Between sowing and reaping

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus tells a story about a farmer.

“This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvest time.”[1]

I bet folks fell in love with that story the moment they first heard it; many of them were farmers and they knew how much back-breaking work they had to put in before harvest time. Jesus’ story was full of promise and hope, and he made it sound effortless. Someone scatters seed and the earth produces crops all by itself; all the farmer does between sowing and reaping is sleep and wake. They loved hearing that story and they told it again and again, and it appears that by the time the gospel of Matthew was composed, it had absorbed some of the questions followers of Jesus had begun to ask: The kingdom, is it really that effortless? Aren’t we supposed to do more than sleep and wake and wait for the harvest? Yes, the seed of God’s reign is sprouting and growing, and we don’t know how, but we can see signs of it all around, but some other seed, nasty seed is also doing mighty well and showing no signs of withering away. What if it overwhelms the kingdom crop? Believers had questions like these, and the questions shaped how the story was told and retold; and when the gospel of Matthew was composed, weeds had become part of the story along with several other characters besides the sower.

Most scholars agree that the weed in the parable is darnel, an annual grass that grows plentifully anywhere wheat is grown.[2] The trouble with darnel is that its seeds are poisonous to people and livestock, and since they are similar in size and weight to wheat, they are very difficult to separate. No one really knows in what part of the world darnel evolved along with other grasses, but its seeds were found among burial gifts of wheat in the pyramids of ancient Egypt, so whoever had picked through the wheat for bad seed must have missed a few kernels… Very early in the history of agriculture, wheat became one of the most important crops, and like a stowaway on the ship of wheat’s success, darnel spread around the world. Darnel blends in; when it sprouts it looks just like wheat, and the earliest you can tell the two apart is when the ear appears on top of the stalk, and by that time, their roots are so tightly intertwined that pulling it up does more damage than good. Darnel blends in — some call it cheat wheat.

Field, seed, and weed make powerful metaphors. Here’s an excerpt from an article written by someone who appears to have concerns very similar to the ones expressed by the servants in Jesus’ parable:

“He who leaves the plants in a garden to themselves will soon find to his surprise that the garden is overgrown by weeds and that even the basic character of the plants has changed. If therefore the garden … is to lift itself above the harsh rule of natural forces, then the forming will of a gardener is necessary, a gardener who, by providing suitable conditions for growing, or by keeping harmful influences away, or by both together, carefully tends what needs tending and ruthlessly eliminates the weeds which would deprive the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun.”[3]

The forming will of a gardener is necessary who carefully tends what needs tending and ruthlessly eliminates the weeds. The passage is from an article titled, Marriage Laws and the Principles of Breeding, written in 1930 by Richard W. Darré, one of the leading Nazi ideologists, who served as Hitler’s Minister of Food and Agriculture from 1933 to 1942. Field, garden, seed, and weed make powerful and dangerous metaphors. Let me give you another example. In the year 1002, King Æthelred ordered the massacre of all the Danes in England, declaring that “all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination.”[4] Speaking of weeds takes us chillingly close to the language and the practice of elimination and extermination. Darré knew exactly what weeds were depriving the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun, and who the better plants were, and King Æthelred clearly expressed the forming will of a gardener when he compared Danes in England to cockle amongst the wheat.

In the parable, the slaves see the mixed crop and they worry and ask the householder, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” The master knows it’s the work of an enemy.

“Then do you want us to go and gather them?”

“No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

The master has great confidence in what he sowed in his field, only the servants are anxious. Darnel and wheat look too much alike, let them grow together, we hear him say. Anything that’s not supposed to grow in this field will be taken care of come harvest time. Don’t you worry, the good seed is in the earth, and it’s growing. The kingdom is in the world, and there’s not a spot where it’s not already at work. God’s reign doesn’t come unopposed, other things are growing, too, but don’t you worry, harvest time is coming. The world is messier than you want it to be, but the seed is in the earth. Your own life is messier than you want it to be, but God’s reign is already present. The church is messier than you want it to be, with all those people, including yourself, stumbling through ministry with barely a clue what it is God wants the church to be and do in this time, in this part of the world, but don’t you worry, the seed is in the earth. Nothing will stop the coming of God’s reign. The wheat and the weeds, let both of them grow together until the harvest. The enemy of God’s good and righteous reign can do nothing except sow the seeds of fear, pride and suspicion. So be careful — for once you’re convinced of your own goodness and the unquestionable righteousness of your cause, the enemy’s work is done: you’ll take it from there. You’ll look at the field of the world and the mixed up mess that’s sprouting and growing there, and you’ll start identifying the weeds. You’ll point the finger at anyone who doesn’t fit the patterns of your piety, your morals, your politics, your design of the perfect garden. You’ll quickly forget that the field of the world doesn’t just stretch before you, from your nose to the horizon, but rather within you.

