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For a while [the judge] refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she will not wear me out by continually coming.” Luke 18:4-5

She was late. Well, later than she meant to be, at any rate. But just as she was setting out, all hell had broken loose. The baby didn’t like being left with the neighbor – honestly, the neighbor didn’t like either – and so had fussed and cried until she’d ended up nursing the child to calm her. At which point, of course, the baby spit up.  She rubbed at the spot, hoping it wouldn’t show; she needed all her confidence for this meeting, she needed not to be disheveled and smelling of spit up… or whatever it was that her five year old had had in his hands when hugged her good bye.

It was not the first time she would be going to a meeting like this; nor, she reflected, the last, most likely. She gripped her folder tightly, feeling the comforting thickness of all the paperwork inside. As she walked, she glanced over her shoulder, skyward, still afraid of the death that fell from the sky. Even after months here, this habit was too ingrained to break. She hurried past row after row of tents, past the children who played in the alleys, children who should have been in school. Children who should have been hers… but best not to think of that now.

Instead, she turned her thoughts to the judge; a large man, all button down shirt and power tie, a heavy ring  with a black stone on his right hand, thick gold band on left. He was the only person she knew who could walk through camp wearing such wealth, who would not be robbed for the cash to pay a smuggler, so secure was he in his power. Perhaps this was why he had never made eye contact with her; he’d just told her, time and again, that her paperwork was incomplete, that they were over their quota for this month. He’d just dismissed her, every time she’d gone to see him.

She wondered if he’d have looked at her husband… and in the same instant, wondered if she’d even be doing this if he hadn’t died. For it had been his death, along with their oldest daughter, which had finally made her flee; it had been her desperate resolve to keep younger ones safe, to start life over in a place without bombs, for their sake, that had brought her here.

She reached his office, one of the rare semi-permanent structures, and stood for a long moment, staring at the door. She wondered why she bothered, why she kept coming back to this man who only saw in her an enemy; who only saw in her tiny children the potential for violence. Her children…

She took a deep breath, filled with the scent of spit up and mess, adjusted her hijab, once more rehearsed her speech in her head: “My husband and daughter were killed in airstrikes. We left Aleppo 15 months ago. I am requesting refugee status and and a visa to enter the United States.”

And she knocked on the door. Perhaps this time. Perhaps this time would be different.

***

We read this parable, and in my experience, the general response is to feel bad for the widow, persistent in her quest for justice. But do we ever really think about who she is? Do we question what injustice she might be seeking to right? I suspect we see her, inevitably, as an older woman: a woman who is familiar to us, like us… so we don’t wonder if we would agree with her complaint. We don’t consider how we ourselves might respond to her stubbornness.

We have a tendency to read stories like this with a certain lens: to see ourselves as the justice seeker, to be, therefore, convinced as to the rightness of the claim, because we assume she is like us. But we don’t know that. Only that she is persistent.

And we don’t always appreciate persistence.

***

She buttoned her blouse carefully, checked her reflection in the mirror, patted a loose hair into place, reached for her jewelry box. She’d wear the pearls today, the earrings and necklace. They gave her a sense of dignity, of respectability that helped, on days like today.  She hummed as she got ready, the songs of her childhood, of her church; the songs she remembered her Grandma had sung. In the early days, she had tended to hum songs of encouragement, of justice… recently, she’d noticed that more and more, she needed the songs of comfort, as her heart grew more tender.

She paused, glancing at photo on her bedside table. Their son beginning to look so like him; same eyes, same smile. Her heart constricted, as it always did when thought of their son. He’d been twelve when his father died; he was fifteen now, fifteen going on thirty. And she worried. She’d had the talk with him. He knew what to do: don’t talk back. Do exactly what they tell you. Keep your hands visible.  It was small comfort: his father had known this, too.

Today was a reasonably short trip, just about a two-hour drive, plus a stop at the airport to pick up two others, widows themselves. Like her, they were dressed neatly and wearing sensible shoes. Together, they drove downtown, parked, took their posters out and met the others. All of them had their game faces on. They prayed together, aware of how much they’d need it.

Together, they took their places on the pavement outside the courthouse, each with a poster bearing the smiling face of a husband, son, daughter, brother; their names, their dates.  Across the top, the same word emblazoned on each poster: Justice.

They stood all day on that sidewalk, watching the people flow in and out of court. They stood, knowing intimately the proceedings going on inside. They stood, trying not to make eye contact with the passers-by. For, as usual, a few smiled, or gave encouraging signs, but many more catcalled, or yelled slurs, or suggested crudely that these people on the posters, these beloveds, had deserved their fate and earned their deaths.

She thought of her husband, who’d pulled his car over when he realized he was having a heart attack a dozen blocks from their house. He had knocked on the nearest door, hoping for help from a stranger; he was killed by the homeowner, who had assumed the knock was an attempt at burglary… at 4 in the afternoon. She thought of her friends, this group that traveled from city to city, court to court, pleading silently, persistently for justice. She thought of their family members, the names-become-hashtags; she thought of the family in the courthouse today, pleading for justice for their twelve-year-old who hadn’t had time to do what they told him to.

Shifting her weight on aching feet, she stood up straight, silently pleading her case, her husband’s case; persistent in the face of unrelenting judgement.

****

It’s interesting that we spend so much time pondering the widow, and so little pondering the judge; the one who doesn’t fear God, who has no respect for people – which, in many ways, amounts to the same thing. It’s interesting that, as we read this story, so often our identification is with the widow, rather than the judge; with the one who seeks justice, rather than the one who passes judgment.

This judge, who has no fear of God, no awe before the divine, no sense of his place within the mysteries of creation, no wonder at the complexities of this world, and his place within them… I wonder what went through his head during the widow’s first visits? I wonder why he denied her? what he refused to see in her? what he said to justify his lack of action; how he made her “other”, therefore unworthy or dangerous? How did he discredit her persistence – did he call her “inflammatory?” “inappropriate?” Did he decide that her protest was an “improper” way to call attention to injustice?

I wonder about the support, the complicity of those around him, those who encouraged his inaction, or soothed his discomfort. Those who helped him to justify his dismissal of this widow, and her needs.

I wonder that we do not see ourselves in that judge, for we are not always the widow. We are not always the justice seekers, but too often, the ones who grow weary of the persistence of those who demand that we do justice in this world.

