“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16: 24-25

This text from Matthew is, in my opinion, one of most abused scriptures out there.  It has so much baggage that several pastors I know, as we were looking at this week’s lectionary, wondered how on earth they might preach this one. How could they preach a text that had been so entirely conflated with the popular  phrase,  “it’s just your cross to bear”: the ultimate phrase of victim blaming and abuse ignoring, laid especially upon the powerless, and notably upon women.  It is a phrase we hear colloquially, repeated in sometimes well-meaning ways in the face of illness, abuse, suffering; it is a phrase, however, that can keep people from seeking recourse to end their sufferings.

“It’s your cross to bear” glorifies suffering for sake of suffering; it suggests that Christianity is incomplete without suffering, while ignoring the underlying reasons for pain.  So many, clergy included, hear that phrase, or the one from this morning’s lesson – “take up your cross” –  and understand it to mean “grin and bear it”, or simply,  “get over it.” They hear dismissal, and silencing.

But really, none of those understandings sound much like Jesus to me.  Jesus, who healed the ill and the infirm; Jesus, who stood up for the outcast, who questioned the status quo… that Jesus doesn’t seem like someone who would turn to us now, and tell us to just “get over it.”

So if that’s not what he meant, what’s all this “take up your cross” business, anyway?

We, who see crosses on a daily basis, have a very particular understanding when we see that symbol.  But it is important to remember, as we read this morning’s text, that the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking had a very different image in their heads when the cross was invoked. For we are, in this text, still in a time before Jesus’ crucifixion; before the cross came to mean redemption, and triumph, and Christ.  As Jesus spoke this words to his disciples, the cross was still a sign of the Roman occupation: a sign of humiliation, as the condemned was forced to carry the heavy, torturous instrument of his own death.  To invoke the cross, in that moment, was to invoke the boos, jeers, and catcalls of the crowds that would gather to watch the execution.  It was to call to mind the degrading, dehumanizing treatment that a criminal would receive before death – and the jeering superiority of the crowd adding to the humiliation.  Crucifixion was the treatment reserved for the lowest of the low, the worst criminals who would seem to deserve all of the added torture and misery heaped upon them before they died.

That would have been the imagery in the disciples’ heads, as Jesus spoke.  That was the imagery that  Jesus turned on its head, as he was so good at doing, to teach us all a lesson in discipleship.

Because Jesus was not talking about forced humiliation.  His phrasing is clear: deny yourselves and TAKE UP the cross.  Do not wait until it is handed to you, or laid upon you, but take it up yourself.  Choose it for yourself.  Choice is essential in this, and in all of Jesus’ lessons about discipleship and witness.  We must choose, freely and without coercion.

And what happens when we choose the cross?  when we choose to stop thinking of ourselves as “better than this”, stop resenting that we “don’t deserve such treatment”?  What happens when we stop feeling smug about ourselves because we’re so obviously better than that scum criminal who must deserve the humiliation of punishment?  What happens when we choose to be identified with those who endure regular humiliation or dehumanization? when we strip away the ego that constantly compares Us to Them; the human judgment of who deserves what suffering, what joy, what fate; the self interest that keeps us looking after our own first, even if others get hurt; the self-protection that allows some to become “others” in the first place?

What we are left with, when we have stripped away all human vanity is not humiliation, but humility: the self denial that allows understanding that we are simply dust, made in God’s image; that we are the same dust, all of us; made in the same image, and animated by same spirit. We are left with the understanding – in our hearts and souls as well as our heads – that *our* selves are no more worthy, no more beloved, than any other, and that when some of this dust suffers, we are all made weaker; we all suffer, all of us who are this dust of God’s creation, this image of God made manifest in the world.

The Jesus I know – the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who did, in fact, take up his cross – would never have told an abused wife “it’s your cross to bear”.  The Jesus I know wouldn’t tell thousands on hillside to go hungry after a long day of preaching “because you all really should have thought ahead.”  The Jesus I now wouldn’t refuse healing to an outsider, whether a Syro-Phonecian woman worried about her daughter, a Samaritan woman at a well, or the slave of a Roman centurion.

The Jesus I know wouldn’t dredge up someone’s past misdeeds, or indulge in victim blaming, to excuse a blatant act of racism or sexism.

The Jesus I know wouldn’t turn anyone away from that font, or this table, or any gathering of God’s people.

The Jesus I know wouldn’t love the sinner and hate the sin; in fact, he wouldn’t hate at all.  Because the Jesus I know – throughout the complex contradictions of the Gospels – consistently tried to teach us to love one another, and not just give lip service to love, and compassion, and relationship.  I suspect he would have quite liked Paul’s instructions, in Romans, for living in community, which call us to care for the whole community more than for any one individual; to the setting aside the ego, the “me”, for the sake of the “us”.  Paul, like Jesus, here calls us to denying our selves, even if it costs us something; whether that cost is our self-interest, or the satisfaction of revenge, or our human sense of fairness.

And it may well cost us.

It is a frightening proposition to set our selves aside; to let go of our self interest, of the self protection that gives us a sense of power and control in this world.  It makes us feel a fear akin to humiliation when those who were previously derided or despised, jeered or booed, are those whom we now need to love – really love – in order to be in right relationship with God. It makes us fearful, disoriented, when those who have borne the brunt of humiliation seem suddenly to be more important, to get more attention, than we who have been beloved and not shamed… and we hesitate to ask why we felt so important and deserving that we resent sharing this love that we have known.

It may cost us, when we live and love as Paul counsels, when we seek the utter humility of choosing the cross; choosing to live by Christ’s love.  It may make us feel powerless. But that probably means we’re doing something right.  Because love doesn’t offer self-protection, it doesn’t work for our self interest: love makes us vulnerable.  Love opens us to the pain of others – the humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization that many endure on a daily basis.  Love opens us to fearful understanding of our interconnectedness, and the overwhelming needs of this world.

Choosing love may cost us, because love doesn’t make any one of us powerful, but strengthens us all, so that, forsaking our  selves – our self-interest, our self-protection, our self-centeredness – we may take up our cross and our humility, exchanging our power for God’s.

May we so choose.  May we lay down our individual needs, for the love of all who share in our dust, who share in God’s image, until we can stop asking, “what about me”; until we can stop judging one another with our very human values, and begin loving with God’s love.

May we so choose.

Let us take up our cross, despite the jeers, the boos, the catcalls, the derision.

Let us take up our cross, not so we may be abused or condone abuse, but so that none ever shall be again.

Let us take up our cross and lay down our lives, so that love might triumph over fear, over death.

Let us take up our cross, in full view of this world, and follow the one who calls us to abundant life and immeasurable love.

Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak… Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” -Genesis 32: 24, 26b

As we work our way through Genesis, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another Jacob story.  Jacob, of course, being quite the character, gets a fair amount of play in Genesis, and certainly he’s someone with whom many of us can identify, at least at certain points in life.  But here, today, we do not find the Jacob we’ve come to know, the conniving trickster – not even the trickster tricked, as in last week’s story of his marriage to Leah when he was expecting Rachel.  Here, we find Jacob the wealthy, responsible man, with herds and flocks, two wives, two “maids”, and eleven children.  Here, finally, we find a Jacob who thinks beyond himself.

Which has, apparently, not gone unnoticed.  For finally, God has called Jacob to something that doesn’t seem in Jacob’s best interest.  Here, we do not see God blessing him as he runs away from an unpleasant and possibly dangerous situation.  Here, God is calling Jacob to account; calling him to confront his fears, perhaps even to undo some of the damage that he had done as a younger man.

Before the verses of Genesis that we read this morning, Jacob enters into a long conversation with God: one that might seem familiar to a lot of us.  Even as Jacob begins to follow God’s call back to the land he’d run from twenty years earlier, Jacob questions.  “Hey, God,” he says, “I know you promised to be there for me, and keep me safe and all that. But seriously, you’re going to send me back to… Esau?” I paraphrase, of course, but Jacob’s anxiety, even with God’s promises, shines clearly through his prayerful questions.

Because this time, the risk is not just to himself, but to his livelihood and his family as well.  And that is a much harder prospect to face.

This week’s Gospel lesson is from Matthew, and it’s the familiar story of Jesus feeding thousands with just a couple of  loaves and fishes.  I’ve heard – and preached – a fair few sermons on this text; a common take is to suggest that after one little boy was willing to share the food he’d brought, everyone else brought out their lunch as well, and shared, so everyone had enough. Which would itself be a miracle, I’m sure: just think how much better our world would be if we shared our resources more readily!  But that alone makes me wonder about the loaves and fishes, for I don’t think humanity has changed that much in the past two millennia.  Because it is one thing to risk your own lunch, but another thing entirely to risk the food you brought to feed your children, for example.  What would go through your minds, in that moment, as you contemplated putting your entire supply of food into the basket being passed – all of the sandwiches, apples, cheese sticks, juice boxes that you’d packed that morning?  What if you just got an apple back? a piece of cheese? What if it wasn’t enough… for you or your children?

Even if it was just a tremendous act of sharing that allowed everyone on that hillside to be fed that day, that isn’t really the miracle.  Even if everyone took the risk of putting their all into the basket, the real miracle here is the huge quantity of leftovers, totally disproportionate to number of people who were there.  The real miracle is that in God’s equation, when you give all, you receive even more in return.

And that should make us look at our sense of call, and at our living into God’s promises, far more clearly than we often do.

Wouldn’t we all wrestle?

Don’t we, each of us, at some point, wrestle with the apparent dichotomy between God’s call to us – abundant promises and all – and caring for our own?  Don’t we, each of us, weigh very carefully how much we are willing to risk?  Will we risk our jobs for the sake of fair working practices, as many in our town have recently done?  Will we risk our hearts – and possibly even our wallets – for the sake of children whose home countries know a violence beyond our wildest dystopic imaginings?

Faced with such risk; faced with the reality of our fears, we are much more  likely to circle the proverbial wagons, and become protective of that which is known and familiar and safe.  We are much more likely to push away the new, the different – even to push away the one who is calling us to that very situation that we fear.

And we wrestle; as individuals, as a church.  For we are called to proclaim our faith, to bear witness to the continuation of the covenant, to the promises of our still-speaking God.  We are called to care not only for those who enter this place, but for all who are oppressed and wounded; especially to those who have been oppressed and wounded in the name of God and the church.  We take positions on many issues, and our stances are not always popular ones… though some certainly do provoke stronger reactions than others.  And we ask ourselves, on a regular basis: What will we risk?

We wrestle.  We wrestle with our commitment to justice, versus our very real, very practical fears for integrity of this building and the safety of the people who enter it.  We wrestle with the anxiety that such incidents inspire, versus knowledge that to many, these incidents are common, and that real lives at stake each and every day.  We wrestle with hurt against hope, fears against call, human understandings and God-given promises.

We wrestle, and for longer than a night.

But for us, like for Jacob, there is no clear winner.  For on one side is the power to take out the opponent with one simple touch; on the other is the human stubbornness to hang on anyway.  I can well imagine the words of pain that Jacob uttered when he was struck, yet he hangs on and  asks for a blessing anyway.  He asks for a blessing, rather than for what his initial hope seems to have been; to be allowed to turn back and avoid the confrontation with Esau, avoid the accounting for his youthful selfishness.  He wrestles, he hangs on, and then he limps away, following God’s call, facing his fears, risking all.  Jacob goes on as one blessed by the struggle; reassured in the very act of wrestling of God’s presence, reassured in this moment of truth – in this moment of of deepest fear – that he had held God, for a moment, within his very arms.

Jacob’s fears have not gone, but neither have the promises of presence and blessing. And that is miracle enough.

We wrestle, we follow, we risk that which we love. And sometimes, we give up our lunches. And sometimes, we walk off our jobs. And sometimes, we open our hearts and our borders to strangers.  And sometimes, we get hurt.

But if we wrestle truly: if we grapple so closely with our God that we might see God’s face; if we wrestle, and we risk, and we hang on despite it all, shall we not be blessed?  Shall we not know, within our very embrace, the presence long-promised, covenant to all generations?  the miraculous abundance that flows from God?

We who wrestle; we who invite God in for a little face-to-face time; we who follow, despite the risk: shall we not be blessed?

Shall we not be a blessing, a miracle to those for whom we risk ourselves?

May it be so.

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest of shrubs… The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened… Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Matthew 13: 31-32, 33b, 45-46

Do you remember the story of Jack and the Beanstalk?  Jack and his mother were poor, and when their cow no longer gave milk, Jack took it to market to be sold.  Of course, he never got all the way to market, but traded the cow – even without milk, an animal of obvious value – for a scant handful of beans… of very questionable value.  I do not wonder at his mother’s temper tantrum, when Jack arrived home; she threw out the beans, afraid and angry. Because this is a fairy tale, however, the results landed everyone far beyond anyone’s initial perception of that handful of beans.

But we don’t live in a fairy tale.  We likely think that the mother’s reaction makes a lot of sense… which makes me wonder how often we end up discarding that which seems worthless at first glance?

If you were an ancient Israelite farmer, there is no way you would allow mustard to grow in your field, and you certainly wouldn’t plant it.  Mustard is a weed, a totally unruly plant that would be pulled up and discarded as soon as it started to grow.  It was, to those ancient farmers, much like crabgrass is to us New England gardeners: an object of frustration and loathing.

