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When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” -Luke 21:5-6
Jesus is such a killjoy sometimes.
Here they are, going into Jerusalem, Jesus and those who have followed him. Jerusalem, bigger by far than the places they had so far been; the sights unusual for so many of them. Many of the Galileans, and certainly the Judeans in the group would have been to Jerusalem for the festivals; yet we know from Luke that there were non-Jews among Jesus’ followers as well, perhaps some who had never been there. We don’t know who, among this group, spoke with such awe; what we hear is simply the understandable amazement. The temple, that almost impossibly huge, beautiful, solid structure, would have seemed almost as though it had always been, would always be; as though it had not been created by human hands. It would have been hard to imagine its not being there, this building which dominated Jerusalem skyline; this building which housed God.
It would have been overwhelming, if not impossible, to conceive of the disappearance of such an important structure: how could something so present, so much a part of life, no longer be?
When you’re in place of transition – even good transition, even expected transition – imagining an “after” is nearly impossible.I know something about this in my own life, and suspect many of you do as well. Transitions mark end points in many ways, even the transitions we have most desired; they invoke grief, with all its associated emotions and stages. Living in transition, we find ourselves living in the unimaginable; feeling our way forward, and having the familiar become suddenly strange. Both Jesus’ followers, and those who author of Luke in 85CE, inhabited such transitional periods, as indeed we do now. Theirs were comprised of the power plays between Jewish autonomy and Roman occupation; between factions of religious and secular authority; between regions; between classes; between sects… all trying to imagine an unimaginable reality, in a way that would bring the most benefit to their own.
In either time, Jesus’ words prophetic. Not because he was predicting a future reality, for the destruction of Temple had already taken place when Luke wrote, but because he was, in tradition of prophets, speaking the hard truth of the current situation. Jesus spoke the truth that nation has already begun to rise up against nation, betrayal has already occurred. Jesus spoke the truth of our reality in which the ground is shifting beneath us; in which people are hungry, in which people are suffering; in which speaking truth does not make you popular, but dangerous.
Jesus speaks the truth that does not make him popular, but dangerous.
Jesus speaks the truth, right before this passage in Luke, that the widow who gave her last coin – her entire livelihood – to the Temple treasury, was betrayed by a system that was supposed to care for her rather than starving her in the name of God.
Jesus speaks the truth, in the passage before the widow, that there have been authorities in all times who prioritize social standing and visible piety over acts of compassion and grace; who would more easily devour than build up.
Jesus speaks the hard truth, throughout the scriptures, that we will be judged not by our finery, not by our beautiful buildings or our social or political or religious achievements, except insofar as we use these to care for the marginalized: the ones whose blood and sweat built the edifices we so admire, and the structures in which we so easily house God.
Because even the places we build for God; even the structures that we make for our dearest hopes, our sweetest dreams, our noblest visions; even these are simply structures of human design and construction.
Certainly, the God who consented to be contained within human flesh has consented as well to dwell in human buildings, for our God does not require perfection as a prerequisite for presence… or for grace. But we must not mistake God’s presence for approbation, just as we must not mistake God’s grace for a get-out-of-jail-free card. Rather, as the 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, grace should be that undeserved gift that changes our lives, which makes us strive to live up to that which has been freely bestowed.
God’s free gift of grace should have some cost on our hearts.
So indeed, God’s presence in our human bodies and structures should be that which makes us strive to build as God would, in the image and likeness of the divine, rather than in the reflection of human failings.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfection is not cause for calling our efforts “good enough” and letting go the rest; rather it should be a constant impetus to do better: to acknowledge the imperfections, the inequities and injustices on which we have built; the lives and bodies that our impressiveness have cost; and to find new ways forward.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfections is no reason at all for us not to take it all apart: to live into the transitional time, as hard as it will be. For as nation rises against nation, as we are tempted to fight for our own short-term self-interest, as we are tempted to see other as inherently enemy, God calls us to build something new. God calls us to stand on the side of the widow, the hungry, the homeless, the excluded, the marginalized, in ways that tear down the systems that have been used to exclude and dehumanize.
God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfections should not make us less willing to speak the truth: that we are imperfect, yes, but that we can do better than these human structures that serve the powerful to detriment of the least of these.
For as frightening as it may be for us to acknowledge that our great structures, which inspire in us such awe and reverence still have their flaws, still might not stand; as painful as it may be to see that the structures we love and in which we find God might be built upon the suffering and oppression of those deemed “lesser”, “other”, “enemy”; we recall that God’s grace both forgives and changes us. God’s grace turns our hearts to follow the one who showed us what human flesh is truly capable of doing and of being.
As impossible as it might feel to dismantle the huge, beautiful stones until not one stands upon another; as tempting as it may be to turn inwards, to side with our own; to build, upon existing structures, walls to keep out other nations as they rise up: in so doing we risk being, not betrayed but betrayers of this beloved Creation.
It feels impossible, especially in this time of shaky ground, of transition and uncertainty. But this is the call of our God of grace, for whom and in whom we do our building.
For the stones of human construction cannot stand. The stones of misogyny and racism, of fear and suspicion, cannot contain God, larger than any human creation. The stones of xenophobia and exclusion, of hatred and distrust must fall before we can begin to build the kin-dom. The promises of God cannot be built on that which has been used to exclude and oppress. Rather that which has been must fall before the new city of God, the holy place of peace, can come into existence.
We must learn to choose carefully the stones for our construction. We must learn to build upon compassion, inclusion, equality. We must learn to rely upon God as architect and builder. For only when we have removed the blocks of fear and hatred from our structures; only when we have dismantled the suspicion and fear in which we have tried to contain our God and ourselves, can that time come when the wolf and the lamb lie down together; when the lamb need not fear being devoured and the wolf has no need of getting fat off of the vulnerable. Only then can the marginalized live without the fear of attack, and the privileged share freely their power. Only then shall all eat and be satisfied. Only then shall all live well their days upon this earth. Only then shall we all know the true peace that is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of compassion and justice.
