Waiting for Instructions

September 18, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 18/Proper 20, Year C
Texts: Amos 8.4-7; 1Tim 2.1-7; Lk 16.1-13

When Pr. Stephanie and I met, we were working as hospital chaplains. We worked with a woman named Lisa. Lisa loves the Bible and knows it well. She likes to call it her “operating manual.” I think of Lisa today because I would really like to ask her just what she thinks are the operating instructions we’re supposed to take from this parable.

This story is confusing! Is Jesus holding up the manager as a model of shrewdness and foresight to be imitated, or as a cautionary tale about what happens to those who are dishonest and untrustworthy? He squandered his master’s wealth and gets fired, but he seems to end up okay in the end having made some friends for himself by means of his master’s “dishonest wealth” who will take care of him. Jesus seems to indicate these friends may even welcome him into “the eternal homes,” but my question is: what’s the temperature in those homes? Read more…

A Case Study in Discipleship

September 4, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 16/Proper 18, Year C
Texts: Deut 30.15-20; Philem 1-25; Lk 14.25-35

This is one of those gospel texts it is tempting to avoid. Jesus talks about hating our families, carrying our crosses, and then compares us to salt that, if it happens to lose its saltiness, is in danger of being thrown out entirely. It’s hard to know where to begin… so let’s start with Philemon.

“Paul Writing His Epistles,” Attributed to Valentin de Boulogne – 17th century

I like the Paul’s letter to Philemon. Unlike Romans or Corinthians or Thessalonians, Philemon is a book that doesn’t delve into deep theological concepts or make us plow through the confusing run-on sentences Paul loves so well. And it’s short! How often can we say we read an entire book of the Bible in worship on Sunday? I especially like it today because rather than me trying to explain or defend Jesus’ words in Luke, I think this letter from Paul to Philemon actually shows us what Jesus is talking about. It’s a prime example of how Jesus’ teaching makes a world of difference in the life of actual people, not just theologians debating in books and ivory towers.

Unlike most of Paul’s other letters, which are written to communities, Philemon is written primarily to a person; and you can see the difference in how Paul writes it. Paul is famous for his ego and his bombastic tone; and yet in this letter to his friend Philemon Paul is humble, praising his friend and refusing to “command him to do his duty”—something which Paul is never too timid to do.

What little background we know about this letter has either been passed down to us through tradition or inferred from its contents. We know nothing of who Philemon was except that he was a man of some important standing and wealth. He must be the owner of some relatively successful business because he is the head of a household and owns slaves. Paul also addresses him as the leader of this church community.

We also know that Onesimus, about whom Paul writes, has been separated from Philemon, having been considered “useless” to him, (though not to Paul). According to tradition, Onesimus is believed to be a slave of Philemon, who has either run away or been sent away. Paul urges Philemon in this letter to receive him back not like a slave owner taking back a slave, but rather as one brother welcoming home another.

After Jesus himself, Paul is a great example of one who “carries the cross” with enthusiasm. Paul introduces himself in this letter as a “prisoner for Christ,” or perhaps even a “prisoner of Christ.” Imagine introducing yourself to someone as a convict; it’s not generally something to brag about! And yet, Paul claims his shameful status with pride, because he knows that he has been imprisoned for his work of spreading the gospel—for being a disciple. Therefore, even his imprisonment is an honor to him, because it is the result of his working towards God’s reign.

This is what it looks like to “hate” one’s family, friends and even life itself: Paul is willing to part with everything that he’s ever held dear on account of following Christ, because he considers God’s reign to be worth so much more than anything else he has. He is willing to endure whatever it takes—isolation, imprisonment, even death—to tell others about what God is doing in the world.

Not only that, he is urging in this letter that Philemon do the same. Philemon, as a slave owner, has every right to claim ownership of Onesimus, to beat him if he has run away, or to sell him to recoup his financial loss for such a “useless” slave. Paul, however, encourages him to waive these rights, which he models by giving up his own.

As a well-known and well-respected apostle, Paul could command Philemon to comply, citing scriptural texts and speaking with the authority of Christ himself, even threatening eternal damnation if he does not comply (all tactics he has used in his other letters!); but Paul does none of these things. Instead, Paul chooses to appeal to Philemon out of the love and affection that they have for each other as friends and as “co-workers” in Christ.

