JUDGES And So It Begins

A reading from Judges, the third chapter.

7 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They forgot the Lord their God and served the Baals and the Asheroth. 8 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia. And the people of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim eight years. 9 But when the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, the Lord raised up a deliverer for the people of Israel, who saved them, Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother. 10 The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he judged Israel. He went out to war, and the Lord gave Cushan-rishathaim king of Mesopotamia into his hand. And his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim. 11 So the land had rest forty years. Then Othniel the son of Kenaz died. (Judges 3:7-11 ESV)

And here is Israel’s condition. Our condition. Israel has turned away from serving/worshiping עָבַד God, and has embraced the false gods of Canaan. Of its neighbors. Idolatry, serving and trusting and sacrificing to and telling stories about gods who have not saved Israel and cannot save Israel. This is Israel’s chief sin, its primary sin, the one for which the people of God will suffer conquest and exile — will be subjugated for time — time and again.

Othniel is of good character. He is an upstanding citizen, with a good pedigree. Caleb was one of the twelve scouts send to examine the promised land, and alone with Joshua, he was confident Israel could take the Canaanites. It makes sense someone like him would be the first “judge” שָׁפַּט (judge, lead, govern), the first one to redeem and deliver Israel, to defeat its enemies.

This establishes a pattern. Israel sins, and forgets God. Israel succumbs to sin — God gives Israel over not just to its sin but to foreigners, who conquer and rule it. They become the visible, tangible consequence of idolatry. Israel cries to God, God listens, and raises up a savior, who then fights for Israel, defeats its enemies, and there is “rest” for a time.

For a time. Until Israel forgets, and gives itself over to sin — again.

And God raises up a savior, to fight for Israel — again.

This is who Christ is. A redeemer, raised up not only to redeem the people from their sin, but also defeat their enemies. However, Jesus is no temporary savior. The rest he gives us is permanent. We do not need earthly champions anymore, our redemption is real and right now. Even if we do not see it, it is real. We live it. Right now. Even when we fail to trust God, when we turn for protection to those things which cannot save us, we are redeemed.

We cry out, and God hears our cries. But we are already saved.

What Jesus Looks Like Sometimes

A longtime friend and supporter of my ministry sent the following, about sex offenders and those on the registry in church:

“I don’t know what to do. What would you do if a sex offender showed up at your church,” he asked.

“Well, it happens almost every week. I would say, ‘I’m so glad you are here’, and then probably ask him if he wanted to help me serve communion, or lead us in prayer.”

He looked like he had swallowed something distasteful, so I went on.

I told him that the sex offender registry as it is currently doesn’t really tell us anything about the person. Getting caught peeing in the bushes near a school, being 21 and having consensual sex with a 17 year old, and molesting a 4 year old are all things that will get you on the registry, but not all of those people are of equal risk to others.

The author, Hugh Hollowell, is a Mennonite pastor who calls himself “the pastor of last resort,” I title I like so much I’m going to steal it and use it someday. He does the kind of ministry I do, I would like to do — hardscrabble ministry with lost and broken people in a place no one loves or cares much about.

But the last year has brought me here, to a ministry of mercy for abused and abandoned foster kids, most of whom are victims of sexual abuse, and many have been trafficked. I deal frequently with victims, I hear such terrible stories, and I try to minister to them, to help them understand how God is present in their lives. How God is redeeming them.

So it’s hard for me to have much sympathy for the perpetrators, many of whom are very bad men — beating, raping, abducting, buying, selling. Treating these amazing young women as mere things for pleasure and profit.

Much of the time, I want vengeance. Suffering for these men for the evil they have wrought. I don’t see them as redeemable. Not really.

But Hollowell is right. The people we label as “sex offenders” come in all shapes and sizes. For a while, I counseled a young man named Aiden who was doing six months in juvenile detention because, at 16, he had sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend. The age of consent in Washington is 16, and it’s a hard age of consent — there are no allowances for young teens who have sex with each other. Her parents found out, and were not happy. Aiden said he was okay with his sentence — it kept him off the registry, and probably gave him a chance to rethink his life a bit.

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Sadly, doing this ministry, I’ve met too many young women – 13 and 14-year-olds — with much older boyfriends — 17, 18, 19. I’ve counseled and ministered to teenage girls protecting themselves by being with men in their 20s. And some are having sex with parental permission because the parents know at least the boyfriend is kind, treats their daughter well, and keeps her safe. (Because once a girl is a rape victim in a small community, predators of all ages seem to know, and the girl is a target.) Or because there are no parents at all. This is hardly ideal, and I only grudgingly accept it, but sometimes it’s the best protection a young woman can find.

(I’ve seen what foster care can do, and what kind of charnel houses and torture chambers foster home can be. And the police aren’t much use unless a crime is actually being committed and they can stop it in the act.)

But you know, even the rapists, even the traffickers, even the murderers, are not so far in the dark that Jesus isn’t light for them, that Jesus doesn’t love them. Doesn’t redeem them. Doing what I do right now, with the victims, means I’m probably not the person to pronounce that love — I’m too close to those who have suffered. Nor does the pronouncement of that love negate any responsibility we have to punish those who hurt others and keep the vulnerable safe.

The ideal place for such a ministry is prison.

But some of these men get out. Live in our midst. And Jesus loves them too. Died for them and rose for them, pronounced to some “today you will be in paradise with me.” You wouldn’t have such people worship in a church full of victims. Not unless there was some very serious repentance, penance, and reconciliation, not unless the victims themselves want that, lead that, set the terms and have the final say.

We do need to be reminded sometimes, though, that no one is so far from the love of God that they should be excluded from the church, from the people of God, no matter who they are.

No matter what they have done.

On Repentance and Penance

Eve Tushnet, who is becoming one of my favorite public theologians, reviews a book over at The American Conservative that I would like to read — Mary Mansfield’s 1995 tome The Humiliation of Sinners: Public Penance in Thirteenth Century France. Penance and repentance, and the re-integration of penitent sinners back into the the community of the faithful, is a big deal for me, and it’s something I don’t think Christians (at least in America) know how to take seriously anymore.

Tushnet has this to say about Mansfield’s book:

Mansfield makes vivid the jury-rigged, experimental, even madcap religious world of the 1200s, which brought me comfort here in 2016. She draws out some of the aspects of medieval French religion we have lost: the intense focus on the sins of the rich and middle-class, for example. Confessors quizzed their better-off parishioners closely about usury or abuse of power; one man had to do public penance because the money he gave to the poor on his wedding day was counterfeit, which is three separate things that wouldn’t happen today.

