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

Extravagant Love

John 12:1-8

Shah Jahan, the Fifth Mughal emperor of India, was so deeply in love with his 3rd wife, that when she died in 1631 he spent the equivalent of a billion dollars to create a final resting place for her, an exquisite mausoleum that would speak to the world of the grace and beauty of the woman who was laid to rest within its walls.  He called it the Taj Mahal, naming it after his beloved wife. It has inspired lovers for centuries and is now designated as a world heritage site.  

When Amytis, the daughter of the king of Media, was sent to the flat and arid desert kingdom of Babylon to cement the political alliance between the two kingdoms, she became terribly homesick for the mountains and forests of her homeland.  Her husband, Nebuchadnezzar II, the king of Babylon, thought she might feel more at home if she had a garden.  So he created one for her, the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  Out of love for her, he created a place in the desert where she could be surrounded by lush greenery, and his extravagant monument to his love for her came to be revered as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

History is filled with extravagant acts of love and devotion—Queen Victoria’s legendary decades of mourning for Prince Albert; Lucille Ball refusing to be part of  I Love Lucy, a show named for her, unless her husband Desi Arnaz played her husband on the show; Joe DiMaggio sending roses to adorn the grave of Marilyn Monroe several times a week for decades—those were all inspiring and extravagant acts of love.  But the most famous act of devotion in history happened one night at a private dinner in the little town of Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem. 

Six days before the Passover, Jesus and his disciples came to Bethany to dine at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha.  While they were dining, Mary began to anoint Jesus’s feet with a very expensive aromatic oil made from spikenard.  She not only massaged the ointment into his tired feet, she dried them with her hair. 

This has to be one of the most evocative and sensual moments in the whole Bible.  This scene in the Gospel of John engages all our senses.  The soothing balm of the ointment being lovingly and gently massaged into the skin of Jesus’s feet by tender and sensitive hands. The silken touch of Mary’s long, dark hair caressing his feet as she dries them.  And the aroma.  The fragrance, John tells us, filled the house—the fragrance of spikenard.  Earthy.  Spicy.  Musky.  Soothing.  Hypnotic. Even in ancient times, the scent of spikenard was used as aromatherapy to dispel anxiety and stress.  It was even used to treat melancholia—what we call depression.  The ancients believed that it’s scent could transport you out of your thoughts or worries or sadness into a state of tranquility, peace and well-being.

When Mary rubbed this exotic, expensive ointment onto Jesus’s feet, her lovely, extravagant act of devotion, kindness and love was probably exactly what Jesus needed at that moment.  The tender massaging of his feet after so many, many months of walking the stony and dusty roads of Galilee, the Decapolis, and Judah probably felt like a little bit of heaven.  After all the road-weary days and nights surrounded by sweaty disciples and jostling crowds the soothing fragrance that was filling every corner of the house was probably the nicest aroma he had smelled in a very long time.  That moment of just plain niceness as Mary focused all her attention on doing something pleasant for him, something that would speak her love for him better than any words—that moment would be his last moment of peace, intimacy and tenderness before his crucifixion.

Sadly, that moment was interrupted.  

“Why wasn’t this ointment sold and the money given to the poor?” asked Judas.  “This stuff is worth what…three hundred denarii?  That’s the better part of a year’s wages for a laborer.  There are better ways to use that much money than slathering it on his feet.”

The Gospel of John tells us that Judas wasn’t really concerned about the poor at all but was angling for a way to get some of that cash into his own pockets.  And maybe that’s true.  But to be fair, spikenard ointment really was very, very expensive.  It’s made from a plant in the honeysuckle family that grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, India and China.  It was costly to make it and even more costly to transport it.

All four gospels tell the story of this deeply personal encounter, but they tell it in different ways.  In Matthew and Mark the dinner is held at the home of Simon the Leper and the woman who lavishes both expensive ointment and intimate attention on Jesus is not named.  In Luke the dinner is held at a Pharisee’s house.  Once again the woman is not named, but then neither is their host, the Pharisee.  One thing that all versions of this story have in common, though, is that someone is indignant about the attention and the expense being lavished on Jesus.  In Matthew and Mark, it’s all the disciples who complain about the expense of the ointment.  All of them chime in about how the money could have been given to the poor.  “Why was this ointment wasted in this way?” they say in Mark.  “Why this waste?” in Matthew.

Waste.  Her extravagant care for Jesus, her loving attention—they see it as wasteful.    

Why is it that some of us are so uncomfortable with extravagant expressions of love and devotion? What is it about moments of intimate caring that get some of us up on our high horse and turns us into critics?  What is it about lavish gestures of affection that suddenly turns some of us into outspoken proponents of philanthropy for the anonymous poor?  

I don’t usually quote Friedrich Nietzsche, but there is something he wrote that seems particularly appropriate here.  He said, “The certain prospect of death could sweeten every life with a precious and fragrant drop of levity—and now you strange apothecary souls have turned it into an ill-tasting drop of poison that makes the whole of life repulsive.”

Mary had bought this expensive ointment to anoint Jesus’s body after his death.  But she loved him so much that she couldn’t bear the thought that he wouldn’t get to experience its healing and soothing properties while he was still alive. So she opened the alabaster jar and anointed Jesus with it while he was still alive to sweeten his last hours and days “with a precious and fragrant drop of levity.”  She brought lightness to counter the heaviness of those final days.

Life is both precious and precarious.  Death is a foregone conclusion; it’s only the timing that’s uncertain.  So why do we not live every moment of every day with “a precious and fragrant drop of levity?”  Why do we not find more ways to express our love for each other?

Why do we back away from extravagance?  We should be accustomed to it.  At least, we should be if we’re paying attention.  “If the landscape reveals one certainty,” wrote Annie Dillard, “it is that the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation.  After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor.  The whole show has been on fire from the word go.”

Mary was extravagant in her love for Jesus.  Jesus was extravagant in his love for the world.  And God has been extravagant in love poured out into all of creation.  

“There is a time for risky love,” said Max Lucado.  There is a time for extravagant gestures.  There is a time to pour out your affections on one you love.  And when it comes—seize it, don’t miss it.” 

May the extravagant love of Christ fill our hearts and give us courage to extravagantly love each other.  In Jesus’ name.