He does this by reminding Philemon of the love he has always shown all the saints and the joy and encouragement he has given to so many including Paul himself. He tells Philemon of the love that has grown between himself and Onesimus, and that he hopes Philemon will share this love with him as well. He even indicates that perhaps this was the reason that Onesimus was separated from him: so that upon his return, Onesimus and Philemon might enjoy a deeper, fuller relationship with one another; not as slave and master, but as brothers in Christ.

The system of slavery was a major institution that supported both Rome’s economy and, no doubt, Philemon’s own wealth; and yet Paul is here urging Philemon to “hate” it, to love Onesimus more than he loves his success or his honor or whatever debt Onesimus might owe him. Paul writes that he expects Philemon to “do even more” than what Paul is asking, perhaps hinting that Philemon ought to free Onesimus from slavery altogether out of Christian love.

Medallion worn by a Roman slave, photographed by Mary Harrsch, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch/

Medallion worn by a Roman slave, photographed by Mary Harrsch, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch/

This is the kind of discipleship Jesus is talking about, and why he is so harsh with his warnings in our gospel text. Being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean living our lives as normal with an added hour on Sunday morning for worship. True discipleship—true dedication to Jesus and the good news he brings—changes us; it causes us to ignore, turn down, or perhaps even hate all the things in the world that give us comfort, wealth, popularity and leisure for the sake of God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s mercy.

If Paul, already burdened with imprisonment and persecution, had decided to leave well enough alone and not get involved in this personal dispute between Philemon and Onesimus, he would be as useless to them as salt that’s lost its flavor. If Philemon’s faith did not compel him to welcome Onesimus home, to forgive him his debts, and perhaps even release him from slavery, his faith would be like bland salt; no matter how much he had, it would add no flavor to his life. What good is the bland salt of a silent Paul or a hard-hearted Philemon to the reign of God? They might as well be buried in the depths of history.

There is one more thing we can take from Paul, Philemon and Onesimus this week. Even though this letter is primarily between Paul and Philemon, we notice how many others are involved. Paul is writing on behalf of others and so that others will hear. This personal matter is being shared with a whole community, both as it is written and as it is read. We are a part of that community as we share these words today. It is a reminder both that the decisions we make affect the whole community, but also that we are not in this alone.

Philemon had to decide how to receive Onesimus, but Apphia and Archippus and the whole congregation were hearing Paul’s words as well, offering their support and advice, perhaps even pressuring him to do the right thing. Though it was Paul who sent the letter, he had the backing of Timothy and Epaphras; Mark and Aristarchus; Demas, Luke and others. The cost of discipleship is steep, but what makes the price worth it is the community we receive in return, and that the cost is sometimes split evenly among that community.

We don’t know how Philemon responded to Paul’s letter, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter to us. The fact that all those people had a hand in either writing or reading that letter and the fact that it was circulated around the Church for decades until it finally became a part of our sacred scripture speaks to the reality that for centuries, people have found in this letter a meaningful example of discipleship.

Though it may not matter to us, Philemon’s response certainly would have been a big deal to Onesimus. His future would be determined by whether he met an indignant slave owner demanding restitution or a forgiving brother offering hospitality. Which he would find waiting for him would be influenced by the faith of Paul, of Philemon, of Apphia and Archippus, and many others. For him, coming home and finding a welcoming community would have been a model of how one man’s “hatred” of his own household and the rules that governed it could give both of them new family in Christ.

That’s how God’s kingdom works. For everything we give up, for everything we hate and turn away from, we are apt to find those things tenfold: “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields” (Matt 19.29). We catch a glimpse of this reality at the font, when, at our baptism, we are received into a broad new family in Christ; we get a foretaste of this reality at the table where we join with not only those gathered here, but with all the saints across space and time around one table to share one heavenly meal.

Yes, Jesus asks much of those of us who would follow him, but Onesimus can testify to how much disciples also receive from Christ.

Titian,

Titian, “Christ Carrying the Cross,” ca 1565

Practice Makes Perfect

August 21, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 14/Proper 16, Year C
Texts: Isa 58.[1-8], 9-14; Heb 12.18-29; Lk 13.10-17

I don’t dance well. Unlike Stephanie, who has an innate sense of rhythm and was in the marching band, I have a hard time keeping tempo, which is pretty important for dancing. However, I do enjoy it. Steph and I took a ballroom dancing class together in Iowa before we got married, which was a lot of fun. It was also kind of frustrating, since we weren’t dancing to the same beat, but it was fun.

