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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.

 

… he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go through Samaria.  -John 3b-4

God  so loved the world… That famous verse, John 3:16, the verse that folks put  on signs at football games. I will admit: I don’t entirely get it. It’s a beautiful verse, yes, but there are a lot of beautiful verses, especially ones about God’s love. Why does this one get all the attention?

Reading Carol Howard Merritt’s new book, Healing Spiritual Wounds, gave me a hint. In the book, she tells a story from her time in conservative Christianity. She went to Bible College, and one of the assignments was to go out and convert people – to get them to say the sinner’s prayer along with the student, and thereby accept Jesus in their heart. The version she prints says:

Jesus, I know that I have done bad things. I want to change. Please forgive me. I invite you to come into my heart and live there for the rest of my life. Amen.

That’s it. A conversion could be done, as Carol attempted, at an airport, in the time between getting coffee and getting on the flight. Just these few words – this brief profession – could mean salvation from an eternity of fire. Just these few words, without any real context – no real preparation, no real follow through – are sufficient in order to be “born again,” in order to cross the line of belief.

I want to be clear: these words are fine, there is nothing wrong with them. These words could be very meaningful, in the right context – they could be just the words that a person needs to say as they step into a life of faith. But airport conversions, like John 3:16 signs,  point to a thread in modern Christianity – and not just in  the conservative parts of it – that hold belief as the most crucial element ; that hold an individual’s direct connection with God, or Jesus, as the clearest indication of their salvation. It’s the idea that God loved the world enough to save believers, the ones who had made a choice – in an airport, or on a street corner, or in church – to accept Jesus, to be born anew, to get right with God.

It’s a compelling idea that there is a formula, that there is a key, that there are a few words that can turn everything around. It’s a compelling idea that belief is all we need: belief in one who loves, belief in one who does not condemn. It’s a compelling idea, possibly because it’s an achievable idea; because professing belief doesn’t really require much of us except, perhaps, acknowledging our imperfection and inviting Jesus to love us anyway.

It’s almost a shame that John’s gospel doesn’t end right there, with this lovely verse.

But it doesn’t.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, this learned religious man, about God’s profound love for this world, about God’s promised kingdom and our place within it. Jesus tells Nicodemus that God so loves the world that God’s own flesh will bring rebirth, renewal, salvation.

And then it goes on.

And then it goes on through Samaria.

We are told that Jesus, returning to Galilee from Jerusalem, had to go through Samaria. But that’s not geographically true. Really, no practicing Jew would have willingly gone through Samaria, would have risked encountering the enemy, or becoming ritually unclean, when it was just as easy to go up far side of Jordan River and into Galilee that way. But Jesus had to go through Samaria because no one loved Samaria. Jesus had to go through Samaria because everyone knew God loved Judeans and Galileans best, these ones who worshiped correctly, in Jerusalem. Jesus had to go through Samaria, not because of geography, but because of theology. Jesus had to go through Samaria, this land the despised and demeaned, to remind us that it’s not all about us, to remind us that belief is just the first step. Jesus had to go through Samaria because God so loved the world, not just our little corners of it.

These early verses in John 4 are a needed corrective, then as now, to the desire for a simple faith, to the desire to think that God loves us, took on flesh for us, and that our acquiescence – our acknowledgement of that – is sufficient. These early verses in John 4 are a needed corrective that points us from what Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed “cheap grace” (or, perhaps in John’s parlance, cheap love) which is that grace, that love which allows us our weaknesses, our prejudices, our failures, our animosity. Cheap grace tells Nicodemus it’s okay to despise Samaritans because God will forgive him. Cheap grace tells us that it’s okay to prioritize convenience over justice, because God will forgive us. Cheap grace justifies our actions, our human weakness, by telling us God understands – God was human too, once! – so we can just keep on keepin’ on. Cheap grace holds up the sign for John 3:16, but doesn’t move on to verse 17, and certainly doesn’t feel the need to go through Samaria.

Cheap grace doesn’t follow Jesus, once we know he loves us.

The grace that follows, that takes us beyond those stadium signs, is costly. The grace that speaks the words of the Sinner’s Prayer from the heart: that invites God’s love to come through us, as through Samaria, is going to ask something of us in return.

