It is 1956, and Bobby Fischer is a just a barely teenage kid who is good at chess. In May of that year, his rating is more than nine hundred points below the best players. Even so, in October, Bobby is invited to participate in the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York City.[i] The tournament is reserved for the top twelve players in the United States, of which Bobby is not. His invitation is a kind of novelty.
In the tournament, Bobby draws the short straw to play against International Master Donald Byrne, a classic chess player in thick-rimmed glasses and bow-tie, with a cigarette dangling between two fingers. Bobby is dressed in a t-shirt.
As the match begins, Bobby seems nervous. (Who wouldn’t be? This is his first time ever to compete with adults, and he’s playing against the United States chess champion!) Bobby, a child, makes a series of child’s errors. He moves his knight to the edge of the board, where it is boxed in and vulnerable. Within a few moves, it’s clear that Bobby is losing. In the seventeenth move, Bobby seems to throw in the towel. He exposes his queen to Donald Byrne like a lamb to slaughter. The chess elite gathered around harrumph and smugly smile. This ending was, after all, inevitable.
In the year 597 B.C., after a period of faithlessness in Judah, the military machine of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon rolls in and devastates the tiny Jewish nation. Nebuchadnezzar knows that Jewish resistance will be impossible if the Jews are scattered across the vast Babylonian Empire, far from Jerusalem. And so, their king deposed, their temple destroyed, the Jews are exiled. It seems to all the world that God has abandoned the Jewish people, that God has thrown in the towel, leaving them to their fate. Their hope sapped, separated from one another and from God, the Jews are ready, finally, to give up.
It is then that the Prophet Jeremiah sends a letter to the scattered Jewish communities across Babylon, giving them what appears to be advice detached from all evidence of reality. Jeremiah says to God’s people today, “Build houses; plant gardens; celebrate marriages for your sons and daughters; make good in the cities in which you find yourselves.” Live, in other words, not as defeated, despairing people, but in the knowledge of goodness and in hope.
To both the Jews and the looming Babylonians, Jeremiah is delusional. The ending to the Jewish story is inevitable, and for the Jews the only conceivable outcome is despair and death. It’s as if Jeremiah is reading a storyline from a different script. He sees an alternate ending to the story, even when no one else can see it. In the chapter just after today’s reading, Jeremiah claims that God has spoken through him, saying, “The days are surely coming when I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel and Judah…[and again] you will be my people, and I will be your God.”[ii]
Jeremiah knows that God’s promises are unbreakable, God’s victory assured. And, he knows that it is often at the very bottom, the nadir of human experience —and only then—that we become vulnerable enough to perceive God at work. It is then that we find ourselves willing to be changed, transformed, and to begin participating in new ways with God’s very work to redeem us. When things are most dire, either due to our own lack of fidelity to God’s goodness or due to circumstances beyond us—or, as is usually the case, some combination of the two—when things are most dire we realize we can either trust in the promise of God’s presence and grace or lapse into true hopelessness. Trusting in God allows us to listen for God, which empowers us to work with God, newly participating in our own redemption. That is the meaning behind the Prophet’s encouragement of the Jews in exile. Now, at the moment of seeming despair, is when they can begin to cooperate with God in the very work of moving them from darkness to light. But that requires the Jews to trust and live in hope.
The struggle is nowhere near over. Not until sixty years after Jeremiah’s letter does the Persian Empire defeat the Babylonians and grant the Jews permission to go home. But when that happens, because they listened to Jeremiah and lived in hope, the Jewish people are ready to rebuild their temple and their nation, and live again into God’s great story for them.
Back in New York City, October 1956, at the Marshall Chess Club, young Bobby Fischer has thrown in the towel. He’s a kid, outmatched, loomed over by the greatest chess players in the world. He sacrifices his queen to bow-tied Donald Byrne. The world spins on.
But then, in just a few moves later, Bobby captures Donald Byrne’s rook…and then both bishops…and then a pawn. The gathered crowd gets confused. Someone seems to have revised the script. On move twenty-five, Bobby takes Donald Byrne’s queen. Ten moves after that, Bobby Fischer checkmates Byrne’s king. The ending has been rewritten. The thirteen-year-old boy triumphs. The chess world is stunned. And the match becomes known as the “Game of the Century.”
