Taking the Plunge

One Sunday, a young family came to church and sat in the front row so the children could have a clear view of everything.  It happened that on that particular Sunday, the pastor was baptizing a brand new little baby.  The little five-year-old daughter, watching from the front pew, was utterly fascinated by the baptism ceremony, but didn’t really understand what it was all about.  As the pastor began to scoop water from the font and pour it onto the baby’s head, she turned to her father and in a very loud voice asked, “Daddy, why is he brainwashing the baby??”

Baptism isn’t brainwashing, of course, but over a lifetime it is supposed to change the way you think, the way you see the world, and the way you interact with the world.  We baptize people, including babies, as a sign that they are included in God’s grace and in God’s mission to transform the world.  We baptize because Jesus told us to baptize.[1]  And we baptize because Jesus, himself, was baptized.

The baptism of Jesus is covered in all four gospels.  Sort of.  John’s gospel has a scene where Jesus is at the river while John is baptizing, and  John says he saw the Spirit descend on Jesus like a dove, but the Gospel of John never actually describes Jesus being baptized.  

My favorite version of the Baptism of Jesus is in the Gospel of Matthew because it starts out with John and Jesus arguing.  Can you imagine it?  There they are, hip deep in the water, and Jesus says to John, “Do you have to dunk me all the way under?  Can’t you just scoop up a handful of water and pour it over my head?” And John says, “Dude!  No!  Are you crazy?  I’m John the Baptist, not John the Episcopalian!”

Actually, what they were arguing about was that John didn’t want to baptize Jesus—at least according to Matthew’s account.  Jesus came to John to be baptized, and Matthew tells us that John would have prevented him.  It didn’t feel right to John.  It didn’t feel appropriate to him because he knew that Jesus was more important than he was.  For him to baptize Jesus seemed upside down and backwards.  “I need to be baptized by you!” he tells Jesus.  

need to be baptized by you.  That’s an interesting choice of words.  The wording in Greek implies that John is lacking something that he thinks Jesus can give him.  What could that be?

Jesus finally persuades John to go ahead and baptize him when he says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”  Today’s English Version translates that as “Let it be so for now. For in this way we shall do all that God requires.”  The Contemporary English Bible says, “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all God wants us to do.”

Basically, Jesus is telling John, “let’s go ahead with this because it’s the right thing to do.”

So there’s another reason we baptize:  it’s the right thing to do.  It’s what God wants us to do.

The word “baptism” comes from the Greek verb baptizein which means “to dip,” or “to dip frequently or intensively, to plunge or to immerse.”[2]  It’s also the verb that’s used to describe putting dressing on a salad, though, so you could say it also means “to sprinkle.”  

Because early Christian baptisms were usually by immersion, some have insisted that you have to be fully immersed or it’s not a real baptism.  But The Didache, a manual for good church practice written in the late 1st or very early 2nd century said, “If you have not living water (running water, such as a stream or river), baptize into other water; and if you cannot in cold, in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water three times upon the head into the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.”  

That practice of pouring out water on the head is called afflusion, by the way, and as The Didache attests, it has been one of the ways the church has baptized people since its earliest days.

Martin Luther described baptism as one of the means of grace through which God creates and strengthens “saving faith.”  He borrowed language from Titus 3:5 to depict baptism as a “washing of regeneration” in which infants and adults are reborn.  In that rebirth, said Luther, we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ. 

“Baptism, then,” he went on to say, “signifies two things—death and resurrection, that is, full and complete justification. When the minister immerses the child in the water it signifies death, and when he draws it forth again it signifies life. Thus Paul expounds it in Romans 6: ‘We were buried therefore with Christ by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.’ This death and resurrection we call the new creation, regeneration, and spiritual birth. This should not be understood only allegorically as the death of sin and the life of grace, as many understand it, but as actual death and resurrection. For baptism is not a false sign.”

In other words, as Luther describes it, we actually die and are resurrected in our baptism.  Life—baptized life—is brand new.

Luther also said that the amount of water is never an issue.  Water is the physical sign of what God is doing in baptism; it is the Word of God that makes baptism effective.  One drop of water is enough because it’s the  Word of God that has all the power.  The water and the Word together become a sign of what Christ has done and is doing for us.  

Baptism is not a sign of my decision for Christ, it is a sign of Christ’s decision for me.  It is a sign of God’s grace—the grace that gives us life, the grace that sustains our life.  By the presence of the living Word, Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives in us and works through us, that one drop of water can make all the difference in the world.

Baptism isn’t an event, it’s a way of life.  But if our baptism makes one drop of difference in our lives, then we nurture that new life so it can grow and mature. That’s what church is for. That’s what Bible study is for. That’s what prayer and contemplation are for.  But church, prayer, Bible study—these things are not our mission—they are things that prepare us for and empower us for our mission. 

The late Thomas Troeger who taught preaching at Yale Divinity School once said,  “When we follow Jesus into the waters of baptism, we are making a statement, a witness to our desire not only for a new life for our individual selves, but a new life for the whole world. We are renouncing Herod’s action of shutting up John, of shutting up hope, of shutting up the transformation of this world. We are affirming the opening of heaven, the opening of hope, the releasing of God’s renewing power into the world. 

“Every time we have a baptism in our churches, we are making a statement of the same good news that John preached. It is not good news to the Herods of the earth. It is not good news to those who want to shut up the transforming power of God, including those who do it in the name of narrowly doctrinaire religion. But it is good news for everyone who yearns and hungers for a new world, a new creation. When we follow Jesus into the baptismal waters or when we reaffirm our baptismal vows, we are giving testimony that the opening of heaven is greater than any human effort to shut up the power of God.”

What happened for Jesus in his baptism also happens for us in our baptism.  The heavens are opened to us so there is no barrier between us and the presence of God, no barrier between us and each other.  We are told that we are loved.  We are named as children of God in a world that wants to call us all kinds of other names, a world that encourages us to label ourselves in ways that separate us from each other and to name others in a way that separates them from us.  But baptism reminds us that we are all God’s children.  We are all in this together.

Yes, our word baptism does come from the Greek verb which means to immerse.  But what is it that we are immersed into?   The water is an important sign.  It speaks to us physically, spiritually and psychologically in a powerful way.  But what we are being plunged into is the life and love, the vision and mission of the Triune God.

In a world full of bad news, baptism makes us the Good News people.  Our baptism loves us and names us.  The Spirit of God descends on us and into us to empower us and to open our minds and hearts.  And our ears.  In baptism we are given a new identity; we hear God proclaim You are my child.  I am pleased with you.  I like you!  Now…let’s go out and change the world!


