The following sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho to a group of pastor colleagues in the midst of a three day gathering that focused the crossroad of different people coming together from their particular heritage and learning to live together.
Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
5The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
It is certainly not true that God does not want us to work together.
And it seems unlikely that the God who says, ‘Go forth and multiply,’ employs being scattered and different as a punishment.
But both of these ideas can easily flow out from this text. And yet…
The people do not say: let us become God. The people do not say they wish to lay siege to heaven. What the people do say is: let us build this thing… otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.
The scattering was already happening. The differentiation in the sons of Noah enumerated in the previous chapter tell us it was already a reality. The languages that result from the text are, perhaps, less a thing that was done to cause a new reality… than a sign that emerged to put word to what had already come to be. The people were moving out from the Garden in ever more diverse and differentiated ways. And then we got scared.
I’m sure you have seen the comments that arise with alarming regularity that racism had ceased to be a problem until Barack Obama was elected president. He caused the revival of racism. Even now we see the same things playing out in Hillary’s nomination and candidacy and the we shudder at the prospect that a woman would become the most powerful man in the world.
For a moment in time through the lenses of these stories we see the possibility that the American dream could be real. Anyone can become anything. And suddenly, the equality we give lip service to became real. More real than is comfortable for those who have had the power and the control. And so we say no. We will not be scattered. No we will not let our control and power in the world slip out of our grasp.
We double down on building an unchanging monument to keep ourselves from becoming scattered… and just as we learned yesterday in the history of the Basque peoples, which is not their unique history but a way that we learn of ourselves and all our stories, that when a person or persons wishes to control and make an edifice to their own name for their own security they find enemies to name in order to convince the masses to join them in their quest.
Our sin is not that we come together to achieve great things: our sin is that we so often we come together to build monuments to our fear.
Brent A. Strawn, a professor of Old Testament at Candler School of theology posits that an iconic text the Tower of Babel perhaps exists as a way to set up the story of Abram. Abram who is invited by God to go. To go on a journey of discovery that will leave him forever changed – even to the fabric of his name. And in a world in which we are building monuments to sameness and control… there can be no Abram.
Our diversity is a gift that emerges from our calling… a calling to steward creation, a calling to explore the world, to be scattered in it, and to celebrate rather than fear that story. And in the celebration of life that results we are called – as one our colleagues quoted yesterday – to be guests not hosts. Or as the Basque people say: ‘we do not own our homes, but our homes own us.’
We are guests in the world, granted stewardship of that which does not belong to us, and yet it is gifted to us by the One to whom heaven and earth belongs. This means in every moment we are called to live in the tension of being BOTH guest and host. Those who are gathered and those who are scattered in the world. Whose gift of the steadfast love of the Lord is meant to empower us to overcome our fear and concerns of ultimate security that we might feed our curiosity and seek to discover the world around us… and within us.
Yesterday Amy turned to me at dinner after a comment I made and asked, “Are you a people pleaser?” I responded that I’m a middle child. I was born to try to make peace in the world and do so not wanting to be a burden to anyone… so my peace is dysfunctional. My first instinct is pleasing people, covering over that which is upsetting, and creating an absence of conflict. Making a peace that is really nothing more than absence of conflict propped up by really good blinders. You see, I want to build towers. I am good at building towers to keep us from becoming scattered.
But another thing that strikes me about the Tower of Babel story is that in a world where we do not have to explain ourselves, we forget ourselves.
The people had a type of unity of mind… but it wasn’t so much unity as a likeness of mind, and they prized this likeness of mind and so would do anything to protect it, at all costs. And security and safety at all costs is too high a cost. Our life becomes our idol. And we know the consequences of that way of being. It makes helicopter parents, and elders who are tortured by the medical community to squeeze out one more moment in time. It legitimizes terrorism against the other… and it ultimately makes it seem sane and ration to talk about a world in which we hold all creation hostage to our ability to kill ourselves many times over seems… and call that peace.
When life is easy to relate to everyone around ourselves because we are all alike we begin to forget ourselves. We no longer question our own assumptions. We make ourselves into God… not out of radical disobedience. But because no other alternative can present itself. And that comfortable place – this is my first instinct to create – becomes worth holding on to.. entrenching in… and even building a wall to protect.
This is not the unity to which we are called.
