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]

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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.

To Live and To Love is To Change

Sermon on Jeremiah 18:1-11

Psalm 139:16-17  How deep I find your thoughts, O God! how great is the sum of them! If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

Introduction

In seminary, my professor mentioned a philosopher who didn’t think change was real. When Dr. Witt said this, half my face squinched up. He said, “Yes! That’s the right reaction!”

I couldn’t really wrap my head around the idea that someone somewhere thought change wasn’t real. I mean, yes, I understand you can see different moments of existence as separate and independent phases of existence, like stepping from one stone to another. But what the heck do you call the process and momentum of going from one stone to another? Sorcery? The entire process of going from one thing to another, from one place to another, from one conception to another is change because it necessitates the process of what was giving way to what will be. These aren’t independent phases; it’s one substance being reformed, transitioning into another form from a previous one.

Physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, we change. We’re not the same as we were yesterday; we will not be the same tomorrow as we are today. Who here is still a baby? Who here sees things in the same way as you did a year ago? Too much has occurred (physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually) bringing you out of one form and into another. In fact, you’re not the same now as you were when you sat down this morning—you’re different!

While you’ll always be human—made up of the substance of flesh and bone, conscience and essence—you’re constantly changing in and around and with that substance as you come into alignment with yourself as yourself. New information in any form causes us to change. With the smallest amount of new information, we change ourselves, our presence in the world, our view of the world, and our activity in the world.

I know that change is terrifying; it threatens our comfortableness, it takes from us that which we have known, it makes us anxious as we are ushered into what feels like chaos. Change forces us to either move with change’s momentum, struggling and scrambling to a new ground, like running up a landslide. Or change causes us to struggle and scramble to fight against it’s momentum, like trying to redirect a waterfall from the bottom up. As much as we may dislike it and the discomfort that comes with our rupture from “normal”, change is a thing and it’s not going anywhere. Nothing stays the same, everything changes. It’s as constant as God’s love and might be of the same substance.

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from [God]: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

(Jer. 18:1-6)

Jeremiah is known as the “suffering servant.” While I’ve never read about a prophet of Israel who was the “easy-breezy servant”, Jeremiah seems to have a special summons into the divine pathos (passion) of God for God’s people. He is caught in the middle between Israel’s plight and God’s disdain for that plight. Essentially, especially here in chapter 18, Jeremiah’s stuck between what is and what will be, caught in the oncoming divine activity rupturing Israel’s what-has-been to bring forth Israel’s what-will-be,[1] captured like a deer in the headlights of God changing God’s mind.[2] Because God loves Israel, Israel will be God’s people even if it means starting over from scratch.[3]

So, Jeremiah is sent to a potter’s workshop to witness a revelation from God.[4] Jeremiah watches the scene unfold before him. He witnesses this potter work clay into a vessel, but it’s no good. The clay, according to Jeremiah, is marred[5]. Then, Jeremiah watches as the potter takes all that was before and crushes it into a shapeless mass of mud, starts over, and reforms it…not into what it was before, but into something completely different.[6] And then God’s words settle upon Jeremiah,[7] Did you see that? I’m the potter, and Israel’s the clay. I’ll start over, I’ll refashion Israel into another vessel.[8] Israel will be my people, and I’ll be Israel’s God. I’ll not forsake Israel and they’ll be the vessel of my presence in the world for the world.

There are two things to point out here. The first is that while the action of crushing the clay vessel into a formless mass of mud is violent, God does not ditch the substance of the clay. Rather, God changes directions and reforms it. This isn’t a stubborn, obstinate God, incapable of changing their mind. That God compares God’s self to a potter willing to start over and form a completely different vessel from what was indicates that not only is change a part of the divine person, but also that God will not forsake God’s people—the clay is still on the wheel, still the focus of God’s eye, mind, heart, and hands. The idea that God doesn’t change is only true when speaking of God’s substance, which is love; God loves, God is love. To say God never changes God’s mind is a truncated view of God. (Doesn’t love change our minds?). God changes God’s mind and God always loves you. Therefore, this crushing, reformation, and transformation is the handmaiden of God’s love: the door’s open for mercy and return, repentance and forgiveness. The marring and crushing aren’t the last words.[9]

The second thing to point out: Israel will go through a transition from what they were into what they will be. In that the clay is still on the wheel, still in God’s hands, Israel will be reformed into a completely different vessel. The entire first testament speaks to death never having the last word,[10] not only according to the repeated theme of repentance and forgiveness, but most notably in a story about a great storm flooding the earth; after which God promises, that…that….I will never ever do again.[11]Thus, the clay is still on the wheel; thus, life still wins, because God’s character is to love, to have mercy, and to bring life.[12]

Change hurts. Israel will go through their death and be brought through it into new life; Israel will be a vessel of good in the world, righting wrongs, bringing the world into alignment with the will of God. What is God’s will? The reign of life and liberation: the captives are set free, the hungry eat, the thirsty drink, the naked are clothed, the houseless housed, the threatened comforted, and the living are summoned from death into life.

Conclusion

So, change is scary. Change is hard. And it’s necessary. Our world must change. We must change. If this planet is going to recover, we must change. If humanity is going to have a fighting chance beyond another century, we must change. If we want violence against people of color, indigenous peoples, and LGBTQIA+ people to end, we have no choice: we must change.

If I want this world to be a better place for my daughter and her two older brothers, I must muscle up, roll my sleeves, and get to work, embracing all the change I can—and that necessarily means confessing where I’ve been wrong, where I’ve participated in violent ideologies and systems, where I’m captive and complicit. I must walk through my fear and discomfort, resisting the status-quo, in the name of love and life.

This change is the encounter with God in the event of faith in Christ. I must die to what was and allow God to mold me into another vessel, resembling the Christ, bringing me into new life, a life powered by the Holy Spirit, one better equipped to serve God’s people, bringing water to the thirsty, food to the hungry, clothes to the naked, shelter to the houseless, love to the unloved, liberation to the captives, comfort to the threatened, and life to the walking dead.

And the Church, too. We, you, me and this entire institution must give itself over to the transition of death into new life, we must be willing to let go of what was and sink into God who’s eager to bring us through the void into what will be. God will have a vessel in the world to right wrongs, to demythologize corrupt human systems, to call things what they are, to bring love to the people devoured by power and greed; the question is: will we be a part of that vessel? Will we take up our cross and follow Christ, who we claim to be the suffering servant of God and humanity, who’s the first born of the dead, fully God yet forsook equality with God to live and die and rise in solidarity with humankind? Will we, like Jesus, dare to set aside what-was so that what-will-be can come forth?


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 173. “Awareness of a problem means awareness of a conflict or a tension between two ideas, forces or situations. In this sense the prophets discovered the problem of history as a tension between what happens now and what may happen next. The future is no simple continuation of the present. Just as the present, in their eyes, represented a violation of what was established in the past (Israel’s commitment to God), so may the future overturn the seeming solidity of what is being done in the present.”

[2] Heschel, The Prophets, 173-174. “Moreover, the situation here and now is but a stage in the drama of history. Whatever happens now affects the past; it either shapes or distorts events that are going on. By history we do not mean the ‘gone’ or the dead past, but the present in which past and future are interlocked.”