Mansfield depicts many tensions we still struggle to resolve: the sinner’s hunger for anonymity, for example, which conflicts with his longing for reconciliation with the community. Nobody wants to be exposed—but we long to be known, forgiven, accepted as the sinners we are rather than the facades we display in public. There’s a great relief in no longer having to hide.

This longing for exposure and even for humiliation isn’t on Mansfield’s radar. One of the few disappointments of her book is how thoroughly she frames public penance in terms of the longing of others—the righteous, the self-righteous—to see sinners humiliated. She notes that the practices she describes coexisted with entirely voluntary public penances, things you’d do only because you wanted to do them, but she has chosen not to focus on those.

This is a big deal for me because of what happened after my first pastoral internship was ended early — I hugged a parishioner who did not want to be hugged, did not discern that, was not told that, and so when the situation became untenable for both the parishioner and the supervisor, the hammer came down hard and with no warning — did not include any talk of sin, of repentance and penance, and none of forgiveness and redemption (except in a very abstact sense). What followed, from both the church and seminary, was grounded solely and entirely in the language of therapy, health, and well-being.

It pretended not to judge me, as all therapeutic processes pretend, but judge me it did (my candidacy process in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America never recovered), and punish me it did. As C.S. Lewis notes in his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment”, those who have adopted this approach to sin…

… are not punishing, not inflicting, only healing. But do not let us be deceived by a name. To be taken without consent from my home and friends; to lose my liberty; to undergo all those assaults on my personality which modern psychotherapy knows how to deliver; to be re-made after some pattern of ‘normality’ hatched in a Vienese laboratory to which I never professed allegiance; to know that this process will never end until either my captors have succeeded or I grown wise enough to cheat them with apparent success—who cares whether this is called Punishment or not? That it includes most of the elements for which any punishment is feared—shame, exile, bondage, and years eaten by the locust—is obvious. Only enormous ill-desert could justify it; but ill-desert is the very conception which the Humanitarian theory has thrown overboard.

What I wanted, and yearned for in the process, was something public, a way that would show I have understood the gravity of my sin and that I broke faith not just with the parishioner I hurt, but also with the Church overseeing my formation and with the God that had called me to ministry. I also wanted to know that there was a way for the church to publicly proclaim that I had been reconciled, welcomed back into the communion of saints, that I had properly acknowledged the gravity of my sin, and had repented fully and faithfully.

Even then, I wanted what Tushnet described as an essential part of Christian community in the 13th century France.

When I wrote earlier this year that the Church has a problem with sin, and thus a problem with forgiveness, I am referring largely to this process that I (and some others I know) went through. I would have preferred public shame and humiliation and a formal church process to what began to happen more than seven years ago — a lengthy process that has left my wife and I unemployed, nearly destitute, and effectively homeless since I graduated from seminary in 2012.

The church couldn’t have punished me better if it had actually set out to.

Protestant confessions have a serious problem with sin and forgiveness. In part, protestantism begins with the confession that God’s forgiveness is unearned — which shattered the medieval system Mansfield describes in her book. This very public reconciliation of repentance and penance was not simply about restoring the sinner to the community of the faithful, it was also about restoring the sinner to communion with God — something specifically rejected by the Protestant reformers. In fact, I’ve met protestants (specifically Lutherans) who get very uneasy with that word penance.

As pietism took hold in the 17th century — a reaction to protestant legalism and an effort to show who really followed Jesus in a Christendom where everyone, or nearly everyone, was Christian simply by birth — this public confession of sin became the entry into the religious community where the striving for perfection (or sinlessness) was the goal. There was no longer an effective or even functional system for repentance, penance, reconciliation, and restoration of penitent sinners because the whole point of pietism was to distinguish real Christians who knew how to behave themselves from the careless, sinful majority of nominal Christians who don’t know their left hands from their right.

In fact, the pietistic response to sinners in the church is to shun them, to exclude them or banish them from the community of the faithful. (Lutherans are very good at shunning.) This may have roots in earlier Christian processes and customs — for example, denying Christian soldiers who killed in war the eucharist for three years so they could do penance and reconcile themselves to God — and it may come with some rules for reconciliation, among protestants those ru les are a lot less formalized and a lot less accountable. Especially to the sinner. And the shunned sinner may never be fully restored, since sinlessness is the precondition for inclusion in the community to begin with.

I never really was.

This practice of shunning sinners, of excluding them from the community of the faithful, also got wound up in notions of of class, and of bourgeois piety and propriety — this is how good citizens live and act too. Shunning had social consequences, and it meant those who were excluded from the community of the faithful were also excluded from the political community and from economic opportunity. Those who were shunned deserved the consequences of shunning — poverty, marginalization, violence at the hands of authority. In this protestant world, deprived of public rituals of repentance and penance (though dissenting and non-conformist churches also arose to allow for those “born again” to claim a place in some kind of society), once a sinner was judged, condemned, and excluded, there could be no restoration.

The Civil Rights Movement, however, confused and muddled how protestants — at least liberal protestants — dealt with shunning and exclusion. Because they began to grasp that people could be shunned, excluded, and marginalized through no fault of their own. They could suffer social death (at least from the standpoint of a good, bourgeois citizen) for no legitimate reason. (Liberalism and Progressivism has always believed in forced or compelled inclusion and participation in the national community.) And so, liberal protestantism embraced inclusion — for political and theological reasons, for both church and the greater society — for those liberal protestants came to judge as unfortunately excluded or marginalized. It was couched in a language of forgiveness, but it wasn’t really forgiving anything. (You cannot “forgive” black people for being black.) Jesus does include those formerly excluded, and we see in Acts in particular an expansion of who is called to be in God’s people (though a careful reading of the Old Testament gives us that as well). This approach at least understands that those excluded have been wounded by their shunning, and frequently come to see themselves as sinners. But it ignores the reality that this kind of liberal inclusion is really about saying to people:

“We were mistaken, and our ancestors were mistaken; you are not sinners, you are beloved children of God. Welcome, please, and join us.”

