of any “way” any sane person would want to travel. The cross was in fact not “the way” but “the dead end.”
But then Jesus quickly goes on to say that his “way” will lead to also the one he calls “Father.” Now it’s Philip’s turn to chime in. “Show us the Father.” And in reply Jesus tells him “You’ve been seeing him all along.”
Really? God the Father? God the Father with a piece of chive stuck between his incisors after dinner? God the Father conked out in sleepy exhaustion in the back of a boat? God the Father weeping and crying? God the Father cozying up to a Samaritan woman with a past, to prostitutes, to tax collectors? God the Father being so gracious with sinful folks and so harsh with religious folks? Oh, and the next day, God the Father pinned to spits of wood with spikes through wrists and ankles?
No, no, no: the Father must be different than all that. Where’s the glory? Where’s the dazzling light show? Where’s the hellfire and brimstone of judgment?
Jesus’ claim that all along the disciples had been seeing the Father whenever they had seen Jesus is far, far more scandalous and shocking than any other such story of hidden identity we’ve ever known. This is not just Clark Kent really being Superman or the pauper who is really the king in disguise. This is not Aragorn the King of Gondor hidden inside the odd ranger called Strider and it certainly is not even the lowly frog who is a prince waiting to be kissed.
This is the Holy One of the cosmos revealing his truest nature in Jesus of Nazareth. Whether we look at this pre-crucifixion as the disciples originally did in that room that night in John 14 or from our Eastertide perspective just on the other side of our annual celebration of Good Friday and Easter, the effect is the same: utter startlement and even bewilderment that this can be true.
The Way to life is through a cross. The humble man from Nazareth who was so full of “grace and truth” was the Father in our midst all along.
This Lectionary reading is a scant 14 verses long. But it’s hard to imagine any other stretch of the Gospels that contains so much of everything that makes the Gospel wonderful and mysterious than this one!
It’s curious to note that in this key chapter, the more prominent disciples like Peter and John fade to the background in favor of lesser-known figures like Thomas and Philip. Indeed, neither Philip nor Thomas speaks more than two or three times in the gospels (virtually not at all in the Synoptic Gospels) and yet here they are the key discussion partners with Jesus. Perhaps this says something about the atmosphere of the upper room as John sketches it for us. Judas has already stolen away. Peter was probably stunned into silence to hear Jesus predict his upcoming three-fold denial. On that night in which Jesus was betrayed, things were topsy-turvy and upside-down for the disciples. Perhaps the nature of this famous exchange—and who was doing the talking—was part of all that went into that evening of darkness and shadows.
In one of the many fascinating portraits sketched by neurologist Oliver Sacks we see what could be described as a metaphor for the Christian life. Tourette’s Syndrome is a bizarre mental disorder that causes victims to have any number of physical and verbal tics. Some people with Tourette’s have constant facial twitches, others find themselves uncontrollably uttering verbal whoops, beeps, and sometimes also raunchy swear words. One man with Tourette’s whom Dr. Sacks knew was given to deep, lunging bows toward the ground, a few verbal shouts, and also an obsessive-compulsive type adjusting and readjusting of his glasses. The kicker is that the man is a skilled surgeon! Somehow and for some unknown reason, when he dons mask and gown and enters the operating room, all of his tics disappear for the duration of the surgery. He loses himself in that role and he does so totally. When the surgery is finished, he returns to his odd quirks of glasses adjustment, shouts, and bows.
Sacks did not make any spiritual comments on this, of course, yet I find this doctor a very intriguing example of what it can mean to “lose yourself” in a role. There really can be a great transformation of your life when you are focused on just one thing–focused to the point that bad traits disappear even as the performing of normal tasks becomes all the more meaningful and remarkable.
Something like that is our Christian goal as we travel the way that just is Jesus. We lose ourselves in the Savior and are transformed. We do follow his Way, even though it leads to and through a cross. And we do see that Jesus and the Father are one and that we can become one with both through baptism and then living out that identity every day. We will be changed. Our old selves will wither away. Thanks be to God!
Author: Doug Bratt
Acts 7:55-60 may not be the best text to preach or teach in connection with a church ordaining deacons. In fact, after reading it, we may wonder why anyone would volunteer to serve as a deacon. After all, deacons expect needs that outstrip resources, sometimes impatient needy people and the odd bounced check. But death for doing their job well?