Reviewing the match, analysts soon realized that Bobby Fischer had actually won at what appeared to be his moment of defeat. The moment his queen was sacrificed, Bobby saw the way, move upon move, to victory. When it appeared the game was lost, it was, in fact, won. The kid in the t-shirt saw an alternative ending when no one else did. And the vision of that ultimate victory, sure and certain, propelled Bobby forward in hope and purpose.
No matter what defeat, despair, or darkness we encounter, no matter how surely the ending to the story appears to be written, God’s promises are unbreakable. Though the contest may not be over, God’s victory over all darkness, in our lives and in our world, is assured. Living in that knowledge and hope, cooperating with God’s good for us, makes all the difference now. “I will restore you, in the end,” says the God of grace and love, “for I am your God, and you are my people.”
[ii] Jeremiah 30:3 & 22
It was the kick-off Sunday for the annual stewardship campaign at a large evangelical church. Fifteen or twenty minutes into the preacher’s sermon, just as he was getting revved up, the preacher yelled to the congregation, “If this church is going to serve God, first it’s got to get down on its knees and crawl!” And the congregation yelled back “Make it crawl preacher, make it crawl!”
Feeling the positive energy flowing back to him, the preacher then yelled: “And once this church has learned to crawl, it’s got to get up on its feet and walk!” To which the congregation yelled back “Make it walk preacher, make it walk!”
Then the preacher yelled, “And once this church has learned to walk, it’s got to begin to learn to run!” The congregation, now feeling the movement of the Holy Spirit in the room, replied boisterously, “Make it run, preacher, make it run!”
Finally, the preacher hollered with inspired conviction, “And in order to run, this church has got to reach deep down into its pockets and give, give, give!” Upon which there was a pregnant pause before someone in the congregation yelled back, “Make it crawl preacher, make it crawl.”
Another time at another church, during a particularly long stewardship sermon, a frightened little girl leaned over to her father and asked, “Daddy, if we just give him all our money now, do you think he’ll let us go?” There is, indeed, a fine line between a stewardship sermon and a hostage situation.[i]
Why is that, do you think? Well, maybe it’s because of the Gospel passages the sages who created the Revised Common Lectionary always assign during stewardship season. This week, for instance, we have Lazarus and the Rich Man. This story includes the Gospels’ most extended portrait of hell, complete with tormenting flames and bottomless pits, and that hell is populated not by Hitler or the Unabomber, but rather by someone not a whole lot different from many of us: an affluent man with a comfortable lifestyle, who enjoys the finer things in life. His worst crime, it seems, is that he wears nice clothes.
And so, it becomes clear why we have a flight response during stewardship sermons. The focus during stewardship season—whether it’s the emphasis of the sermon or the strategic choice of Gospel text, or both—seems to be on guilt. The idea appears to be that making parishioners feel miserable enough about their material things and guilty enough about what they so far haven’t given to the church is the key to a successful Every Member Canvass.
But here’s the problem: Guilt doesn’t work, at least not in the long run. It doesn’t draw us closer to God. It doesn’t render us more generous. It doesn’t enliven and sustain the work of the church. You know this. Indeed, very many of you who weren’t born and raised in the Episcopal Church found your way here after leaving some prior church community that used guilt as a cudgel. Guilt does not give life. Guilt leaches life, until all joy is replaced by self-loathing. That’s the hellish torment. That’s the bottomless pit. And, in this priest’s humble opinion, as we seek to solicit our contributions for God’s joyous mission for the coming year at the Cathedral, such guilt has no place here.
How, then, do we apply the Gospel story of Lazarus and the Rich Man on this Stewardship Sunday? How might it inspire in us generous hearts instead of wracking us with guilt?
The key, I think, is in the recognition of the rich man’s error. There is no indication that he wished Lazarus ill. There is no inkling that he defrauded Lazarus, or fired Lazarus from a job while taking a huge bonus for himself, or even kicked Lazarus as he walked by. The affluent man in the parable actually could not have done any of these things, because, upon close reading, we sense that the rich man never saw Lazarus at all. That is his error. The rich man has goose stepped his way through life with blinders on, failing to see the evidence of grace and opportunities for goodness all around him. As he passed through his gate day after day, he never saw—really saw—Lazarus sitting there in hunger and pain. The rich man wasn’t evil, he just couldn’t see. Or, more accurately, he chose not to see.
