“Did Jesus Have to Die?” Palm/Passion Sunday Sermon, 4.13.14

Matthew 27.11-54

The cross has always been difficult for me. A strange thing to grapple with considering it is the central symbol of our faith – I’ve worn plenty of them around my neck; I have multipleholyweek crosses from different places as decorations in my home and office.

But the way people talked about the cross, and talked around the cross when I was a kid, and young adult, and still today, has often felt more like a speed bump to my faith than food for my soul.

I’d like to share some of that with you today – because maybe you’re like me. My intent is not to give you a new speed bump, but I hope we all learn something by revisiting and asking questions of our faith and its symbols.

One of my first memories of my own seeking comes at youth camp. My first summer at camp I was an incredibly naïve, yet earnest, 6th grader (hard to believe, I’m sure). We drove down to Florida for some para-church organized camp – we stayed in a motel on the beach and had bible study and worship and swam. I don’t remember much else about that week, but I do remember the last night of camp. Like any good evangelical camp, the last night of camp was geared toward life-altering decision-making.

I was surrounded by hundreds of other youth – several were older girls in my own youth group I looked up to (probably way too much, but such is the life of a 12 year old). Many – if not most – of them were crying. Crying ugly tears. Feeling so awful about who they were and (I suppose) what they had done. To be honest, I’m not sure why they were so emotional; I never asked. It didn’t seem like much of my business. But I do remember how I felt. I felt isolated. I felt left out. I didn’t understand why they were crying, but they certainly seemed sorry about all these things they had done and they wanted to be forgiven – they wanted to be saved – or perhaps, worse, they were afraid of what might happen to them because of who they are or what they had done.

Me: I just wanted to fit in. I felt like I couldn’t fit in because I couldn’t muster up that emotion. Which left me wondering if I could be a Christian if I couldn’t pull together a dramatic conversion experience. I needed forgiveness, they said. I needed to repent, they said. I needed the cross, they said.

The thing is I never felt like a bad person. I never felt like I had screwed up to demand the 180-degree repentance that this narrative seemed to demand. I would hear stories when people gave their testimonies featuring drugs and alcohol and violence and sex and probably a little rock and roll and hear about how they “found Jesus”, turned their life around and made everything okay. It seemed at the very least understandable that people with a sordid past with sins that big might need redemption big enough to match.

But there I was a naïve blond haired pastor’s kid mostly afraid of my own shadow. What kinds of things was I supposed to confess in order to know for sure I was “saved.” Was I, too, supposed to experience a complete 180-degree turn?

I kept going back to camp. I loved church camp. I loved the friendships, I loved the Bible studies and songs and being able to stay up late. I even loved camp food. (I guess anything can feel exotic if it’s outside what you’re used to.) But I always dreaded the last night. I never quite knew how to feel, but looking around at everyone else’s tears I was sure I was supposed to feel something.

I would look to the cross and hear people say Jesus died for my sins and wonder if that really included me. Could that mean Jesus died for my sins if I successfully avoid drugs, sex, rock and roll? Maybe I needed to go out and find some sins so I could experience repentance and forgiveness?

It all seemed so confusing and distant.

I didn’t know what to do with the cross.

But I knew I wanted to follow Jesus. I knew I wanted to be a disciple.

So what am I supposed to do with the cross?

Don’t get me wrong. I know that I screw up. I know that I need forgiveness, and I know I have deep-seated brokenness. I am profoundly aware of ways I contribute to the brokenness of the world. I am confident in my own imperfection, and fully assured in my own ability – through things done and things left undone – to help make this world look less like the Kingdom of God.

But I also am confident in the promise that God made me, God knows me, and God loves me. I rest my faith on the claim that God created me – you – her – him – them in the image of God and that means something. That means that we are not despicable. That we are not worthy of the worst kind of punishment on earth. Not in God’s eyes at least.

And so, I still wrestle with the cross and the way we are so accustomed to talking about it.

I grew up surrounded by family members who love Jesus and love the church. We are a hymn-loving family. As my grandmother struggled in the hospice wing of a hospital in Georgia to let go of life, my extended family gathered around her bed and sang “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

Hymns have been the common thread in our family that has allowed us to share our faith. I share this with my grandmother, my parents, my extended family, this shared language of hymns and faith. Hymns about the cross were no exception. She loved songs about Jesus and his cross. I adopted my grandmother’s hymns, but I had a really hard time finding my way to her language for the cross. Still do.

I sure do love the Old Rugged Cross, and Nothing But the Blood – but if I can be candid with you – it’s not the words I find so comforting – probably the opposite. And I realize that makes me a bit of an outlier in traditional Baptist circles.

And yet – I still love the cross. I love Jesus and I love my church.

So why is the cross difficult? Why did Jesus Have to Die?

