The Foolish Farmer – Sermon, 7.13.14

Let those who have ears, listen.

A farmer went driving in her tractor – set out to sow seeds. But she drew stares. Her method was – odd, shall we say. the_sower_-_painting_by_van_goghReckless, even – she rode around, not looking, throwing seed everywhere. Over her shoulder, off to the side, up in the air.

Some of that seed fell to the east of here – big houses, all looking the same, falling onto families as they shuttle off from music rehearsal to sports games, to board meetings. Though their busyness made them swiftly moving targets, the seed hit them all the same.

Some of that seed fell far west of here – in small towns, people who believe in guns and agriculture, suspicious of cities and books and government.

Some of that seed fell here in Lawrence, in the student ghetto as undergrads sloshed back their trash-can punch, and some fell in the halls of academia as professors and students chased ideas from books into thesis statements and term papers.

Some of that seed fell far South of here – along borders – on people who are motivated by desperation and hope – on persons with names who are categorized as ‘illegal’.

Some of that seed fell in bigger cities, which feel worlds away – on people speaking other languages, wearing clothing that wouldn’t quite match in rooms like this – and yet who bear similar joys and concerns.

Some of that seed fell in the ICUs of major hospitals – on patients clinging to life, on doctors who operate and diagnose, on families who wait patiently in that thin, holy space between news of life or death.

Some of that seed fell on refugee children – children who run and play and jump and laugh, but whose young lives are already marred by the realities of war and violence and scarcity.

Some of that seed fell on government buildings – on men and women in suits and on cell phones, moving at the speed of business. The seed fell as they made decisions of economy, justice, human rights and development.

Some of that seed fell on the lucky – the people whose lives seem easy – too easy – folks whose cares seem minor to the jealous onlooker.

Some of that seed fell on the unlucky – folks who receive pity upon pity for all their misfortune – unable, it seems, to catch a break.

Some of that seed fell on the stay at home parents, who mend scrapes and kiss bruises, and shuttle families between school and sports and music and work.

Some of that seed fell on working parents who struggle with the pressure to “have it all,” struggling to feel adequate when holding up the world’s measuring stick of success and perfection.

Who is this farmer riding her tractor, indiscriminately throwing seed on all people and all places? Doesn’t she know the ins and outs of farming? Doesn’t she know that she must first inspect the land – and till it – and nurture the soil? What a waste of seed and soil to scatter the seed where it will never grow.

Doesn’t she know? Surely not. Or maybe she does.

Maybe she knows more than the master gardener observers.

Certainly the first century audience had similar trouble suspending enough disbelief to listen to Jesus’ story. Then he gets to the end – and the harvest is equally unbelievable. The harvest that is promised at the end of the parable doesn’t just make for a pretty good year for the farmer. The manifold harvest makes for a downright miraculous year.

Hearers of this story might chalk this up to hyperbole on the part of the story-teller. But for a Jesus who commanded his disciples to cast their nets again, resulting in more fish than they could carry, it’s just the kind of unpredictable thing for which Jesus is known.

Abundance – unbelievable – miraculous – those are our measurements. But notice how thoroughly unsurprised Jesus is – perhaps we ought to recognize this as the abundance that is normal for our God of grace and love.

So maybe the sower doesn’t know what she’s doing – or maybe, just maybe she knows something deeper and truer than we can grasp. Maybe she knows that an abundant harvest can grow just about anywhere seeds are sown.

That doesn’t mean – or guarantee – an abundant harvest everywhere – but it does perhaps mean that we will be surprised where the seeds are thrown and where the plants will thrive. “We may want to entertain the possibility that this sower throws seed just anywhere in order to suggest that ‘anywhere’ is, in the final analysis, the arena of God’s care and redemptive activity.”[1]

We also assume that it is obvious from the beginning which soil was which. What if it hadn’t been? What if this farmer threw her seeds everywhere in order to discover the good soil – to find where the seeds would take root?

Where are we in this parable?

We often think about this parable as though we are the sowers – and treat this as a cautionary tale about picking the best mission fields or target people groups. I believe we miss the point – the deeper and truer point – if we place ourselves as the sower.

Really, we are the soil – but even by that reckoning we aren’t to take this parable and apply it to individuals, groups of people, other nations and try to figure out who is good soil and who is not. Because, if we’re honest, we are always going to find some way to play us vs. them.

We will find a way that we are the Good Soil, and they are the rocks or birds or thorns. The soils aren’t categories – they are ways of understanding all the ways we ourselves respond to and receive God’s word and let it in our lives – or not. Can’t we all identify at different points in our lives ways we grew quickly, but then lost steam, like the seeds who grew in the rocky soil? But I still don’t think the soil is the most important character in the parable.

The story is good news – but the story’s best news is found when the Sower is the focus. The Sower is not us – the Sower is God. The story could really be called the parable of the foolish farmer, because the way God sows is indiscriminate and foolish. God’s word and God’s grace go everywhere – they are for everyone. Not because God is a stupid farmer, but because “One never knows what may come of profligate grace.”[2]

The story is good news because of what we learn about God. While this sower seems reckless and indiscriminate – “what is she doing throwing seed everywhere?” – that’s not the point. The point is – or at least one of the points is – that God – the sower – promises abundant harvest. That God’s promise is Good Soil will be found.

