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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.
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“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16: 24-25
This text from Matthew is, in my opinion, one of most abused scriptures out there. It has so much baggage that several pastors I know, as we were looking at this week’s lectionary, wondered how on earth they might preach this one. How could they preach a text that had been so entirely conflated with the popular phrase, “it’s just your cross to bear”: the ultimate phrase of victim blaming and abuse ignoring, laid especially upon the powerless, and notably upon women. It is a phrase we hear colloquially, repeated in sometimes well-meaning ways in the face of illness, abuse, suffering; it is a phrase, however, that can keep people from seeking recourse to end their sufferings.
“It’s your cross to bear” glorifies suffering for sake of suffering; it suggests that Christianity is incomplete without suffering, while ignoring the underlying reasons for pain. So many, clergy included, hear that phrase, or the one from this morning’s lesson – “take up your cross” – and understand it to mean “grin and bear it”, or simply, “get over it.” They hear dismissal, and silencing.
But really, none of those understandings sound much like Jesus to me. Jesus, who healed the ill and the infirm; Jesus, who stood up for the outcast, who questioned the status quo… that Jesus doesn’t seem like someone who would turn to us now, and tell us to just “get over it.”
So if that’s not what he meant, what’s all this “take up your cross” business, anyway?
We, who see crosses on a daily basis, have a very particular understanding when we see that symbol. But it is important to remember, as we read this morning’s text, that the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking had a very different image in their heads when the cross was invoked. For we are, in this text, still in a time before Jesus’ crucifixion; before the cross came to mean redemption, and triumph, and Christ. As Jesus spoke this words to his disciples, the cross was still a sign of the Roman occupation: a sign of humiliation, as the condemned was forced to carry the heavy, torturous instrument of his own death. To invoke the cross, in that moment, was to invoke the boos, jeers, and catcalls of the crowds that would gather to watch the execution. It was to call to mind the degrading, dehumanizing treatment that a criminal would receive before death – and the jeering superiority of the crowd adding to the humiliation. Crucifixion was the treatment reserved for the lowest of the low, the worst criminals who would seem to deserve all of the added torture and misery heaped upon them before they died.
That would have been the imagery in the disciples’ heads, as Jesus spoke. That was the imagery that Jesus turned on its head, as he was so good at doing, to teach us all a lesson in discipleship.
Because Jesus was not talking about forced humiliation. His phrasing is clear: deny yourselves and TAKE UP the cross. Do not wait until it is handed to you, or laid upon you, but take it up yourself. Choose it for yourself. Choice is essential in this, and in all of Jesus’ lessons about discipleship and witness. We must choose, freely and without coercion.
And what happens when we choose the cross? when we choose to stop thinking of ourselves as “better than this”, stop resenting that we “don’t deserve such treatment”? What happens when we stop feeling smug about ourselves because we’re so obviously better than that scum criminal who must deserve the humiliation of punishment? What happens when we choose to be identified with those who endure regular humiliation or dehumanization? when we strip away the ego that constantly compares Us to Them; the human judgment of who deserves what suffering, what joy, what fate; the self interest that keeps us looking after our own first, even if others get hurt; the self-protection that allows some to become “others” in the first place?
What we are left with, when we have stripped away all human vanity is not humiliation, but humility: the self denial that allows understanding that we are simply dust, made in God’s image; that we are the same dust, all of us; made in the same image, and animated by same spirit. We are left with the understanding – in our hearts and souls as well as our heads – that *our* selves are no more worthy, no more beloved, than any other, and that when some of this dust suffers, we are all made weaker; we all suffer, all of us who are this dust of God’s creation, this image of God made manifest in the world.
The Jesus I know – the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who did, in fact, take up his cross – would never have told an abused wife “it’s your cross to bear”. The Jesus I know wouldn’t tell thousands on hillside to go hungry after a long day of preaching “because you all really should have thought ahead.” The Jesus I now wouldn’t refuse healing to an outsider, whether a Syro-Phonecian woman worried about her daughter, a Samaritan woman at a well, or the slave of a Roman centurion.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t dredge up someone’s past misdeeds, or indulge in victim blaming, to excuse a blatant act of racism or sexism.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t turn anyone away from that font, or this table, or any gathering of God’s people.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t love the sinner and hate the sin; in fact, he wouldn’t hate at all. Because the Jesus I know – throughout the complex contradictions of the Gospels – consistently tried to teach us to love one another, and not just give lip service to love, and compassion, and relationship. I suspect he would have quite liked Paul’s instructions, in Romans, for living in community, which call us to care for the whole community more than for any one individual; to the setting aside the ego, the “me”, for the sake of the “us”. Paul, like Jesus, here calls us to denying our selves, even if it costs us something; whether that cost is our self-interest, or the satisfaction of revenge, or our human sense of fairness.
And it may well cost us.
It is a frightening proposition to set our selves aside; to let go of our self interest, of the self protection that gives us a sense of power and control in this world. It makes us feel a fear akin to humiliation when those who were previously derided or despised, jeered or booed, are those whom we now need to love – really love – in order to be in right relationship with God. It makes us fearful, disoriented, when those who have borne the brunt of humiliation seem suddenly to be more important, to get more attention, than we who have been beloved and not shamed… and we hesitate to ask why we felt so important and deserving that we resent sharing this love that we have known.
It may cost us, when we live and love as Paul counsels, when we seek the utter humility of choosing the cross; choosing to live by Christ’s love. It may make us feel powerless. But that probably means we’re doing something right. Because love doesn’t offer self-protection, it doesn’t work for our self interest: love makes us vulnerable. Love opens us to the pain of others – the humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization that many endure on a daily basis. Love opens us to fearful understanding of our interconnectedness, and the overwhelming needs of this world.
Choosing love may cost us, because love doesn’t make any one of us powerful, but strengthens us all, so that, forsaking our selves – our self-interest, our self-protection, our self-centeredness – we may take up our cross and our humility, exchanging our power for God’s.
May we so choose. May we lay down our individual needs, for the love of all who share in our dust, who share in God’s image, until we can stop asking, “what about me”; until we can stop judging one another with our very human values, and begin loving with God’s love.
May we so choose.
Let us take up our cross, despite the jeers, the boos, the catcalls, the derision.
Let us take up our cross, not so we may be abused or condone abuse, but so that none ever shall be again.
Let us take up our cross and lay down our lives, so that love might triumph over fear, over death.
Let us take up our cross, in full view of this world, and follow the one who calls us to abundant life and immeasurable love.
Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak… Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” -Genesis 32: 24, 26b
As we work our way through Genesis, we find ourselves in the midst of yet another Jacob story. Jacob, of course, being quite the character, gets a fair amount of play in Genesis, and certainly he’s someone with whom many of us can identify, at least at certain points in life. But here, today, we do not find the Jacob we’ve come to know, the conniving trickster – not even the trickster tricked, as in last week’s story of his marriage to Leah when he was expecting Rachel. Here, we find Jacob the wealthy, responsible man, with herds and flocks, two wives, two “maids”, and eleven children. Here, finally, we find a Jacob who thinks beyond himself.
Which has, apparently, not gone unnoticed. For finally, God has called Jacob to something that doesn’t seem in Jacob’s best interest. Here, we do not see God blessing him as he runs away from an unpleasant and possibly dangerous situation. Here, God is calling Jacob to account; calling him to confront his fears, perhaps even to undo some of the damage that he had done as a younger man.
Before the verses of Genesis that we read this morning, Jacob enters into a long conversation with God: one that might seem familiar to a lot of us. Even as Jacob begins to follow God’s call back to the land he’d run from twenty years earlier, Jacob questions. “Hey, God,” he says, “I know you promised to be there for me, and keep me safe and all that. But seriously, you’re going to send me back to… Esau?” I paraphrase, of course, but Jacob’s anxiety, even with God’s promises, shines clearly through his prayerful questions.
Because this time, the risk is not just to himself, but to his livelihood and his family as well. And that is a much harder prospect to face.
This week’s Gospel lesson is from Matthew, and it’s the familiar story of Jesus feeding thousands with just a couple of loaves and fishes. I’ve heard – and preached – a fair few sermons on this text; a common take is to suggest that after one little boy was willing to share the food he’d brought, everyone else brought out their lunch as well, and shared, so everyone had enough. Which would itself be a miracle, I’m sure: just think how much better our world would be if we shared our resources more readily! But that alone makes me wonder about the loaves and fishes, for I don’t think humanity has changed that much in the past two millennia. Because it is one thing to risk your own lunch, but another thing entirely to risk the food you brought to feed your children, for example. What would go through your minds, in that moment, as you contemplated putting your entire supply of food into the basket being passed – all of the sandwiches, apples, cheese sticks, juice boxes that you’d packed that morning? What if you just got an apple back? a piece of cheese? What if it wasn’t enough… for you or your children?
Even if it was just a tremendous act of sharing that allowed everyone on that hillside to be fed that day, that isn’t really the miracle. Even if everyone took the risk of putting their all into the basket, the real miracle here is the huge quantity of leftovers, totally disproportionate to number of people who were there. The real miracle is that in God’s equation, when you give all, you receive even more in return.
And that should make us look at our sense of call, and at our living into God’s promises, far more clearly than we often do.
Wouldn’t we all wrestle?
Don’t we, each of us, at some point, wrestle with the apparent dichotomy between God’s call to us – abundant promises and all – and caring for our own? Don’t we, each of us, weigh very carefully how much we are willing to risk? Will we risk our jobs for the sake of fair working practices, as many in our town have recently done? Will we risk our hearts – and possibly even our wallets – for the sake of children whose home countries know a violence beyond our wildest dystopic imaginings?
Faced with such risk; faced with the reality of our fears, we are much more likely to circle the proverbial wagons, and become protective of that which is known and familiar and safe. We are much more likely to push away the new, the different – even to push away the one who is calling us to that very situation that we fear.
And we wrestle; as individuals, as a church. For we are called to proclaim our faith, to bear witness to the continuation of the covenant, to the promises of our still-speaking God. We are called to care not only for those who enter this place, but for all who are oppressed and wounded; especially to those who have been oppressed and wounded in the name of God and the church. We take positions on many issues, and our stances are not always popular ones… though some certainly do provoke stronger reactions than others. And we ask ourselves, on a regular basis: What will we risk?
We wrestle. We wrestle with our commitment to justice, versus our very real, very practical fears for integrity of this building and the safety of the people who enter it. We wrestle with the anxiety that such incidents inspire, versus knowledge that to many, these incidents are common, and that real lives at stake each and every day. We wrestle with hurt against hope, fears against call, human understandings and God-given promises.
We wrestle, and for longer than a night.
But for us, like for Jacob, there is no clear winner. For on one side is the power to take out the opponent with one simple touch; on the other is the human stubbornness to hang on anyway. I can well imagine the words of pain that Jacob uttered when he was struck, yet he hangs on and asks for a blessing anyway. He asks for a blessing, rather than for what his initial hope seems to have been; to be allowed to turn back and avoid the confrontation with Esau, avoid the accounting for his youthful selfishness. He wrestles, he hangs on, and then he limps away, following God’s call, facing his fears, risking all. Jacob goes on as one blessed by the struggle; reassured in the very act of wrestling of God’s presence, reassured in this moment of truth – in this moment of of deepest fear – that he had held God, for a moment, within his very arms.
Jacob’s fears have not gone, but neither have the promises of presence and blessing. And that is miracle enough.
We wrestle, we follow, we risk that which we love. And sometimes, we give up our lunches. And sometimes, we walk off our jobs. And sometimes, we open our hearts and our borders to strangers. And sometimes, we get hurt.
But if we wrestle truly: if we grapple so closely with our God that we might see God’s face; if we wrestle, and we risk, and we hang on despite it all, shall we not be blessed? Shall we not know, within our very embrace, the presence long-promised, covenant to all generations? the miraculous abundance that flows from God?
We who wrestle; we who invite God in for a little face-to-face time; we who follow, despite the risk: shall we not be blessed?
Shall we not be a blessing, a miracle to those for whom we risk ourselves?
May it be so.
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it is grown it is the greatest of shrubs… The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened… Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” Matthew 13: 31-32, 33b, 45-46
Do you remember the story of Jack and the Beanstalk? Jack and his mother were poor, and when their cow no longer gave milk, Jack took it to market to be sold. Of course, he never got all the way to market, but traded the cow – even without milk, an animal of obvious value – for a scant handful of beans… of very questionable value. I do not wonder at his mother’s temper tantrum, when Jack arrived home; she threw out the beans, afraid and angry. Because this is a fairy tale, however, the results landed everyone far beyond anyone’s initial perception of that handful of beans.
But we don’t live in a fairy tale. We likely think that the mother’s reaction makes a lot of sense… which makes me wonder how often we end up discarding that which seems worthless at first glance?
If you were an ancient Israelite farmer, there is no way you would allow mustard to grow in your field, and you certainly wouldn’t plant it. Mustard is a weed, a totally unruly plant that would be pulled up and discarded as soon as it started to grow. It was, to those ancient farmers, much like crabgrass is to us New England gardeners: an object of frustration and loathing.