It means that even as liberal protestant churches speak of welcoming and inclusion, they still do not know what to do with real, live sinners, with people who actually earn their shunning. Because for all its progressivism, liberal protestantism still does not know how to get past that desire and demand for sinlessness that joining (or being born into) the community brings. Liberal protestant churches still expect, on some level, to be the arbiters of bourgeois social norms, what makes someone a good citizen and a worthy participant in community life, and to be a community of visible saints. Sure, there is social work to help the unfortunate (especially victims of their own sin), but such people can never really be restored to the community and never be anything except recipients of its charity and compassion.

Because if they were truly good people who God really loved, they wouldn’t need help.

What I want to see is an acceptance that Christians sin, that sin can and should be confessed (individually, and not just in some generic corporate confession), and then rituals that allow for a public repentance, penance, and acceptance that the sinner has been redeemed and restored. These rituals need not be quick — no tearful “I’m sorry!” followed by a quick “all is forgiven!” Nor do they demand a guaranteed return to one’s previous status or position. They should be rigorous and thorough and above all public. I yearned for such a process, not so much to make amends to the person I hurt (though I have not done that, in part because I was not allowed), but to let everyone know that no one, especially the sinner, has been abandoned.

Whatever humiliations the ELCA and my seminary could have heaped upon me following my misdeeds on my first internship, nothing could have been as awful, as isolating, or as humiliating as the life Jennifer and I have lived for the last four years as mendicant wanderers, utterly dependent on handouts and grace.

Or being told by an ELCA bishop: “We’re done with you.”

My hope is, in the collapse of American Christendom, the church can rediscover these older ways that Tushnet describes in Mansfield’s book, this long process of repentance and penance that can show not just sinner and community, but the world as well, that God is in our midst and has not abandoned us. Not even in our sin. Especially not in our sin. We are loved and wanted and accepted and included and wanted even when we have behaved badly, hurt others, and separated ourselves from love and grace of God and God’s people.

That repentance is work. Restoration is work. Community is work. Living as the people of God is work. That love is work.

Hard work. Grueling work. Neverending work. Essential and necessary work. Holy work.

The work that matters.

Not Godly

I am not a godly person.

I do not lead a godly life. Whatever that might be.

I do not trust people who claim to lead godly lives. Something always seems missing in their souls. They are, too often, cold and callous and cruel and condemning.

I do not trust people who call on others to lead godly lives. I do not know what they mean, except that godly always seems to include something I am not or cannot do or be.

I am not a godly person.

I am a sinner.

I live a sinner’s life.

I am redeemed. Jesus has redeemed me.

I live a redeemed sinner’s life.

Jesus met me at the well, told me who I was, healed my wounds, told me my sins were forgiven.

He found me in the marketplace, and said, “follow me.”

And I followed.

I am a sinner. I live a redeemed life. I follow Jesus because he called me.

I tell others about Jesus. That he knows them, and forgives them, too.

I have touched his wounds. And he has touched mine. He has made me whole, even as I still bear my wounds. He raised me. He lives in me.

I am not a godly person. I do not lead a godly life. I do not know what a godly life is. I’m not sure I want to know.

I am a sinner.

But I am forgiven.

I am forgiven.

Falling at His Feet

Yesterday’s gospel reading — the woman who falls as Jesus’ feet, anointing his feet with oil and her tears in Luke 7:36–8:3 (reminding us as well that women funded and paid the freight for Jesus and his disciples) — was paired with Nathan rebuking David for (what, exactly? adultery? raping?) Bathsheba and then, when her soldier husband Uriah refused to lay with his wife (so that her pregnancy would be easily explained), arranging to have Uriah killed in battle in 2 Samuel 12:1–13.

It makes sense. Here’s a matter of sin, being convicted of one’s sin, and repentance — grateful repentance in the case of the woman in Luke 7. We don’t know what the woman’s sin was, and in the lectionary reading we don’t have Nathan’s promise to David that the child he conceived in this sin with Bathsheba — whatever the nature of that sin was — and David’s long lament for his dying child.

His is not a grateful repentance. David is forgiven, but his tears are tears of fear, sorrow, and loss. Not gratitude.

But there was something I wanted to work into yesterday’s sermon that I didn’t. Because there wasn’t space or time.

The gospel reading begins

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. (Luke 7:37–38 ESV)

She doesn’t fall at Jesus’ feet, but it brings to mind something that happens to David while he’s on the run from Saul in 1 Samuel 25. David and his men show up in the wilderness of Paran (in what is now an eastern portion of the Sinai Peninsula) and basically attempt to extort a meal or two (or three) from the very wealthy Nabal:

“Nice sheep you have here, and your shearers too. Pity if something happened to them, you know, if my men — who haven’t touched them, I have to tell you, have not hurt a single one of them — were to, you know, do something. Something we might both regret.”

Nabal doesn’t fall for this. “Who is this David that I should share anything with him?” Nabal may be a rude host, but David was something of a rude guest. I’m not sure I’d respond well to this kind of threat either.

A fight looms as David’s men prepare to take up arms. However, whatever sense David seems to lack in the communications department he more than makes up for in actual behavior. His men were good, and guarded Nabal’s men and property while they were out shearing in the wilderness.

So, Nabal’s cunning and comely wife Abigail takes it upon herself to right her husband’s wrong, and avert the coming disaster. For David 400 armed men ready to kill every last man standing in Nabal’s camp.

At which point, Abigail rides out to meet David:

23 When Abigail saw David, she hurried and got down from the donkey and fell before David on her face and bowed to the ground. 24 She fell at his feet and said, “On me alone, my lord, be the guilt. Please let your servant speak in your ears, and hear the words of your servant. 25 Let not my lord regard this worthless fellow, Nabal, for as his name is, so is he. Nabal is his name, and folly is with him. But I your servant did not see the young men of my lord, whom you sent. 26 Now then, my lord, as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, because the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from saving with your own hand, now then let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be as Nabal. 27 And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. 28 Please forgive the trespass of your servant. For the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the Lord, and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. (1 Samuel 25:23–28 ESV)

What follows is Abigail’s long blessing of David, followed by a simple request that David let God have vengeance upon Nabal:

… And when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant. (1 Samuel 25:31 ESV)

Because of Abigail’s intercession, David relents. He calls off his planned vengeance against Nabal, and sends Abigail on her way:

35 Then David received from her hand what she had brought him. And he said to her, “Go up in peace to your house. See, I have obeyed your voice, and I have granted your petition.” (1 Samuel 25:35 ESV)

Within a fortnight, Nabal dies (he was a bad man to begin with, and Abigail’s betrayal left no spirit in him), David’s men arrive to take Abigail away to be his wife (it was just as well Nabal died, as she would have been just one more wife David would have stolen), and Abigail responds:

41 And she rose and bowed with her face to the ground and said, “Behold, your handmaid is a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord.” (1 Samuel 25:41 ESV)

It’s in this foot washing, Abigail’s grateful, welcoming, properly hospitable foot washing, that I saw the parallels or allusions between this story and what happens to Jesus at Simon the Pharisee’s house in Luke 7. Abigail repents of sin — in this case, its her husband’s lack of hospitality — and petitions David for forgiveness. To stay the hand of judgement of condemnation. David sends her on her way, forgiven, spared, redeemed. It isn’t just Abigail who is saved here — David promised that “by morning there [would] not have been left to Nabal so much as one male.” (1 Samuel 25:34) She saved everyone who worked (or was owned) by her husband, and any sons she might have had.