If it were up to us – if we were the sowers – we clearly wouldn’t be so foolish. We are often stingy sowers – not wanting to waste our seeds. We prefer to wait until we are confident – until we can predict, or be sure of a successful outcome. What this story is saying, it seems to me, is that confidence, success, certainty – those are not the point. We wouldn’t be wasteful – our sowing would be measured, budgeted, planned; it would be strategic – and we would consider ourselves Exemplary Stewards. But that’s not how God works. We want to do good business, but the story serves as a reminder that God is the sower – not us. The story serves as a reminder that God is the one who sows goodness out of places only we deem as wasteful or unlikely or undeserving. The strange – but good – news of the parable is that the Gospel is bad business.

What if the sower doesn’t see the soil the way we do- as rocky or weedy or Good? What if all the sower sees is potential? I like to think that all the soil looked a little broken – but the sower trusted and threw the seed everywhere – and surprised everyone when the seeds grew – when the seeds found the good soil.

Another promise that I hear in this story is the good news about our own rocky and weedy soil. It turns out that the sower will reap abundant harvest where we might never plant in the first place – our mistakes and our failures may actually be the perfect Good Soil – the breeding ground for God’s work and God’s word to take root.

Where is the brokenness in our lives – where is the strange and foreign and unlikely of places for the holy to break through? Where do we feel undeserving of God’s grace? This parable seems to suggest that it is precisely those places where the seed of God’s word – God’s love – God’s care – God’s grace will find the Best Soil.

What if we let ourselves be surprised by the moments and seasons in our life that we are quick to label as bad soil – and let God find good soil in their midst? Do we believe that this is possible? Do we believe that God is working for Good – that God is a God in the business of Resurrection and new life?

I know I want to. I want to make the choice to cling to this promise every day. And it is incredibly difficult some days.

Some days I wake up and step out of bed and place my feet on soil so rocky it feels downright dangerous to my frail and feeble bare feet.

Some mornings I walk out of my house and make my footprints on soil that I can barely see because of all the weeds (both literally and figuratively).

And some mornings I walk through my life on the Best Soil – confident and secure in God’s promises and God’s abundant grace.

The parable reminds us that God’s grace is free – but asks us how we will respond. To be sure, much is required of us – how are we going to cultivate our own soil? How will we nurture and care for the seed of God’s work and word?

But we know that the Good news is that it isn’t up to us entirely. And that God will always surprise us with goodness when we have ourselves convinced that we will only and ever be tangled up in weeds or carried away by birds. How do we cultivate our soil? Do we find ourselves seeking God’s face? Are we convinced that we are too busy or too independent for spiritual growth? Are we waiting until we feel ready or until we are guaranteed some kind of success?

The surprising message of this parable reminds me of the truth that all of it is a gift – all of life – even our rocky ground is gift – and we are called to cultivate our soil, and trust in God’s goodness. We are supposed to believe in God’s abundance – in the promise of the harvest. We’re supposed to plant our feel on that soil.

I love this story because it reminds me of one of the things I know for sure. What I know is that God is always a God of surprises – “God is up to a little mischief, giving a winking reminder,” that God is always working for Good and Resurrection.[3]

I also know that God is also always a God of Goodness – with a capital G. A God of goodness is always making things new. Surprising us with Good Soil where we expected rocks, or weeds, or birds.

We hear this parable and we get it: we get that the odds are enormously stacked against the success of the seed taking root. We often feel like the odds are stacked against us – to keep up with life – wondering if we can possibly be the Good Soil for God’s goodness and grow and thrive.

This is true for literal seed-sowing too. Especially if the seed’s success is dependent on me – quite literally – I am terrible at keeping plants alive. Which seems beside the fact, but it isn’t. Just as we act like we are both the sower and the soil, we also act like it is completely up to us. It isn’t. And that’s the reality of God’s grace – God’s surprising and mischievous goodness and newness.

I know for sure that God is a God of Goodness and Surprises because I’ve lived that truth. And I’m grateful for it.

I’m grateful for a God who surprised me by calling me to Kansas – a place I couldn’t have imagined calling home just a short time ago. I’m confident that God is working goodness and newness in this place – in each of our lives – in places and moments and seasons where we would expect and predict the exact opposite.

I’m grateful that the God of surprises surprised me with this congregation – with you – and I’m confident that God will continue to surprise us with goodness breaking through as we are all created and re-created and working to cultivate the Good Soil.

 

[1] Theodore Wardlaw, Feasting on the Word, Year A, volume 2, p. 239.

[2] Peter Woods, http://thelisteninghermit.com/tag/the-unconditional-grace/

[3] Russell Rathbun, The Hardest Question, 18, July 2011, http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/ordinary17gospel-2/

“Because of Biblical Women” – Sermon, June 1, 2014

Proverbs 31.10-31
Judges 11.34-40
Luke 7.36-50

Did you hear the news over the holiday weekend? Perhaps now it seems like old news. Perhaps now, a full week past, we have already forgotten – if we stopped to pay much woman with veilattention in the first place.