[3] Heschel, The Prophets, 174. “Life is not as fate designs, nor is history a realm to be tyrannized by man. Events are not like rocks on the shore shaped by wind and water. Choice, design, is what determines the shape of events. God is at work on man, intent to fashion history in accord with Himself.”

[4] Heschel, The Prophets, 174. “Jeremiah was told to go to a potter’s house where he would receive a revelation.”

[5] Rabbi Dr. H. Freedman Jeremiah: with Hebrew text and English Translation. Ed. Rev. Dr. A Cohen. Soncino Books of the Bible. 6th Impression. London: Soncino Press, 1970. 125. v. 4 (marred) “Thomson witnessed such a scene which he describes as follows: ‘From some defect in the clay, or because he had taken too little, the potter suddenly changed his mind, crushed his growing jar instantly into a shapeless mass of mud, and beginning anew, fashioned it into a totally different vessel.’ The application of the simile is not that the house of Israel is bound to be fashioned ultimately as God wishes, as might be concluded from verse 4, but that God dispose absolutely of the destinies of Israel and every other nation, in the same way that the potter does whatever h pleases with the clay.”

[6] ibid.

[7] Freedman, Jeremiah, 125. “The familiar sight of the potter at work with his clay suggests to Jeremiah’s mind a parallel to the working of God with His people. Chapter xviii describe the process of remaking a misshapen vessel and applies it to the fate of the nation.”

[8] John Bright Jeremiah: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible. Eds. William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965. 125-126. “Then a word from Yahweh came to Jeremiah explaining to him the meaning of this (vss. 5-6): Yahweh is the potter, and he can do with Israel as the potter does with the clay. But the point is not, as some think, that Yahweh will continue to work patiently with his people and, in spite of the fact that they may temporarily thwart him, will in the end make them the ‘vessel’ that he had intended them to be. This is to misunderstand vs. 4, the point of which is precisely that the clay can frustrate the potter’s intention and cause him to change it: as the quality of the clay determines what the potter can do with it, so the quality of a people determines what God will do with them.”

[9] Heschel, The Prophets, 174. “Sin is not a cul de sac, nor is guilt a final trap. Sin may be washed away by repentance and return, and beyond guilt is the dawn of forgiveness. The door is never locked, the threat of doom is not the last word.”

[10] Heschel, The Prophets, 104. “And yet, Jeremiah did not think that evil was inevitable. Over and above man’s blindness stood the wonder of repentance, the open gateway through which man could enter if he would. Jeremiah’s call was addressed to Israel as a whole as well as to every member of the people (18:11) …”

[11] Heschel, The Prophets, 297. “…the pathos of anger is by no means regarded as an attribute, as a basic disposition, as a quality inherent in the nature of God, but rather as a mood, a state of mind or soul. In both its origin and duration, anger is distinguished from mercy. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but rather a state which is occasioned and conditioned by man. There is a biblical belief in divine grace, in a mercy which is bestowed upon man to a degree greater than he deserves. There is no belief in divine arbitrariness, in an anger which consumes and afflicts without moral justification. The pathos of anger is, further, a transient state.”

[12] Heschel, The Prophets, 197. “The normal and original pathos is love or mercy. Anger is preceded as well as followed by compassion (Jer. 12:15; 33:26). For punishment to be imposed upon the people, God’s ‘love and steadfast mercy’ must be suppressed…Even in moments of indignation, His love remains alive.”

Prayer of Love and Solidarity

Sermon on Luke 11:1-13

Psalm 85:7-8, 10 Show us your mercy, God, and grant us your salvation. I will listen to what God is saying, for God is speaking peace to God’s faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to God. Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

Introduction

Over the two decades being Christian I have had both robust and sickly relationship with prayer. On again, off again. It makes sense, it doesn’t make sense. I feel God’s presence; where’d God go? Yes! This is an important part of my Christian spiritual expression!; Gah! What the heck am I doing, this’s nuts. I wish I could claim a prowess and steadfastness in prayer, but I can’t.

I think the moments of prayerless malaise stem from my early Christian experience that’s marked by a heavy influence of both malnourished charism and ardent evangelicalism. My naiveté and lack of biblical and theological training was easily manipulated by friends who were more “experienced” in their journey with the Lord. I was influenced by fellow lay people taking matters into their own hand, and I loved the idea of being fueled with a spiritual power that was akin to wizardry. Faith, if you had enough, earned you things you wanted. Prayer—when prayed hard enough, hungry enough, claimed enough—produced the answers and results you desired.

My best friend at the time, the one who brought me to Christ, showed me that the faithful named and claimed things, believed beyond material evidence otherwise, and all of it applied to material things—even future spouses (as if they were things to get). According to this friend, prophecies in the first testament were “for me”, if you happened upon them playing bible-roulette. Words of wisdom and knowledge were events worthy of future expectation (things that will happen…if you don’t doubt). Prayer was a necessary expression of how much you wanted something and the more you prayed and the longer you prayed the more you showed God your commitment and faith and the more God would see to fulfilling your request.

When things didn’t go my way? Well…eventually this malnourished charism grew exhausting to uphold. I just couldn’t. With so many unanswered claims and prayers, I guess I was just a faithless person, maybe it wasn’t my thing. Thus, I’ve wrestled with prayer.

So, this week’s gospel, had me all:

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I’m truly human; I must both laugh and cry when challenged to confront some of my own spiritual trauma and walk through death to get to the other side into new life.

So, I’m asking: why pray? I believe Jesus shows the better way.

Luke 11:1-13

And it happened while he was in a certain place as he was leaving off praying, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, please teach us to pray, even just as John taught his disciples.” And [Jesus] said to them, “Whenever you pray you say, ‘Beloved Parent, let your name be purified; please let your kingdom come; please give to us our bread for the coming day in accordance with the day. And release from us our failures, just as we ourselves release all [people] owing to us. And do not lead us into calamity.”

(Luke 11:1-4)

The transition from chapter 10 (ending with “Mary picked out for herself the good part [and] it will not be taken from her whatsoever.”) to “And it happened while he was praying” feels like one of the worst transitions ever. But it isn’t. Moving from a conversation about what it looks like to be neighborly (having mercy) and to love God (choosing that which is living over that which is dead) to a conversation about prayer actually makes sense.[1] Orientation toward neighbor and God impacts the activity of our worship, and our worship impacts our orientation toward neighbor and God.[2]

So, Luke tells us this next event happened right as Jesus finished praying. One of Jesus’s disciples asks him for a prayer like the other rabbis give their disciples.[3] So, without missing a beat, Jesus says, Okay great, whenever you pray say this… And then we have “The Lord’s Prayer.” This prayer is “The prayer of the Lord’s Disciples” and sets Christ’s followers apart from other schools of thought,[4] functions as a means to formation (inwardly and outwardly), and identifies them as Christ’s disciples.[5]

What are the key characteristics that now mark Christ’s disciples?