It’s easy to forget that the Christian faith, which most of Acts 7’s preachers and teachers are largely free to express and seems to make few demands on us, is both very costly and precious. After all, people not only have died but also continue to die for it.
Acts reports that the early Christian church found that its leaders were neglecting the ministry of feeding Greek Jewish widows. So it chose seven deacons to help ensure that those hungry women were fed. Yet their new work hardly seems like the kind that was likely to get someone killed.
Luke tells us that one of those first deacons is a man named Stephen. While we know very little about his background, his name at least suggests that he comes from the Greek-speaking part of the early church. Acts 6:5 does refer to Stephen as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” In verse 8 we read that he’s also “full of God’s grace and power.” What’s more, verse 8 adds that Stephen “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.” Yet none of that would seem to make him a likely candidate for martyrdom.
Yet those “wonders and signs” Stephen did probably don’t refer to the amazing things he could do with a leg of lamb and sauté pan or a shrunken benevolence budget. While he doesn’t explicitly say so, Luke at least implies that he’s, instead, doing miraculous things like healing people.
However, while Stephen’s personality seems sweet and his work is helpful, his ministry arouses fierce opposition. Yet when people try to argue with him, they find that they can’t overcome either his wisdom or the power of the Holy Spirit living in him. Just as Jesus had promised, the Spirit has given one of his followers “words and wisdom [that] none of” his “adversaries” are “able to resist or contradict.”
According to Acts 6, religious investigators ask Stephen if he has, in fact, been blaspheming God and slandering Moses. It’s a doubly serious charge. After all, nothing was more sacred or precious to Jews than God’s temple and law. To speak against either was to speak against the Lord.
With his face perhaps glowing like that of Moses or an angel, Stephen gives a speech whose length reflects the importance the book of Acts places on it. He basically tells the authorities, “You’ve got a lot of guts charging me with violating Moses and his law. You should take a good look in the mirror!”
Stephen’s fiery speech seals his doom. He has accused most Jews of being unfaithful to their God. When the authorities respond by snarling at him like wild animals, God pries open the heavenly realm in order to give Stephen a glimpse of it.
The book of Acts often uses such visions to give Jesus’ earthly disciples glimpses of heavenly realities. His vision confirms to Stephen that Jesus is not the blasphemer or criminal many of his contemporaries think he is, but the exalted Lord. His vision also reminds Stephen that the exalted Jesus is the Messianic judge of both his and others’ actions.
Yet the authorities plug their ears and scream to try to drown out Stephen’s words. After all, if he’s right, they’ve made themselves God’s enemies. If Jesus is the Son of Man, the accusers, not the accused Stephen, are the accused.
So the storm that has slowly been building throughout the books of Acts now furiously breaks over Stephen. Any semblance of justice crumbles under the weight of the mob’s fury. The enraged crowd drags Stephen outside the city’s gates where it begins to stone him to death.
However, his executioners are neither local hooligans nor Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross. These are upstanding members of the religious community who are guardians of the Jewish faith tradition.
Their actions remind those who preach and teach Acts 7 that religious communities are no less vulnerable than any other community to the temptation towards violence. Stephen’s murder challenges preachers, teachers, churches and their members to be very careful about how we handle disagreements.
As Stephen dies, he whispers a prayer modeled after a Jewish child’s bedtime prayer: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Yet just as Jesus prayed for his torturers’ forgiveness, the first Christian martyr also asks God not to hold his death against his murderers. So Stephen never stops sharing his faith in Jesus Christ; he does it even with his dying breath.
And that Jesus brings Stephen comfort even as his life ends so violently. Jesus’ follower dies like Jesus did. Yet Luke tells us that Stephen “falls asleep,” a startlingly beautiful and peaceful description of a brutal death.
So the ordinary people whom the apostles had so recently attracted and amazed have now turned on them. However, at least one of their powerful leaders also lurks in its shadows. After all, before they hurl their stones at Stephen, people lay their clothing at Saul’s feet.
He, however, is no neutral bystander. Saul, reports Acts, gave “approval to his death.” In fact, just after our text ends, Acts reports that Saul begins to try to destroy the church. He launches a house-to-house murderous search for men and women who follow Jesus.
Acts 7 is a violent story. Yet there’s gospel in it. Donald MacLeod was a long-time professor at Princeton Seminary. He loved to tell a story about a young Chinese Christian who fled his home and family because of persecution for his faith.
