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We love because he first loved us. Those who say “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. – 1 John 4: 19-20

As we work our way through this “Be the Church” series, so many of the phrases seem like no-brainers. We hear, “how to be the church: protect the environment, reject racism, embrace diversity” and most of us nod and say “well, of course.” I doubt there’s a single one of these phrases that we’ve read and been really shocked.

But this one: Love God. Isn’t this the most evident one? Isn’t it really our reason for being here? This one phrase, towards the end of the banner, feels more like a starting point than a goal toward which we, as a church, need to strive.

The idea of loving God echoes throughout scripture, from the phrase in Deuteronomy that has become a crucial prayer for our Jewish cousins: Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might. This phrase reappears in the Gospels, where it is both quoted and added to: we are called to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And one might argue that all the rest of our Bible is just commentary on this one point that Jesus called the greatest commandment – commentary to which he added in abundance. And if we spend page upon page of scripture, parable after parable of gospel story, point after point of history and prophecy and reflection exploring what this one commandment actually looks like in practice, then maybe it’s safe to say that “Love God” isn’t nearly the no-brainer we’d like it to be.

In his extrapolation on the greatest commandment, Jesus reminds us to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. The author of the epistle we read this morning emphasizes this point: that love of God cannot be separated from love of neighbor, from the love of those who are created, as we are, in God’s image. Which doesn’t leave much wiggle-room, though we seem to keep trying to find a loophole.

Several years ago, the British actor Russell Brand had a short-lived talk show, one segment of which has stayed with me. He invited two members of Westboro Baptist onto his set, to explain why they picketed funerals, pride celebrations, and churches like ours. Brand took the opportunity to ask how, in the light of such scriptures as we heard today, the folks at Westboro could preach such hatred? Their answer: it wasn’t hatred, but love. They did love the world, they said, so it was their duty to save it from the sins they saw as pervasive in our culture. And though I think that we can all recognize the corruption of the word love here, from a group whose signs often read “God Hates [fill in the blank],” it strikes me that the clear example here underlines the slipperiness we sometimes experience in acting out of a place of love. Because I have heard, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this, the shaming of women – over  their weight, their clothes – supposedly for the sake of their health, their attractiveness to a partner, their safety in this world.  All of which are seemingly benign, even positive reasons; all of which leave tremendous scars and can have devastating consequences to their physical and mental health. I have heard the loving parents who seemingly don’t want their child teased – again, a reason that seems utterly benign! – and so enforce conformity to social norms around what toys they use, what sports they play, what clothes they wear, until the child loses their self entirely, loathing their own impulses and doubting their own dreams. Is this love?

I have heard the people, bare-faced yesterday in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, shouting their torch-lit certainty that only certain people are worthy of love, and that the rest are an infestation to be removed rather than beloved children of the creator. I’ve heard the assertion, in the name of fairness and love, that both sides – the armed and the unarmed, the prayerful and the threatening, the murderous and the self-defending – bear equal responsibility for violence.

I have heard corrective love, which says, “I love you so I’m going to tell you how wrong you are.”

I have heard inward-focused love, which says, “I love my people so much I’m going to get rid of the people not like us.”

I have heard conditional love, which says, “I love you, but I’d love you so much more if you’d change.”

I have heard tremendous harm done to human hearts and human relationships in the name of love, in the name of a loving God.

Having heard all of that, I tell you truly that we are failing at that greatest commandment, whether by constraining our own willingness to love, or by remaining silent in the face of an unjust, unloving world. And if we are failing at this commandment, I’m not sure how well we’re doing at loving God.

Because the person who quizzed Jesus about what it would take to achieve the Kin-dom knew the commandment. He knew to love God, knew to love his neighbor… but he still had to ask the question that we so often seem to ask, which is as much about how we love, as it is about whom we love. And Jesus told him a parable: about how the people who did things differently, the people we’d be tempted to “lovingly” correct in their beliefs, their manners, their ways of worship, might be the ones who could teach us a thing or two about what it really looks like to love. Jesus told a parable about how love is going to mean getting our hands dirty, about how it might cost us emotionally and financially, about how it might be the way into the Kin-dom of God.  Jesus told a parable about how the refusal to see the suffering of another, no matter how different, is a form of violence; not how we bring about the Kin-dom. Jesus told a parable in which we are reminded that love cares for a person as they are; that love seeks to heal, not to harm; that love sees the image of God in another – even the most different, despised other – and makes God visible in this world.

The love that we are called to embody is the love that we have known first from God: the love which is uncritical, unconditional; which sees in us the reflection of the divine, the creation which is blessed by God from the beginning of the world. The love that we are called to embody is is both incredibly simple and extremely difficult, because it calls us to see each other – beyond the familiar, beyond the known, beyond the comfortable; to see each other as we have been seen by God, to see each other as though we were seeing God. It calls for us to care as much about the stranger as we do about our own people; to remember that we are all kin, we are all siblings – of all shapes, all sizes, all genders, all colors – images of our one God walking through this world.