Mustard was more than an irritating weed, however: its very nature as a leggy, bushy, unruly plant made it not compliant with Jewish law, which craved and demanded order above all else. To allow mustard to grow – let alone to encourage it! – was to allow an object of chaos in an regulated society, in a law that promoted order above all else. Mustard was like leaven: a corrupting agent, uncontrollable, impure according to the law. The inclusion of these in the purity of the food supply was akin to the introduction of something uncontainable, outside of our control: something worthless and undesirable.
And this is the Kingdom of God? in these ordinary, worthless, impure, less-than pieces of creation?
We are more likely to see the Kingdom in the pearl of great price; in Rachel the beautiful, rather than Leah the nearsighted. Leah, the apparently-undesirable (since, in the first seven years Jacob worked under Laban, she remained unmarried); the one Jacob would have rejected, the one he never treated well… yet the one through whom God worked. Leah was the one through whom the covenant promises were finally realized. For despite her apparent undesirability, Leah was prolific, giving birth to six of Jacob’s twelve sons – half of twelve tribes of Israel – as well as his only daughter. In Leah, we find the sudden, weed-like, yeast-like flourishing of God’s people; the chaotic, uncontrollable profusion of blessing that had long been promised.
That is the Kingdom: the treasure we’d sell everything to possess – in the form of a weed. The profuse, rampant, chaotic blessing and presence that we cannot live without… yet all too often, in forms we don’t recognize and would just as soon discard. For even the seemingly obvious sometimes isn’t; even the pearl had to be sought and weighed, before the merchant decided upon it. Still: a pearl is a relative no-brainer. But when Kingdom arrives in the form of weeds? of beans? of small, forgettable or unnoticeable acts? When the Kingdom takes the form of people who are not valuable by our standards – who do not conform to social or cultural norms, who do not stay within the confines of what we consider right, or proper, or pure, but arrive clothed as the ones who cause problems, and upset the balance… what do we do then?
What do we do when the Kingdom appears as a Nelson Mandela, as a Martin Luther King Jr., as a Rosa Parks, as a Harvey Milk? What do we do when what we primarily notice is that these people are the ones who defy neat, orderly rows of the garden, welcoming all to nest and be sheltered in our otherwise-perfect gardens? What do we do when the Kingdom erupts in our midst, in the form of those who make the dough rise so that all might be fed; who embody the abundance of promise, the chaos of covenant, which promised to God’s people descendents like the grains of sand, like the dust of the earth?
The thing about sand is that it’s itchy. Uncomfortable. Chaotic.
The Kingdom of God does not conform to human standards of worth or value, but calls us to reject those norms and notions; to give everything up for something greater. It calls us to reject our standards of comfort, of purity, of what is good or right or normal. It calls us to live by God’s standards, to embody God’s promises, to invite chaos, to welcome discomfort. The Kingdom invites risk, invites the anxiety that makes us question: why mustard? why yeast? why these elements you can’t control? why a fungus that’s going to grow bigger and broader and more flavorful; why a weed that’s going to become more sheltering, more nourishing, more abundant?
Perhaps real question isn’t why would you seek such a weed, but rather, why wouldn’t you?
In a rare instance of pedagogy, I’m assigning you homework.
For our less-agrarian, less-yeast-averse society: what is the Kingdom of God? Where does it break into your life in wild, weedy profusion? what are the undervalued pearls, for which we would give everything? What is our parable, for this modern age?
I came up with one, the other night: The outpouring of love (Kingdom of God, erupting here in New Hampshire) is indeed like a mustard seed, starting small – “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” And growing in wild, abundant, social-media profusion until it shelters and comforts all of God’s children, promising welcome to those too often bullied and silenced.
For the Kingdom is here, today, in the love that takes away the power of malice. It is here, in the the branching, spreading, sheltering love that holds us all in abundance and grace. For a handful of worthless beans can sprout a beanstalk to the heavens; the forgotten, neglected daughter can fulfill God’s covenant, and one church, in one New Hampshire town, can bring hope to hundreds, to thousands.
That is the what the Kingdom is like. Thanks be to God.
But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ -Matthew 28: 5-7
There was a fair amount of angst in my circles, this week. Something about having to preach a sermon to a larger crowd than usual had a lot of clergy more anxious about Sunday morning than they might usually have been. The sermon this week had to be spectacular – something that would really speak to those whom we don’t see every week, something that would get them through until Christmas. This week’s message had to be a homerun… and that’s enough to make anyone nervous.
But really? We all know that’s silly. No matter who is sitting in front of us, there’s only one sermon we should ever preach, and we should preach it all year. For if we preachers are doing our jobs well, then we’ll simply say this, every Sunday, in different iterations: death has lost its power, and love prevails.
It’s the simplest sermon ever, and the most complicated. Because the questions that this statement brings up are both simple and complicated; these questions of life and death that speak to us from the empty tomb. And because, as it was noted at a recent church gathering, the whole idea of resurrection is huge and kind of scary… perhaps because death and life are also huge and kind of scary, so the eventual reversal of them becomes overwhelming to us.
Because the resurrection is more than “Jesus died so we get a ‘Get out of Death Free’ card”. If that were the case, our lives would have no meaning – we could be as crazy as we want, as selfish and hurtful as we want, for there would be no finality, no consequences. Yet that is not how we are expected to live, even now. We are still called to follow, to live as disciples. We are called to be people of the resurrection, people who live in the promises of new life, here and now. We are called to leave the graves we have constructed for ourselves, to roll the stones away and step into the light.
We are called to leave the grave of power, and of privilege, and of comfort, where we, like Romans, believe in power of force to change the world; were we, like religious authorities who manipulated the crucifixion into being, grant ourselves power to rule over others, and judge their actions. To leave the closed-in space from which we can believe that we are better than those whom we might encounter: that we are right and they are wrong, without having to understand anyone else’s point of view.
We are called to leave grave of economic status, and to abandon both our love of money and the concurrent fear of never having enough: the let’s-leave-enough-aside-just-in-case attitude that keeps us not only from frivolity, but from doing the good that we might otherwise do. We are called to abandon the reduction of everything to economic value; to be the ones who would not only allow, but welcome the anointing of Jesus, rather than resenting (as Judas did) the waste of costly ointment and the pouring out of a possible source of revenue. Let us not be like Judas, who could measure even human life in monetary terms; let us not be those who are blind to less tangible returns on our investment: returns like equity, justice, opportunity, or life.
