A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor
from Sunday, March 22, 2015
Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-36
She had been in skilled care just long enough to be wheelchair bound. She had begun that curled over posture since the last time I visited. This once vibrant person, a teacher with a Ph.D., was slowly diminishing right before my eyes. Her children phoned: “Momma doesn’t know us anymore,” they said. “We won’t be back to visit until the funeral.” And so I went to visit. I knew it wasn’t enough, but just shy of the miraculous, it was the best I could do. (While not one visit in particular, this story is based on a combination of visits with a variety of persons.)
It turns out that she did not know me either, but she nodded in the affirmative when I asked if I could read scripture. She responded appropriately when I prayed. Then, I babbled on and on about events at church, the weather, the pictures of her children on the bedside table. She almost sighed with the boring confusion of one-sided conversation. So I finally just sat still. I reached to hold her hand, but remained silent. (Pause) She cut her eyes at me. Slowly, she lifted my hand to her lips and kissed it. Then she said, “I don’t know who you are, but I know that I love you.”
The Jews have a Midrash—a story—for Yom Kippur that invites us to imagine God as an aging woman. (Margaret Wenig, “God Is a Woman and She is Growing Older,” Pulpit Digest, March/April, 1992) It reads, in part:
Sarah Shelton: God is a woman, and she is growing older.
Don Sandley: She moves more slowly now;
Barry Austin: she cannot stand erect;
Lynette Sandley: her hair is thinning;
Don Sandley: : her face is lined;
Lynette Sandley: her smile no longer innocent;
Barry Austin: her voice is scratchy;
Don Sandley: her eyes are tired;
Barry Austin: sometimes she has to strain to hear.
Sarah Shelton: God is a woman, and she is growing older.
God sits down in her kitchen alone. She opens the Book of Memories on her table and begins turning the pages and God remembers.
Lynette Sandley: There is the world when it was new and humanity when it was young…”
Sarah Shelton: She turns each page of the book. She smiles, as she sees before her all the beautiful colors of our skin and all the varied shapes and sizes of our bodies. She marvels at our accomplishments: the music we have written and sung, the gardens we have planted, the skyscrapers we have built, the stories we have told and the ideas we have spun.
Lynette Sandley: They now can fly faster than the winds I send, and they sail across the waters that I gathered into seas. They even visit the moon that I set in the sky. But…they rarely visit me.
Sarah Shelton: God is lonely. She longs for her children. “Come home,” she wants to say to us. “Come home.” But she won’t…she won’t even call because she is afraid that we will say “no.”
Barry Austin: We are so busy.
Lynette Sandley: We’d love to see you, but we just can’t come.
Don Sandley: Not tonight. Not now. Too much work to do.
Barry Austin: Sorry, Mom. Sorry, God, I just have too many other responsibilities to juggle.
Sarah Shelton: Even if we don’t realize it, God knows that our busy-ness is just an excuse. She knows that we avoid returning to her because we do not want to look into her age-worn face.
Don Sandley: It’s hard for me to face God. She doesn’t look the way she looked when we were children.
Barry Austin: It’s hard for me to face God. She disappointed me. She did not give me everything I asked for. She did not defend me against my foes. She did not make me triumphant in battle or successful in business or invincible when faced with pain.
Lynette Sandley: I’m not going home in order to protect myself from her disappointment in me. Her disapproval was always just beneath the surface. And I don’t want her to see the disappointment in my eyes of Her.
Sarah Shelton: Oh, God knows that disappointment, failure and disloyalty define our relationship, but God desires a new beginning defined by God’s love written on our hearts. In spite of everything, God would have us come home anyway.
This seems to be where God and the Israelites find themselves.
Like other prophets before him, Jeremiah has spent ample shrill time and energy on the claim that Israel has systematically violated the covenant made at Mt. Sinai. God employs some tender images to describe Her dashed hopes for the relationship with Israel. God says that She led them by Her hand, like a parent does with their children. And that God considers their relationship to be like a married couple’s bound by holy vows and characterized by fidelity and mutuality. But Israel ignores the Ten Commandments. Their economic policies abuse the poor; their foreign policy depends on arms; their worship practices offend God; and they live with personal illusions of privilege and grandeur. (Have we come very far?) Completely exhausted by the recalcitrant children of Israel, God enacts severe sanctions. Thus, Jerusalem is conquered. The Temple is destroyed and the leading residents of Israel are deported to Babylon in shame, defeat and fear. (Walter Brueggemann, “ON Scripture,” October 30, 2011) In bewilderment and humiliation, the Israelites sit beside the waters of Babylon and find that they cannot sing their old songs in a new land. They weep and grieve, just as we do when relationships are so broken that home is no more and family restoration appears to be impossible.
Jeremiah is clear that the peoples’ disobedience to the Sinai covenant is why they are experiencing their current hardships. The communal guilt is so heavy; we wonder how any of them can bear up under it. It is in the midst of this despair that God decides to give a genuine new beginning. This starting over is characterized not only by forgiveness but by forgetfulness…real forgetfulness…moving our sins as far as the East is from the West…never brought to mind again.
My earliest remembrances of forgiveness-that-also-forgets center around my mother. I have told you before that when I willfully hid the iron tonic, she defended my disobedience by telling my brother to quit hoping for my punishment. She followed it up with that infamous statement that I was as good as gold! She not only forgave me, but she forgot the incident. Not so much my siblings, but my mother, yes!
