LENT No Partiality

1 Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 2 We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. 3 Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

6 He will render to each one according to his works: 7 to those who by patience in well- doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 but for those who are self- seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. (Romans 2:1–11 ESV)

At the beginning of his letter to the church at Rome, Paul writes about people who do “not honor him as God or give thanks” and because of that they traded the truth of God for a lie and were given up to dishonorable passions — becoming gossipers, liars, haters of God, murderers, mothers rapers, and father stabbers. (And father rapers!) Despite knowing the will of God for their lives and for the world, they have been given over — and have given themselves over — to sinful, lustful, disordered lives.

And they deserve to die.

While often quoted as God’s judgment on certain kinds of lifestyles, the first chapter of Romans appears largely to be a setup for what we have today. For Paul, in pointing out the sinfulness of some, lets his readers know — “You have no excuse.”

For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. 

It seems to me Paul is telling a group of people who perceive themselves as sinless (or at least in a position to judge and condemn the sinfulness of others) because of who they are that no, God doesn’t favor a person or a people merely because of their identity. God cares how we act. God cares how we treat each other and ourselves.

And God is no respecter of persons merely because someone is chosen by God. The one who is chosen of God is not entitled to sin (and the list of sins Paul deals with in chapter one are long, and don’t merely involve sex) and then judge others.

Of course, many Christians live in a world with a hierarchy of sin. Some is worse than others. To condemn the sodomite and the catamite, while living “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” lives seems acceptable, even proper, maybe because Paul makes such a big deal out of living with “dishonorable passions” and not so much out of being greedy, lying, murderous bastards. (Rome was filled with them too.) But while Paul does point out, and does condemn (and perhaps does so ironically as part of his setup), he also reminds his readers — and us — that we don’t have that luxury. We are sinners too. Because the whole point of the kindness and grace of God is repentance. To get us to change our lives. And not worry so much about how others live.

SERMON Repent! Or Perish…

I preached this week at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York, and it went something like this.

Third Sunday of Lent (Year C)

  • Isaiah 55:1–9
  • Psalm 63:1–8
  • 1 Corinthians 10:1–13
  • Luke 13:1–9

1 There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them:do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

6 And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. 7 And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground? ’ 8 And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. 9 Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” (Luke 13:1–9 ESV)

On the first of November in 1755, earth off the coast of Portugal shook. Shook rather violently, for somewhere between three and six minutes — not a cute little 20-second earthquake like I regularly enough experienced growing up in California — and in that shaking destroyed much of Portugal’s capital, leveling ancient buildings and killing many thousands of people.

And if that wasn’t enough, about 40 minutes after the shaking started, the city was inundated by a tsunami, which swept through its devastated lowlands and destroyed much of what remained of the harbor. Fire then ravaged the city for days. It was something of an apocalypse, an unveiling of the end. Judgement, and destruction, the wrath of God in pitiless nature.

Portugal, seat of a globe-spanning empire, from Brazil to Macao and dozens of points in-between along the coasts of Africa, the Middle East, and India, was ruined. Never again would this little country, which had pioneered Europe’s maritime exploration and conquest of the world, matter.

The earthquake was felt across Europe, as far away as Finland. And it was thought about, too. If you remember, November 1 is not an ordinary day in the church calendar — it is All Saints Day, a day where Christians remember the dead, and pray for them. Portugal was a wealthy, Catholic country, and while some said this reflected God’s judgment upon Portugal’s sinful ways, others noted that Lisbon’s red light district was one of the least affected and least damaged parts of the city.

And this earthquake really influenced how we moderns began to think about sin and consequences. Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire began to conceive of tragedy like this in more naturalistic terms — the way we think of them today. In his poem reflecting on the Lisbon earthquake, Voltaire considers the sins of the world:

And can you then impute a sinful deed
To babes who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed?
Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found,
Than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound?
Was less debauchery to London known,
Where opulence luxurious holds the throne?

