Outside Our Boxes – Lent 2
Outside our Boxes
March 8, 2020
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Matthew 12:38-50
The worst place I’ve ever been is a certain building in New York City. As we walked in the smell hit us first. The crunch underfoot hit us second. The only light was what crept in through dirt caked windows. The electricity had been turned off long ago. So had the water. One tenant lived in a barely habitable apartment in the back. He rented out mattresses on the floor to whomever – homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes. Ceilings had fallen in. The floor, where it hadn’t collapsed, was covered in rubble – needles, clothes and worse. As we exited the building, we gulped in the fresh air and basked in the sunlight. A friend labeled the house “God forsaken.” A place without God.
Back up a little bit from today’s reading in Matthew we find the Pharisees wondering if Jesus is God forsaken, if he’s Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons. His words affect the crowds, but they are not words they would speak. His healings amaze, but he doesn’t heal whom they would heal. His actions astound, but he doesn’t follow their rules. He doesn’t fit into their box so he can’t be spiritual, he can’t be holy, he can’t be “of God.” You say you’re of God, they tell him, so jump into our box, show us a sign, so we know who you are.
Instead Jesus takes them to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrians, ancient Israel’s mortal enemies. A place the prophet Jonah so wanted to be God forsaken he refused to go there. He went to sea instead, but there was a great storm, and a great fish, and Jonah ends up in the stomach of the fish for three days, is puked out on the beach and finally goes to Nineveh – where he finds God has prepared the way. The Ninevites respond and repent. Now they stand in judgement of the Pharisees who have missed an even greater sign, God himself in their midst. Missed because God didn’t fit neatly inside their box.
Nineveh wasn’t even remotely God forsaken. Neither was that horrible, disgusting house. God loved the people of Nineveh. He heard their prayers, even when they prayed to other gods. He yearned for their salvation. He sent Jonah to them and prepared the way for his arrival.
As for that horrible, disgusting house, after many months and many dollars of work, a home for homeless women emerged from the rubble on the floors, an answer to prayers uttered on those mattresses, the continuation of the vision of the church who owned the house but had been unable to maintain it, a restored legacy to the original craftsmen whose artistry was still evident through the filth.
God always goes before us. God is already present even where we don’t expect the divine, even where we don’t anticipate the divine, even where we don’t want the divine. God is on battlefields, on quarantined cruise ships, in refugee camps and in prisons. God’s in the midst of dysfunctional families and reality shaking calamities. God’s in those places where the divine name isn’t allowed to be uttered.
In her novel The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver envisions the meeting of two missionaries, Brother Fowles and Brother Price, in the Congo in the late 1950’s. Brother Fowles had lived in the Congo for so long some of the other missionaries accused him of “going native.” Brother Price, a revival preacher from Georgia, had recently arrived, convinced of his calling to bring the light of Christ to a dark people in a dark continent. Everywhere Brother Price sees darkness Brother Fowles sees light. Brother Price sees the dense jungle as something to be fought, tamed. Brother Fowles sees the very same jungle as the pure exuberance of God’s creative Spirit. Brother Price hears the work songs of the women and hears something to be replaced with a Protestant hymn. Brother Fowles sees those same songs as hymns on their own. Brother Price believes he has a congregation needing to be taught to pray. Brother Fowles hears their existing prayers and directs them toward Christ. Brother Price believes their poverty, sickness and political troubles are a result of not knowing Jesus. Brother Fowles sees Jesus in each of in each and every one of the villagers, even the local tribal wiseman.
Both Brother Price’s God and Brother Price’s faith live inside a little box, a box so rigid he cannot recognize the work God is already doing around him. Since he cannot see what God is already doing he cannot share in the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Like the Pharisees he declares the very work of God to be God forsaken. Like the Pharisees he rejects Jesus by rejecting those with whom Christ walks. He yearns for a sign. He begs and pleads with God for a sign. Signs he can’t see.
But the Brother Fowles’ lifetime of mission work brings blessings of Spirit to him and to the many, many people he touched. Brother Price’s lifetime in Africa brings pain, misery and hurt upon many, most of all upon his own soul. In the short term its more comfortable to be Brother Price. Everything is certain and sure. Black is black. White is white. We know exactly who God is, how God thinks, and because God looks and thinks like us, we’re assured of our salvation.
But if we want to experience the fullness of all God is doing, we must be like Brother Fowles. We must open the doors, the windows, the walls of our boxes so we can experience all God is already doing in our midst. We must be able to go into filth filled houses, hear the prayers of the prostitutes and catch the Spirit’s vision for a ministry built upon the Spirit already present. We must be able to see Christ in our worst enemy and pray our spirits together. We must be able to hear the prayers of those who speak languages different from us, who experience God different from us, and then meld our prayers with theirs so together we can experience the immense power of our God who constantly makes all things new.
Somewhere along the way we created a box bound religion, afraid of the Holy Spirit, whose favorite word is “No.” But God created us and greeted us with an exuberant, box defying “Yes! Yes! It is good. It is good.” Its my favorite ministry word. For when we see the Spirit moving, embrace it, say “Yes!” to it, an exuberant “Yes!” our boxes collapse, God’s grace abounds, we’re healed, our communities are healed, together we’re born anew.