Repair or replace?

 

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

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

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

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

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

Depends on what it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Zechariah 9:9

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

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Hope without palliatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have I populated the earth with monsters?

Of the symphonic

sweep and scope

of my creation

… they make this –

a petrified forest of death.

Bones, bones. Dry bones.

But not forever, I swear it!

… Ezekiel, stand in the killing fields.

Shall these bones live?[1]

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

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

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

And a rustling sound

as of leaves in autumn wind

started amid the dry bones.

A whisper, then a drumbeat!

They stood erect, those bones,

and knitted firm!

… and the spirit entered the bones.

First a whisper,

then a drumbeat,

then reverberant –

a heartbeat!

They took breath once more! and

walked about! and

conversed one with another!

joyful, harmonious,

an immense throng, the newborn, the living!

Speak to them.

Say:

Death no dominion!

from graves, mausoleums, hecatombs—

Lazarine multitudes, come forth!

Rejoice!

far from servitude!

enter the gates

of new Jerusalem![2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Berrigan, p. 114-115

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

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First light

Many of you have seen the clip of the 10-year-old Iowa boy standing in the backyard with his dad standing right behind him, telling him to open his eyes.[1] The boy is wearing glasses that look like sun glasses. You watch him slowly turn his face and gaze across the yard and then he starts to cry; he quickly turns and hugs his dad, burying his face in his dad’s chest, clearly overwhelmed by the experience.

Cayson Irlbeck was born colorblind, and his parents hoped that the special glasses might help him see a fuller spectrum of color. Cayson didn’t see a difference between red and green, no matter how hard his friends tried to explain that a fire engine didn’t blend in with the trees and the grass at the park. Cayson and his friends looked at the same world, but they saw and lived in very different ones. Cayson told reporters, “I just didn’t really understand what people that aren’t colorblind actually saw, and that day was amazing.”

Annie Dillard once spent a full three minutes staring at a bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large she couldn’t see it even though a dozen people were shouting directions. Finally she asked, “What color am I looking for?” and a fellow said, “Green.” When at last she picked out the frog, she saw what painters are up against: the thing wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.[2] Even when we look at the same things, we don’t see the same things.

Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. “Yes,” said Rabbi Elimelekh, “in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see these things anymore.”[3]

What did he mean? I wonder. Did he regret that he no longer saw angels like he used to when he was young? Or did he downplay that kind of vision to subtly chastise the younger rabbi for boasting about it?

The way we look at things, the way we perceive the world and name the things we see changes throughout the seasons of life. When we are little, we begin to know the world with immediacy and wonder, by simply participating with all our senses in the miracle of every moment. The older we get and the more we know about the world, the more difficult it becomes for us to maintain that earlier, and often happier, way of knowing things and people and ourselves.

The Scripture readings for this Sunday invite us to reflect on seeing and blindness, on having one’s eyes opened and suddenly seeing in new ways, on how what we know shapes what we see and what we see shapes what we know. We have written words on the windows, painting the light of Scripture onto the glass through which sunlight pours into this sanctuary; we have written words on the windows to visualize how Scripture invites us to perceive the world in the light of God’s love and God’s righteousness. We considered painting the whole surface of the windows and using wet sponges to write by washing away the paint on the glass one letter at a time, G – R – A – C – E, every letter showing how God opens our eyes to see the world in the new light of Christ, the first light of creation. Like I said, we considered painting over the entire window, but we had a wedding here last night, and painting the windows was not an option; so we decided to go with plan B, using paint and brushes to write on the glass. If at any moment this morning you feel moved to add a word or a phrase to what is already written on the windows, go ahead and do so. There are plenty of brushes and small cups of paint on every window sill. Doing graffiti is part of our prayers, part of our response to the word of God, part of our worship.

Annie Dillard chanced upon a book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight, in which he reviewed 66 early cases of patients who underwent cataract operations. When Western surgeons discovered how to safely perform these operations, they ranged across Europe and America operating dozens of men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth and documenting their cases. One doctor, before the operation, would give a blind patient a cube and a sphere; the patient would use his tongue or his hands to feel it, and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to the patient without letting him touch them; now he had no clue whatsoever what he was seeing. “The mental effort involved [in learning to see] proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable.” The doctor writes about a twenty-one-year-old woman, “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and that she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.”

Another young woman was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, “the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘O God! How beautiful!’”[4]

Jesus opened the eyes of a man blind from birth. He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” The man went and washed and came back able to see. We’re not told if he was happy or if he felt overwhelmed. His neighbors certainly didn’t know what to do with him anymore. Nobody shouted upon his return, “Will you look at this? It’s Frank; he can see! Praise the Lord!” Nobody asked him, “What’s it like to suddenly see? Does it hurt?” Instead they talked amongst themselves, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” They remembered a man who occupied a place on the margins of their world. They remembered a man who walked with tentative movements with his hands up in front of him. It was like they wanted to explain him away, because he no longer fit into their world. “Oh, that’s not him, he just looks like him,” some of them said. And he kept saying, “I am the man.” But the questions didn’t end. How were your eyes opened? Where is the man you say has done this? What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?

He was on his own under this barrage of questioning. Jesus healed him and then disappeared. Like any of us who live between Christ’s coming and his coming again the man had to make his own sense out of what had happened to him and decide what he would say about it.[5] His answers were timid one-liners at first. “I am the man,” he said. “I do not know,” he said. “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” But as the questions went on, the man grew both in eloquence and in courage, finally answering the Jewish leadership with a teaching of his own: “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” At the beginning he spoke of his healer simply as “the man called Jesus,” then he called him a prophet, then a man from God. It was as though his vision kept on improving, so that he saw more and more clearly who Jesus was.

But nothing he said could make his opponents see what he saw. “We know that this man is a sinner,” the leaders affirmed with rock-solid conviction. They were sure that they knew all there was to know and saw all there was to see, and they didn’t risk having their familiar patterns of thought and perception opened up by the man’s testimony. They drove him out. They had no room for experiences and insights that didn’t mesh with their views of God and the worldand we know all too well what that’s like, don’t we?

At the end of the chapter Jesus enters the scene again and he finds the man. And now the man sees with even greater clarity who Jesus is and he worships him. Seeing, according to the gospel of John, is not just a matter of eyesight or habits of thought. Seeing is comprehending who Jesus is, recognizing the presence of God in Jesus, and beginning to perceive all thingsthe world, our neighbors and ourselvesthrough Jesus who is the light of the world.