Mustard was more than an irritating weed, however: its very nature as a leggy, bushy, unruly plant made it  not compliant with Jewish law, which craved and demanded order above all else.  To allow mustard to grow – let alone to encourage it! – was to allow an object of chaos in an regulated society, in a law that promoted order above all else.  Mustard was like leaven: a corrupting agent, uncontrollable, impure according to the law.  The inclusion of these in the purity of the food supply was akin to the introduction of something uncontainable, outside of our control: something worthless and undesirable.

And this is the Kingdom of God? in these ordinary, worthless, impure, less-than pieces of creation?

We are more likely to see the Kingdom in the pearl of great price; in Rachel the beautiful, rather than Leah the nearsighted.  Leah, the apparently-undesirable (since, in the first seven years Jacob worked under Laban, she remained unmarried); the one Jacob would have rejected, the one he never treated well… yet the one through whom God worked.  Leah was the one through whom the covenant promises were finally realized.  For despite her apparent undesirability, Leah was prolific, giving birth to six of Jacob’s twelve sons –  half of twelve tribes of Israel – as well as his only daughter.  In Leah, we find the sudden, weed-like, yeast-like flourishing of God’s people; the chaotic, uncontrollable profusion of blessing that had long been promised.

That is the Kingdom: the treasure we’d sell everything to possess – in the form of a weed.  The profuse, rampant, chaotic blessing and presence that we cannot live without… yet  all too often, in forms we don’t recognize and would just as soon discard.  For even the seemingly obvious sometimes isn’t; even the pearl had to be sought and weighed, before the merchant decided upon it.  Still: a pearl is a relative no-brainer.  But when Kingdom arrives in the form of weeds? of beans? of small, forgettable or unnoticeable acts?  When the Kingdom takes the form of people who are not valuable by our standards – who do not conform to social or cultural norms, who do not stay within the confines of what we consider right, or proper, or pure, but arrive clothed as the ones who cause problems, and upset the balance… what do we do then?

What do we do when the Kingdom appears as a Nelson Mandela, as a Martin Luther King Jr., as a Rosa Parks, as a Harvey Milk?  What do we do when what we primarily notice is that these people are the ones who defy neat, orderly rows of the garden, welcoming all to nest and be sheltered in our otherwise-perfect gardens?  What do we do when the Kingdom erupts in our midst, in the form of those who make the dough rise so that all might be fed; who embody the abundance of promise, the chaos of covenant, which promised to God’s people descendents like the grains of sand, like the dust of the earth?

The thing about sand is that it’s itchy. Uncomfortable. Chaotic.

The Kingdom of God does not conform to human standards of worth or value, but calls us to reject those norms and notions; to give everything up for something greater.  It calls us to reject our standards of comfort, of purity, of what is good or right or normal.  It calls us to live by God’s standards, to embody God’s promises, to invite chaos, to welcome discomfort.  The Kingdom invites risk, invites the anxiety that makes us question: why mustard? why yeast? why these elements you can’t control?  why a fungus that’s going to grow bigger and broader and more flavorful; why a weed that’s going to become more sheltering, more nourishing, more abundant?

Perhaps real question isn’t why would you seek such a weed, but rather, why wouldn’t you?

In a rare instance of pedagogy, I’m assigning you homework.

For our less-agrarian, less-yeast-averse society: what is the Kingdom of God? Where does it break into your life in wild, weedy profusion? what are the undervalued pearls, for which we would give everything?  What is our parable, for this modern age?

I came up with one, the other night: The outpouring of love (Kingdom of God, erupting here in New Hampshire) is indeed like a mustard seed, starting small – “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” And growing in wild, abundant, social-media profusion until it shelters and comforts all of God’s children, promising welcome to those too often bullied and silenced.

For the Kingdom is here, today, in the love that takes away the power of malice.  It is here, in the the branching, spreading, sheltering love that holds us all in abundance and grace.  For a handful of worthless beans can sprout a beanstalk to the heavens; the forgotten, neglected daughter can fulfill God’s covenant, and one church, in one New Hampshire town, can bring hope to hundreds, to thousands.

That is the what the Kingdom is like. Thanks be to God.

Luke’s Gospel recalls Jesus’ first time preaching in a synagogue, after his baptism. He went back to his hometown, to the people who had raised him and knew him, and preached on the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah, who, like all of the biblical prophets, had spoken truths that no one really wanted to hear – not just words of comfort to a people in search of God, but words of rebuke, and words that called the people and their leaders back into a right relationship with God.

When Jesus preached on Isaiah’s words, he was run out of town. Run out by his own people, for speaking uncomfortable truths.

Uncomfortable truths abound in our scriptures and in our faith. Often, they are couched in a comforting message: Love your neighbor as yourself… But who is our neighbor? The one you despise. The one you would never let near you. The one you think isn’t even entirely human. Love that one as yourself.

Christianity is a faith both of comfort and of discomfort. We should certainly take comfort in God’s abiding presence with us, in God’s grace that holds us up no matter how often we fall. We should take comfort in the assurance that we are beloved no matter what.

But the very fact that we need that reassurance – that we need grace – should keep at least a little bit uncomfortable. The fact that Isaiah’s words, and Jesus’ preaching, still call us back to discipleship; the fact that we continually need to be called back to discipleship, should make us uncomfortable. We are called to a love that does not come naturally to us. We are called to love beyond the barriers that human beings so often erect to exclude and dehumanize one another. We are called to love beyond race, class, sexuality, gender, nationality, mental health, employment or housing status, and religion.

And yes, that makes us uncomfortable.

Sometimes our call can be so uncomfortable that we are willing to remake God in our own image; to put our own prejudices on God and justify our fear, our unwillingness to love – to see every person we encounter as worthy, as made in God’s own image, just as they are and without changing.

Sometimes our call – to love as God loves – can be so uncomfortable that we are willing to act with malice to protect our own sense of who God is, and who God loves, and who God considers worthy. To vandalize symbols of a love that extends beyond our own, beyond the boundaries that are of our own making. To secure borders and boundaries and demonize those who would cross them; those who seek our love and our compassion.

We still need Isaiah. We still need Jesus. We still need the prophetic witness that calls us to a greater love than we feel capable of.

And then we need to respond. The call of discipleship requires us to respond. Not by running the prophet out of town, as the people of Nazareth did, but by bearing witness ourselves to the power and depth of God’s love. By becoming a prophetic witness in our own right, trusting in God’s presence and grace. By not allowing God to be made over in hateful human form. By being the persistent voices that remind the world that God’s love extends beyond all that we can possibly know, let alone understand.

Bearing prophetic witness is hard, as Jesus learned quickly. Speaking love, and grace, and peace, to a fearful world is a challenging call indeed. But the opportunity to love those neighbors who have often heard nothing but hate preached in God’s name is not one we can ignore. The opportunity to open our hearts to the injustice that so many children of God endure on a daily basis leads us all the more deeply into God’s love and presence in this world.

