What Becomes a Person?

Preaching, Theology

“He will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears…”

We are a people obsessed with personalities. We are a people who love to watch and read and think about special persons. We are also a people often uncertain of the specialness or rightness of our own personhood. Our politics are personal, receiving their highest ratings and attention when populated by personae non grata engaged in the sport of personalized attacks. Our justice is often best served personally, the issues of affordable housing and immigration reform all the more galvanizing when given the face of a personal story, someone we know, or could imagine knowing. And then there are our own selves, the persons we attempt to craft with meticulous detail and the persons we simply cannot help but be. What kind of person are you? Maybe I could answer this question from your Facebook posts, or from your record collection, or from what you wear or who you talk to. What is a James? A Chris? A Bonnie? Maybe we are accumulations of biblical-scholarly-articles, or the person you call when someone is sick or dying, or white-robe-wearers, or possessors of impeccably quaft and wildly flowing hair. Perhaps more importantly, is what I am as a person good, is it seen and known and approved of by the other persons whom I admire and respect? If God had a Facebook account, which of my posts would she like? The one about the Imams acting as vocal advocates for a theology of peace over and against the theology of violent extremists, or the one where I talk about how many times I’ve listened to the new Beyoncé album?

We are a people who are very interested in persons, the persons we believe ourselves to be and the persons whom we are either attracted to or repulsed by. And so it may interest you to know that our modern Western idea of personhood itself was actually invented by a bunch of Christian theologians in the fourth century. When these guys were attempting to describe what had happened between the human race and God in the person of Jesus, the idea of a person itself was something of a novelty, at least in the way they decided to use it. Up till then the idea of persona was mostly used in theatre, the persona of a Greek tragedy was it’s list of characters, the collection of large masks used to articulate relationships and emotional currents within the broader drama. It did not mean individual, it did not mean personal identity. The time was not so obsessed with the uniqueness of every individual, a good citizen of Hellenistic culture was one who upheld the common good and government, a good Israelite was one who embodied the holy laws of God’s people. Not uniqueness. But there was something unique about Jesus. Not that he claimed to be God, necessarily, many crazy people claimed as much, but that so many more people so many centuries later still believed him. What was more, there was something unique about Jesus from God. Jesus was God but different from God somehow, not just an appearance of God or a manifestation of God or a piece of God, but a distinct individual, still distinctly divine.

Plenty of easy explanations circulated about why this was so- like maybe Jesus was just God pretending to be human, or maybe Jesus was just uniquely possessed by God, uniquely channeling God; but each of these explanations too easily explained away something which was, essentially, inexplicable. And so, with a new meaning for an old word, these theologians described God and Jesus as distinct, individual persons who shared the same essential being. And if that doesn’t make sense, then it’s probably working; because any definition of the Trinity which seems easy to get a hold on isn’t doing justice to the incomprehensible mystery of God. By the next century the idea of personhood was extended to the Holy Spirit also, and then to angels as manifest expressions of certain spiritual realities, and last of all to non-divine beings, like humans -we came to think of ourselves as distinct, individual persons as well, not least of all through authors like Augustine, who depicted the interiority of individual personhood -the little inner conflicts and dramas we see played out in our own private minds- in radical new ways through works like his Confessions. (For more on this see Phillip Carey, Charles Taylor, or John Zizoulous.)

hildegard trinity

Sarah Coakley has also spent time exploring images of the Trinity which are not entirely anthropomorphic, one of her favorites is this one from Hildegard of Bingen.

The interesting thing to me is that for us, today, the idea of what makes a person great essentially revolves around this uniqueness, around this bold assertion of a distinct self, often loud, always powerful, set apart from all others. Yet the persons of the Trinity, the persons we originally spoke of and the persons which our own asserted personhood is a mere imitation of, were essentially selfless. In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of a person who will come not as a body but as a spirit of truth who will speak through and among other bodies not his own, who will speak words not his own but the very words of God. The Holy Spirit then is presented as a selfless person whose chief aim is to show God through someone else. If this sounds familiar it may be because Jesus is described by scripture in a similar way. Paul described Jesus as one who emptied himself of any pretense and all clinging to show forth God, and John says that when we saw Jesus we saw God’s light and truth and way. God’s very own self is revealed less often through personal appearances and more through interpersonal actions: justice for the poor, creation out of nothing, the sound of sheer silence like balm over a troubled soul, a friend who would sacrifice everything rather than forsake his love. Something in the selfless nature of the Holy Spirit shows us what Jesus is like and something in the selfless nature of Jesus shows us what God is like, a God who is in turn giving us the grace and company of the Spirit who brings us together in Christ’s body. For all our talk of personhood, the essence of the Holy Trinity is a kind of selflessness, each member showing forth the other two. 

