In Between Time

Here’s where my faith broke down as a kid. Not this exact passage, but this exact promise. “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” When I was a kid there was a famine ravaging Ethiopia, and a crime problem in my own city, AIDS was sweeping the country, I knew refugees from Cambodia, as well as veterans from the war that had made them into refugees, and the Cold War kept us keenly aware that nuclear armageddon was a bargaining chip. Martin Luther King had promised that the arc of history bent toward justice, but in my Virginia childhood, Martin Luther King shared a holiday with Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Lee Jackson King Day. You didn’t need to be very old to see that for what it was.

Once I learned to read the newspaper I learned to notice that God was not quickly granting justice. Not on the scale the Bible seems to promise. You could make an argument for modern progress, which had indeed brought major, if still incomplete, victories to oppressed groups and had also extended our life expectancy, but it had given us the ability to eradicate human life as well, and even without the ever-looming nuclear war, people were dying cruel, senseless, preventable deaths. They still are. God’s justice, one presumed, was still coming.

Today’s parable is pretty on-the-nose. It says right at the top that he told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He is preparing them for the in-between time, the time between Jesus’ death and his return. Probably none of them were thinking it would be at least two thousand years, but here we are. In the in-between time. The promise has been issued and the words hang in the air, still waiting for fulfillment.

The parable comes in from an unexpected angle, though. “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.” Remember how Jesus summarized the law. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul. And love your neighbor as yourself. A judge who does not fear God or respect people is not living by the law. It is, in fact, all we know about him. He is unlawful. An unjust judge.

The thorn in the judge’s side is a widow. Widows are especially protected and provided for by the law, because their position is especially precarious and vulnerable in a heavily patriarchal society. So, if you don’t think the judge was a jerk yet, he is now ignoring a widow’s plea for justice. We don’t know who her opponent is, but it appears the widow is in the right, and she is very persistent.

Our judge happily plays into character, saying “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” which, let’s just pause for a second and acknowledge how funny that line is. “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 may not wear me out by continually coming.” He sounds whiny and admits that he is withholding justice, but our translation is actually doing him a favor. The Greek word translated here as “wear me out” actually translates more literally as “give me a black eye.” Nothing suggests that violence was on the table, but he sure was scared of her. I want to meet this lady. She sounds awesome.

Justice is finally delivered to the widow, but not because the world is just. Justice is delivered because she fought like hell for it until injustice was just no longer worth all the trouble. And this, it seems, is kind of how it’s going to be in the in-between time. And that sucks. Martin Luther King said that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice, and it seems to bend very slowly. 

So what gives with Jesus promising that God delivers justice swiftly? Does God really stand as the opposite of the unjust judge, as Jesus suggests, or does it turn out that God also withholds justice somewhat capriciously? If you feel guilty or shameful for having these questions—and I’m just presuming that this isn’t the first time they’ve occurred to you—then realize that Jesus is preparing his disciples for just this sort of uncertainty. The in-between time is all promise, and no certainty. 

How, then, do we get our bearings in the in-between time? First, remember that Jesus is not the only way in which God is present. The Holy Spirit was present at the very beginning, hovering over the primordial waters like a mother calling the new creation into birth, and has been present at every moment since. The Holy Spirit works by calling, by inspiring—breathing life into—the world. We might prefer a more inteventionalist, less resistable mode of creation at times. But the evidence isn’t there for it. The Holy Spirit acts as a call to join God’s household, to participate in the dream of God for the world. Jesus refers to our Spirit as our comforter. We may not witness the grand, sweeping transformation we desire, but we are not without the movement of God. We can see it on the granular level, in our day-to-day, in the moments of grace, kindness, and beauty that can work their way into the bleakest of places. 

We are called, then, to live in this tension of realizing God’s grace around us and yet being keenly aware that the world is rife with injustice and violence. We can be grateful and yet also mourn, can cry for help and also rejoice at the goodness we experience. The world is vast and complex, and our experience of it should be allowed to match. In fact, if we don’t take notice of what is good, I have a hard time finding hope that the struggle for justice might be worthwhile. The complexity is worth acknowledging.

The last line of today’s Gospel gives us a compact way to orient ourselves. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” That is, if Jesus were to return today, would he find people willing to recognize and join in his work?

In the in-between time, we are the hands and feet of Jesus, making God’s work known in the world. The Spirit beckons and calls, but we are the ones in the position of giving God’s word a physical voice and presence in the world. We are called to be like the widow in today’s Gospel. Vulnerable, loud, and persistent as hell. Voices calling for justice, irritating for justice, and accepting nothing less than justice, giving thanks all the while for the gift of faith.

