Paul's story and ours

Paul wanted to write a letter to the church in Rome, and he knew how to do that, just like you know how to put the name and address on the front of the envelope with the stamp, and your own name with the return address on the back. In Paul’s day, you’d write your own name first and then the name of the intended recipient. It was simple, like, “Paul, to the church of God which is at Rome, greetings!”

What did he do? He wrote the letter in preparation for an upcoming visit, to a congregation he hadn’t founded, so he introduced himself. Paul, he wrote, a servant of Jesus Christ, he wrote, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, and then it was like he couldn’t stop: the opening sentence, Paul’s address line, as it were, is six verses long!

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ—to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.[1]

Paul couldn’t introduce himself without telling a story—not just any story, but the gospel of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, the story that had become so central to his own life that it was in a sense what made him who he was, Paul.[2]

When I met David the other day, he said, “Hi, I’m David!”—“Pleasure to meet you, David. I’m Thomas.”— there was that very brief moment when we were shaking hands, both of us quickly determining if it was OK to chat a little. You know how these things go, one of us will ask the other, “So, what brought you here?” or, “What do you do?” And then it’s on to “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” and before long comes the question, “I detect a slight accent. Where are you from?” … “Oh, Germany? What brought you here?” I remember the days when it took me ten minutes to answer that one; the current version is much shorter.

We build relationships by telling little pieces of our story, beginning with our name. I get the sense that Paul didn’t have much patience for chit-chat; the story that made him who he was was too urgent to be revealed only in bits and pieces. I imagine he was the kind of man who doesn’t move around much at a cocktail party; you introduce yourself and he tells you the story of his life—and in Paul’s case, that’s the story of life, the story of the new creation, the story of sinful humanity embraced by God’s grace and redeemed.

We all live from within a unique story, the narrative of how we became who we are. It’s a story of ancestors and places, of a language and a culture, or a mix of languages and cultures, a story shared to some degree with a particular generation and the experiences that shaped it, but always our story of our childhood with our family, for good or ill. It’s a story we tell others and ourselves, a story we have composed from the bits and pieces that seemed most important to us, our own memories along with stories others have told us about ourselves, and we keep braiding the strands into a whole as we get olderthe parts we love to share, the parts we tell only reluctantly, and the parts we’d rather forget but can’t.

The story Paul tells us is cosmic in scale. It’s so big, it contains all the stories of humankind. And it only has five characters. It begins with God who makes Adam. “Adam” means “ground” or “dust” and so also “the human creature made of dust,” something like “earthling,” the ancestor and representative of us all. Adam’s name speaks of our origin and our destiny as dust creatures who desire to be human without God“you are dust and to dust you shall return,” God said; you remember that line.[3] Something fractured the communion between humankind and Creator, between humans and our fellow creatures, something introduced by the human creature made of dust. The third character in Paul’s story is sin.[4]

In chapters 5-8 of his letter to the Romans, the noun “sin” occurs 42 times, often as a subject of a verb: sin entered the world (5:12), sin increased (5:20), sin exercised dominion (5:21), sin produced (7:8), sin revived (7:9), sin dwells (7:17). “Sin,” writes Beverly Gaventa, “clearly has a leading role in this letter.” And not just in this letter. Paul has a story to tell, and in it, Sin is the third character. Sin is not a lower-case transgression, not even a human disposition or flaw in human nature—in the story Paul tells, Sin is an upper-case Power that enslaves humankind and stands over against God. Humanity’s refusal of God’s lordship meant that God conceded humanity to the lordship of another—upper-case Sin, the personification of our desire to be human without God, to live self-centered, rather than God-centered, lives. If Paul had written a comic book, Sin would be the supervillain, the Dark Lord of Doom, who, like a cosmic terrorist, unleashed Death, the fourth character in Paul’s story. No one could escape from Sin’s dominion of death.

Until the fifth character entered Sin’s dominion, and in obedience and faithfulness to God bore the full weight of Sin’s oppressive rule, was crucified and died—and on the third day God raised him from the dead. The power of Sin and Death was broken, shattered by the power of God, shattered by love. And just as many were enslaved by sin through the disobedience of one, Adam, so the many were set free for righteousness through the obedience of one, Christ Jesus. That is the story that made Paul who he was, the story of humanity’s exodus in Christ from slavery under sin to freedom in the dominion of grace. As Pharaoh’s power was broken when Israel passed through the sea, so sin’s power was broken when we passed through the waters of baptism. Paul speaks of it as our immersion into Christ’s death, our burial with him. Christ’s solidarity with us means that our lives are so intertwined with his, that his death becomes ours, and when we are raised from the waters, we no longer belong in the Adam-world, but begin to walk in newness of life. Set free from all other lordships, we live in complete and trusting surrender to God.

Paul tells us his story, the gospel of our redemption, to invite us into it so we recognize it as the story of our life, a story big enough for all of us, empowering us to give up, abandon, and renounce other stories as well as bits of our own story that have shaped our lives in false or distorting ways.[5] In the ancient church, new believers who wished to be baptized into Christ, took off their clothes as symbols of their former life and, leaving them in a pile somewhere near the baptistery, entered the water naked as they were when they were born. When they emerged from the water, a deacon dressed them in a white robe – but not silk for some and scratchy wool for the rest; no, the same white robe for all. In the new creation, the former divisions of humanity along ethnic or gender lines, or by class and status no longer apply. Or as Paul put it, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[6] We are one in Christ, because he has made us his own. In the deep solidarity of God’s love he has embraced us, never to let go, to free us from the perverse solidarity of sin that makes us one in Adam.

When Christians are told to “remember our baptism” that does not mean so much remembering the moment and the place or who it was that lowered us into the water. It is a way of saying: Remember who you are; you are dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.  It is a way of saying: Be who you are. And: Remember to whom you belong. In Paul’s story, everyone belongs. But we are not meant to belong to Sin and be slaves to Sin while fancying ourselves to belong to no one but ourselves. We are meant to live in the covenant of Love that binds us to God and to each other, serving the One whose kingdom has no end.

 

[1] Romans 1:1-7

[2] See Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans, xix.

[3] Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans, p. 58

[4] See Beverly Gaventa, “The Cosmic Power of Sin …,” Interpretation 58, no. 3 (2004), 229-240.

[5] See Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 10.

[6] Galatians 3:27-28

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To make room for each other

I’m a grateful dad. I have never had a dream that told me to flee in the middle of the night because it was no longer safe there. I have never had to wake my wife and children after waking up in terror, urging them to get dressed and pack their bags, with little time for explanations, telling them to hurry, to decide quickly what to take, what to leave behind. I have never had an immigration officer knock on the door at six in the morning and take me away from my family to a detention center hundreds of miles away.

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Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and important visitors from the East arrived with expensive gifts, wishing to see the child who had been born king of the Jews, and they paid him homage. Born in the city of David, where would the young Messiah travel next, to Jerusalem? No. The family fled to Egypt because of a king determined to kill in order to secure his rule.

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More than 65 million people in the world today have fled their homes due to war, violence, and persecution; more than at any time since World War II. If these men, women, and children – 51% of them are children – if they were the population of one country, it would rank 22nd in population size between the U.K. and France.[1]

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I wonder if they were warmly received in Egypt, Mary and Joseph with their baby. Did they meet others there who spoke their language? Did Joseph find work? Did they find a home, or did they have to camp out on the edge of town? Did they blend in or did everybody know they were foreigners because of their looks, or their accent? Did they worry about being sent back before it was safe to go back?

Jesus said years later, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35), and with these words he declared his solidarity not just with humanity in general, but particularly with the most vulnerable among us, those who are most dependent on the kindness of others. He reminds us that when we talk about families who don’t have enough to eat or about refugees and immigrants, we talk about him, and when we respond to their needs, we respond to him.

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Nashville’s foreign-born population doubled in the 10 years between 2000 and 2010, from 58,539 to 118,126, becoming 7.4 percent of Nashville’s total population. That number has since increased to 12 percent, meaning more than one in every 10 Nashvillians was born outside the U.S. A lot of them are children; about 30 percent of Metro Schools’ student population from the 2015-16 school year — or just over 25,300 children — learned English as a second language.

Among Nashvillians born outside the U.S. are an estimated 33,000 undocumented residents, including 8,000 who have at least one child that is a U.S. citizen. Of the estimated 11 million immigrants who either entered the U.S. without a visa or overstayed their visa, the majority have lived in the country for a decade or more. Most have children and other family members who are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.[2]

The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt conducted a poll in February/March; one of the questions Nashville residents were asked was, “Thinking about the issue of immigration… Which comes closest to your view about undocumented immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.?”

