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.

The Cedar Sprig and The Baby

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (Homily)

*I don’t believe in Bible reading plans, but I do read my bible every day—a chapter on some days, a small passage on others. I take my time and meditate on what I’m reading as I go. One cold, winter morning, back in Colorado, my attention was particularly pricked as I was reading through a part of text from the prophet Ezekiel. The book of Ezekiel of the Old Testament is full of mysterious imagery and prophecy of Israel’s exile and destruction. While there is a word of hope of restoration, the bulk of the book is rather troubling. But none of that caused me to stop and contemplate. It was a portion about a tree planted on a mountain that snapped me out of my early morning mental fog.

I lived in the high desert, so maybe the idea of a great big cedar providing shade and comfort from the burning sun of the summertime or the cold wind and snow of winter sounded good to me. Or, maybe the idea of anything green and verdant appealed to me considering it was the middle of a white Colorado winter. Whatever it was, this tree caught my eye.

In this portion of our passage, God is promising to plant a great and “noble cedar” from a sprig God is going to break off from another. And God will plant this sprig, this tender one on a high mountain, so that it will become a “noble cedar.”

You know what grows on the top of a high mountain? Nothing. Well, nothing substantial, nothing qualifying as “noble.” The top of a mountain is typically bald because the environment is too frigid and the conditions too treacherous for foliage to grow let alone allow for a transplanted cutting to take root and grow and become mighty. What caught my attention that morning was God promising to plant a “tender one” on the top of a mountain; certainly, this is sure death for a cedar sapling. What a precarious thing for God to do.

In the midst of a book that is primarily [1] comprised of prophetic utterances of judgment against the current, corrupt, oppressive, militaristic, and hopeless monarchy of Jerusalem and Israel, [2] why prophesy about a great cedar on a mountaintop planted and grown from a sprig?

Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.

Because the tree is the word of hope in this passage—not for the leadership of Israel but for those who are suffering under the leadership.

The tree will be so mighty in stature that winged creatures of all kinds will be able to find shelter in its boughs. Cedars protect those creatures who find shelter in them from harsh and inclement weather—they are the perfect safe-haven from cold winds and bitter precipitation. This particular cedar planted and nourished by God will be a beacon of hope to all who look upon it, and they will know that God is still active, that God’s power is still magnificent, and that God hears the deep cries and intimately knows the suffering and oppression of God’s people (Exodus 2:25; Acts 9:4-5).[3]

This cedar will stand as the promise of an answer to the repeated cries of the troubled, downtrodden, and the broken hearted. But even more than being a static symbol of hope for the people of Israel and Jerusalem, it’s a dynamic word for the people: God is on the move. This great tree is on a collision course with God.

That God so loved the world he sent his son into it as a vulnerable baby: a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit was born of a virgin woman; the fully divine and fully human Christ would enter the world defenseless, naked, and tender. What a precarious thing for God to do.

And just as God promised that the sprig in Ezekiel would become a great and mighty cedar, so too will this baby grow to be great, becoming the Son of the Most-High God (Luke 1:32). Through his life, death, resurrection, and ascension the cosmos receives her loving messiah, her merciful king, her faithful high-priest.

The sprig of the high mountain top and the baby of Christmas have the same fate in Easter: to be the final answer to all of humanity’s pain and suffering, to bear the weight of sin and bear life into the world, to break down strongholds and redefine justice. For this great man, Jesus, who is God, will carry this great cedar to the top of a high mountain. He will climb upon this great cedar, and this great cedar will bear the entire weight of Christ as he bears the entire weight of our sin and the brokenness of the world succumbed to the powers of sin and death; and this cedar will holdfast those three nails.

Like the winged creatures mentioned by Ezekiel in our passage, in the boughs of the cross and the limbs of our crucified and resurrected Christ, we receive our comfort and the fulfillment of our hope, it’s in the safe and protective shade of the Cross where we hear the divine “it is finished” to our pain and suffering, to our grief and fear–where the rejected are accepted, counted as God’s own, children and heirs of the long awaited great king; where the captives are set free, the oppressed relieved, the hopeless are hopeful, the voiceless have a voice, and the refugee finds refuge.

 

 

1 “Ezekiel” The Jewish Study Bible Tanakh Translation Eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler JPS Oxford: OUP, 2004. 

2 Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament Vol. 1 Trans. J.A. Baker. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961. “Jeremiah and Ezekiel look from the monarchy of their own day, for which they can see no future, to a new order established by Yahweh himself, in which the ruler appointed by him will have become a theocractic official very different from the contemporary political and military king…This opinion on the part of the prophets was certainly strengthened by the fact that in despots like Ahaz, Manasseh and Jehoiakim they saw on the throne particularly blatant examples of human self-will in hostility to Yahweh” (Eichrodt 451) 

3 “The cedar, the grandest of trees, will tower over all the other trees, and all will see the power of God, who is responsible for the fall and rise of Judah” (Jewish Study Bible). 

 

*A longer version of this homily was given at The Cathedral Advent. Birmingham, AL, in 2017.

He Loved First

1 John 4:7-12, 19 (Homily)

My* eldest has always had quite the ability to wage verbal warfare and throw impressive tantrums. When my son was about six, he and I had quite an altercation. After receiving a consequence for unacceptable behavior, he stomped up the stairs loudly informing me (and no doubt the neighbors) of the injustice of his punishment. The stomping was followed by a door slamming, a door that then became the target for his toys as he threw them; as he threw each one, he shouted, “You are the meanest mommy ever!” I sat on a stool in the bathroom just listening to him. “I will never ever snuggle with you again! I don’t like you! I wish you weren’t my mommy!”

Typically, according to the parenting practices we’ve adopted for our children, I would wait until he was calm before talking with him again. (For all practical purposes this is an excellent strategy.) In fact, during the conflict I had said, “Go to your room and come back when you are calm and ready to be sweet.” But as I sat in the bathroom, something else came over me: conviction. Laying heavy on my heart as I listened to him hurl insult upon insult at me was that I was asking him to be better before I would once again be with him. Finally conviction had its way with me. I stood up and entered his room as he was in mid rant. I walked to his bed and sat down. “Come here,” I said to him and motioned for him to sit on my lap. He reluctantly complied, and I held him. He didn’t want to be there, but I held him firm. The entire time whispering to him, “I love you…I love you, I love you, I love you…” He relaxed further and further into my embrace and his crying and anger subsided. After a short while he whispered, “I love you, too, mommy.”

Why did I change my mind? What made me retract my earlier request and do the exact opposite? All I can say is that in the midst of my son’s tantrum, I became freshly aware of something: God has never asked me, asked us, to be better before He would dwell with us. In fact, while we were at our worst, God showed up; while we were busy denying God’s very existence by our lack of faith and mistreatment of our neighbor and the world, God made his presence known to us and pursued us. We earned none of God’s coming not the first time and not every time we come to encounter with God in the event of faith; our acts weren’t (and aren’t) together before God comes. In fact, Paul writes in Colossians 2:13 that we were dead in our trespasses—it doesn’t get any more inactive and unprepared than that! And in this deadness we are loved, truly loved. Victor Hugo wrote in his work, Les Misérables, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved — loved for ourselves, or rather, loved in spite of ourselves.” God, in Jesus, loves us this way – we can neither earn God’s love nor can we drive it away.

Each of us is struggling through this thing called existence and life. I’ve said a number of times this semester, to my kids and to my students: it’s hard being human, why do we make it harder for each other? Day to day we fight to make it to the end unscathed and unharmed. Each and everyone one of us fights to maintain our dignity and our humanity intact from the moment we rise to the moment we rest our heads on our pillows. So I wonder, why choose tearing down when we can build up? Why choose condemning others when we could feel our own conviction? Why choose me and myself when I know you and I are both struggling through? Why not love, love that breeds itself: more love…

I want my children to know they are loved; I want you to know you are loved…today, and tomorrow, even yesterday. And loved not only when you are calm and sweet but when you are at your worst. It’s there, at our worst, where the “I love you” breaks in and becomes real. Jesus Christ, the one who was “in the form of God” and who is the love of God for the entire world, has come to us and says, “Come unto to me.” He came while we were still screaming and throwing our toys, and he says, “Come here.” And reticently crawling into His lap and into his embrace, our ears are filled with His relentless “I love you, I love you, I love you,” And, maybe, after a short while softened and given to his embrace, we whisper in reply the words of worship: “I love you, too.”

 

*The original post “He Loved First” has been edited from its original version which was edited by Jono Linebaugh and appeared on another blog.

 

**

“Have Mercy on Me!”

Luke 17:11-19 (Sermon)

Introduction

God is hard to pin down and figure out because, as Bishop Owensby said, “God is a who and not a what”; a person, not a thing. So, our knowledge of God is limited; it seems we live in the tension between the book of Numbers and the held breath of the Easter Vigil. The chaotic and terrifying book of Numbers highlighting God’s bold activity emphasizes that no one puts God in a corner; this gives way to the deafening silence of the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Movement then silence and stillness. More movement…more silence and stillness. It’s part of the story of Israel in the midst of exile and return; it’s part of our story, too. There are times when our hearts grow weary, on the brink of fracturing under the weight of yearning under the twin questions: where is God? Who is God? I wish I could tell you I’ve never doubted; I have. I wish I could tell you that I always stand on the firm bedrock of my faith; I don’t. I question, I weep, I long. Where is beauty? Where is justice? Where is peace? Where is love? Where is God? If God has come, and God’s will is being done, then why isn’t earth as it is in heaven? Sadly, it’s often hard to think about giving thanks.

