Paradoxical Elastic Love

Sermon on John 13:31-35

Psalm 148:13-14 Let them praise the Name of God, for God’s Name only is exalted, God’s splendor is over earth and heaven. God has raised up strength for God’s people and praise for all God’s loyal servants, the children of Israel, a people who are near God. Hallelujah!

Introduction

I know that considering God’s love for us—for all of us—is complicated. So, let me make it a bit easier to understand…

God’s love is the inconsistent consistency.
God’s love is an ambiguous certainty.
God’s love is the unknown known.
God’s love is a same difference and a different sameness.
God’s love is comforting discomfort and discomforting comfort.
God’s love is disrupting stabilization, and stabilizing disruption.

There. Did that help? All clear?

I didn’t think so.

God’s love for the world and humanity is profoundly paradoxical, always, and elastic. It goes there and here and in that it is there it is still here. God loves us no matter what happens or who we think we are or what we have done, are doing, or will do, in whatever time period we find ourselves, in any town or city in those time periods. God loves that other person over there in just the same unconditional ways God loves you and me, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And, believe it or not, that creates a tension…

…for us…

…not for God.

If the person is like us, then we can see why (and how) God would love this other one; clearly, they’re pretty great. However, what happens when we try to comprehend God loving an other who is not like us, one who is in fact different, and maybe even opposite to us in some way or many ways? The reality of the elasticity of the substance of paradoxical divine love drives us crazy because we really want God not to love those whom we do not and cannot love. We really want God to find those people appalling whom we find appalling. We really want to think that something about us is so unique that God loves us and since that other person over there is very different from us then God’s love stops at our handmade boundaries of separation and exclusion. (comment about classroom catholic and protestants.) We want God’s love to have limits, to have an end…not for us….but for them over there.

However, God just loves whether or not we actually and fully comprehend the depth of the profundity of that loving. God just loves—without limits, without end—and as we are encountered by God in the event of faith, we are caught up in that elastic paradoxical divine love, love-just-loving-because-it-can-do-no-other…always.

John 13:31-35

Very dear little ones, I am with you yet a little while; you will seek me, and just as I said to the Israelites, “Where Ι, Ι depart [to], you, you are not able to come,” I say to you now. A new command I give to you (all), that you love one another. I loved you so that you also love one another. In this all will know that you are disciples to me, if you have love in one another. [1]

John 13:33-35

Our assigned gospel reading is quite familiar. It’s so familiar that if I was a betting woman, some of you may have checked out a little already, because yeah…yeah…yeah…love one another; got it…can we go get coffee now? The more familiar a passage or concept is to us, the less we notice something new unless we slow down and look at it again. So, let’s do that.

Jesus begins by speaking of a reciprocal and mutual and equal glorification between Jesus and God the Creator. In a way that bends time and twists space, both God and Jesus are glorified and will be glorified; in other words, in what Jesus is doing and will do, God’s name will be hallowed here and in heaven.

He then moves on to say something classically “Jesus-in-the-Gospel-of-John” cryptic, I’m going away and you can’t come. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not that cryptic for one person to tell another they are going away…alone. However, the emphasis adds another layer of odd: I, I am going away, and you, you cannot come. Thus, the emphasis falls on “this is for Jesus alone” and those who have been following cannot follow him—anymore—to his next destination (the cross). The prophesied absence immediately thrusts the disciples, all those who are listening and following Jesus, into disruption[2]: where can he go that I can’t also go? Their faith must fill that silence.[3]

Jesus cannot be held by them, and they cannot force him to stay as he is with them; in Jesus removing himself to a place where they cannot follow, the disciples are yanked out of their existence in the present tense and dropped into another that is not theirs to control.[4] They are brought face to face with a new reality, one embedded in a reversal of anxiety about the self to concern for the other.[5] Jesus exhorts those listening, love…love each other, love one another, love because I loved you. The great moment of the uncoiling or turned-in human beings occurs in the divine exhortation to love one another because God has loved them.[6]

Jesus then yokes the loving of one another to witness in the world: by this love the others will know you are my disciples. This is more than merely love that exists within a community of like and familiar and friend; Jesus’s conception of love is the proclamation of the good news that loves and in loving it liberates and in this way it is new from what has come before it.[7] This isn’t warm fuzzies or happy feelings; this is divine love that does, love that acts, love that turns lives around, that pushes religious zealots off donkeys and over hauls the piety of those who thought they knew and understood but didn’t.[8] It is this love (active and participatory) that will become the characteristic by which the world will know these who follow the man who is God, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. They will know because this love liberates rather than possesses and this will be strange to the world[9]—this love affirms the material of the world and condemns the works of humanity and their sinful and oppressive kingdoms, built to keep some lifted up and some pressed down, some in and others out, preferring some and disparaging others. It will be love that exceeds the wisdom of knowledge and dogma, slips from the grasp of religious tyranny and private piety, only to be realized by those who are encountered by God in the event of faith, those who succumb to the divine love summons to follow me.[10] And in this way, Jesus never leaves those whom he loves.[11] In this way God is never finished with those whom God loves.

Conclusion

“Don’t it make you get teary? The world looks dreary
When you wipe your eyes, see it clearly
there’s no need for you to fear me
If you take your time and hear me
Maybe you can learn to cheer me
It ain’t about black or white, ’cause we human
I hope we see the light before it’s ruined;
my ghetto gospel”[12]

Tupac Shakur “Ghetto Gospel”

These lyrics are from Tupac Shakur, an American rapper born in 1971 and shot and killed in 1996. The song is titled, “Ghetto Gospel.” As far as contemporary prophetic voices go, Shakur’s reaches ranges I don’t encounter in the church or the world. While this song was produced in 2004, I am mesmerized in 2022 by Shakur’s understanding of the extent to which divine love must go if it is divine love. For the good news to be the good news it must bring good news to the oppressed, those trapped and threatened by systemic violence and suffering under hate, fear, and looming death. Shakur reminds me that as we are caught up in the elastic paradoxical divine love, we are not dropped into a reality that makes sense to us and our privilege and status; rather, we are dropped into the reality as it is for another, whom God loves, too.

Later in the song, Tupac raps,

“I make mistakes but learn from every one
And when it’s said and done
I bet this Brother be a better one
If I upset you don’t stress, never forget
That God isn’t finished with me yet.”

Tupac Shakur “Ghetto Gospel”

Listening to Tupac’s interpretation of divine activity on his behalf, the way that God loves him, the way he sees himself as a divine work in progress, challenges any notion that there is one type of person whom God loves and that someone how we are affirmed in the way we were before our encounter with God in the event of faith. God isn’t finished with me yet are the words of paradoxical elastic divine love for humanity. God’s love is the love that never gives up, never abandons, never says that’s it too far! Divine love is the love that seeks and seeks and seeks, that stretches and stretches and stretches, that keeps yoking together human beings from this walk of life to that walk of life, love that closes gaps across boundaries and over tracks destroying anything meant to keep people apart.

God’s paradoxical elastic love is perpetually in the business of disrupting us so that we never grow stagnant and stuck. And as we are disrupted, we can move forward with God’s good news of the liberating proclamation of Jesus Christ on our lips and bring (and participate in!) God’s love: the good news of Beloved, the good news of liberation, the good news of life, and the good news that God is never finished with anyone because everyone has possibility in light of divine love.

Beloved, do not lose hope, God isn’t finished with us yet.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, Gen Ed; RWN Hoare and JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1971. German: Das Evangelium des Johannes (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964, 1966). 524. “What now lies in the past does not guarantee the future, but is called into question by it. Jesus, in whom they believed, disappears from them, and they are left with no security.”

[3] Bultmann John 524 “His own will miss him; they will not realise the full significance of that νυν immediately. Their faith has to stand the test.”

[4] Bultmann John 525. “The future is subjected to an imperative! Their anxiety is centered on their own actual existence, but not they are directed towards an existence that has the character of an ‘ought.’ The illusion that they possess him in such a way that he is at their disposal is confronted by another kind of possession: one which consists in fulfilling a command.”

[5] Bultmann John 525. “Their despairing gaze into the past that is no more is redirected to the future, which comes and lays its obligation upon them. An unreal future, which would only be a persistence in the past, is made into the real future which demands faith. And in so far as the content of the εντολη is ινα αγαπατε αλληλους, the care for oneself is changed into the care for one’s neighbor.”

[6] Bultmann John 525. “But since it is precisely this becoming free from the past and form oneself that is subjected to the imperative, the future that is grasped as command coincides with the future that is promised for loyalty of faith for it was freedom from that past and from oneself that was promised to the believer. Thus the imperative is itself a gift, and this It can be because it receives its significance and its possibility of realization form the past, experienced as the love of the Revealer…”

[7] Bultmann John 527. “But Jesus’ command of love is ‘new,’ even when it has been long-known, because it is the law of the eschatological community or which the attribute ‘new’ denotes not an historical characteristic but its essential nature. The command of love, which is grounded in the love of the Revealer received by the disciples, is ‘new’ in so far as it is a phenomenon of the new world which Jesus has brought into being,…”

[8] Bultmann John 526. “Jesus’s love is not a personal emotion, but is the service that liberates; and the response to it is not a mystical or pietistic intimacy with Christ, but the αλληλους αγαπαν”

[9] Bultmann John 527-528. “v.35 states that the new world becomes reality in the community: reciprocal love within the community is the criterion of the discipleship of Jesus for those outside. The fact that the command of live is fulfilled there demonstrates the strangeness of the community within the world, and results in the world calling those who love, the disciples of Jesus. Not just because theirs is a community in which love is both an injunction and an actual practice. Much rather because love itself there takes on a form that is strange to the world. In the community the command of love is grounded in the love of God which is encountered in the Revealer, and this means that its fulfilment must bear the nature or world-annulment; by it all human love is peculiarly modified, in a way that both limits and broadens it.”

[10] Bultmann John 528. “The associations with Jesus, therefore, is not realized by possessing articles of knowledge or dogmas, nor in institutions or experiences of individual piety, but in ‘pupil-hood,’ in obedience to the command of love.”

[11] Bultmann John 528. “How does the departing Revealer remain present for his own? By vitality of the gift of his love in their love of each other, and by their representation within the world of the new world, which became reality through him.”

