You Are Good

Sermon on Luke 19:1-10

Psalm 119:140-142 Your word [, God,] has been tested to the uttermost, and your servant holds it dear. I am small and of little account, yet I do not forget your commandments. Your justice is an everlasting justice and your law is the truth.

Introduction

We’re submerged in the waters of identities and self-conceptions anchored in being exceptional—as if our worth and dignity are dependent on it. I think it’s one thing participating in our distinction from animals. Even with their individual quirks and personalities, I don’t think—as far as I understand them—dogs wonder much about their identity or if they are exceptional. My dog, Angie, spends what seems like zero minutes being concerned about her place in the world, if she has status, prestige, and power. I mean, she’s 97% Pitbull, so she’s got plenty of power. She isn’t wondering if other dogs think she’s dogging in the right way—her goodness isn’t dependent on what these other dogs think, I don’t even think it’s dependent on what she thinks. In general, Angie dogs around, chases light reflections, barks (relentlessly) at the mail woman, the fed-ex guy, and the UPS person—she doesn’t even care if it’s completely cliché to do so. She just dogs—wags her whole entire body when her family comes home, obeys any command for a treat, and loves stealing mama’s warm spot on the bed early in the morning. Cats cat. Horses horse. Spiders spider. Flies fly. Elephants elephant.

People do anything but just people around. How can we? We’re not only born into but are stuck on a relentless hamster-wheel of identity and dignity defined by our exceptionalism, our actions, our works, what we bring to the table. We are told that we are not good unless we…. (fill in the blank).

I find myself exhausted from endless pursuits trying to validate myself through and defend how special and good I am. The more I pursue, the more I’m terrified of it ceasing. If I stake my claim to the right to life on my virtue, what happens when that goes away and I become unvirtuous? Do I lose my right to life? If I stake my identity on my ability, what happens when that goes away and I become unable? Do I lose my identity? If I stake my importance on my work, what happens when that goes away and I am unable to work? Do I become unimportant? If I stake my indispensability on my intelligence or creativity, what happens when either of those things go away? Do I become dispensable? If everything I stand for depends on me being right, what happens to the ground under my feet when I’m wrong? Do I lose everything? If my goodness and lovability come through being exceptional in some regard, what happens when I cease to be exceptional in any regard? Do I cease to be good and loveable?

Am I less worthy of respect and love, am I not good if I have absolutely nothing exceptional to bring to the table but my vulnerable body and empty hands?

Luke 19:1-10

Now Zacchaeus stood and said to [Jesus], “Behold, half of my possessions…I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded a certain one, I return fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come into being in this house, in what manner he, he is a child of Abraham. For the son of humanity came to seek and save those things having been destroyed.”[1]

Luke 19:8-10

Luke introduces an infamous character of Gospel proportions, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus is a tax collector, and not just any tax collector but the chief of tax collectors. So, according to many a Pharisee, the worst of the worst.[2] Luke also tells us that Zacchaeus with reference to stature was little. He struggles to see through and around the crowds when Jesus enters Jericho and passes by. His struggle may mean he was short in height or too young. What is likely is that he was short with reference to status in his community, and the crowds presented an obstacle to him because they didn’t care to let him through. The crowd prevented him from seeing Jesus and coming to know who he is.[3] Even as wealthy and powerful as he was, he was blocked from seeing Jesus because he was the chief tax-collector. In other words, he and his wealth were despised.[4] In the eyes of the crowd, he had no dignity or worth. He wasn’t good.

Zacchaeus, determined to know who Jesus is,[5] ascends a tree. Now! Now I have a clear view of Jesus…and Jesus has a clear view of him.[6] In a moment, Zacchaeus went from disgraced tax-collector to graced host of the Christ when Jesus sees him and announces he’ll be staying with Zacchaeus that day—Jesus chooses Zacchaeus as if the crowd wasn’t even there.[7] The crowd was determined to push Zacchaeus out, now they find themselves on the outside as Zacchaeus proudly and happily hosts Jesus in his home. To whom were they an obstacle? Themselves or Zacchaeus? Who here is lost to destruction and who has been sought out of it?[8]

As Zacchaeus hosts Jesus—while the people grumble about Jesus staying with a sinner[9] misunderstanding the divine mission of the Christ[10]—he immediately addresses his wealth.[11] Pulling no punches—as if knowing his means of acquiring wealth were troublesome—Zacchaeus is compelled to explain himself.[12] He blurts out, Okay, I know,…I know I’m not the greatest guy and a bit trapped in this system, but I give half of my gain to the poor and if I ever take by means of exploitation, I give it back fourfold. I wonder if Jesus was taken aback from the sudden confession—he certainly wasn’t looking for one, nor was his presence in that home dependent on such a thing. Jesus just loved Zacchaeus. I imagine Jesus smiled right before he said, Today salvation has come into being in this house…For the son of humanity came to seek and save those things having been destroyed.

Zacchaeus knows who he is, so he now knows who Jesus is. He knows that his wealth must lovingly[13] serve his community, that he should not exploit others, and that he is unworthy if based on his own accomplishments. He can’t measure up. Zaccheaus cannot justify himself; he knows he is irreligious, despised,[14] and small in the eyes of his community.[15] If God’s love is dependent on these things, he falls short. Then Jesus shows up. Into this moment of confession of smallness, Jesus pronounces a divine bigness upon Zacchaeus: he’s very much a worthy child of God[16] and a son of Abraham.[17] Not for any reason other than love: Zacchaeus is loved and loves; Zacchaeus is good.

As it frequently is in Luke’s stories, it’s those who are small who are big, it’s those who are lost who are found, it’s those whose are weak who are strong, it’s those who strive to see Jesus who finally see who they are, it’s those who seek their dignity and worth in God who know that they have dignity and worth apart from their actions. It’s those who feel the farthest away who are the closest. It’s those dead set on their unloveliness who are the lovely. It’s those made to feel bad because they don’t measure up who are called good by God in Christ.

Conclusion

Ouch, I have lost myself again
Lost myself and I am nowhere to be found
Yeah, I think that I might break
Lost myself again
And I feel unsafe

Be my friend
Hold me, wrap me up
Unfold me, I am small
And needy, warm me up
And breathe me[18]

Sia “Breathe Me”

It’s when I’m small when I experience the fullness of God surrounding me. It’s when I’m weak, when I give up, when I realize I have nothing, when I look around and see hopelessness, when I look deep into the mirror and know that I’m only a random collection of muscles, bones, sinew, and blood—nothing exceptional—that I need to be reminded by this tremendous love story between God and humanity that I’m worthy apart from what I can offer anyone else other than basic existence. It’s when I realize I don’t care for being exceptional (because that standard is so death dealing), that I rather prefer being loved for no other reason than just because and beyond what I can bring to the table. In the quiet of letting go, releasing my grip, giving into gravity, and falling, surrendering, I’m caught in the love of God manifest in Christ encountered in the Spirit. In that encounter, in hearing God’s love proclaimed to me again (and again) in word and deed, I’m unfolded, made warm, and comforted. In that moment everything becomes quite exceptional, I’m found, I’m saved, I’m reborn. I’m good.

Beloved, you do not need to prove yourself to God. You do not need to get your act together, strive for some abstract conception of perfection, kill yourself in a human made system thriving off of your livelihood, your energy, your quickly depleting spirit. You do not need to be exceptional by any human standard. That you exist—in that your being and your life is a huge miracle—you’re amazing. You are loved for no other reason than juts because. You. Are. Good.[19]


[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. 221-222. “Tax collectors in general were despised as collaborators with the Roman regime, as exploiters of the powerless, and as often contaminated by ritual uncleanness. Major tax collectors had others performing the same duties under them. That Zacchaeus was rich implies that he was not just one of many tax collectors, but an important one. A sinner among sinners!”

[3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 670. “Thus, it is not simply that Zacchaeus cannot see over the crowd; rather, the crowd itself is present as an obstacle to him. On account of their negative assessment of Zacchaeus (cf. v 7), the people refused him the privilege of seeing Jesus as he passed by. Whether short or young, then, Zacchaeus is presented as a person of diminutive status in Jericho, thus rendering him as a member of the unenviable association of the lowly…”

[4] Green, Luke,  668-669. “By way of analogy with other Lukan texts, however, it is clear that Zacchaeus is thus presented as a person of advanced status, even if only among other toll collectors. More specifically, as a ‘ruler’ in the Greco-Roman world Zacchaeus would have enjoyed relative power and privilege, though from the perspective of the Lukan narrative we would anticipate his opposing the mission of Jesus. That Zacchaeus is wealthy is emphasized within the narrative by its being enumerated separately, as a quality distinct from that of the others. Within the larger Greco-Roman world, possessing wealth was an ambiguous characteristic. Although wealth was required if one were to reach the upper echelons of nobility, how one got one’s wealth was equally determinative. Zacchaeus’s fortune was not ‘landed wealth’ but was the consequence of his own entrepreneurial activity; hence, it would not have qualified him for enviable status. Within the Lukan narrative, such ambiguity dissipates rapidly, since the wealthy are thus far repeatedly cast in a negative light. Most recently, Jesus had remarked on the impossibility of the wealthy entering the kingdom of God (18:24-25).”