Now, I want to be especially careful any time I stand up here and espouse selflessness as a virtue, mainly because for most of Christian history, virtues like selflessness and obedience and humility have been used to silence and submit people without power to people with it. Namely selflessness as a virtue has been used to silence and subject women, whether it is wives to their husbands or religious sisters to their superiors. The theologian Sarah Coakley has taken this issue head on in her writing (specifically in her chapter on Kenosis in the book Powers & Submissions.) She addresses the damage done to women and others through the kind of self-emptying which is demanded by force, and she holds up the possibility of real power lying in the kind of self-emptying which comes by choosing to not cling to the false power of this world, but remaining rooted in the one who is creating, nourishing, loving our very essence into being.  Perhaps then, our own definition of what makes a person good deserves some retooling. If the original persons of the Trinity were each pointing to one another, what are we pointing to most often? What are we showing forth? The selfless Trinity shows forth a way of being, a way of being in the world and a way of being with one another, a love which does not cling, a generosity which won’t resent what it gives, a wisdom which cannot be deceived or deluded. Perhaps we can simply begin by praying that this Holy undivided and selfless Trinity will show themselves to us, that ultimately God may show themselves through us to as well, to a world which desperately desires to be seen, and known and loved. 

 

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Nothing Missing

Preaching, Theology

The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Luke 24:5

Easter begins with absence. Easter begins with something lost, something missing. And missing things doesn’t tend to bring out the best in us. During the recent Sellwood Bridge construction, after waiting in a half hour long detour backup snaking through the Sellwood neighborhood my husband missed the turnoff for 43 south and ended us up back in Sellwood, at the back of the detour line again. A lesser man might have hailed this mistaken turn of events with one long string of blue profanity, but I can assure you that there was nothing but grace and poise in our car that morning.  Most of us have plenty of experience with missing things. We miss birthdays, opportunities and deadlines, we miss the occasional social cue, the more frequent punchline. Missing something dawns suddenly on the mind. It’s that moment you realize you might be on the wrong path. The moment you remember that the anniversary was last week. Whatever you were going about your normal business doing is then suddenly inked over by a frustrated cloud of second-guessing and regret. This is to say nothing of misplacing something. The keys aren’t by the door where they should be when you’re running late. You step off the train and realize that your wallet isn’t with you. It’s enough sometimes to make the whole world feel like it’s barely held together at it’s seams, all the little things we must remember just to get to where we’re going and then one of them slips, lost, into oblivion, and the day becomes undone. Missing people is, of course, the worst, though the disaster of it dawns upon the mind in a similar fashion. One moment you’re fine, and then the next a gesture or a song or a scent draws a line around the empty place where a someone once belonged. Maybe it’s the one you should have never left behind, or the friend who lives too far away. Maybe it’s the spouse or sibling whom death took far too early. Whomever it may be, someone here is missing. Something here is lost. And that’s where Easter begins, with absence.


For a group of women heading to the place where the body of their friend awaited further burial, I can only imagine a similar cloud of shock and second guessing blooming darkly out from the moment they first realized that the body they were heading in to tend was missing. What jagged insult was this? First they had endured the sickening, public torture of his body, and now that body couldn’t be found? Had they been mistaken? Had they been robbed? Were they next? And what were they to do? What insult on top of what was already such great injury. For if Jesus was missing now, missing from the one time when they might have actually finally gotten their hands on this man who moved around so much, it was really only typical that he should be as absent from death as he was from life. Jesus had been disappearing from the beginning. Jesus nearly gave his folks a heart attack when we went missing as a boy on their visit to the Temple. He drew a similarly frustrated ire from his best friend Martha when he failed to appear by the side of her brother Lazarus before he passed away. Jesus was constantly disappearing from the crowds who wished to kill him, yes, but also disappearing from his friends and followers, missing from the spotlight to seek some small bit of rest on a hillside somewhere out of reach while hoards filled in the beaches and the synagogues for a glimpse of someone whom they had really only just heard about. For as present as he was to people in his ministry, healing the sick, attending to the folks whom everyone else wanted to ignore, people were always wanting more of him than they had. The crowds were always pressing further in until the moments came when he simply disappeared. “Let me come with you,” one man pleaded with Jesus after he had been cured of many demons. Jesus simply responded by saying, “No. You have to go back home.” It should have been no surprise that Jesus was absent from the tomb. He had told them to expect as much. Easter begins with absence.