We can’t force this kind of seeing, neither in ourselves nor in others. We grope like the blind along a wall, for all we know, groping like those who have no eyes.[6] But Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”[7] That’s a promise I trust.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pu1SpIaEWbQ

[2] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper Perennial, 1985): 18.

[3] Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim, p. 125; quoted by Phillip Roth, Sabbath’s Theater, p. 402 and by Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 32.

[4] Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 25-29.

[5] See Barbara Brown Taylor, “Willing to believe.” The Christian Century 113, no. 8 (March 6, 1996): 259.

[6] See Isaiah 59:10

[7] John 8:12

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Water for our deepest thirst

This was a sermon in two parts; part 1 before the Prayer of Confession at the beginning of the service, part 2 during the usual time after the scripture readings.

I.

After having already received blow after blow of bad news, Job saw yet one more messenger come in, who spoke to him these words: “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.” Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground.[1]

The earliest account in Scripture of someone tearing their clothes as an expression of great sorrow is in the story of Joseph. You remember, his brothers were jealous and wanted to kill him; while they were discussing his fate, he was picked up by a passing caravan who took him to Egypt and sold him. The brothers didn’t know what to tell their father, so they took Joseph’s robe, killed a goat, and dipped the robe in blood. They had the bloody coat taken to their father who recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” Then Jacob tore his garments, and put on sackcloth, and mourned for his son many days.[2]

The tearing of fabric is a powerful symbol of forceful disruption, of all the ways in which death thrusts itself into our relationships, violently tearing apart what God in life and love has joined together. The symbol speaks not just in personal terms; we also talk about “the torn fabric of society” to speak of an underlying unity in our life together that has been fractured.

As part of our prayer of confession this morning, we will adapt the ancient practice of tearing one’s clothes in sorrow. We will tear off strips of fabric from a large piece of cloth while we name some of the things that tear the fabric of life, the life God intends. I say we, and what I mean is, some of us will do this on behalf of all of us. I ask eight of you to come to the microphone. Each of you will say one line from the prayer we offer today, and each of you will tear one strip of fabric from the purple cloth.

II.

“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,” we read in Deuteronomy.[3] Remembering the wilderness years has been essential for God’s people in order to remember who they are and who their God is.

The testimony of the witnesses about those years is consistent.

“We failed the wilderness test,” they tell us. “What was in our heart was doubt, despair, fear and grumbling. We were a people of little faith, little hope, little love.”

The testimony of the witnesses is consistent. “We failed the test,” they declare in the Scriptures, and they didn’t edit the desert scenes to make themselves look a little better. They didn’t cut the grumbling, the quarreling and complaining. “We forgot what God had done,” they wrote in Psalm 78, “we forgot the miracles the Lord had shown us, who divided the sea and let us pass through it and made the waters stand like a heap; who led us in the daytime with a cloud, and all night long with fiery light; who split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave us drink abundantly as from the deep, making streams come out of the rock and causing waters to flow down like rivers.”[4]

“We failed the test,” I hear the wilderness wanderers say, “but the promises of God were still new to us then and we had everything to learn. What did we learn, you ask? We learned to sing of the faithfulness of God.” The witnesses sing and tell of God’s faithfulness so that every new generation would “put their trust in God … and not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, and whose spirit was not faithful to God.”[5]

Every generation of Israel’s parents and teachers, beginning with the wilderness wanderers, passed on the stories to their children and grandchildren. They urged them to remember, but they didn’t tell them, “The way we did it back in the day is the way it’s done. Now it’s your turn to learn and do the same.” No, their testimony points in a very different direction:

We have failed again and again in our life as God’s people, but God has been faithful and true all the way. We failed to remember God’s promise and the commandments of life, but God remembered us. We failed the wilderness test, but through our failure we learned to sing of the faithfulness of God.

Complaining is a defining theme of the wilderness wandering stories. Trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s soldiers, the people said to Moses, not without a dose of dark humor, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?”[6] Yet soon they marveled as God made a way out of no way.

Then at Marah, they couldn’t drink the water, because it was bitter, and the people complained to Moses, “What shall we drink?”[7] And God showed Moses a piece of wood to sweeten the water.

Then they ran out of food, and again they complained, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”[8] And the Lord gave them quail and manna to eat.

Then the water gave out altogether and the people quarreled with Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst? Give us water to drink.”[9]

Israel’s testimony was born in a long struggle against oppression, against hunger and thirst, against fear and despair, a long struggle for a life of righteousness in covenant with God. Israel’s trust in God was not a given – it was found at the bottom of all they could imagine, at the end of their strength, and at the very edge of what they could bear: nothing left to lean on but the promise of God.

Go on ahead, God said to Moses, and take the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.

“God never failed us,” the wilderness wanderers told their children, and every generation of pilgrims in a barren land after them told the next generation,

We escaped from the house of slavery. We had food to eat and water to quench our thirst. None had too much and no one had too little. God was faithful, and we learned to be faithful to each other. Not that we never failed each other again, God knows we did, but in the wilderness we began to drink God’s word like our life depended on it, and God’s word has sustained us ever since. Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, test and argument. He could have called it Hashem-amin, the Lord is faithful, but perhaps he still had to discover that himself then.

The witnesses speak to us in hope that we too will discover what they discovered: God is faithful. The word of God is water for our deepest thirst.

In Psalm 95 they almost shout, “O that today you would listen to God’s voice!” And in the lines that follow, they recall what they heard God say,

Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your ancestors tested me,
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.[10]

The practices and disciplines of Lent, the things we choose to do or not to do during the Forty Days of W.I.L.D., help us recognize ourselves among the people whose hearts go astray, in whose hearts is little faith, little hope, little love, and who harden their hearts so that the water for our deepest thirst doesn’t soak in, but runs off like rain on a windshield.

At the beginning of the service we made our confession by tearing fabric. In sorrow, we named some of the things that rend the fabric of life God intends, and by naming them we also affirmed that we want our lives to be woven into God’s vision of life.

“Rend your hearts and not your clothing,” God says to us through the prophet Joel.[11] Let the act of ripping cloth in sorrow and grief over life’s brokenness be the prelude of your return to the Lord, your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.

Rend your hearts, so that through that crack we can really look at ourselves.

Rend your hearts, and lay bare under God’s merciful gaze the sinful, selfish, and destructive compulsions we cannot master.

Rend your hearts, because God will not despise a broken and contrite heart, but enter with healing mercy.

Rend your hearts in order to hear that echo of so many torn lives… so that indifference does not leave us inert.

Rend your hearts so that you can love with the love with which we are loved.

