When John Came a-Wassailing*

In the fifteenth year of the sovereign rule of Emperor Tiberius,

a time of great oppression, ruthless and imperious,

the Song of God fell into John, the son of Zechariah,

and he sang it out so strongly they thought he might be Messiah.

But he said, “No, I am not the one you all have been expecting.

I’m just the voice that sings out where our paths are intersecting.

I’m not worthy to receive him or to tie his sandal thong!

He’s the Maker of all Music, I sing just one simple song.”

Like a-wassailing in the orchard to wake the cider trees,

the song of John cut through their pride and brought them to their knees.

As he showed them stark reality they began to realize

that the dream of God might now unfold before their very eyes.

So he sang them to the river, saying time was of the essence,

and immersed them in the cleansing flow of mercy and repentance.

His song filled up the wilderness with a tune to cleanse the heart

and wash away pretenses, and make hubris fall apart.

He sang, “Children of the covenant, you children of the promise,

you children of the circumstance and times that are upon us, 

all you questing, anxious seekers, all you folk both awed and flawed,

are you ready to stand naked in the searching gaze of God?

“All you tax-collecting schemers, all you servants of the sword,

all you noble trees and saplings in the orchard of the Lord,

yes, your roots go deep as Abraham and you’re clothed in your tradition,

but that’s not enough to save you on your pathway to perdition.

“O you brood of sneaky vipers, O you children of the snake,

Who warned you of the wrath to come? Who told you what’s at stake?

Did you think that life was something you could skate through or could fake?

Well, my sleeping trees of Zion, it’s time for you to wake.”

Then in dismay the people cried, “John, tell us what to do!

If our heritage means nothing is our fate left up to you?”

He said, “No that’s not in my hands, but it is somewhat in yours,

for the Winnower we’ve waited for is at the threshing floor.

“So now’s the time to change your ways, to make a course correction.

Now’s the time to turn around and go a new direction.

It’s time to change your heart and mind, not out of paranoia,

but because you’ve been immersed in the streams of metanoia.

“So give away your extra coat to the person who is shivering,

and give up half your sandwich to that hungry kid who’s quivering,

Don’t take more than what is rightful, do not lie, extort or cheat,

for the Winnower is coming and he’ll sift your soul like wheat.

“Look, the time has come to bear the fruit of new life and repentance

or you’ll reap the judgment that you’ve sown, you’ve been shaping your own sentence.

Even now the axe is at the root, even now your options dwindling,

so will you produce good cider?  Or will you be so much kindling?

“For the One who fashioned every soul finds a use for each and all.

Will you be the cider in the cup or the fire that warms the hall?

Will you be the sweet aroma drawing others to the table

or dissipate as so much smoke in a cautionary fable?

“And I know this all sounds frightening– to be assessed, appraised and weighed–

Every one of us has cause to fear, but I sing, ‘Be not afraid!’

For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,

Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.

“And I’m simply here to tell you in this wild and holy place

you have a chance to be made new, a chance to live in grace,

for the one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn

but to glean the seeds of love and good and make them grow again.

“So this song that sounds so ominous, it really is Good News!

for the God of second chances hopes that you will not refuse

to change your heart and mind and ways and show it by your fruits

with more loving and more honest and more generous pursuits.

The Word who will evaluate has not come to condemn

but to find the goodness in your soul and make it shine again,

for the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,

Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.

*A note about the title:  The word Wassail comes from ves heill, Old Norse for “Be healthy!”  The Saxon version in Old England was Vas Hael, with the same meaning.  Most people today associate Wassailing with Christmas Caroling, and indeed there is a very old tradition called House Wassailing that is very much like Caroling, but that tradition evolved from the ancient tradition of Orchard Wassailing.  In the parts of ancient Britain where fruit trees were grown for producing cider, the Saxons would go out into their orchards during the deep days of winter and sing to the sleeping trees to wake them up and encourage them to produce good and bountiful fruit in the coming year.  It occurred to me that what John the Baptizer was doing in the wilderness by the Jordan was something like that—singing the people awake so they could produce good fruit.

Advent

J. Steven Beckham

(1994)

Listen.

The thunder is approaching.

The noise of distant battle,

the clashing of Powers and Principalities rages in the 

air.

The bleating of goats sings counterpoint to the fright of sheep

as six trumpets play their fearsome harmonies,

six seals are broken, six bowls poured out,

and the distance which holds back the seventh note

is only a pause

for breath.  For thought.  For thunder.

Not so far away.

Not so far away.  The heavens are shaken.

            O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Look.

Lightning and artillery flash

across the gloaming sky.

One horseman rides a hog, one swoops in stealth,

one tops his tank with the juice of 

corn that would have fed millions,

one walks door to door, shaking hands, smiling,

spreading death.

The lamps of the foolish are burning low.

They have spent their oil in shopping,

moving from stall to stall in markets filled with dazzling

darkness,

seeking The Thing to fill their gnawing emptiness,

never seeing in their dimming sight 

The Whom it may concern.

The oil is nearly gone and the wise have not 

enough to share.

Six billion souls behold the descent 

of shadow.  Of dusk.  Of night.

Just at the horizon.

Just at the horizon.  The flames of faith are flickering.

          O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

Smell.

An acrid hint of fear

insinuated in the stiffening breeze:

a distant conflagration sweeping closer.

Fires, not of judgment but of consequence,

burn away both chaff and grain,

roaring across plains, up mountains, through forests

sucking away the breath of humankind before it is ever

breathed.

A stench of mistrust mingles with the uncollected 

garbage

strewn along city streets,

stashed in dark corners, dark alleys, dark lives

sodden with acid rains.

The smoke which rises before the Altar

spews from the barrel

of a cigarette.  Of a crack pipe. Of a gun.

Just around the corner.

Just around the corner.  Our incense makes heaven weep.

          O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

But listen.

A shout rends the veil of darkness

hiding the wholly holy.

Keening contractions of anguish, fear,

anticipated joy, pierce the thunder.

The Announcement, wrenched 

from the throat of an unwed teenage girl, her belly full of

wonder,

is panted in cleansing breaths

across the crowning:

“He comes

for Judgment.  For Hope.  For Help!”

Nearly here.

Nearly here.  Creation writhes in labor.

          O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

But look.

Angels gather at the borders

to sunder with a song

the Kingdom of Consuming.

Gloria in Excelsis Deo and Enough.

Enough for all who live.  Enough pain.  Enough greed.

Enough darkness and damnable domination.

Enough of nations, noble causes and nonsense.

Enough manipulation and murder.  Enough.

For unto you is being born the illegitimate savior

who brings your only hope for 

legitimacy,

your only hope of hope, your only plausible future,

your only real choice, 

your only second chance.

Unto you is being born 

the One who brings 

enough

to eat.  To share.  To begin anew.”

Any moment now.

Any moment now.  The world is trembling.

           O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Now taste.

Crush the tart grape,

ripe for pressing 

into the cup of pain and cleansing

which always overflows.

Chew the plain grain,

ripe for milling into the bread of journeying—

the flat bread by which we flee the Pharaohs,

escaping between their monuments into the desert.

Taste 

and see the goodness and the realness of all 

that is not yet here.

All is not ready.  All is not ready.

Come to the table which is not yet set

for the feast not yet laid.

We are anxiously awaiting you

for a supper.  For a blessing.  For a signal.

We are almost ready.

We are almost ready.  We are unmade.

          O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

Hope

Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 24:36-44

There’s something going on at the house next door to us.  We haven’t seen any sign of the people who live there for almost a month.  No coming and going, no sounds of doors or windows opening or closing.  No voices floating over the backyard wall.  No barking from the dog.  A few weeks ago, the faded old blue minivan that was always—and I mean always—parked at the curb in front of their house…that old van just disappeared and so far it hasn’t been back.  

We didn’t see them move out.  There was never a For Sale sign in their yard.  We haven’t seen the house on any real estate listings.  We just noticed one day that it was empty. 

Then last week a team of painters showed up and began painting the house inside and out. Sometime during the week a bunch of new furniture was moved in.  It all looks new and modern and kind of Scandinavian.  We can see it through the front window because there are no drapes.  But that’s another odd thing…at night, there are no lights on in the house.  Not one.  Last Monday, landscapers showed up and they worked steadily for several days.  They even worked on Thanksgiving day.  They’ve pulled out all the shrubs and plants that had become kind of overgrown, tilled the planter beds, and now they’ve planted a number of rose bushes.  Rose bushes that are blooming.  In November.

