What Can We Do?

November 11, 2018 2 comments

Audio Recording of “What Can We Do?” recorded in worship (14:04)
25th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 32B (Proper 27B)
Texts: 1 Kgs 17.8-16; Heb 9.24-28; Mk 12.38-44

4 mass murders in 2 weeks. On Oct 24, two people were killed at a grocery store in Jefferson, KY. On Oct 27, 11 worshipers were killed during Sabbath services at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. On Nov 2, two people were killed at a yoga studio in Tallahassee, FL. And this week, on Nov 7, 12 people were killed at a bar in Thousand Oaks, CA. This one hits closer to home for us, because not only do we have folks in our congregation who have lived near or who have connections to that part of California, but Thousand Oaks is home to California Lutheran University, who lost an alumnus in that shooting.

Whether or not we feel the pain and grief of any one of these events more than another, we are all feeling the burden of their collective weight. The shooting in Thousand Oaks is the 307th mass shooting in the United States in 2018. To put that in perspective, today, November 11th, is the 315th day of 2018. And sadly, 2018 is unremarkable in that aspect. 2017 gave us 346 mass murders, and 2016 had 382*. After seeing the same sad story played out again and again, many of us are feeling angry, frustrated, defeated. We wish there was something we could do to stop the violence, something anyone could do. We have options, of course, but while we continue to argue over which ones are worthwhile, lives continue to be lost. Read more…


A Vision of Hope

November 4, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “A Vision of Hope” recorded in worship (13:05)
All Saints Sunday
Texts: Isa 25.1-9; Rev 21.1-7; Jn 11.32-44

*Note Bene: The customary ritual to observe the Feast of All Saints in the Church is to light candles in remembrance of all the members of the congregation who have died in the last year. In our congregation, we also light candles in honor of those baptized within the last year, and this year during the hymn that follows the sermon, we invited people to come up and light candles in memory or honor of anyone they wished, living or dead. The lit candles are placed on the baptismal font—a reminder that it is through baptism that God sanctifies us and makes us holy.

The prophecies of Isaiah and St. John the Seer offer us hope today. Their reading today is well timed, because we are in desperate need of hope. Many among us are distressed at the direction in which our country and our world seem to be headed with the rise of increasingly authoritarian governments, the threat of nuclear war, and a changing climate. The rhetoric of hatred, fear and division fills our national and international dialogue, and all the while the poor, the immigrant, the oppressed, and the outsider are being slowly crushed under the mounting economic and cultural pressure.

The midterm elections Tuesday offer hope to some that at least a few of the problems on the national level might be addressed and reversed, but the truth is that regardless of the outcome on Tuesday, we will still be living in trying times. It is for seasons such as this that Isaiah and John recorded their visions; to remind us that even when everything seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.

Mural of Christ’s tears over the bombs of war, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55059

Read more…

The Freedom of the Cross

October 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “The Freedom of the Cross” recorded in worship (12:15)
Reformation Sunday
Texts: Jer 31.31-34; Rom 3.19-28; Jn 8.31-36

This story is proof that St. John the Evangelist has a sense of humor. To say, “We Jews have never been slaves to anyone” is nonsense. Jewish history is defined by captivity: slavery in Egypt, exile in Babylon, and—except for about 50 years as an independent state under the Maccabees—a parade of foreign rulers. The tragic events in Pittsburgh this weekend only serve to emphasize what we already knew: that the Jewish people are still not free.

I think St. John throws this joke in here to make us laugh at ourselves. It is plainly ridiculous for Jews to say “we have never been slaves to anybody;” and John’s point is that it is equally ridiculous for us to say it. To be sure, we are just as convinced of that truth as were the folks who were talking to Jesus, but we are also just as wrong. It doesn’t just have to do with sin, as Jesus says, but with lots of things.

