Seeing what's really there

Sometime on the way Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They told him some folks thought he was John the Baptist, and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets. Jesus clearly got people’s attention, but they didn’t quite know who he was. So Jesus asked the disciples. They had been following him around for a while, listening to his teachings, and witnessing his miracles. They had had opportunities to hear and observe him in a variety of settings, so he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”[1] In Sunday school, he would get a gold star for giving such a splendid answer, but this wasn’t Sunday school. This was Jesus in the villages and on the streets of Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God’s reign. And Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Which is odd, because you’d expect that the Messiah announcing the kingdom of God would want the word to get out.

It appears Peter gave the right answer, but he may have given it too soon. The amazing teachings, the astonishing healings and miraculous feedings were not the whole story. So Jesus began to teach the disciples about the road ahead; he told them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And Peter wouldn’t hear it; he took Jesus aside for a little constructive feedback, something along the lines of “You gotta be kidding; are you serious?” Because in Peter’s book, suffering and death were not included in the job description for God’s Messiah.

Peter, spokesperson for the disciples, gave the right answer, but it was the wrong answer, because he thought he knew the playbook for God’s Messiah. He didn’t yet grasp that declaring Jesus to be the Christ meant that no one but God and Jesus himself would determine what the implications would be. To follow Jesus didn’t and doesn’t mean to watch him live up to our hopes and expectations, but to have our hope and our lives shaped by him.

In the next scene, Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and talked with them about discipleship. He taught them and teaches us what it means to say to him, “You are the Christ.”

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. [2]

To follow Christ is to trust that the way of the cross is indeed the way to redemption and fullness of life, and that kind of trust doesn’t just happen overnight. And so before the journey takes us to Jerusalem, we follow Jesus up a high mountain. And don’t go looking for this mountain on the map in the back of your Bible, and don’t go looking for it on your trip to Israel. Because this mountain, as Tom Long reminds us, “juts out not from the topography of Galilee, but from the topography of God. This is the mountain of revelation, the mountain of trans-formed vision, the mountain of true seeing.”[3]

There, Mark tells us, Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John. There was fire on the mountain. It was like light bursting through the seams of Jesus’ clothes—his face and hands and feet shining with luminous beautyand everything was bathed in this glorious light. It was as though time collapsedMoses and Elijah appeared, the great prophets of old, and they talked with Jesusit was as though heaven and earth had merged into one or the veil separating everyday reality from what’s really real had been removed. A cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud came a voice, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” This is the first and only time in the gospel that the voice from heaven addresses the disciples, addresses us, showing us that this is as much about us as it is about the identity of Jesus. It is not enough to say that Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, because it is our perception of him that is changed. We see who he really is, his true identity as beloved by God. We could never have seen that in the plains of everyday, let alone down in the dark valley; we could never have guessed that he is beloved by anybody. Admired, perhaps, during those moments when he drew crowds with his miraculous actions, but otherwise misunderstood by his disciples, rejected by folks in his hometown, drained of his power by his neighbors’ scoffing unbelief, and plotted against by the authorities. Beloved? Hardly. And even more powerful winds of hell were about to be unleashed.[4] He was after all on the way to Jerusalem.

But before the storm, before the darkness of Golgotha, the veil separating past, present and future is lifted, and we are given a glimpse, a foreglow of the glory of life’s redemption and fulfillment and a divine affirmation of Jesus who accomplished this redemption and fulfillment on the way of the cross.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” They looked around and they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. But now they could no longer see him or the world as they had once done. What they had witnessed on the mountaintop, they did not leave behind. What they had seen there now permeated what and how they saw here, in the plains and valleys of life.

And the plains and valleys is where their journey with himour journey with himtakes the disciples. It doesn’t take us out of the world and into realms of pure spiritual splendor. Jesus leads us down the mountain to the plains and valleys below where the whole world is awaiting its transfiguration. Down the mountain, to the places where life’s brokenness seems to always have the last word; where people languish in camps and shelters, longing to go home; to the places where ignorance and chaos seem to reign and where men, women, and children experience life as though they were the playthings of demons; down the mountain, to the valley where the heavy blanket of despair threatens to suffocate all hope.

Our journey with Jesus doesn’t take us out of the world, but deeper into it as servants of God’s reign; as followers of Jesus who dare to believe that his way, the way of the cross, is the way of life because we have caught glimpses of what love can heal, and every glimpse changes what and how we see. And so we follow him down the mountain and then on the long climb up to Jerusalem and to the hill they called Golgotha.

On Golgotha, there is no bright cloud overshadowing the scene, but rather a great and dreadful darkness. On the mountain, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white, but under the cross soldiers tear them into souvenir rags. On the mountain, Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus, but on the cross he is taunted by bandits. On the mountain, a heavenly voice spoke truth, but on Golgotha a hostile crowd is shouting ugly insults. On the mountain, our friend Peter wanted to stay and build dwellings, but at the crucifixion he is nowhere to be found. The contrast is startling and stark. On the mountain of the transfiguration, we reflect on our desire to see and be with God, but at the foot of the cross, we reflect on God’s desire to be with us. We climb this mountain before the long journey of Lent so we remember in the darkness of Good Friday that it is God’s Beloved whom we betray, deny, judge, abandon, mock and crucify, and, even more importantly, that God’s desire to be with us has overcome the power of sin.

Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah,” but he didn’t know what he was saying. On the mountain, Peter heard the voice of God declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” But only after he had failed repeatedly to stay awake and pray with Jesus in Gethsemane, after he had denied Jesus three times, and after he had fled from the cross was Peter ready to follow the Messiah who suffered, died and was raised. It was not on the mountaintop, but at the lowest point of his life that Peter began to fathom who Jesus is. When there was nothing left but hopelessness and the love of Christ, and love prevailed, that’s when Peter knew the Messiah.

On Wednesday we begin the long journey of Lent, a journey that is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world. In humility and hope, we follow Christ from ashes to glory. We ask for the light of God to shine in our hearts that we might be filled with the knowledge of God’s glory shining in the face of Jesus, as the apostle Paul so beautifully put it (2 Cor 4:6). The whole journey is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world. It is about our re-creation in the image and likeness of Christ, the beloved of God. In the company of Jesus, we begin to recognize ourselves as God’s beloved, and that love is the light of God shining in our hearts. The light of love opens our eyes to see what is really there, in the face of every man, woman, and child: the beloved of God.

 

[1] See Mark 8:27-30

[2] See Mark 8:34-35

[3] Thomas G. Long, “Reality show,” The Christian Century 123, no. 5 (March 7, 2006), 16.

[4] See Long, Reality show.

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She got it

Nobody remembered her name. All they could remember when the story was written down was that she was the mother of Simon Peter’s wife. We can only identify her through her relationship to Peter, a man whose name the church never forgot. He was the first person Jesus called to be a disciple. We know his name, along with the names of his brother Andrew, and the brothers James and John. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus said to them. The church even remembers Zebedee, the old man James and John left behind in the boat — and that’s all we know about him, that moment and his name.

It was a man’s world, what do you expect, some have said. Others have suggested she remained unnamed because she represents women as a group. In the verses before today’s passage, Mark tells us about a man with an unclean spirit, a man in the grip of the demonic, whom Jesus liberates, and the scene takes place at a synagogue, a very public place. Following that he tells us about a woman with a fever, whom Jesus heals, and the scene takes place in the privacy of a friend’s house. Mark, they say, so arranges the scenes that those who hear or read his gospel narrative would know right from the beginning that Jesus brings liberation and healing to both men and women, in public and in private. I can see that, and it all takes place on the sabbath day; it’s like a thumbnail that represents the whole big picture. The two brief scenes are like the opening announcement of the crowning day of creation, the day of life’s fulfillment, that longed-for, long-awaited day when all God’s creatures rejoice in God’s shalom, freed from demonic possession and healed from every fever, fear, and sickness. I like that thought, I like that interpretation, but I still wish we could remember the mother of Simon Peter’s wife by name, because in contrast to her famous son-in-law, she was the first person to participate in Jesus’ mission. She was the first who got it.

