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?
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.
“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?
Is it a sin to be white? Of course not. It is a sin to believe and behave as though being white makes no difference in the world today. As if we don’t have advantage, access and opportunity that others don’t, simply by virtue of our race. If we are to be true to the gospel Jesus gave us, we can no more go around our white privilege than Jesus could go ‘round Samaria on his way to the cross.
Samaria was part of Israel, a region between Galilee to the south and Judea to the north. And Jewish travelers generally went around not through Samaria, for one simple reason: they were not welcome there. Judeans and Galileans believed themselves better people, and better Jews, than the Samaritans. As you might expect, as you can hear in the voice of the woman with whom Jesus speaks, the Samaritans resented it. The resentment was about 900 years old, starting with Assyria. One group after another invaded and occupied Israel, Jews from Israel and Judah both carted off into exile in Egypt and Babylon, while most Samaritans stayed put and were occupied by the foreigners – Assyrians especially, who took them as slaves . . . and wives. The Samaritans maintained Jewish faith and practice as best they could, for generations.
In the fifth century BCE – when King Cyrus of Persia started repatriating whoever wanted to go home – the Jews who went back to Israel would have nothing to do with the Samaritans who’d been there the whole time. Jerusalem was a wasteland. Samaritans wanted to help it and the Temple. The returning Jews said, “Y’all are nasty and we don’t want anything to do with you,” and were still treating them that way 400 years later, into the time of Jesus. They were a nasty, half-breed people, association with whom would violate one’s religious purity. You could do business with them, but you couldn’t eat with them, drink with them or socialize with them.
When I take Scout to the vet, she doesn’t know where she is until we get to the door; and then she puts her butt on the ground, and I have to drag her and promise lots of treats. This is how I imagine Jesus got the disciples into Samaria. As soon as we get to the first little village, you can go buy as many treats as you want. And they all say, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! It’s also how he was able to go see the person he had gone to talk to in the first place. She might have been a rabbi, if she’d been born in another place and time. Woman rabbis are a dime a dozen now. Jesus affirmed the rabbi in her, debated with her like an equal. Hers is his longest conversation in the gospels, the first to whom he voluntarily confessed himself as Messiah, “I AM.”
Some traditions name her. Do you know it? I’ve told you before, but it’s been awhile: Photine. Pick the word apart and you’ll figure out what it means. Bright as the sun, enlightened one. Christendom has generally been more interested in her sex life than her intellect, her scholarship and her faith, while for Jesus it is the least interesting thing about her. I think he brings it up to get it out of the way, to say she needn’t lie about what doesn’t matter anyway – at least not to him. He brings it up to get it out of the way, so they can talk about what they both want to talk about – that is, the gospel of Samaria.
Would you pray with me? In every place on this earth or in our own memory we are reluctant to revisit, places and memories that bear no resemblance to the people we desire to be, you have already been there, O God. Been there, looked around and restored it with your grace. May we know the same is true about our neighbors – all our neighbors, however different from us they appear. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
He asks for a simple drink of water. Her answer seethes with 400 years of oppression. Like that scene in Little Women when Laurie complains about having to leave for college. Jo says she’d commit murder to go to college. Like when the friend in our Global Women group refused to answer the conversation question in what other time and place you might like to have been born. “None,” she said; “no time has been good enough to women to want to go back to it.” His answer to her answer is everything she’s waited for – someone to talk to about the things she longs to talk about. They are two rabbis, discussing biblical history and the nature of God in metaphor and symbol like a script she has rehearsed over and over again.
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty.”
“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
Jesus then ruins the moment:
“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.”
Then her quip of comedy gold – “Sir, I see you are prophet!” – which she uses to turn the conversation back to the religious and political! Jesus follows her willingly. She speaks of their segregated worship – his people in Jerusalem, hers on the mountain at Gerizim. He speaks of their reunion – when they shall worship God not on the basis of negotiated territory, but in spirit and in truth. I know the Messiah will explain it when he comes, she says – what oppressed people always say when liberty seems too much to hope for. To which Jesus replies, I AM the Messiah.
A HUUUGE thing to say, but we aren’t given to see or hear her response – because the disciples are back. Astonished, John says. Mouths hanging open but no sound coming out. What could he possibly want. He’s talking to a woman. Friends, can you just try – just for a minute, try – to get your brain around the kind of either ignorance or arrogance it takes to be utterly shell-shocked at the possibility that the Lord of the universe might have reason to talk to a woman. I think we’ve mostly gotten over that. But the church still gets astonished that Jesus might talk to a transgender person. To someone we would call a white supremacist.
The disciples are astonished but, meanwhile, she’s put down her water jar to run to town, announcing, Come see a man who told me everything I’ve ever done. He may well be the Messiah! As they are on the way, Jesus deals with his disciples. They want him to eat. He tells them, I have food that you know nothing about. Again with the spiritual metaphors. They scratch their heads and stare like a tree full of owls. The Samaritans return and listen like he’s feeding them mother’s milk. He stays two days with them and they all end up believers.
Three things I want to unpack: First – can we please assume that when she says Jesus told her everything she’d ever done, she wasn’t talking about sex? But rather, about faith; about prayer; about the scriptures; about the things of God that had occupied her heart and mind for longer than she could remember. His disciples have been with him for months and all they know is that he talks to women and eats air, apparently. To her he offers up the essential truth of his existence: I AM. You are speaking to I AM. All we know of her response is that she drops her water jar and runs to fetch back her whole community. John doesn’t describe her heart and mind and soul blown open – since there are no words for that anyway. All we can see of it is the loss of bitterness and hate. The Jew for whom she’d not draw a drink of water is now the hero of her life, and she brings her village to him too.
Secondly – like her, enlightened by the presence of Jesus in our lives, we will find ourselves doing things we would not imagine otherwise. Being braver, louder maybe; leading communities to think and talk and act in different ways than they have before; becoming neighbors with people we once kept apart from. These are interesting days to talk about keeping apart from others. We may be called to get close in ways the world will caution against, called to ask ourselves what Jesus would do, what Jesus would have us do, given his example and his teaching that we are obligated to the sick and hurting among us.