The master reminds us that we are not farm workers standing on the edge of the field and talking about weed control; we are the mixed up crop that grows there. We are this entangled mess of wheat and weeds, all of us together and each of us personally. One commentator wrote,

[The enemy] has no power against goodness in and of itself: the wheat is in the field, the kingdom is in the world, and there is not a thing he can do about any of it. Evil, like darnel, is a counterfeit of reality, not reality itself. But the enemy has to act only minimally on his own to wreak havoc in the world; mostly, he depends on the forces of goodness, insofar as he can sucker them into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work. That is precisely why the enemy goes away after sowing the weed: he has no need whatsoever to hang around. Unable to take positive action anyway – having no real power to muck up the operation – he simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him. Goodness itself, in other words, if it is sufficiently committed to plausible, right-handed strong arm methods, will in the very name of goodness do all and more than all that evil ever had in mind.[5]

Jesus calls us to trust the growth of God’s reign in the field of the world and to be patient. He calls us to live as his disciples, receiving and sharing the grace he embodied among us. Under grace, we become less afraid to look at ourselves with honesty, and over time, by the grace of God, we become a little less certain of our own perspectives and opinions, and a little more willing to welcome each other in our shared imperfection. Opposition and resistance against God’s reign is happening not just out there, but first and foremost in our own thinking, our own speaking and doing. That is why Jesus calls us to follow him in practicing mercy and trusting the judgment of God, and he warns us against the destructive impulse to imagine a paradise of purity we can create by ridding the world of weeds. He calls us to welcome each other in our shared imperfection and to trust God’s power to deliver us all from evil.

 

[1] Mark 4:26-29 CEB

[2] https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=LOTE2

[3] As quoted by Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Maldon, MA: Polity Press, 1991), 113-114.

[4] A Social History of England, 900–1200, edited by Julia Crick, Elisabeth van Houts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 218.

[5] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 87.

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Manifold meaning

I love watching nature shows on tv, especially the ones the BBC has produced in recent years. They combine solid science, great camera work, and good story telling to create stunning visual experiences. These documentaries take viewers close enough to see the face of an ant milking an aphid and tens of thousands of feet above ground to show how spawning herring change the color of the sea on the Alaska coast from steely blue to milky white.

And nothing beats watching nature shows with Nancy, my beloved. We’re looking at a beach full of seals and some of the baby seals with their big round eyes are on their first outing down to the water line, completely unaware of the dangers lurking under the surface of the vast ocean, when suddenly the waters part and a huge Orca swims up on the beach and grabs one of the unsuspecting pups for lunch. Nancy jumps up from the couch, shouting, “No!” and instructing the Orca to leave the pups alone and eat one of the old bulls who’ve done their part for the procreation of the species, or, better yet, become vegetarians.

Another night, we’re watching a large, heavy sea turtle emerge from the ocean in the shelter of the night, heaving herself up the sandy beach. At a point beyond the high tide water line, she makes a nest digging a deep hole in the sand and filling it with dozens of eggs. Hours later, with the same slow determination, the turtle pushs sand back into the hole to protect the clutch, and then she returns to the sea without looking back. Many days later, a small army of little baby turtles push through the layer of sand and without a moment’s hesitation they race toward the water’s edge. It’s a race against death: hundreds of sea birds and crabs have been waiting for this annual feast. But some of the little turtles make it to the water and quickly paddle away – not to safety, though, because the fish are hungry, too. Many baby turtles die within hours of their hatching, more die in the first few days of their life – but some grow up and mature, and years later, the females among them return to the place where they were born. In the shelter of the night, they emerge from the ocean, heave their heavy bodies up the sandy beach and lay their eggs.