Let me tell you a story. Last summer I led twenty-five Cathedral parishioners on a pilgrimage to Ireland. Halfway through our trip, we were supposed to take a small boat from the southeast Irish coast to Skellig Michael, a steep, rugged island that was home to ancient Irish monks and has recently been made famous by the new Star Wars movie, in which it appears. I’d wanted to visit Skellig Michael for years. I felt certain that, if I could just get there, I would encounter God.
Well, the morning in question the weather was bad and the sea was choppy. The boats couldn’t make the trip. Instead, as a consolation, we took a day-long bus ride around the Ring of Kerry. No one in our group other than my wife Jill knew that my disappointment was really fury. I stewed on the bus all day. Jill did her best, in her gracious way, to keep me from interacting with our fellow pilgrims, because she knew in my extreme irritation at the circumstances I might say or do something I’d regret. And so, I did not see the Ring of Kerry. In my blinding anger, I did not see the beauty of God’s creation or the wonder on the faces of my twenty-five friends as they did gaze out at God’s glorious landscape.
When we arrived back at our hotel in Killarney, Jill suggested that she and I go for a walk so I could cool down. We walked the path for almost a mile, and a cold spitting rain began to fall. “Just great,” I mumbled, as the rain boiled off my steaming ears.
The path ended at the ruins of fifteenth century Muckross Abbey, a creepy and death-haunted ruin that some say inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.[ii] As we approached, Cathedral parishioner and pilgrim Kay Pieringer emerged from the abbey. “You have to see it!” Kay said, “In the cloister. It’s amazing.”
“One more ruin,” I thought, “Nothing to be all that excited about.” But as we walked through the abbey and into the cloister, I stopped short. There, growing up through the ruins—strong, proud, and emitting life—was an enormous yew tree, one of the largest yew trees, in turns out, in all of Ireland.
The yew tree has been regarded as holy since pre-Christian times. Ancient tales tell of druids’ staffs and wizards’ wands being made from yew wood. And for Christians, the yew is a symbol of resurrection because of the unique way its branches grow down into the ground to form new stems, which then grow up and around the original trunk, giving the tree renewed life. There are yew trees alive in England that were planted when the Normans invaded almost one thousand years ago.
I’ve never seen a tree more glorious. Growing up from the ruins of that dead place, it was as sublime an earthly manifestation of God as I’ve ever encountered. It was as impressive as Skellig Michael. It was holy. In an instant, my mood changed. My hellish anger melted. My eyes opened. There was a twinge of regret—not guilt, but regret—as I realized the glimpses of grace I’d likely missed all day, when I failed to see. And in that moment the chasm that throughout the day had prevented me from meeting God was bridged.
That is what stewardship is about. It’s not about imparting guilt, but about seeing and responding to grace. Eucharistic Prayer C asks God to “Open our eyes to see [God’s] hand at work in the world about us [and] make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in [God’s] name.”
That’s why we pledge our gifts to the Cathedral, because once our eyes are opened to glimpses of God’s grace, we also see where there are opportunities for us to be agents of God’s grace. We see where there are needs we can meet and where there is joy we can share. We see Lazarus sitting at the gate. And we know, once our eyes are opened, that we cannot pass blithely by. Our hearts are too grateful not to give.
On Wednesday of this past week, I filled out my pledge card for 2017. Again this coming year I will tithe, I will give back ten percent of my income to the instruments of the church. It was with eagerness and not hesitation, gratitude and not guilt, that I filled out that card. I pray you will do the same, as we catch glimpses of God’s grace this very day, all around us, and as we empower the grace-filled ministry of the Cathedral for another year.
[i] Both of these jokes come from the internet, where else?
The dishonest steward in this evening’s parable is in the practice of gouging his master’s clients for his own gain. If someone owes his master $100, he demands twice that and keep the excess for himself. He’s like our modern-day payday lenders, preying on vulnerable people by charging crippling interest for his own gain. He’s making himself his master, in other words, using and abusing the position in life his true master had granted him. Only when the steward falls from grace—and only then, when he’s at the bottom—does he give up the pretension to be his own master and let go of those self-serving portions of his collections, asking instead from his master’s clients only what they genuinely owe. He finally becomes an honest servant, and his life is redeemed. Remember that, as I switch gears for a minute.