MacLeod always asked one of his students to open his classes with prayer. One day he asked a Chinese seminarian to do so. The young man stunned everyone by praying, “O God, give us something to die for, for if we do not have something to die for, we have nothing to live for.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood that. He was a German pastor, professor and pacifist in the 1930’s and 40’s. Yet Bonhoeffer eventually concluded that it was his Christian duty to participate in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Years before he’d written, “Who stands fast? Only the one whose final standard is not reason, principle, conscience, freedom, virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all when called to be obedient and faithful in action … in exclusive allegiance to God.”
Acts 7 reminds Christians that we don’t just baptize people into something to die for. We also baptize them into something, in fact, the only thing, that’s really worth living for, the life of being Jesus’ disciple. You and I pray that God will graciously equip them for exclusive allegiance to God.
Yet while some of us are intrigued by the martyrdom to which that may lead, Stephen’s death is not Acts’ primary interest. It, after all, quickly moves on to report that the authorities hunt down and scatter most of the first Christians across Judea and Samaria.
Earlier Jesus had predicted that witnesses would carry the gospel into those places. Yet who would have guessed that persecution would fuel that spread? After all, in the wake of Stephen’s martyrdom, Christian refugees, like dried dandelion seeds that the wind scatters, disperse and take root all across Palestine.
There they bear much fruit, by the power of the Holy Spirit. After all, God is able to use even the persecution of God’s own children to advance God’s good plans and purposes. Not even Satan’s powerful ally Saul can stop that relentless spread of the gospel. In fact, “the blood of the martyrs,” as the church father Tertullian once famously wrote, proves to be “the seed of the Church.”
God calls preachers, teacher and those who listen to us to be prepared to give our lives, especially if clinging to them means abandoning our faith. After all, following Jesus is the only way for any of us to live … and to die.
(Note: I am grateful to William H. Willimon in the Interpretation series commentary on Acts for many ideas here. Acts: John Knox Press, 1988, pp. 64-67.)
Plaques inscribed with the names of three Princeton Theological Seminary graduates greet hungry seminarians as they enter their dining hall: “Walter Macon Lawrie – Thrown overboard by pirates in the China Sea, 1847. John Rogers Peal – Killed with his wife by a mob at Lien Chou, China, 1905. James Joseph Reid – Fatally beaten at Selma, Alabama, March 11, 1965.” It’s enough to make a seminarian lose her appetite, if not look for some safer line of work, like, say, bull-riding.
On Oberlin College’s campus stands a stone arch that’s a memorial to a group of Congregationalist missionaries. It includes the names of thirteen Oberlin grads as well as five of their children who were murdered in the Boxer Rebellion. So maybe we should be surprised that any Oberlin students are Christians.
Psalm 31:1-5; 15-16
Author: Stan Mast
“In this Psalm the panic of the people of God troubled by the persecution of all the heathen, and by the failing of faith throughout the world, is principally seen.” Those words could have been written by any alert observer of the world-wide religious scene in 2017, as we witness, for example, the cruel persecution of Middle Eastern Christians by ISIS and the alarming loss of membership in North American churches. But they were, in fact, written by St. Augustine in his commentary on the Psalms. And the original words of Psalm 31 were written 3000 years ago. Apparently the world has never been a friend to the faithful.
There is some small comfort in that; “misery loves company.” But the larger comfort comes from the two dominant images of Psalm 31—the image of refuge and the image of hands. All preachers are taught that there needs to be one dominant image in a sermon, something to capture the imagination of the listeners. So you might want to focus on one or the other, but I think they are directly related. We find our ultimate refuge in the hands of God. You can build your sermon around that idea/image.
When I read the word “refuge” today, I have an immediate association—“refugee.” It’s a word that fills the news. I can see them: huddled in ramshackle refugee camps in Jordan, hanging over the sides of flimsy boats floating in the Mediterranean, stumbling ashore in Greece and streaming across the borders of various European countries, standing in line at immigration stations, detained in United States airports after President Trump’s executive order to send them back if they came from 7 Muslim nations, or settled into Mid-Western cities by caring Christian churches.
Refugees want out of a bad place and into a good place. That’s what David, the refugee, wanted. It seems strange to call a king a refugee, but like all true refugees he was hounded by enemies determined to make his life miserable. Psalm 31 is filled with references to them and their pursuit of David. They set traps for him (verse 4). They conspire against him, plotting to take his life (verse 13). They spread false rumors about him (verse 18). They lay siege to him, so that he felt as though he was living in a “besieged city” (verse 21). We don’t know if David is referring to Saul (cf. I Samuel 23 for an episode that fits our text precisely) or Absalom or the Philistines. All we know for sure is that they put David in a bad place and he is desperately looking for a good place.