This world is hungry for love. For all the risk and sorrow that our prophetic witness may bring, there is so much more love and support. For all those who would run us out of town, there are so many more who will keep us safe, patch up our scrapes and bruises, and carry our prophecy and God’s love even further into the world. For all the hate in this world, there are many more who are desperate to hear our witness of enduring and abundant love.

Let us continue to bear witness, my friends. Let us continue to speak aloud God’s love, and let us not be silenced. God is still speaking! Let us do likewise.

sermon preached on the occasion of the ordination of the Rev. Celeste McQuarrie, July 19th, 2014.

 

While they were talking, Jesus himself came near and went with them… And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” … They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people… But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” Luke 24: 15, 17a, 19, 21a

It’s palpable, in this moment; in this beautiful narrative from Luke’s Gospel: the grief, the despair of these two otherwise unknown disciples,  walking away from Jerusalem.  More than that, however, walking away from the life that they had known, that they had committed themselves to leading, that had held such hope and promise.  We encounter these two – fresh to the narrative, so unknown that they may as well be us – these two disciples who had remained faithful to the end.  They knew the prophecies.  They had heard Jesus, and knew that it would be three days after the crucifixion before they would see him again… The three days which, according to custom, meant that a person wasn’t merely mostly dead, but all dead.

Well, these disciples had waited… and… nothing.

After three days, they had nothing to show for their discipleship, nothing to show for their willingness to give up their lives, to leave everything behind to follow the one who had called them.  After three days, they are brokenhearted, unmoored from all they had known and trusted and believed.  After three days, they are leaving everything behind once again; bereft and uncertain, trying to understand all that had brought them to that point, probably wondering, as they walked down the road, “What will the folks at home say?”  What was facing these two, as the ideals and hopes that had carried them into discipleship dissolved before them?

This Emmaus road is consumed, in this moment, byd espair, by hopelessness, by death – by the apparent “no” that sends them off on their travels.  And when a stranger arrives in the midst of this grief, the rawness of their pain is breathtaking.  “But we had hoped…” Have you ever heard anything so heartbreaking?

Hope is such a terribly human emotion.  We do not merely hope, in an abstract way, but we hope for something.  In our hope, we maintain  certain expectations, we desire certain outcomes.  And when these do not come to pass; when what we’re looking for dominates our horizon, then often, we miss what’s been right beside us all along.  We tend to put our faith in human understanding, and to refuse all that doesn’t conform to that which is hoped-for, that which is expected.

In part, this is an aspect of the human reliance on pattern; if we can carry certain expectations and internalize certain understandings, then we will not have to reinvent the wheel with everything we see or hear: with every stimulus that touches our senses.  Pattern allows us to organize the world, and not be overcome by chaos.

Yet this is also a mark of our reliance on our sense of fairness, of our desire to see some return on any given investment.  Would any of us expect less?  After following, putting our time and our faith and our energy in following Jesus… the very least he could do is rise in a timely fashion!

Wouldn’t it be nice if God worked on our time, or according to our expectations?

These thoughts have probably crossed Celeste’s mind from time to time, over the years of discernment leading up to this day.  For this is not the ordination – not the timing, not the place, not the church, not the denomination – originally envisioned, when she set out to follow her call. This is not the response to the work, the time, or the energy expended that she might have expected from the outset.  And there may well have been moments, when in the deepest recesses of her heart, that little voice whispered,  “Is this of God?” “But we had hoped…”

Which makes all those years of discernment and discipleship very good preparation for ministry, after all.  For that little voice is present in the thought that crosses the preacher’s mind when a worship moment, a sermon, a prayer falls totally flat – and that happens to the best of us, long before the moment when we hear the dreaded, “nice sermon, pastor.”

And that little voice is present in the thoughts that cross a church’s mind, however the church is gathered, as the projects on which we pin so much hope do not come to hoped-for fruition; as we fall down, as humans inevitably do; as we fail each other by not living up to the expectations, the hopes that we put on one another and on ourselves.  These are the thoughts that cross our minds when all that we put in – to our church, to our preaching, to our ministry – seems simply to vanish into the tomb, sealed and hopelessly, totally dead.  When we wonder at what seems to be a constant “no”; when we wonder, in despair, where God is, if what we’re doing is of God at all.

Still we gather, the church at worship, in hope and in despair.

We gather to be led, as the Emmaus disciples were, to an understanding beyond the human, to an expectation beyond all imagining.  We gather to hear the scriptures, ancient but still speaking to our hearts.  We gather to hear the word of God proclaimed – whether it is from the pulpit or the pews, whether it is during or after allotted hour.  We gather, for all that prepares us to know Christ in the breaking of the bread;  in the physical presence of this sacrament of incorporation, this affirmation of Body of Christ present here and now; in the moment when we hear the reassurance that the “no” of our despair has not been from God, but from our own fears of human expectations unmet, human hopes dashed; our blindness to that which was unexpected yet always present.   And we find, in that moment when our eyes are opened, that which has always been there.

God’s “yes”, sitting right beside our “no.”

God’s abundant promises, exceeding all that the human heart can hope, all that human thought can envision.

God’s kingdom, erupting for a moment, bursting with resurrection and new life… right before our very eyes.

For this story does not end with the opening of the disciples’ eyes, but with their rising up. Our English translation hides the power of the word; the Greek “anastantes”, “to rise”, the same word used earlier in this very chapter, when the Angel outside the empty tomb told the women that Christ has risen.  So, too, the disciples rise, in that roadside inn, who experience in this moment not just the resurrection of the Christ, but their own new life, bursting with the abundance of God’s promised Kingdom.

That is the possibility, as we gather in worship.

That is our call, as pastors: not just celebration of this sacrament to which our ordination gives us the right; for which we prepare, not just those before us but ourselves, with scripture and proclamation… that in the busyness and details of ministry, our eyes as well might be opened; that in the details of preaching and praying, bread and juice, cup and plate, we might not get too caught in our own hopes, our own expectations – even of the breaking open, even of the resurrection moment.

We will all have those moments of darkness, when we turn to one another and confess “but we had hoped.”  And not all of those will bring us light, or peace, or vision.  For I am sure that the two on the road had said those very words several times already, by the time Jesus joined them, without any particular result.  But when the church is gathered; when we stand together with ancient witness and new proclamation, when we take the blessed and broken bread within us and look into one another’s eyes, holding one another as the beloved body of Christ gathered: may we be open to the life that is offered, beyond all we could have hoped.  May we begin to grasp, as the apostle Paul prayed in his letter to the Ephesians, the breadth and length and height and depth of all that has been promised us.

And may we rise, as the disciples did, proclaiming God and bearing witness to the Kingdom, which is within our very grasp.

