Image: Jeremiah, as depicted by Michelangelo from the Sistine Chapel ceiling
Excuses, excuses! Our lessons this morning are chock-full of excuses:
“I don’t know how to speak,” protests Jeremiah, “I’m only a boy!”
“She can’t stand up straight,” they say of the disabled woman, “she’s been crippled for eighteen years!”
“You can’t heal her,” says the leader of the synagogue indignantly, “not on the sabbath day!”
It has been said that excuses are merely well planned lies parading around as half-truths. While a flat out lie is typically easier to reject outright, an excuse is often laced with a grain of “truthiness” so as to sow doubt in our minds.
Take, for example, the characters in our lessons this morning: Was the Prophet Jeremiah young and inexperienced? It’s true, he likely was. Scholars estimate that his prophetic ministry spanned some forty years. So, when the word of the Lord first came to Jeremiah, he may, indeed, have been young and inexperienced — (Incidentally, my former bishop in Alabama used to refer to recently ordained clergy as “collared greens” – fully ordained, but still a little green around the collar) — But did Jeremiah’s age exempt him from fulfilling his God ordained purpose? “Be not afraid,” the Lord gently reassures him, “for I am with you to deliver you.” God then touches the prophet’s mouth and says, “I have put my words in your mouth.”
At the other end of the age spectrum, we might also consider the excuse of Abraham and Sarah: When God promised them children, that their decedents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, they laughed it off and said, “We’re far too old!” Yet that did not prevent God from blessing them with their son, Isaac. Young or old, age is no excuse; not for God, not for Jeremiah, and not for Abraham and Sarah.
And then in our Gospel lesson there’s this scene in the synagogue, where a woman, bent over by her disability appears right in the middle of Jesus’ teaching. Did her disability inhibit her mobility? Surely, it must have. How difficult it must have been for her to wedge her way into that crowd around Jesus. But just as the Lord had reached out his hand to touch Jeremiah’s mouth, Jesus lays his hands on this woman, who immediately stood up straight and began praising God. Disability is no excuse; not for God, and not for this daughter of Abraham.
And, perhaps worst of all, we are given an excuse by the indignant leader of the synagogue: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” You can almost imagine him add, “Because the bible says so!” And technically, of course, he’d be right. That is the very command given to Moses and the Israelites, that “thou shalt honor the sabbath day and keep it holy.”
But then Jesus reminds them of the whole truth of the matter, “The purpose of life is not to preserve the sabbath; the purpose of the sabbath is to preserve life.” Sadly, it is sometimes those of us who are most familiar with faith who use religious rules to justify such self-centered behavior. But not even religious rules are an excuse; not for God, not for us, and not for the leader of the synagogue.
So, given these texts, it begs the question: what’s your excuse? Maybe that’s not too threatening to pose as a rhetorical question (from the relative safety of the pulpit), but what if I were to ask you that question the next time I saw you? What if we looked our neighbor in the eye and asked that question expecting an honest to God answer: What prevents you from responding to God’s call? What well planned lies and half-truths do we tell ourselves that keep us from God and from one another?
Be it age or income, ability or self-doubt…we all have our excuses why we should be exempt when God comes calling. But therein lies the problem: excuses don’t ever actually address the issue at hand. And the issue at hand is that God is calling, and (thanks be to God) God isn’t buying our excuses.
Several weeks ago I was finally able to put aside some of my own excuses and set off for a long-postponed silence and solitude retreat. For the better part of a decade I had wanted to go on retreat to Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, New York. The monastery sits on the beautiful banks of the Hudson River, and is the oldest monastic order of the Episcopal Church. I had been an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross since I was in seminary, but always had plenty of excuses of why not to go: it’s too far, it will cost too much to get there, it’s time away from my family and the parish, maybe I should just slip away to somewhere more convenient.
Even as my plane took off on the morning of my departure, I looked out the window and half-heartedly wondered why I was going. It felt lavish, extravagant, indulgent to go all the way to Holy Cross for a retreat.
After a long day of travel, I arrived at the monastery shortly before Compline (the last of the offices before the Great Silence, when the monks retire for the night). As I settled into my chair in the chapel my ears rang in the profound silence, and again I wondered, what am I doing here? There’s so much to do back home, and so little time to do it. Even in that quiet chapel my excuses were still far too noisy.
The next several days involved deep silence and prayer, reflection and spiritual direction with one of the brothers. A short time into my retreat I began to realize exactly why I was there: there was a wounded part of me that had been avoiding God. Oh, I had been busy enough with religious requirements and keeping up appearances. But the truth was (and is) that all too often all that busy work is an empty excuse – a well planned lie – a half truth – so as to avoid God.
“What are you so afraid of?” the monk asked me one day. What am I so afraid of? Good question. Why would one be so afraid to slow down, be quiet, and be with God?
In the silence of the monastery, I was confronted with my own objections to God’s persistent presence, despite my avoidance: I’m too busy, God. I’m too tired. I can’t do it all. I’m afraid I’ll mess up.
And you can almost hear the half-truths planted in these well planned lies: we do get busy, we do get tired, and we most certainly will mess up. But none of that disqualifies us from answering God’s call upon our lives. None of that puts us beyond the healing reach of Jesus.
I was confronted with the fact that my excuses – and they were all good ones – had, in fact, isolated me from God. The feast that I so longed for, had been there all along, but I had spent so much time and effort excusing myself from the table to take care of other business.
This morning, know that your excuses do not excuse you from God’s table. We have all been invited to participate in the very life of God – to become his body, to be his life-blood. To be God’s hands and feet in the world.
So, might I suggest that the antidote to excuse is authenticity. When we offer our authentic selves, we offer not a well planned lie or half-truth. We offer who God created us to be, no excuses.
The Rev’d Brad Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio