I don’t know about you, but this reading from Mark always strikes me as a bit of a scandal; to encounter Jesus with a very human prejudice on his lips. I’ve always found it a bit disturbing, especially to see a woman with a deep need coming to the incarnate Word of God, only to be met with an oddly human formation. Where’s the good news in this?—I often have to ask myself.
As I sat with this scandal of a reading for the past few days, I discerned three possible ways I think it might speak some good news to us, and might actually communicate some of the wideness of God’s mercy at play.
One of the things that speaks a word of good news is also one of the things that is most unsettling about this: we encounter a very human Jesus. A Jesus who has been formed by human communities with their own blind-spots, prejudices, and hatreds. Children verses dogs.
Psalm 139:1—5, 12—17
From the time I first encountered it in earnest, this season of the church year has always spoken to me of identity. In particular, the play between the way we see our identities and the way God sees our identities.
On January 6, the Church kept the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, celebrating the manifestation of God to the world in Jesus. As she did, she called to mind (at least in the western rites) the story of the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. A story about an identity: the fullness of God’s identity, present in the frailty of a defenseless, dependent child.
As she kept the Feast of the Baptism of Christ on the Sunday that followed, she recalled yet another story about identity: the human identity into which God desired to be baptized in the flesh of Jesus beneath the waters of the Jordan River. The humanity into which Righteousness itself was pleased to be plunged and drowned. The humanity with which, by that act, God became unmistakably and eternally bound.
These two feasts are recognized in the lectionary as solemnities. They can sometimes pass us by in the daze that follows the whirlwind of Chistmastide, but they frontload the season of Epiphany with these themes of identity. I find it a grace that the lectionary does this in this way. And this year in particular. For as the Church celebrated the display of God’s presence in the world before the Gentile Magi on January 6, her eyes beheld a different kind of epiphany as violence swept through the Capitol. It was an epiphany of the very brokenness and division into which God deigned to be submerged.
In the year 2006, author John Koenig began a writing project based on his observation that there were no words to describe certain common existential feelings and emotions. These holes in the language inspired him to research etymologies, prefixes, suffixes and root words which resulted in a weblog of neologisms and their definitions (a neologism being a newly coined word or expression that has not quite found its way into common use). John defines the word lutalica as: the part of your identity that doesn’t fit into categories. Koenig posits that when we are born, we immediately get labeled, categorized, and put into box for the convenience of never having to go to the trouble of looking inside. In this way, we lose a sense of who we are and begin searching elsewhere for our identity. In regards to this dissonance, he writes: “We all want to belong to something. But part of you is still rattling around inside these categories and labels that could never do you justice.”[i]
In our reading from the Letter of James, the author has given us an admonition about distinctions. It is not about the eradication of distinctions. Distinction in the basic sense is simply the quality or state of being distinguishable. If we take a good look at the world around us we can see the rich diversity of God’s creation, and we show forth that same diversity. In Genesis we read that on the sixth day of creation, God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” That word ‘our,’ points to the complex creation of a God whose very nature is diverse.
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Life is full of mystery. Especially people. We are all such mysteries. Yet there are these moments when we learn something about another person, and it’s like the light turns on in our heart of understanding who they are and why. It may be in our learning about their family of origin, their life history, their health, their abilities and training, their failures or successes. Whatever. And we have this “ah-ha” moment. It’s like a missing piece has been found in the puzzle of understanding this person… and their life now makes much more sense to us. Perhaps even what before had seemed to us a stain on this person’s character, we now can see is a scar which they have worn and wear well. We realize they are something of a walking miracle. You probably have had this experience. I certainly have.