Rend your hearts to let your lives be remade in the image of Christ and woven into God’s vision of life.[12]

 

[1] Job 1:18-20

[2] Genesis 37; see also Joshua 7:6-7 (defeat in battle) and Judges 11:32-35 (horror of recognition), just two of many other examples. To this day, the tearing of clothes is part of Jewish mourning rituals http://www.jewish-funeral-guide.com/tradition/rending-customs.htm

[3] Deuteronomy 8:2

[4] See Psalm 78:11-16

[5] Psalm 78:7-8

[6] Exodus 14:11-12

[7] Exodus 15:23-24

[8] Exodus 16:2-3

[9] Exodus 17:3

[10] Psalm 95:7-10

[11] Joel 2:12-13

[12] Inspired by the 2013 Lenten message by Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires (now Pope Francis) https://zenit.org/articles/cardinal-bergoglio-s-lenten-message-for-buenos-aires/

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Leaving home

Leaving home is never easy. I’m not talking about leaving home in the morning to go to school or to work. And I’m not talking about leaving home an hour earlier to go to church. I’m talking about leaving the place you called home for good.

Do you remember a time when you had to do that, pack up and go? How did it feel to pull up the stakes that had held your tent taut for so long? It took effort, didn’t it, pulling them up and loosening the lines and watching your familiar dwelling collapse, metaphorically speaking. Then you found yourself on the road, not sure whether you were an explorer, a pilgrim, or a refugee, or what they call just a kid growing up. Others had talked about this moment as going to college, or getting married, or being between jobs – but to you it was a journey into the unknown. Everything was new, and at least for a while you found yourself floating in a river, on currents of excitement, fear, and hope.

Perhaps you recall that moment when you thought you had arrived; when you felt settled, when you had put down roots—and then someone you loved died; or your doctor’s office called with the test results; or your parents divorced, and what seemed like a reasonable thing to do for two adults who had grown apart turned out to be so painful and hard. And you pulled up the stakes and you rolled up your tent and you found yourself on the road, again. Where would you set up your tent next and for how long? Who would be there for you? Who would you be at the end of the journey? We always know what we’re leaving; the rest is unknown.

Leaving home is never easy. Warsan Shire is a Kenyan-born Somali-British poet and writer. I want to read a few lines from a poem she wrote, adapted from Conversations about home (at a deportation centre).

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying -
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Abraham and Sarah didn’t flee, they didn’t run away. The voice Abraham heard was God’s, saying, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” It wasn’t that it wasn’t safe there anymore in Haran, or that his herds couldn’t find pasture there anymore, or that the wells had dried up and he had to pull up the stakes and move on.

It was about a new beginning for the whole world. It was as though the world had not only forgotten that it belonged to God, but had even forgotten how to say, “i don’t know what i’ve become.”

Most of the stories in Genesis 3-11 are tales of a rebellious, corrupt, and violent humanity in the grip of sin. It’s like the whole world has maneuvered itself into a dead end, far from the life God desires to share with creation. Layers of hopelessness and fruitlessness are summed up in eight sad words, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.”[1] Far from the life God desires for creation, there is no life. This family, and with it the whole human family as portrayed in the opening chapters of Genesis, has arrived at a dead end.

And now God speaks. God whose word brought forth light and life from chaos speaks words of promise that tell of land, descendants, and blessing. But the first word is, go. The first word is deeply unsettling. The first word is, leave – your land, your kindred, the house of your father. God calls Abraham to shift his identity from rootedness in his land, his kin and household to entrusting himself to the promise of God.

No longer your land, but a land I will show you.

No longer your kindred, but I will make of you a great nation.

No longer your father’s house, but I will make your name great.

No longer humanity stuck in sin’s corruption of life, but I will bless you and you will be a blessing and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

God’s call gives history a new direction, with the end being once again what it was at the dawn of creation: blessing. At seventy-five, even in ancient biblical times, the last thing on your mind is packing up all your belongings, moving to a new place, and starting a brand new life. And the thought must have crossed Abraham’s mind, but it’s not mentioned in these four-and-a-half short verses. The focus is solely on God’s call and promise and on Abraham and Sarah’s response. They became migrants for the sake of the promise, resident aliens sojourning among other peoples.[2] And as sojourners of the promise, they became the ancestors of Israel and of all who entrust their lives to God’s call and promise, as Paul insists. And those who belong to Abraham’s family by faith are heirs of God’s promises, members of God’s covenant community, citizens of the world to come.

It has always been important for God’s people to remember that we are a people on the way, not necessarily geographically, but in terms of our identity. The land impacts who we are, yes, and the way we’re treating it, I wish we’d pay a little more attention to what makes us who we are. And obviously our ancestors and our kin matter, as do our traditions, our language, our songs and cuisines along with all that helps us spell out the meaning of home. But none of that determines our identity as people of God. We are a people on the way. We are a people who live into the promise. We are a people who believe that the kingdom is already here, and we live into it until it is here for all and forever.

It has always been important for God’s people to remember that we are a people on the way, and it is particularly important in this day and age, when nativism, nationalism, and “us first” is written above the closed doors of many a house. The simple fact of being a human being is you migrate,” I heard a man say the other day on the radio. “Many of us move from one place to the other,” he said. “But even those who don’t move and who stay in the same city, if you were born in Manhattan 70 years ago, you’re born in Des Moines 70 years ago, you’ve lived in the same place for 70 years, the city you live in today is unrecognizable. Almost everything has changed. So even people who stay in the same place undergo a kind of migration through time.” [3] The pace of change and its depth are disruptive and overwhelming for many, just about anywhere you turn these days, and fear is rampant, not only among those who flee from home just to survive, but also among those who are afraid to let them in. It’s easy to forget that we are all migrants, which makes it all the more important for the descendants of Abraham and Sarah to remember. We are migrants, walking in the light of God, on the way to the city of God.

Last Sunday we sat for a few minutes with the words of Psalm 32, and we wrote on pieces of paper what weighs us down, what drains our spirits and keeps us from trusting God with our whole heart. We also wrote down the heavy burdens we saw on the shoulders of others, the things that dry up their strength and cause them to groan. Writing it all down was our prayer, a silent lament; for some of us, a silent confession. And then we burned those pieces of paper, affirming our hope that the God who raised Jesus from the dead would also transform us and all things, until all that God has made shines with the splendor of God’s glory.

