Better songs

We are shaped by the stories we tell. The stories of our childhood, the stories of our families, the stories of our nation. The stories we tell are like river beds in which our lives flow; they give our lives definition and direction.

When I mention Luke, some of you will remember a friend from school or an uncle, others will think of the gospel, and for a good number of us these days, any mention of Luke will make us think of Skywalker. Our lives shape the stories we tell, and the stories in turn shape our lives. I was reminded of that when Nancy, Miles and I went to see the new Star Wars movie. No, I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet by commenting on the plot line or my favorite scenes. It’s not the movie I want to talk about. We went to the theater early to make sure we would get good seats, and that meant we got to see every movie preview and game commercial. Sitting in the dark, surrounded by larger than life sound, I noticed that each of the previews portrayed life on earth as under threat by some alien power, and in each case the very survival of the planet and of humanity depended on heroes who were smarter in their use of violence than the respective enemy. I love it when, against all odds, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles with courage and creativity, in the end the good guys win. I love it when the good guys win and the bad guys run or, better yet, when they fall into their own hellish traps and perish. It’s a very satisfying experience. But I can’t watch those trailers without wondering what those myths of power do to us, why we tell them when we tell them, how they shape us, and what an overwhelming counter narrative they represent to the story the church is called to embody and proclaim, the story of God’s faithfulness revealed in Christ.

The gospel does not overwhelm us, manipulate us, or coerce us. God speaks and patiently awaits our yes, our “let it be with me according to your word,” our consent to let our lives be part of God’s story of life and its consummation. It’s what Mary said to the angel who had told her she would have a child and she would name him Jesus.She didn’t know how this could be, but the angel told her about Elizabeth who in her old age had conceived a son and was now in her sixth month. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” Mary said; “let it be with me according to your word,” and then she set out and went to the Judean hill country to see Elizabeth. Perhaps she wanted to see for herself what she had heard. Perhaps she needed to be with somebody who had her own experience with God’s wondrous ways. Elizabeth had been waiting her whole life for a child. “Years of trying to have a child of our own was like having to drink bitter waters from a poisoned well month after month,” wrote a man who wanted to be a father, reflecting on the experience of infertility.

“Nothing could break the sinister hold of barrenness on our lives, not strict adherence to whatever expert advice we could get, not prayer, not the latest fertility techniques, not fasting, nothing. One hundred months’ worth of hopes, all dashed against the stubborn realities of bodies that just wouldn’t produce offspring. … Every time we would go to worship, the laughter and boisterous-ness of the little ones milling around … would remind me of unfulfilled dreams. The season of Advent was the worst. ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,’ I would hear read or sung in hundreds of different variations. But from me a child was withheld. The miracle of Mary’s conception, the rejoicing of the heavens at her newborn child, the exultation of Elizabeth, all became signs of God’s painful absence, not God’s advent.”[1]

Elizabeth had been waiting her whole life for a child, like Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, the great mothers of old, and like them, she was surprised by God who makes a way where there is no way. Mary, on the other hand, was a young teenager just entering her childbearing years, engaged but not yet married, and her pregnancy also came as a surprise, difficult to explain to her family and her future husband. She had not auditioned for her part. God entered her experience with a promise that was not even on the horizon of her hopes; she responded with the yes of faith, and the river of her life turned in ways she couldn’t have dreamed of.

Entering the house, Mary greeted Elizabeth and the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped. It was John’s first prophetic act, a little dance of joy, a somersault perhaps, the prophet of the Most High greeting the Son of the Most High. And he was not the only prophet. Filled with the Holy Spirit, his mother blessed Mary and the new life she carried and called her “the mother of my Lord.” And then Mary began to sing her song of praise. It was the first Advent congregation welcoming the Son of God with blessing, joy and praise. It was a marvelous moment of long-held hope and fresh fulfillment embracing each other – no media, no press releases, only exuberant, joyful praise from somewhere in the southern hill country, nowhere really on anyone’s map among the movers and shakers of the day.

“The Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary began to sing. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,” the church began to sing. What about the couple for whom “years of trying to have a child of [their] own was like having to drink bitter waters from a poisoned well month after month”? After nine long years of waiting, Miroslav and Judy adopted two children, and he was surprised by how the river of their life turned.

“During those nine years of infertility, I wasn’t waiting for a child who stubbornly refused to come, though that’s what I thought at the time. In fact, I was waiting for the two boys I now have, Nathanael and Aaron. I love them, and I want them in their unsubstitutable particularity, not children in general of which they happened to be exemplars. Then it dawned on me: Fertility would have robbed me of my boys… Infertility was the condition for the possibility of these two indescribable gifts. And understanding that changed my attitude toward infertility. Since it gave me what I now can’t imagine living without, poison was transmuted into a gift, God’s strange gift. The pain of it remains, of course. But the poison is gone. Nine years of desperate trying were like one long painful childbirth, the purpose of which was to give us Nathanael and Aaron… It’s them that I love. It’s them that I want. And it’s they who redeem the arduous path that led to having them.”

Our lives shape the stories we tell, and the stories in turn shape our lives. We tell the story of God’s faithfulness and of the wondrous ways in which God moves creation toward its consummation with redeeming mercy. We tell the story and we sing it. We sing justice. We sing redemption. We sing the end of hunger and war. We sing with Mary of the One who has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. We sing the resurrection. We sing the triumph of God’s kingdom over the empires of the world. We sing the peace of Christ.

In Guatemala in the 1980’s, the public reading of Mary’s song was forbidden as subversive activity. It wasn’t the first time. When Martin Luther first translated the Bible into German at the beginning of the 16th century, he left Mary’s song in Latin. The German princes who gladly supported Luther in his struggles with Rome, were nervous about the peasants singing too lustily with mother Mary of the One who has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. But the princes’ maneuvering did not then nor will it ever prevent God’s merciful gaze from lifting up the lowly.

In the late 80’s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Christians in Leipzig gathered on Monday evenings in and around St. Nikolai church to pray for peace and to sing. They lit candles, week after week, and they sang songs of hope and protest and justice, and their numbers grew from a few dozen to more than a thousand and eventually to more than three hundred thousand men, women, and children. After the fall of the Wall, a reporter asked an officer of the Stasi, the dreaded secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others. The officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”[2]

In every generation, the servants of death may have the bigger guns, but we have the better songs. The old woman, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out blessings and wonder, and the young woman began to sing of God’s ancient promise of salvation being fulfilled. Soon, very soon, we will set out once again and go with haste to Bethlehem to see what God has done for us. We will kneel next to the manger and all that is proud and powerful in us will be brought down and scattered. But all that is lowly and poor, humble and hungry in us will be lifted up and strengthened and filled. Soon, very soon, we will hear and tell and sing the story of Jesus’ birth, the good news of great joy for all the people, and with gratitude we will continue to live into God’s story.

 


[1] Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 31-32.

[2] David Lose http://www.davidlose.net/2015/12/advent-4-c-singing-as-an-act-of-resistance/

A letter to our Muslim neighbors

Dear Nashville neighbors,

We wish to send you words of friendship on the day that you gather for Friday prayers in the mosques of our city. We pray that the Holy One may bless you, and that together and in our own respective ways, our communities of faith may be a blessing for our city.

We are deeply disturbed by the foolish and hateful words spoken in recent days by prominent members of the American public, particularly with regard to refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and to Muslims in general. We will not allow this dangerous rhetoric to divide us. We stand with you for a better vision of our country and our city, and ultimately for a better vision of our world, a vision of peace.

As men and women who follow Jesus and seek to honor him as our brother and Lord, we are called to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves. We are not free to choose who is or is not our neighbor, but rather must seek to be and act like a neighbor toward every human being.

We are grateful that we live with you, work with you, and worship with you in this city, and we believe that our different ways of honoring the divine with lives of holiness and righteousness make our city better and stronger. We are committed to continuing to pursue peace, promote better understanding among our communities, and pursue justice in all that we do.

In solidarity and friendship,

Thomas Kleinert

Senior Minister           

Lise Matthews

Co-Chair of the Board

Jeff Miller

Co-Chair of the Board   

Stephen Moseley

Chair Elect of the Board

 

This letter from Vine Street Christian Church was sent today to mosques in our city.

The old man's song

When you were little, did you count the years from birthday to birthday or from Christmas to Christmas? When you were a little older, did you count from school year to school year or from summer to summer? Farmers and accountants count the years in different ways, as do teachers or sports fans. As members of the church, we live into yet another annual rhythm, one not determined by program or budget cycles, but by needs, convictions, and desires that are foundational for everything else. The church counts time from Advent to Advent.

One could argue that the church year should begin on Christmas, with the birth of Christ, or on Easter, with his resurrection from the dead, or on Pentecost, when God began to pour out the Holy Spirit on a small band of disciples; but there is great wisdom in beginning with Advent. We begin with expectant hope. We let ourselves be shaped by the future God has promised and prepared for us. We remember that we live into a future not bound by the past, but always, always open to genuine newness brought forth by our God who is making all things new. And so we live toward Christmas remembering the birth of Christ and expecting God’s consummation of creation, all in praise of God’s faithfulness, of the love that will not let us go.

I was reading Isaiah on Wednesday when the news broke of yet another mass shooting. I was reading Isaiah 59 on Wednesday, shaken by disbelief, drained by sadness, gripped by anger, and utterly helpless. The words of the prophet poet were a gift from one mourner to another.

The way of peace they do not know,
and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
no one who walks in them knows peace.
Therefore justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;
and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope like the blind along a wall,
groping like those who have no eyes. [1]

Groping like the blind along a wall, adding “active shooter” to our children’s everyday vocabulary, we wait for light. Groping like those who have no eyes we wait for light – and as though in response to our sense of living inside a nightmare, old man Zechariah sings Advent hope into our fear and grief, saying,

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Who would have thought old man Zechariah could sing like that? He hadn’t said a word in months. An angel had appeared to him, telling him that he and Elizabeth would have a boy, and that he would name him John, and what a joy it would be, and all he could say was, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” All the years of waiting in vain for a child had slowly eroded Zechariah’s belief in the possibilities of God. The angel told him, “You will be mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Months passed, and true to Gabriel’s word, when the baby was born, old man Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.

His song celebrates the faithfulness of God in Israel’s history and proclaims God’s continuing work of deliverance. It’s an old song of covenant promises, of Exodus liberation, of prophets and kings. But it’s also a new song announcing the dawning of a new day:

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

It’s Advent when an old man who thought that he knew the full range of possibilities for his life is surprised by God’s future. His life transformed, his faith renewed, he sings of the impossible possibilities that await God’s people and the world. He sings of light to guide our feet into the way of peace. He sings so we have the courage to lean into the dawn and begin to live toward the fullness promised by its light. He sings the tune that helps us lean into the dawn so the light can illumine the darkness within us and around us. He sings us an Advent song so we become brave enough to stop groping like the blind along the same old walls of fear and hate.

We live in Advent time, gratefully singing of the light that has come and awaiting with eager expectation the dawn to become day without end. I say eager expectation because in the vocabulary of Advent, waiting is not turning on the radio every morning, hoping to one day hear the good news that changes the world. Living in Advent time is about leaning into the dawn and figuring out creative ways to reflect that light into the everyday dark places; it’s about becoming part of the good news that changes the world.

I could begin to name the statistics for gun violence, I could read the list of reasonable gun control proposals law enforcement officials across the nation have endorsed, I could mention that it’s easier to purchase a semi-automatic weapon than to get a driver’s license, and I could again lament the corrosive influence of NRA money on our politics. But that’s not really the point. There’s just so much fear in it all, so much fear and so little hope.

Animal Dreams is a novel by Barbara Kingsolver. One of the characters, a young woman named Hallie, has gone off to Nicaragua to support the revolutionary Sandinista government by helping to improve crop yields. Hallie is a horticulturist who knows her way around plants and soil and bugs, but life in Nicaragua is very dangerous since the war with the Contras is in full swing. In a letter to her sister Codi back home in the States, Hallie tries to explain her choices:

I chose sides. And I know that we could lose. I’ve never seen people suffer so much for an ideal. They’re sick to death of the embargo and the war. They could say Uncle, vote for something else, just to stop the bludgeoning. And you know what? I don’t even consider that, it’s not the point.

You’re thinking of revolution as a great all-or-nothing. I think of it as one more morning in a muggy cotton field, checking the undersides of leaves to see what’s been there, figuring out what to do that won’t clear a path for worse problems next week. Right now that’s what I do. You ask why I’m not afraid of loving and losing, and that’s my answer. Wars and elections are both too big and too small to matter in the long run. The daily work—that goes on, it adds up. It goes into the ground, into crops, into children’s bellies and their bright eyes. Good things don’t get lost.

Codi, here’s what I’ve decided: the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.

I cannot tell you how good it feels. I wish you knew. (...) I wish you knew how to squander yourself.[2]

“The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed” is no small thing. It’s Hallie’s hope. It’s Zechariah’s song. It’s the promise of God. It’s why we count the years from Advent to Advent. We begin, again and again, with expectant hope that’s big enough to live in and close enough to the ground so we remember that the daily work adds up and good things don’t get lost.

