One of the distinct joys of being an older sibling is to be able to recognize when your younger siblings have surpassed you. When you are the oldest as a child, you reign supreme—the tallest, the fastest, the most knowledgeable—by virtue of having a couple of years up on the competition. With maturity, you learn that all of that was childish and that if you are going to be an adult sibling you need to learn not only to listen to the words and the lives of your younger siblings, but to actually hear them and put what you’ve heard into practice.
And so, I invite you to listen in on a “conversation” between my younger brother, Tom, and I. Tom is a musician and was long a mainstay in the indie scene in northwestern Indiana prior to recent move to Tennessee. His 2012 album “Lost in the Cosmos” was one of those moments I knew I had been surpassed, and I could only say that I was proud to be his brother. It also proved to be something I needed to hear. While we both share a love of the works of Walker Percy, listening to Tom’s take on Percy’s self-help book through the veil of our family’s shared experience helped me make some difficult realizations about my life and how I treat other people.
So, I wrote a piece in response to the song “Enough”—the last track on the album. It came in the form of a sermon during my brief, now-defunct time as a preacher, which I share below. Please take the time to listen to Tom’s song before reading. His is the call and mine is the response, so give him the place of primacy. I’ve held onto that role for far too long. My piece makes no sense without it. And my life makes no sense without him.
“They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4:29-30)
The Spirit of the Lord was upon Jesus on the Sabbath day in his hometown of Nazareth. He stood up to read, and the scroll given to him was that of the Prophet Isaiah. And so he read to those gathered a passage proclaiming good news to the poor and the afflicted, liberty to the captive and oppressed, and blessing to the no ones that have nothing. Was it a part of Scripture that they knew well? A part that they had heard before? If it was, they had only ever heard it prophesied in part because only now had the complete come. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Against his words, spoken in love in the melody and theme of the Psalms and the Prophets, loveless murmurs crescendoed into objections like noisy gongs: “Is this not the son of the carpenter, Joseph?” And others: “Joseph’s son? Safer to call him Mary’s!” And still more, “He speaks well, but is he really different from any of his relations here?” But when he perceived their thoughts, he confronted them. “Bless your own! Do here what you’ve done in Capernaum. Is that not what you mean to say to me?” But Jesus gave them no sign, save that of Jonah, the sign of the dove, of the Spirit upon him.
The sign was this: the stories of how Elijah was sent to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon and how Elisha cleansed Naaman the Syrian. Likewise, there were many sinful cities in the Kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam’s reign in the time of Jonah, yet Jonah was sent to none of them, instead he was sent to the enemy city of Nineveh. Again and again and again, God’s chosen people are not the only ones on whom he has mercy in the Old Testament. All flesh shall see the salvation of God, and his Spirit shall be poured out upon it, even the no ones who have nothing. Were these not parts of Scripture that they knew well? Parts that they had heard before? Or had they only heard in part, hearing only “I will make you a great nation” and not “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed?” And so Jesus reminded them of this when they doubted him and sought only deeds for themselves.
But these wayward children of Israel heard only condemnation and not instruction, forgetting that the Lord chastens those whom he loves that they may put aside their childish ways. The crowd drove him out and sought to hurl him off the cliff, but Jesus passed through as easily as he had passed through the water of Jordan. For the hour of his death had not come. He was in Nazareth after all, not Jerusalem.
And what of we Americans all these years later? Are we that different from the Jews of Nazareth? Have we only heard in part, spoken in part, thought in part, and reasoned in part? How is it that we have not come to maturity? For all our knowledge, what comes of it? What is its offspring? Does it issue forth blessings—righteousness and praise sprouting forth from it? Or is it barren and loveless? For all our faith, what comes of it? Does it move mountains, only to become a barrier to others? For all our possessions, what comes of them? We hardly possess them! Aren’t they more rightly said to possess us? To give them all away would only be to spread the contagion of those demons.
America, America, who kills the prophets and stones the ones who are sent to her! There is not a man, woman, or child that we will not declare a no-one if it suits our interests, that we will not drive to the brow of the hill on which our country is founded, so that we might hurl them off the cliff. Whatever our affiliation, allegiance, party, or persuasion, there will be someone that we name a no one and hate something that God has made.
But it is not so with God. Before he formed us in the womb, he knew us and was our strength. If Jeremiah was consecrated a prophet from before his birth, then every child is a type of prophet from conception. All creation declares the glory of the Lord. The zygote proclaims his handiwork, the embryo cries out his word. There is no speech, nor are there words; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. The Son of the living God came as such a one as these: the Word made flesh, a fertilized egg. No one is a no one.
So also to old age and grey hairs when all our strength is spent. The dying who have seen many troubles and calamities, struggling now for every breath. Those who watch for their life say, “God has forsaken them, there is none to deliver.” But let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise him from the hospice bed, praise him, you solitary prophets! The Son of the living God died as such a one as these—the Word made flesh, a cast-off corpse. No one is a no one.
Harken to these prophets! If we mistreat or ignore the vulnerable entering this world and exiting it, then it is also how we treat all of those in between, people languishing in the waiting room of the world. With each passing year, we spend more and more of our attention looking at the images on the screens of our electronic devices than making eye contact with human beings that bear the divine image. How many people do we treat as a means to an end, as cogs and circuits in our civilization of consumption? Some as overt as those we kill by remote control in wars half a world away. And some as covert as those who die by neglect in houses next door. If this were not enough, this is how we treat ourselves as well. Alone of all the creatures in the cosmos, we seek to do ourselves harm. It is true to say that we see in the mirror dimly because we have both stained the mirror and obscured our likeness to God with sin.
But when no one was righteous, Jesus Christ became no one, that we may be called the sons of God, for no one is a no one. Driven from the town, on the brow of the hill of Calvary, upon the scaffold of true love, he was hurled into death. Bearing all things, enduring all things, he did not come to an end, but was raised again to life. For love never ends. And even if we know this, we still only know in part. We lapse into our former ways and forget the God who has inscribed us on his hands. Like our forefathers, we fail to shine our light to the ends of the earth. The good we intend, we do not do. Who will save us from this corporation of death?
O God our Father, make speed to save your children. Deliver us from the hand of the wicked, even when that hand is our own. Set us free from the clutches of Satan and the spiritual forces of wickedness. Pluck up the roots of our impurities and pull down our edifices of oppression. Destroy our appetites for destruction; overthrow our throwing of others over the cliff. Pour out your Holy Spirit upon us, that even in this life we may move from part-ness to wholeness and be your agents that others may also be whole. Adorn us with your never ending love as a bride with jewels that we may eagerly await the coming of your Son, Jesus Christ, the bridegroom of our souls.
No one who waits upon him will be put to shame. Shame and guilt will pass away. Heaven and Earth will pass away. Jesus will pass through them on his way to the consummation of all things. Face to face, no cloud between us, in that hour, we who were no ones will know the One and know him fully, even as we are fully known. All will be fulfilled in our hearing! Come quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.