Our Mothering God in a World On Fire

John 6:51-58; Luke 1:46-55; Proverbs 9:1-6

There’s a prayer I pray every Monday as I read the lectionary texts for the week:  “Lord, what is it that you want to say to these people in this time and this place through these texts?”  I hold that prayer in my mind and heart all week. And then I listen.

I listen to the life of the congregation.  I listen to the world.  I listen to theologians, commentators and scholars in the things I read.  I listen to my colleagues.  I listen to my own heart.  I listen for the Holy Spirit.  I learned a long time ago that God speaks to us in a multitude of ways as we walk through the world.  So I listen.

This week, we had a choice between two different sets of lectionary readings. In the texts for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost, the focus in the Gospel lesson was on Jesus saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”   But this Sunday is also a day set aside to remember and lift up Mary, the mother of Jesus.  As I bounced back and forth between the two different themes and the two different sets of texts I found things in both that tugged at me, things that opened doors to things we need to think about and talk about as a community and people of faith… and, frankly, as a nation and as a world.  But I didn’t feel a definite pull to go with one over the other.  

So I kept listening.

One of the problems that pastors face is that there is just so much going on in the world and in our churches that God has been calling us to address that it’s hard to know where to start.  As one of my colleagues said in a meeting this week, the world is on fire, and I don’t know where to start to put it out.  

The world is, quite literally, on fire.  And we, the human race, collectively, can’t seem to find the will to put out the fire that threatens to destroy us and all the rest of the earth along with us.  With droughts and fires and floods and hurricanes, the change in our climate has become so manifestly real that anyone who still denies it sounds like they’ve been living in an alternate reality.  We have the science.  We know what needs to be done.  But the changes we need to make are so substantial, pervasive and dramatic that we can’t find the will to make a meaningful start.  We know that we need to radically change the way we live, in ways that are going to involve each and every one of us.  No one can sit this one out.  The change that has to happen if our children and grandchildren are going to have half a chance of living in a habitable world are scary.  And expensive.  So we’ve been dragging our feet.  We’ve been rationalizing.  But we can’t afford to do that anymore.  The world is on fire.

Our relationships are on fire, too.  In our purple church, our purple nation, our purple world, we keep trying to find the middle path between red and blue, but there’s been so much friction from the two sides rubbing each other the wrong way that the middle ground has become scorched and unstable.  So many bridges have been burned.  And if you try to discuss that simple fact, the finger-pointing starts all over again and plans and hopes for new bridges are set ablaze before foundations can even be laid.  

Red and blue, black and white—these are the binary patterns we know, and any suggestion of a world that’s broader and more colorful, a world that doesn’t fit the patterns we’re used to living in, raises our hackles.  There are whole states in our country right now where politicians are working to make sure that teachers are not allowed to address the historical fact that within our nation’s history one race of people held another race of people captive and brutally enslaved them.  That’s a wound that our nation will never recover from if we can’t open it up and cleanse it.  But it’s too hard to talk about.  There’s too much guilt festering in it.  So even though that wound is on fire with infection, we can’t seem to find the will to do what it takes to heal us.  We can’t seem to find the will to simply speak truth to each other with grace and humility.

Fear has such a hold on us that we stand frozen even as our world is on fire.  Fear—it gets expressed in denial, and greed, and in an aggressive assertion of individualism, an assertion of so-called “rights” at the expense of our mutual responsibility.  

We have bought into the lie of limitation.  We have bought into the idea of scarcity.  We have been taught to look out for number one first and let others take care of themselves if they can.  And all of this is a profound contradiction of what Jesus taught.  

In his book A Gospel of Hope, Walter Brueggemann wrote, “We baptized people are the ones who have signed on for the Jesus story of abundance.  We are the ones who decided that this story is the true story, and the four great verbs—he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave—constitute the true story of our lives.  As a result, we recognized that scarcity is a lie, a story repeated endlessly in order to justify injustice in the community.”  

Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need.  But not for everyone’s greed.”

