…And the Life

John 11:1-45

If you look at a full moon when it’s rising, sometimes it looks much closer and larger than usual.  The curvature of the earth at the horizon seems to magnify it, and it may look yellowish or have a tinge of orange as its light is filtered through layers of moisture or dust or pollution in the atmosphere.  If you see it rise during the day, it may look illusory and distant, a faded disc projected against a fathomless blue sky.  If you see the full moon through a telescope, you suddenly see it as a world in its own right and not merely as Earth’s bright companion.  You see its long story spelled out in craters and mountain ridges.  Sharp outcroppings of rock hint at moments of violent upheaval and plains of dust speak of eons of silence and solitude.  But if you are holding the hand of someone you love as you watch the full moon rise, it looks like a different thing altogether.  It becomes a benevolent entity from heaven full or romance, mystery, and poetry riding across the field of stars just for you and your love.

Sometime reading the scriptures is like looking at the moon.  So much of what you see depends on where you stand,  who your reading companions are, what clouds you’re looking through and what lenses are clarifying or distorting your understanding, and what you’re looking for to begin with.  

I read two very well written and well-reasoned articles by noted scholars earlier this week that helped me see this familiar story of the raising of Lazarus in a new way.  These articles made a strong case that Lazarus was the actual author of the Gospel we know as John.[1]  That idea has had me reading this week’s gospel in a different light, reading it as if it might be a memoir.  

One of the things you notice when reading John is that for much of the gospel Jesus seems to be slightly aloof or distant.  As one scholar puts it, he seems to be walking two feet above the ground.  But when you get to chapter 11, suddenly everything is very down to earth and the emotions come spilling out.  This chapter has all the feels.  It’s not hard to imagine that this is Lazarus telling his own story.  

The story starts out with a certain distance, but it quickly becomes more immediate, more personal, more emotional.  The disciples were fearful about returning the Judea because they knew that there was a certain contingency among the Jewish elders who wanted to find a way to eliminate Jesus.  When Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” it feels a bit like nervous bravado.   

We’re told that Lazarus has already been in the tomb for four days when Jesus finally arrives.  The Jews believed that the spirit stayed near the body for three days after death.  This is a way of telling us that Lazarus was well and truly dead.  This will be reinforced toward the end of the story when Jesus asks them to remove the stone that sealed the tomb.  Martha says, “Lord, there is already a stench because he’s been in there for four days!”  I love the way the King James version puts this:  “Lord, he stinketh!”

When Martha runs out to meet Jesus, the first thing she says to him sounds almost like an accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Mary will say the same thing to him just a few verses later.

How many times have we felt that way?  

Where were you, Jesus?  Why weren’t you here when life was falling apart, when worse came to worst and everything went to hell in a handbasket?  What was so important that you couldn’t be here when we needed you most?  What kind of friend are you?  

When we are grieving, the littlest thing can trigger us to spill our pain all over everyone around us, especially on those closest to us.

“Jesus,” said Martha, “if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  But then she catches herself.  She takes a breath and says, “But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  Martha is hinting very broadly that she expects him to do something.  God will give you whatever you ask… so ask already!  That’s what’s hanging in the air.

But Jesus is reluctant.  “Your brother will rise again,” he says.  And it feels like he would maybe have preferred for things to stop right there.  It feels like he’s reluctant to say or promise anything more, as if he’s hesitant to promise any immediate relief for their grief.

Martha hears his reluctance but prods him further:  “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  I know he’ll rise again.  Eventually.  Everybody knows that.  But her unspoken question is still hanging in the air:  I know he will rise again on the last day, but what are you going to do right now?”  And haven’t we all felt like that, too, when we’ve lost someone we love?

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”  She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

It’s important to say a word here about what it means to believe.  In our world, in our time, we often use the word believe as a synonym for think.  It tends to be a cerebral word for us.  But in their world and their time, it was a much more visceral word.  You believed things in your guts, not in your head.  The essential meaning was trust.  Jesus is saying, “Those who trust me to the depths of their guts, even if they die, they will still live, and those who live with that kind of trust in me will never die.”  And then he asks Martha, “Do you have that kind of visceral faith and trust in me?”  

When Martha says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” what she is saying is not, “Yes, I intellectually accept the idea that you have a unique relationship with God.”  What she is saying is, “Yes, I trust to the depth of my very being that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one we’ve waited for throughout all of history.  That understanding of who you are, Jesus, is part of who I am.  It flows in my veins.”

When Mary came out to meet Jesus, she fell at his feet.  The NRSV says she knelt at his feet, but the Greek text is more emotional and expressive than that.  It says she fell at his feet.  Her grief is so acute that she collapses at his feet.  And she echoes Martha’s words.  If you had been here, my brother would not have died.

Jesus sees her weeping.  Jesus sees the people who came with her weeping.  And he gets caught up in their pain.  The Greek text says that he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly distressed.  He was agitated.  He was a wreck.  He asked them where they had laid his friend to rest.  And then he began to weep.

Jesus wept.  Jesus wept because he loved his friend and felt the pain of his death.  Jesus wept for Mary and Martha’s pain and the grief of everyone around him.  Jesus wept for all the pain and loss we experience in the world.  Jesus wept out of frustration.  Jesus wept because he knew that restoring Lazarus to life would be the thing that would set his own painful death in motion.

When Jesus came to the tomb he was greatly agitated and disturbed.  The Greek word that’s used here, embriómenos, indicates an emotional mix of deep frustration and anger.  It’s another one of those deeply visceral words.

Jesus was angry at death.  Jesus was angry at loss and pain.

 He told them to take away the stone that sealed the tomb and then he prayed in a way that allowed those around him to listen in on his conversation with the Father.  “Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  Lazarus came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

“I am the resurrection and the life,” said Jesus.  We tend to put the emphasis on resurrection, but the real promise is life.  Life in all its fullness.  Life eternal.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all humanity.” (1:4)  Jesus, the light of the world, called Lazarus out of the darkness of death and into the light of life.  In chapter 10, the chapter that leads into this story,  Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice.  I know them, and they follow me.”  Lazarus heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and followed him out of death into life. 

When we weep, Jesus weeps with us.  But weeping is not the end of the story.  Ever.  The Good shepherd calls us out of death and into life in all its fullness.

[1] http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/01/was-lazarus-beloved-disciple.html

There Are None So Blind

John 9:1-41

Not too long ago I got lost while trying to find a mortuary.  I was on my way to attend a memorial service—thankfully, I wasn’t supposed to officiate at this one—and I just couldn’t find the place.  I entered the address into the GPS system in my car and followed the directions explicitly until the bossy GPS lady who lives in my dashboard said rather brusquely, “You have arrived at your destination.”  Honestly, I don’t think she likes me.  It’s her tone of voice, you know what I mean?  She’s always so abrupt. “Turn left NOW.”  “Turn right NOW.”   

Anyway, when she told me I had arrived at my destination, I looked over to my right, where my directions indicated the mortuary was supposed to be, and I didn’t see anything that looked at all like a mortuary.  I also didn’t see any kind of address numbers on the building that was there, so despite the confident insistence of the GPS lady, I was pretty sure I was in the wrong place.

Across the street, though, was a very large church and a very large graveyard that took up that whole block.  Aha, I thought, I’ll bet the mortuary is somewhere over there.  So I drove around the church and graveyard.  Three times.  But I never found any way to get in.  All the gates in the tall iron fence that surrounded the place were chained and locked.  So even though there was a graveyard, there was no mortuary.  At least not one that I could see.  

I pulled over and reset the address I had been given into my car’s GPS, then followed the bossy lady’s terse directions again—honestly, she really does sound like she’s annoyed about something—and once again I arrived at the same place where she had originally told me to go.  And once again, I didn’t see any mortuary.  So I drove home.

When I got home, after sending a text to my friend to apologize for my absence at her loved-one’s memorial service, I looked up the address I had been given in Google maps then clicked Street View.  And there it was, right where my GPS lady said it was.  Google even labeled the building as “Such And Such Mortuary.”  I realized that I had been right in front of it all along.  But I hadn’t seen it because it didn’t look like I expected a mortuary to look and it wasn’t in a spot where I expected a mortuary should be.  

It was there, but I couldn’t see it.  Sometimes we miss what’s right in front of us because we can’t see past our assumptions.

One day, as Jesus was walking through Jerusalem, he saw a man who had been blind from birth.  The text doesn’t tell us, by the way, how they knew he was born blind and didn’t become blind later.  Maybe he had a sign that said “Please help, born blind.”  

