How do you work with not having that which you really, really want? How do you carry the unfulfilled desires of your hearts, especially the ones that go unfulfilled for years and years and years? Desires that are just ordinary realities for other people, for people who aren't smarter than you, who don't work harder than you, people whose lives just seem easier, less stressful, more manageable. Who seem to get way more than their fair share of breaks? Why them and not me, God?
For our final week in the Ten Commandments, just this one:
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse. (It lends itself to Dr. Seuss, doesn’t it?) You shall not covet your neighbor’s male servant; you shall not covet his female servant; you shall not covet your neighbor’s ox or his donkey; you shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
Unlike commandments 6, 8 and 9 which are straightforward – do not kill, steal and lie – for covet, Moses gets very specific: house, spouse, male servant, female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else! Why? Maybe because absolutely anything can be coveted. And maybe, because the most coveted things aren't usually things at all.
What non-things have you known other people to covet?
I want to imagine Houses, Spouses, and Donkeys as the three wells from which all coveting is drawn. Houses includes the material things that rightfully belong to others. Spouses includes all the relationships that rightfully belong to others. And Donkeys. . . .
What about donkeys? Back in the day, and in parts of the world still, livestock – ox and donkeys – were an indicator of personal worth. Not just personal wealth, but personal worth. Indicators like your job, your title, your reputation, the power of the position you hold – those are your donkeys. Your airline status can be. Carl has Delta platinum, which means when I fly with him I get a big comfy seat and better snacks. Without him I am in the middle seat of row 25.
Your credit score. How about gender, race, nationality, legacy? My kids have double legacies from Arkansas State University, one from IU. All those non-material, but oh-so-real, things that make some people's lives SO much different than others. Those are the donkeys. The donkeys that are so much more than donkeys.
To keep ALL the commandments, we must learn that only God is God. That our lives are to be spent in service to our neighbor. And third, to live at peace with, to be satisfied with, to take joy in, what houses, spouses, and donkeys already belong to you or to me. The houses and spouses and donkeys that rightfully reside within the boundaries of your own life and mine. Which is not to say nothing new will ever come to us, but that we do not mentally, emotionally, spiritually stalk, and take possession of, the houses, spouses, and donkeys that rightfully belong to others.
Is any of this familiar? – She’s so lucky to be married. I can NOT believe she doesn’t treat her wife better. If I were the department chair/principal/pastor, I would NEVER do, blah, blah, blah. Conjecturally doing someone else’s job, raising someone else’s kid, caring for someone else’s house – it’s all covetous behavior. The failure to stay at home mentally, emotionally, spiritually, when God is trying to get something done in my life. I call it learning to live inside my own house. Altogether inside, keeping my heart, my mind, my soul, and my strength (that is, my body) inside my own life.
I know how easy it is to say, it would be easier if I weren’t so easily distractible . . . and if Empire weren’t forever butting in. You remember Empire, how the Hebrews ended up at Mt. Sinai in the first place in need of this covenant, these ten commandments; how Egypt enslaved them, by reshaping the geo-political-economy of the time so they, the Hebrews – just people trying to get along in the world – ended up dependent upon Egypt, dependent upon Empire for everything, ended up slaves to the Empire?
Empire still works the same. A friend told me recently her daughter who is two years into a career in her major is a little disillusioned. "It seems like I only go to work to pay bills," she said. Empire's quest is that we indebt ourselves to it, ever blurring the difference between what we have and what we need, then offering a line of credit that ends up selling away our future: future money, future time, future life already spent. By the time the new day comes, what we bought last year no long satisfies. Three years ago when we were planning a wedding, I learned that bridal stores now offer free financing for a year. Financing a wedding dress?
Not to use the word frivolously, but debt is its own form of slavery. And nothing breeds covetousness more effectively than feeling trapped in one's own life. Theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas has a lovely little book called The Character of Virtue in which he defines optimism as making the best of a life you basically don't like.
Too often, Hauerwas writes, optimism is confused with hope. Hope is a Christian virtue, but optimism is not. Hope believes that good is possible when right patience is found. Hope believes God has made it possible to find this life of mine to be full of goodness, full of grace, full of joy. But I will only ever find it by staying put and looking for it here.
If my neighbors' houses, spouses, and donkeys are all I ever think about, if I'm forever rooting through their lives and wishing what they have was mine, how will I ever know what God might be doing in this heart, mind, soul, and body? As one person said at Bible study this week, covetousness is an inside job – one we do for ourselves, because we want the full measure of freedom that comes with being God's own people. What my neighbor does with his house and spouse and donkeys is between him and God. God isn’t going to work with me on it.
In the meantime, I'm the one choosing not to be at home, to miss what God wants to deliver to my porch, to be gone from the life God deemed right for me. And however tempting it is to squeeze onto the judgment seat with God and help God see what would be the far better distribution plan for all the possessions, relationships, and donkeys of the universe, that is not a job to which I have been promoted. Nor you.
Over and over and over again in the scriptures, God reminds faithful people – Job, for example – that how God does business is God's business. My business is to live in my house, stewarding the stuff in my care, according to God's will. For the good of my neighbors. Fidelity. Holiness. Justice.
Hey God, we might say on an especially needy day, How come my neighbor/ sister/ brother has it so much better than me? So, that's a theological question: why is God the way God is? Which God answers over and over in the Bible by saying, because I AM. I AM the one who brought you out of the house of slavery, promised to provide for you and keep you free.
And here's how it's going to work.
1. Don't make other beings into gods.
2. Don't make things into gods.
3. Don't use my name for anything but me – I AM.
4. Keep the Sabbath.
5. Respect the elders.
6. Don't murder.
7. Don't do adultery.
8. Don't steal.
9. Don't lie.
10. Don't covet your neighbor's house, spouse or donkey.
Our question is not so much theological as incarnational: How shall we live? Do we or do we not want to be free? If we do, then we know what we are called to do and how we are called to spend these lives of ours:
Staying put – that’s fidelity;
doing God’s will – that’s holiness;
for our neighbor’s good – that’s justice.
Fidelity. Holiness. And Justice. Would you pray with me?
The Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue, or the Ten Words, remember, is a biblical text – a biblical text containing part of the renewed covenant between God and God's people in a certain part of the world over a certain period of time. I say, part of the covenant, because the Ten Commandments are NOT the entire covenant.
When asked the most important commandment of all, which of these ten did Jesus choose? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Which, by my reading, is both none of them AND all of them! He drove his legalistic colleagues crazy – and at the same time teaches us something about the flexibility of the text and its usefulness for discipleship in every context.
So, the Ten Commandments, the Decalogue, the Ten Words – yes, they are not the entire covenant and yet the entire covenant is summed up in them. Good faith is not limited to them, yet good faith excludes none of them.
Neither is their introduction in the 20th chapter of Exodus the introduction of the covenant. This is the same covenant God first made covenant with Eve and Adam, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and now Moses (of course I skipped a few stories), restated again; restated again for another generation of God's people in yet another time and place.
What God wants from humans has not changed: fidelity, holiness and justice. They aren't only Sunday School words. They are ways of life. Chosen lifestyles. Just like healthy eating or fitness. Thoughtful, willful, studied decisions maintained by time, energy and resource-consuming behavior.
As the second book of the Bible opens, the people of God are beginning the fifth great migration of their history; each migration was both geographic and spiritual. The first: Eve and Adam, out of the garden onto the farm. The second: Noah, onto the boat and then off of the boat. The third: Abraham, leaving the oil-rich lands of modern Iraq to the only spot in the Middle East without a drop – because, apparently, God loves a good joke as much as anyone.
The fourth: into Egypt during the famine in the days of Joseph and his brothers.
And now, out of Egypt, to this mysterious place they have come to call “promised land." For the previous 400 years, as the story goes, they were slaves. Cogs in what Walter Brueggemann calls the first great Military Industrial Economic Complex. The first recorded age of anxiety, led by a ruler driven first by greed and then by fear. So that by the first chapter of Exodus, the human cry against the misery suffered by those bred and enslaved for the greed and fear of the Empire reached the ears of God.
The new version of covenant born of God's response to their cries introduces not the first biblical economy but another rendering of biblical economy. The biblical configuration of economic ways and means – policy, if you prefer that term – presented to the people of God in complete contrast to the economics of Empire, economics that we read about over and over again in the prophets, in the words of Jesus, and in the ministry of Paul.
Empire economics are what the Hebrews knew as slaves in Egypt. Empire economics are what anyone trying to feed oneself and one's family knows today. Empire economics also drive the great migrations happening in our world today. People who live in peace and plenty feel overwhelmed and threatened by the waves of people fleeing terror and desperation, invading our way of life.
And whatever political or economic theory we choose to explain this global migration crisis, as disciples of Jesus – if that is what we choose to call ourselves – this is still the primary text for our response. For the people of God, those gathered at Mt. Sinai and those gathered in rooms like this around the world today.
That great migration is not from one geographic spot on the globe to another, but from the economy of the Empires of this world to the economy of the Kingdom of God. Just like those free men and women begging Moses to go back to Egypt, we too are a people who claim one faith but are so drawn to the perceived security of Empire. Back in Egypt, the value of a Hebrew man or woman was calculated in calories: the most energy extracted with the least fuel (food) invested meant greater value. But free, out in the wilderness of being dependent only on the grace of God, how was their value calculated there?
A Vox news story I watched this week described the migration of people from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador through Mexico to the U.S. border. I shared it on my Facebook wall, if you'd like to watch it. It will also be linked to this sermon once posted on the website.
The sliver of it I want to pull out here has to do with the value of a human being in Empire economics. Mexican border police get paid 200 pesos for every immigrant they catch and bring into custody. This is in Mexico, far from the U.S. border. How much American money is 200 pesos? Just under $10. Immigrants with 220 pesos ($11) can buy their way past some officers. But on the three-week journey from Mexico’s southern border to Mexico’s northern border, there will be dozens of $11 police officers. Is that corruption? Let's remember we are talking about $9.64 per human being.
And who is paying that $10 to those Mexican border police agencies? Mexico and you and me, tax-paying Americans. We’ve offloaded the dirty work, well back from the border, so the White House could brag about reducing the numbers of people trying to cross the border since 2015. This was the last administration, not the current one.
