SONG – Lazarus

So, one of this Sunday’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary is one that has always made me giggle a bit.

4 “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
and stretch themselves out on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock
and calves from the midst of the stall,
5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
6 who drink wine in bowls
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
7 Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.”
(Amos 6:4-7 ESV)

I’ve always found the bit about “idle songs” intriguing, since I spend a lot of time writing idle songs. I don’t have a harp, but I suspect in our day and age, the guitar and ukulele would work as instruments to call down woe upon the one who strums them idly.

Which would be me, I suppose.

And that reminds me, where is my bowl of wine?

At any rate, the reason I did not post a contemplation or reflection on this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 16:19–31, the rich man and Lazarus) is because I’d written a song about it — this song, “Lazarus,” and it’s the first Scripture song I’ve written in a long, long time.

I didn’t get to play it this Sunday, but I hope to play it soon.

Speaking of which, I want to come play my songs at your church. Let me know when I can come…

SERMON Workers For The Harvest

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked and sounded like this.

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • Isaiah 66:10–14
  • Psalm 66:1–9
  • Galatians 6:[1–6] 7–16
  • Luke 10:1–11, 16–20

1 After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. 2 And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. 3 Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. 4 Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. 5 Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace be to this house!’ 6 And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. 7 And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. 8 Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. 9 Heal the sick in it and say to them, The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ 10 But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, 11 Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ 12 I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.

13 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. 14 But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 15 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. 16 The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me.”

17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. 20 Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:1–20 ESV)

The harvest is plentiful, Jesus said, but there are few workers to come harvest.

My question is: why?

My grandfather owned a farm and ranch southwest of Spokane, and in the summer — if it has been a good year — the hills of that farm would turn gold as the wheat and the barley ripened underneath a hot, dry, blue sky. And in a good year, that wheat would yield fifty-fold.

The harvest would be plentiful. Hills covered with grain, ready for reaping. Stalks of grain, ready for threshing.

Even though the work was largely done by machines, there was still a need for laborers. And my grandfather always had a few, at least when I was little. Young men, doing the hard work the older men could no longer easily do, bucking bails of hay and driving trucks full of harvested grain.

There were always laborers. Always men, ready, willing, able to work for the harvest.

Does anyone remember a few months ago, when some news agency mistakenly reported that the state of Hawaii was hiring anyone with a bachelor’s degree, certified or not, to teach at island schools. The state department of education was inundated with resumes from job seekers from across the world. (Truthfully, I almost sent them my resume!) Now, maybe there would have been equal interest if that state had been, say, North Dakota. Maybe. Hawaii had to make clear the following day that it had lowered standards for its teachers — certification was still required to teach in Hawaii, reports to the contrary notwithstanding.

We see it, from time to time, dozens, hundreds, thousands of applicants seeking work. People lined up around city blocks to submit applications for highly coveted positions — like teaching in Hawaii! All wanting the dignity that comes with steady employment, meaningful or not.

The harvest is, well, not so much. But the laborers are plentiful. We see that with our own eyes.

So … why does Jesus tell us the exact opposite? As he sends his disciples out two-by-two, not long after being shown no hospitality by a community of Samaritans, after calling and being followed by people he meets along the way to Jerusalem? Why is this harvest so plentiful and yet it attracts few laborers?

What is the harvest? And what does it mean to labor in this harvest?

Jesus shows us what it means to labor in his harvest. It means going out without what we consider proper preparations or provisions. Pack nothing, greet no one on the road. Do not let what you are supposed to carry distract you from your calling.

Who of us here have ever traveled anywhere without making proper preparations, without packing for the trip, without taking extra clothes and the money needed to cover basic needs and deal with emergencies? Who here has ever picked up and gone someplace new, amongst strangers, and trusted they would provide hospitality, care, food, protection, ears to listen to the good news the God’s kingdom is coming near?

It’s hard, what Jesus asks. Try it, sometime.

He even builds into this calling the expectation that some people, some places, will not welcome, will not accept you, will not care for you or provide for you. That too, is part of what it means to labor for the harvest. We will be unwelcome.

This too seems to be the kingdom drawing near. That some will refuse to welcome. They will pay the price, Jesus tells us, come the day of judgment. Kick the dust off your feet and move on.

For the harvest is plentiful. The hills are covered in ripening grain.

