The Trouble with Conversion
It is wonderful to be back. Many thanks to Deborah for filling the pulpit while I was away, listening to lots of preachers preach about preaching as moral imagination. Which “sap to syrup” boils down to telling the truth in a culture that no longer even pretends to value the truth. The gospel truth is what we tell: Jesus lived and died and rose, once and for all people – God's act in Jesus Christ, making plain what had always been true. Not politically true, but cosmically, divinely true: all persons are equal before God.
We know it and believe we believe it. However, we eat and sleep and breathe and read and think and work and walk around in a culture hell-bent to convince us otherwise. And by “us” I mean white Christian people. We aren’t much in touch with our own prejudices, keeping them fairly neatly tucked away, mostly from ourselves. Every time Paul writes in Romans first to the Jews and then the Gentiles, remember we're the Jews – the ones convinced that we are more right than whoever we think isn’t right; and very often, it is our faith or our theology telling us we are right.
Just to open ourselves up a little more to the book of Romans, I want us to do a little meditation exercise. Ask yourselves – just to yourselves in your own hearts and minds – “who are the people I find most difficult to approach joyfully? gladly? From whom would I least like to hear opinions? With whom would I find it really challenging to plan a worship service? lead a Bible study? Who would I very much not like to go to church with? to sit next to in this worship service? to share table with on Wednesday night?”
It might be someone specific – a personality that annoys you. It might be a people group – their moral choices are hard for you. Maybe it's their politics – but you do best when you can be apart from them. These are prejudices, friends – regard for other human beings on the basis of something other than their humanity.
One of the privileges of the dominant group in any culture is that our prejudices don’t sound like prejudices. They sound like shared values. We may not believe some Nazis are good people or that black people aren't mistreated. But we do abide some degree of white supremacy, don't we? We abide the safety and the freedom and the opportunity white supremacy affords us. We abide the privilege that white supremacy affords our children. Privilege that will muzzle the gospel of Jesus Christ sometimes. Or distort it to our advantage, even.
Interestingly, however, no one I heard at the Festival of Homiletics preached from Paul. Interesting in that it was moral imagination that drove his preaching. A devout Jew who met the Risen Christ and realized the “truth” about God he'd always known – wasn't. And you know what that is called? That's called conversion. Trading of what we in good faith believed to be true for what we learn is true, when new information and experience shows our hearts and minds so. And then changing our lives accordingly.
But – there is much trouble with conversion. It doesn't stay put. Jesus is alive. And we are ignorant. And fearful. And we learn slowly.
This is as good a place as any to stop and pray: That we might find our heart and lives' true home in you, O God, so that the truth spills from us without hesitation; that we might pray to know the truth and live like people who have prayed that prayer, with nothing to fear, nothing to protect, we pray now. Amen.
So, Romans. The book is called Romans because it a letter written to the church at Rome. The next book is 1 and 2 Corinthians, called that because it is a letter written to the church at Corinth. Why is Romans before Corinthians? It's longer. Why is Corinthians before Galatians? It's longer. Paul wrote Romans from the city of Corinth, around 58 C.E. He had never visited the church in Rome. Church history has no record of how a church came to be there.
The first seventeen verses of chapter one are the abstract of Paul's letter. He introduces himself as he wants to be known. He outlines his topics. He makes every effort to connect with them personally. Verse 1: Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God. Most English translations say “servant.” “Slave” is better. “Bondsman” or “bondservant” is best. Except “bondsman” means something different in English. A bondservant was an indentured slave who had paid their debt and was free, but instead of setting off on their own, asked to remain with the master – to trade obedience and labor for the master's care and protection, thus binding themselves to the master for a lifetime. Today we call this student debt.
As a sign of the bond, they went to a priest, who stood the bondservant against a doorway and drilled an awl through the earlobe of the freed person, marking them as a bondservant. I am a bondservant of Jesus Christ, Paul says. I was free; now I belong entirely to him, called to be an apostle – his apostleship is a sore spot between Paul and the other apostles, to which we will get in later weeks – set apart for the gospel of God. The rest of verses 2, 3 and 4 are a brief summary of the gospel. But this word for the “set apart” phrase is what interests me most here. The Greek word is aphorizo, most literally “off horizon.”
Who is off horizon? Someone on a different planet – right? – who sees the world from an entirely different perspective. People who look and see what everyone cannot. Having met the Risen Christ, Paul sees what he could not see before. Which links directly to verse three. Listen to me – this is so important in Romans. The things Paul could suddenly see that he couldn't see were two things, the two themes of this letter noted here in verses 3-5: the equality of Jews and Gentiles before God in Christ Jesus. Technically “every Jew and Gentile” counts as every human being, right?