Another time, my parents employed a church member to be my baby sitter. Her name was Mrs. Godwin and her apartment was located just above where Zydeco’s currently exists. Mrs. Godwin was prone to generous applications of ruby red lipstick, and I discovered that her care for me, while babysitting, consisted of kissing me each time I happened by. There was no game playing, no book reading, not even coloring in a coloring book—just kisses that made me look like I had hives. So, the second time she came to our house, I was not very cooperative. In fact, I was downright mean and difficult. (I know it is hard to believe, but I really can be that way!) So when my parents came home, Mrs. Godwin, with me in tow, commenced to list all of my iniquities. My parents listened. They nodded sympathetically. I could feel the shame rising up in me, a wretched child who had dishonored my family with willful disobedience! When Mrs. Godwin finally finished, my father drove her home…but not before we exchanged kisses all around! My mother and I stood in the driveway watching them pull away. I steeled myself for what was coming. My mother eyed me from the soles of my feet to the top of my head until finally, she put her arm around my shoulders and said, “You are too old for a babysitter anyway.” And that was that. Over. Forgiven. Forgotten. And to be honest, her ready trust in me grew within my heart an inclination to act in such a way that this trust was not purposefully broken again.
When the Greeks came to see Jesus, Jesus resorts to a quick parable. “A grain of wheat cannot grow unless it dies.” He is referring to His own death, of course, but is it too far removed from what God proposes through Jeremiah? …of what Jesus speaks to Nicodemus? …and of what Jesus enacts on the cross? The seed cracks open to send up a shoot that matures into wheat. Does the stalk of wheat go back in the seed pod? Does it keep an ongoing list of debts that must be repaid OR does it shed the pod, and grow to maturity leaving the pod behind forever? Isn’t this a picture of what God does to bring us close for reconciliation? The old stuff is left behind and the new growth matures into wholeness. What if we could do this not only in our relationship with God but in our relationship with one another? What if we left the hard core resentments, bitterness and grudges behind—forgiven and forgotten—might we, then, at last, be able to grow into wholeness? Here, God is promising to crack open our closed lives with light and air! Here, God is promising to crack open our hard hearts with forgiveness! Here, God is promising to be purposefully forgetful in order that we might belong wholly and completely to God.
It is not such a far stretch from the old lonesome mother-God in the kitchen after all. For imagine what might happen if we finally broke down and went to visit.
Don Sandley: I’m afraid of what she might say!
Barry Austin: What if we don’t have enough to talk about?
Lynette Sandley: Come in! Come in! Let me pour some tea!
Sarah Shelton: She has been alone so long that there is much she wants to say to us, but we barely allow her to get a word in edgewise. We fill up an hour with chatter. Finally, she touches her finger to her lips.
Lynette Sandley: Shh. Be still. Shhhh. Let me have a good look at you.
Sarah Shelton: And she looks. In a single glance, God sees us both newly born and as dying; coughing and crying; turning our head to root for her breast and fearful of the unknown realm that lies ahead. In a single glance, she sees our birth and our death and all the years in between.
Barry Austin: God sees me when I was young. How I idolized her! I trustingly followed her anywhere. My scrapes and scratches healed quickly because of her kisses. She was there when I was filled with the wonder of hitting a baseball, riding my bike, wearing my first suit, and getting my driver’s license. God sees me as I was when I was young, when I thought there was nothing I could not do.
Don Sandley: God sees me in my middle years: when my energy was unlimited, when I kept house, cooked, cleaned, cared for the children AND held down a job and volunteered when others needed us. There was no time for sleep then.
Lynette Sandley: And God sees me in my later years; when I no longer feel so needed. Chaos has disrupted the bodily rhythms on which I have relied, and God sees me sleeping alone in a room that once slept two.
Sarah Shelton: God sees things about us even we have forgotten and things we do not yet know. For nothing is hidden from God’s sight. When she is finished looking at us, she asks how we really are. This increases our anxiety for do we really want to open our mouths and tell Mother everything? …who we love, where we hurt, the dreams that fell to the wayside …what we have broken…what got lost. If we tell her these things, we will begin to cry. It is time to change the subject!
Don Sandley: I’m sorry that I…
Lynette Sandley: That’s all right. I forgive you.
Barry Austin: I didn’t mean to…
Lynette Sandley: I know that, I do.
Don Sandley: I was so angry that you hit me!
Lynette Sandley: I’m sorry that I ever hurt you, but you would not listen to me!
Don Sandley: You are right. I would not listen. I should have. I know that now, but at the time, I had to do it my own way.
Lynette Sandley: I know. I know.
Barry Austin: I never could live up to your expectations.
Lynette Sandley: And I always believed you could do anything.
Sarah Shelton: At last, there are no more words. No more words to say or hear and God begins to hummmmmmmm. Hearing her, we are transported back to a time before memory: when our fever would not break and we could not sleep. When we were exhausted from crying but unable to stop and she picked us up. We remember…she picked us up and held us against her bosom and supported our head in the palm of her hand. She walked with us. We could feel her heart beating and hear the hum from her throat. (A tune is hummed for a brief time.)
Lynette Sandley: You will always be my child. Do not be afraid.
Sarah Shelton: It has been a good visit. But before we leave, it is our turn to look at her. Time has marked her face, but it is not frail. It is wise. God knows all those things that the passage of time teaches: that we can survive the loss of a love; that we can feel secure even in the midst of an ever changing world; that there can be dignity in being alive even when every bone aches.
Then God reaches for our hand. She tenderly brings it to her lips and kisses it in such a way that our thoughts are confirmed: God remembers a lot, but God has purposefully forgotten our sins in order to place a loving relationship in our hearts.
Thanks be to God. Amen.