Hope, Even Now

Psalm 122:7-9 Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers. For my brethren and companions’ sake, I pray for your prosperity. Because of the house of God our God, I will seek to do you good.

Introduction

If you’re feeling a bit reticent jumping into upcoming seasonal festivities, I don’t blame you. The atmosphere is more pregnant with dread than with hope, more threaded with despair than expectation, more infused with turmoil than peace. Advent arrives and it feels too early. Not yet…I cannot feel the things I should feel. My inner world is threatened with lethargy and plagued with thoughts of giving up. More death? More hate? More lives lost, families thrust into grief and mourning, more senselessness and violence? Festive lights bedecking houses and trees look less like stars and more like tear-drops frozen in time.

I struggle with the energy to try to understand how such malice against beautiful and beloved bodies holds people so tightly. How was their self-acceptance and joy a problem to you? The safety of space dedicated to Queer celebration and revelry torn asunder by the invasion of contempt and rancor. Why? I keep asking. And just months after Uvalde? When do we learn? How much longer do we pretend this isn’t a massive issue? When will the lies and cognitive dissonance fail to numb and keep us locked in destructive patterns of social and political life together? How much longer will the despotic tyranny of hate, evil, and death hold life captive? Is this all there is?

The heartbeat of hope weakens.

Isaiah 2:1-5

‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that God may teach us God’s ways
and that we may walk in God’s paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
God shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!

The prophet Isaiah declares the reign of God. Prophetic witness oriented toward God’s union with God’s people, and the union of God’s people among themselves.[1] Isaiah heralds the coming kingdom of God, and in doing so highlights the discrepancy between the reign of God and the rule of humanity. Under the rule of humanity, kingdoms and nations are set against each other, each poised in aggressive defense against the other—the enemy. But Isaiah declares that under the reign of God nations and kingdoms will be united, rendering boundaries and battlements pointless for nations will stream into the house of God set high above all other human made castles of brick and mortar.

Isaiah declares that under the reign of God many peoples seek to gather in the House of God to learn God’s ways and to walk in God’s paths. Rather than choosing the failing and long expired ways and paths of humanity,[2] the people will choose what is different intending to chart different courses from the ones they charted for themselves ending in war and death fueled by hatred and obsessive self-supremacy and power.[3] According to Isaiah, it’s God’s loving desire for all people, the entire earth, to live in the realm of love and life, the realm of God, [4] leaving behind the kingdom and rule of humanity and the atmosphere infused with antagonism and death.

Isaiah’s proclamation punctures the blinds his people wear, letting the light of divine glory and desire shine and illuminate better ways. As the people keep drunk on cups of violence and arrogance, power and avarice, Isaiah introduces the living and restoring water of God.[5] God will come to dwell among this lowly nation, weak in comparison to neighboring kingdoms, and will take up the royal seat here. Not the great nations of humanity, but the small nation of God, Jerusalem,[6] will be the epicenter of divine love and life, tendrils emanating outward, impacting all the other nations, beckoning them to follow the way of God, the way of love and life. From Jerusalem, all will be beckoned to ditch that which makes sense according to human standards and is in opposition to the will of God. From Jerusalem the people will be lured to walk bold rather than timid in the midst of a world throbbing with pain and agony; they will bend toward the justice and judgment of God and not of their own machinations.[7] Instead of forging new weapons bent on destruction and death—the fruit of war[8]—the people will turn their weapons into tools to nourish and flourish the fruit of life. Rather than being students of violence and destruction under the rule of humanity, they will drink in and feed on the knowledge of God; “Passion for war will be subdued by a greater passion: the passion to discover God’s ways.”[9] For Isaiah, and the other prophets, humanity’s obsession with power and might, is indicative of a terminal sickness ending only in death; there’s a better way, say the prophets, a way leading to life and liberty, joy and community.[10]

The heartbeat of hope revives.

Conclusion

Hope exists because there’s another story to be told. And if there’s another story to tell, then there’s another way to conceive the world. And if another way to conceive the world, then another way to be in the world. One of the mistakes we make is reading Isaiah through the lens of passivity; when we do, we neglect the core of what Isaiah declares to his people: Behold, Israel; shema, Israel! Look and listen to your God; resist the evil machinations of human hearts bent on power and weaponized violence, on destruction and death and follow the way of your God, the way of love and life. The intervention of God is wholly outside of us and wholly not outside of us. Hope exists because God is and God is within us.

When Isaiah implores, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of God!” He turns the focus of the narrative away from the ways of his people—stuck under the rule of humanity—and refocuses the narrative on God. In this way the people are beckoned out of themselves and toward God. But Isaiah doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t leave his people just staring at God, just listening to God. Let us walk; let us look, let us hear, and let us walk. To be beckoned out of one’s self and to God is, in God’s anthropological economy, to be beckoned into God and thus into one’s self walking in the world in with love and life and not death and destruction.

Hope exists because what we see, what we hear, what we experience in the world under the rule of humanity isn’t the only thing to see, hear, and experience. Hope exists because things can be different, love can silence destruction, life can triumph over death. Hope exists because two patrons of Club Q said “No!” resisting hate and death in the name of love and life. Hope exists because we, too, can say “No!” and resist the lies and myths the kingdom of humanity keeps handing to us. As one of the patrons of Club Q wrestled the death dealing weapon from the hands of the shooter, we can yank the narrative and the story out of the hands of those telling us this is the only way to live. No. We don’t have to be violent, we don’t have to hate, we don’t have to be stuck under lies that another person’s self-acceptance and joy threaten us.

We’re beckoned by Isaiah, Beloved, to stop and still, to look and hear. We are asked to see that there’s the way of humanity and the way of God. We are beseeched and implored to reconsider, to refocus, to reimagine something better and bigger. We are summoned out of the necropolis suffocated by the tyranny of death’s cold, bony hand into the country of the living as citizens of God. We are lured by the fullness of divine love and life to be ramparts and bastions against death and destruction, to be God’s threat to powers dead set on violence, to be—referring to Helmut Gollwitzer—a little bit dangerous advocating for life and love in the face of death and hate.[11]

The heartbeat of hope quickens.

The stories we’re surrounded by, Beloved, are not the only stories; they’re not the final word. There’s another word. And this other word God is so passionate about God will become this Word to liberate the captives imprisoned by destruction and death, calling out to all who have ears to hear, [C]ome, let us walk in the light of God!”


[1] Abraham K Heschel The Prophets New York, NY: JPS 1962. 169. “The prophet may be regarded as the first universal man in history; he is concerned with, and addresses himself to, all men. It was not an emperor, but a prophet, who first conceived of the unity of all men.”

[2] Brevard S. Childs Isaiah: A Commentary. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2001. 30-31. “In v. 4 God’s role is described as adjudicating justly among the nations. His reign is universal in scope, and the ‘many peoples’ portrayed as now living in peace and harmony are those who have gone to the mountain of the Lord to walk in his ways. The description of eschatological rule is not part of a human social program; indeed, the demonic threat of a return to war remains still virulent (Joel 4:9ff. = ET 3:9ff.). Rather, ‘the holy city, New Jerusalem descends out of heaven from God as a bride adorned for her husband’ (Rev. 21:2).”

[3] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “The sword is the pride of man; arsenals, forts, and chariots lend supremacy to nations, War is the climax of human ingenuity, the object of supreme efforts: men slaughtering each other, cities battered into ruins. What is left behind is agony, death, and desolation. At the same time, men think very highly of themselves; ‘they are wise in their own hearts, shrewd in their own sight’ (Isa. 5:21). Idols of silver and gold are what they worship. Nineveh, ‘the bloody city, all full of lies and booty,’ held the world in spell with her ‘countless harlotries,’ with her ‘graceful and deadly charms’ (Nah. 3:1, 4).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 169. “Isaiah proclaimed God’s purpose and design ‘concerning the whole earth’ (14:26), and actually addressed himself to ‘all you inhabitants of the world, you who dwell on the earth’ (Isa. 18:3; c£ 33:13; 34:1), delivering special prophecies concerning Babylon, Moab, Damascus, Egypt, Tyre, and others (chs. 13-23). It is the God of Israel Who summons the mighty men to execute His designs (Isa. 13:3, 5), Who calls the nations of the world into judgment, and it is He Whom one day all nations shall worship in Zion (Isa. 2:2 ff.; 11:10; 18:7).”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “Into a world fascinated with idolatry, drunk with power, bloated with arrogance, enters Isaiah’s word that the swords will be beaten into plowshares, that nations will search, not for gold, power or harlotries, but for God’s word.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 183. “Jerusalem, in contrast, was ‘a quiet habitation,’ little known to the nations except as a target for invaders. But in the vision of Isaiah the nations will no more turn their eyes to Nineveh, the seat of human power, but to Jerusalem, the seat of divine learning, eager to learn God’s ways, eager to learn how to walk in His paths.”

[7] Heschel, Prophets, 184. “Had the prophets relied on human resources for justice and righteousness, on man’s ability to fulfill all of God’s demands, on man’s power to achieve redemption, for messianism implies that any course of living, even the supreme efforts of man by himself, must fail in redeeming the world. In her words, human history is not sufficient unto itself. Man’s conscience is timid, while the world is ablaze with agony. His perception of justice is shallow, often defective, and his judgment liable to deception.”