I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me!

vv.11-14

Jesus is on the move in our gospel passage. Luke tells us he travels into Jerusalem, taking a middle route between Samaria and Galilee (v.11). As Jesus enters a certain village a group of ten men encounter him; but they keep their distance (v.12). They kept their distance because they suffered from leprosy—it was a divine curse and they were ritually unclean. [1] These leprous men knew their plight and the commands of Torah: one must steer clear of family and community, [2] and one must announce their unclean presence. [3] But these men weren’t without hope: lepers could be healed and welcomed back. [4]

And hope comes near; and they recognized hope when they saw him. And they lifted up their voices and cried out when they saw this hope. “Jesus!” They called. “Master, have mercy on us!” Desperate, they called out to the one they knew could help them, who had the miraculous power to rid them of this curse and make them clean.[5] (Otherwise, why ask?) Calling Jesus “Master” is not only a term of respect; they saw and recognized in Christ the power of God to heal and reconcile.[6] And their desperate hope and plea is met with an answer from Jesus: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And they got up and went. On the way they were made clean (v.14).

If we stop here, we might be tempted to make faith into a work. (Have (enough) faith and be healed!). When that happens, faith no longer saves, it no longer flies with the wings of mercy and hope but is a mere dead stone dropped into the deepest part of the sea. If we stop here, we will make this moment of sudden healing of the ten leprous men the dénouement. But it’s not. This is:

Now one of the men when he saw that he had been healed, returned with a great voice giving glory to God, and he fell upon his face on the feet of [Jesus] giving thanks to him. And he was a Samaritan…and [Jesus] said to him ‘Rise and go; your faith has saved you.” (Luke 17:15-16, 19)

Gratitude.[7] Gratitude is pushed to the front. Hiding behind all the other players on the stage, gratitude steps forward and speaks. And Luke uses a leprous Samaritan voice,[8]the voice of a double outcast, to do make a point. It’s the Samaritan who understands what has happened in his event of encounter with the merciful one. His leprosy is gone and he is clean, and something bigger occurred: he’s healed (v.15). Luke changes the verb “they were made clean”[9] in v. 14 to “he had been healed”[10] in v. 15.

The comparison here is not between one having faith and the others not.[11] Rather, the comparison is between only hearing and really hearing so deeply that you do (shema). All ten were made clean; one realizes he’s healed. They all believed; one saw and heard.[12] Would not a double outcast know the depths of rejection and being marginalized?[13] Would not a double outcast know not only the miraculous healing, but also the bigger miracle being healed by Jesus, the good Rabbi, a Jew? [14] The Samaritan Leper is accepted and received across socio-political lines. It’s doubly not about clean and unclean with Christ. It’s about cosmic healing and this Samaritan man sees it. It’s the word of acceptance, of mercy, of hope, of beloved that he hears—words having long gone silent and still. And he hears so deeply that he can only do one thing: return with magnificent gratitude to the one who is the priest of priests in the temple of temples. And it is this priest and this temple that know no dividing walls and exclusion, but only unity and inclusion.[15] And he is grateful! He falls on his face at Jesus’s feet:[16] loving the Lord his God “with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength, and with all his mind…” (Lk 10:27).

Conclusion

We may think that in this age of pain and suffering, this level of gratitude has gone the way of the horse and buggy. But I don’t think it has. I think each and everyone of us knows the depth of gratitude that changes lives forever: the partner who took us back when we didn’t deserve it; the friend who forgave us; the parent who embraces us upon our return even when we were convinced things were too far gone; the sibling who actually did pick up the phone finally. We know this depth of gratitude. And our hope for ourselves and for others—not only those seated here with us right now, but for the whole world—is based and embedded in this simple thing: gratitude.

Gratitude is the basis of our ethic because gratitude remembers and recalls and retells the story of when: when we were too far-gone, when we were lost, when we were in doubt, when we were angry and then God.[17] Christ came near. God in Christ comes near to those who think they are too far-gone, he seeks those who are lost, he believes for those who are in doubt, and comforts those who are angry.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35, 38-39)

As we tell our stories here and proclaim Christ crucified for us, we encourage each other and carry each other and bear each other up. We then spill out from this building into the world. And as we go we carry with us our absurd gratitude and our absurd stories into a world that is convinced God has gone completely silent and completely still, questions of where and who still fresh on suffering, hurting lips. But God is only silent and still if we remain so; God’s silence and stillness is only true if we forget who we are and whose we are: we are the apple of God’s eye, we are the beloved of Christ, and we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Where we go, so too does God; where God goes, so too do we.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful–
for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim 2:11b-13)

It is God in Christ Jesus who is our story, the one we remember, recall, and retell. Christ is our faith, hope, and mercy—not only when we cannot muster these but especially when all we can do is: I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me! And he does; over and over again never ceasing and never failing.

Hallelujah!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the Lord! (Ps 111:1-2)

[1] Joel Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Joel Green. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). “‘Leprosy’ was a term used to designate a number of skin diseases, so the fundamental problem of these ten was, in all likelihood, not a malady that was physically life-threatening. Instead, they were faced with a debilitating disorder. Regarded as living under a divine curse and as ritually unclean (whether they were Jew or Samaritan, it does not matter), they were relegated to the margins of society.” 623.

[2] Justo Gonzalez “Luke” Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. “To be a leper was not only to suffer a physical illness, but to be cast out from family and society.” 205.

[3] Gonzalez 204-5, Numbers 5:2 (lepers ostracized from community by law); Leviticus 13:45-46 (lepers announce their uncleanliness).

[4] Gonzalez 205, “Since various diseases were included under the general heading of leprosy, allowance had to be made for those whose symptoms disappeared. For them, the law provided a detailed procedure, which included an examination by a priest, and then a complex ritual of cleansing (Lev. 14:2-32).”

[5] Green 623, “Used elsewhere in the Third Gospel, ‘Master’ denotes one who has authority consistent with miraculous power, and this is its meaning here.”

[6] Green 623, “What is clear is that, in naming him as master, these lepers place themselves in a position of subordination to him in the hope of receiving from him some form of benefaction. This benefaction, they seem to believe, will have its source in God; in effect, they request from Jesus a merciful visitation from God.”

[7] Gonzalez 204. “The theme of gratitude for God’s wondrous and unmerited gifts connects it with the previous parable, about the master owing nothing to the slave. In this case, the Samaritan who returns is grateful for what Jesus has done, while the others seem to take it in stride, almost as if it were their rightful due.”

[8] Gonzalez 205-6, The one who returns is a Samaritan and it is assumed the other 9 were Jews; the Samaritan is leper (outcast) and Samaritan (double outcast).

[9] Greek: εκαθαρι᾽σθησαν

[10] Greek: ια᾽θη

[11] Gonzalez 205, “We tend to ignore these nine, or to classify them as unbelieving ones; but the text says (or at least implies) that they believed Jesus, and even that they obeyed him by continuing on their way to see the priests.”

[12] Green 626, “What separates the one from the nine, then, is not the nature of the salvific benefits received. Rather, the nine are distinguished by their apparent lack of perception and, then, by their ingratitude. They do not recognize that they have been healed. This may be because leprosy was as much or more a socio-religious stigma as a physical malady. For it to be effective, cleansing must reach more deeply than the surface of one’s skin, and it may be precisely this added dimension of restoration that the nine fail to comprehend. More evident in the distinction between the behavior of the one and the nine, though, is the failure of the latter to recognize that they had received divine benefit from Jesus.”

[13] Gonzalez 206, “One could even say that there is a hint that the reason why he was doubly grateful for his healing was that he had a double experience of exclusion, and that he therefore could be doubly surprised by Jesus’ act of healing—not only a leper but a Samaritan leper! Thus the great reversal takes a new twist: those who are most marginal and excluded are also able to be most grateful to this Lord who includes them. Those whose experience of community and rejection is most painful may well come to the gospel with an added sense of joy.”

[14] Green 624-5, “Unlike the other lepers, this one perceives that he has been the recipient of divine benefaction—and that at the hand of Jesus. Of his three actions—praising God, falling at Jesus’ feet, and thanking Jesus — the first is expected within the Lukan narrative, the second two quite extraordinary. Praising God following a miracle is the appropriate response in the Third Gospel; indeed, this former leper joins many in the narrative who witness God’s mighty acts, then return praising God.”

[15] Green 626, “Worded differently, one appropriately gives praise to God via one’s grateful submission to Jesus as master or lord, the ‘location,’ so to speak, of God’s beneficence. Here, Luke’s Christology reaches impressive heights as he presents Jesus in the role of the temple – as one in whom the powerful and merciful presence of God is realized and before whom the God of the temple (whether in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim!) can be worshiped.”

[16] Green 625, “’Falling at the feet’ of someone is an act of submission by which one acknowledges another’s authority; it signifies reverence, just the sort of response one might make toward a person regarded as one’s benefactor. Gratitude, too, is expected of those who have received benefaction. Because the former leper recognizes Jesus as the agent of the inbreaking kingdom of God, there is nothing incongruous in his actions: Both praising God and to his request for the merciful visitation of God.”

