Sweet Divine Liberty

Psalm 19:13-14 …keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Introduction

I spend a lot of time thinking about freedom. Specifically “freedom” as the product of the encounter with God in the event of faith. What does it mean that “in Christ” we are now “free”? Free into what? Free from what?

This freedom as a result of the encounter with God in the event of faith is what Jesus is talking about today in our gospel passage: liberation from captivity, freedom from enslavement, release from bondage.

There’s an aspect of liberation embedded deep within Jesus’s words that any form of enslavement is anti-God. Whether we look at it from the perspective of spiritual, emotional, physical, mental (etc.) enslavement, humans are not created by God to be enslaved to anything or anyone. If we were, then Jesus is a lunatic, and we shouldn’t trust him. But yet we do; it’s why we’re here every Sunday as a result of the faith we have in Christ uniting us into God by the power of the Holy Spirit. We do not come here every Sunday to be enslaved or re-enslaved or enslaved further into our burdens. (This is why church, to continue in being church and good news in the world, must resist the trappings of religious totalitarianism; no one need come here and feel afraid and condemned, for that is not good news, that is not liberation, that is not freedom, that is not Christ.) In coming here and hearing the proclamation of the gospel of the good news of God for the beloved, for you, for the people and the world, we are liberated, we are freed, we are released…

But again, I’m still left curious. Into what am I liberated and freed? And what put me there in the first place?

Luke 4:14-21

And he went into Nazareth—where he had been brought up—and he entered the synagogue—according to his custom on the day of the Sabbath. He stood up to read and the book of the prophet Isaiah was given to him and after unrolling the book he found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for the sake that he has anointed me
to announce good news to the poor,
he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who have been broken down/enfeebled,[1]
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And then he rolled up the book and gave it back to the servant, and he sat down. And the eyes of all of the people in the synagogue were fixedly gazing at him.[2]

Luke 4:16-20a

Jesus goes home. Upon going home, he enters the synagogue as was his custom to do on the Sabbath. There’s no way to charge Jesus with not being a faithful and good follower of God. But it’s not just Jesus’s piety that is highlighted by Luke here in the phrase “as was his custom” but also that it was normal for Jesus to stand up, read from the scrolls, and to expound the scriptures.[3] So, that Jesus stood up and took the scroll from the servant of the temple and read it, isn’t the thing. It’s the passage that Jesus read that is the thing.[4]

Through the prophet Isaiah, Jesus makes known for whom his ministry is for: the poor.[5] There’s no reason to qualify this “poor” with an adjective to render it one way or another. We don’t need to feel better about this text by applying adjectives; we can let the word hang where it is as it is. We want to let the word lie because if we did apply adjectives here we would miss out on the breadth of this word in its original context. To be “poor” in Jesus’s context and culture had many and varied connotations; the poor are anyone who has “diminished status honor” for whatever combination of reasons.[6] Thus, using the prophet Isaiah, Jesus describes his mission: to proclaim good news to the poor; and highlights that he is the recipient of the anointing and the Spirit of God to proclaim good news, to set free, to release all these varying examples of the “poor”.[7] The poor will be released by God from their various forms of isolation and captivity; thus they will be partakers of what has been withheld from them: life, freedom, and the fullness of divine presence and love.

In delineating a specific direct object of his proclamation and ministry, Jesus created a dividing line between him and the social, political, religious, and economic boundaries erected—by people—to keep some in and others out.[8] According to Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, no one…NO ONE is beyond the long arm of God and the expansive substance of divine Love enveloping the entire cosmos. No one is too far gone, no one is too lost, no one is too fractured, no one is too stuck, no one is too trapped, no one. Not me. Not you. Not anyone existing beyond these four walls. And if this is the implied statement falling from Jesus’s proclamation, then any boundary is anathema to God and God’s love; both the boundary and the boundary builders collide with all-encompassing and inclusive divine Love. Thus, it is through Jesus that these boundaries will not only be challenged but also destroyed. The reign of God has come, let the kingdom of humanity tremble; life and light has come into the world, let death and darkness cower.[9]

Conclusion

So, back to the questions from the introduction: Into what am I liberated? And what put me there in the first place?

First, “Into what”: Better to ask, “Into whom…?” In the encounter with God in the event of faith I am liberated and freed and released into God.

Now he began to say to them, “the writing has been fulfilled/completed in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)

That Jesus the Christ, God of very God, is the one who is the fulfillment of this divine promise spoken by the prophet Isaiah, and if we are brought into this fulfillment of the promise by faith (as in: we do not fulfill this promise ourselves) then we are brought into Christ. This is what it means to be liberated by Christ: not liberated into myself for myself, but unto God thus for those with whom God stands in solidarity with: the poor (as big and expansive as that word can be). As the proclamation of the good news of Christ goes out, liberty and freedom and release of the captives, the oppressed, and the blind bursts forth. As the cages burst open, as chains drop, as jail cells slide open, the liberation of the oppressed and poor is a liberation into God and for others. The imprisoned, the chained, the shackled, the caged, the enslaved step out and into God. While I might be freed, and you too, it cannot mean that it is done in an isolated and autonomous way as if it is just for me and me alone. Rather, we are liberated into God and into community of those brothers and sisters who have been so liberated, too. We then bear a divine burden as those liberated by Christ and into Christ…to bring this same liberation to those who are burdened with various forms of poorness and thus captivity. In other words, we undo what we’ve done and have been complicit in doing…

Thus, second, “what put me there…”: Better to ask “Who put me there…?” There’s a tendency to blame everything on the abstract concept of “Sin” and then to point further away to the myth of Genesis 3, which then makes us point more fingers at each other and at snakes and serpents…But none of that is helpful. I prefer to say that we put ourselves in those prisons, cells, cages, and chains by putting others there. I know enough philosophy, enough ethics, enough history to know that God didn’t enslave us in the fall, we enslaved ourselves. Our inability to see and hear God and our neighbor as they are is our fundamental problem. Stated in the positive: we have a catastrophic hearing and seeing problem. We love hearing what we want to hear, we love seeing what we want to see. So, we create systems and schemes that reflect what we see and hear to benefit ourselves. In various ways, we erect barbed and electrified fences keeping out those deemed different, “other”, not “us”, “them” and then these people lose their humanity. The sad fact is that as we build these walls, these fences, these rules of membership of the ingroup, we, too, lose our humanity. Everyone loses in this system of walls and fences and cages and chains.

Beloved of God, we are guilty of being complicit in dehumanizing systems and schemes even if we, too, were held captive by them. But, by the grace of God, we are sought and liberated so that we can hear and see rightly both God and our neighbor; and in hearing and seeing rightly, we can act and speak with divine inspiration and participate in the great divine mission of love in the world to stand in solidarity with the poor and to liberate the captives.

Beloveds, we were blind and now we see; we were captive and now we are free; let us live and love and bring to all who cry out that sweet divine liberty, long granted to the world through God on a tree and resurrected for thee.


[1] I’m using the translation of θράυω from the Greek dictionary: “to break down, enfeeble”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] [3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 209, “Luke’s presentation indicates not only that Jesus regularly demonstrated his piety by attendance of the synagogue on the Sabbath, but also that it was his habit to take the role of the one who read and expounded the Scriptures (cf. Acts 17:2). This phrase, ‘as was his custom,’ underscores the paradigmatic quality of this episode, both with regard to his Sabbath practices, and with regard to the content of his proclamation.”

[4] Green Luke 209 “The primary point of focus, then, is the citation from Isaiah, which is itself a mix-text.”

[5] Green Luke 204. “These scenes are also taken up with the consequences of Jesus’ status, the ministry activity that grows out of his obedience to and empowerment from God. Taken together, they highlight four features of Jesus’ ministry. First, his is a ministry empowered by the Spirit. Second, Luke’s central interest in Jesus’ message, and the inseparability of teaching/preaching (4:15, 16-21, 43-44) and the miraculous (4:16-21, 33-36, 38-41), is foregrounded here. Indeed, 4: 18-19 establishes a narrative need for Jesus ‘to bring good news to the poor,’ and so these verses characterize the form and primary recipients of Jesus’ ministry”

[6] Green Luke 211. “In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as ‘poor,’ but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and ‘poor’ would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honor in Mediterranean world. Hence, although ‘poor’ is hardly devoid of economic significance, for Luke this wider meaning of diminished status honor is paramount.”

[7] Green Luke 210. “Consequently, three structural features are emphasized. First, the first three lines each end with ‘me,’ repeating the pronoun in the emphatic position. This underscores in the clearest possible way the inexorable relation of the Spirit’s anointing and the statement of primary mission, ‘to proclaim good news to the poor.’ Second, and as a consequence, the three subsequent infinitive phrases appear in parallel and in a position subordinate to Jesus statement of primary mission. Third, as we have observed, the notion of ‘release’ is twice repeated.”

[8] Green Luke 211. “By directing his good news to these people, Jesus indicates his refusal to recognize those socially determined boundaries, asserting instead that even these “outsiders” are the objects of divine grace. Others may regard such people as beyond the pale of salvation, but God has opened a way for them to belong to God’s family.”

[9] Green Luke 214

With Christ, With Others

Sermon on John 2:1-11

Psalm 36:5-7 5 Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep; you save both human and beast, O Lord. How priceless is your love, O God! your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

Introduction

One of the things that has been most on my mind as I’ve walked into 2022 has been the idea and concept of “presence.” I know this is not a new concept; the self-care industry has been talking about this forever. It’s a concept I’ve talked about as a mom, partner, teacher, and priest. So why talk about it again?

Because this year it feels different to me.

Historically, presence was a stillness of the whole person. Body and mind take a rest in a particular moment. A seat. A kneel. A pause. A static moment. And these are all great aspects of the concept of presence and ways I’ve definitely employed the idea in my work/life balance. But what occurred to me recently was the idea of presence in motion and movement. I’ve been thinking about how this idea of presence in motion envelopes my relationship to others and to time. I can define this relationship by asking this question: Can I just be here right now with this person?

I think about this question a lot as I walk with Liza two miles to school and then again on our way home in the afternoon. There are times the two miles feels massive…about 40 minutes of time. In a society that demands me to validate each and every minute and submit my time sheet of productivity, it is hard to realize 80 minutes of the day are me, just walking with my daughter. But here I am, walking 80 minutes with my daughter at least 4 days a week. There are mornings where I’m consumed about the time it’ll take me to walk back before I can get to work on various projects—the stress about what needs to be done builds. There have been mornings with the temperature low that the many, many steps—comprising “there and back again” a Larkin tale—feel daunting, and I long for yesteryear when school was just down stairs.

And lately the question—Can I just be here right now with this person?—has grown louder and louder. Can I walk in this moment with Liza without thinking of what is ahead of me and what is behind? Can I just walk, one foot in front of the other, one minute at a time, not rushing and not dragging and not internally complaining? Can I just be here right now in this moment and activity with this person? Can I forget about the time and the distance and just be here, walking with this beloved?

