The summit of human felicity

Marie Kondo has risen to international stardom as a lifestyle authority. “I have yet to see a house that lacked sufficient storage. The real problem is that we have far more than we need or want,”[1] she declares in tidy prose in one of her best-selling books. Before Marie Kondo, there was George Carlin (not quite as tidy):

Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. You gotta have a place for your stuff. That’s what life is all about, tryin’ to find a place for your stuff! That’s all your house is; a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. So now you got a houseful of stuff. And, even though you might like your house, you gotta move. Gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff! And that means you gotta move all your stuff. Or maybe, put some of your stuff in storage. Storage! Imagine that. There’s a whole industry based on keepin’ an eye on other people’s stuff.[2]

In Jesus’ story, the rich man said to himself, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” The tone of contentment barely conceals the man’s underlying anxiety, the fear of running out, the fear of not really knowing if ample might not one day turn out to not have been enough.

The rich man was talking himself into believing that bigger barns would provide the sense of security that would finally allow his soul to relax. And we find ourselves in a cultural moment where there’s not only a storage industry, but an equally thriving anxiety industry and a decluttering industry – all with a single promise, a single goal: to allow us to relax, eat, drink, and be merry.

I was three when my sister was born, my brother was seven. For three years, the three of us and our parents lived in a 2-BR apartment with one bathroom. I bet Marie Kondo would have been very pleased with how we arranged five sets of towels, wash cloths, and tooth brushes around a single sink. The environment wasn’t exactly zen-like, my brother and I made sure of that, but I also can’t remember a day when, while practically living on top of each other, we didn’t relax, eat, drink, and play merrily with what little stuff we had.

Much of the gospel tradition is about stuff: having too much stuff, not having enough stuff, having trouble letting go of stuff, loving stuff more than people, wanting stuff more than God. We want enough stuff to live without worry. We want the right stuff to live with joy. And really all we want is to relax and enjoy life’s fullness.

Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem when he taught the disciples about not worrying. “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”[3] He taught them to proclaim the good news fearlessly and to be bold in confessing him before the authorities who wanted to silence them. That they could trust the Holy Spirit to give them, at that very hour, the courage and the eloquence they would need as witnesses for the kingdom. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat,” he told them, “or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens,” he said, “they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.”[4]

It was in the course of these teachings about worry-free living that he told the story about a rich man whose land had produced abundantly.“ What should I  do? I have no place to store my crops,” the man thought to himself. And he continued, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” He had all his heart desired, but apparently there was no one to talk to but himself. During his brief inner monologue, he managed to say “I” six times and “my” five times, and even the lovely pronoun “you,” meant for direct address of another, he used only to talk to his own soul. Didn’t he have a family? Didn’t he have neighbors? Didn’t he hear the news we hear of droughts, floods and war that destroy farms and crops and homes and leave so many neighbors facing foreclosure and famine? At some point in his life, the man in the parable had chosen to live in a world of one.[5] He thought to himself. He spoke to himself. He lived by himself and for himself and within himself. It didn’t occur to him that he could gain the whole world and lose his soul. 

God, overhearing the man’s sad soliloquy, cut short his solitary fantasies of his soul’s content. “You fool,” God said. “This very night your life is being demanded of you.”

“Why is this man called a ‘fool?’” the writer of an old commentary asks the reader. “Because he deemed a life of secure and abundant earthly enjoyment the summit of human felicity.”[6]

What then might the summit of human felicity be, if not a life of secure and abundant earthly enjoyment? Jesus warned his audience, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”[7] But what did he mean when he spoke of being “rich toward God?”[8]

Shel Silverstein wrote a little poem, The Search.[9]

I went to find the pot of gold

That’s waiting where the rainbow ends.

I searched and searched and searched and searched

And searched and searched, and then—

There it was, deep in the grass,

Under an old and twisty bough,

It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine at last ...

What do I search for now?

What might be the summit of human felicity, if it’s not the abundance of possessions, not the pot of gold or the bumper crop in the bigger barn? Barbara Brown Taylor suggested that

the rich man was a fool because his quest for treasure was too limited. Or to put it another way, his sense of purpose was too small. He had fallen for the … myth that accumulating stuff was a big enough purpose for human life on earth. He had watched too much television. He had actually believed that his soul was made to thrive on the things that he saw there.[10]

She wrote this back in 2002, imagining the rich man in front of his tv, dreaming of a Land Rover, a Swedish mattress, a house on the lake, and a bigger boat. I imagine him scrolling through endless feeds, his eyes glued to one screen or another all day, every day, not noticing that he had begun to actually believe that his soul was made to thrive on that inflated pseudo-abundance of things to absorb, believe, reveal, laugh at, click with outrage, click with ironic detachment, click with what felt like genuine engagement, and, of course, click to buy—endless streams of stuff to buy, storage units to rent, and custom plans to order for barns of every type and size with same-day delivery.

Jesus doesn’t tell us what he means by being “rich toward God,” but he gives us some hints. He draws our gaze up and out to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, asking us to consider them, to notice how they participate fully in life’s abundance, how they flourish in life’s givenness, how they simply are what they were made to be.

He asks us to consider God’s faithfulness to all that God has made, including ourselves, and to give ourselves in turn to a life rooted in wholehearted love of God and neighbor. “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink,” he tells us, “and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them.” And then he points to the one purpose big enough for human life to become fully human, the summit of human felicity: “Strive for Gods’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”[11]


[1] https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/41711738

[2] Quoted by Cynthia Briggs Kittridge https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/august-4-ordinary-18c-luke-1213-21

[3] Luke 12:11-12

[4] Luke 12:22-24

[5] Matt Skinner http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5368

[6] From the Commentary on the Whole Bible (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, 1871) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/jamieson/jfb.xi.iii.xiii.html

[7] Luke 12:15

[8] Luke 12:21

[9] Where the Sidewalk Ends (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 166.

[10] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Treasure Hunt: Luke 12:13-21,” Review & Expositor 99, no. 1 (Wint 2002), 101.

[11] Luke 12:29-31

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Jesus' real wants

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples asked him for a prayer lesson. Apparently praying doesn’t come naturally like breathing, eating or sleeping, or so this disciple thought.

Why ask for a prayer lesson? Is prayer like an art or a sport, or is it more like already knowing how to talk but wanting to learn what to say? Do we need lessons about when and where and how often and how long we should pray; whether we should close our eyes and fold our hands; stand up or sit down; lower the face to the ground or raise our gaze upward, with hands stretched up and out? We want to do it right, don't we?

Herbert McCabe knows a lot about prayer and I’ve learned a lot from him. He writes,

You must indeed pray for the right things; but the right things are not the noble high-minded things that you think that you ought to want, they are the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want. Genuine prayer means honest prayer, laying before the Father in heaven the actual desires of your heart — never mind how childish they may sound. Your Father knows how to cope with that.

People often complain of ‘distraction’ during prayer. Their mind goes wandering off on to other things. This is nearly always due to praying for something you do not really much want; you just think it would be proper and respectable and ‘religious’ to want it. So you pray high-mindedly for big but distant things like peace in [Syria] or you pray that your aunt will get better from the flu – when in fact you do not much care about these things; perhaps you ought to, but you don’t. And so your prayer is rapidly invaded by distractions arising from what you really want – [say a job you would actually like or a little less flab in the middle] … Distractions are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer for edifying but bogus wants.

So what am I to do with those pesky distractions?

If you are distracted, trace your distraction back to the real desires it comes from and pray about these. When you are praying for what you really want you will not be distracted. People on sinking ships do not complain of distractions during their prayer.

He goes on to tell me,

Never mind then if your prayer seems ‘selfish’ or childish. If you will be honest in prayer, acknowledging that you are not very altruistic, that you do worry about your own interests, if you will just try to be, and admit to being, as you are, the Holy Spirit, I promise you, will lead you into a deeper understanding of who you are and what you really want.

He says that prayer is all about simply being honest in the presence of God.

When you lay your desires, your true desires, before God, you begin to see them in better perspective. Quite often you find that they are not, after all, the things you really want most of all. If you bring these desires out into the light, not only the light of day, but the divine light, the light of the Lord, you begin to see them as important but not the most important thing to you. And so through the practice of praying, God will often lead you nearer and nearer to realizing that in the end what you want most of all is [that open, honest, transformative relationship with] God. [1]

Jesus prayed quite often, sometimes for hours; he prayed at his baptism (3:21), he prayed throughout his ministry in Galilee, on the way to Jerusalem, and his last words on the cross were words of prayer (23:46). “Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciple said, and probably not because they were curious about schedules, gestures and postures or how to achieve the proper balance among praise, confession, thanksgiving, and so on. The disciples continuously witnessed Jesus’ special attachment to God, whom he called Father, and they yearned for similar intimacy and a similar intensity of desire to serve God’s purposes. Lord, teach us to pray – behind their simple request was a longing:“Tell us, what is it like to be in such intimate communion with God?”

