Can’t Buy Me God

March 4, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Can’t Buy Me God” recorded in worship (15:02)
Third Sunday in Lent, Year B
Texts: Ex 20.1-17; 1 Cor 1.18-25; Jn 2.13-22

We call this the story of Jesus “cleansing” the temple. We have been taught that the merchants and the money changers who operated there had become corrupt, exploiting the people who came to worship in order to turn a profit. When Jesus drove out the livestock and turned over the tables, he was (at least symbolically) cleaning up the business of the temple, showing everybody what God thought about people who abuse the poor. It’s a cute story, and it might even be true. Matthew’s, Mark’s and Luke’s gospels all record Jesus saying “you have made my Father’s house a den of robbers,” as he cleanses the temple, which would lead us to believe that’s what the story is saying.

Expulsion of the Money-changers from the Temple. Giotto di Bondone [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Whether or not this is true, John has a different understanding of this event. You’ll notice that Jesus does not criticize the merchants for making God’s house a “den of robbers,” but a “marketplace.” Whether or not the businesspeople in the temple are corrupt is not Jesus’ concern; the fact that they are there at all is what bothers him. He is angry not that some shrewd businessmen are taking advantage of poor people, but that the whole system of worship is misguided.

According to John’s gospel, it’s nearly Passover—one of the biggest holidays on the Jewish calendar. At Passover, the law dictates that certain sacrifices must be made. The people do this because, at the first Passover, God (through Moses) told everyone that this is how they should observe this festival every year. I just want to reiterate that: they are doing this because God told them to.

In order for this system to work, people need access to livestock. 1000 years earlier, when many people still kept a few sheep or goats or chickens around, this meant taking what they already had; but now, things are different. People living in a city or town where they make a living as servants, laborers, craftsmen, merchants, traders or something similar still have to get their sacrificial animals somewhere. It’s not that different from today: how many of you have livestock that you could sacrifice?

Additionally, there is a law (the second commandment, in fact) that forbids graven images. All the Roman coins had the graven image of Caesar proclaiming him a god on them, so they could not be used in the temple. So, the money had to be changed. Again, this is something that God has told them not to do. Somebody has to do this.

The point I’m making is that the business set up in the temple courts is not a racket: it is the necessary mechanism for fulfilling the laws that God gave the people. Without the livestock sellers and money changers, Passover doesn’t happen. In fact, nothing happens. No sacrifices, no priestly duties, no worship. When Jesus comes in with his whip, he is not cleansing the temple: he is destroying it, as surely as if he were pulling the walls down. Now you can see why the authorities got so upset and asked on what authority he was shutting down the legitimate, proper, divinely ordained functioning of God’s house.

Jesus did this not because business around the worship was corrupt, but because the worship itself—based on the laws given by God to Moses—was corrupt. What God intended to be a way to tend and maintain a relationship with God’s people had become simply another economic transaction, regardless of whether or not any money changed hands. Worship of God had itself become a tax, something that people had to do. God had been reduced to a cosmic vending machine: put in a quarter, get a piece of candy; put in the blood of a lamb, get some forgiveness.

None of this is to say that Jewish worship was or is misguided or wrong. This system as it was originally intended was, after all, instituted by God. The problem that Jesus is trying to point out is that as times change, so do laws. Laws become obsolete—including God’s laws. The laws given to Israel in the wilderness were nothing short of a gift from God; a gift that gave a refugee people wandering homeless in the wilderness a structure and an identity, and a purpose. Those laws helped form them into the people they are. As Protestant Christians, we don’t get what that gift means. We never wandered the wilderness alone and afraid. We tend to view the law as a burden, but Jews do not adhere to those laws not out of obligation; they keep the law out of joy and love. Keeping the law is a spiritual discipline like prayer or fasting. The point of the story is that, like prayer or fasting, the law alone cannot put us in right relationship with God. It is a mistake to think that Jesus’ action in the temple is a criticism only of Jews or Jewish worship—it is a criticism of all human worship. Just as at the temple in Jerusalem, we so often end up worshiping the gifts rather than the giver.

Moses receiving the tablets of the law on Mount Sinai, from La Bible du Patrice Léon, Codex Reginensis Graecus 1. ca. 920

The gospel has never changed; from the very beginning in the garden, the message has been the same: as undeserving as we are, God loves us and wants the best for us, and gives us freely all the gifts God has to offer—including laws and rules to help us govern our lives. The law was given through Moses to help guide people into relationship with God, but over time it came to be used as a checklist rather than a guide.

