All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So Jesus told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. . .'”
Luke 15: 1-3: 11b-32
Let me begin by saying how glad I am to be back with the community of faithful at St. Mary’s Foggy Bottom, and to add my voice of welcome to our friends and guests who join us in worship. Among our honored guests–too many to call out by name–is our mayor, the Honorable Muriel Bowser. Welcome, Mayor; welcome all.
And a special word of thanks to St. Mary’s leadership: The Rev. Dr. Wes Williams; Mr. Brandon Todd, Senior Warden, Mr. Windon Ringer, Acting Administrator, and members of the vestry. Thank you for guiding St. Mary’s Church life and ministry. It has been a long and challenging season since the COVID pandemic entered our lives and forever changed them, in addition to the other events in our city and the nation’s capital seared in our memory and whose effects are with us still. You’ve also had your trials and transitions as a congregation, not all of them easy. But you are still here, St. Mary’s Church. Our city is still here. And so am I, ready to support you in any way I can.
There is no other church I would rather worship in today than the first Black Episcopal Church in Washington, DC as we anticipate the confirmation of the first Black woman judge to sit on the highest court in the land. During the nomination hearings this past week, when Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was given the opportunity to speak and answer questions of actual relevance to her work, we heard her intelligence and wisdom, grace and grit. Her judicial and life experience make her an exemplary Supreme Court nominee–of that there is no doubt.
We saw many other things on display this week, far less noble, and worrisome indicators of what certain members of the United States Senate believe they can, and perhaps must, say to secure a presidential nomination for 2024. Many commentators have reflected the juxtaposition of Judge Jackson’s behavior with that of some of her interrogators, and how normative it is for people of color to be treated as she was this week.
Fully prepared for what was coming, Judge Jackson never once lost her composure. But there was, as Elie Mystal among others have noted, the moment she took a very long pause.
“Senator,” she began to answer a question that had no place in the hearing room. Then she sighed and paused, for quite some time. “As the silence filled the room,” Mystal writes, “I felt like I could see Jackson make the same calculation nearly every Black person and ancestor has made at some point while living in the New World.”1
There is power in such a pause. We all felt it.
Well, today is Sunday, thank God, and we’re in church. So let me turn our attention to another person known for pausing and taking his time before answering questions put to him, questions asked by those who were threatened by all that he said and did, as well as the questions that his followers asked, giving him the opportunity to help them grow in wisdom and love.
We’ve dropped ourselves into this man’s story as he’s taking the longest walk of his life–the 60-plus mile journey from the region where he began his ministry in the northern part of Israel Palestine to Jersusalm, the seat of religious authority for his people and the political power of the occupying Roman Empire. Jesus was walking to Jerusalem fully aware of the fate that awaited him there. For those of us who walked this road with him before, we also know how the story ends.
You may recall that prior to taking this journey, Jesus had a mystical encounter with his spiritual ancestors, Moses and Elijah. He had gone up a mountain to pray, taking three of his closest disciples with him. This was a pivotal moment for him, when he realized that he was not long for this world. That’s when he decided that in the time he had left, he would take his message of God’s all-inclusive love and his teachings of a way of life defined by mercy, compassion and justice for the oppressed to Jerusalem and let the chips fall where they may.
So, the Gospel of Luke tells us, when Jesus came down from that mountain, he gathered up his disciples, “turned his face toward Jerusalem,” and started walking. As he walked, he healed, he taught, and he preached as if these were the last words the world would hear from him, which, in fact, they were.
As it turns out, Jesus had a lot to say, worthy of our spending a lifetime pondering and applying his teachings to our lives. Which is why, in church, we hear his words over and over again. They never grow old for us; they always have something to say, and something different depending on where we are in our lives and whatever it is we’re struggling with, or what God is up to within and among us.
Most of Jesus’ teaching and sermons on the road were in response to questions, and many of those questions were from people less interested in his answers than in hearing themselves talk. (Not that any of us would do that). Like the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus, and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Figuring that a lawyer would already know the answer, Jesus asked him back, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer responded with what we know as the Great Commandments of Jewish Scripture: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replied, “You have answered rightly.” But the lawyer pressed further, because that’s what lawyers are trained to do, and because he wanted to justify himself, “And who, exactly, is my neighbor?”
That’s when Jesus paused. Maybe he sighed. And do you remember how he responded? He told a story of a man who fell into the hands of robbers, and of the two religious leaders who crossed over to the other side of the road and passed him by, and of another man, of a despised race, who stopped to help. “Who was the neighbor of the man beaten by robbers?” Jesus asked. “Go and do likewise.”
Further down the road, Jesus stopped to visit his good friends, the sisters Martha and Mary. Do you remember what happened there? Martha busied herself in the kitchen, while Mary did what was unthinkable for a woman of that time. She sat herself down among the men and listened to what Jesus had to say. When Martha complained to Jesus and told him to put Mary in her place with Martha in the kitchen, Jesus paused. Maybe he sighed. And he said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and anxious about many things. Only one thing now is needed. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Mary was in her place. Now the text doesn’t tell us what happened next, how Martha responded. Being Martha-like myself, I hope that she heeded his words, took off her apron and joined her sister where they both belonged, alongside the men, listening to Jesus.