At pub theology, the other night, we had a conversation about whether we’d recognize Jesus, were he to come back, here and now. But the more I thought about it, in the days that followed, the more convinced I became that we had asked the wrong question. It is not a matter of whether we “would” recognize Jesus. It’s a matter of whether or not we do.

Do we recognize Christ in the persistence of those fighting for access to treatment for addiction? Do we recognize Christ in the cries of those demanding that the minimum wage be a truly living wage?

Do we see Jesus turning tables, when we see the persistence of communities of color demanding that we acknowledge and end the violence of implicit bias in schools, in hiring, in the criminal justice system?

Do we see God in the widows of this world; widows of immigrants, widows of overdose, widows of violence, widows of indifference, begging us to acknowledge the injustice they have known?

Do we see the God who sees us, as we are reminded again and again in Luke’s Gospel? The God who doesn’t wait for us to ask, but sees us and knows us and calls us?

For that is the good news, here: that we who are persistent in our quest for acknowledgement will get our hearing. We will feel the movement of the arc of the moral universe as it bends, however slowly, toward justice.

But more than that: the good news is that our God will not let us go, when we refuse to see the widows of this world; when we continue to create “others” whom we need not respect and whose persistence we can ridicule and write off. Our God will persist in pushing us to do justice, with all the tenacity of the widow. God will not let us go, even when we have lost our respect for God and one another. God will but will continue to urge us, encourage us, demand from us justice for this world she so loves.

And that is, indeed, good news, for us and for the world.

Do  you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! -Luke 12: 51

This is one of those tough texts… all the more because this is actually Jesus speaking. This talk of fire and division doesn’t really sound like the Jesus we know and love, however, does it? Of course we think that Jesus has come to bring peace to the earth – isn’t that what the angels in Bethlehem promised?

It’s hard to hear this angry-sounding Jesus who is talking about something that sounds more like a scorched-earth policy than like grace. Division that doesn’t sound like the call to relationship that we are accustomed to hearing in the Gospels; it doesn’t sound like the mutuality and trust that marks so much of discipleship.

Granted, scriptures like this make a lot of Christian history make sense. Read something like this, and suddenly it’s much easier to understand the bloodshed that has marked the institutional church nearly since its very early years. Crusades, colonialism, dominant culture… we can see where acts like these are rooted, when texts like this come along. Still: it feels pretty horrible, hearing all of this from Jesus himself, as though he would have approved of all the violence of Christian history. It’s disconcerting. Disorienting.

Bishop Yvette Flunder, pastor of  City of Refuge UCC  in San Francisco, gave a talk once in which she reminded us that texts like this can not only be used to justify past violence, but can also be actively used to excuse the violence and oppression of the present time; to suggest to those who know oppression that life is just hard, and violence is simply a  normal part of human existence. This world is full of trials, says the theology of oppressed communities (in Flunder’s example, the American Black churches). Hardship and oppression is the status quo, the human condition; therefore faithfulness means enduring the terrible things that life gives you, in order to achieve God’s Kingdom in the life to come. Moreover, faithfulness means not fighting back against that which signals the coming realm, for to do so is to work against God, and God’s plan for us; possibly even to forfeit your place in that realm.

Neither interpretation probably feels right, to many of us today. Yet I would argue that it is a failure on the part of progressive Christianity that we cannot easily articulate a more loving and grace-filled vision, even in a text like this one. It says a lot about the progressive church that we are left to our feelings of discomfort and disorientation, when Jesus speaks words like this. It says something about our continued reliance on uncomfortable theology. Yet it says, I think, even more about our failure of imagination when it comes to God’s realm – when it comes to peace or love – than anything else.

For peace is not the absence of conflict. The prophet Jeremiah, whose writing Jesus knew and quoted often, warned against those who preached peace in this way, saying, “they have treated the wound of my people carelessly”. For to understand peace simply as the absence of conflict is to put a bandaid on a gaping wound. It is the patch that smooths over but does not mend.

Nor is love complete agreement, as most families would, I think, understand. How many of us are in complete agreement even with those we love most? Rather, we love one another “even though”.  Just a couple chapters ago in this same gospel, we read the story of the Good Samaritan – perhaps the prime example of loving-even-though.

That parable, so familiar yet so hard, placed just two chapters back from these disconcerting, disorienting words, serves as a reminder that context matters.

Because we can make the scriptures say a lot of the things we want to hear. We can make the Bible justify our thirst for violence and our acceptance of oppression, even from within… but only if we ignore the larger context. Only if we remove these passages from their place within the larger story, and allow them to speak for themselves, in a way that they were never intended to do.

Here, of course, the immediate context is Luke’s Gospel, which  tells story of God’s love; love which gives voice to the voiceless, including women & foreigners. Love which crosses human boundaries, even unto our enemies, even unto Samaritans. Love which provides for all, no matter how seemingly insignificant. For just a few verses before this morning’s passage, we hear Jesus remind us that even the sparrows – sold 5 for 2 pennies – are not so insignificant that they are  forgotten by God (12:6).  We hear how even the ravens, those scavenging omens of evil (12:24); even the flowers and the grass, who have no consciousness, no will of their own (12:27, 28) are fed and clothed and nurtured and known by the God who created all things. Then the Gospel asks, if God so loves these, whom we would consider insignificant, how much more does God love us?

Luke’s Gospel tells story of God’s love: a boundless, uncontainable love, a love that doesn’t make sense in human terms. God’s love is a love that pushes back against empire, against our culture, against our comfort with oppression, and with inequality, and with injustice.

Luke’s Gospel and the portrait of God’s love that it paints, is actually a pretty scary thing,    if we take it seriously. And it’s going to cause divisions – it already did, even in Jesus’ time! For giving voice to voiceless means hearing new things, things we have probably not wanted to hear before. Crossing human boundaries means seeing beyond ourselves, thinking as much of others as we think of ourselves. Loving-even-though means reflecting on our prejudices, biases; doing the uncomfortable work of self-examination and change.

To live into God’s love is not a choice to be undertaken casually. Christianity is not a half-hearted, feel-good movement, as much as we might wish it to be. Because the world we live in is not entirely the world that God created; it is of our making, and we did not build it on God’s love, but on human brokenness, on our willingness to live in fragments and to love within limits such as shared appearance or experience.  To live into God’s love is to push back, hard, against the world. It is to put needs of many ahead of needs of few,     even when we’re part of few. It is to listen without defensiveness to those who say         they’ve never felt that their lives mattered. It is to grieve those whose despair drives them  to senseless acts of violence; it is recognizing our own participation in a violent culture.

