For All People

Sermon on 1 Cor 9:16-23

Psalm 147:5-7 Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp. (44)

Introduction

For Quinn’s 7th birthday, we brought him and a few friends to see Frozen. At the time I didn’t know the hit it would be. A week later nearly every 1st grade girl sang the lyrics to Let it go! at the top of their lungs, and I knew. While I believe the movie has a profound inherent quality (of message and story), what seemed to grab the attention seven to eight year-old girls was one particular moment: Elsa breaking free from the strictures of an oppressive environment preventing her from being who she truly is.

After an angry display of her powers, Elsa hurries off. Nothing holds her back; she’s been revealed, and her only choice (so she believes) is to head off alone into the cold, dark, snowy night. And here web receive that song of liberation. As Elsa heads through snow, she shrugs off what was and embraces her newfound liberty. She’s done with everything and now: freedom. She sings while creates as she moves through snow…

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do/To test the limits and break through
No right, no wrong, no rules for me
I’m free[1]

Frozen

She creates a castle, releases her hair, and transforms her drab sensible clothing into a stunning dress made of snow and ice. This moment activated chills of every person watching it deeply longing for freedom that is freedom to just be as is! I, too, found myself caught up in the momentum as Elsa’s rejected her captivity to what was.

Let it go, let it go/Can’t hold it back anymore
Let it go, let it go/Turn away and slam the door
I don’t care what they’re going to say
Let the storm rage on
The cold never bothered me anyway

Frozen

Elsa finally gets to just live as she wants to as she is. Elsa is the self-proclaimed queen of her kingdom of ice-olation. She’s free. Or is she?

1 Corinthians 9:18-19, 22-23

Then what is my wage? So that while preaching good tidings I might establish the good news without expense in order not to make full use of my personal ability and power in the good news. For being free from all people I bring myself under subjection to/for all people, so that I might gain many more people (1 Cor 9:18-19).

In the Corinthian situation of chapter 9, Paul is still addressing those whom he addressed earlier in chapter 8. In view are “the strong”—those who feel confident in what they know to be true and in their faith, and those who are economically and socially empowered to participate in this or that event or meal.[2] Chapter 9 is Paul’s further clarifying what he means about the freedom of the gospel for the one who is justified by faith in Christ alone apart from works.

Paul explains to the Corinthians that he received the gospel freely—the good tidings came to him of no charge and was not a product of his own doing (he didn’t earn it or produce it of his own works). He confesses he is without boasting here[3] because he received this gift freely, and he is compelled[4] to preach this good news because he’s been entrusted with this proclamation in word and deed.[5] As Paul freely receives, he freely gives—not from threat of hell or reward of heaven, but just because he cannot do any other in his conformity to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit who is the foundation of his faith.[6] He hinges it all to this purpose: so as not to make full use of my power and ability in the good news. In other words, Paul has not employed all of his rights to receive wages for his work, which he has entitlement to; he foregoes those by working with his hands to support himself. [7] Thus he exhorts the strong[8]: forego your own entitlement just as I have. [9]

And then with grand emphasis Paul dives deeper into the concept of gospel founded freedom: being free from all people I bring myself under subjection to/for all people (v.19).[10] I love studying languages. The more I study different languages, the more I enjoy my own language and the nitty gritty of grammar, word choice, and sentence structure. So, here I am compelled to highlight the importance of prepositions and cases because Paul is intentional with them. To speak of gospel freedom, for Paul, is to speak not only of freedom from other people (Ελευθερος…ων εκ παντων, the genitive prepositional phrase of belonging) but precisely that this freedom from is hardwired toward freedom to and for other people (πασιν, the dative case carrying with it the “to/for” prepositions, the case of the indirect object).[11]

For Paul, to be truly free is seeing your freedom from as freedom for and to other people. For “the strong” in Corinth this means that their freedom, if it truly is freedom, is not about an ardent insistence for their entitlements and rights. Rather, it’s for the weaker: those who don’t have what they have, those who don’t have access to what they have access to, those who are restricted in their ability to move about and do this and do that because of their dependence on other people and institutions.[12] Paul tells “the strong”: to/for the weak I became weak in that I might gain the weak (v.22). And then he concludes with …to all people I became all things so that I might rescue some. It is anathema for Paul that the believer would use her freedom to secure her entitlement. Instead, for Paul, his freedom from having to justify himself through works of the law is now freedom for those trapped in totalitarian religious and social systems. For Paul, this is the definition of what it means to act like Christ;[13] this is cruciform humanity in encounter with God in the event of faith that produces true freedom.[14]

Conclusion

So, back to Elsa. Is Elsa free when she tromps off into the wild winter night? Is she free as she constructs that stunning palace and her new persona unburdened by demands and expectations of others? No. She’s not free. She’s not acquired freedom but imprisonment. Freedom from when it stops there becomes a prison of the self. In order to maintain that type of freedom you must always pull back and away until you’re isolated. Then you must defend that isolation because freedom (strictly) from can never be free in the presence of another person. If my freedom is defined solely as freedom from (the law, from others, from obligation, from demand, etc.) then I’m not free because I can neither participate in those things nor not feel threatened by their presence indicating my limitedness. I’m not free if I’m limited by the threat of external things; this is the definition of enslavement. If I must have my way, I’m not free.

Elsa doesn’t become truly free until she figures out how to use her power in the presence of other people. Once she realizes love is the controlling factor, she’s released unto real freedom and can exist as is with others—not in her freedom from fueled by anger and rage keeping her isolated but freedom from that is drawn by love to be freedom to and for other people. Compare what she creates to protect herself from others and what she creates for others: in her freedom from she builds an ice palace, locking her away from others and in her freedom to and for she summons a summer snowfall, lays out an ice skating rink, and a snow cloud to protect Olaf.

Beloved, you’re free. God in God’s freedom freely descended because God so loved the world, the creation, the cosmos, so loved you to rescue everything and everyone from the powers of sin, darkness, and death; this is the content of the gospel, of the good news made flesh in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. That divine freedom is now our freedom from the powers of sin, darkness, and death to be free by faith and not works into grace, light, and life for and to others who are also the objects of divine love. To “share in the nature of the gospel” [15] is to stand with the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering and hurting, the wounded and sick, the hindered and ostracized. (There is no better expression of freedom than to willingly stand in solidarity with struggling humanity.) Where there are the sick, we become as the sick to rescue the sick from death; where there are those fighting for the right to breath, we become as those fighting for the right to breath to rescue those who are fighting for the right to breath from death; where there are those who have been displaced, we become as those being displaced to rescue the displaced from death. In our freedom from we count it not for us to seize for ourselves but for and to others; for it is this very thing God did for us.


[1] Let it Go! From the move Frozen Written by: Kristen Anderson-Lopez / Robert Lopez Performed by Idina Menzel

[2] And all of this is a further elaboration of chapter 6 where Paul addresses the body and what to do with it.

[3] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 695, “Paul has explained that the can glory or boast only where the principle of ‘freely you received, freely give’ operates, and when a renunciation of ‘rights is entirely voluntary. This cannot apply in his particular case to the act of preaching alone or to proclamation itself, for, like Jeremiah, in every account of his call Paul insists that God’s compulsion presses upon him.”

[4] Thiselton 696, “It is agony if Paul tries to escape form the constraints and commission which the love and grace of ‘the hound of heaven’ presses upon him. With this further logical step glorying (καυχημα) begins to slip back subtly into boasting.”