ink

Easter begins with absence, and maybe that makes sense because we begin with absence, too. It’s not just the missing keys or the missed exit or the missing people in our lives. From the moment an infant develops the wherewithal to hoist her body up enough to look into a mirror and behold her own gaze she comes to the startling realization that something here is missing. Up till then she had simply existed as the world around her, a world which fed her when she was hungry and soothed her when she cried and now here in the mirror she is confronted with an image of herself which is separate, which appears strangely unified for all the disparate and conflicting currents which she feels within her. And now suddenly the feeding soothing world is a separate person, too, a mother or a father who can simply disappear at any given moment into another room, taking all the means of nurture with them. From the moment we begin to see ourselves as separate from the world it feels as if there is something missing. And most of us spend our whole lives long trying to ignore that absent feeling, or we spend our days trying to fill it up with something else, some new toy, some gigantic feast or some person or some drug, some new way to soothe the frightened child who wonders if she has been, in fact, finally left alone in the room for good. “Where is the body?” the women wonder. We left him right here. We need him right here where we left him. We can’t bury the body if there isn’t a body to prepare for burial. We deserve a burial, we deserve to say goodbye after all we’ve had to suffer, all that has taken place. Where is he? And then, suddenly, two men in dazzling clothes come to stand beside them. And they ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

broughton

I learned a poem and a story this year at the beginning of Lent which has stayed with me the whole season long. James Broughton, a radical faerie and filmmaker and poet who preceded the generation of the Beats in San Francisco, on the day he died, walked about his house reciting this poem of his:

This is It
This is really It
This is all there is
And it’s perfect as it is

There is nowhere to go
but Here
There is nothing here
but Now
There is nothing now
but This

And This It
This is really it
This is all there is
And it’s perfect as it is

I learned this poem and this story from Stephen Silha, a local filmmaker in his own right whose most recent work tells the story of Broughton’s life in a documentary called “Big Joy”. And since the day I heard it, the poem will not leave me. It pops up especially when I’m getting frustrated about something not working the way it’s supposed to, something getting lost in translation, or when some minor detail gets missed entirely in the midst of all my preparations. “This is It, this is really It,” the poem chimes, at the most inconvenient moments, “this is all there is, and it’s perfect as it is.” And at first I’m angry about this. This is most certainly not perfect! I can’t find my keys, we missed the exit, our national politics are a joke and our global circumstances are a death wish. There is so much that needs to change, so much that needs to be right with the world, better with the world, better with me, so much of which is missing in me. But the poem keeps insisting that there’s nothing missing. The poem keeps insisting that there is nothing more required in this moment. Nothing more to wait for. Nothing more required to say I’m sorry. Nothing more required to give the man on the street a few minutes of my time. Nothing more required to invite someone seeking sanctuary into our church. Nothing more required to do the right thing, right now, with what we have in front of us. Right when I feel like I simply do not have enough the poem rings: “This is It, this is really It” there’s nothing else to wait for, nothing lacking from this moment, nothing more which will come which will make it any better of a time to love and give and be with one another in as much peace and generosity as can be mustered. This feeling which the poem gives, this sense of staring into the emptiness in front of us and finding that there is more than enough present is the closest thing I can imagine to what happened to the women staring into the emptiness of the tomb. Easter begins with absence, but the closer the disciples get to what is missing, the more they find that something greater is present to them now.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Ask the men in dazzling clothes. “He is not here, but has risen.” And with that the women start to act like they have everything they need. They start believing that nothing else is missing from their lives, they see God who is present now, beyond death, beyond all the missing pieces and all the missing people, God beyond hunger and torture and trials too great to bear, God to whom absolutely nothing and absolutely no one is lost for good, they see that their beloved God and friend is not elsewhere but is here and now in this, and this is It. And with bewilderment in their eyes they run out into the world, shouting, “Alleluia, Alleluia! The Lord… is risen,” and their friends, bewildered in their own misplaced faith and missing answers begin to answer back, “the Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Undeserving & Unearned

Preaching, Theology

“Then he became angry, and refused to go in, so his father came out and began to plead with him.” Luke 15:28

As Auntie Mame says, “Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” The Gospel is full of banquets and starving people. Some people are starving because they don’t have time to go the banquet. Some people went to the banquet but they’re starving because they’re too busy complaining about who else is there with them to eat anything. And today we have a responsible young man who refuses to go into the banquet because of resentment, resentment over whether or not his younger brother deserves to be there too, resentment over not having gotten a banquet of his own for being good.