We are called to leave grave of anger and resentment; that place where we trap ourselves in an us-vs-them mindset, and where we perceive difference as akin to attack; where it is unthinkable to break bread with those whose fear might lead them to hurt us. Rather, can we be people of the open table, willing to incorporate Christ? Can we be people who set aside anger; who can be gracious when attempts to understand and be supportive, are exhausting? and when those whom we have asked to watch, and to pray with us, fall asleep instead? Can we, in the light of a new day, choose forgiveness of betrayal over resentment, and welcome those who abandoned us?
We are called to leave grave of fear; to set aside the fear of what others might say or think; of what might happen to us. To abandon fears that keep us from speaking up, from doing what is right; the fears that keep us feeling alone, and that make us deny our best selves – that make us say, with Peter, “I don’t know him!” Can we let go of the fears that keep us silent in the face of suffering and despair: distant from one another and from God? We are called to abandon even the fears of our own suffering, for some discomfort on our part – refusing the pleasures of power and status, choosing to set aside fear and anger, being willing to dwell in the unknown, uncertain spaces outside our comfort zone – may have us praying “let this cup be taken”, indeed, but might bring us to the new understandings that permit the rest of that prayer: “not my will, but thine be done”. We are called to uncurl ourselves from the confinement of fear, in order to open doors to new light; to roll away stones to new life.
Can we abandon these graves for the love and grace that we are offered this day? The love that can walk us through the valley of the shadow of death, but by which we cannot be held there? The love that no power, no money, no anger, no fear can kill? The love – grace and forgiveness – that mark us as disciples and invite us out of the graves we are so adept at digging, and into new life? Can we accept the love that reanimates us, reinvigorates us, so that we may follow anew the one who is love incarnate, into the resurrection that may seem huge and scary and overwhelming, but that is ours to choose?
Can we accept the forgiveness offered this morning: forgiveness of all that kept us back, during the bleak times of despair? Can we accept the grace that invites us out of ourselves, into relationship with one another and with God?
For the tomb is broken open: death has lost its power over us and love prevails!
Christ is Risen! do not look for him in places of death: in those small, human graves we frequent.
Christ is Risen! and we by grace are called to share in the new life of the resurrection.
Christ is Risen! may we follow where he leads us: out of the death we would so often choose, and into the grace of new life.
Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ -Matthew 26: 40-41
Were you there?
It seems an odd question, although it’s a hymn we often sing during the latter part of Holy Week. It’s odd, because really, the whole point is that no one was there. There is tremendous desolation in the way that the synoptic gospels talk of these final days – there are no disciples present at cross, only soldiers and criminals. Even before the actual crucifixion, the sense of loneliness is pervasive: the desertion of Christ by the disciples begins before Jesus was even alone, in the resentments of Judas, in the fears of Peter and the others.
Were you there?
It’s an odd question on another level, as well, of course: these things happened 2000 years ago. Of course none of us were there. But if we had been? For us, to whom this story is familiar; for we who know ending: do we tend to say yes, knowing the grief of these days but also the triumph that is to come? Are we tempted to say, yes, we’d have been there, right at the foot of the cross, bearing witness to the grief, the pain, the torture of crucifixion?
Perhaps we would, and there are some that do; some who are able to be present in such complete pain and loss. We are certainly reminded this week of those people who run towards disaster – the people who ran towards the blasts at last year’s Boston Marathon, who disregarded the very palpable danger to themselves in order to care for the wounded.
Yet this month bears other reminders, as well: of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, 20 years ago, when no one was present. Of the Earth, whose resources we are sacrificing at an astonishing rate despite the knowledge of the pain it is causing us all. This month, we are reminded of all the times that we’ve turned away from suffering; when we’ve distanced ourselves from one another’s experiences. We are reminded of those times when relationship has been sacrificed, love set aside; of the times that human life, and the commandment to love our neighbor, are trumped by quest for power – or or even just the ease of maintaining our own ideas, and the comfort of the status quo. We are reminded, this month, of all the times we have been silent as Christ has been crucified again.
Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, blogged recently about her thoughts, approaching the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing:
This past Friday night at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on Warren Street in Roxbury, I joined about 100 people, mostly from Boston’s predominantly black neighborhoods to pray for all those who have suffered violence in the year since the Boston Marathon bombing. We prayed hard. We sang fiercely. The collection was taken up to pay for the funeral for a young man in the neighborhood who had just been killed. A Mother asked, “Where is our One Fund? Why does his death mean less than any other death? What is my son’s life worth?”…
Jamarhl Crawford [a Boston journalist] speaks of the “regular violence,” a violence that becomes expected in “those places, to those people.” Part of what made the Marathon bombing so communally disruptive was that we don’t expect such violence on Boylston Street as we do on Bluehill Ave…
The Boston Marathon is and can be a potent symbol of our common life: As you stand alongside the route that leads into the city, spectators help cheer the runners along. You hold up your sign to be seen. That’s what I heard these families asking for: to be seen. They are asking to be seen in their grief, in their need, in their mourning and loss.
Were you there? Are any of us?
It seems an odd question, but it is the right one. Jesus calls us to a ministry of presence and of witness: of conscious, active presence – prayerful presence, if it keeps us awake and aware. Of presence beyond ourselves, and our own needs and desires, whether they are for sleep, or for comfort, or for simplicity, or for the status quo. Jesus calls us to a ministry in which we can we be present even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it demands something of us. Can we be present, even when it takes us beyond our comfort zone and our known world: when it requires our energy, our attention, our love? Can we be present, even when that presence calls us to be in relationship with someone we may never know? Can we bear witness to the suffering of this world, and through our witness, send God’s light, and God’s love to counter the despair?
Can we, by our presence – our acknowledgement, our voices lifted in prayer and support – show the suffering they are not alone? that the one crucified in desolation, the one who prayed that lonely prayer in Gethsemane, is present in us? Can we shine our light so that others see, and bear witness as well?
The ministry to which Christ calls us forces us to engage in self-reflection – to ask why we distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of this world, why we can turn aside from the brokenness that doesn’t directly affect us. We are called to open our hearts: to engage in discernment, education, outreach, and love wherever we see Christ crucified, so that we may be, not Boston Strong, but Humanity Strong. We are called to bear with one another, to be as present as the one who has borne our deepest pain, so that we might truly be made one Body in Christ.
We are called to presence, in the Gethsemanes of this life, so that when we are asked “were you there”, we might be able to say, “Yes we were.”
“[Eve] took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.” Genesis 3: 6a-7
“Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”‘ ” Matthew 4: 5-6
It’s an interesting thing, isn’t it? The thing Adam and Eve did with their amazing new knowledge was to make clothes, and cover themselves. They were alone in the garden; they’d already seen each other naked, yet suddenly it became imperative that they be clothed. They didn’t look around them at the complex splendors of the Garden and the intricate creation that God had wrought – they scrambled for cover.