He could see the equality of all people before God in Christ Jesus. But he could also see – this is verse 3 – listen – listen – listen, that this equality before God was NOT NEW in Christ Jesus. Not for those who had been reading the prophets. Not for those who called Abraham their father. Not for Jews like himself. For them, the equality of all people before God had always been true. Verse 3 goes like this: the gospel which God promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures. I do wonder which truth blew Paul's socks off more? They are really one and the same. But it was only for one he was beaten and stoned and thrown into jail most times. Telling them they were wrong is what drove his Jewish brothers to violence.
Can you imagine the audacity of suggesting that a 2,000-year-old faith system might have missed something? Something critical? That such a religion, even in good faith, might actually have maintained theology and practice that were racist? Or sexist? Or nationalistic? Exclusionary? And then used the holy scriptures as defense of such practice and theology? (This is supposed to make you laugh, in that grimacing kind of way.)
In verses 5-6, Paul describes his ministry intention for coming to visit them: to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6 including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To preach the gospel to the Gentiles and to you. They can't say he didn't warn them. It will be a protracted argument throughout the letter, no doubt written not only for the believers in Rome but for those across all the churches he has preached.
Romans – the scripture Paul didn't have, setting forth the gospel of God revealed to him by the Holy Spirit; received and sifted through his imagination and his years of obedience to it; heard and received in some places more warmly than others; heavily doctored in some places more than others. If only he'd had some scripture to point to and say, see, it says right here.
What he did have was a Holy-Spirit-driven hunch that made him brave and made other people think he was nuts – the Holy-Spirit-driven hunch that drove him back and forth across the Mediterranean, leaving Asia Minor and Greece speckled with churches. The same Holy-Spirit-driven hunch drove him to compose most of the New Testament.
Yet another 2000 years has gone by now, and I suspect most folks outside the church would scoff if we told them basic human equality is the very subtext of the New Testament. What do you suppose folks who consider themselves “churched” might say? Out loud I suspect they'd say, “Of course. Anyone can be a Christian.” Not untrue. Nor what Paul hoped we'd learn, it seems to me. Jew and Gentile are ethnicities, friends. Consider your list of prejudices. I suspect they are NOT fixed, in that those people could be more like you wish they were if they tried.
All these traits are traits, fixed or fluid, mixed, chosen or assigned: sexuality; the amount of melanin in one's pigment; being a dork, as we've talked about before. These things are accessories. They carry no weight in our relationship with God. Only humanness itself has matter. If we could only imagine such a way of faith, such a way of life. Yet, we are blind. We are blind to our blindness.
In his book Falling Upward, Richard Rohr writes, “Nothing can be called sacred that does not include everyone.” I had to put the book down and breathe for a minute when I read that. And try to remember anything I'd ever attended in a church that, by his definition, could be called sacred. I got a little sad and decided Richard Rohr had to be wrong. Then I remembered Richard Rohr is never wrong, and I got a little more sad because I couldn’t remember anything.
So – what is sacred, then? Nature is the most sacred experience, I decided. Nature doesn't care if a person is rich or kind or pretty or cheerful. The sun will shine and birds will sing for anyone. And golden retrievers – they don't care who pets them. They'll go home with anyone who even looks their way and has a couch. The fact is, friends, church has missed some really important truth. It's hard to know. And absolutely necessary, if we hope to be found faithful. And we do, don't we? Don't we?
We aren't just playing here, are we? More than ever, friends, I believe the only hope this world has is the righteousness of God woven into the fiber of creation. The other translation for righteousness is – what? Justice. The rightness of God and the justice of God are the same thing. Nature knows. Left to herself, nature functions rightly. Humans? We could. We can, if we ever choose to function as we were meant to, as Paul describes in verses 16-17, the end of the beginning of his letter to the church at Rome – and to us, of course. 16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.”
Would you pray with me?
Welcome to Paul
A couple of weeks ago, Rob made a comment about me not liking Paul, and I protested and Rob kind of rolled his eyes. It's one of those things I don't want to be true, so I don't like it being pointed out by others.
I want to like Paul, because I fundamentally agree with him. I agree with him about the urgency of the Christian gospel for the salvation of humankind. Not in some theoretical, theological explanation of God, but in the universe-bending reality of Jesus’ resurrection: the annihilation of death's power over life and the subsequent loss of power we have over one another.
We may take each other’s breath, but no one and nothing may separate us from God. A world full of people who know that, Paul said, will be a new creation. It’s Paul’s ways and means that give me so much trouble – and the way so much of the really mean-spirited, localized things he said got printed in the same size font as his fundamental explanation of the gospel. That’s what makes him so difficult to like. His bedside manner, we’d say if he were a surgeon.
Along with all my own issues with ministers, he drives me nuts for the same reason so many do – how he takes himself so seriously, for one. A few years ago a new minister arrived here on the east side of town. The day he moved into his office his church had a roof leak, and rain water poured through his office ceiling, all over the boxes that had been delivered. I thought it would be hilarious to take him over an IU golf umbrella as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood gift, you know, the very first time I met him. He did not find it hilarious at all. He only stayed a few years. We never really connected. Tom just didn't get me.