  • God is close and personal, like a parent, so we should address our prayer to this loving God elder/parent, who is intimately identified and identifies with us.[6] (Our Father)
  • We ask for God’s name to be hallowed (sanctified/purified) among us and in the world around us; we desire not to profane God’s name or to have God’s name profaned by others. (Let your name be purified)[7]
    • This entails justice and not injustice, equality and not inequality: the hungry fed, the naked clothed, the widowed cared for, the oppressed liberated, the homeless homed…[8]
    • Thus we also pray that God’s reign comes in this way…(let your kingdom come)[9]
      • Specifically in (but not limited to[10]) the form of giving us real bread to satisfy real hunger; if we are satisfied, we say “us” so that bread is provided to all who need it (give to us our daily bread)[11]
      • Not given spontaneously generate apart from us but with and through us and our participation[12]
      • In accordance to ways rejecting the violent systems established by the kingdom of humanity[13]
    • Help us to spread your love in the world through being reconciled and reconciling, being restored and restoring, being forgiven and forgiving,[14] for we know the activity of divine love is not static but active (forgive us our debts as we forgive those who have debts against us)[15]
  • And, finally, please assist us not to fall into the traps and temptations in the world that cause us to return to the old age of death dealing narratives and systems (lead us not into temptation).[16]

Then, as we follow Luke’s narrative weaving, Jesus offers two examples intimately connected to what was just discussed. The imagery of the midnight request for bread in the first story links what follows to the request for daily bread in the prayer. However, the idea that it’s strictly about asking and asking and asking for things we want—which was how it was taught to me—is antithetical to what is actually going on in light of Jesus giving the “Lord’s Prayer” to the disciples. In fact, it’s not about “perseverance” as much as it’s about a lack of shame in praying for something for your friend. ἀναίδειαν is about being shameless in your request not how many times you ask—not for yourself but for others[17] (thus the link back to chapter 10: loving God is loving the neighbor). The man asks one friend who has bread to give him bread so he may supply bread to the friend who’s shown up because he doesn’t have bread to give (intercessory request).[18]

So, according to Jesus’s teaching on prayer, to pray is not to pray for only yourself and what you want but what is needed so that basic human needs are met. More specifically, looking at the structure of the Lord’s Prayer—which shapes the follower’s praying and living in the world toward neighbor and God—we rarely pray strictly for me and mine, but for we and us, for things we all need. Thus, if I’m not in need but pray God to supply us our daily bread, I pray in solidarity with those who do need it.

Conclusion

In this prayer and in the stories that follow, the disciples are exhorted to see their umbilical link to their neighbors: they hurt when the neighbor hurts, they are hungry when the neighbor is hungry, they are cold when the neighbor is cold…In this way God’s name is purified and not profaned, God’s reign comes, and divine love continues to sweep through the world capturing the captives unto liberation and life. And not of our own doing. Praying in this way is to bring this solidarity among humans to the One who is in solidarity with them: Jesus the Christ of Nazareth, this human who is God, this neighbor who is God, this one who knows us and our needs, our pain and our sorrow, our hunger and dependence, our vulnerability and death.

So, back to the introduction and the question: why pray? Because I love you. Because I love those whom God loves. Because I want people to know and the world to experience the divine love of God. Today, I pray not because it gets me anything, but that it brings you everything. Lifting each other up in prayer knits us in tight solidarity with each other as we weep with those who weep, hunger with those who hunger, sorrow with those who sorrow, get angry with those who are angry, and even rejoice with those who rejoice. And all of it, by prayer, is done in the presence of God whom we draw close as we shamelessly dare to face God and boldly ask: please, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


[1] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 438. “The Lukan account of Jesus’ interaction with Martha and Mary, then, prepares for Jesus’ teaching on the [parenthood] of God by focusing on one’s disposition toward authentic hearing in the presence of the in breaking kingdom.”

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 142-143. “Action shapes attitude, and rite shapes belie: Historians often refer to this with the Latin phrase lex credenda est lex orandi, ‘the rule of worship (or prayer) is the rule of belief.’ … In Our everyday experience we know that the simple action of smiling often leads us to want to smile. In the life of faith, faith leads us to worship; but worship also leads us to faith.”

[3] Gonzalez, Luke, 143. “At the time when Jesus taught this prayer, many other rabbis and teachers proposed certain prayers for their disciples to repeat.”

[4] Green, Luke, 440. “Jesus’ followers pray in this way because this is a distinctive practice of Jesus’ followers. Such practices nurture dispositions appropriate to the community of Jesus’ followers; through its repetition, the message of this prayer would engrave itself into the life of the community.”

[5] Gonzalez, Luke, 143. “So the Lord’s Prayer is also the prayer of the disciples of the Lord the prayer by which these disciples are formed, and which serves as the mark of their identity.”

[6] Green, Luke, 441. “Though often carrying connotations of authority (and, thus, of the response of obedience), in this case ‘father’ actualizes other properties of this metaphor as well-for example, love, nurture, mercy, and delight.” This is why I am opting for another name for this intimacy because Fatherhood and Father have often been abused as authoritative rather than nurturing.

[7] Gonzalez, Luke, 143. In that passage, as in the Lord’s Prayer, the main consideration is the name of the Lord. The Lord’s Prayer begins with, ‘hallowed be your name,’ and the prayer in Proverbs ends with the concern not to ‘profane the name of my God.’ What Proverbs says is that injustice and inequality that lead the poor to steal profane the name of the Lord, and that abundance that leads to self-sufficiency ignores that very name….” And, Green, Luke, 442. “God’s eschatological work to reestablish the holiness of his name, then, invokes shame on the part of his people and invites them to embrace practices that honor him.”

[8] Green, Luke, 440. “Within the practice of such prayer, a premium would be placed on the infusion of a worldview centered on the gracious God, on dependence on God, and on the imitation of God, all understood against an eschatological horizon in which the coming of God in his sovereignty figures prominently.”

[9] Gonzalez, Luke, 143. “Thus the petitions ‘hallowed be your name’ and ‘your kingdom come’ are not independent from the one about daily bread. This is not a list of petitions. It is a single, ardent call for the kingdom in which God’s name is hallowed, and in which all have what they need.”

[10] Green, Luke, 443. “However polysemic Luke’s phrase may thus seem, this does not detract from what is most clear about this petition-namely, its concern with the reliance of Jesus’ followers on God’s provision for the basics of daily life.”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 144. “Is this about physical, edible bread, or about spiritual bread? The Question itself reflects a dichotomy that is alien to the biblical text. Eating is a spiritual act, and discipleship is reflected in eating and in sharing food. Furthermore, the very ambiguity of the word translated as ‘daily bread’ points to both the physical and the spiritual… In the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking for exactly that sort of bread—bread of justice and of trust in God.”

[12] Green, Luke, 442. “It is God’s kingdom that will come; only God can overturn the powers at work in the world and establish his universal reign, so the faithful do well to join persons like Simeon and Anna in their hopeful anticipation of the decisive, divine intervention 2:25, 38). At the same time, with the coming of Jesus the kingdom is already being made present, necessitating lives oriented toward serving the divine project and restorative practices that participate in and further the reach of the new order being established by God…”

[13] Green, Luke, 443. “The prayer Jesus teaches his followers embodies the urgency of giving without expectation of return that is, of ripping the fabric of the patronage system by treating others as (fictive) kin rather than as greater or lesser than oneself.”

