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.
“Persisting: Painting God’s World
4th in Series on the Prophetic Imagination of God’s Kingdom Hope
9Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. 10He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. 11As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
12Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. 13For I have bent Judah as my bow; I have made Ephraim its arrow. I will arouse your sons, O Zion, against your sons, O Greece, and wield you like a warrior’s sword. 14Then the Lord will appear over them, and his arrow go forth like lightning; the Lord God will sound the trumpet and march forth in the whirlwinds of the south. 15TheLord of hosts will protect them, and they shall devour and tread down the slingers; they shall drink their blood like wine, and be full like a bowl, drenched like the corners of the altar. 16On that day the Lord their God will save them for they are the flock of his people; for like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land. 17For what goodness and beauty are his! Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women.
We have come to the words of Zechariah, and the conclusion of this series listening to the prophetic voice speaking of God’s desires for how we are to live together – the prophetic imagination of “In that day,” the day of the Lord, how will the world appear?
Zechariah is representing for us the late tradition of the prophets. His prophetic message comes as the tradition of the prophetic – at least the literary tradition – is coming to a close and in the wake of their message apocalypticism emerges. Apocalypticism is born of a skeptical world view, skepticism turned to cynicism about human agency. It is formed from a weariness with the world and the inability for us to hear and live God’s word for us. And so the prophets turned visionaries imagine that the only way God’s Kingdom can emerge is a with a cosmic battle, a divine warrior making the kingdom win out against our stubborn waywardness – the care and indifference of all the nations to each other, and our casual disregard for those in need when it does not suit us. And an old tension is embraced at even greater lengths: a kingdom of peace established with war.
God’s vision is for a kingdom of peace – but we cannot imagine establishing such a kingdom without God appearing in overwhelming strength. And so cosmic battle and assertion of God’s unequaled strength must come first. And we see that tension clearly in Zechariah’s prophesy that the king who is to some, will arrive victorious…. on a donkey. A prophesy that should ring familiar to Holy Week hopes of Jesus. A king… yet humble and riding on a donkey.
And so it is that we come to our second reading and Zechariah providing us a review of the prophetic voice. You can hear his weariness and fatigue that this voice has been ignored “in the former prophets” and yet he cannot help but try one more time. Listen now to our second text from Zechariah 7:
4Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to me: 5Say to all the people of the land and the priests: When you fasted and lamented in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? 6And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat and drink only for yourselves? 7Were not these the words that the Lord proclaimed by the former prophets, when Jerusalem was inhabited and in prosperity, along with the towns around it, and when the Negeb and the Shephelah were inhabited?
8The word of the Lord came to Zechariah, saying: 9Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; 10do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. 11But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear. 12They made their hearts adamant in order not to hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets. Therefore great wrath came from the Lord of hosts.
The origins of Zechariah’s cynicism is that the former prophets spoke and nobody listen. Prophet after prophet, generation after generation, spoke and nobody listened. The message stayed the same, clear and consistent, and yet nobody was willing to listen. Hearts adamantly closed.
But Zechariah tries again and provides the vision for how society would work by God’s creative imagination, what we might call the Kingdom of God or I like to call the Community of God…. “Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; 10do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” This is the picture of the Kingdom God desires. This is the picture of how we are to live. That those who have no power, standing, or ability to provide for themselves: the widow, the orphan, the alien, the poor – that these who are treated as the least among us will be cared for and lifted up. In this vision we will not seek to harm one another and we will not seek to make ourselves win, and others lose. This is the vision for the Kingdom, it has always been the vision for the kingdom, and though the messenger and the vehicle may change the end vision has never altered.
I spent just a few minutes thinking through places we receive this message – I name that because this list could go on forever but I will only touch on the ones that occurred to me first.
We find it first in Genesis when a communal God desires to create a communal people, “Let US make humankind in OUR image.” (Genesis 1) And in the second creation story with God’s claim that it is not good that we live alone but that we live, as Adam greets Eve, recognizing that our neighbor is “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.” (Genesis 2). And then of course this culminates in Genesis 4 when Cain grows jealous of Abel and he leads him out to the fields where he kills him. And God asks him, “Where is your brother Abel?” And Cain’s response will resound in every chapter of the Bible: He says, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the answer God gives to him will also resound in every chapter of the Bible: essentially? yes.
“For the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.”
Yes, you are your brother and sister’s keeper, and everyone is your brother and sister.
In Jewish law, all 600+ of them, there is no law, not even the law to love God or keep Sabbath, that is as often repeated as the law to love the stranger as yourself. 36 times! 36 times including, most notably, in the height of Leviticus, a text about holiness and purity, the people are commanded to give their hearts to strangers, for they too have been strangers.
Again in Jeremiah 22, “Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages… Are you a king because you compete in cedar (wealth)? Did not your father eat and drink and do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him. He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord. But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence.”
And again in Luke’s seventh chapter, when the prophet – John the Baptist – is wondering if Jesus is the messiah, the one we have been waiting for, he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if this is so and Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”
This is how you will know me because this is how God has always been known – this is the way God lives in the world, this is the way God cares for God’s people. The community that God seeks is on where we love one another. For five chapters of the Gospel of John’s farewell discourse Jesus, speaking to his disciples – his friends, on the eve of his death will say over and over again that God loves them and desires that they love each other in the same way. Jesus will claim community and one-ness with God and then tell them that he desires they have that same one-ness, that same community, that same love and care for one another. We are to be as one with each other, as Jesus is with God.
And Paul will pick up this thread with the churches he plants and nurtures. He will instill in them a care for each other’s hardship and struggle. To the Corinthians he says (2 Corinthians 8):
“I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.”
Over and over and over again the message of God to God’s people is to be in creation, in life, together. To share the understanding that we are all brothers and sisters and we are indeed each other’s keeper – we are to love, as we have been loved. Care for one another, support one another, seek a world where there is not an imbalance of power with privileged and marginalized, where there is not those in need and those with plenty.
That we seek not only to relieve the stress but to dismantle the systems that create it and build new ones that do not.