[17] Karl Holl The Reconstruction of Morality. Eds. James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense. Trans. Fred W. Meuser and Walter R. Wietzke. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1979. “But whence comes this duty to love God? Luther did not fail to answer this question in his Lectures on the Psalms. We are bound to love God because God is the given and sustainer of life who daily, unceasingly, and bountifully blesses us with his gifts. It is therefore the feeling of gratitude form which Luther derived the sense of obligation. Now we see why the New Testament imperative, in all its majesty and inexorableness, stirred him so deeply. He accepted it not only on authority; its essential meaning wrought conviction. If we owe God everything, then even by ‘natural right’ [iure naturali] we must give ourselves wholly to God.” 48.

Forgiveness as Death and Resurrection

For 9/11 (Homily)

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2 Corinthians 5:14-21)

Two miles doesn’t seem like much. On 9/11 it was. About 2 miles separated my office situated a stones throw from Trump Tower in midtown from the Twin Towers downtown; two miles felt like the distance of an ocean separating me from those two massive towers collapsing in Manhattan. When you are in and out of Manhattan daily, midtown’s Rock Plaza and downtown’s Financial District don’t feel far apart. But on that day, they were. Midtown was secure and safe; downtown lay under layers of debris, destruction, and tragedy. They could have been two different cities…it was just two miles.

Last year I shared with you that I was a new Christian during this national tragedy. I shared that I couldn’t make sense of this God who a few months earlier brought me the comfort of love and forgiveness and now seemed and felt far distant and even absent. For those of us separated by a mile or two from the events, the question about God’s presence in the aftermath of the tragedy became a mere echo within months as Manhattan did what Manhattan does: rebound. It felt like it took New York a New York Minute to find its new normal.

Actually, as we rebuilt and restructured, mended and healed, interned and inurned, the question about God’s presence didn’t go anywhere. While it wasn’t readily on our lips, it lay underneath the resilient human spirit in the form of fear and its twin, anger. At least I can speak for myself: I was afraid and I was angry. Was another attack coming? I should be ready just in case. I would spend months commuting to work prepared to spend the night away from my apartment. Why did this happen to my city, to those innocent people going about their day?! And cue the anger.

These two emotions pack a punch when coupled together, and they are often coupled together. Fear makes room for anger because anger protects us from that which we fear. However, the more anger we have the more we are afraid because anger doesn’t actually solve anything–it keeps us blinded. Yet, suppress either and they both fester and become toxic.

In the aftermath of 9/11 I was in quite the dilemma. I was a new Christian who was afraid and angry. Monday through Friday I worked in the post 9/11 atmosphere of NYC masking my fear and anger; on Saturday and Sunday I was involved in conversations about God’s peace and God’s love. I wanted very much to place blame and seek vengeance; but I was exhorted weekly to love my enemies as myself and to forgive those who trespass against me as I am forgiven my trespasses.

Forgiveness is a very heavy topic in any situation, especially those situations involving deep pain, personal loss, fear and anger. So, I dare to piggy back off of Rev. Kennedy’s excellent homily from last Wednesday wherein he discussed our need to be forgiven and to forgive and the reasons why. While I have nothing substantial to add to what he said, I was moved to contemplate the act of forgiveness. What is it? What does it do?

I’ve found in my years walking with Christ, forgiveness isn’t a mere formula of words uttered into the universe hoping they land somewhere, like shooting arrows at an unknown target in the horizon. Forgiveness demands intention, demands my full presence both to offer and to receive the words of forgiveness. Forgiveness demands so much because–like it’s twin, love–there’s no half way. Like love, forgiveness demands a death. It’s not only setting your pride a side, it’s dying to what was. I can no longer hold on to what was, for it’s gone; to cling is to grasp at oil. I can only turn forward and face the oncoming future, the very future forgiveness beckons me into, the future I do not have control over. It’s a death to follow in and to relinquish the façade of ownership of the past. But in this gallows there God is; in this crisis there Christ is; in this suffering, there the Spirit comforts and whispers: it is finished.

And where there is the divine it is finished, there is resurrection. When we die to what was, we are brought into new and vibrant life of now. In this newness of life in the aftermath of forgiveness, something remarkable happens: what is possible takes priority over what is actual. In forgiveness, it’s now possible to build anew, to move forward, to grow into solid and beautiful selves—scars and all. I know well it’s not easy and it takes time—as anything worthwhile in our lives: time, space, and patience is needed. It’s not easy, but the life that comes from it is worth every painful, cautious step.

Christ’s love and forgiveness plucked me from the very real clutches of darkness, sin, and death in 2000; not even a year later, in 2001, Christ’s love and forgiveness beckoned me forward through death into life again. A few more times since then this call has sounded.

I don’t know much, but I do know that in Christ there is life even where there seems to be only death everywhere; I know that out of the ashes and rubble of our lives, the phoenix that is God’s grace rises; I know that fear and anger do not have the final word because the comforter, the Spirit, brings peace beyond understanding. I know that in this in love and forgiveness I find the core of all that is good and right and divine and human, and that love and forgiveness are the foundation and substance of my life. I know that in this love and forgiveness God is good and that even the darkest times, God will never leave us of forsake us because there is love and forgiveness.

Table (Etiquette) Turned

Luke 14:1,7-14 (Sermon)

Introduction

I don’t talk about this fact of my life often, but I was raised in a wealthy environment. In the world of the elite and the privileged, I am comfortable. Among hunt clubs, country clubs, cotillion, and the weekend house in Vermont, I was raised and trained to be skilled for any social situation. I understand not only the demands and pressures of this type of life, but also the demand for right social etiquette. So, whenever Jesus is addressing the elite, the wealthy, and the powerful, I feel the weight of his exhortations. Jesus’s words hit too close to home. I prefer it when Jesus speaks of another group of people, one that I’m not associated with through birth and upbringing. But, alas, here we are in Luke 14 with the elite and their etiquette being called out, and I’m guilty. My number’s been pulled (again), and I have no choice but to listen to the voice of my Lord and my savior.

1, 7-10

At a dinner party, Jesus engages the guests with a story about what to do when invited to a dinner. Don’t take the foremost seat, Jesus says. Take the lower seat and allow yourself to be invited to the position of honor. Here’s the reason: you’ll avoid the shame[1] of being asked to move to take possession of the last place[2]. While avoiding risk, you may also incur reward: you’ll receive the glory[3] being asked to move to the more honorable place.[4] Finally, this makes sense to us. Isn’t Jesus’s reasoning in vv. 7-10 logical? Sit lower at the table to avoid being embarrassed by being asked to move. And maybe, you’ll even gain some pleasure in being called friend and given the place of honor! [5] This is win/win. Right? This is etiquette Emily Post can get behind!

Or is it?

v.11 [Because] All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.

Verse 11 is the right-hook of right-hooks in this passage. We should’ve known better than to trust that Jesus and Luke were finally on our side. While at first glance v. 11 looks to be the tl:dr of the previous discussion about choosing your seat at the next wedding banquet you attend, it’s anything but. To seize the place of honor with hopes it would not be taken away would validate one’s elite position in society.[6] But, like the healing of the bent woman on the Sabbath in chapter 13, Jesus challenges our allegiance to laws and rules. He’s saying: do not vie for the top seat; forgo that affirmation. Sit, Jesus says, sit for all to see in the last seat; let honor be given to you and do not seize it for yourself.[7]

Receive honor; not take it. Let it be placed in the hand. But what if we don’t get the honor we think we deserve? Could you imagine being so empty handed, waiting for your host to call you forth, giving you the place of honor, the place you swore was rightfully yours? Could you watch as someone else was given that seat? Could you admit maybe you didn’t deserve it?

Humility is not about relinquishing your personhood and self; it’s not about stripping the self of dignity and humanity. Rather, humility is the art of being in the fullness of your embodied self, and intentionally stepping aside, saying, “No…you.” It’s the voluntary full-self self-sacrifice bringing life to others where there should’ve been death. It’s the moment where you shrug off what’s rightfully yours, to identify with those significantly below your status. This is the level of humility that is the call on every disciple who follows Christ.[8]

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross. (Phil 2:3-8)

vv.12-14

Apart from the exhortation to follow after Christ, taking the lesser station over and against the higher station you believe you deserve, there’s a deeper eschatological[9] (last) aspect at play. This “last” (eschatological) aspect incorporates the view to a new order inaugurated by the advent of the Christ into the world. [10] In the most beautiful of all divine subterfuge, Jesus steals the position of host[11] and offers his host (now guest) a lesson about the true table etiquette of heaven, the last will be first and the first will be last.

Jesus explains: do not invite those people who’ll bolster your status in society (friends, brothers, relatives, and wealthy neighbors[12]), who can repay the invite. Rather, invite those who are not worthy according to society’s standard. According to Jesus, it’s about using what you have to bless those who have not and (precisely because they) cannot repay you for your hospitality. [13] Those who are beggarly and cowering over, the maimed, and the blind[14] are the unworthy of society and thus the most worthy in the economy of the reign of God. [15] Standard social and religious conventions are met (once again) with divine the sentence in Christ: XXX. [16]

Inviting those who are from the fringe of society, the “unclean/untouchables,” would be death to one’s social status, according to the system of the day. And yet it is precisely these that Jesus exhorts his hearers to invite to their banquettes—even if the invitation is wasted, and the one invited cannot reciprocate. [17] Both the rich and the poor knew the system; thus this command form Jesus, this exhortation, puts both the rich and the poor into one bind: risk your pride. The etiquette of the kingdom of humanity collapses under the weight of Jesus’s inaugurated new order of the reign of God .[18]

It’s hard to receive a gift you haven’t earned and can’t repay. It is hard to give a gift without expectation of gratitude in the form of repayment. Jesus folds these extremes in and makes them meet at one point: the reign of God. The war is waged not with human beings but on behalf of them; not with creation, but on behalf of it. The war Jesus leads is against those forces that keep division and placing intact to keep people from people; those forces of sin and death that keep the rich from the poor and poor from the rich.