I’ve been trying to sympathize with the responsible son. If I can begin sympathizing with the responsible son I’m pretty sure that my life will be better and that I’ll be a better friend and colleague. My life is full of incredibly responsible people. They’re drawn to me, I think, much in the way firetrucks are drawn to a house on fire. I have often, in my life, played Ernie to someone else’s Bert, a chaos muppet for the order muppets all around me. When I finished my undergraduate student teaching in a Montessori classroom, as a parting gift my supervisory teacher gave me a watch. “Here, maybe you’ll use this in the future,” she said. At home, Nathan pays the bills and reminds me when it’s time to clean the house. Where does has he acquired this secret knowledge? Here on staff at St. Michael’s we’re blessed with people who do amazing detail work, people who are systematic thinkers, great organizers, and then there’s me, doing whatever it is I do. To be entirely serious for a moment, this place wouldn’t be what it is without responsible people. I am constantly amazed at how many of you there are who have been helping this place run for years, whether that’s by your financial assistance or your prayers or your visits with those in need or the time you spend in the kitchen or in the sacristy or cleaning up the grounds -we are able to open our doors and respond to God’s word in this place because of responsible people, unsung heroes, the kind of folks who simply do what needs to be done without even having to be asked. And here I get to swoop in and preach and pray and sit and listen to people for a while. And I’m one of the people who gets to park in the back?

I’ve been trying to sympathize with the responsible son because that’s the part of this story which is most mysterious to me. I hear a story about a son who stayed at home and worked his father’s land, probably because he was the only one left in the family to take care of business, and I think, “that sounds like a terrible idea.” So it’s probably no surprise that I’m the one who barely graduated High School and flunked out of college the first time through. You could use “starving after the pods which the servant must feed to the pigs,” as a euphemistic metaphor for my early twenties, as long as you don’t read into it too much. And so, in my life, I have necessarily been the recipient of massive emergency amounts of grace and charity. I hail from the lost and found department. One of the classes I flunked out of was the History of Christianity through the Reformation. A year or two after all of this massive flunking I finally found myself clear-headed enough to walk into the local Episcopal church, where much to my horror the professor of that class was a regular member. I felt so ashamed, like such a failure. So I developed a perfectly reasonable plan to avoid him and his partner at all costs. I must have also failed to properly communicate this plan, however, because they immediately sought me out. And then the amazing thing: they treated me like I wasn’t a total failure. They had me over for dinner. More than that, actually, they gave me cooking lessons in their home. They spoke to me as if I had some value, as if I wasn’t a drop-out. It was like they saw something in me which I myself could not see, and because they saw it and held it up for me to see, too, over time that part of me became more and more real, and after a while I didn’t feel like such a shameful failure anymore.

This is, by definition, charity. This is grace. This is what love looks like when it’s given not because of having earned it or deserved it or worked for it but simply for the sake of loving what’s in front of us because God is love and love is the surest path through the mess we’ve made to what is real and true and good. This is what makes love prodigal, this is what makes love reckless and luxuriant and extravagant, because it does not abide by the economy we mortals have established for ourselves in all due fairness, but rather it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love is only really love when it’s being spent, when it’s being given or received. This is the wisdom of the prodigal, the prodigal son but also the prodigal father, who spends lavishly, indiscriminately, to celebrate finding what was lost and welcoming the dead back to life.

image

“Oops, I did it again…”

I’ve been painting myself as being like the prodigal son in this story, but there’s actually one really significant way in which I’m not like him at all. In the story, the prodigal son repents. He looks at his life, decides that he’s landed himself in a complete rut, and decides to turn around and go back to the place where he knows he can find some forgiveness and a second lease on life. You’ll remember that in my story, however, the plan was not repentance, the plan was, “let’s avoid these people for as long as we can and pretend this never happened.” If the story of the prodigal son were to actually reflect my life, it would be more like a story about how the prodigal son wallowed starving in the hog pits for years on end glorying in the extent to which he would be able to make a total martyr out of himself. If I were telling this story, the father would have had to finally show up at the hog pit gate himself with a full feast in tow and say, “surprise! we found you!” And even then, if I were telling this story, the prodigal son would refuse to eat. He would insist on not eating if he wasn’t able to pay, he would sulk, embarrassed that his father was making such a fuss. He would say, “Quit it, Dad! All my friends can see you.” If I were telling this story it would take the prodigal son years to realize how good he has it, years to accept the generosity of others, years to allow himself to stand with the support of all the people around him who have been more than willing to help all this time.

And then, finally, I get it. I get the responsible son. I get why he won’t go in to the party. I get the fact that there’s no difference between feeling like you can’t accept something which you don’t deserve and feeling like you haven’t gotten everything you’ve rightfully earned. Real love, real kind and real generous love, doesn’t care what you or anyone else has done to earn it. Real love only stands like a wide open door and leaves it up to us to choose whether we’ll join or not. And then, with a sigh of relief, I get the fact that I’m not the one telling this story. Jesus is. And he’s saying, “look at this amazing banquet. You’re starving. Come in and eat.”