Thirdly, the gospel who is Jesus comes into Samaria and undoes 900 years of prejudice and racism, 400 years of segregation – not in the entire territory but in the hearts of those who meet him. Or, at least some who meet him. His disciples are not there yet. But there or not, they now have Samaritan sisters and brothers. Because as it turns out, the gospel of Jesus Christ in Samaria turns out to be the same gospel of Jesus Christ it was in Galilee. And getting our heads and hearts around that is, and has been from the beginning, the most astonishing thing about the gospel. For God so loved the world, the whole boatload of us. Jesus talks shop with a Samaritan woman as if they were standing in a synagogue, and his disciples have to pick their chins up off the floor.
One day in India our group was in yoga circle talking about our day, and Nancy – Nancy is awesome – said, “India has taught me that I actually don’t like monkeys. I only like the idea of monkeys.”
No wonder Jesus has to go through Samaria, else we’ll all just keep liking the idea of Jesus – the Jesus who thinks and talks and acts just like we think Jesus ought to think and talk and act. Instead, Jesus marches to the cross, dragging his disciples and church along with him, past all our prejudice and our privilege, through the sucking mud of our assumptions and our apathy, step by step, watching him meet stranger after stranger after stranger, until finally our idea of the gospel of Jesus is smashed to pieces on the truth of who he was, and is, and shall always be. As he told our sister Samaria – I AM.
Would you pray with me?
John 3:16 is the first Bible verse I ever memorized, and I don’t remember not knowing it. I also don’t remember thinking about what it meant – only what Sunday School teachers said it meant: that if I gave my heart to Jesus I would go to heaven when I died. I had to grow up and read and pray for my own self to discover that we don’t have to wait 70 or 80 years to cash in that memory verse. Eternal life doesn’t begin when we die. It never begins, and it doesn’t end. We live in it – like fish live in water.
This time-and-space-bound kingdom full of flesh and bone, so much noise and so many words, so much beauty and so much heartache, where death is both ever-present, sadder than sad, and a channel to that deeper, wider life, is but a pocket of that ocean my first Sunday School teachers called eternal life. I also kind of imagined John 3:16 lived on a Bible page all by itself. And here it is tucked inside a story about a man named Nicodemus who visits Jesus at night and turns out to be a living example of the very story Jesus tells him – one of those born again followers of Jesus. Or, maybe, a daylight disciple.
Would you pray with me? When we are tempted to make faith small, O God, to tuck and fit it into the lives we already have, may seekers like Nicodemus draw new vision and courage from us and from our life together. We ache for the courage to abandon our grip on things that do not last, to embrace what cannot be lost. Amen.
In a world so full of chaos and suffering, why should my life be so calm and comfortable? I wrote that in my journal on Friday morning – and was promptly just appalled at myself. Because the answer is so profane and trite. My life is comfortable and calm because I choose for it to be – which got me to thinking about Nicodemus and his choice to go see Jesus at night and how that worked out for him. He also had a pretty easy life, considering his time and place – Roman-occupied Israel. A member of the Sanhedrin – the Jewish ruling council – the group that will eventually petition Pilate to have Jesus put to death, he has status and power, political and religious.
One of John’s major themes unfolds in chapter 3: darkness and light. Often as not, he puts them in the same sentence:
And the theme has a sharp edge the church in good faith must address: “darkness and light” has embedded itself into our church language and our everyday language as “blackness and whiteness.” Every time we refer to some moral situation as a gray area, what do we mean? We mean it is neither black nor white, neither right nor wrong, bad nor good. Which color is right? Which color is bad?
In movies who wears the white hat? The good guy. What color is the tower that smart people live in? Ivory. What do our hymns have to say on the subject?
He's the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star,
He's the fairest of ten thousand to my soul.
Whiter than snow, Lord, wash me just now,
As in Thy presence humbly I bow.
And the one this morning:
For each perfect gift of thine To our race so freely given,
written in 1864 by an Englishman and sung in white churches who know good and well he meant the human race.
Most hymns are quotes from scripture, and they are accurate metaphors. Snow IS white. But white is no more clean than red or green or purple or brown. Purity as whiteness is a Bible theme that was never meant to register as a skin color. White western culture did that hundreds of years ago and left a residue so embedded in our language we mostly don’t hear it until it’s pointed out to us. But hopefully we want it pointed out since it’s hurtful and, most of all, divisive to the body of Christ.
Nicodemus is the one who visited Jesus at night. He is introduced this way three times in the gospel of John, beginning here. Did they know each other already? or does Jesus simply recognize him for who he obviously is – a Jewish ruler; member of the Sanhedrin, the group he knows will eventually drive him to the praetorium? Instead of small talk, they fall instantly into rabbinical debate.
Nicodemus: Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God;
for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.
Jesus: Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God
without being born from above.
Nicodemus: (taking the bait) How can anyone be born after having grown old?
Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?
Jesus: I’m not talking about your mother. I am talking about the kingdom of God.
Birth there happens by water. And Spirit. Don’t pretend you don’t know
about Spirit. Spirit is what sent you here. Just like the wind, it sends us
where we would never go on our own.
Nicodemus: How can these things be?
Jesus: Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you still pretend not to know?
The scene continues like a play in which Nicodemus listens along with the audience to Jesus’s sermon about the darkness and the Light – the light by which he thought and prayed, apparently, by which he re-read his Bible, by which he watched and listened in his Temple council meetings. The light is changing how he thinks. We know so because we can hear it in his voice when he shows up again in chapter 7, this time in the daylight.
The crowds have really gone after Jesus. Rumors are spreading about him being the Messiah. Folks are getting noisy and the Sanhedrin is worried about Roman attention, so they send their own soldiers to arrest Jesus. But the soldiers themselves are taken by Jesus’s teaching charisma – so they leave him alone, which makes some of the council members even more upset, reminding the soldiers whom they work for, when Nicodemus (who had once gone to Jesus at night) tentatively pipes up to remind his colleagues that our own law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing. A reminder they do not appreciate at all and to which they respond by calling Nicodemus a Galilean and suggesting he search and see that no prophet will come from Galilee. A response that proves them both mean and ignorant.
I feel for Nicodemus here, watching him trying to integrate what he likes about Jesus with what he likes about his calm, comfortable life; sprinkling radical faith on top of his solid reputation in a town where reputation matters. Hoping that isn’t what Jesus is talking about when he says, And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light. Here, and over and over again, John will say that Jesus is the Light. The Light. Jesus has already given me all I need. My choice: to hoard all my trinkets and toys like they are going to save me. Go figure.