[8] Heschel, Prophets, 73. “War spawns death. But Isaiah was looking to the time when the Lord ‘will swallow up death for ever, and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces’…. Israel’s security lim. (25:8; see p. 183). Israel’s security lies in the covenant with God, not in covenants with Egypt or other nations. The mysterious power of faith maintains: God alone is true protection. Such power will not collapse in the hour of disaster…”

[9] Heschel, Prophets, 184.

[10] Heschel, Prophets, 160. “When the prophets appeared, they proclaimed that might is not supreme, that the sword is an abomination, that violence is obscene. The sword, they said, shall be destroyed.”

[11] W. Travis McMaken, Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1017).150-151. “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.”

Called, Reoriented, and Resurrected

Sermon on Luke 10:38-42

Psalm 52: 8-9 But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever. I will give you thanks for what you have done and declare the goodness of your Name in the presence of the godly.

Introduction

I’m intense, and I like to do things well, really well. More to the point, I like to do a lot of things and all of them really well. I take my calls and tasks seriously—my whole person is always invested—“dial-it-in” isn’t in my vocabulary even when I’m burned out, tired, and exhausted. When I was a stay-at-home-mom, I did it with everything I had; when I was an athlete, I spent hours perfecting each move; as a priest, I make sure I’m 100% invested with you; as a student, I hold myself to exacting standards, putting forward my best at every turn, without excuse.

While often this intensity and tendency toward perfectionism is just my neutral mode, every so often the two collide in a horrific accident resulting in the tragedy of oppressive anxiety. I know I’m not alone here. I know you know what I’m talking about. Anxiety sneaks in through an unlocked inner door, illuminating the lack of control. Then, as the lack of control sinks in, fear of failure oozes in through the same door. The burden of both collapses my inner world; my imagination runs wild; my pulse races.

In these moments, I’ve become too associated and tightly bound up with my works and tasks. They’ve started to define me existentially (as a good mom, as a good student, as a good priest, as a good athlete) and eventually ontologically as a human (if I do these things I’m good, my being in the world is good, my essence is good). Anxiety surges; I’m made aware there’s no remedy for it within myself—because it’s my “self” that’s affected. I can’t help myself, because I’m the one who’s anxious. I’m backed into a corner, squeezed in on all sides, and brought to the confession: Help! I’m not in control!

No matter how hard I try, I cannot depend on myself in this moment. I must be called out of myself and called to another; I need to be redirected, reoriented, and realigned. In these moments, I’m lost and must be found; I’m dead, trapped in the tomb of myself, and must be resurrected.

Luke 10:38-42

Now Martha was being troubled greatly by much service; and she stood near and said, “Lord, it concerns you not that my sister left me behind alone to serve? Therefore command her so that she may lend a hand to me.” And [Jesus] answered her and said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and are being disturbed about many things, but one [thing] is a need; for Mary picked out for herself the good part [and] it will not be taken from her whatsoever.”[1]

(Luke 10:40-42)

Our master-storyteller is at again. Following the good Samaritan story redefining what neighbor love looks like, Luke launches into a (seemingly) disconnected story featuring Jesus, Martha, and Mary. Here, Jesus shows up at Martha’s home and Mary is there, too.[2] Jesus is being intentional here. He enters this certain village and is received into this particular home.

Then, as Jesus enters, two things happen: Martha jumps into service to host the guest she’s welcomed (ὑπεδέξατο, “she received as a guest”) into her home, and Mary gets up, walks over, and sits down at Jesus’s feet (παρακαθεσθεῖσα[3]). This isn’t a case of work v. rest or active v. passive; it’s a case of stone and flesh, death and life. Which part will you choose: that which is dead (turning toward stone) or that which is living (turning toward flesh)? The distinction Luke is making here is orientation: one is oriented and one has to be reoriented.[4]

Martha does exactly what’s expected of her according to the law, tradition, and etiquette; Mary, not so much.[5] Martha grows more and more burdened (περιεσπᾶτο, “she was being greatly troubled”) by the demands of hospitality while her sister just sits there, abandoning her. So, Martha—pushed beyond what she can take—goes to Jesus. Now, both sisters are before Jesus.

Martha wants Jesus to command Mary to come help her with the tasks of table service. She wants him to right the situation, putting it back to normal; she wants him to make it make sense to her.[6] Jesus will help her and 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 life forced to serve the things conceived and born of death? When does the Reign of God give way to the kingdom of humanity?

