Because Why Not? | 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Homily preached at St. Stephen’s in the South End, Boston | August 21, 2016
Good morning, St. Stephen’s.
I am so glad and grateful to see you and all the wonderful, miraculous things you are doing. I am so glad and grateful to see you because each and every one of you is a miracle.
Yes, Tim. You are a miracle.
Yes, Marcela. You are a miracle.
Yes, Trodville. You are a miracle.
“Why?” you might ask.
And my answer and message to you today is: “Because why not?”
It is a beautiful, wonderful, and miraculous thing to see you this morning. Because why not?
Today’s texts, as is true of the other texts for this season, are Jerusalem road texts. Although they involve different communities, the three stories we have heard show us people on the road; people on the way to some promised and unseen place that needs people to become the miracles they are destined to be; people who are called to prepare the way for change and to become change itself.
Jeremiah is being sent on the way to make big, improbable, and undeniable miracles happen.
“See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
And Jeremiah is terrified. Maybe because he cannot believe he can make the miracles happen. And maybe because he intuits that the miracles won’t happen unless he dares to become a miracle first.
A miracle is an intense and overwhelming form of change. Last time we saw each other, Paul told us a lot about the necessity of change. The question is not whether people and things change. The question is: how do people change? How do we, the people, become the miracles we are destined to be?
The great musician Carlos Santana has an answer: “If you want to create a miracle for yourself, learn to get out of your own way.”
The story that tells us how Jeremiah’s ministry began has an answer, too. How do people change? Not voluntarily. Not painlessly. And not without cost.
In fact, when change is at hand, we tend to file a complaint and make a pleading. Jeremiah receives a great commission that is sure to change his life and alter the course of history. His destiny is revealed to him. Change is coming. And Jeremiah files a complaint. Jeremiah makes a pleading.
He says: “I am only a boy.”
And God says: “Boy, bye.”
I am paraphrasing, of course.
God tells Jeremiah to get out of his own way. Because why not?
“Do *not* say, ‘I am only a boy’”
“Do *not* be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”
Here is a God who tells someone who is destined to become a prophet and calls himself “only a boy” what *not* to do. Do *not* get yourself in your own way.
We also heard a story about a radically generous teacher who was on his way to Jerusalem. On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus keeps seeing people in clear need of healing and delivers them.
“When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’”
Now, there seems to be a really important difference between Jeremiah and Jesus. Jeremiah struggles to believe in the power he has to make miracles happen and to become a miracle himself. Jesus, on the other hand, seems to have made his peace with it. We don’t know much about what Jesus used to tell himself. But he clearly did not tell himself: “I am only a boy” — at least not in the scene we witness in today’s gospel.
The risks Jesus took in response to the profound need for healing he was willing to see on his way to Jerusalem suggest that at this stage of his journey to Jerusalem, Jesus had embraced his life’s work. He knew he was destined to offer a touch of healing and words of deliverance to God’s people. And he became healing and deliverance. Because why not?
And it seems that he had made peace with the price he was going to have to pay, the bullying he was going to have to withstand, and the backlash he was going to have to encounter on the road to Jerusalem.
And he kept going on the road — no matter how dreadful the logical and political conclusion of his path was going to be. For as our sister Whitney Houston sings, “Nothing should matter. Not when love grows inside you.”
Seeds of love that look like radical generosity were growing inside Jesus. And nothing mattered to him more than doing his life’s work of teaching and healing — not what he correctly calls “18 long years” of bondage, not the scorn of those who value tradition over mission, not even the Sabbath. And miracles that make change feel very real and very near continue to happen as love grows inside him on his way to Jerusalem.
Jesus sees, touches, and heals the woman’s 18-year-old, invisible wound. What used to be the only way for her to live and feel in her body for 18 long years no longer has to be the only way. She can live differently. A miracle — a pretty intense and overwhelming change.
But when miracles shake what we think to be the only way, forces that resist change are quick to file a complaint and make a pleading. The leader of the synagogue files a loud complaint and makes a shrewd pleading. He does not direct it to Jesus. He directs it to the people for whom Jesus becomes a miracle every day he gets on the road to Jerusalem. His strategy is to stem and stop any movement toward Jesus and change at its wellspring: in the hearts and feet of the people. Do not come here. Do not go near him. Do not march to the synagogue. And his justification is tradition: it’s the Sabbath. Do not get on the road to seek healing on the Sabbath.
Thank God Jesus is bold and pretty smart, too. Jesus takes him on directly and says something akin to “Brother, please” to him. Or maybe “huh huh?” Or maybe: “Whaaaaat?”
I am paraphrasing, of course. But what is clear is that Jesus is saying something akin to the song Whitney Houston sings. “Nothing should matter. When love grows inside you.”