And this

But how conceive a God, the source of love
Who on man lavished blessings from above
Then would the race with various plagues confound
Can mortals penetrate His views profound?
Ill could not from a perfect being spring
Nor from another, since God’s sovereign king;
And yet, sad truth! in this our world ’tis found
What contradictions here my soul confound!


And finally, he considers the mystery of it all:

Mysteries like these can no man penetrate
Hid from his view remains the book of fate

We cannot easily impart meaning to accidents like this, the French writer says. We cannot assume that because Lisbon was destroyed by what was then only understood as “an act of God,” we cannot know anything about Lisbon. About the Portuguese. About their faith or their deeds, or about the content of their hearts. No doubt they loved, and hated, and sinned, and were as virtuous as any other people that had ever lived. They no more had their destruction coming than all the other people across the world who woke up that morning and whose cities were not leveled by massive earthquakes.

The earthquake was not God’s vengeance upon a sinful city. But European Christians had long believed that the natural calamities — plague, famine, earthquakes, and the like — were God’s judgement. Sin and heresy and disbelief weren’t just matters of personal conscience or behavior that put the individual at risk. They put the entire community, or even nation, at risk, because they might provoke God to withdraw his favor and his protection. At Benjamin Kaplan wrote in his book Divided By Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe …

For Europeans, every town and village had a spiritual dimension: more than a convenient, worldly arrangement for human cohabitation, it was a religious body—a “corpus Christianum.” Viewed through the prism of Christian piety, its unity was an expression of Christian love, its peace godly, and its provision of mutual aid an exercise in charity. The communal welfare it existed to promote was spiritual as well as material. Indeed, the word welfare and its cognates, like the Latin salus and German heil, meant both, for no one dreamed the spiritual and material could be kept separate. God rewarded those who deserved it, and the blessings he bestowed included peace and prosperity in life as well as salvation after death. The fate of entire communities, not just individuals, depend on divine favor. Gaining it was therefore a collective responsibility. Protestants and Catholics did not differ on this point, except where Protestants focused their prayers and hopes on the divine will, Catholics directed their supplication also to the Virgin and saints.

No one can be allowed to sin. Or disbelieve. Or even confess wrong faith. Because my well-being, our well-being, our lives and our children’s whole future hinges upon it.

We see a version of this today whenever a Christian leader blames a natural disaster on the acceptance of homosexuality or the legality of abortion, who wonders if Americans have sinned so much that God has “withdrawn his hand of protection” from the United States.

Because we seek to understand what happens to us, want to find meaning in what seems so meaningless. We ask “why?” And unsatisfied with Voltaire’s answer — “we cannot know why” — we make stuff up.

We still do this as individuals too. My foster daughter Molly struggles sometimes with the whole idea that “God has a plan for your life.” Hers has been a difficult life, full of violence and abuse and neglect. And she’s struggling with what any of it has to do with God’s “plan for her life.” Why God might inflict such suffering, or let it happen? What does it mean, her suffering? Is it the judgment of God on a life so sinful that she should not even try to have faith or save herself? Because she believed that for a while, gave into that belief and lived for a while as someone who felt her life was beyond redemption.

What does it mean that bad things have happened to others? To me? Because it does feel like the judgment of a cruel and capricious God. A God who does not love us. A God who does not care at all.

That’s the question Jesus deals with today. When earthly misfortune strikes, what does it mean? That those who perish are somehow more cursed than the rest of us? To have a tower fall upon you, or to be murdered by the government in some kind of sacrifice — and consider what becomes of Jesus as he answers that — is that a sign that God doesn’t love so much, or views you as such a sinner that you need an extra punishment? Because only material success in this world is a sign of God’s love and favor?

I have to tell you, I love how Jesus answers questions like this. Because frequently when he is asked tough questions — who is my neighbor, will those who are saved be few, did those who died at Pilate’s hands deserve it? — Jesus never really answers the question ast hand. He turns it around, and instead of giving people the noun they want, or the yes or no they seek, he does something very different. He tells a young lawyer what it means to be a neighbor — to give and accept help from strangers and enemies. And here, he doesn’t worry about whether someone perishing in a tower collapse — or an earthquake, or a flood, or even suffered abuse and violence at the hands of others — had it coming, or was somehow more deserving of suffering and death than the rest of us.

