Divine Division, Divine Solidarity

Sermon on Luke 12:49-56

Psalm 80:1-2, 18 Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock; shine forth, you [who] are enthroned upon the cherubim. In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh, stir up your strength and come to help us. Restore us, God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Introduction

When I became Christian I received a real and living peace. But it wasn’t a peace external to my person and body in the world; it was a peace within. When I encountered God in the event of faith, something clicked into place, aligned in such a way that all the grooves and notches lined up right, my inner river began flowing as water does when unimpeded by obstacles. But on the outside, things took on a level of friction that wasn’t there before.

Even though my internal life was aligned resting in peace, my external life suffered misalignment. What used to work for me, stopped working for me. What was fine before, wasn’t fine anymore. What I dismissed or ignored, I saw. What never bothered me, provoked my empathy like a knife to the heart.

I could get off the PATH train and walk the pedestrian tunnels leading to the streets and not think twice of the house-less human beings lined along the walls in the warmth of those tunnels on a winter morning. But after encountering God? I couldn’t not notice; I couldn’t not see the profundity of our shared humanity. I could make a lot of money, dine and shop with the best of them. But after encountering God, it all felt wasted and pointless, wasn’t there something more to life? There were questions I refused to ask, that I pushed down, that I muffled and ignored; but after? They boiled and bubbled to the surface taking their worded revenge on my mind and heart and soul. The law was just me being nice…occasionally. In God? The law became something heavy, tattooed on my heart, there was more I could do, more I could give, more I could study, more I could read.

You see, while my internal life aligned and I rested my head and sleep at night, my external existential existence grew more challenging as a result of encountering God in the event of faith. Jesus changed my life; Jesus is changing my life; Jesus will change my life. I can’t go back to being fine with things the way they were, the status quo; I have no choice but to turn and walk against the crowd and not for my own self-righteousness sake but for the beloved of God.

Luke 12:49-56

“I came in order to bring fire upon the earth, and I desire that it were already kindled! Now, I have a baptism to be baptized, and how I am afflicted (unto sickness) until it may be accomplished! Do you have the opinion that I came on the scene to offer peace on earth?  Not at all, I say to you; but rather a dissension. For there will be at this very time five in one household divided up into parts, three against two and two against three.” [1]

Luke 12:49-52

In this moment, Luke captures Jesus appearing contrary to common presentations of Jesus, even within Luke’s narrative. However, considering the thrust of chapter 12, there’s a strong uniting theme of crisis in divine encounter; not just a future forward event, but a here and now of the crisis caused by divine coming.[2] Jesus speaks of fire and baptism and the misguided assumption[3] that he was meant to bring peace on earth. All of this imagery speaks of a refining of those encountered by God in the event of faith.

Jesus corrects the assumption that if one decides to follow him, all will be well. Nuh uh, says Jesus. Think again. To follow Jesus adhering to his conception of what it means to be of God in the world will demand (nearly perpetual) confrontation and division with those whom you know who follow the status quo of the world and the kingdoms of humanity; even family.[4]

In a culture that not only supports but depends on a specific family structure (socially and religiously), Jesus informs the crowd that not even this institution is safe from divine strife and division and derision when it comes to solidarity with God.[5] In fact, it’s to be expected.

Division wrought by divine hand isn’t antithetical to the mission of mercy and justice in the world. It isn’t even antithetical to divine peace, even though, yes, Jesus says he’s come not to bring peace on earth. Jesus, God of very God, came to break up archaic, fractured, decaying, death dealing systems built and propped up by human hands. Thus, it’s not only the largess of the temple that is under fire, but also the fundamental building block of this socio-religious context: the family.[6] As people are set aright on the path of God, they are bound to…nay…they will participate[7] in the divine mission of mercy and grace and love and peace in the world for those who aren’t the privileged, powerful, elite, or those who are righteous according to the standard of the world. This means they will begin to reject the traditions and ideologies they were raised with, go against the grain[8] and, thusly, strife hits home.[9]

How is this division and dissension the means by which Jesus brings peace and justice and mercy and love and grace? It does this because it brings cool water to those little ones who are most thirsty. Because it brings revolutionary verve and life-giving liberation by pronouncing divine peace to those who are deprived of peace, love to those who are deprived of love grace to those who are deprived of grace, mercy to those who are deprived of mercy, life to those who are deprived of life…and so on. And once the captives are liberated, the captor is liberated, and therein is peace…true, divine, existential—in the fullest sense of the word—peace

Thus, Jesus exhorts the crowds to watch because they aren’t watching well enough. They see signs about hot winds and storms, but cannot see that the division following in Jesus’s wake is the judgment of God on the status quo[10] of human kingdoms bent on death and destruction, capitalizing on human bodies and lives.[11] This truly is a Lukan version of the divine Shema O Israel! Hear, O people of God look and see! God draws nigh!

Conclusion

To have peace with God is to have your inner life aligned to that which brings life and mercy and grace and love. The encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit brings us out of our dead selves and rebirths us into our alive selves, those who see the world, feel its pain, carry its sorrow, celebrate its joy, and grieve its disasters and terrors. All the while never losing yourself into it. In this way is the peace of God surpassing all understanding, we become living and present participants of the divine mission of liberation to the captives in the world. Feelings all the feels and still getting up every morning because God’s mercies are new every morning. In our encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit we are restored unto the light of God’s countenance, saved from the prison almighty king of autonomy and selfishism, and ushered into sharing that light.

But this doesn’t mean our journeys through the world will be easy, that our lives will burst forth with prosperity, that everything will come up roses and will go swimmingly for us. You can’t see and feel and sense the pain of others and not be impacted; you can’t see and feel and sense the pain of others and not say something, do something, change something and have it go completely unnoticed by the rest of your community who is doing things the old way, accepting what is as is, going along with culturally defined contextual reason. At least that has been my experience; and I wouldn’t change one iota of it. Divine solidarity with humanity and God wrought by divine division brought by love and mercy and grace means I’m on the side of God.

To follow Christ out of the Jordan to the cross means dying deaths all along the way: deaths of the self, deaths of toxic ideologies and worldviews, deaths of relationships. These deaths are not because you are so awesome or you follow God’s law perfectly or keep your self clean and pure from the rabble. You’ll suffer these deaths because you dare to love those whom the world deems unlovable, you will suffer these deaths because you dare to ally with those who are fighting for their right to live and breathe, who desire to exist as they are in their beloved beautiful bodies, who must resist power threatening life, survival, and thriving.

And in all of it, we go it not alone and of our own power, but we walk with Christ who stands in solidarity with us, who dies with us, and with whom and in whom we are resurrected. Therefore…Dare to love, Beloved, as you’ve been so loved by God.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 508. “Assuming coherence, then, we should inquire into how this material advances the overarching theme of vigilance in the face of eschatological crisis. This is not a difficult task. The immediately preceding discourse section had drawn to a close with a primary focus on the basis of future judgment in present watchfulness and fidelity. From those images of future judgment, Jesus now tums to the reality of judgment already at work in his ministry.”

[3] Green, Luke, 510. “How can this be? Jesus’ question, ‘Do you think I have come to bring peace?’ underscores Jesus’ awareness that the presence of division and judgment will, for many, stand in stark contrast to what might have been expected of the divine intervention.”

[4] Green, Luke, 509. “As his present discourse, begun in 12:1, has already made clear, a decision to adopt his canons of faithfulness to God would require a deeply rooted and pervasive transformation of how one understands God and how one understands the transformation of the world purposed by this God. This would involve Jesus’ disciples in dispositions and forms of behavior that could only be regarded as deviant within their kin groups. Earlier Jesus had been concerned to prepare his disciples tor the persecution before the authorities that would result from identification with his mission (vv 1-12); now he maintains that his ministry has as one of its consequences the deconstruction of conventional family bonds.” So long Jesus of the “family values” variety

[5] Green, Luke, 509. “This message potentially serves an important apologetic function in community definition. Within a culture wherein kinship ties played so crucial a socio-religious role, a message such as this one might well be suspect. How could a ministry the effects of which include the dissolution of family ties be sanctioned by God? Jesus posits just such divisions not only as a legitimate consequence of his mission but as confirmation that he is caving out a divine charge.”

[6] Green, Luke, 510. “Again, the choice of the verb, ‘to complete,’ conveys the idea that Jesus is concerned in this co-text to stress the divine nature of his charge. Judgment, from this perspective. Is not a surprising consequence of his ministry and is not a contradiction of his mission; rather, it is integral to it. He had come as God’s representative to bring division, so the dissolution of family bonds (which, in the Lukan narrative, has as its consequence the formation of a new kinship group around Jesus) should be taken as confirmation that he is God’s agent and that he is bringing to fruition the purpose of God. Jesus’ phrase ‘from now on’ further locates the significance of the division Jesus describes within the interpretive framework of his mission; it is from this statement of his divine charge that division within families will take its meaning.”

