Here’s One

Here’s one…
…definitely two;
most likely three…
and now there’s four.
Ah…wait a minute…five.
In a moment: six.
Oh! And then there’s seven.
Over there…eight.
Ooops, nine.
Losing track, is that ten?

Outside too many to count;
inside too few to forget.
The strongest will survive,
devour the least of these.
Smells and bells,
rings and dings,
pageantry and celebrity,
pomp and circumstance.
The powerful strut,
the humble crawl.
Too many inside unseen,
too few outside to seek.

Resist the urge,
Stand the ground,
Stay the course:
People are the goal,
not a means to an end,
not dollars in plates,
not bodies in chairs,
not moths to flames
fanning narcissistic ego…
Risk doors closing,
Say something of substance,
Declare: beloved!

Not the hunt,
but the gather.
Not the place,
but the space.
Not for the seen,
but the unseen.
Not for the rich,
but the poor.
Not for the powerful,
but for the vulnerable.
Not for the greatest,
bur for the least.
Not for those who know
but for those who know not.
Not for hate,
but for love.
Not for death,
but for life.

Here are ten…
definitely nine;
most likely eight…
and now there’s seven.
Ah…wait a minute…six.
In a moment: five.
Oh! And there’s only four.
Over there…three?
Ooops, two.
Losing track, is that one?

Sweet Divine Liberty

Psalm 19:13-14 …keep your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not get dominion over me; then shall I be whole and sound, and innocent of a great offense. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Introduction

I spend a lot of time thinking about freedom. Specifically “freedom” as the product of the encounter with God in the event of faith. What does it mean that “in Christ” we are now “free”? Free into what? Free from what?

This freedom as a result of the encounter with God in the event of faith is what Jesus is talking about today in our gospel passage: liberation from captivity, freedom from enslavement, release from bondage.

There’s an aspect of liberation embedded deep within Jesus’s words that any form of enslavement is anti-God. Whether we look at it from the perspective of spiritual, emotional, physical, mental (etc.) enslavement, humans are not created by God to be enslaved to anything or anyone. If we were, then Jesus is a lunatic, and we shouldn’t trust him. But yet we do; it’s why we’re here every Sunday as a result of the faith we have in Christ uniting us into God by the power of the Holy Spirit. We do not come here every Sunday to be enslaved or re-enslaved or enslaved further into our burdens. (This is why church, to continue in being church and good news in the world, must resist the trappings of religious totalitarianism; no one need come here and feel afraid and condemned, for that is not good news, that is not liberation, that is not freedom, that is not Christ.) In coming here and hearing the proclamation of the gospel of the good news of God for the beloved, for you, for the people and the world, we are liberated, we are freed, we are released…

But again, I’m still left curious. Into what am I liberated and freed? And what put me there in the first place?

Luke 4:14-21

And he went into Nazareth—where he had been brought up—and he entered the synagogue—according to his custom on the day of the Sabbath. He stood up to read and the book of the prophet Isaiah was given to him and after unrolling the book he found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for the sake that he has anointed me
to announce good news to the poor,
he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set free those who have been broken down/enfeebled,[1]
to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And then he rolled up the book and gave it back to the servant, and he sat down. And the eyes of all of the people in the synagogue were fixedly gazing at him.[2]

Luke 4:16-20a

Jesus goes home. Upon going home, he enters the synagogue as was his custom to do on the Sabbath. There’s no way to charge Jesus with not being a faithful and good follower of God. But it’s not just Jesus’s piety that is highlighted by Luke here in the phrase “as was his custom” but also that it was normal for Jesus to stand up, read from the scrolls, and to expound the scriptures.[3] So, that Jesus stood up and took the scroll from the servant of the temple and read it, isn’t the thing. It’s the passage that Jesus read that is the thing.[4]

Through the prophet Isaiah, Jesus makes known for whom his ministry is for: the poor.[5] There’s no reason to qualify this “poor” with an adjective to render it one way or another. We don’t need to feel better about this text by applying adjectives; we can let the word hang where it is as it is. We want to let the word lie because if we did apply adjectives here we would miss out on the breadth of this word in its original context. To be “poor” in Jesus’s context and culture had many and varied connotations; the poor are anyone who has “diminished status honor” for whatever combination of reasons.[6] Thus, using the prophet Isaiah, Jesus describes his mission: to proclaim good news to the poor; and highlights that he is the recipient of the anointing and the Spirit of God to proclaim good news, to set free, to release all these varying examples of the “poor”.[7] The poor will be released by God from their various forms of isolation and captivity; thus they will be partakers of what has been withheld from them: life, freedom, and the fullness of divine presence and love.

In delineating a specific direct object of his proclamation and ministry, Jesus created a dividing line between him and the social, political, religious, and economic boundaries erected—by people—to keep some in and others out.[8] According to Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, no one…NO ONE is beyond the long arm of God and the expansive substance of divine Love enveloping the entire cosmos. No one is too far gone, no one is too lost, no one is too fractured, no one is too stuck, no one is too trapped, no one. Not me. Not you. Not anyone existing beyond these four walls. And if this is the implied statement falling from Jesus’s proclamation, then any boundary is anathema to God and God’s love; both the boundary and the boundary builders collide with all-encompassing and inclusive divine Love. Thus, it is through Jesus that these boundaries will not only be challenged but also destroyed. The reign of God has come, let the kingdom of humanity tremble; life and light has come into the world, let death and darkness cower.[9]

Conclusion

So, back to the questions from the introduction: Into what am I liberated? And what put me there in the first place?

First, “Into what”: Better to ask, “Into whom…?” In the encounter with God in the event of faith I am liberated and freed and released into God.

Now he began to say to them, “the writing has been fulfilled/completed in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21)

That Jesus the Christ, God of very God, is the one who is the fulfillment of this divine promise spoken by the prophet Isaiah, and if we are brought into this fulfillment of the promise by faith (as in: we do not fulfill this promise ourselves) then we are brought into Christ. This is what it means to be liberated by Christ: not liberated into myself for myself, but unto God thus for those with whom God stands in solidarity with: the poor (as big and expansive as that word can be). As the proclamation of the good news of Christ goes out, liberty and freedom and release of the captives, the oppressed, and the blind bursts forth. As the cages burst open, as chains drop, as jail cells slide open, the liberation of the oppressed and poor is a liberation into God and for others. The imprisoned, the chained, the shackled, the caged, the enslaved step out and into God. While I might be freed, and you too, it cannot mean that it is done in an isolated and autonomous way as if it is just for me and me alone. Rather, we are liberated into God and into community of those brothers and sisters who have been so liberated, too. We then bear a divine burden as those liberated by Christ and into Christ…to bring this same liberation to those who are burdened with various forms of poorness and thus captivity. In other words, we undo what we’ve done and have been complicit in doing…

Thus, second, “what put me there…”: Better to ask “Who put me there…?” There’s a tendency to blame everything on the abstract concept of “Sin” and then to point further away to the myth of Genesis 3, which then makes us point more fingers at each other and at snakes and serpents…But none of that is helpful. I prefer to say that we put ourselves in those prisons, cells, cages, and chains by putting others there. I know enough philosophy, enough ethics, enough history to know that God didn’t enslave us in the fall, we enslaved ourselves. Our inability to see and hear God and our neighbor as they are is our fundamental problem. Stated in the positive: we have a catastrophic hearing and seeing problem. We love hearing what we want to hear, we love seeing what we want to see. So, we create systems and schemes that reflect what we see and hear to benefit ourselves. In various ways, we erect barbed and electrified fences keeping out those deemed different, “other”, not “us”, “them” and then these people lose their humanity. The sad fact is that as we build these walls, these fences, these rules of membership of the ingroup, we, too, lose our humanity. Everyone loses in this system of walls and fences and cages and chains.

