Grateful Ungratefulness

The following segment, running about 5 minutes, is from an event I had the honor of participating in with an organization I’m a member of on behalf of the church I run. The Grand Valley Interfaith Network celebrates THANKSGVIN during the week of Thanksgiving and incorporates a variety of the sacred traditions within the Grand Valley area. Each year there’s a different theme, and all participants are asked to speak (briefly) on that theme from their tradition’s perspective. This year the theme was “Gratitude”, and was hosted by American Lutheran Church pastored by the Rev Valerie Carlson (she’s awesome!). My segment starts at about 55:00, and hopefully I’ve queued it up here (below) correctly. The text is below the video.

I’m ungrateful.

The sun rises and the sun sets; hate still tramples about stealing life from beloved bodies. Joy and rapture cut short while love and acceptance is silenced by violence. Their happiness, their liberty to be, their life unacceptable to those who believe such things are reserved only for the elite, the powerful, the white, the heteronormative, the conforming, those who worship at the altar of Moloch drinking lustfully from terror’s cup, bending the knee to weaponized malevolence, consumed by the venom of malice. This world is colder and dimmer because Daniel Aston, Kelly Loving, Ashley Paugh, Derrick Rump, and Raymond Green Vance no longer participate in this material life, no longer darken doorways of their family and friends, no longer take up beautiful space.

I’m ungrateful.

We are sick; we have an illness. We pretend it’s not wreaking havoc on every cell of our body. We go from one horrific incident to another as if this is all normal. Humans killing humans isn’t normal. Stock piling militarized weapons isn’t normal. Our silence is acceptance of conditions not oriented toward life, isn’t that abnormal? Think about it. Where is our desire to live? Where is our verve for liberation? Where is our fight against death? Why are we rolling over, pulling the covers over our head, and waiting for the next incident to flicker onto and illuminate our screens? When do we stand up in this boat being rocked by the appetite of voracious and rancorous waves and winds and sound our maternal yawp protecting our own? How many more lives must be lost before we holler our divine spirit’s “No!”? How many children, brothers, sisters, moms and dads, lovers and friends, must be violently and suddenly yanked way before we tell those damned waves and winds to shut up and sit down? How long? How many more? Do we not care?

I’m ungrateful.

I’m a pastor; I’m called to serve life not death. I’m a child-bearer; I’m called to push forth life not death. I’m a teacher; I’m called to cause space and place for life to thrive and not death. I’m an ethicist; I’m called to advocate for life over death. I’m a human; I’m called to share and participate in life with others in retaliation against death. So, I’m ungrateful because this society repeatedly chooses death over life, and I’m not okay with it because it goes against who I am and my calling, it rails against a God of life and love, and puts those whom I love—those whom I’m charged to love by God—in grave threat and danger. But then, as I linger here in my ungratefulness, my anger, my frustration, my solidarity with those whom I love I realize: they are worth fighting for. You are worth fighting for, life and love are worth fighting for. And, for that I am very, very, very grateful.

The Untamed God of Life

Sermon on Luke 21:5-19

Canticle 9 Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in God and not be afraid. For God is my stronghold and my sure defense, and God will be my Savior. Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing from the springs of salvation.

Introduction

In CS Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver says this about Aslan,

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

CS Lewis does a great job telling a fantastic story pointing to something beyond us. Aslan, the lion—Lewis’s representation of God in Christ, the one whom Mr. Beaver is talking about, is an untamed lion, the one no one controls and whom no one can determine and disclose. Aslan is big, striking, protective and inviting, warm and fierce, and full of life—death can’t hold this lion.

What’s striking to me is how trapped we are in thinking God is rather tame, small, quaint, proper, more concerned about etiquette than existence. We prefer the pocket-sized God, neatly tucked into back-pockets and handbags. This tiny-origami God is a very small God who could never reverse the laws of nature surrounding the scientifically demonstrated irreversibility of life and death, would never dare do anything disrupting the status quo, and is completely practical and predictable. We don’t much like Mr. Beaver’s unsafe, disruptive Aslan.

Funny thing is, I can’t find our tame and safe God among the splendor and magnificence of the cosmos from the smallest star in our night sky to the brilliant light of the noon sun, or in the technicolor coat of the flora covering the earth, nourishing the equally diverse and rich clusters of fauna calling earth home. Tell me where this safe and tame God is within the First and Second testaments. From the first page to the very last, the entire Bible speaks of a God who is big and quite untamed: a God willing to contend with Israel’s oppressors, destroy temples, tear open the earth, divide waters to the right and left, flip tables, whisper instead of yell, be born vulnerable and die as such, and call forth the living from the dead.

All that to say: God is not small. God is not tame or safe. An encounter with God will sweep you up into God through death and into new life. Even if we prefer to shrink God, make God safe, tame, and predictable, God refuses our insistences and remains big, forever outside of our grasp, and beyond the limits of our imaginations. So, to quote Mr. Beaver with slight alteration, “‘Tame? … Who said anything about tame? ‘Course [God] isn’t tame…’”

Luke 21:5-19

“Now, before all of these things they will place their hands upon you, and they will persecute, delivering [you] to the synagogues and prisons, being lead to kings and governors on account of my name. It will become to you a witness. Therefore, fix in your heart not to premeditate in order to give an account of yourself. For I, I will give you speech and wisdom which all who oppose you will not be able to resist or contradict. And you will be delivered also by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of my name. And not a hair from your head will be destroyed. In your enduring you will acquire your soul.”[1]

Lk 21:12-19

Luke begins by telling his audience about what the coming demise[2] of the temple.[3]In reply to some casual admiration of the structural magnificence of the temple, Jesus says: these things which you gaze, a day will come in which not one stone upon another stone will be left alone.[4]I imagine the look of the disciples communicated something between: Way to cut to not-so-casual warnings pertaining to the end times, and

