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.

SERMON I Have Seen the Lord!

I preached this Sunday, April 3, at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. And this is, more or less, what I preached.

Second Sunday of Easter (Year C)

  • Acts 5:27–32
  • Psalm 118:14–29
  • Revelation 1:4–8
  • John 20:11–31

11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:11–23 ESV)

The tomb of Jesus is empty.

This was unexpected. Because the dead, thankfully, usually stay where we, the living, put them. The dead are generally well-behaved and they don’t cause problems. At least on their own. Not all by themselves.

This week, an interesting problem happened where I work. A long-time and very loyal client in her late 80s, who had been getter her taxes done for years where I work, came in to her tax return done. Here husband died last year, and she was filing a tax return for the two of them — because even the dead are liable for taxes.

Everything went smoothly until it came time to electronically file the return. The IRS rejected the tax return and gave us a strange error message — the social security number in question was locked because it belongs to someone who is deceased. We all scratched our heads at this. Of course it belongs to someone who is deceased, they tax preparer said so on the tax return! No matter how we tried to alter the return — switch the primary and the spouse — it still came back with the same error message: the social security number has been locked because it belongs to someone who is deceased.

This dead man was proving to be a problem.

Except he wasn’t. It turns out he’d been listed as deceased on the 2014 tax return as well. And we all know a person cannot die twice. An error had been made. His wife had likely come in to get their taxes done just after he died in 2015, and his death accidentally and erroneously attributed to 2014.

And now there was a mess, a mess that would take a lot of patience and persistent with the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration to clean up. “You see, he didn’t die in 2014, he died in 2015…”

This dead man was trouble, not because he up and died twice, but because someone living didn’t quite pay attention.

And so we have Mary Magdalene. When Mary hears that the tomb of Jesus is empty, she’s on her way to do a duty, an act of love and devotion — taking spices to prepare his body. A dead body, a body that can trouble no one any longer, that cannot meaningfully receive or give love anymore. It’s a thing now, and we can care for things — indeed, we put great stock in how we treat our dead — but caring for even the dead is not the same as the love and devotion we can give to the living.

And I suspect she is saddened and frustrated when she doesn’t find a body — because this act of love, of care, of devotion, she cannot do. She was focused, and I know what frequently happens when I am so focused on one particular act, something that has become important to me, that I’m derailed, knocked off kilter, when events conspire to prevent from following through. I don’t handle it well, don’t think clearly — all I can see is disappointment, frustration, and failure.

I suspect that’s where Mary is in our reading this morning. This dead man is proving troublesome. He is not where he was put, and that suddenly makes her job — duty duty — impossible. The dead, well, they are supposed to stay put. Just like they aren’t supposed to die twice.

“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!” Mary concludes the obvious — his body has been taken. (Listen to me — body. Because we all know I’m no longer talked about a man, but a thing.) By some unnamed they — thieves or soldiers or mischief makers or whoerver might take bodies. It’s a natural conclusion. The dead, all on their lonesome, do not cause this kind of trouble.

Except in this Easter season we remember that Jesus is no ordinary dead man. Because you don’t normally turn around to see a dead man standing in front of you, repeating the same question two angels asked you moments before.

Again, it makes sense she thinks he’s the gardener. The dead don’t stand around asking why you’re crying and whom you are seeking.

It isn’t until he speaks her name that she knows who he is.

This happens a lot in the New Testament, this failure to recognize Jesus on our own. In Luke’s gospel, we have the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus who meet Jesus, and he teaches them, so much so that their hearts burn within, but they don’t recognized this Jesus until he sits with them and breaks bread with them. And then later in John’s gospel, Jesus again appears unrecognized to the disciples on the shore. He commands they cast their nets, and only when they catch so much fish they risk losing their boat that they recognize who is standing at the shore.

“I have seen the Lord!” Mary says. But she didn’t just see him, she met him — and he met her. He spoke her name, and only then did she know, did she know who he was.

And maybe even who she was.

This morning, we celebrate he Lord’s supper. Now, I come from a church with a very high understanding of what happens at this table. Jesus is present here, not just symbolically, but in, with, and under the bread and the wine we east and drink. He’s here, and he meets us, and we meet him, in this meal. I don’t try to explain it — I don’t think much is accomplished by trying to elaborate exactly what or how. But I believe it, and I confess it. Christ is here, with us, calling our names, speaking and teaching us, in the bread we break we together at this table.

