“Have Mercy on Me!”

Luke 17:11-19 (Sermon)

Introduction

God is hard to pin down and figure out because, as Bishop Owensby said, “God is a who and not a what”; a person, not a thing. So, our knowledge of God is limited; it seems we live in the tension between the book of Numbers and the held breath of the Easter Vigil. The chaotic and terrifying book of Numbers highlighting God’s bold activity emphasizes that no one puts God in a corner; this gives way to the deafening silence of the Saturday between Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday. Movement then silence and stillness. More movement…more silence and stillness. It’s part of the story of Israel in the midst of exile and return; it’s part of our story, too. There are times when our hearts grow weary, on the brink of fracturing under the weight of yearning under the twin questions: where is God? Who is God? I wish I could tell you I’ve never doubted; I have. I wish I could tell you that I always stand on the firm bedrock of my faith; I don’t. I question, I weep, I long. Where is beauty? Where is justice? Where is peace? Where is love? Where is God? If God has come, and God’s will is being done, then why isn’t earth as it is in heaven? Sadly, it’s often hard to think about giving thanks.

I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me!

vv.11-14

Jesus is on the move in our gospel passage. Luke tells us he travels into Jerusalem, taking a middle route between Samaria and Galilee (v.11). As Jesus enters a certain village a group of ten men encounter him; but they keep their distance (v.12). They kept their distance because they suffered from leprosy—it was a divine curse and they were ritually unclean. [1] These leprous men knew their plight and the commands of Torah: one must steer clear of family and community, [2] and one must announce their unclean presence. [3] But these men weren’t without hope: lepers could be healed and welcomed back. [4]

And hope comes near; and they recognized hope when they saw him. And they lifted up their voices and cried out when they saw this hope. “Jesus!” They called. “Master, have mercy on us!” Desperate, they called out to the one they knew could help them, who had the miraculous power to rid them of this curse and make them clean.[5] (Otherwise, why ask?) Calling Jesus “Master” is not only a term of respect; they saw and recognized in Christ the power of God to heal and reconcile.[6] And their desperate hope and plea is met with an answer from Jesus: “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And they got up and went. On the way they were made clean (v.14).

If we stop here, we might be tempted to make faith into a work. (Have (enough) faith and be healed!). When that happens, faith no longer saves, it no longer flies with the wings of mercy and hope but is a mere dead stone dropped into the deepest part of the sea. If we stop here, we will make this moment of sudden healing of the ten leprous men the dénouement. But it’s not. This is:

Now one of the men when he saw that he had been healed, returned with a great voice giving glory to God, and he fell upon his face on the feet of [Jesus] giving thanks to him. And he was a Samaritan…and [Jesus] said to him ‘Rise and go; your faith has saved you.” (Luke 17:15-16, 19)

Gratitude.[7] Gratitude is pushed to the front. Hiding behind all the other players on the stage, gratitude steps forward and speaks. And Luke uses a leprous Samaritan voice,[8]the voice of a double outcast, to do make a point. It’s the Samaritan who understands what has happened in his event of encounter with the merciful one. His leprosy is gone and he is clean, and something bigger occurred: he’s healed (v.15). Luke changes the verb “they were made clean”[9] in v. 14 to “he had been healed”[10] in v. 15.

The comparison here is not between one having faith and the others not.[11] Rather, the comparison is between only hearing and really hearing so deeply that you do (shema). All ten were made clean; one realizes he’s healed. They all believed; one saw and heard.[12] Would not a double outcast know the depths of rejection and being marginalized?[13] Would not a double outcast know not only the miraculous healing, but also the bigger miracle being healed by Jesus, the good Rabbi, a Jew? [14] The Samaritan Leper is accepted and received across socio-political lines. It’s doubly not about clean and unclean with Christ. It’s about cosmic healing and this Samaritan man sees it. It’s the word of acceptance, of mercy, of hope, of beloved that he hears—words having long gone silent and still. And he hears so deeply that he can only do one thing: return with magnificent gratitude to the one who is the priest of priests in the temple of temples. And it is this priest and this temple that know no dividing walls and exclusion, but only unity and inclusion.[15] And he is grateful! He falls on his face at Jesus’s feet:[16] loving the Lord his God “with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his strength, and with all his mind…” (Lk 10:27).

Conclusion

We may think that in this age of pain and suffering, this level of gratitude has gone the way of the horse and buggy. But I don’t think it has. I think each and everyone of us knows the depth of gratitude that changes lives forever: the partner who took us back when we didn’t deserve it; the friend who forgave us; the parent who embraces us upon our return even when we were convinced things were too far gone; the sibling who actually did pick up the phone finally. We know this depth of gratitude. And our hope for ourselves and for others—not only those seated here with us right now, but for the whole world—is based and embedded in this simple thing: gratitude.