This is the message Zechariah tells us the prophets shared over and over and the people turned a deaf ear to it. I give you again, the message of God for God’s people, do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor. Do not devise evil in your hearts towards one another. We are all God’s people, we are all bound together because we are all God’s people. When one among us is hurting – God is hurting, and we are hurting.
I was at the installation on Wednesday of the new Catholic Bishop of Boise, Bishop Christensen. And toward the end of the sermon he shared that he loves doing landscape painting. He said that when he does a landscape painting he always starts with the sky, because how the sky is dictates how everything else is. The play of light in the sky casts its nature on the nature of the landscape – of the world around us.
Zechariah struggling to find hope, struggling to imagine that we can finally hear and age old message and receive the love of God – casts a picture for us, a landscape of the community of God in which the light that is God dictates how everything should look and feel. The light that is God is one of love, of care for all people, of community in God’s own being – let us make humankind in our imagine, and the father and I are one: be one as we are one.
This is the light that is shining, a giving God who desires the same goodness for all of God’s creation, and this is the light that is illuminating how we are to live in the world. And the question we put before ourselves now is: if this is how God has painted the sky, how are we going to paint the world?
“Marker Moments: Celebrating our Stories”
A sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, ID
Nov. 2, 2014
When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua: 2“Select twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, 3and command them, ‘Take twelve stones from here out of the middle of the Jordan, from the place where the priests’ feet stood, carry them over with you, and lay them down in the place where you camp tonight.’” 4Then Joshua summoned the twelve men from the Israelites, whom he had appointed, one from each tribe. 5Joshua said to them, “Pass on before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan, and each of you take up a stone on his shoulder, one for each of the tribes of the Israelites, 6so that this may be a sign among you. When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’7then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off in front of the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the Israelites a memorial forever.”
When I sit down to put on my socks and look down at my foot there is a small discolored spot right on the inner part of my foot. You might not see it as scar but that is what I know it to be. And every time I see that scar I remember my year of living in the Philippines where I got the scar. I was there as yearlong young adult volunteer in mission after college and there are many stories of that time but I particularly remember one night. I would say I was on an island but the Philippines is a collection of thousands of islands so you are always on an island. I was on the island of Mindoro that night and we had been there for several days and we were living out of our backpacks going back into remote villages and learning about the culture, and after a long hard day we got to what looked like the very traditional image of a collection of huts in a rice field. This little village was all bamboo huts rising up out of standing water surrounded by rice. And we were spending the night here in this little community.
I had spent the whole day miserable. I had one of those ear infections where it felt like someone had taken a letter opener and punched it through my ear. I was exhausted and had grown numb but we were far from doctors or medical care and so you just continued on. We had been trying to delicately walk through these rice fields but I will tell you that big ugly American feet do not skillfully traverse rice fields. It was a hard day. So then we were to sleep in this small bamboo hut that was about 8’ x 8’ and there were 8 of us sleeping in it. The guy who was sleeping next to me – well I wasn’t sleeping, but the guy next to me was and he kept rolling over and putting his arm and leg around me. And if you don’t know this about me already, I’m an introvert. I do love you all – but I love to go home to my own space too! Introverts struggle in the Philippines because there is no individual space there, it’s not a culture for introverts and if you try to get off by yourself they think something is wrong with you and seek you out and crowd around to talk about it.
So here we are and I’m miserable and in pain and I’m down about being here at all. I rolled out from under the guy next to me and went for a walk in the rain – of course it’s raining because there are only four seasons in the Philippines: hot, hotter, wet, and wetter and we were somewhere between wet and wetter at the time. And there was a massive thunderstorm I can see out on the horizon probably out over the ocean and lighting was flashing and I could just barely hear the slight rumbling of it… and that was all demonstrative of my mood. And I remember walking and standing in the rain and talking to God, I remember being upset with God, upset at feeling abandoned.
“God I think I’m here because of you. I think you wanted me to be here to learn and to serve and I think if I’m here doing your work, but you could have my back and help me out a little more.”
And I felt… abandoned. Not complete but still – abandoned. Do you know what it’s like to feel radically alone when you’re are surrounded by people?
I remember feeling that aloneness and frustration and questioning.
I do not know what happened the rest of the night… I seem to have blocked that part out but I know that after spending some time there in the morning we walked out and to hiked most of the day to get the Oceanside where we were going to stay to have some reflection time of what we had seen and learned the last week. So we walked to the ocean and we set our bags down and I changed into a bathing suit and ran out to the ocean. Now the Pacific Ocean is a very poorly named ocean. There is nothing passive about it. Particularly the day after a storm and there were huge rolling waves crashing on the beach. And it was the most therapeutic thing I could do to dive into those waves. It was like being a kid again diving again and again head first into those waves and letting them crash against me. It was cathartic and I beat my frustration out on those waves and it was a baptismal water kind of moment, being washed clean, renewed, refreshed.
And it had become night and walked up that beach and the stars had come out. And I was feeling alive – the yuck that was in me had fallen away, I had this sense of calm and comfort. I had a sense of awareness that I wasn’t alone and I looked up and a shooting star went by but I swear to you it was God winking at me. No hindsight. Right in that moment it felt like God looking me in the eye and winking at me with a smile saying, “Andrew, my beloved, you are not alone, you have never been alone.”
So every time I look at that scar. Every time I see it I see far more than just a spot on my skin that didn’t heal. I see that memory from the time when I got that scar. I feel that memory. I am taken back to that moment in the water when I realize that I wasn’t alone. And that is exactly what is happening with Joshua and the Israelites in our story today. There journey – their journey out of Egypt to Promised Land – began at waters, at the Red Sea. The time in the wilderness began with God parting the waters for them to enter. And forty years later on the other bookend of their journey Joshua leads them through waters again. By God’s decree the ark – a abode of God – passes before them into the Jordan and the flow of the river is cut off so that they may walk across the land into the Promised Land beyond the river. God is right in the middle of the water, in the turbulence, in the chaos of their journey and says, “I am here with you, I will get you through this.”