In chapter 7, Nicodemus gave it a shot and mostly failed. At least he’s doing Jesus’s working in the daytime now and still letting the Lord work on him, apparently (see Chapter 19 of John). Turns out there’s another member of the Sanhedrin who secretly followed Jesus. Remember his name? Joseph of Arimathea. Neither of them is mentioned throughout Jesus’s arrest, trial and execution. Nor when Jewish council leaders go to Pilate to ask that Jesus’s legs be broken so he’ll be dead and buried – the whole ordeal out of sight before Passover tourists arrive in Jerusalem. John says, in the midst of it Joseph went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’s body. Nicodemus buys and brings the burial spices. Together they carry the bloody, filthy soiled body of a condemned criminal – handle it, intimately, in ways no Jews who cared about ritual purity would consider.
Nobody doubted whose side Nicodemus was on now – now that he’d just embraced the body of a dead criminal. Again, friends, not just dead: eviscerated. Blood, urine, feces – human death is really, really messy. However dark it looked and sounded and smelled at the moment, Nicodemus chose to embrace the Light. I can’t tell you what was in his head and heart, but Jesus knew. Jesus knew that first night in the middle of the night when Nicodemus first came to see him, when Jesus received him and entertained his questions and pushed back with questions of his own – questions about the Spirit which Nicodemus was trying so hard NOT to listen to. And the other question: “You are a teacher of Israel and you don’t know these things?” Only in the dark he didn’t know. Only so long as he stayed in the dark he didn’t.
But he didn’t stay. The Spirit moved him to the daylight – the same way it will move the rest of Jesus’s disciples in this story soon enough. It moved Nicodemus to go where Jesus went. To the praetorium and the cross, to embrace death without a shred of fear. Nicodemus’s bid to faith began in the middle of the night and took him to a graveyard where he chose to love the light rather than the darkness. To love the light demanded that he move, that he commit to certain action, to certain allegiances that would sever him from the comforts of life as he’d known it so far.
Still, he embraced the cross, not knowing for sure what came next – only confident in the words of Jesus as he’d heard them once before: For God so loved that world, that whoever believes in him, is bound for everlasting life. May his wisdom and his courage bring our own hearts, minds and bodies to such faith.
At its best a sermon is words strung together in such a way that people hear what actually cannot be spoken. Once in a while it works – not nearly as often as good sermons are preached – which has to do with expectations and our love of words well-written-and-spoken and our reluctance to pray. Our willingness to settle for the crumbs which fall from other tables. And yet our lives in Christ and this life together that we share is centered around and rooted in Mystery, unspeakable mystery. Roaring silence, the space between the notes and the words.
Do you recognize the title of the sermon “What language shall I borrow?” from the hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”? The song is specifically about the agony of crucifixion. What language shall I borrow To thank Thee, dearest Friend, For this, Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end? But that one line rises above the topic to point out the insufficiency of all language to speak of the mystery which is God with any sort of accuracy. Making it no wonder that here on this mountaintop Peter, James, and John sound more like Larry, Curly and Moe than the pillars of Christendom they would one day be.
In the poor, lisping, stammering tongue of our faith, let us pray: For your spirit to come upon us in ways for which we can stay present, O God, we pray. Amen.
By this time in Matthew’s telling of the gospel, Jesus has done oodles of miracles. He’s taken the disciples to a place of many gods called Caesarea Philippi where he asks them if they know which god he is, where Peter spits it out and Jesus confirms that he is the Messiah, the Son of God. After which, he straightforwardly describes to them his impending suffering, death and resurrection – which they promptly reject, argue and promise him it will absolutely, positively never happen.
All of this in the usual manner of human conversation, the same vocabulary and grammar with which the people around them shared recipes and talked to their goats. Larry, Curly and Moe were the only ones Jesus took with him up the mountain, the only ones there to see Jesus in his unspeakable fullness, unzipped and turned inside out, his humanity somewhere folded up and tucked away into some pocket of his eternality. They see and hear it plainly: Jesus standing, talking with Moses and Elijah. How they recognized them is its own mystery. They just knew. But for the life of them, they could not say what they were seeing, which doesn’t mean Peter didn’t speak. As my second preaching professor used to say, “Having nothing to say doesn’t slow down every preacher.”
The heavens interrupt him, repeating the baptism announcement, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Who wouldn’t fall down overcome with fear? And then the moment passed. Jesus was himself again, eternality tucked away. They have their warning not to talk about it – easy-peasy, since they still didn’t know the words.
A veil they didn’t know existed had been drawn back. The world they knew was not all there was to know. And there was a sort of crossing – a way between the world they knew and all the rest they’d never known. Jesus apparently knew the way and was letting them in on this strange mystery, and NOT JUST THAT! but also suggesting it was nothing to be feared.
This inside-out-ness could be seen and heard. Then ordinary life resumed, just like “Walk back down the mountain and don’t mention it for now. Carry it like a secret, even if it feels like your heart just might explode.” I personally have not seen Jesus, or anyone else for that matter, shimmering like the sun. But I have been in thin places where the veil between this world and the next is incredibly sheer. As sheer as gossamer.
On an ordinary school night in college my boyfriend and I sneaked into the balcony of a jazz concert. It was one of those rare occasions when the music literally transports the self into a different state of being. The times I have been in birthing rooms, dying rooms. The first time I saw Saving Private Ryan, the opening thirty minutes of that movie left me speechless. Music and art are bridges from here to there, maybe – maybe all creative efforts, tiny efforts on our part to tap our desire to touch the eternal, to confirm our human hope and hunches, that eternity is reaching out for us.
Nature brims with the eternal. Science has quantified it so that it’s easy to forget that science did not invent it. It only captured it with words and graphics, as if our knowing it somehow makes it ours. Yoga teaches us that in our knowing we realize there is no end, no bottom to the knowing – most of all the knowing of the self.
Our breath itself is a mystery. Where does it come from? We have the mechanics to breathe, but do not manufacture breath. We can design a dog now – a schnoodle, for example; but we cannot fabricate the breath it needs to live. We draw the first, exhale the last. We are born to live, then die. But the breath that was in us carries on. Breath is always eternal spirit.
Until that day on the mountain, all Larry, Curly and Moe had of Jesus were his words and deeds: the words they heard him say and the deeds they saw him do. They themselves – Peter, James and John, that is – went on to preach and speak and write words on words on words. Mark’s gospel is thought to be Peter’s account, where everything happens immediately and the story ends with all the disciples running away too frightened to tell anyone they’d seen the risen Christ.