AMEN

The Moment After The Moment

They weren’t accustomed to there being a moment after moment. I think that’s it. The ten people with leprosy that spoke to Jesus had surely become used to people wanting nothing to do with them. They kept their distance from Jesus. No one, after all, wanted to be near people with leprosy. It’s a bacterial disease that affects the skin, eyes, and nerves, that last part leading to numbness in the extremities. 

People with advanced leprosy can’t feel their fingers or toes, and so often lose them to injuries they weren’t aware were happening. Leprosy leads to patchy pigmentation of skin, and so it would be fairly obvious which people had leprosy. In most societies, people with leprosy were grouped together and kept separate from the rest of society. I don’t imagine any physical numbness could dull the steady pain of being cast out like that. It was, of course, for the common good. We know now that leprosy is not very contagious and can be cured with antibiotics, but that knowledge came in the most recent historical blip and two thousand years ago leprosy terrified us, so it was for the common good.

They were begging. It was how they subsisted, and you can imagine they were used to it, the pain of this existence throbbing beneath layers of psychic scar tissue that is the brain’s desperate defense against persistent trauma. Across this distance, from this pain, came the words “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” Certainly said without confidence, perhaps in the forlorn cadence of the panhandlers we see here in Durham, calling out for help but having been taught by experience that the vast majority of us will ignore them. It’s a low-efficiency way to subsist. You will be ignored. A lot. I don’t think you can go numb to that. More scar tissue.

Jesus sent them to the priests. A curious choice, but perhaps Jesus wanted to keep this within the framework of the covenant. They didn’t make it to the priests before their healing took place.

And once they were healed, the transaction was complete. You pray for something, you get it. It’s like buying it, but with prayer as the currency. Or, you beg for something, and you are given it. Each party plays a role, and the transaction takes place.

They weren’t accustomed to a second moment. No one had actually wanted a relationship with them before, these people with leprosy. The transaction was all they expected. Ask for something, get told no most of the time, but occasionally receive something. It all happens in one moment, and in the next moment… well, there is no next moment. The businessman or whoever had given them some money or food had moved on. The transaction was complete.

The one man, a Samaritan at that—so we are supposed to clutch our pearls a little bit and gasp “A Samaritan? But they worshipped on a mountain, not at the temple! A Samaritan!”— the one man who turned around sensed another moment was possible. The code of his everyday life was starting to glitch, new things were happening. Things that weren’t part of the code.

He praised God with a loud voice, and then he prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet. Three biblical sentences ago, this man was stricken with leprosy and forbidden from coming near those who weren’t. And now he is at Jesus’ feet, thanking him. 

This is the second moment. The extra moment. The moment of grace. The return. The part where the story extends a little longer than we would have thought. The miracle of Isaac born to Abraham and Sarah, of Abraham coming back down Mount Moriah with Isaac. An ocean making way for Israel when the Egyptian soldiers had just about caught up with them. A woman pregnant out of wedlock giving birth to this man who heals lepers. This man continuing his story on the three days after they executed him. This is the moment after the moment, where vulnerability and surrender to God reveal something we would not have dared to asked for, something we perhaps don’t know to ask for.

Imagine the approach, as he walked toward Jesus.  Each step closer pushed deeper into forbidden space. Maybe he became overly conscious of his steps, the way you do when you’re thinking too hard about walking. How long had it been since he had been close to someone who wasn’t part of his scorned troop of lepers? How scandalous must it have felt to walk up and prostrate himself at Jesus’ feet? A Samaritan with leprosy at the feet of this Jewish healer.

“Go on your way, your faith has made you well.” Jesus didn’t get very sentimental in these moments. He didn’t claim the healing for himself. He ascribed it to faith. He is a little disappointed that the other nine didn’t return. I think they didn’t expect a second moment.

People talk about how we should show gratitude quite a lot. Standing for the national anthem, or saluting the flag, or honoring our elders, or donating to Duke once you get your money right…a lot of these things become so assumed that they take on the character of absolutes and we forget that each time it is meant to be a gesture of gratitude. It’s sort of a pro-forma performance that, as it takes on that absolutism, marks not so much our gratitude as our membership in a certain tribe.

This story pushes us deeper. The moment after the moment is not one of paying tribute to Jesus the healer, but of finding a new way of being in relationship with God. The curing of the leprosy creates a sort of rupture in the fabric of this Samaritan man’s life, cracks open the accepted narrative, and lets a new thing be seen. He can come closer. He can have faith that his life is not actually determined by a set of conditions inflicted on him long ago. That is, he can have faith.

Jesus cured his leprosy, but his faith made him well. The transaction, the healing, was only the opening through which the deeper, more holistic wellness can begin.

The difference between the man who returned to Jesus and the ones who did not is the difference between praying as a matter of habit, as a matter of gratitude, and praying only when you need something. All ten of the people with leprosy are cured. As a matter of sheer functionality, the transactional approach to Jesus worked in this instance. But the spiritual movement is the point. The miracles are invitations into a relationship.

