A Trinitarian Welcome

John’s Gospel often sounds like a theology essay, and today gives us some of that flavor. Jesus is teaching his disciples about the bigger plan. This stretch of John gives the gist of what is going to happen after he is no longer with us. The disciples will follow Jesus to his father’s house, where there are many rooms. This metaphor sounds great, except they don’t exactly know where Jesus’ father’s house is located. Thomas, ever the one to say what I would say, points this out to Jesus, thereby teeing up one of the most important lines in the Gospels.

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That’s how you usually here it quoted. This line has become the prooftext for Christians who want to deny the validity of other religions. The way it’s read is that Jesus is asserting that he, contrasted to other ways of accessing God, is the singular mode of connection that actually works. Any other way of trying to be with God will not get the job done, in this interpretation. It must happen through Jesus. Hence, the well-intentioned desire of many Christians to bring people of other faiths to Christ, in order to save them. On the face of it, that is where the text seems to lead.

The context of the passage doesn’t quite fit that reading, though. This is an intimate teaching, just Jesus in his disciples, on the evening before he would be arrested and crucified. This is on the day we observe as Maundy Thursday, just a little while after the Last Supper. Jesus has already predicted Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s eventual denial of knowing Jesus. He’s not preaching to the masses here. He is tying up loose ends with his closest friends.

Notice that Jesus promises to personally help them. “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” This passage is saturated with human connection. Jesus senses the fear in his disciples, and is assuring them that the terror of tomorrow will not sever the ties between them. In the passage immediately following this one, Jesus promises also to send the Holy Spirit to guide his disciples.

The question he is answering, then, is not “is Judaism as good as Christianity” or “say there’s this prophet in Arabia in 600 years or so. What would you think of him?” No one in this scene is shopping for a new religious paradigm. The question is one of grief, asked from within the circle of those who love Jesus the most, and it is asking “how are we possibly going to manage without you?”

Jesus’ answer is that they are already folded into the household of God. “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” This is much more than Jesus saying, “I got a guy, he’ll hook you up.” This is getting into some levels of divine connectedness that we still marvel at.

When Philip says, “show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” or to put it bluntly, “just show us God,” he gets the theology drop. “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” I am in the Father and the Father is in me. The theological term here is “mutual indwelling.” Jesus and God the Father, though distinct persons, dwell within one another, and are each full manifestations of the divine. You see Jesus, you see God. You see God, you see Jesus. They aren’t the same thing, but also they’re the same thing. Got it? No? Good. This is how words can express a mystery without exhausting it.

The mutual indwelling explains how Jesus could radiate divinity here on earth. How he could raise Lazarus, cure lepers, give sight to the blind, how he could teach with astonishing clarity and depth. He is a human, one of us, and he is also God, both in full measure. But what is this going to matter after Jesus ascends back into heaven?

Jesus continues to be that aspect of God, that person of the Trinity, who is a living avenue of God’s love, a portal into the divine. Even absent his physical form, those who seek the way he established, who gather and remember him and become part of his spiritual body here on earth, these Christ-followers are able to find God because they have a path to follow. 

Jesus says, “very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

The love he showed here continues after his physical incarnation is over. The love he showed his disciples was not conditional to his physical life, but is in fact a characteristic of God. God always reaches out, listens, attends to God’s relationship with God’s people. This flows right into the promise of the Spirit, that aspect of God that moves among us still and guides us, nudges us, whispers to us, constantly reaching out and folding us into this divine life.

The rush to read this as a message of exculsivity, I think, forgets the question Jesus was answering. I simply don’t think Jesus is making a comparative religious claim here. This teaching doesn’t come in a debate of Christianity vs. other religions. That, to be perfectly blunt, is much more superficial than what is happening here. When we focus on finding a winner in our own competitions, we forget that God likely isn’t playing our game.  This passage is about how those who follow Jesus are part of a broadly inclusive and deeply loving community with God. It is about how a triune God—always three, always one—embraces the world with love and shows us how to more deeply connect with the source of our being. It is, then, about how you came to be part of that same community. Thanks be to God.


Power and Non-Violence

First Peter doesn’t show up too often in our lectionary. There’s not that much of it to start with. And it kind of falls from view behind all the letters of Paul. Tradition holds that Saint Peter wrote this letter during his tenure as the Bishop of Rome, aka Pope number 1. But scholars doubt that. It’s likely pseudonymous, written by someone else and signed as Peter to give it credibility. Not an uncommon strategy in those times.

The letter is addressed to a group of congregations in Asia Minor, who are being persecuted. The author of the letter urges them to remain faithful in the face of injustice, using Jesus as a model. I want to spend a little time thinking today about the way these people were encouraged to suffer with dignity.

“It is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.”