When Jesus speaks, he doesn’t condemn Martha for her anxiety and burdens; he loving calls her (Martha, Martha). The first Martha gets her attention; the second one draws her into himself. Like a mother would her anxious child: the voice of love speaks, and when it does it brings love and not condemnation. Then, Martha’s reoriented from what to whom: God with her—from stone to flesh, from death to life. Jesus doesn’t tell her: stop worrying. He calls her by name. He doesn’t shush or shame her for feeling burdened. He reorients her to him by calling her by name; she is resurrected out of death into life, from dead stone to living flesh. That’s the gospel gospelling itself: love loving.[7]

Where Martha expects Jesus to side with her (which, according to custom, he should), he sides with Mary.[8] As Jesus addressed Martha, he highlighted discipleship isn’t worrisome obedience to “domestic performance,” (to dead traditionalism) but about (re)orientation toward the One who is the revelation and disclosure of God’s love and life. [9] And this love doesn’t incorporate thrusting people back into systems and structures that leave them bound and gagged, laboring unto death (that’s the old age). Jesus is not the Ancient One who deals death, but who speaks and brings the dead into life. Love isn’t in service to the law, but the law in service to love; the tablets of stone serve the fleshy Son of God.

Martha lost herself in the many things demanded of her according to custom, but there is only one need: The Word made flesh. In trying to serve her guest according to the rules and laws of the old age, Martha rendered herself incapable of service to Jesus the Christ. 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 and reoriented toward the divine activity in the world following closely to the path initiated by Jesus, the path of love. Our faith and works must 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.[10]

Just as before, so to now: following Christ, participating in the mission of God in the world, partaking and promoting divine love in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit will look very different than our expectations. To love our neighbor is to have mercy; to love God is to reject that which kills and choose that which brings life and light into the world.[11]

Conclusion

The paradox of humanity in this small potent story is this: we’re both Martha and Mary. You can’t pick sides here. We aren’t one or the other (no Maries in a Martha world); we’re both. We run through our days and our rat-races, fretting over the demands of our age—rest is a complete illusion here. Being oriented to the old age, its demands, and trying to appease 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. So, while we’re called and we heard, we need to be called and to hear…again (it’s why we come here every Sunday).

It’s not about activity being bad and passivity being good, but about our orientation and reorientation in our activity. In Christ, we are called by name out of ourselves, out of death and unto God and life. We receive freedom and liberty for us and for others who are also dying as we were dying. Then we, in the power of the Spirit, go forth and call others by name, too, intersecting their deadly inner narratives with a word of hope and life that is the Word of God (the Gospel).

We cannot isolate Mary’s active love of Christ from the active love for the neighbor of the Samaritan.[12] Work and worship are not separated (no dualism). Luke 10 is an exposition of the entire Law: to love your neighbor is to love God; to love God is to love your neighbor (in this story Jesus is both God and Neighbor).

Beloved, we don’t need to justify ourselves through incessant and frantic activity trying to meet the demands of the old age. [13] We’re justified by faith (alone) in Christ (alone) by God’s grace (alone) and not by any toiling. We’re called by name and look; we’re called by name again and step closer. The one calling, God of very God, ends enslavement to and silences condemnation of the powers of sin and the old age by reorienting us in the life-giving powers of love and the age of Christ. We’re resurrected out death into life.


[1] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010. 140. “It is important to note that the home is Martha’s, and that Mary is simply her sister. Although one might surmise that Mary also lives there, it is not the home of May and Martha, but the home of Martha, who has a sister named Mary.

[3] aorist, passive deponent, participle, feminine, nominative, singular. The first principal part is: παρακαθίζω. This verb carries with it an activity that is lost in the English translation “she sat”, might be better to say, “got up and sat down beside” to emphasize that Mary intentionally chose to sit at Jesus’s feet with the purpose to listen to his words. This plays well with the last part in Jesus’s statement to Martha: Mary picked out for herself the good part…

[4] Ernesto Cardenal The Gospel in Solentiname Trans. Donald D. Walsh. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010. 338

[5] Gonzalez, Luke, 140. “Martha does what is expected of her when a guest comes to the house. Mary simply listens to Jesus.”

[6] Joel B. Green The Gospel of Luke The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997. 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.”

[7] Cardenal, Solentiname, 340. “I: ‘We might say, then, that what Jesus is saying here is that the only important thing is love.’”

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

[9] 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.”

[10] 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.”

[11] Gonzalez, Luke, 141. “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.”

[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.

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.”

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.”

Sacred Seminary Symposium

Episode 6: “Solidarity”

In this episode, Sabrina and I discuss Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s book Mujerista Theology, specifically looking at chapter 5: “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the Twenty-First Century”.

In this chapter Isasi-Diaz brings the word “Solidarity” under examination highlighting how often human beings, specifically those of us in the dominant culture, have a fondness for this word but miss the praxis aspect completely. Solidarity isn’t just a nice feeling of community, but a legitimate standing with the oppressed groups, identifying with them. Not in the terms of becoming as the oppressed but in terms of standing with them as you are. This distinction is a difficult one to walk through, but it’s necessary. In this discussion, Sabrina and I take up the mantle of Isasi-Diaz’s definition of and ethical for solidarity, her criticisms of “charity”, and her definition of sin as “alienation.”

