God of the Living

Sermon on Luke 20:27-38

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

Introduction

The excitement of the holidays is upon us!

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

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

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

Luke 20:27-38

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

Luke 20:34-38

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

Back to the introduction.

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

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

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Are Good

Sermon on Luke 19:1-10

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Luke 19:1-10

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

Luke 19:8-10

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Sia “Breathe Me”

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 221-222. “Tax collectors in general were despised as collaborators with the Roman regime, as exploiters of the powerless, and as often contaminated by ritual uncleanness. Major tax collectors had others performing the same duties under them. That Zacchaeus was rich implies that he was not just one of many tax collectors, but an important one. A sinner among sinners!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[18] Sia “Breathe Me”

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

Solidarity in the Margins

Sermon on Luke 18:9-14

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Luke 18:9-14

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

Luke 18:9, 13-14

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“‘I think so,’ replied my owner.

“‘I wish you luck with him.’

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

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

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

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

“‘Is he gentle, father?’

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know Story, Know Vision

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19

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

Introduction

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

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

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

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.

Luke 17:11-19

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

Luke 17:15-19

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

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

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

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

Conclusion

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

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

Ancient One (Told by Bearwalker)[17]

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

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

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

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

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

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

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

“‘Hmmmm,’ said the Ancient One.

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

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

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember Whose You Are

Sermon on Luke 17:5-10

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Nietzsche “Parable of the Madman”

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

Luke 17:5-10

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

Luke 17:5-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Sense Interrupted

Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

Psalm 91:1-2 1[They] who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, abide under the shadow of the Almighty. [They] shall say to God, “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.”

Introduction

Here’s a friendly reminder: common sense is common. Common sense is derived from experience in the world, the perception of natural law, and the narratives and stories handed down from one generation to another. Common sense is informed by geographic location, cultural expression, moral sensitivities, and subjective experience turned localized objective fact correlated to and within the life of a group (thus, common). Common sense isn’t universal; common sense doesn’t have to be correct. It’s just common, agreed upon.

What’s common sense on the Front Range isn’t common sense here in the Western Slope. What’s common sense in America isn’t common sense in England. What’s common sense for kids, isn’t common sense for adults. And whatever is common sense for teenagers will always only be common sense to them. *chuckles

For instance, if I said, it’s common sense that every preteen girl start cotillion, you might look at me: huh? But for anyone raised in Southern Connecticut that’s very common, and many of us little girls were forced into patent leather shoes and ill-fitting dresses stumbling through waltzes against our will because it was common sense to do so. In our western context, it’s common sense to go to college right out of high school; but in other contexts around the world it might not be. If you ever want to see the limit of “common sense” read ancient medical texts and what they say about bodies presenting as female. That’s a completely what-in-the-world experience. If you’d like a disturbing way “common sense” has been employed, look no further than our history and slavery and segregation; within the world, genocides are conducted using the same metric.

These days I find myself growing weary with feeble attempts to appeal to common sense in order to stop violence in our society. I find myself asking, what if violence *is* common sense? What if oppression *is* common sense? What if working ourselves to death *is* common sense? What if our growing isolation and alienation from each other *is* common sense?

And then I find myself asking another question: what if we need uncommon sense, something from outside of us, something other, some interruption to our “common sense”?

Luke 16:19-31

Now [the rich man] said, “Therefore, I am requesting you, father, to send [Lazarus] to the house of my father, for I have five brothers, so that he may declare solemnly to them in order that they, they might not also come into the same place of torment. But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the prophets; they must listen (completely) to them.” But [the rich man] said, “By no means, father Abraham, but if one from the dead were to go to them they will change their mind.” But [Abraham] said to him, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither then will they be persuaded by one raised up out of the dead.”[1]

Luke 16:27-31

If you’re feeling targeted with Luke’s stories and Jesus’s parables articulating the demise of the rich and powerful, just remember he wrote this to the “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:3). So, imagine being that guy receiving this text.