The listening, the sitting, the writing, the fire — it’s an ongoing prayer of confession and lament, intercession and affirmation, building up during the days of Lent to the joyous praise of Easter morning. Today we use the ashes to write words of hope on a banner, and all of us are invited to participate. We have made paint with the ashes, and during communion, we will move a work table to the middle of the chancel. And we invite each of you to come up after you have shared the Lord’s Supper and add a letter or two to our banner of affirmation. You don’t need to worry about your handwriting or your painting skills; we use stencils and small sponges, so people of all ages can participate. For this part of our Lenten prayer we walk a little and we work a little. It helps us remember that we are a people on the way, walking and working in the light of God.

When the world had maneuvered itself into a dead end, far from the life God desires to share with creation, God spoke. When it was as though the world had not only forgotten that it belonged to God, but had even forgotten how to say, “i don’t know what i’ve become,” God made a promise. And with our ancestors in faith who first set out on the journey, we affirm that God is faithful.

 

[1] Gen 11:30

[2] See Gen 12:10; 17:8; 20:1; 21:23, 34; see also Hebrews 11:8–9.

[3] Mohsin Hamid in an interview with Steve Inskeep. Mohsin Hamid’s Novel ‘Exit West’ Raises Immigration Issues http://www.npr.org/2017/03/06/518743041/mohsin-hamids-novel-exit-west-raises-immigration-issues

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The other voice

Lent is an odd season. With its emphasis on repentance, fasting, and prayer, it goes very much against the grain of our culture. It’s meant to disrupt our routines; during Lent the church invites us to try on a different kind of life. American culture loves playing with Christmas, with Mardi Gras and Easter, with the presents, the parties and the lilies, but during the seven weeks of Lent, we’re on our own. The world of commerce and consumption, the world of work and entertainment doesn’t know what to make of this odd season.

Lent begins in the middle of the week with ashes smudged on our foreheads and somber words urging us, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remember you are mortal, you are human. Remember and return are just two of the many words of this odd season that begin with the syllable “re.” Remember. Return. Repent.

The ashes are all that’s left of the palm branches we waived when Jesus came riding into town and we were so excited about God’s reign on earth. The branches went up in flames much like the exuberance of our joy and our commitment to living as God’s people. Ashes is all that’s left, and on Wednesday we used them to have the symbol of our hope traced on our foreheads – the cross of Christ, the triumph of God’s love over sin.

Lent gives us forty days to reflect on our priorities, reconsider our choices, remember our calling, renew our commitments, refocus our attention, resist lovelessness, reenter the place of truth, return to a baptized life, reclaim our identity as God’s own – in one word, repent. Forty days to let the Spirit lead us to a fuller understanding of what it means for us to be God’s Easter people in this peculiar and unsettling time.

The forty days are patterned on Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. It was the Spirit who led him there, immediately after his baptism. By the river, the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” now there’s another voice. This voice says, “Since you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” The voice belongs to the devil. Nothing is said where he came from, nothing is said of his looks. What matters here – perhaps the only thing that matters – is the fact that the devil speaks.  And what he suggests is utterly reasonable: You’re hungry. You’re the Son of God. Go ahead, make yourself a little bread. This wilderness is not a place of quiet, undisturbed retreat, but rather a landscape where conflicting voices demand attention. The voice from heaven and the voice from who-knows-where-it-came-from.

Jesus responds by quoting Scripture, with a word from Israel’s wilderness tradition, from the teachings of Moses as written in the book of Deuteronomy,

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.[1]

Bread is good. Bread is delicious, nutritious, and satisfying. Bread is essential, life-sustaining nourishment, but so is God’s word. Jesus won’t use his status and power as Son of God for a self-serving miracle, and he tells the devil that he is going to live by God’s word. But the devil isn’t done yet, and he is quick: Speaking of God’s word, he says, consider Psalm 91. Jesus finds himself on the top of the temple and the devil quotes Scripture, chapter and verse.

He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.

Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. Go ahead, live by God’s word and jump. Consider the publicity you could get with a stunt like that. The whole world would know you. Show them who you are. Jump.

But Jesus doesn’t. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he says, again quoting from Deuteronomy.[2]

Now the devil puts all his cards on the table by reenacting an entire scene from Israel’s wilderness journey, with Jesus as Moses and himself as God. We read in Deuteronomy 34,

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo …, and the Lord showed him the whole land … [and] said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.”[3]

The devil takes Jesus to a very high mountain with a view not just of the land, but of all the kingdoms of the world. And crossing over there is but one small step, he says, less than a step. “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” What’s at stake in round three of the wilderness exam is what kind of power would rule the world. Would it be the devil’s empire of one throne to rule them all, or would it be the kingdom of God? Jesus tells the devil to be gone and begins his ministry in Galilee, a servant of God’s reign.

The high-stakes debate with the devil wasn’t about knowing Scripture and how to apply it in the thick of things, although that was part of it. And it certainly wasn’t about ignoring the human need for bread, for in the course of his ministry Jesus did miraculously transform a boy’s lunch of bread and fish into a feast for thousands. And it wasn’t about refusing to depend on the power of God, for Jesus did use it to teach, to heal and forgive, and he entrusted himself completely into God’s hands. And it wasn’t about rejecting a global perspective for his mission, for gathered with his disciples on a mountain, the Risen Christ declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus’ response to every test was to refuse the tempter’s suggestion that he could be so much more than human. Jesus did not use the power of the Spirit to avoid suffering and pain. He walked his path in obedience to God and serving God’s kingdom. “He did not use God to claim something for himself,” wrote Fred Craddock. “And it was this serving, suffering, dying Jesus whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead.”[4]

The temptations didn’t end in the wilderness. Like us, Jesus had wilderness moments throughout his life, when he was exhausted, hungry, frustrated, tired, and lonely, but he remained faithful in his relationship with God. “Avoid the cross,” said his close and well-meaning friend Simon, just moments after his bold affirmation, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And then, of course, there was Gethsemane, the long night after Jesus’ last meal with his friends. He didn’t jump. He didn’t walk away. He didn’t look for the shortcut. He entrusted himself completely into the arms of God whose kingdom he served. And he taught us to pray with the confidence of children,

Our Father in heaven, your name be hallowed, your kingdom come, your will be done. Give us bread for today. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from the evil one.

Lent is meant to disrupt our routines of hurry and worry, of self-centeredness and amnesia, of distraction and despair. We begin by remembering that we are mortal, human, that we fall short of the glory of God for which we have been created—and in the company of Jesus, we journey to the day of resurrection. Lent is the journey of our life condensed into seven weeks. The church invites us to live these forty days with a little less of what we know we don’t need and a little more of what we know we do. A little less running around and a little more rooting ourselves in prayer. A little less screen time and a little more eating with neighbors. A little less spending and a little more giving. You get the idea. You try on a different kind of life, and you may discover that you develop new routines you want to keep.

