But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’  -Matthew 28: 5-7

There was a fair amount of angst in my circles, this week.  Something about having to preach a sermon to a larger crowd than usual had a lot of clergy more anxious about Sunday morning than they might usually have been.  The sermon this week had to be spectacular – something that would really speak to those whom we don’t see every week, something that would get them through until Christmas.  This week’s message had to be a homerun… and that’s enough to make anyone nervous.

But really?  We all know that’s silly.  No matter who is sitting in front of us, there’s only one sermon we should ever preach, and we should preach it all year.  For if we preachers are doing our jobs well, then we’ll simply say this, every Sunday, in different iterations: death has lost its power, and love prevails.

It’s the simplest sermon ever, and the most complicated.  Because the questions that this statement brings up are both simple and complicated; these questions of life and death that speak to us from the empty tomb.  And because, as it was noted at a recent church gathering, the whole idea of resurrection is huge and kind of scary… perhaps because death and life are also huge and kind of scary, so the eventual reversal of them becomes overwhelming to us.

Because the resurrection is more than “Jesus died so we get a ‘Get out of Death Free’ card”. If that were the case, our lives would have no meaning – we could be as crazy as we want, as selfish and hurtful as we want, for there would be no finality, no consequences.  Yet that is not how we are expected to live, even now.  We are still called to follow, to live as disciples.  We are called to be people of the resurrection, people who live in the promises of new life, here and now.  We are called to leave the graves we have constructed for ourselves, to roll the stones away and step into the light.

We are called to leave the grave of power, and of privilege, and of comfort, where we, like Romans, believe in power of force to change the world; were we, like religious authorities who manipulated the crucifixion into being, grant ourselves power to rule over others, and judge their actions.  To leave the closed-in space from which we can believe that we are better than those whom we might encounter: that we are right and they are wrong, without having to understand anyone else’s point of view.

We are called to leave grave of economic status, and to abandon both our love of money and the concurrent fear of never having enough: the let’s-leave-enough-aside-just-in-case attitude that keeps us not only from frivolity, but from doing the good that we might otherwise do.  We are called to abandon the reduction of everything to economic value; to be the ones who would not only allow, but welcome the anointing of Jesus, rather than resenting (as Judas did) the waste of costly ointment and the pouring out of a possible source of revenue.  Let us not be like Judas, who could measure even human life in monetary terms; let us not be those who are blind to less tangible returns on our investment: returns like equity, justice, opportunity, or life.

We are called to leave grave of anger and resentment; that place where we trap ourselves in an us-vs-them mindset, and where we perceive difference as akin to attack; where it is unthinkable to break bread with those whose fear might lead them to hurt us.  Rather, can we be people of the open table, willing to incorporate Christ? Can we be people who set aside anger; who can be gracious when attempts to understand and be supportive, are exhausting? and when those whom we have asked to watch, and to pray with us, fall asleep instead?  Can we, in the light of a new day, choose forgiveness of betrayal over resentment, and welcome those who abandoned us?

We are called to leave grave of fear; to set aside the fear of what others might say or think; of what might happen to us.  To abandon fears that keep us from speaking up, from doing what is right; the fears that keep us feeling alone, and that make us deny our best selves – that make us say, with Peter, “I don’t know him!”  Can we let go of the fears that keep us silent in the face of suffering and despair: distant from one another and from God?  We are called to abandon even the fears of our own suffering, for some discomfort on our part – refusing the pleasures of power and status, choosing to set aside fear and anger, being willing to dwell in the unknown, uncertain spaces outside our comfort zone – may have us praying “let this cup be taken”, indeed, but might bring us to the new understandings that permit the rest of that prayer: “not my will, but thine be done”.  We are called to uncurl ourselves from the confinement of fear, in order to open doors to new light; to roll away stones to new life.

Can we abandon these graves for the love and grace that we are offered this day?  The love that can walk us through the valley of the shadow of death, but by which we cannot be held there?  The love that no power, no money, no anger, no fear can kill?  The love – grace and forgiveness – that mark us as disciples and invite us out of the graves we are so adept at digging, and into new life?  Can we accept the love that reanimates us, reinvigorates us, so that we may follow anew the one who is love incarnate, into the resurrection that may seem huge and scary and overwhelming, but that is ours to choose?

Can we accept the forgiveness offered this morning: forgiveness of all that kept us back, during the bleak times of despair?  Can we accept the grace that invites us out of ourselves, into relationship with one another and with God?

For the tomb is broken open: death has lost its power over us and love prevails!

Christ is Risen! do not look for him in places of death: in those small, human graves we frequent.

Christ is Risen! and we by grace are called to share in the new life of the resurrection.

Christ is Risen! may we follow where he leads us: out of the death we would so often choose, and into the grace of new life.

Alleluia!

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’  -Matthew 26: 40-41

Were you there?

It seems an odd question, although it’s a hymn we often sing during the latter part of Holy Week.  It’s odd, because really, the whole point is that no one was there.  There is tremendous desolation in the way that  the synoptic gospels talk of these final days – there are no disciples present at cross, only soldiers and criminals.  Even before the actual crucifixion, the sense of loneliness is pervasive: the desertion of Christ by the disciples begins before Jesus was even alone, in the resentments of Judas, in the fears of Peter and the others.

Were you there?

It’s an odd question on another level, as well, of course: these things happened 2000 years ago.  Of course none of us were there.  But if we had been?  For us, to whom this story is familiar; for we who know ending: do we tend to say yes, knowing the grief of these days but also the triumph that is to come?  Are we tempted to say, yes, we’d have been there, right at the foot of the cross, bearing witness to the grief, the pain, the torture of crucifixion?

Perhaps we would, and there are some that do; some who are able to be present in such complete pain and loss.  We are certainly reminded this week of those people who run towards disaster – the people who ran towards the blasts at last year’s Boston Marathon, who disregarded the very palpable danger to themselves in order to care for the wounded.

Yet this month bears other reminders, as well: of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, 20 years ago, when no one was present.  Of the Earth, whose resources we are sacrificing at an astonishing rate despite the knowledge of the pain it is causing us all.  This month, we are reminded of all the times that we’ve turned away from suffering; when we’ve distanced ourselves from one another’s experiences.  We are reminded of those times when relationship has been sacrificed, love set aside; of the times that human life, and the commandment to love our neighbor, are trumped by quest for power – or or even just the ease of maintaining our own ideas, and the comfort of the status quo.  We are reminded, this month, of all the times we have been silent as Christ has been crucified again.

Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, blogged recently about her thoughts, approaching the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing:

This past Friday night at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on Warren Street in Roxbury, I joined about 100 people, mostly from Boston’s predominantly black neighborhoods to pray for all those who have suffered violence in the year since the Boston Marathon bombing.  We prayed hard. We sang fiercely. The collection was taken up to pay for the funeral for a young man in the neighborhood who had just been killed. A Mother asked, “Where is our One Fund? Why does his death mean less than any other death? What is my son’s life worth?”…

Jamarhl Crawford [a Boston journalist] speaks of the “regular violence,” a violence that becomes expected in “those places, to those people.” Part of what made the Marathon bombing so communally disruptive was that we don’t expect such violence on Boylston Street as we do on Bluehill Ave…

The Boston Marathon is and can be a potent symbol of our common life: As you stand alongside the route that leads into the city, spectators help cheer the runners along. You hold up your sign to be seen. That’s what I heard these families asking for: to be seen. They are asking to be seen in their grief, in their need, in their mourning and loss.

 Were you there? Are any of us?

It seems an odd question, but it is the right one.  Jesus calls us to a ministry of presence and of witness: of conscious, active presence – prayerful presence, if it keeps us awake and aware.  Of presence beyond ourselves, and our own needs and desires, whether they are for sleep, or for comfort, or for simplicity, or for the status quo.  Jesus calls us to a ministry in which we can we be present even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it demands something of us.  Can we be present, even when it takes us beyond our comfort zone and our known world: when it requires our  energy, our attention, our love?  Can we be present, even when that presence calls us to be in relationship with someone we may never know?  Can we bear witness to the suffering of this world, and through our witness, send God’s light, and God’s love to counter the despair?

Can we, by our presence – our acknowledgement, our voices lifted in prayer and support – show the suffering they are not alone?  that the one crucified in desolation, the one who prayed that lonely prayer in Gethsemane, is present in us?  Can we shine our light so that others see, and bear witness as well?

The ministry to which Christ calls us forces us to engage in self-reflection – to ask why we distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of this world, why we can turn aside from the brokenness that doesn’t directly affect us.  We are called to open our hearts: to engage in discernment, education, outreach, and love wherever we see Christ crucified, so that we may be, not Boston Strong, but Humanity Strong.  We are called to bear with one another, to be as present as the one who has borne our deepest pain, so that we might truly be made one Body in Christ.

We are called to presence, in the Gethsemanes of this life, so that when we are asked “were you there”, we might be able to say, “Yes we were.”

