With Christ, With Others

Sermon on John 2:1-11

Psalm 36:5-7 5 Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep; you save both human and beast, O Lord. How priceless is your love, O God! your people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.

Introduction

One of the things that has been most on my mind as I’ve walked into 2022 has been the idea and concept of “presence.” I know this is not a new concept; the self-care industry has been talking about this forever. It’s a concept I’ve talked about as a mom, partner, teacher, and priest. So why talk about it again?

Because this year it feels different to me.

Historically, presence was a stillness of the whole person. Body and mind take a rest in a particular moment. A seat. A kneel. A pause. A static moment. And these are all great aspects of the concept of presence and ways I’ve definitely employed the idea in my work/life balance. But what occurred to me recently was the idea of presence in motion and movement. I’ve been thinking about how this idea of presence in motion envelopes my relationship to others and to time. I can define this relationship by asking this question: Can I just be here right now with this person?

I think about this question a lot as I walk with Liza two miles to school and then again on our way home in the afternoon. There are times the two miles feels massive…about 40 minutes of time. In a society that demands me to validate each and every minute and submit my time sheet of productivity, it is hard to realize 80 minutes of the day are me, just walking with my daughter. But here I am, walking 80 minutes with my daughter at least 4 days a week. There are mornings where I’m consumed about the time it’ll take me to walk back before I can get to work on various projects—the stress about what needs to be done builds. There have been mornings with the temperature low that the many, many steps—comprising “there and back again” a Larkin tale—feel daunting, and I long for yesteryear when school was just down stairs.

And lately the question—Can I just be here right now with this person?—has grown louder and louder. Can I walk in this moment with Liza without thinking of what is ahead of me and what is behind? Can I just walk, one foot in front of the other, one minute at a time, not rushing and not dragging and not internally complaining? Can I just be here right now in this moment and activity with this person? Can I forget about the time and the distance and just be here, walking with this beloved?

John 2:1-11

Now there were placed there six water pots made of stone each holding a two or three anaphoras [8.75 liters]—in accordance with the purification of the Jews. Jesus said to [the servants], “Fill the water pots.” And they filled them to the brim. And Jesus said to them, “Now draw out and bring forth to the master of the feast.” And they brought [it] forth. Now as the master of the feast tasted the water having become wine …[1]

John 2:6-9a

Jesus is physically and emotionally present at this wedding in Cana. He’s not aloof and above such a scene. One might assume that wine running out at a celebration would be exactly what the Son of God would and should prefer. Aren’t we too holy for such potentially ruckus camaraderie? Apparently: No, we’re not. Instead of informing the servants that water will be just fine because *casually gestures around the room* Jesus adds to the distribution of wine (a lot! 3 anaphoras was about 30 liters, and there were six of these vessels!). Jesus allows the party to go on. In this I hear a question…Why?

An ordinary wedding in Cana is certainly not the place for one’s first miracle. It’s by all definitions very, very ordinary. Yes, weddings can be fun and great, but if you think about it they’re rather common place. (We all breathe a sigh of relief when we finally leave “wedding season” of adult hood.) John the Elder records this story because it’s Jesus’s first publicly performed miracle. But it’s not that extra-ordinary. The miracle here is merely the transition—the transubstantiation—of water into wine. Water, by the word of Christ, becomes wine. That is what happens here. Nothing more; nothing less. For the man Jesus who is the Christ, who is God, this is nothing. Yet it’s here in this very basic act of turning water into wine where Jesus reveals the glory of God.[2] And this is the point.

What is the glory of God being revealed? It is not merely in the water turned wine, but the essence of the why: God’s love for God’s people manifested here at this wedding, in this revelry, in this way, by the presence of Jesus. What John the Elder highlights for his reader (both then and now) is that the gift being given isn’t the wine, but the very real and whole presence of Jesus himself, God of very God, the bread and wine of life.[3] Jesus isn’t just present in a spiritual way in this story. Rather, Jesus is actively present in the lives of all the people invited into this celebration of union and life. A reflection of what comes in the great celebration of the union of God and God’s people. The very celebration started the moment Mary pushed and the angels heralded the shepherds.

Conclusion

A story about a miracle at a celebration revealing the glory of God, which is God’s love for God’s people, has really big ramifications for our lives. This isn’t merely a story that we look in upon, but one into which we are invited. We are called in as guests, with Jesus, to this wedding to see, hear, and experience the joy of new and best wine being revealed at the end of the celebration. We are asked to see Jesus present with these people, and imagine and be reminded that Jesus is with us, too.

You, by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, walk with God in Christ. Every moment. God is not hiding from you as if you have to hunt and seek for God. You are in Christ (a location) by faith. And the last I checked, it is really hard not to be where you are. You are always here; you are always in and with Christ.The love of God comes to you, reveals to you God’s love for you,[4] enfolds you, wraps you up in the swaddling clothes of love, and you are held in the arms of God. We are in Christ’s presence and with Christ. And Christ is in us by the power of the Spirit and with us by the same power.

In a sermon, “On Being a Good Neighbor”, Martin Luther King, Jr., said,

“The ultimate measure of a man [Sic] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he will lift some bruised and beaten brother to a higher and more noble life.”[5]

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In being located with and in Christ means that others are there, too. This location of being in Christ is one we share with others. And we are all here in this now in Christ, in this presence being given a present. In Christ we are alleviated of the drudgery of the past and the threat of the future, and we can be here now; we get a present tense not just for us but especially for our sisters and brothers in Christ, those sharing this location. We walk with them, one step at a time, one minute at a time, and we bear with them their burdens, their pains, and their sorrow for they live with us. As Christ resided with those whom he counted as his brothers and sisters according to his flesh, as Christ was present at that wedding, so are we present with others, elevating them, to quote Dr. King, “to a higher and more noble life.” In other words, if “‘Christ is the [person] for others’”, then “the [person] for others is the [person] after God’s heart.”[6]

We, the beloved, are gifted with the revelation that by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit we walk with God in Christ… with God not behind and afraid, but with God. God is with us, all of us, and thus we are called to the other of the beloved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray and RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 1971. 119. “For the Evangelist the meaning of the story is not contained simply in the miraculous event; this, or rather the narrative, is the symbol of something which occurs throughout the whole of Jesus’ ministry, that is, the revelation of the δόξα of Jesus. As understood by the Evangelist this is not the power of the miracle worker, but the divinity of Jesus as the Revealer, and it becomes visible for faith in the reception of χάρις and ἀλήθεια; his revelation of his δόξα is nothing more nor less than his revelation of the ονομα of the Father (17.6).”

[3] Bultmann John 120. “…the Evangelist’s figurative language refers not to any particular gift brought by the Saviour Jesus, but to Jesus himself as the Revealer, as is true of the images of the living water, the bread of life and the light, as well as of the shepherd and the vine; equally the wine refers not to any special gift, but to Jesus’ gift as a whole, to Jesus himself as the Revealer, as he is finally visible after the completion of his work.”

[4] Bultmann John 121. “The story then will teach us that the help for all man’s perplexity is to be found in the miracle of the revelation; but the event of the revelation is independent of human desires and cannot be forcibly brought about by man’s supplication; it comes to pass where and how God wills, and then it surpasses all human expectation.”

[5] Martin Luther King, Jr., “On Being a Good Neighbor” Strength to Love Minnesapolis, MN: Fortress, 2010. 26-27

[6] Dorothee Sölle Theology for Skeptics : Reflections on God Trans Joyce L. Irwin. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1995. 96. “[Jesus] let this light shine through himself,  he did not hide it in the depths of his soul, he gave it out. He was the man [Sic] for others because he was the man of God and knew himself to be so borne up by God that he did not fall out of God, not even when he felt himself abandoned by God. The old formula ‘true man’ is rendered by Bonhoeffer as ‘man,’ where being ‘true God’ is called by Bonhoeffer simply being there ‘for others,’ because God is for others the God of love. Thus the sentence, ‘Christ is the man for others,’ is the old Christological formula ‘true God and true man’ in contemporary speech which refers to God without using religious formulas. The man for others it’s the man after God’s heart.”

The One of Peace

Sermon on Micah 5:2-5a

Luke 1:46b, 53-54 My soul proclaims the greatness of God… God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent away empty. God has come to the help of God’s servant Israel, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy… 

Introduction 

It’s nice to be in charge, right? It’s an ego boost to be the boss, the one where the buck stops. It’s fun to be the leader, the one who decides this and that, and here and there, the one who tells this and that person what to do and what to say. The more power the better, right? For isn’t it in the acquisition of power and dominance—the incessant climbing of the occupational ladder—where I achieve my true human liberty and freedom? As I climb up, I’m freed from the constraints of the lower echelons of human existence, and I finally have that long awaited liberty where none can tread on me. The higher up I move along this ladder, the more I acquire the rewards and accolades of this system, and the more I’m lifted out of the muck and mire of obligation to anyone else. (There’s something wrong with someone who is content with the middle or, God forbid, the lowest rung of the ladder; who wants to stay there?) Here, at the top or near the top, I’m my own law. Here, I am respected. Here, I’m freed from the tyranny of others. Here I’m that which I have strived for: powerful. I get to holler at subordinates and underlings, echoing Eric Cartman from the cartoon series, South Park, “Respect my ah-thor-ah-tah!” It’s nice to be in charge, right?  

Or is it… 

Once I start seeing my leadership in the schema of the personal acquisition of power—and the continual pursuit there in—I will ignore that the ladder I am hoisting myself upon is always made up of the human bodies I was charged to guide and lead in the first place. The bodies will be used to an end to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of a bloated and an autonomous self, untethered from the mores of being human: the humility of existence made tangible in the willing and sometimes not-so-willing self-surrender of the self to other humans in the activity of love. To climb that ladder as far as I can, I must turn off the “human” part of my humanity, which—if you are doing the math—renders to near zero “humanity.” And the farther-up I go pursuing the acquisition of power and privilege, the deeper-in I’m pushed into what can only be described as a solitary confinement with walls built of competition and fear– it only takes one slip (slide?) to fall from that glory. It’s nice to be in charge, right? 

Or is it…. 

Micah 5:2-5a 

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, 
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. 

And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great 
to the ends of the earth; 

and he shall be the one of peace.  