She saved everyone but Nabal, a worthless man who died of a broken heart. (Vengeance against Nabal belongs to God!) And let’s be fair — he had it coming, being “harsh and badly behaved.” (Though, he has a solid pedigree as a descendant of Caleb, the only spy besides Joshua who survives the first reconnoitering of the promised land.)

Jesus gives Simon the Pharisee quite a lecture on hospitality — Simon didn’t provide water for Jesus to wash his feet, didn’t kiss him, didn’t anoint his head with oil, whereas the woman, with her grateful tears and her ointment, did all of these things.

Who was more hospitable? The Pharisee with the well appointed house who could host Jesus of Nazareth for dinner, or the wandering “woman of the city” who was a sinner? Who was more hospitable? The wealthy trader and shepherd who could eat for himself “a feast like a king” (1 Sam 25:36), or the wife who had nothing of her own and chose to grovel for mercy and forgiveness before the leader of a group of mercenary bandits?

Who knew enough to ask for forgiveness? And respond in gratitude?

SERMON Trinity Sunday

I did not preach this Sunday — well, I did, kind of — and so it looked something like this.

Trinity Sunday (Year C)

  • Proverbs 8:1–31
  • Acts 2:14–36
  • Psalm 8
  • John 8:48–59

48 The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death. ’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God. ’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (John 8:48–59 ESV)

This is Trinity Sunday, the day the church has chosen to try and explain the inexplicable. To describe the indescribable. To define the indefinable. And we try any number of ways to explain this inexplicable and deeply irrational thing — that we believe in one God who is actually three separate and distinct persons and yet still only one God.

I’m going to let Athanasius, the fourth-century saint whose lengthy creed we claim as authoritative but otherwise leave mouldering on the shelf only to dust off and confess this day, do the hard work for me:

[W]e worship one God in trinity, and the Trinity is unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.

For the person of the Father is one, that of the Son another, and that of the Holy Spirit still another, but the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one — equal in glory, coequal in majesty.

What the father is, such is the son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father is uncreated; the Son in uncreated; the Holy Spirit is uncreated. The Father is unlimited; the Son is unlimited; the Holy Spirit is unlimited. The Father is eternal; the Son is eternal; the Holy Spirit is eternal—and yet there are not three eternal beings but one who is eternal, just as there are not three uncreated or unlimited beings, but one who is uncreated and unlimited. In the same way, the Father is almighty; the Son is almighty; the Holy Spirit is almighty—and yet there are not three almighty beings but one who is almighty.

Thus, the Father is God; the Son is god; the Holy Spirit is God—and yet there are not three gods but one God. Thus the Father is Lord; the Son is Lord; the Holy Spirit is Lord—and yet there are not three lords; but one Lord. For just as we are compelled by the Christian truth to confess that each distinct person is God and Lord, so we are forbidden by the catholic religion to say there are three gods or three lords.

The Father was neither made nor created nor begotten by anyone. The Son is from the Father alone, not made or created or begotten. The Holy Spirit is from the Father and the Son, not made or created or begotten but proceeding. Therefore there is one Father, not three fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Spirit, not three holy spirits. And in this Trinity none is before or after, greater or less than another, but all three persons are in themselves coeternal and coequal, so that (as has been stated above) in all things the Trinity in unity and the Unity in trinity must be worshiped. Therefore, who wants to be saved should think thus about the trinity.

Thus we should think about the Trinity. What a mouthful. Small wonder we leave these pages alone for early the entirety of the church year. Recite this, and you’ve taken up a good portion of a typical worship service!

But note what this is. Athanasius is not giving us an explanation. He’s not saying what the trinity is, though he is spending his time telling us what the Trinity isn’t — three fathers and three sons and three spirits, or that the Son emanated from the Father and the Spirit from the Son. He’s also not telling telling us how this is so. He’s confessing the Trinity as a true understanding not just of how we perceive God at work, but who and what God actually is.

In effect, Athanasius is saying this Trinity we worship as one God, undivided and indivisible but somehow three very separate persons, is a mystery we confess rather than understand. Something we experience, rather than explain. Trinity needs no explanation. It is the truth that explains.

In our first reading, we have wisdom — Σοφια in Greek, חָכְמָה in Hebrew — claiming to have been there since before the beginning, before The Lord said “Let there be light!,” separated the waters, and filled the world with green things, creeping things, flying things, and people.

I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man. (Proverbs 8:30–31 ESV)

From the beginning, this Spirit was with God, rejoicing and celebrating in the work of creation, in all the things and creatures God created.

This Spirit is God, is with us still, blows through this world like the breath God gives to all that lives, delighting in us, celebrating with God in the goodness of even a fallen creation. In the children of men, evil and sinful though we can be.

And in our Gospel reading, Jesus tells a group of Judeans after a long and drawn out discussion about light and truth and doing the work and being one with the father, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” The Judeans — Jews is most translations, it’s the same word in Greek — are already angry at Jesus. He’s not one of them, he’s challenged some of their most cherished assumptions — particularly the faith that their patrimony, their heritage, their ties to their ancestor Abraham — will somehow save them, or privilege them before God.

But Jesus will have none of it. Whoever keeps his word will never taste death, Jesus says. He glorifies only the Father, and does only what the Father commands and empowers him to do. And he confesses, “Before Abraham was, I am.”

In the present tense. Like Sophia, there at the beginning, being the Word through which the creation was spoken into being. Being the light that came into the world.

There’s something very strange, however, about the Son we meet in our gospel reading today.

