The Difference Is Joy
During our prayers this week at Thursday Bible Chat, someone used the phrase, “your blessings we now reach for, O God.” And my own heart said, “Yes. That is exactly right.” We have taken too much for granted. Some blessings must be reached for. And the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that maybe the reaching is itself the blessing. The expectation, the confidence, the faith that Easter is right here, right now – for everyone who reaches for it. For example, from where I sit this minute, here on my own back porch, Easter is practically shouting at me.
See those trees out there – mostly sticks and branches. But out on the ridge near the junkyard, the leaves are greening up and the redbuds are coming on. In another month those woods will fold completely into shade, the best green screen ever. This dead vine next to my head will be a veil of purple flowers. Here on the deck the thyme, oregano and mint have come back already. Out in the yard, the tulips are open, and the weeping cherry tree has bloomed. And thanks to Nick Delong, God love him, my garden bed is all snuggled down under four inches of last year’s chicken poop. In eight weeks, bean and cucumber vines will be climbing all over this wire.
All of this was dead as winter just a month ago. And now the whole earth is exploding with life – preaching Easter all by itself, to anyone with eyes to see. Preaching Easter’s easy on days as beautiful as this. But not every day is. Some are dark. Some are scary. And sometimes we need help knowing what to believe about whom to listen to, to understand what we see and hear in a world so full of voices.
Would you pray with me? I pray you, good Jesus, that as You have given me the grace to drink in with joy the Word that gives knowledge of You, so in Your goodness You will grant me to come at length to Yourself, the source of all wisdom, to stand before Your face for ever. (The Prayer of St. Bede the Venerable)
In Matthew 28, the whole world witnesses the resurrection of Jesus via this audience of guards and women disciples. All of them are afraid. In their own ways, each of them is obedient. Some believe one thing. Others another. The difference is joy. They have assembled outside Jesus’ tomb like a crowd waiting to get into a theater. Suddenly an earthquake strikes. An angel descends and proceeds to move a stone the size of an SUV. All were frightened. Half were scared to death before the angel started talking. “Don’t be afraid! I know you are looking for Jesus, who was nailed to a cross. He isn’t here! God has raised him to life, just as Jesus said he would. Come, see the place where his body was lying.”
Matthew’s gospel now divides into parallel stories as the women run for Galilee, and the guards walk back into Jerusalem. Both end up standing before their respective authorities to be told what happens next. The guards tell them everything – earthquakes and angels, don’t you know? I like imagining the chief priests responding, “Seriously? You had one job!” The Risen Christ says to the women, “Greetings!”
All are still terrified. This time, half fall to the ground in joy. The others are not merely paralyzed but now compromised as well. “What you saw and heard is what we pay you to see and hear. Do you understand? The story we tell you is the story you will tell, if you want to get along in this world.” While the Risen Christ said, “Greetings!”
The one whom they saw die is now alive and speaking the same sentence they’d heard him say a hundred times before: “Do not be afraid.” Look how he doesn’t qualify their senses, how he never suggests they saw or heard more or less than what they knew was true. “Greetings,” said the Risen Christ. “Go and fetch my brothers. I want to see them too.”
A month ago our world shifted, and we shifted with it. Now we are shifting again. What was novel just two weeks ago is becoming strangely normal now. It’s like Toni Morrison wrote in The Color Purple: “Folks can get used to anything.”
Know what I wonder? I wonder, when Jesus met up with his brothers and sisters in Galilee, what they all expected from him? If they thought they’d go back to life the same way it had been before, before that terrible week in Jerusalem? I wonder what the conversations were like as he explained how everything was different, now that Easter was in place.
I expect that it was hard, figuring out what was the same and what was different. “Do not be afraid.” That was the same, of course. But it made everything different. Then. And now. Just like those first brothers and sisters, we have to decide again and again, in whatever normal each new day brings, who shall be our authority on the matters of our faith, on what we shall believe, on how we will live these lives of ours, in quarantine and in spirit.