It is not uncommon, in reading this passage, to be a little condescending to poor Nicodemus: to think he doesn’t get it – of course Jesus isn’t talking actual rebirth! – to watch him walk away from the faith that we profess so easily on any given Sunday. But I wonder if that’s fair. I wonder if maybe he didn’t understand quite well what was being asked of him, the cost of the love that was being offered. I wonder if, perhaps, Nicodemus didn’t see the breadth of the world he was being asked to love, the need to expand his heart and change his perspective entirely? I wonder if Nicodemus didn’t understand that belief in one individual heart is a great starting place, but that it will necessarily compel us away from individuality, into relationship, into community, into the world? Maybe Nicodemus walked away because he understood better than we do that belief in a God who loves the world will make us go through Samaria, will make us love those we have been taught to despise, will make us choose compassion over sectarianism, will make us risk our status in polite company, will render us “unclean”, uncomfortable, and often unwelcome.

Belief in God is not for the faint of heart. Because believing in God, and the only begotten Son leads us out into the world that God loves… even into Samaria, even into Syria, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, even into the neighborhoods in our own nation where we drive with doors locked and windows up, even into cheap motels and encampments of our own city – these shelters of last resort, these unshelters of no resort. Belief in God and the only begotten Son leads us to see God’s love for the world reflected in those we despise, in those we fear, in those we shunt to the margins and exclude from “polite company.” Belief in God demands our hearts be broken, demands that our failings not become our excuses. Belief in God requires that that Sinner’s prayer become, not the words of our lips,  but the deepest desire of our hearts, the one that impels us out into this beloved world. Belief in God calls us to salvation, but we have to go through Samaria.

This is the grace that will cost us, that will change us entirely, that will plunge us, not once but over and over into the waters of rebirth, into the spirit of renewal. This is the love of God for the entire world that will call us, again and again, from a faith we profess to a faith we live and to a belief that lives through us. This is the faith  that will call us out into the Samarias of our world where Christ is present, if we have eyes to see. This is the faith that reaches deeper than stadium signs and airport conversions. This is the belief that reaches into our hearts and pulls us outward into the kingdom that awaits.

We just have to go through Samaria

When I met Jeannie, she was about 22, recently graduated from college, and working as an intern in my company. She had been assigned to a project with some colleagues of mine, so I didn’t work directly with her; I saw her mostly in meetings, and noticed her because she was particularly quiet and attentive.

It took me a while to realize she was deaf; she had left stuff on copier, and I brought it to  her desk, approaching from behind her, talking and assuming she could hear.  She jumped, obviously; she hadn’t known I was there. I apologized, but was fascinated: I had never really known a deaf person! As I gave her the papers, I watched as she read my lips. She signed and said Thank you, her voice thick and imprecise.

Back at my desk, I emailed Jeannie to apologize again for startling her. She answered graciously, with some suggestions for how to approach her next time, so that she would be aware of my presence. I wrote right back – fascinated, curious. I asked questions about her life, her disability… the conversation was wonderful and exciting. Over email, I almost forgot she was deaf: she was bright and funny and articulate, telling me all of the ways she dealt with the world in college and in the workplace. She talked about her dreams for a future in engineering, although I was a little startled at the reason; I’d imagined it would be to create a better hearing aid or implant, but she was interested in cheaper, eco-friendly building materials to build low-income housing.

We hadn’t been friends for long when I thought about the healing service at my church. We hold it once a year, hosting a preacher who tours the country. He’s a really big deal and very expensive, but he went to school with our pastor so he includes us on the tour. Every year, we rent out the high school gymnasium and people come from all over. It’s an all-day thing, with local preaching and bands and prayer groups; at the end of the day, the famous preacher comes out and preaches, gets us all fired up with the Spirit, and ends by bringing a few people forward and healing them. I’ve seen people get over cancer; people  in wheelchairs get up and walk. I know – I didn’t believe it either! but I’ve seen it!

And I wanted Jeannie to go.

She was such a nice girl. I  wanted her to be healed, to be able to lead a fulfilling life.

