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When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”  -Luke 21:5-6

Jesus is such a killjoy sometimes.


Here they are, going into Jerusalem, Jesus and those who have followed him. Jerusalem, bigger by far than the places they had so far been; the sights unusual for so many of them. Many of the Galileans, and certainly the Judeans in the group would have been to Jerusalem for the festivals; yet we know from Luke that there were non-Jews among Jesus’ followers as well, perhaps some who had never been there. We don’t know who, among this group, spoke with such awe; what we hear is simply the understandable amazement. The temple, that almost impossibly huge, beautiful, solid structure, would have seemed almost as though it had always been, would always be; as though it had not been created by human hands. It would have been hard to imagine its not being there, this building which dominated Jerusalem skyline; this building which housed God.


It would have been overwhelming, if not impossible, to conceive of the disappearance of such an important structure: how could something so present, so much a part of life, no longer be?

When you’re in place of transition – even good transition, even expected transition – imagining an “after” is nearly impossible.I know something about this in my own life, and suspect many of you do as well.  Transitions mark end points in many ways, even the transitions we have most desired; they invoke grief, with all its associated emotions and stages. Living in transition, we find ourselves living in the unimaginable; feeling our way forward, and having the familiar become suddenly strange. Both Jesus’ followers, and those who author of Luke in 85CE, inhabited such transitional periods, as indeed we do now. Theirs were comprised of the power plays between Jewish autonomy and Roman occupation; between factions of religious and secular authority; between regions; between classes; between sects… all trying to imagine an unimaginable reality, in a way that would bring the most benefit to their own. 


In either time, Jesus’ words prophetic. Not because he was predicting a future reality, for the destruction of Temple had already taken place when Luke wrote, but because he was, in tradition of prophets, speaking the hard truth of the current situation. Jesus spoke the truth that nation has already begun to rise up against nation, betrayal has already occurred. Jesus spoke the truth of our reality in which the ground is shifting beneath us; in which people are hungry,  in which people are suffering; in which speaking truth does not make you popular, but dangerous. 


Jesus speaks the truth that does not make him popular, but dangerous.


Jesus speaks the truth, right before this passage in Luke, that the widow who gave her last coin – her entire livelihood – to the Temple treasury, was betrayed by a system that was supposed to care for her rather than starving her in the name of God. 


Jesus speaks the truth, in the passage before the widow, that there have been authorities in all times who prioritize social standing and visible piety over acts of compassion and grace; who would more easily devour than build up.


Jesus speaks the hard truth, throughout the scriptures, that we will be judged not by our finery, not by our beautiful buildings or our social or political or religious achievements, except insofar as we use these to care for the marginalized: the ones whose blood and sweat built the edifices we so admire, and the structures in which we so easily house God.

Because even the places we build for God; even the structures that we make for our dearest hopes, our sweetest dreams, our noblest visions; even these are simply structures of human design and construction. 


Certainly, the God who consented to be contained within human flesh has consented as well to dwell in human buildings, for our God does not require perfection as a prerequisite for presence… or for grace. But we must not mistake God’s presence for approbation, just as we must not mistake God’s grace for a get-out-of-jail-free card. Rather, as the 20th century German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us, grace should be that undeserved gift that changes our lives, which makes us strive to live up to that which has been freely bestowed. 


God’s free gift of grace should have some cost on our hearts. 


So indeed, God’s presence in our human bodies and structures should be that which makes us strive to build as God would, in the image and likeness of the divine, rather than in the reflection of human failings. 


God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfection is not cause for calling our efforts “good enough” and letting go the rest; rather it should be a constant impetus to do better: to acknowledge the imperfections, the inequities and injustices on which we have built; the lives and bodies that our impressiveness have cost; and to find new ways forward.


God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfections is no reason at all for us not to take it all apart: to live into the transitional time, as hard as it will be. For as nation rises against nation, as we are tempted to fight for our own short-term self-interest, as we are tempted to see other as inherently enemy, God calls us to build something new. God calls us to stand on the side of the widow, the hungry, the homeless, the excluded, the marginalized, in ways that tear down the systems that have been used to exclude and dehumanize.


God’s willingness to dwell in our imperfections should not make us less willing to speak the truth: that we are imperfect, yes, but that we can do better than these human structures that serve the powerful to detriment of the least of these.