Before we get too snooty about how disgracefully corrupt other countries are, we might consider our collective culpability. And our personal corruptibility? How is the work you do for money actually monetized? For what, exactly, are you being paid? How is your worth to your employer calculated? Professors? Teachers? Healthcare providers? Social workers? Bankers? Administrators? Every one of us who takes a paycheck has, to some degree, conceded to the monetization of human-ness. We are each of us, each and every day, deciding what parts of our lives are for sale and at what price: our energy, our time, our resources.
And, my friends, how easily and how quickly does our own self-value, our sense of worth in the world, become attached to the job or to the benefits or to the possessions those benefits provide us? So much so that the language we use for them takes a spiritual tone? A promotion, a new car, a new house – they become “blessings."
Blessings, rather than choices we made when we might have made entirely different ones. Choices we made that are rooted in the values of Empire, when we might have made choices rooted in the values set forth in the text of biblical economy. You know how your value is measured in the Empire. How about in the wilderness, the place to which God has called you out to set you free?
Ourselves, our very being, we are valuable for being God's. God made us. God loves us. Therefore we, ALL OF US, are of incalculable value. I would offer this morning that the great migration we see in the book of Exodus, which has replayed again and again in the history of humanity, which is playing out now on the borders between the world’s Haves and the Have-Nots, the migration of desperate people on the move, hoping against hope to be somewhere safe, is one major effect of the failure of humanity to root our lives and our life together in the biblical economy sketched out in the Ten Words of Exodus, chapter 20.
And that our task, as the people of God – the great migration of the spiritual life – is the same: to move ourselves – to move mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, theologically, behaviorally – out of life as citizens of Empire into life as citizens of the kingdom of the God we already claim to worship.
In the empires of this world, human beings are not valued for their existence. Period. Not just a Latino kid trying to cross the border. You either. You think if you died tomorrow your workplace would cease to function? Of course not. They'd “take a moment.” But if you work for IU, I guarantee you won’t be in the ground before one of your colleagues will email your department chair asking who’s going to get your office.
Two weeks ago I said the Ten Commandments are for knowing how to live as free people. I said they are good news, especially for our neighbors. Even if our neighbors still operate by Empire economics, when the people of God take the Ten Commandments as our marching orders, our neighbors have AT LEAST some people in their midst they've no cause to fear: people they can trust with their spouses, houses and donkeys (next week's sermon title). People who won't abuse them for their labor or their political and social weakness, for their skin color, for their nationality.
But getting that right, becoming those people to our neighbors, begins with bringing ourselves into the economy of God, valuing what God values. And to do that, we must get right with God.
The God of this text must be the God of our lives and our life together. The first four words (commandments) help us with this. I AM the God who brought you out of slavery. We must get this right. I AM saved you; I AM keeps you. No one else. Nothing else. You tried Egypt. You believed its promises. You ended up enslaved. This is an everyday decision in a world that is always promising to save us from everything.
A TV commercial promises to rescue 70-year-old women from 70-year-old women’s skin (crepey) and give them back 60-year-old women’s crepey skin. I AM freed you from the disgrace of crepey skin and the fear of old age. You are mine. Choose to remain free. Choose to remain mine.
Here are the terms: Commandments two, three, and four are the words, deeds, and dollars commandments. These three declare our personal value, whatever our values.
In this covenant economics, words, deeds and dollars go this way:
2. Do not make things into gods over you.
3. Don't use my name for anything but me, I AM.
4. Keep the Sabbath.
“Graven images” is how I grew up hearing the second commandment. That sounded very religious to me. When I was older I realized mostly it was Baptist code for anything Catholic – their rosaries and statues and pictures of saints. But none of the Catholics I know believe those things save them any more than we believe the paper and ink of our Bibles save us.
Nothing people can do or make saved us or keeps us saved. Freed us or keeps us free. Only God. And to our own demise and disappointment do we confuse the difference. Treating things, or other people, like God in turn regards God as a thing.
We expect too much from the people and things and too little from God. Everything gets mixed up, like wearing shoes on the wrong feet. It's possible to get through the day, but life is crippled in the process. We all live wanting what we don’t have yet: that body, that car, that house, that trinket; kids, no kids, marriage, divorce; a different town, a different government, a different job, a different church, a different preacher; some thing just out of reach or something impossible.
Our fantasies give it power foreign to its own nature, hoping against hope that once we have it, we will be satisfied. What if we gave that up? Gave up pretending that life this side of heaven will include that kind of satisfaction? What if we read our Bible deeply and often enough to realize that this satisfaction we long for does not exist this side of heaven? There is peace and joy in the longing. Contentment in the longing. Faith and courage in the longing. But satisfaction? That's the stuff of heaven, friends, that's the stuff of resurrection.
Do not use my name for anything but me. Or, don’t take the God’s name in vain. I learned this was about certain cusswords. So decent people said “dadgummit,” instead of you-know-what. And invented a dozen more just like it. What if it also has to do with putting God's name on stuff that goes against the things God insists on, in the text?
Ever been to a Christian craft store? God’s name is on everything there. Christian kitsch, it’s called. Kitsch made overseas, by millions of those have-nots in an Empire that denies a billion people the right to worship, that forces its people into the exact same birth control methods the Christian craft company calls an abomination, an Empire that declines to maintain even basic workplace standards. I can't say for sure, but I suspect that might be taking God's name in vain.
How about how Empire always likes to offer up thoughts and prayers and "God bless the victims" of this or that tragedy that could easily enough have been prevented with policy and funding? Is that not taking God’s name in vain? Think God wants God’s name on that? Or how about just plain old sloppy church work? Lazy, half-baked ministry. You know how many internet sites there are to buy this week's sermons? Me either, but I know that it's a lot. The ministers I have known who are lazy, who plagiarize, who are always looking for the better gig, but always “give God all the glory” – it makes me sad and it makes me sick.
A builder I know can't stand it when Christian business people put the word Christian in their name. "Folks ought to know by the way you do business. If you have to tell them, there's probably a problem," he says. By his thinking, “Christian church” is redundant. What we put God's name on had better reflect God's ways or the name has been misused and the third commandment violated.
Keep the Sabbath. Brueggemann calls #4 the first fair labor law. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work, you, your son or your daughter, your male or your female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns."
Carve out a seventh of your life and remove it from the Empire altogether. Don't earn or spend money. Don't force others to earn or spend either. One day of seven, don't work; one year of seven, don't plant; every seventh forgive all debts and free all slaves. By biblical economics, generation poverty is eradicated. And every seven sets of seven years, the whole economy starts over. The weekly sabbath establishes a rhythm for reminding ourselves that we do not keep ourselves; God keeps us. We act out our dependence on the grace of God by resting and allowing others to rest.
Brueggemann has written extensively on how the modern economy drives modern wars. The wealthiest 10% of people in the world want lots of things and we want them cheaply. This high standard of living demands the protection of our economic and, thus, political interests. Those interests are protected politically and often militarily. Remember the bumper stickers in 2005 that said, "What's our oil doing under their country?"
Sabbath may mean learning to live poorer, as this world thinks of rich and poor, because this high standard of living is hurting other people, it's hurting us, and it is hurting the planet. Will keeping Sabbath fix all that? It's a really, really good start. Sabbath is not only about what we do NOT do, which is work, but what we do, which is worship. Turn heart, mind, soul and strength (body, that is) to the source of our existence and stay there for a bit.
Stay there to renew fidelity. Stay there to be wholly present to the holy presence of God, who made and keeps us, whose name belongs only on the things God values – so that we might be reminded again of what qualifies as justice, in this world and the next as we, the people of God in this time and place, do our best to make our way from a land where people matter less than things, to a way of life where all people know that we are the beloved, set free children of God. Would you pray with me?
I'm already changing the plan – the Ten Commandments plan. I want to work from Galatians this week, then pick up in Exodus again the next.
Galatians 5:1 – For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. If only it were as easily done, as said.
I meant to spell it that way: holey. This plan of God to make us free. Sounds really good. But at least in my experience, it’s also really hard. And scary.
See, I like plans. I like plans in binders, organized with colored tabs for different sections. The more detailed the plan, the better I like it, the less anxious I am. God's plans are not big on binders. God’s plans go something like: Do justice; show kindness; love mercy; walk humbly. I'd call that a “holey plan,” as in a “plan full of holes.” Do justice. Are you kidding me? That's all we get, in THIS world? in THIS country, the only country in the world that treats our refugees by taking kids from their parents and putting them in cages?
Remember what baby Mariah said about her pacifier: "I love my passy. It makes me feel better." I love my binders and my plans – they make me feel better. Plans are not our certainty. Faith is our certainty. Confidence in the saving power of Jesus is our certainty. And in the absence of much faith, we get anxious.
And when we get anxious, what do we do? The same as the Hebrews did, a month into their freedom: dream of slavery. Because, as we know, slavery is as detailed a plan as anyone could ask for. You aren't free, but you don't have to figure anything out. And some days, it's a tempting trade. But it is not a faithful one.
And if that doesn't complicate the business of faith enough, sometimes church itself can get anxious, and then tempted, to hunger for the slavery of laws and rules, instead of holding faith in the unknowable space of spirit and grace. What a difficult instruction of faith: For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not return to the yoke of slavery.
It's lovelier than I can say to be in church with you all. I've had more church Wednesday, Thursday, Friday this week than most people have in three months. And, as Baptist meetings go, it was okay. Okay is the mean point between wonderful and pure aggravation.
This part was wonderful [pictures of Pastor Annette with three different individuals] – two professors and one of the first people to call me a pastor. Both professors were fired, in the purge at my seminary, for being heretics. Dr. Marshall is now president of Central Theological Seminary in Kansas City. She preached here, at my ordination. She's everything to me.
Dr. Tupper wasn't a heretic, but he was an agitator. Once in seminary chapel when a guest preacher said, “God has not, does not and will not ever call women to preach,” Dr. Tupper stood up from his pew, dramatically closed his Bible and stared the man down for the rest of his sermon. He also wrote a big fat theology book on the Providence of God that is regarded as seminal. Almost two years ago he fell and broke his neck. He's now quadriplegic.