[14] Green, Luke, 444. “As in previous texts (esp. 6:36), Jesus spins human behavior from the cloth of divine behavior, the embodiment of forgiveness in the practices of Jesus’ followers is a manifestation and imitation of God’s own character.”

[15] Gonzalez, Luke, 144. The implication is that our sins are like unpaid debts-perhaps even unpayable debts-and that while we pray God not to collect on us, we also commit not to collect on others. Connecting this with what has been said above about the kingdom and bread, those who pray for the kingdom and serve it commit not to claim for themselves more than is due, and at the same time, recognizing that they are not always faithful to that promise, to forgive those who take more than is their due.

[16] Gonzalez, Luke, 144. “Finally, the petition about the time of trial” may be an eschatological reference to the final judgment, and also a reference to the temptation not to trust God for daily bread.”

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 144-145. “One could therefore say that the parable is about intercessory prayer. It is not about my asking God for what I want, but rather about asking God tor what others need. When on that basis we ask, we are given; when on that basis we search, we shall find; when on that basis we knock, the door will be opened. Significantly, at the end of the passage Jesus does not promise his disciples ‘good things,’ as in Matthew (Matt. 7:11), but rather ‘the Holy Spirit.’ What Jesus promises his disciples who ask is that they will be given the Holy Spirit, who in turn will help them ask on behalf of others.”

[18] Gonzalez, Luke, 144. In this story, the theme of bread serves as a link with the Lord’s Prayer. The story is not about ‘perseverance in prayer’ as the NRSV titles it. Actually, the word that the NRSV translates as ‘persistence’ in verse 8 can also be understood as ‘impudence’ or ‘shamelessness.’ So the story is about a man who is sufficiently concerned about the friend who has arrived unexpectedly to dare wake another friend in the middle of the night. It is about one who asks on behalf of another. The one caught with no bread when the friend arrives is also caught between two principles of conduct: hospitality to the unexpected guest on the one hand, and respect for the friend who sleeps on the other. To him, there is no choice-he must call upon the friend who has bread in order to feed the one who has not.

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!

What if Thy Will is Done

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

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

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

Our Stories This Story: The Youth

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. you can access it here.

Psalm 91:9-11  Because you have made the Lord your refuge, and the Most High your habitation, There shall no evil happen to you, neither shall any plague come near your dwelling. For God shall give God’s angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways.

Introduction

“They have no idea what they’re doing. None. I look around and see the violence, I watch these people run the world, and I’m convinced they’re blind. Can’t they see that these old systems just don’t work and that something must change or I’ll lose my future? Do they even care?! …I mean, I think my parents try but…I don’t know…I fear for them, too. How much more will they be able to bear to try to prevent the inevitable from happening? I mean, we’re doomed right? I might be young, but I can at least see that…I’m exhausted. I’m young and exhausted and I fear I’m practically burnt out.”

From the Ash Wednesday Sermon 3.2.22

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

We are all born into the beauty and mess of the world of our parents and grandparents. We receive a world that is in process and are told that its progress is due to previous generations, and even if it’s not perfect, the new generation is to move it forward on that line of progress and clean up the mess of those who were here before participating in this process. But that idea is a myth. The problem being that we have a hard time discerning between systems bent against survival and those able to create realms of thriving. By picking up and carrying on while cleaning up—just as they did before—we participate not in the process of making things better but perpetuating systems that are inherently flawed. If this is so, then nothing is actually getting better and we are thrusting the entire kit and kaboodle further into death and despair.

When we just pick up just because it’s handed to us, we receive it as normal and as “always been”. Then, we, the adults, become so far in it’s hard to see what’s wrong. If you are in a building with a foundation that is giving way, it’s the person external to the building, the new person who enters the building, who notices the problem and not those who have grown accustomed to the slow and steady nearly invisible alterations of the building. Same thing goes for our world and society and the systems in place running everything: those who are newer to this world, to society, to our approach to life—the young—see things in a different light. This is why the youth come to dinner tables eager to dream and dare and put words to problems through questions and rough insight. It’s the energy and zeal of the young who surge into rooms and spaces and try to remind tired and burned out adults that there was once a story.

When it’s our perceived responsibility to pass on systems as they are rather than stories of what things could be, then the challenging “Why?” of the youth is met with condescension and rejection. We respond to their questions and inquiries, their challenges and dares by dismissing them as byproducts of overzealous youthful vim and vigor because we despise being waked into our storylessness and being reminded that we’ve long buried our stories in the ground because the world told us to, that such dreaming and hoping was pointless. In this way we cease passing on our stories because we’ve lost our stories to our pain. And, instead, we pass on our pain and wounds and demoralization…we pass on flawed and harmful systems. If I was beaten down, then you will be too, that’s just the way the world works.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”

Deuteronomy 26:3-9

In our passage from Deuteronomy, Moses, inspired by the spirit of God, proclaims prophetically to the people who are about to take up residence in the long-awaited promised land to recite the story of God’s dealing with God’s people. One of the most fundamental and recurring themes here is remembering what God has done. Israel, through Moses, is exhorted to remember and recall and recite the story of God’s great deliverance of the captives. Israel is to hold to this story; not in a dogmatic and dead fashion, but as a living and thriving narrative. This story is to remind them that God is for them, that God is their God and they are God’s people. This story is to be remembered and shared, passed on from one generation to another. And through the sharing of this story, hope and possibility and promise and life are passed on from one generation to another.

Throughout Deuteronomy, Moses exhorts the Israelites to contemplate the revelation of God made known in the giving of the law and the liberation of Israel from captivity in Egypt day and night all the days of their life, and to share these very laws and stories with their children. Discussions were supposed to happen; questions asked and answers given. In passing on this story, the children would then make this story theirs, and in this way this God of their parents would become their God, too—not a strange and unfamiliar God, but one whom they knew from the beginning and into whose story they could see themselves participating and not merely observing. In passing on the story—this story about a God who liberates the captives, unburdens the oppressed, and cares for the homeless, hungry, and naked—Israel passes on the hope and dreams of the story that resonate with the fuel and fire of the youth that this world can be better. In passing on the story, the old share with the young their wisdom and what they’ve learned. In passing on the story, the young add to it offering different perspectives and views on how this liberation, unburdening, and care manifest in their age now. It’s this process of sharing story that is to be passed on; not the death grip to human made systems long expired and past their time.