[7] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 168. “This passage is the first of three sections that are apparently disjointed (vv. 49-53, 54-56, and 57-59). What holds them together is the theme of eschatological expectation, and how it must impact the Life of believers in the present. Eschatological hope is not just a matter for the future. If we really expect the future we claim to await, this should have an impact on the way we live in the present.”

[8] Gonzalez, Luke, 168. “Those servants who know what their master wishes will act differently than the rest. This will cause stress and division. It is as if in a parade some begin marching to a different tune. The rest-those who march to the common tune-will accuse them of upsetting the parade, and will seek to suppress or oust them.”

[9] Green, Luke, 511. “Thus, for example, Jesus’ communication of peace to the sinful woman from the city is accompanied by disapproval from his table companions (7:36-50). As Luke has continually shown and as Jesus has endeavored to teach his followers, the realization of God’s purpose will engender opposition from those who serve a contrary aim.”

[10] Gonzalez, Luke, 168-169. “The eschatological emphasis of the entire section now leads to warnings. The servants know that the master is coming. We know that the future belongs to the reign of God. But, given the potential cost, it is not surprising that we are strongly tempted not to see the signs of the new time that is emerging. To forecast the weather, one looks at the clouds and the wind. The same should be possible by looking at the signs of ‘the present time.’ There is a new order coming! But people refuse to see it, and seek to continue life as if nothing were happening. Hypocritically, although we know what the master wants. we find all sorts of reasons to continue living as if the present order were permanent. We all stand accused and are on our way to trial. We can continue insisting on our innocence, and face the judge and the ensuing penalty, or settle matters with our accuser before the time of trial.”

[11] Green, Luke, 511-512. “Jesus plainly regards the crowds not as deceivers or phonies but as people who ‘do not know.’ His question, then, is not why they say one thing and do another, but why they have joined the Pharisees… in Living lives that are not determined by God. Misdirected in their fundamental understanding of God’s purpose, they are incapable of discerning the authentic meaning of the signs staring them in the face. What signs are these? Others have been noted previously (cf. 7:21-22; 11:20, 29-32); here, the sign requiring interpretation is the reality of family division-itself a manifestation of Jesus’ divine mission and a portent of coming judgment.”

One Who Caused Mercy

Sermon on Luke 10:25-37

Psalm 25:7-9 Gracious and upright is God; therefore God teaches sinners in God’s way. God guides the humble in doing right and teaches God’s way to the lowly. All the paths of God are love and faithfulness to those who keep God’s covenant and testimonies.

Introduction

Mercy seems lacking at many twists and turns of life. Mercy nearly feels out of place as a characteristic. It’s got that distant vibe of something that once was but isn’t anymore; it’s gone archaic, become a relic of ages past, no longer a functional aspect of our modern human society, something we’ve evolved out of. Mercy feels out of reach, like grasping oil with the hand; like something slippery, of divine substance locked in noncorporeal estates of spiritual realms.

When was the last time you experienced mercy? When was the last time you acted merciful?

The tragic thing about our distance from mercy is that it’s an exceptionally human characteristic and action. It doesn’t exist in our world if it’s not performed. Mercy, simply, is not getting what one deserves to get, most often in terms of punishment and consequences. Mercy is an action, a definite and precise action of refusing to condemn another’s actions. It’s the opposite of revenge. Mercy is born from compassion; when extended, mercy turns into forgiveness. All of this of the human realm.

Mercy doesn’t exist in nature. Nature is beautiful and majestic, it’s worthy of honor and respect, care and love. But merciful? Nope. Nature’s laws work themselves out as they will, irrespective of persons. For mercy to exist and be experienced, it must be brought into the world from one person to another; no one stumbles into a pool of mercy. We receive it; from my hand to yours or your hand to mine. Even in the presence of the law, mercy exists, because law serves love and love serves the neighbor and therein is mercy.

It’s an essential element of the fabric of thriving human community. Without mercy, the other will grow more and more into a threat. In an environment and atmosphere where everyone one must fight for their own, claw their way to survive, and be wary of all dangers, mercy cannot exist. It will be suffocated and strangled; for lack of air and light, it will cease to grow. Sadly, that community will cease to be justifiably described as human. Where mercy is lacking, love is lacking, and where there is no love there cannot be human life.

Luke 10:25-37

Now, wanting to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” … [Jesus asked the lawyer] “Which of these three it seems to you has become a neighbor of the one who fell in with the robbers?” And [the lawyer] said, “The one who caused mercy with him.” And Jesus said to him, “You go and you, you do likewise.” [1]

(Luke 10:29, 36-37)

Our gospel passage is quite familiar to us. One so familiar it warrants pause and reflection. I think we might be missing something crucial in the parable if we don’t slow down. Believe it or not, it’s these parables of Jesus that simultaneously define and substantiate the life and presence of the church; and continue to do so if we listen today.

So, Luke, the master story-teller, sets the scene: Jesus is approached by a lawyer-priest[2] who wishes to test Jesus. What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus responds, In the law, what is written? How do you read it? I imagine Jesus smiled, loving him, knowing full well the intention of the lawyer-priest. All teachers of God’s word should be tested. I think we read into this moment our obsession with hierarchy and silent compliant obedience. There’s actually nothing wrong with this exchange; there’s nothing wrong with Jesus being tested. The only risk here is that the one testing may find themselves failing their own test.[3]

The lawyer-priest’s answer to Jesus summarized the law: love God with your entire self and your neighbor as yourself. So far so good. You answered rightly; do this and you will live, says Jesus. But then, the lawyer-priests shifts gears[4]—wishing to justify himself—and asks Jesus, annnnnnd who is my neighbor? Again, I imagine Jesus loved him and smiled in a way that spoke to an oncoming encounter with God.

Jesus proceeds to lead the lawyer-priest to the answer by telling a story about an unknown[5] man who fell in among robbers, was beaten, stripped of his clothing, and left for dead (ἀφέντες ἡμιθανῆ). Then, a priest walks by and seeing the man left half-dead on the road passes by on the other side (ἀντιπαρῆλθεν) of the road. Later, a Levite does the same thing. Then a Samaritan comes along, sees the man, and felt compassion (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη) and went toward (προσελθὼν) him with the intent to minister to his wounds and generously care for him. Jesus stops and asks the lawyer-priest, Which of these three it seems to you has become a neighbor of the one who fell in among the robbers? And everything changes.

The lawyer-priest is cornered and must answer: the one who caused mercy with him. In a beautiful and stunning way, the lawyer-priest is forced to confess that his conception of what defines a neighbor is painfully narrow: neighbor isn’t geographically defined, isn’t defined by agreement of interpretation of God,[6] but by love and mercy.[7] It’s compassion that makes the Samaritan stand out; had he just passed by his Samaritanness would’ve meant nothing.[8]

Again, I’m compelled to point out that it’s not that the lawyer-priest is confessing that the Samaritan correctly identified that the half-dead man was his neighbor (this is how we normally interpret this parable). It is not that we recognize others as neighbors, but that we act neighborly.[9] Thus, Jesus’s injunction at the end to go and do likewise isn’t a throw-away mandate, but rather this: the one who acts as a neighbor loves the neighbor by showing mercy and thus loves God. This is the point of the law, in other words.

This is the point of the parable: one cannot love God and cross by on the other side of the road while someone lies half dead in the gutter.[10] You might be able to recite the law and believe it, but if you can cross by and ignore someone who is suffering, well then…it begs the question. Love of God and love of neighbor knows no boundaries[11] when it’s you charged with the love of God to act neighborly.[12] Mercy creates neighbors and is the evidence of love for God.[13]

Conclusion

Whether or not this lawyer-priest rejected this premise or agreed to it is uncertain; but one thing is: he couldn’t leave that moment unchanged.[14] Neither are we left the same. The lure of the parable is to reconsider yourself: are you merciful? And, the harder question: do you love God? You can come here and worship all day long; you can sequester yourself in retreat upon retreat, covered deep in silence and prayer, but if you do nothing out of mercy, out of love, then you do not love God. You can know all the dogma and doctrine well, but if you have not love, you are just a clanging gong, says Paul. You can wear all the fancy robes, light every candle, and say the eucharist, but if you have not mercy for others who are suffering, you serve yourself and not God.

