Hearing unto Life

Romans 5:12-19 (Sermon)

On Ash Wednesday, Rev. Kennedy and I placed ashes on foreheads and whispered the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The alb became our sackcloth, the stole a millstone, and our words reminders that the wage and curse of sin is death. We anointed fragile and vulnerable people not with the oil of life, but with the ash of death.

The sermon carried a glimmer of hope, yet I was taken by the deep tenor of the service. Life eclipsed by death. The moment driven home when I placed ashes on the foreheads of my own children. My hands, my voice, my body–which gestated, nurtured, sustained, warmed, comforted and consoled my babies–delivered their sentence: death. Woven through the reminder of return to dust was the maternal apology that from this I cannot protect them. The great reaper knocks on every single door and collects.

Just as through this one person sin entered the cosmos and through [this] sin death, and in this way death spread into all humanity, on the basis of one all sinned. (Rom 5:12)

In Romans, Paul marries together sin and death in such a way that (grammatically) to tear one from the other would be to destroy both. The presence of death is evidence of the presence of sin.[1] That we die is, for Paul, evidence that something has gone terribly wrong. How has this come to be?

To answer, Paul, in vv. 13-14, yanks Adam out of Genesis 3 and makes him stand trial. Paul makes it clear it is not the Law that caused sin. (As if we could just get rid of the law to get rid of sin, if we did would only eliminate the exposure of sin.[2]) That there is death, which existed before the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, there is sin because death is before the Law was.[3] For Paul, before there is the Law there is death, before death there is Adam and with him the “sin.” Before the manifestation of the “sin,” there is the problem.

What is this “problem that thrust all of humanity into the cold, boney arms of death?[4] It’s not an issue of will, it’s an issue of hearing.

The language Paul employs talking about the “sin” of Adam sounds more like mis-stepping and slipping[5] than willful disobedience. It’s aiming but missing the mark. It’s trying to walk but falling down. It’s being well intentioned and making a huge mistake. You can love and cause pain.

In v.19 things get interesting. It’s here we get the first reference to “disobedience” and “obedience.” Again, the words chosen for the discussion are built from the concept of hearing.[6] And herein lies the problem that precedes the “sin”: hearing wrongly v. hearing rightly. (Shema O, Israel the core of Jewish liturgy and would have been coursing through Paul’s veins.) Paul creates a scene where Adam misheard and (thus) mis-stepped.

Going back to Gen 3, to the intellectual cage match between Eve and the serpent, something revelatory occurs. When tempted with the “forbidden” fruit, Eve without hesitation tells the serpent, “‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die,”’” (Gen 3:2-3). Do you hear the problem? Eve misquotes the prohibition to the serpent.

In Genesis 2:15-17, Adam is created out of dust and is inspired by God’s breath. Then he’s brought into the garden to work and have dominion over it. “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die,’” (Gen 2:15-17). Who received the prohibition? Adam.  According to the narrative fluidity of the two chapters, who relayed it to Eve? Adam. What was the problem resulting in the situation at the tree? Not the ingesting of the fruit, that’s the wage (the fruit) of “sin” which partook of death. The problem: someone misheard.

Adam was spoken to first. And then Eve. One of them or both of them misheard. Did they love God? We can assume they did. Did they want to do poorly? No. They intended well and mis-stepped because the fundamental problem of humanity is hardness of heart resulting in a stiff neck preventing the hearing of hearing,[7] hearing so deeply that you do (Shema). We can be God-inspired, God-breathed creations, placed in paradise, and still have massive hearing problems.

Martin Luther explains that part of the original sin we are born into is not only a lack of uprightness in the entire (inner and outer) person, but a “nausea toward the good.”[8] Why is the idea of good, of God, so loathsome? Because it’s an issue of hearing. I hear God as a threat to me because I mishear. That God is and reigns comes to me as threat: threat to myself, my will, my reason, my perception of what is good, etc. The proclamation that God is is flat out offensive to me; it means I am not the queen I think I am.

Thus, when the law comes, it exposes my predicament, plight, and problem. In the Law’s ability to expose, I blame it for my predicament; ignorance is bliss. Had the law never come, I’d not know I was stuck. But now in seeing that I’m stuck, I’m angry, and I blame the law for my stuckness, which I was before the law came. But I blame wrongly because I hear wrongly.[9]

This is the original sin that we are born into. We are not evil and horrible, willfully bent on disobedience and destruction. Rather, we’ve genetically inherited poor hearing and this results in disobedience, missing the mark, and mis-stepping, and thus into death. To hear wrongly is to die; to hear rightly is to live. We need to be caused to hear rightly. The great Shema O, Israel[10] goes forth, but who has ears to hear so deeply that they hit the mark, step rightly, to walk and not slip?

Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. It is he who hears rightly, steps rightly, hits the mark and walks without slipping. He is God incarnate, the word made flesh[11] who proclaims the word of God, obeys the word of God, and performs the word of God he hears. Jesus proclaims the reign of God, he lives the reign of God, he is the reign of God. This is the one who is baptized by John in the river Jordan and hears God proclaim him as God’s divine son. This is also the one who has heard the word of God so well he will defeat the attacks of the evil one, being successful where Israel wasn’t. Shema O, Israel.

Just as we who are born of flesh are born into Adam’s imperfect hearing resulting in disobedience and death, we are reborn by hearing through the giving of ears to hear in the proclamation of Christ Crucified. In this encounter with God in the event of faith (hearing), we are brought through death and are recreated into Christ’s perfect hearing resulting in obedience.[12]

When God acts on behalf of God’s people, God doesn’t merely contend with “disobedience” (that’s what we do). God contends with the problem by giving the free gift of new, circumcised[13] hearts and spirits which lead to obedience.[14] God gives the free gift of the grace of and righteousness of God in Christ Jesus, making the unrighteous righteous. It is the grace of Christ that eclipses the sin of Adam;[15] it is the life of Christ that drowns out the death of Adam; it is the perfect hearing of Christ that resurrects all who are stuck in the death of the mishearing of Adam.[16] It is the supernova of Christmas and Easter that engulfs and swallows the sting of death.