Here’s the question that underlies our bigger question for today. When we ask the question “Did Jesus Have to Die?”, we sense an implicit affirmative answer. Which of course, begs the question “Why?”

For many of us the automatic response is that Jesus Died For Our Sins.

I continue to wrestle with this go-to answer because for me it begs other questions, still, about who God is and how God works.

So, why would Jesus need to die?

In one very familiar understanding, “God, Jesus’ Father, requires Jesus to die. God willfully subjects his son to torture and death in order to fulfill some kind of sin ransom that God’s own self requires.”[1] The problem I have with this, quite honestly, is that God requires violence of any kind. That God would require violence to atone for all the violence we perpetuate.

The good news we continue to proclaim is that God is love. That God is in the business of forgiveness and grace and compassion and all of those things.

For me, it seems like the cruelest bait and switch that the end of the story is really about God’s anger and some cosmic need to assuage the punishment and retribution God would otherwise mete out to the entire world.

So what do we do with the cross?

It is such a familiar symbol with a familiar story – but what happens when we listen to the narrative again, and take seriously its context?

The cross is a Roman instrument of torture and execution.

The cross is not God’s weapon. The cross is not God’s tool.

The cross was a symbol of political power and control. And it was at the hands of political and religious authorities that Jesus met his ultimate consequence – in torture, and execution. Jesus didn’t just die on the cross – Jesus was executed on the cross.

What if in understanding the story, in asking why the cross is so important to our faith, we shift the preposition – from Jesus died for your sins, to Jesus died because of your sins.

And what if we go a step further – let’s change the pronoun. Jesus didn’t die for my sins. Rather, Jesus died because of our sins.

What if instead of understanding the cross as God’s own instrument of death, we reframe it – and see it as the reaction of a sinful system to the presence of a holy God.

When we look a the cross we certainly ought to see sin – but not the weight of sin that God is punishing through one sacrificial God-Man. Rather, we see a painful and powerful and horrifying reminder of our own tendency toward fear, injustice, returning violence for violence, of turning our backs on love, transformation, compassion, inclusion.

I can’t quite reconcile the idea that violence is necessary to do away with violence.

Why would God’s grace and forgiveness be predicated on violence? Could God not have worked out salvation – offered forgiveness, grace and eternal life – could God not have ushered in the Kingdom of Heaven without violence, punishment and retribution?

The answer is yes. And God did do these things without violence.

It is our own stories that have turned it to God’s own doing. It’s our own assumptions about violence being woven into the nature of things – about the inevitability of violence in our society – that has helped give shape and order to this.

Walter Wink names this the myth of redemptive violence.

The myth of redemptive violence is found in the story and stories we keep on telling where victory is one over chaos by means of violence. It’s language of conquest and conquering.

We buy into it when we believe that violence is necessary to negate violence. We live in a world where religion and theology have, in fact, legitimated power and privilege.

Violence is entertaining. Violence is baptized. Our very theology requires it. Think about our moving ratings – think how much violence can be packed into a PG movie, that is otherwise devoid of vices – language, sex, drugs, etc.

Violence has become the solution to human conflict. This has become our narrative.

We believe it – and our heroes are born of this story. We live as though it is truth: might makes right. Wars can bring peace. Our superhero stories abide by this. The heroes are the good guys who defeat the bad guys. With similar strength, tactics, weapons, superpowers. In the end it comes down to a matter of strength and force.

But does it have to be this way?

The message of the cross is that it does not.

The message of the cross is that love sometimes looks like weakness, but perfect love is stronger than all fear, all brutality, all violence.

Because God’s first motive is not punishment but is love. And grace. God’s entire motive in sending Jesus – which is really in sending God’s own self to be among us – is to show us how loved and known we are. And how to love and know others.

One of my favorite movies is The Mission. The movie is about Father Gabriel, a Jesuit missionary in South America in the 18th century. He builds a mission in the jungle above Iguaçu Falls and ministers to the Guarani tribe. The movie tells the story of the political struggles between the institutional church, the Portuguese colonizers and the priests who have given their lives to the indigenous people.

The end of the story is not a happy one. The mission is attacked by Portuguese and Spanish armies, while Father Gabriel performs the mass. In one of the final exchanges in the film, the priest remarks,“if might makes right, then love has no place in the world.”

The message of the cross is that love has a place in this world. And not just a place in the world, but the place in the world.

Jesus did not come to the earth, I believe, to die for our sins. Rather, he came because God so loved the world. Jesus came and lived and dwelt and died among us to make the reign of God visible – to make God’s love visible.

In many ways Jesus and his death on the cross is a story of consequences and not a summary of his mission. Jesus came and lived with us – suffered alongside us – and because of us – and now we know, we believe, we proclaim, that nothing separates us from the love of God.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God because love was made flesh, was born, lived and died. God who is love personified came to us and found us where we are.

