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The other day I approached someone to ask a question. She nodded and smiled at me, but didn’t answer. So I asked again and this time she made some kind of hand gesture that I didn’t understand. So I asked again louder – and got the same response. I started thinking that maybe we had a language barrier (or maybe that this person was operating in some alternate reality). Then I noticed the ear buds. She hadn’t heard a word I said. I didn’t want to seem pushy by asking her to take them out, so I raised my voice and asked my question again – and again. Finally, she removed one ear bud in time to hear me yell, at top volume, “I think it’s supposed to get hot out tomorrow.” She reared back, saying, “You don’t have to YELL at me – and I’m not having anything to do with that political stuff this weekend.”
It took me a while to get that she thought by saying “hot,” I was talking about the planned protests in the Bay Area, when I was actually just talking about the weather. I thought about explaining, but I couldn’t think of a way that I could do it without offending her – and really the conversation wouldn’t have gone well anyway, because what I really wanted to tell her was that she was rude to be wearing those stupid ear buds! In other words, I wanted to tell her that I was right and she was wrong.
I think this country is having a metaphorical epidemic of this type of non-conversation right now. Many of us have our spiritual earbuds so firmly in place that we can’t hear what other people are saying – and we don’t want to take them out – we don’t want to hear what’s going on outside of our own safe belief system- so when someone makes us take them out –either through persistence or brute force – we get angry at them for yelling at us – for being rude. Trying to communicate this way is very frustrating. Ask God.
“Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the Lord,” God says to the Israelites through Isaiah. “Listen to me, my people, and give heed to me.” God tells us that he has the answers we seek and yet we still don’t listen. Maybe that’s because we are distracted by what’s going on in our own heads. “How often in life does a situation become so all-consuming that its pervasiveness literally drowns out all other sounds and voices around us … [how often are the] circumstances in life…so traumatic that they can numb and render us deaf to all but the sound of our own pain.” How often do we figure that we’ve got enough going on without taking our ear buds out and listening to the chaos around us?
It’s understandable, but not acceptable – because our entire faith is based on the concept of relationship – relationship with God and with one another. We hear this in today’s psalm, which is an example of the doctrine of God’s providence – the idea that God is active and interested in the world. Ours is a God who cares – and who cares specifically for the lowly. “God values those who seem to have nothing, and chastens those who have much.” And God asks us to do the same- to care for the world and its people – all its people.
According to St. Paul, this requires sacrifice – not symbolic, but real sacrifice. Paul understood sacrifice. I believe that Paul’s letters are often misinterpreted because we take them out of context, seeing them from the perspective of people who live in a safe, comfortable world. But Paul didn’t live like us. Paul was an itinerant preacher, witnessing in foreign and often dangerous places and trying to draw together people with significant differences. His letters were written to “communities seeking understanding in relation to their lives,” people who were hunted and tortured for being different. And here’s what he told them: “Do not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” In other words, you are not to be part of the status quo. You are not to continue to live with the wrongs around you. You are not to contribute to the unequal distribution of wealth. You are not to allow people to be marginalized for who they are. You are not allowed to keep your protective ear buds in.
You are to sacrifice for what is right. Paul’s question to his people – and to us – is not, “How will you benefit from being a Christian,” but rather, “What are you willing to give up to be a Christian”? I occasionally joke that I am willing to put myself in dangerous situations because my only hope for Christian renown is to be a martyr – since I have no chance of being a saint. But as much as I think I would give up my life for my faith, I recognize that in reality, I haven’t really given up anything– not my comfortable income, not my home, not my family, not my job, and certainly not my freedom or well-being. And, in many ways, neither has God’s church – which, perhaps, explains why people aren’t coming so much anymore.
The passage we heard today from Matthew’s gospel is famous because it serves as the basis for the primacy of the Pope in Roman Catholic Church hierarchy. According to Catholic doctrine, when Jesus said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,” he was putting Peter and his descendants in charge for perpetuity. But other scholars have argued that Jesus wasn’t referring to the person of Peter, but the testimony of Peter. This means the basis of our faith is built not a person, but on belief – belief in Jesus, belief in the faithful actions of God in the lives of his people throughout history, and belief in his continuing inspirational presence through the Holy Spirit.
We sure need this inspiration- especially now – because “if churches are not inspired by the Spirit, they will eventually expire.” The church will not grow – it cannot grow – if we don’t start living as if the kingdom of God is already here. It’s a huge and potentially overwhelming responsibility, but it’s what we have to do. Luckily, no one of us has to do it alone. “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function” but between all of us, we have absolutely everything we need. We just need to work together. St. Paul calls us to “move beyond our particular political and denominational factions… and our respective ethnic loyalties by speaking truthfully to one another in and through our differences about the impact of Jesus Christ in our own lives.” Because when we don’t, we not only miss the opportunity to share God’s grace and glory with others, but we miss the chance to become closer to God in our own lives.
Because God is always present with us. Do you really think that Jesus left the church in the hands of a bunch of ignorant, frequently-wrong, often-hot-headed, disciples without guidance? Think about what we know about Peter. Does it make sense for Jesus to leave him in charge without help? Of course not. Jesus did not leave us alone. We always have the Holy Spirit among us – to help us whenever we don’t know what to do – to share in our sorrows and struggles – to hear our prayers, and to answer them. But we have to accept that help. We have to avoid the tendency to focus on the noise of the world and the fear inside of us and listen instead for the voice of God – for the voice of reason – for the voice of community – for the voice of peace. We know what to do. “Listen to me, you that seek the Lord.” Take out your earbuds; God is waiting. AMEN.
Ronald E. Peters, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 362.
Elizabeth P. Randall, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 371.
Eleazar S. Fernandez, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 378.
Jin S. Kim, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 384.