Sunday, December 17, 2017
“Christmas: God’s Vindication of Creation”
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
12/17/17 – Advent 3
When a storyteller begins a story with the iconic words, Once upon a time…, she’s doing more than taking us back. She’s inviting us to imagine a future shaped by the characters and events in that story. Offered to Israelites in exile, the prophecy of Isaiah has a Once upon a time…flavor. The prophet invites the people to see beyond the past, beyond particularities of the moment, into a kind of all-encompassing now in which Shalom, God’s justice and wholeness, permeate the creation.
Hardly a pie-in-the-sky proposition, Shalom demands that we turn from things that seems normal, comfortable, even commonsensical, and toward a life of radical grace, compassion, and trust. And that’s terribly difficult to do in our world, isn’t it?
My dad has called the modern/post-modern age a “culture of vengeance.” And humankind does seem to have decided that justice means, first and foremost, retaliation. It means getting even. In a culture of vengeance, everyone gets what’s coming to them – at least they should. “Bad” people get shamed, maimed, and killed, while “good” people get rich and powerful. The culture of vengeance is all about getting.
That also sums up the prosperity gospel, which declares if one believes the right things, works hard, and behaves, God will bless you with health, wealth, and happiness. And it sure is tempting to buy into that heresy. Who doesn’t want a god who promises comfort and security? It’s just impossible, with God, to harmonize the prosperity gospel with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But, Preacher, doesn’t Isaiah talk about God’s “day of vengeance?” Doesn’t he say that God loves “justice” and promises “recompense?”
Yes. And before lumping Isaiah in with the Joel Osteens and Creflo Dollars of the world, I would invite us to acknowledge the wider teaching of Isaiah. While the prophet speaks to exiles who have been vanquished and displaced, he does not preach payback or personal gain. I say that because in 61:2, where the NRSV chooses the word “vengeance,” vindication would be more accurate.1 Isaiah isn’t calling Israel to get even with her captors, because the justice to which he refers isn’t about retribution. It’s about restoration.
The word restoration often makes us think about going backward, returning to some previous situation. The guys who work on the old rail cars on Spring Street are trying to restore them to something close to original condition. When Marcy Hawley and her husband, Rick, purchased what is now the Hawley House, they completely disassembled the interior from basement to rafters. They catalogued every board, and refinished each one individually. Two years later, their home – Jonesborough’s oldest structure, built on Lot #1 – was beautifully restored.
Biblical restoration leads down a different path. As Isaiah makes clear, and as Jesus makes clear when he quotes Isaiah, biblical restoration has to do with vindicating the oppressed, with redeeming the brokenhearted, the captives, and those who mourn. There is no “again” to God’s restoration. God does far more than return us to a place we inhabited prior to some misfortune or trauma. Now, the Gospel does challenge us to make peace with the past – that’s called forgiveness. But reaching forever forward, God’s vindication turns our hearts toward the joyous encounter of things utterly new and unexpected.
Perhaps some of the most significant Advent/Christmas images, images of God’s vindication and restorative justice, are found toward the beginning of the Old Testament: Abraham being told by God to go, and Abraham stepping out in faith; Moses being told to confront Pharaoh with God’s demand to release the Hebrews, and Moses, after some argument, stepping out in faith; David being anointed by God as king of Israel when the only thing on the young man’s resume is tending sheep on the family farm.
Advent doesn’t prepare us to return to some place we’ve been. Advent prepares us for Christmas journeys. Journeys forward, journeys out of mere existence, out of oppression, captivity, and humiliation. Like Abraham’s, Moses’, and David’s journeys, Christmas journeys take us from the humblest, most broken places toward unimagined possibility and freedom. They propel us toward heights and depths of human experience that vindicate and redeem both us and the creation. Because Christmas journeys reveal to us how much love we are capable of giving and receiving, and how much holiness we are capable of holding and enduring, they are also Easter journeys, journeys through death and toward a life only God anticipates.
How’s that for a definition of faith: Living in the reality of a life anticipated, as of yet, by God alone?
Isaiah alludes to this in chapter 55 when, speaking for God, he says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts…[and my word]…shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:8-9, 11)
It seems to me that the accomplishment and the success to which God refers is much more than some measurable goal or final answer. If the life of Jesus is any indication, story, mystery, and ongoing transformation are the telltale signs of God’s activity in the world. So, stables, riverbanks, and tombs are not places of arrival and completion. They’re places of origin and departure. They’re places where creation gets an extraordinary new start through invitation, emancipation, and proclamation.
In his song Crooked Road, singer/songwriter Darrell Scott does an interesting thing. He begins the song by singing: “I walk a crooked road to get where I am going. To get where I am going I must walk a crooked road. And only when I’m looking back I see the straight and narrow. I see the straight and narrow when I walk a crooked road.”