Though he fled to many a place to find refuge, he knew that his ultimate refuge lay not in another place, but in The Other person. So he opens the Psalm with its central thought. “In you, O Lord, I have taken refuge.” Pay careful attention to the words here. It is Yahweh– not some generic god, not the gods of the nations, but the covenant God of Israel– that provides the ultimate refuge to this refugee.
It is not enough to seek solace in religion. True refuge is to be found only in the true God who revealed himself to Israel and became human in a Jew named Jesus. While this may seem politically incorrect in a world filled with refugees who adhere to other religions, it is the consistent message of the Bible that “there is salvation in no one else.” In love for all refugees, we must tell the truth.
In Psalm 31 salvation is pictured as refuge. The word suggests a protecting enclosure. Verse 2 shows us a “rock of refuge,” perhaps a huge monolith rising up out of the desert, or perhaps an immense rocky cave leading deep into the earth. Verse 3 speaks of a fortress, suggesting a man made castle or fort designed to withstand any attack. The idea is that David’s enemies want to enclose him in a narrow prison that will restrict and perhaps end his life. He looks to God to enclose him in a safe but “spacious place” (verse 8) that will give him not only security, but also freedom. Here is a counter cultural thought. In complete dependence on God we find complete independence from all the forces that would imprison us. It is in being God’s servants (verse 16) that we are safe and free.
How do we know we can trust God? We have sought refuge in many other places—in safer neighborhoods, in more secure investments, in better friends and closer family ties, in more faithful and loving churches, in new countries—and we always find that we aren’t ever as safe or free as we thought we would be. We are disappointed by our places of refuge; that is what David is alluding to when he says in verse 1, “let me never be put to shame.”
So what makes Yahweh/Jesus a reliably safe refuge? We might say it’s his love, and that is how our reading for today ends. “Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.” The last word there is the ubiquitous Hebrew word chesed, the word that sums up God’s covenantal commitment to bless his people. It is finally God’s love for us, demonstrated in Jesus Christ, that provides the ultimate refuge in a dangerous world.
But we have all experienced love that failed, that walked away, that betrayed, that didn’t keep its word, that lied. And that’s why David appeals to other dimensions of God’s love in our reading for today—righteousness (verse 1) and truth (verse 5). We can trust God’s love because God always does the right thing and because God is always true to his word. His is not the fleeting smile (verse 16) of a fickle lover, but the steady sunny gaze of a righteous Spouse who keeps his solemn promise even beyond death. “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing….”
All of this talk about mighty fortresses and bulwarks might seem a bit too architectural and impersonal to be comforting. This is where the other image in Psalm 31 is helpful. God is not merely a rock of refuge; God is a person with hands. We can relate to this. Our enemies have hands that set traps and erect siege towers. So does God.
Psalm 31 contains two of the loveliest references to the hands of God anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, Jesus thought that verse 5 was so apt that he took those words on his lips with his dying breath. “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” Those are not the words of someone who has simply given up; they don’t convey fatalistic resignation. Indeed, the word “commit” was sometimes used to describe a commercial transaction in which one person entrusted something of inestimable value to the hands of another in the hope of one day getting it back.
Thus, the very next word in verse 5 is “redeem me.” That, of course, is exactly what God did when he raised Jesus from the dead. And that is exactly what we can expect when we seek refuge in the hands of God– redemption full and free, deliverance from enemies now and resurrection from the last enemy in the end. As Paul put it in II Timothy 1:12, “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”
That sounds lovely, doesn’t it? And completely unrealistic in the times in which we live. These are terrifying times, even for those of us who aren’t refugees from the Middle East or Africa. Some of us in America are terrified that our new President will impulsively push some button or insult some enemy or write some executive order that will ignite a conflagration that will consume the whole country. Others are afraid that our new President will not be able to keep his campaign promises to “make America great again,” that his plan will be stymied by his enemies on the left. We are a divided nation, and other nations are nervous about that. These are difficult times for everyone everywhere.
That’s why we need to preach verse 15 with great power. “Our times are in your hands–” not in the hands of Donald Trump, not in the hands of the Democrats, not in the hands of the terrorists or of Putin or another name, but in the hands of the one “whose name is above all names…. (Phil. 2:9) The hands that were pierced for our sake now rule the world for our sake (cf. Ephesians 1:22). All the times of our lives and of our world are in his mighty, merciful hands.