Nobody Here But Us Chickens

Luke 13:31-35

When some Pharisees came to tell Jesus that he should get outta Dodge because Herod wanted to kill him, Jesus made it clear that he wasn’t going to let the Pharisees or Herod disrupt his mission.  “Go and tell that fox for me,” said Jesus,  “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Then I’ll be on my way.”  I wonder if those Pharisees were brave enough to actually go back to Herod with what Jesus had said. 

Calling someone a fox was not a compliment.  Today if you call someone a fox you usually mean they’re pretty good looking, but it meant something very different in those days.  A fox, in both Greek and rabbinic literature, was what you called someone who was crafty, sinister,  dishonest. Herod would not like being called a fox, and we should remember here that Herod was dangerous.  He had already killed Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist.   The Pharisees were saying that he wanted to kill Jesus, too.  So maybe calling him unflattering names wasn’t the safest thing to do. 

But Jesus had even more to say in his message for Herod.  “Tell that fox I’m casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  On the third day I’ll be on my way to Jerusalem because it’s unthinkable for a prophet to be killed anywhere else.”  

Maybe it’s just me, but I hear Jesus being a little bit snide here.  Just a little.  Getting in a dig. “Hey Herod, come see me, buddy.  Those demons that have been making you act like such a putz?   I can get rid of those for you and heal your shrunken heart at the same time.  But don’t think about it too long.  I’ll only around for a couple of days, then I’m on my way to Jerusalem because that’s where prophets go to be killed.  Sorry, I know you wanted to murder me here, but that job has been reserved for someone higher up the food chain.” 

Well, maybe that’s not the tone of voice Jesus was using, but he was making it clear that he was not afraid of Herod, the man who had killed his cousin.  He wasn’t going to let a threat from Herod stop him from healing people and freeing them from whatever was bedeviling them.  

So, Jesus sent the Pharisees back with a message.  And because he had mentioned Jerusalem, it got him thinking about where he was headed and what was waiting for him there.  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  The city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often have I wanted to gather your children together like a hen gathering her chicks under her wings.  And you were not willing.”  

I hear such sadness in these words.  A lament.  It’s heartbreaking to hear the yearning in the heart of God expressed this way.  It’s painful to think of all the times God has reached out in love to gather and guide and protect, but like rebellious adolescents (which is a pretty apt description of humanity on the whole) we have turned away.  

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, The city that kills the prophets.  The city that stones the messenger.  Jesus calls out Jerusalem, but his words apply to any place, every place where people refuse to hear plain-spoken truth if it isn’t the “truth” they want to hear.    “Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  Long Beach, Long Beach.  America, America.  Russia, Russia.  Humanity, Humanity.  How many times have I wanted to pull you all together in one protective and loving embrace, but you would not let me.” 

Like a hen gathering her chicks when danger threatens, when a hawk is circling overhead, when a fox or weasel is slinking around nearby—this is how God has yearned to protect us from all the craziness that we throw at each other in this world.  

Like a mother hen.  

When we talk about God helping and protecting us, I don’t think the go-to animal image for most of us would be a chicken.  When the prophet Hosea was telling the people how angry God was with them, he said God was going to come at them like a lion or a leopard.  God, he said, was going to come down on them like an enraged mother bear who’s been robbed of her cubs. (Hosea 13:7-8)  Yeah!  Hosea is talking about Angry God, here, but I think that’s what most of us want Protective God to be like, too.  When we feel threatened, I think most of us want Angry Bear God to show up.  But no, says Jesus.  That’s not how God does things.  God will not be a predator on our behalf.  But God, Jesus, will put himself between us and whatever predatory trouble is coming at us.  God, Jesus, will take the first and hardest hit.

Barbara Brown Taylor said, “Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story.  What he will be is a mother hen who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm.  She has no fangs, no claws, no ripping muscles.  All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body.  If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first.”

Mother Hen God is no chicken.  When the fangs and claws come after her defenseless brood, she doesn’t run away.  She puts her whole self between the danger and her babies.  That, said Jesus, is what I’ve wanted to do for you always and everywhere.

But we won’t let him.  

The longer I live, the more I am convinced that there are really only two essential forces at work in this world:  fear and love.  That’s it.  They come in a lot of different guises, but it’s really only the two.  Fear, forever resisting the full, transformative power of love.  Love, forever trying to mitigate the destructive power of fear. 

Greed, lust, rage, hate, violence, blind ambition, exclusion, a thirst for power—those things are all born in fear.  Grace, forgiveness, courage, generosity, helping, healing, peacemaking, goodness—those things are all rooted in love.  

The militant Jesus imagined by Christian Nationalism, the Jesus who looks like Rambo, is an expression of fear.  But that’s not the Jesus of the gospels.

We will never be done with fighting and war until we conquer our fear.  We won’t be able to get on with the practical work of building a sustainable and peaceful humanity until we rid ourselves of the fear that spawns violence.  “Violence,” said Martin Luther King, “is impractical because it is a descending spiral ending in destruction for all. It is immoral because it seeks to humiliate the opponent rather than win their understanding: it seeks to annihilate rather than convert. Violence is immoral because it thrives on hatred rather than love. It destroys community and makes brotherhood impossible. It leaves society in monologue rather than dialogue. Violence ends up defeating itself.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness,” he said. “Only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate.  Only love can do that.”  Fear cannot drive out fear.  Only love can do that, too.

“There is no fear in love,” says 1 John 18, “but perfect love casts out fear.”  

When fear starts to stalk us like a fox, when pain or disruption seem to be aimed right at us, Jesus wants us to know that there is a safe place under the shelter of God’s wings where we can catch our breath and be still while we wait for trouble to pass.

“In you my soul takes refuge;” said the Psalmist.  “In the shadow of your wings I will take refuge until the storms pass by.”  May we all learn to be willing to place ourselves under the protecting wings of Christ.  May we all learn to embody Christ’s love that lifts us up and out of fear.  And just as we have found shelter under metaphorical wings of Jesus, when trouble threatens may we be loving enough and brave enough to spread out our wings to shelter others.  May we all be as brave as a mother hen.