Even though the earthly consequence of Jesus’ life culminated in execution, we know that in he also gave us the Holy Spirit as God’s continued presence with us.

There is good news – and hard struggle in the cross. Sara Miles puts it this way: We must acknowledge today – Palm Sunday, Passion Sunday – all the ways we try to kill our God. In this story, Jesus faces and absorbs “the hard truths of human violence and pride and weakness,” and his response is all love and all forgiveness. The story of the cross, the point of the cross is that sin and death have been robbed of their power.[2]

What we do with the cross I believe, is recognize the depth of love demonstrated. When the world is a broken place – when our sin is what prevents justice, mercy, compassion from characterizing the world, and instead it is marked by jealousy, hatred, punishment, violence – God comes to us still. God dwells among us. God suffers alongside of us. God’s love is what does this.

And God’s love is what is more powerful.

The assumption of those watching all these things unfold – the crowd, Pilate, the religious authorities, is that the power of God would be displayed in forceful rescue of Jesus from the cross.

But that’s not what happens. That’s not what happens at all. Rather, “the power of God is most dramatically operative at the point where human imagination assumes its absence – the brutal death of the unresurrected Jesus.”[3]

The message is that God is always working to bring newness – to bring to life – in places unexpected – even unto death, torture, violence, abandonment.

But you’re just going to have to wait until Easter to hear the Good News made Good.


[1] Joanna Harader, sermon, 4.6.14 http://spaciousfaith.com/sermons-etc/new-testament-texts/john-1931-37/

[2] Sara Miles, “Stop Pretending: From Lenten Ash to Easter Light,” http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20110411JJ.shtml

[3] Cameron Murchison, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew vol. 2, Matthew 27.45-54, 346.


Morning Prayer, 3.30.14, Lent 4

Job 38

God –

Answer us out of the whirlwind – speak to us.

Out of the whirlwind of unknown futures, uncertain prognoses, maddening and overwhelming responsibilities speak peace.illusion-of-reality

Out of the whirlwind of questions that seem bigger than our feeble certitude, of fears that threaten to swallow us whole, when it all seems so huge  – remind us that you are bigger than all our fears and worry and darkness.

It seems easy, God, to read the story of Job with distance – detached and maybe a little judgmental. Or maybe we read the story and slowly let out our sigh of relief that at least things aren’t that bad.

Out of the whirlwind give us wisdom to our core.

We profess that you are the Creator – you laid the earth’s foundations and determined its measurements. It was you, God, who laid the world’s cornerstone. You were there when the morning stars sang together and all of heaven shouted for Joy.

You have commanded the morning for each of our days, and for days upon days before we opened our eyes, and gasped our first breath.

It is your Spirit, God, who inhabits every corner of the world. You know our inmost parts just as you have entered the sea and walked the recesses of the deep. You know the expanse of the earth, the sea, the skies – heaven and earth are yours, God. We can hardly comprehend our place in this universe among universes.

You lift your voice to the clouds – you bring all things into being. Without you nothing is made.

Grant us wisdom. Out of the whirlwind speak your love into our hearts and our minds.

We profess all this in the name of your Son, who taught us to pray, Our Father…

Morning Prayer, 3.23.14, Lent 3

God –

We believe, help our unbelief.

We believe that you are the Creator. Help our unbelief when we attempt to hold things in our hands. Forgive our feeble attempts and manipulation and control.brokencall1

We believe that you call your Creation Good. Help our unbelief when we mistake our call to dominion for freedom to destroy and abuse the world.  Teach us to see the world with your sight – finding beauty and goodness in all of creation.

We believe that we are broken. Help our unbelief – when we trust in ourselves only, when we believe that we can make ourselves whole. Meet us in our brokenness; teach us how to love ourselves and one another in the midst of pain, hurt, and misunderstanding.

We believe you created us to be in community with one another. Help our unbelief when we think we can go it alone, when we put ourselves first at the expense of the needs and desires and wellbeing of one another. Teach us once again the difficult truth of sacrifice and vulnerability to be your kind of community.

We believe that you intend us for wholeness. Help our unbelief when we cling to our fears or our anxiety instead of choosing the risk of your healing. When we choose to call our brokenness whole, meet us and heal us.

We believe that you call us to new life. Help our unbelief when we remain complacent or unmoved. Open us up to your future and your abundant life of grace and love.

We believe in the hope and promise of resurrection and re-creation. Help our unbelief when we turn to powers of death instead. When we choose to meet violence with violence, or abuse with abuser, or when we choose to remain complicit in unjust systems and structures, grant us courage to seek life in the midst of forces that push us to death.