There is no character in the story of Texas more interesting than Sam Houston, the old “Raven” himself. Houston was one of those nineteenth century Americans incredibly blessed with countless gifts. He was enterprising and smart. He was a gifted leader. At age thirty he was elected to Congress from Tennessee, and at age thirty-four became that state’s governor. But it is also true that Sam Houston was crassly self-serving—like the steward in Jesus’ parable—throughout the first half of his life, always calculating what any action would do for him, always seeking to control and mold every circumstance for his own gain. And as a result, in 1828 his life fell apart. His fall from grace, also like the steward’s in Jesus’ parable, was swift and steep. Houston abruptly resigned as governor, lapsed into a devastating dependence on alcohol, and taking scarcely more than a bottle with him, disappeared into darkest Arkansas, suffering banishment from all he’d known and loved.
It took years for Sam Houston’s repentance and redemption to occur, but occur it did. Houston eventually became a star so bright that his later accomplishments— leading the Army of Texas, serving as President of the Texas Republic, and ushering Texas into the United States—eclipsed everything he’d done before. These later things were the result of a wife who taught Sam Houston what it meant truly to know the God who both loved him and called him to account. As Houston came to know this God, he became a self-giving rather than self-serving man. He gave up his pretension to be his own master and became a servant.
There is more to the Sam Houston story, an added blessing that could only have happened because of the redeemed man Houston became. It is near-miraculous. In 1854, during an emotional slavery debate in the United States Senate where Houston then served for Texas, a group of Northern abolitionist clergy petitioned the Senate to be allowed to speak. They were ridiculed, humiliated, and laughed down by some Southern senators, but Sam Houston rose to support them. By all accounts he spoke with passion, even though he took an unpopular and risky position by speaking, especially among his Southern colleagues.
Eight years later, the Civil War had broken out, and Sam Houston’s son was far from home, fighting in the Confederate Army at Shiloh. During an advance, the boy took a mini ball to the thigh and lost much blood, and he was left for dead on the battlefield. That evening a solitary Union chaplain walked across the field and came upon Houston’s groaning son. When the chaplain leaned down to offer a dying prayer, he checked the boy’s knapsack and found a Bible with the inscription, “Sam Houston, Jr., from his mother, March 6, 1862.”
The chaplain immediately was taken back to eight years before, when as a young minister he had been shouted down and humiliated in a crowded Senate chamber, until Sam Houston, Sr., had risen from his chair in the ministers’ defense, not for self-gain but as a servant of grace.
The chaplain remembered, and because of that speech he dropped all other duties and carried the wounded Texas boy in his arms from the battlefield. The boy lived. Sam Houston’s son was nursed back to health and returned safely to his father.
The old, self-serving Sam Houston never would have made the speech in 1854 that saved his son’s life in 1862. That speech, like the steward’s action in giving up his commission, was self-giving, made without thought of personal stake or gain. And yet, it resulted eight years later in nothing less than saving the most important thing in Houston’s world. It was redemption to be sure.
Whenever we fool ourselves into believing we are the masters of our lives, whenever we use the gifts we’ve been given as self-serving tools rather than self-giving blessings, the result is harm to others and, eventually, to ourselves. We’ll find ourselves fallen from grace and all too often alone. It is when, sometimes in a moment of reckoning when life seems to fall apart, that we give up our pretension and decide by grace to live differently—with the loving God as our Spirit and guide—that we find our lives given back to us anew, often in the most surprising and wondrous ways. It is then that we truly find redemption. It is then that we truly become the children of light.
 See Sam Houston by James L. Haley, pp. 403-404.
This is an auspicious evening, and it’s one in which there is some tension. On the one hand, we gather for the first time in this style of worship, which is both ancient in our tradition and new to Christ Church Cathedral. We sing, pause, and pray in ways that intend to remind us of God’s deep peace which runs—like water from a sacred well—beneath all of the things on the surface of our lives that would disrupt God’s peace. On the other hand, we observe today the fifteenth anniversary of that singular event of our lifetimes which spoke so powerfully that we had—and still have—difficulty finding words to counteract the horror of September 11, 2001.
