Wishing A “Bad Protestant” Was Someone Other Than a Hypocrite

Aaron Taylor over at First Things laments about moral relativism as he writes about giving communion to the divorced and remarried, but does so for a reason I find deeply refreshing:

The attitude of these priests reflects, for the most part, the historic Catholic modus operandi: on the one hand, clear and demanding moral standards, known to all (or easily discoverable by all who care to know); on the other hand, a lackadaisical approach to enforcing those standards. In other words, a preference for the Southern European approach to rules over the Anglo-Saxon model that demands law be rigorously enforced or else scrapped.

This modus operandi is delicately balanced, however. When moral standards themselves are relativized, what emerges is not a Church in which everyone simply moves on from the idea of mortal sin. It’s a Church in which remaining moral standards are increasingly contradictory. When one group is excused from obedience to law, more exacting standards are required elsewhere, in an attempt to re-balance the mystic scales of justice—deflecting attention to the sins of group B to excuse the sins of group A.

Consequently, the current direction in the Church is not (as conservatives fear) toward adopting progressive sexual mores, but more in the direction of conservative Protestantism—which, for the most part, has jettisoned or twisted biblical teaching that conflicts with those aspects of the sexual revolution that appeal to heterosexual males, while ramping up the opprobrium against everyone else. While gay evangelical teens kill themselves in despair, heterosexual adults who shame them live indistinguishably from non-Christians.

The same approach is gaining a foothold in the Catholic Church. Want heterosexual sex without its natural consequences? No need to breed like rabbits. Having an affair? We’ll accompany you while you discern how your new sex life accords with God’s will. Want to cohabitate? Your relationship might have the grace of a marriage anyway. But a Google news search for “gay teacher fired by Catholic school” returns over 13,000 results.

In effect, everything is slouching toward a dull, Protestant piety in which some sinners are condemned in such ways that their repentance and inclusion in the community of the faithful becomes impossible, while other sinners are given a pass because their sins are so … ordinary.

Hardly sins to begin with.

Rather than arguing for more well-adjusted, well-ordered moral rectitude, Taylor examines the life of 19th French poet Paul Verlaine (and, obliquely, Oscar Wilde), whose relationship with the church was tumultuous, and “he spent the rest of his life [after his imprisonment for sodomy] oscillating between periods of fervent devotion and drunken escapades with prostitutes.”

Imagine, however, that Verlaine had lived not in the 1870s but in the 2070s, that he had converted into a Church stripped of black-and-white thinking about sin and grace, in which priests are schooled in the arts of “discernment” and “accompaniment.” Verlaine could then have been assisted to appreciate the positive dimensions of his relationship with Rimbaud (or of his encounters with prostitutes), relax, and let go of the rigid moral thinking that left him racked with guilt.

Some souls need the emotional intensity that faith and redemption brings, because some people lead dissolute or disreputable lives and still find redeeming faith, even an emotional and spiritual intensity in the encounter with God. Taylor writes that Verlaine clearly did. But we cannot have such people in the church today. Our piety won’t allow it, our bourgeois sensibilities won’t allow it (because such lives represent a threat to an increasingly tenuous bourgeois order), and frankly, our lawyers won’t allow it either.

And so … the church becomes a dull collection of calm, bourgeois at prayer whose only acceptable enthusiasm is political activism. As Taylor writes:

The disappearance of the Verlaine-style “bad Catholic” from the contemporary Catholic landscape is not a sign that everyone became holy in the 1970s. It is a serious impoverishment. Those who are forgiven little, love little. Sin is ugly, but it is part of the moral economy that makes grace intelligible. Without it, the narrative of salvation history looks somewhat ridiculous, for what do we need saving from? There can be something beautiful about the life of someone who genuinely struggles with sin instead of making excuses, and beauty is indicative of truth.

And Taylor then quotes Oscar Wilde, a man with his own troubled relationship with the Church: “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.”

The church in America, progressive and conservative, seeks to be nothing but a community of the respectable, a community of the well-adjusted and well-ordered, a community of those forgiven but who really haven’t done anything so wrong that they need forgiveness. (Remember the lived creed of most of the church: “If you truly need God’s grace, you clearly don’t deserve it.”) I suspect most American Christians, while confessing an anodyne sin-nature, would likely echo Donald Trump’s sentiments that they haven’t really done anything wrong enough to need God’s forgiveness. (Though many would also be overcome with liberal guilt about the state of the world as well.)

Into this community, no one else is allowed. Not really.

I do think Southern Baptists understand what Taylor misses, at least on the edges, with the notion that “one must sin in order to be saved.” But it would be nice, somewhere, to find a church community that gets, truly gets, you can sin, and still be saved.