[5] Keep in mind that as Paul exhorted the Corinthians to treat their bodies well because they are the temples of God (the Holy Spirit), so to is Paul. And, thus, as Paul has received the good news, he has received it as the scribe and the scroll, as the messenger and the message in a bottle. This is why Paul is under Holy Spirit inspired compulsion to proclaim the good news: he is the temple of God proclaiming the good tidings of God (this links him with the great prophetic tradition that precedes him).

[6] Thiselton 697, “The whole argument hinges on sovereign grace, and that it is in freely giving in response to God’s free gift that καυχημα, grounds for taking delight in what one gives, becomes possible only within a framework where pressure and law do not apply: free gift in response to free gift. It is in giving that the believe receives, not as some ‘external’ reward, but through the internal grammar of the blessedness of giving which is a stamp of identification with the cross.”

[7] Collins qtd in Thiselton 697, “‘The object of Paul’s boasting is not the preaching of the gospel…Pauls’ boast is that he has not made use of the rights to which he is entitled…to support himself by the work of his own hands.’”

[8] Martin qtd in Thiselton 698, “‘Paul’s pointed surrender of his eleutheria and exousia (as one of the strong) is therefore…directed precisely at those who have these things and resist giving them up, that is, those of higher status.’”

[9] Thiselton 697, “This verse explicates the point just made above. Only by gratuitously proclaiming the gospel gratis can Paul go beyond the preaching which God has pressed upon him as an inescapable, not voluntary, task, and there by go the extra mile.’ To do this, however, he must forego a right, as he pleads with ‘the strong’ among his readers to do.”

[10] Thiselton 700, “Since ελευθερος is so strongly emphatic, we may retain the positive term free … to denote the Corinthian catchword taken up by Paul, but also combine it with NJB’s subtle use of the negative though I as no a slave to any human being, I put myself in slavery to all people…”

[11] Thiselton 701, “Paul very subtly but also emphatically presses in what precise sense Christian believers and Christian leaders are free and in what sense voluntary slavery performs a wholesome, even essential, saving purpose in Christ-like obedience and love for other.”

[12] Thiselton 705 “In this context the weak may mean those whose options for life and conduct where severely restricted because of their dependence on the wishes of patrons, employers, or slave owners.”

[13] Thiselton 706, “The weak stand in contrast to those with ‘social power, influence, political status…ability to competence in a variety of areas’ and by contrast have ‘low social standing’ and crave for identity, recognition, and acceptance. Paul’s foregoing of his rights to a ‘professional’ status by functioning as a religious rhetorician for a patron and toiling as an artisan demonstrate his solidarity with the weak both as a missionary and pastoral strategist and in Christlike behavior.”

[14] Thiselton 708, “Paul does all that he does to make transparent by his everyday life in the public domain the character of the gospel which he proclaims as the proclamation of the cross…, which derives its character, and not simply its ‘benefits,’ from Christ himself.”

[15] Thiselton 707, “To stand alongside the Jews, the Gentile, the socially dependent and vulnerable, or to live and act in solidarity with every kind of person in every kind of situation is to have a share in the nature of the gospel, i.e., to instantiate what the gospel is and how it operates.”

Are You Free?

Sermon on 1 Cor 8:1-13

Psalm 111:1-3 Hallelujah! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the deeds of the Lord! they are studied by all who delight in them. His work is full of majesty and splendor, and his righteousness endures for ever.

Introduction

I was taken with the idea that love never participated with law. I was deeply invested in pursuing what seemed a clear and eternal divergence between divine command and promise, following closely to a specific reading of Martin Luther’s theology—the distinction between law and gospel. In this scheme, to be in a loving relationship with someone else means never making any demands on them. Here, Love is about creating space for that person to be as they are wherever they are whenever they are; this was the liberty of God’s grace, the freedom in Christ: true rest from the demands to “perform” and “people please” and “earn righteousness through work” and thus “true life”. While some of these ideas find some grounding (albeit with intentional nuancing), the underbelly of this theology wasn’t rest, freedom, and life but increased suffering, burden, and death. Well, it was rest for one group and toil for everyone else not in that group.

Then one day as I stood in a large church auditorium like sanctuary, watching a video of people talking about the liberative experience of this specific interpretation of God’s love and grace, I saw it. It was the last video. A married couple was sharing their story. The husband spoke about how wonderful this conception of grace was because now he comes home from work and there is no expectation on him to help with the kids or other events, he can rest if he wants to—fall back on the couch, kick shoes off, grab a beer, and watch some tv. Then the camera turned to the wife. “Yeah…,” she said half-heartedly. “It’s great because now when he helps, he wants to.” While her words affirmed her husband’s experience, her face and her eyes told me everything I needed to know. She was not free. She was not rested. She was exhausted, burdened, and suffering by being stripped of any ability to ask for help and to confess pain and discomfort because it would be “law” to him and thus “condemnation.” She was dead. When you see death, you can never unsee death.

That image—her face, her desperate eyes—fuels my academic and pastoral pursuits now as I’ve walked away from that destructive theology.[1] Liberty and freedom in Christ brings liberty and freedom to all and not at the expense of another’s body, mind, soul, and spirit. A relationship is only loving and free where both people in the relationship are mutually engaged in each other’s thriving not in turning a blind eye to things. Where both step into the exposing light of love calling a thing what it is and are willing to do self-reckoning work.

1 Corinthians 8:8-13

Now, “food of any kind will not prove us to God.” Neither if we do not eat are we lacking, nor if we eat are we over and above. But discern carefully this power to act of yours does not become a stumbling block for the weak.

1 Corinthians 8:8-9, translation mine

Paul proclaimed that the believer is justified by faith in Christ (ευαγελλιον) apart from works of the law. She need only faith in Christ, and this becomes the sole foundation of her justification and righteousness with God—there are no works of the law that can justify or make righteous as completely as faith does. Thus, the believer is liberated from the threat of condemnation and death that leads to death and is now free to love God and neighbor. There is nothing that can or will separate her from the love (presence) of God—not even hell. This is the freedom Paul proclaims to his fledgling churches: freedom inherent in the event of encounter with God in faith liberating into life and living. God in Christ comes to the believer, calls her, and rescues her from death into new life in the Spirit. This is grace.

In chapter 8 of 1 Corinthians, Paul pumps the freedom brakes. He details guidelines for the Corinthian believers finding themselves in a conundrum. Some believers are fine eating meat “associated with offerings to pagan deities.”[2] They are whom Paul refers to as “the strong”—a phrase referring to both those confident in their faith and who were wealthy and had access the occasions to eat such meat.[3] Paul writes, while it is true that neither eating nor abstaining from this meat has an impact on their presence before God, it may have an impact on those “weaker” brothers and sisters—those who were both insecure in their faith (unsure about what is okay and not okay) and lower in social status.