This is not creation making a grand tapestry that celebrates life, or setting a table that always has room for another guest. Its about pinning us down to a moment of time, ceasing to grow and learn and explore… it isn’t a celebration of life… its about becoming the undead.
So yes, I’m a people pleaser. And people pleasers build great towers. So I could, I imagine, fill football stadiums of worshipers who will join me in that tower building. And yet….
And yet I too feel called to a journey like Abram – another great people pleaser. Abram never met a person he didn’t try please. But I was called to a journey of self-discovery and of dislocation to discover the other. I continue to spend my life getting to know who I am so I can both honor and overcome it. And I am called – we are called – to spend (that is risk and give away) our lives getting to know each other that we can honor each other as well. We do the hard work, that we don’t have time for, of building bridges and relationships across a diversity of differentiated peoples. To be both guests and hosts to each other.
How then do we tred on this earth as those called to be both guests, and hosts?
I read a great article recently on marriage. The main premise was this: Marriage is the fight we agree to have the rest of our life. Between two people, the author says, there will always be different views and opinions. And marriages that work don’t seek to force the other to become obedient to your answers and world view. Two becoming one? Does mean like-mindedness either.
But rather, marriages that work are between two people who agree to fight about the same things over and over again because they cannot imagine someone else they’d rather spend the rest of their life fighting with. Its not our likeness of mind that creates our unity… it is commitment to the beauty and blessedness we see in the others’ self-differentiation that makes us fight for a shared life together.
The gift, not punishment, of our languages that give name to our identity and unique flavor of life, is the gift of constant translation. No word – beyond the divine logos – can capture God. No image captures the breadth and depth of life. But in the constant dynamic play of words and the dance of matching them to their meaning we are drawn together by the task of knowing one another. And here we find that we do not do great things from our shared ideas and like-minded approaches to the world… but in the sharing of our differentiation from each other we find a unity of purpose in knowing and being known by the world that owns us.
We are all guests. We are all hosts. We are called to curate a life of translation in the tension of those dual roles and to risk losing ourselves to each other, for each other. Nothing we build matters other than the human connections in which the love of God abides.
Thanks be to God.
Last night I was turning my light off to go to sleep when my youngest child wandered up from her room. I was like, okay I’m not even playing at this before I even try to fall asleep there is already a kid and a dog in my bed. So I vacated the bed for the small single mattress we put on the floor at the foot of our bed (okay this happens with some regularity). Having moved down to that mattress I forgot to plug my phone in overnight to charge. I started the day with it already under 20% charged.
I have spent all day trying to grab quick charges from my car, from my computer, from my office manager’s computer… you get it. You have probably done it. I am spending the whole day in catch up mode… and it doesn’t work. You can’t start from behind. I tell folks the same thing about surgery recovery from my days working in a hospital. You can’t catch up to pain. Take your meds, don’t cut back from what you were told to take, and keep taking it. Because once your pain gets out in front of you? It will take you a long, long time before you feel comfortable again.
So. You guessed it. This isn’t about my phone.
Its about starting on empty. Its about remembering to find some me-time. Its about getting a good night sleep. Its about creating margin in our life so we aren’t overloaded. Its about not starting out the day in catch-up mode.
Two weeks ago I preached on this and began my sermon with a favorite anecdote from Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh:
“There is a Zen story about a man riding a horse that is galloping very quickly. Another man, standing alongside the road, yells at him, “Where are you going?” and the man on the horse yells back, “I don’t know. Ask the horse.” I think that is our situation. We are riding many horses that we cannot control… Our lives are so busy.”
When we start on empty we are not at peace with ourselves and thus cannot be instruments of peace. When we start on empty so much of what we do will be empty because we do not begin it with anything to give. Oh, we fool ourselves into think we do. And we may even be so talented that we actually manage to give something for a little while. This is not a laudable talent. Because sooner or later living on empty is going to have dreadful consequences. For you. For those you love. For the world.
Get a good night sleep. Have a slow morning. Cancel appointments for an afternoon. Let the dishes stack up in the sink. Play hooky from work and call it a mental health day – because it is!
You owe that yourself. You owe that to the world.
Because we all want a fully charged phone. (friend… I meant to say friend!)😉
Adulting has become quite the term. Its a favorite of memes. (Here is a Time magazine article on the usage of the word if you are interested.) Adulting is what gets blamed for all the unpleasant things we have to do as part of being a responsible and contributing member of society.
