“Tabitha, rise!”

Sermon on Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23:1-3 God is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. God revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for God’s Name’s sake.

Introduction

In my last call I had the privilege of being a high school teacher at a private Episcopal high school in deep south Louisiana. I taught theology and religion, and I also participated in some of the pastoral care of the students. I had many conversations with students, but some of my favorite ones were with seniors fretting over what college to go to. Them, frantic: Rev. Larkin…Rev. Larkin I don’t know what to do! They had sweet and endearing intentions but they were stuck. They weren’t merely stuck because they were waiting for that frontal lobe to fully kick in, but because they worried about doing God’s will for fear that anything else would cause God to become displeased in them. What college should I go to, Rev. Larkin, what’s God’s will for me?

If there’s any question in the world that I both value and understand and disvalue and dismiss it’s that question. If you ever want to see this enneagram 5 go full tilt wut. just ask: What’s God’s will for me right now? Me:

Robot Monkey GIF by Giphy QA - Find & Share on GIPHY

Now, while my internal monologue looked something like that, my external pastoral side always kicked in. I loved these kids and hated how tied up they were in fear of not knowing God’s will. In these moments, I loved leaning back on Luther. His conception of seeking God’s will as a form of magic and divination (he’s no fan of either, by the way) and the freedom we have in Christ, gave me the power and authority to declare to my fretting and worried beloveds: my dear one, God loves you through and through and through; a college choice isn’t going to ever ever ever take that from you no matter how bad it all turns out. You can just transfer. Also, and this is going to sound a bit blunt and maybe even mean and I intend this with the biggest amount of love for you: God isn’t worried about where you go to college. Literally. God’s will for all of us is written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Pick a school and live in God’s already existent good pleasure and love for you…and care for the poor and vulnerable.

When it comes to our own questions about what does God want for us, what does God want us to do, it’s clearly laid out for us in scripture through the examples of many of the main characters. Even if we rationalize away the example of Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, leaning heavy on Christological formulas: Well, Jesus is the Son of God, fully human and fully God thing…there are still many more examples. In the book of Acts of the Holy Spirit, we’re given plenty examples of people who are both fully human and called by God and live out the will of God in the material world by the power of the Holy Spirit. Saul-Paul is one. I know he’s a bit intense, and he seems to have a penchant for getting into heaps of trouble with the religious and state authorities, but he’s fully human and a converted follower of the way (like many of us).

But maybe Saul-Paul isn’t your cup of tea, too much drama that he clearly could’ve avoided if he was just a bit more reserved and taken with common sense…There’s always another contender: Peter. He seems a bit more practical.

Acts 9:36-43

Now, it happened in that day [Tabitha] became weak and died. And having bathed [her], they laid her in an upper room. Now, Lydda being near Joppa the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda and they sent two men to summon him, “Do not hesitate to pass through us.” And Peter rose and went with them. After arriving, they lead him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and displaying the tunics and many cloaks [Tabitha] was making being with them. Now, Peter sent them all out and [getting on his] knees, he prayed and turned toward the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.[1]

Acts 9:37-40

Last week, looking at chapter 9 of the book of Acts we encountered Saul who was encountered by God in the midst of his self-determined obstinance to reclaim Israelites for the glory of God. Saul was disrupted, and his life changed in a short moment. This week we are being asked to consider Peter who returns to the story as the one who has followed Jesus and continues to do so. Where Saul represents being suddenly disrupted; Peter represents continual and persistent disruption. Peter knew Jesus and continues to get to know him in deeper and more profound ways.[2] Specifically, the blessed mingling of human and divine of the incarnate Christ raised and now ascended beckons to Peter by the power of the Holy Spirit asking him to see how much more that divine and human mingling goes beyond Jesus the Christ. Peter is caught up in the divine pursuit of disruption and disturbing the status quo by shaking up the divine and human distinction through drawing the regular time and regular people into the holiness of God.[3] And he’s about to be thrusted into the middle of such a moment of disruption and disturbance.

In our story here in Acts, Peter dares to do what Jesus did. In other words, to quote Willie James Jennings, “Peter repeats Jesus.”[4] Like his friend, sibling, and savior did, so, too, will Peter do: bring light where there is darkness, liberty where there is captivity, life where there is death. In other words, Peter, like Jesus continues to spread God’s never-stopping, never-giving up material and tangible love for the entire cosmos (from the biggest to the least).[5] Most notably Peter steps into and brings[6] this proclamation to weeping widows in the presence of the death of Tabitha—one who lived well and loved these widows deeply.[7] Here we see how willingly divine power and love will sink and seep into the most narrow crevices of society: the grief of the widows and the death of Tabitha matters to God—these women matter to God, so much so that death is refused the final word.[8]

The final word is God’s power through Peter, “Tabitha, rise.” The echo of Jesus’s “Lazarus, come here! outside!” “Peter repeats Jesus.” Resurrection happens, life triumphs over death. The widows’ grief and sorrow (also fear and anxiety) is heard, and their Tabitha is brought back to life.[9] Our scriptures record this incredible and astounding story: the first disciple to experience resurrection after Jesus’s is a woman. God gives a big heck about bodies, all bodies.[10] And this message doesn’t cease with Tabitha; soon Peter will find himself with a body considered unclean, Simon the Tanner. Peter’s on a divine journey, discovering the depth of God’s love for all people, diving deeper into being disrupted and disturbed by the heart, love, grace, and will of God. [11]

Conclusion

This story from the book of Acts about Peter and the widows and Tabitha reminds us that all bodies matter to God, and not merely the bodies of the wealthy, the powerful, the capable, but, the bodies of least of these, the bodies of the oppressed and poor. Women’s bodies matter. Black bodies matter. Trans bodies matter. Differently abled bodies matter. Imprisoned bodies matter. Your body matters.

So, back to the beginning: What’s God’s will for us? What does God want us to do? I guess God wants us to raise the dead. Or, rather, bring life where there is death. The ultimate interpretation of what it means to liberate the captives is: resurrection. “Tabitha, rise.” And we, like Peter and Saul get to be encountered by this radical and profound divine pathos, divine love for the world and then we get to spread it where ever we go. We, like Saul and Peter, get to say: “Tabitha, rise.” Yes, you! You, too! You, too, rise! Death has no claim here anymore only life, no longer darkness, only light. You are the beloved of God, dearly loved and deeply cherished. From head to toe, without shame, without hiddenness, without secrecy, with all boldness and bigness. “Tabitha, rise.”

You, the Beloved, rise!


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 99. “Peter returns to center stage and engages in a bit of wayfaring life, echoing again his history of following Jesus and doing as his savior had done. He is on the road and comes to Lydda to be among the living saints.”

[3] Jennings Acts 99. “Jesus is God drawing the everyday into holiness, into God’s own life. Everyday people are made holy in Christ. Everyday people are made holy by Christ, and this is a holiness that will last, not be episodic, and constitute a new space for living life and knowing ourselves. ‘Saints’ are those marked by the new gestures of belief in Jesus. They worship a crucified Lord in the Spirit, and in the Spirit they live the everyday, knowing that each moment has been made sacred by God’s faithful presence.”

[4] Jennings Acts 99.

[5] Jennings Acts 99-100. “He is with Jesus, following where his savior wants to go. Once again a marvelous act, a touchable miracle, will turn people to the Lord (v. 35). This is repetition that illumines the inexhaustible riches of God’s love for the fragile creature and God’s desire to constantly touch us, hold us, and announce the victory over death.”

[6] Jennings Acts 100. See also Cassidy p.30. “Here glory joins strong grief because to lose someone who cares for the weak and vulnerable, whose life is turned toward making a difference in the world and who is making a difference, is a bitter loss. The widows have lost Tabitha and a disciple is gone. This is what Peter steps into in Joppa.”

