Luke 4:14-22; Romans 12:9-13
The Rev. Tom Herbek
October 30, 2016
We are surrounded by saints. No, not people with glowing halos around their heads. Real, flesh and blood people, with lots of warts and aggravating habits, people just like me and each of us. People who get it right some of the time and miss the bull’s eye some of the time, and sometimes miss the whole target. If we’re here to try to follow Jesus of Nazareth, then Jesus was pretty clear, in his first public statements, about what the target is. Bring some good news, some hope, to those stuck in poverty – economic poverty, emotional poverty, a poverty of anyone willing to help. Work to release those held captive, to free people from the chains that bind them, that hold them back from becoming the people they have been created to be. Bring some light into the lives of people who are surrounded by darkness – emotional and spiritual darkness hopelessness, pain. Let people know that- even today- with all that is going against us, God is still with us.
And Paul, in his words to the Roman followers of Jesus, says much the same thing (my paraphrase):
Love genuinely, hate evil, try to do good;
Love the people around you even when they’re not perfect;
Honor the people who are around you without trying to get the spotlight for yourself;
Put everything into your efforts to make a difference in this world;
Celebrate the hope within you, and show patience when your first try isn’t successful, and keep your dialogue with God going in the good moments and the tough ones;
And finally, take care of the people you know and welcome newcomers- strangers into your life- with generous compassion.
The amazing thing is that we all get to do this in a place that isn’t perfect, a place that is filled with other people who at times are really saints, and perhaps at other times, are just like us: shake-your- head, roll-your-eyes human beings. It’s called a church family, or in some churches, the communion of saints. But it’s one of the ways God gets things done on this earth. Most of the time it’s done in a quiet sort of way by saints just like you and me. Congregational minister Lillian Daniel tells the following story:
I hate the violin. I should know. I played it for eleven years and quit with alacrity.
But I do know a good violinist when I hear one, and one day as I rushed toward some incredibly important appointment with myself, I passed a little girl playing a violin on the street. She was better than I had ever been, and she played with confidence. But she was no Itzhak Perlman. She had her violin case out for tips just like a grown-up busker, but there were not many coins there and no bills in it at all. I felt sorry for her.
But I had no time to correct that problem. Someone else would have to support the arts. I was trying to get to church. I wasn’t leading church, I was planning to attend. Which meant I was running late and had to get myself to this service right now.
Right after I went to Walgreens. It’s fun not being in charge.
Well, apparently it was a very short service, or maybe security in Madison, Wisconsin, was at def con code red, or maybe I can wander around a Walgreens for longer than the average vespers service lasts . . .but by the time I got there, every door to the church was shut and I was locked out. So I walked more slowly this time, the way I had come, and there again, I saw the same little violinist up the sidewalk, sawing away in front of her empty case.
I was a block away from her when a man stepped out in front of me on my path, standing between me and the girl, his back to her and his face lowered to speak in a loud whisper right to me, “You see that girl playing the violin, up there?” I must have gasped, startled. “I didn’t mean to scare you. But you see that kid up there playing the violin?” I nodded. “Could you please give her this?” he asked, thrusting a crumpled-up dollar bill into my hand. As I uncurled it, he nervously looked the violinist’s way to see if she was watching, but she was immersed in her unprofitable craft.
“Just toss it into her case,” he said. “And whatever happens, don’t tell anyone that I gave it to you. Just drop it in and act like you just enjoy the music.”
So I did exactly that and it felt great. I may have been locked out of church, but I liked the warm feeling of making an offering as a patron of the arts. I thought that maybe I could come back later with some more money of my own. I could spend the whole evening walking back and forth in front of the child, showering dollar bills on her and proclaiming the good news, “Somebody invisible loves you!”
But that would have blown it. It would be breaking my promise to her dad.
The man who gave me the dollar bill had to love the kid enough to be anonymous. It was the weird backward affirmation that only a selfless person could want to give to someone very special.