When Jesus challenges the authorities to destroy the temple so he can raise it up, he is talking about both the physical building as well as his own body. He is making it known that God does not live in a house of rules, but here among us. Rules, like the people that make them and the people that follow them, are mortal; eventually the time comes for them to die. God is greater than rules or guidelines or principles, and so, as helpful as those things might be, we need to understand that we cannot legislate our way to God. There can be no set of rules that is complete enough to bring us to God.

For us as rational people, that is really hard to accept. We like things that make sense, and rules make sense. If I know exactly what is required of me, I can do it. As much as we may wish to deny it, we are people who prefer the simplicity of the 5-step sinner’s prayer to the complexity of the gospel because at least we know what we need to do.

Paul writes, “In God’s wisdom, the world did not know God through wisdom.” In other words, we can’t reason or legislate our way to God. Neither our “inexplicably complex” biological structures nor the existence of a conscience or of “natural laws” that are common across different cultures are evidence of God’s existence or nonexistence. Paul continues, “Because of that, God decided to save people not through wisdom, but through trust; trust, of all things, in the foolishness of the what we preach: the gospel.”

The gospel doesn’t make any sense. It says that God’s salvation is for the whole world, not just a handful of deserving people, or the small segment of the global population that happens to believe the “correct” thing about God. If we can bring ourselves to trust against all better judgment in the idiocy of God’s stupid, irrational, prodigal love, then we will begin to understand what salvation really is.

The law is good for what the law is good for. Law keeps order, gives us direction, keeps us from killing one another, intentionally or unintentionally. But law cannot bring us closer to God. Laws cannot make us better people; morality cannot be achieved through legislation. Only God can help us be better than we are. Where we might expect or wish for God to show God’s power and strength by eradicating evil desires from human hearts once and for all, God instead does the stupid and loving thing by instead dying on a cross. God instead shows us how to overcome the evil within ourselves by dying and demonstrating once and for all that God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Like laws, temple, worship, and piety are good for what they are good for; but if we ever fall into the trap of thinking that they make us closer or further from God, we are missing the boat. God does not live in those things, but in Jesus, the crucified and resurrected. God is most present among us in our weakest, most vulnerable moments, not in our strength, not in our wisdom, not in our victory. God shows up on the cross: in defeat. Jesus bears witness to the idiocy and feebleness of God, crucified by the very people whom God loves, and yet through which God’s brilliance and power shine forth.

We gather here to feast on the lunacy of God, to drink our fill of God’s frailty. In this meal, we consume God’s biggest blunder—the incarnate body of Jesus—and we taste and see that even God’s biggest blunder is still God’s greatest victory. This is a God who cannot be bought off by legalism and obedience, but instead loves us rampantly even in our active rebellion, to the point of dying for us. We can’t buy God off because what we want from God, God already freely gives us.

God knows that we like logic and reason, but God also knows we are not nearly as good at it as we think we are. God knows we like shows of force and displays of power, but God also knows that there’s always somebody with a bigger gun. And so, God chooses to be present with us not in wisdom and power, but in weakness and foolishness because those things are universal, and so that is where God meets us. God knows that this way, we can never be separated from God. We follow and proclaim Christ crucified and resurrected: weakness to the strong, nonsense to the rational; but to those of us who have been called—those of us who have met Jesus on the cross—it is Christ the power of God and Christ the brilliance of God.

JESUS MAFA. The Crucifixion; Jesus dies on the cross. 1973. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.


Learning to Trust

February 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Learning to Trust” recorded in worship (14:07)
Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
Texts: Gen 17.1-7, 15-16; Rom 4.13-25; Mk 8.31-38

Being from Ur of the Chaldeans (in what would later become Babylon), Abraham was no stranger to gods. He probably believed in lots of gods: gods who brought rain, gods who made fields fertile, gods who delivered wealth, gods who kept away disease…you name it. Abraham would have no trouble believing that this God of the covenant existed; but the fact that he trusted this God is kind of extraordinary. All the gods that Abraham knew would have required a certain ritual or sacrifice in order to bestow their blessings: a specific prayer, a dance, a drink offering poured out, the life of a young goat, some display of fidelity. This God simply shows up and makes a promise, no strings attached; and Abraham stepped out in faith and gave up all his other gods to trust and follow this one. That doesn’t mean that he did it well.

A portion of a page from the Venice Haggadah of 1609. “The image … shows Abraham with the three women in his life. In the center are Sarah and Isaac; on the left are Hagar and Ishmael and on the right are Keturah and her children.” From the Yale University Library, Public Domain.