So, we must trust God. We must trust that somewhere, hands will provide. People will welcome, peace will be spoken, bread will broken, meals will be shared. All the power of Satan to temp and break and confuse and confound mean nothing in this kingdom growing near. We have power — life-restoring, death-defeating, resurrection power. That’s real power.

But it seeks no glory. It seeks no fame. Life everlasting is all it proclaims. So many who labor for the harvest labor alone, unseen, unsung, their names lost to history and their bones long turned to dust, awaiting that day when the trumpet will blast and the dead will rise, alive and remade, to the final judgment of Christ.

We want glory. I want glory. We want fame. I want fame. We want something more than complete reliance on welcoming strangers. I want something more. I want bread earned by the sweat of my brow, honest sweat, from honest labor. And we want something more than to have to kick the dust off our feet when we meet hostility and fear.

Sometimes, I want fire from heaven to devour those who have not welcomed or received me. To show them just who and what they have rejected.

This is thankless work, this calling Christ has given us. We do not know who these 70 (or 72) others are. They have no names, at least not in scripture. They go unremembered. We know they were called, given this commission, and came back rejoicing that even demons bowed down to the name of Jesus! But we don’t know who they are. We don’t know what became of them.

Let me suggest, sisters and brothers, that the reason Jesus tells us the laborers are few is because the work is hard, we have to trust complete strangers will provide for us, we have to heal the sick and cast out demons, and we have to move on when we find no welcome. We receive no pension, no salary, no titles, and likely no recognition.

We don’t even speak for ourselves. We speak only for the one who called us to this miserable, amazing, incredible, thankless work, who sent us out to proclaim his kingdom.

Who’d want that work? Not me.

Not me.

And yet … here I am. He called me. I followed.

I followed.

SERMON For We Are Legion…

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it likely would have looked like this:

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • Isaiah 65:1–9
  • Psalm 22:19–28
  • Galatians 3:23–29
  • Luke 8:26–39

26 Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 When Jesus had stepped out on land, there met him a man from the city who had demons. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he had not lived in a house but among the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell down before him and said with a loud voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” 29 For he had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many a time it had seized him. He was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the desert.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Legion,” for many demons had entered him. 31 And they begged him not to command them to depart into the abyss. 32 Now a large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, and they begged him to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and drowned.

34 When the herdsmen saw what had happened, they fled and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people went out to see what had happened, and they came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone, sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 36 And those who had seen it told them how the demon-possessed man had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” And he went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him. (Luke 8:26–39 ESV)

Their name was Legion.

Λεγιων. The largest military formation in the Roman army, anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 men under arms, though at the time this was taking place, let’s trust the 6,000 men figure. But there’s a colloquial use, one we have to this day. “My troubles are legion,” we might remark, noting that our woes are so great they cannot be counted.

Many. Too many to number. Brutal. Destructive. Thorough. The Romans has been in Judea, in the Greek east, for more than a century at this point, having arrived with the Roman General Pompey when he conquered Jerusalem some 90 years before the events in our Gospel reading, the people of Judea knew Romans, knew their soldiers, their order, and their methods for keeping that order.

The Romans came, and conquered, and stayed. They did not leave. Not freely.

And there was no power in the world, not at this point in history, capable of bringing the empire and its armies to permanent heel. Germans and North Africans and Parthians — Iranians, if you must know — could inflict the occasional defeat on the armies of Rome, take the occasional chunk of territory, capture soldiers and booty — such a regimental standards; such an event at the hands of German tribesman along the Rhine kept a distraught Emperor Augustus up for some nights, wandering the palace, crying out, “General Varus, where are my eagles?!?” — and humiliate Rome for a time.

But there was no permanent victory against Rome. No liberation, no expulsion, no end of occupation and rule by Rome and its satraps and governors.

Rome came. Rome saw. Rome conquered. Rome colonized. Rome stayed.

A little like the demons in our gospel reading today. The demons have made their home in this man, have conquered and colonized him, but instead of civilizing him (as the Romans aspired to), they have turned him into a naked barbarian, unfit for human companionship, at home only among the dead, bound in chains for his own safety — and for the safety of others.

We don’t know why he became host to a legion, of demons beyond counting. Luke merely says he was a man “who had demons,” as if that somehow explains everything. We can speculate why these demons found him an attractive host, but we cannot know anything conclusively. Luke calls him “a man from the city” [ἀνήρ τις ἐκ τῆς πόλεως], a description similar to that of the unnamed “woman of the city” [γυνὴ ⸂ἥτις ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει] used to describe the woman who weeps and kneels and anoints Jesus’ feet.

