Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
December 11, 2016
Gospel Lesson: Matthew 11:2-11
(Click below to listen to the sermon.)
To live a spiritual life, you must stay focused on your journey. Life is one long siren’s call to pull you away from your true path. As 12-step programs teach, beware of people, places and things. These are the triggers of our addictions-the people who are not in recovery, the places from your past that will only lead to shame and regret, and the things you do that do not bring growth and recovery. No one else can live your life. If you want to be on the path of spiritual healing and transformation, you must run your own race.
Last Sunday, while running the 5K Hot Chocolate run, I repeated this to myself many times. “Run your race, Todd.” As a high school distance runner, my race was to get to the front of the pack and take long strides, hoping to burn out my shorter competitors, and cruise into the finish line easily. If it came down to a sprint I would probably lose. That race doesn’t work for me anymore. Sunday, I finished number 1013 out of 4000 runners. I got passed-many times-passed by tall people, short people, people running in Santa costumes, I was passed by a woman running in a big ball gown from the movie Frozen. I was tempted each time to speed up, keep up, and then I would repeat “Run your race, Todd.” At age 52, I have to adapt. I don’t run at the head of the pack. I run to finish without walking. I run for the cause, for the fun of still being able to be in the race at all. I run smart now. As others passed me on the flat and level road, I ran steady knowing the hills were coming. Many runners stopped and walked up Paradise Pond Road holding their sides in anguish. I am a little slower each year, but I am running my race, and it is a source of joy to me.
On the spiritual journey, even Jesus had to run his race. Even Jesus had to watch out for the people, places and things. He was tempted in the wilderness, misunderstood, and criticized. In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, even his cousin and ministry partner, John the Baptist, did not always get him.
John’s race was to be a fiery prophet, a voice in the wilderness calling people to make the path straight for God to meet them. He was confrontational, challenging, and shouting a warning to repent before it was too late. John is now in prison for denouncing the greed, corruption and incompetence of Herod Agrippa, a brutal of all Roman overlord. And what the heck is Jesus doing? In Matthew’s Gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is teaching about love your neighbor, love even your enemies, turn the other cheek, get the log out of your own eye before you try to remove the speck from someone else. He is healing lepers, defending women, praising good Samaritans, sending out disciples two by two to spread the message of the Kingdom of Heaven. John is deeply troubled that Jesus is off message from what messiahs do. Perhaps he is thinking, “Stop kissing babies Jesus. I put the axe at the root of the tree for you and you are acting like Johnny Appleseed. I know you try to see the good in everyone, but everyone is not good. Resist. Fight. By the way, I am in jail. Could you spare a moment for a little protest? Do you know a good lawyer? I get visits on Saturdays. Jesus answers:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[c] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Thanks for clearing things up for us Jesus. That was eloquent and inspiring – so that means you are the messiah, right? Back at Herod’s jail, will this satisfy John? I’d love to hear that conversation. “Reverend Baptist, Jesus said he’s healing and preaching good news…and stuff. He seemed to be speaking in code.” Actually, Jesus was speaking in code. If we take Jesus literally, we might think he is a miracle worker, with a spiritual message about the power of positive thinking and trusting God. Jesus has to speak in code, because the minute he says he is the messiah, there is a jail cell right next to John. In a society where the government does not allow dissent, you speak truth in code. (That might be a valuable lesson in the future.)
This code is not hard for us because we have just heard Isaiah 35 while lighting the third Advent candle this morning. Jesus answers John by quoting scripture and trusts that John gets the message. As we hear Isaiah’s words, it helps to hear it as poetry, not as prose. Isaiah’s original audience heard his words as the poetry of hope and transformation. They were not literally deaf, blind or lame, their shared condition was living in exile in Persia. They were war refugees, captured and uprooted, living without rights, perhaps not able buy their own homes, barred to assimilate into society, and their status could change with any political whim of a demagogue.
In the midst of their suffering, finally a poet comes, and speaks to the heart, speaks to renew hopes and dreams. When we feel cynical and afraid, we don’t need a better plan. We need a reason to believe and hope. If you feel unloved, you want some poetry. “Of course I love you,” doesn’t always do it.” How about, “When you walk in the door, the lights go on.” Music helps, if you are not a wordsmith. Try Nora Jones, Lou Rawls, John Lennon singing “Something in the Way She Moves.” You want someone to sing in your ear as you slow dance in the kitchen. Poetry opens the heart. Our nation needs poetry right now. Read Maya Angelou. I go back and read the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr. and William Sloan Coffin. We need to keep listening to Bob Dylan and contemplate the answers blowing in the wind. I lived in the Hudson Valley and saw a lot of Pete Seeger, whose banjo said, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” I heard Pete read the Preamble to the Constitution one July 4th and he made me cry. He had me at “We the People.” Seeger cleaned up the Hudson with hope-and a ton of organizing, but people don’t organize without a hopeful vision.
You want to get radical and really challenged to be the change, listen to some Christmas music. I don’t mean “Santa Claus is coming to town.” Here’s a compilation:
Come Thou Long expected Jesus, born to set they people free.
Comfort, Comfort O my People…
Comfort those who sit in darkness, bowed beneath oppression’s load.
O Come, O come Emmanuel, and Ransom captive Israel…Rejoice, Rejoice
Joy to the World, the Lord is Come, Let every heart prepare him room.
Half of this is straight from Isaiah, the poet of hope and transformation, the wordsmith of God’s work in the world. When John received the message back in prison, hearing the words of Isaiah 35 quoted to him, I think he could decode the message. I hope he heard that the work of God was outliving him and moving forward. Notice that Jesus, after quoting poetry, then affirms John’s message. John was the diagnostician of injustice. John was the sharp critic and the challenger. Jesus says he is a great man, but there is something greater still – the people united in a hope of the Kingdom of Heaven among them, the Beloved Community, lived together. Critics and poets need each other; grounded truth and inspired hearts balance each other.
They help us run our race. Running is hard. That Hot Chocolate run was hard on my body. I coughed for a couple of days after stressing my lungs in the cold air, my left heel hurt and my foot was numb and my right ankle is still tender. I’m glad it is only once a year. So why bother with it? Because it is a great feeling to be a part of something bigger than myself. I love running that race with other people. I like the surge of 4000 people as the race begins, and the people yelling and waving and urging me on, hearing the Expandable Brass Band playing, and watching people run in the cold, dressed up, and doing it to raise money to stop domestic violence. I would totally not do this alone, but I will do it with 4000 other runners and lots of inspiration. I ran my ran my race, but it was our race that made it worthwhile.
So people of God, what race shall we run together? We are in our prime season of hope in God working among us to bring about the transformation. Isaiah unstops our ears to hear new truth, restores our vision to see possibilities amidst challenges. The prophet tells us you are not a lame church. You are a church ready to move. Blessed are you who are ready to go to the starting line once again!