Paul challenges the knowledge (γνωσις) of “the strong” resulting in their liberty to eat what they want and do what they please. Paul declares that knowledge (alone) puffs up and inflates and lures toward being an imposter; but paired with love it builds up authentically edifying both the beloved and the lover (vv. 1-2).[4] In other words, “the strong” should keep γνωσις yoked to αγαπη (love): even if they are free to eat, they should care more for their “weak” brother or sister who didn’t have the same access to such food and security in the liberty of their actions.[5]

Paul makes it clear that this love isn’t self-generated but imparted in the encounter with God in the event of faith (v.3). To love God is to be loved by God and known by God; this becomes the foundation for the love fractal. As we are loved by God, we love that which and those whom God loves seeing and knowing those whom God loves by seeing and knowing them, too.[6]

Paul’s point isn’t to side with the “strong” Corinthians or the “weak”, but to say: the composition of the conscience (secure or insecure) can lean toward a miscalculation about what is right to do and what is wrong.[7] Operating out of fear is as problematic as operating out of abundance of confidence. Paul warns “the strong” that their supposed liberty isn’t a reason for autonomous activity without considering the effect on others. [8] It’s not strictly about intent for Paul, these Christians may truly believe they’re free. Impact must also factor in here. For Paul, this is done with freedom wedded to love. Just because you can, says Paul, doesn’t mean you should because it may cause others to be polluted by being tripped up by your actions. [9] For Paul, a future forward ethic keeping in mind the potential impact of one’s actions/words on other brothers and sisters is the definition of freedom

Conclusion

For those who have followed Jesus out of the Jordan and for those who have ears pricked and heads turned hearing Christ call them by name, what is freedom for you? To follow Jesus as disciples means that freedom is going to take on an orientation toward the other. A cruciform freedom puts “weak” brothers and sisters before us. This is not to the loss of our freedom as if we lose ourselves, but in that we have received ourselves in the love of God in the encounter with God in faith, we enter into the plight with our brothers and sisters. True freedom for me is actualized only in freedom for you; if you are not free, am I free? [10] It becomes about mutuality. Mujerista theologian Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz explains,

“Commitment to mutuality is not a light or easy matter. It involves all aspects of one’s life and demands a lifelong permanency. The way in which the commitment is lived out may change. From time to time one maybe less passionate about carrying out the implications of mutuality, but somehow to go back and place oneself in a position of control and domination over others is to betray others and oneself. Such a betrayal, which most of the time occurs by failing to engage in liberative praxis rather than by formal denunciation, results in the ‘friends’ becoming oppressors once again and in the oppressed losing their vision of liberation.”[11]

Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology p. 100

If I in my strength cannot tame my liberty and walk with you so you can have your liberty, then I’m not free. If I cannot deem the liberties and freedoms of others as important as mine, then I have not freedom but bondage. If I am threatened by you having as much liberty and freedom as I do, I’m not free. If my autonomy must eclipse and ignore your need; I’m not free but captive.[12]

To be free, to be truly free isn’t to claim your rights as absolutes and acting on them no matter what. To be free, to be truly free is to say with Christ: into this I can enter with you. (This is solidarity.) Freedom can both break the law and obey it because it knows when to do which. If we’re free, then we are free–free to share in the burden of existence while trying to alleviate the yoke of suffering without losing our freedom. If stepping into the anxiety, fears, and concerns of our neighbor means we’ve lost our freedom then we didn’t have freedom to begin with. If we are unable to hear the cries of the weak, to listen to their stories of suffering, and affirm their lived experience, we’re not strong. So, beloved of God, you who are sought and called and loved by God: Are you strong? Are you free?


[1] I give credit for the start of this journey to two colleagues: Dr. Dan Siedell and Dr. W. Travis McMaken.

[2] Anthony Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 620

[3] Thiselton “ε`ιδωλο’θυτα And the Scope of the Corinthian Catchprhases” 617  “…if Theissen and the majority of specialist writers are correct in their sociological analysis of the identities of ‘the strong’ and ‘the weak,’ the issue of eating meat, together with its scarcity for the poor and the variety of social occasions for the rich, has a decisive bearing on Paul’s discussion.”

[4] Thiselton 622 In re γνωσις Gardner “[compares] the contrast between ‘knowledge’ and love in this verse with the parallel contrast between 13:1-1 and the two chapters on ‘spiritual gifts’ which provide its frame. He sis that γνωσις is practical; but its nature and its relation to love can profoundly determine what kind of practical effects it set in motion.” And, “Love, by contrast, builds solidly, and does not pretend to be what it is not. If it gives stature to a person or to community, that enlargement remains solid and genuine.” “knowledge inflates” “φυσιοω suggests the self-importance of the frog in Aesop’s Fables, or something pretentiously enlarged by virtue of being pumped full of air or wind.”

[5] Thiselton 622-3 “Rather than seeking to demonstrate some individualist assertion of freedom or even victory, love seeks the welfare of the other. Hence if ‘the strong’ express love, they will show active concern that ‘the weak’ are not precipitated into situations of bad conscience, remorse, unease, or stumbling. Rather, the one who loves the other will consider the effect of his or her own attitudes and actions upon ‘weaker’ brothers and sisters.”

[6] Thiselton 626  “The kind of ‘knowledge which ‘the strong’ use manipulatively to assert their ‘rights’ about meat associated idols differs form an unauthentic Christian process of knowing which is inextricably bound up with loving.” And, “…it is part of the concept of authentic Christian knowing and being known that love constitutes a dimension of this process.”

[7] Thiselton 640, “Paul sides neither entirely with ‘the weak’ nor entirely with ‘the strong’ in all respects and in relation to every context or occasion. For the self-awareness or conscience of specific persons (συνεδησις αυτων) does not constitute an infallible guide to moral conduct in Pauls’ view….someone’s self-awareness or conscience may be insufficiently sensitive to register negative judgment or appropriate discomfort in some context…and oversensitive to the point of causing mistaken judgment or unnecessary discomfort in others.”

[8] Thiselton 644, “Paul is not advocating the kind of ‘autonomy’ mistakenly regarded widely today as ‘liberty of conscience.’ Rather, he is arguing for the reverse. Freedom and ‘rights’….must be restrained by self-discipline for the sake of love for the insecure or the vulnerable, for whom ‘my freedom’ might be ‘their ruin.’ This ‘freedom’ may become ‘sin against Christ (8:12).”

[9] Thiselton 654 “By projecting the ‘weak’ into this ‘medium” of γνωσις, the ‘strong’ bring such a person face-to-face with utter destruction. What a way to ‘build’ them!”

[10] Thiselton 650-1, “For in the first case, ‘the weak’ or less secure are tripped up and damaged by the self-assertive behavior of the overconfident; while in the second place it is putting the other before the self, manifest in the transformative effect of the cross, which causes the self-sufficient to turn away….True ‘wisdom’ is seen in Christ’s concern for the ‘weak” and the less secure, to the point of renouncing his own rights, even to he death of the cross.”

[11] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 100.

[12] Thiselton 657-8, “Chrysostom comments, ‘It is foolish in the extreme that we should esteem as so entirely beneath our notice those that Christ so greatly cared for that he should have even chosen to die for them, as not even to abstain from meat on their account.’ This comment captures very well the key contrast through this chapter between asserting one’s own ‘right to choose’ and reflecting with the motivation of love for the other what consequences might be entailed for fellow Christians if self-centered ‘autonomy’ rules patters of Christian attitudes and conduct. It has little or nothing to do with whether actions ’offend’ other Christians in the modern sense of causing psychological irritation annoyance, or displeasure at a purely subjective level. It has everything to do with whether such attitudes and actions cause damage, or whether they genuinely build not just ‘knowledge’ but Christian character and Christian community.”

God’s Near

Sermon on Mark 1:14-20

Psalm 62:6-7 For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my stronghold, so that I shall not be shaken.

Introduction

I never paid much mind to the impact of my voice. I spent a lot of time not wanting to talk in public. I was safer staring out the window of the backseat of the car as a kid, retreating to the back of the classroom and hiding as a student, and sitting in the pew furthest back as a new Christian. I’ve only considered my voice to be merely a voice to me and my inner circle but lacking weight apart from carrying words into the air. I didn’t put much thought into the reality that we come into the world knowing one voice well: the voice of the one who carried us for a little over nine months. It’s the first voice we know; the second being that of the other parent but in a muffled way. I recall with clarity the screeches of my babies quieting across the OR as soon as I spoke: it’s okay little one, mama’s here.

