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.

This Love and Life, Our Business

Sermon on Galatians 3:23-29

Psalm 43:5-6 Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me? Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to God, who is the help of my countenance, and my Abba God. (44)

Introduction

In general, the essence and idea of law are neutral. Law should be just law. Laws of nature are true for everyone without exceptions and biases. Gravity works for me like it works for you; gravity isn’t spending a lot of time picking and choosing whom to hold to the earth and whom to let go. Same should be with the laws of society; law (in essence and idea) is neutral saying two things: you can do this and you cannot do that. You can drive this speed or you cannot, the risk is yours; a speed limit sign never issues a ticket and never says good job. Thus, there are implicit consequences of obeying or disobeying the law. In other words, drive this speed limit and you’ll go about your business with little interference from nature and its consequences; drive faster/slower than this speed limit and risk is yours to suffer. Do this and it goes well with you; don’t do this and it won’t go well for you.

Now: enter human arbiters of the law, and everything gets a bit more interesting. Our society needs law (in general) and laws (in specific) to function well because human beings are arbitrary creatures who might float away if left to their own devices. We need law and laws because we need to be reminded we don’t live here alone, there are others who share our space and deserve respect, honor, and dignity. So, in recognizing our need for law we’ve created systems upholding and enforcing the law and the laws of our society. As a result, the implicit consequences of the law are made explicit (reward and punishment). Sadly, the punishment is made explicit, while reward is kept implicit. Anyone here ever pulled over to be told: hey, good job driving 35 mph; you’re really living well today and plus you are saving sooooo much money on gas by driving sensibly, here’s a cookie!!

Law is important, yet, for humankind, we’ve grown misoriented toward the law. Because of law’s inherent goodness (creating order) and benign nature, the law has taken on a divine quality for us. Rather than seeing the law as a gift and tool for human beings to use to their advantage, for their livelihood, for their thriving together and individually, it’s become a thing that must be obeyed or suffer the harrowing consequences of infraction. In other words: we’ve forgotten the law was created for us, and are trapped by the myth we were created for the law. The law’s become God

So, we’re misoriented toward the law; we’ve put all our eggs in the law basket hoping it will save us from ourselves and from others. But it can’t; it can only say: do this/do not do that. We’ve put so much hope in law that we’re naïve to think that once we get a law down on the books, the work is now finished. We’ve invested so much in the law we’ve forgotten our own responsibility for ourselves and for others; we’ve handed our responsibility over to the law’s clergy and church: lawyers, judges, police, courtrooms and prisons. We’ve sold our bodies to the law; we’re now the law’s property. So, those who enforce the law can do whatever they need to do to ensure the law is upheld even take life. We’ve elevated the law above people; we set our sights on the law as the ultimate thing, rendering our neighbor as sacrifice to the law. We will even crucify God to uphold the law in the name or order.

Galatians 3:23-29

Now, before faith came, we were being kept (as by military guard)—being closed up—under the law with respect to the intending faith to be revealed. So then, the law was as our PEDAGOGUE until Christ has happened, in order that we might be declared righteous from faith. Now while faith came, we are no longer subordinated by the pedagogue. For you all are sharing in the same nature of God by means of faith in Christ Jesus. [1]

(Gal. 3:23-26)

According to Paul, the neutrality of the law is gone. The “do this” and “don’t do that” became condemnation to death rather than commendation to life.[2] Paul refers to the law as a “Pedagogue” (παιδαγωγός). This is no compliment. We see this word as “teacher”; but Paul’s usage is more like this: the person who needed to do whatever it took to make sure morals were cultivated in children.[3] Paul highlights that the law must do whatever it takes to ensure obedience; even if the law was given for life, it’s used for death because we can never keep it enough to avoid suffering consequences of disobedience. [4] Thus, the declaration of righteous as children of God is forever elusive; we’ll never obtain it through the law.[5]

For Paul, our relationship to the law is greatly disturbed; we’ve replaced our devotion to God with devotion to the law, demanding the law be something it isn’t…savior. Thus, our misalignment toward the law is only remedied by Christ Jesus, by whom the law is fulfilled[6] and in whom we have faith.[7] Through our relationship with Christ, our devotion to the law is broken because we’re realigned (rightly) to God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this realignment to God through Christ by the Spirit (who is God’s spirit of love residing in us), our relationship to the law is restored to what it should be: a tool we use to make this world better and not worse for others and for ourselves (because we’re all one in Christ[8]). By the Spirit of love received through faith in Christ, we are rightly oriented to God, thus rightly oriented to our neighbor with love, and thus to the law.[9] The law serves love, and love serves the neighbor; this is our business. The law is no longer a threat but a tool; no longer about condemnation to death but commendation to life. [10] In with the Paraclete, out with the Pedagogue; in with the Spirit, out with the stones; in with life, out with death.