Read more…

Ash Valentine

February 14, 2018 Leave a comment

Ash Wednesday
Texts: Isa 58.1-12; 2 Cor 5.20-6.10; Matt 6.1-6, 16-20

I’m just going to go ahead and name that it’s a little odd and ironic to celebrate Valentine’s Day on the same day we observe Ash Wednesday. Pr. Stephanie and I joked that, given the occasion, perhaps it would be appropriate for us to draw hearts on your foreheads this evening instead of crosses. It’s a weird combination: Valentine’s is a celebration of life and love and romance, characterized by sweets and extravagant gifts. Ash Wednesday is a remembrance of our own mortality and an admission that we need to confess and repent; it’s characterized by somber signs of mourning and contrition and, generally, giving up the sorts of things one normally indulges in for Valentines: chocolate, sugar, extra luxuries.

And yet, it’s interesting to observe these two holidays on the same day, because they say something about each other. The tension is always there between love and grief, between indulgence and abstinence, between life and death; we just don’t often have to face it. This year we get to enter into the tension and let these two aspects of our life together converge and see what we can learn about our lives and ourselves.

It is good to celebrate romantic love today, as it can help make life exciting and full; but our expectation of what that love ought to look like is distorted by the lenses through which we view it. Our stories and songs about love talk about its joy and exuberance, or the hole it leaves when it is gone. They teach us to expect unrealistic things from love, and when we don’t get them, they teach us to question whether our love was ever true to begin with. Love means pursuing someone and ending up with them in the end against all odds. Love means braving obstacles and suffering losses for the sake of someone whose affection is worth all that we have lost. Love means candies and cards and gifts. Love means never having to say you are sorry.

But we know from experience that love is so much more than this. Love is so often hard work and disappointment. Love is often painful. Our cultural expectations of romance and affection do little to prepare us for the long, hard journey of actually loving someone, and perhaps do even less to teach us how to be loved. When we actually engage in relationship with another person—whether platonic or romantic—we often find that we need to confess the ways that we have deceived ourselves and others about what love is, and to receive forgiveness. Love, it turns out, does not mean never having to say you are sorry, but rather desiring to say we are sorry.

When we love one another, we make ourselves vulnerable, and we cause one another pain, both intentional and accidental. In a loving relationship, repentance is a necessity. More than that, it is a genuine desire to repair the bonds of love that are strained by our acts of thoughtlessness, jealousy, selfishness, or cruelty. To love another person is to open ourselves up to pain. Because we are mortal creatures, every loving relationship is bound to end in heartbreak and separation, whether by parting ways or death. Greif is the raw, ugly side of love that we don’t very often sing or write movies about.

And yet, in spite of all this, love is still worthwhile. We continue to choose to love one another as friends, as family, as spouses and partners because that love, in spite of all the pain and baggage associated with it, continues to fill a deep need and longing that we have for connection.

That longing is what Ash Wednesday is all about. It is first and foremost about God’s longing to be restored to right relationship with us, and also about our longing to be reconciled to God and one another. Whatever Lenten practices we might observe—prayer, fasting, acts of kindness, reading scripture, or whatever else—are observed in order to strengthen that loving relationship between us and God. And, as Scripture reminds us, we cannot be in a healthy, loving relationship with God without also being in healthy, loving relationship with one another.

We see this as Isaiah preaches about justice and Paul writes about reconciliation. We demonstrate and live into our love for God most fully by loving one another. To love God is to love our neighbors; to repent before God is to be reconciled to one another; and to heal the relationships we have among ourselves is to heal our relationship with God.

Ash Wednesday is both a call to repentance and a reminder of our mortality. It is a day when we acknowledge that we do wrong to one another and to God because we are frail, broken beings; but it is also a day when we acknowledge that because God loves us, we are capable of more. We may be frail and broken, but God is making us whole.

Tonight, as we come forward to receive ashes on our foreheads as a sign of our repentance and a reminder of our mortality, we receive those ashes out of God’s love. Because God loves us, God grieves with us over our mistakes and failings, and God has promised to give us the strength and endurance to be reconciled to one another. Because God loves us, we are more than the sum of our weaknesses and faults. Stephanie and I will not be drawing hearts on your foreheads tonight, but the mark you receive is a sign of love that is greater and deeper and wider than the tired clichés that we continue to use to talk about love.

Instead of hearts on our foreheads, we will receive the sign of the cross—an instrument of torture, humiliation and death used by powerful people to remind the poor and weak of their place. We are sealed with this sign because our failures and sinfulness and the ways we harm ourselves and one another bear witness to the death we inflicted upon Jesus. As Paul says, we carry in our bodies the death of Christ so that the life of Christ may also be made visible in our bodies. Because God loves us, Jesus endured the humiliation and death of the cross, and by doing so he changed the cross from a sign of oppression and defeat into a sign of God’s victory and life.

The cross is a reminder that God’s love can overcome the sin and death that we carry around, transforming our rejection of God into God’s ultimate victory over our sinfulness. On the cross, Jesus takes all the hatred, the evil, the sin, the death that we can throw at God and one another and redeems it, allowing even death itself to be a source of new life.

This is God’s valentine to us: a reminder that nothing we do or say can ever remove us from the love of God that transcends heaven and earth, life and death to be with us. Jesus has made our greatest shame become the focal point of our salvation. Tonight as we reflect on our failure to live according to God’s will for us and the death that brings, we are reminded that, in Jesus Christ, death has become the gateway to new life. We may be dust, and we will one day be dust again, but we are dust into which God has breathed the breath of life.

Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

February 11, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Looking for God in All the Wrong Places” recorded in worship (12:33)
Feast of the Transfiguration, Year B
Texts: 2 Kgs 2.1-12; 2 Cor 4.3-6; Mk 9.2-10

According to tradition, Elijah never died. When he was swept by a whirlwind directly into heaven where he continues to live with God, awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Observant Jews still wait for and expect Elijah’s return; at the Passover Seder dinner, an empty place is set for him in case he shows up to announce the coming of the Messiah.

The Bible records that Moses died, but because nobody ever knew where he was buried it was widely speculated that he never actually died, either. Rather, because he was the most important prophet ever to speak for God, many believe that God took also Moses into heaven.

You may remember a few weeks ago the reading from Deuteronomy in which Moses delivers God’s message that God will raise up for the people a prophet like Moses. The books of 1 & 2 Kings suggest that Elijah was this prophet. Like Moses, he received the word of the LORD on Mt. Sinai—not on stone tablets, but in a still, small voice. Like the rod Moses carried, Elijah had a mantle that he wore as a symbol of authority. With the mantle he was able to do miracles, like when he used it to part the waters of the Jordan for him and Elisha to cross. Elijah was a great prophet in the tradition of the first great prophet, Moses. Both of them were said never to have died, but to instead live with God in heaven.

When these two holy men who still live with Jesus appear on the mountaintop with Jesus, it suggests that Jesus, too, is a great prophet in the tradition of Elijah and of Moses before him; that Jesus is the prophet written about in Deuteronomy. “You shall listen to such a prophet,” God said. That message is repeated on the mountain: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

Six days earlier, Peter had identified Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus told his disciples to keep that identity a secret, but he then immediately began teaching—publicly—that he would have to be handed over to the religious authorities who would torture and kill him, and that he would rise again. This doesn’t fit the pattern: if he is a prophet in the tradition of Moses and Elijah, if he is really the Son of God, then we would expect that he will not die, either.

This is what is so interesting about the Transfiguration. It both fits the pattern of what we expect from the divine Son of God, and it doesn’t. All the markers of God’s presence are there: the mountaintop, the clouds and great prophets and shining glory, even the voice of God; but whereas Jesus openly taught about his coming suffering and death, the Transfiguration had only three witnesses, and they were told not to say anything.

After Moses came back from talking to God on Mt. Sinai, his face would glow with the glory of God. It was like holding a glow-in-the-dark sticker up to a lamp and then turning out the light. Unfortunately for Moses, like the sticker, the divine light shining from his face eventually faded. After he had delivered God’s words to the people and let them see his shining face, he would wear a veil; not so that people couldn’t see the glory, but so that they couldn’t see when it was gone. He may have worn the veil to remind people of God’s presence, or he may have done it to keep them from seeing him as a regular old human being just like they were.

St. Paul uses the image of Moses’ veil to talk about God’s glory. Like Moses, and like Peter, we see the glory of God in the shiny things, like the Transfiguration or the light from Moses’ face. We see God’s blessings in all the good things that happen to us: good health, a warm and safe place to live, a promotion, good fortune in the stock market. Like Moses and his veil, we think that God’s glory is only there when we see the light shining. When the light fades—when things are not going well, when trouble and misfortune set in—we believe that God’s glory and God’s blessing are gone.

That’s why when Jesus began teaching about his suffering and death, Peter took him aside and rebuked him, tried to set him straight. God’s greatest prophets and God’s Messiah don’t die. People won’t follow a Messiah who dies. That’s not shiny enough, not glorious enough. If Jesus wants people to listen to him, he’s going to have to give them a show, like Moses’ shining face speaking to him on the mountaintop.