I thought I'd never see him again, so this was a tearful time. When I went to speak to him he was so gracious, for a minute. Then he told me he needed to speak to the seminary student who had just preached, regarding her parsing of the text in Amos. “I've never been big on Amos anyway,” he said, “but she still missed a couple of things.”
Yani was one of my students when I was a campus minister at IU. Hers was my first wedding. Yani was also a member here, before graduating from Baylor and then Southern Seminary. She does amazing ministry in South Carolina now.
The other really wonderful stuff included all the field reports. Ministries and missionaries all over the world doing amazing work – work that is respectful to the people and places served. Work done by invitation and in partnership with the people involved. Not band-aid work. It is long-term investment, structure-changing work on the deepest problems facing humanity: poverty, human migration, trafficking and refugees, and race.
We are doing this work in Europe, Asia, Africa, on our southern border and all over our country. All things that our little church could never do by ourselves, that the biggest church in this world could not do by herself, that each of us has a hand in because we are doing it together. Another shape life together takes.
And as good as all that good news was, all the news wasn't good. There's this other thing. Members of this particular set of Baptists aren't getting along with each other. Shocking, I know. The particular fuss is over the fact that the churches involved can't agree about whether or not LGBTQ people are fit to serve as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship organizational leaders and missionary personnel. Some say yes. Some say no. And no one can figure out what to do about the fact that we can't agree.
Now, great is the temptation to tune out here. There was an 18-month information gathering process, followed by a two-part report. The governing board of the organization adopted both parts. But churches aren't part of the organization proper, we just support the organization so they can get all this combined ministry done. None of the report affects how we do our life together. But they need us to do all that ministry and mission. Are ya with me?
The report: Part 1 was a new hiring policy for CBF leadership and missionaries, which says nothing about LGBTQ people at all. Just CBF employee things like, "CBF staff and missionaries must be Christian." That makes sense, I think. And pretty much everybody is happy with Part One, The Policy. Part 2 is called an implementation plan. Summed up, it says LGBTQ people will not be hired for CBF leadership and missions. Some folks are much relieved by this. Others are stressed. I am stressed. I consider this blatant discrimination. It would be illegal, were it not in a religious context.
Then came the meetings this week, where we learned two things from the leadership that adopted the policy and the plan: (1) the implementation plan is not binding; (2) LGBTQ brothers and sisters will not be hired as leadership or missionary personnel. Confused yet? Multiply that by fifty. The only thing I can compare it to is the sound of a Dr. Seuss book being read in slow motion.
What it means for us as a church is a larger discussion than we’ll have today. I love what CBF does, as much as I hate what it’s doing now. That must be reconciled somehow. I don’t see how we can in good faith preach “justice everywhere, except at home." And church, life together, is home.
To the Galatians, Paul insists that the solution to the problem of the anxiety of not agreeing about something that makes us so anxious, is NOT to make new rules and then say the rules aren't binding but we are still going to go by the rules. Friends, if this story, not yet three days old, isn't proof that the church hasn't learned anything in 2000 years, I don't know what is. Remembering the story I just told you, let's pull the text apart too.
Galatia wasn't A church; it was a network of churches. Where? Modern Turkey. The Apostle Paul started several churches in Galatia. This letter is to all of them. The terribly abbreviated version of the story goes like this: Jewish Christians in the church thought it best that Gentile Christians be circumcised. No doubt they thought they were being helpful. Since the first Christians were Jews, these newcomers would get along better by being more Jew-like. Not all-out-Jewish, just a little “Jew-ish.”
It probably matters to remember that outside Christian life, except to do business, Jews didn't mix with Gentiles. The law, the same law that prescribed circumcision, forbade that. Circumcision was just a tiny surgical procedure performed by a rabbi, normally done when a Jewish boy was eight days old. This would require a new plan, of course, since these believers are grown men.
I did the math. I've attended something like 275 church business meetings, and I've heard some unpopular ideas brought to the floor to be voted on. But can you imagine how this went down in a Galatian church council meeting?
I have so many questions about this. Honestly, how did they present it? Was it going to be a new rule? Or maybe it came from the fellowship committee. We’re going to have a father-son campout and, oh, by the way, the guest speaker is a rabbi. Apparently a plan was made, and Paul got wind of it before they went through with it. He's livid. For freedom Christ has set us free. Do not submit again to the yoke of slavery! Doesn't that sound just like Exodus 20, verse 1? And if you think the way I talk about this feels awkward, Paul's language will burn your ears.
If you go ahead and let yourselves be cut around, he says (the word “circumcise” means to cut around), Christ will be of no value to you. If you cut around yourselves, you cut yourself off. – Know that word? It’s castrate! – You castrate yourself from Christ and fall away from grace. You cut yourself from the body, from Christ. The opposite of “cut off” is – what? To bind yourself to the other.
If you go through with this circumcision, you bind yourself to the whole law and simultaneously cut yourselves off from the grace of God. You cast off the very freedom Jesus lived and died and rose to give you. In Christ Jesus, Paul says, circumcision or uncircumcision counts for nothing. The only thing that counts is – what? Faith acted out as love.
And forcing others to look or act the same as you, so that you will be more comfortable being around them, is NOT love. Jews don't get to make Gentiles look like Jews in order for everyone to be Christians. Even Jews know circumcision doesn't make one a Jew. Following the whole law makes one a Jew. And the ones suggesting circumcision don't even do that anymore! Or they wouldn't be trying to figure out how to worship with Gentiles in the first place. It's maddening!
You could not have found a person at the Baptist meeting who doesn't think that LGBTQ people should be welcome and included in CBF life. EVERYBODY is sensitive to their presence and their feelings, which I suppose is commendable. Because what is the baseline morality of our life together? It’s “Don’t be a jerk!”
But being sensitive to another's presence and feelings does not equal faith acted out as love. Sensitive to another's presence and feelings does not require the other to change his or her essential self to make me more comfortable in his, her, or their presence. And sensitive to another's presence and feelings certainly does not qualify as freedom, for me or for the other person. That is, in the words of Paul, a yoke of slavery.
Remember what Paul says in Romans 3. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. To be in Christ is not to be THE SAME; to be in Christ is to be ONE. Because there is just one Christian body. It is Christ’s body. And if we are going to bind ourselves to the fearful ways of this world, we cut ourselves off from that one body. We cannot be one in Christ without being one with each other.
This makes being gathered with other Baptists who drive me crazy very complicated – for them as much as for me. As much as I cannot stand this fight we are pretending is not a fight, that much – OR MORE – I am proud of the mission and ministry we are doing together. And I wish it could be either/or. But it's not. And as it has to do with Galatians, the real hypocrisy at work is that the people pushing this circumcision plan, they don't really want the Gentiles to actually BE Jews. Just “Jew-ish." (Kathleen Norris wrote that she considers herself Christian-ish, as she's not very good at it.)
If you all could be okay about this one thing – you know, just this one little thing – everything else will stay just the same. We'll keep on loving each other and pretending we all agree that this is no big deal, and we can get on with doing the important work of ministry and mission for the least of these in our world. It will be just easier for everyone.
But will it really? Will it be easier for the ones who are literally being cut from the body? Whose biology is more relevant than their spirit and their faith and their calling? Maybe it will be easier for them, because people will do almost anything to fit in, won't they? Because Paul is talking to the Gentiles, not to the Jews. “Listen,” he says, “if you allow yourselves to be circumcised…." Those aren’t words spoken to Jews.
You are Gentiles! Jesus did not set you free to enslave yourself or to erase yourself. God loves YOU! You! as God made you. And God loves you as God finds you. You don't become someone else or something else in order to become God's. You are God's, here, now, as you are. Not someday, when other people decide they are ready to be comfortable around you.
Because this is the plan God made: that we be free and trust what he has done for us in Christ Jesus; that we not get so afraid in the spaces where life isn't clear that we decide to force clarity into some sort of written-down, detailed plan that only makes everything worse.
I really don't know if most people are doing the best they can most of the time. But I know I sleep better and work better and enjoy this life more, when I live as if they are, when I treat them as if they are – including the people I disagree with, the ones who drive me crazy, and I them. The world is mean. The work is hard. And we are weak. That's what God has to work with.
If God made a detailed plan, what's the chance we'd be happy with it? That we'd do it as written? Instead, in Christ Jesus, God did the work: absorbing the hatefulness; relieving us of our weakness; freeing us to simply live; doing the best we can, as much as we can, to love others as Jesus loved us, just as they are, here and now. Thanks be to God.
By way of introduction to this series on the Ten Commandments, I've a video clip to show, then I have three questions to consider. The video clip is from an old late-night show called The Colbert Report – an interview of a congressman who has been out of office more than ten years. I'm not sharing his name or state – so if you know, please don't. My point isn't to poke fun at him, but rather to see in him a near-perfect example of how Empire and scripture so often intersect. Video Clip
Question One: What are the other seven commandments? Our trusty congressman gave us three. (Extra points if you know where they go in order.) You’ll notice I massaged the language a bit. Black preaching has a saying: If you ain’t heard something and you ain’t seen something, you ain’t got nothing. This massaged language is based on thirty years of seeing and hearing the Ten Words used abusively in church.
1. I AM the Lord your God, who brought you out of slavery. Don't make other beings into gods.
2. Don’t make things into gods.
3. Don't use my name for anything but me – I AM.
4. Keep the Sabbath.
5. Respect the elders.
6. Don't murder.
7. Don't do adultery.
8. Don't steal.
9. Don't lie.
10. Don't covet your neighbor's house or spouse.
The Ten Commandments are also called Decalogue. Do you know the word “Decalogue”? Deca- means “ten”; logue means “words.” Ten words. For too many people – people like our friend the congressman and many of our brothers and sisters INSIDE church – Ten Commandments is a billboard. Something posted and large enough to hide behind, but never read. Never carved into our hearts and minds.
But not for the people of God. They are God’s gift for life as free people. Where they hang is irrelevant, if they do not hang on the walls of our life together; if they are not written on our hearts, as the Apostle Paul said. The Ten Words are the words of life for free people.