[12] Tupak Shakur Ghetto Gospel produced posthumously by Eminem feat. Elton John. 2004

Our Stories This Story: A Revolutionary Story

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here,(“The Parents”) click here, and (“The Worker”) click here, (“The Old”) click here, (“The Others”) click here, and “Us” click here.

Sermon on Luke 24:1-12

Psalm 118:15-17 There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous: “The right hand of [God] has triumphed! the right hand of [God] is exalted! the right hand of [God] has triumphed!” I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of [God].

Introduction

Death dared to stand between God and the Beloved and did not survive; like a mama bear eager to protect her cubs, God roared and death became dust; God’s beloved was liberated. Happy Easter! Hallelujah!

Today, we are people of story.

Today, on this beautiful day of celebration, of praise, of great and big Hallelujahs! we become a people of story. We become a people created and crafted by a radical and profound story of God’s abundant, steadfast, unconditional, never-giving-up, mama-bear-like love for the cosmos.

Today our posture uncoils, and we boldly turn our faces toward the outer edges of the universe letting the rays of the risen Son shine down upon us. All that was has come undone; everything is now as it should be according to God’s story of love for the world and all people.

Today, we get to stand (literally and metaphorically) in the realm of life in the aftermath of the exposure that we do not know what we are doing. Today, we get to float in the wonderful amniotic fluid of divine love soothing over every wound and trauma, we get to dance freely to the manifold melodies of liberation, we get to drink in the waters of life, consume the food of the word of God of love, and hear the comforting declaration that even when we did not and do not know what we are doing, God does know what God’s doing.

Even when we were determined to terminate God’s story, God met our determination with God’s story of love and forgiveness, mercy and grace; what we sentenced to death and thrust into the dirt, God made alive and caused the very ground under our feet to burst open. In the resurrection of the Christ, we receive the splendor of God’s story and watch it eclipse our own feeble stories hallmarked with pain and sorrow, captivity and complicity, sickness and trauma, and death. Today our stories become living, breathing testaments to the revolutionary love of God.

Today we are a people of story.

Luke 24:1-12

Now, on the first [day] of the week at the deep of the early dawn, [the women] came to the tomb carrying spices that they prepared. And they found the stone having been rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus; they became perplexed about this. And then, Lo!, two men in lustrous clothing stood by the women; [the women] became full of fear. While bowing [their] faces to the earth, [the two men] said to the women, “Why are you seeking the living among the dead? He is not here, but he has been raised. Remember how he said to you while in Galilee saying ‘it is necessary the Son of Humanity is handed over into the hands of sinful humanity and crucified and on the third day raised up.’” And the women remembered his words…

Luke 24:1-8, translation mine unless otherwise noted

“And the women remembered his words…” This is the profound moment when these brave women[1] who were previously lurking in the background of Luke’s story surge to the foreground.[2] In addition to that, this is the moment when they begin to grasp the depth of what they’ve encountered: God…the awe inspiring and undiluted power of God’s fulfilled promise to liberate the captives even.

Luke tells us: coming to the tomb early in the morning, bearing their spices, they were prepared to meet Jesus’s dead body. Make no mistake, these women are no heroes of “blind faith”, as if they obstinately held to some whimsical fantastic fiction denying what had happened, refusing to accept reality. They knew what happened; they were grounded. They were (literally) carrying spices for burial. They expected to fight against larger-than-life stone to access the decaying body of Jesus of Nazareth and anoint it.[3]

They expected to encounter death; they were ready for that. Instead, they encountered life, and were thrown back on their heels.

Two men greet them in lustrous and dazzling clothes and tell the women: why are you looking for the living among the dead? Let’s imagine the two men ask the question and then smile, knowing (full well) what these women were expecting and knowing (full well) they are seconds away from dropping all those prepared burial spices on the ground. Try to listen to the lilt in the question as it falls on the astounded women who are becoming more perplexed… the living…?among the dead?

The familiar aroma of the paradox of comfort and chaos lingers in that hewn out hole in the rock. For these women, the world is turned upside down…Jesus is alive and not among the dead…The story just took a radical turn. In a moment, these humble women are wrapped up (and lead! [4]) in what will become one of the revolutionary stories of divine love for the world. A story so radical many people and churches will and do suffer persecution and death to tell it.

For these women, nothing will ever be the same. As they leave the empty tomb and return home proclaiming this divine revolution against death in Jesus being raised from the dead, their own stories change for good. What follows, what comes after this encounter with God is not a continuation of what went before…everything is being made new! A new order is ushered in.[5] This isn’t some happy ending where everyone lives happily ever after; this is a brand-new story, a new chapter in history, in the history of these women, in the history of the world.[6] God’s battle with death is won in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit; everyone who collides with this story, will be forever changed in one way or another.[7]

Conclusion

Today,

  • We are a people who passes on story rather than mess
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than isolation and alienation
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than toil
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than utility
  • We are a people who passes on story rather than exclusion
  • We are a people who passes on life rather than death

Today, we become a people who passes on story rather than not-story. As those who encounter God today, in this story, we are changed for good. What was before is eclipsed by this moment. The stories we bring here today—the ones we were given by others who couldn’t love us as well as they wanted to; the ones we were given by those who hated us; the ones we were given through pain, sorrow, suffering, illness, grief, trauma, bullying, and death; the ones we give ourselves—all of our stories, one by one, are rendered to dust as we are enveloped and wrapped up in this new story of God’s for us: Beloved. In this “Beloved” we are called, we stand up, we rise, we are resurrected, and we enter into the divine revolution of God’s love loosed against the remnants of death and its destructive systems.

What was, ended; all that lies ahead is the divine material that is the foundation of our new life and new creation, our liberation and belovedness, our faith, hope,[8] and persistence.[9] This new life—this rising up and resurrection[10]—becomes our praxis in the world. As resurrected new creations, our posture in the world and toward others is completely altered. In this new life we participate with the Holy Spirit in the liberation of the captives.[11] As those summoned from death, from slumber, from the myths and lies we’ve been telling ourselves, we become those who wake up and see, hear, feel, and speak the profound good news of liberation for the world[12] from the captivity of death. In doing so, we demonstrate to the world that resurrection is for now and not strictly for the future.[13] As we bring good news to the oppressed, disenfranchised, poor, lonely, isolated, excluded, used up, and the burnt out, we bring resurrection into the present and push back the expired tyranny of death and usher in the reign of love and life. [14]

I want to close by way of a poem I stumbled across in my studies this week. The title of the poem is Threatened with Resurrection, by Julia Esquivel a poet and Guatemalan exile. I’m quoting the final few stanzas:

No, brother,
it is not the noise in the streets
which does not let us sleep.

Join us in this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
Then you will know how marvelous it is
to live threatened with Resurrection!

To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep,
to live while dying,
and to know ourselves already
resurrected![15]

Julia Esquivel, “Threatened with Resurrection”

By living into this story we’ve been given today, we live into resurrection now, living lives joining in the “vigil” of those who suffer under what was and those who are threatened with the violence of not-yet, we live “already resurrected,” we live “while dying,” we “dream awake”, and keep watch even while sleeping. When we dare to let the resurrection of the Christ be the divine revolution in the world that it is, we dare to live resurrected now, we dare to become those who don the love of God and spread it to everyone, and we dare to be those who pass on liberation, pass on love, pass on life…those who dare to pass on the story.


[1] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname “The Resurrection (Matthew 28L1-10) “Thomas Pena: ‘The got up early because they wanted to. And they were brace, because they weren’t scared of the National Guardsmen that were on duty there.’” P. 618

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 272. “…Luke will tell parallel but different stories about the women disciples and the men. In this particular case, however, the story about the women comes first. These women have been present, but have remained mostly in the background of the story, ever since Luke introduced them in 8:2-3…Now they come to the foreground as the first witnesses to the resurrection.

[3] Gonzalez Luke 273. “They, no less than the rest, believe that in the cross all has come to an end. It is time to return home to their more traditional lives. But before they do that, they must perform one last act of love for their dead Master: they must anoint his body.”

[4] Gonzalez Luke 273. “Even though the later course of church history, with its expectation of entirely male leadership, would lead us to think otherwise, it is they who bring the message of the resurrection to the eleven, and not vice versa.” See also, Cardenal Solentiname “[Cardenal]: ‘In those times nobody paid much attention to women. And that’s why those women maybe didn’t run any risk, as Laureano says. Their role was only to go and weep and then embalm the body of Jesus. A humble role. But this Gospel assigns them a more important role: they were witnesses to the resurrection.” P. 618

[5] Gonzalez Luke 273

[6] Gonzalez Luke 274. “The resurrection brings about a new reality, a new order. Things do not continue as before … The resurrection is not the continuation of the story. Nor is it just its happy ending. It is the beginning of a new story, of a new age in history…The victory is won. What now remain are no more than skirmishes in a battle that has already been won.”  

[7] Gonzalez Luke 275. “Thus, in the areas that were part of Christendom as well as in the rest of the world, Christians have been rediscovering the significance of the resurrection as victory over the powers of the old age, and as the beginning of a new order and a new history pointing to the final establishment of the reign of God.”

[8] Gollwitzer Way to Life 141 “Nothing is lost, nothing is in vain. Tribulation is not the last thing, joy, arrival at the goal will be the last thing, and for this reason we shall be able to hold on in faith and in hope, hearing the primes ever anew.”

[9] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Trans. David Cairns Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981 (eng) p. 139 [German version: Wendung zum Leben München: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1980. “The whole Gospel calls to us ‘look forward!’ however things are going with you. Look forward! Hope will come to you form that direction, and staying power. Look forward, you see there what gives you the power to hold on!”

[10] Dorothee Sölle “Uprising and Resurrection” The Strength of the Weak: Toward a Christian Feminist Identity Trans. Robert and Rita Kimber Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984. Pp. 71 “Rising, uprising, and resurrection belong together factually as well as linguistically. Rising is a word that describes what an individual does in the morning, uprising, what a people does when it shakes off political sleep. Both of them mean learning how to walk upright, in a way that is still perhaps unfamiliar. To rise up means not to cringe anymore, to lose fear.”