Such hope is not something we simply have or produce at will. It is a gift given by the God who is committed to the flourishing of creation and its consummation in peace. It is a gift nourished in the community drawn together by the gentle power of God’s Holy Spirit who inspires old man Zechariah and young mother Mary and all of us to sing of God’s faithfulness. It is the gift of the One born among us who squandered himself for love’s sake and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

 


[1] Isaiah 59:8-10

[2] Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams (New York: HarperCollins, 1990) 299; my italics.

Tenacious hope

Advent begins when night falls early in the afternoon and the days are getting shorter still. At Cheekwood, they started putting lights on the trees back in August, but we try to keep the slower pace of liturgical time in our hurried world, and each Sunday of Advent we light just one more candle. We let a single, small flame draw our attention in the grey hours of morning and the fading light of day; we allow our expectation to build slowly, week upon week, until we proclaim with angels and shepherds the birth of Christ, the Light of the world.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord the cantor sings, and again we seek to do just that, prepare the Lord’s way amid the sweet nostalgia and the joys and worries of these days. In Advent, we practice living expectantly, with hearts wide open to the future God has promised and prepared. During Advent, we week to live more intentionally in the fabric of memory and hope, of promise and fulfillment. We go back in time to cherished family traditions, to customs lovingly preserved year after year, to worn tree ornaments that each hold a story – we go back to the days when we first heard how God became little like us in order to save us. We go back in time, way back to the days when God’s prophets first spoke of judgment and mercy, and God’s people first affirmed that all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 25:10). Advent doesn’t begin with an angel’s visit, or with Mary weaving a blanket for the baby and Joseph building a cradle – it begins with the promises of God and the people who seek to live in the light of these promises.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days (…) I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.[1]

Tom Wright writes about waking up one early morning from a powerful dream. He had a flash of it as he woke up, enough to make him think how extraordinary and meaningful it was, but then it was gone. He couldn’t remember what it was about.

Wright invites us to wonder with him if our dreams of justice and righteousness are like that. We have a flash of a world at one, a world where things work out, not just for some, but for all; a world where all of us not only know what we ought to do but actually do it. And then we wake up in the world as it is, and we can’t get back into the dream. Where might that kind of dream come from?

“What are we hearing when we’re dreaming that dream? It’s as though we can hear, not perhaps a voice itself, but the echo of a voice: a voice speaking with calm, healing authority, speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all.”[2]

For some, this echo of a voice is only a fantasy, a wishful projection that has nothing to do with the way things really are. They say that we need to learn to grab what we can, because the meek will inherit nothing. “Stop dreaming and toughen up,” they say, “the world’s not going to change.”

Others say that the voice of justice and well-being comes from another world, a world into which we can escape in our dreams, and hope to escape one day for good. For them, this world is run by bullies and that’s that; they urge us to seek consolation in the thought that there’s another world where things are better, but not to hope that this world will change.

There is a third possibility, and it is the one people of faith have embraced for generations. “The reason we think we have heard a voice is because we have.” The reason we have these dreams of justice and righteousness, the reason we have a sense of a memory of the echo of a voice, is that there is someone speaking to us; one who cares very much about this world and all who live in it; one who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, and wholeness, and life in fullness.[3]

Advent begins with the ancient echoes of a voice in our soul, promising to heal the wounds of creation, promising to make right all that has gone wrong. Advent begins with the promises of God and the voices of witnesses who speak and sing of the God who keeps promises.

Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah during dangerous times. As a young man, he was called to speak the word of the Lord, and for nearly fifty years, in the face of unimaginable hardships and pain, he proclaimed the word of the Lord. He proclaimed judgment against the city, the kings, and the priests; he accused them of abandoning the covenant of God. They were ignoring the cause of the widow and the orphan; they had chosen to follow other gods, gods that were more agreeable to their ways of ruling. Jeremiah proclaimed God’s judgment against them: the land would be taken, the temple razed, the city destroyed, and the people deported. The prophet didn’t make many friends; he was threatened, verbally and physically abused, and thrown in prison.

In 587 B.C.E., the armies of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, starved the inhabitants, and captured the fleeing Zedekiah, last king of Judah, near Jericho. Nebuchadrezzar first murdered the king’s sons and then blinded the king, so his dead children would be the last thing he saw for the rest of his life.[4] The land was taken, the temple razed, the city burned, the walls demolished, and the people deported.

Imagine a prophet in prison, overlooking a ruined city, desolate streets without inhabitants. Imagine a prophet in tears. What do you expect his parting words to be, words heard and recorded by the homeless of the city and the poor the Babylonians had left behind? Not, ‘I told you so.’

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

In the midst of catastrophe, the prophet speaks God’s words of promise. For nearly four hundred years, descendants of David had occupied the throne of Judah, and God had promised that it would always be so.[5] Few of them had ruled in justice and righteousness like they were supposed to – but didn’t the end of city and temple, this physical and spiritual wasteland, mean that the promises of God had come to an end?

No, said the prophet of tears, there would be one to execute justice and righteousness in the land, a proper ruler, a righteous branch, and not because the dynasty still had potential, but because God is faithful. The prophet spoke a word of tenacious hope into the darkness of despair.

This fall, I’ve participated in a study group with several men at the Riverbend prison. We’re reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is an African-American writer, and the book is a letter he wrote last year to his 15-year-old son about growing up in this country. In one of our sessions back in October, we had a very emotional debate in our group over a single scene in that book:

That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body; and you must find some way to live within the all of it.[6]

We got into a passionate debate in our study group, because I said I couldn’t imagine not hugging my son in that situation and not telling him “that it would be okay.” One of the guys said telling my son “that it would be okay” was a promise I couldn’t keep; I’d be telling him a lie.

That was a hard moment, a hard way to realize that we had grown up in different worlds: I grew up with the privilege of hope. I tried to explain that the promise wasn’t mine to make, but to trust. I believe God has promised that justice and righteousness will prevail, and I want my son to trust this God and this promise, especially when the world continues to disappoint that expectation.

Days are coming, when I will fulfill the promise, says the Lord. Days are coming, when the city will be called, The Lord is our righteousness.

 


[1] Jeremiah 33:14-15.

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 3.

[3] Ibid., 9-10.

[4] Jeremiah 39:5-7.

[5] See 2 Samuel 7:16 as well as 1 Kings 8:25; 9:4-8.

[6] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 11-12; my italics.

Between Terror and Thanksgiving

Sometimes I wish the world had a pause button. Especially when debates flare up and there’s so much heat and so little light. What a gift it would be to have a few hours to think about what happened, to talk about it with your family or your best friends, to pray about what to say and do in response, before clicking play and letting the world flood in again.

Here we are on the Sunday between terror and thanksgiving, observing the last Sunday of the church year. We pause, for a moment at least, to let the light of Christ’s sovereign reign illumine our thoughts and imaginations, hoping that it might also illumine our words and actions in the days and weeks ahead. We pause to let ourselves be reminded that the world is God’s and that our calling in life is to serve God’s reign on earth.

Marilynne Robinson is a writer and one of America’s finest theologians. A few weeks ago I read one of her essays, titled Fear, and I read it again this past week, after 26 governors, including Governor Haslam, had sent a letter to the President, urging him to suspend all plans to resettle additional Syrian refugees. In the essay, Robinson writes,

America is a Christian country. This is true in a number of senses. Most people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else. Non-Christians will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture. There are a large number of demographic Christians in North America because of our history of immigration from countries that are or were also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but also vociferously. As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism. These few simple precautions would also make it more attractive to the growing numbers among our people who have begun to reject it as ignorant, intolerant, and belligerently nationalistic, as they might reasonably conclude that it is, if they hear only the loudest voices.

Robinson continues,

There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved. (…) we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. (…) There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere. (…) Granting the perils of the world, it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism. But no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, un-Christian as it surely is.[1]

I’ve been worried this past week about the politics of fear. It worries me when governors, more than 30 now, I believe, in the aftermath of a series of horrifying terrorist attacks, identify as prime safety risks that need to be addressed immediately the refugee families from Syria who are fleeing that very terror. It worries me when a public leader like the Mayor of Roanoke talks about internment camps. I believe the Mayor’s and the Governors’ concern is to protect people from harm, and that they are not just trying to score political points by playing to our fears; but their words and actions shifted the debate in an ugly and dangerous direction.

Here we are on the Sunday between terror and thanksgiving, hoping that the light that shines in the darkness will not only illumine us but shine through us. Jesus said to the disciples, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. (…) Therefore, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Jesus is addressing all of us who pray for the coming of God’s kingdom and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is heaven. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat,” he says, “is not life more than food?” Yes, but life certainly is food. And water. And clothing. And shelter. And safety from harm. And medical care. And education. And college savings. And retirement plans. And student loans. And a good economy. And the madness in Syria and why can’t somebody please just stop it? And … You start with food and water, and before you know it, all you can do is try to stay afloat while waves of anxiety wash over you. It doesn’t take much to slip into worry mode, and in worry mode, fear is master. Jesus talks about well-fed birds and beautifully clothed lilies to remind us that God is caring for all living things and to encourage us to serve God rather than our fear.

The trouble with worries is that they take over our whole being: they shape how we perceive the world, they invade our thoughts, even our dreams, and determine our actions. The trouble with worries is that they create a whirlpool that has nothing but our needs at the center. The word translated worry in the passage from Matthew means to be anxious, to be divided, to be distracted – but it also means to care, to be concerned about something. That other flavor comes through when you shift the emphasis in the sentence just a little. First you hear, ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.’ Then you shift the emphasis by just a beat or two and you hear, ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink. These are the things that occupy the minds of the nations, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his righteousnes before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well.’ Let God’s sovereign reign over heaven and earth shape your perception of the world, let the kingdom invade your thoughts and dreams, let it shape your words and actions.

We are to be concerned about life and food and drink, but in the particular way of the king who, in another teaching of Jesus, 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; for 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 25:34-35).

Our governor will receive a letter tomorrow, signed by many Tennessee churches and congregations, including ours.

Dear Governor Haslam:

We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, urge you to rescind your request to the federal government to suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Tennessee. In the wake of recent global tragedies, we are called to act with compassion and leadership, not fear and misplaced blame. We are committed to the values of our state and our nation and stand ready to work with your administration to ensure that all refugees are welcomed, supported, and fully integrated into our community.

After your request to suspend Syrian refugee resettlement, the rhetoric in our state took a vitriolic and troubling turn. We applaud your recent statement that “we must not lose ourselves,” nor “abandon our values” or “mistreat our neighbors who made it here after enduring unimaginable hardships.” We ask for your ongoing moral and courageous leadership as our state responds to the current political moment.

Tennessee and the United States have a critical and historic role to play in our current global refugee crisis, the largest displacement of people since World War II. Specifically, we must do our part to provide safe refuge to the 4 million Syrian refugees fleeing violence and terror. As the Department of State reminds us, “the U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”

Historically, the U.S. has been a leader in resettlement, offering protection to refugees from across the world and Tennessee has benefitted from these previous waves of resettlement. The courageous men, women, and children who have been resettled in Tennessee over the years are now our neighbors and friends, small business owners, and pillars of our community. In this moment, it is more important than ever that we honor this commitment and tradition with courageous leadership and compassion.  Our communities stand ready and willing to welcome more refugees—from Syria and across the world—because we know that through offering resettlement and protection we can save lives and strengthen our communities.

In the wake of the tragedies in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad we will not allow fear to override our better instincts. We know that refugee resettlement will not make our communities any less safe. We know that refugees must wait months and often years to pass the rigorous screening process and are the most scrutinized of any migrants to the United States.

We believe it is morally reprehensible to turn our backs on Syrian refugees fleeing terror and violence. These men, women, and children are themselves victims of ISIS and must not be blamed for the very terror they are fleeing.

We urge you to immediately rescind your request to the federal government to suspend Syrian resettlement and to commit to working with the federal government to uphold our highest American values by continuing to provide protection to refugees and investing in a generous and robust refugee resettlement program.

Sincerely,

[signatures]

We will gather this week around tables of bounty to give thanks for all that has been given to us. Let’s make sure there’s always room for one more guest at the table.

 


[1] Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015): 124-126.

The joy of reading

We are looking for readers for two of our services, Hanging of the Greens at the beginning of Advent and Christmas Eve, just an hour before Advent ends at midnight and Christmas begins. We like having readers of all ages, male and female, various native tongues, etc. You may have never done anything like this, or it may be something you are looking forward to every year. If you would like to be one of the readers, just let me know with a couple of clicks on the form below. Thank you!

You and I and how we care | part 2

On Thursday I posted the first set of results of the very unscientific survey. The total number of respondents is 80. The graphs below show how particular caring actions relate to the whole set of situations:

  • When I'm sick for more than a couple of days...
  • When somebody close to me has died...
  • When a baby has been born...
  • When I've lost my job...
  • After my youngest has gone to college...

I have not reported unique statements like (When my youngest has gone to college...), “Pray for my youngest. I will be enjoying the peace and quiet.”

Unscientific as this survey has been, it has been a wonderful experience, and there's a lot to be learned from the results. Thank you for all the ways in which you care for friends and neighbors in need!

