Burning Ember of Divine Fire: Resistance!

Psalm 27:8-10 Even now God lifts up my head above my enemies round about me. Therefore I will offer in God’s dwelling an oblation with sounds of great gladness; I will sing and make music to Abba God. Hearken to my voice, God, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me.

Introduction

Recently I encountered a little reminder: “Your feelings let you know that you’re alive.” My knee jerk reaction was: “Maybe I could use less knowing??” I feel so much right now. Every day seems to compound the previous one, ushering in deeper hues of the feelings from before accompanied by new ones or ones long dormant. Huh, I’ve not felt that shade of gray in a while… A lot of it revolves around being dissatisfied with the way things are, dissatisfaction threaded through with worry that this is it, this is all, this will be the new normal from now on. I know I’m not alone; I think we all carry heavy emotional burdens right now. There’s a lot to feel; and feeling the feels carries great risk. What if it is too much for me to bear and it crushes me?

It might. That’s the risk. That’s why we numb.

The urge to numb our dissatisfied inner worlds is on the rise. There are times to numb, you’ll never hear me advocate for human life sans devices helping us catch a break from the turmoil of our external and inner worlds. However, it seems that for the past three years the need to numb is more prevalent. If I’m numb I can’t feel that subtle worry settling in the marrow of my bones. If I’m numb, I can ignore the deeper shades of gray. If I’m numb, who cares if things stay the same or get better… If I’m numb, I can’t feel that dreaded dissatisfaction. I can’t feel anything in fact.

One of the marks of the living is the ability to be dissatisfied; to be dissatisfied is to disagree with death. To feel our feelings—whatever they are, even if they are painful—opens up the door to the reality that somehow and somewhere life is coming more in line with the principles of death rather than the dictates of life. To dare to feel means taking straight-on the real feeling of being truly dissatisfied. What if it is too much for me to bear and it crushes me?

It might. That’s the risk. That’s why we resist.

Isaiah 9:1-4

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness–
on them light has shined.

Isaiah’s text emanates hope completed and yet to be realized. The light has shone and his audience will see it. In a deliberate play of verbal tenses, Isaiah’s hope is visceral and tangible. You can feel Isaiah’s excitement as he proclaims these words to a downtrodden people, those trapped under mills-stone sized oppression, those stripped of their liberty and reduced to the margins of society.

Isaiah is one of the great prophets of Israel who stands between God and God’s people, representing God’s love and desire for the people and representing the people’s angst and dissatisfaction to God; the prophet is the sympathetic one, the one who identifies with God and with the people.[1] The divine pathos—the divine passion—of God for God’s people encourages Isaiah to declare to the people that their cries are heard, their tears counted, their pain felt (personally) by God. In the same breath, Isaiah is given the courage to stand and step against the death dealing characteristic of the kingdom of humanity; with divine passion, Isaiah articulates the divine no! to oppression and violence.[2] Judgment has come for those who harm God’s beloved.

Isaiah’s language fluctuates between speaking on behalf of God and for the people; this fluctuation highlights the duality of Isaiah’s existence trapped in this articulation of mutual love.[3] He carries the emotional, thundering content of divine speech into the world to ears longing for liberation like parched tongues eager for water, and then moves to articulate the depth of gratitude and praise from God’s people to God.[4] Isaiah, and all prophets who came before and follow after, are aligned to the divine concern and the human concern—they’re sympathetic to what is going on both in heaven and on earth and they are eager not only to speak God’s loving and liberative reign but also to act cooperatively against human tyranny.[5]

This human tyranny, for Isaiah, works against the livelihood of God’s people, restricts thriving to an elite few, submerges feeble and weak human bodies deep into the waters of misery, injustice, and alienation; and, for Isaiah, this isn’t acceptable. In sympathy with the people and with God, Isaiah is committed to pronouncing the judgment of God[6] on those who oppress God’s people, and is empowered to proclaim a better way to live in the world and to communicate a strength to respond to the dissatisfaction of the way things are.[7]

For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.

Isaiah, in this brief section, articulates the longed-for liberation of the people. Their yoke (of oppression) that stretches across their shoulders is broken. This is not merely a spiritual thing that Isaiah articulates, it’s not as if God’s people are burdened by the violence and condemnation of structures wired against them but they aren’t really; it is this way and the response is to ask God to break the rod of the oppressor and to rid themselves of this yoke. But it’s not about Israel rolling over and waiting for God to show up; God is with them, the prophet represents this fact. Isaiah wakes the people out of slumbering numbness and asks them to look and see their plight. They are in darkness; they need light. They are yoked; they need liberation. “THIS IS NOT NORMAL!” Isaiah Thunders! He joins them up into God’s love for them, the beloved, and exhorts them to feel what has too long been buried and trapped, refused for fear.

Life demands feeling even the very worst of emotions, so Israel can live in a way that resists death. For death is not just of the body, it can happen before, as they walk around and go through their days. Israel must be summoned into their plight, to feel it, to remember they are alive…even if it might be too much for them to bear, even if it might crush them. Because…

It might. That’s the risk. That’s why they resist.

Conclusion

You [God] have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.

To wake up, to feel one’s dismay, to be dissatisfied with things as they are is the deep calling to deep, it’s the divine summons to take up the cross and follow, it’s the loss of self that’s the gaining of self, it’s being alive. Ultimately, it’s the beginning of our resistance to that which is dead set on stealing our life and refusing our liberation to be fully thriving human beings. To be dissatisfied with the way things are is the burning ember that becomes the divine fire of love that is resistance against death on behalf of life. To resist death, we must live; we must risk the vulnerability of being human and fleshy, thinking and feeling creatures and live…even now, even when things are gray and bleak, midwinter humdrum. We must respond to Isaiah’s summons and wake up and look around, and be on our guard against slipping back into hibernation. We must remember that the God whom we encounter in Christ by the power of the Holy spirit is, to quote Dorothee Sölle and her husband Fulbert Steffensky, the very God who

“…stands on the side of life and especially on the side of those to whom life in its wholeness is denied and who do not reach the point of real living. God is not on the side of the rulers, the powerful, the rich, the affluent, the victorious. God takes sides with those who need him. He sides with the victims.”[8]

As those who are positioned to follow Jesus out of the Jordan, we are exhorted through Isaiah’s words to live and not just barely. We’re exhorted to live as those who have seen a great light, those who have reason to rejoice, to celebrate, to live tremendously, to live fully, to fiesta,[9] to have joy, so that we can mock, resist, and refuse death and destruction its façade of power over us. We are exhorted to join in life’s great songs against death; we are called to identify and sing with those who suffer more than we do.[10] In life’s desire to live we must advocate and raise our voices in celebration of life—for our neighbors and siblings, thus for ourselves—to remind death we’re still alive, dissatisfied as hell but still very much alive.


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 308. “In contrast to the Stoic sage who is a homo apathetikos, the prophet may be characterized as a homo sympathetikos. For the phenomenology of religion the prophet represents a type sui generis.”

[2] Heschel, The Prophets, 308. “The pathos of God is upon him. It breaks out in him like a storm in the soul, overwhelming his inner life, his thoughts, feelings, wishes, and hopes. It takes possession of his heart and mind, giving him the courage to act against the world.”

[3] Heschel, The Prophets, 308-309. “The words of the prophet are often like thunder; they sound as if he were in a state of hysteria. But what appears to us as wild emotionalism must seem like restraint to him who has to convey the emotion of the Almighty in the feeble language of man. His sympathy is an overflow of powerful emotion which comes in response to what he sensed in divinity. For the only way to intuit a feeling is to feel it. One cannot have a merely intellectual awareness of a concrete suffering or pleasure, for intellect as such is merely the tracing of relations, and a feeling is no mere relational pattern.”

[4] Heschel, The Prophets, 309-310. “´It is such intense sympathy or emotional identification with the divine pathos that may explain the shifting from the third to the first person in the prophetic utterances. A prophecy that starts out speaking of God in the third person turns into God speaking in the first person. Conversely, a prophecy starting with God speaking in the first person turns into a declaration of the prophet speaking about God in the third person.”

[5] Heschel, The Prophets, 309. “The unique feature of religious sympathy is not self-conquest, but self-dedication; not the suppression of emotion, but its redirection; not silent subordination, but active co-operation with God; not love which aspires to the Being of God in Himself, but harmony of the soul with the concern of God. To be a prophet means to identify one’s concern with the concern.”

