This is a glorious day for St. James’s Church and for Gregory Jones. It is a long awaited day, one that has been part of his imagination for a long time. It is also a great privilege to welcome to our parish Bishop Leo Frade and Diana Frade. They are almost living saints around here. We admire the wonderful work and ministry they share in the Diocese of Honduras.
What do you say to a young man about to be ordained? I know some of what awaits him, and I wonder if the Psalmist was talking about Episcopal Clergy when he wrote, “I am sinking into deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet.” Now that is a pretty good description of what awaits Greg.
I have a story to tell, and it is a story that some of you have heard before, nevertheless it is a story for a person ready to be ordained. In the country of Israel, up in the region of Galilee where Jesus lived, there is a very famous city built high on a hill. In fact many people think it is this city that Jesus must have referred to when he said, “A city set on a hill cannot be hid.” It is the city of Safed.
For Jews Safed is a Holy city, mostly because it was the center of medieval mystical Judaism. Even today its main street is lined with synagogues that progress up its steep hill. At the very top of the hill is the synagogue of Isaac Luria, a famous Jewish mystic. He was known as the Ari, or the Lion of Judah. The Ari lived outside of town in cave where he meditated and prayed and danced.
In those days on Shabbat, everyone went to the synagogue. There was nothing else to do. No golf. No football. No television. Not even The New York Times. One member of the very richest and finest synagogues was an atheist. He just didn’t believe in God. Every Saturday he would sit on the very back row, lean against the wall, and fall asleep. On one particular Sabbath, when the Torah reading tells us to bake twelve loaves of challah (challah, by the way, is the delicious Jewish braided bread), the atheist awoke for only a second as he stirred in his sleep. On his way home he remembered what he heard and was sure God had spoken to him. He ran home to tell his wife. She said, “Oy! You do not believe in God. How can God speak to you?” “I do not know, “said the atheist, “But I am going to bake the bread for God.” And so he did and brought it to the Synagogue and carefully placed it in the Holy of Holies. Then said, “God I hope you and your Holy Angels enjoy my bread.” He left.
As soon as he left a poor man entered the synagogue. He prayed, “Adonai, I am desperate. I have no money. There is no work. My children are starving, please help me.” When he finished his prayer he opened the Holy of Holies to kiss the Torah scroll. Guess what he found. He exclaimed, “Lord you are so gracious!” He took the bread and left.
Meanwhile the atheist was coming to his senses as he walked home. He returned to the synagogue and when he went to retrieve his bread, it was gone. “My God, you do exist!” he exclaimed. And he ran home to tell his wife that from now on they would bake twelve loaves of challah each week.
The next week he returned to synagogue with twelve new loaves. He put them in the Holy of Holies and said, “God, may you and your Holy Angels enjoy my bread. And please notice I put nuts and raisins in this week.”
As he left, the poor man returned. He said, “Oh God, please help me. There is no bread left. We ate five loaves and sold five loaves and gave two to the poor, but now there is nothing.” When he finished his prayer he went again to the Holy of Holies: “O Lord, you are so gracious and look!— with nuts and raisins too!”
This went on for twenty years. The rich man continued to bake the bread and the poor man continued to eat it. One day the rabbi saw this happen. He was furious and called both men into his chamber where he exclaimed, “What are you doing in my synagogue? You are making a mockery of it.” Then the rich man explained how twenty years before God had spoken to him and the poor man told the rabbi how God had sustained his family for twenty years. The rabbi threw them both out of the synagogue and told them that they were fools, and God had nothing to do with them.
The next day the rabbi received an invitation to meet with the great mystic Isaac Luria in his cave outside of town. This was a very great honor. The rabbi put on his finest robes and assumed the wise man wanted the advice of another religious man. When he arrived Isaac Luria asked him, “Are you the rabbi who told the rich man to stop baking the bread, and the poor man to stop eating it?” At once the rabbi said, “I am. They were fools. They were desecrating my synagogue.” Then the Ari said, “You have ruined the game that God plays with God’s people and the people play with God, and for that you will die.” In three days the rabbi was dead.