  • 12% responded they should be required to leave the U.S.
  • 14% responded they should stay as temporary guest workers.
  • And 70% responded they should stay and apply for citizenship.[3]

I don’t know about you, but I was surprised by that last number. I hear and read a lot about how divided we are, but a number like that—70% of Nashvillians in favor of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are currently working in the U.S.—a number like that tells me there’s plenty of common ground for us to stand on, a lot more, actually, than the angry rhetoric on talk radio or the inaction in Congress would suggest.

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The General Assembly of our church, meeting in July in Indianapolis, will discuss and be asked to approve resolution GA-1723 On Becoming Immigrant Welcoming Congregations. The Elders of our congregation invite us to study and discuss the resolution and its implications for our ministry on Wednesday at 7 in Fellowship Hall. It is not a controversial resolution we would expect to be hotly debated at the assembly, but it is nevertheless demanding. Among other things, it calls all members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the U.S. and Canada, to consider

  • engaging in congregational prayer, listening conferences, and action around immigration policies;
  • supporting immigrant families when facing and experiencing separation;
  • helping immigrant families and individuals avoid fraud and obtain credible legal resources and guidance;
  • building solidarity between immigrant and non-immigrant congregations;
  • offering sanctuary protections to immigrants or assisting congregations who do; and
  • educating themselves and others about those immigration policies that support the rights of immigrant families.

The Elders want us to study and discuss this resolution before they consider affirming it, because they want us to understand that it is not just one more declaration—one whereas after another and a couple of be-it-resolved’s—but a commitment to continue the work; a commitment to pray, to study and debate the issues, to offer help and support, and, perhaps most important of all, to wrestle with politically charged issues in ways that build community rather than tear it apart.

Paul Wadell writes,

We live in a world of insiders and outsiders, a world where some are welcome and others are [not]. Human beings are experts at exclusion because we prefer the comfortable and familiar neighbor over the “stranger” whose presence may not only challenge us, but also completely remake our world, which is always a risk with hospitality.[4]

This doesn’t just apply to immigrants or refugees, but to those who feel like strangers in their own country, to every person whose experience of the world differs from our own and whose view of the world may therefore feel almost “foreign” to our own. We live in a time of terror and war, of massive cultural shifts, of violence, distrust, suspicion, fear, and anxiety, and it is no wonder that we seem to talk a lot more about closing rather than opening doors to strangers. “Fear constricts our world,” writes Wadell. “Fear teaches us to pull back, to become wary and disengaged. And fear, fueled by anxiety, teaches us to attend to our own needs before ever considering the needs of others.”[5] But we are not created to be anxious, we are not created for fear and isolation; we are made for each other, for a life of communion in the ever-expanding love of God.

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Love has a lot to do with memory. One of the scripture passages the resolution asks us to think and talk about, says,

“When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”[6]

You heard it. First, not oppress. Then, the alien shall be to you as the citizen. And finally, you shall love the alien as yourself. And why? Memory. Remember, you were aliens in Egypt, and remember, I am the Lord your God.

Some will say, “We weren’t aliens in Egypt…” As Gentiles, we don’t always know how Israel’s story with God is also ours.

“So then,” writes the Apostle in Ephesians, “remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’ … 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.”

Remember, you were aliens. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. … So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.”[7] Knocking down walls, bringing together those who were far off with those who were near, and enlarging the boundaries of the commonwealth, Christ has changed the landscape of our interactions. We are invited into this new space to live in the wide embrace of divine love, the strangers that we were along with those who are strangers to us, and to comprehend together, in the company of all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love.[8]

To love is to make room for another in our lives. God has made room for us. Living in that love, we can’t help but make room for each other. And I can’t think of anything more important for us to do in this day and age, than to make room for each other.

 

[1] The U.K. has a population of 65,511,098, and France, currently ranked 22nd, of64,938,716; see http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/population-by-country/

[2] http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/local/2017/05/30/nashville-immigrants-live-in-fear-trump-deportation/341126001/

[3] http://www.vanderbilt.edu/csdi/2ndVanderbiltUniversityPollNashvillefinal.pdf

[4] Paul Wadell, Toward a Welcoming Congregation, 76. https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/53384.pdf

[5] Ibid., 78.

[6] Lev 19:33-34; see also Dtn 10:17-19 “The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

[7] See Eph 2:11-22

[8] See Eph 3:18

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Monkeyface and Pimpleback

Nancy and I paddled down the Duck River last Saturday, from Cortner Mill, just below Normandy Dam, to Wartrace. It was a gorgeous day, sunny but not too hot, and the mosquitoes apparently had other things to do. We saw several turtles on muddy logs along the banks and watched a heron silently crossing the water in front of us. We even passed a parrot perched on the gunwale of a canoe. The lady in the stern of the boat told us she took the bird, because her kid didn’t want to go paddling with her. Nancy and I kept moving downriver, enjoying every moment of the trip. We weren’t aware, though, that we were on a river teeming below the surface with an almost unsurpassed variety of freshwater animal life.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the Duck River is one of three hot spots for fish and mussel diversity in the entire world. With 151 species of fish, 60 freshwater mussel species, and 22 species of aquatic snails, it is generally considered to be the richest river in varieties of freshwater animals on the North American continent. The Duck contains more species of fish than are found in all the rivers of Europe combined. Perhaps we should rename it the Mighty Duck…

Downstream from Columbia is the Yanahli Wildlife Preserve, occupying land which once was meant to be a TVA reservoir. Construction on the Columbia Dam had already begun, when in 1977 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added two mussels, the Cumberland monkeyface and the birdwing pearly mussel, to the endangered species list. In 1999, after years of litigation, the dam, with the concrete work largely completed, was dismantled, at what the folks at wikipedia call “a loss approaching $80,000,000 of public funds.”[1]

Was it a loss? Freshwater mussels have disappeared across much of the United States. But the Duck River is one of a handful of rivers in Tennessee where they have survived and are still thriving, among them the Cumberlandian combshell, the Tennessee pigtoe, the purple wartyback, the pimpleback, the deertoe, and the Duck River darter snapper.

God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”[2]

This was the sixth day, when the waters were already swarming with living creatures of every kindand the osprey, the bluebird, the swallow, the raven, the red hawk and birds of every kind were flying across the vast expanse of the sky and nesting in the trees along the banks of the riversand the land was filled with animals of all shapes and sizeslet us make humankind, God said, in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have dominion over all this, as far as the eye can see. What kind of a mandate is that, dominion?

Fifty years ago, Lynn White, a historian of medieval science and technology, published a short article, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis.”[3] The crisis, he argued, is not simply the result of powerful technologies that have increased human impact on the environment. The root cause of the crisis is our profound misunderstanding of dominion. “What people do about their ecology,” White wrote, “depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them.” Christian tradition, particularly in the West, according to White, has taught us to view ourselves as “superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” The Christian ethicist James Gustafson calls it “despotism”[4]—one of the historical ways that people of faith have interpreted their divine right to dominion over the earth. In this view, you do not concern yourself with a river’s tiny inhabitants whose names you never heard before; you use the world to make a world, your worldyou build the dam. This is how you rule. You don’t have to ask a tree before you bulldoze it for a subdivision. You knock it down. You push it into a pile with the corpses of other trees and throw a match on it. You scrape the clear-cut earth free of green moss, trillium, tiny orchids, unsuspecting Gopher frogs and a couple of thousand years’ worth of topsoil before calling the pavers to come and cover it all with blacktop. Done. Oh—and if the mountain laurel block your view of the river, just cut them down too. The next time the river floods, the banks will collapse without those living roots—the river will silt up—the trout will diewho cares, you buy yours anyway at the grocery store—already cleaned and boned, for just a few bucks a pound. This is how you rule. This is your playground, after all—God said so. It is all for you.[5]

Dominion isn’t despotism, and thankfully we have come a long way since White published his paper in 1967. But we still have a long way to go. White wrote, “we shall continue to have a worsening ecological crisis until we reject the … axiom that nature has no reason for existence save to serve [humans].” As long as we see ourselves as somehow “above” creation rather than as part of creation, our understanding of dominion will be distorted. We may actually care for rivers, oceans, soil and air, but only because of their usefulness to us. We see them as precious resources we need to manage well for our own survival, but we don’t see and respect them as divine creatures in their own right. Humans, White pointed out, commit their lives to what they consider good, which means, that we must learn to see creation in its entirety as goodnot just good for usfor life to continue to flourish. Dominion is not a license to exploit, but a commission to see and name and care.