Micah 5:4-5

The bulk of Micah’s message (from the beginning of the book to the end) is embedded in Micah’s mission to expose the sins of Jacob and Israel, being the first prophet to declare the destruction of Jerusalem.[1] What sins does Micah expose? In short: moral corruption. The long of it is that there is violence (from the wealthy and powerful) and the proliferation of lies.[2] And the even longer of it is: the heads of the houses of Jacob and the rulers of Israel “abhor justice and pervert equity” and the brick and mortar of their cities are the wrong-doing of the leaders and the spilled blood of the people.[3] And, according to Micah who is emboldened by the passionate Spirit of God in the face of such violence,[4] God will not tolerate this depraved leadership, profiting off of the bodies and souls of God’s beloved.[5]

In the prophesy, Micah, so moved by God’s Spirit, transitions from exposing sins and naming the trespasses of Israel’s and Jacob’s leaders to speaking of one who will be raised up from the small clan of Bethlehem of Ephrathah. This one will be of old and of the ancient of days. This humble one from a humble tribe will be called out to lead God’s beloved in the name of God and in the Spirit of God: delighting in unconditional and unceasing love, forgiveness, mercy, and humility.[6] Specifically in our portion of the text, Micah’s prophesy moves toward a God who rejects the idea of letting iniquity run amok[7] even if the city itself is complacent.[8] so, God comes, and in that God comes, there will be forgiveness and peace because when God comes, so to comes the true leadership of Israel defined not by humanity but by God, the one of peace.[9]

Conclusion

Micah’s words haunt me. Israel’s leadership has run away with Israel for its own power and privilege. And God is coming to rescue God’s beloved. Woe to that leadership so bent on self-aggrandizement and power and authority and privilege; violent leadership that uses the beloved as a means to their own end will be exposed in God’s light of truth. Leadership so bent in this way is in direct opposition to God and God’s conception of leading and can meet no other end in God but death. God has a very specific interpretation of what it means to lead, especially leading God’s beloved: it is done through mercy, kindness, humility, love, and forgiveness. To be completely frank, God doesn’t like it when human leaders forget themselves and become drunk with power and abusive and violent, resulting in the oppression and marginalization of God’s beloved. God will come and rescue the beloved from such domination. Thus, the judgment of this prophecy is targeted at me, the leader of God’s beloved—and others like me holding power and authority. God will come for the beloved and in that the beloved is sought and liberated from oppressive and violent leadership, so too will the violent and oppressive leaders be liberated. It’s nice to be in charge, right? Or is it?

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

Micah 6:7-8

It’s into the presence of God I am called. I am pulled off my ladder of power and am dragged onto the carpet; I am beckoned into the light; I am exposed by the Spirit’s prophetic utterance still fresh on Micah’s lips. I am asked to come close and to hear and to see what means to be a good leader. And, it’s not defined in the way that I think it should be: through the acquisition of more and more power and lording it over those under my charge. It won’t look like making people feel small so I can feel big. It won’t even look elite, special, or privileged. Rather, this good leader will look remarkably like a humble and vulnerable infant wrapped in meager rags, laid in a manger, dwelling among the creation in its earthy glory, surrounded by dirty shepherds and an exhausted woman of color. I am asked here: can you lead like this? For here lies the true leader, the one from the ancient of days who knows no end of time but is now a tiny baby in swaddling clothes: humble and accessible to anyone; can you lead like this…of the people for the people? Can you love them like I do?

That this prophetic utterance of Micah is for me it is for you, too. Because divine love does not remain dormant when the beloved is in need: hope exists. We can, right now during this season of Advent in 2021, hope. We can hope because we dwell in and are invited into a story of God acting on behalf of the beloved by coming in the judgment of God’s love to give life to all the beloved trapped and held captive in violent systems—when the captive is set free, so too will the captor be set free through death into new life. We are all beckoned—leaders and the lead alike—to walk humble with God and like God, in love and mercy and forgiveness and humility. And we are called to walk this way not just here in this place, but out in the world, furthering the elastic reach of divine love in the world and for the beloved out there.

O come, Desire of nations,

bind in one the hearts of all [hu]mankind;

bid thou our sad divisions cease

and be thy self our King of Peace.

O come, O come Emmanuel,

and ransom captive Israel,

that mourns in lonely exile here

until the Son of God appear.


[1] 1 Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Micah” New York: JPS, 1962. 98 “Micah, a contemporary of Isaiah, apparently regarded the purpose of his mission to be ‘to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin’ (3:8). He was the first prophet to predict the destruction of Jerusalem.” 

[2] Heschel Prophets 98. “In his eyes the fatal sin is the sin of moral corruption. The rich men are full of violence, and the inhabitants speak lies: ‘Their tongue is deceitful in their mouth’ (6:12).”

[3] Heschel Prophets 98 “The prophet directs his rebuke particularly against the ‘heads of the house of Jacob and the rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity.’ It is because ‘they build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong’ (3:9-10) that Zion and Jerusalem will be destroyed.”

[4] Heschel Prophets 99. “To the soul of Micah, the taste of God’s word is bitter. In his love for Zion and his people, he is tormented by the vision of the things to come…” 

[5] Heschel Prophets 99. “Here, amidst a people who walk haughtily (2:3), stands a prophet who relentlessly predicts disaster and disgrace for the leaders as well as for the nation, maintaining that ‘her wound is incurable’ (1:9), that the Lord is ‘devising evil’ against the people: ‘It will be an evil time’ (2:3).” 

[6] Heschel Prophets 99. “Micah does not question the justice of the severe punishment which he predicts for his people. Yet it is not in the name of justice that he speaks but in the name of a God who ‘delights in steadfast love,’ ‘pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression’ (7:18).” 

[7] Heschel Prophets 100 “Yet, there is reluctance and sorrow in that anger. It is as if God were apologizing for His severity, for His refusal to be complacent to iniquity. This is God’s apology to Israel. He cannot forget ‘the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked’ or ‘acquit the man with wicked scales and with a bag of deceitful weights’ (6:10, 11).”

[8] Heschel Prophets 100 “‘Answer Me!’ calls the voice of God. But who hears the call? ‘The voice of the Lord cries to the city’ (6:9), but the city is complacent.”

[9] Heschel Prophets 101 “Together with the word of doom, Micah proclaims the vision of redemption. God will forgive ‘the remnant of His inheritance,’ and will cast all their sins ‘into the depths of the sea’ (7:18 f.), and every man shall sit under his vine and ‘under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid’ (4:4).”

Who Can Stand?

Sermon on Malachi 3:1-4

The Song of Zechariah Luke 1:78-79 In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Introduction

Judgment. We love to hate it, and we love to do it. When we are judged or when we judge other people, we are experiencing a moment where either we are being evaluated by someone else or we are doing the evaluating. In being judged and judging, we are failing to measure up or someone else is. In positioning oneself as judge or being caught in that eye of judgment creates an imbalance of power: someone in the equation is holding more of the power. It makes sense why Christians are exhorted—by Jesus!—not to judge other people by the externals, because there’s more to a person than what meets our eye. This is why we don’t like being judged because, hey, maybe I’m just having a bad day, don’t judge! Like being an exhausted parent with two toddlers and a screaming infant in a store and expressing frustration; I’m not a bad mom, don’t look at me like that because I was snappy with them…and no, I’m not going to miss this phase…stop.

We judge others (and others judge us) to self-validate, and this desire for self-validation exposes that our judgmentalism is less about the other person and more about us: we are found lacking when we find lack in others. And the way we judge others reveals our hypocrisy. Our judgment of others, our eagerness to remove the speck from their eye while ignoring the log in our own, is the action that exposes the fundamental problem of a hardened heart caught in a desperate fight to be worthy, to be loved, to be thought good. And we will do whatever it takes to be worthy, to be loved, to be thought good, so we thrust ourselves on that hamster wheel of performance and find anything to self-validate even if it is by the failures of others… at least I’m not like her…

But I am; I am very much her. I’ve been in the shoes of so many people I’ve judged in my feeble attempts to make myself feel better about myself. I’ve been that “bad” driver, that “bad” mom, that “bad” teacher, that biased and stuck thinker, that arrogant and pedantic scholar…the one who was too angry to forgive, to hurt to admit it, too comfortable to fight for peace and justice… And if we can feel safe here and are willing to be honest, I bet I’m not alone. We all have similar confessions.

I know, it’s not Lent. And yet, I know I’m heading down a lent-like train of thought but stay with me. What if part of this stark realization is part of the good news of Advent? What if coming to terms with who and what I am in all my robust humany glory, makes the expectation of Advent more spectacular?

Malachi 3:1-4

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Malachi 3:1-2b

The message of Malachi is as follows: God knows those who fear him and those who do not, and He desires his people to repent and turn to Him and Torah (3:7). Malachi, in prophetic tones, asks the people to consider themselves, to take a deep look at who they are in their daily life and as worshippers of God—are they helping or hindering the relationship between God and God’s people? [1] The warning that Malachi ends with in his short prophetic disputation[2] is a word of judgment: utter destruction hangs in the balance if the people do not realign with God and with neighbor. For all intents and purposes, Malachi cries out: Pay attention! He pleads with his audience, Take heed; this is serious! Judgment comes! And this minor prophet closes with a question: on whom will judgment fall?

The God of Israel is the God who heard the cries of Israel from the bowls of suffering in Egypt and is the same God who then came and rescued Israel from that captivity and ushered them into freedom. If this is the same God of whom both the major and minor prophets speak of and speak for, then we can be certain this is the same God who will also deal with people who abuse God’s people, who hinder them from God, who steal their livelihood, who judge them as inferior, failures, maybe even inhuman. In being unloving toward their neighbor, they do not love God and “profane the covenant.”[3] God will come, and God may be angry when God does.

But here’s the complex thing about God, the God worshipped in Judah and Israel is not bound to our mythic conceptions of the small and petty angry god who never stops being angry.[4] Our strict either/or interpretation of emotionality is exceptionally problematic. Emotional states are not ontological definitions. Even here in Malachi, as he leaves his people with a question about the coming judgment of God, God’s love is eternal; God’s anger isn’t.[5] God’s anger is momentary and happens, but it doesn’t abide forever; God’s love does.[6] It abides, because love is an ontological definition: divine love—the love that has been since the very beginning of the cosmos—isn’t a fleeting emotion or feeling but a permanent presence, an eternal reality forever moving into infinity, always in pursuit of the beloved. It’s this love that exposes the beloved not unto death for death’s sake but unto life.

Conclusion

Malachi closes his proclamation and disputation with the twin questions “On whom will judgment fall?” and “Who can stand?” And when our eyes meet with these words, our heart races and things get warm under the collar, looking around—with panic and fear—we are speechless. We fear the answer. We fear this divine judgment, this divine anger, will fall on us and crush us. We know who we are deep down; we know we are guilty: guilty of infractions, disobedience, not-love, of desperately trying to make our selves better than others, of unfaithfulness, ignoring, pretending, and judging.

But, what if in this profound and visceral exposure is our life? What if in our bold grasp of what is and who we are we find actual life? This isn’t to say you are rotten or horrible or an object made for destruction; none of that. Rather, it’s to turn that inner judge on oneself in the light of truth, and it’s in this light of truth where we find life.

God’s judgment does come, and it will fall on us, and under it we will not be able to stand. God will come to earth, born to an unwed woman of color. And this baby whom this woman will nurse, we will curse; the one whom Mary will birth, we will sentence to death. In that wrong judgment of an innocent other, we will be encountered by the right judgment of God. We will be exposed, fully. Face to face with God, we will be illuminated—from head to toe, from the core of our being to edge of our skin—by the essence of divine presence: Love.

Don’t get me wrong: you do not escape the rendering unto death of divine judgment; in being fully exposed in the light of love made known to us in the Word of Christ—the proclamation of God’s love in the world—you will collapse under the weight of what you see. But, in that collapse you fall into God, and that means falling farther into the source of love and life. It’s this love and life you receive back because God does not leave the beloved in the depth of the abyss of death but calls her out and onto the solid ground of life.

Where we expect destruction and death (death unto death), there is new creation and new life (death unto life). We expect that in God’s coming judgment we will be destroyed by wrath, but we are met with the consuming love of God who renders the beloved new by bringing her through death into new life in God, fueled by the Spirit of God.