I didn’t totally know how to ask her, so I just started casually mentioning my church while we were emailing, one day. When she expressed some interest, I asked her to come with me, and arranged to pick her up on Sunday morning.

When we got to church, I started to sit in my regular spot, sorta halfway back. But Jeannie gestured, and led us forward, so I followed, asking her why… forgetting she couldn’t hear me. I waited until she looked at me, and asked again why we had to sit at the front.

“To read lips,” she said. I’d forgotten how hard it was to understand her when she spoke aloud. Still, I nodded, and made the sign for “yes”; I’d learned a few basic signs, thinking that she’d be pleased. But she just smiled briefly and began looking around at the church. She seemed to follow service pretty well, and enjoy it; afterwards, I took her downstairs to get coffee and cookies. Another church member needed to talk to me, as often happens, so I introduced Jeannie to youth director and left them chatting.

It was about twenty minutes before I could come back to get her. Although alone in that moment, she seemed happy, and as we left it seemed to me she was glad she’d come.

During the week, I followed up with her over email, told her I’d pick her up again on Sunday. But she told me she’d take the bus, for the youth director had asked her to come early to help with programming. Sure enough, when I walked in for service, there she was, right up front. The music was particularly good that day, and I found myself both sorry that  Jeannie couldn’t enjoy it and glad she was coming to the church; she was on the path to healing, even though she didn’t know it yet. She didn’t know that she too would get to enjoy music…

In the weeks to come, Jeannie got more and more involved. She worked in the Sunday School, to the point where I nearly never saw her at coffee hour that she didn’t have a kid attached. And she volunteered with our mission projects, helping to build houses, working with the homeless. Actually, she was the one who pushed to have a washing machine put in at the church for the homeless, and she single-handedly organized a sleeping-bag drive for them, too.

Of course, through Jeannie, our church started working with the disabled. Soon, more and more of them started coming to our church. Some folks grumbled, but I was thrilled! I’d invited Jeannie so she could be healed; now all these other new folks could be too!

There really was something about Jeannie, though… she brought a new life, a new energy to the church. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was a difference. Maybe I was just paying more attention? But it seemed like the church was filled with renewed life, added zeal; that the noise at coffee hour was up just a bit; that people were more animated – talking with their hands, kids running around, pushing the little girl who came in wheelchair, while taking care not to hit the blind man. Whatever it was, it was nice to watch… and nicer still to imagine what was in store for them.

The healing service happened on a Saturday.

We’d advertised for weeks leading up to it: talked about it in church, sent out emails and letters, posted on Facebook and Instagram. I arrived early to help set up, but felt continually distracted. I kept scanning for Jeannie, for the new people from church, unable to contain my excitement at the miracles I’d be seeing for people from my own church!

People began to arrive, the room began to fill; I was kept so busy I couldn’t watch as I would have liked for my own church members. As the event began I stood towards the back of the auditorium with the overflow – it was standing room only! – looking all around for a familiar head in the crowd. With the stage lights up and the house lights down, it was impossible to recognize any but those people right around me, and I finally resigned myself to simply enjoying the day, figuring I’d at least see them at the end, when the preacher called them up.

He was on fire, it was without a doubt the best preaching I’d ever heard. Dozens went forward to be healed at the end of the service, and I stood on my toes, craning my neck to see…

Jeannie was not among them.

No one I recognized was.

The next day I found Jeannie right in the front row at church, as usual. I stood right in front of her, hurt and angry, and looked directly into her face. “Why weren’t you there yesterday?”  She gazed at me, steadily, calmly, then held out her bulletin. I glanced down: it was the day of the children’s program. I was stunned. I knew she was involved, but… “You chose that over…” I sputtered. But she wasn’t looking at me anymore.

I took my seat – the one where I’d sat with Jeannie for weeks – still fuming.I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t understand.

Lost in my anger, I didn’t see the children come in, didn’t see that church was beginning until the pastor got up to welcome us… and one of the kids was beside him, signing. Translating. He was one of the new kids, so I  didn’t think much of it. But then another kid took his place, one who had been part of the church forever. There he was, signing the Call to Worship, grinning. Delighted in his newfound skill he was signing joy! Praise to God!