[7][7] Jennings Acts 100. “We come to the story of Tabitha with Peter at the very end. There is glory and grief at the end. The glory is a life lived well, lived in service to others. Tabitha’s life, even in the fragments we gain in this story, hangs together beautifully as someone devoted to helping people, especially widows.”

[8] Jennings Acts 100. “Peter’s presence declares an unmistakable truth: women matter. This woman matters, and the work she does for widow’s matters to God. It matters so much that God will not allow death the last word.”

[9] Jennings Acts 100-101. “’Tabitha, get up.’ Peter repeats Jesus. Tabitha is an activist who lives again in resurrection power. Her body has been quickened by the Spirit, and her eyes are opened again to see a new day. She has work to do and joy to give to the widows: you have not been abandoned, dear widows, God has heard your weeping and returned her to you.”

[10] Jennings Acts 101. “We know that death imagines a special claim to the bodies of women. Their deaths are normalized and naturalized in social orders that value men’s body far above all others. It will not be so among the disciples. They will find Peter standing next to Tabitha, a gift of God who has been given again the gift of life. It is no accident that the first disciple to have this little taste of the resurrection is a woman…”

[11] Jennings Acts 101. “Tanners worked with death flesh—the skin of animals and tanners were, theologically speaking, unclean Few if any pious Jews would normally or easily stay with a tanner, but here was Peter with Simon the tanner. Peter is indeed moving from saints to saints, and soon he will find out just how far the generosity and mercy of a holy God reaches. Soon he will see just how far God will extend holy place and holy people. Peter is with a man who touches the unclean, and soon he will see God do the same.”

Desired and Disrupted

Sermon on Acts 9:1-6

Psalm 30:2-4 My God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. You brought me up, God, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave. Sing to God, you beloved of God; give thanks for the remembrance of God’s holiness.

Introduction

Encounters change us. They can be big or small, prolonged or brief. Sometimes the change is little, sometimes it’s big. Sometimes the encounter is good, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes we’re left with warm fuzzies; other times we’re left with the cool pricklies. The encounters can be with other humans, an animal, out in nature, up in the mountains, and down on the beach. Everything and everyone we encounter changes us in some degree. We’re all material girls in this material world; we’re bound to be changed by other materials floating and flitting about.

And then there are the encounters that not only change us, they overhaul us. These are encounters that blend the material and the spiritual, physical and metaphysical. They reduce us to the marrow of existence, hand us over to death, and then beckon us into resurrected new life. We’re new creations facing new directions, walking new paths with new eyes to see and ears to hear; suddenly, everything looks and feels and sounds and tastes and smells different.

These encounters are with God in the event of faith. They can happen anywhere, at any time, and they are completely out of our control. We cannot fabricate them, plan them, cause them, manipulate them, or repeat them. There’s no doctrine to be determined from them, there’s no dogma to be latched on to. They happen, and they change us forever and make us new, wrapped up in this encounter with God. They can be with another living being or not at all; they can be in the four walls of the church or completely outside of them. God decides when God encounters us, and they can happen even in the least likely of places, when we are the furthest from the goal, completely dead set on our way or the high way, headstrong and determined about our own doing and goings on. And they will always be personal and they will always incorporate our entire selves.[1]

Acts 9:1-6

Now, Saul, still breathing with threats and murder towards the disciples of the Lord…Now while journeying it happened to him nearing Damascus, suddenly a light flashed around him like lightening from heaven and after falling up on the earth he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And [Saul] said, “Who are you Lord” And [Jesus] said “ I, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting…” [2]

(Acts 9: 1a, 2-5)

Saul’s story—told by Luke here in Acts—is a story about God encountering Saul. This story tells us something of God and of Saul. Saul was, by no stretch of the imagination, a killer, a man bent in on himself and his own human logic of things divine. And, he was travelling to Damascus with authority to imprison and if necessary execute those who will not obey his exhortation to return from following (and worshipping!) this dead man, Jesus.[3] And here we see privilege drunk on its own power: those whom Saul hunts—the followers of the way—have no recourse, no chance, no ability to fight against Saul and resist him.[4] He is like a mountain that is about to fall on them and they have only meager stones to fight back. Saul will seek, and they will be found; they will lose, and Saul will win.

But not even Saul, with all his earned power and privilege and authority to pursue,[5] will be able to outrun the One who pursues him. As God meets up with Saul, Saul is forever changed. Saul is knocked off of his donkey on to his “donkey,” and when he gets up he is a brand-new person. Saul is 100% disrupted on his way to Damascus; his old ways disturbed and brought to death as he is consumed and enveloped in bright divine light. In this light, even before Jesus speaks to Saul, Saul experiences the love of this desiring God in his own person—his entire being[6] is about to be caught up in God.[7]

Even if this was enough, something more happens to Saul: Jesus speaks and asks Saul a profound question. Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? Saul, why are you doing this to me? Saul knows this the Lord—Who are you Lord?—and would never persecute the Lord. Yet, he is persecuting those who are following this (same!) Jesus of Nazareth. And herein Luke tells us a fabulous story of the intimate bond between this Lord and the people of this Lord.[8] In this moment, the solidarity of God with the disenfranchised and oppressed, the hunted and hungry, the threatened and thirsty, is made known to Saul in dramatic and sudden fashion.[9] In other words, mess with the beloved, mess with God.

And as Saul encounters God in this moment in Christ’s self-revelation, Jesus the Christ and God become one. And, Jesus’s presence and God’s people become one. Saul moves from abstract to concrete, from theory to praxis, from ritualistic and traditionalist obedience to law to disruptive and redirecting activity of divine love.[10] Saul will have no choice but to set out on a new path in this new life found in the incarnate, crucified, raised, and ascended Christ. Saul will not be able to justify continuing on with his previous desires to imprison and execute the Followers of the Way;[11] in his entire being and presence, mind and heart, in his actions from here on out, all is changed, all is different, all is disrupted, all is new.

Conclusion

While every encounter changes us, when God encounters us God disrupts us. God does not affirm our former paths, the ones we were dead-set on, the ones we were determined to cling to certain we are right. When we are encountered by God, we’re rendered unto death and are resurrected into new life…not a nicer version of our old life, but a completely, new life. When we’re encountered by God, we’re made more ourselves being wrapped up in divine love and desire for us. And then we’re unleashed back into the world to love others as we’ve been loved, participating in Christ’s mission in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit, spreading divine love in passive and active ways, in expected and radical ways, in peaceful and revolutionary ways. We get to participate in another’s encounter with God in the event of faith; we get to be those who bring light into the dark, liberation where there is captivity, release where there is oppression, community where there is isolation, life where there is only death.

In a text by Dorothee Sölle, she refers to (at length) Helmut Gollwitzer’s personal confession of encounter with God in the event of faith, I will close by quoting a portion of it:

The most important thing, from which all the rest follows is that through hearing what can be heard of him I have never been alone. Certainly, like anyone else, I have often enough felt alone, abandoned, helpless, but he has spoken to this solitude with his ‘I am here.’ ‘I spoke to him, asked him, heard very clear words which be said to me, had to take account of them—and the spell of solitude was broken.

He gave me – still gives me – things to do. He is involved in a great work, the greatest here on earth: the revolution of the human race, the individual and all people, for a new life, for real, fulfilled humanity. That is what he is involved in, that is what he is winning for his disciples. To become involved in that is already to participate in the new life oneself. …The connection with Jesus’ great work given an eternal significance even to the most unlikely things: nothing will be lost. A joyful meaning enters into all action.

He makes people dear to me. Some of them are dear anyway, and many others are not. He tells me that he loves those who are alien, indifferent or even unattractive to me. In so doing he helps me to behave in a different way, to be capable of talking, listening to others as openly and seriously as I would like them to listen to me and take me seriously, never writing anyone off, never pronouncing a final judgment on anyone, always attempting new things with them in hope… They all become my neighbours.