But are their words all we have of those disciples? More the same, of course, of Jesus. Is the Bible text what we know best of him? These stories and sayings passed down? Or have we seen and heard him up close and lately, in ways for which we have no words? In memories that shimmer, that make us feel turned inside-out? That make the world seem tilted, aching with beauty and with joy? That instead of speaking, we can only carry, like something fragile and very, very precious. And, at least for me, never in big bites – always in tiny, little pieces. Sometimes tinier than that. Just enough to know it’s there, then lose my appetite for lesser things.
To taste and then thirst for nothing else – what Jesus once called the living water – to touch even the very hemline of eternity is enough to make us well and to know this world will never make us truly happy. Our joy, our livelihood is drawn from a different well: the transmundane (my second-best new word this week – noetic being the first, which I learned from Becky), the source of our very breath, our lives, our life together, some time, somewhere beyond these bodies, these time-and-space-bound lives, these never-ending words, the mystery that contains and carries us, even as we carry it through these ordinary lives of ours.
Few words have as much power to re-align a room full of perfectly politically correct progressive-white-people liberals talking about race in America as the word “reparations.” It's one of those words that proves words don't have meanings; they have usages.
The simple meaning of “reparations” is “the payment of a debt owed.” America has an unpaid debt for labor done, but not yet paid for. Labor for which everyone but the laborers themselves were paid. In usage, it means so many things to so many people that bubble up in anger, shame, guilt, conflict.
Why bring it up here? Because Paul and Timothy’s letter to Philemon has been used by the church in America to discuss slavery in various ways, but so far – in my experience – not with regard to debts owed. How these debts are resolved among the followers of Jesus, Paul writes, is not the business of business, but rather the business of faith.
Let us pray: You have paid a debt you did not owe, O Christ, for a debt I could not pay – which is not to say there are debts outstanding that we cannot yet make right in this life by your grace and with the courage of this faith. “Let goods and kindred go,” we sing. May we hear in this text your call to let go our goods for the work of justice. Amen.
Philemon is one of the leaders of a house church in an unnamed town. The church meets in his house. The letter, though addressed to the leadership and the congregation in verses two and three, shifts to speaking directly to Philemon in verse four – a shift we can't see in English, since “y-o-u” is both singular and plural. In Greek, verses two and three are second person plural, as in “y’all.” From verse four, Paul speaks to “you” – Philemon – with his colleagues, his congregation and us overhearing everything Paul has to say to Philemon. Not secretly, like eavesdropping, but on purpose. Paul means to add the pressure of being watched, as Philemon hears this letter about him, read to him.
I get the sense that Paul is bringing up old business here. After waxing on a bit about Philemon's good faith, Paul comes to the point, saying (and I paraphrase), “My brother, I appeal to you to do your duty with regard to Onesimus.” There is no introduction of the topic. It sounds mid-conversation. There are details we don't know, like how Philemon and the slave got separated; how Paul knows Philemon doesn't want it back. What has Philemon already said on the subject? What has Onesimus said? I would love to have been a prison mouse, listening to Paul and Onesimus talking together. All that is sure: Philemon doesn't want the slave back. Paul is determined to send him back.
The name Onesimus means useful. Paul's usage of the name is especially clever; he turns it around to point out Philemon's opposite conviction, that Onesimus is useless. He is indeed both useful to us both, Paul says, and you have a duty to him. A duty I have the right to command you to do, but prefer to appeal that you do because it is the right thing to do. That is classic Paul right there. He does it twice in the text, again when promising to pay whatever costs are associated with the return of Onesimus: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.
I suspect two things with regard to Philemon's duty: if Philemon is the man of faith Paul said he was, I suspect he’d have already taken Onesimus back, if he thought it the right thing to do. And I suspect Philemon might have been offended at Paul's use of the word “duty” with regard to his property. Slaves were property, not persons. Plows were property. Buildings were property. Land was property. Slaves had duties. Slave-owners, also known as property owners, had rights. And property owners, as we know from our own time and place, are generally resistant to being told what they can and cannot do with their own property. “Property rights” we call them.
As a property owner, Philemon had the right to keep his slaves and do with them as he saw fit. He had the right to sell them if he wanted. If a slave ran away, Philemon had the right to kill it – the legal right to prevent it from further devaluing his property. It sounds worse than it was to our ears, because we have trouble thinking of Onesimus as property.
Another way of listing Philemon’s rights as a property owner: he had the right to
Now I realize how horrifically awful that sounds, but I want you to get a sense of how normal Philemon’s reality was, so as to hear how outrageous Paul sounds to Philemon and his congregation. My brother I appeal to you to do your duty with regard to Onesimus . What duty exactly? Philemon's duty as a business person? as a provider for his family and this church that meets in his house? as a recipient of God's grace in Christ Jesus? as a disciple of Jesus and a leader in his church? To which of those duties does Paul appeal but not command, as he says?
Seems that when he has his church groove on, Philemon knows what's what. But when he gets to his office Monday morning, he's all business and his faith doesn't come along. There is no more preachy thing to ask than “does your faith go to work with you on Monday?” and probably nothing more presumptuous by someone who works in a mostly empty church building several days a week. The text asks, all the same: will we do our duty, whatever business is at hand?
I can imagine Philemon thinking Paul has no idea what he deals with? ALL the duty to which he feels bound, the pressures of maintaining so much property, of trying to turn a profit when the margins are so thin, to have not just a family and a business but now a church too depending on him to keep everything afloat. And with regard to this Onesimus mess – why couldn't Paul understand that of his three choices none of them were good?
And Paul's offer of a fourth is so outrageous he would laugh or cuss if his whole congre- gation wasn't watching: take him back and treat him like a brother. Can you imagine a case competition at the Kelley School of Business for ANY business problem, to which students bring a presentation titled “Take him home and treat him like a brother”? Their professor might – MIGHT – suggest they had misunderstood the problem from the beginning. 2 x 7, 48 does not equal a bluebird. Ever. Is there even such a thing as multiple duties, conflicting duties, in the lives of believers – followers of Christ? Or are those conflicts simply the joints between the carefully constructed walls we've built between our faith lives and our real lives?
What Paul is actually doing here, is pounding away at the division between how we live and think and feel most of the time and how we live and feel and think when we revel in the sweetness of God's goodness to us in Christ Jesus and his grace, isn’t it? Paul knows Philemon's good faith and does not hesitate to brag on it. He also knows that Philemon does not want Onesimus back and seems to feel no conflict there, no tugging at the edges of his heart or soul, where significant tugging ought to be.