Seven times in the first chapter of Genesis, we are told that God saw. Seven times, God stepped back, as it were, to behold God’s work in life’s unfolding, God’s gaze lingering on every leaf and flower, every feather, every wing, this grasshopper, that minnow by the rock, the busy chipmunk, the child in the neighbors’ yard… God is not in a hurry. God observes. God attends. God notices. God delights. God sees. “And God saw that it was good,” it says, again and again, like the refrain to a song. And God saw that it was good, good, good, gooduntil the end of the sixth day when God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. And on the seventh day, God rested.This is how God rules.

Humans have a special place in creation, but we’re not that special. We don’t even have our own separate day set aside, you know, for the “crown of creation.” We are latecomers to the miracle of life, creatures of the sixth day who arrive in the afternoon, as it were, after cattle and creeping things and wild animals of every kind. And yet, humans are the only creatures made in the image of God and entrusted to represent God’s dominion among each other and in our relation to the nonhuman creation. We are the first creatures who not only participate in the miracle of life, but who have also been given the capacity to see the commonality of all life; the first ones to see how fearfully and wonderfully made all creatures are and how each is connected with the other in layers of relationships forming a single web. We are the first creatures who don’t just float along with the current in the river of life, but delight in naming every other creature swimming with us. We are the creatures who observe the motion of the planets and in endless wonder explore the depths of the universe and the grammar of the genome. We are the ones gifted with the capacity to see everything that God has made and how very good it all is, and to say so. We are the creatures who give voice to the unfolding miracle of creation. There was joy in heaven when the first human beings let themselves be overwhelmed by awesome wonder and said, “Thank you.”

Dominion is not despotism and it’s not just good stewardship in the interest of self-preservation. We are made in the image of God; we are here to love as God loves, to see as God sees, and to never stop singing in response to God’s unceasing grace. We are here to participate in the dominion of love that unites earth and heaven—without secret devotion to any other dominion, including the one in which the value of all things is reduced to their price.

I think about the woman with the parrot in her canoe. I wonder what she can do get her kid to join her on the river, so she’ll learn to love it for the wonder it is…

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duck_River_(Tennessee)

[2] Genesis 1:26

[3] Science vol. 155, no. 3767, 1967, 1203-1207.

[4] James M. Gustafson, A Sense of the Divine (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1994), 87.

[5] With thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Dominion of Love.” Journal for Preachers 31, no. 4 (2008) 24-28.

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The deepest thing inside

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

These are two lines written by Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, from a poem titled, Kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

Her words resonated deeply when I looked at a picture of three women at a funeral service sometime on Friday, somewhere in Egypt. I saw their anguished faces, and for moments I was certain I could hear their mournful wails. The story I read said that gunmen had waved down a bus filled with pilgrims as it wended its way down a dusty side-road in the desert, headed toward a monastery. Dressed in military fatigues and claiming to be security officers, the gunmen ordered the passengers to get out. They separated the men from the women and children, and instructed them to surrender their mobile phones. They told the men to recite the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. When the men refused, the gunmen opened fire. At least 28 people were killed, several with a single shot to the head. Several of the dead were children. A local leader who visited victims of the attack on Friday said, “By the time they killed half of the people, the terrorists saw cars coming in the distance and we think that that is what saved the rest. They did not have time to kill them all. They just shot at them randomly and then fled.” More than 100 people have died since December in similar attacks targeting Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

When Jesus gathered at table with his disciples one last time before he was betrayed and arrested, he prepared them for his departure. He washed their feet, which for many of them, I imagine, was the one teaching that contained all the others: love embodied in humble service. He also spoke that night in long threads of words and sayings, metaphors and images, folding and unfolding, telling them who he was and who they were, and how the Spirit of truth would come and be with them forever, to remind them who he was and who they in turn were because they belonged to him like branches to a vine. His final words to them were, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). I don’t know if the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is reading from the Gospel according to John on this Sunday. I pray that they are not left comfortless in their sorrow, that they draw courage from the knowledge that God is no stranger to their sufferings and that love has conquered the world.

On the cross, God in Christ has embraced us in our violent desire to live outside the communion of life in a world of our own making. On the cross, God in Christ has embraced us in vulnerable love to draw us back into the communion of life, not with the force of coercion, but by absorbing the violence of our sin and disclosing the depth of divine love and forgiveness. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus taught the disciples—and we are still only beginning to understand that God does indeed love the world by embracing us in our enmity and calling us friends long before we know how to do what Jesus commands (see John 15:13-14).

His final words to the disciples that night were, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.” And after Jesus had spoken these words, he prayed. And for many of us, I imagine, overhearing Jesus pray is the one teaching that contains all the others: we are given a glimpse of the intimacy that marks the union of Jesus and the one he called Father. This is the life that is nothing but life. This is what human beings have been created for: this intimacy, this deep familiarity, this communion with the Giver of life. “And this is eternal life,” we overhear him say, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Eternal life is a life shaped by the knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus. That’s not the wikipedia kind of knowledge, the knowing-everything-there-is-to-know-about-God kind of knowledge, but a knowing of God and a being-known by God that is the relationship between lover and beloved. “No one has ever seen God,” we read in John 1:18. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” His whole life reveals who God is and how deeply God loves the world.

At the beginning of his ministry, the wine gave out at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus told the servants to fill large stone jars with water, and it turned into wine, and the world said, “Wow!” He revealed his glory, the power of God, and his disciples believed in him.

At the end of his ministry, his friend Lazarus of Bethany became ill and died. Three days later, Jesus stood outside the tomb and shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” and he came out, and the world said, “Wow!” He revealed his glory, the power of God, and many in Bethany believed in him.

When Jesus was crucified, he said, “It is finished.” He glorified God by finishing the work God gave him to do. He bowed his head and gave up his spirit, and the world said— nothing. Laying down his life, Jesus gave himself completely so that the world may know the depth of love that unites him and the Father, the same love with which God embraces the world to draw all of creation into the joyful communion of life.

John narrates the good news of Jesus by using words which are in themselves quite ordinary, words like name, world, and word, but which carry extraordinary cargoes of connotations. Most of us catch those connotations only after having heard or read the whole narrative several times, which can make hearing only snippets of the text a bit frustrating. In today’s passage, though, it’s a simple verb – it almost goes unnoticed among the weighty nouns – that simply tells who God is by telling what God does: it’s the verb to give. Eleven times it rings in this passage like a bell, it sounds like a drum beat, like the heart beat of God, the heart beat of life. “You have given, you gave, you have given, you gave, you have given, … I have given and they have received.” As we are drawn into the communion of life of Father, Son and Spirit, we live in the rhythm of receiving and giving the love that makes all things one.

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12 ). Now we, in our life together and in our witness in the world, reveal the character of God—here in Nashville, in Portland, and in Egypt. Human beings do not readily recognize the image of God in the face of those who are not in our own image. Only love can open our eyes.

The sister of one of the two men stabbed to death on a Portland train wrote in a family statement,

We lost him in a senseless act that brought close to home the insidious rift of prejudice and intolerance that is too familiar, too common. He was resolute in his conduct (and) respect of all people … In his final act of bravery, he held true to what he believed is the way forward. … We ask that in honor of his memory, we use this tragedy as an opportunity for reflection and change. We choose love.

These are the closing lines from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Kindness:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

 

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Our maternal Lord

Dear mothers and children of mothers, today we celebrate the women whose motherly love has surrounded us through the years so we would thrive and flourish, and on this Sunday we are given one of the very rare passages in the Apostolic writings that speak of infants and milk.

In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and in Hebrews, milk is mentioned as baby food for baby Christians who haven’t matured enough in their faith to digest the solid food of weightier teachings. Peter, though, is playing a different theme. He’s not talking about milk for newborn infants who’ll eventually become meat-and-potatoes Christians. Writing to believers who often struggle with how to live the new life of Easter, Peter points to babies as perfect examples because they are new to the miracle of life and they simply know what’s best for them when it comes to eating and thriving: You pick them up and cradle them in your arm and if they’re even just a little hungry, they’ll turn their little face toward you and with their mouths open they begin to feel their way to the source of all goodness and joy.