Will it be the powers whose only use for us is keeping the power they already have, who have shown no willingness to spare that power for the weakest brothers and sisters among us? Or will it be the God who walked ahead of us into that realm that terrifies us most, who fought on our behalf the fight we could not win, not with a thousand lifetimes of courage on our side? Will it be the powers who fear nothing so much as they fear the loss of their own power, who would keep the rest of us paralyzed and compromised by stories we know are lies meant to preserve the Empire no matter how much suffering and death it costs? Will it be the God who has been trustworthy time and time again:
And Easter showed up again. Not someplace ancient and far away, but in your very own life, the same way it shows up every April in your own front yard. The whole world showed up at Jesus’ empty tomb – all of them afraid at first, some more afraid than others. All of them let others tell them what they’d seen and heard. In the end, the difference was joy! Would you pray with me?
Your King Has Come
I looked back in my journal this morning to see when I first made note of the pandemic. Interestingly, the first time I wrote about it was on February 26th – Ash Wednesday actually. I wrote, “This morning I’ve been reading about a flu epidemic about to become a pandemic. Coronavirus, it’s called. China is the origin but it has spread to Korea and Europe. Apparently it’s in the US too – 57 cases in California – but it’s only from a cruise ship that started in Japan. And apparently kids can’t get it – something to be grateful for.”
I didn’t write about it again for nine days. “Ten Americans have now died from the virus. The government says it’s contained; but I wondered, how can it be contained if people don’t know if they have it?”
Two more days went by. Then every day, every entry since then, I wrote updates on the changes the coronavirus has brought to every corner of my life, our lives. Changes like: me standing on my back porch preaching to my cell phone, you listening while you cook or eat or pet your dog. Everything is weird. We just have to keep remembering that weird isn’t bad. Weird is just weird. It might even be good.
Don’t you imagine, friends, as we head into the holiest season of the year, that God is much more interested in HOW we sit with the reality of these days? That we adjust the faith inside us to the reality in which we find ourselves, rather than complain about it or be paralyzed by it?
In our text today Jesus has arrived at the place to which he turned his face weeks ago. In reality, Jesus has been heading to Jerusalem since he first toddled across the floor in Bethlehem, since he stepped into the Jordan River for John to baptize him. His advance upon that city is why he did not heal and feed every human being he met on the way, why he didn’t correct every nickel-and-dime injustice that crossed his path, and it’s why he told his disciples that they would in their time do greater things than even he had done. Because all he ever truly came to do is the thing he’s going to do when he crosses through that gate, arrives inside the city wall, and slides off that donkey and walks away toward the fate that saves us all.
Let’s pray: Your kindness to us, O God, is immeasurable. Never more so than in your Passion – your willingness to exert your power over death, so that we may now never be afraid of death in any of its forms. Not loss, not danger, not threat of nature nor humanity may take away the hope and the future we have in you. You are with us. In life and in death. In sickness and in health. This day. Every day. No. Matter. What. Amen.
Do you recognize this clip? We talked about it a bit in Thursday Bible Chat. It’s the liberation of Paris in August of 1945. And it’s one of the prettier bits of liberation video from that time. The people were thrilled to see those American and British soldiers coming. Other parts of the video contain lots of kissing between strangers.
I also watched footage of the Germans entering Paris in 1940. The streets were full then too, as tens of thousands of troops rolled and marched by. But nobody cheered, and there was no kissing. And I show this clip to bring to mind the fact that Jesus didn’t just happen to ride a donkey into Jerusalem that day. He did what kings and generals have done since war was invented. They ride into their conquered cities where the people welcome them with cheers or with fealty.