The promises are before us, that the ways we have known – though familiar and sometimes comfortable, though solid and seemingly immovable – need not be our way forward. There is a better way: a way that is good, rather than “good enough”; a way that follows the path of God’s grace; a way that will require something of us, which will cost us; a way to which our uncontainable God is calling us right now.
God’s grace is before us, giving us the words of challenge and of promise. Will we listen? God’s path is before us, leading us along the road to a New Jerusalem, a promised realm of justice, equality and peace. Will we take the first step?
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” -Luke 10:29
“But wanting to justify himself…”
Did you hear that?
The lawyer, so well-versed in scripture, so sure of himself, is testing Jesus. Putting himself in the position of power. Jesus does not let him remain there, but turns the question around… and, put on the defensive, the lawyer seeks to justify himself and how he was living; he who knew the correct answer.
And Jesus told a parable, of a man beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. Of two leaders of the injured man’s own people, who saw him there and distanced themselves. After all, someone in a ditch must have done something to deserve being there. Not to mention that the suffering of others tends to make us… uncomfortable.
And then along came a Samaritan, who not only stopped, but climbed down into the ditch with the injured man. The Samaritan got blood on his hands and dirt on his clothes, gave of himself in time, and heart, and money, for the sake of a total stranger.
Here’s the thing Samaritans and Jews were both Israelites, both descendents of Abraham, both people of the covenant. Samaritans were those who were not deported to Babylon, during the occupation and exile. But essentially, they were the same people, on the same land, with different experiences historically. They had been treated differently by those in power regionally, and had different responses to the powers around them in the region in Jesus’ time. Now, generations after the exile, the differences between the two groups were not simply respected as such – as elements of diversity between members of one family; rather, they were seen as the basis of moral judgment, as the divisive basis between right and wrong. And so these differences between those who should have been kin, one to another, led not to understanding but to distrust, judgment, and fear.
It’s probably a good thing they didn’t have guns.
Despite generations of Christianity, we are no different from those ancient people. We, too, seek to justify the ways we use difference to excuse violence. We pass judgment. We blame the victims, with phrases like “he should have just done what he was told…” and “she should have worn something more modest…” We scour the victim’s past… to find many of the same mistakes we ourselves made, but which in these cases become excuses. We find or create reasons that the traveler lies bleeding in a ditch: reasons that they deserved it; reasons to pass by, eyes averted.
And I am tired of it.
I am tired of hearing us prop up a violent system, in which minor infractions get the death penalty, without benefit of a trial. I am tired of a culture in which existence in wrong place at wrong time gets the death penalty, without benefit of a trial. I am tired of a world in which tell ourselves only way to be safe from violence is to carry instruments of death –death on a large scale – and to kill before we can be killed.
I am tired of hearing the justifications for violence that have sprung up just in the three years since the last time this text came up: days after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in death of Trayvon Martin.
I am tired of the many people who have been reduced to hashtags. I am tired of having their names etched in my soul. I am tired of the justifications that dismiss the lived experiences of our kindred, that insists that equality necessarily means uniformity.
I am tired of the “thoughts and prayers” that don’t change a broken system, that don’t come close to healing this broken body of which we are a part.
I am tired, to my very bones, of the grief to which we have become accustomed; the violence that has become a daily occurrence; the culture and society that we justify, even though we know the answer.
I am tired of preaching a variant of this very same sermon, every single week.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself, we are told, and we, who do not want to do the self-examination, ask who our neighbor is. We look for loopholes, seeking to justify ourselves.
And Jesus tells us a parable.
A child of God lies bleeding by the side of the road, and a religious person comes by, engrossed in a facebook argument. They see the person in ditch, and mumble something about sin and what-can-you-expect, before they go back to posting “all lives matter” on social media. Moments later, a politician comes by, notices and shows their child the person in the ditch, as though the person were not human, but simply an object lesson: don’t let that be you. The politician offers their “thoughts and prayers for the victim and their family,” and goes on their way.
But there is still a child of God bleeding in a ditch, battered and bruised and certain that no one cares.
There is still a child of God: wearing a hoodie. Listening to music in his car. Seeking help after a car accident. Selling loose cigarettes or CDs to survive. Playing shoot-’em-up on the playground. Pulled over for a taillight, or a failure to signal. Attending Bible Study. Holding his wallet or cell phone. Doing exactly what he was told.
There is still a child of God: drunk at a party. Walking home alone at night. Minding their own business on the subway. Being female. Being trans. Simply existing.
There is still a child of God: trying to maintain a good relationship with a distrustful community. Trying to protect innocent lives and the right to free speech and peaceful demostration.
There is still a child of God bleeding in a ditch, waiting for someone who will call them neighbor.
There is still a child of God.
There is still a member of the body of Christ.
In justifying the violence done them, we do violence to Christ.
In dismissing their experiences of suffering, we dismiss the suffering of Christ.
We follow a brown-skinned low-income, unarmed homeless man who was executed by state for insisting that marginalized lives mattered; that we needed to pay particular attention to those who had suffered most and repent clearly and specifically for the love we had failed to extend, for the neighbors we had refused to recognize. We follow a man who believed deeply in the radical notion that love means we climb down into the ditch; that we get bloody and dirty for the sake of the stranger; that we take the time to learn their names:
We follow a man who insisted that we see victims of violence as humans; as kindred to us; as being of one body with us; as those whose lives, whose experiences, whose stories matter. Even if these experiences convict us, even if these stories change us.
We follow a man who believed so deeply in love that he refused violence, even when he knew that he himself would die, a victim of the very violence he refused.
Seeking to justify himself, the lawyer asked Jesus, Who is my neighbor? And Jesus, who believed more deeply than any of us that all lives matter, replied: “Samaritan lives matter.”
Gentile lives matter.
Women’s lives matter.
Marginalized lives matter.
The lives that you do not acknowledge, the lives that push you to justify your own judgment, matter. To say otherwise, to dismiss these lives, is to do violence.
But I tell you: love your neighbor as yourself. For a man of Samaria stopped, to tend to the wounds of the bleeding man, not caring for the dust, the blood he got on his clothes; finding that giving two days’ wages for the life of a stranger was worth it. For a black man stopped, to feed the hungry children before him, and he learned all their names, all their allergies, all their needs; their grief at the death of Philando Castile suggests his love was worth it. For a police officer stopped a black teen in a drug store, the day after Dallas, simply to ask how he was, for both were grieving; and the willingness to engage in mutuality is always worth it.