[6] Heschel, The Prophets, 171. “No one seems to question her invincibility except Isaiah, who foresees the doom of the oppressor, the collapse of the monster.”

[7] Heschel, The Prophets, 309. “Sympathy, however, is not an end in itself. Nothing is further from the prophetic mind than to inculcate or to live out a life of feeling, a religion of sentimentality. Not mere feeling but actin will mitigate the world’s misery, society’s injustice or the people’s alienation from God. Only action will relieve the tension between God and man. Both pathos and sympathy are, from the perspective of the total situation, demands rather than fulfullments. Prophetic sympathy is no delight; unlike ecstasy, it is not a goal, but a sense of challenge, a commitment, a state of tension, consternation, and dismay.”

[8] Dorothee Sölle and Fulbert Steffensky Not Just Yes & Amen: Christians with a Cause. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1985. p. 82

[9] Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. p. 131.

[10] I’m influenced here by the work of The Rev. Dr. James H. Cone in The Spiritual & The Blues. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1972. p. 130. “Whatever form black music takes it is always an expression of black life in America and what the people must do to survive with a measure of dignity in a society which seems bent on destroying their right to be human beings. The fact that black people keep making music means that we as a people refuse to be destroyed. We refuse to allow the people who oppress us to have the last word about our humanity. The last word belongs to us and music is our way of saying it. Contrary to popular opinion, therefore, the spirituals and the blues are not songs of despair or of a defeated people. On the contrary, they are songs which represent one of the great triumphs of the human spirit.”

God of the Living

Sermon on Luke 20:27-38

Psalm 145: 18-20 God is righteous in all God’s ways and loving in all God’s works. God is near to those who call upon God, to all who call upon God faithfully. God fulfills the desire of those who fear God; God hears their cry and helps them.

Introduction

The excitement of the holidays is upon us!

However, if you feel anything but excited and more exhausted about now, I don’t blame you. I feel it. While I love the descent of cold weather and the pep that returns to my step, October’s close ushering in November brings with it the weight of another year nearly gone. I tend to roll into November like Santa rolls out on December 24th: carrying sack upon sack of all that has been created over the past months. Sadly, unlike Santa, I’m not distributing these “goods” and making things lighter. I’m storing these “goodies” for myself, my weary shoulders and back—and it feels heavy right about now.

I know it might be social conditioning, and I know nothing magical happens on January 1st, but there’s still something profoundly psychological that occurs in my inner world on 1/1. Bundled in the blankets of coldness, crispness, and bareness, there’s so much newness embedded into that day. Like a clean and clear canvas, the upcoming year lays out before me beckoning me to paint anything anywhere. By the time I hit November, I’m squinting my eyes, pallet knife in hand, looking to peel back layers of paint sloppily placed sometime back in June or maybe it was that spill in April?

I go through the motions, lumbering from one day to another murmuring like a Zombie. Instead of “brains” it’s something about “Friday” and “after Christmas” and “next year.” In other words, I’m trapped in the routine of duties and obligations, demands and deadlines, days in and days out. I’m the walking dead among the living, unable to summon myself out of it, dependent on whatever reserves of energy I have left, and growing too comfortable with the heaviness of existence and the powerlessness to do anything but give in to death’s bony claim on my life.

Luke 20:27-38

And Jesus said to them, “The children of this age marry and are given in marriage, but the ones who are deemed worthy to happen to be at that age and of the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. For they are not able to die still, for they are equal to angels and they are children of God, being children of resurrection. And that the dead are being raised, Moses made known on the basis of the bramble, as it says, ‘The lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ Now God is not of the dead but of the living, for to [God] all people are living.”[1]

Luke 20:34-38

Luke introduces us to a new religious group strolling temple grounds: the Sadducees. They differed from the Pharisees in the content of their ideology—they denied resurrection,[2] spent their time among the aristocratic of the Holy City, were a bit more conservative,[3] and adhered to Torah above all other writings.[4]Yet, they shared some characteristics: a preference for power, privilege, and elitism.[5] They, like the Pharisees before them, attempt to ensnare Jesus in an intellectual trap cloaked under the façade of an appeal to marriage and resurrection.[6] Their recourse through Moses, though, reveals their trap; the real crux of the question: do you, Rabbi, faithfully follow Moses?[7]

Jesus’s not-so-subtle answer? Uh, yeah, I do. Jesus’s oh-so-subtle question back: Is it about obeying Moses or understanding Moses?[8]The thrust of Jesus’s answer to the Sadducees anchors the discussion about marriage, being given in marriage, and resurrection in a right understanding of Moses and the Scriptures. it’s not about obeying what was; it’s about stepping into what will be. Starting off with a comparison of two ages (this age and that age, literally: τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου and τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου, respectively), Jesus makes a distinction between those who are stuck in the present order (this age) and those who are alive in the eschatological order (that age).[9] In other words, are you following in the ways of the kingdom of humanity or are you following in the way of the reign of God?[10]

The clues are in the language Jesus uses to speak of marriage, and it’s the clues that are lost in our translation. The Sadducees use language of “take” to speak of marriage (λάβῃ/λαμβάνω, I receive/take). We get lost in this text because of our conception of what it means “to marry” which carries with it—mostly—ideas of mutuality and equality. But the Sadducees are saying that this one man was given this woman to be his wife and then when he died the subsequent brothers then took her. They then appeal to the resurrection—something they do not believe in—to ask Jesus, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus’s reply indicates that their question is absurd, and they do not understand Moses or resurrection.[11] You do not see that you are stuck in this age and blind to that one.[12], [13] Jesus flips the language back on them, it’s in this age that human beings are taken and given as if they don’t matter;[14] but in the age of God, no such thing happens because they are children of life and not of death and do no perpetuate systems treating human beings like belongings.[15] In that age, no one owns this woman as an object; she is alive and not dead.

In this way, Jesus affirms resurrection from the dead not only as some future eschatological, end times fulfillment of all things, but as something that occurs now. Now, God is not of the dead but of the living, for to [God] all people are living.[16] According to the trajectory of Jesus’s logic here: those who die in God—Jesus’s ancestors—transition into God and thus they live because God is not the God of the dead but of the living, for God is not dead but alive. (Is not the substance of God love, and is not love living and not dying?) God is the source of all life and if the source of all life; all those who transition into God live.[17]

If in death we are alive in God through transition into the liveliness of God, then how much more should we be alive now? [18] As those who participate in God from this material angle, should we not also participate in life and not in death? [19] Shouldn’t we live with faces turned toward possibility, brazen with the bright sunlight of what will be rather than with strained necks looking backward, spines broken by weighted burdens?[20]

Conclusion

Back to the introduction.

We confuse survival mode for living. It’s not living. This is the tragedy of our moment in time; are any of us really alive? Living? And by this I do not mean “are you pursuing your passions?” or “calling”, for such language brings condemnation to already burdened bodies. What I mean is: are you here, right now? Can you breathe…deep? Can you look forward and see others or are you straining to look backwards refusing to let what is be what was? Would you see a shooting star in the night sky or are you busy looking down? Have you already succumbed to death? Are you, like me, the walking dead?

Our fears turn us in onto our own ego. Not only the feelings of guilt that overcome many people in their fear of death do this; other forms of ‘cares, grief, and personal woes’ can also hold us hostage and take complete control over us. We only become free in looking away from ourselves, which always means also leaving one’s present [curved in] situation.[21]

Right now, I need interruption. I need the trajectory of my material form altered. I need something that’ll call to me causing me to harken to it. I need to be beckoned out of myself. If anything is going to change for me at this point in the year—under the weight of these burdens—it has to come from the outside. In this way, as simple and pedestrian as it may sound, I’m dependent on an encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the story of God’s profound love for the cosmos thus for me, for you thus for me that I’m transported out of death and into life, out of this age and into that one. Truly, I cannot resurrect myself from this walking-deadness; I must be resurrected. I’m caused to stop, listen, see, hear, to turn and look by a humble proclamation of love so grand. In that moment I gain life because I gain a moment and in that moment is God; wherever life is there is God, wherever there is God there is love, and wherever there is love there is life.

So you, too, beloved, need to be interrupted to gain life, to be called into life out of death so that you can live now in God, by faith in Christ and in the power of the holy spirit and then live again in God, with those having transitioned into God before us. Shema, O Israel, the God who loves you is life.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 234. “For the sake of his Gentile readers, he explains that the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection. On the matter of the resurrection, Jesus agrees with the Pharisees, who do believe in it. So the Sadducees are questioning both him and the Pharisees.”

