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Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. -Matthew 4:1
The devil takes a while to get to the scene of temptation.
Did you ever wonder why?
The common understanding is that the devil waited until Jesus was weakest. That makes sense, anyway – why not wait until your adversary is most likely to be defeated?
Perhaps that is the reason.
I remember, a little too clearly, what I was like in college: a white girl from a privileged Boston suburb, attending a city school, the University of Pittsburgh. I remember watching my black classmates sit together at dinner, and wondering why I found it so hard to break in to their circle. I remember participating in specifically feminist activities and events on campus, all the while being very proud of myself for not “needing” to attend a women’s college. I remember being sure, somewhere inside myself, that if God loved all of us, and if we were to love each other, we needed to spend time together. And not in segregated spaces. This, it seemed, was the point of discipleship: hadn’t Jesus called people from all over, from all walks of life, to be together in the Kin-dom? Hadn’t Paul called us members of one Body, and reminded us to eat together, to worship together, to shelter and feed each other?
When I was in college, I strove to be colorblind, to learn to compete and achieve in a man’s world. When I was in college, I believed in a meritocracy, and grounded that belief in God.
Jesus goes out to the Jordan to be baptized by John – his cousin, according to some accounts – who had been preaching prophetically, out there beyond the cities, in his own wilderness. John preached, calling out hypocrisy, reminding us of our need for repentance, which is more than just saying we are sorry, but but changing, within our hearts, in irreversible ways. This prophet knows Jesus, in a very profound way; knows not only the man, but the spirit that is within him. Perhaps it is in the face of this Spirit, that he tries to decline, tries to convince Jesus he doesn’t need this water baptism, doesn’t need to be made new, doesn’t need to know God’s grace. But Jesus insists. Jesus, fully human, needs the rebirth of baptism. And then: perhaps, only then, can he follow the Spirit.
It strikes me, reading this text, that we need to feel the need to change before the wilderness is going to do us any good at all. We need to be aware of our need for repentance before we start the fast, before we seek after grace, before we go toe to toe with the devil.
It is human nature to filter our understandings of the world through our own experiences. It is human nature for people to not see or understand what they have not themselves experienced, to assume that others experience the world as they do, and that that way is “normal.” It’s why I didn’t understand the need for the black students at Pitt to find community in common experience. It’s why I didn’t truly get the power and potential of a women’s college for finding a voice that is too often silenced. It’s why so many of us don’t fully get the outrage at young black men, disproportionately stopped, arrested, and imprisoned. It’s why so many of us don’t quite understand the need for marginalized groups to be with those who don’t need to be educated, those who aren’t going to speak in well-meaning micro-aggressions. It’s human nature to see our lives as “normal” and therefore discount the experiences of others.
And human nature is hard to overcome.
It takes real acts of grace, in the face of our dismissiveness. It takes real acts of repentance and renewal to even begin, especially when we’ve been used to seeing our human nature as God’s will.
And although human nature is hardly washed away in the waters of baptism, that seems like a pretty good place to start, if one is preparing to walk along the path that God has laid before us. Even if you’re Jesus. Because it’s not only at Christmas that we need to take the incarnation seriously: the reminder that the divine came to reside within humanity in all of its messiness. And if we do take the incarnation seriously, we need to remember that Jesus was human, with all the biases and struggles that entails; with all the need for repentance, and wilderness, and grace.
Because listening for the call of God is pretty easy, when God says what we want to hear; when we hear God speaking in our own voice – the voice of good intentions.
It took me a long time to see beyond my own privileged experiences. It took a lot of arguments before I learned to shut my mouth and listen; to recognize my own biases, my need for repentance. It took a lot of grace, from those willing to challenge my hubris. It took a long time before I was prepared even for that first step, that plunge into the water, let alone to take those first steps into the wilderness, that place of introspection and self-awareness, that place where we remember that the voice of God isn’t always calling us in ways that echo human nature. It takes a long time for human beings to recognize the particularity of our experience, especially when it’s considered “normal.” It takes a long time for humans – incarnate beings – to see our privilege: the things we can take for granted, the things that are handed to us, whether or not we deserve them. I t takes a long time to recognize the grace that we so often don’t deserve; to feel, in that grace, the need to change our hearts, our perspectives, in irreversible ways; to come face to face with the temptations this world pushes on us and recognize them for what they are.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. But the devil took a while to get there; or at least, to be recognized as such. Time enough for Jesus to take a good hard look at the world around him, in which he’d been raised, at the biases of his own human heart. Until finally, one day, in his hunger he looked at the rock and knew that he could use his power for his own benefit, but that true nourishment lies in community, not in isolation.