In response, Jesus told them, told us, to say with him, “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” He taught us to pray with him and to trust that the communion he shared with God was open to us. The words he spoke are very similar to what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. The version we use comes from the gospel of Matthew and the long tradition of use in the church. At Vine Street, we still say the prayer using the old pronouns thou, thy and thine, and many of us love how they elevate the words from ordinary speech and infuse them with the aura of things that have been handled and used by many generations before us. Luke’s version of the prayer is utterly simple in comparison, almost bare: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” There are no embellishments, no flourishes, no fillers – just simple imperatives: give us and forgive us, and don’t bring us to the time of trial.

Jesus teaches us to pray with few words. And he teaches us to speak of God’s holy name and kingdom right next to our need for bread and forgiveness. This is how closely they belong together. We are to speak of God’s eternal purposes and our daily need almost in the same breath. We are to pray for the consummation of God’s creation in God’s glorious reign of peace and to follow that cosmic-scale request with the most everyday petition for something to eat. Relative to the coming of the kingdom, the prayer for bread may seem rather small — unless we consider that in the kingdom of God, daily bread for all is no small matter, nor is forgiveness.

In the first part of the prayer, God’s cause is foremost – your name, your kingdom. The second part is about us – our bread, our sins, our trials. But the prayer isn’t really changing themes from the hallowing of God’s name and the coming of God’s reign to more mundane things. Because bread, daily bread for all of us, is God’s holy will and God’s daily gift.

When we pray with Jesus, we don’t fly away into the weightlessness of spiritual realms. We pray with our hands touching the soil from which we receive bread to strengthen our bodies, wine to gladden our hearts, and oil to make the face shine (Ps 104:15). We pray with our feet touching the earth from which we were made and to which we shall return, trusting the God who made us and who gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater (Isa 55:10).

What is bread?

Bread is seed and soil, sun and rain, sweat and toil, says the farmer.

Bread is flour and water, yeast and salt, skill and fire, says the baker.

Bread is the sweet memory of my grandmother’s kitchen, says the old man.

Bread is expensive, says the low-wage worker.

Bread is power, says the politician.

Bread is cheap, says the rich fool.

Bread is God’s daily gift for us, say those who pray with Jesus.

There really is no such thing as my bread, there is only our bread, and every loaf contains our whole life together. When we pray with Jesus, we pray for bread and with it for our life together, for the land and all who live on it, for gentle rain to moisten the soil, for justice and compassion, and for the love that breaks bread even with the enemy. Our prayer for bread is indeed the prayer for everything that we and our neighbors need for our bodily welfare. We say bread, because there isn’t a more beautiful word for the dailiness of our needs and our dependence on God and the earth and each other.

And because we can and often do eat the bread of life without memory and without sharing, we need forgiveness. Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. When we pray with Jesus we are reminded that just like there is no such thing as my bread, forgiveness cannot stop with me. God forgives our sins, for all that we have done or have failed to do – in disobedience, in ignorance, or in loveless self-absorption. And forgiveness becomes a way for us to participate in the flow of mercy in the world by unbinding and releasing each other from debts of all kinds.

A disciple asked Jesus for a prayer lesson, and Jesus invites us into the intimacy he shares with God, the fullness of love that opens us to honesty without shame and without fear. Jesus invites us to call upon God as children call upon a loving parent, trusting with our whole being that we belong and eager to grow up.

Jesus addressed God as Father. Across cultures and generations, fathers relate to their children in very different ways. The name does not by itself and necessarily characterize God as caring, nurturing, protective, compassionate, and responsive. The name by itself will stir in some of us memories of distance, of absence or hurt. Father is a word, and fatherhood a relationship, with many echoes and reverberations, not all of them life-giving, and what are we to do with those echoes in this prayer?

When Jesus speaks this name, Father, it is a declaration of mutual love and unwavering trust. Perhaps we can remember that Jesus invites us to pray not just like him, using his words, but with him. Perhaps we can remember that it is Jesus the Son who reveals who the Father is, and not our mixed experiences with fathers or the many patriarchal distortions of life (Luke 10:21-22).

The final petition in this prayer is, Do not bring us to the time of trial, and it is good for it to be the last word, as it were. We ask for deliverance from any situation, any circumstance that would threaten our faith in the God who embraced us in Jesus with healing mercy and forgiveness, and who entrusted us with embodying that good news together.

So let’s continue to pray with Jesus and align our wants with his.

[1] Herbert McCabe, God, Christ and Us (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), 8-9.

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Lay down your burden

Tim O’Brien was born in 1946 in southern Minnesota. In college, majoring in political science, he attended peace vigils and war protests, and planned to join the State Department to reform its policies. “I thought we needed people who were progressive and had the patience to try diplomacy instead of dropping bombs on people,” he said. He never imagined he would be drafted upon graduation and actually sent to Vietnam. “I was walking around in a dream and repressing it all, thinking something would [get me out]. Even getting on the plane for boot camp, I couldn’t believe any of it was happening to me, someone who hated Boy Scouts and bugs and rifles.” When he received his classification not as a clerk, or a driver, or a cook, but as an infantryman he seriously considered deserting to Canada, but he feared the disapproval of his family and friends, his townspeople and country.

So he went to Vietnam and hated every minute of it, from beginning to end. He came back to the States in 1970, with a Purple Heart and several publishing credits for personal reports about the war that had made their way into Minnesota newspapers. He expanded on the vignettes to form a book, published in 1973, with the rather blunt title, If I Die in Combat, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.[1]

He kept writing, with an obession-like tenacity, to get to the truth that can only be told in a story. In 1990 The Things They Carried was published, which was a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s a collection of interrelated stories revolving around the men of Alpha Company, an infantry platoon in Vietnam, and the things they carried.

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.

They carried diaries, photographs, binoculars, socks, and foot powder.  They carried fatigue jackets, radios, compasses, batteries, maps, and codebooks. They carried M16s and M60s and ammo belts. They carried plastic explosives, grenades, and mines.

Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery.

They shared the weight of memory.

They took up what others could no longer bear.

Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.

“They carried all they could bear,” writes O’Brien, “and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”[2]

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.

They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarassed not to.[3]

They had been sent on a mission, and the mission was everything. So they carried all they could bear, and then some. They carried heavy burdens in the name of freedom.

For Jesus the mission was everything. He appointed seventy and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He encouraged them to think of themselves as laborers in a plentiful harvest – in fact, a harvest so plentiful, that their first assignment was to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers. Am I the only one who thinks that’s a curious understanding of labor, where the workers’ first task is to ask the head of this harvesting operation to send out more workers?

Harvest makes us think of the workers in the vineyard, and of wheat and chaff, and of good soil where the seed bears fruit and yields a hundredfold. But Jesus doesn’t want us to chase farming metaphors down various rabbit holes: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” He didn’t say, “See, I am sending you out like dogs into the midst of lambs to round them up for the shepherd.” No, like lambs into the midst of wolves, which sounds terrifying, unless you trust that the promise of new heavens and a new earth is not a distant someday-somewhere-dream, and that the banquet where the wolf and the lamb feed together is close at hand — no more distant than the next town, the next house, or the next person you encounter.[4]

Now some of you find yourselves standing among the seventy and you hear yourselves being addressed and called by the voice and words of the living Christ, while the rest of us are still observing this curious scene of Jesus sending out a hefty number of his followers.

He talks about the things they would carry, or rather not carry: no purse, no bag, no sandals. Nothing, really. No purse, meaning no cash or credit card. No bag, meaning no change of clothing, no food for the next meal. No sandals, meaning no extra pair of shoes. The ones Jesus sends on his mission, he strips down to little more than nothing, just the bare essentials. The ones he sends, all they carry is peace and the announcement that the kingdom of God has come near. For everything else they depend on each other and the hospitality of strangers. This mission is an exercise in radical trust.

And nowhere in his little send-off speech does Jesus tell the seventy to pack enough food to feed the hungry, or extra outfits to clothe the naked, or a spare blanket for the homeless. He messes with our assumptions about mission. Typically, when we think about mission, whether it’s in the neighborhood or in far-away lands, we think about pooling and sharing our resources to alleviate suffering as a witness to the compassion of God. We think about works of mercy and justice, we think about giving.