Philemon had a business problem. Philemon’s world agreed with him as to how to solve that problem. Philemon’s church might also have agreed with him – cut his losses the least expensive way possible – while Paul’s solution was a long-term, familial relationship. Paul is agreeing with the gospel. Relationships are the business of faith. Even the business of business, apparently. And unless we see this, friends, we aren’t seeing the gospel yet. The gospel breaks down all those partitions with which we so carefully organize our lives, our rights and our responsibilities. At home and work and church, we have but one set of duties: to love God and to love our neighbors.
I’m not even sure it turns out to be bad business in business terms. Many businesses are testing it with good effect. Patagonia is one. But for those who call ourselves believers, it’s the good that gets the accent when speaking of good business. It wasn’t Philemon’s fault he didn’t know before, but it is his choice to learn and know now, to be not just changed, but utterly transformed. Now obviously I have no idea how Philemon reacted to this, but neither does anyone else. And it just makes sense to me that someone who considered his runaway slave useless, who didn't want him back, who was having to be talked into taking him back at all, would be gobsmacked at the idea of receiving him as a brother.
Paul might also have cut his losses in the least expensive way possible. He could easily enough have put Timothy and Onesimus on a bus to Philippi carrying a letter to Lydia, instructing her to take the boy in, treat him like a brother. Conflict avoided. And what else would be avoided? The stalling for another season, another generation the reconciliation, the transformation, the divine justice inherent to the gospel they all preached and professed to believe.
Which brings me back to the subject of reparations. For Philemon to do right by Onesi- mus, something has to give. And that something is sole ownership of the rights and privileges that belong to all God’s daughters and sons: the right to be known and treated as a human being, a soul endowed with the image of God and possessed by the spirit of Christ, someone useful and deserving of the same respect as any other human being, someone whose labor is valuable and deserving of just reward.
We aren’t given to know what Philemon chose to do with Onesimus, only that he knew what the gospel asked of him: that he understand that his business – all his business – was now the business of faith, which made it the business of family and of justice in all his relationships, even relationships he’d never before recognized as relationships at all.
One beauty of the gospel, friends, is: it is never, never, never too late to do justice. Would you pray with me?
The smarty-pants Bible teachers of the world agree on one thing only about the book of Hebrews: the Apostle Paul didn’t write it. As to who did write it – lots of guesses. Some even say Phoebe. Remember her from the first Sunday we read Romans? Scholars believe she was Paul’s strong arm in Rome, sent to deliver, read, and implement his teaching, as well as coordinate his mission to Europe out of Rome. Why it’s called “To the Hebrews” is also a mystery, since it’s not really a letter and there’s nothing particularly Hebraic about it other than quotes of the Jewish Bible. But those are from the Septua- gint, the Greek First Bible.
Most likely, this sermon for some congregation or congregations somewhere in Italy late in the first century was composed and preached by a well-educated Jew with deep Hellenistic training. I’m going with Phoebe, since nobody knows and it’s my only chance to say “she” in reference to the Bible writer. I could be wrong, but no more wrong than most everyone else. For all that isn’t known about the preacher, loads is known about the listening church. Namely, they were worn out from being and doing church. It happens. (That pause was your invitation to say “AMEN” – and now it’s too late. Sorry.)
They were worn out from the week-in, week-out work of worship, fellowship and ministry. (Now it’s starting to feel like a trick, isn’t it?) Plus, in their case the constant harassment by their neighbors and the Romans, the confiscation of property, the persecution, the beatings – “torture,” she calls it here – the jail sentences, the family separations (this is all listed in the early chapters of Hebrews), all of it together had them rather discouraged, rather tired of church life.
They were missing worship meeting (Hebrews 10:25); they were slacking on the ministry; they were really struggling to muster the same joy in the faith they’d once had. In their weariness, the preacher says, they’d begun to act out of fear rather than the once-and- for-all-confidence that comes with salvation in Christ Jesus. In Hebrews 8:5, the preacher describes the church as – and I love this language – “a shadow and a sketch of heaven.”
Her entire sermon is a treatise on the nature of Christ, meant to encourage them to remember what they once knew for sure. It is a call to endure this new phase of their life together. They are now grown-up believers in a grown-up church, dealing with the grown-up realities of faith and ministry in a hard world. The “sketch and shadow of heaven” they once cast is not sufficient for the people and church they are now, nor for the world as they can now see it with their grown-up eyes of faith.
She tells them in chapter five, baby believers – and, likewise, baby churches – live on spiritual milk. Grown-up believers and grown-up churches live on spiritual solid food. No way is milk going to suffice for a church under the demands of persecution, imprison- ment and torture. Nor for a church full of grown-up Christians who are aware of the injustice and imperialism crushing our world and who are now in their sixth decade of ministry in the same community.
No wonder you are exhausted and depressed, her sermon goes. You aren’t eating right and you aren’t eating enough! She offers this new diet, if you will: take another look – take a real look – at the Christ you follow. And she spends twelve chapters walking them back through what they know of Christ and the meaning of the Christ event for their lives and their life together, leaving them to decide: Shall we be a grown-up church who slowly starve ourselves to death by insisting on eating a baby church diet? Or shall we pull up to the table she has set for us in her twelve-chapter sermon, take it, eat it, and be changed into the sketch and shadow of heaven we are called to be now?
Let’s pray a little prayer before moving into our text for today: For new confidence in things hoped for, and new certainty in what we do not see, we pray, O God. Amen.
Hebrews, chapter 13 is the sermon the preacher preaches after she promised she was done. Some churches call it “the announcements” or “having heard the Word, let’s do the Word.” The chapter 13 To-Do List is not exhaustive, but enough to keep most churches busy. I’m calling it a list of seven. Let’s go through them.
# 1 – Let mutual love continue. I read #1 as the umbrella for the rest. The rest are ways of maintaining this mutual love so essential to our life together.
#2 – Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have enter- tained angels without knowing it. Hopefully, you recognize entertaining angels as a First Bible reference to Genesis 18, when the traveling strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah brought them the news they’d long prayed for: Sarah would get pregnant and have a son. But why do we have to be promised angels at all? Is it that we are afraid of strangers, or that we mostly just don’t want to be bothered, to be put out; that culturally we’ve come to see our time, our resources, our homes, even our church as our resting place? The faith question might be, at what point does one become a host instead of a guest in this world? and in the church? At what point does the shift occur in one’s faith?