When God Sings

There’s a song I used to sing to our kids when they were younger.  Sometimes I would sing it to them simply because I would have one of those moments when I would look at them and just be filled with joy from the simple fact that they exist.  It just made me happy that they were there. So I would sing this silly song to them.  But sometimes, more often, really, I would sing the song because they were in a snit about something and being pouty and cranky and not their real, better selves.  So I would sing.

Look at that face, just look at it, look at that fabulous face of yours!

I knew first look I took at it this was a face that the world adores.

Look at those eyes as wise and as deep as the sea!

Look at that nose!  It shows what a nose should be.

As for your smile, it’s lyrical, friendly and warm as a summer’s day.

That smile is just a miracle, where would I ever find words to say

The way that it makes me happy, whatever the time or place.

I’ll find in no book what I find when I look at that face.[1]

Did anyone ever sing over you?  To you?  About you?  It’s hard to remain gloomy if someone is singing to you.  

Most of the Book of Zephaniah is full of doom and gloom.  For two long chapters, the prophet makes it abundantly clear that God is mightily upset with idolatry, the ways the rich are taking advantage of the poor, and the way justice is being perverted.  But then suddenly at the end of his long, angry poem, the prophet changes his tune.  Suddenly his song about the end of the world becomes a song of grace and forgiveness. 

Sing aloud, daughter of Zion; shout, all Israel!

Rejoice, daughter, and exult with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem!

The Judge of All Flesh has taken away the judgments against you…

The sovereign of Israel, Creator of the Heavens and Earth, 

is in your midst, daughter; no longer shall you fear evil.

The Ageless One, your God, is in your midst, daughter,

a warrior who will deliver salvation;

who will rejoice over you with gladness, daughter,

God will renew you in love, daughter,

God will exult over you, daughter, with loud singing.

Zephaniah had been telling the people that God was about to erase them from the face of the earth, but then he stops and says, “No, that’s not what God’s going to do at all.”  God forgives you.  God loves you.  God is with you, next to you.  God claims you as a daughter.  So let’s sing!”

It’s a kind of resurrection.  Zephaniah had declared them as good as dead.  But then… grace! Forgiveness!  Joy!

God will renew you with love. 

God will exult over you with singing. 

Loud singing.

Can you imagine God exulting over you?  

Can you imagine God singing about you?  

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is the Word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, but maybe we could also see Jesus as the Song that God sings to us, the embodiment of the music of all creation who was and is in our midst bringing grace, restoration, and resurrection.  

That’s what the gospels are about, you know.  They are songs of restoration and resurrection.  

At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, right after Jesus has cast out an unclean spirit in the synagogue, he goes to the home of Peter and Andrew, accompanied by James and John.  There he discovers that Peter’s mother-in-law is ill with a fever.  Jesus takes her by the hand and lifts her up and the fever leaves her.

When Jesus has restored Peter’s mother-in-law, Mark tells us that she served them.  We tend to bristle at that.  Personally, I like Wilda Gafney’s translation here.  She says that Peter’s mother-in-law “ministered to them.”  The verb in question is diakoneo and it can mean both to serve and to minister to.  That’s the verb that’s used in Mark 10:45 when Jesus describes himself as one who came not to be served, but to serve.  He tells the twelve that “whoever wishes to be first must be last and servant of all”  and “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant.”  

Serving is the mark of faithful discipleship.  It’s what followers of Jesus are supposed to do, and at the end of Mark’s gospel, we see that it is the women who followed Jesus who really understood about serving.  They were the ones who remained faithful to the end.  It’s entirely possible that Peter’s mother-in-law was among those women.  She rose to serve.  And maybe she just kept on serving Jesus all the way to Jerusalem.

Jesus took her hand and lifted her up.  What it actually says in the Greek is that he raised her up.  It’s the same language that is used in Mark 16 when the startled women at the empty tomb are told that Jesus has been raised up. Mark wants to understand that resurrection wasn’t just the end of the story, it was part of the daily ongoing story of Jesus.  The verb egeiro, to raise up, is used repeatedly in Mark’s healing stories.  In Mark 2:9, it’s the verb Jesus uses when he tells the paralytic to rise up.  In Mark 3:3 he tells the man with a withered hand to rise up and come forward.  In Mark 5:41 it’s the word he uses when he takes Jairus’s daughter by the hand and tells her to rise up.  In Mark 9:27, when a boy who has had a seizure is lying on the ground “as if dead,” Jesus takes him by the hand and tells him to rise up.

So often we yearn for Jesus to take us by the hand and give us the strength to rise up.  When it feels like life has just knocked us flat—when we get some bad news, when our most important relationships seems to be high on tension and low on love, when we feel alone and beset by one dang thing after another, when life feels like a small death and a series of tragedies, we yearn for Jesus to take us by the hand and raise us back to life.  We yearn for a small, everyday resurrection.

We all know that need.  We all know that feeling, that yearning for the hand of Jesus.

Thomas A. Dorsey wrote a powerful song about it.  It was Martin Luther King’s favorite song and he asked Mahalia Jackson to sing it at civil rights rallies.  Leontyne Price sang it at the state funeral of President Lyndon Johnson.  Aretha Franklin sang it at Mahalia Jackson’s funeral.  It’s a song about our yearning for everyday resurrections.

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:

Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

When my way grows drear,
Precious Lord, linger near,
When my life is almost gone,
Hear my cry, hear my call,
Hold my hand lest I fall:

Take my hand, precious Lord,
Lead me home.

This is Jesus’s ministry of resurrection.  Everyday resurrections.  Time after time in the gospels, time after time in our own lives, he takes our hand, lifts us up and sings us back to life.

Christ sings us back to life so we can rise up and serve each other and carry the song of resurrection, the song of new life, the song of God’s great love to the rest of the world.  Jesus takes us by the hand and raises us up out of our feverish troubles and pain so we can raise up others out of their feverish troubles with the outstretched hand of Christ and the promise of Zephaniah.  God is in your midst.  Christ is with you.  

Rise up.  God will renew you with love.  And God will exult over you with singing.  Loud singing.