The difference here being that Jesus takes the ride before he fights the battle. He hasn’t defeated Rome and he hasn’t liberated anybody, save a cripple here and there. There is a cheering crowd. And there’s a cohort of crooked Jewish leaders. But, as we can see in verses 10-11, most folks just wondered what was going on: When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”
We have to be careful friends, not to treat Palm Sunday like the opening act for a better band called “Easter.” Something amazing and resurrection-like is happening right here. There is a terrible battle to be fought and much suffering to be endured between now and next Sunday. But Jesus is living like he’s already won the war. Because, see, once he accomplishes his purpose – the defeat of death and the defeat of the fear of death – the purpose is accomplished for all of time, backward and forward, before and after the day he accomplished it.
And faith for us consists of imitating him as best we can – like the day he rode that borrowed donkey into town. The worst had not yet happened and yet he lived like it was finished. Friends, that feels like such an important word these days. I am bound to believe that the worst of this pandemic has not happened yet. We have harder days to live through. There are battles yet to fight and suffering yet to be endured. Some of those battles are spiritual – namely, the battle against fear, which drives us to be more judicious than generous, to be more critical than kind, to feel more helpless than hopeful.
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the people who thought they knew who he was called him a prophet from Nazareth. They weren’t wrong. But they weren’t even close to right. He hardly looked like more than a peasant on a donkey when, in fact, he was the Savior – the Savior! – of the universe. Not just for them – those people in that slice of reality 2,000-some years ago – but for everyone who ever was. And for everyone who ever will be. And you. And me. And every-one going through the weirdness of these days now.
I can say it. I write a hundred sermons trying to find the best way to say it. But at the end of all those sermons, it’s no less strange a thing to say. The savior of the universe became a man to defeat death itself, so I don’t ever have to be afraid of anything. And we don’t have to under-stand it to live like it is true. We only have to trust the God who made it true, the God who made us, who has sustained us so far. And the God who will carry us through, whatever the future holds. Amen? Amen.
Let’s pray: For your never-ending, never-wavering love for us, O God, make us grateful. For the living of these days, make us patient. Make us hopeful and make us generous, we pray. Amen.
It's Always an Inside Job
“You have heard it said ‘do not commit murder’; but I say to you, if you have been angry with your brother, you’ve already committed murder in your heart.” Just when we were feeling all good about ourselves for not killing anybody this week!
One way to think about this text is as Jesus’ remake of Moses on the mountain, not taking the Law away or replacing it, but restating it for a modern age in which the people of God find themselves once more living under a kind of Pharaoh – an emperor who believed there was no limit to his power. An empire that could squish their people like a hill of ants, if it chose to – and did, in fact, not long before Matthew wrote his gospel. This Law, Jesus promised them in his remake called the Sermon on the Mount, will sustain your generation too, so long as you understand its purpose.
The world will not conform to your expectations just because you kept these rules perfectly. The Law is NOT a set of rules by which you shall win some game. The Law is a set of values by which you shape your life together in this kingdom I come to establish among you. A life in which each person is in-cal-cue-laa-blee precious to the God who created them. You are as precious as the next human being. The next human being is as precious as you yourself.
No set of values could be more opposite to the values of this world. Great is the temptation to tone down the original meaning of the Law, because difficult is this way of life. The four exam-ples in our text today are proof positive of that temptation. The “antitheses” they’re called. Six times in chapter 5, Jesus repeats, “You have heard, blah, blah, blah, but I say to you, blah, blah, blah.”
“You have heard it said, ‘do not commit murder,’ but I say to you, ‘if you have been angry with your brother you’ve already committed murder in your heart.’” Jesus isn’t letting us off the hook for a second. Turns out, NOT killing anyone is too low a bar for the people of God. Jesus expects us to get right with him and with each other from the inside out.
Why? Because, that’s the way it all works anyway. As Ann Lamott says, it’s always an inside job. What goes on in here (head) and in here (heart) – this is ground zero for everything that goes on out here between human beings. There are two dozen psycho-social explanations for why it works that way, most of which come down to whether we got to the age of three believing the world was a safe and trustworthy place or not. For our purposes here, and when Jesus delivers the Law that will govern life in the kingdom he’s come to establish, ground zero is the human head and heart where he begins.