Beware

They say it was a magnificent building, the Temple in Jerusalem. Newly reconstructed by Herod the Great, and still under construction in Jesus’ day, it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It occupied a platform of more than 900 by 1,500 feet—twice as large as the Roman Forum with its many temples and four times as large as the Acropolis in Athens with the famous Parthenon. The massive retaining walls that supported the temple, including the now well-known Western wall, were composed of enormous blocks of white stone, some of them 40 feet long. The front of the temple itself was a square of 150 feet by 150 feet of sculpted rock, much of it decorated with silver and gold. First-century Jewish historian, Josephus  wrote that the gold “effected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who tried to look at it were forced to turn away. Jerusalem and the temple seemed in the distance like a mountain covered in snow, for any part not covered in gold was dazzling white.” The combination of the temple mount, the platform of huge retaining stones, and the large building of the temple itself raised the temple complex to a height that could be seen from miles away by pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem to worship there, and in bright sunlight, the luminous city nearly blinded them.

This was the dwelling place of God at the center of the world; this was the promise become rock of God’s presence with God’s people Israel. It was holy ground where God’s people, even when they failed to lead holy lives, could approach their holy God in worship. Rituals of atonement and purification along with festivals of liberation and thanksgiving sustained a community striving to live faithfully with their God. The temple was beautiful and it was an essential institution of Jewish life.

Jesus and the disciples had come to the Temple every day since they first came to Jerusalem. Tensions between him and the Temple leadership had been growing. Now they were leaving, and one of the disciples, his eyes wide with awe, his hands perhaps touching one of the colossal blocks, said to him, “Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” It was one of those moments when you want to take a photo to convey to the folks at home just how spectacular the place was and how overwhelming the feeling of being immersed in its beauty and power.

“Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus replied. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The words sound very matter-of-fact, don’t they? Jesus stated the almost unimaginable, but his words were no threat, just a simple announcement. The beauty, the majesty, the power would crumble and collapse, and the magnificent temple, center of Jewish life and identity, would be a pile of rubble. Curiously, the inner circle of disciples who were with him when he was sitting on the Mount of Olives with its spectacular view of the Temple Mount, didn’t ask him why or how, they wanted to know when and what the sign would be – as though the why and how were a given, and everything was just a matter of time. When will this be and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?

The Gospel of Mark was written in a time of war. The weight of Roman occupation had become too much to bear for the Jewish population. In the years 62-66, increasing mob violence was disrupting life in Jerusalem. A band of assassins, called sicarii, attacked and murdered people, even a high priest, in broad daylight and kidnapped Jewish officials. Gangs of roaming brigands burned and looted villages. Apocalyptic prophets delivered oracles of doom, and the daily news seemed to confirm their words. Jerusalem was a tinderbox in those tumultuous years, with revolutionary sentiments mounting and finally catapulting Judea into open rebellion against Rome.

“Deceivers and impostors, under the pretense of divine inspiration, fostering revolutionary changes,” wrote Josephus, “they persuaded the masses to act like madmen and led them out into the desert in the belief that God would give them signs of deliverance.” Insurgents took control of the city, but the years 67-69 unfolded under the headline, “The Empire Strikes Back.” Rome’s legions under Titus laid siege to Jerusalem, and in August of the year 70, the Temple was destroyed and the city fell.

The Gospel of Mark was written in a time of wars and rumors of wars, and at least some believers in the Markan community must have thought that these catastrophic events meant that the return of Jesus in power and glory was imminent. The author made sure his people and all who would read his testimony would hear Jesus’ words to the disciples loud and clear: “Beware that no one leads you astray.” There will be wars and rumors of wars, nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes and famines and unspeakable acts of violence, but you – beware that no one leads you astray. Beware that no one leads you off the path I followed. Follow me.

There is a constant, churning undercurrent in the history of the church that seeks to take contemporary events and turn them into sure signs for the end of time. The fighting in Syria, the crash of a Russian airplane over Sinai, murderous attacks in Beirut and Paris – we are afraid, we are worried and angry, we are sad, we are furious – and you know that the doomsday machine of the Christian psychics online and on TV has once again shifted into high gear. They’re busy drawing lines from the evening news to verses in the book of Revelation and in Daniel, and they can’t wait to give us all the details and plot lines of history at the end of time. Lamar Williamson calls them “date fixers” who “besides pretending to know more than the Son [of God] does, often have little sense of responsibility for the world, whose destruction they await with fascinated detachment. In contrast to these, Jesus speaks of responsibilities imposed by the master who left us in charge here” (Williamson, Mark, 241).

When the disciples ask, “When?” and “What will be the sign?” Jesus responds, “Beware.” Beware that no one leads you astray from following me. Beware of following your fear. Beware of abandoning your call to love God and neighbor. Wars and rumors of wars, terror and oppression are the reality of a world far from the world God desires, and they must end for God’s creation to be whole and complete. “This must take place, but the end is still to come,” says Jesus, and, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

Birth pangs, he says. These things that make us cry and tremble and doubt and lie awake at night – they are not a meaningless pile of suffering, the tragic rubble of history, destined to be forgotten; they are labor pains, he says, telling us that the suffering of creation is to be redeemed by the joy of birth. The world is in labor, Jesus says. Birth pangs, the first pains of childbirth. “How long is this labor?” we want to know, “and when can we expect to behold new life in a redeemed world? How long until we will laugh with tears in our eyes and cry no more?” We don’t know. But we have a word that speaks of birth in the midst of suffering. We have a word that teaches us to hope. We have the promise that with the resurrection of Jesus the whole world has indeed become new – in forgiveness, in the disruption of the endless cycle of violence, in love that heals and renews. We have the promise that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead marks the beginning of redemption that doesn’t fade into the past but abides forever.

The English historian Eric Hobsbawm, born in 1917, grew up in Vienna and, after the death of his parents, with an aunt in Berlin. Berlin was not a good place to live for a Jewish teenager in those years. He was fifteen years old when one day in January 1933, as he was walking his little sister home from school, he saw the headline at a newsstand, “Adolph Hitler Appointed Chancellor of Germany.” Reflecting on those years when democray in Germany was in its death throes, Hobsbawm later wrote, “We were on the Titanic, and everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg.” He said, “It is difficult for those who have not experienced the ‘Age of Catastrophe’ of the twentieth century in central Europe to see what it meant to live in a world that was simply not expected to last, in something that could not really even be described as a world, but merely as a provisional waystation between a dead past and a future not yet born.”[1]

In-between times are difficult to understand, let alone navigate, for those who live in them. But we dare to hope that, regardless of the terrors of the past and present, the redemption of the world and the birth of new life has indeed begun with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and our determination to resist the servants of terror and death is grounded in that hope.

Thrones and temples will fall and not one stone will be left upon another, institutions will crumble, but the work of Christ will stand, and the world being born in his wake is the world set right. Jesus is working on a new temple, and it’s made entirely of people whose daily sacrifice are their prayers and their acts of loving service. Jesus is working on a new temple that isn’t covered with gold or silver, but shines brighter than anything made by human hands.

 


 

[1] Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the forgotten twentieth century (New York: Penguin, 2008), 117.

You and I and how we care

On October 29, I launched a very unscientific survey. I was and still am curious about traditions of caring for friends and neighbors in need. I asked individual readers to respond how they wanted to be helped in a particular situation.

The situations, each with suggestions listed and an option to write in additional acts of kindness, included

When I'm sick for more than a couple of days...

When somebody close to me has died...

When a baby has been born...

When I've lost my job...

After my youngest has left for college...

I continue to receive responses, but I thought it would be fun and enlightening to share the results based on 80 submissions.

All age groups were well represented, with a neat generational split between respondents under/over age 45.

An initial count of respondents' preferred ways of being cared for regardless of age or situation showed that prayer and notes still rank at the top.

The responses have been abbreviated:

  • Pray - Pray for me
  • Note - Send me a note (handwritten or email)
  • Sit - Come and sit with me for a while
  • Food - Bring Food
  • Coffee - Come by for a cup of coffee
  • Kids - Take the kids for a couple of hours
  • Chocolate - Send chocolate
  • Groceries - Get my groceries
  • Invite me - Take me out for lunch or dinner or an outing
  • Walk my dog - Walk my dog
  • Laundry - Do my laundry
  • Clean - Clean my bedroom, bathroom, house
  • Mow the yard - Mow the yard
  • Move in - Move in and take care of things for a week
  • Call me - Call, email, or txt me and ask me what I need you to do
  • Borrow your dog - Let me borrow your dog
  • Network - Help me network, know about job openings, find a job
  • Kitten - Send me a kitten

Below I have posted the responses to the five situations, according to the two almost equal age groupings. In a follow up post next week, I will post the results for individual caring actions and how they relate to each of the five situations.

 

The new temple

The poor widow put in everything she had, all she had to live on, and we don’t even know her name. No one suggested that one of the pillars in the women’s court of the temple be named after her. The only reason we know about her is that Jesus was paying attention and called the disciples so we would pay attention to the scene. “She has put in everything she had,” he said, “all she had to live on, her whole life.”

Imagine you’re directing a movie based on the gospel of Mark, and you’re getting ready to shoot this very scene, and the young man who’s playing Jesus asks you, “How do you want me to deliver this line? What emotions are giving energy to these words? Is it surprise? Praise? Does he want the disciples to admire or imitate her? Look at her. She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on, her whole life. Or is he sad, perhaps even angry because this poor just dropped her last two pennies in the offering plate? Look at her. She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on, her whole life. Tell me, how do you want me to say this line, with a smile or with a broken heart or with righteous anger?”

You’re the director, but you don’t have an answer ready. “I hadn’t thought of that one,” you say, “everybody, take five.” Now, while you’re thinking about what to tell that actor, did you hear the story about the college in upstate New York? Back in July, Joan Weill, the wife of Citigroup billionaire Sandy Weill, announced that they would donate $20 million to Paul Smith’s College, a small, cash-strapped school in the Adirondack Mountains. The big bundle of money came with one string attached: She insisted that the school would have to be renamed in her honor, to be known forever as Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. Weill is a former trustee of the school, which sits miles from the nearest town and specializes in forestry and hospitality programs. She’s given big gifts in the past, and the library and the student center both are already named after her. Mrs. Weill argued that with her name given top billing, more donors around the country would open their wallets.

Paul Smith’s was named for a pioneer of this rugged region just south of the U.S.-Canada border who opened a wilderness lodge in the 1850s that hosted guests such as Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. Smith’s family donated land for the college in the 1940s. So when alumni learned that his name would now be given second billing, it infuriated many. “It makes me sick, to be honest with you,” said Jason Endries, who graduated 15 years ago. “I don’t consider it to be much of a gift if you require something. Usually a gift is given out of generosity and not requiring something in return.” Well, what Jason calls ‘usually’ is in fact becoming the rare exception. Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University, says asking that entire institutions be rebranded in exchange for a gift reflects a new attitude, a new trend among the megarich. “There are very few anonymous donors anymore, and there are few that are satisfied to give a big donation and not have that object of the donation named after them,” he says. Eisenberg says a lot of institutions now think of naming rights as an asset, something they can offer as an enticement, but he worries that colleges and arts institutions could wind up swapping names the way sports stadiums do. “If somebody gives $20 million and someone else comes up and says, ‘I’m going to give you $50 million,’ does that mean they’re going to change their name again?” he says. “It’s a crazy system.”

In the case of Paul Smith’s College, a state court judge ruled in October that the name change would violate terms of the original will and the original gift that established the school. Facing growing pressure from alumni and fearing a long court fight, the college decided not to appeal. With naming rights no longer on the table, the Weill family withdrew the $20 million gift.[1]

Sitting in the temple, opposite the treasury, Jesus noticed many rich people putting in large sums. Large gifts draw attention, and the givers of large sums enjoy being known for their generosity; some enjoy it so much they don’t wait for somebody to suggest that a bridge, building, school, or chapel be named in their memory and honor – they turn their gift into a purchase of memory and honor.

Both scenes in today’s gospel reading are about attention. “Beware of the scribes,” Jesus taught the crowd that was listening to him with delight. Not the scribes in general, but the ones who like to walk around in long robes. They like to be seen; they like to be noticed. They want to be greeted with respect in the markets. They like having seats of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They strut about, peacocks of piety spreading their tails, but you know they devour widows’ houses while saying long prayers for the sake of appearance.

Jesus was teaching in the temple, surrounded by magnificent buildings, at the heart of an institution established to the glory and honor of God, but used and abused for the worst of very human ends: vanity, self-promotion, exploitation. Nobody was paying attention to the poor widow who put in two small copper coins, worth less than a penny, which is like nothing compared to the gifts of the rich, but it was everything to her. Nobody was paying attention to her which is why Jesus is pointing her out to us. Not a word of praise comes from his lips, though, and nothing indicates that he is lifting her up as an example. All he does is describe what she is doing.

So much attention for those who gave much, so little for her who gave everything. You’re the director of this movie; what do you tell the actor playing Jesus? His tone of voice is critical in this scene. Do you tell him to tap into the joy that floods the heart when you witness this woman’s act of complete devotion to God? Or do you tell him to give voice to the anger that ties your innards into knots when you observe how an institution that is supposed to glorify God takes a poor woman’s last two pennies?