But in this episode from the road to Jerusalem, Jesus sends us to proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom not solely with the things we bring, but with our need for the gifts of others. “Eat what is set before you,” he says. The peace we seek to embody and proclaim in Jesus’ name is made manifest in how we receive and eat the food of strangers. And that is not as odd as it may seem at first.

The entire story of Jesus is built around shared meals—read through any of the gospels, but especially Luke, and you will notice that he is either on his way to eat, or teaching during a meal, or just leaving the table.  Jesus eats and drinks with all kinds of people in all kinds of settings, but there’s not a single story of him giving a dinner party. He is always a guest. Even when he says, “This is my body, which is given for you,” he’s breaking somebody else’s bread. He takes whatever we bring, our best and our worst, and makes peace from it.

And that is the peace he sends us to carry wherever we go. He challenges us to let go of the control that comes with having and giving; and to let go of the power that comes with deciding who gets what, when, and why. He wants to send us, all of us, to discover how the word of peace we carry becomes manifest when we enter the world of others—their home, their town, their country, or their worldview, their culture, their story—and eat what is set before us, literally and metaphorically.

He invites us to share in his mission by sharing in his vulnerability. “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” The Lamb of God is under no illusion that his mission is a safe one. He’s on his way to Jerusalem. He knows what awaits him there. Yet he continues on the way because he trusts in the faithfulness of God whose kingdom is near.

And so he says to every generation of disciples as he said to the seventy, “Go!” Begin where you are, not where you think you ought to be or wish you could be.

Whomever you encounter, whatever house you enter, say, “Peace to you. Peace to this house.” Whenever you enter the world of another, do so not as an intruder or invader, but wait until you are invited.

Stop pretending that your mission as a follower of Jesus is solely to give others something you have and they need. Drop that baggage and meet others with humility and a willingness to receive the gifts they offer. Eat whatever is set before you. In receiving their gifts you receive them.

Discover just how near the kingdom of God is, and know it together, when Christ takes what they offer and what you bring, and prepares his banquet of peace, for you and for all.

Lay down your heavy armor. Lay down your dreams of domination and supremacy. Lay down your burden of fear and shame— and carry nothing but the yoke of Christ, nothing but each other.


[1] See https://www.pshares.org/issues/winter-1995-96/about-tim-obrien-profile; read “save my ass” for [get me out]

[2] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (New York: Broadway Books, 1990), 1-9.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Isaiah 65:17, 25

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A time of famine

Just after Hitler had been appointed Chancellor in 1933, Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and poet, fearing persecution, fled Nazi Germany and found refuge in  Denmark. One of the poems he wrote during his time there was titled, TO THOSE BORN LATER:[1]

Truly, I live in dark times!

The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead

Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs

Has simply not yet [heard]

The terrible news.

 

What kind of times are they, when

A [conversation] about trees is almost a crime

Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

 

It is true I still earn my keep

But, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing

I do gives me the right to eat my fill.

By chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost.)

 

They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!

But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat

From the starving, and

My glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?

And yet I eat and drink.

What kind of times are they, when a conversation about trees is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors?

That was the line that came to mind when I sat with, or rather under, the heavy words we heard this morning from the book of the prophet Amos. The passage begins with a vision, the fourth in a series of five:

This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

That’s not very specific, so you can make that basket as big as you want it to be, and you can fill it with all your favorites — blackberries, cherries, strawberries, peaches, cantaloupes, plums, apricots… you can even slip in a few mangoes, nobody said all of it had to be local.

“Amos, what do you see?”

“A basket of summer fruit,” he got to respond, but this would not be a conversation about juicy, dripping, fragrant deliciousness. Taking a sharp turn, the Lord said to Amos, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.”

If you say summer fruit in Hebrew really fast, it sounds almost like end, and apparently the Lord didn’t have fruit in mind at all. What kind of times are they, when a conversation about summer fruit is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors?

There would be no conversation about summer fruit, because the Lord unleashed a verbal downpour of indictments, judgments, and punishments, falling on Amos like crushed stone, piling up around him:

The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day… The dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place… Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land… You that can’t wait for the holiday to be over so you can go back to cheating the poor out of what little they have with your false balances, buying them with your shady loans, taking their land, their house, even the sandals of their feet… Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it…? I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and every head will be shaved in surrender to unspeakable grief; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.

This was the fourth vision in a series of five. In the first vision, the Lord showed Amos locusts eating the grass of the land, and the prophet cried out, “O Lord God, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”

And the Lord relented.

In the second vision, the Lord showed Amos a shower of fire, devouring the ocean and the land, and again the prophet cried out, “O Lord God, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”

And again the Lord relented.

In the third vision, Amos saw the Lord standing beside a wall, holding a plumb line and announcing judgment against the house of Jeroboam, king of Israel—and this time, Amos did not plead, but proclaimed God’s judgment against the king.

In those days, the kingdom of Israel had been divided in two for nearly two-hundred years: Judah in the south, including Jerusalem, and Israel in the north, with Samaria as its capital and Bethel functioning as its national sanctuary. And Amos went straight to Bethel.

It was a time of relative peace and prosperity in both Israel and Judah, but the prosperity did not reach the farmers and artisans. All the new wealth accumulated at the top, while a growing number of farmers lost their land and had to sell themselves or their children into indentured service to pay off their loans.

We live in a very different world, but we know firsthand what happens in an economy where investment incomes have continued to grow handsomely while today’s real average wage, that is, the wage after accounting for inflation, has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers. Some degree of economic inequality is probably inevitable, but an economy, and definitely a democratic society, cannot be sustained when wealth accumulates at the top, instead of being spread across the whole spectrum of workers, investors, and consumers.

Amos decried economic injustices large and small, and he took his message to Bethel, where he was confronted by Amaziah, the priest. Amaziah had already sent a report to King Jeroboam, telling him there was a conspiracy against him and that the land was not able to bear all the prophet’s words. And the priest told Amos to go back to Judah where he came from and never again to prophesy at Bethel. Bethel, he said, was the king’s sanctuary when Amos apparently assumed that it was the Lord’s.

At Bethel they were used to hearing preachers who were able to speak pleasing words to powerful people, soothing their consciences and telling them what they wanted to hear, words of comfort and affirmation. Amos was just too much, too much of a disruption of their pleasant liturgies with his talk about the poor and needy and his words of judgment against their sacred order.

What kind of times are they, when a conversation about trees or fruit baskets is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors? Dark times. Unsettling times. Trying times.

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.

The good folks at Bethel thought all they had to do was send Amos back to Judah to maintain the status quo. They thought all they had to do was silence the disruptive voice for things to return to their proper balance. They didn’t think that within less than a generation, the kingdom of Israel would fall and collapse.

I was drawn to this passage from Amos because of its announcement of a time of famine, not a famine of bread, but of hearing the words of the Lord. The dark poetry of famine resonated, naming a time of desperate desire for voices that speak truthfully and faithfully, voices like Amos’s, Hosea’s, Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s that remind us that God’s grace and God’s love of justice cannot be separated, that love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand.

Truthfulness and faithfulness have become almost quaint terms these days, along with dignity and respect and reverence. I noticed that Amos announced a time of famine of hearing the words of the Lord, which doesn’t necessarily imply that the Lord would no longer be speaking, but may well describe a moment when we have lost the capacity to hear what the Lord is saying because we don’t want to hear anything too disruptive, anything too inconvenient; or because we are too busy shouting our truths and our lies at each other and past each other; or because we have no interest at all in voices of outsiders, however we may define outside; or because we just want to be left alone with our little truth that is just the right size, thank you very much.

There are prophets among us, gifted with the vision to see what the rest of us cannot see;  you may be sitting next to one. They don’t wear badges, they don’t have certificates from prophet school. Amos didn’t either, he was a sheepherder, a guy with a southern accent who went north to tell whoever would listen that repentance opens worlds of new possibilities. Very few, if any, did listen.

But we still have his words. They were written down because some people realized that all his talk about the end had been painfully true. So by passing down his words to us, those early witnesses suggest that his calls to repentance are worthy to be heard and heeded.

The word I received from sitting and walking with Amos these past few days is, hear them out. Hold the quick labels and other forms of easy dismissal, and hear them out, those disruptive voices, those folks who speak with a heavy accent, those who stammer and stumble under the weight of their words, really anyone who is struggling, amid the twitter of constant spin and the unrelenting drone of sales pitches, to say something truthful and faithful. Hear them out.

 


[1] Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956 (New York: Methuen, 1987), 318-320.