Conclusion

Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky, articulated the tragedy of our misalignment to the law perfectly in his brilliant novel, Crime and Punishment.[11] For our purposes, we are looking in on a fever dream the main character, Raskolnikov, has: A horse, yoked to a buggy, is commanded by her owner (Mikolka) to pull the buggy packed with many people. Mikolka demands the horse to move. The horse can’t, though it tried desperately. Mikolka grew angrier and the crowd more fevered.

Under the whipping, the horse struggled to obey; she couldn’t move the cart. Mikolka increased punishment to get obedience. The crowd (in and outside of the buggy) cheered Mikolka. The horse had very few advocates; one old man hollered at Mikolka, “‘What are you about, are you a Christian, you devil?’…” This question was met with further exhortation from the crowd for more severe beatings.

The horse tried to fight back by kicking, but her resistance was met with escalated punishment, “‘I’ll teach you to kick,’ Mikolka shouted ferociously. He threw down the whip, bent forward and picked up from the bottom of the cart a long, thick shaft, he took hold of one end with both hands and with an effort brandished it over the mare….‘It’s my property,’ shouted Mikolka and brought the shaft down with a swinging blow. There was a sound of heavy thud.”

Needless to say, the beating continued; no matter how severe the blow, the horse was unable to pull the buggy. She was exhausted; barely any fight left, no matter how hard she was hit she could not pull the buggy. Then,

“‘I’ll show you!…’ Mikolka screamed frantically; he threw down the shaft, stooped down in the cart and picked up an iron crowbar. ‘Look out,’ he shouted, and with all his might he dealt a stuffing blow at the poor mare. The blow fell; the mare staggered, sank back tried to pull, but the bar fell again with a swinging blow on her back and she fell on the ground like a log.”

Crime and Punishment

The poor horse had few advocates, just random voices hollering into the air; few tried to interfere. The mare was Mikolka’s property; he could do what he wanted. Yet in this story of a helpless beast, there was one little voice that not only hollered, a little body accompanied that little voice.

[a] boy, beside himself, made his way, screaming, through the crowd to the sorrel nag, put his arms around her bleeding dead head and kissed it, kissed the eyes and kissed the lips…Then he jumped up and flew in a frenzy with his little fists out at Mikolka. At that instant his father, who had been running after him, snatched him up and carried him out of the crowd.
‘Come along, come! Let us go home,’ he said to him.
‘Father! Why did they…kill…the poor horse?’ he sobbed, but his voice broke and the words came in shrieks from his panting chest.
‘They are drunk…they are brutal…it’s not our business!’ said the father.

Crime and Punishment

What the father forgot, the young boy remembered: serving love and protecting life is very much our business and not serving the law and allowing death. The law serves love, and love serves the neighbor; this is our business. Life—human life, animal life, all life—is always way more important than enforcing the law at the expense of life; we must make life our business and then the law, not the reverse.

Beloved, remember that the law was created for you, you weren’t created for the law. Remember whose you are: you are the children of God, if children of God then heirs of love and life, and if heirs then those who like their Abba God bring and proclaim love and life to others.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] Martin Luther Lectures on Galatians (1535) Chapter 1-4 LW 26 Ed. Jaroslav Pelikan Assoc. Ed. Walter A. Hansen. Saint Louis, MO: Concordia, 1963. 335. “For the Law is a Word that shows life and drive us toward it. Therefore it was not given only for the sake of death. But this is its chief use and end: to reveal death, in order that the nature and enormity of sin might thus become apparent. it does not reveal death in a way that takes delight in it or that seeks to do nothing but kills us. No, it reveals death in order that men may be terrified and humbled and thus fear God.”

[3] Luther LW 26 336. “…before the time of the Gospel and of grace came, it was the function of the Law to keep us confined under it as though we were in prison.”