[11] Helmut Gollwiter The Rich Christians & Poor Lazarus Trans. David Cairns Edinburgh: St. Andrews Press, 1970 (eng) p.3 [German version: Die reichen Christen und der arme Lazarus München: Chr. Kaiser Verlad, 1968.] “Only by altered attitudes in this world, not by assertions about divine truths, which are claimed to be true ‘in themselves,’ can we bear witness to the relevance of our confession of faith. Therefore John A. T. Robinson is right to ask his question ‘Do we affirm the Easter faith in these days, when we insist that God raised Jesus from the dead—or when we dare to gamble our lives in the faith that God will raise us from the dead? Can we do the former, without doing the latter.’ And indeed, keeping our eye on the liberal reduction of faith to humanism, we shall also have to add, “Can we do the latter, without doing the former?”

[12] Sölle Strength 71-72 “We rise from sleep; we are resurrected from death. An uprising is a rising from political sleep, from a kind of death in which people are deprived of crucial elements of their lives and are commandeered by others.”

[13] Sölle Strength 76 “The price we have to pay for a truly human life has not become less since ancient times, much as we may want to believe that it has. People are still being tortured today because they have fought for justice. People are still dying today from the indifference of others who do not want rebellion and do not need resurrection. But despite the betrayal of the revolution and, God knows, the betrayal of Christ, we see happening again and again what we all need most uprisings of life against the many forms of death; which is to say, resurrection.”

[14] Cardenal Solentiname 619 “I: ‘And he goes on showing us that he’s alive, us, gathered here twenty centuries later; and he’s present in the midst of us.’ WILLAM: ‘-The important thing is that he’s alive wherever there’s community.’”

[15] Julia Esquivel Threatened with Resurrection for more information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julia_Esquivel. I’ve ordered her book of the same title; more to come!

Our Stories This Story: The Worker

I recommend reading/listening to the sermon from Ash Wednesday, which functions as an introduction to this Lenten series. You can access it here. For the previous sermons in this series, (“The Youth”) click here and (“The Parents”) click here.

Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15

Psalm 63: 3-4 For [God’s] loving-kindness is better than life itself; my lips shall give [God] praise. So will I bless [God] as long as I live and lift up my hands in [God’s] Name.

Introduction

“Everyday I do the same thing but I don’t think I know what I’m doing. I wonder if they know what they’re doing… Sometimes I just can’t help but watch my colleagues shuffle about as if nothing is wrong as long as they get theirs, as if this is all normal and good. Talk about putting lipstick on a pig. I mean *chuckles* the things they say to me … *sigh* … I feel the drudgery of the demands of life—the demands of just trying to survive—weighing down on me, dragging me down, stealing something vital from me… my soul? My energy? My mind? I don’t know what …this demand to produce, to work, to earn, requires me to neglect my health and wellbeing… Is it irony that they give me some form of healthcare? …*chuckles* I’m gaining weight as I’m wasting away, selling myself to some ambiguous and invisible entity, some myth… I feel trapped. … I’ve realized I’m stuck, empty, and burnt out.”[1]

From the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

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

One of the things that Covid_19 exposed is the depths of our exhaustion when it comes to our work. And yet we are trapped. We’re caught between a rock and hard place. Damned if we do; damned if we don’t. We’re exhausted by the day-in and day-out of the incessant demands of work. Yet, just to survive—caring for ourselves and caring for those dependent on us—we must meet these demands. There’s no option for “No thank you”; just options for how much of yourself you’re willing to sacrifice to the system. 

The long-esteemed hand of competition has not made human existence better. Instead it has taken from us our humanity, our dreams, our desires, and our dignity. It’s stripped us of our story of something else, something bigger than the next buck, tech, car, house, and vacation. We’ve become deaf to the cries of our hearts and the hearts of others as we grow more and more busy with our toil.  We’ve been devoured by a dog-eat-dog-world where no one is allowed to stand still long enough to notice we are all falling apart and limping along. We’ve ceased praying for our daily bread because we are desperate to grab whatever crumb we can find while fighting against brothers and sisters.

Everywhere we step is profaned ground, a virtual minefield of potential disasters threatening to take from us the little we’ve managed to scrape together through blood, sweat, and tears. No wonder our anxiety is at an all time high: nothing is secured…nothing. For storyless human beings, this threat of looming nothingness thrusts us further into the hands of a merciless task master. Thus, the cycle continues as we pass on toil from one generation to another, adding to it greater and greater degrees of demoralization. One job is no longer enough to make ends meet for many people, rather there is a need for two, three, and even four just to live and eat.

Exodus 3: 1-15

When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” …

Exodus 3:4-6

I love the image in this story of this simple shepherding human—dirty as all heck!—and random bush—filled with the presence of God—in sudden encounter. As Moses is called to step closer to this divine presence of flame in branches and leaves, he is told to remove his shoes and tread carefully because where he is standing is holy ground. This ground is holy not because God is untouchable or unapproachable, too pure for dirty and sinful human beings. To assume this is to affirm the mythology that God is limited from being around God’s people by their activity or inactivity. Rather, this ground is holy and sacred because where Moses is standing is the source of life and light; everyone must tread carefully in that space or they will have to contend with God’s anger. Listen again to what God says to Moses:

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey

Exodus 3: 7-8

God is bringing a story to Moses, one that Moses will participate in (a new name added to the great names of God’s story). Moses, like those before him, will be the means by which God demonstrates God’s power on behalf of those who are down-trodden, oppressed, enslaved, and held captive and complicit. Moses will bring this story to God’s people trapped under the violent rule of Pharaoh in order to release them from that bondage. It is through this story and Moses and the Israelites participating in their own liberation in the Passover event that God’s power to right-side up the world occurs—emotionally, spiritually, mentally, physically, economically, socially, and politically. 

He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,

and this my title for all generations.”

Exodus 3:13-15

Moses brings God’s liberative story to the enslaved, demoralized, and dehumanized people of God stuck in toil upon toil. He doesn’t tell them to suck it up and toil more; he tells them to rest and tells Pharaoh to let God’s people go. He doesn’t tell them this is just the way it is; he tells them it can and should be different. He doesn’t tell them to live in increasingly austere conditions to get by; he tells them of a land flowing with abundance and thriving. He doesn’t tell them to limit their dreams for better and their hopes that God hears their cries; he is literally charged to tell them to dream bigger and that they’ve been heard by God. He doesn’t tell them to submit to authority and be good Egyptian citizens; he tells them to rise up and prepare for divine revolution leading to their liberation, release, and freedom. He gives them another (better) story[2] than the one they’ve been living; one that brings light and not darkness, life and not death, liberation, and not captivity. And this is the story they are to pass on…for all generations.

Conclusion

In sermon on Genesis 11, Helmut Gollwitzer preaches,

“This biblical narrator is…deeply convinced that we cannot by our own power break our fetters, cannot get rid of our intoxication, that we need another great help. The Creator, who made the good beginning, must make a new beginning. [God] must come with new gifts, in order that the old gifts of our abilities and our work do not continue to be a curse to us. A new sprit must set us free from the errors of our old spirit…[God] has opened [God’s] heart to us, and made possible a new way of good life, of fellowship, of avoidance of destruction. Into this new way [God] desires to lead us all by God’s Spirit.”[3]

Helmut Gollwitzer Way to Life

In Lent we reckon with our complicity and our captivity in destructive and violent systems specifically as it correlates to our life and labor. But Lent isn’t the end goal; we need not despair no matter how much we are tempted to do so, to throw our hands in the air, call it all a loss, accept what is, and just trudge along in death before we die. There is life to live. Hope exists for us because there’s another story surging toward us in the form of old death and new life; in the form of a humble man from Nazareth who is the son of God. And it’s this coming divine activity in history that is our new history and story. And this divine action will become the history of liberation for all the captives trapped one way or another in this death dealing, life stealing system, and it is this divine action that will put an end to our ceaseless self-sacrifices and the sacrificing of future generations on the table of toil trying desperately (and failing) to satisfy Moloch. May we dare to dream of and also to participate in creating a better world where we can live, love, and labor without fear, threat, anxiety, and despair; where we can feel the joy of God and our own pleasure in the work of our hands. Let us have the audacity to walk as those who are the beloved of God, as those we have been given both new spirits and new lives, as those given a new story to pass on for all generations.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

[2] Dorothee Sölle writes in To Work and to Love “The Exodus event left its indelible mark on the memory of the cult, which in turn embodied the event in its religious institutions…The cult did not have a purely ritualistic function; it created historical consciousness of Israel’s freedom.” God’s activity becomes Israel’s history and this history is a story of God’s activity for and with Israel.

[3] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life: Sermons in a Time of World Crisis Trans David Cairns (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1981). 4.

Our Stories This Story: The Parents

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

Sermon on Luke 13:31-35

Psalm 27:5-7 One thing have I asked of [God]; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of [God] all the days of my life; To behold the fair beauty of [God] and to seek [God] in [God’s] temple. For in the day of trouble [God] shall keep me safe in [God’s] shelter; [God] shall hide me in the secrecy of [God’s] dwelling and set me high upon a rock. (73)

Introduction

“I like to think I know what I’m doing. I mean at least the kids…. Yes, honey, your shoes are over there by the front door…the kids need me to look like I know what I’m doing. Especially now. There are so many reasons…Hey! Put the cat down…she’s not a ball! There’s so much to consider and contemplate, and if I dare to really let it sink in *sips wine* about how bad our world is right now I may just never come … Well, if you take the 2 and then add it to the 6, what’s the answer then? …These kids, they’re young and need a future, a world, free from visible and invisible enemies and…Oh no, you did fall down! Here, let me get some ice…Sometimes I fear that I’ll crack under all this pressure *sips wine… I don’t feel that old but I’m bone deep exhausted; nearly burnt out.”[1]

From the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

We’ve become a people who passes on isolation and alienation rather than story.

Our culture tells us we cannot be weak. It sings to us of the virtue of being strong and capable, rising to the top by virtue of our own inner drive and determination. We are “self-made”; we “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps”; we forge our own paths and strike out on our own; and we certainly don’t want any help we didn’t previously earn by our industrious autonomy.

While I wish I could say with confidence the church is a place where anyone can come to find solidarity in weakness, it’s not. Often, it’s the church’s malignant understanding of faith as a vibranium shield of protection perpetuating the lie: I’m too blessed to be stressed! Ironically, it’s among Christians—following Jesus who not only submitted to human weakness manifest in death and who elevated the weak and downtrodden to the status of blessed—where the weak are ostracized and shamed.