In his book Hunting the Divine Fox, Robert Capon writes, “We crucified Jesus, not because he was God, but because he blasphemed: he claimed to be God then failed to come up to our standards for assessing the claim. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t what we were looking for. Our kind of Messiah would come down from a cross… He wouldn’t do a stupid thing like rising from the dead. He would do a smart thing like never dying.”

Peter and James and John and all of us see God’s glory in the great and mighty and miraculous things. We see the glory of God in the shining face of Moses, in the immortality of the prophets who speak truths and perform miracles in God’s name. Paul says that to see God’s glory in only those things is to be blind. We are wearing veils over our faces that keep us from seeing the glory of God where it is really shining: not in the dazzling face of Moses or the radiant white of Jesus’ clothing, but in the face of Jesus himself—the Crucified One.

According to Paul, it isn’t Moses’ face, shining with glory that reveals God to us, but the face of Jesus—the face contorted in pain and breathing his last on the cross. It is in this ugly act of sin and rejection that we see who God truly is: not the kind of God who overpowers or erases evil, but the kind of God who wades through it with us.

This is what Peter and James and John and the others don’t get; and it is why Jesus tells them not to talk about the things they know until after his resurrection. Until they understand what rising from the dead means, they cannot understand what Messiah means, what the Transfiguration means, what all the healings and exorcisms and miracles mean. None of it makes sense apart from the cross.

The feast of the Transfiguration is not so much about Jesus being transfigured on the mountaintop as it is about the way Jesus transfigures our perception of the world around us. Through the lens of the cross, we begin to see the world the way it truly is. Those places we call god-forsaken are actually where God is most present. God has not abandoned us in times of trouble or pain; God has settled in beside us.

What this means for us is that Jesus isn’t just found in the obvious places, or the obvious people. He isn’t in the beautiful churches or the music that stirs our souls or the miraculous recovery from an illness. He is in the ordinary, the mundane, even the ugly. He’s in simple bread and wine and water. He’s in the heart that aches for another. He’s in the pitiful face of a human being begging for spare change. He’s in the grief that tears us apart when someone we love dies.

It also means that it’s not our perfection, our goodness, our strengths that reveal God, but our weakness, our humanness. Moses veiled his face so that people would not see his humanness when the light faded, but it is the humanness of Christ, especially evident in his death, that reveals God’s glory. That humanness that we share with him is where God is made visible to our neighbors and friends. The fact that God uses such imperfect and unreliable people like us testifies that there is nowhere God is not. “We have this treasure in clay jars,” Paul writes, “so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us… We…always carry in [our bodies] the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” (2 Cor 4.7, 10)

The glory of God is that Christ did not come as a savior only for holiest of the holy, people like Elijah and Moses who were so great and powerful that they never died and whose deeds and faces shown with the radiance of heaven. God’s glory is shown in a savior who came for all those who are flawed and broken and imperfect, all who suffer and die. In him our suffering and death have been transfigured to reveal the glory of God to a suffering and dying world. Everywhere death touches us—in pain, in illness, in grief, in anger, in injustice—that is where we see Jesus because that is where he teaches us what it means to rise from the dead.

The lesson of Transfiguration is not that we can’t stay on the mountain with Moses and Elijah forever; it’s that Jesus is forever with us on the plain, in the valleys and even on the cross. God’s glory isn’t revealed in the glowing white clothes or immortal prophets, but a God who lives with us, a God who walks with us, a God who suffers and dies with us. God’s glory is revealed in a God who rises from the dead with us.

Holy Controversy

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Holy Controversy” recorded in worship (11:42)
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany; Lectionary 04, Year B
Texts: Deut 18.15-20; 1 Cor 8.1-13; Mk 1.21-28

Although it’s been several weeks now since we read the story of Jesus’ baptism, Mark’s gospel is trying to show us that we are still telling that same story. Jesus is baptized and the Holy Spirit descends on him. Immediately, the Spirit sends him into the wilderness to be tempted. When he comes back, he calls the first disciples and takes them to Capernaum, where he immediately begins teaching on the Sabbath, and immediately a man shows up with an unclean spirit. Once Jesus casts the spirit out, the news immediately spreads throughout all of Galilee. These are not a bunch of unconnected events, but a series of related incidents all resulting from Jesus’ baptism.

At the Jordan, the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus—but where did it go from there? It didn’t leave, but remained with him; it possessed him. We don’t tend to think of possession in those terms, but then we don’t tend to think of possession at all outside of horror movies. In the world of Mark’s gospel, Jesus was possessed by the Holy Spirit at his baptism, which is why when the man possessed by the unclean spirit shows up in the synagogue, Jesus cannot escape confrontation. Holy and unclean meet face to face, and a spiritual cage match ensues.