Not only does that verse end where it begins, the song concludes with the exact same verse. The singer begins and ends in the same place, a place of mystery, inspiration, and wonder, a place that is both ending and beginning. It’s like ending a story with, Once upon a time…
While Advent and Christmas don’t return us to some happy remembrance, the vantage point of a new beginning does help us to see the past with fresh and forgiving hearts.
One lesson in all of this is that Shalom, God’s justice and wholeness, becomes possible when we understand Christmas as God’s invitation to recognize and celebrate the incarnate holiness of all creation. Advent is our ongoing struggle of learning to follow Jesus, God’s vindicating love made flesh.
To live and love as Jesus lives and loves, we begin and end each day with gratitude, expectation, and hope.
We begin and end each day telling ourselves and each other, Once upon a time…
1William P. Brown, “Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2008. P. 53.
Sunday, December 10, 2017
“Repentance: An Act of Community”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
12/10/17 - Advent 2
Hearing of John the Baptist, both the faithful and the curious creep to the banks of the Jordan River. They stalk the prophet as if he’s some sort of dangerous prey. Not that John would hurt anyone; but people talk. John does cut a fearsome figure. Great mats of camel hair hang about his frame as if his own skin is molting. His beard leaps from his face in a dark, thick spray littered with bits of locust and crystallized honey. And John’s eyes don’t just see the world. They see through it. His gaze is like the burn of the sun on bare skin.
While John can’t be ignored, the Jews, who have not had a truly memorable prophet in many generations, don’t really remember how to watch and listen. And while they love the Law, they don’t appear to expect anything from it. Maybe they don’t want to expect anything from it, at least no more than they think they already know. It’s certainly much less threatening, and much less disappointing not to expect anything new.
What about us? When we sing “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” during Advent, what do we expect? As heirs of a two-thousand-year-old tradition, do any of us honestly expect anything that we proclaim about Jesus? Or do we just expect to “go to heaven when we die,” and in the meantime, rely on our own hard work and good behavior? The difference between the two is the difference between true faith and practical atheism. They can look astonishingly similar.
John’s dramatic appearance and challenging prophecy call us to Advent. And Advent, being all about preparation, is all about renewed expectation. And for us, that means a call to repentance.
It seems to me that the Church has often understood repentance in predominantly selfish terms. We declare personal remorse in order to save ourselves. But John calls us to repent not simply of individual sins, but of the condition of separation from God and from one another.
Repentance turns us from old ways of being in relationship with our neighbors and the earth. It heals the whole body so that we may celebrate and participate in the new thing that God is always doing in the world. Through repentance, our eyes may see the same scenery around us. Our ears may hear the same sounds, but we will see, hear, and speak as ones being transformed for the sake of all creation.
At its heart, repentance is an act of community.
In October of 2016, Eli Saslow published an illuminating article in The Washington Post. The story introduces us to a young man named Derek Black. Derek’s father is a leader of the White Nationalist movement, and his godfather is – or perhaps was – the high-profile racist, David Duke. Derek’s parents taught him “to be suspicious of other races, of the US government, of tap water and of pop culture.”1 Bright and curious, Derek learned and assimilated all that he was taught. As a youngster, he even started a children’s page on Stormfront, his father’s chillingly-popular, white nationalist website.
After completing a home-schooled education, and after two years in community college, Derek entered New College in Sarasota, FL to study medieval history. His deeper plan, and that of his parents, was for Derek to be a kind of prophet of white nationalism on campus.
Derek played it cool at first. He didn’t share his ideology with anyone. And being an amiable sort, he quickly made friends.
In April of 2011, while Derek was studying abroad – in Germany – someone discovered Derek’s truth and posted it on a college message board. Many at New College felt threatened, betrayed, angry. “How should we respond?” they asked.
Initially, the uproar re-energized Derek’s commitment to his racist, separatist agenda. Then, in the midst of all furious judgments, and all the mystified How could yous?, an unidentified student wrote something remarkable. “Ostracizing Derek won’t accomplish anything…We have a chance to be real activists and actually affect one of the leaders of white supremacy in America.”
Another student seized the opportunity. Matthew Stevenson, the only orthodox Jew at New College, read some of Derek’s posts and listened to some of his radio broadcasts on Stormfront. Eli Saslow writes that “Matthew decided his best chance to affect Derek’s thinking was not to ignore him or confront him, but simply to include him.
“‘Maybe,’ thought Matthew, ‘[Derek had] never spent time with a Jewish person before.’”
Though challenging, such grace compelled Matthew to invite Derek to his campus apartment to join a Shabbat group which included Jews, Christians, atheists, and a variety of skin colors and ethnicities. And a long-term dance began.