[1] From The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd, Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newly

Light a Candle

You find yourself glancing at the calendar and the clock with a slight sense of panic. So much to do and the days are rushing by. Busyness blinds you to the presence and the present of the Present. Decorating. Shopping. Wrapping. Mailing. Visiting. Hosting.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself constantly wondering just how much Christmas you can afford. You feel as if you dare not shut off your mental calculator and the joys of the season are clouded by the Ghost of Bills yet to come. Every gift becomes a bit of addition which, in turn, becomes an anxious subtraction.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself lost in a lonely daydream as the Ghost of Christmas Past fills your thoughts with scenes of happier holidays from days gone by. An old familiar song reminds you of friends and family no longer near at hand and your heart aches more than just a little.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself dizzy from trying to steer your way through the year-end collision of events. Reformation. Halloween. Election. Veterans Day. Christ the King. Advent. Christmas. New Year. Taxes. Fiscal Planning.

Stop. Light a candle.

You find yourself simply feeling as if something is missing, as if you’re forgetting something, as if there must be something more.

Stop. Light a candle.

Five candles. Three blue and one pink for Advent. One white for Christmas.

First, ignite the flame of Hope, the Prophecy Candle. Let this flame remind you that God’s promises not only echo through the past but draw us toward the future. Let the light remind you that just as a feather will rise naturally above the heat of a single flame, so you, too, can be lifted without effort by the Spirit that warms and enlightens us all.

Next, light the flame of Peace, the Bethlehem Candle. Let this flame remind you that the peace of God is found in humble moments and humbler places. Let this light remind you that the real gift we all seek is something no amount of money can buy. Peace.

Then light the flame of Joy, the candle of a different color, the Shepherd’s Candle. Sing the old familiar songs of Joy and surround yourself with light and music. Dance with the Ghosts of your past and know that they are very much alive in your memories and in the presence of God. Watch the old movies, taste the old, familiar flavors. Let this light rekindle your senses and remind you that this song of Joy is eternal.

Now light the flame of Love, the Angels Candle. Let this light bring equilibrium to these days of celebration. Let it guide you through the maze of these impacted days. Let the flame of Love burn a pathway through the adiaphorous clutter. Let its warmth empower you to embrace the days. Swallow its light whole so that it shines through you.

Finally, sit in the presence of the light of Christ. Let the Candle of Christmas remind you that the most humble child born in the most unlikely circumstances bears the image and likeness of the Maker of Us All. Let it remind you that the thing that has been missing in our lives, the object of our unsettled yearning, is not a thing or an object at all, but the very Source of our Hope, Peace, Joy and Love.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Tough Love

Mark 10:17-31

In 1962 while on a visit to America, Karl Barth, the famous Swiss theologian, was asked by a student if he could summarize his whole life’s work in theology in a single sentence.  Barth replied, “Why yes, I can. In the words of a song I learned at my mother’s knee: Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”

I realized the other day that I haven’t reminded people of this simple truth nearly enough in my years as a pastor.  Jesus loves you.  I hope you can hear it again—maybe hear it fresh as if for the first time:  Jesus loves you.  The Holy Spirit loves you.  God loves you.  Let that sit with you for a minute.  

The simple truth is that God’s love for you is the starting point for…everything.  Why are you here on earth having a life?  Because God loves you.  God worked through all of the history of the universe to make sure you would be here to be loved.  

That is such an extraordinary thing to think about.  Jesus loves me.  This I know. When you hold that thought in your mind and heart for even a five uninterrupted minutes of contemplation, it’s mind boggling.  

I think that a lot of us who have lived any time at all in the embrace of the Christian faith, and especially if we have lived in the bosom of the church—I think we’ve forgotten this.  Or maybe just taken it for granted.   But the plain truth is that being loved by God is a thing that should astonish us at least once a day.  Preferably when we first get up in the morning.

The thing that got me thinking about all this is that there is a moment in verse 21 of our gospel text for this week that catches me off guard every time I read it.  It’s only in Mark’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the man “who had many possessions.”  For some reason Matthew and Luke don’t record this detail.  Here it is:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him.  

I don’t know which is more odd: that Mark bothers to make note of this or that Matthew and Luke don’t.  

I’ll circle back to this in a minute.

This passage, Mark 10:17-31, is so rich with things that deserve our attention that we could look at this  together for weeks and still just be scratching the surface.  For instance, there’s the question Jesus asks the rich man right at the beginning of their conversation: “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”  Why does he say that?  What are we supposed to make of that?

There’s the matter of eternal life…which is not the same thing as endless life.  Do you know the difference?  There’s a distinction there that is definitely worthy of more attention.

The rich man has asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  That’s a strange question.  An inheritance is something that’s left to you.  Given to you.  Passed down to you.  You don’t “do” anything to inherit things except maybe try not to get disinherited.  Even if you work very hard to be in the good graces of your benefactor, though, in the end it’s their decision that determines if you will or won’t inherit anything.

Jesus tells the man, “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’”  Why does he add “you shall not defraud” to the list?  That’s not one of the Ten Commandments.  Matthew and Luke don’t include this, either.  So why does Jesus include this in his list of commandments here in Mark?   The word in Greek for defraud is apostereō.  It means “to cause someone to suffer loss through illicit means, to illegally deprive someone.”  In Deuteronomy 24 in the Greek version of the Old Testament, a form of  that word is used in the statute that prohibits withholding wages from the poor, the needy, and immigrants.  Is that why Jesus, in Mark, thinks that the rich man needs to be reminded of this statute?  Is there something we’re missing here? That would be worth some study. 

Finally, of course, there’s the issue that appears to be the whole point of this encounter.  “You lack one thing,” said Jesus. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 

When the  rich man heard this, he was shocked.  And went away grieving.  For he had many possessions.

The rich man had asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life.  And Jesus, forthright as always, told him. Go sell your stuff.  Give the money away.  Then come and follow me on the Way to eternal life.

Eternal life flows from God as a gift of grace…but you can’t fully receive that gift if something is getting in the way between you and God.  The rich man didn’t realize it, but he had another god standing in his way—standing between him and the one true God—between him and life eternal.  

If Jesus had just told him that he was dangerously close to committing idolatry, he probably would have denied it.  He probably would have quite truthfully responded that he had never bowed down to an idol or visited the temple of another god.  But idolatry is rarely as simple as just worshipping graven images. 

If Jesus had just told him that there was another god standing between him and God, an idol who was strangling the flow of life from God so that the river of life had been reduced to a trickle, he probably wouldn’t have understood.  He probably would have pointed to his wealth and said, “But clearly God has been blessing me.”