“You all are sinners, and you will all perish. It hardly matters how. Or where.” Jesus says.

Which may not be a word of comfort. But it is the truth. It is … good news. I promise.

Don’t worry whether someone had it coming. Or not. Do not busy yourself speculating about the fate of others, and do not pronounce the condemnation of God upon them and their lives. You, repent! Turn away from sin and toward God! Bear good fruit!

And that’s the point of the parable Jesus tells us. There’s a fig tree that bears no fruit, hasn’t for three years. The owner of the tree wants to cut it down, but the vinedresser says wait, with a little extra care, a little more attention, this tree could bear fruit. Give me a little more time, another year, and we’ll see if this tree can and will bear fruit.

God wants you to repent, to turn to him, to bear good fruit. Fruit for the kingdom. God does not want you to perish. And God is willing to give you the time, the attention, the special care needed to bear that fruit. Because you are all, sisters and brothers, truly beloved of God.

I don’t have an answer to the suffering of the world. I cannot tell you what any of it means. I cannot tell Molly what God’s marvelous plan for her life is. Because I cannot even tell you what God’s marvelous plan for my life is. Much of the time, I’m not sure there is one.

But I can speak to a purpose — to my life, to Molly’s life, to your lives — a purpose bigger than the suffering nature seems to randomly inflict upon us, a purpose bigger than the pain and suffering we so willingly and easily inflict upon each other. A purpose Jesus spent most of career living and preaching about. And that purpose is to love — family and neighbors and strangers and enemies — as God loves us.

As God has so loved the world.

LENT I Am Afraid

8 “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write:‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life.

9 “‘I know your tribulation and your poverty ( but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. 10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” (Revelation 2:8–11 ESV)

I write this unable to sleep. Someone I love is missing. AgainBethany. And her parents too, this time. And again I have that sleepless, burning, gnawing in my guts. I’m helpless.

I fear what Bethany might be about to suffer. I fear it. The last time this happened, I desperately pleaded with God, “please, take me, and let this girl live.” Never in my life have I ever pleaded with God like this.

Never in my life have I meant it.

I don’t want tribulation. I don’t want poverty. I don’t want to be faithful unto death. I don’t want to die. I don’t want Bethany to suffer or die. She has suffered enough, endured enough, her young life has been filled with such tragedy, such sorrow, such violence, and such despair, enough to fill a dozen lives.

Tears enough to flood the world and drown everything in it.

I don’t want to conquer. I simply want to live. And I want Bethany to live, too. Again, I would give my life for hers, though I know mine has no value to the people who have taken her — if she has indeed been taken.

I’m sick. And I am afraid. My faith melts away and little is left. I am praying for the redeeming power of God, for a flood to drown the armies of Pharoah. But whatever Jesus means by this second death, I fear the first more. I fear the devil and his prison. I fear what may be happening to Bethany this very moment. I am afraid. And I don’t know how not to be afraid right now.

Glory and Favor

Chaplain Mike over at Internet Monk writes of something interesting I have seen as well — an utter lack of real biblical literacy even among conservative Christians in America who claim to know and love the Bible. Quoting Richard Hughes’ book Christian America and the Kingdom of God, the good chaplain writes:

Most surprising— and appalling— is the fact that religious illiteracy abounds where one would most expect to find a solid knowledge of the biblical text: among evangelical Christians. Prothero argued that “despite their conviction that the Bible is the Word of God, evangelicals show scant interest in learning what scripture has to say or wrestling with what it might mean.” Indeed, in the 1990s evangelical theologian David Wells lamented, “I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy.”