[4] Luther LW 26 335. “Therefore the function of the Law is only to kill, yet in such a way that God may be able to make alive. Thus the Law was not given merely for the sake of death; but because man is proud and supposes that he is wise, righteous, and holy, therefore it is necessary that he be humbled by the Law, in order that this beast, the presumption of righteousness, may be killed, since man cannot live unless it is killed.”

[5] Luther LW 26 336. “Such is the power of the Law and such is righteousness on the basis of the Law that it forces us to be outwardly good so long as it threatens transgressors with penalties and punishment. Then we comply with the Law out of fear of punishment, but we do so unwillingly and with great indignation. What kind of righteousness is that, if you refrain from evil because you are compelled by the threat of punishment.”

[6] Luther LW 26 347. “The Law is a custodian, not until some other lawgiver comes who demands good works, but until Christ comes, the Justifier and Savior, so that we may be justified through faith in Him, not through works.”

[7] Luther LW 26 343. “By faith in the Word of grace, therefore, the Christian should conquer fear, turn his eyes away form the time of Law, and gaze at Christ Himself and at the faith to come.”

[8] Luther LW 26 356. “In Christ…where there is no Law, there is no distinction among persons at all. there is neither Jew nor Greek, but all are one; for there is one body, one Spirit, one hope of the calling of all, one and the same Gospel, one faith, one Baptism, on God and Father of all, one Christ, and the Lord of all…”

[9] Luther LW 26 349. “Coming at a predetermined time, He truly abolished the entire Law. But now that the Law has been abolished, we are no longer held in custody under its tyranny; but we live securely and happily with Christ, who now reigns sweetly in us by His Spirit. But where the Lord is, there is freedom (2 Cor. 3:17).”

[10] Luther LW 26 352. “But to put on Christ according to the Gospel is a matter, not of imitation but of a new birth and a new creation, namely, that I put on Christ Himself, that is, His innocence, righteousness, wisdom, power, salvation, life, and Spirit…”

[11] The story is found on pages 48-53. All quotations are taken from this section.

The Peace of Justice

Sermon on Romans 5:1-5

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romans 5:1-5

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

(Rom 5:1-2, 5)

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Divine Maternal Yawp

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

John 14:8-17

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

(Jn. 14:15-17)

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[15] We use the Ionian Creed

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

“Tabitha, rise!”

Sermon on Acts 9:36-43

Psalm 23:1-3 God is my shepherd; I shall not be in want. God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. God revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for God’s Name’s sake.

Introduction

In my last call I had the privilege of being a high school teacher at a private Episcopal high school in deep south Louisiana. I taught theology and religion, and I also participated in some of the pastoral care of the students. I had many conversations with students, but some of my favorite ones were with seniors fretting over what college to go to. Them, frantic: Rev. Larkin…Rev. Larkin I don’t know what to do! They had sweet and endearing intentions but they were stuck. They weren’t merely stuck because they were waiting for that frontal lobe to fully kick in, but because they worried about doing God’s will for fear that anything else would cause God to become displeased in them. What college should I go to, Rev. Larkin, what’s God’s will for me?

If there’s any question in the world that I both value and understand and disvalue and dismiss it’s that question. If you ever want to see this enneagram 5 go full tilt wut. just ask: What’s God’s will for me right now? Me:

Robot Monkey GIF by Giphy QA - Find & Share on GIPHY

Now, while my internal monologue looked something like that, my external pastoral side always kicked in. I loved these kids and hated how tied up they were in fear of not knowing God’s will. In these moments, I loved leaning back on Luther. His conception of seeking God’s will as a form of magic and divination (he’s no fan of either, by the way) and the freedom we have in Christ, gave me the power and authority to declare to my fretting and worried beloveds: my dear one, God loves you through and through and through; a college choice isn’t going to ever ever ever take that from you no matter how bad it all turns out. You can just transfer. Also, and this is going to sound a bit blunt and maybe even mean and I intend this with the biggest amount of love for you: God isn’t worried about where you go to college. Literally. God’s will for all of us is written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit and in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Pick a school and live in God’s already existent good pleasure and love for you…and care for the poor and vulnerable.

When it comes to our own questions about what does God want for us, what does God want us to do, it’s clearly laid out for us in scripture through the examples of many of the main characters. Even if we rationalize away the example of Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, leaning heavy on Christological formulas: Well, Jesus is the Son of God, fully human and fully God thing…there are still many more examples. In the book of Acts of the Holy Spirit, we’re given plenty examples of people who are both fully human and called by God and live out the will of God in the material world by the power of the Holy Spirit. Saul-Paul is one. I know he’s a bit intense, and he seems to have a penchant for getting into heaps of trouble with the religious and state authorities, but he’s fully human and a converted follower of the way (like many of us).