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Under the broom tree

Dieric_Bouts_-_Prophet_Elijah_in_the_Desert_-_WGA03015.jpg

I keep a picture on my desk. It shows a man in a long black robe, wearing a red cap, and wrapped in a red mantle. He’s lying on the ground, barefoot, next to a dirt path, and he looks like he’s asleep, with his head resting in his right hand. Next to him is an angel, dressed in a long white robe, with lovely light brown curls and beautiful wings, just like they painted them back in the late 15th century, in what is Belgium today. The angel is bending over the man on the ground, gently touching with their right hand the man’s left shoulder. Next to the man’s right shoulder, you can see a little round loaf of bread, sitting on top of a simple ceramic mug. The painting is part of an altar piece, and it’s known as Prophet Elijah in the Desert, by Dieric Bouts.[1]

It’s a scene from the passage from 1 Kings we just heard. I’ve kept the picture on my desk for I don’t know how many years; it’s no fancy reproduction—just a color copy from a book, in a cheap photo frame. There are usually multiple stacks of books, magazines, and papers on my desk — some people would probably call it cluttered. But there’s never been a pile in front of that picture. Prophet Elijah in the Desert. I want to be able to see him when the time comes. I put him there knowing that there would be days when I’d be alone in the wilderness and I would appreciate the reminder of God’s gentle presence and persistent faithfulness.

In ancient Israel, they didn’t have what we call superheroes, figures like Spiderman or Wonder Woman, but if they had had that cultural concept, Moses and Elijah would have been prime candidates. Heroes of obedience to the call and purposes of God. Moses the prophet and liberator, Elijah the prophet and troubler of kings.

In the days of Elijah, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were rulers over Israel, but they had abandoned the covenant of the Lord God of Israel in their fondness for other deities, and life did not flourish. There was a drought in the land, a persistent drought; the poor were starving. Elijah said to the king, “Let’s have a contest; let’s see which god is the true God. Gather the people on Mount Carmel and bring all your prophets. I’ll meet you there.” If you don’t know the story, look it up, 1 Kings 18, it’s epic. One lonely prophet of the Lord against 450 prophets of Baal; the challenge: kill a bull, prepare an altar with rocks and wood, and ask your respective god to light the fire for the sacrifice. Long story short, Baal’s bull was slowly rotting in the sun, but the Lord sent fire from heaven in the most spectacular display of power to consume the bull Elijah had prepared along with the entire altar. Elijah won and, to mark the victory, he killed the king’s prophets, all 450 of them. And then he outran the king’s chariot, in the pouring rain, on their way back to Jezreel. It was Elijah’s big day of public triumph. Ahab told Jezebel and she promised Elijah she would do to him what he had done to the king’s prophets.

Now we get to see a very different Elijah. He’s afraid. He flees for his life. He goes far to get away, all the way to Beersheba, way down south, a hundred miles, as far away from Jezebel as he can. And then he walks another day’s journey into the wilderness, sits down and tells the Lord, “It is enough; take away my life.” He is tired, not just in muscle and bone, but in his soul. He is done, spent, exhausted. No more superhero stunts, only sleep. It is enough. What was it that drained him? It’s surprising, isn’t it, after the triumph of Mt. Carmel.

The story doesn’t offer explanations, doesn’t invite psychological speculation or learned remarks about boundaries and self-care. But it has invited me to identify with the man under the broom tree, because I know the smell of the dirt under that tree, the feel of dust between my fingers.

Superhero Elijah on Mt. Carmel I worry about. Superhero Elijah I look at with a critical lense, with a Jesus lense. Superhero Elijah I can laugh at, sometimes, when it’s the right moment, like he’s the guy whose name is on the cover of some comic book. But I’ve never wanted his poster on the wall above my bed. Yet I do need to see the man under the broom tree.

On Friday afternoon, Don and Leigh Ann were sitting on the back porch of their house on the corner of Cherokee and Aberdeen. They were working on a spreadsheet, columns and rows, cells and figures, which may not sound exciting, but it was, because they were doing the numbers to see whether this might be the year when they would be able to become full-time gardeners and travelers; they were making retirement plans. And then death intruded in the most unspeakable way, took Don, and left Leigh Ann’s life hanging by a thread. For hours, she was in surgery, with her sister alone in the waiting area, calling family members, repeating over and over the horrific news.

When there’s been a crime, there’s no patient information to call or ask, so I just walked around the ER and various waiting areas, hoping to see folks who looked like they might be family of Don or Leigh Ann. And I just happened to be there when Leigh Ann’s sister looked up from her phone and we both went through that moment of half-recognizing each other after not having seen each other for a few years, and then we just sat and talked and cried and waited together, and it was good. It was good, because seeing each other, touching hands and shoulders, we remembered that we were not alone with the shock and the pain of death’s violent intrusion.

Elijah woke up when an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” It was the most basic of life-giving gestures: a touch on the shoulder, a little bread, a jar of water, and few words. Elijah ate and he went back to sleep.

And a second time the angel of the Lord touched him, and told him to eat and drink, adding that otherwise the journey would be too much for him. Elijah couldn’t even imagine that there would be a journey, but now he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.

He went all the way back to the covenant place, the place of promise where God had given Israel the commandments, all the way back to the beginning of the relationship between God and the people of God, and there he spent the night in a cave. The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord.”

I have stood up and spoken up for you.

I have confronted the king for you.

I have urged, warned, threatened for you.

I have ridiculed the king’s prophets for you.

I have killed for you.

I have been zealous, very zealous, for you.

“For the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Elijah sounds to me like he felt alone and abandoned in an epic struggle for righteousness and justice. He sounds to me like he’d been expecting perhaps a little more zeal from the Lord to match his own. Some fire-from-above action to make Jezebel forsake her idolatrous ways; some mountain-splitting, earth-shaking display of divine power that would cause Ahab to repent; some spectacular feat that would make God’s people stop limping like they had been, thinking they could follow the Lord with one foot and their idols with the other.

In the days of Moses, when God made covenant with Israel, there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain. There was a blast of a trumpet so loud that the people in the camp trembled. On that day, Moses brought them out of the camp to meet God, and the mountain was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. And as the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.[2]

Elijah sounds to me like he’s been wanting to see some of that kind of action from the Lord for some time. Something to end Ahab’s corrupt rule. Something to keep the people from wandering off. Something to stop the evildoers with murder on their mind. Something to end the cruel practice of locking up children in conditions we wouldn’t allow in animal shelters.

The Lord said to Elijah, “Go out of the cave, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces — but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the  Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

It was as though Elijah’s own zeal, his righteous rage, his passion for deep and lasting change was on display all around him in spectacular fashion—but the Lord was not in any of them. There was only sheer silence, which, after all that earth-shaking noise, had a sound all its own—and Elijah heard it; he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out.

God asked him the same question again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and Elijah gave the exact same answer as before. Even in the very presence of God, he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left.”

There’s little use in us telling him that he is not alone, that he has never been alone, that he has been fed by an angel in the wilderness, and that there have always been others beside him who did not bow their knees to Ahab’s idols. There’s little use in us telling him, but we can show him—standing up with him, speaking up with him, walking with him on the way of the Lord.

This is a song I’ve been humming since Friday.

[Rhiannon Giddens, He Will See You Through]


[1] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/49/Dieric_Bouts_-_Prophet_Elijah_in_the_Desert_-_WGA03015.jpg

[2] Ex 19:16-19

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Wisdom's delight

Sing, O muse, of the lumbering opossum, of the nearsighted, stumbling opossum, whose only defenses are a hiss, a hideous scowl and a rank scent emitted in terror. Let us rejoice in the pink-nosed, pink-fingered opossum, her silvery pouch full of babies, each no bigger than a honeybee. May your young thrive to ride upon your back. May they fatten and grow large and stumble off on their own to devour cockroaches and carrion and venomous snakes. May their snuffling root out all the ticks in our yards and all the snails in our flower beds. When they faint in the face of marauding dogs, we call back our baying hounds and wait for them to wake. We cheer when they rise and shake themselves. We send them with our blessings as they blunder back into the night.[1]

Margaret Renkl writes columns in the New York Times about life in her backyard, her backyard being the American South as well as, quite literally, life around her suburban Brentwood home. “Sing, O muse, of the lumbering opossum” is the opening line of her Praise Song for the Unloved Animals, in whose stanzas she also invites her readers to

consider the whine of the mosquito, the secrecy of the spider, the temper of the wasp — who among us could love you? Who could love even one of you, bearing your poisons and your pain into the heavy summertime air?

And she answers, with wisdom and delight, “We could.”

