Exceeding Limitations

Well, it’s soccer season again, or it’s about to be. I have been coaching my son’s team for three seasons, and it looks like this is the first season that we will have most of the same players as the previous season – even though the last season was our least successful. I’m hopeful for a good season, and I’m learning a lot from these boys. Mostly I am remembering things that I have forgotten. Not just technical skills, but things like the idea that a great effort is a success.

These kids don’t have the technical skills figured out yet, and so a good effort means a good result. It would be nice if more of the world worked that way. I’m not saying that we should not try to achieve results, or that working harder is better than working smarter. I am saying that sometimes we put so much emphasis on results that we forget about the reasons that motivate us.

Jeremiah was a prophet who spoke in such a time as this. Israel and Judah were vassal states, and King Josiah led a reformist movement to reunite the people and claim independent sovereignty. Jeremiah spoke to remind the King and the people that none of that mattered if they did not have a unified spiritual identity. The people and their leaders were impatient with God, and the hedged their bets with sacrifices to other Gods (today we might call these pet projects and programs).

Our text is about Jeremiah’s call by God. Like Moses he says, “I’m not much on public speaking and stuff, ‘cause I’m a kid, sooo...yeah. No can do.” God – having heard that before – said, “No excuse. It’s going to be rough, but I will deliver you. Here, I’ll just stick my words in your mouth, so they can come out later. Oh, and because they are my words, they have the power to create and to destroy.”

Hmm...no pressure there. Now, in the past I have mainly heard this passage used by youth who have felt the need to tell their congregations that they have a voice that needs to be heard. Whether that is a right interpretation or not, I think it is interesting that such an expression is part of the fabric of our identity as mainline Protestants. I’m reminded of Roger Nishioka who once told an auditorium full of youth that they are not the future of the church any more than the elderly are the past, and if we all want a future together we better figure out how to be the church today. Amen?

For our context, we have more members that question what to do in their later years. “But what could God be using me for?” we say. I don’t know. I know that Ben Franklin was 70 when he helped draft the Declaration of Independence. I know that Col. Sanders was 65 when he cashed a social security check and started his first KFC restaurant. I know that Judy Brenner ran the Boston marathon at age 70, and in 2007 she sprinted 100 feet to take down a teenage shoplifter.

I don’t say these things to make anyone feel bad, and I know we have some folks in our congregation that did some pretty amazing things in their 60’s and 70’s. The point is that God is never finished with you. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel that God just can’t do anything else with this hot mess of a life that I offer up. It is in those times that I realize that I am not doubting my own voice. I am doubting God’s. Who am I to say that God is limited by my inability to listen and respond?

Listening and responding is part of the invitation in the letter to the Hebrews, but it’s also more than that. First we are reminded of the story of the giving of the law at Mount Zion. Moses went up to be with God because the people fell back in terror. Of course they were commanded to stone to death even animals that may have wandered too close. There was fire and smoke and the shrill sound of trumpets! It was unearthly and unnatural. Then we are reminded that none of that is present in the proclamation of Jesus – except that it is also unearthly and unnatural to say that God is not condemning, but embracing. And the truth of God’s embrace is so unnatural – ultimate forgiveness pushes so hard against the fabric of reality – that it threatens everything in the natural order of creation.

Everything that is movable gets moved. Everything shakable gets shaken. Everything, in the end, is smoke and ashes by comparison to the permanence of God.

Several years ago I sat with a man who was dying, and he prayed with me. Most people ask me to pray. He prayed with me. I remember when he said, “Thank you God for purifying me through this illness.” This was a man who knew of his sins, and of his forgiveness. Suddenly I was reminded of the silver smith’s fire.

The smith heats the metal until it melts, then removes the impurities; the dross; the stuff that is not silver. Do you know how the smith knows when the silver is pure? It is pure when the Smith sees his or her reflection in the molten silver. I think that is what happens in life and in death, and – in the end – all that is left is that which is pure; that which has no end; that which is of God.

I think that is why following Jesus is so good. Jesus refines us so that we can experience the pure and the good and the simple and true in this life. Jesus offers us the mirror to look into – even though we do not always like what we see.

That’s what he did for the synagogue leaders in our Gospel lesson today. He was teaching, and he stopped. As though distracted by something shiny he saw a woman in need – who would most likely not have been in the same area as the men – and he healed her. Suddenly, healing this woman was more important than reading or discussing the law. Suddenly, healing this woman was the fulfillment of the law. She did not ask. He did not ask her. He simply saw the need and healed her, and she praised God!

What is our reaction to this Jesus who offers forgiveness and release from suffering? Do we fulfill the law in the same way? Do we praise God when we are healed?

Of course the Synagogue leader condemned it. “Sorry folks, Jesus wasn’t following the rules. He’s new here, and quite frankly he is creating some problems I do not want to deal with.” Jesus responds with a mirror. “Look at yourself! You take better care of livestock than of this person!” What he goes on to demonstrate is the Jewish concept of Hessed – doing the right thing because it is simply the right thing to do. Deeper than compassion, this is a mindset that recognizes the natural connections we share as creatures of the creator.

That is easily said, but it is hard to do. We all have lives. We all have limitations, and people need to be responsible for themselves. Yet, God is without limitations, and it is the limitless presence of God that draws us to one another. It is the limitless presence of God that invites us to go beyond what we think we can do and to become a part of what we know God is doing.

Earlier this week, Antoinette Tuff – a bookkeeper in a school in DeKalb County, Georgia – found out what this means. A gunman walked into the school she served. Unable to run she called 911 (click here for audio), and became his mouthpiece. She spoke with compassion and sincerity. She related to him vulnerably. She told him she loved him, and that she would help him. Throughout the call, he confessed to being off of his medication and eventually laid down his gun. When the police rushed in, the first words she spoke that were her own were an emotional and heartfelt, “Oh, Jesus!”

Hopefully, none of us will ever endure her situation. Hopefully, we can respond to the situations we do experience with the same faith! We have real limitations. We follow a God who has none. We get impatient with the actions of an influential God who refuses to manipulate us, and sometimes we turn to other Gods. We listen to false prophets. We ask God, “Hey! What are you going to do about this?” Or we shake our heads because we assume that the only way the evil of the day could ever be resolved is by the mighty hand of God wiping the slate clean.

Personally, I would rather be like a certain 93 year old regular of our Agape prayer lunch. Last Wednesday he prayed, “Lord, don’t let us expect you to do everything for us. Help us to see what you want us to do.” Well, amen to that! Amen, amen, and again I say, amen!

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