“A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” -Matthew 21: 8-9

This week, a friend blogged about something that’s really been frustrating him.  Shay is a priest and an activist, and for both aspects of his life has done a lot of study and reflection.  He has devoted a lot of his life to learning about theology, gender, sexuality, embodiment, and the intersections of all of these.  And he is always willing to talk to those who might be new to any of those subjects; to begin to teach, to recommend resources.  But he is not willing – or able! – to do it all of that work for someone else; to take all that he knows and just dump that information into someone else’s consciousness: as he reflects, “New understandings can’t just be handed to you. A one-hour conversation in a coffee shop or an email exchange won’t cut it. There are some things you can only understand by studying.”

You’ve got to do the work.

Sometimes I wonder how often Jesus thought something similar.  I wonder how often he wished his new interpretations, his unpacking of scriptures, would lead people to actually study the law and the prophets; to go deeper in their faith, to really enter relationship with God.

Today, we encounter Jesus entering Jerusalem for what he knows will be the last time.  For this is the moment when the gauntlet is thrown,  this mocking procession that so nearly mimics a warrior’s triumphal entry, according to the Psalms:

This is the gate of the Lord;
   the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
   and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
   it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
   O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
   and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
   up to the horns of the altar.   (Psalm 118)

In keeping with the Psalm – familiar enough to be recognizable to the people of Jerusalem! – Jesus is treated like royalty, like a savior, like a conquering hero – but what does that mean to the very people who are throwing down branches and cloaks?  What do they expect, as they see Jesus claiming the mantle, the authority of the Messiah, in the face of power?  This is Jesus as many have long hoped to see him, but for a far  different end result than most may be hoping for.  Expectation trumps all that they have heard from him over the course of his ministry; appearances in the moment speak louder than the most poignant sermon.  And so the people cry out: Hosanna! which means, Save us! Save us from the immediate problems we are facing – the occupation, the taxation, the struggle of daily life.  Hosanna, Son of David, be the savior for this generation.

I wonder how many of them were still following with shouts and palms after he reached the Temple?  For it was at the end of this procession that tables got turned and people got rebuked… how many were brought up short in their praise of the man who suddenly seems scornful of their religious practice?

How many stayed to hear his teaching in Jerusalem, which seems to take on a particular urgency in this week.  The audience will be large, for it is Jerusalem at the Passover: there are many who might hear.  But there is a deeper urgency, not just to be heard, but to get the people thinking enough, interested enough, to study and to follow: to go beyond immediate, to do the work, not for the Kingdom of Judea, but for the Kingdom of God.

This week especially, we are made aware, in the urgency, of the demands of discipleship.  The twelve are about to discover that the discomforts of three years spent tramping around Galilee, Samaria, Judea were nothing at all, compared with this week in Jerusalem.  We are made aware, in these days, that the triumphal entry of a humble King was not the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, but the beginning of the end, the beginning of the real demands of discipleship.  This week is the crucible in which discipleship is tested, in which we find out who had done the work, incorporated the lessons… And we watch, as one by one, Judas, Peter, James, John and the others disappeared from Jesus’ side, and even the women, Mary Magdalene among them, remain in the distance.  This is the week in which we are reminded of the cost: that we are called to bear witness to suffering, even at risk to ourselves.

It’s hard to talk about the cost of discipleship without evoking Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian and pastor.  After serving churches in Spain, Germany and England during the 1920s and 1930s, Bonhoeffer found himself teaching at Columbia  University at the start of the war.  I don’t think anyone would have blamed him for breathing a sigh of relief at his situation and continuing in his comfortable life in New York City, but that was not the discipleship that he knew himself called to.  And so he went back to Germany.  He went back into the Third Reich to found a Christian community – a community that would bear witness to the great suffering of all Germans during those years; that would serve as a bulwark of love against the pervasive hatred of the Nazi regime.  In Germany, Bonhoeffer could live out what his discipleship called him to do: to stand at the foot of the cross, as Body of Christ was crucified before his very eyes.  To leave comfort and security for community, relationship, and vulnerability.  He had done the work, had traced the path that lay ahead of him and prepared his heart.  He well knew the cost of discipleship (it would be the title of his most famous book), but knew as well the joy and the freedom that the cost made possible.

Did any of those waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna in Jerusalem have such understanding?  Those shouting Save us! so that we needn’t do the work, needn’t bear the cost ourselves.  Save us, as well as our comfort, our security, our familiar lives.  Hosanna! Save us! they cried, but how many would follow, to the point of salvation? To the point where love won?

How many would do the work, and put their prayers – Hosannas – into action?  How many would look beyond the immediate situation, beyond themselves?

How many would study, wondering at the warrior in humility, looking like an idiot on a donkey, and search for deeper meaning?

How many would study their own lives in this new lens of love and grace and humility, until they could stand at the foot of the cross and bear witness to the worst that humanity can inflict upon itself?  until they could forgive the cruelty, the mockery, again and again?

And we, who are also waving palm branches today? We, too, cry, Hosanna! Save us!  We, too are called to do the work: to follow, even to the unexpected places, to the unexpected results.  We, too, are called to a demanding discipleship; perhaps even more than the population of Jerusalem.  For we know the results of this week: the promises that only began with this procession.

Will we do the work, delve deeper into those promises, and learn their place in our own lives? Will we be disciples, accepting the cost, setting aside comfort and security to work for God’s kin-dom?  Will we work to ensure that the abundance of food that this creation provides will  feed all who need, without human judgment attached?  Will we work to ensure that adequate housing is not a privilege but a birthright?  to view the “other” – the imprisoned, the ill – as ours to care for rather than to shun and punish? to actively remember that we are not the owners but the stewards of this holy creation in which we live?

Will we do the work, and learn to speak the truth – of love, of grace, of justice, of equality – to power?

Will we do the work? will we pray, Hosanna! Save us!, and then put that prayer into action?

For we do have work to do.

Blessed, indeed, is the one who comes in the name of our God; the one who has blessed us and called us, not to the triumph of a King’s arrival, but to the humility and vulnerability of love beyond us; to the demands and the freedom of understanding, and choosing this path.  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God, and blessed are we, who set aside our palms, and follow.

“Thus says the Lord God; I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves…” – Ezekiel 37: 12

“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” -Romans 8:9

 

I have heard it said that Ezekiel is one of the hardest books in the Bible to read through, as modern people.  The imagery can be difficult, for those of us uncomfortable with mystery and ambiguity; today’s text is a good example.  An entire valley of dry bones, restored and renewed by means of prophecy – when even the idea of prophecy, the idea of having this direct, wordy exchange with God, seems to us almost inconceivable. This is one of those texts that seem to fit best in an historical context, removed from our realty.

In that historical context, it makes more sense, and the image seems more resonant when we remember that Ezekiel was speaking to a people in exile.  The Israelites have been shipped off to Babylon, by their captors from that empire.  These people who had understood themselves, for generations, to be God’s people, living in the land that God had prepared for them, worshiping in the Temple that was built to be God’s location on Earth, had been conquered – abandoned by the God in whose protection they had trusted. Worse still, their rebellion against the occupying forces had resulted in the destruction of the Temple and their removal from the Promised Land.  It was impossible to comprehend: was God not still with them, protecting them?  Was the covenant broken?  How could they be the people of God without the Temple, the very place where they could be in the presence of God?

The lament of this exile, this separation from God, is poignantly heard in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.  On the willows there we hung our harps.  For their our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (vv. 1-4)  Removal from the Promised Land, from Jerusalem and from the Temple was removal from God.  Separated from the source of life, any wonder they dried up and broke apart?

Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.

I wonder if it wasn’t at least a little bit easier for the Israelites, having some awareness of the cause of their exile and abandonment?  I wonder if it is easier to have clear source of grief, a discernible beginning for the descent into confusion and chaos?

I wonder, because we certainly don’t have that tangible starting point.

Walter Bruggeman, in a recent interview on the public radio show On Being, noted that the  most polarizing issues in church – this church, any church – are no more than façades for the real issues we face.  It’s not really about whether women should speak in church or be ordained; it’s not really about whether we should ordain or marry LGBT folk.  The real question behind all of these issues – behind any issue we argue, political, religious or social, using religious language – is impending chaos.  It’s the sense that “if we change this, will all hell break loose?”  If we begin to change, are we at the start of a long, slippery-slope descent into chaos?

Part of this sense is due to the rapidly changing culture of the 20th and early 21st centuries.  Technology is developing at such a rapid rate, launching us into a world that would have been totally incomprehensible in 1914, let alone 1900, and we have had nearly no time to process these changes. We’re still trying to find our footing on the shifting sands of the social landscape, and there is no end of the technological development in sight.

The other part – likely the more important one – is the culture of fear into which our consumer society has manipulated us so deftly.  The ubiquitous nature of news blurbs that talk about a horrifying situation, and end with the implication, or outright statement,  “it could happen to you!”  Even if it’s a one in a million chance; hey, it could, so you need to watch out.  Such rampant fear keeps us always alert, always afraid; it encourages us to produce constant low doses of adrenaline… and fourteen years of war should make us all very aware of the lingering effects of constant doses of adrenaline.

