So which are you? A sheep? Or a goat? I didn’t notice many of you carefully choosing up sides this morning when you came in, picking instead your regular places. And if you did, I suspect you had to go over in your head a few times as to which side of the church you really wanted to be on. Is it the Son of Man’s left and right? So if he’s standing in front looking at us, then it’s reversed for the crowd, right? Or is it the other way round?
There’s a book about a West African fable that I share with the confirmation class titled, What Is My Song? In it a boy describes how even before he was born, his mother listened to the wind—or was it to the Spirit—as she sat out under the baobab tree for the song of her desired child. When she picks up the tune and words, she shares it with her spouse. They sang when the young boy was born, and taught to the village community.
“Do you want to know what the kingdom of God is like?” Jesus asks his disciples one day. A wedding. Now, friends, whether I like to admit it or not, I’m in the wedding business. Yes, there’s less for me these days as people get friends to either fill out an online ordination application or apply for a one day license from the state, but those are one-offs. For better or worse, I’m a wedding professional and know the ins and outs of marriage licenses and photographers and the like.
The gospel lesson we just heard from the Sermon on the Mount contains some of the most well known verses in the Bible. Blessed are the meek and the poor and the hungry and the peacemakers. But because we’ve heard them so often, they really don’t have the same gravitas they once did.
A friend of mine mentioned to me a number of years ago how difficult attending church was for him when he went through a rough spell in his life. He was going through a divorce and was exceptionally lonely. He had to change churches along the way—in a divorce it seems, even in spite of the best intentions of the clergy person, someone gets the church—and so walking into a new church as a middle-aged single man was hard because not many folks reached out to him. He would be almost entirely ignored during the peace. He would often go to coffee hour and stand by himself while others mingled around him. He’s a gregarious person, mind you, but church was painful.
You can hear our gospel writer Matthew the Evangelist nearly shout to Jesus in the set-up to today’s lesson the renowned words of Admiral Ackbar from “Star Wars: Episode VI— Return of the Jedi”: “It’s a trap!” The Pharisees and Herodians have made strange bedfellows and have slithered their way over to Jesus in order to snare him with an unanswerable question. You can hear their sliminess in their opening words. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” Oh, they try hard to butter him up there in the beginning. They express this false praise in order to manipulate the people listening in. They hope that the ones standing nearby will not see what this is really all about, because they want to entangle Jesus right in front of them. And that’s when they go in for the kill: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
We’ve had 24 hour news coverage here in the US since January 1, 1980 when CNN first launched on cable. That’s more than 42 years now of hearing news updates around the clock. And you know as well as I do that most of that news has not been of the feel-good variety. Rather it’s a lot of bad or even awful news, with a heavy dose of fear to go with it. That’s a lot of negativity even when there isn’t a major catastrophic event like what’s currently taking place in Israel and Gaza.
On one of my first forays into the desert southwest, I found a children’s book called Coyote: A trickster tale from the American Southwest. A large blue coyote graces the cover. The story begins by telling us that Coyote had a nose for trouble, and he soon finds his way to a mesa where some crows are chanting and dancing. Coyote wants to dance too, so he asks old man crow if he can join them.
We only heard the last little bit of it this morning, but I suspect most of you remember the story of Jonah from Sunday School. Or at least the whale part of the tale, God sending a “huge fish” to swallow Jonah whole. But before we get to all that, I want to help you remember more of what happened along the way.
There’s a wonderful scene in the original “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” move where Toula is introducing her non-Greek boyfriend, Ian Miller, to her family for the first time. All of them are there, the aunts and uncles and cousins and what appears to be twenty-five different people named Nick or Nicki. As they are standing there, Toula’s Aunt Voula says excitedly that she will have to have the couple over for dinner. Toula quietly tells her aunt that it won’t work out because Ian is a vegetarian. There’s a blank stare of incomprehension from Aunt Voula. So Toula says it more clearly, “Ian doesn’t eat meat.” “He don’t eat no meat?!” Voula says incredulously. “What do you mean, he don’t eat no meat!” And then she smiles, and says, “Oh that’s okay. I make lamb.”