October 20, 2017

Who's He For? by Elaine Shank back

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 119; Matthew 5:21-37; I Corinthians 3:1-9

I was remembering the times I’ve been a visitor in an African American church,where I would often be invited to give a testimony. I was never prepared forthis…so for all the times I wasn’t ready to give my testimony in the past, I’m going to give it today

! And it starts with a song that I heard in one of these church communities: it’s a call and response, I don’t know what the whole song is or who wrote it or even who recorded it, but after one hearing I’ve never forgotten this chorus about Jesus:

Is he just for the rich? NO

Is he just for the poor? NO

Is he just for the lonely? NO

He’s for everyone…everyone!

When I first heard it, what struck me was how anyone, rich, poor, lonely or not, could find a gift if they turned to Jesus. I have more to say about what this song says to me now, but first want to reflect on the scriptures for today.

In looking through the book of Deuteronomy to prepare for this sermon, I started wondering what it would be like if Moses had been a Zen master instead of a Hebrew prophet…the book of Deuteronomy would be condensed to a few lines, and they’d be shared in some obscure fashion, so that we’d have to think about them for days or years until we got a flash of insight.

Whoever put the words of this book of Jewish law in the mouth of Moses did not envision him as that kind of teacher… I could condense the book of Deuteronomy to a few lines, just in the interests of saving space. You may be aware that our reading for today, coming in the 30th chapter, says the same thing that’s been said in almost every chapter that’s preceded it…

Deuteronomy is a book of deep tenderness for our fellow creatures, passion for justice for the less powerful…Most of all, it’s a book about purity of heart… The religious community who wrote it believed that this theme was at the center of its gospel, and that the way to make this understanding sink in was to let those words shower over them, like rain falling on the same patch of earth again and again.

What happens when we say something in our hearts over and over again? What do your personal disciplines do to reshape your heart…when you go away from one for awhile, what happens? When you come back to a prayer or a scripture that you once used a lot, do you ever find that it’s grown in there, in your heart, like a seed lodged in the crack of a rock? That when you weren’t looking, it became a small tree?

Jesus must have known the book of Deuteronomy very well; he must have known Psalm 119 very well. If he spent about thirty years of his life ingesting the Law and the Prophets in some traditional way, whether in the synagogue or at his rabbi’s knee, the method would have been repetitive enough for his mind to memorize it…(though to me it seems difficult to remember 176 verses of a psalm that all say the same thing in slightly different ways, I wonder if in brains unencumbered by the stimuli of today’s world, this was made easier). And then he did all that work with his hands as a carpenter, or maybe he tended sheep; repetitive, contemplative tasks which gave his mind space to think over, to remember, the scripture he had heard that day…

Because of the command Jesus demonstrated of the Jewish scriptures--even while he was hanging on the cross--we assume he was the model Jew: he actually did go over and over the Word of God, as Deuteronomy exhorts us. But I wonder what he experienced when he went out into the desert for awhile, following his total immersion in the river Jordan--not carrying any scrolls of the Torah; not around any interpretive community. We know he finds the words of Deuteronomy waiting for him in the center of physical starvation: Thou shalt not live by bread alone. I wonder how powerfully this experience of solitude, desperation, perhaps agony, changed his understanding of the Jewish scripture.

Jesus shows us what can happen to us when someone plants; someone else waters; but God, incarnate in us, gives the growth to the religion we’ve received. In Kip Landon’s contemplative written meditation, God of Glory, he points out that in Jesus’ years of growing up in Nazareth, “He had appeared to be an ordinary person living out his ordinary life….he had in no sense been a religious authority in Nazareth, or a leader in the synagogue.” If he had been, his home community, his own family, wouldn’t have been so shocked at the change in him. After his baptism, Jesus is viewed as radically unconventional; he repeats the law in ways people haven’t thought of it before, sometimes as obscurely as a Zen master…Or maybe his way of articulating the gospel clicks with something they’ve privately thought, inside, for a long time. And then, after crucifixion and resurrection, he becomes even more unrecognizable!

Jesus paved the way for each of us, showed us how the Word of God can be transformed in our hearts as we go through our small deaths. In the end he comes out with an ego that’s expanded enough to disappear into the cosmos…which means he can be on the side of everyone. There’s no competition in him, there’s no dominance, there’s no being right; there’s no clamoring for the spotlight from his resurrected self; there’s complete generosity. He is the true Best Friend of all: he is completely FOR everyone.

I just heard that song repeated in my heart last week in church. Now when I hear “he’s for everyone,” I don’t think of Jesus being there as a comfort for all kinds of people who might choose to turn to him sometime. That little word “for” has a wider meaning…I’m convinced that it’s the nature of Jesus to be on the side of everyone and everything in the known universe and whatever’s beyond it; he fills all in all. So this is my testimony; I’ve written a few more verses to this song, and you can help me with it. Put your “no” out there in some form; in silence, a whisper, regular voice, or a great shout. If you can affirm these statements at all,

let it ring: Is he just for the rich? NO

Is he just for the poor? NO

Is he just for the lonely? NO

He’s for everyone; everyone! Is he just for the Christians? NO

Is he just for the Buddhists? NO

Is he just for the men? NO

Is he just for the women? NO

Is he just for the children? NO

Is he just for the humans? NO

Is he just for the animals? NO

Is he just for the earth? NO

He’s for everyone—he’s FOR everyone!!