John 2:1-11

Now there were placed there six water pots made of stone each holding a two or three anaphoras [8.75 liters]—in accordance with the purification of the Jews. Jesus said to [the servants], “Fill the water pots.” And they filled them to the brim. And Jesus said to them, “Now draw out and bring forth to the master of the feast.” And they brought [it] forth. Now as the master of the feast tasted the water having become wine …[1]

John 2:6-9a

Jesus is physically and emotionally present at this wedding in Cana. He’s not aloof and above such a scene. One might assume that wine running out at a celebration would be exactly what the Son of God would and should prefer. Aren’t we too holy for such potentially ruckus camaraderie? Apparently: No, we’re not. Instead of informing the servants that water will be just fine because *casually gestures around the room* Jesus adds to the distribution of wine (a lot! 3 anaphoras was about 30 liters, and there were six of these vessels!). Jesus allows the party to go on. In this I hear a question…Why?

An ordinary wedding in Cana is certainly not the place for one’s first miracle. It’s by all definitions very, very ordinary. Yes, weddings can be fun and great, but if you think about it they’re rather common place. (We all breathe a sigh of relief when we finally leave “wedding season” of adult hood.) John the Elder records this story because it’s Jesus’s first publicly performed miracle. But it’s not that extra-ordinary. The miracle here is merely the transition—the transubstantiation—of water into wine. Water, by the word of Christ, becomes wine. That is what happens here. Nothing more; nothing less. For the man Jesus who is the Christ, who is God, this is nothing. Yet it’s here in this very basic act of turning water into wine where Jesus reveals the glory of God.[2] And this is the point.

What is the glory of God being revealed? It is not merely in the water turned wine, but the essence of the why: God’s love for God’s people manifested here at this wedding, in this revelry, in this way, by the presence of Jesus. What John the Elder highlights for his reader (both then and now) is that the gift being given isn’t the wine, but the very real and whole presence of Jesus himself, God of very God, the bread and wine of life.[3] Jesus isn’t just present in a spiritual way in this story. Rather, Jesus is actively present in the lives of all the people invited into this celebration of union and life. A reflection of what comes in the great celebration of the union of God and God’s people. The very celebration started the moment Mary pushed and the angels heralded the shepherds.

Conclusion

A story about a miracle at a celebration revealing the glory of God, which is God’s love for God’s people, has really big ramifications for our lives. This isn’t merely a story that we look in upon, but one into which we are invited. We are called in as guests, with Jesus, to this wedding to see, hear, and experience the joy of new and best wine being revealed at the end of the celebration. We are asked to see Jesus present with these people, and imagine and be reminded that Jesus is with us, too.

You, by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, walk with God in Christ. Every moment. God is not hiding from you as if you have to hunt and seek for God. You are in Christ (a location) by faith. And the last I checked, it is really hard not to be where you are. You are always here; you are always in and with Christ.The love of God comes to you, reveals to you God’s love for you,[4] enfolds you, wraps you up in the swaddling clothes of love, and you are held in the arms of God. We are in Christ’s presence and with Christ. And Christ is in us by the power of the Spirit and with us by the same power.

In a sermon, “On Being a Good Neighbor”, Martin Luther King, Jr., said,

“The ultimate measure of a man [Sic] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.”[5]

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In being located with and in Christ means that others are there, too. This location of being in Christ is one we share with others. And we are all here in this now in Christ, in this presence being given a present. In Christ we are alleviated of the drudgery of the past and the threat of the future, and we can be here now; we get a present tense not just for us but especially for our sisters and brothers in Christ, those sharing this location. We walk with them, one step at a time, one minute at a time, and we bear with them their burdens, their pains, and their sorrow for they live with us. As Christ resided with those whom he counted as his brothers and sisters according to his flesh, as Christ was present at that wedding, so are we present with others, elevating them, to quote Dr. King, “to a higher and more noble life.” In other words, if “‘Christ is the [person] for others’”, then “the [person] for others is the [person] after God’s heart.”[6]

We, the beloved, are gifted with the revelation that by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit we walk with God in Christ… with God not behind and afraid, but with God. God is with us, all of us, and thus we are called to the other of the beloved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray and RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 1971. 119. “For the Evangelist the meaning of the story is not contained simply in the miraculous event; this, or rather the narrative, is the symbol of something which occurs throughout the whole of Jesus’ ministry, that is, the revelation of the δόξα of Jesus. As understood by the Evangelist this is not the power of the miracle worker, but the divinity of Jesus as the Revealer, and it becomes visible for faith in the reception of χάρις and ἀλήθεια; his revelation of his δόξα is nothing more nor less than his revelation of the ονομα of the Father (17.6).”

[3] Bultmann John 120. “…the Evangelist’s figurative language refers not to any particular gift brought by the Saviour Jesus, but to Jesus himself as the Revealer, as is true of the images of the living water, the bread of life and the light, as well as of the shepherd and the vine; equally the wine refers not to any special gift, but to Jesus’ gift as a whole, to Jesus himself as the Revealer, as he is finally visible after the completion of his work.”

[4] Bultmann John 121. “The story then will teach us that the help for all man’s perplexity is to be found in the miracle of the revelation; but the event of the revelation is independent of human desires and cannot be forcibly brought about by man’s supplication; it comes to pass where and how God wills, and then it surpasses all human expectation.”

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., “On Being a Good Neighbor” Strength to Love Minnesapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 26-27

[6] Dorothee Sölle Theology for Skeptics : Reflections on God Trans Joyce L. Irwin. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995. 96. “[Jesus] let this light shine through himself,  he did not hide it in the depths of his soul, he gave it out. He was the man [Sic] for others because he was the man of God and knew himself to be so borne up by God that he did not fall out of God, not even when he felt himself abandoned by God. The old formula ‘true man’ is rendered by Bonhoeffer as ‘man,’ where being ‘true God’ is called by Bonhoeffer simply being there ‘for others,’ because God is for others the God of love. Thus the sentence, ‘Christ is the man for others,’ is the old Christological formula ‘true God and true man’ in contemporary speech which refers to God without using religious formulas. The man for others it’s the man after God’s heart.”

Not Isolated Monads

Sermon on Acts 8:14-17

Psalm 29:1-2 1 Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his Name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.

Introduction

We are not isolated and autonomous monads[1] floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

I know that it is tempting to think I am. There are times it feels like I can do whatever I want at any moment, and times I’m convinced I’m the master of my own destiny, that I control things with my will and reason, and that I live autonomously, laying hold of what is “mine”.

As we view our presence in the world in an isolated and autonomous way (as in: we are “laws unto ourselves”) we will fall to the notion that we must cling to, grab, seize, and take for ourselves that which we need and want…at the expense of our neighbor. We will seize for ourselves food, space, land, money, even God in terms of our doctrines and dogmas, our holiness, righteousness, forgiveness and grace, purity, and worship. (This is mine, not yours!) As soon as we wrap our hands around anything with a vice like death grip, we will position ourselves above others and will then be fine with sacrificing our community, our friends, our partners, our children, any other human being to this having and grasping. But this is death because, to quote one of my favorite scholars, Frau Prof. Dr. Dorothee Sölle, “Everything that we grab hold of and cling to means death. Life destroys itself wherever it is based on having, on privileges over against those who have nothing. Because we grab hold of it, it perishes.”[2] As soon as we drag whatever it is (even God) into our realm with our vice like death grip, it is dead; and so too are we.

Lynnda Ebright shared with me a part of a poem she read one morning:

“…feel your naked belly button where
you were tied to your mother. Kneel and thank
her for your jubilant but woebegone life. Don’t
for a moment think of the mood of your parents
when you were conceived which so vitally affects
your destiny. You have no control over that…[3]

“Mom and Dad” by Jim Harrison

We do not spontaneously generate into the world without genetic or ancestral history. We are born into a story—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual—with an origin prior to us and which will continue to be told beyond us. Any notion that we are autonomous persons without profound connection to the world and to others is lie sent to destroy the fabric of vibrant and healthy community (this goes for any ideology centering an “us v. them” mentality). From our birth into our family of origin to our rebirth into our family of spiritual origin, we are bound one to another in our humanity.

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

Acts 8:14-17

Now, after hearing that Samaria received/welcomed the word of God, the disciples in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to them, those who went down and prayed on behalf of the Samaritans in order that they might receive the Holy Spirit…Then John and Peter were laying hands upon them and they were receiving the Holy Spirit.[4]

Acts 8:14-15, 17

In our passage from the book of Acts, we get a brief glimpse of the interconnection inherent in the early community of Christ. Luke gives us a few lines speaking to profound spiritual connection between the disciples in Jerusalem and the newly converted in Samaria. Learning Samaria received and welcomed the word of God, the disciples—so moved by God’s Holy Spirit—sent two of their own to visit with the Samaritans and ensure they also received the baptism of the Spirit.[5]

It is important to point out that what looks like a secondary step for the Samaritans is actually a primary step for Peter and John coming from Jerusalem.[6] It’s not the Samaritans who must be yoked to the disciples in Jerusalem by the baptism of the Spirit; rather, it’s the disciples from Jerusalem who must see they are yoked, by God’s love, to the new believers in Samaria—those who were unclean and forbidden from mixing with the Israelites are now part of God’s people. The Samaritans are accepted and declared clean, they’re received and welcomed in the very core of their being and bodies. In one quick rush of wind, the Israelites and the Samaritans became one body.[7] What was segregated is now desegregated.

God’s proclaimed word of good tidings rumbles through the land like an earthquake. The epicenter is the activity of God in the event of the cross and resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ. From there, like waves, the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ raised, moved through Jerusalem into the wider area of Judea and then through the human made boundaries separating Israel and Samaria, the clean from the unclean (Acts 1:8). The great overhaul of the Beloved of God began the moment the Holy Spirit transcended human made boundaries erected to keep out those who are deemed unworthy, unclean, unloved, unrighteous, un-pious, un-whatever; boundaries built to contain the supposed purity of the elite and the sacred things of the privileged by forcing out the poor and disenfranchised; boundaries designed to draw deep lines in the sand keeping good bodies in and bad bodies out. As the Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings writes,

“…God will draw near and give lavishly in an intimate space created by bodies and created for bodies. God’s drawing and claiming of the beloved creation continues, reaching through the apostles … from Peter and John through Philip and now to the Samaritans. The Holy Spirit has come.”[8]

Willie James Jennings

The Holy Spirit has come and has highlighted the very real fact that we are all connected one to another; none is better than the other and no one is more loved by God than everyone. According to Luke’s record of the movement of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts, all bodies are the target of God’s divine love unleashed in the world through Christ and the Holy Spirit. Being ones who are called beloved by God, we must see that this yokes us to those others who are also the beloved of God. We cannot cling to this thing we call God as if God is our own and only for us, We must see that God is for those who are not us. We, like Peter and John, must be converted out of desperately clinging to that which is “mine” thus dead and be brought into communion with others thus into the living.