And that day he knew that he could leap from the highest point imaginable and not be hurt, but that true devotion was not making God fly to him, but standing with God at the margins to support those who fell easily off of pebbles. That day, he saw clearly the trappings of power, of privilege, wielded for their own sake – even with the best of intentions – served as tools of oppression, and that the true power was held in open hands, given freely and without counting the cost.
It takes time, for us to approach the Jordan.
It takes time, for us to hear the Spirit’s pull into the wilderness.
It takes time, before we are ready to grapple with the tempter.
It takes time. Sometimes, it takes 40 days, often it takes more, to make the real, irreversible changes, to bring about repentance in the face of God’s grace that calls and accompanies us throughout our preparation for discipleship.
It takes time, but at the end, we walk out of the wilderness. At the end, we walk away from temptation, into the resurrection, and the kin-dom life of God’s eternal promises.
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.
“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.
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.
“Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.'” -John 9:41
I’ve been catching up on my reading recently, trying to get through the stacks of books on my desk and beside my bed. Among those, and certainly one of the most enjoyable, has been Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. It’s a memoir of her ministry, from one whose path was a little less… obvious, perhaps, than many. The story she tells of her call is particularly poignant: after about 15 years of sobriety, she received a call about the death of an old friend. They had met while both were doing stand up comedy; they had been in recovery – affectionately termed “the rowing team” for many years together. But whereas she had married, had children, and gone back to college, he had contested with the roller coaster of mental illness, before finally taking his own life. The call informing her of PJ’s death carried with it a request: that she officiate his memorial service:
My main qualification? I was the religious one.
The memorial service took place on a crisp fall day at the Comedy Works club in downtown Denver, with a full house. The alcoholic rowing team and the Denver comics, the comedy club staff and the academics: these were my people. Giving PJ’s eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.
It’s not that I felt pious and nurturing. It’s that there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. God, right there with the comics standing along the wall with crossed arms, as if their snarky remarks to each other would keep those embarrassing emotions away. God, right there climbing down the stage stairs after sharing a little too much about PJ being a “hot date”. God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.
I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of the antiheroes and people who don’t get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn’t help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. (p.7)
Among the brokenness of our lives. Among the marginalized. And not only when we are there to bring God’s light.
That one is an old idea, a relic of our colonial past, so ingrained in us that we barely notice it’s presence: the idea that we bring light to the dark corners of the world. On its surface, it’s one of those holdovers that still gives evangelism a bad name for us; yet even when it’s not about Jesus, we still often consider ourselves the “haves” – the knowledgeable, wealthy, powerful, “blessed” – and them the “have nots”, or even the “wants” – because who wouldn’t want what we have? Certainly, the income disparity is there, and often it is important. We give to those on the margins, via some very good and reputable causes. We give to places where human corruption or natural disaster – or both – have caused tremendous suffering; we give so that the marginalized will not be hungry, will not be cold, will not feel forgotten… for a little while, anyway.
But it behooves us to remember: we give to where God is already.
Although sometimes the setting is so unfamiliar that we have trouble seeing; although we are often tempted to see ourselves as the light-bearers, the love-bearers in horrible situations, we are not God incarnate in these settings. It is not entirely up to us: God’s light and God’s love are present whether we, the privileged, notice or not – whether we recognize it or not. Our experience of God, through the often-necessary gifts that we give; this experience of God as moving from the privileged “middle” out to the margins, is not the only experience of God… nor, perhaps, even the most powerful experience of God in that moment.
Yet if we were to experience of God in the margins – to experience God in one who dwells on the edge of our society, our comfort… would that not make us question, like the Pharisees? Would that not leave us uncertain, rattled, dismissive?
The blind man, in this story, lived his entire life on the margins. The question that the disciples asked was not, actually, as mean-spirited as it seems; theirs was the common understanding of the day, that physical deformity was the result of sin, either of the parents or of the individual. If the body was “imperfect”, it was the mark of embodied sin, rendering a person inherently unclean, ritually impure – and therefore marginalized, unfit for the society of the “perfect”. He begs because it is his only option for survival, cast out from society, bearing sin in his body.