Jesus gives us a living example of how it can be different.  He calls us to take, to bless, to break and to give—to take responsibility and treasure the resources God has placed in our hands, to recognize the goodness that God has provided, to divide things fairly among those who need them, and to give, to share, in order to meet the needs of the world.  

When Jesus called himself the bread of life, he was inviting us to take his way of thinking, seeing, living and being in the world into ourselves.  To swallow him whole—all that he is and all that means—his way of doing life in all its fullness.  His language was graphic and shocking so we would pay attention.  “The bread that I give is my flesh for the life of the world…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life.”  For the life of the world.  He was telling us that he was all in, willing to pour out his life for the life of the world.  And he was inviting us all to be all in, too.

He didn’t talk about his “rights.”  He embraced a responsibility.  He didn’t complain about his discomfort.  He embraced the pain of a broken world and endured unspeakable torture in order to heal it.  He personally volunteered to show us in no uncertain terms that scarcity thinking—greed, fear and an insatiable hunger for control and power—lead inexorably to the innocent being crucified.  

When he called himself the bread of life, Jesus was also reminding us of the abundant generosity of God.  Jesus was reminding us of all the ways that God nurtures us and provides for us.  He was reminding us that everything that sustains us comes from God, that God is constantly mothering us.

On this day when we also remember Mary, the Mother of Jesus, it seems appropriate that we should stop and think about all the ways God has mothered us.  

Some people are uncomfortable thinking about God as our mother.  But the scriptures aren’t.  In Deuteronomy 32, God chides the people of Israel saying, “You forgot the God who gave your birth.”  In Isaiah 42, God compares Godself to a woman in labor.  In Isaiah 49 God is compared to a nursing mother.  In Isaiah 66, God says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”  

The scriptures describe God as a mother bear and a mother eagle.  Jesus likened himself to a mother hen protecting her chicks and told a parable in which God was like a woman looking for a lost coin.  

Some of the saints of the early church returned repeatedly to the image of God as a nursing mother.  Saint Augustine wrote, “When all is well with me, what am I but an infant suckling your milk and feeding on you?”  Ephrem of Syria wrote, “He has given suck — life to the universe.”  Teresa of Avila exclaimed, “Oh Life of my life!  Sustenance that sustains me!  For from those divine breasts where it seems God is always sustaining the soul there flows streams of milk bringing comfort to all the people….”  Mary, herself, in her Magnificat sang out, “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

In the late 3rd or early 4th century, a collection of hymns called the Odes to Solomon had this verse in it:  

“A cup of milk was offered to me

And I drank with sweetness of the Lord’s kindness.

The Son is the cup,

And he who was milked is the Father,

And she who milked him is the Holy Spirit.”

The world is on fire.  And one of the flames we need to extinguish is the domineering inferno of patriarchy that has needlessly silenced and oppressed half of humanity for far too long.  God long ago gave us the imagery to go another way and the colors we need to paint outside the frame of male domination in the church and in the world.

In our first reading this morning from Proverbs, we heard this:

“Wisdom has built her house…

She has sent out her servant girls, she calls

                  from the highest places in the town,

         “You that are simple, turn in here!”

                  To those without sense she says,

         “Come, eat of my bread

                  and drink of the wine I have mixed.

         Lay aside immaturity, and live,

                  and walk in the way of insight.”  –Proverbs 9:1-6

The world is on fire.  But God, our mothering father, our fathering mother, has given us the everything we need to put out the fire, to live with cooler heads and warmer hearts.  We have Jesus, the bread of life, who gives his life for the life of the world.  We have God, our mothering father, our fathering mother who gives us all good things to take, to bless, to break and to share.  We have the Holy Spirit who guides us with the voice of Wisdom:  “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Lay aside immaturity, and live.  And walk in the way of insight…”  for the life of the world. 