We believe that love is more powerful than the forces of death and despair. Help our unbelief when it seems easier to choose fear, darkness, dimness or worry. Moment by moment light our ways with your light.

God, we believe. Help our unbelief.

We pray all these things in the name of Jesus, who taught us to pray…

Morning Prayer, 3.16.14, Lent 2

From where does our help come?

We look to the hills. We lift our eyes to the sky – wide before us.13293_587265398282_7243462_n

We cry out – we echo the voice of Job – How long, O Lord?

How long will we fight and battle? How long until we lay our weapons of war at your feet? How long until we beat and bend our swords into pruning hooks?

How long will we hoard and fear scarcity? How long until we share and cooperate? How long until we seek food enough for all our neighbors?

We cry out – we wonder How Long?

We look to the hills and seek help – from our disease, from our pain and affliction, from shattered pieces of dreams, hopes, worries, fears.

How long until we are no long under the sway of hate? How long until we choose the way of your love? How long until we call all persons brother and sister? How long until we can see your image in the eyes of all people?

We cry out – we wonder if it’s too late. We see the destruction, We see the spoils of war. We see the irreparable hurt and grief and pain all around us. We wonder if it’s too late for You.

We lift our eyes – we look to the hills, we look to the sky.

Come among us, God. As sure as you will not slumber, rise us from our sleep. Meet us in our wondering; meet us in our longing.

Help us find anew our trust in you. May our confession echo the Psalmist this morning, knowing that you will keep our life. You will keep our going out and our coming in – this day and forever.

We cry out, we pray, we hope – all these things in Jesus’ name.

(with thanks to Over the Rhine for this song)

Ash Wednesday Prayer

Yes, I know. Ash Wednesday was a week ago. Better late than never?

God –

We do not know what to do with this day. We do not like to focus on our mortality, our fragility. We prefer not to remember that nothing is permanent, not our lives, not our bodies.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.ash-wednesday1

God you made us out of dust. You call us out of ashes. You call us to live, to breathe, to seek life. Remind us this day of the ashes and death around us. Call us to life out of the death of busyness, the ashes of anxiety and comparison and jealousy and boastfulness.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

You, O God, are the eternal One. Your steadfast love is forever. You created us – fearfully, wonderfully made us. You knit us together, and call us to deep and abiding relationship with you. Out of our fragility, out of our ashes, call us to what is eternal – your hope, your peace, your love.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

As we receive the ashes – as we are marked and marred by dust – keep us mindful of our fragility. May we find freedom in our humanness, knowing that all of life is moving, changing, temporary. Catch us with glimpses of your eternal life and spirit. Grant us patience and perseverance with the brokenness is all we see and feel.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

We seek forgiveness for the ashes we create, for the dust at our feet of our own making: the ashes of warfare, the dust of oppression and injustice. Forgive us the burdens we create for others. Out of our ashes grant us courage and wisdom to build communities of peace and freedom. Out of our fragility, may we speak words of your steadfast and eternal presence.

Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.

Thank you that you love us, that you create and re-create us. Thank you for your eternal life breathed ever new in us each day.

In your son’s name we pray all these things, Amen.

“Bring Your Crash Helmet,” Sermon, Transfiguration Sunday

Matthew 17.1-9

It was a perfectly lovely Spring day. The sky was clear—clear enough for an afternoon hike.  Crisp air, cool andTransfiguration dry enough not to break too much of a sweat.   We don’t know what the rest of the followers were doing on this particular day. They could have been visiting with others in the surrounding towns. Or maybe in the market. Perhaps they were taking some time to rest.  What we are told is that Jesus goes for a hike with Peter, James and John, up to a high mountain.  Though we don’t know which mountain it was—likely either Mount Tabor or Mount Hermon, though for what it’s worth, Mount Tabor seems to be the winner, today boasting two monasteries and the Church of the Transfiguration. It stands about 1800 feet above sea level; mountain paths twist and turn. Assuming this is the mountain in this story, what seems certain, is this was not a leisurely stroll.

They had been told many things.

They had seen Jesus feed thousands with food enough for a young man’s lunch.  They had witnessed the healing of crowds of people afflicted with leprosy, demons, blindness, deafness.

They had watched as the woman who bled touched Jesus to receive her healing.

They had seen Jesus walk on water, and heard his parables of faith.

They had heard his warnings against false piety. All these things were still fresh in their minds, crowding their thoughts with more questions than answers.

Their journey brought them to Philippi, where Jesus had foreshadowed the persecution and suffering that would come.  And in the days prior, Peter offered the messianic confession “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

And yet.

Yet they remained puzzled by what all this could mean.

By our modern hearing and telling, it seems absurd that the disciples could still miss so much.

