(Modified 2021-07-04: Added audio recording)
So I think we can all agree that human beings are pretty messed-up. I used to feel pretty smug about my identity markers. I’m a girl – that’s definitely better than being a boy. I’m Canadian, and that’s better than being American. Like a lot of people I thought of us as America Lite, the kinder, politer version of America, with all the good things like democracy and human rights and diversity and much less of the bad stuff like prejudice and arrogance and hyper-nationalism.
And I was smug about having Christianity as my identity marker in terms of the world’s religions. The worst thing people ever seemed to accuse us of was the Crusades, and since those ended 700 years ago I thought we were doing pretty well on the problematic waging-war-and-murdering-people-in-the-name-of-God front.
Feeling smug about your identity markers is mostly a young person’s game. If we are not actively deluding ourselves, life soon disabuses us of our illusions about the rightness of our own tribe compared to everyone else. Someone you trusted to tell the truth lies to you. You find out an institution you belong to has been hurting people. A political party you believe in gets caught up in a scandal, and won’t admit to being wrong. The longer we live, the more times we are disillusioned by our tribe, and by our own behavior, the more we realize that all human beings are pretty messed up. No one has a legitimate claim on virtue.
This is the message the Bible tells us over and over. No one but God is righteous. That means that even when we are doing our level best to follow God, we will disappoint ourselves, and we will be disappointed in each other. But this is not a reason to quit. God told Ezekiel, “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says.’ And whether they listen or fail to listen – for they are a rebellious house – they will know that a prophet has been among them.” I don’t think this means that the Israelites were more hard-headed than other people. God holds them culpable because they have had God’s prophets bringing God’s word to them, and still they rebel. No one but God is righteous. If this were the whole story, we would be in sorry shape. But the Good News of Jesus Christ is that God covers us in his righteousness.
In today’s Gospel, we heard how the people of Nazareth kept trying to apply their identity markers to Jesus, and when it just didn’t compute, they became offended. “Where did you get this power and authority? Aren’t you from here just like us? We saw you grow up. We know your mom, and your brothers. Your sisters married into our families. It makes no sense for you to speak like this, act like this. We don’t get it, so it must be wrong. You’re wrong.”
Actually, in Luke’s version of this story, the hostile response of the townspeople is even more serious. Luke chapter 4 verses 14 to 30 tell the story. In Luke’s version, “all the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard [his words.] They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” Now that is astonishing. Those people were not messing around. We spend less time trying to throw people off cliffs these days, but what is cancel culture if not a metaphorical defenestration?
What I find most interesting in this story is that Jesus was amazed by their response to him. I mean, on one level I think, how can you be in the presence of Jesus in the flesh and not be completely blown away? But on the other hand, this is sort of standard human behavior. We don’t like for anyone from our tribe to start thinking they’re better than us. That’s not on. We cut people like that down to size, or we cut them out. So in that sense, I’m kind of amazed that Jesus was amazed, you know? Like, what did he expect?
There is a reason that Mark’s Gospel puts this story of Jesus being rejected in his hometown next to the story of how he first sent out his disciples to preach the good news. The online commentary BibleRef.com has this to say about this passage: “The entire trip to Nazareth serves as an object lesson for the Twelve and the larger group of disciples. Thus far, the Twelve have seen Jesus rejected by Pharisees (Mark 3:1–6, 22), Herodians (Mark 3:6), scribes (Mark 3:22), Jesus’ family (Mark 3:21), and very frightened Gentiles (Mark 5:17). But they have seen Him embraced by thousands of others all over Galilee. This is the first time they witness a large group of Jews reject Jesus to the point of murder. And Jesus’ response is to quietly leave. Although the Twelve’s first missionary trip will be largely successful (Mark 6:7–13, 30) they still need to know how and when to walk away from a town that rejects them (Mark 6:11). And they begin to understand that rejection of their message can be hazardous to their lives.
The disciples also learn that rejection shouldn’t hamper their mission. Later, the apostles will ignore explicitly anti-godly laws (Acts 4:18–21), beatings (Acts 5:40–42), and imprisonments (Acts 12:1–5), considering it joy that they were found worthy to suffer for the gospel.”
In our New Testament lesson from 2 Corinthians 12, Paul is describing this juxtaposition between the joy of a successful ministry, which was leading his rivals to boast about how righteous they had become, and the humility that God actually calls his people into. I really like how this passage sounds in Eugene Peterson’s The Message: “If I had a mind to brag a little, I could probably do it without looking ridiculous, and I’d still be speaking plain truth all the way. But I’ll spare you. I don’t want anyone imagining me as anything other than the fool you’d encounter if you saw me on the street or heard me talk.
Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,
My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.
Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size – abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”
About this passage N.T. Wright says, “God’s power and human power are not only not the same thing; often the second has to be knocked out of the way altogether for the first to shine through as God desires and intends…[Paul] has discovered that there is a different kind of strength, the kind that’s really worth having, and that to possess it you have to be weak. And he’s discovered that that is part of what the gospel of the crucified Messiah is all about.”
