Light & Salt & People & Love

Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. I’m not sure Christians can say that enough, given our history of violently demeaning and persecuting the members of Judaism, which is the only religion Jesus ever claimed. He didn’t come to start a new religion. He came to teach people that connection with God, spiritual liberation, was within their grasp even in a secular world that was tilted against them. That his ministry led to the formation of a new religion is more a product of human forces—politics, philosophy, theology—than anything else. And it’s not bad that a new religion formed. It’s just not a matter of the new one being more connected to God than the old one. God, by all indications, does not work that way. God is God. Religions are human structures that can connect us with God. 

So this passage of the Sermon on the Mount, which builds toward Jesus’ declaration that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets isn’t, to my reading, so much about Jesus preferring one religion to another; Jesus operated clearly within Judaism. It is, rather, about how to orient ourselves within the world. It comes, after all, immediately after the Beatitudes, which teach us that power in God’s kingdom more or less inverts the power in the world. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the peacemakers… those who are less heralded in our world. Power is turned upside down. In today’s passage, salvation is turned inside out. Let’s work backwards.

The last line is the kicker: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, the Pharisees are set up as a strawman, and Jesus takes issue with their gatekeeping behavior. They are, in the portrayal here, more concerned with policing the boundaries of the covenant with God than they are with helping people live into the covenant. It’s a legalistic way of administering a religion. This is the critique Jesus lodges.

So his emphasis on not coming to abolish the law and prophets actually helps to move attention away from the the legalistic focus and toward the spiritual. By not getting into the weeds of Scriptural interpretation, Jesus is able to say that “whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” The doing and the teaching are linked. If you do and teach opposite the covenant, away from God, your stature in the Kingdom of heaven is diminished. If you do and teach toward the covenant, toward God, your stature in the kingdom of God is increased.

It feels like I’m punting, arguing that this is about spirituality and not the letter of the law. But Jesus himself did not adhere to the strictly legalistic interpretation of Scripture. You can’t just lift this verse out of the context of the rest of the Gospels and argue for biblical literalism. He associated with unclean folks and healed on the Sabbath and so on. This was at the core of his conflict with the Pharisees. These differences don’t make him a bad Jew; Judaism has never been one thing, and Jesus is here moving away from one particularly legalistic understanding of it. So while he is not here to abolish the law and the prophets, he is clearly here to help us to a more spiritual understanding of them. And that is not a matter of one’s own cleanliness, but of one’s practice in relationship with others.

This is where the metaphor of a light not being hidden under a basket comes into focus. The point of the light is to illumine the world around it. Likewise, with salt, the point is to season and preserve food. As an aside, I still don’t understand how salt can lose its saltiness, but I take the point all the same. Salt is useful for the way it relates to other substances.

So then the paradox is established. We serve our own interests best by serving others. Doing and teaching are integrally connected, like a lantern and the light it gives off.

It is, if you are paying attention, another form of “love your neighbor as yourself,” which Jesus tells us later in this same Gospel is the second great commandment, along with “love God.” On those two commandments, Jesus says, hang all the law and the prophets. The very things he has emphatically not come to abolish. Once you get away from a legalistic reading of Scripture and allow a spiritual meaning to come through, it starts to make a lot more sense. 

So we have here a clear lesson on the importance of being an example, of teaching others, of making the world around us a bit more like the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus is explicitly linking this work with our place in the Kingdom, so salvation, just like power, gets inverted. Your concern for your own soul is rechanneled into concern for others. 

But you can’t just substitute concern for others for concern about yourself. That’s not how humans work. And it’s not how Jesus is telling us to operate. Your self-interest and concern for others are, he teaches us, deeply connected. So what changes here is that we have to stop thinking about love as being a one-way street. We have to stop thinking that salvation can only have meaning when contrasted with damnation.  

Light is a result of an inner energy moving outward. Salt, in the way Jesus describes it (which is not the way chemists do), relies on an inward saltiness to season the things around it. Our mission as people of God isn’t to lift ourselves above the fray and leave the others to themselves. It is to work within the world for transformation. It is to help others, as others have helped us, to see the possibility of a different way of being. It is to be tenders of the light.

But I think we lose sight of the spiritual work going on and where the energy comes from. I talked about this some last week too. Love your neighbor as yourself implies two kids of love, for your neighbor and for yourself. It doesn’t, to be very clear, imply loving your neighbor so that your neighbor will love you. Love that always needs reciprocation will burn out. 

The model of ministry Jesus is teaching here is one where we are fed by the love we receive from God, which we need to allow ourselves to receive. Too often we do things to serve others simply because we think that’s the correct thing to do. I call this “Boy Scout morality” because I grew up rattling off a list of virtues that were good, but never really gaining a deeper understanding of why they were good. A lot of what we learned as kids was Boy Scout morality. But we aren’t teaching people to do good deeds. We are teaching them to know God’s love.

If we are to act as a light, then we need to think about what we are showing people. Are we showing them a facade of goodness around a core of self-loathing, or are we showing them a more resilient and healthy practice of loving others as we work to love ourselves, because we love God? Do we give so that we will receive, or can we give more gracefully, without need for reciprocation? The key to the deeper, lasting way of goodness is to practice compassion for ourselves. It’s real work. I’ve got a therapy appointment tomorrow as part of how I work on it.

It’s profoundly counter-intuitive, this lesson that our concern for our own salvation is best manifested as concern for others, which is best based in love for ourselves. But all of it, all of this “love your neighbor as yourself” follows from the first commandment. God loves you. Just does. God’s not wrong about that. And God wants love to spread. God wants relationship with each person. Love is meant to be shared, but God wants each person to feel loved. So the way we best honor God, best give thanks for God’s love, is by recognizing that there is enough of it for all of the creation to radiate, for us to love ourselves and our neighbor. It is, it turns out all connected.

Jesus wasn’t trying to start a new religion. He was trying to teach us to love, right where we are. 

AMEN

A Welcoming World

We talked just a couple of weeks ago about the baptism of Jesus, which took place when he was about 30. Today we hear the story of a ritual that is more analogous to the baptism a lot of us received. I, for example, was not baptised in a river, nor was I an adult. I don’t remember my baptism, and many of you don’t either. Our baptisms were much more like this presentation at the temple. Our parents, wishing to signal something of our community and the way they intended to raise us, took us to the place of worship—the church where my grandfather was the priest for me, the temple in Jerusalem for Jesus—and presented us there. It is a communal way of marking the relationship between the family, the child, and God.

It might seem strange that of his 33 years, Jesus only carried out his active ministry—traveling, teaching, performing miracles—for about 3 of them. And not to present this as an explanation, but he clearly needed to be steeped in his context and tradition to be able to speak to people so incredibly in their tradition and context. Everything happens in its context, and Jesus could not have been Jesus without a context. So this presentation at the Temple serves as a naming of that context. This place, this tradition, these people, this God. This will be the center of his life.

The people and events here matter then. It matters that you can sacrifice two turtledoves or two pigeons. My animal-loving daughter would disapprove of either, but it matters that the law has a provision for sacrificing pigeons, which are much cheaper and more common than turtledoves, so this ritual can be accessible to people who are not wealthy. Though there are always markers of wealth and poverty on people, poverty is not a barrier to the temple.