You can’t decide, and so you sit there a little longer with Jesus, opposite the treasury. Do you remember when he entered the temple the day after they came to Jerusalem? Do you remember how he threw out those who were selling and buying there? How he overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those who sold doves? He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He practically shut down the entire operation, at least for a moment. “Is it not written,” he said, and you don’t have any trouble imagining in what tone of voice he was yelling across the courtyard, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”[2]

God’s holy temple had become a house of corruption, and Jesus was working on a new way of being God’s holy temple. The new temple would not be run by pompous men in long robes or fine suits, quick to identify the best seats in the house and eager to sit in them. The new temple would not be a place for pride and greed barely concealed behind facades of ostentatious piety. The new temple would be a community of people, gathering in houses of prayer for all the nations, practicing forgiveness, and bearing fruit through love of God and neighbor.[3]

The new temple is both humble and grand. It is humble because it is a community of people who love God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their mind, and with all their strength, and who love their neighbor as themselves, nothing more. And the new temple is grand because it is a community of people who make their whole life a gift to the glory of God in daily acts of faithfulness, no strings attached. The whole structure is raised to honor God’s holy name, and the names of God’s people are written in the book of life and remembered when the community gathers around the Lord’s table.

So, what do you tell the actor who’s waiting for you to tell him how to deliver that line? The poor widow gave everything she had, she gave her whole life, entrusting herself completely in God’s hands, and in Jesus’ eyes her gift became a testimony against the institutional leadership who had turned God’s house into a den of robbers. Do you tell the actor to say the line with both joy and severe judgment? Or do you go to your producer and tell her that it can’t be done; that these words aren’t meant to be the script for a movie; that they are to be pondered so they shape and transform our life?

This is the final scene in the temple, and the poor widow’s gift foreshadows the gift Jesus is about to complete: his own life, given in love, entrusted into God’s hands, but also taken by the sin that corrupts our life together. The gift is both a judgment of our sin and a testimony to God’s power to redeem us. And it is the foundation on which the new temple is being built.

 


[1] http://www.npr.org/2015/11/03/454036482/give-a-donation-ask-for-naming-rights

[2] Mark 11:15-17

[3] See Mark 11:24-25; 12:1-12; 12:28-34

One of the scribes

A famous story in the Talmud tells about a gentile who wanted to convert to Judaism. He went to Rabbi Shammai and said to him, “Take me as a proselyte, but on condition that you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.” Shammai, insulted by this request, threw him out of the house. Then the man went to Rabbi Hillel, and Hillel accepted the challenge, saying, “What you don’t like, don’t do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary – now go and study!”[1]

The debate didn’t begin with Shammai and Hillel, and it didn’t end with them. According to Jewish tradition, 613 commandments were given to Moses. 365 negative commandments, answering to the number of days of the year, and 248 positive commandments, answering to the number of members of the human body.[2] Thus the commandments address the whole human person, every day of the year, and they cover all of life: what to eat and what to wear, when to work and when to rest, how to teach your children and how to treat strangers, how to lend and how to borrow, how to love your spouse and how to cook, how to pray and how to farm, everything.

Is there a way, the students of Torah wondered, to capture that totality in a single teaching? Is there one commandment that is something like the principle that is being unfolded in all the others, a primal commandment that represents all the others? The prophet Micah named three, “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”[3] The prophet Isaiah named two, “Maintain justice and do what is right.”[4] The prophet Amos named one, “Seek me and live.”[5] And the prophet Habakkuk named another, “The righteous shall live by their faith.”[6]

It was common practice among Jews to ask their teachers which was the first commandment. Hillel answered, “What you don’t like, don’t do to your neighbor.” I noticed an application of that commandment with respect to Halloween this past week when I overheard a conversation among middle-aged adults about what treats to give the children who come trick-or-treating. One said, she always hands out candy she wished she had been given when she was little. What she doesn’t like, she doesn’t do to her little neighbors, assuming, of course, that not much has changed in the world of chocolate, candy bars, and gummi bears in the last few decades. You see the problem here: just because you like something, doesn’t mean your neighbor likes it. The trouble with Hillel’s answer is that you may end up making your own likes the standard for how you treat your neighbors. Hillel, of course, would jump in and say, “Wait a minute, not so fast. If you don’t like others making themselves the standard for how they treat you, don’t do it to them.” Excellent point.

I started a little unscientific survey on Thursday. No, I didn’t poll the neighborhood kids to learn what their favorite candy might be. I asked questions about traditions of caring for friends and neighbors in times of need: What did you do when your neighbor’s mother died? What did your friends do when you had your first child? If you were sick for more than just a couple of days, what would be the most helpful thing a friend or neighbor could offer to do?

I asked these questions, because we all have stories about friends who left flowers at our door when we didn’t expect it, and it just made our day, or about neighbors who mowed our yard when mom was in the hospital for weeks, and they did it because they cared, and not to finally show us how it’s done properly.

One of the items included in the survey is, “When I’m sick for more than a couple of days ...” and in response you can either check various responses or add your own. The options I listed are

  • bring food
  • take the kids for a couple of hours
  • get my groceries
  • send chocolate
  • walk my dog
  • mow the yard
  • pray for me
  • send me a note
  • come by for a cup of coffee
  • clean my bathroom
  • do my laundry
  • come and sit with me for a while
  • Other:

Each of these is a way to love your neighbor as yourself, but even a casual glance at the more than fifty surveys that have come in so far shows that our needs and the things that delight us are very different. Some of us just want to be by ourselves when we’re sick and perhaps receive a note while others love the idea of somebody moving in and taking over pretty much all of our household and parenting responsibilities. I hope to come up with a way to report all the findings of the very unscientific survey in a meaningful way, but two findings already are apparent:

1. The better we know each other, the better we are able to care for each other.

2. One of the most caring things we can do for each other is ask, “What can I do for you?”

When the scribe asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” he did what Jews commonly did in those days, that is ask their teachers the big question, and the teachers in turn asked each other, all in pursuit of deeper understanding and for the sake of a life of righteousness. They shared the desire to know if there was a defining principle or a primal commandment that was the rock on which the whole structure of statutes, decrees, precepts, and ordinances rested.

Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”  Jesus didn’t name just one commandment, but two, implying that the will and desire of God for God’s people cannot be reduced to a single principle; all the commandments are rooted in a set of relationships. The two go together, love of God and love of neighbor, and because they are linked we cannot relate well to God without relating well to each other, and vice versa.

Most of us think we know what love is and that we are talking about the same thing when we say the word – but we’re not. Love is about affection and it is about commitment and belonging, love is about vulnerability and desire; and the constellation of these elements shifts from person to person and from season to season. In our culture, love has long been in danger of being reduced to having good feelings about someone or something. Douglas Hare reminds us that,

In an age when the word ‘love’ is greatly abused, it is important to remember that the primary component of biblical love is not affection but commitment. Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that [the commandment] demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.[7]

Love is a deep loyalty to another, and when Jesus teaches us to recognize how loving our neighbor and loving our God are intimately linked, he is not telling us to have warm feelings for friends and strangers alike, but to commit ourselves to their wellbeing. Your neighbor, according to Jesus, can literally be your next-door neighbor who might be tired of eating alone or who might need somebody to rake the leaves for her. Your neighbor may be your father and mother who, after so many years, need you in unfamiliar ways that almost reverse the relationship of parent and child. Your neighbor is every person you encounter, and to love them is to take their desire to flourish as seriously as you take your own. And Jesus never said it was easy.

Then the scribe said to Jesus, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

The scribe agreed with Jesus. This remarkable scene is the only one in Mark’s gospel where a religious authority agrees with Jesus. Throughout his ministry, Jesus had encountered strong opposition from Jewish leaders connected with the temple, the chief priests, scribes and elders, and now that Jesus was in Jerusalem, the conflict between him and them continued to escalate. They were already collaborating to have him arrested and put on trial, and any questions they were asking him were designed to trip him up or trap him. But this scribe broke the hostile pattern by asking an honest question. In the middle of the brewing storm he and Jesus made room for each other and for the pursuit of a deeper understanding of God’s will and desire for God’s people, and they discovered that they agreed.

“You are not far from the kingdom of God,” Jesus said to him, and that is as close as it gets in Mark’s telling of the gospel for any of us who await the kingdom’s consummation. Not far from the kingdom, closer to the truth and peace of God.

As we remember and give thanks today “for all the saints who from their labors rest,” let us offer a prayer for those in every generation who broke the hostile patterns of their time by asking honest questions in pursuit of the knowledge of God and a life of righteousness. Let us offer a prayer for those who ask their neighbor, “What can I do for you?” And let us not forget that those who have gone before us are not merely resting in peace, but waiting for us to join them. They are rooting for us as we seek to live life as the gift of God it is.

 


[1] Shabbat 31a

[2] See Makkot 23b-24a

[3] Micah 6:8

[4] Isaiah 56:1

[5] Amos 5:4

[6] Habakkuk 2:4

[7] Douglas Hare, “Matthew,” Interpretation, 260.

A Very Unscientific Survey

How about it? A very unscientific survey about traditions of caring for friends and neighbors in times of need.

What did you do when your neighbor's mother died?

What did your friends do when you had your first child?

If you were sick for a week, what would be the most helpful thing a friend or neighbor could offer to do?

We all have stories to tell around these questions; the great surprises, the disappointments, the things people do we wish they'd stop doing. We come from different backgrounds, belong to different generations, have different expectations, different needs. So, how about a very unscientific survey? It's anonymous and it's not nearly as long as it looks.

 

Can you see me now?

My friend John is a photographer, but he also loves to tell stories about his travels in the U. S. and around the world. A few days ago, John talked about a trip to India and the large groups of children that often surrounded him there, laughing, shouting, pulling his sleeves and begging for change, and how one day he decided that he was done handing out small coins to them. He got into the back of one of those three-wheel taxis and took off, feeling terrible about his lack of generosity and compassion. He turned around and looked back through the small window cut into the canvas of the cab; he saw the children he had just so cold-heartedly abandoned: they were playing soccer on the street, laughing and shouting and having a great time. He was relieved to see them run around and play, and to note that, contrary to the dark thoughts of his guilt-ridden heart, their world did not revolve around him.

Another story he told that night was from a trip to China. He visited a town where begging had apparently been elevated to a performance art. John saw a man at a street corner, and he was fascinated by him while at the same time trying to ignore him. The man had no legs and he was sitting in a small wooden cart; one of his arms looked twisted and paralyzed, and he used his other arm to push himself forward. John tried to look past him, but the man wouldn’t let him. He addressed John as he walked past, but John kept walking, pretending he couldn’t hear him. He thought he had escaped, but the man in the cart followed him, pushing himself forward on the road with astounding proficiency. John walked a little faster, his eyes firmly locked on the end of the street, but the man didn’t stop his pursuit. John picked up the pace some more, but the man in the cart was determined and astonishingly quick on his wheels. They came to the end of the block and John crossed the street, certain that the man would give up the chase now, but no, he was relentless. Halfway down the second block, John stopped and turned around. They looked at each other, neither said a word, and then they just burst out laughing, deep, full-throated belly laughs that shook their bodies so hard that fear, guilt, awkwardness, shame and anger vanished until nothing but joy remained. Then they went to get a cup of tea.

+++

Mark Horvath also works with a camera, but his preferred format are video and film. He once heard a story about a homeless man on Hollywood Blvd who thought he was invisible. One day a kid handed the man a pamphlet, and he was shocked and amazed: “What!? You can see me? How can you see me? I’m invisible!”

Horvath writes about that moment, “It isn’t hard to comprehend this man’s slow spiral into invisibility. Once on the street, people started to walk past him, ignoring him as if he didn’t exist … much like they do a piece of trash on the sidewalk. It’s not that people are bad, but if we make eye contact, or engage in conversation, then we have to admit they exist and that we might have a basic human need to care. But it’s so much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence.” Horvath knows we’re not literally closing our eyes; we just keep them focussed on the end of the street and hope that invisibility works both ways. The homeless man blends into the background, and we who are passing by blend into the steady stream of faceless pedestrians; it’s a kind of blindness.

Horvath writes about homeless men and women, “I not only feel their pain, I truly know their pain. I lived their pain. You’d never know it now but I was a homeless person. Seventeen years ago, I lived on Hollywood Blvd. But today, I find myself looking away, ignoring the faces, avoiding their eyes — and I’m ashamed when I realize I’m doing it. But I really can feel their pain, and it is almost unbearable, but it’s just under the surface of my professional exterior.” After years of using a television camera to tell the stories of homelessness and the organizations trying to help, Horvath began shooting short, unedited clips of homeless men and women telling their stories, and he posted them on his website, Invisible People. The purpose of the project, he writes, “is to make the invisible visible. I hope these people and their stories connect with you and don’t let go. I hope their conversations with me will start a conversation in your circle of friends.”[1] Stories and conversations against the pervasive blindness.