I put even less thought into the impact the voices of my children would have on me. I recall vividly standing amid a large group of moms at a birthday party for Jack when a child’s yelp and cry sounded from across the park where dads and kids were splashing in a shallow creek. We all went quiet listening. And then I took off. No other mom ran, just me because it was my kid and none of theirs. I knew that voice because it was the voice of my child, and he needed me.

While I learned something about the power of my voice by becoming a mother, this knowledge isn’t relegated to motherhood. The voices of siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, grandparents and grandchildren, friends, lovers turn our heads and bring warmth to our insides; it’s their voices we miss terribly when they walk this timeline no more. We also love and miss the sound of the barks, meows, oinks, baaas, maaas, neighs, and moos (etc.) of the animalkind we care for.

Mark 1:16-18

And while passing by alongside the sea of Galilee [Jesus] saw Simon and Andrew–the brother of Simon—while throwing nets into the sea; for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Come (!) behind me, and I will make you to become fishermen of people.” And immediately they dropped the nets and followed him.

(Mk 1: 16-18, translation mine)

Mark wastes no time getting us from the announcement of the divine son Jesus the Christ (1:1), into the waters of the Jordan (1:9-11), dropped into the wilderness temptation (1:12-13), and to the calling of the disciples (1:16-20) by way of briefly articulating the good news (ευαγγελιον).[1] The thrust of chapter one is the announcement that the ευαγγελιον has come into the world; it’s this good news that John the forerunner of the Christ proclaimed waist deep in water, and Jesus, the Christ, fulfills[2] as the divine herald.[3] For Mark, the content of the ευαγγελιον: “…the time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God is has come near; repent[4] and believe in the good news” (Mk 1:15).[5]

Mark isn’t mindlessly rattling off details about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry; Mark is writing to disciples who are presently facing persecution and is eager to show them what it means to be a good disciple. Thus, the calling of disciples accentuates none of this is their doing but God’s. Mark’s people heard the voice of God call them and responded rightly[6] by following just like Jesus’s disciples did. Therefore, they like these men, are with Christ amid the suffering and persecution. Mark establishes that faith and following are inextricably linked; hold steady, little church, Mark maternally comforts, keep the faith; God hears your cries and comes; God is with you.

God has heard the cries of God’s people; the good news is on the move.[7] And where does it go? To the downtrodden and exhausted. Jesus goes neither to the religious teachers and elders nor to those who are wealthy and lead, but to the simple men, throwing simple nets, to catch fish.[8] Jesus goes not to the temple but to the sea. Jesus goes not to the powerful rulers but to the powerless ruled—from these he calls his disciples; to these the kingdom of God comes near. It’s here among this imperfect, rag-tag, group of laborers smelling of sweat and fish and sea where the kingdom and kingship of God is secured.[9]

Jesus doesn’t ask them to follow; he commands it.[10] It’s a command commanding the action in its entirety (now): Come behind me! (Now!) Unlike other rabbis who were sought by future students, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him.[11] These disciples will ask not: can I sit at your feet, rabbi? Rather they will have to self-reckon: Will I come behind Jesus? Will I follow Jesus? The crux of the predicament being the necessity of an overhauling and upending of their lives as they know it. Simon (Peter) and Andrew, as well as James and John (vv19-20) are called into apprenticeship that demands leaving everything they knew as is to become was in order to embrace what will be.[12]

This is the core of what it means to “repent” (μετανοιετε) proclaimed in the good news. It’s not about some verbal “sorry” or about professing how wretched you are. Instead, it’s about being called to reconsider things, to change your mind/purpose in the world, to align with the will of God and not the will of humanity—these two things rarely aligning (if ever). Jesus tells Peter and Andrew they’ll no longer fish fish to eat but fish people out of harm’s way. If they follow their lifestyle will change.[13] If James and John follow, they’ll leave behind their father and his way of life.[14] These fishermen are the epitome of what it means to repent and believe: they heard the voice of love—who spoke the cosmos into existence—and they turned, dropped their nets, and walked with God. To repent and believe is not about verbal self-flagellation because of God’s wrath in some desperate attempt to make God love you. It’s about being made aware God’s love comes to you lovingly calling you into God’s presence like a mother seeking and calling her beloved child to her bosom. It’s okay little one, mama’s here.

Conclusion

Simon, Andrew, James and John heard love call them into love’s presence and couldn’t do anything else but drop their nets and follow love. They didn’t follow an abstract concept of elusive warm feelings, but a tangible, fleshy, active, living and breathing love walking in the world. They won’t follow perfectly, but perfection isn’t the point; Love walking in the world is. It’s this living, breathing, active love they’ll proclaim after Jesus leaves and sits down at the right hand of God. It’s this living, breathing, active love that’ll cost them not only their livelihood, but also their life breath as they proclaim a love that upended and overhauled their society and their status-quo. Following this active, living, breathing love and asking the self-reckoning question that day on the shore, changed not just their lives but the lives of many others.

This love, this active, living, breathing love set the world in motion, keeps it in motion, and comes near and calls us today. The same love that walked along the wet sand of the sea of Galilee, walks on the frozen ground of this Ute land at the base of the National Monument calling us. We are the sought, the Beloved. And, we, like the disciples, must ask the same question: will I come behind Jesus? Will I follow after Jesus?

To follow will upend your life; to follow love, God, Jesus, will overhaul everything you know to be true about the world. If you drop your nets, you’ll walk away from that which is rendered “what was” to embrace “what will be.” The encounter with God in the event of faith—working out through “repentance” and “believing”—is death to the old age and old person and new birth into the new age as a new person (not as “sinless and good” but as “new and filled with divine love of God’s spirit”). The kingdoms of humanity rage against the way of love of the kingdom of God. Paul exhorts the Corinthians to behave as if God’s eternality eclipses the mortality of our human institutions.[15] He asks them to follow love so that through them and by them something new comes forth from death. “For the external structures of this world are slipping away,” (7:31b).[16] It’s okay little ones, Paul comforts, God’s near. The new age is populated with new creations perpetuating love and life and light into the world and letting that which is of the old age slip away so that something new can be built in its place, letting the divine phoenix of life break from the ashes of death.


[1] RT France The Gospel of Mark NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: 2002. 88. “The narrative moves on rapidly from scene to scene, carrying the reader on by its own momentum rather than by any formal structural markers.”

[2] France 90, “For now the reader is expected to know it already, or must simply take it on trust. There is no place here to spell it out, since John himself is no longer in focus, and to delay over the details of his story at this point would distract attention from his successor, who now takes, and will retain, his place in centre stage. The role of the forerunner is over; the time of fulfilment has come.”

[3] France 90-1, “There is an important element of continuity between John and Jesus. The same participle κηρυσσων which described John’s ministry (v.4) now describes that of his successor, and at least one of the elements in that proclamation is the same…[the overlap being the ‘forerunner motif’] but also the messianic herald of Is 40:9 52:7; 61:1 whose role is to announce ευαγγελιον…and who is himself the Spirit-endowed Messiah.”

[4] Μετανοιτε (first principle part: μετανοεω) in v.15 it is an imperative 2nd person plural verb: a command to repent. The verb can also be translated as: you change your mind/purpose. It can also carry the idea of changing the inner person in regards to the will of God. It’s as if you were going in one direction and you are caused to change your direction.