Sabrina and I discuss some of the primary themes of the chapter and drive home the recurring theme that our praxis as Christians matters…And as Sabrina reminds us at the end, it shouldn’t be about “guns blazing” which leads to alienation but to listen and see what is necessary to communicate in that moment.

Here are some quotes from the chapter we look at specifically:

“From a Christian perspective the goal of solidarity is to participate in the ongoing process of liberation through which we Christians become significantly positive force in the unfolding of the ‘kin-dom’ of God. At the center of the unfolding of the kin-dom is the salvific act of God. Salvation and liberation are interconnected. Salvation is gratuitously given by God; it flows from the very essence of God: love. Salvation is worked out through the love between God and each human being and among human beings. This love relationship is the goal of all life–it constitutes the fullness of humanity.”

Page 89

“But why are the poor and the oppressed those with whom we must be in solidarity? Why does overcoming alienation demand a preferential option for the oppressed? The reason is not that the poor and the oppressed are morally superior. Those who are oppressed are not personally better or more innocent or purer in their motivations than the rest of us. The preferential option at the heart of solidarity is based on the fact that the point of view of the oppressed, ‘pierced by suffering and attracted by hope, allows them, in their struggles, to conceive another reality. Because the poor suffer the weight of alienation , they can conceive a different project of hope and provide dynamism to a new way of organizing human life for all.’ This contribution , which they alone can give, makes it possible for everyone to overcome alienation. The preferential option for the poor and the oppressed makes it possible for the oppressors to overcome alienation, because to be oppressive limits love, and love cannot exist in the midst of alienation. Oppression and poverty must be overcome because they are ‘a slap in the face of GOd’s sovereignty.’ The alienation they cause is a denial of God. Gutierrez refers to the profoundly biblical insight of the Bolivian campesino: ‘an atheist is someone who fails to practice justice toward the poor.’”

page 91

“Mutuality of the oppressor with the oppressed also starts with conscientization. To become aware that one is an oppressor does not stop with individual illumination but requires the oppressor to establish dialogue and mutuality with the oppressed.[..] Oppressors who are willing to listen and to be questioned by the oppressed, by the very action of listening begin to leave behind their role as oppressors and to become ‘friends’ of the oppressed.”

Page 95

“But this does not mean that we can wait until we have a perfect strategy or a perfect moment to act. No strategy is perfect. There are always internal problems and inconsistencies that need to be worked out. All strategies involve risk. This should never keep us from acting; it should never delay our work to try to establish mutuality, to create a community of solidarity committed to change oppressive structures, a community in which no one group of oppressed people will be sacrificed for the sake of another. This is what mutuality, the strategic component of solidarity, will accomplish.”

Pages 98-99

Refiner’s Fire

Sermon on Acts 19:1-7

Psalm 29:10-11: The Lord sits enthroned above the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as King for evermore. The Lord shall give strength to his people; the Lord shall give his people the blessing of peace.

Introduction

The chorus of a Vineyard hymn, “Refiner’s Fire,” goes like this:

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord
I choose to be holy/Set apart for You,
Ready to do Your will

I remember singing songs like this. I remember wanting “holiness” to be my one desire. I was so moved by this desire, I dedicated myself not only to the holiness of right thought but also to right action. This is the way active holiness was explained to me: not having anything to do with vile “secular” culture that is the playground of Satan and his demons waiting for unsuspecting Christians to wonder in and partake of his pleasing fruit and fall from grace through his seduction to damnation. I had to avoid anything deemed morally “bad”. This is what it meant to be set apart for Christ and holy: to keep myself clean from the stain sin (of “not Christian”). So, following recommendation, I tossed “secular” CDs, avoided “secular” movies, made sure my books were either the Bible or “Christian”, and ditched friends who weren’t Christian. I’d keep my mind on heavenly things and make sure my deeds aligned with them. I would go to Church every Sunday, memorize scripture, submit to men, and attend every bible study. This is how I was holy, and this was God’s will.

Sadly, that definition of holiness ran me into the ground. I had to spend my time focused on myself, on my image, on my presentation of myself so I could appear right with God. That definition of holiness was killing me, making me judgmental, condescending, angry, and starved for personal substance and presence and action. I didn’t reckon with myself, I just tucked everything I didn’t like in a box and shoved it somewhere else. It turned me so far inward that I couldn’t follow Jesus and I couldn’t see my neighbor and her needs. I was inside out, self-consumed, dysfunctional, and dead. This was holiness? This was being set apart?

Refiner’s fire/My heart’s one desire
Is to be holy/Set apart for You, Lord

Acts 19:1-7

…[Paul] said to them, “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” But they [said] to him, “But we heard nothing if there is a Holy Spirit.” And [Paul] said, “Into what then/therefore were you baptized?”