One of the reasons we read this text on Reformation Sunday is that it reminds to us of our freedom from the legalistic attitude of the medieval Catholic Church—that idea that we can only be saved by obeying God’s list of rules. While it’s easy for us to cast aspersions on the Pope Leo and the Catholic Church of Luther’s time, we would do well to remember that the Church didn’t intend to be corrupt. It was not the malicious leadership of terrible people who created that system, but the earnest, genuine desire by well-meaning people to be nearer to God and to bring about God’s kingdom on earth. The pope and the Church cultivated that legalism as a means to encourage people to live godly lives. What Luther and his colleagues realized was that instead of freeing people from sin and evil, the Church was simply imposing a different sort of captivity.

The confounding thing is that even while captivity is stifling, it can also be comforting. We take strength and pride from our traditions, having a familiar pattern to follow gives us confidence. It becomes very hard for us to tell when the systems and institutions we have built to protect ourselves start becoming more harmful than helpful. The Reformation is just one example of the ongoing human struggle to reshape our institutions as we grow beyond them.

Now, 500 years after the Reformation, that struggle continues. We see it now playing out in our federal government, in our immigration policy, in race and gender relations, and many other places. In the Church, that struggle takes the shape of a general rejection of organized religion in favor of a personalized kind of spirituality. More people feel captive to the system as it exists, and are seeking to gain freedom from it.

Those of us in the Church find ourselves standing with the medieval Catholics and the Jews in John’s gospel, saying, “What do you mean by saying, ‘you will be made free?’ We have never been slaves to anyone!” and it sounds just as silly when we say it. Lutherans can sometimes be among the worst about this; we claim to enjoy liberation from religious legalism, but we are unable to see just how tightly we are bound to a specific tradition. In spite of the fact that a growing number of Lutherans in North America are no longer from Scandinavian or German backgrounds, in many congregations Lutheranism remains synonymous with Oktoberfest or Lutefisk. Our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is 98% white; the African Methodist Episcopal Church at 94% black is more racially diverse than we are. Whether we realize it or not, Lutheranism in America is held captive to the Northern European identity.

My point is that St. John’s punchline is intended not only to make us laugh, but to also make us look at ourselves in the mirror and realize that there are things which may be holding us captive that we do not even see. It may be that our imaginations are captive to “the way we’ve always done things,” or that our experience of Church is captive to certain cultural or racial stereotypes we do not even recognize. We are as enslaved as we have ever been, just as in need of freedom as those poor, oblivious people in St. John’s story.

So how can we free ourselves from those things that bind us? How do we stop celebrating a 500-year-old monk and actually keep reforming the Church and ourselves? The fact is that we can’t: “We confess that we are captive to these things and cannot free ourselves.” The solution, Jesus says, lies in knowing the truth. But what is the truth?

When we read this story, the word that most catches our attention is “freedom;” but I think the real key lies in another word, one that is often obscured by our English translations. It is a word that is sprinkled liberally throughout John’s gospel; a theme that runs like a red thread through his entire narrative. That word is “abide.” Actually, there are lots of ways to render it in English: “abide,” “dwell,” “remain,” “continue,” “belong,” “endure…” They are all translations of the same Greek word that St. John uses over and over and over again.

You’ve heard it in lots of different places throughout John’s gospel. At Jesus’ baptism, John sees “the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” (1.32) “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life” (6.27), and “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (6.56) “In my Father’s house, there are many rooms.” (14.2) “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” (15.4)

St. John uses this word on many different levels. It is often literally means where a person is or where they are staying, but it also has a sense of intimacy, of connection, of belonging, of endurance. In today’s story, it shows up when Jesus says, “If you abide in my word, you are my disciples,” and “a slave does not abide in the house, but the son abides there forever.”

The truth, then, is not a doctrine to be believed or a tradition to follow or a set of rules to obey. We so often reduce truth to these things because it’s much easier that way. We think that if we believe the correct thing or do the correct thing or belong to the correct thing, we will be free from fear, from death, from condemnation. Instead, faith is not about obedience to law or doctrine, it is not the claiming of an identity (like being a descendant of Abraham or a Lutheran). Freedom doesn’t come through obedience or service; it comes through relationship. The truth Jesus wants us to know isn’t a fact, but a person. Jesus wants to abide in us, and for us to abide in him.