My friend Cathy and I have six children between us, all born inside six years. In a particularly long stretch with her son who wouldn’t sleep unless someone was holding him, a very wise college-age babysitter told her, Miss Cathy, I don’t think you’re going to like me saying this, but someone has got to be the parent here. Put that baby down in his bed and let him cry until he can’t cry anymore. That could be a terrible metaphor if you hear me saying we ought to make strangers cry. It could be an okay one if you hear the preacher of Hebrews telling the church, “Somebody has got to be the grownup here.”
We who have been taking sustenance and comfort from the hand for quite a while now need to realize we are the grown-up church now. And that makes it our turn to turn and show the world the same hospitality we have so long enjoyed. Some of those we are to feed – like the angels – will come to us. Others we will have to go find.
Thus, #3 – Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Some of their brothers and sisters in the faith are in jail. Jail then wasn’t the luxury experience it is now. Prisoners had little more to eat and wear than what friends or family provided. Are you following our local jail situation? The department is cooperating with ICE to separate families, deport members of our community seeking legal status, acting outside the boundaries of their office. They are in violation of federal law – the Constitution, that is.
A grown-up church sees in this situation an opportunity to remember the prisoner and those being tortured. The biblical congregation had brothers and sisters in jail for their faith. Beaten and tortured. Going to them wasn’t safe, but it WAS the definition of mutual love. (So much more I could say on this.)
#4 – Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Adultery – the ultimate detonation of mutual love in a covenantal relationship. Some of us may know someone, a family, broken by adultery. And it’s easy to point away from ourselves, even sympathetically. “Wow,” we say, “that is so hard.”
Less conspicuous is the fact that adultery is just one example of infidelity. And all of us have been hurt, maybe even broken, by infidelity – other people’s and our own. Times we broke promises to people that we should have kept. Times we trusted promises from people we never should have. Times people took advantage of our trust, tricked us and lied to us because they were sinful or greedy or weak. Times we let ourselves believe what we knew were lies just because we so badly wanted them to be true, because we were weak and sinful, and ended up ashamed. Times we even believed the lies of things – things that never said a single word, just dangled their promises in front of us and let us fill in the words: jobs, success, reputation, popularity, alcohol, food, money – what- ever we give the best of ourselves to, rather than to the one to whom we made our promises.
Notice how the preacher puts sex and money next to one another on her list [Hebrews 13:4-5]. I didn’t know till this week there’s a word for “the love of money”: pleonexia (plee ah nex′ ee ah). 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Adultery. Pleo- nexia. And what the preacher is finally talking about is the love or trust of anything that displaces our trust in the promises of God to be with us no matter what. As she repeats in verse 6: So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?”
#6 – Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the out- come of their way of life, and imitate their faith. And then more in verses 17-18: 17 Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing-- for that would be harmful to you. 18 Pray for us; we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things.
This whole bit makes me feel itchy; I probably couldn’t address it save for verse 8. 8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” the verse which sets Jesus as the standard-bearer. The rest calls church leaders to heed their own words, to be the grown-ups they just told their congregation to be, treat Jesus as the standard-bearer in the work of a shepherd. We are responsible. We are to be held to that responsibility, not shrink into some fake humility and say, “Oh, I’m just a screw-up, don’t follow me.” Some of the responsibility is on you, to obey and submit – which I take to mean let them lead.
Let them do this with joy and not with sighing-- I think simply means, do not make our jobs harder than necessary, for that would be harmful to you, she says, which I don’t quite know how to take. Was she threatening them a little, like when a mom says, Don’t make me come up there!
And pray for us – right on! – as much as you are willing. Because we – I – really do love this life and want to do it, deeply and with integrity and faith. Amazing how long the announcements can go on, isn’t it?
#7 – Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God, probably the most obvious item on the list – except, the fact that she has to say so suggests it might not be so obvious. Share to the point of sacrifice. When did you last give away something you couldn’t do without? – since only then does it qualify as a sacrifice. Everything else is just a gift.
Short of life itself, do you even know what might count for you as sacrifice? Are you willing to consider it, here and now, today? Short of sacrifice, we are still eating the softer food of faith. Short of sacrifice, we can be the church. But we will still and always be as the preacher here described us: a shadow and sketch of the kingdom of God we claim to be.
Would you pray with me?
We’re about to start another remodeling project at our house, which reminds me of the book I once owned called Kitchen Redos, Revamps, Remodels and Replacements: Without Murder, Madness, Suicide or Divorce. As soon as our kitchen was done I got rid of the book, because it was too creepy-realistic. The central premise of the book was this: Retrofitting anything is always much harder and far more complicated than starting from scratch; so unless you really, really, really love your house, don’t do it – just move.
The Apostle Paul really, really, really loved his house. The Temple, the synagogue, Judaism. And he worked for thirty years trying to retrofit it to include Christ-followers – both Jews and non-Jews worshipping Christ and serving the gospel together within the larger house, if you will, of Judaism.
Different sects (as in sections) of Judaism already existed in Paul’s time: Zealots and Pharisees and Samaritans. The same is true today. If you are ever in Jerusalem, you’ll see all flavors of Judaism – some religious, some not. Even the most religious Jews, the Orthodox, have sorted themselves out into different sects. There are Orthodox Jews whose socks and pant legs are indicative of the sect they are part of: black socks, white socks, short socks, high socks, pant legs outside of socks, pant legs tucked into the socks. So Paul’s idea of another new sect wasn’t that far out, except for the part about including Gentiles. In the end, that was the deal breaker.
Nearly a hundred years after Paul preached and wrote, along came the suggestion of describing the Christian church as non-Jewish altogether. In effect, it mostly was already. No doubt there were anti-Semitic intentions therein. But had he lived to see it, Paul would have protested. He preached and worked his heart out and he didn’t get his way – obviously. But imagine if he had.
Obviously we can’t account for lots of other maybes, but we’re just pretending anyway – so let’s try. If Paul had gotten his way, we wouldn’t be here, but we might be next door. On any given weekend next door at Beth Shalom, just like now, the Reformed Congregation meets for worship on Friday evenings. They are the liberal Jews who are cool with having a woman rabbi. The Conservative congregation worships on Saturday mornings. And the Orthodox congregation has their own place near campus. If Paul had had his way, we’d be worship-ping over there on Sunday mornings with the other Gentiles and the Christ-following Jews – just one big happy Jewish religion.
Think of the real estate that would be available – just in this town! Just imagine. Had Paul gotten his way: no Catholics and Protestants; no Baptists, Presbyterians or Methodists; no Episcopalians, Pentecostals or Lutherans.