Paul wouldn't have gotten me either. He'd have had no interest in getting me. Paul had no interests apart from preaching the gospel. He had no family, no hobbies, no particular place that he called home. (He does – weirdly – have a Facebook page, maintained by a guy named Seth, no doubt a seminary student who takes himself very seriously.)
Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek; blessed are the pure in heart; blessed are the merciful; blessed are the peacemakers. Not Paul. Paul was loud, overbearing, and argumentative. He was prone to violence before his conversion and not averse to it after. Dialogue and compromise were not his go-to solutions. He was way more likely to ask forgiveness than permission. He was not big on second chances for people who screwed up. He had nothing to lose and heaven to gain, as he said more than once, which made him either crazy brave or stupidly reckless. Or both.
His authoritarian personality was aimed at a single target: the total reconciliation of humanity with God, achieved in the event of Jesus Christ. Which left him no time or patience for anyone who imagined the gospel had to do with less, be they his enemies or his beloved churches.
Let's pray: Help us be like Paul where and when being like him furthers your purposes, O God. May the urgency with which he shared the gospel infect your church today. Amen.
Do keep in mind that Paul is the same person after his conversion that he was before. A high-born, well-educated Jew, a religious leader with power in the Temple system. Before the Risen Christ got hold of him (Acts 9), Paul was profoundly sure that the Christ-followers within Judaism were a threat so urgent and insidious to the faith, he personally sought and delivered their death warrants. Jesus decided, “Hey, I want that guy on my side.” So he struck him blind and terrified and sent him to stay with some Christ-followers until he decided what to do with him.
Significant time passes between chapters 9 and 13. Paul goes to Jerusalem to join up with the original disciples – Peter and his bunch. He's genuinely surprised they aren't excited to include him. If there is one distraction to Paul's ministry, it's this – his relationships with the other apostles.
Eventually they do work together, but the originals never truly accept him as a brother. There's always this tension. Grudges, miscommunications. He brags in a way that is so annoying – and yet sort of sad, embarrassing almost: Paul making his own case for how he's as good as them.
He reminds me of a high school kid we knew when our kids were young. Carl and I worked the band booster tent at high school football games years ago. One night, right by our tent a boy picked a fight with a smaller boy – and lost. Carl broke them up, but the bigger kid's nose was already smashed in, blood everywhere. I took him by the arm and brought him to the tent. He was angry, crying (like high school boys do, you know – angry that they are crying), and yelling at me, “I'm fine. It doesn't even hurt!” Just spitting blood with every word. I know it, I told him, just let me see if your teeth are okay. I cleaned him up a little so he could go to the parking lot and finish the fight.
Paul doesn’t annoy me nearly as much as he did when I was a baby minister, before I saw enough of how the world is – how hurting people imagine no one will notice how much they’re hurting if they sound loud or tough or smart enough. I think a good therapist could have really helped Paul find some peace and stability, maybe even some real friendships.
The book of Romans is dense writing from near the end of Paul's ministry, as close as anything the Bible has to Christian theology. The seeds of that theology are right here – decades earlier – in the 14th chapter of Acts. Mimicking Jesus’ marching orders in Matthew 10, church leaders send disciples out in pairs to various regions to preach, teach, and heal. Barnabas gets paired with Paul. (I'd love to know how that happened.)
Nevertheless, they go, using the same general plan Paul will follow for the rest of his career. Arrive in a city and locate the gathering place where people worship: synagogues in Jewish towns; temples or academies in Greek places. I tried to imagine where Paul would go now, in Western societies. Where do thinking, worshipping, unchurched people gather? Cyberspace, eh? Maybe Paul would be in his room in front of his laptop camera. His own YouTube channel? Paul and Barnabas arrive in Lystra, having just been chased out of Iconium by some offended Jews.
Two details matter here. The huge one to be addressed as we move through Romans – for lack of a better title: Anti-Semitism, the New Testament church history. Second: what happened in Iconium. They had preached in a synagogue there, and a bunch of people believed their message about Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles. But some of the Jews who did not were offended. Offended the message was offered to Gentiles too, as if they were equally entitled to it. A message they themselves did not want, yet were convinced that it ought not be available to their Gentile neighbor. So convinced, they are willing to commit violence to block their neighbor’s access to it.
Paul and Barnabas make a run for it to this town Lystra, where they plan to do the same thing again. It's not clear if they are in a synagogue or not, but among the listeners are followers of the Greek gods. Paul is preaching along when he notices a man who, he can tell, has the faith to be healed. I've no idea what that means but I think it's amazing.
The guy is triple crippled, Luke says: lame, born that way, had never walked. Luke wants us to really believe this is a miracle. Paul tells him to stand. He stands. He jumps. He walks. Triple healed. And the crowd goes wild! Hermes and Zeus have come down in human form to their very own village. They rush to pay proper homage. A priest is fetched. And bulls, for the sacrifice that must be made – right now. Can you imagine the party they are about to throw?