Gratitude is the basis of our ethic because gratitude remembers and recalls and retells the story of when: when we were too far-gone, when we were lost, when we were in doubt, when we were angry and then God.[17] Christ came near. God in Christ comes near to those who think they are too far-gone, he seeks those who are lost, he believes for those who are in doubt, and comforts those who are angry.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35, 38-39)

As we tell our stories here and proclaim Christ crucified for us, we encourage each other and carry each other and bear each other up. We then spill out from this building into the world. And as we go we carry with us our absurd gratitude and our absurd stories into a world that is convinced God has gone completely silent and completely still, questions of where and who still fresh on suffering, hurting lips. But God is only silent and still if we remain so; God’s silence and stillness is only true if we forget who we are and whose we are: we are the apple of God’s eye, we are the beloved of Christ, and we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Where we go, so too does God; where God goes, so too do we.

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he will also deny us;
if we are faithless, he remains faithful–
for he cannot deny himself. (2 Tim 2:11b-13)

It is God in Christ Jesus who is our story, the one we remember, recall, and retell. Christ is our faith, hope, and mercy—not only when we cannot muster these but especially when all we can do is: I believe, Good Lord, help my unbelief! Increase my faith! Have mercy on me! And he does; over and over again never ceasing and never failing.

Hallelujah!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, *
in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the deeds of the Lord! (Ps 111:1-2)

[1] Joel Green The Gospel of Luke TNICNT ed. Joel Green. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997). “‘Leprosy’ was a term used to designate a number of skin diseases, so the fundamental problem of these ten was, in all likelihood, not a malady that was physically life-threatening. Instead, they were faced with a debilitating disorder. Regarded as living under a divine curse and as ritually unclean (whether they were Jew or Samaritan, it does not matter), they were relegated to the margins of society.” 623.

[2] Justo Gonzalez “Luke” Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Eds. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. “To be a leper was not only to suffer a physical illness, but to be cast out from family and society.” 205.

[3] Gonzalez 204-5, Numbers 5:2 (lepers ostracized from community by law); Leviticus 13:45-46 (lepers announce their uncleanliness).

[4] Gonzalez 205, “Since various diseases were included under the general heading of leprosy, allowance had to be made for those whose symptoms disappeared. For them, the law provided a detailed procedure, which included an examination by a priest, and then a complex ritual of cleansing (Lev. 14:2-32).”

[5] Green 623, “Used elsewhere in the Third Gospel, ‘Master’ denotes one who has authority consistent with miraculous power, and this is its meaning here.”

[6] Green 623, “What is clear is that, in naming him as master, these lepers place themselves in a position of subordination to him in the hope of receiving from him some form of benefaction. This benefaction, they seem to believe, will have its source in God; in effect, they request from Jesus a merciful visitation from God.”

[7] Gonzalez 204. “The theme of gratitude for God’s wondrous and unmerited gifts connects it with the previous parable, about the master owing nothing to the slave. In this case, the Samaritan who returns is grateful for what Jesus has done, while the others seem to take it in stride, almost as if it were their rightful due.”

[8] Gonzalez 205-6, The one who returns is a Samaritan and it is assumed the other 9 were Jews; the Samaritan is leper (outcast) and Samaritan (double outcast).

[9] Greek: εκαθαρι᾽σθησαν

[10] Greek: ια᾽θη

[11] Gonzalez 205, “We tend to ignore these nine, or to classify them as unbelieving ones; but the text says (or at least implies) that they believed Jesus, and even that they obeyed him by continuing on their way to see the priests.”

[12] Green 626, “What separates the one from the nine, then, is not the nature of the salvific benefits received. Rather, the nine are distinguished by their apparent lack of perception and, then, by their ingratitude. They do not recognize that they have been healed. This may be because leprosy was as much or more a socio-religious stigma as a physical malady. For it to be effective, cleansing must reach more deeply than the surface of one’s skin, and it may be precisely this added dimension of restoration that the nine fail to comprehend. More evident in the distinction between the behavior of the one and the nine, though, is the failure of the latter to recognize that they had received divine benefit from Jesus.”

[13] Gonzalez 206, “One could even say that there is a hint that the reason why he was doubly grateful for his healing was that he had a double experience of exclusion, and that he therefore could be doubly surprised by Jesus’ act of healing—not only a leper but a Samaritan leper! Thus the great reversal takes a new twist: those who are most marginal and excluded are also able to be most grateful to this Lord who includes them. Those whose experience of community and rejection is most painful may well come to the gospel with an added sense of joy.”