It’s this awkward entrance through warnings of the temple’s total destruction that Jesus ushers in a(nother) discussion about how to exist after he’s gone: be on your guard because God’s great reversal will bring a bunch of discomfort![5]Jesus follows up by promising that it wont go well for those who proclaim good news in Jesus’s name. He alerts them to keep their eyes open, Watch(!)[6] [so that] you might not be led astray! Jesus declares that many men will come in my name saying, I, I am and the time has come near!” Then, as they are still perceiving, he tells them to keep their ears open so that whenever you may hear of wars and upheavals, be not struck with panic!And then he adds as a rejoinder, these will not be the end but the first things. He goes on, nation will rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom, there will be great earth quakes and in many places famines and pestilences, there will be scares and great signs of heaven. Jesus then makes it personal, oh, and in case you thought you would escape it, they’ll come for you, too…and by “they” I mean your own darn family. Those who follow the Christ and proclaim his message will end up experiencing the same rejection and fate he did.[7]

Starting with the spiritual realm (represented by the Temple) through the temporal realm (represented by the advent of false Christs and national, tectonic, and viral chaos), to the deeply personal realm, Jesus indicates in all-encompassing fashion that God’s great reversal will consume their whole entire lives. There will be nowhere to run where you don’t suffer some exposure to death on a personal level as God rights wrongs, brings justice where there has been injustice, liberates the captives, unburdens the oppressed, brings in the ostracized, heals the sick, and resurrects the dead. [8] Be prepared; it will be very hard!

This is the good news? What happened to my safe and comforting God? Where did my tame God go?

According to Jesus, the tame God is a myth of status-quo proportions.[9] There is no way to live in both ages—this one and that one—at the exact same time and without disruption to one or the other.[10] Consider this passage a blown-up version—cosmically big—of Jesus’s previous discussion about mammon: you cannot serve both God and mammon. Thus, you cannot follow the Christ, live into the message and activity of Christ, represent Christ when he’s gone, and think that the world is going to be fine with it. They won’t be, not even the one who bore you. This all feels like so much. Where is the hope in the midst of the advent of the new age, where is the good news in the wake of this untamed God?

It’s here in what Jesus says by way of closing. He doesn’t leave them without a word of comfort. Rather, he presses into the promises of God, But, BUT in all of it I’ll be with you, and you’ll not be destroyed (not even a hair on your head will be lost) for in this active endurance you’ll gain your soul because you’ll be found in God and God lives![11]In other words, I might be gone, but I am with you[12] as you are with each other in solidarity;[13] wherever two or three are gathered together, I am in their midst. Whether you live or die, I am with you and you’ll not be lost or destroyed. Jesus’s God is a big, untamed God bringing a great reversal ushering in the new age teeming with life and destroying the old age burdened by death. This great reversal isn’t easy for anyone. But, take heart Beloved; this untamed God is the author of love and life, and where love and life are death and destruction cannot be also… So, Beloved, hold tight, stand firm together, take heart the fight for life is worth it for you are on God’s side. Beloved, rejoice and behold …

Conclusion

Isaiah 65:17-25

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.

But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;

for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;

no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.

No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;

for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;

for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.

They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;

for they shall be offspring blessed by the [God]–
and their descendants as well.

Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox;
but the serpent– its food shall be dust!

They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, says [God].


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 238. “The siege and destruction of Jerusalem are described in terms, and even with words, that are parallel to the account of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Verses 12-19 are almost an outline of what Luke will later tell in Acts about the subsequent history of the Christian community, although obviously the phrase ‘not a hair of your head will perish’ must be taken as either a hyperbole or even better as a sign that even death is not defeat, for at the time of this writing Luke already knew of the deaths of at least Stephen and James. Even before the tall of Jerusalem and its awesome events of death and destruction, the disciples of Jesus will be persecuted.”

[3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 733. “The Jerusalem temple admired by those with Jesus was the project of Herod the Great, who in 20/19 B.C.E. began a reconstruction of the temple that essentially doubled its size and otherwise reflected his own aggrandizing character. Pilgrims pouring into the city from the rustic environs of Palestine and the wider diaspora could not help but be impressed, even overwhelmed, by its sheer size and magnificence, by the brilliance of the gold plates that covered its façade, and by (he while marble that adorned its upper reaches, 12 What is more, its splendor as an architectural feat would have been for the faithful more than matched by the awe it inspired as the abode of God and socio-religio-political center of the Jewish universe. Jesus’ emphatic prediction of total annihilation (leaving no “stone upon stone”), echoing his earlier words in 19:44 as well as prophetic oracles of judgment in the OT, must have been stunning on both accounts.”

[4] Gonzales, Luke, 236-237. “The rest of chapter 21 is devoted to a series of announcements and warnings about the time to come, or rather, to what is constructed as a single discourse about future events and the disciples’ lives as they await such events. The setting is the temple, where Jesus has been teaching, and the occasion is the admiration of ‘some’ not necessarily the disciples. In response to such admiration, Jesus comments that the time will come when even the temple will be utterly destroyed, a destruction so thorough that “not one stone will be left upon another.”

[5] Gonzales, Luke,237. “For these reasons, it seems best to interpret the text as bearing the same general thrust as many of the parables of stewardship: telling the disciples how to behave while awaiting the end. On this score, Jesus’ main warning is not to believe any who claim to know when the end will come…”

[6] Green, Luke, 735. “They are not to follow after those making such claims, but neither are they to respond in terror. They are, instead, ‘to watch,’ to exercise their faith in such a way that they have insight into what God is doing.”

[7] Green, Luke, 736. “‘Persecution’ is the heading under which this material can be gathered – persecution resulting from the identification of Jesus’ followers first with his message and then, consequently, with his fate.”

[8] Gonzales, Luke,239-240. “But we prefer a ‘gospel’ without eschatology—a ‘good news’ without hope—because for many of us such ‘good news’ is not so good. We prefer a gospel without eschatology, because the good of the great reversal that Luke has been proclaiming all along does not seem so good to us. If the promised great reversal is for the benefit of sinners rather than properly religious folk, for the exploited, for the poor, for those who have no other hope, where does that leave us? How can such a reversal be a promise of hope for us who are now, so to speak, on top of the heap? This is why, while for most Christians eschatology is a matter of hope, for many others it has become a matter of fear. When the latter is the case, change ceases being a promise and becomes a threat.”