And it matters that Simeon is moved by a spiritual recognition of Jesus. I’ll confess that, had someone said something like the Song of Simeon to my children at their baptism, it would have set off alarm bells. It’s a lot to hear from a stranger. But again, context. Angels had appeared to Mary and Joseph declaring this child to be the Son of God. Strangers from far away had shown up at the stable where he was born, bearing age-inappropriate gifts for the infant. Simeon was part of the chorus of people whose eyes were open to see who this infant was.

His song is beautiful. That’s why we say it every week in Compline. “God, I can see that you have fulfilled your promise. I have seen it with my own eyes. This is the awaited savior, not just for Israel, but for all the world.” It speaks perfectly to that feeling of relief that we all yearn for. It captures the aspiration of peacefulness, and shows us that it is actually within our grasp.

It matters, what Simeon said after that to Mary. “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed– and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” That, too, is not exactly what you want to hear when you bring your child to the Temple for the first time. But Simeon is not here to make small talk. That second clause, “and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” is the part that gets me. The part about the falling and rising, and the sword piercing Mary’s soul, those are pretty incredible, but remember that no one knew exactly what kind of Messiah he would be. Some were expecting a military leader, who could be responsible for people’s falling and rising, and were he to die in battle, it would pierce Mary’s soul. But this notion of Jesus being a sign that will be opposed so that our inner thoughts will be revealed is something different.

It’s said that an idol shows us what we project onto it, and that God shows us something deeper, challenges us to know ourselves more deeply. It’s in that way that our opposition to Jesus reveals our inner thoughts. When we encounter God, in this case God in human form, we stand astride the gap between God’s kingdom and our local context, which are always happening in the same place, but which can move in very different directions. 

Perhaps part of us is taking note of who sprang for doves and who brought pigeons to the sacrifice, quite plausibly unintentionally judging people based on their socioeconomic standing. And when we confront Jesus, that part of us resists. That part of us says, “this Kingdom of God sounds nice, but in case he’s wrong, I’m going to keep up with the materialistic game.” Our opposition to Jesus reveals our inner thoughts.

Perhaps part of us is a little taken aback by Simeon, this guy who is having a super-intense experience of God and is getting kind of emotional about it, and we’re used to a more stoic ethos. And so we might judge him because his experiences manifest differently in him than ours. We might even be jealous of the way he freely emotes, but subconsciously disguise our jealousy as disdain. He might seem unusual, based on our context. When we confront Jesus, the part of us that can be uncomfortable with people who operate differently than us will resist. We will fortify our jealousy against the uncertainty of love. Jesus will say, love your neighbor as yourself, and we will start looking for the loopholes. Our opposition to Jesus reveals our inner thoughts.

This level of awareness is actually pretty rare. It’s not terribly hard to attain, but you have to be willing to see yourself more clearly. And the real question is: what do you do, once you see yourself more clearly? How do you respond to the knowledge that you are materialistic, or that you judge others? 

The classic academic achiever move would be to brutally suppress these feelings by forcing yourself to do the thing that is the right thing. It’s how you power through the late night study sessions and write the term papers, right? You don’t want to, but you do it anyway, because you know that’s the good thing to do. So you judge people, but you force yourself to act nice. I’m not angry if you do this. I do it all the time. It’s not the worst thing.

But Jesus wouldn’t see you that way. Jesus would look on you with compassion. Much of what opposes Jesus in us is really what opposes ourselves. I am materialistic because I am am worried that what I have won’t be enough to measure up. I judge people because I’m not comfortable with myself. So the fact that the Kingdom of God welcomes all, and that Jesus views us with compassion, is a nudge to let us stop opposing ourselves.

In all of what’s happening in this Gospel, this may be the most important thing to notice. The salvation Jesus offers, the Kingdom he brings, is one we participate in by letting ourselves participate in it. Loving your neighbor as yourself, after all, involves two kinds of love. Love for your neighbor and love for yourself.

So practice it a little. When you find yourself reacting in opposition to Jesus this week—either to what you hear in the Gospel or to what you see in the world—just give yourself a break. Realize that something in you likely opposes yourself, and that the love you offer yourself is directly connected to the love you offer others. A lot of people in places like this are fueled by self-loathing. It has always been thus. But it doesn’t have to be.

When I read this story of the presentation at the Temple, I see people of faith—Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna—expressing their faith in something that was uncertain. He was a baby. So much could happen. So much would happen. They knew they had been waiting for him, but they didn’t know exactly what he was. But people’s opposition to him would reveal their inner thoughts. The stark light of the Kingdom of God creates a lot of contrasts, and shines light on a lot of darker places. With the courage to face them, may we become the community that welcomes Jesus in our time.

AMEN

The Powers That Be

Those of you who were at Compline on Tuesday heard me say that I like to re-read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” every year on Martin Luther King day. It reminds me that I still don’t grasp the depth of his genius. Behind the skilled leadership and incredible oratory—the things that are most talked about on the civic stage—was a breathtaking vision of God’s work in the world formed by a brilliant theological and philosophical mind. Every year I try to imagine the pressure and stress he felt sitting in that jail, and I am absolutely taken to school by the clarity and force of the argument he made in his letter to local clergy who complained about the demonstrations Dr. King was leading.

The local clergy were trying to be Christians and moderates on an issue that frankly won’t accommodate both of those positions. Why, they asked, do you have to do these demonstrations now? Why not wait until a better moment? We support you in principle, they were saying, but this is getting inconvenient. Perhaps they didn’t actually support the movement. Perhaps they were worried about the hit the church budget would take if the wealthy racists took their pledges elsewhere. Such concerns are behind a lot of church silence.

Dr. King responds with a passionate and precise argument against delaying action. He cites an array of theologians and philosophers with ease, but the parts I like best are when his voice becomes the voice of a prophet.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.  “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Available online

And, as I read that letter on Monday, a group of gun-rights activists gathered around the Virginia state capitol in Richmond, protesting proposed gun restrictions. 

White people. With assault rifles. Outside the building that served as the capitol of the Confederacy. On Martin Luther King day. Y’all, between you and me, I don’t think this was about freedom.

Smash cut to the first line of today’s Gospel. “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” John the Baptist, who had baptised Jesus, was arrested. Mark’s gospel says it was because John criticised Herod for marrying the ex-wife of his own brother, but non-biblical historical sources tell us that he was arrested for being critical of Herod’s brutal economic policies. Either way, John was arrested for speaking truth to power. And power then, as now, dealt in the currency of death. John was soon beheaded.

So Jesus withdrew—a fairer translation might say that he fled—to Capernaum, in Galilee, away from the power center in Jerusalem. Perhaps he was waiting for a more convenient time to begin his ministry.

Martin Luther King was disappointed—and I think he was being polite in choosing that word—in white moderates who agreed that segregation was unjust but did not believe that civil disobedience was justified. He was disappointed in people who could not understand that an unjust law cannot be a law of God’s kingdom. He was disppointed in people who would do theological gymnastics to avoid doing something about injustice. Gymnastics like arguing that the bodily realities of this world do not matter, because the soul is distinct from the body. The church is in the soul business, they said, and so secular racism is not a church concern. Dr. King’s words are far better than mine:

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

Ibid.

