If we’re going to even think about following Jesus, we probably want to know something about who he is and what he’s about. And if we’re going to try to fish for people or bring people together or just get along with other people on the way to being able to truly love our neighbors, we should probably know something about humanity, something about who people are.
Toward that end, I offer you a poem by the late Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska. It’s called “A Contribution to Statistics,” and the English version goes like this:
Out of a hundred people
those who always know better
doubting every step
— nearly all the rest,
glad to lend a hand
if it doesn’t take too long
— as high as forty-nine,
because they can’t be otherwise
— four, well maybe five,
able to admire without envy
induced by fleeting youth
— sixty, give or take a few,
not to be taken lightly
— forty and four,
living in constant fear
of someone or something
capable of happiness
— twenty-something tops,
harmless singly, savage in crowds
— half at least,
when forced by circumstances
— better not to know
even ballpark figures,
wise after the fact
— just a couple more
than wise before it,
taking only things from life
(I wish I were wrong),
hunched in pain,
no flashlight in the dark
sooner or later,
— thirty-five, which is a lot,
worthy of compassion
— a hundred out of a hundred.
Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.
Oh, sure, you may disagree with the poet on some of the particulars of her statistics. But that last category?
Out of a hundred people, a hundred are mortal.
You and me; the people who spent months, if not years working to get out the vote for anyone other than Donald Trump; the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6; people of every race and ethnicity; the undocumented and the native born; descendants of slaves and descendants of slaveholders; the insured and the uninsured; people of faith and people of no faith; the left-handed, the right-handed, and the ambidextrous; people of every sexual orientation and all gender identities; Red Sox fans and Yankee fans; Americans and everyone else; those who live on the streets and eat at soup kitchens; and those who have more money than they know what to do with.
Every single one of them, every single one of us: mortal. Each one of us: made in the divine image.
No one is born evil. No one is born racist. No one is born filled with hatred or greed. No one is born any better or worse than anyone else. Each and everyone is born carrying a spark of the divine—the potential to become, if not immortal, then so fully and blessedly human that our lives reflect both the glory and grace of God.
Sometimes that glorious humanity is revealed for all the world to see—in a middle-class stutterer who suffers one tragic loss after another before becoming president of the United States at age 78; in a Black and South Asian sorority member who becomes the first woman vice president; in a Black daughter of a deaf man and the first female fire captain in her Georgia town who signs the Pledge of Allegiance so that all can understand; in a young Black poet who almost steals the inaugural show with her poem of power and hope and light.
And, almost always, to quote the late Irish poet Seamus Heaney:
Human beings suffer
They torture one another,
They get hurt and get hard.
I don’t know the statistics on that, but I would guess that out of any one hundred people, almost a hundred people fall into that category. I know I do. Suffering and hurt and the resulting hard-heartedness just seem to be the existential hazards of being human and mortal. It happens to almost all of us eventually.
But we don’t have to stay that way; that is not who or how we are meant to be. That is not God’s dream for humanity.
And so Jesus comes preaching—to mortals who are suffering from oppression and injustice, to humans who torture one another with their hatred and judgment, division and exclusion, to humans who live in brokenness and fear, unaware of the wondrous love of God for them and for all.
Jesus proclaims to them the good news: That while princes and presidents will betray or disappoint them, while striving and accumulating will exhaust them, and individualism and intolerance fail them, there is another way. That the realm of God is at hand. That there is plenty enough for the poor, release for the captives, liberation for the oppressed, and new vision for those who cannot see.
Repent, Jesus says. Turn around from your self-centered ways, and trust in God’s ways.
Now you may be wondering what Jesus saw in Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, or James and his brother John that he would call them to become his disciples. You may wonder the same about his eight other disciples, including Levi, a likely-corrupt tax collector; Thomas the so-called doubter; and of course, Judas, who would betray him.
What made them so special that Jesus chose them?, we often wonder.
I want to suggest this morning that they were not “special,” as we tend to think of it. That they were certainly not exceptional in any way Jesus could have discerned while walking along the seashore. Perhaps they had somehow indicated an openness to his message, but it seems to me they were simply human and mortal and, therefore, beloved. Human and mortal and, therefore, brimming with potential. Human and mortal and, therefore, shining with light. Human and mortal and, therefore, called by God.
It seems to me that we sell short both ourselves and the transformative grace of God when we put Jesus followers in a special category. We do both ourselves and the realm of God a disservice when we consider only some people to be called.
The truth is that we are all born to follow. We are all meant to let Love heal us. We are all made to shine a light in this shadowed world.
For all the beauty and dignity, power and grace of Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony, I also heard a fair amount of American exceptionalism—the notion that our nation is somehow better than others, that we have a manifest destiny, that we are special. I thought the events of January 6 might have cured us of that, but apparently not.
And lest we miss the opportunity to repent, to choose to trust a greater power and a truer love, let’s say it again: white supremacy, racial resentment, and Christian nationalism are who we are as a nation; oppression of the perceived “other” is central to our nation’s history; and the use of violence, deceit, and religion to divide the poor and protect privilege continues to this day.
But that is not the end of the story. That is not even half the story.
Happy are those whose help is God, the psalm says, whose hope is in God—the God who keeps faith forever, the God who executes justice, the God feeds the hungry and sets the prisoners free, the God who lifts up those who are bowed down, protects the strangers, and upholds the helpless.
This is the realm of God. This is what we were born for: to follow the Light and live in the way of Love. This is our common call.
For the love of God and for the sake of this world God so loves, for the sake of our broken nation and divided communities, let us together choose to leave behind our fear, our despair, our separation, our sense of identity in anything other than the God who is love. And let us follow, together, so that we and all people might know our blessed place in the realm of God.