+++

Jesus and his band of disciples were in Galilee, where Jesus was proclaiming the good news of God: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[2] He healed the sick, freed the oppressed, he taught and fed the people with parables and bread, and the disciples watched and learned. They watched a lot, but they were slow to learn. “Do you still not perceive or understand?” Jesus said to them at one point, frustration in his voice. “Do you have eyes, but fail to see?”[3]

They came to Bethsaida, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. Jesus laid his hands on his eyes and looked at him intently and the man’s sight was restored and he saw everything clearly.[4] The disciples watched, but they were slow to understand who Jesus was, and what it meant to follow him. They were far from seeing everything clearly.

They followed him as best they could as he turned to Jerusalem. On the way, Jesus told them repeatedly what would happen in the city and he taught them about the demands of discipleship, about serving one another and being attentive to little ones and about the meaning of greatness in the kingdom of God. “What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked the sons of Zebedee, who had been with him almost as long as Peter, and they responded, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”[5] Jesus modeled being a servant, but his disciples, to this day, dream of power and privilege.

Then they came to Jericho, the last stop for travelers and pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem, and there, just outside the city, sitting by the roadside, was Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. When he heard that it was Jesus who was walking by, he began to shout out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many in the crowd told him to hold his tongue and be quiet. Easy for them to say, they weren’t beggars. For them it was just fine for Bartimaeus to blend into the background and remain invisible, but he cried out even more loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He knew it was Messiah time; he knew this was the time when the eyes of the blind are opened and the poor have their debts canceled and the oppressed go free. He may have been blind, but his vision was better than theirs; his insight more profound than the disciples’. He named and entreated Jesus, and when the people rebuked him, he asked again, louder this time. He refused to be silenced. He refused to blend into the background and remain part of the everyday road side backdrop everybody had gotten used to. He cried out, relentlessly, and Jesus stood still. “Call him here,” he said, and they did. “Courage,” they said, “get up, he’s calling you.” They didn’t have to tell him twice. He sprang up and came to Jesus.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him, the same question he had asked James and John who had been stumbling along behind him since the earliest days of his mission in Galilee. They dreamed of power and privilege; they didn’t see who he was; they didn’t perceive what his mission was, despite their having been with him so long. The blind beggar answered Jesus, “Let me see again.” And Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.” He didn’t send him away; he told him that the days of his marginalization and invisibility were over. Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way to the cross.

After a long series of episodes in Mark’s gospel in which the disciples just don’t get it, it is a blind man who finally sees clearly who Jesus is and follows him up to Jerusalem. There’s hope for us blind beggars who can’t quite see who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. It’s Messiah time; he’s calling us. The rich man went away grieving when Jesus called him, for he had many possessions. Bartimaeus, throwing off his cloak, jumped up and came to Jesus and followed him on the way. His cloak was everything for him, mattress, blanket, umbrella, coat and coin catcher – it was everything he owned and it represented the life he left behind for the sake of the kingdom, like a fisherman who walks away from his nets and a tax collector who abandons his desk to follow Jesus. Bartimaeus walked away from invisibility and blindness and followed Jesus on the kingdom way. With his eyes opened by Jesus, he began to see everything in his light. He began to notice what others routinely missed or ignored. He began to see everything in the context of Jesus and found a whole new life.

Jesus asks a simple question, “What do you want me to do for you?”

How do you answer?

 


[1] http://invisiblepeople.tv/blog/about/

[2] Mk 1:14f

[3] Mark 8:17f.

[4] Mk 8:25

[5] Mk 10:36

Chief of Staff or glorified butler?

They were going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them, with urgency in his stride, a solitary figure against the horizon. All the disciples could do was try and keep up with him. They didn’t fully know yet who it was they were following and where he was going. On the road, Jesus had taught them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be killed and after three days rise again, and they couldn’t bear to hear it. The first time it was Peter who rebuked him for saying such things. The second time, Jesus told them again how the Son of Man would be betrayed into human hands and be killed, and after three days rise again. They didn’t understand what he was saying, and instead of asking him, they argued with each other about who was the greatest. Jesus was way ahead of them, and all they could do was try and keep up with him.

A third time he stopped to tell them what was going to happen to him. He saw with blinding clarity where he was headed. He would be handed over; the temple authorities would reject him and condemn him to death; Rome’s soldiers would mock him, spit on him, and torture him before killing him. And after three days he would rise again. This time, James and John approached him, the sons of Zebedee; they had been with him since the first days of his mission in Galilee. And what did they say?

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Who did they think he was – a genie? Perhaps they weren’t as inattentive and insensitive as we might suppose. Perhaps they had actually listened to every word he had just said. Perhaps they weren’t as obtuse as it might seem to us; perhaps they had heard every detail about how he would run into the walls of rejection and political convenience and how these walls would become his grave. And perhaps their confidence in Jesus’ final triumph was so complete that they looked past the thick clouds ahead and past the deep darkness of his execution; they looked past all that and with one great leap they landed by the throne of the Messiah’s glorious reign. In their minds, the way of Christ was but a step from all that was wrong with the world to the reign of righteousness. In their minds, they were already standing at the door, their toes touching the threshold to the royal hall, and they saw the Risen One seated on the throne of glory.

“What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked them. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they replied. They were dreaming about cabinet seats. Certainly the Messiah would need a Chief of Staff or a Secretary of Righteous Reign – and why not them, trusted friends who had been with him almost from day one? They knew how power works: the ladder stretching from those who sit in the dust all the way up to those whose feet never touch the ground because they sit on thrones and ride in limousines or fly in personal jets. It’s a long ladder with many rungs, and the higher you climb, the greater the influence and the more exclusive the company. They knew how power works. Listening to the news out of Washington, it may seem like nobody wants to sit in the chair of the Speaker of the House these days, but that’s only temporary; that’s only because all the chairs are constantly being rearranged and it’s not always clear which seat at any given time gives greater influence to its occupant. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” the sons of Zebedee asked, imagining the glory of God’s reign like any ladder of earthly rule, only shinier and purer – without special interest lobbyists and big donors and cover-ups. When we think about power, we think about ladders and about climbing from the bottom to the top – or we worry about sliding or falling. Social Psychologists tell us that status anxiety accounts for much of what we do on a daily basis – we want to know where we are on the ladder and where the people around us fit in – above? Below? Somewhere on the same level?

I keep a copy of a long list of titles in the Federal Government, just for the joy of reading them out loud:

  • Principal Assistant Deputy Under Secretary
  • Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary
  • Chief of Staff to the Assistant Assistant Secretary
  • Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary
  • Chief of Staff to the Associate Assistant Secretary
  • Principal Deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary[1]

How do they fit these on a business card? I imagine myself at a cocktail party in D.C. with a few hundred of my closest co-workers, each representing one of countless, minutely graduated status rankings differentiated by extremely subtle nuances only the truly initiated are capable of grasping. Somebody introduces me to the Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary and after a couple of minutes the Principal Deputy to the Deputy Assistant Secretary joins us and I know exactly which of the two is more important. The titles may spread like kudzu, but I always know which way is up.

James and John thought of God’s reign as Washington writ large, and they were disarmingly honest about wanting to be near the top rung of the ladder. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory,” they said. And Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.” They may have been imagining something along the lines of being with Jesus in glory like Moses and Elijah were at the Transfiguration, but Mark is very careful to remind us that the only ones at Jesus’ left and right when he was hailed “King of the Jews” were the two bandits crucified with him.[2]

The way of Christ is the way of the cross, not a new and better way to secure power. The way of Christ goes against the logic of human institutions that are characterized by power exercised over others, by control of others, by ranking as the primary principle of social organization, and by hierarchies of dominant and subordinate. “Not so among you,” he says to us who try to follow and keep up with him. The way of Jesus is difficult because it requires of us the surrender of deep-rooted ideas of power and control, and a humble willingness to follow him.

“Not what I want, but what you want,” was the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane as he prepared to drink the cup of suffering, and those who follow him pray like him. Not what I want – not my aspirations, my ambitions, my pursuits, but what you want – your will, your purpose, your kingdom.

The reign of God comes into the world not by overpowering its opponents, but by subverting our notions of power. The reign of God undermines our desire for control. The reign of God entered the world in Jesus who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life to redeem us from the reign of death. Jesus didn’t manipulate people to get what he wanted. He didn’t lord it over those who recognized his authority. He didn’t use others in the pursuit of his own personal ambitions. He was in the world as one who served God and every human being he encountered. And he calls us, again and again, no matter how many times we get it wrong, to join him in his mission of service to all people. Following him on the way, we learn to look at others not as means to boost our own status; we learn to see people, all kinds of people, as fellow creatures whose desire to flourish goes hand in hand with God’s desire for all of creation. Jesus invites us to pray with him, “Not what I want, but what you want.” He invites us to quiet our anxious and ambitious selves, and to be open to the coming reign of God where love alone is sovereign.

We have heard it so many times, but it takes a lifetime to sink in: the way to be great is to be a servant, even as Jesus became a servant. Martin Copenhaver tells a story about a New England church he once served. Some of the older members could remember a time when the wealthy families would send their servants to help cook church suppers alongside those who did not have servants to send. The world changed, and by the time Pastor Martin came to the church these stories were repeated with some amusement, but similar confusions continued. According to the bylaws of the church the deacons were charged with the spiritual leadership of the congregation, and at a deacons meeting, someone complained that instead of being true to this high and momentous charge, deacons spent too much of their time delivering food to the homeless shelter and washing dishes after communion. How could they tend to important spiritual matters when they were occupied with such mundane tasks? “I schlepp bread and wine from the kitchen to the table, and when all have eaten I take the dishes back to the kitchen and wash them,” one of the deacons complained. “I feel like a glorified butler.” They did a little Bible study and discovered that the first deacons had been commissioned by the apostles in the Jerusalem church so that there would be someone to take food to the widows. They discovered that the word deacon was the anglicized version of the Greek diakonos, and that a diakonos was a servant or a waiter. They were indeed butlers, charged with the mundane task of delivering food, and also glorified because that simple act of service was an expression of the love of Christ the servant.[3]

Here at Vine Street, we’re only days away from hosting Room in the Inn guests for a week. We come together to prepare meals and serve them, to make beds and do the laundry, to open doors and welcome strangers so they might experience the hospitality of God’s house. Glorified butlers, waiters and servants? You could call it that. But you’re serving in the company of Jesus. You may not get your picture in the paper, you may not even get your name in the church newsletter, but for that one night, you are part of changing the world and welcoming the reign of God. For that one night, you not only get to watch, but participate in the power of love undermining the love of power.

 


[1] Paul C. Light, The True Size of Government (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999), 74.

[2] Mk 9:2-8; 15:27

[3] Martin Copenhaver, Christian Century, October 5, 1994, 893.

The children and the man

Here comes that man again, running up to Jesus with the big question he can’t answer himself. And before the man is close enough to kneel before Jesus, we already hear the echo of those dreaded words from Jesus’ lips, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

We have heard the story before, many times, we know he will go away grieving, for he had much to give away. A part of us grieves with him as we watch him leave. We like the fellow; he’s sincere about wanting to do the right thing, and his desire to inherit eternal life is genuine. We put ourselves in his shoes, and wonder what our response would be to Jesus’ unsettling proposition.

The words from the letter to the Hebrews still echo in our minds, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit (…) it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare.”

The word of God is living and active, not safely contained between the covers of an old book; we cannot tame it with calligraphy we hang on the wall for a little inspiration. The word of God gets to us and leaves us unsettled. You may think twice before you cross stitch “Let the little children come to me” on your sofa pillow, for it may disrupt your slumber. The word of God is living and active and sharp, rendering us naked and bare before God. We wrap ourselves in all kinds of protective layers, but the word of God cuts through them like butter; it is aimed at the heart and it never misses.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Am I too rich for eternal life? Is my stuff getting between me and the life God wants for me and us and the whole creation? Is my stuff getting between me and the life I really want? Do I have to sell what I own and give it to the poor? All of it? Actually, I’m not rich, not really, am I? Donald Trump is rich, very rich, he says so himself. The story probably isn’t for me, it’s for people like him. I’m comfortable, but I’m not rich. Oprah is rich; Bill and Malinda Gates are rich, and the Koch brothers.

Our minds are very adept at adding layers so we don’t stand quite so naked and bare before God. Surely this episode isn’t to be taken literally. Surely the preacher can point to some spiritual meaning that won’t leave me penniless.

In conversation, one of us will tell the rest what she picked up on a blog or in the comment section of her study Bible. According to some medieval commentary ‘the eye of the needle’ was the name of one of the city gates in Jerusalem. In order for a camel to get through, the burden had to be taken off its back, and the camel had to get on its knees. This was obviously an excellent interpretation for a time when church leaders wanted to build cathedrals and monasteries: tell folks who wish to enter the kingdom to get on their knees and write checks until the burden on their back is small enough to fit through the gate. A convenient interpretation for a capital campaign, but one that misses the point entirely. Let alone that there never was such a gate. The word of God is living and active and sharp, and no effort of ours can render it convenient and dull or dead. There’s no easy button.