ADVENT 9 / It Sucks to be Born at Such a Time

This year, for the four weeks of Advent, we are doing the #RendTheHeavens devotion at both The Featherblog as well as Psalm 10 Ministries.


The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. (Isaiah 24:5 ESV)

Punishment.

I hate that word.

“God will punish you!” I’ve heard it. Not recently, not as an adult, but as a child, from some people who called themselves faithful Christians, followers of Jesus, people who pointed fingers and said, “God will punish you because you do not believe!”

As an adult, I’ve seen the shaking of heads, heard the whispered muttering which suggests that my problems, my suffering, are all my fault. If only I was a better person, more pious, of better character, I would not have suffered, not be poor, not be in such need.

My fault.

God is punishing me. For my faithlessness.

Maybe.

There are consequences for sin. War and penury, defeat and conquest and exile.

But often times, children pay for the sins of their parents. Some pay for the sins of others. The generation of Israel that went into exile was not that generation whose sinfulness, whose faithless idolatry, brought about war and death and exile. It is not fair, and it does not seem right to us.

But it is the way of things.

When we sin, we who God has called to follow, we set into motion things we cannot control, things we cannot see or understand until they are upon us. We may live well, but in that living well, and all that comes with it, are the seeds of our destruction. Israel under Solomon was a rich and powerful state, with a huge army and a sprawling court of ministers and priests and officials and concubines. But that power brought with it the cause of its destruction, as Israelites rebelled against the cost of that army and court, failed to show mercy and forbearance to each other, and rejected the God of Israel as they deliberately rejected the inheritance of David.

The earth becomes defiled. The consequences of sin become bigger than us, seeping into the air and the water — in, with, and under the sky and the soil. Everywhere. The consequences of sin from long ago oozes and poisons everything, wrecking and ruining individuals, families, neighborhoods, communities, even whole kingdoms.

This is not punishment. Those who sin often times live lives of ease. But their sin, that ease, creates conditions that someone will, eventually, pay for. Sucks to born at such a time. To know that once, life was easy and life was good, but now, not so much. Sucks even more to know that ease and that goodness is likely one of the reasons things are so hard now.

Not my doing! I didn’t do this! I’m not the cause of this! The earth is not defiled because of what I have done! I shouldn’t have to pay for this! To suffer for the sins of others! It’s not right! It’s not fair!

But defiled it is. With sins I inherit but did not commit.

JUDGES That Israel Might Know War

A reading from the Book of Judges, the third chapter.

1 Now these are the nations that the Lord left, to test Israel by them, that is, all in Israel who had not experienced all the wars in Canaan. 2 It was only in order that the generations of the people of Israel might know war, to teach war to those who had not known it before. 3 These are the nations: the five lords of the Philistines and all the Canaanites and the Sidonians and the Hivites who lived on Mount Lebanon, from Mount Baal-hermon as far as Lebo-hamath. 4 They were for the testing of Israel, to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the Lord, which he commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses. 5 So the people of Israel lived among the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 6 And their daughters they took to themselves for wives, and their own daughters they gave to their sons, and they served their gods. (Judges 3:1–6 ESV)

Why might Israel need to know war? Why might God need to know whether Israel will do as it is commanded?

God already knows Israel won’t. This is settled. Judges begins with this failure. God knows Israel will fail, will not fight and not separate itself and will, instead, subjugate and copulate with the people of Canaan. (You likely cannot have one without the other.) And worship their gods.

So, is war good for Israel? War is inescapable. As Israel intertwines itself with the people whose land they are settling, they will also be subjugated by those people. The wars Israel will fight will no longer be for conquest, but for survival and liberation. They will need rescuing, redeeming. War will be the instrument of their (all-too-regular) redemption. And so the rest Israel was given briefly at the end of Joshua’s leadership will remain a dream, a distant dream.

In this, I am reminded of the expulsion of Eden, when Adam is expelled from the Garden and the ground cursed. He shall have to sweat and work for his bread from a ground that once gave plenty with little or no work. He shall fight thorns and thistles, and for what? For uncertain daily bread. Fighting a ground for his sustenance he shall be buried in when he dies.

Some days will be good. And some will not.

And so, Israel struggles. Mostly against itself. Mostly against its sin. Against the consequences of its sin. God will continue to fight for Israel — the people of God were no more abandoned than were Adam and Eve. But God does not alter their condition any. War will be their lot, their struggle, their fate. For both subjugation and liberation. We will win, and we will lose.

A day will come when Israel will no longer need to learn war — Isaiah 2:4 promises that day will come — but it is not today. Today, we learn to fight.

Because without our will to fight, God cannot be in our midst.

JUDGES Our Condition

A reading from Judges, the second chapter.