The truth is that, in general terms, American Christians across the board know precious little about the religion they claim to profess. Their factual understanding of the Christian religion is meager, and their grasp of the great theological teachings of the Christian faith is more meager still. That fact alone should call into serious question the notion of Christian America (p. 17).

American Christians have, according to Chaplain Mike, come to believe a biblical narrative that has America at the center as some version of God’s chosen people andthe kingdom of God on earth.

I’m always shocked at poorly many Christian conservatives grasp the story of scripture. Many are able to quote great swaths of the Bible, especially from the letters of Paul, but they have little understanding what God is actually doing with Israel over time in scripture. In short, many American Christians believe in a Gospel of Glory — of favor, success, privilege, and power. God has favored us for victory! This is what it means to be a chosen people, and this is what it means to be a New Israel. Missing in this is the understanding that Israel’s story is one of defeat and failure, and not conquest and success, even though it is also the story of God’s favor for a very particular people.

In fact, I suspect the whole understanding of what being favored, what being chosen, means can only be understood — in the Christian sense — in terms of absolute, visible, material failure. Israel conquered, enslaved, and exiled. Christ arrested, tortured, executed. There is no power and no value in any of this, no real meaning to the cross except a place of “personal salvation.” And that doesn’t rest well with how Americans understand ourselves. Who want glory without resurrection, a regathering without exile, and eternal life without first dying.

LENT Many or Few?

22 He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from. ’ 26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets. ’ 27 But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil! ’ 28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. 29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. 30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:22–30 ESV)

I can’t read this passage without thinking about Rahab the prostitute in Joshua 2 and 6, who betrayed her people and sided with Israel and God as the conquest of Canaan began.

Rahab hid the Israelite spies, and misled the king of Jericho as to where they were, and told the spies as she hid them

“I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. 10 For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. 11 And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. 12 Now then, please swear to me by the Lord that, as I have dealt kindly with you, you also will deal kindly with my father’s house, and give me a sure sign 13 that you will save alive my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” (Joshua 2:9–13 ESV)

The spies tell her to shut up her house tight and and tie a scarlet cord in the window. So that all Israel will know who aided them in their conquest of Jericho.

And Rabah’s family is delivered. The entire city of Jericho, and all that was in it, was “devoted to destruction” — young, old, even the animals, put to death “with the edge of the sword.”

But not Rahab and family. She has a future. With the people of God.

… Rahab the prostitute and her father’s household and all who belonged to her, Joshua saved alive. And she has lived in Israel to this day, because she hid the messengers whom Joshua sent to spy out Jericho. (Joshua 6:25 ESV)

Jesus sounds like he speaks of a castle, or a fort, or a walled city. A firm stronghold which, when the enemy arrives, will be shut up tight, dooming all who failed to find shelter inside quickly enough. Of course, Jerusalem was just such a city, and the Romans battered it down, laying to waste the city’s walls and wrecking its gates. Even tearing down the temple, the mighty but now abandoned House of God.

It’s Jesus himself who is this keep. Who is this narrow door that will protect us from the coming war, who will shelter us when the siege begins. When all around him is wailing and gnashing of teeth, when those who paid no attention to the coming crisis are caught unawares outside the walls, it will be too late. In their place will be those who listened, from every corner of the earth, who heard the call and paid attention to what was coming.

Who sought the shelter of the Good Shepherd.

But none of this answers the question — “Will those who are saved be few?” Because Jesus doesn’t answer it. Instead, he tells his listeners, he tells us, how to be saved, and what that means in the fierce urgency of the looming now. It sounds like it could be many, what with people coming from north and south and east and west to “recline at table in the kingdom of God,” but he wants to tell those listening to not be complacent. It may be many, it may be few, but will it be you? Will you have a future?

Think twice before answering, because you need to consider what Rahab did to gain that future. She betrayed her people. They perished while she and her family survived. But she was saved, and Matthew counts her as an ancestor of David. An ancestor of Jesus.

