March 8, 2020

The Defects of Jesus, II: No Long-Range Plan

Passage: Luke 12:22–34

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.  —Luke 12:24


Last week I told you about Cardinal Francis-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, who spent 13 years in a Vietnamese prison, nine in solitary confinement.

He turned out to be a problematic prisoner for the warden, because he kept converting his prison guards from Communism to Christianity by convincing them that Jesus was better than Mao or Stalin, and he says he did that by talking about Jesus’ defects rather than his virtues—he had no common sense, he had a terrible memory, and he was bad at math, among other character flaws.

Jesus was also hopelessly impractical, right? Consider, for example, this morning’s Gospel lesson. Consider this. “Consider the ravens,” says Jesus. “They neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, yet God feeds them....Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you that Solomon in all his glory is not arrayed as one of these.”

I saw about a hundred of you at New Trier High School Friday night for Jesus Christ Superstar. For obvious reasons I love that musical, and this was such a stunning production. So much talent. A bunch of us saw it at the Lyric a couple of years ago, and I just would not want to choose which presentation was more moving. If you see our kids who starred at New Trier, thank them and congratulate them. James McColl was Jesus and Evelyn Wigdale was Mary Magdalene, the two leads; also Jon Hanold and Lizzie Embree.

If you saw Superstar, you heard Jesus recite this text. Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies. Good advice. We should slow down a little and take the time to notice and give thanks for the heart-breaking loveliness of God’s leaping, flying, diving, blooming, growing, thriving zoo of flora and fauna. Worry kills. Stress disables. Relentless striving distracts us from faithful living.

But then Jesus goes on. “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat, and take no thought about what you are to wear. Sell your possessions. Give alms.”  Jesus doesn’t seem to understand how hard we have to work to make a living in this world. Don’t strive for what you are to eat? What would we say about a father with an attitude like that? Jesus didn’t have two kids, a golden retriever, and a mortgage to worry about. What about the Beneful? What about tuition at the University of Michigan, which is not cheap for out-of-state residents?

Consider the ravens, says Jesus. Maybe. But consider the hawk, cruising the drafts in relentless pursuit of dinner. Consider the great blue heron, standing motionless on one leg in the shallows for hours to find fish and chips for her children. Consider the seagulls, with their interminable squawking: “Mine, Mine, Mine!”

Consider the hummingbird, says Brian Doyle. I’ve told you many times about Brian Doyle, one of my heroes. Brian was the editor of Portland Magazine at the University of Portland, one of the finest college journals in the land, for over 25 years, until he died of a vicious brain tumor in 2017 at the age of 60. After his death, his friends gathered his essays into a recent collection called One Long River of Song. Isn’t that a wonderful title? One Long River of Song. Brian’s essays are One Long River of Song. Brian’s life was One Long River of Song.

Consider the hummingbird, says Brian Doyle. Its heart is the size of a pencil eraser. It beats ten times a second, so fast we can’t hear it. A hummingbird can dive at 60 miles an hour. They can fly backward. They can fly 500 miles without resting. Each one visits a thousand flowers a day.

But flying is expensive. You burn out. You fry the machine. You melt the engine. Hummingbirds suffer more heart attacks and aneurysms than any other creature.[1] They work so hard. Jesus was very selective in his choice of a bird to get his point across.

But Jesus has a point, doesn’t he? A while back there was an article in The New Yorker about the ever-longer commute to work in America. As housing costs go up, people drive further and further away from their jobs to find affordable housing. Real estate agents have a saying: “Drive until you qualify.” That is to say, drive as far away from New York or Chicago as it takes for you to find a house that meets your expectations, but whose mortgage you qualify for.

My wife and I haven’t decided where we’re going to retire yet, but both my kids married Greenwich High School classmates, so it’s likely that at least one of them will end up back in Greenwich, where I can’t afford to live, but I have this fantasy that there is a rust-bucket, undesirable, working-class town not far from the Atlantic, in Rhode Island maybe, which is equidistant from both New York and Boston and therefore too far to commute to either. I might qualify there.

There’s a problem here, however. It appears as if people don’t make entirely rational choices about their commute to work. That is to say, they seem to value material over intangible goods. We take the bigger paycheck, the nicer house, and the more prestigious neighborhood, over sleep, family time, exercise, and fun.

A while back, the muffler people at Midas sponsored a Longest Commute contest. The winner was a guy from California who drove a 372-mile, 4 ½-hour round trip commute to his job in San Jose.