The lectionary skips over vv. 14-18 of chapter 16. Those verses bridge how a disciple of Christ uses mammon for the glory of the kingdom of God for others and our gospel passage. That bridge is: what’s prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God (v. 15, NRSVUE). The Pharisees who’ve been listening to Jesus teachings are offended at Jesus’s parables. Why wouldn’t they be? Jesus’s parables interrupt their common sense; his words intercept their conceptions of the law, humanity, the world, blessedness, and God. Where the Pharisees saw themselves as superior, of a higher social ranking, more favored and blessed by God than the average lay person,[2] Jesus articulated a radically reversed social order in God and redefined favor and blessedness. Leaning hard into the Law and the Prophets, Jesus flips the hierarchy and declares: now! it’s right side up![3]

So, Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus, is a continuation of this theme started with the dishonest about-to-be-former house-manager. Jesus mentions two men: one rich defined by his daily habits of feasting and the wearing purple;[4] the other poor, covered in many sores (divine curse[5]), with street mongrel dogs coming to feast on him, worsening his degradation.[6] Interestingly, the rich man is deprived of a name while the poor man, covered in sores, has a name, Lazarus (“God’s Help”). In human society, the rich and powerful are known by name while the poor and powerless are deprived of names—the unclean are unknown, and unseen, even when they lie at one’s gate.[7] Here, however, Jesus inaugurates a great reversal: what is prized by humans is an abomination in the sight of God.[8]

When both men die and go to Hades (the realm of the dead for all)[9], the reversal is heightened. Lazarus, the poor man with sores is whisked away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham, while the nameless rich man—he is not evil, he is just rich[10]—is left to exist in torment (ὑπάρχων ἐν βασάνοις). As the rich man’s pain and suffering consumes him, he calls out to Abraham requesting Lazarus serve him some water and then go witness to his brothers so that they don’t end up where he is. Abraham denies both requests. The first one is denied because the distance is too great between the two men—a great space has been fixed firmly. The second request is denied because, well, it won’t make a difference if one out of the dead is raised up, they will not be persuaded.

Ugh. Neither signs nor wonders will convince these brothers—that doesn’t make sense!; they’re too consumed with and by the things of their world to change their mind (repent). Not even the dead raised again will alter their trajectory. They won’t believe because it goes against everything they hold to be true: the rich are the blessed of God; theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Both their experience and power run in opposition to the kingdom of God, clearly and boldly articulated in, to quote Abraham, Moses and the Prophets. However, if the rich man’s brothers can read the testament—the scrolls of Torah and Nevi’im—and walk away unchanged, there’s no proof on this side of earth that’ll cause them to change their mind.[11]

Because…

Get this…

Why would there be change? The rich man (himself) still doesn’t get it. In Hades, being tormented, among the dead, faced with the vision of Abraham and Lazarus resting on his bosom—literally experiencing the divine reversal—there’s no change of heart, no alteration of mind, no acknowledgement that he got it wrong (he’s still ordering Lazarus about[12] and arguing with Abraham from his assumed position of privilege[13]). If this man hasn’t experienced his wake-up call, his brothers will not do so either, no matter how big the sign and wonder.[14]

Because it’s not common sense.[15]

Conclusion

Our common sense needs to be checked. While it helps us navigate our world (to some extent), it also helps us to remain blind, deaf, and dumb to the problems of our society. Solely relying on it and never checking it, will lead us further into our captivity and complicity in social structures causing us to ignore those whom God loves, those whom God declares blessed. In fact, in coming here every Sunday our common sense is set on a definite collision course with God’s uncommon sense; here you are guaranteed to be confronted, common sense shook with the echoes of Mary’s declarations in Luke 1,[16]

“God has shown strength with his arm;
    God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 God has come to the aid of God’s child Israel,
    in remembrance of God’s mercy,
55 according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:51-55, NRSVUE

Do we believe this? If so, we must let common sense go by the wayside and dare to embrace the uncommon sense of God so articulated by Mary—where the rich and powerful are cast down and made low. Are we listening? Really listening? No longer can we declare those who have in abundance are the blessed. If we’re hearing things rightly, we have to say: blessed are you who are poor, hungry, thirsty, broken down, exhausted, oppressed, barely breathing for God is with you and will lift you up. If our eyes are opened by the proclamation of Christ, we can no longer trust in our storehouses of goods or our positions of power; we must do away with the seductiveness of a prosperity gospel.[17] For these are our creations built on shifting sands of our common sense and are antagonistic to the will of God.