And here’s the thing. So many of the things that ask us to salute or kneel or honor have an element of control behind them, a sense of maintaining a certain order. But Jesus sends the Samaritan man on his way. The practice of faith is transformative and incredibly portable. It is meant to set you free. Free from the sense that you are unworthy to approach God because of some uncleanliness or some sin. Worthiness is not a qualification. You are invited to approach. 

The practice of faith puts us face to face with the reality that God actually wants relationship with us. We feel compelled to earn it, or we feel shame for our shortcomings and failures, to which God replies “I know about that. Just come.” It’s not a magic pill for insecurity and self-doubt, but it’s a steadfast reminder that those are prisons we construct for one another and ourselves, and not things God has put in our way.

The opportunity to step into faith and away from self-doubt is always there. Sometimes it takes a spectacular healing or a God moment to help us see it, but it’s there all the time. The miracle, you see, is not the healing of leprosy. The miracle is the next moment. Your faith will make you well.

AMEN

Faith in a Messy World

One thing that I love about the Gospels is that, even though they are relatively short texts that manage to say an awful lot, they don’t sound like fairy tales. The world that Jesus describes is thoroughly messy and complicated, and there are, at times, not clear black-and-white moral distinctions to be drawn. So when, as he does today, Jesus tells a story that is full of the complexity and ambivalence of life and then connects it to the Kingdom of God, it’s like we are being taught to see the meaning in the messiness, to wrestle goodness out of chaos. And we need to hear the challenge in that. Today’s passage is messy and very challenging to us.

The story here is of the relationship between a rich man and his manager, who was very likely also his slave. So already, the power dynamic is more leveraged than one between employer and employee. A slave’s word was not taken against a non-slave’s, and in fact a slave’s testimony in court was only admissible if they had been tortured. So when someone reports to the rich man that his manager had been squandering his property, the manager is in a cruel and unwinnable position. Nothing he says can help him, for his word will not be taken seriously. His voice counts for nothing, and the rich man holds absolute power.

So when the manager goes to those who owe the rich man, and starts cutting them deals on their debt, he is doing what he can to provide a livelihood for himself after his inevitable firing. Perhaps he can ingratiate himself to another landowner and subsist that way. But the morals aren’t so clear. We assume that he’s going to get in trouble, because it is, after all, not his money, not his debt, that he is bargaining with. But of course, what money the rich man brings in is brought in on the backs of slaves, if not literally then certainly figuratively, and I’m not interested in using context to apologize for slavery. Say what you want about culture and context. I just can’t find much sympathy for this rich man who is now ever so slightly less rich but still exploiting his ability to treat people as less-than-human.

The manager’s dealings are not honest, but the whole situation is not honest. Slavery is entirely dishonest, to the extent that parables like this one have been used historically to encourage loyalty and honestly among slaves. I’m sure that sermon has been preached in a pulpits that stood not very far at all from this one. And I’d love to drop that sermon in the shredder except that the moment we forget that the Gospels have been used to subdue and oppress people is the moment we start to think liberation has really been accomplished and that we don’t have to fight for it. 

So remember it, and remember that the statues that are starting to fall in this part of the country were put up not all that long ago to remind everyone around that people in this place once fought a war for the right to subdue and oppress people, and that some of them aren’t willing to concede just yet.

Jesus is talking between the lines here. He says the master commended the manager for his actions because “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” I take this as a nod to the moral compromises that are built in to the story. In a dishonest situation, honest actions aren’t always plausible. We call this structural sin. It’s the sin that we are all tangled up in. Many of the goods that we buy were made by people in situations not very different at all from the manager in this story. We participate in systems like this because that’s how things are structured. It’s tempting to give in and stop being critical of it. Economic exploitation seems inescapable, so why spin your wheels taking issue with it?

Why, I’ll tell you. Because Jesus says to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” This is not the morality they teach in Boy Scouts or Sunday school. This is an ethic of love for a world so tangled up that good and bad often cannot be pulled apart. The system is huge and we are small within it, but we are always able to build relationships by cultivating networks of grace, and that, in his tricksterish way, is what the manager did. By forgiving some of the debt his master was owed, he induced people to think fondly of him, but also let them off the hook for some very real expenses they owed. It was dishonest on the face of it, but the thing he was doing was actually rooted in a desire for relationship. Jesus still calls it “dishonest wealth,” he still served himself with money that was not his. This is not ideal. But something of God shines through in this blurry situation.

And then the paragraph that seems to fold in on itself again and again before delivering the crystal clear closing line we all try to dodge. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Faith and honesty do not seem, actually, to be the same thing here. The manager was dishonest, but his actions have earned approval for their faithfulness. So the big question to ask is: in what did the manager have faith? He was not faithful to the accumulation of money. He gives it away.