It is Christ, the righteous one, who heals those who are lame, declares clean those who are unclean, gives sight to those who can’t see and hearing to those who can’t hear. It is Christ who is the free gift of God’s grace and righteousness.[17] It is Christ who speaks to those condemned to death as criminals with his pronouncement of acquittal and restores them to life. This is the substance of the church’s witness to the world in her speech and sacraments. In hearing rightly, we speak to and act rightly in the world. In hearing rightly, we are brought to the font and table, witnessing to our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. And there we are anointed not with ash but with oil, sealed as Christ’s own and into his obedience, fed by Christ’s hand, hearing the comfort of the divine whisper, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[18]

 

 

 

[1] Luther LW 25. 298. “…if death comes by sin and if without sin there would be no death, then sin is in all of us. Thus it is not personal sin that he is talking about here. Otherwise it would be false to say that death had entered by sin, but rather we ought to say that it came by the will of God.”

[2] Luther LW 25. 303. “And thus it is not understood to mean that sin existed until the Law came and then ceased to exist, but that sin received an understanding of itself which it did not possess before. And the words of the apostle clearly indicate this interpretation: ‘But sin was not counted where there was no law,’ as if to say that through the Law, which it had preceded, sin was not abolished but imputed.”

[3] Luther LW 25. 298. “…sin was in the world before the Law was given, etc. (v. 13). Actual sin also was in the world before Moses, and it was imputed, because it was also punished by men; but original sin was unknown until Moses revealed it in Gen. 3.”

[4] Luther LW 25. 299. “Note how at the same time it is true that only one man sinned, that only one sin was committed, that only one person was disobedient, and yet because of him many were made sinners and disobedient.”

[5] Α῾μαρτα´νω: I miss the mark, I sinned, I made a mistake. η῾ παρα´βασις: the going aside, deviation, overstepping. το` παρα´πτωμα: the trespass, false step, lapse, slip, sin.

[6] Η῾ παρακοη´: the hearing amiss, by implication disobedience; imperfect hearing. η῾ υ῾πακοη´: obedience, submissiveness, compliance.

[7] Deuteronomy 30:6ff

[8] Luther LW 25. 299. What is original sin, “Second, however, according to the apostle and the simplicity of meaning in Christ Jesus, it is not only a lack of a certain quality in the will, nor even only a lack of light in the mind or of power in the memory, but particularly it is a lack of uprightness and of the power of all the faculties both of body and soul and of the whole inner and outer man. On top of all this, it is propensity toward evil. It is a nausea toward the good, a loathing of light and wisdom, and a delight in error and darkness, a flight from and an abomination of all good works, a pursuit of evil…”

[9] Luther LW 25. 307. “And this is true, so that the meaning is: the Law came and without any fault on the part of the Law or in the intentions of the Lawgiver, it happened that it came for the increasing of sin, and this happened because of the weakness of our sinful desire, which was unable to fulfill the Law.”

[10] Deuteronomy 6.

[11] John 1

[12] Luther LW 25. 305. Luther makes reference later to 1 Corinthians 15:22.

[13] Deuteronomy 30:6

[14] Ezekiel 36:24-27, Jeremiah 31:31-34

[15] Luther LW 25. 306. “This gift is ‘by the grace of that one Man,’ that is, by the personal merit and grace of Christ, by which He was pleasing to God, so that He might give this gift to us. This phrase ‘by the grace of that one Man’ should be understood of the personal grace of Christ, corresponding to the personal sin of Adam which belonged to him, but the ‘gift’ is the very righteousness which has been given to us.”

[16] Luther LW 25. 306. “Thus also original sin is a gift (if I may use the term) in the sin of the one man Adam. But ‘the grace of God’ and ‘the gift’ are the same thing, namely, the very righteousness which is freely given to us through Christ. And He adds this grace because it is customary to give a gift to one’s friends. But this gift is given even to His enemies out of His mercy, because they were not worthy of this gift unless they were made worthy and accounted as such by the mercy and grace of God.”

[17] Luther LW 25. 305-6. “The apostle joins together grace and the gift, as if they were different, but he does so in order that he may clearly demonstrate the type of the One who was to come which he has mentioned, namely, that although we are justified by God and receive His grace, yet we do not receive it by our own merit, but it is His gift, which the Father gave to Christ to give to men, according to the statement in Eph. 4:8, ‘When He ascended on high. He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.’”

[18] These final few thoughts in this paragraph are influenced by the profound work of Dr. W. Travis McMaken in his book, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth Emerging Scholars Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013. It was difficult to find one quotation to demonstrate how I was influenced—the entire book is a masterpiece. However, for the sake of space, I think this gets at the thrust of it: “The objective-subjective character of baptism as a mode of the church’s gospel proclamation confronts those baptized with the demands of the gospel thereby proclaimed. As mode of the church’s gospel proclamation, baptism confronts those baptized with the message that they were baptized in Jesus Christ’s baptism, died in his death, and were raised in his resurrection. This baptismal proclamation calls those that it confronts to, as Paul puts it, “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Such an exhortation requires neither a baptismal transfer of grace nor a baptismal ratification of personal commitment; rather, it flows from the objective-subjective and holistically particular installation of the church’s gospel proclamation within the history of those baptized.”233-34.