Just before this scene with the rich man, Mark tells us about the people who were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them. And Jesus said, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”[1] A little child is the personification of need and trusting dependence.  The rich man in today’s lesson is everything a little child is not; he is the personification of power, achievement, and confident independence. He is used to getting things done. When presented with a challenge, he has various options at his disposal, and a solution is never more than a phone call away. But he ran, Mark tells us, to get to Jesus, and now he’s kneeling in the dust. This man isn’t playing games. Something is missing in his life, and he is looking for more than words he can hang on the wall of his office.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by naming six of the ten commandments. “I have kept all these since my youth,” the man replies. Nothing in the story suggests that he is lying or bragging. He is a good man who has done everything right, yet his achievements are not enough. His virtues are not sufficient. Even his keeping of the commandments cannot still the question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus loves this man, perhaps for his integrity, perhaps for his sincerity, his commitment to living a God-pleasing life. Perhaps Jesus loves him for asking big questions, questions that matter. And Jesus tells the man who wants to know what to do, what to do. “You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come and follow me.”

The two back-to-back scenes in Mark’s telling of the gospel highlight a great irony: the little children who possess nothing, don’t lack anything – the kingdom of God is theirs. Yet this man who has achieved so much and knows so much, and possesses so much, lacks the one thing that would open to him the door to eternal life. “Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.” He can’t do it.

“Children,” Jesus says to the disciples, “how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” They are as perplexed as we are. The eye of the needle is small, too small to squeeze through – then who can be saved? The word of God is living and active and sharp, rendering us naked and bare before God.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is: nothing. We cannot save ourselves. Neither accumulating wealth, knowledge or goodness, nor giving it all away will save us. God alone saves us. And so the question becomes, “What has God done to save us, to give us eternal life, to bring us into the kingdom?” The answer is a life lived for us; the answer is a name, the word God has spoken to us in these last days: Jesus Christ. He is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword. He cuts through all the protective layers we have put on. We want to believe that with enough money or education or goodness we will be able to secure our own future. And God’s Messiah stands before us, looking at us, loving and us, and saying, “No. Let go off all that and follow me.”

The good news of Jesus Christ sounds like bad news at first: we cannot save ourselves. But it is good news: we cannot save ourselves. And so we can stop trying and failing and trying harder and failing. We can stop running and we can start living as followers of Jesus on the way to the kingdom. He invites us to trust God with the work of saving us. He calls us to trust God with our lives and our future, and to begin living for God and for each other. He invites us to stop being anxiously self-centered and to find life by being attentive to God and to each other.

Ken Carder wrote in the Christian Century,

If our worth is based on what we know or own or achieve, we are always going to be insecure, for our value will depend on that which is precarious and temporary. Instead of loving one another, sharing with one another, nurturing the well-being of one another, we compete with one another, use one another, abuse one another and discard one another.[2]

A focus on what we can achieve easily leads to solitary, empty lives. But for those who follow Jesus on the way, a different world emerges, a new world. Jesus says that those who leave behind their self-made lives for the life God freely gives and shares will receive the kingdom. Entering the kingdom or inheriting eternal life is not a matter between a man and his God or a woman and her God; it involves us all, men and women, rich and poor, insiders and outsiders, and it transforms us all into a new family of brothers and sisters, a new household of equals, the whole people of God in the kingdom of God.

That is the call to which we seek to respond with our whole lives here at Vine Street, personally and communally. We learn to trust God completely with our lives and our future, and we learn to give ourselves completely to God’s work in the world.

You’ve heard and read about the prayer triplets, many of you have already signed up for them, and others are still waiting to hear from Dick and our Vision Team what exactly those triplets are going to be about. They will be about prayer, about turning to God with some of our biggest questions; and they will be about honest, vulnerable speech, about turning to each other and hearing each other out as we talk about our hopes and fears and the call of God. We will hear more details about the triplets today when we gather downstairs after worship, and every last detail receives its meaning from the long arc of God’s creative and redemptive mission: We are called to trust God completely with our lives and our future, and to give ourselves completely to God’s work in the world.

 


[1] Mk 10:15

[2] Kenneth L. Carder, “The Perils of Riches (Mk. 10:17-31),” The Christian Century, Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 1997, p. 831

The prayer of the righteous

The reading we just heard? Danielle calls it a veritable mine field of broken hopes and false expectations and (…) lost faith. “I don’t have any concrete evidence on this,” she says, “but I think this passage may be in the running to win a ‘Most Negative Spiritual Baggage’ award.” Can you hear her anger? I don’t have any spiritual baggage related to that text, but I didn’t grow up in a church where James got a lot of attention. My people were Paul-and-the-gospels people, as far as the New Testament is concerned. So I don’t have any spiritual baggage, but I wonder what kind of alarms went off in your heads as you were listening.

Danielle says, she can personally count a rather alarming number of conversations she’s had with faithful people who have felt that they’ve prayed their hearts out over people they’ve loved only to see them not be healed. So she starts getting quite nervous when she reads, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.” She knows that this has been used to create some sort of guaranteed divine healing system – for people with access, that is. “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” Danielle reads. Ergo, with a logic cold as hell, if your prayer isn’t as powerful and effective as you needed it to be, your righteousness must be questionable. Danielle is about to scream at this point, but she waits until James, in her words, piles on the guilt by comparing all of us to Elijah. “‘Elijah was a human being like us!’ James says, ‘And HE was able to pray so powerfully that there was no rain in the whole wide world for three and a half years!’ Never mind that Elijah was a prophet. No, says James, he’s exactly like us. He is the most average human being ever. You should absolutely compare yourself to him, especially when someone you love is sick and your prayers aren’t magically working to fix them. Then you can feel guilty not only for your prayers clearly not being [offered] correctly, but also for not being ELIJAH. If this is James’s idea of a pep talk, I frankly think he fails.”[1]

If James knew about some of the ways he’s been read, he’d be very upset. More than anything, he wants to help shape congregations that are communities of a particular wisdom, congregations whose members really fulfill what he calls the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2] James cares a lot about what we do with words, what we say and how we say it. Today’s passage contains the concluding lines of his letter, and each line addresses matters of speech like praying, singing songs of praise, confessing our sins to one another, praying for each other, and correcting one another.

James doesn’t explain, nor does he unfold lengthy arguments. He loves dispensing small packages of wisdom that recommend concrete actions; do this, and don’t do that. He believes that communities are shaped by concrete practices. Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.The whole range of human experience is in view here, from any situation that diminishes a person’s life to moments when every aspect of life is imbued with joy. All of it is to be lived in the presence of God, to be brought before God in prayer and song. In prayer, life is put into words, spoken or sung, or into silence that is not the mere absence of words, but a fullness beyond them.

In prayer, all of life is lived and known in relationship with God. But another set of relationships is equally important for the communities of wisdom James envisions. Are any among you sick? he asks. And it’s not just sickness he has in mind here, but times when our strength is gone, whether it’s about our aching bodies, our tired spirits, or our anxious hearts. Suffering has a way of isolating us, be it that we just want to be alone when the shadows fall or that our daily routines of work and family responsibilities are being put on hold while for the rest of the world those routines go on. Suffering has a way of isolating us. Are any of you sick? he asks – they should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. James empowers the suffering ones – the sick, the weary, the discouraged – to summon the elders of the community. There are doctors, of course, and nurses, psychotherapists, pharmacists, life coaches and other specialists, but the whole community needs to be there with prayer and healing touch, the whole community, represented by the elders. And in this moment – you can imagine the suffering person in the middle of the room, on a chair perhaps or in bed, the entire community gathered around them in Spirit and several elders in person – in this moment James speaks of the prayer of faith that will save that person and of the Lord who will raise her up and of the forgiveness of sins.

What’s the forgiveness of sins doing here? James knows that when we suffer we can’t help but ask ourselves what we have done wrong to deserve this or to cause this. We carry guilt on our shoulders when we’re sick, wondering if it’s all because we didn’t exercise enough, or drank too much, or didn’t include enough kale in our diet. We carry guilt on our shoulders when we can’t get a job we actually might like, and we wonder if it’s all our fault because the things we enjoy doing don’t pay in what dad called the real world, or because we don’t have the right personality, or because we start sweating every time we walk into an interview. We carry guilt on our shoulders, the weight of the wrong we have done and the good we have left undone, and all of that is in the room, too. “Anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven,” writes James, anyone. “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

The shift is subtle, but crucial. Only a moment ago, all our attention was on the one person in the middle of the room, now it is on all of us and on the brokenness, the weakness and the failures that are part of who we have become, each and all of us; we recognize how far we all are from the glorious wholeness of life God intends for us;  and James encourages us to bring this moment, all of it, to speech through mutual confession and prayer for each other, so that we may be healed.

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective,” he writes, not to suggest that some of us are better at offering prayers that deliver the desired results, but rather that when we confess our sins to each other and pray for each other, that is when we speak to each other, in the presence of God, about our brokenness, our weakness and our failures, and lift each other up in prayer, we will be healed. We are not saved by the prayer of faith, but through the relationships with God and with each other that are restored through faith and nurtured in our prayers.

Healing is not limited to a person who is suffering or a specific condition; it applies to the whole community and its wellbeing in every dimension - spiritual, physical, emotional, and social. Healing is not the same as curing; it is a relational mystery, a name for the concrete actions and practices that keep us connected when suffering threatens to fragment, isolate, and marginalize us.

It is a happy coincidence that we are having the Commissioning of our Elders on a Sunday when the scripture reading highlights a significant dimension of the ministry of elders as men and women of prayer. The same scripture, however, also highlights the power of vulnerable speech and prayer among all members of the community who seek to embody the royal law of love.

Most of you know that our congregation is seeking to perceive and understand more fully what it means for us to live as people of God in this city, in this age. The world has changed in dramatic ways, and our ministry may need to change dramatically as well, in order to remain a faithful part of God’s mission in the world. How it may need to change, how we may need to change, we do not and cannot know until we make time to listen to God together and to each other. In just a few days, you will receive an invitation to participate in a prayer triplet or triad that will meet six times over the next two months. Each triad, every time they meet, will listen prayerfully to a passage of scripture, pray for each other, and talk about a set of questions that will allow us as a community to perceive who it is God is calling us to be and what it is God is calling us to do. We are confident that this process of prayerful discernment in groups of three will allow us to make decisions related to this building and this land that will best serve our faithful response to God’s call. Each triad will create its own meeting schedule and decide where to meet. But I don’t want to talk about the technical details now.

I want to encourage each of you to sign up for a prayer triad when you receive the invitation. The work we are about to do in those groups is crucially important for our ministry in this city, and the magnitude of the task may seem overwhelming. But don’t let that intimidate you. The work you are about to participate in is God’s, and we may trust that the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. God will work with us, even us, to bring healing and wholeness to life.

 


[1] Danielle Shroyer, at http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/ordinary26bepistle/

[2] James 2:8

One such child

Abdullah Kurdi and his family had fled the violence in Syria two years ago. By the end of August they had made their way to the Aegean coast of Turkey. The smugglers had promised Abdullah Kurdi a motorboat for the trip from Turkey to Greece, a step on the way to a new life in Canada. Instead, they showed up with a 15-foot rubber raft that flipped in high waves, dumping Mr. Kurdi, his wife and their two small sons into the sea. Only Mr. Kurdi survived. His wife, Rehan and their two sons, Aylan and Ghalib, drowned. You may have seen the imgage of a lifeless child in a red shirt and dark shorts face down on a Turkish beach. It was 3-year-old Aylan, his round cheek pressed to the sand as if he were sleeping, except for the waves lapping his face. “Now I don’t want anything,” Mr. Kurdi said a day later, from Mugla, Turkey, after filling out forms at a morgue to claim the bodies of his family.  “Even if you give me all the countries in the world,” he said, “I don’t want them. What was precious is gone.”[1]

Nearly 12 million Syrians have been forced from their homes by the fighting – that’s the equivalent of the population of Ohio. Half are children. An entire generation of children have been forced to quit school. They are at risk of becoming ill, malnourished, abused, or exploited.[2] Most of them live in improvised camps in Syria, in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Many families try to make their way to Europe. You have heard the news. This past week, Hungarian police at the Serbian border drove migrants back with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons.[3]

There’s so much fear. So much helplessness. So much political maneuvering.

*

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” says Jesus, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” We have heard the word how some have entertained angels unawares by showing hospitality to strangers.[4] I can’t help but visualize the scene at the border fence with razor wire, tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons, and the angels of heaven. And Jesus didn’t say, angels. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Jesus has identified himself with the littlest ones among us, those of little or no status, and he tells us that welcoming one of them in his name we welcome the Maker of heaven and earth.

Jesus knows about our fears and our ambitions and our helplessness. The scene Mark describes for us takes place in Galilee. Jesus and the disciples are on the way, which is to say they’re on the way to Jerusalem; but it goes beyond geography, because they are on the way to the kingdom of God, and we are on the way with them. We believe that Jesus is God’s Messiah, the one who sets all things right, and like his first followers we are learning to trust him with our whole hearts. He’s been teaching us about what lies ahead for him. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Mark makes room for us in the story by telling us that the disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying and were afraid to ask him. Why were they afraid to ask? For the same reasons, I imagine, you and I are afraid to ask questions. We don’t want to look stupid in front of everybody. Even when we’re scared, confused and clueless, we still want to project confidence and make everybody else believe that we have it all together. We fake it till we make it.

