Monday, July 10, 2017

Defy Expectation

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

About a year ago, I started getting mail and email headlined in big bright letters: “Defy Expectation!”

“Exciting!” I thought.
Well…. It’s fundraising material from my alma mater, Bryn Mawr College. I can’t really tell from the material what the development folks mean by that slogan, but I still like it. It does remind me of the energy and possibility of my undergraduate years.

And the phrase has gotten stuck in my head, where it rang like a bell this week, as I listened to Jesus.

Jesus has just been talking to messengers sent from his cousin John the Baptist to ask whether Jesus is, actually, the Messiah we’ve all been waiting for. He sends back a non-answer answer that amounts to “well, what do you think?”, and then turns to the curious folks around him and tells them that they are like children in the marketplace calling, “We played the flute for you and you would not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn.”

They seem to be complaining that when they were ready for a festival, for rejoicing with God, God sends John, all repentance and fasting and eating locusts in the wilderness,
and when they’re ready for mourning, or serious repentance, God sends Jesus, living it up with the sinners.
God’s prophets, it seems, keep failing to meet the expectations God’s people have for God.

Including Jesus. Maybe especially Jesus. Even expectations that he has set up himself, with his own teaching. This same man who keeps insisting that in order to follow him, we have to “take up your cross” – which is no easy lifting, even if it weren’t associated with death – and lose our lives for his sake, is now telling the crowds that they should join him, follow him, to get rest; that his work is easy, his burden light.

And Jesus doesn’t just contradict the expectations of the people of first century Israel.
Two millennia later, he keeps on messing with the expectations we’ve developed over centuries of living with his story.

Right in the middle of the gospel passage we read today are a few sentences skipped by the people who assign the readings, in which Jesus remarks about the places he’s just been visiting and healing:
"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! …. on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum …. I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you."
We probably skip those words because that kind of blanket condemnation doesn’t sit well with the church’s expectations of Jesus today.

Jesus isn’t nice when we expect him to be, and he won’t necessarily condemn the people we’d most like him to condemn, either, even after all these years of trying to understand him.

And we want that of God, whether we know it or not. Because miracles are, in essence, the shattering of expectations. Radical forgiveness makes no sense. We need God to be in the habit of defying expectations, even if it disappoints us, sometimes, when that thing so terrible I just knew God would never permit it happens anyway.

There are ways to explain the fact that God seems self-contradictory, that Jesus doesn’t make sense, but no matter how good the explanations, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to contain God within our expectations, even limited, reasonable, mild ones.

In fact, I think this may be the first thing we need to know when we decide to actually follow Jesus, not just listen to him. That we’re going to have to let go of our expectations for good, and then over and over and over again. I believe that to follow Jesus, to join him, we have to actively discard our expectations. Perhaps even prepare to defy expectations ourselves.

Because our expectations can limit our ability to go with God, to see or understand where Jesus is going, what Jesus is saying.
Today, you heard Jesus invite us to “take my yoke upon you… for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This, he tells us, is how we will find rest for our souls.
You know, don’t you, that getting into a yoke means going exactly where the other person is going. And if we’re expecting to go left, it’s going to be a lot harder to turn right when Jesus does – so it’s probably better to proactively give up any expectations about where we’re going next, or where we’re trying to end up.

Years ago, when the idea first crossed my mind that I might be a priest, it seemed like a light, almost fun, idea. I couldn’t believe it.
I mean, I knew how it worked when God calls people – I’ve read the Bible: You hear a voice you can’t resist, one that argues down all your objections. It’s unmistakeable. And it’s usually a big scary deal, none of these little flutterings of speculation and delight.
I spent at least four years stubbornly waiting for a vision, or a Voice, or at least a certified letter – before I could let go of my expectations enough to start exploring the possibility of priesthood.

And then, over and over for fifteen more years, I’ve had to let go of my new expectations about call, and about God’s voice, all over again every time I’ve faced a major decision, a new opportunity, or the utter improbability of moving to New Jersey.