Life is awesome and I praise God for the altogether magnificent wonder of its grand cycles and intricate systems and how all things come together just so for the miracle to continue. But when Nancy and I were watching those baby turtles running down the beach, we weren’t just awed by the spectacle, we were rooting for the little guys. One of them was just inches away from the water when a seagull swooped down to grab a little something to eat. Nancy, of course, was on her feet, clapping her hands and shooing the seagull away, and we cheered as the little turtle rushed into the end-zone and the big bird flew away empty. It wasn’t that we didn’t want the seagull to get its food, we just couldn’t stand the thought that this tiny turtle, this miracle of new life should never be more than a bird’s snack, only minutes after hatching. Life is awesome, but life also has very little respect for individuals.

Jesus never told a turtle story. He talked about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, he told stories about fish and rocks, about trees and vineyards, sheep and goats, and all of his stories proclaimed the great story of God’s kingdom on earth a kingdom in which every individual matters greatly. When I hear the parable of the sower I think about extravagance: I think of spawning herring and the little helicopter seeds maples launch in the spring and the delicate seeds of the dandelion sailing on the wind, and I think about turtles, how many of them are born, year after year, and what a deadly dangerous place the world is for them, and how there is, year after year, another generation. They are like seed scattered by a sower, and the same kind of deep wisdom at work in the flourishing of life, says Jesus, is at work in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. We’re invited to trust the extravagance and faithfulness of God.

What do you make of the story of the sower, and where do you find yourself in it? Do you identify with the sower who scatters seed with abandon? Or do you identify with the seeds? Have you felt thrown into places where your life is for the birds, or bound to wither after what looked like such a promising start, or choked by thorns? Have you wondered what it might be like to know that you’re on good soil? Or do you think of yourself as the ground, the four different soil types, wondering how receptive or unreceptive you are to the word of the kingdom?

Every parable contains a multitude of stories, depending on how you hear it, how you turn it, how long you’re willing to sit with it, how deep you’re willing to let it sink in. A man once visited a dying friend, a writer, and he asked him about a particular story that wouldn’t let him go, “What does it mean?” The writer responded, “If I tell you, that’s all you will ever see there.”

When the disciples were facing a difficult time, when all their work of proclamation seemed in vain, when the word of the kingdom they spread seemed to go unheard and unheeded, they remembered the story of the sower, and they asked Jesus, “What does it mean?” He said,

“When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”[1]

This reading of the parable comes with the authority of Jesus himself, but it is not the only meaning, it is not all we will ever see there. Jesus told parables of the kingdom to encourage us to continue to listen and understand and become fruitful in obedience. In a Bible study group, participants let the words of the parable sink in, and then they spoke about what they heard. “I am the sower,” one of them said, “and the seed is my life. The story encourages me to invest my life in the good soil of the kingdom, where it will bear fruit beyond my imagining.”

Another suggested that God is the sower and that the seed is God’s word. “Our lives aren’t always smooth, dark, rich soil. There are times when we have been trampled on so much, our lives resemble hard, dense dirt roads, too hard for God’s word to penetrate. There are rocky patches where hope springs up, only to wither away in the heat of hard days. And then there are times when God’s word really does take root, but the weeds of worldly worries overwhelm the seedlings. The sower, however, keeps sowing. The sower keeps sowing until some of that seed falls on good ground and bears fruit. I love that story – as long as the sower keeps sowing, there’s hope for us.”

And yet another said, “You’re right about the rocky patches. I heard this old Arabic folk tale: When God created the world he entrusted all the stones to two angels. Each had a full bag. As they flew over Palestine, one of the bags broke, spilling half the stones that were intended for the whole world. Sometimes I feel like the angel’s bag broke over my life, leaving no room for new things to grow. I like the thought that God will keep sowing until perhaps just one seed falls on that hidden spot of deep, rich soil in my life, and there it will sprout and take root – like a tree whose roots reach deep below the rocky surface.”