Anyway, while passing by, Jesus saw a man who was blind.  His disciples, on the other hand, saw a karmic punishment for sin.  That’s the first blinding assumption we encounter in this story.  This man is blind?  Somebody must have sinned.  That’s how the disciples understood the universe.  If you see an affliction, it must be that God is punishing someone.  Things like being born blind don’t just randomly happen…someone is to blame for this, right?  So they ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, so that he was born blind?”  

“What’s wrong with you guys?” said Jesus.  “Nobody sinned!  What’s with all the blaming and shaming?”  Well, that’s not what he actually said, but that’s what it sounds like to me.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” is what he actually said.

And then we come to a translation problem.  In verse 3, the NRSV has Jesus saying, “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”  Some translations read, “This happened so that God’s works might be revealed…” But here’s the problem: the words “he was born blind” or “this happened” are not in the Greek text.  They are a translation insertion that makes it sound like the man’s blindness was predestined just so Jesus could come along and demonstrate God’s power.  It reads like God set him up to be a stage prop.

But that is not what the original text says.   So what does it sound like if we follow the actual Greek words and re-work the punctuation, which was also added by translators and not part of the original text?  It reads like this: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.  So that the works God might be revealed in him, we must work the works of the One who sent me while it is day.  Night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

In other words, “Nobody sinned.  This isn’t about sin.  But since I’m here and he’s here, let’s use this opportunity to bring some light into this man’s life and reveal the power and presence of God while we’re at it.”

The traditional translation sounds like this poor blind man was being manipulated by God.  But the original text sounds like he experienced the grace of God when Jesus gave him the gift of sight.  That is so much more in keeping with what we read in John’s prologue: “From his fullness we have received grace upon grace” or “one gift after another.” (John 1:16)

Jesus made a paste of mud and spit and smeared it on the man’s eyes then told him to go wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam.  He went and washed and came back able to see.  And ran smack-dab into more assumptions.

“The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’   Some were saying, ‘It is he.” Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’” He kept saying, “Hello?? It’s really me!”  

The verbs in this section are all imperfect active indicative which suggests a continuing argument or impasse.  They kept saying it wasn’t the same man.  He kept insisting “It really is me, your formerly blind neighbor.”

Isn’t it just so human that some of them assumed that he couldn’t possibly be the blind beggar they had been seeing every day because this guy, obviously, can see! Their assumptions blinded them to the miracle right in front of them.  How could it be the same guy?  People born blind don’t just suddenly see.  The world doesn’t work that way.  God doesn’t work that way. If they accepted that it really was the same person, they would have to change the way they understood God, history, the world, the universe and everything.  So these doubting neighbors deny the evidence of their eyes and assume that it must be someone who looks like him.  

It’s easier for some people to ignore the facts than to accept new facts that require them to change the way they see and understand the world.

The doubting neighbors brought the man who had been blind to the Pharisees to see what light they might shed on the situation, but as it turned out, they had their own version of assumption blindness.  When the formerly blind man told the Pharisees how Jesus made a paste of mud then smeared it on his eyes and that when he washed it off he could see, they did not ignore the facts in front of them, but some of them did twist the facts to their own benighted purposes.  

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” Others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”  So, to summarize, Jesus gave the blind man his sight on the Sabbath.  And that’s not kosher.  You’re not supposed to do any kind of work on the Sabbath.  And if you wanted to be a real stickler, Jesus was specifically violating the restriction against kneading dough on the Sabbath when he made the mud paste.  True, mud and bread dough aren’t quite the same thing, but kneading is kneading, and they were needing an excuse to discredit Jesus in some way.

Once again, it’s easier for some people to ignore the facts, or twist the facts, or invent their own facts than to accept new facts that require them to change the way they see and understand the world.  “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness cannot comprehend it.” (John 1:5)

Like detectives interrogating a criminal, the Pharisees made the formerly blind man tell his story repeatedly.  When some of them asserted that he had never really been blind, his parents were brought in to affirm that yes, he was born blind, and no, they didn’t know who gave him his sight, and by the way he’s an adult and this has nothing to do with us.  When they asked him one last time to go through the facts again, the formerly blind man was just plain exasperated. “I have told you already,” he said, “and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”   

That question really pushed their buttons.  They were supposed to be the authorities on all things sacred, and the suggestion, even if it was a bit facetious, that they might become disciples, students, of this Jesus who dared to do questionable things like healing on the Sabbath?  That really set them off.  They doubled-down on their commitment to Moses and Mosaic law, then circled back to their cultural assumption that the man was born blind because of sin.  “You were born entirely in sins,” they said.   And then they threw him out.  

And that’s when Jesus came looking for him.  

“Do you believe in the Son of Man?” asked Jesus.  “Who is he, sir,” the man replied.  “Tell me so that I may believe in him.”  “You have seen him,” said Jesus, “in fact, he is the one speaking to you.”  “Lord, I believe,” said the man and then bowed down to Jesus in reverence.  

In John’s gospel, to believe is to trust.  Belief is relationship.  
“To those who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God.”   

The man who had been born blind was now the one who could truly see Jesus as the Christ.  As Jesus predicted, the work of God had been done through him not only by Jesus giving him sight, but also by his testimony that challenged the assumption blindness of his neighbors and the Pharisees.  

“I came into this world for judgement,” said Jesus to the man, “so that those who cannot see may receive their sight, and that those who think they see may become blind.”  “And this is the judgment,” we read in chapter 3, “that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were harmful.”*  

In a world where we can pick or choose our sources of information to suit our biases and our agendas, we need to remember that facts are facts even when we don’t particularly like them or if they challenge our assumptions.  People following “alternative facts” or simply inventing harmful narratives erodes our common understanding of reality and truth, and that can be extremely destructive, sometimes on a massive scale.

As followers of Jesus we should have a particularly strong devotion to truth.  In his prayer for us before he was arrested, Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in your truth.  Your word is truth.” In John’s gospel, the last thing Jesus said to Pilate before he was handed over to be crucified was, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

The blind man’s doubtful neighbors and the Pharisees missed the truth that was right in front of them.  They couldn’t see past their assumptions to see the One they had been looking for their entire lives.  May God help us all to put aside the assumptions that blind us so that we don’t drive right past the thing we’re looking for.

* ponera is the Greek word.  It is usually translated as “evil” but can also mean “worthless” or “harmful” or “weak.”

What You Do Not Know

John 4:5-42

The story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well is one of the most beloved stories in the gospels, and the Samaritan woman, herself has become a treasured figure of faith and devotion in several Christian traditions throughout the world.  In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, she is called Saint Photine or Photini, and is regarded as equal to the apostles.  Their tradition says that after her meeting with Jesus she continued to make disciples for Jesus and was eventually martyred at Carthage.  The Roman Catholic Church calls her Saint Photina and asserts that she was martyred at Rome after convincing Emperor Nero’s daughter to become a follower of Jesus.  In the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox traditions, she is called Svetlana, which means “shining one” or “luminescent one.”  In Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico she is called La Samaratina, and on her feast day, which they celebrate on the fourth Sunday in Lent, churches, schools and businesses give sweet fruit drinks or sweetly flavored water to people passing by on the street in memory of the drink of water she gave to Jesus and the living water he became for her.

As beloved as this story is, though, it begins with something of a mystery:  Why did Jesus suddenly decide to leave the Judean countryside to return to Galilee?  And why did he go through Samaria?

At the beginning of chapter four we read that when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was attracting and baptizing more disciples than John the Baptist, Jesus suddenly decided to leave Judea and return to Galilee.  You get the sense that he is worried that he and his disciples are suddenly a little too prominent on the Pharisees’ radar.  Some think that this was about the time when Herod had had John the Baptist arrested—the Gospel of John isn’t clear about that—and Jesus may have thought he would be next.  For whatever reason, Jesus decided rather abruptly to withdraw to his home base in Galilee.  

“He left Judea and started back to Galilee.  But he had to go through Samaria.”  That’s how it reads in the NRSV.  There is an implication in the Greek text that for some reason it was necessary for him to go through Samaria, that something compelled him to go that way.  It adds to the feeling that he was under some kind of pressure, but we’re not told what that was.  

Going through Samaria was the shortest and most direct route to Galilee from Judea, but most Jews avoided taking that road if at all possible, preferring instead to take the long way around Samaria through Perea, the region that’s often referred to in the gospels as “beyond the Jordan.”  