Shame is cultural, as I think we recognize pretty generally. Shame around nakedness is also cultural – spending just a few minutes looking at National Geographic should be enough to remind us of that, as it has reminded generations of ten-year-olds. The need to be clothed is a learned behavior: small children readily strip off their clothes in the summer, or around the house, regardless of who might we watching. And so this immediate need that Adam and Eve felt to cover themselves, speaks not to some inherent element of the human condition, but to the culture that told these narratives and wrote them down.
Because, of course, Adam and Eve did not write Genesis. As with all Biblical narrative, these stories began as oral traditions – stories told to make sense of the world and our place in it. These stories, as they were handed down, shifted and developed according to the understandings of the cultures in which they were being told: the language was updated, the examples adjusted to speak to the current generation. Only when the stories were finally written down did their evolution slow, and even then changes get made – Disney’s retelling and updating of stories like “Rapunzel” (in the recent movie, “Tangled”) being a good example. Our ways of telling stories, the words we choose to heighten the tension or illustrate emotional content speak far more clearly to the needs and concerns of the listeners, than to the stories’ characters, inevitably.
And this story from Genesis is no exception. The culture that finally codified the story, in roughly the form in which we read it today, came from a culture that used clothing as a marker: to distinguish between themselves and other cultures, to differentiate the rungs of the cultural and social ladder. This was a culture that viewed others, who wore less clothing, as less-than, uncivilized, unGodly. For these people, clothes showed status, and the mark of a person’s God-like-ness.
For that is the real temptation, always. It was the real temptation underlying the serpent’s cunning words to Adam and Eve. It was the real temptation that the devil offered Jesus: the temptation to be God-like. These stories are not about making a fig-leaf fashion statement; not about being knowledgeable for the sake of of knowledge per se: but about being powerful for the sake of power alone: powerful in a way that humans never can be.
There is something to the parenting metaphor that we often use for God. No matter what the language – Father and Mother have both been used, not just by our generation but back into antiquity – there are times when the metaphor just works well. Not just because I can totally see God, in next scene, looking at Adam and Eve in their new clothes and saying, “I knew it was too quiet around here…” But because God, in this story, is dealing with something that many parents hear and deal with in their own children. Because most children say, at some point, “I wish I was grown up!” Most children see, and envy, the privileges, the freedom, the ability to set rules that adults often enjoy, and even take for granted. Children see freedom of movement, of bedtime, of TV watching… without seeing the responsibilities, the constraints of adulthood. And they want what they see – didn’t we, as children? And if there had been a piece of fruit that offered us all that we saw, and wanted, and dreamed about… wouldn’t any of us have eaten it?
Wouldn’t we still? Wouldn’t we eat the fruit that would make us as important as we want to be?
Wouldn’t we throw ourselves from the peak, just for the joy of being seen, by all of Jerusalem, as the one who was important enough to be caught by angels? Would we refuse such symbols of power and status: the clothes, the objects, that prove us to be more civilized, more important… more God-like?
What would God wear? Fig leaves? LL Bean? Brooks Brothers?
Or more to the point: how would we dress God, in human vesture and after our own image?
That is the temptation that faced humans in Eden, that faced the human Jesus, that faces us all today; in the cunning of external forces, and the whispers of our own doubts and fears: temptation to reduce God to our level. The temptation to make reduce God to the testable, the sensible; the puppeteer and controller of our lives. To make God into the one who blesses us with human status, power, and wealth; into one who lives and judges by human values.
It is the temptation to believe that God is present when we succeed and against us when we fail; the temptation to believe that God – that love – might be present when we assuage our own hungers before seeing to the needs of others.
It is the temptation to put individual importance before community, to be the one the angels catch, rather than the angel who catches the poor soul in free fall.
It is the temptation to think that knowledge means wisdom, and makes us like Gods ourselves.
What would it look like if this story had been transmitted orally all the way to us, adapting to suit values of each generation – including, ultimately, this one? what would Adam and Eve have done with their newfound knowledge, what would they have made to show their new status? What symbol of our civilization would we give them to make the listener understand that that fruit had made them God-like?
In what do we put our faith, we humans? What is it that makes us, even now, children of Eden, rather than disciples of Christ, unable to resist the promise of the unattainable?
What tempts us, even today? And what is our response?
“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain… Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” -Exodus 24: 15a, 17
“Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun…” -Matthew 17: 1-2a
It seems, in the past few years, that whenever I bump into a friend or acquaintance and ask how they are, the answer is no longer some variant of “fine, thank you” (the old, polite, brush-aside response); rather, I often hear, “okay, but I’m so busy!” Which, interestingly, does not accompany a tone of despair, or fatigue – any of the reactions to busyness that one might expect – but always sounds vaguely proud and satisfied. There is a moral value that we appear to have added, in recent years, to busyness: action has become somehow virtuous, in and of itself. Busyness means that we are important, perhaps indispensable. Busyness means that we are not, in political parlance, idle moochers, living off the busyness (goodness) of others.
But if busyness is good, what is the full implication? Do we still believe, with our grandmothers, that idle hands are the devil’s workshop? Has our Protestant work ethic come so far that we would condemn those who are not busy to the point of exhaustion, and proud of their inability to say “no”?
The virtue of busyness skews our priorities, to the point where we strive so hard simply to keep busy that when down time does arrive, we fidget. We wonder what is wrong, as we struggle against the discomfort of stillness and silence. Technology has not brought this moral value into being, but has solidified it, as we are presented with a means of keeping busy that can easily be carried in pocket or purse. We need never be alone; our work, our social communities, even vast libraries of books, are available at our fingertips 24/7.
When the busyness does begin to weigh; when we begin to feel overwhelmed, we break our routines without breaking the grip that “doing” has upon us. We all know people who have taken vacation time to work to “catch up” on everything else – which, other than not having to get showered or dressed, hardly sounds like a vacation. When we do actually get away – to “recharge our batteries” – we fill our vacations with things to see and read and do… and often neglect to turn off the notifications on our phones. Looking at someone’s vacation pictures on Facebook can be exhausting; it’s no wonder that we’re all so familiar with the phrase, “I need a vacation to recover from my vacation!”
When busyness is virtuous in and of itself, and separate from the possible virtue of the actual actions accomplished, then all that productivity stops having much meaning. The tasks that we assign ourselves simply to stay in motion become burdensome; filled as we are with actions and goals and appearances and anxiety, we often feel hollow… and so we find other chores, other actions, that ensure that we continue to be busy for the sake simply of being busy… busy enough not to wonder why we are not fulfilled.