Beloved of God, we are guilty of being complicit in dehumanizing systems and schemes even if we, too, were held captive by them. But, by the grace of God, we are sought and liberated so that we can hear and see rightly both God and our neighbor; and in hearing and seeing rightly, we can act and speak with divine inspiration and participate in the great divine mission of love in the world to stand in solidarity with the poor and to liberate the captives.

Beloveds, we were blind and now we see; we were captive and now we are free; let us live and love and bring to all who cry out that sweet divine liberty, long granted to the world through God on a tree and resurrected for thee.


[1] I’m using the translation of θράυω from the Greek dictionary: “to break down, enfeeble”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] [3] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 209, “Luke’s presentation indicates not only that Jesus regularly demonstrated his piety by attendance of the synagogue on the Sabbath, but also that it was his habit to take the role of the one who read and expounded the Scriptures (cf. Acts 17:2). This phrase, ‘as was his custom,’ underscores the paradigmatic quality of this episode, both with regard to his Sabbath practices, and with regard to the content of his proclamation.”

[4] Green Luke 209 “The primary point of focus, then, is the citation from Isaiah, which is itself a mix-text.”

[5] Green Luke 204. “These scenes are also taken up with the consequences of Jesus’ status, the ministry activity that grows out of his obedience to and empowerment from God. Taken together, they highlight four features of Jesus’ ministry. First, his is a ministry empowered by the Spirit. Second, Luke’s central interest in Jesus’ message, and the inseparability of teaching/preaching (4:15, 16-21, 43-44) and the miraculous (4:16-21, 33-36, 38-41), is foregrounded here. Indeed, 4: 18-19 establishes a narrative need for Jesus ‘to bring good news to the poor,’ and so these verses characterize the form and primary recipients of Jesus’ ministry”

[6] Green Luke 211. “In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as ‘poor,’ but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and ‘poor’ would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honor in Mediterranean world. Hence, although ‘poor’ is hardly devoid of economic significance, for Luke this wider meaning of diminished status honor is paramount.”

[7] Green Luke 210. “Consequently, three structural features are emphasized. First, the first three lines each end with ‘me,’ repeating the pronoun in the emphatic position. This underscores in the clearest possible way the inexorable relation of the Spirit’s anointing and the statement of primary mission, ‘to proclaim good news to the poor.’ Second, and as a consequence, the three subsequent infinitive phrases appear in parallel and in a position subordinate to Jesus statement of primary mission. Third, as we have observed, the notion of ‘release’ is twice repeated.”

[8] Green Luke 211. “By directing his good news to these people, Jesus indicates his refusal to recognize those socially determined boundaries, asserting instead that even these “outsiders” are the objects of divine grace. Others may regard such people as beyond the pale of salvation, but God has opened a way for them to belong to God’s family.”

[9] Green Luke 214

With Dirty Hands

Sermon on Mark 7:5-8

Psalm 45:7-8  Your throne, O God, endures for ever and ever, a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of your kingdom; you love righteousness and hate iniquity. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness…

Introduction

One of the most difficult things for me to navigate as a teacher is the tendency for students to parrot. When I was a teacher at the high school levels, I would walk around my circle of students and say, “I want to know what *you* think; I don’t need 20 more Rev. Larkins…God knows there’s one too many.” To protect the space for students toward intellectual liberty, I implemented a contract grading system. Making grades dependent on the completion of specific tasks (with flexibility to student need) rather than on memorization and recitation. While I had great success with this grading approach, one thing congested the air preventing authentic and personal wrestling with thought: the deeply ingrained training of conformity for fear of punishment. For the life of me, there were students who just froze when given the liberty to speak their mind, so they would tell me what they thought I wanted to hear.

While I could wax not-so-eloquently about the state of school systems and how they contribute to the conformity of human beings to the status-quo rather than bolstering and building curiosity and creativity, the thing that I want to stress here is that this conformity for fear of punishment moved from chair and desk into pew and table. When I lead chapel as a chaplain at the high school, I’d listen to student voices recite in unison creeds, prayers, and responses. But there was very little life in it. They said the words because they had to, because they were told they must, because they were afraid of some form of punishment if they didn’t. For one reason or another, their hearts were far from those words.

At some point during each semester, I’d exhort them: “Don’t say the words if you really don’t want to; there’s nothing magic in them, you aren’t saved through them but through faith. You have my permission to opt out.” I desired for them to have robust and vigorous relationships with God, the very God who moved heaven and earth to be as close to them as they are to themselves and maybe even closer. I wanted them to embody the liberation that comes with the groundwork of justification with God by faith in Christ alone by the power of the Holy Spirit. I wanted them to want to say those words, those prayers, those responses and not because they were so tied to fear and traditionalism. I wanted them to be ὸ λαός of God bursting forth from the heart, not an illusion built upon words slipping from lips.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

And then the Pharisees and the scribes questioned him, “Why are your disciples not walking according to the tradition of the elders, but are eating food with unclean hands?” And [Jesus] said to them, “Isaiah prophesied well concerning you pretenders, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with lips, but their heart are held far back from me; and they worship me to no purpose while teaching the teaching of religious precepts of humanity.’ While releasing the command of God you hold fast to the tradition of humanity handed down.”[1]

Mark 7:5-8

So, Jesus’s disciples are caught eating with dirty hands by a group of pharisee-scribes coming from Jerusalem (vv. 1-2).[2] As the disciples sit and eat, this group of religious authorities from Jerusalem confronts Jesus about this brash and flagrant infraction. Why care so much? Well, the issue at stake here for this group of religious authorities is that Jewish people are supposed to wash their hands (and other items (vv. 3-4)[3]) diligently prior to using them to make sure they are ritually clean (the issue of hygiene is less in view here).[4] What’s interesting is there’s only a reference in the First Testament (Ex. 30:18-21; 40:30-32) to diligently washing hands for the sake of purity: priests are supposed to wash their hands prior to the sacrifice.[5]

The command to wash hands—given to the priests—morphed into a human tradition passed down from the religious authorities to the people, and it became normative.[6] This is what Jesus takes issue with, and rightly so. The emphasis on obedience to the traditions handed down by humanity interferes with heart-felt devotion to God. The people, who are merely trying to survive day in and day out, are burdened with superfluous tasks and deeds baptized in the name of God. The work of serving the Lord and offering authentic devotion birthed from the heart gives way to the toil of upholding human made demands for fear of being punished or ostracized. So, in defense of the beleaguered people, Jesus creatively quotes Isaiah[7] to respond to the pharisee-scribes from Jerusalem:

“‘This people honors me with lips, but their heart is held far back from me; and they worship me to no purpose while teaching the teaching of religious precepts of humanity.’”

And concludes with the accusation that they have allowed the traditions of humanity to usurp the command of God (v.8).

Two things I want to highlight here in the profundity of Jesus’s reply. There’s a clear accusation against the religious authorities: they’ve taught and handed down these traditions of humanity and demonstrate they are not holding to the commands of God.[8] The religious authorities are taking the purity of the people into their own hands thus they are commandeering the worship of the people to reflect human traditions handed down (the externals).[9] The more they do this, the further they get from being of the things of God.[10] Their worship of God is of no purpose and in vain. This is their own doing.

The other thing I want to highlight is this: while Jesus is casting divine accusation at the religious authorities for their preference for human tradition over and against divine command, he’s also exposing the people. As the religious authorities peddle these traditions of humanity handed down and baptize them as God’s decree, the people (ὁ λαός) are also far from being of the things of God and are consumed by the things of humanity. They, too, worship in vain and to no purpose. But this is not of their own doing.