[3] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 521. “I said that the Sadducees were the priestly party of the aristocracy, even more conservative than the Pharisees, who were the priestly party of the middle class. It was through their conservatism that they didn’t believe in resurrection, for they accepted only the first five Books of the Bible (the Pentateuch), and in them the concept of resurrection does not appear, for it is a late concept in the Bible. Politically they were allied to the Romans, and they were the most strongly opposed to any messianic movement of the people that would endanger their privileges.”

[4] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 718. “The Sadducees, known for their emphasis on the Torah, attempt to set Jesus up; appealing to Moses, they concoct a scenario that, in essence, requires to answer the question, Do you follow Moses?” See also fn2.

[5] Green, Luke, 718-719. “Members of the Sanhedrin and their agents have been shamed and confounded into silence (vv 19, 26), leaving an opening for some Sadducees to engage Jesus in discussion. This is our first introduction to the Sadducees in the Third Gospel, but from an historical perspective this is not surprising. Sadducees, after all, exercised their aristocratic influence in the Holy City. Surprisingly little is known of them, undoubtedly owing to their loss of position following the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Josephus observes that they had the confidence only of the wealthy, and this comports well with their appearance in the Third Gospel at this juncture. Luke has and will continue to represent Jesus in controversial encounters with those of highest status in the city, and this would include the Sadducees.”

[6] Green, Luke, 717. “Within this co-text, however, it can hardly be read as anything but a further attempt to ensnare Jesus by embarrassing him before the people. The artificiality of the question is suggested, moreover, by its absurdity…”

[7] Green, Luke, 718. “In fact, the staging of this scene indicates that the real issue at stake is one of scriptural faithfulness, and then authority to interpret Scripture faithfully.”

[8] Green, Luke, 718. “The Sadducees are not the only ones to cite Moses, however; so does Jesus. The baseline of Jesus’ answer may be surprising to his audience but harmonious with a central sense, he turns the question away from obedience to Moses to one of understanding Moses. Who interprets Moses (and the Scriptures) faithfully?”

[9] Green, Luke, 720. “Fundamental to Jesus’ first point is his contrast between two sorts of piety, two aeons, and two forms of practice vis-à-vis marriage.”

[10] Green, Luke, 718. Scriptures are read with the right perspective, they are not self-interpreting. “As he lays it out, this perspective is an eschatological one, one that takes into account the presently unfolding purpose of God, and that generates in the present both faithful interpretation and faithful response.”

[11] Green, Luke, 721. “Jesus thus underscores the absurdity of the Sadducees’ question by undermining its major premises. The scenario they had painted has failed, first, in its perception of the nature of the age to come. Second, it fails to account for the reality that the age to come impinges already on life in the present.”

[12] Green, Luke, 720. “The Third Gospel often depicts persons, both male and female, as ‘sons of…,’ not as a matter of literal descent but as a way of denoting their character, their behavior. One sort of person is thus orientated toward ‘this age,’ with its concerns for status honor, relationships of debt and reciprocity, and the … .) The other group consists of ‘those who are considered worthy of a place in that age….’ The apposition of the two expressions ‘this age’ and ‘that age’ assumes a division of time into two aeons, the present age and the age to come.”

[13] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “A better interpretation is simply to say that Jesus is arguing that the conditions of the present age do not obtain after the resurrection. The question, ‘Whose wife will she be?’ ignores the radical newness of the coming kingdom. There are many similar questions that have no answer (and that are similar to those that the Corinthians seem to have been asking, and to which Paul responds in 1 Cor. 15)… Jesus does not attempt to answer such questions, but simply calls his listeners to trust the God who has made all things, and who will make the kingdom come to pass.”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “An interesting note having to do with marriage is that Jesus says that in the new order people ‘neither marry nor are given in marriage.’ For a woman to be ‘given in marriage’ implies subjection to others: the father who gives her, and the groom who takes her. In an order of peace, justice, and freedom, people are not ‘given’ to others.”

[15] Green, Luke, 721. “Although typically represented as passive verbs, the instances of the two verbs translated ‘are given in marriage’ (NRSV) actually appear in the middle voice: ‘to allow oneself to be married.’ The focus shifts from a man ‘taking a wife’; (wv 28, 29, 31) to include the woman’s participation in the decision to marry. This is important because the basic concern here is with a reorientation of human relations through a reorientation of eschatological vision. One sort of person is aligned with the needs of the present age; such persons participate in the system envisioned and advocated by the Sadducees, itself rooted in the legislation governing levirate marriage, with women given and taken, even participating in their own objectification as necessary vehicles for the continuation of the family name and heritage. The other draws its ethos from the age to come, where people will resemble angels insofar as they no longer face death.95 Absent the threat of death, the need for levirate marriage is erased. The undermining of the levirate marriage ordinance is itself a radical critique of marriage as this has been defined around the necessity of procreation. No longer must women find their value in producing children for patrimony. Jesus’ message thus finds its interpretive antecedent in his instruction about family relations of all kinds: Hearing faithfully the good news relativizes all family relationships …”

[16] Green, Luke, 722. “At the close of this argument, Jesus uses a clause, ‘for to him all of them are alive,’ meant to serve as a basis for his argumentation. …Instead, in some sense, these texts affirm, these persons are given life by God, Luke has already provided insight into the nature of resurrection life in his earlier reference to Lazarus, who was carried away by angels to Abraham (who is still alive[!]….”

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 235. “Having responded to the objections of the Pharisees, Jesus counterattacks with his own argument: Moses says that God is the God of his ancestors and, since God is not a God of the dead, but only of the living, this means that for God those ancestors are still alive.”

[18] Cardenal, Solentiname, 523. “OSCAR: ‘Yes, I agree with that, too, because I’m beginning to think that to be able to rise again you ought to begin to rise now in this life, first. In order to be able to have the hope of resurrection, I say, of God. But if you die in selfishness, what hope do you have!’”

[19] Cardenal, Solentiname, 521-522. “I: ‘For the Jews, and for Christ, there was no distinction between soul and body, as there was for the Greeks, who said that the soul came out from the ‘prison’ of the body. According to biblical thinking, resurrection, if it existed, had to be complete and material.’”

[20] Cardenal, Solentiname, 525-526. “I: ‘Also, Yahweh told Moses (when Yahweh appeared for the first time in history) to tell the people that Yahweh was the God of their forebears, of their past, of their history; Jesus is now saying that the people of the past continue to live, because the God of history is also God of the future. To be alive for God is to be alive for the future.’”

[21] Dorothee Sölle The Mystery of Death Trans. Nancy Lukens-Rumscheidt and Martin Lukens-RumScheidt. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007.

Remember Whose You Are

Sermon on Luke 17:5-10

Lamentations 3:21-23 But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness.

Introduction

If you’ve been in Christendom long enough you’ve heard the faith the size of a mustard seed exhortation. Various forms of itinerant faith healers, gospel preachers, and downright charlatans prey on the gullibility of humanity through the proclamation of material promises of radical healing if you believe just really really believe and abundant prosperity if you give just really really give all you have. The declarations and exhortations are couched in terms of just believe and you will receive; sadly, few received that for which they staked their livelihood. Many people have been led a long a treacherous path ending in despair and spiritual demise.

I wish you knew how angry I get when I hear stories of spiritual abuse such as this. People bombarded with accusations of not enough faith because they never saw the fulfillment of prayers. The material failure of the prayer renders the one praying in a state of personal condemnation (why can’t I have enough faith? What’s wrong with me?) and angry at God (what kind of God would do this? Why would a loving God make things so impossible?). This combination of condemnation and anger produces spiritual despair leading to rejecting God.

It makes sense to me. When I hear these stories, I don’t blame the person for giving up faith in that god. Ditching that god is the best choice. That god is slavery and captivity, forever demanding you play monkey games to earn your desired reward (God’s love!). The world would be better without this god. In these instances, I can’t help but think of one of my favorite short stories by Friedrich Nietzsche, Parable of the Madman. In this short story, a madman hollers in the market place, “‘I seek God!’ I seek god!’”[1] Met with mocking jeers and jeering mockery by passersby,

“The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eye. ‘Whither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this?”[2]

Nietzsche “Parable of the Madman”

The accusation is delivered; the question is never answered. The reader is left with that dual gift. We are left with that dual gift as the dawn of realization unfolds upon us in the wake of story upon story of spiritual trauma: we have woefully misrepresented God, recreated God in our own image, forgetting we are created in God’s image.