I think, when we read the first sentence of today’s Gospel, we expect Jesus to respond as one of Dr. King’s white moderates would. We expect him to retreat and lay low, and to try to get on the good side of the authorities. 

But this is a man who is fresh off of 40 days in the desert, clarifying, refining, and intensifying his call to serve people by denying the ultimacy of secular power. Matthew makes sure you have Isaiah’s words in your ears as you see him do this:

“the people who sat in darkness 
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death 
light has dawned.” 

And he begins to proclaim: “Repent,” that is, turn away from the way power works here, from the way of Herod, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He is, then, not waiting, not hiding. In the face of violent imperial oppression, Jesus introduces an alternative vision of power, one rooted in love, and in a justice so deep we can scarcely imagine it.

Jesus proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven had drawn near. He went down by the sea, and called two fishermen, Andrew and Peter, to drop their nets and follow him. To repent, that is, to turn away from their comfortable life and to follow him. And they did. He called to James and John—a different John, obviously—and they, too, dropped what they were doing and followed him.

“And Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” The good news came to people, to their souls and to their bodies, in the midst of sinful oppression. The sacred is the secular and the secular is the sacred. That’s the Gospel. That’s how it went. The threats of violence from the capitol did not stop it. Death did not stop it.

And so there will never be a convenient time. There will never be a moment when Jesus does not call us to hear “black lives matter” as an affirmation of basic justice in the gaping maw of systems that by their practices would deny it. There will never be a moment when Jesus calls privileged folks to hear other peoples cry for justice, for decency, and to say, “someday, but not now.” Because each moment of injustice is a real wound on real people, on their bodies and on their souls.

John the Baptist was killed for witnessing against power. So was Jesus. So was Dr. King. Death is the real currency of empire, and empire exacted its price from each of them. It is terrifying. That is the point. But in our rush to canonize these witnesses, we ought not smooth out our portraits of them so much that we lose the texture of their humanity. We cannot forget the fear they felt. We cannot forget the faith that led them beyond the fear. And we cannot forget the very real excruciation they experienced. White violence cannot obscure the black bodies. Nor can white moderation separate bodies from souls to soothe its own squeamishness. We are called, body and soul, to speak the Good News, now. To proclaim it in the face of the imperial logic of death. And that is, to put it gently, inconvenient.  

Martin Luther King, Jr. applied for a concealed carry permit in 1956, after his house in Montgomery was bombed. Police did not like to grant such permits to African-Americans. His application was denied. He could not legally holster a weapon under his jacket. All the same, he possessed in his house at that point quite a few firearms. You can understand why. Yet, as he more fully wrestled with, practiced, and embraced the power of non-violence, he would give up his guns.

Dr. King later wrote, “I was much more afraid in Montgomery when I had a gun in my house. When I decided that I couldn’t keep a gun, I came face-to-face with the question of death and I dealt with it. From that point on, I no longer needed a gun nor have I been afraid.”3

Clayborne Carson, ed. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King. 1998, Grand Central Publishing, New York. page 82.

May we, with God’s help, be even a fraction as powerful.

AMEN

Trinitarian Invitation

For the Word made flesh, Jesus didn’t talk much in the beginning. The Father and the Spirit and John the Baptist did the talking for him. Today’s Gospel starts with John recapping what we saw last week. At Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, the Spirit descended as a dove, and the voice of God rang out, proclaiming Jesus to be God’s son. And frankly, telling the story is about all John has to do to convince Peter and Andrew that Jesus is worth following.

So, a couple notes about what is going on here. First, notice that Peter (or, Simon Peter if you prefer) and Andrew were already disciples of John the Baptist. They didn’t wander in as strangers. As his disciples, they would have been learning from him, particularly about the one who was to come after him. John had told them about the baptism, about what had happened. So the next day when John says “look, here is the Lamb of God” they have some idea of what he means. 

I think this is pretty important, because it makes this all a little more relatable. Those unmistakable God moments when the world is transformed or choirs of angels sing or a beam of light shines down in a way that makes sure you know this is a God moment sure sound nice. But here, the first disciples are in the presence of Jesus, which surely qualifies as a God moment, and they know it’s him only because their teacher told them. Where we would expect some sort of grand display of divine power and charisma, there is only a wild-eyed man who has been too long in the wilderness telling his students that this is the one.

The first disciples were taught to follow Jesus, and learned who he was by word of mouth first. So it remains to this day. We share the stories of Jesus, we gather around a table to remember him, so that we might be able to recognize him in our life. The things we do in church all serve to help us make that connection.

Secondly, you can see how baptism and the Trinity became such central parts of Christianity. If the things we do together are to help us recognize and follow Jesus, then what better way to formally begin that following than by participating in the same rite that revealed his divinity? When we baptise people, we proclaim them to be part of the body of Christ, that is, part of the collective that seeks to live lives patterned on Jesus’ life.

Now, the Trinity is really just the model we use to try to understand something of how God works. It was first formulated about a century and half after the time of Jesus. It is a theological construct, but it’s a dynamic one. If we think of God as a household made up of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then the thing that happens at Jesus’ baptism is an invitation to join. Jesus, the clearest example, the most relatable manifestation of God’s love, sent to reach out to the whole world, and the Spirit, which flows through each person, which calls each person toward God, are in effect offering you and me a seat at God’s table. God constantly folds the creation into Godself, extending the gift of divine life.

Lovely language, for sure, but what do you do in response? How does one say “yes” to the offer of life alongside God. There are many ways to go about it, and your creativity is a tremendous tool as you do so, but in terms of ritual, baptism quickly became the primary way by which people claimed their seat at God’s table.

And every time we baptise someone, everyone gathered re-affirms their own baptismal covenant. We all re-commit ourselves to this life that we see Andrew and Peter taking the first steps on in today’s Gospel.  And how do we do it? We do it by describing that invitation to God’s table. Let’s walk through it.

The baptismal service uses the Apostle’s Creed to affirm our belief in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 

We affirm our belief in Jesus, Son of God, born a human and crucified as a human, living a life in between that shows us how to say “yes” to God. His resurrection shows us that even death does not limit God’s love.

And we affirm our faith in the Spirit, whose work our covenant associates with the church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

So the roles that the persons of the Trinity play according to the baptismal covenant align with the roles they play in inviting us to join the household of God. God the Father creates, Jesus the Son exemplifies and reveals, and the Spirit folds us together and integrates us into the divine dance.

Then there are more questions. Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers? That is, will you do the things that point us toward God, that teach us about God, and that help us to recognize and say “yes” to God. And we will, with God’s help.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Because living a spotless life if not the expectation. We will try, and we will fail, and we will be honest about it so we can accept the grace of another moment of invitation. We will do it with God’s help.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? That is, will you strive to pattern your life on Jesus? With God’s help, yes.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you turn this love outward, and will you let it change the way you see other people, so that the transformation in you can become a transformation in the world? We will, with God’s help.

Finally, will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? Will you work to make the human household look a bit more like the divine household, with a seat at the table for everyone? With God’s help.

This is the journey Peter and Andrew embark on in today’s Gospel. Ironically, we never know if they were baptised. Presumably John baptised them too, But with the help of their teacher, in a community of those who follow God, they take literal steps to follow Jesus.

It’s the beginning of Christianity, right in this moment, and it’s not nearly as dramatic as you would think. A life following Jesus is a life folded in with everything else in life.