The text goes by fast, so it's easy to miss what doesn't happen, what would so easily happen had any other preachers been there. Remember the sons of Zebedee? (Mark 10) They asked to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he came into their kingdom. They'd have probably bickered about who got to be Zeus. Think if Paul and Barnabas had said Yes. Think of the leverage such a position would have allowed, the platform and protection for their preaching and their ministry. I can imagine lots of ministers seeing that offer differently than Paul and Barnabas did.
Paul protests immediately, “We are mortals just like you.” And he circles back, preaching his way to the one story he came to tell. He might have made some headway even. It's easy to think so, if we stop reading here. But the text has no break. Those same Jews from Iconium who were chasing them catch up. And they get their say with the crowd. And because folks are fickle, then and now, they win them over.
This time we don't get details, only that the crowd picked up rocks and stoned Paul and Barnabas until they believed they'd killed them. Because they could, same as folks still do everywhere, every day – kill the folks who suggest that everyone deserves to have what by all rights only belongs to some. Maybe not with literal stones.
There are folks in supposedly free countries right now casting votes to take away people's rights. Because they wear suits and speak English and don't throw actual rocks doesn't make it different. Folks are just as dead because of an embedded kind of prejudice that exists at so deep a level within our hearts and our human culture that we have no words nor name for it. So deep and urgent is our need to keep that injustice dormant within and among us, there is little we won't do to drown the mention of it out loud.
You know why Paul was so irritating? Not because he said something so outrageous, so false, so wrong. He said what everyone knew and feared and couldn't bear to face. This world as it is cannot stand in light of the love of God, the love of God for God's creation.
The way human beings regard each other is something other than the very fiber of creation. It may be who we are, but not who we were created or are destined to be. We are God's. And God is making all things right, from the greatest to the least.
The living Christ got hold of Paul and he could not go back to not knowing. And nothing anyone said or did bothered him enough to try. That people know, was all that mattered to him. And so he found his place. I look forward to reading him with you.
Let's pray together.
Today we are looking in Matthew 9, laying it side by side with Matthew 28, which may have been Jesus’ last word to his disciples – but not his only word – concerning the ministry to which he has called them.
Every sermon Jesus preaches is like a pizza we're all sharing. We take up our slices and spend the first ten minutes (or 2,000 years) picking all the olives off because, God forbid we eat what he serves. In Matthew 9, Jesus is preaching, teaching, and healing. Most folks listening love everything he says and does. A handful, the most religious in the bunch, don't. They call him “Satan's servant.” Doing the devil's work, they say. Eventually, they’ll say he's dangerous. And they won’t be wrong. A Christ-like church is dangerous – preaching, teaching, and healing whatever folks come along.
Such a church is dangerous to an empire used to keeping its power by keeping folks helpless and harassed. Such a church is dangerous to organized religion too, if that religion hopes to stay cozy with the empire. All of which is to say, insofar as the Great Commission really is a thing, Matthew 9 is where it sings to me.
Let's pray, God of all life, that we might realize that all life is all one thing. The life that pulses in our hearts is the same which gives birds flight, the same which makes our food grow. Wherever life meets life, may we regard and treat it tenderly, reverently, gratefully... and always in your name. Amen.
Verse 4:23 through 9:38 might be called “Matthew’s Ministry Field Manual” – Jesus showing and telling what he wants the church to do and be. Watch me. Listen to me. Then go, say, and do that. What he does, chapter 4 to chapter 9, is preach, teach, heal. At the beginning and the end of the section Matthew says (it's practically verbatim), 35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. Crowds gathered everywhere he went.
Now I’ve no doubt Jesus was a good preacher, and everyone loves good preaching. But you and I both know it wasn’t the preaching drawing those crowds: it was the FREE healthcare. He cured every disease and every sickness, Matthew writes. Every single one was a pre-existing condition. Jesus never asked for prior authorization. No deductible to be met. “Every disease and sickness brought to him” is how the text reads.
The crowds were amazed. They marveled. Who wouldn't be? Cubans, maybe. Dr. Paul Farmer, of Partners in Health, says Cuba has the best healthcare system in the western hemisphere. You should read Tracy Kidder’s book about Dr. Farmer, by the way, called Mountains Beyond Mountains. Citizens of countries with universal healthcare might not be as amazed as us that Jesus was a fan of universal health care. He healed every body; every disease; every sickness. The crowds marveled. Representatives of the religious establishment – not so much. They see the same thing and call Jesus “Satan’s tool.”
Don't miss this. Don't miss religion saying out loud in their most religious voice that healing poor people is the devil's business, that relief from suffering, that human compassion, that common decency has nothing to do with the religion they represent.
The text records no direct reply – just moves the camera back to Jesus, staring at the crowds while we read his thoughts. Harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. There is his reply. The religion which ought to protect and defend them, doesn't. Instead, religion is just another pack of wolves, in cahoots with the Empire, feeding on the weak and helpless. Matthew says it turned Jesus’ stomach. Actually, stirred his bowels is the closer translation for the word “compassion.” It's the pain of love – when other people's suffering hurts us.