After many months of candid conversation and existential struggle, Derek realized that his upbringing had sent him down a path that was not only a dead-end for him, but a path along which he had already done significant harm. So, in a cleansing zeal, the young Derek published these words: “After a great deal of thought, I have resolved that it is in the best interests of everyone involved to be honest about my slow but steady disaffiliation from white nationalism. I can’t support a movement that tells me I can’t be a friend to whomever I wish or that other people’s races require me to think of them in a certain way or be suspicious at their advancements. The things I have said as well as my actions have been harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent, [and] activists striving for opportunity and fairness for all. I am sorry for the damage done.”
Matthew Stevenson had to act alone at first, a voice in the wilderness calling everyone to repentance, to a new way of living. Along the way, others found the same courage and joined him in reaching out to Derek Black. And their courageous, patient, prophetic compassion bore the fruit of Derek’s community-restoring repentance.
Whatever John may have had in mind about “the wrath to come,” must be understood in light of all that Jesus says and does, because Jesus is now our prophet and priest. When the church proclaims a wrathful message of Repent or go to hell, we do nothing more than to prepare people to be dead.
Hear the Good News: Neither John nor Jesus is in the business of preparing us to be dead. They are preparing us, and all creation to be alive! Right here and now with one another.
Thanks be to God!
1All references in this sermon to Derek Black, Don Black, David Duke, and Matthew Stevenson were excerpted from Eli Saslow’s article: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html?utm_term=.55c4775142b2
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Along with April, October is one of my favorite months. A reckless gala of the summer’s richness and vitality, October hits us with a sensory overload: reds, yellows, oranges, cobalt skies – Christmas decorations. As the northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun, cooler air wicks away humidity. It’s not cold yet, but the sun feels a little kinder on our skin. It shines a little more gently in our eyes.
Then comes November. The extravagant flame-out of October has been reduced, for the most part, to some tarnished gold high in the hickories and the darkening burgundy of white and red oaks. As the surrender to brown and gray quickens, November becomes a kind of circumstantial text calling us to prepare for even shorter, colder days. With heat pumps, electric blankets, and a warming atmosphere, we’re less vulnerable to winter than folks were a century ago. Still, while so much of the life around us turns dark and brittle, and sinks into the cold pillow of winter, wouldn’t it be nice, in worship, to hear brighter, more heart-warming texts than we’ve been hearing from Matthew and, now, from 1Thessalonians?
Sure, I can pick any passage I want. There’s nothing obligatory or sacred about the lectionary. On the other hand, there is method to the lectionary’s madness. By design, November texts unsettle us. They call us to self-examination. They dare us to confess our personal, ecclesiastical, and cultural brokenness and our need for redemption.
I promise to get to 1Thessalonians, but bear with me through a kind of big-picture approach.
November texts prepare us for Advent texts, which prepare for the good news of the Incarnation. Central to Advent is the prophecy of Isaiah, the prophet to exiles in Babylon. Isaiah speaks such re-orienting words as, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” and “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” And Isaiah’s inspiring words have to push through a curious and disturbing phenomenon.
The Israelites have been in exile for about three generations. So, many among the vanquished and displaced are forgetting their defining stories and rituals. Fewer and fewer Israelites are feeling like exiles, because more and more, Babylon feels like home. The modern psychological term for this is Stockholm Syndrome; captives identify with and even bond with their captors. And it’s easy to see why new generations of Israelites might adopt Babylon. It’s a place of wealth, abundance, and opportunity – a place that feels like it’s in a perpetual April-to-October loop. But the Hebrew’s story makes it clear that riches and power are not signs of God’s favor. Indeed, overabundance usually blinds us to true blessedness. It renders us too greedy and fearful to live as blessings for others.
It’s no surprise, then, that Isaiah’s prophecy spans the careers of several prophets from Isaiah’s school. It takes a long time for his good news to burrow beneath the numbness and complacency of exile and to re-awaken spiritual memory.
Re-awakening to deep-time memory is not only a long process, it can be painful, too. It’s kind of like coming in on a bitterly cold day and running warm water over your icy fingers. The water hurts because your brain can’t handle the abrupt change of signal from cold to warm. The pain is necessary, though. Severe frostbite can cost us hands and feet, noses and ears.
For Israel, Jeremiah is the warm water being poured over their numbed memories. And his words hurt. “My anguish, my anguish!” cries Yahweh. “My heart is beating wildly’ I cannot keep silent…For my people do not know me, they are stupid children, they have no understanding.” (Jer. 4:19, 22)
The psalmist’s lament also calls Israel to re-awakening: “By the water of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion…On the willows there we hung our harps…How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1-2, 4)
In the same way that Jeremiah and the psalmist prepare Israel for Isaiah’s hopeful prophecy, the November texts of Matthew and 1Thessalonians sting us. They call us to prepare for the re-awakening texts of Advent.