To love God is to love the presence of the divine made visible in that which God created, made present in our care for each other, without condition, without reservation; without harm, or shame, or correction.

And I hope that is, in fact, why we are here.

I hope that this is our starting point, when we come into worship, whether or not we consider this love a no-brainer. Because the love of God, present here in us all, is indeed the foundation on which we build all the other ways we are the church.  The vision we cultivate here of God’s image in us all – those who look like us, who think like us, and those who do not; those who are familiar to us, and those who are not – is the beginning of faith, the beginning of discipleship. I hope that we come here to begin the practice of seeing God in those who are not just like us, and of being seen as carrying God’s image within us. I hope that we come here to begin the practice of loving, and of being loved, in this place as we are with God, so that we can carry that practice out into the world and love our God by loving one another: all of us, who are created in God’s image, all of us, who are held by God’s grace, all of us, who are siblings to one another in God’s love.

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O God, do not keep silence; do not hold your peace or be still, O God! Even now your enemies are in tumult; those who hate you have raised their heads… Do to them as you did to Midian, as to Sisera and Jabin and the Wadi Kishon, who were destroyed at En-Dor, who became dung for the ground.  Ps. 83: 1-2, 9-10

image courtesy of the United Church of Christ.

 

 

In 1969, psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published a paper in which she outlined the  five stages of grief.  These have been popularized and repeated, until most of us know the concept, at least. However, as just about anyone who’s really been consumed by grief has likely felt, knowing that there are five stages doesn’t always mean we allow time for them. Much more common, in our culture, is a certain impatience with the process of grieving. “Aren’t you over it yet?” and “just move on” have become common phrases in a society which no longer honors at least a year of mourning – as we did a century ago. Modern America would much rather not dwell in the pain of grief and loss.

This may seem an odd entry point into a sermon on forgiveness, but I wonder if it really is: as with grief, our culture pushes us to “get over it” and “move on” from the pain not just of death but of all broken relationships, all hurts that we receive. And where at least with grief, there is some acceptance of a need for time to heal, with other hurts we are pushed to “forgive and forget” quickly as possible. Yet the very human inability to do so, in many cases, sends people into my office time and again, ashamed of the time it takes to do the work of forgiveness.  We hold up the communities around the victims of the shootings at Mother Emmanuel AME in Charleston, or the school in the  Amish town of Nickel Mines, PA, as paragons of Christian faith for their early public declarations of forgiveness… and then fear for our own faith when we can’t do likewise.

We forget that as with grief, forgiveness isn’t really a once-off thing, but a process of restoration and healing by oneself and in community.

Just as the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – are all aspects of the grieving process, so too there are aspects of forgiveness which we tend to lump into one. And this makes the task of preaching on the idea of forgiveness a very hard thing indeed. Because I don’t even know what forgiveness means, half the time; we use this word in so many ways, assign to it so many meanings, that, for me, at least, it’s become meaningless. “Forgiveness” has become simply a catch-all word for a myriad of little steps towards a still-slippery end goal.

In a lot of ways, I think I’d be more comfortable if this sermon series included the topic “repent often.” Despite the possible  connotations of hellfire and brimstone which we associate with repentance, I like the sense of responsibility: if you do wrong, own it. When you apologize, mean it. Turn your heart with compassion on the person you hurt and make it better.  “Repent often” at least speaks to the power dynamic involved, and suggests that the one who does the hurting, rather than the victim of the hurt,      is responsible for repairing the breach. Such a stance is scriptural, even – repentance makes up the meat of whole books of prophecy, we see it as a frequent theme of Gospels. Jesus said it, so it must be important, right?

But the chosen phrase is forgive often. You, who have been hurt, you get to do the work… which seems unfair at first. But here, too, we encounter key themes of Scripture: in the Jesus who reminds us to turn the other cheek, go the extra mile; to not let our victimhood define us but to reclaim our humanity, our dignity, and to insist that even in our hurt, we are treated as an equal. It is likewise a theme of scripture to feel deeply the injustices done, even to feel anger at being so hurt. There are many instances in which we are reminded that it’s okay to rant at God, as the Psalmist does, for the sake of acknowledging the depth of our hurt.       There is a reason the stages move from denial to anger, in forgiveness as in grief, as we measure the impact of pain on our lives and claim the unfairness of it, in the face of our inherent worth.

For particularly in Gospels, we hear clearly the phrase “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” and recall that it means we must start by loving ourselves.  We must start by seeing ourselves as worthy of being well-treated.

A lot of times, when I hear people talk about forgiveness, this is what they mean, and forgiveness is the reclaiming of the self:        the refusal to be bound by the act that harmed them. I heard this clearly in a conversation with a woman who had been assaulted, who noted that she can’t undo what happened, and doesn’t now know who she would be had it not happened. The key, for her, was in learning to love herself as she was, despite a painful past.