We may wonder exactly how the hands of Jesus hold our times. I mean, terrible things still happen all the time. What real effect do his hands have? The doctrine of providence helps us imagine what it means to take refuge in the hands of the God who is Christ. Here’s how the old Heidelberg Catechism explains providence. It “is the almighty and ever present power of God by which he upholds, as with his hand, heaven and earth and all creatures, and so rules them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and lean years, food and drink, health and sickness, prosperity and poverty—all things, in fact, come to us not by chance, but from his fatherly hand.”
The ultimate effect of taking refuge in the hands of Christ is explained in those inspired words of Romans 8:28. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, for those who have been called according to his purpose.” Psalm 31:14 puts that very simply. When we cry out to Jesus Christ, “You are my God,” we can take refuge in the fact that “our times are in your hands.”
1 Peter 2:2-10
Author: Scott Hoezee
Whatever you may think about the musical group The Beatles, it is generally acknowledged that few bands have ever paid as much attention to the lonely, invisible people of society as did The Beatles. Two of their songs carry a particular poignancy in this regard. One haunting tune is titled “Nowhere Man.” The song talks about a “nowhere man who sits in his nowhere land making his nowhere plans for nobody,” but the song then asks, “Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”
Perhaps the most poignant such song is “Eleanor Rigby” that paints a sad vignette of lonely people who live on the isolated margins of the wider world. Eleanor Rigby, we are told, is the caretaker of a country church. Eleanor is the one who picks up the rice after weddings have come and gone. The church’s pastor is Father McKenzie, a man who, it is said, writes the words to sermons that no one will hear because “no one comes near.” In the end, Eleanor Rigby dies in the church and is buried “along with her name. Nobody came.” The mournful chorus of the song asks, “Ah, look at all the lonely people. Where do they all come from? All the lonely people: where do they all belong?” Indeed, look around you in society and it is sadly easy to spy lonely, aimless, marginalized people, the ones no one talks to.
Sometimes I don’t mind eating out at a restaurant by myself. Sometimes it’s fun to be by yourself and just people-watch. But what if “table for one” was all you ever could manage when going out? Or what if you flat out never went anywhere at all because your phone never rang with invitations? What if your email and regular postal mail never contained warm messages from friends or family, asking how you were doing and suggesting maybe you come along to a party Saturday night?
What if you really and truly felt alone and cut off all the time? There are people like that all over the place. Have you ever felt alone in a crowd? Have you ever had just a stab of that kind of loneliness? Some people live with this 24-7.
In this Lectionary passage from 1 Peter 2 (and I will leave it to wiser people than I to figure out why we moved backwards in 1 Peter 2 from last week’s Lectionary text to this one!) Peter writes, “Once you were no people.” Some translations render this line as “once you were not a people,” but the original Greek just has the negative word “no” there. Once you were no-people. Once you were nobody, a nowhere man or a nowhere woman, a marginalized and isolated cipher ignored by the world and off floating on society’s fringes.
That, Peter tells his readers, is who they had once been. Nobodies belonging to no one in particular and going nowhere special in life. No-people. Can you hear the aching sadness in that?
If you can, then the lyric and lilting nature of this passage can hit home. If you can sense the longing behind what Peter is saying, then you will also sense afresh what this supper of Holy Communion really gives us, too. Because in this passage Peter makes clear that if you want to talk about the mass of this world’s lonely, rejected people, you would have to place Jesus in their number.
I Peter 2 is one of many places in the New Testament that lifts up what, all things being equal, should have been one of the Old Testament’s most obscure of all passages. It’s that line from Psalm 118 about the stone that the builders rejected becoming the cornerstone of some new and grand building. If you are familiar with that verse from the psalms, then it’s not because it leapt off the page at you when you were reading the psalms for devotions one evening. I doubt that Psalm 118 even counts as the favorite psalm for most of us. Yet for some reason, Psalm 118:22 went on to become the single most-oft quoted Old Testament verse in the New Testament. This odd line from Psalm 118 was quoted more often by Paul and Peter than any other verse in the Bible. Psalm 118:22 beat out Psalm 23, it beat out any of the words from Isaiah or Jeremiah.
Somehow the apostles spied in that lonely verse about a lonely and rejected stone the very essence of Jesus and his gospel. After all, Jesus was the lonely man in his day. No one really understood him, least of all his mother and family. One day when Jesus was delivering as fine a sermon and lesson as he had ever done, his mother and brothers said, in a loud voice for all to hear, “He’s off his rocker and out of his head!” That had to hurt.