But note well, Christ’s risen body is a broken body. He bears the wounds we gave him, in his hands and his side, and he shows those wounds to his disciples, so that we may know who he is. So that we can be certain. This body we break today, this body we share, this body that we are, is a broken, wounded body. This brokenness that we see in him, and in each other, is how we know, how we truly know, that we have met Jesus.

He calls our name, he breaks bread with us, and he bears his wounds to us. This is what it means to meet Jesus.

To meet this troublesome dead man who simply would not stay dead. Who arose and left his burial garments folded in a tomb. Who left us to find nothing — truly, nothing — where a newly dead and slowly decaying corpse should have been. Who walks through walls and locked doors, meets us in cowering in fear, and bids us “peace.” Who promises to be with us in bread and wine, or whenever two or more of us gather. Who promises be with us until the end of the age.

So, sisters and brothers, please, come to this table, take the bread and wine, and exclaim with Mary: “I have seen the Lord!”

SERMON: And He Submitted

I preached this Sunday at the churches in the Lutheran Parishes of Northern Duchess, located in and around Red Hook and Rhinebeck, New York. It was an amazing Sunday, and I hope to be able to go back and do this again in the future.

Below is a text, more or less, of what I preached. And audio too! Because someone out there requested a recording of my sermon. (Requests from the ether!)

SERMON — Christmas 1 (Year C)

  • 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
  • Psalm 148
  • Colossians 3:12-17
  • Luke 2:41-52

41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43 And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” 49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:41-52 ESV)

And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

It’s Jesus, so it has to be true, right? What other 12 year-old boy is going to hold his own — no, is going to prevail — in a conversation with some of the best educated and most learned religious leaders of his time? If anybody can amaze and impress, it would be Jesus.

Even the young Jesus. Jesus the sixth grader, the junior high school student.

But I have a problem with what Luke writes here. He violates one of the first rules of story telling — show me, don’t tell me. He tells me that everyone was amazed and impressed with all that Jesus understood and the answers he gave. But we don’t have those answers. We don’t know what Jesus said. We have nothing here but a short description, “and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

This isn’t the only time Luke does this. In chapter four, after the people of his hometown Nazareth drive him out of the synagogue and even nearly toss him off a cliff, Jesus heads down to Capernaum where he teaches on the Sabbath. “And they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.” Mark echoes this in his first chapter by saying, “And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.”

And we do get lots of Jesus teaching in Luke, lots of Jesus answering questions, and telling stories, and healing the sick and the lame. All of that teaching and preaching and speaking with authority, amazing crowds and stunning everyone around him.

But not here. Not in the temple. Not in Capernaum. His authority is marveled at, but we don’t see it. We’re told, but we’re not shown.

Why? I imagine the answers and opinions of the young Jesus, his insightful questions and his amazing responses, would make really good reading. Because even a 12 year-old Jesus would know more about God, God’s promise for his people, and God’s teaching, than you or I or anyone. It would be teaching worth having. I suspect it would provide a lot of answers to that question — What Would Jesus Do?

And maybe, just maybe, that’s why we don’t have it.

In this season of Christmas, we are called upon to remember something — the promise of God, the redemption of God, the Word of God, is a person. Not a book. Not an idea. Not a set of principles. Not a a philosophy or an ideology seeking to govern or order the world. The promise of God, the redemption of God, the word of God, is a man. On Christmas Day, we met that incarnation in a tiny, vulnerable child, laid in straw, squirming, helpless, utterly depending upon other human beings for sustenance, protection, even life itself.

Everything God has ever promised to us, to Abraham, to David, to Israel as it faced the wrath of God in the armies of Assyria and Babylon and lived under Roman occupation — to have a home, to be a blessing to all, and to have descendants more numerous than grains of sand on the shore of sea — is fulfilled in Jesus. Through him, our exile is over, and we are gathered home. Through him, we are now descendants of Abraham. Through him the whole world is blessed.

I’m certain that if a Gospel writer — if God — had decided it was important to have these very specific, amazing, incredible, authoritative teachings of Jesus, we would have had them. Remember the last words of John’s gospel

25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25 ESV)

That’s quite a boast, even in the ancient world, where books were scarce and had to be created and copied by hand. There’s a lot more that Jesus did that we don’t know. And will never know.