Mean People Are Hurting

Preaching, Theology, Uncategorized

“Mean people are hurting.” My very favorite Marriage and Family Therapist has a bumper sticker hanging in his office with this quote on it. It must be a Zen bumper sticker because it has that little Zen ink brush circle on it, and that makes sense because it’s a pretty zen quote. As far as I can tell Gautama Buddha never said anything exactly like “Mean people are hurting”, though it’s nice to imagine him stooping down to some impoverished beggar monk who’s bowl had just been passed over by some scowling face for the twentieth time and whispering something as serenely helpful as, “mean people are hurting,” but it probably didn’t happen probably just because Gautama Buddha wasn’t in the business of making bumper stickers. My friend, however, is in the business of helping to heal hurting people, and in his context this quote makes sense because sometimes hurting people turn mean. It’s easier that way, actually. It’s harder to say, “I’m really hurting right now,” or “I am deeply sad today,” or “I’m worried that no one really cares about me,” and easier to make a snide comment or a passive aggressive push for attention or a personal attack. It’s easier to be mean. And when we are faced with the meanness of this world, it is easier to get defensive than to try to help. It is easier to push back, fight, defend and belittle. And so to have a little reminder hanging around, “Mean people are hurting,” is to have a reminder about the choice we have to make when confronted with meanness. Shall I offer this person my own well-refined supply of defenses? Or shall I offer this person my compassionate care? Perhaps you could try keeping this handy phrase with you for the next time someone cuts you off on the Banfield Expressway, or the next time someone gives you judgemental side eye at the dog park. “Mean people are hurting,” you’ll say, and watch as the compassion just wells up inside of you.

zen circle

Jesus is continually faced with the meanness of this world. Jesus has enemies who like to make his theological points personal. “You have a demon!” they say when they disagree. Or, “your father was a carpenter -and I’ve heard he wasn’t even your real father!” Ok, I made that last one up. Jesus gives out truth and healing and people often respond with meanness. More than just meanness, evil. Evil is what you get when we refuse to take ownership of our meanness as a flaw, when we try to justify it and give it it’s own special priority. For Jesus today that comes as a death threat from King Herod. Death threats are a last resort of meanness. Meanness par excellence. To make a death threat is to say, “My woundedness is so threatened by your presence that I wish to annihilate you completely so that I will not suffer further risk of being unmasked for the broken human being I actually am.” Death threats were par for the course for Martin Luther King and other principals of the Civil Rights Movement and continue to be for leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement. People were and are so afraid of their message that they call their houses at night to tell them that they will not only kill them but their families as well. And of course they would hardly be threatening at all if they weren’t followed through with actual death. This is happening to mayors in Mexico right now who try to do anything proactive about drug cartel violence. It happened to Gisela Mota, who at 33 had been elected as the first female mayor of Temixo. She had been vocal about her plans for ending cartel related government corruption. Two hours after she had been sworn in as mayor armed men came to her house where her whole family had gathered in celebration, especially over a newborn baby of the family. When the men ambushed the house, she rushed forward to say, “I am Gisela,” which is to say, “I am the one you’re looking for.” They beat her and shot her in front of her family, dead.

Jesus is continually faced with the meanness of this world. Jesus is continually faced with the threat of death, with death itself. What does Jesus do in the face of such meanness and death? Today he sends a message to Herod, “that fox”, saying yes, I am healing and yes I am forgiving and yes I’ve come to bring freedom to the poor so what are you going to do? Jesus faces towards the direction of his death. Like Gisela Mota coming out from behind her family to meet the men who’d come to kill her, Jesus turns towards the place which will ultimately bring his end: Jerusalem. He does not defend himself against it’s enmity, instead he calls to it with one of the most maternal images in all of scripture: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This is one of the key verses we turn to when we’re looking for Christian feminine  or maternal images of divinity, because in it Jesus speaks of taking the inhabitants of the very city which will kill him and culling them to his breast as a mother hen would cull her brood. Medieval poets had a field day with this image of Jesus as a cosmic mother, from whose wounds the new world was born. But it is most important to remember that Jesus is not making this maternal gesture to his beloved children or even to his friends, but to his most vocal enemies.

Mean people are hurting, and we have a choice to make when confronted with the meanness of the world. Does this person need my defenses? Or does this person need my care? And when does care, especially the care of a mother, not only protect and nurture but challenge and inspire? In Jesus we see that our God is mothering even the very worst of us. To follow Jesus is to face the meanness of this world and know that we have the freedom to choose how we will respond. We have the freedom to follow a God who turns towards a hurting, defensive world, and becomes for them a mother brave enough to stand for truth and justice. Amen.