Hopefully we can start to see more clearly how this baptism and this revelation of the Trinity really does connect with what we do now. How the Trinity, a theological model invented way after the events described in this Gospel, helps us to understand the multiple experiences of God as in fact an invitation to join.

And for all the things happening in this passages, Jesus says very little. He notices Andrew and Peter following him, and says “What are you looking for?” It’s the part that comes next that should make it clear what he is up to, though. They say “Rabbi, where are you staying” and Jesus, saying explicitly what would become a pattern in all his teachings, what we are invited to each and every day, says to them, “come and see.”

AMEN

Baptism Into Mystery

In later years this passage would spark countless theological debates, journeys down rabbit holes, and some very high level navel gazing. As Jesus rose out of the water, breaking the surface of the River Jordan and taking in the first breath of his new life as one baptized and commissioned as a servant of God, the heavens were opened. He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove over the river, no doubt recalling that she had hovered over the waters as the world was called into being. And a voice from heaven, the voice that had in that long ago beginning opened up the possibility of life by saying “let there be light,” now said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” A new light. One not blotted out by darkness.

To understate the case, this did not happen often. It didn’t happen when I was baptized. It didn’t happen when you were baptized. John was baptizing all sorts of people, but the heavens didn’t open and the sky didn’t speak for them. Only for Jesus. It set him apart. It named his vocation. And it blew their monotheistic minds.

If God is the voice in heaven, how can God also be in the river? Are there two gods? This is a very serious consideration, in light of that first commandment, that whole “you shall have no other gods before me” one. To follow that commandment, you’ve got to know what is God and what is not God. Is Jesus God? He sure looks like a human. But this stuff also feels like God. If he is God, how is God also behind the voice from the sky? Later, Jesus would pray to that God, would address that God as abba, “father.” Jesus would plead with that God from the cross. 

And then there’s the Spirit. Not a new concept for the Jewish world, but yet another manifestation that sure seems divine, sure seems like God, but which here shares the scene with the voice in the sky and the guy in the river, which also sure seem like God, so maybe what we have is three Gods? Or maybe one God which is made manifest in three ways? One God in three persons?

Of course, you know that is the answer Christianity settled on. One God in three persons, a triune God, a trinity. And you might not believe just how much Christians have written trying to precisely work out the mechanics of that. The Nicene Creed exists largely to make it clear that God the Father and God the Son are both eternal and divine, neither older or greater than the other, despite the chronology you’d assume from the words “father” and “son.”

Christians who want to express God with math have meditated endlessly on this triune God, as have those who prefer metaphor. A lover, the beloved, and the love that binds them or the mind, it’s knowledge, and its love… both of those come from St. Augustine.

It’s a fun exercise, and it is immensely challenging, too, because it’s really, really hard to find a metaphor that maintains just the right set of orthodox theological dynamics. But let me suggest here that the orthodox theological dynamics, though I’m fascinated with them, are not exactly the point. The point, I think, is that it still blows our minds. This scene, with Jesus coming back up from underwater, and the dove and the voice, and each of them being fully present expressions of God, is more than we can take in. It is so excessive, so far beyond our typical understanding of personhood or identity, and it all serves to say: this guy, right here, is much more than just a guy.

Under all the math and metaphor, this baptism scene presents us with mystery. Not mystery as a discouragement, the way I heard a lazy youth minister once use the idea of mystery to get a kid to stop asking tough questions. Not mystery as an anesthetic for curious minds. Mystery as depth. Mystery as excess. Mystery as something so different and yet so tantalizingly close that it makes our world feel different. God is a guy, getting baptised in a river that, despite what the song says, is neither deep nor wide. We understand that. But God is also the descending dove and the voice from heaven. God was nailed to the cross, but also not die on the cross, and has carried inspiration to countless millions of hearts over the course of time. God is multiple and singular, manifold and unique. 

But—and your question here is shared by students in every theology class I ever taught—so what? You’ve got classes to take and stuff to apply for, and I’ve got bills to pay and kids to feed, and who’s got time for an intellectual exercise about the exact nature of God? Well, embracing mystery can do a lot for you.

And here’s where I want to be careful. Embracing the mystery of God does not mean abandoning your curiosity, or ceasing to wonder. When I heard that youth minister tell a kid not to ask those questions because it’s all a ministry, I pulled that kid aside and urged him to never stop asking those questions. Mystery is not a tranquilizer.

This mystery of God that emerges at Jesus’ baptism is an invitation. It’s a bit of revelation—the epiphany of three manifestations of one god—that lures you to follow it toward something we can’t comprehend. It may be that we don’t yet comprehend this reality of God, or it may be that we are structurally incapable of comprehending it, but what we see here is remarkable enough to get us to take the next step into something that is altogether unknown and also our true home.

Holy mystery, you see, is not a total lack of understanding. It’s a lack of total understanding. Our experiences of God, our epiphanies, compel us forward, seeking to learn and to live as fully as we can. St. Anselm, a particularly nerdy saint who lived nearly a millennium ago, defined theology as “faith seeking understanding.” By choosing to be a people compelled by what we have seen and aware that what we have seen is not all there is to see, we set off as theologians, as people of faith seeking understanding. This is different than unquestioning belief. It is different than superstition or that sort of religious obedience that is motivated by fear. And take note here that when we baptize someone, we do it in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,  and we also pray that God will equip them with an inquiring and discerning heart. Baptism is a ritual entry into a life of faith seeking understanding. Welcome to the mystery.

Faith seeking understanding, that is, life embracing the mystery, can evolve. It can handle your skepticism, and it can approach other ways of knowing without a sense of competition. Faith seeking understanding can affirm that the world science describes is the world God creates. That’s a line I cribbed from a theologian named Wolfhart Pannenberg, who passed away just a few years ago. I’m namedropping theologians here because I want to emphasize that there have always been a lot of deeply faithful curious Christians. A life lived amidst holy mystery finds joy in every new way of understanding the world, because each offers us an epiphany, an insight into the ongoing creation of which we are a part. Faith seeking understanding can—and this is what Jesus was making people do day in and day out—change its mind without falling apart.

So this story of Jesus’ baptism is more than just another exclamation point to tell you that Jesus is a big deal. It’s more than a data point for orthodox theology. It’s an epiphany. It’s a revelation that there is always more going on than we can understand. And it’s an invitation to faithfully seek to understand, knowing that we will almost certainly never fully understand. Here in 2020, with information moving faster than ever before, and with incredible opportunities for learning and inquiry before you each day, this is a faith that works, because it is a faith that knows it has a lot to learn.

AMEN

Hope in Dark Times

To look into an unsteady, often frightening future, and to see hope. This is the gift of the prophet. Isaiah wrote these verses nearly 3000 years ago, in a nation that seemed to constantly be teetering on the edge of nonexistence. Later chapters of Isaiah speak to Israel during its captivity, when the temple had been destroyed for the first time, and the leaders sent into exile. But these verses today are earlier verses, toward the beginning of the Book of Isaiah, written amidst the constant fear of a calamity that had not yet happened. 

No time for brittle hope, then. No time for superstition; superstition will not be strong enough to see you through. This hope, this staggering piece of writing is the imagining of a way where there is no way. It is the poetic projection of faith when things are falling apart. It is a lesson in resilience.