Luke 17:5-10

Now the apostles said the Lord, “Please add faith to us!”[3] But the Lord said, “If you have faith like a grain of a mustard plant then you would say to this sycamore tree, ‘be rooted and planted in the sea!’ and then it would listen to you.”[4]

Luke 17:5-6

Luke has some more fun things up his story-telling sleeve. Our gospel passage is a collection of odd statements—the heading in the NSRV bible translation literally reads: “Some Sayings of Jesus.” Sadly, and once again, our lectionary has jumped the bridge; and within the bridge is the key: woe to those who cause sinful stumbling for that fate is worse than stumbling (vv. 1-2),[5] and you must forgive, forgive, forgive… (vv. 3-4).[6] In these few verses the disciples are warned:[7] don’t become a stumbling block to anyone especially in terms of being unforgiving.[8]

This is heavy; heavier than they have been. See, Jesus is eager to teach his disciples all that he can for the end is approaching and these moments are some of the last moments before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. The disciples are coming up against the long, hard journey continuing on with the coming of God’s kingdom…without Jesus.[9] Thus the exhortation not to be a stumbling block and to be forgiving as often as possible are the very tools that will assist the disciples on their daily and continued practice when their good Rabbi is gone.[10]

Herein lies the plea of the apostles, “Please add faith to us!” Now, doesn’t that exclamation make more sense? The disciples feel the weight of Jesus’s exhortations; they know it’s impossible to walk that narrow pathway! The disciples know that others will stumble because of them—they aren’t perfect; they know human nature and the inability therein to forgive those who hurt them, and repeatedly—they themselves carry anger and resentment![11] So, these humble human beings do the only thing they know to do: throw themselves at the mercy of God, Give us more faith, Lord!!

The very next thing Jesus says in reply to the plea is: “If you have faith like a grain of a mustard plant then you would say to this sycamore tree, ‘be rooted and planted in the sea!’ and then it would listen to you.”

Big Bang Theory Panic GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Herein is the problem: taken out of context it sounds as if Jesus is imploring them to have more faith thus indicating that they don’t have enough faith. But, take a step back and look at what Jesus is saying: it’s ridiculous. It’s an impossible solution to an impossible demand. Both forgiving seven times every day for the rest of your life is a weighty task, demanding faith, even more than verbally uprooting a sycamore tree and making it plant and root itself in the sea.[12] Therein is the resolution: it’s not about the disciples lacking anything; it’s about the disciples realizing who they are: the beloved of God; and realizing who God is: Love.

Here, look at the next story, a parable about a master and slave. I know this parable falls coarsely on our ears, but stay with me. Culturally and historically[13] the master would not ask the slave to come in and dine at the table after working the fields and herds; the slave, according to this parable, would expect to continue with their duties—serve the master.[14] As with the slave, so to the disciples: they are expected to do what they are expected to do, nothing more and nothing less.[15] And they are to do it humbly—faults and all—in the spirit of love and forgiveness as they have been loved and forgiven.[16] This isn’t about great, big, heroic heavenly acts of faith demonstrating one’s power over the divine; rather, it’s about miniscule, small, unheroic, earthly acts of faith informed by humility, mercy, kindness, justice, peace, and love in submission to this God of love.[17] The disciples need not extra faith; they just need to do faithfully[18] what they can with what they have leaning (hard) into the love of God made known in Christ in their hearts and minds by the power of the Holy Spirit.[19]

Conclusion

We’ve killed God, Nietzsche isn’t wrong. We’ve taken God’s self-disclosed image and ran it through the mud forcing it into forms and fittings unsuited for such beauty. We’ve conformed God into our image, reduced God to our desires, rendered God’s word in service to our words. We’ve even framed our self-composed deeds of ownership over the doctrines of God, declaring to many in unnegotiable terms who and what God is, what God wills, whom God condemns; and we’ve crushed people, desperate, hungry lovers of God rendered to ashes in our outrage over and adherence to being right. All of it cloaked in the tyranny of religiosity.[20] How many have been wounded, harmed, victimized, oppressed, and traumatized because of this tendency to make God some object under human determination? How many people have been driven from God because of self-righteous claims? How many people can’t imagine a loving God because we’ve turned God into a cruel despot?

But there’s good news, paradoxically, in Nietzsche’s accusation: God is only dead as long as we keep misrepresenting God. If we, humbly follow Jesus the Christ—God’s baptized representative[21]—by loving others, showing mercy, granting forgiveness, confessing error and fault, embracing our humanity and the humanity of others by participating in liberation and justice, we can let Nietzsche’s madman find whom he seeks: God.[22] So, remember whose you are; remember you are born of love; in remembering this, you can’t help but bring that love into the world. Thus, God will cease being dead, and those who seek God will find God.

To all of you who hurt, nurse wounds, hide scars; to all of you who are afraid to speak, to ask questions, to push back for fear of punishment; to all of you who were and still are traumatized from an early age by images of wrath and hellfire; to all of you who became convinced that you were not enough, unworthy, unwelcome, and unloved for being unique in anyway, standing outside of the status-quo… I’m sorry. None of that is God, was God, will be God; that God is dead. It was all a sham anyway, created by human beings cloaked in fancy colors and robes drunk on their own power and image.

God loves you—not another version of you that’s cleaner, better, happier, or whatever—God loves you…as you are, right now, faults and all. God needs no great work of faith from you to earn God’s love—you cannot earn God’s love, it’s yours right now even if you are not ready to receive it. God loves you—always has, always will—and that’s all you need.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche The Gay Science “Parable of the Madman” Trans Walter Kaufman. New York, NY: Vintage Books, Random House, 1974. 181.

[2] Ibid.

[3] aorist active imperative second person, addressed to a superior (polite command). The aorist imperative carries the emphasis on the action as a whole rather than a continuation of an action from now into the future. Thus, we could look at it as a request for the faith that is needed (full stop); rather than give us some faith and keep giving us faith for a period of time.

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[5] Gonzalez, Luke, 199. “The warning is that, even though people will continue to stumble, any who become a stumbling block for others bear a responsibility even greater than the ones who stumble.”

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. Be on your guard (vv.3-4), “On the basis of the preceding, it is a warning that the disciples are in danger of becoming stumbling blocks to ‘these little ones’….But the possible stumbling block on which Jesus focuses is unwillingness to forgive.”

[7] Gonzalez, Luke, 199. “The first saying (w. 1-2) places the rest in their proper setting. It is a warning to the disciples.”

[8] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 612. “Disciples are to be on their guard against a mindset that works against justice and compassion for the ‘little ones,’ but also against dispositions that obstruct the restoration of sinners to community.”

[9] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 199 “What Luke is stressing in this entire section is the continued life of discipleship. Forgiveness must then be not only unlimited, but also daily and repeated. It is a continued practice rather than a magnanimous action.”

[10] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “But for the time being, in the last stages of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, he is preparing his disciples for the continuous, lifelong trek after him, carrying crosses and knowing that the kingdom of God is at hand.”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “…’Increase our faith!’ Read in the context of the foregoing, this points to the wise recognition that what Jesus is demanding of them is impossible. Forgiving even our worst offenders seven times a day? That would take much faith indeed! Hence the disciples’ request.”

[12] Gonzalez, Luke, 202. “Then, given the context in which the saying appears in Luke, there is still another possible interpretation. Jesus has just commanded them to do the impossible: to forgive others seven times, and then to do it all over again the next day. The disciples ask for more faith in order to be able to obey this injunction. Jesus recognizes that what he is asking of his disciples is difficult and requires much faith, even more faith than would be necessary to command a mulberry tree to uproot itself and be planted in the middle of the sea. This last interpretation would then lead into the fourth and last of the sayings in this section, which has to do with the impossibility and yet the need to obey the Master in all things.”

[13] Green, Luke, 614. “In this instance, the parable turns on the observation that a slave who is simply completing his work does not by doing so place his master under any obligation to reward him in some way. That is, the absurdity Jesus outlines draws on a particular, taken-for-granted social script apparent to ancient readers but easily missed by many contemporary ones. In this script, ‘thanks’ would not refer to a verbal expression of gratitude or social politeness, but to placing the master in debt to the slave. In the master-slave relationship, does the master come to owe the slave special privileges because the slave fulfills his daily duties? Does the slave through fulfilling his ordinary duties to the master, become his mater’s patron? Of course not!”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 202. Begins with a ridiculous proposition. “The parable begins by focusing on a slaves master Apparently, this is a fairly small household, in which a single slave is expected first to work in the fields—‘plowing or tending sheep’—and then top prepare the master’s meal and serve him. In that setting, the slave returning form the fields would not expect the master to feed him on the contrary, he knows that he must now prepare food for the master and serve him. This is no more than would expected of the slave, and the master would not even thank him for doing it.”