St. Paul says the same thing with different words when he writes that we are saved by the faithfulness of Christ rather than by our own works. It is what Jeremiah imagines when he says that God will write the law on our hearts. We mostly think of freedom as the state of being unhindered by other people or considerations, but Jesus says freedom is not the ability to escape the house, but rather the ability to become part of the family. Families are bound together by love and concern for one another; being bound to God and to one another in that way is how Jesus offers freedom.

Legalism—like the legalism of the medieval Catholic Church—is a quick and dirty way to approximate relationship. We like it because it’s easy for us to adhere to a list of expectations, and because of that even the gospel message of “saved by grace through faith” often becomes just another form of legalism in the sense that we derive from it the command to “believe” certain things about God in order to be saved. We prefer laws written on stone tablets where we can easily see them.

God offers us something much more freeing—and much more difficult. Instead of writing the truth on tablets of stone for us to read and follow, God writes the truth on our hearts. Jesus comes to teach us not to be obedient, but to trust, to have faith. Freedom comes not from following laws or memorizing proverbs, but from abiding as a part of God’s house.

That’s what we celebrate today, what we celebrate every day we gather. As we come together around this table and this font, as we lift our voices in songs of praise, we celebrate that in Christ, God abides with us, and we abide with God—and with one another. The law of love has been written on our hearts in love: “we love because God first loved us.” We have grace not because of what we believe or what we do or who we are or where we come from, but only because God chooses to give it. God washes us, God feeds us, God loves us; and that love frees us to abide with God and one another as one human family in God’s name forever.

That’s the freedom we celebrate today: not the freedom that liberates us from all obligations, but the freedom of God which binds us together in love, the freedom to abide with God and one another. This is the freedom which makes us one, which allows us to serve one another and care for each other knowing that God’s family always has our back—and that we have theirs. That is the freedom of the cross.

Reimagining Glory

October 21, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Reimagining Glory” recorded in worship (13:43)
22nd Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 29B (Proper 24B)
Texts: Isa 53.4-12; Heb 5.1-10; Mk 10.32-45

Reading this scene, it’s hard not to think of James and John as total blockheads. For the third time, Jesus has told his disciples that his destiny is to go to Jerusalem, get arrested, be beaten and crucified; and as soon as he’s through talking, these two waltz up and ask him for positions of authority “in his glory.” We’re left asking ourselves: have they heard a word he has said?

That’s how I’ve always read this text: as one more in a long line of bumbling disciple stories. In Mark’s gospel, the disciples are perpetually dim-witted; Jesus keeps trying to teach them, but they consistently don’t get it. And yet, as we read this story today, I can’t help but wonder: what if James and John are the only two in this story who are getting it?

This series of Passion predictions begins with Peter’s confession. Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is, and Peter gets it right: “You are the Messiah.” Jesus then predicts for the first time that he will die in Jerusalem, and Peter, God bless him, demonstrates that he doesn’t yet understand what that means.

I think that just as this series opens, so it now concludes. James and John come to Jesus rightly asking to participate in Jesus’ glory. Notice that Jesus doesn’t correct them or rebuke them, but actually seems to accept their request. Like Peter, it’s pretty clear to Jesus (and to us) that they don’t quite know what they are asking for, but, just as Peter got the right answer, they now ask the right question. Perhaps the message of this story is not that James and John are too hungry for glory, but that we—like the other 10—are not hungry enough for it.

The sad truth is that, like the disciples, what we imagine when we think of glory is so small, so limited. We understand glory in terms of political power or wealth or fame. The glory we know is hard won and easily lost, it is diminished by those who would contest with us for it, it is rare and finite. When we imagine God, we so often think of just a more powerful version of ourselves: a God who basically agrees with me about what is right and wrong, a God who will smite all God’s enemies and rise above them to establish what I consider justice. Our idea of the glory of God is so often just more of the same privilege and violence, but on my side and with a bigger stick.

Bust of Caesar Augustus, from the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. Photo by Seth Novak.

This is what makes the other 10 disciples so angry at James and John. In asking for a share of Christ’s glory, they believe that the brothers are diminishing theirs. They have seen the Gentile rulers, the kings and governors and ceasars, and they know that there is only so much power to go around. James’ and John’s request is a direct attack on their interests. In the game of glory, there are winners and losers, and if James and John are to be the winners, that makes them the losers.