To me, my dear Gregory, that is one of the most powerful stories about faith, religion and the way God works. When religious people like you and me are too caught up in propriety, rules, and keeping God neat and clean, we die inside. Religion kills as many people as it liberates, and you are here to become a liberator, not a judge. Jesus said, “Behold I send you out as a sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Jesus, in a sense, is ordaining his disciples in this passage, and is sending them out to others. Jesus didn’t like groupies. He never wanted a troupe of adoring people who hung on his every word. In many ways the Church has missed the point through all these centuries of adoration heaped on Jesus. It is not the worship of himself that Jesus sought, but our faith in a loving God who empowers us to live in the world for that loving God.
Up until this point in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ followers are just that–followers. They are not required to take any responsibility. He called them. They followed. And their duties pretty much consisted of keeping him company, watching, listening as he talked to the crowds, healed the sick, and raised the dead. The disciples were so dependent on him; they even wanted him to rescue them in moments of panic, such as when their boat was sinking in a storm.
Now Jesus is telling them there is more to discipleship than hanging around and looking pretty and dressing up in liturgical robes. The time of listening, watching, and even being with, is not so much over, as it has changed. Now they must stand up to this world on their own two feet for God. No hiding behind the robes of Jesus. They have to begin to trust their own faith and love and power.
He tells them to be like sheep or serpents or doves…a strange menagerie, if I every saw one. If you press these notions too far, they can become seriously uncomfortable. For instance, what happens to a sheep in a wolfpack? It isn’t pretty. A sheep that wanders deliberately among wolves is committing suicide. Wolves eat sheep.
Few of us have had much experience with sheep, though we have some basic idea of their personality– stupid, timid, and submissive. They tend to be helplessly dependent, easily led, and when they get into trouble, they just stand there and bleat a lot. We can imagine a lone wolf, but not a lone sheep. Its gets uncomfortable when Jesus starts describing his followers as sheep. We would rather be tigers. I can’t imagine anyone picking out a sheep for their family crest or a knight riding into battle with a sheep on his shield.
Sheepdom and sheepiness isn’t just lethal; it’s bad for the ego. A sheep is simultaneously a martyr and a schlemiel. So why is Jesus so big on the sheep symbol? There must be something here that does not meet the eye at first glance. What’s the game? To be sure, sheep have drawbacks, but Jesus doesn’t say just be like sheep. Nevertheless, to be his disciple was to be vulnerable and defenseless against the cruelties of the world. It wasn’t an option to take your sword, or silver bullets, and force people to be like you.
Jesus knew that no disciple could last as a loner. We need the community; else we are tempted to confuse what God does through us with our own strength.
Jesus never says “Be stupid like a sheep.” Indeed, he says the opposite, “Be clever like a snake.” What kind of mystical absurdity is this? I suppose Jesus has in mind that famous serpent in Genesis. The serpent in Genesis is described as shrewd. The serpent was the subtlest of all God’s creatures—a good talker, wise—a persuader, someone who knew the score and was aware of the risks. So in a way Jesus is arming his sheep. Vulnerable, defenseless, clever and shrewd—that’s the way to be his disciple. In fact, Jesus is a pretty good model of this himself: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
What about those doves? In ancient times it was thought that the dove had no bile. Bile, also known as gall, is that yellowish green fluid produced by the liver and our bodies use it to digest food. It is bitter to the taste. The dove was thought to be without bitterness. Innocence is not intended to be though of as naïvete, but as the absence of bitterness. Regardless of the betrayals, cynicism, and cruelty in this world, the catastrophes, disease, and unfairness, Jesus is urging his friends to trust God even when they cannot see God or even get God into focus.
Will Campbell, the clever Baptist minister, once wrote, “We are all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” That is the great good news. And knowing it is the truth is vital to being an innocent disciple.
So Greg, today Jesus is sending you out as a sheep, a serpent and a dove. You do not have to be blind or naïve to the world you will now inhabit. It is a different world than seminary or the world you left behind. Pay attention to the games God plays with God’s people. Do not under any circumstances become an Episcopal Pharisee, for that is certain death. Be vulnerable, because only by such defenselessness does one demonstrate honest trust in God. Dare to be shrewd. Remember that working for God is not a passive occupation. And remember that no matter how many times we fail, God’s love is stronger than our anger, our mistakes, and our hatred, and there is no room for grudges in the heart of a disciple.
Later today we will welcome you to be a priest in the Church of God. That will never impress God. As it is written in Talmud, “God wants your heart,” and that is what this is all about.