[15] Gonzalez, Luke, 202-203. “The point then is that all that a slave can do for a master is no more than is his due, and that the same is true of the disciples. Going back to the beginning of this series of sayings, this would mean that, even when the disciples have forgiven someone seven times daily, and done this day after day, they have done no more than is expected of them.”

[16] Green, Luke, 613. “Elsewhere Luke speaks of the daily demands of discipleship…by collocating ‘daily’ with forgiveness ‘seven times’ he points to the need to forgive as a matter of course and ‘without limit.’ To do so is not in any way extraordinary; rather, it is simply part of the daily life of those whose lives are oriented around the merciful God…”

[17] Green, Luke, 613. “In each case, ‘faith’ is not so much a possession as a disposition: Faith leads to faithful behavior; lack of faith leads to anxiety and fear…If for Luke faith manifests itself in faithfulness, then the request of Jesus’ followers, ‘give us faith,’ is tantamount to saying, ‘Make us faithful people!’”

[18] Green, Luke, 614-615. “…Jesus opposes any suggestion that obedience might be construed as a means to gain honor, or that one might engage in obedience in order to receive a reward. Remembering those in need with justice and compassion, working for the restoration of the sinner into the community of God’s family…—practices of this nature are simply the daily fare of discipleship. Extraordinary in no way, neither do they provide the basis for status advancement with the community.”

[19] Gonzalez, Luke, 203. “Taken together, these four sayings are both an indictment and a word of grace, both law and gospel. They set impossible standards. They show how faulty all human discipleship is, yet they also free the slave—and the disciples—from the burden of believing that one can do all that is expected, and therefore should somehow earn God’s love by means of absolute obedience. one could easily apply to them Luther’s saying to the effect that the law is like lighting striking a tree: it kills the three, and yet it makes it branches point skyward.”

[20] Gonzalez, Luke, 200. “Too often we Christians are so self-assured in our righteousness, in our orthodox beliefs and in our certainty on what it is that God wills that we convince ourselves that we have reason not to forgive those whose beliefs, lifestyle, or understanding of the will of God differ from ours. We know that this is uncharitable; yet we justify it by our adherence to the true faith, or to the straight and narrow. In so doing we may well be precisely the sort of stumbling block that Jesus is talking about in this passage. And we would do well to heed the words about the millstone!”

[21] Dorothee Sölle Christ The Representative: An Essay in Theology after the ‘Death of God’ Trans. David Lewis. London, England: SCM Press LTD, 1967. German original: stellvertretung—Ein Kapitel Theologie nach dem ‘Tode Gottes’ Kreuz Verlag, 1965.,132. “Christ represents the absent God so long as God does not permit us to see himself. For the time being Christ takes God’s place, stands in for the God who no longer presents himself to us directly, and who no longer brings us into his presence in the manner claimed by earlier religious experience. Christ holds the place of this now absent God open for him in our midst. For without Christ, we should have to ‘sack’ the God who does not show up, who has left us.”

[22] Sölle, Representative, 133-134. “But in view of this hope, what Nietzsche calls the ‘death of God’, the fact ‘that the highest values are devalued’, is in fact only the death of God’s immediacy—the death of his unmediated first form, the dissolving of a particular conception of God in the consciousness. It is therefore unnecessary for Christ to counter Nietzsche’s assertion of the death of God by affirming a naïve consciousness of God. If the dialogue between Christians and non-Christians is simply a tedious exchange of affirmative and negative statements, it is certainly not Christ who speaks in this way. To assert that God ‘is’ is no answer to the contemporary challenge, for Nietzsche does not in fact assert that God ‘is not’. His madman does not announce the commonplace wisdom of an atheism which imagines it has something to say objectively about the existence or non-existence of a supreme supernatural being. Unlike the multitude of the sane, Nietzsche’s madman goes about saying, ‘I seek God’. Nietzsche is no more concerned with God, as he is ‘in himself’, than the Christian faith is. This God ‘in himself’ is dead, is no more an object directly present to the consciousness, Nietzsche is concerned with the God who lives for us and with us. His madman mourns the manifest inactivity of God, but the thought of denying God’s reality does not occur to him. Yet this inactivity is taken seriously and at the same time transformed when someone who is conscious of it (but has the hope which resists this consciousness) stands in for God. When the inactive God is provisionally represented, then the two experiences—of the death of God and of faith in Christ’s resurrection—are present simultaneously to join battle as to what is real.”

Whom Do You Serve?

Sermon on Luke 16:1-13

Psalm 79:8-9 Remember not our past sins; let your compassion be swift to meet us; for we have been brought very low. Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your Name; deliver us and forgive us our sins, for your Name’s sake.

Introduction

Have you ever tried to do two things at once…well? Data tells us we cannot multitask as well as we think we can. We can text; we can drive. But we cannot text and drive. The advent and surge of smart phones exposed our inability to be the expert multitaskers that we thought we were. We can’t do two different things at once and do them both well.

I can read; I can listen to music with lyrics. But everything goes haywire if I try to listen to music with lyrics while I’m reading. I can have a conversation; I can write. But woe to the reader who reads anything I’ve written while trying to manage a conversation. I can chop veggies really fast; I can look at someone while their talking to me. But pray for my fingers if I try to do both!

We are complex beings in our inner world and rather simple in our material existence. We cannot go in two directions. No matter how hard I try—and believe me, I’d love the ability to go in two directions at once—I cannot do it. I can go this way or that way, but I cannot go both ways at once. I must say yes to one and no to another.

As a priest called from the people for the people, I made a vow to serve the people in and with the Love of God; I can’t now also vow to serve myself. In other words, I can’t now vow to serve myself and my inanimate material things if my vow is to serve the people. I must switch the vow, move it from one to another but I cannot vow to both. I can either serve my robes and stoles, table and elements, or I can serve the people those things are for; I cannot serve both. I can serve my doctrines and dogmas, rules and rubrics, canons and councils or I can serve the people God has called me to; I cannot serve both. Every clergy person from deacon to presiding bishop must make this choice; there’s no way around it. One “master” will win out every time.

Regularly, I must ask myself: Whom do you serve?

Luke 16:1-13

Whoever [is] faithful in very little is [faithful] in much, and whoever [is] unjust in very little is [unjust] in much. Therefore, if you did not become faithful in the unjust mammon [riches/property/possessions], who will believe you for the genuine riches? And if you did not become faithful in the belongings of another, who will give to you your own? No servant is able to serve two lords. For either [the servant] will hate the one and love the other or [the servant] will cleave to one and disregard the other. You are not able to serve God and mammon [riches/property/ possessions]. [1]

Luke 16:10-13

After the parable of the “prodigal sons”, Luke tells his audience Jesus finds it necessary to tell his disciples a parable about a shrewd about-to-be-former house-manager. In fact, it might be better to call this house-manager a “scoundrel.”[2] Here’s why: the story opens on a rich man who received charges against this house-manager for “squandering” (τὰ ὑπάρχοντα) the things which were “ready at hand” (as in: things in his possession, the things he was managing for the rich man). Thus, the rich man calls the man to him and asks, What is this I hear about you? Return your word of house-manager, for you are not able to be a steward anymore.