“Show me what you trust, what your heart clings to, and I will show you your god,” said Martin Luther.  The rich man’s heart was clinging to his many possessions.  They were dragging him away from the thing he wanted and needed most.  They were throttling his spiritual growth.  So Jesus told him to just get rid of it all.  

But he couldn’t.  He just couldn’t imagine himself doing what Jesus prescribed for him.  Jesus might as well have asked him to jump over the moon.  Or try to squeeze a camel through the eye of a needle.

So why did Jesus ask him to do the impossible—or at least something impossible for him?  I think the answer is in that odd line that only appears here in Mark:  

Jesus, looking at him, loved him.  

Jesus looked at him…and really saw him.  He saw what he wanted.  He saw what he needed.  He saw what was in the way.  Jesus saw him.  Everything about him.  

And he loved him. 

When you love someone, you’ll do anything you can to help them be healthy and whole.  Sometimes the things love demands of us are really difficult—like letting your kids make their own mistakes, for instance, because you know that’s how they’ll really learn.  Sometimes love makes you say hard things for the good of the beloved. Like telling an alcoholic that they flat out have to stop drinking before it kills them and your relationship, too. 

Jesus loved the rich man.  So he told him that if he really wanted eternal life—not just endless life, but eternal life, that bountiful, all-encompassing, loving life in the constant companionship of God—then he had to quit his addiction.  Cold turkey.  He had to get rid of his stuff.

And that brings us back around to where we started.  Jesus loves me. This I know.  Jesus love you.  This I know, too.  And that means that Jesus will do whatever it takes to help us be healthy and whole—which, by the way, is the original meaning of salvation—to be made healthy and whole and swimming in the eternal stream of God’s love.

So work out your salvation with fear and trembling.  And remember, if you feel Jesus is asking you to do the impossible for your own good, it’s because he loves you.  And with God, all things are possible.

Living in Love

John 15:9-17

In 1938, during the Great Depression, a group of doctors at Harvard Medical School began a long-term study to determine what factors contributed most to long-term health and well-being in men.  The Study of Adult Development has been going on for more than 80 years now.  Once selected, participants are followed for the rest of their lives.  They fill out a questionnaire every other year covering their physical and mental health, financial status, relationship status, and general level of happiness.  Every five years some of the men are selected at random for more in-depth study.  

Some of the findings in the study haven’t been all that surprising.  For instance, they’ve verified that alcoholism is destructive.  It has been the main cause of divorce among study participants and it strongly correlates with neurosis and depression.  So, no big surprise there.  But here’s one that is surprising:  financial success depends more on warm relationships than on intelligence. In fact “warm relationships” play a huge role in lifetime satisfaction, wealth, and well-being.

The warmth of the childhood relationship with the mother matters long into adulthood:

  • Men who had “warm” childhood relationships with their mothers earned considerably more per year than men whose mothers were uncaring.
  • Men who had poor childhood relationships with their mothers were much more likely to develop dementia when old.
  • Late in their professional lives, the men’s boyhood relationships with their mothers—but not with their fathers—were associated with effectiveness at work.

The warmth of childhood relationships with fathers correlated with:

  • Lower rates of adult anxiety.
  • Greater enjoyment of vacations.
  • Increased life satisfaction at age 75.

When George Vaillant, the current director of the study, was interviewed by The Atlantic, his main conclusion was that “warm relationships” throughout life had a greater positive influence on “life satisfaction” than anything else—greater than money, greater than achievement, greater than acquisition and accumulation of things.  Warm relationships were the greatest predictor of happiness.  By far.  “Put differently,” Vaillant says,  “The study shows happiness is love. Full stop.”[1]  When a Canadian broadcaster suggested that his statement was overly broad and sentimental, Vaillant looked down at his data then looked up and replied,  “The answer is L-O-V-E.”[2]

So Jackie DeShannon was right back in 1965 when she sang What the World Needs Now is Love, Sweet Love[3].  And the Beatles were right two years later when they sang All You Need is Love.  But Jesus said it first.  A long time before they did.

  “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” said Jesus.  “Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

The word “love” here is agape which is a particular kind of love.  This isn’t a sentimental or emotional love, although it can develop into warm feelings.  But agape doesn’t start that way.  Agape is a decision.  It starts in the head before it moves to the heart.  Madeleine L’Engle described it this way:  “Agape love is…profound concern for the well-being of another, without any desire to control that other, to be thanked by that other, or to enjoy the process.”   Dr. Martin Luther King said, “Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess.  It begins by loving others for their own sakes… Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both. It is redemptive goodwill for all people.  It is a love that asks nothing in return.  It is an overflowing love…And when you rise to love on this level, you begin to love people not because they are likeable, but because God loves them.”   When Saint Paul writes that Love is patient and kind, that love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,  that it doesn’t insist on its own way, that love it is not irritable or resentful, that it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth…when he writes that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,  when he writes that love never quits, he is describing agape.  

When Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you,” that’s the kind of love he is talking about.  Talk about a “warm relationship!”  Agape may start in the head as a decision, but how could you not have warm feelings for someone who loves you like that?  And how could you not develop a certain tenderness in your heart when you’ve decided to love someone that way?  You can’t help it.  Because when you love, you make yourself vulnerable.  That’s part of the decision.

“Abide in my love,” says Jesus.  Most of us don’t use the word “Abide” too often unless we’re huge fans of The Big Lebowski.  The Greek word that’s at work here is meno, which means to stay, to remain, to continue, to continue to exist.  It’s in the imperative form, so Jesus says it as a command.  “Continue to exist in my love.”  That puts a bit of a different spin on it, doesn’t it?

There are two ways to think about that.  One is that Jesus surrounds us with divine love and commands us to stay inside the parameters of that love as we act and interact with each other and the world.  This is something of the understanding Saint Paul has when he talks about being “in Christ.”  The other way to understand it is to see that our lives have been infused with the love of Jesus and we are now commanded to continue to regenerate that love for those around us.  Both understandings work and keep the love of God flowing.  And Jesus assures us that if we keep the commandment to love, we will continue to abide, to exist, within the love of God.

