Great news everyone! An amazingly generous and kind retirement community has asked me to preach and conduct services for some Sundays in the summer. I am really excited about this amazing opportunity, and especially about the amazing and strong people I am meeting there. Today I held my very first service, a slightly doctored form of Morning Prayer. Here’s the sermon from this morning!
My name is Maggie Nancarrow, and I am a “student of pastoring,” so to speak. I was invited here to preach and conduct services out of the generosity and trust of the Interfaith Committee. I could not be more honored to learn and grow among your close and dedicated community.
As I prepared for our service today, there was a phrase that kept nagging at me. I often approach the Bible this way—often there are phrases or ideas that nag at us, because they want something from us. They have something to say to us or through us. In this case, what nagged at me, was what Zechariah calls the “prisoner of hope.”Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope, today I declare that I will restore to you double.
What is a prisoner of hope? Can you be a prisoner to hope—something that is good? Surely it is bad to be a prisoner to something—but is it good to be a prisoner of something that is desirable? Hope is desirable. We as Christians have hope in Christ, hope in God—what can it mean to be a prisoner of hope?
As I pondered this question, I searched the rest of our Zechariah passage for a clue.“Rejoice greatly! O Daughter Zion!” He cries, “Lo, your king comes to you—Triumphant and Victorious—“ but then, here Zechariah gives his people a little bit of a riddle, because he says that triumphant and victorious king will be “Humble, and riding on a donkey.”
How strange this must have sounded to the people of ancient Israel!
In the ancient times, a victorious king was anything but humble, anything but the type of man who rode on a donkey. He was a man who rode on a chariot—perhaps he had a horse the size of a house, even—this man was imposing and terrifying, in command of all around him.
In the ancient times, a king brought peace by crushing all his potential opponents. There were constant skirmishes on roads, constant battles between towns, constant empires swooping in and out of this and that place. In the ancient times, war was an every day fact of life. The King who could bring peace was a king who could conquer, the one who rose above warring tribes and demanded peace out of sheer force of strength.
What Zechariah proclaims here is that the king who restores Israel is a king that will cut off battle bows and chariots.
According to Zechariah, this is where God chooses to be. God chooses to reside in the place that the ancient Israelites could not understand, the place where humility and triumph meet—a place they could never have expected.
So, the people of ancient Israel have in something unheard of and strange, hope in a God that breaks their previous expectations. To outsiders they must have seemed so strange, to have hope in something so unheard of, so absurd—to outsiders they must have seemed like prisoners to their hope.
But, our God is a God that works in unexpected ways, and lives in unexpected places, and does unexpected work. Our gospel lesson is especially clear about this. It tells us exactly how our expectations can get in the way of recognizing God.
At this point in Matthew, Jesus is speaking to a crowd of people gathered around him, and he has been talking to them about John the Baptist. Our passage begins in the middle of this conversation, and Jesus has already become a little bit frustrated.
He compares the generation around him to a group of children who refuse to play with each other: one group plays the flute, but the other refuses to dance. One group wails and cries, but the other group refuses to mourn.
The children are playing pretend weddings and funerals, two of the most common social events in the ancient world.But, they can’t make up their mind what they really want to play, and so they just call at each other, blaming one another for ruining the whole game.
I’m sure you’ve all seen children do this. In fact, I’m sure you’ve seen adults do this. Humans, as a whole, are pretty good at this.
Jesus says that all the people of his generation are behaving this way.
God has sent John the Baptist, but the people—the grumpy children—do not want to play his game.
They do not want to repent in the wilderness. They do not want to become a Wildman who cries about the coming of the Lord. John, the wild-man prophet, is too much for the people of Jesus’ time. He is too unexpected, and so they claim that he is possessed, so that they do not have to listen to him.
So, instead of playing funeral, God sends Jesus—who will play wedding with the children.
Jesus and John are very different. Where John rejects the goodness of this world, Jesus rejoices in it—he attends wedding feasts and banquets. He sits at table with tax collectors, sinners, and Pharisees alike, and recognizes the presence of God in the very poor and the very rich.
But the people, the very same who rejected John because of his asceticism, now reject Jesus because he is enjoying himself too much. He is a glutton and a drunkard! A friend to the dirtiest people among us.
Jesus, too, has an unlikely message, an unexpected story, and so the people cannot hear what he has to say. They don’t want to play his game either.
The people of Jesus’ generation are looking for what they expect to see: a wild man with a demon, a prophet who abuses his power in order to eat and drink. The wise and intelligent are only able to notice God where they expect to see God, where they want to see God, and they have missed God entirely. God isn’t playing the game they want to play, and so they do not meet God at all.
Let us not miss the deeds of God, simply because God is not playing the game we want God to play.
Let us not place barriers between us and God, simply because God does not look as we want God to look.
We, like the people of Jesus’ generation, can miss, time and time again, the word of God because God acts in strange and unexpected ways. We, like the people of Jesus’ generation, can hide behind our wisdom and intelligence so as to avoid the strange and paradoxical purposes of our God. We, like ancient Israelites, may be called to find God in a place that we never could have imagined.
Where might God be unexpectedly speaking to us, here in Chicago?
Perhaps, God speaks through the crazy preacher on the green line train, dressed in trainers and a do-rag. He speaks and gestures, like a thug on MTV, under the sunglasses his eyes are penitential, and the words he speaks are words of praise, mercy, and joy—and in his unexpected way he proclaims a resurrection of body and soul for all people, a love stronger than death to every member of his speeding church on rails.
Perhaps, God speaks to us through a wordless, soundless garden. It is solid companionship and beauty over years of dedicated care, and with the touch of a careful hand, it may bloom and bloom again, praising God with the brightest of flowers, and the most glorious of incenses.
Perhaps, God speaks to us through a mother and son, who have fought for years, silently, without really saying a word to one another. They do not communicate their frustration, but rather they hide it and let it quietly take up space between them. And, somehow one muggy summer night, these decades of tension pour out of them and the words are found, and the fight is had, and they say the things to each other that have lived between them for so long. And, though they do not love each other again, God is present there in the exposure—God resides there in that unexpectedly painful first step.
This is what it means to be a prisoner of hope for us.
Like the ancient Israelites, We are prisoners to the hope that God might be where we have least expected, that God speaks to us through every nook and cranny of our lives—that God brings restoration to us from the edges of our understanding, and the strangest of all events. To be always aware of God’s presence and purpose in strange places, to recognize that God works in ways beyond our games and our expectations—this is to learn form the yoke of Christ, and to find rest from our heavy burdens. This is to be a prisoner of hope, and to be restored double.