“Since you have tasted that the Lord is good,” Peter writes, since you have tasted the sweet forgiveness, rich mercy, and abundant grace that nourish the life of believers, long for that milk, that new-life and whole-life milk. It is the sustenance that is true to the new life in Christ that is yours. Be done with malice, guile, envy, slander, and whatever else they serve at the former-life bar; that stuff has zero nutritional value. It doesn’t nourish you, it consumes you and those around you. Look at a baby: that’s you in the arms of Christ. Desire the milk of mercy and drink it, drink the love that will not let you go, drink the life given for the life of the world.

Penelope Duckworth is an Episcopal priest, a writer and teacher, and she’s a mother. She wrote this poem, titled simply

Milk (For Clare)[1]

Pulled by your cry, it surged out.

Welling from the nipple’s pores, it was thin,

bluish, sprayed in tiny streams,

caused a slow, dull, homesick pain.

We laughed in astonishment as it kept coming

until your shining mouth let go

and you drowsed in sunlit bliss.

You, at seven months, nurse and pedal

rhythmically, your hands explore the air.

I fill to meet your whitest need,

The milk now, grown thick and creamy,

will hold you sleeping with its weight.

Dame Julian, in her mystic state,

perceived Lord Jesus as her mother

offering to nurse us all,

milk flowing from his giving breasts.

It is a glory, this feeding from the body:

Take and eat this simple meal.

This is my body given for you.

Take and be full, my daughter,

from the white vein of sharing.

Take nourishment in all its forms

as it comes generously down the years,

from this first food to banquet fare,

in memory of me.

I wonder if perhaps the Apostle got a little uncomfortable with the image of the newborn drowsed in sunlit bliss. He makes a rather abrupt turn. He steps away from the beautiful intimacy between mother and child and takes us to a construction site. Suddenly he writes about stones and buildings. Stones are hard, rigid, lifeless. Dead as a stone, we say. But that’s not what Peter has on his mind. Peter writes of a living stone, which sounds like a nonsensical oxymoron until we let it speak.

Come to him, the living stone. Christ is the stone that the builders rejected. Christ is the stone for which human beings had no use; they had their own vision of life, their own carefully planned projects, and he simply didn’t fit in. But in God’s sight, the one whom mortals rejected was, and is, and forever will be, chosen and precious. God is building a house in the world, and Christ, the Living One, is essential to the structure.

Peter wrote to diaspora churches, scattered all over the Roman Empire, without legal or social status, and often subject to harassment and persecution. His first readers were gentile Christians in Asia Minor whose faith made them strangers in their own towns and neighborhoods; they knew the pain of rejection; they lived like resident aliens who didn’t know where they belonged and who they were or would be. “Come to [Christ],” Peter wrote, “come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.”[2]

The word “house” had rich meanings in the Scriptures. It signified not just shelter, but belonging, community, nation, and culture. Abraham was called by God out of his father’s house, that is, out of his nation and culture, to form a new house, a house founded on his faith in God. This new house, this new people of God found themselves swallowed up into “the house of bondage” in Egypt. Yet God brought them out in a mighty act of liberation and made a covenant with the Hebrew slaves at Sinai and they became “the house of Israel.” In Jerusalem, the temple was built and rebuilt as a dwelling place for God’s name, a house of prayer for God’s people marking the center of their world. We read in the gospels that one of the disciples said to Jesus as they were coming out of the temple, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Jesus told him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”[3] It seemed as though all things were being swallowed up into the house of Caesar in those days. Yet it was in those days that God began to build a new house in the world, and in that house, Jesus who was betrayed, denied, abandoned, accused, condemned, mocked, abused and crucified, Jesus, the stone who was rejected by all – Jesus is the cornerstone.

In old buildings, cornerstones were laid as part of the foundation upon which all else rested. They were selected for their size and strength, and the entire structure was only as strong and reliable as those stones. We don’t think of cornerstones as essential structural elements anymore. We consider them ceremonial add-ons to commemorate the year a building was begun. But Jesus is not merely a commemorative ornament in the corner of the building, not in the house God is building. It may be better for us to use an alternate translation like keystone or capstone instead of cornerstone. The keystone sits at the high point of an arch and it is essential for its structural integrity: remove it, and the arch will collapse. In the house God is building, Jesus, the stone that the builders rejected, has become the keystone that holds everything together. God is building a house in the world, a living temple of living stones, a cathedral of flesh and blood, held together not by the few and forever changing things we can agree on, but by Christ’s embrace.

Peter affirms that in the crucified and risen Christ, God is building a new house, and all who come to him are living stones forming an integral part of the house, sharing a common life and offering their whole life to God. With Christ, all who come to him are a chosen race: as living stones they overcome the separations of racism and become the one humanity made in the image of God. With Christ, all who come to him are a royal priesthood: they make their lives an offering of praise and gratitude in response to the unceasing flow of God’s grace and mercy. With Christ, all who come to him are a holy nation: nationalism with all its excluding attitudes gives place to a community that is consecrated to God and God’s purpose to unite all nations in their diversity into one house. With Christ, all who come to him are God’s own people: chosen and precious, a living sign that God desires one human family sharing life in justice and peace. With Christ, all who come to him proclaim with their very lives the mighty acts of him who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light.[4]

The emphasis here is not on all the things we do as believers, but on who we are and who we are becoming in the house God is building. The emphasis is on our need to come to Jesus, the living stone, in order to let ourselves be built into the living house of God.

Tomorrow night we will meet for a design workshop in fellowship hall. Our building committee and a team from Hastings Architecture have planned a great evening. We will eat together and begin to make some important design decisions. Those of us on the building committee are pretty excited; we think it will be fun, and we hope many of you will come and participate. Whatever we build, physically or organizationally, we want it to serve what God is building. More than anything, we want to let ourselves be built as living stones into the living house of God.

Peter’s picture includes no glimpse of a completed house, but only of a house under construction. The Apostle wants to encourage us to trust the master builder. When it is finished, the house of humanity will reflect Christ in every detail. In a similar way, the image of individual Christians never arrives at any stage later than that of infants who have just left the womb, nuzzling the breasts of a maternal Lord.[5] We trust this one who is the source of all life and goodness and joy.

 

[1] Penelope Duckworth, “Milk (for Clare),” Congregations 30, no. 3 (2004): 19

[2] 1 Peter 2:4

[3] Mark 13:1-2 parr.

[4] See Philip A. Potter, “Christ is God’s delegated and precious living stone,” International Review Of Mission 72, no. 288 (October 1983), 540f.

[5] Paul Minear, “The house of living stones: a study of 1 Peter 2:4-12,” The Ecumenical Review 34, no. 3 (July 1982), 246.

 

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With continuous and persistent tenacity

The book of Acts is Luke’s account of the new life that erupted when God raised Jesus from the dead. It’s about the disciples learning to follow again, and you can barely recognize them anymore. At first they were scattered and confused, with their emotions swinging from fear to joy and back, and from sorrow to wonder and doubt. But not anymore. Take Peter, for example. It’s the day of Pentecost, and the crowds gathered in Jerusalem just heard the disciples tell the whole world the great things God has done. They’re bewildered: “Aren’t they all Galileans? How is it that each of us can hear them in his or her own native language?” They’re amazed, they’re astonished. Now Peter stands up to address the crowd, and you know this isn’t something he’s done a few times before. So you’d expect him to stammer a bit, grope for words, take a while to find his groove, but no. He delivers a polished sermon, flawlessly composed, complete with lengthy quotes from scripture, without notes, and all at nine o’clock in the morning. And to top it all off, Luke tells us that those who accepted what he said were baptized, and some three thousand persons were added that day. One sermon – and three thousand lined up to be baptized! Does Luke think this is how you inspire believers to talk in public about what God has done? Is that his idea of a pep talk for preachers? In the next verse, Luke turns the spotlight, and now we get to take a good look at the congregation:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.