[1] Matthew 28:19

[2] Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary

Image by He Qi

Wrestling With God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Works of Grace

Luke 16:19-31

One bright afternoon in heaven, three people showed up at the Pearly Gates at the same time. St. Peter called the first person over and said, “What did you do on earth?” “I was a doctor,” she replied.  “I treated people when they were sick and if they could not pay I would treat them for free.”  “That’s wonderful, Doctor,” said St. Peter. “Welcome to heaven, and be sure to visit the science museum!”  Then he called the second person over.  “What did you do on earth?” he asked.  “I was a school teacher,” he replied.  “I taught educationally challenged children.”  “Oh, well done!” said St. Peter.  “Go right in!  And be sure to check out the buffet!”  Then St. Peter called over the third person.  “And what did you do on earth?” he asked.  “I ran a large health insurance company,” said the man.  “Well, you  may go in,” said St. Peter.  “But you can only stay for three days.”

Some people think that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is about heaven and hell.  And in a way, maybe it is, but not in the obvious way.  Like all good parables, this story where the poor man is comforted after death and the rich man is left languishing alone in Hades is another one of those Jesus stories that should make us stop and rethink what we believe and what role that belief plays in our lives.

We Lutherans and many other Protestants are big on Grace.  This was Martin Luther’s big breakthrough after all—the understanding that we don’t earn our salvation, but that God’s love, God’s grace is what saves us. 

When I was in confirmation class many, many years ago, our whole class was required to memorize Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—  not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”  The Lutheran curriculum we were following wanted to make it crystal clear that being saved was entirely dependent on God’s grace.  For most of us at that age, being saved simply meant that you get to go to heaven when you die, and no one suggested that there might be richer or more nuanced ways to understand it.

So Grace, we were taught, is your ticket to heaven and the only way in.  The formula was pretty simple.  You might do all the nice and good things it’s possible to do in the world, but that won’t get you into heaven because no matter how good and nice and helpful you are, you’re still going to sin.  You can’t help it.  It’s part of human nature.  And sinful people can’t go to heaven, because no sin is allowed there.  But, if you believe in Jesus, then God will forgive all your sins!   You get a free pass.  You get Grace with a capital G.

The problem with our Protestant theology of Grace is that too many people stopped with that overly simple middle-school understanding.  Too many people came to believe that all they have to do is accept Jesus into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior, and that’s it.  Done.  

This truncated understanding can lead to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” a belief that what you do or don’t do doesn’t matter because God will forgive you for Christ’s sake simply because you say you believe.  This is like setting off on a thousand mile hike and stopping after the first 20 yards.  At best, “cheap grace” leads to a very shallow personal theology and a me-centered spirituality.  At worst it lays a foundation for an “anything goes” way of life with no sense of accountability. People who believe in this kind of “cheap grace” can sometimes do atrocious things, or leave very necessary things undone, and still think of themselves as “saved.”  

Many of us cling to the gift of grace promised in Ephesians 2:8-9, and rightfully so, but too many of us stopped reading too soon;  we failed to read on through verse 10 where it says,  “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (NRSV) 

I particularly like the way the New Living Translation renders verse 10:  “For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.”

We are saved—rescued, healed, made whole, restored—by grace through faith.  But “through faith” doesn’t just mean that we intellectually accept the idea of grace.  Real faith opens our eyes to God’s grace at work in our lives and the world around us.  Real faith moves us to embody and to enact God’s grace.  Real faith moves us to do the good things God planned for us long ago.  If we don’t do those good things, then faith becomes nothing more than a security blanket of wishful thinking to wrap around ourselves on dark nights of doubt and fear.  As the Book of James says, “we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone… For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:24-26)

One of the themes in Luke and Acts is the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, and yet Luke doesn’t let us “spiritualize” things that put us on the spot.  The examples of the “work of the Spirit” in Luke and Acts, especially as that work plays out in the ministry of Jesus, are practical, concrete, and challenging.  As much as we might want to spiritualize the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it’s tough to explain away its central message, especially in light of what Jesus has to say about wealth and poverty throughout the entire Gospel.  

The Gospel of Luke emphasizes that the status of the rich and poor is reversed in the kingdom of God.  In the opening chapter of Luke, Mary sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (1:46-55)

 In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled,” and then “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” (6:20-25)

Luke makes it clear that “the poor” receive special attention in the ministry of Jesus and in the kingdom he is announcing. When he stands up to preach in the synagogue in Nazareth, he reads from the scroll of Isaiah,  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (4:18)

When John the Baptist is in prison and sends one of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one they’ve been waiting for, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (7:22)

When he is a dinner guest at the home of a Pharisee, Jesus tells his host and others, “Don’t invite all your friends to your banquets, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” (14:12) – because that’s who is invited to God’s banquet (14:21).

When the rich young ruler asks Jesus how he can inherit eternal life he is told to go sell all he has and give it to the poor. (18:18-30)

In Luke’s gospel Jesus makes it clear that having “treasures in heaven” is not just about piety; it is also about selling possessions and distributing wealth to the poor. (12:33; 18:22) 

In Luke’s gospel, conversion doesn’t just mean accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior or asking Jesus into your heart. When Zacchaeus the tax collector is befriended by Jesus, he gives half of his possessions to the poor and repays anyone he has defrauded four times over.  

Concern for the poor is a central part of the ministry of Jesus, but it wasn’t invented by Jesus.  Jesus himself stresses that it is the commandment of Torah.  In Deuteronomy, Moses states: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor.  You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.  Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,” and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt.  Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.  Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” (Deut. 15:7-11)

This parable of the rich man and Lazarus raises important questions.  We’re not told that Lazarus did anything particularly noble or good.  He was just poor.  So why is he carried away by angels to be nestled and comforted in the bosom of Abraham after he dies?   We’re not told that the rich man did anything particularly horrible, he’s just self-centered.  So why is he in anguish in the flames of Hades after he dies?

Lazarus benefits from the default of grace.  He is a descendent of Abraham, so he is included in God’s covenant with Abraham.  He hasn’t done anything to remove himself from the covenant so he will spend eternity “in the bosom of Abraham,” enjoying companionship with others who have kept the covenant.

The rich man, on the other hand, removed himself from the covenant when he failed to “open his hand” to the poor and needy neighbor on his doorstep.  He failed to even see Lazarus, much less see their kinship in the covenant of Abraham and the covenant of humanity.  Instead of using his resources to help Lazarus, he used them exclusively to feed his own appetites. He is condemned to live forever in the burning loneliness that he, himself, created.  By focusing only on himself during his life, he created a great uncrossable chasm which now separates him forever from the companionship of eternity. 