Conclusion

One of my favorite theologians, Helmut Gollwitzer,[1] argues that age needs youth and youth needs age. Or phrased differently: energy inspires wisdom and wisdom guides energy. In the preface to his book, The Rich Christian & Poor Lazarus, Gollwitzer expresses gratitude for the impact the youth, the students, have on his life and the world. I’ll quote a portion here:

“This book is dedicated to the students of Berlin. By this I mean those who, among many thousands who attend the universities of West Berlin, are responsible for the fact that Berlin has for some time now been censured or praised as a place of unrest. I mean especially those of their spokesmen with whom in recent years I have come in contact, and who go in and out of my house. In contrast with many of my contemporaries and colleagues, who regard them with deep antipathy or at least shake their heads over them in bewilderment, I have come love them for their sincerity, their courage, their feeling for freedom, their sense of responsibility for the future, and their dream of a more human society. I have received from them encouragement, instruction, and the stimulus for new thought, and they, I hope have benefited from some of the things that I and my friends have had to say in criticism and correction…”[2]

Helmut Gollwitzer

What beautiful words of mutual affirmation. Gollwitzer writes, “I have come to love them for their sincerity, their courage, their feeling for freedom, their sense of responsibility for the future, and their dream of a more human society.” I deeply, deeply believe that when we bring our young ones to the table and give them a vital and necessary place to talk and engage with us, we will stop passing on the mess of flawed and violent systems. I believe we will be called back to our stories of liberation and freedom and hope and life and we will be exhorted to dream with them that maybe, just maybe, things don’t have to be as bad as they are. Until then, we will continue to be complicit and held captive in these systems that are killing not only us but also the hope and dreams and future of the young.


[1] A great text on Gollwitzer is Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s text Our God Loves Justice: an introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017.

[2] Helmut Gollwitzer The Rich Christians & Poor Lazarus Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1970. x-xi

From One Degree to Another

Psalm 99:2-3, The Lord is great in Zion; [God] is high above all peoples. Let them confess [The Lord’s] Name, which is great and awesome; [God] is the Holy One.

Introduction

When I consider the glory of God I always imagine it just outside of my reach: something external to me. Something forever out there and never in here—in my body, mind, heart.

I think part of the problem is that I’ve been too well schooled in the idea that God is other, some wholly other, existing strictly outside of me, something I gaze upon; someone I encounter from without. At times, this imagery takes on historically protestant tones as God becomes all knowing, all powerful, all pure, while I am the complete opposite: utterly ignorant, completely weak, and totally depraved. I think our holy text with its stories and myths and narratives also contribute: God speaks and the people listen, God causes the rains or the sun or the rainbow, God dwells in a tent or a tabernacle or the holy of holies of the temple.

Even though I know the Holy Spirit dwells in me and believe firmly in the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer, I’ve not thought of the Spirit’s presence in my mind, heart, and body to be particularly visible apart from manifesting certain actions (typically rendered as “good” or “holy”). In other words, my deeds and works—my active love in the world for my neighbor—bring glory to God—but I am still separate from that glory; glory is God’s and has nothing to do with me. What I haven’t considered until now is that by God’s grace and love I participate in God’s glory. I mean, as God’s Spirit dwells in me, as God’s love dwells in me, so, too, does God’s glory.

God’s presence in Spirit, love, and glory work together to bring me (more and more) into sanctification, otherwise known as “transformation”/“transfiguration”. I don’t have to self-apply God’s glory through my “good” actions. Rather, God’s glory—like God’s Spirit and love—is already working in me and bringing me in closer alignment to being like Christ in the world.

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

“Therefore, having hope such as this, we take advantage of great confidence…Now the Lord is Spirit. And where the spirit of the lord is [there is] freedom. Now, we, we all—with faces having been unveiled—looking at the glory of the lord as if in a mirror are being transformed/transfigured into the same likeness from one degree of glory to another just as from the Lord who is Spirit.” [1]

(2 Cor 3:12, 17-18)

It’s Paul’s confident and humble words to the Corinthians that caused me pause this week. The language of “such a hope”, “confidence”, “the Spirit of the Lord”, and “freedom” coupled with a vibrant discussion of the movement of God’s glory from one place to another and always all-encompassing and never forsaking made me realize how interconnected are God’s presence by Spirit, God’s love, and God’s glory.

This part of Paul’s letter encapsulates both the first testament story from Exodus—describing Moses’s encounter with God and the divine glory remaining (temporarily) on his face—and the story of Jesus’s transfiguration told in the Gospel passage. In this way—unintentionally or intentionally—Paul draws a line from one transfiguration to another and lastly to another: from Moses, to Jesus, to us. This line that Paul draws is not one meant to humiliate Moses or cause one story to be inferior to another; rather, it’s meant to highlight the activity and movement of God in God’s presence with God’s people: from concealment to openness.[2] God’s glory moves from God’s self and presence made temporarily visible on Moses’s face which is then veiled to the brilliant transfiguration of Christ on the mountain in the presence of a few disciples, and then to those who follow Jesus out of the Jordan (both literally and by faith).

I can’t help but consider the transition of God’s glory from a specific location (God’s self) that is shared in a limited[3] manner with the people (in this case: mediated to Israel through Moses behind a veil), to the divine glory culminating visually and physically in God’s self-revelation in God’s son: this man Jesus of Nazareth who is God’s Christ, and then settles upon God’s people directly through the presence of God’s Spirit in the minds and hearts of the believers.[4] This movement coincides with God’s presence which moves from one locale to another ultimately ending in the hearts of those who encounter God in the event of faith.

The stories of God’s presence with Israel have a boundaried feel: God is always present with God’s people, but in this tent, that tabernacle, this temple and holy of holies or that cloud/fire (even a burning bush!). God’s presence is limited according to what is written: the people could not be directly in God’s presence without potentially burning up (think of Uzzah dropping dead for touching the tabernacle[5]). Then, in Christ, God’s presence is still contained but in a free way: Jesus the Christ moves about as God’s son—God of very God—and communes, touches, and rests with the people directly. It’s recorded that death did not come to those who touched Jesus or whom were touched by Jesus. Then, after the resurrection and the ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit of God descends and takes up bountiful residence in the hearts and minds of believers unrestricted.

God’s presence and Spirit moved from concealed to opened, from limited to bountiful. Moses’s veil and the curtain of the holy of holies is abolished in Christ by the presence of the Spirit in us. God is not restricted to one location. Thus, where God’s presence and Spirit[6] go, so, too, does God’s glory. In this way we participate in God’s glory in Christ by faith not only by our works but by the presence of the Spirit of God in us and the freedom and liberty, [7] confidence and boldness, love and compassion that shines forth as a result.

Conclusion

When we consider the transfiguration of Jesus, we must see it as more than just about Jesus—though this is important. If we see it only as something unique and special to Jesus, it will remove Jesus from us further, and we are already very prone to treat Jesus as if he cannot be touched by us because he is elevated and we aren’t. But we must see that Jesus is and has been and will be always among the people. So, when we consider the transfiguration, let’s see the comprehensive movement of God’s love, and glory, and presence into and among the people. For after Jesus’s transfiguration he descends the mountain and continues his divine mission to seek and save the lost, to liberate the captives, to bring peace to the anxious, and proclaim comfort and freedom to the poor and oppressed.

Beloved, the glory of the Lord is among you and with you and in you. God has claimed you as God’s own in God’s never stopping, never giving up, bountiful love for you, the beloved. In this claim you are immersed and drenched in the grace and glory of God. In the presence of the Spirit with and in you, God’s glory is a part of your person as the result of your encounter with God in the event of faith; you cannot shake it because it lives in you because God lives in you. This is the foundation of your hope for the present: God’s presence and love and glory and grace and mercy are unconditionally and bountifully present for anyone and everyone.