Perea was a Jewish territory with a fairly significant Roman presence.  The road through Perea was heavily patrolled and more travelled, so even though it was a much longer route, it was usually considered a safer way to go.  But the primary advantage of this route for most Jews was that you did not have to go through Samaria.  Instead, you skirted along the eastern side of it.  Which was good.  Because no decent Jew wanted to go through Samaria or deal with Samaritans if it was at all possible to avoid it. 

Jews hated Samaritans.  And Samaritans hated Jews.  Their feud had been going on for more than 900 years when Jesus decided to take the Samaritan road to Galilee.  It had all started with the death of King Solomon.   Jeroboam led the northern territories of Israel in a revolt against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam.  The end result of the brief civil war was that the kingdom which had been united under David and Solomon became two kingdoms: Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  

Two hundred years later, the Assyrians attacked Israel and Judah refused to come their aid.  The Assyrians quickly conquered the northern kingdom and renamed it Samaria after the region’s capital city.  The Assyrians took many of the Israelites into captivity, divided them into small groups, then exported them to resettle other conquered areas.  At the same time, they brought in conquered peoples from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim to resettle the territory of Israel. That is why the Jews of Judah sometimes called Samaritans “the people with 5 fathers.”  It was a kind of racial slur.  You can read all about it in 2 Kings 17.

Two centuries and two empires later, when the Jews returned from captivity in Babylon under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah in 538 BCE, the Samaritans were ready to welcome them back, but the Jews despised the Samaritans for their lack of ethnic purity.  Remember that racial slur about the 5 fathers?  

The Samaritans offered to help rebuild the Jerusalem temple, but the Judean leaders rejected their help because they weren’t “pure” enough.  You can read about that in Ezra 4.  That rejection turned a potential reunification into bitter political opposition and outright hostility.  As a response to the rejection of their help in building the Jerusalem temple, Sanballat, the Persian-appointed governor of Samaria, decided to build a temple on Mt. Gerizim.  And that’s when the rift between the Jews and the Samaritans became the unbridgeable Grand Canyon of feuds.  

When Alexander the Great conquered all of Palestine, relations  between Jews and Samaritans continued to deteriorate.  The Samaritans tended to cooperate with their Greek overlords while the Jews tended to resist them.  Then in 108 BCE, when the Jews had finally won their independence in the Maccabean revolt, John Hyrcanus, the high priest and new ruler of the Jews, destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim and ravaged Samaria as a punishment for having allied themselves with the Seleucid Greek rulers.  

The Jews and Samaritans were not just separated by politics and racism, though, but also by religion, even though they both claimed to worship YHWH.  The Jews of Judah continued to insist that sacrifices could only be offered in the temple in Jerusalem.  The Samaritans had never really accepted that idea even in the time of Solomon.  During their history they had had altars at Shechem, Bethel, Shiloh and other places but they regarded Mt. Gerizim as the holiest site.  The Samaritans had their own version of Torah that differed in several places from the Jews’ version.  The Samaritans had their own version of Messiah, whom they call the Taheb, the restorer, a prophet who will carry the staff of Moses as a sign of his authority.   They believed that the Taheb will come from the tribe of Joseph.  The Jews, on the other hand, believed that Messiah would come from the tribe of Benjamin and the line of David.

Even under the iron fist and enforced peace of the Romans, the animosity between Jews and Samaritans continued.  As an example of revenge being served cold, around the time of the birth of Jesus, a band of Samaritans profaned the Jerusalem temple by scattering human bones across the floor of the sanctuary.  

All of that history and animosity is in the background when Jesus sits down at Jacob’s well in the middle of a hot afternoon.

When Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for a drink of water at Jacob’s Well he is crossing just about every line imaginable in their world, lines of sexism, racism, political hostility and historical animosity.  That’s why she responds to him with some surprise and asks, “How can you—a Jew—ask me, a Samaritan woman for water to drink?”  The NRSV then adds in parentheses, “For Jews have nothing in common with Samaritans.”  That translation is a monument to understatement.  The translation by Eugene Peterson in The Message may not be as accurate, but it captures the feeling a lot better when it says, “Jews in those days wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans.”

Jews wouldn’t be caught dead talking to Samaritans, and Samaritans would be caught dead talking to Jews.  Men wouldn’t be caught dead talking to unaccompanied women, and an unaccompanied woman wouldn’t be caught dead talking to a man.  But there they are, both of them crossing the lines.  And talking to each other.

“If you knew the generosity of God and who I am,” said Jesus, “you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you living water.”  It sounds almost like flirting.

“Okay, Mister,” she says, playing along, “but this well is deep and you don’t have a bucket, so where does this ‘living water’ come from?  Are you better than our ancestor, Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it and watered his cattle from and handed it down to us?” 

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” said Jesus.  “Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst again. The water I give will be a spring within, a gushing fountain of endless life.”

Blaise Pascal said that there is a God-shaped hole in every human heart, an emptiness that only God can fill, a thirst that only the Spirit can quench.  Whether we know how to name it or not, there is a yearning for the living water of Christ in the arid wells of our souls, a cistern waiting to be filled by the love and life of God.

Jesus and Photina talked some more about her living situation.  Jesus knew all about her and told her the facts of her life but he didn’t judge her.  He just continued to talk with her and in the midst of their conversation she realized that he was a prophet.  So she asked him the big question, the question that had separated Jews from Samaritans for hundreds of years.

“I see you’re a prophet!” she said.  “So tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”

“Believe me, woman,” said Jesus, “the time is coming when that won’t matter.  You will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem.  You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, because salvation is from the Jews.  But the time is coming—it has already come—when genuine worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.  That’s the kind of people the God is seeking.  God is spirit, and those who worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.”

I think of Jesus saying this every time I hear someone say they’re “spiritual but not religious.”  You worship what you do not know, we worship what we know.  What matters in the end is that we are connecting with God and with each other in spirit and pursuing truth.  

When the disciples came back they were shocked to see him talking to this Samaritan woman because he was crossing all the lines and breaking all the rules.  For her part, the woman ran back to her village and invited all her neighbors to come hear Jesus and talk with him.  She wanted them to meet the prophet who knew everything about her but didn’t judge her, the man who was willing to cross all the lines and break all the rules for a conversation, the man told her that God doesn’t care which mountain you’re praying on as long as you’re putting your true heart and your true spirit into your prayer.

It’s easy to fall into the rhythms of old beliefs and assumptions.  It’s easy to get stuck in old, unexamined patterns of hatred and antagonism.  In our world today we have all kinds of ways to separate ourselves from each other.  We have no shortage of isms that draw hard lines and build daunting barriers between us.  We have religious commitments that keep us looking at each other with suspicion.  We have all kinds of political commitments that keep us glaring at each other as opponents.  But in the end, the only way we’re ever going to move forward is to cross all the lines and have a conversation.  That’s the only way we’re ever going to get anywhere.

Jesus took the road through Samaria.  He walked right past the old wounds of politics and racism and religious separatism and sexism to sit down beside an ancient well where he and the Samaritan woman could drink deeply from the sweet water of respect and conversation. 

And the end of the story is the best part. At the end of the story, the Samaritans of that village, the ancient enemies of his people, asked him to stay so they could talk some more.  In spirit.  And truth.

Do You Believe in the Devil?

Matthew 4:1-11

One of the required courses in my first semester at seminary was an overview of Martin Luther’s life and his writings taught by the late, great Dr. Timothy Lull.  Tim Lull was one of those much-loved professors who always made us think, and his untimely death was an enormous loss to the Church, especially the Lutheran Church.  

Luther frequently wrote or spoke about his battles with the devil so it was natural that we ended up in a lively discussion in class one morning about Luther’s understanding of evil and Satan.  During that discussion, one of my classmates asked, “Dr. Lull, do you believe in Satan.”  Dr. Lull looked out the window for a long moment then said, “No.  I don’t believe in Satan.  But let me explain.  Luther tells us that to say ‘I believe’ is to say ‘I trust.’  I save the words ‘I believe’ for God.  I believe in God.  I trust God.  I would never trust anything opposed to God.  Now, if you want to ask me if I think there is a personal force or entity at work in the world bent on evil, a force or entity who is opposed to God and all that God is doing, a force or entity who seeks to undermine and destroy us and the rest of creation, well, I think a good argument could be made that such a force or entity does exist.  But I would never believe in it.”

Every year on the First Sunday in Lent we are nudged into thinking about how we understand evil and Satan and such things because the gospel on the First Sunday in Lent is always about Jesus being tested by the devil in the wilderness.  I suppose the idea behind this is that when we look again at how Jesus responded to temptation we are better prepared to acknowledge and wrestle with our own demons and temptations during this long 40-day season of getting our spiritual house in order.  