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone.

Conclusion

The presence of the Spirit disabuses us of this notion that we are isolated and autonomous people, fighting to keep our own as our own. “Disciples of Jesus,” says Jennings, “must be convinced not only of God’s love for the world but also God’s desire for people, especially peoples we have been taught not to desire.”[9] Our dwelling in God and God’s dwelling in us by the power of the Holy Spirit yokes us intimately to other human beings and the divinely created world; we can’t not love that which God loves. We share in the very Spirit of God—the same Spirit that fueled the ancient prophesies of God’s love for the suffering and grieving, those who mourn and weep, those who struggle and fight under oppression and threat of death; the same Spirit that moved in Jesus’s body and through his words and deeds into his world and context, that caused him to seek and save the lost who were isolated and abandoned.

And we are connected not only in a theoretical way but in a physical way; it is good to tell people that God loves them, but I pray that we can go the extra step with our feet to show them this divine truth with the deeds of our hands. The spirit of God in us causes us to transcend our own social boundaries of clean and unclean, in and out, through the laying on of hands…not just in terms of blessing in a religious sense or setting apart in a sacred way, but in the real practical way of lending our hands to ease the burdens of our neighbors, those close and those far, those here in this room and those outside of it.

“As long as life continues to be grounded and secured in the privilege of having, it destroys itself. Life is life only when everyone belongs to it with equal right and with equal share…If grabbing hold means death, then sharing and communication mean life. No one can save himself alone and no one is forgiven alone, if forgiveness is taken seriously in the sense of being born anew.”[10]

Dorothee Sölle

We are not isolated and autonomous monads floating about disconnected from everything and everyone; we are the beloved of God, intimately and profoundly yoked together by the Spirit of God in us, charged to love our neighbor as ourselves and as God loves us. We are the beloved exhorted out of our curved in, dead state, called into the new upright posture of new life in the Holy Spirit, and caused to see others as the beloved, too.


[1] “In metaphysics, an individual and indivisible substance.”.

[2] Dorothee Sölle Political Theology Trans. John Shelley. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1974. 103-104

[3] “Mom and Dad” by Jim Harrison

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[5] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 80 “This is a beautiful moment orchestrated by the Spirit. The journey begun in baptism will now continue with the Spirit. A processional has begun. Peter and John travel to Samaria from Jerusalem, and now gifts will be given.”

[6] Jennings Acts 80. “The delay of the Spirit was not for a defect of faith or of life for the Samaritans. Could it be that God waited for Peter and John so that they could watch the intimate event?”

[7] Jennings Acts 80 “Here and now these disciples, especially Peter, will see a love that extends into the world. They will watch as God stretches forth divine desire over the Samaritans. They must see again the Spirit descend and sense afresh the divine embrace of flesh.”

[8] Jennings Acts 80

[9] Jennings Acts 80

[10] Sölle Political Theology 104

Loved and Freed

Sermon on Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Psalm 147:1-3 Hallelujah! How good it is to sing praises to our God! How pleasant it is to honor God with praise! The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; God gathers the exiles of Israel. God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

Introduction

The red and blue lights in my review mirror solicited my hard sigh; the same lights were, at that moment, entertaining the boys, seven and six, and their entertainment was entertaining Liza who was just about one. I pulled off the road and into a parking lot to a chorus of “Mommy got pulled over! Mommy got pulled over!” Both boys swaying rhythmically to their own tune. I was not amused; but I wasn’t fully mad, either. It truly was a catchy little tune.

I waited for the police officer to come to my window, clutching my license and registration; I was ready to get this business over with because I had swim lessons to get to and was already late…which may have been the reason for the red and blue lights in my rearview mirror. As I waited, a moment of condemnation came upon me. I soothed myself by remembering I was justified by faith apart from works, so if I was guilty of breaking the law than I was guilty of breaking the law and that was it. Nothing more; nothing less.

When the police officer approached, he asked me if I knew why he was pulling me over. I said, “No.” He said, you were going 60 in a 40. I was shocked. “Really?! In this car?!” “Yes,” he answered. “Are you using VASCAR? Because I know VASCAR can give false readings.” “Yes, I was, and, no, it wasn’t a false reading.” Then he asked for my license and registration, which I eagerly handed to him. He thanked me and then went back to his car.

A while later, he came back and said, “Man, I hate to do this…You’ve been really cool; I hate to give you this ticket.” I smiled, and said, “It’s okay. Really. If I’m guilty, I’m guilty.” He paused and stepped back a little from my car. And then again, “Man! You are so cool about this. I hate giving you this ticket.” I looked at the clock: swim lessons drew nigh; I needed to get this ticket from him. Knowing I couldn’t just grab it, holler “Thanks!” and peel out of there… I did the only thing I knew to do, “Listen,” I started. “I’m a student of the law; well, actually I’m a student of God’s Law. I study theology. And I know that the law can only tell me when I’m breaking it and that I’m guilty when I do break it. I accept that. I am guilty of speeding and you are free to give me that ticket.” He stepped back again and didn’t say anything; I was nervous. Then he spoke, “You have just shown a brother in the Lord mercy. Do me a favor and plead ‘not guilty,’ and I’ll take care of it on my end.”

“Really?! But I’m guilty!” I replied. He laughed and asked me to trust him.

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Now before faith came we were kept—guarded as by the military—under the law, being hemmed in until the intended faith would be revealed. Just as the law has been our trainer [in life and morals] with respect to Christ, so that from faith we may be declared righteous. While faith has come, we are no longer under the trainer [in life and morals].

Galatians 3:23-25

Paul describes to the Galatians the situation they were in prior to Christ’s advent: under the law as if trapped by a warden. The word Paul used to describe “the law” is παιδαγωγός (paidagogos/“pedagogue”). The law, according to Paul, was a pedagogue until faith was revealed. The problem arises here: we think that παιδαγωγός means “teacher.” It can mean that for us, but not in Paul’s context. The word defined according to the context in which it was used can be rendered: the slave who oversaw forcing the boys to school, who watched over and monitored and trained the boys in life and morals. Clearly, “teacher” does not cover the breadth of the definition. So, it’s better to see this word rendered as “warden,” which keeps an eye to the military aspect of having been guarded and kept by the law until Christ came. For all intents and purposes, when those kept by the law stepped out of line, the law would step close and threaten, presenting itself as an address to get back in line for their own good—like the slave would do when bringing the boys to and from school.[1]

The law, according to Paul, loomed and threatened, always bringing with it the potential to convict in order to keep those under its charge in line. But the law isn’t evil or bad; it’s just the law. The first word given by God to God’s people to bring them unto life; the law is revealed to God’s people to give them life abundant. The law was intended to turn God’s people toward God, to reveal the human tendency to think we ourselves are God; the law was there to humble God’s people and bring them toward God.[2] The relationship was always about God and God’s people, and the law was only ever to assist that relationship but not be the definitive thing of the relationship. In other words, the law was created by God for humanity, to serve humanity; humanity was not created for the law, to serve the law.

But a problem developed. Rather than being a word beckoning God’s people to God, it became like a god. And in walked fear, terror, shame, and condemnation. As the law was allowed to take over God’s thrown, it was forced into a position that it was not meant to be in. In response, the people became performative to avoid threat and punishment.[3] Thus, the law became a prison and a warden of the people; from this prison there was no escape because there is absolutely no way to satisfy the demands articulated by the law[4] to such a degree that the law stops demanding. And if it never stops demanding, to where to do you run for comfort? Where is forgiveness? And mercy?[5]

Conclusion

Deliverance from this predicament was and is necessary. Humanity cannot extricate itself from such a plight. And here the law served God’s deliverance of the people through the coming of Christ.[6] Paul explains well: the law was a warden until faith came.[7] God sent God’s only son to be born of Mary and to dwell among the dirty, poor, sick, sinners, ostracized, marginalized, and threatened people…anyone and everyone condemned by the law.

From the moment Jesus was born the law was stripped of its warden like status.[8] A woman who had given birth, was forbidden from touching anything holy, forbidden from going into the sanctuary (being in God’s presence). But then, Mary.  After Jesus’ birth, Mary was unclean. The thing that would have segregated her from her community, the thing that determined that she was unclean was the law. Yet, Mary had given birth and was subsequently holding and nursing Jesus 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 God was with her, physically, in her presence and she in God’s. From the moment of Jesus’s birth, Jesus began to silence the voice and demand of the law…the Law was found dumb in that moment.

And so, it is to be found dumb now, just like it was found dumb when the police officer pulled me over. The law in that moment could not condemn or threaten me; it was just the law, just a word to which I could acknowledge my guilt. Same, too, for you who are in Christ through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit. The law cannot determine who you are or whose you are; the law cannot strip you of your beloved status, no matter what you do or do not do. Everything that we do here on Sunday morning, and how we conduct our lives should be fueled by the very real presence of God’s love in our life and not because we are scared God will flee us or cast us out if we don’t do this or that right. When the church becomes a museum of ritual and traditionalisms, trapped in a static performance of doing just to do, exhibitions to make us feel pious and holy, I fear that church is now no longer worshipping God, but the law. When the church becomes a place serving the law, a place of judgment, of fear, of threat, it has stepped away from its love, Jesus the Christ who silenced the law the moment he came into the world, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in the lap of his unclean mother, Mary.

You are the beloved; laugh as the beloved, rejoice as the beloved, and live as the beloved: loved and free.


[1] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians 1535 Chapters 1-4 Luther’s Works Vol 26 Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. St. Louis, MO: Concordia 1963. 335. “For the Law is a Word that shows life and drives us toward it. Therefore it was not given only for the sake of death. But this is its chief use and end: to reveal death, in order that the nature and enormity of sin might thus become apparent. It does not reveal death in a way that takes delight in it or that seeks to do nothing but kills us. No, it reveals death in order that men may be … humbled….”

[2] Luther Galatians 335. “Thus the Law was not given merely for the sake of death; but because man is proud and supposes that he is wise, righteous, and holy, therefore it is necessary that the be humbled by the Law, in order that this beat, the presumption of righteousness, may be killed, since man cannot live unless it is killed.”

[3] Luther Galatians 336. “Such is the power of the Law and such is righteousness on the basis of the Law that it forces us to be outwardly good so long as it threatens transgressors with penalties and punishment.”

[4] Luther Galatians 337. “For then a man is confined in a prison from which he cannot escape; and he does not see how he can be delivered form these bonds, that is, set free from these terrors.”

[5] Luther Galatians 337. “That is, the Law is also a spiritual prison and a true hell; for when it discloses sin and threatens death and the eternal wrath of God, man can neither run away nor find any comfort.”