And when they get to the other side they are told go back to the middle of the river where the priests were with the ark and get some stones – not some small rocks but stones you have to haul up on your shoulders – and take one for each tribe and carry them across to the other side of the river (your side of the river) and create a tower of the stones. Do this so that it will be a tangible reminder to you, you will see it and remember that in the middle of the chaos, of the challenging times, of the questioning times, of the times when you aren’t sure how you will carry through the day, build it so that in the middle of such times you can remember that you have been there before and you do did pass through, you did survive, and I was there with you all the way to the other side, from beginning to ending you were not alone.
And the even better part is that the memorial of stones isn’t just for them – though we need such memorials and reminders in our own lives. But this is also for their children and their children’s children. So in the time to come, Joshua says, when your children ask you what those stone mean to you. “What’s that?” “Why is that there?” You can tell them a story. THE story. “Ooooh, that. Yes. A wonderful question, dear one, let me tell you a story. Come on, gather around. Sit here on my lap… let me tell you about a journey your parents went on… your grandparents went on… your great-great-grandparents… let me tell you the story.”
It’s our story too. And that is the point of it all. We are a storied people. God writes us into God’s story. So we hear the stories of those who came before, and we pass on our stories to a generation that will create their own as well. And as you read through the Old Testament you will notice that God liters the wilderness and the landscape of the Israelites with such reminders, memorials, altars in the wilderness – scars on creation if you will – that remind us that in the hardest times of our lives we are not alone. God desires to be a God that is in the midst of the waters, God lives with us in the waters, God lives FOR us in the waters, and we will be carried through.
On this All Saints Sunday we think about all those who have come before us. Who has been a saint for you? Who is someone particularly dear to your heart who taught you something of love, of grace, of carrying through the hard times? Who has helped you to know that you are not alone?
We celebrate the saints in our lives, we celebrate those who told us a story of what the “stones” meant to them. Who wrote us into the story of creation, wove us into God’s tapestry of life.
But we are also story-tellers. For whom have you told stories? Where have you placed yourself so that children and adults alike might ask you to tell them your stories? How have you helped invite people into God’s story who have felt too alone to be a part of it? Who have you woven into the tapestry they were excluded from, who are you being a saint for?
God has called us into God’s story, to be a people who are storied and story-tellers. People who are ministered to by the saints even as we are saints to one another.
Who are you celebrating, and who is celebrating you?
Thanks be to God, Amen.
Yesterday we closed a Presbytery worship service declaring a building vacated and dissolving that worshiping community as a congregation. It was a moment to recognize that death happens.
The week before that I preached at that same church on Jesus’ prediction of his death and resurrection and Peter’s rebuking him that he can’t die (Matthew 16).
We have a tendency to confuse form and function. In that moment I believe Peter was obsessed with the form of Christ. He didn’t have a failure of faith. He has a failure of imagination. He could not imagine Christ outside of the way he had experienced him to that point. He was obsessed with the form, rather than the function of God… of Jesus. So resurrection held no hope for him. He didn’t want resurrection – he wanted not to have to go through any changes.
We get that way about Church. (God too…) We get where we obsess about the forms we know and are comfortable with and cannot see past them. But God is on the move. And the form of the Church is too… the Church will form and re-form as need arises to fulfill its function. When a form has played its part… it will die. But that doesn’t mean the Church dies. The Church is not a form. And the Church will find a new way to be manifest even as we mourn the loss of the way we knew, the way we were comfortable with, the way we wish it could still be.
The challenge I find with regards to death is that we are called to give it neither too much, nor too little, credit. When we obsess on death we miss the point, and those who wish we would talk more and longer about “a dying church” are perhaps a bit too obsessed with form. The Church isn’t dying… the Church is finding a new form. Its purposes will still be lived out, its function is as much in demand as it always has been and always will be. It just isn’t necessarily being met the same way we are used to imagining. Like Peter… we need to give that up a bit and challenge our imaginations to see a new way. We need to be Church making real the same hope, love, and justice in very new ways through unfamiliar forms. We need to trust that resurrection is real, and – wait for it – good. We need to be willing to be re-formed.
We proclaimed yesterday at the end of the service that this site was no longer a worshiping congregation of our church. But as I walked out the words that resounded in my head were, “but of his kingdom there shall be no end.” The Church – even THAT church – will go on. Its a form that died, not its function, not its purpose, not even its being. That is simply waiting for resurrection and the new form it will take as God coaxes life from the formlessness and void, and calls it good.
From today’s sermon on Genesis 29’s story of Jacob’s brides (you got that right, more than one and double it again if we are talking mothers of his children) but really its a sermon on the repetitive story of Genesis:
Robert Frost defines home as the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.
The family systems sickness that is passed through the generations starting with Adam and Eve (I was told later I created a new notion of original sin) and working through the generations of Abraham’s children is the belief that we are in a competition to earn God’s love. We keep defining “home” smaller and smaller so we have to let fewer people in to the circle of God’s love out of fear that there isn’t enough or that we will be out earned by the other.
The Kingdom of God, Heaven, Chosen Land, Chosen people, New Jerusalem… etc, etc are all just different words for home. And God’s home is to the ends of the earth and there is room and love enough for all. We all have a home in God’s heart. The question isn’t how do we earn it, or be worthy of it. The questions we have to answer is how do accept that we really are loved by God without need to earn it, and how are we making that same love palpable for all we meet?
You are loved; we are loved; we all are loved. Open your heart to call the world home, and let everyone in.
This is a shorter version (you are welcome) of a sermon preached at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, Idaho on Pentecost Sunday. June 8, 2014. It was preached from the text of Acts 2:1-21.
The Apostles post-resurrection are a fairly reluctant group. They keep hiding out. They keep sending motions back to committee. They aren’t ready to do the whole ‘go and be my witnesses to all the world’ thing. That is… until the matter gets taken out of their hands. The Holy Spirit literally swoops onto the scene from stage up-above and gets them going. A violent wind… as tongues of fire… speaking and hearing in all manner of languages and breaking down all kinds of barriers.