An image to keep in mind is a stick and a flute. A flute is a stick that has been emptied of itself for the sake of music. A stick is still full of itself. We have a tendency to clutter our lives with junk, to let chatter and noise drown out the voice of God, and to block the flow of the Spirit with our oversized egos. We have a tendency to live like sticks when we’re meant to be flutes.

The disciplines of Lent which the church adopted and cultivated for generations, disciplines like fasting, silence, and giving, create openings for the composer of the symphony of life to tune us.

[1] Deuteronomy 8:2-3

[2] Deuteronomy 6:16

[3] Deuteronomy 34:1-4

[4] Fred B. Craddock, “Testing that never ceases.” The Christian Century 107, no. 7 (February 28, 1990), 211.

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Temple builders

Imagine you were given the opportunity to build a church. No need to worry about land to build on or the building budget; that’s all taken care of. Your job is to come up with the basic idea for the whole structure. Where would you start?

Perhaps you would begin on the inside, with a table placed prominently at the center for God’s people to gather, and the entire building would take its shape from there. Perhaps you would want it to be round, with doors opening in every direction, to allow God’s people to gather from the ends of the earth to worship God and be sent again to the ends of the earth to serve God. Or perhaps you would begin on the outside with a tall set of doors, and right in the entrance, you would build a pool with a fountain; it would remind all who enter that the community that gathers here finds its life in its immersion into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Or perhaps you would want the entire structure to be made of glass doors and windows to suggest that the church is very much in the world, though not of the world. Or perhaps you envision a building that is a sanctuary for the weary, where the hungry are fed, refugees are sheltered, and homeless veterans no longer have to face their demons by themselves. And on Sunday morning God’s people gather in the large dining room for worship around the big prep table that’s been brought in from the kitchen. Or perhaps you would want to design a church that looks like a ship – not a cruise ship that always returns people where they started, but an ark making its way through the waves of chaos of our days to the land of God’s promise. Or perhaps you would think about the proposal for a few seconds and say, “Thank you for the offer; I think I’ll pass. There are plenty of church buildings already, more than plenty. I’d rather be part of building the church.”

“You are God’s building,” Paul wrote the church in Corinth. There were divisions in the church, different groups aligning themselves with various leaders, and Paul wrote to remind them that there was only one church; they all belonged to it, but they were behaving like it belonged to them. He had already compared the church to God’s field where all the various leaders are field hands, working together in God’s service, doing their work as each had been assigned by God. Now he introduced another image. You are God’s building, and like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation. Others are building on that foundation, and each builder must choose carefully how to build on it. But the foundation has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. If you make your own wisdom the foundation, or the eloquence of your leaders and their success in drawing the rich and powerful into your assemblies, if you do that, you might erect one impressive edifice after the other in the city, but it won’t be God’s church. The foundation has been laid, and that foundation is Jesus Christ. Some of you may think that the skills needed to continue the work of building the church are the possession of a few – that’s how it is in the world, isn’t it? The real estate developers, the bankers, the successful merchants, the folks with the degrees, the folks with the connections in high places, the folks with the money, they are the few who determine what gets built and where, while the many hope to get a job here and there. But the church isn’t that kind of project. You are God’s building, and in God’s project the skills needed to continue the work have been given to all, for the good of all. The foundation has been laid, and that foundation is Jesus Christ, and on that foundation, we are all building: men and women, young and old, no matter where our people came from or what we do for a living. We all work on that magnificent building, and while some of you may think what others are adding to the structure is pure gold, while your own contributions look more like bricks and buckets of sand, the truth is that all of us give ourselves to the building. What we bring or think we bring is as nothing compared to the reality that we each bring ourselves to the work to which God has called us. Christ is the foundation, and Christ is the pattern for the whole structure: his obedience shaping ours, his compassion stirring ours, his forgiving embrace holding us all. So let no one boast about human leaders. Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.

And now Paul moves on to yet another image. It’s already quite clear that the community of believers whom God has called together and sent is not just any building. Do you not know that all of you together are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? Do you not know that your divisions can only be compared to the destruction of God’s temple? Do you not know that such loveless actions will not pass God’s judgment? For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Some of Paul’s initial readers had been to Jerusalem and had seen the temple from afar, glistening in the sunlight like it was made entirely of gold and precious stones; they were Jews who had entered the breathtaking building with awe in their hearts and psalms on their lips, they had stood among the crowds in the court yard, their gaze resting on God’s hidden dwelling place among mortals, the true center of creation. All of Paul’s Corinthian readers, Jews and Gentiles, had seen the many temples erected to the glory of other gods in their city – there was one on every corner, it seemed – spectacular feats of architecture and devotion. I imagine them sitting in one of the houses where they gathered on the Lord’s Day for prayers and teaching and to share the Lord’s supper, and several of them looked up at that point and said to the one reading Paul’s letter, “Wait, would you repeat that last line?”

“God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

They had heard it right the first time. Paul told them that they together were the temple of the living God, the same people he had called just a few lines before, people of the flesh and infants in Christ; now he told them that they together were God’s dwelling place on earth. It wasn’t because of anything they had done; it was because Christ had made them his own, and because Christ was the foundation, and because Christ’s holiness was theirs. “The temple of God is the holy people in Jesus Christ,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “The Body of Christ is the living temple of God and of the new humanity.”[1] The question Paul is holding up to us, all of us, the saints in Corinth and in Nashville and anywhere on God’s earth where the gospel is lived and proclaimed, the question Paul is holding up to us is, how will you continue to build? There’s a million things to do, but there isn’t a list of them anywhere. The living temple of God and of the new humanity, wrote Bonhoeffer, “is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it,”[2] and, I would add, continue to build it.

There’s a wonderful scene in Exodus 35 where Moses talks to the people and calls on all who are wise in heart among them to come and make all that was needed to build the Lord’s tabernacle.

And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments. So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and … rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, … And everyone who possessed blue or purple or crimson yarn or fine linen or goats’ hair or tanned rams’ skins or fine leather, brought them. Everyone who could make an offering of silver or bronze brought it as the Lord’s offering; and everyone who possessed acacia wood of any use in the work, brought it. … All the Israelite men and women whose hearts made them willing to bring anything for the work that the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord.[3]

It’s a beautiful scene, isn’t it, this procession of temple builders – men and women, young and old; the woman cradling her earrings in the palm of her hand, the old man carrying a piece of acacia wood on his shoulder, the little girl with a skein of blue yarn, and the boy with a rolled up goat skin. As always, some of them thought that what others were contributing to the sacred project was so much more than what they themselves could give, but I hope it didn’t diminish their joy. The important thing was not the tent, the real project was and has always been the building of a community attentive to God’s word and ways. What we bring or think we bring is as nothing compared to the reality that we each bring ourselves to the work which God is doing. We’re not just given the opportunity to build a church. We are being built into the living temple of God and of the new humanity, and we have the privilege to participate in that work with our prayers, with words of encouragement, and with acts of kindness and defiance. Even the smallest gesture stirred by the Spirit of Christ will build the living temple.