Yet another said, “The story makes me think about how receptive I really am to God’s word. When my faith seems weak, perhaps it is because I have allowed busyness and cares to fill my life, too many distractions and false loves, which threaten to choke off my faith like thorns overgrowing a seed-bed. Or have I become so set in my ways that my paths have become ruts, and I can hear nothing new, not even the word that can break me open?”

So many beautiful, thoughtful, fruitful insights… Jesus scatters parables like seeds, seeds that produce a rich harvest of listening and understanding, a harvest of words and acts of grace that in turn become seeds of the kingdom and doesn’t Jesus encourage us to scatter them with the same extravagant trust in God’s faithfulness that characterized his life? May it be so for you and for me.

 

[1] Matthew 13:18-23

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A sacrament of heaven

Our friend Jack read the Scriptures for us in worship last Sunday. The first reading was a passage from Romans 6, and before Jack read from Matthew 10, he made a comment saying he hoped that I would preach on that text, because the words of Jesus in that passage seemed so difficult and demanding, almost unbearable:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.[1]

Three times the words come down like a hammer, “not worthy of me.” I’m not worthy of Jesus if I love my daughter more than him? Our kids not worthy of him if they love their mom and dad more than him? Terrifying. And even if that’s not what he’s saying here and he isn’t what else could the children possibly hear? We made sure they had already left for children’s worship before Jack read those very difficult lines last Sunday.

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All of chapter 10 in Matthew is a send-off speech Jesus gives to the disciples and the church. At the end of chapter 9, we see Jesus looking at the crowds, and he has compassion on them because they are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” So he tells his disciples that “the harvest is plentiful” and that they should “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” And before they can ask, he sends them out gives them “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” and sends them out. “Proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” He sends them out, because he has compassion on the crowds who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He sends them to act as his envoys, shepherd’s envoys, the king’s ambassadors servants of the kingdom, traveling light no money, no bag, no extra clothing, entirely dependent on the hospitality of others for shelter and food. He also prepares them for rejection. They will not be welcomed everywhere, and they can expect to experience some hostility since he is sending them out “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” They may also have to face painful division within their own families; their closest and most important relationships may be ruptured because of their loyalty to Jesus and the kingdom of God. He clearly doesn’t send them off on a mission triphe sends them into a whole new life where their relationship with him, and through him with God, would shape them more deeply than any of their most intimate relationships.

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Today’s three verses from Matthew are the final paragraph of Jesus’ send-off speech to the first disciples and to the church. Something is different in these closing lines. There’s a shift in focus from the trials of those who are sent to the rewards for those who receive them.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

There’s a shift from high demand to promise. It is in these closing verses that it becomes clear that Jesus is not just addressing the twelve who are about to go on the road, but all his disciples. You and I are no less part of this mission than Simon, Andrew, James and the rest of the twelve. In our life together, in our proclamation and ministry, in our everyday witness to Christ and the kingdom of God, Jesus himself is present, and wherever our witness is received with welcome, the One who sent him is received.

By the time the gospel of Matthew was composed, congregations of Christians already existed in many cities and towns around the Mediterranean. Itinerant Christian apostles, prophets and teachers were not unusual at all; on the contrary, early Christian writings suggest that at times they may have become a burden to the small communities. Not only did they need a place to stay and something to eat (and occasionally overstay their welcome), sometimes they also disagreed with each other. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “We appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work … Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.”[2] In the Didache, a Christian teaching document from around the turn of the first to the second century, churches are admonished to

welcome every apostle on arriving, as if he were the Lord. But he must not stay beyond one day. In case of necessity, however, the next day too. If he stays three days, he is a false prophet. On departing, an apostle must not accept anything save sufficient food to carry him till his next lodging. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet … if someone says in the Spirit, “Give me money, or something else,” you must not heed him. However, if he tells you to give for others in need, no one must condemn him.[3]

In his writing, Matthew is not merely recalling and recording Jesus’ instructions to the first disciples; he is also addressing contemporary communities of disciples to whom he is connected, speaking directly to those first readers of his gospel, telling them that there is still need to send out laborers into the harvest, to send prophets and teachers, and still those sent depend on communities of believers to welcome them.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”

Congregational life in Matthew’s day was very different from ours, we know that. But I imagine that life was also very similar. No community is too eager to welcome a prophet, either because things are going just fine or because things are a little unsettled already, and whether you’re comfortable with the way things are or a little nervous, you don’t want some outsider coming in and stirring up trouble.