Love Wins

2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (Homily)

When my eldest was in first grade, I received an email from his teacher one after-noon. The email from his first-grade teacher informed me that my son–the ever obedient, rubric hitting, perfectionism of epic first born status—had dropped the f-bomb in class. The email didn’t entail many details, but that the teacher wanted me to know so that I could address it at home. I spent a couple of minutes pondering the email. I had a few thoughts, as any parent would. I messaged his dad and let him know what had happened. Since I was the stay-at-home parent, I knew it was my duty to handle this situation. When my husband asked me what I was going to do, I told him I had it handled.

When Quinn came home, we sat on the couch and he did what he did every afternoon after school: he told me about his day. I waited, hoping he would tell me of his own volition about his rather bold and colorful vocabulary word used earlier that day. Nothing. “Anything else happen today worth noting…making mention of…sharing…” I tried leading him to tell me. Still nothing. Silence. Then I looked at him, and said, “I got an email from your teacher today…” I didn’t even finish the sentence before my son was a mess on the couch, weeping and apologizing and explaining what had happened. I held the sobbing heap of little boy while he told me the story. When he was finished and a bit more collected, I told him that I loved him. Then I said to him, let’s have a treat; how about a root beer float…

What caused that particular response from me? This: knowing my son well enough, I knew he had already suffered his consequence. The consequence had already been given, all I had to do was do what I love: comfort him. I didn’t need to bring more “command” and “demand” to his life, he didn’t need a follow up consequence. It was clear to me, in the way he was acting about the situation, that his error was known and felt. To add more consequence would be me adding an extra layer of condemnation to the situation that already (clearly) had condemnation. Adding more condemnation is adding threat where threat is already felt, and this leads to death.

Russian author, Dostoevsky, beautifully articulates the result of heaping threat upon threat, and condemnation upon condemnation in his brilliant novel Crime and Punishment. A horse, yoked to a buggy, is commanded by its owner to pull said buggy packed with a lot of people. So many people that the buggy can’t move, no matter how hard the horse pulls. In the story, the master of the horse commands the horse to move. But the horse can’t. Then the whips come out. Nothing. The horse can’t move even though it is desperately trying. Then, in what appears to be a fit of maniacal rage, the master starts beating the horse with pipe and stick demanding and commanding it to move. The horse, after many noble attempts to obey and move the buggy, collapses, dead, under the blows.

More harshness, more cruelty, more demand, more threat, more fear never, ever, produces the thing that is desired. Being increasingly harsh and cruel, threatening and demanding with others and with ourselves will never ever get us the very thing desired. Threatening someone into compliance will only result in temporary surface obedience with eventual and corresponding, resentment running very deep. Hating yourself will only result in self-destruction: you can’t shame yourself into confidence.

I’ve said it before: it’s hard being human; why do we make it harder for others and ourselves? Our lives are fragile and fleeting…doesn’t life offer enough suffering of its own? Do we have to add unnecessary and additional pain and torment? Here’s a powerful secret: Love–(love love) love that goes to the depths with us in our worst–will always generate the very thing desired because it creates comfort and freedom for the beloved. Love doesn’t seek to gain obedience from the beloved, but love can’t help generating more love.

This love-love is the “comfort” Paul speaks of in our passage. And here’s the foundational truth to why I responded to my son the way I did: I’ve been radically loved to such an extent that my life is a 180 degree turn from what it was when I was encountered by God in the event of faith. At my worst, I was loved…as is…by God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. And over the years, as that love has worked its way into my very being, I’ve grown more and more into the woman I am in Christ—faults and all.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. (2 Cor 1:3-4)

At the end of the day love wins because Jesus the Christ, back on Calvary’s mountain, died, descended into hell and liberated into comfort and freedom those trapped under the weight of condemnation and threat—a liberation that is true from age to age to age.

Love wins because Love won.

The Love of the Lover

John 15:12-17 (Homily)

A few years back, on a cold winter afternoon, I received a phone call from my across-the-street neighbor.

She wanted to give us some home-made rolls, fresh baked. Of course, I couldn’t resist. So, I put on shoes, grabbed my new born son, Jack, in my arms–wrapped in a blanket–and headed out. I didn’t even pause to consider our front porch stairs and the effects of the recent (that day) winter weather. As I stepped on to that first stair, I hit a patch of black ice. My feet went out from under me. I grabbed the railing to stop my fall, but to no avail, I still fell. I landed three stairs down. My heart raced. Was Jack OK?! I looked at him, still cradled in my arms; he let out a huge shriek. I then examined him from head to toe…not one scrape or bump or possible bruise did I find on his fairly small, 12 week old, newborn body. I did, as one does, praise the Lord.

Somehow, during the fall, my maternal instincts kicked in; somehow, I was able to contort and twist my body so that I was the one who absorbed the fall–between me elbow and me bum–and protected my baby. I didn’t think about it…it just happened. I have often wondered what I would do should I slip down the stairs carrying one of my babies…I have never been able to come up with a good “exit” plan. You don’t get training for such an event; you just hope it never happens. And, in that very real moment, love for my child poured forth un-summoned and I took the entire fall with my body.

I bore the pain in my body for my son when we fell. Love actively takes the other into its safe keeping because the well-being of the beloved is the well-being of the lover. Love bonds one to another in such a way that the beloved’s pain is the lover’s pain; the beloved’s joy, the lover’s joy. The lover grieves with the beloved, gets angry with the beloved, rejoices with the beloved. It is a full and embodied presence of the lover with the beloved, otherwise, it would be impossible for the lover to feel the grief, the anger, the joy of the beloved. As people encountered by God in the event of faith, we are deeply and intimately connected one to another, like a mother and her child. Your pain is my pain; your joy, my joy.

And so it is with Christ. Christ has loved us with a full-embodied, self-giving, love-gift.  In this gift of love the love of God is given to us (to you, thus, to me), and the love of one for another. John’s Christ declares, 

“‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.  You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another,’” (John 15:12-14, 16-17).