When Jesus invited these three on a walk I imagine them scurrying to their feet, eager for a chance to talk—really talk—with Jesus about everything they had witnessed in the recent days, especially their bewilderment over the morbid shift in Jesus’ tone. And when he told them they were going up to the mountain, they likely expected something.

After all, mountains are where great and marvelous encounters with the divine happen.  Far above the land of houses, and palaces, above the markets and the temples, mountaintops touched the clouds, the very dwelling place of the Most High.

It was on a mountain that Moses spoke with God, where Moses saw God’s face and lived.  Elijah emerged on a mountain to hear God’s voice in the thundering silence.

We, too, talk about our own “mountaintop experiences,” times when we felt so close to God that we couldn’t imagine the mundane, ordinariness of our real lives.

And to this mountain Peter, James and John followed Jesus, likely unsure of what to expect, but perhaps expecting something, and no doubt profoundly curious.

The Gospel doesn’t give us any detail between their ascent up the mountain and what happened next.  We don’t know what sorts of conversation happened as they followed the path to the peak.  Maybe the three disciples trailed Jesus asking questions of him the whole way.  Maybe Jesus answered, maybe he didn’t.  Maybe they remained in silence throughout their climb.  I like to imagine them telling jokes, or recounting favorite memories from their journeys.

What we are told is that something profoundly unearthly happened when they had reached the top. The narration we have sounds so thoroughly ordinary: “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  They had just rested their feet under the olive trees, and Jesus changed before their eyes.  He shone, and dazzled, and was bright white.


Had he become an angel?  Is this who he was all along? How did his feet get so clean?

No sooner had they adjusted their eyes to the bright light, than Jesus was accompanied by both Moses and Elijah.  The passage tells us that they appeared and were talking with Jesus.  Again we do not have a record of this conversation among prophets.

And what does Peter want to do?  He makes a very generous offer, though perhaps somewhat impractical: “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He wants to stay here on the mountain, in the moment.

Forget that they likely brought nothing with them.  This is too good to let go of, too good to walk away from.  This is holy.  We should stay.  Imagine all they could learn by staying on the mountain surrounded by Moses, the lawgiver, Elijah, the prophet, and Jesus, the Christ.

It’s really quite understandable: Let’s sit tight. We could even move in. So what if we didn’t bring anything with us—who needs stuff when we have this view, this is a perfectly lovely place to make a home, settle in, raise a family. We don’t need to descend and risk ridicule, reputation or death.  Jesus had foreshadowed enough for them to feel quite confident that the mountaintop was a pretty safe place to stay.

Among all this fearful chatter, God breaks though repeating the proclamation at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  The things Jesus had said he would do are true. Listen to what he must do—what he will do.  He is here to confront the power and principalities that deal in fear, injustice, and hate.

trans_apstls04And it’s this—the voice of God that does them in.

Do you blame them?

The disciples, the story says, are “overcome with fear.”  And who could blame them, really? They’ve climbed up this mountain with their teacher, no doubt a grueling feat in itself.

It would have been enough to be alone with him on the mountain.

It would have been enough to see him transformed and aglow before their eyes.  It would have even been enough to stand in the presence of Moses and Elijah.

All these things would have been enough to send any one of us stammering, shuddering, wilting in fear. And then heaven itself descends even closer than it already seemed.

The voice of God sends them cowering. And it is Jesus’ own voice and human touch that rouses them, speaking words of assurance: “Get up and do not be afraid.”  How often we have heard these words throughout scripture.  Fear Not. Be not afraid. The words are not “there is nothing to be afraid of,” but the instruction “do not fear.”  The words again are disturbing in their impossibility: “Do not fear.”

I’ve preached on Matthew’s Gospel three times in as many weeks – each time the words I am tasked with presenting as good news are couched in the impossible: Be salt; be light. Be perfect. Love your enemies. Jesus’ words are full of plain-spoken impossibility that maybe we would rather believe Jesus is full of it. Full stop.

What does this story have to do with us—this miraculous, mysterious story filled with light and sound and transformation?  When I first read these verses, I sighed. This is just a little too sci-fi for my taste.  I’d almost rather plow ahead and jump into Job ahead of Lent, because lamenting and putting God on trial sounds a lot easier, and quite frankly more read than a story of mysterious transformation.

But the more I read and meditated on the passage the more drawn I was to the story’s power. It’s hard for our post-Enlightenment, thoroughly skeptic ears to know what to do with something so full of magic better left in the world of Harry Potter. Then I re-read these words from author Annie Dillard:

On the whole, I do not find Christians…sufficiently sensible of the conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.[1]

Why shouldn’t we believe in a God who transforms, who speaks, who dazzles? What really has changed seems not so much that we have grown smarter than the story, but that we have stopped expecting the mystery and glory of God to actually manifest in our lives.  We are caught up in the ordinariness and perhaps even trapped in our own fears.