That night, as I watched the little girl playing her violin, I recalled the roughest patches of my own life. I knew what it felt like to have an empty violin case and no fans in sight. Then, I thought back to better times, when my violin case seemed full of tips that I assumed I had earned through my own talent and hard work. Now, I saw my best efforts as no better than the little girl’s.
As she sawed away on a difficult instrument without much expertise or much applause, I thought that this was the mediocre violin playing that only a father could love.
Maybe our biggest fan out there is God, who supplies all the praise that we mistakenly think we earned. God hates to see an empty violin case as much as we do. But rather than fill it for us, God comes at it sideways, occasionally stepping in and convincing total strangers to stop, listen, encourage, and care for one another.
So that one day, when we need it most, we can tell each other without any apology, “Somebody invisible loves you and always has.”
- Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To
And sometimes we are called to be the total strangers to people who need us, and sometimes we are called to join hands with the people around us, the saints in our church family, and experience what it means to belong to each other, to cross over some of those boundaries that would normally separate us from one another.
We don’t always get it right, but as Joan Chittister comments: “The fact is that our lives are truly works in progress, all of them individually and at different times. We are constantly becoming, no less at seventy-five years old than when we were four. We choose and change and then choose again. We select this education not that education, this job not that job, this partner not that partner. We are born to grow, to develop, to become the best of ourselves – and to enjoy life” (Between the Dark and the Daylight)
And when we realize that life is actually a team sport, we then experience some things we can’t experience alone. We are born to be in community, to spend time with other people, and to learn and grow from that experience. As Desmond Tutu says in The Book of Joy:
This God is community, fellowship. Being created by this God, we are created in order to flourish. And we flourish in community. When we become self-centered, turning in on ourselves, as sure as anything, we are going to find one day a deep, deep, deep frustration.
In community, it is a virtuous cycle. The more we turn toward others, the more joy we experience, and the more joy we experience, the more we can bring joy to others. The goal is not just to create joy for ourselves but, to be a reservoir of joy, an oasis of peace, a pool of serenity that can ripple out to all those around you. As we will see, joy is in fact quite contagious. As is love, compassion, and generosity.
The amazing thing is that when we expand our circle, enlarge our relationships, it becomes a source of both joy and health. Civil rights activist John Powell once said:
The human condition is one of belonging. We simply cannot thrive unless we are in relationship. I just gave a lecture on health. If you’re isolated, the negative health consequence is worse than smoking, obesity, high blood pressure-just being isolated. We need to be in relationship with each other.
And so, when you look at what groups are doing, whether they are disability groups or whether they’re groups organized around race, they are really trying to make the claim, “I belong. I’m a member.” If you think about Black Lives Matter, it’s really just saying, “We belong.” How we define the other affects how we define ourselves.
And so when we define the other at an extreme distance from ourselves, it means we have to cut off large parts of our self. In the early debates around integrating schools, the white segregationists said, “We can’t have integrated schools because black and white children might get to know each other and might marry each other and have babies.” The Civil Rights Movement said, “This is not about marriage.” But the white segregationists were right. When you bring people together, they will actually learn to love each other. Some of them will marry and have children. It will actually change the fabric of society. When people worry that having a lot of Latinos in the United States will change the United States, they are right. We’re constantly making each other. Part of it is our fear that we are holding on to something and the other is going to change it. And the other is going to change it – but we’re going to change the other. If we do it right, we’re going to create a bigger “we,” a different “we.”
- Interview with Krista Tippett in Becoming Wise
The bad news is that the more open we expand our church family, the more it will change us. The good news is that the more open we expand our church family, the more it will change us.
The truth is that- at this very moment- God is recruiting anonymous strangers for us and people we have known all our life, to be God’s hands and feet and voices for us. And we will be changed, and we will know then that we are not alone, that God loves us, and that God is continually recruiting people to make sure that message is clear and personally delivered to us. And the wonderful, joyous part of all of it is, we are also being continually recruited for others, to make sure that that message never is silenced in our world.
And so you see, the spirit of the Lord is also upon us also, because God has anointed us to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to those who are captive, and recovery of sight to those who cannot see, and to proclaim that this is also a special time, a time of the presence of God’s favor and blessing.