The crowd becomes confused how this group of people could be doing all of this – this group of nobodies from Galilee… this is hardly a group of people expected to be so worldly, educated, and articulate. It’s like they’re a bunch of people from Idaho. And yet here they are showing off a flare for the dramatic with worldly inclusivity (old and young, slave and free, men and women, heavens and earth are all wrapped up in this spiritual awakening). The presumption of some in the crowds is that they must be drunk, a move that is natural because we have a tendency to meet the miraculous or mysterious with disbelief and mockery whether its unexpected healing or Jesus’ head on a piece of toast.
This is a rousing call by the Spirit of the Lord to celebrate all people, to bring down all walls and all divides both real and tangible, and those deeply rooted in the coding of our hearts and minds.
This is a rousing call to celebrate life.
I have had a tough transition from May to June. It isn’t unique to me or this month in particular, I’m in one of those kind of times – but so are many people, and many more than that who have had far worse. But here I am.
We went into this month with challenging family medical issues. Surgeries. Complications. Insurance battles. Add to that our own church community has had three members die in the last two weeks, and then over the weekend, I lost a good friend. My across the street neighbor growing up – Mike. Mike was also the younger brother of my best friend for life, and the two of them became like my brothers as I grew up with only sisters. He had overcome his own childhood disease and illness and become a fine young man, teacher, coach, husband, and father of twin one year old girls. And then in one fell sweep a massive and unexpected stroke took him from us.
So all of this is going on for me and in the midst of that Caroline and I had planned a night out for a late celebration of our anniversary. My middle sister and brother-in-law are in town so like it or not they got the kids for a night and we booked a hotel… a mile down the road. We went out to dinner and our conversation was mostly about my younger sister still in the hospital for a third straight week, and about Mike. After dinner I took a break to call my Dad to check in on my sister and what the new plan is (we get a new plan several times a day). We hung up and then Caroline and I went on a late evening sunset walk along the Boise river and my dad texted me one final thought:
“Celebrate life, celebrate each other.”
There is fragility to life. And that fragility can make us scared, cynical, fearful. That fragility can make us despair. And we can respond to the fragility of life by doing everything in our power to secure safety. We can try to build the thickest walls, and have the strongest guards. We learn to doubt, we do not trust, we disbelieve good news. We can obsess about death…
Or… we could choose to celebrate life.
Celebrating life doesn’t deny death; it isn’t a denial of the suffering and the agony. But we do not let them rule us either. Celebrating life is an intentional choice in spite of fear, anxiety, and doubt. It is courage. It is a bold choice to limit the sway and power of death. Because as victims we can allow tragedy more power than it’s due. We allow it to kill not once, but twice. First it kills a beloved reality – be that a loved one or something about our life we cherish. Then it kills our spirit… our hope…. our ability to celebrate life. And we live in fear. To live “with fear” is probably unavoidable but to be ruled by fear is the second death, the death we perpetrate on ourselves.
What I believe attracts me to the poetry of the Psalms or to African American spirituals is the very resistance to this second death. They do not give in to despair. Certainly they speak of suffering, loss, and struggle. They wrestle with the “how long, O Lord” of injustice. But there is a hope that is transcendent to their current misery. In the midst of pain they do not allow hope to die as well. The cling to, they proclaim, they celebrate hope. We may die, but will never cease to celebrate life.
Celebrate life, celebrate each other.
In the wake of Jesus’ death he knew his followers would struggle with this kind of celebration – resurrection or not. He knew that despair was a difficult enemy to keep at bay. And so he promised them that one would come who was life itself. That the Holy Spirit would come to them as a comforter, as an advocate, as a mighty wind that was the very breath of divine life and that it would sweep them up in empowering celebration of life.
And – ready or not – they are now caught up in a bubbling over of the cup of life, an ascendant celebration of life and each other whose tenor was so lively and audacious that the crowds think it must be drunken revelry. And Peter says no this isn’t the foolishness of alcoholic public indecency in some kind of avoidance of the world. Oh its drunkenness he says. Its foolishness for sure. It’s even a dance of public indecency. But the only thing they are drunk on is life, and it’s the foolishness of hope that will not give in to death, and a celebratory dance of each other – of all life.
Celebrate life; celebrate each other. Amen.
“Restless for Peace” (an approximation of the sermon preached at First Pres, Boise, ID on the third Sunday of Easter)
16And to the Reubenites and the Gadites I gave the territory from Gilead as far as the Wadi Arnon, with the middle of the wadi as a boundary, and up to the Jabbok, the wadi being boundary of the Ammonites; 17the Arabah also, with the Jordan and its banks, from Chinnereth down to the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, with the lower slopes of Pisgah on the east.
18At that time, I charged you as follows: “Although the Lord your God has given you this land to occupy, all your troops shall cross over armed as the vanguard of your Israelite kin.19Only your wives, your children, and your livestock—I know that you have much livestock—shall stay behind in the towns that I have given to you. 20When the Lord gives rest to your kindred, as to you, and they too have occupied the land that the Lord your God is giving them beyond the Jordan, then each of you may return to the property that I have given to you.”
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” He asked them, “What things?” They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.” Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
Today’s text continues us on a theme – how do we know Jesus? How will we recognize the risen Christ?
We asked that on Easter because no-one seems to know Jesus when they see him after his resurrection. Here in this text today we get some explanation given: their eyes were kept from recognizing him. What does that mean?
It probably easiest and most comfortable to presume that God kept them from knowing they were talking to Jesus. That is the conspiracy theorist way of explaining it – that God is play a game with us – whatever the endgame of that game would be I cannot guess. I think it’s far more on target to imagine that what keeps them from recognizing Jesus was themselves. I’m reminded of early in Jesus’ ministry when he arrived in his home town. Where he grew up, where he was a snot nosed child, where his baseball crashed through someone’s window. Where he ran wildly, and dug up worms in the bushes, and tried to find his moral compass. Where his neighbors heard his mom complain about how he ditched out on his family that time in Jerusalem like some juvenile delinquent. Because – you know, the Temple is exactly where all the pre-teen runaways go when they ditch out on their parents.