What is the will of God? Jesus has shown us: to walk humbly, liberate the captives, love mercy, justice, and peace. Today and every Sunday, Beloved, we are lovingly interrupted and intercepted by profound and ancient stories declaring God’s love, not only for us but for those our society declares unlovely. From Genesis to Revelation, let us hear the stories of God’s radical break with what was and God’s ushering in of something new, something wonderful, something completely uncommon.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 193-194. “According to Luke, there is a connection between the Pharisees love of money and their ridiculing Jesus. This is a significant insight. Theological positions and religious opinions are not entirely disconnected from economic interests and agendas. The Pharisees consider themselves better than the ‘sinners and tax collectors’ in part because they think they belong to a ‘better’ social class. … The Pharisees seek to justify themselves ‘in the sight of others’ by claiming that what Jesus teaches is ridiculous. Jesus tells them that God sees things differently than do humans.”

[3] Gonzalez, Luke, 194. “Jesus’ general response to the ridicule of the Pharisees, both directly beginning in verse 15, and by means of a parable beginning in verse 19, is to insist that what he is teaching is in full agreement with the Law and the Prophets.”

[4] Gonzalez, Luke, 195. “Roman law codified who had the right to wear purple, at that time a very expensive dye. Thus the original hearers and readers of this parable would understand that the rich man was sufficiently respected to merit this particular honor, and also indirectly that he had achieved this with the approval of Roman authorities. He an important, respected person—which immediately reminds us of what Jesus has just said in verse 14, that ‘What is prized by human beings is an aberration in the sight of God.’ He is so rich that he has sumptuous feasts, not only on special occasions, but every day.”

[5] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 605 “In contrast with the wealthy man, the clothes Lazarus wore receive no mention. Instead, we are told, he is covered with sores condition that undoubtedly marked him as unclean. The term used in his description suggests that Lazarus would even have been regarded as suffering from divine punishment. In familiar to us from the common theology of Job’s friends, surely the wealthy man is blessed by God while Lazarus lives under the divine curse.”

[6] Green, Luke, 606 “Although we may be tempted to think of the dogs of Jesus’ story in sentimental terms, we should rather imagine pariahlike mongrels that roamed the outskirts of town in search of refuse. These curs have not come to ‘lick his wounds’ (as we would say), but to abuse him further and, in the story, to add one more reason for us to regard him as less than human, unclean, through-and-through an outcast.”

[7] Green, Luke, 605. “The rich man is depicted in excessive, even outrageous terms, while Lazarus is numbered among society’s ‘expendables,’ a man who had fallen prey to the ease with which, even in an advanced agrarian society, persons without secure landholdings might experience devastating downward mobility.”

[8] Gonzalez, Luke, 195. “But the parable does not give the man’s name. This is significant as one more of Luke’s many examples of the great reversal Normally, it is important people who have a name. They have recognition. They are somebody. But in the parable the rich and apparently important man has no name, and the poor and insignificant man does. From the very beginning of the parable, Jesus is illustrating what he has just said, that ‘what is prized ne sight of God.’ The very name ‘Lazarus’ means ‘God’s help’; and the parable will show that this is indeed the case.”

[9] Green, Luke, 607. “Both Lazarus and the wealthy man are apparently in Hades, though segregated (“far away from each other. Thus, while Lazarus is in a blissful state, numbered with Abraham, the wealthy ma experiences Hades as torment and agony. This portrait has many analogues in contemporary Jewish literature, where Hades is represented as the universal destiny of all humans, sometimes with the expected outcome of the final judgment already mapped through they separation of person into wicked or righteous categories.”

[10] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 422. “I: ‘Christians usually believe that the good rich man is saved and only the bad rich man is condemned. But that’s not what is said here. The rich man isn’t called evil, he’s just called rich.’”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 197-198. “Jesus is telling his hearers, who are lovers of money, that they do not need special signs or wonders to know what they are to do. They have the Law and the Prophets, which are firmer and more durable than both heaven or earth (17). He is also telling them that their love of money prevents them from truly listening to the Law and the Prophets. At the end of the parable, when the rich man wants Lazarus to be sent to warn his brothers, Abraham tells him that they already have ‘Moses and the prophets,’ and that this should be enough for them. When the man insists that they would repent and do right ‘if someone goes to them from the dead,’ Abraham replies that this is not so. If they are not willing to obey Moses and the prophets, they will still remain disobedient ‘even if someone rises from the dead.’ In other words, there is no miracle capable of leading to faith and obedience when one has vested interests and values that one places above obedience to God, such as “the love of money” of the Pharisees whom Jesus is addressing.”