His faith, I think, was placed in possibility. That is, in God. God, for this manager, this slave, was the possibility that this situation might not be the end of him. As a slave, he had no voice, negligible rights, was essentially treated as sub-human by those who held power over him. His faith was in the possibility that someone would value him, that some door would open.

The choice between God and wealth is laid clear. If the manager served wealth, he would have only made his life worse, for he would still be out of a job, and people would not be favorably disposed to him. And that’s kind of the thing, isn’t it? The accumulation of wealth serves only one person; the one accumulating it. People might be nice to you because you have a lot of money, but it’s not love. God is moving counter to the aggregation of wealth in this story, admittedly against the grain. It is messy, and there’s nuance, but the point is pretty clear.

The contrast between serving God and serving wealth is the contrast between working to share those things so that the broader network may thrive and working to gather money and power to oneself. In this cynical and cruel situation, the manager figured out how to make some deals that helped a number of people out. Within the rules of finance, it was dishonest, but as I was telling you last week, the economy we design is not the economy of God. Our economy of scarcity is not God’s economy of abundance. God, who called for years of Jubilee in which debts are forgiven, God who sent the disciples out to live simply and in community, God who forgives sins out of grace and not out of a need to extract a penalty from us… we may stammer and look for excuses, but it seems pretty clear that God is not concerned with—or governed by—the rules of finance. 

Let’s land this plane. The Greek word for the manager in Luke is oikonomos. It comes from the Greek oikonomia, which means household. That’s also precisely where the word “economy” comes from. So after sifting through the layers of injustice and dishonesty in this story, after examining the ways in which the interests of God and the pursuit of wealth really can and do conflict with one another, it comes to this simple truth, which should rattle the cage of all of us in this room: The dishonest manager, this slave with no power, no money, and plenty of guile, holds a remarkable distinction. He’s the economist that Jesus endorsed.

AMEN

Lost in the Darkness

It’s not considered good shepherding, what Jesus describes. If you have 100 sheep and one is lost, especially in hilly terrain like Israel, you just accept that you now have 99 sheep. Because if you leave the rest to go find the one that wandered off, you expose the flock to danger. Wolves and thieves and what have you. In the meantime, the one that wandered off could very well already be dead. You’re just opening yourself up to more loss. Best to keep a close eye on the 99 sheep you have left.

The woman who has 10 coins and loses one isn’t being as irrational as the shepherd; she’s lost 10% of her money, after all. But the lamp oil she burns looking for it isn’t free, and the energy and time she puts into the search could be spent elsewhere. It’s almost as though, in this parable, the value of the coin, like that of the sheep, is more than what it will get you at the market. It’s almost as though the celebration over a sheep, or coin, a celebration which may cost more than a sheep or a coin, expresses something deeper.

Jesus is comparing economies. He is comparing our economy of scarcity, where sheep and coins have certain values that make them worth a certain amount of trouble, to the economy of God, where the sheer abundance and excess scrambles the logic of scarcity and points to a different value system altogether. 

In particular, God’s attention is not scarce. If you or I were watching a flock of sheep and one wandered away, we would have to choose whether to pay attention to the search for the lost sheep or to the sheep that remained. In essence, the shepherd’s choice is whether to forsake the one lost sheep or the 99 remaining sheep. God’s attention is qualitatively different than ours, and so God does not have to forsake the one for the 99 or the 99 for the one. God’s attention allows God to attend to the whole flock, even if it is scattered.

And God’s abundance means that burning a lot of lamp oil in search of a coin does not diminish the amount of oil that is left. The logic of abundance is almost unrecognizable to us, for we are finite creatures, with a certain amount of time, and money, and resources. And we seek safety first and foremost. Which means that we are very sensitive to feeling like we don’t belong, or like we have become separate from the flock. Isolation can feel like exposure to danger. It can actually be exposure to danger. Woe unto the cave man or woman who wandered from the group or couldn’t keep up. There were lions out there. Woe unto the person who can’t make rent. 

I have depression. I’ve had it since high school. A lot of what I’ve learned about myself and about life has come from from learning to live with depression. I also have an anxiety disorder, another incredibly unwelcome companion in my inner life. Maybe you can relate. Surely you know someone who can. Maybe you’re coming around to naming these things in your own life, or someone you love is struggling. I have lost days and weeks to the darkness that sneaks up on me.

And in those days and weeks when I can’t see the light and nobody can really make me see it, either, I feel isolated. You can be in a crowd of people and feel absolutely alone. You can see people reaching out to you and you can be thankful but also know that it won’t work. It’s bleak in the darkness. The darkness wants you to hate yourself and it wants you to stop fighting. That is its pathology.

So there’s a conventional reading of this Gospel. We see how Jesus welcomes sinners and tax collectors, and we hear about the lost sheep, and we feel called to extend our compassion and sympathy to those we might otherwise exclude. That’s a very good reading. It’s the Good News and I endorse it. I could have preached a pretty good sermon about it, and you might have liked that one better than this one. 