I don’t blame you if you tune out the news. I tend to do so most of the time. It’s as though my ears and my brain just can’t hear or absorb any more words. Anymore, it seems hard enough to sift through the headlines and sensationalist breaking news to find where the news actually is.

But if you were paying attention, perhaps you heard about the shooting. Another shooting.  In the dark of night, in California, last weekend. Elliot Rodger killed six people before turning his gun on himself. Rodger leaves a legacy of angry You Tube videos and a 137-page manifesto, wherein he declares his hatred for all women, because he has been rejected over and over again in his overtures toward them. It is clear that he sought revenge because women he lusted after rejected him and denied his advances. Those who have read and commented, analyzed, his manifesto point out that, while his words are obsessive, and the product of an imbalanced mind, they call to question the patterns in our society, where beauty and strength receive recognition, and women are still regarded as prizes to be won. Those who are rejected, lonely, poor, outcast, are rendered invisible.

Buried even farther back (because it’s been over a month) in our news is the story of the Nigerian girls. In mid-April, approximately 276 girls were abducted from a Government Secondary School in Nigeria. The kidnappings were claimed by an Islamist jihadist group, Boko Haram. This is not the first time the group has perpetrated such crimes against children. They have been known to kidnap young girls – particularly from schools – because they do not believe they should be educated. So, they take them and use them as cooks and sex slaves. These kidnappings are just one piece of the story – so far Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed over 4,000 people this year. News broke earlier this week that the Nigerian government has located the missing girls, but cannot yet rescue them, because it is unsafe to use force.

Following last weekend’s shooting, the trending response on twitter – or one voice of it – argued that “Not All Men” are like that. It is true. Not all men are violent. Not all men are sexist. Not all men are abusers. And thank God for that.

And yet. Sexism and violence linked to sexism, and sex-related crimes are far too common. 1 in 3 women have experienced or will experience violence in their lifetime. The counter-response to “Not all Men” was in a hashtag “#yesallwomen” – because  not all men are “like that,” but yes, all women understand the reality of sex-based violence. This internet response revealed the deep and pervasive sexism throughout our culture and the world.

Likewise, another hashtag, #yesallbiblicalwomen emerged – calling to mind the ways that the Bible often forgets, or our interpretation and translation, have manipulated, twisted, forgotten the stories of women throughout.

Part of why I wanted to read Proverbs 31 – or at least the part of the Proverb we all know so well – today is because we so often misunderstand it. We so often misunderstand much about the bible – not least of which is how the bible portrays women.

I remember hearing in college other females talk about how they wanted to be a “P-31 woman,” referring to Proverbs 31, which was essentially code for “a submissive and domesticated housewife.” With this association, it will surprise no one that I resisted anything related to Proverbs 31. Submissive and Domestic I am not. And so I threw the biblical baby out with the bath water, so to speak.

A couple of years ago, Rachel Held Evans, a popular Christian blogger took on the project of rediscovering, and exploring what exactly biblical womanhood is all about. The primary assumption she debunked is that there is only one specific definition or understanding of “biblical womanhood.”

The Bible depicts all kinds of women – good, bad, but mostly human just like all of us. It also depicts all kinds of men – good, bad, but mostly human just like all of us. The Bible does not show us only one way to be man or woman – but brings to light and life the myriad ways there are to be human – the reality that we are all broken. And we are all loved.

In her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Evans spends a chapter delving into Proverbs 31. She discovered many things –some of the most important include:

The verses from Proverbs 31 we heard today are poetry. It’s meant to be read and understood as such – not as a job description for all womankind. Genre matters.

Second, the target audience for these verses is not women; it is men. Evans discovered that men would memorize the words of this Proverb in order to sing praise to the women in their lives – not to offer a requirement list around the home. These words were not read by women as a laundry list (pun intended) to keep their husbands happy. Evans further notes that, the only instructive verse is this one: “Praise her for all her hands have done.”

Third, the verses primarily are set up to celebrate valor. “A woman of valor who can find?” Valor isn’t about what but how. Therefore, it isn’t about completing a checklist, but doing whatever work you do with valor. [1]

Rachel Held Evans’ work has reminded me – and been instructive for hosts of other men and women – that we still have work to do to understand what it means to see all persons as equal as God sees us.

We still have work to do to understand what the biblical portrayal of personhood. We still have work to do to understand the Bible as a text that has been interpreted and translated over millennia and demands our critical reading lest we rest on the comforts of mere surface reading.

The reason I mentioned the hashtags earlier (though I know much of that is just gibberish to many of us) is that it has reminded me that there are so many names and voices of women in the Bible and part of our Christian heritage that have been silenced and forgotten. If I am being perfectly candid, I had to google more biblical women’s names and stories than I care to admit. I’d like to spend some time reading (or paraphrasing) some of the content from Twitter. I’d like to take the time to hear these names and stories out loud as a reminder of the work we have to do, and as a way to honor the women who are part of our family tree who have been neglected, abused, forgotten.