To live into God’s love is a counter-cultural act, and, as Jesus knew, a divisive one. For it calls us to reject what those around us – those we love – accept as the status quo, the human condition. It is to reject the systems in which we are told that it is God’s will (!) that some succeed, while some simply endure, and that questioning those systems remove us from God’s favor.

For I will push back, as Bishop Flunder pushed back, against the idea that the oppression of some and power of others might simply be the  human condition; that the brokenness of this world is something simply to be endured for the sake of the hereafter. That remains view of those who would simplify love to agreement; that remains the view of the modern-day prophets who cry peace for the sake of making discomfort end, rather than for the sake of bringing justice; for the sake of the quasi-peace that silences dissent and lets wounds fester.

And I think Jesus would push back, too.

Jesus, who here speaks of love beyond divisions.  Jesus, who reminds us not to fear. Jesus, who tells us time and again that God’s love is deeper than our divisions, that God’s love sinks all the way in, to root of  our cracks, to our deepest fears and our deepest needs, to the stories and experiences that formed us… and there works healing, and peace, in our deepest selves.

That is, itself, a divisive notion indeed, as Jesus knew. It is divisive to commit ourselves to a discipleship that calls us away from this culture’s values and its judgments. It is divisive to live vulnerably, in a world that prizes security. It is divisive to live generously, in a world that prefers to see scarcity. It is divisive to live in the discomfort of self-examination in a world that tells us we’ve earned our comfort. It is divisive, because when we do our own work of self-examination, of justice-seeking, we call into question the choices of those around us – even those in our own families – and we can easily feel burned.

Division doesn’t feel like Good News. It doesn’t feel like grace. But the Good News has never been that discipleship is easy. It is never been that God’s grace enables us to allow harmful systems to persist because hey, we’ll be forgiven, so it’s all cool. The Good News has never been that there is a better life awaiting, once we’ve endured the horrors of this one.

The Good News is that even in the midst of division, even in the scary place of pushing back against the world for the sake of God’s realm, we are not alone; we are seen, and known, and loved. The Good News is that those who cry for justice are beloved, and we who hear those cries, and respond in love – even if it seems to cause division – are bringing God’s realm. The Good News is that, as scary as this work can seem, as much as it might seem like walking through fire, the true  work of discipleship is not a patch job on the divisions the world imposes, but rather the deep, systemic work of love that builds enduring bridges and fills in the broken places. And we come through the fires tempered, stronger, made new in God’s love.

The Good News is that the God who knows each sparrow, who feeds the raven, who clothes the grasses of the field in splendor, created each of us, and blessed us so that we, fearful and broken as we might be, are still enough: to change the world, to walk through the fires, to bring God’s realm with life-giving love and enduring peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. – Luke 8:36-37

The stories abounded this week.

I was 8 years old, in church, when I was first told we could love the sinner and hate the sin.

I was 22 when a pastor told me I couldn’t join the church until I’d been cured, because even Mary Magdalene couldn’t follow Jesus until he’d cast out her demons.

I was in college when my roommate’s response to my coming out was to ask if she could pray over me, to be healed of my sin.

I was 48 when a church leader interrupted a free community meal to try to perform an exorcism on me.

I was 32 when the church refused to baptize my child because my husband and I “hadn’t renounced Satan.”

I was 27 when I stopped allowing my church to abuse me with the notion that I could “pray away the gay”

I was the age I am now when I last heard I was an abomination.

The stories broke my heart this week.  It was hard not to hear them, as I read through Luke text, in preparation to preach. It was hard not to identify, on some level, with the man possessed, locked away, excluded; the man seen as dangerous, unclean, dwelling in death. But it was even harder to know that that identification would be more clearly made, between sexuality and sin, in pulpits around the nation. The very identification that has, indeed, been made,this week and in the years leading up to this week: made in a way that directly blamed the possessed man, that blamed the victim, that made the demons the sin, rather than the exclusion, shaming and rejection that he experienced.

Because this story isn’t really about one man and his demons. It’s not about one person being healed. It’s about the community that chose fear; it’s about the community that chose complacency. 

It’s about us.

In each generation, we see certain things as inherently evil; as “incompatible with Christian teaching” to borrow a phrase. We see certain behaviors as the workings of the devil – evil incarnate – in this world. In each generation, we identify this particular man of the Gerasenes, or anyone else in scripture noted for having demons, as representative of our modern views. Yet in so doing, we reinforce the boundaries that we have, ourselves, created between us and the “other”. We reinforce our human boundaries between those whom God loves, and those whom we do not want God to love; those who follow Jesus and those whom we do not want to follow Jesus. We reinforce the boundaries that enable us to talk about them without having to include ourselves, without having to examine ourselves.

The funny thing is that every time we draw a boundary, Jesus ends up on the other side.

It’s easy to suggest that the demon-possessed man totally unlike his neighbors; that they – that we – are not held captive by external forces, the things over which it feels like we have no control. It’s easy to draw the boundary between us and him, to judge him as “other”, because it precludes our having to take a hard look at ourselves. It allows us to say that he needs healing, that he needs Jesus… all while ignoring our own needs for – and fears of – both of these. 

It strikes me that it is not the demons themselves that cause us to be rejected; it is whether or not we are comfortable with the demons that inhabit our lives.

It is when our demons begin to sit uncomfortably within us, when we acknowledge that we want no part of them, that we become dangerous. It is then that we are cast aside, shunned by those who are comfortable. It is then that we are demonized, shackled and constrained by the words used to make us “other”, by the confines of “polite society”, by the fearmongering and vitriol that have become all too prevalent around us. It is not the demons themselves that cause us to be rejected; rather, it is when we choose self-examination and self-awareness. It is when we name the demons that live within us, when we reject the demons that fill the world around us. It is when our choice to reject our demons calls those around us to the frightening experience of doing the same uncomfortable work: of naming that which possesses us, the ways we’ve become so comfortable in possession that we internalize it, justify it, participate in it.

It cannot be overlooked that the one we demonize in this text is the one who is the one aware of, and at war with, his demons. The one we demonize in this text is the one who has done the painful work of grappling with the forces that held him, the one who has dwelt among the dead: looked death in the face, and acknowledged his own participation in its culture. The one we demonize in this text is the one who recognizes Jesus, when even the disciples do not; the one who calls him “Son of the Most High God.”  The one we demonize in this text is the one who has  the wherewithal to approach Jesus, just as he is, unapologetically; his vulnerability made clear in nakedness.