[14] Green 624-5, “Unlike the other lepers, this one perceives that he has been the recipient of divine benefaction—and that at the hand of Jesus. Of his three actions—praising God, falling at Jesus’ feet, and thanking Jesus — the first is expected within the Lukan narrative, the second two quite extraordinary. Praising God following a miracle is the appropriate response in the Third Gospel; indeed, this former leper joins many in the narrative who witness God’s mighty acts, then return praising God.”

[15] Green 626, “Worded differently, one appropriately gives praise to God via one’s grateful submission to Jesus as master or lord, the ‘location,’ so to speak, of God’s beneficence. Here, Luke’s Christology reaches impressive heights as he presents Jesus in the role of the temple – as one in whom the powerful and merciful presence of God is realized and before whom the God of the temple (whether in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim!) can be worshiped.”

[16] Green 625, “’Falling at the feet’ of someone is an act of submission by which one acknowledges another’s authority; it signifies reverence, just the sort of response one might make toward a person regarded as one’s benefactor. Gratitude, too, is expected of those who have received benefaction. Because the former leper recognizes Jesus as the agent of the inbreaking kingdom of God, there is nothing incongruous in his actions: Both praising God and to his request for the merciful visitation of God.”

[17] Karl Holl The Reconstruction of Morality. Eds. James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense. Trans. Fred W. Meuser and Walter R. Wietzke. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1979. “But whence comes this duty to love God? Luther did not fail to answer this question in his Lectures on the Psalms. We are bound to love God because God is the given and sustainer of life who daily, unceasingly, and bountifully blesses us with his gifts. It is therefore the feeling of gratitude form which Luther derived the sense of obligation. Now we see why the New Testament imperative, in all its majesty and inexorableness, stirred him so deeply. He accepted it not only on authority; its essential meaning wrought conviction. If we owe God everything, then even by ‘natural right’ [iure naturali] we must give ourselves wholly to God.” 48.

“God is in the Gallows; God is in the Rubble”

Luke 2:8-20 and 9/11 (Homily)

The following is the homily I delivered in remembrance of 9/11 at the school where I’m a teaching chaplain. It was written last minute because that morning I felt powerfully in my mind and heart to ask the person who was slotted to preach that day to let me do it instead. Here is what I felt called to share…

The Shepherds and the Angels

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’

 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:8-20)

 

On September 11th, 2001, I walked from the subway station on 33rd street and headed over to my office, located just a mile from the station in midtown, Manhattan, just outside of Rockefeller plaza, at 53rd and 5th avenue. The air was crisp, early fall was settling in; the sky was a bright blue, not a cloud in the sky; and the sun was bright and warm. The day was perfect. I didn’t expect that moments later while sitting at my desk I’d be told that a massive passenger plane had flown into the North tower of the World Trade Center, just a little over a mile away from where I sat. “Like ‘hit’ one of the towers?” I asked. “No, like into.” Was my colleague’s response. Disbelief. What?! How is that even possible?

We crowded around every TV we could find and watched the billowing smoke of one of our iconic buildings take over the bright blue sky. And as we watched, along with the world, another plane hit the south tower. It was official: our world was under attack. We were dismissed from our jobs and set free into the streets of New York City to find our ways to home? To safety? Somewhere? The city went on lockdown and no one could come in or leave.

It took me a while before I was able to fight my way over to my big brother’s apartment building, where, when I entered, the door man took one look at me and said, before I could say anything, “He’s waiting for you upstairs. Go!”

By a little after noon, Manhattan had quieted completely. It was so quiet. Eerie quiet. Big cities never get quiet. But this very big one was silent. Nothing seemed to move apart from the lone pedestrian or the occasional fire truck, police car, or ambulance that zoomed by, sirens blaring, lights flashing, headed to ground zero. I could and did walk down the center of 5th avenue; it was the first and last time I’ve ever been able to do such a thing.

Manhattan and the immediate surrounding areas would never be the same. You can’t go back to “normal” because we were consistently reminded of the horror and tragedy as we walked by walls, bus-stands, bulletin boards, that were plastered with pictures of loved ones who were never found, never recovered, never buried.

I was a new Christian, like baby new. Not even a year into walking with the Lord and here I was faced with evil, with tragedy, with suffering, and sorrow, grief and mourning. Where was God? Where was this God that I had just given my life to? There were no words being spoken, no waters parting, no rainbows filling the air. God was silent. And for many, and maybe even for me for a bit there, God was dead or at least appeared to be.