Uh oh. The house-manager’s scoundrelly ways caught up with him; he treated as his that which was not his—he took advantage of his position thinking it couldn’t change.[3] But it did; a new order is commencing whether he likes it or not.[4] Thus, it dawns on him that once he’s removed from his position, he’ll lose his livelihood[5] with little recourse to other work—I am not strong to dig, I am ashamed to beg (v. 3c). So, with an anachronistic “Hail Mary” he uses his skillz to his advantage. The about-to-be-former house-manager devises a scheme securing for himself hospitality in the future.[6] He summons those who owe his boss money. Asking each one what they owe (large sums) he slashes them nearly in half (much smaller sums). This about-to-be-former house-manager is brilliant; he uses what he still has—he’s not quite fired yet—and fabricates a safety-net for himself.[7] Those debtors receiving reduced bills will certainly owe him something in the future, like maybe a roof and a couch.[8]

Clever guy! And he’s praised as such! Then Jesus exhorts: And I, I say to you make friends for yourself out of the unjust mammon [riches/possessions/property], so that whenever it comes to an end they might receive you into the eternal tent.[9]

Excuse Me Reaction GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

None of that makes sense. Jesus’s words are hard to swallow here, especially if you consider the rest of Luke’s gospel—a text oriented toward the liberation of the captives from injustice due to an imbalance in power and privilege, property and possessions. Yet, if we allow that lens to assist us with this portion of text, we might see how clever Jesus is. Jesus continues: Therefore, if you did not become faithful in the unjust mammon [riches/property/possessions], who will believe you for the genuine riches? (v.11)Essentially, it’s about being wise as serpents and gentle as doves: create community with things unjustly gained.[10] In other words: force that which was intended for evil to be used for good and as you do watch heaven unfold around you and those whom you serve as you gain the true riches of justice: love,[11] mercy, compassion, kindness.[12]

In other, other words: keep your eye on your priorities.[13] Jesus concludes with a statement that seems detached from everything else: No servant is able to serve two lords. For either [the servant] will hate the one and love the other or [the servant] will cleave to one and disregard the other. (v 13a-b). If you, the ones who follow the Christ—remember, he’s addressing his disciples—cannot be trusted to repurpose unjust mammon[14]—riches, property, possessions—for the justice and benefit of other people,[15] how can you be trusted with the genuine riches of the kingdom of God? You can’t have mammon for mammon’s sake if you are one of Jesus’s disciples.[16] Jesus concludes in clear terms, You are not able to serve God and mammon [riches/property/ possessions] (v13c). Mammon and God will never, ever, share the stage.[17]

So, I must pose the question to you, too, whom do you serve?

Conclusion

We live in an unjust world. There is no way we can make the most modicum income that isn’t impacted and infected by injustice. All I have to do is tell you to go home and check all the companies represented in any type of portfolio. No matter how hard we try, we cannot avoid being held captive in a system seemingly bent on devouring human life like a vampire taking blood from its victim. No matter how hard we try, we cannot avoid noticing the ways we are complicit in this system, contributing to pain of others further down the ladder. We are tar-babies; caught, stuck, covered.

It’s tempting to throw my hands up and just say 🚒it. I can’t have this much anxiety over a tomato. Everything I consume—in one way or another—is a few degrees of ecological, anthropological, economical, cosmical violence. So, do I quit? Do I give up and give in? How would that fit with my vows as a priest in God’s church for God’s people? How would that fit with being a mom, trying desperately to raise humans who care about our mother earth, our brothers and sisters, our flora and fauna friends? How would that fit with a deep and abiding love for you? Shouldn’t I at least try to make this world a bit better for you? for those coming after me? For those coming after them?

No. I can’t quit and give up. Because I made a vow; because I was and am encountered by God in the event of faith; because I serve God by following Christ in whom I’m anchored by the power of the Holy Spirit. If the option is to serve mammon or God, I choose God. For in God is life and love, in God is justice and peace, in God is heaven. And if I serve God, I cannot serve mammon. So, instead of quitting, I play smarter, I dodge and weave better, and every so often I use the very tools of this age to bring light and life where darkness and death have been ruthless despots for too long.

Dorothee Sölle closes the second to last chapter of her book, Choosing Life, with a story from Auschwitz (1943-44),

“…there was a family concentration camp in which children lived who had been taken there from Theresienstadt and who – in order to mislead world opinion – wrote postcards. In this camp—and now comes a resurrection story—education in various forms was carried on. Children who were already destined for the gas chambers learned French, mathematics and music. The teachers were completely clear about the hopelessness of the situation. Without a world themselves, they taught knowledge of the world. Exterminated themselves, they taught non-extermination and life. Humiliated themselves, they restored the dignity of human beings. Someone may say: ‘But it didn’t help them.’ But so say the Gentiles. Let us rather say, ‘It makes a difference.’ Let us say, in terms solely of this world: ‘God makes a difference.’”[18]

Dorothee Sölle, Choosing LIfe, 97.

Instead of giving up, Beloved, let us choose to serve God and life, because “choosing life [and God] is the very capacity for not putting up with the matter-of-course destruction of life surrounding us, and the matter-of-course cynicism that is our constant companion.”[19] Choosing to serve life means not choosing to serve death; serving God means not serving mammon.

You cannot serve two masters. So, whom do you serve?


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 190-191. “But this parable speaks of a man who is undoubtedly a scoundrel; and yet it praises him and his wisdom! It is not uncommon to see on our church windows portrayals of a father receiving a son who had strayed, or of a sower spreading seed, or of a Samaritan helping the man by the roadside. But I nave never seen a window depicting a man with a sly look, saying to another, ‘Falsify the bill, make it less than it really is.’ Yet it is precisely this sort of man that the parable turns into an example!”

[3] Gonzalez, Luke, 191. “The present order is not permanent, and our authority over life, goods, and all the rest is only temporary. We may well imagine that, until given notice, the manager felt quite secure in his position. So do we, until we are reminded that our management is provisional—that what we have is not really ours, and will be taken away from us.”

[4] Gonzalez, Luke, 191-192. “The manager in chapter 16 asks the same question [like the wise barn building fool: what will I do?], not because he has too much, but because he suddenly realizes that what he has will be taken away from him. Thus there is a contrast between the two men. The fool thinks that he really owns what he has, and that he even owns his life. The manager knows that he does not really own what he has. The fool takes for granted that the present order will continue indefinitely. The manager realizes that there is a new order about to be established.”

[5] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 590. “For him, loss of position as manager entails a forfeiture of social status, with the consequence that, initially, the only opt manual door and begging (v 3); these locate him prospectively among the ‘unclean and degraded’ or even ‘expendable’ of society…. What is more, his imminent departure as manager signifies his loss of household attachment, hence his  concomitant concern for a roof over his head (v 4).”

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 191. “A steward has not actually been fired yet, but is certainly on notice. In this regard, he is in a situation similar to all human beings who for the present have a life, goods, talents, relations, and time to manage, but are also on notice of our firing.”

[7] Gonzalez, Luke, 192. “But the manager in the parable does not follow either of these two paths [enjoy it all or ignore it all]. What he does is use the authority he still has in the present order to feather his bed for the future order. When his firing becomes effective, he will be rewarded in the new order for the use he made of what he had in the old order.”

[8] Green, Luke, 593. “He has become their benefactor and, in return, can expect them to by extending to him the hospitality of their homes. The manager has thus taken advantage of his now-short-lived status, using the lag time during which he was to make an accounting of his mage 2ty D and his D and his position to arrange for his future.”

[9] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 395. “OSCAR: I see it this way: that man, what he was really doing was stealing. He got himself some friends with his master’s money and what the master said was that he was a very clever thief. … And what Jesus says is: be clever thieves, that is, be clever rich people, and the money you’ve got give it to the poor so you’ll be saved.’”

[10] Cardenal, Solentiname, 396. “OLIVIA: “It seems to me it’s a parable, a way of speaking, that we must understand in accordance with the rest of the Gospel. …And it seems to me that in this parable he’s saying you have to be intelligent, that you don’t give alms to get friends, or heaven (a selfish heaven), you give everything away so that everyone together can enjoy the kingdom of heaven.’”

[11] Cardenal, Solentiname, 397 “MARCELINO: “And it also says that it we’ve not been honest with unjust wealth, we won’t be given the true wealth. True wealth is love. If we have stolen wealth, false wealth, and we don’t distribute it, we won’t get the true wealth, love, because love is received only by people who give. If you’re rich in money you’re poor in love.’”

[12] Cardenal, Solentiname, 397 “I: ‘What the Gospel here calls what belongs to others’ is what the rich consider as their property. It says that we won’t receive our own (the kingdom of heaven) if we haven’t been honest with other people’s property. One is honest with wealth when one doesn’t appropriate it for oneself but distributes it among its legitimate owners.’”

[13] Green, Luke, 589. “In fact the theme of this narrative section concerns the appropriate use of wealth to overstep social boundaries between rich and poor in order to participate in a form of economic redistribution founded in kinship.”

[14] Green, Luke, 596. “Even though ‘dishonest wealth’ is a reality of the present age, one’s use of this wealth can either be ‘dishonest’ (i.e. determined by one’s commitment to the present world order) or ‘faithful’ (i.e. determined by the values of the new epoch).”