I couldn’t help but smile at him, too.

When we stood to sing, all the children gathered at the front of the church, the sighted ones gently leading their blind friends. Children with crutches, with wheelchairs came to the front, every child in the church dancing to the music, each moving as the Spirit led them. Each one radiant, purely happy.  Over to the side, Jeannie and the youth director were dancing as well; Jeannie had a good sense of rhythm, I realized.

Throughout the service, the kids took turns signing; during the prayer time, it was actually the kid who was signing who stood in the pulpit, as the interpreter stood to the side, translating into speech the prayers of the children: for food and shelter for our neighbors, for the earth, for an end to violence, in thanksgiving for a community that was truly welcoming.

When I looked around, to see the reaction, everyone was smiling and very few eyes were dry, my own included. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a joyful worship service: whether it was the delight of the children in participating and making the service accessible to everyone; whether it was the pride of the adults and the care and thoughtfulness of the children and their teachers… maybe that’s what filled my heart. But mostly, I think, it was the little boy, maybe 8 years old, who danced during the last song, slightly apart so that his crutches wouldn’t land accidentally on the feet of his friends; just to the side of the main group, he lost himself in the music, in the moment. When the song ended, he opened his eyes, looked right at his father, and into the momentary silence exclaimed “I danced!”

I caught up with Jeannie after the service – it took a while, everyone wanted to talk to her.

“I’m sorry.”

She nodded

“But why…?” The words trailed off as she took me by the shoulders, looked right into my eyes, then firmly turned me to look at the people gathered, drinking coffee in my church.

And I looked. And I saw.

Those gathered were, many of them, not just talking with their hands: they were signing. Awkwardly, in most cases; they were clearly still learning… but just as clearly, trying; laughing at their own ineptitude. I saw people guiding those whose vision was restricted; I realized the food tables now low enough for the folks in wheelchairs. How had I not noticed this before?

Jeannie tapped my arm. I turned; she handed me the morning’s bulletin, smiled, and walked away.  On it, she had written, You thought you knew what healing looked like…and who needed it.

I read her message several times, then looked around the room at the life, at the palpable joy. I walked slowly over to the little boy who had danced, and sat beside him, noticing his crutches resting by his side. “You danced well.”

He looked over at me, his face entirely lit up in a smile. “I never thought anyone would ask me to dance, especially in church!”

“Are you learning sign language, too?”

“We’ve all been learning from Miss Jeannie for weeks!” He bounced a little in his seat, excited, joyful

Hesitantly, I asked him, “Will you teach me?”

His face grew serious, but for the shining light in his eyes, as he took my hand, fingers splayed, then folded the middle two down to rest my fingertips against my palm.

“This is how you say, ‘I love you.’”

Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened; and the ears of the deaf unstopped… everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Now after that, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt…” Matthew 2:13

Thus begins one of the hardest texts in our Gospels, yet one we rarely hear, for this section of Matthew tends to fall on the Sunday after Christmas, when most of us are on vacation. Titled in many bibles “The Massacre of the Innocents,” it tells of how Herod, upon learning that he had been tricked by the Magi (who went home by another way, instead of reporting back as ordered) had all the children in and around Bethlehem, who were under two years old, systematically killed. He was, of course, trying to destroy the child whom the Magi had named as a King – the infant born to Mary and Joseph.

Jesus and his family escaped. Most did not.

At this time of the year, we celebrate the coming of God into our world. We celebrate the incarnation: God made flesh, God with us. It is vital that we not overlook this detail as we re-tell the story; that we not lose ourselves in the cuteness of a baby surrounded by lambs and angels. God came into this world in the same messy way that all of us did: as vulnerable and dependent as any human baby. It is vital that we remember God’s choice to become fully human out of love for us, for here God reminds us that our humanity matters. Our bodies matter.

Nor was it only the body of one infant, born in a stable in Bethlehem, that was of consequence to God. As much as the original incarnation, the continuing presence of God made flesh matters. The Body of Christ – interwoven, interdependent humanity – matters. The Body of Creation – vulnerable and needy – matters to the God whose love incorporates the entire world.