And that’s okay.

Because while we wonder and consider what we don’t have, we frequently miss what we do have. Jesus, the savior of the world, God’s promise fulfilled and God himself incarnate, is still a 12 year-old boy. Still not entirely self-sufficient, whatever he might be learning of his father’s craft, however he might be contributing to well-being of his family. Still subject to some kind of human authority.

So, even if we are amazed at his understanding of the teaching of God and of the prophets — and that may be all the more amazing because he likely had little or no formal education in any of it — we don’t understand him when he tells his parents, who have been frantically looking for him for several days, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

I mean, we understand him. As Christians we get it. Because we know the rest of the story. We know who he becomes, we know what he does, and we know how it ends.

But as parents, I suspect we also get that Mary and Joseph didn’t understand this. We share that incomprehension. “My Father? Young man, *I am your father*! We’ve spent days looking for you! And you need to come home with us right now!”

He didn’t have to, this pre-pubescent Son of God who had just amazed everyone with his questions, his answers, and his understanding of the Torah. But he did. “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.” He didn’t have to, this Lord and Savior of the world, who would walk on water and calm storms, who would heal lepers and raise the dead, who would feed thousands with a few loaves and a pair of fish and turn water into wine.

But he submitted. God, in becoming human, submitted to the indignity of humanity. He submitted to helplessness, to dependence, to neediness, to sickness and discomfort and the frailties and limits of our bodies — especially as they grow and develop. He’s God, and because he’s God, he had to submit to everything. To feelings, to confusion, to frustration, to uncertainty, to not knowing, to desire, to sorrow, to joy, to friendship, and to love. To the limits of our flesh.

And so, he submitted. To his parents. He didn’t have to. Anymore than he had to submit to the Judean religious leaders who demanded his death, to the mob who clamored for it, or to the Romans who actually killed him. But he submitted, and that’s what’s important for us to know.

He submitted to us. Again and again. God made himself one of us, bereft of divine power, and surrendered to us, dying with us, dying at our hands. Submitting to his parents is really not that big of a deal given what Jesus will face — Satan in the wilderness tempting him, and the cross that he must die upon. The cross that we, the very people came to save, will kill him with.

Not Dead Yet

1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:1-4 ESV)

I apologize that blogging has been light of late. I have been sick, with the flu (or, since it was not confirmed through a proper diagnosis, beset by “flu-like symptoms,” according to the physician assistant) and then dealing with bronchitis. Which has me taking amoxicillin and cough syrup with codeine. Mmmmm, happy juice!

Seriously. I know I owe you all a sermon, which I will try to get as soon as possible. This has been a lost week, however. Whether the Lord will be glorified through it or not remains to be seen.

The Good Shepherd

Apropos of nothing, I was thinking about this ministry I do, about these amazing kids I have found — who have found me — and the bond we have forged over the last few months. I fear this is conceited, but it strikes me as so beautiful that it brought me to tears. It’s from the Gospel of John:

2 “But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” (John 10:2-5 ESV)

SERMON — What Have You Done?

I did not preach this Sunday, but if I had, I would have preached something like this.

Lectionary 34 / Christ the King Sunday (Year B)

  • Daniel 7:9–10, 13–14
  • Psalm 93
  • Revelation 1:4b–8
  • John 18:33–37

28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” 32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.

33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world— to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”

After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber. (John 18:28–40 ESV)

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced you to Bethany, an extraordinary young woman who has been through some of the worst that our foster care system — I’m not sure the word care has any meaning in that phrase — has to offer.

I told you how Bethany and her brother Andrew ran away from a horrifically abusive foster home, and how she single-handedly arranged for another home — a safe one. Something no child or teenager should ever have to do.

I wish I could tell you more about her, but I can’t yet. Then you would know just what a staggeringly impressive young person she really is. When I speak of her, and some of the other kids I am involved with, I will be vague about details. Because these kids’ safety and lives may still be at risk. Because they deserve some privacy. And, after a long time of almost unspeakable abuse, they deserve a chance to just be kids.

Which is why I truly admire Eric and Debbie, the couple who took Bethany and Andrew in and decided to adopt them. That took a lot of courage, to basically embrace two kids who literally showed up on their doorstep (Bethany knew who they were) one day and said, “will you take care of us?” Eric and Debbie took a leap of faith, acted on compassion, did a kind and decent thing by giving these orphans, Bethany and Andrew, a home. Something they hadn’t had in a long, long time.