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” This statement always catches me by surprise.  I’ll be honest, I don’t usually think of Jesus as joyful.  You certainly don’t see him depicted that way very often in the gospels.  We see him arguing with scribes and Pharisees or impatient with his disciples when they’re being dense. Healing people, yes.  Casting out demons, there’s certainly something energetic about that. But joyful?  But when you think about it, these episodes of cranky Jesus that we see depicted are brief and they’re probably very much the exception rather than the rule.  We do see him dining with tax collectors and sinners.  Those were probably fun times.  He does tell the occasional joke—you know, a camel through the eye of a needle?  And joy would explain why huge crowds came to see him.  Joy is attractive.  It’s charismatic.

So Jesus commands us to continue to exist in his agape love so that his joy may be in us and so that our joy may be complete.  And then to make it crystal clear that he’s serious about this—joyfully serious—he makes love a commandment.  “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

As I have loved you.    

“No one has greater love than this,” continues Jesus, “to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  He’s referring to the cross here, of course, hinting at just how far he will go to demonstrate his agape love for all of us.  He will lay down his physical life.

But he might be referring to even more if we dive down below the surface.  The word that’s translated as “life” here is psyche.  It means living soul, inner self, mind.  It can also mean what we refer to as “ego.”  Richard Rohr has said that in order to learn how to fully and truly love we have to learn how to get our egos out of the way.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s ego for one’s friends.

“Authentic Christianity,” says Rohr, “is not so much a belief system as a life-and-death system that shows you how to give away your life, how to give away your love, and eventually how to give away your death.  Basically, how to give away—and in doing so, to connect with the world, with all other creatures, and with God…Here the primary language is unlearning, letting go, surrendering, serving others, and not the language of self-development—which often lurks behind our popular notions of salvation.[4]

Paul Tillich once wrote about meeting a Swedish woman who had spent time in a prison camp for giving aid and comfort to prisoners and orphans during World War I.  He found in her a personification of that “greater love.”  “It is a rare gift to meet a human being in whom love – this means God – is so overwhelmingly manifest,” he wrote. “It undercuts theological arrogance as well as pious isolation. It is more than justice and greater than faith or hope. It is the very presence of God in the form of a human being. For God is love. In every moment of genuine love we are dwelling in God and God in us.”

When you love with divine love, when you let divine love flow through you, you begin to love, as John Duns Scotus says, things in themselves, for themselves, and not for what they do for you.  That’s when you begin to love your spouse.  That’s when you begin to love your neighbors–when you start seeing them detached from you, what they do for you, or how they make you look, or what they can get for you.  It takes work to learn to love them in themselves, and for themselves, as living images of God.

When you love things and people in themselves, you are looking out at the world with the eyes of God.  When you look out from those eyes, you see that it’s not about you.  And you will see things that will give you joy.  Simple things will make you happy.

Reality will start giving you joy, inherently.  And you will start overcoming the gap between you and everything else.

Abide in Christ’s love.  Be a friend of Jesus.  Build those warm relationships in the world.  So that Christ’s joy may be in you.  And your joy may be complete.

Amen.

Prayers of Intercession – Easter 6B 

Growing in faith, lifted by hope, guided by love, and alive in the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we bring our prayers before God who promises to hear us and answer in steadfast love.

A brief silence

Loving God, you call us to be your fruit-bearing church.  Strengthen the bonds among all Christian churches.  Toda we pray for the Moravian Church, giving thanks for the life and witness of Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, renewer of the church and hymnwriter.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Creating God, the earth praises you.  The seas roar and the hills sing for joy.  Fill the earth with your love so that by their song , all creatures of land and sea and sky, burrowing and soaring, may call us to join with them in praise.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great.  

Faithful Savior, you conquer the world not with weapons but with undying love.  Plant your word in the hearts of the nations’ leaders and give them your Spirit, so that the peoples of the world may live in peace.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Gracious God, as a loving mother comforts her child, you comfort us.  Bless mothers and mothering people in our lives.  Comfort those who miss their mothers, mothers who grieve, those who grieve because they cannot be mothers, and those who have never known a loving mother.  Your mercy is great.  

Caring Healer, you forget no one and accompany the lonely.  Be present with those who are sick or suffering.  Provide for those needing homes or medical care and point us towards life-changing responses to these needs in our own communities.  Be present with those who are sick or suffering.  We pray especially for  Lance Hailstone, for Donna’s grandson, Matthew Erickson, for Edie’s grandson, Harry Plummer as he recovers from a broken back, a punctured lung and a broken leg, we pray for Baby Arthur, the child of Candy’s friend, for Peggy Bockman, for Charley Hartwell, for Mike Engle,  for Janet Simms, for Vickie Gammar, for Jim Schoup, for Dianne Keil, Judi Mellow, Dee Perretta, Ranae Wright, for Sandy Nelson and for Bruce Chinn, for Lyn Hicks, and for all those on the Prayer Wall.  Reveal your power to heal and save.  Hear us, O God.  Your mercy is great. 

Gentle Redeemer, all who die in you abide in your presence forever.  We remember with thanksgiving those who shared your love throughout their lives.  Keep us united with them in lasting love.  In the hope of new life in Christ, we raise our prayers to you, trusting in your never-ending goodness and mercy, through Jesus Christ our Lord who taught us to pray…


[1] Stossel, Scott (May 2013). “What Makes Us Happy, Revisited: A new look at the famous Harvard study of what makes people thrive”The AtlanticArchived from the original on 7 June 2017. Retrieved 25 June 2017.

[2] CBC News Staff (31 July 2009). “Study proves Beatles right: All you need is love”Canadian Broadcasting CorporationArchived from the original on 26 April 2017. Retrieved 25 June 2017

[3] Written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach

[4] The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr (213-214; 219)

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

The Royal Law

Matthew 25:41-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,  33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;  35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,  36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’  37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’  41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;  42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,  43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’  44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’  45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’  46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

I think it’s interesting to see how people react to this picture of Jesus as the king and judge of humanity.  Some people are all too ready for Jesus to return and get the judging underway.  Others—and I’m one of those—are content for him to take his own sweet time.  Yeah, there are a lot of things I would like to see repaired in this world, a lot of things where I would like to see the divine hand taking direct action, but then I remind myself that Christ is taking direct action through you and me and that, in fact, that is what this particular picture that Jesus is painting is really all about.