The word in the scriptures that captures this deep sense of understanding another person is mercy, often also translated as compassion. The Hebrew word for compassion comes from the same root as the word for womb. Compassion is womb-like, for both the giver and the receiver.[i] Compassion safely, gently nurtures life. Estelle Frankel, a rabbi and psychotherapist, says that, “With compassion we enable all things to grow into their most beautiful and complete form, and with compassion we learn the wisdom of the womb,” how to hold, when to hold back as we carry someone in our womb of awareness.[ii]
Zechariah 8:20-23 :: Psalm 87 :: Luke 9:51-56
This evening’s lections highlight for us a very important paradox about what we might call “the Religious world-view.” In our readings from the Hebrew Bible, both Zechariah and the Psalmist remind us that the beauty and goodness of religion have the power to bring people into a relationship with the Divine. Surely, this is true for just about every one of us here, whether we call ourselves religious or not. Both biblical authors imagine for us a context where the abundant beauty and goodness of God become so incarnated in the life and worship of God’s people that the people of the world will long for nothing more than to enter into that life.
Peoples shall yet come, the inhabitants of many cities; the inhabitants of one city shall go to another, saying, ‘Come, let us go to entreat the favor of the Lord, and to seek the Lord of hosts; I myself am going.’ … In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’
Glorious things are spoken of you *
O city of our God.
Jesus selected a small group to particularly teach and transform. As Jesus traveled, he saw and called an unusual assortment including uneducated fishermen. Matthew, whom we remember today, is an even more striking choice. As a tax collector working for the occupying Roman Empire, he was considered a traitor, outcast by the Jewish community.
Walking along, likely amid a crowd asking questions, Jesus saw Matthew. Jesus paid attention to the periphery and saw those looked down on or overlooked. Looking widely, Jesus saw Matthew, saw a human with dignity and worth. Matthew, an outcast seen and invited in, experienced Jesus’ mercy.
“Why eat with tax collectors and sinners?” say self-confident, serious, secure religious folk. Condemn traitors. Build barriers. Stick together. Keep yourselves clean.
“Go and learn what this means,” Jesus said, “‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’” Matthew followed Jesus to learn what this meant spending his days Peter, James, John, and other unlikely companions.
How do we learn mercy? Here are three ways: Look, Honor, and Receive. Look widely. Pay attention not only to those close to you. Look to the periphery, see and welcome the outcast and stranger.
Honor mystery. We Brothers say in our Rule of Life: “… we honor the mystery present in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, strangers and enemies. Only God knows them as they truly are and in silence we learn to let go of the curiosity, presumption and condemnation which pretends to penetrate the mystery of their hearts.”[i]
Receive wisdom. What do others have to teach you, especially companions you didn’t or wouldn’t choose?
We remember St. Matthew, one whom Jesus selected, shaped, and sent with love. Following, we continue to learn mercy. Look widely. Honor mystery. Receive wisdom.
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 | Psalm 14 | 1 Timothy 1:12-17 | Luke 15:1-10
This morning we encounter with some pretty strong language (an understatement), particularly expressed by Jeremiah and the psalmist. “The whole land shall be a desolation yet I will not make a full end. Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black.”“Everyone has proved faithless, all alike have turned bad; there is none who does good; no, not one.”It can be difficult to hear we are lost. It can be discouraging to find one’s self, at the end of the day, a sinner, a straying sheep.
In light of the density and tone of the readings before us, I think an earlier translation of this morning’s Collect will help tune our ears to the Good News some of the strong language may hide from our hearing. “O God,” reads the Collect as it appears in the 1549 Prayer Book, “forasmuch as without thee, we are not able to please thee: Grant that the working of thy mercy may in all things direct and rule our hearts.”Editions from 1662 onward elide the concept of mercy with the action of the Holy Spirit,and while there is nothing theologically dubious about this move, I want us to hold in mind the mercy of God as we walk through these texts this morning.
Time spent with scripture will always make us aware of a holy tension. We never approach scripture with a naked objectivity or set of eyes unchanged by time. We bring a world of experiences and assumptions, many we do not even suspect we carry. Some of these are of our own design, while others are made for us by the societies in which we live. We never read these words “as they are.”