Faith and Politics

Matthew 22:15-22

The Pharisees went out and plotted how they could trap Jesus in what he said. 16 And they sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God in truth, and show deference to no one, for you are not swayed by appearances. 17 So tell us, what do you think? Is it proper to pay a tax to Caesar or not?” 18 But Jesus, perceiving their evil intent, said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used for the tax.” So they brought him a denarius. 20 And Jesus said to them, “Whose image is this, and whose inscription?” 21 They answered him, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, so they left him and went away.

Loaded questions.  Gotcha questions.  They’ve been a part of politics forever.  Remember when, as a candidate, Barack Obama was asked why he wasn’t wearing an American Flag pin in his lapel?  His response was that his patriotism ran deeper than a lapel pin.  That should have been the end of it, but, of course it wasn’t.   

Loaded questions are designed for entrapment and today’s gospel gives us one of the all-time great examples.  It’s a political question, designed to put Jesus on the spot.  The really fascinating thing about it is that two political factions that usually wanted nothing to do with each other came together to ask this question.  That’s how much they wanted Jesus out of the way.  That’s how much they wanted to discredit him.

“Is it proper to pay a tax to Caesar or not?” they ask.  The particular tax they’re asking about is the poll tax, a tax of one denarius per year levied on every adult man and woman in the empire.  This tax was relatively new when they asked Jesus this question.  It had been instituted by Tiberius not long before Jesus was born as part of his overall reform of Rome’s taxation system.  

The Herodians, who were big supporters of Rome and all it stood for, were all in favor of the tax as a way to help pay for what they saw as the many benefits of being part of the empire—decent roads, improved trade, aqueducts, general law and order, and so on.  The Pharisees, on the other hand, were not supporters of their Roman overlords and not at all happy about the tax that paid for these conquerors to dominate them and every aspect of their lives in their own homeland.  One of the things that they found particularly objectionable, though, was Roman money.  

Roman currency was not just a reminder that Rome had complete control of the economy, it was also propaganda.  The Roman denarius had on the obverse, the “heads” side, a portrait of the emperor, Tiberius, so every coin was a reminder of who was in charge.  On the reverse, the “tails” side, was a seated woman in the role of Pax, the goddess of peace, a reminder that Rome kept the peace.  

To devout Jews like the Pharisees, the portrait stamped on these coins was a kind of idolatry.  But worse than the portrait was the inscription on the coins: Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, Pontifex Maximus.  The coin proclaimed not only that the emperor was the son of a god, but also the high priest of the empire’s religions.  All of the empire’s religions.  Including theirs.

When the Pharisees and the Herodians team up to ask Jesus their loaded question, they think they have him trapped.  If he says, “No, it’s not right to pay this tax,” he’ll make the Pharisees and a lot of others in the crowd happy, but he’ll be guilty of sedition in Rome’s eyes and the Herodians won’t waste a minute bringing it to Pilate’s attention.  If he says, “Yes, it’s perfectly proper,” then he’ll give the Pharisees ammunition and disappoint the crowd; they’ll no longer regard him as a prophet and he’ll lose these last precious opportunities to teach them about the kin-dom of God.

What he does instead of falling into their binary yes or no trap is brilliant.  He asks to see the coin that’s used to pay the tax, and when they produce one for him he asks, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”  “Caesar’s,” they reply.  I imagine this was a tense moment.  I can imagine him holding that coin in his hand, evaluating the metal portrait in his palm for a long moment before he hands it back to them and says, “Then give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

When they heard this, the text says, they were astonished, so  they left him and went away.

On the face of it, it sounds simple.  On the face of it, it sounds like we can divide life into two compartments: on one side of the line are the things that belong to God, spiritual things, and on the other side of the line are secular things.

But wait a minute.  What really belongs to Caesar?  Does his own likeness?   Don’t we read in Genesis that we were created in the likeness of God?  So in that sense, isn’t Caesar’s own likeness something that, in the end, belongs to God?  Does the silver the coin that bears his picture belong to Caesar?  He may be in possession of it or exercise some control over its distribution, but isn’t God the one who brought both the silver and the man depicted into being?  Long after Caesar has been gathered to his ancestors, the silver will pass to other hands and only God will know where it is.  When all is said and done, doesn’t everything belong to God?