When he came to his home town they couldn’t imagine that Jesus would be wise, they couldn’t imagine that he was a learned and insightful teacher – this son of a carpenter – and the last thing they could imagine was he would be a miracle worker and healer, a prophet of the Most High and so the text tells us he was able to do no works of power there because they couldn’t imagine it. Our imagination is able to limit what is possible – we can keep the awesome power of God at bay with our fear, and doubt and skepticism.
So what do we think is the more plausible scenario : that God doesn’t want them to know Christ until the rabbit is pulled out from the hat at the dinner table or that their own fear and skepticism – like Jesus neighbors in his home town – causes them to close their eyes to the miraculous presence of God at work in their lives. The story isn’t about God’s artistic timing, but God’s desire to make us aware of God’s transformative presence in our lives. Like we said last week we can imagine that nothing is miraculous in the world or that everything is. These disciples are coming from a place of just such skepticism; just listen to their account of the women’s experience of the risen Jesus. There is no sense that they believe the women’s account to be authoritative. “They claim to have had some encounter with angels or something… yah – you heard me right… angels. Sure.”
It is not surprise they do not know that they are talking to Jesus.
And I’m not trying to beat them up. Because it’s no surprise that we don’t know we are talking to Jesus either. We live with clouded imaginations; we live as skeptics at best and cynics at worst. We cannot imagine God is actually walking with us on the road. We limit what is possible – we limit even God’s imagination and work in the world through our close minded and hard heartedness.
So what do you think? How do you imagine Jesus at work in the world – because oh my! Jesus is at work.
This is the phrase that jumps out at me in this text today – this is the phrase I cannot get rid of, “And he vanished.” What is up with that? This was just getting good and then Jesus is gone! Why couldn’t Jesus stay a little longer, have a couple of drinks at the table and talk about what it’s like to die… to rise. What is the plan now? What comes next? So many things to sip wine and discuss at length… except Jesus is gone, in that moment of recognition he is gone, vanished, right before our now open eyes.
Several things about this vanishing intrigue me and play at my own imagination.
First it doesn’t bother the disciples at all. These two who were journeying to Emmaus, who wanted to pause and have a leisurely evening meal and rest before continuing on their way. They aren’t bothered by Jesus disappearance. There is no talk about the inconvenience or even weighting what to do next. They immediately get up and go back to Jerusalem. In the story Jesus was walking as if to continue on and then they wanted to stop. Now that Jesus is gone, presumably to wherever he was headed when they asked him to stop, now that he is gone they turn around and go immediately back to their community in Jerusalem to tell them the news.
This gets me to two more observations.
Jesus presence is catalytic. Jesus causes things to happen. Jesus causes them to turn around and turn around immediately. Jesus transforms what you see and the Jesus type of transformation requires action – immediate action. They don’t sit around and talk about it.
Jesus catalytic presence wants to be shared. Where do they go? On their way? No – back to their community, their neighbors, and their friends- to share what they have learned. Jesus catalytic transformation is also contagious and it requires being spread and shared.
And then one last observation. The moment Jesus gives us that catalytic spark – Jesus is gone. Because Jesus has things to do. When these two disciples get back to Jerusalem did you notice what has happened? That community is already ablaze because Jesus has appeared to Simon – presumably at the same time Jesus is appearing to them or maybe that’s where Scotty beamed him up and sent him to after he vanished from the two on the Emmaus road. But that community is ablaze with this fire. Some other day we can talk about why they believed Simon but not the women but for today it’s enough to note that Jesus is lighting sparks all over the place. He appeared t the women, he appeared to these two, and to Simon, and who knows who else we don’t know.
I think the Gospel writers language of vanished, and the seeming teleporting Jesus is not about Jesus having some magic resurrection powers but it’s to remind us that Jesus is at work – God is at work everywhere whether we are able to see it or not, whether we can imagine it or not. The on-the-move-Jesus is passionately driven to spark life.
Movie convention would have us believe that when we die we write on our tombs, “Rest In Peace.” But the Risen Christ’s tomb has very different words on it – Jesus is restless for peace. Not his peace, he has nothing but peace. But he is passionately driven by a desire to share that peace with the world. Jesus is, and will be restless, until the world knows the peace he has. The Risen Christ – it would seem to me – has every reason to be able to rest on his laurels, that he has done what he needed to do and now he can rest. Instead he is appearing all over opening minds and imaginations and giving peace and he’s a catalyst for transformation in the world… off to light that spark somewhere else leaving the work of spark sharing in our more than capable hands.
I’m reminded of the passage we started with in Deuteronomy. Because in my head it is possible to imagine that an “it is finished” minded Jesus could consider his work done on the cross. That Jesus dying sinless for the world had done his job. That in resurrection and conquering sin and death the victorious Christ could proclaim his mission fulfilled and his victory won. But none of this is what happens. There is nothing in the behavior of Jesus that he has completed anything. So I’m reminded of Moses talking to the tribes of Israel as he leads them to promised land, to what will becomes their ancestral home and having procured some initial promise and apportioning that lot to one and half of the tribes he tells them however that their job isn’t done. You cannot rest in this land… none of you can rest until everyone has land. You are responsible for making sure all of your brothers and sisters have land, have inheritance… have peace and place.
You may not rest just because you have what is coming to you – you may not rest until everyone in the community is cared for. God is a communal God, not my God or your God – God is our God. I believe that Jesus in that Luke 9 passage picks up this thread. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. I’m restless for everyone to have a place to lay their head, I have a mission to bring good news to all people – healing and teaching; transforming and opening – until all people can know peace, and until all people can have somewhere to lay their head than I will have nowhere to lay mine.
It was true of Jesus then, and it is true now. Jesus doesn’t rest on his laurels: he doesn’t say, ‘I’ve done my job and I’m going to sit on my throne now. When you have done your work, you will have earned the right to join me in rest.’ That is not what Jesus says. What Jesus says in his actions is, “I’m restless to share peace with all people. Life is stronger and death And my life is lived with great imagination that we can indeed secure life for all people and place for all people and peace for all people, I imagine / God with us imagine that all people can have a place to lay their head in peace and wholeness. And I will go wherever I need to go – even hell itself – to spark that fire in my people.