This is nonviolence in one of its primordial moments. And nonviolence is a very serious endeavor. It is not, as it often appears, a passivity. Neither Jesus nor his disciples nor any of the leaders of nonviolent movements who find inspiration in Jesus is engaged in something passive. Jesus, we know, carried anger. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and remarked on his exasperation with the world as he found it.

The moments we might point to as passive, the “turn the other cheek” moments, actually subvert the power dynamics of the situation. The nonviolence Jesus practiced and taught was a very intentional strategy. It didn’t come from a lack of concern, or from relativising everything to the point that no particular thing matters. Rather, it came from a deep commitment to the values Jesus taught. The man who healed the sick and the poor, and who washed his disciples feet and taught that every person is loved could not, with any integrity, employ violence. You cannot, for example, go about claiming that every life is sacred and every person beloved while also designating some people’s lives as less valuable than your ideas. Killing in the name of God’s love just doesn’t compute. There is no moral high ground to claim once you’ve turned violent. Your enemies will use your violence as a reason to commit violence against you, just like you did to them, and no one wins..

“For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” Jesus’ nonviolence does not warrant our violence. It serves as an example. Jesus broke the cycle of violence repaid with violence, and the cycle must be broken again and again. This is the Christian calling. The violence of the Roman Empire attempted to snuff out the movement of Jesus, and the resurrection means it didn’t work.

“When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” The only way that Jesus’ dying for my sins makes sense to me is if it frees me. In particular, it frees me to continue breaking the cycles of violence in the world. It does that not through some bit of magic, but by showing that the rewards of violence are not the rewards I want. Secular power and prestige are awfully tempting, but a life closer to God is the bigger prize. And that is what I am freed to by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The author of First Peter is calling these Christians in Asia Minor, who live in a very precarious situation, to the radical reality of Jesus’ resurrection. The futility of trying to stop killings by enacting more killings can stop. The sacred value of each and every person can be honored.

But we cannot wait for some law to make it so. We cannot wait until we have the governing majority—which Christians have had every minute of this country’s existence—and then turn society into a place of peace. Change does not happen like that. The world becomes peaceful in a granular way, through discrete disruptions of the cycle of violence. Jesus did not make the world a non-violent place. People can still choose violence, and they do every day.

The choice of non-violence is not naive, then. The person who chooses nonviolence knows that their individual choice will not bring human violence to an end. But that person knows that their choice matters. We make choices based on our beliefs, on our truths, and we keep doing it, because a peaceful future can only be realized through peaceful actions. So your decision to refrain from violence is your way of making the world more peaceful. It is what you can do. It is how you can show your faith that a world motivated by love is altogether better than a world motivated by fear.

“For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.” First Peter frames this choice of nonviolence as a return to God. Humans are constantly choosing the bloody way forward, pursuing their goals through the threat of suffering, and through inflicting pain and death on others. This, in no uncertain terms, is straying from God. It is straying from everything that is good and sacred about human beings. Our good shepherd guards our souls by freeing us from the momentum of violence, and giving us the opportunity to begin, in our place and time, to live peacefully.

This is what an ethic of life looks like. It is easy to choose nonviolence when you are not threatened. It is hard, and crucial (literally, cross-shaped) to forgo violence in the face of violence. This hard path is where we as Christians are led. It is where we follow our good shepherd. And it is the way home.


Senior Farewell

Even our glimpses of eternity are fleeting. Peter, when Jesus shone like the sun and Elijah and Moses stood beside him, wanted to build temples on that mountain, and to stay there. The undeniable demonstrative presence of God is something we would like to bottle, to keep with us, to remain in. Moses himself only saw God’s back, for the fullness of divine presence would have been too much for his human frame to bear. Today we see disciples, on Easter, walking and talking unawares with the resurrected Jesus. They invite him to stay, to hear the Good News, even while it is still not really known. And when he breaks bread, like in the days before, they know it’s him, that the women who went to the tomb were right. And then he vanishes.

This ephemeral nature of our experiences of God is frustrating. But I think it’s more a matter of human nature than of God withholding Godself. And I don’t say that to tee up one of those sermons where I talk about how pitiful we humans can be. It’s more a matter of physics. As rather small, limited systems, we aren’t equipped to take in the breadth of infinity and eternity. It’s not bad or good. It’s just a matter of being much, much smaller than the universe and its creator, and being fastened to our particular viewpoints.

But that means that when those moments happen where the veil between heaven and earth is thinner, we innately want to stay in them. Those moments come as a gift, as an experience of something bigger and deeper than we can comprehend, something which can be at once beautiful and terrifying and soothing. These moments are riveting, and if we could just have every moment be like them, life would be a lot easier to sort out. Or so it seems.