The one we demonize in this text is the one who is able to name his demons, and have them banished.

While the townsfolk, prey to those same external forces, see in Jesus someone more fearful than their demons: someone who could remove from them the demons with whom they’d become comfortable; rip them open to the unimagined possibility that they began to see in the healed man –  the possibility of who they might become, in vulnerable relationship with Jesus. Of who they might become in the presence of the love so powerful it can drive out all else. Of who they might become when faced with a God whose only two options are unconditional love and extravagant welcome.

In this moment of healing, of the rejection of demons, the townsfolk see before themselves another way, but one which requires vulnerability and self-examination; the refusal to remain comfortable, complacent, complicit with the demons of this world.

This is really their story, our story, the church’s story. That much becomes more clear, in weeks like this one, when violence collides with stories of demons, and we begin to truly see where we locate ourselves within the story: as those who shun and oppress, shackle and demonize; as those who do the ongoing, often painful work of self-reflection, of choosing to reject the justifications for, and the comfort with, the demons of this world – even as we ourselves are called possessed. 

This is our story: the story of being willing to acknowledge our participation in the culture of death, and to spend our time in prayerful repentence among its victims.

For the demons of this world are not race or class, sexuality or gender identity, but the beliefs and fears that do violence on those bases; the ones that fuel the stories that started this sermon, the ones that lead to the violence we have seen this week, the ones that lead to the erasure of the voices and the identities of those who were most directly impacted by violence.

The demons of this world are not race or class, sexuality or gender identity, for those do not keep us separate from the love that Jesus embodies, but recognize the power of standing, in love, on the side the oppressed.

The demons of this world are racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, which our culture justifies in the fear-mongering and the hate which have become so pervasive, so subtle that we no longer see them, but accept and even justify them as comfortable. These are demons we are afraid to acknowledge, because grappling with them, recognizing our role in maintaining them, is painful to us, and threatening to those who remain comfortable. And we are afraid of being shackled or ostracized. We are afraid of dwelling among the tombs, among the victims of our hateful demons and our inability to let them go.

And so I hope we will all come to identify with this demon possessed man of the Gerasenes, who grappled with the demons, despite the pain. I hope that we will all identify with this man who recognized Jesus and called out to him, despite the fear; who named his demons, the sins that kept him separate from God’s love: the love that does not call anyone “other.” I hope we will have the courage to see the demons with whom we have become comfortable. I hope that we will find the strength to call them out, no matter who tries to shackle us, to demonize us. I hope we will have courage to tear down the barriersour demons have prodded us to create, so that we might find Jesus standing, as always, on the other side with the queers and the Latinx and the undocumented, beloved and grieving. 

I hope we will have the courage to come before Jesus, just as we are, but prepared for the grace that can  change us; the grace that can transform us; the grace that can encourage us; the grace that can clothe us in God’s abiding, unconditional love.

 

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made from pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” John 12:4-6

If your brother were just raised from dead, wouldn’t you throw a party? Mary and Martha sure are, and I’m guessing it was probably pretty crowded. Lazarus himself was there, of course, the man of the hour. Both sisters, of course, as well as Jesus – guest of honor! – and his disciples. This we know from the text.  I suspect that many of those who had been present at the tomb were also in attendance: friends, family, the townsfolk of Bethany. The party may well have filled the house, and spilled out into the area around it – an abundance of guests, feasting and rejoicing.

And we know what happens next.

Mary for web use

Mary pours an entire flask of perfumed oil on Jesus’ feet, and Judas berates her for the waste of resources.  It could have fed so many!

Honestly, I think most of us sort of empathize with Judas in this moment, thief though the story says he is. Should all of our resources go to the poor? Shouldn’t feeding people be our top priority always?

In many ways, Jesus’ response doesn’t help. Not because of what he says, but because of how we hear it. Even those with the text in front of them tend to read the line as “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.” That first phrase has become part of our collective consciousness, an explanation – even an excuse – for continuing systemic inequalities.

If only that were what Jesus actually said.

In many instances in this Gospel, we find side by side narratives; functioning as illustrations of what it means to be a disciple. In parallel courses, we’ll see stories of those who understand and those who don’t; those who are in relationship with Jesus and those who are not. For in this Gospel, relationship is the marker of true discipleship, true belief, while a lack of relationship becomes the definition of sin. So early on in the text, we have Nicodemus, the learned Pharisee who kept trying to make all of Jesus’ answers fit into his own particular paradigm… followed by the Samaritan woman, who heard Jesus and immediately him to stay in her home: she entered into relationship, expanding her own paradigm in the process.

We see a similar phenomenon here. On the one hand, we have : Judas, who should understand what’s going on – he’s been a disciple for a long time, after all! – who keeps trying to fit Jesus into a nice, neat box, comprehensible and safe. On the other hand, we have Mary of Bethany (n.b.: not Mary of Magdala) who has just really begun to understand, with the resurrection of her brother, what it is that Jesus is really all about.

And we see her understanding in her actions: that it is Lazarus’ resurrection that will mark Jesus for death; that the time of preparation for burial is at hand; that it is still not a time for grief, but for love, and love poured out abundantly.

Judas, who has heard Jesus’ predictions of death several times over; Judas, who should have known what was coming, cannot break out of his own mindset, his own preoccupations. Judas cannot get out of his own way to see what is right before him.  Judas needs reminding of his role as a disciple, as one who is in relationship with Jesus.

Judas needs Jesus to speak truth; the same truth, perhaps, that we need to hear: “the poor you have with you always”.  Which is, despite how we hear it, not a statement of future certainty, but a terrible condemnation of the present time, in which the poor are present. For this is not Jesus pulling off a mic-drop soundbyte, but reminding us of a truth spoken generations earlier, in the Torah:

There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy, if only you will obey the Lord your God by diligently observing this entire commandment that I command you today. -Deuteronomy 15: 4-5

“There will be no one in need, if only you will obey…” Ouch.  How’s that going, Judas?

That the poor are always with us is not an acknowledgement of the way of the world, but evidence that we have fallen away from God, and remained out of relationship with Jesus. For there are poor – and hungry, and homeless – in a land that produces abundantly; a land in which we have been blessed… a land in which we have continually kept that blessing for ourselves.

Seems this is another thing that Mary understands better.