A little further on in his very lengthy creed, Athanasius writes of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ:

Although he is god and a human being, nevertheless he is not two but one Christ. However, he is not one by the changing of the divinity in the flesh but by the taking up of the humanity in God. Indeed, he is not one by a confusion of substance but by a unity of person. For, as the rational soul and the flesh are one human being, so God and the human being are one Christ.

Christ is human, God wrapped in flesh. One of us, lifting our humanity up.

This chapter of John begins with a woman caught in the act of adultery being brought to Jesus and asked his opinion on what should be done. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he says to the Pharisees who presented her. They slink away, and Jesus pardons the woman, telling her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

He could save her from the wrath of those who would impose the law.

The chapter ends with Jesus hiding as many of those same Pharisees pick up stones to hurl at him. Because he claimed to be older than Abraham.

He could not save himself.

This God in flesh, who was there before the beginning, who was the word through which the cosmos was breathed into being, who with wisdom rejoiced in the creation of the world, could save a woman from the frightful consequences of the law. Could pose the question that disarmed all her accusers.

But he could not save himself.

This God almighty has to slink and hide and cower while angry religious leaders with stones in their hands search for him, seeking his death.

He can save us. But he cannot save himself.

This is what it means to confess a Triune God of Father, Son, and Spirit, in which the Son is incarnate in our midst, in flesh as one of us, fully God and fully man. When you meet Christ, a cowering Christ fleeing those who will kill him, you meet God. When you meet Christ, betrayed and humiliated and tortured and crucified and helpless to save himself, you meet God.

Conversely, because it is our humanity that has been elevated, when you meet a person treated this way, to meet this kind of suffering, to meet betrayal and humiliation and torture and helplessness and death, you meet God. When you meet a person cowering in fear, seeking safety, running from those who hands claw and grasp, or who clutch tightly stones of judgment and condemnation, you meet God.

Not in glory. Not in strength. Not in wealth. Not in comfort. Not in greatness. Not in purity or position or privilege or power.

But condemned, in suffering, sorrow, fear, pain, death. This is where God is.

This is who God is.

This is what it means, these dusty old words of St. Athanasius, words we don’t like to say or even much think about. When we confess God as Trinity, we confess our faith and trust in a God who takes so much joy in the creation that he became enfleshed in it, shared our uncertain and difficult lives, suffered with us, and suffered at our hands, dying a deeply unjust death so that we who trust and follow may have eternal life.

He created the world, breathed it all into being. But he cannot save himself.

That, sisters and brothers, is what it means to confess God as Trinity.

The Church’s Problem With Sin

One of the young people I minister to explained to me a problem she has with her church.

Or rather, her church has with with her.

She’s attended a church-affiliated summer camp for years, first as a camper and then as a volunteer worker. She wants to again this summer, because camp is such a huge part of her life and her faith formation, but was told by her pastor: “You’re not a good ambassador for Christ. Your life… is not an example of the Christian life.”

This young woman would be the first to confess she has sinned — the sins in this instance are almost all sexual, but much of it also has to deal with her failure to obey the authority figures in her life. (Her church is a very conservative, patriarchal, and hierarchical church that places a tremendous emphasis on obedience, virginity and sexual purity, especially for women.) She has not made the best choices, she admits, and she repented of those choices and sought forgiveness. But she will also angrily state that much of that sin has been forced upon her, and from a very young age.

“Didn’t choose that!” she said.

Now, under the rules of the church, she may be too old to volunteer at the camp — apparently she was given some grace last summer — but being too old is not the reason she was given for being ineligible to work.

Being a sinner was.

It’s the kind of thing I think we who are more liberal Christians1 suspect from conservative churches — an intolerance toward sinners, a refusal to forgive them, shunning and isolation and eventual exclusion. Except that, sadly, it’s exactly what the very liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America did to me. That was the reason, so I’m told, that I was tossed out of the candidacy process for ordained ministry the second time. (Because no one ever told me directly, not either time.) I was too much of a sinner, lived a life where I’d made far too many “poor choices” to be an example of Christ in the world.

That I was am too much of a sinner to proclaim God’s redeeming grace.

The church, at least the American church, has a problem with sin. Sin these days is almost something someone else does. Oh, liberals and progressives will sadly and tearfully proclaim their “complicity” in systems and structures of sin (racism, oppression, capitalism, sexism, blah blah blah) but because they mean well and want these things undone (whatever that might mean), they are only sinners in an abstract way2. Aside from this, liberals and conservatives always place they sin they accuse is putting the church and the world at risk somewhere else, with someone else, someone not in the community.

Someone — a homosexual, a racist — who cannot repent.

If the sins we are “confessing” are not our own, then we cannot forgive them. Or be forgiven. Except as self-righteous posturing.

And thus the church’s problem with sin is really a problem with forigveness. Because if we cannot confess our sins, our very own sins that have nothing to do with the structures or systems of the world (a copout notion if ever there was one), then we cannot receive Christ’s forgiveness. We cannot receive mercy.

And we cannot be mercy. We send people away, telling them “you are sinner and there is no forgiveness for you that can matter.” We cannot live as redeemed or forgiven people. Rather, we liberal Christians too get hung up on purity, on righteousness, on living lives “above reproach” (as St. Paul wrote to Timothy and Titus), and believing those kinds of lives — lives lived holy and perfect and upright without any need for forgiveness — are the only kinds of lives that can bear witness to the glory and grace of God.

There is no redemption in this church because there are no sinners except in the most abstract of ways. We might confess our sinfulness (as many liturgical Christians do every Sunday), but we don’t confess our actual sins. We might receive forgiveness, but like Donald Trump, we’re more or less convinced we haven’t done anything so bad we actually need it.

The sinners, the real sinners, are outside. Unrepentant. Irredeemable. If any get in here, well, that was an accident, and we’ll fix it.

I’ve never liked the term “above reproach,” I find myself wondering what it means when the author was a murderer and when God himself happily loved, called, and forgave adulterous wife stealers like David and troublesome, intemperate priests like Martin Luther to do God’s work. A life lived to the glory of God is a redeemed life, one that bears witness to the fact that Christ calls and forgives sinners. Are some more sinful than others? Clearly. Do some stumble more than others? Absolutely. But the gospels show us that Christ is much more interested in the lost and the repentant than he is in the righteous. He called them — us — and not the righteous to build a church.

A life “above reproach” is, I think, one lived fully in the grace and forgiveness of Christ. It is a life in which one repents but does not apologize for sin (save to those wounded by the sin), a life lived in the clear, bright light of our redemption. The Christian life is a redeemed life. Knowing gratefully exactly how that redemption was achieved. And what it cost.