Evil is opportunistic and insidious, but it’s not stupid.  It plays on desires we already have even if we’re not fully aware of them.   It lures us with things that we think will make us whole in some way.  And it finds its opportunities by either prodding us to question our sense of self-worth or by pumping up our egos to inflate our sense of self-worth.

Eric Berne, the Canadian psychologist who created Transactional Analysis, had a theory that by age 5 most of us have developed a “core story” about who we are and our inherent worth.  For far too many people, that story is kind of shaky and not all that positive.  One of the gifts of baptism is that in baptism a new dimension is added to our core story.  We are given an identity to live up to, but it’s also an identity that grounds us and sustains us. As we are immersed into the life and love of the triune God, we hear the same words proclaimed over us that the voice of God proclaimed to Jesus at his baptism:  this is my beloved child.  You are God’s beloved child.

Evil wants us to doubt our identity as children of God…or at least to not remember it or think about it.  When we forget that identity, evil can get a foothold in our psyches by eroding our sense of self.  The very first words the tempter says to Jesus in the wilderness are, “If you are the Son of God…”  That’s a very big “if” and it’s loaded with insinuations.  The tempter is trying to get Jesus to doubt his identity or, failing that, to make too much of it.

Martin Luther once shared in a sermon how his sense of self-worth was assailed as he lay awake in the middle of the night: 

“When I awoke last night, the Devil came and wanted to debate with me; he rebuked and reproached me, arguing that I was a sinner. To this I replied: Tell me something new, Devil! I already knew that perfectly well; I have committed many a solid and real sin. Indeed there must be good honest sins–not fabricated and invented ones–for God to forgive for His beloved Son’s sake, who took all my sins upon Him so that now the sins I have committed are no longer mine but belong to Christ.”[1]

In  Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, Henri Nouwen wrote: 

“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. 

Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.” 

You are God’s beloved child.  Is that how you understand the core of your existence?

The word devil comes from the Greek word diabolos which means “the slanderer.”  When the tempter says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God…” there is a kind of slander in that little word “if.”  It’s the same slander that comes to us in the voice of our self-doubt.  We hear it saying things like, “You’re not really a child of God.  You’re not really much of anything, are you?”  When that kind of voice gets in our heads we start wanting to prove ourselves, especially if we can do so without really doing anything “wrong.”

The thing that’s so insidious about the temptations the devil lays before Jesus, the thing that’s so insidious about most temptations and a good deal of outright evil, is that these things often look like good things on the face of it.  In fact, evil is often a good thing done in the wrong way or at the wrong time or for the wrong reasons.

What’s wrong with turning stones into bread?  Wouldn’t that be a great way to feed the hungry?  But to do that, you would have to do violence to creation.  You would have to coerce the stone into becoming something other than what God made it to be, something of an entirely different nature.  And to do that, you would have to separate yourself from creation.  You would have to stand apart from creation so you can impose your will upon it.  It’s true that later in Matthew’s gospel account Jesus will feed 5000 people with a few loaves and fish, but he doesn’t turn them into something other than loaves and fish to do it.

What’s wrong with trusting the scriptures so devoutly that you’re willing to believe that angels will catch you when you plunge off the temple parapet?  But where is the love in a shortcut like that?  How would that build relationships that become the foundation of the kingdom of God?  How would that be anything but another demonstration of power in a world that is already much too much infatuated with power?

What’s wrong with the King of kings and the Lord of lords assuming control over all the nations of the world?  Isn’t that exactly what the Book of Revelation says will happen at the Great Conclusion?  But how would that be done?  What would happen to free will in the process?  What kind of violence would resist that singular authority being imposed and how many would be lost before all the dust settled?  How would seizing and wielding imperious authority teach the world to deconstruct all the soul-crushing oppression of imperialism?

For Jesus to have done any of these things would have been a denial of his humanity.  Yes, he was and is the Son of God.  But he also was a son of humanity. His favorite title for himself was “the Son of Man” which can be better translated as “The Human One.”  If he had taken the slanderer’s bait to prove his divinity, he would have separated himself from his humanity.

Jesus was able to resist temptation because he had a firm understanding of who he was.  He believed the voice of God that proclaimed him to be God’s beloved son.  He also believed in the essential goodness of his humanity so he was unwilling to separate himself from humanity.  In the end, in the full confidence of both his divine authority and his essential human goodness, he ordered the tempter to simply go away. And the devil departed from him.  

Jesus trusted God.  Jesus believed in God.  Jesus met the devil face to face.  But he didn’t believe in him.  So when you are assailed by that insidious voice that wants you to forget your basic human goodness and God’s divine claim on you as a beloved child,  be like Jesus.  Just tell that voice to go away.

[1] Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil, p.105-6

Lucky Mud

Psalm 51; Isaiah 58:1-12; 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Well here we are. It’s Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of Lent, the somber season.  That’s what they call it in the news stories. The somber season of Lent. And we do get off to a pretty somber start here, don’t we.  Years ago in another parish, I asked a parishioner who was usually very faithful about attending worship why she didn’t show up for Ash Wednesday services, and I was a bit taken aback when she said, “Oh, I don’t do Lent. It’s so gloomy.”

I suppose it can be. We do start the season with this very stark reminder of our mortality: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  It does kind of suck the sunshine out of things. We can end up feeling a little like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the moody, morose Prince of Denmark, as he stalks around the stage in Act II:

“I have of late – but wherefore I know not – lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical root fretted with golden fire – why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what is this quintessence of dust?” (Hamlet, Act II, scene 2)

And that’s how a lot of us see Lent—  a time to lose our mirth and forego whatever it is we’re giving up for Lent and maybe to be reminded that life is serious business and we really don’t have all the time in the world.  Remember, you are dust.  A quintessence of dust, perhaps, but dust nonetheless.

The Ancient Church in its ancient wisdom has given us this season of 40 days as a time to get our act together. It’s a time to fast, to give up something that has its hooks in you one way or another and think about how and why it does and what it really costs you. It’s a time to be reflective. It’s a time to renew and improve our practice of prayer. It’s a time to reevaluate our priorities.

We get some good guidance in all of this from our scripture readings.  It’s hard to beat David’s prayer from Psalm 51: 

       Have mercy on me, O God,

              according to your steadfast love;

       according to your abundant mercy

              blot out my transgressions. 

       Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,

              and cleanse me from my sin…

          You desire truth in the inward being;

              therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 

          Create in me a clean heart, O God,

       and put a new and right spirit within me.

       Do not cast me away from your presence,

       and do not take your holy spirit from me.

       Restore to me the joy of your salvation,

              and sustain in me a willing spirit.

The reading from Isaiah reminds us that in the middle of this season of self-assessment and introspection we’re not supposed to get all wrapped up in ourselves— that the real sacrifice, the real spirituality that God wants from us is supposed to have a payoff in the real world.  Fix your heart so that you have a heart to fix the world.

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

St. Paul takes us in the same direction in the epistle reading from 2 Corinthians when he reminds us that…

“we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us;”

and for that reason he goes on…

“we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

“As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.” (2 Cor. 5:20-6:2)

And so we have Lent. This season when we get very deliberate about sorting ourselves out and being “reconciled to God” so that we do “not accept the grace of God in vain.”  We take extra time to pay attention to our spiritual disciplines. We take another look at our giving.  Maybe we fast from something. We pray.  

Apparently, though, just keeping the disciplines of Lent can also lead us into trouble if we do the right things the wrong way or for the wrong reasons.  That’s what Jesus is trying to tell us in our Gospel lesson from Matthew…

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)

Anne Lamott in her wonderful little book Help, Thanks, Wow: the Three Essential Prayers  writes: “Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God.”

The pathway of Lent is pretty clear. It’s a time to get your house in order. It’s a time to reassess who you are and what you are doing and what effect that has on everything else here on God’s green and blue earth.  And it’s also a time to remember that we don’t have all the time in the world.

And that’s the hard part. That’s the part we don’t want to hear: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.  Even when we try to get it right, even when we try to align our lives with what the prophet Micah has told us God wants—  “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God”— even then we are remembering that he starts with “God has told you O Mortal what is good…” and those words “O Mortal” hang in the air like the sword of Damocles.  Remember that you are dust.

It’s kind of hard to get past that, isn’t it?  Dust. It’s hard to get past dust and ashes.  And maybe we shouldn’t try.  It doesn’t have to be bad news. We are made from the stuff of the earth and our bodies will return to that. We will be recycled. That’s the economy of nature. 

In Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle he created a fake religion called Bokononism.  There’s a lot to like in Bokononism; for one thing, Bokonon, the fake prophet who creates the fake religion, tells you right up front that both he and the religion are phonies. When Bokononists talk about what God is up to they simply say, “Busy, busy, busy.” There’s a little calypso hymn they sing: “Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly, man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’ Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; man got to tell himself he understand.’”  But one of my very favorite  things about Bokononism is the Last Rites:  

(Each line in the rite is said once by the person leading and then repeated by the dying person.)

God made mud.

God got lonesome.

So God said to some of the mud, “Sit up!”

“See all I’ve made,” said God, “the hills, the sea, the sky, the stars.”

And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around.

Lucky me, lucky mud.

I, mud, sat up and saw what a nice job God had done.

Nice going, God.

Nobody but you could have done it, God! 

I certainly couldn’t have.

I feel very unimportant compared to You.

The only way I can feel the least bit important is to think of all the mud that didn’t even get to sit up and look around.

I got so much, and most mud got so little.

Thank you for the honor!

Now mud lies down again and goes to sleep.

What memories for mud to have!

What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met!

I loved everything I saw!

Good night.

I will go to heaven now.

I can hardly wait.


Yes, we are dust. Lucky us. Lucky mud. Think of all the mud that didn’t get to sit up and look around.

We are the mud, the dust that got to sit up and look around. And we get to keep looking. Colin Morris in Starting from Scratch says that God brought the entire universe into existence so we could be here. Think of the generations that have gone before you so that you could stand here today to receive the mark of the cross on your forehead and be reminded that your time is precious. It is not an accident that you are here.

Jim Holt is a science writer, a physicist who has written a challenging book called Why Does the World Exist.  He’s looking at this question purely from the standpoint of science, of physics, but his thinking sounds a lot like theology in some ways.  He points out that if you go down and down and down inside things, down inside to the level of the atom, the atom, itself, is almost entirely empty space. If you enlarged the nucleus of an atom to the size of a baseball and put it in the center of Madison Square Garden, the nearest orbit of electrons would be as far away as the exterior of the Garden.  Using Quantum Field theory, he points out that particles, themselves, are essentially unreal; they are temporary properties of fields, and fields are distributions of mathematical quantities through space-time.  He poses an interesting question here: Is reality, in reality, an ethereal mathematical poem?

Now I know that all sounds more than a little esoteric, and I won’t pretend I even begin to understand it all, but one of the things Holt points out is this: when you really get down inside it all, when you get down to the particles inside the particles, when you get down to what it is that holds it all together, to what is the stuff of stuff… there’s nothing there. There’s nothing there except intent. Matter seems to be held together by intent. Dust is dust because something intended it to be dust. You are you because something— let’s say Some One— intended you to be you.

You are here because you were intended to be here. Yes, you are dust. And to dust you shall return. But the dust, the stuff of the cosmos that made you, came together by intent. That’s not just theology or biology. It’s physics. And that stuff that came into being by intent came together to form you by intent. You are the intention of intentions. And here’s more good news: when you return to dust, when the stuff of you returns to the stuff of the earth, the essential you that came together will continue on, because that, too, is God’s intention.  

Lucky us!  Lucky mud.  We got to sit up and look around.


Mark 9:2-9; Matthew 17:1-9; Luke 9:28-36

Have you ever sung in a choir or played in an orchestra?  If you have, you’ve probably had a moment when you realized that you were, for all intents and purposes, part of one large instrument.  Your voice in the choir was like one pipe in an organ.  You were part of one large, organic instrument comprised of many voices, all being played by the director or conductor.  It’s a wonderful experience to be part of something like that, to know that you’re part of something large and beautiful and organic which, if it’s done right, can, in its magical way, completely transport people.  It’s a humbling feeling to know that you are helping to bring this powerful yet ephemeral thing into the world, a thing composed only of sound, a thing that was not in the world before the conductor raised his baton and will vanish when he cuts off the last note and its echoes die in the hall. 

It’s an amazing experience.  And it all works beautifully as long as everyone learns their part.  And they all follow the conductor.  And they all play or sing the same piece.  All it takes for things to start to unravel, though, is for someone to decide they’re not happy with the conductor.  Little rebellions lead to great ones.  It can start with something as minor as the woodwinds rushing the conductor’s beat.  It could end with the disgruntled first trumpet player playing Trumpet Voluntary in the middle of Mozart’s Requiem. 

That seems to be Peter’s problem when Jesus tells him what lies ahead for them in Jerusalem.  He’s not happy with the conductor.  He has been traveling with Jesus for a while now.  He has watched him feed multitudes of people.  He has seen him walk on the sea.  He has watched Jesus cast out demons and heal people.  So when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter naturally replies, “You are the Messiah!”  It seems like the obvious answer.  After all, who else could do all those things?  But Jesus is cautious with Peter’s answer.  In all three synoptic gospels he sternly orders his disciples not to tell people that he is the Messiah.  “No Messiah talk.  Are we clear?”

That didn’t sit well with Peter.  And then Jesus starts to tell his disciples and everybody else that he’s going to go to Jerusalem to speak truth to power at the corner of Religion and Politics.  He tells them that the Powers That Be are going to reject him, and abuse him.  He tells them that they will crucify him.  And on the third day he will rise again.  

No one wants to hear that.  That’s crazy talk. Peter cannot bring himself to sing along with that chorus.  He will not.  He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him.  

Think about that a minute.  Peter rebukes Jesus.  And apparently the other disciples are kind of half-way behind Peter on this one.  Both Mark and Matthew write that Jesus turned and rebuked Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You’re not setting your mind on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus has a few more things to say to his disciples and the crowd about what it takes to be a disciple—namely, a willingness to take up the cross.  But Peter and the disciples are silent.

Peter rebukes Jesus.  Jesus rebukes Peter.

And then silence.  Six days of silence.

It’s easy to miss that.  Things move fast in the gospels.  Jesus moves quickly from one thing to the next.  The phrase “and immediately” occurs frequently in Mark’s gospel.  But not here.  

Six days later.  Six days of tension between Jesus and Peter?  Six days of anxiety for the disciples?  The gospels don’t say.  The gospels are silent.  And maybe Jesus and the disciples were, too.

Finally, Jesus decides that Peter needs a “come to Jesus” meeting.  Or a come withJesus moment.  So he asks Peter, James and John to come with him up the mountain.

And there on the mountain they see him transfigured—shining white and radiant, light within and light without,  they see who their teacher really is inside his humanity.  They see Moses and Elijah, the law-bringer and the great prophet, the two most important figures in the history of their people appear with Jesus and converse with him.  

Peter, whose default mode seems to be talk-first-think-later, babbles out, “Lord, it’s a good thing that we’re here!  Let’s make three shelters, one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…”  The gospels tell us he didn’t know what he was saying because he was terrified.  Well you would be, wouldn’t you.  

And then all of a sudden there is a cloud throwing a shadow over them.  All the brightness is dimmed.  And a voice comes out of the cloud and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved.  Listen to him.”

And as suddenly as it all started, it’s over.  There’s no one there but Jesus.  And as they head back down the mountain he tells them not to tell anyone about what they’ve seen until “after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”

It took a lot to get through to Peter.  It took six days of silence and a hike up the mountain.  It took seeing Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah as he was shining like the sun.  It took hearing the voice of God speaking to him from a cloud saying, “This is my Son.  The Beloved.  Listen to him!” 

That’s what it took to get Peter to play the same tune and follow the conductor.

Is that what it takes for us?

There have always been people who try to bend Jesus to their agenda instead of bending themselves to the way of Jesus.  There have always been people who call themselves Christian who don’t seem to listen much to Jesus.

For a long time now we have seen a strain of pseudo-Christianity in this country and around the world that has little to do with the teaching of Jesus as we encounter him in the gospels.  It is based on triumphalism and a theology of glory.  It worships and celebrates power and ignores the call to enter the into world’s trials and suffering as Christ entered into our trials and suffering.  It walks hand-in-hand with nationalism and, often, racism.  It sees baptism as a get out of hell free card and not as a way of life in the beloved community.  It has co-opted the name Christian and Christian language and symbols, but it has not learned to do justice, to love kindness or to walk humbly with God—to love the neighbor as oneself. 

So many, like Peter, want a militant messiah.  But that’s not the way God does things.  That’s not the way of Jesus.