[12] Gonzalez, Luke, 196. “Even after such a reversal of fortunes, the rich man considers himself more important than Lazarus, whom he wants sent, first to him, and then to his brothers.”

[13] Green, Luke, 609. “Abraham thus refuses to grant an apocalyptic revelation of the fate of the dead, insisting that the witness of Moses and the prophets should suffice. The wealthy man, accustomed to extra considerations, will not take No for answer. Continuing to speak from his supposed position of privilege, the wealthy man insists that for his family, more is needed, that a special envoy is required.”

[14] Gonzalez, Luke, 198. “The main obstacle to faith is not lack of proof is an excess of other interests and investments—of time, money, dreams, and so on.”

[15] Cardenal, Solentiname, 424. “I: ‘It seems to me that Jesus’ principal message is that the rich aren’t going to be convinced even with the Bible, not even with a dead man coming to life (and not even with Jesus’ resurrection).’”

[16] Gonzalez, Luke, 197. “Such an interpretation, while perhaps helpful, misses the point of the great reversal that is so central to the Gospel of Luke. The parable is not only about a rich man who ignored the poor, but also about the rich man ending up in poverty, and the poor man in abundance. The man who had daily feasts now goes not even have water to cool his tongue. The one whose sores had been licked by unclean dogs, and who therefore was not even worthy to be counted among the faithful children Abraham, is now in the bosom of Abraham. Once again we hear echoes of Mary’s song: ‘He has brought down the powerful from the thrones, and up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’ (1:52-35).”

[17] Gonzalez, Luke, 198. “But the truth is exactly the opposite: the rich man is accursed, and Lazarus is blessed. So much for the ‘gospel of prosperity’ that many find so attractive today! It may be as weak a reed as the rich man’s trust in his riches.”

Whom Do You Serve?

Sermon on Luke 16:1-13

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 16:1-13

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

Luke 16:10-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothee Sölle, Choosing LIfe, 97.

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[19] Sölle, Choosing Life, 7.

To Live and To Love is To Change

Sermon on Jeremiah 18:1-11

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah 18:1-11

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

(Jer. 18:1-6)

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[6] ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Gift is A Gift (Full Stop.)

Sermon on Luke 14: 1, 7-14

Psalm 81:1-3 Sing with joy to God our strength and raise a loud shout to the God of Jacob. Raise a song; sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our festal day.

Introduction

A gift is a gift. (Full Stop.) One of the hardest “learning journeys” I’ve been on is: a gift is a gift. No “ands”, “ifs”, or “buts”. A gift—to be a gift—must have no strings attached. When a gift is given, it’s only a gift if it’s completely free of any return action. The gift-giver gives and the gift-receiver receives. This includes (and is not limited) the expectation of … thank you notes.

I know, I know I’m flaunting our social customs and etiquettes—and I promise you I do write thank you notes (as often as I remember!)—but the reality is: a gift is only a gift if it is free from the giver to the receiver. Now, is it nice to receive something in return? Yes! It’s great to hear a “Thank you!” or “That made my day!” or even to receive a gift in return at a later date. But what I’m addressing here is the expectation of exchange we place on our “gifts” to each other and (even) to ourselves. Who here hasn’t said the words, when faced with an item of luxury or a restful moment or a good book or a dinner out: I’ve earned it. We can’t even give ourselves gifts without having an exchange rate attached to it. But what if you just gave yourself a much needed darned gift? Just ‘cuz.

In our society, we have a social expectation that gifts given will be met with some return: a handwritten letter of gratitude, a reciprocal gift of equal value, a return invite (etc.). While I’m aware these deeds create civility and value human efforts, they become not-gifts if there’s an expectation that such mutuality of exchange will happen.

If I give you a gift and you freely write me a note of gratitude, that’s great! ß This is not what I’m talking about. In this equation both parties are offering something to each other voluntarily (ideally).

If I give you a gift and then wait for you to write me a thank you note, stewing as time goes on because well, it’s been 5 days and there’s no acknowledgment of this wonderful thing I’ve given and then the next time I see you I’m a bit passive aggressive about everything because, well, you never said thank you and how rude and inconsiderate to treat my gift in such a way… ß this is what I’m addressing. Do you see how my gift becomes a burden? As soon as that happens, it’s no longer a gift; it’s a burden. It’s a burden to both people.

A gift to someone should participate in their liberation and not add to their captivity. A gift is a gift. (Full Stop.)