In 2005, Richard Lischer wrote a book entitled, The End of Words. His thesis is that our world has become so violent, so unpredictable, so chaotic, so insane that words have lost their inherent meaning. Words are now but tools in the hands of those who wish to manipulate other people. As a lover and crafter of words, it pains me to agree with this notion. But too often today, publically and privately, words are combined to fool, frighten, or whip into frenzy, and each time this happens we feel, like the hundredth sheep in Jesus’ parable, a bit more lost.
Religious words can be among the most manipulated, and perhaps never more so than on and immediately after 9/11. Some, during those days, invoked the Prince of Peace to sound drums of war. On the opposite extreme, others utilized the Gospel to suggest that we’d brought terror on ourselves, as if we deserved that awful day. Both extremes felt emotionally like being cast ever further from the sheep herd, more and more lost in some strange wilderness.
But the most abused religious words of all spoken on and around 9/11 were those of the hijackers themselves. On United Airlines Flight 93, the terrorists were recorded saying—as they killed the pilots and ultimately crashed the plane in a Pennsylvania field—“In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate…O, God, the most gracious.”[i]
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says, “[These] religious words are, in the cold light of day, the words [of] murderers [used] in order to make a martyr’s drama out of a crime.”[ii]
In a world where the most holy and sacred words are used so cynically, so dishonestly, how can we ever put our faith in words at all?
But, lest we forget, there were other words that day. From airplanes and from the Twin Towers, dozens of trapped people telephoned family members, friends, and sometimes mere strangers on the other end of the line. Invariably, the words spoken on such calls are words of love.[iii] It isn’t surprising that some of these calls express panic. What is surprising is the large percentage of them that evidence a remarkable calm, even as steel collapses in wrecked buildings or hijackers scream in the background. The recipients of the calls have fear in their voices. But the callers are more often steely and intent:
A newlywed says to her father, “Dad, you have to find Sean and tell him that I love him.”
A young professional says to his mother, “I love you no matter what happens.”
The voicemail message a woman leaves for her husband records, “There’s a lot of smoke, and I just wanted you to know that I love you always.”
These words overpower those other words of war and blame and terror. Archbishop Williams says of those trapped in the Twin Towers and on the planes, “Someone who is about to die in terrible anguish makes room in [his] mind for someone else; for the grief and terror of someone [he] loves. [He] does what [he] can to take some atom of that pain away from the other by the inarticulate message on the mobile [phone]…These nonreligious words are testimony to what religious language is supposed to be about—the triumph of pointless, gratuitous love, the affirming of faithfulness even when there is nothing to be done or salvaged.”[iv]
Perhaps never have we felt more like lost sheep than on September 11, 2001, when the planes crashed and the towers crumbled. But we know that love never stops seeking the lost sheep. We know that love will not give up. We discover again in those telephone messages that even lost in the wilderness, even on the smoky 89th floor, even nose-down on a doomed airplane, love abides. And what is love, but God, and specifically the Incarnate Jesus over whom death has no power? With love—with the Christ of God, with that Word—we can emerge from any wilderness, found and embraced by the Well of life.
In my memory, the word “triumph” was used too often around 9/11. But what would it mean if we said, with Archbishop Williams, that love triumphed that day? Pointless, gratuitous love: love that does not panic; love that does not run away; love that seeks the lost; love that is faithful in the face of any threat. As we prayerfully reflect on this fifteen years past, and as we look forward into the wildernesses ahead, we’ll know which words are those of the God of love, and when we hear them we’ll remember that we are never lost.
[ii] Williams, Rowan. Writing in the Dust: After September 11, 3.
[iv] Williams, 5 & 3.
There is a scene near the end of both the book and the movie “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” when all appears to be lost. Harry is trapped in the deep and dark chamber under Hogwarts. His nascent love, Ginny Weasley, is unconscious and near death, and the giant basilisk, a venomous, serpentine monster, lashes out at Harry. Things are desperate.