Conclusion

My colleague and dear friend The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch reflects on the call of the black woman preacher, Zilpha Elaw:

“…she described people who were bothered by her ministry as ‘ignorant and prejudiced…men whose whims are law, who walk after the imagination of their own hearts, and to whom the cause of God is a toy…’ She could not and would not give in to [sic.] their objections and neglect God’s calling on her. Her calling was so clear, so distinct, that she remarks ‘it is an easy matter to adopt a string of notions on religion, and make a great ado about them; but the weight of religious obligation, and the principle of conscientious obedience to God are quite another matter.’ To translate that into today’s terms, Elaw implies that it is easier to become legalistic over doctrine than to obey God’s calling on our lives.”[11]

Elaw qtd in The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch’s forthcoming book.

I was never upset with my beloved students for their fear of performing rightly if vacantly; they were taught to fear things created by human minds and hands. I was upset with their teachers, the ones who instilled the fear. Their teachers had become legalistic and had rejected God’s calling on their life to love people and not idols, and that rejection was reflected in their teaching. And, as Jesus says, what comes out of our mouths is very important.

When we become so consumed with this thing and that thing, with how things should be done and should not be done, with wood and stone, with our own purity and obedience in external things, we lose the marvel and wonder of the divine presence in the encounter with God in the event of faith. All these material and external things surrounding us are here to serve us and our worship; we are not to serve it. When we elevate the material and external things to the realm of the divine, we will—along with the pharisee-scribes—release the word of God and hold fast to the traditions handed down by humanity. When the emphasis falls on us serving the material and external things; we become burdened with toil and our worship is in vain and to no purpose because we are worshipping ourselves.

Even worse than losing ourselves in wrong priorities, we will guide others into this dis-order. As a priest and future doctor of the church, the weight is rightly on me to speak well. Not in terms of doctrine and dogma (human made), not in creeds and prayers (again, human made), but in the Word made flesh, the incarnate word of God, the Christ crucified and raised. Those of us called out to lead from within must remain humbled at the foot of the cross and consumed in the glory of divine activity of life out of death in the resurrection of Jesus. It is not about me bringing you into what makes sense to me, but into what makes sense to God: divine love, divine peace, divine justice for you and for others. In other words, what comes out of my mouth is very important and reveals where my roots are, where my focus is, and to whom my heart belongs (vv.14-15).

Beloved, we have been liberated to love the world not in the purity of our religiosity which actually drives people away, but in the imperfection of our humanity which will call people in. It’s not about getting the external and material right in these walls at this table in these linens; rather, it’s about living through the imperfection of our belovedness into the world making the material and external better for those fighting to survive for truly this is divine love, divine peace, and divine justice in action.

Let us love as we’ve been loved.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted

[2] RT France The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text TNIGTC Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002. 280. “Matthew’s phrase ἀπὸ Ἱεροσολύμων Φαρισαῖοι καὶ γραμματεῖς suggests a single group coming from Jerusalem to Galilee. Mark’s wording, however, divides the group into the (presumably local) Φαρισαῖοι and τινες τῶν γραμματέων ἐλθόντες ἀπὸ Ἱεροσολύμων. Judging from the area of their concern these scribes from Jerusalem were themselves also Pharisees, and no distinction between the two groups is discernible in the pericope…The fact that in both instances they are described as having arrived…from Jerusalem probably indicates that they have come specially to investigate and/or to dispute with Jesus.”

[3] France Mark 281. “Mark’s explanatory account of Jewish rituals of purity is apparently directed to Gentile readers of the gospel. It is a broad-brush, unsophisticated account, which conveys a general sense of meticulous concern to avoid defilement rather than a nuanced presentation of the purity laws- of the OT and of tradition.”

[4] France Mark 280. “As in 2:18,23-24, it is the behaviour of Jesus’ disciples rather than his actions which provides the point of dispute…The issue this time (as in 2:18) is not one of obedience to the OT laws, but of rules subsequently developed in Pharisaic circles. While no doubt it could normally be expected that hands would be washed before a meal for hygienic reasons (since food was often taken from a common dish), the only hand washing required in the OT for purposes of ritual purity is that of priests before offering sacrifice (Ex. 30:18-21; 40:30-32). The extension of this principle to the eating of ordinary food, and to Jewish people other than priests, was a matter of scribal development, and it is uncertain how far it had progressed by the time of Jesus.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] France Mark 283. τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν περσβυτέρων “The term is not specific, and refers merely to ‘received wisdom’, and that wisdom may not have been of very long standing, nor have been shared by all groups within Judaism at that time. But for the scribes, as for religious groups generally, there is an assumption that what has once been established by usage normative; for them this practice is now self-evidently right. Jesus’ response will therefore focus on this more fundamental issue of the relative authority of tradition as such as a guide to the will of God, rather than on the provenance of the particular tradition in question.”

[7] France Mark 284. “‘The Introductory formula (containing the only use in Mark of the ‘Matthean’ term ὑποκριτής) assumes that Isaiah’s words, which originally described the superficial religious devotion of his eighth-century contemporaries than predicting a future situation, can be directly applied to, indeed were written about, ὑμεῖς. This ‘contemporising’ use of OT texts is typical of much NT interpretation, and presupposes a typological understanding of continuity in the relationship between God and his people such that earlier events and situations appropriately serve as models for a later era of fulfilment, even though in themselves they had no predictive force.”

[8] France Mark 284. “The specific statement that the worship described is ‘vain’ undoubtedly sharpens the application, and the inclusion of διδάσκοντες fits well with the specific application of the charge to scribes rather than to the people in general, but the text even in its Hebrew form describes a worship which is based on externals and is of purely human origin, which is just the point which Jesus goes on to make about the scribal traditions, whereas the specifically LXX point that their worship is ‘in vain’ is nowhere drawn into Jesus’ comments.”

[9] France Mark 284-5. “The contrast in Isaiah between lips (words) and heart is not taken up as a regular form of expression in the gospels, but reflects an important prophetic theme…and corresponds to the charge elsewhere in the gospels that scribal religion is more concerned with external correctness than with fundamental attitudes and relationship to God…”

[10] France Mark 285. “The fundamental contrast is the last—true religion is focused on God, not a merely human activity. What comes from God has the authoritative character of ἐντολή, which requires obedience; what comes from human authority is merely παράδοσις, which may or may not be of value in itself, but cannot have the same mandatory character. Yet they have held fast to the latter, while allowing the former to go by default. ἀφίμι perhaps does not yet denote deliberate rejection, but rather a wrong sense of priorities, resuming in de facto neglect of God’s law…”

[11] Zilpha Elaw qtd in The Rev. Dr. Kate Hanch’s forthcoming book. The reflection by Elaw is from recorded in Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century ed. William L. Andrews.

Hope in the Mess

Sancta Colloquia Episode 401 ft. Bp. Jake Owensby

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

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

Excited? You should be. Listen here:

Interview with Bp. Jake Owensby

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

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

Other Books by Bp. Owensby:

A Resurrection Shaped Life: Dying and Rising on Planet Earth

Your Untold Story: Tales of a Child of God

Gospel Memories: The Future Can Rewrite Our Past

Connecting the Dots: A Hope-Inspired Life

“Sign of the Gospel”

Sancta Colloquia Episode 303 ft. W. Travis McMaken

If you’ve ever wanted to know all things Baptism, I’ve got you covered. In this episode (and the next one), Dr. W. Travis McMaken joins me to talk about his book The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth. I have to be honest and point out up front that this episode is (in my opinion) a bit different than my other episodes. It’s less casual and more formal due to the structure and flow of the questions I asked Dr. McMaken ahead of time. So, there’s a strong pedagogical feel to the episode. McMaken does the lion’s share of walking through the history of Baptism, from the early church to the Reformation, and, finally, landing squarely at the feet of one of the greats of the early to mid 20th century: Karl Barth. Thanks to McMaken’s depth of knowledge and experience as a professor, this episode is an excellent exposure to sacraments, sacramental theology, church history, and the implications our church life has for our political life. Understanding some of the traditions of Christianity can help us to revisit and review those traditions in a new light: baptism is exceptionally political. Those who say otherwise are pulling the wool over your eyes, keeping you from good activity on behalf of the oppressed and marginalized (maybe even from good work on behalf of yourself).