In this way he disturbs to me. Because of his intervention I cannot behave as I wanted to at first. Of course, unfortunately I often do just that. But be does not leave me to my inclinations and moods. He struggles with me, there are arguments, and sometimes he prevails. To be disturbed in this way is the healthiest thing that can happen to us. … He does not restrict my freedom; he is not I despotic superego against which I have to fight to come to myself; on the contrary, the more I allow myself to be governed by his intervention, the forces, the more open, the more friendly and the more joyful I become.[12]

Helmut Gollwitzer qtd in Dorothee Sölle

As of Easter, in light of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, in tune with Saul’s encounter with God, you are the wonderfully disrupted, disturbed, and desired beloved of God. Go forth, and disturb, disrupt and desire by the power of the love of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit.


[1] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 93. “The revealing God yet remains hidden in revelation. This hiddenness is not because God hides, but because, as Karl Barth says God controls God’s own self-revealing, we do not. God comes to us one at a time, specifically, uniquely in the singularity that is our life. God comes to you and to me, as only God can come to you and me, as God, our God. The coming is a calling. A drawing, an awakening of our life to its giver and lover.”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Jennings Acts 90. “Saul is a killer. We must never forget this fact he kills in the name of righteousness, and now he wants legal permission to do so. This is the person who travels the road to Damascus, one who has the authority to take life either through imprisonment or execution. No one is more dangerous than one with the power to take life and who already has mind and sight set on those who are a threat to a safe future. Such a person is a closed circle relying on the inner coherence of their logic.”

[4] Jennings Acts 91. “The disciples of the Lord, the women and men of the Way, have no chance against Saul. They have no argument and certainly no authority to thwart his zeal They are diaspora betrayers of the faith who are a dear and present danger to Israel. This is how Saul sees them. His rationality demands his vision of justice. But what Saul does not yet know is that the road to Damascus has changed. It is space now inhabited by the wayfaring Spirit of the Lord. Saul pursues, but he is being pursued.”

[5] Richard J. Cassidy Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1987. 80. “Within Luke’s portrait of his activities, the fact that Paul received approval for this initiative implies that he had emerged as a dedicated and trusted ally of the chief priests and was no longer to regarded merely as the young custodian of their cloaks.”

[6] Jennings Acts 92. “’The Lord and Jesus have been connected in Saul’s body, and they can never be separated again.”

[7] Jennings Acts 90. “God disrupts the old order by interrupting lives. Luke has removed every temporal wall that might separate in our thinking the God who moved in ancient Israel from the God present in the world in Jesus from this God of untamable love. This is the same Holy One, and Saul too will fall into the hands of this desiring God.”

[8] Jennings Acts 92-93. “Jesus is one with the bodies of those who have called on his name and followed in his way by the Spirit Their pain and suffering is his very own. This too is scandal, this too is a crossed line. The mystery of God is found in human flesh, moving in and with the disciples who are a communion of suffering and a witness to life. Saul is meeting a God in Jesus who is no alien to time, but one who lives the everyday with us. The shared life of Jesus continues with his disciples as he takes hold of their horrors and they participate in his hopes. Yet just as he confronted Saul, this God is no passive participant in the suffering of the faithful, but one who has reconciled the world and will bring all of us to the day of Jesus Christ Saul has entered that new day.”

[9] Jennings Acts 91. “The power of this event almost overwhelms its textual witness. Luke is handling holy fire now. The question comes directly to Saul. This is a question too massive for him to handle because it is an intimate one. ‘Why are you hurting me?’…In our world, this genre of question flows most often out of the mouths of the poor and women and children. The question casts light on the currencies of death that we incessantly traffic in, and it has no good answer. The only good answer is to stop. But now this is God’s question. It belongs to God. It belongs with God. Hurt and pain and suffering have reached their final destination, the body of Jesus.”

[10] Jennings Acts 92. “This is the bridge that has been crossed in Israel. The Lord and Jesus are one. This is the revelation that now penetrates Saul’s being and will transform his identity. He turns from the abstract Lord to the concrete Jesus. …Saul moves from an abstract obedience to a concrete one, from the Lord he aims to please to the One who will direct him according to divine pleasure. Discipleship is principled direction taken flight by the Holy Spirit It is the “you have heard it said, but I say to you—the continued speaking of God bound up in disruption and redirection.”

[11] Jennings Acts 90. “There is no rationale for killing that remains intact in the presence of God.”

[12] Helmut Gollwitzer qtd in Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990. Gollwitzer’s statement is from H. Spaemann (ed.), Wer ist Jesus von Nazareth—für mich? 100 eitgenössische Zeugnisse (Munich: 1972) 21ff.

I Walk in Translucence

I walk in translucence
live within substance
thick and transparent;
material iridescence.

Things feel neither this
and definitely not that.
Chaos feels normal now,
so too: one step at a time.

Definitions feel too heavy
and desperately craved.
Reaching back fails, yet
Straining forward is loss.

My vocation is pointless
rendered to dust by those
who care more for their own
spirituality than the story.

I’m embarrassed to don
cloak and collar; a cloth
representation of violence,
an archaic cairn of lost ways.

No one looks for a priest
anymore; a bygone call
ushered eras ago, long since
silenced by human stubbornness.

The Church is dying…
I need to touch the host
The people are perishing…
Where are my robes.

Ethical praxis amounts to
nothing more than matching
colors of reds, purples, greens
and the occasional pink.

Forming opinions on things
that bring not life but perpetuate
death and night among the people,
stealing life; irony: we think we live.

Reigning top-down in fluid fear
making our own bodies the apex
of the entire structure and story.
Grandiose expressions of pomp.

Bloated ego mixed with adorned
body, ready for worship blurring
distinction of my body and Christ’s.
My body wasn’t broken; his was.

Jesus died held on wood by nails,
stuck to an instrument of death
designed by the state to kill those
threatening their claim to power.

Jesus died held on wood by nails,
identifying with every oppressed body,
the same who watched on and listened
as those with more hubris mocked him.

All who found themselves trapped as he
watched as this man, God of very God,
refused to play the way those in power
wanted him to play; he chose another game.

Not strength, but weakness.
Not power, but compassion.
Not authority, but solidarity.
Not death, but life.

He died not in fine robes, but stripped naked.
He died not on rare stone, but simple wood.
He died not with fanfare, but ridiculed.
He died not for himself, but for the people.

Is this not the story of the church?
Is this not the fabric that is the
material of my call and my life as
a priest in this church, in this story?

Yet things feel neither this
and definitely not that.
Chaos feels normal now,
so too: one step at a time.

I walk in translucence
live within substance
thick and transparent;
material iridescence.

A Good Man…

“Jesus was a good teacher and man,”
a statement most people like to say.
But, the statement causes me pause:
“Would you have said this on that day?”

We make this claim, so certain of ourselves
that this one man in history was quite good;
but the people in that crowd didn’t think so,
as they clamored for the nails and wood.

Maybe I’m too negative, refusing moral
evolution; but are we actually improved
in making sound judgments than those
who lived in eras and times far removed?

If we were them and they were us, everything
would occur as it already did. We’d demand
his life be given and then release Barabas;
that choice they’d examine and reprimand.

We don’t like rabble-rousers any more now
than we did then. One need only to mention
“Malcolm X” of “Martin Luther King Jr” to recall
how we treat those who light fires of revolution.

“Jesus was a good teacher and man,”
they say as if it’s a universal statement.
In many ways, it is very much true; he was.
Jesus was good, in the way “good” is meant.

But hindsight is 20/20, we say this now.
Though…we wouldn’t have said it then.
One thing I keep coming back to on this point
is that all should be silence from way back when.

Nothing should have survived the trials of time,
Jesus should have gone the way of the wind…
into the distant whirling dust devil that is the
constant erosion of time’s battling headwind.