It is, after all, Peter’s fear that prompts his suggestion to settle and preserve the security of the mountaintop.  But the message is this:

Fear is profoundly antithetical to the Gospel. Sure, the entire scripture narrative is replete with people—ordinary people—who stand, crawl, cower, duck and cover in fear.  We are afraid of lots of things. Constant worry.

But the Gospel is clear. The way of God is not one of fear. It is one of risk, yes, but the words that ought to ring in our ears most clearly are “fear not!”  Perfect love casts out all fear. Do not be afraid.

A lot of interpreters read the latter part of this story—the exchange between Peter, and well, the voice of God—as a grand indictment of all religious institutions, or institutions at all—seminaries, churches, even non-profits. These institutions, they claim, are our booths in which we wish to enclose ourselves, with Christ, and attempt to prolong our holy moments.

They have a point.

But I also reel a little at this criticism.  Certainly institutions have tendencies toward insulation.  The cause though is not the building of the walls—it is in our staying inside of them.  And moreover, believing we can—our ought—to keep Christ within our self-raised structures.

Most often our walls become fortresses, protective structures to keep us safe, secure, trusting in what we can know for certain, what we can control.  But these efforts are borne of fear. Not the riskiness of radical hospitality and dangerous grace that strikes through the heart of the Gospel.

This story is, in one way—as it fits within the entire Gospel—an indictment of a faith with fear as its foundation—and that is a message we so desperately need to hear in our communities, where policies, talking points, public opinion, even theologies are predicated on fear. Of other people. Of change. Of things we can neither predict nor control. Of losing something.

We know—or we ought to know—that if we live in fear, there is no room to live in love.  If we clutch our anxieties, there is no way to embrace hope.  If we cower in worry, there is no room to welcome others in Christ’s name.  The thing is, as Annie Dillard says, most of us, even if we are able to admit that love is greater than fear, we do not live that way.  We may say we believe that God is more powerful than death, but how do we live that proclamation?  If we really moved about the world carrying with us the audaciousness that love, does in fact, win, Dillard is right, we would come prepped with crash helmets.

So this story is as much about the power of God…the challenge to believe in a God who can and does and will continue to amaze us.

But essentially, it is about the relinquishing of our fear, and the insistence on coming down from the mountain, changed, and renewed, risk all the countercultural grace and hospitality and love of Christ.

Jesus’s words are powerful and they mean as much to us as they did to Peter, James, and John. He “came and touched them and said, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.” He didn’t laugh in the face of their fear. He didn’t dismiss their shuddering. Rather, he comes, comforts and impels them to be not afraid. Do not fear. On the surface, perhaps we have a hard time seeing good news in this. What Jesus doesn’t say here and will not say to us is that we have no reason to fear. He knows deeply the pain of being human – the fears that confront and assail us. He does not tell us that we will not have cause to fear. But his words that he repeats over and over again – and that we hear from angels, and prophets, and from God – do not fear – are full of God’s promise. That God’s light, and hope, and love are bigger and stronger than all our fears. And our fears – even well-founded fears – will only continue to serve as impediments to living fully into the light of God.

The promise is that choosing to get up and choose against fear – first, is a choice, and, second, will give us life.

Hear Jesus’ words to you today – get up and do not be afraid.

[1] Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk. 

Everybody’s Perfect, Sermon, 23 February 2014

I preached this sermon on 2.23.14 at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., as part of the Baptist Women in Ministry Martha Stearns Marshall month of preaching.

Leviticus 19.1-2, 9-18; Matthew 5.38-48

Have you heard it said that we are to love our neighbors? Have you heard it said that we are to love God withmlk all of who we are?

We have heard it said. We have heard it said over and over again so that it probably seems like old news. Maybe it’s not even challenging or offensive anymore. But it is. The command to love our neighbor and our enemy is radical, and maybe even downright impossible.

You know you’re in trouble when you’re getting ready to preach on a text and pretty much every commentary you come across basically counsels you to preach on something else. Which is what happened when I started reading about both the Gospel and Old Testament texts. Which I took as a challenge. So: Challenge accepted. Besides, I like a good theological wrestling match and the Old Testament and Gospel passages offer us at least that.

So here’s the question we have to wrestle with – and probably ought to wrestle with a whole lot more than we do: What if Jesus really meant what he said about all this – this loving our enemies and perfection stuff?