So, if you thought that Baptism is just that thing that happens at church where you watch and then go eat cake, you’d be a wee bit right but way more wrong. It’s the event of Baptism especially where Jesus Christ is preached, that moves not only the baptizand but also those who stand around the baptismal font (family, God-parents, fellow parishioners, etc) into their active role in the world. Baptism isn’t just about a few sprinkles of water (or about whether or not it should be “full immersion”), but about activating the person through the event of faith in the encounter with God to love their neighbor as themselves in the world. Baptism transcends the four walls of the church and the reception hall (housing that cake). The gathered community becomes the sent community; the church body gathered to hear Christ preached, who witness baptism (over and over again, because it’s not a singular historic event but one that repeats in the encounter with God in the event of faith) becomes the body of Christ in the world, thus, participating in the breakdown between the distinction between church and world. The work of the baptized, of those who have encountered God in the event of faith, become those whose actions, in the proclamation of Christ, become as divine action, especially as it pertains to radical acts of loving others materially, economically, politically, socially, with justice, peace, humility, and grace. There’s so much packed in this interview, that I’m breaking it into two parts—I really did not want to cut too much; when it comes to pedagogy, Dr. McMaken is excellent.

The episode will air in two parts. The second part will go live in two weeks (the link for that part will appear below the link for the first part in this post).

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here:

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W. Travis McMaken (@WTravisMcMaken), PhD, is Associate Professor of Religion and Assistant Dean of Humanities in the School of Humanities at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, MO. He is a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). McMaken’s writing engages primarily with 20th century theology (esp. Protestant theology, with specialization in Karl Barth, Helmut Gollwitzer, and T. F. Torrance) while working constructively on the subjects of sacramentology, ecclesiology, and political theology. His blog is: http://derevth.blogspot.com/. Also, you can find his work here at Lindenwood University:  https://www.lindenwood.edu/academics/academic-schools/school-of-humanities/our-programs/philosophy-and-religion/philosophy-and-religion-faculty/w-travis-mcmaken/

Recommended reading:

Susan K. Wood’s One Baptism: Ecumenical Dimensions of the Doctrine of Baptism (Liturgical Press, 2009).

Kathryn Tanner, God and Creation in Christian Theology (Fortress, 1988).

Recommended reading authored by Dr. W. Travis McMaken:

W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013). 

W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017).

“So, You Want to Read Karl Barth?” http://derevth.blogspot.com/2007/06/so-you-want-to-read-karl-barth.html

“So, You Want to Read Helmut Gollwitzer?”  http://derevth.blogspot.com/2018/03/so-you-want-to-read-helmut-gollwitzer.html

McMaken’s Recording Mediums:

Youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC-zJjJ64hu-f1OGp1fq43ZQ

McKrakenCast: https://wtravismcmaken.podbean.com/

Hearing unto Life

Romans 5:12-19 (Sermon)

On Ash Wednesday, Rev. Kennedy and I placed ashes on foreheads and whispered the words: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The alb became our sackcloth, the stole a millstone, and our words reminders that the wage and curse of sin is death. We anointed fragile and vulnerable people not with the oil of life, but with the ash of death.

The sermon carried a glimmer of hope, yet I was taken by the deep tenor of the service. Life eclipsed by death. The moment driven home when I placed ashes on the foreheads of my own children. My hands, my voice, my body–which gestated, nurtured, sustained, warmed, comforted and consoled my babies–delivered their sentence: death. Woven through the reminder of return to dust was the maternal apology that from this I cannot protect them. The great reaper knocks on every single door and collects.

Just as through this one person sin entered the cosmos and through [this] sin death, and in this way death spread into all humanity, on the basis of one all sinned. (Rom 5:12)

In Romans, Paul marries together sin and death in such a way that (grammatically) to tear one from the other would be to destroy both. The presence of death is evidence of the presence of sin.[1] That we die is, for Paul, evidence that something has gone terribly wrong. How has this come to be?

To answer, Paul, in vv. 13-14, yanks Adam out of Genesis 3 and makes him stand trial. Paul makes it clear it is not the Law that caused sin. (As if we could just get rid of the law to get rid of sin, if we did would only eliminate the exposure of sin.[2]) That there is death, which existed before the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, there is sin because death is before the Law was.[3] For Paul, before there is the Law there is death, before death there is Adam and with him the “sin.” Before the manifestation of the “sin,” there is the problem.

What is this “problem that thrust all of humanity into the cold, boney arms of death?[4] It’s not an issue of will, it’s an issue of hearing.

The language Paul employs talking about the “sin” of Adam sounds more like mis-stepping and slipping[5] than willful disobedience. It’s aiming but missing the mark. It’s trying to walk but falling down. It’s being well intentioned and making a huge mistake. You can love and cause pain.

In v.19 things get interesting. It’s here we get the first reference to “disobedience” and “obedience.” Again, the words chosen for the discussion are built from the concept of hearing.[6] And herein lies the problem that precedes the “sin”: hearing wrongly v. hearing rightly. (Shema O, Israel the core of Jewish liturgy and would have been coursing through Paul’s veins.) Paul creates a scene where Adam misheard and (thus) mis-stepped.

Going back to Gen 3, to the intellectual cage match between Eve and the serpent, something revelatory occurs. When tempted with the “forbidden” fruit, Eve without hesitation tells the serpent, “‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die,”’” (Gen 3:2-3). Do you hear the problem? Eve misquotes the prohibition to the serpent.

In Genesis 2:15-17, Adam is created out of dust and is inspired by God’s breath. Then he’s brought into the garden to work and have dominion over it. “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die,’” (Gen 2:15-17). Who received the prohibition? Adam.  According to the narrative fluidity of the two chapters, who relayed it to Eve? Adam. What was the problem resulting in the situation at the tree? Not the ingesting of the fruit, that’s the wage (the fruit) of “sin” which partook of death. The problem: someone misheard.

Adam was spoken to first. And then Eve. One of them or both of them misheard. Did they love God? We can assume they did. Did they want to do poorly? No. They intended well and mis-stepped because the fundamental problem of humanity is hardness of heart resulting in a stiff neck preventing the hearing of hearing,[7] hearing so deeply that you do (Shema). We can be God-inspired, God-breathed creations, placed in paradise, and still have massive hearing problems.

Martin Luther explains that part of the original sin we are born into is not only a lack of uprightness in the entire (inner and outer) person, but a “nausea toward the good.”[8] Why is the idea of good, of God, so loathsome? Because it’s an issue of hearing. I hear God as a threat to me because I mishear. That God is and reigns comes to me as threat: threat to myself, my will, my reason, my perception of what is good, etc. The proclamation that God is is flat out offensive to me; it means I am not the queen I think I am.

Thus, when the law comes, it exposes my predicament, plight, and problem. In the Law’s ability to expose, I blame it for my predicament; ignorance is bliss. Had the law never come, I’d not know I was stuck. But now in seeing that I’m stuck, I’m angry, and I blame the law for my stuckness, which I was before the law came. But I blame wrongly because I hear wrongly.[9]

This is the original sin that we are born into. We are not evil and horrible, willfully bent on disobedience and destruction. Rather, we’ve genetically inherited poor hearing and this results in disobedience, missing the mark, and mis-stepping, and thus into death. To hear wrongly is to die; to hear rightly is to live. We need to be caused to hear rightly. The great Shema O, Israel[10] goes forth, but who has ears to hear so deeply that they hit the mark, step rightly, to walk and not slip?

Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. It is he who hears rightly, steps rightly, hits the mark and walks without slipping. He is God incarnate, the word made flesh[11] who proclaims the word of God, obeys the word of God, and performs the word of God he hears. Jesus proclaims the reign of God, he lives the reign of God, he is the reign of God. This is the one who is baptized by John in the river Jordan and hears God proclaim him as God’s divine son. This is also the one who has heard the word of God so well he will defeat the attacks of the evil one, being successful where Israel wasn’t. Shema O, Israel.

Just as we who are born of flesh are born into Adam’s imperfect hearing resulting in disobedience and death, we are reborn by hearing through the giving of ears to hear in the proclamation of Christ Crucified. In this encounter with God in the event of faith (hearing), we are brought through death and are recreated into Christ’s perfect hearing resulting in obedience.[12]

When God acts on behalf of God’s people, God doesn’t merely contend with “disobedience” (that’s what we do). God contends with the problem by giving the free gift of new, circumcised[13] hearts and spirits which lead to obedience.[14] God gives the free gift of the grace of and righteousness of God in Christ Jesus, making the unrighteous righteous. It is the grace of Christ that eclipses the sin of Adam;[15] it is the life of Christ that drowns out the death of Adam; it is the perfect hearing of Christ that resurrects all who are stuck in the death of the mishearing of Adam.[16] It is the supernova of Christmas and Easter that engulfs and swallows the sting of death.

It is Christ, the righteous one, who heals those who are lame, declares clean those who are unclean, gives sight to those who can’t see and hearing to those who can’t hear. It is Christ who is the free gift of God’s grace and righteousness.[17] It is Christ who speaks to those condemned to death as criminals with his pronouncement of acquittal and restores them to life. This is the substance of the church’s witness to the world in her speech and sacraments. In hearing rightly, we speak to and act rightly in the world. In hearing rightly, we are brought to the font and table, witnessing to our identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. And there we are anointed not with ash but with oil, sealed as Christ’s own and into his obedience, fed by Christ’s hand, hearing the comfort of the divine whisper, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[18]

 

 

 

[1] Luther LW 25. 298. “…if death comes by sin and if without sin there would be no death, then sin is in all of us. Thus it is not personal sin that he is talking about here. Otherwise it would be false to say that death had entered by sin, but rather we ought to say that it came by the will of God.”

[2] Luther LW 25. 303. “And thus it is not understood to mean that sin existed until the Law came and then ceased to exist, but that sin received an understanding of itself which it did not possess before. And the words of the apostle clearly indicate this interpretation: ‘But sin was not counted where there was no law,’ as if to say that through the Law, which it had preceded, sin was not abolished but imputed.”

[3] Luther LW 25. 298. “…sin was in the world before the Law was given, etc. (v. 13). Actual sin also was in the world before Moses, and it was imputed, because it was also punished by men; but original sin was unknown until Moses revealed it in Gen. 3.”

[4] Luther LW 25. 299. “Note how at the same time it is true that only one man sinned, that only one sin was committed, that only one person was disobedient, and yet because of him many were made sinners and disobedient.”

[5] Α῾μαρτα´νω: I miss the mark, I sinned, I made a mistake. η῾ παρα´βασις: the going aside, deviation, overstepping. το` παρα´πτωμα: the trespass, false step, lapse, slip, sin.

[6] Η῾ παρακοη´: the hearing amiss, by implication disobedience; imperfect hearing. η῾ υ῾πακοη´: obedience, submissiveness, compliance.

[7] Deuteronomy 30:6ff

[8] Luther LW 25. 299. What is original sin, “Second, however, according to the apostle and the simplicity of meaning in Christ Jesus, it is not only a lack of a certain quality in the will, nor even only a lack of light in the mind or of power in the memory, but particularly it is a lack of uprightness and of the power of all the faculties both of body and soul and of the whole inner and outer man. On top of all this, it is propensity toward evil. It is a nausea toward the good, a loathing of light and wisdom, and a delight in error and darkness, a flight from and an abomination of all good works, a pursuit of evil…”

[9] Luther LW 25. 307. “And this is true, so that the meaning is: the Law came and without any fault on the part of the Law or in the intentions of the Lawgiver, it happened that it came for the increasing of sin, and this happened because of the weakness of our sinful desire, which was unable to fulfill the Law.”

[10] Deuteronomy 6.

[11] John 1

[12] Luther LW 25. 305. Luther makes reference later to 1 Corinthians 15:22.

[13] Deuteronomy 30:6

[14] Ezekiel 36:24-27, Jeremiah 31:31-34

[15] Luther LW 25. 306. “This gift is ‘by the grace of that one Man,’ that is, by the personal merit and grace of Christ, by which He was pleasing to God, so that He might give this gift to us. This phrase ‘by the grace of that one Man’ should be understood of the personal grace of Christ, corresponding to the personal sin of Adam which belonged to him, but the ‘gift’ is the very righteousness which has been given to us.”

[16] Luther LW 25. 306. “Thus also original sin is a gift (if I may use the term) in the sin of the one man Adam. But ‘the grace of God’ and ‘the gift’ are the same thing, namely, the very righteousness which is freely given to us through Christ. And He adds this grace because it is customary to give a gift to one’s friends. But this gift is given even to His enemies out of His mercy, because they were not worthy of this gift unless they were made worthy and accounted as such by the mercy and grace of God.”

[17] Luther LW 25. 305-6. “The apostle joins together grace and the gift, as if they were different, but he does so in order that he may clearly demonstrate the type of the One who was to come which he has mentioned, namely, that although we are justified by God and receive His grace, yet we do not receive it by our own merit, but it is His gift, which the Father gave to Christ to give to men, according to the statement in Eph. 4:8, ‘When He ascended on high. He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.’”

[18] These final few thoughts in this paragraph are influenced by the profound work of Dr. W. Travis McMaken in his book, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth Emerging Scholars Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013. It was difficult to find one quotation to demonstrate how I was influenced—the entire book is a masterpiece. However, for the sake of space, I think this gets at the thrust of it: “The objective-subjective character of baptism as a mode of the church’s gospel proclamation confronts those baptized with the demands of the gospel thereby proclaimed. As mode of the church’s gospel proclamation, baptism confronts those baptized with the message that they were baptized in Jesus Christ’s baptism, died in his death, and were raised in his resurrection. This baptismal proclamation calls those that it confronts to, as Paul puts it, “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Such an exhortation requires neither a baptismal transfer of grace nor a baptismal ratification of personal commitment; rather, it flows from the objective-subjective and holistically particular installation of the church’s gospel proclamation within the history of those baptized.”233-34.

Jesus of Nazareth the Christ

A short post on Gerhard Ebeling’s views of Christology.

The following is something I wrote for an advanced theology class I’m cultivating/forming, and I tasked my self with completing the first assignment. The text assigned was from Word and Faith by Gerhard Ebeling, “The question of the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Christology,” which is an essay written in Honor of Rudolf Bultmann’s 75th birthday. It’s fun to participate in a project like developing this type of class, and putting yourself on the spot. The students have the opportunity to critical engage my work; I stand not above them, but with them. I wanted to share here what I wrote because 1. I’ve been meaning to process the concept of the Historical Jesus specifically from Ebeling’s view for my own work; and, 2. why not? Enjoy, Beloveds. 