Who is my neighbor?
Who is our neighbor?
The one who has been hurt. The one who has reason to fear. The one against whom we try to justify violence. The one against whom we try to justify complacency. The one whose difference you see as inherently wrong or threatening. The one you’d rather pass by.
Who is my neighbor?
The one I should love as myself. The one whose life matters, no matter what society says.
Jesus said, to the one who sought to justify himself: who was neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?
He said, “the one who didn’t judge, but got down to the messy, sacred business of caring for the wounded.”
Go and do likewise.
“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.
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?
Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ -Matthew 26: 40-41
Were you there?
It seems an odd question, although it’s a hymn we often sing during the latter part of Holy Week. It’s odd, because really, the whole point is that no one was there. There is tremendous desolation in the way that the synoptic gospels talk of these final days – there are no disciples present at cross, only soldiers and criminals. Even before the actual crucifixion, the sense of loneliness is pervasive: the desertion of Christ by the disciples begins before Jesus was even alone, in the resentments of Judas, in the fears of Peter and the others.
Were you there?
It’s an odd question on another level, as well, of course: these things happened 2000 years ago. Of course none of us were there. But if we had been? For us, to whom this story is familiar; for we who know ending: do we tend to say yes, knowing the grief of these days but also the triumph that is to come? Are we tempted to say, yes, we’d have been there, right at the foot of the cross, bearing witness to the grief, the pain, the torture of crucifixion?
Perhaps we would, and there are some that do; some who are able to be present in such complete pain and loss. We are certainly reminded this week of those people who run towards disaster – the people who ran towards the blasts at last year’s Boston Marathon, who disregarded the very palpable danger to themselves in order to care for the wounded.
Yet this month bears other reminders, as well: of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, 20 years ago, when no one was present. Of the Earth, whose resources we are sacrificing at an astonishing rate despite the knowledge of the pain it is causing us all. This month, we are reminded of all the times that we’ve turned away from suffering; when we’ve distanced ourselves from one another’s experiences. We are reminded of those times when relationship has been sacrificed, love set aside; of the times that human life, and the commandment to love our neighbor, are trumped by quest for power – or or even just the ease of maintaining our own ideas, and the comfort of the status quo. We are reminded, this month, of all the times we have been silent as Christ has been crucified again.
Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, blogged recently about her thoughts, approaching the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing:
This past Friday night at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on Warren Street in Roxbury, I joined about 100 people, mostly from Boston’s predominantly black neighborhoods to pray for all those who have suffered violence in the year since the Boston Marathon bombing. We prayed hard. We sang fiercely. The collection was taken up to pay for the funeral for a young man in the neighborhood who had just been killed. A Mother asked, “Where is our One Fund? Why does his death mean less than any other death? What is my son’s life worth?”…
Jamarhl Crawford [a Boston journalist] speaks of the “regular violence,” a violence that becomes expected in “those places, to those people.” Part of what made the Marathon bombing so communally disruptive was that we don’t expect such violence on Boylston Street as we do on Bluehill Ave…
The Boston Marathon is and can be a potent symbol of our common life: As you stand alongside the route that leads into the city, spectators help cheer the runners along. You hold up your sign to be seen. That’s what I heard these families asking for: to be seen. They are asking to be seen in their grief, in their need, in their mourning and loss.
Were you there? Are any of us?
It seems an odd question, but it is the right one. Jesus calls us to a ministry of presence and of witness: of conscious, active presence – prayerful presence, if it keeps us awake and aware. Of presence beyond ourselves, and our own needs and desires, whether they are for sleep, or for comfort, or for simplicity, or for the status quo. Jesus calls us to a ministry in which we can we be present even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it demands something of us. Can we be present, even when it takes us beyond our comfort zone and our known world: when it requires our energy, our attention, our love? Can we be present, even when that presence calls us to be in relationship with someone we may never know? Can we bear witness to the suffering of this world, and through our witness, send God’s light, and God’s love to counter the despair?
Can we, by our presence – our acknowledgement, our voices lifted in prayer and support – show the suffering they are not alone? that the one crucified in desolation, the one who prayed that lonely prayer in Gethsemane, is present in us? Can we shine our light so that others see, and bear witness as well?
The ministry to which Christ calls us forces us to engage in self-reflection – to ask why we distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of this world, why we can turn aside from the brokenness that doesn’t directly affect us. We are called to open our hearts: to engage in discernment, education, outreach, and love wherever we see Christ crucified, so that we may be, not Boston Strong, but Humanity Strong. We are called to bear with one another, to be as present as the one who has borne our deepest pain, so that we might truly be made one Body in Christ.
We are called to presence, in the Gethsemanes of this life, so that when we are asked “were you there”, we might be able to say, “Yes we were.”
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” -Leviticus 19:18a
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist and evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” -Matthew 5: 38-41
Recently, my local clergy bible study looked at an article about the struggles of liberal theology. That mainline Protestant churches are often in decline is, by now, an old idea – old enough to have become embedded in our day to day life, a latent anxiety that informs our worship, our mission, our pastoring. The causes will be debated for at least the rest of my life; the responses (in the form of new worship styles, liturgies, and ways of being church) will continue to grow and develop. But the point that the author of this article made is one that will haunt both traditional and emergent churches that espouse a liberal, non-static theology:
It is, as we have many times noted, far easier to see the world in black and white. Theologically conservative churches, as a rule, tend to see the world and the bible in those terms: saved or not, worthy or not, us or them. They hand their members a set of very clear guidelines, a certainty about life’s meaning and God’s will in the world that is very compelling. Human beings like rules. We like certainty. We like things to be neat, and orderly, and fit into easily-classified categories.
Liberal theology gives us none of that. Rather, it requires a constant process of thinking, and evaluating. It requires us to engage with the text, to be self-critical, to be open to growth and change and uncertainty. And that is hard. It really is no wonder that churches that embrace such theology don’t see the membership numbers that conservative congregations do – who wants to work that hard on a Sunday morning?