But if the incarnation matters – if it matters that God took on human flesh and lived as one of us – then we must read this Gospel passage as more than a horrific story.

For a powerful ruler, fearful of a challenge to his authority, sent soldiers to kill the people of his own realm. The powerful ruler sent the army, not into battle against other troops, trained and ready for battle, but to kill those who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some were able to escape, under cover of darkness, praying that the baby wouldn’t cry, that no one would see them, that somewhere, someone would welcome them: strangers in a strange land. Praying for Emmanuel: God with us, even as refugees.

The story that horrifies us in the Bible is unfolding in our daily papers, on the nightly news. People, who look much like Joseph and Mary, are fleeing state-sponsored violence, carrying their children and a few, necessary possessions. Children who look much as Jesus would have – brown-skinned children with wavy hair and big brown eyes – are watching as unspeakable horrors play out before their eyes.

Once again, Emmanuel – God with us – is fleeing before the specter of violence. Once again, people are dying because those in authority care more for their power than for human lives. Once again, the incarnate God is a refugee, seeking shelter from the cruelty that fearful humanity so often inflicts.

Once again, we are reading the story of the Massacre of Innocents. But now, we do not have the luxury of assuming that we would stand up to Herod’s violence. Now, we do not have the luxury of assuring ourselves that we would welcome this Nazarene carpenter, with his wife and son.

Now the Christ Child awaits a cease-fire, and a bus out of Aleppo. Now, Joseph barters passage on a leaky boat, in the hopes of reaching Lesbos. Now, Mary rocks her child to sleep in a sprawling refugee camp that has become Jordan’s third-largest city, and wonders how long she can survive in a tent. Now Emmanuel – God with us – wonders where to find shelter, welcome, love.

Friends, in this Christmas season, let us remember that it matters that God took on our humanity, our vulnerability, and came to live as one of us. And let us follow in the way of God, recognizing without fear our own vulnerability and interdependence. Let us live as thought the incarnation really mattered to us, right now, in 2017. Let us put ourselves into the story, let God-with-us know that we are also with God, wherever God is made flesh in this world.

For ways to help, please check out

http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/

https://www.whitehelmets.org/en

 

 

I hadn’t seen another human in long enough that the sight of one was shocking.

I’m really not sure how long I’d been walking… weeks, at least. Months? It was possible. It’s hard to tell, to mark seasons, when so little vegetation remains: no leaves to bud, or grow, or fall and mark the passing of the seasons.  It also makes foraging hard; I ate by taking from the stores left behind, the ones not totally destroyed. Even climbing over rubble, it was hard at first, because stealing is such a terrible crime. Those first times, I would take what I need, constantly glancing over my shoulder and running away through silent streets; eating alone, I waited for the brutal punishment from the conglomerates whose profits I’d taken. I would hide myself at night in the empty towns, fearful of the consequences for this worst of all crimes.

Slowly, the taking got easier, and I would grab more, enough to carry some with me so that I wouldn’t have to scrounge every single meal… so that I could escape the towns for a little while. The emotion, every day, of stepping through the destruction, carnage; the terrific mess that comes from the anger of people with nothing to lose… The towns through which I walked had once teemed with those who were never more than disposable labor, never more than paying customers, existing to make the industry owners fat. In the end, they had nothing to lose; though, perhaps more importantly, nothing to gain as their toil, their little income, was used – as they were used. Used up, sucked dry and discarded when finally nothing was left of them but the scents of disease, of death… of whatever chemical had destroyed what the weapons and bacteria hadn’t.

Day after day, I stepped over rubble, not looking too closely at what lay beneath. Day after day, I focused only on keeping myself alive. It was too much to think about those who had perished. I don’t know why or how I survived. Long ago I stopped asking; that was energy I needed for other things… for living with the assumption that I was the only one in the world, the only one to have survived the war that had touched everywhere. Everyone else seemed to have succumbed to the shows of force that had only resulted in fear and revenge; in the booming industry of destruction. They told us it was job creation, the making of death machines. If so, it was job creation for both sides, in the end.

The conglomerates never told us war is profitable.

War was supposed to make us powerful. Violence was supposed to end violence. Exclusion was supposed to make us safe. Fear was supposed to create respect. It didn’t quite work out that way.