The love of Christ for the world, drives him to take on flesh and to be born into the human predicament, the human problem. The Christ came into the world to identify in a real and embodied way the plight of humanity, the plight of the oppressed and marginalized, those stuck in situations dominated by the powers of sin and death. The pain of the beloved the lover feels; when Saul is persecuting the church, Jesus reveals himself to Saul and asks him, “Why are you persecuting…me?” Not: the followers of the way, or the young church….but me. In love the beloved is united to the lover and the lover feels to the core the pain and suffering, the joy and celebration of the beloved.

In your pain and in your suffering, you are not alone. In your joy and in your celebration, you are not alone. Not only are your family and friends here, and your teachers, but, more than that, almighty God of the cosmos is also present with you by the power of the Holy Spirit, dwelling in you and among you, uniting you to the Christ by faith by God’s grace. To gaze upon the cross is to see God united in solidarity with you even in your suffering, with the suffering of all humanity, with the suffering of the world. To gaze upon the cross is to see love at work, love loving the beloved, in an embodied full way unto the depths of human experience: suffering unto death.

Beloveds, you are you are heard, you are seen, you are loved; you are the beloved.

 

 

 

Like Midwives

Luke 2:22-40 (Sermon)

To listen:

Introduction

There are longings in the heart we cannot define with words. We yearn for something or someone so much that our hands shake and our fingers ache to touch, feel, grasp and embrace, tightly. We cannot speak; caught in moments of deep longing, words do more violence than good we merely groan. We groan in the presence of love and desire, we groan under the weight of expectation and waiting, we groan under the pressure of demand and captivity.

When we feel we are stuck, we groan: another bill, *groan*, the car needs more repairs, *groan*, the house remains in disarray, *groan*, the fight happens…again, *groan*, the job steals more of your life, *groan*.  Shame and regret, grief and sorrow, your nightly bedfellows…*groan*

Nationally and globally, more groaning: another bomb, another shooting, another threat, another fear, another contentious election just in time to divide families for the holidays. Many people in the world and in our country groan from hunger, cold, isolation, sickness, poorness, from racism, sexism, classism (etc.), from real captivity and physical oppression. *Groan*

Human existence is hard. So, we groan. When will this end? Some of us try to fight the feeling of doom through a positive attitude–faking it until we are making it. Some of us stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to hear the cries and groans of others (surely ours are loud enough). And some of us slip off into entertainment and extreme forms of destructive self-soothing (drugs, alcohol, food, money, sex, etc.). “The less I can see and hear, the less real the fear is,” goes the lie. “Ignorance is bliss!” proclaims desperation. Everything around us is burning down and we’re all, “To blessed to be stressed!” Human beings are remarkable creatures especially when we do not want to face the truth.

So, we numb. Check out. Look the other way. Stop caring. But numbing only works for a moment and isn’t a long-term solution. Before too long we need more and more and more….and in this numbing we deny our humanity because part of being human is suffering in the realm of compassion and empathy: to hear the cries of others, to acknowledge our own.

Something kinda sad about/The way that things have come to be
Desensitized to everything/What became of subtlety?
How can this mean anything to me/If I really don’t feel anything at all?
I’ll keep digging/Til I feel something
It’s not enough/I need more
Nothing seems to satisfy
I said I don’t want it/I just need it
To breathe, to feel, to know I’m alive[1]

Jesus Presented at the Temple

Luke tells us that Jesus’s parents, in obedience with the Law,[2] bring him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord–it was custom for parents to bring their first-born sons. In the Passover event, God claimed all the first-born sons of Israel—from then onward—as his own.[3]  The redeemer has to be redeemed not because he is sinful; he’s not. He has to be redeemed because he is a first-born son of Israel.[4] For the meager price of the lives of two turtle doves,[5] Jesus’s poor parents[6] and the young Jesus participate in the divine rescue plan for the cosmos.[7] Luke is clear to portray this small family has followed the law: Jesus is the son of God and the son of Humanity.

Enter Simeon.

And there was in Jerusalem a man whose name (was Simeon) and he was a righteous and God-fearing man who was awaiting/expecting the consolation/comfort of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him. (Lk 2:25)

Luke tells us Simeon is righteous and God-fearing; and, he was awaiting and expecting the comfort[8] of Israel. One could say that Simeon wasn’t merely hoping for or occasionally thinking about this one to come, but was actively looking, eagerly waiting, anxiously awaiting the fulfillment of the warning from God made to him in v.26.[9] (Simeon was warned to keep an eager eye out for the one to come who is the Christ, and this anxious awaiting would be his duty until that day came.) That day has come. A humble couple shows up at the temple with their son; Simeon lays eyes and hands on the long yearned for Messiah. Luke establishes Simeon as the reliable witness[10] to this first-born son of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth: this one is the consolation of Israel, the light unto the nations, the salvation of the world.

In fulfillment of all the law and the prophets, Jesus will not be a comfort to all; there will be those who come into conflict with the Christ, the savior of the Lord.[11] Just like the prophets of old who stood in the midst of Israel calling out the rampant injustices and oppression caused by the leaders and rulers of Israel, so will Jesus. There are those in Israel who will trip over his teaching and his actions like a stumbling block;[12] there are those in the nations who will consider his words and life foolishness. In ushering in the consummation of God’s divine dominion of peace and justice,[13] mercy and humility through waging a cosmic battle against the powers of sin and death, Jesus, the Lord’s Messiah[14]—God of very God—will come face to face with those who oppose the will of God. Thoughts will be exposed, deeds and intentions revealed,[15] no one will be spared. Not even Mary herself can step in between her baby boy[16] and the fate of some yet unknown sapling.