Christians, by habit at this point, take these words as the prefiguring of Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel goes of out its way to align Jesus’ life with the prophecies, to make sure the reader understands that Jesus is already folded into Israel’s history with God. But that, to me, takes the wind out of the text’s sails. What if the hopefulness of Isaiah 11 is not exhausted by the dawning of the Christian era, but instead is a wellspring, the advent of hope in every time, the refusal of God to give up on God’s people? I need hope right now. Isaiah speaks hope.

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”

God, in the prior passages from Isaiah, has been pruning, removing the parts of the world which will not grow, which have gone corrupt, rotten, fermented. Isaiah’s hope does not come in a magic fixing of everything, but in a difficult process of intentional shaping. Isaiah is not advising Israel to passively wait for something to happen, but is urging them to BE the thing that happens. He is urging them—and us—to be vigilant and self-critical. From a stump, a place that used to be—but is no longer—a tree, growth emerges, a new thing, one sent to lead us to a better world. That one is filled with the spirit of the Lord and wisdom and understanding, and can’t you almost feel what it could be like to be with this promised one, as though the distortions and destructions of our world could be seen clearly and even changed?

Hear the promise later woven into the beatitudes, as this one does not judge by sight or by hearing, but with righteousness, and in solidarity with the poor and meek. Blessings flow upon those we fail to bless.

But our concepts of justice, so focused on people and social structures, cannot contain the love Isaiah speaks of. Nor should they. Humans, people of the earth, of the dust, are but one part of the holy community that will, when God’s love is brought forth, delight in studying war no more and beating swords into ploughshares. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard with the kid. The need to kill and devour, and the need to recoil from the possibility of violence, both relieved. The things that make creaturely existence such agony, lifted. 

The calf and the lion and the fatling together, cycles of vulnerability and predation disrupted by God’s righteousness.

And a little child shall lead them. The soaring, uncomfortably violent imagery of Isaiah, the maelstrom of divine restoration all at once rests lightly as a hummingbird on a leaf. A little child shall lead them. Our most vulnerable ones. Our most hopeful ones. The ones who call forth in us a love that I am still not sure I can bear. These shall lead us. For hope is not armored and monolithic. Hope springs from our tenderness, from our touch, from our love for one another and our admission, after so long, that we actually need one another if we are to be ok.

My hope is found here. I am riddled with anxieties, but I know this love. I know how light you feel when you put down the burden of needing to be self-sufficient. I know how long it takes to let your muscles unclench when you finally let someone simply love you. And I know the fear that accompanies realizing how vulnerable, how easy to hurt you have made yourself by opening up to love. 

A little child shall lead this gathering, this creaturely collective, into a new time. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den, and there will be no serpent that strikes, or offers the forbidden fruit of the delusion of self-sufficiency. Our desire to control and to dominate will, in God’s reality, yield to our need to coexist. Harmony will emerge in a landscape scarred by conflict.

This is the hope of faith. The hope of Isaiah, of John the Baptist, of Jesus, of Saint Francis, of Dorothy Day, of Mother Teresa, of Martin Luther King, of Fred Rogers (he knew that a little child will lead us). Despite all appearances to the contrary, love can make itself known, and the world can change.

These are, astronomically speaking, the darkest days of the year, and this is the hope of the darkest times. All the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. If it was the desire to be like God that flushed Adam and Eve out of Eden, it will be knowledge of God’s love that will lead us back. Knowledge of an economy of grace and an ethic of love, and a deep equality among beings. There are no kings in this passage. Only creatures delighting in love.

The language of Advent is language of waiting and expecting, a contrast of silence and glory. Waiting for God to enter in like a great storm and a tender manifestation of love. A child in a stable. Advent leads us back to the hope of Isaiah, a hope which is very much alive today. And though we wait, we are also free to partake, to participate in the world this hope describes. It will take courage to resist the pull of selfishness and materialism, and to choose the way of love and conviviality, of living together.

But first you have to be ready. You have to put down your swords and come out of the defensive posture you hold against the world. These are the things God is pruning, the things that get cleared from the threshing floor. The way of God is vulnerability and compassion, not fortification and agression. It is found with hope, not with force.

So in Advent, remember that, as proud as you may be of your newly-minted adulthood, we are all also children. We are ones who need, who fear, who project ferocity and violence to avoid looking at our fears. And the one who came on Christmas, who is coming still, knows our fears, and comes with healing. Our wounds can heal and peace can happen. But we need to practice hope. We need to realize that our strength lies in our weakness, and we need to practice letting ourselves actually feel that. It is not our reflex. It is not the response to weakness that world has drilled into us. But when we let ourselves be vulnerable and when we let ourselves need, we open ourselves to the love that God pours out.

Christmas is the gift of weakness and love in a world that doesn’t see how powerful those things are. It is a busy time of year, and you don’t have time for foolish hope and greeting card sentimentality. You need grown-up faith, and here it is. The deepest gift of love is the ability to stand before an uncertain future and to, in spite of all the fears—maybe even because of them—to have hope. This dream of Isaiah’s cannot get here soon enough, and yet somehow, knowing that it has been dreamt will keep us going.

AMEN

Unexpectation

The Gospel today, as we head into Advent, is about attention and attending, and the rhetoric it deploys certainly gets your attention. It’s something like the Left Behind stories that Nolan loves so much, which are becoming a troubling presence in our sermons here of late. Only this reverse-polarity rapture that Jesus describes, with people being swept away in an instant, is not an evacuation of the worthy, but a purification, leaving the good and holy folk here on earth. It has surely sparked the imaginations of Christians through the ages, both the ones who worried that some flaw or mistake condemned them to be swept away, and those pious ones who rested assured that they would get to bask in life without the rabble, the cosmos as a private club. Both groups were wrong, but that’s later.

Right now let’s deal with this text. Matthew’s gospel, scholars believe, was written in the last couple of decades of the first century. And Matthew, like Luke, takes Mark’s Gospel as a primary source of material. So a lot of the stories we see in Matthew and Luke appeared first in Mark, which was written around the year 70 of the Christian Era, around the time that the temple was destroyed. When Mark’s Jesus foretells the destruction of the Temple, he is framing the persecution of Jews and Christians as the first movements of the apocalypse, the unveiling of God’s new reality. And when Matthew, 20 or so years later, takes Mark’s story as a template and expands on the description of what will happen when Jesus returns, we can read it as an explanation of what has very notably not happened yet.

The second coming had not happened. Probably everyone who actually walked with Jesus was dead by the time Matthew was written, and there had been no return, end of history. People expected the end to come soon. People always do. But it had not come, and it had been a while since Jesus taught these things. So these early Christians were a bit anxious that the greatly expected return of Christ would not come to pass. The Gospel helps them find their bearings a little. Us, too.

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” That line, which appears in both Mark and Matthew, is a big deal. Jesus is stating that he does not know very much about the second coming. So your temptation to read these predictions literally should be tempered by the part where Jesus totally tips you off that he’s speaking rhetorically. Farmers and grain-grinders ought not expect to be beamed out of their daily existence all of a sudden. At least, Jesus can’t specify that much. Those parts aren’t in Mark. They are exclusive to Matthew, and it doesn’t seem that they are there to dial in the prediction of the second coming with more detail. Jesus is not an oracle. He’s not a fortune-teller, or a seer of the future. Jesus is a spiritual leader, a conduit of divinity in our midst, capable of speaking astonishing truth and demonstrating incredible compassion. Which is to say, this lesson is a spiritual teaching, not a mapping out of a rapture. This Gospel helps us adopt the proper posture toward the incarnation, toward the moments when God joins us.

