18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’
My father’s mother was a feisty woman, small, thin, tough. She had a wrist full of bangles and a cigarette in her mouth as she whipped cream by hand. She made the most exquisite Danish sweets – and frikadeller to die for. Everyone gathered in the kitchen to watch her do the Danish potatoes, in the vain hope we could replicate her feat of beautiful small round potatoes in a perfect thin brown glaze. She could drop you with a Charlie horse – her knuckle into your thigh – and could drop over from her heart condition anytime she was losing an argument. She was raised in an upper middleclass home in Denmark, married an instructor in the Danish agricultural college who was doing sugar beet research in the Ukraine when the Russian revolution broke out. He was invited to America by a sugar beet company (as a researcher, so he had been led to believe, but when he arrived he discovered they brought him here to farm). So this woman who had never done domestic work became a farm wife who survived the dustbowl and depression in America.
She was a wonderful woman. And no story captures her best to me than her tale about welcoming every new pastor when he called on her in her senior housing. She offered him a sherry. If he took the sherry, he wasn’t good enough to be a pastor. If he refused the sherry, he couldn’t relate to ordinary people. Either way she had him. (At that time they were still all men.)
I thought for a while that the secret was to accept the sherry but not drink it but then realized that would have been the worst of all – wasting perfectly good sherry.
When Farmor died, I asked to inherit her sherry glasses.
Congregations are like this. Maybe it’s a quality of religious people. Maybe it’s a characteristic of our humanity. We say, “There’s no pleasing some people,” but it’s more than some people. We all have a remarkable ability to set ourselves up as judge.
Sometimes the consequences are tragic. The elites of Jerusalem dismissed John as too rigorous and Jesus as too liberal and received neither prophetic voice. They missed the time of their visitation.
It is amazingly easy for us not to hear what we don’t want to hear. We dismiss the message for some fault we find in the messenger. And since there are always faults to be found, we need never listen.
So we hear the preacher say that Jesus tells us to love our enemies or forgive those who sin against us – and though we don’t necessarily criticize Jesus, we criticize his spokesmen and women and keep on as we always have, nursing our grievances and perpetuating our hates. We gossip about the one who tells us that God commands us not to gossip. We ignore the message because of the messenger.
But then we cannot gain the kingdom.
The messengers are frail. This is part of the mystery of the incarnation. God comes to us in a human being (Jesus) and through human beings (one another). God comes to us through the human voice and human hands and through bread, wine and water that are taken from the soil and worked by human hands.
The messengers are frail. But we do not imagine that Christ does not come to us in the bread because we don’t like the taste or texture of it. And Christ is still in the wine whether it is red, white or golden. And Christ still speaks through our sisters and brothers whether they are too serious or too playful.
We are not listening to the messengers; we are listening to the voice of Jesus that comes to us through them. As messengers – we are all messengers – we should try to be worthy of the message. But the point is the message not the messenger. Unless we are not interested in the message at all, but only – like the Jerusalem elite – in retaining our power and privilege, our comfort and convenience. In which case, neither John nor Jesus matters.
But our loss is great.