Whereas we celebrate baptism as a relatively quiet and mundane affair, Jesus’ baptism is anything but. His baptism does not allow him to blend in with everybody else, but instead sends him into direct confrontation with them. Mark tells us that the people in the synagogue at Capernaum were “astounded,” but he doesn’t elaborate on what that means. It could mean that they were all terribly impressed, but it could also mean that they were simply terrified. When the man comes forward to confront Jesus, the question he asks is telling: “Have you come here to destroy us?” I’ve always kind of assumed “us” referred to all the unclean spirits and demons possessing people; but what if “us” was intended to refer to the synagogue, to their simple community and traditional worship?

It might be that the “unclean spirit” in the text is not a demon in the classical sense—an evil supernatural power—but that it is demonic in that it is opposed to God and to God’s reign. It might be that the unclean spirit is the sense of “the way we’ve always done it” that Jesus disturbed—that Jesus came in order to disturb—by following the call of his baptism and teaching about the reign of God.

We often read these biblical stories of demon possession as archaic stories of mental illness, assuming that ancient people were too superstitious and naive to identify what we can now easily explain. Reading the story in this way allows those of us who have decided that we are not mentally ill to let ourselves off the hook. It allows us to forget that we are ourselves unclean before God; that we, too, need God to exorcise from among us the attitudes and loyalties that keep us from joyfully following Jesus’ call to participate in the hope of the kingdom. It would appear that it is us, not the ancients, who are too superstitious and naive to grasp that the story is actually about all of us.

In any case, Jesus’ baptism drives him into direct—and noisy—confrontation with the good, church-going people of Capernaum. His teaching is controversial, but it is not crazy. It has authority; authority that cannot be denied when Jesus casts out the unclean spirit. This is what Jesus meant when he said that he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10.34): there is no room in God’s kingdom for the demonic powers of the world and the human heart that are fundamentally opposed to God’s reign. Part of Jesus’ baptismal vocation is to confront and drive out those powers and to make way for God’s kingdom.

In the baptism we share with him, Jesus also calls us to proclaim the good news of Christ in word and deed and to strive for peace and justice in all the earth. Like Jesus, we also are called to exorcise the demonic powers that resist God’s reign of wholeness and healing. At first, we might imagine that we are called to be like Jesus, prophets going into synagogues and casting out demons, teaching with authority.

That sounds good on paper, but real life is a lot messier. The truth is we can’t just go around declaring what the will of God is because we just don’t know. We don’t need to look very hard to see that there are a lot of different Christian traditions in the world that teach a lot of different things. There are a lot of Christians who believe a lot of different things. The Church is divided on all kinds of issues ranging from the acceptance of LGBT people to gun control to abortion to care for creation. What clearly seems like God’s will to some appears evil and demonic to others. It is easy for us to begin to wonder who among us is speaking the words commanded by God and who is speaking a word that God has not commanded them to speak.

In the face of this ambiguity, it’s a lot easier to keep quiet, to leave the hard and often dangerous work of proclaiming the good news and striving for peace and justice to those who are called to be prophets. We’d rather not risk upsetting all the good, church-going people around us by saying something that might be unpopular. What this means in practice is that most of us keep silent while the loudest and brashest fight amongst themselves. What it means is that the same unclean spirit entraps us, causing us to wonder, “Has he come to destroy us?”

Christ has called each of us through baptism to be a part of God’s kingdom. God wants us to be proclaiming and striving, and as you may recall, God always gets what God wants; to resist Jesus’ call doesn’t lead to anything good. But we sometimes forget that Christ does not call us to do these things alone. We are also called to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the Word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper, and to love and serve all people, following the example of Jesus. Part of fulfilling our baptismal calling is doing this work together. Like Jesus, that will lead us into controversy and confrontation. It may even mean some noisy showdowns in the middle of worship; but it also means that when we disagree with one another, we disagree not as enemies but as siblings, washed in the same baptism, members of the same community, each of us following the same Jesus.

God doesn’t call us first and foremost to be correct, but to be active. We may not always get it right the first time, but that is why we practice confession and forgiveness within this community God has given us so that we can learn and grow together into a fuller understanding of God’s will. We are mistaken when we think that salvation is an individual thing; God intends salvation to be communal. That means that all those different ideas and diverse perspectives that exist within the Church are not only acceptable but actually the way God wants it to be.

We need one another: left and right, extreme and moderate, loud and quiet, confident and doubtful, God calls us into community together so that we can push and pull one another, so that we can reign each other in and egg each other on. We are baptized into a community so that our community can shape us, and so that we can shape our community.