 

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 247.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 30.

[3] Exodus 35:21-29

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Field trip

At the beginning of the Bible, on page 2 in most editions, the story of creation is told as a story of a garden God planted. And God took the human being, whom God had formed from the dust of the ground, and put him in the garden to till it and keep it. That is the first thing to know about what it means to be human, according to the Scriptures: we are creatures whom God has formed, and our God-given purpose is to work the garden and take care of it. The verbs used to describe the role of humankind in the garden of creation contain overtones of serving, guarding, and protecting, suggesting that we are here to look after all things that grow, tending to their flourishing.

Wendell Berry wasn’t the first to note that “there is an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth.”[1] In chapter 1 of Genesis, just a few verses before the garden story, God addresses humanity, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” There’s a tension between our call to till and keep and our call to subdue and rule—and it’s a tension largely because we don’t grasp the dominion of God in whose image we have been made. God’s rule is sovereign, but never self-serving; God’s dominion serves the flourishing of life, and humanity is called to participate in God’s dominion, not to establish our own by subduing the earth and one another to our own will. There is indeed an uncanny resemblance between our behavior toward each other and our behavior toward the earth.

The prophet Isaiah used the image of the vineyard, a staple in love poetry of his day, to sing about God and God’s people Israel.

My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it, cleared away its stones, planted it with excellent vines, built a tower inside it, and dug out a wine vat in it. He expected it to grow good grapes—but it grew rotten grapes.

Rotten grapes, that’s no way to end a love song. Sweet wine and the joy of sharing it was what the audience expected; they were baffled. Now the prophet stepped into the role of the disappointed owner who had made such an effort digging, clearing, planting, and caring for the vineyard.

You who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I haven’t done for it? When I expected it to grow good grapes, why did it grow rotten grapes?

They couldn’t tell him, couldn’t name a single reason why the song ended with rotten grapes rather than sweet wine. The man had certainly done everything that could be expected. Now the prophet continued to sing in the role of the disappointed lover, but it wasn’t really a song anymore; it was the violent undoing of what was meant to be a happy-ever-after love song:

Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard. I’m removing its hedge, so it will be destroyed. I’m breaking down its walls, so it will be trampled. I’ll turn it into a ruin; it won’t be pruned or hoed, and thorns and thistles will grow up. I will command the clouds not to rain on it.

They had known for a while this was no ordinary love song, but with that last line even the most metaphorically challenged in the audience realized that they were listening to the poetry of divine promise and judgment. Isaiah had made his point, now he just underlined it:

The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted. God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress![2]

God plants the garden of life and we are called to till it and keep it. God plants a vineyard and God’s people are expected to bear the sweet fruit of justice and righteousness.

The Apostle Paul continues in that tradition of reflection on what it means to be human in God’s creation with images drawn from the garden, the vineyard, and the field. In today’s passage from First Corinthians, he doesn’t go to the field right away, though, he begins in the house, in the nursery. Remember, he is challenging individual believers who think of themselves as spiritually advanced, way ahead of the less mature believers, the less sophisticated sisters and less eloquent brothers. Paul has reminded them that the center of their life together is occupied, not by ladders of advancement defined by worldly standards of upward mobility, but by Christ crucified. Worldly standards of power and success, wisdom and knowledge have been turned upside down in the revelation of God on the cross.

The spirit-enthusiasts who pride themselves in their maturity and their ability to discern which leaders offer the best in eloquence and wisdom are in truth babies in the life of Christ. The life of faith is a life of growth and maturing, but what they like to think of as their advanced status is in truth the large part of their life and identity that hasn’t been transformed by their baptism, that hasn’t been converted. They still behave and think as those whose lives have not been claimed by the Spirit of Christ, but by the lesser spirits of human inclination that make their presence known through jealousy, quarreling, and division. When one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” they only replicate in the church the world’s standards of boasting and belonging. Old habits die hard, and it’s not enough to dress up the old attitudes of elitism and superiority with pious talk and a cross necklace.

What then is Apollos in this new reality where Christ crucified occupies the center? What is Paul? Servants, the Apostle answers; co-workers in God’s service who simply do what has been assigned to them. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” The life of faith is a life of growth and maturing, individually and in the church as a whole, but our allegiance is not to Paul or Apollos, Luther or Calvin, Wesley, Campbell or Francis, but to God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters are as one in their service, and the field, the garden, the vineyard, the earth is God’s. You are God’s field, writes Paul, and the emphasis is on God to counteract our very human tendency to parcel up the garden into smaller and smaller tracts claimed by one or another of God’s field hands. You are God’s field, Paul writes, and I believe he would agree that this “you” is really a “we,” because in Christ all of us are both field hands and field, workers in the vineyard and branches on the vine, sowers and the soil that receives the seed.

We began our journey in the garden, we looked at Isaiah’s vineyard and Paul’s field, and along the way other images emerged that help us reflect on what it means to be human in God’s creation. For the final leg of this field trip I invite you to a brief walk in the woods. Henry David Thoreau wrote,

If a man walk in the woods for love of them half of each day, he is in danger of being regarded as a loafer; but if he spends his whole day as a speculator, shearing off those woods and making earth bald before her time, he is esteemed an industrious and enterprising citizen. As if a town had no interest in its forests but to cut them down![3]

Thoreau takes us again to the ancient tension, old as humanity, between our call to till and keep and our call to subdue and rule, but I want to consider the trees themselves for a moment, mindful of the prophet who announced that God’s people would be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.[4]

No tree is an island,” I read recently, “and no place is this truer than the forest. Hidden beneath the soil of the forest understory is a labyrinth of fungal connections between tree roots that scientists call the mycorrhizal network. Others have called it the wood-wide web.” The wood-wide web, that’s cute, maybe a little corny, but it’s really quite astonishing.