All of the events of tragedy and all the sorrow and suffering that happens to us individually and collectively draws up from the depths of our being and our soul and our mind the desperate questions of why? And where were you? And, Where are you God? Divine silence even more than divine judgment causes dis-ease, anxiety, and substantial pain in our very being. Where was God on 9/11?

I’ve spent the majority of my academic life in the pursuit of that question: where is God when we suffer? Where is the comfort in divine silence? And there are times like 9/11/2001 where I come up silent myself. The only I answer I have are the tears I shed because suffering is real and I hate it. And I cry because I can, for there are those who can no longer cry. Where is God in moments of suffering, pain, grief, sorrow? How is God for us when some of us are now widows and orphans, left destitute and grieving?

But there are times when I see so clearly where God is: right there in the suffering. There among those who have breathed their last; there with those who are not even close to shedding their last tear. With the child who will never know their parent; the lover who will never hold their beloved again; the parent who has but a last email from their adult child. God is in the gallows; God is in the rubble.

God is in our suffering, breathing for us when we can’t, holding us upright when our knees shake and quack. And the only reason why I can say this is because Jesus the Christ lay in a manger and the dirty outcast shepherds came and dwelt with God as dirty outcast shepherds. This God, wrapped in swaddling clothes, came to be with us in our suffering as humans. Jesus suffered and died and was raised on the third day to give us hope in solidarity with us. Our God knows suffering; our God is the suffering God, our God dwells amongst suffering. Did you know that this is possibly the most unique thing about the proclamation of the Gospel: our God dwells among the suffering as the Suffering God?

And God does indeed dwell amongst those who are suffering. The dead do not suffer; it’s those who have been left behind who suffer, and God is in their midst. When tragedy hits, when suffering lands, when catastrophe wreaks havoc, there God is in the midst of God’s people as we gather together, come close, push towards each other in our suffering and pain and grief. God was at Ground zero every time a new search and rescue team stepped up to help; God was there in every emergency room as doctors and surgeons and nurses pulled together to mend the broken and resuscitate those they could; God was there in the massive lines formed of people eager to do whatever they could even if it meant waiting hours to offer a pint or two of blood; God was there in that quiet whispered hello from your neighbor and in the brief moment of eye-contact shared in passing; God was there in the meals that were brought, the arms that embraced, and the services performed. And God continued to be present on that Manhattan Island, the surrounding state of New York, New England, the nation, and the world as people pulled together and prayed yes, but, more: when they showed up.

God is only as silent and dead if I stay silent and dead. But that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I, a suffering grieving human being, reach out to you a fellow suffering and grieving human being; that silence is broken and that death turned to new life when I use my words and my deeds to be in solidarity with you as you suffer and grieve. God is present in suffering because we are present with each other in suffering.

Praise be to God. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

The Silence of God, God of the Void: A Reflection for Holy Saturday

Silence is disturbing. Personally, I’d rather know bad news than sit with myself in the midst of silence of reply. I’d rather a verbal explosion go off, leaving word shrapnel strewn about; that’s something I can tangibly make sense of, examine, create order with. Give me baskets piled high of “what-you-actually-think”, and no matter how much pain I may have, at least I have something to work with and to fight with. The whole idea that “no news is good news” escapes me; I find no comfort in having nothing with which to do battle against. I can’t kick against silence; there’s nothing to fight in the void.

God gifted me with the ability to be a very good and efficient problem solver. A MBTI INTP, I live to order chaos, to make precise connections over vast intellectual distances, to build and construct and expand and to push and to see just how far this *thing* can go (be it object, idea, or my own person). Thus I would naturally expect that God would meet me as I am: give me riddles to solve, puzzles to put together, ask me to follow along a trail of thoughts dropped by God’s divine hand so that when I arrive at the end I can, as if by intellectual paint-by-number, assemble these thoughts to get the full picture I’ve been desiring.

But rarely is this so. Rarely?…Better yet: never. That I expect God to meet me in such a way is my own demand on God, it is my own form I’m forcing God into. I forget that God self-discloses God’s self. The reality is that my encounter with God in the event of faith is often in the midst of total silence, where I feel as if I am suspended and hovering above a void and an abyss that it is threatening to take me into it. Where my repeated whispers of “Why?” are pulled from me only to float off into the distance and seemingly evaporate like a lone cloud does as it floats over the dry Colorado desert. Where my “Where were you when…?” stack up and collect dust and become brittle, like old books long forgotten. Where the word “hope” has no value and where doubts of God seem to ontologically define my spirituality and my personhood.