“Some people, we learn, will never change,” says Amy-Jill Levine.  “They condemn themselves to damnation even as their actions condemn others to poverty.  If they think that they can survive on family connections—to Abraham, to their brothers—they are wrong.  If they think their power will last past their death, they are wrong again.”[1]

There is a sad “too-little-too-late” moment at the end of this short story by Jesus.  The rich man, realizing that there is no reprieve for him, asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers so they don’t end up “in this place of torment.”  Abraham reminds him that Moses and the prophets have already warned them, and the rich man replies, “No, Father Abraham!  But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will repent!”  Abraham says simply, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”

“We are those five siblings of the rich man,” wrote Barbara Rossing.  “We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation… We have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures; we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and hungry.  We even have someone who has risen from the dead.  The question is: Will we—the five sisters and brothers—see?  Will we heed the warning before it’s too late?”[2]


[1] Short Stories by Jesus, p. 271, Amy-Jill Levine

[2] Working Preacher.org; Barbara Rossing, Commentary on Luke 16:19-31, September 25, 2016

Context

Note: This is a transcript of an extemporaneous sermon

Jeremiah 23:23-29; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

I confess I hardly know where to begin today.  The three readings that we have this morning are the kind of texts that are very easy to take out of context and twist them to whatever end someone wants.

In the first reading, Jeremiah is calling out the false prophets.  He was speaking at a time when the false prophets were telling the people of Israel and the political powers that be that they didn’t have anything to worry about from the approaching Babylonians because God was going to save them.  And Jeremiah was saying, No, that’s not how it’s going to happen.  You haven’t listened to God’s warnings, you’re completely unprepared, and that’s just not how it’s going to happen.  He reminds them that the Word of God is like a fire or a hammer that can smash through the rock of our denial.

And then we come to the lesson from the letter to the Hebrews.  It starts off with this wonderful remembrance of all these heroes of faith, people who stayed faithful.  The passage starts off talking about how they were rewarded for their faith.  Some of them were given kingdoms. Some of them made great accomplishments.  But then it quickly turns and talks about martyrdom.  

It’s so easy, sometimes, to think of ourselves as martyrs when things are not going our way.  Or when we find ourselves facing forces or circumstances in the culture or in life that put undue pressure on us, especially if it happens because of our faith.  We forget that that letter was written at a time when people really were being tortured for their faith.  Hebrews was written probably around 63 or 64 CE, when Nero was the emperor—Nero, who would light his garden parties by putting the bodies of Christians on poles and lighting them on fire as human torches—Nero, who executed Paul by beheading and Peter by crucifying him upside down—Nero, who sent Christians to the arena to fight wild animals without any weapons.

And then come the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel:  “You think I came to bring peace?  No, I came to set the world on fire and I wish it was already kindled. I have a baptism to be baptized with and I am under such anxiety until it is complete.”  He was on his way to the cross.

At the beginning of that chapter, chapter 12, Luke tells us that thousands of people were now following him.  Thousands.  And you know Jesus walked among that crowd and listened to every single way that people were misunderstanding him.  And every single misplaced expectation.  So he talks about division.  And I don’t think he’s saying this with any kind of forcefulness or bravado.  I think he is lamenting.  I think he understands that the world is going to be pretty hostile to those who truly follow what he’s been saying about proclaiming the reign of God and working to see it established nonviolently.  

And I think it breaks his heart to say those words.  Father will be pitted against son and son against father.  I remember the first time I talked to my dad about going to seminary when I was about 15 years old.  I remember he said, “It’s a good thing to have religion, but don’t go overboard with it.”  

These texts that we have this morning, as I said, can so easily be pulled out of context and used the wrong way.  When I first read these texts this week, I couldn’t help but think about how a White Christian Nationalist preacher might use these texts.  

You could use this text where Jesus talks about division, for instance, to make it sound like he’s endorsing that, like we’re supposed to be splitting ourselves apart from each other.  You could use what Jeremiah is saying about the false prophets because it’s oh so easy to think that the people who are saying what we don’t like are the false prophets, instead of the ones who are speaking the Word of God.  And as I said, with martyrdom, it’s so easy to think of yourself as the martyr. We have romanticized martyrdom in our world today.  This is why terrorist groups talk about martyrdom and the possibility of martyrdom when they’re recruiting.  It just sounds so glorious. 

On Wednesday, Diana Butler Bass published a piece in her online group called The Cottage, where she shared that she’s extremely worried because there’s been an increasing amount of rhetoric from a certain quarter of our society about civil war, especially after Mar a Lago was searched by the FBI early this week.  There were thousands of posts saying it’s time for civil war, thousands of posts with a headline that said lock and load.  And the scary thing is that the people who are saying this don’t stop to think about what that really means.

It means violence.  And bloodshed.  It means misery and suffering.  It means crashed economies.  It means poverty and hunger.  It means destruction.  It’s not going to be like the last time.  There won’t be some dividing line between North and South.  No, it will be between you and your next door neighbor.  It’ll be right outside your door…or maybe inside your house…if it’s a thing we allow to happen.

One of the things that we are called to as faithful people is to be faithful to Jesus and to be faithful to what the scriptures are actually saying, to keep them in context and use them in context.  But also to speak to a society that is taking them out of context, to remind them of what they’re really saying when they say things like, “It’s time for a civil war.”  To remind them that what they’re saying is that it’s time for bloodshed…and destruction and violence and pain and suffering beyond their imagination.  If they talk about the words of Jesus saying, “But look, he’s calling for this division!” it’s our job to say, “No, he’s lamenting the ways we divide ourselves from each other because of the way we interpret our faith.”  

Jesus was just so prescient when he talked about our division.  So prophetic.  There are 40 church bodies in North America, in the US and Canada that call themselves Lutheran.  There are 45,000 church bodies in the world that call themselves Christian.  And all of them have separated themselves from some other church body at some point in history.  

The message of Jesus is that we are supposed to build bigger tables, not higher walls.  We’re supposed to open our doors wider, not close them against people who disagree with us on minor things.   The message of Jesus is that we’re supposed to embrace each other with love, not take adamantine stands against each other because of the way interpret a few words here and there.

As I said, I don’t know where to begin this morning, because if these three scriptures that we have this morning tell us anything, they tell us that we have enormous work ahead of us in a dangerous time.  They tell us that this is a time to really and truly be faithful to the gospel of love, to the gospel of Jesus Christ that embraces everyone.  They tell us that this is a time to speak truth for the sake of the reign of God through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen       

Restless Faith

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20; Genesis 15:1-6; Hebrews 11:1-4, 8-16;  Luke 12:32-40

Just as he was about to begin his sermon one Sunday, a pastor was handed a note.  He unfolded the paper then said to the congregation, “This says there will be no B.S. tomorrow.”  He paused for a long moment then said, “I’m pretty sure that means Bible Study, but I have to confess that for just a moment there I thought, ‘Oh, that would be nice.’”