Sometimes I think of my job as a pastor as adulting. I’m the person in the room whose vocational expectations set up that I’m patient, uplifting and not derogatory, prophetic when called for but always in a pro-people way, make space for differentiation, relieve other’s anxiety, nurture healthy systems that don’t triangulate and aren’t passive aggressive, and set aside what I personally would like for what the group discerns is the greater good of our community. I often look at myself and say, “I’m paid to be an adult.” That’s all.
So, why is that so hard?
One of the ways I compromise in my adulting is that I drive my kids around in a car with a built in DVD and let them watch. Every rule I ever made about cars and dvds? I broke them. All of them. For my own good. #adultingfailure So I get it. Sometimes we just want to get through the day.
One of the consequences of those DVD’s is that I listen to a lot of kids shows. I obviously don’t watch them, because #adulting, but I do listen. I got struck recently that the new Strawberry Shortcake TV show’s plot is basically written out of a healthy systems theory text book. Really! Almost every show it turns out that Strawberry Shortcake is just the group’s therapist ready to call out their triangulation and petty behavior. She is so stinkin’ good at adulting.
Then I was listen to Dora the Explorer today. Its really all about community. She overcomes every obstacle that ultra-high pitched and annoying map reminds her she has to overcome… but never alone. She almost always does it through the work of others who want to be a part of her journey and help her succeeded. She is all about the common good and rallying support and winning friends. Even the “bad guy” Swipper is really just a misunderstood bully who needs a friend and turns into a nice guy (aka Pete in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse). (yes I NEED to stop listening.)
My Little Pony? Its all about friendship as magic… and a whole lot more healthy systems plot lines… I could go on for hours and I’m not mocking. They really are good teachings. We could all use to learn some adulting from the average plot of the the average kid’s TV show.
We expect it in our children. And then what? Do we forget it as adults? Do we get tired of it? Did we decided that was nice enough then but now we have earned the right to be… toxic? Arrogant? Rude?
I’m not saying you are those things. I’m not saying we are all doing them all the time. But its amazing just how often we treat each other with very little respect. Just last night I caught myself displaying absolutely zero patience. And three days ago I got upset with my son for filling up the dog’s water bowl (talk about trivial) in way that wasn’t as efficient as I would like… and yet in a way that I have probably done it twenty or thirty times. I turned it into a whole lesson about thinking through unintended consequences… and then had to remind myself to listen up.
I’m not sure what makes us think that adulting is such hard work… except perhaps its that we are all so busy and stressed and “important” that we turn into ticking time-bombs looking for a reason to act like anything other than an adult. And that makes me wonder if what we really need is to stop adulting… and start embracing our inner child. After all years ago there was this teacher who said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven… become humble like this child… welcomes one like this child… welcome me.”
So many of our interactions and systems are dysfunctional. We often think that dysfunctional means it doesn’t work. But that isn’t quite right. What it really means is that it is functioning in pain. The pain has become a part of the very fabric of the system. And when that happens patience is allusive. We become painfully reactive and this creates fear. Fear of all that reactive pain being thrown around, and a world where fear is ubiquitous cannot foster freedom and growth.
So maybe… just maybe. The antidote to our struggles to adult is to stop trying. Stop emulating the pain-wrought system and go back the basics. Back to beginning. Become like children. And build a better dream (thank you Shark Boy and Lava Girl).
**yes I really do have the dialog to all these shows unintentionally burned into my memory, but don’t ask me what they look like because I’m driving. Though while I’m driving I do dance along to the theme of Everybody’s Awesome. Because you are!
I am involved with a non-profit organization called CATCH. CATCH is a housing-first organization with the goal of ending homelessness, particularly in families. I am grateful for what CATCH has taught me about home. CATCH assists families experiencing homelessness overcome financial barriers to get back into housing. Then it supports them with financial assistance and case management while they build a sustainable future. Provide a home, train and support people to maintain it, and we find a hopeful future. Its radically successful. Perfect? No. But by every metric it successfully and efficiently positions people to maintain a job, bank money, and support themselves and their dependents.
This lead me to reflect on the difference between shelter and home. I used to think ending homelessness meant building shelters. Shelters are well-supported by many well-meaning people. And even now I don’t disagree with doing that, life with a roof over your head is better than not. However, we have to know what we are supporting and what is our goal. To be clear, shelters aren’t going to solve the problem. Shelter is a bandage for the wound. It stops the bleeding, but it doesn’t grant dignity. It isn’t personalized. And nothing belongs.