So, all in all, it looks like maybe we’re going to have new neighbors.  With all this preparation, it’s obvious that someone is coming.  Probably soon.  To tell you the truth, we’re kind of on pins and needles waiting to see.  

Somebody’s coming.  We just don’t know when.  

We also don’t know who our new neighbors will be.  We don’t know what they’ll be like.  What we do know is that newness is coming.  In some ways it has already begun with the preparation of the house and yards.  So we’re watching to see what happens next with the house next door.

Advent is something like that.  Except the house next door is our house.  Our world.  And we do know who’s coming because he’s been here before.  

This is the season when we get our house in order.  It’s the season when we prepare for the coming of Christ while at the same time we prepare to celebrate the first time Christ came to us as Jesus of Nazareth.  

Advent is the season when we remind ourselves of the great dream of the prophets during that long wait for the first coming of Christ, the dream of the one who would bring in God’s reign of peace and justice as Isaiah described it:

Out of Zion shall go forth instruction,

                  and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

He shall judge between the nations,

                  and shall arbitrate for many peoples;

         they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

                  and their spears into pruning hooks;

         nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

                  neither shall they learn war any more.

            O house of Jacob,

                  come, let us walk

                  in the light of the LORD!

Advent is the time when we remember that their hope, that ancient hope, is our hope.  It is a time when we remember that just as Jesus came to teach us the Way of love and truth, the Way of cooperation and companionship, the Way of kindness and justice, he will come again when the time is right to remake and renew the world.  So let us walk in the light of the Lord.  

We don’t know when that will be– the Second Coming of Christ.  The only thing we can know for certain is that each day brings us one day closer.  As St. Paul says, “You know what time it is.  Now is the moment for you to wake up.  For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers;  the night is far gone, the day is near.”  I don’t think Paul is telling us to make sure our bags are packed so much as he is saying make sure you don’t miss Jesus when he shows up.

It’s easy for us to get preoccupied with life-as-it-is.  I know it’s easy for me to sometimes be so focused on my own train of thought that I become oblivious to everything going on around me.  I think we can all be that way sometimes.

We’re like the absent-minded professor who became so absorbed in his work that he forgot the simplest details. One morning his wife said, “Now Henry, remember, we are moving today. Here, I’m putting this note in your pocket to remind you. Now don’t forget.”  When the professor came home that evening, he walked in the front door and found the house completely empty. Distraught and disoriented, he walked out to the curb and sat down.  A young boy walked up to him, and he asked him, “Little boy, do you know the people who used to live here?”  The boy replied, “Yes, Dad, Mom told me you’d forget.” 

Advent is a time when we remind each other of the important hope we so easily forget.  I sometimes forget that Jesus has promised to return.  I can go days, weeks, months without ever stopping to remember, “Hey, this might be the day that Jesus comes back!” 

Advent reminds us that Jesus told us to be ready, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  It’s not when you think it will be.  It’s not when you suppose it will be. It’s not when you choose.  So be ready.

It will be a surprise.  “Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.  Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

This is not the so-called rapture, by the way.  Jesus is not describing people being caught up in the air or even disappearing.  He says that one will be left and one will be taken.  He doesn’t say where one will be taken.  That Greek word for “taken” is paralambanomai.  It doesn’t mean to be lifted up or to meet.  It means “to go along with.”  It’s used in the Transfiguration story when it says that “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John.”

Two will be working in the field; one will go along with Jesus and the other will just keep working.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will keep working and one will go along with Jesus.  It will be like the time Jesus was walking along the seashore and called out to Peter and James and John, “Follow me.”  

Brian Stoffregen wrote, “It isn’t a special word or a magical word about floating up in the air. It is much more like the fishermen or tax collector answering Jesus’ call to follow me – come along with me – let’s walk down the road together.
 
“What are the people doing when this “taking” or “leaving” occurs? They are at their place of employment. They are busy at work. My guess is that the man working in the field is “left”, because he couldn’t leave his important work. My guess is that the woman working in the mill is “left”, because she couldn’t leave her important work.”

Some will go with him because they’re ready.  They been watching.  They’ve been waiting.  They’ve been hoping for his return.  And they’ve been learning to discern all the undercover ways that Christ has been with us all along.  You can look at Matthew 25 for more about that.

Advent is the season of waiting and watching.  And hoping.  We live in the meantime.  We live somewhere between our deep dissatisfaction with the way things are and our hopes for the way things ought to be.  We live in hope that the time is coming when things will be made right.

Advent tells us that that time is coming.  It doesn’t tell us when, it just tells us to keep our eyes open, to watch.  And to hope.  

Newness is coming to the house next door.  Newness is coming to our house.  Newness is coming to the world.  Salvation is nearer to us now that it was when we got up this morning.  So watch.  And hope.  And be ready.  In the meantime, let’s keep walking in the light of the Lord.

Pius, We Have a Problem

Luke 23:33-43

Today is the last Sunday of the church year, Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday.  This is a relatively new addition to the church calendar and, frankly, not everyone is happy about it.  

In 1925, the world was trying desperately to put itself back together in the aftermath of World War I and it wasn’t going well.  Pope Pius XI was gravely concerned by the growing tide of secularism and ultra-nationalism in Germany, Italy and elsewhere, and the imposition of Communism in Russia.  In response he issued an encyclical called Quas Primas—That Which is First (interestingly, it can also be read as a question, What is First?)—in which he established The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe or, as it came to be commonly known, the Feast of Christ the King.  

Pope Pius was trying to restate and reinforce the idea of the sovereignty of Christ over, well, everything.  He wanted to make it clear that our deepest and most profound allegiance should be to Jesus Christ above and beyond every other allegiance.  But in doing it in this way, was he, maybe, missing the point of what Jesus was actually saying when he talked about the kingdom of God?

The image of Christ as King is problematic for us in a number of ways.  It’s hard for us to relate to even the idea of a king.  There aren’t very many real monarchs left in the world, and most of the ones who are still here wield a power that is primarily symbolic or ceremonial.  As a case in point, after the long reign of Queen Elizabeth, King Charles has now ascended to the throne of Great Britain, but nobody is expecting any significant change in the governance of the United Kingdom as a result because whatever power the throne still has is very strictly circumscribed by a democratic parliament. 

Another problem with the imagery of Christ the King is that the image itself is hopelessly patriarchal and patristic which puts it in stark contrast to the egalitarian vision Jesus was describing when he announced that the basilea of God was within reach.

Basilea.  That’s the Greek word in the gospels that we translate as kingdom.  It’s a word that the empire used to describe the domain of Caesar and also the territory governed by Herod and other client kings.  And even as Jesus was proclaiming the arrival of the basileaof God, it was a word that was both too small and too loaded to really capture the new reality that Jesus was describing.

The word Kingdom implies boundaries. Boundaries imply limitations and location.  You are either inside or outside.  Even the synonyms for kingdom make it sound territorial.  Realm—a royal domain or kingdom; a region, sphere, or domain within which something or someone prevails, or dominates.  Reign—the period during which a sovereign occupies the throne, the territory of royal rule or sovereignty; a dominating power or influence; to have control, rule, or influence.  

The word Kingdom also implies power, usually and especially coercive power.  Constantine and later Christian emperors and kings readily embraced the concept of the Kingdom of Christ because it was an image they could use in exercising their own power.  They could claim that they were appointed by Christ and were ruling under his authority, which meant that they could spin just about anything they did as justifiable because they were acting on Christ’s behalf.  Convert people at the point of the sword or by torture?  No problem.  We’re doing it for Jesus.  

Today, Christian Nationalism and other authoritarian movements appropriate the language of Christ the King to imagine Jesus as a muscular Rambo, kicking tail and taking names. Under the auspices of Christ the King, they want to establish a restrictive theocracy, but in embracing that idea they completely miss the new reality that Jesus was calling us to embrace.

Kingdom, realm, reign, sovereignty—none of these terms are really a good fit for what Jesus was describing when he announced that the basilea tou theou –what we translate as The Kingdom of God—is arriving, is at hand, is within reach. 

George Orwell was a guy who knew a thing or two about language and how we use, abuse, twist and misuse it.  Orwell said, “There is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”[1]

Christ the King is one of those worn-out metaphors.  We keep using it because we haven’t come up with a better phrase to describe the vision of God that Jesus was proclaiming or a way to describe our belief that God is the ultimate power that moves the universe through love, compassion, creativity, grace and cooperation.  