No Place for Outsiders

Matthew Sheffield over at The American Conservative notes something very interesting about the GOP, and as it turns out, the American church of just about any political persuasion:

As conservative author Dinesh D’Souza, a Christian immigrant from India, has described it: “Whenever a Gujarati or Sikh businessman comes to a Republican event, it begins with an appeal to Jesus Christ. While the Democrats are really good at making the outsider feel at home, the Republicans make little or no effort.” That’s also true of people who do not believe in any faith.

Even if non-Christians do not take offense to being excluded, at the very least such public displays of Christian belief at ostensibly secular events certainly do not encourage them to participate or to become enthusiastic. National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg (who is Jewish by ancestry although he is non-practicing) described the phenomenon well in a 2012 column:

I’ve attended dozens of conservative events where, as the speaker, I was, in effect, the guest of honor, and yet the opening invocation made no account of the fact that the guest of honor wasn’t a Christian. I’ve never taken offense, but I can imagine how it might seem to someone who felt like he was even less a part of the club.

Sheffield notes a problem that appears to plague the GOP — that it has become the conservative churches at prayer with little room non-Christians in its midst. I would go farther and note this is a problem with virtually all American churches, conservative and progressive. They still embrace an understanding of the culture that demands church and culture work in tandem, that the culture do most of even much of the work of “catechesis” and forming believers and belongers. Nearly the whole of the culture war has, I think, been over this ground. The church — and this includes the conservative church — wants to operate from a position of power and privilege, having mobilized the culture on its behalf to do the essential work of forming people to be followers.

Followers of what, I’m not sure, since American churches have gotten the story of America mixed in with the story of Israel and the story of Christ, the promises of America mixed in with the promises of God, and have come to tell a tale of glory and power in which God and Grace are present only in mighty and powerful acts of state.

American Christians want people who have already been formed when they show up for worship. This, I think, is why the church does not know how to welcome unbelievers, non-believers, and post-beleivers into its midst. Why the church is so cold and callous toward strangers who aren’t recipients of charity. It doesn’t really know how to help people meet Jesus. It doesn’t really know how to

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19–20 ESV)

The church is slowly and inexorably becoming a minority in America. Does it become a withdrawn, frightened, angry, and resentful minority as Sheffield seems to suggest? Does it seek influence and importance only in activism and progressive politics, as too many slowly dying liberal churches are? Or does the church confidently proclaim the truth, knowing that the work of forming believers and belongers is returning to the people it has always rightfully belonged to — the church itself? A generation will likely have to pass away before the church in this country can stand on its feet with some confidence that it proclaims a truth dependent neither on political success or social acceptance.

I’m occasionally asked what being Muslim in America gave me, and the answer has always been (more or less) clear — I was a member of a religious minority that could not rely on a sympathetic culture to teach and reinforce what we taught ourselves and our children at all the mosques where I worshiped. I knew Muslim immigrants who feared and resented what that meant for their children’s faith (I appreciate the concerns of religion conservatives), but we had no choice and had to forge ahead anyway. To live and worship openly knowing our neighbors feared and mistrusted us and that the culture worked against us.

And to be glad about that. Because we were being God’s faithful people.

Christians in America need that kind of courage. A confident, relatively cheerful courage that doesn’t panic when Starbucks changes its cup designs. And too many don’t seem to have it.

LENT God of wrath? Or God of love?

13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness. ’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. ’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”

20 Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.” (Numbers 14:13–20 ESV)

God is love. John writes this in his first letter, in his beautiful circular prose that makes me feel he’s losing his breath and possibly losing his balance, so giddy is he from the excitement over having encountered God the way he has.

Christians have believed this for a long, long time. And there’s no reason to doubt it. Because scripture says so. God is love.

And yet, there seems to be a disconnect, between the God of love and forgiveness, the God of redemption and surrender we meet in Christ, and the God who walks through the garden in the cool of the day, who expels the man and the woman from the garden, who drowns the earth in its sinfulness, who reigns terror and death upon Sodom and Gomorrah, who terrorizes Egypt with darkness, sickness, and death, and then who commands Israel to dispossess an entire people and take the land of Canaan from those who are already there.