Seems that her anointing, her preparation for his burial, is preparation for herself, as well. For Mary is giving of all she has of value – this perfume which cost a year’s wages, made of a rare flower from India – and giving fully, pouring out the entire contents in this one moment. She is participating in an act of relationship, in act of intimacy that echoes the one expressed earlier in this same Gospel, where Jesus dwells at the bosom of God: an image of trusting intimacy, of sustenance, of nurture, of nourishment. Mary makes clear her choice to trust fully in the nurture of God-made-flesh, even as he goes to his death.

While Judas, on the other hand… needs to keep a little back for himself, in case. In case this Jesus moment is just a flash-in-the-pan. In case this God thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It strikes me, from this portrait, that it is Mary – wasteful, prodigal, extravagant Mary – who will obey God in the commandments given. It is Mary who will live into a world in which the poor are not always present; it is Mary who will ensure that no one around her is in need, who will continue to give generously of her abundance.

It is Mary who will remain in relationship with Jesus, rather than those who, like Judas, continually wonder if there shall be enough – who will count every coin, who will micro-manage every transaction, who will dwell more readily in the fear of scarcity than in the blessing of abundance.

Both Mary and Judas have smelled the stink of death close at hand. Lazarus is among them, after all; fresh – or not so much! – from the tomb. And Judas, it seems, wants out already – to get away from away from the stench, to find a reason to condemn the hospitality and leave early. Judas wants to escape the spectre of death, currently sharing a table with him, lest, perhaps, it cling to him as well. But Mary… Mary responds, instead,  with a scent that fills the house, that provides an aroma more powerful than death, an odor with which the smell of death cannot compete. Mary’s perfume, poured out as abundantly as the wine at Cana, as the loaves and fishes that fed thousands, as the grace of God upon the world that God loves. It fills every crack, every crevice. It clings to everyone’s hair, everyone’s clothes – even Lazarus’! – and then follows them for hours, if not days. Mary’s perfume becomes the scent, not of death, not even of preparation for death and burial, but of but preparation for the life eternal. It is a preparation for a life in relationship with Jesus, in which there is no one in need, in a land of abundance; in which we can hold God’s feet in our hands; in which we can feel, see, taste God’s grace; in which that grace smells like the costliest perfume, poured out extravagantly.

Judas’ question resonates with us, but this text reminds us that the resonance we hear points us in an unfortunate direction, one that ill-prepares us for the life and discipleship to which we are called. We who prepare ourselves, this Lent, for resurrection would do well to have a good look at how we embody that preparation; to ask ourselves whether we experience the abundance that Mary gives so readily?  Do we participate, here and now, in the extravagance of eternal life? or do we participate in the fear that cannot see beyond death? Do we, like Judas, fear to trust in the sustenance of God; in the providence of God to do the impossible: to bless the land so richly that there need be no poor, no hungry, no homeless?

Where do we abide, the descendants of Mary and of Judas: in the incomprehension of Nicodemus? in the slush fund of Judas? in the anger of the authorities at having their world turned upside down?

I hope not.

I hope that we, too, can smell the overpowering scent of rich perfume, can live in the experience of abundant life, can breathe the fragrance of life eternal clinging to our very skin.

I hope that we, too, can live into a resurrection world, celebrate gift of life here in this world: in which there need be no poverty; in which God’s abundance is poured out around us daily.

I hope that we, too, can give of ourselves fearlessly, without counting cost; that we can pour ourselves out abundantly, extravagantly, intimately; so that all may know the sustenance, the nourishment of God in this world.

For ours is not a faith of fear, or of death, and we do well when we prepare ourselves instead for resurrection. We do well when we act in ways that recall that death will never have the last word.

Ours is not a faith that counts the cost; ours is not a faith that puts restrictions on giving, or that debates who is most worthy of our help.

Ours is a faith of Mary, wasteful and extravagant in her certainty that there is enough – more than enough! – for the hungry to be fed, the homeless to be housed, the grieving and despairing to be known, and seen and loved.

Ours is a faith of the God who became flesh and abides among us.

Ours is a faith of resurrection.

May we prepare ourselves as Mary did: in acts of intimate relationship, in acts of extravagant generosity, in acts of abiding love, which cling to us and give fragrance to our world.

John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. Luke 3:16-18

Recently, Nadia Bolz-Weber preached a marvelous sermon on anxiety and hope, in which she told the story of a young woman. This young woman was being bullied in school, as so many young people are, and wanted whatever advice she could get. Nadia’s response was classic, and so much what most kids who are being bullied need to hear:

“I looked directly into her eyes and said: “Look kid. I’m so sorry that’s happening and I totally get it because I’ve been there. But as horrible as it is right now…just do whatever you can to get through it because I promise you one thing: grown ups who were bullied in Middle School and survive it, are like, 10 times cooler and more interesting as adults than the ones who were doing the bullying. You get through this and you’re gonna be amazing. I promise you. Those kids will be nothing but a footnote later on. I mean, come on…who wants to peak in middle school?”

Certainly, the fortitude and courage that it takes to withstand bullying – especially the inescapable torture that comes not only at school, but through the social media we carry in our pockets – may well serve us in later years. It may be, as our parents once told us, “character building”- galling as it may be to acknowledge that our parents were right.

But it isn’t always.

Parents, educators, and concerned adults are often reminded that the children who bully are often the children who have been bullied. Those who have been disempowered find their power by disempowering others. The cycle continues, and spirals, and grows: bullies engender more bullies.

Sometimes, you don’t become ten times cooler. Sometimes, you become a total jerk.

John the Baptist, in the time before Jesus’ ministry began, gathered the people around him on the banks of the Jordan, and preached some pretty hardcore sermons. The Gospel of Luke records one such preaching moment, when John drew upon the prophecies of Isaiah for his scripture: Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill laid low, he reminded the people. But what does that mean? It means that those who have wealth, or power, or privilege in this world shouldn’t keep it to themselves, but use it for the sake of others. If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. If you have authority, be aware of it and don’t let it consume you. Let it be used to build up the community, not for your own personal gain.

Don’t let any human measure of status convince you that you are more worthy, more beloved in the eyes of God.

Don’t use whatever power you have to disempower others.

Don’t be a bully.

Break the cycle.

With this and many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.

The tax collectors, often forced by circumstances of poverty or desperation into positions from which they force their fellow Jews to follow the laws of the occupiers, are therefore shunned; and exact revenge in the form of extra fees levied on top of already harsh tax burdens. Disempowered by circumstance, they gain power at the expense of those who should be neighbors.

The bullied become bullies. But John proclaimed good news.

The desperate-to-feed-their-families become convinced by experience that no one else will help them, and so help themselves. But John proclaimed good news.