Esau came in from the field, and he was famished.  Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff!” … Jacob said, “First, sell me your birthright.”  Genesis 25: 29b-30a, 31

I never could quite understand my brother.  Right from the beginning, it seems, we’ve been butting heads.  Mother said it started before we were even born – she used to tell the story when we were fighting as children, to us or within our earshot.  How we fought within her, how when we were born, Jacob was hanging onto my heel.  It’s the stuff of family legend, our birth story… the kind of legend that holds within it a nugget of truth.

I never wanted to be constantly fighting.  It bothered me, when we were children; Jacob always had to have whatever I had, or something better.  He was constantly competing with me.  Mother encouraged it, sometimes overtly: whether it was because she had a thing for the underdog, or because Jacob was always so handsome, I’ll never know.  I suppose it doesn’t much matter.  But it was a relief, finally, to realize that, for all his competitiveness, Jacob never really cared for being outdoors.  It made me love it more, when I could escape from the constant tussles, the badgering, the pestering.  I would spend hours outside with Father, learning to hunt, to tend our animals and our fields.  And we would talk.  He told me not to worry about Jacob, but to be myself, to not let myself become infected by my brother’s fears and ambitions.

More importantly, though: my father told me stories, while we worked.  He told me about his own story, his father’s story.  How my grandfather had been called by God and sent out from his home and his people, and how God had been with him throughout.  Father taught me how to be in relationship with God, how to live in faith, and obedience.  He taught me what it meant to be a child of the covenant, living in the certain knowledge of God’s power and presence.

Gradually, Jacob’s behavior stopped mattering as much to me.  The constant jealousies, the rivalry, the pettiness continued, but I let it all just roll off.  I knew who I was – Abraham’s grandson, Isaac’s son, God’s servant.  I was a good hunter, a good farmer.  It was enough.

Until that fateful day.  It’s still a family story, that one: the day I sold my birthright for a bowl of lentil stew.  It’s not quite the whole truth, of course – no one mentions, for instance, just what a good cook Jacob really is, and how good that stew smelled!  But more than that… that moment didn’t come out of nowhere.  The ambition, the competitiveness wasn’t new.  Something like this had been brewing for quite a long time, and I had seen it coming, and had plenty of time to think.  I wasn’t really expecting such a blatant play, and made a joke of it at first – could he really be expecting me to give everything up for one plate of stew?  But he was serious – my greedy, conniving brother.  And I pitied him.

So: a birthright for a bowl of stew.  Not a bad trade, really.  After all, what need had I of a birthright?  of an inheritance?  I, grandson of Abraham, who had left his life behind to follow God, becoming a stranger in a strange land.  What more status did I need than my lineage? What more power did I need than what God would grant me? I was content.

Father understood, but he was the only one.  Among the others, the “stupid Esau” jokes abounded, but it didn’t matter.  I knew I’d be fine. Jacob took Father’s blessing, as well… as though our father couldn’t tell his hands from mine, even with hairy gloves?  As though Jacob had any of the calluses, any of the scars that hunting and farming bring?  Father knew which son knelt before him, and I hoped that Jacob would realize that, and realize that Father had loved him for himself all along.  That tricks and conniving had never been required to earn Father’s love – or God’s.  But Jacob hadn’t learned, as I had, about being in relationship with God.  He hadn’t learned about living as a child of the covenant.  He had his birthright, he had his blessing, he had his status and power and glory, yet it was never enough.

The “stupid Esau” jokes persisted for a while, after Jacob left, but not for very long.  My family grew, and prospered, and the daily concerns of providing for them put old tales of birthrights and stew out of our heads.  We did well, and I tried to teach my own household about God, and covenant, and the abiding promises that they would inherit.

The jokes stopped as well as Jacob didn’t return, and we began to worry.  Birthright, blessing, status, inheritance… it all meant less when I was present and he was not, when I simply prayed every night that he was safe and happy, wherever he was.

All of this was a long, long time ago. Jacob did return, much as he had been when he left; fearful, concerned with status, worried about power.  He returned – scheming, groveling after a forgiveness that was entirely unnecessary.  Still: I sensed in him some measure of growth, of responsibility; he, too, had a growing, prosperous family in whom he took great delight.  And late at night, after everyone else had gone to bed, we sat by the fire and he told me of his encounter, his wrestling, his struggle.  I was pleased that God had not given up on my conniving little brother, and hoped that Jacob might come to know and encounter God in a more humble, loving, daily sort of way.  That his experience of being called, and loved, might take from him the hunger for human accolades, and let him be content at last.  I pray that for him, still.

The family stories are told now by my grandchildren, told as though they hadn’t happened to me, told as entertainment when the family gathers around the fire in the evening.  Yet it is now, finally, in my old age, that those stories make me anxious.  For in the rote telling, and the characterization of Jacob as tricky and me as slow, so much gets lost.  There is still rivalry between us, and now between our households; as these stories get told – of birth and of stew, of struggle and of birthright – I hear the justification of an animosity that should never have been.  I hear the forgetting of our connections: we, who are children of the same mother, heirs together of the covenant, yet doomed by our story to live in a rivalry that would seem preordained and inescapable.  If we are, indeed, to become nations, then what?  Shall we be forever set against one another, justified by our story while neglecting our common roots?  Shall the day come when we give up on the very possibility of living together as God’s people, as covenant people, as one family of our ancestor, Abraham?

The story is funnier, more captivating if the “stupid Esau” jokes abound, I’ve always understood that.  But now I worry that Jacob has become the hero.  Jacob, who quested after status, wealth, power; Jacob, who was willing to scheme, and plot, and steal – for what?  The story would tell you that it was all to assure God’s favor.  The story would tell the next generations Jacob’s truth: that there is not enough to go around – not enough blessing, not enough inheritance – and so we need to see to our own needs first.  But that is not God’s truth: God, who has provided abundantly for us as for our ancestors.  After all, is Jacob any better off now than he would have been?  Am I any worse?  It’s hard to see how.

I wish, now, that we could change the story.  I wish we could talk instead of how all of these petty machinations – all of the ambition and jealousy and scheming – actually distances us from God, until it takes an angel and an injured hip to bring us back into relationship.  I wish we could talk about how wealth and status are meaningless when we come face to face with the love of God.  I wish we could talk about how even the devious, conniving, bratty younger brothers can be welcomed home.  I wish we could talk about how even the selfish, petty cruelties that we inflict upon one another do not exclude us from the promise of God’s grace.

Can’t we change the story, to tell how God’s foolishness – in loving us beyond measure, and with incalculable abundance – trumps all of the human foolishness, all of the human division, all of the human understandings that would keep us apart?  Can’t we tell the story of how Jacob was foolish, and I was wise: where birthrights don’t matter and inheritance is useless and God is the only thing that matters?

For that is the story that will heal, if we are willing to tell it.  That is the story that will bring peace between our households, peace among the nations.  That is the story that will finally bring us back together, we who are children of the same mother, children of the same covenant, servants of the same God.