The Old Testament shows us a God of wrath, a God who if simply looked at wrong inflicts sickness and death upon God’s people. A God who rides out to war to fight for Israel, defeating its enemies and brining them victory.

Doesn’t seem like Christ to me. Doesn’t seem like the cross. Not this God. Marcion must have been right — they cannot possibly be the same God.

But what Moses does here, in this passage that follows almost right on the heels of yesterday’s, is very similar to what Jesus does in chapter eight of John’s Gospel when he stands with and forgives the woman accused of adultery. He intercedes between the accused and her accusers, shaming those who judge, making a public case for and obtaining mercy.

Unlike Jesus, who deals with the religious leaders of his age, Moses got face-to-face with God here, because God has grown extremely exasperated with the Israelites, who all want to go back to Egypt, rejecting the saving work of God who not long ago yanked them out of Egypt. “I will strike them down and abandon them,” God says, “and start over and make a great nation from you, Moses.”

This is where Moses gets clever and shames The Lord. “What will people think when they see that you’ve blotted out and destroyed the people you only recently saved? What good is a God who would do that?” And besides, Moses adds, show the world that you are indeed a merciful God, a God who forgives.

And God … forgives. He is convinced, he is shamed into forgiveness because Moses talked him down from doing something rash and stupid. But it is still forgiveness.

Israel lives to see another day.

If you read the Bible carefully, something becomes readily apparent. Over time, as God reaches through the mess of the world to meet his people, God is changed. God demands less, expects less, and gives more. God holds less and less against faithless, wayward Israel, and promises to do more and more. God figures out what we simply are not capable of doing. God gives more of himself, inserts more of himself, promises more of himself, takes on more of the burdens of his people. Until God becomes one of his very own people. And assumes all of our sins and all of our burdens.

The creator is changed by his encounter with the creation, and with us, the creatures he fashioned from us breathed a bit of his spirit, his wind, his breath, into. Changed … for the better. Until he becomes a thing of mud himself.

But make no mistake, that incarnate God who proclaims forgiveness, who heals and casts out demons and feeds masses, who breaks bread and goes to his death on a cross, is the same God who breathed the universe into existence and had to be shamed into forgiving Israel because, well, what would people think of such a God? The God who seemed so wholly other that we could not even gaze upon him, not even behold his glory, now comes to us as a man, finite and fragile, bleeding and broken.

God is love. But not a sentimental love, the kind that cannot bear sorrow or suffering, that evaporates at the first sign of faithlessness. God’s love is a hard, unflinching love that finds us right where we are in a violent, brutal, cruel world. And does not let go.

Because God, who was changed in his encounter with us, knows that we can and will be changed. Utterly and completely. In our encounter with him.

LENT I Want to Go Back to Egypt

1 Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. 2 And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” 4 And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:1–4 ESV)

I want to go back to Egypt.

I want to go back to my life as a reporter 15 years ago. I want to go back to the time before September 11, 2001, before Jesus spoke to me underneath the burning towers of the World Trade Center in New York. I want to leave this wilderness, I don’t want to inherit Canaan — which is already full of people bigger and stronger than me — and I want to go back to making bricks for Pharaoh, filling my stomach occasionally with good things, and resting sometimes on cool evenings in the Egyptian dusk, talking with friends and getting a little joy out of life.

I want to go back to Egypt.

I wish I could. I wish I could leave all of this behind. Put the clock back. Live and work and die in the land of comfortable servitude.

But I cannot. There is no unhearing Jesus. There is no way to take back that groan I uttered from the depth of my soul in the few years before 9/11. No way to uncry for help. No way to undo God’s listening, God’s remembering, God’s knowing. There is no way to undo the plagues, undrown Pharaoh and his army, ungraduate seminary, become an uncandidate for ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (oh, but wouldn’t that make a few people happy, to have never heard my name!), even unencounter the ELCA in the first place so no one there would be troubled with my presence and vexed by my story.