It was while we were taking this class that we decided that at the wedding reception, since everybody was going to be watching us dance anyway, we might as well do something that would be fun to watch. So, we decided to foxtrot to “The Best is Yet to Come,” but with my timing problem, we had to really rehearse to get it to work out. Over several weeks of dance lessons and even some private sessions with our instructors, we slowly got better and better at the foxtrot, and we got more and more accustomed to the song, knowing when the music would swell and fade, and how to time our steps.

Rehearsal is important for lots of things. We practice sports, musical instruments, dance steps. We rehearse for presentations and performances because, as the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. Even doctors, lawyers and accountants—highly trained professionals—refer to their regular work as “practice.”

In a sense, this is what Jewish and Christian worship is: rehearsal. When we worship, we gather together as a community, we listen to God’s word and seek to understand it, we pray for the needs of the world around us, and we pool our gifts together to do God’s work: all things that help us prepare for life in the coming reign of God. For this reason, what we do in worship is important; and yet how we do it is open to a great deal of interpretation. These two aspects of our worship—its importance and its flexibility—mean that for a long time, we have been debating how best to worship.

Our gospel text today is one example of this debate. The synagogue leader represents one side. He may appear cruel or overly strict or even ignorant, but he is simply trying to be obedient to God’s own law as best he can. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy,” scripture says, “Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the LORD throughout your settlements.” (Lev. 23.3) He sees what Jesus doing work on a day commanded by God to be a day of rest.

Jesus, however, sees things differently. Scripture also says, “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” (Ex. 23.12) He sees his healing of the woman as a way of letting her, too, experience the rest the LORD commands for the sabbath. His words to the synagogue leader might seem harsh, but his rebuke helps us to see both how obvious Jesus’ interpretation seems to be as well as its importance.

This story helps underscore for us just what it is our worship is helping us rehearse. To the synagogue leader, worship is about rehearsing total obedience to God. This is important, but Jesus intentionally pushes the boundaries here to help us see a deeper truth: worship is about rehearsing total obedience to God by practicing justice.

The 58th chapter of Isaiah digs into this truth. The people of Israel are keeping the sabbath, but they are missing the point. While they piously fast, they also mistreat their workers and ignore the oppressed. They wonder why God does not seem to respond to their right religious conduct, and God responds by saying, “is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isa 58.6)

We hear in our reading that when God’s people refrain from trampling the sabbath by “pursuing their own interests on my holy day,” that is by keeping the religious traditions while still acting unjustly to benefit themselves, then—and only then—will they finally “take delight in the LORD.” The nuance here is subtle: fearing and loving God is not about keeping the letter of the law, but the spirit of it.

This is what the synagogue leader is missing—what we sometimes miss—and what Jesus is so eager to explain to both him and us. God gives us laws and establishes traditions for us to follow, but the end purpose of these things is not to test our blind obedience, but to prepare us in body, mind and soul for the reign of God.

Immediately after this story of healing, Jesus begins teaching the crowd in the synagogue about “What is the kingdom of God like?” comparing it to a mustard seed, a woman baking bread, a narrow door. One thing we know about what God’s reign is like, it is that it will be just; there will be no more oppression of the weak by the strong, no more exploitation of the poor by the rich, no longer will the many be silenced by the few.

Jesus shows us this today by healing this woman. She is bent over—a posture of submission and humiliation—when Jesus releases her from her bondage (which he calls satanic), he allows her to stand up straight, to regain her honor and dignity as a daughter of Abraham. No longer will people pity her or (literally) look down on her, but will look her squarely in the eye when they speak to her and treat her as they would any other Jewish woman. This is not just a story of Jesus healing a woman; it is a story of Jesus bringing justice to someone who has been oppressed, whether by spiritual forces or cultural ones.

Christ healing an infirm woman on the Sabbath, by James Tissot, 1886-1896

The fact that all this takes place in a synagogue on the sabbath day means that it is related to how we worship. The synagogue is a place of teaching: Jesus is teaching us how to worship God. Both Luke and Isaiah are reminding us with their words that worship of the LORD is meant to prepare us for the just and righteous reign of God, a reign under which the yoke of oppression will be removed from all people.

