A Growing Tenderness
Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19, Matthew 3:1-12
“Get a job.”
I wonder if that was a comment yelled at John the Baptist as he wandered the wilderness in camel hair clothing, eating honey and locust. As a desert wanderer, John the Baptist likely smelled pretty dirty and looked kinda grungy. I wondered, if while he shouted, “Prepare the way of our God, make straight the paths of God,” if people side-eyed him and muttered, “that guy should get a job.”
I wonder this because we, as human beings, seem to have this tendency to dismiss people, Divine messages and even God when it does not look how we expect.
“Get a job.”
These are the words that Amanda Palmer heard when she went to work as a street artist in the form of a self-employed living statue. Now a full-time musician, Amanda had worked for five years as a living statue. She would paint herself up and go out into the streets, stand on a box and put a hat at her feet. Wherever people put money in, she would give them a flower and some intense eye contact. Amanda reports that this led to some profound encounters with people, especially lonely people who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone for weeks. Amanda and these people would get this beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact being allowed in the city streets and they’d feel this connection. Amanda’s eyes would say, “Thank you, I see you.” And their eyes in response would say, “Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.”
While she stood there, sometimes people would yell out of their cars at her, “Get a job.” Amanda had a job and yet, somehow, with their shouting, people implied that what Amanda was doing was unjoblike, unfair, or shameful.[i]
These stories make us ponder: What does it mean to have a job and what is our job as children of God?
Society tells us that our job is to be happy and successful. A study from Harvard University surveyed 10,000 middle and high school students and asked what was more important: achieving at a high level, happiness or caring for others. Eighty percent chose achieving and happiness, with only twenty percent identifying caring for others as their top priority.[ii]
The striking thing is that science reveals that a lack of empathy makes kids less successful and less happy and that happier, more successful kids care about others. Empathy activates conscience and moral reasoning, improves happiness, curbs bullying and boosts relationship satisfaction.
Our society tells us that our job is to be happy and successful yet both science and our Gospel tells us that our core call is to be compassionate, to be tender with one another, to look at another human being made in the image of God and say, “Thank you. I see you” and hear them respond of “Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.”
“Get a job.”
This is a statement not only lobbed at Amanda on the streets, but it is also a statement aimed at those who do not fit into others’ expectations of success, productivity and participation.
Sometimes, in the church world, we too feel like we need to “get a job” and focus on societal values of happiness and success. We feel like we need to focus on outward achievement in the form of worship numbers, families, or activities. In other words, we are tempted to measure ourselves by the demand for more, more, more. Yet, when find ourselves backed against the world’s measuring stick, John the Baptist invites us to come back to the questions: In the end, what will matter? What will last? What is truly valuable? What gives us joy?
Tenderness. Compassion. An ability to look at another and say, “I see you.”
John the Baptist reminds us of that truth in the passage today. There are many things winnowed away by the winnowing fork, blown away like chaff in the field – fear, hatred and greed among them – but what remains, what is eternal, is this sense of tenderness, God’s tenderness for us and our tenderness for others, our deep long for our world to be made whole. This abiding love will outlast empires and outlast destruction.
We are reminded of that not only by John the Baptist but also by the prophet Isaiah. In the passage this morning, Isaiah talks about a new shoot growing from the stump of Jesse. Isaiah’s words comes after a story of big, beautiful trees being cut down. Trees represented leadership in the Mid-Eastern time. These trees symbolize the empires hurting the Jewish people so badly. God strikes down the trees because the powers of the world are behaving in ways that oppress creation and humanity.
Isaiah’s words about a shoot coming remind us that the powers of God are greater than the powers of oppression.
This is what John the Baptist is getting to when he says to his contemporaries: “You brood of vipers, you irresponsible leaders who are willing to behave in a predatory way toward the people entrusted to your care, this way of being will be sifted out, it will disappear, it cannot last, it appears to be so strong, but in fact it is this tenderness that endures, a tenderness that will be indestructible.”[iii]
John tells us to roll up our sleeves, get to work and “give some evidence that we mean to reform,” because we don’t need to get a job; we already have a job and that is to be compassionate.