I have, in my life, been fortunate beyond words to be part of several communities where glimpses of God come more often than in other parts of my life. None of them was obsessed with specific practices or doctrine—though those matter a lot—so much as about people whose lives reflect the grace of something beyond our grasp. Each one of those communities came to me as a miracle. I remember standing, as a high school sophomore at a retreat center, in a room full of people and feeling a genuine love for them all, even if I didn’t know them. Or being in college and having the kind of friends who called me to be a better, kinder, more loving expression of myself. Or being an adult and being given the space to think and to speak, to falter and to surprise even myself, by communities that aim to to free people to be who God calls them to be. 

Of those communities, the EC is the only one I haven’t yet had to leave. I graduated, or moved, or got hired to be a campus minister, and I had to say goodbye to each of those communities. Each time, I worried that I would never find it again. For all the theology I love, none of it could convince me of God’s presence if I hadn’t felt it already, and I felt it in the presence of those people in those places. Leaving them was grief, every time. Even when I was coming here. The EC held more insecurity and uncertainty for me when I arrived than it did community and inspiration.

Certainly, though, the veil between heaven and earth is often a bit thinner in this community. We cultivate an attention toward God’s movement and toward the ways God calls us. And we are honest about the experience of being a human trying to sort it all out. How the task of being a human can be overwhelming and at times hopeless, and at other times soaked through with a beauty we feel in our bones.

I know, then, that it is hard to leave a place like this. I’ve done it, and I’ll have to do it again some day. It’s scary every time. So it’s with a lot of empathy that I say to this year’s seniors that whether it feels like it or not, you are ready. I’ve watched you grow in your time here. I’ve watched you find your voices as leaders, as friends, as people of faith. I’ve watched you shape this community with your spirit, your kindness, your intelligence, and your humor. I, with the luxury of not being the one graduating right now, can easily and sincerely say that you are ready.

And I can say that we are going to miss you. You are a part of us, and we love you.

I can also say that I know well the feeling of hanging on because the next thing hasn’t come into clear focus yet, of worrying that something is being taken away before you’re ready. It’s that clinging to the experience of God, because things are easy here. But we are called to share this thing we’ve found, to help other people know it. We are called to help others know the deep joy and relief of Easter. You are called to share the Spirit you’ve found here. 

And that means parting ways. This is not a severing of ties, though. You are part of this community even when you aren’t with us in person. We are always here for you, and I am always your campus minister.

It’s particularly strange to preach this sermon under these conditions. There would be a lot of hugging if we were together at the EC, a lot of tears, a lot of laughter bursting through the sadness. All of that feels muted by the physical distances between us. I’m sorry that it is happening in this way, that we didn’t get to have big goodbye hugs and that you’re not getting the victory lap of Duke that you worked so hard to earn. It is altogether disorienting.

I’m going to miss you an awful lot, class of 2020. I know we’ll see each other again, and soon, but this goodbye is hard to say all the same. Perhaps it’s fitting then, that we read this story from Luke today, of disciples, a bit confused by what was going on, and surely feeling isolated around Jerusalem in the wake of Jesus’ death. God came to them, made things clear for a while. They couldn’t stay in that moment, but they could tell other people about it. That’s how we make the EC, and that’s how you’ll make the next thing, too.


A Second Chance at Faith

This is a story of second chances. You’ve probably thought about Christianity in terms of second chances before. After all, the forgiveness of sins offers a second, and then a third, fourth, fifth… chance. Our first deviation from being perfect doesn’t end our pursuit of the good. The chance to pursue relationship with God, even from our rock bottom is an amazing gift.

I imagine, too, that the disciples in this Gospel story felt like they had been given a second chance. After all, in the days leading to Easter, it had become clear that no one actually expected him to be resurrected. Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him. The women who went to the tomb that Sunday went expecting to find a corpse.

So whatever their faith in Jesus looked like, it didn’t include this cosmic dimension, this transcendence of death. They had followed him, had learned from him, had loved him. And he had told them we would die and then rise again, but that, frankly, is really hard to believe. Who’s to blame them? Not I.

They had it easy, too. They got to see him, to see the wounds. Thomas, the first person to be told the story of Jesus re-appearing with his disciples, was incredulous. I love Thomas for that. Thank God we get Thomas to give voice to what we are thinking. Thomas needs to see and feel. It’s easy to take Jesus to be a great teacher and a good man. On that level, he’s still worth following. But Thomas was being asked to believe that Jesus was God, and had returned from the dead. He was being asked to believe that Jesus not only rose on Easter, but that he loved his disciples so much that he came back to be with them. Thomas was going to need to see some proof. He got it, too. Lucky guy.

Their second chance was more than another chance to be in his company, or another chance to get things right. It was another chance to formulate their faith. The disciples’ post-Easter understanding of Jesus was surely much deeper than their pre-Easter understanding. Jesus as a notable religious teacher, or even as a prophet, is different than Jesus the one who trampled over death and revealed the foolishness of the world’s violent ways.