But I suspect there have been moments when Eric and Debbie have looked at each other and thought: what on earth were we thinking?

Because — and I need to be a little blunt here — adopting these two kids has brought a lot of trouble into Eric and Debbie’s lives. More than they could have bargained for, I suspect.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bethany and Andrew more than I can say. They are both very smart, sensitive, and charming. Andrew is amazingly self-possessed and self-aware for a young man of 16, and Bethany is wise far beyond her 15 years. But they are troubled too. By nightmares, by panic attacks, by sadness that sometimes paralyzes them both. Andrew has been plagued by mysterious health problems that have ended up with the entire family in one or another emergency rooms wondering — and not ever knowing — what is wrong.

Trouble has also followed Bethany like a dark cloud. You see, the people who held these kids before, who used and abused and exploited them, are not happy they absconded. And several times, they’ve tried to teach Bethany a lesson — there is no running away, no place safe enough, no sanctuary secure enough, that she can’t be found.

I’m being vague, I know. I want you to imagine the worst. Because you won’t be far wrong.

So, I suspect that Eric and Debbie, the last time Bethany was found and returned home, were both grateful and exceedingly releived. I know I was. But also I suspect that, in the back of their minds, was that question Pontius Pilate asks of Jesus today:

“What have you done?”

Because that, sisters and brothers, is how the kingdom of this world works. Almost no one standing in front of a magistrate, or a judge, or answering the questions of a police officer, or staring at the possibility yet again of horrific violence, gets there without at least partly earning it. Or deserving it. That’s what we think. That’s how we work. If you’ve been charged with a crime, chances are, you are guilty. If you’ve been beaten senseless, cast off, abducted and raped, followed by misfortune and trouble, well, that’s all on you. You’re the wrong kind of person. You have it coming. Maybe all of it.

Because good, decent, innocent, well-behaved people don’t find themselves in front of judges pleading to charges, facing time in prison, or having to field the questions of angry police officers with their weapons drawn. Good girls aren’t kidnapped. People who make wise choices don’t make mistakes, don’t experience misfortune, don’t fail, and certainly don’t sin.

John relates this in his Gospel. I’ve added a bit to the lectionary reading. When Jesus is taken to the governor’s palace, Pilate wants to know exactly what the accusation is. They — it’s not specified here who “they” are, but I’m guessing from context we’re dealing with Annas and Caiaphas and the other high priests — don’t really answer. But their response is a perfect statement of how the world really works:

If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.

That’s the kingdom of this world. The justice of this world. The deeply felt prejudices of this world. If Andrew and Bethany really were good and decent kids, well, they wouldn’t have health problems and face the threat of kidnapping. They wouldn’t have ended up in foster care in the first place. If Jesus really was innocent, he wouldn’t be standing before the Roman governor in the first place.

It’s not an answer. But it is a very deeply held human sensibility. Troublesome people have earned and deserved their troubles. And whatever consequences we dish out to them. Jesus clearly has it coming, merely because we’ve said so. Because we brought him before power and said, “he’s trouble.”

Notice Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question, “What have you done?” He speaks instead of his kingdom, and how it is not of this world.

What is it Jesus has done? If we take John’s gospel as a guide, he’s been proclaimed lamb of God by John the Baptist, he called disciples to follow, was called “King of Israel” by Nathaniel, changed water into wine at the wedding at Cana, tossed the money changers out of the temple, confused everyone by telling them they must be born again, spent time at a well with a woman in Samaria, healed a few people, fed a mess of other people, walked on water, said he was the bread of life, forgave the sins of a woman caught in adultery, claimed to be the light of the world, said he was older than Abraham, that he and the Father were one, raised Lazarus from the dead, proclaimed himself the resurrection and the life, wept over the city, entered Jerusalem, washed his disciples’ feet, told everyone to love each other as he loves them, and said he is the way, the truth and the life. There’s some other stuff Jesus did, but I think you get the picture.

Is this troublesome behavior? The kind of thing you put someone to death for? The Jewish leaders — the high priests and the pharisees — certainly thought so. A dark cloud followed Jesus around, and it was clear to some that Jesus was nothing but trouble. “If we let him go on like this,” the high priests told themselves, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:48) Jesus is trouble, more than they can handle, the leader of a coming revolt that threatens to destroy everything.