The disciples’ argument is just one example of the cycle of fear and retribution in which we are all stuck. The fear of losing what we have motivates us to fight against those who would take it from us. We fear losing our jobs to immigrants, we fear losing our safety or possessions to criminals, we fear losing our majority to the other party; and so we employ violence to keep those things from being taken from us. Violence is violence whether those battles are fought with words and insults, with dollars and delegates, or with weapons.

What the disciples fail to see is that for God, “glory” does not mean being the most powerful one in the room; and yet, this is the glory for which we long. The glory that God has in mind for us is instead an escape from this infinite loop of violence. Our problem is that we are satisfied with crumbs while God offers us an entire feast. As the argument among the disciples makes clear, it will take more than just a wise teacher or a prophet who speaks with the voice of God to break us out of this life of death. It will take blood.

We have been taught to hear Jesus’ words in a certain way. “The Son of Man came… to give his life as a ransom for many.” A ransom, of course, is the price paid to free someone from captivity. We have been taught that Jesus came to be punished for our sins, to appease God’s sense of justice and so let us off the hook. In other words, we have been taught that Jesus offers his life to ransom us from God; but God is not the one who enslaves us. We are captive to our own desire for retribution and violence. We are enslaved by death.

Jesus ransoms us, then, not from God, but from our need for retribution, our need to be healed by the stripes and bruises of others. We see today how his gospel message upsets and threatens the social order. When he threatens the power of Judea and of Rome, the authorities there respond the same way the disciples did: with violence. Whereas the disciples responded with angry words, the Empire responds with a cross. When Jesus tells James and John that the places at his right and left hand had already been assigned, he didn’t mean that God had already chosen who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven: he meant that Rome had already reserved those crosses for others.

Jesus could use to violence to save himself; he could call down an army of angels or call on the peasantry to rise up—but that would only continue the cycle. Instead, he chooses to break the cycle. He chooses to serve humanity by giving us what we need most, freeing us from this never ending need to triumph over our enemies, no matter the cost to himself. We always have and always will have the need to conquer, and so for us, Jesus allows us to conquer him. Now, finally, the cycle is broken.

That is how Jesus reveals God’s true glory: not in the gleaming armor of a conqueror, but in the dirty, bloodstained visage of a man who has given everything to save those he loves—even his very life. The ransom that Jesus brings is not from the wrath of an angry, punishing God, but from us and our fear and anger that keeps us enslaved to violence and death.

For all that’s changed in the last 2000 years, there is much that has remained the same. We still seek glory by imposing our will over those who would do the same to us. Today more than in recent memory, our leaders seek to attain power not through cooperation or compromise, but by getting our majority in congress and forcing through our agenda just as the others do to us when they are in power. It’s the same old cycle of violence, just without the ugly crosses. But Jesus has ransomed us from this sorry state by showing us the way out: God’s faithful people will take over the world not through the love of power, but through the power of love. Violence begets only violence, and so on unto death. Love, on the other hand, brings life; and that life is eternal.

I said that we underestimate God’s glory, and the cross is no different. We constantly reduce the cross to the price of admission to God’s kingdom, the mechanism by which God sets the scales right or acquits us through a loophole. Or we take it as a general example of some benevolent truth, like “love is stronger than death” or “giving one’s life for one’s friends.” We fail to see that the cross is so much more: the kingdom is the cross; the cross is the kingdom. The two are one in the same, for refusing to continue the cycle of violence will always mean we end up bearing its brunt. And yet, this is Jesus’ glory.

Zurbarán, Francisco, 1598-1664. Lamb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47446 [CC-BY-NC-SA 3.0]

Perhaps this is what James and John are beginning to understand in this story: rather than offering them seats in the halls of power, Jesus is actually going to break us out of this morass in which we are trapped—even if they don’t quite understand how it will work or what it will cost them; that a life lived in service to others rather than in fear of them or in power over them really is eternal, even if it is also short, because it is free.