[The fungi] partner with plant roots because each gets something out of it. The fungus infiltrates the plants’ roots. But it does not attack — far from it. The plant makes and delivers food to the fungus; the fungus, in turn, dramatically increases the plant’s [capacity to absorb water and minerals] via its vast network of filaments. They provide far more surface area for absorption than the meager supply of short root hairs the tree could grow alone. What has not been appreciated until relatively recently is both how complex [these] fungal networks can be and that they can also act as conduits between trees. … [Researchers in Canada] found that Douglas-fir seedling and paper birch shuttle carbon back and forth to one another seasonally via their [fungal connections]. Paper birch send carbon to Douglas-fir seedlings, especially when they were shaded in summer, probably enhancing their survival. In spring and fall, the Douglas-fir return the favor when the birch have no leaves.[5]

Trees sharing nutrients via fungal networks, and not just between generations of the same species, where older trees give the little ones an occasional boost, but even across species. When we look at trees only above ground, we may see only competition for precious sunlight; but below ground, the forest is shaped by astonishing mutuality. I believe Paul would have loved the image of the church as God’s forest, where we flourish and grow to maturity, planting, watering, shuttling resources back and forth, all of us serving together for the good of all, to the glory of God.

 

[1] The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry. Ed. by Norman Wirzba (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002) 118.

[2] Isaiah 5:1-7 CEB

[3] Henry David Thoreau, Life Without Principle (1863)

http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper2/thoreau/life.html

[4] Isaiah 61:3

[5] http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/the-secrets-of-the-wood-wide-web; see also https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/dying-trees-can-send-food-to-neighbors-of-different-species/

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Mother of kindness

Some members of the church in Corinth thought of themselves as especially inspired, Spirit-filled, spiritual persons. They got all puffed up about how wise they were and mature, especially compared to those in the church who sat on the lower rungs of the ladder, whom they considered mere spiritual babies. The “spiritually advanced” saints in Corinth didn’t just have an air of superiority about them, they breathed the stuff, convinced it was the very Spirit of God. The opening chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians are designed to deflate those boast bags— and I should be very careful what names I choose for them, because the longer I point the finger at them, the closer I am to joining their exclusive club. Paul wrote,

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

The center of the scene, says Paul, is not occupied by a ladder, where we rank ourselves and each other according to ethnic and cultural backgrounds, gender, educational achievements, income levels, or any other indicators— the center is occupied by Jesus Christ crucified. We all gather under the cross and around the cross, but our attention is so readily caught by our differences rather than by the new reality that brings and holds us together in its power: the love of God revealed in Christ. Elsewhere Paul wrote,

…make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.[1]

The center is occupied, not by our dreams of greatness and the ladders by which we seek to achieve them, but by Jesus Christ crucified. Paul’s insistence gives his words a graphic quality; he paints a new picture of the world, a world no longer under the power of sin, but flourishing in freedom and in love. And at the center is the cross as the revelation of God, imperceptible to human criteria and concepts of greatness, power and glory. What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit, the Apostle writes. The knowledge of God is not the mind’s intellectual ascent to the heights of all that is true, good, and beautiful. The knowledge of God is letting ourselves be fully known in the embrace of Christ. The knowledge of God is love responding to love. And the primary movement of that response is not upward, but across the many lines that separate us from each other.

I want to share with you three vignettes; one is a letter, one a prophetic word, and the third a word of encouragement. They each address the challenges of living with the cross of Christ at the center of our world as well as the promise of that new life.

I. A Letter

We have C. S. Lewis to thank for a series of letters from a senior Demon by the name of Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a Junior Tempter. The uncle’s mentorship pertains to the nephew’s responsibility in securing the damnation of a man referred to only as “the patient”. In one of his letters Screwtape imagines the patient going to church:

My dear Wormwood,

I note with grave displeasure that your patient has become a Christian. … [However,] there is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the Enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. … All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate. When he goes inside, he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks round him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours. Make his mind flit to and fro between an expression like “the body of Christ” and the actual faces in the next pew.

It matters very little, of course, what kind of people that next pew really contains. … Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. …

He has not been anything like long enough with the Enemy to have any real humility yet. What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these … commonplace neighbours at all. Keep him in that state of mind as long as you can.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape.[2]

II. A Prophetic Word of Judgment

This is not a letter, although we can hear it as such; it is a stark warning from a prophet of the 19th century for the church in the 21st century not to lose sight of the cross at the center of our life together. “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ,” wrote Frederick Douglass in an appendix to the narrative of his life.

I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. … We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus. ... The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.[3]

III. A Word of Encouragement

“All of Portland seemed to be in a bad mood that Sunday afternoon not too long ago. The sky was spitting rain in intermittent bursts, frustrating both the people who had gone through the trouble to bring an umbrella and the ones who hadn’t.” Journalist Egan Millard was feeling adrift. He had only recently moved across the continent and, as much as he was loving Portland, hadn’t had time to adjust or relax. “My life was changing rapidly, and it seemed like the world was too. When I feel ungrounded, I gravitate to the firmest ground I know, which is the church.”

As it turned out, he was the only congregant to show up for the evening service that Sunday.

I took a seat and looked up into the chapel’s spire. Every once in a while, some muffled fragment of a sound would surface briefly – a faint siren, rain on the roof – before dissolving. Candlelight brought a warm glow to the chapel’s wood-paneled walls, which fold into a partial dome over the altar. … Imagine being cradled in a conch shell under a dark sea. In those minutes, my understanding of the word ‘sanctuary’ deepened.

The priest went ahead with the liturgy; she asked Millard if he would read the scripture passages appointed for the day, and when it was time for the homily, she came and sat by him in the pew and asked about his life.

As we talked, I thought about the timeliness of this little scene. In an age when many Americans have abandoned the institutions they once turned to for solace and truth, there we were, a priest and a journalist huddled together in an empty church. With the light fading and our voices low, it felt almost subversive, as if even kindness were a political act.[4]

The Apostle Paul has painted a picture of the world with Jesus Christ crucified at the center. He reminds us just how subversive love, the mother of kindness, is.

[1] Philippians 2:1ff.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Harper Collins, 1996) 5-8.

[3] Frederick Douglass, Narrative Of The Life Of Frederick Douglass (Kindle Locations 1716-1735).

[4] http://www.pressherald.com/2017/01/01/what-happens-when-youre-the-only-one-who-shows-up-to-church/

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Exceptional?

Every year, around the beginning of Lent, we bring a wooden cross into the sanctuary. There’s already a brass cross on the table and a subtle cross shape in the window, but for Lent, we hang a rough wooden cross above the baptistery; it helps us focus our attention on the suffering and death of Jesus; it helps us reflect on who we are as a community baptized in his name, as those who are called to love and serve in his name. Every year, we attach a couple of thin ropes to the back of that wooden cross and we pull it up, and every year, one or two of us find ourselves obsessing over whether it’s hanging straight and level and centered, and every year, we stop to remind each other that there’s something wrong, profoundly wrong, with wanting to make the cross look pretty. There’s nothing pretty about the cross. The beauty of the cross is not easily seen.