“It is better … that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish,” says the high priest Caiaphas, not quite knowing just how much truth he’s speaking. (John 11:50)

Jesus never answers Pilate’s question, anymore than his accusers did. They offered as evidence the accusation — we wouldn’t be bringing him to you if he weren’t guilty. Jesus tells Pilate he has a kingdom (though he doesn’t explicitly say he’s a king), but it’s not of or from this world, otherwise his followers would be fighting to save him. Or to free him.

And they aren’t. We aren’t.

And yet … Jesus is our king. To him belongs the glory and the dominion, forever and ever. He is the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler over all the kings of the earth. Kingdom is a word John hardly uses in his gospel, but Jesus is clearly a king. He has done the deeds of a king, and more — things no mere monarch or potentate or president or prime minister could ever do.

He has also done troubling things. He raised the dead. He walked on the water. He fed the multitude. He washed his disciples’ feet and then told us if we don’t let him, and then do as he has done, we have no share in him. He said God loves the whole entire world, but added that no one gets to God except through him. He commanded us to love each other as he loves us, and told us people will know we are his because we love as he loved.

Yes, our King and our Lord is trouble. He lived a troublesome life and caused no end of problems, especially for those with power and authority. That he is our king means we are caught up in and commanded to embrace the trouble he causes — this dead-raising, crowd-feeding, sheep-tending, foot-washing, table-tossing trouble. And make it our own. Because this kingdom of risen life and love is troubling to a frightened world that deals death to feel safe and secure, to maintain a good and stable and untroubled order.

I suspect every morning, Eric and Debbie wake up, think of Andrew and Bethany, and sometimes wonder — “what fresh hell will today bring?” Because it’s hard to embrace the trouble when it throws such costly and traumatic chaos into our lives. And no doubt their neighbors and others shake their heads. A disorderly and chaotic life — a troubled life — is surely a sign something is really wrong. What does it say about someone when they so willingly accept that trouble?

Especially when that trouble came to them and pleaded: “Will you love me?”

Brothers and sisters, we have no choice but to lead troubled and troublesome lives. We have been called by Jesus, who reached out to us — some he called softly and tenderly, and some he struck blind in a devastating act of terror — and made our trouble his. And his trouble ours. That’s what his love for us — for the whole world — does.

“Do you love me?” our king asks each and every one us.

I have only one answer. “You know I love you Lord. Trouble and all.

Trouble and all.”

SERMON – Give Us the Glory

I didn’t preach today, but if I had, it might look something like this.

SERMON Lectionary 28 / 20th Sunday After Pentecost 2015 (Year B)

  • Isaiah 53:4–12
  • Psalm 91:9–16
  • Hebrews 5:1–10
  • Mark 10:35–45

The disciples of Jesus didn’t get it. They didn’t get Jesus. They didn’t really understand who he was or why he had come or what he had come for. I’m not sure, half the time, they were really listening.

And so, in a bit that should have been part of our reading today, left out of both last week’s and this week’s gospel passages, is Jesus, telling his disciples what they are actually going to Jerusalem for:

32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” (Mark 10:32–34 ESV)

Mark is the shortest of our gospels, but this little bit has some fascinating details. Jesus walked ahead of his disciples, they were amazed, and following Jesus, they were afraid. All this before Jesus describes the awful things that are about to happen to him — betrayal, arrest, condemnation, humiliation, death.

Yes, three days later, Jesus tells his amazed and frightened disciples he will rise again. Not dead. Very, very, not dead.

And how do James and John respond to this?

Give us a place of honor at your side, in your glory.

Glory. They want glory. Literally, here, they want the attention, the honor, they want the eyes of all the world upon them, thinking those eyes are on Jesus. They want to share in the light that shines upon Jesus, their teacher and friend. They want to be part of it.

Now, maybe they think this walk to Jerusalem is about a kingdom that will look and smell and taste and be like Rome. Power that can do what it wants, when it wants, where it wants, how it wants. Power that knows little restraint upon passion or desire or avarice. Perhaps they think this kingdom is like that, and whatever power is coming to Jesus, they want a share of that.

Well, who wouldn’t?