Six days before their trip up the mountain, after Peter rebuked Jesus and Jesus rebuked him back, Jesus had this to say to the crowd that had been gathered around them:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for your life?”

Jesus was not giving a recruitment speech designed to conjure the rewards and glories of conquest and victory.  He was issuing a realist’s invitation to a subversive movement where participation could have deadly consequences.  He was calling them, and is calling us still, to confront the powers and systems that diminish and oppress and marginalize and antagonize and lie to people wherever we find those powers and systems.  Following Jesus can be dangerous.  Listening to him can put you at odds with family and friends.  It can complicate your life.  But your life will be meaningful. 

Jesus wanted to make it clear that he was not a white-horse-sword-in-hand messiah. He wanted his disciples and everyone else to understand that his way of confronting injustice and oppression was to free people from its weight, heal their wounds, and then simply stand in front of the things that assailed them and speak the truth.  That was the music he was bringing.  That was the song he wanted the world to sing with him.  Peter didn’t like that song at all.  He wanted the White Horse and Sword Cantata.  

So six days later, Jesus took him up the mountain to show him who he was really arguing with. So Peter could see him shine like the sun.  And so he could hear the voice.

Sometimes we all need to be reminded that Jesus leads and we follow, that he’s the conductor and we’re the players in the orchestra and singers in the choir.  Sometimes we all need to go up the mountain to be reminded of who Jesus is inside his humanity.  Sometimes we all need to be reminded of those words from the cloud: “This is my Son.  The Beloved.  Listen to him.”  

Especially those last words.  

“Listen to him.”

Jesus Builds a Fence

Matthew 5:21-37

One of the things we love to do when we go to Kauai is to take the long drive from Princeville down to the south side of the island and then up into the mountains.  We usually make a stop at Spouting Horn to stretch our legs and enjoy the plumes of water that geyser into the air as the waves surge against the rocks.  Sometimes you can also see sea turtles bobbing in the surf there, which is always kind of exciting.  

When we get to the town of Waimea, we turn mauka and take the road that goes up to the Waimea Canyon lookout.  We like to take our time at the lookout because Waimea Canyon, which is also called “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific” is truly beautiful and thought-provoking, and inspires a sense of wonder and awe.  Also, on a clear day you can see Niihau, the small island reserved for Hawaiian natives that sits forty-three offshore from Kauai and seems to float on the surface of the ocean like a great big stone raft. 

After leaving the lookout, we drive a few miles uphill to Koke’e State Park and the Kalalau Valley lookout where we can gaze down the slopes of the Na Pali cliffs into the Kalalau Valley and think about what life was like for the ancient Hawaiians who lived there.  

So why am I telling you all this?  Well, the Spouting Horn, the Waimea Lookout and the Kalalau Valley Lookout have one important thing in common aside from spectacular views.  They are potentially very dangerous places.  And so at each of these very beautiful but dangerous places the State of Hawaii has put up very sturdy steel-rail fences to keep people from accidentally injuring or killing themselves.  They have also mounted signs on the fences that say, “Danger!  Do not go beyond this point!”  And, of course, there is always someone who thinks they can get a better view or a better picture or maybe just add a little extra excitement to their vacation by going beyond that clearly marked margin of safety, by exploring or fooling around on the other side of the fence.

If you want to keep people from falling off a cliff one of the first things you do is to put up a fence and warning signs a little way back from the edge of the cliff.  Since ancient times the rabbis have described Torah as a fence that protects us from hurting ourselves and others.  They have also noticed that some people tend to ignore the fence, so in their teachings they would extend the fence, moving the margin of safety a little farther back from the edge they were trying to protect.  They actually called this practice extending the fence of Torah.  

For example, the law says you shall not commit adultery.  Committing adultery is falling off the cliff.  The law is the fence that is designed to keep everyone’s relationships from slipping over the edge and falling into pain.  In addition to the Torah law, the rabbis established the cultural custom that frowned on a man and woman being alone with each other or even talking to each other if they were not married to each other.  That’s the extension of the fence that they thought would keep people from getting so close to the edge that they would be tempted to climb over the fence onto unstable ground where they might slip and fall off the cliff. 

Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that he had not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it.  What Jesus is doing in this section of the Sermon is fulfilling the law by extending a different kind of fence on some of the more important laws of Torah.  In each instance, he is improving the safety of the fence by making it more visible and raising the top bar.

With adultery, for instance, Jesus realizes that the real problem isn’t proximity, it’s perception.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.  If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into the trash heap.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into the dumpster.” (5:27-29)  

Adultery starts with lust and lust starts with how you perceive the other person.  If you can only see another person as a sex object or as the object of your longing and affection, or as someone who might fill some emptiness in you and make you whole, that’s the real problem.  That’s the eye you need to pluck out so you can replace it with an eye that sees that other person as a whole person, a person who stands apart from you, a person whose wholeness includes relationships and commitments that have nothing to do with you other than your own obligation not to infringe on them.  

If your hand starts reaching for things that don’t belong to you or if it keeps rising up in an angry fist, tie it behind your back until you can retrain it and restrain it.  All this is a metaphor, of course, because it’s not the hand or the eye that has a problem, it’s the mind.  It’s a matter of developing self-control over our impulses, appetites, and feelings.  Over and over again, living the values of the kingdom of God is a matter of metanoia—a transformation of the mind.

Jesus applies this same principle to murder.  Rage clouds your mind and damages your vision.  “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are furious with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”

When you are enraged, the person who is the object of your fury becomes something less than human in your eyes.  It might sound like hyperbole, but for that moment in the ferocious heat of your anger, you have killed them.  Jesus extends the fence of “You shall not murder” to “you shall not let yourself get so angry that your anger blinds you to the other person’s humanity.”  Take a breath.  Count to ten.  Walk away.  Relax your hands.  Don’t even get close to the fence of “You shall not murder.”

But anger isn’t the only way we dehumanize each other.  Jesus went on to say, “If you call a brother or sister an idiot, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the trash heap of fire.” (5:21-22)  I don’t know about you, but I violate this one all the time, especially when I’m driving.

Jesus is basically telling us, “Don’t dehumanize people by calling them names.”  He wants us to understand that that is, in fact, what name calling does: it makes them into something less than human in our eyes, in our thoughts, in our minds and in our hearts.  Dehumanizing someone is the first step toward eliminating them.  History has taught us that dehumanizing the “other” is always the first step toward genocide.

In the kingdom of heaven our relationships with each other are part and parcel of our relationship with God, so Jesus expands the fence of shalom around worship. “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” Don’t carry a grudge, and don’t let anyone carry a grudge against you if you can so something to make amends!  A grudge is a festering wound in God’s shalom, so before you come before God with your prayers or your offerings, do what you can to heal that wound so both of you can come to God in peace.

Jesus also raises the fence around divorce.  “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (5:31-32)

Divorce was a hotly debated issue in Jesus’ time.  The Torah law in question, Deuteronomy 24:1-4, said that a man could divorce his wife if “she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her.”  The argument was over what legally constituted “something objectionable.”  The House of Shammai said that only adultery or some other form of unchastity constituted legitimate grounds for divorce.  The House of Hillel had a much lower bar, saying that something as simple as the wife burning dinner could be grounds for divorce.  

Jewish marriage in the first century was a contractual agreement, and women were protected by marriage contracts called ketubah that acted something like a prenuptial agreement and provided them compensation in the event of divorce, so Jesus isn’t necessarily thinking of protecting women here so much as protecting the institution of marriage.

Marriage is a covenant relationship and as a covenant relationship, it is supposed to be a living emblem of the covenant between God and Israel.  A good marriage creates shalom in the home which is essential if there’s going to be shalom in the world.

In Matthew 19 when the Pharisees bring up the topic of divorce again, Jesus cites Genesis where “the two become one” to reemphasize the ideal unity of marriage, but when the Pharisees then ask why Deuteronomy includes instructions on how to divorce, Jesus tells them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so.” (19:1-8)

It has to be said here that the sad fact is that marriages do break down.  People do become hard-hearted.  A marriage that has turned to all heated words and cold shoulders is no longer really a marriage at all, and certainly not a relationship that mirrors the love of God.  It’s obvious that Jesus didn’t want marriage or any other covenant relationship to be treated as disposable.  But not all marriages are made in heaven.  Sometimes the only way to keep it from becoming a living hell is to dissolve the covenant and go your separate ways.