The thing is, I’m not sure that there’s another valid option.
Jesus, throughout his ministry, was constantly urging the people around him to think. The disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds that turned out to hear his preaching: he implored them all not to follow blindly. In many ways, he was engaged in the same conversation that we are, between those who say, “Well, Scripture says…” Jesus, like many liberal Christians of today, asked in return, “But what is God saying?” (“God is still speaking” is far older than the United Church of Christ, it seems.) In asking this question, Jesus is not changing the scriptures, or picking selectively at them – nor, indeed, are the theologically liberal of the 21st century.
God, knowing us intimately and understanding our love of certainty, gave us rules to live by, early on in our history. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, notably, are chock full of “you shall” and “you shall not”. These were rules to bind a community into relationship with one another, and thereby into relationship with God. Leave some of your harvest for the poor and immigrant. Be honest in all your dealings. Love your neighbor as yourself. Yet I have a distinct feeling that Moses hadn’t even had time to draw breath after saying any of this before someone in the crowd muttered, “but what do you really mean by that?”
We love rules, but we love loopholes just as much. We love the security of boundaries almost as much as we love pushing back against that very security. We follow the letter of the law, most of the time, but often we do it begrudgingly. We leave the gleanings of our harvest because we’re supposed to – it’s the rule! – rather than out of concern for those for whom that might be the only source of food. We treat rules (and scripture) as an onerous burden, rather than as a conversation with God, and a chance to be in relationship.
To be in conversation with God – to be in relationship with God – requires something of us. It requires us to engage, to be self-critical, to be open to growth and change and uncertainty… it requires that we leave behind old understandings, that we be willing to disagree with friends and family, perhaps even with our churches. It requires us, sometimes, to be unpopular. Above all, it requires us to think, as Jesus continually pushed us to do. “You have heard it said…” but that is not enough. What are you hearing now? What stirs in your heart and your mind? Think! Think, and love. Love your neighbor as yourself; recognize your shared humanity in every interaction, in every circumstance, wherever rain falls upon us.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself. A scripture from both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, a good place to start our thinking. For this is a text that we, in the Western church, often read from a position of great privilege. We who have, for the most part, not lived under wartime occupation. We, who have not been entirely dependent upon the kindness of others, but have lived in societies with social safety nets. We have not been indentured into servitude, or been in danger of it. We have never been entirely without legal recourse, or status. And so the natural way for us to read the injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves is to see it as a reminder of how to treat others.
But there are two sides to every coin, and many of Jesus’ listeners were not on our side. These were not the privileged, but the abused, the occupied, the ones familiar with violence, servitude. These were the people who had been consistently dehumanized; the ones for whom love of self – let alone love of neighbor! – was nearly impossible. Certainly, there were privileged people listening as well – there were always Pharisees about when Jesus spoke – but these verses from the Sermon on the Mount are quite clearly destined for one particular audience.
“You have heard it said, ‘an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you…” turn the other cheek. Give your cloak as well. Go the extra mile.
It sounds like doormat theology. It doesn’t sound loving at all, but masochistic, or possibly passive-aggressive. But that is our 21st Century cultural perspective talking. Jesus’ words urged his hearers – the despised and unworthy of 1st Century Palestine – to assert their own humanity, their right to be loved.
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek…” consider that for a moment. The easiest way to strike someone’s right cheek is with the left hand. But that was taboo in Jesus’ culture – as, indeed, it still is in parts of the Middle East, where the left hand is considered unclean. To use it to strike anyone – no matter their social status! – was entirely unthinkable. And impractical: in a culture that forbids the use of the left hand, it’s bound to be the weaker hand. If you’re going to bother hitting someone, wouldn’t you use your stronger hand?
But it is very hard to land a punch from the right hand onto someone else’s right cheek. To strike another’s right cheek with your right hand requires you to backhand them across the face – a blow that, in 1st Century Palestine, signified lesser status. To backhand someone showed that they were not worthy of your touch. It was a blow reserved for the despised, the less-than. So for that person, having just been told clearly that they are inferior, to turn the other cheek is defiant. It is to challenge the one who claims superiority to strike again, but to strike a blow – right hand to left cheek – that would mark the opponent as an equal. It is to turn social conventions against the one using them, and to demand recognition of one’s own humanity.
All of these instructions, which without context would seem to counsel us to allow cruelty free reign, were equally subversive. One’s coat was the last thing that could be given a creditor in debtor’s court; to give the cloak as well was to strip oneself bare – and bring more shame on the person who caused the nakedness, than upon the one who was naked. Not to mention the chance to draw a curious crowd, who would then all know the infamy of the creditor who had reduced a person to the utter vulnerability of nakedness!
Likewise, although it was legal for occupying Roman soldiers to press anyone into service to carry their pack for a mile, any further distance was not permitted by Roman law. For a Jew to insist upon going further than that mile was to put the soldier into a quandary: do you risk breaking your own laws, or do you humble yourself enough to ask (!) this Jew to give back your belongings, and risk that he’ll say no? Do you risk the wrath of your commander, or do you risk giving power to the occupied?
I imagine that many of those listening to Jesus, in that moment, were whistling and cheering the subversive tactics of resistance that he was teaching. But more than simple resistance to practical problems facing many of his audience, Jesus was encouraging thought, and creativity, and love. He was laying out the possibility of a situation in which no one needed to be put down or dehumanized, but in which common humanity could be both demanded and granted, and equality – even momentary equality – achieved.
You have heard it said, repay violence with violence. But Jesus said, Assert your humanity: do not let others choose whether you are loveable, or equal, or worthy. Assert your humanity without lowering yourself to the level of those who would dehumanize you; without stooping to violence, either physical or emotional. Do not actively resist and evildoer: do not cause them the pain or injury that they are seeking to cause you, do not return violence for violence or cruelty for cruelty, but stand up for your humanity, your capacity for love, your capacity for creativity.