The only reason we have the audacity to say this,
“Jesus was good,” is due to the very early Church
feeling it necessary that if anything held through time
twas a whacky claim: the Son of God wasn’t left in a lurch.

Through the words of Paul, that extreme and energetic guy,
and the reply of those other four writers some years belated,
we have with us a story of divine activity rejecting
death, which is a story to people weekly narrated.

Jesus wrote nothing down, neither did any of his disciples.
For all intents and purposes, this man should never be known
for how good he was or wasn’t; Jesus should have slipped
into all that was and never will be again, the great “unknown”.

But we do because small groups of people dared to retell
something crazy, a thing which caused them to live in a way
different than the rest, a story so crazy their own lives were
not worth keeping if they couldn’t tell what they had to say.

“Jesus was a good teacher and man,” so good God raised him
from death into life so that we could also partake in this, his, life.
We owe this hope to scared people, desperately clinging to crazy
words of a crazier story, ignoring other words threatening antilife.

Had these small sects of people, scattered in the middle east,
never thought this worth their time, not worth this great danger,
we’d be now without such a story of metaphysical engagement
starting in the midst of hay and straw, a mere babe in a manger.

“Jesus was a good teacher and man,”
I say now with an eye to this humble past.
Thank you kind people for passing on this
crazy story surviving time in words that last.

Our Stories This Story: A Revolutionary Story

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here,(“The Parents”) click here, and (“The Worker”) click here, (“The Old”) click here, (“The Others”) click here, and “Us” click here.

Sermon on Luke 24:1-12

Psalm 118:15-17 There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of [God] has triumphed! the right hand of [God] is exalted! the right hand of [God] has triumphed!” I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of [God].

Introduction

Death dared to stand between God and the Beloved and did not survive; like a mama bear eager to protect her cubs, God roared and death became dust; God’s beloved was liberated. Happy Easter! Hallelujah!

Today, we are people of story.

Today, on this beautiful day of celebration, of praise, of great and big Hallelujahs! we become a people of story. We become a people created and crafted by a radical and profound story of God’s abundant, steadfast, unconditional, never-giving-up, mama-bear-like love for the cosmos.

Today our posture uncoils, and we boldly turn our faces toward the outer edges of the universe letting the rays of the risen Son shine down upon us. All that was has come undone; everything is now as it should be according to God’s story of love for the world and all people.

Today, we get to stand (literally and metaphorically) in the realm of life in the aftermath of the exposure that we do not know what we are doing. Today, we get to float in the wonderful amniotic fluid of divine love soothing over every wound and trauma, we get to dance freely to the manifold melodies of liberation, we get to drink in the waters of life, consume the food of the word of God of love, and hear the comforting declaration that even when we did not and do not know what we are doing, God does know what God’s doing.

Even when we were determined to terminate God’s story, God met our determination with God’s story of love and forgiveness, mercy and grace; what we sentenced to death and thrust into the dirt, God made alive and caused the very ground under our feet to burst open. In the resurrection of the Christ, we receive the splendor of God’s story and watch it eclipse our own feeble stories hallmarked with pain and sorrow, captivity and complicity, sickness and trauma, and death. Today our stories become living, breathing testaments to the revolutionary love of God.

Today we are a people of story.

Luke 24:1-12

Now, on the first [day] of the week at the deep of the early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb carrying spices that they prepared. And they found the stone having been rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus; they became perplexed about this. And then, Lo!, two men in lustrous clothing stood by the women; [the women] became full of fear. While bowing [their] faces to the earth, [the two men] said to the women, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised. Remember how he said to you while in Galilee saying ‘it is necessary the Son of Humanity is handed over into the hands of sinful humanity and crucified and on the third day raised up.’” And the women remembered his words…

Luke 24:1-8, translation mine unless otherwise noted

“And the women remembered his words…” This is the profound moment when these brave women[1] who were previously lurking in the background of Luke’s story surge to the foreground.[2] In addition to that, this is the moment when they begin to grasp the depth of what they’ve encountered: God…the awe inspiring and undiluted power of God’s fulfilled promise to liberate the captives even.

Luke tells us: coming to the tomb early in the morning, bearing their spices, they were prepared to meet Jesus’s dead body. Make no mistake, these women are no heroes of “blind faith”, as if they obstinately held to some whimsical fantastic fiction denying what had happened, refusing to accept reality. They knew what happened; they were grounded. They were (literally) carrying spices for burial. They expected to fight against larger-than-life stone to access the decaying body of Jesus of Nazareth and anoint it.[3]

They expected to encounter death; they were ready for that. Instead, they encountered life, and were thrown back on their heels.

Two men greet them in lustrous and dazzling clothes and tell the women: why are you looking for the living among the dead? Let’s imagine the two men ask the question and then smile, knowing (full well) what these women were expecting and knowing (full well) they are seconds away from dropping all those prepared burial spices on the ground. Try to listen to the lilt in the question as it falls on the astounded women who are becoming more perplexed… the living…?among the dead?

The familiar aroma of the paradox of comfort and chaos lingers in that hewn out hole in the rock. For these women, the world is turned upside down…Jesus is alive and not among the dead…The story just took a radical turn. In a moment, these humble women are wrapped up (and lead! [4]) in what will become one of the revolutionary stories of divine love for the world. A story so radical many people and churches will and do suffer persecution and death to tell it.

For these women, nothing will ever be the same. As they leave the empty tomb and return home proclaiming this divine revolution against death in Jesus being raised from the dead, their own stories change for good. What follows, what comes after this encounter with God is not a continuation of what went before…everything is being made new! A new order is ushered in.[5] This isn’t some happy ending where everyone lives happily ever after; this is a brand-new story, a new chapter in history, in the history of these women, in the history of the world.[6] God’s battle with death is won in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit; everyone who collides with this story, will be forever changed in one way or another.[7]

Conclusion

Today,

  • We are a people who passes on story rather than mess
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than isolation and alienation
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than toil
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than utility
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than exclusion
  • We are a people who passes on life rather than death

Today, we become a people who passes on story rather than not-story. As those who encounter God today, in this story, we are changed for good. What was before is eclipsed by this moment. The stories we bring here today—the ones we were given by others who couldn’t love us as well as they wanted to; the ones we were given by those who hated us; the ones we were given through pain, sorrow, suffering, illness, grief, trauma, bullying, and death; the ones we give ourselves—all of our stories, one by one, are rendered to dust as we are enveloped and wrapped up in this new story of God’s for us: Beloved. In this “Beloved” we are called, we stand up, we rise, we are resurrected, and we enter into the divine revolution of God’s love loosed against the remnants of death and its destructive systems.

What was, ended; all that lies ahead is the divine material that is the foundation of our new life and new creation, our liberation and belovedness, our faith, hope,[8] and persistence.[9] This new life—this rising up and resurrection[10]—becomes our praxis in the world. As resurrected new creations, our posture in the world and toward others is completely altered. In this new life we participate with the Holy Spirit in the liberation of the captives.[11] As those summoned from death, from slumber, from the myths and lies we’ve been telling ourselves, we become those who wake up and see, hear, feel, and speak the profound good news of liberation for the world[12] from the captivity of death. In doing so, we demonstrate to the world that resurrection is for now and not strictly for the future.[13] As we bring good news to the oppressed, disenfranchised, poor, lonely, isolated, excluded, used up, and the burnt out, we bring resurrection into the present and push back the expired tyranny of death and usher in the reign of love and life. [14]

I want to close by way of a poem I stumbled across in my studies this week. The title of the poem is Threatened with Resurrection, by Julia Esquivel a poet and Guatemalan exile. I’m quoting the final few stanzas:

No, brother,
it is not the noise in the streets
which does not let us sleep.

Join us in this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
Then you will know how marvelous it is
to live threatened with Resurrection!