Acts 19:2-3a; translation mine

The way the introductory Greek reads suggests Paul has intent to go to Ephesus to find those who believe in Jesus to ask some interesting questions.[1] When he finds them, Paul asks if they’ve received the Holy Spirit. This is Paul’s current crucial mission.[2] Paul wants to know: has God taken up residence with you and in you? The disciples reply they’ve not heard there is a Holy Spirit. Paul’s response? Another question: into what therefore were you baptized? While the question is simple the impact is profound. The disciples explain they were baptized by John. Wellokay…Paul says…but…: there is John and then there is Jesus; there is the verbal assent of repentance and then there is the bodily assent of practice; there is cleansing the outer person with water and then there is the refining fire of God’s cleansing the inner person; there is water and then there is Spirit.[3]

For Paul, John’s baptism with water is for the confession of sin and repentance. But it’s not enough. There’s more. There’s a trajectory involved in baptism that necessitates the presence of God in the life of the believer; it’s this presence, this Spirit, that unites us to God through faith in Christ. This trajectory is started by John, according to Paul, and it is finished by Christ. [4] John is the herald and Jesus the message. Not only their bodies must be baptized, washed, and dedicated to God but also their work, their discipleship must be baptized in Christ. It’s through repentance we die and are submerged in water; it is through this death we find life in the baptism of Christ and the Holy Spirit.[5]

“I have baptized you with water,” says John the Baptist. “[B]ut he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mk 1:8

The one who is baptized last in the Jordan by John is now the first of New Creation, of the new order, of the new age, of the “new day.”[6] In being last in the waters of the Jordan and receiving the baptism of repentance with water by John, Jesus is the one who stands among the people and in solidarity with God. As the first of the new divine action in the world, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, Emmanuel, the promised divine child of Mary, is God incarnate in solidarity with humanity in those same waters of death and new life. Jesus is in solidarity with God in God’s mission to seek and save the lost[7] and with humanity in its plight.[8] This is the one who will leave the Jordan and begin his ministry in the world focused on bringing in and including those who are shut out and excluded, mending the wounded, soothing the brokenhearted, and calling by name those whose names are forgotten.

In the event of baptism, Jesus’s history becomes our history[9]–we, with our histories (past, present, and future), are grafted into the history of Christ (past, present, and future). It’s in this event where our activity in water baptism is paradoxically identical with the activity of God in the baptism of the spirit.[10] It’s here we’re made holy, receive holy gifts, and do holy things because of the presence of God. (Where Christ is proclaimed there Christ is and holy activity is worked out in and through us.) We’re baptized by water and Spirit into Jesus’s mission and ministry. One by one, each of us is encountered in the waters of the Jordan, in repentance; one by one, each of us is encountered by God in the event of faith. Thus, in this baptism, one by one, each of us must reckon with ourselves and ask: will I follow Jesus out of the Jordan?

Conclusion

To follow Jesus means to love others and to love God, to stand in solidarity with the oppressed and to stand in solidarity with God. To follow Jesus in this moment means to come against empire (the deeper theme of Acts 19),[11] like Paul did, like the disciples eventually did, and just like Jesus did in his divine ministry and mission in the world. When Jesus leaves the Jordan the kingdoms of humanity come under judgment and are exposed for what they are: realms of death and darkness.

This week we witnessed a coup. A coup to uphold and maintain systems, ideologies, authorities, and persons in opposition to life. White supremacy and its dominant culture of whiteness reared its head and stormed the state house and demanded democracy be silenced so the empire of man can remain standing. It wasn’t solely about supporting Trump but ultimately what Trump represents: the old age of the evil empire of death and destruction. The message sent to black indigenous people of color, to the lgbtqia+ community, to our Jewish brothers and sisters, and to womankind was loud and clear: power and privilege and me and mine is worth destroying your life, liberty, and democracy. This is what narcissistic power does when it’s challenged; this is the fit privilege throws when threatened. I thought 2020 exposed just how bad things are; I stood corrected on Wednesday. We are in the process of being exposed. We have racial capitalism[12] deep in our bones and it’s dragging us, each of us, into darkness and death unto death. Be sure: this is not a “them over there” problem; it’s a problem for us. We are held captive and are complicit here. I am held captive and am complicit here.