We are bombarded by this culture in which fear sells and anxiety is encouraged and safety is our most important good, until we believe in fear more than we believe in anything, and grace becomes the fairy tale we teach in Sunday School, but are too savvy to believe in ourselves.

Through fear, we are convinced that we live in a more dangerous time than did our parents or our grandparents – a conviction that those very people often share with us.  But it is not true.  There is no research at all to indicate that the odds of any one of us becoming a victim have increased, that we are not every bit as safe as we were fifty years ago.  There is, however, research to explain why we don’t feel as safe: we are saturated with a constant visual of violence and hostility.  The news has become more fear-based (once again, fear sells), and the prevalence of gritty, gory crime shows has increased… and there is a direct correlation between those who watch a lot of TV to a sense of fearfulness.*  The more TV we watch, the more we are inclined to believe that our neighborhoods are unsafe, the more we are sure crime rates are rising, and the more we believe ourselves to be likely victims of violence or crime.   There is also a correlation with the perceived need to own a gun.

Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.

Whether we’re talking about the Israelites or about us, the human reaction to fear is fight or flight.  But when fear is internalized, where do we flee?  We turn inward, becoming protective of ourselves and our inner circle – our closest friends, our family, perhaps our church.  It’s what we so often do now; it’s what the Israelites had actually already done, before the exile, during their long years of war and infighting before the Babylonians ever took an interest in them.  We see it in their abandonment of the hospitality and grace that had marked them as God’s people; the division of the Promised Land into two opposing Kingdoms, where even their fellow Israelites were not welcomed into Jerusalem.

Fear puts us in the flesh, as Paul would say: it traps us within ourselves so that we see to our own needs first.  We become suspicious of outsiders, seeking and creating difference and barriers to maintain security.  We break ourselves apart into fragments as brittle as dry bones, burying ourselves in graves of distrust, self-centeredness and fear, from which it is impossible to be people of the Gospel.

On about September 13, 2001, members of many New York City choruses were invited to stand on the steps of Lincoln Center to sing Mozart’s Requiem.  It was the best tribute that a bunch of musicians could come up with.  Organization, however, eluded us – no one brought a copy of the score – but we sang songs of peace and hope, songs that we all knew well enough.  We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem”: grant us peace, O God.  After a while, in the chaos of New York in those early days – in the chaos of Manhattan at rush hour – someone noted that there was a fire station around the corner, and that it would be nice if we went to sing there.  We got as close as we could, given the flowers and cards and outpourings of love and support, and found ourselves staring directly into the face of grief, vulnerable and helpless.  It seemed too hard, in that moment, to sing peace and grace to such raw devastation, and the  songs changed, from peaceful to patriotic.  And the mood changed, as we went from one fire station to another.  I watched as anger replaced grief, hate shut down hope.  I watched as these musicians, who had just been singing of peace, turned inward, becoming protective of those who had been lost, and feeling murderous towards those who had caused such pain.

There were not many bodies that came out of the September 11th attacks, but there were many graves dug in the days that followed, more just than the ones I witnessed among a bunch of musicians.  People dug deep in a quest to feel safe from this new threat made real; safe from the helplessness we felt when faced with such profound vulnerability, grief… and all those other painful, tender things we feel when we dare to love.

Paul, speaking to Romans, may as well be speaking to us.  We are not called to be a people of the flesh, inward looking and safe.  We are not people of the grave, we who are dry bones upon this earth, disconnected from one another.  We have become caught up in fear, clothing naked in a sanitized way, without actually having to see them; building prisons far from our communities, rendering the idea of visitation impractical and burdensome; blaming hungry and the homeless for their plight, granting them only the scraps from our heaping tables, begrudgingly given because we fear taking food out of the mouths of our nearest and dearest.  We bury ourselves in graves of suspicion and doubt, and only welcome stranger who looks like us – which sounds a lot more like hanging out with our friends, than it sounds like a Christian practice of hospitality.

We were created as people of the Spirit: people who remember that we have been infused by God from the very beginning of this creation, and over and over again, renewed and sustained by God’s very presence within us.  We remember that the breath that animates us binds not only the flesh to our bones, making us bodies, but binds us one to another, in one Body, and therby binds us to God and to life: a life we cannot live from the fearful little shelters to which we regularly flee.

We are called to abandon the graves we dig ourselves, feeling ourselves besieged and abandoned, where it is easy to forget that we, in our inward-turning, in our fear, are the ones doing the abandoning, living as we try to, in safety, confining ourselves to the known, certain, similar, and leaving no room in our fear for God to move.

God, who doesn’t play it safe.  God, who went to the cross.  God, who tells us to take up our own crosses.

God, who is hovering right outside our sheltering graves, calling us back, waiting to breathe life into our bones; waiting to call us out of ourselves and into community, out of individual desires and into systemic needs, out of fear and into love.

Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.

Because you, O God, have made us people of resurrection.  We have been made into one Body: the body of the one who showed us death doesn’t have last word, and can never have the last word.  We have been made as a people of incorporation, putting flesh on the bone, joining together in body and spirit, and trusting – trusting! – in God’s presence and guidance, even when it calls us out of safety.  Even when it calls us into the chaos of the new and unexpected, and the possibility of all hell breaking loose.  Even when it calls us into the uncertain, the untried, the exciting and scary realms of possibility.  Even when it calls us into Holy Mystery: that place where certainty dissolves in God’s presence.

We who have been scattered, brittle and broken, are renewed by the breath of God, and the the grace that calls us over and over from our fears, our “no’s”, our inward-turning into new life, again and again; the grace that calls us back to God, no matter how often we abandon our covenant, how far we flee or how deep we dig.  We are renewed by the grace that says yes, every time we would say no; that speaks love, every time we would live in death.

We are called to be people of the God of beginnings who can raise us from our graves – our nice, safe, certain hiding spaces; who can take us out of the flesh and into the spirit, and who can pour that spirit into our bodies and send us – fed, nourished, and united – out to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to welcome the stranger among us, all without counting the cost.

We are called by grace to love in a fearful world; to say Yes, to this culture’s prevailing No.

Mortal, can these bones live?  O God, you know we can.

 

 

*Bader-Saye, Scott: Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear.  Brazos Press, 2007.  p.15

“Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.’” -John 9:41

I’ve been catching up on my reading recently, trying to get through the stacks of books on my desk and beside my bed.  Among those, and certainly one of the most enjoyable, has been Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber.  It’s a memoir of her ministry, from one whose path was a little less… obvious, perhaps, than many.  The story she tells of her call is particularly poignant: after about 15 years of sobriety, she received a call about the death of an old friend.  They had met while both were doing stand up comedy; they had been in recovery – affectionately termed “the rowing team” for many years together.  But whereas she had married, had children, and gone back to college, he had contested with the roller coaster of mental illness, before finally taking his own life.  The call informing her of PJ’s death carried with it a request: that she officiate his memorial service:

My main qualification? I was the religious one.
The memorial service took place on a crisp fall day at the Comedy Works club in downtown Denver, with a full house. The alcoholic rowing team and the Denver comics, the comedy club staff and the academics: these were my people. Giving PJ’s eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.
It’s not that I felt pious and nurturing. It’s that there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. God, right there with the comics standing along the wall with crossed arms, as if their snarky remarks to each other would keep those embarrassing emotions away. God, right there climbing down the stage stairs after sharing a little too much about PJ being a “hot date”. God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.
I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of the antiheroes and people who don’t get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn’t help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. (p.7)

Among the brokenness of our lives. Among the marginalized.  And not only when we are there to bring God’s light.

That one is an old idea, a relic of our colonial past, so ingrained in us that we barely notice it’s presence: the idea that we bring light to the dark corners of the world.  On its surface, it’s one of those holdovers that still gives evangelism a bad name for us; yet even when it’s not about Jesus, we still often consider ourselves the “haves” – the knowledgeable, wealthy, powerful, “blessed” – and them the “have nots”, or even the “wants” – because who wouldn’t want what we have?  Certainly, the income disparity is there, and often it is important.  We give to those on the margins, via some very good and reputable causes.  We give to places where human corruption or natural disaster – or both – have caused tremendous suffering; we give so that the marginalized will not be hungry, will not be cold, will not feel forgotten… for a little while, anyway.

But it behooves us to remember: we give to where God is already.

Although sometimes the setting is so unfamiliar that we have trouble seeing; although we are often tempted to see ourselves as the light-bearers, the love-bearers in horrible situations, we are not God incarnate in these settings.  It is not entirely up to us: God’s light and God’s love are present whether we, the privileged, notice or not – whether we recognize it or not.  Our experience of God, through the often-necessary gifts that we give; this experience of God as moving from the privileged “middle” out to the margins, is not the only experience of God… nor, perhaps, even the most powerful experience of God in that moment.
Yet if we were to experience of God in the margins – to experience God in one who dwells on the edge of our society, our comfort… would that not make us question, like the Pharisees?  Would that not leave us uncertain, rattled, dismissive?