When I was a kid, we always sang a brief refrain as the offering was brought forward: “We give thee but thine own, whate’er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone, a trust, O Lord, from thee.”  It was a reminder that we don’t really own anything, that everything we have in our hands belongs to God and we are entrusted with it for a time.  

Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesars.  What is that, exactly?  What are those things, if everything really belongs to God?

Well, there are some things we owe to Caesar.   One thing we owe to Caesar is taxes, not just because it’s the civil law, but because as people of faith and followers of Christ it’s ethical to pay our fair share to support the civil contract we live under and from which we benefit.  We’re bound by an agreement to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and promote the general welfare.  That’s our civil contract with each other and God calls us to keep it in good faith.

Voting is another thing we owe Caesar.  It is one of our most important obligations in our  government of, by, and for the people.  Voting is supposed to be how we select those who will be stewards of our collective resources on our behalf.  It’s how we select people to make decisions on our behalf.  Our vote is the tool we wield to ensure that the burden of taxes is distributed more fairly.  Our vote is our shield to ensure that justice is maintained, that our laws are applied evenly and fairly, that no group is unfairly targeted by them or excluded from their protection. 

As people of faith and followers of Jesus, though, voting is also something we owe to God.  

As a follower of Jesus, when I prepare to cast my ballot, I have to ask myself bigger questions, deeper questions, than mere partisan questions.  I have to think beyond expediency.  I have to remind myself that political issues and economic issues are also theological issues.  My responses to political and economic issues reflect what I truly believe and impact the world more than my words.  

As a follower of Jesus I am beholden to a deeper loyalty than partisan loyalty.  As a follower of Jesus I am beholden to a deeper loyalty than patriotism.

So as a follower of Jesus, how do I render my vote unto Caesar without compromising what I owe to God?

In 2 Corinthians 5:20, St. Paul calls us Ambassadors for Christ’s reconciliation.  Doesn’t that include reconciliation of our racial divisions?  Doesn’t that mean we should be agents of establishing equity and bringing healing?  Is there a way for me to vote for that?  I there a candidate who is working for reconciliation?

In Genesis we read that we were created male and female in God’s image, equal before God in our creation.  Throughout the Bible we see repeated instances of women in leadership, but in our society we still see women denigrated all too often.  In Galatians St. Paul said There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  Isn’t misogyny a gospel issue for followers of Jesus?  Is there a way to vote that improves the status and protection of women?  Is there a candidate who has a better record in that area?

In both testaments of our scriptures we read that we are supposed to welcome strangers (Matt. 25) and that aliens in our land are supposed to be treated as citizens (Lev.19:33).  Is there a way to vote that moves more us in that direction?

The Pharisees and Herodians asked Jesus a politically loaded question.  Instead of giving an answer that would satisfy either party, he gave them an answer that required them to go back and think not only about his response, but also about what had motivated them to ask their question in the first place.  Their question was political and so was his answer, but not in a way they were expecting.  He made them take responsibility for their own stance and their own answers to their own question.

That’s what Jesus asks from us as his followers: to think about what our stance means, to think about what our faith means, to think about how it affects our vote, and to think about how our vote affects the rest of the world.  Jesus asks us to take responsibility.

Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner asked an interesting question in Sojourners magazine: How Would Jesus Vote?  In answer to her question she came up with

“Four Guidelines for Voting While Christian.

  1. PURPOSE: Jesus would begin by understanding his purpose.  Jesus began his ministry announcing his purpose saying, “He has sent me to change your life, God’s kingdom is here.”  Being God’s agent means placing priority on God’s higher spiritual kingdom or commandments than on natural earthly laws or human desires.
  2. POWER: Jesus would use his power to act on behalf of the vulnerable.
  3. PEACEMAKER: Jesus would be a bridge-builder and peacemaker between opposing sides on issues.  Jesus blessed peacemakers, and called his followers to be salt in a decaying earth, and light in a dark and divided world. He defined disciples and followers, saying, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” He taught that the greatest commandment is to love God and others as oneself.
  4. PRAYER: Jesus would pray before he voted.