[9] Green, Luke, 736. “The coming resistance is, according to Jesus, not limited to that exacted by official bodies within Judaism and the realm of Rome, but would extend as well to one’s own kin. The inventory of those who would betray the faithful is reminiscent of the list in 14:12, including those with whom, under normal je wo… share relationships of mutual trust and reciprocity. The coming of the kingdom, however, renders normal conventions obsolete, with the result that the faithful have repeatedly been called upon to redraw kinship lines, to find their familial attachments with those ‘who hear the word of God and do it’ (esp. 8:21; cf. 18:29). Of course, it is precisely this disregard for normal conventions, this embracing of the purpose of God as it unfolds in and overtakes the present world order, that leads to the despising of Jesus’ disciples among those who fail to recognize or serve God’s redemptive project. Marked as deviants by their behavior, they will find themselves detested, by those who uphold the accepted protocols of their social world.”

[10] Gonzales, Luke,240. “There is only one way, and it is to this that Jesus refers in verses 12-19. It is the way of living now as those who know that a different future awaits. It is a difficult way, for those who live out of a different order than the existing one will necessarily clash with the present order. The good news does not at first sound so good: ‘they will arrest you and persecute you… You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death.’ This sounds so alien to us! Persecuted for being a Christian? Rejected by family and friends for our faith? That may have been true in the first century, but not in these enlightened times…

[11] Green, Luke, 737. v. 18 “Its proximity to v 17 suggests, further, the Jesus promises that persecution, even death, does not spell the end of life for the faithful.”

[12] Green, Luke, 737. “Moreover, Jesus thus portends his continual presence with the disciples even as they face the tribunal, following his death; only with the onset of Acts do we understand fully that he will be present to the community of his followers by means of the Holy Spirit poured out among them. That this witness cannot withstood or contradicted finds ready fulfillment in Acts 4:14; 6:10, as well. This, however, does not guarantee that the testimony of Jesus’ witnesses will win the day, only that the resistance they attract and even the executions they undergo are not to be perceived as testimony against the truth or vitality of their witness or the authenticity of their understanding of God’s purpose. This is a pivotal message for Jesus’ disciples, who thus far have been unable to correlate humiliation and suffering with the divine purpose (e.g., 9:44-50; 18:31-34).”

[13] Gonzales, Luke,240-241. “What then about those of us who are not poor or disinherited, whose religion makes us socially respectable, whose mainline churches are the moral and social mainstay of our communities? If all that Luke says about the great reversal is true, there is only one way open to us: solidarity. The doctor of the law cannot suddenly become a Samaritan. He is who he is. The only alternative left to him is to act like the good Samaritan. The Pharisee cannot leave behind his faith, his piety, and his obedience to the law. The only alternative left to him is to join ‘sinners’ in their pain and their trust in God. Zacchaeus cannot undo the evil he may have done while becoming rich on the basis of exploitation and collaboration with an oppressive regime. The only alternative left to him is to use the wealth and the power he has acquired to undo as much as he can of the evil he has produced. Those of us whom society considers ‘mainline’ Christians must understand that the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the promise and hope of the great reversal, make the very phrase ‘mainline Christian’ a contradiction in terms-that the very name of ‘Christian’ requires being at the sidelines, at the margins where people suffer and are exploited or ignored. This is the proper consequence of genuine Christian hope—and it is precisely for that reason that we would much rather leave eschatology aside.”

Whom Do You Serve?

Sermon on Luke 16:1-13

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Luke 16:1-13

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

Luke 16:10-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothee Sölle, Choosing LIfe, 97.

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[19] Sölle, Choosing Life, 7.

To Live and To Love is To Change

Sermon on Jeremiah 18:1-11

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah 18:1-11

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

(Jer. 18:1-6)

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[6] ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love + Action = Freedom

Psalm 77:13-15 13 Your way, O God, is holy; who is so great a god as our God? You are the God who works wonders and have declared your power among the peoples. By your strength you have redeemed your people, the children of Jacob and Joseph.

Introduction

The way freedom is spoken of today leaves little to be desired. It’s a big concept, described by truncated language reduced to me and mine. While there is some me and mine involved with the concept and the working out of freedom, it doesn’t end there.

To conceive of freedom as strictly how I’m unrestricted by the demands of another renders the concept of freedom malnourished. Does freedom even exist apart from another? If I’m isolated to myself, do I know what freedom is? The discussion is moot; I’m neither free nor not free. I’m just without demands from others. I’m (essentially) free from others for myself.[1] It’s a perpetual turning in of the self, rendering the self wrong-side-out,[2] and locked in its own prison of death. Here, isolation informs the need to pull further and further apart from others, and in that space grows the evil of the devaluation of the other to the point where the other is the enemy.

Freedom, to be something worthwhile (something that one would literally risk life and limb) must be something that exists with others. To be free while still in the presence of another is true freedom. You are you as you are and I am me as I am me; as different as we are, we affirm each other—self-differentiated and together—two Is forming a we of yous. I’m not restricted by you, but voluntarily restrict myself to see to your thriving. This voluntary self-restriction is freedom because I freely enter into it for you. I’m (essentially) free from myself for others. It’s a contagion of affirmation, rendering the self right-side-out, liberated into the realm of life. Here, togetherness informs the need to see myself more and more a part of the group, and in that space the other’s liberation becomes my liberation and love informs my action for the other who is beloved.