Because we know so few biblical women’s names

But their stories matter…

And matter a great deal – Sarah, of whom God told Abraham, “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you.” She matters.

Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel birthed the covenant, but are left out of God’s name – God who is often referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

It matters because of stories like Tamar’s – whose half-brother raped her, and her uncle helped him.

And because the Levite woman was offered up by her father for rape by his guests.

These stories matter because Laban thought so little of his daughter Leah, he tricked Jacob into marrying her, even though he really wanted to buy Rachel.

And when Hannah prayed differently she was judged and called a drunk.

Jepthah had the right to use his daughter as a burnt offering to the Lord, the story we heard earlier this morning.

These women matter; women like Hagar, alone, pregnant, in the desert, names God and finds faith, and yet is barely mentioned today. She named God, El-roi, asking, “Have I really seen God and remained alive?”

Because women saved the lives of countless Hebrew baby boys, and yet are often ignored in our preaching about the Exodus.

And because Miriam was more than a sister with one song – she was a prophet and a worship leader.

We need to tell stories like Esther’s, the queen who first had to win a beauty pageant first in order to have a platform from which to speak to prevent a genocide.

And Queen Vashti, whom Esther succeeds, is remembered as wicked and vain, rather than strong and powerful, when she refused to come and parade in front of the people, at the King’s drunken command.

We need to hear the voice that cries out in Ramah – to hear Rachel weeping for her children. And we need to hear God’s promise to turn her mourning into dancing.

The stories of women continue to matter in the New Testament record –

Jesus had four scandalous women in his family tree: Rahab, Tamar, Bathsheba and Ruth.

Women were first at the crib, last at the cross

Their stories are worth revisiting and reclaiming…

Because we consider Mary Magdalene a prostitute even though we don’t have evidence, but we fail to consider her an apostle even though we do have evidence.

We hear Jesus say of the woman who anointed him at Bethany that she would always be remembered, and yet we do not know her name. But we have heard her read story today – and heard how Jesus honored her.

The ways we understand biblical womanhood matter because Martha criticized Mary for sitting and listening to the end of the sermon, rather than get to the chores in the kitchen. And because we so quickly assume that Martha’s work is cooking and cleaning – women’s work.

It matters because the Samaritan woman having 5 husbands says less about her character than it does about the misogyny of her time and place.

We know that Jesus trusted a woman first to proclaim the resurrection and some churches still won’t let women preach – or even teach.

We need to hear these names: the name Junia. Paul calls her an apostle in Romans, but her names has been frequently re-translated as the masculine version, Junias.

And the stories and names of women have continued to matter in Christian history.

We call to mind the names of so many women in the past two millennia who were denied priesthood, but became Saints all the same. And other women who served the church without recognition.

Because women leaders in the church are treated as an anomaly, while the texts prohibiting women leaders are the anomaly in scripture.

Because women pastors are still referred to as women pastors, not simply pastors.

It matters as Christians that we speak up for women – that we listen to women’s voices – that we resist the culture of sexualized violence.

It matters because women are told not to let men treat them as objects, but so rarely do we teach with the same emphasis men the lesson that women are not toys.

Because we still have politicians who cling to lies that a woman’s reproductive system can resist rape: otherwise she was asking for it.

Because we still have politicians who believe that woman “ask” for rape.

Because we still so often teach our girls how not to get raped than teach our boys not to rape.

Rachel Held Evans notes that the way we talk about women in the church still matters, “Because the emails I get from women whose abuse was justified as “biblical submission” stopped surprising me 2 years ago.”

We tell these stories – we hear these names – to understand that biblical womanhood is about smartness, boldness, fearlessness; not about submission and being subdued. Biblical womanhood is really about biblical personhood.

We could continue this morning. Perhaps – and likely – what we have heard this morning is overwhelming. It is understandably more than we can absorb. But these names and these stories are worth naming and hearing again and again.

But here’s why else it matters – Because there is room for all of us in the Kingdom of God.

Because the Kingdom requires all of us. We are all called to full humanity – which also means seeking the full humanity of our neighbors, male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free.

 

 

[1] Rachel Held Evans, http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/3-things-you-might-not-know-about-proverbs-31

“Around This Table,” Sermon, May 4, 2014

“Around This Table”
Luke 24.13-35

The two men shuffled along. On the road somewhere. A village called Emmaus….

A stranger sidled up beside them. Curious. “What are you talking about?”

It took them a minute to answer. The Gospel writer puts it plainly: “They stood still, looking sad.” Who wants to be the The_Road_To_Emmausfirst one to explain? To find the words, which will force them to relieve the painful reality. Finally, Cleopas answers with something like disbelief: “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem….?!”

They explain. They explain that Jesus – a “prophet mighty in deed and word – was handed over to be crucified.” And then he explains…“We had hoped…” “We had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel.”

They are disappointed. Angry. Confused. Grieving. This thing – this promise – this person – in which and in whom they had staked everything was gone – the promise: gone. The hope for the future redemption: gone. Now what?