Home is the goal. And knowing that changes the moves you take to get there. It changes the problems and solutions when the goal is home, not a roof. This is the value of housing first. We don’t try to fix a person and then, and only then, decide they are worthy of home. We help find a home and support them growing into it. We try to remove the many barriers keeping people in a state of homelessness. And in a home, with that sense of belonging and responsibility, we can walk alongside each other addressing the causes and challenges that will allow them to maintain that home. But without ownership of the goal there is no motivation, dignity, or pride. Ownership and belonging are necessary to work towards solutions and not just talk about them.
I heard a great anecdote about justice and advocacy. You are standing by a river near a waterfall and people are struggling to swim and about to go over it. You throw them a rope, grab arms, do whatever you can to get them out. The people keep coming. You keep pulling. And that is good and important work. But sooner or later someone also needs to walk upstream and find out why people keep falling in.
If we want to create true communities, places of common care and good. We need respite. We want shelters, hospitals, and emergency aid. But we also need to fix the systems that cause people to fall down and keep them there. We need to learn and teach practices of healthy living, and create an environment that offers solid ground rather than lives of crisis management. And along that way we receive dignity, place, belonging, and ownership: we find a home.
I am filled with such dis-ease.
When to speak, when to remain silent… am I listening?
I feel I am far to quick to compromise so as not to offend and ‘keep people at the table.’ A value I hold dear but it’s also an easy excuse. I know I have spoken words that closed a door that need not have ended. Sometimes we need to offend each other, but never for the sake of the offense. I catch myself consistently not listening to be changed but just hearing for an opening to convince others. I feel torn in the tension of silent vexation yearning for… better, and impatient for realization, and unsure how much that’s because I have chosen the unwise course…
I grit my teeth, I can’t let go of anger, it effects my family but they love me through it. Why am I so sure others aren’t using the eyes and ears, what conceit is that? Why must others try so hard to give me license to think that… there I go again.
How much to judge, that not all is ok, but not be a heaper of burden and shame on those I would love. But love is burden. A really big burden. One that needs to be chosen to be born.
My anger… my disease… It’s mostly a byproduct of love. But what is the end goal of its expression? Love can become jealousy and hate and oppression if it only seeks to feed itself. I see the seeds of all those things in me. I am not proud; I am not ashamed either. What conceit would imagine I’m not running around as flawed as the next person. But I better name those flaws: early and often. Because that’s what keeps the seeds from taking deeper root and fuller expression.
I struggle to love myself and the journey is reflected in my struggle to love my community and the wider world. A fragment of thought hits me at this very moment and it takes me back to Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address as he hoped to avoid the conflict that griped our nation.
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
And as the bonds between us strain under the pressure of turmoil and division (a plight that exists in every age, let’s not allow conceit to blind us to imagine it is any better or worse now than ever) the word I wish to cling to is embrace. May my love move to be expressed as embrace. Let me speak, listen, and act as embrace. Let me abide IN the embrace.
Let us feel the way each other’s heart’s beat. Let us feel the wounds in each other’s souls. Let our hopes and dreams dance together in mid-flight. And may our fears and tremblings comfort each other in the midst of nights. For I need to be embraced, just as I would embrace you. That in mutual love and forbearance we may help each other find those better angels in each other.
Two days ago I wanted to find a way to hide comments and articles about Hillary Clinton from my feed. I am tired of more of the same. The folks who like her defend anything and everything, the folks who hate her… well hate her. The folks in the middle mostly struggle to find a voice because there is so much vitriol on the subject.
Then yesterday stories broke about the shooting of two young black males. Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. By the police. And the world is rightly in an uproar again… still. Black lives matter. They do. All lives matter too. But Black lives are required to play by a different play book and that is what we need to talk about. Black lives are perceived as a threat. And I don’t care what stats you throw at me – that just isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.
I do not know the full stories here, none of us do. We will have to wait to hear, and mostly we will never know. But what cannot be denied is that our black neighbors live in a fear that I just do not have. I have written about that before. The onus is on them to not appear a danger. They are constantly perceived as a threat which gives legal license to shoot (for both law enforcement and the general public). And I just don’t live with that danger. I get a very different playbook. And it isn’t just.