But if I’m being honest, when I read this Gospel, I don’t see myself as Jesus, or as the shepherd, or as the woman who lost a coin. I see myself as the lost sheep. As the lost coin. As the one who who got caught up in one of life’s rip tides and can’t swim back in to shore, whose sense of what is possible has narrowed so much that I can only see my worst perception of myself. The one who is sometimes lost in the darkness and who needs the impossible to break through and find me.

It’s true that every stretch of darkness in my life has eventually ended. But it’s also true that during those dark times, it felt like they would never end. I’ve learned, over the years, to trust that there is a way out, though. I can’t see it, but experience tells me that things eventually get better. It’s not a very detailed creed, but it’s the faith I lean on the hardest. An unforeseeable goodness will find me.

And so this parable of the lost sheep and lost coin hits a note that resonates deep inside me. It tells of this fundamental truth about God that can get lost in the stories people tell about judgment and morality. It’s why I get frustrated that churches spill so much ink debating who to include, a search for qualifiers to God’s love that seems to fall away in the face of the reality that God does not give up on people.

The sheep that is lost in the dark mountains is not actually lost. The coin that slipped between the floorboards actually never was out of sight, for God does not forsake what is God’s.

That means a lot of things to me. It means, as John’s gospel tells us, that a light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. It also means that if we are going to emulate Jesus, if we are going to pattern ourselves after God, we are going to be agents of a love that is patient and persistent, that reaches out to people who are lost in the darkness, and that is not deterred if our intervention doesn’t save them. Because to search for the lost sheep is not necessarily to find it, and people lost in the darkness have a really hard time seeing any light at all. We reach out again. And again. And again. Because love is not scarce. We will not run out. And every single person is worth searching for. We are, after all, only following God’s model in searching them out and proclaiming a value in them that our economy of scarcity can’t be bothered to see. This parable means that love, the kind of love that helps people climb out of the darkness, is not subject to the laws of supply and demand. 

And it means that I’m going to stand here sometimes and talk about my depression and my anxiety, because these things are not punishments from God. They are not demons, or evil spirits, or any of those other supernatural and fearful understandings of mental illness. They are sure as hell not God forsaking a lost sheep. They are things I experience, things some of you might experience, and they can never, ever put us beyond God’s attention or love.

So let this be a place where we talk about God and we talk about the things that make us feel lost, because nothing can separate us from the love of God. That’s not some new, progressive theology, though I don’t have an issue with those. I feel like I’ve done my homework on this one. It’s the Gospel.

AMEN.

Attachments and God

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Cool. Cool cool cool cool cool. This is one of the trickiest texts in the Gospels. Not because it’s general point is so hard to get. Jesus is saying the our calling from God is the deepest and most insistent thing in our lives. But because it’s put in such a confrontational way. Hating your parents and family because you love God. That doesn’t follow logically, and Jesus’ own affection for people in his life should tip you off that he is exaggerating for rhetorical effect.

So let’s try thinking of this passage as a reiteration of the summary of the law. That’s the famous passage where Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, and he replies “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul.” That’s pretty clear, and then Jesus says, “The second is like unto it; you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments, Jesus says, hang all the law and the prophets. This is the algorithm that generates everything else.

But there’s a balance to be kept between them. The commandment to love God is first. The commandment to love people—all people, to be clear—comes second. Both are divinely issued, so neither gets discarded, but there is a priority put on loving God. They are tightly related, but loving God is the highest priority. On this point, Jesus is quite clear. And if God loves people, and you love God, then you ought to love people. Jesus does not actually call us to hatred. That way violence lies. The instruction to pray for your enemies remains in effect.

The bluster of “hate your mother and father, wife and children, etc.” then could be expressed equally as “your love for your mother and father, your wife and children, your brothers and sisters, and even for life itself, should not stand between you and God.” This sounds better. It doesn’t sound comforting, necessarily, and I guess some of that depends on your particular family, but there’s some logic to it.

For me, the Buddhist concept of non-attachment is helpful for thinking about this. Non-attachment is the practice of understanding that everything in the world is changing and passes away, and that your core identity is not determined by anything in this world. Not by your possessions, your family, or even by your thoughts. It doesn’t devalue those things or downplay how much they form our lives so much as help us see that they are separate from our inner connection with God.

With that realization, we can look at a difficult thought we are having, and say “I am not that thought. I am the one who experiences that thought, but I am not that thought.”Likewise, your connection with God is not contingent on your family or friends, or anything material in life. It is a matter of your inwardly saying “yes” to God’s call, and to trying to let your outward life reflect it, so that others might find their call as well.