It’s almost like Jesus was saying: “Do not get in the way of love. I hit the road to love. Do not get in the way of healing. I hit the road to teach and heal. Do not get in the way of touch. I hit the road to touch and deliver.”
Because why not? And Jesus keeps going on the road to Jerusalem.
The remarkably beautiful passage from the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us about an unseen and promised community that is on the way to a new city — the heavenly Jerusalem. It tells us that the good news from the life of Jesus is this: we can build and plant a new Jerusalem.
Stevie Wonder might put it this way. The life of Jesus has signed, sealed, and delivered for us a new covenant. It is a covenant that makes you and me the miracles we already are. It is a covenant that desperately needs you and me to become the miracles we are destined to be. It is a covenant that is waiting, just waiting for you and me to become a part of the way to the heavenly Jerusalem — the city of the living God.
That covenant kept those who have gone before us and become miracles for us going. That covenant got you and me going this morning. That covenant sets our hearts on fire when we see how easily and quickly evil and its many forms can cripple and kill us and our children on our way to the city of the living God. And that covenant tells us that our kids can live differently. We can build and plant a new Jerusalem — the city of the living God.
St. Stephen’s has felt and been to me like a sanctuary of radical generosity on the way to the city of the Living God. A sanctuary of radical generosity on the way to the city of the Living God.
St. Stephen’s is very much about the way. St. Stephen’s calls us to be on the way and of the way that with tears has been watered. St. Stephen’s refuses to let us pretend we do not see all the blood and the pain — seen and unseen — that sprinkles and stains the way to the city of the living God. St. Stephen’s refuses to let us forget how far we have come and how much further we still have to go on the way to the city of the living God.
The glory of St. Stephen’s resides in its radical generosity, in its audacity to show the South End, the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, the Boston Public Schools, and the city of Boston that there does not have be only one way to teach, heal, or do love’s work. Because why not?
Because St. Stephen’s is a sanctuary of radical generosity on the way to the city of the living God, it dares to become a miracle and say: “No, that does have to be the only way.”
No, kids do not have to lose skills and capabilities over the summer because their parents cannot afford summer learning programs. St. Stephen’s can offer a sanctuary of radical generosity called B-SAFE for the children of Boston. And next summer, B-SAFE will turn eighteen years old. Because why not?
No, parents who were not born or raised here do not have to be erased and silenced out of Parents’ Meetings at their children’s schools. St. Stephen’s can offer a sanctuary of radical generosity and organize Parents’ Workshops. Because why not?
No, a parish does not have to limit the reach of the blessed and broken body and blood of Christ to Sunday. St. Stephen’s can serve the world some Jesus 24/7 and 365. Because why not?
No, a church does not have to be reserved exclusively for the Eucharist on Sunday. The St. Stephen’s sanctuary can become a hub where a divinity school student like me can pilot an early childhood emotional intelligence curriculum called B-BOLD. Because why not?
No, a priest does not have to think of his son as the only child he has. St. Stephen’s very own and dearly beloved Tim says that he has “200 other kids” at work. And trust me on this one because my eyes have seen it: he calls each and every one of them by name and “My baby.” Because why not?
The God we see and serve here at St. Stephen’s is a God who sees and refuses to let unexamined addiction to tradition, uncritical adoration of the past, or nostalgia for the womb get in the way of love’s work of teaching, touching, and healing. The God we see and serve here is a God who urges us to get out of our own way. Because love grows inside us. The God we see and serve here is a God who calls us to be on the way and of the way to the city of the living God. Because love grows inside us. Because why not?
You are miracles, each and every one of you. Because love grows inside each and every one of you. You can teach and heal because you have been taught and healed. You can touch because you have been touched and will be touched again at the table in a few minutes. You can become a miracle because many, many people have become miracles for you. Because why not?
As people of St. Stephen’s, you can dare to become a miracle and say: “That does not have to be the only way.” Because why not?
You can change. We can change. We can get out of our own way. Our kids can live differently. Tomorrow does not have to be like today. Because why not?
We can become new people. We can build and plant a new Jerusalem — the city of the living God. Because why not?
Let’s get out of our own way to the city of the living God. Because why not?
Let’s become the miracles of radical generosity that will reveal the glory of the new Jerusalem. Because why not?
I want to end with the words that another prophet, James Baldwin, spoke near the end of his very full life:
“I do believe, I really do believe in the New Jerusalem, I really do believe that we can all become better than we are. I know we can. But the price is enormous — and people are not yet willing to pay it.”
We can become willing to see the New Jerusalem. Nothing should matter — not the price we’ll have to pay, not the pride we’ll have to lose on the way. For love grows inside us. For we are miracles, each and every one of us. We can keep going toward the city of the living God. Because why not?