[6] J. Louis Martyn Galatians The Anchor Bible Gen Ed. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman. (New York: Doubleday, 1997) 363. “…the Law was compelled to serve God’s intention simply by holding all human beings in a bondage that precluded every route of deliverance except that of Christ.”

[7] Luther Galatians 347. “The Law is a custodian, not until some other lawgiver comes who demands good works, but until Christ comes, the Justifier and Savior, so that we may be justified through faith in Him, not through works.”

[8] Martyn Galatians 362. “faith was invasively revealed. Paul’s use of the passive verb “was revealed” shows his intention to speak here of God’s eschatological act, and thus his concern to refer to the faith that is God’s deed in Christ (so also the faith” in w 25 and 26). From 2:16, 3:22-25, and 4:4-6, we see that Paul is referring interchangeably to the coming of Christ, to the coming of Christ’s Spirit, and to the coming both of Christ’s faith and of the faith kindled by Christ’s faith. It is that multifaceted advent that has brought to a close the parenthetical era of the Law, thus radically changing the world in which human beings live.”

On That Night

Christmas Eve Sermon

Psalm 96: 11-13 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before God when God comes, when God comes to judge the earth. God will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.

The Heavens Were Silent

Mary was a very pregnant woman that night. She probably looked as she felt…exhausted. As far along as she was, everything ached. I imagine her deep and profound desire to lie down and rest. Anyone passing by on the road and receiving her as she and Joseph roamed looking for lodging, would’ve seen just a pregnant woman. How many other pregnant women were seen that night? How many other babies would be born that night? How many children born before this one? There wasn’t anything special emanating from her. No one in Bethlehem felt the urgency to make sure she was well cared for; no one had the time or the space to make room for her. It’s not that they didn’t love her, I’m sure they did. But that night, there just wasn’t anything to be done but to offer up some meager space among dirty animals, trampled hay, and dirt, in the air of a Bethlehem night.

When the contractions started, the whole entire host of heaven hushed. Not a word was spoken, the entirety of the divine residence of angels and archangels watched with bated breath as this woman did a regular thing: bear her first child, a son…But what the host of heaven knew—as well as Mary and Joseph—was this: this regular body and this regular act of birth were bringing for this not-so-regular child…the son of God, the prince of peace, the one of ancient of days, the true leader of Israel, the humble judge, and the embodiment of divine love for the world. For this child, heaven held its breath as his mother brought him forth out of darkness into light so that he would be the light going into the darkness. This was the longed for, hoped for, yearned for child prayed for by many voices of ages gone by, the voices that cried out from bodies stuck in marginalization, trapped in violence, held down by oppression, and threatened by death. Could Mary feel their ancient cries? Could she feel those bowls upon bowls of prayers poured out on her like glory flowing from on high, covering her body and encouraging her spirit as she endured each contraction for minutes and hours?

God chose this body, this moment, this regularity of being born, to enter the world and the cosmos in physical form to identify with the depth of the pain of the human predicament. God could have shown up and skipped this banal and regular step; God could have come in glory and not in such precarious vulnerability. However, God chose not to skip it but to embrace it, to experience it, to identify with God’s beloved, to stand in unity with the beloved from the beginning of life unto the end. It is this divine child born of Mary, this one who is God of very God, who will stand in solidarity with humanity and change everything.

That night, as Mary labored, heaven was silent.

The World was Still

Yet, it wasn’t just Mary who was walking steadily into that night, into that event, one step at a time while moving toward Bethlehem. Joseph was with her. This regular guy was moving along in his regular life before God intervened and shuffled everything. Now he was moving along with Mary, the one who was to bear the son of God into the world and he…trusted. Trusted that all of this was the work of God. So, he walked. With Mary. With this mother of this child that was not his. Still, he walked with God, humbly, trusting, believing that somehow God would show up.

The many closed doors to decent lodging were discouraging. It wasn’t personal; it was just unfortunate. However, he was eager to get this very pregnant Mary to security, to a place where she could rest[1]she looks so tired. When the option for the humble estate of wood, straw, and animals came to him, it was a stroke of fortune even if not ideal. Provision. We’ll make this work, at least for tonight. When the contractions started, Joseph knew of one thing to do, rush to find a midwife, or so goes another telling of the birth of Jesus.[2]

And then something happened while he sought this Bethlehemite midwife. Everything seemed to slow down, and the world seemed to stop as if time ceased to exist and all that existed was merely matter in stasis. The cosmos seemed to come to a screeching halt, as if God’s self was slowing it all down in order to set the whole thing in a different direction.

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not lifting it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything returned to its course.”[3]

Protoevangelium of James

When God steps into our timeline and into our space things do not just keep moving as if it’s all normal. Everything stops, stops in its tracks. Time is slowed all the way down and space is parted from itself making room for more and bigger and better. God doesn’t break into our realm, God takes our realm into God’s self. The moment Jesus was born into the world marked the beginning of something new and different, a different reign, a different rule, a different leadership, and a different way of living in the world.

That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, the world stopped.

The Barriers Were Destroyed

That dark night was no different than the other nights. Here they were, once again, tending and guarding their flocks of sheep, chatting here and there to stay awake.[4] This life was quiet, even if deprived and rather dangerous…keeping the flock safe took a lot of work and strength and risk.[5] The census going on caused additional anxiety, fear, and made that heavy blanket of oppression draped over these humble shepherds seem a bit heavier.[6] How many more sheep would they lose from their flocks when the census was over?[7] Against this evil empire they were helpless, more helpless than against a vicious and voracious wolf.[8] Spirits were low that dark night.

Then the angle showed up, out of nowhere. The shepherds were rightly terrified. Here they were, in the dark of night, doing their job, minding their own business and then: FLASH! They were enveloped in the heavenly glory of the Lord. In seconds they went from no ones to some ones, illuminated by a great light, and being addressed by one from the host of heaven…who were they to warrant such attention?[9]

And the Angel said to them,

“Do not be terrified! For behold, I herald good tidings to you of great delight for all people! A savior is brought forth for you today in the city of David who is Christ the Lord! And this will be the sign for you, you will find a newborn child having been wrapped in swaddling clothes and being laid in a manger!”[10]

Luke 2

Before the shepherds found their voices, they were greeted by an army of the host of heaven who joined the angel and praised God, saying: Glory in the highest to God and upon earth peace with humanity of good pleasure! And then, like it began, it was over.

The shepherds had been summoned by God to come into this moment, into this event, into this space…and, that night, they went. The unclean were called; the oppressed were summoned; the meek and meager were beckoned to come and see how good God is, how much God was for them, how much God loved them. When they arrived, they found Mary and Joseph, and the divine newborn child was, as the Angel said, lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. And here, these unclean shepherds stood in the direct presence of God without having to change, become pure, clean, or right. There was no shame, no condemnation, no guilt, no offerings had to be made, no rituals performed; they just came, looked, and touched the very small and vulnerable foot of God.

That night, when the shepherds arrived, the barriers between clean and unclean were destroyed.

Conclusion

All that had been was now coming undone; the savior, the son of God, was born, surrounded by wood, straw, dirt, animals, an exhausted woman of color, a humbled man, and dirty shepherds. That night God called to God’s self all those who thought they were too far off to hear the call, too far gone to be seen, to unloved to be desired, too nothing to be something…It’s here where we enter the story. As we listen in and look on, we step into that menagerie of humans and animals gazing upon the newborn child. We become a part of those also called to witness this divine event in the world and to encounter God on this night. We are summoned to experience the divine heavenly hush break into the most magnificent chorus of the cosmos. We are provoked to feel God taking the cosmos into God’s self and sending it on the trajectory of love. We are asked to see the rubble of the barriers that once tried to steal from us our belovedness.

That night, while Mary labored, heaven was silent. That night, while Joseph searched for a midwife, the world stopped. That night, when the shepherds arrived, the barriers were destroyed. Because—on that night—God showed up and changed everything forever.


[1] The Protoevangelium of James 17:3-18:1

[2] The Protoevangelium of James 18:1

[3] The Protoevangelium of James 18: 2-11 Trans Lily C Vuong (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1532656173/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_uk52Fb7QPGNMN)

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher, eds. (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010). 34

[5] Gonzalez Luke 33.

[6] Gonazalez Luke 33, 34

[7] Gonzalez Luke 33

[8] Gonzalez Luke 33

[9] Gonzalez Luke 34

[10] Translation mine

The One of Peace

Sermon on Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:46b, 53-54 My soul proclaims the greatness of God… God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty. God has come to the help of God’s servant Israel, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy… 

Introduction 

It’s nice to be in charge, right? It’s an ego boost to be the boss, the one where the buck stops. It’s fun to be the leader, the one who decides this and that, and here and there, the one who tells this and that person what to do and what to say. The more power the better, right? For isn’t it in the acquisition of power and dominance—the incessant climbing of the occupational ladder—where I achieve my true human liberty and freedom? As I climb up, I’m freed from the constraints of the lower echelons of human existence, and I finally have that long awaited liberty where none can tread on me. The higher up I move along this ladder, the more I acquire the rewards and accolades of this system, and the more I’m lifted out of the muck and mire of obligation to anyone else. (There’s something wrong with someone who is content with the middle or, God forbid, the lowest rung of the ladder; who wants to stay there?) Here, at the top or near the top, I’m my own law. Here, I am respected. Here, I’m freed from the tyranny of others. Here I’m that which I have strived for: powerful. I get to holler at subordinates and underlings, echoing Eric Cartman from the cartoon series, South Park, “Respect my ah-thor-ah-tah!” It’s nice to be in charge, right?  

Or is it… 

Once I start seeing my leadership in the schema of the personal acquisition of power—and the continual pursuit there in—I will ignore that the ladder I am hoisting myself upon is always made up of the human bodies I was charged to guide and lead in the first place. The bodies will be used to an end to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of a bloated and an autonomous self, untethered from the mores of being human: the humility of existence made tangible in the willing and sometimes not-so-willing self-surrender of the self to other humans in the activity of love. To climb that ladder as far as I can, I must turn off the “human” part of my humanity, which—if you are doing the math—renders to near zero “humanity.” And the farther-up I go pursuing the acquisition of power and privilege, the deeper-in I’m pushed into what can only be described as a solitary confinement with walls built of competition and fear– it only takes one slip (slide?) to fall from that glory. It’s nice to be in charge, right? 

Or is it…. 

Micah 5:2-5a 

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, 
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. 

And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great 
to the ends of the earth; 

and he shall be the one of peace.  