We’ve become trapped in the myth of self-sufficiency and strength leading to isolation and alienation.  We no longer value communal and mutual thriving and survival. It’s now: one for one. Neighbors are strangers—especially if everyone is a threat. Kids move away from parents; grandparents live in different states; and everyone is forced into their own bubble isolated and alienated. In this scheme, marriages buckle under the pressure to be all in all; partners bear the burden of being the one and only and forever for the other.

Parents, caregivers, and guardians—anyone connected to the life of a child—carry the stress of balancing the demands and the mythology of autonomy and self-sufficiency. And as stress increases, as fears grow because of global pandemic, ecological crises, social tumult, and war, tensions rise driving thick, thick wedges between us, forcing us more and more unable to ask for help, confess need, and express weakness; afraid that if we do, it’ll fall apart, crumble to the ground, and trapping those under our care and charge under the rubble. We put on brave faces, smile when we don’t want to, tell them everything is fine and teach them that weakness is bad, fear isn’t real, and opening up isn’t what adults do. And the myth goes on; so, too, does isolation and alienation.

Luke 13:31-35

At that same hour, some Pharisees approached [Jesus] saying to him, “Get out! and travel from here!; Herod desires to put you to death!” And he said to them, “You travel to that fox and tell him this: behold, I cast out demons and accomplish healings today and tomorrow and I am finished on the third [day] … “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and the one who stones the ones who have been sent to them, how often I desired to gather your children together in the same manner a hen [gathers together] her brood of young birds under [her] wings, and you did not desire it.” (Lk 13:31-32, 34)[2]

Luke 13:31-32, 34

In this rather cryptic[3] message from Jesus, he associates his presence with the work of God by correlating it to the great line of prophets and “the ones sent to them” who were once present with God’s people, too. So, it’s no surprise that he suffers the same plight as those before him (trying to be killed and stoned).[4] Those who are sent by God to proclaim God’s message of liberation to the captives (God’s judgment on the kingdoms of humanity) are met with hostility and disdain by those who rule over the people with authority and power intimately tied to subjection and oppression.[5] One doesn’t casually walk in and start dismantling human-made power structures, awaken people from myths of false strength, isolation, and alienation, and exhort them into their own story with God and think they’ll leave town unscathed. Herod has every reason to hate Jesus and seek his life.[6]

Jesus then calls out, in tones that I can only imagine mirror his very loving verbal embrace of Martha uttered previously in chapter 10: Jerusalem, Jerusalem…. The double use of the name indicates a deep sense of love. I know this tone; I’ve used this tone. The tone of deep love for this person who is straying or making choices in opposition to life and thriving; the same tone of yearning and hope and summoning and beckoning back. The tone used to get your child’s attention in the most kind and loving and compassionate way. Not the short and curt hollered version; the slow, lyrical, warm song-like version. The one that makes the tumult and chaos settle as this one just called turns and looks at the one calling their name. This is God grabbing the wayward chin of Jerusalem and gently pulling their gaze to God’s longing and eager and loving face. This is God in maternal love with God’s beloved.

And like a mother, Jesus is eager to gather up and protect the beloved from the threat of reckless and senseless destruction.[7] And if you know chickens—as Christie explained to me on Wednesday—then you know that a broody hen will aggress anything threatening to harm order to protect her brood of young birds. As Jesus compares himself to this broody hen, he shows his concern for their spiritual well-being and their physical well-being; he will deal with those who peddle a mythology of lordship over God’s people rendering them oppressed and enslaved to human-lordship and in themselves. God will contend with those who exploit and abuse God’s people, trapping them in lies of isolation and alienation.[8]

Conclusion

The sad part is that Jerusalem, according to Jesus, doesn’t want protection or deliverance.[9] They’re deep in their myth, they don’t need the help, they’ve got this taken care of, everything is fine. They are forehead deep in their own story, handed to them by those who are exploiting and oppressing them; they’ve forgotten another story[10]…the one God gave them declaring them to be God’s people loved by God, empowered by God’s glory and spirit, created for life and not death, for mutuality and not isolation and alienation.

I sit back and I watch it,
hands in my pockets
Waves come crashing over me
but I just watch ‘em
I just watch ‘em
I’m under water but I feel like I’m on top of it
I’m at the bottom and I don’t know what the problem is
I’m in a box
But I’m the one who locked me in
Suffocating and I’m running out of oxygen[11]

NF “Paralyzed”

The longer we believe the lie that we are fine on our own, the longer we will be stuck in a box we’ve locked ourselves in. The longer we tell ourselves this lie of “strongest is best,” the longer alienation and isolation will continue to be passed on like genetic traits from parent to child. Our children are really amazing humans; that we treat them as less is astounding. When we don’t speak up, put words to our fears and concerns with them, we tell them they aren’t trustworthy, and that they must be like this, too—dismiss their feelings and concerns. Your kids, the children in our community, the young ones in our society understand way more than we give them credit. When we put on our façade of strength, it’s no wonder they grow distrustful and wary of adults…we’re lying to them, and they know it.

When we have the audacity to buck the trend of alienation and isolation by intentionally including our young ones into our hearts and minds, we give them the freedom to confess their own fears, to validate what they are feeling, and, as a consequence they acquire their own liberation from fear. By bringing them into our narrative we not only eliminate our alienation and isolation but also theirs. In doing this, we teach them a better way, a better narrative of solidarity and love.[12] We step out of our box, clinging to the divine story of love and solidarity, and—breathing in deep—confess: I might be scared, but I’m the beloved child of God and not alone; I’m concerned, but anything is possible with God; I’m helpless to solve this, but God is with us in this suffering and I’m present with you in yours.

Beloved, we are not alone; we are with God thus with each other and with each other thus with God.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[3] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 178. “The message is rather cryptic, for he will take much more than three days on his way to Jerusalem- For this reason. Some take it as a reference to the three days in the tomb. There is no doubt that he is connecting his response to his passion, as indicated by the reference at the end of verse 35.”

[4] Gonzalez Luke 178. “The lament over Jerusalem connects the fate of Jesus with that of those who have gone before him. Some take his claim that he has ‘often’ desired to care for the children of Jerusalem as an indication that he is speaking of his own participation in the ongoing work of God—as the Wisdom of God to which reference has already been made in a similar context in 11:49.”

[5] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 534. “Here, though, Jerusalem comes into the limelight not only as Jesus destination but also, more particularly, with reference to its significance for Jesus. As the divine agent of salvation, Jesus must take his message to the center of the Jewish world, Jerusalem. What can he expect by way of response in Jerusalem? The pattern for which Jerusalem is known is that of killing divine messengers….Although it is possible to find in Jesus’ prophetic words over Jerusalem a thread of hope, the motif of judgment is more prominent: As God’s agent, Jesus must carry the divine message to Jerusalem, but Jerusalem kills those whom God sends; on account of this, Jerusalem itself is doomed.”

[6] Green Luke 535. “Given his characterization within the Lukan narrative thus far, we have every reason to imagine that the threat presented by Herod is a real one. As tetrarch of Galilee, Herod first put an end to John’s prophetic ministry by having him imprisoned (3:19-20). Later, we learn, Herod is responsible for beheading John (9:9), and we hear nothing to mitigate Luke’s sweeping characterization of Herod as a doer of evil things (3:20). Nevertheless, the peril represented by Herod’s malevolence is not for Jesus a motivating factor. Instead, he refers to his intention to continue carrying out his ministry as before; although he will be on his way,’ just as the Pharisees had urged, his going is not for the purpose of escaping the hand of Herod. It is, rather, to bring to fruition the divine purpose for his mission.”

[7] A reference to one of the ways to explain the term “Fox” for herod; cf. Green Luke 535-536.

[8] Gonzalez Luke 178. “The image of himself caring for the children of Jerusalem as a mother hen takes care of her brood gives particular significance to his calling Herod a fox. A hen guards her chicks against foxes. Jesus wants to protect the children of Jerusalem not only from what we would consider spiritual or religious ills, but also from the exploitation of those who lord it over them.” And, “There is no doubt that in this passage Jesus bemoans the disobedience of Jerusalem. But Christians should draw the conclusion that Jesus bemoans also the disobedience of his church and its numbers. Us too Jesus wishes to protect like a mother hen—and to protect against all evil, spiritual as well as political.”

[9] Green Luke 539. “Jesus so identifies with God’s care for Jerusalem that he is able to affirm his longstanding yearning to gather together his people for shelter and in restoration. Alas, this desire is not shared by the Jerusalemites.”

[10] Green Luke 538

[11] “Paralyzed” by NF; written by Feuerstein Nate, Profitt Thomas James

[12] I am balancing the idea that it is one thing to unload on your kids everything that is better suited for a friend, mentor, or therapist and acknowledging with your kids that you too have these emotions and concerns.

Dorothee Sölle’s “Liberation Theology is a Tree”

The following excerpt is from Dorothee Sölle’s Stations of the Cross: A Latin American Pilgrimmage (Fortress Press, 1993. pp 68-69). The chapter so this text are very short, so I’m quoting an entire chapter for you to read. I do recommend purchasing the book if you can find it. The text functions a lot like a book of devotional stories that challenge us to reconsider theology and the proclamation of Christ. While I’ve not read it, I’m constantly reminded of Ernesto Cardenal’s The Gospel In Solentiname; this isn’t surprising to me know how influential Cardenal was on Sölle. Bold emphasis is mine and things I think we really need to consider very seriously in our current context.


A tree consists of roots, trunk, and branches. The root of theology is the experience of God in the world. The theology of liberation experiences God in the world of the ‘poor,’ in the economic and political sense of the word. But what is new about liberation theology is not its political discourse but its reflections about God, proceeding from the world of the poor. There lie the roots — and this theology is dangerous not because it talks of liberation but because it talks about God and in doing so proceeds from the unsettling presence of God in the struggles, sufferings, and hopes of the poor.

The trunk of liberation theology is the base communities which keep it alive. The faith of the people of God is reflected by the base communities as it emerges out of their practice, their culture, religion and traditions. An important theological activity of the base communities is the new way of dealing with the Bible from the people’s experience of faith. The criterion for interpretation is the presence and revelation of God in our contemporary history.