It’s odd though, in this story: it is not his healing that removes the question of sin from the equation. The mixture of dust and spit that Jesus places on his eyes does not suck out his sin, for that had already happened. The disciples asked Jesus, “Whose sin made him blind, his or his parents’?” Two choices, the two given by society and religious understandings. Both of which were refused. Of the two choices, Jesus picked a third, unbinding sin from the body, deformity from purity. Before sight was restored, God’s presence was invoked in this marginal space, this “inappropriate” body. God’s presence was invoked within the blind man – within the “imperfect”, within the “other”. And when his eyes were opened, God’s light came pouring out from this man, casting into stark relief the social and religious ideas that had kept him out for so long.
For vision, in first century understanding, had nothing to do with sunlight being absorbed and reflected and bouncing into our eyes and onto our retinas. Vision came from within us; reached out and understood the world and brought the information back. Light came from within, demonstrating God’s presence. Jesus’ answer, Jesus’ actions in this moment turn the whole notion of blindness on its head; for it is not merely that deformity is cured, but that light is kindled within the one who was dark; God is present in the one who had been abandoned. The one who was in darkness is ablaze with radiance, there in the margins; and his light – his vision – slams full force into the solid, shadowed images of the law, and notions of purity; into the fiercely held beliefs about who God is and how God acts: ideas that block the light, and make people turn away in fear and confusion, finding it easier to follow in the ways of power and vanity – to see God in the middle, rather than the margins.
There is something still true in the notion of vision from within. No matter what photons might reach our retina, we still see what we want to see, in any given situation. Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, puts it this way: “Now much of modern science recognizes the very real coherence between the seer and what is seen or even can be seen. Wisdom seeing has always sought to change the seer first, and then knows that what is seen will largely take care of itself. It is almost that simple, and it is always that hard.” (p. 151)
We still see what we want to see.
What do we see, when we look for God? Where do we go, to find God? Is it God’s light, breaking in upon us, breaking us open to truths and experiences not our own? What is at stake for us in our seeking, and perhaps in our finding?
What is at stake for us, as for the Pharisees, when God is at work in the blind beggar, right in front of our eyes? What is at stake for us whe God is at work in an itinerant preacher and his rag-tag group of fishermen, tax-collectors, women – the poor, the unclean, the marginalized?
What is at stake for us, to see God in an “unacceptable” body, at an “unacceptable” time? What is at stake for us, to see God through the lens of brokenness, or in the body that we would consider inherently other?
What is at stake, when we dare to allow God to speak, not to those who dwell in the margins, but from those very people, in their voices and out of their experiences?
What is at stake when we allow ourselves to hear God speaking the truth of a heavily-tattooed, recovering alcoholic, female pastor? When we allow God to speak the truths of a black teen in a hoodie, just walking home from the store? the truths of a gang member with blood on his hands, trying finally to turn his life around? the truths of a mentally ill homeless woman, who seems from our perspective to be little more than a disruption to our nice, orderly lives?
What is at stake for us, to allow God to speak not of the margins, but from them? And how will we respond? Will we listen, and allow ourselves to be broken open to other experiences and understandings of God? Or will the distance from our own experience cloud our belief, and dull our vision? Will we, with the Pharisees, refuse to own that God might be bigger than the lens through which we are accustomed to seeing?
What is at stake for us when the blind see us clearly, and speak to our truths: to the uncomfortable truths that check our power or privilege;
to new and different understandings of God, embodied in ways we’re tempted to call sinful? Except we, as progressive Christians, tend not to use that word… we prefer other, less religious ones that function in the same way; words like “defensive”; “hysterical”; “angry”; “bossy”. Words that we, like the Pharisees, use to dismiss others’ experiences of God. Words that keep from having to see God in new ways; that keep God from stretching us; that allow us to stay in our comfortable, privileged notions of who God is, and how God works in this world.
Jesus isn’t much in this chapter of John’s Gospel. In a lot of ways, that makes this a good story for us, later followers who don’t tend to have the direct, mud-in-our-eyes experiences of Jesus that dominate the Gospel narratives. It is a story of what happens after we experience Jesus; after we experience God. It is a story of what it is to be a Christian, speaking truth to power, even when our experiences are dismissed, and we are marginalized. Yet it is also a cautionary tale for us: a story of what it is to be powerful, to be fearful of allowing God to break us out of our happy lives in the privileged middle, fearful of what God might say to us from the margins.