On the plus side, Christ the King does make us ask ourselves some important questions.  What do we mean when we say that Christ is sovereign?  How do we understand the kingdom of God, the reign of God?  How do we understand the power of God?  How do we understand power in general?  How do we use power?  Do our values reflect the values of empire or the values of Jesus?  What kind of kingdom do we belong to?

The kingdom of God, as Jesus described it, was and is a resistance movement.  To say that Christ is king is a resistance claim.  It is a challenge to the way power is coercively used most of the time in our world.  Jesus is a different kind of king.  The cross is the coronation of Jesus.  He surrenders to the coercive power of empire to show us the greater power of love and nonviolence.

Pontius Pilate understood that Jesus was all about resisting the empire’s coercive power but also the empire’s imagery.  When Pilate asked Jesus straight out, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus simply replied, “You say so.  Those are your words.”[2]  The soldiers crucifying Jesus mocked him saying, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself!” Pilate mocked both Jesus and the Jewish people by having a board nailed above his head with the inscription, “This is the King of the Jews.”  These were people who understood power in only one way.  Control.  Coercion.  Power over.

But the reign of God that Jesus was describing is a cooperative world.  The reign of God doesn’t force itself on anyone or try to control anyone.  Christ, as king, persuades, encourages, nudges and asks us to live up to a vision of our better selves.

 The reign of God is a world where generosity, grace, compassion and mercy prevail.  It is a world driven by and governed by love.  It is a world where everyone’s needs are met and no one goes hungry.  It is a kingdom that transcends every kind of border, boundary and barrier.  It is a world where the only control is self-control.  Its central values are to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Its only law is love: love God, and love your neighbor as yourself. 

The kingdom that Jesus was describing is a world moving toward the vision of Isaiah when we will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks, when nation shall not lift up sword against nation nor shall they study war anymore.[3]  The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is the world where God walks with us as Ezekiel envisioned, a world where God shepherds us, where Christ seeks out the lost and brings back the strays, where through us, Jesus binds up the injured and strengthens the week and feeds us all with justice.[4]

The reign of God is a realm in which the poor are blessed and the hungry are filled and those who mourn are comforted.  It is the world Mary envisioned in the Magnificat when she sang, “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”[5]

Yes, God exercises power.  But not the way we usually think of power. God’s power is all about empowering you.  God is about giving power rather than holding onto it.  God gives power to us so that we can love and care for the world more fully and effectively.  Together.  “The greatest manifestation of the power of God,” said Bishop Yvette Flunder, “comes when we work together to find ways to be together and do justice together and love together and stand together.”  

The kingdom of God is all of us together.

 “Jesus did not establish an institution,” wrote Bishop Michael Curry, “though institutions can serve his cause. He did not organize a political party, though his teachings have a profound impact on politics. Jesus did not even found a religion. No, Jesus began a movement, fueled by his Spirit, a movement whose purpose was and is to change the face of the earth from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.”

Today is Christ the King Sunday.  It is a day when we use the “worn out metaphor” of kingly power to try to open the doors and windows of our hearts, minds and souls to the empowering love of God through Jesus Christ.  It is a day when we acknowledge both that God in Christ is the ultimate power and that we need to redefine how we understand and use power.  It is a day when we are asked to declare that our deepest and most profound allegiance is to Jesus Christ above and beyond every other allegiance.  It is a day that challenges us to walk in the Way of Jesus so that we can help to bring God’s vision of a whole, healthy, loving and cooperative world into reality on earth as it is in heaven.

Today is the day we volunteer to change the face of the earth from the nightmare it often is into the dream that God intends.


[1] Politics and the English Language, 1946. 

[2] Luke 23:3

[3] Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3

[4] Ezekiel 34:15-16

[5] Luke 1:46-55

Focus

Luke 21:5-19; Malachi 4:1-2a; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

The temple in Jerusalem—Herod’s temple—had been under construction for more than 40 years when Jesus sat down in its outer courtyard to speak with his disciples.  Herod had begun constructing the temple in 20 BCE, and it was already regarded as one of the wonders of the world even though it wouldn’t be completed until 63 CE, some thirty years after this teaching moment Jesus has with his disciples.

In order to be able to build the massive temple he envisioned, Herod first had to rebuild Mount Moriah, the low mountain on which the temple stood.  To do this, he encased the mountain with walls more than 33 meters (108 feet) high, then filled in the space with earth until it encompassed an area of more than 144,000 square meters.    

The temple in Jerusalem was a visual wonder.  A description in the Talmud says that  the interior walls of the temple were faced with blue, yellow, and white marble.   Gold spikes lined the parapet wall on the roof.  Josephus wrote that the entire eastern fascia was covered with gold.  “The rays of the early morning sun, striking the Temple façade created a blinding reflection,” he wrote.  “The rest was white, so that this towering edifice looked like a snow-clad mountain from afar.” 

It must have sounded like madness for Jesus to say that it was all coming down—that not one stone would be left upon another.  But by the time Luke wrote his gospel, sometime around the year 85, everything Jesus predicted in today’s gospel reading had already happened.  

In 70 CE, during the first Jewish-Roman war, the Roman general Titus destroyed the temple and much of the rest of Jerusalem along with it.  

Six years before that, the emperor Nero had carried out the first official persecutions against Christians, using them as a scapegoat for the burning of Rome in 64 CE.

As for wars and rumors of wars, just between the time when Jesus spoke these words and the time Luke wrote them down, Rome fought the Roman-Parthian War, the Boudica Uprising in Britain, the first Jewish-Roman War, the Spartacus war, the Lepidus versus Sulla Roman Civil War, the Sertorian War and the first of three wars with the Kingdom of Dacia.  

Wars and rumors of wars.  Earthquakes.  The eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Portentous signs in the heavens.  Famines.  Plagues. Persecutions.  All these things happened between the time Jesus spoke those prophetic words and the time Luke wrote them down in his account of the life and teaching of Jesus.   

But the world did not end.

Dositheos the Samaritan, Theudas the Rebel, Simon bar Kokhba and other would-be liberators of Israel gathered followers, led rebellions and claimed to be the Messiah.  They were not.  And now history barely remembers them.

It’s easy to get distracted by apocalyptic thinking and doomsday scenarios.  That’s why books like The Late, Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series have always sold so well.  But Jesus made it pretty clear that we’re not supposed to spend a lot of time thinking about that.  “About that day and hour no one knows,” he said, “—not the angels in heaven nor even the Son, but only the Father.”  (Matthew 24:36)

These lectionary texts that we have for today from Malachi, Second Thessalonians and Luke invite us to focus.  You could say they invite us to focus on what we’re focusing on—on what’s getting our attention.

The gospel lesson for today comes right after the passage where Jesus comments on the poor widow who put her two pennies—all she had–into the temple treasury.  The disciples were busy gazing at the grandeur of the temple and didn’t even see her until Jesus pointed her out to them.  They were focused on the impressive architecture.  Jesus, on the other hand, was focused on the people.  

Are we seeing what Jesus sees…or are we distracted?

It’s understandable that the disciples were captivated by the splendor and beauty of the temple as they sat there with Jesus, but they lost focus on why they had come to Jerusalem in the first place.  Reading the gospel accounts, you have to wonder if they ever really understood why they were there to begin with, although Jesus certainly tried to tell them often enough.  And now, there they were, a day or two away from his crucifixion and they kept getting distracted—first by the beauty of the temple then by speculations about apocalypse.  “When will this be?  Teacher, what will be the secret signs that all this is about to happen?”

To be fair, I know I would have had the same questions.  I suspect you might, too.  Wouldn’t you want to be ready for it?  Even with our long historical perspective that tells us that wars and plagues and famines and earthquakes and false messiahs have been pretty much stock set pieces in the long drama of life on earth—even though all these things have  always been happening—and are happening right now—we would want to know when the grand finale is coming to our neighborhood.   We would want to know when the final curtain for everyone everywhere is coming down.

Because the lectionary cycle repeats, we get this same group of texts every three years.  But even with that repeating cycle, I believe that these texts continue to speak to us in a unique way every time they come up.  They always seem timely—sometimes so much so that it’s uncanny. 