But maybe Saul-Paul isn’t your cup of tea, too much drama that he clearly could’ve avoided if he was just a bit more reserved and taken with common sense…There’s always another contender: Peter. He seems a bit more practical.

Acts 9:36-43

Now, it happened in that day [Tabitha] became weak and died. And having bathed [her], they laid her in an upper room. Now, Lydda being near Joppa the disciples heard that Peter was in Lydda and they sent two men to summon him, “Do not hesitate to pass through us.” And Peter rose and went with them. After arriving, they lead him to the upper room. All the widows stood beside him weeping and displaying the tunics and many cloaks [Tabitha] was making being with them. Now, Peter sent them all out and [getting on his] knees, he prayed and turned toward the body he said, “Tabitha, rise.” And she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter she sat up.[1]

Acts 9:37-40

Last week, looking at chapter 9 of the book of Acts we encountered Saul who was encountered by God in the midst of his self-determined obstinance to reclaim Israelites for the glory of God. Saul was disrupted, and his life changed in a short moment. This week we are being asked to consider Peter who returns to the story as the one who has followed Jesus and continues to do so. Where Saul represents being suddenly disrupted; Peter represents continual and persistent disruption. Peter knew Jesus and continues to get to know him in deeper and more profound ways.[2] Specifically, the blessed mingling of human and divine of the incarnate Christ raised and now ascended beckons to Peter by the power of the Holy Spirit asking him to see how much more that divine and human mingling goes beyond Jesus the Christ. Peter is caught up in the divine pursuit of disruption and disturbing the status quo by shaking up the divine and human distinction through drawing the regular time and regular people into the holiness of God.[3] And he’s about to be thrusted into the middle of such a moment of disruption and disturbance.

In our story here in Acts, Peter dares to do what Jesus did. In other words, to quote Willie James Jennings, “Peter repeats Jesus.”[4] Like his friend, sibling, and savior did, so, too, will Peter do: bring light where there is darkness, liberty where there is captivity, life where there is death. In other words, Peter, like Jesus continues to spread God’s never-stopping, never-giving up material and tangible love for the entire cosmos (from the biggest to the least).[5] Most notably Peter steps into and brings[6] this proclamation to weeping widows in the presence of the death of Tabitha—one who lived well and loved these widows deeply.[7] Here we see how willingly divine power and love will sink and seep into the most narrow crevices of society: the grief of the widows and the death of Tabitha matters to God—these women matter to God, so much so that death is refused the final word.[8]

The final word is God’s power through Peter, “Tabitha, rise.” The echo of Jesus’s “Lazarus, come here! outside!” “Peter repeats Jesus.” Resurrection happens, life triumphs over death. The widows’ grief and sorrow (also fear and anxiety) is heard, and their Tabitha is brought back to life.[9] Our scriptures record this incredible and astounding story: the first disciple to experience resurrection after Jesus’s is a woman. God gives a big heck about bodies, all bodies.[10] And this message doesn’t cease with Tabitha; soon Peter will find himself with a body considered unclean, Simon the Tanner. Peter’s on a divine journey, discovering the depth of God’s love for all people, diving deeper into being disrupted and disturbed by the heart, love, grace, and will of God. [11]

Conclusion

This story from the book of Acts about Peter and the widows and Tabitha reminds us that all bodies matter to God, and not merely the bodies of the wealthy, the powerful, the capable, but, the bodies of least of these, the bodies of the oppressed and poor. Women’s bodies matter. Black bodies matter. Trans bodies matter. Differently abled bodies matter. Imprisoned bodies matter. Your body matters.

So, back to the beginning: What’s God’s will for us? What does God want us to do? I guess God wants us to raise the dead. Or, rather, bring life where there is death. The ultimate interpretation of what it means to liberate the captives is: resurrection. “Tabitha, rise.” And we, like Peter and Saul get to be encountered by this radical and profound divine pathos, divine love for the world and then we get to spread it where ever we go. We, like Saul and Peter, get to say: “Tabitha, rise.” Yes, you! You, too! You, too, rise! Death has no claim here anymore only life, no longer darkness, only light. You are the beloved of God, dearly loved and deeply cherished. From head to toe, without shame, without hiddenness, without secrecy, with all boldness and bigness. “Tabitha, rise.”