Question Two: If the Ten Words are not for decorating public buildings, what are they for? Spoiling your fun? In 1992 Mariah was 18 months old and about to poke her tiny fingers into an electric outlet. One of my campus ministry students – now a chemistry professor at Mississippi State – said, "Oh, it's fine. She'll get a little buzz and it will teach her not to do it again.”
"Or, she will die," I responded – and then bought lots of these outlet covers. Dr. Gwaltney has two sons, both of whom, thankfully, have lived to graduate high school. I suspect their mom bought these outlet covers for their house too. Because good parents don't bring babies home from the hospital, set them down, and turn them loose, do they? That isn't freedom. That's neglect.
The Lord our God did not bring the Hebrews out of Egypt, out of that houseful of horror and trauma and bondage of slavery, to leave them to fend for themselves in the wilderness of their own memories, terrors, cravings and imagination. What are the Ten Words for? For knowing how to live as free people. They are good news: from God, to the people of God and – even more so – to their neighbors.
I AM is starting over – AGAIN. The garden. The flood. Abraham. Now Moses. And these Hebrews. A new kingdom unlike any that the living or their ancestors have ever known. Unlike, that is, the empires of this world. Pharaoh embodies, in this section of scripture, the political and economic system built from an infrastructure of false scarcity.
The allegiance, the faith, demanded by empire and gladly kept by citizens and slaves is to the trinity of wisdom, wealth, and power. Empire wisdom, Empire wealth, Empire power – that elusive tease of some future trickle-down effect: trust the empire, enrich and empower the empire, and you too will prosper. The devil’s lie from Eden, to the desert, to here and now.
I AM the Lord your God who brought you out of THAT house, the scripture says. You belong to me and to my kingdom: a kingdom with an infrastructure of abundance; a kingdom that keeps faith in the faithfulness of I AM, faith that the One who set you free means to keep you free as well.
What does Pharaoh (Empire) value? Wisdom, Wealth, Power. What does God who brought us out to set and keep us free value? Faith. Justice. The common good. Again, the Ten Words are not just good news for us only. They are good news for our neighbors: I'll never steal your wife or husband; I don't want your house or land or goats; I won't steal your food or tell lies about you and your family. Those are empire ways, and we've had enough of empire to last ten thousand lifetimes.
We choose freedom. Freedom inside a very, very big fence built not to spoil our fun but to keep us ALL safe – us and our neighbors – whom God also loves like a good parent loves her children; where God is trustworthy – trustworthy to provide all we need to live. Manna, remember? Bread from heaven. Only that's not what the word manna means, do you remember? Manna means “what is it?”
Martin Luther wrote (this is Martin Luther the German Lutheran from 500 years ago, not Martin Luther King Jr. the Georgia Baptist from 50 years ago) that whoever has the Decalogue has the whole Bible. Everything else is the story of God raising the people of God to be free. They fail. Repeatedly. Empire is a tricky devil and so very, very, very seductive.
Which brings us to the third and final question: Why do we need the Ten Words at all? The answer is in your homework – all forty-seven chapters of it (Genesis 37 through Exodus 20) – which I know you have read, so I can blow through it quickly.
Once upon a time, long before the time of Moses, the Hebrews were free. But they were also few. There was Jacob, his four baby mamas and his thirteen kids, all living in Canaan. Of his twelve boys, Joseph was his favorite. So much so that Jacob dressed him in extra-expensive, fancy, tailor-made clothes, while the other boys worked out of a pile of Target t-shirts and shorts. As you would expect, Joseph was a terrible brat. He'd gather his brothers and tell them about his dreams in which he was a king and they were all his servants, bowing down to him and obeying his every command.
Naturally, being brothers – and this being the Bible – they decided to kill him. As they contemplated his means of death, a better offer came along. They sold him, naked, to slave traders. They pocketed the money, dipped his fancy pants in goat's blood and told their father his precious Joseph had been eaten by a beast. One tale says that Jacob went blind from weeping over Joseph all those years. After many adventures, Joseph ends up in Egypt – not as king, but almost. He's right-hand man to the Pharaoh, in charge of food security for the entire Egyptian Empire.
"Pharaoh" is the Bible's first archetype of Empire. All the wealth and power necessary to thrive, Pharaoh already has. Only he doesn't believe it. No matter how rich he gets, he dreams of starving to death; he dreams of scarcity. He needs more. Joseph helps him make a plan to get more. With Joseph's help, Pharaoh – Empire, remember – buys, stores, and hoards food over years and years until he possesses a food monopoly for the entire region, including Canaan. Food = power. Always. The Hebrews end up coming to Egypt to buy food.
Joseph is still a jerk to his brothers, like when you know you are going to start being good (go on a diet or stop drinking, etc.) on Monday – so what do you do all weekend? How do you act on the weekend? That's Joseph in Genesis chapters 42, 43, 44 and 45. He's horrible, because he knows that in chapter 50 he's going to forgive them for everything they did. But not yet. So in chapter 50, Joseph acts right to his brothers. The family is restored.
But politically, socially, economically, biblically, the deed is done, isn't it? The Hebrews are in Egypt now, under the thumb of the Pharaoh. And for the next 400 years, the Hebrews do what? They have babies. Thousands and thousands of babies. All the while, the Pharaoh’s dreams of scarcity also increase. He strangles the people by starving them, so that all the people are forced to use all their money to buy food.
When their money runs out, Pharaoh says, Okay. You can pay with your livestock. When the money and livestock are gone, they have only one asset left: their land. What choice do they have? They pay for food with their land. They sell themselves into slavery in order to eat.
Joseph is long dead – see Exodus, chapter 1. Memories are always short (for everyone in the scriptures, except the prophets), and the Pharaoh is richer than ever, but no less anxious; and he is no longer driven by greed, but rather by fear. By fear of the very people he owns. Why? Because there are too many of them.
The twenty members of Jacob's family have become a population of thousands. The age of anxiety, Dr. Brueggemann calls it. Where politics and economics no longer make sense because they aren't driven by policy or economics at all, but rather by anxiety and fear. Anxiety at the top of the Empire always means misery and suffering at the bottom.
The Hebrew workers are literally being tortured – treated as machines, disregarded as human beings, serving only to increase profits for the Pharaoh, to pacify the anxiety of the Empire. It's a circular, impossible strategy that inevitably explodes in violence. The workers cry out. The Empire cracks down harder. They cry to the heavens – and God hears. Finally. After so, so long.
It's tempting to think God wasn't listening. But eighty years earlier, what happened? You remember. A little girl put her baby brother in a basket in a river. God planted a Hebrew asset in the Pharaoh's own house. He was long gone from the Pharaoh's house when God sent him back.
God's purposes ALWAYS require human agency. And Moses gets them out. God leads him and he leads them from Egypt to the wilderness up to Mt. Sinai. They are not as happy as you might think – it is the Bible after all; someone's always fussing. Their bodies may be free from making bricks, but freedom of the heart and mind is a much longer journey. They sold themselves into Egypt, remember. And all they know is slavery.
Being free isn't the same as knowing how to live free. Free from anxiety; free from greed; free from the never-ending craving for certitude. And you don’t have to be the Pharaoh to crave certitude, to want to know for sure what tomorrow will bring. It's a long, long, long way from slavery to freedom. A long, long education, learning to live free.
Ten Words, the scriptures offer to the ones who believe we belong to God, beginning with I AM the God who brought you out of Empire, the God who will keep bringing you out day after day after day, out of a world that will enslave you to anxiety and fear and promises it can never keep. You belong to me, and if you will let yourself belong to me, let my words guide you, my words can be all the words you ever need – and more than you can ever fully know.
May this be a word of the Lord for today.
To this relationship between God and the human which we call Christian, each brings their own part. God brings the Christ event and all the accoutrements therein: the grace, most of all; the everlasting life; the capacity for contentment and fearlessness; and, for today's purposes, the Holy Spirit – also called Advocate or Counselor. Which both have the ring of lawyer. I like to think if the word had existed then, Bible translators might have called the Holy Spirit “coach." Anyway, God brings the Christ event, including the Holy Spirit. And we bring faith.
Now I want to tell you a story. About how my brother-in-law Guy Briggs used to take us out for dinner. Except we called it supper, of course. Guy was 18 months younger than Carl. He had Down syndrome and lived at home with his parents his whole life. He died when he was 33. His whole adult life he was 4'11" and weighed 285 pounds. Proudly! He had about a hundred quirks, habits, hobbies and collections – and a bank account, because he worked full-time after graduating high school, which he was not shy to gloat about to his forever-in-school brother.
In Guy’s closet was a briefcase, and in the briefcase were years-and-years’ worth of birthday cards, all with money in them, because Guy had no use for birthday cards without money in them. $1's and $5's and his favorite, $10 bills. About once a month Guy would get the case from the closet, the cards from the case, and the money from the cards, and put it in his wallet. The kind of wallet with a chain that attached to his belt. Like a Harley man, he said. He'd take his wallet in the living room and say, "I wan’ take Mama and Daddy out for supper." Always to either Shoney's or Bonanza.
Except, at Bonanza or Shoney's the money never came back out of the Harley wallet. Everybody ate. Daddy, Cecil, paid. We’d go home. Guy put all the money back in all the cards, put the cards back in the briefcase, put the briefcase back in the closet. And no one said a word... until next month when they, or we, would all go to supper again on that same $87.
Which is a silly way of saying: this faith we carry in our pockets, this faith we think makes us Christian, this faith we think we spend to feed ourselves and others – it may seem like something we did, or something we earned, or something we spend to gain whatever blessings we claim. And maybe the Lord watches us and thinks the same generous, kindly thoughts we think about the hobbies and habits of a mildly mentally handicapped man, when it’s his daddy covering him the whole time. Just like Cecil Briggs at the Bonanza.
The Lord just plays along, letting us think that we are doing something grand, when the faith we claim is itself a gift of God. God has bankrolled both partners in the deal, and all that is ours to do is trust. For Pentecost, the lectionary circles back around to John 15 and 16, Jesus's promise of the Holy Spirit: the promise delivered now, these 50 days after Easter – a promise made deep into the farewell discourse. Your hearts are filled with sorrow, Jesus says, so much so you cannot listen to me now, when there is so much left to say.