Jesus is risen, he is on the move, and it is good!
How are you catalytic for Christ?
How are you on the move on behalf of your neighbors in Christ?
How are you restless for peace?
Text: John 20:1-18
Note: this was a write up of a practice version of the sermon, somewhat different words but the same word.
Last week we were gathered here for Palm Sunday – triumphant procession – cheering for the one who came in the name of the Lord, cheering for the coronation of Messiah, Lord, and King. Surely this was the moment he would take his throne, boot Rome to the curb, and take Israel to heights previously unknown on the world stage. Only… they did not know what it meant to be Messiah in the way of Jesus Christ. How often we do not know what it means to be people of the way of Jesus Christ? We too celebrate triumph at times when we do not know what we are doing.
The week progressed and the unexpected kept happening, Jesus didn’t cater to the people of power, he didn’t play the military game to secure a kingdom but instead he befriended – at the expense of those people – the poor, the outcast, the widow. These are not what strong kingdoms are made of, what is he doing? Never mind he was simply doing what he’d been doing all along. There was nothing new… why did we expect something different than the same ol’ Jesus who from the beginning had announced that he came that the lame should walk, the blind shall see, and the poor shall have good news preached to them. This Jesus, this messiah, doesn’t play politics in earthly kingdoms… he is playing a different game and no coronation celebration was going to change to that.
And the week continues and Jesus speaks of uprooting establishment, tearing down a temple, a dying messiah. Jesus overturns far more than the money tables but all our expectations – and they should have seen it coming, for God’s sake we should have seen it coming… but we didn’t, and we don’t. And Jesus scattered us once again out from our safety like recklessly sown seed on the highways and byways of Jerusalem and beyond.
And even his disciples don’t know why this happening, even the disciples are confused. So plans are made about betrayal. And the signs are shown of denial. On Thursday when Jesus commands us to love one another and serve one another in love, Peter refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. He thinks the Lord shouldn’t be a servant – he just doesn’t understand, Jesus is who Jesus is, in birth, in live, pre-death, death… and after death. Jesus has – in fact – come to serve. And then Peter, once he thinks getting his feet washed gets him some kind of secured place in Christ’s kingdom, wants to have all of him washed… because Peter still doesn’t understand that following Christ isn’t about being made clean for the kingdom but about participating in the very dirty kingdom work of bathing the world in love.
The kingdom work is about coming to those who are damaged goods and naming that we too are damaged goods and then together participating in the life of the messiah who becomes damaged goods but made those broken places, those scarred memories, and those shattered dreams sacred. Bathing the wounds in gracious love – making us all, damaged goods that we are, infused with the Holy and whole in the Spirit.
This is my body – broken for you… (no, not you Lord!) This is my blood poured out for you.
This act wasn’t meant to be some spiritualized ritual of pretending at brokenness because the very next day after he said it we gathered again and we witnessed – maybe not through our eyes but through trusted eyes – as Jesus marched again the streets of Jerusalem, not in triumph this time but as a mocked and failed savior at the hands of an uncaring empire and control-minded religious structures – and he was killed. Broken, shattered, and poured out. And the disciples watched from afar because they did not know what they were watching and they did not know what to make of it…. So they watched from afar and then they scattered and hid.
This has been our week, and then we wake up – as early as is our want (or maybe in some cases way early than we’d want) – and when we wake up, we proclaim that He is risen. We email it, facebook it, tweet it, shout it, cheer it, hallmark it, liturgically proclaim and sing it, trumpet and play it on any and all instrument we can find. He is risen indeed… …but do we believe it? Do we understand it? What, if anything, is different because of it?
Are our Easter proclamations any more informed than the triumphant entry of Palm Sunday when the crowds thought they were proclaiming the victory of their king? Does our cries of ‘He is Risen’ have any more substance behind it than the crowds proclamation that ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord – Hosanna! Hosanna!?!?!’
We say that there is an empty tomb, like that is good news. But it wasn’t for the disciples. It was just what it always was – another act to be questioned. Another thing that wasn’t supposed to be. They don’t see an empty tomb and think resurrection – they think grave robbers. The empty tomb is not demonstrative of death having no sting… its demonstrative of their empty hearts and dreams. It is a further descent, not the beginning of ascendant hope. And perhaps all good news starts this way – its starts before we even know it – or know what we are seeing and participating in.
And so we find Mary lamenting, ‘Where is the body, that I may pay it the proper respect and bury him as he is due. Please not more mockery, not more shame, just let me do this one thing as it should be.’ And Mary turns and encounters Jesus but she doesn’t recognize him (would we?, we might presumptuously assume so, but we wouldn’t have) so she thinks he’s a gardener. And he is, he is THE Gardner. He is the planter and nurturer of seeds, he prunes and waters, he weeds and braces, he is the THE Gardner of all life but she she thinks he is just “a” gardener. “Just tell me where his body has been taken.” And he looks at her and calls her by name, “Mary” and that’s all it took, he names her, and she knows him – Teacher.
But when she goes to tell the disciples they don’t believe her of course… they will have to encounter him for themselves and when they do – you know what happens? They do what they have always done – they get scared, they don’t understand and they lock themselves back into the upper room. He is Risen – but what in the world does that mean?
Jesus will say to them – my peace I give to you – Jesus will tell them not to be afraid –Jesus will tell them to go into the world to preach and act on the receiving and giving of peace. Jesus will tell them to feed and tend the sheep, Jesus will tell them to teach and baptism to bless and build up… that is to say Jesus will tell them that what resurrection means is exactly what he has always meant. Jesus is what he always was… nothing has changed… and yet everything has changed. Jesus laid it all on the line in the greatest demonstration of practicing what he preached – but what he preaches it doesn’t change, its just more of what it always was.
C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia contrasts old Narnia with new Narnia by likening it to the difference between seeing something in a mirror and then beholding the real thing. They are the same – but the second is more the same than the first image ever was, the same… and yet more so. This is like the experience of the risen Christ.