When I was a child, my grandparents told me stories of when they’d talked with their neighbors – when people had lived side by side, rather than behind walls. They told me of their grandparents’ time, when a family with two jobs could both eat and pay bills. One story in particular came back to me often, in those lonely days: Grampa told me about his father’s friend, who had come to our land from far away. As a child, I would ask, over and over,  “But how could he trust that his friend wouldn’t kill him?”

That was all I knew.

War, in the end, had wrought nothing but death. Including, I believed, my own: although I still lived, I couldn’t imagine it would be for long. Not alone, not on canned beans and whatever else I could find. I walked, I believed, towards my death. Yet still I walked, because staying put would make me see, make me think, make me dwell on the horrors we’d all seen in this world-ending war to see who could be the greatest.

 

Actually, it wasn’t the sight of people, but the scent of cooking that stopped me in my tracks. I had gone up into the hills, with enough food to last a while, feeling a need to be away from the vestiges of humanity, of industry. After a day or so of hiking, as I came up towards the top of a hill, a scent drifted towards me… a scent which reminded me not so much of food, but of home; of a time, almost forgotten, before the only possible emotion was fear, or anger, or retribution.

The scent seemed like a dream, so beautiful that my eyes filled and a lump rose in my throat. I didn’t fully believe it could be real,  even when I came over the crest of the hill, and beheld through my tears a blur of green.

Green!

As though things were living, growing!

The shock knocked me off my feet, and I sat down hard, staring hungrily. I hadn’t seen anything like it… well, since both sides started burning, poisoning, trying to starve the other side… trying to drive up prices, gain wealth off of  the pain of ordinary people.

This ground had been burned, but a streak of bright, brilliant green shone against the blackish-gray landscape. I stumbled to my feet and ran down the hill, eyes fixed on the life before me, just wanting to bury my face in something living…

She stepped out before me, spoke to me, stopped me.

I didn’t know anyone else was alive.

But suddenly, there was a woman standing in front of me. She spoke again; I didn’t understand her, it was not my language that she spoke. Everything I had been taught, all my life, should have made me suspicious. She was everything that was enemy, from the color of her skin to her clothes and language.

But none of that seemed to matter, in that moment. She was human. She was alive. My attention was caught by the beating pulse in her throat: the most amazing thing I had ever seen in my life.

I fell at her feet and wept.

She spoke again, and though I still couldn’t understand, she spoke softly, almost with… kindness? That couldn’t be… I couldn’t understand it. The whole scene felt suddenly surreal, and the sense of hallucination dried my tears. None of this was real. I was dead, that was the only rational explanation: this was some afterlife of peace – the religious whackjobs had been right after all.

She turned and started towards the green; bemused, I followed her, aware again of scent of cooking and of my own rumbling stomach. Maybe at least the afterlife would have more than canned beans.

Then we reached the next hill.

The swath of green marked not only things growing, but cultivation: neat rows, plants I hadn’t seen in years and could barely name. All of my wonder came rushing back. In awe, I  kept stopping, touching leaves, smelling the ashy dirt, thinking my heart would explode within me. It hardly occurred to me that this must be the work of more than one person. But at the top of the hill, beyond the end of the fields, I saw a small cluster of shacks, heard the hum of voices, smelled the smoke of cooking fires.

People.

Not just me. Not just me and her. People.

Plural.

Not many, mind: a few dozen at most. They were quiet, almost sullen, appearing angry. At the time, I barely noticed, for that had been the norm among people. I wandered among them, half-following my guide, dazed.

Suddenly I found myself knocked off my feet again; not by emotion, for once, but literally: hit behind the knees. By instinct, I swiveled to strike at my assailant.

I found myself staring into eyes of a child.

A child!  It had been so long. I had no sense of how old this one might be. Towards the end of the war, the end of time, the women near me stopped bearing children, knowing their babies would only die.

I should have been angry at being hit, but mostly, I was fascinated by this little one who suddenly cowered, scared by this accident, knowing there would be consequences. Sure enough, someone came quickly, their hand raised to strike child. The gesture was so familiar, so expected… I had been so close to doing it myself. But before the blow could land, I caught their wrist, stopped them; with my other hand, I pulled child close, reassured her. “It was an accident,” I mumbled, my  voice hoarse from disuse.