Galatians 5:1,13-25

For liberty [a state of freedom from slavery] Christ liberated us. Therefore, persevere and be not ensnared again to the yoke of slavery.
For you, you are summoned into liberty, brothers and sisters, only not liberty for the occasion for the flesh, but through love be slaves to one another. For all the law has been fulfilled in one word, in which “You love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite [harm seriously] one another and you eat up [injure seriously] one another, beware (!) you do not consume one another.[3]

(Gal 5: 1, 13-15)

Our friend, Paul, spends much of Galatians working out the concept of freedom of the person in the encounter with God in the event of faith. For Paul, as mentioned last week, we are liberated from a problematic (idolatrous) relationship with the law; a relationship that rendered our obedience to the law ultimate, and love of God and of neighbor as penultimate. You don’t need the law to inform your love of God and of others, rather you need the love of God and of others to inform your relationship to the law.

Jesus is the hinge upon which all realignment hangs. When Christ is proclaimed, there God is encountered; where God is encountered, the divine Spirit of Love resurrects those who were once dead in themselves and ushers them into new life. This new life, according to Paul in Galatians 5, is about freedom informed by the spirit and activity of love. This new life is freedom from the law for others; this new life is the business of law serving love and love serving others. Remember: in the encounter with God in the event of faith, according to the philosophical and theological logic of Galatians, our misalignment to the law is broken and we’re re-centered (each of us) with our faces turned to God and (thus) necessarily to our neighbor and the world (those whom and that which God loves very much).

So, for Paul, if freedom is inherently connected to the reordering of love of God and love of neighbor, why drag in that which is septic and toxic: our misalignment to the law? Paul isn’t an antinomian; Paul isn’t arguing for the law’s abrogation (a word defined as, “the act of formally ending a law, agreement, or custom). Thus, law isn’t gone; it’s just the law, it’s been debarked, it’s become a tool for us to use so that love + action = freedom. In other words, when I enter a space with others, I’m motivated by love for them and either reject or submit to whatever law brings the other life. In that this rejection or submission brings life to my neighbor, I find myself liberated here, too, because now there’s more freedom spreading about and thus more love informed action. In this equation, the law isn’t lord, love is.

While I know the church has done a dastardly job not allowing many people—not part of the dominant group—to be themselves, I have to add that both Paul and Jesus advocate for the full receipt of self. Jesus exhorts one finds themselves when they lose themselves; Paul advocates for a sense of other demanding a real and present self. Both argue for the death of the self from the prison of the self, which does not end in death for death’s sake (this would be the death of the self ending in no self) but in new life (of the self) which is categorically re-oriented for others informed by the love of God’s life-giving Spirit. Herein is freedom: a substantiated self who loves and acts for the other, calling out death-dealing systems and refusing to ever again be yoked to slavery to the law in such a way that the law triumphs over love and over the other.

To solidify his point, Paul highlights what works look like when trapped in the prison of the self unliberated from the self, and he compares those works to the fruits of a self liberated from the self for others. I won’t deliberate long on those, for that’s an entirely different sermon. But when you get a chance, look at the difference and see where love + action = freedom; where that formula is lacking there you will find death, and where it is present you will find life.

Conclusion

Dorothee Sölle writes,

“Unless we are free, we cannot be instruments for the liberation of anyone else. And what prevents us from being free? Anxiety. Liberation is a problem which first begins within us, of not having any anxiety about the consequences. We can have anxiety, but we must control this anxiety. It is anxiety in the sense that we recognize the risk; otherwise it would be blind.”[4]

Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God

What Sölle is getting at here is, essentially, the liberation of the self from the self that is the seat of “being free”. Anxiety is a driving force helping us to protect the self from disaster; but it can also grow so large that it renders us useless in the prison of the self. Rather than just command people not to be anxious and just lose themselves, she articulates a need of self-mastery and self-differentiation that is informed by love of God and love of others. I can see my anxiety, acknowledge my anxiety, and then move forward with my anxiety. This momentum begins the freedom starting within and rippling outward into realms with others.

In other words, love of the other drives us to secure life for others. Is this not the gospel story of God’s love for the world manifest in Jesus the Christ from Nazareth who loved others with God’s Spirit of Love even to the point of his own death? Then, as those who follow Jesus out of the Jordan to the Cross, is this not also our story individually as Christians and corporately as the church? Aren’t we to be those willing to love others beyond our own anxiety so that there is life and liberation for all? When did Christianity and the Church become the message about the laws of power and privilege, the law of the self over and against the other? When did we lose ourselves to our pews and the obligations of standing and sitting for an hour on Sunday?[5] When did the church forget that she’s more than a coffee hour and is a little bit dangerous in a world bent in on itself?[6]

There’s no way around it: love is risky because love risks the security of the self for the security of the other. Love isn’t some saccharine feeling that ends in peace signs and always feeling good. Love propels us beyond ourselves for others and (paradoxically) in this activity we become more ourselves. And herein is freedom, beloved: to be those who are substantially for others with love and corresponding loving action that shakes the foundations of the world. In other words, we love as we were first loved by God, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit of love.


[1] Grateful to Holly Tran for mentioning this for aspect to the way freedom is considered in America.

[2] This is the logical trajectory of Ayn Rands Objectivism and its promotion of the selfish.

[3] Translation mine, unless otherwise noted.

[4] Dorothee Sölle, Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990. First Eng. Ed SCM Press, 1990. 129.

[5] Sölle, Thinking About God, 144. “One of the main dangers of Protestantism lies in its excessive stress on the kerygma, or more properly, on the kerygma reduced to preaching. The church is regarded as the place where preaching is done. Church takes place between ten and eleven on Sunday morning. The two other functions of the church disappear from view and hardly affect the ordinary members of the congregation. …“If church de facto consists in sitting still for an hour on Sunday without getting to know anyone else, the unity of kerygma, diakonia and koinonia is destroyed. How can any life develop which deserves the name ‘church’, in the sense of the assembled people of God?””