But … we do know those demons know who Jesus is. They have no doubt about his identity. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you do not torment me!”

And yet, torment them Jesus does. He commands them to leave the man, and this legion begs — “Please don’t send us to the abyss!!!”

Again, these demons so numerous they cannot be counted do not want to be went to place so vast and deep it has no bottom anyone can find. They are at home, occupying this man, chained and alone, asleep among the dead. They would rather be with, in, and under him than back in the place they came from — their boundless and bottomless abode.

But … Jesus controls the demons. At his word, he commands them to leave. He rebuked the stormy skies and the turbulent sea, he ordered the demons out of the man, and he gives them permission — permission — to enter the pigs. Which then drown themselves.

Jesus commands. The elements obey. The demons obey. I don’t know what Legion’s fate is after this. I don’t particularly care. Dead demons aren’t an interest of mine.

Jesus commands. And the demons, who had every intention of staying forever and a day, leave.

The man is healed. Calm. In his right mind. Freed of his chains, probably clothed, and now ready to dwell among the living.

But the living … don’t want any part of him. Meeting Jesus has healed him, and made him whole, but it hasn’t restored him to the community, not this place where he dwelled, whose people had lived in fear of him when he was possessed by demons. Because they are afraid of him now. And they beg him to leave. Possessed, they could handle him, even if they were afraid of him.

But healed … they have no idea what to do.

Redeemed, in his right mind, ready to follow Jesus, there’s no place for him. Not even with Jesus, who sends him home and commands him to bear witness.

Jesus meets legion, and commands legion to go. All that the people of this place try to do only keeps the demons at bay, only restrains them, only keeps their host out of sight and out of mind. But Jesus, Jesus commands them. Drives them out. With a word. And he frees a man who could not be freed, could not free himself.

This legion that comes, and sees, and conquers, and colonizes, that stays and cannot ever be made to leave, this legion is expelled. Not by force. Not by threats. Not by violence. There was no way to send the demons away with the force they used to occupy and possess. The demons, this legion, are masters of that violence. They can be restrained by violence, sometimes, but we cannot fight them with their means.

But by an authoritative word from the Son of the Most High is enough to terrify this legion. They know who Jesus is, fear his power and authority, and beg him not to dispatch them back home.

Legion knows who Jesus is.

We are beset and possessed by demons who are legion. The have come into our midst, they saw, they conquered, they colonized, and they stayed. We are afraid of them. We try to fight these demons using all of the tools at disposal. We know they occupy and posses us, so we fight back. We seek to be free of them.

So, with violence, cunning, and brutality, we struggle against Legion. We try to contain these demons, knowing they possess us. We bind ourselves in heavy chains, and then we break our binds, and flee madly into the wilderness. We are more at home among the dead than we are with the living.

More at home among the dead than the living.

But Legion cannot be fought successfully, cannot be beaten, with the means it uses. There is no violence, no war, no self-righteousness, no hate, no fear, that will defeat or even keep Legion at bay. We may throw it off for a time with our own efforts, but eventually, Legion will come back, take hold of us, occupy us, possess us.

Legion has come to stay. Legion has no intention of leaving.

But a word from the Son of Most High is enough to make Legion go. We, who seek to defeat our demons, to limit the damage they can do, are powerless. But the power of God in Jesus is enough. A word from Jesus is enough. It has set us free. It has cast the demons out.

The Gospel

A real question. And a real answer.

Where was [God] when I was being abused? where was he when my daughter was on the streets? Where was he when my family needed him? Where was he when I was raped? WHERE WAS HE!!!?

God was there, with you, bleeding, hurting, cowering in fear, feeling the rage, taking the blows.

With you. Suffering. With you.

That’s where our God is. On the cross. Beaten. Raped. Tortured. Bleeding. Dying.

With us.

For us.

As one of us

[At this point, the person who asked the question was sitting in a Bible study in a women’s shelter, and she was angry at the pastor who said “God is here,” in the shelter, in the group. And he probably meant well. Later, someone else — a young woman who has her suffered her own horrific abuse tried to explain a little more what was happening.]

She was angry because “God is here” as her son is on the streets and her daughter is raped repeatedly and her husband abused her for 10 years and she was just horribly fucked over by life. But God was there. I understand, why would he let that happen to her? Why would God let all her family be raped and sold and murdered and abused and just LET THAT GO.