The branches of liberation theology are the men and women who work theologically in their meeting places, their journals, their Bible study and prayers, They depend on the trunk, or the congregations of the base, and are rooted in the spirituality of the people. What keeps this theology alive and gives it its soul are not the universities but the base movements. Its interlocutor is not primarily academic, interdisciplinary discourse but in the faith of the people, as it is organized and formulated in base communities.

I try to transfer this picture to the First World. The emerging liberation theology of the United States and Europe also lives from the one root: the presence of God in the struggles, sufferings, and hopes of those who are engaged in the project of God for justice, peace, and the integrity of Creation. To understand defeats as God’s defeats and to regard the healing of the blind among us as the work of the Spirit is a way of living from the root.

The trunk of our tree is diffuse and splintered. There is, to be sure, a developed consciousness of an ‘other’ church, but –within the breadth and relative liberality of the national churches– no organization of base communities. Groups from the women’s movement, the peace movement, the ecology movement, and the solidarity movement are nevertheless the growing trunk out of which the practice of liberating theology lives, either using or abandoning the old structures.

The branches and twigs of First World liberation theology are likewise seldom to be found in theological faculties. The interlocutor for us also is the voice of the victims; we try to hear the cry of the poor as God hears it. In our situation the poor are: the new poor in industrialized society, the still two-thirds but soon three-fourths on this planet who are impoverished, and non-human creation itself. Their cries demand another theology. If we listen carefully, the cry of the other is also in us — hidden, placated, reinterpreted, and trivialized. And it won’t let itself be silenced.

“Jesus of the East”

Sancta Colloquia Episode 404 ft. Dr. Phuc Luu

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I have the honor and privilege to interview scholar, teacher, and theologian, Dr. Phuc Luu (@phuc_luu). One of the primary themes of this conversation is that we still need to do better in this world if we are going to make our churches and cities and states and country environments where all people thrive and have access to their livelihood. Dr. Luu exhorts me and thus you to reconsider theological dogmas and doctrines about the cross that we’ve (too) long held to be the standard because they are causing so much violence to those who, to quite Dr. Luu, are the “sinned-against” (a term well explained in the conversation). The formerly “tried and true” claims made by those who have of the powerful and privileged do not hold water for those who are suffering under the weight and burden of oppression by the powerful and privileged. There is a need to reconsider so much that white western Christianity has taken for granted so that we can stand in solidarity with those who are oppressed and marginalized. This conversation takes many twists and bends, but the theme is consistent: there is no time like now to do better so that all our brothers and sisters in the world may experience the truly liberative power of divine love made manifest in the incarnate good word, Jesus the Christ, by the power of the holy spirit–not by means of making everyone Christian, but by being better followers of Christ who so identified with those who suffer in the world at the hands of the powerful.

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

The following biographical information is taken from Dr. Luu’s website:

Phuc Luu (福†刘) immigrated with his family to the United States from Vietnam when he was four. Luu is now a theologian, philosopher, and artist in Houston, Texas, creating work to narrow the divide between ideas and beauty. If theology is speaking about God, Luu seeks to give new language to what theology has not yet said. He served for seven years on the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers). He holds degrees in theology (MDiv, PhD) and philosophy (MA), but has learned the most from the places where people ask difficult questions, where they live in the land between pain and hope, and where these stories are told.

Phuc’s work has appeared in the AmerAsian Journal, The Journal of Pastoral Care, the Truett Journal of Church and Mission, the Houston Chronicle, and NPR’s This I Believe. He has published on a variety of topics such as Medieval philosophy, pastoral care, theology and culture, philosophy of religion, and art and culture. He has taught philosophy and theology at Sam Houston State University and Houston Baptist University. Phuc currently teaches Old Testament Prophets, New Testament: Gospels, and World Religions at Houston’s Episcopal High School. Phuc is working on his second book, a sequel to Jesus of the East, called Spirit of Connection.

Dr. Luu’s Website: https://www.phucluu.com/

Divine Paracletic Revolution

Sermon on John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Psalm 104:34-37 I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will praise my God while I have my being. May these words of mine please him; I will rejoice in the Lord. Bless the Lord, O my soul. Hallelujah! (43)

Introduction

Today’s the celebration of Pentecost. According to the book of Acts, this is the day the Holy Spirit of God arrives, fueling tongues of flames hovering above the heads of the disciples who have been left by the one they followed and loved. Amid spontaneous tongues of fire, the disciples begin speaking and all there were able to hear them—like, listen and hear them. Whether the disciples were spontaneously speaking in different languages or those present were able to hear the message in their own language isn’t the point. The point is that there was proclamation and there was proclamation being heard. The Gospel gospelled the Gospel.[1] All of it due to the presence of the Holy Spirit, very God sent into the world to move in hearts and minds of people, to usher people and the world into life out of death from the kingdom of humanity into the reign of God.

The arrival of the Spirit among the humble followers of the way confirmed these had the divine power to preach and proclaim the gospel, the witness of Jesus the Christ died and raised and ascended. Never again would the presence of God be isolated to material structures protected by very specific people. In Pentecost, everything is blown wide open: all are the worthy vessels of the Spirit of God (no in group, no privileged few, no elite clique). From hovering over the face of the deep in Gen 1, the Spirit of God moves through time and space perpetuating God’s love at every twist and turn of the manifold pathways of the cosmos and bringing that love straight to you in a personal and intimate way through encounter with God in the event of faith. The long promised new spirit and new hearts for all of God’s people is fulfilled in the arrival of God’s Spirit among the disciples.

This is a remarkable claim. A most profound and revolutionary claim rivaling the claim of life out of death in resurrection. The presence of the Spirit in the life of the believer eliminates any possibility of exile from God; there’s no where you can run and hide where God isn’t because by faith you are yoked into God because God by the presence of the Spirit lives in you. God transcended God’s self to be born of a woman and to take the regular name, Yeshua/Jesus. Even more profound is God continues to transcend God’s self by taking up residence in our hearts and minds. We are, to quote St. Paul, the vessels of the holy spirit. We are clay, and we crack and fracture, and we are very much good but not perfect, yet we’re the beloved and worthy by our simple existence to be in and with God and God to be in and with us.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Whenever the Paraclete comes, whom I, I will send to you from beside the Father, the spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, that one will witness concerning me. And now you, you are witnesses, that from the beginning you are with me. [2]

John 15:26-27

The above is certainly good news, yet John the elder has more to say about the Spirit of God, the Paraclete: The Paraclete continues the revolution of God started by Christ. The work Jesus started on earth isn’t over. The Paraclete will come and will continue the divine witness[3] of love embodied and manifested by Christ.[4] Thus, John affirms Jesus’s ministry was not a singular and isolated historical event relegated perpetually to what was. What Jesus did in the world materially by his presence and activity remains in the present even when he leaves (“you, you are witnesses”) and surges into the future when the Paraclete arrives (“that one will witness concerning me”). God’s revelation of God’s revolutionary and liberating love set everything in motion and continues world without end.

In other words, with the arrival of the Paraclete God clearly isn’t done with the cosmos; nothing and no one is too far gone, without hope and possibility, or too sick, dirty, anxious, and other to be beyond God’s revolutionary and liberating love. In Christ the disciples witnessed God go to the fringes of their society, liberating and rescuing those who were isolated and shut out by the local rulers and religious authorities. The divine pursuit of the beloved was an intentional confrontation with human made systems of the day. It’s these systems causing death and captivity for the children of God from which Jesus called forth life and liberty in material and spiritual forms. Jesus’s work and activity while alive is as much a part of the divine witness as is his death and resurrection and ascension. So, it is this entire witness the disciples are witnessing to and which the Paraclete will continue to witness into the ages. The Paraclete comes so there will always be witness to the divine revolution of love and liberty in the world in the hearts and minds of disciples who’ll participate in witnessing in their time, culture, and context.[5]

But I spoke these things to you because the grief in your hearts is made full. But I, I say the truth to you, it is profitable to you that I, I go away. For if I do not depart then the Paraclete will not come to you. Now, if I go, I will send [the Paraclete] to you.

John 16:5-7

According to what Jesus says here, without the arrival of the Paraclete there will be no assuaging of the disciples’ grief—his presence may cease their grief but only temporarily. If Jesus doesn’t ascend, then the witness and revolution of divine love will last only while Jesus lives on earth. Due to Jesus’s resurrection being bodily, this is a finite time conditioned on human health and protection from danger—both being rather tenuous for Jesus. By ascending and sending the noncorporeal Paraclete who can live in and among the believers and followers, the divine witness of love begun by Jesus never ends.[6] No matter the threat of death, the passing of time, or variance of cultural context, the Paraclete goes and exposes systems and liberates captives in ways Jesus wouldn’t be able to do[7]—he would’ve been restricted by his body to his time and context. With the presence of the Paraclete all who grieve are consoled, all who are stripped of the power to speak have an advocate, all who are anxious and burdened are comforted, all who need help have a helper, all who find themselves without words have an intercessor, and the Paraclete comes to all who callout and need aid—in any culture, from any context, in every age. This is certainly the divine revolution of love.

Conclusion

Still I have many things to say to you, but you are not able to bear them just now. But when that one comes, the Spirit of truth, [they] will guide you into all truth. For [the Paraclete] will not speak from [themselves]but will speak as much as [they] hear and will report back to you the things that come.

John 16:12-13

The Paraclete isn’t stuck in the context and culture of Acts 2; the Paraclete isn’t bound by time or era. The Paraclete informs us as we are to be informed and then will inform the next generation of Christians as they need to be informed, which won’t be as we’ve been informed. The way we are being informed today is not the way our foremothers and forefathers in the faith were informed. Jesus withheld information from his disciples because they couldn’t hear it; the Paraclete was given the privilege of revealing and witnessing to God into different cultures and contexts, among different peoples. Today can never be yesterday and tomorrow will never be today; God cannot be captured and caught by time or people. Why do we confuse the consistency of God’s love with God being stuck in some romanticized version of history?

