According to the Youtube videos that somehow evade my ad-blocker and the various news articles I reluctantly read, there is one thing on which all political parties and candidates agree: these are dark and dangerous times, and we need a strong leader to deliver us.
The power of this marketing strategy is obvious. We’ve lived through months of pandemic. We’ve watched as protestors fill our streets. And we are currently holding our breath as first wildfires and now hurricanes rip through small towns and large, leaving destruction and grief in their wake. It doesn’t matter if you belong to the political Left or Right: We all know that these are indeed times of deeper darkness than many of us have ever experienced.
Which is why we want our political champions to be models of strength, of purpose, of promise—because we can’t tolerate the thought of 2021 being a 2020, part two. Our hopes are built on nothing less . . . than the victory of one of two men. Or so they want us to believe.
More than ever before, the presidential nominees want us to see them as our Savior. They want us to believe that they are our only hope. But that is a false assertion, regardless of how poignant it is at this point in time. Because we already have a Savior, a man who, if he was to be represented by a full marketing team and millions of dollars worth of TV commercials would be so exactly the opposite of a strong candidate that no one in their right mind would vote for him—because his entire platform is based on what the world can never understand.
Jesus is our Lord, but he is a Lord unlike any other.
Just moments after Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God, “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things . . . and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And Peter, alarmed at the turn the conversation had taken, grabbed Jesus by the shoulders and said, “this shall never happen to you,” which prompted Jesus’ gut-wrenching reply: “Get behind me, Satan. . . . For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Confused silence greeted his words. Our Messiah was planning to do what? The disciples’ hopes had only just been confirmed. Jesus was the promised one, the Savior of Israel who would bring injustice to an end and re-establish communion with God, not to mention crushing the armies of Rome and freeing the Jewish people from foreign tyranny forever. That he should die was most certainly not on the agenda. And if Jesus thought they would let go of that hope, that they could really trust a leader who was walking toward his death . . . It wasn’t even an option. He must be mistaken.
Thousands of years later, we thumb through our Bibles and can feel awfully tempted to judge these men for their sheer obtuseness. But Peter’s reaction and the disciples’ failure to understand Jesus’ words shouldn’t surprise us—because we, like them, are so often blinded by what we can see.
The photographs, the news reels, the catastrophic projections, the memories crowd our minds and make the world—in all its fallenness—more apparent and more apparently powerful than the God who has saved us. At times like these, we want power, not sacrifice. Dominance, not submission. We want a leader like Peter and his fellow disciples wanted: a man who will strike down our enemies and accomplish our goals.
But what we have is a crucified Messiah. What we have is a God who has chosen—on his own terms—to dwell with us. He doesn’t look polished or important. In fact, his hands are cracked and his robe frayed. He is an unassuming Jewish man who grew up the son of a working-class family; who wandered through deserts and country towns, feeding the hungry and healing the sick, urging those he helped not to tell anyone what he had done. He is a Messiah who will speak with Gentile women, who will bring tax collectors and prostitutes into his fold, who will continue to love and lead his disciples even knowing that they will abandon him in the end.
He is the Messiah we need as we walk through life in a world that is fallen. He is the one who will get down in the dirt with us when we trip, the one who will hold us up when we have no strength to stand. He is the life, the true life that we crave, the only life that can lead us into eternal glory—because he lives with us.
Jesus’ call to us today is to follow him, a crucified Messiah, a man who will guide us through the lowest of lows and carry us into the highest of highs. “Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. We will not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.” AMEN.
Paul tells us today in his letter to the Romans chapter 12 that we are to “present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship.” I’d like us to think a little bit about the word sacrifice, both how it’s normally used, and how differently Paul uses it.
A sacrifice is, in common language, something you give up. When you sacrifice something, it is lost to you. We are experiencing sacrifices in all kinds of ways right now because of the pandemic. We have lost getting to go to ball games. We have had to give up coming together to see a friend get married with lots of loved ones. In this season, each of us is sacrificing, giving up things, for the common good all the time.
In the same way, in religious contexts, a sacrifice is usually something you give up or even destroy. Once it’s sacrificed, you’ve lost it. Various world religions past and present have structured their lives around sacrifice, the giving up of animals or things in order to please or appease God. This can be something like burning a container of clarified butter, leaving a fruit or vegetable at an altar, killing a goat or cow, or in some ancient cults even human sacrifice.
Whatever it looks like, when you sacrifice something, it’s given up, dead, gone. You give it to the deity you believe in, and therefore you don’t have it anymore. It’s a sort of exchange, by which your loss of an animal or a valued possession then merits forgiveness or favor or help from your deity.
That’s what sacrifice means in most contexts. But that’s not at all what Paul says today. In this passage from Romans 12, Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” So in this kind of sacrifice, you don’t lose what is sacrificed. It is still living. In fact, it becomes better, according to Paul: you become better. You become transformed by a renewed mind, more able to discern the will of God, more equipped with gifts to serve the world.