What expectations of God might you have to discard to free you to follow Jesus?
What expectations of God might be limiting what you can hear, or see, or do right now?

It’s not just our expectations about God, it’s our expectations of ourselves, and our response to what other people expect of us. Sometimes we need to surrender those expectations as well, and defy what other people expect from you, what you expect from yourself.

Sometimes, you have to be quiet, when people are expecting you to be the loudest voice, or speak up, when others expect your silence and agreement. Sometimes, you have to leave, or arrive, unexpectedly.

I’ve had to learn – no, to be honest, I’m still trying to learn – to let go not only of my own expectations of being right a lot of the time, but of my own and others’ expectations that it’s always possible to get things right.
I’ve learned – I’m learning – that with Jesus, sometimes failure is the only option, or the best option, because the alternative is not trying at all. Sometimes failure is the gate to resurrection; and you don’t have to get it right to find yourself in exactly the place God wants you to be.
And it is astonishing how peaceful that truth can sometimes be.

Maybe your expectations are built around other things, maybe you and people around you have gotten used to expecting you to fail, or expecting you to be the planner or the follower or the one most easily hurt.

And letting go of the expectations you have, I have, of ourselves, that it seems others have of us, as a good parent, son/daughter, friend, boss, whatever, allows us to rest in Jesus’ leadership of that relationship, to lay down the heavy burdens of expectation and carry instead the light burden of God’s guidance of our lives.

Come unto me, Jesus said, you that are weary, and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

God will give you peace beyond understanding. But it will not be – it cannot be – what you were expecting.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Big Ask

Genesis 22:1-14; Matthew 10:40-42

It’s one of the most troubling stories in scripture, isn’t it?
This story in which God tells Abraham to do just about the most difficult, awful thing you can ask someone to do: to offer up his beloved son Isaac as a ritual sacrifice.

It’s a story that seems to work out in the end – Isaac doesn’t die; Abraham doesn’t do the most terrible thing – but still…
It’s inexcusable.
To ask a father to kill and sacrifice his own son; to ask a faithful man to cut off his hope for any future, to burn up the one gift from God he had waited for for so many years?

And maybe that’s one of the things we’re supposed to learn from the story: That in the context in which this story was first told, it was not beyond imagination that one might sacrifice a child to the gods, and that the punch line of this story is that this God, our God, says “STOP!”?
It’s possible that this story was first told in order to object to, to stop, a culture of child-sacrifice.

I truly believe that God would never expect – or accept – the killing of a child as an act of worship. But maybe we still need to read this story, and not dismiss it as outdated or irrelevant, but hear it and feel the bitter wrenching of our own hearts; feel the anger, the uncertainty and pain. Maybe we still need to ask ourselves what we’d do – what you, personally, and I would do –if God said that to you, or me.

Because God has a habit of asking for the impossible: asking stuttering, marginally competent people for smooth speechmaking and decisive leadership in crisis; demanding impossible births from women too young or too old; demanding endurance and eloquence from people who really, truly, cannot do these things; telling us to lose our lives for Jesus. And yes, this kind of impossible ask is coming to us: to you and me, personally.

In this time and place so far removed from the pages of the Bible, for the most part you and I are protected by a culture that has accepted some version of the Christian faith as the default for nearly a thousand years from the enormous individual demands and sacrifices that come with relationship with God. And more recently our world has begun to regard any kind of high commitment to religion as out-of-place, dangerous, or silly.
Still, if you read the Bible seriously, it’s impossible to miss that what God asks of us is, well, everything.