I’m not alone in this particular encounter with God in the event of faith. According to one scholar, Elie Wiesel has a similar conceptualizing of God,

“For Elie Wiesel the struggle of the survivor is not merely an inquiry with the mind while knowing in the heart but a shattering of that knowledge, that trust in God. Wiesel’s God is not a God who gave man freedom in history but rather a God who promised deliverance and remained silent in the hour of Israel’s greatest need, a God who made it impossible to believe in the promise of future deliverance. Wiesel’s theodicy is a theodicy of the void. His God is a God of silence. Wiesel’s struggle is to live in the face of the void.”[1]

Everything that has been held dear is shattered and rent asunder. Like Wiesel, everything I’ve put my “hope” in is and has been demythologized. The stories become like playground taunts to my pain and suffering, to my deep abiding questions. The God I’ve historically worshipped is, in the silence and in the face of the void, demythologized; and I come face to face with God’s Thou-objectivity as it is and not as I assume it to be. I’m exposed as the one who has worshipped the stories and not the one to whom the stories point: God. Thus, I am demythologized.

Recently I was reminded of a concept Luther articulates early in his lectures on Galatians and one that I use frequently with my students when explaining the journey of faith. Faith is a journey into darkness[2] not up and into the light but down and into the darkness, being lead by the hand and not by our own sight. Luther writes,

“Here let reason be far away, that enemy of faith, which in the temptations of sin and death, relies not on the righteousness of faith or Christian righteousness, of which it is completely ignorant, but on its own righteousness or, at most, on the righteousness of the Law. As soon as reason and the Law are joined, faith immediately loses its virginity. For nothing is more hostile to faith than the Law and reason; nor can these two enemies be overcome without great effort and work, and you must overcome them if you are to be saved. Therefore when your conscience is terrified by the Law and is wrestling with the judgment of God, do not consult either reason or the Law, but rely only on grace and the Word of comfort. Here take your stand as though you had never heard of the Law. Ascend into the darkness, where neither the Law nor reason shines, but only the dimness of faith (1 Cor. 13:12), which assures us that we are saved by Christ alone, without any Law. Thus the Gospel leads us above and beyond the light of the Law and reason into the darkness of faith, where the Law and reason have no business.[3]

In the event of faith, we are ushered out of the light and into the darkness; we are completely undone unto death of the self that was. Where faith is undone unto it’s own death. Where our self-created depictions of God are undone unto their death. Where we are thoroughly and completely brought to nothing in the divine silence and in the void.

“Therefore we are nothing, even with all our great gifts, unless God is present. When He deserts us and leaves us to our own resources, our wisdom and knowledge are nothing. Unless He sustains us continually, the highest learning and even theology are useless… Therefore let no one boast or glory in his own righteousness, wisdom, and other gifts; but let him humble himself and pray with the apostles (Luke 17:5): ‘Lord, increase our faith!’”[4]

In the silence, stalwart faith turns to haunting doubt; hopeful stories are exposed as hopeless myths; reason is exposed as enemy; and I am left naked and exposed and in what feels like certain death. I let go of the things I’ve had a death grip on and give in to the pull of the void. Arms clinging to unsubstantial things go limp and unfurl to the left and right; head drops back and eyes close waiting to be sucked in and all the way down into nothing, in to the void.

But in this silence, in this seemingly deathly void, there is life. The “I am who and what I am” is. I am in God’s intimate embrace, locked deeply in the divine kiss summoning me from death–resurrection from the dead–and as I wake and the divine kiss pulls back, one word, “hope”, remains, trailing on my lips.

We rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday clinging to the stories therein as if these were our only hope. We skip over Saturday because it has no story to offer us, no story for us to anchor our faith in, no words that we can cling to when we face doubt and despair. We skip over Saturday because silence is disturbing and the void feels most threatening. But maybe, maybe it’s the silence of Saturday that is the most divine because we are brought deep into the darkness, into the silence, into the void and asked to die to everything we’ve held on to for life.

To have faith in God’s activity in the world depicted in the stories handed down to us makes sense but is not the substance of faith but of the rational. Rather, to have faith in the wake of the cessation of divine activity, when words aren’t spoken and heard, where there’s nothing to cling to but God’s ambiguous and alarming “I am” is the substance of faith. To have faith today, when it doesn’t make sense because all seems lost and gone, is the substance of faith. And this is the substance and demand of the silence and void of Holy Saturday.

 

 

[1] M. Barenbaum “Elie Wiesel: God, the Holocaust, and the Children of Israel”. See also, Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God and his reference to Elie Wiesel’s Night, pp. 273-4.