[6] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017. 150-1. “What overcomes this ecclesiastical banality is encounter with the church’s resurrected Lord, with ‘the Easter story [that] broken into our world, bringing with it a power, a world-overcoming revolution, which makes everything different in our life, which forces the church into a totally different direction.’ This encounter delegitimizes the church’s banality and demands that the church become an agent in proclaiming this world-overcoming revolution through word and deed. Instead of leaving the church to its comfortable domestication, ‘the one thing that matters for the church is that she should be both a danger and a help to the world.’ Gollwitzer’s ecclesiology calls for a dangerous church because a church that is not dangerous is not help at all.”

Love Me Again

Before any of you were, you were with me.
Deeply embedded in the folds of my skirt,
hidden from light’s illumination, cloaked
in my warm darkness, protecting you.

Having to release you into that other realm,
kills me each and every time; my heart breaks.
We were one and now we’re rent asunder,
and a piece of me always leaves with you.

I know you intimately, even when you go
into that other existence, and I long for you
to come back to me; arms aching to feel you
once again held, enfolded in my embrace.

I wish you knew how much I miss you.
I watch you as you move through one stage
into another; form and shape changing, grow-
ing, learning. I watch and smile. I’m proud.

I keep my distance, though; this is not my place, my
realm, or my existence. Sometimes I forget myself and
get too close to you, and you see and feel my shadow’s
presence. Look of horror! I weep, receiving your hate.

Nothing changes how much I love you; rejection and
and denial cannot actually refuse me my existence.
You still carry with you a piece of me just as I still carry
that piece of you with me. You cannot forget me. Ever.

I’m threaded through everything; bringing forth the
echo to the sound, the shade to the light, the shadow
to the brightness, the undertone to the overtone; the
background to the foreground. Yet, I’m the villain.

“The Enemy” some call me. Oh! the books and papers
that have been written about me over the surge of all
time. A few get close, some too far afield, none really
know me; verbal streams feeding into the great void.

I’m painted as the one who devours, as if I’ve no love;
I’m decked with the cloth of tyrants, as if I’m boundless.
I’m cast as the pernicious rogue choosing my hapless
victims, as if my heart does not break with your pain.

My embrace at the end of your journey is not cold
but warm. I bring peace as I enfold you, my beloved,
back into me. Reverse birth, back into my womb.
And here you remember me; I’m threat no more.

I’m not the termination of Life; I’m the source and the return.
I’m in Life as much as Life is in me; we are friends, not enemies.
We’re twins, God’s Love coursing through all creation this side and that.
Her crown gleams in the sun light; mine glimmers under the moon.

Fear not the transition, my dear beloved ones.
Love leaves you not in one moment to the next.
From her hand you are passed into my arms;
I fold you into me, and you love me again.

Our Stories This Story: The Old

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.

Sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14

Psalm 126: 5-7 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev. Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Introduction

“I have enough years under my belt to feel the conflict of knowing what I’m doing and not knowing what I’m doing. Or maybe I should say: I’m old enough to know I once thought I knew what I was doing. Now, I’m not so sure I did. I wish I had done some things differently, maybe thought a bit longer about certain things? I don’t know. Age has its benefits, hindsight is 20/20, and my body really hurts. … Yes, I’ve seen humanity get through war and violence; I’ve seen social unrest sooth; I think I’ve even seen progress made through struggle and fight, but now I don’t know…did I imagine it? Gosh, my heart breaks for the younger generations; I feel their pain so deeply. I wish I could share hope, but I don’t know if they’d listen, or if they even want to hear from me… Sometimes I feel like they just don’t have a use for me or for my stories or my experience and learned wisdom…I just feel pointless, shuffled off to the side, in the way, my fire and flame are gone, I’m burnt out.”[1]

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

We do not treat our older generation as well as we should. It seems our society has decided that if you can’t work, you aren’t worth anything. If you can’t participate in productive society, pull your weight, carry your load, bear your burden (physically), then you aren’t worth anything to the group. So, off you go! The voices of experience pushed to the fringe, just like slower drivers get pushed to the side. If you can’t keep up, get off the road! In a fast paced, strong-only, autonomous society, where does our older generation find its place?

In the telling of their stories.

But we’re a society that’s sacrificed our storied nature to unhealthy relationships with toil, to forced isolation of the middle age of parenting, to silencing the youth. We’ve grown so backwards in our relationships that we have forgotten how to allow ourselves the time to sit at the feet of those wiser and more storied than we are. We’re so separated from one another—generationally speaking—that we fight against each other rather than listen, criticize each other rather than see the likeness, blame each other rather than receive.

And yet…the irony. We’re genetically constructed material stories of generations long, long past. The way our face is shaped, the color of our hair, the sway of our walk, the way you kick your leg when it’s crossed over the other one, that look he gives when he’s appalled, the way they say that word…it’s all passed down; potentially decades and centuries of mannerisms and genetics and traits passed down and we—each of us—are that miraculous material story. And here we are disregarding the story-tellers…

In priding ourselves in our strength, ability, productivity, and usefulness we’ve lost sight of the necessity of the guidance and hindsight of those who have walked this earth longer than we have. When we focus so much on the accolades of our utility, we won’t have time for the story-tellers because doing is better than listening; activity is better than passivity; to be able is better than to be unable; to give is better than to receive. But this mindset creates a sick and malnourished people, trapped in the hubris of the façade of our various strengths and autonomy, caught in the hierarchy of doing and abledness that perpetuates the fear that when I can’t any longer, I’m pointless.

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone thinks to have another confidence with respect to the flesh, I [have] more. Circumcision on the 8th day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews, according to the law, a Pharisee, according to zeal a persecutor of the congregation, according to righteousness which came by the law, blameless. But whatever gain it was to me, these things I consider loss through Christ. But more than that, I consider all things to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, through whom all things I have lost, and I consider refuse so that I might gain Christ and I might be found in him…

Phil. 3:4b-9a

When it comes to a contest of perfection, Paul knows exactly where he’d fall: the top of the heap, lead dog of the pack, the honcho of honchos. Make no mistake, Paul was exactly what he claimed to be: excellent, according to law and status. He had and was all that his society esteemed as excellent, good, right, the “who” of “who’s”. While we may want to cast stones at him for bragging too much; let’s hold off for a moment. Rather, let’s see what he’s saying in this context to this audience, the Philippians.