And then, just as all hope is lost, Professor Dumbledore’s phoenix flies unexpectedly through the cavern on outstretched wings, piercing the gloom with sound and light with the means to save Harry. The symbolism is potent and cannot be missed: The phoenix is the bird that rises from the ashes of death into new life, and in this case the phoenix becomes the instrument of Harry’s salvation. This particular phoenix is an extension of his master, Dumbledore, and Dumbledore is surely Harry’s guardian angel.
Joseph Campbell, who wrote the seminal text on the Hero’s Journey (which I taught last semester during the Dean’s Hour) says that when, in the universal and mythic story of the Hero’s Journey, the hero leaves his home and sets out for new and strange lands, helpmates will appear. Our great stories surely substantiate Campbell’s claim. Gandalf appears to accompany Frodo when the hobbit leaves the shire. Obi-Wan emerges from the Tatooine desert to teach Luke Skywalker in the ways of the force.
The pattern repeats in Holy Scripture, and the Bible isn’t shy about naming such helpmates angels. Jesus himself, once he has entered the wilderness and faced the temptations of the Devil, is immediately tended by angels, who, it seems, have been perched in waiting just off scene all along. The most striking example of all is in the book of Tobit from the Apocrypha—a book everyone should read—when the young man Tobias is sent by his father on a long and treacherous quest. God looks favorably on the boy, and God sends the archangel Raphael, disguised as a grubby nomad, to guide Tobias on his way. More than once, it is only by the intervention of Raphael that Tobias escapes things that would otherwise drag him down.
The story of Raphael and Tobias, along with several others in Scripture, are the impetus for the opening sentiment in today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels unaware.”
We can—and I do—affirm with Joseph Campbell that God will not fail to send helpmates. But the reality is that we rarely know who, among all those we meet on our paths, could be God’s angels. We don’t know from whence help may come. It would be easier if Raphael would show up in a blaze of angelic glory, announced with heralds in the heavens. But because God’s helpmates are so often disguised, if we are complacent and inattentive we may miss them altogether.
So, how can we best assure that we catch a glimpse of our guardian angels, that we take the time to acknowledge and notice them for what they are, so that we can become the beneficiaries of their saving aid? The answer comes in Hebrews’ wondrous paradox: The best way, the most assured way, is to live our lives so that we are angels to others. The author of Hebrews says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them. Remember those who are being tortured [in body or in soul], as though you yourselves were being tortured.”
You see, if we will take the time and the chance to be an angel to someone else in need, we may discover in that pause that the person to whom we are tending is exactly the angel we, ourselves, have desperately sought.
We tend, I think, to assume that such encounters must be momentous, the stuff of mythic sagas or Hollywood blockbusters. We’ve read and watched everything from The Odyssey to Lord of the Rings so often that we tend always to imagine ourselves as the epic hero. Our experience of saving helpmates must be something like Harry Potter with that phoenix! But our hero’s journeys are rarely so. Let me tell you a story. When I had just graduated from the University of Chicago with a newly-minted master’s degree in theology, the associate rector of my parish assigned me to create and teach a new adult Sunday school class. That first Sunday, we had twenty attendees. By the fourth week, though, the only people in my class were Jill and a great guy named Dale Conder who was too nice to quit. The following Monday, I conferred with the associate rector, who asked me my subject matter. “Oh, I’m teaching big stuff,” I said, “Complex theological ideas that even include some German and Greek words. You know, earth-shattering things!”
And the priest replied, “Barkley, it’s rarely the big things that are earth-shattering.”
He was right. It’s not usually the bombastic sermon, or the sublime experience, or any other big thing that saves us, that serves as the point at which an encounter with one of God’s angels makes the difference between life and death. Our lives are not, usually, lived like Hollywood epics. It’s rarely the big things that are earth-shattering. The moments that matter are, rather, what I call the small occasions of grace, that blessedly happen on our otherwise mundane days just when despair or the Devil seems about to get the upper hand: the phone call received at the right moment, the hug, the expression of solidarity or care, the gesture of comfort. Often, the angel who brings this occasion of grace doesn’t even recognize the depth or power of what he or she is doing. I can think of a dozen moments in life when God has placed an angel along my path, when through some person—sometimes random, other times well-known—a small occasion of grace found me at just the right moment, when it had seemed like all was lost. I believe you know what I mean, and I daresay there have been other times of which we’re scarcely aware when we have been such angels for someone else.