In a sense, the disciples were being shown the way to a deeper faith. We all can resonate with this. Growing up, if you were brought up practicing Christianity, we were taught a kind of strange array of Bible stories first. The ones that would make good movies. I mean, the Christmas story, sure. Good one. But Jonah and the whale, Noah’s ark, the Tower of Babel, even Jesus walking on water… These are good and beautiful stories, but they make a peculiar introduction to God. These stories teach us of God as more of a storybook character, not unlike the fairy Godmother in Disney movies. A strangely distant yet omniscient figure that comes through with magic at the perfect moment.

The storybook understanding of God, frankly, doesn’t make it past the cross. That God died. Breathed his last, literally ex-pired. Maybe that was the God the disciples thought they were dealing with. There’s no shame in it. Resurrection is hard to wrap your head around. Surely, having followed him up to death’s doorstep, and having seen him keep going, more than one disciple, maybe all of them, thought God had died.

What had died was their neat and tidy understanding of God. The tame, storybook God.  The understanding of a God whose ways are compatible with the ways of the empire, whose power would manifest as secular force. The understanding of a God who keeps tabs of our good and bad deeds, and whose wrath can be kept at bay—and good favor secured—by worshipping God in very specific correct ways. The understanding of a God whose favor was most seen in the delay of death. A long life and lots of descendants and land. These were the signs of God’s favor. That God was nailed to a cross and died and then the story ended and everyone went to where they were staying and probably stared at the floor, feeling like they had been punched in the gut.

Thomas was trying to understand that he had a second chance. That where his early faith had been destroyed by death, this reappearance of Jesus didn’t mean that his old faith was correct after all, but that it fell far short of the mark. God had always been much more than that. Jesus triumphed, not by force, and not by passivity either. He triumphed by actively walking into the fray and showing that all of our violence is ultimately meaningless. This was not a victory for the storybook God, but for the God who persists in agonizing situations, the gritty, messy God of people who cannot ignore the dark side of life.

God the superhero who is always in your corner but never seems to show up quite like in the stories gives way to God the ceaseless calling to a way of love, a burning flame which cannot be snuffed out by the executioner’s tools. The God you never saw yields to the God who actually shows up in the darkest of moments.

This is the second chance the disciples were struggling to comprehend. We struggle with it today, too. The storybook God is far easier to understand. But this God runs deeper. This story doesn’t die on the cross, unable to push past the unavoidable specter of death. Sunday school faith eventually falters, and the more resilient, subtle, and achingly beautiful faith in the God who keeps reaching to God’s people carries on.

If you’ve been here for the first Sunday after Easter before, you have heard me say that I love doubting Thomas. He is the patron saint of those who have doubts, who struggle to believe that there could be room in this world for the love we hear described in this Gospel. It is a reasonable and understandable struggle. And yet, the second chance to form our faith is always arriving.


Unquarantinable Love

At first, I thought it was a little too on the nose. I’ve grown sensitive, during this quarantine, to phrases that are being overused. Sagely referring to the quarantine as “this time” or talking about all the things that will be different after this. In part, this is because I can’t stand repetition, and I don’t really like cliches either. These are problems to the point that I talk to my therapist about them. But I also think it’s because the quarantine is so clearly unresolved, and so many people are trying to make sense of it, as though it has to mean something. It’s our natural instinct to want to blunt the edges of something frightening and make it manageable. It’s our instinct to try to wrap our intellect around our fears so they feel less dangerous. But I don’t think it works right now. I mean, the quarantine is still indefinite. The COVID-19 virus is still spreading. People are still dying. We don’t know how much longer things will be this way. I’m not ready to talk about it like I have some spiritual command over it. And I sure don’t feel equipped to preach to you about the hidden wisdom of the COVID-19 quarantine.

So when Catherine Keller, my doctoral advisor, signed an email to her past and present advisees with the phrase, “with unquarantinable love,” my cliche sensors went off. But Catherine is one of the wisest people—not to mention probably the best writer—that I’ve known. She has earned the benefit of the doubt. So I let it linger in my mind a beat longer. And there’s nothing cliche about it. Unquarantinable love is what we are consistently shocked to realize we receive from God. Here, in the middle of “this time” is, if not a new phrase, a new resonance that brings out Easter in a new light. Unquarantinable love.

Humanity has done everything it can to fend off God’s love. We have read the Ten Commandments and broken them with gusto and flourish. We have created gods in our own image, have failed to see the presence of God in one another, and have abused the creation around us. When we caught the ultimate break, you know, when God took human form and lived and healed and taught as one of us, we persecuted Jesus, tortured him, and nailed him to a cross, because to do otherwise would have meant really thinking hard about changing our ways.