Here’s the scene: they left the synagogue, walked across the street and entered Simon’s house where she was in bed with a fever. The next sentence is composed of plain, unadorned words, nothing printed in red, just simple, descriptive terms for simple actions: He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. It’s the kind of sentence that easily disappears on a page, amid the many words that want to tell you what happened next, that evening, at sundown, the next morning, and thereafter. But when the reader you’re listening to or your own eyes and voice just keep running, line to line, down the column, you’re likely to miss a lovely detail: this scene by the woman’s bed reflects the whole work of Christ. Jesus came to us to take us by the hand and raise us up. Jesus came to give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless. And Jesus came not just to make us feel better by restoring us to our former life. He takes us by the hand and raises us up to new life. Listen again to Mark’s words:

He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

What does this have to do with new life? Sarah Henrich says,

It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.[1] 

Jesus restored her to her place in the household and the village, a place of dignity and purpose – but that was the life she had before. What is new about a life where she goes back to the kitchen to fix supper for Simon and his guests, and wait on them? What is new about a life where a woman’s place is in the kitchen while the men eat and have deep conversations about the kingdom of God? Is it real healing when all Jesus does is confirm the status quo? Only the text doesn’t say anything about the kitchen, nor does it say anything about her returning to her household chores. It says, she began to serve them.

The word to serve first appears in Mark 1:13: Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and the angels served him. Then the word is used in the scene at Simon’s house and again in Mark 10:45, where Jesus says, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Serving is something angels do in Mark’s telling of the good news, and it is something Jesus does. The last time the word is used in Mark is immediately after the account of Jesus’ death.

There were also women looking from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem (Mark 15:40-41).

Apparently a good number of women had left the kitchen and followed Jesus to Jerusalem. They provided for him sounds a little like they made sure he had enough to eat, but the word is again to serve: they did what the angels did for him in the wilderness and what he himself had come to do. Serving is something followers of Jesus learn to do from him, and Simon’s mother-in-law was the first who got it; that’s why I wish the church had remembered her name.

He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 

These simple lines describe the whole work of Christ, as well as the work of those who follow him: they serve him in gratitude and serve with him in proclaiming the good news of God’s reign.

Lawrence Wood tells a story about some remarkable women he’s been blessed to know, “women,” he writes, “whose names may never be written large in church history, even though their influence has been widely felt.” Every summer, Sharon, Muggs, Wanda, and Joretta would help to put on a church dinner. Another woman couldn’t help out one year, having just had a hip replacement. Lawrence went to check on her a day before the dinner.

“They’re not using boxed potatoes, are they?” she demanded. “The people who come expect potatoes made from scratch.”

“They’re planning to peel potatoes all morning,” he said.

“And the ham? Did they get a good dry ham, or the watery kind?”

“Honestly, I didn’t know,” writes Lawrence. “It was probably the same ham as always. I asked if she had always enjoyed cooking, and to my surprise, she adamantly said no, that cooking was a big chore.”

“Really? I thought you enjoyed doing this.”

“I don’t love the potatoes,” she said. “Really, young man, you should know I love Christ, and there are only so many ways a body can do that.”[2]

In the Liturgical Year of America, today is Super Bowl Sunday, with the central ritual of the game celebrating strength, skill and strategy, applied for the purpose of pushing into the others’ territory and taking the ball across the goal line. Minor rituals connected to the day include consuming wings, chips, dip, salsa, pizza, and beer, watching and commenting on various commercials, and, among serious followers, the wearing of special clothing and the chanting of songs and insults. And while the whole nation will be getting ready for that, somebody will unlock the doors to Fellowship Hall downstairs and set up beds; somebody else will put little bags with toiletries and cough drops on each pillow; yet another will put out board games, while two or three will be putting the finishing touches on a good meal. And then the van will pull up and our guests will arrive. “Welcome to Vine Street,” the hosts will say, “we’re so glad you’re here. Come on in and make yourselves at home. Dinner will be ready in just a few minutes.”

Remember what the woman said? “I love Christ, and there are only so many ways a body can do that.” And so she just did it, she began to serve. And soon others joined her, they came together as one body, and before long they discovered that her mission statement was also theirs, with just one small change that changes everything: We love Chist, and there are so many ways a body can do that. They dropped the only, because as one body, inspired by Christ’s love for them and their love for Christ, they could do all that was needed to proclaim the good news of God’s reign.

The mother of Simon Peter’s wife got it before anyone else did. Jesus took her by the hand and raised her up, and she began to serve. That evening, Mark tells us, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And Jesus proclaimed the good news of God’s reign. He took them by the hand and raised them up, and we don’t know how many of them, filled with joy and gratitude, simply returned to their former lives; and we don’t know if there were others who, in grateful response to the healing and liberating love of Christ, began to serve.

In the morning, Mark tells us, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. The need for healing and liberation was still great in Capernaum, but they didn’t know what to do about it. “Everyone is searching for you,” they said, apparently still utterly unaware that they too had a part in Christ’s proclamation of God’s reign. Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also.”

You know he didn’t move on because the work in Capernaum was done. He knew he could move on because in that town, in a house across the street from the synagogue, there was one woman who got it – don’t you wish we knew her name?

 

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1200

[2] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2009-01/first-deacon

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Evicting the demonic

“No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”[1] Jesus said that. A lesson in home invasion as part of the good news of God? Jesus spoke of entering and plundering the strong man’s house with reference to his own mission. According to Mark, it’s how he understood himself and his work. Holy burglary.

Following his baptism, driven by the Holy Spirit, Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan, and he returned, proclaiming the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The good news is that time’s up for the strong man; Jesus has come. He’s here to plunder the strong man’s house. It may sound like burglary, but it’s really the eviction of the pretend landlord who has been acting like he has a claim on the world house far too long. The world is God’s house, and those who live in it are meant to live, not under the strong man’s oppressive rule, but in the freedom of God’s children, in the justice and peace and joy of God’s reign.

On the sabbath, Mark tells us, Jesus went to the synagogue in Capernaum to teachbut instead of telling us the main points of Jesus’ teaching, Mark shows us: Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit and affirmed by the heavenly voice telling him he’s God’s beloved, Jesus comes face to face with a man who is held captive by unholy spirits, by powers opposed to the flourishing of life, and they know better than anyone else in that scene who he is and why he is here. Suddenly the room is filled with screaming and shouting. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus is in the house, their time is up, and they know it. They shriek, they whine and whimper, but that’s all they can do in the presence of the Holy One of God. Jesus speaks, “Be silent, come out,” and the man is free. This incursion is the ministry of Jesus: to spread this freedom, through all of creation, so every woman, man, and child will know themselves and each other as God’s beloved. Jesus is not just another teacher, preacher, or prophet in a long line of teachers, preachers, and prophets. He’s come to tie up the strong man and reclaim the world house that has become a playground for demons and evil spirits.

People in the synagogue are astonished, not quite sure what to call what they just witnessed, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” They call it a teaching, because all they saw Jesus do was speak. But they call it a new teaching, because his words bring a new reality into being. He speaks, and it comes to be. He speaks, and the bonds of injustice are loosed, the thongs of the yoke are undone, every yoke is broken, and the oppressed go free. He speaks, and the wounded are healed, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. He speaks, and sinners are forgiven. He speaks, and life flourishes. He speaks with the power of God.

The ancient mediterranean world was full of demons and spirits; they regularly interfered in human life, often capriciously. They were widely regarded as principal causes for physical and psychological problems as well as natural disasters, and they were known to control human behavior because they were more powerful than human beings. Most of us no longer use this kind of language; we don’t think of our world as inhabited and controlled by demons and other spirit beings. But that doesn’t mean we no longer experience powers in our lives that are stronger than ourselves, ungodly powers that oppress and enslave us. We use different concepts, different language. We have come up with many excellent scientific models psychological, anthropological, sociological, medical, economical, political models that help us understand the complexity of our life together.

But when you are struggling to hold on to your soul, struggling to maintain your sense of self after your trust in human beings has been betrayed too many times, when you are struggling to stay above water while the whole world is flooding in on you in that moment, in that circumstance you don’t need scientific explanations of your situation. Explanations just don’t get close enough to where you’re standing or trying to stand. You need the assurance that you are not alone in your struggle. You need to know that you are worth saving. You need to know that the lying demons that are making your life hell are no match for the Holy One of God who speaks freedom, truth, justice, love, and life.

Robert Lifton is a psychiatrist who conducted interviews with Nazi doctors who had done what they called ‘work’ and ‘research’ in the death camps. He wrote about a conversation he had with a man who had survived Auschwitz.

We were discussing Nazi doctors—I had begun to interview them and he had observed a few from a distance in Auschwitz—when he posed this question to me: “Tell me, Bob, when they did what they did, were they men or were they demons?” I answered that, as he well knew, they were human beings, and that was our problem. To which [he] replied, “Yes, but it is demonic that they were not demonic.”[2]

In the face of evil, our explanations hit the wall. There is meant to be no room in the world house for demons, but they are here because we are here. We need God to come and speak freedom, truth, justice, love, and life.

