(A sermon for the 6th Sunday after Epiphany, using Luke 6:17-26)
On the playground at St. Agnes School there was a seesaw. Wooden planks painted green were attached to a metal frame. At recess, children ran to play on it, pairing off with friends. I remember the
thrill of flying upward and the terror of hitting the ground hard, the reverberation across the plank when my playmate came down hard, too. I remember holding on tight, really holding on for dear life as we pushed off and went up and down as hard and fast as we could.
Sometimes I would see one of the older children balancing on
the see saw, standing in the middle of the plank, one foot on each side of
center, pushing just enough to keep the whole plank suspended in the air. I
wished I could do it, too, but I wasn’t brave enough to try.
It takes a very good center of gravity to keep your balance
I was never one of those coordinated children who could walk
easily across a balance beam or a wall. My dad, also not wildly graceful, famously
fell off a fence when he was 12. I remember being fascinated with the shiny,
scarred skin on his shin. Did it hurt? Not now, he would say, but when he was a
boy there were long months spent in bed and almost a year of school missed and
what must have been a scary recovery for the parents and grandmother who nursed
him through it.
That’s what scared me about seesaws. They are fun, yes, but
couldn’t you fall off and hurt yourself? Couldn’t the seesaw change your life?
If you’ve ever gone to a new job or a new school or moved to
a new community, you know the excitement of the seesaw. In the new lie untold
possibilities for success or popularity, chances to try new things, to present
yourself differently, to be your own self in a way you never tried before. But
also in the new exist innumerable opportunities for failure and embarrassment
So it is with the seesaw. Up and down you go—hold on tight!
Jesus gives his followers a taste of the seesaw in our
gospel lesson this morning. This is some of the same material familiar to us
from the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, but here we find him preaching
on a great plain, instead. Crowds have followed him, and many reach out to
touch him. His presence alone conveys healing.
We read that he turns to his disciples and shares some hard
truths, the blessings and the woes that make up Luke’s version of the
Beatitudes. Jesus spoke these hard words not to the larger crowd, but to his
own disciples, to the inner circle, the faithful ones. The blessings and woes
described by Jesus are not exhortations to be good or promises of pain for
being bad. They are simply facts of the life of faith. When you appear to be
down, you are really up—blessed by and beloved of God. When you appear to be
up, you are really down—woe is you, for you have the earthly power and are out
of balance with the heavenly way of understanding life.
We’re all subject to being out of balance, one child on the
seesaw, sitting smack on the ground. No matter how hard we try to get it going,
we cannot do it alone while sitting at one end.
If you picked up the newspaper this past week, you probably
read about the responses to the Governor’s suggested plan for school
consolidation. It’s pretty typical in our day and time that “everyone” seems to
have a strong reaction to such proposals. We shout our opinions loudly, hoping
to drown out the voices on the other side of the debate. I hear one side say it
makes economic sense, if the savings projected can be made real. But a
colleague from New Gloucester wonders what will happen to the schools in her
town when they are in one district with the schools in Portland? And residents of even smaller towns
rightly worry how there communities will ever be represented on the proposed
15-member school boards?
The seesaw flies up, fueled by vehemence, then crashes down,
hitting the earth with a jolt.
Choosing a search committee for your new settled pastor is one
of those constituency issues, too. Who will serve on the search committee? What
qualities do they need? What parts of the church should they represent?
I remember attending a church governing board meeting many years ago. I was there to represent the Christian Education committee. Usually at those meetings I was quiet. Most of the people around the table were professionals, lawyers, CPAs and business owners, almost all people in their 40’s, 50’s and older. I was still in my twenties, and a stay-at-home mom pregnant with her second child. On a summer night, an animated discussion took place, members of the church board voicing their opinions with spirit. Our Senior Pastor had retired, and we were beginning a search for his successor. The board discussed the process in the United Church of Christ and wondered if there was some other way to find a new Senior Pastor? One of the businessmen asked if we couldn’t hire a headhunter and go looking for a great pastor who had been successful at another church. But an older woman, also a business person, and a voice much respected on the board, said thoughtfully, “We don’t need a head hunter. We need a heart hunter.”
At that same meeting, a list of possible committee members was floated, and we were asked to speak to the Board President if we had further suggestions. I listened to the names, and I realized something was missing. After the meeting, I approached the President, who was a very tall man; I remember feeling very young and small and inexperienced as I looked up and told him my truth: “There aren’t any mothers of young children on your list. We are a very active part of the life of this church, and I think we ought to be represented.”
He pondered a moment, and then said, “Songbird, why don’t you do it?”
I wasn’t sure if the seesaw had thrown me high in the air, or brought me down sharply. Could I really do this work? And how would I manage the time, knowing the committee would start to meet right around the time my baby was due?
In the end, I was grateful to him. Reading candidate profiles and interviewing those we considered impacted my own discernment process. There were many blessings to be found in their faith stories, and in their answers to questions about their favorite passages of scripture and their understanding of being called to ministry. More than that, I am grateful that he looked beyond who was best-connected or most “important” in the congregation to see in me a person called to do this particular work on behalf of God’s people.
After almost a year working together, our committee found itself see-sawing between two candidates. It was tempting to think, if you liked Candidate A much more than Candidate B, that God wanted the church to call your favorite. Clearly, God must be for one and against the other, right?
But I came to see that God was not at one end or the other. God was in finding the balance between the two parties the committee threatened to become. I remember well how we prayed together after a vote so close to a tie that no one felt good about declaring a victor. We stopped campaigning with each other; the time to speak our piece about who we preferred was then past. Instead, we prayed, in silence, and then aloud for guidance. I remember feeling that although my own vote might not change, I no longer felt attached to who might “win.” Then we voted again, and while the vote was now gratifyingly lopsided, we had achieved a sense of balance, relying on the help of God.
Luke’s Jesus stands on a great plain to see and speak to and heal the people, and his words come down to us today, his most recent disciples. In the strong contrast of blessings and woes we feel the pull of the seesaw, but in this man who was also God, we may find the balance that allows us to understand in our hearts that each human life holds times of up and down, of blessings and woes. Jesus directed these words to those closest to him, to the followers who walked with him every day. He wanted to be sure they heard the Good News: that things are not always what they appear, that the seemingly mighty are not so, that the poor and the hungry and the misunderstood are beloved of God.
You are never so far up or so far down that God’s love cannot balance the seesaw.
You may think, as I did, “Someone who shares my
interests or my values or my situation in life needs to serve. And that someone
is someone else, not me!” But hunt your own hearts, and when someone asks if
*you* are willing, know that while the process will surely have its ups and
downs, with an openness to God’s spirit, you will find the balance in the end.