If you never step foot in a church, and you express mercy and compassion with those who suffer, you love God. [15] You can deny God’s very existence and yet that you love and have mercy on your neighbor makes you that much closer to God than those who claim to love God but hate their neighbor.[16] Why dare I say this? Because God is love. To love and have mercy for and with others is evidence of God and God’s spirit living in the world, even more so than any stone building or wood table.

God is the force and thrust of love and mercy in a world that is bent in on itself, a world dying for its own insatiable desire to feed its ego, a world killing itself because it believed the lie that it has no purpose. God is the force and thrust of love and mercy in cacophonous noise of humans clamoring for more isolation and exclusion, more me and mine, more death and destruction. That love and mercy might still yet exist means God is alive.

Please remember this, beloved, God is not dead; we are. But, also, hear this: our hope rests in the mercy and compassion of the One who raises the dead into new life. This hope, this claim is our religion,[17] our story, our myth; dare we believe it? Dare we follow this God, this Jesus the Christ of Nazareth who brings mercy and compassion so close to us, we’re not only bathed in it but it recreated by it? Dare we live like this God is real? I hope so; too many people are dying in the streets as we walk by on the other side.

God have mercy. May we have mercy, too.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 427. “When it is recalled that priests functioned as experts on the law when not performing their priestly duties at the temple, this adds to the drama of the unfolding encounter – not least since the ensuing parable will have as one of its primary characters a priest returning from duty at the temple (v 31). That is, within the socio-historical context imagined by the narrative, the identification of this lawyer and the temple staff of the parable may be more immediate than normally thought.”

[3] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 332. “LAUREANO: ‘In trying to catch Jesus in a trap, he was the one who fell into the trap. Jesus makes him say things he doesn’t do.’”

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 138. “He uses theological debate as a means to avoid obedience. Just as it is possible for a church body to postpone decision by referring matters to committees, so is it possible for a church and for individuals to postpone obedience by seeking further clarification. Quite often, what the Lord requires is clear; but the cost is also clear, and so we ask more and more questions.”

[5] Green, Luke, 429. “The choice of opening, ‘a certain man,’ constitutes a powerful rhetorical move on Jesus’ part. In light of the debate surrounding the reach of love, grounded in how one reads Leviticus 19, the impossibility of classifying this person as either friend or foe immediately subverts any interest in questions of this nature. Stripped of his clothes and left half-dead, the man’s anonymity throughout the story is insured; he is simply a human being, a neighbor, in need.”

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 139. “The first is that the exclusion of the Samaritan is not only racial or ethnic. It is also religious. From the point of view of the Jewish doctor of the law, the Samaritan was a heretic, one who did not serve God properly. …Now it is the Samaritan heretic who is the obedient servant of God. Thus the parable has much to say about recognizing the action of God in those whose theology we may find faulty-in itself a very valuable lesson in these times of theological ad political polarization.”

[7] Cardenal, Solentiname, 332, 333. “OLIVIA: ‘Your neighbors are all of humanity, that’s what that fellow didn’t know, that his neighbors were everybody.’” And “OLIVIA: “He gave him as an example a person of another race and another religion so we can know that everybody is a neighbor. He gave as an example one who wasn’t a neighbor but just the opposite, an enemy.’”

[8] Green, Luke, 431. “As a result, what distinguishes this traveler from the other two is not fundamentally that they are Jews and he is a Samaritan, nor is it that they had high status as religious functionaries and he does not. What individualizes him is his compassion, leading to action, in the face of their inaction. Having established this point of distinction, his status in comparison with theirs becomes shockingly relevant, for it throws into sharp relief the virtue of his response. For the same reason, his actions condemn their failure to act. Unlike them, he has compassion. and this is the turning point not only of his encounter with the wounded man but, indeed, of this entire narrative unit (vv 25-37). The Samaritan, then, participates in the compassion and covenantal faithfulness of God, who sees and responds with salvific care. The parable of the compassionate Samaritan thus undermines the determination of status in the community of God’s people on the basis of ascription, substituting in its place its place a concern with performance, the granting of status on the basis of one’s actions.”

[9] Gonzalez, Luke, 139-140. “The second is that Jesus’ question at the end is not, as one might expect, who realized that the man by the roadside was a neighbor, but rather which of the three who went by was a neighbor to the man by the roadside. If that is the question, Jesus’ final injunction to the lawyer, ‘Go and do likewise,’ does not simply mean, go and act in love to your neighbor, but rather, go and become a neighbor to those in need, no matter how alien they may be. It : is not just a matter of loving and serving those who are near us (which is what ‘neighbor’ means) but also of drawing near to those who for whatever reason— racial, ethnic, theological, political-may seem to be alien to us.”

[10] Green Luke 425-426. “That the practice of God’s word is the unit is obvious from the repetition and placement of the verb ‘to do.’ The lawyer inquires, ‘What must I do?’; following their exchange, Jesus responds, ‘Do this’ (v 25, 28). In this way the first segment of this unit…is bound together with references to praxis. The question of the identity of one’s neighbor leads into a further exploration of appropriate behavior, however, with the conclusion drawn by the lawyer himself. The one who was a neighbor, he acknowledges, is ‘the one who did mercy’. Jesus responds, ‘Do likewise” (v 37). Jesus’ closing words, then, do not summarize the parable of the compassionate Samaritan (as though the purpose of the parable were to present a moral obligation to act in such-and-such a way). Rather, they return to the original question of the lawyer ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ The parable thus serves a hermeneutical function. It interprets the summation of the law provided by the legal expert.”

[11] Green, Luke, 426. “By the end of the story, Jesus has transformed the focus of the original question; in fact, Jesus’ apparent attempt to answer the lawyer’s question turns out to be a negation of that question’s premise. Neighbor love knows no boundaries.”

[12] Cardenal, Solentiname, 333. “FELIPE: “It seems that instead it’s the one who serves that’s the neighbor.’”

[13] Cardenal, Solentiname, 335. “ELVIS: ‘The fact is that in your neighbor there’s God. It’s not that love of God gets left out, it’s that those who love their neighbor are right there loving God.’”

[14] Green, Luke, 427. “In his Galilean ministry, Jesus had worked to exterminate those boundaries that predetermine human interaction; what was begun there will continue to characterize his message on the way to Jerusalem. His portrayal of a Samaritan as one who embodies the law, and whose comportment models the covenant faithfulness of God—and whose doing stands in sharp contradistinction to the practices of temple personnel on the road—serves this wider motif as it obliterates the construction of human existence sanctioned by the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Although Luke does not document the response of the lawyer, he nevertheless shows the degree to which his encounter with Jesus, if taken seriously, would destabilize the world of this lawyer and challenge him to embrace the new world propagated through Jesus’ ministry.”

[15] Cardenal, Solentiname, 334. “LAUREANO: ‘The people are the wounded man who’s bleeding to death on the highway. The religious people who are not impressed by the people’s problems are those two that were going to the temple to pray. The atheists who are revolutionaries are the good Samaritan of the parable, the good companion, the good comrade.’”

[16] Cardenal, Solentiname, 335-336. “That’s why Jesus somewhere else says that the second commandment is ‘like the first,’ and in this parable he shows that the two are fulfilled by fulfilling the second. And that’s why too, when the rich young man asks him what he should do to be saved, Jesus quotes to him the commandments about neighborly love, without mentioning the one about love of God.”

[17] Sölle, Bread Alone, 50. “Critics of religion (who at the same time must of necessity be critics of poesy, which portrays man’s search for the absolute) take their stand on their belief in progress. They believe that science will put an end to man’s countless and inexhaustible wishes because on the one hand it fulfills these wishes in a limited way, and on the other hand it also exposes them as illusions. The big question, however, is if it isn’t just the very fulfillment of some wishes and hopes that makes man’s thirst for a final fulfillment even greater. Indeed, research in the field of primitive religions and millennial movements teaches us that magical and real expectations continually evolve into wishes for emancipation from colonial rule and for a new identity, thirst for riches and justice, so that religious behavior cannot possibly be divided into spiritual and worldly components. A purely spiritual part is just as unthinkable as a purely materialistic part. Ultimately, the questions of religion which develop into complex religious systems in the so-called higher religions become increasingly more comprehensive, and the claim they make becomes increasingly absolute and incapable of earthly fulfillment.”

Love + Action = Freedom

Psalm 77:13-15 13 Your way, O God, is holy; who is so great a god as our God? You are the God who works wonders and have declared your power among the peoples. By your strength you have redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph.

Introduction

The way freedom is spoken of today leaves little to be desired. It’s a big concept, described by truncated language reduced to me and mine. While there is some me and mine involved with the concept and the working out of freedom, it doesn’t end there.