Jesus prayed about everything. Before every challenge, like feeding the five thousand (Matthew 14:13); bringing the dead back to life (John 11:41, 42); before crucifixion (Matthew 26:42); and even on the cross experiencing a brutal execution, (Luke 23:34), Jesus prayed. The moral and spiritual transformation of America and the election of high-character leaders in every sphere of influence will be produced by prayer. Christ-followers should pray for the wisdom of God in choosing leaders and policies that reflect God’s values. Most of all they should pray for leaders on opposing sides, that they will follow God’s word in all decisions.”

This is a time for all of us to be in deep thought and deep prayer about what comes next.  With God’s help and with people following sensible guidelines, this pandemic will end, and then it will be time to rebuild.  We’ll need to rebuild our economy.  We’ll need to rebuild a good deal of infrastructure.  We’ll need to rebuild social structures and connections.  We’ll need to rebuild much of Christ’s church.  And all these things may emerge in a shape don’t yet know or understand.  We’ll need wise, thoughtful, and responsible people in positions of leadership.  We’ll need wise, thoughtful, and responsible laws and policies.  We’ll need the leading of the Spirit and the Grace of Christ.

Now is the time for us to trust that God has a vision for that rebuilding.  Now is the time to ask God to guide us in the first step of that rebuilding.  Now is the time to pray.  Now is the time to vote.

In Jesus’ name.

From Broken Heart to Blessing

Matthew 14:13-21

There is no shortage of horrible in the world.  There is disease and hunger, destruction and violence, accidents and natural disasters, greed, corruption, injustice, and just plain stupidity. Perhaps worst of all, there are people who feel a need to affirm their power by victimizing others.  There is no shortage of horrible.  There is no shortage of need.  Sometimes even when you try to get away from it all it seems to follow you.

Jesus had been moving from town to town, teaching in synagogues, teaching by the seashore, telling stories—parables–to help people understand what the kin-dom of heaven is like, to help them learn how to see it, and everywhere he went he ran smack into people’s needs and expectations.  He poured out his power healing people.  He was constantly challenged by the inflexible piety of the Pharisees.  He stretched his patience explaining things to obtuse disciples.  When he went to Nazareth, the town he grew up in, he was so walled in by the odd double-whammy of doubt and familiarity that he was unable to accomplish anything.  

And that’s when he learned that his cousin, his partner in ministry, John the Baptizer had been executed by Herod.  

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

Jesus needed to retreat from the horrible.  He needed a break to mend his broken heart.  So he told his disciples where to meet him then got in a boat and set off for some alone time.

Somehow the crowds found out where he was going and when he stepped ashore they were waiting there to meet him.  So much for alone time.

The text says that when he saw the crowd he had compassion on them and cured their sick. There’s both urgency and intimacy in the language here.  The word compassion, especially in the Greek, sounds as if his heart is spilling over with a mixture of anguish and love for all these people, as if he is reaching out his healing hands to touch them even before his boat has ground itself against the pebbles on the shore.  

And then suddenly it’s evening.  The disciples, expressing a practicality that feels more than a little anxious, see a problem.  We’re in the middle of nowhere.  It’s getting late.  Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy something to eat.  

Their suggestion sounds reasonable enough at first glance, but it raises a lot of questions.  Where, exactly, are these villages?  How far away?  Do these hypothetical villages have enough spare food that they could afford to sell some to a battalion of unexpected visitors who show up suddenly at the dark edge of dusk?  

For the disciples, the crowd is a problem.  It’s been a long day, people are getting hungry.  Hungry crowds are potentially dangerous.  Solution?  Send the crowd away.  The nameless, faceless, we-don’t-really-see-them crowd.  Send them away.  

And then Jesus says something that just stuns them:  There’s no need to send them away.  You give them something to eat.

But… but… but…  how are we supposed to do that?  All we have here are five loaves and two fish!  That’s our dinner!  