Thus says the Lord, See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Malachi 3:1-2)

The sword of God goes forth, brandishing its strength and power in steel and edge, dividing the people of Israel and the Nations, some on the left and others on the right. And the dividing line drawn will be between those who cause the will of God to go forward and those who stand in opposition. In Luke’s narrative account of the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and raised, it’s best to side with God’s will and never against it, for the oppressed and marginalized and not against them. “The way of the love with which God has laid hold of our hearts, and led us into tribulation, is the way of a hope that cannot be disappointed and will not be disappointed.”[17] God deals justly with those who oppose him and oppress his people.

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (Malachi 3:3-4)

The light of God shines brightly, illuminating with penetrating rays the just and unjust alike, revealing who is who. This light Immerses the world in the brightness of the reign of God, exposing our sickness and desperate situations, moving the world into light out of darkness.[18] While in the dark we cannot tell who is who, in the light our deeds are exposed. We see the ground under our feet revealed for what it is: a mire from which we cannot become unstuck by our own power.

Conclusion

Human existence is hard. So, we groan. But rather than numb that groan, let us be lifted by the vocal vibrations, and, like a woman in the throes of labor, let us groan and push new life into a world being overrun by hopelessness, canceling, and just plain quitting. Let us be the midwives of God, participating in the divine glory[19] established on earth by the first born of God, Jesus Christ through his life, death, resurrection and ascension, and coaxing and urging new life into the world like the Hebrew midwives did so many 1000s of years ago as they stood in defiance of the oppression and tyranny and genocide of Pharaoh.[20]

We who are encountered by God in the event of faith have active and abundant hope. As Rev Kennedy preached a few weeks we are defiant lights in the darkness bringing hope into the world. To build on the image, we are also verbal and active swords soberly battling against the powers of sin and death with and in God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Because, everything here and in the cosmos belongs to God[21] due to the totality of what Christ did…for the entire world.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;  for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope  that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:19-21)

“For now already God’s Spirit is at work in us,” writes Helmut Gollwitzer, “…and through him the love of God which fills our hearts, our wills, and our thoughts, and sets them in motion.”[22] We are bound and united together with Christ through the proclamation of the gospel, and it is this word that renders us to dust and recreates us into newness and fullness of life,[23] into the absurd messengers of hope–the name of Jesus Christ[24]–and thrusts us into the world to follow the footsteps of our Lord as the children of God. To quote EbonyJanice Moore, “[The] Earth is in literal pain waiting for me to show up.”[25]

Beloved, the earth is pain waiting for you to wake up and show up. So, Let us love as we have been radically loved.

 

 

 

 

[1] Tool “Stinkfist” Aenima 1997; I took the liberty to reorder the chorus after the 2nd verse.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK 2010. 41, “Throughout his Gospel, Luke presents Jesus as obedient to the Law and to the observances of Jewish religion. The one significant and repeated exception is when such observances, or the Law itself, are used to subvert God’s main commandment of love, in which case Jesus refuses to allow the Law to be used in such a way.” But his family are in fact good and faithful Jews.

[3] Gonzalez 41-2, This particular law that is being obeyed here: “In this particular case, the requirement was that every firstborn male child be redeemed—bought back—from God. This was based on the story of the Passover, when the angel of the Lord brought death to all the firstborn among the Egyptians, but ‘passed over’ the houses of the children of Israel, whose doors were sealed with the blood of a lamb. As result, God claimed possession of every firstborn male in Israel…” (Num 3:13).

[4] Gonzalez 42, “Curiously, Luke tells us that the Redeemer has to be redeemed, has to be bought back. This is not because he has sinned, but simply because he is a firstborn, and all the firstborn in Israel belong to God.”

[5] Gonzalez 42, “The paschal lamb that was sacrificed is a type of Jesus. Jesus himself is the new Passover, for in him God shows mercy to us. According to Luke and the other Synoptic Gospels, the last meal of Jesus with his disciples before the crucifixion is a paschal meal. It is there that he instituted the Lords Supper or Eucharist Here, at the presentation in the temple, another Passover theme appears: Jesus the firstborn is to be redeemed by the sacrifice of two turtledoves, and he will then redeem all humankind by his own sacrifice.”

[6] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT Ed. Joel B. Green. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 141; Douglas qtd in Green. “Here Luke portrays Mary as faithful to the law, and his family as not wealthy. ‘Following the birth of a son, the mother was impure for one week after which she was bathed as a means of purification. Following this, she remained at a secondary level of impurity for thirty-three days, during which time she could touch nothing holy. She then presented an offering—if she were poor, two turtledoves or two pigeons (Lev 12:8; cf. 12:6).’”

[7] Green 140-1, “Hence, these ‘normal’ occurrences are laden with narrative purpose, redirecting attention to the plan of God, revealing again that Mary and Joseph are willing supporters of God’s aim, and certifying that Jesus will operate from within God’s purpose.”

[8] παρακλησιν

[9] And there was a warning by God to him by the Holy Spirit that he will not see death before he would see the Christ of the Lord.

[10] Green 144, “This may be why the focal point of the characterization of Simeon in this narrative is his believability, In multiple ways-a character reference (from the unimpeachable narrator) supporting his piety, his status as an agent of the Holy Spirit, his physical location in the Jerusalem temple, and his capacity to borrow heavily from Isaiah to express his praise to God—Simeon presented as a reliable witness.”

[11] Green 143-4, “In particular, Simeon’s prophetic utterances surface Luke’s emphasis on the universality of the effects of Jesus’ mission. Simeon also introduces in the clearest way thus far the motif of conflict that will pervade the Lukan narrative. Not all will take the side of God’s salvific purpose; some, in fact, will oppose Jesus, God’s salvific instrument.”