Such a hope as this brings confidence and boldness—even if we are transfigured and sanctified from one degree of glory to another, day by day by nearly immeasurable increments.[8] This boldness and confidence is not only in relation to oneself and to God, but especially in relation to our solidarity with others through out the world. As we are more and more in Christ—more in more embedded in God’s glory and love and embedded in the presence of the Spirit—our inner lives are transfigured and transformed and our minds and our hearts are renewed. In this way our actions begin to align with the activity of divine love for the world in “Christ-like” behavior. [9]

If we are to be more Christ-like in our transfiguration and transformation by the presence of God’s Spirit, glory, and love, then this necessarily means that we participate in the divine mission of Love in and for the world. We, with Christ and by the power of God’s Spirit, proclaim good news to the poor, bring liberty to the captives, unburden the oppressed, and rescue the threatened from death. Even if our actions right now seem small and insignificant in light of the magnitude of current world events, it is the boldness of our hope and the confidence of faith founded in our liberative encounter with God in the event of faith that makes us more impactful than we realize. For we are bold to pray for, we are confident to stand with, and we can dare to act for those stuck and terrified by threat of war and violence, loss and death, starvation and thirst, nakedness and homelessness.

We are the glory of God spreading in the world; as we praise God let us participate in God, and spread God’s love and glory from one degree to another.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Murray J. Harris The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A Hagner (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005. 296. “The contrast Paul draws between himself (and his associates) and Moses is not that of boldness (παρρησία) as opposed to timidity (Moses’ ‘meekness’ [Num. 12:3] should not be equated with fainthearted diffidence), nor straightforward honesty in contrast with devious deceit, but rather openness as opposed to concealment, with no necessary implication of duplicity in that concealment.”

[3] Harris 2 Corinthians 300. “On this view the purpose of Moses’ veil was to prevent preoccupation with outward δόξα (cf. 5:14) and to point to the temporary character of the whole Mosaic system of covenant and law…”

[4] Harris 2 Corinthians 313. “It was the privilege of Moses alone to glimpse Yahweh’s glory when he saw his ‘form’ (Num. 12:8) and his ‘back’ (Exod. 33:23), but now all Christians without distinction are privileged to witness that glory. Moreover, although Moses’ face was unveiled when he was conversing with God and was reporting God’s words to the congregation, it was thereafter veiled until he returned to the Lord’s presence (Exod. 34:33-35). Christians, however, see the divine glory with permanently uncovered faces.”

[5] Ref. 2 Sam 6:7

[6] Harris 2 Corinthians 312. “…Paul adds (dé, “and”) that the Spirit to whom people turn in the new dispensation brings them freedom. Wherever the Spirit of the Lord (God) is present and active, liberty is enjoyed and compulsion is absent.”

[7] Harris 2 Corinthians 312-313. “It is significant that ἐλευθερία is unqualified, which suggests that Paul would not wish to exclude any type of freedom that is implied in the context, such as the freedom to speak and act openly (= πασρρησία, V 12); freedom from the veil (vv. 14-16) whether the veil of spiritual ignorance concerning truths of the new covenant or the veil of hardheartedness (vv. 13, 14); freedom from the old covenant (v. 14) or from the law and its effects (v. 6); freedom to behold God’s glory uninterruptedly (v. 18) or to conform to Christ (v. 18); Or freedom of access into the divine presence without fear.”

[8] Harris 2 Corinthians 316-317. “In stark contrast with the radiance on Moses’ face that faded (3:7, 13), the glory of the Lord that is reflected in believers’ lives gradually increases. Justified at regeneration, believers are progressively sanctified until their final glorification at the consummation…”

[9] Harris 2 Corinthians 315-316. “Although it is now the whole person rather than the face alone that reflects God’s glory, Paul must be thinking principally of the transformation of ‘the inner person’ (4:16b), the whole person as a ’new creation’ (5:17) and as a participant in the life of the age to come, for he observes that the outer person,” the whole person as a mortal creature, is being worn down (4:16a), not transformed. When Jesus was transfigured, the change was outwardly visible (Matt. 17-2), but when Christians are transformed, the change is essentially the renewing of the mind (Rom. 12:2), and becomes visible only in their Christ-like behavior.”

Exposed and Loved

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Psalm 138:1-2 I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing your praise. I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your Name, because of your love and faithfulness…

Introduction

Have you ever been exposed?

I’m sure we all have stories from our childhood where a parent or an older sibling found us mid infraction. A story that always comes to mind for me was the time in first grade. I took it upon myself to defend my friend who was disciplined by the driver of the bus during the ride home from school. As I stepped down from the bus, I turned, and then gave the bus driver a selection of choice words. Then I sprinted home—as fast as possible—through waist deep Minnesota snow while wearing moonboots. What I didn’t know was that my big brother had been right there when I let those words rip. And, for a kid who was regularly messing up, he now had his moment of glory: the baby of the family had done something wrong… he was ready to expose me. And he did. Let’s just say, I didn’t use some of those words for a very long time.

While this was a rather comical moment from my history, there are other moments I keep locked in my heart, moments when I was exposed but not unto punishment, judgment, and condemnation but unto mercy, grace, and life. Those moments when I did not receive what I rightfully deserved to receive, I hold as treasures of my history. These moments are rich and profound; they weave together that which is bad with that which is good, that which was ugly with that which is beautiful, that which was submerged in lightlessness with that which is exposed in lightfulness.

One such moment was an extensive moment of existence where I felt my life falling from my body as I lost myself into my pain and anguish, into my greed and vanity, into my self-inflicted violence and abuse. I was a sham. There was not life in me even though I went about from day to day. I hated me. I hated who I was. I could barely look in the mirror because I couldn’t handle the deep sadness of disappointment and failure. But then God. God spoke through the humble proclamation of God’s love for the world in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and I heard something I couldn’t believe to be true: me? Loved? Good? Welcomed? A holy and righteous God and “Lauren” in the same sentence?

My life was changed. Forever. I’d never be the same. Love changes us.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Then he was seen by James, then to all the apostles. Now, last of all as if one untimely born, he was seen also by me. For I, I am the least of the apostles of whom I am not fit to be called apostle on the very account that I persecuted the church of God. Now by the grace of God, I am what I am, and the grace of God with reference to me has not been empty…[1]

1 Corinthians 15:7-10

So, when I read Paul’s words in 1 Cor 15:7-10, it’s this moment of confession—of his own encounter with God in the event of faith exposing him—that becomes the operative force surging through this passage. Yes, the proto-credal statements[2] present in the earlier part of chapter 15 are important; yet, the thrust of the chapter hinges on the rampant divine love in the world seeking and saving the lost, of whom Paul is a member. This confessional outburst of qualifying (or disqualifying) content highlights the magnitude of divine love, it’s remarkably unconditional character, and its power to expose one unto life…no matter how bad they are. For all intents and purposes, as Paul considers the proclamation of the gospel which he received and which he shares with the Corinthians,[3] he is caught up in the emotional profundity of God’s love for him; God’s transformative love saved him from his death filled ways and view of the world unto and into God’s love and life.[4]