Micah 5:4-5

The bulk of Micah’s message (from the beginning of the book to the end) is embedded in Micah’s mission to expose the sins of Jacob and Israel, being the first prophet to declare the destruction of Jerusalem.[1] What sins does Micah expose? In short: moral corruption. The long of it is that there is violence (from the wealthy and powerful) and the proliferation of lies.[2] And the even longer of it is: the heads of the houses of Jacob and the rulers of Israel “abhor justice and pervert equity” and the brick and mortar of their cities are the wrong-doing of the leaders and the spilled blood of the people.[3] And, according to Micah who is emboldened by the passionate Spirit of God in the face of such violence,[4] God will not tolerate this depraved leadership, profiting off of the bodies and souls of God’s beloved.[5]

In the prophesy, Micah, so moved by God’s Spirit, transitions from exposing sins and naming the trespasses of Israel’s and Jacob’s leaders to speaking of one who will be raised up from the small clan of Bethlehem of Ephrathah. This one will be of old and of the ancient of days. This humble one from a humble tribe will be called out to lead God’s beloved in the name of God and in the Spirit of God: delighting in unconditional and unceasing love, forgiveness, mercy, and humility.[6] Specifically in our portion of the text, Micah’s prophesy moves toward a God who rejects the idea of letting iniquity run amok[7] even if the city itself is complacent.[8] so, God comes, and in that God comes, there will be forgiveness and peace because when God comes, so to comes the true leadership of Israel defined not by humanity but by God, the one of peace.[9]

Conclusion

Micah’s words haunt me. Israel’s leadership has run away with Israel for its own power and privilege. And God is coming to rescue God’s beloved. Woe to that leadership so bent on self-aggrandizement and power and authority and privilege; violent leadership that uses the beloved as a means to their own end will be exposed in God’s light of truth. Leadership so bent in this way is in direct opposition to God and God’s conception of leading and can meet no other end in God but death. God has a very specific interpretation of what it means to lead, especially leading God’s beloved: it is done through mercy, kindness, humility, love, and forgiveness. To be completely frank, God doesn’t like it when human leaders forget themselves and become drunk with power and abusive and violent, resulting in the oppression and marginalization of God’s beloved. God will come and rescue the beloved from such domination. Thus, the judgment of this prophecy is targeted at me, the leader of God’s beloved—and others like me holding power and authority. God will come for the beloved and in that the beloved is sought and liberated from oppressive and violent leadership, so too will the violent and oppressive leaders be liberated. It’s nice to be in charge, right? Or is it?

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 6:7-8

It’s into the presence of God I am called. I am pulled off my ladder of power and am dragged onto the carpet; I am beckoned into the light; I am exposed by the Spirit’s prophetic utterance still fresh on Micah’s lips. I am asked to come close and to hear and to see what means to be a good leader. And, it’s not defined in the way that I think it should be: through the acquisition of more and more power and lording it over those under my charge. It won’t look like making people feel small so I can feel big. It won’t even look elite, special, or privileged. Rather, this good leader will look remarkably like a humble and vulnerable infant wrapped in meager rags, laid in a manger, dwelling among the creation in its earthy glory, surrounded by dirty shepherds and an exhausted woman of color. I am asked here: can you lead like this? For here lies the true leader, the one from the ancient of days who knows no end of time but is now a tiny baby in swaddling clothes: humble and accessible to anyone; can you lead like this…of the people for the people? Can you love them like I do?

That this prophetic utterance of Micah is for me it is for you, too. Because divine love does not remain dormant when the beloved is in need: hope exists. We can, right now during this season of Advent in 2021, hope. We can hope because we dwell in and are invited into a story of God acting on behalf of the beloved by coming in the judgment of God’s love to give life to all the beloved trapped and held captive in violent systems—when the captive is set free, so too will the captor be set free through death into new life. We are all beckoned—leaders and the lead alike—to walk humble with God and like God, in love and mercy and forgiveness and humility. And we are called to walk this way not just here in this place, but out in the world, furthering the elastic reach of divine love in the world and for the beloved out there.

O come, Desire of nations,

bind in one the hearts of all [hu]mankind;

bid thou our sad divisions cease

and be thy self our King of Peace.

O come, O come Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.


[1] 1 Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Micah” New York: JPS, 1962. 98 “Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, apparently regarded the purpose of his mission to be ‘to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin’ (3:8). He was the first prophet to predict the destruction of Jerusalem.” 

[2] Heschel Prophets 98. “In his eyes the fatal sin is the sin of moral corruption. The rich men are full of violence, and the inhabitants speak lies: ‘Their tongue is deceitful in their mouth’ (6:12).”

[3] Heschel Prophets 98 “The prophet directs his rebuke particularly against the ‘heads of the house of Jacob and the rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity.’ It is because ‘they build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong’ (3:9-10) that Zion and Jerusalem will be destroyed.”

[4] Heschel Prophets 99. “To the soul of Micah, the taste of God’s word is bitter. In his love for Zion and his people, he is tormented by the vision of the things to come…” 

[5] Heschel Prophets 99. “Here, amidst a people who walk haughtily (2:3), stands a prophet who relentlessly predicts disaster and disgrace for the leaders as well as for the nation, maintaining that ‘her wound is incurable’ (1:9), that the Lord is ‘devising evil’ against the people: ‘It will be an evil time’ (2:3).” 

[6] Heschel Prophets 99. “Micah does not question the justice of the severe punishment which he predicts for his people. Yet it is not in the name of justice that he speaks but in the name of a God who ‘delights in steadfast love,’ ‘pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression’ (7:18).” 

[7] Heschel Prophets 100 “Yet, there is reluctance and sorrow in that anger. It is as if God were apologizing for His severity, for His refusal to be complacent to iniquity. This is God’s apology to Israel. He cannot forget ‘the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked’ or ‘acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights’ (6:10, 11).”

[8] Heschel Prophets 100 “‘Answer Me!’ calls the voice of God. But who hears the call? ‘The voice of the Lord cries to the city’ (6:9), but the city is complacent.”

[9] Heschel Prophets 101 “Together with the word of doom, Micah proclaims the vision of redemption. God will forgive ‘the remnant of His inheritance,’ and will cast all their sins ‘into the depths of the sea’ (7:18 f.), and every man shall sit under his vine and ‘under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid’ (4:4).”

God Comes, Emmanuel

Sermon on Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:3-5  Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. (48)

Introduction

Exceptional grief and sorrow don’t last forever. I remember a couple of years ago, around this time, that I entered into a period of marrow-deep sadness. At the end of 2019, a few negative external events collided with an already present sorrow blended with grief abiding in my soul, and then I was swept into the deep waters of sadness. While I was functional—the gift of being a detached observer—I felt the pain when I was alone. Then, as 2019 turned 2020 and 2020 let down it’s mask revealing itself for the virus laden threat to human existence that it was, I was further pushed into the depths of those deep waters, feeling as if I was just barely keeping above the threatening abyss opened below me.

One chilly afternoon in the middle of a deep south Louisianan winter, I sat on a couch in my therapist’s office expressing my pain through tears, she told me, this intensity of emotional pain only lasts for 45 minutes; if you can make it through 45 minutes, it will alleviate. Your body and mind and soul know they can only handle so much. I trusted her. So, the next time I felt the suction into darkness and pain, instead of trying to numb or run from it, I just sat there in and with it like a blanket draped over me—the intensity of sorrow and grief washing over me, and then, like she said, it would lift. It would not lift completely, but it lifted just enough for me to catch a breath, stretch, fall asleep, care for my kids, and sometimes even laugh and see beauty in what was before me and with me.

Nothing excruciating lasts forever. It can feel like excruciatingly painful moments and events last forever, but they don’t. Even in the deepest and most profound sorrow, things will lighten up emotionally. Even in the scariest moments, that fear will lighten up. Rage will dissipate. Even extreme bliss and happiness will mellow. (This is why there’s caution against chasing the dragon of “happiness”; you cannot sustain such an eternal and infinite sensation; it’s why it’s okay to be “okay.”) While it’s probably easier for most of us to climb down from extreme happiness than climb out of extreme sorrow, it’s nice to know extreme sorrow and grief do not linger forever.

Jeremiah 33:14-16

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

Jeremiah 33:14-16

Our First Testament reading is from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is the weeping and suffering prophet. The words of Jeremiah’s prophecies tell of a soul who felt incredible pain, felt the threat of doom, the urgency of repentance because he felt the tremors and the footfalls of divine presence drawing nigh and with it, divine judgment; but nothing he did or said could cause the people to respond. So, he lived with an immense feeling of failure.[1] “He screamed, wept, moaned—and was left with a terror in his soul.”[2]

Through these feelings, the divine word sought God’s people, the beloved. Jeremiah exhorted—through prediction—pestilence, slaughter, famine and captivity (ref. Jer. 15.2).[3] God’s judgment was coming: turn and repent! Jeremiah cried. But when that judgment came to Israel and Judah, Jeremiah switched gears; the prophet of sorrow became the herald of good tidings offering hope and comfort to those who were heavy burdened.[4]  Jeremiah, in our passage, is in this role, and he tells the people of God, the God who fulfills promises who is fulfilling God’s good word.[5] The wailing and weeping, the long suffering and existential dread, the fear of threat and weight of burden will not last forever, says Jeremiah. God will rescue! God will redeem! God will save! God will comfort and bring rest! God will act! Do not lose hope Jerusalem; shema! Do not lose hope, Judah; shema!

This God on whose behalf Jeremiah speaks is the God of the covenant—the covenant made with all of Israel—the covenant through which God yoked God’s self to Israel, forever being their God and they forever God’s people. This covenant will be fulfilled not through the obedience of Judah and Jerusalem, but by God and God’s self; it is this that gives the covenant that eternal and divine actuality. It will never and can never be violated; God will keep it.[6] Weeping, writes Jeremiah in chapter 50, the people shall come and seek God who has come near, who is near in comfort and love, in rest from burden and weariness.[7] The true shoot of Jesse, the scion, the heir will come;[8] the Messianic King comes to make manifest God’s divine presence and eternal love to God’s people and to bring in all who suffer and weep, those who grieve, those who are in pain, those who are wearied.[9] Extreme sorrow and grief do not and will not last forever.

Conclusion

Everything that we’ve been through in the past (near) 20 months has not been taken in as single unit. Walking through a global pandemic and social upheaval, barely keeping our hearts and minds and bodies and souls intact isn’t something we do all at once. Rather, we do it 45 minutes at a time. I know that the demand to keep walking, to keep getting up, to keep breathing one breathe at a time can feel daunting in times like this. I know you may feel like you just can’t keep going at times; but I know you can.

I know you can because you’re not alone; and you’ve not been alone—even if it felt like you’ve been alone and isolated. The truth is, you’ve been embraced by God and by the eternal cloud of saints who move ahead, alongside, behind, and with you. And I know this because I’ve had the honor and privilege to be called to walk with you these past twelve months. Through ups and downs, masked and unmasked, in moments of chaos and calm, in change and consistency, I’ve watched you walk, one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, through this time—this very historical and very difficult time. And you’ve done it every day with God and with each other, bonded together through the divinity of profound and real love. And the only thing I’ve needed to do, because God’s love for you presses upon me, is remind you that you are the beloved.