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.” That’s a weird metaphor to draw on when you’re talking about the return of our savior, but it works. The focus shifts with that sentence from a terrifying scene of judgment to a stance of preparedness. And the last line: “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The language of apocalypse helps to highlight level of intrusion, of disruption that the Son of Man will bring. The apocalyptic language here helps to make the point. And we know neither the time nor the hour. They are both unexpected.

Nazareth was certainly unexpected. The prophet foretold that a messiah would come from Bethlehem, which was far from Nazareth. It took a census—a census that was likely a construct of the story—to get them to Bethlehem. Mary was unexpected. An unmarried virgin, pregnant, with God’s child? A king, born in a stable, greeted by shepherds and foreign kings while hunted by the ruler of his homeland? 

We have heard the story so many times that it’s like a blanket we wrap around ourselves, forgetting the raw fear Mary must have felt when the angel appeared with a calling unlike any other, the very real risks of being an unmarried pregnant woman in Galilee, the dangers of travel, the many, many ways in which a stable is not a medically ideal place for childbirth. The only people who knew this was happening—the shepherds and the wise men—were tipped off by angels or by a star. You and I, my friends, would not have noticed.

And so we have these 4 weeks before Christmas, the season of Advent, to prepare for the coming of Jesus, for the new beginning. We are, as Nolan taught us when he unpacked the earlier part of this story as told by Luke, orienting ourselves toward a new way of being, a way dictated by the possibility that some future moment will bring something so new, so strange, and perhaps so subtle, that we will need practice and courage to name it, to say “Hallelujah, God is doing a new thing here.” This is a time to root ourselves in the practice of making room in our hearts for God, whatever shape God takes.

The world pulls us outward at these times, toward gatherings of family and friends, the fierce commercial competition for your desire and your dollars, the seemingly endless list of preparations for what might finally turn out to be a perfect Christmas (but won’t). And the church moves in counterpoint to those pulls. This is a season for turning inward. For taking inventory of our soul, and for clearly seeing and naming the things within us that will keep us from recognizing God when God comes.

Now, between finals and the commercialism of Christmas, you’ve got some challenges here. But the practice of Advent, like the spirituality it cultivates, is a simple one. It is one of making a little space. I like to call it leaving the window open. The academic stress and family… stress and the rush of geting Christmas put together can very easily become your horizon, the outer limit of what you can see, walls closed in around you. When you let the walls close in, you’re pretty much stuck with the stuff you closed in with you. You have set up a closed system. Perhaps a cozy one, but closed all the same, and the Incarnation, the event of Christmas and the expectation of God’s future movement, the practice of being Christian itself is not about a cozy closed off space, but about an openness to God’s movement. 

Into this enclosure of stress and demands, you can let in a fresh breeze. Call her the Holy Spirit if you’d like. You can, at any point, open a window for the possibility of something new.

Take a minute, as you wait for your coffee order or for the bus, or as you gather yourself for another chunk of studying, and imagine opening a window, so that the unexpected can come in. That which comes from outside, which is always new to us, and which leads us to things we cannot imagine. Know that this time of getting ready for Christmas, spritually, finds us preparing for the next thing, for the next unlikely story. We are preparing to be people who can say “yes, this is God.” It is a quiet and a holy preparation, and it actually goes perfectly with this time of year. Keep the window open, and pay attention.

AMEN

Seven Husbands, Seven Graves, And Then… Liberation

Biblical marriage isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. There’s my pithy intro. Let’s jump right in. Some Sadducees approach Jesus. What you need to know here is that Sadducees are a Jewish sect. There’s more to them than that, but the story in this case tells you what the story needs you to know. They don’t believe in resurrection. So, like the biblical literalists in my undergrad New Testament class, they’ve got a real stumper of a question for the teacher, the one that’s going to bring his whole theological world tumbling down. There is no way he’s going to keep talking about resurrection after this. Look out, y’all, the speech and debate team is here, and they’ve brought a zinger.

By the way, the question is also super depressing. According to Deuteronomy, the Mosaic law holds that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a childless widow, the man’s brother is to marry her and raise children with her. It’s called Levirate marriage. By our modern standards, of course, this arrangement stinks all around. But there is a rationale behind it. It’s a very, very paternalistic and misogynistic rationale, but when in ancient Israel…

Widows, as we’ve discussed recently, are among the most vulnerable people in ancient society. With precious few rights and with no husband to provide for them, widows largely subsist on the kindness of strangers. Especially a childless widow, who has no children to care for her, to take her into their homes. Against the specters of starvation and homelessness, the provision of the open arms of a brother-in-law, you can see, is somewhat thoughtful. There is actual legal compassion encoded there. Marriage customs in most every society, biblical or not, have been ways of providing order, making sure inheritance made sense, and allocating assets. Social contracts between families. Romance and equality entered the picture alarmingly recently.

Now in this nightmare scenario the Sadducees describe, this poor woman is widowed seven times, by seven brothers. “Wow, what a coincidence,” you say, “that all seven died, like seven in a row, with no children. They just all died. It’s so weird. If only there was a unifying element here.” “How nervous,” you might reasonably ask, “must that seventh brother have been at his wedding?” The Bible does not grant us those details, for they are not the point and the Bible is telling this story with a straight face. She is treated by the text as property, as more of an abstract concept than as a person, in this story, but this widow is a survivor.

The question is meant to show how the societal structures that God—through Moses—has installed make the concept of resurrection, that is, of life after death, ridiculous. This widow had seven perfectly biblical marriages to seven brothers from the same family and so in the resurrection she’s going to have, what? Seven husbands? That’s crazy talk. Seven husbands never enters their mind. Which one will she be married to? The question is the argument. The spiritual realities of life preclude the possibility of life after death.

Jesus kind of blows it up. “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” God’s reality is different than our reality. The ways we structure our society do not necessarily obtain in heaven. 

This should be no surprise. We just heard the beatitudes last week. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” We have here the contrast between two familiar realities: the reality of scarcity, which is focused on obtaining resources and authority, and the reality of abundance, which is focused on life and personhood. In God’s kingdom of abundance, the one scarcity we fear most—the scarcity of life itself—is washed away with the excess of divine life. “Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the Resurrection.”

 So if you look at marriage as a matter of organizing households and dividing labor and ensuring lines of clearly defined inheritance, which is of course not how we today look at marriage but is how the societies of the Bible looked at marriage, the coming Kingdom of God makes marriage rather pointless. St. Paul felt this way as well, for similar reasons. In a non-competitive, non-scarcity-driven society where people live eternally, the structured life that marriage provided was no longer needed.

The winner, of course, is the widow. The brothers, too, for they are resurrected and are in the Kingdom of God and freed from the logic of scarcity, but the widow benefits more. Interestingly, she isn’t referred to in Jesus’ response, but if we look at the reality Jesus describes, quite a lot changes. If God is the god of our ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and if all who have died are living in God’s sight, then the widow is now fleshed out with a fullness of personhood that her life and her portrayal in the text did not recognize. No longer is she an asset or a commodity, formally valued as a homemaker and childbearer. She is not defined by her station in society.  She is alive. Fully alive. Blessed are you who are poor, indeed.