There’s no way around it, according to Jesus, we’re to engage and give to those who cannot repay in kind; this is “blessed.” Those who receive and cannot repay and those who give without expecting repayment: they are the blessed. These who are first are last and these last are first.

The reign of God comes to fruition in this meager and simple act. It’s not grand and abundant sacrifice; it is an invitation to dinner. Jesus rewrites the symphonic tones of what it means to be in communion; the orchestra plays and the band responds; each gives as needed and takes as is given. And community, real, true community abounds. The kind of community that is marked by the characteristic of divine love that causes heads to turn: those are Christians.

Conclusion

As a priest called by God to tend the flock, I now set for and serve you from the table of the banquette of the wilderness; a humble table set for one (one cup, one plate) that is for all people. Bread placed in the diversity of hands having done everything to those that have yet to do a thing—the bread of heaven knows no distinctions. I get to participate in the event of baptism ushering you in to this whacky and absurd reign of God that turns everything upside; I get to wash you and welcome you. In short, I get the opportunity to serve you, invite you to the table and to the water, tend to your cares and concerns, remind you that God is good and that you are the beloved.

The last one into the Jordan was the first one out; it is he who is the first to embrace a death he didn’t deserve to be called to the place of honor. It is he who arrives at the banquette table in the wilderness of the new heavens and the new earth to make room for us, the very last. And we come, anxious, limping, hunched over, exhausted, with nothing to offer but our deep gratitude for the free gift of life that we could never ever repay. You are the beloved. God is good.

 

 

[1] From the Greek text..και ελθων ο σε και αθτον καλεσας ερει σοι «δος τουτω τοπον,» και τοτε αρξε μετα αισχθνης τον εσχατον τοπον κατεχειν.

[2] From the Greek text see the second half of fn 1 (τον εσχατον τοπον κατεχειν)

[3] From the Greek text “φιλε, προσαναβηθι ανωτερον; τοτε εσται σοι δοξα ενωπιον παντων των σθνανακειμενων σοι.

[4] From the Greek text

[5] Joel Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Joel Green. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). 551, “…he demarcates a more prudent strategy when entering a banquet room. Because honor is socially determined, if one’s claim to honor fails to be reciprocated by one’s audience, one is publicly humiliated. Better, Jesus says, that might not be granted.”

[6] Green 550, “…where one sat (was assigned or allowed to sit) at a meal vis-à-vis the host was a public advertisement of one’s status; as a consequence, the matter of seating arrangements was carefully attended and, in this agonistic society, one might presume to claim a more honorable seat with the hope that it (and the honor that went with it) might be granted. What is more, because meals were used to publicize and reinforce social hierarchy, invitations to meals were themselves carefully considered so as to allow to one’s table only one’s own inner circle, or only those persons whose presence at one’s table would either enhance or at least preserve one’s social position.”

[7] Green 552, “The aphorism of v 11, then, must first be read as an indication of what God values, of what is most highly valued in the kingdom of God, and of the basis on which judgment will be enacted. …those whose dispositions have been transformed to reflect the divine economy, v 11 can be read as moral guidance, reflected in behavior advised in vv. 8-10; read in this way, Jesus’ “parable” is not designed to provide one with a new strategy by which one might obtain the commendation of one’s peers. Instead, it insists that the only commendation one needs comes from the God who is unimpressed with such social credentials as govern social relations in Luke’s world…”

[8] Green 542-3, “Relative to his table companions in 14:1-24, Jesus has a distinctive view of the world, shaped fundamentally by his experience of the Spirit, his understanding of the merciful God, and his awareness of the presence of God’s redemptive project, the kingdom of God, in his ministry. Within this immediate co-text, Jesus’ version of dining etiquette, shaped fundamentally by these preunderstandings and dispositions, comes to expression as a warning and invitation to his companions at the table, Pharisees and scribes. Within its larger co-text in the Third Gospel, however, the reach of Jesus’ message is more inclusive, calling for an embodiment of the kingdom of God in the social practices of Pharisees and legal experts, yes, but also in the behavior of his followers and the people as a whole.”

[9] A potential play on words here considering that the word Luke puts in Jesus’s mouth to describe the last spot is “εσχατον” to speak of the “last place” at the table.

[10] Justo Gonzalez Luke “Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible” Louisville, KY: WJK 2010 180, “But at a deeper level one can see the eschatological reference of his words. Jesus speaks of a ‘wedding banquet’—a subtle reference to the final day of celebration, repeatedly depicted in the Bible as a wedding feast. Then he concludes his remarks by applying them to the larger, eschatological dimension of the final judgment and the new order of the kingdom, which reverses the present human order: ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’”

[11] Gonzalez 179

[12] From the Greek text “…μη φωνει τους φιλους σου μηδε τους αδελφους σου μεηδε τους συγγεωεις σου μηδε γειτονας πλουσιους…”

[13] Gonzalez 180, “The reason invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind is precisely that they cannot repay you, and you can expect payment only at the day, at the resurrection of the righteous.”

[14] From the Greek text: πτωχους, αναπειρους, χωλους, τυφλπυς

[15] Green 553, “Jesus’ message overturns such preoccupations, presenting ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’—notable examples of those relegated to low status, marginalized according to normal canons of status honor in the Mediterranean world—as persons to be numbered among one’s table intimates and, by analogy, among the people of God.”

[16] Gonzalez 180, “What Jesus now says and proposes is contrary to all rules of etiquette. Then, as today, it was quite common for people to invite to a dinner those who were of equal social standing with them—family, friends, colleagues…When one holds such a dinner, the guests are expected to return the invitation. To us. This would seem normal. But Jesus sees things differently: when a former guest invites you, you have already been repaid. While we might consider this an advantage, or at least the normal order of things. Jesus proposes inviting those who cannot repay…Surprising as this may seem to us, it would have been even more surprising for the host whom Jesus is addressing, for it was precisely such people whom a good Pharisee would consider not only unworthy but also religiously unclean. Thus Jesus is rejecting both social and religious convention.”

[17] Green 550, “To accept an invitation was to obligate oneself to extend a comparable one, a practice that circumscribed the list of those to whom one might extend an invitation. The powerful and privileged would not ordinarily think to invite the poor to their meals, for this would (1) possibly endanger the social status of the host; (2) be a wasted invitation, since the self-interests of the elite could never be served by an invitation that could not be reciprocated; and (3) ensue in embarrassment for the poor, who could not reciprocate and, therefore, would be required by social protocols to decline the invitation.”

[18] Green 553, “The behaviors Jesus demands would collapse the distance between rich and poor, insider and outsider; reverting to anthropological models of economic exchange, such relations would be characterized by ‘generalized reciprocity’—that is, by the giving of gifts, the extension of hospitality, without expectation of return…”

God is Love and God Loves You

Luke 13:10-17 (Homily)

The statements “God is Love” and “God loves you” are abstract concepts. I can tell you these things all day, but apart from concrete manifestation of that love in substance and action, both statements fall flat. We live in an era where words are tossed about, rapidly and thoughtless so. We say I love you to our friends and family and then in the next breath profess love to jellybeans. What then does love mean? In the predicament where there is little concern for the substance of language, the meaning of words, and the impact of nouns and verbs, how do I communicate to you love? What does “God is love and loves you” mean? A profession of love causing you to experience and believe that profession, means the profession needs substance, the landing has to stick; deed must follow word.

We encounter Jesus on the Sabbath teaching in a synagogue. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, a woman appears having an ailment for 18 years. Luke explains: she is bent forward,[1] unable to raise herself up completely. Luke doesn’t tell us much about the woman. He only tells us that she’s suffered with this ailment for 18 years. For nearly two decades she existed in a curved-in state, unable to look up. Her eyes took in more of the ground than the sky; her face went unnoticed, turned toward the dust and dirt of her travels. The very face a mother adored, a lover loved, a child yearned for now hidden in plain sight. An identity hidden; she was merely a body in the crowd. 18 years nearly unseen. That’s a lifetime for some of you.

When she appears,[2] Jesus perceives her. In the midst of all the people attending the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus’s perception of her presence is identical to his question, “Who touched me?” in Luke 8, while being pressed in on all sides in a crowd. Luke loves highlighting Jesus’s divine attributes. One of those attributes is perceiving the people his society and the religious therein have ceased to perceive. Jesus sees those who have fallen through the cracks, those who have slipped off the grid, those who have been relegated to the fringe. Those who have been excluded and isolated? These he sees. And he doesn’t merely see, he perceives and he acts. Jesus loves these.

On any other day, that woman would’ve gone in and come back out without much notice. But not today; today, Jesus notices her very presence. And what does he do? He calls her to him. “Woman, you have been[3] set free from your infirmity.” And then he lays his hands upon her. In an instant (literally), she is set straight (again)[4] and (at the same time) is bestowing glory on God.

And, I am brought back to Genesis 2. The last time someone was this curved-in was when Adam felt the deep trial of isolation. In the presence of God, he longed for an other. As God gazed upon this turned in man, God said: it is not good that this man is alone. I will make a partner for him. And like the light and the dark on the first day, God pulled the man apart—taking one and making two. Just as light is its own substance and so too the dark, both the man and the woman were two complete individuals—they were equal but not interchangeable. Forever, in this swift movement of deft surgical precision, loneliness was lifted from Adam’s back and cast into the outer darkness to take up its kingdom where there is not. And God sat on his throne among the light, in the midst of the life of humanity in community in the cool of the verdant garden. And it was very good.