In one of our ELCA clergy Facebook groups this week, one pastor asked the question, “Where is the grace in this passage?”  That’s a really Lutheran question, and to their credit, a lot of our pastors did a pretty fair job of making a case for grace in this passage even though it is so clearly about judgment.  I was feeling a little bit contrarian, so I noted that the writer of Matthew was not a Lutheran and didn’t seem to be all that concerned about grace.  Righteousness, yes. Grace, not so much.  In fact, the word grace doesn’t appear even once in the entire Gospel of Matthew.

But that doesn’t mean grace isn’t in there.  Mercy is a kind of grace, and twice Jesus quotes Hosea and tells the Pharisees, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’”[1]  In Matthew 18 he tells the parable of a slave who is forgiven a great debt, a story about mercy, grace and forgiveness and how we sometimes fail to pass that same grace along to others.  In chapter 23, Jesus again scolds the Pharisees for their lack of grace when he says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.”

In an odd way, there is even grace in this picture of the final judgment where the sheep are separated from the goats, even though the goats are sent away to eternal punishment.  To see that grace clearly, though, may take a bit of translating.

In Hebrew there are two words for “people.”  The word ‘am is used to designate people who are Jewish, the people of the covenant, our people.  Goy or goyim are people who are pagans or gentiles.  Those other people.  The same idea appears in the Greek of the New Testament.  Laoí is used for people inside the faith community or the church and éthne is used for people or peoples outside the faith community or church.  When this passage says “All the nations will be gathered before him,” the word that is translated as nations is éthne.  So this is a description of all those people who are outside the community of faith.  Those other people.  They’re the ones being judged.  At least that’s what’s implied in the language.

The implication of the language and the lesson for those within the community of believers, is that there are people who are righteous even among those who live by other beliefs and those who have never heard of Christ.  They are instinctively taking care of the persons in their communities who are in need, and in doing so, they are caring for Christ.  It’s specifically because they are not believers, not members of the community of faith, that they ask Jesus “When did we see you in these circumstances?”

So one way you might see grace in this passage about judgment, then, is that even though these “sheep” on the right hand were not people of the covenant or followers of Jesus, they inherit the kingdom because they lived lives of righteousness and compassion.  Christ, the king, surrounded by his angels, seated on the throne of his glory, brings in all these people who never knew him or knew about him because they simply acted out of compassion.

Having said that, it’s also a given that if you are part of the community of faith, a follower of Jesus, it is expected that you will also be feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger.  Those things are part of the way of life in the kingdom of heaven.  This kind of righteousness rooted in compassion—it’s who we are.  It’s what we do.  It’s how we, too, encounter Jesus.

Whether you read it as applying to insiders or outsiders or both, it’s tempting sometimes to read this passage as our Ticket to Heaven Punch Card.  Feed the hungry?  Check.  Clothing for the poor? Check.  Welcome a stranger?  Check.  Visit someone in prison?  Check.  If we do that, though, we’ll miss the point of everything Jesus had to say in Matthew’s gospel about the kingdom of heaven and about what constitutes real righteousness.  We would be like those scribes and Pharisees he rebuked in chapter 23, paying attention to the details but neglecting the justice, mercy, and faith at the heart of it all.  

Oh, and love. We would be missing the love.

In chapter 19 someone asks Jesus, “What good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus replies, “If you wish to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”  “But which ones?” he is asked.  Jesus replies, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness;  Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  

Jesus repeats the commandment to love later in chapter 22 when he is asked what is the greatest commandment.  He replies, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself” he wasn’t inventing a new rule, he was quoting Leviticus.  Love your neighbor as yourself was an important ethic of the Jewish people.  Jesus broadened that ethic and applied it more widely by expanding the definition of neighbor.  Because “love your neighbor” was so central to the teaching of Jesus, it became the central ethic of his followers.

Saint Paul wrote in Galatians, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[2]  Again, writing in Romans, he said, “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.’”[3]  James called it the royal law: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[4]

What the “sheep,” the righteous who are rewarded in Matthew 25 are doing when they feed the hungry and clothe the naked and welcome the stranger is simply this: they are loving their neighbor.

In this picture of judgment in Matthew 25 we also see another portrait of love.  We see a king sitting on his throne of glory.  But this is a king who cares deeply for “the least of these” in the human family, a king who has compassion for those who struggle.  He cares so much about the struggling and suffering that how they are treated becomes the yardstick by which the others around them are judged.  We see a king who walks with them in their struggles and identifies with them.  With us.  We see a king who rewards those who show love and compassion through acts of mercy and assistance and kindness.  We see a king who defines “love your neighbor as yourself” as the heart and soul, the absolute bottom line of righteousness.

Love, real love, the kind that Jesus is talking about, the kind that comes from a decision and sticks around for the long haul, the kind that gives of itself… love is transformative.  It transforms the hungry into the well-fed.  It transforms the naked into the clothed.  It transforms the unemployed into workers.  It transforms the homeless into the housed.  It transforms the stranger into a friend. 

The other day I was listening to a TED talk by Andrew Solomon called Love, No Matter What.  His TED talk is about what life is like for families where one of the kids is different in some way, and in that talk he told about Clinton Brown.  

When Clinton was born he was diagnosed with diastrophic dwarfism, a very disabling condition.  The doctors at the hospital told his parents that Clinton would never walk or talk, that he wouldn’t have any intellectual capacity, that he probably wouldn’t even recognize them.  The doctors suggested that they should just leave Clinton at the hospital so he could die there quietly and not be a burden to them.

But his mother wasn’t having it.   She took him home.  And even though she didn’t have a lot in the way of education or financial assets, she managed to find the best doctor in the country for treating diastrophic dwarfism and convinced him to take Clinton as a patient.  

Over the course of his childhood, Clinton had 30 major surgical procedures.  Since he was stuck in the hospital during all that time, he had tutors.  It turns out he was not intellectually challenged at all.  He studied hard and became the first member of his family to go to college.  And because he could walk now, he even lived on campus and managed to customize a car so it would accommodate his unusual body.