Like Jesus, Paul never shies away from truth-telling. And he seems to know how tempting it is to get comfortable with Babylon’s promises and creature comforts. Offering a Jeremiah-like warning to the Thessalonians, Paul writes: “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,’ then sudden destruction will come upon them.” For Paul, “they” refers to Rome, the next in a long line of Babylons and Egypts.
The apostle writes to the Thessalonians in about 50AD – right in the thick of the era known as the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. Paul seems to know that the empire’s brand of peace and security can act like sub-freezing temperatures. It can cause spiritual frostbite. It can make us believe that if our material surroundings are benefiting us, then ‘God is in the heavens, and all is right with the world.’ Paul compares such self-centered thinking to thievery, darkness, drunkenness – actions for which there are inescapable consequences, at least in the short run.
Paul dares us to imagine something different. He dares us to imagine lasting peace and security, which is a gift from God, not empires. We experience lasting peace and security by consciously participating in God’s presence and activity in this world, here and now. True peace and security come not through conquest, not through intimidation, but through determined, even death-defying faith, hope, and love.
There you go again, Preacher, talking your pie-in-the-sky nonsense. You have no clue what it takes to win and keep security. You have to fight fire with fire!
I hear you. And I do understand that this is a frighteningly dangerous and uncertain world. I also know that Paul’s situation is even more tenuous than ours, and still he says, “Since we belong to the day, let us be sober and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
November texts challenge us to acknowledge all the signs of approaching winter – daylight diminishing, colors fading, cold hardening the ground, “wars and rumors of wars,” “nation…[rising] against nation…famines and earthquakes in various places” (Mt. 24:6), real fears pressuring us to live by the sword.
But even November texts come to us as gospel, as promises of spring, as witnesses to Easter. I trust that God intends these texts to awaken in us an irrepressible restlessness, a hunger and thirst for belonging as well as righteousness. They sting us with memories of our true home. And living at home, while in exile, means living in a kind of terrifying fearlessness. Home for us is following Jesus, “who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.”
I suppose each of us has to decide for ourselves what Paul means when he says to “encourage one another and build up each other.” As for me, even if I sound tiresomely consistent, come what may, I can do no other – unless despair overcomes me – than to live, and die, and lead any congregation I serve by what I consider to be Jesus’ example: non-violent, welcoming, transforming love.
For those times when my encouragement of you fails to meet that standard, I ask God’s and your forgiveness. May the Spirit then challenge me with November texts and return me to a radical grace that I cannot create, but only experience and bear witness to.
And ultimately, from that love, and from that grace, there “will be no escape!”
Sunday, November 12, 2017
“The Constantinian Test”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
In the fourth century, when Christianity was a mere toddler as a world religion, the Church began to face its supreme test. It started when Emperor Constantine won a battle over a stronger enemy and credited the Christian God. So, in 313, a victorious Constantine legalized Christianity. In 380, Emperor Theodosius I declared Rome to be a Christian nation.
What I’m calling a test occurs when political and martial power tempt the Church to confuse love and service of God with love and service of the state. The unwritten contract goes something like this: If you let us into your sanctuaries, if you tweak your theologies to justify our conquests and excesses, if you make faithfulness to your God synonymous with good citizenship, we will embrace your symbols and language. We will defer to your holy days. We, the State, will favor and exalt you, the Religion.
Since 380AD, Christianity has faced this Constantinian test continually, often unsuccessfully.
In fairness, virtually all major religions struggle with this test. When there’s enough fear and dis-ease in a culture, religions, especially fundamentalist factions within them, gain traction and scramble for exaltation. It seems to me that the three Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam – are particularly susceptible to failing the Constantinian test. And within those religions, perhaps no one is more vulnerable to the temptation to conspire with power than clergy. When a religion holds favored status in a particular nation, its leaders often find the personal benefits of complicity irresistible.
In today’s text, Jesus calls his followers to do something difficult. With regard to the scribes and Pharisees, “Do whatever they teach you and follow it,” says Jesus, “but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” They’re religious gold diggers, says Jesus.
Jesus is saying that authority comes not from the office, not from the size of phylacteries, not from the length of fringes, not from the seats of honor, and not from whatever deference the priests enjoy in public. Authority comes from the Author of Creation.
I think Jesus gets to meddling because he remembers facing precisely the same test after his baptism. Out in the wilderness, Jesus is tempted to collude with the clannish, manipulative, and violent ways and means of worldly power. And this goes on for forty days.