Six years ago we were reading these texts on the first Sunday after the presidential election when Hillary Clinton had won the popular vote but Donald Trump carried the Electoral College.  That was a pretty tense time.  A lot of people were wondering what would happen next.  I thought it was noteworthy that Hillary Clinton even quoted a line from our 2nd Thessalonians in her concession speech: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”  

Three years ago these texts came up while we were wading through the first impeachment hearings.  Again, it was a tense time and people wondered if the country’s anxiety might explode into something more than oppositional rhetoric. 

Today we hear these texts right after the most anxious and divisive midterm elections in a long, long time—an election fraught with partisan vitriol and acts of violence.  While the votes are still being counted, many are wondering if our polarized political division in this country can ever be healed.  A lot of people are focused on that.

It’s hard sometimes not to let our focus, our vision, be hijacked by the currents of anger and isolation that have been flooding our lives with such violence. There was another school shooting this week, this time in Seattle.  As of November 11, Veterans Day, there had been 589 mass shootings in the US since the beginning of the year.  A total of 38,431 people have been killed by gun violence so far this year.  That certainly deserves our attention.   

We are still dealing with a pandemic that physically isolated us from each other.  We are still dealing with the fallout from the January 6 assault on the Capitol.

On this Veterans Day weekend it would be irresponsible not to mention the epidemic of veterans committing suicide.  

We have an ongoing addiction crisis.  Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. remain at record levels. According to provisional data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 109,000 people died from drug overdose in the 12-month period ending last March.

Homelessness.  The high cost of housing.  The cost of education.  Racism.  Inflation. Climate change that threatens our very existence… These things all need our attention.

Spouse. Family.  Work.  Church.  School.  Neighbors.  Community Groups.  Meetings. These things are all worthy of our attention.

Netflix.  Apple +.  Disney +.  Prime Video.  HBO.  Showtime.  Cable News.  Sports.  Facebook. Instagram. Twitter. These things are all very good at distracting us when the world just seems to be too much.

So where do you focus?

It’s tempting, very tempting, to just shrug it all off, give up and wait for Jesus to come back and fix everything.  Some Christians have built whole theologies around that.  The writer of 2nd Thessalonians was dealing with that very problem when he said to keep away from “those living in idleness.”  Apparently some people were so convinced that Jesus was coming back at any moment that they just stopped working and were mooching off the rest of the community.  They had lost focus on what Christ had called them to be and to do.

Focus.

Focus on what is helping.  Focus on what is good.  Focus on what is improving.  Focus on what you can be thankful for.  Focus on what is changing.  Focus on what needs to be changed.  But don’t be anxious.  Don’t let it all overwhelm you.  Do what you can where you can when you can.  

Then take a breath.

Take a breath.  And take a long look back.  

Everything changes.  There are only three things that are eternal:  God, Life, and Love.  And life and love are eternal because they come from God. 

The crazy politics, the anger and fear and hate, the anxiety and tension, the stupidity and racism, all the antagonism, all the misunderstandings… will someday all fade into history.

The beautiful temples, the faces that we cherish and hands we hold, our favorite music and art will someday all be lost to the world’s memory.

But God, Life and Love will live on.  And because we are made in God’s image and filled with God’s spirit and life and loved by God, so will we.

So let’s stay focused.  Let’s keep moving forward.  Let’s focus on the vision, as Jesus did, that the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is in reach.  Let’s keep working to make that a reality on earth as it is in heaven.  Let us not grow weary in doing what is right.

Yes, a dystopian, destructive, apocalyptic unraveling of our world is always a possibility, but there’s no point worrying about it.  Instead, let’s keep working to build the alternative.  

Martin Luther was once said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces I would still plant my apple tree.”

So let’s do that.  Let’s keep planting our apple trees.  Let’s live in hope.

“The very least you can do in your life,” wrote Barbara Kingsolver, “is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.”[1]

Let’s live inside our hope.  Let’s focus on making the world a healthier, safer, more loving place for those who come after us.  Let’s seek first God’s kin-dom and God’s righteousness.  In a world of bad news, let’s not just proclaim the Good News, let’s begood news.

And even if it looks like the walls of the temple are coming down, it doesn’t have to bring us down with it.  “Do not be weary in doing what is right.  By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  

May we continue to live inside our hope.  And may God embrace us with mercy so that we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver

Someone the Light Shines Through

Back in the bad old days, there was a dismal little mill town where just about everything was owned by two miserly old brothers who were not interested in much of anything except making money.  They owned the mill where the people worked, they owned the houses the workers lived in, they owned the only store in town, in fact the only thing that the brothers did not own in that town was the church.  

The pastor of the church was a good-hearted man, and it troubled him deeply to see the people of his parish struggling to survive on their meager wages, so he frequently sent letters to the two miserly old brothers asking them to use their wealth to improve the life of their workers, the people of the town.

Now it happened that one of the brothers died and the pastor was summoned to the brothers’ mansion to plan for the funeral.  As he sat down across from the surviving brother, he noticed that the old penny-pincher had a pile of letters neatly stacked in front of him.  The old man laid his hand on the stack of letters, looked the pastor in the eye and said, “Pastor, I’ll give the town everything you ever asked for in these letters if you’ll say in my brother’s eulogy that he was a saint.”  

Now the pastor was a very truthful man, and he wasn’t sure how he would be able to do this, but the needs of the town were great and the old miser had offered him a way to meet those needs.  So on the day of the funeral, the pastor stood up in the pulpit, prayed silently for a moment, then said, “The man in this casket was a miserly skinflint, a greedy, mean-spirited thief who cheated his workers out of what they were owed so he could line his own pockets.  He was, all-in-all, a miserable excuse for a human being…  But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”

On this All Saints Sunday, it seems appropriate to take a moment not just to remember the saints who have gone before us, but to think about what it is to be a saint.

A little girl went to church with her grandparents one Sunday in a big, old, stone church with lots of beautiful stained glass windows.  The little girl asked her grandmother, “Who are all those people in the windows?  “Oh, those are saints,” said her grandmother.  “There’s Saint Teresa, and Saint Mary, Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint John…”  When she got home she told her mom and dad all about the beautiful windows with all the saints in grandma and grandpa’s church.  Her dad, curious about how much she understood, asked her, “What is a saint?”  She thought for a minute then replied, “A saint is somebody the light shines through.”

I think that’s the best definition of a saint that I’ve ever heard:  A saint is someone the light shines through.

Someone delving through the archives of the town of Milford, Connecticut discovered the minutes from a town meeting in 1640.  Among the other items of town business, this was recorded for posterity: “Voted that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; Voted that the earth is given to the Saints; Voted that we are the Saints.”

I’m not sure how the people of Milford understood it in 1640, but there is a lot of truth in what they were saying.  We are the saints.  Or at least we’re supposed to be.  We are called to be the people the light shines through.  That, at least, is how St. Paul used the term. 

When he addressed his letter to the followers of Jesus in Rome he wrote, “To all who are in Rome, loved by God and called to be saints…”  His letter to the Jesus followers in Corinth begins in a similar way: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints…”  His greeting to the Philippians is only slightly different: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I really love the way Eugene Peterson translated the opening of 1 Corinthians in The Message Bible: “I send this letter to you in God’s church at Corinth, Christians cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life.”

It makes a lot of sense to me to think of saints as people who are being “cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God-filled life.”  

The Greek word for “saints” is hagiois.  It literally means “the holy ones” or “sacred ones,” persons who are consecrated and dedicated to serving God.   In the early church, saints weren’t just people who were particularly pious or “saintly” or canonized by the church.  The saints included all the followers of Jesus, everyone who was dedicated to living in the Way of Jesus and in the beloved community.  You don’t have to read very far in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians to realize that those “saints” were still very much in the process of being “cleaned up by Jesus. ” But Paul still regarded them as saints—a people set apart to show the world what the kin-dom of God could look like.

Saints are people who are awake to, or at least awakening to the love of God, so they try to live a “Christian” life—a life of integrity with the teaching of Jesus, a life glowing with the love that flows from Christ, a life of compassion consistent with the compassion of Jesus—in short, saints are people who are trying to live a life of deep relationship with Jesus.  And with each other.

“The Christian life,” wrote Marcus Borg, “is about a relationship with God that transforms us into more compassionate beings. The God of love and justice is the God of relationship and transformation. . . . The Christian life is not about believing or doing what we need to believe or do so that we can be saved. Rather, it’s about seeing what is already true — that God loves us already — and then beginning to live in this relationship.  It is about becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God. 