Why is it that the world works this way? How is it that God creates angels out of otherwise ordinary women and men, that God renders angels of us, with such profound power in such small gestures? The answer is why, at the end of the day, our audacious claim that Jesus is not merely a man, but is God incarnate, matters. Hebrews tells us today that the same God who knit the stars in the heavens and our children in their mothers’ wombs—remembers us. God remembers those who are in prison as though God is in prison. God remembers those who are being tortured as though God is being tortured. God remembers those who grieve, and who worry, and who face disappointment, and who are alone, as though God is all of these things as well. Because, through the Incarnation, that same God became the fragile man who was imprisoned, and tortured, and grieved, and abandoned. Even God has felt the need for those occasions of grace. There is no substitute in this world for the empathy that comes from one who has walked the darkened paths we sometimes walk. You know this, and so do I. And the promise of our faith is that, in Jesus, God has walked all those paths.
God is not some Deist clockmaker, aloof in the heavens, and neither is God some capricious king, doing his will without thought of those on its receiving end. God is the one who knows what we’re facing because God has faced it all, and God says, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” And that is why God sends angels. That is why God makes angels of us.
It is a mighty responsibility, and the paradox holds. We can only be angels, and we can only meet angels, when we pause to notice others in their need. What angel might you meet today? As an angel, whose life might you save through an occasion of grace?
There is a dinner table scene in the lowbrow 2006 Will Ferrell comedy “Talladega Nights,” in which NASCAR star Ricky Bobby’s family pauses before a meal of Domino’s pizza and Taco Bell to say grace. Ricky begins not in customary Episcopal Church fashion, but rather with the words, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus…”
The prayer meanders, until Ricky says again, “Dear tiny baby Jesus, with your golden fleece diapers and your tiny balled up baby fists,” at which point his NASCAR trophy wife, Carly, interrupts and complains, “You know, Sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him baby. It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.”
Ricky, indignant, responds, “Look, I like the baby version the best, you hear me?” and he continues, “Dear eight-pound, six-ounce newborn infant Jesus…so cuddly, but still omnipotent. Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God. Amen.”
It’s a hilarious scene, especially for folks from the South. (At my first parish in Memphis, I actually had among my flock a former Talladega, Alabama homecoming queen!) But, as is often the case in comedy, part of its humor is the extent to which it parodies truth that hits close to home. Like Ricky Bobby, we prefer the infant Jesus. We may not invoke images of golden fleece diapers, but we do wait all year for the nativity pageant. We cherish gauzy images of a cherubic babe in swaddling clothes, nuzzled in Mary’s arms, with Joseph hovering protectively nearby. They remind us sentimentally of our own gathered families, or of the idealized family we always hope for. The baby Jesus is warm, and peaceful, and calming. We want Jesus to have power but also to be a sweet comfort—to be, as Ricky Bobby says, “cuddly but still omnipotent.”
But Carly the NASCAR wife is right. Jesus did grow up. And when we hear the words of the adult Jesus, they sometimes seem to upend the doe-eyed, Precious Moments manger scene. Never more so than today: “Jesus said, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
Notwithstanding the myriad jokes about that last relationship, this is a terribly frightening “red letter” passage. From the mouth of Jesus, we receive words commissioning fire, division, and the deepest family discord. This Jesus is all grown up, and he doesn’t seem to be bringing particularly good news. What do we make of these words?
There is a militant brand of Christianity that uses this passage and the few that resemble it to craft a warlike image of Jesus. Jesus becomes a kind of tribal chieftain, standing sentry in front of his followers to protect them from invaders, and encouraging his followers to brandish weapons to do violence in his name. This is the Jesus of the Crusades, of the centuries-long European religious wars, of the more recent Troubles in Northern Ireland. This Jesus is no less alive and well today.
But this Jesus is not Jesus. This Jesus is a paper tiger propped up only when today’s passage is willfully wrenched from its context. You see, the most reliable way to interpret scripture is with scripture, and the notion of a Jesus who beats his chest and sounds the drums of war cannot be maintained with the trajectory of the Prophets or the Gospel. After all, the very pinnacle of the Bible’s prophetic announcement is Isaiah’s vision of the mountain of God to which people of every nation will stream in peace, where God will “beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” where “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and war shall be learned no more.”[i]
That is the vision Jesus comes to complete. He confirms it in the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the peacemakers”[ii]) and when his very disciples seek to protect him from the mob through violence (“All who take the sword will perish by the sword”[iii]). Jesus is the Prince of Peace[iv], and we must interpret today’s difficult passage from Luke in a manner that is consistent with the character of his Gospel. So, what does it mean that Jesus brings fire and division, that family conflict is sown in his wake?