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a day scheduled for no B.S.—no Bogus Stuff?  

In the alternate first reading for this morning from chapter one of Isaiah, Isaiah takes the people to task for their Bogus Stuff.  He tells the people quite plainly, “God doesn’t want your bull.”  Well, what he actually says is:  

10 Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!

Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;

I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. 

12   When you come to appear before me,  who asked this from your hand?

Trample my courts no more;

13 bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.

New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— 

I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;

they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

15 When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood.

Somewhere along the way, the people had substituted the practice of their religion for the ethics of their faith.  They had fallen into the habit of thinking that as long as they performed the right rituals and offered the right sacrifices, as long as they celebrated certain festivals and observed certain holy days in the calendar, then everything would be okay between them and God.  

But Isaiah tells them in plain language, “No.  God thinks all of that is B.S.  Bogus Stuff.  God doesn’t want your bull…or your ram or your goat.”  So what does God want? Once again, Isaiah is blunt:

16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings

from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,

17 learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

plead for the widow.

The texts assigned for today are all about faith.  They tell us what faith is and what it is not.  

Isaiah makes it clear that faith is not simply worship.  It is not liturgical worship or praise worship or any other form of worship.  Faith may move you to worship God.  Worship is one way to express your faith.  But it is not a substitute for faith.  And worship without faith is meaningless.

Faith is not mere belief.  Faith does not mean you accept or give your intellectual assent to certain propositions or truths about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit.  Faith is not creeds or doctrine or dogma.  Those are tools that can help guide our faith in the same way a map can help you get somewhere you want to go.  But the map is not the journey.  It’s a depiction of the path others have traveled before you.   

So what is faith?

“Faith,” said Martin Luther, “is God’s work in us, that changes us and gives new birth from God… It kills the Old Adam and makes us completely different people. It changes our hearts, our spirits, our thoughts and all our powers. It brings the Holy Spirit with it. Yes, it is a living, creative, active and powerful thing, this faith… Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favor that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it.”[1]

Faith is trusting God.  And that’s not always as easy as it sounds because God’s ways are not our ways and God’s timetable is not our timetable.

Abram trusted God, but that didn’t stop him from complaining.  He had left his home in Ur to find a new homeland that God had promised.   Everywhere he went in the new land he prospered.  He acquired vast parcels of property.  His flocks increased.  Local kings respected and feared him so much that they tried to recruit him as an ally in their territorial wars.  He could have built his own city, but Abram continued to live in a tent because God had told him to keep moving.  But when  long years had passed and he and Sarah had not been blessed with children, Abram complained.

So God took Abram outside to look up into the night sky.  “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can,” said God.  “If I can make that, do you really think giving you descendants will be a problem?”

Genesis tells us that Abram trusted God, and God regarded Abram as righteous because of his faith.

Faith is trust in God. 

When Jesus was on the road with his disciples announcing that the reign of God, the kin-dom of God is in reach, his followers started to worry about all the things one worries about in daily life.  Jesus turned to them and said, “A person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.  That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food to eat or enough clothes to wear. For life is more than food, and your body more than clothing.  Look at the ravens. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for God feeds them. And you are far more valuable to him than any birds!  Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?  And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things?

    “Look at the lilies and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.  And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

   “So don’t be afraid, little flock.  For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.”[2]

Faith is trusting God as we follow the Spirit-driven yearning of our hearts toward the better world that Jesus described for us.  It is trust that carries through this in-between life—living between what life and the world are now and what we hope and dream they will be as we work to transform them.  Faith is a holy restlessness.  A longing.  A hunger.  A desire.  Faith is not a destination, it is the journey.

“Faith,” wrote Debi Thomas, “is the audacity to undertake a perilous journey simply because God asks us to — not because we know ahead of time where we’re going.  Faith is the itch and the ache that turns our faces towards the distant stars even on the cloudiest of nights.  Faith is the willingness to stretch out our imaginations and see new birth, new life, new joy — even when we feel withered and dead inside.  Faith is the urgency of the homeless for a true and lasting home — a home whose architect and builder is God.”[3]

Faith is a holy dissatisfaction.  Faith wants to tear down walls and build bigger tables.  Faith wants to open the doors wider so more can come to the feast.  Faith trusts that there will always be enough for everyone.  Faith trusts that Love is not diminished but multiplied when it’s shared.  Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see.

This week, our denomination, the ELCA is having its churchwide assembly, the national gathering that takes place every three years to discuss and vote on theological, structural and administrative matters.  This year there are a number of proposed changes in our national constitution.  In addition to the constitutional changes that are already part of the agenda, a number of synods have submitted memoranda calling for a complete restructuring of our denomination in order to root out any systemic racism, but also to make our denomination structurally and administratively less top-heavy, lighter and more nimble.  They want to ensure that we are able to follow Jesus more closely and more quickly.  They want to make it easier for us to respond to the needs of the world and our communities, more by faith and less by organizational systems.

Changes are coming to our church, in fact change has been happening for some time.  We don’t yet know what all the changes will be or what they will mean for us.  Faith is a journey, not a destination, and it might be time to move.  But whatever changes we face, we can trust that God is in the change.  God will be with us.  

So, Jesus tells us, travel light.  Sell your excess stuff and give to those in need.  Where your treasure is, that’s where your heart will be, so let your heart go out to those in need.  Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning.  And be ready.  The kin-dom of God is close…and we don’t want to let Bogus Stuff keep us from getting there.

Have no fear, little flock.  It is your Father’s great pleasure to give you the Kingdom.


[1] An excerpt from “An Introduction to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans,” Luther’s German Bible of 1522 by Martin Luther, 1483-1546

Translated by Rev. Robert E. Smith from DR. MARTIN LUTHER’S VERMISCHTE DEUTSCHE SCHRIFTEN. Johann K. Irmischer, ed. Vol. 63 Erlangen: Heyder and Zimmer, 1854), pp.124-125. [EA 63:124-125]

[2] Luke 12:22-32 (NLT)

[3] Debi Thomas, Called to Restlessness, Journey With JesusAugust 7, 2022

Love Story

I came across the best love story on Facebook this week, and I just had to pass it along to you.  A reporter was interviewing a man who had managed to get himself and his family out of Mariupol during the Russian bombing.  Here’s what he said:

“I left the bomb shelter and saw a car with keys in the ignition near the store.  I watched it for two hours, waited for the owner.  When the owner didn’t show up, I didn’t wait.  I took my family, got in the car and drove to Vinnitsa to stay with relatives.  I found a phone number in the glove compartment and called the owner:

“‘Sorry,’ I said, “I stole your car.  Saved my family.’