But the call is pretty radical. Jesus tells his disciples they will have to take up their cross and follow him. That’s a phrase that’s been whitewashed from overuse, but it’s a pretty grim business. People don’t just carry crosses around in 1st century Palestine. People carry crosses on their way to be nailed to those crosses. Even death cannot deter God’s insistence on life.

And that’s where this passage really gets scandalous. Because Jesus isn’t offering a simple triumph over death or some magical escape from the suffering and difficulty of human life. Jesus transcends death by dying. The whole story is told against the backdrop of death. In Jesus, God is exposing Godself to the suffering and death that are inherent components of life. God is entering into life, which means God enters into death.

Meanwhile we are looking everywhere we can for a way around this simple reality, that the way of God is embedded in the struggles of life and not set apart from them. Because it all makes us nervous and we want to badly to escape suffering and death, so we fill our lives with things and relationships we think will insulate us from the things we are scared of. Jesus the whole time is in fact inviting us to be radically, profoundly honest about who we are. And so we don’t get some explanation that makes sense of suffering or of death. We get the steadfast promise that God’s love prevails even in the midst of suffering and death. It takes faith to follow a God you didn’t design.

All of which prepares us to say yes to God even in the dark times. This prepares us to be the bold and faithful ones who can face the shifting and perplexing realities of our world and see God calling new things, calling the impossible into possibility. To be the ones who can stand at the edge of chaos and rightly proclaim that God is moving here. It prepares us to follow our calling into the uncertainty of the future.

Turns out there’s a lot of stuff going on just below the surface of the text.

There is a pragmatic way to apply this lesson to ourselves and a spiritual one. Pragmatically, many of Jesus’ followers walked away from their livelihoods and their lives to become his disciples. It is less likely—though not to be ruled out—that you will be called to do something as dramatic as that to shape your life around Jesus. But you will have to make room in your life for the discipline and practice of following Jesus. It’s not something you simply add. It’s something that frames everything we do.

Spiritually, this rather abrasive text can lead us to a real liberation. We tell ourselves a lot of stories about who we are, and we put a lot of conditions on those stories. If I get into a top-tier med school, I’ll be a successful person, or if I land a lucrative job, or if I marry a beautiful person and have perfect children and a nice house with a manicured lawn… These aspirations and cultural attachments are not evil, but they can very easily keep us from seeing that we are called and loved just as we are, and that our true selves lie in that calling and that love.

Jesus lays it out clearly. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” It’s a great litmus test of a line. It’s not given so we can measure other people’s faith. Measuring other people’s faith is obnoxious. It’s given so you can check your own spiritual temperature. How crazy does it sound to give up everything, to let your attachment to your external life be less than your attachment to the sacred in your life? Can you imagine yourself having value and worth apart from the people and things in your life?

This is a discipline. I don’t expect you to be able, at every moment, to say “yes, I will walk away from my life to follow God.” I can’t claim that for myself. But the discipline, the practice that Christians are called to, is to center ourselves in God. That means taking a moment to re-center ourselves, to notice how things that are not God have taken center stage and are blocking us from living into our deepest calling.

So this week, as you go about your life, perhaps while you’re riding the bus or walking to classes, just check in with yourself, and notice where your attachments lie. I don’t want you to judge yourself or be hard on yourself if you realize your attachments are more material than you think they should be. You[re practicing. Just notice what your attachments are. And remind yourself that your value lies in being simply who you are. It’s hard to believe, so go easy on yourself if you can’t believe. You don’t need to believe it or feel it in your bones. Just notice your attachments and remind yourself that the guy at the Episcopal Center said your value lies in being who you are, a creature of God. And see what the world looks like with that in mind. Love God, love people, love yourself. It all starts coming together.

AMEN.

Called to Return

That Jeremiah reading was a real day brightener, wasn’t it? God, here spoken for by the prophet Jeremiah, indicts Israel on charges of faithlessness. It’s almost as though God is in a courtroom, making a case to a jury that God has been wronged by God’s people. This is the sort of passage that a preacher reads and says “I sure hope the Gospel passage is easier, because it’s the beginning of the school year and I’d like to ease into things a little.”  The Gospel is easier. But Jeremiah is still there we shouldn’t ignore him, because beneath the angry tone,` there’s something we need to hear. God is reaching out. Let’s make some sense of Jeremiah.

The first thing we’ll want to know is that Jeremiah is writing after the fall of Jerusalem. The Babylonians had laid siege to the city, cutting off supply routes and causing tremendous suffering, and eventually had breached the walls, captured the king, sent the ruling class into exile, and destroyed the temple. That temple was the center of life in Jerusalem, the place where the Jews went to conduct the rituals that marked their lives with God. It’s hard for us to comprehend what a big deal this was, because of the way things are structured. There is no church building that is as important to Christians as the temple was to Jews.  