Luke 14:1, 7-14

Now he was saying to the one who has invited him, “Whenever you make a midday meal or supper, do not summon your friends, and not your brothers and not your relatives and not a wealthy neighbor, lest at any time they also may invite you in turn and it might become for you recompense. But, whenever you make a banquet, call the poor, maimed, limping, and blind. And you will be blessed because they are not able to give back as an equivalent to you. For, it will be given back to you in the resurrection of the righteous.”[1]

Luke 14:12-14

Luke tells us Jesus is at the house of a prominent pharisee, breaking bread. Luke explains they were “observing him scrupulously” (παρατηρούμενοι[2]). But, jokes on them.[3] In v. 7, Jesus is paying heed (ἐπέχων[4]) to their behavior. (Tables turned.) What was he watching? Their vying for the best seat at the table with the most honor. These people weren’t being “selfish”, per se. They were just behaving according to custom and etiquette. Seats around a table carried significance in Jesus’s honor/shame culture. (We have our own; thus, we can relate.) Where one reclined indicated honor and status: closest to the host the most honor. As seats descended down the table from the host, honor and status declined. So, invitees to banquets vied for the first spot. They had to; their livelihood depended on it.[5]

According to Luke, Jesus tells a parable explaining that it’s better to take the lowest seat so that the host would come get you and bring you the honor you are seeking. For this would be better than the other way around, right guys? It seems as if Jesus is helping the status-quo here, but wait. Or, is Jesus saying something else? Considering Jesus is God incarnate, and considering it’s a parable, there’s a bigger lesson at hand. Jesus intends to draw attention to something bigger than his culture’s honor/shame components:[6] …all who exalt themselves will be made low, and the one who makes themselves low will be exalted. Humility[7] is honorable, and not self-aggrandizement. [8] Thus, the last shall be first and the first shall be last. [9] This is the way of the Kingdom of God; this is the way of God.

Claiming honor for oneself doesn’t mean one has honor. It’s basic intellectual math, but it’s an equation we keep swearing by over and over and over. Act this way, do this, get this thing, have this attribute, etc., and you will get honor. But Jesus is turning the tables. Assume you are lower than you are and let others bring you honor; do not claim it for yourself.[10] He emphasizes this by further flipping social expectations as it pertains to one’s invite list to supper. [11] It was accepted and understood that a banquet host invited his family, friends, those of equal social standing, and maybe even that neighbor who boosts your social standings.[12] Yet, Jesus—with an eye to dismantle social and religious custom and convention—says: invite the poor, maimed, limping, and blind. In other words, invite people who mar your reputation in the community and make you religiously unclean; the “worst” of the “worst”. [13]

And why does Jesus say this? Because a gift is a gift. (Full stop.) If you invite those who are of your or greater status, then you will receive the customary return invite. You’re inviting people so that they’ll return the gesture with an invitation (in kind). This exchange of equal or (slightly) greater value bolsters your own image in society. It’s exploitation;[14] this isn’t a gift because there are strings attached (big ones!).[15] So, Jesus calls it out and commands the people (imperatives!) to break with this tradition and do what God does: give (freely!) to and dwell with the socially and religious unlovely and unclean;[16] the very people of God because God is with them.[17] In this way, Jesus says, you will be blessed[18] and righteousness will be yours[19]because you’ll be with God, and those who are with God are the blessed and the righteous ones.

Conclusion

I don’t have words big enough to describe the way God loves us, but I do have Luke’s story of a banquet comprised of all those who are cast out (religiously and socially). There, at that party, God dwells. God gives God’s self in grand and glorious ways—not in empty and self-serving ways, but ways benefiting the one who receives this divine gift of divine presence. God’s gift of God’s self in Christ Jesus liberates the person who is encountered and anchored in the liberative love of God. And all of it just cuz, just because God loves you so very, very, very much. And the most amazing part? There’re no strings attached. God doesn’t give God’s self so that you will respond; God just gives God’s self. (Full Stop.) That’s why you respond. God gives God’s self to you freely because God desires to be in solidarity with you, to liberate you, to celebrate you.  

And if with us, thus us with others. Beloved, we give because we want to, because we want to be in solidarity with what is going on around us, to alleviate the pain of others, to bring freedom, to participate in God’s grace and love in the world. With one another, beloved, we share what we have…not what we have in excess (charity) but what we have even if it’s our last cup of flour and last tablespoon of oil, with each other we will break bread even if, no…especially when the other has nothing to bring to the table.