Divine Love comes, born vulnerable and placed in a manger wrapped in meager swaddling rags. This one, Jesus the Christ, the son of Mary, will bear the burden of the full weight of God’s Love. It’s this babe who will bear the burden of bringing God’s love to everyone even if it means going outside the city limits. It’s this child of parents fleeing oppression who will bear the burden of standing in love and solidarity with human beings suffering in pain and sorrow, in toil and strain, stuck in captivity even if it means his life for theirs.

Beloved, in the expectation of Advent, Love comes… on whom will it fall? Who can stand?


[1] Ehud Ben Zvi “Malachi” The Jewish Study Bible JPS (Oxford: OUP, 2004). 1268. “The readers of the book of Malachi are asked to look at some pitfalls in everyday life and in the cult at the Temple, and particular at how they affect the relationship between the Lord and Israel, resulting in a lack of prosperity. Issues concerning proper offerings, marriage practices, and tithes are especially prominent in the book.”

[2] Zvi “Malachi” 1269, “The use of a disputation format … allows the readers some limited form of self-identification with the actions of the evildoers, and as such serves as a call for them to examine themselves and repent.”

[3] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Jeremiah” New York: JPS, 1962. 170. “In the words of a later prophet [after Jeremiah], ‘Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?’ (Mal. 2:10).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 289. “The ancient conception that the gods are spiteful seems to linger on in the mind of modern man, and inevitably the words of the Hebrew Bible are seen in the image of this conception. In gods who are spiteful, anger is a habit or a disposition. The prophets never speak of an angry God as if anger were His disposition. Even those who dwell more on His anger than on His mercy explicitly or implicitly accentuate the contrast”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 289. “Again and again we are told that God’s love or kindness (hesed) goes on forever…we are never told that His anger goes on forever.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 290. “Anger is always described as a moment, something that happens rather than something that abides. The feeling expressed by the rabbis that even divine anger must not last beyond a minute seems to be implied in the words of the prophets…”

From One Grain of Earth

Sermon on John 18:33-37

Psalm 132: 8-10  Arise, O Lord, into your resting-place, you and the ark of your strength. Let your priests be clothed with righteousness; let your faithful people sing with joy. For your servant David’s sake, do not turn away the face of your Anointed.

Introduction

The Christian life can feel hard to live out in moderation. We are told that we are not of this world but merely resident in the world. In the letter to the Romans, Paul exhorts the believers in chapter 12 not to be “conformed to this world, but to be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” (v.2a-b). In the book of James, we are told that to be friends with the world causes us to be enemies of God (4:4). 1 John 2:15-17 reads:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

With these rather antagonistic words spoken against the world, what is a material girl to do? How do I, a human being—made of very tangible materials of bone and flesh, living in a world that is made up of other various material—navigate this supposed enmity between that which is spiritual and material? That which is of God and that which is of the world? What does it mean to be here but not of here?

Answers tend to range in two binaries: be completely invested in other-worldly, spiritual matters and the non-corporeal or be completely invested in the material and corporeal. The problem with the former is that it makes you too disconnected from the plight of the world and those who are materially sabotaged and held captive by malevolent and prejudicial systems, not to mention the very real tendency to participate in those systems that abuse and consume both the flora and fauna of creation. The latter is problematic because of the tendency to make a religion out of creation, forcing it into a space it’s not supposed to be—forcing the material to be spiritual—thus stealing its mystery and magnificence as it becomes a part of your consumption.

But what if the robustness of our Christian life isn’t in the either/or but in the paradox: in our material existence therein is our spiritual existence, and in our spiritual existence therein is our material existence? What if there is something to the Ruach of God mingling with dirt resulting in human form and existence?[1] In other words, what if the incarnation of Christ our King means something for our life in the present realm and not just the ethereal one? What if the other-cosmicness of Christ’s kingdom is made most manifest in our earthliness when we, filled with the Spirit press into the love of God and find ourselves at the doorstep of our neighbor, in solidarity with them?

John 18:33-37

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this cosmos; if my kingdom was of this cosmos, my servants would be striving so that I would not be handed over to the Jews. But now my kingdom is not from this place.” Then Pilate said to him, “So then you, you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You, you say that I am. For this I have been brought forth, and for this I have come into the cosmos, so that I may witness to the truth…”[2]

John 18:36-37b

John tells us that Jesus is brought before Pilate, deep within the residence of the governor.[3] In this scene, Pilate seeks to get answers to questions to retrieve information if Jesus is a king or not. In his questions, Pilate reveals his primary concern: Are you a threat to me and my people and land? [4] Are me and mine threatened by your and yours? Jesus’s answer can be boiled down to a not-so-clear: yesno. In other words: Jesus doesn’t deny being a king, but he does deny being that type of king, a king of this world. It’s this ambiguous yesno that causes Pilate to keep along his line of questioning: If a king, what type of kingdom, then? [5] And Jesus’s answer can be boiled down again to another not-so-clear response: therehere and some herethere.

The radical thing about Jesus’s presence before Pilate is that he sees Jesus as merely a man, just a material and corporeal being. Yet Jesus’s replies indicate an otherworldliness to his presence and being.[6] There’s a collision of the divine and the created, of the infinite and the finite, of the immaterial and the material, of the non-corporeal and the corporeal. If there ever was an intersection of the collision of the otherness and the familiar, it’s here in the incarnation of the Christ the king, a divine ruler of the heavens, before a flesh and bone only human ruler of the earth. Here, Pilate is exposed by Jesus—the ruler of land is exposed by the ruler of notland. Here, the Judge is being judged by the judge who is being judged by the Judge; here, life collides with death, and death with life.[7]

Here truth confronts lie. As Jesus tells Pilate that he is here to reveal the truth into this world, Pilate is now in the position to hear it or not. The great Shema, hear!, entered Pilate’s home and spoke to him. If Jesus is the witness to the truth, then Pilate is positioned as the one who witnesses to the lie. He reveals this by his question, “What is truth?” To ask this question exposes Pilate’s not heard Jesus’s voice, the divine call to truth; Pilate remains outside of it.[8]

Conclusion

Of what is Pilate remaining outside? The reign of God entering the kingdom of humanity to overhaul it: by first taking it down to rubble and then resurrecting God’s new kingdom under the reign of Christ and the law of love, mercy and kindness, love and grace, forgiveness and longsuffering, in solidarity and revolution on behalf of the captives. This reign and kingdom does not hover above, to the left, to the right, or just below the earth; it exists in the world and on the earth, forcing everything out of the comfort of neutrality to side with either truth or lie.[9]

And that goes for us, too. We who follow Jesus out of the Jordan and into Jerusalem must see that we are neither solely of this material world nor solely of a spiritual world, for either extreme renders us as neutral to what is going on. Rather we are to hear the truth that is Christ and feel the claim of Christ the king and his reign.[10] We must see our material life made whole by our spiritual life, and our spiritual life made whole by our material life. Through the presence of the Spirit of God, we must see our profound and deep connection to the very soil beneath our feet. As we do, we will see that the breadth of the heavens, the entire cosmos, this world, this creation, this humanity is united in a profound connection of a material-spiritual existence. For from the soil humanity was created by the divine breath of God; in the essence of our existence, we all share in one grain of earth…

The Beginning of the World {Yokuts}

“Everything was water except a small piece of ground. On this were Eagle and Coyote. Then the turtle swam to them. They sent it to dive for the earth at the bottom of the water. The turtle barely succeeded in reaching the bottom and touching it with its foot. When it came up again, all the earth seemed washed out. Coyote looked closely at its nails. At last he found a grain of earth. Then he and the eagle took this and laid it down. From it they made the earth as large as it is. From the earth they also made six men and six women. They sent these out in pairs in different directions and the people separated. After a time the eagle sent Coyote to see what the people were doing. Coyote came back and said: ‘They are doing something bad. They are eating the earth. One side is already gone.’ Then eagle said: ‘That is bad. Let us make something for them to eat. Let us send the dove to find something.’ The dove went out. It found a single grain of meal. The eagle and Coyote put this down on the ground. Then the earth became covered with seeds and fruit. Now they told the people to eat these. When the seeds were dry and ripe the people gathered them. Then the people increased and spread all over. But the water is still under the world.”[11]


[1] Ref. Gen 2

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[3] Part of the definition of τὸ πραιτώριον, the Praetorium.

[4] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971. 653. “The significance of the question is determined by the fact that Pilate, i.e, the state, understands the concept of king only in the political sense. Pilate therefore proceeds now in an objective manner in so far as he, despite the mistrust of the accuser voiced in v. 31, investigates conscientiously whether there was occasion for proceedings by the state. Does Jesus claim a political status which the representative of the public authority could not recognize?”

[5] Bultmann John 654-655. “Pilate questions further, because Jesus indeed has indirectly affirmed that he is a king; and now Jesus affirms it directly: Yes, he is a king! But of what sort is his kingdom? Some kind of claim to sovereignty must be his, otherwise his statement would have lost all meaning!”

[6] Bultmann John 654. “That this concerns a claim which goes forth to the world from beyond it is signified by γεγέννημαι και… ελήλυθα εἰς τὸν κόσμον, whereby γεγέννημαι to a certain extent is orientated to the viewpoint of Pilate, for whom Jesus is first and foremost a man and nothing more: he, this man, has come for this reason… But because in this man one is confronted with a claim other than human, the mythological ελήλυθα εἰς τὸν κόσμον is paradoxically bound up with γεγ.: the origin—and therefore the being of this man is not from this world, but he has ‘come’ into this world.”

[7] Bultman John 655. “And in truth he has come in order to ‘bear witness’ for the ‘truth,’ i.e. in order to make God’s reality effective over against the world in the great trial between God and the world. He indeed has come into the world for judgment (9.39; 3.19), and his witness is at the same time an accusation against the world (7.7). It is in this ‘witness’ that he lays his claim to sovereignty; he himself is the ἀλήθεια to which he bears testimony (14.6), and he testifies on behalf of himself (8.14, 18). He is the judge, who decides over life and death (5.19ff.). So he stands now also before Pilate, who according to the world’s standard is his judge.”

[8] Bultman John 656. “…‘What is truth?’ i.e. he takes the point of view that the state is not interested in the question about the ἀλήθεια—about the reality of God, or as perhaps it ought to be expressed in Pilate’s way of thinking—about reality in the radical sense. He remains on the outside. For the person who represents this standpoint that means that he shuts the door on the claim of the revelation, and in so doing he shows that he is not of the truth—he is of the lie.”

[9] Bultman John 657. “For the βασιλεία is not an isolated sphere of pure inwardness over against the world, it is not a private area for the cultivation of religious needs, which could not come into conflict with the world. The word of Jesus unmasks the world as a world of sin, and it challenges it. In order to defend itself against the word it flees to the state, and demands that the latter put itself at its disposal. But then the state is torn out of its neutrality precisely in so far as its firm hold on to neutrality signifies a decision against the world.”

[10] Bultmann John 654. “The reader knows that if the βασιλεία of Jesus is not ‘of this world,’ and is not ‘from here,’ as it is ἂνωθεν, and therefore superior to all worldly dominion (cp. 3.31). He knows also the peculiar claim which this βασιλεία makes on man.”

[11] https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/The-Beginning-Of-The-World-Wukchamni-Yokut.html

Love Moves Around the Rubble

Sermon on Mark 13:1-8

1 Samuel 2: My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in God…There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no rock like our God.