So, this is a remarkably difficult time in the life of Israel, and Jeremiah is tasked with helping the people understand why this had happened.  This text isn’t a threat. It’s an explanation, in the form of an indictment. Now, context is nice, kind of satisfying in an intellectual sort of way, but it’s not really something that’s going to be much use to you this week at Duke. So let’s dive in.

What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.

Now we can see some specifics. God is accusing Israel of having drifted from its relationship with God over generations. The whole Exodus narrative is recalled, the liberation from Egypt and wandering in the desert, and the deliverance to the promised land. God reminds Israel, essentially, that their identity, their way of life, their law emerges directly from their connection to God. “Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.” 

Baal is a term used to designate one of the gods of any number of societies, perhaps Canaan or Mesopotamia… for our purposes it doesn’t really matter which one so much as that it’s not Yahweh, the God of Israel. So if the prophets were prophesying of other gods, they have lost sight of the God who brought them out of Egypt. If the rulers do not know God, they do not know the law. Israel, God charges, has forgotten who God is, and so has forgotten who they are.

Now, I have yet to hear someone prophesying by Baal here in Durham, but it is the case that we look to gods that are not God. We all do it. I don’t exempt myself at all. We invest our energy in something as though it is the ultimate, the most important thing in the world. Perhaps it’s money. Money is pretty appealing, right? It’s very useful, and we need to have some of it to have a decent life. But then we pursue it and covet it, as though it is our ultimate concern. We let it set our values. Money is an undeniably important thing life, but when we elevate it to a place of worship, we lose sight of who we are. We lose sight of our humanity, of our relationships, of the fact that money is no indication of a person’s worth.

Or power. It often goes hand in hand with money, but the drive to power is a pretty intense force. Like money, it’s not bad in and of itself. Society works better with organization, and good leaders can help people thrive and free up our energy to do bigger and better things. But a lot of people pursue power for the sake of having power. Not because they have some gift or calling to it, but because they want to be in charge.

Or, uh, grades. Grades matter, but they aren’t the reason that people love you or value you. A grade is a judgment of some work you did, not of your basic humanity. But boy do we forget that, especially if you’re used to getting the kind of grades that land you in a place like this. If grades are the only thing you count as valuable here, you’re going to miss out on an awful lot of what makes Duke such a good place, and you’ll probably spend a lot more time being really hard on yourself, too. Hear me carefully. I’m not saying grades don’t matter. I’m simply saying that they aren’t the only thing, and they surely don’t measure your worth. A concern for sure, but not the ultimate concern.

The thing that our pursuits of money and power and grades have in common with the Israelites prophesying of Baal is that in both cases people are trying to conquer the uncertainty of the world. Life can be pretty scary, and the world is complicated and often nasty, and these ultimates, these false gods, are the things we think we can use to control it. If I have enough money, I can make sure nothing bad will happen to me. If I have enough power, no one can mess with me. If I have a 4.0, everyone will think I’m perfect. Blatantly false statements, all of them, but nonetheless they function as creeds for a lot of us a lot of the time. We try to fill the pit of uncertainty inside us with something that won’t help, something that, in Jeremiah’s words, does not profit.

So this indictment we hear today is a call to return. It’s a call we need to hear quite a lot, because there are a whole lot of things vying for our attention, claiming to be the key to happiness. Maybe it’s CBD oil! Maybe not! This is a call to return to the fountain of life, which is probably also the name of a CBD product now that I think about it. It’s a call to return to the source. It’s a call to look at our own commitments and priorities, and to make sure we aren’t chasing after false ultimates. Some healthy skepticism, and a willingness to think critically about your life, it turns out, are pretty useful spiritual tools. 

Centering your life on God, despite popular claims, isn’t just like flipping a switch. Some people have that dramatic moment of salvation, but the moment after that they are still scrambling like the rest of us, trying to figure it all out. The life of faith is a patient commitment, and it involves sometimes passing up the promise of a quick fix, of something that claims to be God but is just a reflection of our own desires.

The upside, to be blunt, is that it works. By centering yourself in your calling as a child of God, by practicing your faith, and by exploring it in a supportive community, you can find a peace that money or power or grades can’t deliver. It’s a peace that allows you to do more, to withstand the hard times better, and to rejoice more deeply in the good times. The stress and anxiety of a high-octane college like Duke are, I promise, a lot more manageable when you are centered in your deepest identity.

This is the peace of God, which defies our comprehension. It passes all understanding. And it is always being offered. God invited Israel to it, kept inviting even after the temple fell and it seemed all was lost, invited us through Jesus,  kept calling even after the cross, when it it seemed all was lost, and invites us now, through one another. 

So I’m really glad you’re here. We are in this together, discerning where God calls us, and helping one another to say “yes” to that call. In fact, we can’t do it alone.

AMEN.