So Jesus went from village to village as he walked toward his death, preaching at every opportunity, pointing people toward God, toward their neighbors in love, and toward their best selves. One man came up to Jesus and demanded that Jesus arbitrate in a family dispute about inheritance. Taken aback, Jesus asked the man, “Who set me to be a judge over you?” But then he paused. No doubt he sighed, and he told a story about a rich man with so many crops that he decided to build an even bigger barn so that he could store them and keep them for himself. But the very night his new, enormous barn was finished the man died, before he could enjoy any of his stored riches. “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves,” Jesus warned, “and are not rich toward God.”
There was another time when Jesus was teaching in a synagogue and a woman approached him who was so crippled that she couldn’t stand up straight. Jesus had compassion on her and healed her, on the Sabbath. The leaders of the synagogue were indignant and they came at the woman with all they had. “There are six days on which work ought to be done. Come on one of those days if you want to be healed.” Now Jesus was angry. But he paused, and took a breath, composed himself and said, “You hypocrites. Do you not give your animals food and drink on the sabbath? And ought not his daughter of Abraham whom Satan kept bound for 18 years be healed on the Sabbath?” The crowd rejoiced and his opponents were put to shame.
Jesus kept walking. The crowds kept coming toward him, and Jesus’ tone became at once more compassionate and urgent. He didn’t have one point to make; he had many, all touching us differently depending on what’s happening in our lives when we hear them, for the first or the hundredth time. It’s why we’re meant to dwell in his teachings, and meditate on them regularly.
Turn with me now to the story we heard this morning and that’s printed in your bulletin. It’s one of three stories Jesus told in direct response to the grumbling of some Pharisees. Pharisees get a bad rap in the Bible, because they came at Jesus the most. They weren’t all bad people, but they were intense rule followers, and they held themselves apart from people that weren’t. These particular Pharisees took issue with the fact that Jesus seemed to enjoy the company of tax collectors and sinners–the very ones the Pharisees avoided so that they might maintain their spiritual purity and sense of moral superiority.
Jesus paused, sighed, and told not one, but three parables about being lost and found: first that of a shepherd with a flock of a hundred sheep, who, when one of his sheep gets lost, leaves the ninety-nine in search of the one. Second, of a woman who had ten silver coins and lost one of them, and who searches the house incessantly until she finds it.
Finally, as the capstone, Jesus tells of a man who had two sons. It’s the classic emotional triangle between parents and siblings and the perfect vehicle for Jesus to explain to the Pharisees why he was happy to keep company with sinners. The father–the obvious God figure–loved both his sons, enough to let the one determined to leave go and then to welcome him back when he was chastened by the world. He loved the more responsible and dutiful son enough to gently chastise him for his unwillingness to forgive his brother and celebrate his return or his father for being so forgiving to one who had squandered so much.
Jesus’ point is clear: true love is not dependent on the worthiness of another, but rather on our capacity to love. The wayward son was no less worthy of the father’s love; nor did the stay-at-home son earn his father’s love with good behavior. Both were loved for who they were, not what they did or failed to do. Equally significant, for both, the father went out to meet them where they were–the returning son while he was still far off; the sulking son out in the field of his self-imposed misery.
With Jesus’ words and example foremost in our minds, and inspired by the dignity of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson this week, never forget the power of a good pause. Pause long enough when you feel under pressure, or under attack, or filled with anger, or hurt, and fear to breathe, to let Jesus in.
Pause long enough to regain your internal bearings, and allow the great wisdom of the Holy Spirit to speak to your heart. LIke the loving father, God meets us in that moment, where we are, as we are. God also gives us a strength and wisdom greater than our own with which to respond. God helps us grow in our capacity to love as Jesus loves, and loves us, our capacity to heal and forgive, our ability to withstand and maintain our God-given dignity in the face of cruelty and injustice, and to overcome evil with good.
Let me leave you with a practical suggestion on how you can access the grace and power of Jesus in the course of your daily lives, and especially in those moments when something, or someone, is attempting to throw you off course, or has managed to unnerve you; or when you feel overwhelmed or tired or scared.
Think of it as the power in a pause. Wherever you feel yourself tightening up inside, wanting to react, or to hold on, or whenever you aren’t sure what to do or say next.
Stop. Take a breath. Pause. Pray for Jesus’ to be with you, in that moment. And surrender yourself to Him. I promise you that whatever occurs to you to say or do next will have a greater intentionality and impact than if you rushed in, or if you shut down.
I’m not ruling spontaneity out of hand. There’s a time and place for that. And there’s a time and place for genuine expressions of anger. But if you take the time to pause, collect yourself, and allow Jesus in, even in spontaneous moments and in anger, you will speak and act with impactful grace and power.
In the end, it comes down to the kind of person we want to be in this world. We saw two stark examples this week. Which kind of person would you trust and choose to follow?
And what example do you want to be for those coming up behind you?
Remember, then, the power of the pause and the grace available that is always there for you. Amen.
1 Elie Mystal, Ketanji Brown Jackson Long Paused Explained Racism and Sexism in America, The Nation