To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep,
to live while dying,
and to know ourselves already
resurrected![15]

Julia Esquivel, “Threatened with Resurrection”

By living into this story we’ve been given today, we live into resurrection now, living lives joining in the “vigil” of those who suffer under what was and those who are threatened with the violence of not-yet, we live “already resurrected,” we live “while dying,” we “dream awake”, and keep watch even while sleeping. When we dare to let the resurrection of the Christ be the divine revolution in the world that it is, we dare to live resurrected now, we dare to become those who don the love of God and spread it to everyone, and we dare to be those who pass on liberation, pass on love, pass on life…those who dare to pass on the story.


[1] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname “The Resurrection (Matthew 28L1-10) “Thomas Pena: ‘The got up early because they wanted to. And they were brace, because they weren’t scared of the National Guardsmen that were on duty there.’” P. 618

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 272. “…Luke will tell parallel but different stories about the women disciples and the men. In this particular case, however, the story about the women comes first. These women have been present, but have remained mostly in the background of the story, ever since Luke introduced them in 8:2-3…Now they come to the foreground as the first witnesses to the resurrection.

[3] Gonzalez Luke 273. “They, no less than the rest, believe that in the cross all has come to an end. It is time to return home to their more traditional lives. But before they do that, they must perform one last act of love for their dead Master: they must anoint his body.”

[4] Gonzalez Luke 273. “Even though the later course of church history, with its expectation of entirely male leadership, would lead us to think otherwise, it is they who bring the message of the resurrection to the eleven, and not vice versa.” See also, Cardenal Solentiname “[Cardenal]: ‘In those times nobody paid much attention to women. And that’s why those women maybe didn’t run any risk, as Laureano says. Their role was only to go and weep and then embalm the body of Jesus. A humble role. But this Gospel assigns them a more important role: they were witnesses to the resurrection.” P. 618

[5] Gonzalez Luke 273

[6] Gonzalez Luke 274. “The resurrection brings about a new reality, a new order. Things do not continue as before … The resurrection is not the continuation of the story. Nor is it just its happy ending. It is the beginning of a new story, of a new age in history…The victory is won. What now remain are no more than skirmishes in a battle that has already been won.”  

[7] Gonzalez Luke 275. “Thus, in the areas that were part of Christendom as well as in the rest of the world, Christians have been rediscovering the significance of the resurrection as victory over the powers of the old age, and as the beginning of a new order and a new history pointing to the final establishment of the reign of God.”

[8] Gollwitzer Way to Life 141 “Nothing is lost, nothing is in vain. Tribulation is not the last thing, joy, arrival at the goal will be the last thing, and for this reason we shall be able to hold on in faith and in hope, hearing the primes ever anew.”

[9] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Trans. David Cairns Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981 (eng) p. 139 [German version: Wendung zum Leben München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1980. “The whole Gospel calls to us ‘look forward!’ however things are going with you. Look forward! Hope will come to you form that direction, and staying power. Look forward, you see there what gives you the power to hold on!”

[10] Dorothee Sölle “Uprising and Resurrection” The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity Trans. Robert and Rita Kimber Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984. Pp. 71 “Rising, uprising, and resurrection belong together factually as well as linguistically. Rising is a word that describes what an individual does in the morning, uprising, what a people does when it shakes off political sleep. Both of them mean learning how to walk upright, in a way that is still perhaps unfamiliar. To rise up means not to cringe anymore, to lose fear.”

[11] Helmut Gollwiter The Rich Christians & Poor Lazarus Trans. David Cairns Edinburgh: St. Andrews Press, 1970 (eng) p.3 [German version: Die reichen Christen und der arme Lazarus München: Chr. Kaiser Verlad, 1968.] “Only by altered attitudes in this world, not by assertions about divine truths, which are claimed to be true ‘in themselves,’ can we bear witness to the relevance of our confession of faith. Therefore John A. T. Robinson is right to ask his question ‘Do we affirm the Easter faith in these days, when we insist that God raised Jesus from the dead—or when we dare to gamble our lives in the faith that God will raise us from the dead? Can we do the former, without doing the latter.’ And indeed, keeping our eye on the liberal reduction of faith to humanism, we shall also have to add, “Can we do the latter, without doing the former?”

[12] Sölle Strength 71-72 “We rise from sleep; we are resurrected from death. An uprising is a rising from political sleep, from a kind of death in which people are deprived of crucial elements of their lives and are commandeered by others.”

[13] Sölle Strength 76 “The price we have to pay for a truly human life has not become less since ancient times, much as we may want to believe that it has. People are still being tortured today because they have fought for justice. People are still dying today from the indifference of others who do not want rebellion and do not need resurrection. But despite the betrayal of the revolution and, God knows, the betrayal of Christ, we see happening again and again what we all need most uprisings of life against the many forms of death; which is to say, resurrection.”

[14] Cardenal Solentiname 619 “I: ‘And he goes on showing us that he’s alive, us, gathered here twenty centuries later; and he’s present in the midst of us.’ WILLAM: ‘-The important thing is that he’s alive wherever there’s community.’”

[15] Julia Esquivel Threatened with Resurrection for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Esquivel. I’ve ordered her book of the same title; more to come!

Our Stories This Story: Us

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here,(“The Parents”) click here, and (“The Worker”) click here, (“The Old”) click here, and (“The Others”) click here.

Sermon on Isaiah 53: 1-9

Psalm 22:28-30 To [God] alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; all who go down to the dust fall before [God]. My soul shall live for [God]; my descendants shall serve [God]; they shall be known as [God’s] for ever. They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn the saving deeds that [God] has done.

Introduction

What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
And you could have it all
My Empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt[1]

Nine Inch Nails “Hurt”

We’ve become a people who pass on death rather than life.

I wish I had better words. But I don’t. We very literally pass on death. We bring life into the world and then that life must come to terms with the fact that it will die. It’s the burden of existence: death. There is no point in time where life is actually safe from the threat of death. Cribs aren’t safe. Car seats aren’t safe. Homes aren’t safe. Businesses aren’t safe. Stores aren’t safe. Schools aren’t safe. Playgrounds aren’t safe. Beaches and mountains aren’t safe. Roads aren’t safe. The air isn’t safe. As someone who has lost three pregnancies, not even my body is safe from the threat of death. We are fragile, fragile beings in a world that carries the dialectic of life in death and death in life.

I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything[2]

Nine Inch Nails “Hurt”

We, ourselves, carry the dialectic. New and stronger muscles demand the death of weaker ones. The genetics that give us life and uniqueness also bring the death sentence, sometimes realized too young. Dearly held conceptions of reality that carried us at one point, die to allow new ones in. Hearts thump vibrantly in new love and then break when love turns sour. We give life to new technologies making our life better only to watch them bring us death.

I wear this crown of [Dung]
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 here[3]

Nine Inch Nails “Hurt”

Diving deeper in to human existence, can we even love others, if we don’t act very loving to ourselves? Between habits that have become hindering rather than helpful and narratives that haunt and loom over our mind and spirits, we destroy ourselves in an attempt to survive. It’s a paradox: we will do whatever it takes to survive even if it means dying.

Should I mention our inability to create long-lasting and life-benefitting systems and judgments? We render judgments about others and things, about the world that end up bringing death and not life, or bring life to just a few and take it from others…many, many others deemed worth the sacrifice. Even systems starting off well-meaning and decent become septic when we—in our voracious hubris—would rather die than see something new take its place. We’d rather that people suffer than maybe change the way we think about things because that change would require us to die to something that has brought us (too much?) comfort over the years. We’d rather leave behind people who love us because they’ve changed rather than dare to change with them. We’d rather grow cold than admit defeat or fault.

We’d rather sentence a good man to death than allow him to bring us life.