I wonder if that’s how Peter felt. After all, there must have been a lot to do, as a disciple: beyond just having to keep up, theologically, because you never really knew when Jesus was going to throw a pop quiz, and you had to be ready to understand parables and ask wise questions that showed you were worthy of discipleship after all. There were also all the Human Resources questions that come up when a prophet, twelve disciples, their families, and a bunch of hangers-on are all tramping around the Galilean and Judean countryside for three or so years. There are details to arrange – where is everyone going to sleep? What is everyone going to eat? It’s all well and good to feed five thousand on a hillside, but that doesn’t really help in the day-to-day of several dozen people! And with that many, traveling together for so long, there are always disputes to be settled at some point during the day. And poor Peter, trying his hardest, finds that every time he turns around, there went Jesus, going off by himself again. It must have been enough to drive one to distraction.
I wonder what lists, what details, were going through Peter’s head that day, as this small group headed off for a hike up a mountain? What problems was he earnestly trying to discuss with Jesus? Finally getting Jesus nearly to himself, was he talking as fast as the strenuous hike permitted, when this moment of dazzling brilliance broke in?
It is a hard thing to disengage from all of the doing that keeps us busy, and to just be. Several years ago, my family and I were out running errands, when we looked up to see one of the most gorgeous sunsets I have ever witnessed. The bring-you-to-a-full-stop-in-a-busy-parking-lot kind – very nearly a bring-you-to-your-knees kind. We all stared for a long moment, but then, rather than just being in that moment, I reached into my pocket for my cell phone and clicked on the camera. Instead of stopping, and just watching this amazing sunset, I fiddled with white balance and lighting settings… finally getting a bad picture of the very end of the sunset, that I deleted almost immediately as worthless. In the attempt to capture the moment – to be busy and stay in motion – I had missed it all.
It’s hard to stop. Caught up in details, in life, filled as we are with worry, busyness; things we’re running towards or things we’re running from, we leave no room for light – of sunsets or fiery mountaintops or dazzling radiance. We fill our lives so full of busyness and details that there are no spaces left; no cracks where God might enter and break us open. When light does appear in our lives – when God’s presence is so palpably obvious that we are stopped in our tracks, we take those moments and try to capture them, in cameras or in dwellings, rather than simply experiencing them. We prioritize motion over being; the human virtue of busyness over the experience of God’s abundance. When we are at a place where the dazzling radiance gets pushed aside, God’s daily presence in our mundane lives goes totally unnoticed.
We talked in Bible study this week about what is needed for us to experience moments of transcendence – of God’s palpable presence in our lives. The general consensus was that solitude is required, and certainly Moses and Jesus were both emblematic in their solitary tendencies. But neither of these moments, from today’s scripture, is an entirely solitary experience. The Israelites could see the glory of the fiery, cloud-shrouded mountain. Jesus had the disciples with him – for once, he had not sought to leave them behind. So while for both Moses and Jesus, their general comfort with solitude might have helped them to stop, to simply be, and experience the divine presence, these moments are as much their ability to let go. To let a trusted brother, or colleague, or friend, run things for a bit. To stop worrying, like Peter, about the details, or the protocol, or the right theology. To set aside the things with which we fill ourselves, so God can fill us, even if that means we’ll have to break old rhythms, or change our priorities and our values; even if it means that we’ll need to empty ourselves, so we may be filled anew.
I read a wonderful blog entry recently – a Christian blogger who was reflecting on fasting. And although her scripture was not what we are looking at today, her reflections are quite relevant, as she cites Matthew 9: “neither do people put new wine in old wineskins, if they do, the skin will burst, the wine will run out, and the wineskin be ruined.” (Mt. 9: 16-17) She continues, saying:
“When I get swept up in my busy life – to distracted to get nourished properly from the Word, too intent on achieving my goal, even if it means that I get lost in the process – I become an old wineskin. I become that crinkled and cracked thing that can no longer hold new wine (new words, new ideas, new life) without spilling it all over the floor and wasting it.
“When I fast, I empty myself of the old wine. I shed a skin that can no longer perform its function of holding the new wine, and I take on the new skin that has been given to me – something capable of holding new wine, and all that is good.”
There is a reason that the lectionary exists, and it is not just to make lazy pastors like myself preach the hard texts, as well as the easy ones. There is a reason that the lectionary puts this transfiguration text in on the Sunday before Lent. We need this reminder of the power of God to break in and transform us… as well as the ease with which we, like Peter, set aside transformative presence, in the quest for action, or importance, or appearances, or simply out of habit. These are values, these are habits that we have a few weeks to try and shake, before we have the chance to be made new once again. These are the human values and the old habits that we must shed so that we may receive the new wine of new life, the light of a new day. We have a few weeks to empty ourselves of all that is crowding God out: to become aware of all that fills us without nourishing us: the things that fill our time, our hearts; that bring us momentary comfort or fleeting pleasure, but leave us feeling hollow. The things that speed us up, so that we are unable to stop and simply be present with God, that keep us clinging to the old wine, fearful of being made new.
For that new life is possible, even now; if we can let go of our self-importance, as Moses did, and leave trustworthy ppl in charge. If we can let go of the details, of the busyness, and trust in God’s abundance. If we can stop ourselves entirely, to see the dazzling glory of God in light, and beauty of this creation. If we can stop entirely when God shines brightly enough to stop us in our tracks. If we can stop, even in the midst of our routines, to see the presence that is always with us, even in muted, wintry, morning light; even in familiar surroundings, and familiar faces.
New life is possible wherever God is present, if we just make room.
“You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself…” -Leviticus 19:18a
“You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist and evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.” -Matthew 5: 38-41
Recently, my local clergy bible study looked at an article about the struggles of liberal theology. That mainline Protestant churches are often in decline is, by now, an old idea – old enough to have become embedded in our day to day life, a latent anxiety that informs our worship, our mission, our pastoring. The causes will be debated for at least the rest of my life; the responses (in the form of new worship styles, liturgies, and ways of being church) will continue to grow and develop. But the point that the author of this article made is one that will haunt both traditional and emergent churches that espouse a liberal, non-static theology:
It is, as we have many times noted, far easier to see the world in black and white. Theologically conservative churches, as a rule, tend to see the world and the bible in those terms: saved or not, worthy or not, us or them. They hand their members a set of very clear guidelines, a certainty about life’s meaning and God’s will in the world that is very compelling. Human beings like rules. We like certainty. We like things to be neat, and orderly, and fit into easily-classified categories.
Liberal theology gives us none of that. Rather, it requires a constant process of thinking, and evaluating. It requires us to engage with the text, to be self-critical, to be open to growth and change and uncertainty. And that is hard. It really is no wonder that churches that embrace such theology don’t see the membership numbers that conservative congregations do – who wants to work that hard on a Sunday morning?