These past few weeks have been remarkable for those who wrestle with the reality of the demonic. An astonishing story unfolded in a court room in Ingham County, Michigan. The accused, Dr. Lawrence Nassar, had pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault. The sentencing hearing began, and a number of women let the court know that they wished to make victim impact statements.

When the list of women scheduled to speak was drawn up, it had 88 names. Then, as more decided to come forward, it had 105. Then 120. In total, 156 women spoke about their experiences with Nassar. They talked about feeling horrified and disgusted by what happened in their appointments with the doctor, coupled with a sense of self-doubt about whether they were misinterpreting it at the time. They spoke about how it had affected their families. They told Nassar, and [the judge], about the depression, anxiety, and mental illness they’d suffered as a result of his abuse.[3]

156 women spoke, and after years of being ignored, or not being believed, or being told to keep quiet, they finally had their words and voices heard – inside the courtroom and far beyond its walls. Alex Putterman wrote in The Atlantic,

The Nassar scandal is about more than a single man’s unfathomable abuses. It’s also about a network of enablers who let him ruin lives with impunity, about a national news media that dedicated little airtime and few headlines to the story, about a university that failed to protect its own students, and about an American public that for too long failed to care. In her statement on Friday, [one of the survivors, Aly] Raisman was speaking directly to Nassar, but she was also speaking to the world beyond those courtroom walls. “If over these many years just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act,” she said, “this tragedy could have been avoided. I and so many others would have never, ever met you.”[4]

The demonic thrives on silence. It thrives on the silence of not listening and the silence of not speaking, and we’re all part of feeding the demonic or resisting it.

Jesus speaks words that rebuke and command unclean spirits. To me this means that words we speak, in humility and courage, inspired by the same Holy Spirit, participate in his liberating speech that serves the flourishing of life. Words do things – they hurt and they heal, the beat down and they lift up, they deceive and they reveal, they belittle and they empower. Words do things, both when they are spoken and when they are heard.

The now very famous Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said to one of the women, after she had finished her statement,

The monster who took advantage of you is going to wither, much like the scene in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ where the water gets poured on the witch and the witch withers away. That’s what’s going to happen to him, because as you get stronger, as you overcome, because you will, he gets weaker and he will wither away.”[5]

With respect, it is not the man who withers away when the water of truth is poured on him. The water of truth is poured not only on one man, but also on the enablers in a number of institutions, on grown-ups who didn’t do what grown-ups are supposed to do, and on all of us. When the water of truth flows, what withers away is the demonic. What withers away are the oppressive powers that afflict people and keep human bodies and human societies from flourishing. And what thrives is life, life in communion, life that Jesus so beautifully described as the kingdom of God.

 

[1] Mark 3:27

[2] Robert Jay Lifton, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir (New York: Free Press, 2011) p. 240

[3] https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/01/judge-rosemarie-aquilina-larry-nassar/551462/

[4] https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/01/the-sex-abuse-victims-america-ignored/551444/ to read the full statement by Aly Raisman go to https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/20/sports/full-text-of-aly-raismans-statement.html

[5] https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/17/us/larry-nassar-judge-sentencing/index.html

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Silent no more

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God, says the Psalmist.[1]

What kind of silence is this? Jim Mays says it’s “a quietness of soul, an inner stillness that comes with yielding all fears and anxieties and insecurities to God in an act of trust.”[2] It’s a silence rooted in deep trust in God who will not keep silent. It’s an unshakable trust in the God of justice who will not rest until all of creation is at peace.

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God.

But not every silence is “a quietness of soul.” When you can’t speak for pain or fear or shame, your soul is not quiet. When your outrage has been pushed to the margins of what words can express, you may be speechless, but your silence does not reflect an inner stillness. When the hand of the abuser is pressing down on your lips, your mouth may be silenced but your soul, every cell in your body, is screaming.

And what kind of silence is it when you know the truth and keep quiet, when you watch and remain silent, when you see and refuse to speak—what kind of silence is that?

Elie Wiesel, who survived the terror of the Nazi death camps, knew the stillness of the child asleep in his mother’s arms, and he knew the quietness of soul that blesses those who rest in God, but he also had to wrestle from a young age with the silence of the bystanders and the silence of the lives gone up in smoke, and the silence of God. In 1986 Elie Wiesel was given the Nobel Peace Prize, and he said in his acceptance speech,

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.[3]

I watched the Golden Globe awards the other day; I watched the whole thing: the women dressed in black on the red carpet, the men in their tuxedos, the host and his jokes, the clips, the nominees—and then Oprah went up on stage, and she shouted like only Oprah can shout across an entire ball room and all of the country, “Time’s up! Time’s up!”

No more business-as-usual in Hollywood and New York, in Washington and at Karolyi Ranch in Texas, at NPR News and other media organizations, at Highpoint Church in Memphis and other churches that time and again have “supported and protected clergy who have used their very sacred powers, the trust that’s put in them by their congregations, as a cover for abuse.”[4] Time’s up! The silence has been broken. The power of shame and fear is crumbling as the truth is finally being spoken. Time’s up! This is a moment of hope ready to become a movement.

We read in the Gospel of Mark that after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

To say that ‘the time is fulfilled’ is very similar to saying ‘time’s up!’ Time’s up for sin’s oppressive rule. Time’s up for the powers that keep human beings from being fully alive. Time’s up for the forces and systems that keep creation in bondage. Time’s up for the reign of fear, greed, and violence because the kingdom of God has come near in the person of Jesus.

What are we to do in this moment of fulfilled time? “Repent, and believe in the good news,” says Jesus. To repent is to turn around, to stop living according to the habits, standards and conventions whose time is up, and to start living in the time of fulfillment. It’s a complete reorientation of one’s life.

“Believe in the good news,” says Jesus. Don’t think that you have to repent your way to acceptance and perfection, that you have to do this and that and the other in order to inch a little closer to the kingdom of God where fullness of life awaits you—no, trust the word that the kingdom is already here, that fullness of life has come near you in the person of Jesus, embracing you with compassion and grace. Trust the love that will not let you go.

It was Erik Erikson who helped us see and understand what we have always known: trust is not just something we do, but a foundational part of who we are. As children we develop a basic trust which grows out of our parents’ loving commitment and care. Astonishingly, this basic trust endures even if the mother or father turn away or are absent for a while. When things go well, we acquire a trust in life stronger than our fear, and out of it we develop a slow but sure self-trust or self-confidence. And this self-trust makes it possible to come to terms with many of the disappointments and betrayals we experience when our trust is betrayed by other people.[5]

Jürgen Moltmann has compared trust to “an atmosphere for living, without which there can be no life truly human. … Fish need water in which to swim, birds need air in which to fly, and we human beings need trust in order to develop our humanity.”

“Human life,” he writes, “must be affirmed, accepted, and loved, for the very reason that it can also be denied, rejected, and hated. A human life that is denied, rejected, and despised atrophies, becomes sick, and dies.”[6]  When Jesus says, “Believe in the good news,” he calls us to life. He invites and encourages us to recognize ourselves and each other as affirmed, accepted, and loved by God.

And he doesn’t just say it, he lives it. Time’s up for the powers that deny, reject, and despise human life and dignity. Time’s up because the mighty one whose coming John the baptizer had announced, has come. Time’s up and the moment of hope is ready to become a movement. What will this mighty one’s inaugural act be, we wonder…

Mark tells us that passing along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The mighty one’s first mighty act initiating the kingdom of God is not some spectacular miracle to wow the masses. He calls four guys at work, and tells them to come with him. From the beginning, the story of the kingdom is a story of community; Jesus is no solitary great-man-celebrity, but Jesus-in-relationship-to-his-disciples: Jesus and Peter and Andrew and Mary and Martha and James and John and Emily and José and Bob and Lydia and all the others.

And he calls the very first ones in pairs so we understand right from the beginning that discipleship and ministry are no solitary projects, but rooted in the community Jesus continues to call and send.

We also notice that his call is disruptive. With the first two disciples, Mark mentions only the nets they left. With the next two, Mark shows us old man Zebedee in the boat. This doesn’t mean that leaving your job and family are standard requirements of discipleship. But it lets us see that when Jesus calls us to follow, there are things to be left behind, familiar things, places, people, habits and ideas—as when the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abram and Sara went, because they trusted the call and promise of God, because they trusted the God who called them to new life. Simon and Andrew followed, because they trusted the one who called them.

On the one hand, our trust is linked with familiarity, with safekeeping what is familiar, preserving what one has and knows. This trust in the familiar and accustomed binds the present to the past.