The questions we have today need answers that haven’t been given before. No matter how great the bible is, how brilliant philosophers of yesterday were, or how insightful theologians have been, they can’t directly address our questions in 2021. Thus, we’re reliant on the presence of the Paraclete to guide us into truth through exposure and comfort that leads to the revolution of the witness of God. First, we ourselves are guided by love into exposure because we must always be in the truth of who we are and where we are and find ourselves therein received and accepted. Second, we’re guided by love and truth to participate in exposing archaic, static, and septic traditions and rituals, systems and ideologies. Last, we’re guided by love to work in the world as beloved radical midwives of comfort, love, and liberty participating in the revolution of bringing forth the reality of God manifested in Christ by the power Spirit of truth, the Paraclete.[8]

Let us live and liberate, let us laugh and love like those profoundly impacted in heart and mind by the life, liberation, laughter, and love of God made known in the witness of Christ in the world by the presence and power of the Paraclete.


[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Trans. GR Beasley-Murray, RWN Hoare, JK Riches. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster 1971. Original: Das Evangelium des Johannes Göttigen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1964). 554 “Their witness is not, therefore, a historical account of that which was, but—however much it is based on that which was—it is ‘repetition,’ ‘a calling to mind,’ in the light of their present relationship with him. In that case it is perfectly clear that their witness and that of the Spirit are identical. The Gospel is itself evidence of the kind of witness this is, and of how that which was is taken up again…”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Bultmann John 553 “This two-fold designation makes the reference to the idea of revelation certain; even after Jesus’ departure, God’s revelation will be mediated through him: he it is, who sends the Spirit (sic, without additional description), who bears witness to him; but he does so in his unity with the Father, who has made him Revealer; he sends the Spirit from the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father, just as it is said in 14:16 that the Father sends the Spirit at the Son’s request, or in 14.26 that he sends him ‘in the name’ of the Son.”

[4] Bultmann John 552 “After Jesus’ departure, the situation on earth will remain unchanged inasmuch as the offence which Jesus’ work offered the world will not disappear. The witness, which till now he had borne to himself, will be taken over by the Paraclete, the Helper, whom he will send from the Father.”

[5] Bultmann John 554 “But when…the Spirit’s witness and the witness of the community are spoken of as two factors distinct from one another, this shows first that the working of the spirit is not unhistorical or magical, but rather requires the disciples’’ independent action, and secondly that the disciples cannot accomplish on their own what they are in fact able to do. They may not rely on the Spirit, as if they had no responsibility or need for decision; but they may and should trust the Spirit. Thus the peculiar duality, which exists in the work of Jesus himself, repeats itself in the Church’s preaching: he bears witness, and the Father bears witness. But the community’s preaching is to be none other than witness to Jesus…”

[6] Bultmann John 558 “…the historical Jesus must depart, so that his significance, the significance of being the Revealer, can be grasped purely by itself. He is only the Revealer, if he remains such. But he remains it only by sending the Spirit; and he can only send the Spirit when he has himself gone. In context the statement means the same as the others, that Jesus must be exalted or glorified in order to be the one who he really is.”

[7] Bultmann John 562-3 “The judgment consists in the world’s sinful nature being exposed by the revelation that continues to take place in the community. This is brought out by relating the ελεγχειν of the Paraclete to the three dimensions αμαρτια, δικαιοσυνη, and χρισις. The absence of the article proves that it is the three ideas that are called in question, and not three cases of sin, righteousness, and judgment. It would therefore be wrong to supplement the three substantives with three subjective genitives…The judgment that takes place in the revelation consists in disclosing the true meaning of the standards and values current in the word. But this means at the same time disclosing who is the sinner, who the victor, and who it is that is judged.”

[8] Thought influenced by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Christ, Reality, and the Good” of his Ethics

Some Sölle

I recently read the short book Creative Disobedience by Dorothee Sölle. She was influenced by both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Friedrich Gogarten. Her work is excellent, pastoral, tangible, accessible; dare I say she’s the best of both of these scholars. Also, considering my own work engages both Bonny and Fritz, it made sense to me to begin reading Sölle; seems she’s my older sister here in this odd theological family.

What I am providing here is not a book review; sadly, I’ve no time for a quality book review. Rather my aim is to provide some enticing quotes from the text, encouraging you, beloved reader, to go get it and read it and take it to heart. I will use bold to add emphasis to parts I want to stand out to you.

“Basically, however, in a completely authoritarian model of obedience one never asks the question ‘why.’ The world loses its significance and is degraded to being but the raw material used in practicing formal obedience. That which is done is uninteresting. When obedience concentrates itself completely on a higher and guiding ‘other,’ it becomes blind, that is, blind to the world. It hears the voice of its master in a very narrow and exclusive sense but it sees nothing. it accomplishes the act of obedience for its own sake, recognizing no additional significance.

“An attempt has been made to solve this dilemma by suggesting that the obedience requested and carried out is given freely. To be sure an obedience freely given does mean a displacement of the power relationship and allows the obedience subject to maintain a certain semblance of honor. But the problem of worldlessness and the lack of objective concerns inherent in such a person-oriented obedience is only sharpened. A critique of obedience cannot satisfy itself merely by maintaining that those who obediently submit choose to do so freely. Blindness toward the world and total irresponsibility are still lacking in this variant of the authoritarian model.

“An obedience that is blind to objective concerns and to the world, that merely listens to what it is told, has divest itself of all responsibility for what is commanded. Obedience and not what is to be done is the sole motivation.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 15-16

“But it is precisely spontaneity for which Jesus sets us free. That which he requires does not presuppose the order of the world; that order has yet to be established in the future. Insofar as the human must first discover what God’s will is, the future of the world remains open.

“In traditional usage one speaks rather descriptively of ‘fulfilling’ obedience. The picture is that of a container of form which must be filled. So too with obedience. A previously existing order is postulate that must be maintained, defended, or fulfilled. But Jesus did not conceive of the world according to a model of completed order, which person were merely required to maintain. The world he enter had not yet reached perfection. It was alterable, in fact, it awaited transformation. Schemes of order are in Jesus’ words utterly destroyed–great and small, scholar and child, riches and poverty, knowledge of the Law and ignorance. Jesus did everything in his power to relativize these orders and set free the person caught up in the se schemes. This process of liberation is called ‘Gospel.’ Out obedience then still be thought of as the Christian’s greatest glory?

“I detect that we need new words to describe the revolutionary nature of all relationships begun in Christ. At the very least it is problematic whether we can even continue to consider that which Jesus wanted under the term obedience.

Creative Disobedience pp. 27-28

“A society is imagined in which it is no longer necessary to deny someone people their own subjectivity. Such an inhuman demand destroys the person on whom it is made. Those who require such a degree of self-sacrifice, or include it in their life plan, lose their freedom. He who makes use of another person as a means of achieving his own ends not only humiliates that person but also degrades himself. To treat another person as if she were a thing is to become a thing oneself, a servant to the functioning of the very ‘thing’ being manipulated. By demanding sacrifice, such a person destroys his own freedom. As the one in control he becomes the one controlled. In alienating others from that which they wish to be and can become, he alienates himself. Because he concentrates on domination, on employing others as means to his own ends, he loses all the other possibilities open to him. For example, he no longer pays attention to anything that does not fit his purpose. He loses the ability to enjoy ling because he must constantly reinforce his life by accomplishments. The relationship between people is so interdependent that it is impossible for one person to prosper at the expense of another. In the long run such exploitation proves detrimental to both.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 34-35

“The stronger a person’s self-identity–that which we have previously referred to as his or her being a subject–the easier partial renunciation becomes. in borderline situations the expression ‘partial renunciation’ can be applied to the runcination of one’s own life for the sake of the other. However, even then it is impossible for such a person to relinquish his or her identity for the sake of the other. And so one could formulate the thesis: The greater one’s realization of selfhood the greater one’s ability for true renunciation. The more successful one is at living the easier it is for him or her to let go of life.

Creative Disobedience p. 39

“A person can, during the course of his lifetime, become more imaginative, or, on the other hand, he can give u more and more of his phantasy. He then becomes progressively poorer in his style of living and ever more fixed in that which he refers to as his life-experience or his understanding of people. This growing impoverishment of life takes pleasure in assuming the appearance of maturity, in feigning a full awareness of reality.

Creative Disobedience p. 51

“Jesus made people whole without asking for thanks. He fulfilled people’s wishes without requesting their validity. He allowed phantasy full reign without bowing to propriety. he took seriously the religious requirements such as fasting, the breaking of bread, and thanksgiving, but he was also able to put them all aside. He was at ease with friend and foe alike. The conventional classification of people in artificial groupings could be suspended at any time.

“He never brought new virtues and duties. It was fulfillment he offered to those with whom he dealt, a certain sense of wholeness, of well-being, which made virtue and its practice possible. He did not fulfill duties; instead he changed the situation of those whom he met. His phantasy began with the situations but always went far beyond them.”

Creative Disobedience pp. 52-53

“The liberated human being is so strongly aware of him or herself as a self-determining subject that partial denials become possible. The expression ‘partial denial’ may seen inappropriate when it is applied to Jesus, but I use it in order to underscore the fact that a person can never deny his own identity simply at the will of another. In this sense Jesus too never denied his own identity. It is more appropriate to say that his death was the final substantiation of his identity, of the unheard of assertion ‘I am the life.'”

Creative Disobedience p. 58

It appeared to be forgotten that for Jesus ‘God’ meant liberation, the unchaining of all powers which lie imprisoned in each of us, powers with which we too can perform miracles which are no less significant than those we are told Jesus himself performed. The feeling of possessing a full life, the fulfillment of Jesus, was lost. It was as if one wished to promise people something more and greater than the fulfillment of Jesus–a participation in divine life which is realized only after death. With the help of this beyond, this still to come, fulfillment was defamed, and the transformation of this earth in view of the possibilities for fulfillment remained subordinate.

“We still secretly feared that the realization of selfhood could only be achieved at the cost of others, suspected that it was the robbery of others, because we viewed the earth itself and the projected possibilities for fulfillment as constant and immovable. If instead the world is seen as moving toward a goal, if God is experiences as active in history and not merely posited as resting beyond nature, as eternally being, then the possibilities for fulfillment are multiplied. Then phantasy ceases to be a thing for children and poets–that which Christian history has made of it. The person is once again given the courage to say ‘I,’ without, in so doing, taking anything from anyone else.