So whatever the stories of these particular cases the reality from where I stand is that we have a problem, we have been talking about the problem, but we aren’t finding common ground for solutions. And in the aftermath, like with mass shootings and political scandals, we will go to our well-rehearsed responses. The responses that have not yet changed anything but that we are dogmatically unwilling to change no matter what we see and hear. We need to start listening. Not debating. Not convincing. Listening. And when I say listen I mean put aside your right answers, walking into the world of the other person, and simply take in their perspective as if it should be your own. We need to listen deeply to each other before we ever start talking.
I don’t usually know how to respond in these all too often occasions. I have several good friends in law enforcement. People I trust with my life, and who I am completely trust with ALL lives. Who I believe live that Black Lives Matter. But I also see them tense up in such moments. Get defensive. I see them wanting us to understand another side of the story. Just how hard it is to be in the cross-hairs all the time. Just how many shades of grey their job has. They play by a different playbook too. And I wish to honor that their playbook is often untenable, impossible. And when they make a judgement call lives are lost… daily. That is a lot of handle. So I don’t speak on this subject. But I need to, I cannot stay silent in my safety. But I want to speak in a way that listens to both sides and I want to acknowledge that far too few lives seem to matter including the lives of many of our law enforcement officers and support staff. There are good and bad all around us. And I know some good ones, actually – great ones.
We need you. We need you to help us into a productive conversation. We need you to help us understand and we need to relax our anger enough to listen. But! We also need to see you listen and working on solutions within your profession as well.
I’m an accountability junky. I love that I’m held accountability to multiple layers of church governance. Why? Because I’ve seen the effects of a pastor who abuses power. I have seen the effects of a church that abuses power. And the Church has a lot of work to do on valuing all lives, particularly Black Lives. And it hurts me. It hurts my authority, it tarnishes my ordination and the very name of Christian. But it also hurts me to see that happen. It hurts the church when its sanctuary becomes abuse, when its “freedom in Christ” becomes veiled oppression. So I call again and again for better accountability to make sure we limit such abuse. I want you to have your eye on me.
Every time a Muslim terrorist, mostly these days ISIS, kills and destroys I hear an outcry demanding the Muslim community to denounce those actions. Muslims have to play by a different play book too, constantly trying to prove they want peace. Constantly having to disavow themselves from the violent manifestations and political forces that coopt their religion for their own purposes. Muslim Lives Matter. And we struggle to acknowledge that as well. Because we still treat our Muslim neighbors as “them.” And that is what “Matters” means, I think. I’m presuming here. It means not required to play by a different playbook than the protected class. (And that class is me.)
I believe at its heart what the world needs to hear is that we all have each other’s backs. That for every bad seed there are far more working for peace and justice. I believe what the world needs to do to achieve that is to let go our defensiveness, to acknowledge what isn’t working, to acknowledge systemic problems, and to acknowledge sin that we may not commit but we haven’t combated either. What the world needs is to seek these solutions without doubling down on anger, hatred, and divisiveness. And that is so very hard – because we need to be heard and no-one is listening.
I feel torn today. My heart is heavy… again. And I wrote those words not too long ago. And a part of me knows that I will always have to keep writing those words because the world isn’t ultimately a safe place. But we don’t have to try to make it less safe. And we can try to make it safer. And maybe I just feel today that I haven’t done what I could, what I should…
So I’m asking my friends to help have productive conversations across our differences. I’m asking us to acknowledge that Black Lives need to matter more. Muslim lives need to matter more. Gay lives need to matter more. And yes Law Enforcement and Military lives need to matter more. Because we have treated these groups like disposable parts of our world. And I’m sitting in relative safety tired that this space I inhabit isn’t large enough for us all.
I think it could be, I think it should be.
There is enough care for all that all lives can matter equally. But until that is true… we need to talk, but even more: we need to listen.
I have lived in the mid-west, the east, the southeast, and now the northwest. I did a tour in the Philippines for a year as well. Living in all these places has taught me that they each have their own unique flavor, but the people are the same. Everyone wants to talk about their uniqueness. “You know you live in Chicago when the weather drops 20 degrees in a single hour…” Except the weather does that everywhere. “You know that you are in the south when every conversation starts with figuring out how you are related…” Except I run into that more of that in Boise than I ever did in Georgia and Florida. I live in a state now that is so white you couldn’t imagine how difficult it is to find racial diversity… and yet I have met more refugees here than any other place I have lived, and I was standing on the sidelines before my son’s soccer game the other day talking to four other dads and I was the only person for whom English was a first language… in Boise, Idaho!