In Jesus’ time emotions were thought to live in the gut. We say they live in the heart, but only because we think ourselves more polite. Don’t miss that what turns God's gut is a two-part tragedy: his beloved sheep are so harassed and helpless; and his shepherds are allied with the wolves.
The shepherd metaphor was not born in the New Testament, nor first in reference to Jesus. All through the First Testament, the king of Israel was repeatedly called their shepherd – along with the prophets and the priests. Remember Ezekiel 34, a text I've sometimes preached at Thanksgiving:
Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd…. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill… with no one to search or seek for them. … 9 Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10…I am against the shepherds; … I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed [my sheep] with justice…. 27 They shall be secure on their soil; and they shall know that I am the Lord…. 28 They shall no more be plunder for the nations, nor shall the animals of the land devour them; they shall live in safety, and no one shall make them afraid. 29…they shall no more be consumed with hunger in the land, and no longer suffer the insults of the nations…. 31 You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God. I, the Lord, have spoken.
Six hundred-and-eighty-five years, give or take a few, between Ezekiel and Jesus. Different empires. But God's sheep seemed to be doing no better. How about now? This little sliver of Matthew sings to me in the way it latches what Jesus said in the Beatitudes to what he did as he traveled through cities towns and villages – and to his expectations of us, the church, people claiming to be his, here and now. His explanation to his example to his expectations. A clarity to our mission and our task that informs as to the nature of our business here. We preach; we teach; we heal – according to our gifts, interests, resources, and the needs of the sheep in our midst.
Now, Jesus mixes his metaphors more than any preaching student would ever get away with. In his mind's eye they are sheep, but in his spoken lesson they are a field crop in need of harvesting – and by farm hands, not shepherds. Pray that more will come, Jesus tells his disciples. There's so much to be done, so few here to help. I have turned this verse over in my mind at least a hundred times, looking for a door or window into it.
Why does Jesus tell us to pray for more workers? It was George Buttrick who helped me get the tiger by the tail. He was a Presbyterian preacher and teacher. He pastored some churches and then taught at Andy D’s school – Harvard – for decades; then at mine – Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – until his death in 1980. About this passage he wrote (I'm paraphrasing): In calling us to his field, Jesus calls us away from the field of ambition, where the workers are many and the harvest not worth carrying away.
Of all the reasons Jesus tells us to pray for more workers, maybe the most obvious is also the truest. It’s hard and we would rather not do it. We’d rather serve our own wants, while avoiding the suffering of others. Jesus knows this about us. Knows that over the long haul of church, it will take lots of us to do this work, since harassed and helpless appears to be a permanent state of affairs. Other people’s suffering hurts us. We are human beings. We don’t like hurting, and we aren’t yet enough dependent on Jesus for the grace necessary to bear such hurt. But like our religious ancestors, in the first testament and the second, we have found a way to reconcile our compassion and our self-defense and call it faith.
Just as Jesus spoke to Jewish disciples neglecting the call of their prophets, Matthew speaks to a church neglecting the call of the Christian gospel. The split we see in the crowds listening to him that day we now carry inside ourselves, inside our life together. One part of us – a big part – is, like the crowd, amazed at grace, grace freely bestowed upon all people for no other reason than that God wants it so. Another part of us, like the religious representatives of the time, persists in wanting to keep the security we already have regardless of the suffering around us.
Carl and I have a friend named Sarah. Sarah has two little girls, ages 4 and 6. Recently before school, she and the 6-year-old had this conversation: “Eleanor, go make your breakfast.” To which Eleanor replied, “I want a bagel.” Sarah said, “Ok. You know how to make a bagel, yes?” And Eleanor said, “Well, I don't want to waste my time.” These two parts of us, compassion and selfishness, vie for our energy and time. The text calls us back to honesty, reminding us that the absence of grace in all its forms – health, knowledge, justice, decency – is hurtful to God. And so God deems that it shall not be. Death is to be defeated in all its shapes and venues: sickness, poverty, and injustice; mistreatment and abuse.
We cannot help Jesus defeat death upon a cross. Neither do we need to. That business is done! But we can love people here and now. Kindness, justice, and humility are well within our reach, should those be the tools we choose to work with. I totally get Eleanor. How easily do I reconcile the importance of some work with the surety that it's someone else's job? Jesus barely tells his friends to pray for help, then he gives the job to them in the next chapter.
I’ll end with this, a story from this past week. If you don't think people in our society are harassed and helpless, then you clearly have not met anyone trying to get enrolled in Medicaid. Medicaid is a program designed by wolves, to care for sheep. You can see the conflict of interest. As best I can tell, the mission of the program is Do a little as possible with as much paperwork as possible; the strategy is stall them until they die. And yet, inside that den of wolves, and throughout the systems connected to it, there are shepherds who are outsmarting those wolves right and left. Joan is a caseworker for the Social Security Administration and she is a wily one, let me tell ya. She coached me on how not to coach a client on his paperwork in such a way that I knew exactly how to coach him. I felt like a secret agent!