[12] Green 145, …God’s mighty work exalts some, humbles others (1:52-53; cf. Isa 40:3). The vocabulary is absent, but the well-known image of God as the stone that causes God’s own people to stumble is echoed in Simeon’s words (cf. Isa 8:14-15; 28:13, 16).

[13] Green 145, Consolation as restoration of Is. Under reign of God used here specifically “Undoubtedly, then, this usage rests on the Isaianic context that is otherwise resoundingly echoed in Simeon’s Song. This anticipation is theocentric, emphasizing God’s intervention to deliver Israel from its enemies and so to usher in the epoch of peace under the peaceful, just dominion of God.”

[14] Green 146, “The ‘consolation of Israel’ of which Isaiah spoke was promised by God and related to his own, personal intervention in world affairs. For Simeon, who speaks for God, the coming of the ‘consolation of Israel’ is construed as the appearance of the Lord’s Messiah. It is still God’s aim reaching its consummation, but that purpose is being realized in the coming of God’s Son, the ‘Lord’s Messiah.’”

[15] Green 149, “Simeon emphasizes the identification of Jesus himself as this point of crisis, the one destined within God’s own purpose to reveal the secret thoughts of those who oppose the divine aim (cf. Luke 12:1-2).”

[16] Green 149, “The image of the sword, then, relates to Jesus’ mission of segregating those within Israel who embrace God’s salvific will from those who do not. In fulfilling this divine role, he will be opposed, just as God’s aim is opposed; indeed, the opposition will be such that it will reach as far as the experience of Mary.”

[17] Gollwitzer 104

[18] Green 148, “Through God’s agent of salvation, people do not merely see evidence of the advent of God’s dominion, they are engulfed in it; they are, as it were, led from the dominion of darkness into the light.”

[19] Jürgen Moltmann “Claremont Lecture” qtd in Stephen D. Morrison Jürgen Moltmann in Plain English. Columbus, OH: Beloved Publishing, 2018. 213. “The key promise for the development of my eschatology is to be found in Isaiah’s vision: ‘The whole earth is full of his glory’ (6:3)”

[20] Exodus 1:15ff

[21] Moltmann qtd in Morrison, 222. “The confession of Hope has completely slipped through the church’s fingers…There can be no question of God’s giving up anything or anyone in the whole world, either today or in eternity…The end has to be: Behold, everything is God’s Jesus comes as the one who has borne the sins of the world.”

[22] Gollwitzer 105

[23] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice: An introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2017. 157. “The church exists as an earthly-historical community insofar as it is gathered together by this message, that is to say, insofar as this message penetrates through people’s privilege and produces new forms of life. These new forms of life are a necessary consequence of hearing the gospel message.”

[24]Helmut Gollwitzer “Hope for the Hopeless” The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis. Trans. David Cairns. Edingburgh: T&T Clark, 1980. 103. Jesus Christ is a name of hope “And now with this hope, whither are we going? Not directly to heaven, but back into our earthly life, and that means into tribulation, into hopes that can be disappointed, into battles into which he sends us as his disciples, into the unpeaceful world as peacemakers, in to solidarity with the hungry and the enslaved and the prisoners.”

[25] Layla Saad The Good Ancestor Podcast Ep. 003: #TheGoodAncestor EbonyJanice Moore. Feburary 13, 2019. https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/good-ancestor-podcast/e/58754729?refid=asa&autoplay=true

Don’t Move so Fast

Matthew 3:13-17 (Homily)

Christmas is over and now we are thrust into the day to day of regular life. Entering the second week of school, it can feel as if we never had Christmas break. Everything picks up where it seems to have left off. Even for me. Even though I’ve an entirely new grade of students sitting at my desks, it’s as if they were always there. Humans are quite remarkable that way: resilient. New becomes normal quickly.

But yet, the events of Christmas did happen. The baby was born. As someone who has had a baby (or a few), I know for a fact that life does *not* just go back to normal within in a day or two. It changes. Forever. And in light of Christmas, the life of the world changes. And yet we seem to skip right over it like we’re in some cosmic competitive game of religious hopscotch.

Our liturgical calendar doesn’t help us either. Liturgically, we moved from the epiphany—the affirmation of Jesus as God incarnate, the long-awaited Christ—to the baptism of Jesus–the affirmation of the affirmation, if you will. So, it would seem we’ve all just moved on from Christmas and are thrust headlong into the descent to Good Friday.

But there’s still Christmas work to be done. This is exactly what happens as Jesus is baptized. As Jesus is baptized and he is affirmed in his divine sonship and belovedness, he leaves the Jordan and will proceed with his ministry. For Jesus, there is Christmas work to be done—it isn’t strictly about getting to the cross as fast as possible. That event will happen and in its own time. But first, there’s healing, feeding, finding, and releasing that needs to be done. African American pastor, author, civil-rights activist, and theologian, Howard Thurman,[1] writes,

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.[2]

However, I want to highlight something that isn’t in the text: I want to add a pause for a moment before we all head out of the Jordan and out of Christmas. Before we do anything, we have to find our footing in Christmas. Before we can even begin to appreciate and understand Easter, we have to locate ourselves in the event of faith in the encounter with God in the season of Christmas. To become substantial actors and doers of the work of Christmas, we must find ourselves encountered by God in Christ born a baby in a manager; we must be encountered in a way that undoes the very fabric of our preconceived notions of the world and of ourselves. Because it is in this encounter where we are brought to the end of the selves we think we are in a world we think we know and ushered into the selves we are but didn’t know in a world we hadn’t seen but see clearly now. We must first lose ourselves in order to find ourselves. We are of no earthly good unless we come to terms with who and what we are; we can’t pull someone else up if we don’t have our own good footing in our known strength and ability.