What’s my point?
On the morning after Great Britain has voted to leave the European Union I reflect on what unites and divides us. And how our pride that we are different (and better) is a religion of devastating consequences. It fueled the Hellenizing impulses of Alexander, the not-yet-over age of Imperialism, and more than one World War. It led to a “third-world” treated as the battle ground of competing imperial ideologies.
I consider that it is inevitable that we will try to unite and divide as nations and institutions. We are not a people constantly getting better. We are individually and corporately broken and seeking wholeness. But I believe in my heart in the interconnectedness of the people that populate this globe. We are one body! I believe in my heart that we are only whole when we form a chorus of diverse but same hearts. I believe that the world will be a far less gruesome place when we cease to put ourselves ahead of others… when our drive for differentness and acknowledged superior view on life ceases to become that cancer that puts us at war within our own body.
This is what I mean when I say, in hope, that love wins.
Today I sent my three older kids off on a hike with their YMCA camp. They each had a backpack, a lunch, and two water bottles (there is NO shade in this part of Idaho). At least they almost all had two water bottles. Meredith, the youngest of the three, only carried one so she didn’t get too weighed down, her backpack is almost her size after all. We told the other ones to share their water with her, we all help each other out.
Those words just echoed again in my mind. What seems so easy (well, not always actually, but more often than not) in my family becomes some hard as the “group” gets bigger. But the ethic is still the same. We are still many who belong to one human family. And we share with one another, we work together, we makes sure no-one gets left behind… even if that “costs” us.
So in the natural and inevitable squabbles that occur between siblings, and sibling nations, denominations, institutions, etc… my prayer today is that we may find ways to remember we are each a gift of diversity to each other – but not so unique and special in our selves. In fact it has always been, through spiritual story and evolutionary triumph, that we have succeed in life when we have figured out how to carry one another through the day. We all need to take turns carrying the water for each other. Because alone? Life is far more bleak.
Today I double down on love. I hope you will too. Because together? We are better.
I cannot make myself feel good today. A heavy weight just won’t let me. Our church has screaming happy kids in it for VBS… but I’m… stuck. Yesterday our world was shaken once again and I just don’t want to “move on.” I feel a need to wallow a bit. I feel a need to confess that its wrong that I can just go on while others are looking around corners and locking doors and feeling once again how unsafe their life is, unsafe because they have a big giant target on their back. And it isn’t of their making. I made it… or folk so much like me it might as well have been me. And I haven’t figured out how to get it off yet… and maybe that’s because I just haven’t tried very hard.
This is what is in my head when these words from scripture come to mind:
1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke13:1-9)
What we have here is a little trinitarian moment, 3 stories and one message.
A group recounts to Jesus an act of political violence committed by Pilate. Pilate appears to have killed a group of Galileans in their place of worship. The event lacks historic attribution outside of scripture and yet many other such acts by Roman power, including Pilate, towards the Jews are elsewhere noted. We don’t hear how they present this information to Jesus but based on his response it seems that rather than defend their own they turn on them. This group that was killed must have done something bad. They want to frame this in a typical, “if they died they must have deserved it” theology that undergirds the myth of redemptive violence. Redemptive violence promotes the idea that we can fix the world’s problems by killing the people promoting the problem. If we kill enough, and threated death enough… people will be good and peace will result.
Jesus does as Jesus does: he ignores the idea of providing an answer and asks a deeper question. Do you really think those that died are any different than you? This is the type of turn I love about Jesus. Because he always makes it OUR PROBLEM. (Hold on to that thought for later.)
Jesus has been talking about judgement in the lead up to this interaction. And yet… He is unwilling to judge the Galileans. He isn’t even willing to judge Pilate. Instead he looks at those who, perhaps, sought to deflect judgement from themselves and says, “unless you repent (turn around the way you are living your life), you will perish as they did.” You will perish. Unless you change the direction we are all headed. Now I think we tend to hear this as divine redemptive violence. You will be killed for being a sinner too. But I think we read Jesus and God as issuing imperative commands where they intended indicative statements of cause and effect. In a world that promotes violent means toward the goal… we will all perish in the end. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves… let’s hear Jesus out.