It’s logical, I suppose, that right after reinforcing the sanctity of marriage, Jesus turns to the matter of vows and oaths.  “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’  But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God,  or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.  And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.” (5:33-36)

It might look like Jesus is dismantling part of the fence here but in fact he is once again raising the bar.  The ethic in the kingdom of heaven is simple straightforward honesty.  Those who mean what they say and say what they mean don’t need any rituals or special language to verify their promises or certify their honesty.  “Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” says Jesus.  It’s that simple.

Honesty and integrity.  Faithfulness in relationships.  Seeing and respecting the humanity of others and honoring their lives, commitments, and relationships. Preserving and restoring peace.  Changing the way you see and think so that you see the world with compassion and think beyond your immediate desires or convenience.  Love.  These are the extensions Jesus builds around the fence of Torah.  These are the ethics of the Beloved Community.  This is the Way of righteousness in the kingdom of heaven.  This is what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote in Romans, “Love can do no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Let Your Light Shine

Matthew 5:13-20

Early in the first semester of his junior year at Columbia, Sandy Greenberg unexpectedly lost his sight from glaucoma.  Depressed by his sudden blindness and unable to imagine any kind of meaningful future for himself, he dropped out of Columbia.  But his girlfriend, Sue and his roommate, Arthur, who was also his best friend, wouldn’t let him just sink into self-pity.  Sue and Arthur talked Sandy into returning to Columbia and stuck by him, taking turns reading his textbooks to him and helping him study. 

Blindness required Sandy to make some serious adjustments in his life and to learn a whole new set of skills.  Sue and Arthur had to make adjustments, too, to keep their promise to Sandy, but they navigated it all with wry humor.  Arthur started calling himself Darkness because Sandy told him one day that he had become a disembodied voice in the darkness.  

All that work paid off.  Sandy went on to earn two Master’s degrees, was a Marshall Scholar at Oxford, and earned a Ph.D. from Harvard.  He started two companies and invented and patented several new audio technologies.  He was the Johnson Administration’s Staff Coordinator for tech development, working with the Defense Department and the State Department.  He served on the Council on Foreign Relations, became a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and has served as the Chairman of the Board of Governors of Johns Hopkins University’s Wilmer Eye Institute.  But we’re getting ahead of the story here.

One day while he was in Grad School at Columbia, Sandy got a phone call from his old friend Darkness.  Arthur had been singing in clubs and coffee houses with an old pal from high school, and the two of them wanted to record an album, so Arthur called his best friend to see if he could borrow $400 to pay for studio time.  Sandy and Sue—they were married now—only had $404 in the bank, but they gave all the money to Arthur without hesitation.  The album was a flop and didn’t really go anywhere, but one of the songs was released as a single and became a huge hit.  That song was The Sound of Silence.  You know, the one that begins, “Hello darkness my old friend…”

Art Garfunkel was a light in the darkness for Sandy when Sandy lost his sight.  Sandy salted the slippery road to success for Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon so their career could get traction.

“You”—that’s you plural, all y’all—”You are salt of the earth,” said Jesus.  He was giving us a high standard to live up to.  Salt was and is one of the most useful and valuable things in the world.  

Salt has always been used to bring out the flavors in food.  So all y’all enhance the flavor of the earth.

People have known since prehistoric times that salt is a biological necessity.  Our bodies and the bodies of almost all animals use salt to absorb and transport nutrients, to maintain blood pressure, to maintain proper fluid balances, to transmit nerve signals and to contract and relax muscles.  So you all are the transmitter and balancer of life for the earth.  All y’all are necessary for the survival of the earth.

Salt has been used since ancient times to cleanse and disinfect wounds.  So you all are the disinfectant of the earth.  You cleanse the wounds of abuse and oppression.  You sanitize hearts and minds infected with lies and old hatreds.

Salt was used to preserve meat and fish and other perishables.  So all y’all are the preservative of the earth.  You preserve the things that nourish, sustain and energize the world.

Salt, in Jewish understanding, was a symbol of the permanence of God’s covenant and grains of salt were placed on the lips of 8-day old babies during the rites of purification.  So you all are the living reminder of God’s permanent promise to the earth.  

Salt was believed to offer protection against evil spirits.  So you all are the guardians of the goodness of the earth who stand against evil.

Salt was sometimes as valuable ounce for ounce as gold so it was frequently used as money.  Roman soldiers received part of their wages in salt.  That part of their compensation was called salarium argentum or “salt silver,” and it’s where we get our word salary.  So all y’all are money, baby.  You all are the currency of the earth.

You all are the salt of the earth.  That’s how essential and valuable Jesus wants us to be in the world.  And just to make sure we get the point, he shifts metaphors.

“You”—and again, it’s plural, all y’all—“You are the light of the world.”    

You all are bringing the light of truth to a world that all too often likes to obscure its real motives in the shadows of untruth, half-truth, treachery and duplicity.

You all are the light of goodness and generosity that can keep the world from stumbling off a cliff in the moonless night of narcissism, greed, selfishness, self-indulgence and self-absorption.

You all are the light of faith and hope that keeps the world from crashing onto the rocks of despair.

You all are the light of love that guides the world toward a brighter day.

Let your light shine, said Jesus—not with spiritual arrogance or ostentatious piety, but with the simple brightness of caring for each other.  Let your light shine by speaking up for each other, especially those who have no voice.  Let your light shine by standing up for each other, especially when you are standing up for justice and fairness.  You, together, are the light of the world.

 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish,” said Jesus, “but to fulfill.” Jesus was mobilizing us to live a visible life of righteousness in this world—to be a visible sign of God’s righteousness alive and at work in this world. 

Righteousness is a central theme in the Gospel of Matthew, but righteousness is also understood in a particular way in this gospel.  

“I tell you,” said Jesus, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”  That sounds pretty daunting.  After all, the scribes and the Pharisees were famous for being fastidious in keeping the law;  they were the public face of legalistic righteousness.  But Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, had a different definition of righteousness.

The Greek word for “righteousness” is dikaiosyne.  It’s a compound word formed from dike which means “just” or “fair,” and syne which means together.  In Matthew’s gospel, righteousness doesn’t describe intransigent legalism, it describes instead a sense of justice and fairness rooted in compassion.  The word has a communal character.  It describes an ethic rooted in community.  In chapter 1, Joseph is called righteous because in his compassion for Mary he didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace.  When John the Baptist tries to prevent Jesus from being baptized, Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus immersed himself in the waters of John’s baptism of repentance not because he needed to repent, but in order to show that he was united with and in solidarity with all those who do repent.  It was a righteous act.  In chapter 25, in Matthew’s description of the final judgment, the righteous are the ones who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, house the homeless stranger, and care for the sick and visit those in prison.  These are the people who hear Jesus say, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (25:34)  

When Jesus tells us we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, he is calling us to be living examples of God’s kind-hearted, compassionate, and frankly practical righteousness.  He is, in short, telling us to take care of each other.  He is telling us to treat each other like friends.

Art Garfunkel was a light in the darkness for Sandy Greenberg when Sandy lost his sight.  By that same light of righteousness, Sandy went on to bring understanding, peace and health to countless others.  Sandy salted the slippery road to success for Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon so their career could get traction, and from that $404 worth of salt, Simon and Garfunkel’s music has since brought untold joy and beauty to the world.  The ripples of their friendship and kindness to each other have spread out into the world in ways beyond counting or telling.  That’s what happens when we are salt and light.  That’s what real righteousness looks like.

Sacrificing Our Children for the Sin of Our Souls

“With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? …Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” – Micah 6:6-7

Two weeks ago in our Gospel reading from John we heard John the Baptist calling Jesus, “The lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  I pointed out that sin, in this passage, was singular.  Not sins, plural, but sin, singular.  I acknowledged that it might, indeed, be a collective singular—a singular noun that functions as a plural, but then I asked, “If the world has one central singular sin, what would that be?”

In his book Engaging God’s World, Cornelius Plantinga Jr. defines sin as a culpable disturbance of shalom.  Shalom is the peace of God, the natural order of balance and harmony in creation and in society.  Rob Bell wrote, “Shalom is how God wants things to be.  Shalom is peace with yourself, with your neighbor, with the earth and with God.”  

As I write this on the 26th day of this new year, God’s shalom is not merely disturbed, it is shattered.  There have already been 40 mass shootings in our country, three of them here in California.  We are the only country in the world where firearms are the leading cause of death for children.  As of 2018 there were more than 393 million firearms in private hands in the US—120.5 guns for every 100 people.  The next highest rate of gun ownership among developed nations is Canada at 34 per 100 people.