To conceive of freedom as strictly how I’m unrestricted by the demands of another renders the concept of freedom malnourished. Does freedom even exist apart from another? If I’m isolated to myself, do I know what freedom is? The discussion is moot; I’m neither free nor not free. I’m just without demands from others. I’m (essentially) free from others for myself.[1] It’s a perpetual turning in of the self, rendering the self wrong-side-out,[2] and locked in its own prison of death. Here, isolation informs the need to pull further and further apart from others, and in that space grows the evil of the devaluation of the other to the point where the other is the enemy.

Freedom, to be something worthwhile (something that one would literally risk life and limb) must be something that exists with others. To be free while still in the presence of another is true freedom. You are you as you are and I am me as I am me; as different as we are, we affirm each other—self-differentiated and together—two Is forming a we of yous. I’m not restricted by you, but voluntarily restrict myself to see to your thriving. This voluntary self-restriction is freedom because I freely enter into it for you. I’m (essentially) free from myself for others. It’s a contagion of affirmation, rendering the self right-side-out, liberated into the realm of life. Here, togetherness informs the need to see myself more and more a part of the group, and in that space the other’s liberation becomes my liberation and love informs my action for the other who is beloved.

Galatians 5:1,13-25

For liberty [a state of freedom from slavery] Christ liberated us. Therefore, persevere and be not ensnared again to the yoke of slavery.
For you, you are summoned into liberty, brothers and sisters, only not liberty for the occasion for the flesh, but through love be slaves to one another. For all the law has been fulfilled in one word, in which “You love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite [harm seriously] one another and you eat up [injure seriously] one another, beware (!) you do not consume one another.[3]

(Gal 5: 1, 13-15)

Our friend, Paul, spends much of Galatians working out the concept of freedom of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith. For Paul, as mentioned last week, we are liberated from a problematic (idolatrous) relationship with the law; a relationship that rendered our obedience to the law ultimate, and love of God and of neighbor as penultimate. You don’t need the law to inform your love of God and of others, rather you need the love of God and of others to inform your relationship to the law.

Jesus is the hinge upon which all realignment hangs. When Christ is proclaimed, there God is encountered; where God is encountered, the divine Spirit of Love resurrects those who were once dead in themselves and ushers them into new life. This new life, according to Paul in Galatians 5, is about freedom informed by the spirit and activity of love. This new life is freedom from the law for others; this new life is the business of law serving love and love serving others. Remember: in the encounter with God in the event of faith, according to the philosophical and theological logic of Galatians, our misalignment to the law is broken and we’re re-centered (each of us) with our faces turned to God and (thus) necessarily to our neighbor and the world (those whom and that which God loves very much).

So, for Paul, if freedom is inherently connected to the reordering of love of God and love of neighbor, why drag in that which is septic and toxic: our misalignment to the law? Paul isn’t an antinomian; Paul isn’t arguing for the law’s abrogation (a word defined as, “the act of formally ending a law, agreement, or custom). Thus, law isn’t gone; it’s just the law, it’s been debarked, it’s become a tool for us to use so that love + action = freedom. In other words, when I enter a space with others, I’m motivated by love for them and either reject or submit to whatever law brings the other life. In that this rejection or submission brings life to my neighbor, I find myself liberated here, too, because now there’s more freedom spreading about and thus more love informed action. In this equation, the law isn’t lord, love is.

While I know the church has done a dastardly job not allowing many people—not part of the dominant group—to be themselves, I have to add that both Paul and Jesus advocate for the full receipt of self. Jesus exhorts one finds themselves when they lose themselves; Paul advocates for a sense of other demanding a real and present self. Both argue for the death of the self from the prison of the self, which does not end in death for death’s sake (this would be the death of the self ending in no self) but in new life (of the self) which is categorically re-oriented for others informed by the love of God’s life-giving Spirit. Herein is freedom: a substantiated self who loves and acts for the other, calling out death-dealing systems and refusing to ever again be yoked to slavery to the law in such a way that the law triumphs over love and over the other.

To solidify his point, Paul highlights what works look like when trapped in the prison of the self unliberated from the self, and he compares those works to the fruits of a self liberated from the self for others. I won’t deliberate long on those, for that’s an entirely different sermon. But when you get a chance, look at the difference and see where love + action = freedom; where that formula is lacking there you will find death, and where it is present you will find life.

Conclusion

Dorothee Sölle writes,

“Unless we are free, we cannot be instruments for the liberation of anyone else. And what prevents us from being free? Anxiety. Liberation is a problem which first begins within us, of not having any anxiety about the consequences. We can have anxiety, but we must control this anxiety. It is anxiety in the sense that we recognize the risk; otherwise it would be blind.”[4]

Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God

What Sölle is getting at here is, essentially, the liberation of the self from the self that is the seat of “being free”. Anxiety is a driving force helping us to protect the self from disaster; but it can also grow so large that it renders us useless in the prison of the self. Rather than just command people not to be anxious and just lose themselves, she articulates a need of self-mastery and self-differentiation that is informed by love of God and love of others. I can see my anxiety, acknowledge my anxiety, and then move forward with my anxiety. This momentum begins the freedom starting within and rippling outward into realms with others.

In other words, love of the other drives us to secure life for others. Is this not the gospel story of God’s love for the world manifest in Jesus the Christ from Nazareth who loved others with God’s Spirit of Love even to the point of his own death? Then, as those who follow Jesus out of the Jordan to the Cross, is this not also our story individually as Christians and corporately as the church? Aren’t we to be those willing to love others beyond our own anxiety so that there is life and liberation for all? When did Christianity and the Church become the message about the laws of power and privilege, the law of the self over and against the other? When did we lose ourselves to our pews and the obligations of standing and sitting for an hour on Sunday?[5] When did the church forget that she’s more than a coffee hour and is a little bit dangerous in a world bent in on itself?[6]

There’s no way around it: love is risky because love risks the security of the self for the security of the other. Love isn’t some saccharine feeling that ends in peace signs and always feeling good. Love propels us beyond ourselves for others and (paradoxically) in this activity we become more ourselves. And herein is freedom, beloved: to be those who are substantially for others with love and corresponding loving action that shakes the foundations of the world. In other words, we love as we were first loved by God, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit of love.


[1] Grateful to Holly Tran for mentioning this for aspect to the way freedom is considered in America.

[2] This is the logical trajectory of Ayn Rands Objectivism and its promotion of the selfish.

[3] Translation mine, unless otherwise noted.

[4] Dorothee Sölle, Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990. First Eng. Ed SCM Press, 1990. 129.

[5] Sölle, Thinking About God, 144. “One of the main dangers of Protestantism lies in its excessive stress on the kerygma, or more properly, on the kerygma reduced to preaching. The church is regarded as the place where preaching is done. Church takes place between ten and eleven on Sunday morning. The two other functions of the church disappear from view and hardly affect the ordinary members of the congregation. …“If church de facto consists in sitting still for an hour on Sunday without getting to know anyone else, the unity of kerygma, diakonia and koinonia is destroyed. How can any life develop which deserves the name ‘church’, in the sense of the assembled people of God?””

[6] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017. 150-1. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

Our Stories This Story: The Others

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Grouping isn’t bad.

But grouping can become bad.

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

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

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Micah 6:6-8

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

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


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

Our Stories This Story: The Worker

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

Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15

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

Introduction

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

From the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

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

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

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

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

Exodus 3: 1-15

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

Exodus 3:4-6

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

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

Exodus 3: 7-8

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

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

and this my title for all generations.”

Exodus 3:13-15

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

Conclusion

In sermon on Genesis 11, Helmut Gollwitzer preaches,

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

Helmut Gollwitzer Way to Life

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


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

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

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

What if Thy Will is Done

Every time I pray Thy will be done on Earth as in Heaven
I stop and pause and think…Really? Do I mean this?
Do I really want God’s will done on Earth?
The stories and mythologies
Forming the backbone of the tradition
Speak of radical events of upheaval and chaos
When God makes divine footfalls on our terra firma,
When God beckons humans to reconsider, to look elsewhere, to hear anew.
The vibration from Divine steps and voice renders pre-existing structures
Rubble and dust; removing ground under feet once sure and confident;
Plummeting sure and confident human beings into voids of doubt
Flirting with despair and terror and fear and panic;
Returning full grown adults to infancy: needy and desperate.
But the meaning of my pause is ironic: aren’t I already in tumult
And chaos and upheaval? Haven’t we done just fine with that
On our own?