 

Is this forgiveness? the release of resentment, the learning to be at peace with one’s past and its influence on our lives? Is this forgiveness? the understanding of another and what would push them to hurt us? Is it the forgiveness of oneself for whatever sense of responsibility we feel towards the situations in which we’ve been hurt? Is forgiveness the peace one finds in accepting ourselves as we are, given everything that has impacted us, good and bad?

Perhaps.

Certainly this is something we should do often, this self-love that insists on our own worth and dignity, on the image of God that no act of violence should be able to remove. In this alone – in this building up of each person, in sure knowledge of our worth and in confidence that each of us is made in God’s image – to do the work of forgiveness is to be the church.

Sometimes this is the only stage of forgiveness that we can achieve: that of release of resentment, that reclaiming of our sense of worth, that finding peace with all that our experiences have made us. For to move into the next stages of forgiveness requires the active repentance of those whom we might forgive, which is not always possible.

But that’s the messy part  about the word “forgive.” It’s why I so often struggle with its meaning: we forgive *someone.* Whatever was meant, the survivors of Mother Emmanuel forgave Dylann Roof. The families of the Amish school shooting victims forgave Charles Roberts. Forgiveness, in English, has an object. Which makes the line between the stages of forgiveness a very tenuous one indeed.

If forgiveness begins in the love of ourselves, it seeks eventually to invoke the love of our neighbor; to reincorporate community. And even when that is possible, it’s hard.  Because when forgiveness turns outward, away simply from our own hearts and our own sense of self; when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship broken by hurt then forgiveness is not simply about the victim seeking peace, but about recognition of harm done to another, the possibility of reconciliation.  And that requires two people, in a mutuality of understanding.

I can imagine the Psalmist sharing her wrathful poem with the people on whom she cried vengeance, in the hopes that the depth of her pain might move them to repentance. And it is clear that when forgiveness seeks to restore the relationship, there is vulnerability in honesty. This forgiveness is a very different matter. This forgiveness does not depend solely on us, on our own vision of our worthiness, but on the hope that the one who hurt us can be led to see that worth as well, can be led to do the work of healing and restoration.

And let me be clear: to conflate the release of resentment and peace with oneself with the restoration of relationship with the one who hurt us; to conflate the understanding of, or even the compassion for the reasons someone might have hurt us with excusing their behavior and all its consequences is to dramatically misunderstand forgiveness.  No amount of Christian faith and compassion requires us to enter back into a relationship that will render us unsafe. Loving our neighbor as ourselves  does not mean putting ourselves at undue risk, or allowing ourselves to remain in abusive relationships, or excusing harm on the basis of understanding its origins.

When forgiveness goes beyond the self, when forgiveness enters the territory of loving one’s neighbor, it requires the active participation of that neighbor; it requires the person who did harm to be as active in the process of reconciliation as they were in the process of creating the hurt in the first place.

And it requires the loving presence of the community: around the one harmed and the one who did harm.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church: the community who stands with the victim in support and in reminder of their worth; the community who sees in them the image of God, the presence of the divine within them, even when they cannot; the community who reminds them that the hurt is not all in their head, that it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to stick up for themselves and love themselves through the hurt.  The process of forgiveness requires us to be the church, who asks repentance of the one who has done harm, who seeks accountability firmly and compassionately, who maintains the boundaries that keep the entire community safe.

The process of forgiveness, like the process of grief, compels we who would be the Body of Christ to set aside our discomfort and walk one another through the pain, walk one another through the anger and the sadness, walk one another through all of the stages until there is forgiveness.

And it requires us to do so often.

Not only for the many ways in which we hurt one another, but for the many times in which even old pain echoes down throughout our lives, popping up afresh at unexpected moments even when we thought we actually were over it.

For being the church is not about forgiving easily, no matter what our culture tells us, but about committing to the possibility that we might get there eventually. Being the church is about a commitment to the process of walking all the stages, to the hope that our hearts might fully embody the forgiveness we profess. Being the church is about doing the work of making space for the pain we feel, and reminding us that our hurts do not make us any less worthy of being children of God. Being the church is about being the safe space in which the process of forgiveness can take place, in all its messiness, in all its stages.  Being the church is about being the one place in our culture that doesn’t tell us to get over it, to move on, already; but where we can bring our brokenness, our woundedness, our repentance and our heartbreak, and begin, in this community, to do the work of healing, of reconciliation, of learning to love ourselves and our neighbors as we have been loved.

 

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.

Sound familiar?

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:

Alton Sterling
Philando Castile
Brent Thompson
Patrick Zamarripa
Michael Krol
Lorne Ahrens
Michael Smith

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’s exhausting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:

Wetback Church

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