Hymn reference: “Life’s Railway to Heaven”
Sermon preached at Epiphany UCC, St. Louis on July 8, 2012
Correct me if I’m wrong, but when the date was picked for installing our newly elected Council members, I don’t think anyone looked at the scripture chosen for the lectionary today. Or maybe they did. The scripture this week is full of warnings for those who are called to serve God. Scorpians, scorn, skepticism… At least we installed you before we read the scripture. So you can’t back out now.
You will probably not be surprised to learn that I could not find a hymn connected to the lectionary passages this week — especially the call of Ezekiel.
First, Ezekiel sees a fantastic vision that causes him to fall on his knees. Then the spirit causes him to rise and he hears a voice — God’s voice! — calling him to bring God’s word to his — Ezekiel’s — people. Oh, by the way God says, they are a rebellious people. And stubborn. And they don’t listen. And they’re rebellious. They’re like scorpions, and rebellious. Walking among them is like walking through thorns and briars. Did I mention they’re rebellious?
In fact, in that relatively short passage, we find the word rebel or rebellious seven times. Hmmm. No wonder God pulled out the winged seraphs and rolling wheels and fire and all kinds of fantastic visions — before God warned Ezekiel this was going to be a very difficult task.
Then God made sure Ezekiel didn’t get rebellious himself, by literally feeding him the text of what he was to say. Then God says, “OK, go. Tell them. If they don’t listen, that’s their problem.”
So what hymn writer wants to touch that?
The same with the passage in the gospel of Mark. Even though the passage is in the lectionary as we read it today, preachers often break it up, focusing on either the difficulty Jesus has in his home town or sending out the twelve. But not usually both.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that there’s no hymn featuring Jesus’s instructions to shake the dust off their feet of any town that doesn’t welcome the bearers of good news. (snappy tune “Shake the dust off your feet…) Or Jesus’s lament that a prophet is without honor in his home town. (sappy tune “A prophet is without honor…)
These are not easy scriptures to read and embrace. I’m afraid if I had been Ezekiel, I might have at least wanted to raise the question to God: If you can summon winged seraphs with four-part heads, and make the wind and fire do your bidding, why could’t you make the Israelites listen to you?
But God makes it clear that Ezekiel’s job is not to question, but to proclaim unpopular, uncomfortable, hard-to-hear truths — to a people who don’t particularly seem to get it even when God is being good to them.
This is not just a characteristic of the Israelites, of course. Even Jesus encounters people who won’t hear his message. And these are the people who, you would think, know him best. They hear the wisdom in his teachings, they see — or have heard about — the miracles he has been performing in the neighborhood. Instead of taking pride in a native son, or accepting the wisdom and miracles as coming from God, they ask “Who does he think he is?”
“Mary’s son,” is a slam. In essence they’re calling into question who his father is, in a culture that assigned a person’s honor, status and place in society according to the status of the person’s father.
The writer of Mark puts these two stories together on purpose. They appear in the other gospels in a different order. But Mark has the twelve carefully chosen followers of Jesus witness his humiliation in his home town — he was amazed at their lack of faith — They see this right before they are sent out on their own to spread the wisdom and miracles that Nazareth rejected from Jesus.
Put yourself in the disciples’ shoes. You already have a “call story” of your own — some instance of Jesus calling you away from your work as a fisherman or tax collector, or of someone you trust bringing you to hear Jesus. You’ve left everything to follow Jesus around Galillee, and, until you get to Nazareth it’s been one exciting development after another — Jesus casting out unclean spirits; healing Peter’s mother-in-law, lepers and many others; getting the best of Pharisees in debates about scripture and sabbath rules; preaching through parables; calming stormy waters; even going across the sea of Galillee to gentile territory and casting demons into a herd of pigs.
Jesus’s homecoming should have been a triumph. But it wasn’t. Maybe we disciples should have had a clue from the way his own family treated him. While we were all out on the road with Jesus, his mother and brothers came looking to take him home, suggesting that he was mentally unstable and needed to rest.