Anxiety blocks learning. We know that, so surely Jesus did. Anxiety + grief = emotional paralysis, at a minimum – and even more pervasive results, depending on the trauma. Without Him, Jesus knew the disciples would fail. Fail hard. Jesus isn’t about to leave them alone. Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. We live in the great meantime between the resurrection and his return. We’ll never make it on our own.
I was up for children's sermon this week. I was going to bring my suitcase in, since it's in the car already. Mine is green and Carl's is blue. When the blue suitcase comes out at home, no one cares. But when the green one comes upstairs and is laid out on the bedroom floor, it's a different story. Golden Retriever Number 1, Rosie Cotton, lies beside it and sighs. Golden Retriever Number 2, Scout, paces the house and cries.
Here she is [picture] on the driveway this morning when I put the suitcase in the car. If you could hear her, you’d think her leg was in a trap. Now, I realize what is altogether wrong with this image, since in it I am Jesus Christ and Carl Briggs is the Holy Spirit. But what is altogether right about this image is that we all get to be golden retrievers! We are all invited to trust Jesus in his promise that the Holy Spirit is coming and will be as real and as trustworthy as Carl Briggs always turns out to be when I leave town. Bringing me to the question I want to consider today: Is the Holy Spirit real?
You know those words people say that you don't really know the meaning of, but too much time went by and you didn’t ask, so you just go along? Holy Spirit was one of those words for me, for a long time – something I thought everyone else had a better, clearer grasp of, than I did. Pneuma and Ruah – all the $3 seminary words and biblical scholar- ship had lots to say to my brain, but not to my heart or my life. Does that make sense?
But when I poked at it a little, do you know what I discovered? Lots of folks were faking it, right along with me! Especially folks in our non-pentecostal, mainline protestant tradition. Still, the Holy Spirit is either real or it isn't. How do we know? By faith. Not by proof. Not by publication. By faith. We believe by faith, not proof. We can no more prove the Holy Spirit isn’t real than that it is.
So, for me and you, if it’s useful, here is my understanding of the Holy Spirit, after twenty- some years of thinking hard about it. I say thinking, but it’s a work of life and heart and brain. I grew up around churchy people, so I heard about the Holy Spirit early and often. I got the idea he was like Jesus’ spy, only nice – and very helpful so long as I behaved. If I didn’t, HE (of course the Holy Spirit was he, though the Bible does not say so) would tell Jesus and I’d be in trouble. I almost NEVER got in trouble.
Later, like after I had been to seminary and had a baby and had seen a bit of the wideness of this world, I began to see that every person in this world is leaning on something, is guided by something: knowingly, unknowingly; a voice, a force, a philosophy, a memory; some perspective upon existence, some frame of reference to which they have tuned their heart and mind.
People steeped in church and in scripture, especially if we have applied ourselves, learn a culture of spiritual life. Mine was rooted in the scripture, its stories, poetry, teaching and laws, and in the particular light by which the people I knew read it. All for better and for worse. All the scripture I know comes through the lens and work of imperfect human beings. It is smudged with their prejudice, fear, weakness, and good intentions.
The ways of God – justice, righteousness, grace – those ways became the ways of life the folks on the same path as me learned to want for ourselves. And for the world. The more we not only learn but actually feed on the ways of God in the scriptures, the more these ways become embedded in our thinking, in our feeling, in our view of the world, our judgments. They become the framework for how we make meaning of everything. Other people with other experience are sure to have entirely other perspective, to create entirely other culture. Or maybe, a very similar culture which they call by a different name than Christian.
Simultaneously as these ways embed in our thinking and feeling, we behave accordingly, as well – or intend to. Desire to. We call it living by faith, trusting in this system of God’s ways without the kind of verification available to prove gravity. Over years and years of living by faith, of tuning one’s whole self to what our tradition and culture has named the Holy Spirit, a life of stories is built that becomes a living, breathing REAL version of all that I believe, that we believe, that this life together has believed and pursued in faith.
Is it a mind game? Some think so. I don't. Or if it is, everyone is doing it. And we have a name for ours: life in Christ. Two things make it so difficult. One, our propensity for discontentment, always fearing we are missing something better. Second, it’s really, really hard. It’s really, really hard because all this time we are being raised in faith, we are also being raised in the world. If ALL I could hear in my heart and mind every waking hour and in my dreams were the voice of the Holy Spirit, my goodness, what a truckload of anxiety and grief could be saved!
But there are LOTS of voices in this head of mine. There's the "You've worked so hard, you deserve a treat" voice; and the “Let’s go buy something” voice; and the “You are a terrible preacher/mother/wife/friend” voice; and the “None of what you’re doing matters, so why try harder?" voice; and the “Why aren't you a high school history teacher?" voice; and the “What if none of this stuff called faith means anything at all, and this really is just a game?" voice. And on any given day all those voices can wear a person out. They can overwhelm the voice I mean to listen to.
Hearing, of course, demands listening. Which, again, is why Jesus couldn’t say everything he wanted to. They were too upset to listen. And he didn’t push them very much – extra hard – which I appreciate.
Anyway, my honest answer to the question is, “Yes. Yes, the Holy Spirit is real." The Holy Spirit is one name for the mysterious force in the universe by which I experience the goodness and the grace of God in this world. It comes to me in nature; it comes to me in books; it comes to me through other people, and sometimes in ways I can’t explain at all.
Holy Spirit is the name I use for how Jesus comes to me like a real-time coach, pushing me to be braver, kinder, and freer; to be less fearful, less prideful, less greedy; to be more – more patient, more just, and more humble; to work out the mystery of this work of Christ in me called “salvation." I can't prove it. I can only tell you about it as I have tasted of it, learned it, and as I experience it.
Everybody is trusting in something, even if they call it nothing. Because nothing is still something, remember. And I have decided, at least on my best days, to trust Jesus’ promise, and my experience, that God has not left us to fend for ourselves. The Spirit of God, given once in the Christ, is within and among us here and now, taking care of our lives and our life together, leading us as we do God's will in the world today.
Jesus’ farewell discourse has shifted. He was talking TO the disciples about being faithful to God. Now he's talking to God about the disciples. He's praying for them. Jesus prayed for his friends, and we should too. We should pray for each other, like he prayed for us: with our grown-up glasses on; seeing the world as it really is; and us in it, as Jesus means us to be. As my Father has sent me, so send I you.
God sent Jesus. Jesus sends us. Here in chapter 17, the disciples – whom Jesus has promoted from servants to friends, remember – are overhearing Jesus talking to someone else. Dr. Fred Craddock was the first homiletics scholar to notice and study deeply Jesus' habit of seeming to teach one group or person, while clearly intending a more pointed message for someone else – usually disciples or Pharisees. And that pointed message was almost always, the outrageous love/grace/justice of God.
The way Jesus was smuggling the gospel into that overheard message is sort of like how I used to puree vegetables into spaghetti sauce and sloppy joes when Emy was a little kid,
so that it was still technically spaghetti or sloppy joes. Here, technically, Jesus IS just praying. Hard for them to argue what he says, since they’d have to admit they were spying. Jesus is leaving them, remember. He’s soon to be arrested, tortured, killed. Then rise. Forever after that he'll be with them in Spirit, far closer than they've known him so far. But they can't fathom that. Only that he's leaving them.
He’s leaving them like when we leave our kids at college. To our parent eyes, they look like toddlers in a tiny room floating in a sea of boxes. It seems nuts to leave them in charge of themselves. Jesus is leaving his friends in charge of the kingdom of God in this world. Depending on the kid, leaving a toddler to run the world seems nuts. But what is the alternative? Take them home and make their lunch for forty years?
Jesus cannot stay. The one thing left that he can do, he can only do alone: die. And so he prayed for them, in that overhearing way of his, that we'd be wise enough and brave enough to see this world as it really is – and make our lives and our life together in it as Jesus means for us to be. First, first, first, Jesus means his friends to overhear that We. Belong. To. Him. Verse 6: “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me."
Verse 10: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.”
We Are His. The moment we know it, it is the most true thing about us. We spend the rest of our lives learning to live our faith in it, whatever happened to us before that moment we first knew it; whatever someone else said about who or whose or what we are; whatever story we carry about who we were or how we came to be. Maybe somebody said you weren't much. Maybe you overhead somebody important say you were nothing but a bother.
No matter who it was that said it, whatever you've heard said about you up to this very moment, hear this: The Lord God of heaven and earth says, You. Are. Mine. You don't belong to anyone in this world more than you belong to me. Another thing Jesus says to God about his beloved friends is that we are very, very well endowed.
We are rich as rich can be in all the things that make a human being rich. Verses 7 and 8: “Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.”
We do love our things, don’t we? Northeast Arkansas is full of Hmong people, immigrants from Vietnam after the war. The people who came and their children have mostly worked in the Tyson chicken factories there. The third generation, however, are now entering college. My oldest friend, Angela, works for Student Services at U of A in Fayetteville. A couple of years ago she was with a team of students moving freshmen into their dorm rooms. Just like IU, some students literally need a U-Haul to move into half a dorm room.
But in the sea of U-Hauls and minivans was a young Hmong man. And all he had was his backpack, one enormous suitcase and a 50-pound bag of rice. He said he tried to explain the dorm cafeteria, but his grandmother could not fathom a place you could go for a year and not have to take any food with you. Angela saw him later in the school year and asked about the 50 pounds of rice. He said he and his roommate found lots of uses for it, including a launch into the top bunk and a beanbag chair.
If believing I already have everything I need to be faithful isn't the hardest part of being Christian, I am sure I don't know what is. Some days I spend more energy wanting
and needing than actually working. Or imagining what I could do with what I don't have
than doing what I can with what I do have.
We don't need to know what we have, to believe we have it, any more than a child needs to know what's in the pantry to know he'll get fed. That's faith in God's goodness, born of God's faithfulness to us.
Listening, we overhear Jesus tell the Lord that we belong to them, apparently they've been trading us back and forth like aunties at Thanksgiving. We've forever belonged to one or the other. Whom we have never belonged to, Jesus says in verse 16, is the world. “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world."
We live here. We are not from here. This world is not home. God wants us here, for now.