The disciples, according to the Gospels, had learned to live with the many surprises that being in the company of Jesus presented – his compassion for all people, his openness to children, his healing presence, his teachings about righteousness. But nothing could prepare them for his shameful, violent death. We read in Luke,

While everyone was amazed at all that Jesus was doing, he said to his disciples, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.[1]

They struggled, as all of us do, with holding together Jesus’ exalted status as God’s anointed with his shameful suffering. They struggled, as all of us do, with fully embracing the new view of the world that was at the core of Jesus’ proclamation: the new world of God’s reign in which conventional perspectives on honor and shame, power and privilege, and the meaning of suffering in relation to God’s redemptive purpose are turned on their head.

Crucifixion was a horrible form of public torture and execution, reserved by the Romans for those who resisted the authority of Roman occupation, and designed to demonstrate that nothing but complete surrender to the power of Rome would be accepted. The crucified person was often denied burial, with the corpse left on the tree to rot or as food for scavenging wildlife. The message was brutally clear: Challenge Rome’s authority and this is what you will face.

Crucifixion was an obscenity not to be discussed in polite company. In a speech defending a Roman senator against a murder charge for which the prosecutor was seeking the death penalty and was apparently suggesting crucifixion, Cicero sought to sway the jury, declaring, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.”[2]

That very word ‘cross’ is what Paul holds up for all in Corinth to see. Paul’s gospel is an insult to the sensibilities of educated men and women, an ugly interruption of any polite conversation about politics, the law, or religion. Paul proclaims Jesus, God’s crucified Messiah. To Jews, his proclamation borders on blasphemy; to non-Jews, it’s just nonsense. The word of the cross disrupts whatever we think we can know and say about God, or about justice, or power, or love.

Jews demand signs, Paul writes.We too want God to do big and spectacular things, something like a Wimbledon final where Jesus is on the court against all the forces that oppose God’s will and purpose, and he dominates the game, and the whole world is cheering; instead we must look at him on the cross, beaten and forsaken by all.

Greeks desire wisdom, Paul writes. We too want the gospel to be philosophically elegant and aesthetically pleasing; we want the TED talk that blows us away, instead we must listen for the word of God from the cross.

Where we look for power, weakness is given. Where we expect wisdom, foolishness is given. But in the community God gathers around the cross, in the community shaped by the love and obedience of Christ, deep compassion, the courage of vulnerability, and humble service are not seen as contradictions to the power of God, but as its fullest expressions. The word of the cross shatters our systems of knowledge and self-assertive power. On the cross, God is completely hidden and fully revealed. Nonsense, we say, until we see that what is so clearly the world’s judgment of Jesus, is in truth God’s judgment of the world. The cross is God’s judgment of our politics, our justice, and our religion, and it is the vindication of Jesus and the world he announced. God raised Jesus from the dead, inaugurating a world no longer under the power of sin, but finally free to flourish in love.

“Be careful of the way you live,” said Dom Helder Camara, “it is the only gospel most people will ever read.” Our life together is the proclamation of the gospel of the cross, and perhaps we must learn to walk before we talk. What might that look like? Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul is confronting various forms of social, theological, spiritual, and moral elitism which have fractured God’s church in Corinth. One of the issues the first believers had to face was dietary. Should they eat food that had been presented as an offering in a pagan temple? Serving that kind of food was common practice at dinner parties, especially when meat was part of the menu. Some believers said, “No big deal; there’s only one true God, and those idols are no competition. We can eat anything we please, for Christ has set us free.” But there were also those who worried they might fall back into pagan ways if they didn’t stay clear of pagan practices; they stopped eating meat altogether, just to be safe.

Given Paul’s own faith and robust theology, you’d expect him to side with those who act boldly in Christ-given freedom. But he doesn’t. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” he says.[3] In the community that proclaims the power of the cross, building up comes before personal liberty. We must walk together in love before we brag about the consequences of our freedom as children of God.

I read a story that illustrates beautifully what walking together in love might look like today.

The church was next door to a group home for adults. One day one of them came in and sat down before worship, uninvited. She was painfully overweight and wearing clothing that didn’t fit. She hadn’t bathed and wasn’t able to breathe or move comfortably. She wouldn’t speak or make eye contact with anyone. From the beginning, she tried our patience. More than once she forgot where she was and lit up a cigarette right there in the pew. Her medication prevented her from being able to follow the order of worship. She fell asleep during sermons. Her breathing problems escalated and became loud snoring problems. You can imagine the conversations we had at council meetings: “She doesn’t belong here; she couldn’t possibly be getting anything out of it so heavily medicated.” [One member said,] “I’m tithing to this church, and she’s just giving pennies … she shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it for everyone.” Some observed that she ate too many cookies at coffee hour. They worried that she was a deterrent to other visitors. I worried about everyone.

Finally, an exasperated council member said that she’d had enough of all this talk. She announced that she would make a friend out of our troubled visitor and would hereafter be sitting next to her in church. Gentle Reader, take note: this means that after more than 25 years sitting in one pew, she moved ... to a different pew. When the snoring started, the council member gave a gentle nudge; she helped our visitor find the right hymn to sing; she reminded her to put her cigarettes away and limited her to no more than three cookies in the fellowship hall. That small act was all our visitor needed. Soon I witnessed her talking to people; she made eye contact and learned to shake my hand at the door after worship; her first words to me were “bless you.”

Some months later I received a phone call from the woman’s social worker. He told me that she had never been accepted by any group or able to sustain a single positive relationship until she started coming to our church. “Thank you for welcoming her,” he said to me. “I have never been to your church, but I know that it is an exceptional place.”

After I hung up the phone I sat for a moment. “Exceptional?”[4]

Is it exceptional for God’s people to welcome the stranger? Isn’t it simply who we are becoming by the power of God? Is it exceptional for followers of Jesus not to give in to fear and to let love build us up in community? Is it exceptional? If it is, then by all means let us be the exception.

 

[1] Luke 9:43-45

[2] The Speech In Defence of Gaius Rabirius, sec. 16, in The Speeches of Cicero, trans. H. Grose Hodge, The Loeb Classical Library (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927) 467.

[3] 1 Corinthians 8:1

[4] Erica Wimber Avena, The Christian Century, January 4, 2017, 26. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/power-essays-readers

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