The thing is, I’m not sure that there’s another valid option.
Jesus, throughout his ministry, was constantly urging the people around him to think. The disciples, the Pharisees, the crowds that turned out to hear his preaching: he implored them all not to follow blindly. In many ways, he was engaged in the same conversation that we are, between those who say, “Well, Scripture says…” Jesus, like many liberal Christians of today, asked in return, “But what is God saying?” (“God is still speaking” is far older than the United Church of Christ, it seems.) In asking this question, Jesus is not changing the scriptures, or picking selectively at them – nor, indeed, are the theologically liberal of the 21st century.
God, knowing us intimately and understanding our love of certainty, gave us rules to live by, early on in our history. The books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, notably, are chock full of “you shall” and “you shall not”. These were rules to bind a community into relationship with one another, and thereby into relationship with God. Leave some of your harvest for the poor and immigrant. Be honest in all your dealings. Love your neighbor as yourself. Yet I have a distinct feeling that Moses hadn’t even had time to draw breath after saying any of this before someone in the crowd muttered, “but what do you really mean by that?”
We love rules, but we love loopholes just as much. We love the security of boundaries almost as much as we love pushing back against that very security. We follow the letter of the law, most of the time, but often we do it begrudgingly. We leave the gleanings of our harvest because we’re supposed to – it’s the rule! – rather than out of concern for those for whom that might be the only source of food. We treat rules (and scripture) as an onerous burden, rather than as a conversation with God, and a chance to be in relationship.
To be in conversation with God – to be in relationship with God – requires something of us. It requires us to engage, to be self-critical, to be open to growth and change and uncertainty… it requires that we leave behind old understandings, that we be willing to disagree with friends and family, perhaps even with our churches. It requires us, sometimes, to be unpopular. Above all, it requires us to think, as Jesus continually pushed us to do. “You have heard it said…” but that is not enough. What are you hearing now? What stirs in your heart and your mind? Think! Think, and love. Love your neighbor as yourself; recognize your shared humanity in every interaction, in every circumstance, wherever rain falls upon us.
Love your neighbor as you love yourself. A scripture from both the Hebrew Bible and the Gospel, a good place to start our thinking. For this is a text that we, in the Western church, often read from a position of great privilege. We who have, for the most part, not lived under wartime occupation. We, who have not been entirely dependent upon the kindness of others, but have lived in societies with social safety nets. We have not been indentured into servitude, or been in danger of it. We have never been entirely without legal recourse, or status. And so the natural way for us to read the injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves is to see it as a reminder of how to treat others.
But there are two sides to every coin, and many of Jesus’ listeners were not on our side. These were not the privileged, but the abused, the occupied, the ones familiar with violence, servitude. These were the people who had been consistently dehumanized; the ones for whom love of self – let alone love of neighbor! – was nearly impossible. Certainly, there were privileged people listening as well – there were always Pharisees about when Jesus spoke – but these verses from the Sermon on the Mount are quite clearly destined for one particular audience.
“You have heard it said, ‘an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you…” turn the other cheek. Give your cloak as well. Go the extra mile.
It sounds like doormat theology. It doesn’t sound loving at all, but masochistic, or possibly passive-aggressive. But that is our 21st Century cultural perspective talking. Jesus’ words urged his hearers – the despised and unworthy of 1st Century Palestine – to assert their own humanity, their right to be loved.
“If someone strikes you on the right cheek…” consider that for a moment. The easiest way to strike someone’s right cheek is with the left hand. But that was taboo in Jesus’ culture – as, indeed, it still is in parts of the Middle East, where the left hand is considered unclean. To use it to strike anyone – no matter their social status! – was entirely unthinkable. And impractical: in a culture that forbids the use of the left hand, it’s bound to be the weaker hand. If you’re going to bother hitting someone, wouldn’t you use your stronger hand?
But it is very hard to land a punch from the right hand onto someone else’s right cheek. To strike another’s right cheek with your right hand requires you to backhand them across the face – a blow that, in 1st Century Palestine, signified lesser status. To backhand someone showed that they were not worthy of your touch. It was a blow reserved for the despised, the less-than. So for that person, having just been told clearly that they are inferior, to turn the other cheek is defiant. It is to challenge the one who claims superiority to strike again, but to strike a blow – right hand to left cheek – that would mark the opponent as an equal. It is to turn social conventions against the one using them, and to demand recognition of one’s own humanity.
All of these instructions, which without context would seem to counsel us to allow cruelty free reign, were equally subversive. One’s coat was the last thing that could be given a creditor in debtor’s court; to give the cloak as well was to strip oneself bare – and bring more shame on the person who caused the nakedness, than upon the one who was naked. Not to mention the chance to draw a curious crowd, who would then all know the infamy of the creditor who had reduced a person to the utter vulnerability of nakedness!
Likewise, although it was legal for occupying Roman soldiers to press anyone into service to carry their pack for a mile, any further distance was not permitted by Roman law. For a Jew to insist upon going further than that mile was to put the soldier into a quandary: do you risk breaking your own laws, or do you humble yourself enough to ask (!) this Jew to give back your belongings, and risk that he’ll say no? Do you risk the wrath of your commander, or do you risk giving power to the occupied?
I imagine that many of those listening to Jesus, in that moment, were whistling and cheering the subversive tactics of resistance that he was teaching. But more than simple resistance to practical problems facing many of his audience, Jesus was encouraging thought, and creativity, and love. He was laying out the possibility of a situation in which no one needed to be put down or dehumanized, but in which common humanity could be both demanded and granted, and equality – even momentary equality – achieved.
You have heard it said, repay violence with violence. But Jesus said, Assert your humanity: do not let others choose whether you are loveable, or equal, or worthy. Assert your humanity without lowering yourself to the level of those who would dehumanize you; without stooping to violence, either physical or emotional. Do not actively resist and evildoer: do not cause them the pain or injury that they are seeking to cause you, do not return violence for violence or cruelty for cruelty, but stand up for your humanity, your capacity for love, your capacity for creativity.
And that is hard. It requires us to think – to use our faculties of reason and judgment and all of those parts of our brain that usually shut down when we are upset. Jesus is pushing us to go beyond our instincts, the ones that are most active when we are afraid, or hurt, or angry, or have just been backhanded. And Jesus is pushing us to assert this thinking, loving, fully-human part of ourselves on our own behalf before all else: to stand up and assert that we are better than the lowest-common-denominator responses of fear or vengeance.
Because, as the old saying goes, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth only puts us in an eyeless, toothless world… in which we cower from each other, scared, blind, and defenseless, having lost all that makes us human; having lost the image of God that is present in each and every one of us on whom the rain may fall: sisters and brothers, resident and immigrant, rich and poor, us and them.