One time when I was in Seoul, Korea, I decided to ride the subway to a far neighborhood and walk my way back to our hotel. I walked through markets and parks and Temples. Then I got really hungry. Street food is easy in Seoul. You point to what you want and pay for it. Nicer restaurants are pretty easy, as we know a few Korean dishes we like and can always order. Bibimbap or bulgogi or kimchi.
I thought, "I wonder if I can order fast food?" Do I know the Korean word for hamburger? I do not. Can I read Korean? I can not. The menu board had no pictures, and the drinks were none I recognized. It was just like fast food here, people behind me in the line with kids wanting me to hurry up. I had to point and pray there was no octopus involved. I learned I like mustard and mayonnaise mixed together. I knew I wasn't in the U.S. It didn't seem like I was in Korea. I didn't even feel like I was inside my own skin. Inside my own skin, I'm competent. And literate.
Every human wants to feel at home, at ease, comfortable in their skin. Jesus' friends are NOT supposed to be at home in this world. Jesus’ friends are at home where peace reigns. Jesus’ friends are at home where justice rolls down like water. Jesus’ friends are at home where righteousness flows like a never-ending stream. Jesus’ friends are at home where rich and poor feast together and none are turned away, where children rise up in joy and fall asleep in safety, forevermore. And that is not this world, friends.
How could the friends of Jesus ever feel at home here? And yet, here we are. Sent and blessed by Him with everything we need to run the kingdom of heaven this side of heaven. The world won't love ya for it, either, the disciples hear him say, more or less. He asks God to protect them, suggesting that this world's dangerous.
I have three children. All three could walk down the same sidewalk at the same time and only one of them faceplant into a tree. He was always looking one way and walking another. The sidewalk wasn't dangerous. He was. This world is dangerous, or we're a danger to ourselves. But either way, we aren't safe without the Lord. Even Jesus thinks it's so. More dangerous for some than others. Into that divide Jesus sends us, between the ones for whom it is and the ones for whom it isn't.
For whom is this world most dangerous? for the weak and poor? Yes, but only marginally. I’d say for the ones not watching where they’re going; the ones who think this is all there is: what they can see and hear and experience here, this side of eternity. And the danger, it seems to me, isn't death, but hopelessness. Despair, the greatest poverty of all. And in that economy, friends, we are the rich ones. The ones who have lived to discover that to be human is to be beloved. Beloved by the Creator of the universe.
And either we believe it’s the gospel that has been the difference or we don't. What we are doing here is not a game. We have not gathered to pacify ourselves about the rest of our selfish lives. We have gathered as people who know in our deepest selves and in our life together, that we are the beloved of God and that we have been sent into this world to share this news with our friends. All seven billion of them. We have gathered to rest, restock and receive new orders for this life we have in Christ. Those orders are here, in this text, as Jesus takes his leave of us, to do what we can never do.
What are those orders? Go. Be the beloved in this dangerous world. And don't expect it to be otherwise. Go, greet every person as a friend and love them like a brother or sister. But don't expect them to love and admire you all the time. Expect them to hate you, Jesus says, in his overhearing kind of way. Expect to have trouble. Expect to suffer. Expect to feel uncomfortable, awkward, out of place, left out and marginalized, like you are in a foreign country where all they eat is octopus.
And when all that happens, do NOT whine like you've been mistreated; do NOT retreat like you are besieged by some enemy of the Lord. Because you haven't been. But rather, go. Go be like Jesus the best you can. Go be a good and helpful guest in this world. Go with the gospel in your pockets.
Go, knowing, trusting, believing that, in the midst of all the ordinary human things that make your life a life – growing gardens and keeping houses; making babies or making a living – it's the delivery of hope which is your highest and best calling.
Peace/justice/mercy/grace in all we say and do, speaks more of Christ in us than a thousand Sunday sermons. This world is not our home, but all the same, here we are. May the world overhear the gospel in our lives and in our life together.
People with whom we share no DNA. People we like. People with whom we have things in common: things; experiences; or hobbies; or commitments. That teensy, tiny fraction of the human population whose company we enjoy. These are the people we generally think of as our friends.
If you can find it, I recommend a British TV show called “The Secret Life of 4, 5, and 6 Year Olds." The producers give kids a set-up activity, then put secret cameras on them to watch them play. My favorite is one where two sets of 6-year-olds, each a boy and a girl, are given a doll and a bunch of doll accessories to pretend they are taking their baby to the park. Neither group knows the other couple is coming. Nor do the kids know that the doll can be made to cry remotely.
At first the kid couple works together to try to calm the baby. The boy gets bored really fast and quits playing, while the girl gets more and more frustrated. She's partly upset because their baby is upset. She's mostly upset because the baby-daddy, who is supposed to be helping, doesn't care that their baby is crying. She bounces it and checks its diaper and asks him to help her. He tries to explain it's not a baby – that it's a doll, probably broken, maybe they should try kicking it. She nearly loses her mind and starts crying, so he wanders off.
The camera goes back and forth between the couples, who aren't paying that much attention to each other at first. Then one baby stops crying (or doll, depending on who's telling the story). Can you guess what happens? The two girls who don't know each other become friends and partners in working to soothe the crying baby, while the boys go off to kick trees or something.
In this world, for good reason, our friends are people who see the world like we do. They are the people who take and receive the service and activity we need and offer, in the ways we want to receive and give it. It was always a game to the boys, so they were just happier with people for whom it was also a game. It wasn't just a game to the girls, so they were happier with people who understood the gravity of taking good care of pretend children.
But it isn't really about happiness so much as it's about thriving. Good friends are the people toward whom we gravitate to help ourselves live like we most want to live. Friends sustain one another. And while the subject of friendships is a deep and interesting rabbit hole into which to fall – probably more for women than for men – I won't. I won't, because no matter what the social science answers are for why we choose the friends we do, Jesus’ definition of friendship is other. If we are to love one another as Jesus has loved us, two shifts of understanding are in order:
Simply said, our friends are human beings. All seven billion of them, potentially. Because, unlike the way friendship works when Jesus isn't defining it, we don't choose. If we are to others as Jesus is to us, how people treat us is of no relevance. I don't know that Jesus had ever had a relationship talk with the disciples until here, in John 15. But here He says, I no longer call you servants; instead I call you friends.
Sounds good. But let's not be quick to dismiss the advantage of the master-servant model. At least we know what our job is, right? Jesus tells us what to do, and we do it; but Jesus is the one in charge. Always. We just follow orders. The master is always the master. The servant is always the servant. May not be fun, but at least it's clear. Nobody has to figure anything out.
Friends isn't so clear. Now who's in charge? Sure, Jesus is in charge of me and you; but between me and you, who is in charge? Well, according to Jesus, you are. But only if Jesus is talking to me. If Jesus is talking to you, then I am. Right? Because Jesus’ definition of friendship centers on submission. Submitting to everyone else. (More on this in a minute.) Sticking with the question of who our friends are: the church thinks of the disciples as heroes. But they weren't, here in John 15. They are still mostly knuckleheads. And Jesus decides to love them here and now, before they are anything like the men and women they eventually become.
As if to say “who your friends are” – this is Jesus speaking in my imagination here – “has nothing to do with what they can do for you or might ever do for you.” The apostle wrote about this in Romans 5: When we were still sinners, Jesus died for us. The Lord didn't wait for us to get ourselves together and be His good friend in order to be our good friend. God chose to be better to us than we deserve. Therefore, choose to befriend one another – not because the other deserves it, Jesus says, but because you didn't deserve it either. And I chose you. We are friends of Jesus, because God first loved us. We are friends to others, because God first loved us. It's not complicated at all.
A teenager I spend time with is the most bossed-around person I have ever known up close. Incarcerated people are probably no more bossed-around than her. Once when she didn’t know I was close enough to hear, she sighed and said, "God, I hate people." It was so deep-down honest that it made me laugh. Can you so relate to her? The adults in charge of her had the wisdom to get her a dog, a mutt named Lady. An unconditional relationship and someone for both of them to care for.
To love one another because God loved us isn't complicated at all, and yet feels nearly impossible as a way of life. Because, aren’t people just the worst and the best of every single day, amen? Sometimes I also think, “God, I just love people.”
And great is the temptation, for those of us with the power to do so, to surround ourselves with the ones who help us be the selves we most want to be. If I could, I would surround myself with people like my nephew Parker, because he and I each think the other is a comic genius. But to such a definition of friendship, Jesus says, No! Stop being so selfish. If you would abide in me like I told you to, five verses ago, you'd know how loved you are already, and you wouldn’t need 50 daily Facebook Likes to keep your heart up. Go find some under-loved people for me to love through you.
I know why we don't do it. We're afraid. We're afraid because we don't abide. We don't abide because we're lazy. And easily distracted. And afraid. Scott Simon told me yesterday morning about two suicide bombings in Kabul this week. Journalists got killed. More journalists than any day since the Taliban days. Scott had a different Afghani journalist on to talk about the ones who died. Some of them were his colleagues, his friends, he said. And he's brokenhearted now.
And now, because they have names and families and a story, my heart hurts a little too. And sadly, my first impulse is to say that my heart hurts because I didn’t turn the radio off in time, like I sometimes do when sad, sad news comes on. Having seven billion friends will break your heart every single day. Guaranteed!
Loving people hurts. And now Jesus tells us we have to love everybody – no matter what they've done or haven't done for us. No matter what they've done TO us. Who needs hurt like that? The right question, of course, is who needs love like that? The world, of course. All seven billion of us. If we knew that, and lived like we knew it, all manner of things would be well. But we don't. So they aren't.
The second shift in understanding Jesus’ way of friendship is how to be a friend. By laying down your life. Again, not complicated, but practically impossible. The last time Jesus used this language was in John 10 – the Good Shepherd text. 17 “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father."
Of course when He said it first, these disciples might have imagined Jesus dying, a martyr; a hero; in a battle, maybe. A sheep to the slaughter they'd never have imagined. This non-resistant, compliant, submissive goat to the great enemy of Israel.
It's a complicated saying. On its face and in context, it seems that Jesus means dying. Dying as He died. Putting one's own walking, talking, breathing body between my friend and my friend's enemy, absorbing whatever treatment my friend's enemy directs at my friend – which, not to make light of such a calling, seems slightly easier in that it must only be done once.