And in order to do this, we need a moment. We need a pause. And there’s no better week than this week—a week dedicated to your wellness. Take these next few days to just be, to just exist; to feel the sensations of the miracle of breathing, the exhilaration of physical existence, and the weight of emotional life. Take time to look and see, listen and hear, touch and feel; take time to notice the beauty of your friends and of your own wonderful and absolutely amazing creation.

Slow everything down. Live. Take that deep and much needed inhale and release a slow exhale. Be present. Receive and give. Rest. Press into being. Lean. Be aware of your mind and body. Be embodied. And remember you are loved. Beloved.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Thurman?scrlybrkr

[2] https://www.bread.org/sites/default/files/downloads/howard-thurman.pdf. This poem, as well as the idea for this homily, came to my attention by mention from a colleague I was listening to recently.

Zion Comes; The Christ is Born

Isaiah 53:1-10 (Sermon)

Have you ever been trapped? I have. I’ve been trapped by my big brother. As kids, he’d chase me through the house, yelling, “Pick your exits!” Meaning: make the choices you need to make to get outside. However, I’d panic and make just one irrational choice, and end up hiding deep in a closet or locked behind the bathroom door. Waiting…waiting for help or for the menace to leave.

I’ve felt trapped when as a young adult struggle against a destructive lifestyle that was running me into the ground. I was powerless against these forces that were controlling my days and night. No matter how hard I fought, I couldn’t break free from self-destructive behaviors. I was trapped and I need help, something or someone to intervene.

Have you felt trapped? Unable to break free? Liberty just so close but so far away?

I’ve felt trapped now, not always knowing what to do or how to move forward. Sometimes we put on a façade that things are all put together, but they aren’t always put together. False confidence, soothing and charming grins, and white lies pave our fool’s gold paved roads.  Bills demand, cars break, foundations crack, family strains, and there seems to be no way through.

And I’ve not mentioned the world yet; feeling trapped and being trapped are realities in our world.  Our world seems to groan and sigh under the weight of oppression and injustice, sicknesses and despairing unto death. The world and her inhabitants are weary to the point of death. As I’ve asked many times before: is hope lost?

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.” (Is 35:3-4)

Isaiah addresses the people of Israel in words of hope; hope in darkness. In the chapter preceding the one read, God promises to execute judgment on the nations. Thus, God demonstrates his great power over the nations and his promise that a cosmic battle will ensue to defend his own. Those who come against the beloved, will have to contend with God himself and his retribution.i God does not play nice with those who use their power for evil, get drunk on authority and greed, oppress and willingly participate in the oppression of those who can’t help themselves. Mark Isaiah’s words: Zion will come to Israel; justice will flow; salvation will be Israel’s by the retributive power of God.

A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there. (Is 35:8-9)

Hemmed in on all sides, Israel can’t defend itself from the oppression of the surrounding nations and enemies. The oppressive nations and enemies will be parted like the waters of the red sea at the boarder of Egypt; God will usher Israel out of enslavement and captivity into Zion, life, and salvation. As if lead by the hand through that verdant garden nearly forgotten, God will walk Israel through a deadly desert on his road, protected on every side.ii

Israel will not travel on just any road, but on the “Holy Way,” the golden road paved by God himself.iii And this road is for Israel and Israel alone; for those called and sought for by God, those freed and liberated by God, those whom God defends and rescues. It is these who are the clean and pure who are in God’s company.iv Isaiah prophesies, “Behold, God’s on the move; ‘He will come.’ All will be well; keep your hope, small nation.”v

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth

Long lay the world in sin and error pining

‘Til He appears and the Soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Fall on your knees; O hear the angel voices!vi

This movement, this divine arriving, this promise all will be well is the crux of Advent. We wait, along with Israel, for the great “Holy Way” of God to be made before us, for God to place our feet upon its firm foundation. With Israel, strengthening our hands and our feeble knees, fortifying fearful hearts we wait for our God. And in a way no one expected, he shows up. He shows up in tangible redeeming love.vii

It’s in the arrival of a vulnerable baby, the one born of Mary, who will be the way, the truth, and the light through the deadly desert into Zion and Salvation. It will be upon his back our burdens will be laid as we walk unburdened out of our cages and our captivity into liberty and freedom. It will be by his hand we are led into God’s presence, where the unclean become clean, the slave become free, and the lowly are lifted. The birth of the Messiah, the Christ, the one pined for under the weight of sin and error is the advent of God’s cosmic battle against the powers of sin and death running rampant in the world. It’s in Christ, born in a manger, where those trapped reach out and grab not cold, restraining metal (bars and chain-link), but the warm, liberating, loving hand of God, and who are brought into great joy and gladness, into rest and peace, into life our of every present death.

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace
Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother
And in His name all oppression shall cease
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we
Let all within us praise His holy name
Christ is the Lord; O praise His name forever!viii

 

 

i Brevard S. Childs Isaiah The Old Testament Library Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 255About chapters 34 and 35, “The relation is that of a reverse correspondence and together they summarize the two major parts of the Isaianic corpus: God’s power over the nations, and the exaltation of Zion for the salvation of Israel. The crucial decision to make regards the peculiar function of these chapters in their present position. Chapter 34 picks up from chapters 13-23 the call to the nations to bear witness to God’s sovereign power and to his imminent cosmological retribution. The geographical sweep is far broader than in chapters 28-33. Already the rod of punishment has been transferred from Assyria to Babylon (13:15), and the proud boasting of Assyria before its destruction (chapters 36—37) is paralleled by the taunt against the king of Babylon (chapter 14).  