The blind man, in this story, lived his entire life on the margins.  The question that the disciples asked was not, actually, as mean-spirited as it seems; theirs was the common understanding of the day, that physical deformity was the result of sin, either of the parents or of the individual.  If the body was “imperfect”, it was the mark of embodied sin, rendering a person inherently unclean, ritually impure – and therefore marginalized, unfit for the society of the “perfect”.  He begs because it is his only option for survival, cast out from society, bearing sin in his body.

It’s odd though, in this story: it is not his healing that removes the question of sin from the equation.  The mixture of dust and spit that Jesus places on his eyes does not suck out his sin, for that had already happened.  The disciples asked Jesus, “Whose sin made him blind, his or his parents’?” Two choices, the two given by society and religious understandings.  Both of which were refused.  Of the two choices, Jesus picked a third, unbinding sin from the body, deformity from purity.  Before sight was restored, God’s presence was invoked in this marginal space, this “inappropriate” body.  God’s presence was invoked within the blind man – within the “imperfect”, within the “other”.  And when his eyes were opened, God’s light came pouring out from this man, casting into stark relief the social and religious ideas that had kept him out for so long.

For vision, in first century understanding, had nothing to do with sunlight being absorbed and reflected and bouncing into our eyes and onto our retinas.  Vision came from within us; reached out and understood the world and brought the information back.  Light came from within, demonstrating God’s presence.  Jesus’ answer, Jesus’ actions in this moment turn the whole notion of blindness on its head; for it is not merely that deformity is cured, but that light is kindled within the one who was dark; God is present in the one who had been abandoned.  The one who was in darkness is ablaze with radiance, there in the margins; and his light – his vision – slams full force into the solid, shadowed images of the law, and notions of purity; into the fiercely held beliefs about who God is and how God acts: ideas that block the light, and make people turn away in fear and confusion, finding it easier to follow in the ways of power and vanity – to see God in the middle, rather than the margins.

There is something still true in the notion of vision from within.  No matter what photons might reach our retina, we still see what we want to see, in any given situation.  Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, puts it this way: “Now much of modern science recognizes the very real coherence between the seer and what is seen or even can be seen. Wisdom seeing has always sought to change the seer first, and then knows that what is seen will largely take care of itself. It is almost that simple, and it is always that hard.” (p. 151)

We still see what we want to see.

What do we see, when we look for God? Where do we go, to find God? Is it God’s light, breaking in upon us, breaking us open to truths and experiences not our own?  What is at stake for us in our seeking, and perhaps in our finding?

What is at stake for us, as for the Pharisees, when God is at work in the blind beggar, right in front of our eyes? What is at stake for us whe God is at work in an itinerant preacher and his rag-tag group of fishermen, tax-collectors, women – the poor, the unclean, the marginalized?
What is at stake for us, to see God in an “unacceptable” body, at an “unacceptable” time?  What is at stake for us, to see God through the lens of brokenness, or in the body that we would consider inherently other?

What is at stake, when we dare to allow God to speak, not to those who dwell in the margins, but from those very people, in their voices and out of their experiences?

What is at stake when we allow ourselves to hear God speaking the truth of a heavily-tattooed, recovering alcoholic, female pastor? When we allow God to speak the truths of a black teen in a hoodie, just walking home from the store?  the truths of a gang member with blood on his hands, trying finally to turn his life around?  the truths of a mentally ill homeless woman, who seems from our perspective to be little more than a disruption to our nice, orderly lives?

What is at stake for us, to allow God to speak not of the margins, but from them?  And how will we respond?  Will we listen, and allow ourselves to be broken open to other experiences and understandings of God?  Or will the distance from our own experience cloud our belief, and dull our vision?  Will we, with the Pharisees, refuse to own that God might be bigger than the lens through which we are accustomed to seeing?

What is at stake for us when the blind see us clearly, and speak to our truths: to the uncomfortable truths that check our power or privilege;
to new and different understandings of God, embodied in ways we’re tempted to call sinful?  Except we, as progressive Christians, tend not to use that word… we prefer other, less religious ones that function in the same way; words like “defensive”; “hysterical”; “angry”; “bossy”. Words that we, like the Pharisees, use to dismiss others’ experiences of God.  Words that keep from having to see God in new ways; that keep God from stretching us; that allow us to stay in our comfortable, privileged notions of who God is, and how God works in this world.

Jesus isn’t much in this chapter of John’s Gospel.  In a lot of ways, that makes this a good story for us, later followers who don’t tend to have the direct, mud-in-our-eyes experiences of Jesus that dominate the Gospel narratives.  It is a story of what happens after we experience Jesus; after we experience God.  It is a story of what it is to be a Christian, speaking truth to power, even when our experiences are dismissed, and we are marginalized.  Yet it is also a cautionary tale for us: a story of what it is to be powerful, to be fearful of allowing God to break us out of our happy lives in the privileged middle, fearful of what God might say to us from the margins.

Yet worth noting: the story doesn’t end with fear and dismissal.  Jesus, unusually, comes back.  This is one of the rare times when we don’t have the one who was healed immediately following Jesus, or being left behind to who-knows-what-fate.  Jesus comes back, in the end, to the one who was healed and then rejected.  Jesus comes back for the one who experienced God, and light, and refused to conform to “acceptable standards” for such an experience; refuses to allow anyone else to dictate the terms of his faith.  Jesus comes back for the one willing to see, even if he doesn’t quite understand: the one who is not trying to make God in his image, but who allows himself to be remade in God’s.  Jesus comes back for the seer, remade in wisdom, with the clarity to see God in the margins:

In the broken.

In the cynics, and the alcoholics, and the queers.

In the despised, and the rejected, and the crucified.

Shall we let the blind lead the blind?  Shall we, finally, let the broken lead the broken?

Shall we allow God’s light to break us open – a process which can hurt! – to new truths that stretch us and our understanding of God? Shall we allow God’s light to shine upon us: to be light-receivers, our fears and privilege cast into stark relief before the ones we’ve cast aside?  Shall we, finally, hear and follow the voice that calls us to the margins, to the new life that might be possible if we are simply willing to leave our shadowy safety, and step into the light?

In the margins of our world, and in the margins of our own lives, God calls to us; remakes us in wisdom after God’s own image, until the blind become visionaries and the broken become the ones who have invited God in through the cracks.  Until the one who was rejected and killed brings us to new life, and calls us to follow.  For it is only in acknowledging out brokenness that we may be made whole; it is only from our blindness, that we might finally see.

[The Samaritan woman] said to the people, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” John 4:29

Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome in this place.

I say that every single week, at both services.  It is said by UCC pastors around this country; an intentional phrase of inclusion, a correction of the historic church exclusion that has harmed so many, and made so many wary of entering our worship spaces.  It is an intentional response to the judgment that so many churches practice.

It is not, however, a response to Christian exclusion.  For that has never existed.  This new, modern, liberal position is, in fact, none of those things, but is one of oldest tenets of our faith. Because our faith calls us to extend our ideas of who we count as neighbor, as worthy, as Godly, as recipients of grace. The extravagant welcome, the extravagant forgiveness that we work so hard to embody are not the products of modern Christianity, but ideas that Jesus himself espoused and practiced.

It seems like whenever Jesus wants to really drive this point home, the story would involve a Samaritan.  There’s the parable of the Good Samaritan, found in Luke’s Gospel, which has become so embedded in our culture that it has lost a great deal of its power.  And there is this story, of the Samaritan woman at the well, only mentioned here in John’s Gospel, and where we are more likely to remark upon the protagonist’s gender and sexual history than on her geographic origins.  But these are important; perhaps more important than anything else about her; for it is the fact that she is a Samaritan that makes her so totally “other”, so totally despised by the Jews.  Because you never fight with anyone so badly as with your own family.

The region that in Jesus’ time was called Samaria had been, before the Babylonian exile, the Kingdom of Israel – the northern half of King David’s realm, which had broken with Judah to the south and become its enemy.  The battles of these kingdoms are recorded in the historic books of the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 17), as was their eventual fall to the Assyrians and the Babylonians.  Still: Samaria and Judea had a shared history, through the lineage of David, and earlier, of Abraham: the well from which Jesus proposed to drink was the well of Jacob, Abraham’s grandson.  The Samaritans, too, were people of the covenant, with the same scriptures and the same commandments and many of the same practices as their neighbors – their cousins – to the south.  But to the Jews – Judeans – there were inexcusable differences in practice that rendered the Samaritans “impure” and “fallen”: notably here, that the center of their worship was Mt. Gerezim (in Samaria) rather than Jerusalem (in Judea).  The Judeans despised the Samaritans for having received the same revelations of God, the same covenant with God, and responding to it in a different manner.

So to have this woman, so very “other” from the average reader of – or listener to – John’s Gospel as the protagonist, let alone the intelligent, perceptive protagonist that this woman is… it would have been nothing short of mind-blowing.

But it would not have been an accident.