‘Thank God!’ he said. ‘Don’t worry, I have four cars.  I took my family out in my Jeep.  The rest of the cars I filled with fuel and left in different places with the keys in the ignition and the number in the glove compartment.  I received calls back now from all the cars.  There will be peace.  See you.  Take care of yourself.’”

As I said, it’s a love story.  Leaving those cars behind, gassed up and ready to go  with the keys in the ignition so that other people, strangers, could escape the hellish bombing of their city—that was an act of love.  That was God made manifest.  

“I give you a new commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

It isn’t doctrine that marks us as disciples of Jesus.  It isn’t our intellectual assent or understanding of the faith.  It isn’t embracing particular ideas about atonement or grace or the nature of Christ.  It isn’t our righteousness or our moral stance on hot-button issues.  It isn’t even “accepting Jesus into our hearts,” whatever that might mean.  “By this everyone will know you are my disciples,” said Jesus, “—if you have love for one another.” 

When Jesus was asked which of the commandments was the most important, he went straight to love.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  There are no greater commandments.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Do this and you will live.”[1]

When some of the people in Corinth got all wrapped up in their charismatic gifts and started to take a kind of overweening pride in their spirituality, St. Paul wrote to them with a word of caution:

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge—if I have so much faith that I can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions—even if I give up my body as a martyr—but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

A few years later, Paul said in his letter to the Christians in Rome:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Paul’s descriptions of love in 1 Corinthians and Romans are excellent and instructive.  But they’re also rather passive.  When Jesus talked about love, he seems to have had something more active in mind.  Often when he talked about love, he would combine it with action.  “I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[2]  “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.”[3] When a lawyer tried to find a loophole in the commandment to love your neighbor by asking, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded with a story about a Samaritan who rescues a traveler who had been left for dead after being beaten up by bandits.  Clearly, loving your neighbor involves action.  Love also involves generosity.  The Gospel of John tells us that God so loved the world that God gave God’s unique son to us.  Giving is an act of love.

All people are called to love, not just Christians, but followers of Jesus have been commanded to love so that we can be known as his disciples.   Love is supposed to be the thing that identifies us. Love is what we’re supposed to be all about…but how do you that?  Especially, how do you do that part about loving your enemies—or even just people you don’t particularly like?

You may already know that the ancient Greek language in which the New Testament was written had four different words for love: agape, eros, philia, and storge.  Storge was a word used to describe duty to family and country—think of it as patriotism.   Philia is friendship.  It meant a lot to call someone your friend in the ancient world.  True friendship, then and now, is a kind of love.  Eroswas the most commonly used word for love in the ancient world.  Our word erotic comes from eros, but properly understood there’s a lot more to it than that.  

Agape is the word for love that’s used most often in the New Testament.  Agape is a love that is unconditional.  It has no motive other than to seek the well-being of the beloved.  It can be spontaneous, but usually it is decisional—you simply decide that you are going to love that other person or those other people.  Period.  Agape is indifferent to any kind of reward and it doesn’t seek reciprocity— agape doesn’t ask to be loved in return.  Agape is the simple yet profound recognition that giving of yourself is a worthy and good thing to do.  It is an unconditional willing of good.  Agape loves the beloved for their own sake, whether they are worthy and deserving or not.

Eros, on the other hand, speaks of desire and longing.  Eros seeks to possess what we find valuable but not to covet or desire a person at the expense of overall well-being.  Edward Vacek defined erosas “loving the beloved for our own sake.”[4]  Plato thought that eros was the pathway to God.  His reasoning went like this:  I see a beautiful person or thing and I desire them or it, but if I look beyond the person or thing I find that what I am really desiring is beauty.  But beauty is truth, so if I look beyond beauty, I find that what I really desire is truth.  But truth comes from God, so what I am really desiring is God.  

Ilia Delio reaffirms that the heart of eros is passion or desire.  “Eros,” she writes,  “is that ineffable longing that stretches beyond oneself for the sake of oneself.”  She goes on to suggest that eros and agape aren’t so much in contrast with each other as related to each other and that philia—friendship—is the thread between them.  In philia a person gives themselves over to the relationship.  Philia is expressed in camaraderie and companionship, in life together in community.  Edward Vacek says that philia “may be the most cosmic form of love because it is based on mutuality, reciprocity, and cooperation—with the purpose of promoting overall well-being.”  That’s how the Quakers understood it, which is why they officially called themselves The Society of Friends.

Agape is the word for love that’s used most frequently in the New Testament, but there are moments when philia comes into the text to give love a meaning that is broader and deeper.  Jesus brings agape and philia together in John 15:13 when he says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  No one has greater agape than to lay down one’s life for one’s philon—those who are loved with the deep bond of philia.  He goes on to say, “You are my friends (philia/philon) if you do what I command you.”  And what did Jesus command?—that we should love one another with agape love as he has loved us.  

So how do you love—how do you obey the command to love?  Well to start with, it helps to realize that the kind of love Jesus commands doesn’t have to involve any warm, fuzzy emotions.  You can decide that you will unconditionally will and work for goodness for others without expecting anything to come back to you.  You can decide to love with agape.  That’s the starting point.

But agape can be a poor kind of love if it doesn’t bloom into something more than just a decision.  If it remains simply a decisional kind of love, it can become rote, individualistic, non-mutual, and even task-oriented.  Yes, agape is patient and kind, it’s not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, it does not insist on its own way, it rejoices in truth, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, and doesn’t quit—agape has all those qualities that St. Paul pointed out to the Corinthians.  But agape can be all that and a bag of chips and still not be warm enough to bloom into a real relationship.  Love, complete and healthy love at work in a community of faith, starts with a good base of agape, but mixes in a good dose of philia, friendship, and even a dash of eros, to keep us longing for God, for each other, and for the beauty of our relationships.

From the beginning of creation, God has been pouring love into the universe and calling us into relationship.  Love is the force that brings quantum waves together to form hydrogen atoms and hydrogen atoms together to form stars.  Love is the force that drives evolution, overcoming entropy to continually transform biological life into higher, more complex, more aware forms of life—forms capable of loving.  We are commanded to love because it is intentional love that identifies us as followers of Jesus, but even more importantly, because love is what God has been using throughout all time to transform the all of creation.  When we reflect that love back to God and to each other, we participate in God’s formative and transformative work.  

