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“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

(A sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost B–August 19, 2012–Proverbs 9:1-6click here for audio)

They’re partners. They spend a lot of time together. Tim is idealistic and emotional. Frank is cerebral and cynical. Their temperaments clash, and in the day to day of life, they’ve been known to bicker.

Tim feels frustrated because he thinks Frank fails to observe the humane niceties that mark polite interaction, and at the end of what is, well, a bit of a rant, he says, “You never say please! You never say thank you!”

And Frank responds, “Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

Frank and Tim

Maybe some of you will now recognize Frank and Tim, fictional Baltimore Detectives Pembleton and Bayliss, from the TV show Homicide: Life on the Street. It’s a funny little exchange that characterizes their relationship, but it’s also a representation of Frank’s philosophy. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. And they are out in the world trying to solve the worst sorts of crimes, so why should it matter whether or not he is polite to Tim? Isn’t the subject of the argument idiotic?

Human beings *can* excel at being idiotic.

Friday morning I was over at George and Carol Black’s house, and as I was leaving, I turned my head left to admire one of their adorable granddaughters at the same time I was turning the rest of me right toward the door and…

And I missed the step I should have known was there, and I came crashing down on the floor.

It’s a pretty basic concept: “Watch where you’re going.”

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

Turning into the church driveway Friday morning, I thought of the text. “You that are simple, turn in here.”

I felt pretty simple, which is to say, unwise. It’s not that hard to watch where you’re going. But a propensity for accident is part of the human condition. We’re distracted and out-of-balance and overwhelmed by the demands of life, and the shiny things that loom in front of us, and the “need” to hurry, and even the coo of a baby in a Pack-and-Play.

Maybe we can take some comfort in knowing that people have been this way forever: idiotic, misdirected, out-of-sync, uncoordinated and in need of guidance.

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

It’s been suggested to me this week that I’m too hard on myself, but I certainly felt idiotic and embarrassed as I assessed the situation and picked myself up as quickly as possible, getting away before anyone else could see the damage.

I came back to church and looked for the First Aid Kit in the kitchen, only to discover that we really need a new one. Then Lyn sent an email to the Trustees asking if they would replace it, and since George is a Trustee, the Blacks quickly figured that I was the patient in need.

Knee-worthy

And since I know they know, well, here we all are no longer wondering why I’m wearing a specially purchased Band-Aid that fits on a knee.

“You that are simple, turn in here.”

Turn into Wisdom’s House. The book of Proverbs personifies Wisdom as a feminine figure of power who partnered with God in Creation.* The Hebrew and Greek words for Wisdom and the Spirit of God were feminine; this is an ancient understanding lost when the Greek became Latin and the Spirit of God became masculine instead.

Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars.

She has built the place herself, carving the entrance from wood or stone. She is wise and accomplished in matters both discerning and practical.

She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table.

Wisdom prepares the table for those who need what she will serve; she oversees every detail of the meal and its presentation.

She has sent out her servant girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.”

Wisdom invites the simple, those without sense, to come and gain maturity and insight. And it fascinates me that it’s not a lecture hall in which the answers will be given, or the Temple or some other place of worship. It’s a house where a banquet will be served, where bread and wine will be shared.

Wisdom comes through the senses, for those without the sense to watch where they are going.

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

“You that are simple, turn in here.”

Frank is tough on Tim. He’s tough on everybody. He’s an educated Catholic, the product of Jesuit schools. He is well-read and widely knowledgeable. He is scarred by the world and defends his heart with his intellect. His retorts are smart, and he knows a lot, but he could use a dose of insight about the value of the living people around him, the people, like Tim, who care about him.

We all know people who are smart but have no sense, don’t we?

Yes, I recognize me. I haven’t always been wise. I’ve looked away from where I was headed toward the person I thought others wanted me to be, without enough thought for what God really had in mind or who God made me to be.

Or which step I was about to miss.

“Please don’t be an idiot. Thank you.”

Frank is a homicide detective, and it is his job to look at terrible things and to solve horrible crimes. He is not just disappointed in people. Having seen the depraved way people harm each other, he is disappointed in the God who created them. We can blame God for letting us be free-wheeling … idiots. That seems to be part of the set-up, doesn’t it? We are here walking off steps while looking the other way, as if we didn’t have the sense God gave a goose.

We do worse things, too. Frank wants God to do a better job keeping order, and I sometimes agree with him. We see the terrible things people do to each other, the rough handling and rude dismissals and thoughtless neglect and outright violence.

But here’s what Frank, with all his learning, misses.

“You that are simple, turn in here.”