On the other hand, trust is bound up with confidence. It has to do with setting forth from what is familiar and known. It is about openness for the unknown future, and faith in the promising God. Here trust is paired with hope, and is a power that allows us to face the challenges of the future creatively, with joy in the adventure.[7]

We don’t know who Jesus is until we walk with him. We don’t know the life he called the kingdom of God until we walk with him. Until we walk and watch, listen and learn. And before we know it, the compassion he has for all changes us, and we begin to treat others with compassion; the regard and respect he has for all changes us, and we begin to treat others with respect; the love and grace with which he embraces all redeems and restores us, and we finally begin to see ourselves and each other in the light of God’s love and grace.

You see, although the history of humanity is a history of injustice and violence, unbelief and godlessness, God still believes in us. God’s trust in us is unwavering. That is an inexhaustible source of new courage, new beginnings, and reborn hope that does not fail.

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God.

This is not the silence of complicity. It is the quietness of soul that draws its strength from the presence and promise of God. It is an inner stillness that enables us, when others stand by, to stand up and speak up.

 

[1] Psalm 62:5

[2] James L. Mays, Psalms, 216.

[3] https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1986/wiesel-acceptance_en.html

[4] Serene Jones in an interview with Michel Martin https://www.npr.org/2018/01/14/578032206/sexual-harassment-in-the-church-apology-has-never-been-enough

[5] See Jürgen Moltmann, “Control Is Good—Trust Is Better: Freedom and security in a ‘free world’,” Theology Today 62, no. 4 (January 2006), 466-467.

[6] Ibid., 467.

[7] See Moltmann, 473-474.

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Shall I play for you?

News 2 reported on Thursday that the extreme cold has killed 10 people in Nashville within the last month. According to Dr. Li, the Chief Medical Examiner for Nashville, that number could grow because 15 people were found dead outside in the cold, and they are still investigating 5 of those cases. The majority of the people he has examined are homeless.[1]

I’m sharing this sad statistic because no other news outlet in our city has reported it. I’m also sharing it to remind us again that opening the doors to our Fellowship Hall on a cold night is a life-saving ministry. On behalf of the whole congregation, I thank those of you who gave of your time to host a group of fourteen Room in the Inn guests on Wednesday. The most precious gifts we have to offer are our time and attention, and I’m grateful for each of you. Hosting fourteen guests for one night may feel insignificant in a city where thousands of men, women, and children are homeless but it matters greatly to those fourteen and to each of you who prepared meals, made beds, and created a place of warm welcome for them. Yes, we need more affordable housing options in Nashville, and they will only be built when more of us understand how great the need truly is. But it’s not just a matter of civic responsibility; it’s about worship.

A few years ago, a man was found dead early one morning in East Nashville. Temperatures that night had dipped into the mid 20s, and police said he most likely died from hypothermia. His name was James Fulmer, and he was 50 years old. The man who notified police of his death, was also homeless and had just met him the night before. “He had no blanket, no nothing,” he said. “I went … to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket to cover him up with, cause that’s what the good Lord says to do, you know.”[2] His name was Wilford Gold. Wilford went to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket for James, something to cover him up with. Cause that’s what the good Lord says to do. With that simple, beautiful gesture, Wilford Gold extended the kingdom of the good Lord.

There’s a song we hear in the malls during the weeks before Christmas, the song of the little drummer boy. We hum along as he sings, “I have no gift to bring, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, that’s fit to give the king, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum…” And eventually the boy asks, “Shall I play for you?” And of course it’s all about for whom we choose to play. It’s all about which king we honor with our song and our time and attention, and whose kingdom we choose to serve with our gifts.

A long, long time ago, in the days of king Solomon, Jerusalem was the capital of a great kingdom. Solomon’s fame had spread far and wide, even to the coasts of Africa. The Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem with caravans of camels bearing spices, gold, and precious stones. And not just her, traders and merchants, all the kings of Arabia and the governors of the land brought gifts and tribute to Solomon, the great king who excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.[3]

Generation after generation, Israel’s children sat in the laps of their parents and grandparents, begging them to tell them stories about good king Solomon, the wise king. And for hundreds of years, the stories became richer in detail and fuller in color, because wise kings were rare, and because for centuries the kings of the nations didn’t come to Jerusalem to bring treasure, but to carry it away.

And then came the day, when there was nothing left to take away. The king of Babylon and his armies looted and destroyed the city, and took many of the people into exile. For two generations in exile, Jerusalem was only a memory. Then the first groups began to return, after the king of Persia had conquered the Babylonian empire. But it wasn’t the great homecoming they had envisioned.

The once proud nation was now but a tiny province on the fringe of yet another empire, this time Persia, and many of its people still lived far away by the rivers of Babylon. Most buildings in the city were destroyed, the economy was in a shambles, the temple lay in ruins, and the community was divided. Who would repair the city walls? Who would rebuild the temple? And who would pay for it? The initial excitement about the possibilities of a new beginning soon wore off, but then the words of the prophet summoned them from despair to hope:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. … Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. … they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.[4]

There are two quite distinct ways to hear these lines from Isaiah. One way is to hear that the tables are finally starting to turn: Jerusalem had been small, weak, and poor for so long, but now, now they would be great, they would be strong, they would be rich they would be greater, stronger and richer than all the other nations. Now their city would be a hub of the global economy; sky-high office towers, business headquarters, and hotels would line the streets of downtown, and wealth would flow to the city from the ends of the earth: the whole world would be centered in Jerusalem.

The other way to hear the prophet’s words follows the same script, but with a different voice and a different hope: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Let your life together reflect this glory. Shine with hope, and the nations will be drawn to your light  the whole world will gather to be part of God’s future.

It matters greatly how we envision a kingdom of peace and prosperity. Matthew tells us that in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. We don’t know much about them, these visitors from far away lands who came to Jerusalem to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. And because we know almost nothing about them, we have long let our imaginations take wing.

Matthew gave us an almost blank canvas, and we gladly filled it with rich, colorful detail. First we looked at the map, and we listed all the lands East of Jerusalem – Arabia, Babylon, Persia, India, China – from how far East did they come, these wise ones? Then we looked at the gifts they brought – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Very expensive gifts, not the kind of stuff you can pick up at the market on your way but didn’t Isaiah sing about gold and frankincense, and didn’t he sing about kings? That was when, in our imagination, they began to look like kings, royal visitors bearing royal gifts, and because three gifts are mentioned, we determined that there must have been three of them. That was when we started singing songs like We Three Kings From Orient Are, but our hunger for detail wasn’t satisfied yet. How did they get from the East to Jerusalem? Certainly they did not walk all the way but wait, didn’t Isaiah sing of a multitude of camels? Sometime in the Middle Ages, we named the three Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and we saw them riding high on their camels, with more camels carrying their treasure chests. With passing centuries, the stories of the wise men from the East became ever more colorful and elaborate – and all because of the child whose star they had observed and followed. This child arouses in us a holy extravagance of story, image, song, and gift. The nations are coming to the light that has dawned, and the travelers from the East represent all of them we come from Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas: the whole world is gathering to pay homage to the newborn king. Matthew gives us but a hint or two, and we let our imagination run and leap, because this child is the good Lord, born to bring us all together in the kingdom of God, in a city where no man, woman, or child is left outside.

What about the other king? Imagine King Herod’s face when his staff informed him that visitors of considerable wealth and status were entering the city. He already liked hearing his underlings refer to him as Herod the Great, but imagine the satisfaction in his eyes and the regal pace with which he made his way to the palace window to see his own majesty and greatness reflected in the very important visitors from far away. They had come from distant lands to meet him and pay homage, to admire the magnificent building projects under way in the city he was Herod the Great, King of the Jews, the most important person in the realm, the greatest of kings since Solomon, was he not? Imagine his face when they asked him where they might find the newborn king of the Jews. To say it fell would be a gross understatement. The glory of God had risen, not upon Herod’s palace, but a little ways to the south, upon a dusty little hill town called Bethlehem.

You see, the story is not about three kings, but about two, Herod and Jesus. The contrast between their kingdoms runs through the whole gospel, all the way to this year and this city and our life in it. It matters greatly which king we honor with our song and our time and attention. It matters greatly whose kingdom we choose to serve with our gifts. Wilford Gold brought a blanket to honor the good Lord. The gospel is all about which king you will ask, with reverence and hope, “Shall I play for you?”