Introduction

It’s not fun when things breakdown. Like, who here has said, with excitement, “Yes! The fridge is broken!” Or “I was hoping the car would breakdown!” Or, “Aww, yeah, my knee is acting up again!” No child has ever skipped gleefully to their parent happy that their favorite stuffed animal—the one they’ve fastidiously dragged about every day for the past 5 years—finally lost its ear. Whether it’s the fridge, the car, one’s body, or that well-loved stuffy; everything breaks down eventually.

But it’s not just material items—the things purchased from retailers and dealers—that break down. And when it comes to our lives, it’s not just our physical framework—muscles, bones, ligaments, tendons, organs, etc.—that breaks down. We can breakdown on the inside. Our inner world and our inner life are as susceptible to breaking down as our physical bodies are. Our mind, our emotions, our feelings, our spirituality, our conscience—all of it—can enter an event of break down, of deconstruction. And it certainly happens when we’ve been thrust on to a collision course with destruction and chaos: some external event occurs challenging the security and comfortability we previously enjoyed. Maybe it’s a breakup from a beloved, maybe a rejection, maybe a loss of a job or a friendship, maybe a death, maybe the weight of too many demands, maybe the isolation of loneliness, maybe even being forced to let go of what was…all of it can thrust us into inner turmoil, inner breakdown, inner falling apart, inner grief and pain. In that moment where we are thrust into such a moment, we are asked one simple yet painful question: will you turn a blind eye to this and run? Or will you face it and walk through?

The answer depends on where love is.

Mark 13:1-8

Then while [Jesus] was departing from the temple, one of the disciples says to him, “Teacher, behold (!) how magnificent [the] stones and how magnificent [the] buildings!” And then Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not a stone will be left upon a stone here; it will be overthrown.”[1]

Mark 13:1-2

There’s no textual gap in Mark’s story progression, so it’s safe to assume that the one who sat opposite the treasury in the Court of Women, has stood up and exited the temple. The one who is the son of God—established by Mark in 1:1—is now exiting the building.

As he leaves with his disciples, one of them points out how magnificent the stones are and how magnificent is the building comprised of those magnificent stones. And truly they were magnificent—both the stones and the temple building itself. (One can travel to see the remnants of those stones of the Herodian walls and fall in awe of the magnitude and the presence of the remaining stones—just the remnants and not the structure itself.[2]) There’s no shame in the disciple marveling and pointing out that the stones and the building are quite magnificent. Thus, Jesus isn’t chastising the disciple when he answers him with the rather cryptic: do you see these great stones and this great building? Well, it’s all going to break down and be overthrown; its time is up; it’s no longer necessary.[3]Jesus isn’t rebuking; he’s proclaiming.

And this proclamation comes with some big words. In fact, these words are threatening words. Some think these words are so dangerous that they are the fuel behind Jesus’s eventual arrest and captivity. There’s good reason to think this. Mentioning the destruction of the temple brought with it serious consequences for the one who mentioned it. This is the case because according to the Hebrew Scriptures, God tells Solomon that the destruction of the temple will be the punishment of Israel for their disobedience (1 Kings 9). Other prophets pick up on this theme.[4] So, Jesus isn’t messing around using these words.

Also, the entire life of the Israelite revolved around this structure; what would become of them if this structure was now gone? Without this particular and important structure of authority, what would become of them, their lives, their worship and relationship with God, their identity and being? [5] The centrality of the temple explains why the disciples grew eager for a sign for when this is will happen…they would want to prepare themselves for this divine judgment, this impending internal upheaval and breaking down.

In this passage, Jesus is predicting and promising (as God does with God’s declared word) the end of the old order[6] and the beginning of the new one. What was the center of the kingdom of God is now no longer the center of the kingdom of God. The Christ is. Thus, Jesus—as he proceeds through his journey to the cross and subsequent resurrection and ascension—will redefine what the center of the kingdom of God and therein redefine what the kingdom of God is for God’s people.[7] Will the disciples turn a blind eye and run? Or will they face it and enter in?

The answer depends on where love is.

Conclusion

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve stressed the activity of love. Love’s language is always action. Love’s language is always action… even if small. And today: love’s language is always action even if small…small enough to weave and wend and grow through the rubble.

Even though in our passage Jesus leaves the temple—signifying for the readers (if they’re watching, listening, and paying close attention to the story) that God left that particular building—Jesus hasn’t left the people. In fact, Jesus’s exodus (thus, God’s exodus) from the temple is God moving toward the people and away from the abusive and oppressive systems and structures holding so many people captive. These old systems and structures must be overthrown and brought to death for new life to come forward.

So God, in the word of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, is calling forth something new out of the death of something old…even if it’s a pile of rubble: the rubble of an overthrown temple, the rubble of an overthrown church, the rubble of our physical bodies, the rubble of formerly held ideologies and assumptions, the rubble of our inner lives. Because God is love, and love’s language is always action no matter how small…even small enough to make its way around any crack and crevice, even if it’s literal or metaphorical magnificent stones now no longer one on top of the other. And in the rubble, Love becomes new magnificent stones of the foundation of the most magnificent new structure: new life.

Beloved, as you look around you, as your heart breaks over loss and letting go, as you feel that internal chaos and breaking down, as you watch the dust of your former lives settle around you, do not lose hope. Do not turn a blind eye and run. Face it and enter in. Love is there. Love is working its way through that internal rubble, seeking the beloved, calling her back to life, new life, life built on the firm foundation of love.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 496, “The specific mention of λίθοι, while it serves in Mark’s context to prepare for the saying λίθος ἐπὶ λίθονin v. 2, corresponds to Josephus’s specific mention of the enormous blocks of stone used in the building (though a single block of forty-five cubits in length, War 5.224, is hard to believe). The disciple’s amazement is shared even by modem visitors who see the huge ashlar blocks in the remaining Herodian walls, and these were only the substructure, not the temple proper.”

[3] France Mark 496. “For the disciple’s touristic awe Jesus substitutes a cruel realism. Splendid as the structure may be, its time is over. ‘Jesus’ reply is to dismiss the magnificent display as — in the context of his ministry and mission—a massive irrelevance (Mann, 495).”

[4] France Mark 495, “Jesus was not the first to predict the temple’s destruction. God’s declaration to Solomon at the temple’s dedication envisaged such a possibility if Israel proved disobedient (1 Ki. 9:6-8), and the threat was taken up by Micah (3:12), and repeatedly by Jeremiah (7:12-15; 12:7; 22:5; 26:6). It was only the memory of Micah’s prophecy which saved Jeremiah from execution for treason on this basis (Je. 26:10-19), and another prophet with the same message, Uriah, was not so fortunate (Je. 26:20-23). A generation after the death of Jesus another Jesus, son of Hananiah, was put on trial for threats against the city and its temple (Josephus, War 6.300-309). Jesus was embarking on a dangerous course.”

[5] France Mark 494. “The unnamed disciple’s superficial admiration for the magnificence of the buildings, contrasted with Jesus’ declaration of their ultimate bankruptcy, furnishes yet another example of the reorientation to the new perspective of the kingdom of God to which the disciples are committed but which they remain slow to grasp, and which Mark expects his readers to embrace. The old structure of authority in which God’s relationship with his people has hitherto been focused, is due for replacement.”

[6] France Mark 498. “The disciples’ question with which it begins seeks elucidation of Jesus’ pronouncement about the destruction of the temple, and it is this question which must set the agenda for our interpretation of the discourse which follows. It is about ‘the end of the old order’.”

[7] France Mark 497-498. “The mutual hostility between Jesus and the Jerusalem establishment has now reached its culmination in Jesus’ open prediction of the destruction of the temple, with its powerful symbolism of the end of the existing order and the implication that something new is to take its place. This is to be a time of unprecedented upheaval in the life and leadership of the people of God. Jerusalem, and the temple which is the focus of its authority, is about to lose its central role in God’s economy. The divine government, the βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ, is to find a new focus.”

Two Tiny (nearly) Weightless Coins

Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

Psalm 146:1-3 Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it. Unless the Lord watches over the city, in vain the watchman keeps his vigil. It is in vain that you rise so early and go to bed so late; vain, too, to eat the bread of toil, for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Introduction

I spent the week thinking about how exhausted and isolated and sad many of us feel. If it means anything, I feel it…in my bones. This pandemic seems endless as we cruise into wrapping up year two. It’s still wreaking havoc on our world, on our country, on our state, on our county, on our families and friends, and on our own bodies (heart, mind, soul). On top of that the political divisions and consistent social unrest feeling like threats of WWIII—this thanksgiving and Christmas we can gather with extended family…or can we? (It might be safest yet to speak of only religion at those tables!) And let us extend our view to our larger society: as crises continue to rise, our brothers and sisters struggle to make ends meet, put food on the table, to exist in the world. I want my kids to go freely to school and their myriad activities without having this extra weight on their shoulders. I want you, the people of God entrusted to my care, to live your fullest lives infecting others with the holy and divine love of God…not a potential life-threatening virus. Truly, the psalm I just prayed echoes through my exhausted body eager to rest, to just exist, to just live…in person…with others, without threat, without fear, without hyper-vigilance, without divisive divisions.

So, this week, maybe even more than last week, I believe we need love amid our sadness, our isolation, our exhaustion, our fear, our sicknesses; we need to marinate in the divine love of God. We need to keep this divine love we receive as the focal point of our days-in and days-out. Love is active as I said last week. And that’s true, it is; love’s language is always action…in some form.

The thing is…it doesn’t have to be grandiose and massive, as if to catch everyone’s attention. It can be small. Simple. That’s the thing about love’s language as action: the full extent of love is there even in the smallest seemingly most simple thing…Like two tiny, weightless coins slipping unnoticed into the treasury.

Mark 12:38-44 

And then after sitting down in front of the treasury, he was gazing at how the crowd cast copper/bronze into the treasury. And then many wealthy people were casting [in] great things; and then came one destitute widow, and she cast [in] two very small pieces of money, which is ¼ of a Roman monetary unit. And then calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Truly I say to you that this destitute widow cast in a much greater value of all those who are casting into the treasury. For all people gave from their overflow/left-over, but from her need/want of all she had, she cast [in] her whole/complete life.”[1]

Mark 12:41-44

Moving forward in Chapter 12, Mark tells us that Jesus (generally and polemically[2]) drags the bulk of the scribes—excepting, I’m sure, the one who is not far from the kingdom of God (v.34). It seems scribes had some reputation, according to Mark, for liking the finer things in life and the power coming with their prestigious position in the community. They desired[3] to strut about in their long and fancy robes,[4] greeting[5] each other in the public places, sitting in the most honorable—”the chief most”—seats in the synagogue and at the banquet table of the evening meals.[6] It brought them pleasure to do these things (ἔρος). However, Jesus goes on: it’s not just that they like the finer things in life—the things afforded to them due to their role and privilege in their society—but that they did it at the expense of the disenfranchised, the ones who consume the house of widows…(ἔρος run amok). A scribe couldn’t claim ignorance to how much God detested “defrauding” widows; it was woven through the scriptures.[7] Thus, the end for these scribes is, according to Jesus, a much greater divine condemnation.[8] They know better. Shema O Israel!