Before Paul does launch into his own desperate history and the work of God in the midst of that history, Paul anchors the contents of the gospel proclamation (the life, death, and resurrection) of Christ in the scriptures (“according to the writings”[5]). In doing this, Paul highlights for the Corinthians that this divine activity of love in Christ is the same divine activity of love that has been proclaimed in the midst of God’s people throughout the first testament in the words of Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim (the revelation of the Law, the Prophets, and the Wisdom writings).[6] Subsequently, the divine activity of love that is the foundation and the source of the creation of the cosmos is also the very source of the recreative event of encounter with God in the event of faith; God is the God of creation and new creation, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.[7]

Thus, as Paul poetically describes his situation in the midst of speaking of divine activity of love in the world, he emphasizes the power of God’s love surging through the world wrapping up into God and into Love all who get caught up. To be caught up into God through the act of divine love seeking the beloved is the salvation event. To be loved by God, to be given God’s grace for you no matter what is being saved: saved from a sham existence into a true one, one that has substance, presence, and is filled with the fullness of emotional and physical actuality with and for others and not merely for oneself. And Paul’s point is ultimately this profound reality: as he was going about persecuting the Church, God loved him into new creation—God caught him up, he did not catch God.[8] This grace of God and love from God is all God; and if all God then it is secured because it’s God’s work and God secures God’s work in God’s self (God’s promises do not return void or are they uttered in vain or are they fruitless). In other words, if this is God’s work of love toward us and it is not our work, then we cannot lose this grace and love because it’s not ours to lose. You can’t lose God’s love because God loves you and not because you do this or don’t do that; God just loves you, dearly and deeply loves you.

Conclusion

Our encounters with God in the event of faith can be big or small, they can rival Paul’s in sudden dramatic fashion, or they can be a subtle slow reveal. Yet, no matter what, they are never insignificant because they expose us unto new life. For me, for my story, my encounter with God felt big like being swept up in a wave of everything too good to be true: to be completely seen and loved for no reason than just because. I’m certain I’m here because of I was so swept up. And I’m not only here in this church and in these robes, but actually here…present in body, mind, and soul. The cry of my heart met in God’s exposing love unto life.

Save me, I’m lost
Oh, Lord, I’ve been waiting for you
I’ll pay any cost
Save me from being confused
Show me what I’m looking for[9]

Show Me What I’m Looking For

But, I am also here, in this building and in these robes to walk in the same footsteps of Paul. I now get to tell you that if God caught me up in God’s exposing love, you, too, Beloved, are caught up. Every priest called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ—the articulation of God’s divine activity of love in the world—must share the good news of God’s love with the people they are called to love. And I love that word “share”. Not only do I share with you the story of God’s love for the world and for you, I share in it with you. I too am here to hear the story even as I am charged to tell it. I share in the gracious and unconditional gift of God’s self revealed in God’s grace and love for me, for you, for us, for the world.  

When we tell the story of God’s love for the world in Christ to others, let us remember that our stories are now woven into in this one—no matter how bad or how ugly you think your story is or has been, it is now embedded and transformed in this good and beautiful story, radically transformed in the light of the glory of God for the glory of God. We are, truly, loved into new creations by the author of our salvation and foundation of our lives, by the one who threw the stars into place and the spun the planets into orbit; we are, truly, and forever, no longer lost, no longer confused, because we are the beloved.


[1] Translation mine.

[2] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1188. “Since the death and resurrection of Christ are both states of affairs or events extra nos and transforming events which shape faith, both aspects are fundamental for 15:3-5…Hence foundational confessions in the pre-Pauline and Pauline churches serve both as declarative acts of truth claims in the context of proclamation and teaching and as an oath of loyalty in baptism, the Eucharist, or times of persecution.”

[3] Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 1185. “τίνι λόγω is probably instrumental and is used here as if it were a relative, as it occurs frequently in the papyri. Any difficulty dissolves…as soon as we recall that λόγος often denotes not simply word, message, or act of speaking but also the content or substance of a declaration, assertion, proposition, or other communicative act. The verb εὐαγγελίζομαι already means to proclaim the gospel; hence Paul refers to the substance of the gospel that I proclaimed to you.”

[4] Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 1184-1185. “We must understand the gospel in 15:1, therefore, to denote more than the message of the resurrection, but not less. It denotes the message of salvation; in vv. 3-4 Paul endorses the shared pre-Pauline tradition which both proclaims the death and resurrection of Christ and interprets it in terms of the saving and transforming power of God as this receives explanation and intelligibility within the frame of reference provided by the [Old Testament] scripture.”

[5] …κατὰ τὰς γραφὰς… (found in vv. 3 and 4).

[6] Thiselton, 1 Corinthians, 1195. This paves the way for our understanding the particular nuance of the phrase according to the scriptures when it is applied as a context for understanding the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (a) First, it does indeed relate this divine act of vindication and sovereign action to the theme of promise. Its occurrence rests not only on divine power and divine grace, but also on divine faithfulness to vindicate his obedient messianic agent,

[7] Thiselton 1195. “Third, it bears witness to the character of God whom the scriptures portray as a giving and gracious as well as a sovereign, faithful creator. If creation itself is God’s gift, the new creation which begins with Christ’s resurrection and promises the resurrection of believers is no less so.”

[8] Thiselton 1210. “Given Paul’s association of his encounter with the resurrected life as one of new creation (2 Cor 4:6; cf. Gen 1:3-5), it seems most probable that Paul perceives himself as one who was unable to contribute anything to an encounter in which God’s sovereign grace was all, even to the extent of giving life to one who was humanly beyond all hope. This precisely reflects the theme of resurrection as God’s sovereign gift of life to the dead (not to those who already possess capacities of self-perpetuating survival) throughout this chapter.”

[9] Carolina Liar Show Me What I’m Looking For writers: Karlsson Tobias Erik, Wolfinbarger Chad Douglas 2008

The Greatest of These…

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Psalm 71:1-2 In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; incline your ear to me and save me.

Introduction

I never cease to marvel at the mystery that is love. How is it that we can come to love another person or animal or thing? No one can command love. I can clamor until I’m blue in the face that Christians should love one another, that you should love each other, but it would be in vain. I cannot command you to love one another or other people as much as I cannot tell the very humans that came from body to—for the love of God—love each other. Love really is mysterious. Love exceeds my control.

To be honest, I’m not sold that I choose love. I hear it a lot, especially in regards to marriage: every day I choose to love this person. Ehhh….maybe. *shrugs* I think you choose to follow through on the vows, or choose loyalty, faithfulness, steadfastness, commitment, and maybe even choose to act lovingly. But I’m not sure I choose love. In the same breadth I’ll add: love is more than a feeling. You can feel in love and you can feel not in love. However, I’m not sure that means you don’t love in that moment or that you aren’t loved in that moment—it just means you don’t feel it. Love exceeds my reason and rationality.

I think a hick-up in our conception of love is that we try to define love from our limited human perspective. When we do this, we render love as something we can squish between two small pieces of glass and slide under our microscope, or something we can slice open and dissect with our scalpel. In this scenario we are the determining subject, and love becomes the determined object, the other, the thing to be examined, dissected, and defined. This top-down evaluative approach is why we end up with ideas and definitions of love that are bitter on the tongue and less permanent than cotton candy. Love exceeds my examining gaze.