What God asks is not niceness, not tolerance or piety, not to feed a few hungry, visit a few sick, give to God’s work the time and treasure we can easily afford. 
That’s good, yes. God welcomes that.
But more than that, we are to regard all we have as God's, not our own, including our hearts and our lives; all of this meant first and foremost, for what God wants to do with it, not what I want.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that the little things - a cup of cold water, a simple attitude of welcome - matter as much as great sacrifices. That’s true when we offer them not just because someone needs them, or it’s convenient, but because they are God’s, not ours to give.
Jesus also insists that God does not stop with the little things. Over and over, he tells us that it is our lives we must give, our whole selves, everything we have: because these are God’s.

So what in your life – possessions, people, life, feelings, time – do you really, deeply believe belongs to God more than to you?
What do I by my actions, by my unconscious habits, treat as mine, and not God’s?

I have learned that those things that I hesitate to give, that I try to manage so that I will have enough: those are the things I’m treating as mine.
The things that I don’t worry about having enough of: that I can give without hesitation, even when it’s painful; that you can give even when you actually won’t have enough for yourself, those are the things we unconsciously, truly, see as God’s.

Personally, I’m better at seeing money as God’s than, say, time. I often worry that I will not have enough time – that if I don’t manage it, control it, I won’t be able to do my job, or to take reasonable care of myself. And it turns out that I hoard time; I hesitate to give it away.

But somehow – watching the generosity of others, receiving generosity myself – I’ve found that I can hold money lightly. There are times when giving and spending is painful, when I’m scraping the bottom of my checkbook or credit card, but it still doesn’t frighten me with the loss of control.

Maybe for you it’s the opposite. Maybe time flows freely for you and money needs control. Or your gift for cooking or art has somehow become a thing you don’t have enough of, that you hoard, manage, need to control, while your musical talent or physical strength is easy to share.

It’s not just the obvious resources like money and time that matter in this way. It’s our hearts, our way of occupying space, our hard-won skills, natural talents, and daily work.
Ask yourself: are you an excellent surgeon, teacher, manager, parent, because God needs an excellent parent, salesperson, architect, or attorney where you are? Or because you need to be good at this job? Or your boss, client, or family need that?

Even our emotional lives belong to God, before they belong to us. In fact, I suspect that many of us learn to know that we don’t belong to ourselves from our families, our loves. Perhapsh you have looked at your child, your parent, your spouse, and realized your heart belongs to them, to break or strengthen, without your having any control over it; or that your family’s call on your talents and worldly goods often comes before your own needs and wants.
When we learn these things in our families, we practice what we need to hold God’s gifts lightly.

While I find I can hold many of the deep loves of my heart lightly, in God’s hands, keeping relationships with family and friends open to whatever comes; I will confess that I’m territorial about my home. I actually worry sometimes as if there’s not enough of my living room to go around.  (Yes, you should laugh at that.)

Maybe your home is naturally open, and your friendships held tightly; or your golf game carefully managed and your office free and light. And yet all these things belong to God. I just forget, and treat some of God’s gifts as if they belong only to me.

A friend reminded me this week, as I wrestled with this, that acting as though our gifts, work, homes, emotions, belong to us isn’t necessarily selfish. Many times, we want to manage these things to help others, and our only mistake is in thinking that these resources are ours to control, and that God isn’t going to ask for them – now! – when I had other plans.

This story we started with today, this story of God asking the impossible of Abraham, God asking for Abraham’s everything, is a heart-wrenching and disturbing story to hear, but I think one of the reasons we read it is not just to remember that God may one day ask our lives from us, but that God already has;
that sometimes this ask will be heart-wrenching, impossible, stunning, and still our only possible answer, in faith, is “yes.”

Next week, in our tour of the prayer book, we’ll pray the words of a prayer that stretches back into our first English language Eucharists:
And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee.
Those are some of my favorite words in this prayer book, because they ring with the truth that all that I am, and all that we have, is God’s, and we pray an abridged version of them today.

We offer God, as Abraham ultimately did, a living sacrifice, not a death, because God does not ask our lives of us once, but every day.
And in the end, that big ask is no ask at all, no question,
because all we have, and all we are, belongs to God.