Jesus tells his disciples to bring him the five loaves and two fish.  He orders the crowds to sit down, which is as good as telling them to pipe down and pay attention, then he looks up to heaven and blesses the bread and the fish.

We’re not told exactly what Jesus prayed, but I like to think that maybe he prayed the traditional Hebrew blessings for bread and meat or fish.  These blessings are different from the mealtime prayers we usually pray.  Most of the time when we say a blessing over a meal, we are asking God to endow the meal with some special grace or benefit, or to bless us by way of the meal.  The Hebrew blessings, though, assume that the meal is already blessed by God, that it already a gift from God for our benefit, and so these mealtime blessings offer to God the blessing of praise.

This is the blessing for the bread: Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.  

For the fish: Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, at whose word all things came to be.

You know what happened next.  Jesus broke the bread and ordered the disciples to start handing out food.  Five loaves and two fish.  It couldn’t possibly be enough.  Yet somehow five thousand men plus women and children who had tagged along were fed, and twelve baskets of food were left over.  

I want to say right here and now that I believe it is entirely possible that when Jesus lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed something transformative happened to those loaves and fish that enabled them to somehow stretch to feed five thousand plus.  With God all things are possible.  Miracles can and do happen.

I also believe, however, that every bit as important as whatever may or may not have happened to the bread and fish, something transformative happened in the hearts of all those people sitting on the grass.   When they heard the voice of Jesus intone the blessing they all knew, they were reminded that all bread is a gift brought forth from the earth by God so that it may be broken and shared.  I suspect that when they heard “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, at whose word all things came to be” they were reminded that they were a people bound together with God and with each other in a relationship inherited from their forebears and passed on to their children in an ancient covenant of love and mutual protection.  They were transformed by the voice of Jesus praying the blessing they all knew.  They were reminded that they were bound by kinship in the kindom of heaven.  So now, that loaf that had been tucked up a sleeve and saved for the walk home, that loaf, too, was brought out and broken and shared.  The dried fish that had been wrapped in a cloth, stuffed in a pocket and saved for later, that, too was added to the feast.  Jesus had prayed the family prayer, so now this was a family meal and everything was brought out to be shared.

Transformation of the bread and fish or transformation of the people. One way or another, or maybe both, there were 12 baskets of leftovers.  Which, by the way, indicates that someone had brought baskets.

You give them something to eat.  When Jesus said that to the disciples all they could think of were all the reasons why it simply wasn’t possible.

We seem to have a built-in tendency to want to kick the can down the road when we are confronted with a situation that feels overwhelming.  We do it with healthcare.  We do it with food insufficiency.  We do it with homelessness.  We do it with systemic racism and injustice.  

There’s a universal hunger in the human soul to make the world a better place, a place where no child goes to bed hungry, a place where everyone has a roof over their head, a place where we truly have equality and equity and liberty and justice for all.  Too many of us, though, have been waiting for someone else to come fix everything.  We’ve been kicking the can down the road.

Well, we’ve run out of road.

Jesus says, “You feed them. You house them. You educate them. You build a more perfect union.”

And if you think the resources you have on hand aren’t enough to do the job, then look up to heaven, praise God for the goodness you do have in your hands and acknowledge where it came from, then start handing things out.  You might be amazed to find someone else has brought along baskets.

John Lewis, the great Civil Rights leader, Christian pastor, and  U.S. Congressman, didn’t have anything to give to the struggle for Civil Rights except for his body, his mind and his heart.  But he trusted that was enough.    

Lewis gave everything and suffered great abuse as he walked a path of nonviolence calling this country to live up to its own ideals, to continue becoming a more perfect union.  In his last hours, he took time to write a loving farewell to us all to encourage us to keep getting into “good trouble, necessary trouble” for the sake of what’s right.  

Toward the close of that letter, Lewis wrote,  “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way… So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

Sometimes it seems as if there is no shortage of horrible in the world.  But there is also no shortage of the goodness that sustains us if we will bless it and share it.  In Jesus’ name.