For all I know, the seven imagined brothers were decent guys. We don’t need them to be villains to see how Jesus’ prioritization of spiritual life over secular life offers a liberation to the widow. She is no longer bound by societal codes that limit her to an abstraction.

It also offers a challenge to society. That last sentence. “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” The simplicity cuts like a knife. The qualification for full personhood is to be alive. That’s it. If you are alive, you are alive to God and your spiritual worth exceeds any secular evaluation or designation. If you are alive, you are not known to God as someone’s wife or husband or partner or as a single person. You are known as you, human and valued to your core. The various markers of value that persist in our life, things like wealth, status, and power, do not enter God’s calculus.

The Gospel today isn’t simply about marriage. It’s about the dignity of each person. We believe that the dignity of each person ideally is not something to be debated and arbitrated with legislation or ballot initiatives or doctrinal statements. Those things happen because we are painfully slow in working this out. We believe that the dignity of each person is sacred, and is assured by God. So when we catch ourselves using cultural lenses that obscure any part of a person’s dignity, we have a sacred obligation to be self-critical of the assumptions we bring to our pursuit of God’s kingdom.

This is, in fact, why our church’s understanding of marriage looks very little like the one described in Deuteronomy and in today’s Gospel. By linking marriage to God, to Jesus, we hold it to a higher standard. By making marriage a sacrament, we hold it to be an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. We strive for our marriages to reflect something of God’s kingdom. Marriage in our time serves—and this is a value judgment I’m fine with—a higher purpose than organizing households and orders of succession. It is a bond between two people meant for mutual thriving, mutual delight, and for helping one another to know God’s blessings more fully. 

The old customs, wherein a woman’s property became her husband’s property and his authority was sacrosanct, or wherein the two people being married had to be of opposite sexes, reflect a different, less spiritual understanding of marriage, one that is less concerned with affirming the divinely-granted personhood of each person. I would contend from personal experience that they vastly underestimate the true value of marriage.

It is tempting, preaching in a denomination that is rather progressive on these matters, to congratulate ourselves. Aren’t we clever? But the call in this direction has been there the whole time—today’s text is nearly 2,000 years old—and it’s taken us a long time to get to where we are. Surely we have more to learn, and self-congratulation only gets in the way of that learning. The widow who married and buried seven brothers was not defined by her marriages. Her value was not constrained by her society’s understanding of marriage or of people’s places in society. God saw her, God sees her, and God loves her. For that grace, throughout the ages and today, I am very grateful.

AMEN.

Counter-truths and Blessings

Truth has taken a beating in our time. This has been said so much that it is cliche and probably a bad way to start a sermon. Fake news, misinformation campaigns, trolling. Let me assure you up top that this is not a sermon about fake news. It’s actually a sermon about the power to speak truth. There is a cynical side to the power to speak truth, of course, and it’s one you’re familiar with. In a landscape where everyone is a publisher, everyone can publish under the guise of the truthteller, the one who sees through the noise and fog to tell you What Is Really Happening. But the problem is not the technology that allows there to be so many voices. Not hardly. The problem is the construction of truth alongside the consolidation of power. The ability to control the story is the ability to determine what is true, that is, which voices, which experiences, are true.

Truth with a capital “T” becomes an instrument of power, a tool of erasure itself, historically controlled and arbited by white men who, wouldn’t you know it, have been very reluctant to see truth in the speech and experience of people who are not white men. People tend to construct the truth, even the most seemingly rational, objective truth, in their own image. The truth of their particular perspective. The idea of capital-T-Truth as a singular reality becomes untenable, and we realize we need to speak of a multiplicity of truths. My truth, your truth, the uncounted truths muffled by oppression but bravely bursting into speech…

Now, the dominant truths of the world run in a certain direction. They are constructed in a certain image. Work harder than others, and you will be rewarded with wealth, which is a sign that God loves you. Leverage your investments. Grow your accounts. Put on a brave face and smile, honey, because that’s what the world wants to see from you. Show no weakness.

In the company of these truths of late capitalism, the Beatitudes of Luke are meek, grounded in a far-off hope for the future. But they are spoken in the present tense. Nothing delays them. “Blessed are you who are the poor…” The blessings unfold as counter-truths even now, gracing the sufferers, the losers of the economic game with the assurance that things are not as they should be, that a force of love works deeply, slowly, insistently on their behalf. And they challenge us to hear broader, more capacious and compassionate truths. These are the counter-truths of an emerging world.

I hold these counter-truths to be self-evident, but it helps to hear them again and again, a refrain to the hymn that gives us the strength to hope the good hope. These counter-truths, these blessings, tell us of another reality, where hope is sustained, and where the truths flow like a river, flooding our narrow streambeds with torrents of righteousness.

Blessed are you who are poor, who are ignored, treated as assets, as expendable. Blessed are you who know the real grace of daily bread and the pangs of anxiety when tomorrow’s bread is uncertain. Blessed are you for making your life piece by piece. The kingdom in which you are poor is not the kingdom God builds. God’s kingdom emerges even in the midst of it. You will have rest. You will have security.

Blessed are you who are hungry now. Blessed are the schoolkids who had no breakfast and struggle to pay attention as the day goes on. Blessed are the parents who skip a meager meal to offer a little more to their children. We who have the luxury of feeling heartbroken at these stories simply do not know. The hoarding of food and unjust distribution of it is not God’s way. It is not God’s truth. You will be filled. You will be content.

Blessed are you who weep now. You who have burned out, or failed, or simply worn out. You who have lost love or lost hope. You who know the cruelty other humans can inflict. You who aren’t sure you’d do any of this over again. For you will laugh. Imagine it, laughing. You will laugh.

Blessed are  you when people hate you, exclude you, revile you, defame you on account of Jesus. When they call you a snowflake or a dreamer. When your refusal to judge others is labelled soft and your generosity of love and fortune is foolish. You stand in the company of the prophets, of the saints of ages past who bear witness to the counter-truth of the Gospel.

There are two sets of beatitudes in the Bible. Matthew sticks to blessings. Luke also includes woes. Today we are with Luke.

Woe to you who are rich. You who tell stories of deserving wealth in a place where others are poor and hungry. You have received your consolation. Your riches have done what they will do.

Woe to you who are full now, who store up food and do not look to see if your neighbor has food on her table. Who watch families-parents who may work for you or serve your food or ring up your groceries—rack up debts for school meals because they can’t afford to feed their children. Food can only feed you so much. In a kingdom of abundance, this hoarding will leave you empty.

Woe to you who are laughing now, taking joy in the suffering of others, finding ways to capitalize on disaster. Woe to you who believe you are insulated from the pain of the world. For it comes. Eventually it comes.

And woe to you when all speak well of you, for if you are pleasing them, you must not be speaking the counter-truths of God’s kingdom.

The counter-truths are grace. Loving enemies, serving those who hate you, turning the other cheek. Give to those who beg. Give more than you need to. Blessed are you when they call you soft, unrealistic, and unserious. These are the counter-truths of love amidst a ruthless world. A vision of something better. Something kinder. Something that takes Jesus seriously. Jesus, who would be ridiculed today as he was 2000 years ago.