 

[1] http://wkrn.com/2018/01/04/10-died-of-hypothermia-over-past-month-in-nashville/

[2] http://www.wsmv.com/story/20493488/body-found-in-east-nashville

[3] See 1 Kings 10:1-25

[4] Isaiah 60:1-6

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A new day

The days are getting longer now, they say. Ten days ago was the shortest day, and now the nights are getting shorter. I can’t see it yet, it’s still getting dark too early in the afternoon, but I trust those who have observed the courses of sun and moon and stars and determined that we are indeed tilting and circling toward spring. Every afternoon, for a few more weeks, I’ll be telling myself, ‘The days are getting longer now; hang in there.’ It’ll be a little while before the bright day when George Harrison’s ode to the sun will start playing in my soul and I’ll again sing along,

Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it’s been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun, and I say
It’s all right …

I don’t know how they celebrate Christmas in Australia, Chile or Zimbabwe where it’s the beginning of summer now – to me, it seems just perfect to celebrate the birth of Christ, the birth of the light and life of the world, when the nights are long and cold, and the days are short. All of nature surrounds us with metaphors to express our deepest longing: for the sun of righteousness to rise, for God’s mercy to melt our frozen hearts, for the Spirit of life to light up our imagination.

I remember hearing an astronomer on the radio, talking about New Year’s Day and how totally random it is. It’s just a random moment on Earth’s journey around the Sun, with no relation whatsoever to anything astronomically significant like a solstice or an equinox. This astronomer also mentioned that as a graduate student he once spent an entire New Year’s Eve party locked in a closet by himself, in protest against the sheer arbitrariness of the occasion. I hope somebody brought him a glass of champagne at midnight and gave him a kiss. It’s good to mark and celebrate beginnings together. We’ll be in 2017 for just a few more hours, and then we’ll count down the seconds to the start of 2018. We wish each other a year of good health and prosperity, peace and happiness, and we resolve to do or quit doing all kinds of things. We know, of course, that every day is a new day and that we can decide to become a better version of ourselves any waking moment but New Year’s Day is like a global reset button: let’s all start over and let’s make it our best year yet.

It was probably the Moravians who began the tradition of Watch Night. They got together on New Year’ Eve, hours before midnight, and standing on the threshold between the years, they recalled the previous year’s events and thanked God; and turning from memory to the unknown they prayed for God’s protection and guidance in the new year. Watch Night was an exercise in prayerfully receiving the gift of years from God and returning them with gratitude. The practice was adopted by the Methodist church, and it gained particular significance in the African Methodist Episcopal church. You see, astronomically, January 1 may well be a completely random spot on the Earth’s journey around the Sun, but historically, it marks a great moment.

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all the slaves in the Confederate States, it was to become law on January 1, 1863. And on December 31, 1862, African Americans, slave and freed, all over the United States, gathered together in their churches and homes, watching and waiting for their freedom to arrive at midnight. They and their ancestors had been captured in Africa, kidnapped, bound, and locked in chains. Whole families, even villages, disappeared. Husbands and wives, parents and children were separated, never to see each other or their homes again. Shackled and packed into the holds of cargo ships, they were taken to the Americas and sold into slavery sold into a lifetime of violent oppression, forced labor and every kind of abuse.

And now it was Watch Night. What did they do in the South? Speak of their hope with hushed voices, whisper their prayers, holding their breath while their lips yearned to burst into song? Might not their masters descend on them at any moment? After all, President Lincoln’s declaring their freedom didn’t make it so in the eyes of their owners. And the Civil War would drag on for another three years.

But this was Freedom’s Eve, the darkness before dawn. This was the night of their passover, their journey from the house of slavery to the promised land. And so Frederick Douglass, the pioneer abolitionist, declared, “We shout for joy that we live to record this righteous decree.” December 31, 1862, Freedom’s Eve: the prayers of generations finally answered, the long darkness before dawn finally illumined by first light.[1]

After the joyful testimony of the angels and shepherds at the birth of Jesus, Luke takes us to Jerusalem, to the temple, where Mary and Joseph have brought their child to present him to the Lord. And here we meet Simeon and Anna whose entire life has been Watch Night. Simeon, a righteous and devout man, has lived his years looking forward to the consolation of Israel. And Anna, a widow of a great age, has devoted most of her life to fasting and prayer. The two have shaped their lives around the promise and the presence of God.

They are bent by the years, I imagine. Their backs hurt, their swollen joints hurt, climbing stairs demands all their strength, and on their way across the temple courtyard they stop several times to catch their breath. They are bent by the years, but only outwardly; inwardly they live on tiptoe. They are Advent people, open to God’s promise, open with anticipation, open to the guidance of God’s Spirit. Their eyes and ears may no longer be what they used to be, but they have been watching and waiting for the Lord’s Messiah, they have been looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem, and their whole being has become receptive to the presence and the deeds of God. And when Mary and Joseph bring in the child Jesus, Simeon is there to take him in his arms and he praises God.

Picture the old man with the baby. Notice his joy, the way he gazes at the little one; you can’t tell if his laughing or crying.

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.

But what has he seen, really? It’s just a little child he’s cradling in his arms. Whatever salvation this baby might work is still only a promise and a hope; whatever teaching he might offer will remain hidden for many years. Nothing has happened yet. The world looks as it did before. It’s business as usual in the houses of the mighty and the makeshift camps of the poor. But Simeon stands there in grateful wonder. He knows, the long Watch Night is over. His whole being is illumined by first light. He is cradling the consolation of Israel in his arms. He is looking at the salvation of God, he is touching it with his hands. He can die in peace. And then Anna, a prophet, also approaching the end of her days, adds her own joy and praise to the moment. She’ll be telling all who are watching and waiting for the redemption of life about this child.

By the time the grown-up Jesus begins his ministry, Simeon and Anna will be long dead. So will most of those shepherds who went with haste to see the child in the manger. Thirty years or more will pass before the gospel story resumes with the baptism of Jesus. In the meantime the ones who saw the baby, who knelt at his bed of hay, and who made known what had been told them about this child, would not know what became of him. They would know only what they had heard and seen back then.

We too are people who have seen something but not its full unfolding. What we have, in a sense, is hardly more than they had. We have the scriptures that school us in hope and attentiveness. We have stories and testimonies. We have the memory of moments, when the tender compassion of our God has come close enough for us to see and feel. We have something like the shepherds would have had, recalling all their lives a night of mysterious glory.

And we have the rest of the gospel story. We know what happened to the man the baby grew up to be. We know his radical compassion. We know his teaching and the pattern of his passion and vindication. We have sat at his table. We have seen and tasted the promised future. Like Simeon and Anna, we may not get all the way to his future ourselves, not in this life but we have seen it, and because we have seen it, we can go in peace, knowing that the kingdom and the power and the glory of God have come in Jesus. [2]

It’s a new day, a new beginning, not because our planet has almost completed another circle around the sun, but because the Lord has come to set creation free from all bondage. Thanks be to God.

 

[1] See https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-artika-r-tyner/celebrating-the-153rd-ann_b_8882614.html and https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/watch-night-of-freedom

[2] My thanks to John K. Stendahl, “Holding promise,” The Christian Century 119, no. 25 (December 4, 2002), 17.

 

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Turn and return

There are no shepherds keeping watch by night in Mark, no angels announcing the child’s birth, no star-gazing visitors bearing gifts from distant lands, no ox and ass, no baby in the manger. Mark’s story jumps right into the Jordan with John the baptizer. The story begins as it is written in the prophet Isaiah, with a voice crying out in the wilderness: John preparing the way of Jesus by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark’s story jumps right into the Jordan with John after opening with something like a headline, “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Many have wondered why he didn’t just write, “The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” instead of ‘the beginning.’ Many have checked the closing chapter to see if perhaps the story concluded with a similar line on the final page, “The End of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It doesn’t. Why ‘the beginning’ of the good news of Jesus Christ?

Some have heard here echoes of the opening of Genesis, the beginning of creation, suggesting that the good news of Jesus Christ is as good and grand as the story of life itself. It is the beginning of life’s redemption from the powers that keep it from flourishing. It is the beginning of God’s promised future in the midst of this beautiful, but broken, world.

Others have suggested that Mark calls the story he wrote ‘the beginning of the good news’ because it is meant to unfold in the lives of all who hear it, because it is meant to continue in lives of faith and discipleship while all of creation awaits its completion. Mark’s story is just the beginning, because the good news continues with us and for us and for all, in all the countless ways that we hear it and live it and tell it.