Isaiah 53: 1-9

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.
They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Isaiah 53:2c-6, 8-9

The agony articulated by one of the Isaiahs is our agony.[4] Today, this is where we are. Agony. We are in agony because we are exposed. Exposed to the core. Some how we must hold our goodness of divine creation and our guilt of complicity in the myriad forms of death swirling all about us. We can be good and guilty. We can be beloved and guilty. (We must ditch the binary of guilty is bad and not-guilty is good. If we can’t, we’ll find ourselves justifying more and more death and violence and our confessions will become more and more false.) We can be good and guilty of participating in systems, narratives, ideologies, theologies, dogmas, doctrines that harm other people and ourselves. I know I am guilty of this. I know you are guilty of this. We are all convicted here.

Isaiah’s prophetic prayer highlights that whether we know it or not, whether we want to admit it or not, we are in agony and are suffering. This suffering is not the product of divine chastisement; it’s the product of our own hands.[5] We are caught up in the muck and mire of the tension between being held captive and being complicit in our suffering and the suffering of others. Isaiah says, all have gone astray, we have all turned to our own way.

So much so that we’d rather sentence a good man to death than allow him to bring us life.

Conclusion

We are in agony, we are suffering, we are led astray, we are isolated, and we are exposed.

We clamored for Jesus’s death and we got it. The judgment of God is surely upon us. Today, in this story, we are reminded that Jesus bore our iniquity…because he bore our very, very bad judgment informed by the doctrines and dogmas of the kingdom of humanity and not the kingdom of God. The weight of that judgment, as we watch and witness the death of God by our hand, renders us to our own death. Today, our stories come to a cataclysmic head-on collision with God’s story; none of us survive.

Today, we realize we do not know what we are doing…


[1] Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” Chorus

[2] Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” Verse 1

[3] Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” Verse 2

[4] Abraham Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS, 1962. 149.

[5] Heschel Prophets 151

Our Stories This Story: The Others

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here, (“The Parents”) click here, (“The Worker”) click here, and (“The Old”) click here.

Sermon on John 13: 6-9, 12-17

Psalm 116: 13-16 Precious in the sight of [God] is the death of his servants. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant and the child of your handmaid; you have freed me from my bonds. I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call upon the Name of [God]. (53)

Introduction

“I think they’re all pretending like they know what they are doing. But I sit here and watch them walk by…this one with their fancy boots and jacket and many bags…I see you. Do you see me? …I am hungry, and I am cold, and I am lonely. Never hearing your name does something to a person. Being someone’s shame also does something to a person. I’m a person. Sometimes I forget that I am because I get lost in being ignored; I get trapped in their blindness. When I lost everything material did I lose also my being, my personhood, my body and arms and legs and identity with humanity? … I don’t have a job, or a house, or food, or … why do I feel bad and shameful because of that? Why do I feel pointless, superfluous, nothing better than kindling fuel for the fires that keep them warm, maybe I’m better off burnt up…”[1]

We have become a people who passes on exclusion rather than story.

This is the barebones, honest-to-goodness, absolute truth about one side of our humanity: we like groups. Us. Them. We, in here; they, out there. Our group. Their group. We do this; they do that. And, to be fair, grouping isn’t inherently bad. I don’t ascribe to a relatively high or low anthropology; I kind of see humans as mix bags trapped in narratives and systems, both willing and unwillingly. To group isn’t bad; it indicates a common interest or goal. We group up to get big projects done; we group up to learn a certain thing in a certain way; we group up to talk about things and to share common interests and experiences.

Grouping isn’t bad.

But grouping can become bad.

It becomes bad when we assign a moral value to one group and deprive it from another. Because we do this, this is good; anyone else who does not-this is bad. When we have to vilify another group so that we justify our own group, we assign goodness to us and badness to them. Maybe it’s because our culture is oriented toward and consumed with power and might, right and wrong, our way or the highway. It’s the “believe or die” that swept over this country from east to west, as peoples lost their land and stories. It’s the subjection and oppression of human beings based on the levels of increasing melanin in their skin, their sex and gender, their sexuality, their education and productivity, and their age and heritage. Grouping becomes bad when one group has more power thus more goodness, more dignity, more humanity, more right to life and liberty than another.

Funny thing is (or maybe not so funny?), I believe we vilify other groups so that we can create for ourselves some modicum amount of comfort and security: at least I’m not them… And some how being born into this group, achieving status in this group, and adhering to the ideologies and practices of this group make me safe from the predicament of those other (inferior/bad) groups. But yet, that security and comfort is illusive because it’s placed on either aspects of human existence that are out of our control or on material elements that can be torn from our hands no matter how tightly we cling to them. We’re all precariously moving through life, one quick trip-up from tumbling into realms we’ve designated for not-us.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” … After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

John 13:6-9, 12-17, NRSV

In our gospel passage for this Maundy Thursday, we read about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It’s a tradition we honor in The Episcopal church. Maundy is from mandatum (Latin, N, N/A, S), command) and is found in our gospel passage (John 13:34): I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. That commandment is not foot-washing, by the way. That command isn’t about finding ways in Lent and Holy Week to make yourself really uncomfortable and awkward and then feel good about it (that’s my job!). It’s not about getting through something real quick like and then move on about your day. It’s significantly way more profound and simpler than any of those interpretations.

The commandment Jesus gives to his disciples is to love one another. Simple and profound. Sensical and magical. In other words, linking the command to love one another to foot washing is the means by which the disciples are charged—IN LOVE—to dismember human made hierarchies where we designate in-groups and out-groups, where we refuse to deign to do something because…not my _____ (fill in the blank), where we shuffle human beings off to the sides and fringes because they’re… harshing our buzz, making our main-streets uncomfortable, or taking things from me that I’ve earned for me and mine.

In the reign of God, ushered in by Jesus, there is no such thing as a hierarchy of human persons, there is no distinction between peoples based on money, job, homes, birth, addresses, clothes, and homes, etc.. When Jesus takes the role of the one who washes feet—the role of the servant—he categorically disrupts for Christians—those who follow Christ then and now and tomorrow—the tendency to create structures and orders around the hierarchy of human beings from best and most privileged to least and most destitute. And especially, Christ’s example crushes any attempt to dehumanize another person based on whatever our society has deemed “normal” and “acceptable”, “good” and “bad”. Maybe when Jesus drew in the sand that one time, it wasn’t anything but him mixing up all the grains, creating a new and level ground on which all beloved of God can stand and walk with honor and dignity inherent in human bodies and souls.

Conclusion

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:6-8

We’re trained to look down on and pity those who don’t have what we have—the myriad of things we’ve deemed desirable and good, the mark of a well-made person. We equate our wealth with blessedness: the blessedness of being able, the blessedness of access and achievement and self-building; the blessedness of riches. But none of that stuff is what God declares blessed. Blessed are the poor…Blessed are you when you are reviled… For it to these God goes to liberate and defend.

Christ exposes our dastardly tendencies to ostracize, oppress, wound, ignore, isolate, exclude … others. In our best attempts to create structure, we—on our own—create systems by which some are in and others are out, some are good and others are bad, some are clean and others are dirty. And Jesus comes and lovingly shows us another way by telling us a different story. He gives us a story that includes everyone we’ve excluded; he takes our wretched story of exclusion and estrangement, and gives us one so heavy with love, it’s light. This story of love is so tremendous, it even changes our name to Beloved.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

Our Stories This Story: The Old

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here, (“The Parents”) click here, and (“The Worker”) click here.

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14

Psalm 126: 5-7 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev. Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Introduction

“I have enough years under my belt to feel the conflict of knowing what I’m doing and not knowing what I’m doing. Or maybe I should say: I’m old enough to know I once thought I knew what I was doing. Now, I’m not so sure I did. I wish I had done some things differently, maybe thought a bit longer about certain things? I don’t know. Age has its benefits, hindsight is 20/20, and my body really hurts. … Yes, I’ve seen humanity get through war and violence; I’ve seen social unrest sooth; I think I’ve even seen progress made through struggle and fight, but now I don’t know…did I imagine it? Gosh, my heart breaks for the younger generations; I feel their pain so deeply. I wish I could share hope, but I don’t know if they’d listen, or if they even want to hear from me… Sometimes I feel like they just don’t have a use for me or for my stories or my experience and learned wisdom…I just feel pointless, shuffled off to the side, in the way, my fire and flame are gone, I’m burnt out.”[1]

We’ve become a people who passes on utility rather than story.