I want us to pray, then consider each of the four low bars Jesus mentions in our text – the low bars of murder, adultery, divorce and oaths – versus the high bars of anger, lust, justice and simplicity.
First, a prayer: Father, Mother, Friend of ours, to you we pray, wishing everything didn’t have to be difficult and knowing mostly it’s us who make it so. We want our way and we want our way to please you. People annoy us so, O God. It’s hard not to wish they wouldn’t. To change our own ways instead, especially our ways of thinking and talking to ourselves, as if no one else can hear us. You hear us. We hear ourselves. We talk ourselves into worse ways of behaving. May your word speak louder than the sound of our condescension, toward ourselves, toward each other, toward people we don’t even know. May your affection for us and your grace on our behalf soften and sweeten our thoughts, O God. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
I call it a low bar, but there are some days when not killing people is easier than other days. I’ve not been angry enough to kill someone. I have been angry enough to see how a person could be angry enough to kill someone.
That’s the anger Jesus is talking about. Anger that has you cursing someone, calling them a fool, damning them to hell, wishing them dead. Or the kind of anger that kills them over and over, in one’s heart and mind. The kind of anger that is delicious to take out and page through, reliving the hate rather than healing from the hurt. The hate feels powerful, while the hurt just hurts. The problem, of course, is that hating doesn’t heal. It’s like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. I can’t remember where I read that – Frederick Buechner, maybe.
Anger kills the angry person, slowly. The angry person is the one being dehumanized first. Hear in Jesus’ teaching the invitation to choose. Know in him the power to choose, to give up anger as your antidote to the hurt. Instead of what someone else has done to you, use your heart and head to focus on what God has done for you. It sounds exactly like something a preacher would say. I would love to be more clever than that. But it’s the gospel as I know it. We have the choice to let go of what others have done to us and cling to what God has done for us.
To trade our anger for gratitude is an inside job, friends, that only takes a lifetime to accomplish. Lucky for us we have all the time in the world. When I teach the Ten Commandments to kids, Number Six is “Don’t steal someone else’s wife or husband.” Setting an ever higher bar than that, Jesus said, “Don’t even steal them in your heart and mind. Don’t mentally take them home and do with them as you please, as if they belong to you heart, mind and soul. Don’t mentally dismember them, removing all things that make them human: a brain, a spirit, a personality, a voice – keeping only the parts that make you tingle.”
Don’t miss Jesus taking up for women here. His first hearers surely didn’t, not in this teaching or the one about divorce. Suggesting that men control themselves, even in their thoughts! Jesus had women disciples. I wonder what he heard being whispered about them. I wonder if he encouraged those women to be patient or be themselves.
I once sat in seminary preaching class while pregnant, listening to men students discuss whether it was appropriate for women to preach while pregnant. Their anxiety about the presence of sex in the pulpit was so transparent, I hardly kept from laughing. And too shy to speak for myself, the only woman in the class that day, I was also angry that that professor said nothing. I’m the mom of girls who would have the lot of them for lunch now.
Lust is injurious, friends. It is one point on the continuum of sexual exploitation that does real harm to both victim and offender. Both are dehumanized. One has taken what does not belong to them; one has lost what they did not consent to give. And rather than bearing witness to the divine worthiness and fundamental equality of human beings, the ancient gender inequality of this world is perpetuated.
In India I was invited to speak to young graduate students, mostly men, about gender inequality. They asked me why I thought it persisted in the 21st century. I asked them why the only students serving tea in our class were women, no men? I asked how many of them thought it was safe for their sisters or girlfriends to walk home from a bar late at night? I asked if any of them felt unsafe walking alone or in pairs anywhere in their town at any time of day or night? Or felt anxious entering their empty apartments alone? I told them the same is true everywhere in the U.S., except for the tea. We drink coffee, and lots of men serve coffee. But women are less safe than men. And until that is not true, gender inequality persists.