Jesus, of course, doesn’t hesitate to ask us questions. “What were you talking about on the way?” And he asks not because he doesn’t know, but because he does. It appears that when we’re afraid to ask the difficult questions about the way of Jesus Christ, we end up talking about the usual stuff like who’s the greatest. We’re ambitious people, we strife for excellence, we study hard, we work hard, we’re competitive; we quickly absorb the unwritten rules of what adds to our status and what doesn’t, and we learn to act accordingly.

If we don’t ask questions about the way of Jesus Christ, we talk about seating arrangements at the great banquet and who’ll be at the head table, and who’s been with Jesus the longest, and who can recite from memory every word of the sermon on the mount, and who got to go up the mountain with Jesus, and who’ll be sitting at Jesus’ right and left in his glory.

“What were you talking about on the way?” he asks us, and there’s a long silence. The moment he talks with us, we know that the things that preoccupy our thoughts, our conversations and our work have little to do with him and his way in the world. We are very familiar with the ways of the world, whether we like it or not, and the old habits of acting and thinking are resilient. Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about being rejected and betrayed, about being handed over, condemned, and killed, and about rising again after three days. Three times, not just because these difficult words don’t sink in easily; but because our life as disciples of Jesus is so profoundly shaped by following him on the way of loving surrender of self for the sake of God’s reign. Three times he tells us and we’re afraid to ask because we’re afraid he’s going to turn our world upside down. “Whoever wants to be first,” he says, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In our world, the ones at the top lord it over those at the bottom. But in the kingdom of God, earth and heaven do not touch at the top of the ladder, in the clouds of power, but at the bottom where Jesus stoops to wash the feet of all.

*

We argue about who is the greatest and Jesus puts a little child among us. Politicians pick up little children all the time, their PR people tell them it looks good on television and it makes them more likeable. But Jesus doesn’t pick up a child to draw attention to himself. He does it to draw our attention to the child. He does it to draw our attention away from our anxious obsession with status. He picks up a child to teach us the kingdom way.

In 1999, John Baptist Odama became the archbishop of Gulu, in northern Uganda. For years, a group calling themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army had been waging war against the Ugandan government; it also terrorized the civilian population, burning villages, killing and maiming civilians, and abducting children, tens of thousands of children, to replenish their fighting ranks. It was at the height of this violent eruption that Odama was installed as archbishop of Gulu.

Now the installation of an archbishop is very serious business. Talk about climbing up the ladder! Talk about status! Talk about authority! Not to mention the carefully laid out seating arrangements in the cathedral and at the reception following the service. Many powerful dignitaries were in attendance: a papal representative from Rome, the president of Uganda, various bishops, ministers and a host of others. All serious stuff. The symbols of the high office were laid out in the chancel, the ring, the mitre, the staff, and the pallium – all the regalia, all serious stuff.

But the new Archbishop had more important things on his mind. He took a child in his arms and asked her, “Do you like war?” The girl turned her head from side to side; no, she didn’t like war or anything about it. He then asked her, “Do you like peace?” and she nodded enthusiastically. The Archbishop, still holding the child in his arms, turned to the congregation and said, “This child has defined for us our pastoral ministry. I commit myself to work for the future that this child has defined, to eliminate war, build peace for the sake of this child, … so that the full humanity of this child might grow and flourish.”[5]

The kingdom of God is not about getting the best seat in the cathedral; it’s about noticing the little ones and welcoming them and letting them define our vision and work.

*

We all start out little, every single one of us. We all start out needing to be welcomed and held and loved, every single one of us. As we welcome the little and most vulnerable ones at our borders and in our communities, we also learn to welcome the vulnerable core of our own soul; we learn to embrace the little one within us.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me,” says Jesus, “and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Welcome, welcome, welcome is woven into the fabric of this teaching like the holy, holy, holy sung by the angels in heaven.

Welcoming those who are not counted at the tables of greatness, we welcome Christ himself, and welcoming him, we welcome God to dwell among us.

 


[1] See http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/04/world/europe/syria-boy-drowning.html?_r=0

[2] See http://www.worldvision.org/news-stories-videos/syria-war-refugee-crisis#sthash.UIgKqLHo.dpuf

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/16/world/europe-migrant-crisis/index.html

[4] Hebrews 13:2

[5] See https://www.faithandleadership.com/sermons/emmanuel-katongole-receiving-such-one

Against the grain

Ben Dunlap was President of Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina until 2013. When he started teaching there, in the early 90’s, he found, among the auditors in his classroom, a 90-year-old man, a Hungarian named Sandor Teszler, and he loved to tell his story. Mr. Teszler was a widower whose children had already died and whose grandchildren lived far away. He had been born in 1903 in the provinces of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what later would become Yugoslavia. He was ostracized as a child, not because he was a Jew, but because he had been born with two club feet, a condition which, in those days, required institutionalization and a succession of painful operations throughout childhood. He went to the commercial business high school as a young man in Budapest, and after graduation he went into textile engineering and became a successful business man. He married and had two sons.

Once he was summoned in the middle of the night by the night watchman at one of his plants. The night watchman had caught an employee who was stealing socks – it was a hosiery mill, and he simply backed a truck up to the loading dock and was shoveling in mountains of socks. Mr. Teszler went down to the plant and confronted the thief and said, “But why do you steal from me? If you need money you have only to ask.” The night watchman, seeing how things were going and waxing indignant, said, “Well, we’re going to call the police, aren’t we?” But Mr. Teszler answered, “No, that will not be necessary. He will not steal from us again.”

Maybe he was too trusting; he stayed long after the Nazi Anschluss in Austria and even after the arrests and deportations began in Budapest. He took the simple precaution of having cyanide capsules placed in lockets that could be worn about the necks of himself and his family. And then one day, it happened: he and his family were arrested and they were taken to a death house on the Danube. In those early days of the Final Solution, it was handcrafted brutality; people were beaten to death and their bodies tossed into the river. But none who entered that death house had ever come out alive. In a twist you would not believe in a Steven Spielberg film the official who was overseeing this beating was the very man who had stolen socks from Mr. Teszler’s hosiery mill. The beating was brutal. Midway through the brutality, one of Mr. Teszler’s sons, Andrew, looked up and said, “Is it time to take the capsule now, Papa?” And the official, who afterwards vanishes from this story, leaned down and whispered into Mr. Teszler’s ear, “No, do not take the capsule. Help is on the way.” And then resumed the beating. Shortly afterwards a car arrived from the Swiss Embassy and they were spirited to safety.

At the end of the war, Mr. Teszler managed to take his family first to Great Britain, then to Long Island and then to the center of the textile industry in the American South, Spartanburg, South Carolina. And there, Mr. Teszler began all over again and once again was very successful. And then in the late 1950s, in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, when the Klan was resurgent all over the South, Mr. Teszler said, “I have heard this talk before.” And he called his top assistant to him and asked, “Where would you say, in this region, racism is most virulent?”

“Well, Mr. Teszler, I reckon that would be Kings Mountain.”

“Good. Buy us some land in Kings Mountain and announce we are going to build a major plant there.”

The man did as he was told, and shortly afterwards, Mr. Teszler received a visit from the mayor of Kings Mountain, a white man. He greeted Mr. Teszler and said, “I trust you’re going to be hiring a lot of white workers.” Mr. Teszler told him, “You bring me the best workers that you can find, and if they are good enough, I will hire them.” He also received a visit from the leader of the black community, a minister, who said, “Mr. Teszler, I sure hope you’re going to hire some black workers for this new plant of yours.” He got the same answer: “You bring the best workers that you can find, and if they are good enough, I will hire them.”

Mr. Teszler hired 16 men: eight white, eight black. They were to be his seed group, his future foremen. He had installed the heavy equipment for his new manufacturing process in an abandoned store in the vicinity of Kings Mountain, and for two months these 16 men would live and work together, mastering the new process. He gathered them together after an initial tour of that facility and he asked if there were any questions. There was hemming and hawing and shuffling of feet, and then one of the white workers stepped forward and said, “Well, yeah. We’ve looked at this place and there’s only one place to sleep, there’s only one place to eat, there’s only one bathroom, there’s only one water fountain. Is this plant going to be integrated or what?” Mr. Teszler said, “You are being paid twice the wages of any other textile workers in this region and this is how we do business. Do you have any other questions?”

“No, I reckon I don’t.”

Two months later when the main plant opened and hundreds of new workers, white and black, poured in to see the facility for the first time, they were met by the 16 foremen, white and black, standing shoulder to shoulder. They toured the facility and were asked if there were any questions, and inevitably the same question arose: “Is this plant integrated or what?” One of the white foremen stepped forward and said, “You are being paid twice the wages of any other workers in this industry in this region and this is how we do business. Do you have any other questions?” And there were none. In one fell swoop, Mr. Teszler had integrated the textile industry in that part of the South. Ben Dunlap called it an achievement worthy of Mahatma Gandhi, conducted with the shrewdness of a lawyer and the idealism of a saint.[1]

It’s an encouraging story, although this being the Sunday before Labor Day, we can’t help but remember that most of the mills in the Carolinas are closed and those jobs are gone. The story also describes part of the context in which we hear the letter of James.

“My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” The question is as old as the church and it still makes us uncomfortable. The word translated ‘favoritism’ is the biblical expression closest to our concept of discrimination. James wants us to think about what we’re doing when we treat people differently based on their outward appearance. The man in fine clothes, with rings on his fingers, is welcomed with a hospitality that comes across as a little too much, too submissive, too desperate. And the woman who walks in off the street, in dirty clothes, carrying a couple of plastic bags and pulling a little carry-on suitcase behind her? No one, including the preacher, assumes she’s here to worship.

“Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” asks James. I’m glad he’s not sitting across from me. If he were sitting across from me and talking like that, I could only become defensive. But he’s not here, and he’s not asking his questions in person, and that allows us to hear them and to let them question us and to discover how much we respond without much thought to people’s outward appearance – their size, their age, their gender, their clothes, their hair, their skin. The little boy with two club feet in big orthopedic shoes. The black man in the parking lot. The fat girl in gym class. The quick judgment. The easy judgment. And the responses that follow, triggered by assumptions deeply embedded in our mental and cultural fabric. “Have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” James doesn’t ask his questions to expose and shame us. He asks to encourage us to speak and act and think against the grain.

On June 17, it was a Wednesday night, and this is another story from South Carolina that is not just about South Carolina, on June 17 a young white man walked into a church in Charleston, just in time for Bible study. The good people of Mother Emanuel welcomed him just like Jesus welcomes any of us, as a human being made in the image of God, as a beloved child of God, as an heir of the kingdom. They spoke and acted against the grain. Some of them, perhaps, thought, we will never know, if perhaps he had meant to go to the church down the street, one of the churches where white folk went in Charleston, but they welcomed him. They spoke and acted against the grain. They fulfilled the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” They didn’t know and we didn’t know, until we heard the news, that this neighbor was intent on death. Few of us will ever forget the horror of the murder of nine church members in Bible study – in church. Love that doesn’t discriminate is a dangerous path to follow when racism, prejudice, and hate are so deeply embedded in our mental and cultural fabric. But love that doesn’t discriminate is also the power that heals us. Love that doesn’t discriminate is the love of God. “Mercy triumphs over judgment,” James reminds us. That is why he asks his questions, to encourage us to speak and act and think against the grain of judgment, especially the quick judgment, the easy judgment.

Leaders in the African Methodist Episcopal Church are determined to make the murder of the nine faithful witnesses at Mother Emanuel the moment that the church leads the United States into a genuine commitment to end racism – not just the direct, individual racism that causes one person to pick up a gun, but the broad systemic racism that nurtures such a motivation in the first place. Our brothers and sisters in the African Methodist Episcopal Church have called all Christians to offer prayers of confession with them today, to repent with them, and to commit ourselves with them to end the reign of racism and racially-motivated violence.

So this is where we are.We welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save us, the word that questions us, not to expose and shame us, but to save us in mercy.[2] Love that doesn’t discriminate is a dangerous path to follow when racism, prejudice, and hate are so deeply embedded in our mental and cultural fabric. But love that doesn’t discriminate is also the power that heals us.

 


[1] TED talk 2007 http://www.ted.com/talks/ben_dunlap_talks_about_a_passionate_life

[2] See James 1:21

What enters the heart

Near the Cumberland River, between Hermitage Avenue and the interstate, in the middle of an industrial area, sits a small building where the Green Street Church of Christ meets for worship. Early Friday morning last week, a curious parade arrived there. It was a short convoy of pickup trucks, pulling four candy-colored tiny houses built on 6’x10’ trailers. A group of workers took down a section of fence so trucks and trailers could pass through the small churchyard’s too-narrow gate. What was going on? More than three years ago, the pastor explained, the first campers started appearing in the churchyard, homeless men and women looking for a safe place to pitch their tents, and the church couldn’t see how kicking them out could possibly be what God intended for them to do. Instead, they made it their mission to care for the rotating cast of residents, offering meals and water, portable toilets, and shelter inside the church when needed. The pastor was excited to upgrade a few of the residents’ makeshift lodgings, but he didn’t want too much media attention; he was and continues to be worried that might draw gawkers to the micro-village. But he dreams. He dreams of eventually replacing all the tents with micro-homes and building a permanent structure with showers, toilets, and a simple kitchen. “I think people will be excited to help,” he told the reporter from the Nashville Scene. At noon, they had a dedication ceremony, and Roger McGue, one of the residents whom many like to call “the mayor,” talked about how they doubted this day would actually come. “When you’re homeless, people promise you things all the time,” he said. Standing before the small crowd of donors, residents, and guests, he pointed to the people who initiated the project and said, “They got in it. They did this for us. Not for themselves. That’s what love is all about.”[1]

“Religion,” we read in the letter of James, “religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Orphans, widows and strangers are lifted up again and again in the law and the prophets as groups representing the most vulnerable members of the community, those easily pushed to the margins and forgotten “in their distress.” The move from a tent to a tiny plywood house may not seem like much of an upgrade, but it’s a little more protection from the cold and the rain, and it offers a little more privacy and a little more settled sense of place. My friend Samuel Lester calls this “bridge housing,” meaning it’s not permanent but it’s a step closer to having a place to call home. It’s no solution to Nashville’s affordable housing crisis or lack of mental health services, but it’s a step closer to living in community with neighbors for individuals and families pushed to the margins by the relentless demands of life in our society.