“The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” -Genesis 21:17b-18

You’ll hear it over and over again: common wisdom holds that the Old Testament God is vengeful, heartless, bloodthirsty; while the New Testament God is one of grace and peace and love.  As though they weren’t one and the same.  It was a way, once upon a time, of creating distance between the Jewish community and the Jesus-followers, later Christians – identity formation often relies on “othering”, after all.  Yet such broad generalizations, especially when they are as untrue as this one, only do us a disservice, we who use both as our sacred scripture.  Such “common wisdom”, taken as infallible truth, closes our eyes to all but the most superficial readings of a Bible passage; closes our ears to the ways in which even ancient stories might speak to our lived reality today.

Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as though our revised common lectionary – the basis of so many sermons preached weekly on these very texts – are set up with these very biases at the core.  As we read these snippets of text each week, we are tempted to take them out of context.  In many ways, the structure of our lectionary – and the biases of a culture that divides narrative into “fiction” or “non-fiction” – sets us up to do some pretty serious mis-reading.  It sets us up to read Genesis – and the Gospels, for that matter – as history rather than as a series of lessons about who God is, and how our relationship with God began, from a time when that relationship was just beginning.  Reading in neat little chunks of text makes it easy for us to miss discontinuities pointing us to the larger themes, the ones that continue to speak to us today: we miss that Ishmael was already 13 a couple chapters earlier, yet his mother here carries him on her shoulder and casts him under a bush to die.  We forget that Abram was promised descendants several times over, through multiple chapters. We lose the significance of Hagar: one of rare women to talk to God, and the only one to name God – and she was a foreigner, and Egyptian, to boot!

Significantly, we miss that this story isn’t really about Hagar or Ishmael.  It’s not even about Abraham.  This text is really about Sarah, and about God’s grace – yes, even in the Old Testament.

It doesn’t seem that way, from the few verses we read.  It seems to be about a heartless God. At best, it seems to be about Abraham, and the development of the covenant: Abraham, who many chapters back, was promised offspring; was brought into relationship with God, even before the covenant was so painfully sealed.  But in this story, it is Sarah’s role that ends up being the crucial one: Sarah, who hears the promises of children, but knows herself to be already old, so she deems God’s promises to be impossible.  It is Sarah who takes matters – and common sense – into her own hands, sending Hagar to be the mother of that promised offspring.  It is Sarah who takes action around God’s promises, which would seem to be a demonstration of her faith, but it is not.  For it is not faith in God’s power, or faith in God’s abundance.  Perhaps Sarah had heard the gospel according to Ben Franklin, that  “God helps those who help themselves”… but that was not God’s word then, any more than it is in our Bible, or even our theology, now.

Sarah, consistently throughout these chapters of Genesis, sees things in human terms.  She sees, not God’s knowledge or power, but her own age and the improbability of childbearing.  She sees, not God’s breadth or abundance, but the practical impossibility of there being enough inheritance to go around, to support both Ishmael and Isaac.  Sarah’s faith is in that which she can see, and touch, and understand with human perception and wisdom.  And she refuses to be open to any larger possibility.

This story is about Sarah, certainly.  But it is just as much about us.

We who so often judge by wealth; we who have lived so long in this materialist culture, believing in the American dream to the point where such a concept no longer seems weird: we who see even certain children as an inconvenience to be rid of; we are Sarah.  We, who store away material needs for “just in case”, who live in the fear that there can never be enough, and that God’s promises require our manipulation, our negotiation, our assistance: we are convicted by this story, every bit as much as Sarah herself.

In the study guide, Economy of Love by the founders of the group Relational Tithe, the author of the chapter on sufficiency notes:

“I’m reminded that I live most days oblivious to my own wealth, comparing my standard of living to the standards of my upwardly-mobile friends and not to those billions of people worldwide living hand to mouth… For American consumerism thrives on a simple message – that what we currently have is not enough. Not big enough, not nice enough, not fast or hip enough. Not enough is hte matra of capitalism. At the same time, when it comes to my own economic habits, I can’t simply blame the capitalist machine. Pop culture may entice me to buy things I don’t need, but the truth is I like taking the bait. I like buying books instead of borrowing them from the library. I like new music and cardigan sweaters. Not enough is my mantra, too.

“But I’ve been thinking about the fact that the more I’m driven by an impulse to accumulate, the less free I am to meet the needs of other people… the more I need – or think I need – the less I’m able to love my neighbor with my wealth. If each morning I need an Americano from my local coffee shop, I’m not necessarily greedy (or am I?); I’m just less free to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to live responsibly towards my fellow human beings.” (p. 48)

In how we live, in how we understand ourselves and our place in this Creation, are we free to be in relationship with God?  Have we so bound ourselves in fear and anxiety that we have entirely lost sight of everything but our own human needs, our own human senses and understandings?  We are faced with God’s promises of life and of love in abundance beyond all comprehension… and our responses would seem to harken back more to Sarah than to Abraham – or to Hagar.

The authors go on:

“At least two things must be said: First, when it comes to caring for the poor in our localities, the sheer magnitude of the task can tempt us to apathy. However, on this point the Scriptures are clear: neglect those among us who have material and physical needs, and our rituals are meaningless… Second, many church leaders take this issue quite seriously. And each congregation has its own financial challenges, its own burdens to carry. But if God’s provision is going to meet the poor where they live, we must honestly assess what our church budgets say about our true priorities. Is meeting the needs of the marginalized a central or peripheral concern? What material and aesthetic comforts are we addicted to, and what sacrifices must we make so that all people have their basic needs met. Is the gospel we preach good news for rich and poor alike?” (p. 88)

In this culture, in this nation, in this church: are we preaching God’s grace, or human guilt? Do we trust, as Sarah couldn’t, in abundance? That there is, in fact, enough – enough resources, enough space, enough love, enough God to go around… and then some?

Do we, like Sarah, tend to our own needs first? Do we keep what we have for ourselves and our loved ones, do we live in that constant and abiding fear?  Do we, as Sarah did, cast aside the inconvenient bodies so that our own might be better served?

Are we as absurd now as she was then?

God instructs Abraham to let Hagar and Ishmael go, as Sarah instructs, not because she is right in her actions, and certainly not because God is ruthless or cruel or uncaring – that’s us.  This is the reminder to us that God considers all people, all bodies, beloved and worthy of life.  This is the reminder that it is not God, but humanity who put not only grace and love and hope on the line, in all of our interactions and all of our understandings about this world, in our tendency to keep the very best things for ourselves.  But we put on the line God’s very presence here among us in this creation, when we refuse to embody it ourselves and to live into it in everything that we do and every interaction in which we participate.  It is not God but humanity who is willing to do harm to Christ’s very body, sacrificed, not on the cross, but on altar of scarcity which we ourselves have created, victim of our fears and our faithlessness.