Willie James Jennings writes,

Both the water and the touch become the stage on which the spirit will fall on our bodies, covering us with creating and creative power and joining us to the life of the Son. Through the Spirit, the word comes to skin, and becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit.[13]

The word comes to skin, becomes skin, our skin in concert with the Spirit… This means that we, in our baptism with water and the presence of the Spirit and word come to skin, are intimately connected to the rest of humanity—in all shades of melanin. Thus, in no way can we support governments, people, actions, ideologies, institutions and systems designed to hinder and threaten lives. As sons and daughters of life and light, we are exhorted t to live in ways to make this world free and safe for our black and brown brothers and sisters in light and life. Womanist[14] theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes,

It is time for us to be embodied realities of the black prophetic tradition and with moral memory, moral identity, moral participation, and moral imagination begin to create the world we ‘crave for our daughters and sons’…Now is the time. It is the time to live into God’s time and to create that new heaven and new earth where the time of stand your ground culture is no more.[15]

For those of us encountered by God in the event of faith, we must harken back to our baptism of water and the refining fire of the Spirit. We must begin with ourselves. Without this deep and painful self-reflection and self-work, there can be no substantial change. We must ask those very hard questions: how do I participate in these death dealing systems? How have I squandered divine holiness for human power and privilege? Where does anti-black racism live in my body, my mind, my heart? Following Jesus out of the Jordan demands we step into the light and be exposed, and we repent of our guilt. It means we begin again washed clean through the water of repentance and resurrected into the new life of the Holy Spirit in the name of Christ in union with God and God’s mission in the world on behalf of the beloved for this is holiness and for this we are set apart.


[1] Εγενετο δε εν τω τον Απολλω ειναι εν Κορινθω Παυλον διελθοντα τα ανωτερικα μερη [κατ]ελθειν εις Εφεσον και ευρειν τινες μαθητας… (Acts 19:1). I’m taking the aorist active infinitive ευρειν to have intentional direction of action thus as apposition in relation to the aorist active infinitive of [κατελθειν] which completes the thought of the aorist active participle διελθοντα: Paul passed through the higher part and came down into Ephesus. Why? Well, namely, to find some disciples. In other words and looking at the questions that follow in the dialogue between Paul and the disciples, he is intentionally looking for disciples to make sure they’ve received the Spirit.

[2] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 184, “These were not people who needed convincing. Their commitments to a new way were clear. Yet the questions are crucial.”

[3] Jennings Acts 184, “John was preparation. The way of repentance he declared in Israel was the stage for the one who lived that life of repentance for his people. John was a person, but Jesus was a person and a place of living. John was an event that flashed across the landscape of Israel. Jesus was the bringer of a new time that extends to all space.”

[4] Jennings Acts 184, “These questions expose not simply gaps in their discipleship but lack of clarity of its telos, its end, goal, and fulfillment. Clearly John the Baptist presented a renewal movement in Israel, a calling home, a clarifying work establishing the divine claim on a beloved people with a purpose. That purpose was to trumpet a new day in Israel. Paul is of that new day, and soon these disciples of John will also be of that new day.”

[5] Jennings Acts 184, “The saving work of God is always new, always starting up and again with faith…Paul invites these disciples to baptize their discipleship in Jesus, and thereby join their lives to his in such a way that they will lose their life in the waters only to find it again in the resurrected One.”

[6] Jennings Acts 184, “Baptism in Jesus’ name signifies bodies that become the new day.”

[7] Joel B. Green“The Gospel of Luke” The New International Commentary on the New Testament Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.187, “Working in concert with the endowment of the Holy Spirit, this divine affirmation presents in its most acute form Jesus’ role as God’s agent of redemption.…His mission and status are spelled out in relation to God and with reference to his purpose mission of redemption and establishes peace with justice in ways that flow determined by obedience to God’s purpose that the devil will test in 4:1-13.”

[8] Green 186, “Now however Jesus’ identity in relation to God and God’s redemptive project is proclaimed by God himself. Heaven itself has opened providing us with direct insight into God’s own view of things. That the voice of God agrees with those earlier voices (i.e., of Gabriel, Elizabeth, and the possible responses to Jesus. One can join Elizabeth, the angels, the narrator, an others who affirm Jesus’ exalted status an/or identity as God’s Son, or one can reject this evaluation and so pit oneself over against God.”

[9] Cf W. Travis McMaken The Sign of the Gospel “Barth’s discussion of Spirit baptism comprises a dialectical movement between two poles. One pole is God’s objective work of reconciliation in Christ and the other is the faithful and obedient human response to that work. Spirit baptism is where these two poles meet in a dynamic event of effectual call and free response. Barth’s discussion of this event draws upon and brings together many important strands in his theology, for here culminates the movement of the electing God’s divine grace as it reaches particular women and men among as elected in Jesus Christ. In this discussion, Barth walks the fine line between Christomonist and anthropomonist positions, neither creating the history of Jesus Christ as that which swallows the histories of human individuals, nor relegating Christ’s history to merely symbolic significance. Barth also does not denigrate the work of the Spirit or separate it from that of Christ. All of these things comprise a differentiated and ordered unity in Barth’s thought, aimed at grounding faithful human obedience on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.” 174

[10] McMaken Sign 174. “Spirit baptism comprises the awakening of faith that actualizes in one’s own life the active participation in Christ to which every individual is elected. This awakening demands and necessarily includes faithful and obedient human response. In the first instance, this response is faith itself. However, Barth argues that there is a paradigmatic way in which water baptism comprises this response. Water baptism constitutes the foundation of the Christian life precisely as such a paradigmatic response.”