When the sons of Zebedee make their request of Jesus, he promised them that they would drink the cup he drinks and be baptized with the baptism with which he had been baptized—a promise that is still good for us. Baptized into his death, we have died with him so that we can daily rise with him and share the endless life he continues to give. We come to this table to receive that life given for us, and as we eat and drink it, it changes us: rather than being like our overlords—the caesars and senators battling for power and glory—in this meal we are remade in the image of our Lord whose glory is not subjugation but service.

The death that once enslaved us has been defeated; its power over us is finished but that doesn’t mean it has disappeared. It still entices us, still seeks to convince us that only violence can save us, but Christ has forever ransomed us from that dark power. The victory is now assured. He lives forever as a testament to that victory. This is the glory he offers us—not a place at the top of the heap, but a toppling of the whole heap. God’s glory is not power the power to inflict death as a weapon, but a life free from the fear of death entirely.

Such a life can only be a life of service—service to friends, to strangers, even to enemies. Such a life can only be born of a deep and abiding love for all God’s children. It is a life too glorious for us to imagine; but thanks to Christ, it is not too glorious for us to live.

Lessons from the Least of These

October 7, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Lessons from the Least of These” recorded in worship (12:59)
20th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 27B (Proper 22B)
Texts: Gen 2.18-24; Heb 1.1-4, 2.5-12; Mk 10.2-16

Whenever this reading comes up, my first inclination is to talk about divorce because it’s something that has touched so many of us, directly or indirectly, and this reading has so much behind it that is not evident at first. It seems pastorally imperative to address the elephant in the room so as not to leave good people who wrestle with the specter of divorce feeling unjustly condemned.

However, addressing the first half of this reading every time it appears in the lectionary means neglecting the second half; and considering Jesus’ recurring message over these last three weeks to “welcome the little child” and to not “put a stumbling block before these little ones,” and “let the little children come to me, and do not stop them,” it feels wrong to continue to once again ignore the children who are ignored in these stories by all but Jesus. So, I think I’ll skip talking about divorce this year. Don’t worry, we’ll have plenty more chances.

As I have said previously, children in Jesus’ time were considered non-persons. This doesn’t mean they weren’t loved, but adults didn’t think children had anything to offer them. They were “pre-people;” their value was as future heirs and brides. For this reason, the disciples see them as a bother and a hindrance and try to get them out of the way so Jesus can go back to the far more important work of discussing the kingdom of God.

Unlike his disciples, however, Jesus sees children differently. He recognizes them as full persons, people with intrinsic value, people with a purpose and gifts to share in God’s kingdom. Jesus cannot talk about the kingdom of God without talking about all the people for whom that kingdom exists, which includes such “little ones” as children.

Cranach, Lucas, 1472-1553. Christ Blessing the Children, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56641

Attitudes towards children have changed over the last two millennia, but while we value children more as people than Jesus’ disciples did, we still often don’t recognize what they have to offer us. We still talk about children as the “future of the Church,” seeing them as the promise of future survival. In some ways, we regard them as little as Jesus’ disciples did, valuing only what they will be rather than who they are. Read more…

Millstones, Amputated Limbs, and the Unquenchable Fires of Hell

September 30, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Millstones, Amputated Limbs, and the Unquenchable Fires of Hell” recorded in worship (15:01)
19th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 26B (Proper 21B)
Texts: Num 11.4-29; Jas 5.13-20; Mk 9.38-50

In Luther’s writings, he talks about the “Two Kingdoms,” the right-hand and the left-hand of God. The “right-hand kingdom” of God has to do with things eternal, salvation for example. In this realm, God is in control and grace is the law of the land. However, in order to establish order among God’s people on earth, there also exists the “left-hand kingdom,” supervised by earthly rulers who enforce secular laws. Luther writes that this kingdom also belongs to God, and God is still in control, but God exerts that control by appointing earthly rulers. Guilt in the left-hand does not equate to guilt on the right—one can be forgiven of sin but still need to serve an earthly sentence. This “two kingdoms doctrine” of Luther’s justifies earthly authority as a gift of God. It is a fairly seminal Lutheran teaching, and informs much of his other work.