Perhaps being compassionate means wearing furry camel clothing and eating insects. Maybe it means standing on a box and telling people on the streets they matter. Maybe compassion comes in the form of a poor Mid-Eastern girl visited by God and invited to bear the most tender act of all: God made flesh.
The thing about compassion is that it doesn’t always look how we expect.
For the prophet Isaiah, it took the form of predator and prey living together. In God’s kin-dom, predators are not wiped off the face of the earth, which might disappoint us because we are not God. Instead, they are transformed. The lion becomes a vegetarian and eats grass like the ox.
My colleague Rachel McGuire points out that this transformation occurs through gentleness, like babies in the classroom with a bully. Fighting a bully head on – what does that do? Do that endure? Does the change that occurs from that continue? What about the gentleness of playing with a baby? Does that unleash a heart, unfreeze what is frozen, release the love that is already in that bullying child and allow the bullying child to experience it?
In God’s kin-dom, God does not leave anyone out. Harm and hatred are winnowed out. Former predators and prey will lie together as equals, caring for God’s creation.
Compassion does not always look how we expect.
We are reminded of that as we face the dead stump and wonder what the future holds. God says to us: Don’t stare at the stump so much. Look around and see if you can’t see that tender shoot. It can be hard to see because God comes in such a gentle form. The stump is big and the bud is tiny.
We keep staring at that dead stump and God keeps inviting us to look more carefully because compassion does not always look how we expect.
So too a shoot will come … from the sad, dead, divided stump that is our nation,
That is our lives, a shoot will come.
That is our world, a shoot will come.
As people we grow life again, we thrive again, God is the bringer of this life, God is constantly bringing this new life to us and offering to us.
God invites us to be part of this sprouting. God invites us to roll up our sleeves and get to the work of compassion, of tenderness, of inclusion, which is exactly what one elementary school child named Trish did this week.
Tish was just elected the President of her elementary school. She ran on issues like: “We should treat each other how we want to be treated. We should make sure everyone has someone to sit with at lunch and we should have better snacks.”[iv]
As a child of God, Tish understood that her role is to make sure that no one would have to sit alone and that everyone would have something good to eat.
This is our job.
This Advent, we remember how God came to earth so that no one would have to sit alone and so that all could break bread together. This Advent season, we see that in face of demands for worldly success, God comes in the form of a growing infant in a poor teenager named Mary in the mid-east.
Perhaps this is not quite how Mary thought her life would turn out. Perhaps she struggled to say yes to God in the face of the stereotypes and slurs that would be hurled her way and yet, she could see that which was most essential.
God coming down to humanity saying, “Thank you. I see you.”
And so Mary said back to God, “Nobody ever sees me; thank you,” and she said yes, yes to the most creative and tender thing God has ever done for us. God embodied; God incarnate.
So too a shoot will come.
As a tender shoot grows in Mary’s belly, John says to us, roll up your sleeves, give some evidence that you mean to reform and get to work because we have a job to do; we have compassion to embody.
Perhaps the job is unconventional but it is the most meaningful thing we can do with our lives. Mary did her job. Trish did hers. John the Baptist did his.
Now God is asking, will we do ours?
[i] This story comes the Ted talk “The Art of Asking” by Amanda Palmer: https://www.ted.com/talks/amanda_palmer_the_art_of_asking
[ii] Read more about the Harvard University study here: http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/06/most-kids-believe-that-achievement-trumps-empathy/373378/
[iii] This summary of John the Baptist’s words comes from the Reverend Rachel McGuire’s sermon “Indestructible Tenderness” preached at Immanuel Baptist Church in Rochester, NY.
[iv] This story is about Tish Melton, the daughter of Glennon Melton Doyle, and can be read in full here: https://www.facebook.com/glennondoylemelton/photos/a.213343589709.128680.178909129709/10154758781999710/