“The Christian life is not about pleasing God the finger-shaker and judge.  It is not about believing now or being good now for the sake of heaven later.  It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now.  Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”[1]  

Saints are people who are learning to open their hearts.  

Saints are people who understand that life and love are bigger than what we see.   It’s tempting to think of the company of saints, the communion of saints as our own little church, especially if we spend a lot of our time and energy focused on the life of our congregation with all its joys and challenges.  But it’s also important to remember that the Church of Jesus Christ, the Community of Faith, the Company of Saints is bigger than we can see.  It’s important to remember that it has outposts in surprising places and manifests itself in surprising ways, that it stretches across time and space in ways that go far beyond our doors, beyond our local streets, beyond our county, state and nation.  It goes beyond our time and connects us to all the saints who have gone before us and all who will come after.

The Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great Cloud of Witnesses.  We profess in the creed that we believe in the Communion of Saints.  In a way that transcends both our vision and our understanding, those who have gone before us gather with us around the bread and the cup.

Stop and think for a moment of those who surround you this morning… the people who are present with you today in your heart and mind, who are present in faith…

In The Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner wrote:

“How they do live on… and how well they manage to take even death in their stride because although death can put an end to them right enough, it can never put an end to our relationship with them. Wherever or however else they may have come to life since, it is beyond a doubt that they live still in us. 

“ Who knows what ‘the communion of saints’ means, but surely it means more than just that we are all of us haunted by ghosts because they are not ghosts, these people we once knew, not just echoes of voices that have years since ceased to speak, but saints in the sense that through them something of the power and richness of life itself not only touched us once long ago, but continues to touch us. 

In my last year of seminary, I had a profound mystical experience of the Communion of Saints.  I was attending Easter morning worship at a little Lutheran Church in Oakland that had been rebuilt in 1907 after the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906.  As I sat waiting for the service to begin, I found myself thinking of all the generations of people who had been part of that community of faith over the years.  I imagined them singing old, familiar hymns, clothed in their austere Sunday Best during the years of the Great Depression.  I imagined soldiers and sailors in uniform during World War II.  I imagined kids in bell-bottoms and beads during the ‘60s.  In my imagination I could see them all, clothed in the style of their times, singing the Easter hymns decade after decade.  As I looked around, I couldn’t help but notice all the older people who sat alone, and I was suddenly struck that each of them had someone beside them—someone invisible to the sight of the eyes, but not to the sight of their hearts.  I had a powerful sense that the saints from all those eras were gathered around the altar and in the sparsely filled pews.  When I got back to my seminary apartment, I wrote a poem while the experience was still fresh in my mind.

Easter in a Dying Church (1996)

They come because they have always come…

and on this day of days, 

not to pass through the beckoning door,

not to let their careful footsteps drum

old echoes from the wooden floor

would deny the pattern of their ways

and all the times that they have come before.

They sit where they have always sat…

each in the customary pew, 

with room enough for all, 

even for the visiting few  

who do not hear the sweet, unearthly voices

singing Alleluia in memories so loud;

room enough for those who do not recall 

the passings, the accidents, the choices 

which have thickened the witnessing cloud

and left this sparse, embodied remnant of the hosts

surrounded by their holy ghosts.

They come to meet where they have always met…

to taste the wine with a beloved friend

who has faded from sight 

but still shares the cup in the world without end,

to break bread with the cherished spouse

who, though swallowed by the light,

still prays beside each member of this house,

to meet children, uncles, sisters, mothers, 

cousins, aunts, fathers, brothers,

in soul or body distanced from their common place—

yet present in this sacred space.

They come to be seen with the unseen…

to testify to the most revered of their presumptions:

that before and beyond here and now

the empty tomb 

leaves a hole in all assumptions.

May we all continue to be cleaned up by Jesus.  May we all become people the light shines through until that day comes when we become completely transparent in the great cloud of witnesses.

May we be saints…for the sake of the kin-dom of God.


[1] The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg

Out of Love for the Truth

John 8:31-36

“Out of love for the truth and from a desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place.  Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter.  In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”

This was the introduction to the 95 Theses which Martin Luther nailed to the door of the Wittenberg University Chapel on Wednesday, October 31, 1517.   We sometimes think that nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the church was an act of rebellion, and in retrospect it was powerfully symbolic, but it was actually a normal practice.  The church door served as a kind of bulletin board for the academic community.  If you wanted to propose a debate, that’s where you posted the notice with the propositions to be discussed.

Luther didn’t intend for the 95 Theses to be a manifesto for rebellion.  He had no idea that his challenge to the practice of selling indulgences would spark a revolutionary movement that would sweep across Europe bringing enormous changes in religion, politics, education, and everyday life, but once that movement started, he gave himself to it body and soul because he was committed to the truth of the Gospel and the love of Christ.  The truth quite literally set him free from the heavy-handed authority of Rome—the Pope excommunicated him—but the truth also bound him to the proclamation of salvation by God’s grace through faith and to the authority of God’s word in the scriptures.

Out of love for the truth and from a desire to elucidate it…  

According to the Gospel of John, when Jesus was on trial before Pontius Pilate, Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”  In some respects that seems like an almost ridiculous question.  We know what truth is.  We learn about truth almost as soon as we learn to talk.  Sadly, that’s also when we learn to lie, because we learn pretty quickly that the truth may reveal things we would like to keep hidden.  We learn very early on that sometimes truth has consequences that we would like to avoid, and that those consequences might be unpleasant or even painful.  

Truth, the dictionary tells us, is the true or actual state of a matter.  Something is true when it is in conformity with reality.  We say a thing is true when it is a verified or indisputable fact.  The truth reflects actuality or actual existence.  When we say a thing is a basic truth, we mean that it is an obvious or accepted fact.  

Truth means that my desires or imagination do not have the final word in determining what is reality and what is not.

There are twenty-seven verses in the gospels that contain the word truth.  Twenty-one of those verses are in the Gospel of John where truth is not only a central theme, it is anchored in and identified with the person of Jesus.  In John 1:14 we read, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  Three verses later, John puts aside the figurative language of the Word to make it clear who he is talking about: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

When Jesus sat discussing theology with the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well, he told her that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”  In chapter 14, not long after he has told Thomas that he, himself, is “the way, the truth, and the life,” Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth” and in chapter 16 he tells his disciples that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”  In chapter 17, as he prays for the disciples, Jesus asks that they would be sanctified or consecrated in truth.

“For this I was born,” Jesus told Pilate, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

In today’s Gospel reading from chapter 8 of John’s gospel, we see a hint that some of those who were listening to Jesus were unsure about continuing to follow him.  Some scholars think that this passage is indicative of tension between Jewish believers and Gentile believers in the community where this gospel was written, and John, the writer, is calling both sides back to the middle ground of the truth found in the person and teaching of Jesus.  

“Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word—if you remain faithful to my teachings, then you are truly my disciples.  And you will come to know the truth.  And the truth will set you free.”  When they protested that they were descendants of Abraham and had never been enslaved by anyone—apparently they forgot about their own history with Babylon and Egypt—Jesus went on to make it clear that he was talking about the truth setting them—and us—free from our slavery to sin.

But how does the truth set us free from sin?  

Martin Luther defined sin as being curved in on the self.  Sin is when I put my preferences, my desires, my ideas, my plans, my goals above and before everyone and everything else.  Sin is me, me, me, me, me taken to the extent that it harms or disenfranchises or marginalizes or disempowers or diminishes or neglects you, you, you, you, you.  Sin creates a false reality, an illusion centered on my desires, my fears, my imagination.  And that illusion is seductive and captivating.  It ensnares.  It enslaves.  It makes me believe that I am the center of the universe, that what I think or believe or even just want very, very badly to be true is what is real.

Truth disabuses me of that illusion.

Once again: Truth means that my desires or imagination do not have the final word in determining what is reality and what is not.

We are currently struggling through a time when truth is endangered in our culture.  There’s nothing new about that.  People have always preferred to put their own spin on facts that confront their biases or preconceived ideas.  People throughout history have taken refuge in denial when events or outcomes don’t fit the way they wanted things to happen or the results they wanted.  What’s new is how widespread this devaluation of the truth has become.  

When lies and spin become so prevalent that they begin to undermine any common understanding of basic facts, the world becomes a more dangerous place.  When people refuse to accept observable facts, when there is no longer the common cultural ground of truth based on fact, then there is no longer a starting point for discussion or compromise.  There is no way to move past confrontation and opposed binary positions that divide us.  When people lift up conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” as justification for their actions or opinions then we stand on the precipice of political violence. 