And then Jesus sits down in front of the treasury in the Court of the Women[9]—the nearest point of the temple building open to women.[10] Jesus’s rebuke of the scribes comes with divine force; so, too, does his sitting down in front of the treasury—like a judge. Many people came and cast their offerings into the treasury: clinks and clanks of copper and bronze, of gold and silver coins[11] echoed as they hit the trumpet chests; fiscal support for the work of the temple.[12] The bigger and more substantial the offering, the bigger and louder the sound and spectacle.

But then a destitute widow comes in. A “little-one” (Mk. 9:42) comes in—whose bodily presence would go unnoticed by the crowd, as well as her meager offering of two small copper coins smaller than a centimeter in diameter and worth less than 1/100 of a denarius.[13] On any other day, these two small coins would slip into the treasury without garnering attention and respect, just as she would slip into the temple with the same response. But this day was like no other day. God saw. And God loved.

God sat opposite the treasury and saw this humble human give her whole life[14] to God.[15] Her faith—her love for God—sounded louder than any other gift dropped into the treasury at that moment as she dropped her whole life into that treasury. She gave not from an overflow of excess, but from her need, from her want, from all she had. This is not a treatise on tithing or a rebuke of the wealthy;[16] this is a declaration of love. It’s this destitute widow who hears and loves God with her whole heart, whole mind, whole soul, and whole strength; she—not the fancy-pants, privileged scribes or the wealthy giving from their extra—she is the one who satisfies the command to love God and to love one’s neighbor as themselves (cf. Mk 12:28-34). Where the scribes have succumbed to negligent ἔρος in consuming the livelihood of widows, she, a destitute widow, is consumed with ἀγάπη. Her small, miniscule offering was born out of big, massive love. Because love’s language is always action, even if it’s as small as two tiny, nearly weightless coins slipping unnoticed into a treasury. Shema O Israel!

Conclusion

Our isolation, our exhaustion, our sadness isn’t going to magically disappear any time soon. I wish I could say otherwise, but I can’t. We are here, and here we’ll be until we are no longer stuck in this atmosphere and environment of virus and anger. But I am not hopeless. Why? Because…love. Infinite Love in its most finite form keeps popping up. A note. A smile. A gift. A hand to help. A meal. A hello. A moment. A kindness. A presence. A giggle. A brief connection. A look of knowing. These are the small things our community is dependent on right now. While our bodies are forced into distances and our persons experience continued isolation, our love and our hope doesn’t have to. We can overcome the distance and separation in new ways, in abstract ways, in small ways.

As we give into what is demanded of us right now, we need not lose hope. Hopefulness gives way to hopelessness when we keep our eyes fixed on what was and we keep trying to rebuild what was. Rather hopefulness is born of love in this very moment, right here and right now, in what is. Accepting the strain and drain, the exhaustion and isolation, even the grief and sadness isn’t succumbing to the forces of evil and giving up unto nothing; it’s the very opposite. For in that weakness of accepting point-blank what is as it is, is the source of the strength of humanity in God, of God in humanity. Embracing now, allows us to unleash the determined, the dogged, the tenacious, the carpe diem and live new, exist new, connect new, to love new—not in big and grand ways, we don’t have the energy for that or the stamina; but we can love new in small and simple ways, in sustainable ways.

Like Jesus asks his disciples to reexamine what it means to give, what it means to love, what it means to lead, what it means to be a disciple, we, too, must hear these questions addressed to us. We must reexamine what it means to love right now as those who followed Jesus into Jerusalem. We must reexamine what it looks like to love God and to love others right now. Because it might just look like slipping two tiny, nearly weightless coins unnoticed into a treasury. Shema O Israel!


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] France Mark 489. “In this context the effect is to offer the crowd a choice as to the sort of leader they will follow, and Jesus pulls no punches in exposing the shortcomings of scribes in general. How far this constitutes a valid and ‘objective’ assessment of first-century scribes may be debated; certainly 12:28-34 with Jesus’ recognition of some tenets of scribal teaching (9:11-13; 12:35) points in another direction. But this is polemics in the context of a highly charged and potentially fatal confrontation, and a suitably broad brush is applied.”

[3] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 490. “θέλω, often a rather colourless word, here has a strong meaning (BAGD, 355b, 4.a, ‘take pleasure in’): these are the ambitions of the scribes.”

[4] France Mark 490 “A στολή is not an everyday garment, but a festive or celebratory robe (cf. Lk. 15:22; Rev. 6:11; 7:9) and suggests ‘dressing up’.”

[5] France Mark 490. “Deferential ἀσπασμοί are a mark of social standing (Mt. 23:7-12 expands the point).”

[6] France Mark 490-491.”For the social significance of the front seats in the synagogue (i.e., those in front of the ark, facing the congregation) cf. the comments of Jas. 2:2-4 concerning the Christian συναγωγῆ, and for the best couch at a dinner cf. Lk. 14:7- 10; see Josephus, Ant, 15.21 for flattery by means of the best seats and greetings. Cf. Jn. 13:1-17 for a graphic repudiation of a similar preoccupation with status and reputation among Jesus’ own disciples.”

[7] France Mark 491. “The vulnerability of widows is a recurrent theme in biblical literature, so that to defraud them is particularly despicable.”

[8] France Mark 492. “Similarly, while κρίμα sometimes means the act of judging, its normal meaning of ‘condemnation’, ‘punishment’ is demanded by the context here. The reference cannot be to an earthly or human judgment (which would hardly take cognizance of ostentation as a punishable offence), but must be to God’s eschatological judgment, of which Jesus has spoken so vividly in 9:42-48.”

[9] France Mark 492. γαζοφθλάκιον “Its reference here to the collecting chests in the Court of the Women is demanded by the context, which has an ὄχλος including a woman, ‘throwing in’ donations.”

[10] France Mark 489. “The scene is in the Court of the Women, so-called not because it was specifically for women but because it was the nearest point to the temple building proper which was open to women. Here stood a range of thirteen ‘trumpet chests’ (m. Seq. 2:1; 6:5; so-called presumably from their shape) designed to receive monetary offerings, including not only the half-shekel temple tax but also ‘freewill offerings’. The half-shekel was obligatory for men, but any contribution to the other chests was voluntary, and would be noticed by anyone who, like Jesus and his disciples, was watching…Perhaps it was a recognized tourist attraction.”

[11] France Mark 492. “χαλκός is strictly ‘copper’ or ‘bronze’, and the widow’s two coins would be of copper. But the large sums donated by the rich would presumably in silver or gold coins (as were the half-shekels for the temple tax, which had the sense of ‘money’.”

[12] France Mark 493. “All contributions were therefore for the work of the temple; charitable donations for the poor were made separately.”

[13] France Mark 493. “There is no reason to think that she was the only such person present, but Jesus singles her out as an object lesson. The λεπτόν (Hebrew peruta) was the smallest denomination of currency in use, a copper coin less than a centimetre in diameter and worth less than one hundredth of a denarius (which was itself half the value of the half-shekel temple tax). Mark identifies its value by reference to the Roman κοδρἀντης; (a transliteration of quadrans, which was the smallest Roman coin, a quarter of an as).”

[14] France Mark 493. “The point is laboured in the wording of v. 44: her ὑστέρησις (destitution) is compared with their περίσσευον, the spare change which will never be missed…she has given πάντα ὅσα εἶχεν (cf. the example of the disciples, 10:28, and the failure of the rich man to do likewise, 10:21); it is ὅλος ὁ βίος αὐτῆς, and yet she voluntarily gave both coins, rather than just one! While Jesus was not averse to exaggeration to make a point, it is quite possible that in first-century Palestine the donation of two perutot would have left a poor widow without the means for her next meal (cf. the widow of Zarephath, 1 Ki. 17:12).”

[15] Working from the literal translation of: ὅλος ὁ βίος αὐτῆς. ὅλος (whole, complete, entire) is also the word used in the conversation between Jesus and the scribe about the foremost commandment in Mark 12:28-34. I’m working with the idea that this story follows to exemplify what it looks like to love God with the entirety of one’s self and love your neighbor as yourself.

[16] France Mark 489-490. “Jesus’ comment on the widow’s offering is not an attack on wealth or the wealthy as such, but rather on the scale of values which takes more account of the amount of a gift than of the dedication of the giver. It develops further the new perspective of the kingdom of God which Jesus has been so assiduously teaching his disciples on the way to Jerusalem…But this private teaching agrees closely with the tenor of his public rebuke of the scribes, whose desire for public honour typifies the superficial values of conventional society.”

The Second is This

Sermon on Mark 12:28-34

Psalm 146:1 Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.

Introduction

What is love? I’ve spoken on it, taught on it, read about it, and preached on it, and all I can say is…I don’t know. It’s absolutely sublime, paradoxical, inexplicable, unfathomable, and, apparently, eternal—it’s never out of fashion. I know in our English vernacular we have one word to describe love: love. That’s it. When I think of love I like to think in the Greek forms and words for love: ἔρος, φίλος, and ἀγάπη. It’s nice having three terms to define three (generally) different ways to define love.

The first, ἔρος, often gets a bad rap being equated to lust and negligent desire, but it’s merely the type of love that is akin to bringing into oneself; in other words, this is the type of love that generates a sense of pleasure in your own body. The second, φίλος, is love that exists between equals, often used of friends. The third, ἀγάπη, is the touted love of loves, the divine love. This love is best defined as the love sourced from within ourselves and moves outward toward the object of love who/which becomes the beloved. I promise, I won’t break out into a treatise on love…just yet. Suffice it to say, I don’t like creating a hierarchy between these various conceptions of love. I prefer to let them exist where they need to, often letting them intermingle and twist, giving different flavors at different times.

But still they are different in that they have different actions related to them.

I love my kids. A lot. Like: mama-bear love them, lift cars-ablaze to protect them, scare off threatening mountain lions type of love. You know, though, I also love jellybeans. A lot. Like a lot a lot. Jellybeans are the one candy that will stop me in my tracks and cause me to grab a few for my travels. But there’s a difference in the type of love I have for my kids and for jellybeans. If I threw myself on a pile of jellybeans to protect it from oncoming traffic, you would have every right to drag me off and bring me to the nearest hospital and (especially) therapist. It’s okay for me to enjoy eating jellybeans and it’s okay for me to desire to risk my life for the lives of my children because the loves speak in specific actions. Jellybeans bring me a certain amount of pleasure as I take them into my body; this is ἔρος. My kids draw out of me an action of love that is oriented toward them manifesting as nurture, comfort, and protection (to name a few); this is ἀγάπη. Love spoken of and not articulated in action, deserves to be questioned if it is love. If I said I loved my kids or jellybeans, but never once acted in a way that communicated that love, you would be right to be circumspect about my supposed claims of love; this is because love’s language is always action.