So here we are, at what Mark has identified as the beginning of this great story, at the Jordan with John. It was at the Jordan that Israel gathered after escaping from slavery and after forty long years of wilderness wanderings, and where they crossed over into the promised land. The river marks the border between promise and fulfillment, between expectation and arrival. It was at the Jordan that Elijah was taken up into heaven, the great prophet who was expected to return before the day of the Lord to prepare God’s people and Mark’s quick portrait of John suggests more than a resemblance between the two. Clothed with camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and living on a diet of locusts and wild honey, John speaks of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.[1] His lifestyle embodies complete dependence on God: he only eats what the earth produces on its own, without the work of human hands. His proclamation also invites our complete dependence on God: in the light of God’s mercy we are to look at ourselves and our world with open eyes and honesty, and name what we see, name what is missing, lament what is missing, and repent turn from what we have made of ourselves and of the world; turn away from our complicity with the old order of things and turn toward the fullness of life in the kingdom of God; turn away from abusing God’s creation, and return to the promise of a new creation where righteousness is at home; turn away from the dead ends in which we have trapped ourselves, and return to the way of the Lord.

John calls us to repent, to turn and return to the mercy of God. He calls us to prepare the way of the Lord by becoming an Advent community, a community of the repentant and expectant who await the fullness of all that has entered the world with Christ’s coming. The old order is still marked by sin, idolatry, injustice, and violence; but with Christ the faithfulness, forgiveness, justice, and peace of the God of Israel have embraced the nations with the promise of salvation. Yes, we live in a world that aches under the weight of sin, but it also echoes with the promises of God and resonates with the movement of the Spirit. We are far from alone in the struggle for the new order of shalom.

We meet John at the Jordan, in the borderlands between what is and what shall be, between the promise and the coming true. In the wilderness of these days, when the arrogant trample without shame on decency and dignity, we know the temptation to lower our sights to more manageable hopes, small things within our reach but with diminished hope comes diminished life. God calls us, particularly in Advent, to live lives of bold hope, to expect nothing less than the complete renewal of all things in Christ, to stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.[2]

In frustration we sometimes raise, not our heads, but our voices and our hands to the heavens, crying out, “Where are you? Do you see what’s going on? What is taking you so long? Nothing has changed!”And like an echo, only without the exasperation, sounds the voice from heaven, a voice of great kindness and patience:“Where are you? Do you see what’s going on? What is taking you so long? Everything has changed – when will you repent?”[3]

Mark quotes and interprets words from Isaiah to introduce John.The words come from a pivotal passage. Prior to chapter 40 of Isaiah, the words spoken in the name of the Lord are words of judgment. The people have rebelled against God. They have lived at the expense of their neighbors, putting their own desires above the needs of others. The people of Jerusalem in particular have prospered through wickedness, oppression, lies and injustice, refusing to heed the prophets’ calls to repent. In 39 chapters, Isaiah consistently confronts the people with their idolatry and their habit of putting their trust in things that are not God, causing them to see the world and themselves in utterly distorted ways: “Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight! ... for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.”[4] In 587 BC the troops of the Babylonian Empire conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. The leaders and a significant part of the population were marched off into exile to Babylon. Home was no more; the promised land a thing of the past, and the Jerusalem prophets made it quite clear that the loss was God’s punishment.

In the book of Lamentations, the city is personified as Daughter Zion who bewails her fate:

She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.

Her downfall was appalling, with none to comfort her. “O Lord, look at my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!”

For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.

Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her;[5] for more than a generation, Daughter Zion receives no response to her tears. But then a new word comes to her and her children:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

And then a voice cries out, sounding like the boss of a road construction crew,

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The Lord would once again lead God’s people from captivity to the promised land, in a new exodus, for the whole world to see. And then a voice says, “Cry out!” and the prophet responds, “What shall I cry? The people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” And the voice replies, “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” The faithfulness of God’s people may wither and fade, but God’s faithfulness to God’s people is firm. That is our hope. That is why John, in the wilderness of our days, continues to call us to repent, to turn and return, again and again, until all of us know in body and soul the faithfulness of God.

Take a moment to call to mind some of the things you wish to turn away from in order to turn your life more fully toward God. I invite you to write them down on small pieces of paper Greg and I will pass out in a moment. You will have noticed the three bowls. We will fill them with water from the baptistery, and when you come forward to share the Lord’s Supper, we invite you to drop your piece of paper in one of the bowls. Don’t be surprised if it simply disappears. In the great faithfulness which we have come to know in the love of Christ, God has overcome all that might separate us from that love, all that might separate us from the fullness of life for which God has created us.

 

[1] See 2 Kings 1:8

[2] Luke 21:28

[3] See Romans 2:4

[4] Isaiah 5:20-21, 24

[5] Lamentations 1:2,9,16,17

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Eating the bread of fulfillment

Brother Will once told a group of pastors how, after he became eligible for AARP membership, he used to take an herbal supplement that was to help him remember things – until he noticed how often he forgot to take it.[1] Memory is fickle.

“How could you forget that?” your spouse exclaims, your friend, your child, and they’re clearly disappointed, hurt. And you feel terrible, and all you can say is, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to forget it, I just did… I wish I knew why I remember the most random, useless stuff and forget things that actually mean a lot to me and to you.” Memory is fickle and strangely selective.

On their journey from Egypt to the promised land, the Israelites complained in the desert, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”[2] In hindsight, Egypt began to look like the never-ending lunch buffet on a dream cruise, “Remember the fish we used to eat for nothing?” Nibbling flakes of manna in the wilderness, they didn’t remember the bread of affliction and oppression, nor did they remember how they used to toil for nothing in Pharaoh’s service no, in the golden glow of memory, it was all one big, free lunch, every day, in the house of slavery.

For the people of God, forgetfulness is high on the list of challenges to living as people of God. Hence the commandments, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”[3] Hence the festivals, the stories, the rituals, the prayers, the songs, the liturgies:

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (…) Take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.[4]

Take care that you do not forget to whom you belong, whose world you inhabit and whose life you are living. The entire chapter eight of Deuteronomy is dominated by the threat of forgetting and the urgency of remembering.

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.[5]

Bread is life, but bread alone is not enough for living. Bread without the word that comes from the mouth of the Lord is bread without memory, bread without obedience, bread without justice.

The Israelites had eaten the bread of affliction and they had eaten the bread of freedom, and now they were about to taste the bread of fulfillment. By the banks of the Jordan river, the wilderness behind them, and before them the land of promise, Moses said to the people,

The Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God.[6]

Bread without scarcity. Land of abundance. The gifts of God for the people of God, to be received and enjoyed. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you. Receive the gift and bless the Giver.

There was great joy in Moses’ naming of the good land’s abundance of water and produce, but there was also an underlying anxiety: how would the wilderness-tested relationship between God and the people change in prosperity? Would the great acts of divine generosity in turn receive the people’s glad response of obedient gratitude?

When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (…). Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God...[7]

Prosperity, Moses warned the people, easily leads to amnesia and self-congratulation. When you eat the bread of fulfillment without memory and without blessing, you will get more than a little full of yourself. “If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today that you shall surely perish,” Moses warned them.[8] When your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, forgetfulness may set in and you may begin to serve and follow other gods, gods that command that you live and think in terms of “me” and “more” and “now.” My land, my bread, my wealth, my power, my strength, my life — Moses saw it coming, Jesus resisted it: bread without memory; eating bread without blessing the Giver will quickly turn into the assumption that the land’s abundance is mine for the taking. In the wilderness, bread clearly was a daily gift, and the one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.[9] But in the land of abundance, Moses worried, forgetfulness might separate the gifts from the Giver, and soon there would be among God’s people those who had too much and those who had too little.

Bread is life, but bread alone is not enough for living. When we talk about bread, we talk about all the ways we relate to one another and how we relate to God. Bread contains our relationship to the land, to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the grocer, and the hungry neighbor. When we talk about bread, we talk about justice. Without justice, our relationship to the land becomes death-dealing instead of life-giving; our relationship to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the grocer, and the hungry neighbor all those relationships become oppressive and abusive, death-dealing instead of life-giving. Bread without memory becomes the bread of affliction.

Somebody said, “The whole of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive.”[10] I eat. You eat. He/she/it eats. We eat. You eat. They eat. I am eaten. You are eaten. He/she/it is eaten. All living things eat. Active and passive. Past, present, and future. For any creature to live, other creatures must be its food. Plants absorb nutrients from the soil, animals eat plants and other animals, and microbes and fungi eat animals and plants and return them to the soil. And we humans are part of the cycle, no matter how hard we try to pretend we are not. All flesh is grass, and all grass is soil. And without soil, the land is merely lifeless rock, gravel, sand, and dust.

Our God created and ordered life so that every living thing must eat. For us, human beings made in the image of God, the question bread poses is how we eat: yes, we are plowing, sowing, reaping, grinding, mixing, baking, buying, selling, breaking – but are we receiving or devouring? Those who receive know life as a gift that is given to be shared in communion. Those who devour know life only as a hunger for more that can never be satisfied. Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and writer, said it beautifully in his essay, The Gift of Good Land, almost forty years ago,

To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.[11]

Life devoured in insatiable consumption is a desecration, life received and shared in communion is a sacrament. We are only beginning to understand that the whole world is God’s promised land for humanity; a land where we may eat bread without scarcity, where we will lack nothing; where we shall eat our fill and bless the Lord our God for gift after gift after gift.