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote, “The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love.  And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, humanity  will have discovered fire.”

Love is patient and kind.  Love does bear all things and believe all things and hope all things, and endure all things.  But love goes beyond that.  Love puts gas in the car and leaves the keys in the ignition so that beloved strangers can escape to new life.  Love promises there will be peace.  

May the Spirit ignite in all of us the bright flame of God’s transforming love.


[1] Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:36-40; Luke 10:25-28

[2] Matthew 5:43

[3] Luke 6:27

[4] Edward Collins Vacek, Love, Human and Divine: The Heat of Christian Ethics, 1994, pp. 157-158; as quoted by Ilia Delio, The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, Orbis Books, 2013, p.42

Plague

Thoughts Along the Way…

In the year 165, Roman soldiers returning from their victory over the Parthians brought an unwelcome guest home with them.  As they battled the Parthians and camped in the borderlands, many of them contracted a highly contagious and lethal virus.  It began to decimate their ranks as they marched homeward.  The disease was probably smallpox and it spread through the empire like wildfire. It claimed the life of the emperor, Lucius Verus, in 169.  His co-regent, Marcus Aurelius also contracted the disease but survived.

That first Roman pandemic came to be known as the Antonine Plague and it lasted the better part of 20 years, sweeping across the empire in surges and waves.  Medical historians think there were at least two variants of the virus.  At its height, it is estimated that the plague was causing 5,000 deaths a day.  When it broke out again in 189, Cassius Dio documented a death toll of 2,000 a day.   Over a 23 year period, the Antonine plague claimed somewhere between 7 and 10 percent of the entire population.  In the army and in the densely packed cities, the rate was between 13 and 15 percent.  Cassius Dio wrote that caravans of carts loaded with bodies could be seen leaving the city every day, taking the dead to the countryside for burial or burning.

Needless to say, a plague with such a devastating mortality rate had a tremendous impact on every aspect of life in the Roman world.  Civic building projects, one of the primary engines of the Roman economy, came to a complete halt between 166 and 180.  On the other hand, Marcus Aurelius, in an effort to curry favor with the gods, sank enormous amounts of money into rebuilding and refurbishing the temples and monuments of the pagan deities of Rome.  On the whole, though, the empire’s economy tanked.  People avoided crowds.  Marketplaces languished.  Supply systems became disrupted and often there would be shortages of food and other goods.  There was a chronic shortage of workers, even slaves.  The mortality rate was so high in the army that Marcus Aurelius ordered the drafting of slaves and gladiators to fill the ranks.  Since the plague didn’t spare Patricians, their numbers thinned so much that the emperor decreed that the sons of freed slaves could fill administrative positions that had previously been reserved for the higher born. 

Christian communities changed, too.  For one thing, they began to grow in size at a steady pace.  People living in fear and confronted by mortality were much more ready to consider options in their understanding of things divine.  People also noticed that the Christians cared for each other when illness struck.  That was an attractive feature in an empire with no official provision for health care.  As they grew, the Christian communities became better organized and more cohesive.  Communication between communities increased as elders and bishops wrote to other elders and bishops about church practice and understanding of scriptures.  Infant and child baptism, which had been rare, became more common and widespread as anxious parents sought to ensure the eternal well-being of their children.  

The Antonine Plague changed everything in the Roman world.  As it dragged on, year after year, wave after wave, surge after surge people wondered if things would ever go back to the way they had been before.  And while things did eventually return to something more like normal, too many things had changed for their world to ever again be what it had been before the plague. 

Structures and functions of government had changed.  The military had changed.  The status of many people had changed.  Commerce had changed.  Christianity was more present, stronger, and more well-represented in the social mix of the empire.  None of these changes could have been imagined when the virus first marched in Rome with the homecoming soldiers. 

In this third year of our pandemic with Covid 19, I think it’s important to take stock of how this virus has changed us.  I think it’s important for us to make note of how living in a pandemic has changed our economy, changed our politics, changed out basic institutions, and challenged our infrastructure and supply chains.  Those things all affect us, and not just in practical ways.  Those changes can have a profound effect on how we understand our lives and how we live them.  

It’s also important to assess the impact that Covid has had on us psychologically and spiritually.  Especially spiritually.  How has it changed us?  How has it changed the way we respond to news and truth we don’t want to hear?  This virus has taken the lives of more than 860,000 of us in the U.S. alone.  How has it changed the way we value—or don’t value—life, especially the lives of others, the lives of people we don’t know or are not close to?  

In describing the meaning of the commandment You Shall Not Kill, Martin Luther wrote this: “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.”  How are we doing with that?  In a time of pandemic when some rebel against the simple measures of wearing a mask properly, getting vaccinated, and avoiding in-person gatherings in enclosed spaces,  I think we need to take Luther’s understanding more to heart.  Are we doing everything we can so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors?   On some future day when the Covid pandemic is over, what will we think of the way we handled ourselves and our relationships in our own time of plague?

A Deeper Kind of Seeing

John 6:35, 40-51

There are lots of things we can’t see, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.   Ultra-violet rays, viruses, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.  We can’t see them, but if we don’t protect ourselves from them, we’re in trouble.  Oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen—we can’t see these things, but we trust that they’re really there because we see the way they act on us and the world around us.   They’re invisible, but we know that we benefit from them.  We say we see the wind, but what we’re really seeing is the effect of the wind as it blows things around.

If you were to stand face-to-face with another person right now and really look at them—I mean really look at that person as fully and carefully and completely as you can—there is a whole lot of that person that you would not be able to see.  And I don’t just mean because they’re wearing clothes.   

For instance, you wouldn’t be able to see their microbiome.  The average person has about 30 trillion human cells in their body and somewhere around 39 trillion bacteria, according to Ron Milo and Ron Sender, researchers at the Weizman Institute of Science.  Even though you can’t see them, those 39 trillion bacteria play an important role in shaping that other person you’re looking at.  A change in the balance of the bacteria in that person’s biome can alter the condition of their skin and hair.  It can alter mood and personality.  A change in their biome can even lead to genetic changes.  Their  invisible biome has a profound effect on the person you’re seeing, even though you can’t see it.

You can’t see their thoughts, either.  You may see hints of their thoughts in their facial expression or body language,  but the thoughts themselves remain invisible. 

Have you ever gone to the refrigerator or the cabinet to get something and, no matter how hard you look, you just can’t find it, but then someone else takes a look and it’s right there in plain sight, right where you were looking?  For some reason, you really could not see it.  You had a mental blind spot.  Those mental blind spots, by the way, have a name.  They’re called schotomas.  