On the cross.


  1. I hate calling myself a liberal Christian, because I don’t think I really am, but I’m not really a conservative either. I suppose it’s my own fault I’m not accepted and don’t belong anywhere … I simply cannot live my life in harmony with the songs everyone else insist upon singing. ↩︎
  2. Liberal Christians also have this very annoying habit of repenting for sins they did not commit, such as The Crusades, the colonization of the Americas, the Shoah, or Jim Crow. Because it’s easy, repenting of things you actually haven’t done, and makes you look good and feel good too! (Like a country road after a summer rain!) This is a tawdry self-righteousness the brings to mind something Jesus said as he proclaimed the seven woes of the scribes and the Pharisees:

    29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets. ’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (Matthew 23:29–31 ESV) ↩︎

LENT Sending to Babylon

11 I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.
12 I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God.
13 Also henceforth I am he;
there is none who can deliver from my hand;
I work, and who can turn it back?”
14 Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel:
“For your sake I send to Babylon
and bring them all down as fugitives,
even the Chaldeans, in the ships in which they rejoice.
15 I am the Lord, your Holy One,
the Creator of Israel, your King.
(Isaiah 43:11-15 ESV)

What goes around, comes around. And as you sow, so shall you reap. My mother told me once she believes these things — that those who do evil in the world are eventually repaid their evil. A kind-of karma, if you will, that evens the world out, and make the world morally comprehensible.

I don’t believe these things. I haven’t since I was in the Army in Panama, where all sorts of shady and illegal and dangerous things were done by people in power, things that put a lot of people — a lot of soldiers — at risk. Of course, I was primed not to believe in anything resembling karma or just desserts or the coming around of things that go because too many people who have hurt me, who took joy in it and for whom it seemed their purpose, prospered, and probably slept happily, their dreams untroubled by my sorrow and my nightmares.

The same is true, sadly, today. People can hurt me, and they do, and nothing comes of it. They pay no price, suffer no consequences, feel no pangs of sorrow or conscience, lose no sleep. They are not caught and lectured or reprimanded or punished. Indeed, they are probably given medals and told, “Keep up the good work!” Dealing with me is probably akin to a burp or a sneeze, a minor inconvenience to be forgotten as soon as the moment passes.

No, what goes around most definitely does not come around.

God here is delivering Israel from exile. Raising Israel up from the living death that is their sorrow and mourning along the banks of the Tigris. God used Babylon to bring Israel low, the means of God’s wrath upon his faithless and idolatrous people. In the armies of Nebuchadnezzar is all the wrath and rage of God at a people who long before stopped being the grateful and humble recipients of God’s grace.

This is, however, only a temporary privilege, and Babylon too will pay the price for the destruction it has wrought, for carrying Israel into an exile where it could taunt and demand the Israelites sing them songs. Babylon itself faces conquest. And exile. Babylon faces judgment at the hands of the very instruments it once gloried in — armies, strength, power.

But is this what goes around comes around?

There are days I wish God would bring low some of those who have so harshly judged me. Who have cast me out, who have taunted and tormented and abused me. I’m not sure I want their suffering — I am too tenderhearted and kind for that — but I do want to know that somehow I matter enough to God that some kind of vengeance, some kind of price, is paid by a people willing to cast me out, to treat me as someone of no value. I don’t know if I would take joy in seeing that. But I want to know that I matter enough to God, to be worth the kind of recompense that looks like what goes around comes around.

Mostly I just want the casting out undone, though I know it can’t be and it won’t be. I am in exile. On the banks of the river. With a song of sorrow in my heart. Waiting for God’s deliverance. Waiting…

On Patriarchy and Hierarchy

I have been very busy at work of late, but this has been rambling around my head for a bit, and I finally have some time to commit it to paper.

Rod Dreher over at The American Conservative has recently been writing about religion and family structure, and how essential good family life is to an understanding of God. He quotes here from Mary Eberstadt’s How The West Really Lost God: A New Theory of Secularization, about the role of out-of-wedlock births and even small families has played in the increasing inability of westerners to comprehend the triune God:

The point is that out-of-wedlock births institutionalized on today’s scale work against the churches in a different way. Once again, at stake here are some fundamental issues of religious anthropology, or how people come to understand, believe, and practice religion in the first place — or not. And one thing that the experience of illegitimacy does is to pit a great many people’s actual experience of the world — say, of growing up with an absent or delinquent father — against the very foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition: to repeat, the notion that God can be understood as a benevolent, protecting male parent. How can that relationship between creature and creator be understood when the very word “father” may be associated more with negative than with positive characteristics?

Similarly, how can the story of the Holy Family be understood in a world where a family is increasingly said to be whatever anyone in possession of voluntary associations wants it to be? It was one thing, say, for children to understand the figure of the adoptive father Joseph at a time when most came from traditional homes, and Joseph was easily grasped as someone “like” one’s own father. But to ask children who do not have such protectors to understand what it is like to have one, and to encourage them to build their lives and souls around a concept that some will find elusive or even incredible is a very different conceptual challenge — and one that, to repeat, has not been faced by Christian leaders of the past, because it did not exist in the past on anything like today’s scale. Once again, the realities of today’s intentionally created and often fractured family life potentially impede grasping Christianity or finding it appealing, often in subtle and unexpected ways.

This piece, and a couple of posts on parenting and cell phones (I commented twice on this post) and the decline of parental solidarity describe to me one of the features of conservatism that I find my most troubling — the protection of our own, especially if one’s own are untainted (or be kept untainted and untouched) by impurity or undamaged by the sinfulness or wickedness of the world.

Eberstadt says here that it takes a natural family — a proper family — to fully understand both the Holy Family (Joseph assuming his responsibility despite Mary’s “unnatural” pregnancy, though it took divine intervention to prompt him, according to Matthew 1:18–25) and, I’m guessing, God as Father. This is the kind of natural theology I have come to expect from conservatives deeply interested in the right ordering of the world largely for its own sake. Our material order reflects a divine order, and our sinful attempts to re-order the world merely de-orders the world, sets us against our natures, and by doing so, furthers the distance between us and God.

(This assumes I understand the conservative position correctly.)