As Adam was set free from his infirmity of loneliness in divine intervention, so too this woman is set free. Jesus lays his hands upon her and separates her from her burden, from her isolation, from her oppression, from her exclusion. She now stands upright, for the first time in 18 years; she can see the bright light of day, the blue of the sky, the twinkling stars of night. As she stands upright, she gazes (again) into the eyes of those around her, to recognize and to be recognized in her identity. Jesus restores her to the dignity of her humanity articulated in upright posture. Not frail and hunched over, she stood tall and looked out, restored by the simple word and touch of Jesus the Christ, by his love. What was her life of burden and bondage is now relegated to the old age of what was; she is ushered into the freedom and liberty of the new age. And when that event of encounter happens with God, a thick and dark line is drawn in the sand between what was and what is and what will be; a line is drawn like the one created by the collapsing walls of water forever separating Israel from Egypt and their bondage and captivity.

In Luke’s brief story, he boldly describes the cosmic battle between God and the powers of sin and death. Jesus heals on the Sabbath and is chastised. He brings dignity and humanity to an old woman, and the ruler of the synagogue loses his mind.[5] After a stern, “Hypocrites!”, Jesus tightly correlates Satan (the powers of sin and death) to the religiosity of the rulers. According to Jesus, using the law to keep people bound in their burden and oppression is letting Satan have his way in the world. The law is good and can create and maintain freedom; but it should never be weaponized. When we love the law more than we love people, we are in the business of stripping people of their dignity and humanity. The law was made for humans, not humans for the law.

Back to the beginning, God is love because God is active and God’s activity is manifest in love loving, which is bringing freedom to the captives (in a real way). When I profess love, my love best look like this…

 

 

 

 

[1] More like “bent-forward-ing” the verbal aspect of the word doesn’t translate well into English.

[2] The word that is translated as “appear” in the text is technically “Behold!” which carries the same force of “suddenly there she was!” thus “appearing”.

[3] The perfect passive here has the force of an event that has occurred to the recipient that has ramifications into the present. In a sense, she will has been set free and will continue to be set free. Woe to anyone who attempts to reverse the divine action.

[4] Highlighting that she wasn’t always this way that at one point she could stand up straight.

[5] Quite literally, he is indignant, it’s the manner of his being in the current situation.

Vigilant, Fidelitous, Stewards

Luke 12:32-40 (Sermon)

Introduction

I wear this crown of [dirt]/Upon my liar’s chair/Full of broken thoughts/I cannot repair/Beneath the stains of time/The feelings disappear/You are someone else/I am still right here/If I could start again/A million miles away/I would keep myself/I would find a way[1]

Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt” resonates with the crisis of our world: caught in the tragedy defining contemporary human existence. The reality of our incapability to do anything renders us helpless. The vivacity of hopefulness submits to the dead weight of numbness. When we crave to be entertained, distracted, and to escape, we are in the clutches of the deep lethargic sleep of numbness. We smile and say everything is great, but we’re merely seated upon our liar’s chair. Things aren’t okay, we aren’t well, the world isn’t fine. We close our eyes and ears and let the old age consume us. No one’s coming to help; all is lost.

Do not fear, small little-flock, because your father is well pleased to give to you the kingdom. Sell the things that are in your possession and give alms. Create for yourselves purses [that] do not grow old, an unfailing treasure in the heavens, where a thief neither comes near nor a moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be. (vv. 32-34)

Our text is connected to the preceding section. It’s not an independent section. Thus, the command not to fear is connected to the preceding command not to be anxious (vv.22-31). Pulling the ravens from the sky and the lilies from the ground, Jesus demonstrates it’s wiser to be as these than the rich fool building up barns, gathering and storing “grains and goods” to secure himself.

The comparison isn’t between food and clothes and us; but between the rich fool and us. God knows what we need; according to Jesus, those needs are important to God. The importance resides in this reality: even the ravens are fed and the lilies clothed. We, who’ve heard our names called, don’t need act like the rich fool building large barns for “grains and goods.” When we do, we’re no better than those who’ve not heard.[2] In this anxiety we are like the rich fool, frantically building barns.

Jesus’s solution? Seek the reign of God and these things will be added (v.31). Luke plays his two cards: hear and respond. Have you heard? If so, why are you anxious? Why are you afraid? God is well pleased to give to you the kingdom! (v.32) Jesus’s command isn’t an inactive one but an active one. Recall the story about Mary and Martha from Luke 10. The theme wasn’t activity v passivity but the paradox of human existence. We are both Mary and Martha—at the feet of the Lord and needing to be called out of ourselves. Both are active; so, too, here. The prohibition of anxiety and fear isn’t a command to an abstractly conceived rest that results in non-action. To seek the reign of God brings peace and rest to our bodies—peace that surpasses all understanding because our orientation is to God and to others and no longer focused on ourselves. We’re freed up for activity resonant with the Lord’s prayer,

“Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation“ (vv 2c-4).

This activity is striving. We are to strive, but rightly.[3] Often we confuse the reign of God with our own piety. We aren’t to strive for religiousness—when we do this we force our works do what they can’t: toiling to self-justify and make us righteous. Rather, we strive for the reign of God, the new age started in the advent Christ. Luke holds a mirror up to his audience: Are you more like the rich fool who hasn’t heard and is storing up treasures in barns that will decay and be destroyed? Or, are you striving like Mary who has heard and responded, storing up treasures where neither thief nor moth can go?[4]

Luke doesn’t merely ask about the location of our hearts and focus; using the words of Christ, he describes what seeking after the reign of God looks like. Again, it’s not about piety, but about others. How is this seeking done? Selling possessions and giving alms. Loving the Lord our God with all our heart is to love our neighbor as ourselves; this is the foundation and substance of the entreaty in the Lord’s Prayer: “your kingdom come…” According to Proverbs, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done” (19:17).[5]

Like the situation of the two sisters, we face the paradox of the reign of God as gift and obligation. We receive. We come to the table empty handed but we must grasp the food being offered. Someone can give you a gift and you can refuse it. Reception demands two people and reciprocal actions: giving and taking. We quibble over concepts of free will and determinism while the answer resides in a paradoxical yes that defines our present.

The future is an abstract concept that materializes only long enough to become history, another abstract concept. When we place our eggs in the basket of the future, we grow anxious because it’s out of our control. When we place our eggs in the basket of the past, we are fearful because failure haunts us. The day is given; seize it.

Disciples of Christ are the small little-flock ushered into the present of the new age. We’re reoriented in the world in the event of encounter with God in faith; this silences the fear of the past and alleviates the anxiety of the future. As we live into the gifted-present as disciples of Christ, we participate in the cosmic battle God wages against the enslaving powers of sin and death. We live as living and embodied creatures alongside other living and embodied creatures. We are to be disciple-ing—not strictly by making disciples (though that’s great) but storing up treasure in heaven by setting our hearts on the reign of God expressed through outward-oriented, other-centered activity.[6] This is love. This love loves because it’s the product of being first loved, and does not love to demand returned love.[7] It doesn’t hold hostages; it just loves. This is the substance of our prayer in today’s collect, “Grant to us, Lord,…the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will.”[8]

Gird your loins for active work and light lamps; and you [be] like the people who expect their lord might depart at some time from the wedding feast, in order that after he comes and strikes at the door, they may open it for him immediately. Blessed [are] those slaves whom the Lord will find being awake after he comes; truly I say to you that he will gird himself for active work and he will make them recline and after coming to them he will serve them. And if in the second and if in the third watch he might come and find in this way, blessed are those [slaves]. Now this you know, if the ruler of the house had been aware of what hour the thief comes, he would not permit him to dig trough the house. And you, you become prepared, you do not [know] which the Son of [Hu]Man comes. (vv 38-40)

The same small little-flock is still in view here as the intended audience, and so are we.[9] There’s also no thematic break, either. Jesus is—as he has been—speaking about vigilance. The vigilance of possessions gives way to the vigilance of faithfulness; both material goods and faith are given to us, and thus vigilance is necessary[10] because while the spirit is willing the flesh is weak, and we love slipping back into the grip of that old age we know. What we know brings comfort; it’s why we destructively cling to myths and “facts” even when they’ve long expired.

Like the burn of lights to eyes accustomed to the dark, those who have been saved by Christ and reoriented in the world in the new age, bear the pain of this new birth into a new reality that is radically upside-down from the one they were accustomed to. Those who’ve heard, can’t unhear what they’ve heard; those who’ve seen can’t unsee what they’ve seen. But we can numb ourselves, pull the covers over our head, self-medicate, perform intellectual gymnastics to make wrong things right. As disciples of Christ in a world enslaved to the powers of sin and death, we must be vigilant.

The characteristics of this vigilance and discipleship run counter not only to the socio-political situation of Jesus’s day, but also our own. To be faithful is to be countercultural: rather than store up possessions, it’s sell them and give alms; rather than build bigger barns it’s store up treasures in heaven; rather than lording over others it’s identifying with slaves just as the One who has gone before us does.[11] “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” (Lk 1:47-48). And not merely “looked with favor” but become identified with.