Jesus is the same Jesus and yet more Jesus than ever before. Jesus came to reveal to us the nature and character of God. God loves the world so much that God would engage death – so much that God would die, on our behalf. And we know now, empty tomb and all / Risen Christ encountered, that life cannot be contained by death, God who is love – God who is life, cannot be held in death. That the tomb and the stone, and no number of stones, could hold God down. Death cannot hold sway over life. God the gardener has planted seeds and those seeds will sprout – will burst up, will grow and flourish and proclaim life and life abundant. Because they cannot – will not – be held down. And so Jesus went to all the places where life was least likely… as Jew he went to Samaria, he sent his followers to Gentiles, he touched lepers, he healed women who were unnamable and allowed the most impure of people to touch and clean him. Because God is not about pushing down, adding guilt, causing shame, or walling off and claiming in and casting out. God is about life. We play a justice game, a world of retribution and punishment. And we get caught up in unending cycles of violence and hurt. You hurt me so I’ll hurt you. You did wrong so I’ll punish you … And to that whole game Jesus says – do that to me and then I’ll let it go, I will show that we can just stop the cycle… and promote life. Eye for an eye is killing us – literally. And I am the God of life, not death….
So for those who denied him – Jesus loved them and entrusted them again with the kingdom. Those who killed him – Jesus offered peace. To those who take him for granted Jesus returns them nothing but love. Its about redemption not retribution.
The Easter story is the same story that Jesus has preached at every turn. That God wants life to win over death. That God is gardener of all life and wishes all life to prosper – all people – all animals – and manner of life… to prosper and grow.
I got the song “He’ll be coming around the mountain when he comes” stuck in my head with regards to this sermon almost a month ago. I found out that the song really is about Jesus. It was sung about Jesus and the second coming… or more exactly about the chariot he’ll be riding. And its about how will we know him, how will we recognize him. And it’s a great question because no-one, not one person, not Mary or the twelve, or the those on the Emmaus road or Paul on the Damascas road… no one recognizes Jesus when he comes. So how will we?
And it may just be that the answer is easier than we imagine – because Jesus is who he has always been. A gardener bringing life from death. A lover who makes wounds sacred and gives peace in exchange for hate, and redemption in exchange for violence, love in exchange for fear, service in exchange for jealously, and life in exchange for death.
How will we know him? Because we will find him sewing life in places of death. He will in the back alley, at an AA meeting, in the women’s shelter, or the morgue. We will find him on the battle field – not with a gun in hand – but with the children of yet another generation slain in the name of retribution and hate. We will find him among those enslaved in sex trades around the world and in our neighbor’s basement. We will find him in the line for a bowl of soul, or incarcerated, or hanging out on Sunday morning with hipster “nones” who want nothing to do with church. How will we know him? It won’t because he’ll be sitting in a pew next to you. He won’t look our part – he will look least like what we expect but exactly like he always has. We will know him because he will be the one creating peace and mercy in the harshest and driest landscapes of our world. We will know him by his love.
He is Risen, are we? He does not rise for his sake but for ours. We need not ask who he is, but who we are in response. Will we be people of retribution, exclusion, and hate? Or will we too play the gardener. Go to places that reek of death, get our hands dirty and through your damaged selves bleeding into the world and sew love and life. Nurture redemption and healing. And live and love in such a way that we all might rise with the one who is risen.
Christ IS risen, he is risen inDEED.
Thanks be to God.
All through Lent I’m preaching on the Matthew periscope of the temptation of Jesus in the desert. This is being done in conjunction with a curriculum we are also using in small groups throughout the church. This Sunday before Jesus is “led by the Spirit into the wilderness” we are hearing the voice of blessing in Jesus’ baptism. As a secondary text our study also provides the voice of Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son. It is this text that began speaking to me and became the lens through which to talk of blessing and celebrating relationship with God who looks on us as “beloved.”
13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
11Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
We come to this parable, or this parable gathers us in to it. Now parables are not meant to be taken literally – they are stories that often back us into a transformed understanding of the world and the deep truth of God’s participation in creation. This story doesn’t have to be about families, it doesn’t have to mean that the father is God, nor should “father” and “brother” makes us think only of the men in our midst. Our interpretation and wrestling should focus more on the heart of the story – the deep truth it is mining on our behalf – rather than any of the particulars. At its heart this story is about celebrating the return of one who is lost; it is about restoring relationships and celebrating them without bitterness and judgment. Now that reminder given… I’m going to now break my own previously stated rule… and pay some attention to particulars.
We Presbyterians… or really any churchy folk – we make good elder brothers. We pay attention to his story for we know him all too well. We are so often the ones who feel we are doing everything we should be doing; who is getting it all “right” and yet… somehow we don’t feel the love. Somehow all our right answers aren’t connected to the Spirit and vitality that is meant to be ours. We are lost in our own righteousness. (Sitting outside in our bitterness even, denying ourselves the celebration because the wrong people are being allowed in.)
We also tell the story of the younger brother because we are all that younger brother – or at least we know we should claim to be him in our more honest moments… when we can stop being the elder brother long enough. The younger brother who chases after a different life – for whom the grass is always greener on the other side. The younger son who flushed it all down the toilet. And we become crippled with shame and feels far too unworthy… of love, or our adoption as sons and daughters of God.
However I was intrigued me this week was the story of the father, the untold part of his story. I was intrigued by that because we got to this text through the study that is shaping our Lenten Journey – Temptation in the Desert, and title of the section we are working on today is The Surprise of Being Beloved. I heard that title and thought of that surprise and immediately my head jumped to another snappy and provoking title, Philip Yancey’s book What’s so Amazing about Grace?
These titles were swirling in my head and I’m reading this story and thinking about the father, what is like for him? What was it like when his son came to him and said, ‘hey pops, I would like you to give me my inheritance now because you are kinda like – dead to me – and I’m ready to be dead to you and call this thing we have going between as done. I’m going out on my own.’