Creative Disobedience pp. 64-65

In Rags and Wood

Sermon on Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Canticle 15: My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. Amen

Introduction

Sermons on love are often so lofty the subject—God’s love—becomes too other worldly and abstract, beyond human grasp, and of no earthly good. These sermons leave congregants grasping at the actuality of God’s love like grasping at oil; there’s nothing in your hand but the residual of what brushed past it. Preachers get in pulpits on Sunday and proclaim the word of comfort—God loves the beloved and the beloved is us (all of us)—then turn around and make that word so abstract and comfortable the divine love communicated about is not communicated to those who have ears to hear. It’s safer to preach abstract love that doesn’t touch down in the material realm in action and conviction because God forbid those coins cease hitting beloved coffers. We love the idea of divine love for us. If we’re honest, we don’t know what that means apart from some safe ideas we’ve memorized from Sunday school, gathered from the repetition of creeds, and absorbed by the incessant bombardment of dogmas.

Love is a remarkable and profound thing surging through the cosmos since the beginning of time—love neither started with us nor will it end with us. While the neuro response to love—both loving and being loved—is locatable in the brain and we can describe the way it feels, science and her scientists cannot figure out the why or the source or, coupled to attraction, the reason it’s this person and not that person. While society has historically tried to dictate who we can love, love knows not artificial man-made boundaries—love transcends and tears down walls and fences built to keep some in and others out. Love is more than a feeling and full of action in a material world.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God…” (Is. 61:1-2b)

Isaiah begins by confessing: the “spirit of the Lord God is upon” me. He speaks of something beyond comfortable feeling; he speaks of ruah. Ruah, a word used to describe the breath of God animating soil in Genesis, is the spirit of God, the pathos, the passion, and the emotion of God. [1] It is this spirit that is upon Isaiah. This spirit anoints Isaiah…to do what? Not to perform sacrifices, not to stand high and mighty, not to be clad in fancy robe behind tables decorated with gold and fine stone, not to swing incense, to be solemn, or to be feared for his authority. [2] Rather, it’s significantly humbler than we could imagine. Isaiah’s anointing by the spirit of God is to herald good tidings to the oppressed, to bind and have mercy on the suffering, and to proclaim liberty to the captives. In other words, it’s to proclaim to God’s people God’s great love for them.

Isaiah speaks of being endowed with the proclamation of God’s dynamic and active love to God’s people (Ruah). He also speaks of a divine day of favor and divine day of vengeance. Isaiah intentionally throws allusion to the year of Jubilee detailed in the book of Leviticus (cf. chapter 25). The liberative activity of God’s love coming in material form to God’s people is physical and not merely psychological—debts forgiven freeing both the debtor and the creditor. [3] Thus, the juxtaposition here of God’s favor and day of vengeance is intriguing. Make no mistake, Isaiah is intentional with his words. And I’m sure, as we like to do, that day of vengeance is sitting a bit heavy. But don’t lose heart just yet, stay with me; this isn’t bad news. The day of favor and the day of vengeance are one and the same day.

The twin divine decree sounding from Isaiah’s mouth is one of comfort and confrontation, and both are oriented toward the divine art of divine love: God loves God’s people. Isaiah is exhorted by the spirit being upon him…

“…to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion—to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.” (Is. 61:2c-3).

To comfort those who mourn is to confront those who caused the mourning; to take away ashes and crown with garlands is to raise up those who were made low and to remove the distinction with those who were (already) raised up, thus lowering them; to embolden spirits is to give strength to those who are weak making them as strong as those who were strong. To bring comfort to captives through their liberation is to come into confrontation with captors by liberating them from holding captive.* To bring good news to the oppressed is to confront the oppressor and illuminate the oppressor’s own oppression in the system. God’s love liberates all people from violent and oppressive kingdoms of humanity. [4]

“For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed” (Is. 61:8-9)

Isaiah proclaims God’s desire: justice. God loves justice and hates robbery and wrongdoing. Echoing other prophets of Israel: God cares about those who are suffering under and because of unjust systems. For Isaiah and the other prophets of Israel, there is a tight link between God’s love of justice and our right worship. There’s no way around it. You can be the most pious person, wear all the right robes, say the words, bow here and kneel there, you can perform the most sacred of ceremonies, but if you are also actively participate and uphold oppressive and violent systems in word and deed, your worship is “detestable” to God. [5] According to Isaiah, there’s one way to serve God: love. Specifically, the love of neighbor in the pursuit of God defined justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[6]

Let us not forget the way Isaiah opened up this proclamation: ““The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me..” (Is. 1). It’s come full circle. This spirit which is also God’s desire and pathos has become Isaiah’s. [7] The math here is simple: being indwelled with God’s spirit, Isaiah’s desire is the same as God’s: a love of justice and dislike of robbery and wrongdoing. Thus, it is for us. As those encountered by God in the event of faith, brought out of death into new life, that new life in the world is marked by the pathos of God: active love for justice and righteousness, mercy and peace.[8]

Conclusion

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” (Is. 61:11)

God’s will will be done on earth as it is in heaven, Isaiah proclaims. God’s love will triumph. In other words, divine justice and righteousness prevails over injustice and unrighteousness. The day of divine favor for the oppressed will be the day of vengeance for the oppressor and love will win both out of death into life.

But…How? In a dire and precarious way no one expects: a baby born to a young woman. God will descend into the human predicament to suffer the human predicament and will not remain above it. This is divine love: to come low, to descend to the beloved. “The coming of Jesus is the bond, the event of descending love, is the appearing of new life, of life undreamt of, of eternal life in the earthly life.”[9]

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

Love drives us toward and into each other’s burdens, to share the weight, to call things as they are, to provide relief and to comfort. This love knows no bounds, it descends to the depths of human existence, into the muck and mire of suffering and pain and grief; it searches out across vast spaces looking for the beloved who is missing; it surges into the fringes and margins of society to proclaim in word and deed “Beloved” to those who’ve only heard “unlovable”. [10] It’s not found in our personal piety defined by the superiority of our self-righteousness, it’s not found in glory but in humility,[11] not in gold but in wood, not in rich and clean robes in stone buildings but swaddled in rags in a manger.


*The Work of David Justice on Martin Luther King, Jr., and King’s conception of the Beloved Community and Creative Rage does excellently to detail out in more detail how the liberation of the oppressed is good news for the oppressor.

[1] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets NY, NY: JPS, 1962. 315. “The word ruah means, according to standard dictionaries, ‘air in motion, breath, wind, vain things, spirit, mind.’ What was not noticed is that one of the chief uses of the word ruah is to denote pathos, passion or emotion—the state of the soul. When combined with another word, it denotes a particular type of pathos or emotion.”

[2] Heschel Prophets 195 “Sacred fire is burning on the altars in many lands. Animals are being offered to the glory of the gods. Priests burn incense, songs of solemn assemblies fill the air Pilgrims are on the roads, pageantries in the sacred places. The atmosphere is thick with sanctity. In Israel, too, sacrifice is an essential act of worship. It is the experience of giving oneself vicariously to God and of being received by Him. And yet, the pre-exilic prophets uttered violent attacks on sacrifices…”

[3] Brevard Childs Isaiah: A Commentary TOTL. Louisville, KY: WJK 2001. 505. “…the theme of proclaiming liberty in ‘the year of Yahweh’s favor’ (v.2) is formulated in the language of the Jubilee year…and articulates succinctly the great change in Israel’s fortunes initiated through God’s favor. Finally, to ‘bring good tiding’ … is to assume the mantle of the herald…who first sent out the message of God’s return to his people in power.”

[4] Childs Isaiah 506. “It has also been rightly pointed out that the description of Israel’s deliverance has shifted a way from Second Isaiah’s portrayal of captivity and exile to that of release from economic slavery within the land.”

[5] Heschel Prophets 195, “However, while Samuel stressed the primacy of obedience over sacrifice, Amos and the prophets who followed him not only stressed the primacy of morality over sacrifice, but even proclaimed that the worth of worship, far from being absolute, is contingent upon moral living, and that when immorality prevails, worship is detestable.”

[6] Heschel Prophets 195. “Questioning man’s right to worship through offerings and songs, they maintained that the primary way of serving God is through love, Justice, and righteousness.” See also: W. Travis McMaken’s book on Helmut Gollwitzer, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Fortress Press, 2017). “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy,” p. 91.

[7] Childs Isaiah 506. “The speaker in these verses is clearly God, who confirms the word of the servant figure. The grounds for the mission of the one endowed with the spirit in vv. 1-7 rest on God, who loves justice while hating injustice.”

[8] McMaken Our God Loves Justice “These, then, are the principles—or facets of God’s identity as revealed in Jesus Christ—that guide Christian political responsibility: peace, justice, and mercy.” 91 And, Speaking in terms of principle, however, the demand is more exacting…’The conversion to which the Christian community is daily called by God’s Word also includes the renunciation of their integration in the dominant system of privileges and their active exertion for justice, and so for social structures no longer determined by social privileges’…Christians are called to resist the social structures that imbue some with privileges while disadvantaging others.” 113-4 . And, “But if Marx turns theology into politics, Gollwitzer transforms politics into theology. That is, he clarifies for us that there is no such things a theologically neutral political position. Either one advocates and undertakes political steps to combat the socioeconomic privilege that oppresses immense swaths of the world’s population, or one is a heretic—unfaithful to the God encountered in the event of faith. For this ‘wholly other God wants a wholly other society’ in which all forms of privilege are abolished and social structures ever increasingly approximate the true socialism of the kingdom of God. And why does God want this? Because our God loves justice.” 166-7.

[9] Helmut Gollwitzer The Way to Life Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1981. 80.

[10] Gollwitzer 79. “…he did not remain above, did not count his superiority a thing to be grasped at, but came down into human existence, into a slave-existence, to a place where he was spat upon, trodden down, and put to death. Thus anyone who wishes to find the ‘above’ of which the whole Bible speaks, must, w strange though it may seem, go right down below here on earth. The paradox is that what is of the earth, the thought that is of earthly origin, is actually a striving upwards, everyone wants to get on top; while on the contrary what is here called the true divine ‘above’, is a string downwards, and is only to be found at the lowest point of the earth, on the gallows among the most downtrodden and outcast of society, with one who has no longer a place in it, in the grave which is the destiny of us all.”