He misses the invitation. And it’s for all of us. Because believe me, no matter how good our grades were once upon a time, no matter how we excel in our work, no matter how well we have developed our gifts and talents, we are all simple. And knowing how we are, God has not left us alone in the world. God came to us in Jesus. God remains with us in the Holy Spirit, at the table of Wisdom.

God calls to us, all the time:
“You that are simple, turn in here.”

We probably wouldn’t want to paint that on the church sign, nor would we buy an ad in the paper saying, “Those without sense, come eat our bread!” And churches are not always the ultimate in wise institutions. We don’t know everything, and we don’t get everything right, with each other or with the world. But the good news is that when we are misdirected, out-of-sync, uncoordinated and in need of guidance – even when we’re downright idiotic – and even when we’ve done wrong – we are welcome to turn in here. The doors are open. The coffee is hot. We’re all in the same situation, and some of us are even willing to admit it.

Maybe we’ll even help each other get up again after a fall.

So, please, don’t be an idiot. Thank you. Turn in here. Amen.

*Many thanks to the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney for her insight and scholarship on this passage at Working Preacher.

Sermon

To Go With Jesus

Proper 24B    October 18, 2009    Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c; Mark 10:35-45

The first thing I ever knew about Maine was that you had a Senator named Edmund Muskie, and he was friends with my dad. In 1968, Senator Muskie ran for Vice-President, and we were excited. When he came to my home state of Virginia to campaign, we met him at the airport, and we flew on his plane, the Down East Yankee. Senator Muskie even gave me a little bracelet, with a Down East Yankee charm.

I, of course, had no idea what Down East meant. When I moved to Portland in my twenties, I wondered, “How far do you have to go to go Down East?”

Red's eats This week I returned to some scenes from early in my Maine life, when I drove to Boothbay Harbor for a funeral. I drove past Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, where in 1986, a teenaged hot dog salesgirl told me my tiny baby son was “wicked cute.” Across the bridge, I turned south on 27, and in my mind it was 1991 again, and I was visiting Boothbay for the first time with my mom and dad and my two little boys.

Leonardo I remember my mother patiently sitting on the beach with five-year-old Edward, watching him “set up” his Ninja Turtle figures and listening to his descriptions of the various allegiances of the good guys, the bad guys, and the formerly bad guys who, as he put it, “turned to the good.” I remember my father, trying to focus on some work he couldn’t leave behind, being distracted by baby Peter, who cruised the furniture that summer. As Peter drummed on his Granddaddy’s briefcase, my dad whistled “Big Noise From Winnetka,” his eyes twinkling.

And I remember standing on the deck with my mom and telling her how strongly I felt called to ministry. I wanted to go to seminary, I told her. “I can’t NOT go,” I said. My mom answered in a way that bothered me, saying, “Martha, don’t let anyone force you to go.” At the time I thought, as we sometimes do about our mothers, that she just didn’t understand, but eighteen years later I have a bit more sympathy for her point of view. I think maybe she was wondering, “How far do you have to go to go with Jesus?”

There’s a difference between wanting Jesus to go with us and being willing to go with Jesus ourselves.

Sometimes I find it comforting that the disciples had so much trouble understanding Jesus. Even though you might think they would be way ahead of the rest of us since they spent so much time with him, they alternate between stepping up and running away, between getting it right and really blowing it. And in today’s story, James and John really, really blow it.

James-john-200x200-circle Now, it’s been a topic of conversation among the disciples already. In fact, the last time I preached we read the story from Chapter Nine that felt pretty similar to this one. In that case Jesus asked the disciples what they had been wrangling about and they didn’t want to admit they had been debating which of them was the greatest. Now we have two in particular, the brothers James and John, coming to Jesus with what is more than a request. It’s practically a demand.

"Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."

Let me give you some context that is missing from the lectionary today. Just before James and John come to speak to Jesus, he has told the disciples for the third time that he will be arrested and killed, and that he will rise again. Having heard it for the third time, you might think they would be wondering just what he meant, that they might have come to him and asked for a further explanation. Arrested and killed, well, that could happen to any of them in the political climate of their times. They traveled with a teacher who aggravated the religious authorities, and the religious authorities had an interestingly collaborative relationship with the Roman governor and army ruling in Jerusalem. Being arrested and killed might have seemed perfectly, horribly possible.

But that part about rising again? It probably felt safer to blow right past that bit of information. Because a God who can make that happen, and a person who is close enough to God, enough a part of God to be the one who rises from the dead—that God and that person might seem beyond our grasp.

It’s much simpler to make God small, to put God into human terms and try to draw God into a human-sized relationship.

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

I’ll tell you what I wish this story had. I wish it had vocal tone. I wish I could hear the tone of Jesus’ voice when he answers them. My husband sometimes says Jesus never laughed, and it is true that the gospels never describe him as laughing, but honestly, I should think in this case he had all he could do NOT to laugh!