Yet worth noting: the story doesn’t end with fear and dismissal. Jesus, unusually, comes back. This is one of the rare times when we don’t have the one who was healed immediately following Jesus, or being left behind to who-knows-what-fate. Jesus comes back, in the end, to the one who was healed and then rejected. Jesus comes back for the one who experienced God, and light, and refused to conform to “acceptable standards” for such an experience; refuses to allow anyone else to dictate the terms of his faith. Jesus comes back for the one willing to see, even if he doesn’t quite understand: the one who is not trying to make God in his image, but who allows himself to be remade in God’s. Jesus comes back for the seer, remade in wisdom, with the clarity to see God in the margins:
In the broken.
In the cynics, and the alcoholics, and the queers.
In the despised, and the rejected, and the crucified.
Shall we let the blind lead the blind? Shall we, finally, let the broken lead the broken?
Shall we allow God’s light to break us open – a process which can hurt! – to new truths that stretch us and our understanding of God? Shall we allow God’s light to shine upon us: to be light-receivers, our fears and privilege cast into stark relief before the ones we’ve cast aside? Shall we, finally, hear and follow the voice that calls us to the margins, to the new life that might be possible if we are simply willing to leave our shadowy safety, and step into the light?
In the margins of our world, and in the margins of our own lives, God calls to us; remakes us in wisdom after God’s own image, until the blind become visionaries and the broken become the ones who have invited God in through the cracks. Until the one who was rejected and killed brings us to new life, and calls us to follow. For it is only in acknowledging out brokenness that we may be made whole; it is only from our blindness, that we might finally see.
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” Genesis 12: 2
A colleague of mine recently offered up this prayer of her Lenten discipline, an unusually honest one: “Thy will be done, yes, of course, God. But if you need tips on “thy will” just lemme know. I have some ideas.”
Thus says a minister in Lent, but it is a reflection, I think, upon the way that we all often pray: speaking familiar words (thy will be done), thinking familiar thoughts, holding familiar people or images in our hearts. Sometimes we make specific requests, we pray for a specific outcome – for healing, or resolution, or change. But how often do we listen for the response? How often do we allow our prayers to be a conversation with God, rather than a dictation of our own ideals? How much more often are we inclined to offer our own ideas of “thy will”, and leave it at that?
Now certainly, God can make God’s own self heard quite nicely, when the need arises. Ask any clergyperson you know, and the story of their being called to ministry is usually one of God breaking through sometimes-dense human resistance. Psalm 29 talks about the voice of the Lord breaking the cedars, reminding us of the power that God can call upon as desired. But mostly, it seems, from my own experience and the experience of scripture, God does not desire great displays of power. God is neither a grand dictator, nor puppeteer of the universe. The preference, throughout, seems to be for subtlety, on God’s part: making us use brains we were given, making us choose whether or not to listen to the promptings of the Spirit. God chooses the subtlety of sending a baby, via an unwed, teenaged mother, to redeem the world; the subtlety of calling the fishy-smelling lowly to discipleship, and turning them into leaders; the subtlety of blessing.
Of course, blessing, in our time, has all the subtlety of a cast-iron frying pan.
Suddenly, you’re counting your blessings, aren’t you? It doesn’t take much more than hearing the word, and it triggers us to start reflecting on our lives. And I’ll wager that I can guess what your blessings are:
Your health. Your nice warm homes, especially on cold, snowy mornings like this one. The food you ate before coming here, the food you will eat later in this day.
But are these blessings?
Is good health a blessing, when millions in this country – let alone around the world! – are without insurance, or providers, or anything approaching adequate care?
Are our homes blessings, when millions are homeless or living precariously, hovering on the edge of eviction, or couch surfing?
Is the food that we so often take for granted a blessing, when millions are food-insecure, many of them right here in this community?
Are we counting blessings? or privileges? And if these are blessings, what does it say about the God who bestows them upon us, but not upon everyone?
Here again, we would seem to be putting God in human vesture, listening to the voice of our comfort rather than to “thy will”.