We could love you if we remind ourselves that no creature is made up only of poison, that no life is only a source of irritation or pain. We could love the mosquitoes for feeding the chittering chimney swifts wheeling in the sunset…We could love the spider for spinning the silk that holds together the moss of the hummingbird’s nest, the silk that stretches as the baby birds grow. We could love the wasp for eating the caterpillars that eat the tomato plants. We could love you all if only we remembered the [chimney swifts] and the hummingbirds, if only we remembered the taste of … tomatoes still warm from the sun.

To me, modest but growing delight in the lumbering, nearsighted opossum came late in life, but tomatoes still warm from the sun, together with peaches so juicy that you can only eat them over the sink, have defined the taste of summer for me for as long as I can remember. But wait, don’t close your eyes and drift off just yet to your garden of Eden with its fruits of every kind, for Renkl’s earthy psalm has yet another verse.

Behold the rat snake gliding silently through the nighttime weeds. Behold the sleek skin, cool but not damp, and the clever darting tongue, sniffing out the contours of the world. Watch as she finds the crack under the toolshed door. Understand that she is finding too the tiny bald mice in the corner of a drawer full of painting rags — the tiny blind mice hidden in the soft remains of ancient bedsheets fallen to ruin. Pity the young of the poor field mouse, born for just this purpose. Always there are mice — more mice than the world could ever hold if not for [the good order] that includes this beautiful, sinewy creature, this silent celebration of muscle and grace.[2]

Margaret Renkl sings of unloved creatures, and sharing her verses she invites us to behold, to watch, to understand, to pity, and to love — to love the unloved creatures not for what they do for us, but for the unique place they inhabit in the interconnectedness of all living things. She looks at her lawn in April and she delights.

The flowers I love best are the tiny ones, so tiny they’re mostly invisible from a car window. Exquisite little flowers, most of them smaller than my pinkie fingernail, are blooming all around my house right now, and they have wonderful names: woodland violet, spring beauty, daisy fleabane, pitcher’s stitchwort, bird’s eye speedwell, yellow wood sorrel, purple dead nettle, creeping Charlie, stickywilly, dandelion and a host of others I can’t name.

“Most people call them weeds,” she writes, and you can almost hear her heart breaking. “Most people don’t love them.” You can tell, she wants us to love the unloved creatures – she wants us to see them, learn their names, watch them, marvel at them, begin to understand them, love them, not for what they do for us, but for what they are and how they participate in the miracle of life, each in its own wondrous way.

Anybody who’s paying attention would see them for the gifts they are: flowers that arrive, through no effort at all, to feed the bees and the butterflies. But Americans generally aren’t paying attention. Too enraptured with the idea of a lawn that unrolls from the street to their very door, a carpet of green that remains green even when grass is supposed to be dormant, they see these homely little wildflowers as intruders, something to be eradicated.[3]

In the passage from Proverbs we heard this morning, Wisdom speaks in the first person.

On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it.”[4]

She seeks to lift her voice above the fray of conflicting voices, all vying for the ears and attention of all who pass by; she wants to persuade all who hear of her inestimable worth and authority. Claiming an intimate association with the Creator and the creation, she hopes to capture our imagination and eventually our allegiance.

Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—when [the Lord] had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.

She recounts God at work in carving, anchoring, stabilizing, establishing, circumscribing, and setting boundaries to shape places where life could flourish.And in all that, she is no detached observer. Every step and facet of creation is graced by her playful, attentive, and delighted presence. William Brown writes,

By her own testimony, Wisdom revels in a world that is both secure and enthralling, a world of discovery and delight. There is no chaos lurking around the corner, or under the bed. It is a world in which fear is banished and joy reigns. As a child grows in wisdom by interacting with her environment, so Wisdom actively engages creation in her delight.[5]

And she clearly expects the delight of her playful and attentive engagement with all God’s creatures, in all their wondrous complexities and relationships, to be contagious… that you and I would want to see the world, and ourselves in it, through her eyes… that we would fall in love with life and the wondrous gift that it is… that we would know ourselves as beloved children in whom God delights, and learn to see each other and all of creation with equal delight.

Have you seen starlings flock together in flight? Have you watched them whirling and wheeling, diving, darting and swooping in tight, fluid formations and marvelous synchronicity? It’s a spectacular mass ballet, a dance of multitudes moving like a single body, but not like a North Korean birthday parade, not at all like that. I just learned that we call it a murmuration, ranging from small groups of a few hundred starlings in a ball to undulating seas of millions of birds that might block out the sun.[6]

You watch them and you go, Wow! and you can’t help but wonder, “Do they know we’re watching? Do they know how breathtakingly beautiful this is? Is there a choreography? And if so, who’s the choreographer? How do they communicate with each other? How to they do that, murmurate?”

In 2008, a group of scientists in Italy set up cameras around the rail station in Rome, and they filmed several starling murmurations. Then, after reconstructing their positions and movements in 3-D computer models, they were able to show the rules that were being used. “What they found was that starlings sought to match the direction and speed of the nearest seven or so neighbours, rather than responding to the movements of all of the nearby birds around them.”[7] Seven neighbors – almost has a biblical ring to it, doesn’t it?

“Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise,” is one of the sayings collected in the book of Proverbs.[8] Another says, “Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is one who meddles in the quarrel of another.”[9] But not a single verse about the opossum, not in Proverbs, nor anywhere else in Scripture. Yet wisdom still calls us to go to the opossum and consider its ways, and be wise.

Jesus taught us to consider the birds of the air. Perhaps he only meant to use them as examples for a life free of worries, but perhaps he also meant to teach us to go to the starling and consider its ways, and be wise. Perhaps he would delight— and I believe he would— in the surprising observation, that for thousands of starlings to move as one, it doesn’t take a bird king or a chain of command from general to platoon leader, but only that each pay attention to seven neighbors. How about that, church?

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/27/opinion/praise-ugly-unloved-animals.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/opinion/nature-lawns-environment.html

[4] Proverbs 8:1-5

[5] William P. Brown, “Proverbs 8:22-31,” Interpretation 63, no. 3 (July 2009), 288.

[6] see some great pictures of murmurations at https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2019/01/photos-murmurations-starlings/579286/

[7] https://phys.org/news/2019-02-starling-murmurations-science-nature-greatest.html

[8] Prov 6:6

[9] Prov 26:17

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The kingdom tongue

Luke paints a big picture on a big canvas, a map of the world with Jerusalem at the center. Jesus, risen from the dead, had told the disciples, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” They had no idea what exactly they were waiting for and what it would feel like to walk around dressed in power and what sort of power it would be. But devoting themselves to prayer, they waited.

And then it happened. It started with a sound like the rush of a violent wind that filled the entire house, and then it burst into tongues like firy flames, one resting on each of them, and all of them began to speak in languages none of them had ever learned, and the house could not contain all that. A crowd gathered and they were bewildered, because each heard them speaking in their own native language.

At this point, Luke adds a list dreaded by most when called upon to read Scripture in worship on Pentecost. We know how to say Egypt and Libya without a question mark at the end of each syllable, but the rest are like me trying to pronounce the names of Welsh hymn tunes or Icelandic volcanoes—my tongue just goes stumbling.

But the challenge here is not just a matter of pronunciation. The world’s finest New Testament scholars wrestle with what to make of the nations listed here. Jacob Myers writes about “Luke’s wonky list of Pentecost observers gathered in Jerusalem – a motley patchwork of Elamites, Cretans, and Arabs sewn together with folks from Egypt, Lybia, and Rome!”[i]

Elamites? The Elamites had been nearly wiped out by the Assyrians in 640 B.C.E., and the Medes had been extinct as a distinct ethnic group for over five-hundred years! What are Elamites and Medes doing in 1st-century Jerusalem?

We can’t ask Luke, but we can look for hints. In the first chapter of Acts, the disciples asked the risen Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Their deepest hope was long-held and concrete, God’s Messiah would restore the kingdom to Israel; the only open question was when this would take place. But the outpouring of the Holy Spirit expanded their vision far beyond what they could imagine. God’s redemptive work would extend not only to the ends of the earth in geographical terms, or from Pentecost into the future in historical terms, but also into the past to include Elamites and Medes and every tribe and nation under heaven.

“Whoa, preacher, easy now,” some of you might be thinking. “The part about being witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – that we can see, that we can trace on our maps, and the spread of the good news into Asia and Africa, Europe, the Americas and Australia, that we can follow – but Elamites? I don’t know, preacher, are you sure it was only coffee you were sipping this morning? We hear words like bewildered, amazed, and perplexed in this story, and they capture well how we feel, we’re baffled.”