[5] France 90, “Verses 14-15…play a crucial role in Mark’s story, as the reference point for all subsequent mentions of the proclamation initiated by Jesus and entrusted by him to his followers. Here is the essential content of the ευαγγελιον to which the people of Galilee are summoned to respond.”

[6] France 93, “With the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, therefore, a new era of fulfilment has begun, and it calls for response from God’s people”

[7] France 90, “Down there, people had had to make a special journey to John, but now Jesus is going to where people are, in the inhabited areas of his own province.”

[8] France 94, “…the Messiah himself refuses to assert his authority by an impressive show of divine…pomp and pageantry. The kingdom of God comes not with fanfare but through the gradual gathering of a group of socially insignificant people in an unnoticed corner of provincial Galilee.”

[9] France 94, “They [the disciples called] may, and often will, fail him and disappoint him, but their role is crucial to the achievement of his mission, for it is through this flawed and vulnerable group of people that God’s kingship will be established.”

[10] δευτε οπισω μου: come (!) after me. Δευτε is an aorist active imperative 2nd person plural verb indicating the action being commanded is being commanded as a whole.

[11] France 96, “Rabbis didn’t call their followers; rather the pupil adopted the teacher. Jesus’ preemptory summons, with its expectation of radical renunciation even of family ties, goes far beyond anything they would be familiar with in normal society. It marks him as a prophet rather than a rabbi.”

[12] France 96, “Simon and Andrew are being called to follow Jesus as their leader, in a relationship which went beyond merely formal learning to a fulltime “apprenticeship’.”

[13] France 97

[14] France 97

[15] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC 585, “…‘Paul’s point is not the transiency of creation as such….but the fact that its outward pattern, in social and mercantile institutions, for example, has no permanence.’ To combine Barrett’s emphasis on social, political and commercial institutions with the notion of outward appearance with Hering’s ‘disappearing across the stage’ we translate the sentence as For the external structures of this world are slipping away.”

[16] Thiselton 585, “The crumbling of the present world order is indicated by παραγει γαρ το σχημα τοθ κοσμου τουτου…Paul’s eschatological frame indicates a dynamic cosmic process. Hence we translate, For the external structures of this world are slipping away.”

Beloved Bodies

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Psalm 139: 13-15 I will thank you [Lord] because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well. My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them. [76]

Introduction

Our psalm articulates the idea the psalmist is marvelously made. I’ve struggled at times to make such a bold statement. While I can say I’ve always considered the body to be brilliant artwork, I’ve not always been able to say it specifically about my body. It’s only been as an adult I’ve come to marvel at my own creation: it’s strength, it’s twists and turns, it’s bends and folds, it’s looseness and firmness, it’s life-marks left behind from life lived and being lived. The adoration being far from selfish and narcissistic; rather it affirms the creation I am in the story I was made into: as the one who came from others as marvelously made as I am and as the one from whom others came as marvelously made as I am.

I credit the shift in my thinking to the birth of my daughter. While I knew my body was important for my sons, I also knew they may not come under the same judgment because of their bodies as I did as a woman. In other words: I felt there was less pressure on me to care about what I thought about me. They, by being male, would have an ease in the world; very little closed to them because of their body. But when I held that beautiful little body of my daughter, writhing and screaming as she did, I felt an urgency to get myself straight. I knew I was strong; I knew I was intellectually capable. And I knew I lacked a certain confidence about my body. I held her and couldn’t help but feel the need to protect her from destructive societal and generational opinions about the female body in all its stages and at all its ages. I’d do whatever it took to bear the brunt of patriarchy so she could walk easier in the world; I’d follow behind women before me who fought to make this place safer and freer for our daughters.

I wish I could tell you the church was my faithful partner in this battle against the powers of oppression. Sadly, most of my battles over my body are fought here, in the church. The church and her purity culture participated in the battle against women and men in turning men and women against each other. What was to be one community of humanity (ref. Gen 2:18 ff) was torn asunder into us and other. And both of their bodies would be the site of battle. She’d lose her body and be torn to pieces; he’d lose his soul and become a discarnate shell.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Or do you not perceive that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit in you which you have from God and not of your own? You were bought for a price; indeed, esteem God as glorious in your body.

! Cor 6:19-20, translation mine

Paul’s small treatise on the body in 1 Corinthians 6 demonstrates the body is important. The idea that the soul is merely residing in the body is more a result of platonic influence on Christianity and less from Paul’s theology of the body. [1] Too often this passage is used more for abstaining from “sin” to keep the soul clean rather than as a celebration of our earthy somatic experience in the world (individual and communal). Far from being aliens inhabiting edgar suits,[2] Paul makes it clear: your body (σωμα) is important because it’s the site of cleaving to God by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit that is the foundation of your baptism. [3] Paul compares the union of the believer with Christ by the Spirit to an indissoluble union. It’s this union that becomes strained when we partake in practices and behaviors misaligned with the Spirit in us. [4] Thus, our union with Christ isn’t strictly about our identity in Christ but how we live in the world, too.[5]

In short, the body and what you do with it is important. If it’s not, then I must ask why then be baptized and take communion? If our life in Christ is strictly about our soul being saved from the fires of hell, then why tend to the body in such intentional ways? If the body isn’t important as part of our human experience in the world, then why put so much energy into celebrating the advent of the incarnate divine child of Mary? If our bodies are pointless here, aren’t we essentially saying the body of our Lord is pointless, too?

Everything about our religious life in the church is material so both our spiritual existence and our material existence experience God in our bodies. The event of justification by faith apart from works is not a doctrine by which we elevate the realm of the πνευμα (spirit) over and against the realm of the σωμα (body). It is in this event of justification the body and the spirit are brought into righteousness in union (with God and with ourselves and with eachother). Thus, our actions in the world reflect the one who we are cleaved to and cleaves to us in the event of justification. [6] As we do in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit there Christ is for others in the world. [7] So, 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 draws out the implications of our baptism of water and spirit of Acts 19 linking us in solidarity in following Jesus out of the Jordan. Paul makes it clear: what we do in the world tells the world who we are and who’s we are. [8]

Paul concludes with an exhortation to flee “fornication” or “idolatry”.[9] Through idolatry we forfeit our dominion and we hand ourselves over to being dominated[10] πνευμα και σωμα (spirit and body). As those who followed Jesus out of the Jordan in our baptism of water and the refining fire of Spirit, we are the temples of the Holy Spirit. This reference is intentionally material. Paul is making an intentional cultural and contextual connection between the temples housing gods or goddesses and the believer’s body being the house of God. [11] And, to be clear, Paul has in mind *all* bodies being the site of divine union and residence. So, I’ll ask again: if the body isn’t important why make such a bold and rather crazy statement? If my body isn’t important in this exchange, why would Paul spend time risking life and limb defending both resurrection of the body and the inclusion of gentile bodies in the body Israel along with Israelite bodies?