[2] Dr. David W. Congdon mentions this concept of Luther’s (via Rudolf Bultmann) on this episode of Whit Hodge Podcasts: https://soundcloud.com/whitehodgepodcasts/s2-e1-everyone-be-saved-dr-david-congdon

[3] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians: Chapters 1-4 LW vol. 26. Pp. 113-4. Emphasis, mine.

[4] Ibid, 114.

Tell Me

Tell me this isn’t all there is.

(I fear that it is.)

Tell me there’s something beyond this.

(I fear there isn’t.)

 

Tell me to take heart.

(For I feel it grow weary.)

Tell me there’s a reason to go on.

(My energy wanes.)

 

Tell me my life is precious.

(I need to remember why.)

Tell me my life hasn’t been worthless.

(I can’t silence that voice anymore.)

 

Tell me with sweet silence.

(The cacophony in my head.)

Tell me with lavish love.

(My hearts floods with fear.)

 

Tell me Jesus loves me.

(My doubt stomps about.)

Tell me Christ longs to hold me.

(I long for that sweet embrace.)

 

Tell me there will be answers.

(The questions rage.)

Tell me it’s not all for naught.

(This darkness looms.)

 

Tell me…

(I bow my head.)

Just tell me…

(Words fail me but tears don’t.)

Please, just tell me…

(Please.)

 

 

 

 

 

Hope When in Doubt

The following is a sermon I preached at Southside Anglican Church almost a year ago. The text ran as a post on Mockingbird (click here for the post).  Instead of just retweeting/re-posting a link to the Mockingbird post, I wanted to put the full text here (with proper acknowledgment that it ran on Mockingbird first, of course!).

I also wanted to explain why I’m posting it.  As I pursue answers to theological questions in my academic pursuits and interactions, I’m bound to run up against (and should run up against) answers that challenge some of my beliefs. This encounter with conflict is good and I accept it and even promote it; from the conflict I grow. I know this because I experienced growth out of intense conflict as I worked through my stm and my stm thesis with an advisor that disagreed with many of the concepts I brought to the table. The conflict(s!) forced me to go back to my drawing table and reformulate answers (to argue better), to re-examine what I held to be true, to acknowledge the weakness of my position and to admit the critique, not to mention to be formed and molded as a better scholar. Had my advisor not challenged me in conflict, I’d be a weaker thinker. But hindsight is 20/20 (as the saying goes); I know now that the conflict was good, but during the conflict there was plenty of doubt bordering on despair: have I been believing a lie? Not an easy question for a theologian to ask herself.

Over the past week, I found myself in a similar conflict. Some concepts that I’ve held closely have come under fire, but the fire hit too close to the source of my hope; I was working and fighting and resisting the black-hole of despair that was eager to devour me as I felt my hope crumbling to the ground. (Despair being a state of hopelessness.) To be honest, being tired of fighting so hard I wanted to give in and let my whole being be consumed. The original conflict and challenge lead to an uncontrollable flow of questions and subsequent doubts and more questions and more doubts; I was losing the ability to keep my head above the water. But I have a friend, Sarah, and she refuses to preach anything but the Gospel. She heard all my questions, my doubts, and my looming despair. But she doesn’t just tell me that Jesus loves me (though this is very true), she quotes from Galatians. It’s what I needed to hear because I was something she said made me remember what it was that plucked me out of my trajectory leading to certain death and placed me on the path to life: Jesus Christ who died for our sins and was raised for our justification (Romans 4:25). Her words also reminded of a sermon I wrote nearly a year ago on Gal 1:1-12. While the sermon is about our fickle hearts, I think the gist applies to our deep and sincere moments of doubt and despair; I was reminded of where my hope resides: in Christ, in his word, in the Gospel (the doctrine of the justification of the sinner (Jüngel)). So, I thought I’d share.

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We’re fickle. Human beings are fickle. You and I both know it and we’re free to confess it. Our hearts and minds easily change orientation and preferences by the mere shifting of the wind, our hearts and minds have a difficulty staying the course, being constant in our loyalty and affections.

I do want to be clear that I don’t think all moments of changing our mind are bad; sometimes our propensity toward changing our mind isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are times receiving new information and incorporating it into our database of knowledge is good, in fact it’s an aspect of being wise. For instance, learning that the earth is not square but round, that it’s okay and quite acceptable to overly love, snuggle, hug and kiss your baby, and that all human beings should be treated with dignity (etc.) are wonderful pieces of information to know and to have. So, our ability to change our minds, our views, and our opinions by the influence of new information isn’t always bad. In fact, it’s quite laudable.