No wonder some of the observers in Jerusalem concluded the disciples were drunk. But Peter said they weren’t. “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning,” he said, as though inebriation followed a schedule — not exactly what you and I would call a strong point. But then he started reciting the bold prophecy with Joel’s name on it. In the last days God’s Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh – not just some people, note just male people or church people, but all people – male and female, young and old, slave and free. All would see as prophets see, and tell as prophets tell, and the dreams of all would be given voice. God’s Spirit would blow across all borders, through any of our boundaries defined by ethnicity, culture, status, and language to bring us together in unity.

Pentecost was the eruption of God’s vision for humanity: it was resurrection writ large, all of creation transformed, all things made new, even the past. Those first disciples were indeed drunk, not with wine, but with life and the promise that it would be whole and one. The church wears red on Pentecost, because the passion, the fire and light of the Holy Spirit is loose in the world, claiming us as Christ’s own, empowering us to live and proclaim that vision of a world at peace.

In 1492, as in any time and season when the church has sought to live inspired and empowered by the Spirit of God, other visions reigned. Christopher Columbus was on his way West to the lands beyond the ocean, when in Salamanca, Spain, a scholar by the name of Antonio de Nebrija presented to Queen Isabella his latest book. Gramática de la lengua castellana (Grammar of the Castilian Language) was the first textbook of what would become known as Spanish. Nebrija had already written a grammar of Latin, the language of the church, of the law, and of scholarly treatises, but this was a grammar of the ordinary language spoken in fields and markets, in homes and on the streets.

When the book was presented to Isabella, she questioned what the merit of such a work might be; Fray Hernando de Talavera, bishop of Avila, answered for the author in prophetic words, as Nebrija himself recalls in a letter addressed to the monarch:

After Your Highness has subjected barbarous peoples and nations of varied tongues, with conquest will come the need for them to accept the laws that the conqueror imposes on the conquered, and among them our language.[ii]

In his dedication Nebrija wrote to Isabella that language was “the instrument of empire” and suggested that his grammar would prove useful as [her Highness] conquered peoples who spoke languages other than Castilian.[iii]

“I have found one conclusion to be very true,” he wrote, “that language always accompanies empire.”[iv] Wherever the conquerors landed, the natives had to learn the imperial tongue – be it Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, English, Italian or German. But on Pentecost, a very different vision and reality erupted in the world.

Amazed and astonished, people asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

In the kingdom of God, there is no imperial tongue. In the kingdom of God, differences of culture and language are not violated and eliminated under mandatory sameness, but affirmed and honored. The Holy Spirit, free and uncontrollable, allows all of us to hear and become the good news of God. The Holy Spirit sanctifies our differences in a kingdom culture that affirms who we are and celebrates where we have come from and glorifies God in every tongue and every ear.

Amazed and astonished, we wonder, “How can this be? What is drawing us together in this miracle of community? What explanations can we stammer when all we know is that it is not our doing?” Jesus told the apostles to stay in the city and wait until they had been clothed with power from on high. And clothed they were along with all who heard them. All they could say was, it didn’t begin with us; something, someone got a hold of us in ways that didn’t violate who we were and allowed us to see a world where all of us can be who we are and yet be together. It was, and continues to be, God’s initiative, God’s mission, with us as the body of Christ in the world, for the sake of the world and life’s wholeness.

During his final meal with the disciples, Jesus said to them, according to John, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

He had told them he would go away, but that he wouldn’t leave them orphaned like abandoned children, and that we would come to them.

Where Luke describes the drama of Pentecost with stunning visuals and spectacular sound, John presents a quiet scene of profound intimacy, defined entirely by the words of Jesus.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

The next day he was crucified, and their hearts were troubled. And on the third day, the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came back from the tomb and told them, “I have seen the Lord.” They didn’t know what to make of her words. And that evening — they were together, hiding behind closed doors for fear that the darkness they saw all around might overcome the little light of love Jesus had lit in their hearts — that evening Jesus came and stood among them, and he said, “Peace be with you.”

And their hearts were no longer troubled, and their fear was driven out by the love they remembered and experienced anew in the presence of Jesus, risen from the dead.

“Peace be with you,” he said. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The world’s hostility did not keep Jesus from embracing it in love, and that evening he sent his friends to continue his mission.

As those who witness to the love of God in Jesus, we will experience the world’s hostility, and not just in others, but in our own resistance to the demands of his love. Jesus was the divine Word embodied in human flesh and blood, and on the evening of that first day he sent us to make him known in the same way: not as conquerors, but as a community in whose life and ministry the world would continue to encounter his presence and peace. In our life together, in our small and bold commitments to love each other well, the world would continue to meet the God whose love knows no end.

“How can this be? How can we be the living proclamation of life in communion with God, we who struggle daily with our failure to love God and neighbor? What is drawing us together in this miracle of community?” It can only be because we are participating in God’s loving movement into the world. It can only be because we aren’t being sent by some far-away monarch who resides in his castle beyond the clouds, but by the God who desires to be at home in the world – for the sake of the world and life’s wholeness. It can only be because Jesus, that night, breathed on his friends and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” There was no sound like the rush of a violent wind, there were no divided tongues, as of fire, only Jesus breathing out peace and new life, and his friends breathing in — and out, clothed with power from on high.


[i] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1296

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gram%C3%A1tica_de_la_lengua_castellana

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_de_Nebrija

[iv] Isaac S. Villegas https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/unconverted-difference-acts-21-21

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Blessed conviviality

One of the most memorable clergy meetings I have been a part of happened a few years ago here in Nashville. We didn’t have a speaker; we didn’t have a topic to discuss, and we didn’t have decisions to make. We sat in a circle around a big table, and we didn’t know each other particularly well: Each of us knew at least one other person in the room, but only one of us knew all of us.

Our host invited us to go around the circle and tell the others about the joys and challenges of our ministry. We could talk for as long as we needed. Then the person sitting next to us in the circle would pray for us, out loud, right there and then.

Not your typical ice breaker, is it? I remember how very awkward I felt at first. I had never done anything like that before, but I got a sense that several of my colleagues around the table were quite familiar with the practice. I don’t remember what was said. I don’t remember what I said, and I don’t remember what Tim said when he prayed for me. But I do remember his hand on my shoulder, and that he spoke with kindness and care. I felt safe and honored and held.

I thought of that surprising intimacy when I read and reread the scene in the gospel of John we just heard. It is the final scene of Jesus’ farewell meal with his disciples. He had been at table with them. He had washed their feet. He had instructed and taught them. He had spoken at length about what was about to happen and how they would continue to live as his followers and friends after his return to the Father. And then he turned from teaching them to praying for them. No more instructions and exhortations. He prayed for them, for us, for all who had come to see in him what it means to be human and for and all who would. For all who had come to see in him who God is and all who would. His final words that night were words of prayer. He prayed that we may all be one. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” He didn’t talk about the intimacy of the divine life, but spoke into it and from it; he let us witness and participate in this intimacy by letting us overhear his intercessions. He drew us in, drew us into the loving intimacy of the communal life of God. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

I thought I would preach today about the unity of the church as a gift we struggle to live into. I thought I would be talking about how Jesus explicitly linked the truth of his life and message to our life together. “How we live together [as Christians from so many cultures and such diverse backgrounds] is the most persuasive sermon we’ll ever get to preach,” Christine Pohl wrote just a few years ago, and I thought I would quote her today in a sermon about our unity. “The Word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, expects that our relationships with one another will also be characterized by grace and truth,” she wrote.[1]

Communities characterized by grace and truth, in loving resistance to the climate of lies, division, and disgrace that is unraveling societies around the world. I thought that would preach— believers living into our God-given unity, but the words didn’t come, only groans and sighs. There had been another mass shooting, this time in Virginia Beach. Eleven of the victims were civil servants, the kind of people who worked on construction projects and water quality and right of way issues. Another was a local contractor who had come by the office in Building 2 to talk about a permit. It was supposed to be just another day at work.

“The Word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, expects that our relationships with one another will also be characterized by grace and truth”— but he knows in his bones that our relationships with one another are also characterized by violence and all manner of lovelessness. And that is why he prays for us and wants us to know that he prays for us. We have been entrusted with making the love of God tangible in the world. Jesus wants us to know that we are not alone in our struggles to live faithfully in this love. He is praying for us, praying with us, letting his heart be broken with ours, mourning with us, loving with us, loving us.

He is praying for us to be drawn into the communion of love that is God and he doesn’t just make it so, because there is nothing coercive about this love. He speaks into, and his words emerge from, the loving intimacy of the divine life, and by letting us overhear his intercessions, he invites us to let ourselves be drawn into the open circle of this life where the mutuality of love reigns supreme.