Beautiful, isn’t it? A few years ago, in a class at a seminary down in Atlanta, one of the students said,

“This text reminds me of the little mimeographed booklet that one of the old saints in my home church wrote. It was on the history of our congregation, and reading what she wrote you’d think that our church was the most loyal and faithful congregation in the world. Every minister was wonderful, and there was never a troubled moment.”[1]

Loyal. Faithful. Wonderful. Never a troubled moment. The professor who taught the class continued to spin that thread:

Sometime in the life of almost every congregation some member with a long memory, a grateful heart, a little time, and a typewriter [has] put together a hand-stapled booklet with some title like “Providence Church: A Century of Faith and Service.” If one reads such a local history one will characteristically encounter paragraphs like this:

In 1938 Providence Church called Emerson Langley to be the new pastor. His first week in his new charge, he preached a weeklong series of revival services at the church, and the whole town was present. Never had the people of Centerville heard such powerful preaching. Everyone was impressed, all were spiritually renewed, many joined the church, and the whole community was buzzing with admiration for Providence’s new minister and his wife Irene, a constant helpmate.[2]

The whole community? Really? And everyone was impressed? And all were renewed? Sounds to me like the news from Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

When Luke writes about the beginnings of the church in Jerusalem, he is not a mere chronicler reporting the cold, hard facts with journalistic precision. If he were, there would be little to share beyond the sad news that the church has gone downhill ever since its first, golden day. Luke sees more than meets the eye. And he’s not looking through rose-colored glasses, either, a nostalgic romantic who embroiders his narrative with colorful embellishments, giving real churches in the real world very little to sustain us in our mission. Luke sees the world bathed in Easter light, and he looks with faith, and he can’t help but notice in the church’s very beginnings the things that foreshadow what it will be, now that the Spirit of the risen Christ is on the loose in the world. Luke writes with hope that all of life, to the ends of the earth, will be redeemed and renewed by the love of God which has been revealed in Christ and poured out on men and women, young and old, rich and poor, slave and free, from every tribe and nation, and all of them devoted to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers, all of them together, and not a needy person among them—the gift of life shared by all, simply and miraculously.

Luke writes with hope because the church is not left to its own devices. We are not on our own; we are participating in a movement of the Holy Spirit, the powerful, unstoppable, life-giving Spirit of God who draws us and all creation into life made whole. The work is God’s and we have the privilege of participating in it, anticipating the complete transformation of ourselves and all things in the image of Christ.

Can you imagine what might happen if we devoted ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers? “Devoting ourselves” has quite a devotional ring to it, which isn’t bad, but the translation takes the edge off the word Luke uses here.[3] That word speaks of doing something with continuous and persistent tenacity: Actions and habits that occupy the center of our attention and much of our energy and time: There are the people you love. There’s the work you do. And there’s the dream you carry. That’s the neighborhood in our heart Luke is pointing to; that’s where the teachings of the apostles are seeking a home, and the fellowship of believers, and their meals and prayers. Right there, in the middle of town, where the few things you do with continuous and persistent tenacity live, not on the outskirts where you drop by occasionally.

Did you notice that Luke mentions eating together more than anything else? Most families today try hard to share at least one meal each day with each other, and it’s not easy with work and travel schedules and gymnastics practice and piano lessons and church meetings. Luke writes about eating together, because we are what we eat and who we eat with. In Luke’s day, in the first-century Roman world, people were very careful about dinner invitations, there were strict social boundaries; but in the churches, those boundaries began to crumble. Men and women, rich and poor, slave and free came together as friends in the company of Jesus to break bread, and it changed both them and the cities in which they lived. Christians began to look past things like social or legal status and recognize each person as a person. Children, for example, weren’t always welcome in those days in the cities of the Roman empire. Under Roman law, fathers could, and often did, kill newborn children. Female babies were particularly vulnerable. A study of gravestones at one ancient cemetery discovered that of 600 upper class families in that city, only six raised more than one daughter.[4] Fathers decided whether to keep a baby or banish it which meant simply setting it outside. Christians became known for picking up abandoned babies who were left in the gutters to die. A sociologist who reviewed the available data in the historical record noticed that Christians had significantly higher survival rates than the general population during the plagues that repeatedly hit the cities of the empire. It wasn’t unusual then for people to be thrown out into the street at the first symptom of disease, out of fear of contagion. Christians were more likely to stay with the sick and nurse them.[5] Christians became known for caring for those whom others considered expendable: the discarded, the poor, the aged and infirm. The church became a sanctuary for the unwanted; they ate their food with glad and generous hearts, and day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. With ordinary men, women, and children, the Holy Spirit formed extraordinary communities, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

The world still needs to know that there are no expendable people. Every person is made in the image of God and loved by God, and Christ came so each person and all persons together may have life, and have it abundantly. In the past, the church picked up abandoned babies and cared for the sick and the dying. It is no coincidence that many hospitals are named St. Thomas, St. Jude, Baptist, or Presbyterian, to name just a few, even though very different narratives tend to drive conversations about caring for the sick these days. When business lobbyists and political leaders get together to rewrite the rules how access to health care in this country is regulated, it is again up to the church to remind them that there are no expendable people. Because we are the ones who look around the table where Jesus is the host, and sometimes it looks like the kingdom is already here.

 

 

[1] Thomas G. Long, “A night at the burlesque: wanderings through the Pentecost narrative.” Journal For Preachers 14, no. 4 (1991), 30.

[2] Ibid., 30.

[3] And again in v. 46 “spent much time together.” See also Acts 1:14.

[4] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 97.

[5] Ibid., 73ff.

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And so we walk

I come from a family of walkers. My grandparents never drove anywhere. My grandmother walked to the village to do her shopping or she walked to the bus stop to drive to the city. My grandfather walked to the leather factory every work day and to church on Sunday, he walked to the chicken coop, he walked to his apple orchards on the hill behind the house and on the other side of the valley, he walked in the forest. The only thing with wheels he ever operated was a rattly handcart to bring home sacks of apples to make cider or firewood for the kitchen stove.

My dad drove to work in the city every day. My mother got a driver’s license in her thirties, but one day she backed into another car in a parking lot, nothing big, just a broken tail light, but that was the end of it. She never drove anywhere again. She walked to church, she walked to do her shopping, and she walked to the tram stop when she needed to go to the city. She’s 83, and she still walks pretty much anywhere she needs to go. Occasionally she takes a taxi home when her bag of groceries got a little heavier than expected.

I come from a family of walkers. My siblings and I walked to school every day until fourth grade, and then we walked to the tram stop to get to school in the city. We walked to church, to youth group, to the pool in summer, or to visit friends. One of my friends lived in another village, on the other side of the hill, about five or six miles away, and I loved walking there. I had already discovered that there’s nothing better than walking to think about stuff; it’s something about the rhythm of simply putting one foot in front of the other and letting your thoughts wander.

I wasn’t surprised when I first heard about veterans hiking the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail or the entire U.S. from coast to coast. These warriors seek healing for their wounded souls, hiking by themselves or in groups. Walking is more than a mode of transportation for them; it helps them sort things out, particularly the things they couldn’t just leave behind when they came home from the battle field. Rebecca Solnit wrote, “We are eternally perplexed by how to move toward forgiveness or healing or truth, but we know how to walk from here to there, however arduous the journey.”[1] Life itself is described as a journey, most often imagined as a journey on foot--unless, of course, you sail through life or you cruise up and down easy street.

Jesus and the disciples walked everywhere they went; first from village to village in Galilee, and then all the way to Jerusalem. Walking with Jesus was not just a matter of getting from here to there for them. Walking with Jesus the disciples learned to follow him on the way. They learned that following wasn’t just a matter of their minds absorbing his teachings; it was something they did with their feet, with their whole bodies, it was a particular way of being in the world, a particular walk.

They followed him to Jerusalem, full of hope and expectation, and then things just seemed to fall apart: the temple leadership, the Romans, the crowds, betrayal and arrest, fear and denial, and the terror of the cross. It was as though their whole world collapsed overnight. All they could do was stand and watch from a distance as Jesus was crucified and died. That was the end of it.

We don’t know where to look for Emmaus on the map, the scholars haven’t been able to locate it, but we know the road. It’s where we walk when loss has turned love into pain. Or when our hope has dried up and we can’t tell if we’re sad, furious, or tired. It’s where we walk when faith is little more than a memory. When you have no idea who you might become after you’ve lost pretty much all sense of who you are, you either find yourself a room to hide in or you walk the Emmaus road. Walking gives you something to do; it helps you sort things out; it gives rhythm to the waves of your thoughts and feelings and keeps them from crashing again and again into chaos.

Boulevard of Broken Dreams is the name of a Green Day song that became a signature hit for them back in 2004. “I walk a lonely road,” the lyrics go. “My shadow’s the only one that walks beside me / My shallow heart’s the only thing that’s beating / Sometimes I wish someone out there will find me / Till then I walk alone”

Sometimes you walk alone. Sometimes you wish you had somebody to walk with you, somebody to listen to your story.