Now, there’s nothing literal about the number forty. Whether referring to days or years, forty is Bible-speak for a long time. The story of Jesus’ temptation tells us not only that Jesus has to endure a long, grueling test, it also tells us that even Jesus takes a long time to overcome the devil’s deal: that gut-wrenching and all-too-human temptation to use our unique gifts and potential toward selfish ends.
After its humble beginnings in Jerusalem, the Church enters its own forty-day wilderness. And when Constantine and Theodosius offer the newly-baptized religion power and privilege alien to its identity in Christ, the Church quickly caves in. It accepts the unwritten contract of state exaltation.
When the Church bemoans its decreasing size and influence, we can blame externalities all we want, but for nearly two millennia, no one has given more people more reasons, and no one has given more people better reasons to turn their backs on Christianity, and even on God, than the Church itself. The institutional Church has been more intentional about reaching out for sake of political favor than for the sake of the gospel.
Our history, though, is about more than any one of us, more than any one congregation or denomination, more than any one era of our existence. So, maybe, we’re still slogging through our own forty-day temptation. Maybe we’re still weathering our own forty-day flood, wandering in our own forty-year Exodus, weeping through our own forty-hour hell between Friday and Sunday. If so, then every day, every moment, every decision, every word, every action, and every one of us matters – really and truly and eternally matters!
Successfully on the other side of temptation, Jesus commits himself to living humbly and peaceably on behalf of the Creation. He practices what he teaches. Now, he does “tie up burdens hard to bear, and lay them on [our] shoulders.” That’s what take up your cross and follow me is all about. But Jesus lifts more than a finger to help us. He helps us to understand and value our burdens by sharing them and helping each other to carry them.
Every time we choose to share the burdens of others, every time we choose to serve rather than to be served, every time we choose to forgive rather than to hold onto anger and resentment, every time we choose to stand in awe of what God creates instead of trying to figure out how to monetize or profit from some “resource” – every time we choose these things we’re overcoming temptation. We’re following Jesus.
The Church has survived for two thousand years, longer than any state or nation. That tells me that along the way, at critical times, we have told the Tempter that we depend on more than bread, that we will not test God, and that we will not bow before some devious Caesar.
Sure, sometimes in our weariness and fear, we accept the tempter’s contract. Sometimes we settle for the external trappings of religion over the call of Jesus.
I wear a robe on Sundays. I wear eye-catching stoles and sit in this tall chair. I stand high-and-lifted-up, and speak into a microphone. With the state’s blessing, I claim my housing allowance as non-taxable income. That’s not fair to you, and I certainly did nothing to deserve special treatment. But I don’t turn it down. And some point, someone – not me – decided that an entire month should be set aside for pastor appreciation. It’s like a liturgical season! I’m truly grateful for every expression of love and support. And pastor appreciation doesn’t include parades and furniture store sales. But a whole month? Doesn’t that tempt all of us, especially folks like me, to exalt pastors onto pedestals where we don’t belong?
It grieves me to admit this, but I know that if I took another job tomorrow, before long, some of you would fall away from this congregation. I know the same is true if we lost our extraordinary music director or pianist. I know because – and this is as uncomfortable to say as it is to hear – I’ve heard folks say so. Then again, I trust that in spite of such self-serving loyalties, and even if this, or any congregation ends up closing its doors, the Church will survive. God is not dependent on our robes, sermons, anthems, instruments, or buildings. God chooses to be present through our love for one another, through our care for the poor and the forgotten, and through our stewardship of the earth.
Pastors are to be most appreciated when their congregations embrace discipleship and mission the way they embrace potlucks and bake sales. When doing as Jesus does, we are all, without distinction, ministers in the priesthood of all believers. And in the long run, by the grace of God alone, what we teach transcends what we do.
What do you imagine people see in us? Self-exalting Pharisees or servant-hearted disciples of Jesus? Probably both. So, let’s be gracious with them and with ourselves. And may we trust that we belong to Jesus, and that by his grace, all of us will make it through our Constantinian test.
In forty days or so.
Sunday, November 5, 2017
“The God of Creative Tension”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Jesus has been pushing the envelope with the Jewish leaders. In an effort to rein in this renegade rabbi, and to try to restore a sense of normalcy, at least in their own minds, some Pharisees hatch a scheme to ambush Jesus with a question.
“Is it lawful,” they will ask, “to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The plan is for Yes and No to be equally dangerous for Jesus and equally expedient for the Pharisees. Depending on what gives them the most leverage over Jesus, the Pharisees are willing to position themselves as either loyal Jews first or loyal Roman subjects first. Now, the tax at issue has to do with harvests and personal property.1 Like a sales tax, it’s regressive. It imposes a much heavier burden on the poor than on the rich. If Jesus says Yes, he will appear to be double-crossing the Jews in general, and the tax-oppressed poor in particular – the very people on whom Jesus’ ministry has focused.