How does a disciple follow Jesus by doing something she can only do one time? And when Jesus says He has the power to lay it down and take it up again, does He mean the one death and resurrection, or some repetitive way of living? Something we can mimic in this befriending others as Jesus has befriended us?
I do not imagine discipleship as one long exercise of planning for which friend and in what moment Jesus expects me to die. It doesn't make sense to me. Not as much as the possibility that Jesus intends me to see this life of mine as something I lay down every day for the friends who cross my path. Not so much by my breath and blood, although it might come to that, but rather by my time and energy and will. Day in and day out. For years. Decades.
Because, honestly, what do we guard most closely? What do we protect from others? Time. Talent. And Treasure. The STUFF of my life that I consider MINE. And even when we itch to give it away, we want to give when and where we know it will be ____(what?)________? Appreciated. It's just good stewardship, we say.
But is it good discipleship? we should also ask. Does it mimic Jesus’ example of laying down one's life for one’s friends? The friends you've never met, who will never say thank you, who may never be grateful. Even now, I don't like this sermon. I don't like it for the inequity embedded in the language, the sense that we are empowered to do for others what others cannot do for themselves: Loving the underloved. I don't like the smack of that language, as if we have something others don't. We don't.
Insofar as we have not yet accepted our undeservedness of the love of God in Christ Jesus, we above all people are in need of Jesus and His grace. And now is the time for us to continue to abide in Him and Him in us.
Our love for one another is the hard proof of God's presence in the world. “Our”
refers to all human beings, not just the Christian ones, since all love is from God. Love refers to respectful, graceful, just regard and treatment of every human being – regard and treatment based not on what a human deserves
, but that he is
. God loves us, because we are God's. We love others, because they are God's. As for proof – well, proof is what humanity is starved for, isn't it? Meaning. Purpose. Some sense of why we exist at all. We exist to love and to be loved. When we find ourselves loved – adored – by the Creator, the Sustainer, of the universe, our lives become a circuit of that love. Or a circus
, which also works. As God is in us, so are we in the world, being love. We who have bound ourselves to Christ have made loving others the central purpose of our lives. Such a life bears much fruit, Jesus said. If you can pick it, what fruit do you hope to bear? The fruit I hope to bear is joy. And peace. And justice. And decency, kindness and grace. I don't, mostly. Mostly I fail – because I'm slothful. And timid. And gluttonous. I suspect Jesus minds, a little. But not so much that he won't work with me, that he doesn't keep inviting me to try. The bit I know about this life convinces me that it's the trying that makes a life. And relationship with Christ is about the running, as Paul said, though I wish he'd been a knitter rather than an athlete. That Christ is with us is what keeps us in the race, the fight, reaching for the prize. John 15 is smack-dab center of Jesus' farewell discourse: his most intimate conversation with his inner-circle disciples at the last supper, just before he's arrested. He's preparing
them, not just for his death, but for the new relationship to come: absent in the body, present in the Spirit. A relationship that will require new effort and intention from them. And faith. Lots and lots of faith. Bags and bags of faith. Abide
is the word for such faith – here and all through John's writing, actually. 4
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. Lots and lots of abiding
. • Abide means “Stay.” • Just stay. • Don't go over there, • or up there, • or down there, • or back there. • Stay. Right. Here. Stay in the loving, safe, all-knowing, ever-graceful presence of God. Stay here mentally. Stay here emotionally. Stay here physically. Stay here morally. Here's the opposite of abiding: my phone chimes that I have a text. I'm driving, so I can't check it. Instead I take mental inventory of my six most important people and three most stressful projects. I conjure a possible disaster for each one of them. This takes five seconds, tops. Eventually I check the message – it's not a disaster, naturally. I spend another minute or two flogging myself mentally for being so dramatic. Then I go back to what I WAS doing before. Probably something like fretting about the Russia scandal or what a mess my house is. Or how many carbs I've already eaten that day. All my life I've been told being Christian means praying a lot; giving my money and time and energy; feeling guilty for not giving away enough money, time or energy; going to church a lot. But hardly anybody ever talked about abiding
a lot. And Jesus seems to be really big on it. He seems really big on us trusting him no matter what. Abide in me. Stay right here. To have any hope of being the people who bear evidence of God's presence in this world, we must decide to abide in Christ. First and most of all, abiding is a work of heart and mind, a discipline that demands as much practice and self-denial as any athlete or artist perfecting her craft.
It takes a lifetime, even to begin: day in and day out, rejecting the world's terribly low standard for decency and mercy and justice; insisting to ourselves and to one another, as brothers and sisters in Christ, that God's expectation is entirely other and inevitably demands sacrifice. Abiding begins quietly, seriously, deeply, with the decision to desire what Christ desires regardless of what our bodies or emotions ache for, day to day. Abiding is coming to terms with the fact that wanting what Christ wants doesn’t come naturally just because we are His. It is learned, practiced, and prayed-for behavior. Abiding is long and tedious and awkward. Sometimes scary. Sometimes boring. Sometimes hilarious. Sometimes fun. The company is usually good. Because abiding happens only inside relationship, in communion with God, in fellowship with each other. Since January, I've fallen off the exercise wagon. Fortunately I landed in my recliner, so no one was injured. I love that we actually buy chairs called Lazy Boys; we don't even try to hide our slothfulness. But I'm back at it, after going in for what is called another “session for success." Like asking a professor to let you take her class over again and promising to do better. One change is that I have a new trainer, Brandon. Brandon is a quiet man who doesn't look super fit, just normal tall and lean. But he can do 1,000 burpees in an hour. Then, not only does he not die, he can finish his workday. He's patient as a saint and as attentive as a mother hen. He laughs at all my jokes, except the self-deprecating ones. He always encourages. He's always kind. He asks after my aches and pains. He's really good to me, but only if I'm there. If I miss twice, he'll email me to see if I'm dead. But he doesn't come over. He doesn't drag me out of the Lazy Boy to drive me to the gym and puppet me through my workout. That would be creepy. And it wouldn't work; this body is my project. And so is my faith. As much as Jesus wants to love me, and love the world through me, without my volition – without my active, intentional participation – Jesus will wait. Or, more accurately, Jesus will go on without me until I'm ready. Friends, either life with Christ is a life we want, or it isn't. We can pretend it's something less than Jesus demands, make it one of our interests like gardening and fitness and chickens. Jesus may even appear to abide our pretense. But either our lives bear the fruit of the Spirit or they don't. And if they don't, we aren't useless
creatures. But neither are we the disciples Jesus was talking to in John 15. The ones who thought themselves devoted, called, willing to go the distance as his followers. In that group, there wasn't room or time for deadweight. Jesus talks more than once of a pruning, purging and fire, always to promote greater and greater growth, more and more fruit; more grace, more justice; more joy, more peace. For lots of years I only heard
this text preached as judgment – against people who don't believe in Jesus – rather than the more plausible interpretation, which is that firewood is a natural consequence for dead branches. At least as firewood, dead branches are still useful. Is Jesus really judging or is he explaining how adult relationships work? Which is: everyone contributes; everyone
puts in. I AM the vine
is Jesus seventh and last “I AM” statement in the gospel of John. We've been over nearly all the others since Christmas, two last week. Do you remember them? I AM: The bread of life (chapter 6) I AM: The light of the world (chapter 8) I AM: The gate (chapter 10) I AM: The good shepherd (chapter 10) I AM: The resurrection and the life (chapter 11) I AM: The way, the truth and the life (chapter 14) I AM is the oldest and most important part of God's name for God's self since Moses. God's shameless, audacious, outrageous pursuit of us – like a jilted husband chasing down a cheating wife
– is the picture painted by the prophet Hosea. Chasing humanity in hope we might know how completely and forever loved we have always been, by this one who calls themself, I AM. Seven times Jesus reduces I AM to some smaller word we might understand: bread, light, gate, shepherd, vine, any one of which will do, so long as at least one of them snags one of us and we discover ourselves the beloved. Once snagged, friends, by this love that never checks a resumé, that regards us worthy of grace, dignity, kindness and respect by virtue of our being-ness, by virtue of being God's, and the more of this goodness and grace that we soak up like vines soaking up sunshine and water, the more in love with humanity we will also fall; the less able we will be to tolerate the terror and injustice inflicted by our brothers on our sisters, by our sisters on our brothers, and by the systems of this world that enrich some by exploiting others. Injustice and oppression: they ought to feel like injury or poison to the Spirit of God in us, injury that prompts change, treatment, healing: the activity of love in the world – that hard proof of God's presence, the purpose of our lives and our life together.
Every once in a while a preacher will get fussed at for being too political in the pulpit. For those days, John gave us chapter 10, Jesus straight up trash-talking the leaders of his day – religious leaders with plenty of political power. He’s outright name calling: bandits, thieves and wolves. Verses 19-20 suggest the Pharisees thought he meant them. Metaphors are fluid, of course, especially in Jesus’ stories. I expect hired hand offended them the most.
Shepherd was a biblical reference they would have chosen for themselves: like King David, benevolent caretakers of the Jewish masses. Not a few scholars believe the whole passage in verses 11-18 is a reference to wartime in Jerusalem in the early 70’s CE. When the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, Pharisees abandoned the city and their flock in droves, claimed they went to this other village to get Judaism set up again. In that scenario the Romans are the wolves.
John wrote in the 90’s, when times were tough for Christians. The same lineage of Pharisaical Jews still haunted and harassed them, trying to steal them back for their own flock, if you will. But there’s no century or continent that can’t claim the same. Church history would be a skinny book without the wolves and thieves and bandits, all disguised as shepherds, who turned out to be nothing more than hired hands, in the business of tending sheep for what they could get out of it for themselves.
This time last week I was at the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. You must go, and you must plan two days to see it. I absolutely believe that one’s receipt for visiting the MAAHC ought be one’s ticket for getting into the Holocaust Museum a few blocks away.