They’re shuffling along the road – they had hoped…

I can only speak for myself, but often in the days following Easter – the weeks where we proclaim Easter is not yet over! It’s still Eastertide! – and I feel some of the same pangs of disappointment. It’s hard to believe, and I am left with the words “but we had hoped…” Maybe Easter would feel different this year. Maybe we’d finally understand – or feel more.

Here we are shuffling along the road with the two travelers – we are having a hard time with our belief. The men on the road talk about the women who shared their tale of the empty tomb, and yet they find no hope in their story. It’s deeper than disbelief – it’s the hollow aching of grief and loss that has left no room for hope and faith.

We wander down the road and feel their disappointment.

Their loss is so powerful and palpable that they nearly missed Jesus in their midst.

Did you catch what happens next?

First, this stranger (who we – with a wink – understand to be the risen Christ) begins interpreting scripture to them – which is odd, okay?

It’s odd. But it certainly got their attention. Although – they still don’t quite realize who this stranger is. They might have had some clue – some sub-conscious inkling, but they don’t know. Here’s where it gets really good.

They invite him in. They invite the stranger in, which maybe seems radical enough for some of us – inviting an odd stranger into our midst. They invite Jesus in – and after settling around the table, Jesus takes the ordinary bread on hand for the meal. He takes it, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to the men at the table.

A-ha!

They see immediately. They understand. They recognize Christ in their midst in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of the meal, in coming to the table together.

Jesus was there all along.

It’s interesting to me that after Jesus leaves the room – leaves their presence after the meal – that the disciples engage in a bit of revisionist history. They didn’t recognize him until he broke bread – and then they say “Were not our hearts burning…?” Surely we weren’t that dense to miss the risen Christ in our midst. Surely even as he walked with us we knew. And yet – they did not. The loss and disappointment was so deep it clouded their vision. (We know this experience well.)

In order to recognize Christ they had to gather around a table.

In my estimation, for my part, the table is central to how I understand this Christian faith. It is central to understanding my identity and my call – not just my vocation as pastor – my call as a follower of Christ.

In order to recognize Christ in our midst, we also come to the table. We must come to the table. We must all come to the table.

Around this table – we encounter the risen Christ.

The table points to the entirety of the Gospel – and the entirety of our faith.

Around this table we learn who we are and whose we are.

Around this table we welcome – we are welcomed, invited, by Christ, and we welcome others. We call it the Lord’s Supper because it is first and foremast Christ’s table – it is his meal to which he welcomes and invites us. When we offer an invitation to the table, it is not our table, but an invitation to join us at Christ’s table.

Around this table we share – we are one – we find unity. We call it Communion, which is to say we find unity – we are made one when we share the meal together.

We find unity as a community gathered in the name of Christ. The way we take communion – the form of the meal matters. We didn’t always take communion from individual wafers and grape juice in miniature shot glasses. And we didn’t start taking communion with individual wafers and miniature shot glasses by accident. (And by “we” here, I generally mean most Protestant churches).

Here’s a little history lesson. The shift away from a common cup and a common loaf (what we so gracefully refer to as ‘intinction’), and the shift from wine to juice, emerged out of social movements that began in the church, but sought to change the entire society.

The move away from wine as the assumed contents of our Cup began with the Temperance movement, led by a host of lay Protestant women. (I’d like to point out spear-headed by the Methodists and Presbyterians – we Baptists joined in but did not instigate!) The temperance movement began in the early 1800s, and took root in evangelical Protestant circles as a movement not just celebrating moderation in drinking, but complete abstinence.

In 1874 the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed, and one of their banner issues was ridding churches of wine at the Communion table – they promoted the use of grape juice and provided it for churches. (Conveniently enough, Charles Welch, a Methodist, was getting his start as a grape juice maker, motivated by the Temperance cause. Welch’s grape juice dominates the market today because of Christian Temperance and shifts in substance of our Communion Cup.)

As the contents of the cup changed, so did the shape and size of the cup itself. The individual communion cup emerged as a result of sanitation concerns, which “revealed deep anxieties about cleanliness and the borders of the church and of society.”[1] Now that the cup was filled with juice, and not wine – which contains germ-killing alcohol, fears intensified about contamination and disease.

Physical cleanliness and purity were not merely associated with godliness, they were equated with it – the cleaner and purer the person in physical forms, the cleaner and purer their soul. What better way to represent and preserve this than keeping communion contained, clean, and pure?

Other people nervous about the common cup were squeamish about “sharing a Communion cup with strangers – particularly the poor and other social outcasts.” The shift to individual cups, one social historian observes, has resulted in a shift in the meaning and theology of communion, “making it a solitary sacrament rather than a communal one,”[2] by “focusing on the Communion of the individual and God rather than the Communion of the entire church.”[3]

I find this history interesting for many reasons, partly as trivia, but also because it points to how important even the things that we call mere symbol can be. The Communion meal that Christ instituted was a meal, shared among friends – how different would it look to him today to observe bites of bread that could barely sustain and individual cups – and a ritual where we barely have to look into the eyes of our brothers and sisters – our fellow children of God.