However, in Namibia during the resistance to Apartheid, the Lutheran churches there were faced with a problem. Luther had used this “Two Kingdoms” doctrine to justify his resistance to the Peasants’ Revolt during the Reformation, claiming that the princes had the divine mandate to enforce secular law; and in Namibia it was being used to justify not only Apartheid, but also the silence from the Christian community against it. As Luther had thought, so many Lutherans decided that Apartheid was a creature of the left-hand kingdom and so was not something that the Church had any cause to speak against.

Bishop Kleopas Dumeni from Namibia at the LWF Ninth Assembly, July 1997. Photo courtesy Lutheran World Federation (CC BY-SA 2.0)

And so, the Namibian Lutherans decided to reject the “Two Kingdoms” doctrine. This was not done lightly or without debate, but ultimately the Lutherans of Namibia felt that it did more harm than good. It was not something that spoke to them in their context, and was being used to justify terrible oppression and even violence. Did repudiating this teaching make them less Lutheran? Perhaps; but it also helped them to stand up for the rights of the “little ones” who were suffering at the hands of Christian people. Read more…

Where Can We Find Jesus?

September 23, 2018 Leave a comment

Audio Recording of “Where Can We Find Jesus?” recorded in worship (13:23)
18th Sunday after Pentecost; Lectionary 25B (Proper 20B)
Texts: Jer 11.18-20; Jas 3.13-4.3, 7-8; Mk 9.30-37

Children are precious to us; not just because of who they will be, but because of who they are. We believe that childhood is important because it helps nurture and shape children as they mature. To us, children are full persons: immature, but with their own gifts and talents and value. And so, when Jesus makes a child the object lesson for his disciples, his action seems to us a natural extension of the idea of viewing God as our heavenly parent.

It was not the same in Jesus’ time. The idea of childhood as we understand it is a relatively recent idea in our history, only a few centuries old. In Palestinian society at the time, children were like “pre-people:” they had status somewhere between property and slaves. This is not to say that parents (and fathers in particular) did not love their children, but their value lay more in what they would become—heirs and contributors to the family—not in who they were. Raising children was women’s work; men like Jesus’ disciples expected kids to be seen and not heard.

And yet, Jesus says instead of ignoring children his disciples ought to seek them out, show them hospitality and honor them as they would a guest in their own home. Jesus says that by welcoming insignificant children such as these, they actually welcome Jesus himself; and, of course, to receive Jesus is actually to receive God.

Our modern concept of childhood has actually made it easier for us to get Jesus’ point in this story, I think. We can look at the children around us, whether our children or grandchildren or even the kids in our congregation, and see how they can point us to God. Children in our society are no longer invisible; but this story asks us to reflect on the question—who is invisible to us now?

Lange, Dorothea. Near Buckeye, Maricopa County, Arizona. Migrant cotton picker and her baby. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55509 [retrieved September 25, 2018].

After Stephanie and I met and started dating, we moved back to our respective seminaries and had a long-distance relationship. During this time, Steph took a job in New York City, and I began my internship in central Pennsylvania. We still weren’t together, but we were close!—only a few hours by train. Being so close meant that we could see one another more often. At the end of one such trip that I took to New York, I was walking down 8th Avenue to Penn Station to catch the train back to Harrisburg. Along the way, I encountered a gentleman sitting on the sidewalk, panhandling.

Now, I had been to New York several times by this point, and I had gotten used to “dealing” with homeless people. If you look at them or show any sign of noticing them, they will ask for money; so I did what most people did: don’t make eye contact, just keep walking. I had my earbuds in which helped me to ignore him. I saw the man make a motion in my direction and say something, so I replied, simply, “Sorry, I haven’t got any change” and kept walking.

That’s when he got very upset. He became very animated as he talked to me. I took my earbuds out to hear what he was saying, and realized that he was chewing me out. Turns out, he hadn’t asked for money at all. He saw me walking by, saw the cross necklace I was wearing, saw a fellow Christian, and offered me a greeting: “God bless you.” To which I responded, “Sorry, I haven’t got any.”