May our table, our seats, our sanctuary reflect the depth of divine solidarity with those who cannot repay, with those who may not even be able to say thank you. May we freely give as God has so freely given to us.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Present middle participle masculine nominative plural; first principal part παρατηρέω. With the imperfect tense of εἰμί (imperfect active indicative third person plural), the construction is a periphrastic and carries a finite imperfect equivalent: they were observing him scrupulously. In that moment, they invited him closed and (literally) were watching everything he did.

[3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997, 551. “Luke’s opening depiction of Jesus is almost comical. The pharisees and scribes of this dinner party had been watching him closely v 1), but now they are the ones being monitored; what is more, whereas in being monitored; their attempts to unmask Jesus as one who transgresses the law they had been reduced to silence, he now exposes their impropriety.”

[4] present active participle masculine nominative singular. Jesus, here, is doing the action of “paying heed”. And being linked to the activity of the parable he’s about to drop, what he’s paying heed to will be the subject of the parable. Now he was saying a parable to the one who have been invited, paying heed to…

[5] Green, Luke, 550. “First, this was a world in which social status and social stratification were vital considerations in the structuring of life, with one’s status based on the social estimation of one’s relative honor – that is, on the perception of those around a person regarding his prestige. For example, where one sat (was assigned or allowed to sit) at a meal vis-à-vis the host was a public advertisement of one’s status; as a consequence, the matter of seating was carefully attended and, in this agonistic society. one might presume to claim a more honorable seat with the hope that it (and the honor that went with it) might be granted. What is more. because meals were used to publicize and reinforce social hierarchy, invitations to meals were themselves carefully considered so as to allow to one’s table only one’s own inner circle, or only those persons whose presence at one’s table would either enhance or at least preserve one’s social position.”

[6] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 179-180. “The first of these is addressed primarily to his fellow guests, whom he has seen vying for the places of honor. At a superficial level, Jesus seems to be simply criticizing them and suggesting the wiser course of acting humbly and taking the places; lesser honor, so that the host will give them a better place… But at a deeper level one can see the eschatological reference of his words. Jesus speaks of a ‘wedding banquet’—a subtle reference to the final day of celebration, repeatedly depicted in the Bible as a wedding feast. Then he concludes his remarks by applying them to the larger, eschatological dimension reverses the present human order…”

[7] Cardenal, Solentiname, 351. “I: ’If everyone has a spirit of service to the others, there aren’t any firsts or lasts and you reach the equality that Felipe is talking about.’”

[8] Green, Luke, 552. “On the one hand, his teaching has called into question the elf-seeking agenda of the companions, insisting that honor must be given, not pursued or taken. More fundamentally, however, he now goes on to hint at a life-world in which honor is measured and granted along unforeseen lines. “The humble.” in the social world Luke addresses, usually denoted persons who are of low birth, base, and ignoble, yet in the topsy-turvy world Jesus envisages, ‘the humble’ are those most valued.”

[9] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 351. “LAUREANO: ‘It’s the same as that other thing that Jesus said, when they asked him who was the most important, and he said the one who served. The one in the first place isn’t most important.’”

[10] Green, Luke, 551. “First, he appeals to the realities of an honor-shame culture in order to advise against taking the ‘first seats.’ Then he demarcates a more prudent strategy when entering a banquet room. Because honor is socially determined, if one’s claim to honor fails to be reciprocated by one’s audience, one is publicly humiliated. Better, Jesus says, to have your honor bestowed on you by another than to make a bid for honor that might not be granted. Luke envisions the impartation of honor in the form of a new, more lofty, seat assignment, but also in the use of the term ‘friend,’ signifying a relationship (again, not claimed by the guest but conferred by the host) of equality and mutuality with the host.”

[11] Cardenal, Solentiname, 352. “I: ‘And that is the subversion of the kingdom of heaven. ‘Subvert’ comes from the Latin subvertere, which means to put down what IS up and up what is down.’”

[12] Gonzalez, Luke, 180. “What Jesus now says and proposes is a contrary to all rules of etiquette Then as today, it was quite common for people to invite to a dinner those who were of equal social standing with them—family, friends, colleagues. Since having a distinguished guest at dinner results in honor and prestige for the host, one seeks to invite such people—in Luke’s text, ‘rich neighbors.’ When one holds such a dinner, the guests are expected to return the invitation. To us, this would seem normal. But Jesus sees things differently: when a former guest invites you, you have already been repaid.”