16 Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they did not listen to their judges, for they whored after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their fathers had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord, and they did not do so. 18 Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he saved them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge. For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them. 19 But whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways. (Judges 2:16–19 ESV)

This is our essential condition, as the people of God, as the church. In our faithlessness, in our inability and unwillingness to follow the teaching of God, we are given over — we give ourselves over — to those who would plunder us.

And plunder us they do.

God has pity on us, and saves us from our conquerors, from the consequences of our sin, of our faithlessness. We are not unfortunate people. We are sinners. We are cot redeemed from mere circumstances, we are redeemed from our sin.

And while we can be rallied to righteousness and faithfulness every now and again, idolatry is our fundamental sin. The worship of that which cannot save us is our fundamental sin. We cannot help ourselves.

This short narrative is the explanation. It is truth, and it is all we need to know about ourselves.

But it is also the narrative into which Christ comes. He is our judge, and he redeems us in our sin. He is faithful when we are faithless. He does not die, and therefore, we have no reason to turn away from God, to seek salvation in that which cannot truly help us — money, power, privilege, position, might. And yet we do.

And when we do, we are eventually given over to those who will plunder us.

But Christ, the righteous judge, is still with us. Even when we are faithless, he is faithful. He is our faithfulness, showing us that even when we forget, and walk away, we are never wholly and completely given over. We are afflicted and oppressed, but never abandoned.

We have a righteous judge, who is with us, until the end of the age.

An Eye For An Eye

I once wrote that the only instance we have in the torah — the teaching — of someone being put to death for violating any commandments was in Numbers 15.

Well, I was wrong.

There are two instances of people being put to death for violating commandments. And both are instructive.

The first is in Leviticus 24, and it includes the extended version of the teaching on injuries and recompense, “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” (Leviticus 24:19–20, also Exodus 21:22–25 and Deuteronomy 19:21) But the story this teaching is wrapped up in — and it’s odd in Leviticus being part of an actual story — has nothing to do with murder, manslaughter, or the killing of animals.

10 Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, 11 and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. 12 And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be clear to them.

13 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 14 “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. 15 And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. 16 Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. …

23 So Moses spoke to the people of Israel, and they brought out of the camp the one who had cursed and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses. (Leviticus 24:10–16, 23 ESV)

Note the detail here. We know who this is, we know his lineage, even as we do not know his name. But he is a person here, a real person. We do not know exactly how he has done what he has done — blaspheming, cursing “the Name” — but clearly he has done it.

And he is held, because it is not entirely clear what is to be done, until the the “will of the Lord” should be made known.

The second example comes from Numbers 15, and is shorter.

32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32–36 ESV)

Again, a sabbath breaker is found in the wilderness, and he is detained because no one is entirely sure what to do with the collector of sticks. (It is also unclear whether or not he is an Israelite, though I usually assume he isn’t, though that’s just an assumption and we all need to remember that. It would be an equal assumption to say he was an Israelite.)

In both instances, there is uncertainty. Even though the teaching has been given about cursing the name of the Lord and seeing the Sabbath holy, there is uncertainty. The Lord has to speak in these matters.

And he does. In Leviticus, God teaches about the value of human life and the proper response to those who take life. About what is owed to God and to whoever is wronged by an act of violence which injures or kills. Which, it has to be admitted, has squat to do with blaspheming the name.

This is an interesting place for that teaching.

There is no teaching in the Numbers passage. This is a one-off, like the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, an important ruling that does not seem intended to set precedent.

But there is something interesting in common with these two passages.

“All the congregation shall stone him” Leviticus reads. “All the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones” reads Numbers.

This stoning, this putting to death, is a communal activity. This isn’t merely delegated to paid agents to do, a bureaucratic or even mechanical process left up to law and administration. There can be no self-righteous accusers of sabbath breaking or blasphemy (or murder, for that matter) who do not share in the righteous shedding of blood here. This is a communal, collective act in which all must participate.

All must gather a stone. And hurl it.

Jesus understood this when, in John’s gospel, he saves the woman caught in the act of adultery by telling the Pharisees, “Let him who is without sin among be the first to throw a stone at her.” He understood the communal and participatory nature of this punishment. The Lord is speaking again here, in John 8. Jesus does judge — he knows she is a sinner, what she has done, and what the teaching demands. But he does not condemn her. He send her on her way, and commands her to “sin no more.”

The stones stay where they belong — on the ground.

Throughout the gospels, Jesus works on the Sabbath. He gathers food, heals, casts out demons. And he blasphemes fairly regularly, at least in the eyes of the Pharisees who administered the law.

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18 ESV)

Blasphemy is the primary charge leveled by the Pharisees against Jesus in Mark and Matthew. Jesus pays for the price for that blasphemy, like the son of Shelomith did (though claiming to be the Son of God was probably not his sin).