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Why do we Christians get to sacrifice ourselves but still keep ourselves? Why is sacrifice in Christianity so different than sacrifice in other religious traditions? Why a living sacrifice all day long, and not a dead one at a special ritual? Well, because of the previous 11 chapters of Romans.
You see, for us, the one true sacrifice has already been made. On the Cross Christ offered himself up for our sake. God offered God to God – by definition there can be no greater gift, no more powerful sacrifice, and in that one action any need for further sacrifices was swept away. Human efforts to do something else to satisfy God become laughably redundant.
The whole point of the previous 11 chapters of Romans, of the Mass itself, really of the Christian way of being, is that the sacrifice has been made already, and now our lives, if we say yes, our living is swept up into it. What Christ did on the cross is already ours. What he did as he rose from the tomb is already ours. Every time we come to Mass we are reconnected with that sacrifice, ingesting it, being filled once again with the unique and irreplaceable power of God offering God to God, in case we’ve lost track.
That sacrifice has already made us holy and acceptable. There is nothing supplemental that we could add to it, as if there were some further deity out there who needs appeasement or is still keeping a running list of our sins. As Christians we have the opportunity to live in the freedom that was released into the universe when God offered God to God, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. To live in that, and let its finality and enoughness live in you.
You will have many temptations not to live that way, not to acknowledge the sacrifice that has already been made on your behalf. Many of us forget, day to day, that there is nobody out there to please or appease because God offering God to God has already accomplished our enoughness. We act as if the full and final sacrifice hasn’t been made. But it has. So I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. There’s a kindness in his justice which is more than liberty… For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind.” (1982 Hymnal #469)
This familiar hymn expresses what we have seen and learned about Jesus and his love.
And then we read today’s gospel story.
Jesus’ attitude in this gospel is at the least, unexpected, and perhaps we might even say, shocking. Not that Jesus’ comments aren’t often shocking, at least to the establishment of his time. But his attitude today is not directed to the religious authorities but rather to a distraught Canaanite woman seeking help and healing for her child. His compassion is lacking in this encounter which is what makes it seem out of character to us. And we wonder why. Is Jesus just having a bad day or is there another explanation?
The Canaanites were ancient foes of the Israelites. Canaan was the grandson of Noah so the conflict went back to the days of Genesis. And since the time of Abraham, God had promised the Israelites the land of milk and honey—the land, the property, of the Canaanites. There were well-fought battles over this area. The animosity and lack of respect between these two peoples was long standing. By the time Jesus was on earth this was entrenched in both groups and at best they avoided each other. At other times they hurled insults at each other and called the other names, such as dog.
All he had was God.
And God, instead of roaring to Elijah’s rescue in the wind or the fire or the earthquake, arrives in the softest of whispers.
Up until that point, Elijah had been accustomed to dramatic pyrotechnics, the kind of powerful demonstrations that make you squint and shade your face, eyes watering from the brightness of the light. Only a few days ago in our narrative, Elijah watched as God set a soaking wet ceremonial sacrifice ablaze just to spite the priests of Baal. Before that, Elijah had seen the power of God manifest in the drought he ordained over Israel, a drought that would hold until Israel repented of her idolatry. And then, of course, we have Elijah’s own boldness, inspired by the LORD’s might, that enabled him to challenge a wicked king to his face.
But now, after the blaze on Mt. Carmel has fizzled out, and King Ahab’s homicidal queen, Jezebel, is out for Elijah’s blood—now more than ever before, our beleaguered prophet needs a sign, a big one, to assure him that everything will in fact be okay.
What he gets, though, is the sound of sheer silence, a few words rather than a thousand fireworks, an anti-climactic revelation when all he wanted was for God to do some additional smiting or perhaps set the royal palace on fire.
As a child, I remember singing “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do” right after hearing stories about God’s acts of creation, of Jesus calming the storms, of the Apostles raising the dead in the name of their Lord. Each of us children in the Sunday school classroom were primed and ready to spot the metaphorical lightning strikes, the wonders that would irrefutably prove God to be God. Then, as we got older, the expectations became more subtle. We began asking God for signs—just get rid of the bully. Just make it super clear what I’m supposed to do. Just give me a new job, a new friend, a new passion, and I’ll know you’ll have heard my prayers. Like Elijah, we find ourselves looking to God for a firestorm or an earthquake, but what we end up with is a whisper, the sound of sheer silence, or with nothing more than a hand gripping ours as we flounder in a stormy sea of troubles. It doesn’t seem fair—we’re inviting God to divinely intervene, but all we’re getting is a smile from our neighbor across the street or a crumpled $20 stuffed in a forgotten jacket pocket.