And that is hard. It requires us to think – to use our faculties of reason and judgment and all of those parts of our brain that usually shut down when we are upset. Jesus is pushing us to go beyond our instincts, the ones that are most active when we are afraid, or hurt, or angry, or have just been backhanded. And Jesus is pushing us to assert this thinking, loving, fully-human part of ourselves on our own behalf before all else: to stand up and assert that we are better than the lowest-common-denominator responses of fear or vengeance.
Because, as the old saying goes, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth only puts us in an eyeless, toothless world… in which we cower from each other, scared, blind, and defenseless, having lost all that makes us human; having lost the image of God that is present in each and every one of us on whom the rain may fall: sisters and brothers, resident and immigrant, rich and poor, us and them.
So no, I don’t think it’s hard to be a liberal Christian. I think it’s hard to be a Christian. Period.
It is hard to be thinking creatures in moments of stress, to use the thoughtfulness and love with which we were created. It is hard to follow Christ beyond the actual words, into the living work of discipleship. It is hard to give up even our illusions of control and let the Spirit guide us beyond ourselves. It is hard to seek God, never knowing what we might find, or where we might find it, or what it might demand of us.
It is hard, but it is our call: to be creative in the face of violence and anger, to be loving in the midst of fear and despair, to be powerful in the midst of weakness, to be disciples and followers of the servant Christ. We are called to be subversives in a dominant culture: within the walls of our churches, within our communities, and throughout the world, wherever the rain might fall.
And Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” -Luke 12:15
Throughout the Bible, there are texts that make us all cringe; ones that we wish had not been included in this book of Holy Scripture. But I would wager that for most of us, this is not one of those texts. The ones that bother us tend to portray God as angry or judgmental, or suggest that we should, as well. The texts that make us uncomfortable are the ones that would seem to suggest that if we do not walk the straight-and-narrow, God might stop loving us. But passages like this one – and the majority of economic texts that make up the majority of the Gospels – these are familiar, and comfortable, and generally make us feel pretty good about ourselves. And this one! well, this is a story about selfish people – a brother who wants more than his share, a rich old fool who doesn’t know what to do with his wealth! They’re not like us!
This passage is also comforting for the very reasonable nature of the original premises. (Which, in passing, should probably clue us in right there: God is very rarely reasonable.) We learned in Kindergarten that we ought to share. Not too long after, we learned to save our pennies for “just in case”. It took us a lot longer to learn that “make him share!” is often more an expression of our own greed and desire than it is a cry for justice; and that we humans very rarely know what “just in case” really means.
What do we value? If our lives do not consist of abundant possessions… then what?
The rich man was not inherently bad for having all those crops. It must have been a good year, with adequate division of rain and sun. It’s likely that he was an able manager of his land, but as all good farmers will tell you, skill will only get you so far, and a lot relies on luck. That year, the rich man was lucky. As are many of us, who have regular incomes – which don’t make us bad people, assuming of course that our incomes are made honestly and with no harm to others. But once we have that income, once we have gathered those crops – then what? The measure of our lives is not in the accumulation of possessions, but in the contemplation of that accumulation.
Fill in the blank: you just received a windfall – a huge amount of money, so big that you never thought you’d see figures like that in your own bank account! You look at your bank statement and think, “Wow. NOW I can ___________.”
Would now be a bad time to remind you that God heard that thought?
Is that what you would say to God, if you came face-to-face?
I don’t know about you, but this text is making me pretty uncomfortable, all of a sudden.
Not uncomfortable in the “that doesn’t sound like the God I know!” sense – the one I’m used to.
But rather in the “that sounds entirely like the God I know, and maybe God’s talking to me…” sense.
Because I understand the rich man’s relief from worry. The impulse to allow myself to relax, to live in a reduced sense of urgency and worry… only separates me further from those who still worry each and every day. Who worry more about the roof over the heads and the food on their tables than I ever have. The impulse to store away what I have gathered and reduce my own stress in the process only shows up my privilege, my sense of deserving the good that I receive. It highlights the implication that those who don’t receive such good must not deserve it. The implication that I am somehow better. That we are better than they, that there are inherent differences in people, blessed and damned, rich and poor, hard-working and lazy, us and them…
Look at that. Not only is this passage suddenly making me uncomfortable, it’s making me defensive, too.
in truth, I cannot separate myself from anyone else. No one can. Not if we want to call ourselves Christians, at any rate. Not if we want to follow the God that we do, in fact, recognize in this passage.
What do we value? A culture of meritocracy, of possessions, of human preparation for the worst “just in case”? Do our lives consist merely of this?
Or of each other?
Fr. Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, wrote a memoir of his ministry in Los Angeles, entitled Tattoos on the Heart. He describes his parish, Dolores Mission: a church that takes in gang members, the homeless, and recent immigrants, gives them a new chance. He describes some of the struggles of the church:
Once, while I turn the corner in front of the church, heading to a CEB meeting in the projects, I am startled by letters spray-painted crudely across the front steps:
The chill of it momentarily stops me. In an instant, you begin to doubt and question the price of things. I acknowledge how much better everything is when there is no cost and how I prefer being hoisted on shoulders in acclaim to the disdain of anonymous spray cans…
Petra Saldana, a normally quiet member of the group, takes charge.
“You will not clean that up… If there are people in our community who are disparaged and hated and left out because they are mojados (wetbacks)…” Then she poises herself on the edge of the couch, practically ready to leap to her feet. “Then we shall be proud to call ourselves a wetback church.”
These women didn’t just want to serve the less-fortunate, they were anchored in some profound oneness with them and became them…
It was at about this time that a man drove by the church and stopped to talk to me. He was Latino, in a nice car, and had arrived at some comfortable life and living. He knew I was the pastor. He waxed nostalgic about having grown up in the projects and pointed to the church and said he had been baptized and made his first communion there.
Then he takes in the scene all around him. Gang members gathered by the bell tower, homeless men and women being fed in great numbers in the parking lot. Folks arriving for the AA and NA meetings and the ESL classes…
“You know,” he says, “This used to be a church.”
I mount my high horse and say, “You know, most people around here think it’s finally a church.” …
The people at Dolores Mission had come to embody Wendell Berry’s injunction: “You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.”*
It wasn’t always smooth sailing: it’s not always popular, not always easy, to break the barriers that we have erected to keep out the “them”, to keep ourselves comfortable. To give of our wealth, our sacred spaces, to someone who doesn’t think or act like us.