The point here is that Jesus specifically breaks commandments for which we have very specific death penalties in scripture. He works on the sabbath. He is accused of blaspheming. As a man, he is subject to the law. He is killed. We kill him.

But he is also God speaking in our midst. He is the giver of the law. His “go and sin no more” follows “I do not condemn you.” He judges, but he forgives. His work on the Sabbath involves not just gathering food or healing, but proclaiming himself Lord of the Sabbath (blasphemy!) and announcing that good deeds are an acceptable Sabbath practice.

Certainty and confidence with mercy. A bold sinning that reminds those around him that to pronounce condemnation also requires taking up a stone and throwing it.

SERMON Today, I Know I am Forgiven

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

Lectionary 11 / Fourth Sunday After Pentecost (Year C)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your sins are forgiven you.

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

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

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

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

Your sins are forgiven you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your sins are forgiven you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your sins are forgiven you.

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

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

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

Love like this woman.

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

SERMON 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) ↩︎

HOLY WEEK No King But Caesar!

19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. (Luke 20:19–26 ESV)

“Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Upon which hangs much of the political theology of Christendom, and of the church.

I’ve always found it a troubling theology, because it presumes there are things which belong to Caesar — things beyond this coin which bears his image. That we owe love, loyalty, obedience to Caesar.

And I’ve never been entirely sure we owe these things to Caesar, Paul’s words in Romans 13 notwithstanding. This answer of Jesus’ is another really good non-answer. The coin bears the likeness, the image of Caesar, and an inscription proclaiming him the king and savior of the world. It’s a created thing and it clearly belongs to its creator, the one who stamped and claimed it.

It brings to mind the words of God in the creation account in Genesis 1:

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
(Genesis 1:26-27 ESV)

We bear the image of God. And it is to God we truly belong. Not Caesar. We owe nothing to Caesar. We do not belong to him. Nothing we have, nothing we are, belongs to him.

Missed, however, in building an entire edifice of political theology on this quote, is the accusation that comes at the beginning of Luke 23, when Jesus is brought before Pilate to answer the charges of the council and the mob.

“We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” (Luke 23:2 ESV)

So this clever answer, upon which the whole notion of two kingdoms — the right hand kingdom of God and the left hand kingdom of the world somehow reflecting the good order of God’s creation — is part of the indictment, a justification for treason because Jesus did not, in fact, answer affirmatively, “Yes, you must pay taxes.”

Because we have no king but Caesar!

He paid taxes, from the fat of the land, from coins found in fish. And he told his disciples (us) to do the same. However, Jesus surrendered to the order of the world without calling it good — a mistake I think Paul far too readily makes — because God’s kingdom is bigger than the order of the world, because God’s kingdom doesn’t need the order of the world to reflect its goodness, its grace, and its mercy. Because the order of the world is just as rooted in the fall of man as it is the good creation of God. (And possibly moreso.) Because taxes are a small thing, no reflection on the goodness of God, and we trust in God to provide. Not Caesar.

Because we do not belong to Caesar. We are not made in the image of Caesar. We depend on Caesar for nothing of real and lasting value. The grace we receive, the good news we preach, the kingdom we proclaim, is not Caesar’s. It is Christ’s.

LENT Blessed is the Man

1 Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2 Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Selah
5 I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
Selah (Psalms 32:1-5 ESV)

Blessed is the man whose sins are forgiven.

Not, blessed is the man who does not sin. But who is forgiven.

I like David. At the miserable end of my first pastoral internship, with time on my hands, I resolved to read the Deuteronomistic history (during my internship I had closely read Numbers and Leviticus and was stunned at how interesting both books really were), so see what this history of Israel and its encounter with God was really all about.

And I fell in love with ruddy-faced David. Not quite like God fell in love, clearly, but I fell in love. With this story, of failure, of sin, of conquest and exile, of redemption. Of a God who moves ever closer, a God who redoubles his efforts to redeem his people.

David … here was a man who knew how to sin! Again and again, he could do little right. Stealing wives, challenging King Saul (and possibly stealing one of Saul’s wives), working for the Philistines, killing many thousands, and during his time of exile gathering to him those in distress, in debt, and “bitter of soul,” and becoming their leader, turing them into an army that will eventually take control of Israel.

David knew he was a sinner. David knew God loved him. David knew that, in the end, all he had was God’s love. All he could do was seek shelter in the grace of God, freely given, when he turned to God, and confessed all he had done. That he was not worthy of the love God showed him. That he got it, anyway, and it changed everything.

David tells us today nothing is gained from silence before God. There can be no forgiveness, no covering of sin, if we keep silent. Our silence is our death. Only when we confess our sins to God can we know we have been forgiven. Only when we uncover our wrongdoing will God then cover them up. We cannot hide things — hidden things are there for all to see. And all to know.

We confess our sins. We are forgiven.