The Lord comes, Luke tells us, but we don’t know when; remain vigilant, he encourages. The delay precludes a “life of abandonment” and includes active engagement with the reign of God inaugurated in Christ. We are to be dressed, lamps lit, prepared and ready, being faithful, working, knowing, and doing.[12] The delay Luke is highlighting means there’s a period of time between now and then. Again, the questions come to us from eons past: have you heard? If so, what are you going to do while the master is gone? [13] Thus: stewardship. While this word is often used in pleas to get you to tithe, it’s not strictly about that. It’s about your entire material being. Stewardship, what we do now, “…is the life of believers in the time ‘in between’…”[14] As Christians, as those who have heard, we live as those expectant of a future commensurate with the reign of God consummated in Christ.[15]

And while the master is gone and while we wait, we will be brought into conflict and crisis; we will have to choose our fidelity to Christ and the new age over the allure of the powers of sin and death of the old age.[16] We are obligated to be fidelitous stewards of what we are given in the present with an eye to the future. Not clinging to the old age and its destructive power. Existing here, we, with the power of the Holy Spirit, look to participate in the new age and in the struggle against those powers of sin and death.

Stewardship goes beyond tithing and isn’t charity; it involves our entire being and things. What we have is not always a product of God’s blessing. We live in a world that is both just and unjust, and we have things from both just and unjust systems.[17] We are both complicit and held captive by the ways of the old age, even now, even today. Stewardship and fidelity, thus vigilance, demand that we be aware and awake to call things what they are and to act rightly.

“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;/remove the evil of your doings/from before my eyes;/cease to do evil,/learn to do good;/seek justice,/rescue the oppressed,/defend the orphan,/plead for the widow./ Come now, let us argue it out,/says the Lord:/though your sins are like scarlet,/they shall be like snow;/though they are red like crimson,/they shall become like wool.” (Isaiah 1:16-18)

In this tension of the inbetween where we receive and strive, we must be aware when we are participating in unjust systems. In being aware, in being vigilant we are caused and exhorted to live according to the new age and not the old one, to tear down unjust systems and build up just ones.[18] Christians are not the same from age to age; each age demands a different Christian presence. We are contextual and that is the last thing the powers of sin and death of the old age want you to know. Because knowing this makes you the wild card. Fidelitous Christians as vigilant stewards of their lives, time, and possessions, keeping their lamps lit and eyes and ears trained toward the door where their lord will wrap, are the ones who are, paradoxically, the most earthly good for the present day.[19]

Conclusion

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.…By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible….They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.” (Hebrews 11:1)

I know the challenge of hope. Our world is hurting in so many ways and we in our fleshy existence can feel so helpless to fix it; so why bother. Let it burn; I’ll wait for Christ’s return. But then the other thing I know is that God, by God’s own word, can create something out of nothing. In divine language, possibility has priority over actuality; in other words: all things are possible with God. It’s the magnitude of divine possibility that makes Christians an odd and unique breed. It’s no longer Moses who is left alone to bear the burden of a radiant face tanned by God’s glory; we brazenly bear the radiance of divine Glory into the world. We’re in the world but not of the old age.

We are vigilant fidelitous stewards, living here and now, our lamps lit, wicks trimmed, ears trained to the knock of our Lord. Stuck in the inbetween–waiting–we tend to our brothers and sisters—victims of the old age. Like the good Samaritan we bind and dress their wounds and bring them in; like our Lord we go to the fringe; with our lights always on, our homes, our classrooms, our offices, our cubicles, our very bodies are beacons of hope, lights conquering darkness, lives conquering death. All is not lost.

Behold, the eye of the Lord is upon those who fear him,/on those who wait upon his love,/To pluck their lives from death,/and to feed them in time of famine./Our soul waits for the Lord;/he is our help and our shield./Indeed, our heart rejoices in him,/for in his holy Name we put our trust. (Ps 33:18-21)

 

 

 

[1] NIN “Hurt”

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010). “Although this entire passage has often been interpreted in the sense that food and clothing are not important (an interpretation that comes quite easily to those who have an abundance of both), what the passage says is exactly the opposite. We are not to worry about food and clothing precisely because God knows they are important! Indeed, they are so important that God provides them even to birds and grass. This is why it is ‘the nations of the world’ (i.e., the Gentiles, the pagan world) that strive after these things. Their struggle is a result of their not knowing the God who provides even for ravens and for lilies. Thus when Christians who have all we really need still worry anxiously about having enough, and thus seek to accumulate more and more, we are failing once again into a form of Christopaganism…”161

[3] Gonzalez 161-2, “The alternative to worrying is not a happy-go-lucky, careless attitude. On the contrary, it is a serious struggle, striving for the kingdom. This does not mean, as some might surmise, simply being more religious and pious. The kingdom of God is a new order; the new order that has come nigh in Jesus. It is an order in which Gods will is done, as Matthews version of the Lord s Prayer makes abundantly clear: your kingdom come, your will be done…to strive for the kingdom is among other things to make certain that all are fed and all are clothed. We are not to worry about securing such things, for they are important to God; but precisely because they are important to God we must oppose everything that precludes all from having them. This is why in the very passage about not worrying over food or clothing Jesus invites his followers to give alms (12:33), that is, to provide for those who are hungry or naked.”

[4] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Gordon Fee (Grand Rapids, MI: 1997). 495. “Here we encounter both the foundation and the resolution of his message on faithfulness regarding possessions. Fear, in this instance, refers to the anxiety and misgivings associated with the uncertainty of life, modeled so well by the wealthy farmer-landholder in Jesus’ parable (vv. 16-20). Jesus’ disciples, referred to in language that recalls God’ care for his people as a shepherd for the flock, need experience no such dread. This is because God’s pleasure (or will) is manifest in his gift of the kingdom. It is likely that we are to understand the kingdom as having already been given—undoubtedly, then, a reference to the ministry of Jesus among them.”

[5] Gonzalez 162, “The ending of this section connects it with the parable of the Rich Fool, for the two are parallel: it is a matter of where ones treasure is. If on earth, as in the case of the rich man who decided to build bigger barns, it will have no lasting value. If in heaven, it will have lasting value, for in heaven neither do thieves steal one’s treasure, nor do moths eat at it…Verses 33-34 give clear guidelines as to how this is to be done: “sell your possessions—your earthly treasure—and give: alms’- thus building up a treasure in heaven. In early patristic literature, one constantly finds the assertion that “when you give to the poor you lend to God” a theme drawn from Proverbs 19:17. In this passage one finds echoes of that theme.”

[6] Green 495. The little flock (disciples) are “the recipients of God’s dominion. This makes possible lifestyles that are not consumed with anxiety and fear but, instead, have as their perpetual objective the service of the kingdom. The nature of this kingdom-service is spelled out clearly in this co-text, demonstrating that the kingdom of God is not only a gift but also an obligation. Rather then being occupied with the buildup of treasures with an eye to self-security in this life (v 21), disciples need to be concerned with ensuring that they possess treasures in heaven. Therefore, seeking the kingdom (v 31) is tantamount to setting one’s heart on the kingdom (v 34), and the consequence of this orientation of life is a heavenly treasure that is neither subject to the exigencies of earthly existence nor endangered by the unexpected intervention of God.”

[7] Green 495-6 “…throughout the Roman world. Normally, one with treasures to share does so in order to place others in her debt; gifts are given in order to secure or even advance one’s position in the community. Inherent to the giving of ‘gifts’ in this economy is the obligation of repayment. The sharing Jesus counsels has a different complexion. Disinvestment and almsgiving grounded in a thoroughgoing commitment to the kingdom of God are to be practiced in recognition that God is the Supreme Benefactor who provides both for the giver and for the recipient. Such giving has the effect not of placing persons in debt, but rather of embracing the needy as members of one’s own inner circle. In the economy intrinsic to the kingdom, those who give without exacting reciprocation, for example, in the form of loyalty or service, are actually repaid by God. Such giving, then, is translated into solidarity with the needy on earth into heavenly treasure (see 6:35).”

[8] BCP “Collect” Lessons Appointed for Use on the Sunday Closest to August 10.

[9] Green 497, “As though he were using a telephoto lens, Luke has centered our attention on the disciples, but the presence of many others continues to be felt. This contributes to the ambiguity Luke’s readers may experience as they attempt to discern the nature of Jesus’ audience at this juncture…Irrespective of which characters within the story readers have come to identify with, the collapsing significance of Jesus’ teaching for everyone.”

[10] Green 497, “…Jesus has not moved abruptly from a discourse on ‘possessions’ to a discourse on ‘watchfulness.’ Not only this section but the whole of this address, beginning in v 1, has an eschatological timber…Throughout, Jesus has expounded on the theme of ‘vigilance in the face of eschatological crisis,’ including as motifs vigilance with respect to persecution (vv 1-12), possessions (vv 13-35), and, now, more faithfulness within the household of God. What is more, Jesus’ words to his disciples—‘Do not be afraid … for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’ (v 32)—already applied to questions of security and material goods, are equally relevant to his present instruction on fidelity with respect to what ‘has been given’(v 48b).”

[11] Green 499, “In presenting his picture of faithful response, Jesus borrows from standard images of the household in Roman times, but also redefines household relations. His most surprising—and no doubt to some, outlandish is his implicit request that, in order to identify oneself among the faithful in the household of God, one should identify oneself with the slaves of his example; this innovation embraces even the authority figure, the master/Iord, whose actions upon his return are themselves servile. By serving those who are slaves, the returning lord esteems the humble, overturning socio-religious and socio-political norms, just as Mary’s Song had foretold (1:52b).”