 

Debt Free Jubilee

Preaching, Theology

Debt forgiveness fascinates me. A friend of mine was able to pay off his student loans recently. His dear, beloved uncle passed away, a man who had done quite well for himself as a journalist and also lived by quite modestly. At his death, he was able to be incredibly generous with each of his seven nieces and nephews, and so my friend was able to pay off much of his debt, among other things. I’ve heard of this happening to other people too, jobs which come with debt forgiveness, or government programs which allow reduced payments and forgiveness after a certain period of time if you work in the social services (church doesn’t count, I’ve checked.) My ears always perk up a bit at these stories, and sometimes before the smile comes a twinge of envy. I’ve mostly gotten used to the third of my paycheck which I slice off to pay my student loan debt each month, it helps that it’s on auto pay, so I don’t have to write the number out by hand each time -and before you barrage me at the door with tips on loan consolidation and all that please know that I have indeed explored my options and I only have about seven years of this left, so don’t worry. But there are times when I think about what it would be like to not have that number hanging over my head. In the times I ever so briefly let myself imagine what it would feel like to be debt free, it feels… well, free. There’s a lightness to it, an unburdening. I’m really thankful that my debt is as manageable as it is. It’s been worse. In my twenties I got sucked into some pretty typical credit card debt, and before that my family went through bankruptcy when I was a kid. Debt has defined much of my life, but that just seems to be the American way, and I know that there are countless ways in which I’m one of the lucky ones.

All of which is to say that if Jesus were to come into this church this morning and proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor, he’d have my attention. In this morning’s Gospel Jesus is invited to preach at a synagogue. He finds the passage in Isaiah where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he sits down, looks around at the people looking at him, and says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Now the year of the Lord’s favor was also known as the year of God’s welcome, or the year of Jubilee. In the Holiness code of the Torah every seventh year was a sabbatical year, a year in which the land and it’s people were supposed to rest. Then, after seven sets of seven years there was a super-sabbath, the fiftieth year, the Jubilee. On the Jubilee, land was supposed to revert back to it’s original owners, slaves and prisoners were supposed to be set free, and debts were supposed to be settled. Can you imagine? There is no evidence to suggest that this Jubilee year was ever actually observed, and it’s easy to see why.

First of all, if the land had just rested from the Sabbath before it, the Jubilee year would mean two years in a row of no crops, all while non-observant Gentile neighbors went about their usual business. Imagine asking observant Christian farmers in our own country to take two years off of work. Then imagine all of our land returning to it’s original owners, a feat which would strike a blow to any notion of ownership at all. Then imagine our prisoners set free. Prisoners of war, prisoners who had broken laws and prisoners falsely accused, all set free without any promise that they would be as forgiving. Then there is the matter of debt. There’s some debate about whether this entailed debt forgiveness or debt settling, either one would take a significant amount of planning to accomplish and even the idea of settling all our debts at once runs against the grain of any economy which is designed to maximize profit off of extending debt repayment for as long as possible. In short, the Jubilee sounds like chaos, for all it’s freedom it sounds like it would be the cause of much more labor than rest, and so it makes sense that it was essentially ignored, just like plenty of other holy laws were ignored, like watching out for the alien in your land and leaving a portion of every harvest for the poor to reap. And yet, for all its seeming impossibility, the Jubilee remained there as a holy law. It remained, perhaps as a reminder that God’s intention for God’s people was ultimately one of freedom. A reminder that for as much indebtedness and imprisonment and enslavement as a person could accrue, God desired that person’s freedom more. It remained there as a holy law and a sign of hope for the Messiah, the anointed governor who was supposed to come from God and bring about God’s realm of freedom and justice starting with the slaves, prisoners, and indentured servants of the land. If Jesus came into this church today and said, “Ok my people, now is the time, the kingdom of God is here, so let’s go get everybody out of jail, reclaim our land and stop paying our bills,” I’d have a hard time trying to decide whether he was about to run for president or occupy a national wildlife refuge.

All of which is to say that if Jesus were to come in here this morning and proclaim a year of the Lord’s favor, I would be terrified. The moment of relief which would come at first at the thought of finally settling my student loan debt would soon be replaced by a growing concern about all the other places where I need to seek forgiveness more. It would soon begin to dawn on me that I owe far more than student loans. I owe native people the land my nation occupies. I owe the slaves who worked that land without pay to generate the wealth of which I’ve been a beneficiary. I owe a legal system that lets men who look like me off the hook much more often than men who have darker skin. I owe Flint Michigan tap water which has not been knowingly contaminated by lead for years. I owe the nations of middle America for being outsourced with rabid gang violence and political dissolution for the sake of feeding my own nation’s drug habit. I owe blood. Blood rendered on my behalf, blood at home and blood abroad, the blood of soldiers and the blood of children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Faced with the debts I have to settle, I would gladly keep my monthly payment to the bank. It is a small price to pay for the privilege of buying into a system which has so utterly segregated those who have managed to hoard something for themselves from those who have been left with nothing at all. I would gladly keep my loans, because settling the rest of my debt would mean reconciling my life to the countless lives upon which my comfort has been established.