I want to close by telling you a story. Early last month, a 30-year-old woman who posts online under the name Nightbirde auditioned on America’s Got Talent. I don’t watch the show, but I do occasionally watch recommended videos of exceptional performances on YouTube, so I saw her audition a few weeks ago. There’s a usual patter to the auditions on America’s Got Talent. The judges ask the performer the standard biographical details: their name, where they’re from, what they do for a living, what they’re performing. In this case, Nightbirde says she is performing an original song she wrote herself called “It’s OK.” She says the song is about the last year of her life. They ask her what she does for work, and she explains she hasn’t worked in the last several years, because she’s been dealing with cancer.
Howie Mandel: “So…you’re not okay.”
Nightbirde: “Not in every way, no…[But] it’s important that everyone knows that I’m so much more than the bad things that happen to me.”
She goes on to sing her song, and it’s so moving and beautiful.
“I moved to California in the summer time
I changed my name thinking that it would change my mind
I thought that all my problems they would stay behind
I was a stick of dynamite and it was just a matter of time, yeah
All day, all night, now I can’t hide
Said I knew myself but I guess I lied
It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay
If you’re lost, we’re all a little lost and it’s alright
It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay
If you’re lost, we’re all a little lost and it’s alright.”
I shed the usual tears, which is what America’s Got Talent wants me to do. But two weeks ago I listened to the Mockingbird podcast (which I highly recommend for everyone) and they read aloud one of Nightbirde’s blog posts from March of this year. And suddenly her story went from a generic, feel-good, human-triumph-over-suffering story sold for television ratings to something much more intimate and profound. The blog post is called “God is on the Bathroom Floor,” and I think you need to hear it.
“I don’t remember most of Autumn, because I lost my mind late in the summer and for a long time after that, I wasn’t in my body. I was a lightbulb buzzing somewhere far.
After the doctor told me I was dying, and after the man I married said he didn’t love me anymore, I chased a miracle in California and sixteen weeks later, I got it. The cancer was gone. But when my brain caught up with it all, something broke. I later found out that all the tragedy at once had caused a physical head trauma, and my brain was sending false signals of excruciating pain and panic.
I spent three months propped against the wall. On nights that I could not sleep, I laid in the tub like an insect, staring at my reflection in the shower knob. I vomited until I was hollow. I rolled up under my robe on the tile. The bathroom floor became my place to hide, where I could scream and be ugly; where I could sob and spit and eventually doze off, happy to be asleep, even with my head on the toilet.
I have had cancer three times now, and I have barely passed thirty. There are times when I wonder what I must have done to deserve such a story. I fear sometimes that when I die and meet with God, that He will say I disappointed Him, or offended Him, or failed Him. Maybe He’ll say I just never learned the lesson, or that I wasn’t grateful enough. But one thing I know for sure is this: He can never say that He did not know me.
I am God’s downstairs neighbor, banging on the ceiling with a broomstick. I show up at His door every day. Sometimes with songs, sometimes with curses. Sometimes apologies, gifts, questions, demands. Sometimes I use my key under the mat to let myself in. Other times, I sulk outside until He opens the door to me Himself.
I have called Him a cheat and a liar, and I meant it. I have told Him I wanted to die, and I meant it. Tears have become the only prayer I know. Prayers roll over my nostrils and drip down my forearms. They fall to the ground as I reach for Him. These are the prayers I repeat night and day; sunrise, sunset.
Call me bitter if you want to—that’s fair. Count me among the angry, the cynical, the offended, the hardened. But count me also among the friends of God. For I have seen Him in rare form. I have felt His exhale, laid in His shadow, squinted to read the message He wrote for me in the grout: “I’m sad too.”
If an explanation would help, He would write me one—I know it. But maybe an explanation would only start an argument between us—and I don’t want to argue with God. I want to lay in a hammock with Him and trace the veins in His arms.
I remind myself that I’m praying to the God who let the Israelites stay lost for decades. They begged to arrive in the Promised Land, but instead He let them wander, answering prayers they didn’t pray. For forty years, their shoes didn’t wear out. Fire lit their path each night. Every morning, He sent them mercy-bread from heaven.
I look hard for the answers to the prayers that I didn’t pray. I look for the mercy-bread that He promised to bake fresh for me each morning. The Israelites called it manna, which means “what is it?”
That’s the same question I’m asking—again, and again. There’s mercy here somewhere—but what is it? What is it? What is it?
I see mercy in the dusty sunlight that outlines the trees, in my mother’s crooked hands, in the blanket my friend left for me, in the harmony of the wind chimes. It’s not the mercy that I asked for, but it is mercy nonetheless. And I learn a new prayer: thank you. It’s a prayer I don’t mean yet, but will repeat until I do.
Call me cursed, call me lost, call me scorned. But that’s not all. Call me chosen, blessed, sought-after. Call me the one who God whispers his secrets to. I am the one whose belly is filled with loaves of mercy that were hidden for me.
Even on days when I’m not so sick, sometimes I go lay on the mat in the afternoon light to listen for Him. I know it sounds crazy, and I can’t really explain it, but God is in there—even now. I have heard it said that some people can’t see God because they won’t look low enough, and it’s true.
If you can’t see him, look lower. God is on the bathroom floor. Amen.