Jesus loves us, and the new commandment he has given us is new not in commanding us to love one another, but to love one another as he has loved us.[2] His radical hospitality for any and all of us, revealed on the cross, defines both the center of the circle of love as well as the radius that determines its circumference. His radical hospitality means that there is nothing exclusive or conditional about God’s love. The circle that has the cross as its center is as wide as creation is old. We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not. We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not. To become a member in the body of Christ is to become a part of the beloved community; a part of the life that is one as God is one.[3]

Belonging is a given. It doesn’t matter who you voted for. It doesn’t matter on what continent you were born. It doesn’t matter if you have the documents they demand to see. It doesn’t matter if you identify as queer or cisgender heterosexual. You belong because you’re beloved.

Churches are communities where this truth is embodied: Belonging is a given. You belong because you’re beloved. Churches are communities where followers of Jesus wrestle with this truth. Pastor Josh Scott told Brian McLaren, “Part of our work [as a congregation] is to teach people how to disagree generously, how to be open to thoughtful critique and discussion. Our values aren’t up for negotiation, but we can engage in conversation that helps us all understand one another a bit better … we regularly have people from various political or even religious backgrounds engaging on topics from theology to health care to immigration. All voices are given space, as long as they are respectful. One person asked, ‘How long can we live in this tension?’ My reply was simple: ‘As long as you can and are willing, so are we.’”[4]

The more fully we let ourselves be drawn into the divine life, both individually and communally, the more faithfully our life together will reflect the radical hospitality of Jesus. Division in the church distorts our witness and keeps the world from believing in Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love for the world. But our willingness to live in the tension and to fully see and hear each other, open up to each other, and embrace each other as God’s beloved, creates countless moments in our days for the glory of God to shine forth.

Chris Hobgood, the former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who died on Friday, said in 2004,

“I believe that God does not care as much for the renewal of the church as for the renewal of the world. If we think that God loves only us then we’ve been smoking some theology that is very dangerous. Yet our actions sometimes convey this. … All of this is to say that we are true to God’s call only when we recall that there’s a world out there, and if we spend all of our energy trying to fix ourselves while the world burns, we can be sure of God’s pained displeasure.”

The world is burning. The world God loves is on fire with hatred, injustice, ignorance and violence. But the world is also aflame with the unquenchable fire of God’s love, and the Spirit of God teaches us how to tend this fire in the name of Jesus. God has entrusted us, fragile and prone to failure as we are, with making the love of God tangible in the world.

The Word who became flesh and lived among us, was a stranger in the world. “The world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him,” we read in John.[5] The stranger in whom we have come to see the face of God invites us to live as strangers in the world by becoming his friends. He invites us to become resident aliens in the realms of fear that hold the world captive. He invites us to be at home in God’s love for the world, for the sake of the world.

And while we struggle to simply live the life given and entrusted to us,  Jesus prays for us. He continues to pray for those who follow him until all of life has become completely one in the blessed conviviality of all creatures and their maker, of lover and beloved, of heaven and earth.


[1] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-02/our-life-together

[2] John 13:34 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

[3] See http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1637

[4] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/how-be-purple-church-red-state

[5] John 1:10

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Sing as wayfarers do

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They were shouting, perhaps singing, a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, along with angels and elders and four mysterious creatures. “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

According to the book of Revelation, the risen Lord appeared to a man named John on the island of Patmos in the eastern Mediterranean, and gave him messages to be sent to the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia, the part of the world we know today as Turkey. John was then caught up into what he described as the heavenly throne room, where he saw a book with seven seals which no one but Christ was able to open.

The vision unfolds with each broken seal; the seventh seal opens into seven trumpet scenes, and the last trumpet announces another set of seven: bowls of divine wrath poured out. John sees plagues and devastations, climaxing in the destruction of Babylon, the “great city.” Then he sees visions of the final triumph of God as Christ returns: the dead are raised, the final judgment is held, and the new Jerusalem is established as the capital of the redeemed creation.

Revelation raises many questions, but for all who hear John’s witness the most important question is, will we orient our lives toward “the great city” that is already fallen, Babylon the great, or will we have the courage to keep our eyes on “the holy city” where God is at home among us, the new Jerusalem, already descending from heaven?

Revelation is meant to be read in its entirety in worship, perhaps with the congregation singing along with the many doxologies and anthems woven through the text like threads of gold, uniting the saints on earth and the saints and angels in heaven in worship. The whole thing feels like a script for a cosmic-scale performance, and it’s no coincidence that the rich, symbolic world of Revelation has inspired poets, musicians, painters, and even architects. However, the same symbols, writes L. T. Johnson, have also “nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing (…) Few writings in all of literature have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation. Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation.”[1]

Revelation was written to fledgling churches during a period of oppression and persecution. It was written to strengthen their faith in the God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead during a time when the Roman empire was making claims on believers’ allegiance that made it challenging and costly for them to hold on to their confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Revelation was written as a letter of encouragement, urging believers to keep the faith as the worlds of empire and kingdom were clashing.

Most of the letter’s first audiences probably knew how to read it; they were immersed in the language of the Hebrew prophets, they were familiar with John’s world of symbols and the letter’s countless allusions to other parts of Scripture. But it didn’t take long before the book began to be read as “something akin to a train schedule” for the final years of the world. Rather than a source of hope, the text soon became an instrument of fear and abuse in the hands of those who claimed to know the true, but hidden, meaning of its bold declarations.

“My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book,” wrote Martin Luther. “For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”[2] John Calvin wrote commentaries on every book of the New Testament, except Revelation. Chances are that already among the seven churches to which it was originally addressed not everyone accepted it as authentic Christian teaching. The book contains plenty of material that is difficult to absorb if your faith has been shaped by the Jesus who embodied love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In scene after scene, God, the heavenly armies, or Christ are presented as violent perpetrators. There’s no turning the other cheek, no prayer for those who persecute, no love of enemies. Eugene Boring writes, “The reservations of some [against Revelation] have been based on the real dangers that have emerged when [the book] has been interpreted in foolish, sub-Christian or anti-Christian ways. Although every biblical book is subject to misinterpretation, no other part of the Bible has provided such a happy hunting ground for all sorts of bizarre and dangerous interpretations.”[3]

The way to read Revelation faithfully is to keep our eyes on the throne that stands at the center of the heavenly worship John was privileged to see and hear. Amid the scenes of unimaginable destruction and cosmic upheaval John lets us see the heavenly throne where God is seated together with the Lamb, the crucified Messiah, risen from the dead. Amid the chaos of every fear and terror imaginable, we get to look into the very heart of the universe, and we see Jesus.

When German voters put the Nazis in power in 1933, the churches were unbearably slow to respond and Christians failed almost completely to resist. Protestant churches in particular were paralyzed not only by the pervasive fear but by generations of teaching that, according to Romans 13, “there is no authority except from God (...) [and] whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.”[4] Only a handful of Christians remembered Revelation 13, where the state is pictured as a beast emerging from the sea, uttering blasphemies against God and persecuting God’s people. Only a handful of Christians had the courage to call Berlin Babylon, the great city, already fallen; only a handful had the courage to orient their lives to the holy city, the new Jerusalem, descending from heaven. Only a handful kept the faith and stood up against the Nazi terror.

In South Africa, when the system of apartheid seemed firmly established, Bishop Desmond Tutu was among those who remained faithful. He saw clearly that much of Johannesburg was in truth Babylon, and he joyfully affirmed that Babylon the great had already fallen. Bishop Tutu got used to having members of the Secret Police in the pews on Sunday; he could identify them easily since they were the only ones taking notes during his sermons. One Sunday morning, he looked two of them in the eyes and said, “I know who you are; I know why you are here; you have already lost, so why don’t you join us?”

The violence of apartheid was real and painful, but it couldn’t last. The Nazi empire of death was real and painful, but it couldn’t last. The terrors of slavery – pervasive and persistent – will not last. All of the hurtful and cruel incarnations of our dreams of domination, asserting themselves with such power, will not last. They have already been conquered by the Lamb, John declares. They have already been conquered, the witnesses tell us, conquered by the love of God who embraces the enemy. They have already been conquered, we dare to confess only in the power of the Spirit, conquered by the men and women who walk in faith in the way of Christ, their eyes fixed on the city of God.

John saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, and singing. John saw humanity gathered together not by imperial order, nor by coercion or ideology, but by the gentle gravity of Jesus’ life.