[5] Green, Luke, 669. “He is not interested merely in ‘seeing Jesus’ but wants to know ‘who Jesus is’ (cf. 10:21-22). He goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his quest, even enduring the probable shame of climbing a tree despite his adult male status and position in the community as a wealthy ‘ruler,’ however notorious. That he goes to such lengths is illustrative of his eagerness, to be sure, but is also a consequence of the crowd, which has positioned itself as a barrier to his endeavor.”

[6] Green, Luke, 667. “We discover at the outset that Zacchaeus is on a quest to see who Jesus is, only to learn in the end that, in accordance with his divine mission, Jesus has been on a quest for Zacchaeus, to bring him salvation.”

[7] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010.  505. “ALEJANDRO: ‘Other times we’ve seen Jesus against the rich, but here we see he wasn’t a prejudiced man or a fanatic. He chooses to stay in a rich man’s house without getting an invitation. He invites himself. Even when there were plenty of other places where he could stay, because there were swarms of people welcoming him.’”

[8] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “He is one more example of the lost that have been found.”

[9] Cardenal, Solentiname, 505. “I: ‘They don’t criticize that he’s gone to stay with a rich man but that he’s gone to stay with a sinner. This rich man belonged to the class that were then called ‘publicans,’ people who weren’t religious and who were despised by the Pharisees even though they were rich. You have to keep in mind that in that society … the ruling class wasn’t people that just had money, like Zacchaeus, but people that belonged to a religious caste which had money as well. The scandal is that Jesus has gone to stay with someone who isn’t religious, and it seems that’s why Jesus sent to his house.’”

[10] Cardenal, Solentiname, 505. “TOMAS: ‘People didn’t understand or even know what Jesus was looking for. They didn’t know his mystery. He was coming to save sinners, not to destroy them. That guy that was on the edge of the pit, he came to pull him back and set him on the good road.’”

[11] Green, Luke, 671. “Zacchaeus answers first, not with reference to behaviors or commitments that might mark him as acceptable according to standards developed heretofore—for example, fasting, praying, tithing (cf. 18:11-12), or even his choice of knowledge of the messages of John (esp. 3:10-14) and Jesus regarding economic justice and almsgiving. That is, he lists behaviors appropriate to those who have oriented themselves around the kingdom of God.”

[12] Green, Luke, 672. “According to this reading, Zacchaeus does not resolve to undertake new practices but presents for Jesus’ evaluation his current behaviors regarding money. He even joins the narrator in referring to Jesus as ‘Lord.’ Jesus’ reference to ‘salvation’ (v 9), then, signifies Zacchaeus’s vindication and restoration to the community of God’s people; he is not an outsider, after all, but has evidenced through his economic practices his kinship with Abraham (cf. 3:7-14). Zacchaeus thus joins the growing roll of persons whose ‘repentance’ lies outside the narrative, who appear on the margins of the people of God, and yet who possess insight into and a commitment to the values of Jesus’ mission that are exemplary.”

[13] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “When it comes to the use of possessions, it is not just a matter of setting aside a certain proportion to give to the poor—be it 100 percent as in the case of the ruler, 50 percent as in the case of Zacchaeus, or 10 percent as in the practice of tithing-and then claiming the rest for oneself. It is not just a matter of obeying a commandment—be it the tithe or giving all to the poor. It certainly is not just a matter of some token almsgiving. It is a matter of free, liberal, loving giving. And it is also a matter of being willing to recognize the possibility that one’s wealth may be unjustly acquired. In short, it is a matter of love and justice entwined.”

[14] Green, Luke, 669. “On the other hand, Zacchaeus is a toll collector. Within the Greco-Roman world, he would have belonged to a circle of persons almost universally despised.”

[15] Gonzales, Luke, 221. “From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus had clashed with those who presumed on their piety and their obedience to the law as guaranteeing their salvation, and insisted on a great reversal that would result in great joy at the conversion of sinners and the finding of what was lost.”

[16] Green, Luke, 670. “In this respect, Jesus’ use of the term ‘today’ is highly suggestive, since elsewhere in Luke’s narrative it is used to communicate the immediacy of salvation. Because of the association of ‘joy’ with news of divine intervention and salvation, that Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus with joy (NRSV: ‘happy’) signifies genuine receptivity on the part of Zacchaeus, intimating that he is one who embraces the values and claims of the kingdom of God.” And, “Rather, since the Lukan narrative has redefined status as a ‘child of Abraham’ with reference to lowly position and faithful practices. Jesus assertion vindicates Zacchaeus as one who embodies the qualities of those fit for the kingdom of God.” 672.

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 222. “Zacchaeus stands in contrast with the fool that thought his possessions were truly his, and with the ruler who was saddened because he wished to hold on to what he had. This story also corrects the sell all and give it to the poor. He decides to give to the poor half of his possessions-not all, as the ruler was told. He adds that, if any of his wealth is ill-gotten, he will repay it fourfold. Jesus accepts this as a true act of repentance, and announces, ‘Today salvation has come to this house.’”

[18] Sia “Breathe Me”

[19] Thank you to the podcast “You Are Good” discussing movies and feelings. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/you-are-good/id1527948382 The theme of this sermon was completely and totally inspired by the work they do. Thanks Sarah and Alex, you make this world better!

Solidarity in the Margins

Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

Psalm 65:4-5 4 Happy are they whom you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there! They will be satisfied by the beauty of your house, by the holiness of your temple. Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O Hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas that are far away.

Introduction

Have you every felt unworthy? Like, you weren’t good enough? As if other people, or the space, or the thing carried a demand for purity that you didn’t have? Like, maybe you should hang back, keep your distance, and look on from afar? Afraid? Scared that if someone saw you—really saw you—you’d be thrown out, rejected, ostracized, because you didn’t belong in that space, or with that group of people, or with that thing?

Caught in the muck and mire of feelings of being outcast and unacceptable, we hope Maybe one day I’ll be worthy, if I can just… (fill in the blank). Maybe we’ll be worthy when we finally achieve that certain level of perfection we’re sold on—some mythical conception of human existence that doesn’t actually exist. We’ve become convinced by brilliant marketing campaigns dependent on our desire for inclusion that there’s such a thing as “normal” and “regular” and that, somehow, we just don’t measure up. And we really want to measure up, to fit in, to be “normal” and “regular”, to be chosen and selected. But maybe I’m too fractured and broken to fit in…At times we find ourselves desperate to feel good about ourselves, so we elevate ourselves above others hoping that identification with the culture of the dominant group will put our fears at rest…at least I’m not that person over there…

Sadly, this always bleeds into our relationship with God. Does God really love me just because? Does God really need me? Want me? Choose me? It doesn’t help when the church and its leaders are also dead-set on the mythical notions of “normal” and “regular” peddled as “God’s will”. Bombarded on all sides, our doubt moves us farther and farther back. God is too much for us. So, we grow more and more afraid to come close, to be human—really human—in the presence of God, afraid to pray because we’re not good enough and don’t have the right words, afraid to approach because we’re impure, afraid to touch because our touch is unclean and cursed. So, we stand farther and farther and farther back…

Luke 18:9-14

And now Jesus told this parable to certain ones who have had confidence in being just in the eyes of God on the basis of themselves and despising the rest… “…Now the tax collector having stood from afar not even willing to lift up [his] eyes to the heavens, but he was striking his breast, saying, ‘God, please show favor to me, a sinner.’ Truly I say to you, this man went down into his home having been justified…because all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles themselves will be exalted.” [1]

Luke 18:9, 13-14

Getting started, Luke tells us to whom Jesus addresses this parable: And now Jesus told this parable to certain ones who have had confidence in being just in the eyes of God on the basis of themselves and despising the rest… The parable features two men: one a tax collector and the other a Pharisee. Jesus tells the story featuring the Pharisee first: he goes in, stands by himself to maintain ritual purity, and prays. What follows is a litany of ways he is righteous: he is not like those sinners—the unjust extortioners, the adulterers, and this tax-collector—and performs his ritualistic duties—fasts on the sabbath and pays his tithe on all he has and gets. Next up, the tax-collector. The tax-collector stands far off refusing to lift up his eyes to heaven. All he can do is remorsefully beat his chest and plead for divine mercy because he is a sinner. Jesus wraps up the parable with a quick and short (and familiar): Truly I say to you, this man went down into his home having been justified more than that one, because all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and the one who humbles themselves will be exalted.

It’s tempting to look at this short and clear parable and deduce the motto: don’t be like those bad Pharisees! Ironically, as soon as we do that we become the self-exalted one in the story.[2] It’s not about the Pharisee being bad. They aren’t “bad”, their the most religious of all the children of Israel; they loved God and God’s law, wished to be obedient to it, to study it, discuss it, and teach it.[3] It’s about Jesus up-righting upside-down systems, even religious ones.