John’s Gospel was the last of the four to be written, around 120CE.  It is the only one in our Bible to include an innovation of written storytelling: a strong sense of narrative and structure.  Far more than just strings of parables and sea crossings over the course of three years, like the other (Synoptic) Gospels; John is intentional in its placement of stories and parables.  Today’s reading is a good example: the internal structure of John 4 contrasts Jesus’ conversation with the woman, and the results of that, with his conversation with the disciples.  To both, he talks about physical needs as metaphor for spiritual ones – hungers and thirsts have both superficial and larger meanings.  But this story is also placed in a larger context, and draws another contrast; this time with the character we met in the previous chapter, the Pharisee Nicodemus – the Jewish man rather than the Samaritan woman, who came to Jesus in midnight darkness rather than noonday sun.  John’s careful use of story and narrative not only gives explicit examples, but drives us towards an implicit understanding of God’s love and grace; God’s extravagant welcome.

So we find Jesus at noon at a well in Samaria, having left Judea because it was prudent, for the time being, for him to put some distance between himself and the authorities in Jerusalem.  And in his travels, he found himself in need of water; at a well but without a bucket.  It is one of the rare references to Jesus’ humanity in this Gospel, yet a good reason to situate this story at noon; an unusual time for anyone to visit a well and draw water.  Why the woman should come to draw at noon is the subject of speculation, but it seems prudent not to read too much into it.  Things happen that we couldn’t predict when we went to draw water in the early morning, not least of which is that God calls us and moves in us in unexpected ways.  Not to mention that the Gospel writer needed Jesus to be alone with the woman; to get no external clues about who she was or her history.

So: noon.  Not midnight, as with Nicodemus; for the woman, there were no shadows to hide in.  Nothing except the bright, clear light of the desert sun; nothing except clarity, and the vision that allowed Christ to see the woman entirely: to see the precariousness of her position as a woman in society, to see all she would have had to do to survive.  There was only the vision that allowed Christ to see the sharp intelligence, the quick grasp that this woman – so very “other – had of all that he was telling her.  And the clarity that allowed woman to ask shrewd questions in return, to examine what Jesus really meant by his offers of acceptance and grace.  She asked the questions that any might ask of us, when we assert that all are welcome here: what does that really mean?  “Am I allowed even if I don’t worship as you do? In Jerusalem?  Am I welcome even as a Samaritan?  even as a woman?  No, seriously, what’s the catch?  What conversion or change is required?”  The Samaritan woman stood before Jesus in the brilliant, shadowless light of the noonday sun; in the light that allowed her to stand vulnerable but unafraid before the one who could see her entirely, in the light that allowed her to see him clearly as well, and to name Jesus as prophet and Messiah, in the light that allowed there to be nothing hidden between them at all.

It takes courage, to achieve such clarity.  It takes courage to come to such intimacy as we usually reserve for few, if any, in our lives.  We, who turn away from bright lights, who shield our eyes and our hearts from the rawness and pain of human life; we, who protect ourselves in shadows; we are uncomfortable with that level of light, of vision, of clarity.  We are uncomfortable with the idea of being seen entirely, of being broken open, with all that we would rather hide made made suddenly visible.  We are afraid of having on display the fears, the insecurities, the desperations of our lives; of being vulnerable, especially to one whom we suspect despises and judges us (and whom do we not suspect of judgment and derision?)  And so we remain in shadow, fearful of being seen; fearful as well of seeing.

For what might it mean for us to see the fears and desires that drive someone else?  to see and understand the root of their hurts, their shame? What might it mean for us to see that none of us are really all that different, despite what we’d rather believe: despite the superficial, created differences of race, or class, or gender? Despite the equally superficial differences of politics, practices or beliefs?  Despite the all-too-human desire to be special, unique?

What might it mean to see ourselves in the mentally ill?  In the addict?  In the young woman on welfare, or the young man whose unemployment insurance has run out?

What might it mean to see ourselves in those whom we might otherwise judge so harshly?

Is it any wonder we prefer shadows, w what we might see in the light?

The problem is that we tend to think God prefers the shadows, too.  We, like Nicodemus, think we can find full understanding of the love that welcomes us so extravagantly, yet without having to see or be seen.  We hide our fears and our failings, as though we might be hiding them from God, as though these might be the deal-breaker that excludes us from love and grace.  We keep to the shadows because it enables us to continue believing what we would really prefer to believe, despite our fear: that there are those who are, in fact, not welcome, not worthy: a Fred Phelps, an Adam Lanza, a one who has gone so far from love as to be cut off from grace… as we fear we might be, if we were truly and clearly seen.

We, like the disciples, prefer to focus on the human, the mundane, the safe.  We concentrate on human hungers and human thirsts.  We dwell in the places where it’s comfortable to look, without too much light, lest it hurt our eyes and our hearts.  We hide ourselves in the the dappled shadows of otherness and difference – the human reassurance that “we” are not like “them”, but are worthy of love, and of acceptance, and of grace… if no one looks too close.

We talk fairly regularly about God’s light at work in this world, banishing the shadows that would hide us from one another.  It’s pretty frequent imagery for mainline churches, but we talk about it rather like we talk about the coming Kingdom, as a sorta-now-but-mostly-later thing; a let’s-look-for-signs rather than a let’s-help-it-arrive thing.  We rejoice in God’s Kingdom… as long as it doesn’t mess with our comfortable, happy lives.  We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t expose us too badly; as long as we can use it to banish other people’s shadows, over there, away from us, where we can’t actually see.

We look for God’s light, as long as it doesn’t make us see clearly that which we’d rather not see, as long as it doesn’t open our hearts to that which we’d prefer to not understand, as long as it doesn’t make us see ourselves in those whom we’d rather despise.

We pray for God’s light, as long as we can still seek Jesus from the shadows, like Nicodemus, as long as we can stay safe, and not actually risk ourselves in the process.

God’s light is in the world, and we throw up our hands to shield our eyes.  We create shadows in which to hide while urging the light to dispel other shadows, somewhere else.  We create shadows from which we can claim not to see, blinded as we are by the brightness beyond our reach.  And we survive on pale excuses for sustenance: busyness and diet and causes that fall within our comfort zone; we settle for being full, rather than nourished.

But the light is there – brighter than the desert sun at noonday.  The grace is still there, that knows us and still invites us out of the shadows.  The grace that invites all of us – our fears and insecurities and shame included.  The grace that invites all of us: humanity in all its varied forms, with its most basic, shared needs for food and water, unconditional love and extravagant welcome.  The grace that invites all of us: Fred Phelps and Mathew Shepherd; Adam Lanza and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; victims and offenders, the fearful and the…. fearful.

Grace invites us: all of us who fear that God’s love might actually have limits – because we don’t worship in Jerusalem; because we are Samaritans, we are “other”; because we have hurt one another; because we are broken, and fearful, and hurting.

Grace invites us, still, to live by God’s abundant love, to live in God’s extravagant welcome.   Grace invites us, even in our fear.

God’s light is in the world, and we need not hide, for what shadows can hide us from God?  What shadows can hide us from the one who knows everything we have ever done?  We have been seen entirely, and are beloved despite it all.

God’s light is in the world so that we might see one another, and be seen by one another… and in the clarity of that light, we might recognize God in our midst: even by the well at noon; even in the Samaritan woman; even in person who is so “other”, that we would far rather they simply burn in hell.

God’s light is in the world, in the hopes that we might stand within it, vulnerable and unafraid, to accept the living waters of grace; to nourish ourselves on the food that is light, and grace, and love spread throughout this creation.  God’s light is in the world, and we are welcomed by grace – whoever we are, and wherever we are on life’s journey.

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Genesis 12: 2

A colleague of mine recently offered up this prayer of her Lenten discipline, an unusually honest one: “Thy will be done, yes, of course, God.  But if you need tips on “thy will” just lemme know.  I have some ideas.”

Thus says a minister in Lent, but it is a reflection, I think, upon the way that we all often pray: speaking familiar words (thy will be done), thinking familiar thoughts, holding familiar people or images in our hearts.  Sometimes we make specific requests, we pray for a specific outcome – for healing, or resolution, or change.  But how often do we listen for the response?  How often do we allow our prayers to be a conversation with God, rather than a dictation of our own ideals?  How much more often are we inclined to offer our own ideas of “thy will”, and leave it at that?

Now certainly, God can make God’s own self heard quite nicely, when the need arises.  Ask any clergyperson you know, and the story of their being called to ministry is usually one of God breaking through sometimes-dense human resistance.  Psalm 29 talks about the voice of the Lord breaking the cedars, reminding us of the power that God can call upon as desired.  But mostly, it seems, from my own experience and the experience of scripture, God does not desire great displays of power.  God is neither a grand dictator, nor puppeteer of the universe.  The preference, throughout, seems to be for subtlety, on God’s part: making us use brains we were given, making us choose whether or not to listen to the promptings of the Spirit.  God chooses the subtlety of sending a baby, via an unwed, teenaged mother, to redeem the world; the subtlety of calling the fishy-smelling lowly to discipleship, and turning them into leaders; the subtlety of blessing.

Of course, blessing, in our time, has all the subtlety of a cast-iron frying pan.