Where was God when they needed Him??

And where is he now?

This is all I’ve got. Because I don’t know why.

I don’t know why.

I can only weep with you. My tears, my sorrow, my rage — all pointless. Like so much else I do. It’s all I have.

I know there is a cross, bloody, covered in gore, and an empty tomb, a borrowed tomb, someone else’s final resting place, where he was laid. I know he was dead, but he is now alive.

And on days when it seems most pointless, on days like today when I have no hope, when I know all I am is failure and rejection, I know that tomb is empty.

He is risen.

Wounded, broken, but alive, perfect.

For me. For you. For the world that wounded him.

Touch his wounds. The wounds he let us give him. Know he’s real. Know he lives.

It’s a terrible answer. It’s all I have. It’s all the hope there is.

(The person who asked this question has since disappeared.)

SERMON Today, I Know I am Forgiven

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Lectionary 11 / Fourth Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 2 Samuel 11:26–12:10, 13–15
  • Psalm 32
  • Galatians 2:15–21
  • Luke 7:36–8:3

36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”

41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

1 Soon afterward he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means. (Luke 7:36–8:3 ESV)

I love this story. I love everything about this story.

Here we have Jesus sitting and eating with a Pharisee. We hear a lot about Jesus eating with sinners, but mostly we hear about that. We actually see Jesus and his disciples eating with Pharisees and scribes. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus is asked by some Pharisees and scribes he is actually reclining at table — eating with — in the fifth chapter of Luke’s gospel, right after he calls Levi to follow and Levi throws a great feast for Jesus as his disciples. And Pharisees and scribes too, I suppose, because there they are, grumbling at Jesus.

So another Pharisee has invited Jesus to dinner. Who doesn’t want his company? And in comes this woman — an unnamed “woman of the city” — who Luke tells “was a sinner.” Luke doesn’t tell us what that means, and we can spend our days guessing what it is she does that earns her the title of sinner. It doesn’t matter what she has done, how she has fallen short.

What matters is that she knows she’s a sinner. Whatever it is she has done, she has heard the words Jesus has preached — good news to the poor, freedom for those held captive, sight to the blind, the healing of those who are unclean and — more than anything — that word Jesus speaks with such authority:

Your sins are forgiven you.

She knows who she is. And for much of her life, she has lived with the violence and abuse, the utter indifference to her wellbeing, that comes with the condemnation of who she has been and how she has lived. I am certain, for all those reputable people in this community — especially the scribes and the Pharisees — that condemnation, that deliberate and purposeful exclusion from the people of God, is an essential part of the good order of the world.

It is the judgment of a just God who, long before this woman was conceived, gave the teaching to Israel in the Wilderness. Simon, I’m certain, believes he is just doing as Moses commanded. He is just proclaiming the judgment of God upon sin. Her sin.

And whatever that sin might be, I’m certain there is a punishment she’s earned far greater than mere shunning. Simon the Pharisee may think he is being merciful and magnanimous for not grabbing a few stones, for not putting her to death, or for not simply running her out of town.

Make no mistake here, Jesus has not ignored her sin — whatever it is. He has judged her. And he has judged her harshly. Because there can be no forgiveness without judgment. And she knows this, knows that whatever it is she has done, that has gotten her this label of “sinner” is real. It separates her from God, from the people of God, from a life that is valued.

Your sins are forgiven you.

And she knows who she is now. She knows she is forgiven, that whatever this Pharisee might say about her, how he and others like him might treat her, that great chasm that separates her from the Lord God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is gone. As David, himself no stranger to sin, judgment, and the repentance that can bring, sings in our psalm today

1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.

2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.

4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah

5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah (Psalms 32:1–5 ESV)

We don’t know her sin. But she does. And those simple words spoken by Jesus, “Your sins are forgiven you,” have changed her life. She was a sinner; now she is a saint. She was lost; now she has been found. She was dead; and now she has been raised to new life.

She responds in deep and abiding gratitude to the one who spoke those words, “Your sins are forgiven you,” with power and authority. She grovels, grateful before the Son of God, washes his feet with thankful tears because his words of forgiveness are true words of forgiveness. No work of law could have justified her, made her right, not before God, not before Simon the Pharisee, who likely would have overseen any attempt to repent on her part.