On Thursday, most of us, I hope, will gather around tables of thanksgiving with family and friends to break bread and bless the Giver. And today as we prepare to gather once again around the table of Christ, the table where we taste and see and practice life shared in communion today we bless God the faithful Giver of all good gifts with the gifts of food that we bring to the table; we bring them with thanksgiving and with prayers for our hungry neighbors who have too little.[12] So bring now the boxes, cans, jars and bags of food and let us set the table.

 

[1] Will Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke and Bishop of Northern Alabama for the United Methodist Church.

[2] Num 11:4-6

[3] Ex 20:2-3

[4] Dtn 6:6-9, 12

[5] Dtn 8:2-3

[6] Dtn 8:7-11

[7] Dtn 8:12-14, 17-18

[8] Dtn 8:19

[9] 2 Cor 8:15; see Ex 16:18 “Those who gathered much had nothing over, and those who gathered little had no shortage; they gathered as much as each of them needed.”

[10] William Ralph Inge as quoted in Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul (New York: Free Press, 1994), 17.

[11] Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: North Point Press, 1997), 281.

[12] We had a special offering of food for The Little Pantry that Could that Sunday at Vine Street.

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To be the Lord's praise

I’m partial when it comes to veterans. I’m particularly grateful for the men and women who shipped out to Europe to fight the Nazis. They fought and died not just for their country, but for mine too, and for a future where all people live in freedom. When white supremacist groups announced their rally in Shelbyville, one of many reasons I had to go there to protest was to honor the sacrifice of the men and women who gave their lives to end Hitler’s reign of terror.

Burning_Synagoge_Kristallnacht_1938.jpg

"Kristallnacht"

Many synagogues burned throughout the night in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings.

To me, it’s a blessed coincidence that every year Veterans Day follows the anniversary of Kristallnacht, that night of terror and destruction on November 9 and 10, 1938, when rioters in the streets of Germany and Austria destroyed synagogues, shattered the windows of thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, and looted their wares. Many synagogues burned throughout the night in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. The pogrom claimed the lives of 91 Jews, and as it spread, units of the SS and Gestapo arrested up to 30,000 Jewish males and transferred most of them from local prisons to concentration camps in Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and other towns. On the following Sundaythe liturgical calendar called for observance of the annual Day of RepentanceHelmut Gollwitzer stood in the pulpit of a church in Berlin-Dahlem and said,

Who then on this of all days still has a right to preach? Who then should be preaching repentance on such a day? Have not our mouths been muzzled on this very day? Can we do anything but fall silent? What good has all the preaching and the hearing of sermons done us and our people and our church? How, following all the years and centuries of preaching, have we come to this place where we find ourselves today and as we find ourselves today? What good has it done that God has allowed our people to have so much success? What good has the great gift of peace done that we received with such joy just two months ago [he was referring to the Munich agreement between Hitler and Chamberlain, September 29-30, 1938], so that today each of those Ten Commandments that we have just heard has struck us like a hammer blow right in the face and has knocked us to the ground? What a short blink of an eye separates that report of peace and this Day of Repentance! Back then we told ourselves in this very place that the new peace opens a new space for repentance — and now, so few weeks later, how’s it going? How have we used this period of time? What do we expect God to do, if we come to him now singing, reading our Bibles, praying, preaching, and confessing our sins as if we can really count on his being here and on all this being more than empty religious activity? Our impertinence and presumption must make him sick. Why don’t we at least just keep our mouths shut? Yes, that might be the right thing to do. What if we just sat here for an entire hour without saying a word, no singing, no speaking, just preparing ourselves silently for God’s punishment, which we have already earned? And when that punishment becomes obvious and visible, we will know better than to go running around screaming and railing against it wondering, “How can God let something like this happen to us?” Yet how many of us will do just that and in our blindness not see the connection between that which God allows and that which we have done and brought upon ourselves? We really should prepare ourselves so that we can say when it comes upon us: “O Lord, our sins have earned us this” (Jer. 14:7).[i]

Gollwitzer did preach a fine sermon that Sunday, ending it saying,

Now just outside this church our neighbor is waiting for us — waiting for us in his need and lack of protection, disgraced, hungry, hunted, and driven by fear for his very existence. That is the one who is waiting to see if today this Christian congregation has really observed this national day of penance. Jesus Christ himself is waiting to see.[ii]

Gollwitzer’s sermon was part of a long tradition going back all the way to the prophet Amos, a tradition insisting that the integrity of our worship is determined not by how closely we follow the lectionary or the rubrics or the unwritten rules of whatever we consider to be proper liturgy, not by any of thatthe integrity of our worship is determined by our actions outside the sanctuary.

I hate, I despise your festivals, [says the Lord,] and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos accused the leaders, including the priests of the king’s sanctuary, of perverting justice and cheating the poor in the marketplace. And in the context of such oppression, he told them, their worship, though religiously presented, was no fragrant offering of praise but only ugliness, noise and stench. “The cumulative image of these [lines of Amos’s speech] is God’s holding the nose, shutting the eyes and closing the ears to Israel’s ceremonies.”[iii] Justice and righteousness characterize the God of Israel, and they are to characterize the life of God’s people. Without justice and righteousness, our worship is not worship of the Lord God, but a celebration of religious fantasies. In God’s house, attention to the liturgy must go hand in hand with attention to the well-being of the poor. Without attention to the order of life in the city and beyond, attention to the order of worship is religious distraction at best, and idolatry at worst.

In Samaria, where Amos proclaimed the coming of God’s judgment, the citizens came to the sanctuary bearing gifts and dressed in their Sunday best, but they had forgotten how to live as God’s people. You trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, Amos cried. You push the afflicted out of the way, you oppress the poor, and crush the needy. You hate the one who reproves in the gate and abhor the one who speaks the truth. You trample on the poor, afflict the righteous, and push aside the needy at the gate.[iv] You think of yourselves as worshipers of God, but you are tramplers, haters, oppressors, and crushers. You do not see past your own well-being, your own security, and the pleasures of your own lifestyle. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

In 1935, when the German government’s rhetoric and actions against Jewish citizens was growing increasingly hateful and violent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only those who cry out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian chant.”[v] Too few were paying attention; too many kept singing their beloved hymns on Sunday morning, folding their hands and bowing their heads in prayer, only to fall silent as soon as they stepped from the sanctuary into the streets where hate and fear ruled. People were grateful for the comforts of a familiar liturgy and the hymns they had known since childhood, but only very few did speak out or stand up on behalf of their persecuted neighbors. The terror didn’t last; the liberators came, but millions had been killed and Europe lay in ruins.

“Liturgy in the absence of justice does not please God; it nauseates God,” writes Nicholas Wolterstorff. Gregorian chants, Genevan psalms, Lutheran chorales, Anglican anthems, Orthodox troparions, Baptist revival songs, and non-denominational praise chorusses can be the most beautiful expressions of worship, but sung in the presence of injustice they disgust God. “Liturgy is for giving voice to life, to lives of faith.”[vi] In our lives, we seek to obey God, individually and collectively; and in the liturgy we praise the one whom we seek to obey, and we confess our failings. In our lives, we show our love of God in all that we do; and in the liturgy we bless and praise the God we love. In our lives, we strive to be like God: holy, merciful, just. And in the liturgy we intercede with God to be our holiness, our mercy, and our justice. But if in our daily lives we do not do what we can for the feeding of the hungry and peace with our neighbors, then interceding with God for the hungry and for peace on earth is a disgusting religious performance. If in our daily lives we do not actively imitate the divine longing for justice and righteousness, then professing devotion to God in worship is a disgusting religious performance. Without connection to lives ordered by God’s love and the demands of that love, worship nauseates God.[vii]

Love demands that we honor our veterans, especially the wounded warriors and those who have come home no longer knowing what it was they were sent to fight for. Love demands that we give them not just medals, but the best medical care our country has to offer, jobs that pay a living wage, and affordable housing. And love demands that we don’t just let them do our fighting for us, but that we give ourselves with courage to the struggle for a better tomorrow for all.