The two disciples were on the road together. They were talking about the flood of events that had washed over them over the course of the past week: the joy of Jesus’ arrival in the city, the shock of his arrest, the guilt they bore for abandoning him, the trauma of his execution, and then, earlier that day, the astounding story the women told about a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive.

It was all too much to take in, and so they walked. A stranger came near and was going with them. It was Jesus himself, Luke tells us, but they didn’t know that. All they knew were the brutal facts of Friday and the numbness of Saturday and the story the women had told them. Friday was painfully real. The crucifixion was designed to be seen and witnessed by the public. Friday had weight. Friday was verifiable. Betrayal, fear, torture, death, hope shattered and silenced – there was a record of Friday, engraved on their hearts. Easter was a rumor by comparison. Someone said that someone saw him, only it didn’t look like him, exactly, and before anyone could believe it was him, he was gone.[2] Glimmers. Rumors. Baffling tales.

Cleopas and his unnamed companion are not as famous as Mary Magdalene or Peter. We never hear of them again; they were like us, ordinary people struggling to get some perspective on life beyond the wreckage and devastation of Friday. And like us, they were slow-of-heart folk who needed some time to integrate the word that God had raised Jesus from the dead into their own stories. And so they told the stranger about Jesus and how they had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. And then the stranger walked them through the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the prophets. He taught them to recognize the things that had taken place in Jerusalem not only as part of God’s story with creation, but as the heart of that story. With the stranger as teacher, the rumors of resurrection can be heard as echoes of what God has promised. With the stranger as teacher, the suffering and death of God’s Messiah can be recognized as the depth of God’s redeeming love for humanity.

The first disciples began to read and reread the Scriptures in the light of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The ancient texts gave them the language to speak about what God had done through Jesus Christ, and in turn the cross and resurrection became the lens through which they were able to perceive the full depth of Israel’s witness to the faithfulness of God. For these insights they did not give credit to their own cleverness, but pointed to the Risen One himself as their teacher, to a revelation that cannot be manipulated, but is altogether gift. The story only gives us a couple of hints: to be prepared to encounter the risen Christ in our fellow travelers on the road and to be attentive to strangers, to show them hospitality, because through them the Living One may choose to reveal himself to us.

The walk to Emmaus is the walk from hopelessness and rumors of Easter to the world made new by the faithfulness of God. At first, we struggle to squeeze what we are told happened on Easter into our understanding of how the world works. When our eyes have been opened, though, we begin to see how the world fits into the new reality of Easter. The resurrection is no longer the odd event we can’t quite square with our knowledge of the world; it becomes the new horizon that allows us to see all things surrounded and held by God’s mercy. How we understand life and loss and hope now is illuminated by this divine passion for communion that has broken down the gates of hell, by a love more powerful than sin and death. Trusting the contours of this new reality more than our accustomed sense of things is what we call resurrection faith.

Theologian Douglas John Hall wrote a series of dialogues with an imagined conversation partner, someone who is “on the edge of faith.” The final conversation in the book is about hope:

Resurrection is the ultimate declaration of God’s grace. It is not ... natural. It is not ... automatic. It is wholly dependent upon the faithfulness, forbearance, and love of God. And just for that reason - only that! - I am able, usually, to sleep at night, to continue playing the piano and writing (…) and taking my aging body more or less for granted “in the meantime.” Because the only thing of which I can be at all confident when I think of my own “not being” is that God will be. I am not so presumptuous as to think that the God who “brought again our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead” (Heb. 13:20) will also, quite naturally, be pleased to bring me from the dead, too. I don’t understand all that. (…) I do not, and I expect I never shall, understand all that. All that I can do is to stand under it.[3]

This is not just a clever word play. We stand under the promise of life’s redemption and fulfillment through Christ. And so we walk with him who revealed to us the heart of God.

 

[1] Wanderlust, 50.

[2] See Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Easter Sermon,” Journal for Preachers (Easter 1995), 10-14.

[3] Douglas John Hall. Why Christian? (Kindle Locations 2113-2119). Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.

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Uninterruptably alive

Now all is filled with light,

heaven and earth and the realm of the dead,

The whole creation rejoices in Christ’s resurrection,

which is the true foundation (…)

Let us embrace one another.

Let us speak to those who hate us:

For the resurrection’s sake

we will forgive one another everything.

And so let us cry: Christ is risen from the dead.[1]

Jesus is back, and not just in one place at a time, but in all places, in all moments, and in any circumstance. He is back, with life and authority, not to scold or revenge, but to forgive and to bless, and to continue to go ahead of us. This is the day that the Lord has made, the first day of the new creation, the day of our salvation. This is the day when even middle-aged white Protestants could be tempted to dance in the aisle, singing and clapping and rejoicing in the Lord! The whole creation rejoices in Christ’s resurrection, which is the true foundationof hope, of joy, of life in fullness.

We have heard the story of the women at the tomb, the first moment when the new reality was only beginning to sink in. And we have heard a snippet from the letter of Paul to the church in Colossae, reminding them and believers of every generation that it is Jesus who is seated at the right hand of God, the Lord of the universe. The grace we have encountered in Jesushis compassion, his friendship for sinners, his power to heal and unleash life, his humility, his teachings, all of ithas been vindicated by God. The priests called it blasphemy; kings and governors suspected rebellion; the crowds first shouted their welcome, then their rejection; the disciples were confused, afraid, ashamed, and heart-broken—but God raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection of Jesus God has unveiled the infinitely greater capacity of divine goodness, subverting all human power plays, and wooing us towards a pattern of relationships not founded on fear and envy, greed and violence. At the heart of the universe, love reigns in faithfulness and unceasing generosity. The resurrection of Jesus reveals the crucified one as “fully and immediately and uninterruptably alive with the everlasting vivacity of God.”[2]

Now we’re not here just to hear the story. It’s not like we’ve been invited to be the well-dressed audience for the drama of Christ’s death and resurrection. We’re here because we want to let it sink in a little deeper yet that we are participants, and not just amateur theater participants, but real-life participants, in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We’re here because Christ has embraced our life as his, and now we’re invited to embrace his life as ours, the life that is “fully and immediately and uninterruptably alive with the everlasting vivacity of God.”

“Therefore,” writes the Apostle, “since you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

Christ’s solidarity with the sons and daughters of humanity, his friendship with sinners is so deep, his embrace of us all so wide, that we are all raised with him. “You have been raised with Christ,” the Apostle writes, like it’s already happened, and it has, because our resurrection is not something that happens after or in addition to the resurrection of Jesus, but is part of it. His life is our life. His life is human life like it’s meant to be. When we trust his word and his way, we begin to live in the new creation, and together we embody the new humanity, made in the image of the firstborn from the dead.

Did you notice that Paul wrote, “you have been raised” and only in the next sentence, “you have died”? It’s a curious reversal, isn’t it? It’s like he wants to tell us first and foremost what is our new identity as the people whom Christ has made his own, “you have been raised with Christ.” And then, because believers have always struggled to fully live our new identity, he reminds us that our former life under the reign of sin and fear isn’t who we really are, “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” And so the Apostle urges us “seek the things that are above” and to “set [our] minds on things that are above.” One commentator suspects that to some of us this may sound “like religiously justified absenteeism from real life, scorning the workaday vocations of family and state and economy to dwell daintily in a celestial starscape. It sounds like that most scorned version of Christianity, ‘pie in the sky by and by,’ heavenly hopes to the exclusion of earthly engagement.” [3] But that’s not the point at all. Paul doesn’t tell us to abandon the earth or the struggles for justice on earth. He points to the one seated on the throne, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, who reigns as Lord of the universe. ‘Seeking the things that are above’ and ‘setting our minds on things that are above’ is not about escaping the world for some imaginary ‘above’ but about re-orienting our allegiances to the Lordship of the crucified Christ and having our imaginations shaped by his rule, so that whatever we do, in word or deed, we do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus; that way we give our attention and worship to the Lord of heaven and earth instead of pretenders to the throne. And that way we grow in our life in communion with God.