[11] Barbara Rossing “Turning the Empire (οικουμενη) Upside Down: A Response” Reading Acts in the Discourses of Masculinity and Politics eds. Eric D. Barreto, Matthew L. Skinner, and Steve Walton. Ny NY: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017) p. 154 “‘In the οικουμενη all are Romans’: this fact—mourned by Agrippa but celebrated by Aelius Aristides—describes the first-century context both geographically and politically. It is the context we have to assume also for Acts. So, I would argue οικουμενη in Acts means ‘empire’. And this proves important for the reading of Acts 17 (both the account of the incident at Thessalonica as well the Areopagus speech) and acts 19 along with the trial scene we find there. What Paul is turning upside down is not the ‘world’ in the cosmic sense but rather the ‘empire’ or imperial world.”

[12] David Justice defines this term in his paper “Negating Capitalism: The Beloved Community as Negative Political Theology and Positive Social Imaginary” presented at AAR/SBL 2020 Annual Conference Virtual/Online forum Black Theology and Martin Luther King, Jr. 12/2020. Justice writes, “Racial capitalism, wherein racism and capitalism are mixed such that race is exploited to gain capital from racial identity…” p.1.

[13] Jennings Acts 185

[14] Womanism  is a social theory based on the history and everyday experiences of women of color, especially black women. It seeks, according to womanist scholar Layli Maparyan (Phillips), to “restore the balance between people and the environment/nature and reconcil[e] human life with the spiritual dimension” (from Wikipedia)

[15] Kelly Brown Douglas Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. New York NY: Orbis, 2015. 227. Lorde quoted.

In Rags and Wood

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

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

Introduction

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

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

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Born thy people to deliver,

born a child, and yet a king,

born to reign in us for ever,

now thy gracious kingdom bring.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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/

Get Your Stoic On

Sancta Colloquia Episode 205 ft. Juan Torres

In this episode Juan Torres (@orthoheterodox1) and I talk about his recent pursuit of understanding Stoicism. What’s neat about this episode is that it’s a different perspective and a different discussion than the one I had with John Marc Ormechea (Season 1, Episode 2, linked below). I met John-Marc as is: a Stoic. But I met Juan as a dyed in the wool Moltmannian protestant and now, three years later, he’s deep in Stoicism. I was intrigued with what looked like a shift to me. So, I decided why not talk to Juan and figure this out. And Juan demonstrated the deep connection that Stoicism has with things like a basic understanding of the New Testament and that one of his favorites (Rudolf Bultmann) engaged with the concepts of Stoicism. Juan says, “Bultmann compares Christian understanding of freedom with the stoic understanding of freedom.” So, he started tracking down this line of thought. And he makes many valid arguments for the inclusion of the study of Stoicism to have a well-rounded engagement with the bible. Juan explains that Stoicism is about freedom based on reasoning one’s way through life by making the best possible choices in life, and that virtue is the only good. We are, according to Juan, to do what is right. But not in an individual way. He demonstrates that in Stoicism there’s a strong social aspect and this social aspect influences our use of our reason. Stoicism was originally a communal endeavor like “church”, the young stoic was always guided by the older and wiser stoics. At the end of the day, Juan is trying to give the philosophers a fair hearing and implement their thought into his daily life in practice. What I love about this conversation is that Juan demonstrates what it is to be truly openminded and a full-embodied student to the nth degree. He reminded me: stoicism was first to the scene and then Christianity; when it comes to borrowing it’s only in one direction, Christianity borrows from Stoicism ::micdrop::

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

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

Juan C. Torres is nothing more and nothing less than what some call a ‘lay-theologian”. He’s never gone to bible college, seminary, or on of those fancy religion/philosophy scholars’ conferences. All he has is an abiding interest/concern for the core matters of the Christian faith, in particular, he has always been immersed in theodicy and eschatology. Main thinkers who have molded his thought: Barth, Bultmann, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Tillich, etc. (Yes, he has read books/articles by women and people of color, but not the extent that he can list them and talk about their work.) By trade, he is a middle school math teacher. By passion, he is a theologian (in the broadest sense of the word) and most recently a stumbling but practicing Stoic.
You can find more by Juan Torres (and do some extra reading and listening) by visiting his blog and podcast:
https://thecheerfulstoic.com/ (Twitter: @CheerfulStoic1)

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.