“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!” The departing parishioner accosted my pastor friend at the church door, at the end of worship. “Is that all you have to talk about?” “Pretty much,” he answered. The Narrative Lectionary asks us the same question, and, thankfully, the answer is still yes.
Read the scripture here.
Read Meda Stamper’s commentary for Working Preacher here.
Last week’s awful school shooting recalled for me how experts on terrorism talk about “soft targets” – places like schools, churches and concerts, where people are easy to attack. People are always “soft targets.” Like our sisters and brothers in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, in schools and nightclubs, we are not designed to encounter bombs or gunshots or exploding devices.
In this last week of his life, at the Passover time, Jesus makes himself a soft target, too. He speaks about betrayal, never denying the reality of violence and evil in the world. Inside that reality, he is determined to maintain his softness of heart. Instead of giving the disciples a strongly worded lecture about loyalty and honor, he takes off his robe, exposing even more vulnerability. He picks up the basin to do the work of a servant.
Follow my example, he says. The setting is stunning. Just before this, Jesus announces that one of the people close to him will betray him. Just after this, he warns Peter about denying him three times. Jesus’ core instruction to love each other with energy and strength comes inside this frame of denial and betrayal, failure and impending death.
But Jesus has something to add. We are listening to his farewell speech, three chapters of instructions about how to live in the world without him. Some people are hard to love, though, and Jesus understands that, speaking in this atmosphere of danger. Love gets the last word, not pain or betrayal or violence.
- The students and parents piling onto buses in Florida to protest in Tallahassee are reminding us that being a soft target does not mean being weak, or accepting what we should not accept. How do we balance Jesus commandment to love with his equally strong passion for justice?
- Adam Grant’s interesting book Give and Take suggests that there are three ways people respond to the world: there are givers, takers and matchers. We all know takers – people who try to get as much out of life, and other people, as they can. They make off with your Tupperware, your weed whacker, your promotion, and your mom’s recipe. They think that’s the way to success in life. At the other end of the spectrum are what Grant calls “this strange breed of people” called givers. The givers are the people you ask when you need a job recommendation, a ride to the airport, a last-minute babysitter, a short term loan or a cup of sugar. They share their knowledge and their time freely. The third group are the matchers – they try to balance the giving and the receiving. He says these styles exist everywhere – in very field of work, and, we know, certainly in every civic organization and every neighborhood. Jesus is calling us to be givers, in ways that match our talents and faith. How do those of us who are takers learn to give more? How do those of us who are givers figure out how to not to burn out? One piece of practical wisdom comes from that same book, Give and Take. Adam Grants says we have to find the kind of giving that suits us, and our own talents and time. He asks: “What are the types of giving that you find most energizing or most consistent with your skills?” For some people, it’s making introductions. For others, it’s sharing credit. For others, it’s stepping up as a mentor. Finding your own giver style is really powerful.”
- If we live the way Jesus tells us to, we are soft targets emotionally and spiritually, too. We will always be touched by the sorrow and pain around us. We will always hurt when other people hurt. We will always look at the world and long for the new heaven and the new earth that God is bringing. How do we pace ourselves, so we don’t wear out on the first day? How do we learn to do this work for a long time?
- Last words are important, and these last words of Jesus are very poignant. How have you experienced that in your life? Are there words you regret not saying? Things you’re glad you did say? What sticks with you, from the people you love?
- When we love one another, we see a slice of the new heaven and the new earth. As Frederick Buechner writes [Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction] “If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God in the sense of holiness, goodness and beauty is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what we all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know it…The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from and our truest prayers. We glimpse it at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we We catch sight of it when at some moment of crisis some a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.” The sermon might look at where you have seen the realm of God recently, or where you are laboring to bring it to life.
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We would love to hear your ideas, and share the conversation with you, in the comments below.
Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church. The image above illustrates the foot washing and is a scultpture by David Wynne, River God Tyne, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.
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