Jesus immediately recounts another incident. The falling of a tower at Siloam. (Another incident lacking in historic reference outside of scripture… but again, the event wouldn’t have been rare. In fact ancient historians talk about the over-crowding in ancient cities that often resulted in habitations falling in on themselves under the weight of its occupants. Usually this would have been the dwellings of the urban poor… and while we don’t know anything about the tower at Siloam such a reading would make this not simply an act of random tragedy, but a consequence of economic injustice.) Again Jesus says, “did these too deserve to die? (more than you). Jesus doesn’t give an opportunity to breath… No. No they did not. But if we do not repent (turn around and change the structure of how we live together) you too will perish.
And then a parable. About a tree… because, #Jesus.
A tree that year after year doesn’t produce (doesn’t repent and change direction). A tree that is you, and a tree that is me. Because remember this is Jesus we are talking about and for with Jesus he is ALWAYS going to make this about us. People are dying. They are dying at the hands of political power, and systemic sin, and redemptive violence… people are dying and we haven’t produced any fruit to make it stop. So should the tree get cut down?
Because #grace. Because #novengence Because #noredemptiveviolence
Let me, the gardener says, work on it for another year. Give it another chance.
Actually, a group of pastor colleagues of mine (I’ll risk breaking some confidence here) recently noted what he really said was… let’s poor some shit on it. And let’s sit there in the shit for another year. And see what comes of it.
Well friends. We have shit. A lot of it. We have political violence, we have sexual violence, we have homophobic violence, we have religious violence. And far, far too often we have a belief that somehow the victims deserved it. We are as steeped in the myth of redemptive violence and victim-blaming as anything from the ancient world. And we have proved just as unproductive at turning around and bearing fruit.
Yesterday I sat thinking about the violence that tore apart Pulse, the gay nightclub in Orlando, as many of us did. Today I’m taking my pulse… because I’m wondering how to live in its wake. Many of us are. Again. We talk about a nightclub shooting, but I heard it as a church shooting, because often enough nightclubs are the only sanctuaries our gay friends and neighbors have available to them. We have shunned them from all the more typical places to gather. We have heaped shame on their shoulders to make it hard to be who they are in public. They have needed to create and seek out their own sanctuaries. And two nights ago one such sanctuary as that was ripped apart by violence and the blood of a 100 people mixed together in their place of sanctuary. Did they deserve it?
The victims of Orlando were people of color, were gay, were seeking sanctuary and safety in a world that has denied it to them. It isn’t their fault. Its mine. Its ours. It’s the world that has shunned people and made them targets. It’s a world that has made it “ok” to treat women as sexual objects, and gay men as “outsiders and enemies to our righteousness.” It is also the fault of a world that thinks the problem is Islam, or terrorists, or mentally ill people. Rather than a world that has taught that value of redemptive violence, take what you can and if you are strong enough to hold it against others than you were meant to have it, and marginalizing certain outsider groups as easy targets to power-needy individuals and systems. Whether it is the Jews or Muslims, women and children, or gay and queer and transgender strangers we constantly put a target on someone… someone else we can blame. Someone else… so that it isn’t our problem.
I do not image that I am capable of creating a world without violence. But I certainly have proven capable of providing targets for that violence. Every time we “other” someone. Every time we set apart a group as outside our circle of care, or even welcome. We are creating targets. We are justifying that they “deserved” it more than me. So for today… for this year. My fruit is this: we need to take the targets off people. And we need to recognize that every single one of us needs to participate in the corporate act of repenting and changing our direction… or we will perish at the hands of one another.
Too many years now the tree has born no fruit. Far too many years. The gardener is weary. It is time and past time. So do not look for people to blame here. Look to yourself and ask: what can I do different, how do I need to change, what fruit can I bear that will take targets off of people. Because we are all sitting in the shadow of the tower of Siloam. We put ourselves there, we built the tower… and its up to us to put it right.
Even the only slightly biblical literate person is capable of recollecting something about building on rock versus building on sand. Context? No idea (the culmination of the Sermon on the Mount). Citation? Uh, one of the book with Jesus? (Matthew 7:24). Purpose? Well… that’s what we are going to talk about, but first a story.
This story isn’t important in and of itself. Its one of those stories whose important lay in how its representative of so many stories. I was sitting in a room of students in the Doctor of Ministry program I was in, a joint class across two different programs with students from two different seminaries. We had just finished reading books by John McCain and Barack Obama and we were having a conversation on the intersection of faith and politics and one person said, “I just can’t agree with him because of X and because that is not what scripture says is right. And I stand on the Word of God.”