Now she lives, the forgiveness of Christ alive in her, trusting the Son of God, whose feet she washed and wiped and anointed, whose words brought her back to life.

Your sins are forgiven you.

She has encountered the love that matters, in one who lived and died and rose again.

We encounter that love too. We are a people because of that love.

I’m torn. Our confession teaches that we are equally sinful, all equally distant from God, all equally incapable of reaching across even a tiny portion of that vast gulf between us and God. And I do believe that. When Jesus speaks here of different kinds of debtors, of one who owes 50 and one who owes 500, he’s speaking in metaphors, making a point to Simon the Pharisee. All are sinners. None can pay their debt. All need forgiveness.

But what if … Jesus really means what he says here? What if there is a distinction, a real difference, between a debt of 50 and a debt of 500? He is clear in the example he gives to Simon — both could not pay. From the standpoint of the debtor here, whether you are 50 short or 500 short, it hardly matters. Unable to pay is unable to pay.

But there is still a difference. Someone who owes 50 might, for much of the time — at least until the debt is called in and payment comes due — see their debt as manageable. You can live well enough to service this debt, to be in the good graces of the moneylender. And it’s something that can likely be settled, eventually, given enough time. Someone likely wouldn’t lose much sleep over 50, wouldn’t worry about what people around them felt about their debt. And even if it is called in, well, maybe there’s enough to sell off to deal to take care of it. After all, everyone owes a little something, right?

But 500 … that’s something to worry about. After all, who but the unlucky, or the profligate, or the stupid, owe 500? That’s something beyond managing. That’s a debt to toss and turn over, stay up nights worrying about, a debt that earns the harsh judgment of everyone around me, who see what kind of person I am by how much I owe.

Or, conversely, someone owing 500, more than they will ever see in lifetime of honest or dishonest labor, might much might simply give up. There’s no way to pay it all off, and so it hardly matters how I live or whether I even try. I am beyond helping.

Either way, to owe 500 is to despair. Nothing I can do will ever matter.

Your sins are forgiven you.

With that Jesus changes everything. Simon may only really have owed 50, but as Jesus tells him, he showed little gratitude for the forgiveness he has received. He did not welcome Jesus with much enthusiasm, was not the best of hosts. Not like this unnamed woman, who heard words of forgiveness and believed them with all her heart.

In Christ, she met love, and she loved in return with everything she had.

Love much, sisters and brothers, love extravagantly and passionately, knowing you are loved without end. Love like you owed 500, like you could never repay your debt in a dozen lifetimes, like you faced a miserable and desperate and desolate end because of your debt.

Love like this woman.

Love like you know — you really know — your sins are forgiven you.

SERMON No Gospel But Christ’s

I didn’t preach this Sunday, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Third Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 1 Kings 17:17–24
  • Psalm 30
  • Galatians 1:11–24
  • Luke 7:11–17

11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.

18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:11–24 ESV)

Who is this Paul character, and why should we listen to him?

After all, he’s new at this, just started preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, and he doesn’t possess the proper pedigree. He didn’t hang out with Jesus, or Christ’s followers, he wasn’t there when Jesus preached, or healed, or raised anyone from the dead, or when Jesus had that last supper with his followers in that rented room, and he certainly wasn’t threatened later that night he was betrayed, handed over, tired and tortured and put to death.

He didn’t stand there at the foot of the cross, linger as darkness descended upon the land, stare up in uncomprehending anguish as Jesus breathed his last, painfully exhaling “it is finished” as the nails ripped his flesh.

This Paul wasn’t there to take Jesus down, wrap him in a shroud, didn’t donate his own tomb for Jesus’ burial. He didn’t weep and mourn that sabbath, wasn’t with the women or Peter or the other disciples when they eagerly and strangely told us the tomb was empty.

He certainly wasn’t with us in the days following, when we were scared, and locked the doors, when we wondered if that horrible that thing that happened to him … could happen to us? Did he break bread with us when we were frightened, when we were lost?

No, he did not.

In fact, this Paul was one of the reasons we were cowering in the darkness, behind locked doors, frightened and uncertain and wondering what happens next.

And now here he is, preaching Jesus!

I’m certain some of us are glad, and are, in fact, glorifying God. He did persecute the church. Persecute us. I’m certain some of us lost loved ones and friends because of him. We all lost brothers and sisters in the faith. This is truly the grace of God!