Those who receive no compassion give none, but keep their second coat as deserved, or for fear that when the first wears out, that experienced lack of compassion will leave them in the cold. But John proclaimed good news.

The good news that those who have had no coat will be cared for and warmed. The good news that those who have experienced extortion will know justice. The good news that is good to those who have been oppressed, to those who have been disempowered, to those who have been bullied: that much is clear.

But the good news is actually good for those who have done the bullying, as well.

The world is not divided easily – certainly, not as easily as we often try to divide it. The distinction between the one who bullies and the one who doesn’t – between the one who peaks in middle school and the one ten times cooler, between the mountain and the valley – isn’t always as clear as we would like it to be. The bullies have been bullied. The fearful seek to spread fear far and wide. Those who have power in some areas may be entirely out-of-control in others. As Aleksandr Solzehnitsyn said, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”* I suspect John would agree.

Where Isaiah’s imagery of mountains and valleys might allow us the ease of believing that the whole situation is out of our hands – we, who cannot easily bring low an entire mountain – John doesn’t let us off the hook. John makes it more personal. Where we might have been tempted to identify wholesale as either mountain or valley, and to see our position as natural, ordained by God, and therefore deserved, John changes the metaphor. John reminds us that we contain within ourselves both mountain and valley, both power and vulnerability. That around each of us – each grain of wheat for the harvest – is the tough outer layer that serves to protect us… and shield us from contact, one with another. The chaff that separates us one from another, as clearly as mountain from valley.

Yet we are both mountain and valley. We are both wheat and chaff. We are both bully and bullied.  Our internal topography is rough, and jagged… and only we can make it smooth. We can repent, literally, we can change our own hearts and minds. We can turn our hearts from the desire for power and status to the desire for compassion and justice. We can leave behind the protectiveness that separates us, we can embrace the vulnerability of community. We can set aside the desire to regain lost power at the expense of another, we can opt out of the cycle of bullying and violence. Our choices matter. Good news, indeed.

It is good news that we need take no more than what we truly need, without worry that there might not be enough. It is good news that we may give away the extra we have set aside for “just in case”, and know that we will be okay. It is good news that we can let go of some of the power and the status to which we so fearfully cling. It is good news that we can let go of the false idols of security and safety that keep us wrapped up in our chaff, clinging to the tops of our mountains. It is good news that when we let go of our fear and our protectiveness, when we leave behind the idea that we can keep ourselves safe, we prepare for God’s presence in our lives.

When we let go of the safety and protection that our skin tone, or our gender, or our economic status affords us, we prepare the way for God, who came into the world as a brown-skinned child of an teenaged, female prophet from a backwater, good-for-nothing town.

When we let go the security that relies upon demonizing an entire nationality, an entire race, an entire religion, we prepare the way for God, who loves all equally, and promised that all people should see God together.

When we let go the fear that tells us that the power of death is the ultimate power – when we let go the idolatry of protection through threats of violence and the dangerous brinksmanship of firepower – we prepare the way for God, victim of violence, who demonstrated that compassion overcomes fear and love overcomes death.

When we let go of the voices that tell us to hate and to fear, to seize power for ourselves before someone else can take it from us, to hoard for ourselves all that is good because we alone are worthy; when we let go of the cycle of bullying that turns us inward, safe within our chaff; when we remember that, in God and the Body of Christ, we have the fortitude and courage to survive even the bullies, then we do, indeed, become ten times cooler.

Because when we let go of everything that stands between us and love, we make room for God. We make space for the coming of the Christ Child. We open our hearts and our doors to the young couple, turned away from the Inn.

And that is the good news: that we can still choose compassion.  We can still choose love. We can still prepare the way for God. We can still make the rough places smooth. We can still give space to the Christ child.

That is the good news: that, for as long as we have chosen scarcity, and separation, and fear, we can still make another choice.

That, as much as we have participated in a culture of violence, it is not too late to go another way.

That is the good news: that God continues to call us – even us! – down from our mountains and up from our valleys.

That God continues to coax us out of the protective shells that we’ve built around ourselves, to shake us loose, as wheat from chaff; to refine us and purify us and open us to love.

That the bullies of this world, as numerous as they seem to be, and as much as their power would seem to dominate our lives and our media, will not have the final word. That the cycle of bullying and violence can end, and can end with us.

Prepare the way of our God. Turn your hearts to love, and open yourselves to the coming of the Christ Child.

Fear not, and believe the good news.

*Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr: The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956.  New York: HarperCollins. 2002

 

 

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed…” Luke 1: 46-48

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Russian Icon of Mary and the Christ Child

This seems rather an odd text for this third Sunday in Advent – Gaudete or Joy Sunday. Not because Mary doesn’t seem joyful in her hymn of praise to God, but because there seems no good reason for her to be joyful in the first place.  Certainly, she has found favor with God – Gabriel the Angel told her so, and who wouldn’t believe an angel, right? And certainly, she’s going to have a baby, which certainly can be good news under the right circumstances… but Mary’s don’t really feel right, by that measure, do they?

The reality is that Mary, whatever favor she may have found, is an unwed, teenage mother in a highly patriarchal society. There is every chance that her fiancé will leave her, once he discovers her condition, and no one will think any the worse of him for it. There is no guarantee that her parents will continue to care for her and her child. Mary, young, unmarried and pregnant, was looking at the reality of a future alone in an unfriendly world, trying to provide for herself and her child – a desperate endeavor if ever there was one.

Finding favor with God, though it sounds like a real treat, was no guarantee of comfort or security, as the scripture notes on a pretty regular basis. Indeed, God’s favor seems more likely to get one into trouble than just about anything else.

I discovered this week that Islam, in its telling of Jesus’ birth, goes into great detail about Mary’s life. The Qur’an traces Mary’s lineage back to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, and tells the story of her own parents: how, in order to maintain this lineage of prophets, they prayed for years to have a child – only to end up with a girl! Right from the beginning, it seems, the patriarchy was a part of poor Mary’s life. But so was prophecy, which she embodied beyond her parents’ expectations. But, like most prophets, Mary found that her gift – and the presence of God which it implied – would not make life any simpler for her. For Mary, as for the prophets of generations past, favor with God would be a hard road.  After all, prophecy – especially when it comes to calls to repentance, or to the question of bringing the people back to God, is almost never well-received.