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

I picture him bemused. He’s just told them, for the third time, what’s coming. And yet they ask this, no, really, they demand this.

Eventually, I looked up “Down East” to see what it really meant. I knew it had something to do with sailing, and Down East magazine gives us the definitive answer:

"When ships sailed from Boston to ports in Maine (which were to the east of Boston), the wind was at their backs, so they were sailing downwind, hence the term 'Down East.' And it follows that when they returned to Boston they were sailing upwind; many Mainers still speak of going 'up to Boston,' despite the fact that the city lies approximately 50 miles to the south of Maine’s southern border."

But how far do you have to go to go Down East? Farther than I went that day I was talking to my mother—maybe you all knew this.

And how far do you have to go to go with Jesus?

He asked them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”

James and John pictured themselves in glory with their teacher. They wanted Jesus to go with them, really, to escort them to the pinnacle of their ambition. Jesus wants them to go with him, which is another matter entirely; it’s so different that he's letting them know they might not be able to do it.

We make God smaller to make faith easier, more explicable, less mysterious. We make God smaller to make faith tame.

Because it’s a lot to ask, to believe that some part of the force of Creation became one of us. It’s a lot to ask, to believe that this human man containing some part of the Divine with a capital D lived a human life and not only that but a human death, too, a terrible, torturous human death. It’s a lot to ask, to believe that even the people who MET him face to face, even the people who listened to him talk, even the people who sat at the table with him did not understan
d who he was, really, and yet to believe this man was God and this God was man.

And that’s not even getting all the way to the Resurrection.

How far do you have to go, then, to go with Jesus?

He tells James and John that the sorts of honors they hope to share with him are not his to give. He defers to a Higher Power. He is not concerned with what will be in some other time and place but with the lives they will live that hour and that day. He wants them to understand, but he makes it hard because he uses language that puzzles them, about the cup he will drink and the baptism with which he is baptized. And they want to go along with him, they want to please him, and so they say “yes, we can do these things.”

Down_East My mother, on that deck that was not quite Down East—you have to get as far as Penobscot Bay, I know that now—misunderstood me on the obvious level. I wanted her to understand that I felt impelled toward a life in the church; it was not compulsory but magnetic. Yet despite that misunderstanding, my mother said something very truthful that I could not understand, at least not then. I believe she had a sense of how far you had to go to go with Jesus.

Jesus tried to make it simpler, because by the end of the passage we read today, all the other disciples were cross with James and John, and none of them seemed to get the point about what was to come. The Man who was God, the God who was Man, came to serve, and although
he invites us to go with him on that journey, he wants us to understand
first what is required. Being the greatest is not about having the best seat in the house, or the position of power or the rank or the title. In every age, in every culture, in this town and in this church, we
have some version of what it means to be great, and in every one of
them Jesus is turning the whole idea upside down for us, reminding us
how far we have to go to go with him. He made it plain how far you have to go: all the way to the bottom, out of love for all.  May we have the courage to go with Jesus. Amen.

Sermon

To Follow Jesus

Palm Sunday A   March 16, 2008

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Matthew 21:1-11

Do you know
the old song?

I have
decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
I have decided to follow Jesus;
No turning back, no turning back.

When I was a
little girl growing up in Virginia, I attended many parades. My dad was first a
State Senator and then in the U.S. Senate, and one of the expectations of his
job was that he attend parades. We got to watch from the Reviewing Stand, at
the end of the Parade Route. I remember ducking down beside a folding chair,
behind the paper "walls" of the stand, to try and close out the furor
of the big bass drums that seemed to be a feature in every band.

Still, I love a parade. I love the marching bands. I rode on or walked beside
the floats my sorority built for Homecoming at William and Mary. It can be
thrilling to be caught up in the excitement, especially when you find yourself
in the midst of it.

But this morning we have heard two passages that remind us that the parade in
our story is not a typical one. It signals the beginning of something, the
escalation of the tensions between Jesus and the ruling authorities, the start
of a week for setting your face like flint, a week that will appear to end in
death.

Though I may wonder, I still will follow;
Though I may wonder, I still will follow;
Though I may wonder, I still will follow;
No turning back, no turning back.

Though I may wonder, indeed. Jesus tells his disciples:

Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey
tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me.   

      

If
anyone says anything to you, just say this, 'The Lord needs them.' And he will
send them immediately."
(Matthew 21:2-3, NRSV)

Off they go,
by this time used to the seeming eccentricities of their master, their teacher,
their friend. You want a colt, rabbi? You need a room for a meal? These were
easier requests to fulfill than the harder work of discipleship, which they
felt themselves inadequate to perform: healing the sick and the seemingly
crazy, sometimes exorcising evil spirits, always on the spot because people
expected them to know what to do, to represent Jesus, to be somehow like him.