Thus the parable is not a warning against being a hypocrite, but an exhortation to be as those who do not elevate themselves over others. It’s about those who stand far off because they know who they are—sinners, people who miss the mark, fail, stumble, tumble, and get back up. When the people expected those who are technically perfect[4] and can stand on their own to be declared righteous;[5] Jesus says the righteous are those who can’t stand on their own, who aren’t perfect and know it.[6] It is not about thinking oneself better than the rest because of your deeds, your status, your birth, your dogmas and doctrines; it’s about realizing exactly who you are.[7]

Even when you find yourself casting your eyes downward, standing far off for fear of being unable to fit in, for fear of not being accepted as you are, for fear of making others impure because of your impurity, you may find yourself a humble creature square in the presence of a Creator who adores you[8] and receiving the fullness of divine love, favor, and mercy.[9]

Conclusion

The parable is a paradox. The farther you back away, stand from a distance, the more you find yourself in God, accepted, loved, adored, cherished, as you are. That’s the reversal. It’s not those who are holy, pure, perfect, obedient, abiding the law at every turn who are closest to God, it’s actually the ones who are aware of how far they miss the mark who throw themselves on God’s mercy and lean into God’s love. It’s the tax collectors and sinners with whom Jesus dwells, it’s those who know God because they know themselves.[10]

The thing is, knowing who you are—faults and all, shame and all, vulnerability and all, weakness and all—the more you know who God is: the one who stands in solidarity with the outcasts, with you. God in Christ chooses, desires, and identifies with the outcasts, (literally!) those on the fringe, those on the margins, those who just don’t measure up and fit in. You are never too far away to be square in the middle of God.

I’ll close with a story from my favorite childhood novel, Black Beauty:[11]

“No doubt a horse fair is a very amusing place to those who have nothing to lose; at any rate, there is plenty to see.

“There was a great deal of bargaining; of running up and beating down, and if a horse may speak his mind so far as he understands, I should say, there were more lies told, and more trickery at that horse fair, than a clever man could give an account of. I was put with two or three other strong, useful-looking horses, and a good many people came to look at us. The gentlemen always turned from me when they saw my broken knees, though the man who had me swore it was only a slip in the stall.

“There was one man, I thought, if he would buy me, I should be happy. He was not a gentleman, nor yet one of the loud flashy sort that called themselves so. He was rather a small man, but well made and quick in all his motions. I knew in a moment by the way he handled me, that he was used to horses; he spoke gently, and his gray eye had a kindly, cheery look in it. It may seem strange to say—but it is true all the same—that the clean fresh smell there was about him made me take to him; no smell of old beer and tobacco, which I hated, but a fresh smell as if he had come out of a hayloft. He offered twenty-three pounds for me; but that was refused, and he walked away. I looked after him, but he was gone, and a very hard-looking, loud-voiced man came; I was dreadfully afraid he’d have me; but he walked off. One or two more came who did not mean business. Then the hard-faced man came back again and offered twenty-three pounds. A very close bargain was being driven; for my salesman began to think he should not get all he asked, and must come down; but just then the gray-eyed man came back again. I could not help reaching out my head towards him. He stroked my face kindly.

“‘Well, old chap,’ he said, ‘I think we should suit each other. I’ll give twenty-four him.’

“‘Say twenty-five and you shall have him.’

“‘Twenty-four ten,’ said my friend, in a very decided tone, ‘and not another sixpence—yes or no?’

“‘Done,’ said the salesman, ‘and you may depend upon it there’s a monstrous deal of quality in that horse, and if you want him for cab work, he’s a bargain.’

“The money was paid on the spot, and my new master took my halter, and led me out of the fair to an inn, where he had a saddle and bridle ready. He gave me a good feed of oats, and stood by whilst I ate it, talking to himself, and talking to me. Half-an-hour after, we were on our way to London, through pleasant lanes and country roads, until we came into the great London thoroughfare, on which we traveled steadily, till in the twilight, we reached the great City. The gas lamps were already lighted; there were streets to the right, and streets to the left, and streets crossing each other for mile upon mile. I thought we should never come to the end of them. At last, in passing through one, we came to a long cab stand, when my rider led out in a cheery voice, ‘Good night, Governor!’

“‘Halloo!’ cried a voice, ‘have you got a good one?’

“‘I think so,’ replied my owner.

“‘I wish you luck with him.’

“‘Thank ye, Governor,’ and he rode on. We soon turned up one of the side streets, and about half way up that, we turned into a very narrow street, with rather poor-looking houses on one side, and what seemed to be coach-houses and stables on the other.

“My owner pulled up at one of the houses and whistled. The door flew open, and a young woman, followed by a little girl and boy, ran out. There was a very lively greeting as my rider dismounted.

“‘Now then, Harry, my boy, open the gates, and mother will bring us the lantern.’

“The next minute they were all standing round me in a small stable yard.

“‘Is he gentle, father?’

“‘Yes, Dolly, as gentle as your own kitten; come and pat him.’

“At once the little hand was patting all over my shoulder without fear. How good it felt!

“‘Let me get him a bran mash while you rub him down,’ said the mother.

“‘Do, Poly, it’s just what he wants, and I know you’re got a beautiful mash ready for me.’

“‘Sausage dumpling and apple turnover,’ shouted the boy, which set them all laughing. I was led into a comfortable clean-smelling stall with plenty of dry straw, and after a capital supper, I lay down, thinking I was going to be happy.”


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 645. “Insofar as Luke’s audience will identify themselves with one or the other of these characters, then, Luke has structured this account so as to render the choices starkly and to ensure that the toll collector will be viewed, however paradoxically, as the positive model.”

[3] Gonzalez, Luke, 212. “…in fact the Pharisees were among the most religious—sincerely religious—people in Israel. Their desire to be obedient to the law led them to study it assiduously, and to discuss how it ought to be interpreted and obeyed in all circumstances of life. Thus the parable is not about hypocrisy and sincerity but rather about the great reversal that is so clear throughout the Gospel of Luke.” and the reversal is religious!

[4] Green, Luke, 647. “Jesus’ portrayal of this Pharisee operates at two levels. On the one hand, he is engaged in and admits to behavior characteristic of Pharisees: praying, fasting, and tithing (5:33; 11:42). In and of themselves, these are admirable practices for which scriptural warrant is easily found….”

[5] Green, Luke, 646. “First, having become convinced of their own righteousness, they have come to depend on themselves. They are self-possessed, able, at least in their own minds, to live Honorably before God quite apart from divine mercy. On the other hand, they disdain others, their concerns with holiness manifested in the exclusion of others from their circles.”

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 212-213. “Both the Pharisee and the tax collector stand, one ‘by himself’ and the other ‘far off,’ One stands by himself so as not to be contaminated by others less pure than he. The other stands far off because he does not consider himself worthy. Yet, the one who stands far off is in fact nearer to God.”

[7] Green, Luke, 649. “Within his social world, the toll collector is a person of low status, a deviant; he has no place among the others, nor does he attempt to seize a place by asserting his honor. Averting his eyes, beating his breasts-these are demonstrations of humility and shame that are consistent with his request for divine favor.”

[8] Green, Luke, 649. “…One claims superior status for himself by comparing himself with and separating himself from others; the other makes no claims to status at all, but acknowledges his position as a sinner who can take refuge only in the beneficence of God. Convinced of his righteousness, dependent on his own acts of piety, one asks for and receives nothing from God. The other comes to God in humility and receives that for which he asks, compassion and restoration. Like other ‘sinners’ in the Third Gospel, he finds himself included among God’s people…”

[9]  Green, Luke, 643. “The basic issue is this: Who recognizes God as the gracious benefactor? Who are those who not only come to God openhandedly in trust and expectation, but also behave accordingly, with graciousness, toward others.”

[10] Gonzalez, Luke, 213. “All that the Pharisee says he does he should be doing; and all he says he is not, he should not be…Jesus is not saying that people should not do what the Pharisee does (fasting and tithing) nor that they should become collaborators with the powerful and the ungodly, as tax collectors were. He is saying that, when the Pharisee uses his piety and religious practices to consider himself better than the tax collector, he will not be justified; and that even a tax collector who acknowledges his sin and his shortcomings will be justified. The reversal is that the one who brings piety, purity, and obedience, and who trusts in all these, is farther away from God than the one who simply brings misery, weakness, and dependence.”

[11] Anna Sewell Black Beauty New York, NY: Grosset & Dunlap, 1950. Original Publication: UK: Jarrold & Sons, 1877. pp.180-185.

Know Story, Know Vision

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19

Psalm 66:1-3 Be joyful in God, all you lands; sing the glory of God’s Name; sing the glory of God’s praise. Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds! because of your great strength your enemies cringe before you. All the earth bows down before you, sings to you, sings out your Name.”

Introduction

Stories speak to us on many levels. This is not news. Humans are storied creatures: we write stories, tell stories, spread stories, cherish stories. There’s a weird assumption in our post-enlightenment context that everything valuable is fact—the things we can see and touch. Anything not fact isn’t worth our time. Thus, we’ve lost our stories; exchanged them for “reality” which will always wither away unto dust. We’ve surrendered our correspondence with myth and eternal substance to something far inferior: nothing.