There was also a doctor, a nurse, two pharmacists and another random citizen and a banker, none of whom scored any personal or financial gain from their shepherding ways, all of whom could have spent way less time and energy and still have done their jobs. I have no idea if they call themselves Christian. I'd call them Christ-like. In the struggle between compassion and self-protection, they have chosen compassion as the driver of their lives. They have discovered compassion to be the better life. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes compassion turns our stomach.
But, friends, the pain of love is what makes us human. To the degree that others’ suffering doesn't bother us, we are also becoming less human. Humans forfeiting their humanity eventually turns into genocide. But well before that, what we have is a world of folks who are forever helpless and harassed. Like sheep without a shepherd. Like food crops withering in a field. And that, friends, is a stupid, evil, violent waste of something as beautiful as a human being. A waste that hurts the heart of God – or gives her diarrhea, depending on one's literary era. And will hurt our own hearts too, the more obedient we become, the more like Christ we pray to be.
Would you pray with me?
The Great Omission
Matthew 28:16-20 still makes me itchy, more so than all the rest of the Bible put together. But it's not the Bible at all – it's me. And it's also church. And I don't know if it even counts as a sermon to explain that, but in case you grew up anything like me (and the fact that you've found your way here suggests that maybe you did), maybe my story will somehow connect with yours and give all of us back what ought to be a joyful text this Sunday after Easter – a text that clarifies and confirms what our lives and our life together are about now, as we step from here into eternity.
Let's pray: May it be all joy, O God, to know you in your risen-ness. May we treat it as our privilege to love others – knowing you already do, just as you love us. That all we need from you is done. Ours is to live by faith – in kindness, justice and humility, among all people, everywhere. Amen.
What text is this? What's it called? Does your Bible page have a chapter title? The Great Commission. The Great Commission is the church's language for Jesus’ charge in Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples.” In my white, western, Protestant, evangelical experience, Great Commission specifically referred to Jesus’ command to tell the gospel to the ends of the earth.
The Baptist world of my teenage and young adult years had Great Commission campaigns. The names of two which I will never forget, sadly, were Bold Mission Thrust and Laypeople for Christ. I asked Ben what the words bold mission thrust made him think of. Combat, he said, or space exploration. In Baptist lingo, it was a plan to tell the gospel in person to every person on the planet by the year 2000. I asked him about laypeople for Christ, and he just said, oh that's really just awful. That said, nobody did it better than Baptists in the 20th century. Hospitals, schools, food security. And churches, thousands of churches. Millions of new believers the world over.
But that story has a backside, if you will, in which this same Great Commission language was used by the church in the west as a front for her collusion with the political and economic powers that invaded, colonized, murdered, enslaved and robbed Africa and the Americas for 400 years. If this sounds too awful to be true, I'll direct you to the Doctrine of Discovery. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/content/doctrine-discovery-1493
The thing about the Great Commission – Jesus didn't say it, right? It's not red on your Bible page, is it? If it's there, it's like a chapter heading. Church history doesn't quote the term until about 1650. And then only rarely for 200 more years, when along came an Englishman named James Hudson Taylor. Ever heard of him? He was colorful, apparently. Anybody know what happened in the 1840's that has to do with China? The European opium market opened up. And an 18-year-old Christian man in England heard the Lord tell him to go tell Chinese people about Jesus.
For three years he studied Chinese and rudimentary medicine. At 21 years old, he got on a boat and sailed to China. He stayed 51 years, coming back to England every few years to recruit more missionaries. He was thought shocking for wearing Chinese dress; for growing a pigtail; for refusing to spend his time translating Chinese for English business people and diplomats. He was critical of other missionaries who did, who, in his opinion, spent too much time with white people when they should be with Chinese.
Folks thought it appalling that he sent single women into the interior alone to work. His missionaries were to live on what they were given – never to beg for support from others. He started his own missions organization, which is still operating today. He wrote, China is not to be won for Christ by quiet, ease-loving men and women. … The stamp of men and women we need is such as will put Jesus, China, [and] souls first and foremost in everything and at every time-- even life itself must be secondary.
Apparently what made him colorful was Reverend Taylor's conviction that when Jesus said go make disciples of every nation He really did mean GO! The same way Jesus emptied himself of the things of heaven to come to us, he [Taylor] emptied himself of all things English. “Go!” was not just Go! “Go!” was also “Stay!” Taylor died in China in 1905. He was 72. In between he recruited hundreds of missionaries, established hundreds of mission stations. He never solicited for money, and tens of thousands of people heard the gospel. In his pond, he is very, very famous – like the Underwoods in Korea. I'm attaching a link about him to this sermon, so you can read more: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/missionaries/hudson-taylor.html .