It’s baffling, to see ourselves doing these things. Why squander these gifts? Why turn away from love and develop exquisite technology of punishment and death? It is, I believe, because we squander the greatest of our gifts. The gift of being unconditionally loved. We are fundamentally uncomfortable with our human predicament. Bestowed with the unbelievably improbable miracle of life, we cannot help but live in fear of life’s end. Our eyes are constantly drawn to the shadows at the end of the tunnel. We worry that, because we are going to die someday, we are insufficient. And we try to scrabble together enough of an advantage over our fellows that we might become immune to death. It is an impossible and foolish task, but we are obsessed with it. 

And now in our quarantine, when for the first time in generations being a good citizen means real daily sacrifices for all, and real suffering for many, the structures through which we express ourselves and grapple for advantages and for justice are all attenuated for the greater good. The noise dies down and in the quiet we are stuck with ourselves. 

Three women went out early in the morning to care for his body. Hope was lost, but love was not, and anyway he was theirs and somebody should take care of him. So they went, and when they found the tomb empty, hope came back in a wildly disorienting way. 

Humanity had thrown away its last best shot. Had done it in gruesome fashion. And Jesus came back. For no good reason, really. We had really, truly blown it. And Jesus came back. Because God is not driven by the calculations of evening up scores and shoring up advantage at others’ expense. God’s love is, by our standards, uncivilized. Civilized love is far too rational and careful, and bails out way before it gets to a cross. 

But God’s love is not civilized. It is not quarantinable. We sure treated it like a virus. In the depths of misery, God loved us from the cross. Not because we deserved it. Not because it settled some score. Because we had nailed God to a cross, and God’s love is wild and uncivilized. We left God’s love to die, then isolated it in a tomb sealed with a huge rock, so that it would not spread and undermine all the lies we tell ourselves about who we really are. But on the third day that tomb was empty. The story of Jesus was not over.

This is unquarantinable love. It bursts the bounds we try to set around it. Death does not stop it. Mortality does not stop it. Suffering does not stop it. Isolation does not stop it. All of the things that give us pause, that cause our polite, civilized love to start hoarding toilet paper, are trampled under the feet of unquarantinable love. The resurrection is a complicated thing, and if you struggle with it, trust me, I understand. But at its simplest and perhaps most profound level, the story did not stop. Love didn’t avoid death, or mortality, or suffering, or isolation. Love marched right through them. Jesus claimed death, mortality, and suffering as part of God’s kingdom. Where civilized love turns fearful and falters, God’s love soldiers on. 

Unquarantinable love does not reveal the deeper meaning of our quarantine. I expect there will not be a deeper meaning. I suspect that the quarantine just is, with no layers much deeper than slowing the spread of a deadly virus. I don’t know. But unquarantinable love plays a radical countertheme against our present isolation and restlessness, reminding us that the wild and blessedly unreasonable love of God can be felt in any circumstance. Unquarantinable love cannot be chased away or ignored into submission. It springs back in the next moment, no matter what we do. Jesus made visible the unruly tendrils of life, gaudy in the springtime sun, that constantly reclaim the fortifications we put up to keep death outside the gates.

So, people of God, know today that you are loved. Know that nothing about you can be a barrier to that love. Know that the fragility and inadequacies you loathe in yourself are met with a love that cannot be scandalized or shocked. The rules for who deserves love are—and this bears repeating—all made up by people. Today, in the empty tomb, it turns out that every single person is wildly, irrationally, beautifully loved by a God who simply will not stop pouring out unquarantinable love on our quarantined world. Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen, Indeed.


Sacramentality in Quarantine

It’s almost too much, to be honest, to read the story of Lazarus’ death right now. Danger is looming as authorities in Jerusalem are seeking to arrest Jesus, and yet he goes perilously close to the city to see his friends Mary and Martha, and to raise from the dead their brother Lazarus.

It’s too much in a couple of ways. It reminds me that the calendar plods on without concern for our quarantines and our viral pandemic. This is the Gospel we read on the Sunday before Palm Sunday. Holy Week is nearly here, and while this Lent has given me lots of time for introspection, I’ll be honest: I’ve just been trying to make it through the day, each day. No surprise that, without so many of the things I’ve arranged in my life to help me, my depression has been making itself know. The introspection helps. The meditation, the prayer. The walks. They help me put things in perspective, to find something that I can actually control, and to focus on that. But I’ve not been living a very intentional Lenten journey. I forgive myself for that.

But also I cringe at the appearance of this story of Jesus raising a friend from the dead right now, this year. In other stories, he healed wounds and cast out diseases, and now, two weeks before Easter, he is reversing the flow of death. Would it be so hard to, you know, do that more often? The preacher of this text is tempted to fall back on Christian platitudes. A preacher might say, “viruses come and go, but life with God is not interrupted.” Or perhaps “Jesus triumphs over death, and so you have nothing to fear.”

Those won’t do. We know now that Lazarus was a one-off, sort of a proof of concept before the big event on Easter. Long gone are the hopes that the loved ones we lose will be miraculously raised to be with us again, here and now.