One day his mother was driving home and she saw his car parked in the parking lot of a bar near the college that was popular with the students.  “I saw that car, which you can always recognize, in the parking lot of a bar,” she said.  “And I thought to myself, ‘They’re six feet tall, he’s three feet tall. Two beers for them is four beers for him.'” She said, “I knew I couldn’t go in there and interrupt him, but I went home, and I left him eight messages on his cell phone.  And then I thought, if someone had said to me, when he was born, that my future worry would be that he’d go drinking and driving with his college buddies …” 

Solomon asked her, “What do you think you did that helped him to emerge as this charming, accomplished, wonderful person?” And she said, “What did I do? I loved him, that’s all. Clinton just always had that light in him. And his father and I were lucky enough to be the first to see it there.”

She loved him.  She loved him enough to not leave him at the hospital to die quietly.  She loved him enough to find the best doctor.  She loved him enough to make sure he was educated.  She loved him enough to see him as a person and not as a condition or an anomaly.  Love transformed him.

“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”  

Christ is with us and among us, always, waiting to see how we love each other and love the world…how we love him.

In Jesus’ name.


[1] Matthew 9:13, 12:7

[2] Galatians 5:14

[3] Romans 13.9

[4] James 2:8

Waiting

“The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.”– Frederick Buechner, Advent

Waiting.  It’s about waiting.  It’s about holding your breath as you pause for what’s coming.  It’s about remembering to breathe so you’re awake to see it arrive.  It’s about closing your eyes so you can hold on to the dream of what is possible, what might be.  It’s about opening your eyes to the beauty and pain and joy and sorrow and harshness and gentleness and passion and peace of everything that already is and everything about to unfold.  It is the excited pins and needles of anticipation.  It is the queasy uneasiness of suspense. Waiting.  We live in a season of waiting.

waiting“The thing I love most about Advent is the heartbreak. The utter and complete heartbreak.” –Jerusalem Jackson Greer; A Homemade Year: The Blessings of Cooking, Crafting, and Coming Together

Yearning.  Feel the yearning.  Let yourself fall into it for a moment.  Wallow in it for a moment.  Let it break your heart that the world is not yet made whole.  Let it break your heart that the promise is not fulfilled.  Let your eyes well with unshed tears for all the tears shed in this world. Stare hard at the reality that our species seems to be forever a painful work in progress. Feel the weighty disappointment of our failure to be what God made us to be and balance it on the sharp pinpoint of the promise we, all of us, feel—the promise of what we could be, the promise of what we’re supposed to be.  Let yourself feel that deep knowing that things are not now as they are intended to be. Let it break your heart.  Then understand that it is through the broken heart that God enters the world.  It is through the broken heart that the promise is revived.  It is through the broken heart that the vision of what should be moves forward toward what will be.  It is through today’s broken heart that we see tomorrow’s vision of the world God is calling us to build together.  It is the light aglow in the broken heart that illuminates the faces of those around us whose hearts are also breaking.  It is in the yearning of the broken heart that we find the Advent of Emmanuel, God With Us.

“Advent is the time of promise; it is not yet the time of fulfillment. We are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.…Space is still filled with the noise of destruction and annihilation, the shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, the weeping of despair and helplessness. But round about the horizon the eternal realities stand silent in their age-old longing. There shines on them already the first mild light of the radiant fulfillment to come. From afar sound the first notes as of pipes and voices, not yet discernable as a song or melody. It is all far off still, and only just announced and foretold. But it is happening, today.”–Alfred Delp; Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944

 Arriving.  But not yet.  Almost.  Get ready. It’s coming.  It’s arriving.  But we are still in the midst of everything and in the logical inexorability and relentlessness of destiny.  Keep moving toward the moment.  Keep moving toward the encounter.  Keep still in the not-yetness of it all.  Decorate. Decorate your house.  Decorate your heart.  Decorate your language.  Decorate your greetings, your symbols, your understanding.  Decorate your soul—from decoratusin the old poetic Latin that still connects our thoughts and words with those who decorated before us, who handed down their most important and enduring ornaments.  Decorare – the verb that tells us to adorn, to beautify, to embellish.  From decus—to make fit, to make proper so that we might be ready with decorum.  And yes, we need to decorate.  Yes, we need to fill the space around us, to fill our homes, our souls, our hearts with brighter things to see, more solid and enduring visions than the shadow parade of destruction and annihilation.  We need to fill our ears with more stirring melodies than shouts of self-assurance and arrogance, songs that lift the heart above the drone of lamentation, the weeping of despair and helplessness.  We need to keep moving toward the music and the light.  We need to lift our eyes to that first mild light of radiant fulfillment to come.  We need to fill our ears with the first notes of pipes and voices no matter how faint and far they may seem.  We need to hum and sing and play the old familiar songs that move our hearts to that softer, readier place where the True Song will be born.  We need to light the ancient candles one at a time to guide our steps down the corridor of waiting, the pathway of arrival.  We need to bring each flame to the heart until the soul is aglow with the depth of its meaning and power.  We need to reignite the flame of Hope to show us our way through the numbing fog of sameness.  We need to internalize the flame of Peace to quiet our anxieties and give us patience. We need to swallow whole the flame of Joy to whet our appetite for the feast to come.  We need to embody the flame of Love to warm us as we journey together, to show us again that we are walking arm in arm and our fates are intertwined, to illuminate the purpose of life, to lead us to the Light of the World.

“For outlandish creatures like us, on our way to a heart, a brain, and courage, Bethlehem is not the end of our journey but only the beginning – not home but the place through which we must pass if ever we are to reach home at last.”–Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat

 Arrive.  But understand in your arriving that even after the meaningful journey of Advent we don’t arrive at Christmas.  Christmas arrives to us.  The Gift comes to meet us on the road to take us to a place we could never attain on our own. We celebrate.  We ponder. We dance and revel in the laughing lights of Hope and Peace and Joy and Love that we carried with us, that brought us to this place.  We gaze amazed at the Gift before us, almost comically humble and plain, artlessly displayed and wiggling inside its wrappings, laid out on a bed of straw in a manger, and yet more artistically subtle, more beautiful and precious than the Magi gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  And if you take a moment to think about what this Gift really is, what this baby really means to the world and what this baby means to you, in particular, you may just hear the voice of Emmanuel saying, “Now the journey begins in earnest.  Be not afraid.  I am with you.”