Serious Love

Eighteen years is a long time. Some of you are eighteen years old. A lot of you don’t remember much from eighteen years ago. Perhaps the woman Jesus met in the synagogue didn’t either. Maybe she was born with a disability and had grown up with it, or got very sick as a young child, before the brain starts filing things away as clear memories, so it seems like she has always been unable to stand up straight. Eighteen years is a long time. Her suffering was not new, and she had probably long ago reconciled herself to enduring it for the rest of her days. Surely, then she could have waited one more day. What’s one day after eighteen years? It wouldn’t have been too hard for Jesus to say “meet me here tomorrow, when it’s not the Sabbath, and I will cure you then,” and thus dodge the whole hubbub about breaking the rules of the sabbath. I mean, he knew the rules. But that isn’t how the story goes. Jesus couldn’t wait a moment… she was to be healed on the spot.

It matters, you see, that Jesus performed a healing on the sabbath and scandalized the leaders at the synagogue. It tells us something about how God moves in the world. You could, I guess, make this into a story about how being a workaholic is good and virtuous. People have done that. The protestant work ethic is all about showing your virtue by never taking a day off. God doesn’t take a day off, why should we? Except that God totally did take a day off, in the first chapter of the Bible, after six days of creating the universe, and that doesn’t seem like some casual fact. Probably this Gospel isn’t about being a workaholic.

I think it’s about love. And as I say that word—love—some of you may start drifting away, because here he goes off into happy clappy land, where everything is love and light and you just have to follow your bliss. It’s true that the word has grown a little cliche, a little too lightweight, worn out by greeting cards and stencils on the walls of houses on HGTV. 

But when we talk about love here—and we talk about it a lot—we aren’t talking about something passive, or about the fluttery feeling you get when your crush smiles at you. That feeling is pretty fantastic, but love runs deeper and wider, and wilder too. Love is far more than an emotion. It is, and I’m not exaggerating, the core of what it means to be a person who is aware of the sacred in the world.

Love is an intention. It is a commitment. It is a strong and dogged insistence that each person and each moment matters. When Jesus heals the woman on the sabbath, it is an act of love. There were rules in place, rules patterned off of the day of rest God took at the beginning, that said today was not the day for a miraculous healing, that the work of God didn’t get done on the Sabbath. It was part of the covenant. And Jesus saw the woman and was moved. The love he knew as the son of God was not meant to be contained and carefully rationed. It was excessive and abundant. Her suffering was his suffering, because he could imagine what it might be like, because he could see the pain on her face, because he could help. 

Again and again, Jesus confronted situations structured like this. There are rules about when you do things and who you do them with, and on the other side of that rule there is a disabled woman, or a man with leprosy, or a Samarian woman by a well who deserves as much as anyone else to be heard. There are the rules about what is good and proper, and there is the call of our common humanity calling us to realize something higher than rules is in motion. It is love that reaches across the rules, across the gap between people, and it is love—a tenacious, insistent love—that extends the possibility of healing across the distances we create between ourselves. It is love that repairs the breach. This is no greeting card. This is a way of life. 

So, welcome to the Episcopal Center. This place is about love. Each person, in each place, in each moment, is sacred and worthy of love, for they are creatures of God. It should go without saying, but it’s worth saying—each person is sacred, and categorizations of gender or race or sexuality or socio-economic background or age or politics or legal status or ability or religion are simply not relevant to one’s sacred worth. Each person is sacred. Period. Full-stop. That’s a simple statement, but to live a life based on it is not simple work. It’s hard, and it takes intentionality and accountability. There’s a really good reason that God calls us together in community. Love is not easy. It takes practice, it takes support, it takes nourishment. 

So we practice. We worship twice a week—Eucharist on Sunday, Compline on Tuesday—and we study Scripture, and we talk about God and life and about the opportunities we have to help God’s love be felt in our world. We help deliver food to families in East Durham. We repair hurricane damage. We help serve migrant farmworkers. We can do more, and we follow the passion of the people gathered here.

We support one another. Duke is an amazing place full of amazing opportunities, and it is also stressful and it can create runaway anxiety if you aren’t mindful of it. It’s easy to lose sight of the sacred, to forget about love, amidst the pressure and grind. So we take care of one another and help each other through. 

And we eat together. Ha ha ha, college students like free food, ha, what a funny joke. It’s not a joke. To sit around a table and share a meal together is one of the foundational human experiences, and this community grounds us and reminds us who we are. If you’re brand new, you might not feel it yet, and that’s fine. You’re coming off of a seriously overwhelming week. But give it a couple weeks. This place feels like home pretty quickly.

All of this because God is not passive. Because Jesus reached out on the Sabbath, and the Holy Spirit reaches out right now. You are called to a life of tenacious love, to find the depth in yourself and in other people and in the creation that surrounds us, and to repair the breach. Love is serious business. So here we go.

Amen