To be blunt, the longer I work with wounded, traumatized, and abandoned kids, the more I have become convinced that this conservative understanding is right — or at least is more right than it is wrong. I do think having a father, or some kind of very real father figure, helps grasp the love and role of God in our lives and in the world. As Christians who believe and confess an incarnation God, we cannot believe otherwise — to know self-giving, self-sacrificing human love is to know something of the love of God.

And, sadly, to not know that love is to not know something of the love of God as well.

Last year, a friend gave Jennifer and me a reprinted copy of a charming little Catholic children’s book from the 1950s, Manners in God’s House: First Prayers and First Missal. The language is simple (“Heaven is God’s home. God wants us to be with Him in heaven some day. Nobody cries there because everybody is happy. Jesus has a place for us in heaven. If we love Him, we will go there and be happy too.”), the pictures are wholesome (even of dead Jesus), and Mary is sweet and pure and blonde. It describes a gentle but firm hierarchy which encourages and rewards obedience, in which there is a place for everyone, everyone is in their place, and all are honored being good children of God. Jennifer was especially fond of this little book, and even cried, because this was the world she wanted to grow up in. This is the world as she wished it worked. I’m a little more dubious, if only because the book’s relentless focus on our happiness as something that is God’s top priority (behaving properly in church will let you take “His happiness with you. He will help you be happier than ever.”) has more than the whiff of Moral Therapeutic Deism to it. (I also object to the rules for behavior in church, which ignore almost entirely why we gather, or who we gather to meet — Jesus — and make keeping the church beautiful as a primary focus, and helping the poor a kind-of accident we do with whatever is leftover.)

I have come to believe in a functional hierarchy, in a well-ordered world in which all are valued and in which there is a place — a useful, important, protected, and respected place — for everyone.

But there’s the rub for me. One of the great gifts of the 20th century has been the tearing down of patriarchy and hierarchy for its utter failure to even get close to its ideals. Patriarchy and hierarchy exist not just as natural consequences of human beings living together, they are not just “good order,” but they exist for a purpose — to protect and nurture the weak, to foster the well-being of children, and to wisely rule our collective and communal affairs. And what the 20th century showed is that far too much patriarchy and hierarchy is self-serving, abusive, self-righteous, and utterly uninterested in the well-being of those who are not deemed properly virtuous, or don’t belong, or whose lives are not worth being nurtured, fostered, or protected.

What if your father is brutal and indifferent? What if your father rapes you repeatedly? What if your father has no kind words for you? What if your father ups and leaves and you one day and you never see him again? These are real experiences too, and what is the child who lives with and through these to make of God as Father?

Take Dreher’s post on cell phones. Nowhere in that discussion, that I could see, was there any understanding that there might be young people whose lives were something other than good, who belonged to families where something other than the ideal would reign (save for my two comments). It was all about protecting our kids — good kids — from evil. There was no possibility or prospect of evangelization, of adoption, of protecting others, of where technology might make any of that possible. And it is because of this kind of thing that I am still deeply suspicious of social and cultural conservatism — it seems to demand a base virtue that becomes an identity, and no one who has fallen can be redeemed or is redeemable in their fallen state. No kids with broken lives, in violent families, in shattered communities, need apply to be protected — because their lives simply aren’t worth protecting. They’ve already fallen by the wayside. There’s no point in trying to pick them up.

Conservatives seem intent upon defending, protecting, and restoring a hierarchy which abuses, which discards, which serves itself rather than weak and vulnerable, and which determines worth, value, and status and allows those deemed without any of those things to be abused with impunity.

Sadly, I think this is a reality of patriarchy and hierarchy too. It can protect, and defend, and nurture, and give of itself. I am trying to do that as a father figure to what has now become a volleyball team of teenagers who rely on me for strength, security, kindness, and empathy. As I have become a patriarch, I have come to believe in its good possibilities.

But I do so for kids who live in a very nearly wrecked world, in which hierarchy encourages, justifies, hides, and ignores abuse. In which those with power take, but do not give of themselves. Who command, and do not listen. Who break, and do not heal. This too is a reality of patriarchy and hierarchy.

The progressive critique of hierarchy and patriarchy is to replace it with a full-fledged egalitarianism that demands no distinction between people. As a critique, it says something important about arbitrary power and position. But like most progressive and leftist critiques, it is an impossible foundation, it cannot built upon, because it ignores how people actually organize ourselves (or it demands so much coercive and even violent re-education to achieve anything that it is just as brutal as what it replaced). It will be difficult, as we go forward, to square the conservative ideal of patriarchy and hierarchy with what we know to be its all-to-frequent reality. But we will have to live in that tension. And we will have to make it work.

Something I think will help will be to remember obligations. We live in a rights-obsessed world. Everyone is aggrieved, and everyone has rights. Even the wealthy and powerful, who sometimes come off sounding like the most aggrieved and put-upon people in the world. We forget that with power and position come responsibility and obligation. The patriarch has a responsibility to protect and defend. The conservative seems to love when Paul writes in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 that wives should obey husbands, children should obey parents, and slaves should obey masters, but almost always forgets that husbands should love and sacrifice themselves for their wives as Christ sacrificed himself for the church, that fathers should not provoke their children to anger or cause them to be discouraged, and that masters should stop threatening their slaves and treat them justly and kindly.

These obligations matter, and they can be the ideal too. They will never be fully lived into, but they are worthy of aspiring to.

And we also have an obligation to the lost, to those whose lives have been thrown away. Jesus left the 99 to fine the one, lost and alone in a cruel and threatening wilderness. The early church created an ethic of life in part because early Christians saved and raised and cared for as their own newborns exposed on the garbage dumps of the Greco-Roman world. (So did slave traders, though for an entirely different purpose.) I’ve said this before and I will say this again — conservative American Christians have become so concerned with preserving the natural family they have completely forgotten that the church itself is a fictive family, made of broken bits and pieces scavenged from the world, and that we are all mothers and father and brothers and sisters in Christ. Kids who don’t come from stable, proper families may not know a father as a protector, but they still hunger for it. (There’s your human nature right there.) They can still meet that God if they can meet people who will care for them. I understand the desire to build a wall around all that is good and pure and wonderful, and to protect it from a world that seems intent on stripping us of our ability to connect with each other, to love and care for each other or even ourselves, in any meaningful way. But we will betray our calling, our history, ourselves, and our crucified and risen Lord, if the only people we care about are “our own.”

SERMON The Joy of the Lord is Your Strength

I did not preach this Sunday. Instead, I’m working all day. Because I need to work the occasional Sunday. If I had preached, it would have been something like this.