Conclusion

The body is important. Your body is important. It is through this body we experience the world and by which the world experiences us. Your body isn’t merely a vehicle for the soul but intimately and materially bound up with it. It is through this body time surges and courses leaving behind reminders of endurance. It is in the body where the declaration of holy resides; you in your body are the holy temple of the holy spirit; thus to desecrate this temple of muscle and bone is more of an affront to God than desecrating this temple of stone and wood.[12]

The body is important. And not just white bodies, but brown bodies, black bodies, indigenous bodies, transbodies, lgbtqia+ bodies, big bodies, small bodies, old bodies, young bodies, and differently abled bodies. There are no “illegal” bodies, and poor bodies deserve as much health and rest as those who are wealthy. It is not our place to determine what bodies are good or what bodies are bad because all bodies are sacred, all bodies are the target of divine love in the world; it is not for us to harm other bodies, reject other bodies, oppress other bodies because of their body. We are exhorted by Paul in this pericope to take seriously our bodies in the world and how those bodies act in the world. We are exhorted to live in ourselves for others, to be substantial people in the world who are divinely loved and who love divinely. For it is by this divine love that other swill know we are those who followed Jesus out of the Jordan (John 13:35). And we cannot support systems and institutions, ideologies and dogmas that ask us to oppress bodies; to do so would be to yoke ourselves to and be dominated by that which is not Christ. To deny an other of the fullness of somatic liberty is a means by which we grieve the spirit in us, the divine spirit given to us by God. We must, with Martin Luther King Jr. live a life marked by “a kind of dangerous unselfishness” and ask not the question “what happens to me if I help this other [body]” but, “If I do not help this [body] what will happen to [them]?”[13] Death for too long has stolen life from too many bodies; may our bodies participate in the revolt of life against death in the world.


[1] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians TNIGTC p. 462, “This supposed dualism of ‘levels’ is foreign to Pauline thought, but common place in those circles influenced by a popular form of quasi-Platonic thought.”

[2] Reference to Men in Black (1). Edgar is the body the alien termites strip the substance out of and then use the discarded flesh as the “suit” in which they walk in.

[3] Thiselton 458-9, “Paul rejects the quasi-gnostic dualistic notion that ‘spiritual’ issues are ‘above’ matters relating to the body. Quite the reverse is the case. Far from Pauline Christianity being what Nietzsche and the later Heidegger called ‘Platonism for the people,’ early Christian theology perceives the body as a temple sanctified by the Holy Spirit…united-as-one-entity with Christ…and a mode of being through which and in which the Christian self brings glory to God.”

[4] Thiselton 459, “As those who belong to Christ by redemptive purchase (6:20), Christians are to live out their bodily existence in union with Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, to the glory of God…”

[5] Thiselton 458. “This section demonstrates…the inseparability of Christian identity and Christian lifestyle, or of theology and ethics.”

[6] Thiselton quoting Käsemann from NT Questions of Today 464. Quoting Käsemann “‘For Paul it is all important that the Christian life is not limited to interior piety and cultic acts…In the bodily obedience o the Christian…the lordship of Christ finds visible expression, and only when this visible expression takes personal shape in us does the whole thing become credible as Gospel message.’”

[7] Thiselton 466 “Paul does indeed see the public, embodied life of Christ’s people as the instantiation of the gospel which points to, and thereby identifies, Christ for the world.”

[8] Thiselton 473 “It is precisely in how a person reveals themselves as what they are in the bodily and everyday life that what it means to be ‘in Christ’ emerges.”

[9] “Idolatry” is an acceptable translation of the word α πορνεια. It does mean in the literal sense “fornication” but the metaphorical definition is “idolatry” or “promiscuity of any kind.” While I do think Paul is directly using the word for fornication in a literal way (considering his time and context), I don’t think that it is a mistake to also include the metaphorical use of the word. I doubt that Paul would think it just fine to uphold violent systems just as long as you don’t have sex with a prostitute, in other words. Thus, it is my opinion that the sex imagery is to emphasize how important the body is and that when we choose to partake in idolatrous ways with systems, ideologies, practices, dogmas, institutions it’s as if you’ve physically linked yourself to that thing, like sex does between two people. Thus, we could say: those who participated in the coup against democracy to uphold white supremacy and patriarchy and oppression in the name of Christ, were promiscuous and strained their union with the Spirit while dragging their union with Christ through the mud; they voluntarily tore themselves (as limbs) from the body of Christ and oned (a reference to Julian of Norwich’s conception of the union with God) with a prostitute (white supremacy, patriarchy, oppression, Trumpism). And thus, we can say: they sinned against fellow creatures and against God.

[10] I’m using domination here playing off of the theme of the Greek word εξουσιασθησομαι(future passive indicative 1 person singular) meaning: I will be ruled over, I will be held under authority). I’d like to also point out that Paul employs the emphatic εγω here (Greek verbs come packed with their own personal pronoun endings) thus this is an emphasis for Paul: I I will not be held under authority…

[11] Thiselton 475, “The image of the god or goddess usually dominated the temple whether by size or by number (or both), and Paul declares that the very person of the Holy Spirit of God, by parity of reasoning, stands to the totality of the bodily, everyday life of the believer (σωμα) in the same relation of influence and molding of identity as the images of deities in pagan temples.”

[12] Thiselton 475, “The phrase ου εχετε απο θεου emphasizes both the transcendent source of the Holy Spirit who is Other and holy…and the gracious bestowal of the Holy Spirit as God’s free gift of love. Grace and judgment are held together: to desecrate the body is to violate God’s gift and to invite an unfavorable and awesome verdict on the part of God himself.”

[13] Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve been to the Mountaintop April 3, 1968. This was his last sermon before being assassinated. h/t friend and colleague The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch for calling my attention to this sermon and idea. https://www.afscme.org/about/history/mlk/mountaintop?fbclid=IwAR3lVIJ7Vt9E96hGDgSyo1NQIvFyHW4I0VTVVpmuGGjzkPnF2lTHCK91MWc

In Rags and Wood

Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Canticle 15: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. Amen

Introduction

Sermons on love are often so lofty the subject—God’s love—becomes too other worldly and abstract, beyond human grasp, and of no earthly good. These sermons leave congregants grasping at the actuality of God’s love like grasping at oil; there’s nothing in your hand but the residual of what brushed past it. Preachers get in pulpits on Sunday and proclaim the word of comfort—God loves the beloved and the beloved is us (all of us)—then turn around and make that word so abstract and comfortable the divine love communicated about is not communicated to those who have ears to hear. It’s safer to preach abstract love that doesn’t touch down in the material realm in action and conviction because God forbid those coins cease hitting beloved coffers. We love the idea of divine love for us. If we’re honest, we don’t know what that means apart from some safe ideas we’ve memorized from Sunday school, gathered from the repetition of creeds, and absorbed by the incessant bombardment of dogmas.

Love is a remarkable and profound thing surging through the cosmos since the beginning of time—love neither started with us nor will it end with us. While the neuro response to love—both loving and being loved—is locatable in the brain and we can describe the way it feels, science and her scientists cannot figure out the why or the source or, coupled to attraction, the reason it’s this person and not that person. While society has historically tried to dictate who we can love, love knows not artificial man-made boundaries—love transcends and tears down walls and fences built to keep some in and others out. Love is more than a feeling and full of action in a material world.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God…” (Is. 61:1-2b)

Isaiah begins by confessing: the “spirit of the Lord God is upon” me. He speaks of something beyond comfortable feeling; he speaks of ruah. Ruah, a word used to describe the breath of God animating soil in Genesis, is the spirit of God, the pathos, the passion, and the emotion of God. [1] It is this spirit that is upon Isaiah. This spirit anoints Isaiah…to do what? Not to perform sacrifices, not to stand high and mighty, not to be clad in fancy robe behind tables decorated with gold and fine stone, not to swing incense, to be solemn, or to be feared for his authority. [2] Rather, it’s significantly humbler than we could imagine. Isaiah’s anointing by the spirit of God is to herald good tidings to the oppressed, to bind and have mercy on the suffering, and to proclaim liberty to the captives. In other words, it’s to proclaim to God’s people God’s great love for them.