Unlike phones and social apps, stories give us something when we succumb to their lure. I become wrapped up in the most wonderful of worlds unfamiliar to my own; I’m given glimpses of otherness that provokes to life longing and desire for that otherness; my vulnerability isn’t demanded in stories. It’s lovingly solicited through imagery and phantasy; I’m given space for atrophied emotional limbs tingling to life in resurrection without fear they’ll be consumed by another. In stories, I can just exist, carried and swept by words creating worlds unbefore seen and traveled. In a story I’m given a vision of something other than that tyrant reality. Without stories and myths, how else do I step into the potentiality of something else, something better?

Stories share in essence of eternal love. We may be handing over our storied natures, but that’s our loss. Stories will continue just as love continues, even if we opt out. Stories will exist long after we’re gone, resurrected into the midst of others willing to embrace this nature, vulnerable enough to dream and have visions. Stories will have the last word.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.

Luke 17:11-19

Now one of them, perceiving that he was healed, turned back and with a great voice he was praising God, and he fell upon his face before the feet of [Jesus] giving thanks to him. And he, he was a Samaritan. Now Jesus answering him said, “By no means the ten men were made clean? But where are the nine? They are found not turning back to give glory to God except this foreigner?” And [Jesus] said to [the Samaritan], “Rise and go; your faith has saved you.”[1]

Luke 17:15-19

Luke is busy telling us another story. Jesus is traveling between[2] the regions of Samaria and Galilee headed to Jerusalem.[3] Luke wastes no time getting to the heart of the story: a group of ostracized and alienated lepers standing at a distance call out to Jesus, desperate in their plea for mercy, they, they lifted up a voice saying, ‘Jesus, master! Please have mercy on us! (v.13). These human beings—forced to uphold their own ostracization and alienation[4] (the men stood far off)—mustered all their hope that this one to whom they called would see, heal, and liberate them[5] from this divine curse.[6] They hoped that this one to whom they called was as God, able to show mercy.[7] How these lepers knew of Jesus is of no interest to Luke. The reality is, those who are alienated and ostracized know the one who stands in solidarity with them. These men know who this man was: Jesus, the master, the one of God.[8]

Jesus does not respond in the way the reader anticipates; he doesn’t go to them and heal them in some material fashion or declare they’re healed.[9] He just…looked upon them and said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” The men respond as if they’ve been healed and made clean,[10] and then they are healed[11]And it happened as they were going way they were made clean. All ten believed Jesus, demonstrated by active response to go show themselves to the priests and nine of these continue to obey even after noticing healing.[12] These nine will return to their villages and families; the tenth now-former-leper—and Samaritan—will disobey Jesus, forgo his desired reunions because he perceived he’s been made clean, and in seeing he is redeemed,[13]—ushered into and included in the coming kingdom of God.[14] Again, those who know alienation and exclusion know radical liberation and inclusion; this Samaritan was not only healed of leprosy but brought in close to and by God in Christ as a Samaritan.[15]

Thus the former-leper Samaritan man returns, praising God with a great voice, falling prostrate before Jesus in all submission consumed with utmost gratitude.[16] Jesus’s response? Rise and go. Your faith has saved you. He who was lost is now found; he who was abandoned is now cherished; he who was shunned is now counted among the beloved. He who was deprived of participation in a story and relegated to the shadows of human existence stripped of vision, now walks illuminated by the light of God carrying (once again) this most precious gift: a story of liberation and a vision of restoration and inclusion as a result of divine encounter.

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Conclusion

We’ve been given a gift in being storied creatures, those who create and share stories. Yet it seems we are doing our darndest to drown these stories, to ignore them, dismiss them, and consider them childish. In dismissing our own stories, we inherently reject the stories of other peoples or reject the peoples who have stories. And we have done so violently, forcing peoples different from us not only to abandon their stories but to relinquish their vision. And only so that we can own them and their land as a commodity for our consumption. A people who only consumes confesses not only their lack of story but also their lack of vision; they confess they are of death and not of life.

But stories will always have the last word. Just as the former-leper Samaritan man carries a story and a vision no one can take from him, so too do those who have stories today. And if a people have a story, they have a vision; and if they have these they are a force for life—their life as well as the lives of others. These will find strength in their spirits and support from the ground under their feet as they travel the hard way of love resisting the tyranny of alienation and ostracization, of othering and domination, and sure death of the leprosy of consumption.

Ancient One (Told by Bearwalker)[17]

“Ancient one sat in the shade of his tree in front of his cave. Red People came to him and he said to Red People, ‘Tell me your vision.’ And Red People answered, ‘The elders have told us to pray in this manner, and that manner, and I is important that only we pray as we have been taught for this has been handed down to us by the elders.’

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

“Then Black People came to him and he said to Black People, ‘Tell me your vision.’ And Black People answered, ‘Our mothers have said to go to this building and that building and pray in this manner and that manner. And our fathers have said to bow in this manner and that manner when we pray. And it is important that we do only this when we pray.’

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

“Then Yellow People came to him and he said to Yellow People, ‘Tell me your vision.’ And Yellow Peole answered, ‘Our teachers have told us to sit in this manner and that manner and to say this thing and that thing when we pray. And it is important that we do only this when we pray.’

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

“The White People came to him and he said to White People, ‘Tell me your vision.’ And White People answered, ‘Our Book has told us to pray in this way and that way and to do this thing and that thing, and it is very important that we do this when we pray.’

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

“Then Ancient One spoke to the Earth and said, ‘Have you given the people a vision?’ And Earth said, ‘Yes, a special gift for each one, but the people were so busy speaking and arguing about which way is right they could not see the gift I gave each one of them.’ And the Ancient one asked the same question of Water and Fire and Air and got the same answer.

“Then Ancient One asked Animal, and Bird, and Insect, and Tree, and Flower, and Sky, and Moon, and Sun, and Stars, and all of the other Spirits and each told him the same. Ancient One thought this was very sad. He called Red People, Black People, Yellow People, and White People to him and said to them, ‘The ways taught to you by your Elders, and your Mothers and Father, and Teachers, and Books are sacred. It is good that your respect those ways, for they are the ways of your ancestors. But the ancestors no longer walk on the Face of the Earth Mother. You have forgotten your own Vision. Your Vision is right for you but no one else. Now each of you must pray for your own Visions, and be still enough to see them, so you can follow the way of the heart. It is a hard way. It is a good way.’”

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Green, Luke, 622. “…traveling ‘along the border between’ Galilee and Samaria renders ambiguous the identity of any persons Jesus might meet along the way. Without taking away from the pivotal, startling identification of one of these lepers as a Samaritan in v 16, this allows for the possibility of interaction m a non-Jew.”

[3] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 204. “In any case, the reference is Luke’s way of reminding us that Jesus is still on his long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. It also provides the background for the story itself, in which a Samaritan plays an important role.”

[4] Gonzalez, Luke, 204-205. “The worst part of being a leper was often not the disease itself, but the ostracism it entailed. The law of Israel made this very clear: ‘Command the Israelites to put out of the camp everyone who is leprous’ (Num. 5:2) Furthermore, the lepers themselves were made responsible for the enforcement of such ostracism, announcing their condition to any who might approach them: ‘The person who has the leprous disease, shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean’ (Lev. 13:45-46). To be a leper was not only to suffer a physical illness, but also to be cast out from family and society.”

[5] Gonzalez, Luke, 205. “On the other hand, a leper was not without hope. Since various diseases were included under the general heading of leprosy, allowance had to be made for those whose symptoms disappeared. For them, the law provided a detailed procedure, which included an examination by a priest, and then a complex ritual of cleansing (Lev. 14:2-32).”

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

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

[8] Green, Luke, 623. “When used elsewhere in the Third Gospel ‘Master’ denotes one who has authority consistent with miraculous power, and this is its meaning here. Of course, this begs, the questions, (1) How did these ten lepers know Jesus by name, and (2) How did they know him to be an agent of miraculous power?”

[9] Green, Luke, 624. “In this case, though Luke has not yet provided his audience with any notation about their being cleansed. Jesus nevertheless refers the ten lepers to their priests, who, presumably, would be able to confirm their cure.”

[10] Green, Luke, 624. “Acting on Jesus directive, the lepers are cleansed. Luke uses the normal word to describe the recovery from a leprous condition, ‘to be made clean.’ The same term appears in v 17, but other words are found in vv 15 and 19—‘to be healed’ and ‘to be saved’—and all follow as a consequence of the request of the ten lepers for divine mercy. The collocation of these terms both accents the benefit conferred and draws on the reality that, in this social situation, the condition of leprosy was viewed in holistic terms fully embracing human existence in its physical, spiritual, and psychosocial unity. In this setting ‘cleansing’ would denote forgiveness, physical recovery, and restoration, and all of this as a gift of God to be recognized by the community of God’s people.”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 205. “…one notes that Jesus does not immediately heal the ten lepers. He merely tells them to go and show themselves to the priests, as if they were already healed. Significantly, all ten have enough faith to heed his word even while they are not yet healed. It is along the way to see the priests that they are healed.”

[12] Gonzalez, Luke, 205. “Upon noticing that they are indeed healed, one returns to thank Jesus, and the other nine continue along their way to healing and to restoration to their communities. We tend to ignore these nine, or to classify them as unbelieving ones; but the text says (or at least implies) that they believed Jesus, and even that they obeyed him by continuing on their way to see the priests.”