There’s nothing in the passage, though, that suggests they think that way. I like to think sometimes that the disciples were good, earnest revolutionaries on their way to Jerusalem to seize power, ends the Roman occupation, and create what they truly believed was the kingdom of God, but honestly, we don’t know what was in their minds. Perhaps all that is happening here is callow ignorance and boasting, like Peter, who will later swear that he will never leave Jesus when the Lord described how he will be abandoned by all who follow him. Maybe they are humoring the boss, or sucking up, or maybe they think that whatever is coming, they really, truly, honestly want part of it too.

But they don’t really understand Jesus. They have no idea what they are asking for. They will know, eventually, after Jesus is dead, and risen, and ascended. They will know. But not that day. Not on that road.

Can you drink the cup that I drink? Jesus asks.

A cup. Jesus will later gather with his disciples, in what must have struck them as a weird and terrifying meal, break bread with them, and pass it around. “This is my body,” he tells them. He then takes a cup, he gives thanks, and he passes it around. “This is my blood,” he says.

Later that evening, as Jesus struggles with what is about to happen, what he has time and again told his disciples will come to pass, he will pray in the garden of Gethsemane to the Father to “remove this cup from me.”

This cup. The cup that Jesus drinks. That he shares. The cup he asks — no, he pleads — with the father to take away.

[Pause]

Jeremiah speaks, in chapter 25, of something called “the cup of the wine of wrath.” God tells the prophet to give this cup to all of the nations I am sending you — beginning with the Kingdom of Judah — and make them drink of this cup. And when they drink, God tells Jeremiah, all of these nations shall “stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.”

The sword. War. War without mercy, without limit, without pity is coming, and it will begin with Jerusalem, which will become a desolation and wasteland. And then it will seep outward, to Egypt, to Moab, to Edom, to the Philistines, to the rest of Israel’s neighbors, and eventually, to the north and the south, far and near, and all of the kings of the earth shall drink of this cup, ending with the King of Babylon — the Rome of Jeremiah’s time.

Then Jeremiah writes:

“Then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Drink, be drunk and vomit, fall and rise no more, because of the sword that I am sending among you.” (Jeremiah 25:27 ESV)

The cup of the wrath of God, full to overflowing, filled with war and violence and fear and death. No one with any sense would take that cup and drink it. Not gladly. Not happily. Only in fear and trembling. And even then, not if you absolutely had to. I’d refuse it if I could.

And God knows this. Which is why he tells Jeremiah:

28 “And if they refuse to accept the cup from your hand to drink, then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts: You must drink! 29 For behold, I begin to work disaster at the city that is called by my name, and shall you go unpunished? You shall not go unpunished, for I am summoning a sword against all the inhabitants of the earth, declares the Lord of hosts.” (Jeremiah 25:28–29 ESV)

What if this is the cup Jesus passes around the table, the cup Jesus begs the Father to take from him, so that he doesn’t have to drink it?

[Pause]

On that night when Jesus was betrayed, he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.

All of them.

All of us.

When we gather at this table, when we celebrate this supper, when we eat bread and drink wine, we think of reconciliation and forgiveness, of belonging and unity, of the grace and mercy and God, a self-sacrificing gift of salvation made in fear and trembling. But what if this bread, and this cup, is also the wrath of God, poured out upon the world, swords loosed against all who dwell on earth, a judgement upon us, for our sin, our violence, our desire for wealth, and power, and glory?

I have a confession to make. I’ve never been comfortable with saying that Jesus somehow takes the wrath of God for me, so I don’t have to. That Jesus dies for me. I don’t buy it. I don’t believe it. My eyes tell me a different story, one of sin and suffering and death. Everywhere. So much. If Jesus is busy dying for us, taking wrath in our place, drinking a cup that we cannot drink because it is too much to bear, then honestly, I don’t know what to do. Because we all still suffer. We all die.

We all drink that cup. Without even thinking about it.

I think it’s better — and a great deal more correct — to say Jesus lives and suffers and dies with us, drinks this cup with us. Does it first. Is out in the lead, amazing and terrifying us at the same time. And then he rises, defeating sin and death and showing us that the wrath of God looks more like resurrection than it does a rain of fiery stones from heaven.

Or a Babylonian army besieging the city. Or Roman legions laying waste.