And as we enter this new season of liturgy and worship of Advent, let us be consumed with that deep abiding knowledge and peace that comes with the ever-present love of God. Let us come into expectation, let us be brought (together) to the brink of curiosity as we await—with breathless anticipation—the humble arrival of the divine Christ, God’s love born in flesh into the world to reconcile the world to God, to eliminate any and all thought that there’s any such great distance to be crossed to God by God’s people.  

Beloved, extreme sorrow and grief will not last forever, behold, Immanuel, God with us.


[1] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Jeremiah” New York: JPS, 1962. 105. “Jeremiah’s was a soul in pain, stern with gloom. To his wistful eye the city’s walls seemed to reel. The days that were to come would be dreadful. He called, he urged his people to repent—and he failed.”

[2] Heschel Prophets 105

[3] Heschel Prophets 129. “For many years Jeremiah had predicted pestilence, slaughter, famine, and captivity (15:2).

[4] Heschel Prophets 129. “However, when calamity arrived, in the hour of panic and terror, when every face was turned pale with dark despair, the prophet came to instill hope, to comfort, to console …”

[5] John Bright Jeremiah: A new Translation with Introduction and Commentary The Anchor Bible. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman gen eds. 2nd Ed. 1986 Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. 296. v. 14 “fulfill the promise. Literally ‘…the good word.’”

[6] Heschel Prophets 129-130. “The climax of Jeremiah’s prophecy is the promise of a covenant which will mean not only complete forgiveness of sin (50:20), but also a complete transformation of Israel. In time to come God will give Israel ‘one heart and one way’ and make with them “an everlasting covenant” (32:39-40), which will never be violated (50:40).”

[7] Heschel Prophets 129. “The rule of Babylon shall pass, but God’s covenant with Israel shall last forever. The day will come when ‘the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come, and they shall seek the Lord their God They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, Come, let us join ourselves to the Lord in an everlasting covenant which will never be forgotten’ (50:4-5). Jerusalem will dwell secure under the watchword, ‘The Lord is our vindication’ (33:16).”

[8] Bright Jeremiah 296. v. 15 “a true ‘Shoot.’ Or ‘Branch (so many EVV), i.e., a scion…But Note (vs. 17) that here the promise is broadened to include not merely a single king, but the continuing dynasty.”

[9] Bright Jeremiah 298. “The name Yahwehsidqenu, which is there applied to the Messianic king, is here transferred to Judah and Jerusalem, while the promise of the true ‘Shoot’ of David is referred (vs. 17) to the continuing dynasty rather than to a single individual. Moreover, the promise is broadened to include a never-ending succession of Levitical priests who serve beside the king.”

Love Moves Around the Rubble

Sermon on Mark 13:1-8

1 Samuel 2: My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in God…There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no rock like our God.

Introduction

It’s not fun when things breakdown. Like, who here has said, with excitement, “Yes! The fridge is broken!” Or “I was hoping the car would breakdown!” Or, “Aww, yeah, my knee is acting up again!” No child has ever skipped gleefully to their parent happy that their favorite stuffed animal—the one they’ve fastidiously dragged about every day for the past 5 years—finally lost its ear. Whether it’s the fridge, the car, one’s body, or that well-loved stuffy; everything breaks down eventually.

But it’s not just material items—the things purchased from retailers and dealers—that break down. And when it comes to our lives, it’s not just our physical framework—muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, organs, etc.—that breaks down. We can breakdown on the inside. Our inner world and our inner life are as susceptible to breaking down as our physical bodies are. Our mind, our emotions, our feelings, our spirituality, our conscience—all of it—can enter an event of break down, of deconstruction. And it certainly happens when we’ve been thrust on to a collision course with destruction and chaos: some external event occurs challenging the security and comfortability we previously enjoyed. Maybe it’s a breakup from a beloved, maybe a rejection, maybe a loss of a job or a friendship, maybe a death, maybe the weight of too many demands, maybe the isolation of loneliness, maybe even being forced to let go of what was…all of it can thrust us into inner turmoil, inner breakdown, inner falling apart, inner grief and pain. In that moment where we are thrust into such a moment, we are asked one simple yet painful question: will you turn a blind eye to this and run? Or will you face it and walk through?

The answer depends on where love is.

Mark 13:1-8

Then while [Jesus] was departing from the temple, one of the disciples says to him, “Teacher, behold (!) how magnificent [the] stones and how magnificent [the] buildings!” And then Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not a stone will be left upon a stone here; it will be overthrown.”[1]

Mark 13:1-2

There’s no textual gap in Mark’s story progression, so it’s safe to assume that the one who sat opposite the treasury in the Court of Women, has stood up and exited the temple. The one who is the son of God—established by Mark in 1:1—is now exiting the building.

As he leaves with his disciples, one of them points out how magnificent the stones are and how magnificent is the building comprised of those magnificent stones. And truly they were magnificent—both the stones and the temple building itself. (One can travel to see the remnants of those stones of the Herodian walls and fall in awe of the magnitude and the presence of the remaining stones—just the remnants and not the structure itself.[2]) There’s no shame in the disciple marveling and pointing out that the stones and the building are quite magnificent. Thus, Jesus isn’t chastising the disciple when he answers him with the rather cryptic: do you see these great stones and this great building? Well, it’s all going to break down and be overthrown; its time is up; it’s no longer necessary.[3]Jesus isn’t rebuking; he’s proclaiming.

And this proclamation comes with some big words. In fact, these words are threatening words. Some think these words are so dangerous that they are the fuel behind Jesus’s eventual arrest and captivity. There’s good reason to think this. Mentioning the destruction of the temple brought with it serious consequences for the one who mentioned it. This is the case because according to the Hebrew Scriptures, God tells Solomon that the destruction of the temple will be the punishment of Israel for their disobedience (1 Kings 9). Other prophets pick up on this theme.[4] So, Jesus isn’t messing around using these words.

Also, the entire life of the Israelite revolved around this structure; what would become of them if this structure was now gone? Without this particular and important structure of authority, what would become of them, their lives, their worship and relationship with God, their identity and being? [5] The centrality of the temple explains why the disciples grew eager for a sign for when this is will happen…they would want to prepare themselves for this divine judgment, this impending internal upheaval and breaking down.

In this passage, Jesus is predicting and promising (as God does with God’s declared word) the end of the old order[6] and the beginning of the new one. What was the center of the kingdom of God is now no longer the center of the kingdom of God. The Christ is. Thus, Jesus—as he proceeds through his journey to the cross and subsequent resurrection and ascension—will redefine what the center of the kingdom of God and therein redefine what the kingdom of God is for God’s people.[7] Will the disciples turn a blind eye and run? Or will they face it and enter in?

The answer depends on where love is.

Conclusion

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve stressed the activity of love. Love’s language is always action. Love’s language is always action… even if small. And today: love’s language is always action even if small…small enough to weave and wend and grow through the rubble.

Even though in our passage Jesus leaves the temple—signifying for the readers (if they’re watching, listening, and paying close attention to the story) that God left that particular building—Jesus hasn’t left the people. In fact, Jesus’s exodus (thus, God’s exodus) from the temple is God moving toward the people and away from the abusive and oppressive systems and structures holding so many people captive. These old systems and structures must be overthrown and brought to death for new life to come forward.

So God, in the word of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, is calling forth something new out of the death of something old…even if it’s a pile of rubble: the rubble of an overthrown temple, the rubble of an overthrown church, the rubble of our physical bodies, the rubble of formerly held ideologies and assumptions, the rubble of our inner lives. Because God is love, and love’s language is always action no matter how small…even small enough to make its way around any crack and crevice, even if it’s literal or metaphorical magnificent stones now no longer one on top of the other. And in the rubble, Love becomes new magnificent stones of the foundation of the most magnificent new structure: new life.

Beloved, as you look around you, as your heart breaks over loss and letting go, as you feel that internal chaos and breaking down, as you watch the dust of your former lives settle around you, do not lose hope. Do not turn a blind eye and run. Face it and enter in. Love is there. Love is working its way through that internal rubble, seeking the beloved, calling her back to life, new life, life built on the firm foundation of love.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 496, “The specific mention of λίθοι, while it serves in Mark’s context to prepare for the saying λίθος ἐπὶ λίθονin v. 2, corresponds to Josephus’s specific mention of the enormous blocks of stone used in the building (though a single block of forty-five cubits in length, War 5.224, is hard to believe). The disciple’s amazement is shared even by modem visitors who see the huge ashlar blocks in the remaining Herodian walls, and these were only the substructure, not the temple proper.”

[3] France Mark 496. “For the disciple’s touristic awe Jesus substitutes a cruel realism. Splendid as the structure may be, its time is over. ‘Jesus’ reply is to dismiss the magnificent display as — in the context of his ministry and mission—a massive irrelevance (Mann, 495).”

[4] France Mark 495, “Jesus was not the first to predict the temple’s destruction. God’s declaration to Solomon at the temple’s dedication envisaged such a possibility if Israel proved disobedient (1 Ki. 9:6-8), and the threat was taken up by Micah (3:12), and repeatedly by Jeremiah (7:12-15; 12:7; 22:5; 26:6). It was only the memory of Micah’s prophecy which saved Jeremiah from execution for treason on this basis (Je. 26:10-19), and another prophet with the same message, Uriah, was not so fortunate (Je. 26:20-23). A generation after the death of Jesus another Jesus, son of Hananiah, was put on trial for threats against the city and its temple (Josephus, War 6.300-309). Jesus was embarking on a dangerous course.”

[5] France Mark 494. “The unnamed disciple’s superficial admiration for the magnificence of the buildings, contrasted with Jesus’ declaration of their ultimate bankruptcy, furnishes yet another example of the reorientation to the new perspective of the kingdom of God to which the disciples are committed but which they remain slow to grasp, and which Mark expects his readers to embrace. The old structure of authority in which God’s relationship with his people has hitherto been focused, is due for replacement.”

[6] France Mark 498. “The disciples’ question with which it begins seeks elucidation of Jesus’ pronouncement about the destruction of the temple, and it is this question which must set the agenda for our interpretation of the discourse which follows. It is about ‘the end of the old order’.”

[7] France Mark 497-498. “The mutual hostility between Jesus and the Jerusalem establishment has now reached its culmination in Jesus’ open prediction of the destruction of the temple, with its powerful symbolism of the end of the existing order and the implication that something new is to take its place. This is to be a time of unprecedented upheaval in the life and leadership of the people of God. Jerusalem, and the temple which is the focus of its authority, is about to lose its central role in God’s economy. The divine government, the βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ, is to find a new focus.”