Statistics compiled by the American Journal of Medicine are disturbing, to say the least: “US homicide rates were 7.0 times higher than in other high-income countries, driven by a gun homicide rate that was 25.2 times higher. For 15- to 24-year-olds, the gun homicide rate in the United States was 49.0 times higher. Firearm-related suicide rates were 8.0 times higher in the United States, but the overall suicide rates were average. Unintentional firearm deaths were 6.2 times higher in the United States. The overall firearm death rate in the United States from all causes was 10.0 times higher. Ninety percent of women, 91% of children aged 0 to 14 years, 92% of youth aged 15 to 24 years, and 82% of all people killed by firearms were from the United States.”

Clearly we need to do more to regulate gun ownership and reduce the number of firearms in this country.  The horrendous statistics about gun violence correlate directly to the horrifying statistics about gun ownership.  The guns are absolutely a problem, but they are also the deadly expression of a deeper problem.

Let’s go back to that question: “If the world has one central singular sin, what would that be?”  It’s tempting to say that the central singular sin is violence.  Violence is addictive, and we seem to be hooked on it in this country and throughout the world.  It’s altering our neurochemistry and our neurological pathways.  But violence is a symptom of something deeper.

We live in a culture where media, politics and economics seem to almost conspire to pit us against each other.  We are constantly pressured to segregate ourselves into neo-tribal groupings: right vs. left, conservative vs. liberal, rich vs. poor, my race vs. other races, my religion vs. other religions.  There is money, power and influence to be had in manipulating this tribalism, and when the manipulation is allowed to go unchecked it ends up force feeding us a toxic cultural soup of fear, anger and mistrust which poisons our vision until we begin to see others as something less than fully human.  And that leads inevitably to violence.

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.” – Matthew 5:21-22

God has told us what is good, said the prophet Micah, and what does the Lord require of us—what does God’s shalom require of us but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with God—and with each other?   Love your neighbor as yourself, said Jesus, quoting Leviticus.    

If we want to stop sacrificing our children on the altar of violence, if we want to stop sacrificing the fruit of our collective body for the sin of our collective soul, we need to find better ways to show the world what kindness and love look like.  We need to find ways to make “love your neighbor as yourself” at least as attractive and addictive as violence.  We need to lift up the vision of God’s shalom, the peaceable kingdom, as a way or restoring balance and harmony among diverse and divergent peoples.  And maybe we could start by doing something about the guns.


Matthew 5:1-12


When is the last time someone blessed you?  I don’t mean the hasty “bless you” that we say when someone sneezes or the “well bless your heart” people sometimes say in a way that sounds like what they’re really saying is “well aren’t you a curious little specimen.”

When is the last time that someone spoke a real blessing upon you?

When is the last time you felt like someone had spoken a powerful and prophetic word to tell you that you matter and that you live in the heart of goodness… 

When is the last time that someone told you 

that you are consecrated…  

that your life is sacred…  

that you are holy?

When is the last time someone told you that God sees you and loves you even when you’re not feeling it?  Especially when you’re not feeling it?

When is the last time you spoke that kind of blessing for someone else?

Jesus had been travelling all over the region proclaiming the kingdom of heaven and healing people.  Large crowds had started to follow him.  People came from all over to see him and hear him and be healed by him.  And maybe, just maybe, to be blessed by him.  

Jesus went up the hill to a place where he could see out over the crowd and where they could see and hear him.  His disciples came and sat close to him.  Jesus looked at his rag-tag followers, he looked out over the crowd, and he could see them all.  He could see who they were and what they were.

He saw how life had broken them.  He saw their longing to be made whole again.  He saw their yearning to be told that their lives mattered, that their struggles mattered, that their pain mattered.  He wasn’t recruiting followers, he was just meeting people in the everyday reality of their lives and telling them the truth about themselves.   Just like he does for us.  

He told them who they were, but he also told them who they could be.  His words were not just descriptive, they were transformative.  Just like they are for us.

He looked out at them and told them they were blessed.  Just like he tells us.

Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are those who doubt.  Blessed are those who struggle with believing.  Blessed are those who wonder if they have enough faith.  Blessed are those who feel spiritually malnourished and spiritually drained.  Blessed are those who are running on empty.  Blessed are those who feel like they have nothing to give.  Blessed are those who are far from certain about who God is and what God does and how it all works.  Blessed are those who find all the old answers unsatisfactory or troubling.  Blessed are those whose minds and hearts are open to new information, new ways of seeing and new ways of thinking.  Blessed are those who sometimes feel lost in the mystery of it all.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.  They shall see things others do not see.  They will ask questions others do not dare to ask. They will use their imaginations in ways that others find daunting.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.  God sees them.  God walks with them.  Even when they can’t see it or feel it, heaven is all around them and within them.  And they are blessed.

Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are those for whom grief is an overwhelming reality.  Blessed are those whose lives have been hollowed out by loss.  Blessed are those who live in the shadow  of death.  Blessed are those who weep.  Blessed are those whose tears have dried up but whose pain has not.  Blessed are those who have learned the hard way that grief is love persevering.  Blessed are the brokenhearted.  Blessed are those who are crumbling inside but hold themselves together to keep everyone around them from falling apart.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Their tears are sacred.  God carries their pain and draws close to them.  Blessed are those who mourn.  They will be comforted.

Blessed are the gentle, the meek, the nonviolent.  Blessed are those who look for ways to compromise and cooperate instead of making life a contest or a competition.  Blessed are the strong who restrain themselves. Blessed are those who do not fight back, those who would rather take it than dish it out. Blessed are those who go unnoticed, the ones who sit alone at lunch, the unimpressive, the unemployed.  Blessed are the janitors and sanitation workers and fast food workers.  Blessed are those who struggle with the rent.  Blessed are the people on the street whom we fail to see because we pretend they are invisible.  Blessed are the meek.  God sees them.  God loves them.  The earth is theirs.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are those who were born with an acute sense of what is fair and what is not, what is right and what is not.  Blessed are those who have a passion for justice.  Blessed are those who work to overcome even when the injustice has nothing to do with them or their lives.  Blessed are those who are wrongly accused.  Blessed are the undocumented.   Blessed are those who stand against the bullies.  Blessed are those who confront racism and work to dismantle it.  Blessed are those who march in the streets and speak truth to power.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. God sees them.  God loves them.  God will nourish them with justice and their cup will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful.  Blessed are those who fill the world around them with kindness.  Blessed are those who are generous with forgiveness.  Blessed are those who are just plain generous.  Blessed are those who are slow to judge and condemn because they understand how much they have been forgiven.  Blessed are the merciful.  God sees them.  God loves them.  They will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart.  Blessed are those who have retained their innocence and are just plain good.  Blessed are those who have recovered their innocence and cling to it.  Blessed are the honest.  Blessed are the truthful.  Blessed are those who love with no agenda.  Blessed are those who are in recovery, who are living out the twelve steps, who are cleansing their bodies and their souls and making amends. Blessed are those who refuse to be cynical.  Blessed are the pure in heart.  God loves them.  God sees them.  And they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those who bring food to those who are starving.  Blessed are those who bring medical attention to those who are in peril.  Blessed are those who work to disarm a weaponized world.  Blessed are those who encourage us to seek common ground.  Blessed are those who care for the planet and work to heal the earth.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  God embraces them as God’s own children.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing the right thing.  Blessed are those who are disrespected and taunted for being compassionate.  Blessed are the woke.  Blessed are those who are scorned because they speak out for a better world and work for the shalom of God.  Blessed those who are battered or imprisoned because they protest against all the things that dehumanize people and oppress people.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing the right thing.  The kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and say all kinds of untrue and evil things against you because you have embraced the Way, the Truth and the Life.  Blessed are you when people spread lies about you because your integrity exposes their duplicity.  Blessed are you when people criticize you for being awake to the pain and injustice around you.  If you only knew how great your reward is in heaven, you would be dancing with joy.  God sees you.  God loves you.  And remember, they persecuted the prophets in the same way, so you are in good company.

You are blessed.  

You are consecrated.  

You are holy.

You are set apart to bring a blessing and to be a blessing in a world that thinks it is cursed.

You are consecrated to help others see the beauty and sacredness of our life together in this amazing God-made world.

With all your faults—and God knows them better than you know them yourself—you are loved by God more than you can begin to imagine so that you can spread the love of God to others.

God is blessing you.  God is loving you.  God is transforming you.    

You live in the heart of goodness.

Blessed are you.

Image © Jorge Cocco