Prophecy may not be the tradition in which we, as Christians, tend to place Mary, but this text certainly bears out that particular reading – as, indeed, does the entire Gospel narrative around the mother of Christ. For Mary puts herself, here especially, squarely into the midst of a reality that does not yet exist, and then calls others – like Elizabeth – into that reality alongside her. Mary chooses to live in a reality in which the humble are blessed and the mighty are brought low; in which the hungry are fed and the marginalized are lifted up.

Mary chooses to live in a reality in which an unwed teenager can give birth to God incarnate – and does so joyfully, even knowing what probably awaits her.

It is not at all absurd to hold Mary as a prophet. It is entirely within the Gospel tradition to hold her as a proto-disciple, embodying the call that her child would eventually put to all humanity. There is a good reason that Mary is held in veneration by so many, and it is not for her living into some unattainable level of feminine perfection and purity. Rather, Mary’s importance stems from an ability to believe fully in the covenant promises, even when they seem tremendously distant; her ability to live joyfully into a reality that isn’t, yet – that will only come into being in the person to whom she will give birth. Mary is able, beyond all reason, to live out the unimaginable reality of love and justice, even when she is faced with incredible hardship and trial, the likes of which most of us would never consciously choose.

But what if we did?

What would it look like for us, to live as Mary did: choosing joy?

Would we, like her cousin Elizabeth, follow her into this new reality of possibility? Elizabeth, after all, had everything – the social status, the location, the ancestry – to believe that she should have been the one chosen to bear the Messiah. Yet she sets all that aside to rejoice entirely at the presence of God in one who is, by all standard measures, a lesser person.

Could we, like Elizabeth, embody the joy that lifts another up? Even another who seems so terribly unworthy, in comparison?

What would it look like for us to imitate Elizabeth: to learn our discipleship at Mary’s feet? What would it look like for us to live into a discipleship that embodies the joy that can surpass even real, rational fear?

What would it look like for us to choose to rejoice at God’s movement and presence in this world, even when it comes at a very real cost to us? What would it look like to embody joy at a God who would appear in the least expected places, in the “least worthy” people, the God whose light shines in those places where we so often hesitate to tread?

What would it look like for us to live as Mary did, singing praises of the God who continually calls for the disruption of our comfortable lives, the God who calls us to prophecy and its consequences? What sort of discipleship would Mary teach us, but the one that she taught her son, to live for the sake of love and justice throughout the entirety of God’s creation?

Mary teaches us, throughout the generations, to believe fully in a God of prophetic discomfort – in the God who will be present with us as we live into the consequences of our prophetic voice.  For Mary knew, more intimately than we ever could, the presence of a God who walks with us through the difficulty and discomfort; the God who took on our weakness and our vulnerability so as to truly be Emmanuel: God with us.

Our call to discipleship may not put poetic hymns on our lips, or angels before us. Our prophecy may not cause unborn children to leap in the womb. But our God is present. God-with-us remains, disrupting, pushing, making life hard and uncofortable. For the same God who found favor with Mary calls us now, to live into the prophetic reality of hope, of peace, of joy and of justice. The same God calls us over and over to the power of weakness and vulnerability; as of a teenaged mother, as of her newborn child.

The same God who found favor with Mary invites us now, in the midst of discomfort, of prophecy, of impossibility, to choose joy over fear; to choose the reality of a God-with-us world; to embody the joy of God’s presence without counting the cost.

 

The people came to Moses and said,”We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.  And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” – Numbers 21: 7-8

This is a strange story.  Out in the wilderness, the Israelites take yet another turn on their way to the Promised Land, and they grumble… as they have been nearly since the beginning, but now the length of the journey, the uncertainty about direction, the instability of living as itinerant people is really getting to them. Egypt, even with slavery isn’t looking so bad – at least they had roofs over their heads, structure to their days, and some certainty in their lives.

Hindsight isn’t always 20/20.

And in the tradition of children from time out of mind, the backseat whining begins. I’m tired. I don’t like what you packed for lunch. Miriam pushed me. I’m thirsty. How much farther? No, it is NOT my turn to walk next to Aaron! Manna again? I’m sick of manna! Do we hafta sing camp songs? Are we there yet?

And God, sick of the whining, sent venomous snakes to stop the complaining.

Or something like that.

This week, the president of Oklahoma University expelled two students and suspended the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, after a video was posted of fraternity members singing their chapter’s song – a song which included an N word that I won’t say here, and the gleeful promise that no African-Americans would ever be a part of the fraternity. The University and its president, David Boren, were lauded for their rapid response to the video… and indeed, it was good to see the incident treated with all of the importance that it deserved. Still, it gave many people pause when Mr. Boren, commenting on the university’s actions, said,

Real Sooners are not racist. Real Sooners are not bigots. Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect.

There are venomous snakes among us, but we will get rid of them. We will not allow their poison to harm us all. Because we are not them, and they are not us.

It’s a lovely thought, that we can so easily get rid of the snakes among us. But it is not a helpful one, necessarily, as Drake University professor Jennifer Harvey noted:

We must refuse a logic of punishment whereby we stand and point at the immoral behavior of others, as if they are unique and different from us and the environments that produced them. We must refuse to distance ourselves — or the environments we have helped to shape — from their racist behavior.

If I am a Sooner and that Sooner over there has been exposed embracing, with great relish, white supremacist rhetoric and behavior, and my response is to say, “Well that Sooner isn’t real,” I exonerate myself and the community that produced that oh-so-real Sooner from responsibility. I foreclose already and ahead of time the myriad of levels of inquiry, response and intervention urgently needed into the environment(s); an environment that these young people’s behavior offers powerful evidence of as being itself deeply toxic and racist.

If those young men (and women) aren’t real Sooners, then what on Earth are they?

If they are not us, then what are they? And who are we?

It’s a lovely, convenient way to tell the story: that God sent poisonous snakes, as though they were a punishment against the complaining, faithless Israelites. God sent something separate. The venom did not arise from within the community; did not spring from the fears born of years in the wilderness, twisting and winding towards a distant promise, fighting local tribes and hoping that each day would bring fresh food. If we can talk of snakes, then we can hope that the venom did not come from those neighbors within the community whom we’re supposed to love, even though we’d really prefer to keep them at arm’s distance; didn’t come from those who look like us, who have traveled with us, who are beloved by the same God as we are.

If we can blame the snakes, then maybe the poison is not within us, as well… perhaps expelling the snakes will be enough to keep us safe, to ensure that the community is actually healthy, and faithful, and living into the covenant promises that include getting up to the promised land eventually.