Sadly, we have seen clear examples of that lately.  It has become the sin of our society.

Sin convinces me that I stand apart from the rest of humanity.  But the truth, the fact, is that I am deeply and intimately connected to the rest of humanity and, in fact, to all of creation.  Standing apart is an illusion.  Rugged individualism is a destructive myth—destructive because it undermines and negates the relationships that keep us alive in every sense of the word.

“We must all overcome the illusion of separateness,” said Richard Rohr.  “It is the primary task of religion to communicate not worthiness but union, to reconnect people to their original identity “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The Bible calls the state of separateness ‘sin.’ God’s job description is to draw us back into primal and intimate relationship. As 1 John 3:2 reminds us, ‘My dear people, we are already children of God; what we will be in the future has not yet been fully revealed, and all I do know is that we shall be like God.’”

As followers of Jesus, we are called to live in the imitation of God.  We are called to observe what God is doing all the time and everywhere and then do the same.  We are called to be generous because God is generous.  We are called to be creative because God is creative.  We are called to embrace diversity because God revels in diversity so much that no two things are exactly alike in the entire universe.  But above and beyond everything else, we are called to love.  Because God loves.  God is love.  And, as Richard Rohr has said, God does not love us if and when we change.  God loves us so that we can change.

That is grace—the grace that makes us whole, the grace that heals us, the grace that reunites us, the grace that saves us.  

Believe it.  

It’s the truth…and it’s the only thing that can set us free.

All That and a Bag of Chips

Luke 18:9-14

One time I was at a planning meeting for a popular annual youth event, and we were discussing adding some people to the planning team who we thought might bring some new energy and ideas.  One very talented and popular youth director had let us know that he would like to be part of the team and that he had, in his words, “some great ideas to transform the event.”  We all liked this guy, but at the same time, his over-the-top self-confidence was a little off-putting.  “Well, he’s very talented and capable,” said one of the women on the team, “but his ego walks into the room before he does.”  “Yeah,” said another, “he thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips.”  

In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable about a man who seems to think he’s “all that and a bag of chips.”  In contrast, there is also a man in the story who is so ashamed of himself that he can’t lift his eyes from the floor.  

Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt:  “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, NRSV)

On the face of it, this looks like the easiest of all the Jesus stories to interpret.  The point seems pretty clear:  Ego and bragging are bad.  Humility is good.  There.  Riddle solved.  Let’s go home.

But wait a minute.  I want to tell you this story again, but this time I want to take away Luke’s introduction and give you another translation of the ending.  

Remember, when Luke sat down to write his gospel he was drawing from a number of sources.  One of those sources was a unique collection of Jesus stories that Matthew, Mark and John apparently didn’t have, because those stories don’t appear in their gospels.  

If you read carefully, you may notice that when Luke inserts these stories into his telling of the life of Jesus, he often frames them with his opinion of what the story is about.  We saw this last week with Luke’s telling of the parable of the Widow and the Judge.  You may also notice that in Luke’s gospel, Pharisees almost always appear in a negative light and tax collectors are always portrayed as repenting and being transformed.  

These biases in Luke are so apparent that they almost amount to a binary formula in his writing: Pharisees bad, tax collectors good.  It’s important to remember, though, that the people who originally heard Jesus tell these stories fifty or more years before Luke wrote them down would have had exactly the opposite view:  Pharisees good, tax collectors bad.  In fact, tax collectors would have been seen as frankly despicable.  

Tax collectors were despised and regarded as traitors because they were considered  to be collaborators with the Roman oppressors.  In fact, tax collectors were so hated that they were frequently assassinated by a group of anti-Rome Jewish zealots called the Sicarii.  Some of the shock value of this story is that the tax collector even dares to come into the temple to pray.  

Pharisees, on the other hand, were generally admired.  People looked up to them as examples of how to live a righteous life.  They went above and beyond the requirements of Torah in order to increase the righteousness of all Israel.  They saw their fastidious keeping of the law as a kind of patriotic duty.  They believed that Messiah would not come until the nation was righteous enough to receive him, so they were extra conscientious about keeping the law to make up for those who were not.  The Pharisee in this parable would have believed that his extra righteousness could even compensate, at least a bit, for the tax collector’s treasonous collaboration with Rome, because they were both children of the covenant.

In our culture, in our day and age, we find the Pharisee’s prayer in this parable braggadocios and obnoxious.  ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’  We tend to prefer our heroes a little humbler.

Gregory Peck and a friend were waiting for a table one night at a crowded restaurant and the wait seemed to be dragging on forever.  His friend became impatient and said to Gregory Peck, “Why don’t you tell the maître d’ who you are?”  Peck replied, “No, if you have to tell them who you are, then you aren’t.”

We like that kind of self-effacing humility.

The Pharisee’s prayer sounds like the opposite of that.  It sounds like he’s trying to remind God that he is one of the good guys, one of the important people, and he’s grateful that God made him a VIP.  It also sounds, at least to most of us, like he thinks he has earned whatever favor he has from God.

From that perspective, the Pharisee’s prayer reminds me a little of the table grace prayed by Jimmy Stewart as Charlie Anderson in the movie Shenandoah:  “Lord, we cleared this land.  We plowed it, sowed it, and harvest it.  We cook the harvest.  It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves.  We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat.  Amen.”

As I said earlier, it’s easy to read this parable as a story of self-righteous arrogance versus self-deprecating humility with Jesus declaring the contrite tax collector as the one who is justified.  But let me tell you the same story in a different way and see what you think.

Two broken men went into the temple to pray.  One of them knew he was broken and one did not like to think of himself that way but there was an uneasiness in his soul, a feeling of unworthiness that he just couldn’t escape.  

The one who knew he was broken was a tax collector.  His job made him a pariah.  Everyone hated him and saw him as a traitor because he worked for the Romans.  He hated himself for doing it.  But times were hard and there was a family to feed and clothe and a job was a job.  So he was living a life he hated and had become a person he hated.

The other man, a Pharisee, wanted more than anything else in the world to be righteous, to know that God approved of him.  He worked hard at being righteous.  He went above and beyond what the Torah required.  He was as good as it was possible to be according to the law.  And yet sometimes he felt like an imposter.  Sometimes he felt like none of it was good enough to make God love him.  So he stood off by himself in the temple and quietly prayed a prayer that was half to God and half to himself.  “Lord, I thank you that I’m not like other people…(I’m not a bad guy)…like thieves, rogues, adulterers… (I’m not a bad guy) or like this tax collector… I live by Torah… I fast twice a week… I give a tenth of everything… (Lord, tell me I’m a good guy.)”  He finished his prayer—half self-talk, half talking to God, and sighed.  Everything he said about himself, to himself, was true. And yet he still felt somehow incomplete.  Like he was missing something.  Something important.

As the Pharisee was leaving the temple, he glanced over at the other broken man, the tax collector. He was standing off in a corner, away from everyone else, but the Pharisee could see that the man was beating his breast and his face was damp with tears as he prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

And here is where we need to retranslate the end of the story.  There is a little word in the Greek text, para, that has multiple meanings.  It’s a preposition.  Most of our English translations translate it as “instead of” or “rather than.”  So our Bibles end the story with Jesus saying, “I tell you, this man (the tax collector) went down to his home justified rather than the other.” They’re telling us that the tax collector is justified and the Pharisee is not.  But that little word para can also mean “along with” or “beside.”  

How do we hear it if the story ends with Jesus saying, “I tell you this man went home justified alongside the other.”  Alongside the other.

Maybe this is a story about both of them receiving grace.  Maybe this is a story about both of them finding some healing as they stand before God in the temple praying their broken prayers from the depth of their broken hearts, each in the only way he knows how to pray.  Maybe this is a story about what our way of praying says about how we understand God.

And yes, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  But maybe that means we will all meet somewhere in the middle under the umbrella of God’s love and grace.   In Jesus’ name.

Wrestling With God

Genesis 32:22-31; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Sooner or later you have to face the music.  If you don’t, it just gets louder.  

After stealing his brother Esau’s birthright, Jacob ran away to Paddam-Aram in Mesopotamia because Esau had threatened to kill him.  In Paddam-Aram, Jacob went to work for his Uncle Laban, his mother’s brother, and married Laban’s two daughters, Rachel and Leah, his cousins.  Which was a thing people did in those days… and still do in some places.  I’m looking at you, Alabama.