Who wouldn't choose being in charge of planning a meal, or even collecting a
donkey, over the possibility of the kind of failure that impacts other people's
lives and perhaps your own life, too?

There are other things to wonder about here, too. Who did people think Jesus
was? And what did it mean to them to see this notorious fellow riding into town
on a donkey?

It doesn't mean as much to us as it did to them, almost certainly. We may think
it's touching that his mother arrived at his birth riding on a donkey, and he
would be delivered to another, very different place by the same sort of humble
steed, no milk white horse, no gold-leafed chariot. But the people who saw him
that day, at least the ones who knew their Bible stories, got the association
immediately. When old King David lay dying, his sons, children of various
wives, jockeyed for power. David had a particular son in mind, but others saw a
chance to make a move, to rise to power.

When they get it sorted out, at least temporarily, the newly anointed King
Solomon rides into town on his father's mule.

I'm not sure if the disciples thought of this when they set out on their
errand, but I'm sure the Scribes and the Pharisees did when they saw Jesus
riding toward them and heard the shouts of the people.

The disciples obeyed, whether or not they understood and they show us the
importance of following through even when we don't understand why we're headed
that way.

The world behind me, the cross before
me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
No turning back, no turning back.

There would
come a time, soon, when the world lay behind Jesus, the world he knew as a
human person, the world of meals shared with friends, of long walks on dusty
roads, of people who touched him and took care of him. After the entry into
Jerusalem he will be anointed by an unnamed woman, at least she is unnamed in
Matthew's version of the story. The details differ from one gospel to another,
but the essential act is the same. Jesus is being identified by anointing both
as king and as someone preparing for death.

When we know time is short, whether in our schooling or a job or prior to a
move, when it’s time to launch a young one from the nest, or when someone we
love is turning the corner towards death, how do we respond? How different is
it when we feel our own end drawing near? Jesus did a lot of teaching in that
final week, and he went to the Temple and turned over the tables, too. He used
both words and actions to show his friends and all those around the things that
felt most important to communicate: that he would soon be gone, that how we
worship God matters, that love takes precedence over rules, always.

Though none go with me, still I will
follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
Though none go with me, still I will follow;
No turning back, no turning back.

How are we
asked to take risks for our faith? I think we take them every time we let Jesus
influence our thinking and our actions instead of giving in to what the culture
expects or what our families, friends or co-workers demand. No, we’re not at risk
of jail for our beliefs, but we may sometimes feel those beliefs exclude us from
being “normal,” from “fitting in,” from being successful in this 2008 world.

I’m not sure
I think it’s any of the surface choices we make. I think it’s about an interior
openness to listen for God, to hear the obscure and eccentric instructions, to realize
God needs a donkey and her colt, or a room in which to meet, or a heart with enough
courage to follow all the way to the cross.

This day in the
church calendar is called both Palm and Passion Sunday, in the recognition that
not everyone will attend services during Holy Week. Some will go smiling from the
Palm parade to the Resurrection without a stop in between for betrayal and death,
for shame and grief, before experiencing the mystery we will celebrate on Easter.

21:9 The crowds that
went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, "Hosanna to the Son of
David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the
highest heaven!"

21:10 When he entered
Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, "Who is this?"

21:11 The crowds were
saying, "This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee."

A city in turmoil—I
think it’s important to remember it was an occupied city in which the Roman invaders
and the Jewish leaders, both the royal family and the Temple authorities, angled
to maintain superiority and advantage. The last thing any of them wanted around
was a man whose reputation caused people to cheer in the streets. He threatened
them all.

And so we gather
nearly 2000 years later to wave our palms, nice people, not the sort of people who
would participate in a riot or a demonstration, but people who care for each other
and our community and who are removed by every kind of distance from the drama long
ago.

It’s a week for
the strong-minded and the full-hearted, a week for seeing and feeling the truth
of the humanity of the man who rode into town on that long ago day to the shouts
of “Hosanna!” knowing full well that within a few days they would turn to cries
of “Crucify him!” It is a week for realizing that Jesus rode and walked and suffered
through days and nights from which we might well choose to flee, just as some of
his closest followers would do, denying him and hiding in the crowd to observe from
a distance.

Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
No turning back, no turning back.

Our faith
journey is not as linear as we might sometimes like. We don't choose once and never again. The choice is before us, again and again, in daily decisions and in major life events. There are days when we
want to crouch and cover our ears, hoping the parade will go by without
noticing our presence. 

Will we decide now, to follow Jesus? No turning back, no turning back. Amen.