I cannot go backwards to Egypt. There is no backwards to go. There is only forward. My hands can make nothing of value right now, neither bricks nor idols. They are only good to gather the gifts of God scattered daily for my sustenance. To pack up and move from place to place as the pillars of cloud and fire demand it.

Canaan lies in front of me, full of people — frightening people who tower over me. I am scared. They are many, and I am few.

I want to go back to Egypt.

I want to go home. There is no home behind me, though. There is nothing behind me but a godless sorrow, a life without meaning, a place I had to flee just two steps ahead of death and destruction.

There is a home that beckons, but it lies in front of me.

And there is God, leading me on. Commanding me to take it.

LENT By Grace Alone

1 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin. (Romans 4:1-8 ESV)

What did Abraham believe? A simple promise of children — because Abraham thought his chief servant, Eliezer, would be his heir. Abraham had no children, no one to pass his wealth, his name, his story onto.

But God says no, and pulls Abraham outside. See the stars? You will have more children than you can count. And childless Abraham — desperate, anxious, fearful Abraham — believes. This promise of God.

He will never live to see it. He will die long before his descendants become that numerous. He will father many sons — and probably more than a few daughters too. But he will never to live to see something like that dark sky full of stars. He will never live to see the world full of “his” people.

Abraham trusted God. Trusted a promise. David trusted God, a promise that God forgives our lawless deeds, blots them out, erases them from whatever accounting ledger God keeps.

To live as a people justified by the God who forgives, and covers, who blots out and does not count, means that we must also forgive and cover and blot out and not count each other’s sin. It means we must not continue to hold misdeeds against each other. We are all recipients of a gift, a gift of grace. We have not earned it, no matter what we think. We cannot earn it.

Our redemption is relational. It’s not just a feeling. To be real, we must live it amidst and with other forgiven people. We must forgive as we are forgiven.

And yet, we must also live with the faith of Abraham. The faith that trusts in something it may never see. The world — the church — may never treat us as redeemed people, instead counting our sins against us as indelible marks of “character” that can never be changed. Proof of an essential nature which is so corrupt it is beyond the saving grace of God. We may never live in a world where we are considered forgiven and redeemed people. That doesn’t matter.

We are called to trust. To believe. In the promise of God alone.

SERMON Blessed is He…

Sunday, I preached at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York, where I am preaching next week too. This is what I preached, more or less.

Second Sunday of Lent (Year C)

  • Genesis 15:1-18
  • Psalm 27
  • Philippians 3:17–4:1
  • Luke 13:31-35

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem. ’ 34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Luke 13:31-35 ESV)

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

We’re going to hear those words in a few weeks, on Palm Sunday, on the day Jesus rides into Jerusalem hailed as a conquering hero and a delivering king.

Today, though, we hear them slightly differently. In a lament and warning. This is, after all, the season of Lent, of solemn introspection, of walking with Jesus as he works his way to Jerusalem, knowing exactly what is coming — triumph follower by betrayal and death.

In fact, our reading today begins with a warning. King Herod wants to kill you, some Jewish religious leaders tell Jesus. Flee, get away from here. Save yourself. Maybe they are fans of his work — after all, Jesus is doing great things. And they want to see him continue, want to see him succeed, whatever that means to them. So go, run away, far away, and keep doing what you are doing. Because otherwise, King Herod is going to put an end to it.

And Jesus … Jesus tells the Pharisees what he is doing, today and tomorrow, and on the day after — on the third day — he is finished. But that doesn’t matter, because Jesus must do this work, must go on his way, must make his way to Jerusalem, to the seat of Herod’s power, to the House of God, and must suffer the fate of so many prophets before him.