We kill black and brown people in streets and on borders
We declare war on neighboring Nations and people groups
We’ve stolen land and then sold it back to the people we stole it from
We render humans without homes as blights on our quaint Main Streets
We perpetuate the starvation of the Hungry while feeding dumpsters
We make undrinkable water for the Thirsty but we have our enterprises
We make life a thing to be earned, baited with the carrot of healthcare
We throw people in cages while retirement accounts and mutual funds surge
We sell lies of security to people through the idolatry of Militarization
We put all of our hope in science and then turn our backs on it
when it threatens to restrain our liberty and freedom for others
We’ve grown isolated and alienated, packed in below the earth,
safe in our bunkers from the enemies outside;
but the irony is… we’re the enemies we fear most.

So, what if praying fervently: Thy will be done on Earth as in Heaven
Means comfort and solidarity rather than chaos and loneliness?
What if it means solid ground rather than groundlessness?
What if it means right side up rather than upside down?
What if it means breathing in deep rather than holding breath?
What if it means mutuality into community rather than competition unto isolation?
What if it means surety of divine presence in the other and with the other rather
than the surety of the doctrines and dogmas of human made systems and kingdoms?
What if it means I can collapse into the divine embrace of a loving Elder Ancestor
who whispers to me the stories of the perpetuity of divine love in the world and
for the world—the stories and myths that feed life and liberation to all those who hear—
rather than being stuck in the alienating and destructive mythology of man, held by none?
What if it means rest in loving warmth rather than tumult in chilled indifference?
What if it means light and life rather than darkness and death?

Be Merciful as God is Merciful

Sermon on Luke 6:27-38

Psalm 37:41-42  But the deliverance of the righteous comes from [God]; [God] is their stronghold in time of trouble. [God] will help them and rescue them; [God] will rescue them from the wicked and deliver them, because they seek refuge in [God].

Introduction

Being told to “love your enemies” is easier said than done. The command is muddled by how we define “enemy” in a way that leans toward those *we* don’t like. It’s definitely hard to override disdain with feelings of love; when we don’t like someone, we just don’t like someone. Enemies also aren’t the people who we can’t forgive because they hurt us once in some way. That’s a real feeling and one I understand very well. Yet, it has its own category. Still, that person is not an enemy, no matter how angry you (still) are.

Who is the enemy?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer defines “enemy” in his text, The Cost of Discipleship, writing on Matthew 5:43-48:

“By our enemies Jesus means those who are quite intractable and utterly unresponsive to our love, who forgive us nothing when we forgive them all, who requite our love with hatred and our service with derision…”[1]

Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in 1937, was already a target of Hitler’s personal aggression. Two days after Hitler took office on January 30, 1933, Bonhoeffer aired a public radio broadcast in which he offered criticism of the Führer (without naming him directly); this broadcast was cut off before it was finished.[2] The text quoted above came to Bonhoeffer in response to his contemplation of the Sermon on the Mount and how it impacted the believer in terms of Christian-life formation related to “what it means to follow Jesus Christ.”[3] As the church struggled to find it’s voice under the tyranny of Hitler, Bonhoeffer sought to articulate something into the void. For Bonhoeffer he himself in specific and Christians in general were at a “fork in the road.”[4] He and other pastors were under great pressure to capitulate to the oppressive demands and threats of the NSDAP[5] who was strangling and starving all resistance.

All that to say: Bonhoeffer, even with his privilege, wasn’t writing about enemy-love from a secluded and safe distance. He wasn’t instructing people who were fighting for their lives while he grew fat from luxury and comfort. He was in the thick of it, guiding others into it, and teaching those younger about this radical conception of love even for those who are threatening your life and survival.

“Love asks nothing in return, but seeks those who need it. And who needs our love more than those who are consumed with hatred and are utterly devoid of love? Who in other words deserves our love more than our enemy? Where is love more glorified than where she dwells in the midst of her enemies.”[6]

Cost of Discipleship

Who loves the one who bullies them? Who loves the ones who are bent on violence and destruction and death? Who loves those enlisted in this service of a fascist dictator in the Sturmabteilung (SA)[7] and the Schutzstaffel (SS)?[8] But yet—in the face of fear, terror, threat, and very real death—this is what Bonhoeffer was asking from all who would listen to the exhortation of Christ.

Luke 6:27-38

“But to you all I say to those who are listening: Love your enemies, in the same way act toward those who hate you, bless those who are cursing you, offer prayer concerning those who are reviling you. To the one who strikes you on the cheek, present also the other; and from the one who removes your cloak, do not hinder the tunic also. Give to all who are asking you, and from the one who removes things form you do not demand [them] back. And according to the manner you wish people do to you, you do to them likewise. [9]

Luke 6:27-31

When Jesus exhorts “those who are listening” to do what seems like the impossible, he is elevating the call to righteousness.[10] While you might have believed x, or thought y, I say….[11] (Something utterly new.) Whatever was assumed, is no longer. Jesus begins by calling attention to an alteration, specifically about “enemies.”

For Jesus, and especially for those who follow him, Love—divine love—is more than a feeling; it’s an action.[12] And not a passive action, but a proactive one; love empowers us to love in radical ways, even to love those who hate us.[13] Love, for Jesus, is done toward others (those least deserving and most in need) in such a way that it reflects what you would want done to your own body and person. In the love-economy of the reign of God: love loves, no matter the status of the other person. [14] In the love-economy of the reign of God not even enemies are the categorical other; for this new community of Christ—the ones who follow after Jesus in person (flesh and bone)[15] and then later by the power of the Holy Spirit—there are only porous boundaries. It is this very community who refuses to declare definitively that another or an other is an “enemy”, undeserving of love, kindness, mercy.[16] Jesus exhorts all those who are listening to love especially the “enemy.” [17]

The reason for the exhortation is embedded in the second half of the text, “And your wages  will be many, and you will be children of the highest, because God is gentle on behalf of the ungrateful and wicked people,” (6:35). In other words, love is about mercy, and God is merciful—abundantly merciful. So, as God is merciful and kind,[18] so too are those who follow Jesus, God of very God.[19] The basis of the ethical posture of this new community: do as God does because God’s nature made manifest in God’s Christ is the starting point for any and all discussions of “Christian” ethics.[20] And this Jesus will allow love to cover over and define every space and distance between him and the other so that he can declare that other as beloved even when we’d say otherwise.

Conclusion

In the encounter with God in the event of faith the believer is tossed about and placed in the world in a way that is right-side-up even if it feels completely up-side-down. It is in this new life in God, fueled by the receipt of divine love, and from the magnitude of mercy we proceed (like being (re)born) into the world bearing the image of God in our features and new genetic code marked by love.[21] Because we have been recreated through faith, through our encounter with God in the event of faith, this puts a pause (even if momentary) on our desire to judge others by their actions. We are asked to think of what we would want from someone when we were acting in such a way; thus, we cannot determine who is and who is not to receive our mercy and grace if God does not withhold either from us.[22] If we so desire grace and mercy; are we also able to grant such things to others?

Loving the enemy feels impossible if it means I must hug and kiss and “love-on” the one who is hurting me, wounding me, being violent toward me. It’s just another violent Christian doctrine if it means I must lose myself to become a vacuous vehicle for abuse—this actually isn’t love because love is not vacuous existence lacking self, but active participation in the activity of love.

But maybe I’m radical enough to think it’s possible: because with God all things are possible. If we walk in love because we’re born of Love, then where we are there that space is filled with love. If God is with us, so too is God’s love. It does not mean I now think this enemy is just great, but it may mean I see them with God’s eyes. Maybe, I see a human, stuck in a misconception of the world detrimental to others and to themselves. I might see one who was a mere baby, held tightly by loving arms of a mother; I might even cry for sadness of the pain that caused this one to be as they are right now.

I know by standing in love and stepping forward in love, love goes with me. I do know that—like tiles being flipped over from the side of “not-love” to the side of “love”—the space and distance between me and my enemy is overhauled from not-love to love. (I do not even need to be physically close to my enemy to alter the space between us.) I know that by dropping the term “enemy”, I’ve already lost one; I know that by declaring “beloved” this one is now not my enemy. There is power in words. So, what happens when we use our words to alter the space and distance between us and our enemies? Would we not want that for ourselves? Would we not want someone else to see us as “beloved” and not as “enemy”? When we allow love to redefine our space and distance and location, then anything is really possible because love will always crack open what is to make room for possibility to blossom.

Beloved, you’re loved by God; mercy is new every morning. This divine love and mercy, forever altering the space between God and humanity bent on their own determinations and judgments and gains, is the very love that is glorified among those very children of God at their worst and best. God’s love is most exalted when it does what it loves to do: bringing God’s life and light to the farthest corners of the cosmos, overhauling death to make room for life, declaring beloved those whom were once called “enemy.”


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship New York, NY: Macmillan, 1959. 164. Emphasis, mine

[2] Christiane Tietz Theologian of Resistance: The Life and Thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Tran s Victoria J. Barnett. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2016. 36.