Our discomfort is not just a fear of the Coronavirus, but also—perhaps most prominently—a despair at what it has already taken away. We have lost time together, annual traditions, rites of passage, Easter and LDOC and March Madness. The communities we inhabit at Duke are not accidental. We build them because we are a social species and because we need support and inspiration and company. Even if we stop the virus from spreading, we will have lost something very real.

So let me direct your attention to the part of the story before the raising of Lazarus. That is where you will see God’s instincts.

Jesus should reasonably avoid Jerusalem. Bad things will happen to him there, and everyone knows it. But Mary and Martha are grieving, and he loves them. They have hosted him and cared for him, and it is clear that the love is reciprocal. So he goes to Bethany to see them. Two miles is all that separates Bethany from Jerusalem, but that is where the people he loves are. So goes.

Jesus’ words are pretty stoic in this story. He says he’s only doing all this to show people and teach them, but look at his reactions to the suggestion that Lazarus only died because Jesus was not there. He is disturbed. For all of the talk of God as an unmoved mover in the tradition of Aristotle’s philosophy, this is a divinity who is moved by the pain of his friends. We can see the tension between his mission of teaching the Good News and his desire to protect the ones he loved. Jesus couldn’t have stayed in Bethany without turning away from his calling, but when Mary and Martha tell him he could have kept Lazarus from dying, we feel him wish he could have stayed and done exactly that. For all of his power, Jesus couldn’t be everything to everyone. That pained him. This is who Jesus is.

It’s this compassion that I want you to hold onto this week. Jesus suffers with those who suffer. He not only suffers with them, but he goes to be with them. In our Lenten readings, we see him turn away from an understanding of power that would insulate him from the world’s pain, and instead walk directly toward the pain. Where things are hard, where people grieve, or feel isolated…these places are where Jesus walks.

It’s not just by metaphor that I suggest that God is with you. It is in the movement of the Holy Spirit, who moves through our scattered online space here and makes it sacred. In the presence of the Spirit, Jesus, too is with you. We won’t have the sacrament of communion today, but the lights we all have with us represent that presence. A thread that tangles us together, and a love that pours out on us even in the solitude of social distance.

Remember then, that ours is not a distant and aloof God. Ours is a God who does not abandon God’s people, even when they may feel abandoned, and who knits together community and love across whatever divisions may arise. The God who went to be at Bethany is the God who comes to be with you. The love is the same. The compassion is the same. Lazarus rose. Yes, that is the exclamation point on this story, but God’s insistence on being our companion is where I find the comfort today.


There Is No Gate

Our practice of walking around with ashy smudges on our forehead seems a little odd, given that the Gospel we read each Ash Wednesday urges against public displays of piety. Do not sound trumpets when you give alms. Do not pray on the street corners to make people see you. Do not make a melodramatic display of your fasting. Do not store up treasure for yourself. These are the commandments of today’s Gospel passage.

There is something deeply moving about the imposition of the ashes. There is a tenderness to the touch of another’s hand on your forehead, and a contrast between that tenderness and the frankly bleak words they say. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” More than any other ritual in the course of the church year, the ashes root us in our fragile humanity. The simplicity and starkness of the moment ground us in something we so elaborately try not to see, and to me, there’s always a palpable relief in just accepting my mortality in a moment of honesty and grace.

So then, the question I want to ask about today’s Gospel is this: why are these public displays of piety bad? Is it because they are annoying, a little bit gauche? Perhaps. I would co-sign that sentiment. But that’s pretty superficial. We can generally count on the wisdom of the Gospel to run a little deeper than “don’t be annoying.”

It is, I believe, not about whether or not we annoy other people. If our displays of piety lay stumbling blocks in front of others, that’s to be avoided, but I think the more compelling lesson from today’s Gospel has to do with how our practices shape our own relationship with God.

Every action has an outward motion, into the world, and an inner motion, within our being. I submit that part of the work of Lent is to help our outward actions correspond to an inner motion toward God. To give alms has a clear outward value, as it gives money to those who need it, but the inner motion that accompanies it is not determined by the outward motion. I could, as the hypocrites in the Gospel, give money to the man panhandling on the corner and make sure people see me do it, and tell everyone that I did it, but that will not help me see God. In fact, it does the opposite.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. We come before God always as mortals. As fragile bodies with expiration dates, and our mortality unites us, no matter what differences and separations we might construct. If I give alms and need to be seen doing it, I am trying to add a narrative difference between myself and others. I am trying to make others view me as qualitatively different than themselves, for I am the one who gives to others, the one whose defenses against death are such that I can afford to be generous to those who are not so well defended.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Give to your fellow children of God because our shared mortality binds us together. Give because you want your life intertwined with those of your neighbors.