When Jesus speaks these words today, he does so only after twelve chapters in which he has consistently revealed what it means to follow him. Jesus has shared parables, such as the Good Samaritan. He has preached the Beatitudes. He has embraced those whom society has discarded. And yet, in ways that clearly frustrate Jesus, most of those around him, including his twelve disciples, don’t seem to get it. They want to be associated with the guy who can exorcise demons and control the weather (that’s all quite exciting), and they love the Jesus who sometimes speaks soothing and comforting words, but they don’t seem to understand—in fact, they seem willfully to misunderstand—the deeper implications of Jesus’ message. One man says, “I’ll follow you, but let me finish plowing my field first.”[v] Another walks away when Jesus explains that discipleship requires financial sacrifice.[vi] See, Jesus’ first century audience isn’t much different than us. They want the warm and comforting Jesus, who has power but who exists mostly to ease their anxieties. They want the Jesus who is cuddly and omnipotent. They want the Jesus who is safe.
“You don’t get it!” Jesus finally cries out, to them and to us. “What I’m asking you to do, what you must do if you are to follow me, is be willing to set aside your old life. The only criterion by which you can decide whether you can continue in your old path, in your old commitments, in your old relationships, is if they, too, are in service to the Gospel. In first place, you have to love as I’ve taught you, and serve as I’ve taught you, and give as I’ve taught you. It will hard. It will require you to swallow your pride and often your words, to let go of your anger and frustration, and, sometimes, your social safety. It may require you to let go of some of your very family who will not live for love, and it will require you to claim as family a lot of people you may not like. And, it’s not a seasonal gig, by the way, like the nativity pageant. It’s everyday. Living for the Gospel will be so different from the life you’ve been living that it will feel a lot like dying and being reborn into a new life.[vii] Because that’s the only way for grace to take seed and grow in this world.”
Jesus knew the implications of living the Gospel. Already in his story, his own family, including Mary, have come and tried to make him stop, to give up this different way of living for the cozier and more staid life back home in Nazareth. He told them no.[viii] As painful as it must have been, when his family told him to give up living as the agent of grace, Jesus chose the Gospel over his family, and he asks no less willingness from those of us who would live for grace.
Can we do that? I will try, at least, to say it for myself, and as I do, I invite you to say it for yourself internally, and pay attention to how it feels. Here goes: Before I am an American, before I am a Thompson, before I am a man, I am a follower of Jesus. I will give all of these other things up, if I must, in order to live for the things for which Jesus lived, in order to love all the ones Jesus loved.
Can I do it? Can we? Can anyone? I hope so.
In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the child Susan desires more than anything to approach the lion Aslan, who is the figure of Jesus. Susan stands next to her host, Mr. Beaver, when she asks, “Is he…quite safe? I feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
The Jesus we are called to follow is not a cuddly child in a manger. And lest we forget, even when he was, the baby Jesus was quickly in flight for his life due to the division caused by his mere birth. The Jesus we are called to serve is not safe. His claim on us is total. He refuses to be boxed away like the Christmas crèche and ushered out only on special occasions. He refuses to offer easy comfort when the comfort we seek is at odds with God’s grace. This Jesus is good, but he’s not safe, and if we choose to follow him, the life we’re currently living may be in danger. Because if we choose to follow this Jesus, it means risking and renegotiating all of our prior relationships, our prior identities. It means, as we walk through the world, as we enter our homes, as we live our lives, we live first for love and for grace. Then, we will feel our anxieties truly ease. Then we will know peace and calm in our souls, when we are first his disciples. May we always be.
[i] Isaiah 2:4
[ii] Matthew 5:9
[iii] Matthew 26:52
[iv] Isaiah 9:6
[v] Luke 9:62
[vi] Luke 12:13-21
[vii] Luke 9:23-26
[viii] Luke 8:19-21