[3] Tietz, Resistance, 60.

[4] Tietz, Resistance, 63.

[5] Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei; The National Socialist German Worker’s Party.

[6] Bonhoeffer Discipleship 164. Emphasis, mine.

[7] Trans: Storm Division; the original para-military force of the Nazi’s.

[8] Trans: Armed Military/”Protection Squad”

[9] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[10] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 94 “The Sermon on the Plain now turns to those who are ready to accept Jesus’ call to a greater righteousness, and is therefore introduced with the words, “But I say to you that listen.” This may also be read as a further explanation of the last beatitude and its parallel woe, which have to do with the hatred of others toward the disciples.” See also: Joel Green (bibliographic material below): “A new beginning in Jesus’ sermon is marked by his words, ‘But I say to you that listen. …’ This should not blind us to the intimate relationship of this section of the address to what has preceded…” 269.

[11] Green Luke 272. “…he is asking people to accept an inversion of the world order, to agree with him that the world order has been inverted, and to act accordingly.”

[12] Gonzalez Luke 94. “Significantly, when one compares this section in Luke to its parallel in Matthew, it is clear that Luke emphasizes the use of possessions, and that he wants to make clear that Christian love is not just a sentiment or a feeling, but also an attitude leading to concrete action: “do good to those who hate you.’”

[13] Green Luke 272. “Love is expressed in doing good – that is, not by passivity in the face of opposition but in proactivity: doing good blessing, praying, and offering the second cheek and the shirt along with the coat.”

[14] Green Luke 272. “The category of “enemies” may include others, however, and not only those who deliberately oppose Jesus’ followers. Because the beggar is habitually defined as outside the circles of companionship of all but other beggars, they would not be classed as “friends” but as “enemies,” outsiders. Love is due them as well, as though they were comrades and kin, and in their case love is expressed in giving.”

[15] Green Luke 271-272. “Jesus’ sermon, then, serves an interpretive function for the narrative as it has developed thus far, casting in positive and constructive terms the worldview and concomitant practices Jesus’ message portends. It is also challenging, summoning its audience(s) to adopt this alterative view of the world and so to measure its practices by its canons.”

[16] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 270. “One corollary of Jesus’ message, then, is the construction of a boundary, the delineation of behavior characteristic of those within the community. This is an important observation, since one of the distinguishing marks of his ethic is a worldview that advocates love of enemies. But as a practice, it would appear that love of enemies is designed to mitigate social tensions that, if habitual, would jeopardize the identity of any group. How can this community be distinguished by a practice that dissolves any such distinctions? …in essence, Jesus calls on his followers. To form а community the boundaries of which are porous and whose primary emblematic behavior is its refusal to treat others (even, or especially, those who hate, exclude, revile, and defame you) as though they were enemies.”

[17] Green Luke 272. “Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” lack any commonly held ethical base and can only be understood as an admonition to conduct inspired by God’s own graciousness (W 350-36). This is not love for all humanity in general, but more specifically for those who stand in opposition to Jesus’ followers – those whom Luke has already noted in narration (5:27-6:11) and about whom Jesus has already spoken (vv 22-23).”

[18] Green Luke 271. “…in redefining the world for his followers, potential and actual, Jesus posits as its foundation his image of God as merciful Father (6:36) – a base on which he can draft the character of his followers, character that will manifest itself in the demeanor and practices here described.”

[19] Gonzalez Luke 94. This is parallel to Matthew’s ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matt. S:48). While Matthew’s words have often been taken out of context as the basis for a theological claim about God’s ontological perfection, Luke’s leave no room for such an interpretation. The divine perfection that the disciples are to imitate is the perfection of an all-embracing mercy

[20][20] Gonzalez Luke 94. “Furthermore, even though we often tend to think that the basis for the Christian ethics of love is the Golden Rule, in the final analysis the basis for Christian ethics is the very nature and action of God.”

[21] Green Luke 273. “…he incorporates into one utterance the character of this new people and the practices it engenders; theirs will be a countercultural existence indeed for their lives are based on an inverted understanding of their social world.”

[22] Green Luke 275. “Just as the merciful God does not predetermine who will or will not be the recipients of his kindness, so Jesus’ followers must refuse to “judge” – that is, to prejudge, to predetermine who might be the recipients of their graciousness. This is nothing but the command to love one’s enemies restated negatively. In an important sense, Jesus’ instructions are to refuse to act as those scribes and Pharisees had done in 5:27-32, as they calculated beforehand the status of those toll collectors and sinners and thereby excluded them from their circles of social interaction. …Jesus’ followers give freely, without dragging others and especially those in need into the quagmire of never-ending cycles of repayment and liability. And God will lavishly repay them.”

Unpitiable Hope

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Psalm 1:1-3a Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on [God’s] law day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water.

Introduction

I fear hope has gone the way of bathwater when a bath is over: swirling down the drain. The phrase, “I hope so” seems to carry the same force as “thoughts and prayers.” I think we’ve lost some of our willingness to be creative. Creativity takes on a forward-action of momentum; in creating, I move into the space where there is nothing with my hands, feet, head, heart, words, thoughts, actions and put something there. I believe the concept of hope carries this same action-oriented ability (hope and creativity seem to run on the same fuel of imagination); as of late, hope seems stripped of any forward action. When we use the word, it falls from our lips with a downtrodden lilting tone flirting with despair and heavy with doubt; our hands appear tied behind our back as we whisper the phrase to some unknown force and wait for intervention, like waiting on a superhero who will (hopefully) arrive just in time.

I don’t think it’s only an issue of creativity. I think we’ve emphasized too much intellectualism, rationalism, reasonability, and sensibility defined as “common sense.” We’ve allowed what is to triumph over what could be or might be or would be; we’ve stolen away with possibility and shoved it in the attic cranny or the basement closet of the house of actuality: what “is” is best and what isn’t “is” is worst. But if this is our axiom, then isn’t this axiom a death sentence? We’re stuck, if this is our paradigm. Doubly stuck if our hands are tied behind our back. What point is there in having hope if all there is is what we see; we know we don’t hope in things seen especially if all our world and society present is tumult and chaos…

The ultimate problem is a confusion of hope and expectation. When we consider hope we think about something we expect to happen in the future. In this way, hope is that thing that has (as of late) disappointed rather than pleased. I’m quite familiar with theologians, both alive and dead, who have no room for hope in their theologies. I’ve always marveled at such a stance but haven’t judged it because I get it. When hope fails to produce material or spiritual alterations to our life—extricating it from the burden of bludgeoning demoralization or the monotony of the mundane—it makes sense to ditch it. If my hope keeps presenting as dreaming of phantoms of good and better, rather than material bodily presence, then it’s nothing but that which perpetually disappoints me. It’s the mythological carrot of sadistic King Future luring on the peasants of the present eager to steal their labor and love.[1]

Sadly, we’ve conflated future expectation and present hope. When I’ve read through the First Testament and the recorded stories of Israel’s journey and walk with God, Israel’s hope in God is a ripe present hope based on historical stories hallmarking the past: we hope now because God has done… Today we can press on because yesterday God saw us through it.

Hope keeps an eye on history for the present; future expectation uses history as certainty for the future. Future expectation sidesteps the present and anchors what was into what will be, and flags are mounted on that moon with vigor and certainty. But the problem here is that we are not in a position to substantiate the future with…anything—neither with certain cynicism nor opportunistic optimism. We do not have the ability to throw anything far enough and hard enough into the future to populate it. I can only populate the present and in doing so participate in populating the past. I can’t penetrate the future; it always remains right outside of my grasp.

So, hope must accompany me today oriented toward possibility and built on the story of what has happened.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Now if it is proclaimed that Christ has been raised from the dead, how are some of you saying there is no resurrection of the dead? … If then Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain and you are still in your sins. Also, therefore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If with reference to this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable of all people

But now, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.[2]

1 Corinthians 15:12, 17-20, translation mine

Notice that in this part of the letter to the Corinthians, Paul challenges the refutation circulating among the Corinthians that resurrection isn’t real[3] by turning to story to validate the proclamation that Christ is the first fruits of hope of resurrection, hope that the death that threatened does not carry the final word. Using logic[4] to explain the consequences of such a denial, Paul calls the Corinthians back into the story, their story. Remember … remember what God has done[5]…This is all God’s work; as it was then, is now, and will be forever.