However, we’re not always changing our mind because of the presentment of new and good information. As I said just a moment ago, we’re fickle. Our hearts and minds do not have the metal constitution we would like to think they do. A soft breeze can easily challenge our deepest held conviction. I wish I could tell you that I am NOT fickle; I wish I could say that I’m the epitome of mental, emotional, and spiritual constancy and loyalty. There are times that I can appear content with how things are in and out of the house and then my husband, upon returning home, will ask, “Honey, why is the wall to wall carpet on the sidewalk?” or, “Where’d those bushes go?” Or He’ll ask, “Why is your hair a different color?….again…” While these moments where I’ve given in to my fickleness are comical to most, I have to be honest and say that my fickleness runs a bit deeper than carpet, evergreen bushes, and hair color. It runs painfully deep in my mind and heart and soul. The serpent of old slithers his way to me, and asks, once again, that deadly question: “Did God really say…?” (Gen 3:1). Did God really say that you are saved only by faith in Christ? Did God actually say He loves you? Did God truly say _you’re_ saved, Lauren? Did God really say…?

And no matter how many academic accolades I have hanging from weak nails on my walls, no matter how many volumes of theological works I have on flimsy wooden bookshelves, it is nearly impossible for me to refute those doubts once they’re planted. In these moments, I’m powerless and voiceless to argue back.

“How fickle my heart and how woozy my eyes

I struggle to find any truth in your lies

And now my heart stumbles on things I don’t know

My weakness I feel I must finally show” (Mumford and Sons “Awake My Soul”).

And I’m not alone; I know you’ve heard the same questions and have had the same doubts, too.

“Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me” (Gal 1:1-2).

Enter Paul and the Galatians. It doesn’t take more than the first two words of the opening line of the epistle for Paul to begin to deal with the fickleness of the Galatian Christians and contends with the false teachers directly. Pau/loj avpo,stoloj (Paul (an) Apostle). It’s two small words but these two words pack a significant punch: Paul is an apostle and those other teachers, those other guys, aren’t. Paul was an apostle he was not sent by the apostles. And to back up that title (Paul, an apostle) he adds this: “not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father,” Paul pokes holes in the claim to authority the false teachers had (they were sent by humans, Paul was not), and affirms his apostolic status by declaring he was called and sent by Christ Himself (Acts 9:15ff).

And with the added clarifying addend modifying God the Father, “who raised him from the dead,” Paul affirms the original message he brought to them, the message they heard first from Paul: righteousness comes by faith and not by works of the law. And any teacher who is proclaiming another message from the message of Paul is not only against Paul, but against the Father and the Son. Luther writes in Galatians,

“Thus at the very outset Paul explodes with the entire issue he intends to set forth in this epistle. He refers to the resurrection of Christ, who rose against for our justification (Rom. 4:25). His victory is a victory over the Law, sin, our flesh, the world, the devil, death, hell, and all evils; and this victory of His He has given to us” (21-2).

And then,

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal 1:3-5)

As if the first verse wasn’t enough to establish the Gospel tenor of the entire letter, Paul, using his standard greeting (yet a greeting un-standard in the world in which Paul is writing), takes another moment to proclaim the foundations of the Gospel message.  Paul proclaims Grace and Peace, both words that contain within them the power to calm the troubled conscience, troubled mind and soul; Grace forgives sins and Peace quiets the mind and the two are inextricably linked: no peace without grace because grace silences the Law by forgiving sins. And the peace we have as a result of grace’s effectiveness in forgiving sin/s is the peace that Jesus gives, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).

How is this grace and peace (from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ) given to us? Jesus, God of very God/of the same substance of the Father, who was crucified for our sins and was raised for our justification, and by His word and breath (by the power of the Holy Spirit/triune affair) He gives us HIS peace. Luther refers to these words of Paul in v. 4, “These words are a veritable thunderbolt from heaven against every kind of righteousness, as is the statement (John 1:29): ‘Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (32). Grace and peace are ours by faith in Christ because Christ himself laid down his life to forever dethrone and overthrow the tyrant named sin and set all the captives free from its slavish yolk by his resurrection; we, like Adam before us, are helpless to remedy our problem, we are “dead in our trespasses” (Eph 2:5 and Col 2:13) and God intervened on our behalf to do what it is that we couldn’t do like he did all those many years back in the Garden (Gen 2:18ff).