 

Proving Jesus existed cannot be the sole foundation for faith. Making an apologetic for faith out of Jesus the man is a mere throwing words into the wind. Faith extends beyond that which can be discerned by the five senses. To actualize by scroll and parchment the humanity of the Jesus of Nazareth merely means that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, existed at one point in time. If the Christian claim was only Jesus as a great moral exemplar, well, then, maybe we’d have something to go on. However, that’s not the laudatory aspect of the gospel proclamation; there’s nothing substantially good or new about another good man being a good human. Yet, the proclamation of the gospel is both good and new; as it pertains to Jesus of Nazareth something else must be at work especially if, christologically speaking, Jesus Christ is the foundation of the communication of faith.

 

In his chapter, “The question of the Historical Jesus and the Problem of Christology,” Gerhard Ebeling makes this statement, “The encounter with Jesus as the witness to faith, however, is without limitation an encounter with himself. For the concentration on the coming to expression of faith—and that alone!—is the ground of the unity of ‘person’ and ‘work’, but for that reason also the ground of the totality of the encounter,” (298). And then Ebeling adds, “Faith’s view of Jesus must therefore assert itself as a furtherance to the historical view of Jesus. For faith itself is the coming to its goal of what came to expression in Jesus. The [one] who believes is with the historical Jesus,” (298). There was a man Jesus of Nazareth and the early church recorded and proclaimed very specific things about him. Thus, seemingly opposing my first comment: Jesus’s existence is everything for faith. It is in encounter with Christ (both then and now through the proclamation of the Word of God) that is the beckoning of the event of faith. There must be a man named Jesus who is of Nazareth to make the claim that this particular man is God.

 

Faith is not strict intellectual assent to the actuality of the human person named Jesus who is of Nazareth. Rather, faith asserts something about this particular man, Jesus of Nazareth. (This is the same distinction Ebeling highlights between the claims about the historical Jesus and the early church’s proclamation of Christ (300-301).) Faith is that event by which the person is encountered by God through the proclamation of Christ crucified and raised. In hearing the word the person is seized by the proclamation and faith assents: behold God. Ebeling, “To belong to Jesus means to believe, and to believe means to belong to Jesus. Faith is not a form that can be given any content at will, but is the very essence of the matter, the thing that came with Jesus Christ, the content of revelation, the gift of salvation itself,” (303). Faith explains how one moves from the demand, crucify him! To surely, this was the son of God.

 

To have faith in Christ is not because of any one thing or picture or idea presented about Jesus (304). Faith’s grounding is this man Jesus of Nazareth who is God. To quote Ebeling, “…the sole ground of faith is Jesus as the witness to faith in the pregnant sense of the ‘author and finisher of faith’,” (304). Ruled out here are any claims to reason and will or even to fear as the basis for one believing in Jesus as the savior of the world. Faith is new every morning because it asserts new every morning what came to expression in Jesus (304). It is timeless because it is the event of the encounter with God who is unrestricted by time. The proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sins and raised for justification is the means by which the hearer is beckoned into the encounter and thus into faith and grafted into the universal and eternal message of God’s dealings with the entire world.

PT Forsyth for Our Time

Sancta Colloquia episode 202 ft. Ben Nasmith

In this episode of Sancta Colloquia, I finally get the chance to talk with someone I’ve wanted to talk with for a while: Ben Nasmith (@BNasmith).  Ben and I have connected over the work of PT Forsyth. I don’t know a lot about Forsyth, but what I’ve read I always love. Specifically, what I love about PT Forsyth is that his work is the type of theology resonant with my own theological motto: if the gospel is true then it is true in the darkest of dark, the solitudes of solitudes, the weariness of weariness, and the despair of despair. In this episode, Ben puts flesh on the man and makes him real for me, and this makes Forsyth’s theology even more powerful, in my opinion. After offering a good biographical sketch of Forsyth and the progress of his study and work, Ben offers insight into what make Forsyth tick: the severity of the Cross. Taking the liberal theology he studied in the later part of the 19th century, Forsyth, according to Ben, makes it practical by rediscovering the gravity of the cross event in order to heighten the sweetness that is the proclamation of the gospel. Ben explains that the treasure of the Christian faith is the cross. When we forget this, we lose the very fabric that is the event of encounter with God in faith. “As we interpret the cross, the cross interprets us,” says Ben. “We can’t nail [the event of the Cross] down; it’s a continual process.” It’s true; when we think we’ve figured it out, figured out the event of the cross, figured God out, that’s when lose what it is we really truly need: a wholly other God who is always outside of our grasp but in whose fingers we are grasped. There’s no way to look at the event of the cross and come into encounter with the active will of Jesus under this severe condition and not be changed. And repeatedly so. We never figure it out; we are always being encountered. Faith is new every morning, just like God’s mercy is also new every morning. Ben drives home the reality that PT Forsyth is for us weary travelers on this journey of life…yesterday and today. I’m grateful that Ben took time from his own work to come talk to me. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did.

Intrigued? You should be. Listen here via Screaming Pods (https://www.screamingpods.com/)

A huge THANK YOU to my friend and producer Sean Duregger (Twitter: @seanCduregger) and Screaming Pods (Twitter: @ScreamingPods) for hosting Sancta Colloquia (Twitter: @SanctaColloquia).

 

At the moment Ben teaches undergraduate physics at the Royal Military College in Kingston Ontario, where He’s also a PhD candidate in mathematics with a focus on algebra and exceptional structures in combinatorics. Theology is a passion but not a profession for Ben. A couple years ago, he completed a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Briercrest Seminary in Caronport Saskatchewan. Ben wrote a masters thesis on the role of experience in theology according to the philosophy of Paul Moser. After graduating, while keeping his day job, he’s been working with the same Paul Moser of his master’s thesis. They have collaborated on a couple of theology projects, including a new collection of hard to find Peter Forsyth essays with Pickwick Publications at Wipf and Stock (entitled “God of Holy Love”).

Also from Ben as part of his biography:

“The driving interest behind this project and others is a concern for the role of experience, especially moral experience, in theology and the Christian life. My religious upbringing was in a Canadian evangelical tradition, the Associated Gospel Churches, and I also attended an evangelical seminary. In seminary I came across the theology of Peter Forsyth and completed a directed reading course on his work. Forsyth was just what I needed to hear at just the right time. My faith has evolved a great deal in the meantime, but I still turn to Forsyth for inspiration, encouragement, and an existential challenge.”

Recommended and mentioned reading:

I maintain a collection of PT Forsyth writings here: https://experientialtheology.hcommons.org/archives/category/pt-forsyth
Paul Moser also has lots of Forsyth writings: http://pmoser.sites.luc.edu/ptforsytharchive/
An excellent way to find PT Forsyth writing is to search the internet archive (I’ve uploaded dozens of new items and there was already a lot there): https://archive.org/details/experientialtheology?and[]=creator%3A%22peter+taylor+forsyth+%281848-1921%29%22
The very helpful PTF article on the atonement is here: https://experientialtheology.hcommons.org/archives/255
The article “From a Lover of Love to an Object of Grace”: https://experientialtheology.hcommons.org/archives/133
The article “The Disappointment of the Cross”: https://archive.org/details/PTFDisappointmentofCross
The article “Sacramentalism the True Remedy of Sacerdotalism”: https://archive.org/details/ForsythSacramentalism1898

Come and Follow Me

Luke 10:38-42 (Sermon)

Introduction

One of the temptations in addressing this Lukan gospel passage, is the temptation to create a dichotomy between Mary and Martha. You’ve likely heard the moral of the story expressed as: Be “Maries” in a world of “Marthas”—an exhortation to Christians to prefer passive, private, quiet worship life like Mary, rather than a life filled with activity and motion and doing that coincides with Martha’s. [1] If you’ve ever heard this dichotomy between the sisters and felt a certain amount of tension and frustration, good news: you are not wrong.

It’s a bad application of the text. It throws shade on Martha that she doesn’t deserve and puts Mary in a position she hasn’t chosen. If we fall to the temptation to draw the line between Martha and Mary—substantiating the former with bad and the latter with good—we end up pitting the sisters against each other in a way that will plague us with a burden insidiously destructive to our discipleship—it’ll make any form of the law look like a fuzzy little kitten.

