This sermon was preached at LCM|Canterbury on September 20, 2020. You can also find the video of the sermon at the bottom of this post.
Six months ago this week, Flagstaff received the ordinances to shelter in place. With these ordinances came a wariness of others, a low level (or maybe not so low) of stress and fear which was aided by physical and social isolation. Virtual socializing doesn’t look, or feel, the same. I have started to feel a sense of distance between myself and those I meet with virtually and even in-person. My heart sometimes feels like rubber. Human interaction, virtual or otherwise, bounces away without feeling connected.
I wonder if any of you feel rubber-hearted at times during this pandemic? It is easy, once one feels rubber hearted, to go through their days trying to camouflage their way through any interaction they might have… and our baseline level of stress which creates a wariness of others encourages this camouflaged rubber-heartedness. We move through this world quickly, avoiding strangers who we now see as potentially hazardous, rapidly grabbing what we need from shelves of stores, being anxious about 6 feet of distance, camouflaged behind masks, worry, and caution. And this is to say nothing about all of the other events our country is experiencing. Or, all of the other events you, as college students must handle…often learning how to do so as you go. It is easy to start seeing the world as insular, picking up one narrative about reality and placing it at the center of our lives. Rubber-heartedness shortens our vision of reality so we can only see to the ends of our own noses.
We come, now, to our texts for this week. Let’s start with the story of the prophet Jonah. We see here a town of Nineveh, a description of the city can be found in the book of Nahum: “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims!...many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over corpses…” A city I would never want to visit, apparently one full of sin, and one God was ready to destroy.
But then comes Jonah. Proclaiming, reluctantly, God’s plan, and the required repentance of the people. Then miraculously, a whole city listens. They repent and are saved. They needed someone to help pull them out of insular sight, out of their rubber-hearted lives, and see that life could be different. They needed a voice other than their own to call to them.
Then, there is Jonah...a man, who was full of vision, and prophecy, chosen by God to deliver God’s news! And still, in the case of Nineveh, he could not see past his own nose, his own disdain. But, unlike the people of Nineveh, it takes much more than one sermon to change his heart. He speaks directly to God, and still he feels scorn for the city as he preaches to save them. It can take others to shake us awake and sometimes it is so hard to wake up even with the help of others. It can take the help of others to help us exchange our rubber hearts for hearts of flesh.
Jonah required God to push him forward, the whole way, to help him see passed his restricted understanding of the people of Nineveh. His faith in God was spectacular, however, his faith in his fellow humans was not. This is where Jonah needed God’s help to show him the way… he needed to see the people change, he needed God to open his heart. He could not do it by himself.
Then we have our reading from Philippians, Paul is writing from prison to a congregation in Philippi. They sent him a package to help take care of him during his imprisonment, and Paul was writing them a thank you letter. And, of course, because it is Paul, it is so much more than that.
Here, he writes about wanting to be with Christ, to leave his body and take rest and relief with his savior after much suffering. But Paul is torn, he knows there is still “fruitful labor” he can do on Earth. He says that for him to “remain in the body is necessary” for the readers of his letter. He knows he is needed to help guide these new Christians through the suffering and struggle it takes to follow Christ, having gone through it himself. They need him to gain endurance and wisdom, and to learn what it means to “live a life worthy of the Gospel.” Paul remains for other followers of Christ.
We also have our Gospel text this week from the book of Matthew. Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who needs day laborers in his vineyard. He hires some at the start of the day, then continues to hire workers as the day progresses. Finally, the landowner goes to the market place with just an hour of work remaining, finding more workers, still. He asks them, “why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” and they answer; “because no one will hire us.” So the landowner does, promising these workers the same wages as those who have been working all day.
This parable reminded me of something Conner said a while ago, in a sort of off handed way. He said at the beginning his senior year, last fall, he thought that he and his peers were going to graduate into the best market the U.S. has had in 50 years, but then because of COVID they graduated into the worst market the U.S. has had since the Great Depression. There are more young adults living with their parents now, even than during those days. No one is hiring and if they are, they aren't paying well. There are so many Americans whom no one is seeing. So many students with degrees no one is valuing, with skills and passions that are being overlooked.
The landowner in our parable saw those workers…. He saw that they had something to offer. They had been overlooked until he reached out to them, unseen and unvalued. The landowner knows that to see the value and potential in others gives back dignity, and restores hope.
To be seen clearly and to see ourselves clearly… this is why we need community... why we need friends, and neighbors, and teachers, and strangers to bump into in the marketplace. We need guides, like Paul, who has faith in us to live our lives according to the Gospel, even if we do not have faith in ourselves or in each other, even if we feel our hearts are rubber, and nothing could penetrate them.
The people of Nineveh needed God to speak though Jonah to tell them they were doing wrong, and Jonah needed God to show him, many times over in many different ways, that he was being rubber-hearted, too. Jonah was acting with an insular sense of God’s mercy and grace. He could not tell that his heart had turned to rubber against a certain group of people. Lord knows we are doing this too, now, in many different ways. But God’s Grace abounds, not always in ways we think are fair, and as Brad said last week, it abounds in ways humans cannot fully comprehend, though it is good we still try.
But also, we need guides like our friends, like our lovers, like our parents… we need people who can tell us we have value, and gifts, and people we can laugh with. God often speaks to us through others. We need people to listen to us, even when we think what we have to say is not worth listening too, and we need people to see us, all of us, so we might see the potential that lies within hearts filled with hope. To use Martin Luther King's term, we need this Beloved Community, especially when we are not being seen, when our society, or even ourselves, close our eyes and let us stand all day looking for hope.
This, my siblings in Christ, is not easy, ever, and definitely not now. But, also as Brad said last week, we are not called to easy work. It is not always easy to let others help us see ourselves clearly, and it can be painful to see ourselves clearly because we do sin and we do hurt, but, as members of the Beloved Community we must do this and we are promised grace.
A quick disclaimer: if what others tell you or show you about yourself OR what you are telling yourself IS NOT helping you enter into right relationship with God or the Beloved Community, then this is NOT the voice of God, and is to be taken critically.
We are also called to reach out to our Beloved Community members. To ask them about their hearts, and help show them their value so they, too, can see themselves clearly. We are needed as guides for our community. Remember Paul needed that package the Philippians sent him for his survival in prison, he needed and relied on the care of others.
So today, on another Sunday where we cannot share a meal, or sing these songs in person, let us try and remember that as Children of God, as members of the Beloved Community, we are called to help see the potential in each other and help fill each other’s hearts with hope. It is in seeing one another, and in letting ourselves be seen that we come to know God and do God’s work, and turn our rubber hearts back into flesh.
A graduate of Augsburg University, Allie Papke-Larson has served as our Program Coordinator since July 2019. Beginning this academic year, she is preaching every third Sunday at LCM|Canterbury.