Yet despite our blinding, heart-closing fear, this story is a demonstration of God’s grace, as God provides for Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, as God reassures Abraham of his son’s worthiness and well-being.  It is, throughout these chapters of Genesis, a demonstration of God’s abundance and God’s grace – yes, even here in Genesis, even in the Old Testament, it is the demonstration of the God who has not changed since creation dawned.  God, who gives with such generous to the stranger in a strange land, to the Egyptian slave woman, used and discarded by fearful humans. God, whose love encompasses beyond the covenant with Abraham and Isaac; whose abundance is so much more than we can comprehend, even we who still cannot count the stars!  God, whose inheritance is big enough (and then some!) for both boys to become great nations in their own right.

God, is not like Sarah, is not like us.  God does not measure on human scales of scarcity and need, but offers abundance to all: all, without measure; all, without restrictions; all who are willing to trust, and to be in relationship with God.  What we see here in Genesis is what we see throughout our scriptures, lectionary notwithstanding: a God of grace, then and now and always with whom there will always be enough, if we can simply get our acts together, and learn to set aside fear, and to live in trust: of the promises made with such incomprehensible abundance.

 

There was a day recently on social media when it seemed as though everyone I knew was in the worst possible mood. No matter what the subject – church, politics, children, life – there was nothing but complaining, whining, name-calling, meanness, and pessimism. Although I turned it all off for a good chunk of the day, that sort of negativity can really stay with you, and I found myself in a rotten mood. So I put an idea out there, to the internet:

For every mean thing you say about someone, find something kind to say as well.

For every institution or injustice about which you are whining and complaining, tell us what concrete action(s) you are taking to make the situation better.

The answer to the idea? Silence.

Negativity is viral. Say something snarky or cutting? You’ll get retweets on Twitter and likes or shares on Facebook. Say it in person, you’ll get laughs and affirmations. You’ll be rewarded for your “wit”. The conversation will build, it will stir passions, it will get exciting, it will be fun.

But if you say something nice about someone? If you talk about the good things that are happening in this world? Those are the conversations that seem harder to keep going. Those are the one-liners that fall flat. Those are the conversations that might start on a positive note, but that quickly turn around and fall back into the negative. Talk about the good work that certain groups or people are doing around homelessness often spins into a pessimistic conversation about the hopelessness of the situation. Talk about the need for better mental health services devolves into a discussion about violence.

It may be more “fun” to speak negatively, to complain about the problems of the world and be able to blame someone for them. Negativity and snark speak to something within us; there is a reason that the media – print, televised, or social – plays so often to angry soundbites. It’s easier, certainly, to call a politician names than to comment on her policy choices; to say “He is a jerk”, suggesting there is something inherently flawed about a person, than to say “his actions have hurt me”, separating the person’s entire being from certain actions we find distasteful. It’s easier to speak in generalities, but we damage ourselves in the process. We create an “other”, a “not-me” that we don’t have to like, let alone love. We can dehumanize a person, write off their worthiness to be heard or even acknowledged. But by doing this, we cut ourselves off from one another, and from the God who is most present among us in relationship.

What if we put as much energy into finding the good in each other, as we do into demonizing one another? What if we put as much energy into love as we do into anger?

It’s not easy, but discipleship isn’t supposed to be. It might be less fun, less popular, less entertaining. But it might be a worthwhile challenge for us. Because in forcing ourselves to look for the good in people, we are forcing ourselves to see even those who hold opposing viewpoints as children of God. We are forcing ourselves to maintain relationship with those whom we might rather write off entirely, to remember that although we disagree, there might still be points of agreement, or even respect.

What might happen, if we made the conscious decision to get off the negativity bandwagon, even just for a month? Who will take the challenge?

“When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him…” Luke 24: 30-31a

We have been talking a lot, recently,about darkness.  Although the metaphor can give way to some problematic imagery, it is still a concept that resonates in many hearts.  We understand the idea of darkness in all the times we are as uncomfortable spiritually as we would be in physical darkness: when we are disoriented and confused.

Today, we continue in Eastertide darkness, dwelling still on the very day of resurrection and the great difficulty that the disciples had in leaving that place of uncertainty.  Today, we see two of Jesus’ followers road to Emmaus, discussing what had happened, and the strangeness that that very morning had held, when the women had come running back from Jesus’ tomb with incredible, fantastic stories of angelic visions and an empty tomb.  There were plenty of rational explanations, but these two men found their whole world shaken, found it impossible that anyone could be moving normally through their day when the very foundations of the world seemed unstable.  Their question to the stranger who met them is one we’ve often felt, in times of great emotion – how does everyone not know what has happened?

It calls into question yet again how many of the disciples had ever really gotten the death and crucifixion and resurrection that Jesus had warned them about?  How many had really believed what Jesus had told them; had understood that, for once, Jesus hadn’t been speaking in parables?  Not many, judging from the reactions: the disciples we hear about were fearful, uncertain: feeling their way forward in suddenly unfamiliar world.

In the darkness, even the familiar seems strange enough.  Have you ever tried to walk through your house with the lights off?  I tried it the other night, and immediately tripped over the toys that I knew were on the floor.  We move with less confidence, even in familiar surroundings.  Should something intrude on us, in that moment, wouldn’t we all be afraid?  Would we, any of us, recognize even a loved one immediately? especially if we weren’t expecting them? Wouldn’t we be too afraid to believe?

In the darkenss, would we recognize the Risen Christ, walking with us, speaking with us, opening our eyes to new ideas and new possibilities?

Throughout scriptures, from the first book of our Bible to the last, one theme infuses it all: Covenant. Throughout our scriptures, we are reminded of the promises that God has made to all generations, to remain with us and to guide us through this life.  It is that covenant, embodied by Christ, that we celebrate at the communion table: the reminder and the promise that there is presence; that we were – that we are – worth loving and dying for; that we are forgiven, that there is grace, always.  We gather at the table in celebration of covenant in the place where we, like disciples, know risen Christ in breaking bread.

But covenant endures even when we’re not expecting, and not looking for it.

Covenant endures even when the darkness seems oppressive, and we’re disoriented and afraid; even when crucifixion seems more present than resurrection in our lives; even when we’re on the road, more focused on other things; even when conversations with strangers lead us to new, strange, and disorienting ideas.

The question of covenant has been very much on my mind this week, because of the lawsuit that our denomination has filed.  The United Church of Christ, along with a few local Unitarian and Reform Jewish congregations, has filed suit in federal court against the State of North Carolina, in an attempt to overturn its ban on same-sex marriage.  Now, there are several states with similar bans, and the UCC has not sued any of them.  North Carolina’s law differs from the others in that it makes it illegal – punishable by a fine and a jail term – for clergy to perform any marriage-like ceremony that is not legally recognized by the state.  This includes commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples, or for opposite-sex couples who, for whatever reason, choose to have their relationship recognized by the church, but not the state.  So the UCC’s lawsuit argues against the marriage ban, not only on the grounds of equal protection, but also on the right that we all have to free expression of religion.