Paul had everything; this is his confession first and foremost. Hey, Philippians, I was the cream of the crop! But he doesn’t stop there because it doesn’t mean anything to Paul now… But now, he counters, I count it all—every accolade, every achievement, every accomplishment, every status—as dung. In a world where status, strength, doing, and achieving are everything, Paul calls BS (and yes, that word “refuse” or “dung” can also be translated in a more vivid way…). In other words, for Paul, all of that emphasis on doing and achieving, being able and strong, top and best, perfect in the eyes of others and according to human made structures, means absolutely, positively nothing. It’s garbage. It’s refuse. It’s dung. It’s… whatever word you want there.

Paul desires not to be known by what he can do; rather Paul wants to be known by what Christ has done. Paul desires not to be known by his achievements, doing, and abledness, but by this crazy story of God incarnate loving humanity and the cosmos so much that God would not only take on flesh, but would also suffer on the hard wood of the cross—an instrument of death of the state—judged as the least and lowest of society, unworthy of life and liberty…worthy only of death. This is the story Paul wants decorating the hallways and aisles of his mind and body, of his history and future. Paul opts for this story as the thing to pass on; not his accolades and achievements. He desires to pass on his weakness and not his strength.

Conclusion

We need to do better by our story tellers. As Christians, we’ve no excuse in giving preference to the capable able-bodied, the strong doers, the decorated achievers. I’m not saying that we now treat those who can poorly; rather, we must treat all of us with the same dignity and equality, the same love and reverence, the same importance and need as we treat those who are able to carry their own.

Dr. Dorothee Sölle in her book, Suffering, argues for an understanding of Christianity highlighting this errant dichotomy between those who can and those who cannot. She articulates that Christianity isn’t for the abled, but for the unabled.

“Christianity exists for slaves. It is the religion of the oppressed, of those marked by affliction. It concerns itself with needs. People are pronounced blessed not because of their achievements or their behavior, but with regard to their needs. Blessed are the poor, the suffering, the persecuted, the hungry…I am not referring to the religion of slavery which perpetuates slavery, but rather to the religion of those unfortunate for a time to time to whom life is promised. Their suffering, their rights, their truth are expressed.”[2]

Dorothee Sölle “Suffering” 159-160

Blessed are the weak, blessed are those who receive, blessed are those who can’t any longerBlessed are those whose bodies hurt, whose eyes have seen, whose hands have done, and whose stories hold deep and profound truth, wisdom, and hope.  

No life is more valuable than another based on placement in time; no body is more valuable than another based on what it can and cannot do; no one is more valuable than another based on strength and accolades. If we want a human society worthy of the declaration “truly human” we must make more room for our story-tellers; we are nothing without them. They, holding hands with the youth, form the basis of hope and possibility for those of us caught in the middle. 

The story we have been given, the one we are walking through right now affirms the nobility, dignity, and beauty of bodies and lives and people, of flora and fauna, of creation and cosmos. Christ came to give life to those who were deprived of it. Christ came to liberate the captives. Christ came to unburden the burdened. Christ came to give humanity a better story than the one they’d written for themselves and deemed good. Christ came to give them a story that is very good. Christ came to give us—all of us—a story that brings each of us, no matter where we are on our journey, life…life abundant.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

[2] Sölle Suffering 159-160; see also pages 161-162, specifically, “It is in fact the religion of those who have been disinherited and condemned by life. Contrary to all vitalism and all worship of the healthy and strong, Christianity sees life better preserved by those who have already died once. God ‘will not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smouldering wick’ (Isa. 42:3, NEB)—contrary to all principles of selection.” See also Dr. W. Travis McMaken’s text, Our God Loves Justice, p. 176, quoting Helmut Gollwitzer, “The goal of the disciples’ service is a society that gives equality to their unequally endowed members and gives each member the chance for a full unfolding of life: where the strong help the weak, where production stands in the service of all, where the social product is not siphoned off by privileged minority so that only the modest remainder is at the disposal of the others, a society that ensures appropriate regulation of freedom and of social co-determination for all, the development of social life for the common task and for rich purpose in life for all members of society.”

Rebirth

The backside of loneliness is longing; or
maybe the backside of longing is loneliness.
Either way both forces seem to draw forward
and backward, surging sideways: left and right
grabbing and dragging its victim into its shadow
and there pummeling it with once held dreams
and desires, leaving shapes and husks of human
form once was. Hissed and slithered words of
comfort uttered from longing and loneliness add
insult to the injuries, conjuring up consuming
spirits from the belly of fear: you are nothing.
Whispered words from the consuming darkness
of the shadow encompassing your entire being
as you lay on your own cold ground among the
shards and shrapnel of those dreams and desires.
And you give in. You succumb. You agree. Yes.
I am nothing
. Nothing else comes up; no other
words present, no other thought arises, no other
comes to your rescue. No one can see you in
this tormenting and tortuous moment. Loneliness’s
weight grows heavier as longing steals more and
more of your form and shape, pulling strands of
inner life out like pulling and stretching playdough
until there’s not enough firmness and resistance
to snap back. Elastic broken; shape broken. And
again to sooth the pain of this madness you agree:
I am nothing. And again: I am nothing. And again:
I am nothing. Love is gone now. Confidence has
fled. I am nothing. Light has been eclipsed by the
shadows and oppressive darkness. And then:
out loud: I am nothing. The words are bullets.
The strength of confession is that the thing con-
fessed becomes real and external, a life of its
own over which and at which you can look and
examine, peering at this side and that side.
In the concession I am nothing, you become
something. And like conception of your being
happening all over again, you are reborn. I am
something
. To speak these words, to affirm, I
am something
. Dark and shadow dissipate and
begin to slip off. I am something. Hands touch
now reanimated and emboldened substance.
I am something. And for this moment, as you sit
regathering and regathered, you watch as you
witness the backside of longing trail away and
you wave goodbye to loneliness and longing…

Unpitiable Hope

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Psalm 1:1-3a Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful! Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on [God’s] law day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water.