These small moments of God’s mercy are easy to miss, easy to explain away. We find ourselves hunting for a big solution when, all along, God has been gently and quietly sowing our path with mercies, guiding our wayward feet through the dark moments of life and toward his light, using whatever comes to hand: a goofy friend, a fuzzy dog, a beautiful sunset.
God’s whispers, quiet as they may, are nevertheless words of creation, changing their hearers, who are then empowered to change the world. “Go back to Israel,” the LORD tells his servant, but on the way there you will anoint two kings and call another prophet to help you in your struggle against Israel’s idolatry. You are not alone, Elijah. There are people who will help you, and hidden amongst your enemies are 7,000 Israelites who are still fighting to live righteous lives amidst the decay and injustice of their circumstances. The war hasn’t ended. No conclusive victory has been won. But hope is once more in the air, breathed out from the mouth of God.
“My God is so big, so strong and so mighty,” that sometimes he works like a drop of water on the rock, spending years carving a divot in the face of a mountain even when we know he could just snap his fingers and have it done in an instant. His gentleness may not fit our idea of getting things done. If we were in charge . . . we might say. Yet, God’s smallest miracles, his quiet voice, his steady hand, these are our companions on the way. St. Paul tells us that all who call on the name of the Lord will be saved—and I do believe that’s true, even when the saving comes and goes as quick as a flash in the dark. We are not alone. God is here to help us. AMEN.
Both Isaiah and Matthew today point out how determined God is to feed us, and how powerless we are to help him do it. In Matthew, Jesus feeds 5000 men plus women and children, working with nothing more than one person’s sack lunch. It’s almost funny: the well-meaning helpers in the story scrape together enough to nourish a single individual, and in response Jesus lavishes a banquet on a crowd that could fill the Assembly Hall, and ends up with twelve baskets more food than they can possibly use.
Isaiah is even more insistent on the asymmetrical generosity of God: God cries out “You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!” Even if you wanted to reimburse God a little something for his trouble, you couldn’t, because the sustenance he gives is free. He already paid the price for it. Come, be fed without money, without price. You can’t possibly afford to buy what God gives.
Last week I watched a webinar with two of the Episcopal Church’s great teachers of prayer, Fr. Martin Smith and Mother Sarah Coakley. Fr. Smith was talking about a question he often uses when doing individual spiritual direction or leading retreats, as a way of inviting people into a direct encounter with God. He asks them, “Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?” He has asked all kinds of groups and individuals to turn to God with this question: “Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?”
If we have spent time with readings like Isaiah and Matthew this morning, and absorbed them into the way we actually approach life, we will know that God gives grace and nourishment all out of proportion to anything we do or are. God feeds us lavishly, forgives us exorbitantly; we could never reimburse him for his generosity. If we have listened enough to who the Bible tells us God is, that we begin to behave as if it were true, we will know…. God is like that.
What Fr. Smith discovered, though, is that even those who were interested enough in God to come to retreats or sign up for spiritual direction didn’t know this. They were often working on the assumption that Christianity was something they had taken responsibility for doing. Why did Fr. Smith say that? Because, he revealed, at the majority of his retreats and events – for Christians, I emphasize – at the majority of his retreats and events where he had asked people to pray with the question, “Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?” they would come back to him and say something like, “I was so grateful for that idea, and I found it really challenging to ask God who he wants me to be for him right now.”
Over and over, people turned the question around backwards. Fr. Smith asked them to pray with a question about the love and generosity of God proactively acting on us, and over and over people turned it into a question about what kinds of actions they could do for God. God is crying out, “You that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!” and we are looking at the slightly stale granola bar we have in our backpack, and saying “I can help you out, God. I know you need me!”
Do you believe God is like these two passages of Scripture say he is? Do you believe in a God who right now, in response to his infinite knowledge of you, wants to be for you in some way? Who is fundamentally not a taskmaster, not an inspiring ideal you might live up to some day, but a participant in your life who is determined to be for you? Who is looking right now at whatever hunger you have, whatever lack you have – whether it’s boredom or frustration or outrage at injustice or guilt or loss or fear or desire to change – who is looking actively at that and wanting you to allow him into it, out of his infinite love and grace?
Do you believe in a God who has so infinitely much to give that every time we really let him do what he wants with us, there will be twelve baskets of leftovers to feed others as well? Because that’s the God who came to us in Christ. That’s the God who told us about himself in Holy Scripture. The god who is a taskmaster or an inspiring ideal is a human invention.
So, Who is it that God wants to be for you right now? I invite you, as Fr. Smith invites his retreatants, to pray with that question this week. Not the turned on its head version addressed to the kind of guilt-inducing god we would invent. The Christian version, addressed to the God who has told us over and over how much he loves us. Who is it that God wants to be for you right now?