Sometimes we have a schotoma, a mental blind spot, a failure to see what’s right in front of us because we just don’t expect to see it or because it’s not where we think we should see it.  We can be blind to things that don’t fit our preconceived idea of how things are supposed to be.

In John 6:40 in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus says a really interesting thing—a thing I didn’t really see for the longest time.  Jesus says, “This is the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”  I think we all catch the part about believing, but it’s easy to overlook the part about seeing Jesus.   

The word that’s used here for see in the original Greek is theôron.  It means “to observe something with enhanced attention; to perceive.”  In other words, to really see as completely and fully as possible.  Jesus wants us to see him.  That makes all the sense in the world, because to really and truly believe,  to trust him, we first have to see him for who he is and what he is.

That’s the problem the religious leaders who confronted Jesus are having in today’s gospel lesson.  They have a schotoma, a mental blind spot.  In spite of all his miracles and the wisdom of his teaching, they are simply unable to see Jesus for who he is and what he is.  Their preconceptions about God and religion and the way the world works just don’t have any room for Jesus as the Son of God, as Immanuel, as God With Us.  Their theology gets in the way of what God is doing right in front of them.

“Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph?,” they say.  “We know his parents!  How can he say he came down from heaven?”   Their skepticism is understandable.   It’s more than a little bit of a leap from “Jesus, the teacher and healer” to “Jesus, the divine presence in our midst who has come to us from heaven.”  It’s such a leap, in fact, that a lot of people try to put Jesus in a category with less outrageous claims.  They think of him as a great moral teacher or an important social pioneer.

But here’s the thing…C.S. Lewis said we either need to take Jesus at his word, or put him aside altogether.  In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote: “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg — or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”  

To really believe in Jesus as the Son of God, first you have to see him that way.  But a lot of people—maybe most—just aren’t prepared to see him that way, and the most brilliant theological arguments in the world won’t change their minds.  Jesus understood that.  “No one can come to me unless the Father draws them,” he said.  And the word “draws” here, by the way, is the same word that’s used for hauling in a fishing net.  People come to faith because God draws them to faith.  Martin Luther wrote, “I believe that I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him by my own reason or strength, but instead, the Holy Spirit has called me.”

God can reel you in, but God won’t force you to believe.  It’s like they say about a horse and water: God can make us come to Jesus, but God can’t or won’t make us believe or trust.  God will lead us to the bread of life, but God won’t force it on us. 

Jesus is inviting us to a faith that’s anchored in love and trust.  Jesus wants us to believe in him because we see him for who and what he really is.  And Jesus wants us to learn to see each other as children of God, too—as persons who are created  in the image and likeness of God—even when it’s a stretch, and the person you’re looking at seems far removed from God or anything like God’s grace, generosity, compassion and love.  

Jesus wants us to really see him.  And he wants us to learn to really see each other.  That requires a deeper kind of seeing.  That requires us to put aside a lot of preconceptions that tend to create a schotoma—a mental blind spot—around Jesus, and frankly, around each other, because so often we seem to be truly blind to each other as children of God, shining in the image and likeness of God.  

Sometimes, in order to really see Jesus, we even need to put aside our creeds and theology.  The problem with them is that they make us think we understand what it means to believe.  They give us a formula to recite, boxes we can check off, things we can assent to in theory.  But that’s not what Jesus has called us to.

Creeds, professions of faith, theology, doctrine and dogma—these all have their place, and once we come to faith they can help us see more deeply the life we’re experiencing.  But it’s important to remember that God did not write a creed for us in words that can be debated or that change their meaning.  Instead, God gave us a living example.  God gave us a life that we can see—a mirror to show us how we are to be in the world and with each other.  Theology can be argued about.  Faith, as a life, can only be lived.  

Jesus is the bread of life who not only sustains us in a living faith, once we learn to see him, but who opens our eyes so that we can see him and each other more deeply—so that we can see God With Us, in him and in each other.

This Moment

Thoughts Along the Way…

I came across a meme today on Facebook that really made me stop and think.  The heading was Ancestral Mathematics.  Here’s what it said:

“In order to be born, you needed:

2 parents

4 grandparents

8 great-grandparents

16 second great grandparents

32 third great-grandparents

64 fourth great-grandparents

128 fifth great-grandparents

256 sixth great-grandparents

512 seventh great-grandparents

1,024 eighth great-grandparents

2,048 ninth great-grandparents

For you to be born today from 12 previous generations, you needed a total of 4,094 ancestors over the last 400 years.  Think for a moment—How many struggles?  How many battles?  How many difficulties?  How much sadness?  How much happiness?  How many love stories?  How many expressions of hope for the future?—did your ancestors have to undergo for you to exist in this present moment…”

Some of my cousins connected me to a website called Family Search.  I’m not nearly as involved in exploring our family tree as some of them, but I do find it interesting to trace things back a few generations.  I’ve become curious about the lives of these people to whom I am directly related.  I’ve heard bits and snatches of some of their stories, but I know nothing at all about most of them.  I’ve been surprised by all the surnames that I didn’t know even though their DNA is part of me and their story is part of my story.  Beckham, I know, of course.  But there is  also Curtis, Casey, Owen, Whitely, Moody, Maynard, Wayne, Stapleton, Lawrence, Malmgren, Davidson, Larm, Carlson, Andersdotter, Flykt…  The names take me on a journey not only back in time but to other parts of the continent and other parts of the world.   I have inherited something, however small, from each of them.  

As I thought about all of this, I realized two things.  First, the universe, and Christ who is in, with, and under everything the universe does, has worked long and hard to bring us here.  All the generations before us with all their struggles and all their joys have brought us, you and me, to this place and this time.  That’s got to mean something.  And if it doesn’t mean anything existentially in and of itself, then we can bring meaning to it.  We can bring love to it.  We can see the moment and we can love the moment.  And we can love each other in the moment.  We can love God in the moment.  That’s part of what being the Beloved Community is all about: honoring the moment and honoring everything it took to bring us here.

And that brings me to the second thing I realized.  We have inherited our faith, too.  Whether you grew up in a home where faith in Christ was part of the atmosphere or whether you came to faith in Christ in some other circumstances in some other context, by some unexpected path, faith was handed down to you by others.  It was a gift of grace.  It has been passed down to us in a steady succession of believers all the way back to the apostles.  “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received,” wrote St. Paul to the saints in Corinth (1 Cor 15:3),  and they in turn handed it on to their children and their friends.  And so on through the ages.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,  looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)   But first, let’s take a moment to appreciate all those who have given us this moment.