I want to close with a brief quote from one of the church fathers. Sing to the Lord a new song! was the text for one of Augustine’s sermons. He said, “You tell me, ‘I am singing!’ Yes indeed, you are singing. You are singing clearly, I hear you. But make sure that your life does not contradict your words. Sing with your voices, your lips, and your lives. … If you desire to praise [the Lord], then live what you express … and you yourselves will be [the Lord’s] praise.”[viii] Sing with your lives, and you yourselves will be the Lord’s praise.

 

[i] Hellmut Gollwitzer (November 16, 1938) in Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich, ed. Dean G. Stroud (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 130.

[ii] Gollwitzer, 138.

[iii] Jannie Du Preez, “Let justice roll on like...”: some explanatory notes on Amos 5:24.” Journal Of Theology For Southern Africa no. 109 (March 1, 2001) 95.

[iv] See Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:10,12.

[v] My translation; quoted from memory. See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Eine Biographie (München: Kaiser, 1983) 685.

[vi] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Justice as a condition of authentic liturgy,” Theology Today 48, no. 1 (April 1, 1991), 17.

[vii] See Wolterstorff, 17.

[viii] Sermon 34, 5-6.

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Brother Martin

On October 31, 1517, the story goes, an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was on the university faculty, the church was the university chapel, and its door was commonly used as a bulletin board. Posting the theses was a public invitation to debate, but this wasn’t merely an academic exercise. Luther challenged the power of the papacy, and he probably had no idea what a massive earthquake he triggered that day.

He chose October 31 to post his theses because it was the day before All Saints Day, and the meaning and role of saints was at the heart of Luther’s argument with the church leaders. The church taught that certain believers were saints, and the argument went that the saints were so good, so perfect in belief and obedience, that they accumulated more righteousness than they needed to enter the gates of heaven. So there was excess righteousness sitting around in heavenly storage, as it were, and somebody in Rome came up with the clever idea to make that surplus available to common sinners. The Vatican issued documents called indulgences, the purchase of which allowed sinners to build up their heavenly account of righteousness, reducing the time they would have to spend in purgatory and expediting their journey to the glorious assembly of the righteous. As an added bonus, people could purchase indulgences not only for themselves but for family members and friends who had already died.

Men and women carried heavy burdens of fear in those days, and the church, or rather those called to lead the church, knew how to turn forgiveness into a lucrative business. In the early sixteenth century, Rome sent out a sales force all across Europe to peddle indulgences—and the campaign was very successful: St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was completed with revenue from the sale of salvation.

Luther wanted to debate that practice. He understood Holy Scripture to teach that salvation is God’s gracious gift to humanity in Jesus Christ, a gift we do not deserve and cannot earn, let alone purchase, but only need to gratefully embrace in faith. To us today it may sound obvious, but at the time it was a revolutionary idea: The Christian faith is not about accumulating righteousness points in one’s heavenly savings account, but about living in gratitude to God for the gift of God’s grace.

The abuses of the corrupt hierarchy meant that talk of saints and the whole concept of sainthood became suspicious and eventually disappeared almost completely from Protestant life. But only almost, because many of the New Testament writings not only mentioned the saints, but were literally addressed to them. The apostle Paul wrote his letters to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi; to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints; to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, including all the saints throughout Achaia; etc. And the apostle wasn’t writing to the few, the proud, the shining stars among God’s people, awaiting their introduction into the Discipleship Hall of Fame, no, he was writing to all who had found new life through faith in Jesus Christ.[1]

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,[2] that we are not alone in this adventure called church. Those who have gone before us, surround us; and to me it’s a beautiful thing to imagine them watching us and cheering us on as we continue the journey toward the kingdom. Saints, Frederick Buechner wrote are not “plaster statues, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil thing their whole life long. Saints,” Buechner says, “are essentially life givers. To be with them is to become more alive.”[3] They are the men and women who told us the good news of God’s love for the world; who reminded us of our freedom in Christ as sons and daughters of God; who modeled for us what faithful living might mean; who inspired and encouraged us. Some of them may still be around, others have joined the church in heaven. Some of them you may have known in person, others you may have heard or read about. They are your saints, the people through whom God shaped you and made you who you are and continues to shape who you will be. Most likely they are not faith celebrities but ordinary people whose lives showed extraordinary courage and integrity in response to God’s grace, particularly in trying times. They moved forward in hope, trusting the promise and presence of God.

I know I wouldn’t be standing here talking about keeping the faith through these tumultuous days without the example of my grandfather or the courage of Bonhoeffer or the women and men who told me the stories of Jesus when I was a kid. And you know who those people are in your own life: your parents, perhaps, or your grandparents whose love continues to be a palpable presence for you, or a sister, a brother, a teacher who saw in you what, at the time, you could not see in yourself. People of life-giving generosity, kindness, and faithfulness—and they may not even have known it, they simply lived it.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, with a firework of adjectives, “What makes a saint is extravagance—excessive love, flagrant mercy, radical affection, exorbitant charity, immoderate faith, intemperate hope, inordinate love.”[4] What makes a saint is extravagance of faith responding to God’s extravagance of grace. And extravagance of faith has nothing to do with ostentatious piety.

Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Oh, we know what he’s talking about, we know that’s not limited to scribes and Pharisees. The preachers preach forgiveness, and struggle with living it. The teachers teach being kind to others, and yell at the driver in front of them. Parents get to the end of their rope and tell their kids, “Do as I say, not as I do.” We know that’s something we all have to work on, not just scribes and Pharisees.

But there’s another layer to this. Jesus said, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” The phylacteries Jesus referred to are small leather boxes with passages of scripture in them. To this day, many Jewish men strap them around the arm and on the forehead during morning prayer. The practice goes back to a passage in the book of Deuteronomy:

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.[5]

The boxes and straps remind those who wear them of the sacred obligation to keep God’s commandments: the one on the arm, a reminder to let all their actions be determined by God’s commandments; and the one on the forehead, a reminder to let God’s commandments guide their outlook and thinking. Jesus accused his opponents of making their phylacteries broad, of wearing them not as reminders to follow God’s commandments, but as objects displayed to impress others with their wearers’ piety, as status symbols of religious conviction and achievement.

Extravagance of faith has nothing to do with ostentatious piety, and everything with keeping the words of God in our heart; words that have the power to awaken faith in us and love. I’m grateful to Luther and many other leaders of the Reformation for redirecting the church’s attention to the word of God and the centrality of faith, but I don’t think celebrating tribal identities with a Reformation Sunday is a good idea. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer and all the others are part of the great cloud of witnesses, watching us and cheering us on as we journey toward the kingdom, and we honor them together with the others.

One Protestant pastor argued that we should change how we celebrate Reformation Sunday rather than bury it. He wrote,

True, we’ve set our liturgical calendar to commemorate the date on which Brother Martin posted his 95 theses for public consideration. However, one could (and I believe should) point out that there have been moments like this throughout the church’s history, all of which are worthy of being called reformation moments, moments where the church has been re-oriented toward the gospel, moved away from the many, many roads down which our distracted, narcissistic minds can take us.[6]

Reformation moments, I like that. Moments where the church has been re-oriented toward the gospel, I like that a lot. But why set aside one Sunday for that? We need every single Sunday the good Lord gives us, not to celebrate past reformation moments, but rather to ask God to re-orient us toward the gospel today, because there are indeed many, many roads down which our distracted, narcissistic, confused, and anxious minds can take us.

Luther himself was horrified when he heard people referring to themselves as “Lutherans.”

I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? … St. Paul in 1 Cor. 3:4-5 would not suffer that the Christians should call themselves of Paul or of Peter, but Christian. How should I, a poor stinking bag of worms, become so that the children of Christ are named with my unholy name? It should not be dear friends. … I have not been and will not be a master. Along with the church I have the one … teaching of Christ who alone is our master. Matt. 23:8.[7]

When I heard the news of the deadly truck attack in New York city, my heart broke and it broke again when I read about the victims of the attack, particularly the group of guys from Argentina who had planned this big reunion trip for thirty years to celebrate their friendship.

My heart broke for them and for us, for all the violence, the hatred, the fear, the stupidity, the callousness, the recklessness and hopelessness that flood in on us relentlessly from every side, threatening to undo us.

At some point I remembered a line from a medieval chant, In the midst of life we are surrounded by death. The line just kept playing in my head; and then I remembered Brother Martin who stared down hell and all devils and declared the gospel truth, “In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.”[8]

May God grant us grace to believe it and live it: In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.

 

[1] Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Phil 1:1

[2] Hebr 12:1

[3] Wishful Thinking, 102.

[4] Weavings, September – October 1988, p. 34

[5] Dtn 6:6-9

[6] http://nachfolge.blogspot.com/2011/10/why-we-should-celebrate-reformation.html

[7] Admonition Against Insurrection, 1522

[8] See Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 330.

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