[13] Green, Luke, 627. “Here, something more than healing must be intended, since (1) the efficacy of faith is mentioned and (2) all ten lepers experienced cleansing. The Samaritan was not only cleansed, but on account of faith gained something more—namely, insight into Jesus’ role in the inbreaking kingdom. He is enabled to see and is thus enlightened, itself a metaphor for redemption.”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 205. “But the oddball among these ten, upon discovering that he has been healed, postpones his visit to the priests and returns to thank Jesus. In so doing, he is disobeying Jesus (or at least postponing his obedience), who had told him to go before the priests. But even more, by his very act of gratitude he is postponing his restoration to his family and community. In a way, his actions are an application of what Jesus said earlier, about not loving ‘father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters,’ above him and the new community of the kingdom.”

[15] Gonzalez, Luke, 206. “All ten were outcasts because of their leprosy. This one is doubly an outcast, for he is a Samaritan. The one who has healed him, Jesus, is a member of the Jewish community, which despises Samaritans. One could even say that there is a hint that the reason why he was doubly grateful for his healing was that he had a double experience of exclusion, and that he therefore could be doubly surprised by Jesus’ act of healing—not only a leper but a Samaritan leper. Thus the great reversal takes a new twist: those who are most marginal and excluded are also able to be most grateful to this Lord who includes them. Those whose experience of community and rejection is most painful may well come to the gospel with an added sense of joy.”

[16] Green, Luke, 624-625. “‘Falling at the feet’ of someone is an act of submission by which one acknowledges another’s authority: it signifies reverence, just the sort of response one might make toward a person regarded as one’s benefactor. Gratitude, too, is expected of those who have received benefaction. Because the former leper recognizes Jesus as the agent of the inbreaking kingdom of God, there is nothing incongruous in his actions: Both praising God and honoring Jesus with gratitude follow immediately from Jesus’ gracious answer to his request for the merciful visitation of God.”

[17] Unknown Author. Ancient One (Told by Bearwalker). https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/Ancient-One-Unknown.html

Remember Whose You Are

Sermon on Luke 17:5-10

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Nietzsche “Parable of the Madman”

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

Luke 17:5-10

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

Luke 17:5-6

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

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

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

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

Big Bang Theory Panic GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Released to Release

Sermon on Luke 13:10-17

Psalm 71:1-3 In you, God, 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. Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; you are my crag and my stronghold.

Introduction

Lately I’ve confessed that things are hard. Heavy. The air feels woven through with oppressiveness. The atmosphere feels perpetually charged to ignite in a full-scale world-encompassing explosion. Relationships feel strained and stretched beyond their elasticity. Work—in all its forms—feels like pushing against immovable boulders; running in place only to have my feet slip out from under me. Sloth beckons to me; lethargy threatens. I feel like I’m fighting against the wretched whispers of inner demons and monsters eager to remind me of my faults and failures. Even catching a breath or blocking out time for rest is work.

I think the worst of it is the solitary confinement into which my burdens drive me. I contemplate what I carry and keep it to myself; the burden becomes heavier, and I curve in on myself more and more and more. I convince myself that my burden is the worst and the heaviest; I’m the only one who is this perpetual beast of burden. But it’s a lie; a lie designed to suffocate me, to steal my power from me, to collapse me.

The reality is that we’re all carrying so much. And the other reality is that we are all trapped by the lie that the burden is ours and ours alone to carry and shoulder. And so, we begin to collapse into ourselves, and quietly succumb to the burden, and trudge along, day to day, collapsing a bit more with every step. Our heads droop low, eyes to the ground, will in service to the burden, ears clogged up with our desperate breathing, we can’t even see each other and we are more and more alone.

This cycle can’t break on its own; you can’t just shrug this off because you can’t moveout from underneath it. No one breaks out of this solitary confinement; they are released. Intervention by an other is necessary, an encounter with one who is outside of us but with us, who not only calls us by name but lifts our burdens from our exhausted, tired, and breaking backs.

Luke 13:10-17

Now, he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And, behold!, a woman having a spirit of sickness for eighteen year and she was completely bending forward and did not have the power to look up. And Jesus, after seeing her, summoned her to him and said to her, “Woman, you have been released of your sickness!” And he placed upon her [his] hands and instantly she was restored and she was glorifying God.[1]

(Luke 13:10-13)

This is one of my favorite stories in the gospel of Luke. Luke tells us that Jesus is in the synagogue teaching. Then, in the next breath, he says, Behold! A woman bent over from sickness for 18 years! The story telling here is perfect. Even in 2022, you turn and look: where? where is she? Your neck cranes, you want to see into this moment. You want to see her, you want to see what Jesus sees. There’s an intentionality[2] about the suddenness articulated by the “behold!” (ἰδοὺ). Jesus is teaching and then stops because something caught his eye. Those around him turn and try to see what he’s seeing. And he’s looking at this poor, lowly[3] woman who is bent over. And then he hollers at her, come here to me! She went from skirting about the fringe of the crowd unnoticed to front and center; all eyes on her in the drama unfolding.[4]

Here Jesus suspends his intellectual endeavor and addresses real, tangible, material human need, and he does it in a way that brings it to the forefront of the crowd. He allows this woman’s suffering not only to enter the teaching but to eclipse it.[5] And then, faster than a blink of an eye, her burden is more important to Jesus than even the law. It’s the sabbath, and without missing a beat, Jesus lays hands on her and liberates her. While everyone else ignored her—in the name of tradition and law and religiosity and hyper-legislation[6]—he sees her and her burden,and he does something about it.[7] He lays his hands on her and releases her; this is the liberation of the captives so proclaimed by the Christ in his teaching and preaching.[8]

In this way, Jesus extinguishes the notion that liberation is only an intellectual or spiritual experience and anchors release in the material realm while also demonstrating the law is in service to the people and not the people in service to the law.[9] She, a daughter of Abraham, was more important than a donkey and thus the law is pushed aside for her, too.

And her response? It’s the one thing you should do on the sabbath: praise God. This woman—going about her business in her socially defined place on the fringe—becomes the central example of right worship (orthodoxy) of God: release unto praise. It’s not right instruction, not right rules, not right obedience that is the principal formation of our right worship of God it’s liberation unto praise. It’s when we liberate each other—in real time, in real material, in real life—that brings praise unto God. This is orthodoxy: where life and love, liberty and loosing are given to those deprived of such things. We are released to release others; in this way God’s kingdom comes[10] and God’s will is done and God’s name is hallowed.

Conclusion

Back to the introduction. It’s a dastardly thought to believe we carry our loads and burdens alone, by ourselves. One of the great myths of American culture is that we build ourselves by ourselves. In believing we build ourselves by ourselves, we also believe that we solve our problems alone, carry our burdens alone, trudge along alone. And, thus, in creeps more and more and more isolation and solitary confinement. Then, we build systems off of this conception of autonomy—both “secular” and “religious”.

Sadly, the Christian Church is implicated here. Too many people feel they must be strong, successful, neat, clean, tidy, conforming, fitting in, together, healthy to enter these doors. We don’t want to share our needs and burdens for fear of becoming a need and a burden to someone else. And in communicating this, we tell those who don’t fit this neat and tidy and conforming mold to stay out. So, we zip up, pack up, shut up, close up, and piously puff up; but it’s a sham, the whole act is nothing but a sham.[11]

In this story, we must exist in the paradox that we are both the bent over woman and the hypocrites. We carry our burdens and burden others by perpetuating ideologies and systems that further our isolation and separation, that demand nothing more than a saccharine and shallow presence with others, and that contaminate the possibility of life and thriving. We are both complicit and captive here. We should see ourselves in both characters of the story: those who are in desperate need of healing, and those who say “you can heal on those other six days!”

There’s good news, because, as Jesus does, Jesus liberates us from our spiritual sicknesses and releases us from the burdens of our ideologies and common-sense conceptions of the world. In Christ, in our encounter with God in the event of faith, we are undemonized, we hear again that we are children of God, and we are liberated from the oppression of what we think should be and ushered into God’s reality where love, liberty, release, and solidarity with each other (in the good and bad, the lite and heavy) are the hallmarks of life.[12]

Beloved, you—the people of God—do not need to carry these burdens alone; there is no reward there, you will only lose everything and gain nothing. Beloved, be released from that bondage. And then go! Go and release others from their bondage simply by stepping close alongside them, walking in solidary with them. You’ll never be to heavy, you’re my beloved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise specified.

[2] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 522. “In fact, the verb Luke uses to describe her symptom, ‘bent over,’ portrays her physical appearance and serves as a metaphor for her ignominious social position. From this point of view, the otherwise unremarkable words, ‘there appeared a woman … Jesus saw her’ (vv 11-12), become significant indeed, for they portend the materialization of a person otherwise socially invisible.”

[3] Green, Luke, 519-520. “…it is significant that Luke presents this bent-over woman without reference to any credentials she might possess, as though in some sense she deserved having Jesus single her out for redemptive intervention. Quite the contrary, this woman is painted in lowly dress indeed, rendering all the more significant Jesus’ recognition of her as ‘daughter of Abraham.’”