You, the Beloved, rise!


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 99. “Peter returns to center stage and engages in a bit of wayfaring life, echoing again his history of following Jesus and doing as his savior had done. He is on the road and comes to Lydda to be among the living saints.”

[3] Jennings Acts 99. “Jesus is God drawing the everyday into holiness, into God’s own life. Everyday people are made holy in Christ. Everyday people are made holy by Christ, and this is a holiness that will last, not be episodic, and constitute a new space for living life and knowing ourselves. ‘Saints’ are those marked by the new gestures of belief in Jesus. They worship a crucified Lord in the Spirit, and in the Spirit they live the everyday, knowing that each moment has been made sacred by God’s faithful presence.”

[4] Jennings Acts 99.

[5] Jennings Acts 99-100. “He is with Jesus, following where his savior wants to go. Once again a marvelous act, a touchable miracle, will turn people to the Lord (v. 35). This is repetition that illumines the inexhaustible riches of God’s love for the fragile creature and God’s desire to constantly touch us, hold us, and announce the victory over death.”

[6] Jennings Acts 100. See also Cassidy p.30. “Here glory joins strong grief because to lose someone who cares for the weak and vulnerable, whose life is turned toward making a difference in the world and who is making a difference, is a bitter loss. The widows have lost Tabitha and a disciple is gone. This is what Peter steps into in Joppa.”

[7][7] Jennings Acts 100. “We come to the story of Tabitha with Peter at the very end. There is glory and grief at the end. The glory is a life lived well, lived in service to others. Tabitha’s life, even in the fragments we gain in this story, hangs together beautifully as someone devoted to helping people, especially widows.”

[8] Jennings Acts 100. “Peter’s presence declares an unmistakable truth: women matter. This woman matters, and the work she does for widow’s matters to God. It matters so much that God will not allow death the last word.”

[9] Jennings Acts 100-101. “’Tabitha, get up.’ Peter repeats Jesus. Tabitha is an activist who lives again in resurrection power. Her body has been quickened by the Spirit, and her eyes are opened again to see a new day. She has work to do and joy to give to the widows: you have not been abandoned, dear widows, God has heard your weeping and returned her to you.”

[10] Jennings Acts 101. “We know that death imagines a special claim to the bodies of women. Their deaths are normalized and naturalized in social orders that value men’s body far above all others. It will not be so among the disciples. They will find Peter standing next to Tabitha, a gift of God who has been given again the gift of life. It is no accident that the first disciple to have this little taste of the resurrection is a woman…”

[11] Jennings Acts 101. “Tanners worked with death flesh—the skin of animals and tanners were, theologically speaking, unclean Few if any pious Jews would normally or easily stay with a tanner, but here was Peter with Simon the tanner. Peter is indeed moving from saints to saints, and soon he will find out just how far the generosity and mercy of a holy God reaches. Soon he will see just how far God will extend holy place and holy people. Peter is with a man who touches the unclean, and soon he will see God do the same.”

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 Others

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, (“The Worker”) click here, and (“The Old”) click here.

Sermon on John 13: 6-9, 12-17

Psalm 116: 13-16 Precious in the sight of [God] is the death of his servants. O Lord, I am your servant; I am your servant and the child of your handmaid; you have freed me from my bonds. I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call upon the Name of [God]. (53)

Introduction

“I think they’re all pretending like they know what they are doing. But I sit here and watch them walk by…this one with their fancy boots and jacket and many bags…I see you. Do you see me? …I am hungry, and I am cold, and I am lonely. Never hearing your name does something to a person. Being someone’s shame also does something to a person. I’m a person. Sometimes I forget that I am because I get lost in being ignored; I get trapped in their blindness. When I lost everything material did I lose also my being, my personhood, my body and arms and legs and identity with humanity? … I don’t have a job, or a house, or food, or … why do I feel bad and shameful because of that? Why do I feel pointless, superfluous, nothing better than kindling fuel for the fires that keep them warm, maybe I’m better off burnt up…”[1]

We have become a people who passes on exclusion rather than story.

