Unexpected Mercies

[A sermon preached on Matthew 10: 40-42 and Genesis 22: 1-14 at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church.]

I know the way you can get
When you have not had a drink of Love:
Your face hardens,
Your sweet muscles cramp.
Children become concerned
About a strange look that appears in your eyes
Which even begins to worry your own mirror
And nose.
Squirrels and birds sense your sadness
And call an important conference in a tall tree.
They decide which secret code to chant
To help your mind and soul.
Even angels fear that brand of madness
That arrays itself against the world
And throws sharp stones and spears into
The innocent
And into one’s self.

O I know the way you can get
If you have not been drinking Love:
You might rip apart
Every sentence your friends and teachers say,
Looking for hidden clauses.
You might weigh every word on a scale
Like a dead fish.
You might pull out a ruler to measure
From every angle in your darkness
The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once

I know the way you can get
If you have not had a drink from Love’s
That is why all the Great Ones speak of
The vital need
To keep remembering God,
So you will come to know and see [God]
As being so Playful
And Wanting,
Just Wanting to help.
That is why [the Poet] says:
Bring your cup near me.
For all I care about
Is quenching your thirst for freedom!
All a Sane [person] can ever care about
Is giving Love!

There are some poems that stick with you – words that you find yourself coming back to again and again because they touch a tender spot deep inside you, turns of phrase that hold you close, refusing to let you go until they’ve left your heart a little bigger and your spirit a little more buoyant. This poem, by the ancient Sufi mystic Hafiz, fits that bill, at least for me. I find myself drawn to these words over and over again because they capture something very true, yet often overlooked.

After all, it’s not like I notice the guy riding my tail up I-81 and muse to myself, “I know the way you can get when you haven’t had a drink of love.” It’s not like I hang in there during a dull, never-ending conversation with a loquacious extended family member thinking, “Oh, I know the way you can get if you have not been drinking Love.” It’s not like I scroll past the friend picking a fight on social media and coo, “I know the way you can get if you have not had a drink from Love’s Hands.”

My go- to responses, my gut reactions, aren’t usually that generous. That guy on the interstate? He’s just a jerk, he’s being stupid and unsafe. That chatty Cathy? She’s irritating and socially inept. That Twitter troll? He gets his kicks by riling people up and causing trouble. If you’re anything like me, your inner commentary is quick to label and slow to understand.

It’s far easier to see that other driver as a menace than to see him as someone who’s rushing to the hospital or running late for his kid’s first dance recital or simply suffering the consequences of never learning to manage his rage any other way. There’s something self-protective in rolling our eyes and gritting our teeth while grandma gabs away, something that prefers to keep an arms’ length between us and the profound loneliness she feels and her longing for companionship. It’s safer to deem that Facebook friend a hothead looking to ruffle feathers than to see the magnitude of their insecurity and their need for external validation of their perspective. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t surprise me that we label and stereotype and judge in order to avoid asking the more difficult question, “Where are there unmet needs here? Where might this person need a drink of love? How could I offer a cup?”

In our Gospel reading this morning, we overhear Jesus giving his disciples a snack for the road – advice and warnings that will sustain them on the journey as they’re sent out as messengers of God’s Kingdom. It’ll be hard, he tells them. Earlier in this chapter, he reminds them of all the perils that await them: persecution, beatings, betrayal, alienation from friends and family, and all for little to no pay. And yet, even in the midst of this very real danger and even though there is great cause for fear, he assures them that there will be unexpected mercies along the way. People will open their homes. Strangers will offer the cup of refreshment. Hospitality will come in astonishing ways, often from the least likely people. Challenge and hardship are non-negotiables in the life of discipleship, but Christ assures us that grace, sufficient unto our deepest needs, will meet us on the way.

And as we read just a few minutes ago, in the unsettling story of Abraham and Isaac, sometimes that grace comes at the eleventh hour. With dagger poised and ready to strike, sometimes Grace says, “Hold on a minute! I’m right here with you. Let’s look around and broaden our view of the situation. Maybe together we can find a different solution.” When our cursor hovers over the send button, sometimes Wisdom reminds us, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Maybe we shouldn’t send that email while we’re still angry. Let’s call a friend to vent and decide how to respond when we’re a little calmer.” When the lunch bell rings and your growling stomach reminds you that you left your lunch bag on the kitchen counter, sometimes Mercy calls to us from down the hall, “Hey, wait up! I packed extra. Do you want to share?”

With his Twelve beloved students gathered around him, Jesus discerns that what they most need to hear before they’re launched into the throes of ministry is a gentle reminder that they are both the ones who give the cup of water to the little ones in need and equally so the parched ones who stretch out their hands to receive. I am sending you out to be a blessing to a world in need, Christ tells them. But part of that very work is allowing yourself to receive the blessings of others along the way.

Many of us like to think of ourselves as giving people – we volunteer in the community, we give to the church, we shovel snow for our elderly neighbor or bring a meal to a friend who’s been sick. Oftentimes, we’re so attached to this view of ourselves as competent, capable, independent helpers that we really struggle to open ourselves to the unexpected mercies that are right there waiting for us, if only we had eyes to see them.

A few years ago, when I was first getting my start as a chaplain, I had just a few minutes left before heading home for the day, and I thought it’d be a great time to pop in to see one last patient, an elderly woman at the end of the hall, whom the nurses told me was deeply faithful and would really enjoy a visit. I’d be in and out, twenty minutes tops, one of those hit and run prayer visits with someone who’d probably be drowsy and eager to go back to sleep. (Isn’t it funny how the Spirit seizes upon moments like these to offer us a heaping helping of humility?) I certainly found myself in need.

Well, we talked and talked as she told me about her life and the role that faith had played over so many years. She spoke about her illness in hopeful terms and had only kind things to say about the hospital staff. She asked what drew me to this work and shared about her own sense of vocation and how it had changed as she’d entered her senior years. But the joyful surprise, the moment that had me blinking back tears, was when I concluded my prayer for her, and she reached out to grab my hand, offering a prayer for my ministry, that God’s presence would sustain me on the journey.

It was a humble gift, yet profoundly nourishing and more needed than either of us probably knew. A lifetime of faithful discipleship had taught this woman the art of blessing and the intimacy of both giving and receiving. It was an unexpected mercy, but I suspect that no one left her hospital room without being offered a drink of Love.

The poet William Blake says it best, I think, when he writes that “we are put on earth . . . that we may learn to bear the beams of love.” And part of that learning process happens right here, in community with one another, as we gather at Christ’s table. Here we are offered the bread of life and the cup of refreshment, and we practice opening our hands wide to receive grace for the journey. Here we find a Host whose hospitality knows no end, who bids us come just as we are, who sees and sanctifies even the parts of us that we struggle to welcome in ourselves. At Christ’s holy feast, we are invited to take a long, deep drink of Love, to taste mercies unexpected, and to practice tending to the hungers buried within our own hearts so that we can offer our gifts to a world that is incredibly malnourished. This is the ministry to which Jesus calls us as those who seek to follow him. This is the inner foundation upon which God builds the Kingdom. This is the soul work that the Spirit has already begun in us. Thanks be to God. Amen.