We do not treat our older generation as well as we should. It seems our society has decided that if you can’t work, you aren’t worth anything. If you can’t participate in productive society, pull your weight, carry your load, bear your burden (physically), then you aren’t worth anything to the group. So, off you go! The voices of experience pushed to the fringe, just like slower drivers get pushed to the side. If you can’t keep up, get off the road! In a fast paced, strong-only, autonomous society, where does our older generation find its place?

In the telling of their stories.

But we’re a society that’s sacrificed our storied nature to unhealthy relationships with toil, to forced isolation of the middle age of parenting, to silencing the youth. We’ve grown so backwards in our relationships that we have forgotten how to allow ourselves the time to sit at the feet of those wiser and more storied than we are. We’re so separated from one another—generationally speaking—that we fight against each other rather than listen, criticize each other rather than see the likeness, blame each other rather than receive.

And yet…the irony. We’re genetically constructed material stories of generations long, long past. The way our face is shaped, the color of our hair, the sway of our walk, the way you kick your leg when it’s crossed over the other one, that look he gives when he’s appalled, the way they say that word…it’s all passed down; potentially decades and centuries of mannerisms and genetics and traits passed down and we—each of us—are that miraculous material story. And here we are disregarding the story-tellers…

In priding ourselves in our strength, ability, productivity, and usefulness we’ve lost sight of the necessity of the guidance and hindsight of those who have walked this earth longer than we have. When we focus so much on the accolades of our utility, we won’t have time for the story-tellers because doing is better than listening; activity is better than passivity; to be able is better than to be unable; to give is better than to receive. But this mindset creates a sick and malnourished people, trapped in the hubris of the façade of our various strengths and autonomy, caught in the hierarchy of doing and abledness that perpetuates the fear that when I can’t any longer, I’m pointless.

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone thinks to have another confidence with respect to the flesh, I [have] more. Circumcision on the 8th day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, according to the law, a Pharisee, according to zeal a persecutor of the congregation, according to righteousness which came by the law, blameless. But whatever gain it was to me, these things I consider loss through Christ. But more than that, I consider all things to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, through whom all things I have lost, and I consider refuse so that I might gain Christ and I might be found in him…

Phil. 3:4b-9a

When it comes to a contest of perfection, Paul knows exactly where he’d fall: the top of the heap, lead dog of the pack, the honcho of honchos. Make no mistake, Paul was exactly what he claimed to be: excellent, according to law and status. He had and was all that his society esteemed as excellent, good, right, the “who” of “who’s”. While we may want to cast stones at him for bragging too much; let’s hold off for a moment. Rather, let’s see what he’s saying in this context to this audience, the Philippians.

Paul had everything; this is his confession first and foremost. Hey, Philippians, I was the cream of the crop! But he doesn’t stop there because it doesn’t mean anything to Paul now… But now, he counters, I count it all—every accolade, every achievement, every accomplishment, every status—as dung. In a world where status, strength, doing, and achieving are everything, Paul calls BS (and yes, that word “refuse” or “dung” can also be translated in a more vivid way…). In other words, for Paul, all of that emphasis on doing and achieving, being able and strong, top and best, perfect in the eyes of others and according to human made structures, means absolutely, positively nothing. It’s garbage. It’s refuse. It’s dung. It’s… whatever word you want there.

Paul desires not to be known by what he can do; rather Paul wants to be known by what Christ has done. Paul desires not to be known by his achievements, doing, and abledness, but by this crazy story of God incarnate loving humanity and the cosmos so much that God would not only take on flesh, but would also suffer on the hard wood of the cross—an instrument of death of the state—judged as the least and lowest of society, unworthy of life and liberty…worthy only of death. This is the story Paul wants decorating the hallways and aisles of his mind and body, of his history and future. Paul opts for this story as the thing to pass on; not his accolades and achievements. He desires to pass on his weakness and not his strength.

Conclusion

We need to do better by our story tellers. As Christians, we’ve no excuse in giving preference to the capable able-bodied, the strong doers, the decorated achievers. I’m not saying that we now treat those who can poorly; rather, we must treat all of us with the same dignity and equality, the same love and reverence, the same importance and need as we treat those who are able to carry their own.

Dr. Dorothee Sölle in her book, Suffering, argues for an understanding of Christianity highlighting this errant dichotomy between those who can and those who cannot. She articulates that Christianity isn’t for the abled, but for the unabled.

“Christianity exists for slaves. It is the religion of the oppressed, of those marked by affliction. It concerns itself with needs. People are pronounced blessed not because of their achievements or their behavior, but with regard to their needs. Blessed are the poor, the suffering, the persecuted, the hungry…I am not referring to the religion of slavery which perpetuates slavery, but rather to the religion of those unfortunate for a time to time to whom life is promised. Their suffering, their rights, their truth are expressed.”[2]

Dorothee Sölle “Suffering” 159-160

Blessed are the weak, blessed are those who receive, blessed are those who can’t any longerBlessed are those whose bodies hurt, whose eyes have seen, whose hands have done, and whose stories hold deep and profound truth, wisdom, and hope.  

No life is more valuable than another based on placement in time; no body is more valuable than another based on what it can and cannot do; no one is more valuable than another based on strength and accolades. If we want a human society worthy of the declaration “truly human” we must make more room for our story-tellers; we are nothing without them. They, holding hands with the youth, form the basis of hope and possibility for those of us caught in the middle. 

The story we have been given, the one we are walking through right now affirms the nobility, dignity, and beauty of bodies and lives and people, of flora and fauna, of creation and cosmos. Christ came to give life to those who were deprived of it. Christ came to liberate the captives. Christ came to unburden the burdened. Christ came to give humanity a better story than the one they’d written for themselves and deemed good. Christ came to give them a story that is very good. Christ came to give us—all of us—a story that brings each of us, no matter where we are on our journey, life…life abundant.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

[2] Sölle Suffering 159-160; see also pages 161-162, specifically, “It is in fact the religion of those who have been disinherited and condemned by life. Contrary to all vitalism and all worship of the healthy and strong, Christianity sees life better preserved by those who have already died once. God ‘will not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smouldering wick’ (Isa. 42:3, NEB)—contrary to all principles of selection.” See also Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s text, Our God Loves Justice, p. 176, quoting Helmut Gollwitzer, “The goal of the disciples’ service is a society that gives equality to their unequally endowed members and gives each member the chance for a full unfolding of life: where the strong help the weak, where production stands in the service of all, where the social product is not siphoned off by privileged minority so that only the modest remainder is at the disposal of the others, a society that ensures appropriate regulation of freedom and of social co-determination for all, the development of social life for the common task and for rich purpose in life for all members of society.”

