September 6, 2020
Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
Not long ago I got an email from an old high school friend I’d not heard from in years. He was in a dark place, he said, and he wanted some spiritual advice. And I was stunned. We were on the debate team together—he was a year ahead of me—and I’d never known anyone so brilliant, with such verbal facility and intellectual quickness, and I still haven’t. It was like listening to Pavarotti sing. He was a virtuoso.
And he wanted my advice?
What I was being asked to do was not to confront my friend in his wickedness, as Ezekiel is asked to confront the nation of Israel, but to speak to him of my faith, to try to say what I believe is true—and that’s hard enough, especially with someone you’ve always looked up to, someone so smart and justifiably skeptical about churches. I was afraid he’d think I was being naïve or preachy—he’d think, “oh, that’s just something Christians always say.” Or, “he’s just one of those Christians.”
But I am just one of those Christians, at least on my good days, through grace. The only wisdom I have is from the scriptures, is from Christ, and though I had to approach this indirectly, had to avoid the kind of churchy language I knew would turn him off, I had to try to share what I believe as best I could.
I had to try to say: be not afraid. The Lord is with you.
Not in ways we can prove. Not in ways we always notice. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart,” the psalmist says, because this is how God speaks, quietly and day to day. In the roses on the deck. In a passage in a book. “Wherever two or three are gathered together” he is present, Jesus tells us, even over the internet, even in an email from a friend—but always, and quietly, and tenderly, in ordinary things.
“The Church has left the building,” a parishioner wrote in another email, when I asked how he was doing in the pandemic—“the Church has left the building, and we are being called to love the people he puts in front of us.” I think that’s a wonderful statement. I think that’s a theologically profound statement. The Church has left the building—and love, love, another one of those words that Christians always use. But that’s because it’s the right word, the true word, however soft or fuzzy or irrelevant it might seem in our violent and anxious times.
I notice that Jesus says “every fact should be established”; we shouldn’t just fly off our various handles before we even know what’s actually true. We should be rational, he’s saying. We should wait and consider the evidence.
But even more than that, we should treat our neighbors as ourselves, with respect, as St. Paul says today, even when we confront them with what we think is true or know is false—not call them names, not tweet insults or post further lies. Not shoot them. This person we believe is wrong is loved by God, is no more sinful than we are, however wrong or misguided he or she might be.
In fact I don’t think these passages are really about what we say. I think they’re about what we don’t say. I think they’re about listening.
If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had this experience, but last winter, before the pandemic, I was talking with a friend who was having a serious crisis of faith. He was really struggling, and we talked and talked, and I said things, and then more things, until I ran out of things to say. And for a moment I just sat there. I just stayed, in silence. It wasn’t a strategy—I didn’t know what else to do—but it was the turning the point. Gradually I began to feel something changing in the air of the room. Everything grew still. And then out of that silence something beautiful and gentle started happening, my friend started saying what was really in his heart, honestly and without filtering or performing, and I could feel the Spirit rising up, I could hear the voice of the Spirit, and there was nothing more I needed to say. It wasn’t about me, and it wasn’t about him.
In a way it was very difficult, just to stay there. Just to not turn away. It was a kind of confrontation. It wasn’t a saying of the truth, it was a waiting for the truth, but a hard waiting—and then it came. It was there, deeper than words, deeper than tears.
A sequence of cartoons: a woman is being burned at the stake and another woman says to her, “maybe you should take up yoga.” A woman is drowning and another woman looks down from a dock and says, “focus on the positive in this situation.” A woman is falling off a cliff and a man who is standing on the edge calls after her: “You need to speak goodness into existence.”
Maybe. Maybe what I’m suggesting is naïve. Is too fuzzy and intangible.
Jesus died for the truth—he died for who he was.
But there’s also this, this wonderful video I also saw the other day, on YouTube. We’re in a busy shopping mall in Leeds, England, very crowded—this was before the virus—and an ordinary-looking man walks out of the crowd into the center of the atrium. He’s middle-aged, wearing a leather jacket, hands in his pockets. And he starts to sing. He opens his mouth and starts to sing, loudly and clearly. At first you think he’s crazy, he’s some kind of crank, but then you realize, wait a minute. His voice is beautiful, it’s powerful—he’s singing a famous aria—he’s singing Nessun Dorma, from Puccini—this guy’s a tenor. This ordinary man who has emerged from the crowd is a tenor, and he’s a great tenor, and his voice is building and rising, and people are stopping and looking, the expressions on their faces are changing, people who would never be caught dead at an opera, who don’t have any idea what opera is, they’re stopped in their tracks. One little girl turns around and looks up at her mother, an expression of amazement on her face. O look at the stars, he sings, that tremble of love and hope, and his voice builds and builds, it rises to its climax, and he hits that final, high note, and he holds it, holds it until it’s ringing in the air of that crowded mall, and something transcendent has happened, something wonderful has risen up out of that ordinary gray day, something excellent and pure, and everyone knows it, they can feel it, and they burst into applause. They clap and clap.
And the tenor smiles, and looks around, then puts his hands in his pockets and walks back into the crowd. He disappears.
If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.