Yet that is our call.
You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.
You have to be able to value one another, more than our own security, our own sense of self. You have to trust in the community to which God calls us: this Body of Christ of which we are all part. You have to trust enough that the storehouses you build shelter, not possessions, but people. To be willing to live “in the paradox of precariousness. The money was never there when you needed it, and it was always on time.”**
In a culture of “I”, Christ calls us to a faith of “we”. A faith of recognizing the gifts we are given, the blessings received – bumper crops, large salaries – as grace, rather than as desserts. As opportunity, as responsibility, rather than as a mark of favor. In a culture that tells us that no one is watching out for us, that we have to rely entirely on ourselves, we are called to rely entirely on God, on the Body of Christ. We are called to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and love our neighbor as we love ourselves, and as we love God. More than that, however, we are called to trust that we ourselves will be fed, and housed, and loved as though we ourselves were the image of God upon this earth.
In a culture that measures our lives in dollars and cents, we are called to a different measure, a different standard. We are called to a different culture, and a long-expected kin-dom. Thanks be to God!
*Boyle, Gregory: Tattoos on the Heart: the power of Boundless Compassion. NY: Free Press. 2010. pp 71, 73-74.
**Ibid, p. 5
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem into Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers…” Luke 10: 29-30a
Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. – Deuteronomy 30:11
Who is my neighbor?
The man awoke to find that his nightmare had been reality. He could barely move, although the gravel under his cheek was uncomfortable and the odor of the nearby trashcans was suffocating. His friends had warned him never to walk home alone, at night, but then his car had broken down, and what other choice did he have? He wasn’t even sure, thinking back, where the attackers had come from – just materialized out of the shadows, it had seemed, delivering a beating that probably should have killed him. Certainly, they’d left him there as though he were dead, caring more for his wallet, keys and phone than for his life. He tried not to think about what they were doing now – emptying his account, probably. So much for rent, for bills this month… so much for being even a little bit ahead, it would be paycheck to paycheck for a while to come. If he survived.
He thought about his family, how worried they would be. Not now, he hoped; he’d told them not to wait up, that he’d be home later. Would it be morning before they noticed? Before someone came looking for him? Would he make it that long?
With as much strength as he could muster, he lifted his head. He was close to the entrance to the alley, close to the street – perhaps someone would see him? He blinked, sure he was seeing things, but sure enough – there was actually someone walking up his side of the street! A minister, he was sure of it – the white collar glowing slightly in the glare of the streetlamps. He rested his head on the pavement again, exhausted from even that little bit of movement. Surely the minister would see him, there in the alley? Surely he would get help…
It was a long time before he could open his eyes again; long enough that he was sure the minister ought to have gotten to him by then. What was taking so long? For that matter, where had he gone? The street was empty. Wait: almost empty. Was that an angel, under that streetlamp, dressed in white? He squinted; no, it was a doctor, or someone – the white was a lab coat. He considered trying to drag himself closer to the street, where he could not be missed, but even the effort it was taking to keep his eyes open was too much. He lay where he was, straining to hear footsteps; for a moment, he was certain that he could, but then the sound was gone without having come close, without having passed by the alley. He raised his head and looked the other way up the street… but it couldn’t be…. wasn’t that the doctor, over there on the other side, walking away? And a couple blocks further up, the minister?
He tried to understand. They had to have seen him, but perhaps they were late – going to midnight mass, or going to surgery? Perhaps they couldn’t stop and get messy right then… but the church and the hospital were both in the opposite direction…
His head fell again, and he felt a wave of drowsiness that had little to do with the late hour. So this is it, he thought, this is how I will die.
Barely conscious, it took a moment to feel the arm that slipped around his shoulders, pulling him gently up. It took less time to register the horrible smell – of stale alcohol, urine, and something else, indefinable and nauseating. A low muttering reached his ears, apparently not directed at him at all. He would have struggled, had he been able to – he was sure that this was another robber, picking over the remains like a vulture to see if anything had been missed. But then he was scooped up and set upon something squishy but not comfortable… a gentle hand wiped blood and dirt from his face, and then they were moving, rattling along with a squeaking wheel. The squeaking, the rattle, the low mumblings lulled him.
Bright lights and louder voices roused him somewhat, tho he still could not open his eyes. He was lifted again, by sturdy, antiseptic-smelling arms; he could sense many people bustling about him but could not make sense of anything; he slipped again into unconsciousness.
When he woke, it was to the dim light of a hospital room, the beeping of monitors, the quiet presence of a nurse. “How did I get here?” he asked.
“Old Joe,” she replied. “You know, the homeless man who sleeps under the bridge? He wheeled you up here in his shopping cart…”
Who is my neighbor?
“Surely the commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.” Like Naaman last week, who balked at the simple order to go wash himself in the Jordan, sometimes we’d rather get the complicated assignments. Perhaps that’s why we enjoy the disciplines of Lent – we feel like we’re earning something, like we can prove to ourselves that we’re really up to the challenge of faith.
But the commandment that we have been given should be challenge enough, for all its simplicity. Whether in Deuteronomy or in Luke, we are told simply to love God and to love our neighbor. Every day. Every moment. Without ceasing. And that is hard, actually, and there are certainly times when we wish it were farther away – there is truth in the old adage that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Like Naaman, we rail at something that seems too simple, that demands only that we leave behind our provincial biases, our human judgments, our comfortable assumptions.
Who is my neighbor?
We use the term “Good Samaritan” a lot in our culture, but mostly we don’t use it correctly. Because the Samaritan is not someone who looks like us; it is not someone that we would expect to see coming to our rescue – or even that we might want to see, coming to our rescue. Rather, the Samaritan is the person whom we would normally look down upon, or seek to avoid, or be disgusted by. Most of us in this congregation will probably never be someone’s Samaritan, not really.
Yet this parable is still for us, in many ways. It is for us because it is written from the perspective of the man in the ditch; the man who was beaten and left for dead; the one who was forced to see God in unexpected, unwanted places, and who might have preferred to push away the only hand that offered him help.