Mark 12:28-34

And the scribe said to him, “Rightly, teacher, you said truly that ‘[God] is one and there is not another except [God]. And ‘to love [God] from the whole heart and from the whole understanding and from the whole strength’ and ‘to love the neighbor as oneself’ this is the greatest of all of the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And then Jesus having seen him that he answered wisely said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (translation, mine)

Mark 12:32-34b

The Lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer asks us to jump from the end of chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel to chapter 12. What’s jumped over is Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, the cursing of the fig tree, the cleansing of the temple, and a visit to the temple where Jesus’s authority is questioned by the chief priests and scribes and elders. Chapter 12 opens with Jesus telling the religious authorities of Israel—the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders—a parable. Following this, the Pharisees and then the Sadducees embark on a quest to trip-up Jesus with tricky questions. However, Mark’s Jesus is presented as triumphant[1] in this portion of his journey to the cross. So triumphant that a certain intrigued and sympathetic Scribe[2] comes near to overhear Jesus’s answers to various authorities testing him. Mark tells us that the Scribe thought Jesus answered the questions well—not merely cleverly but that he answered rightly—and is encouraged to ask Jesus his own question.[3]

And he does. His is not a trick question aimed to cause Jesus to stumble; but it does have a litmus-test type feel to it. “Of what sort is the most important commandment of all?” It’s kind of tricky because, according to the Scribes own reckoning as a scribe, there are 613 mitzvot/commands in the Pentateuch (the first five books of Moses) varying in type: heavy/light, more essential/less essential, etc.[4] So, how does Jesus reply? Which one does he choose? None. Rather he summarizes the entire law while ranking two concepts as above the rest[5]: The first is Shema O Israel, Love God with your whole being and presence; and the second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. It is neither this summary that is surprising nor is it the idea of the love of God and love of neighbor.[6] The surprising part is Jesus ties together—in an indissoluble divine union—Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19.[7]

Jesus takes the heart of Jewish Liturgy—the Shema[8]—and the command to love the neighbor from the book of Leviticus—the book of laws, burnt offerings, and sacrifices—and uses them to summarize the decalogue in terms of ἀγάπη: love God and love the neighbor.[9] Essentially, Jesus is saying this: the love of God is the basis for the love of neighbor;[10] you can’t have one and not the other, they are profoundly linked and are more important than any offering, sacrifice, or ritual deed. The love of God will grow itself into a profoundly personal love of neighbor. For Jesus, this is the logical trajectory of the love of God: love your neighbor as yourself. The love of God breeding love of neighbor will, if we keep following Jesus in this narrative, define itself quite radically in word, and, more importantly, in deed. Because love’s language is always action.

Conclusion

As 1 John 4:19ff asks, if we say we love God and do not love our neighbor, can we actually say we love God? If God loves the cosmos and all the flora, fauna, and humanity with it, and you love this God, then isn’t it loving God to love that which and whom this God loves? According to the relationship of loving God and loving neighbor Jesus establishes—not only in his statement to the Scribe but primarily in his actions toward and for humanity—to love God is to love the neighbor; the love of neighbor is the manifestation of the love of God. It’s not that you love God in your own piety and spirituality and reverence toward God (full stop). This is nice, but it’s not the full story—it’s secondary. Rather, it is this (active) love of God resulting in caring for, defending, providing for, nurturing, comforting, loving your neighbor.

And don’t we all need love? Real, tangible, material love? How else does God’s love get communicated to other bodies and minds and spirits if not by those who have been loved by God and who love God? We are currently consumed with an isolated and further isolating world; people seem to be drifting further and further away from each other. Lines are being irreconcilably drawn in the sand, turning into fissures in the ground and gaping expanses separating people one from another. But it doesn’t have to be like this; we can reach for each other rather than leave; we can love each other rather than turn a blind eye.

To love God and not the neighbor is akin to loving God for one’s own pleasure (ἔρος); no different than loving a pile of jellybeans because they give one pleasure. In other words, it is not truly loving God; it might be nice, and it might be acceptable, but, according to Jesus in Mark 12, it is not the full extent of what it means to love God. Rather, we are to love God in a way that mirrors the self-sourced and self-giving love (ἀγάπη) of God for us manifest in the activity of Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and driven home by God the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, causing us to love as we have been loved in word and deed. Because love’s language is always action.


[1] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 476. “Mark’s way of narrating this episode suggests that in the contest which has been taking place since 11:27 it is Jesus who is now emerging as the clear winner. He will then follow up his advantage with some caustic comments on the scribes (who have been part of the group opposing him since his arrival in Jerusalem) and on other influential people in the temple.”

[2] France Mark 478. “…Jesus, the teacher in the temple, is the fixed point while others come and go. But whereas other questions have been posed by groups, giving the impression of official delegations, this comes from an individual, and it soon becomes clear that his attitude is not that of the majority of the γραμματεῖς; He comes already favourably disposed towards Jesus, and leaves even more so. Such an open-minded enquirer prefigures the minority support which Jesus and his followers will find even in the Sanhedrin…His favourable impression derives from listening to the previous dialogues.”

[3] France Mark 479. “καλῶς in this context means not just ‘cleverly’ (so as to escape the intended trap or even to win the argument), but that Jesus’ answers have been good, wholesome, satisfying, leading the scribe to hope for an equally enlightening (not just clever) answer to his own more fundamental question…”

[4] France Mark 477. “Given that there are, according to scribal reckoning, 613 separate commandments in the five Books of Moses…the question of priority could not be avoided. The rabbis discussed which commandments were ‘heavy’ and which ‘light’, and sometimes ranked certain categories of law as more essential than others.”

[5] France Mark 478. “Jesus is asked which commandment is πρώτη, and he responds by listing the two love commandments as πρώτη and δευτέρα, but then goes on to speak of these two commandments as ‘greater’ than all others (cf. Mt. 22:38, where πρώτη is apparently equated with μεγάλη). His questioner, in agreeing with him, declares such love to be περισσότερον than the ritual commandments of sacrifice. This evaluative language is not typical of the rabbis, who spoke of ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ commandments, but on the understanding that all are equally valid and who, while they might look for summarizing principles, do not seem to have ranked individual commandments as ‘first’ or ‘more important’. The difference may not have seemed great at the time, but the sort of language Mark uses here lends itself to later Christian discrimination between elements in the law, particularly with regard to the continuance of animal sacrifice. The scribe’s ‘demotion’ of the sacrificial laws below the obligation to love, and Jesus’ warm reception of this view as indicating closeness to the kingdom of God, could not but hasten the Christian abandonment of the ritual elements of the Torah.”

[6] France Mark 477. “There was a natural desire for a convenient summary of the law’s requirements, a single principle from which all the rest of the Torah was derived (the rabbis used the term kelal for such a summarizing principle).”

[7] France Mark 477-478. “So, while these sources vary in date and do not all represent Palestinian thought, it seems likely that the gist of Jesus’ response to the question would have caused no surprise. But for his explicit linking together of these two very familiar OT texts we have no Jewish precedent.”

[8] France Mark 479. “…not only makes the text more instantly recognizable as the opening part of the Shema but also grounds the ‘first commandment’ in the essential tenet of Jewish belief, monotheism, and so establishes Jesus’ theological orthodoxy.”

[9] France Mark 480. “Jesus was asked for one ‘first commandment’, but responds with two, which together hold the preeminent position. The two are linked both by the key verb ἀγαπήσεις and by the fact that they represent respectively the first and second parts of the decalogue.”

[10] France Mark 480. “…but here, where what is requested is a general statement of priorities, both ‘tables’ are represented, and with a clear priority between them, πρώτη and δευτέρα: love of other people finds its true place only on the basis of a prior love of God.”

Of the Land

Meditation

Psalm 22:2-3 O my God, I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer; by night as well, but I find no rest. Yet you are the Holy One, enthroned upon the praises of Israel.

We have a problem. A big one. One so big that some think that we are about to run out of time to do anything about it. I’m not yet hopeless, emphasis on yet. Some days are better than others; half of the days leave me feeling emotionally and spiritually catatonic. I can barely utter the question that streams from mind to tongue: what in the world are we doing? Have we become so consumed with consumption that we will consume the ground from under our feet? Would we really rather self-destruct than self-reflect?

Our relationship with the land is in dire-straights, and it has been for a while, like centuries. A long time ago we lost the idea that from the earth we were pulled and formed and into that dust begotten form God breathed life. Over the course of time, we lost sight of our forever and necessary dependence on the land, not just in what it can offer up to us, but that it must be here for us to be here. Long ago, we let something else lure us into reconceiving the centrality of our existence in opposition to the world. Humanity against the land; when the land resists, you fight back bigger and harder and win.

“cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.”

Genesis 3:17-19

From my perspective, it’s as if we’ve let our interpretation of Genesis 3:17-19 and its tendency toward the concept of domination triumph over the concept of dominion in Genesis 1.  

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Genesis 1:26-28

We’ve become convinced we are a gift to land as if without our direction it would be lost, that it must be tamed and controlled (this is domination). We’ve forgotten that we came from the land and that this land is a gift to us which we are asked to care for and exhorted to make sure it thrives (this is dominion having).[1] We’ve become convinced we were the point of creation, that the entire story is about us that we are center stage; we’ve forgotten that there’s another character on this stage of life, our partner, the earth.

“In the day that the LordGod made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground—then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”

Genesis 2: 4b-9

I think one issue causing our malnourished view about connection to the soil is particularly unique to Christianity. We create a hierarchy between the event of the Cross and the event of Creation—making the cross the greater divine event over the event of creation. However, the two are profoundly linked. Yes, there is a great distance between the mythology of Genesis 1 and 2 about the creation of humanity out of the dirt and the Easter stories embedded in the Gospel narratives of Jesus. In the end, though, both events of Creation and Resurrection (Recreation)–the forming of humanity from the soil and the calling forth of Jesus from the deep pit—are the same event. And as we Christians claim we are dependent on God for our recreation, so should we see we are dependent on God for creation, too. Just as we cannot call ourselves out from the dead, we cannot call forth our own existence. We are all dependent on others, on the land, and on God. Thinking that we are the authors of our own existences has led us to the domination of the land and away from dominion.

Another aspect is that we’ve lost the mystery of story. We’ve become so practical, and sensible, scientific and intellectual we’ve “outgrown” stories and myths. We’ve let that spatial distance between Genesis and the Gospels maneuver its way into our minds and hearts. Where are our stories? Where are our story-tellers? While, yes, we can affirm that the stories written down centuries ago about God forming the earth in a specific pattern and in a set time are not scientific accounts of the creation of the cosmos, but does that also mean we must throw them out? Do they not still hint at a truth albeit abstract and written in archaic characters and from a different era? Must STEM triumph over the Humanities and the Arts? Is what is actual better than what is possible? If so, then what do we do with hope, with love, with the divine movement of the Holy Spirit, or those goose bumps you feel when struck with otherly inspiration?

Taking both issues together—the primacy of Crucifixion over Creation and our loss of story and mystery—we have lost ourselves in ourselves and our accomplishments and have given ourselves over to domination while forsaking dominion, thus a fundamental aspect of our humanity is lost. We’ve also participated in trying to strip other people of their land and their stories, too; denying humanity to others. This is the way of domination: it knows only destruction and death. Rather let us be exhorted in and through our manifold and brilliant stories to be called back to dominion having. Let us feel the soil upon our fingertips and toes and remember vividly that it is of this soil we are taken and to this soil we will return. In doing so, we will foster life: life within ourselves, life within the land, and life of others of the land.

Pokoh, The Old Man (Ute Legend)

Pokoh, Old Man, they say, created the world. Pokoh had many thoughts. He had many blankets in which he carried around gifts for men. He created every tribe out of the soil where they used to live.

That is why an Indian wants to live and die in his native place. He was made of the same soil. Pokoh did not wish men to wander and travel, but to remain in their birthplace.