Likewise, when you pray, who cares who sees you? Of what value is someone else’s witnessing of our piety? If that is our focus, are we actually seeking communion with God? Of course not. We are seeking to be thought of as pious. As deep. There’s nothing shallower than that.

Prayer is a key instrument of our relationship with God. It is meant to deepen our experience of the divine and to strengthen us to serve the world better. When we use it to distance ourselves from others, we are trying to make ourselves appear less mortal than them. Prayer draws us together.

Fasting, as well. No points are awarded for your outward display of deprivation. The value of your fast is its inward effect of drawing you closer to God, of making you more aware of our need for God and our interdependence as humans.

So then, Lent. We choose our fast, our practice, to guide our observance of this season. We do so in parallel with Jesus’ forty days in the desert, a time of fasting and contemplation, and the facing of temptation.

As you pick your practices, notice how this Gospel isn’t about seeing the world as a barrier to the experience of God. It’s actually about the barriers we ourselves erect, even the ones we erect through good and pious behaviors, which then keep us further from God. 

A Buddhist koan that I’ve come to love illustrates this principle. A koan is a brief saying that illustrates something we can’t arrive at by intellect alone, much like a parable.  This koan is about an enlightened being, or a bodhisattva, named Manjushri.One day as Manjushri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, “Manjushri, Manjushri, why do you not enter?” Manjushri relied, “I do not see myself outside. Why enter?”

Manjushri’s wisdom is that gates are of our own construction. A core teaching of Zen Buddhism is that the path to enlightenment is gateless. Any time we perceive a gate across our path, we have created it with our own thinking.

This is a time to examine your own thinking, and to ask yourself what gates you put in your path. We start Lent with this reminder of our eventual death because the path to accepting God’s love—to really accepting any love—starts with being honest about who we are. Our prayers, our studying, our intellectual prowess, all of these often function as defenses against looking clearly at ourselves. They become gates, and give us the illusion that we are outside and that we will, through cleverness or manipulation or sheer force, somehow earn the love we yearn for.

“Manjushri, Manjushri, why do you not enter?”

“I do not see myself outside. Why enter?”

The saying, “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” can function like a koan. These are words that remind us that there is no “outside.” Our creaturely existence, in our bodies, in this life, is all already inside. Our attachments to prestige, or to power, or to money, are all attempts to dodge the fact that we are dust, returning to dust. But we don’t need to dodge it, for it is in this life that we encounter God. Denying our susceptibility to death only puts up gates between ourselves and the source of life.

So as you choose your discipline for Lent, I urge you to choose something that helps you become aware of gates you put in your own path. Perhaps you might even take them down. And, like Jesus in the desert, you can consolidate and direct your calling, by knowing who you are in relationship with God. We resist the temptations not so we can impress people, but because we know they direct us away from God. We give alms, and pray, and fast because we desire closer relationship with God and with one another. 

So what actions of yours are driven by a desire to distance yourself from the rest of humanity? What do you do to try to convince yourself that death is optional? Those are your gates. Those are the ways you convince yourself that you are outside. But the truth is that you, in your frail, imperfect, beautiful human form, are enough, and you are already inside. You are loved more deeply than you can know. There are no gates. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Start from there.


Upside Down

Out of context, today’s Gospel passage is a difficult one. In context, well, it’s still difficult. But I think we are obligated to read it as part of the Sermon on the Mount, and not as a standalone edict. Our lectionary, which divides the Bible up into passages and assigns them to particular days, has created an artificial division within the document, as though Jesus took a week’s break between last week’s passage and this week’s. He didn’t. Let’s put it back together—that is, let’s re-member it—and see where that puts us.

The Sermon on the Mount occurs right as Jesus is beginning his ministry. Crowds are starting to follow him, and you get the sense that he wants to train his disciples a bit more before things get out of hand. He goes up the mountain, and they follow him, and he begins to preach.

The sermon opens with the Beatitudes, which bestow blessings on those who are lowly by secular standards. Jesus is beginning to unpack his vision of God’s Kingdom. If you can remember the first time you heard the Beatitudes, you get something of how radical this is. I remember hearing them and thinking this was some secret truth buried far beneath the outer workings of the world. As though our sense of power was almost entirely mistaken. And indeed, Jesus would display power made perfect in weakness.

Having issued a prophetic and poetic counter to the exploitative power schemes of our world, Jesus proceeds by giving the metaphors of salt and light. In each, his disciples are compared to elements that find their value in relation to other things. It follows thematically from the Beatitudes, as they are told that power, which is entirely expressed as God’s love, flows out ever more broadly, rather than being held back in a personal reserve. Salt and light both have meaning only in how they relate to others. Power, which is love, is meant to be shared.