But I suspect others of us are sitting angry and silent. Who does he think he is, this upstart, this convert, who didn’t take any of the risks we took, who didn’t share anything with those of us who were there from the beginning, who didn’t learn what he needed to know from those of us who were with Jesus — who knew Jesus — but claims, rather strangely, to have received this gospel “through a revelation” directly from Jesus Christ.

Who spent some time in the desert meditating and considering this revelation.

Uh-huh, sure he did. Yeah, right, as if he was struck blind on the road to Damascus. Look, there’s only one gospel, and it’s ours. We possess it, we curate it, we preach it, we teach it. We control who, and how, the Son reveals himself to anyone. It’s ours, and it doesn’t belong to any upstarts who come wandering in from just anywhere — but especially those who’ve spent serious time persecuting and killing us, breathing threats and murder against us, terrorizing us.

This gospel, it’s ours. Ours.

I don’t know what we’re going to do with this man Paul, especially as he claims authority to preach and teach to the gentiles — gentiles! If God had intended to call them to follow, chosen them to be part of his people, God would have! Yes, God has occasionally reached out, fed and healed and even raised the dead of faithful non-Israelites, but including them as the people of God? Really?

We’ve not licensed Paul. We’ve not endorsed or approved him. And we need to reign him in, somehow.

We’re going to have a lot of work to undo, a lot of letters to write, a lot of pastoral visits to make, a lot of wrongs to right. Because this guy Paul, he’s been busy. Scribbling and scribbling, keeping the Roman Imperial Postal Service quite occupied with his correspondence. I mean, we have to do this, right? We’ve got to make sure the correct gospel is preached by the right people to the right people.

What gospel am I talking about? Well, I mean what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How we met God in Jesus, and how his dying and rising has defeated death and sin, and given us new life, risen life, eternal life, to love our neighbor as Jesus loves us, to care for the poor, to welcome strangers, to heal the sick and even raise the dead! That’s the gospel we’ve been given, and the gospel we’ve got to protect and defend!

Does Paul preach that gospel? Does he teach it to the churches he writes to? Does he now live for Jesus the way we live for Jesus?

… He does? Really? Really? Are you sure? REALLY?!?

Well, then I guess maybe we can live with him. Maybe. Praise be to God, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, who delivers us from the present evil age, and to whom belongs the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Wait… those are his words too? Damn…

SERMON Second Sunday After Pentecost

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it would have gone something like this.

Second Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

  • 1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43
  • Psalm 96:1–9
  • Galatians 1:1–12
  • Luke 7:1–10

22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the Lord in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven, 23 and said, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants who walk before you with all their heart…

41 “Likewise, when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a far country for your name’s sake 42 (for they shall hear of your great name and your mighty hand, and of your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this house, 43 hear in heaven your dwelling place and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name.” (1 Kings 8:22–23, 41–43 ESV)

This prayer is just one petition in a long prayer Solomon, the Son of David, gives as he dedicates the temple. This house of God that David wanted to build, promised God he would build not long after he become king of all Israel. David thought it was wrong that he should live in a house of cedar and stone while God — present to Israel in the ark it had carried around since being given the teaching at Sinai in the wilderness — “dwelt” only in a tent.

God seemed miffed at David for this promise. “I’ve lived in a tent, wandering with my people, since the day I brought you out of slavery in Egypt. Did I ask you, or anyone else, to build me house? I have been with you, Israel, with you, David, wherever you have gone. I have no need for a house.”

And God promises David — “I will make you a house, and a king from your line, of your descent, shall sit on your throne forever.”

Your descendant shall build me a house, God tells David, but don’t imagine that what you hew and fashion with you own hands (or, an army of conscripted laborers) can hold me. I, the Lord, am the one who really builds. “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever,” God tells David.

So maybe this is why Solomon, who has spent so much building this house of God upon the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (Araunah in the Kings account), seems to only hope that God will maybe dwell in this house.

12 Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness. 13 I have indeed built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.” (1 Kings 8:12–13 ESV)

Note, at this dedication to the temple, Solomon, in his prayer of intercession here, asks the Lord, the God of Israel, to “hear in heaven” (תִּשְׁמַע הַשָׁמַיִם) in each of his petitions.

Today, Solomon prays for the mercy of God upon Israel. He prays for right judgment, forgiveness of sins, abundant rains, relief from famine, and victory in battle when Israel is at war. He prays for the restoration of Israel in defeat, for the return of captives from exile, and for God’s mercy on his people when they sin.