But when God is faced with indebtedness or reconciliation, you know which path gets chosen. Jesus takes the scroll and finds the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” He sits down. He looks around at the people looking at him, and he says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus does not come into our lives to keep them the way they are. Jesus comes to set us free. Jesus comes to reconcile accounts which would be impossible for us to settle on our own without God’s help. When that freedom comes, we can tighten our grip on the way things are, on our former ways of thinking about what we’re owed and what we’ve earned, or we can open our hands, confess the full extent of the debt we have accrued, and get to work with God on what it really takes to find forgiveness.

Beloved

Preaching, Theology

This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. These are the kind of words that would make almost anyone sit up a little taller if addressed to them by some authority, let alone heaven itself. How much time do we spend with this question about the people in our lives? Are you happy with me? Is everyone ok? Am I ok? Am I enough? It can be a strong motivating factor in many of our decisions, keeping the peace, garnering approval. Jesus doesn’t need to worry about it, apparently. Perhaps this is what allowed him to be so cool headed. So confrontational. God is pleased with me. I am the beloved. What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve often struggled with this passage from the Gospel in the idea that I am supposed to somehow internalize the same message for myself. If I could just believe that I, too, am God’s beloved, in whom God is well pleased, so much more would go right with my life. If I could believe that God was happy with me, maybe I wouldn’t be so greedy, so insecure, so anxious. Maybe I would be less concerned with whether people like me and more concerned with what my neighbor really needs. As nice as that sounds, it rarely happens. Part of that is because God’s love and approval can seem so intangible. I blame it on the lack of a voice booming from the heavens in my daily life. When a friend is happy with me I can usually tell, he might laugh at my jokes, or at least give me a consoling pat on the back if the joke isn’t so funny. How do I know if God is happy with me? The birds singing? Hitting all green lights on the way to work when I’ve already left 15 minutes late? I don’t buy it. Another factor at play is that I have a lot for God to be unhappy about. God can be kind of hard to please if you’ve read much of the rest of the bible. This moment at Jesus’ baptism is so amazing in part because aside from calling everything he makes good in creation, for much of the rest of the story God is engaged in one long facepalm. So much so that one book on my shelf, a humorous digest of the entire bible into about 100 pages is simply called, “God is Disappointed In You.” We’re actually kind of famous for getting it wrong, (see the disciples), and I’m no exception. I’m am pretty convinced that the affluence and privilege I enjoy at the expense of much of the rest of the population of the world is actually a great affront to the many laws God has suggested about sharing the abundance of what we have with the stranger and the alien in our land. How do we reconcile a God who wants to be pleased with us with a God who wants to see a world free from violence and corruption?

The short answer is that we don’t reconcile them, Jesus does. In Jesus, we see that God is not waiting for us to earn his approval to show us his love. In Jesus, the disciples learned that for as many times as they got it wrong and messed things up God was never going to abandon them. In Jesus we see that God’s love and God’s pleasure is actually supernatural, actually un-natural in a way, in the sense that it is beyond what we might find in nature, beyond the self-protective instinct, beyond the desperate human concern for self-preservation. In Jesus’ death, we see that God is unconcerned with protecting himself from this final threat, and if God’s love is free from the threat of death, God’s love is free to be given regardless of anything we may or may not have done to deserve it.


This is what we are baptized into. A death which kills death. A death to fear and selfishness. A love which we could never earn or deserve on our own. We are not baptized into God’s approval, which is very good news for us. God’s approval is daunting, because God’s pleasure is in a creation that looks radically different than what we have made out of this world. Bringing about God’s good pleasure means letting go of many of the things which have become pleasing to us. But we need not be afraid, because God’s approval is loosed from God’s love in Jesus. We are God’s beloved world, God’s beloved church, not because we were well-pleasing in his sight, but simply because in Jesus we have seen that God is love. Living into this love, and the promises we make when we discover it, we will then find ourselves transformed in the body of Christ to bring about God’s good pleasure which follows. For us, our baptismal message might be changed to say:  This is my beloved child, now let’s get to work.

Good News/Bad News

Preaching, Theology

I guess I’m stuck this week on which part of what John is saying is supposed to be good news. “With many other exhortations,” it says, “he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Exhortations sound suspiciously more like work than good news. If my friend calls me and says, “James, I’ve got some great news!” and I say, “that’s awesome what is it?” and he follows up with, “you need to give away half of what you own,” I’m likely going to hang up the phone. Or if my husband says, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” then I’d expect, “the Messiah is coming to baptize the world in fire,” to fall into the bad news camp, followed by the good news that maybe now at least our bleak mid-winter will be accompanied by barbeque. But no, for John, the baptism by fire is the good news. And it must be good news for a whole slew of other people, too, because there’s a long line of them stretching out into the wilderness, caravans of folk who have traveled from the country and the city just to hear what good news John has got to share. So many people in fact that maybe John is worried that his message is loosing it’s indie edge, like maybe he had intended this outrageous material for a select disciplined few, the cool kids who were willing to forsake the status quo and stick it to the man, the kind of message that you probably hadn’t heard of yet, the kind of message you have to backpack through the wilderness on unmarked trails for days to find. Suddenly everyone was backpacking through the wilderness for it. If they had lattes back then these are the kind of people who would probably have lattes in their hand as they stood around waiting to be baptized by John, passing the time they had to spend in line by looking down into their phones. John looks up and says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.”