Isaiah speaks of being endowed with the proclamation of God’s dynamic and active love to God’s people (Ruah). He also speaks of a divine day of favor and divine day of vengeance. Isaiah intentionally throws allusion to the year of Jubilee detailed in the book of Leviticus (cf. chapter 25). The liberative activity of God’s love coming in material form to God’s people is physical and not merely psychological—debts forgiven freeing both the debtor and the creditor. [3] Thus, the juxtaposition here of God’s favor and day of vengeance is intriguing. Make no mistake, Isaiah is intentional with his words. And I’m sure, as we like to do, that day of vengeance is sitting a bit heavy. But don’t lose heart just yet, stay with me; this isn’t bad news. The day of favor and the day of vengeance are one and the same day.

The twin divine decree sounding from Isaiah’s mouth is one of comfort and confrontation, and both are oriented toward the divine art of divine love: God loves God’s people. Isaiah is exhorted by the spirit being upon him…

“…to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” (Is. 61:2c-3).

To comfort those who mourn is to confront those who caused the mourning; to take away ashes and crown with garlands is to raise up those who were made low and to remove the distinction with those who were (already) raised up, thus lowering them; to embolden spirits is to give strength to those who are weak making them as strong as those who were strong. To bring comfort to captives through their liberation is to come into confrontation with captors by liberating them from holding captive.* To bring good news to the oppressed is to confront the oppressor and illuminate the oppressor’s own oppression in the system. God’s love liberates all people from violent and oppressive kingdoms of humanity. [4]

“For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed” (Is. 61:8-9)

Isaiah proclaims God’s desire: justice. God loves justice and hates robbery and wrongdoing. Echoing other prophets of Israel: God cares about those who are suffering under and because of unjust systems. For Isaiah and the other prophets of Israel, there is a tight link between God’s love of justice and our right worship. There’s no way around it. You can be the most pious person, wear all the right robes, say the words, bow here and kneel there, you can perform the most sacred of ceremonies, but if you are also actively participate and uphold oppressive and violent systems in word and deed, your worship is “detestable” to God. [5] According to Isaiah, there’s one way to serve God: love. Specifically, the love of neighbor in the pursuit of God defined justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[6]

Let us not forget the way Isaiah opened up this proclamation: ““The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me..” (Is. 1). It’s come full circle. This spirit which is also God’s desire and pathos has become Isaiah’s. [7] The math here is simple: being indwelled with God’s spirit, Isaiah’s desire is the same as God’s: a love of justice and dislike of robbery and wrongdoing. Thus, it is for us. As those encountered by God in the event of faith, brought out of death into new life, that new life in the world is marked by the pathos of God: active love for justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[8]

Conclusion

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Is. 61:11)

God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven, Isaiah proclaims. God’s love will triumph. In other words, divine justice and righteousness prevails over injustice and unrighteousness. The day of divine favor for the oppressed will be the day of vengeance for the oppressor and love will win both out of death into life.

But…How? In a dire and precarious way no one expects: a baby born to a young woman. God will descend into the human predicament to suffer the human predicament and will not remain above it. This is divine love: to come low, to descend to the beloved. “The coming of Jesus is the bond, the event of descending love, is the appearing of new life, of life undreamt of, of eternal life in the earthly life.”[9]

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

Love drives us toward and into each other’s burdens, to share the weight, to call things as they are, to provide relief and to comfort. This love knows no bounds, it descends to the depths of human existence, into the muck and mire of suffering and pain and grief; it searches out across vast spaces looking for the beloved who is missing; it surges into the fringes and margins of society to proclaim in word and deed “Beloved” to those who’ve only heard “unlovable”. [10] It’s not found in our personal piety defined by the superiority of our self-righteousness, it’s not found in glory but in humility,[11] not in gold but in wood, not in rich and clean robes in stone buildings but swaddled in rags in a manger.


*The Work of David Justice on Martin Luther King, Jr., and King’s conception of the Beloved Community and Creative Rage does excellently to detail out in more detail how the liberation of the oppressed is good news for the oppressor.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets NY, NY: JPS, 1962. 315. “The word ruah means, according to standard dictionaries, ‘air in motion, breath, wind, vain things, spirit, mind.’ What was not noticed is that one of the chief uses of the word ruah is to denote pathos, passion or emotion—the state of the soul. When combined with another word, it denotes a particular type of pathos or emotion.”

[2] Heschel Prophets 195 “Sacred fire is burning on the altars in many lands. Animals are being offered to the glory of the gods. Priests burn incense, songs of solemn assemblies fill the air Pilgrims are on the roads, pageantries in the sacred places. The atmosphere is thick with sanctity. In Israel, too, sacrifice is an essential act of worship. It is the experience of giving oneself vicariously to God and of being received by Him. And yet, the pre-exilic prophets uttered violent attacks on sacrifices…”

[3] Brevard Childs Isaiah: A Commentary TOTL. Louisville, KY: WJK 2001. 505. “…the theme of proclaiming liberty in ‘the year of Yahweh’s favor’ (v.2) is formulated in the language of the Jubilee year…and articulates succinctly the great change in Israel’s fortunes initiated through God’s favor. Finally, to ‘bring good tiding’ … is to assume the mantle of the herald…who first sent out the message of God’s return to his people in power.”

[4] Childs Isaiah 506. “It has also been rightly pointed out that the description of Israel’s deliverance has shifted a way from Second Isaiah’s portrayal of captivity and exile to that of release from economic slavery within the land.”

[5] Heschel Prophets 195, “However, while Samuel stressed the primacy of obedience over sacrifice, Amos and the prophets who followed him not only stressed the primacy of morality over sacrifice, but even proclaimed that the worth of worship, far from being absolute, is contingent upon moral living, and that when immorality prevails, worship is detestable.”

[6] Heschel Prophets 195. “Questioning man’s right to worship through offerings and songs, they maintained that the primary way of serving God is through love, Justice, and righteousness.” See also: W. Travis McMaken’s book on Helmut Gollwitzer, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Fortress Press, 2017). “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy,” p. 91.

[7] Childs Isaiah 506. “The speaker in these verses is clearly God, who confirms the word of the servant figure. The grounds for the mission of the one endowed with the spirit in vv. 1-7 rest on God, who loves justice while hating injustice.”

[8] McMaken Our God Loves Justice “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy.” 91 And, Speaking in terms of principle, however, the demand is more exacting…’The conversion to which the Christian community is daily called by God’s Word also includes the renunciation of their integration in the dominant system of privileges and their active exertion for justice, and so for social structures no longer determined by social privileges’…Christians are called to resist the social structures that imbue some with privileges while disadvantaging others.” 113-4 . And, “But if Marx turns theology into politics, Gollwitzer transforms politics into theology. That is, he clarifies for us that there is no such things a theologically neutral political position. Either one advocates and undertakes political steps to combat the socioeconomic privilege that oppresses immense swaths of the world’s population, or one is a heretic—unfaithful to the God encountered in the event of faith. For this ‘wholly other God wants a wholly other society’ in which all forms of privilege are abolished and social structures ever increasingly approximate the true socialism of the kingdom of God. And why does God want this? Because our God loves justice.” 166-7.

[9] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1981. 80.