I hear Jesus addressing both sides here. To the prophets he says, “Don’t be afraid. Speak the word you have been given without fear. Proclaim the gospel: The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And to the settled disciples he says, “Welcome without fear anyone who speaks in my name, whether you agree with them or not. Receive the fullness of the gospel: The kingdom of heaven has come near.” There aren’t a lot of itinerant prophets around anymore, but there’s plenty of settled Christianity in our city, and there are Christian voices and accents among us that come to us like those of strangers who are passing through. Do we welcome them?

“Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”

What’s a prophet’s reward? We won’t know unless we welcome the prophet. We live far from the the early days of itinerant prophets and house churches, but to be sent and to receive are aspects of being church together that never become a thing of the past. Jesus calls us to be fearless when we venture out with the word we have been given, and equally fearless in receiving the word of life when it comes to us – to listen, to test, and to hold fast to what is good. Not even the smallest gesture of welcome is too small.

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because they are my disciples—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

This refreshing word points ahead to the final judgment where the heavenly judge says to the righteous, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” There is no act of welcome more basic and beautiful than giving somebody a cup of cold water, and Jesus says he is the thirsty one. And the reward? There’s the joy of being able to do what the Lord has taught us and to serve him in the stranger, the prophet, the littlest ones. And there’s the joy of us little ones being welcomed by Christ in our hunger and thirst for righteousness and sharing the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.” Who are the righteous and what is their reward? Again, the word points ahead to the final judgment when the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”[4] To welcome one another is to receive Jesus himself, and to welcome Jesus is to receive the one who sent him, and to become heirs to all that God has to give.

I see a prophet sitting on a hot sidewalk, tired from calling the city to repentance so that he too might have a place to lay his head. I see a waitress stepping out of the restaurant across the street, carrying a small tray with a tall glass of water; I can hear the ice cubes tinkling as she crosses the street and kneels beside him.

“You look thirsty, brother,” she says.

It’s just a glass of water, but between them it’s a sacrament of heaven.

 

[1] Matthew 10:34-38

[2] 1Thessalonians 5:12-13, 20-21

[3] Didache 11:4-5, 12

[4] Matthew 25:34

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Paul's story and ours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Romans 1:1-7

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

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

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

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

[6] Galatians 3:27-28

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To make room for each other

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Wadell writes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So then,” writes the Apostle in Ephesians, “remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called ‘the uncircumcision’ by those who are called ‘the circumcision’ … remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

[5] Ibid., 78.

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

[7] See Eph 2:11-22

[8] See Eph 3:18

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Monkeyface and Pimpleback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Genesis 1:26

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

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

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

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The deepest thing inside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Our maternal Lord

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

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

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

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

Milk (For Clare)[1]

Pulled by your cry, it surged out.

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

bluish, sprayed in tiny streams,

caused a slow, dull, homesick pain.

We laughed in astonishment as it kept coming

until your shining mouth let go

and you drowsed in sunlit bliss.

You, at seven months, nurse and pedal

rhythmically, your hands explore the air.

I fill to meet your whitest need,

The milk now, grown thick and creamy,

will hold you sleeping with its weight.

Dame Julian, in her mystic state,

perceived Lord Jesus as her mother

offering to nurse us all,

milk flowing from his giving breasts.

It is a glory, this feeding from the body:

Take and eat this simple meal.

This is my body given for you.

Take and be full, my daughter,

from the white vein of sharing.

Take nourishment in all its forms

as it comes generously down the years,

from this first food to banquet fare,

in memory of me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] 1 Peter 2:4

[3] Mark 13:1-2 parr.

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

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

 

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With continuous and persistent tenacity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

[2] Ibid., 30.

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

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

[5] Ibid., 73ff.

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And so we walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

[1] Wanderlust, 50.

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

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

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