[15] Cardenal, Solentiname, 401 “I: ‘That’s why Christ came to earth, to establish that society of love, his kingdom. That’s why he talks a lot about social life and economy. In this passage he talks to us of wealth: that it must be shared. In the following verse he tells us that ‘one cannot serve God and money.’ It’s because God is you can’t have love and selfishness at the same.”

[16] Green, Luke, 593. “If they did understand the ways of the new aeon, how would this be manifest in their practices? Simply put, they would use ‘dishonest wealth’ to ‘make friends’ in order that they might be welcomed into eternal homes. ‘Wealth’ (or mammon) is characterized as ‘dishonest’ in the same way that the manager was. Both belong to this aeon; indeed, in speaking of its demise, Jesus insinuates that mammon has no place in the age to come …”

[17] Green, Luke, 597. “Because these two masters demand such diametrically opposed forms of service, since each grounds its demands in such antithetical worldviews, one cannot serve them both. Jesus underscores the impossibility of dual service through his use of contradictory terms of association (love, hate) and shame (devote, despise).”

[18] Dorothee Sölle Choosing Life Trans. Margaret Kohl. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1981. German Trans: Wählt das Leben Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1980. 97.

[19] Sölle, Choosing Life, 7.

Weekly Update (7/17-7/23)

So sometimes I follow through with plan. Here I am with an update that is actually weekly. Go me. Though type of post is morphing into what is a reflection on my thoughts for the past week than necessarily an update on my tasks (which are rather monotonous and boring).

The paradox of human life, the complexity of being human hits home when I think to myself: yes, a win for me. And then, turn around and contemplate all the death and failure littering my landscape. If anything is being driven home to me over the past couple of years (what day of March 2020 is it?) it’s the necessity of finding stability in the midst of uncertainty, and that finding said stability can happen. I’ve joked in the past that me running a church is like a local parish version of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. Every step is uncertain and the only certain steps are the ones I’ve taken (both successfully and unsuccessfully). But this type of uncertain stepping is growing familiar, so is stumbling when that step gives way and the thrill of security of stone beneath my feet.

Everything begins to be redefined when you walk like this, nearly in place but making strides forward nonetheless (sometimes, it’s good to turn around and see just how much progress you’ve made, it’s more than you realize). For me, contemplating concepts like hope and faith, love and grace, fear and anger, take on different complexities today than they did three years ago. All that we have is now and it is what it is are my go to phrases and mantras. New foci come to the surface in these times, walking with such intention and being forced to be so present where you are. For me, someone so oriented on tasks and deeds (read: books and writing) I’ve become more and more aware–in a visceral way–how important people are. I don’t think it helps that I’m waist deep in Dorothee Sölle’s work, a true theologian of the people for the people. (More on her another time, if it’s so desired.) But seriously, people matter. YOU matter.

So, as begin to see how much people matter everything around me becomes about people: does this thing cause people to thrive or does it hinder them? If it hinders their thriving (and especially if it hinders their survival) do we need to eliminate it, redefine it, rebuild it? These questions are important, and we have to ask them because people are dying. And none of us should be okay with that. So, how do institutions like the church and the academy (two institutions I love and serve (in some form)) participate in the people’s thriving or death? If as a priest and academic my works do not bring life and liberation to people, then I must reevaluate and ask why? I must look at the rituals and rites, the demands and expectations, the traditions and tasks, the building and the presence, of both and at how I participate in each realm in perpetuating death and violence and life and liberation.

I must ask hard questions here:

What is the Academy? What is the Academy for? For whom does the Academy exist? What does it mean to be a scholar? What does it mean to be a professor? What is a scholar? What is a professor? What is my focus here? Is it me and my scholarship? Or is it those whom I’m charge to teach and educate? Where is the institution causing unnecessary burnout through too much bureaucracy and administration?

What is the Church? Who is the church? What does it mean to be a priest? A deacon? A Bishop? Are all these rites and rituals necessary? Where do they bring comfort? Where are they bringing death? What does power look like here? Should we even have “power” held by humans in the church? Where has our hierarchy gone haywire? Where are we serving our own spiritual wantonness as leaders of the church rather than the beloved of God? Why are roles being abused? Why has the church been so willing to lose it’s story? (Here I can only ask this of the Episcopal Church, of which I’m an ordained priest.) What do we even believe? Why exist as the c/Church?

What traditionalisms must be put to final rest? What deeds bring the most life? Where is fear running rampant? Why is fear even present here? Where did we lose our way? Where have we (as leaders) gone wrong and astray? Where is our humility? Where is our confession? Where is our self-awareness? Where are we placing unethical financial demands on people? Why are we doing this? Why are we demanding archaic adherence to activities and deeds that worked before Covid happened but no longer work? And, did they ever work before Covid? Where are we still serving patriarchy, abelism, capitalism, selfishism, autonomy, heteronormativity, sexism and racism? Why are we still serving these things? Why and where are we, the leadership of these institutions, further burdening really burdened people?

Where are we stuck? Where are we growing? Are we growing? How do we become unstuck? To what desires must I die? Where am I putting myself too much ahead of others for no good reason? Where do I need to relearn? What do I need to relearn? What do I need to unlearn? Where am I forcing people into my own ideologies and ideas rather than allowing them to self-express and self-determine and self-realize?

Anyway, there are so many more questions we can be asking right now as we walk through this moment in history. My heart breaks as I watch two institutions struggle to maintain what was rather than embracing the transition through death into new life. I know we need something new in both arenas; I don’t know what that looks like. I do think that if reformation doesn’t come to both, they will continue to hinder life and liberation more and more and the bodies will continue to stack up. We cannot continue for too much longer with the way things are. I’m finding it harder and harder to uphold and honor commitments to both when I see people being more and more wounded and sacrificed on the altar of Mammon.

For the love of God, in the name of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, people matter, God’s beloved matters, YOU matter. And for you, I’ll fight.

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.”

Paradoxical Elastic Love

Sermon on John 13:31-35

Psalm 148:13-14 Let them praise the Name of God, for God’s Name only is exalted, God’s splendor is over earth and heaven. God has raised up strength for God’s people and praise for all God’s loyal servants, the children of Israel, a people who are near God. Hallelujah!

Introduction

I know that considering God’s love for us—for all of us—is complicated. So, let me make it a bit easier to understand…

God’s love is the inconsistent consistency.
God’s love is an ambiguous certainty.
God’s love is the unknown known.
God’s love is a same difference and a different sameness.
God’s love is comforting discomfort and discomforting comfort.
God’s love is disrupting stabilization, and stabilizing disruption.

There. Did that help? All clear?

I didn’t think so.

God’s love for the world and humanity is profoundly paradoxical, always, and elastic. It goes there and here and in that it is there it is still here. God loves us no matter what happens or who we think we are or what we have done, are doing, or will do, in whatever time period we find ourselves, in any town or city in those time periods. God loves that other person over there in just the same unconditional ways God loves you and me, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And, believe it or not, that creates a tension…

…for us…

…not for God.

If the person is like us, then we can see why (and how) God would love this other one; clearly, they’re pretty great. However, what happens when we try to comprehend God loving an other who is not like us, one who is in fact different, and maybe even opposite to us in some way or many ways? The reality of the elasticity of the substance of paradoxical divine love drives us crazy because we really want God not to love those whom we do not and cannot love. We really want God to find those people appalling whom we find appalling. We really want to think that something about us is so unique that God loves us and since that other person over there is very different from us then God’s love stops at our handmade boundaries of separation and exclusion. (comment about classroom catholic and protestants.) We want God’s love to have limits, to have an end…not for us….but for them over there.

However, God just loves whether or not we actually and fully comprehend the depth of the profundity of that loving. God just loves—without limits, without end—and as we are encountered by God in the event of faith, we are caught up in that elastic paradoxical divine love, love-just-loving-because-it-can-do-no-other…always.

John 13:31-35

Very dear little ones, I am with you yet a little while; you will seek me, and just as I said to the Israelites, “Where Ι, Ι depart [to], you, you are not able to come,” I say to you now. A new command I give to you (all), that you love one another. I loved you so that you also love one another. In this all will know that you are disciples to me, if you have love in one another. [1]

John 13:33-35

Our assigned gospel reading is quite familiar. It’s so familiar that if I was a betting woman, some of you may have checked out a little already, because yeah…yeah…yeah…love one another; got it…can we go get coffee now? The more familiar a passage or concept is to us, the less we notice something new unless we slow down and look at it again. So, let’s do that.