[11] Gollwitzer 79. “There in the depths the Lord of glory of the religions is not to be found, but the servant God of the Gospel, the ministering, self-sacrificing brother Jesus who ‘and no other one’ is the living Lord of the Gospel.”

Disruptive Comfort

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm 85:8-9: “I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land.” Amen (50)

Introduction

Have you ever thought about the word “comfort”? What is comfort? If you ask me, I may reply with some description of the darker recesses of a library, hidden from sight, nestled among books, coveting the quiet, the alone, and my beloved texts like Gollum and his precious. If you ask one of my children the answer may involve some form of “no school” and “video games” and “friends”.

Comfort is something we describe with adjectives soliciting the tactile senses and align more with “comfortable,” which contends with bodily senses. But are the words “comfortable” and “comfort” synonymous? I’ll argue they’re similar but not interchangeable. When we talk about something being comfortable we imagine some of the images mentioned a moment ago (things that bring us relaxation and pleasure), or a fuzzy robe with corresponding slippers, or a bed, or a couch, or a pair of jeans, or those old sneakers. Comfortable is something that doesn’t disrupt our state of rest; it affirms it. In fact, when presented with too much of what is comfortable, we become complacent with numbness. The old axiom exists for a reason: lethargy breeds lethargy. We can become so comfortable in what is because it is what is, it is familiar and known and doesn’t require that we reach too far out of our own spaces. In fact “comfortable” encourages resistance to anything infringing on that which is comfortable and known and familiar. It’s why change can be so scary.

But comfort is something altogether different because it disrupts us and our rest, our groove or rut, and our familiar and known. To bring comfort to someone is to alter their state in a way so they can catch that breath, breathe a sigh of relief, come down a few notches, and, sometimes, to push us into that scary unknown and unfamiliar.

Comfort comes as a person, a word, a space, an action thus it is disrupting. Something enters our sphere seizes us, speaks to us, creates space for us, and moves us into a different spot.  Comfortable keeps you where you are; comfort moves you. Comfortable is denial; comfort comes with acceptance. Comfortable is the saccharine colloquialism smoothing over tension, sadness, anger, frustration; comfort is the honest, “damn, I’m sorry…” that enters the tension, the sadness, the anger, frustration. Comfortable is pretending you don’t see that dragon; comfort is everyone you know showing up to fight it. When comfort arrives, in whatever form, we are never the same as we were before, and we are altered in some way forever—death into new life.

Isaiah 40:1-11

Through the humble yet bold voice of the prophet Isaiah, God declares, “Comfort, O comfort my people…Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” (40:1-2a). It is time to move Israel from one state to another,[1] and God declares that God’s ministers are to bring comfort to Israel. According to the text, it is God’s presence with Israel that will bring comfort; it’s God’s voice, God’s word that soothes the troubled soul and the broken hearted. Thus, the ministers of God are to bring this voice and this word to God’s people. They are to elevate the heads of the Israelites, much like a mother gently grabs the chin of her distraught child and with love in her eyes and reassurance in her smile moves the child into comfort. Israel is beckoned by the great prophet, look to the Lord your God and be comforted and have joy, for deliverance and restoration come![2]

Israel plagued by captivity and complicity, tumult and turmoil, despondency and desperation needs the good divine word to instill them with profound divine joy. Israel is not only plagued for her own internal and external issues, but by a mutuality in suffering. Israel suffers as the nations around her suffer, too. As they are held captive, so is Israel; as they are in pain, so, too, is Israel. [3] As God feels the pain of God’s people, so does God’s people feel the pain of those around them.

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Is 40:3-5)

Isaiah declares God’s forgiveness, peace, and restoration to Israel; the great comforter comes, joy will exceed sorrow, God’s presence will eliminate exile, redemption will overturn condemnation. Here in Isaiah, God reaffirms that God is their God and they are God’s people. [4] And thus, Israel is commissioned[5] to fulfill Israel’s great call: to be the “herald of good tidings” to the nations, [6] to proclaim the word of God, God’s truth and God’s comfort.[7] “…lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Is 40:9).

The revelation of divine glory will be seen and witnessed and beheld by all. [8] God will gather up God’s flock like a shepherd, God will tend and carry the weak, smoldering wicks God will not snuff out, broken reeds God will not break. God will come for God’s people a group defined no longer by boundary markers, but which will extend beyond Jerusalem to all Judea, into Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Conclusion

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her…Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper… (Lam 1:1-2, 5).

The words of Israel’s lament to God here in these opening verses to the book of Lamentations, echo our current feelings of being abandoned. Lonely, widowed, weeping, held captive by foes, and without comfort. 2020 has thrust us deep into a long season of chaos soliciting our crying out. And while we may be able to find things that are comfortable it’s to numb the discomfort we feel; yet, the more we reach for the comfortable, the further comfort remains. We need not what is comfortable but to be comforted; we need to be disrupted in such a way that we see things as they are for what they are and to feel the umbilical connection to the rest of humanity who is sick, who is in pain, who grieves, and who fights for the right to breathe.

God’s presence has always meant comfort for God’s people manifest in the people’s liberation from captivity by forces internal (Israel’s sin) and external (those who are holding Israel captive)—this is salvation. Thus, the promised divine nativity of the Christ, God born in flesh, will be salvation for all flesh and this salvation is still intrinsically linked with human liberation. And this liberation isn’t solely from mythical forces of evil, threats of hellfire, and the intellectual burden of a burdened conscience. It is bodily liberation from religious tyranny, from marginalization, it is healing from sickness, it is bringing in and bringing together those who have been forced out and into exile by the rulers and authorities, it is dismantling of malignant systems born to create hierarchy between divine image bearers.[9] Jesus is the word of God, the word of comfort, born into the world to save and redeem God’s people…all of God’s people bringing low the high places and raising up the low places. So, we, as those who have been disrupted become disruptive, like Israel declaring the divine word of comfort rousing the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert
far and near, calling us to repentance
since the kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise to meet him
and the hills bow down to greet him.[10]

Advent is a season designed for disruption. The announcement that the divine nativity draws near and being asked to sit and wait and re-experience Israel’s pain and anguish waiting for God to act is to be disrupted in a marvelous way. God’s promised comfort comes and disrupts our comfortableness. Borrowing from Isaiah, John declared, “prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mk 1:3). In the announcement that God comes, we, the comfortable, have been disrupted by the divine word of comfort of the afflicted, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ. The divine word of comfort comes to desperate ears, tired eyes, and exhausted bodies. All is disrupted. Behold, salvation comes to God’s people; the great comforter arrives in flesh to liberate (disrupt the captivity of) the captives.


[1] Isaiah 40:2b-d, “…that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

[2] Abraham J. Heschel Prophets Ny NY: JPS 1962. 152, “To extricate the people from despondency, to attach meaning to their past and present misery, was the task that the prophet and God had in common ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, says your God’ (40:1). And also, ‘I, I am He that comforts you’ (51:12). ‘As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you’ (66:13). His comfort comes from compassion (49:13), and will bring about joy (51:3), deliverance from captivity and the restoration of Zion and Jerusalem.”

[3] Heschel 149, 40:2 “As a rule we reflect on the problem of suffering in relation to him who suffers. The prophet’s message insists that suffering is not to be understood exclusively in terms of the sufferer’s own situation. In Israel’s agony, all nations are involved. Israel’s suffering is not a penalty, but a privilege, a sacrifice; its endurance is s ritual its meaning is to be disclosed to all men in the hour of Israel’s redemption.”

[4] Childs 297, “Most important is that God confirms his relation with the people of Israel. He is their God and they are his people, a formula that reverberates as a distant echo from the ancient covenant tradition.”

[5] Childs 296, “Seitz writes: ‘God speaks again from the divine council as he had done formerly in Israel’s day…[T]he word of God goes forth directly, commissioning the heralds of good tidings’ (245).”

[6] Childs 300, “Zion and Jerusalem are now personified as the evangelists of the good tidings. They are appointed to proclaim the news to the cities of Judah.” And 301, “Zion and Jerusalem are not portrayed simply as awaiting the coming of imminent salvation. Indeed the emphasis is not primarily on the return of the exiles, but focuses foremost on the coming of God. Jerusalem and Zion are now described from the perspective having already received redemption. Their task is rather one of the proclamation of the good news to the remaining cities of Judah.”

[7] Brevard Childs Isaiah TOTL Louisville KY: WJK 2001. 294, “in the prologue of chapter 40 God announces his will for a new dispensation toward Israel of forgiveness, peace, and restoration. His redemptive message is then proclaimed from the heavenly council as a confirmation of the truth of his word, and redeemed Jerusalem is called as a herald of the good tidings.”

[8] Childs 298, “A voice from the heavenly council now picks up the divine message of coming redemption with a cry that continues the urgent imperatives to a plural addressee…Then the imagery of the highway is further expanded. Valleys will be raised, mountains levelled, and the rough terrain made flat. This is in preparation for the unveiling of the glory of God that will be revealed to all.” And 299, V.5 tie to chapter 6 “The prophet overhears the liturgy of the seraphim bearing witness to the whole earth’s being filed with God’s glory. However, the point of his experiencing God’s presence in chapter 6 is that only to the prophet was the revelation disclosed. However, in chapter 40 a sign of the inbreaking of a new age of salvation is that the glory of God will now be revealed to all flesh.”

[9] This paragraph influenced by this quote from James H. Cone For my People: Black Theology and the Black Church  Ny, ny: Orbis, 1984. 80, “In the process of rereading the Bible in the light of black history, black clergy radicals concluded that both biblical and black histories revealed God’s unqualified solidarity with the poor in their fight against injustice. This revelation disclosed God’s salvation as being identical with human liberation. In the United States, black theologians were the first to identify liberation with salvation, and thus with the ore of the Christ gospel. It was in this context that they began to refer to God as the liberator of the oppressed Hebrew slaves in Egypt and to Jesus as the liberator whom God has anointed ‘to preach the goodness to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, an to set a liberty those who are oppressed’ (Luke 4:18, 19, RSV)”

[10] “Comfort, comfort ye my people” hymn 67 v.2