Believers in Colossae, like believers of every generation, struggled with letting this new life be their whole life. There were other teachings that sounded similar enough to what they had heard from the evangelists; there were other allegiances shaping public life, and there were other theories being debated in the markets and the academiesmuch like today. Life in first-century Asia Minor was very different from life today, but I imagine it was also very similar: folks wanted to know what a good life looks like; they wanted to understand what is means to be successful; they wanted to love and be loved; they had bills to pay; they hoped the kids would treat others with respect; they wished they had different hair; they worried about forces beyond their control; they wondered how all the pieces fit together.

We wonder how to fit all the pieces together. How do you do it? A little what momma said, a little Jesus, a little Hollywood, a little patriotism, a little Oprah, a little liberalism, a little yoga, a little momastery, a little network news, a little baseball, a little mountain music, a little historyand somehow it all comes together, doesn’t it? You work hard to pull it all together and keep it together.

Paul in Colossians and elsewhere urges us to let this day be the first day of our life; to see in the death and resurrection of Jesus not just the heart of reality in general,  but to let it shape our life day to day, year to year, and season to season; to let Christ be our beginning and our end, our going out and our coming home.

The Apostle includes in his letter a beautiful, hymn-like passage:

Christ is the image of the invisible God,

the firstborn of all creation;

for in Christ all things in heaven and on earth were created,

things visible and invisible,

whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—

all things have been created through him and for him.

Christ himself is before all things,

and in him all things hold together.

He is the head of the body, the church;

Christ is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,

so that he might come to have first place in everything.

For in Christ all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,

and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,

whether on earth or in heaven,

by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The world is one because ultimately divine love subverts all human power plays. “Your life is hidden with Christ in God,” the short reading for this day ends. “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” Glory is the last word. It has light bursting through it and song, it’s a word the angels whisper and thunder in eternity. It’s a word describing the unhindered and unending presence of God. Glory is the last word; the fulfillment of life.

 

[1] Easter hymn of the Orthodox Church; quoted in Moltmann, Passion for God, p. 84-85

[2] MacIntosh, Divine Teaching, 101-102.

[3] Sarah Hinlicky Wilson http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3218

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Repair or replace?

 

It was about two years ago, on a Sunday morning, after worship and after just about everybody else had left, when one of our deacons came to my study. She was visibly upset. “I am so clumsy,” she said, “I was washing the communion cups and I hit one against the edge of the sink. Can you believe it? I broke the chalice. Is there a way to get a replacement? I’ll be glad to pay for it.”

The way she talked about it, it sounded like the chalice was shattered to pieces, but it wasn’t bad at all, just a few small pieces missing from the base, and it looked like none of them had disappeared down the drain. “I think I can fix that,” I told her. “We probably need another set anyway, just in case, but I think we can fix this one and continue to use it. I don’t want you to think you have to pay for it, just because you broke it. We’re not Pottery Barn. Sometimes things break when we handle them, it’s part of life. I’m grateful that you give a portion of your Sunday to clean up when everybody else has gone to lunch. See, the pieces fit nicely, there’s just a tiny chip missing. I think I like that the chalice isn’t perfect, that it’s showing signs of wear. It’s an earthen vessel, just like we are, with cracks and flaws; what is perfect is the love we receive and share through it.”

So I used superglue to repair the chalice, and we’ve been using it ever since, beautiful in its imperfection.

Let’s say your clumsy husband broke a piece of your grandmother’s china that your mother gave you on your wedding day, would you want him to say, “I think I can fix that”? Probably not. You don’t want a piece of superglued china on your dinner table, even if it’s just a humble saucer. You’d go to replacements.com and see if you can find it, perhaps wondering if you should get a replacement for your husband while you’re there, one who appreciates fine china that’s been in the family for three generationsbut that thought only briefly crosses your mind, just for comic relief.

When it’s broken, do you repair it or replace it?

Depends on what it is.

Three weeks ago, on the Third Sunday in Lent, as part of our prayers of confession, we tore strips of fabric from a large piece of cloth. The tearing helped us visualize how our sinful actions fracture and fray the wholeness of life. “We confess our surrender to fear,” we prayed. “We confess our prejudice and contempt toward others. We confess our impatience with ourselves and with one another. We confess our lack of faith in your mercy,” we prayed, naming the brokenness within and between us, a brokenness we both suffer and cause.

Today we have spread palm branches up and down the center aisle of the sanctuary, turning it into the highway of the Lord, stretching from the gates of the city to the royal banquet hall where the nations of the world gather for the feast of peace. Today we welcome the Lord Jesus into the city, singing with joyful exuberance, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” We sing, because we do want him here, we do want him to rule and to make all things right and whole and beautiful. But look how poor he is: he doesn’t even own a donkey; he had to borrow one for the parade. What kind of king comes to town on a rental?

Matthew quotes from the prophet Zechariah to describe the scene, “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”[1] But Matthew doesn’t quote the whole verse; he drops “triumphant and victorious” so all that remains is, “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.” In the sermon on the mount, the same word, here translated “humble,” is translated “meek”: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. The meek, in the company of their humble king, will inherit the earth. Our own visions of a world made right often have more in common with imperial dreams of world domination than with the peculiar way of Christ. We get power wrong. We see the donkey, but in our imagination we still envision the strong man in shining armor, riding high on a white stallion, who comes to save us. We see Jesus, but we still dream of a superhero. And so we watch the parade, hoping that this humble savior will transfigure and convert our dreams. We call this week ‘holy’ because we enter the mystery of God’s power revealed in the life and death of Jesus.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul urges believers in Philippi. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit … Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). Such words were rare and foreign in a city like Philippi. The citizens of Philippi cherished their connections to the imperial household, and their privileges as friends of Caesar. Roman culture valued force, competition, and honor-seeking. Humility was not considered a virtue. Roman society, much like ours, was built on the pursuit of status. You move up, and you socialize with the people who can help you move up even higher. You only look around to check out the competition with a quick glance over your shoulder. You press on, your eyes on the next rung of the ladder, leaving behind those who cannot keep up.

Jesus moves in the opposite direction. Jesus emptied himself, Paul tell us. He humbled himself. He “made himself of no reputation,” as the King James Bible renders the words so beautifully. He climbed down the ladder, his mind on nothing but the will of God, loving us sinners with a passion and a vulnerability for which we have no words. We call this week ‘holy’ because the final days of Jesus’ life on earth reveal to us the heart of reality, and it’s not relentless competition in the pursuit of status, but rather relentless love in the pursuit of communion. Jesus climbed down, all the way down, for love’s sake.

‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord,’ we sometimes sing, as though we could say, “They did it. It was the Romans, it was the Jews, it was the fickle crowdit wasn’t me.” But the cross is our doing. This is what we do to each other in the name of religion or in the name of  justice or truth or political convenience, in the name of whatever works for us. The cross is the culmination of our desire to be like God, the culmination of our rebellion against life as creatures made in the image of God. But this dark Friday truth has a glorious, hopeful side: God raised Jesus from the dead and gave him, the crucified slave, the name above all names. And because God raised Jesus from the dead, we can look to the cross and see more than the culmination of our rebellion against the life God has intended. We see love that goes all the way for the life of the world, for the sake of communion with us.

You have noticed the banner with the purple cross. It is woven from the strips of fabric we tore from a large piece of cloth three Sundays ago while confessing our participation in tearing up the fabric of life God has created. The cross shows us the hope for a new wholeness to be found beyond the fractures and slashes we have suffered and caused. It speaks of healing, of forgiveness and reconciliation.

In just a few moments we will share the Lord’s supper. We will again give thanks for the life God shares with us, for God’s relentless love, and for the hope that in Christ all of life is being restored and fulfilled, to the glory of God. After you eat the bread and drink the cup, we invite you to briefly stop at the banner. You will notice pieces of golden thread at each of the intersections where the strips of fabric cross over and under each other. You are invited to tie a knot at those crossings. You can do it as a prayer for wholeness for a particular situation or relationship, or to affirm your faith in God whose love will not let us go. Tying a knot is a small action, but it is part of the new wholeness God is creating from the fragments of our lives.

The chalice I mentioned at the beginning? I used superglue to repair it. I hoped that the fit would be tight, so tight that the cracks would be reduced to barely visible hairlinesgood as new, as we like to say. It was months later when I learned about a very different approach to repairing broken pottery. It is a Japanese technique called Kintsugi, which means ‘golden joinery.’ The repairer uses lacquer or epoxy, dusted or mixed with powdered gold, to fit the pieces back together. Rather than hiding the damage, Kintsugi accentuates the fracture lines with precious metal. The brokenness isn’t disguised, but made beautiful in a new wholeness. The broken vessel isn’t merely repaired, but recreated in new beauty.[2]

Isn’t that what God does? Isn’t that what we affirm God’s faithful love does with our broken lives? Refuse the urge to replace, but recreate in glorious beauty?