[12] Green 500, “Luke’s presentation leaves room for a delay in the return of the Lord, but his dominant emphasis falls elsewhere—first, on the certainty of his coming and, second, on the uncertainty of its timing. This dual focus leads directly into the primary emphasis of this passage, not on living a life of abandonment in light of the eschaton, but on the present need and opportunity for alertness and fidelity…this segment of Jesus’ discourse employs a wide range of images to present in positive and negative terms the sought-after comportment of the disciple: dressed for action, lamps lit, waiting expectantly, alert, ready, the unexpected hour, the faithful and prudent manager (rather than the unfaithful), working (rather than eating and drinking and getting drunk), being prepared, and knowing and doing (rather than knowing and not doing or not knowing).”

[13] Gonzalez 165, “The theme of the absence of God is central to the teachings of Jesus. …But in other parables it would seem that the issue is not our absence from God, but rather God’s absence from us. We call these stories ‘parables of stewardship.’ And this is an excellent name for them, for stewardship is precisely what a steward practices when the master is away. While the master is there, a steward’s role is limited. It is when the master is away that the steward must take responsibility.”

[14] Gonazalez 162

[15] Gonzalez 162-3, “The theme of stewardship now comes to the foreground. In the previous section Jesus was teaching about one of the most common issues of stewardship, the management of possessions. Now he comes to another central issue of stewardship, the ‘in between’ times.…This is because stewardship, properly understood, is the life of believers in the time ‘in between’ … In all of these, we are told that we are living in expectation of a future, and must therefore live and manage our resources according to that future, rather than to the present situation.”

[16] Green 502, “Instead, Jesus provides for his audience a vision of the eschaton, of a household reality wherein hierarchies of status are nullified; with this vision he both declares nature of fidelity in the interim and in the eschaton.”

[17] Gonzalez 163. “Too often the typical stewardship sermon says simply that all we have God has given us to manage. This leaves out two fundamental issues. The first is that we must not simply affirm that all we have has been given to us by God. We live in an unjust world, and to attribute the present order to God is to attribute injustice to God. It may well be that we have some things unjustly, and not as a gift of God.”

[18] Gonzalez 163, “…The second issue that should not be left out of our discussions on stewardship is the crucial dimension of hope and expectation. We are to manage things, not just out of a general sense of morality or even of justice, and certainly not just to support the church and its institutions—which we certainly must do. We are to manage things in view of the future we expect In the previous section, this was expressed in terms of building up treasures in heaven rather than on earth, and in terms of striving for the kingdom.”

[19] Gonzalez 163-4, “In this passage, that eschatological sense of expectancy or inbetweenness comes forth in the image of lamps that must remain lit …What for us is a fairly passive activity—all we do is flick a switch and the lights remain on—for people in the first century required frequent attention. One had to replenish the oil in the lamp. One had to adjust the wick. Today, we may go to bed leaving the lights on. Then, if one forgot about the lamp it would bum out. Thus keeping the lamp lit, as this passage instructs, is a matter that requires constant attention and watchfulness. This is the central theme of the passage.”

Come and Follow Me

Luke 10:38-42 (Sermon)

Introduction

One of the temptations in addressing this Lukan gospel passage, is the temptation to create a dichotomy between Mary and Martha. You’ve likely heard the moral of the story expressed as: Be “Maries” in a world of “Marthas”—an exhortation to Christians to prefer passive, private, quiet worship life like Mary, rather than a life filled with activity and motion and doing that coincides with Martha’s. [1] If you’ve ever heard this dichotomy between the sisters and felt a certain amount of tension and frustration, good news: you are not wrong.

It’s a bad application of the text. It throws shade on Martha that she doesn’t deserve and puts Mary in a position she hasn’t chosen. If we fall to the temptation to draw the line between Martha and Mary—substantiating the former with bad and the latter with good—we end up pitting the sisters against each other in a way that will plague us with a burden insidiously destructive to our discipleship—it’ll make any form of the law look like a fuzzy little kitten.

If we are dead set on this dichotomy between the sisters, let’s be warned: we’ll miss out on the wonderful story of what it means to be fully human; we’ll miss Jesus’s verbal deftness rendering the law in service to the gospel; we’ll miss witnessing the powers of sin and death collapsing under the weight of the invasion of God into our world in Christ—bringing to ashes our categories and expectations based on divisions; [2] we’ll miss the moment when the Christ takes from our weary shoulders the domination of toil and replaces it with the light burden and easy yoke[3] of the activity of discipleship, of following after this One who is the first of new creation. If we are dead set in pitting Mary against Martha, we’ll forfeit a word that is dynamic and life giving for a word that is static and death dealing.

And as he journeyed with [his disciples], he, he entered into a certain village; and a woman whose name [was] Martha received him as a guest. (10:38)

The story opens up with Jesus on the move with his disciples. Luke adjusts the focus and the disciples recede into the background. [4] Jesus enters this town and this woman, Martha, receives him. Hold still here. I don’t want us to miss this small moment in this brief story because we want to move quickly to the activity of Mary and Martha. Jesus is being intentional here. He enters this certain village and is received into this particular home. Luke asks us to listen: Do you hear it? God comes. Christ inaugurates everything occurring from here on out; everything is set in motion by the divine One who has come into our world, in to the very heart of our homes. We asked for none of this; in fact, we weren’t even looking for it and certainly not in this way. God comes.

And she had a sister called Mary, and [she] was seated at the feet of the Lord and listening to his word. (10:39)

Luke moves the narrative along quickly: Jesus has arrived at this home and Martha and her sister Mary are introduced. Martha takes the lead to receive Jesus as we read in the last verse, and Mary is imaged in what seems as a more passive role: the one who is sitting and listening. But, again, if we move to quickly to the action of the story, we’ll miss what Luke wants us to hear and see.

A striking aspect of this verse is that there is no way Mary is passive here. While I usually don’t spend time explaining words in their original biblical language, I must do so here because our English translation is painfully lacking. The text reads, “Mary was seated at the feet of the Lord…” However, we must understand the past tense participle (παρακαθεσθεισα) translated as “was seated” would be better rendered as: “Mary got up and placed herself at the feet of Jesus…” The radicality and boldness of Mary’s movement is lost in our translation. Thus why we want to make the bad dichotomy between Mary and Martha. Mary is as active as Martha is.

When Jesus enters the room, Mary stops what she is doing, moves toward him, and assumes the (active) role of being a disciple[5] to this one who is the Christ, the word made flesh, the apocalyptic invasion of God in the world. Nothing, neither the Law nor some societal gender expectations, [6] will keep Mary from being close to the one she adores, the one she loves, the one who has called her and the one whom she hears. She’d rather suffer the consequences of bucking expectation and assuming a position that was not hers to assume or seize[7] rather than not be near Jesus whom she loves.

This isn’t about active equals bad and passive equals good; Mary and Martha are equally active. This is about something bigger than we think. It’s about God’s cosmic battle with the powers of sin and death through the arrival of the good (Christ)—the good we weren’t looking for but need.

And Martha was troubled greatly about all of the service. Now, she stood before [Jesus] and said, “Lord, is it not an object of anxiety for you that my sister has abandoned me alone to serve? Therefore, tell her for the purpose that she may lend me a hand. (10:40)

Martha is burdened by what has to be done and her sister, according to her, has “abandoned” her to do all the work of service for their guest. So she asks for help. Now, both sisters are before Jesus. One has seated her self to listen and one who has stepped close to cry out for help. How are either of these positions is wrong? Martha, under extensive anxiety, forsakes her independence and goes straight to the one who can help. Thus the supposed dichotomy between the sisters (activity/bad; passivity/good) diminishes more.

Rather than looking where we want to look, let’s look in the direction Luke is asking us to look; what’s the real distinction Luke is trying to make here? The distinction Luke is making with this story is orientation; orientation as a result of hearing; orientation as a result of hearing that manifests in love of the One who has come. One is oriented and one has to be reoriented.

Martha calls out from the depths of her humanity, burdened by the weight of the demands and cares of the laws placed on her, oppressed by the many anxieties weighing her down she cries out. She needs help, and she goes to the one she knows can help. She calls Jesus’s attention to the storm in her life, like the disciples did in Luke 8 when their dingy was threatened by raucous waves and roaring winds. “Master, we are going to drown!”, they cried out. “Lord, I’m going to drown!”, cries Martha. “Do something, Lord!”

Martha wants Jesus to intervene in a way that forces Mary to come and help her with the tasks of table service. She wants him to right the situation and put it back to normal; she wants him to make it that makes sense to her. [8] Jesus will help her and will make things “right,” but not in the way she expects. When does God work within our systems and according to our plans? When is the word of the gospel forced to serve the things conceived and born of ash and dirt? When has the Reign of God given way to the kingdom of humanity?

When Jesus speaks, everything will change, will become topsy-turvy and flipped around; including Martha.

And the Lord answered her and said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled in mind about many things, but there is one need; for Mary picked for herself the good portion which it will not be taken away from her.” (10:41-42)

Jesus speaks. The Word words himself. Jesus doesn’t condemn Martha for her anxiety and burdens, but loving calls her (thus the double use of her name). The first Martha gets her attention, and the second one draws her deeper into himself. Like a mother would her anxious child. The voice she knows of the one who loves her so very much speaks, and when he does so in love and not condemnation. Martha’s orientation shifts from what must be done to the Lord sitting before her. And Jesus doesn’t tell her to stop worrying. He calls her by name. He doesn’t shush her, tell her she’s ridiculous, or shame her for feeling burdened. He merely reorients her to him and does so by calling her by name. That’s the gospel gospeling itself: love loving.