Far from being a restatement of the law or another Moses, Jesus is the new word, the word that grants grace to forgive sins and gives us peace even in this “evil age” (from which we are delivered). Therefore, to quote Luther,

“…grasp the true definition of Him, namely, that Christ, the Son of God and of the Virgin, is not One who terrifies, troubles, condemns us sinners or calls us to account for our evil past but One who has taken away the sins of the whole world, nailing them to the cross (Co. 2:14) and driving them all the way out by Himself” (37-8).

By faith in Christ we are justified and in being justified we are Christ’s own in union with Him, and in this unity with Christ have been ushered to the Father. Any message that does not carry with it the proclamation of this grace and this peace is not a faithful message of the gospel. And that’s pretty much what Paul is setting up here in the first few introductory remarks to the Galatians. And I could stop here, but I won’t because Paul doesn’t and it just gets better…

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Gal 1:6-12)

Someone in Galatia used their quiet time to painstakingly write and painstakingly mail a letter to Paul: Something is happening, Paul…these new teachers are saying x, y, and z, and the people are falling for it. Help! For all intents and purposes, Paul’s response is: “Dearest Children what are you doing, to whom are you listening, and to for what message are you falling? If it’s anything but Jesus Christ died for your sins and was raised for your justification, it’s an errant message and those are errant teachers. Run.”

And here we move from being on the side-line looking in at the Galatians, to being addressed. We like the Galatians are fickle and with fickleness comes troubled minds, hearts, and souls. We are flesh and we are easily ensnared by lies, we, like the Galatians before us, are prone to fall for the lies of the “evil present age,” for the lies that drip from the lips of those who would rather bring glory to themselves than to God (ref. Gal 1:5 glory goes to God alone), we are prone to doubt when that age old question presents itself to us in the thick of night, “Did God really say….” It’s not that we seek or even want to be misled, but that we are easily mislead. Just as it takes one minuscule tick left or right from true north to cause directional mayhem in a walk in the wilderness, so it takes one morsel of doubt to undo sound teaching.[1]

Listen to what Paul declares in these verses:

  • You have been misled
  • You have strayed from He who has called you
  • You have wondered to another message
  • You are now troubled by this other (distorted) message/Gospel
  • There is only one Gospel message
  • Accursed is anyone—anyone—who proclaims to you another Gospel
  • The message you received from me is to be believed
  • I am not sent by nor am I seeking the approval of men but God.
  • I did not receive this message from man but from revelation from Jesus/Christ God

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8,

“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (vv. 5-6).

There is one God and there is one Gospel proclamation; Paul was sent and commissioned by the One God and given the One Gospel; any other message that contradicts this faithful servant and this faithful message is no Gospel and is an attempt to extinguish the one Gospel message. There is only the one word of the Gospel which brings grace and peace to the fickle heart and troubled mind of human beings; any other word added to this One word or any other word in place of this One Word and our fickleness looms and a troubled mind ensues.

We are wounded and doubting creatures and need to be told things repeatedly: This God, this very God, the creator of heaven and Earth, loves you so much. But not only that, but also this: He will never leave you, nor forsake you no matter how dirty your past and how wounded or skeptical you are of Him. Thus the importance of the preacher proclaiming this very message every Sunday; to do otherwise is to starve the congregation, the hearers (both old and new) of this word of life. Luther writes,

“For if we lose the doctrine of justification, we lose simply everything. Hence the most necessary and important thing is that we teach and repeat this doctrine daily…For it cannot be grasped or held enough or too much. In fact, though we may urge and inculcate it vigorously, no one grasps it perfectly or believes it with all his heart. So frail is our flesh and so disobedient to the spirit” (26)

So, we need to constantly hear, over and over and over again, the single word of the Gospel. We need to hear, over and over and over again that Christ Jesus, this man who is my God, willingly climbed up on the sturdy, old rugged cross, and with strong nails in his hands and feet died for our sins, and was raised for our justification.

We are so prone to disbelieve the activity of God toward us in Christ, in the Cross, that we need to be perpetually told that God truly, and unconditionally loves us–that we are truly justified by faith apart from works.

Did God say…?

Yes, and always yes He did in fact say and THIS is what He said…Hear and be comforted:

“Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matt 11:28)

“So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

Hear also what Saint Paul saith.

“This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Tim. 1:15)

Hear also what Saint John saith.

“If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the Propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 2: 1, 2)

[1] “This is what happened to Paul, the chosen instrument of Christ (Acts 9:15). With great toil and trouble he had gained the churches of Galatia; but in a short time after his departure the false apostle overthrew them, as this and all his other epistles testify. So weak and miserable is this present life, and so beset are we by the snares of Satan, that one fanatic can often destroy and completely undo in a short time what it took faithful ministers the hard labor of many years day and night to build up” (Luther Galatians 45).