John heard one of the elders say, “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Our dreams of domination are powerful and dangerous. Just this past week we received another reminder in a report about humanity’s impact on our fellow creatures on this planet. As many as a million species of plants and animals are under threat of extinction over the next few decades. The ways humans live in our shared home pushes other inhabitants into oblivion, and we are only beginning to grasp that this path of extinction is ultimately suicidal. We are only beginning to grasp that God’s creation is indeed one, fearfully and wonderfully made, carefully knit together, intricately woven into one gorgeous fabric.

There is much in the book of Revelation that worries me. Too much room is given to vengeful fantasies that don’t reflect the grace and compassion of Jesus. But I love the affirmation that the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. It’s a curious, species-hopping play with metaphors: a human being likened to a lamb, and the lamb in turn likened to a human figure of care and protection.

As believers we trust that the Lamb at the center of the throne will indeed shepherd and guide us to springs of the water of life. We trust that the life to which Jesus is calling us will not be less than what we have seen and heard, smelled and tasted, felt and known in our most joyful moments of participating in the miracle of creation. We trust the promise that life will be fulfilled, creation completed in communities of mutual blessing, one life, peace without end.

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing … To God and to the Lamb, I will sing—
To God and to the Lamb, Who is the great “I AM,” … While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing! … While millions join the theme, I will sing.

John saw them, a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, singing along with the angels, praising the wondrous love that heals creation and fulfills the covenant of life.

“God’s praises are sung both there and here,” wrote St. Augustine.

Here they are sung in anxiety, there, in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live for ever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country. So let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do—sing, but continue your journey. … Sing, but keep going.[5]

[1]Johnson, L. T., The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Rev. ed.), (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 573.

[2] Martin Luther, Preface to the Revelation of St. John [1], 1522, Luther’s Works, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960), 398-99.

[3] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (Interpretation), (Louisville: John Knox, 1989), 4.

[4] Romans 13:1-2.

[5] Augustine of Hippo, quoted in Gabe Huck, A Sourcebook about Liturgy (Chicago: LTP, 1994), 35.

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Unstoppable

The high priest slept well that Friday night. The streets and squares of Jerusalem were quiet again. Decisive action had brought an end to the daily disruptions this Jesus had brought to the city and the temple. Now he was dead and buried. Friday night was, from the high priest’s perspective on life, peaceful. As was the Sabbath— peaceful and quiet. The Romans had taken care of the man from Nazareth, and it appeared his followers had gotten the message. The high priest was proud of himself— he had nipped the problem in the bud. He was done with Jesus, done with civil unrest and excited crowds. Things were under control. The temple would once again be a place for orderly worship. The high priest slept well, two nights in a row.

On the first day of the week reports of rumors began to trickle in, disturbing rumors. A handful of men and women, followers, no doubt, of this Jesus, were making claims that they had seen Jesus, that he was alive because God had raised him from the dead. Soon the high priest heard reports that Peter and John were in the temple just about every day, teaching and healing, and attracting large crowds. People came not just from the city but even from the surrounding towns, bringing the sick and the tormented, and the buzz was the followers of Jesus were healing them. “Hello, insomnia,” the high-priest sighed.

In the first chapters of Acts, Luke paints a portrait of the church as a movement of fearless Jesus followers whose witness brings wholeness and hope to many in the city— not to all, because what was joyful news to some, was considered subversive by others. No wonder, the high priest was nervous; institutions and the people they invest with power want stability more than anything: any kind of change must occur only on the terms and under the control of those in authority.

The followers of Jesus didn’t meet those requirements. Like their master, they acted with a different kind of authority. Soon the chief priests, elders, and scribes assembled to discuss the matter: “What will we do with them?”

They called in Peter and John, and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. Peter and John in turn met with the other disciples and talked about what had happened at the council meeting. And they prayed. Lord, look at their threats, and grant your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. They prayed for courage to speak and act in the name of Jesus, and their prayers were answered.

Their boldness gave the high priest a headache, and after yet another sleepless night he took action. This Jesus thing had to stop, whatever the cost. And so he had the apostles arrested and shut up in prison. He slept a little better that night. But while he was dreaming of restoring peace and order in the city, an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, and the apostles walked out. Before the sun was up, the good news of Jesus was again being proclaimed in the temple and in the streets of Jerusalem.

Again the high priest had the apostles brought in and stand before the council for questioning. “We gave you strict orders, didn’t we, not to teach in this name. Why have you defied the express directive of this council to desist this preaching?” And Peter and the apostles answered with disarming simplicity, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

It was human authority that killed Jesus to silence him. It was human authority that denied his authority to teach and forgive. It was human authority that accused him and found him guilty, convicted and executed him. It was human authority that did all it could to put an end to Jesus. But God raised him up and exalted him, the apostles declared, and we are witnesses to these things. You forbid us to witness? You might as well forbid us to breathe, or tell the wind to cease to blow! This is who we are, now that Jesus is risen from the dead, and this is what we do. His life is our life, his mission our mission.

Who would have thought that one day Peter would speak like that? Who would have thought that these frightened followers would have the courage to take a stand like that? That they would look human authority in the eye and defy it with such bold grace? That they could be so fearless and free?

In today’s gospel passage from John we see a very different scene. The disciples have locked themselves in a room because they are afraid. It’s a terrified little band, huddled in a dark room with a chair braced against the door. The air isn’t moving, and nobody is saying anything. I wonder what it was like for Christians in Sri Lanka today. Did they go to church or stay home, just to stay safe? And if they chose to gather for worship, did their hearts stop every time they heard the door open and close? I wonder what it was like for Muslims in Sri Lanka this past week who fled to their mosques when Christian men, in wounded fury, attacked their homes and shops in retaliation for the bombings of churches on Easter Sunday. And our Jewish neighbors yesterday, on the last day of Passover, six months after the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, facing yet another deadly assault on a congregation gathered in a house of prayer? The scene in John’s gospel  feels awfully current— people of God afraid for their lives, mortal danger lurking just outside the doors.

It’s a powerful temptation to withdraw even more behind the walls of our fear, to close windows and blinds, to lock doors, to point cameras in every corner we cannot see, and to pretend that these rooms we’re in aren’t tombs.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. She came back to us to tell us, “I have seen the Lord,”— but what are words against the cold grip of fear? John knows what it’s like for followers of Jesus in a world where the darkness of Friday is deep and unrelenting: we are a community that will have only one thing going for us— the risen Jesus himself and the power of the Holy Spirit.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Roman, one of the new disciples who were baptized on Easter, read, like the others, a statement of his belief, a statement of who God is for him, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and I have memorized one line of his, simple, beautiful, and true: “Jesus is unstoppable.”

Jesus is unstoppable. Death cannot hold him. The life he is and gives is unstoppable. He comes to us through any wall, any fear, any despair. He is unstoppable.

Three times Peter denied that he knew Jesus. And the same Peter soon after boldly declared before the council, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” He had encountered the Living Christ and his peace.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says to us as he said to the first disciples and every new generation of disciples since. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The difference between a group of frightened men and women hiding behind locked doors and the same men and women fearlessly living the Jesus life— the difference is the Holy Spirit. The difference is our relationship with the Unstoppable One, a relationship so intimate and close that his breath becomes ours as his life and mission become ours. The pull of his love is stronger than death, stronger than our fear.

Thomas was not with them that night when Jesus came, John tells us. “We have seen the Lord,” they told him, but he needed to see for himself, and more than that. Thomas refused to believe his eyes alone and demanded to touch and probe Jesus’ wounded body. And Jesus responded by inviting him to “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

On Christmas we hear and celebrate that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” We are drawn to the wonder of God coming among us in human vulnerability. We are drawn to the wonder of God living and knowing life through our flesh— flesh that can be touched gently and violently, flesh that can be honored and tortured, anointed and abused.

Friday reminds us of our almost infinite capacity to inflict and suffer hurt— did we need to be reminded? No, we didn’t, but we need to be reminded that God is present in that suffering. And we need to be reminded that God’s determination to heal the wounds of our sin is unstoppable.

When Jesus came to the disciples in their tomb of fear, he showed them his hands and his side. His resurrected body still carries the wounds of his earthly life, and the Risen One is forever recognizable as the Crucified One in glory. The resurrection does not erase history and its many wounds, but redeem and glorify it. In the resurrection, the trauma of sin is no longer hidden, covered up, ignored or forgotten, but revealed and healed in peace.

So when terror and fear threaten to overwhelm us, we join our brother Thomas in looking for the God who bears the marks of our weary world in his own body.[1] And we trust the Unstoppable One who breathes on us the breath of new life.


[1] My thanks to Robert Hoch for this lovely line http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2808

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