That person all but quoted Matthew 7 in that moment. I’m building my house on the Word and it’s a rock, its unyielding, its absolute, its right… and everything else is wrong. But interestingly, and you likely see where this is going now, that person was in the minority opinion in that room filled with people who all: 1) love the Church, 2) work in or alongside the Church (or spiritual care community) for a living, 3) see the Bible as unique and authoritative, and 4) have at least one degree in pursuit of a another in the use of the Bible as an expression of that shared love and for the purpose of that work to which they have been called by God.
The professor engaged that person, “But can you see how someone else might read the Word and come to a different opinion about what it means that might open the door for the candidate’s sense of what is right?” The answer was no. This colleague was standing on rock, had built their house there, and could not imagine compromising… because that would be opening them up to consequence of Matthew 7: “The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” And on that day I began to realize something about myself. I have built my house on sand. It is the only faithful way for me. And I don’t think that makes me a fool. Its exactly what I think Jesus’ has called me to do. So… am I not standing on the Word of God?
Let’s jump again for a moment. In fact, lets imagine this whole post is building a house and its going to stand on four beams – we have three beams so far. The first was the Matthew’s parable of rock and sand. The second is the idea that scripture has only one meaning and we cannot deviate from it. The third beam lies in the fact that Matthew isn’t the only one who tells this story. Luke also tells the story of the Sermon on the Mount… except its on the plains, its short and to the point, and it has more woe and punch. Then it too ends in this parable. But listen to this difference in what is said:
I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
In this account the difference is not that one builder (the wise one) found a good solid rock surface and built there while the other (foolish) built on shifting sands. The difference is the work that went into providing a foundation. “That one… dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock… the (other) one… without a foundation.” I like to think then that both builders were stuck trying to figure out how to build on sand. The foolish builder set up a house like the one of the lazy little pigs in The Three Little Pigs… any ol’ thing will do. But the wise builder knows that sands shift and life brings the unexpected your way and so they dug down into the sands to find where there was rock and sunk a foundation down into it to anchor the house. After building they both look the same from the outside. And they are both built upon sand, but the one – the one that will stand through the floods and winds that life brings our way – is the product of deep digging and discerning work upon which we really stand. And the importance to me is that what was never true here is that there was an unambiguous space of absolute sureness upon which to build. Hard, interpretive, investigative, agile work was always going to be required to find a way to both “go with the flow” and be anchored in something deep and abiding.
Fourth beam time – bringing it all together. I always imagine it would be nice to see the world in stark black and white, and to imagine that I could always be right in how I read scripture and even how I read the lay of the land in which I live. I always imagine it would be nice too if God really did all the work for us by just telling us exactly what to do, think, and believe. But I’m either deeply unwillingly, and just not wired, to actually see that as a viable way for my life… or even the way God calls me into relationship with God. One thing that is true of both Mathew and Luke’s accounts of the Jesus’ sermon is that he describes an attitude towards life rather the prescribes an exact set of actions. Be merciful. Be hungry. Take care not to be rich! Seek Peace. Mourn. Don’t be well liked! Taste like me – don’t talk like me. Forgive. Love your enemies. Work out your faith, but not in ways that call attention to your goodness. Don’t worry and don’t judge and trust. Above all… trust. (like in something that isn’t so sure….)
These are the stones upon which our house is built. No good creeds here. No declarative statements that make life black and white and no exposition of what it means to love, of if he really means that wealth is bad, or how far exactly we have to take this whole meek thing anyway….
We are standing on sand after all. Deeply anchored… but always shifting. I can be no other – and on this “rock” I will build my house.
So yes I think I stand on the Word of God… but I don’t think it looks anything like a house built on stone. I think its shifts and moves underneath me. I think I don’t always know when I’m inbounds and out of bounds or even if there is such a thing. I think I can’t always tell what parts are even God’s words and what parts are words I put in God’s mouth. But I also feel deeply anchored in these words… the good ones and the bad ones and most particularly the hard to live with ones. And I’m standing on the sandy words of God discerning these good stone foundations upon which we may tred forward with the good news, and I am grateful and needful of all the people willing to dig and discern alongside me to find those stones together.
THIS! is the Word of the Lord, thanks (I think) be to God.