“For there is no one who does not sin,” Solomon prays.

Solomon confesses that even as he has built this great and wonderful house of cedar and stone and bronze and gold where the presence of the Lord shall dwell among God’s people, that God is bigger than this house. That God truly dwells in the heavens, listening from heaven, to prayers from this house, to Israel when it prays toward this house.

And so Solomon also prays for the foreigner who comes to pray to this house as well. He prays that the Lord, the God of Israel, will listen to “all for which the foreigner calls to you.”

That everyone on earth shall know the Lord as Israel knows the Lord — as protector and redeemer, as the one who delivers and blesses.

And so begins the long and strange encounter of the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with those who are not of or from the people God has called out.

Such it is with our gospel reading. Jesus, the God who has condescended from heaven to dwell temporarily with us as one of us, has been invited by a group of Jewish leaders to heal the slave of a Centurion, a senior Roman soldier or even the commander of a Roman garrison. He may be a good guy — the Jewish leaders are rather obsequious in their declarations — but he is still a slave owner and the leader of a military garrison that, if it came to it, would use violence to maintain order.

Roman order. Foreign order.

When we think of foreigners in this context, I suspect we think of curious people who rather meekly and rather quietly pray to God, curious less about God than becoming one of us. After all, they are praying to the same God, are they not? Why wouldn’t they become like us?

But as scripture makes clear, again and again, foreigners often times means enemies. People at war with us, who have no desire to become us or even become like us. Who will not stop fighting us even as they have met and encountered and been healed and redeemed by our God. Who may conquer, and occupy us, and oppress us, and yet … meet redemption and salvation in our God.

When Elisha meets and heals Naaman, the commander of the Syrian Army — Israel has been at war with Syria for many years at that point — he doesn’t demand Naaman convert, or defect, or stop fighting. Naaman does convert, does confess “there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” and asks God’s forgiveness from Elisha, not for waging war against Israel, but for the future idolatry he will have to commit as a faithful servant of king of Syria. But Naaman never stops being a general in the Syrian Army, never stops serving his king, and likely, never stops waging war on Israel — the very people whose God he confessed.

Whose prophet healed him.

What an ingrate, right?

This is where we are today. Jesus encounters, entirely by proxy (a similarity this story shares with Naaman’s healing), a man who has embraced the God of Israel, has done great things for the faithful people of his community, built a place of meeting and worship and appears to want the best for these people he … occupies and rules over. “Such faith I have not found even in Israel,” Jesus says of this man who is used commanding, who knows and understands authority.

He has faith, this centurion. He trusts Jesus, apparently because he understands — unlike many of Israel — the authority Jesus is under, the authority by which he teaches and heals and casts out demons.

But he never stops being, not even for a minute, a commander in an enemy army, an occupying army. An army Israel seeks to shake off, an army that will later capriciously execute Jesus at the request of the Jerusalem mob. The centurion isn’t just a foreigner — he’s an occupier, an enemy, an oppressor.

We like to think when someone meets Jesus, meets our God, they are changed, converted, they become people like us. They become one of us. This centurion believed in the Lord, the God of Israel, used his power and his position to do what he could for God’s people in the city of Capernaum. But he very likely never stopped being a Roman, a soldier, committed to the order Rome brought and its fearsome price in blood and suffering. He may have become one of God’s people, praying and worshiping and giving thanks, but he never became one of us.

That doesn’t matter. To love enemies, as Jesus commands all who listen just a chapter earlier in Luke’s gospel, is to love flesh and blood human beings who may want and intend for us nothing but harm, to pray for them and do good for them. They may live in our midst and wield great power over us — and use it arbitrarily and often with great cruelty. And yet … they may meet our God, maybe because of our love and our kindness, and come to have great faith and trust in our God, but they may never stop being our enemies even after that. They may never really mean us well, even if they know and fear God, even if they do some good for us.

I know that doesn’t sound right. But this is about the love of God, the love of God shown in, and to, a violent, cruel, deeply unfair and unjust world. If it strikes us as wrong, that God would love our enemies, would heal them and bless them and leave them unchastised to do their horrible work, we should remember — we too are unworthy. We too have sinned.

And we too have been forgiven.

To the Church in Philadelphia

7 “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:‘The words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.