I read the story in the Nashville Scene because friends had posted links on facebook, and pictures of tiny houses are irresistible to me. I read and enjoyed the story and the pictures, but then I broke one of the great unwritten rules of the internet: stay away from the comment section, unless they pay a small army of enforcers who monitor what gets posted and delete the most hateful stuff. I started reading the comments, and I got mad and sad and sick all at once and I was this close to putting on the gloves and stepping into the boxing ring of digital punch lines to deliver a few blows myself, when I heard James whispering in the back of my mind, “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.” Bridling your tongue, I heard him say, is not just about watching what you say for the sake of others or lifting up the level of discourse from the gutter at least to the street; it’s about learning to speak from the heart that has become a home for the word of God. Bridling your tongue is about learning not just to react to the ugliness and meanness dressed up as outrage with equal ugliness and meanness, but to respond to it with words that reintroduce the capacity to bless.

James urges us to be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive ourselves. He’s echoing the teaching of Jesus in the sermon on the mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”[2] The proper way to hear the word is to obey. The proper way to hear is to respond with action. The word is, “You shall not commit adultery,” and to obey is to not commit adultery. The word is, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and to obey is to love those in need of a neighbor. The word is, “You shall not murder,” and to obey is to not murder. To do the word means not to do what it prohibits or do what it commands. That seems simple enough, but is it?

Jesus teaches in the sermon on the mount, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”[3]

The proper way to hear and do the word is to obey the full depth of its meaning. The proper way to hear the word is to welcome with meekness the implanted word that is Jesus himself.  He’s not only the teacher who knows the full depth of the word’s meaning and instructs his disciples by declaring, “You have heard that it was said…, but I say to you.” His very life, his compassion and forgiveness, his story, his death and resurrection is the full depth of the word’s meaning. He is what God says.

Bridling your tongue, then, is to let Jesus speak; to give voice with your own words to his power to forgive and redeem and make whole. Bridling your tongue is learning to let the living Christ speak the truth from your heart.

I was drawn to the heart language in the readings for today, particularly in the Psalm and the Gospel reading from Mark, after Wednesday night when I first heard about reporter Allison Parker and photographer Adam Ward who had been murdered during a live newscast. I was heartbroken. I thought about their families, their fiancees, their co-workers and friends. The pain they must feel, the numbness, the anger; and I prayed for them. I also thought about the man who shot them dead and captured the shooting on camera and posted the clip on social media before he killed himself. I thought about his heart and how it gave birth to such violence; and I prayed for him. And I thought about the people who watched the clip he had posted and who then shared it with their networks – why, I do not know; and I prayed for them. Everything happened so fast, and we’ve barely begun to process what happened, when the next thing happens, demanding attention and understanding and soul strength and response. What is happening to your heart in all this? What is happening to your heart when the world floods in on you?

Mark tells the story of Jesus in a debate with other Jewish leaders about ritual purity, a debate that didn’t go particularly well because it ended when it had barely begun.

The Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem argued that avoiding contact with things considered ritually unclean or washing properly after they had been in contact with such things allowed them to maintain their calling as God’s holy people.

Jesus told his disciples, “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”[4]

No argument there; that’s solid Torah teaching. We read in Genesis, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.”[5] Evil and defilement stem from places rather deeply embedded within our very selves. They stem from the heart, which in Scripture is the seat of our imagining, reasoning, and willing.

No argument there, especially since we all tend to find it much easier to identify evil in others than to search our own hearts. But to me, that doesn’t end the debate. The first part of Jesus’ teaching is what continues to bother me. The claim that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer. What about the things we watch with our eyes and hear with our ears? What about the hateful words in the comments section? They’re not material like food or drink, but they certainly go into a person from outside and they do enter the heart.

The work we do or don’t get to do, the house we sleep in, the school we go to, the scriptures we read – everything shapes the heart, in evil ways that keep us from being who we are created to be in the image of God, or in holy ways that make us alive in communion with God and God’s entire creation.

Our hearts are defiled, wounded and broken in more ways than we can know, but Jesus is not afraid to brush against and touch those places to heal them.

What do we do then in this mad, beautiful world? We pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”[6] We pray and we welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save us. We welcome the word and we care for orphans and widows in their distress.

 


[1] http://www.nashvillescene.com/pitw/archives/2015/08/24/following-a-caravan-of-micro-houses-for-the-homeless-through-downtown-nashville

[2] Matthew 7:21

[3] Matthew 5:21-22

[4] Mark 7:1-23

[5] Genesis 6:5; see also Genesis 8:21

[6] Psalm 51:10

Armored intervention

Anne Moody died on February 5 at her home in Gloster, Mississippi. She was 74. A daughter of sharecroppers, Essie Mae Moody was born on September 15, 1940, in Centreville, Mississippi; she began calling herself Anne in her teens. After attending Natchez Junior College on a basketball scholarship, the young Ms. Moody enrolled in Tougaloo College near Jackson, Mississippi, from which she received a bachelor’s degree in 1964.

I didn’t know Anne and I doubt any of you did. But you may have seen her picture in the paper or in a history text book. As a young woman, Ms. Moody was active in civil rights efforts in Mississippi, and in May 1963 she and another activist, Joan Trumpauer, were part of a racially mixed group in a sit-in at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Jackson.

Anne Moody in 1963 being harassed alongside John Salter and Joan Trumpauer at a Woolworth’s. Credit Fred Blackwell/Jackson Daily News, via Associated Press

I only know of Ms. Moody, Joan Trumpauer, and John Salter because I saw a photograph of them sitting at the counter, surrounded by a mob of mostly young white men who, with smiles on their faces, had been pouring condiments on the three. “I was snatched from my stool by two high school students,” Anne Moody recounted in her 1968 memoir, Coming of Age in Mississippi. “I was dragged about 30 feet toward the door by my hair when someone made them turn me loose.” She continued: “The mob started smearing us with ketchup, mustard, sugar, pies and everything on the counter. Soon Joan and I were joined by John Salter, but the moment he sat down he was hit on the jaw with what appeared to be brass knuckles. Blood gushed from his face and someone threw salt into the open wound.” [1]

No one intervened. The ones who didn’t participate directly in the abuse, stood by and looked on. I looked at the picture and wondered: Had I been there, could I have trusted myself to not just watch or walk away but speak up or perhaps sit next to the three on one of the vacant bar stools?

They looked so calm, the three; so determined and focused on what they were there to do. They weren’t fighting the jeering young white men, they were fighting a monster. They were fighting an evil that had become institutionalized in politics, education, and commerce, in every aspect of U.S. society, beginning with slavery and still holding us in its grip to this day. They were fighting racism—without a sword, a helmet, or a shield. Some of the men and women who participated in the sit-ins in Greensboro, Nashville, Jackson and elsewhere were people of prayer. They entered the struggle armed with their passion for justice and their prayers, and they were able to stand firm against the spitting, the taunting, the pushing, beating and hair-pulling.

In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle uses the image of body armor. It was something the letter’s first audiences likely saw daily, not in their closets, but on the Roman soldiers who with force maintained Rome’s peace in the cities and provinces around the Mediterranean. Followers of Jesus will find it most difficult to imagine their Lord in full-body armor; ourselves perhaps, yes, we can see ourselves carrying and wearing a little extra protection. We know the desire, when someone strikes us on our right cheek, pours ketchup on our hair or squirts mustard in our face, we know the burning desire to scream insults at them or strike back with the fist or a coffee mug. But the apostle isn’t just referring to the daily presence of Roman soldiers as an illustration or an example as though the authority they enforced with violence had anything to do with the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead and seated him far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. The apostle has listened to Isaiah:

The Lord looked, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle (Is 59:15-17).

In Isaiah, the language indicates that there was no one to intervene, and so God fights for justice alone. In Ephesians, the community of the faithful takes up God’s armor and enters the struggle against spiritual forces larger than flesh and blood. “Put on the whole armor of God,” wrote the apostle, “so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:11-12). Christ is already seated far above those powers and forces, meaning his dominion of vulnerable love and reconciling forgiveness has overcome their capacity to corrupt and destroy; they have already lost, no matter how violently they resist the unity of all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.

In South Africa, back in the 80’s, when the government canceled a political rally against apartheid, Desmond Tutu led a worship service in St. George’s Cathedral. The walls of the church were lined with soldiers and riot police in full body armor, carrying guns and bayonets, ready to close the assembly down as soon as the order came in. Bishop Tutu began to speak of the evils of the apartheid system—how the rulers and authorities that propped it up were doomed to fail. He pointed a finger at the police who were there to record his words: “You may be powerful—very powerful—but you are not God. God cannot be mocked. You have already lost.” Then, flashing the radiant Tutu smile, the bishop came out from behind the pulpit and began bouncing up and down with glee. “Therefore, since you have already lost, we are inviting you to join the winning side.” The crowd roared and began to dance.[2]

The winning side is not either us or them; the winning side is the new humanity whose peace is Christ. The winning side are all of us whom Christ has reconciled to God in one body through the cross.

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”

I have no trouble getting excited about the triumph of Christ over powers and principalities, over any systems, structures or institutions that claim quasi-divine status and obedience. But I am wary of talk of spiritual warfare. There simply are too many examples where the rhetoric of spiritual warfare against the dark forces of evil turned into violence against individuals and groups of people like Jews, heretics, or witches who had been identified as agents of the devil. We are not to arm ourselves for attack or oppression or to establish a theocracy. We cannot proclaim the gospel of peace with the sword. We are to fasten the belt of truth around our waist, and the truth is that in Christ we are rooted and grounded in love. We are to put on the breastplate of righteousness, and righteousness is God’s not ours, so we must depend completely on God. We are to take the shield of faith, not some bigger, stronger bow that would allow us to shoot flaming arrows farther and more accurately than the evil one. We are to take the helmet of salvation, and salvation is God’s work, not ours. Every piece of armor we are urged to carry is designed to help us stand up and stand firm and stand together and withstand—not to overpower, never to overpower, but to subvert the powers and principalities that still demand our allegiance and obedience, to subvert and topple them with the vulnerable love of Christ.

When Anne Moody’s autobiography was published in 1968, Senator Edward M. Kennedy wrote in a review that it “brings to life the sights and smells and suffering of rural poverty in a way seldom available to those who live far away.” And he added: “Anne Moody’s powerful and moving book is a timely reminder that we cannot now relax in the struggle for sound justice in America or in any part of America. We would do so at our peril.”

That was in 1968, almost fifty years ago, and the struggle for sound justice in America isn’t over, not in our schools, nor in our streets, our court houses, or our neighborhoods. The wounds of slavery will not heal until we begin to take off the many layers of armor we have put on to protect ourselves from being honest with ourselves and with each other. We need to take off the helmet of “slavery was long ago, it’s time to move on now” and the breastplate of “that’s their problem not mine” and the shield of “it’s really bad down in Mississippi, not here, not where I live.”

The armor the apostle urges us to put on instead doesn’t protect us from each other, but allows us to be truthful in love. “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” This proclamation doesn’t mean trying our hardest to make others more like ourselves, but to let Christ make us all new and whole.

Years after she had published her autobiography, Anne Moody was asked why she hadn’t written more books. “In the beginning I never really saw myself as a writer,” she said. “I was first and foremost an activist in the civil rights movement in Mississippi.” But then she added, “I came to see through my writing that no matter how hard we in the movement worked, nothing seemed to change. (…) We were like an angry dog on a leash that had turned on its master. It could bark and howl and snap, and sometimes even bite, but the master was always in control.”[3]

The struggle for sound justice in America isn’t over, not in our schools, nor in our streets, our court houses, or our neighborhoods. None of us are who we really are in Christ, as long as there is among us even one woman, man, or child who sense that their lives don’t matter  and who experience their struggle for justice and wholeness as a dog’s fruitless pull against the master’s leash.

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”

 


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/18/books/anne-moody-author-of-coming-of-age-in-mississippi-dies-at-74.html

[2] Jim Wallis, quoted in John Ortberg, “Roll call.” The Christian Century 120, no. 16 (August 9, 2003): 17.

[3] See note 1.