The truth is that I heard what he said; but I saw who was saying it, I saw the cup in his hand and where he was sitting, and I made the conscious decision to ignore him, to look past him. I made him invisible. It wasn’t until he demanded my attention that I was able to see him for who he was.

We don’t see and hear what we don’t want to see and hear. I expected to see just another bum asking for money and so that’s what I saw. When the stories we experience don’t fit our narrative, we make excuses: we say, “Michael Brown wouldn’t have had a problem if he hadn’t broken the law.” We make accusations: we say, “Christine Blasey Ford is lying.” We see these people, but we don’t see them as people; instead, we see them as threats, outsiders, disruptions.

And yet, as we look for God, Jesus says this is where we should be looking: not at the powerful and prominent, but at the least, the little, the lowest, the last and the lost. Jesus points us to the children—people despised and rejected by society, people crucified for standing up for the truth, killed and demonized to make us feel safe and justified. Jesus is with Christine Blasey Ford as she suffers for coming forward with a story that is inconvenient and unpleasant; Jesus is with Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland who frighten us with their Blackness, their otherness. God is not found among the powerful or well-connected as the disciples assume, but rather hangs on the cross with all the others we’d sooner be rid of.

This is the lesson that Jesus himself learned in Tyre in the story we read two weeks ago. You may recall that at the beginning of that story, Mark tells us, he did not want anyone to know he was there. Today, Mark once again tells us that as Jesus and his disciples went through Galilee, he did not want anyone to know it. I think that is Mark’s subtle way of helping us make the connection. In Tyre, Jesus learned the hard way that God is found among the people we would rather ignore, people like the Syrophoenician woman and her daughter. In Galilee, Jesus passes that lesson on to his disciples: greatness is not about standing high above everyone else, but about stooping so low that no one is beneath us.

Lest we become self-congratulatory at our own sensitivity to issues of race and class and gender, we also remember today that the “good news” is a two-edged sword that cuts both ways. We may pride ourselves on our welcoming those who are ignored by society, but we all have people we ignore and whose stories we disregard. When was the last time you had a deep and honest conversation about politics with someone with whom you disagree? I looked past that gentleman on 8th Avenue because I thought I knew what he was. I closed myself off to him because I didn’t want to hear what he had to say.

When Jesus stood that child in the midst of his disciples, he was trying to teach them to see—to really see—someone the world had taught them not to see. The world continues to teach us that some people are invisible and should remain that way; that we have a right to ignore and dismiss anyone we deem to be inferior to us because of their religious or political beliefs or their life choices or their supposed hypocrisy.

How often do we look past these people—perhaps even members of our own family or congregation—because we believe we already know who they are and don’t want to hear what they have to say? When we close ourselves off to people with whom we disagree, we are closing ourselves off to Jesus. We don’t have to agree with them, but have we ever stopped to listen to where those sentiments come from? Have we ever considered how much we might have in common, or are we unable to see that because of what the world says must divide us?

Jesus’ point today is that it is those divisions that keep us from meeting God. If we are able to look past those differences, to welcome people as people and not as children, as political agents, as thugs, as inconveniences, then we will be in fact be welcoming him; and when we welcome Jesus, we welcome not him but the One who sent him.

This means that if we want to meet Jesus, we should go out and meet those who are suffering, the ones who are hanging on the crosses we have erected. It means that Jesus may be found among the lowly, the forgotten, and the ignored, and that is where we should be if we wish to see him. But it also means that whenever we allow the world to divide us along lines of race, gender, class or political affiliation, we are allowing the world to close us off from God. In order to welcome Jesus among us, we must be willing to treat people not like children, but like children of God.

I’m grateful that the guy on 8th Avenue stopped me and made me see him, he showed me Jesus sitting with him on the street, holding a cup of change. Jesus does the same for us in this meal. We come here as people formed by the world, trained to look past and ignore the people we don’t want to see. As we eat his flesh and drink his blood, Jesus becomes one with us, reforms us and recreates us as people of God, not people of the world. As we leave this place, we look through Jesus’ eyes to see people as he sees them. Since Mark’s time, we have learned to love and accept children for who they are; now Jesus is helping us to do the same for all the others we would ignore.