8 “‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie—behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth. 11 I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 12 The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. 13 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:7–13 ESV)

Power. Δυναμις. The ability to act. To be strong. To do anything. But especially anything good, or virtuous, or meaningful, or wonderful. This church has none. It is powerless. It does little good in the world. What works Christ knows, and remembers, are probably few.

The church today worries about power. Conservatives lament the end of a social order they built and that made sense to them. Having had power, they taste their powerlessness all that more intensely, and they fear the end — they fear death and irrelevance. The world has turned its back on established and eternal truth.

The progressive church laments a world still governed by prejudice and structures of discrimination, a world that seems almost impervious to change and reform and abolition despite our best human efforts and many years of good intentions. They taste powerlessness too, even as they pick up that power which seems to be slipping from the hands of others. Because so many still suffer, so much remains to be done, and we are so far from the goal.

“You have but little power.” This is a church that cannot do much, cannot change much, cannot accomplish much.

And yet, Jesus says, “You have kept my word and not denied my name.” In the face of utter powerlessness, in the face of that “Synagogue of Satan,” those who say they are Jews, those who say they are God’s people, but are not — difficult words for us to hear given how Jews have fared in Christendom and at the hands of Westerners — Jesus is reminding this church that he, and not their works, have opened whatever doors, accomplished whatever works, done whatever good, they are called to do.

… [S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33 ESV)

This powerless church, however, is promised something — it will be spared the coming tribulation. Hold fast, be faithful, remember the promise of our Lord.

Because no matter how powerless we are, how little we can do, we can still trust God. We can still be faithful. We can still love as we are loved.

To the Church at Sardis

1 “And to the angel of the church in Sardis write:‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

“‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” (Revelation 3:1–6 ESV)

You have the reputation of being alive… This letter is to a well thought of, highly respected, probably even envied church. One that, at least to those who hear of it, is vibrant and alive and bustling with work and energy and faith. And maybe they were, once.

But not any more. I worshiped at such a church for a while, a community of people I loved, but who were living off the tale they told themselves of another era, a time when they had lots going and were the center of attention.

Virtually every old and established church in America is that way. Breathing the vapors of another era, wishing desperately that the 1958 or 1963 or even 1971 they designed and built their church for — a time when the place was full, the money was abundant, and the programs easy to run — would come back. Some churches do this better than others, and that wonderful church I attended was coasting far on its heritage and its memories of who, as a community, they once were.

Note what Jesus tells Sardis here after he declares them dead. He does not tell them to go back to what they were, those glory days that were the truth behind their reputation. “Wake up, and strengthen what is about to die…” Not “grow and multiply and become wildly successful and deeply purpose driven,” but simply: repent and be faithful. And if they continue to sleep, if they continue to stumble toward death thinking only their reputation will save them, Jesus will come as a thief in the night and take from them even the little they have left.

Hold fast to what we have received from Jesus — the good news, our baptisms, the supper — for even if we are few, even if we are dying, we can still be faithful. We can still do and be what we have been called to.

In the face of death, Jesus calls us to live.

Staring Into the Darkness

Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about the darkness and the abyss humans frequently find themselves gazing into:

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.

I can’t help but think of this ministry that Jennifer and I am called to. And the two young people who wandered into our lives in the last week, both abused, one abandoned, asking not so much for help but just to let someone know they are alive, hoping they are not alone.

For Nietzsche, the abyss — the darkness — was a mirror that reflected the worst elements of ourselves. And he’s not wrong.

But we also struggle against, as St. Paul wrote, no mere flesh and blood, but against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12) And because of this, I am learning something about the darkness, about this abyss. It is not simply a mirror that reflects our own horrors, an image of who we really are or can be.

It has being unto itself. The darkness, the abyss, doesn’t simply stare back. It growls, lowly and with real menace. It breathes, its breath is wet and heavy and putrid. It rustles and its paws at you, and you can sometimes feel the currents left in the wake of its swipes.

But this darkness is not all powerful. I am reminded of the words of John’s gospel:

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. he light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4–5 ESV)

There are a couple of young people I cannot name right now that I’d like you all to keep praying for. They have reached out of the darkness they have been cast into toward the light — the light of Christ reflected off of me — and they seek a way out of their darkness. Pray for them.

And pray for me, and for Jennifer. Because as terrifying as the darkness, the abyss, is, some of us are called to walk into it. To carry light. To be light. Knowing that that darkness has not, and cannot, overcome it.