This dynamic of inversion continues to our salvation, as we discussed last week. Salvation is not a commodity we acquire, but is something we participate in by living into our covenant with God, and by serving as an example and invitation for others to do so. Put differently, you don’t achieve salvation. You realize it. The Sermon on the Mount urges us to pursue an inward transformation, to take on the radiant depth of the salt and the light, and not just put forth hollow performances of them.

Again, you may have heard this message enough times that it is losing its edge, it’s—dare I say—saltiness, but the insistence that we are most connector with the divine when our inward experience of love extends to an outward offering of love is something that we can never hear too much. We truly need God’s help to keep these values in our practices.

So when Jesus turns to the topic of anger, we should not be looking for rules to guide our behavior, but rather for principles to guide our spiritual growth, which will then reflect authentically in our behavior. Jesus is not giving new rules, but revealing the spiritual depth behind existing ones.

The commandment not to kill should really be an easily achieved baseline. The spiritual movement behind it, though, is one of reconciliation. Jesus counsels us not to make our offerings at the altar before we are reconciled to one another. The offerings we make reflect our inner state, and to be authentically worshipful, our inner state must align with our outer state. This is why we confess our sins and then greet one another in peace immediately before our offertory and communion. We do not come to this table to set ourselves apart or reinforce worldly rivalries. We come to it together, to become as one, and we must honor one another and ourselves. 

It is not enough to simply not commit adultery as we typically understand it. That’s a physical obedience, and Jesus again pushes for a spiritual depth. In particular, Jesus sets his sights on the hetero male gaze, saying that objectifying women violates the covenant we make in marriage, and more broadly in life, to honor God’s presence in each person. I have heard stories that people other than heterosexual men objectify others, but we have certainly caused more suffering with our lust more than any other group. I am not offended by being singled out here. As with the other topics, Jesus is pointing to a spiritual orientation that honors the inherent value of each person.

Divorce. This is the tough one. The commandment is “whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” But Jesus pushes harder, saying that anyone who divorces his wife—and I think the gendered language makes a difference here—except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery. That sentence sure is rough. 

The gendered language points to a unilateral dynamic in these divorces. The man divorces the woman, and she receives the consequences . And I think the setting aside of the woman’s unchastity as the exception to the rule emphasizes that the divorces Jesus critiques represent a societal violence toward women. In such a patriarchal society, divorced women were in a very vulnerable position. And so the act of divorce is even more traumatic than it is now. The woman, who is here blameless, now faces the consequences of a divorce she did not cause. She now lives outside a marriage she did not break. The arbitrary severing of commitments truly hurt other people. Nothing happens outside of relationship to others and to God.

This story doesn’t reflect an understanding of marriage that we embrace today. Things like love and happiness, which are very big and biblically articulated values, are at least nominally at the center of our modern marriages, and our understanding of marriage as sacrament implies a quality of goodness and grace that can certainly be eroded by things other than infidelity.

What I’m saying is that this isn’t a legal manual for marriage, but a spiritual lesson on relationship and accountability. Under the literal operation of the text, which is very loud with this particular text, something spiritual moves. The text is, in classic Biblical fashion, centered on the man, but once we face that fact, we can see spiritual value. This isn’t about marriage vows. It’s about relationship.

If you think I’m shortselling marriage vows, pay attention when Jesus starts talking about oaths. Jesus does not care about oaths. He also, I believe, is not terribly impressed by marriage vows. Vows are the promise of action, the promise of a certain way of living, but they are not the living themselves. Anyone can take an oath. But unless the oath reflects your soul, it is spiritually negligible.

All of this, the whole thing, is an invitation to pursue transformation. It is not easy. The temptation to selfishness, or to a hollow sort of morality, is strong. Those are the easier paths. But they are not the paths to wholeness. It is easier to participate in relationships that disregard or exploit others. It is, in fact, deeply woven into the economy of our world. But we cannot do it without diminishing our own relationship with God.

The Sermon on the Mount is a lengthy, remarkably deep call to a new way of being. It is not an instruction manual for each step of the way. We have to figure those out for ourselves. But we know we do it in relationship, and with practices that challenge us to value our own participation in God’s love as much as other people’s participation in God’s love. The Sermon on the Mount was given to people living in a different society, and we need to remember that. Taking the Bible literally almost always cuts off most of what it has to say. But is is also, I think, the greatest sermon ever given. So we need to sit with it, at times wrestle with it, and let it speak spiritually to us. Every time I read it I see new layers and new implications.

It’s complicated, this Sermon on the Mount. Parts of it radiate grace, and parts clang off of our modern ears. It may be the greatest thing ever committed to paper, but it is also intensely of a time and place we don’t fully understand. And so we don’t diminish it by claiming to exclusively understand it. We honor it by grappling with it. This week, I simply invite you to read Matthew 5 again. Keep going into chapters 6 and 7 if you have time. The Sermon on the Mount keeps going. It is a remarkable and complex invitation to a world turned beautifully upside down. 


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. 


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.