On the other hand, if Jesus says No, the Pharisees can simply report him to the Roman authorities for sedition.
It seems like a fool-proof plan, unless, of course, the plan has been hatched by fools – fools, in this case, being those who are motivated by fear and revenge, yet tell themselves that they’re champions of righteousness and justice. One aspect of Pharisaic foolishness is to separate the world into dualistic categories – Jew and Gentile, male and female, clean and unclean.
How many times have you heard someone say, “There’re two kinds of people in the world”? Those eight words almost always precede some kind of mind-closing statement of opposing absolutes. And such statements usually imply that one side is strong, or right, or good while the other side is weak, or wrong, or bad.
The genius of Jesus is that he teaches attitudes and models actions which are righteous and just while living in such a way that he doesn’t bisect the world into opposing factions. It’s his followers who divide the world into saved and unsaved, lost and found, good and bad. And how can disciples justify polarized and polarizing living when the one whom we claim to follow goes out of his way to be not only in the presence of but in relationship with everyone, including those who oppose him?
It seems to me that Christians often practice Pharisaism in order to maintain a sense of authority, security, and even supremacy in the world. And I think we’re tempted to do it all the more viciously when the world seems to be falling apart around us. Remember, the Jewish world is falling apart during the first century, too. Rome holds all of its territories in a kind of social, political, and economic choke hold. Caesar finances his continuing wars and conquests by emptying the pockets of the peoples he has vanquished. For the Jews in Palestine, everything familiar is ending. The future is unfolding toward something unknown and terrifying. Trying to regroup and to return to what was is futile. They’re in the midst of an all-encompassing death, and to the Pharisees, Jesus seems to be just another sign of the world’s demise.
As an Easter community, the Church proclaims that Jesus is God’s sign and promise of all that’s new and hopeful, all that’s righteous and just. Even when familiar things are dying around us, following Jesus means following him into that death. The crazy and beautiful thing for Jesus-followers is that entering death means entering, at the same time, into resurrection. Not only does Jesus transcend all the fragmenting categories of opposites, he transcends all that appears to separate life and death.
Looking at the coin used for the tax, Jesus asks, “Whose head is this, and whose title?”
“The emperor’s,” they say.
“Give…to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Stunned and speechless, the Pharisees leave Jesus alone.
The Pharisees try to bait Jesus into to dividing the world into two kinds of people – those who collect taxes and those who pay taxes. And Jesus won’t bite. What’s more, he won’t even divide the world into spiritual and mundane. His answer reveals that the creation is a place in which holiness and worldliness are woven together into an indivisible wholeness.
In his book Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, Richard Rohr observes that, in the first creation story, it isn’t until the third day that God begins to call the creation good. The first two days had been about making separations – light from dark, sky from earth, up from down. When water and land begin to coexist, when plants and animals begin to appear on the same ground and in the same waters, only then does God begin calling things good.2
In the story of Noah, the Hebrews weave the ancient Gilgamesh epic into their own story. And in the Hebrew version, an ark gets inhabited by all these opposites – male and female, clean and unclean, predator and prey, things that fly and things that creep. And God confines all these opposites together in one place. The ark is a magnificent metaphor. It’s a microcosm of the entire creation. The ark is the earth! And we all live in it, together!
“The…reason that Jesus is the icon of salvation for so many of us,” says Rohr, “is because he [holds opposites] together so beautifully.”3
Discipleship means doing what Jesus does. It means learning to live in the “paradox of incarnation,” holding within us “flesh and spirit, human and divine, joy and suffering.”3 To be fully human means living in that relentless but creative tension in which we encounter and embrace otherness. We cannot experience God as good, nor can we experience the creation as good outside of this tension. As the body of Christ, we are called, individually and corporately, to commit our time, our money, our very lives to bearing witness to the God of creative tension.
Jesus does make one clear distinction in today’s story. There’re two kinds of people in the world, he says: Those who think they’re God, and those who know they’re not. When Jesus says to give to the emperor that which is the emperor’s, and to God that which is God’s, he’s saying that, contrary to what the Caesars of the world believe, they are not God. That’s exactly what the signatories of The Barmen Declaration were saying back in the 1930’s. Jesus is Lord, not Hitler, not the Third Reich, and not the conspicuously pious, Christian Pharisees who were selling their souls to save their lives by colluding with those who were trying to use genocidal fear, prejudice, and violence to return their country to prominence, and to keep it pure and Aryan-nation white. God is never behind the easing of the tension of opposites. God is always right in the thick of it.
“Give…to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” We hold those things in the same two hands.