The point at stake, for Paul, is the vanity of faith and the emptiness of the story of God’s activity in the world if even this part is a lie.[6] Thus, Paul (eagerly but gently) reminds the Corinthians to consider the work of God, to consider the possibility that remains existent around them independent of what makes sense and what they can see. He explains the fruitlessness of a claim that resurrection from the dead isn’t real or couldn’t be because it’s beyond anything we’ve ever witnessed or demonstrated in our seeking of knowledge through the pursuit of science. In doing so, he allows the Corinthians to linger in a moment of hopelessness. If Christ isn’t raised from the dead by God and the power of the Holy Spirit…then what are you doing? The story is pointless: your faith counts for nothing; the dead are not asleep[7] but are dead; you are stuck where you are; death reigns and new life is a myth. For Paul, to completely reject Christ’s resurrection because you can’t prove it or it doesn’t make sense is the most hopeless posture to be in. It is a posture to be pitied because it is without hope and life.[8]

Why?

Because such a statement puts human limitations on God. For all intents and purposes, we could read this passage in 1 Corinthians as a litany of questions addressed to the Corinthians: Where’s the possibility? Where’s the creativity? Where’s the daringness to imagine something other than just what we have here and now? Where is the audacity to question and to ask, “What is it?” (Manna) Without the interrogatives, without the subjunctive mood and future possible conditional clauses, without the question mark, where would we be but stuck in the indicative and the imperative with the full-stop and exclamation mark forever prohibiting us from the forward-action of creativity and hope. We’d be without story, without room to grow, to experience, and to dare. Isn’t that just stasis? Isn’t stasis death? Isn’t that state the most to be pitied?

Conclusion

But yet we were made to live and not just exist but live: boldly and daringly, marinated in divine love and clothed in hope.

If we allow God to be God (the Creator) and humans to be humans (the created, the creature) then what the future is, is God’s alone because that “not-yet” resides yet in God—all time is in God. We can’t declare that x is impossible because that’s a substantiation of the future, so too is: x will be. The only thing we are given as terminology to speak of tomorrow is the language of possibility and the space of paradox. What is isn’t ever all there is, thus we live in the collision of possible and paradox performing revolutionary resistance to the powers that threaten to take our lives (material, spiritual, social, sexual, financial, political, etc.).[9]

Here in is hope’s realm.

Hope never lays claim to what will be, it doesn’t even pretend to do so (we force it to be future-expectation’s handmaid). Hope always takes up residence in the present with every anthology of the past stacked against her walls. Hope whispers to us: what is right now, isn’t all there is right now; there’s more here than meets the eye; all things are possible with God. Hope latches on to possibility, or maybe hope is the embers of the once raging fire that is the source of the divine phoenix of possibility rising forth. Hope has eyes to see this one step and not that one just changed everything. Hope has the ears to hear the whisper filled wind of history’s many stories surging and coursing around our fatigued bodies. If I’ve made it these many days, to this spot, can I make it one more? It’s possible.

Beloved, come into this story today, take my hand around this table and hear the wonderful proclamation of God’s love for you that echoes through all the halls of time seeking your ears to hear and your eyes to see and your heart to dare to hope. There is more here than we know, for we proclaim Christ raised from the dead and our hope is not in vain.


[1] This and the following two paragraphs taken from the introduction to this episode of my old podcast: Sancta Colloquia. https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/06/18/hope-in-the-mess/

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1214. “The first refutation now addresses what in the language of deliberative rhetoric would be called the “disadvantages” (or, for Paul, dire, unacceptable consequences) of any attempt to deny the possibility or applicability of resurrection as a reality or concept in principle. Such a denial would entail the unimaginable claim that Jesus Christ himself had not been raised from the dead. If the universal principle has no currency, by deductive logic a particular instance of it has no currency either. Any possible sense of confusion for the modern reader arises because the resurrection of Christ is also regardedas the paradigm case of resurrection in reality.”

[4] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1217. “An a priori denial of the possibility of resurrection thereby logically excludes the resurrection of Christ. These verses underline Paul’s expectation that believing Christians will respect logical coherence and rational thought. He does not hesitate to appeal to it.”

[5] Intentionally using the perfect passive here to highlight this is God’s work (passive) and that it happened in a previous moment but has ramifications for us now in that Christ is still raised.

[6] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1216. “The fundamental kerygma has as its content the raised Christ (the force of the perfect passive ἐγήγερται is that Christ was raised and continues to live: present state on the basis of past event). Hence, to deny the possibility of resurrection as such is to knock the bottom out of what constitutes a central article of Christian faith (ἐν πρώτοις, 15:3)…”

[7] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1221. “However, sleep regularly denotes the experience of death for Christians as pregnant with hope and becomes a standard term…”

[8] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1221. “Paul carefully portrays someone who has placed hope in Christ with nothing beyond, i.e., only so. ἐλεεινότεροι denotes more pitiable, more to be pitied, followed by the genitive of comparison πάντων ἀνθρώπων, than all human beings…”

[9] This and the remaining paragraphs taken from the introduction to this episode of my old podcast: Sancta Colloquia. https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/06/18/hope-in-the-mess/

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

Truly and Fully Loved

Sermon on Ephesians 1:3-14

Psalm 24:9-10 Lift up your heads, O gates; lift them high, O everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. ‘Who is he, this King of glory?’ ‘The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.’

Introduction

We love to speak of love. We talk about the things we love. As we do, a glow enters our face and light twinkles in our eyes. We grow passionate speaking of and discussing things we love—things we love to study, read about, watch, examine, play, create, etc. Love and passion seem to level the playing field between introverts and extroverts. Introverts come roaring out of their shells when given an opportunity to talk about their passions and loves. Most people who encounter me through study of theology or proclamation of the gospel are shocked to find out I’m introverted. I am…truly. But here, in this moment, I’m lit up, excited, filled with passion infused blood cells coursing through my body and love-struck animation taking over as I get to talk about divine love and liberation! Buckle up! Cuz there’s no rollercoaster quite like that!

We also love being in love. There’s a powerful chemical embrace of euphoric proportions as we are enveloped and elevated into something more profound than our own existence. Love is an intoxicating sensation in the body and mind, one moment where head and heart not only shake hands but enter full bodied embrace. We write movies, stories, and songs describing and depicting the profundity of being in love, highlighting our deep desire to be in love and to be loved. Even the most emotionally stoic of us have dreams and desires of being truly loved and truly loving even if we don’t and can’t speak of it in the floral of poetry or the fluidity of prose.

The worst is when we don’t feel loved. When our desire for love is met with silence and absence, neglect and violence. Or, when we feel as if we aren’t good enough for love—overworn scripts with lines repeated in inner monologues: love isn’t for you. Or, when we feel we are only loved because of or due to and not just because. We become paralyzed with fear of being ontologically unlovable. So, we battle against feeling unlovable and try to fight the two headed dragon of performance and condition. And we lose every time because that fight is unsustainable. If we believe we can earn love then we must also believe that love earned can be lost if we cease to be, to do, to act etc. And therein lies condemnation. Conditionality in love renders it no longer love but a violent contract wedded to production and performance. No on in the equation is loved; rather both are pulverized by the demand to measure up.

This one’s for the lonely, the ones that seek and find
Only to be let down time after time
This one’s for the torn down, the experts at the fall…

Greg Laswell “Comes and Goes (in Waves)”

Ephesians 1:3-14

Blessed is God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the one who blessed us with all spiritual blessing in the heavenly sphere in Christ, just as [God] chose us with [Christ] before the conception of the cosmos to be holy and blameless before [God] in love, [God] foreordained us for adoption as a [child] into the divine family through Jesus Christ, in accordance with the divine happiness of the will of [God], for the praise of [God’s] glory of grace that [God] endowed us with in the one who has been loved [and still is].

Ephesians 1:3-6, translation mine

Do you know what Ephesians is? It’s not merely an epistle supposedly written by Paul;[2] it’s a love letter. There’s little in the letter about the supposed wretchedness of the human condition, considered trademark Paul;[3] its emphasis and thrust is the activity of divine love in the world for creation and humanity. The Christian sacred text—its stories and letters—are verbal moments of encouragement to a fledgling church teetering on the brink of the abyss. Rather than seeing these texts strictly as sources of doctrine and dogma, see them as divinely inspired love letters written by human hands, a gentle bellows upon a small ember threatened with being snuffed out: Don’t give up, Beloved, you are loved; truly and fully loved.

Here, in this introduction, the author sets the scene and thematic structure of the letter: God’s love has come and called us to God[4] through God’s son—Jesus—the Beloved,[5] in and through and by whom we are chosen and liberated[6] to be the beloved since the beginning of the universe.[7] This is good news. The emphasis is on the manifestation of divine Love in the person and work of Jesus who is the elect one of God and in whom we’re elect.[8],[9] Jesus is the one who loves God and is the love of God come to the world and for humanity. According to Ephesians, Jesus is—literally—God’s love among and God’s love of humanity.[10] What does God’s love look like? It looks like Jesus the Christ the one loved by God loving us.[11] While we’re unable to look upon and touch the flesh of divine love set loose in the world in an active and a revolutionary way, we hear the words of these ancient stories by authors writing to long gone first churches of the followers of the way. In hearing these words of this story, we are grafted into the history of these stories and into the proclamation of divine love. In this way, we, also, encounter divine love made manifest in Jesus Christ as if we walked dusty roads with him.