Rebirth

The backside of loneliness is longing; or
maybe the backside of longing is loneliness.
Either way both forces seem to draw forward
and backward, surging sideways: left and right
grabbing and dragging its victim into its shadow
and there pummeling it with once held dreams
and desires, leaving shapes and husks of human
form once was. Hissed and slithered words of
comfort uttered from longing and loneliness add
insult to the injuries, conjuring up consuming
spirits from the belly of fear: you are nothing.
Whispered words from the consuming darkness
of the shadow encompassing your entire being
as you lay on your own cold ground among the
shards and shrapnel of those dreams and desires.
And you give in. You succumb. You agree. Yes.
I am nothing
. Nothing else comes up; no other
words present, no other thought arises, no other
comes to your rescue. No one can see you in
this tormenting and tortuous moment. Loneliness’s
weight grows heavier as longing steals more and
more of your form and shape, pulling strands of
inner life out like pulling and stretching playdough
until there’s not enough firmness and resistance
to snap back. Elastic broken; shape broken. And
again to sooth the pain of this madness you agree:
I am nothing. And again: I am nothing. And again:
I am nothing. Love is gone now. Confidence has
fled. I am nothing. Light has been eclipsed by the
shadows and oppressive darkness. And then:
out loud: I am nothing. The words are bullets.
The strength of confession is that the thing con-
fessed becomes real and external, a life of its
own over which and at which you can look and
examine, peering at this side and that side.
In the concession I am nothing, you become
something. And like conception of your being
happening all over again, you are reborn. I am
something
. To speak these words, to affirm, I
am something
. Dark and shadow dissipate and
begin to slip off. I am something. Hands touch
now reanimated and emboldened substance.
I am something. And for this moment, as you sit
regathering and regathered, you watch as you
witness the backside of longing trail away and
you wave goodbye to loneliness and longing…

Our Stories This Story: The Worker

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here and (“The Parents”) click here.

Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15

Psalm 63: 3-4 For [God’s] loving-kindness is better than life itself; my lips shall give [God] praise. So will I bless [God] as long as I live and lift up my hands in [God’s] Name.

Introduction

“Everyday I do the same thing but I don’t think I know what I’m doing. I wonder if they know what they’re doing… Sometimes I just can’t help but watch my colleagues shuffle about as if nothing is wrong as long as they get theirs, as if this is all normal and good. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig. I mean *chuckles* the things they say to me … *sigh* … I feel the drudgery of the demands of life—the demands of just trying to survive—weighing down on me, dragging me down, stealing something vital from me… my soul? My energy? My mind? I don’t know what …this demand to produce, to work, to earn, requires me to neglect my health and wellbeing… Is it irony that they give me some form of healthcare? …*chuckles* I’m gaining weight as I’m wasting away, selling myself to some ambiguous and invisible entity, some myth… I feel trapped. … I’ve realized I’m stuck, empty, and burnt out.”[1]

From the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

We’ve become a people who passes on toil rather than story.

One of the things that Covid_19 exposed is the depths of our exhaustion when it comes to our work. And yet we are trapped. We’re caught between a rock and hard place. Damned if we do; damned if we don’t. We’re exhausted by the day-in and day-out of the incessant demands of work. Yet, just to survive—caring for ourselves and caring for those dependent on us—we must meet these demands. There’s no option for “No thank you”; just options for how much of yourself you’re willing to sacrifice to the system. 

The long-esteemed hand of competition has not made human existence better. Instead it has taken from us our humanity, our dreams, our desires, and our dignity. It’s stripped us of our story of something else, something bigger than the next buck, tech, car, house, and vacation. We’ve become deaf to the cries of our hearts and the hearts of others as we grow more and more busy with our toil.  We’ve been devoured by a dog-eat-dog-world where no one is allowed to stand still long enough to notice we are all falling apart and limping along. We’ve ceased praying for our daily bread because we are desperate to grab whatever crumb we can find while fighting against brothers and sisters.

Everywhere we step is profaned ground, a virtual minefield of potential disasters threatening to take from us the little we’ve managed to scrape together through blood, sweat, and tears. No wonder our anxiety is at an all time high: nothing is secured…nothing. For storyless human beings, this threat of looming nothingness thrusts us further into the hands of a merciless task master. Thus, the cycle continues as we pass on toil from one generation to another, adding to it greater and greater degrees of demoralization. One job is no longer enough to make ends meet for many people, rather there is a need for two, three, and even four just to live and eat.

Exodus 3: 1-15

When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” …

Exodus 3:4-6

I love the image in this story of this simple shepherding human—dirty as all heck!—and random bush—filled with the presence of God—in sudden encounter. As Moses is called to step closer to this divine presence of flame in branches and leaves, he is told to remove his shoes and tread carefully because where he is standing is holy ground. This ground is holy not because God is untouchable or unapproachable, too pure for dirty and sinful human beings. To assume this is to affirm the mythology that God is limited from being around God’s people by their activity or inactivity. Rather, this ground is holy and sacred because where Moses is standing is the source of life and light; everyone must tread carefully in that space or they will have to contend with God’s anger. Listen again to what God says to Moses:

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey

Exodus 3: 7-8

God is bringing a story to Moses, one that Moses will participate in (a new name added to the great names of God’s story). Moses, like those before him, will be the means by which God demonstrates God’s power on behalf of those who are down-trodden, oppressed, enslaved, and held captive and complicit. Moses will bring this story to God’s people trapped under the violent rule of Pharaoh in order to release them from that bondage. It is through this story and Moses and the Israelites participating in their own liberation in the Passover event that God’s power to right-side up the world occurs—emotionally, spiritually, mentally, physically, economically, socially, and politically. 

He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,

and this my title for all generations.”

Exodus 3:13-15

Moses brings God’s liberative story to the enslaved, demoralized, and dehumanized people of God stuck in toil upon toil. He doesn’t tell them to suck it up and toil more; he tells them to rest and tells Pharaoh to let God’s people go. He doesn’t tell them this is just the way it is; he tells them it can and should be different. He doesn’t tell them to live in increasingly austere conditions to get by; he tells them of a land flowing with abundance and thriving. He doesn’t tell them to limit their dreams for better and their hopes that God hears their cries; he is literally charged to tell them to dream bigger and that they’ve been heard by God. He doesn’t tell them to submit to authority and be good Egyptian citizens; he tells them to rise up and prepare for divine revolution leading to their liberation, release, and freedom. He gives them another (better) story[2] than the one they’ve been living; one that brings light and not darkness, life and not death, liberation, and not captivity. And this is the story they are to pass on…for all generations.

Conclusion

In sermon on Genesis 11, Helmut Gollwitzer preaches,

“This biblical narrator is…deeply convinced that we cannot by our own power break our fetters, cannot get rid of our intoxication, that we need another great help. The Creator, who made the good beginning, must make a new beginning. [God] must come with new gifts, in order that the old gifts of our abilities and our work do not continue to be a curse to us. A new sprit must set us free from the errors of our old spirit…[God] has opened [God’s] heart to us, and made possible a new way of good life, of fellowship, of avoidance of destruction. Into this new way [God] desires to lead us all by God’s Spirit.”[3]

Helmut Gollwitzer Way to Life

In Lent we reckon with our complicity and our captivity in destructive and violent systems specifically as it correlates to our life and labor. But Lent isn’t the end goal; we need not despair no matter how much we are tempted to do so, to throw our hands in the air, call it all a loss, accept what is, and just trudge along in death before we die. There is life to live. Hope exists for us because there’s another story surging toward us in the form of old death and new life; in the form of a humble man from Nazareth who is the son of God. And it’s this coming divine activity in history that is our new history and story. And this divine action will become the history of liberation for all the captives trapped one way or another in this death dealing, life stealing system, and it is this divine action that will put an end to our ceaseless self-sacrifices and the sacrificing of future generations on the table of toil trying desperately (and failing) to satisfy Moloch. May we dare to dream of and also to participate in creating a better world where we can live, love, and labor without fear, threat, anxiety, and despair; where we can feel the joy of God and our own pleasure in the work of our hands. Let us have the audacity to walk as those who are the beloved of God, as those we have been given both new spirits and new lives, as those given a new story to pass on for all generations.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

[2] Dorothee Sölle writes in To Work and to Love “The Exodus event left its indelible mark on the memory of the cult, which in turn embodied the event in its religious institutions…The cult did not have a purely ritualistic function; it created historical consciousness of Israel’s freedom.” God’s activity becomes Israel’s history and this history is a story of God’s activity for and with Israel.

[3] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Trans David Cairns (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981). 4.