ii JSB; JPS. “Isaiah” Benjamin D. Sommer. eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: OUP 2004). 852. “This ch [35[ is the converse of the previous one: In ch 34,  a land inhabited by Judah’s enemies becomes a desert; in ch 35, the desert is transformed so that Judean exiles in Babylonia can pass through it with ease on their journey to Zion. Normally, travelers from Babylonia to the land of Israel would move northwest along the Euphrates, then southwest through Syria, avoiding the route that went directly west through the impassable desert. But this prophecy insists that the exiles will be able to go directly and quickly through the desert, because the Lord will provide water and safety for them there. This passage borrows extensibly from Jeremiah’s prediction of the exiles’ return in Jer. 31.7-9. It amplifies that prediction, while changing its historical referent from another (Israelite) exiles in Assyria to southern (Judean) exiles in Babylonia. It also deliberately recalls the vocabulary of Isaiah 32.1-6.”  

iii Childs 256“The same typological tendency to transcend the specificity of earlier texts and to extend the prophecy in a more radically eschatological mows cam to in chapter 35. The same imagery of Second Isaiah recurs–the eyes of the blind opened, the transformation of the wilderness, the highway for the returnees–yet the images have increasingly taken on a metaphorical tone. The highway is not just a means of improving the route home, but now is portrayed as a holy path reserved for the pure of heart.  

iv JBS 856 “No on unclean: Since God would personally accompany the exiles (v. 4), they would have to be in a state of ritual purity.”

v Childs 257. “…chapter 35 immediately launches into an elaborate portrayal of the salvation of Israel. The imagery is not only closely related to that of chapters 40ff.—the desert blossoming, the joyful singing, the seeing of Yahweh’s glory—but the vocabulary of v. 4 offers a parallel to 40:9-10: ‘Behold, your God! He will come.’” 

vi Oh Holy Night 

vii Abraham J. Heshel ”Chastisement” Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 194.”God’s anger must not obscure His redeeming love.”  

viii Oh Holy Night 

In the Lap of Mary

Galatians 3:23-29 (Homily)

Help, I have done it again
I have been here many times before
Hurt myself again today
And, the worst part is there’s no-one else to blame

Be my friend, hold me
Wrap me up, enfold me
I am small and needy
Warm me up and breathe me

Ouch I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah I think that I might break
Lost myself again and I feel unsafe…Sia “Breathe Me”

This is one of my favorite songs to turn to when I’ve had one of those days. The days defined as terrifically terrible, where everything I touched seemed to turn to dirt, my words fell like stones destroying rather than bricks building. One of those days where I was clearly the one in the wrong, where I failed badly, did that thing I swore I’d never do again…Those days where I wish water could truly wash me clean inside and out.

The feelings that surround me are those that are products of an internal monologue that is in dialogue with the law. There are two sides to the law. It can be both positive and negative. The positive side of the law is the side that creates structure and order in our school, in our town, state and even in our nation. Laws create order out of chaos. To follow the law in this way can bring comfort: I know what is expected and what to expect.

But the negative side of the law is the side of the law that exposes something about me I’d rather have hidden. That side of the law that brings to light what I’m desperately eager to keep cloaked in darkness. That I’m not kind. That I’m not good enough. That I’m a failure because I’ve failed once again. That I’m not who I like to think I am and not whom I’ve lead you to believe I am. The negative side of the law exposes the imposter and drags her into the light. This part of the law doesn’t strengthen me and highlight my talents and capabilities, reminding me how powerful I am; rather it draws to the surface my guilt and shame, that I’m lost and fragile, small and needy. “Be my friend, hold me/Wrap me up, enfold me…”

The book of Galatians does well highlighting both aspects of the law. Paul refers to the law as working with and not against the promises of God but that the law also functions as a disciplinarian in the life and mind of the person. To deny both aspects of the law is foolishness; it is even more foolishness to think that by the law one can avoid the negative aspect of the law. That is the relentless hamster wheel of perpetual performing and existential self-denial of mass proportions. Everything is not fine. We are not peachy-keen and better than ever, or “too blessed to be stressed” and certain no Christian colloquialism will alleviate the tumult under the surface.

The reality is we’re all pressed in on every side. And now more than ever as we slide full-speed into the end of the semester. Grades hanging in the balance: will you fail or will you succeed?  College acceptances and rejections? The yays and nays depend on whether or not you’ve done enough on paper. Have you done enough and in the right time? Family pressures; friendships under strain; anxiety and stress rising; mind, body, and soul longing for a moment, a breath, a safe place.

This safe place so longed for rests in the lap of Mary. After giving birth, Mary was ceremoniously unclean according to the laws of Leviticus. However, Mary gave birth not just to any child, but the son of God. Thus she was, after having given birth, holding and nursing the new born Christ, for the full duration of her uncleanness. Very God of Very God dwelt with his mother while she was unclean—impure, technically unable to be in the presence of God. Yet there she was: with God because He was with her, physically, in her presence and she in His. From the moment of His birth, Jesus had begun to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment. This is God with the guilty and shameful, the lost and fragile, the small and needy; this is Emmanuel, God with us.

During Advent we recall the long awaited event of the fulfillment of the promise of God: I will be your God and you will be my people and you will love me with all your heart, mind, soul, and body. We are brought to the one to whom the law directs and guides. The law’s reign as disciplinarian began to crumble the moment Christ was born; its ability to render a verdict about who and what you are was revoked when Christ died and was raised. Thus, the whispers of condemnation ricocheting in your head have been silenced; that fear of failure: stilled. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28).

Christ has fulfilled the law relieving it from its role as disciplinarian; thus, we are not to remain in the condemnation of the law. Our guilt and shame, those terrifically terrible days and seasons in our lives don’t have the final word because Christ has taken our burdens and given us His light yoke. So, as we go toward the end here, be gentle with each other and be gentle with yourselves. We’re all battling our internal condemning monologues with the law. And remember: In Christ, you are the befriended, the held, the wrapped up, the enfolded. No matter how all those cookies crumble, you are the beloved and adored.