4 Pentecost—8-A, July 2, 2017
Jeremiah 28:5-9, Psalm 89:1-4,15-18, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42
I saw a bumper sticker in a recent movie that said: “Have a great day, unless you’ve made other plans.” Well, we’re all good at making other plans because we’d rather not take the day on its own terms. We’ve been programmed to believe that we need to do a lot of planning to create our happiness. Our plans and strategies can become like a space suit we put on that protect us from being too open, too well known, and from being hurt, thus insulating us from life. See Tara Brach’s Podcasts
And often our religion contributes to this insulation from life. In 1995 I was taught what is called Christian meditation which was created years ago by Father John Main, an English Benedictine monk. In this practice you sit in silence and stillness for 20 minutes every morning and evening, while repeating a mantra in your heart. The mantra he recommended is the Aramaic word “Maranatha” which is used twice in the New Testament. It means “Come, Lord” but you are not supposed to think about the meaning but only slowly sound the syllables in your heart as a way to open up to the presence of the Risen Christ.
At its best this is a practice of openness and vulnerability. John Mains was the real thing because his prayer did connect him with Christ and allowed Christ to open him so he could connect with others.
But here’s the deal: while I continue to practice this form of meditation, though not as rigorously as I once did, I realize that for much of my practice I was not opening myself—my heart and mind—to Christ, but closing myself, hiding from those parts of myself I don’t want to face. I could say the mantra and ignore the anger or anxiety or dissatisfaction I was feeling. I was trying to make myself into my image of a Christian holy man, rather than let Christ make me into who God created me to be in this world.
There is a secular version of this too: Some people endlessly search the internet on their phones in order to avoid the pain that’s really going on inside them and around them, and they hope that by constantly tweaking their social media image that others will think they have it all together.
Religious and secular strategies help us control our lives, limit anxiety, present a carefully crafted image to the world, while ignoring the pain of the world. Therefore, when Paul says “the wages of sin is death” he is speaking of death as whatever closes us off from our own reality and the reality of others and God.
As we read in the First Letter of John, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister[b] in need and yet refuses help?”
So as I shut down my awareness to what is right in front of me, then I am also blocking my ability to connect with others.
These past few weeks we’ve been reading Jesus’ instructions to the apostles he is sending out to the towns he will soon visit. You’ll remember his first words to them are a demand that they leave behind all their strategies for control and self-protection. He tells them not to take cash or credit cards, or a suitcase with all the stuff they might need, and certainly don’t take a concealed handgun just to be on the safe side.
He is saying, I also want you to take off your spiritual armor and go as a vulnerable human being, so you will only have God and neighbor to count on. Throw out all your strategies of control and walk in trust.
By making them take off their protective suits, Jesus is training them to take the day as it comes so they may know who they and others really are as children of God. Then he says: once you get there attend to the suffering you find: tend the sick, pray with the mentally ill, comfort those who have lost loved ones, and tell everyone the Kingdom of God is showing up in Jesus.
At the end of his instructions, which we hear today, he tells them that their presence as vulnerable caring people will be an occasion for God to pour love into the hearts of those who receive them. Even that person who gives a cup of cold water to a thirsty disciple will be caught up in the Life of Triune God.
Notice what this means: the disciples do their best work of connecting people to Christ, not just by giving kindness to others, but by receiving kindness from others.
Jesus models this humility in his ministry. We remember him asking the Samaritan woman at the well for a drink of water and his willingness to let the woman of the city anoint his feet with perfume and tears. Now, even 2000 years later, the image of this helpless naked man nailed to a cross is burned into the human psyche.
This is the image of eternal life—when we have lost our plans, when we’ve lost confidence in the religious systems we learned as children, we are like Jesus on the cross, with nothing to hold us up but our pain. It is there and then we realize God has been holding us all along, but we were too protected to notice.
We see this move at the end of his short book The Courage to Be, where theologian Paul Tillich writes: “The courage to be is grounded in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
We see the power of the cross in the words of the dean of Virginia Seminary, Jess Trotter, in the early 1970’s. His 21 year old son had taken his own life and some months later Dean Trotter addressed the all-male student body by saying: “Gentlemen, I have been to the bottom and it is firm.”
Eternal Life is not pie in the sky, by and by. Eternal Life is life in which the age to come impinges on the present age in the man, Jesus of Nazareth. “Eternal life is life in the eternal” that comes to us. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume III
As those baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection we share in the age to come now and are called, like the first disciples, to climb out of our narcissistic bubbles, so we can attend to the suffering of those around us and receive the cup of cold water from those we’ve come to serve.
In Matthew’s account of the sending out of the 12 there is no report of how it goes. And that’s a good thing for us who love to divide everything into categories of success and failure, with failure being a form of death.
For those in Christ, however, there is a third category called “faithful.”
I heard recently on a podcast four steps to a faithful life:
- Show up
- Pay attention
- Speak your truth
- Don’t get attached to the results.
- Show up: without our protective armor with all its political and economic weapons ready to fire
- Pay attention: to the hurts and hopes of the person in front of you
- Speak your truth: what the Spirit leads you to say, not like the knee jerk spasm we see on cable news, but out of the love of God in Christ.
- Don’t get attached to the results, but turn over the results to God…and have a great day.