In order to truly be worship, our sabbath observance must point us to this reality. People worship in many different ways: we may sing old hymns or modern songs, we may worship with charismatic energy and waving hands or with reverent solemnity or even silence. Some even worship by not worshiping: there are many who find God’s presence in nature, in the joy of family, in the beauty of art, or in many other places. Any of these things can be worship—as long as they help prepare us for the impending reality of God’s coming reign of justice and peace.

This is why we worship the way we do here, because we, like centuries of Christians before us, have found that the liturgy we follow does just that. We worship by gathering in community: we cannot come together without building relationship with and empathy for the people with whom we gather, even when we are embroiled in personal conflicts. We worship by hearing the word of God and plumbing that word for wisdom and understanding to guide our daily life. We worship by praying for one another and the world, which at once makes us mindful of the needs around us and also moves us to try to meet those needs. We worship by bringing our gifts of time and resources and of bread and wine together, so that God might use those gifts to serve both us and the community around us.

One of the most dramatic ways we rehearse for God’s kingdom is through the Eucharist. In the meal, we see Christ’s body broken for us, knowing that this gathered community is also the Body of Christ. As we see Christ’s body shared among us to nourish us, we are seeing how we ourselves are to be broken and shared to nourish the world in Christ’s name when we are sent from worship with the words “Go in peace, share the good news.”

This may seem like a daunting task, to go out and bring the good news of God’s justice to the oppressed; but this is why we worship. We have been preparing for this every week as we gather here. Each time we worship, we are rehearsing the justice of God’s kingdom: removing the pointing of the finger, giving food to the hungry, satisfying the needs of the afflicted. God is rehearsing us for the kingdom to come during this worship.

Even though I’m not a great dancer, rehearsing with Stephanie prepared me for our first dance at our wedding reception. It wasn’t perfect; we made some mistakes and my timing was a little off at parts, but we made it through and, what’s more, we had fun doing it. That’s why we put this work in now, why we rehearse for God’s reign in anticipation of its arrival: so that when it is here, even if we aren’t perfect, we will continue to practice God’s justice and have fun doing it.

Happy Summer Vacation 

July 24, 2016 Leave a comment

Dear Readers,

I am taking some vacation time this week, which means two things. First, my sermon from today will not get posted until I’m back in the office next week. Second, this coming Sunday someone will be covering for Stephanie and me, so I won’t be preaching (or posting) again until August 14.

I hope you all are enjoying a pleasant summer!

Categories: Uncategorized

The Power of Prayer

July 24, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 14/Proper 16, Year C
Texts: Gen 18.20-32; Col 2.6-19; Lk 11.1-13

At its simplest, praying is just talking to God. There are many different ways to pray: through study and reading scripture, individually or together, with joy or sorrow, even silently. When we pray together in worship, often the language we use is very poetic and flowery, filled with large words and complexly structured in intricate sentences; but prayer can be as simple as a single sentence or word or even a sigh. It’s hard to do it wrong. And this is precisely why I find it interesting that today’s gospel lesson begins with Jesus’ disciples asking him to teach them how to pray. Read more…

Baton Rouge, St. Paul, Dallas, and Us

July 10, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 8/Proper 10, Year C
Texts: Deut 30.9-14; Col 1.1-14; Lk 10.25-37

It’s been another rough week. The news from Baton Rouge and St. Paul and Dallas has me once again wrestling with what to say right now. I don’t think I have to convince anyone that what has happened in these cities this week is a tragedy of the worst kind, lives woefully ended as the result of fear and anger and hate. I don’t think I have to explain to you that this cycle of violence and fear that is spiraling in on itself is fueled by racism, both conscious and subconscious, and that it is becoming more and more apparent with each passing death that we still have a problem with race in our country. I don’t think I have to impress upon you how important it is that something change here.

But I do think that I have to stand up here and say something about it, something that will help us move in a positive direction, something that begins to express how hurt we all are over the extrajudicial murders of two more black men by officers of the law and over the senseless violence against both police and civilians during a peaceful protest. I do think that as a preacher and as a Christian, I cannot be silent. Unfortunately, I do not know what to say.

“The Good Samaritan,” David Teniers the Younger, 1650-56

We have this lovely and familiar parable this week, and so I think I’ll just start with that. One way we make sense of parables is to find ourselves in them, to see with which of the characters we identify. This week, I find myself not so much in the Samaritan or the man who fell among robbers, not so much in the priest or the Levite (though it sure does seem like I am always crossing by on the other side of the road when these things happen); today I am identifying most with the lawyer, the one asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Because of the promises of scripture and because of my own personal experience with God, I believe in eternal life. I believe that it’s not something that is reserved for life after death, but that it is something that God offers us now, life that is deeper and richer and brighter and fuller, that it is life lived with God. I have seen glimpses this eternal life thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit through the Church. I also believe that eternal life isn’t just for you or me individually, but for all creation; that God is working to fulfill and perfect the whole world so that everything that has breath will one day experience this eternal life together.