However, I am preaching next Sunday, January 31, at First Reformed Church in Chatham, New York. Worship starts at 10:00 a.m., so if you are in the area, come and hear the gospel. You might even meet Jesus!

Third Sunday after Epiphany / Lectionary 3 (Year C)

  • Nehemiah 8:1–12
  • Psalm 19
  • 1 Corinthians 12:12–31a
  • Luke 4:14–21

1 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. 4 And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 6 And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. 8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. (Nehemiah 8:1–12 ESV)

 

14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:14-21 ESV)

Long before today’s reading, as the waning decades of the Kingdom of Judah are related in 2 Kings, the word of the Lord — the teaching of God to Moses — was found. By accident, in a dusty corner of temple. It was being cleaned out so Israel could hold something of a great garage sale to raise money to repair the temple. Hilkiah, the high priest of Israel, has found a scroll while rummaging around. A book. The teaching. The torah.

The law of God, the teaching to Israel through Moses, had been lost in the temple, amidst the banners and the silverware and the broken images of false gods. I suspect King Hezekiah had a few “now where did we put the torah?” moments during his reign. And so Hilkiah tells Josiah, the King of Judah, that a book of the law has been found.

“When the king heard the words of Book of the Law, he tore his clothes,” the authors of 2 Kings tell us. Josiah, a good king committed to following God’s teaching and having his people follow that teaching as well, then instructs his priests to go ask God whites in store next for his kingdom. He’s heard the words of the teaching, and he knows just how much Israel has deviated from that teaching.

“For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.” (2 Kings 22:13)

He expects doom, the doom that has fallen upon faithless Israel to the north, which was conquered and resettled by Assyria because the kings of Israel — and its wayward people — worshiped golden calves, and other idols, including the false and foreign gods of the Assyrians. He tears his clothes, and he fears the worst.

But a woman, Hulda the Prophet, tells the king that his faithfulness has saved Judah, and has delayed the disaster forecast in the book:

19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. 20 Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.” (2 Kings 22:19–20 ESV)

By repentance and a promise to be faithful, the coming disaster has been delayed, but not avoided. Judgment will still come upon Judah, Upon God’s faithless people. But this turning will push it back a little. Those who are faithful, will see a reward — in their lives — for their faithfulness.

I’m telling the story of the rediscovery of the law under King Josiah, and his commitment to keeping the law, to contrast it with both our Gospel reading and the passage we heard from Nehemiah. And with our understanding as well.

We have gathered today, probably not as many as many people here in the place as gathered that day when Nehemiah read the law to Israel in the square before the Water Gate, to hear the word read. Not the whole Book of Deuteronomy — I doubt many today would have patience for that — but our simple and short readings from Nehemiah, Luke, and Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth.

King Josiah was sad, and even afraid, when the book of the law was read to him. He knew how he, and Israel, had fallen short — and what God had in store for Israel. In Deuteronomy, God promises famine, disease, conquest, defeat, exile, and slavery in response to Israel’s faithlessness. God does promise an eventual restoration, if Israel remembers its relationship with God. But failure on Israel’s part to live out the covenant meant doom.

And Josiah saw that doom. He’d seen how it overtook the northern portion of God’s divided people. And he knew it was coming for Judah. For Jerusalem.

And so he weeps. He mourns. He tears his clothes.

Nehemiah tells Israel something different. In part, because Nehemiah is reaping something of the promised regathering. Israel has come home from exile in Babylon, has started rebuilding the long-abandoned city of Jerusalem, and has seen the beginning of its redemption. So Ezra the priest reads the law, and if all Israel gathered at the Water Gate is moved to weep, and mourn, and tear their clothes, and fast — remember the king of Nineveh’s command to his people upon hearing the news of Jonah’s short sermon of doom — Nehemiah, the governor of the province of Judea (because remember that Judah is merely a province of the Persian Empire at this point) has told his people to remember that this day is holy, and they are not to mourn. They are not to fast. They have heard the words of the teaching, and while they know the sinfulness and faithlessness of their fathers, Nehemiah understands they live in the promise.

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. (Deuteronomy 30:1–3 ESV)

So feast, Nehemiah says, east and drink and remember who you are. Remember whose you are. “Do not be sad, and do not weep, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Celebrate. The time for weeping will come — it comes in the next chapter, when Israel as a people tells its and story confesses its sin and its miserable position. Even with the end of the exile, Israel understands, just how precarious and contingent their existence as a people really is. Because they aren’t truly free.

36 Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. 37 And its rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please, and we are in great distress. (Nehemiah 9:36–37 ESV)

Still, even as Ezra reads the law to regathered Israel, Nehemiah tells them to celebrate. To feast. To take joy. They may not be free, may not yet live in the fully realized promise of God. But they have that promise. That is worth celebrating.

In our gospel reading, we have Jesus proclaiming, as he reads from the book of the Prophet Isaiah — the captivity of God’s people is over. Good news has come, for the poor, the blind, and the captive. There will be enough for all, the blind will see, and the captive will be set free. And rolling up the scroll, with all eyes fixed upon him, Jesus proclaims — “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus walks into the synagogue in Nazareth and says God’s promise is real and realized. Because Jesus himself is the fulfillment of this promise. His person, his life, his ministry, his coming death, and his resurrection — this is the promise of God made real. He is the freedom Israel yearned for when they confessed their sin to Nehemiah and Ezra. He is the freedom Isaiah promised.

His freedom is ours. He invites us in to it, makes it part of us, makes us part of him. We are free. He sets us free.

There are times to weep and mourn when we hear to clear teaching of God in the torah, when we know how we have failed to keep our end of the covenant with God and face the very real consequences. Josiah was right to tear his clothes, and Israel was right gather in sackcloth and ashes to confess their sin before their leaders and before the Lord their God. When we hear the teaching that convicts us, reminds us, forces us to go to God knowing that God, his promise, his grace, and his redemption, are all we have.

But Nehemiah reminds us that there are times when we hear the words of God and we are to celebrate, to be glad, to feast, to remember that the joy of the Lord is our strength. God’s own joy is is our strength, our protection! We are to eat and drink, and be glad. We have God’s own good news! We can see! We have been set free! So come to the Lord’s table, eat and drink, and remember God rejoices over you! Our days of living in fear and uncertainty, weeping over our fate, our exile, our dispossession, are over.

Because today, the promise of God is fulfilled in our midst.