Has It All Been for Nothing?

I was deeply influenced for this week’s sermon by a blog post from Debie Thomas, who serves as director of children and family ministries at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, CA.  The last few paragraphs of my sermon are direct quotes from her fine work.  I strongly urge you to read her blog post in full, at:

Journey With Jesus

Matthew 11:2-11

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Dear people of God, of Emmanuel God-with-us: grace and peace to you this day from our loving Creator, through the Prince of Peace.  Amen.

Are you the one?

Or – should we wait for someone else?

These are the questions John’s followers bring to Jesus, on behalf of the one to whom they’ve been listening.  The one who has been speaking pretty frankly about the coming Messiah.  The Messiah who they expected to be the one to start the revolution and lead them all to rise up against the Romans and establish God’s kingdom, once and for all.

And on this Third Sunday of Advent, we find this gospel of John’s despair and disappointment paired with Mary’s Magnificat, her song of praise to God and defiance of the oppressor empire.  Traditionally this Sunday was called “Gaudete” Sunday, “Gaudete” meaning “joy.”

Which of course begs the question, what is joyful about John’s despondent question, coming from his awful situation in prison?

We can see the joy in the first lesson, no problem there.  Being from Southern California, I’ve actually witnessed the desert blossom, and it’s a magnificent sight.

But the gospel?  Where is the joy?

John is in prison, having called out King Herod’s immoral behavior.  Hmmm.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  If you call out someone in power for their immoral behavior, you find yourself out of a job – or worse.

And so I think we can understand that John might be pretty disillusioned at this point.  He is in chains and in crisis; as far as he can tell, Jesus the Messiah – his COUSIN – has changed nothing.  All those things John said in the wilderness about Jesus – choice words about wielding axes, bringing fire, renewing the world – John’s not seeing it.

And so all he’s got left now, in his valley of despair, is to cry out are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?  In other words: “Jesus, I’ve staked my entire life on you.  Has it all been for nothing?”

Have you ever had an experience in your life where you found yourself saying that?

I have.

I was a child during the civil rights movement and the antiwar protests during Vietnam.  When I was in high school, the feminist movement was in full swing.  My parents had taught me two things from an early age: one, all people are created equal and I was expected to treat them equally, and two, I could be anything I wanted to be.  It was a shock as I grew up to find out that theirs was a minority point of view.

I marched for passage of the ERA, I marched for women’s rights.  I boycotted grapes to support the passage of fair labor laws for migrant farm workers.  I protested for LGBTQ equal rights, and lobbied for the NIH and CDC to recognize AIDS and get working on a cure, or at least a treatment protocol.  I supported the Sierra Club and Greenpeace as they drew attention to the ways humanity was destroying creation.

And all along the way, I knew that the laws of this country, the way our democratic republic is formulated, would give me an opportunity to be heard.  Organizing for change is a time-honored aspect of American life.

But these days I find myself saying “has it all been for nothing?” a lot more than I ever expected.

The civil rights of so many are being eroded.  Our environment is in more peril, and more deeply, than just a few years ago.  My time at Legacy-Emanuel in Portland brought me face-to-face with the degree to which society has failed its most vulnerable members.

Has it all been for nothing?

It’s a disturbing trajectory, isn’t it?  What happened to that darkness to light thing?  John too has gone from heavenly light, when the Spirit descended at Jesus’ baptism, to jail cell darkness.

For a time I attended a Calvary Chapel in high school.  They had words for this kind of darkness, words that I now understand as judgmental.  Words like FAITHLESS and BACKSLIDDEN.

But in our gospel, Jesus doesn’t respond like that.  Jesus knows that despair is an understandable response to life’s worst cruelties, and so responds to John’s pained question with composure, gentleness, and calm.

“Go and tell John what you hear and see,” Jesus tells the disciples who bring him John’s question.

In other words, Jesus says: go back to John and tell him your stories.  Tell him my stories.  Tell him what your eyes have seen and your ears have heard.  Tell him what only the stories — quiet as they are, scattered as they are, questionable as they are — will reveal.

Because who Jesus is, isn’t a one-time pronouncement.  It’s not a slick ad line, or a clever slogan you can plaster on a billboard.  No, he is far more impossible to pin down that that.  I saw Jesus repeatedly in the people that showed up at the emergency department at Legacy Emanuel – the plain, poor, ordinary folks who are trying to eke out a living on the streets or in low-income jobs.  We glimpse Jesus’ reality in the shadows where these people try to find shelter.