If we are careful and sensitive to this tension, we discover we read much more than scripture in this way. We read history, biology, physics, whole nations and peoples, our selves—indeed, all of reality itself—according to legions of assumptions and contradictions. These means we very seldom, if ever, have the full picture of any event, phenomenon, or person.
In the last century, Thomas Merton observed, “We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own infallibility. … and therefore, even when we are acting with the best of intentions, and imagine that we are doing great good, we may be actually doing tremendous material harm and contradicting all our good intentions.”
Despite their hiddenness, scripture tells us we wind up living these blind spots out in our lives as judgments. Judgements about ourselves, others, texts, events, even God. Too often, we assume our judgements are infallible; or at the very least, contextually correct: I am irredeemable. I am unlovable. I am the most lovable. I have a right to so and so. That person over there isn’t really human. God can’t be trusted because of the evil of the world. Has God said? There is no God.
Or, no god but we. [if you don’t think you occasionally fall into this… just ask the people you live with]
Jeremiah describes the inevitable calamity wrought by generations of God’s own people when they seek collectively to build a world apart from God, on terms of their own devising.
I looked on earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord.
“Waste and void.” These words, tōhûwābōhû, appear first in the opening lines of Genesis. Here, however, the procession of creation is undone as Jeremiah’s own people turn from the Truth that seeks them. There is no God (but I). Contrary to how we might receive this passage, this is not a description of divine punishment or wrath. “For my people are foolish,” laments the heart-broken God of Jeremiah, “they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”
C. S. Lewis paints for us a vivid picture of an eternity spent willfully blind or impassive to the scandalous extravagance of God’s goodness and mercy. In the fourth chapter of his allegory The Great Divorce, two people meet in the hereafter at the threshold of paradise. One, a “ghost,” is visiting from hell, and another, a “solid person,” a citizen of heaven, tries to get the ghost to accompany him up the mountain and enter into God’s joy. But the ghost will not let go of his judgments of himself, others, and God.
“‘I only want my rights,’” says the ghost, “‘I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.’
‘Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.’
‘That may do very well for you, I daresay. If they choose to let in a bloody murderer … But I don’t see myself going in the same boat as you, see? Why should I? I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.’
The other shook his head. ‘You can never do it like that,’ he said. ‘Your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way. You’d be tired out before we got to the mountains. And it isn’t exactly true, you know.’ Mirth danced in his eyes as he said it.
‘What isn’t true?’ asked the Ghost sulkily.
‘You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter now. 
Unable to relinquish to God control of his destiny or reading of reality, the ghost has reduced himself to almost nonexistence. He clings to an incomplete picture of reality. Deceived and drawn by the Enemy away from reality’s true fullness, he has made himself the arbiter of truth. “Unless the Lord builds the house,” writes the psalmist “their labor is in vain who build it.”
Much like the zealous young Paul, our limited vision of reality can seriously distort our concept of goodness. This distortion made Paul “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” It is not our work or strength that will make us whole; no program will lift us to that place from which we finally lose our tiny, creaturely perspective. For Paul as for us, the only thing that can restore our vision is the mercy of God—an encounter with Jesus, the shepherd who has left all to “tramp the hills”in search of you and me. Our invitation as God’s people is not to pretend to be good, or pious or saintly; it is to open ourselves to the searching, active mercy of God.
There is nothing flattering or becoming about the two images Jesus uses to describe lost humanity in this morning’s gospel—sheep are not known for being particularly bright or self-governing, and a coin lacks the ability to find or save itself altogether.
Ah, but we have assumed the parable was about us.
The good news for us today is less about us, and more about who God is. The good news is that Jesus shows us a God we can trust with the evil we see in the world, who has not kept himself distant from it or us. A God who spends everything to find and recover us. A God who empties himself to fill you with himself so that you might never be lost or alone again.