But this week, just as with every story in the news of a terrorist bombing or a person dying for being arrested while black or a police officer being killed for the sins of his or her colleagues, I am left hurting, hoping, wondering where is this eternal life? How long, O Lord, shall we cry for help and you will not listen? What can I do to help stop this madness?

I’d venture a guess that I’m not the only one who feels this way, that maybe some of you feel like this, too. For those of us wondering how our world might finally come to possess this eternal life, I offer this parable as one place to begin.

One obvious lesson from this parable is one about who is our neighbor. Samaritans were despised and mistrusted by Jews; they were considered heretics. The lawyer in the story is so shocked by Jesus’ parable that when Jesus asks him for his interpretation, he can’t even bring himself to say the word “Samaritan,” saying instead, “the one who showed mercy.”

Throughout the gospels, and indeed throughout the whole Bible, God intentionally seeks out and identifies with the vulnerable, the poor, and the outsiders. It should be obvious to us that, if Jesus were to tell the story for us now, that the he might challenge us to see as our neighbors those who are most vulnerable, poor and on the outside of society now; for example, the kind of people who might fear being killed by police at a run-of-the-mill traffic stop.

This is the same sentiment that is at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement: not that police are bad or that other lives don’t matter, but that there are people—our neighbors—who are being feared and discriminated against and oppressed and even killed by the very agencies who are sworn to serve and protect us, and that we should all be concerned about this precisely because we are neighbors. To recognize our interconnectedness in spite of the small things that divide us is to begin to experience eternal life.

This parable also points us to eternal life by showing us what it means to be a neighbor. The Samaritan on the road becomes a neighbor to the man in need because he “is moved with pity” for him. The verb in Greek comes from the word for “vicera,” “bowels,” “guts;” it literally means to experience gut-wrenching emotion, to be moved in one’s deepest being. We would call such an experience “compassion.”

The Samaritan experiences compassion for his wounded neighbor, and that compassion compels him to respond with kindness. He picks the man up, puts him on his own animal, and takes him to an inn where he pays the innkeeper to care for him, promising to cover any other expenses the innkeeper may incur. This is what separates compassion from pity: pity might make us feel sad or sorry for someone, but compassion compels us to act, even when it costs us, even if it means we must also suffer. In fact, the word compassion literally means “to suffer alongside” someone. This suffering with our neighbor, Jesus says, is how we inherit eternal life.

It seems backwards, doesn’t it, that suffering with the people we may not even recognize as our neighbors is the way to experience eternal life; but if anyone would know, it is Jesus, the Son of God who left heaven to be born as a human being and experience all of our pains and sorrows as well as our joys, to live and teach and walk among us knowing that we would eventually kill him for it. Through his Passion—his suffering alongside us as a human—Jesus makes eternal life available to us; so in some way it makes sense that our compassion—our suffering alongside each other—might help us experience it.

This is what gives me hope, because in the midst of the bloodshed and the fear, the violence and the anger, I see God at work in the compassion that draws us together. I see Jesus crucified again by our fear and hate alongside Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, lying dead beside Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krohl and Lorne Ahrends and Michael Smith, but I also see God at work churning our guts and breaking our hearts with compassion for those who have died and caring for those who are left.

I have hope because the evil acts of humanity that crucified Christ did not have the final word in his story, and the evil acts that killed these people and so many others does not have the final word in this one. God answers death with eternal life, life that pains us and moves us in our core to act with compassion for our neighbors who live in fear of the law and our neighbors who put their lives in danger to protect.

In a statement earlier this week, our presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton said, “Until we in the white community feel that the death of a person of color is our death, too, nothing is going to change.” To be neighbors to our sisters and brothers of color is to realize that in the events of Baton Rouge and St. Paul and Dallas, we are killing ourselves. It is the privilege of every white person to be able to separate ourselves from these horrible deaths, to remain untouched by them because these murders happened somewhere else to somebody else. It is our privilege not to live among police who fear us. But it is our compassion that makes us suffer with our black and brown neighbors and feel their pain as our own, and it is that pain that will drive us to bring change.