What was it like in the days and the weeks and the months after his son left, after they went through that awkward transaction – which I’m sure the father went through with a daze about him wondering if this was really real. What was in like that night staring up at the ceiling unable to sleep because he is no longer whole? Part of him has rejected him and I’m sure he is wondering things like: what did I do as a parent that my child walked away? Did I not love him enough, did I not say it enough, and did I not appear to want to know his story, to hear his hopes, to support his dreams. Was it really necessary for him to just cut me out? Where is he now? What is he doing now? Is he okay now?
And you know as well as me that this wouldn’t just be a night time thing. In the day time he’d catch movement in vision, “was that him… no, no it’s someone else.” Looking through the faces in the crowd wondering if somewhere just around the corner… if just around the corner the child of heart is waiting.
And then there is this, in our claiming of this story as our story the death may well have been literal. Far too many parents have born the burden of their child’s death. A death that is experienced over and over. You do not lose a child once, you re-experience that lose, that death every life transition you should have gone through with your child. You are re-visited by the pain, the lack, the death happening all over again. Why? Why has this happened?
A question whose answer never comes… cannot come. It is a question that lacks an answer all together. My child is gone. Cut out. That should be me celebrating over there… with him… but it won’t ever happen.
I realize that there are unloving families out there. I realize for some the idea of father is not one of love, and the idea of mother may be no better. Our brokenness knows no bounds. But for the sake of this story the father is the father wants nothing but to love the son, to behold the son and embrace the son, and be. With the son. This father is father of countless families where death struck, this father is the mother of countless lost sons. The parent here yearns to simply love her child, his son, our brother.
This typology of parent, if you will, this form of the idea of parent for you Platonists out there, this norm or ideal or whatever you will. This father wants nothing but to love the son. And why not. Wouldn’t I want the same? Wouldn’t you? This, child of you – heart of your heart, bone of your bones – flesh of your flesh – wouldn’t you do anything to find a way to be in relationship – to share lives, to seek the good of each other?
This father has carried death with him, for a part of his being has been dead… lost in sorrow, and he wants for nothing more than his child to crawl back from the grave – out of the mists – to say help me. Father? I am home.
In this light, when I think about what’s so amazing about grace… What is so amazing to me about grace is that it’s not surprising at all. Grace isn’t a surprise. Grace should never be a surprise – not from God’s side at least. For Grace is who God is, this parent – this father, mothers, brother, sister, friend – this one, this holy and loving one can be nothing other than Grace. It is foundational to God’s being, at the core of God’s character – God is love.
God who is creator of all that is, all people, all places, all things – these are all the children of God. And God exists to all of them as love, God years for nothing more than to be in relationship to all that is and love all that is and to celebrate that relationship for its intrinsic value regardless of what has been – or will be – the character of that relationship. All is worthy of God love by virtue of the nature of God’s love.
To (very loosely) paraphrase the prophet Hosea in chapter 11 giving voice to the inner wrestling of God with God’s inability to be anything but love to God’s children. ‘I am angry with my children, Ephraim and Israel. I am angry that you turn from me and cut me out and go away from me – but how can I simply let you go? How can I let you come to ruin? How can I act out of my anger? Because while I am angry and frustrated and feel thwarted in my desire for your well being by your clumsy choices… my heart is yet kindled for you – over and over and over again compassion bubbles up from the depth of my being for you… and am I not God. Is this not how it works, and has worked from the beginning. I am God. And I love. And I forgive. And I celebrate your return no matter how often you depart from me. I can do no other.’
God chooses love every time.
Grace in God is not surprising. This is what I think every time I hear the son proclaimed beloved in the waters of baptism. This is what I think when I hear a story that even the most wayward among us, even the betrayer and the forsaker among us (and within us) are pronounced beloved.
As I think about a father’s heart broken by the separation at the hand of his son. And there is nothing surprising about grace from our father, welcome from our mother… except for us. Think about this with me for a moment, its seem that from this story I understand that there are two and only two impediments to Grace we can experience and neither of them come from God or are about God.
The impediments to Grace are:
- Our own inner self that says to ourselves: I am not worthy.
- And our brother. Our brother who is all too quick to say – he is not worthy.
In this equation we cannot conceive of love because we think worthiness matters. We think that even though over there outside of the house is our brother who is as worthy as can be, but feels no love. His inheritance was not the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness and the fruit of his spirit is not Grace. And I stare into that abyss and what stares back at me is a challenge for the church. How often has the Church as an establishment been the elder brother who sought to deny reconciliation for our wayward sibling? Not just the resentment of this story but we further yet and run down the road to intercept this…. this former family – this son yours we no longer claim – and stop him from crawling before our parent telling him that he isn’t welcome that God has nothing but anger in God’s heart towards you who sinned before God and your family and the world, “you shouldn’t come home. You would not be welcomed there.”
That abyss stares out at me from the elder brother who knows much of worthy and little of love.
The impediments to Grace have nothing to do with God and everything to do with us. These two fold broken hearts – the worthy and the unworthy. The first part of us plays the elder brother preventing others from experiencing the love of God because we have deemed them sinners, unworthy of celebration. And the other part is that seed of unworthy in our own heart that is perhaps even the genesis of this judgment of unrighteousness. We are both children at the same time and the younger – wayward son – within us does not feel we are worthy of love. We cannot conceive of being the receiver of the unsurprising love of God. And so we are doing everything we can to prop up a sense of worth in our constructed world to try to get parental approval – to earn what we cannot believe we already have. After all, if we haven’t earned it how can it possibly be ours?
God is love. There is no other way God can be. And to our split selves of unworthy shame and worthy judgment a nothing but loving God speaks.
You were dead… and now you are alive. You were lost to me and now you are found. The father in this story says nothing about tomorrow, the father in this story being told to us by THE beloved of God says nothing about contingencies or worth or expectations to being welcomed. Not even a pause.
We create applications for God’s forgiveness. And God tears them up. How? How could you possibly imagine that you aren’t worthy of my love. You are my child. My creation. I know you inside and out. No matter how frustrated with you I may get I will always love you – you will always be my child. You can deny me, but I will never deny you.
You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
Thanks be to God.