It is for us because we are the ones called to love our neighbors – even the Samaritans. It is for us because love is not a one-way street; it is given but also received. To be a neighbor, to have a neighbor, is necessarily to be in relationship with someone. Even when, at times, we’d rather not.
Who is my neighbor?
Old Joe was walking, simply walking. Pushing his cart of belongings before him, debating with himself where he might sleep that night. Sometimes he noticed the looks people gave him as he passed, and he would realize that he’d been talking to himself, but mostly he had learned to ignore others. It was easier than seeing their looks of disgust, or worse, watching their gaze just slide right over him, as though he didn’t exist. They didn’t understand, and they didn’t want to, so Joe had no time for them. Seems he had no time for a lot of people, recently.
He’d had a hard war, that’s what they’d said then. What they hadn’t said was that war wasn’t nearly as hard as coming home. Drink had helped, but try telling that to any of the bosses that had fired him over the years – how much worse it would have been if he hadn’t been drinking! No one ever saw it like that, though. No one ever saw him like that, for that matter.
Old Joe couldn’t remember when he’d last had a home that wasn’t under a bridge… and even that was tough right now, with all the rain they’d had. He was going to have to try to find someplace drier, he told himself, someplace where he and his things wouldn’t get washed downstream. But someplace where he wouldn’t have to wake up to the glares of his neighbors, the ones who considered him slightly less than a bag of garbage…
Suddenly, Joe was startled from his train of thought. He’d been sure that both the doctor and the minister had been just ahead of him, going up the road… he looked around, momentarily confused, and saw that both had crossed to the other side of the street. He frowned after them, uncertain what to make of this development, when out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of something in the alley. Old Joe stepped closer, then knelt by the battered and bleeding figure.
He knew him. Well, he knew many like him: well-dressed, even when casual – must be some sort of business man or something. The kind who barely acknowledged Joe’s existence, except to glare at him for daring to live in the same town. The kind who would never acknowledge a shared humanity, who considered Joe to be no more than a blot on the landscape, something that pulled the town’s economy down. Something inconvenient and unwanted.
Why should he help this guy? If the situations were reversed, Joe was pretty sure that the guy wouldn’t have given him a second glance; that he would have crossed the street… Joe looked up at the retreating back of the doctor, just barely visible and already blocks away. He sighed, looking again at the man in the alley. Was he no better than they, that he’d consider leaving this guy to die? If there was one thing Joe had learned in the war, it was that you didn’t ever leave a buddy.
As Joe hoisted the man into his arms, and laid him on the plastic bags of clothes in the shopping cart, he wondered aloud how the man would react if he were to wake up? Would he be disgusted by Joe? Push him away – the ultimate indignity from a man only half-alive? Joe paused: was he really willing to risk such rejection? Sighing, he turned the cart and pushed his way back to the hospital.
Who is my neighbor?
Am I his?
Surely this commandment is not too hard for you…
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” John 10: 24-25
I think it’s safe to say that this has been an incredibly tough week for everyone. This has been a week when the unthinkable happened, close to home. This has been a week of grief: a week in which we lost a little bit more of our innocence. I think that all of us wanted to believe, in those first minutes and hours, that this was an accident, that the manhole covers had blown up, as they had in Harvard Square a couple of years ago. But the words came up, as they were going to; not as much on Monday but over the course of the week. This was an act of terror, with all of the baggage that the word now has attached to it, whether or not we ever wanted it to, about race and ethnicity and nationality and motivation. But this was an act that did, in fact, terrify us; we who live close to Boston, who have ties to the city, many of us who knew people who were at the race.
But by far the most terrifying thing, to me, at any rate, was listening to the rampant, unbridled speculation in which every noise was the next bomb, and every backpack was suspicious, and every nerve was kept on edge for as long as possible. Over the course of the week every possible motivation was aired, and everyone who looked suspicious was wrongly accused.
We don’t do well with not knowing. We are vry curious creatures, and there are days when I wonder if God knew what God was doing when adding “curiosity” to the human mix. I wonder if God realized before we ate the fruit off that tree in Eden just where curiosity would lead us. BEcause you can’t really blame the snake for that one – human beings would have eaten that fruit eventually because we just had to know what it was that was so cool that we couldn’t have it. We have to experience things first hand. We have to touch and grab and taste, and if you don’t believe me, think about this: how many times have you taken a bite or a sip of something and said to the person with you, “Oh, this is so awful, you have to taste it!” And the thing is, we do.
We have to know, we have to experience.
Curiosity isn’t all bad – it isn’t all bad tastes and experiences – it got us this far, for better or for worse. We are innovative, creative people who build beautiful churches, lighted with electricity, with sound amplification and everything. We are constantly asking, constantly seeking, constantly striving, and that is not always a bad thing. But we’re like toddlers, inevitably asking “but why? but why?” I think the reason that the continual toddler questioning drives us so crazy is that we want to be doing the same thing; we’ve just learned how annoying it is. It’s not annoying because we don’t want to know, ourselves, but because we don’t have the answers despite the curiosity. It reminds us of all the things that we don’t know. Sometimes the constant asking “why” is a good thing: it allows us to get to know one another better, it allows us to get to know our environment. But sometimes it’s not quite the right question; sometimes it’s that we’re too impatient for an answer; or more likely, that the answer we get does not fit our own worldview. All too often, we pit our intellect against emotion and experience, weighting one more heavily than the other, as we seek the answer. And inevitably, we do ask why, but equally inevitably, we answer that question within our own minds and our own hearts, and those answers can be very hard to change.
Jesus is in the Temple on Hanukkah. That’s what the Feast of Dedication is, in case you were wondering, in case that helps you locate this text, within the Gospels. Hanukkah is the feast in which we celebrate not only the liberation of an occupied city – because Jerusalem was occupied, and the Temple was used to worship gods other than the God of Israel – it was totally desecrated, according to the Jews. Can you imagine how violating that must have felt? And then a rebellion, lead by Judas Maccabeus, drove out the occupiers, and they were able to cleanse and rededicate the Temple. That is what Hanukkah celebrates, that’s what Jesus was in the Temple to celebrate, and that’s the context for the question he was asked. And within all of that is the fear that prompted the question in the first place. Remembered fear, re-experienced fear, is every but as real as current fear, and we have the same responses to uncertainty and not knowing: this time, shouldn’t we be able to do something? Shouldn’t we somehow be ready?