If we are dead set on this dichotomy between the sisters, let’s be warned: we’ll miss out on the wonderful story of what it means to be fully human; we’ll miss Jesus’s verbal deftness rendering the law in service to the gospel; we’ll miss witnessing the powers of sin and death collapsing under the weight of the invasion of God into our world in Christ—bringing to ashes our categories and expectations based on divisions; [2] we’ll miss the moment when the Christ takes from our weary shoulders the domination of toil and replaces it with the light burden and easy yoke[3] of the activity of discipleship, of following after this One who is the first of new creation. If we are dead set in pitting Mary against Martha, we’ll forfeit a word that is dynamic and life giving for a word that is static and death dealing.

And as he journeyed with [his disciples], he, he entered into a certain village; and a woman whose name [was] Martha received him as a guest. (10:38)

The story opens up with Jesus on the move with his disciples. Luke adjusts the focus and the disciples recede into the background. [4] Jesus enters this town and this woman, Martha, receives him. Hold still here. I don’t want us to miss this small moment in this brief story because we want to move quickly to the activity of Mary and Martha. Jesus is being intentional here. He enters this certain village and is received into this particular home. Luke asks us to listen: Do you hear it? God comes. Christ inaugurates everything occurring from here on out; everything is set in motion by the divine One who has come into our world, in to the very heart of our homes. We asked for none of this; in fact, we weren’t even looking for it and certainly not in this way. God comes.

And she had a sister called Mary, and [she] was seated at the feet of the Lord and listening to his word. (10:39)

Luke moves the narrative along quickly: Jesus has arrived at this home and Martha and her sister Mary are introduced. Martha takes the lead to receive Jesus as we read in the last verse, and Mary is imaged in what seems as a more passive role: the one who is sitting and listening. But, again, if we move to quickly to the action of the story, we’ll miss what Luke wants us to hear and see.

A striking aspect of this verse is that there is no way Mary is passive here. While I usually don’t spend time explaining words in their original biblical language, I must do so here because our English translation is painfully lacking. The text reads, “Mary was seated at the feet of the Lord…” However, we must understand the past tense participle (παρακαθεσθεισα) translated as “was seated” would be better rendered as: “Mary got up and placed herself at the feet of Jesus…” The radicality and boldness of Mary’s movement is lost in our translation. Thus why we want to make the bad dichotomy between Mary and Martha. Mary is as active as Martha is.

When Jesus enters the room, Mary stops what she is doing, moves toward him, and assumes the (active) role of being a disciple[5] to this one who is the Christ, the word made flesh, the apocalyptic invasion of God in the world. Nothing, neither the Law nor some societal gender expectations, [6] will keep Mary from being close to the one she adores, the one she loves, the one who has called her and the one whom she hears. She’d rather suffer the consequences of bucking expectation and assuming a position that was not hers to assume or seize[7] rather than not be near Jesus whom she loves.

This isn’t about active equals bad and passive equals good; Mary and Martha are equally active. This is about something bigger than we think. It’s about God’s cosmic battle with the powers of sin and death through the arrival of the good (Christ)—the good we weren’t looking for but need.

And Martha was troubled greatly about all of the service. Now, she stood before [Jesus] and said, “Lord, is it not an object of anxiety for you that my sister has abandoned me alone to serve? Therefore, tell her for the purpose that she may lend me a hand. (10:40)

Martha is burdened by what has to be done and her sister, according to her, has “abandoned” her to do all the work of service for their guest. So she asks for help. Now, both sisters are before Jesus. One has seated her self to listen and one who has stepped close to cry out for help. How are either of these positions is wrong? Martha, under extensive anxiety, forsakes her independence and goes straight to the one who can help. Thus the supposed dichotomy between the sisters (activity/bad; passivity/good) diminishes more.

Rather than looking where we want to look, let’s look in the direction Luke is asking us to look; what’s the real distinction Luke is trying to make here? The distinction Luke is making with this story is orientation; orientation as a result of hearing; orientation as a result of hearing that manifests in love of the One who has come. One is oriented and one has to be reoriented.

Martha calls out from the depths of her humanity, burdened by the weight of the demands and cares of the laws placed on her, oppressed by the many anxieties weighing her down she cries out. She needs help, and she goes to the one she knows can help. She calls Jesus’s attention to the storm in her life, like the disciples did in Luke 8 when their dingy was threatened by raucous waves and roaring winds. “Master, we are going to drown!”, they cried out. “Lord, I’m going to drown!”, cries Martha. “Do something, Lord!”

Martha wants Jesus to intervene in a way that forces Mary to come and help her with the tasks of table service. She wants him to right the situation and put it back to normal; she wants him to make it that makes sense to her. [8] Jesus will help her and will make things “right,” but not in the way she expects. When does God work within our systems and according to our plans? When is the word of the gospel forced to serve the things conceived and born of ash and dirt? When has the Reign of God given way to the kingdom of humanity?

When Jesus speaks, everything will change, will become topsy-turvy and flipped around; including Martha.

And the Lord answered her and said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled in mind about many things, but there is one need; for Mary picked for herself the good portion which it will not be taken away from her.” (10:41-42)

Jesus speaks. The Word words himself. Jesus doesn’t condemn Martha for her anxiety and burdens, but loving calls her (thus the double use of her name). The first Martha gets her attention, and the second one draws her deeper into himself. Like a mother would her anxious child. The voice she knows of the one who loves her so very much speaks, and when he does so in love and not condemnation. Martha’s orientation shifts from what must be done to the Lord sitting before her. And Jesus doesn’t tell her to stop worrying. He calls her by name. He doesn’t shush her, tell her she’s ridiculous, or shame her for feeling burdened. He merely reorients her to him and does so by calling her by name. That’s the gospel gospeling itself: love loving.

Then, he exposes her. First he flips her words. Martha asked Jesus if it was causing him anxiety that she was abandoned to serve. Jesus aren’t you upset my sister isn’t doing what she is expected to do? Jesus’s reply? Nope. I’m not. You’re the one, Martha, who is anxious to fulfill the relentless beast of burden of what is expected. Second, he intensifies her state: And it’s more than just this particular table service that’s causing you anxiety, Martha; it’s many things. It’s the demand upon demand placed upon her by the things of her world that are weighing her down. Martha is burdened to fulfill what is expected of her, but notice that this isn’t what Jesus expects. [9] Jesus isn’t upholding and isn’t going to uphold the law created and sustained by the old age, the very age God is putting to an end in Christ’s advent.

As Jesus addresses Martha, he highlights that discipleship isn’t worrisome obedience to “domestic performance” as one scholar called it, but about orientation toward the one who is the revelation and disclosure of God’s great cosmic rescue plan. [10] And this rescue plan—the cosmic invasion of God to contend with the powers of sin and death in the world—doesn’t incorporate thrusting people back into systems and structures that have only left them bound and gagged and laboring unto death (that’s the old age). Jesus is not the Lord who deals death, but the one who speaks and the dead come to life. He is the word of life and the body of living sustenance. The gospel is not in service to the law, but the law in service to the gospel; the tablets of stone serve the embodied Son of God who came to save the world.