Suddenly, you’re counting your blessings, aren’t you?  It doesn’t take much more than hearing the word, and it triggers us to start reflecting on our lives.  And I’ll wager that I can guess what your blessings are:

Your health.  Your nice warm homes, especially on cold, snowy mornings like this one.  The food you ate before coming here, the food you will eat later in this day.

But are these blessings?

Is good health a blessing, when millions in this country – let alone around the world! – are without insurance, or providers, or anything approaching adequate care?

Are our homes blessings, when millions are homeless or living precariously, hovering on the edge of eviction, or couch surfing?

Is the food that we so often take for granted a blessing, when millions are food-insecure, many of them right here in this community?

Are we counting blessings? or privileges?  And if these are blessings, what does it say about the God who bestows them upon us, but not upon everyone?

Here again, we would seem to be putting God in human vesture, listening to the voice of our comfort rather than to “thy will”.

I came across an article last week by Scott Dannemiller, that speaks to this beautifully:

I’ve noticed a trend among Christians, myself included, and it troubles me. Our rote response to material windfalls is to call ourselves blessed.  Like the “amen” at the end of a prayer.
     “This new car is such a blessing.”
     “Finally closed on the house.  Feeling blessed.”
     “Just got back from a mission trip.  Realizing how blessed we are here in this country.”
On the surface, the phrase seems harmless.  Faithful even.  Why wouldn’t I want to give God the glory for everything I have?  Isn’t that the right thing to do?
No.
First, when I say that my material fortune is the result of God’s blessing, it reduces The Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers.  I can’t help but draw parallels to how I handed out M&M’s to my own kids when they followed my directions and chose to poop in the toilet rather than in their pants.  Sure, God wants us to continually seek His will, and it’s for our own good.  But positive reinforcement?
God is not a behavioral psychologist.
Second, and more importantly, calling myself blessed because of material good fortune is just plain wrong.  For starters, it can be offensive to the hundreds of millions of Christians in the world who live on less than $10 per day.  You read that right.  Hundreds of millions who receive a single-digit dollar “blessing” per day.
The problem?  Nowhere in scripture are we promised worldly ease in return for our pledge of faith.  In fact, the most devout saints from the Bible usually died penniless, receiving a one-way ticket to prison or death by torture.
I’ll take door number three, please.
If we’re looking for the definition of blessing, Jesus spells it out clearly.
     Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him, 2and He began to teach
them, saying:
     3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
     4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
     5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
     6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled.
     7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy.
     8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
     9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God.
    10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
     11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5: 1-12)
I have a sneaking suspicion verses 12a 12b and 12c were omitted from the text.  That’s where the disciples responded by saying,
     12a Waitest thou for one second , Lord.  What about “blessed art thou comfortable”, or  12b “blessed art thou which havest good jobs, a modest house in the suburbs, and a yearly vacation to the Florida Gulf Coast?”
     12c And Jesus said unto them, “Apologies, my brothers, but those did not maketh the cut.”

Who is this God to whom we pray?  Is God the bestower of comfort?  of privilege?  or of blessing?

Abram may well have asked that; I know that we would, in his place.

Abram’s father, Terah, had been called from city – Ur of the Chaldeans – to God’s land, but stopped at a likely looking spot along the way.  He stopped in a place where there was evidence that a good life could be built – land and water in enough supply to keep him, his family, and his livestock.  Terah did not venture further, but lived his remaining years comfortably.  But God, in one of those less-subtle, frying-pan moments, called again, this time to Abram.  Now, the bible doesn’t record Abram’s response, but I’ll have a go at what it might have sounded like:

“Are you crazy?  I’m 75!  No kids to help but my nephew, and you want me in the hinterlands?  And you call this a blessing?

Isn’t that what we might say?  In Abram’s place, what would we do with such a pronouncement?  How would we receive this directive, with no reassurance except that we’d be a blessing to others?  What would we do?

What have we done?

God didn’t puppeteer, in this instance; didn’t reach down and frog-march Abram off into the land that God has designated.  God called, and Abram chose what his father hadn’t.  And Abram was blessed.

God blessed Abram: God opened the door to possibility, of being a great nation, of an increased blessing over the course of generations.  And Abram chose to walk through the door.

Do we?  Do we accept the open doors, the opportunities of discipleship?  Do we accept the promise of presence and increased blessing; of increased opportunity?  Do we accept to open doors ourselves, to make ways for others?  Or do we say “thy will and here’s how!”

We are blessed, each time we hear a need and think, “someone should do something about that.”  And a door opens.

We are blessed each time we are invited to witness pain and vulnerability in others, or invite someone to witness ours; each time we are able to take a stand for our faith, even if it invites ridicule; each time an opportunity arises, and a door opens, and we may choose, or not, to be blessed, and to bless others.

We are blessed, if we can hear God’s call; if we can hear the still, small voice speaking amid the words of our own prayers.  We are blessed if we can stop making suggestions and start taking them.

We are blessed even if we, like Abram, don’t really understand in the moment what it is that we are being called to do.  Even if we don’t know where the open door will lead, but we choose to trust, to walk through the door, to take the first step.

We are blessed, not because of what we have, but because of what we might do.  Because we are called, invited by God to the opportunities of discipleship and servanthood; to the presence of the swirling Spirit and the love that conquers death.

In Lent, we are called to be more present to God’s presence in the world: to empty ourselves of distractions – our suggestions to God – and allow room for God to move and speak.  To pray familiar prayers, and then listen for a response; to see God’s movement in human hands, and human voices, and human actions; to count our blessings, not in things but in actions.  We are to count our call, our opportunities to show God’s love in this world: the opportunities to bring God’s kingdom, to bring the promise of new life; the opportunities to be blessed, and to be a blessing to others.

God called Abram, at the age of  75, into the wilderness, with just the promise of blessing.

And Abram said yes.

May we be so blessed: may we be such a blessing.

Thy will be done, O God.

“[Eve] took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.  Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” Genesis 3: 6a-7

“Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”‘ ”  Matthew 4: 5-6

It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it?  The thing Adam and Eve did with their amazing new knowledge was to make clothes, and cover themselves.  They were alone in the garden; they’d already seen each other naked, yet suddenly it became imperative that they be clothed.  They didn’t look around them at the complex splendors of the Garden and the intricate creation that God had wrought – they scrambled for cover.

Shame is cultural, as I think we recognize pretty generally.  Shame around nakedness is also cultural – spending just a few minutes looking at National Geographic should be enough to remind us of that, as it has reminded generations of ten-year-olds.  The need to be clothed is a learned behavior: small children readily strip off their clothes in the summer, or around the house, regardless of who might we watching.  And so this immediate need that Adam and Eve felt to cover themselves, speaks not to some inherent element of the human condition, but to the culture that told these narratives and wrote them down.

Because, of course, Adam and Eve did not write Genesis.  As with all Biblical narrative, these stories began as oral traditions – stories told to make sense of the world and our place in it.  These stories, as they were handed down, shifted and developed according  to the understandings of the cultures in which they were being told: the language was updated, the examples adjusted to speak to the current generation.  Only when the stories were finally written down did their evolution slow, and even then changes get made – Disney’s retelling and updating of stories like “Rapunzel” (in the recent movie, “Tangled”) being a good example.  Our ways of telling stories, the words we choose to heighten the tension or illustrate emotional content speak far more clearly to the needs and concerns of the listeners, than to the stories’ characters, inevitably.

And this story from Genesis is no exception.  The culture that finally codified the story, in roughly the form in which we read it today, came from a culture that used clothing as a marker: to distinguish between themselves and other cultures, to differentiate the rungs of the cultural and social ladder.  This was a culture that viewed others, who wore less clothing, as less-than, uncivilized, unGodly.  For these people, clothes showed status, and the mark of a person’s God-like-ness.

For that is the real temptation, always.  It was the real temptation underlying the serpent’s cunning words to Adam and Eve.  It was the real temptation that the devil offered Jesus: the temptation to be God-like.  These stories are not about making a fig-leaf fashion statement; not about being knowledgeable for the sake of of knowledge per se: but about being powerful for the sake of power alone: powerful in a way that humans never can be.

There is something to the parenting metaphor that we often use for God.  No matter what the language – Father and Mother have both been used, not just by our generation but back into antiquity – there are times when the metaphor just works well.  Not just because I can totally see God, in next scene, looking at Adam and Eve in their new clothes and saying, “I knew it was too quiet around here…” But because God, in this story, is dealing with something that many parents hear and deal with in their own children.  Because most children say, at some point,  “I wish I was grown up!”  Most children see, and envy, the privileges, the freedom, the ability to set rules that adults often enjoy, and even take for granted.  Children see freedom of movement, of bedtime, of TV watching… without seeing the responsibilities, the constraints of adulthood.  And they want what they see – didn’t we, as children?  And if there had been a piece of fruit that offered us all that we saw, and wanted, and dreamed about… wouldn’t any of us have eaten it?

Wouldn’t we still?   Wouldn’t we eat the fruit that would make us as important as we want to be?