We know the answer (even though we often act otherwise). So, we wrestle with the reality that “Jesus isn’t kidding and is dead serious about these commands [about love].” David Lose says this: in this sermon, Jesus outlines his vision of God’s Kingdom and issues a summons to those who desire to be a part of it. Jesus isn’t trying to modify the rules of the world.” This is not a Gospel of prosperity or safety. “Rather, he’s starting a revolution by calling the rules of this world into question and, at the very same time, redeeming this world that he loves and that will, in due time, put him to death.”[1]

There are two troubling commands in this portion of the Sermon on the Mount, and come from the levitical code: the call to love not just neighbor but our enemies, and the call to perfection. And these calls are directly linked. When Jesus said love he’s not commanding sentiment, romance or lust; it is action – the kind of love that has the power to transform and redeem and recreate.

Which informs the impossible command found in the readings from both Leviticus and Matthew: “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,”[2] and “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.”

This call to perfection is not a call to sinlessness – though, don’t get me wrong, that’s a pretty good ideal as well – but when we understand it that way we get distracted and bogged down by rules. Rather, it is a call to the perfect kind of love and inclusion that is the very heart and identity of God.

It is less about action and primarily about identity, about doing. It is about who are we. We are known by what we do – and we are called to love, forgive, and pray. If we are to be called children of God, we do not retaliate, we don’t return evil for evil, we do not turn our backs on the poor and the alien and the downtrodden. And we do not look on them with pity.

Rather, we open our eyes and our arms and our hearts to love fully, to we include the Other in our community to the extent that there is no such thing as “the Other” anymore.

Everything we read today – about holiness, perfection – comes back to this: the love of neighbor, which is integrally wrapped up in loving God with all of who we are.

What Jesus does is not rewrite the Law or negate the Law or any of that. He simply enlarges the definition of neighbor. Actually, he breaks down our definition so there is no difference between neighbor, enemy, alien, family. All are one – we are called to love all persons with dignity and worth and love of God.

When we ask the question of how we live in human community as God intended, Leviticus answers that our ethical behavior is how we demonstrate authentic love of God. We are called to action – again, not to earn anything.

This is not our means of salvation, but the very working out of the free gift of salvation. Because God loves us, because God offers us free and abundant grace, we have abundant life when we love others and offer others the same forgiveness and wholeness.

Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount build on and expand the legal tradition. What he is getting at throughout his sermon is our collective call – the Christian vocation. We often use the idea of vocation so narrowly defined as to be basically the Christian code-word for career.

But listen to the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus is telling us our vocation as his followers – who and what we are called to be and do: build peace, seek righteousness and justice, choose against injustice…

And so this passage ends with a bit of a summary of this vocation. It’s still seems pretty impossible, doesn’t it? It’s certainly not supposed to sound easy. Because it isn’t easy. And it often seems hard to know how we are to be or what we are to do.

We are called to the work of being holy. Of getting our hands dirty and doing the hard work of loving, forgiving, welcoming, providing, liberating. Frame this with the call to nonviolence and we see that it is anything but a call to submission or victimhood.

Rather, it is a call to work to see that not just ourselves, but our communities, our systems, our world is redeemed into the likeness of God. It is a continual work to live into the presence and likeness of God – and this is the very promise of God in the covenant and in the Gospel – we shall be like God.

Because God loves us. Because we are God’s children.

So. It is not so much perfection, as we tend to think of it, to which we are called – but perfect love – understood when we consider the source of both the law and the Gospel.

Consider the source of these words – Jesus, the very embodiment of God. God who loves us enough to engage in radical relationship as one of us – instructs us in perfection: when we take into account the source of these commands we understand that we have “a portrait of the very heart of God, one who loves the unlovable.” Jesus gives us such seemingly radical ways to love and live, not because he wants us to turn to the despair of impossibility, but “because that is how God loves. If you want to follow this God, fleshed in Jesus, you will be adopted into a life in which you find yourself loving this way before you know what you are doing.”[3]

Consider the source: We know Jesus. We claim that we have seen him, that he continues to live and move among us. Therefore, we see the possibility breaking through the impossibility: We “know God’s love,” and so we can love our enemies and offer forgiveness. All of this transforms into the realm of the possible because we don’t just read words on a page – we know directly their source.

The injunction in Leviticus to be holy as God is holy, and the charge from Jesus to be perfect as God is perfect is, again, not intended to push us to give up because we’re fighting a losing battle.

Rather, both the law and the gospel point to the entire goal of discipleship. We are to imitate God.

The rules are not set up for mere conformity’s sake. Jesus doesn’t want us to be submissive or weak, but we are called – our very vocation as his followers – is to imitate God. And we can do that because we consider the source, we know how God loves and moves and responds because we know Christ. The very goal of our lives as followers of Jesus is to be perfect, which is to say, to imitate God. To love as God loves. To forgive as God forgives. To welcome as God welcomes.

I’d like to take a step back. I would like to pause right here. Remember how Jesus told us we are supposed to love our enemies? I always think (like a lot of things Jesus said) that this is a nice idea, for other people. But when you get practical about it, who could love and forgive their enemies, even if we wanted to?