I let go the wrist I was still holding, held my hands out in a gesture meant to say it was okay. The man who had come over to punish the child eyed me warily for a moment, then took my hands and pulled me to my feet. For a moment, I tensed, scared; then he let go, nodded brusquely, walked away.

Had someone really just helped me?

My guide took me to where people were cooking, sat me down. Someone gave me a plate. I watched as others bustled around, preparing the meal; eventually, someone rang a bell – a rock hung among metal fragments – and everyone gathered, shoving, pushing to be first, to get the most. I didn’t think, just leapt up and pushed into the scrum, eager to get real food, be with real people, fill my belly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw child, the one who had knocked over. She’d been pushed back, and lay sprawled on ground, crying….

I stopped. The world stopped; the air vanished as though I’d been punched. Gasping, ears ringing, fighting, pushing others away, suddenly desperate; meanwhile the child still cried, and the shoving only sent people careening towards her –

“No! Don’t hurt her!”

I didn’t think I’d shouted. But there was silence, stillness, shock. Shaking, I walked over and picked up the child, who was surprisingly light. I carried her, still sniffling, to get food, then sat with her;  made sure she ate carefully, chewed every bite. I’d never watched someone else eat; I’d never cared for anyone’s hunger but my own. Her evident fear broke my heart: she ate quickly, messily, focused on her food but aware of her surroundings; aware of those who would readily take her meager portion. In her fear, I recognized myself, both in the desire to take and her fear of being stolen from. My stomach hurt as I looked at  this child, as doomed as I, fighting for her food – might it not be more merciful to take it?

Who has a child in times like this?

She shouldn’t grow up like this, fearful and hungry. She shouldn’t grow up like me, simply waiting to die.

Her scant meal finished, she looked up at me, wary curious; her gaze made my heart beat painfully in my chest. I’d thought myself alone, the sole survivor perhaps on the entire planet. Yet here there were people, and the beginnings of community. Here, there was a child; here, there was life; here, there way hope. Prompted by the aching of my heart, I moved to do what I had never even imagined: I gave the child my food.

And every head turned.

And every voice faltered.

And every breath was held as this tiny one looked at me, eyes wide, and took what I gave her as though it were the most natural thing in the world.

 

We’ve been here two years now. Two years, but four harvests, for the weather here is mild and the soil is good. We still eat together, the whole community, but now the line is quiet. We are beginning to trust there is enough. And now always, the children eat first.

I have made a point of learning enough words to speak to those around me. Really, we’re all developing our own language, a pidgin mix that is ours alone. But on my own, I’ve learned enough to know that the best cook used to own one of the industrial conglomorates; that the most careful gardener lost her whole family when the factory next door exploded after safety measures were repealed for sake of productivity; the woman who had led me here had been a bill collector who often lined her own pocket by extortion, forced to choose between the suffering of her own or of others; the child’s father had, as a child himself, been sold by his family; sold and sold again at the whims of the oligarchs. Here, in this village, lived those who had labored and those who profited from that labor: the predators and the prey. Here, we live together, work together, eat together, speak together, create together.

It’s not easy to undo old patterns. It’s not easy to let go of old fears, of prejudices, of desires for revenge. I should say: it’s not easy for us, the adults. But the children here laugh and sing, dance and play, and they are teaching us.

Here, anything seems possible, for we had all believed ourselves walking dead. We had seen ourselves simply as those who hadn’t yet succumbed when humanity was cut down and leveled. But here, out of that which had seemed dead – this burned ground, this doomed people, springs new life where no one feeds upon the blood and sweat of another. No one profits by another’s loss.

It is a hard lesson to learn, and there are nights when I stand on our hill, looking out at the land around, still blighted and dead, and wish we had learned it sooner: what it means to be community, what it means to live in peace.

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse; a branch shall grow out of his roots… the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. And a little child shall lead them.

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?

        

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

And we don’t always appreciate persistence.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I think Jesus would push back, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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.