Love is truly mysterious.

What if all we need to get a better understanding of love is to change our perspective? What if I just reverse the direction between us and love? What if Love is the subject and we are the object? What if love is the subject and the verb, and we are the direct and indirect objects? Maybe love defines, examines, reveals, determines me? Maybe we can’t choose it because it chooses us? Maybe we can’t command it because it commands us? And if you have ever been wrapped up in intense feelings of love, that’s exactly what it feels like: a force presenting itself in our world and our hearts and minds that drives us toward each other and the world.

Love loves the beloved toward the beloved.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Love perseveres, love acts gentle, love does not burn with envy, love does not vaunt itself, it is not inflated with its own interest, it does not act improperly, it does not demand things for its own interest, it is not exasperated into wounded vanity, it is not reckoning evil (in the wildest sense), it does not rejoice over the unrighteous but rejoices over the truth; there is nothing love cannot face, there is no limit to its faith, hope, and endurance.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

The first thing I noticed when I was translating this passage was this: I am not the subject of these independent clauses. Love is the subject. While I know this may appear like a very rudimentary grammatical and intellectual moment, stay here with me. In English it sounds like a noun being modified by adjectives. For instance, I could say: The tree is tall. This is a descriptive construction about an object. *I* am doing the describing of the tree. So, as we read the English translation of the text, it sounds like Paul is describing this object “love” with these other adjectives. But here’s the thing: those aren’t adjectives. They’re verbs whose subject is love. The “is” comes from the fact that the verbal form is present tense.

ἡ ἀγάπη μακροθυμεῖ, χρηστεύεται.

1 Corinthians 13:4

The word for love is in the subject position (it’s the feminine, nominative, singular) and the verbs are present tense and in the 3rd person singular. Thus, in accordance with the subject of the sentence doing the action of the verbs: love perseveres, [love] acts gentle. When we shift the tone of the words away from adjectival into verbal, we move from love as one more objective emotion, to love being a principal actor in our narrative. Love does this and not that.

Without love, Paul declares, he is nothing but a clanging symbol even if he can speak in tongues of humanity and angels (v. 1); without love, Paul exclaims, even with all the knowledge and all the faith, he is nothing (v.2). Yet, with love, with love acting through him the tongues turn from clanging symbols into gentle words; with love moving into and through him, he is something.[1] For Paul—holding close to Christ crucified and raised as God’s divine act of love in the world—love alters everything because love as the divine operative in the world is always oriented toward the other, toward the beloved.[2]

What Paul is describing here is not his conception of love but the activity of God in the world as the word incarnate—the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth. Love made manifest by God in Christ acts for the livelihood, welfare, and concern for the object of love, the beloved.[3] For Paul, who is wrapped up in the overwhelming reality of God’s love for the world and for him, launches into a poetic string of statements about what this Love present in the world looks like. He is not speaking of the way he loves or indicating that by doing such things he or the Corinthians obtains love; rather, he is proclaiming God’s love in the world for him and for the Corinthians.

Conclusion

If love is the subject performing the actions of persevering, being gentle, not burning with envy, not centering the self over and against the other person, and standing firm capable to face anything, without limit of faith, hope, and endurance, then what is the object?

You are.

The divine substance that is love seeks you and loves you to no end. From this edge of the earth to the other, in the worst and the best moments, in highs and the lows, you are loved by this divine love, by God. *You* are the beloved. And in being loved in such a way (unconditionally and completely) there is nothing you can do to lose that love; it’s not yours to lose because you are not the subject here, but the beautiful and wonderful object of love’s action in and for the world. Receive this truth; rejoice in this truth.

And if you are the beloved—the object of God’s love—then you are wrapped up in this force of love surging through the world and ushered into this realm of divine love for the world. In being so wrapped up and ushered in, you find yourself in the love of God erupting into the here and now as we are moved to love one another.[4] Love catches us up in its momentum into the world in search of more beautiful and wonderful beloveds.

We do not acquire the object of love by acting in this way or that way or avoiding this or that action; we do all of that for our own gain. Rather where there is perseverance, there is Love for the beloved; where there are gentle acts, there is love for the other; where burning envy is absent, there is love for the neighbor; where self-boasting is lacking there is love for the friend; where arrogance is missing, there is love for your brother; where there isn’t an exasperation unto wounded vanity, there is Love for your sister; where there is endurance, hope, faith, willingness to stand up and face anything no matter how scary, there is Love for God and the beloved.[5]

I’ll conclude with recourse to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

The greatest of all virtues is love. Here we find the true meaning of the Christian faith and of the cross. Calvary is a telescope through which we look into the long vista of eternity and see the love of God breaking into time. Out of the hugeness of his [sic] generosity God allowed his only-begotten Son to die that we may live. By uniting yourselves with Christ and your brothers [sic] through love you will be able to matriculate in the university of eternal life. In a world depending on force, coercive tyranny, and bloody violence, you are challenged to follow the way of love. You will then discover that unarmed love is the most powerful force in all the world.[6]

“Paul’s Letter to the Americans”

Beloved where you have hope, where you have faith, where you see the humanity of your neighbor be assured—even in our chaotic, tumultuous, and violent world—there Love is and there God is. For where you are, there, too, is God. For you who are in Christ by fait,h where you are there Love is.


[1] Thiselton Corinthians 1045. “The first person subject is now merely implicit, but the reference is clear enough from the context. The logical (as against grammatical) subject is the series of acts which build up from the familiar to a projected climax: all this counts for nothing. Petzer’s analysis of defamiliarization applies. What seemed ordinary and obvious now appears in a new, unfamiliar light, which produces shock. These wondrous gifts and triumphant victories all amount to nothing, unless love directs them, with its Christlike concern and regard for ‘the other.’”

[2] Thiselton Corinthians 1049. “Paul hammers home the incompatibility of love as respect and concern for the welfare of the other and obsessions about the status and attention accorded to the self. How much behavior among believers and even ministers is actually ‘attention seeking’ designed to impress others with one’s own supposed importance? Some ‘spiritual songs’ may appear to encourage, rather than discourage, this preoccupation with the self rather than with others and with God. Here is Luther’s antithesis between theologia crucis and theologia gloriae…”

[3] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1035 “Second, as we have noted, love (ἀγάπη) denotes above all a stance or attitude which shows itself in acts of will as regard, respect, and concern for the welfare of the other. It is therefore profoundly Christological, for the cross is the paradigm case of the act of will and stance which places welfare of others above the interests of the self.”

[4] Thiselton Corinthians, 1035. “First, love represents ‘the power of the new age’ breaking into the present, ‘the only vital force which has a future.’ Love is that quality which distinctively stamps the life of heaven, where regard and respect for the other dominates the character of life with God as the communion of saints and heavenly hosts. The theologian may receive his or her redundancy notice; the prophet may have nothing to say which everyone else does not already know; but love abides as the character of heavenly, eschatological existence.”

[5] Thiselton Corinthians 1057. “Paul declares: Love never tires of support, never loses faith, never exhausts hope, never gives up. The fourfold never with four negative actions provides rhetorical force to Paul’s fourfold all things…”

[6] The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” Strength to Love Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 153.