 

[1] Zechariah 9:9

[2] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kintsugi

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Hope without palliatives

Ezekiel never was your favorite prophet, was he? We much prefer Isaiah, whose words we can copy straight to our Christmas cards. Or Amos and Micah who call us to repentence, declaring God’s judgment against our injustice and lovelessness. Ezekiel doesn’t write copy for greeting cards. He also doesn’t show up much in our Sunday school curricula or lectionaries. He has made friends mostly among mystics and among those in every generation obsessed with the timetables of the endtime. Ezekiel is strange; some would say, weird. His visions are beyond imaginative, often incomprehensible and offensive, with violent and pornographic tendencies.

I was 14 years old, in confirmation class with my friend Chris, when we stumbled upon Ezekiel by accident. Our pastor had asked us to read a passage from Jeremiah 23, and flipping through the pages we didn’t realize we were in Ezekiel 23 when our eyes got bigger and bigger as we read about two sisters whose names no one had ever mentioned to us before. We read with a mix of fascination and terror, and we didn’t know what to make of the strange world we had accidentally entered, and so we giggled. “Thomas, verses 5 and 6; why don’t you read them out loud for us,” our pastor said, and I’m glad my friend Chris noticed that we had flipped a few pages too far in our quest for Jeremiah 23. He tapped the top of the page with his finger until I noticed it too—“Ezekiel” it said, and I quickly turned back the pages before I started reading.

Ezekiel, son of Buzi, was a priest from Judah, or perhaps a recent graduate preparing for the priesthood. He was part of a first wave of exiles from Jerusalem whom King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon deported in an attempt to subdue the troublesome leadership of Judah. We don’t know much about Ezekiel’s personal life, but I can imagine that he felt utterly out of place in that foreign land. You see, you can be a teacher, an accountant or a carpenter just about anywhere in the world. But Ezekiel was a priest of the Lord whose temple was in Jerusalem, and outside of that sacred place he simply was out of place. He had lost not only his home, but the defining center of his life. His entire community had been uprooted, and they struggled to make sense of their devastating losses.

It was in exile that Ezekiel became a prophet of the Lord. He had visions, he heard voices, in the grip of God’s spirit he traveled far, and he declared it all to his compatriots in exile. Ezekiel insisted that their losses did not reflect the defeat of the Lord by the gods of Babylonia, as some surmised; no, their exile was the judgment brought down on them by their God, and deservedly so. In Ezekiel’s mind, there was no room for historical coincidence, no room for geopolitical analysis that might explain their exile as collateral damage in the conflict between the global powers of the day, Assyria, Babylonia, and Egypt. In his mind, this was God’s doing, all of it.

Some thought Ezekiel was out of his mind, but they weren’t so sure when more news arrived from Jerusalem. Ezekiel had declared that the Babylonians would breach the city walls, burn the buildings to the ground, slaughter a great number of inhabitants, and deport the rest. And it turned out he was right. “In the twelfth year of our exile,” he wrote as though in a ship’s log, “in the tenth month, on the fifth day of the month, someone who had escaped from Jerusalem came to me and said, ‘The city has fallen’ ” (33:21). Everything that once made them who they were as a people, had been taken away or destroyed: the land, the temple, the city and throne of David, their proud theology. They were broken. They were helpless, overwhelmed by hopelessness. Exhausted by grief, they sat in silence.

In that silence Ezekiel heard a new word, a word that spoke of new hearts and of homecoming – but who could really hear it? Not even Ezekiel himself; he wrote it all down, dutifully, but he couldn’t say it. The words of judgment had come to him much more easily. The losses they had experienced were much more tangible than these first whispers of hope waiting to be given voice.

That was the moment when the hand of the Lord once again came upon Ezekiel, and the Lord brought him out by the spirit of the Lord and set him down in the middle of a valley. It was a journey into the heart of the people in exile, a journey to the end of the road. Ezekiel didn’t just see a valley full of bones, he walked around in it. The Lord led him around as if to make sure he saw the full extent of their hopelessness.

Elie Wiesel noted that Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, unlike his other visions, does not bear a date. Why not? Wiesel suggests, because every generation needs to hear in its own time that these bones can live. We meet Ezekiel amid the ash heaps of Auschwitz, he stands amid the killing fields of Cambodia, the orchards of Bosnia, the roads and churches of Rwanda, the villages of South Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen – will the list ever end? Ezekiel stands amid the “vast acreage of death, once fields of birth,” as Daniel Berrigan called the landscape of our sin. In Berrigan’s meditation on Ezekiel’s vision, God cries out,

Have I populated the earth with monsters?

Of the symphonic

sweep and scope

of my creation

… they make this –

a petrified forest of death.

Bones, bones. Dry bones.

But not forever, I swear it!

… Ezekiel, stand in the killing fields.

Shall these bones live?[1]

Ezekiel said, “O Lord God, you know,” and we don’t know if he spoke with firm conviction or with some hesitation; we wonder if he meant to say more, you know, but the words just wouldn’t come; or was he perhaps waiting for God to speak the word? The Lord told Ezekiel to speak—to the bones.

“O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live.”

Can you see that scene? Ezekiel standing in the killing fields,  about as far away from the garden of creation as human imagination can travel, and there, in the dust where life once was, in the desert of hopelessness, bones as far as the eye can see, Ezekiel speaking the word of the Lord? Can you see it? Ezekiel’s breath interrupting the deathly silence, giving voice to the breath of God? Daniel Berrigan described the scene he saw:

And a rustling sound

as of leaves in autumn wind

started amid the dry bones.

A whisper, then a drumbeat!

They stood erect, those bones,

and knitted firm!

… and the spirit entered the bones.

First a whisper,

then a drumbeat,

then reverberant –

a heartbeat!

They took breath once more! and

walked about! and

conversed one with another!

joyful, harmonious,

an immense throng, the newborn, the living!

Speak to them.

Say:

Death no dominion!

from graves, mausoleums, hecatombs—

Lazarine multitudes, come forth!

Rejoice!

far from servitude!

enter the gates

of new Jerusalem![2]

The prophet spoke, and hope began to sing: Death no dominion! Corruption, injustice, oppression, and proud theology? Not the last word. Devastating judgment, exile, and weeping by the rivers of Babylon? Not the last word. The terrors of war and the hardness of human hearts? Not the last word.

“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live!”

The last word is so much like the first in the garden, when the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the earthling became a living being. Beyond the reality of death, there is the promise of new life.

“I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live!”

Ezekiel traveled to the dead end of the road, and he came back telling us of the faithfulness of God. When we get to the point where we say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost,” when we get to the point where cynicism and despair look like the most reasonable response to the course of the world, when we get to that point, we need a friend like Ezekiel: a friend to remind us that God is not done.

Thomas Merton wrote in a letter to Czeslaw Milosz from September 12, 1959:

We should all feel near despair in some sense, because this semi-despair is the normal form taken by hope in a time like ours. Hope without any sensible or tangible evidence on which to rest. Hope in spite of the sickness that fills us. Hope married to a firm refusal to accept any palliatives or anything that cheats hope by pretending to relieve apparent despair. … We cannot enjoy the luxury of a hope based on our own integrity, our own honesty, our own purity of heart. … In the end, it comes to the old story that we are sinners, but that this is our hope because sinners are the ones who attract to themselves the infinite compassion of God.[3]

We need a friend like Ezekiel in a time like ours, and because we belong to God’s Easter people, because God’s spirit of hope is at work within and among us, we take our stand beside Ezekiel and join him in bearing witness to God’s faithfulness, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!” You who see what a mess we have made of the world and how we seem to always manage to maneuver ourselves into dead ends, listen up! You who have settled for the status quo and the whispers of idols that tell you that exile is as close to home as it gets, listen up! The breath of God is blowing in the valley—let it breathe on you, let it breathe in you; allow it to give breath to your voice and inspire your actions. For thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live!

 

[1] Daniel Berrigan, Ezekiel: Vision in the Dust (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1997), p. 112, 114

[2] Berrigan, p. 114-115

[3] Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth: Letters to writers, ed. by Christine M. Bochen (Louisville, KY: The Merton Legacy Trust, 1993), 62.

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