In our confrontations, in our disagreements and our conflicts, love is our starting point and our destination. We may know lots of things; we may know how right we are and how logical our own position is, but as St. Paul says, knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. In love we are called to listen to one another, to talk together, to grow together. In love, we are all swept along together into the imminent and inexorable reign of God.

We will not always agree on what God is calling us to, but we are called to move forward; as Luther put it, we are called to sin boldly, and to trust even more boldly in Christ, that he will continue to cast out the unclean spirits that tell us not to rock the boat, to keep our heads down and keep quiet. As we continue to work for God’s kingdom, we do so in confidence, following where Christ calls us, repenting where we must, forgiving when we can, but always trusting that with Jesus at the head, we will end up right where God wants us to be.

God Always Gets What God Wants

January 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Third Sunday after Epiphany; Lectionary 3, Year B
Texts: Jonah 3.1-5, 10; 1 Cor 7.29-31; Mk 1.14-20

Moses, Elijah, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah. They are all remembered as great prophets of the LORD; but do you know what else they had in common? They were all failures. Even with the word of the LORD on their lips and sometimes the power of God in their hands, more often than not, people did not listen to them. Elijah thought he was the only faithful one left in all of Israel. Moses got so fed up with people ignoring him that he smacked a rock with his magic stick, instead of speaking to it like God told him to. Jeremiah’s message was so deeply unpopular he had to finish out his life in exile among the enemy because he was safer in Babylon than among his own people.

You know who wasn’t a failure, though? Jonah. Jonah was the most successful prophet in the entire Bible. He was so wildly effective that he went a day’s journey into this city that was three days walk across and sort of mumbled his message and left, and the ENTIRE. CITY. REPENTED. Nineveh was so penitent even the cows and goats wore sackcloth and fasted. Can you imagine what those other prophets would have given to have even a 10th of Jonah’s success? And yet, Jonah—the most successful prophet in the entire Hebrew Bible—ends this story crying in his beer. He should have been elated; he should have taken his show on the road and had the adulation of thousands, but instead when we leave him he is moping in the desert.

Jonah and the Whale, Folio from a Jami al-Tavarikh, circa 1400. Public Domain

Read more…

The Waters of Creation

January 7, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “The Waters of Creation” recorded in worship (12:50)
Baptism of Our Lord, Year B
Texts: Gen 1.1-5; Acts 19.1-7; Mk 1.4-13

According to the Babylonians, the world was born in blood. When the storm-god Marduk slew his grandmother, the goddess Tiamat in the form of a terrible sea monster, he cut her body in two; with one half, he fashioned the heavens, and with the other half he made the earth. The world and all that is in it were fashioned from her guts and gore.

Illustration of an Ancient Babylonian bas-relief, possibly depicting Marduk fighting against Tiamat from the Enuma Elish. King, Leonard William [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons

But the Israelites, living in exile in Babylon, told another story. According to them, the world was not born in blood, but in water. In the beginning, the world was formless and void and a wind from God swept over the waters. We don’t get the beauty and depth of the Hebrew poetry in the English translation. First of all, “formless and void” doesn’t rhyme in English like it does in Hebrew: the earth was “tohu vavohu.” The word “wind” can also mean “breath” or “spirit” or even more broadly, “life.” Even the word in Hebrew sounds breathy and pregnant with quiet anticipation: ruach.

And then there’s the word “swept.” Other translations say “moved” or “blew” or even “brooded,” but it can also mean to “flutter” or “dance,” perhaps we might say to “shimmy.” The line gives a sense of something vibrant and fertile and gentle from God that playfully tickles the face of the great deep. The act of creation is an act of joy and merriment, a work of wonder and curiosity, a labor of love. There is no cataclysm or upheaval, no violent acts of disruptive power; only the peaceful but dramatic image of God speaking into the darkness.

That is a drastic departure from the Babylonian narrative of creation, where the world is created in violence and baptized in blood. The book of Genesis was written down during the Babylonian Exile by people struggling to retain their faith and identity as people of God. As their neighbors recounted Marduk’s glorious and bloody victory over Tiamat to explain the world around them, the Israelites shared the story of God’s delicate and even whimsical dance at the beginning of creation. Where their Babylonian captors saw a world of to be brutally and violently subdued, the Israelites looked deeper to see the beauty and goodness of what God had made. Instead of killing a sea monster while creating the world, God made one, simply for the fun of it (Ps 104.26).