And we must tell the truth here: part of the problem with this Gospel text is that it has been used, and continues to be used to justify oppression and pacify victims.

We certainly could and ought to wrestle with this text by acknowledging the utter difficulty – even impossibility of loving enemies who inflict real and prodigal harm – abusers, murderers, sexual predators, war-mongers. We could throw the Hitler card here in Jesus’ face and leave feeling pretty frustrated.

And that’s some worthy wrestling, to be sure. It is a hard vocation we are called to, to figure out how to show love to enemies without ourselves becoming victims or doormats or worse. To be clear – I do not believe that Jesus is calling us to be passive victims or doormats or worse.

Another way I’d like to wrestle with this call to love our enemies, is to hold that command up in light of the holiness codes found in the reading from Leviticus. Our culture has created enemies out of difference.

We are hard-wired, it seems, to look for enemies all around us. We fear shadows and we persist in our fear of folks with skin color unlike our own, or language unlike our own. We hold suspicions against those whose income and housing do not look pristine. “The poor” has become a dirty word for us – as though being poor reflects one’s personal and spiritual worth.

If we know anything to be true consistent throughout the biblical story is that if we make enemies out of the poor, the oppressed, the alien, we have made enemies out of God.

One of the principles guiding the lives of the Hebrews was that God dwelt among them. So the holiness codes, the laws were a way of answering the question: If we believe that God dwells in our midst, what difference does that make?

I think we ought to ask ourselves the same question: If we believe that God dwells in our midst, what difference does that make? What matters most are not the things we do to prove ourselves good, but the ways we engage with one another and treat one another.

To what extent do we guard each other’s dignity – and not just the dignity of people we like; that part is easy. How are we at guarding the worth and dignity of people who are downright rotten to us? Or the people we are otherwise told to ignore – the poor, the alien, the broken (in body, mind, and spirit).

If we take seriously the commands in Leviticus and the Sermon on the Mount we are confronted with the reality that, “Because every human being bears ‘the likeness of God,’ the failure to love others is equivalent to saying that neither thy nor we have value in the eyes of God.”[4]

This is part of the challenge in what Jesus offers today. Our rules – the games we play – are obliterated. Jesus sets out the rule of perfect love, which is all inclusive – and completely dissolves the distinctions between us vs. them. “‘We’ and ‘they’ are all loved by God.”

Loving other people – loving all people, even our enemies – is about honoring their humanity, believing that God really can transform the other, and then to treat them with the dignity and respect of another created in the image of God.[5]

“Jesus is taking the imago Dei not just seriously, but literally, a truly incarnational theology. … We are, Jesus implicitly argues, God’s heirs, and also God’s flesh and blood, God’s family, God’s descendants and legacy. We have more to live up to than we ever imagined.”[6]

Perhaps this is why we so often prefer to maintain a theology focuses on God’s transcendence – God’s holiness that is so far removed and above and other than us.

It is safer for us that way. In the end if we don’t have such a responsibility, if our DNA weren’t wrapped up in God’s own being – then we could remain all-too-human – clinging to our humanness as an excuse, rather than responding to and embracing the blessing of being God’s children – made flesh and blood in our incarnational theology.

A piece of Jesus’ call to perfection is – much like in the verses prior to this in the Sermon on the Mount – a call to recognize who we already are – we are created in God’s image and we are called children of God. The call to be perfect as God is perfect, then is, at least, “an invitation to self-recognition.”[7]

So, the call to Christian vocation is a call to perfection – but it is not a perfection in the ways that we assume. It isn’t living up to a checklist of do’s and don’t’s perfectly. To be sure, it is about doing, and action, but out of our identity as children of God we move to love others as God loves them – we love all of humanity as God loves them, with no partiality, and with full worthiness.

The call to Christian vocation in Jesus’ words is a clear call to perfection – which is worked out in relationships and communities It embodies the very grace and provision and liberation of God. It is not a call to perfection thinly veiled as a set-up to failure, but a radical call to acknowledge who we are created and gifted to be, and a participation in the redemption and transformation of ourselves and our world into the fully realized Kingdom of God.

Did Jesus really mean what he said? You bet he did. Thank God he did.

[1] David Lose, “Dear Working Preacher,” 2.18.14: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3076

[2] Leviticus 19.2

[3] Jason Byassee, “Theological Perspective,” Matthew 5.38-48, Feasting on the Word: Year A, vol. 1. 382.

[4] Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus: Interpretation Commentary. Westminster John Knox, 2011. 166.

[6] William F. Brosend, II, “Theological Perspective,” Matthew 5.38-48, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew. 112.

[7] Brosend, 114.