How much are we really sharing at all?

The meal is intended to bring us together – in the shared cup and the shared loaf, we find equality and unity in our identity as called and blessed by Christ as God’s children. The ways we share in communion as this body can help us understand that (or prevent us from the same).

We ought also to recognize our unity at this table with Christians around the world – with all persons – all persons created, known and loved by God. Instead, our churches have so often used the table as a weapon, or a way to build walls between who belongs and who is left out.

We welcome only those who are like us, leaving out those whose theology is different. How heartbreaking it is that we have, throughout the two millennia of the church, used the table as a means of radical exclusion than radical inclusion.

We have decided that others cannot come to the table for various reasons – because they do not believe the right things, because they do not belong to the right tribe, because they aren’t members of us, because they aren’t old enough because they do not know the right three-point summary of what it all means.

Around this table we are not passing a test – at the table we embrace mystery.

Tasting the bread, sipping from the cup is not about knowing some kind of secret information – could any of us really know what it means – do any of us really understand what we are doing when we gather – when we break bread and eat together? Of course not. There should be no barriers on the table – age, gender, race, class, orientation. Those are our barriers, not Christ’s.

Around this table we find liberation. We call it Eucharist – which is a fancy way of saying it is a table of Thanksgiving. Remember that Passover is a time to celebrate, remember and re-enact God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery. It was during the Passover festival that Jesus broke bread with his disciples and now we celebrate and remember. Likewise, even in this post-Resurrection meal in this Gospel story, the disciples were liberated from their grief and their false expectations. Christ was in their midst – they were free to share and tell.

We are to celebrate, remember and re-enact this transformative meal. In celebrating the Eucharist along with the risen Christ, as we do like Cleopas and his fellow traveler, we project our hopes for the coming Kingdom of God – already in our midst, and not yet fully realized.

As Brian Wren puts it, “The Eucharist is not simply a celebration of small historical victories, but a token of the final and full realization of the Kingdom of God. Thus it is not only a subversive memorial, but a source of hope and the beginning of transfiguration.”[4]

Around this table we share a meal – we are invited to be fed, and then we are called to feed. Jesus shared meals with all kinds of people – eating together, he recognized is one of the most intimate things you can do. Don’t we all know, that it is often over a plate of food that communion happens – conversation, sharing, laughter, tears, togetherness, hopes and fears. In the same way that sharing food with strangers can transform us into friends – and sharing food with friends can transform us into family – the communion table invites us into not just a ritual where we barely get a snack, but is an invitation to a radical and transformational meal – with strangers, friends and family – where we are all transformed because we are all called children of God.

And then we are sent from the table. It is only after they share the meal – they are fed by Christ – that the disciples are compelled to go out and share. They call of Christ, though, is not merely to go and tell – it is to go and share, to go and feed. Because Christ invites us to the table, we invite others to the table. We break bread with others and are fed together.

The table is missional – meaning it points us to our mission. To break bread with other people – with all people, and to welcome all people. The table of Christ is a table with room enough for all. The kind of hospitality that we respond to at the table, and that we, then, imitate is one of “expansive welcome.”

When Christ invites us to share this meal with him, he is inviting us to transgress boundaries. This was never meant to be a safe table. This was never meant to become mere ritual. I would even posit that this was never meant to be mere symbol. It is a radical act – and is radical every time we share a common loaf and a common cup – even something as ordinary as that is revealed as incredibly counter-intuitive in the midst of a culture that tells us to remain safe, insulated and independent.

In Luke’s Gospel, we hear the two disciples invite Jesus in. They invite Jesus to their table – and at the table Jesus is revealed to them. Or more to the point, their eyes can finally recognize the risen Christ in their midst. What they realize is that the table to which they invite Jesus is Jesus’ table all along. They extend hospitality to the stranger and find Jesus in their midst – they find Jesus inviting them into sharing a meal of grace. We understand that our own acts of hospitality offer us “doorways to grace.”[5]

The table points to the heart of it all – it points to the presence of God in our midst. At the table we are fed – with real food, in community with one another. Our spirits are fed – in community with one another. At the table we meet the risen Christ – he is in our midst in our invitation and inviting us to share and share again. We are sent from this table – to feed others, to offer nourishment of body mind and soul.

 

 

 

[1] Daniel Sack, Whitebread Protestants, 11.

[2] Sack, 35.

[3] Sack, 57.

[4] Brian Wren, “Justice and Liberation in the Eucharist,” Christian Century, 1 October 1986. http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=1051

[5] Molly T. Marshall, Feasting on the Word, 422.

“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.

“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.

Whoa.

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.

“You Already Are” – Sermon, Epiphany 5

I preached this sermon at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky, Sunday, February 9, as part of Baptist Women in Ministry’s Martha Stearns Marshall Month. I also preached it at my congregation Sunday, February 16.