A secretary at a Manhattan law firm lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. If you don’t know your northeastern geography, that means she drives or buses clear across the state of New Jersey to get to work; she gets up at 4:30 a.m. and returns home at 9 p.m., feeds the dogs, eats a pizza, and goes to bed.[2] Nicer house, harder life. Bigger paycheck, fewer soccer games with your kids.

These are the kind of people Jesus is talking to. Maybe he’s talking to you. “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” he asks. Good question. Can any of you by driving an extra hour make your life extra happy? Probably not.

Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies. My son spent a semester abroad in Florence, so we went. My wife wanted to go to Venice. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. The New Yorker sent Robert Benchley there on assignment and the first thing he did when he got there was cable back to the magazine: “Streets full of water [Stop] Advise [Stop].” It wasn’t all that high on my list either, but my wife talked me into it, and the minute I walked out of the train station onto the Grand Canal, I realized that I had severely underestimated this saturated city.

One evening at the end of a perfect shining late-spring day, we went to a church called Chiesa San Vidal. Chiesa San Vidal is decon­secrated, which means I guess that it is not holy anymore and that no formal worship services are held there, only concerts for tourists. But we went anyway to hear Vival­di’s Four Seasons. Antonio Vivaldi was born in Venice, of course, and started his musical career there as the violin teacher at an orphanage called Ospedale della Pietà, The Hospital of Mercy, where cast-off boys learned a trade and unwanted girls learned to play the violin—from Vivaldi. I guess you could do worse.

The artisans who built Chiesa San Vidal used no sheetrock or carpet when they mortared that pile together, so of course the acoustics were magnificent. The musicians, dressed in black from head to foot, were just as magnificent, all beautiful twenty-something men and women and masters of their craft. All the men looked like Leonardo DiCaprio or Jon Bon Jovi when he was still a rock star.

Can you hear The Four Seasons—the singing birds, the laughing streams, the barking dogs, the thawing ice, the singing shepherds, the crackling fires, the silent snowfall? We sat in the front row, right next to the chancel-cum-rostrum; we could shine the cellist’s shoes from where we sat. Three or four elegantly dressed, sixty-something women were sitting about twelve feet to my left, in the transept, just as close to the chancel-cum-stage as we were.

One of them caught my attention not just because of the striking headscarf she was wearing, but also because her exclamations and ovations through­out the performance were almost too enthusiastic. All four seasons got a standing ovation from her, and one right smack dab in the middle of “Summer.” The musicians kept winking at her, and playing her way, so to speak. Outside a Bruce Springsteen concert, I’ve never seen such unabashed zeal. I whispered in my wife’s ear, “Look, there’s the first violinist’s mom.”

But then during intermission I looked more close­ly and discovered that that striking head­scarf was camouflaging a very bad hair day. That is to say, she didn’t have any hair.

So I decided that she wasn’t the first violinist’s mother; she was just celebrating life. Maybe she was celebrating life because there wasn’t much of it left for her; maybe she had mere months to live. Or maybe she was celebrating life because she’d just gotten a reprieve from a death sentence, a second chance, more days, more months, more years.

There she was in the autumn of her life, verging perhaps on winter, in Venice, in the spring­time, with her best friends in all the world, hoping for summer’s overflowing fecundity, listening to Vivaldi’s masterpiece a short gondola ride from where he taught unwanted girls how to play the violin.

I don't even know where she was from; I couldn't hear what language she was speaking. All I heard were three Italian words: "Bravo!" she cried. "Brava! Bravi!" To life. To living. To the glory of it all. To the unmerited gift of just being here to watch and listen.

Chiesa San Vidal is a deconsecrated church; it has been decommissioned; no worship services are held there. But I think maybe she reconsecrated it that night with her instinctive act of heartfelt praise. She reminded me of all I owe the Creator. She reminded me that birth is gift and life windfall, and just to be here at all is sheer grace. Consider the ravens. Consider the lilies. Consider Vivaldi. Just live. Just trust.

Consider. And your life too might become One Long River of Song.

[1] Brian Doyle, “Joyas Voladoras,” in One Long River of Song (New York: Little, Brown, 2019), pp. 3–4.

[2] Nick Paumgarten, “There and Back Again: The Soul of the Commuter,” The New Yorker, April 16, 2007, 58–70.