Introduction

I fear hope has gone the way of bathwater when a bath is over: swirling down the drain. The phrase, “I hope so” seems to carry the same force as “thoughts and prayers.” I think we’ve lost some of our willingness to be creative. Creativity takes on a forward-action of momentum; in creating, I move into the space where there is nothing with my hands, feet, head, heart, words, thoughts, actions and put something there. I believe the concept of hope carries this same action-oriented ability (hope and creativity seem to run on the same fuel of imagination); as of late, hope seems stripped of any forward action. When we use the word, it falls from our lips with a downtrodden lilting tone flirting with despair and heavy with doubt; our hands appear tied behind our back as we whisper the phrase to some unknown force and wait for intervention, like waiting on a superhero who will (hopefully) arrive just in time.

I don’t think it’s only an issue of creativity. I think we’ve emphasized too much intellectualism, rationalism, reasonability, and sensibility defined as “common sense.” We’ve allowed what is to triumph over what could be or might be or would be; we’ve stolen away with possibility and shoved it in the attic cranny or the basement closet of the house of actuality: what “is” is best and what isn’t “is” is worst. But if this is our axiom, then isn’t this axiom a death sentence? We’re stuck, if this is our paradigm. Doubly stuck if our hands are tied behind our back. What point is there in having hope if all there is is what we see; we know we don’t hope in things seen especially if all our world and society present is tumult and chaos…

The ultimate problem is a confusion of hope and expectation. When we consider hope we think about something we expect to happen in the future. In this way, hope is that thing that has (as of late) disappointed rather than pleased. I’m quite familiar with theologians, both alive and dead, who have no room for hope in their theologies. I’ve always marveled at such a stance but haven’t judged it because I get it. When hope fails to produce material or spiritual alterations to our life—extricating it from the burden of bludgeoning demoralization or the monotony of the mundane—it makes sense to ditch it. If my hope keeps presenting as dreaming of phantoms of good and better, rather than material bodily presence, then it’s nothing but that which perpetually disappoints me. It’s the mythological carrot of sadistic King Future luring on the peasants of the present eager to steal their labor and love.[1]

Sadly, we’ve conflated future expectation and present hope. When I’ve read through the First Testament and the recorded stories of Israel’s journey and walk with God, Israel’s hope in God is a ripe present hope based on historical stories hallmarking the past: we hope now because God has done… Today we can press on because yesterday God saw us through it.

Hope keeps an eye on history for the present; future expectation uses history as certainty for the future. Future expectation sidesteps the present and anchors what was into what will be, and flags are mounted on that moon with vigor and certainty. But the problem here is that we are not in a position to substantiate the future with…anything—neither with certain cynicism nor opportunistic optimism. We do not have the ability to throw anything far enough and hard enough into the future to populate it. I can only populate the present and in doing so participate in populating the past. I can’t penetrate the future; it always remains right outside of my grasp.

So, hope must accompany me today oriented toward possibility and built on the story of what has happened.

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Now if it is proclaimed that Christ has been raised from the dead, how are some of you saying there is no resurrection of the dead? … If then Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain and you are still in your sins. Also, therefore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If with reference to this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are the most pitiable of all people

But now, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.[2]

1 Corinthians 15:12, 17-20, translation mine

Notice that in this part of the letter to the Corinthians, Paul challenges the refutation circulating among the Corinthians that resurrection isn’t real[3] by turning to story to validate the proclamation that Christ is the first fruits of hope of resurrection, hope that the death that threatened does not carry the final word. Using logic[4] to explain the consequences of such a denial, Paul calls the Corinthians back into the story, their story. Remember … remember what God has done[5]…This is all God’s work; as it was then, is now, and will be forever.

The point at stake, for Paul, is the vanity of faith and the emptiness of the story of God’s activity in the world if even this part is a lie.[6] Thus, Paul (eagerly but gently) reminds the Corinthians to consider the work of God, to consider the possibility that remains existent around them independent of what makes sense and what they can see. He explains the fruitlessness of a claim that resurrection from the dead isn’t real or couldn’t be because it’s beyond anything we’ve ever witnessed or demonstrated in our seeking of knowledge through the pursuit of science. In doing so, he allows the Corinthians to linger in a moment of hopelessness. If Christ isn’t raised from the dead by God and the power of the Holy Spirit…then what are you doing? The story is pointless: your faith counts for nothing; the dead are not asleep[7] but are dead; you are stuck where you are; death reigns and new life is a myth. For Paul, to completely reject Christ’s resurrection because you can’t prove it or it doesn’t make sense is the most hopeless posture to be in. It is a posture to be pitied because it is without hope and life.[8]

Why?

Because such a statement puts human limitations on God. For all intents and purposes, we could read this passage in 1 Corinthians as a litany of questions addressed to the Corinthians: Where’s the possibility? Where’s the creativity? Where’s the daringness to imagine something other than just what we have here and now? Where is the audacity to question and to ask, “What is it?” (Manna) Without the interrogatives, without the subjunctive mood and future possible conditional clauses, without the question mark, where would we be but stuck in the indicative and the imperative with the full-stop and exclamation mark forever prohibiting us from the forward-action of creativity and hope. We’d be without story, without room to grow, to experience, and to dare. Isn’t that just stasis? Isn’t stasis death? Isn’t that state the most to be pitied?

Conclusion

But yet we were made to live and not just exist but live: boldly and daringly, marinated in divine love and clothed in hope.

If we allow God to be God (the Creator) and humans to be humans (the created, the creature) then what the future is, is God’s alone because that “not-yet” resides yet in God—all time is in God. We can’t declare that x is impossible because that’s a substantiation of the future, so too is: x will be. The only thing we are given as terminology to speak of tomorrow is the language of possibility and the space of paradox. What is isn’t ever all there is, thus we live in the collision of possible and paradox performing revolutionary resistance to the powers that threaten to take our lives (material, spiritual, social, sexual, financial, political, etc.).[9]

Here in is hope’s realm.