So no, I don’t think it’s hard to be a liberal Christian. I think it’s hard to be a Christian. Period.
It is hard to be thinking creatures in moments of stress, to use the thoughtfulness and love with which we were created. It is hard to follow Christ beyond the actual words, into the living work of discipleship. It is hard to give up even our illusions of control and let the Spirit guide us beyond ourselves. It is hard to seek God, never knowing what we might find, or where we might find it, or what it might demand of us.
It is hard, but it is our call: to be creative in the face of violence and anger, to be loving in the midst of fear and despair, to be powerful in the midst of weakness, to be disciples and followers of the servant Christ. We are called to be subversives in a dominant culture: within the walls of our churches, within our communities, and throughout the world, wherever the rain might fall.
They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. -Isaiah 2:4
Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. – Romans 13:12b
I am very fortunate: there are several clergy groups of which I am a member, both in real life with local and regional colleagues, and on social media. This latter tends to connect me especially to younger clergy, like myself; and perhaps the best part of that is the frequent recognition that I’m not the only strange one out there.
This week, as I was preparing for Bible study and for this sermon, one particular quote kept rattling around in my head… and I turned to Facebook, only to find that same quote apparently rattling around in a lot of colleague’s heads, as well. It’s from the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, in which the mantra of one of Harry’s professors is “Constant Vigilance!” (Bonus points if you can name the professor.) But it’s an appropriate quote for many biblical passages, both in the Gospels and the epistles, where we are frequently exhorted to be vigilant, to be watchful. It’s even appropriate in the specific context of Harry Potter: he and his classmates are, of course, being warned to keep an eye out for the works of Lord Voldemort, who is essentially evil incarnate. The Bible isn’t quite so dramatic in this instance, but we are reminded that if we had known when the thief was coming, we wouldn’t have let our house be broken into (Luke 12:39). We are reminded to be vigilant for the Master’s coming (Luke 12: 35), with the implication of great trouble if we’re not prepared. The message seems clear, from the Bible as from Harry Potter: keep an eye out, because you never know when something bad is going to happen.
That’s usually how we understand vigilance: it’s the preparedness and alertness on our part that keeps bad things at bay. It’s what keeps us safe, keeps our loved ones and our families from the potential harms that are lurking, just out of sight. It’s the constant awareness of the worst-case scenario. And so vigilance often renders us suspicious; mistrustful of anything new, or strange, or different.
Constant vigilance! we are told, as though the Master were coming. Constant vigilance! as though thieves might break in any moment. Constant vigilance! And we respond as though Jesus’ examples weren’t just that – as though they were real scenarios, rather than metaphors. As though there really were thieves, as though there really was some great evil against which we needed to guard ourselves and our loved ones, as though Lord Voldemort might – at this very moment – be aiming his wand at us.
As though it weren’t the Kingdom of God for which we were being told to watch.
There was a fascinating story on NPR this past week – similar to, and possibly inspired by, one circulating as an internet rumor for quite a while now. A Mormon bishop in Taylorsville, Utah, outside of Salt Lake City, paid a visit to a local makeup artist. She found him a gray, grizzled wig; added bushy gray mutton-chops and a scar on one of his cheeks; she blacked out a couple of his teeth. The bishop completed the transformation with some old, ratty clothes, and I rather suspect he didn’t bother with a shower that day. In costume, he showed up in front of the church, an hour before the services began. Many people ignored him, a very few gave him money. Several church members specifically asked him to leave, told him that the front of the church wasn’t an appropriate place for him to be. He was quite convincing in his role of homeless man, even as he slipped into the church about 10 minutes into the service; even as he quietly made his way up to the front… and into the pulpit, where he removed his disguise.
The reactions were more intense than he’d imagined, and he took care to let his congregation know that he hadn’t intended to shame them, or guilt-trip them, but to make them aware that human perception can be faulty. That most of the time, we see only what we are expecting to see. That we need to be vigilant in a whole new way.
Vigilance need not imply suspicion. It simply remarks upon our perspective, our vision… and our blinders. If we are vigilant for evil, then we will be aware of evil. We will see what we are expecting to see, what we’re looking for, whether or not it’s actually what is in front of us. When we are suspicious, when we are expecting thieves, then we see a smelly panhandler, rather than a child of God. When we are suspicious, we see a threat, rather than a nineteen year old whose car has broken down, or an Alzheimer’s patient, or a human being in need of help – and we react accordingly: both of these people were shot to death this month. When we are suspicious, we see a trap, rather than a merchant beaten and left for dead on the Jericho road, passed even by the priest and the Levite, whose vigilance on that road didn’t show them the way to compassion.
When we are suspicious, we see more need for swords than for plowshares, more need of spears than of pruning hooks. We feel more need to protect our loved ones from the possibility of hurt or evil than we do to ensure an adequate harvest to feed those very same people.
The cycle of vigilance, of suspicion, just continues… and yet we are surprised that, despite our vigilance, the Kingdom of God does not seem to be drawing any nearer.
We are surprised, but it has never been thieves for whom we’re supposed to keep watch. Despite the similarities with Harry Potter, Lord Voldemort is not right around the corner, and we’re not called to be vigilant against evil. We are called to be vigilant without suspicion: vigilant for the best-case scenario, vigilant for God, and God’s presence in our every day lives. We are called to a vigilance that allows us to see one another with compassion, ans human beings in need one of another; even if we are strangers, even if we are different.
Paul reminds us to clothe ourselves in the armor of light – which also sounds like a militaristic, suspicious turn of phrase, implying that something bad is coming. But militarism, protectiveness, suspicion – all that divides us, all that comes from fear and mistrust – these are the powers of darkness against which Paul is speaking. The armor of light is not protective, but clarifying, opening our eyes and allowing for the vigilance that our faith requires. Clothe yourselves in light so that you may be on the lookout for all of the signs of God in the world: for the Christ who walks as one of us, for the Spirit’s still, small, continually-speaking voice.
We are called to be aware of the sparks of light in the Advent darkness; not just the Advent that heralds the old story of the birth of the Christ child; rather the Advent that we have all been in since that first Christmas day: the darkness that lasts throughout the year, whatever our seasonal liturgy. We are called to be aware of the sparks of light that will lead us to the promised Kingdom of God.
For there is good, if we simply know to look for it.
There is light in our darkness. There is hope; there is peace; there is joy; there is love: there is God, present in our lives, visible to us if we are vigilant. If we allow ourselves to be aware. If we allow ourselves to live in the light.
Constant vigilance! Even in Advent, God is nearer than we realize.