The history of slavery in Europe and the Americas is a history of the Church’s complicity in the theft, murder, rape, forced migration and genocide of millions of human beings. Not the passive kind of turn-a-blind-eye complicity either, but the active armed, written-down, bought-and-sold partnership-with-the-empires-of-this-world complicity. For your extra credit reading, please look up The Doctrine of Discovery of 1493.
It takes one trip to a museum to expose the great hypocrisy of my faith. I refuse to spend money at certain businesses for their social or political stances, and yet here I still am – repping for the most corrupt organization in the history of Western Civilization. On a good day, I’m 30% of the way out of church. Museum days, it’s more like 85. It is the rest of this text which pulls me back, the heart and gospel in this text. More than I am anything else, more than any other metaphor, the Pharisees are lambs. I am a lamb.
For all the ways human beings have horrified one another in the name of God, God took it like a beating. Took it like a good parent takes it every time her child is hateful to his sibling. And instead of leaving us to our deservéd destinies – the natural consequences of our hatefulness and greed – instead, God chose to save us from that destiny: eternal, unending Death.
For some community work I do, I have occasion to be in court. Last time, I was there with a kid whose life is blowing up – by no fault of her own. She’s young enough to still seem childlike but old enough to know she’s been betrayed, by the ones who were supposed to protect and keep her. The story isn’t finished. There might be redemption.
But at court that day, the judge – a tall man in a black robe behind a very high bench – looked at the child and in his huge, deep voice, as factually as it is possible for words to be spoken, he said, “No matter what happens, I promise I am not going to let anything bad happen to you." The child whispered, “Thank you." While I – though composed on the outside – I melted into a puddle of tears on the inside. It was a puddle of relief, I decided later, relief for hearing that there are helpers, the hired hands. When we are trying our best to do what is right, we are not on our own.
Because metaphors are fluid, hired hand doesn’t always have to be synonymous with thief and bandit and wolf. It might also mean disciple, the one charged with helping watch and love the sheep in a certain place and time, the one who knows full well about the gatekeeper just beyond the next hill who welcomes all – sheep, shepherds, and hired hands alike – into the everlasting safety and security of the fold.
All of which might be well and good enough, were it not for the unfinished business I mentioned at the outset: the hills of history covered with the carcasses of sheep and lambs for whom the sentence “I promise nothing bad is going to happen to you” is a string of lies.
Into certain rivers of Costa Rica there washes a kind of sand that is used to make a kind of tile that rich people use in their houses. The sand is extra fine, and technology is scarce in Costa Rica, which means it is extracted by teenage boys who dive to the river bottom with strainer buckets. They fill the buckets, swim up and hand them to men on the bank who dump them into carts attached to oxen which haul the sand to factories.
In this same region of Costa Rica, grown men and women pick cantaloupe for $2 a day. But these boys earn $20 a day diving for sand. Care to guess why? Crocodiles. Really big ones. Because, in that economy the sand is more valuable than teenage boys. Boys like Andy and Tucker, only much skinnier, with very brown skin. Crocodiles would like you all more, would think you tastier. But we would never choose tile over you. See, the “anything bad” part of “I won’t let anything bad happen to you” has to be picked apart economically and socially and racially. To be eaten by a crocodile is bad for everyone except the crocodile.
But what’s worse, it seems to me, what must be worse in the realm and heart and mind of God, is straight-faced telling a child that his life, his personhood, is worth less than a few buckets of sand, no matter if the person saying it owns the factory or lays that tile in her bathroom floor.
The divine punishment our people deserve for centuries of abuse and terror and death rained down on the black and brown people of this world is incalculable. And yet, on the last day, we too go to the gate as lambs led by the Good Shepherd who loves us like a good father loves his newborn baby, when she still smells wet and lovely, years and years before she gets big and mouthy and tells him he never did a single thing to help her get into college.
Instead of backhanding us into oblivion, this Good Shepherd takes us by the hand – or the hoof, I suppose – and walks us all the way home with Him. What would this world look like, do you suppose, friends, if we could find in ourselves the humility and the courage to believe that?
Would you pray with me?
Welcoming the incoming class on my very first day of seminary the president of our school, Dr. Roy Honeycutt, said, “Men and women, God neither requires nor expects you to put your brains in your pockets to study the Bible" – a word I had been waiting all my life to hear from someone like him. Someone in a pulpit, in a church, in a classroom.
Granted, “all my life” was not a fabulously long time at that point: 22 ½ years. I’d only been reading for about fifteen. Only been reading the Bible seriously for about nine. But still, your whole life is still your whole life, no matter your age. I could have cried with relief to hear, finally, what I hoped was true confirmed by someone Christian, Baptist, and smart – because of stories like Thomas, a story I hated all through high school and college, about which every sermon and Bible study drilled down what a second-rate disciple Thomas was: “Doubting Thomas”; don’t be like Thomas; yeah, Jesus loved him and indulged him but said, “Nobody really wants to be like you, Thomas” – when I secretly LOVED Thomas for being so straight-up true to himself; for not pretending to believe what he didn’t believe just to save face with the other disciples who clearly didn’t believe it any more than he did but were too chicken to say so out loud.
Sometimes in those college Bible studies I said as much, always timidly, usually to be told I needed to pray more. Which I usually didn’t. Usually I got quiet and stayed quiet, until I couldn’t stand it any more. And just one sentence – “God wants your brain in the room when you are reading the Bible” – and everything changes. Along comes Thomas. So what questions come to these brains of ours?
First of all, where is he? According to John all the other disciples are hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. Why isn’t Thomas there too? Has he gone out for more beer or is he gone for good? Is he at the store or is he back in Galilee, wondering why he ever got mixed up with the likes of that Nazarene in the first place? I get the sense he’s estranged from his friends, given that they have to go find him to tell him Jesus has shown up.
Second, why does Thomas get labeled as the doubter for demanding to see Jesus’ hands and sides, when the other disciples don’t get excited about Jesus either until they see those same scars (verse 20)? Nobody calls them doubters, and they need the same evidence in order to believe.
Third, why does Thomas get labeled a doubter when the Greek word here translated as doubt in verse 27 – the word apistos – is almost never translated as doubt, but rather as unbelieve? All over the New Testament apistos is unbelieve, but to translate it thus here would make the sentence awkward. “Thomas, do not unbelieve, but believe." (In fact, Spell Check doesn’t like it either, so I had to override it when typing it.) But unbelief and doubt are not the same. Thomas has already clearly stated his unbelief, by his absence and by his own confession when pressed by the other disciples. Doubt is “I’m not sure”; unbelief is “Yeah. No. I’m done.”
Which brings me to my fourth question about Thomas: why did he go back?
Seeing your friend be tortured and die violently is traumatic; it causes neurological and psychological damage that profoundly affects responses and behavior. Such trauma that is deep and wide and lasting. I know that from pastoral care and counseling studies. I can bring that knowledge to this passage.
All the disciples were traumatized. No wonder the doors are locked – that is an appropriate response to trauma! So is leaving the scene of trauma. What is not appropriate to trauma is pretending it didn’t happen. “We have seen the Lord!" the disciples say. If that means, turns out it was all just a bad dream, Thomas wants no part of it.
He’s not putting his brain or memory or heart or his pain into his pocket, not for anyone. He won’t pretend that what happened didn’t happen. Not for his friends, not for the cause, not for Jesus himself will Thomas lie about what he knows to be the terrible, horrible, heart-stopping traumatic truth of the last two weeks.
It was the church since then who took his self-protecting unbelief and dialed it down to doubt. Because it’s what we do. The pain and trauma we are trying to avoid is impossible to ignore if Thomas refuses to ignore his. Therefore, the interpretation becomes “Don’t be like Thomas.” Scholar Mary Hinkle Shore writes that Thomas won’t be shamed into believing nor shamed into keeping his unbelief to himself. Neither will he ignore what he knows, to believe something he does not know.
In thirty years of ministry, I’ve known a thousand Thomases – ones who have walked away unwilling to ignore what they know, to believe something they don’t. They aren’t doubters. Doubters are believers more days than not. They are the folks expected not to see what they have seen; not to feel what they have felt; not to ask the questions pulling at their minds; to call it something less than evil or obscene; to pretend it didn’t happen or that it didn’t hurt, that it really wasn’t all that bad. People to whom it’s been suggested that if they’d just prayed more or believed better or not read so many books or asked so many questions, faith wouldn’t have been such a struggle for them.
I’ve known a thousand Thomases. And hardly a handful who have come back. So why did he, our Thomas of the Bible, go back? I’ve three possible explanations, none exclusive of the others. One, his friends went and found him. Having met the Risen Christ, they do what people do: they tell. They find their friends and tell their friends and share this news because it cannot be kept secret – the same way we have to tell people we have a new puppy at our house. It’s just too much good news to keep to ourselves. There is something wrong with other people not knowing, especially our friends who are hurting, like they knew Thomas hurt.
Secondly, maybe Thomas went back because part of him was still there anyway. He was AWOL, bodily away from where his heart and mind still were. When couples get divorced, it’s rarely all at once. They can be emotionally divorced long before papers are signed. They can also be legally divorced and never emotionally separated at all. At least in my experience, faith can be aggravating in that the very thing that makes me want to pull away also draws me back: the unknowableness of God.
In John 6, a whole gaggle of Jesus’ disciples left him and Jesus asked the twelve, don’t you want to go with them? And Peter says, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life" – which is not exactly NO, is it? But rather, we would go, but there’s nowhere else to go. Like when I don’t want to drink water – but I will drink water, if water is all there is. If eternal life is what we are after, Jesus is all there is.
What Peter doesn’t say in chapter 6, but is plainly in the mix of being a follower of Jesus, is: Yeah, we’re staying. Which isn’t to say some of your sayings aren’t completely incomprehensible while others are downright crazy. But all the same, we’re staying but by nothing else on this earth will we ever be better off. Only you have the words of eternal life.
Of course, I’ve no idea why Thomas went back. I only know that when Jesus shows up a week later, Thomas is there too. Jesus goes to him, walks right up to all Thomas’ trauma and unbelief, raises up his shirt, opens up his hands and offers Thomas exactly what Thomas needs to trade in that trauma for faith in the God who keeps his promises to those with the community and the courage to give this life another look, another listen, another piece of our hearts and minds.
Would you pray with me?