In what world is this the beginning of good news? Perhaps a world which seems to be ruled entirely by violent means. Perhaps a world which seems impossible to escape regardless of how clear it is that one’s participation in it is at the very heart of the problem. Perhaps these people knew how much blood they already had on their hands. Among the crowd are some soldiers who had probably roughed up a shopkeeper or two on the way out of town because they didn’t feel like waiting for their wages to come through before getting a drink. Tax collectors are out there, too, eyed with dread and suspicion by the prostitutes who had been forced just days before to give up the last of their own week’s earnings to them. And everyone who isn’t among the actively violent just seems helpless. Helpless to do anything other than lend a hand to someone’s shoulder when the stronger cut in line and the old woman gets pushed aside and the sky grows dark and the babies cry, and the only question we can think to ask is, “what can I do to help?” but we’re terrified by not knowing what the answer might be. You brood of vipers, you den of snakes, you slithering teeming mass defensive and afraid. Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? In what world is this the beginning of good news? Perhaps one in which the wrath already feels like it it’s on its way. Perhaps one in which wrath would be preferable to apathy, or absence. Perhaps one in which everyone always seems to be on such a steady low boil of resentment that they just assume God must be busy with resenting, too.

Untitled drawing

“What are we supposed to do?” they ask. The question aches. It is timeless. Will calling our local representatives help? Should I post another news story? Is it enough to offset my own carbon footprint or must I account for my neighbor’s carbon footprint, too? Just tell me what I need to do. If there is some trick to stop the killing, if the refugees are waiting on something from me in order to get through, if my vote, my awareness, my attention will somehow put an end to this madness then just tell me where to send it, because I’m ready. I’m tired. I’m sick of feeling like a cog in a machine that seems bent upon its own destruction. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to burn the whole thing down after all, start from scratch, stomp the good out from it’s hiding place and sweep the rest away like so much empty packaging, more fuel for the barrel bin blaze which we can warm our hands by while the world around us crumbles in its just deserts. This is, after all, one way to get ready for a Messiah! If the Messiah comes as a military leader then he’ll need a militia armed to the teeth and ready for springing into action! So just tell us what to do. If the wrath of God is coming, how can we be ready to defend ourselves?

In reply he said to them, “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” At this point the crowd realizes that John has obviously never been to the Pacific Northwest before. “What about layering?” I want to explain. Like, what if I have five? One cold-weather rainproof coat and one for when it’s only cool; one for when I’m wearing black and the other for when I’m wearing earth-tones? John looks at me like I’m crazy. Maybe he saw the same thing Israel Bayer did this week. On Monday, the executive director of Street Roots wrote this on Facebook:  “I witnessed a homeless woman during the downpour this morning so soaked to the bone that she simply sat down in the middle of the sidewalk, took off all of her clothes literally & said,’I give up. God, please take me.’ As I called for help,  people walked by, some making snide comments, others w horrified looks on their faces having witnessed such human suffering. Being homeless is no way to live friends. It’s nothing short of hell for most. Political leadership matters. Housing matters.”  “That’s what I’m talking about,” John says, “do something.”

What are we supposed to do? This is the question people come asking John. People come to John looking for good news in the midst of chaos and they get moral exhortations. Stop lying, stop cheating, stop stealing, stop hoarding. Stop drinking so much and stop fooling around. Be satisfied with what you have, no, scratch that, try being satisfied with half of what you have. The moderate in me wants to ask if I can just make a donation to some charity instead but I’m afraid of the answer that I’ll get. There is no arguing with John. There is only this simple, clear-cut path of preparation, this way of waiting in the dark for one who should be coming as surely as the dawn. And the worst thing about this path is that it’s the one we already know how to take. The hardest thing about this practice is that it’s the one we already know how to do. It’s not some mystery, it’s just work. The bad news is that the in-breaking of God’s kingdom is probably going to require us to give up much of what we find ourselves attached to now, but the good news is you knew that already. The good news is that God is as near-by as someone who only needs half of what we have and likely has twice as much to give as anything we could think to ask for. The good news is that God does not come in wrath. She is here already, waiting in the line beside the soldiers and the hustlers and the screaming kids, with her hand on someone’s shoulder asking, “what can we do to help?”