This is the company of the saints. Of the great cloud that witnesses us today, whose stories give us strength. The wild tapestry of truths that call us to proclaim the counter-truths of God’s kingdom here.

I grumble about churches trying to be “cool.” I don’t trust “cool” churches. The community you have here, the values we aspire to and keep one another accountable to, the man who lived and taught and died and rose, whose followers kept telling his story…this is not “cool.” It is counter-truth. A crack in the narratives of success, ambition, and accumulation where the kingdom of God emerges. 

The saints found the cracks in the truth narratives too. They made more room for grace, for love. They cared for the sick. They cared for the earth. They preserved the teachings of the earliest Christians, fragile texts by relatively unimportant people that formed the textual foundation of a religion. They stood in the face of power. They were poor. They were hungry. They wept. People hated them. And theirs is the kingdom of God, where they are full and laughing and looking on us with sympathy, with identification, with hope.

Perhaps we might hear them whisper, these champions of the counter-truths. We might hear them say to us, “it was hard, and sometimes isolating, but a bit of the world got a bit better, and it was worth it.” Or perhaps they’ll choose simpler words a bit more familiar to us. “I got you.”

 AMEN

Don’t Take My Word For It

Spiritual authority is a slippery thing. Talking about it is like talking about an object nobody can quite define. When you think you have it, you don’t have it. And lots of people think they have it. It’s the people who are humble, grounded, and centered in God’s love who have the real spiritual authority, and because they are humble, grounded, and centered in God’s love, they don’t go around telling everybody about it all the time. See the contradiction? Spiritual authority may the one thing a person can have that they can’t correctly claim to have. Other people can see it in you, you can see it in other people, but the second you tell someone you have spiritual authority, you’ve probably lost it.

The irony of this moment is not lost on me. I’m standing up here preaching about spiritual authority today, and I’m finding it to be a very tricky dance. In our traditional way of thinking, the person who stands up here and shares some thoughts on the readings at this point in the service is someone who has some spiritual authority, some training, and some agreed-upon gifts. To do this on a regular basis, you have to be ordained or licensed by the bishop. It’s the church’s way of making sure the preaching meets up to a certain standard. But you and I both know that whatever model of authority allows me to stand here and talk right now can’t protect us from sloppy interpretation of scripture, from poorly thought out ideas, or from sermons delivered with less-than-angelic-intentions.

We have to hold our spiritual authorities loosely, because everyone is human, and the standard of spiritual perfection cannot be applied to humans. The idea of being a spiritual authority makes me nervous. It actually scares me. And yet I also love to stand here and talk about God. I went to school for a long time learning how to talk about God, because I love to talk about God and I believe that the way we talk about God matters a lot, and I think sometimes I’m pretty good at it. But I’m pretty uncomfortable with being seen as anything more enlightened than a guy who is trying his best. That feels dangerous. Not a special sort of danger in viewing me as a spiritual authority, but a more categorical danger in viewing anyone as a spiritual authority. If I give a good sermon, that’s good, and if I give a not-so-good one, which I’d never do on purpose but that’s not the point… it happens, and I implore you to be discerning and critical enough to decide which is which. 

But then see what I just did? I shrugged the pressure of preaching off of my own shoulders and put it on yours. Now you’re the spiritual authority. I just passed it off to you. What are we going to do? What on earth am I doing up here?

This Gospel passage, you may have noticed, pins us in a paradox. Like last week, it tells us exactly what it’s doing: “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.” So you know the parable is going to knock these folks down a rung or two. We have a Pharisee, who is a member of a group that practices a pretty legalistic form of Judaism, concerned with the proper carrying out of ritual sacrifices and religious practices. And we have a tax collector, whose work is considered sleazy and unethical. Tax collectors notoriously collected more than they were supposed to, in order to pad their own wallets. These men are headed to the temple to pray.

You would expect, from the setup, for the Pharisee to be the more spiritually attuned one. Granted, Pharisees are kind of a straw man in the Gospel narratives, but still, this is a religious person trying to do what is good. We, perhaps, can relate. The Pharisee’s prayer is unsavory, though. “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” It’s unsavory, but it’s not unfamiliar. 

Without a show of hands, I think we can all admit to having some thoughts like this. Certainly we all have moments of thinking that our religious practices and observances make us better than other people. After all, behind the language of service and praise, we do these things because they help us. So why wouldn’t we assume that they actually make us better? What’s the point in all this religion business if it doesn’t make us better?

The counterpoint comes in the tax collector’s prayer. It’s much simpler.  He beats his breast and says “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And Jesus tells us that the tax collector went home justified. 

The spiritual movement of addressing oneself to God is not one of putting yourself on a pedestal a little closer to heaven. It is of humbling yourself, of planting your feet on the ground, in the dirt, the humus, that which makes us human and humble. The Pharisee had the theological education and knew the rubrics, but the tax collector is the spiritual authority of this pair.

This feels like a paradox because it runs counter to the instincts that have been drilled into muscle memory for us as members of society. In a time when the myth of the self-made man still captivates people and financial reward is literally earned by capitalizing on things others didn’t see and then widening the gap between you and them as soon as possible, the idea of lowering yourself is weakness. There’s the populist performative humbling, the “I just want to help the team” that the athlete says or the “I just want to serve this great nation” that the politician says, but let’s look at the business those folks are engaged in and just drop the facade. Competition makes our society tick. And yet, and yet, and yet…

It’s spiritually destructive. Because it moves in the wrong direction. God is not “up there,” but is in fact right here. God’s love is not given in greater measure to major donors or vocal prayers or Bible belters, but is given to each of us, right here in our lives as people, as humans, as dust drifting aloft on the breath of life. The desire for more exclusive access to God is a distortion of grace.

In a couple of minutes, we will confess our sins together. A slightly more verbose way of saying “God, be merciful to us, sinners.” We will do it because the act of confessing, of asking for mercy, orients us to God where God’s life actually meets ours. It orients us to Jesus. God meets us in our brokenness, in our shortcomings, in our fragile humanity. We will confess our sins to prepare ourselves for communion, where we come forward with empty hands outstretched, seekers yearning for completeness.

We do it together because we are together. Religion means that which binds us together, and it is this understanding of our humanity in relationship with God that binds us together. We perform these gestures and rituals against the grain of our world to remind ourselves of the deeper movement, the spiritual undercurrent of humanity that yearns for a love and a fulfillment that competition can never deliver. We perform the act of compassion, that is, of suffering-with one another, and this room filled with potential rivals and competitors for God’s favor is transformed into a gathering of beautiful and brilliant and faltering people, all doing our human best to do our human best. We perform the act of compassion and something happens. Not quite an elevation, but a deepening. The space becomes sacred, thick with the threads of connection and divinity, and perhaps something can be felt, and perhaps we will call that something God. Or perhaps we will leave it unnamed and invite it to speak to our hearts.

“For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” This paradox is the entry into a sacred space built not around a person’s spiritual authority or around a sermon, but around the gift of honest, feet-in-the-dirt humanity pouring forth from each person here. The people who are trying to be spiritual authorities are missing the real show. 

AMEN