That is what was running through the heads of those Jews in Solomon’s portico, face to face with Jesus: these Jews in an occupied Jerusalem, worrying that once again, their Temple might be desecrated, might be destroyed again. Wondering who might rescue them this time. So: Jesus, tell us plainly, are you the next Judas Maccabeus? Because we’d really like it if you were. Could you go on, get a move on, get the Romans out of Jerusalem, maybe before the Temple gets desecrated this time? They don’t know the answer to their question: they hope, they desire, but they don’t know. The problem is that there is still a correct answer to their question, even though it wasn’t the one Jesus gave.
This text was very much stuck in my head all week. It’s not a totally uncommon thing to have happen, I do read the texts through several times during my sermon preparation, and during Bible Study… but I think it goes deeper than that. Because it resonated, this week, as I followed the news cycle, as I listened to the press conferences, and to what people were saying about what happened this week, and as time and time and time again people asked, “Why?” And it occurred to me that when we ask “why”, when we ask questions like that, we’re not really asking questions. What we’re saying when we ask “Why”, is “Well, isn’t it because…”; we’re suggesting answers, and giving leading questions that only really serve to display our own biases for all the world to see. And we become angry when we don’t hear what we expect, when we don’t have our own biases and opinions confirmed. Every press conference, all week long. Every interaction on social media, all week long. And it shouldn’t surprise us. This is not a new, human reaction to the events of this one, past week. We’ve been hearing these same, leading questions; these same, expected answers, for the past several years around climate change. All those climate scientists who have been questioned, and poked, and prodded, and held up to ridicule and scorn among those who want human ingenuity and human innovation to be always good and never bad – we didn’t mean any harm, after all. Among those who do not want to give up the comfort and convenience that this modern life can offer us, for the responsibility that might be involved in actually hearing those scientists. It’s the same thing we heard from those who questioned Jesus; when his own answer didn’t satisfy them, in the next verse – the part we didn’t read – they took him out to stone him. It’s a pretty gruesome, horrible scanario: “we didn’t like your answer, we’re going to kill you now.” It sounds like overkill, but how many stones have we cast upon climate scientists? And how many stones have we cast upon the media, when we, ourselves, have forced them in to a rapid-fire, twenty-four-hour news cycle, where being first is far more important than being accurate; where the reporting is fraught with cynicism, with biases showing from every which way, where rumors are what are reported until they are proven entirely false. And heaven forbid we do not hear what we want or expect to hear.
So what do we hear?
What do we hear in those moments when we actually sit, quietly, and listen? What do we hear in Jesus’ response to those who would have him be the next Maccabeus? What do we hear, but the still, small voice of God who is still speaking, calling us to open our hearts and our minds to the movement of God right here and right now. We hear a reminder that God is present among us, right here and right now; that God is always present among us. That when we don’t know, when we don’t understand – which is frequent – that it might be because we are asking the wrong question, and that we are more intent upon ourselves than upon God.
Maybe the question isn’t whether the climate is changing, but whether we are treating the Earth as we would treat God incarnate. Maybe the question isn’t whether the climate is changing, but whether we are honoring our relationships with one another, humans and non-humans, really holding those and honoring those relationships, and only using that which we really need, rather than that which we simply desire.
Maybe the question to be asked is not “So, where were you on Monday anyway, God?” although that is one being asked. Maybe the question is what it is that God requires of us, on a day like Monday. Because I think that we’ve all come to the point now where we are learning to see God present in moments like that, to see God in the flashing lights and the first responders and the many, many people who ran towards the danger. To see God present in those who finished a 26.2 mile marathon and then kept on running to the hospital to give blood. But if we’re all affected, and I think we all were, this week, doesn’t that make each and every one of us first responders? And doens’t htat call into question where we see God?
Maybe the question isn’t, actually, “Why?” Maybe the question isn’t, actually, “Why would anyone do this?” But the question is how any one person could get to such a deep place of pain and isolation. The desire to inflict pain can only come out of a place of pain and fear. It is easier to dehumanize the perpetrators; it is easier to see them as monsters, to see them only as they currently are. But I defy any one among you to look into the eyes of a baby, and to claim that they are a monster and born that way. I defy any one among you, sitting here with Christ as our head and cornerstone, and say that any one human being is irredeemable. Because that’s what you would be saying, if you said that these men were nothing but monsters.
It is a lot easier to create a category of “other” – of “not like us” – by virtue of race or ethnicity or immigration status. To make these people different. It is far easier to do that than it is to love our neighbors as ourselves. To weep for their fear and their pain as we would for our own, even when we don’t understand it. But let’s face it: who else really does understand our fear, or our pain?
It is easier to say that they don’t deserve our love; that they don’t deserve our prayers, that they don’t deserve even our system of justice. All of that has been said this week. But God doesn’t see things the way we do. God doesn’t act on merit. If God did, we would not be sitting here right now. We would not be Christians; there would be no Christians, because there would have been no Christ, sent to a people who we cannot say deserved to have love incarnate walk among them.
Maybe the question is not, now, how we keep ourselves or our own cities safe. But it is the same question that it has always been: how do we love our neighbors.
Maybe the question is not, now, about national security – that’s not our job, after all. It is not about how we intercept the next plot. Because maybe the question is not about this realm at all, and never has been. Maybe the question is about bringing God’s realm – that is our call, that is our discipleship. Maybe the question is about how we fill the next broken heart, how we soothe the next wounded spirit. Perhaps it is the one sitting next to you, today.
Maybe the question we should be asking is the one for which our scriptures give the same answer over, and over, and over, and over, until you’re sick of hearing it preached from the pulpit every single Sunday. But maybe it’s the answer to the question that we should be asking. And if we listen, then the Kingdom might be a whole lot closer than any of us know.