Long ago Sun was a man, and was bad. Moon was good. Sun had a quiver full of arrows, and they are deadly. Sun wishes to kill all things.

Sun has two daughters (Venus and Mercury) and twenty men kill them; but after fifty days they return to life again.

Rainbow is the sister of Pokoh, and her breast is covered with flowers.

Lightening strikes the ground and fills the flint with fire. That is the origin of fire. Some say the beaver brought fire from the east, hauling it on his broad, flat tail. That is why the beaver’s tail has no hair on it, even to this day. It was burned off.

There are many worlds. Some have passed and some are still to come. In one world the Indians all creep; in another they all walk; in another they all fly. Perhaps in a world to come, Indians may walk on four legs; or they may crawl like snakes; or they may swim in the water like fish.[2]


[1] “So here, the creation of humanity in God’s image and likeness carries with it a commission to rule over the animal kingdom…some have seen in that commission a license for ecological irresponsibility. The fact is, however, that the Tanakh presents humanity not as the owner of nature but as its steward, strictly accountable to its true Owner…” Jon D. Levenson Jewish Study Bible Tanakh Translation Oxford: JPS, 2004.

[2] https://www.firstpeople.us/FP-Html-Legends/PokohtheOldMan-Ute.html. And http://snowwowl.com/legends/ute/ute001.html

For Ones Such as These

Psalm 26:6-8 I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord, that I may go in procession round your altar, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving and recounting all your wonderful deeds. Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides. (46)

Introduction

I was asked before my ordination if I would lie prostrate or kneel, I said, “I’ll lie prostrate.” When the time came, I didn’t. Rather, I knelt, reached behind my head, unclipped my hair, and, with my hair down and around my shoulders, I bowed down my forehead to the ground with arms encircling.

Why did I do that? There’s a passage of scripture that is important to me and formative of my journey with Christ: the sinful woman forgiven and the anointing of Jesus with oil. In the accounts of this encounter, Jesus is anointed by a woman who recognizes that he is here to forgive sins. While all the elite and powerful judge him and challenge him; this woman gets it and she, in her sinfulness, goes to Jesus to thank him, to show love and gratitude to the one who will stand in solidarity with her when no one else will. The sinful woman cast out, discarded by whomever and society, was received and accepted by Christ. And this is what Christ did: went to the fringe and gathered up all the discarded humans and restored them, calling them to him and thus back into community with God.

It was into this divine activity of seeking the discarded I knew I was being ordained. I never wanted to forget the people—desperate to hear the love and solidarity of God for and with them. So, I pulled the story into my ordination to remember once and always: I was called from the people for the people; that I am as the people to serve the people.

Before I sound too anthropocentric, this call isn’t merely to people, but also to creation. While I love you with my whole heart, I love animalkind with that same love. I feel the pain in my heart when people and animals hurt; righteous indignation surges in my mind when humans and creation are discarded by other people and society, treated as if they serve and profit us with no livelihood or worth of their own.

This isn’t my doing; this is because God cares a lot about people and animals who are discarded and tossed to the side as if they don’t matter. Being grafted into God’s mission of love in the cosmos means I will give a big damn about how it’s treated.

Mark 10:2-16

And then the Pharisees were interrogating him—in order to test him—whether it is lawful for a husband to be rid of the wife. Now he answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?” And they said, “Moses permitted [us] to write a paper of bill of forsaking/divorce and be rid of [the wife]. And then Jesus said to them, “He wrote this commandment to you because of your hardness of heart.”[1]

Mark 10:2-5

You may wonder why a passage of scripture about “divorce” is in a sermon about how humans and animals are discarded. But bear with me as I attempt to follow our lectionary and our feast day of St. Francis with some lexical creativity.

Jesus is approached by some Pharisees and asked about “divorce”—how many translations translate the Greek word in the text, ἀπολῦσαι.[2] The Pharisees are like the law-and-order guys—being considered the strictest observers of the law.[3] There’s nothing wrong with law and there’s nothing wrong with order; but when both become idols rendering humans subordinate to them, they become problematic. For the Pharisees, obedience to the law was utmost because according to their interpretation of the priesthood of all people, the demand to obey the law and be a holy nation—the bringing of heaven to earth[4]—wasn’t merely on the shoulders of the elders but on all people. The Pharisees were also considered to be the most creative with generating laws flexible to the times—all of it, though, revolved around law and law keeping, the merger of heaven and earth, and the coming of the Messiah.

So, having a law about the permissibility of “divorcing” one’s wife, isn’t far fetched and is based (loosely) on some of the text held in esteem by the Rabbis received from Moses. When you esteem law and the obedience to law, then when something isn’t working, you can justify it by making a law for it. Thus, “divorcing” the wife wasn’t even questioned; it was completely acceptable and understandable, and justifiable for any reason:[5] a “spoiled meal”, “whatever reason”, maybe you just found one “fairer”, or because she wouldn’t “accept your control”. For any of these and other reasons a husband: could “divorce her and send her away” (emphasis, mine).

The last part of that statement, “…and send her away”, catches my eye. That’s the part conditioning the thrust of the definition of the Greek word ἀπολῦσαι translated as “divorce” in the text. ἀπολύω carries with it the senses: to be freed from, to free, to release, to send away, to be rid of, to release, to discharge, to disband. ἀπολύω is where we get the idea of to ransom and to redeem. In a positive sense, we can be redeemed from a debt owed and released into liberty. But in the negative, it can be seen as one person being freed from the burden of another; or as being rid of a wife and releasing her to her own tries at survival, which would be devastating. To be freed from the wife by divorcing her is to discard her and for whatever reason you want. She is now an impure woman with potentially no where to go and without livelihood; you may have just thrown her to violent and marauding pack of men clamoring for your life as if her life matters less than your own (ref. Judges 19).

It makes sense that Jesus replies to the Pharisees with the accusation that this law permitting “divorce” is because of the hardness of their heart. To treat another human being (one’s own partner) in such a way as to discard them as if they were nothing but garbage because they ceased to be pretty or accidentally made a bad meal, is hardness of heart toward God.[6] To have a hard heart toward God is synonymous, for Mark’s Jesus, with discarding divine image bearing human beings.

Conclusion

Later in the conversation, Jesus’s disciples are busy rebuking people for bringing little children to Jesus (Mk 10:13). Rebuking. Why? Because children weren’t considered worthy of such a presence; they were sort-of human but not worthy like adults, specifically male adults. Like women, children were lower class human beings and worthy of being discarded just ‘cuz.

And then seeing [this] Jesus was incensed/grieved/indignant and said to them, “You permit(!) the little children to come toward me, do not prevent/hinder them(!), for the kingdom of God is of ones such as these!”

Mark 10: 14-15

Jesus doesn’t take kindly to getting in the way of people trying to come to him. Jesus doesn’t relish treating other human beings like they aren’t worthy in their own bodies to be near him, like they are discardable, mere trash ready to be taken out. He grew indignant because God cares a great deal about human beings. The kingdom of God is for ones such as these; the kingdom of God—brought in Christ—dwells with and among ones such as these.

And not just humankind, but all of God’s creation, from the smallest most miniscule mite crawling upon the ground to the biggest and noblest beasts of the deepest part of the sea; from the smallest grain of sand to the largest and most magnificent mountain. Considering this, can we participate in any system or network or ideology that promotes or encourages the discarding of any part of the creation for our personal gain? No. Being indwelt with the same divine Spirit of God—with which Christ grew indignant—we cannot. We are grafted—by faith and the Holy Spirit—into the great divine mission of love loving the cosmos. Thus, this same spirit will move us to care deeply about others and all creation.

It will lead us to take our place with and among all creation, to echo the words of St. Francis[7]:

Praise be to Thee, my Lord, with all Thy creatures,
Especially to my worshipful brother sun,
The[e] which lights up the day, and through him dost Thou brightness give;
And beautiful is he and radiant with splendor great;
Of Thee, most High, signification gives.
Praised be my Lord, for sister moon and for the stars,
In heaven Thou hast formed them clear and precious and fair.
Praised be my Lord for brother wind
And for the air and clouds and fair and every kind of weather,
By the[e] which Thou givest to Thy creatures nourishment.
Praised be my Lord for sister water,
The[e] which is greatly helpful and humble and precious and pure.
Praised be my Lord for brother fire,
By the[e] which Thou lightest up the dark.
And fair is he and gay and mighty and strong.
Praised be my Lord for our sister, mother earth,
The[e] which sustains and keeps us
And brings forth diverse fruits with grass and flowers bright.
Praised be my Lord for those who for Thy love forgive
And weakness bear and tribulation.
Blessed those who shall in peace endure,
For by Thee, most High, shall they be crowned.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2]  1pp: ἀπολύω. In our text the verb is an aorist active infinitive.

[3] Josepheus. The Antiquities of the Jews pp. 13.5.9

[4] See: Jacob Neusner Invitation to the Talmud: A Teaching Book, 1998.

[5] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 387-8 “While the permitted grounds of divorce were debated in the rabbinic world, the admissibility of divorce (of a wife by her husband, not vice versa: Josephus, Ant. 15.259) as such was not questioned: Dt. 24:1-4 (the only legislation relating specifically to divorce in the Torah) was understood to have settled the issue. The more restrictive interpretation of the school of Shammai (only on the basis of ‘unchastity’, m. Git. 9:10) was almost certainly a minority view. More typical, probably, is Ben Sira 25:26: ‘If she does not accept your control, divorce her and send her away’, or Josephus’s laconic comment (Life 426): ‘At this time I divorced my wife, not liking her behaviour.’ Josephus paraphrases Dt. 24:1, ‘He who wants to be divorced from the wife who shares his home for whatever cause—and among people many such may arise—…(Ant. 4.253), and the school of Hillel allowed this to cover a spoiled meal, or even, so R. Akiba, ‘if he found another fairer than she’ (m. Git. 9:10).”

[6] France Mark 391 “σκληροκαρδία though not in itself frequent in the LXX (Dt. 10:16; Je. 4:4; Ben Sira 16:10; cf. Pr. 17:20; Ezk. 3:7), picks up a frequent OT accusation, mentioning a ‘stiff neck’, that the people of God are hardened against him impervious to his demands. (A similar accusation is expressed in different in 4:12, drawing on Is. 6:9-10; cf. the καρδία πεπωρωμέν of 8:17.) Such language (and σκληροκαρδία in particular) is used primarily of people’s attitude towards God rather than of the way they treat each other. It thus refers here not to men’s cruelty towards their wives, but to their rebellion against God’s will for them. It is such σκληροκαρδία which has led them into divorce in the first place, and made it necessary for Moses to legislate for a situation which was never envisaged in the divine purpose.”

[7] The Writings of Saint Francis of Assisi, newly translated into English with an Introduction and Notes by Father Paschal Robinson (Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press, 1906). https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/assisi-the-writings-of-saint-francis-of-assisi#StFrancis_0535_321

Hands in Solidarity

Sermon on Mark 9:38-50

Psalm 124:6-7 6 Blessed be the Lord! [The Lord] has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth. We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowler; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the Name of the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.