What else? Of course there would be other stories to tell. But think of all the blank pages in our history books. No Crusades! What would Billy Graham revivals have been called without the Christian crusades to annihilate the Muslims? No Roman Inquisition. No Portuguese Inquisition. No Spanish Inquisition. Would there have been an Enlightenment? A Renais-sance? Think of the books and the movies we’d have missed, if Paul had gotten his way. We owe him everything; and still, Paul didn’t get his way.
Only in glimpses and glances does the church reflect the Oneness of Christ for which Paul gave everything. So here we are – next-door neighbors and friends, mostly. I say “mostly,” because New Testament texts like Romans 11 are divisive between us and must be handled respectfully. For his part, I’m not sure Paul would be so much disappointed as glad it isn’t his problem anymore. He did the best that he knew, in the time that he lived, with the information he had. It wasn’t his fault folks didn’t follow his lead. After all, not even Jesus gets his way in our lives all the time, amen?
Are you – am I? – the people we would be if Jesus were getting Jesus’s way in our lives? Probably not. So we gather: to tell ourselves the truth before God; to be encouraged by the word; to enjoy the taste of the grace that makes us hunger and thirst for more; and, hopefully, to leave here week after week a little bit braver and a little more ready for Jesus to have his way in our lives and in our life together. I’d like us to pray together and then take just a few minutes’ consideration of Paul’s address in chapter 11, which I am calling “Grace Is Grace.”
We are yours, we say, O God. Give us a glimpse of what a life that might be, we pray. Amen.
Chapter 11 is Paul’s mic drop. In speaking to the Jews, he speaks to every dominant group in every human society everywhere: “You can share your privilege, and I promise you won’t die.” In speaking to Gentiles, he speaks to every marginalized, disinherited people made to feel less than – not for anything they’ve done but by virtue of their birth. “Knowing you are equally loved by God does not entitle you to lord over anyone, including those who oppress you.”
If that doesn’t sound like you, you are in Group One. Jews were the first privileged Christians. Somebody had to go first. With the privilege comes the responsibility – amen? – the responsibility in this case to go tell, which those first Jews were assigned by Jesus himself. Go where? to the ends of the earth. And do what? and make disciples of whom? all nations. And what do you remember from sermon after sermon, about the word for “all nations”? Ethne. Gentiles.
That’s us, friends. Welcome to the ends of the earth. I remember being a kid and learning all about the ends of the earth. That’s where our missionaries went, carrying Jesus from here to there. Always east: to Europe, the Middle East; to Africa, the Far East; to China. The heroes – like Adoniram Judson and Lottie Moon. Somebody tell me who Lottie Moon was.
I went to Baptist Sunday School from bed babies to the college class, twenty-two years of Sunday School class. But it was not in Sunday School but a history class at Arkansas State University that my understanding of the ends of the earth came completely undone.
The gospel was not first dispensed in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania or in Richmond, Virginia. In fact, it was first dispensed in the East and it traveled west. We were literally almost the LAST to know. And somehow we ended up thinking we were first and that it was our job to get the gospel shipped overseas before the whole world went to hell for our neglect. We are the ends of the earth and would do well to remember it – to remember Paul was talking to us in Ephesians 2, where he wrote:
So then, remember . . . you Gentiles by birth . . . remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh, he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace,
as well as in Romans 11. For, not only are we the Jews so prone to use our power to exclude, we are also these Gentiles so prone to lord over others as if we were the first, rather than the very last guests to arrive at this party, skidding through the doors of the banquet hall as they are closing once and for all. My favorite preaching teacher, Fred Craddock, was fond of saying, “Wherever and whenever and for whatever reason anyone is not welcome to sit at table with you, to eat with you, then you do not have church.”
How easily, friends, how easily do we equate sharing with having less? Because we have not yet caught the vision and the scent of our Oneness in Christ, that only when our siblings are welcome do we have any grasp of the gospel, of God’s welcome of our sorry selves. Either everyone eats or everyone starves. Unless we are one, we are alone, clinging to a fantasy.
Apart from Christ, what do we have worth clinging to? Joined with Christ, there is no end to grace.
So why do we cling to what we cannot keep? And why do we fear losing what we know, in our heart of hearts, can never be taken from us? We cling, because living by faith is really, really hard. Trusting in the truth, acting on the truth we cannot see and hear, is never, ever the easier, simpler life choice. The world doesn’t reward us for it – sometimes quite the opposite – because we are few in number too, which can make faith in the unseen sometimes feel all the crazier.
Paul uses the example of Elijah, who was so discouraged and sick of faith he told God he was the last living prophet on earth. God told Elijah to stop being so dramatic (that is in the “extended edition” of Romans), because in fact there were still 7000 faithful prophets left in Israel. But it can feel that way sometimes, can’t it? Like the world is going to hell this very day, and it literally does not matter if you try to be faithful or not.
Paul goes on relating his theory of how the Jews’ rejection of the Christ opened the doors for the Gentiles’ inclusion. And if such an awesome outcome could come from their lack of faith, just imagine what might happen if they were to turn that ship around and start doing as they ought. But in the question he answers I can hear a hint of that same fear that is so constant in our socio-political lives now.
Radicalism and even violence is an everyday occurrence now, sparked in no small part by a culture’s fear of losing our place in the world. “Identitarianism” is one word for it, white supremacy retrofitted for an extremely sensitive culture. It’s easy for us to brush aside such thinking as ignorant – low-class, even. Though we wouldn’t say that. Think it maybe, but not say it. However, the Christian question is “Are they welcome?” and “will we be church?”
Grace is grace is grace, Paul says, or we are not church. Let us be church, friends, today and in all the days God gives us. Shall we pray?
I am a follower of Christ, and the Holy Spirit is a witness to my conscience. So I tell the truth and I am not lying when I say 2 my heart is broken and I am in great sorrow. 3 I would gladly be placed under God’s curse and be separated from Christ for the good of my own people. 4 They are the descendants of Israel, and they are also God’s chosen people. God showed them his glory. He made agreements with them and gave them his Law. The temple is theirs and so are the promises that God made to them. 5 They have those famous ancestors, who were also the ancestors of Jesus Christ. I pray that God, who rules over all, will be praised forever! Amen. [Romans 9:1-5, CEV]
You know, anytime someone says, I promise I’m not lying, folks are going to assume, Yeah, he’s probably lying. Here we have the Apostle Paul swearing by Jesus and the Holy Spirit that he ISN’T lying, when he says he’d rather be cut off from Christ than offend his Jewish kinfolks.