As human beings, our Sitz im Leben is the tension between holy and worldly opposites. We can deny that reality, but we can’t change it. We can’t legislate, preach, or bomb our way out of it. Nor should we try, because, for Jesus-followers, living in the tension means that every day, every moment, every encounter, and conversation presents us with opportunities to experience both our humbling, human limitations and the transcendent power of resurrection.
Look around you. Look across every aisle you can imagine. Giving to God that which is God’s means recognizing and giving thanks for the mystery and holiness that lives within every corner of the known and knowable creation – including your own life.
1Susan Grove Eastman, Feasting on the Word, `(Year A, Volume 4), David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds., Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2011. P. 191.
2Richard Rohr, Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, OH, 2008.
3Ibid. Pp. 36-37.
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
Irresistible as Grace
Over the last fifty years, the mountains of southern Appalachia have been a sanctuary for me. While I am more apt to explore them now with a camera, for a decade or more, I scoured maps and wandered back roads in search of high-country trout streams. Whether fishing or photographing, I find myself mesmerized by sunlight filtering down through a dense canopy of hardwoods and evergreens. Huddling close over cold, clear water and tumbles of smooth gray stones, the trees seem to be hiding secret treasures from those who would leave too much of self behind.
Some twenty years ago, I set out one morning in search of water, trout, and solitude. From Little Switzerland, NC, I drove north on the Blue Ridge Parkway to Grandfather Mountain where I exited the Parkway. My car crunched and rattled along several miles of forest service roads to the upper reaches of a remote creek I saw on a map. I parked my car and got out. For a few minutes, I simply listened, and breathed.
Feeling welcomed by the forest, I began to rig my fly rod – a braided leader, tippet as thin as a strand of spider web, a tiny Adams parachute fly. I wrestled my feet into my wading shoes. Still wet from a previous excursion, they squished and wheezed like my nose does when I have a cold. I put on my vest which sagged and clattered with fishing gear, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a water bottle.
The trail I followed led me steeply downward but near the creek. It crossed a small feeder stream – in fact no wider than my stride, and in truth no deeper that my understanding of the Mystery of which I have been called to speak. Across the stream, the forest began to close in on me. Exactly where and when I could not say, but the trail had delivered me to the forest. I was no longer on a traveled path. I was simply alive in the midst of towering hickories, oaks, and tulip poplars. Above me, spruce and fir trees spread their dark boughs above the forest floor like priests pronouncing blessing and benediction upon the Earth.
I stopped and listened, but either the stream or the trail had turned. My ears rang with a silence as irresistible as grace. So, I pressed on, squeezing through rhododendron thickets I would otherwise have considered impervious, crawling over fallen trees that were spongy and damp with decay, following not the stream’s voice, but the promise it had whispered in my ear.
How like that stream is God who goads us onward. How like God it is to lead us into the silences of Heaven where faith and hope are born. How like the twelve we often are when we slash and tear our way through creation, hell-bent on seeing and hearing only that which is familiar, and mindless of how grace comes newly born in fresh experiences.
The well-marked paths on which our journeys begin deliver us to transfigured and transfiguring trails of deeper relationship and purpose. And there we learn new ways, new possibilities. In the midst of all the change and all the silence, take heart. The one who stirs us forward can be trusted.
*A version of this article appeared in the September 27, 1999 issue of "The Presbyterian Outlook."
Tuesday, October 24, 2017
“Is Anything Too Wonderful for God?”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
In Genesis 12, God calls Abram and Sarai to be the parents of a new nation. With God’s promise ringing in their ears, they set out in faith. By chapter 18, Abram, which means “Exalted Father,” has been renamed Abraham, “Father of a Multitude.” Sarai is now simply Sarah. Interestingly, these name changes are strong affirmations, yet they come on the heels of acts of faithlessness.
Abraham and Sarah begin their journey with great confidence and hope. As the journey turns into wandering, that optimism wanes, and the aging couple grows desperate. Without a child, where will the great nation come from? Taking matters into their own hands, Sarah says to her husband, “Here. Have a child with Hagar, my servant girl. The new nation will have to come through your offspring with her.”
The situation is not unlike Eve offering forbidden fruit to Adam. Hopelessness makes Abraham and Sarah try to play God. The results are Ishmael, and a widening rift between Abraham and Sarah and God.
Thirteen years later, God renews the covenant with a 99-year old Abraham. When he hears that Sarah will conceive and bear a son, Abraham “fell on his face and laughed.” Abraham’s laughter is not the laughter of joy. It’s the kind of laughter reserved for the absurd. It’s the kind of laughter you and I might experience in the grocery store when we learn, from the National Enquirer, that “scientists” have discovered that Stonehenge was built by aliens from the future, who built it as a monument to the earthlings who would invent Twinkies. And even now those aliens are hiding the shadow of Jupiter, teleporting enormous quantities of Twinkies to the mother ship.