Because Jesus calls us to see and hear all the stories of the kingdom — and that includes John’s story, too.  “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus says.  Offense runs away.  Offense quits.  Offense erects a wall and hides behind it because reality is harsher and more complicated than we expected it would be.  Yes, some stories are terrible, period.  They break hearts and end badly.  People flail and people die – and yet, this, too, is what the life of faith looks like.  A life of faith gets to a place where it doesn’t take offense.  It doesn’t flee.  It walks alongside.

What has it been like for you, in the valleys of your life?  Have you ever been able to find a so-called “Christian story” that makes sense of what you’re going through?  I wonder if you’ve had an experience like mine, where many of the “sermon illustration” stories I’ve come across get the ends tied up a little too neatly, almost like a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie.  They move to closure and some kind of triumph so quickly that I feel like they’re almost dismissing my pain.  That they’re waving off all that I’m going through.  And in the times when I’m not the one suffering, but a friend is, such stories dull my capacity to practice genuine compassion, empathy, and longsuffering.

And so I wonder.  We all wonder – what kind of meaning and purpose IS there in suffering?  I mean, John did everything right and look what happened to him.

It’s in times like these that we realize that the so-called “prosperity gospel” doesn’t hold up when things go bad, whether it’s your fault or not.

But what if the point of John’s story is to actually indict every form of transactional Christianity that promises us things like safety, prosperity, and blessings in exchange for good behavior?  What if our faith isn’t something that’s meant to dull our discomfort or blunt our sorrows, but rather give us the strength to live authentically in the face of it all?

Maybe we don’t need to slap purpose and meaning on all human experience in order to make sense of things, or prove our piety.  Maybe God is more present in the dark abysses of the world’s pain than in those sanitized, high-production-value narratives.

Maybe we are invited to honor doubt, despair, and silence as reasonable reactions to a broken world.  To create sacred space for grief, mourn freely, and rage against injustice.  To let joy be joy, sorrow be sorrow, horror be horror.  To feel deeply, because God does.

Feeling deeply.  Isn’t this a season where we yearn and long for precisely that?

Mary certainly felt deeply when she proclaimed her Magnificat.  And she had surely felt a host of other things, including fear and apprehension, about what this whole journey would mean for her.  And ultimately she feels deep joy as she utters this radical manifesto of God’s bringing of equity and justice to God’s creation.

Here’s an ironic fact: John the Baptist is remembered by the Church as the patron saint of spiritual joy.  Why? 

Perhaps because he understood something flinty about the life of faith.  After all, joy in a prison cell isn’t about sentimentality. Or about the pious suppression of our most painful crises and questions.

Perhaps John came to understand that joy is what happens when we dare to believe that our Messiah disillusions us for nothing less than our salvation, stripping away every expectation we cling to, so that we can know God for who God truly is.  Maybe he realized that God’s work is bigger than the difficult circumstances of his own life, calling him to a selfless joy for the liberation of others.  Maybe John’s joy was otherworldly in the most literal sense, because he understood that our stories extend beyond death, and find completion only in the presence of God himself.

“Are you the one who is coming?” John asked in despair and yearning.

“You decide,” Jesus answered in love. “The blind see, the deaf hear.  The lame dance.”

We didn’t hear John’s answer then.  But can we hear his answer now?  It is filled with confidence, and it is a resounding YES.   Jesus is the one who has come, and is coming, and will never stop coming to meet us where we are.  We have not hoped in vain.  Christ will forever turn our despair into joy.   Amen.

Unlikely Connection

My sermon from this past Sunday.  Really grateful to have found the shared space between the beautiful images in Isaiah and John’s exhortations.

+++++++

Matthew 3:1-12

3In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” 4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Good people, children of the creator: grace and peace to you this day from God, through Jesus who is already and not yet.  Amen.

Our first lesson and our gospel stand in such contrast.  Isaiah’s expansive and exhilarating vision, contrasted with John’s dark warnings.  And yet, they are deeply connected.  But not in that one predicts the other.

If anything, John’s warnings are for us to realize that we aren’t there yet.  We’ve not even begun to approach God’s holy mountain.

Isaiah’s vision is one that calls us to hope, in depths we may never have explored.  It calls us to a vision of the peaceable realm of God, as envisioned by countless artists – the predator and prey now become friends; the animals who once were dangerous, aren’t.

Taking this literally can be quite a stretch.  What if we were to think about it as God’s creation no longer needing to live in fear?

Remember, “don’t be afraid” is the signature greeting from any angel encountering a human.

Generally when we act violently, it is as the result of fear.  If the need to live in fear is gone, then the observation “they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” suddenly makes sense.

At least, it makes sense until we get to today’s gospel.

Then it seems like everything John is saying is meant to strike fear into the hearts of those who hear him.