Mark presents the baptism of Jesus as an act of creation. Like the story of Genesis, it is affectionate and fantastical, suffused with life and love and possibility. The world began in water, and so does the good news of Jesus Christ. Initially, God separated the waters from the waters with the heavens. There’s another poetic detail in the Hebrew of Genesis that escapes our ears in English is that heaven—shamayyim—rhymes with water—mayyim. In Mark’s story, as the heavens are torn open and the Spirit of God once again descends on the waters, we are reminded of the act of creation as shamayyim once again meets mayyim. The scene dramatically shows us that God is at work doing something amazing; and this dripping wet man coming up out of the water immediately joins God in that amazing thing God is doing.

“Baptism of Christ,” by Dave Zelenka from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US

The fact that Jesus shares this act of creation with us—that we have received with him the same Holy Spirit that first flitted across the face of the deep—means that, like him, we have been drawn into God’s creative task. The Babylonians saw the world as a cruel and brutal place, a place where people must be cruel and brutal in order to succeed. Our lives are anchored in a different story. The story of creation in Genesis was never intended to be a science lesson or even a history lesson, but a theological treatise: is a confident proclamation that although the dark and chaotic sea has existed from the beginning, the God who adopts us and invigorates us through our baptism is the God who peacefully, joyfully, even playfully brought order out of that chaos.

More than that, the story is a hopeful testimony to the work that God is still doing. We say that after God had created everything, God stepped back to take it all in and declared that it was very good. Then, on the seventh day, God rested; God did not retire, did not leave, did not quit, God rested. The story implies that on the eighth day—the first day of the new week—God picked right back up and got back to work creating, got right back to making what was very good even better. This creation story is echoed throughout the gospels, where on the eighth day—the first day of the week—God’s Son got up and did the very same thing. Though he had died, he did not retire, did not quit, did not leave; he stood up and continued on because God’s work was not yet finished.

It’s true that there is much that is wrong with the world. Anyone can see the evil that constantly threatens to destroy us, always worming its way into human hearts and human deeds like the waves of the primordial deep constantly chewing away at the shoreline. But unlike the Babylonians and their violent gods who overcame violence with violence, who ruled with force and might, our God shows us that though death and chaos surround us, life continues. The life that God has created—the life that God has given to us—is not overcome by evil and death. The life of God shared with us in baptism is life that keeps getting up, rolling away the stone, and fluttering over the face of the dark and chaotic deep.

We gather here as God’s baptized to be reminded of this. We come here on the first day of the week to hear again the stories of God’s good creation, to renew ourselves at the font of God’s promises, to be sustained with the life of God’s Son at this table, and then, as at our baptism, we are sent out once more into the wilderness, filled with the Holy Spirit. Our worship here is preparation for life outside these walls, rehearsal for the eternal reign of God.

God’s work of creation is not done; God is still creating, still bringing life and order out of death and chaos, still proclaiming the world to be very good. Washed in the water over which God’s Spirit broods, we are the place where shamayyim and mayyim meet; God’s presence within this community—within us—and our presence within God’s world are part of God’s continuing work of creation, bringing life and light out of death and darkness.

This is what it means when we say that, in baptism, God saves us. Salvation is not being assured of a place in heaven (though that may be a part of it), but rather being assured of a place on earth. Salvation is the promise that God has something for us to contribute to the redemption of this beautiful and broken world we call home. God saves us by bringing us together into this community where we might bear witness to what God is doing.

Jesus wasn’t baptized by John in the Jordan because he needed repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He was baptized so that God’s creative act of washing the world clean could continue through him, and so through us. Through our connection to the life and death of Jesus in baptism, God’s moment of creation with the Spirit dancing over the waters becomes a part of us, and we become a part of the new thing that God is doing to renew the face of the earth.

It’s not hard to look around and see all the terrible things that are happening. War and famine, poverty and crime, addiction and abuse, partisanship and polarization. It’s not hard to imagine that God is either absent from or ignorant of all the terrible things happening in God’s “good” world; but baptism reminds us that God is neither absent nor ignorant. Quite the opposite, in fact: God is active and busy bringing renewal and redemption. The world is not born in blood, but in water, and the cleansing waters of God’s righteousness—the waters in which we have all been washed—are even now rinsing away the world’s tears and scouring out its stains. In baptism we become the drops in God’s flood of healing and redemption; water suffused with the Holy Spirit of God.

And so we gather here to be whetted again for God’s work, to be reminded that God’s answer to the world’s pain is alive in us, and we go out because we have been sent. Among us, God is proclaiming peace and healing to a broken world. We have heard the good news, and in Christ and through is baptism, we are the good news. Thanks be to God that all the stuff out there that terrifies us is not the end of the story. Thanks be to God that through the waters of baptism the work of creation continues.