The author continues: Love not only walked the earth, calling and liberating humanity and creation, Love also adopted us as Love’s children. The “us” being important and inclusive unrestricted by time and space: anyone who comes into contact with this story is looped into the “us”. When we encounter the love of God in the event of faith in Christ, we are reborn of God[12] by the Holy Spirit; and if reborn of God then we are children of God and thus heirs with Christ in love.[13]

This adoption provides a new framework for those who are called and liberated.[14] We’re radically and profoundly loved and wrapped up in God’s good happiness and pleasure,[15] and we are animated by this Love in whom and by whom we are reborn and loved. Our rebirth isn’t some singular trite tabula rasa situation; it’s the substance of our new existence in the “kingdom of the son of his love.”[16] We are now children of love, radically loved and provoked into loving our neighbor as we’ve been loved.[17]

Conclusion

This one’s for the faithless, the ones that are surprised
They’re only where they are now regardless of their fight
This one’s for believing if only for its sake
Come on friends get up now love is to be made.

Greg Laswell “Comes and Goes (in Waves)”

It is this divine love that is our message into the world in word and deed. When we Christians lose this part of the story, we become a very toxic and violent bunch unfit for the status of the messengers of God. When we cease to tell and hear this story, we lose our identity as those who follow Jesus; when we demand that something else be shared, we will lose our focus and our grounding and become as noisy gongs and clanging cymbals.[19] Our world needs all willing participants in the profound and active message of divine love; our world needs not just good vibes and thoughts and prayers, but people who dare to be motivated by divine love and run the risk of loving those long deemed unlovable by society. As we are loved, so we love.

God’s love in Christ has nothing to do with how good or bad you are. You don’t earn that love. You are loved (full stop). I know love can feel illusive. I know the sadistic whisper of unlovable. I know the battle against performance and condition to earn love. I know the dastardly silence and absence filling love’s space, the neglect and violence. And I know profound love. I am here because God so loved the world, so loved us, so loved me. While that story is for another time, it’s the motivation for why I’m here dressed in alb and stole. I’m set aside not strictly to perform rituals or what looks like divine magic, but to tell you and anyone else this particular story of divine Love for them—Love without hesitation and condition, a full blown apple-of-the-eye type of love. I’m charged to communicate to you the type of love that

… will not betray you
Dismay or enslave you, it will set you free
Be more like the [person] you were made to be

Mumford and Sons “Sigh No More”

And not just talk of it in abstract terms seeming to float above and just out of reach; rather I’m charged to bring it to you in space and time, to look you in the eye and tell you that you are loved—profoundly loved—and then to love you: to make space for you, to accept you, to walk with you, to be divine love present for you when you can’t feel it, when it feels gone, when you just want to call it quits…to remind you with echoes of ancient authors: Don’t give up, Beloved, you are loved. Truly and fully loved.


[1] Greg Laswell “Comes and Goes (in Waves)”

[2] In other words, I am not opposed to or deny the possibility that someone else wrote this letter in Paul’s name. Authorship doesn’t minimize the profundity of the articulation of God’s love described in this letter.

[3] Barth Ephesians 84, “In Ephesians there is no trace of a tragic harmartology (doctrine of sin). As was earlier observed, sin is not the basis or presupposition of grace. Neither is it the foundation upon which theology rests. Its incidental, senseless, wretched character deserves no better than the demeaning term ‘lapses.’ Even the plural of this noun (which is always used in Ephesians) appears to make sin a series of pitiable mishaps rather than the grave force it appears to be when Paul discusses sin in the singular.”

[4]Markus Barth Ephesians: Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on Chapters 1-3 The Anchor Bible Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1974.   Barth Ephesians 80, “‘Before him’ denotes the immediate presence of God to man, and the closest proximity of man to God. The image suggests the position and relationship enjoyed by the cream of society at a royal court; by children to their father; by a bride to the bridegroom (see 5:27!), by the priest in the sanctuary or another elect servant of God; or, by a supplicant seeking legal help from a righteous judge.”

[5] Barth Ephesians 82, “Jesus is not one among those loved by God. He is The Beloved Son. In the time of the Apostolic Fathers ‘the beloved’ appears as a designation of Jesus Christ which need not be supplemented by the noun ‘Son’.”

[6] Barth Ephesians 83, “‘Freedom’ is the clear purpose and result of redemption…Jn this verse Paul does not speak of a way to be followed, a function to be fulfilled, or an action to be completed, but of the complete attainment of the ultimate.”

[7] Barth Ephesians 78 “The totality of God’s gracious manifestation is extolled in the blessing of 1:3-14. This part of Ephesians is a summary of the whole message the apostle wants to give.”

[8] Barth Ephesians 86, “If Christ’s title ‘the first-born’ is considered a parallel, then Eph 1:9b intends to say, the same Jesus Christ in whom the saints have been elected, through whom they were adopted, and through whose blood they were liberated and forgiven—this Christ is granted God’s favor at the head of all creation. In this case Christ is here characterized as the primary and exemplary elect. Election is then, as it were by definition, first and essentially the election of the Son by the Father.”

[9] Harold W. Hoehner Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2002. 175, “The words ἐξελέξατο “[God] chose us,” are very comforting for the believer….The choice of Levi for the priesthood does not imply negative about the other tribes. Furthermore, nowhere is election contrasted with reprobation. It speaks only of those who are chosen and nothing of those not chosen.”

[10] Barth Ephesians 80, About “in love” “According to Ephesians Jesus Christ is the epitome of both, the chosen one beloved by God and the man loving his fellow man. The reception and the demonstration of God’s love among men are as inseparable in this epistle as in I John. The translation of Eph 1:4 must give expression to each of the possible meanings.”

[11] Barth Ephesians 82-3, “(c) The coming, the death, the resurrection of Jesus—in short himself is the form, the content, the revelation, the transmission of God’s overflowing grace. Several Pauline passages support the third among these alternatives …things do appear certain. The election of men by God and his outgoing grace are inseparably connected with God’s warm and personal relation to Jesus Christ. And election cannot be separated from love—or else another election is spoken of…”

[12] cf. John 3

[13] Barth Ephesians 80-1, “Among the NT writers Paul alone speaks explicitly of adoption. Others speak of the father-child relationship between God and man, but they prefer biological imagery and mention a specific role which the word of God, the Spirit, the resurrection of Christ, or the reception of Christ in faith has in the act of birth or rebirth. Paul’s utterances on adoption emphasize the causative and cognitive power of the Spirit and at the same time the juridical-economical implication of adoption: those adopted receive an inheritance. His specific concern is always the inclusion of the Gentiles among the children adopted by God.”

[14] Hoehner Ephesians 196-7, “The point is that the one adopted acquired a new status, privilege, and property that would not have been available under [their] old [parent].”

[15] Barth Ephesians 81, “Far from any idea of arbitrariness, it has warm and personal connotations. When God’s good pleasure is mentioned, his willingness and joy in doing good are indicated. The happiness that accompanies a radiant good will is implied.”

[16] Barth Ephesians 82, “Lit. ‘in the beloved.’ The term, ‘the beloved,’ is a Messianic title. An equivalent, but heavier formulation is found in Col 1:13 where reference is made to the (lit) “kingdom of the son of his love.” In the LXX the passive perfect participle egapemenos, which is also used here, occurs as name of the chosen people or their personal representative. In the Blessing of Moses and in Isaiah this participle renders either Jeshurun or yadid, i.e. titles or attributes that almost mean ‘darling.’ The verbal adjective agapetos is in Hellenistic Greek synonymous with the passive participle.”

[17] Hoehner Ephesians 184, “To have love without righteousness is to have love without a standard of right and wrong, and to have righteousness without love lacks warmth and personal interest. In reality, both work in harmony because love is the essence of all virtue for it fulfills the whole law. God has restored what humans lost in the fall. [God] is both love and holy and a person is to manifest love with holiness as a result of being elected. This will be fully realized in the future when believers will stand in God’s presence. However, if it is true that they will be holy and blameless before him in love, the purpose of God’s work in believers today is to produce holiness within them and love toward one another.”

[18] Greg Laswell “Comes and Goes (in Waves)”

[19] Cf 1 Corinthians 13:1ff

[20] Mumford and Sons “Sign No More”