By The Rev. Peter Smith
Oh, the things we seldom consider… if someone living in the country Turkey were to eat our favorite Thanksgiving bird, what would they call it? Apparently, the Turks call turkeys “the American bird.” It seems to people in Turkey, we are a bunch of turkeys.
And they may not be far off. But when you get down to it, we are not all that different from anyone else who has ever walked the earth. We have a hard time getting along with others because we start out as pretty selfish people, people who live for ourselves, and a good number of us never really grow too far out of that.
This can work itself out in our culture in different ways. One way that I think we see this in ours is our American rugged sense of independence. We have a tendency to pride ourselves on not having to rely on other people. There is something appealing to this idea. We have romanticized it through books and movies and tv shows with men and women who braved the wild west or lived in the wilderness or who fought any kind of hostile environment without aid. Taken to an extreme is the reality tv show called Naked and Afraid in which two complete strangers (man and woman) are put out into the wilderness without anything: without shelter, food and water, and even clothes. That’s enough to make all of us afraid. The people have to survive for several days without help. And people watch it because we love to see stories of human beings overcoming tremendous obstacles on raw human will and ability. I have only seen a few minutes of one episode myself. Thankfully, the picture was obscured in the right places.
But what if we have the whole idea wrong? Not just the show but the whole idea of striving to be independent persons, not having to rely on others for anything as much as possible. When author John Donne said, “No man is an island,” he was correctly pointing us to something intrinsically important about life itself. There is something deeply special and deeply significant and deeply wonderful about life with others, and not just living with others but the fact that we cannot live without others.
This story from Genesis has God and Noah creating one of the very first covenants. I don’t know about you, but I have always seen this story through the eyes of someone who has lived with contracts his whole life. We make deals with each other; we make contracts with each other; we create legally binding connections between us – even marriage itself functions this way, and we call it a covenant. But because we are so contract oriented, so covenant familiar, we miss the whole point looking at that story from this side of history.
We need to see that this is GOD making a covenant with Noah and his family and all humans by extension. GOD is getting into a covenant or binding agreement with human creatures. We need to stop and appreciate that radical notion – one that does not really make sense, but the whole idea of God getting entangled with people began in the Garden of Eden, and it is better fleshed out with Abram who becomes Abraham a few chapters later, but I like this example of the covenant story because God specifically widens the covenant here to all people, all creation forever.
The God who made all the universe and spins the planets and forms galaxies and knows all of existence down to the tiniest particles actually bothered and even risked God’s very own self to get into a contractual agreement with us. Because as we know with any contract, if someone fails to uphold their end, they suffer the consequences.
So this must be absolutely critical to God. It is almost as if there is something foundationally holy about the very act of intentionally living together, sharing lives and creating community: something we were made to do – something we must do. Being in intentional relationships with one another is not just a human thing, but it is a God thing – how God actually wants us to live and how God created us to live from the very beginning.
This is really important stuff because it relates to how we live together in this world, that we are patterned after the very person of God whom we see as three persons living as one: God the Father, the Son, and the Spirit all being bound together for shared life. This is our model, but it has to be more than a model or a nice idea.
Thankfully, there is more.
Have you ever wondered why God picked Mary of Nazareth to be the mother of Jesus? Was she the most righteous, most loving, most holy, most faithful, most Jewish, most whatever else person who ever lived? Catholics might want to think so, but I think this misses the larger point. The greatest gift of grace ever given to a human being in the history of the world was given to Mary for another reason, and this passage from Luke gives us the clue: it was not just about Mary but Mary the cousin to Elizabeth who was married to Zechariah, Elizabeth who at that very moment was 6 months pregnant with John the Evangelist, Mary being from the community of Nazareth, Mary who was betrothed but not married to Joseph, Mary who was part of the Jewish faith, Mary who was alive at this pivotal time in Jewish history with King Herod and the Roman Empire. That grace came to her because she was exactly situated in all of these connections, and that grace expressed itself in absolute joy not just in her own heart but flowed into all these relationships with others. It was never just about Mary but how Mary was part of life with all of these other people, communities, and even traditions, especially the ones who would help her most specifically welcome Jesus. She was the right person in the right place, the right time, and with the right relationships. Into all of that, God poured God’s grace.
When my eyes were opened to this fact, that God’s grace happens where we are connected to others, it occurred to me that the gift of God’s grace is never just for us, but it is always meant to be shared. It is something that always happens in our relationships. Grace always happened between us – in our relationship between us and God and in our relationships with others. Grace is always meant to be shared because we are always meant to be living life together in meaningful, intentional ways. As author/pastor Rick Warren said in his Purpose Driven Life – life is not about us. Life is not just about you or me. It is about you AND me.
We carry the heart of God but not alone. We do it together. God designed the world this way, for us to actually need each other. There is no weakness in this, but it is our holy calling. Mary would not have been picked if any one of those other factors had not been there. If Zechariah had not been married to Elizabeth, Mary would not have been picked, because they were the parents of John the Evangelist even though they could not have kids – especially because they could not have kids – and Zechariah was a priest in the Temple, and therefore this story took on a religious significance.
If someone in your family won the lottery, we might expect that somehow that tremendous prize might get worked out into the lives of other family members and other people. Such a gift would get shared in significant ways. Sure, there are those who would keep every cent for themselves, but I know no one here would be so self-interested. We would be joyfully obligated to bless the lives of others around us.
You or I may never win the lottery, but I would argue that God’s grace is better than the lottery – that it is worth more than the lottery – that it blesses more than the lottery – and it is given to you every day. We know God’s love in our lives each and every day. This goodness is meant to build us all up.
It is not easy to see this grace or to feel it flowing into our relationships, sometimes. Sometimes we don’t like each other very much, especially the people we most need to relate to. But if we begin to realize that that is exactly where God is at work – that we have goodness to share – then the door opens, if even a crack, and there is hope for something better. God knows the most important thing in this world is not you or me, it is us. This is where God is investing God’s very presence, the grace of the Spirit, the life of God’s love. Think about it: God IS love. God is the very best of the beauty of relationship. And that beauty is right here for us all to share.
Followers of Jesus are the strangest people on the face of the planet, if we are honest with ourselves. There is no one outside of our call to love. There is no one beyond the reach of our care. There is no one excluded from the gift of our mercy. We are bound to every single living person by the heart of God, and it is our privilege to recognize that we all need each other and the grace working between us.
To God be the glory. Amen.