For as frightening as it may be for us to acknowledge that our great structures, which inspire in us such awe and reverence still have their flaws, still might not stand; as painful as it may be to see that the structures we love and in which we find God might be built upon the suffering and oppression of those deemed “lesser”, “other”, “enemy”; we recall that God’s grace both forgives and changes us. God’s grace turns our hearts to follow the one who showed us what human flesh is truly capable of doing and of being. 


As impossible as it might feel to dismantle the huge, beautiful stones until not one stands upon another; as tempting as it may be to turn inwards, to side with our own; to build, upon existing structures, walls to keep out other nations as they rise up: in so doing we risk being, not betrayed but betrayers of this beloved Creation.

It feels impossible, especially in this time of shaky ground, of transition and uncertainty. But this is the call of our God of grace, for whom and in whom we do our building.


For the stones of human construction cannot stand. The stones of misogyny and racism, of fear and suspicion, cannot contain God, larger than any human creation. The stones of xenophobia and exclusion, of hatred and distrust must fall before we can begin to build the kin-dom. The promises of God cannot be built on that which has been used to exclude and oppress. Rather that which has been must fall before the new city of God, the holy place of peace, can come into existence.


We must learn to choose carefully the stones for our construction. We must learn to build upon compassion, inclusion, equality. We must learn to rely upon God as architect and builder. For only when we have removed the blocks of fear and hatred from our structures; only when we have dismantled the suspicion and fear in which we have tried to contain our God and ourselves, can that time come when the wolf and the lamb lie down together; when the lamb need not fear being devoured and the wolf has no need of getting fat off of the vulnerable. Only then can the marginalized live without the fear of attack, and the privileged share freely their power. Only then shall all eat and be satisfied. Only then shall all live well their days upon this earth. Only then shall we all know the true peace that is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of compassion and justice.


The promises are before us, that the ways we have known – though familiar and sometimes comfortable, though solid and seemingly immovable – need not be our way forward. There is a better way: a way that is good, rather than “good enough”; a way that follows the path of God’s grace; a way that will require something of us, which will cost us; a way to which our uncontainable God is calling us right now.


God’s grace is before us, giving us the words of challenge and of promise. Will we listen? God’s path is before us, leading us along the road to a New Jerusalem, a promised realm of justice, equality and peace. Will we take the first step?

        

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

And we don’t always appreciate persistence.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I think Jesus would push back, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

The stories abounded this week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

This Sunday’s RCL passage about the Gerasene demoniac is a very touchy text to be preaching, especially given the shooting in Orlando this past Sunday. Demon possession is an accusation still leveled at the LGBT community on a regular basis. It underlies the whole idea that you can “pray away the gay”; that you can “love the sinner and hate the sin” – as though sexuality and gender identity were things that possess us, rather than integral parts of who we are.
Knowing that this is the text that will be preached in pulpits across the nation this Sunday scares me to death. Knowing that some preachers will call the LGBT community demon possessed, that my identity will be conflated with mental illness and the possibility of healing. Knowing that this text will be used to point to the “demons” of others, creating an atmosphere of judgment and incitement.
But you know what scares me worst? The preachers who will read this text and who will not say one single word about the way that this text has been used. The preachers who will not add to the violence that this text has done, but who will not speak against it either. Silence is complicity.
Silence kills.
The way that this text has been used to do violence to the LGBT community needs to be named. The way that we use this text to justify ourselves and pass judgment on others – to rip people apart, to dismiss parts of people’s identities, to appear to get Jesus on board with our hate – needs to be called out and stopped. We are not Jesus, speaking to the demons. We are the townspeople, too afraid to invite Jesus to stay with us and work healing among us; to afraid to admit we, too, might be possessed.
Pastors: don’t tell me about my demons if you’re too scared to stand naked in front of Jesus and talk about your own. Don’t tell me I’m possessed if you’re not willing to confront the demons of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia that possess us as a society and push us to read this text with such judgment and willingness to do violence. Don’t shame me if you’re not willing to confront your own feelings of shame. Don’t try to heal me from your place of fear. Don’t continue the violence against my already-traumatized community, by your words or by your silence.

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

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

And we know what happens next.

Mary for web use

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

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

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

If only that were what Jesus actually said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seems this is another thing that Mary understands better.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ours is a faith of resurrection.

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

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

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

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

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

But it isn’t always.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t be a bully.

Break the cycle.

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

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

The bullied become bullies. But John proclaimed good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear not, and believe the good news.

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

 

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

 

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

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

Well, these disciples had waited… and… nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is the possibility, as we gather in worship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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