Matthew 5.13-20 & Isaiah 58.1-12

Today’s Gospel text is one of those passages that I have a hard time grasping. Not because what Jesus says is particularly spiritually challenging – though it is, of course. My problem is much more pedestrian than that. I simply don’t like salt. Okay, I’m American. I love salt. Potato chips. French fries. But I pick the salt off my pretzels. I “forget” to add salt to vegetables when I cook them. I don’t like to add salt to my eggs. When people come over to my house and ask for salt, I often have to go looking for it. Yes, I know. I’m a weirdo.

So when Jesus tells me I am the salt of the earth, it seems an entirely unnecessary thing to be. And all salt really evokes in me is a desire for chocolate.

My tastes aside, when you start to think and read and ponder what Jesus is up to here, his words are not only challenging, but the kind of words you can hang your spiritual hat on, so to speak.

We often re-tell this part of the Sermon on the Mount as though it is part of a series of commands, as though6a00d8341bffb053ef0134818071ae970c-500wi Jesus is telling his disciples to be something that they aren’t. Or to be it in a better way. Be saltier. Be brighter. But that’s not what he says; he says you are the salt; you are the light. He tells them what they already are. Reminding them of the gifts they already have. The qualities they already possess as functioning, participating members of God’s Kingdom. Their already-present identity in the image of God.

He is telling us: you already are the salt.  You already are the light.

This part of the Sermon on the Mount is “Sheer promise and declaration”[1] from Jesus. Jesus doesn’t command; he commissions those listening “actually to be salt and light, to be the persons they’ve been called to be.”

Pastor David Lose puts it this way: Jesus calls those listening “to season and preserve the world, to let their light shine so that others will see their good works — yes, good works! — and glorify God. Jesus isn’t asking them to earn their salvation, of course, but to live out the salvation and discipleship that has been given them as a gift.”[2]

We are invited alongside God’s work. Not only are we invited, we, really and truly, are commanded – no, commissioned – to work alongside. To get to work. To be the real living breathing working moving presence of God in our world – in fact we already are just that.

I opened up my computer to work on this sermon. I pulled up Facebook because I’m really good at procrastination. I mean, I’m really good at research. Luckily for me my procrastination led me to this – another pastor, surely working on this same passage mused:

“When, If, Until, Unless – these words are the enemies of grace.”[3] We use these words a lot, don’t we, to excuse away our own inability or unwillingness to participate in God’s work? I use these words all the time to excuse a host of inactivity.

I’ll be a good person when I find all the answers, if I do these certain things. I don’t have to start being like Jesus until I’m a grown up. I’ll be ready to work for God’s Kingdom unless the basketball game is on. When. If. Until. Unless. These are enemies of God’s grace and the Gospel.

The verb tense here is present – you are. Not you will be. The passage begs the question, does your life – do our lives as a community – make a difference? Not will they. Not in Heaven. Not when, if, until, or unless, but here and now? Are we living, worshiping, working, confident in God’s grace and being agents of flavor and light in the world – making a difference?

I really like how the Message translates these verses. Listen:

Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage. Here’s another way to put it: You’re here to be light, bringing out the God-colors in the world.

God-flavors.
God-colors.

What a beautiful way to reinterpret and redefine the metaphor Jesus uses.

How do we know if the flavor and color we add are of God, though? Keep this passage in the context of what comes before – flip back a few verses to the Beatitudes – we know salt and light when we know meekness, peacemaking, mercy, poverty of spirit. We know God-colors and God-flavors when we hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on.

Jesus does offer a warning here – don’t lose your effectiveness. Don’t lose your flavor. Don’t find yourself under a bushel – a dark place, for sure, but not one where light is particularly useful. What is your bushel? What is it that renders you ineffective?

We all have our bushels. As individuals – and as a community.

“Maybe the bushel is an inferiority complex, a lack of confidence that comes from chronically comparing ourselves to […other people, other churches]. … Or perhaps the bushel is self-absorption of internal conflicts. … Or perhaps the bushel is the fantasy church in our minds.”[4] All of these things prevent our lives from being light – from introducing the God-colors to the world around us.

The passage from Isaiah today finds the prophet trying to dig his people out from under their own self-made bushels.

In Isaiah, we find the people returning to their homelands and wanting to rebuild. Not surprisingly, they are more than a little nostalgic. That, and more than a little in shock. They miss the old ways, they long for life to be put back together, but are at a loss – how can they put the pieces back together of their old lives, their old rituals, their old worship, when they can’t even find the broken pieces shattered around them?

They do what they can. They have done what they can, and yet, despite their best efforts to do the right things, they sense God’s absence. They perceive that God has not kept the faith – while they have. They have fasted, they have sacrificed, they have done all the right things and been really good at not doing the wrong things. Or so they think.

Isaiah’s words are a call to action – or a call to new action – out from under the bushels of self-righteousness and religiosity. His words serve to remind them of who they are. They have been fasting in effort to earn God’s favor, and Isaiah offers them a new way to fast: “a new set of relationships within ongoing life.”