Jesus was the lonely one, the man from whom people hid their faces. Jesus was the one who knew deep in his soul exactly what it felt like to be included in the category of being a no-people, a nobody. But that’s also a major reason why he came. After all, in Genesis 3, what was the very first thing that happened when sin crashed into this world? Adam and Eve hid. They hid from God. They hid their bodies from each other. Their fellowship was broken left and right and through the cracks and fissures of that brokenness, all the loneliness the world has ever felt seeped in. Loneliness on our cracked hearts is like rainwater on a leaky roof–it always finds a way in.
But God didn’t leave Jesus alone in the nowhere land of nobodies. God picked up that rejected stone and made it a living stone. God, in his great mercy, took what looked like a junk rock and turned it into something more precious than jewels. And this living stone that is Christ Jesus the Lord has, ever since, been doing the same thing for as many other rejected and lonely ones whom he can grab and grace with his mercy. “Once you were no-people” Peter says. We know what that’s like and we know how many such folks are still here, in this room, in this city, in this nation, across the face of this sad world. “Once you were no-people. But now you are the people of God.”
The gospel tells us that this is possible, and that it happens all the time. Nobodies become somebodies. The lost and isolated get found and included–they get included in something grand and new called the people of God. The once-lonely who had cried themselves to sleep or who had drifted off to sleep in front of the television more nights than not, they receive mercy. It’s what they wanted all along. Every time they sobbed in loneliness, every time they stifled a cry when they saw a happy family pass by on the sidewalk, reminding them all over again how alone they were by comparison, every time such a person cried, it was the cry of “Lord, have mercy” whether they knew it or not.
“Once you had not received mercy,” Peter says, “but now you have received mercy.” For all the lonely people who know deep down that being lonely is not the way God wanted things to be, for all such as this, the gospel of Jesus the rejected one is this: those who are no-people, those who cry for a mercy they’ve never yet found, are the very ones that will be the first to be lifted up to Jesus’ loving face. Just one look into those eyes, and you’ll know in an instant that he understands. Arthur Miller once wrote that his former wife Marilyn Monroe, immediately upon entering a room, had an uncanny knack for spotting people who had been orphaned as children the way she herself had been. Orphans can always spy a fellow orphan just by looking into their eyes, Miller said. Seeing Jesus is like that: just behind the fierce majesty of that Holy Lord’s gaze are the flickers of knowing what it means to be rejected, despised, and truly alone.
Jesus comes to all the lonely people–and maybe to the lonely person who finally lives deep in the heart of each one of us–he comes to these friendless, isolated people whose phone never rings and in his great mercy says in inviting us to his holy table of communion or eucharist, “I was wondering, would you like to have dinner with me?” All who know that once they were a no-people can respond to this gracious invitation in just one way: “Yes, Lord, I’d love to have dinner with you. I think that would be very lovely indeed.”
Years ago when I was a seminarian, I used to make calls on neighborhood people to bring them food from my congregation’s food pantry. It often amazed me that sometimes, even when people would invite me to sit down and chat for a bit, they never turned the TV off. I found it annoying and vaguely rude. But later I realized: that TV and the sounds it makes was this person’s only companion day in and day out. They’d no more turn the TV off than you’d stick your best friend out in the garage.
Some while back in the New York Times there was a story about how the “Meals-on-Wheels” people in the city had adopted a cost-savings plan. Instead of bringing a hot meal to elderly people every day, they could save time and money by bringing them a week’s worth of ready-to-be-heated meals on Monday only. It made good economic sense, but the people who received the meals were bitterly disappointed. You see, for many of these New Yorkers, the “Meals-on-Wheels” person was the only other human being they ever saw most days. But now it would be just once a week. In a city of eight million, they are alone.
The article featured a heartbreaking photo. We all know that famous painting of the bearded grandfather praying with bowed head and folded hands at a table on which there is a bowl of soup, a loaf of bread, and a big Bible with the man’s glasses on top. That is a heartwarming, classic painting that, inadvertently, the Times mirrored. Because in their picture they showed an elderly lady, head bowed and hands folded, praying over her “Meals-on-Wheels” dinner even as she sat in front of, not a Bible, but a small black-and-white TV that was still on. That is her life.
All the lonely people. Where DO they all come from?