This is the barebones, honest-to-goodness, absolute truth about one side of our humanity: we like groups. Us. Them. We, in here; they, out there. Our group. Their group. We do this; they do that. And, to be fair, grouping isn’t inherently bad. I don’t ascribe to a relatively high or low anthropology; I kind of see humans as mix bags trapped in narratives and systems, both willing and unwillingly. To group isn’t bad; it indicates a common interest or goal. We group up to get big projects done; we group up to learn a certain thing in a certain way; we group up to talk about things and to share common interests and experiences.

Grouping isn’t bad.

But grouping can become bad.

It becomes bad when we assign a moral value to one group and deprive it from another. Because we do this, this is good; anyone else who does not-this is bad. When we have to vilify another group so that we justify our own group, we assign goodness to us and badness to them. Maybe it’s because our culture is oriented toward and consumed with power and might, right and wrong, our way or the highway. It’s the “believe or die” that swept over this country from east to west, as peoples lost their land and stories. It’s the subjection and oppression of human beings based on the levels of increasing melanin in their skin, their sex and gender, their sexuality, their education and productivity, and their age and heritage. Grouping becomes bad when one group has more power thus more goodness, more dignity, more humanity, more right to life and liberty than another.

Funny thing is (or maybe not so funny?), I believe we vilify other groups so that we can create for ourselves some modicum amount of comfort and security: at least I’m not them… And some how being born into this group, achieving status in this group, and adhering to the ideologies and practices of this group make me safe from the predicament of those other (inferior/bad) groups. But yet, that security and comfort is illusive because it’s placed on either aspects of human existence that are out of our control or on material elements that can be torn from our hands no matter how tightly we cling to them. We’re all precariously moving through life, one quick trip-up from tumbling into realms we’ve designated for not-us.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” … After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

John 13:6-9, 12-17, NRSV

In our gospel passage for this Maundy Thursday, we read about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It’s a tradition we honor in The Episcopal church. Maundy is from mandatum (Latin, N, N/A, S), command) and is found in our gospel passage (John 13:34): I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. That commandment is not foot-washing, by the way. That command isn’t about finding ways in Lent and Holy Week to make yourself really uncomfortable and awkward and then feel good about it (that’s my job!). It’s not about getting through something real quick like and then move on about your day. It’s significantly way more profound and simpler than any of those interpretations.

The commandment Jesus gives to his disciples is to love one another. Simple and profound. Sensical and magical. In other words, linking the command to love one another to foot washing is the means by which the disciples are charged—IN LOVE—to dismember human made hierarchies where we designate in-groups and out-groups, where we refuse to deign to do something because…not my _____ (fill in the blank), where we shuffle human beings off to the sides and fringes because they’re… harshing our buzz, making our main-streets uncomfortable, or taking things from me that I’ve earned for me and mine.

In the reign of God, ushered in by Jesus, there is no such thing as a hierarchy of human persons, there is no distinction between peoples based on money, job, homes, birth, addresses, clothes, and homes, etc.. When Jesus takes the role of the one who washes feet—the role of the servant—he categorically disrupts for Christians—those who follow Christ then and now and tomorrow—the tendency to create structures and orders around the hierarchy of human beings from best and most privileged to least and most destitute. And especially, Christ’s example crushes any attempt to dehumanize another person based on whatever our society has deemed “normal” and “acceptable”, “good” and “bad”. Maybe when Jesus drew in the sand that one time, it wasn’t anything but him mixing up all the grains, creating a new and level ground on which all beloved of God can stand and walk with honor and dignity inherent in human bodies and souls.

Conclusion

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

Micah 6:6-8

We’re trained to look down on and pity those who don’t have what we have—the myriad of things we’ve deemed desirable and good, the mark of a well-made person. We equate our wealth with blessedness: the blessedness of being able, the blessedness of access and achievement and self-building; the blessedness of riches. But none of that stuff is what God declares blessed. Blessed are the poor…Blessed are you when you are reviled… For it to these God goes to liberate and defend.

Christ exposes our dastardly tendencies to ostracize, oppress, wound, ignore, isolate, exclude … others. In our best attempts to create structure, we—on our own—create systems by which some are in and others are out, some are good and others are bad, some are clean and others are dirty. And Jesus comes and lovingly shows us another way by telling us a different story. He gives us a story that includes everyone we’ve excluded; he takes our wretched story of exclusion and estrangement, and gives us one so heavy with love, it’s light. This story of love is so tremendous, it even changes our name to Beloved.


[1] Taken from the Ash Wednesday 2022 Sermon

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.”