Instead of fasting from food or drink; instead of fasting as a means of self-denial, God calls them to a new kind of fast, a fast from denying others: “a daily fast from domination, blaming others, evil speech, self-satisfaction, entitlement and blindness to one’s privilege. The fast that God seeks calls for vigilance for justice and generosity day in and day out.”[5]

The fast God chooses is right in line with the words of Jesus. God does not call us to be in relationship with God for our own sake. In truth, we cannot be in relationship with God and God only – we “cannot have a full relationship with God without a just relationship with each other.”[6]

One of the things that strikes me most uncomfortably between the types of fasting here is the means vs. the ends. For the people’s part, fasting is a means to an end. They believe by fasting they will earn God’s favor.

If they fast, then God will answer their prayers. If they follow the rules of piety, then they will find salvation.

They follow this logic and find themselves even more removed from the light of God – from the presence of God’s holiness. The kind of fasting to which Isaiah calls them is not a means to an end, but a gift to itself. The fasting is about restoring right relationship with other people, and thereby right relationship with God. This is not in order to re-earn God’s favor, but because other people are worthy in and of themselves. We ought to treat people with justice and generosity because they are worthy of God’s kind of love and hospitality. The only ends that matter is not something we earn, but our reflection of God’s own self.

In Isaiah, the people perceive unanswered prayers. They perceive a silent God. Despite all their best efforts it seems that darkness is their home, and brokenness is their God-given (or at least God-abandoned) reality.

I have much more of an inclination, a desire, to be like Isaiah – to want to point out the false worship I see, to observe with righteous indignation the falsely placed hopes in self-righteous fasting. I see the ways that we are like the people in Isaiah: all the ways we tell ourselves – if I do this – go to church, read my bible, have a quiet time – or if I don’t do this – cuss, drink, dance – then I will know I’m favored. I hear how Isaiah would respond to this.

Instead, the challenge for me this week is to be more like Jesus. (Which is really cliché to say, because, really, aren’t we all always challenged to be more like Jesus. I digress.) I am challenged to be more like Jesus to hold up false worship and false idols in tension with the naming of who we already are. We don’t need to do these things because we are already salt and light. We are commissioned by these words to go and season, preserve, flavor the earth. To shine a light in corners of darkness. We can do that – not when, if, until, or unless, but because we already are salt and light.

God expects partnership and participation. We are not to be idle. We are not worthless. And just as Isaiah and Jesus affirm – we are useful only and as far as we are useful for, with and alongside others. We are useful when we bring out the God-flavors of the world, and when our light illumines the God-colors of the world. When we speak peace, mercy and justice in the world of violence, retribution and oppression – when we shine the light and hope of Christ in the darkest corners of despair and death – we are salt and light.

We do not fulfill our purpose when we make sacrifices only for God, or when we fast with the intent to earn our way somewhere – when we keep false appearances of piety, but ignore the real need. How can salt do its job sitting on a shelf? How can light do its job if it does not get right in the midst of the darkness?

When we invite, and allow God to be present among us, and when we respond to God’s call to work alongside God, we find light, we find God’s holiness, we find our own usefulness in bringing out the flavors of the world, as light in dark places.

If we are salt and light – the very presence of God’s Spirit in the world, then are our salty and bright lives the very voice of God when others face their own darkness? When others wonder about the presence of God, the silence of God in the face of their lament, their pleas, their wonderings, what if we really do, by building just relationships, we speak the very peace and righteousness of God? Not in any kind of savior-complex, but in our presence. In our willingness to be the salt and be the light Jesus calls us, in our willingness to be useful, in our willingness to go to the dark places, our lives bear the very presence of the Holy One.

We don’t bring out the God-flavors and colors by following rigid rules of piety – not saying certain words, or ascribing everything to simplified clichés. This is a faith bigger than Pinterest-worthy sayings. We bring out the God-flavors and God-colors when we seek out the lost, when we hunger and thirst for the righteousness of liberation and compassion, when we go to the darkest places and sit, shining our little lights, until the light itself wins out.

Salt is poured out – just as Isaiah urges the people in verse 10: “pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted.” We are to pour out of our very selves out the works and presence of God – liberation, generosity, compassion. Our light, then is a light of freedom, grace, love. And not later – now.

Be emboldened by this good news, friends, that Jesus is talking to us – we are salt and we are light. Not if, when, until, or unless, but we are. Go and be – go and show the world God’s colors – even into the darkest places.

And see, this is my kind of evangelism. Maybe you’re like me and you get a little squeamish when the conversation starts about evangelism. I’ll be honest: I don’t like the word. And I don’t even want to reclaim it anymore. But this passage, if it is about anything at all, it’s about evangelism. Not door-to-door stuff. Not street corner stuff. Not even relationship-in-exchange-for-salvation stuff. It is evangelism that seeks to flavor the world with God’s love and grace – simply because that is who we already are. We are already loved and free, so we move in the world out of that identity and to share that identity.

Go be salty. Go be light. In fact – you already are.


[1] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[4] Amy Oden, “Commentary on Matthew 5.13-20,” Working Preacher, RCL, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1901

[5] Amy Oden, “Commentary on Isaiah 58.1-9a [9b-12],” Working Preacher.

[6] Oden.