Wouldn’t we throw ourselves from the peak, just for the joy of being seen, by all of Jerusalem, as the one who was important enough to be caught by angels?  Would we refuse such symbols of power and status: the clothes, the objects, that prove us to be more civilized, more important… more God-like?

More God-like?

What would God wear?  Fig leaves? LL Bean? Brooks Brothers?

Or more to the point: how would we dress God, in human vesture and after our own image?

That is the temptation that faced humans in Eden, that faced the human Jesus, that faces us all today; in the cunning of external forces, and the whispers of our own doubts and fears: temptation to reduce God to our level.  The temptation to make reduce God to the testable, the sensible; the puppeteer and controller of our lives.  To make God into the one who blesses us with human status, power, and wealth; into one who lives and judges by human values.

It is the temptation to believe that God is present when we succeed and against us when we fail; the temptation to believe that God – that love – might be present when we assuage our own hungers before seeing to the needs of others.

It is the temptation to put individual importance before community, to be the one the angels catch, rather than the angel who catches the poor soul in free fall.

It is the temptation to think that knowledge means wisdom, and makes us like Gods ourselves.

What would it look like if this story had been transmitted orally all the way to us, adapting to suit values of each generation – including, ultimately, this one? what would Adam and Eve have done with their newfound knowledge, what would they have made to show their new status?  What symbol of our civilization would we give them to make the listener understand that that fruit had made them God-like?

In what do we put our faith, we humans?  What is it that makes us, even now, children of Eden, rather than disciples of Christ, unable to resist the promise of the unattainable?

What tempts us, even today?  And what is our response?

“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain… Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.”  -Exodus 24: 15a, 17

“Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun…”  -Matthew 17: 1-2a

It seems, in the past few years, that whenever I bump into a friend or acquaintance and ask how they are, the answer is no longer some variant of “fine, thank you” (the old, polite, brush-aside response); rather, I often hear, “okay, but I’m so busy!” Which, interestingly, does not accompany a tone of despair, or fatigue – any of the reactions to busyness that one might expect – but always sounds vaguely proud and satisfied.  There is a moral value that we appear to have added, in recent years, to busyness: action has become somehow virtuous, in and of itself.  Busyness means that we are important, perhaps indispensable.  Busyness means that we are not, in political parlance, idle moochers, living off the busyness (goodness) of others.

But if busyness is good, what is the full implication?  Do we still believe, with our grandmothers, that idle hands are the devil’s workshop?  Has our Protestant work ethic come so far that we would condemn those who are not busy to the point of exhaustion, and proud of their inability to say “no”?

The virtue of busyness skews our priorities, to the point where we strive so hard simply to keep busy that when down time does arrive, we fidget.  We wonder what is wrong, as we struggle against the discomfort of stillness and silence.  Technology has not brought this moral value into being, but has solidified it, as we are presented with a means of keeping busy that can easily be carried in pocket or purse.  We need never be alone; our work, our social communities, even vast libraries of books, are available at our fingertips 24/7.

When the busyness does begin to weigh; when we begin to feel overwhelmed, we break our routines without breaking the grip that “doing” has upon us.  We all know people who have taken vacation time to work to “catch up” on everything else – which, other than not having to get showered or dressed, hardly sounds like a vacation.  When we do actually get away – to “recharge our batteries” – we fill our vacations with things to see and read and do… and often neglect to turn off the notifications on our phones.  Looking at someone’s vacation pictures on Facebook can be exhausting; it’s no wonder that we’re all so familiar with the phrase, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation!”

When busyness is virtuous in and of itself, and separate from the possible virtue of the actual actions accomplished, then all that productivity stops having much meaning.  The tasks that we assign ourselves simply to stay in motion become burdensome; filled as we are with actions and goals and appearances and anxiety, we often feel hollow… and so we find other chores, other actions, that ensure that we continue to be busy for the sake simply of being busy… busy enough not to wonder why we are not fulfilled.

I wonder if that’s how Peter felt.  After all, there must have been a lot to do, as a disciple: beyond just having to keep up, theologically, because you never really knew when Jesus was going to throw a pop quiz, and you had to be ready to understand parables and ask wise questions that showed you were worthy of discipleship after all.  There were also all the Human Resources questions that come up when a prophet, twelve disciples, their families, and a bunch of hangers-on are all tramping around the Galilean and Judean countryside for three or so years.  There are details to arrange – where is everyone going to sleep? What is everyone going to eat?  It’s all well and good to feed five thousand on a hillside, but that doesn’t really help in the day-to-day of several dozen people! And with that many, traveling together for so long, there are always disputes to be settled at some point during the day.  And poor Peter, trying his hardest, finds that every time he turns around, there went Jesus, going off by himself again.  It must have been enough to drive one to distraction.

I wonder what lists, what details, were going through Peter’s head that day, as this small group headed off for a hike up a mountain? What problems was he earnestly trying to discuss with Jesus? Finally getting Jesus nearly to himself, was he talking as fast as the strenuous hike permitted, when this moment of dazzling brilliance broke in?

It is a hard thing to disengage from all of the doing that keeps us busy, and to just be.  Several years ago, my family and I were out running errands, when we looked up to see one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever witnessed.  The bring-you-to-a-full-stop-in-a-busy-parking-lot kind – very nearly a bring-you-to-your-knees kind.  We all stared for a long moment, but then, rather than just being in that moment, I reached into my pocket for my cell phone and clicked on the camera.  Instead of stopping, and just watching this amazing sunset, I fiddled with white balance and lighting settings… finally getting a bad picture of the very end of the sunset, that I deleted almost immediately as worthless.  In the attempt to capture the moment – to be busy and stay in motion – I had missed it all.

It’s hard to stop.  Caught up in details, in life, filled as we are with worry, busyness; things we’re running towards or things we’re running from, we leave no room for light – of sunsets or fiery mountaintops or dazzling radiance.  We fill our lives so full of busyness and details that there are no spaces left; no cracks where God might enter and break us open.  When light does appear in our lives – when God’s presence is so palpably obvious that we are stopped in our tracks, we take those moments and try to capture them, in cameras or in dwellings, rather than simply experiencing them.  We prioritize motion over being; the human virtue of busyness over the experience of God’s abundance.  When we are at a place where the dazzling radiance gets pushed aside, God’s daily presence in our mundane lives goes totally unnoticed.

We talked in Bible study  this week about what is needed for us to experience moments of transcendence – of God’s palpable presence in our lives.  The general consensus was that solitude is required, and certainly Moses and Jesus were both emblematic in their solitary tendencies.  But neither of these moments, from today’s scripture, is an entirely solitary experience.  The Israelites could see the glory of the fiery, cloud-shrouded mountain.  Jesus had the disciples with him – for once, he had not sought to leave them behind.  So while for both Moses and Jesus, their general comfort with solitude might have helped them to stop, to simply be, and experience the divine presence, these moments are as much their ability to let go.  To let a trusted brother, or colleague, or friend, run things for a bit.  To stop worrying, like Peter, about the details, or the protocol, or the right theology.  To set aside the things with which we fill ourselves, so God can fill us, even if that means we’ll have to break old rhythms, or change our priorities and our values; even if it means that we’ll need to empty ourselves, so we may be filled anew.

I read a wonderful blog entry recently – a Christian blogger who was reflecting on fasting.  And although her scripture was not what we are looking at today, her reflections are quite relevant, as she cites Matthew 9: “neither do people put new wine in old wineskins, if they do, the skin will burst, the wine will run out, and the wineskin be ruined.” (Mt. 9: 16-17)  She continues, saying:

“When I get swept up in my busy life – to distracted to get nourished properly from the Word, too intent on achieving my goal, even if it means that I get lost in the process – I become an old wineskin.  I become that crinkled and cracked thing that can no longer hold new wine (new words, new ideas, new life) without spilling it all over the floor and wasting it.

“When I fast, I empty myself of the old wine. I shed a skin that can no longer perform its function of holding the new wine, and I take on the new skin that has been given to me – something capable of holding new wine, and all that is good.”

There is a reason that the lectionary exists, and it is not just to make lazy pastors like myself preach the hard texts, as well as the easy ones.  There is a reason that the lectionary puts this transfiguration text in on the Sunday before Lent.  We need this reminder of the power of God to break in and transform us… as well as the ease with which we, like Peter, set aside transformative presence, in the quest for action, or importance, or appearances, or simply out of habit.  These are values, these are habits that we have a few weeks to try and shake, before we have the chance to be made new once again.  These are the human values and the old habits that we must shed so that we may receive the new wine of new life, the light of a new day.  We have a few weeks to empty ourselves of all that is crowding God out: to become aware of all that fills us without nourishing us: the things that fill our time, our hearts; that bring us momentary comfort or fleeting pleasure, but leave us feeling hollow.  The things that speed us up, so that we are unable to stop and simply be present with God, that keep us clinging to the old wine, fearful of being made new.

For that new life is possible, even now; if we can let go of our self-importance, as Moses did, and leave trustworthy ppl in charge. If we can let go of the details, of the busyness, and trust in God’s abundance.  If we can stop ourselves entirely, to see the dazzling glory of God in light, and beauty of this creation.  If we can stop entirely when God shines brightly enough to stop us in our tracks.  If we can stop, even in the midst of our routines, to see the presence that is always with us, even in muted, wintry, morning light; even in familiar surroundings, and familiar faces.