We like to blame the snakes, and to blame God for their presence – God who created everything… even whiny, impatient Israelites. Even privileged frat boys singing a racist chant. Even us.

If we can blame the snakes, perhaps we won’t have to look quite so hard at ourselves. If we can be rid of the snakes, then maybe we don’t have to wonder where they came from, these venomous whispers of fear and frustration that arise and seep within us. We don’t have to recognize all that we have done, or left undone, to foster a culture in which such snakes can exist, in which such whispers can find fertile ground. We don’t have to recognize the myriad ways that our own words, our own silences, nurtured the snakes and kept them safe.

If we can blame the snakes, we don’t need to look for any other source of the poison.

But that poison is there.

The poison is in the hugely disproportionate number of African-American men who are arrested and charged with minor offenses. It is in the fact that those men are 21 times more likely to be shot during the arrest. It is in our defensive reaction to those numbers.

The poison is in the story of a Harvard professor arrested while trying to get into his own home. It is in the stories of women of color, whose bodies are consistently seen as both more sexualized and more criminalized.

The poison is in us all, as a recent study of the American Psychological Association demonstrated that after the age of nine, we tend to see African-American and Latino boys as being both older and more culpable than they actually are… which explains, although it does not excuse, the perception of boys as young as 12 being active threats, and shot in an excess of precaution. And the poison is in us when jokes made about the president not serving out his term – because, apparently, black men can’t hold consistent jobs for four years – are assumed to be funny, rather than offensive and prejudiced.

And the poison is in the shooting of police officers, whether because they are viewed as the carriers of venom, as snakes to be got rid of, or because of the need to inject violence into non-violent demonstrations.

The poison is there, and removal of the snakes – those whose words and actions are overtly hurtful or offensive – cannot remove the poison from us entirely. The poison is there and all our prayers that the snakes be taken back, that those among us who are not «real» – really faithful, really loving, really trusting in the God who removed us from slavery – are met only with another snake. All are prayers are met with the simple reassurance that the venom need not be fatal… even though the snakes are still there.

And so a snake of bronze was created, that those who looked upon it might live. Not an idol, this time – not a golden calf, worshiped in place of God, but an icon – an image that directs our minds, our prayers, towards God. A lens, of sorts, which refocused our scattered, poisoned thoughts, and brings us once again into relationship, sets us once again on the right path.

I had the fortune, this week, of reading the reflections of Rev. Mike Kinman, dean of Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis. He was present among the protesters on the day of the shooting, and had this to say:

My heart is breaking that violence is nothing new to us. That our Cathedral nave is filled with the faces of young people killed on St. Louis streets by guns. That there has been far too much blood shed and far too much pain.

My heart is breaking – and as painful as that is, I have come to believe that our hearts are supposed to break. Because we live in a world of pain and hurt. And in the face of it, our hearts will either break like God or harden like Pharaoh, and given that choice, I choose the Lord…

God’s invitation to Moses was to lean into the suffering of the people – intimately lean into it to the point of sharing it. In God there are no “your tears” and “my tears” but every tear is “our tear.”

That runs the risk of sounding a little too kum ba yah. But it is anything but. It is an invitation to some of the hardest and most rewarding work there is – meeting at the foot of the cross. Meeting at that place of pain and not running away from it but leaning into it.

Like God throughout scripture, loving the people enough to let our hearts break … again and again and again…

Today, the anger, pain and confusion we have been experiencing as a community has a new dimension and depth. We need to wrestle with that. We need to lean into that. If our hearts are breaking, we can be comforted that they do not break alone. That God’s heart breaks, too. And if we are tempted to lean away. To let our hearts get hard because feeling the pain just seems too much to bear … well, we need to hold even more tightly to one another and to Christ. And wrestle more profoundly. And pray more fervently.

We are tempted to lean away – to make the snakes bear the full responsibility for our pain. We are tempted to dismiss the venom that flows in us as the “status quo”, to reflexively dismiss the possibility of our own heartbreak… and our own healing. We are tempted to turn away from the image of the bronze snake that is set before us in the stories of racism – overt and implicit – that just feel too toxic, too uncomfortable, too painful.

Yet the icon remains before us. We need to look at it, focus on it, allow it to call us back into relationship. If we are too afraid to acknowledge that our society remains deeply racist, we will remain mired in poison, mired in the sin that fractures our relationships with one another and with God.

Face to face with snake bites we have all endured; suffering with the poison that runs through us all, we are called to stop trying to get rid of the snakes – to stop scapegoating the loudest and most offensive, to stop thinking that they are somehow inherently different from us, that we are not all products of the same culture, infused with the same venom, suffering from the same disease. We are called to recognize our own poison, our own complicity.

Because the prayers of the Israelites did not make the snakes – their own neighbors – vanish. Rather, God called us to look directly at the source of pain, the source of venom, the source of all that keeps us separate from one another, keeps us from being the community we are called to be.

Healing, it turns out, comes not from suggesting that the poison is in someone else, but from the willingness to look directly at the source of our own disease.

Healing comes from not hardening our hearts to those who suffer most, who carry the most venom within themselves, but in recognizing the ways in which we have kept safe the snakes, rather than those most often bitten.

Healing comes from looking that snake right in the face – looking, intently and intentionally, upon that which has harmed us all – and in that very act, accepting our need for healing. In that very act of looking upon that which poisons us, we can begin to excise the venom, and heal the entire body. In that act of gazing upon our own poison, we may find repentance – the ability to change our minds and our hearts, and come back into the community that God has always intended for us to be.

We should, certainly, keep the snakes among us from doing the horrible damage that they can, so easily do. But let us not fall into the trap of thinking that punishing the snakes will cure us all. Rather, let us open our hearts to the suffering around us, the venom within. Let us allow our hearts to break, as we gaze upon the snake and recognize the ways we have been poisoned.

Let us look, with open eyes and open, breaking hearts at the venomous racism that cannot be eradicated by a couple of expulsions, that cannot be eradicated by violence or defensiveness or blame. For only by opening ourselves – only by the intentional acts of looking, hearing, loving, may that snake be turned from a symbol of death to a way back to relationship, back to life, back to the covenantal promises of life as God’s people. Only by opening ourselves to the poison in our own heart – to the ways we have nurtured the snakes rather than their victims – may we find healing for our bodies, for Christ’s body.

May we be unafraid to look, though our hearts may break again. May we be unafraid to look, that even as our own hearts break, all who have suffered this poison might find healing.

 

“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.

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.

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.