Jacob worked for Laban for twenty years, but Laban had this nasty habit of cheating him.  For instance, Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, the cousin who, according to Genesis, was graceful and beautiful, the one he had fallen in love with.  Uncle Laban said, well, you can marry Rachel after you’ve worked for me for seven years.  So Jacob worked for Laban the required seven years and Laban gave him a big, traditional wedding.  But when he removed the veil from his blushing bride on his wedding night, Jacob discovered that Laban had tricked him.   Instead of being married to Rachel, he was now married to Leah, his other cousin, the one who, according to the text, had lovely eyes.  So there was that.

Jacob was not at all happy about the switch and let Laban know it.  “Not a problem,” said Laban.  Just work for me for another seven years and then you can marry Rachel, too.  So Jacob worked for Laban another seven years and this time really did get to marry Rachel.   

Jacob ended up staying with Laban for twenty years, but after twenty years they had had enough of each other.  Whatever trust Jacob and Laban had had for each other had eroded, and Laban’s sons felt like Jacob was somehow cheating them out of their inheritance because he had developed a tricky little breeding program that resulted in him owning more livestock than their father owned. 

So Jacob decided that it was time to go back home.  He packed up his wives, his children and his livestock and headed for Canaan, hoping that his brother, Esau, might have forgotten about the stolen birthright, or at least maybe cooled off a bit in the twenty years he had been gone.

As Jacob, with all his family and servants and flocks and baggage drew near to Edom where Esau was living, he sent messengers ahead to tell Esau that he was coming.  The message he sent was a kind of humble brag with an implication that he could make it worth Esau’s while if Esau could bring himself to forgive and forget the whole birthright business.  “Thus you shall say to my lord, Esau,” Jacob told the messengers.  “Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’”

Esau sent the messengers back with a simple message of his own:  I’m coming to meet you.  Actually, what the messengers said to Jacob was, “Esau is coming to meet you… and he has four hundred men with him.”  

By now Jacob and his retinue had come to the ford of the Jabbok river, a kind of point of no return. He knew that he either had to face his brother now or turn around and keep running forever.  He sent his wives and children across the river, then stayed on the other side to pray.  And this is where Jacob’s story gets abruptly strange.

The text simply says, “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”  Who was this man?  Where did he come from?  Who started the fight?  Genesis doesn’t tell us, but Jacob figured it out.  When the night of wrestling was over, when the stranger had let him go and blessed him, as Jacob was limping away he named the place Peniel, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Jacob wrestled with his conscience.  Jacob wrestled with his history.  Jacob wrestled with his guilt and shame.  Jacob wrestled with his fear.  

And Jacob wrestled with God.  Jacob wrestled with God then limped away with a new name:  Israel. Wrestles with God.  Jacob limped away with a new identity, a new understanding of himself…and of God.

Have you ever wrestled with God?  Have you ever sat up late into the night trying to come to terms with your own life?  Have you ever lost sleep because your mind won’t let go of questions about evil and injustice?  Have you ever lain awake with your own grief wondering where God is or how God could have allowed such pain?  Have you ever tried to distance yourself from the consequences of your own actions but God keeps putting them in front of you?  Have you ever felt like God has just been giving you a smackdown that’s making you limp through life?

I’ve wrestled with God in all these ways at one time or another.  I think most of us wrestle with God or at one time or another… one way or another.   I think that’s part of being human.  And I think it’s how God helps us get rid of the false gods we carry in our heads—the Santa Clause god, the Zeus god, the Rambo god, the God-is-All-About-Me god.  

These days I tend to wrestle with God through the scriptures.  This wrestling has both deepened my faith and challenged it.  I’ll give you an example, but you may not like it.  You may even think I’m a heretic.

Our second reading for this 19th Sunday after Pentecost in Cycle C of the Revised Common Lectionary comes from 2nd Timothy.  I will confess to you right here and now that I don’t particularly like the Pastoral Epistles.  I don’t like it that they are pseudepigrapha—works written under the signature of the Apostle Paul but really authored by someone else.  It doesn’t help that they were written well after the apostolic era, very late in the first century or early in the second, but if that objection was going to cause me to completely ignore them then I would also have to ignore the Gospel of John for the same reason, and I’m not going to do that because I love the Gospel of John.  

The thing that I dislike the most is that the letters to Timothy reassert Patriarchy with a capital P and relegate women to silence.  This is completely contrary to St. Paul who lifted up the ministries of women like Junia, Priscilla, Lydia, Chloe, Euodia, and Syntychae and considered them his partners in the Gospel, even calling Junia an apostle.  

I dislike the tone of these epistles.  I dislike it that they spill all kinds of words about behavior and rules and say precious little about faith.  I don’t care for the subtext of us versus them, which hints at a binary, rigid, closed, and legalistic community rather than the grace of the open arms and heart of Jesus.  

And finally, I have a particular bone to pick with how 2 Timothy 3:16 gets mistranslated so often because that mistranslation reinforces the sin of bibliolatry—creating an idol of the Bible.  Here is what the Greek text of 2 Timothy 3:16 says in a simple word-for-word translation:  all writing God-breathed and beneficial for teaching, for correction, for discipline and with justice

Did you notice that the word “is” isn’t in there?  The New Revised Standard version says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof… etc.”  The NIV says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting… etc.”   But Richmond Lattimore, the late, great Greek scholar translated it this way: “All God-breathed writings are useful for teaching, correction, reproof… etc.”  

Remember, every translation is an interpretation.  It makes more sense to me to read this the way Lattimore translated it because his translation means that we have to sit down together with the words of the Bible and think about which parts are God breathed—divinely inspired—and which parts are perhaps not, and what does that mean for us as people of faith.  It makes more sense to me because when those words were written nobody had yet decided which writings would be considered as holy scripture and which would not.  The formation of the canon was still a few centuries in the future.  And even if the writer was referring to the writings of the Hebrew scriptures, which seems most likely, we should remember that the rabbis were constantly engaged in discussing which parts of the Tanakh were “God-breathed” and which were simply beneficial, useful writings, or even writings to be preserved because of their cultural importance, like Esther or Song of Solomon, neither of which even mentions God.

We wrestle with God when we wrestle with the scriptures.  And just as with Jacob at the Jabbok, it is always God who starts the wrestling match.  I told you all the reasons I don’t much care for the Pastoral Epistles.  But I keep wrestling with them.  I keep wrestling with them because in some way they convey the word of God—there is something in there that God wants me to learn or come to terms with.  These books of the Bible present an obstacle for me, but faith, as Richard Rohr says, is not for overcoming obstacles, it’s for experiencing them… all the way through.

The parable of the widow and the judge in today’s Gospel reading, Luke 18:1-8, is another piece of scripture I wrestle with.  When the writer of Luke sat down to write, scholars think he had a copy of Mark’s gospel, a document with assorted sayings of Jesus, and a collection of Jesus stories and parables that none of the other gospel writers had.  This story of the widow and the judge most likely comes from that unique Lukan material since it doesn’t appear in any of the other gospels. 

There are hints that Luke, himself, didn’t quite know what to do with this parable, but he felt it should be included.  He sandwiches it in between Jesus talking about the Parousia—the End Times and Second Coming—and the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  

The parable of the widow and the judge sounds authentic.  As Amy-Jill Levine says, it sounds like a Jesus story, but as she also notes, there is something about Luke’s introduction that doesn’t quite fit.  He seems to be domesticating a story that’s more than a little disturbing, especially if you take away Luke’s opening.  In other words, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” doesn’t really capture the punch of this story.  And once again, it doesn’t help that many of our translations soften the hard edge of the original language.

How does it sound to you when you hear it this way?  “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and had no regard for other people.  There was a widow in that city and she kept coming to him and saying, ‘Avenge me against my adversary.’  He didn’t want to at the time, but later he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God or respect other people, on account of the trouble this widow causes, I will avenge her so that in the end she won’t beat me up.”

“Avenge me against my adversary.”  That’s what it says in the Greek, and that has a lot more edge to it than, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”   “I will avenge her so that she doesn’t beat me up.”  That’s what the Greek says.  It uses a phrase borrowed from boxing and it has a lot more punch to it than “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

If we listen to the force of the original language, the widow is not seeking justice, she is seeking revenge.  The judge isn’t making an unbiased ruling in her favor in order to see justice done, he is being coerced with a threat of violence.  So… is this really a parable about our need to pray always and not lose heart?  Or is something else going on here?