It's no good regretting – only being better. I wish people like Reverend Taylor were my earliest associations with the Great Commission. I wish my earliest understanding of this text in which Jesus is charging his apostles had focused on the scene more than the chapter title. At most, all a child needs of this text is, here is Jesus giving the grown-ups one last job before he goes back to heaven.
But that is not the children’s sermon of my childhood. I called my friend Angela to check myself on this, for fear I was overstating it. (You also can judge for yourselves.) The Great Commission upon which I was bottle-fed went something like this: Boys and girls, the eternal destiny of your friends, family, and neighbors is in your hands. Do I have a witness?
Theologically, that isn’t true. Spiritually, it is abusive. When parents poison kids it's called child abuse. When theology poisons people it's called spiritual abuse. It's all trauma. But the thing about trauma is that to the traumatized it's normal. Just like, to a kid who doesn't know different, child abuse is, simply, home or mommy or love. To a baby Believer, whatever his or her age, spiritual trauma is the same thing as faith.
Let me see if I can explain it in a story. By the time I was twelve, I was overwhelmed with anxiety about my friends who might be going to hell. Along with my dad. And some neighbors who were devout Catholics, yet claimed to never have heard that Jesus is supposed to be your personal Lord and Savior. Your PLS.
It sort of makes me laugh now, but it was not funny then. It was terrifying. (I might have been a wee bit of a sensitive child.) As I knew it, the Great Commission demanded – DEMANDED – that I tell every person I met that Jesus loved them very much and if they didn't accept him as their PLS, he'd have no choice but to let them go to hell when they died – them and all their loved ones too. He didn't want to, of course. He simply had no choice. At no point in my childhood did my brain say to myself, “That is horrible.” Or, “That is stupid.” Or, “That doesn't even make any sense.” Why? Because I was a kid! And because good grown-ups were saying it – the Pastor and my Sunday School teachers. People who spoke for God.
My brain couldn’t say it. But you know what did, ALL THE TIME? My belly. My gut. My nervous system. From the time I was twelve years old, the thought of telling people Jesus would be sad to send them to hell, but he would, made me feel like I was going to throw up and cry at the same time. A response as automatic as yanking my hand off a hot pan. In both cases, my body was telling myself, DON'T DO THAT! YOU'LL HURT YOURSELF! But, of course, that was not the message I got. The message I got was that obviously I didn't love my Jesus or my friends enough to be brave. – I need to hear if this is making sense to anybody.
One time in 7th grade I decided I was not going to be a horrible, terrible person anymore. I was going to tell my friend Joy that Jesus loved her and didn't want her to go to hell. Joy was about as much of a criminal personality as I was in the 7th grade. Neither of our mothers let us wear make-up or go to movies after dark. Nevertheless, her eternal destiny was at stake – and up to me. Not up to Jesus, mind you – the one who had already died and risen for her; up to me and the cafeteria conversation I had planned. I would tell her on a certain day and lunch time.
I sweated and almost threw up all morning. I had barely started my prepared speech before Joy blurted out, “Do you want to know if I'm saved?” ”Yes,” I practically panted. “Oh sure,” she said, “way back when I was 8.” I was hung over for days after. Which happens with trauma. But there was a new feeling too that I wasn't expecting, that I didn't understand for a long time. The feeling is relief, the sensation that my friend Joy can now be crossed off the list of people who haven't heard the gospel. Not because she's saved, but because she had her chance.
I remember a seminary chapel speaker who said that no one deserves to hear the gospel twice until everyone has heard it once. A person could definitely hang a meaningful ministry from that. On the other hand, I can't shake the sensation that Jesus crossed no one off his list. The sensation that he would be disappointed to see us doing so, racking up the numbers as we go. Which is a whole other rabbit I don't have time to chase. Back when I was 12 – and 25 – it upset me more to tell someone “Friend, Jesus loves you enough to send you to hell” than it did to think that person might actually go to hell. Does that makes sense to anyone here but me? You know why? Because it is a lie. It is a cultivated, well-told lie, told not always for love of the world – the nations, to use Jesus’ word – but to pacify our own fear.
Friends, once we know a lie is a lie, telling the lie is worse than the lie. Untold, lies die. Jesus doesn't send children to hell for their lack of information, information withheld by other children. That's stupid. If it weren't stupid, it would be horrible. When my brain didn't know anything at all, my belly and my nervous system, my soul, my heart of heart of heart, knew that was a lie and begged me not to tell it. Because my soul wants me to be okay, not burned or traumatized. I don't blame my preachers and my teachers – unless they also knew it was a lie. But the ones who did helped me see it and say so. Nothing, ever, is all just one thing, is it? So much Christian love and ministry has been bequeathed under the Great Commission banner. And so much harm.