I don’t know exactly where we go from here, but I know we need to go somewhere. Bishop Eaton encourages the Church: “We need to show up. We need to stand with and listen to our colleagues and sisters and brothers of color. Even if they don’t want us to be there, or if they do, we need to show up. These people can no longer be invisible. We need our eyes opened… and then we need to find a way to reach out and build actual connections with people who are real and visible and not just some sort of stereotype.”

We have hope in eternal life that is stronger than death because Jesus showed up, because he suffered alongside us and showed us what that life looks like. This is our call as followers of Jesus: to show up, to see our neighbors and give our lives in service to them, as Jesus did. At this table we him, his body broken for us, his blood poured out for us; and as we eat and drink he shares this broken, poured out life with us, so that we, too may be broken and poured out for others, that through us, his eternal life may continue to spread.

In the midst of death, where do we find eternal life? Perhaps it is not just in healing, but in hurting together. Perhaps the eternal life of God is the ability to share the rawest pain and anguish with our neighbors so deeply in our guts that we are compelled to share our lives with them, just as Christ does with us.

The Best Lack All Conviction, and the Worst Are Full of Passionate Intensity

June 26, 2016 Leave a comment

Pentecost 6/Proper 8, Year C
Texts: 1 Kgs 19.15-21; Gal 5.1, 13-25; Lk 9.51-62

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” is on my mind this week as I read these passages of scripture and reflect on recent events. I think about this as I listen to Elijah calling Elisha to be his disciple and successor. I think about it as I hear Jesus respond to these three would-be followers. I think about Yeats’ words because as I listen to these stories, I hear Elijah and Jesus asking for people to follow them in the work of God with the same passionate intensity that we too often witness only in terrorists.

When Elisha asks for leave to kiss his mother and father goodbye before following, Elijah doesn’t seem to have any objection. “Go and return,” he says, “for what have I done to [stop] you?” Jesus, on the other hand, seems far more harsh and unyielding than Elijah. How can anyone be expected to follow Jesus when he seems to be asking them to forsake family, friends, homes and livelihoods in order to proclaim the reign of God? And yet, we know from experience that we live in a world where people are too ready to give up those very things, to strap bombs to their chests and take assault rifles into movie theaters and night clubs for the sake of the fear and hatred they feel towards others. Why shouldn’t Jesus ask for the same level of commitment? The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Perhaps this is why Jesus demands so much of us who would follow him. Jesus is looking for people who have the zeal and the devotion and the conviction to work for all they’re worth to realize the just and righteous reign of God. If we are to do this work, we cannot be distracted even by family, friends, or livelihoods, because the powers of hate and fear and evil have no such distractions either.

But even conviction alone is not enough. Unlike the three Jesus encounters on the way to Jerusalem, James and John did give up everything. They left their nets on the beach and their father in the boat to follow when Jesus called them. They have that conviction that Jesus is looking for, but that doesn’t mean it’s always directed well. When they ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans like Elijah did (2 Kings 1.1-18), he rebukes them. Like James and John, our conviction can sometimes easily slide into violence, even without us realizing it.

In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, many well-meaning people who are understandably and justifiably angered and saddened have been driven by their convictions to do good and ended up doing harm. Nobody has held a gun, but we have fed the hostility. We have lobbed the same tired arguments about gun control or mental illness or Islam at each other like grenades across the same stagnant political lines. The more “inclusive” members of our Church have aimed and fired allegations at our sisters and brothers who disagree, accusing them of violence simply because of their sincerely held beliefs.* In short, we have, in our passionate intensity, desired to call down fire from heaven on our perceived foes who stand in the way of God’s reign.

This entire story discipleship is framed in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. We know what will happen to him in Jerusalem, and what he will give up for the sake of God’s reign. We know that he will endure the worst kind of violence there, and we also know that he will overcome it; not with more violence of his own—not with flames coming down from heaven—but with love for his friends and for his enemies, with obedience to God’s will and faith in God’s promise.

“The Ascent to Calvary”  Jacobo Tintoretto

Days after the shooting in Orlando, Diana Butler Bass, a prominent Christian scholar and author, tweeted:

https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass/status/742895262289526786Since I first read these words, I have wondered: what might that look like? What might it look like for us to “set our faces towards Jerusalem,” like Jesus did?