But it may just mean learning to leave our judgments behind as the Shepherd carries us to the other side of Jordan.
Collect for Proper 19, The Book of Common Prayer , as cited in Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (New York: Seabury Press, 1980), 191-192.
Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, 225.
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce(C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd., 1946 & 1973, reprinted by HarperCollins, 2001), 28.
Psalm 127:1, The Book of Common Prayer, 782.
“Shepherd, do you tramp the hills,” no. 68 in Hymns for the Gospels (Chicago: GIA Publications, Inc., 2001)
When I was 26, I went to the Holy Land for the first time. The day I remember most was getting up at 3:00 o’clock in the morning with my fellow pilgrims and leaving our hotel in Jerusalem and getting into our coach, and in the dead of night driving due East. Ahead of us lay the great Judean wilderness. We could see very little, but eventually the coach stopped and we climbed out into the utter silence of the desert. As we stood in awe, our eyes slowly made out the shape of the hills, below the twinkling stars. Then the bus drove off. We were alone – standing together on the ancient road from Jerusalem to Jericho.
We, like the man in the parable, were going to walk from Jerusalem to Jericho. The ancient road is not the modern highway which now carries countless pilgrims down to Jericho in their air conditioned coaches. The road which we were taking winds its way between the hills and the rocks and the canyons, but always going down and down. For Jerusalem is high in the hills, while Jericho is way below sea level, one of the lowest points in the earth’s surface. The cities are less than 20 miles apart.
And so we set out for several hours of silent, prayerful walking .We began to see more and more clearly, and then there was a glorious sunrise, and we all sat down on the rocks and had Eucharist together.
On we walked, as the temperature rose; it became incredibly hot. “Keep drinking, keep drinking!” said our Palestinian guide. We did. But, sadly, we never made it to Jericho. The heat and sun became so intense as we walked lower and lower that some of our party felt unwell, and we called for the bus to drive us the last few miles into Jericho.
Why come to church? In an era of declining membership in mainline churches, in a time when more and more people – not justyoungpeople – are exercising the option not to attend church services, why do we keep coming back? What is it that we realize that we need, and that compels us to return to this place day after day, week after week?
There are many possible answers, and no doubt we would find a wide range of reasons if we polled the congregation today. Most of us would say we come first of all to worship and to give thanks to God. We realize that life is a gift – all of it –and we wantand needto return thanks to the Giver of all that we have received. Many of us would say we come to be fed by Word and Sacrament, to be nourished and strengthened by the holy gifts of Bread and Wine for the service we feel called to give in the world. Others of us come for community, to join together with people who have made a commitment to belonging to God and to following Christ. We take seriously the call to join ourselves to the Body of Christ, and we find strength in solidarity with others in this place. But here is another important reason why we come to church: We come because we realize that living as a Christian in the world is counter-cultural, and we need frequently to be remindedof that, instructedin that, and encouragedin that. When we realize that God asks us to live in ways that are often out of step with the culture that surrounds us, that God invites us to embrace and embody a different set of principles and values than the world promotes, namely the values of the kingdom of God, then we understand how much we need the support of others as we make this difficult and sometimes perilous journey upstream.
The prophet Malachi – whom we heard in our first lesson – could not be using more extreme language to prepare us for the coming Messiah. Our messenger comes “like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.”
- A refiner’s fire is a metallurgy process dating back to antiquity. A refiner’s fire is a crucible for heating precious metal, like gold and silver, to a molten state, from which then the dross – the impurities – are skimmed off. It’s a searing process, at a precise temperature for a specific length of time, which produces the pure, precious metal.
- The fullers were the launderers. Fuller’s soap is a caustic cleansing agent, made from lye and other repugnant chemicals.[i] Fuller’s soap was used to purify fabric and make it white. The stench from this soap was so great that the fullers had to work outside the Jerusalem city walls as they stamped on garments with their feet or used wooden bats in tubs of this blanching soap.