Now, certainly, there are churches in the United Church of Christ that don’t agree – as there have been, in many stances we’ve taken as a denomination.  For every controversial stance that we take, there are churches who wish we wouldn’t, or hadn’t.  Yet of those churches, very few end up leaving our denomination: we remain together because we are in covenant, and our covenant is a reminder and embodiment of God’s covenant with us: unconditional and abiding, loving beyond the barriers that humans erect.  Even in disagreement, we remain bound together, bearing one another’s burdens, seeking God together, listening, learning, and walking together because sometimes, Christ is walking with us.  Sometimes, we might recognize Christ in our midst, not only in the expected, but in the unexpected as well; not only in light but in darkness; not only in faith but in doubt

As we gather at the table, we renew our covenant with one another and with God.  We renew our promise to love God by loving one another.  We renew our faith with God who promises to remain with us no matter what: despite our failures of love, God remains faithful; even though we hung God on the cross, God remains faithful.  And love prevails, over all we might do to prevent and oppose it.  God’s love is there waiting, even in unexpected places and forms, guiding us through the darkness back to the resurrection light.

Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ -John 20: 27-29

Although it seems odd, after last week’s resurrection, with the bright, glowing light of the rolled-away stone and angelic apparition, we find ourselves, now, in Eastertide, back in the dark.  We find ourselves closed  in with the disciples, who are still hiding, still fearful, still locked up together even though they have experienced the resurrection and witnessed the risen Christ.  They remain behind closed doors, venturing out as needed, but furtively, carefully, it seems.

These ideas of light and darkness are traditional in Christian language, and have been used in just this way for centuries.  As Barbara Brown Taylor notes in a recent op-ed for Time Magazine, “From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death.”  That’s precisely the darkness that these disciples are in, even after the resurrection. Which is, perhaps, normal, when the light doesn’t look like we expect it to.

Now, certainly, this metaphoric language of light and darkness is problematic: it has negative implications for those who are physically blind, as well as for people of color.  Both groups have felt the weight of being labeled inherently sinful, an experience that we need to state and have on the table, before we dissect the language any further.  For it is problematic language on another level, as well; Barbara Brown Taylor continues: “It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time.”

It is easy – and done many times over, in our lives and in our tradition – to divide light and dark into God and non-God.  It is easy to see God, and feel the divine presence, only when life looks a certain way, only when that presence is expected.  So what do you do when you’re a disciple of the Risen Christ, but still feeling bereft of God?  When things didn’t go as you’d thought they should have?  When death and grief had been so present, and you are still trying to understand how they might be reversed, and what that might mean for you, hidden away in that room?  What do you do when fear still seems more palpable than joy?  How do you encounter God in that unexpected place, especially when you’ve made sure to lock the door?

How do any of us encounter God when we’ve locked the door for fear of the dark?

It is not surprising, that this metaphorical language of light and darkness should gain such traction within our religious traditions – for it is not just present within Christianity.  We humans are diurnal creatures, and our senses are made to best function in sunlight.  We tend to feel off kilter in the darkness; to be disoriented, less confident in our abilities, more aware of our limitations.  We fear the dark because it shows us as we really are: vulnerable creatures who are not as independent as we prefer to believe ourselves. We fear the dark because it renders us helpless, reliant upon one another for comfort and security.

When’s the last time you went out for walk at night, in real darkness?  No streetlights, no light pollution, no iPhone to light your way?  It’s disconcerting.  Even when our eyes have adjusted, we are less likely to see danger coming. Even if we are in familiar territory, we are more likely to trip, to walk into things, to get hurt.  And so our use of the metaphor seems reasonable: for how can God be someplace so inhospitable, so fearful to us?  How can we be sure where God is, if we don’t even know where we are?

Brené Brown is a  professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, who specializes in the study of  shame and vulnerability.  Part of her research regards those people who seem to have the ability to love wholeheartedly, fearlessly: across the board, such people tend to be confident, lacking in a sense of internalized shame, believing themselves to be inherently worthy of love.  All these are qualities – confidence, clarity, vision – that we tend to associate with light.  Brown asks the question, in an interview with Krista Tippett: “does this mean our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted?”  In other words, our capacity to dwell in light can never be greater than our ability to endure darkness; to be vulnerable, even wounded, and to seek God in those places of fear and disorientation.  Our willingness to risk ourselves, to be heartbroken, to be courageous, depends entirely on our willingness to dwell in vulnerability: “think of the last time you did something you thought was really brave… as a researcher, 11,000 pieces of data, I cannot find a single example of courage – moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage… that was not born completely of vulnerability.”

I wonder what Thomas would think of that.

Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, who is still sitting in darkness, fearful and bereft.  Thomas, who alone turned away from not one, but two chances at vulnerability; whose fear, whose wounds kept him not just from hoping for the promised resurrection, but even from belief in the testimony of his closest colleagues.  Thomas, who was called to be the first demonstration of courage in this post-resurrection ministry; who was called to faith; to believe despite darkness and disorientation; to strip away the confidence born of human senses and human judgment; to trust that God is equally present in our darkness; to see Jesus, even unexpectedly, even without seeing him.

Thomas was called; and so are we.

As we are reminded in this parable, we are called to be people who believe without seeing, without the necessity of light.  We are called to be people who believe from within the darkness, from a place of vulnerability; and then to believe in ways that make us vulnerable, that do not shut and lock the door on God.  We are called from that vulnerability to be people of courage; risking ourselves for the Gospel: the good news that is the light and life of the resurrection.

And that is hard. We see it in Peter’s speech to the crowd, on that Pentecost Sunday in Acts, where he is already back in the light, already in a place of power, already entirely dependent upon the confidence of human perception.  Just fifty days after the resurrection, Peter is already in the midst of the crowd, rather than on the margins where his Teacher spent so much of his own ministry.  I wonder what Thomas would have preached, in that moment.  I wonder what any of us would have done, or said; where we would have taken that light, and Spirit, and linguistic ability.

We, who are called to vulnerability, and to courage.  We, who are called to be the ones who see God in unexpected places; to hone our senses until we can have the confidence to walk in and with the dark.  We, who are called to walk in all those places of fear, of disorientation; places where we may stumble or where our hearts may be broken, and seek, there, the Christ who was raised in darkness of tomb.  For Christ’s return to the light did not heal his woundedness, or remove the vulnerability of his spirit, but touched and healed the woundedness of the fearful disciples.

We are called to find God in the brokenness from which we may be made whole; in the broken-heartedness from which we may love more fully; in the darkness in which we can find God’s light, even where we least expect it.

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