New life is possible wherever God is present, if we just make room.

“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” -Leviticus 19:18a

“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, do not resist and evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” -Matthew 5: 38-41

Recently, my local clergy bible study looked at an article about the struggles of liberal theology.  That mainline Protestant churches are often in decline is, by now, an old idea – old enough to have become embedded in our day to day life, a latent anxiety that informs our worship, our mission, our pastoring.  The causes will be debated for at least the rest of my life; the responses (in the form of new worship styles, liturgies, and ways of being church) will continue to grow and develop.  But the point that the author of this article made is one that will haunt both traditional and emergent churches that espouse a liberal, non-static theology:

It’s exhausting.

It is, as we have many times noted, far easier to see the world in black and white.  Theologically conservative churches, as a rule, tend to see the world and the bible in those terms: saved or not, worthy or not, us or them.  They hand their members a set of very clear guidelines, a certainty about life’s meaning and God’s will in the world that is very compelling.  Human beings like rules.  We like certainty.  We like things to be neat, and orderly, and fit into easily-classified categories.

Liberal theology gives us none of that.  Rather, it requires a constant process of thinking, and evaluating.  It requires us to engage with the text, to be self-critical, to be open to growth and change and uncertainty.  And that is hard.  It really is no wonder that churches that embrace such theology don’t see the membership numbers that conservative congregations do – who wants to work that hard on a Sunday morning?

The thing is, I’m not sure that there’s another valid option.

Jesus, throughout his ministry, was constantly urging the people around him to think.  The disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds that turned out to hear his preaching: he implored them all not to follow blindly.  In many ways, he was engaged in the same conversation that we are, between those who say, “Well, Scripture says…”  Jesus, like many liberal Christians of today, asked in return, “But what is God saying?” (“God is still speaking” is far older than the United Church of Christ, it seems.)  In asking this question, Jesus is not changing the scriptures, or picking selectively at them – nor, indeed, are the theologically liberal of the 21st century.

God, knowing us intimately and understanding our love of certainty, gave us rules to live by, early on in our history.  The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, notably, are chock full of “you shall” and “you shall not”.  These were rules to bind a community into relationship with one another, and thereby into relationship with God.  Leave some of your harvest for the poor and immigrant.  Be honest in all your dealings.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  Yet I have a distinct feeling that Moses hadn’t even had time to draw breath after saying any of this before someone in the crowd muttered, “but what do you really mean by that?”

We love rules, but we love loopholes just as much.  We love the security of boundaries almost as much as we love pushing back against that very security.  We follow the letter of the law, most of the time, but often we do it begrudgingly.  We leave the gleanings of our harvest because we’re supposed to – it’s the rule! – rather than out of concern for those for whom that might be the only source of food.  We treat rules (and scripture) as an onerous burden, rather than as a conversation with God, and a chance to be in relationship.

To be in conversation with God – to be in relationship with God – requires something of us.  It requires us to engage, to be self-critical, to be open to growth and change and uncertainty… it requires that we leave behind old understandings, that we be willing to disagree with friends and family, perhaps even with our churches.  It requires us, sometimes, to be unpopular.  Above all, it requires us to think, as Jesus continually pushed us to do.  “You have heard it said…” but that is not enough.  What are you hearing now?  What stirs in your heart and your mind?  Think!  Think, and love.  Love your neighbor as yourself; recognize your shared humanity in every interaction, in every circumstance, wherever rain falls upon us.

Love your neighbor as you love yourself.  A scripture from both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, a good place to start our thinking.  For this is a text that we, in the Western church, often read from a position of great privilege.  We who have, for the most part, not lived under wartime occupation.  We, who have not been entirely dependent upon the kindness of others, but have lived in societies with social safety nets.  We have not been indentured into servitude, or been in danger of it.  We have never been entirely without legal recourse, or status.  And so the natural way for us to read the injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves is to see it as a reminder of how to treat others.

But there are two sides to every coin, and many of Jesus’ listeners were not on our side.  These were not the privileged, but the abused, the occupied, the ones familiar with violence, servitude.  These were the people who had been consistently dehumanized; the ones for whom love of self – let alone love of neighbor! – was nearly impossible.  Certainly, there were privileged people listening as well – there were always Pharisees about when Jesus spoke – but these verses from the Sermon on the Mount are quite clearly destined for one particular audience.

“You have heard it said, ‘an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you…” turn the other cheek.  Give your cloak as well.  Go the extra mile.

It sounds like doormat theology.  It doesn’t sound loving at all, but masochistic, or possibly passive-aggressive.  But that is our 21st Century cultural perspective talking.  Jesus’ words urged his hearers – the despised and unworthy of 1st Century Palestine – to assert their own humanity, their right to be loved.

“If someone strikes you on the right cheek…” consider that for a moment.  The easiest way to strike someone’s right cheek is with the left hand.  But that was taboo in Jesus’ culture – as, indeed, it still is in parts of the Middle East, where the left hand is considered unclean.  To use it to strike anyone – no matter their social status! – was entirely unthinkable.  And impractical: in a culture that forbids the use of the left hand, it’s bound to be the weaker hand.  If you’re going to bother hitting someone, wouldn’t you use your stronger hand?

But it is very hard to land a punch from the right hand onto someone else’s right cheek.  To strike another’s right cheek with your right hand requires you to backhand them across the face – a blow that, in 1st Century Palestine, signified lesser status.  To backhand someone showed that they were not worthy of your touch.  It was a blow reserved for the despised, the less-than.  So for that person, having just been told clearly that they are inferior, to turn the other cheek is defiant.  It is to challenge the one who claims superiority to strike again, but to strike a blow – right hand to left cheek – that would mark the opponent as an equal.  It is to turn social conventions against the one using them, and to demand recognition of one’s own humanity.

All of these instructions, which without context would seem to counsel us to allow cruelty free reign, were equally subversive.  One’s coat was the last thing that could be given a creditor in debtor’s court; to give the cloak as well was to strip oneself bare – and bring more shame on the person who caused the nakedness, than upon the one who was naked. Not to mention the chance to draw a curious crowd, who would then all know the infamy of the creditor who had reduced a person to the utter vulnerability of nakedness!

Likewise, although it was legal for occupying Roman soldiers to press anyone into service to carry their pack for a mile, any further distance was not permitted by Roman law.  For a Jew to insist upon going further than that mile was to put the soldier into a quandary: do you risk breaking your own laws, or do you humble yourself enough to ask (!) this Jew to give back your belongings, and risk that he’ll say no? Do you risk the wrath of your commander, or do you risk giving power to the occupied?

I imagine that many of those listening to Jesus, in that moment, were whistling and cheering the subversive tactics of resistance that he was teaching.  But more than simple resistance to practical problems facing many of his audience, Jesus was encouraging thought, and creativity, and love.  He was laying out the possibility of a situation in which no one needed to be put down or dehumanized, but in which common humanity could be both demanded and granted, and equality – even momentary equality – achieved.

You have heard it said, repay violence with violence.  But Jesus said, Assert your humanity: do not let others choose whether you are loveable, or equal, or worthy.  Assert your humanity without lowering yourself to the level of those who would dehumanize you; without stooping to violence, either physical or emotional.  Do not actively resist and evildoer: do not cause them the pain or injury that they are seeking to cause you, do not return violence for violence or cruelty for cruelty, but stand up for your humanity, your capacity for love, your capacity for creativity.

And that is hard.  It requires us to think – to use our faculties of reason and judgment and all of those parts of our brain that usually shut down when we are upset.  Jesus is pushing us to go beyond our instincts, the ones that are most active when we are afraid, or hurt, or angry, or have just been backhanded.  And Jesus is pushing us to assert this thinking, loving, fully-human part of ourselves on our own behalf before all else: to stand up and assert that we are better than the lowest-common-denominator responses of fear or vengeance.

Because, as the old saying goes, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth only puts us in an eyeless, toothless world… in which we cower from each other, scared, blind, and defenseless, having lost all that makes us human; having lost the image of God that is present in each and every one of us on whom the rain may fall: sisters and brothers, resident and immigrant, rich and poor, us and them.

So no, I don’t think it’s hard to be a liberal Christian.  I think it’s hard to be a Christian.  Period.

It is hard to be thinking creatures in moments of stress, to use the thoughtfulness and love with which we were created.  It is hard to follow Christ beyond the actual words, into the living work of discipleship.  It is hard to give up even our illusions of control and let the Spirit guide us beyond ourselves.  It is hard to seek God, never knowing what we might find, or where we might find it, or what it might demand of us.

It is hard, but it is our call: to be creative in the face of violence and anger, to be loving in the midst of fear and despair, to be powerful in the midst of weakness, to be disciples and followers of the servant Christ.  We are called to be subversives in a dominant culture: within the walls of our churches, within our communities, and throughout the world, wherever the rain might fall.

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