I came across an article last week by Scott Dannemiller, that speaks to this beautifully:I’ve noticed a trend among Christians, myself included, and it troubles me. Our rote response to material windfalls is to call ourselves blessed. Like the “amen” at the end of a prayer. “This new car is such a blessing.” “Finally closed on the house. Feeling blessed.” “Just got back from a mission trip. Realizing how blessed we are here in this country.” On the surface, the phrase seems harmless. Faithful even. Why wouldn’t I want to give God the glory for everything I have? Isn’t that the right thing to do? No. First, when I say that my material fortune is the result of God’s blessing, it reduces The Almighty to some sort of sky-bound, wish-granting fairy who spends his days randomly bestowing cars and cash upon his followers. I can’t help but draw parallels to how I handed out M&M’s to my own kids when they followed my directions and chose to poop in the toilet rather than in their pants. Sure, God wants us to continually seek His will, and it’s for our own good. But positive reinforcement? God is not a behavioral psychologist. Second, and more importantly, calling myself blessed because of material good fortune is just plain wrong. For starters, it can be offensive to the hundreds of millions of Christians in the world who live on less than $10 per day. You read that right. Hundreds of millions who receive a single-digit dollar “blessing” per day. The problem? Nowhere in scripture are we promised worldly ease in return for our pledge of faith. In fact, the most devout saints from the Bible usually died penniless, receiving a one-way ticket to prison or death by torture. I’ll take door number three, please. If we’re looking for the definition of blessing, Jesus spells it out clearly. Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to Him, 2and He began to teach
them, saying: 3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled. 7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy. 8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God. 10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5: 1-12) I have a sneaking suspicion verses 12a 12b and 12c were omitted from the text. That’s where the disciples responded by saying, 12a Waitest thou for one second , Lord. What about “blessed art thou comfortable”, or 12b “blessed art thou which havest good jobs, a modest house in the suburbs, and a yearly vacation to the Florida Gulf Coast?” 12c And Jesus said unto them, “Apologies, my brothers, but those did not maketh the cut.”
Who is this God to whom we pray? Is God the bestower of comfort? of privilege? or of blessing?
Abram may well have asked that; I know that we would, in his place.
Abram’s father, Terah, had been called from city – Ur of the Chaldeans – to God’s land, but stopped at a likely looking spot along the way. He stopped in a place where there was evidence that a good life could be built – land and water in enough supply to keep him, his family, and his livestock. Terah did not venture further, but lived his remaining years comfortably. But God, in one of those less-subtle, frying-pan moments, called again, this time to Abram. Now, the bible doesn’t record Abram’s response, but I’ll have a go at what it might have sounded like:
“Are you crazy? I’m 75! No kids to help but my nephew, and you want me in the hinterlands? And you call this a blessing?”
Isn’t that what we might say? In Abram’s place, what would we do with such a pronouncement? How would we receive this directive, with no reassurance except that we’d be a blessing to others? What would we do?
What have we done?
God didn’t puppeteer, in this instance; didn’t reach down and frog-march Abram off into the land that God has designated. God called, and Abram chose what his father hadn’t. And Abram was blessed.
God blessed Abram: God opened the door to possibility, of being a great nation, of an increased blessing over the course of generations. And Abram chose to walk through the door.
Do we? Do we accept the open doors, the opportunities of discipleship? Do we accept the promise of presence and increased blessing; of increased opportunity? Do we accept to open doors ourselves, to make ways for others? Or do we say “thy will and here’s how!”
We are blessed, each time we hear a need and think, “someone should do something about that.” And a door opens.
We are blessed each time we are invited to witness pain and vulnerability in others, or invite someone to witness ours; each time we are able to take a stand for our faith, even if it invites ridicule; each time an opportunity arises, and a door opens, and we may choose, or not, to be blessed, and to bless others.
We are blessed, if we can hear God’s call; if we can hear the still, small voice speaking amid the words of our own prayers. We are blessed if we can stop making suggestions and start taking them.
We are blessed even if we, like Abram, don’t really understand in the moment what it is that we are being called to do. Even if we don’t know where the open door will lead, but we choose to trust, to walk through the door, to take the first step.
We are blessed, not because of what we have, but because of what we might do. Because we are called, invited by God to the opportunities of discipleship and servanthood; to the presence of the swirling Spirit and the love that conquers death.
In Lent, we are called to be more present to God’s presence in the world: to empty ourselves of distractions – our suggestions to God – and allow room for God to move and speak. To pray familiar prayers, and then listen for a response; to see God’s movement in human hands, and human voices, and human actions; to count our blessings, not in things but in actions. We are to count our call, our opportunities to show God’s love in this world: the opportunities to bring God’s kingdom, to bring the promise of new life; the opportunities to be blessed, and to be a blessing to others.
God called Abram, at the age of 75, into the wilderness, with just the promise of blessing.
And Abram said yes.
May we be so blessed: may we be such a blessing.
Thy will be done, O God.