Jesus begins by speaking of a reciprocal and mutual and equal glorification between Jesus and God the Creator. In a way that bends time and twists space, both God and Jesus are glorified and will be glorified; in other words, in what Jesus is doing and will do, God’s name will be hallowed here and in heaven.

He then moves on to say something classically “Jesus-in-the-Gospel-of-John” cryptic, I’m going away and you can’t come. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that cryptic for one person to tell another they are going away…alone. However, the emphasis adds another layer of odd: I, I am going away, and you, you cannot come. Thus, the emphasis falls on “this is for Jesus alone” and those who have been following cannot follow him—anymore—to his next destination (the cross). The prophesied absence immediately thrusts the disciples, all those who are listening and following Jesus, into disruption[2]: where can he go that I can’t also go? Their faith must fill that silence.[3]

Jesus cannot be held by them, and they cannot force him to stay as he is with them; in Jesus removing himself to a place where they cannot follow, the disciples are yanked out of their existence in the present tense and dropped into another that is not theirs to control.[4] They are brought face to face with a new reality, one embedded in a reversal of anxiety about the self to concern for the other.[5] Jesus exhorts those listening, love…love each other, love one another, love because I loved you. The great moment of the uncoiling or turned-in human beings occurs in the divine exhortation to love one another because God has loved them.[6]

Jesus then yokes the loving of one another to witness in the world: by this love the others will know you are my disciples. This is more than merely love that exists within a community of like and familiar and friend; Jesus’s conception of love is the proclamation of the good news that loves and in loving it liberates and in this way it is new from what has come before it.[7] This isn’t warm fuzzies or happy feelings; this is divine love that does, love that acts, love that turns lives around, that pushes religious zealots off donkeys and over hauls the piety of those who thought they knew and understood but didn’t.[8] It is this love (active and participatory) that will become the characteristic by which the world will know these who follow the man who is God, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. They will know because this love liberates rather than possesses and this will be strange to the world[9]—this love affirms the material of the world and condemns the works of humanity and their sinful and oppressive kingdoms, built to keep some lifted up and some pressed down, some in and others out, preferring some and disparaging others. It will be love that exceeds the wisdom of knowledge and dogma, slips from the grasp of religious tyranny and private piety, only to be realized by those who are encountered by God in the event of faith, those who succumb to the divine love summons to follow me.[10] And in this way, Jesus never leaves those whom he loves.[11] In this way God is never finished with those whom God loves.

Conclusion

“Don’t it make you get teary? The world looks dreary
When you wipe your eyes, see it clearly
there’s no need for you to fear me
If you take your time and hear me
Maybe you can learn to cheer me
It ain’t about black or white, ’cause we human
I hope we see the light before it’s ruined;
my ghetto gospel”[12]

Tupac Shakur “Ghetto Gospel”

These lyrics are from Tupac Shakur, an American rapper born in 1971 and shot and killed in 1996. The song is titled, “Ghetto Gospel.” As far as contemporary prophetic voices go, Shakur’s reaches ranges I don’t encounter in the church or the world. While this song was produced in 2004, I am mesmerized in 2022 by Shakur’s understanding of the extent to which divine love must go if it is divine love. For the good news to be the good news it must bring good news to the oppressed, those trapped and threatened by systemic violence and suffering under hate, fear, and looming death. Shakur reminds me that as we are caught up in the elastic paradoxical divine love, we are not dropped into a reality that makes sense to us and our privilege and status; rather, we are dropped into the reality as it is for another, whom God loves, too.

Later in the song, Tupac raps,

“I make mistakes but learn from every one
And when it’s said and done
I bet this Brother be a better one
If I upset you don’t stress, never forget
That God isn’t finished with me yet.”

Tupac Shakur “Ghetto Gospel”

Listening to Tupac’s interpretation of divine activity on his behalf, the way that God loves him, the way he sees himself as a divine work in progress, challenges any notion that there is one type of person whom God loves and that someone how we are affirmed in the way we were before our encounter with God in the event of faith. God isn’t finished with me yet are the words of paradoxical elastic divine love for humanity. God’s love is the love that never gives up, never abandons, never says that’s it too far! Divine love is the love that seeks and seeks and seeks, that stretches and stretches and stretches, that keeps yoking together human beings from this walk of life to that walk of life, love that closes gaps across boundaries and over tracks destroying anything meant to keep people apart.

God’s paradoxical elastic love is perpetually in the business of disrupting us so that we never grow stagnant and stuck. And as we are disrupted, we can move forward with God’s good news of the liberating proclamation of Jesus Christ on our lips and bring (and participate in!) God’s love: the good news of Beloved, the good news of liberation, the good news of life, and the good news that God is never finished with anyone because everyone has possibility in light of divine love.

Beloved, do not lose hope, God isn’t finished with us yet.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed; RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971. German: Das Evangelium des Johannes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964, 1966). 524. “What now lies in the past does not guarantee the future, but is called into question by it. Jesus, in whom they believed, disappears from them, and they are left with no security.”

[3] Bultmann John 524 “His own will miss him; they will not realise the full significance of that νυν immediately. Their faith has to stand the test.”

[4] Bultmann John 525. “The future is subjected to an imperative! Their anxiety is centered on their own actual existence, but not they are directed towards an existence that has the character of an ‘ought.’ The illusion that they possess him in such a way that he is at their disposal is confronted by another kind of possession: one which consists in fulfilling a command.”

[5] Bultmann John 525. “Their despairing gaze into the past that is no more is redirected to the future, which comes and lays its obligation upon them. An unreal future, which would only be a persistence in the past, is made into the real future which demands faith. And in so far as the content of the εντολη is ινα αγαπατε αλληλους, the care for oneself is changed into the care for one’s neighbor.”

[6] Bultmann John 525. “But since it is precisely this becoming free from the past and form oneself that is subjected to the imperative, the future that is grasped as command coincides with the future that is promised for loyalty of faith for it was freedom from that past and from oneself that was promised to the believer. Thus the imperative is itself a gift, and this It can be because it receives its significance and its possibility of realization form the past, experienced as the love of the Revealer…”

[7] Bultmann John 527. “But Jesus’ command of love is ‘new,’ even when it has been long-known, because it is the law of the eschatological community or which the attribute ‘new’ denotes not an historical characteristic but its essential nature. The command of love, which is grounded in the love of the Revealer received by the disciples, is ‘new’ in so far as it is a phenomenon of the new world which Jesus has brought into being,…”

[8] Bultmann John 526. “Jesus’s love is not a personal emotion, but is the service that liberates; and the response to it is not a mystical or pietistic intimacy with Christ, but the αλληλους αγαπαν”

[9] Bultmann John 527-528. “v.35 states that the new world becomes reality in the community: reciprocal love within the community is the criterion of the discipleship of Jesus for those outside. The fact that the command of live is fulfilled there demonstrates the strangeness of the community within the world, and results in the world calling those who love, the disciples of Jesus. Not just because theirs is a community in which love is both an injunction and an actual practice. Much rather because love itself there takes on a form that is strange to the world. In the community the command of love is grounded in the love of God which is encountered in the Revealer, and this means that its fulfilment must bear the nature or world-annulment; by it all human love is peculiarly modified, in a way that both limits and broadens it.”

[10] Bultmann John 528. “The associations with Jesus, therefore, is not realized by possessing articles of knowledge or dogmas, nor in institutions or experiences of individual piety, but in ‘pupil-hood,’ in obedience to the command of love.”

[11] Bultmann John 528. “How does the departing Revealer remain present for his own? By vitality of the gift of his love in their love of each other, and by their representation within the world of the new world, which became reality through him.”

[12] Tupak Shakur Ghetto Gospel produced posthumously by Eminem feat. Elton John. 2004

Desired and Disrupted

Sermon on Acts 9:1-6

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Acts 9:1-6

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

(Acts 9: 1a, 2-5)

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helmut Gollwitzer qtd in Dorothee Sölle

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


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

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Stories This Story: A Revolutionary Story

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

Sermon on Luke 24:1-12

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

Introduction

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

Today, we are people of story.

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

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

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

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

Today we are a people of story.

Luke 24:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

Today,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julia Esquivel, “Threatened with Resurrection”

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


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

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

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

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

[5] Gonzalez Luke 273

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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