[10] Gollwitzer 79. “…he did not remain above, did not count his superiority a thing to be grasped at, but came down into human existence, into a slave-existence, to a place where he was spat upon, trodden down, and put to death. Thus anyone who wishes to find the ‘above’ of which the whole Bible speaks, must, w strange though it may seem, go right down below here on earth. The paradox is that what is of the earth, the thought that is of earthly origin, is actually a striving upwards, everyone wants to get on top; while on the contrary what is here called the true divine ‘above’, is a string downwards, and is only to be found at the lowest point of the earth, on the gallows among the most downtrodden and outcast of society, with one who has no longer a place in it, in the grave which is the destiny of us all.”

[11] Gollwitzer 79. “There in the depths the Lord of glory of the religions is not to be found, but the servant God of the Gospel, the ministering, self-sacrificing brother Jesus who ‘and no other one’ is the living Lord of the Gospel.”

Love and Solidarity

Farewell Letter to my Students

 

 

Three years ago, I was in Colorado minding my own business, mothering, puttering around the house, thinking theological things, wondering what the future held for me as a newish transitional deacon in The Episcopal Church. Never once did I think that my phone would ring, that I *would* answer it, and that the familiar voice on the other end would ask, “Do you want to go teach World Religions in deep south Louisiana?” When that exact thing happened one afternoon, that question was met with a quick, “Nope. I’m not qualified for that…I don’t know a thing about any other tradition.” After some discussion and very crafty convincing by my friend, I reluctantly and skeptically gave in, “Although we both know that in no way, shape, or form should I be teaching high school kids anything and that I’m better fit for the inanimate world of books, I’ll go ahead and talk to them.”

I’m glad I did.

From the moment I stepped on Campus in 2017, I knew this was home. And it was, and it is. I can say honestly, one of the best decisions I ever made was moving my family across the country and teaching 11th and 12th graders theology and religion—and eventually 8th graders, too. I wasn’t convinced I’d be good at it, and I don’t know if I was; but, I knew that this was where I was supposed to be.

Every student who has passed through my door and sat at my desks has taught me more about what it means to be a teacher, an adult, a Christian, to be me than any book I’ve read (and I’ve read a few). Every encounter, discussion, argument, banter, and painful (painful!) silence, were the moments through which I fell more in love not only with my job, but with you. This is by far the best job I’ve ever had and definitely the hardest one to leave. But love loves, and love knows when to leave.

As my family weathers chaos and global pandemic, it’s become clearer to us that the geographical distance that exists between us and our parents is too large. Pandemic wedded to the tangible reality that our parents are getting older and won’t always be with us, thrust us into serious conversations about our immediate future. After thoughtful and careful evaluation, I was faced to make that choice that was right and excruciatingly difficult: leave my students. Love knows when it must let go.

I like to fully invests in what I’m doing and into my relationships. As I looked at what was ahead, I knew that my place needed to be alongside my parents, doing for them what they did for me many years ago. As my parents carried me in their arms through crowds and gatherings, and used their voices to sooth my fears and concerns, it is now my turn to use my arms to carry them and my voice to sooth them. I knew I couldn’t also be here (fully) for you; I’d be divided.

As a middle-aged adult I span the gap between two generations. My children need me and so too my parents. This means, that, with only two hands, I must let go of something to grab hold of my parents. And since my children are yet too young to be released, I had to let go of my job. While I have tried to find a workable solution to make everything fit, I cannot. (And trust me, I tried; if you don’ believe me you can ask Ms. Fournet or Coach Dardar or Ms. Neal-Jones, they know I tried and they know how much I loved this work and how much I *do* love you.)

And I do love you; you’re the Beloved. Love is the divine tie that binds, the substance that unites and draws bodies together, that needs no reason and sense yet makes so much sense and is its own reason. In the fall I preached that love loves. And it does. Love just loves. Nothing stops it: not time, material, distance–not even death can stop the power and dynamic movement of love. It’s the great eternal mystery of all time; it is the substance of God, made flesh in Christ, and dwelling among us and in us now in the presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us back into God. Love loves;, in the midst of the closeness intimacy and from the furthest edges of infinity. Love loves.

Others have moved from here, I am moving from here, you will move from here, but the tie that binds is love. It is in divine love where our common location resides. This divine Love is both agape and eros: it goes out, it seeks, and it takes the beloved back into the lover. Love causes the lover to always be with the beloved. As I move to Colorado, my love for you will not lessen even though there will be geographical distance; in love distance is non-existent. The lover never forgets the Beloved because by love the beloved is always with the lover; thus, you won’t be forgotten.

So, my Beloved, thank you. Thank you for letting me be your teacher, for trusting me with your thoughts, ideas, bodies, and minds; thank you for making my world and life bigger, better, and brighter because you each exist; thank you for showing and teaching me so much, for your patience and your forgiveness; and thank you for being you—the world is a more beautiful place because you are.

With that and with all my love…catch ya on the flip side…

Love and Solidarity,

Rev. Lauren R. E. Larkin

Waters of Thursday

Maundy Thursday Meditation: John 13:6

(video at the end of the post)

 

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’” (John 13:6)

 

Peter does not know what Jesus is doing.

Wanting to know and seeking to understand is part of our natural inclination and orientation. Being without sight, having words held by silence, being trapped in isolation, these restrictions cause chaos, and this chaos drives us crazy. In an effort to make sense of our surroundings, our environment, our predicament we concoct schemes and stories, dogmas and doctrines, rituals and routines. Some of these things seem to rise to celestial heights others shatter on the ground as the human made earthen vessels they are.

We do not know what God is doing.

Peter feels the tension as Jesus–the Christ!–stoops low and washes his feet. This is a boggling gesture on Jesus’s part, and Peter cannot make sense of it. Roles should be reversed, seats swapped; what is He doing? The only consolation that Jesus offers to Peter’s shock filled question, is an understanding that will come at a later date. Yet that does not ease the oddness of this particular moment in the present. We know this feeling intimately. Blindness now, silence now, isolation now leaves us feeling unsteady and uncertain even if we know that one day everything we’ve endured (now) will make sense as we watch all the parts of our story fall into place.  But at the onset of every night, in our solemn prayer as we drift off to sleep is the confession: Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.

We do not know what God is doing.

Resisting the urge to flash forward to Easter Sunday and the glory of the resurrection, stay here in this chaos with Peter. Marvel, with Peter, at Jesus kneeling before you, laying hold of your foot, and washing it. Feel his hands grip and the water pour over. Listen as Jesus promises that even in this present chaos, you will understand. Gaze upon the Christ and his posture before you, because it’s in that divine posture of humility where our comfort will be found. It is this posture that will not only mark the night before his crucifixion, but also the cross itself. Christ the meek will humble himself even unto death on the cross for the beloved (Phil 2:8)–to restore us to God and cleanse us completely by his once-and-for-all sacrifice.

We do not know what God is doing.

However, that’s quite okay. Because in this not knowing we are made aware we’ve become the humble and meek, wholly dependent on this wholly other God, the one who calls us by name and washes us. The water of Thursday and the silence of Saturday are, to be sure, the marks of our Christian life now as we wait and walk humbly with our God, acting justly and loving mercy (Micah 6:8).

Quarantine and Chaos

Dominion and Control

A video in which I talk about the presentment of chaos in our current quarantined reality and ways in which (I’ve learned) to take dominion of the small environment and regain some modicum amount of control.

I’m not a therapist (or of that field). I’m sharing from my own resource of experience in facing the chaotic abyss of an unknowable future and stepping in.

The Love of the Lover

John 15:12-17 (Homily)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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