[4] Green, Luke, 522-523. “Luke positions Jesus at the center of attention, not only for Luke’s audience but also and more importantly, by naming Jesus as the teacher, for the people gathered in the synagogue. When Jesus sees her, he does not go to her but calls her to him, thus inviting her to join him in front of those gathered and so to join him at the local point of this scene. Locating this woman of such low status thus is not unrelated to the healing moment, but is directly relevant as a symbolization her restoration within her community.”

[5] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 173-174.

[6] Gonzalez, Luke, 174. “The point is that the woman cannot stand up straight, and that is demonic…With that woman there comes into the synagogue what we religious folk often try to forget: the reality of the power of evil, the reality of human suffering.”

[7] Gonzalez, Luke, 174. “It was the sabbath, and there in the synagogue was also Jesus, Lord of creation and Lord of the Sabbath. What will he do? On the one hand, in that woman’s suffering Satan himself confronts him. On the other, in the entire atmosphere around him, in the very law of Israel, in the leader of the synagogue, the weight of tradition seems to say that there is nothing to be done. Jesus faces the bent-over woman, oppressed by the weight of Satan himself. To her oppression of eighteen years the religious leaders would add another of umpteen centuries: It is the Sabbath! It is a day for religious matters! Jesus saw the woman, and he called her, and he spoke to her, and he laid his hands on her, and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”

[8] Green, Luke, 520-521. “There, when teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus proclaimed ‘good news to the poor,’ ‘the good news of the kingdom of God’ (see above on 4:18-19, 43-44). Recalling that well-established script, we may assume that Luke has chosen at this fresh point of departure in the narrative to remind us of the central concerns of Jesus’ ministry and, thus, to present Jesus engaged in the characteristic activity by means of which he fulfills his divine mission.”

[9] Green, Luke, 525. “Jesus’ view led him to regard today, this day, even a Sabbath day, as the right time for the redemptive purpose of God to be realized. In the end, then, the fundamental issue at work in this scene is the divine legitimation of the character of Jesus’ mission-liberation and restoration for such poor persons as this woman of lowly status, through which activity he renders present the dominion of God in the present.”

[10] Green, Luke, 519. “This way of construing the importance of this episode within its larger text is dependent on our recognizing in Luke’s scene a single, integrated account; whose focal point is not the controversy between the ruler of the synagogue and Jesus (i.e., vv 14-16) but Jesus’ encounter with this woman, his ensuing interpretation of her liberation as a necessary manifestation of the divine will, an outworking of the presence of the kingdom, on this day, the Sabbath. That is, the intrusion of the indignant synagogue ruler into Jesus’ encounter with the woman bent over (v 14) provides Jesus the opportunity to interpret that healing as a fulfillment of God’s purpose and, thus, of Jesus’ mission (vv 15-21).”

[11] Green, Luke, 524. “From this exegesis of the Deuteronomic law and contemporary practices based on it. Jesus is able to expose the ruler of the synagogue and those who think as he does as ‘hypocrites’– that is, as persons who do not understand God’s purpose, who therefore are unable to discern accurately the meaning of the Scriptures, and. therefore. Whose piety is a sham.”

[12] Green, Luke, 525-526. “In the present case, indeed, the contrast between how she is presented and what she receives could hardly be more stark. She is bent over in a shameful position, demonized; this is a daughter of Abraham? Hers was no position of honor, but through Jesus’ gracious ministry she is fully restored as a member of the community, She and other children of Abraham in the Lukan narrative evidence how God’s promise to Abraham is fulfilled through the activity of Jesus and how the recipients of liberation through Jesus’ ministry are thus confirmed as Abraham’s children.”

Weekly (not so weekly) Update

It’s been a bit.

I wish I could tell you I’ve been out traveling with my family or taking fun vacations; I wish I could tell you that I’ve been enthralled with scholarship, joyfully trapped by the plot of a book, or wrapped up in new ministries. None of these things kept me away. Truthfully…

It’s been a bit much.

Everything is heavy, right now. Without having to share details, people are dying, institutions are dying, relationships are dying, and most days I just need to focus on getting to the end of the day as present and accomplished as I can be. And by “accomplished” I don’t mean “successful” in the way it’s used in our rather competitive, dog-eat-dog world. I mean: I got done what needed to get done … and no one was mortally wounded in the process. I can’t even imagine trying to “win” right now…

It’s all too much.

I think what really weighs heavy on my mind and soul and body is that I know I’m not alone. I think we are all struggling. I think that’s why many forms of social media became too much for me. We’re digitally recreating mythical worlds that look sparkly and shiny and serendipitous, but yet we’re all struggling. We’re trying to cast illusions like magic tricks in the attempt to tell ourselves: everything is fine, this is fine. Many of us are (rightly) afraid, and being afraid breeds anger, and anger breeds exclusion, and exclusion breeds isolation, and well isolation breeds…

…too much.

It’s weird redefining what it means to be “successful.” Just arriving at the end of each day and watching those days accumulate in the succession of weeks tells me I’ve succeeded–everything is still running, even if just barely. Success means keeping my daily routine in check and seeing how it brings comfort to my kids. Success is waking up once again and saying, yes, I think I can do this again today…I think I can carry this heaviness, this sadness, this discouragement one more day. Sometimes I shudder thinking what will happen once I move through this difficult phase of existence into an easier one (no, I’m not talking about death into new life, but just literally a letting up of heavy). I fear it will be a lot…like, maybe I’ll break down, and people will say to me,

that’s a bit much, Lauren.

What’s most interesting to me is that while things feel heavy, I still feel my hope and the ever present sense that possibility is just right next to me. I know it mars my academic cred to confess this but… I’m a theologian of hope, through and through and through. I see no reason not to have it; I do see every reason to rescue the concept of home from it’s abusive partner: future expectation. My hope is embedded in that which I cannot see–the possible. And I hold this hope not according to time (or, our human conception of time in its linear mode) but space and that which is just beyond the material I can touch–the things of now but yet unseen, unfelt, unexperienced, untasted. I look around and I can see a lot, but that which I cannot see is

much, much more.

I planted my garden this year and had seeds designated in specific spots. I had no idea there was also growing at that moment mammoth sunflowerS and compost carrots:

I mean…that’s a lot of Mammoth Sunflowers and Carrots and the wall of Parsnip flowers hiding below the surface…

That’s almost too much!

So, I can’t just ever think that this is all there is because there’s always so much more than this going on at this moment. Just because we can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t. That’s a lie of the worst kind and it takes massive amounts of hubris to believe that the universe is restricted to what *we* can see and touch and feel and think and comprehend and discern… I mean, really, think about it. Where do we get off thinking in such finite ways and then casting those assumptions vast and wide as a new form of inerrant scripture with our tiny human brain parading about as God. I’m not trying to make an apology for God, but I do think we might owe the universe a massive apology.

We’re too much.

Anyway. Hang in there. Take my hand. Let’s walk this heavy together. The more we share the burden the less that burden is…

too much.

One Who Caused Mercy

Sermon on Luke 10:25-37

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 10:25-37

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

(Luke 10:29, 36-37)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

God have mercy. May we have mercy, too.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Peace of Justice

Sermon on Romans 5:1-5

Psalm 8:1-2 O God our Governor, how exalted is your Name in all the world! Out of the mouths of infants and children your majesty is praised above the heavens.

Introduction

I bet we confuse control for peace. I think we’re dead set on thinking security and protection will grant peace. I believe we’re gullible believing that calm and tranquil are synonymous with peace.

When I can control my environment, others, things, objects, I feel like things around me are calm. This feels like peace. But it’s not. Calm doesn’t mean peace. Control doesn’t mean peace. Things are just calm; I have control. But, again, that’s not peace. The kids aren’t fighting anymore because I exerted my authority and silenced them and now there’s calm. Yet, if you asked the rabble, I bet they’d narrate a different story. I can eliminate people from my life who cause me strife, I can go out into the woods, I can seclude myself from society and its ills, but that’s only control thus calm and not peace. Even if we say: ahhhh, how peaceful…. Doesn’t mean it’s the substance of peace; it only means we’ve forgotten what peace is.

Correlated to seeking peace by control, is our unhealthy desire for “security” and “protection.” Security and protection make us feel safe from external intrusions and threats. Safety produced this way brings the illusion of peace. This is true at the individual, state, and national levels. If I, the state, or the nation can ensure safety from the external threats by stock piling and threatening to use _________ (money, guns and other weapons, walls, fences, oppressive legal restraint, force, etc.), then it might feel “secure” and “protected” and “safe.” But, again, this sense is confused. If a person, a house, or a state uses mechanisms of fear and intimidation through power and authority, it might get some calm and even have control, but peace? Nope.

In fact, heavy-handed authority always foments anger and resentment; fear and intimidation always create oppression and isolation; anger and resentment blended with oppression and isolation is a deadly recipe for chaos and violence. The very thing security and protection aim for is missed. Always. You may have control, and you may have (momentary) calm, but peace? Nope.