Abraham’s laugh was that kind of laugh – even though such a story might explain the continuing demand for something as disgusting as a Twinkie.
In today’s text, a flummoxed Abraham sits in the door of his tent peering through the blistering heat of the Palestinian sun. I imagine him wondering, “What happened? How did I end up this old and this far from home? Was it God who spoke to me? Or was it my inflated ego?”
Abraham looks up and sees three men walking toward him in the heat of the day. In Abraham’s culture, the virtue of hospitality shares top honors with traits such as honesty and courage. So, when he sees these men traveling beneath the burning sun, he leaps into action. He runs out to welcome them. He urges them to sit in the shade while he fetches them some water and has food prepared for them. When they accept, Abraham tells Sarah to use the best flour for the cakes. He picks out “a calf, tender and good” for his servant to cook. And while they eat, Abraham, the man called by God to be the Father of a Multitude and a blessing to all nations, stands back and watches. He assumes the posture of a humble servant rather than a man of means and global purpose.
The travelers, identified by the text as “the Lord,” witness a change in Abraham’s attitude and behavior. ‘In a year,’ says one traveler, reiterating the covenant, ‘I will return, and Sarah will have a son.’
Behind the tent flap, out of sight, Sarah laughs.
‘Laugh all you want,’ says the traveler. ‘But in a year, you will have a son.’
While Sarah’s laugh reveals the lingering skepticism in Abraham’s household, their hospitality declares the faith, hope, and love which run deeper than disappointment. Abraham and Sarah are coming of age as servants of God. After all the years and miles, they finally demonstrate true humility, and thus their readiness to be ones through whom God will act on behalf of others.
There’s a notable difference in God’s reactions to all this laughter. When Abraham falls on his face and laughs, God doesn’t bat an eye. But when Sarah chuckles, God takes offense. In both cases, the laughter expresses an understandable lack of faith. Abraham and Sarah are both asking, ‘How can we be parents? We’re so old our AARP memberships have expired!’ And both times God reassures them that the promise is safe. In Genesis 18, God takes a grandma’s paddle to Abraham and Sarah by asking, “Is anything too wonderful for God?”
Maybe God is merciful with Abraham and Sarah because God understands just how difficult the journey is.
Listen, you are called to and gifted for something only you can do. But how often do you sense that the great promise within you is shriveling beneath the burden of life’s busyness and impermanence? It can often seem that God has all but disappeared. When we feel abandoned, it’s easy to think that the only way forward is to intervene, to force our will, regardless of its effect on others. But that force always distances us from God. The story of Abraham and Sarah illustrates that when we humble ourselves as servants, then do we begin to enter into the strength and freedom of God.
The difficulty is in understanding that God’s strength and freedom differ sharply from human strength and freedom. God’s is a humble strength. Jesus’ word for it is “meekness.” And to live in God’s freedom is to live for-the-sake-of-others. Jesus calls that losing one’s life in order to save it. Living in God’s strength and freedom is to occupy, here and now, the Promised Land.
When we associate weapons and domination with the word strength, and unfettered self-determination with the idea of freedom, the Promised Land becomes less and less promising for all. When sensing a threat to human strength and freedom, it’s easy to sit at the opening of our tents in the heat of our day deciding that if we just force our way back to the way things used to be, all will be well. But sometimes being stuck is exactly where we need to be. Watching. Expecting. Trusting. Ready to leap into servant-hearted action.
Our present is laden with the searing heat of anxiety, meanness, and with aspersions of blame. There may even be a Friday on our horizon. And if that be so, then Sunday will follow. Because it belongs to God, the future is pregnant with promise. And because this sounds absurd to the Abrams and Sarais within us and around us, they will fall on their faces laughing. They will tell us that there’s a better chance of aliens from the future hiding behind Jupiter and eating Twinkies than there is of a fellow traveler named Jesus empowering us to live faithfully, hopefully, and lovingly. As long as we choose to associate the privileges of race, class, or a particular nationality, and the might of weaponry with God’s presence and favor, we may be proving them right, because ultimately, such things declare our fear and even contempt of the other.
Here is our question: “Is anything too wonderful for God?” We don’t answer that by uttering a “yes” or a “no.” As followers of Jesus, we answer to a new name, Christian – a name we take on in part, interestingly enough, when we acknowledge the faithlessness of our betrayal of Jesus. So, as Christians, we answer that question by committing ourselves to lives of hospitality, lives of justice, mercy, humility, and gratitude.
As followers of Jesus, we don’t just look forward to the Promised Land, we inhabit it here. We reveal it today.