Hope never lays claim to what will be, it doesn’t even pretend to do so (we force it to be future-expectation’s handmaid). Hope always takes up residence in the present with every anthology of the past stacked against her walls. Hope whispers to us: what is right now, isn’t all there is right now; there’s more here than meets the eye; all things are possible with God. Hope latches on to possibility, or maybe hope is the embers of the once raging fire that is the source of the divine phoenix of possibility rising forth. Hope has eyes to see this one step and not that one just changed everything. Hope has the ears to hear the whisper filled wind of history’s many stories surging and coursing around our fatigued bodies. If I’ve made it these many days, to this spot, can I make it one more? It’s possible.

Beloved, come into this story today, take my hand around this table and hear the wonderful proclamation of God’s love for you that echoes through all the halls of time seeking your ears to hear and your eyes to see and your heart to dare to hope. There is more here than we know, for we proclaim Christ raised from the dead and our hope is not in vain.


[1] This and the following two paragraphs taken from the introduction to this episode of my old podcast: Sancta Colloquia. https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/06/18/hope-in-the-mess/

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Anthony C. Thiselton The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Eds. I Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000. 1214. “The first refutation now addresses what in the language of deliberative rhetoric would be called the “disadvantages” (or, for Paul, dire, unacceptable consequences) of any attempt to deny the possibility or applicability of resurrection as a reality or concept in principle. Such a denial would entail the unimaginable claim that Jesus Christ himself had not been raised from the dead. If the universal principle has no currency, by deductive logic a particular instance of it has no currency either. Any possible sense of confusion for the modern reader arises because the resurrection of Christ is also regardedas the paradigm case of resurrection in reality.”

[4] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1217. “An a priori denial of the possibility of resurrection thereby logically excludes the resurrection of Christ. These verses underline Paul’s expectation that believing Christians will respect logical coherence and rational thought. He does not hesitate to appeal to it.”

[5] Intentionally using the perfect passive here to highlight this is God’s work (passive) and that it happened in a previous moment but has ramifications for us now in that Christ is still raised.

[6] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1216. “The fundamental kerygma has as its content the raised Christ (the force of the perfect passive ἐγήγερται is that Christ was raised and continues to live: present state on the basis of past event). Hence, to deny the possibility of resurrection as such is to knock the bottom out of what constitutes a central article of Christian faith (ἐν πρώτοις, 15:3)…”

[7] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1221. “However, sleep regularly denotes the experience of death for Christians as pregnant with hope and becomes a standard term…”

[8] Thiselton 1 Corinthians 1221. “Paul carefully portrays someone who has placed hope in Christ with nothing beyond, i.e., only so. ἐλεεινότεροι denotes more pitiable, more to be pitied, followed by the genitive of comparison πάντων ἀνθρώπων, than all human beings…”

[9] This and the remaining paragraphs taken from the introduction to this episode of my old podcast: Sancta Colloquia. https://laurenrelarkin.com/2021/06/18/hope-in-the-mess/

Hope in the Mess

Sancta Colloquia Episode 401 ft. Bp. Jake Owensby

This episode with Bp. Jake Owensby (@jakeowensby) marks the start of Seaon FOUR. That’s right, I’m entering in my fourth year of hosting interview. This season will open with a few interviews with authors; how the season will close will be a, well, let’s say: it will be a “self-disclosing” event. Stay Tuned!

In this first episode of season four, I had the honor of talking with my former bishop, Bishop Jake Owensby of the diocese of Western Louisiana of The Episcopal Church. This interview focuses on his most recently published book: Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. We get to talk about why hope and why now? Bp. Owensby articulates well where his source of hope comes from, “Being the beloved in the eye of the Lover and that’s where my hope comes from. I am deeply loved.” It’s this being and knowing and experience deep divine belovedness that motivates Bp. Owensby’s work in this text as a message to help other people. Principally, Bp. Owensby communicates about our proclamation (either written or preached), “There’s one message; it’s the resurrection. That’s the message. That’s it…it’s God’s mighty work!” And it true; he’s not lying. Holding the story of Christ’s resurrection in one hand as we walk with people with the other, helping them and standing in solidarity with them, is the key to comprehending what it means to have hope when hope seems pointless even lost. If we weed out this very story of resurrection from our proclamation because it’s “not real” or “could never happen”–statements more about our logic and reason and not God’s mighty work–we lose one of the most cataclysmic narrative movements of divine life usurping death’s supposed last word. It’s here in the encounter with God in the event of faith that, for Bp. Owensby, where “All of [the] ways in which we’ve allowed or simply had to allow a way of living die and a new way of living emerge, that’s resurrection; that’s hard work.” Chaos, turmoil, fear, death, all of it has been stripped of it’s claim to the last word in this divine mighty work of God in the resurrection. Thus, we can have hope that what we see right now isn’t all we see. That maybe the mess isn’t messy but beautiful because in that mess there is God with us.

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

Interview with Bp. Jake Owensby

Jake Owensby is the fourth Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Western Louisiana. His writing and his speaking events focus on helping people find hope, meaning, and purpose in their lives. He is the author of five books, most recently Looking for God in Messy PlacesA Book about Hope. Jake has three adult children, two grandchildren, and lives in Alexandria, Louisiana, with his wife, Joy. Gracie their rescue pup is their constant companion.

Follow Bp. Jake Owensby on Twitter: @jakeowensby; on Insta: @jakeowensby; and on Facebook: Jake Owensby and Bp. Jake Owensby. Also, for more of Bp. Owensby’s writing, check out his blog: jakeowensby.com.

Other Books by Bp. Owensby:

A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth

Your Untold Story: Tales of a Child of God

Gospel Memories: The Future Can Rewrite Our Past

Connecting the Dots: A Hope-Inspired Life