The problem with confusing calm, control, security, and protection for peace is that calm, control, security, and protection are things created externally, thus always. If peace is never having any bad feelings or conflict, then you must always cut people and situations off as soon as they manifest unhappy feelings. If peace comes because you feel secure from outside threats, then you must always be alert, your security systems need to be updated frequently to handle increasing amounts of threats. If your peace comes from protection, then your guard can never be down. If your peace comes from being in control, then you must always be in control. If your peace comes from being threatening and intimidating, then you always have to threaten and intimidate. It becomes an endless cycle of more and more; the last I checked the relentless pursuit of more and more is not the definition of what it means to have peace.

“Peace” that’s patched together and fabricated from artificial means of control isn’t peace; it’s an illusion, it’s false, it’s a sham. Peace isn’t about controlling externals (through force or elimination), it isn’t about trying to bring bodies, houses, states, and nations into obedience by forcing them to conform to your will and control. Peace must reside first in the heart and mind and then radiates outward into the environment, carrying with it peace for others.

Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, being justified by means of faith we have peace in company with God by means of our Lord Jesus Christ and through whom we have obtained approach for faith in the grace into which we have stood and still stand and we boast on the basis of the hope of the glory of God…But, hope does not shame, because the love of God has been bestowed liberally in our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit being given to us.[1]

(Rom 5:1-2, 5)

It’s not surprising to see this short but profound statement about peace from Romans 5 on Trinity Sunday. For Paul, there is no peace, no shalom, that side-steps around God. Knowing the Hebrew scriptures like the back of his hand and knowing the divine commands, Paul is well acquainted with the peace of God which surpasses all worldly and human understanding.[2] To be sure, this isn’t peace that’s caused because God’s wrath has been appeased, or because you are now safe from hellfire and brimstone; that’s calm, not peace. When Paul declares that we have peace with God through our justification by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit apart from works, it means that we’ve been made right with God, and this means we stand in and with God without disturbance.[3]

If your inner world is chaotic and disturbed,[4] it’ll never matter how secure your doors are and perimeter is, how tall and firm your walls and how barbed your fence, how big the figures in your checking and savings account, or how many weapons you have: there’s no peace because there will never be enough to be sure.

But if you’re sure on the inside, that’s a different story.

Peace is getting to be you, loved as you are, and exhorted to love as you’ve been loved. When God is encountered and this reality in Christ is believed, then your inner world aligns by the presence of the Spirit: no longer do you need to run to make yourself invincible, no longer do you need to deny to remain innocent, no longer do you need to be afraid of being wrong for fear of being bad, no longer do you need to withhold mercy and forgiveness so as not to lose yourself. You don’t need to do these things because you know who you are: a beloved child of God.

We are loved by God who is love, this is made known to us in the proclamation of Christ Jesus who causes us come face to face with the reality of God’s love incarnate and also shows us how to love like God, and then the Spirit takes over our hearts and minds yoking us forever to God’s love, causing us to love that which and those whom God loves. [5] This is the triune mystery that is our reality. [6] This Triune affair is why no one and no thing can ever sever you from God and God’s love; this triune affair is why we get to participate in the perpetual illumination of the world with God’s divine revolution of love and peace.

Conclusion

Prof. Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz says that the embodiment of God’s message of no greater love “…is not a matter of dying for someone else but a matter of not allowing someone else to die…For [the Madres Cristianas] ‘no greater love’ is nothing but the justice-demand that is a constitutive element of the gospel message.” [7] God’s love is oriented toward justice; thus, so is God’s peace. It is only through justice for all, we’ll have real peace, shalom.

Peace always starts with us, with our hearts and minds, with our bodies and presence. Peace is not that which I fabricate by excessive control of other people or my space. Rather, peace, like love, is that which I bring with me (to others) being at peace with God and with myself. If I’m consumed with fear, I cannot bring peace to others. If I’m consumed with threats, I cannot bring peace to others. If I’m desperate to protect myself and feel secure, to be calm and comfortable then I cannot bring peace to others; I will always see others as a threat to my safety, security, protection, calm, and comfort.

Our world is in a desperate state; discourse reveals an intense desire to protect and secure ourselves and those whom we love from the very present threats of death, from the storms of violence and chaos, from the sinkhole of despair. I promise you that more “protection” and “security”, more “control” of others and spaces isn’t the answer. If it is our answer, we’ll head into more chaos and violence, more death and despair. We can’t put our hope in various forms of metal, wood, and stone.

I can tell you that I truly believe the peace, shalom, of God’s love embodied by Jesus and given by the Holy Spirit with and within us is the better answer, the better way to life. God’s love and peace bring justice, because God’s love and peace are merciful, forgiving, steadfast and patient, slow to anger and quick to love, eager to liberate, bring equality, bestow life, and create fertile ground encouraging people to grow and thrive. God’s love and peace never bring deprivation and intimidation, exclusion and isolation, fear and threats; rather God’s love and peace turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (Jn 14:27, NRSVUE). Beloved, never forget God’s Spirit of love and peace lives in you, is with you, and goes before you; you’re never alone, never forsaken, never without hope. And be at peace with God, with yourselves, and with each other, and spread peace and love wherever you go and to all whom you meet.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Martin Luther Lectures on Romans: Glosses and Scholia (1515/1516) LW 25 Ed. Hilton C. Oswald. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1972. “THIS is the spiritual peace of which all the prophets sing. And because this is the case, he adds the words with God.”

[3] Luther Romans LW 25, 285. “And this is the real peace of conscience and trust in God. Just as on the contrary a spiritual disturbance is the lack of a quiet conscience and a mistrust of God.”

[4] Luther Romans LW 25, 285-286. “But note how the apostle places this spiritual peace only after righteousness has preceded it. For first he says, ‘since we are justified (iustificati) by faith,’ and then, ‘we have peace…’ And here the perversity of men seeks peace before righteousness, for this reason they do not find peace. Thus the apostle creates a very fine antithesis in these words…”

[5] Luther Romans LW 25, 294. “It is called ‘God’s love’ because by it we love god alone, where nothing is visible, nothing experiential, either inwardly or outwardly, in which we can trust or which is to be loved or feared; but it is carried away beyond all things into the invisible God, who cannot be experienced, who cannot be comprehended, that is, in to the midst of the shadows, not knowing what it loves, only knowing what it does not love; turning away from everything which it has known and experienced, and desiring only that which it has not yet known…”

[6] Luther Romans LW 25, 296. love through the HS “For it is not enough to have the gift unless the giver also be present…”

[7] Ada Maria Isazi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 106.

Divine Maternal Yawp

Psalm 104:34-35, 37 I will sing to [God] as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being. May these words of mine please [God]; I will rejoice in [God]. Bless [God], O my soul. Hallelujah!

Introduction

In his poem “Song of myself”, Walt Whitman describes sounding his barbaric yawp. He desires to seize his own liberty, to physically and verbally make his presence known as he is without all the confinements of society. Think naked, think boundless, think unrestricted. Think: the noise and sound of frustration and anger in the quest for liberation from condemnation and death—a sound so mighty it feels as if it reached down to the deepest recesses of being.

There’s only one time in my life where I felt the force of my barbaric yawp. It was less about myself and more about the one I wished to save: my daughter Liza (about 2 ½). A beautiful Mother’s Day solicited us out for a hike. Our family and my brother-in-law and sister-in-law decided to visit Potato Rock—a little hike and a picnic. When we got to the mysterious rock, we took a moment to look around and admire the sights. The boys did their thing, I was with my sister-in-law, and Liza was with Daniel and his brother. And then out of the corner of my eye, like a bolt of lightning, Liza sprinted away from Daniel—she’s always been very active and very nimble. She moved fast, and calling her name didn’t work. She kept running. We began to move toward her while calling her name. Still, she didn’t stop. She was heading for the edge and was so far out of our reach by this point I knew we couldn’t physically catch up to her and wouldn’t she just think it was a game?

In a moment of complete desperation, I did the only thing that came to mind. I waved Daniel off and then—with everything inside of me, summoning the strength of every fiber of my being—I hollered: LIZA STOP! The sound was so forceful it forced me to step back; Liza, mid-stride, collapsed in a ball of tears feet away from the edge. She was safe; Daniel made it to her and scooped her up to comfort her, I followed to do the same. Later my sister-in-law looked at me, eyes the size of quarters, where did that sound come from? She asked. I was in shock and filled with adrenalin; I didn’t know, it just came up and out of me.

I refer to that hollering, now, as the maternal yawp sounding from a desperate mom interceding between her beloved child and sure death. This is what love does when it needs to: it hollers so loud everything (even time) stops and space splits; love intercedes with all her force to protect the beloved. For all intents and purposes the maternal yawp is the breath of love breathing the fire of life, like a dragon aiming to save her own, like the roar of a mama lion protecting her young babes, like a mama bear chasing away a threat: do not mess with my cubs.