Introduction

In an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, a 20-year-old man comes to the ER because he’s attempted to cut off his right hand due to “sin”. Per the directives of Jesus, he explains to the doctor, this besetting sin (revolving around self-pleasure) involved his hand, and since it was a stumbling block, he tried to cut it off. A literalist, this young man took Jesus’s words as they were: the word of God as command to be obeyed. The doctor assisting him, April, tries to convince him not to take the text that literally. The young man replies in such a way to indicate that the word of God is true or it isn’t and then if it isn’t true, then he’s wasted his entire life following Jesus and believing in him and God. Then I scream into my pillow: context is king!

Just like doctors who cannot watch doctor shows, I cannot handle watching media portray religion in general and Christianity in specific.  While I think the episode did a decent job presenting space to the viewers to ask more profound questions about faith and belief, sacred text and sacred dogma, it still rendered the image of Christianity and Christians with it in simplistic and literal terms, leaving behind the profoundly rich potential for nuance and creativity.

The binary that something is true (read: factual) or it isn’t (read: hard lie), isn’t a binary that exists. Something can be true and not factual or real; something can be factual and built of lies. There’s variation between two polarized things; there is a shade of gray that is so dark that it looks like it’s the shade black, but it’s not. It’s very very very very very very very dark gray. And so, we must be willing, especially as those encountered with God in the event of faith, to investigate doctrines and dogmas and ask many, many questions and bend toward creativity. We are humans, given rich inquisitive and creative minds; not robots prewired and coded to obey without thought and question.

So, in that spirit, we must ask: what does Jesus mean when he commands the disciples to cut off the appendage that is causing spiritual stumbling? Let’s look.

Mark 9:38-50

And whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it is better for them if a donkey’s millstone lies around upon their neck and be thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is good for you to enter life without a hand than arrive in the unquenchable fire of Gehenna having two hands. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is good for you to enter life maimed than to be thrown into Gehenna having two feet. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out; it is good for you to enter the kingdom of God one-eyed than be cast into Gehenna having two eyes.[1]

Mark 9:42-48

Mark continues the conversation between Jesus and his disciples picking up with John ratting out a stranger for doing an exorcism in the name of Christ and telling Jesus they tried to stop him but failed.[2] The cliquishness[3] and exclusivity[4] of the disciples are exposed in this moment of “impulsive hostility” toward an outsider who was unknown to them.[5] Jesus responds quickly to disarm and defang such cliquishness and excluding behavior by correlating the powerful deed done in Jesus’s name with a future inability to speak ill of Jesus. According to Mark’s Jesus, this outsider is an insider and on the right side by virtue of their activity done in the name of Christ.[6] So, why get in their way? Why intentionally try to cause them to stumble in their activity?

Jesus then mentions that if anyone were to give you even the most simple and basic thing (a cup of water, which, in that context, was a common and expected thing to do[7]), specifically because you bear the name of Christ, then there is reward that won’t be lost. With the anyone,Jesus does what the disciples can’t do: extend the boundaries of the group from a circle of twelve to a potentially ever-expanding quantity of people. Where the disciples want to limit the group to exclusive membership that looks a particular way (this person wasn’t following US), Jesus, like Jesus does, tears down the wall. Even that small act of a fellow journeyer[8] to one of those of Christ is seen and acknowledged; to see Christ in another person and act on it for their livelihood (even if basic) is to be on the right side.[9] The disciples see themselves as part of a sect, but Jesus has called them to be a church.[10]

He then moves straight into the declaration that it would be better to have a millstone put around one’s neck and thrown into the sea than to cause “one of these little ones” to stumble. As if in juxtaposition to the simple and common act of giving water to even one such as these, Jesus makes another very similar statement, but this time in the negative. To give water to one of these who bear the name of Christ is worthy of reward; but to make one stumble is worse than being thrown into the sea with a millstone around one’s neck. A quick death is better than the actual punishment deserved for causing one of those who believe in Jesus to stumble; the actual punishment, Jesus mentions, is eternal torment (vv. 43, 45, 47).[11] Jesus continues to speak of hands, feet, and eyes that cause you to stumble. It’s better, he says (rhetorically, according to the structure of the Greek text), to cut them off or pluck them out than to keep all of your appendages and organs and be thrown into the eternal torment of the unquenchable fire of Gehenna.

Conclusion

There’s nothing in this passage about sex or personalized sin habits; it’s about solidarity.

All of this is part of a larger context–beginning last week—and makes sense in conjunction with the wider context of the discussion between Jesus and his disciples. An indicator is the “little ones” (μικροί), which correlates these statements back to the conversation about “who is the greatest…” Jesus is building from that discussion by calling all followers “little ones”. And Jesus care a lot about the μικροί who are the children of God. Whoever receives one such as this child/little one in my name… Anyone who does anything life-giving to another child of God for the name of Christ, is one with God. In this way, the first is last, and servant of all. In this way, to be greatest is to be smallest, humbly following Christ and walking with other fellow journeyers on the way; not tripping up others or tripping up yourselves—no matter how long we’ve been walking, we are all able to be tripped up and to trip up.

In order to walk this way, Jesus is exhorting the disciples not only to think bigger about what parameters form the group, they must also re-evaluate what it means to follow Jesus as a disciple.[12] It necessitates continual self-examination and openness;[13] taking seriously life-giving and not death-dealing. Thus, those who follow Christ must not be stumbling blocks to other people or stumbling blocks to ourselves. It’s such a serious thing that Jesus attaches hellfire and quick death to it. Intentionally getting in the way and being a stumbling block to oneself[14] and others is a capital offense for Jesus.[15] We are to be in solidarity with other children of God, which and in light of God so loving the entire cosmos, puts us in solidarity with all other people, especially those who are suffering from oppression and marginalization and with whom Jesus stood in solidarity with.

The Rev. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz brilliantly defines Christian solidarity,

The preferential option at the heart of solidarity is based on the fact that the point of view of the oppressed, ‘pierced by suffering and attracted by hope, allows them, in their struggles, to conceive another reality…’…The preferential option for the poor and the oppressed makes it possible for the oppressors to overcome alienation, because to be oppressive limits love, and love cannot exist in the midst of alienation. Oppression and poverty must be overcome because they are a ‘slap in the face of God’s sovereignty’ The alienation they cause is a denial of God. Guitierrez refers to the profoundly biblical insight of a Bolivian campensino: ‘an atheist is someone who fails to practice justice toward the poor.’[16]

Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology 91

Jan made brilliant reference last week to us being the hands and feet of Christ in the world, loving others actively in deed and word. And I can’t help but see her imagery here in this text. If we are to be the hands and feet and eyes of Christ in the world, shouldn’t we take all pains to ruthlessly examine ourselves and our bodily presence in the world and how we are or are not in solidarity with others? For it is better to suffer the pain of awareness and confession, then to go about life oblivious to how I’m hurting others and delighting in my own comfort.

To be the church in Christ’s name, we must extend our definition of beloved children of God to embrace all those who bear the mark of divine love. For we are called to love as we have been loved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] See fn4

[3] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text NIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 378, “The cliquishness which too easily affects a defined group of people with a sense of mission is among the ‘worldly’ values which must be challenged in the name of the kingdom of God.”

[4] France Mark 377 “What John is looking for is not so much personal allegiance and obedience to Jesus, but membership in the ‘authorised’ circle of his followers. We should perhaps understand ἠμεῖς here as specifically the Twelve, regarded as having an exclusive link with and commission from Jesus, so that other people’s association with him must be through their mediation. Even if such a possessive doctrine is not explicit, it fits John’s restrictive action and explains the terms of Jesus response.”

[5] RT France Mark 376 “The impulsive hostility to an outsider revealed in this incident (cf. Lk. 9:54) perhaps gives some basis for the otherwise puzzling epithet Βοανηργές (see on 3:17). If the imperfect tense of ἐκωλύομεν is correct…it probably indicates an unsuccessful attempt rather than the repeated prohibition of a persistent offender’.”

[6] France Mark 377 “First, the fact that the man is able to work a miracle in Jesus’ name shows that he cannot be an enemy…There is no suggestion that the man is personally known to Jesus; rather, he has associated himself with him by using his name, and his choice of that authority, together with the fact of his success, marks him as being on the right side. Such a person cannot in consistency go on to speak as his enemy, and so there is no justification for Jesus’ disciples to oppose him.”

[7] France Mark 378 “This phrase thus brings the series of ‘name’ formulae to a climax where the actual name is spelled out: ὃτι Χριστοῦ ἐστε. It is that name which gives this kind act its specific significance and justifies the reward. This is not mere benevolence, but the demonstration that a person is ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν by means of practical help given specifically to those who belong to Jesus.”

[8] France Mark 378-9 “The three sayings collected in vv. 39-41 thus illustrate in different ways the open boundaries of the kingdom of God, where both committed disciple and sympathetic fellow traveler find their place. The unknown exorcist represents this outer circle, and is to be welcomed as such. There are indeed opponents and ‘outsiders’, as we see repeatedly in the rest of the gospel, but disciples are called on to be cautious in drawing lines of demarcation. They are to be a church, not a sect.”

[9] France Mark 378 “The language of reward, which is so prominent in Matthew, appears explicitly only here in Mark (though see 10:28-30 for the idea). It is a paradoxical term to use in connection with a gift of water, which is so basic a feature of Eastern hospitality as to require no reward. But even so small an act betokens a person’s response to Jesus in the person of his disciples (cf. Mt. 25:31-46), and as such will not be unnoticed.”

[10] France Mark 379

[11] France Mark 380 “To be the cause of another’s spiritual shipwreck is so serious an offence that a quick drowning would be preferable to the fate it deserves; the μύλος ὀνικός the stone from a mill ground by donkey power, far heavier than that of a mill, ensures an immediate death. The stone is rather grotesquely pictured as ‘placed round’ (περίκειται) the neck like a collar, rather than hung from it (Mt. 18:6, κρεμασθῇ). καλόν ἐστιν μᾶλλον indicates a comparison: the drowning is not itself the appropriate fate of such a person…but rather serves as a foil to set off the greater severity of the actual punishment merited…What that punishment is will be indicated in the language of γέεννα and πῦρ ἄσβεστιν which dominates the following verses.”

[12] France Mark 380 “The whole little complex of sayings, like the preceding pericopes, focuses on the demands of discipleship, both negatively and positively.”

[13] France Mark 383, “Christians who disparage ‘hell-fire preaching’ must face the awkward fact that Mark’s Jesus (and still more Matthew’s and Luke’s) envisaged an ultimate separation between life and γέεννα which demanded the most drastic renunciation in order to avoid the unquenchable fire, and that he did not regard even his disciples as immune from the need to examine themselves and take appropriate action.”

[14] France Mark 382-3 “The extended warning of w. 43-48 picks up the theme of ‘tripping’ from v. 42, but the victim is not now someone else (a ‘little one’) but oneself, ‘tripped’ by one’s own hand, foot, or eye. Danger comes to the disciple not only from outside but from within. The metaphor is not explained; it is for the reader individually (the savings are expressed in the singular throughout, except for the αὐτῶν derived from the LXX in v. 48) to determine what aspect of one’s own behaviour, tastes, or interests is a potential cause of spiritual downfall, and to take action accordingly.”

[15] France Mark 381, “Disciples of any age are potentially vulnerable to such ‘tripping’. After the disciples’ abortive discussion of τίς μείζων (v. 34) it is very appropriate that μικροί be used to denote disciples in general. And it is the μικροί who matter so much to Jesus that to trip even one of them up is more than a capital offence.”

[16] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996. 91