A couple of hints that he might be lying or, as my mama used to call it, storying (“Now Annie, I think you’re storying to me) – for one, in this very text he uses “they” instead of “we,” when speaking of Jewish history. We know from the fifteenth chapter of Acts and the book of Galatians, along with other texts, Paul was perfectly willing to offend his Jewish brothers ALL the time. So why would he say it here? Hyperbole. Exaggeration. The Bible is stuffed with it – storytelling liberty. It’s what storytellers, Jesus included, did, using over-the-top language to make a point.
No doubt Paul knows they know he’s storying in that self-deprecating way in order to deprecate them too – which is exactly what he does, starting about verse six and carrying on for most of three chapters, much of which is a line-by-line recitation of Jewish religious failure: failure to be faithful; failure to understand their own religious history; failure to understand the Christ event in light of that religious history.
Summed up, in my own words, like this: Either everything Judaism has taught us so far brings us to the conclusion that the Christ event applies to every person equally OR the point of our own religion is to paint some divine, spiritual justification over our own pride and prejudice. We are either one in Christ or none in Christ. As he says it in I Corinthians, chapter 1: either the cross is for everyone or the cross itself is powerless.
Paul has many ways to say it, but he has nothing else to say – at least, nothing else that matters until the church has nailed this down. Because until we have this nailed down – that the salvation we claim belongs to everyone equally, you and me and you and you, and every human being on the planet – we’ve nothing else to do that can truly be called church. Any-thing else makes us a service organization, nothing new, nothing different from what far-better-organized service organizations in this world are doing. Undeserved and unconditional kindness is all we have that humanity can get nowhere else.
And if we don’t have it, friends, we can’t give it. Everything else we do with the name Christian church on it is a cover for our own self-delusion, our own attempts at being good rather than our acceptance of God’s goodness toward all of humanity – and us therein. Anything we try will be contaminated by that human pride and prejudice we learn in the world, and the world cultivates in us. God does not love us because we are good. God loves us because God is good. And while we benefit from that enormously, don’t we also push back against it?
Paul is pushing back against that – pushing back in Romans, chapter 9. They are having trouble with the “F” word again. What’s the “F” word of church? FAIR, of course. His Jewish congregants apparently think it unfair that gentiles get to join the church without having to follow all the Jewish laws they themselves must follow, particularly circumcision (understandable) and food laws. If we can’t have cheeseburgers, neither should they.
Isn’t it funny how things change and how they don’t? And how Paul’s argument holds. It’s the gospel that holds, of course. We can only guess what his congregants have said, but it sounds like they’ve attempted to make the case that “the promises of God belong to us because we belong to Abraham.” Paul’s retort is that plenty of people belonged to Abraham that weren’t included in the promise.
He’s already made the argument in Romans that far more people than they were ever willing to even acknowledge were included in the original promises to Abraham. Here he points out that plenty of people belonged to Abraham that were NOT included in the promise. Ishmael and Esau are his examples. AND, occasionally God would go out of God’s way to use someone totally beyond the pale – the Pharaoh for example – to accomplish the promise. The point being: your argument is lame.
And then, Paul asks the superlative question of the text. Who do you think you are to ask that question? Who do you think you are to even use the word “fair” in reference to God? Don’t you think that the God who excludes whomever God wants can also INCLUDE whomever that God wants? God can do what God wants, and it is none of your business.
Consider for a moment that God has included you? What have you done lately to deserve inclusion, my friend? What have you done, ever, to include such undeserved kindness? Would you call it fair that you have the gift of God in Christ Jesus? And yet you propose to tell God who is or is not equally deserving, to add conditions for others, when God has put no such conditions on you?
Paul will go on and on this way for a bit, calling his church folks “lumps of clay,” which is truly awesome. You know that moment when you realize you’ve lost an argument and you are no longer trying to win – you are just trying to save face? How icky it is to me depends on how invested I am in my reputation, versus my desire to live in the truth – because losing can be life-changing, when it brings us into conversion, when some sliver of truth opens itself up to us. And there comes this wave of nausea and grief at how wrong we were in some idea or belief or way of being. But it isn’t embarrassing, because swirling in that same wave is a new kind of joy and energy that is released upon the realization of truth we did not see before.
Friends, I did not always believe as I do now about the full inclusion of all people, uncon-ditionally, in church life and leadership. I didn’t not believe in it either. I was just sometimes itchy and uncomfortable around some people, and so I let other people’s stridency speak for me. But then I had friendships with people from groups around whom I’d been previously uncomfortable. Then I got uncomfortable with the stridency. It felt mean to me. I decided I couldn’t be part of Mean Church.
So I studied the Bible. A lot. And while it's not a preacher-y, Bible-y way to say it, I decided the whole exclusion theology of my church experience was built on the dominant group’s anxiety and fear. (Remember my discomfort?) And while Jesus doesn’t talk specifically about gay people or trans people, Jesus constantly talks to fearful people, saying over and over and over again, Do not be afraid. And even though he drives me crazy sometimes, Paul really is the most fearless disciple in the entire New Testament. He is the living epitome of Jesus’s suggestion that we do what he did and expect him to deal with the fallout.
I don’t do that. I’m a total coward. But I am convinced of God’s faithfulness despite my chicken-hearted ways. Paul has won the argument long before he ever quits writing. He makes and proves his theological case. The problem, of course, is that theological proof wasn’t Paul’s project. In spite of many thousands of dissertations since, Paul’s purpose was not systematic theology – because he wasn’t a theologian; he was a pastor. His purpose was ekklesia – community; church; life together. A life together in which followers of Jesus reflect the gospel of Jesus: that in Christ the undeserved, unconditional, salvific love of God has been woven into the make-up of human be-ing. It is part of us, part of creation.
What chlorophyll is to leaves, the love of God is to human be-ing. What warmth is to sunlight, the love of God is to human be-ing. What sweetness is to a summer peach, the love of God is to human be-ing. Who do you think you are to question that? Paul asks the church. We shall question it until we know, friends – until we know that love, the way we know our own breath. And only then, only then, will we detect it and celebrate it in the faces and the being of all seven billion of our seven billion brothers, sisters, and gender fluid siblings on this planet.
Would you pray with me? To know your love for us, O God, to recognize ourselves as your darling, darling ones, without need of improvement or change – for this we pray, that we might discover it in one another too. Amen.