My mind goes back to Hudson Taylor, the white man in Chinese clothes and a pigtail, who learned to be a midwife when men really didn't do that kind of thing. Colorful, I tell you. I wonder if he'd say, Oh, the Great Commission, yes. That is Jesus’ charge to his apostles and disciples just before his ascension, a summary of their three years of apprenticeship overlaid with his own death and resurrection, which they at the time still barely understood. His will for their lives, you see: Do for others what I have done for you. It will terrify you sometimes. Make you crazy . Bring you joy. It will take everything you have and more. I will be with you every single moment. Let us begin.
Would you pray with me?
Never Discount the Joy!
Have you ever made the mistake of letting yourself be relieved that some crazy episode of your life was over, just to find out it wasn't? Once upon a time, I had a five-year-old and a nine-month-old baby who nursed morning, noon, and night. Also, my mom was really, really sick. I was sure that's why I felt so exhausted all the time. Then I got queasy. Then I realized I hadn't had a period forever. In my denial, I was convinced it was because I was nursing all the time.
Have you ever been amazed, because that next thing was so much better than anything you might have imagined for yourself? In my case, I was pregnant – again. Where would we be without Emily?
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the graveyard inclined to imagine that the hardest part was over. They'd seen him arrested, tortured, killed, and buried. They arrive at the grave under heavy guard against disciples like themselves. In chapter 27, Pilate agreed with Temple leadership to guard the grave so disciples can't steal the body and make Jesus their martyr. There's an earthquake. And angels. And guards who fall down dead from fear. Unlike their brother Peter, who always comes up with something to say in such sacred spaces, Mary and the other Mary do not say a word. I like believing it is because no words suffice.
Let's pray: You have come back to us from the land of death, and we don't begin to know how to speak of it. May our fearlessness suffice. Amen.
Here's something I wonder: I wonder if, when Mary Magdalene saw and heard the angels, she wondered if her demons had come back. I wonder if she won- dered, when Jesus spoke to her, if he was real; if he was a dream; or if he was the return of her nightmares. I wonder if she wondered, even for a moment, if Jesus having left her meant her healing was gone too?
This thing that we profess believing – Jesus rising from the dead – you do know, it sounds to some like mental illness? I was in a garden graveyard and both some angels and Jesus spoke to me. Depending on your provider, you may get medicine for saying that or asked to lead a Bible class.
Matthew says Mary and the other Mary were both afraid and full of joy. I like imagining them pregnant with these fraternal twins, fear and joy. Snuggled together in their mamas’ hearts, sucking one another's thumbs. Fear has its pleasures, don't you know? And joy its terrors too. They are not always as dif- ferent as they seem. Both are thrilling. Both are the feeling of something about to be, but not yet. Something imagined but not confirmed. And there is pleasure and terror in the not knowing – and longing. Did any part of Mary Magdalene and the other Mary imagine that their beloved friend would be there to greet them? Was it too fantastic even to say out loud?
In John, the women go to anoint his body. Here they go empty-handed. It's dangerous to be there; they go anyway. They are terrified; they go anyway. Maybe they have no idea why they go; and yet, they go anyway. We can't discount their joy, I think, however afraid we would have been. They let joy drive them to the graveyard that day, when fear might just as easily have had the wheel.
Joy drives Easter, friends. Not death. Not fear. Not anxiety. Not anxiety's little sister, stress. All four were put to death on Good Friday, so now life and joy and grace persist! Joy! Rightly celebrated, Easter marks our transfiguration. Rightly practiced, church – our life together – bears witness to our transfiguration. To be human is to be set free by the love of God in Jesus Christ. Free from death. Free from the fear of death. So death has no say-so over us. Death does not drive our day. Death does not drive our hearts and minds.
Easter ought to be the easiest Sunday to preach, except I don't know the words. “I know this is going to sound crazy” is the truest and yet worst thing I can think of to say. I know the world appears to be going to hell in a handbasket right now, but there is no reason to be afraid. God loves us more than we can imagine, you see. And has worked the whole thing out.
We are not by ourselves here. Not left to our own wits or strength. There is room for us to be SOOO courageous, since our futures have been secured: to love each other hugely; to get all up in evil's face; to do right by the least of these; to ease other people's suffering; to take up their causes, so they might taste the goodness of the Lord this side of the veil. I told you it would sound crazy. And still, they are the truest words I have.
Finally, I suppose, I don't understand anything that has to do with God, Yet, some- how in my bones I know God loves what God made. And when we watch for it, we see it everywhere, this love of God seeping from the very pores of time and space.
I saw a baby at the store this week, who kept waving at a stranger. “Hi!” the baby said. “Hello!” said the stranger back. But the baby wasn't finished. After three or four hi/hellos, the stranger was transfigured into a goofy woman playing peekaboo behind a post in the middle of the Target store. The baby would just die laughing. They didn't know each other five minutes earlier.
I could cry at the perfect holy joy of it. It's tiny. It's silly. Then again, Easter lends itself entirely to the language of fools. May our joy suffice.
Would you pray with me?