Martha lost herself in the many things being demanded of her according to custom, but there is only need: the Word made flesh. In trying to serve her guest according to the rules and laws of the old age, Martha renders herself incapable of service to the Lord, to Jesus the Christ. Thus the contrast between Mary and Martha is orientation: Martha has her eyes to the old age; Mary to the new one inaugurated by Christ. Discipleship and its service is to be oriented toward the divine activity in the world following closely to the path initiated by Jesus. Our faith with our works are to be oriented to Christ and the Reign of God taking place in Christ; not to our objectives, our systems, our common sense, and our dogmas.[11]

Conclusion

The paradox of humanity in this small potent story of Luke 10: we are both Martha and Mary. You can’t pick sides here. You are not one or the other; you are both. I am both. We’ve been called and we’ve heard, but we also need to be called and to hear continually. We run through our days and perform in our rate races, fretting over the demands upon demands upon demands of our age: rest is a complete and total illusion here. Being oriented to the old age and its demands and trying to appease it so to silence it is a worthless endeavor because those systems and demands are insatiable. We will never be able to have or do enough to settle all the anxiety and silence the cacophony of demands. When we look to the old age to bring us hope, we are hopeless.

Rather, in the reign of God inaugurated by the advent of Christ Jesus, the cessation of the old age and the beginning of the new age, is the only means by which we will have true peace and rest. Paul writes in Colossians,

“[Christ] is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (1:15-20)

Following Christ: freedom; taking up his yoke: liberty. It’s not about activity being bad and passivity being good, but about our orientation in our activity. In Christ, we are called by name unto him who is life and are brought out of the death of toiling and into new life of work. We receive freedom and liberty for us and for others who are also dying as we were dying. The way Luke structures chapter 10 of his gospel, we cannot isolate Mary’s active love of Christ from the active love for the neighbor of the Samaritan. [12] For him, work and worship are not separated. Chapter 10 is an exposition of the entire Law told in story. According to Luke, we cannot walk by our neighbor who is dying on the side of the road, beaten and bruised, and claim to love God.

We don’t need to justify ourselves to God through our incessant and frantic activity trying to appease the demands of the old age. [13] We are justified by faith (alone) in Christ (alone) by God’s grace (alone) and not by means of any of our toiling. We are called by name and we look; we are called by name again and we step closer. The one calling, the one proclaiming himself, puts an “it is finished” to the enslavement of the condemnation of the powers of sin and death, and he ushers in the comfort of the powers of love and life with “Come; come and follow me and I will give you rest.”

 

 

[1] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 1997. “Although long interpreted as establishing the priority of the contemplative life over against the active one, the interests of this brief narrative unit lie elsewhere. Luke’s narration is manifestly concerned with the motif of hospitality.” 433. I’m not drawing out the specific theme of hospitality, but that should be incorporated into my discussion of the next albeit rather subtly, snuggled in between choosing the good part and discipleship.

[2] Gonzalez 141. “They must read within the context of Jesus’ preaching about the kingdom and radical obedience. In the chapters immediately preceding, Jesus has been teaching about the demands of the kingdom and of discipleship. In the coming of Jesus, something radically new has happened and this radically new thing demands an equally radical obedience (see, for instance, 9:57-62). The parable of the Good Samaritan calls for a radical obedience that breaks cultural, ethnic, and theological barriers. The story of Mary and Martha is equally radical. First of all, we often do not realize that the first one to break the rules is Jesus himself. He is the guest, and against all rules of hospitality he rebukes Martha, who is his host. And Mary too breaks the rules. Her role as (most probably) a younger sister, or as one living in the house of her sister, is to help her in her various chores. Instead, she just sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to him.”

[3] Matthew 11:30

[4] Green 435; Also, Luke is intentional here: the “they” and “them” fall out of view once Jesus is received as a guest into Martha’s home.

[5] Green 144, “By means of this juxtaposition [with 10:25-37], Luke illuminates his overarching concern with genuine “hearing” of the word of God (cf. 8:4-21)…Now, Mary is depicted as one who has begun the journey of discipleship by acknowledging through her posture her submissiveness to Jesus and by ‘listening’ to his word. Martha’s ‘doing,’ on the other hand, is censured, rooted as it is in her anxiety as a host rather than in dispositions transformed by an encounter with the word.”

[6] Green 435, “She is positioned ‘at the Lord’s feet,’ signifying her submissiveness, particularly her status as a disciple (cf. Acts 22:3). The latter nuance is commended by her activity at his feet: she ‘listened to his word’ For the Third Gospel, to listen to the word is to have joined the road of discipleship (e.g., 6:47; 8:11, 21; 11:28)—in spite of the reality that, in this period, Jewish women were normally cast in the role of domestic performance in order to support the instruction of men rather than as persons who were themselves engaged in study.”

[7] Green 435fn142, While some Law was learned it was only in regards to those laws that controlled the feminine realm and were taught by mother to daughter.

[8] Green 436-7, “…Martha’s address to Jesus takes an unexpected, perhaps unconscious turn; while she engages in the irony of self-betrayal, her attempt to win Jesus’ support in a struggle against her sister ends in self-indictment. The nature of hospitality for which Jesus seeks is realized in attending to one’s guest, yet Martha’s speech is centered on ‘me’-talk (3 times). Though she refers to Jesus as ‘Lord,’ she is concerned to engage his assistance in her plans, not to learn from him his.”

[9] Gonzalez 141, “Here Jesus rebukes Martha for doing what is expected of her, and commends Mary, who is eschewing her traditional woman’s role.”

[10] Green 434, “As high a value as Luke puts on service (by which he often denotes leadership, cf. 22:24-27), service grounded in and brandishing moral intuitions other than those formed through hearing the word is unacceptable. The welcome Jesus seeks is not epitomized in distracted, worrisome domestic performance, but in attending to this guest whose very presence is a disclosure of the divine plan.”

[11] Green 437, “…his status as Lord identifies him as the one whose design transcends self-oriented or conventionally correct plans and whose message takes precedence over the same. Thus, over against the attempt of Martha to assert the priority of her enterprise over that of her sister, Jesus provides his own two-sided valuation of the scene before him. Martha is engaged in anxious, agitated practices, behavior that contrasts sharply with the comportment of a disciple characteristic of Mary. Martha is concerned with many things, Mary with only one. Hence, Martha’s behavior is negatively assessed, Mary’s positively. What is this ‘one thing,’ this ‘better part’ Mary has chosen? Within this narrative co-text, the infinite range of possibilities is narrowed considerably: She is fixed on the guest, Jesus, and his word; she heeds the one whose presence is commensurate with the coming of the kingdom of God. With Jesus presence the world is being reconstituted, with the result that (1) Mary (and. With her, those of low status accustomed to living on the margins of society) need no longer be defined by socially determined roles; and, more importantly in this co-text, (2) Mary and Martha (and, with them, all) must understand and act on the priority of attending to the guest before them, extending to Jesus and his messengers the sort of welcome in which the authentic hearing of discipleship is integral.”

[12] W. Travis McMaken Our God Loves Justice Minneapolis, MN: 2017. “Theological commitment to the true socialism of the kingdom of God and engagement with socialist analysis of capitalist social structures, which are antithetical to that kingdom, coalesce in Gollwitzer’s thought to make the fundamental point that Christians must take sides on political issues, and they must take the side of the oppressed. Many of those Americans today who think of themselves as Christians feel very uncomfortable when faced with this demand. As Gollwitzer correctly notes, however, taking sides ‘sounds terrifying only to him who is blind to the fact that the empirical church has actually always taken sides.’ Christians have, by and large, sided with the status quo, But the gospel’s call to repentant conversion—to metanoia—‘reaches into the politico-social dimension,’ and ‘as long as we shrink from revolutionizing [that dimension], we have not really heard’ the gospel’s call. That is, we have not encountered the God who loves justice, and who is consequently served through the pursuit of political love.” 146

[13] Helmut Gollwitzer “Fellow-Workers With Love” The Way to Life Trans David Cairns. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1980. “When we no longer defend and justify ourselves, then God, who is greater than our heart, defends us, and holds us fast…and we can breath again; we are not rejected as we deserve to be, we are still accepted by the love of God.”132.