John 14:8-17

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And as I will ask [Abba God] and [God] will give to you another Intercessor, so that they will be with you into eternity. The spirit of truth, whom the cosmos is not able to receive because it does not experience them and does not know them. You, you know them, they abide with you and will be within you. [1]

(Jn. 14:15-17)

The story opens on Philip requesting from Jesus: show us Abba God and it will help us. Jesus’s responds—which, I can only imagine, carried justified exasperation[2]–and says: muh dude, you’ve been with me this long and you, you don’t see the family resemblance? Jesus then lovingly explains the intimate connection between Abba God and himself: God is in me and I am in God; I speak and do not my own things but what God wants to speak and do. In other words: Philip, you’ve been with God the entire time; God is with you. Jesus exhorts Philip to look at the works and words of Jesus and believe in God’s real presence with him[3] because God is with him, that’s a promise.[4] That promise extends beyond Jesus’s temporal presence with Philip and the disciples.

Referring to his own works and words, Jesus explains that the disciples will do even greater ones. This explanation doesn’t mean the disciples will eclipse the cross and resurrections; it doesn’t mean they’ll do more and better miracles. It means they’ll continue in and with the words and work of Abba God as Jesus did,[5] spreading the work and words of Christ wherever they go.[6] The question remains: How will this be the case?

According to Jesus, it’s simple as asking Jesus for things in Jesus’s name. Jesus promised: I’ll do these things you ask for in order to bring glory to Abba God. The future tense of this moment creates a bit of tension: how will the disciples ask Jesus for things in Jesus’s name if he’s not here? Enter the Intercessor, The Paraclete.[7]

Jesus moves from promising to do whatever the disciples ask in his name to dropping the qualifier of qualifiers. Before the disciples think Jesus and God are their genie in a bottle,[8] Jesus defines love: if you love me you will keep my commandments. This then tempers the idea of “anything” and illuminates “in my name”. In other words: good luck loving me and abiding in my love and then trying to yoke me and Abba God to your selfish and self-centered desires, myths, and systems of death.[9] To ask something of Christ in Christ’s name is to confess a love for and faith in Christ; to love Christ and believe in him is to do his commandments. Thus, the disciples are exhorted to love God and love one another; but, not of their own power and force, but through faith[10] and by the presence of The Intercessor who will come and abide with and within them forever. By faith and love the disciples are anchored to God.

If anchored to God by the presence of The Intercessor (The Paraclete, The Holy Spirit) then also anchored in truth[11] and divine revolutionary love[12] for the entire cosmos. Those who follow in the love of God by the presence of the interceding spirit of divine love[13] will be those who proclaim the words and do the deeds manifesting the liberation of and justice for the people trapped in suffering and oppression. [14] In other words, the disciples are exhorted to participate in the divine maternal yawp by the power of The Intercessor. Disciples are to use their voices and their bodies to intercede (beyond thoughts and prayers) on behalf of those who are trapped by the myths and lies and the threat of death from human violence and systemic oppression.

Conclusion

In a moment we’ll recite the affirmation of faith. The last portion of the affirmation reflects on the reality and presence of the Spirit, God within us. Some of those lines are: We believe in God within us, the Holy Spirit burning with Pentecostal fire, life giving breath of the Church[15]The past few weeks make these lines feel distant if not like bold lies. How do we utter these words—packed with vibrant and rich, living and active imagery—and then remain silent as God’s beloved children die? If being a Christian means I’m only saved from some mythical conception of hell, then I am most to be pitied because it means that the Spirit of God is incapacitated and limp. It means that word “intercession” only has one passive definition and not also a very active one. Does the Paraclete only comfort me like a lullaby wooing me to sleep? Or is the Spirit of God alive, breathing, burning with Pentecostal fire, exhorting me to be bold and defend life?

As a mom, I can’t sit by; as a Christian, I can’t send my kids and your kids or any kid into the hellscape that is our world without first sounding my maternal divine yawp: STOP! THIS MUST END! I need to either stop praying the third part of the affirmation of faith or I must double down, diving head first into the reality that God charged the church and every Christian to be those who illuminate the darkness, who holler at and silence deadly storms, and who are the live-giving tongues of the Pentecostal fire in this tundra of death.

Today we remember the arrival of God’s Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Intercessor, the one who resided with and within the disciples. This is the same Spirit who resides with and within us. Today we must ask: are we dead or are we alive? If we are dead, then let us confirm the confession that God is dead, too. But if we—those resurrected by God’s life-giving breath into the consuming fire of God’s love—if we are alive then so is God. If so, then let us be alive as the church, let us be a force to be reckoned with interceding for God’s beloved, let us be the church so inspired by God’s passion for the world that we can do no other than sound our divine maternal yawp so loud that terra firma shakes with God’s presence.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed; RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971. German: Das Evangelium des Johannes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964, 1966). 608-609. “The implication behind the reproachful question: τοσοῦτον χρόνον κτλ. is that all fellowship with Jesus loses its significance unless he is recognized as the one whose sole intention is to reveal God, and not to be anything for himself; but it also implies that the possibility of seeing God is inherent in the fellowship with Jesus: ὁ ἑωρακὼς ἐμὲ ἑώρακεν τὸν πατέρα. What need is there for anything further (πῶς σὺ λέγεις κτλ.)?”

[3] Bultmann, John, 609-610. “The man, for whom Jesus has not already become authoritative, so that he could believe his word without question, should look at what his word effects: i.e. he should look at himself. Jesus’ word does not communicate mysteries or dogmas, but discloses a man’s reality. If he tries to understand himself by subjecting his existence to this word, then he will experience the work of the Father on him. The nature of the experience is stated in v. 12: the Father’s work will continue to come to fruition in those who believe in Jesus…”

[4] Bultmann John, 609. “This question is posed by Jesus’ words in v. 10: οὐ πιστεύεις ὅτι ἐγὼ ἐν τῷ πατρὶ καὶ ὁ πατὴρ ἐν ἐμοί ἐστιν; The faith at issue is the faith that man really encounters God in his encounter with Jesus, that Jesus and the Father are one. The formula of reciprocity is again used to describe this unity, but what follows makes it clear that it must be understood in terms of the idea of revelation. In Jesus’ word, the work of the Father is brought to fruition; on his own, and for himself, Jesus is nothing: he is simply and without exception the revelation of the Father, and the words ὁ δὲ (ὁ) ἐν ἐμοὶ μένων give added emphasis to the fact.”

[5] Bultmann, John, 611. “To speak of the disciples’μεἰζονα ἔργα is of course to speak paradoxically; for they are in fact the works of him without whom the disciples can do nothing (15.5). And the juxtaposition of that promise with the promise that their prayer will be heard, which makes what they do appear as something given (v. 13), reminds us at once that all the disciples’ work is rooted in his work, and is in fact his work.”

[6] Bultmann, John, 610-611. “Jesus’ word is word of revelation in continual newness on every occasion when it is present. Only when is effective in this way in the community does Jesus’ work come to its fruition. Thus there is no question here of supplementing or surpassing Jesus’ work in any quantitive way.”

[7] Bultmann, John, 610. “[The promise] also corresponds to the promise of the Paraclete, who is to continue what Jesus had done, and whose work is carried through in the community’s proclamation of the word (15.26f.; 16.4b ff.). The disciples are to regard the taking up of their task—and this is the point here—as the Father’s work. What further need have they then to ask: δεῖξον ἡμῖν τὸν πατἐρα? Indeed, the Father’s work, which began with what Jesus did, is to prove its power more and more in what they do: καὶ μεἰζονα τοὐτων ποιἠσει.”

[8] Cardenal Solentiname 554 “OLIVA: “To ask in his name isn’t to say prayers mentioning his name, like so many who pray and are rich and exploiters. Specifically, here in Nicaragua I think that to ask in his name is not to pray but to act.’”

[9] Bultmann, John, 614. “V. 15: the answer to the question how a relationship of love can be established with the departed Revealer is this: it consists in the disciple fulfilling his commands.”

[10] Bultmann, John, 614. “It is of course natural, following 13.34; 15.12, 17, to think of the command of love, and this is certainly included in the summons to faith, just as 15.9-17 make it equally certain that faith as an abiding in love cannot be a reality without the ἀλλήλους ἀγαπᾶν. However, this side of the matter is not stressed in this context. It is faith that is demanded, demanded of course in the fulness of its significance as existential living.”

[11] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 558. “FELIPE: “Because Christians often have a love that’s just talk, and those who aren’t Christians are the ones that make love a reality they are acting the truth; because even though they don’t talk about love or Christianity or theories of that sort, they’re really the ones that are following the truth, practicing the truth.”

[12] Cardenal Solentiname 558. “GUSTAVO, the Colombian: “I think that truth, the whole truth, is always revolutionary. Then the spirit of truth is something that moves things to change, to cast down the oppressor’s lie, to impose the truth of the oppressed.’”

[13] Bultmann, John, 615. “Thus there is a peculiar paradox inherent in the promise; the word of revelation, which the community is always encountering, is the very word which the community itself utters. It is responsible for the proclamation, and only when it grasps this responsibility does it experience the power of the word as the word of revelation.”

[14] Cardenal Solentiname 558. “I: “In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit is the spirit of Yahweh, which is the same as saying the spirit of justice and liberation. He’s the one who spoke through the prophets proclaiming the truth.’”

[15] We use the Ionian Creed

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!