So right after Jesus is laughed out of the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus calls us together — his closest followers to whom he has been explaining his tricky parables, we’re his hand-picked entourage, his advance men. And he says you’re going out, two-by-two to do what he’s been doing.
“Take nothing with you but a staff and a pair sandals,” Jesus tells you. The gospel writers do not preserve what, if anything, Jesus told his disciples to say. They get no scroll fed to them with all the words conveniently digested into their very being.
And his advice is not all that encouraging: “If any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
Some peptalk, huh. How do you think you would react?
I think I know why no hymn writers have tackled this. It’s hard to set to music the phrase that keeps coming up in my mind: “Wait. What?” ( a rap maybe.)
I’d want a handbook, something to consult when the going got tough — something simpler than scripture, which seems to prompt argument rather than encouragement. I’d want an unmistakable sign, maybe a vision like Ezekiel got. Or at least some words of encouragement to murmur when I walked into a new town and set up shop as a proclaimer of the good news. This is it? “Take nothing with you, rely on the hospitality of strangers and leave if they don’t listen”?
Sigh. OK. So that’s how I found this wonderful hymn, “Life’s Railway to Heaven.” There’s no sugar-coating the difficulties here. No prosperity gospel. No assurance that the way has been smoothed for followers of the one true God. Little encouragement for you new council members.
“You will roll up grades of trial; you will cross the bridge of strife,” the hymn writer says. “Watch the curves, the fills, the tunnels; Never falter, never quail. … You will often find obstructions; look for storms of wind and hail.”
And this speaks to me in a way that sunshine-and-happy tunes never could. We know life isn’t easy. We know a prophet’s life is difficult. So is the life of a Christian, maybe especially council members. We know people don’t want to hear hard truths. We really don’t need demonstrations, but we get them all the time. It’s sort of comforting to know that ordinary people like Ezekiel and Peter and Bartholomew and Nathaniel knew what they were getting into when they went out two-by-two.
The readings were long already, but I almost included the Psalm for today, Psalm 123, which has these verses: 3Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us, for we have had more than enough of contempt.4 Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud. The psalmist gives the answer before the plea for mercy: To you I lift up my eyes, O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
And I wanted to read the epistle scripture for this Sunday as well. It’s in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where he writes about the thorn in his side — right after mentioning he had a mystical vision, a “call story” — Maybe it was similar to Ezekiel’s, but Paul doesn’t go into detail. Instead, he says he has an affliction, a thorn in his side.
Paul said he asked God three times to remove this thorn, this undescribed suffering, but God’s answer was: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Paul’s learned to boast of his weakness. He says, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
Dear council members, please don’t flee for the exits. I don’t think you’re in for a particular measure of insults, hardships or persecutions. That is, not any more than the rest of us.
The message I get for all of us from these four very different scripture passages is this: God’s job for you is not easy. In fact, it can be beastly difficult. You’re going to feel like you’re walking through fields of scorpians. You’re going to get your fill of contempt and scorn. You’re going to ask God to make it better. You’re going to feel like no one is listening. You’re going to feel like you failed. God says, Do it anyway.
- To Ezekiel: God says, Don’t worry about what to say, I’ll feed you the words.
- To the Twelve: Don’t worry about the people who don’t listen. Leave them and move on.
- To Paul: Don’t worry about your weakness or your suffering. My grace is sufficient for you.
- To the hymn writer: Don’t worry about the hazards of the journey. The road is there for you to follow. Keep your hand upon the throttle; keep your eyes upon the rail.
- To all of the above and to us: Trust God.
God knows who is paying attention and who is being rebellious. Don’t you worry about who listens; YOU listen to God and follow. The route for your journey is already established. The rails are already laid. Your job is to keep your hand upon the throttle and your eyes upon the rails.
Praise God. Amen.