[13] Gonzalez, Luke, 180. “After listing four main categories of people who are usually invited to such dinners—friends, brothers, relatives, rich neighbors—Jesus suggests four other categories-the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Surprising as this may seem to us, it would have been even more surprising for the host whom Jesus is addressing, for it was precisely such people whom a good Pharisee would consider not only unworthy but also religiously unclean. Thus Jesus is rejecting both social and religious convention. In today’s vocabulary, one could say that Jesus is telling his host to invite not the worthy, nor even the ‘worthy poor,’ but the unworthy, irreligious, sinful poor.”

[14] Green, Luke, 552-553. “Because invitations served as currency in the marketplace of prestige and power, there is nothing extraordinary or particularly objectionable to the inclusion of one’s social peers and family, persons from whom one could expect reciprocation. This is true, at least for those willing to work within the established world system Seen through Jesus’ eyes, however, orthodox conventions have as their consequence the exclusion of the poor; after all. for the social elite the poor are unhelpful in the business of parading and advancing one’s social position and, perhaps more importantly in the current co-text, the poor could not reciprocate. The Pharisees are thus portrayed as persons who exploit hospitality for self-serving agenda, and whose patterns of hospitality both secure their positions of dominance in their communities and insulate them from the needy.”

[15] Green, Luke, 550. “Second, central to the political stability of the Empire was the ethics of reciprocity, a gift-and-obligation system that tied every person, from the emperor in Rome to the child in the most distance province, into an intricate web of social relations. Apart from certain relations within the family unit and discussions of ideal friendship, gifts, by unwritten definition, were never ‘free,’ but were given and received with either explicit or implicit strings attached, Expectations of reciprocity were naturally extended to the table: To accept an invitation was to obligate oneself to extend a comparable one, a practice that circumscribed the list of those to whom one might extend an invitation.”

[16] Cardenal, Solentiname, 354. “I: ‘Jesus advises them to break with their families, with their circle of rich people, with their class. And the fact that they invite the poor to the party means that the poor stop being poor, and that in society everything is shared equally: health, clothing, culture. Because a party with crippled, sick, ignorant people isn’t a very good party.’”

[17] Green, Luke, 553. “Jesus’ message overturns such preoccupations, presenting ‘the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’ – notable examples of those relegated to low status, marginalized according to normal canons of status honor in the Mediterranean world-as persons to be numbered among one’s table intimates and, by analogy, among the people of God.”

[18] Green, Luke, 553-554. “According to Jesus, the state of blessedness resides in the fact that one has given without expectation (or hope!) of return. It is true that, according to v 14b, blessedness will take the eschatological form of divine ‘repayment,’ but Jesus does not advise people to engage in guileless generosity in order that one might receive divine benefaction. Luke has already established that human generosity flows from an appreciation of the expansive mercy of God (6:36); to this he now adds that genuine, uncalculating generosity toward those of low status will not go unrewarded.”

[19] Cardenal, Solentiname, 356. “I: ‘…. Justice is social justice and liberation; the unjust one is the oppressor, and the just one is the liberator. God is absolute justice; and his main attribute is that of the Just One: The one who punishes injustice, and the one who comes to the oppressed and listens to the cries of the poor, and the one who liberates. And the just are the ones who have struggled for the establishment of justice on earth. They are going to be resurrected, according to Jesus, and they are the ones who have given the party they’re talking about here, the sharing of joy and abundance in the world …. In the Bible, God is love, understanding love to be social justice, and to be joined to this love is to be alive forever. Jesus has begun by saying: When they invite you to a wedding party.’ And it’s because this great party of humanity of which we’ve talked will celebrate a wedding party with Love.’” And, Gonzalez, Luke, 180. “The reason not to invite those who are worthy is that they will probably repay you, and in that case all you have achieved is some social interchange. The reason to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind is precisely that they cannot repay you, and you can expect payment only at the final day, “at the resurrection of the righteous.’”

Released to Release

Sermon on Luke 13:10-17

Psalm 71:1-3 In you, God, have I taken refuge; let me never be ashamed. In your righteousness, deliver me and set me free; incline your ear to me and save me. Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe; you are my crag and my stronghold.

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Luke 13:10-17

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

(Luke 13:10-13)

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise specified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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