We Would See Jesus

John 12:20-33

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”  Some Greeks had come to the week-long festival of the Passover in Jerusalem and were hovering at the back of the crowd thronging around Jesus. This was just days after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and only one day after he had entered Jerusalem in the chaotic procession of Palm Sunday.  In John’s text, this was right after the Pharisees said to one another, “Look, the whole world has gone after him.”  That’s when, right on cue, these Greeks come to Philip and say, “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.”

It makes sense that they would come to Philip.  Philip is a Greek name.  They probably overheard him speaking to someone in Greek, which would come naturally to him since he was from Bethsaida, a Hellenized town on the northeastern side of the Sea of Galilee.  Philip consulted with Andrew, another Greek name, incidentally, also from Bethsaida, and the two of them went to tell Jesus.

Andrew and Philip are among the earliest disciples named in John’s gospel and they are the first two disciples who bring others to Jesus.  Andrew, having just met Jesus, himself, ran to find his brother, Simon Peter and blurted out, “We have found the Messiah!”  Jesus invited Philip to follow him, and Philip immediately went to find his friend Nathanael and bring him to meet Jesus, too.  And now, very nearly at the end of the gospel, Philip and Andrew are once again bringing people to see Jesus, but this time it’s because they have asked to meet him. 

So.  Philip and Andrew are good models for us.  They bring people to meet Jesus.  There’s a clue in there about effective evangelism, I think.  They didn’t invite people to join their discipleship group.  They brought them to meet Jesus.  

“Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” We don’t know anything about the Greeks who make this request. Are they Greek-speaking diaspora Jews who have come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to complete the obligations of Torah?  Are they Gentile proselytes preparing to convert to Judaism?  Are they Gentile tourists in town to see the temple, one of the wonders of the world during the time of one of its great festivals?  Have they heard about his miracles and are maybe hoping to see one for themselves?  Have they come to offer themselves as disciples?  We don’t really know anything about them or their motives.  But we surely can understand their request. 

We would like to see Jesus.  I would like to see Jesus. Wouldn’t you?  Oh, I know I see him all the time in a Matthew 25 way.  I see him in people in need.  I see him in people enduring injustice.  I see him in people pushed to the margins.  I see him.  I do.  And I see him in a 1 Corinthians 12, Body-of-Christ way.  I see him in the kindness of friends and strangers.  I see him in the ways we support each other and lift each other up and work together to dial up the love and grace and dial down the anger and fear and hate.  I see Jesus in you.  I see Jesus in you and that keeps me going.

But sometimes I would like to see Jesus the way Philip and Andrew got to see him, face to face. Debi Thomas put it this way:

 I know what it’s like to want Jesus in earnest — to want his presence, his guidance, his example, and his companionship.  I know what it’s like to want — not him, but things from him: safety, health, immunity, ease.  I know what it’s like to want a confrontation — a no-holds-barred opportunity to express my disappointment, my sorrow, my anger, and my bewilderment at who Jesus is compared to who I want him to be.[1]  

It stings to read that, but it’s so honest.  “I know what it’s like to want—not him, but things fromhim.”  It reminds me of that African American spiritual we sing sometimes, I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.  “I want Jesus to walk with me; all along my pilgrim journey, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “In my trials, Lord, walk with me; when my heart is almost breaking, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”  “When I’m in trouble, Lord, walk with me; when my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.”

I want to see Jesus.  That, right there, is a pivot point of spiritual growth.  Why do I want to see Jesus?  How do I want to see Jesus?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want something from him?  Do I want to see Jesus because my faith is wavering?  Do I want to see Jesus because I want to surrender to him?  Do I want to see Jesus just to sit in his presence?

Those are the kinds of questions we need to ask ourselves when we feel that powerful yearning to see Jesus.  And let’s be clear.  There are no wrong answers here except dishonest answers.  

We don’t know why those Greeks at the Festival wanted to see Jesus.  What we do know is that as soon as Philip and Andrew came to Jesus with their request, Jesus began to talk about the cost of discipleship and about his own coming death.  We might be singing “I want Jesus to walk with me,” but Jesus responds with, “Fine.  This is where I’m going.  You might not like it.”

Peter and Andrew told Jesus that the Greek visitors wanted to meet him.  “Jesus answered, ‘Time’s up. The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.’”[2]  That’s how Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message Bible.  Time’s up. 

The time for sightseeing is over.  The time for spectator discipleship is over.  Now the Human One will be glorified.  Glorified.  As in martyred.  

“Listen carefully,” he says. “Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over.  In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.”[3]   

Jesus is once again telling his disciples, then and now, a message that disciples are always reluctant to hear.  If you hold on to life just as it is, you will destroy it.  If you let go of it in reckless love, you’ll have it forever.  Reckless love of God, yourself, and others is eternal. 

“If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me,” said Jesus. “Then you’ll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment’s notice. The Father will honor and reward anyone who serves me.”[4]

I want to see Jesus.  Yes.  But there’s that question again:  Do I want him—or do I want something  from him?  And have I given any thought to an even more important question: what does he want from me?

Do I want to see him so I can serve him?  Do I want to see him so I can learn to be a better follower?  Am I willing to be that seed that is buried?  

The language that Jesus uses here as he talks to the Greek visitors and his disciples and the crowd is all imagery and metaphor.  The time has come to be glorified. When a seed is planted.  When I am lifted up.  But all that poetic language is euphemism for a horrifying reality.

Beginning next Sunday we will observe again the events of Holy Week, a week that ends in the brutal torture and crucifixion of Jesus on Good Friday.  Attendance at worship on Good Friday is always low.  We want to see Jesus…but we don’t want to see Jesus on the cross.  We don’t want to see Jesus die, especially not in such an ugly, helpless, brutal way.

We don’t want to see Jesus willingly take the hatred, the contempt, the violence, even the sheer indifference of this world into his own body.  We want to see Jesus, but we don’t want to see Jesus there.  Like that.  We want to see Jesus in a hundred other ways—muscular super-hero Jesus, miracle-worker Jesus, wisdom Jesus, justice radical Jesus, social worker Jesus.  But Jesus on the cross?

That’s where reckless love takes Jesus.  That’s what he is saying in all the poetic language.  The seed will be buried and dead to the world.

If I want to see Jesus, really see Jesus, I need to look to the cross… where, in reckless love, he opens his heart and his arms to you.  And me.  And the whole world.


[1] Debi Thomas, Journey With Jesus, 14 March 2021

[2] The Message, John 12:23

[3] The Message, John 12:24-25

[4] The Message, John 12:26