In taking the wrath with us, and then rising on the third day, Jesus shows us that the wrath of God is not something to fear. It will not make us fall so that we will rise no more. We are free to live without fear of that wrath. Because it cannot leave us dead and desolate.

Jesus tells John and James, “That cup that I drink you will drink and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” They will drink — oh, will they drink. They will preach and teach and heal and raise from the dead. And like Jesus, they will suffer. And they will die.

And like Jesus, they will rise.

We will rise.

So as we gather at this table, take this cup, each and every one of you, and drink. Drink of the wrath of God, poured out upon the world. Drink also of the mercy of God, the promise of God, poured out for many. Drink of the life of God, given, so that we may live.

A Matter of Life and Breath

This is a day I wish I had my Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament handy.

Central to a lot of conservative arguments about human beings, particularly the purpose of human existence, is the creation account from Genesis 1, especially Genesis 1:26-31, and very specifically verses 26 and 27, in which human beings are created in the image — צלם — of God.

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:27 ESV)

Image of God talk — according to the Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (which is the best I can do while on the road), it comes from the Hebrew verb צלם tslm which means “to cut off” or amputate, implying that to be made in the image of God is to possess a portion of God, to be “something cut out” — focuses on purposes. As well it should, as the Genesis passage in question speaks something to human purposes: be fruitful and fill the earth and subdue it. All that has been created in the previous few days in Genesis 1 has been given the human beings — אדם adam — as a trust.

But Genesis 1, as beautiful as it is, isn’t the creation account that speaks to me. Largely because I’m never entirely sure what “image of God” means.

Nor is anyone else.

I’m a Genesis 2 man. I like that creation account, and I especially love how the creation of the man is related:

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature. (Genesis 2:7 ESV)

This is a tactile, physical, even carnal creation account. We still bear a bit of God, but here, it is the breath נשׁםת nashmat (from the verb נשׁם, which means to pant, with the implication of “deep and strong breathing of a woman in travail” according to BDB) that has given life to otherwise dead matter.

(This is not the ruh רוה of God, the very wind and breath that is God’s spirit hovering over the waters at the very beginning of Genesis.)

I even prefer the telos of humanity in Genesis 2 to that in Genesis 1. While procreation and dominion are central to the Genesis 1 story, in Genesis 2, God takes the man and puts him in the garden “to work it and keep it,” though it’s not clear if that’s the human purpose or merely an afterthought on God’s part. Man comes first, and then the garden is made for him. The woman is created later, as a companion for the man, and the man and the woman become “one flesh,” though it’s not explained quite what that means. (And I don’t assume.)

In both accounts, whether we bear the image of God or have been brought to life by the very breath of God, we carry a bit — a desperate bit, even — of the creator. It may sound noble to be made in the image of God, but that implication of the word צלם that we are cut off bit suggests violence (like the high priest’s servant who lost his ear in an altercation with one of Jesus’ disciples in Luke) or something unwanted, or even diseased (such as the golden images of the tumors God demands Israel makes in 1 Samuel 6).

And by the same token, it may sound noble and wonderful to be filled with the breath of God, but there’s that implication of panting, of exhaustion, of having trouble catching one’s breath. As if the man is unable to completely breathe. Alive, yes, but not quite complete. It’s a troubled, restless, painful, labored living.

Which makes this account in John’s Gospel all the more amazing:

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23 ESV)

And when he said this, he breathed on them (καὶ τοῦτο εἰπὼν ἐνεφύσησεν καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς…). The word here for breathing is ἐμφυσάω, emphysao, and it means to blow or to puff up. Something was flat, dead, and now it is full, alive. Complete.

Jesus is giving a new and different kind of life to these gathered disciples. Ours is no longer a struggle for breath, for life, and difficult and painful struggle to merely live. We can now breathe fully. We are now fully and completely alive.

What it Really Means That Christians Are Sinners Too

A reader asked me about my post, Toward a Biblical Sexual Ethic,

I do appreciate your panoramic treatment of the Scripture story when you deal with issues. It’s refreshing, totally. However, in the spirit of “what would you do if…” questions – what happens if you are brought to a position of leadership in a local church where there is congregational support to ordain to leadership a non-celibate gay or lesbian? Where would you come down on that matter? Just trying to figure out where your “gray” becomes “black and white”.

I’m not sure I answered well. I’m not sure this is going to be much of an answer either. Continue reading