One place we might begin to look is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “The works of the flesh are obvious,” Paul writes, “…enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions…” “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

If we truly believe that Jesus loves and works to save all people then being “radicalized by love” means that we should continue to stand up and even fight when necessary for what we believe to be right, but it also means channeling our anger, our sadness and our frustration into more fully loving the people we are tempted to call “enemies;” otherwise we only become part of the problem we intend to solve.

I think what Jesus is demanding of his followers is not the “passionate intensity” of the “worst” of us coopted and redirected by the “best,” but a complete and utter change of the script. As Jesus says, you can’t plow a straight line while looking backward. God is calling us to find a way forward, and we can only do that together, and that is difficult, frustrating work; so difficult, in fact, that it got Jesus killed.  However, if we truly believe that God’s reign is for all people, then that’s the job ahead of us.

The second half of Yeats’ poem concludes:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Yeats’ fears what ancient and primordial power might be about to be loosed on the world, and rightly so. He wrote this poem in 1919. After having witnessed the cruel powers and evil forces at work in First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and political strife in his own native Ireland, and believing that the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity, how could he not fear what the future might hold?

And yet, as Christians, we trust in the promise that what “slouches towards Bethlehem” is no rough beast at all, but Christ himself, and with him, the reign of God in which all wrongs are righted and all hurts are healed. On some days, that hope seems truly delusional. We may feel naïve or ignorant to trust in a promise of wholeness when things fall apart all around us.

Or, we may feel that if we are to help bring about that reign of God, that we, too, must have the same passionate intensity of the terrorists and the murderers. Like James and John, we are ready to call down fire on those who would oppose the reign of God and prevent Christ’s work from being done. If God’s reign is to come forth in the midst of such violence and terror—even from Christ’s own followers—then the power and conviction behind it must be great indeed.

Thankfully for us, it is. Even on our best days, we may be unable to match the passionate intensity of the world’s hatred and fear. It’s not humanly possible to keep on plowing, to keep on proclaiming the kingdom of God without looking back. Thankfully, though the best among us may lack all conviction, there is one whose conviction is enough for all of us. The Letter to the Hebrews encourages us: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” (Heb 10:23) We may not always be faithful to God’s vision of love and wholeness, but the one who calls us to this work is. Jesus has a habit of calling broken and imperfect people—people like James and John—and using them to inch slowly towards God’s promised reign.

Mosaic of Christ the Pantokrator (Almighty) from Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Do not misunderstand: this is not an invitation to “let go and let God,” but rather a call to redouble our efforts, to grab the plow with both hands, to be “radicalized by love.” Friends, the work is hard and wearying, and the field is full of rocks, but we do not work alone. When Elijah prayed to God in desperation, God answered his prayer by giving him helpers: Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha. When Elijah thought he was all alone, God assured him that there were 7000 yet who stood with him.

Jesus calls us to give everything we have, to set our faces towards Jerusalem, and then in the same breath he says to us, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you.” Through baptism, we are joined to Christ—our weakness and faithlessness has died, and he now lives in us. We are able because he is able. Where our conviction ends, his takes over. Maybe the center cannot hold, but it is no rough beast that slouches toward Bethlehem to be born; rather it is the eternal reign of God that is preparing to bind up the broken pieces of our world. As the old proverb says, “When you get to your wit’s end, remember that God lives there.”


* I am specifically referring to numerous comments I saw on Facebook groups for my Church (the ELCA) of (more “liberal”) people accusing those among us who believe that homosexuality is sinful of being as bad as Omar Mateen. While I agree that this negative attitude towards the LGBTQ+ (especially within the Church) is harmful, this sort of name calling and sniping doesn’t solve anything or contribute meaningfully to conversation; it only puts people on the defensive and stops rational discussion. However, I have seen this sort of behavior generally in lots of other places. It’s easy to demonize the “others” who disagree with us, but that is not helpful for community. 

 


Although it didn’t make it into the sermon, I found this story about Martin Luther King, Jr a great example of what I am talking about. On January 27, 1956, King sat in his kitchen in Montgomery, Alabama holding a cup of coffee, unable to sleep. The bus boycott seemed to be collapsing. His own life had been repeatedly threatened. He later recounted:

. . . I bowed down over that cup of coffee . . . I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.” He needed the word of this proverb. “Keep your hand on the plow…” (Samuel Freeman, Upon This Rock, 143).

And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone (ibid, 173).