Two Tiny (nearly) Weightless Coins

Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

Psalm 146:1-3 Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it. Unless the Lord watches over the city, in vain the watchman keeps his vigil. It is in vain that you rise so early and go to bed so late; vain, too, to eat the bread of toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Introduction

I spent the week thinking about how exhausted and isolated and sad many of us feel. If it means anything, I feel it…in my bones. This pandemic seems endless as we cruise into wrapping up year two. It’s still wreaking havoc on our world, on our country, on our state, on our county, on our families and friends, and on our own bodies (heart, mind, soul). On top of that the political divisions and consistent social unrest feeling like threats of WWIII—this thanksgiving and Christmas we can gather with extended family…or can we? (It might be safest yet to speak of only religion at those tables!) And let us extend our view to our larger society: as crises continue to rise, our brothers and sisters struggle to make ends meet, put food on the table, to exist in the world. I want my kids to go freely to school and their myriad activities without having this extra weight on their shoulders. I want you, the people of God entrusted to my care, to live your fullest lives infecting others with the holy and divine love of God…not a potential life-threatening virus. Truly, the psalm I just prayed echoes through my exhausted body eager to rest, to just exist, to just live…in person…with others, without threat, without fear, without hyper-vigilance, without divisive divisions.

So, this week, maybe even more than last week, I believe we need love amid our sadness, our isolation, our exhaustion, our fear, our sicknesses; we need to marinate in the divine love of God. We need to keep this divine love we receive as the focal point of our days-in and days-out. Love is active as I said last week. And that’s true, it is; love’s language is always action…in some form.

The thing is…it doesn’t have to be grandiose and massive, as if to catch everyone’s attention. It can be small. Simple. That’s the thing about love’s language as action: the full extent of love is there even in the smallest seemingly most simple thing…Like two tiny, weightless coins slipping unnoticed into the treasury.

Mark 12:38-44 

And then after sitting down in front of the treasury, he was gazing at how the crowd cast copper/bronze into the treasury. And then many wealthy people were casting [in] great things; and then came one destitute widow, and she cast [in] two very small pieces of money, which is ¼ of a Roman monetary unit. And then calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Truly I say to you that this destitute widow cast in a much greater value of all those who are casting into the treasury. For all people gave from their overflow/left-over, but from her need/want of all she had, she cast [in] her whole/complete life.”[1]

Mark 12:41-44

Moving forward in Chapter 12, Mark tells us that Jesus (generally and polemically[2]) drags the bulk of the scribes—excepting, I’m sure, the one who is not far from the kingdom of God (v.34). It seems scribes had some reputation, according to Mark, for liking the finer things in life and the power coming with their prestigious position in the community. They desired[3] to strut about in their long and fancy robes,[4] greeting[5] each other in the public places, sitting in the most honorable—”the chief most”—seats in the synagogue and at the banquet table of the evening meals.[6] It brought them pleasure to do these things (ἔρος). However, Jesus goes on: it’s not just that they like the finer things in life—the things afforded to them due to their role and privilege in their society—but that they did it at the expense of the disenfranchised, the ones who consume the house of widows…(ἔρος run amok). A scribe couldn’t claim ignorance to how much God detested “defrauding” widows; it was woven through the scriptures.[7] Thus, the end for these scribes is, according to Jesus, a much greater divine condemnation.[8] They know better. Shema O Israel!

And then Jesus sits down in front of the treasury in the Court of the Women[9]—the nearest point of the temple building open to women.[10] Jesus’s rebuke of the scribes comes with divine force; so, too, does his sitting down in front of the treasury—like a judge. Many people came and cast their offerings into the treasury: clinks and clanks of copper and bronze, of gold and silver coins[11] echoed as they hit the trumpet chests; fiscal support for the work of the temple.[12] The bigger and more substantial the offering, the bigger and louder the sound and spectacle.

But then a destitute widow comes in. A “little-one” (Mk. 9:42) comes in—whose bodily presence would go unnoticed by the crowd, as well as her meager offering of two small copper coins smaller than a centimeter in diameter and worth less than 1/100 of a denarius.[13] On any other day, these two small coins would slip into the treasury without garnering attention and respect, just as she would slip into the temple with the same response. But this day was like no other day. God saw. And God loved.

God sat opposite the treasury and saw this humble human give her whole life[14] to God.[15] Her faith—her love for God—sounded louder than any other gift dropped into the treasury at that moment as she dropped her whole life into that treasury. She gave not from an overflow of excess, but from her need, from her want, from all she had. This is not a treatise on tithing or a rebuke of the wealthy;[16] this is a declaration of love. It’s this destitute widow who hears and loves God with her whole heart, whole mind, whole soul, and whole strength; she—not the fancy-pants, privileged scribes or the wealthy giving from their extra—she is the one who satisfies the command to love God and to love one’s neighbor as themselves (cf. Mk 12:28-34). Where the scribes have succumbed to negligent ἔρος in consuming the livelihood of widows, she, a destitute widow, is consumed with ἀγάπη. Her small, miniscule offering was born out of big, massive love. Because love’s language is always action, even if it’s as small as two tiny, nearly weightless coins slipping unnoticed into a treasury. Shema O Israel!

Conclusion

Our isolation, our exhaustion, our sadness isn’t going to magically disappear any time soon. I wish I could say otherwise, but I can’t. We are here, and here we’ll be until we are no longer stuck in this atmosphere and environment of virus and anger. But I am not hopeless. Why? Because…love. Infinite Love in its most finite form keeps popping up. A note. A smile. A gift. A hand to help. A meal. A hello. A moment. A kindness. A presence. A giggle. A brief connection. A look of knowing. These are the small things our community is dependent on right now. While our bodies are forced into distances and our persons experience continued isolation, our love and our hope doesn’t have to. We can overcome the distance and separation in new ways, in abstract ways, in small ways.

As we give into what is demanded of us right now, we need not lose hope. Hopefulness gives way to hopelessness when we keep our eyes fixed on what was and we keep trying to rebuild what was. Rather hopefulness is born of love in this very moment, right here and right now, in what is. Accepting the strain and drain, the exhaustion and isolation, even the grief and sadness isn’t succumbing to the forces of evil and giving up unto nothing; it’s the very opposite. For in that weakness of accepting point-blank what is as it is, is the source of the strength of humanity in God, of God in humanity. Embracing now, allows us to unleash the determined, the dogged, the tenacious, the carpe diem and live new, exist new, connect new, to love new—not in big and grand ways, we don’t have the energy for that or the stamina; but we can love new in small and simple ways, in sustainable ways.

Like Jesus asks his disciples to reexamine what it means to give, what it means to love, what it means to lead, what it means to be a disciple, we, too, must hear these questions addressed to us. We must reexamine what it means to love right now as those who followed Jesus into Jerusalem. We must reexamine what it looks like to love God and to love others right now. Because it might just look like slipping two tiny, nearly weightless coins unnoticed into a treasury. Shema O Israel!


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] France Mark 489. “In this context the effect is to offer the crowd a choice as to the sort of leader they will follow, and Jesus pulls no punches in exposing the shortcomings of scribes in general. How far this constitutes a valid and ‘objective’ assessment of first-century scribes may be debated; certainly 12:28-34 with Jesus’ recognition of some tenets of scribal teaching (9:11-13; 12:35) points in another direction. But this is polemics in the context of a highly charged and potentially fatal confrontation, and a suitably broad brush is applied.”

[3] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 490. “θέλω, often a rather colourless word, here has a strong meaning (BAGD, 355b, 4.a, ‘take pleasure in’): these are the ambitions of the scribes.”

[4] France Mark 490 “A στολή is not an everyday garment, but a festive or celebratory robe (cf. Lk. 15:22; Rev. 6:11; 7:9) and suggests ‘dressing up’.”

[5] France Mark 490. “Deferential ἀσπασμοί are a mark of social standing (Mt. 23:7-12 expands the point).”

[6] France Mark 490-491.”For the social significance of the front seats in the synagogue (i.e., those in front of the ark, facing the congregation) cf. the comments of Jas. 2:2-4 concerning the Christian συναγωγῆ, and for the best couch at a dinner cf. Lk. 14:7- 10; see Josephus, Ant, 15.21 for flattery by means of the best seats and greetings. Cf. Jn. 13:1-17 for a graphic repudiation of a similar preoccupation with status and reputation among Jesus’ own disciples.”

[7] France Mark 491. “The vulnerability of widows is a recurrent theme in biblical literature, so that to defraud them is particularly despicable.”

[8] France Mark 492. “Similarly, while κρίμα sometimes means the act of judging, its normal meaning of ‘condemnation’, ‘punishment’ is demanded by the context here. The reference cannot be to an earthly or human judgment (which would hardly take cognizance of ostentation as a punishable offence), but must be to God’s eschatological judgment, of which Jesus has spoken so vividly in 9:42-48.”

[9] France Mark 492. γαζοφθλάκιον “Its reference here to the collecting chests in the Court of the Women is demanded by the context, which has an ὄχλος including a woman, ‘throwing in’ donations.”

[10] France Mark 489. “The scene is in the Court of the Women, so-called not because it was specifically for women but because it was the nearest point to the temple building proper which was open to women. Here stood a range of thirteen ‘trumpet chests’ (m. Seq. 2:1; 6:5; so-called presumably from their shape) designed to receive monetary offerings, including not only the half-shekel temple tax but also ‘freewill offerings’. The half-shekel was obligatory for men, but any contribution to the other chests was voluntary, and would be noticed by anyone who, like Jesus and his disciples, was watching…Perhaps it was a recognized tourist attraction.”

[11] France Mark 492. “χαλκός is strictly ‘copper’ or ‘bronze’, and the widow’s two coins would be of copper. But the large sums donated by the rich would presumably in silver or gold coins (as were the half-shekels for the temple tax, which had the sense of ‘money’.”

[12] France Mark 493. “All contributions were therefore for the work of the temple; charitable donations for the poor were made separately.”

[13] France Mark 493. “There is no reason to think that she was the only such person present, but Jesus singles her out as an object lesson. The λεπτόν (Hebrew peruta) was the smallest denomination of currency in use, a copper coin less than a centimetre in diameter and worth less than one hundredth of a denarius (which was itself half the value of the half-shekel temple tax). Mark identifies its value by reference to the Roman κοδρἀντης; (a transliteration of quadrans, which was the smallest Roman coin, a quarter of an as).”

[14] France Mark 493. “The point is laboured in the wording of v. 44: her ὑστέρησις (destitution) is compared with their περίσσευον, the spare change which will never be missed…she has given πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν (cf. the example of the disciples, 10:28, and the failure of the rich man to do likewise, 10:21); it is ὅλος ὁ βίος αὐτῆς, and yet she voluntarily gave both coins, rather than just one! While Jesus was not averse to exaggeration to make a point, it is quite possible that in first-century Palestine the donation of two perutot would have left a poor widow without the means for her next meal (cf. the widow of Zarephath, 1 Ki. 17:12).”