I don’t know if Lent is a big deal here. It is in many of the Lutheran churches I have worshiped and served at. We take seriously this matter of Christ’s suffering and his journey to death. It’s a big deal for us Lutherans, and our hymnal is a much more … somber book because of it. There’s not a lot of overlap between your hymnal and that published by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

But as Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are a people who take suffering and death seriously. Suffering is not a puzzle to be solved, an inconvenience we seek to overcome, a moral failing that forever stains the one who suffers and makes them less than fully human or less than completely a beloved child of God. Suffering is an inescapable part of the human condition, a huge part of Israel’s story as the people of God dealt with their failure to be the people of God. Israel suffers for its sin and faithlessness, yes — by living under foreign rule, by facing war and famine and conquest and exile. All of these things God promised Moses in the wilderness and they came to pass.

Because Israel forgot who it was, and forgot who had called it into being.

Over time, in scripture, as God deals with this wayward people, God grows closer to them, does more of the work, promises to meet them and redeem them in their poverty, their misery, and their exile.

Until God becomes one of them. One of the people of the promise given to Abraham — descendants greater than the stars in the sky, a land of your own, and a blessing to the entire world. God joins them, in their conquest, in their exile, as they face a brutal occupying army that knows no kindness and no mercy. And a puppet king in Herod, who rules Israel not for the benefit of the people he reigns over, nor for the benefit of the God who called them into being, but for the Romans — outsiders, foreigners — who hold what appears to everyone as real power. Tangible and brutal power.

This is the world God joins us in. He meets the suffering of his people and he heals sickness and casts out demons. Jesus raises the dead, feed multitudes, and proclaims the coming kingdom of God. And he is slowly empowering his disciples — us — to do the same.

But if we’re tempted to think this is a glorious task that grants us power and privilege, Jesus reminds us of something important — Jerusalem is an occupied city, a city inhospitable to prophets like Jesus who come to hold the leaders of Israel, the shepherds of Israel, accountable. A prophet doesn’t just warn of the coming consequences of God’s judgment upon his faithless people, but he also speaks words of redemption. Judgement is never God’s last word on human sinfulness — redemption and resurrection are. And that is always the case, at least until the coming Day of Judgement.

There is no glory in this calling. Not in the crushing adoration of the crowds that follow Jesus everywhere. Not in the confused response of the disciples who cannot seem to keep up with Jesus. Not in the demons cast out who proclaim what no human seems able to confess, that Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, is the Son of God. This is a doomed enterprise, and it has been doomed from the start. It will end in betrayal and arrest, in torture and death. With followers who were once eager to accompany Jesus into death scattered and frightened. And very much alive.

This, my sisters and brothers, is our journey in Lent. This is why we have this season, why we take this journey, why we have a church year. To remember all of the story. Not just the promise of resurrection glory, not just to teach ourselves God’s instructions for faithfully living together given through Moses and the Apostle Paul. To remember Jesus came, struggled, wept over this city he could not and would not save from siege and destruction, and in anticipation of the things to come, he gave in to the betrayal of God’s people and death at the hands of the Romans.

We are making our way to that Cross. There is no escaping it. And sisters and brothers, the Cross of Christ is what the true Glory of God looks like.

It’s hard to think of God’s glory as betrayed and broken, as tortured and beaten, but there it is. Raised high. For all humanity to see.

Now, we Lutherans aren’t completely given over to gloom. We know an empty tomb when we look into it. We know a resurrected savior when we meet him on the road. Well, actually, we don’t, but neither do you. No one does until he breaks bread with us. But we know how to celebrate, how to proclaim “He is risen!”

However, we are not there yet. We are walking, breathlessly, tired, confused, and not sure entirely what happens next, with Jesus as he works his way to Jerusalem, working miracles and teaching wondrous things along the way.

We are the brood under his wings. We are the sheep his fold. And right now, we are with him, moving, never stopping, always in motion. Going his way, to the fate that awaits him. That awaits us.

Death. Resurrection. Ascension. Glory in blood. And tears. And the iron of nails, the hemp of ropes, the painful prick of thorns, the sharp tip of a spear. Glory in an empty tomb, in a wadded up and crumpled burial shroud. Glory in broken bread and a shared cup of wine.

Glory. All of it.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.