Then, he exposes her. First he flips her words. Martha asked Jesus if it was causing him anxiety that she was abandoned to serve. Jesus aren’t you upset my sister isn’t doing what she is expected to do? Jesus’s reply? Nope. I’m not. You’re the one, Martha, who is anxious to fulfill the relentless beast of burden of what is expected. Second, he intensifies her state: And it’s more than just this particular table service that’s causing you anxiety, Martha; it’s many things. It’s the demand upon demand placed upon her by the things of her world that are weighing her down. Martha is burdened to fulfill what is expected of her, but notice that this isn’t what Jesus expects. [9] Jesus isn’t upholding and isn’t going to uphold the law created and sustained by the old age, the very age God is putting to an end in Christ’s advent.

As Jesus addresses Martha, he highlights that discipleship isn’t worrisome obedience to “domestic performance” as one scholar called it, but about orientation toward the one who is the revelation and disclosure of God’s great cosmic rescue plan. [10] And this rescue plan—the cosmic invasion of God to contend with the powers of sin and death in the world—doesn’t incorporate thrusting people back into systems and structures that have only left them bound and gagged and laboring unto death (that’s the old age). Jesus is not the Lord who deals death, but the one who speaks and the dead come to life. He is the word of life and the body of living sustenance. The gospel is not in service to the law, but the law in service to the gospel; the tablets of stone serve the embodied Son of God who came to save the world.

Martha lost herself in the many things being demanded of her according to custom, but there is only need: the Word made flesh. In trying to serve her guest according to the rules and laws of the old age, Martha renders herself incapable of service to the Lord, to Jesus the Christ. Thus the contrast between Mary and Martha is orientation: Martha has her eyes to the old age; Mary to the new one inaugurated by Christ. Discipleship and its service is to be oriented toward the divine activity in the world following closely to the path initiated by Jesus. Our faith with our works are to be oriented to Christ and the Reign of God taking place in Christ; not to our objectives, our systems, our common sense, and our dogmas.[11]

Conclusion

The paradox of humanity in this small potent story of Luke 10: we are both Martha and Mary. You can’t pick sides here. You are not one or the other; you are both. I am both. We’ve been called and we’ve heard, but we also need to be called and to hear continually. We run through our days and perform in our rate races, fretting over the demands upon demands upon demands of our age: rest is a complete and total illusion here. Being oriented to the old age and its demands and trying to appease it so to silence it is a worthless endeavor because those systems and demands are insatiable. We will never be able to have or do enough to settle all the anxiety and silence the cacophony of demands. When we look to the old age to bring us hope, we are hopeless.

Rather, in the reign of God inaugurated by the advent of Christ Jesus, the cessation of the old age and the beginning of the new age, is the only means by which we will have true peace and rest. Paul writes in Colossians,

“[Christ] is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (1:15-20)

Following Christ: freedom; taking up his yoke: liberty. It’s not about activity being bad and passivity being good, but about our orientation in our activity. In Christ, we are called by name unto him who is life and are brought out of the death of toiling and into new life of work. We receive freedom and liberty for us and for others who are also dying as we were dying. The way Luke structures chapter 10 of his gospel, we cannot isolate Mary’s active love of Christ from the active love for the neighbor of the Samaritan. [12] For him, work and worship are not separated. Chapter 10 is an exposition of the entire Law told in story. According to Luke, we cannot walk by our neighbor who is dying on the side of the road, beaten and bruised, and claim to love God.

We don’t need to justify ourselves to God through our incessant and frantic activity trying to appease the demands of the old age. [13] We are justified by faith (alone) in Christ (alone) by God’s grace (alone) and not by means of any of our toiling. We are called by name and we look; we are called by name again and we step closer. The one calling, the one proclaiming himself, puts an “it is finished” to the enslavement of the condemnation of the powers of sin and death, and he ushers in the comfort of the powers of love and life with “Come; come and follow me and I will give you rest.”

 

 

[1] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1997. “Although long interpreted as establishing the priority of the contemplative life over against the active one, the interests of this brief narrative unit lie elsewhere. Luke’s narration is manifestly concerned with the motif of hospitality.” 433. I’m not drawing out the specific theme of hospitality, but that should be incorporated into my discussion of the next albeit rather subtly, snuggled in between choosing the good part and discipleship.

[2] Gonzalez 141. “They must read within the context of Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom and radical obedience. In the chapters immediately preceding, Jesus has been teaching about the demands of the kingdom and of discipleship. In the coming of Jesus, something radically new has happened and this radically new thing demands an equally radical obedience (see, for instance, 9:57-62). The parable of the Good Samaritan calls for a radical obedience that breaks cultural, ethnic, and theological barriers. The story of Mary and Martha is equally radical. First of all, we often do not realize that the first one to break the rules is Jesus himself. He is the guest, and against all rules of hospitality he rebukes Martha, who is his host. And Mary too breaks the rules. Her role as (most probably) a younger sister, or as one living in the house of her sister, is to help her in her various chores. Instead, she just sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him.”

[3] Matthew 11:30

[4] Green 435; Also, Luke is intentional here: the “they” and “them” fall out of view once Jesus is received as a guest into Martha’s home.

[5] Green 144, “By means of this juxtaposition [with 10:25-37], Luke illuminates his overarching concern with genuine “hearing” of the word of God (cf. 8:4-21)…Now, Mary is depicted as one who has begun the journey of discipleship by acknowledging through her posture her submissiveness to Jesus and by ‘listening’ to his word. Martha’s ‘doing,’ on the other hand, is censured, rooted as it is in her anxiety as a host rather than in dispositions transformed by an encounter with the word.”

[6] Green 435, “She is positioned ‘at the Lord’s feet,’ signifying her submissiveness, particularly her status as a disciple (cf. Acts 22:3). The latter nuance is commended by her activity at his feet: she ‘listened to his word’ For the Third Gospel, to listen to the word is to have joined the road of discipleship (e.g., 6:47; 8:11, 21; 11:28)—in spite of the reality that, in this period, Jewish women were normally cast in the role of domestic performance in order to support the instruction of men rather than as persons who were themselves engaged in study.”

[7] Green 435fn142, While some Law was learned it was only in regards to those laws that controlled the feminine realm and were taught by mother to daughter.

[8] Green 436-7, “…Martha’s address to Jesus takes an unexpected, perhaps unconscious turn; while she engages in the irony of self-betrayal, her attempt to win Jesus’ support in a struggle against her sister ends in self-indictment. The nature of hospitality for which Jesus seeks is realized in attending to one’s guest, yet Martha’s speech is centered on ‘me’-talk (3 times). Though she refers to Jesus as ‘Lord,’ she is concerned to engage his assistance in her plans, not to learn from him his.”

[9] Gonzalez 141, “Here Jesus rebukes Martha for doing what is expected of her, and commends Mary, who is eschewing her traditional woman’s role.”

[10] Green 434, “As high a value as Luke puts on service (by which he often denotes leadership, cf. 22:24-27), service grounded in and brandishing moral intuitions other than those formed through hearing the word is unacceptable. The welcome Jesus seeks is not epitomized in distracted, worrisome domestic performance, but in attending to this guest whose very presence is a disclosure of the divine plan.”

[11] Green 437, “…his status as Lord identifies him as the one whose design transcends self-oriented or conventionally correct plans and whose message takes precedence over the same. Thus, over against the attempt of Martha to assert the priority of her enterprise over that of her sister, Jesus provides his own two-sided valuation of the scene before him. Martha is engaged in anxious, agitated practices, behavior that contrasts sharply with the comportment of a disciple characteristic of Mary. Martha is concerned with many things, Mary with only one. Hence, Martha’s behavior is negatively assessed, Mary’s positively. What is this ‘one thing,’ this ‘better part’ Mary has chosen? Within this narrative co-text, the infinite range of possibilities is narrowed considerably: She is fixed on the guest, Jesus, and his word; she heeds the one whose presence is commensurate with the coming of the kingdom of God. With Jesus presence the world is being reconstituted, with the result that (1) Mary (and. With her, those of low status accustomed to living on the margins of society) need no longer be defined by socially determined roles; and, more importantly in this co-text, (2) Mary and Martha (and, with them, all) must understand and act on the priority of attending to the guest before them, extending to Jesus and his messengers the sort of welcome in which the authentic hearing of discipleship is integral.”

[12] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice Minneapolis, MN: 2017. “Theological commitment to the true socialism of the kingdom of God and engagement with socialist analysis of capitalist social structures, which are antithetical to that kingdom, coalesce in Gollwitzer’s thought to make the fundamental point that Christians must take sides on political issues, and they must take the side of the oppressed. Many of those Americans today who think of themselves as Christians feel very uncomfortable when faced with this demand. As Gollwitzer correctly notes, however, taking sides ‘sounds terrifying only to him who is blind to the fact that the empirical church has actually always taken sides.’ Christians have, by and large, sided with the status quo, But the gospel’s call to repentant conversion—to metanoia—‘reaches into the politico-social dimension,’ and ‘as long as we shrink from revolutionizing [that dimension], we have not really heard’ the gospel’s call. That is, we have not encountered the God who loves justice, and who is consequently served through the pursuit of political love.” 146

[13] Helmut Gollwitzer “Fellow-Workers With Love” The Way to Life Trans David Cairns. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1980. “When we no longer defend and justify ourselves, then God, who is greater than our heart, defends us, and holds us fast…and we can breath again; we are not rejected as we deserve to be, we are still accepted by the love of God.”132.