[15] Working from the literal translation of: ὅλος ὁ βίος αὐτῆς. ὅλος (whole, complete, entire) is also the word used in the conversation between Jesus and the scribe about the foremost commandment in Mark 12:28-34. I’m working with the idea that this story follows to exemplify what it looks like to love God with the entirety of one’s self and love your neighbor as yourself.

[16] France Mark 489-490. “Jesus’ comment on the widow’s offering is not an attack on wealth or the wealthy as such, but rather on the scale of values which takes more account of the amount of a gift than of the dedication of the giver. It develops further the new perspective of the kingdom of God which Jesus has been so assiduously teaching his disciples on the way to Jerusalem…But this private teaching agrees closely with the tenor of his public rebuke of the scribes, whose desire for public honour typifies the superficial values of conventional society.”

The Second is This

Sermon on Mark 12:28-34

Psalm 146:1 Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

Introduction

What is love? I’ve spoken on it, taught on it, read about it, and preached on it, and all I can say is…I don’t know. It’s absolutely sublime, paradoxical, inexplicable, unfathomable, and, apparently, eternal—it’s never out of fashion. I know in our English vernacular we have one word to describe love: love. That’s it. When I think of love I like to think in the Greek forms and words for love: ἔρος, φίλος, and ἀγάπη. It’s nice having three terms to define three (generally) different ways to define love.

The first, ἔρος, often gets a bad rap being equated to lust and negligent desire, but it’s merely the type of love that is akin to bringing into oneself; in other words, this is the type of love that generates a sense of pleasure in your own body. The second, φίλος, is love that exists between equals, often used of friends. The third, ἀγάπη, is the touted love of loves, the divine love. This love is best defined as the love sourced from within ourselves and moves outward toward the object of love who/which becomes the beloved. I promise, I won’t break out into a treatise on love…just yet. Suffice it to say, I don’t like creating a hierarchy between these various conceptions of love. I prefer to let them exist where they need to, often letting them intermingle and twist, giving different flavors at different times.

But still they are different in that they have different actions related to them.

I love my kids. A lot. Like: mama-bear love them, lift cars-ablaze to protect them, scare off threatening mountain lions type of love. You know, though, I also love jellybeans. A lot. Like a lot a lot. Jellybeans are the one candy that will stop me in my tracks and cause me to grab a few for my travels. But there’s a difference in the type of love I have for my kids and for jellybeans. If I threw myself on a pile of jellybeans to protect it from oncoming traffic, you would have every right to drag me off and bring me to the nearest hospital and (especially) therapist. It’s okay for me to enjoy eating jellybeans and it’s okay for me to desire to risk my life for the lives of my children because the loves speak in specific actions. Jellybeans bring me a certain amount of pleasure as I take them into my body; this is ἔρος. My kids draw out of me an action of love that is oriented toward them manifesting as nurture, comfort, and protection (to name a few); this is ἀγάπη. Love spoken of and not articulated in action, deserves to be questioned if it is love. If I said I loved my kids or jellybeans, but never once acted in a way that communicated that love, you would be right to be circumspect about my supposed claims of love; this is because love’s language is always action.

Mark 12:28-34

And the scribe said to him, “Rightly, teacher, you said truly that ‘[God] is one and there is not another except [God]. And ‘to love [God] from the whole heart and from the whole understanding and from the whole strength’ and ‘to love the neighbor as oneself’ this is the greatest of all of the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And then Jesus having seen him that he answered wisely said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (translation, mine)

Mark 12:32-34b

The Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer asks us to jump from the end of chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel to chapter 12. What’s jumped over is Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the temple, and a visit to the temple where Jesus’s authority is questioned by the chief priests and scribes and elders. Chapter 12 opens with Jesus telling the religious authorities of Israel—the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders—a parable. Following this, the Pharisees and then the Sadducees embark on a quest to trip-up Jesus with tricky questions. However, Mark’s Jesus is presented as triumphant[1] in this portion of his journey to the cross. So triumphant that a certain intrigued and sympathetic Scribe[2] comes near to overhear Jesus’s answers to various authorities testing him. Mark tells us that the Scribe thought Jesus answered the questions well—not merely cleverly but that he answered rightly—and is encouraged to ask Jesus his own question.[3]

And he does. His is not a trick question aimed to cause Jesus to stumble; but it does have a litmus-test type feel to it. “Of what sort is the most important commandment of all?” It’s kind of tricky because, according to the Scribes own reckoning as a scribe, there are 613 mitzvot/commands in the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses) varying in type: heavy/light, more essential/less essential, etc.[4] So, how does Jesus reply? Which one does he choose? None. Rather he summarizes the entire law while ranking two concepts as above the rest[5]: The first is Shema O Israel, Love God with your whole being and presence; and the second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. It is neither this summary that is surprising nor is it the idea of the love of God and love of neighbor.[6] The surprising part is Jesus ties together—in an indissoluble divine union—Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19.[7]

Jesus takes the heart of Jewish Liturgy—the Shema[8]—and the command to love the neighbor from the book of Leviticus—the book of laws, burnt offerings, and sacrifices—and uses them to summarize the decalogue in terms of ἀγάπη: love God and love the neighbor.[9] Essentially, Jesus is saying this: the love of God is the basis for the love of neighbor;[10] you can’t have one and not the other, they are profoundly linked and are more important than any offering, sacrifice, or ritual deed. The love of God will grow itself into a profoundly personal love of neighbor. For Jesus, this is the logical trajectory of the love of God: love your neighbor as yourself. The love of God breeding love of neighbor will, if we keep following Jesus in this narrative, define itself quite radically in word, and, more importantly, in deed. Because love’s language is always action.

Conclusion

As 1 John 4:19ff asks, if we say we love God and do not love our neighbor, can we actually say we love God? If God loves the cosmos and all the flora, fauna, and humanity with it, and you love this God, then isn’t it loving God to love that which and whom this God loves? According to the relationship of loving God and loving neighbor Jesus establishes—not only in his statement to the Scribe but primarily in his actions toward and for humanity—to love God is to love the neighbor; the love of neighbor is the manifestation of the love of God. It’s not that you love God in your own piety and spirituality and reverence toward God (full stop). This is nice, but it’s not the full story—it’s secondary. Rather, it is this (active) love of God resulting in caring for, defending, providing for, nurturing, comforting, loving your neighbor.

And don’t we all need love? Real, tangible, material love? How else does God’s love get communicated to other bodies and minds and spirits if not by those who have been loved by God and who love God? We are currently consumed with an isolated and further isolating world; people seem to be drifting further and further away from each other. Lines are being irreconcilably drawn in the sand, turning into fissures in the ground and gaping expanses separating people one from another. But it doesn’t have to be like this; we can reach for each other rather than leave; we can love each other rather than turn a blind eye.

To love God and not the neighbor is akin to loving God for one’s own pleasure (ἔρος); no different than loving a pile of jellybeans because they give one pleasure. In other words, it is not truly loving God; it might be nice, and it might be acceptable, but, according to Jesus in Mark 12, it is not the full extent of what it means to love God. Rather, we are to love God in a way that mirrors the self-sourced and self-giving love (ἀγάπη) of God for us manifest in the activity of Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and driven home by God the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, causing us to love as we have been loved in word and deed. Because love’s language is always action.


[1] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 476. “Mark’s way of narrating this episode suggests that in the contest which has been taking place since 11:27 it is Jesus who is now emerging as the clear winner. He will then follow up his advantage with some caustic comments on the scribes (who have been part of the group opposing him since his arrival in Jerusalem) and on other influential people in the temple.”

[2] France Mark 478. “…Jesus, the teacher in the temple, is the fixed point while others come and go. But whereas other questions have been posed by groups, giving the impression of official delegations, this comes from an individual, and it soon becomes clear that his attitude is not that of the majority of the γραμματεῖς; He comes already favourably disposed towards Jesus, and leaves even more so. Such an open-minded enquirer prefigures the minority support which Jesus and his followers will find even in the Sanhedrin…His favourable impression derives from listening to the previous dialogues.”

[3] France Mark 479. “καλῶς in this context means not just ‘cleverly’ (so as to escape the intended trap or even to win the argument), but that Jesus’ answers have been good, wholesome, satisfying, leading the scribe to hope for an equally enlightening (not just clever) answer to his own more fundamental question…”

[4] France Mark 477. “Given that there are, according to scribal reckoning, 613 separate commandments in the five Books of Moses…the question of priority could not be avoided. The rabbis discussed which commandments were ‘heavy’ and which ‘light’, and sometimes ranked certain categories of law as more essential than others.”

[5] France Mark 478. “Jesus is asked which commandment is πρώτη, and he responds by listing the two love commandments as πρώτη and δευτέρα, but then goes on to speak of these two commandments as ‘greater’ than all others (cf. Mt. 22:38, where πρώτη is apparently equated with μεγάλη). His questioner, in agreeing with him, declares such love to be περισσότερον than the ritual commandments of sacrifice. This evaluative language is not typical of the rabbis, who spoke of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ commandments, but on the understanding that all are equally valid and who, while they might look for summarizing principles, do not seem to have ranked individual commandments as ‘first’ or ‘more important’. The difference may not have seemed great at the time, but the sort of language Mark uses here lends itself to later Christian discrimination between elements in the law, particularly with regard to the continuance of animal sacrifice. The scribe’s ‘demotion’ of the sacrificial laws below the obligation to love, and Jesus’ warm reception of this view as indicating closeness to the kingdom of God, could not but hasten the Christian abandonment of the ritual elements of the Torah.”

[6] France Mark 477. “There was a natural desire for a convenient summary of the law’s requirements, a single principle from which all the rest of the Torah was derived (the rabbis used the term kelal for such a summarizing principle).”

[7] France Mark 477-478. “So, while these sources vary in date and do not all represent Palestinian thought, it seems likely that the gist of Jesus’ response to the question would have caused no surprise. But for his explicit linking together of these two very familiar OT texts we have no Jewish precedent.”

[8] France Mark 479. “…not only makes the text more instantly recognizable as the opening part of the Shema but also grounds the ‘first commandment’ in the essential tenet of Jewish belief, monotheism, and so establishes Jesus’ theological orthodoxy.”

[9] France Mark 480. “Jesus was asked for one ‘first commandment’, but responds with two, which together hold the preeminent position. The two are linked both by the key verb ἀγαπήσεις and by the fact that they represent respectively the first and second parts of the decalogue.”

[10] France Mark 480. “…but here, where what is requested is a general statement of priorities, both ‘tables’ are represented, and with a clear priority between them, πρώτη and δευτέρα: love of other people finds its true place only on the basis of a prior love of God.”