Lust, as Jesus described it, is the mental possession, the mental objectification of women, that denies their full humanity and makes them less than equally human in this world. The church has struggled to know what to do with Jesus’ teaching on divorce. The result has been that divorced people didn’t find much grace at church for a long time. Can you guess what changed? More and more church people got divorced, for one thing. Then clergy people started getting divorced. It’s a lot easier to judge other people’s marriages than it is to admit how difficult marriage is.
Moses made it possible for husbands to divorce their wives. Get a witness and give her a certificate. The idea being, he didn’t get to just disappear. Again, Jesus keeps the Law but raises that bar. Insists that those who love the Lord can do better than a witness and a piece of paper. A witness and that piece of paper were useless to her at the grocery store. Marriage is really, really, really complicated. I hear Jesus instructing married people to recognize and respect that. And injustice isn’t Christ-like, even when it’s legal. As Peterson says it, you don’t get to use a legal maneuver to cover a moral failure. Divorce is sometimes ugly. It is always grievous. Justice remains the bar.
Simplicity. It took me an absurdly long time to realize that’s the word I wanted. Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said, ‘do not swear falsely.’ But I say to you, ‘don’t swear. Period. Say what you’ll do and do what you say.’” Peterson says, “forget the religious lace.” I love that. The low bar is, don’t lie – which is easy enough for most people. The high bar, though: don’t overpromise. The inside job is telling ourselves the truth. Telling ourselves the truth about what we can do and what we can’t, because we are extremely susceptible to the worldly message that a good person is a busy, overcommitted, exhausted person.
One of the world’s favorite conversations is, “Who is the busiest?” And so, we end up trapped by the mistake of making promises we intend to keep, before doing the inside work of discerning what promises we can keep. And that, friends, is lying. The lying Jesus is talking about? Sure. This and more, no doubt.
Hoping other people will think each of us to be as good or faithful a person as we mean to be, instead of the weak and flailing person we fear we are, we end up lying – to ourselves and to others. The lie itself was created in the world somewhere, by some time management system that wanted to sell us the perfect planner, and we got hooked because we already felt so overwhelmed. But we baptized it and made it our own – but it’s still no less a lie – and de-humanized ourselves by believing we could be more than a single human being. At least that is what I learned about myself.
Add up the hours it would truly take to do everything on your to-do list. Subtract eight hours for sleeping. Then do the simple math. Can that to-do list be finished in the time available? If not, from what other human life are you borrowing that time? Also, believing you thrive on less than seven hours’ sleep a night is another lie you tell yourself. It is hard to hear that our good intention and overpromising are often a form of lying. But once I named it, it was much easier to quit. As usual, Jesus’ corrective is grace. And, as usual, even grace is an inside job. Give yourself the room to name what you truly can and cannot do. It may be less of some things you are doing now and more of what you’d rather do. But tell yourself the truth first. Then do and don’t accordingly. Therein faithfulness is found. And the kingdom finds its most peaceful place.
I suppose it comes down to this: in every sentence of the Law we find an opportunity to be more or less truly human, more or less liberated, more or less fit for kingdom service. If we choose the lesser, everyone is going to suffer: me, others, the kingdom too. Every time someone is de-humanized, space is made for violence and abuse, and the tolerance of that abuse. Anyone we consider less human than ourselves is someone whose mistreatment we might bear. I could never kill a puppy; they have feelings just like me. But I’ve killed a million flies, just because they bother me. A mouse got in my car not long ago. He or she is dead now. Regrettable. But not as regrettable as having a mouse living in my car.
Brown children in cages hurts us. But our own children in cages we would not tolerate for a single day. This is a terribly hard thing to know about ourselves. We dehumanize other people. We do it all the time. Otherwise, our hearts would shatter into a million pieces and we’d never get anything done. Maybe that’s it then. Maybe we’re not supposed to get anything done, until all the human beings are finally free to be fully human. Maybe that’s the point of everything, including the Law Jesus re-gives God’s people here in Matthew and the inside job he seems so bent on.
God give us the courage and the grace to do as he commands. Would you pray with me?