In Luke 12:57-59, Jesus advised that one should try to settle things before going to court because the judge might rule against you and you could end up in prison.  The people who first heard Jesus tell this story knew that judges were not always fair, that courts could not always be relied on for justice.  In this parable, Jesus gives an example of what can happen if one fails to settle things out of court.

“The parable proper,” writes Amy-Jill Levine, “ends with the judge’s decision and so it ends as a story about corruption, violence, and vengefulness.  Stereotypes of judges and widows both fall.  Justice is not clearly rendered.  Has the widow made the judge ‘just’ by convincing him to rule in her favor, or has she corrupted him?  What would the widow’s opponent think?   What do we think?”[1]

Luke closes the frame around the parable in a way that reinforces his opening.  “And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” 

There was no punctuation in the original Greek texts, no quotation marks or commas or periods; those are all inserted by translators, so knowing where Jesus leaves off and Luke begins is a little ambiguous.  How do we hear the text if the last words that Jesus uses to close the story are, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”  Period.  The end.  How do we hear it if we take out Luke’s framing altogether?  Is it possible that this is really a cautionary tale about unvarnished human nature and unmitigated self-interest?

What if Jesus ended the story of the vengeful widow and the corrupt judge with, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

When we wrestle with God through the scriptures, we may not always end up in a comfortable place.  We may end up limping away…but we will be limping toward a new understanding of ourselves and of God.  


[1] Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, p.235

Image Credit: Jacob Wrestling With God, Jack Baumgartner, giclée prints available at http://www.baumwerkshop.com

Between the Lines

Luke 17:11-19

You know how you can read something a hundred times and on the one hundred and first time something will pop out at you that you never really saw before?  Every week I read through the lectionary texts in several different translations and I always read through the Gospel text in the original Greek.  This week, something in the opening line really jumped out at me:

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus passed through between Samaria and Galilee.  

That is such a curious way for this story to begin.  Where, exactly, is this space between Samaria and Galilee?   On the map Samaria and Galilee butt right up against each other.  There is and was a border that separated the two territories.  There was also a very pronounced social, cultural and religious line in the sand separating the Jews of Galilee from the Samaritans of Samaria, a line of intense historical animosity.  So what is the writer of Luke trying to tell us when he says that Jesus was passing between Samaria and Galilee?

As he entered a certain village, ten men with leprosy approached him but kept their distance and shouted, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Jesus looked at them and said, “Go show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed of their skin disease.

In Biblical times, leprosy was a catch-all term for a variety of skin diseases, especially those that created whitish patches of scaly skin such as atopic dermatitis or plaque psoriasis.  White, scaly skin can also, however, be one of the first symptoms of true leprosy, what we now call Hansen’s disease, so in an age before microscopes,  diagnostic tests and bloodwork, it made some sense to assume the worst when those scaly patches appeared.  

The book of Leviticus dictated that persons with such as skin disease had to live outside the town.  The leper laws in Leviticus required them to tear their clothes and mess up their hair to make themselves more easily identifiable, and they were required to wear a cloth mask or veil that covered from the upper lip to the chin.  They were also required to carry a bell or wooden clapper and to cry out “unclean, unclean” to warn people not to get too close, because the law required them to keep a safe distance from everyone else.  The Talmud said that the minimum safe distance was 6 feet, two cubits, on a normal day but 150 feet if it was windy.

These men with a skin disease begged Jesus for mercy from a distance.  Their plea had to be loud enough to travel across the space between them and Jesus.

Jesus healed them, but he didn’t lay hands on them.  He couldn’t.  They were required by both religious and civil law to keep their distance, and in this particular instance, Jesus observed that law, too.   The text doesn’t say anything about him praying for them.  He simply said, “Go show yourselves to the priests,”  which is what Torah required if they were healed.  Their healing happened in the space between them and Jesus.

On the face of it, this looks like a simple, if somewhat unusual, story about healing.  There is also the noteworthy gratitude of the one man who returns to thank Jesus and prostrates himself before him in an act of worship, so it can also a story about gratitude.  But when we look closer, I think there is more to it than that.  

I think that Luke is maybe trying to tell us something about the power and importance of betweenplaces, those places and times when we are in neither one place or the other but on the edge or verge of both.

Luke tells us that Jesus was passing through between Samaria and Galilee.  Jesus is in a borderland, an in-between space that is both Galilee and Samaria, and at the same time really neither one.

The ten men with the skin disease were also in a between space.  They were husbands, fathers, brothers living at a distance from those they loved most in order to keep them safe.  They were living on the outskirts of the village, living on the margins of the community in that space where the village ended and the wilderness began.  More relevantly, they were also living in that thin space between life and death.  

Because their disease had excluded them from all other society, they formed their own small community, Jews and Samaritans bound together by their common affliction in a space where the cultural animosity and antagonism of Jew versus Samaritan was not only irrelevant but could threaten their survival.  

Every border, every territorial boundary, no matter where it is, is a testament to conflict.  It is a reminder that at some point in history one group of people behaved aggressively against another group of people.  Every border is a monument to our human failure to make peace with our differences, a testimony that the space between us is often filled with anger and fear.

When borders are rigidly drawn and vigorously enforced, they sharpen the divide and highlight the differences between the people on one side or the other.  They intensify the “otherness” of those who are not from our side of the line, and that, in turn, can stimulate suspicion and fear. When borders are porous and less strictly enforced, however, they become a zone of cross-pollination and fusion between cultures, a place where ideas and feelings are shared, a place where transformation is possible.

The borderlands, the between spaces, are places where meaningful change is apt to happen.  

Twenty years ago, Stuart Kauffman, a researcher in theoretical biology and complex systems, proposed a new theory to explain how organisms and systems adapt and become more complex.  He called his theory Adjacent Possible Theory or “APT-ness,” and he has suggested that the “adjacent possible” is such a powerful dynamic that it could be considered the fourth general law of physics.  

Adjacent Possible Theory suggests that at any given moment there is a space of untapped potential around every complex system—around every organism, around every person, around every institution.  That field of untapped potential in the adjacent possible is actually a new field of energy that powers change and transformation. 

In other words, you are surrounded by an energizing halo of possibility.

Think about your living room. Most of us have the same furniture, placed in the same spots, for years at a time. When the house gets crowded on game days or holidays, you know where people are going to end up, what the traffic flow is going to be like, where there are going to be “traffic jams,” where the favorite spot to hang out always is.

Kauffmann’s law of the “adjacent possible” says real change takes place when you re-arrange the current configuration of things, opening up a new possibility for movement and matter.  Rearrange your living room furniture, and see what happens.  Without adding even one new chair or table, the whole feeling of the room is changed. People move about the room differently. They interact with others in new groups. The energy in the room flows in a new configuration. All that just by moving the furniture.

The Adjacent Possible, that halo of possibility is particularly potent in between spaces because the between space is adjacent to two or more differing realities or paradigms and draws energy from both.  The “furniture” tends to be in flux.

In many ways the Church is in an in between space.  We are in a time, a space, where we are no longer what we were but what we will be has not yet been revealed.  The culture is moving us to the margins.  We are in a space of transformation, the realm of the Adjacent Possible.  The good news is that there is energy in that space, the energy to be made new.

In the original Greek text of Luke’s story of the healing of the ten men with the skin condition, there are three different words for the healing that takes place.  The first word is katharizo.  It means “to be cleansed.”  Catharsis.  This is what the 10 men experience as they leave Jesus to go to the priests.

The second word is iathei.  It means “to be changed to an earlier, correct, or appropriate state.”  To be restored.  This is what the one grateful Samaritan experienced.  He saw that he was restored.

The third word is sesoken, the active indicative form of sozo.  It is often translated as saved, but it also means to be made well or whole.  This is the word Jesus speaks to the Samaritan who bows before him in praise and gratitude and he says, “Your faith has made you whole.”  

As a church and as a people, we are standing in an in-between place.  We are in the borderland of the Adjacent Possible, surrounded by a halo of possibility for transformation.  

If we open our eyes, our minds, our hearts to encounter Jesus in this in-between place, if we ask Christ for his healing mercy, then we, too, can experience cleansing, restoration, and transformation.   We, too, can be made whole.

We are standing in a halo of possibility… and God is doing a new thing… in Jesus’ name.

Image: Ten Lepers by James Christensen