The curious thing, though, is that there’s nothing recorded about the entire crowd getting up and leaving en masse.  Not in any of the four gospels, ALL of which record John’s appearance to proclaim the one who is coming.

Instead, other of the gospels tell us they stuck around.  They asked “what then shall we do?”

And this is where I found an uncanny connection between our gospel story and the prophecy from Isaiah.

“What then shall we do” is another way of saying “how then shall we live” – and they are both the “acting” questions that follow Luther’s catechetical question, “what does this mean?”

To the basics of Christian belief, which Luther assembled into the Small Catechism, Luther poses the question “what does this mean?”  The question in German is “vas ist das?” or “what is it?”  It is said that Luther modeled this after his little son Hans, who once he had learned a few words, toddled around the house pointing at things saying “vas ist das?”  Luther realized the natural curiosity of a child was fertile ground indeed.  And so that is why the Small Catechism takes the form of questions and answers.

Notice how the people in the gospel reading are located.  They are coming to John to be baptized.  They hear his warnings and admonishments, and both before and after they are baptized they are urged to live their lives in new and different ways.  The Jewish ruling elite have showed up as well.  The verb in Greek is not entirely clear; whether they had come to be baptized or just to see what was going on is up for debate.  But they were there, and John calls them out.  There are two phrases John uses that I want to focus on:

*bear fruit worthy of repentance

*don’t presume to say of yourselves ‘we have Abraham as our ancestor’

Keep in mind that John is speaking to folks before Jesus has made his appearance to begin his adult ministry.  We have the gift of considering this lesson from our vantage point of 20/20 hindsight.

But that doesn’t mean this lesson simply holds historical value.  By no means.

Look again at our first lesson from Isaiah, in particular at verse 2:

2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

In the Isaiah reading, the spirit of the Lord rests upon the shoot from the stump of the tree of Jesse, which we consider now to be a metaphor for Jesus, who is a descendant of Jesse.  Jesse was King David’s father.

We have heard this in our baptismal rite, in the blessings before the anointing:

Sustain  name  with the gift of your Holy Spirit: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever.

All of the spirit references in that reading are understood to be gifts of the Holy Spirit.

These are gifts by which we are empowered to live lives that are drenched in God’s liberating love and justice-seeking Spirit.

And so I see these lessons as reminders to us that we are baptized children of God, beloved by God, and entrusted by God to be a force for good in this world.

This is the implication, nay, the OBLIGATION of our baptism: to be a force for good in this world.  Which is another way of saying, to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world.

Those are indeed fruits worthy of one who has traveled the well-worn path of repentance.  Of turning and going a different way.  Of examining their life and deciding that there are parts of that life that need to be left behind.  Perhaps they’ll be composted into something beneficial.

And this is a road that is meant to be traveled by everyone.

John points out that no one gets to claim “well, you know, we have Abraham as our father, so we get a hard pass on that rough part of the road.”

You could legitimately make the argument that John is saying “you don’t get a gold star just for showing up and saying “hey, so-and-so is my father so I’m special.”

It’s an incredibly egalitarian statement, hidden between the lines.

It’s saying we are all workers in the kingdom of God.  Even those who can claim a star-studded lineage.

This is another connection to our baptism.

God doesn’t seek us out and claim us because we are related to someone notable.  No, God seeks us out because we are God’s creation, God’s beautiful and beloved creation.

We are washed clean in the waters of baptism and set on a new road.  We are free of any need to impress God, because God loves us as we are.

We have all the time in the world to respond in joy to God’s freely given love.  And Christ calls us to a way of response that is best described as neighbor-love.

Loving, serving, and empowering the neighbor is what Jesus came to enable us all to do.  That is the essence of the peaceable realm of our gracious and loving God.

Do we sometimes need a reminder that we’ve become rather self-centered again?  That we’ve engaged in extended navel-gazing, what Luther termed “the self turned in on the self”?  Well, of course.  We are human, and we mess up.  Those reminders have the potential to be welcome intrusions into that self-centeredness.

But I wonder if that turning from that self-centeredness can also be the turn towards this existence we read of in Isaiah – this peaceable kingdom where all are at peace.

And maybe it is also, for some of us, a turning towards ourselves in a way that, finally, is healthy.

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.  On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.”

Dear people, is this not the core of all that we dream?  That one day all shall be well, that pain and sorrow will be no more, that none will hurt or destroy.

And that the dwelling of God shall be glorious.

Humankind takes steps each day towards that dream.  Here in Stevenson, we feed 87 kids every week through 3 Squares.  The local government makes the Christmas baskets happen.  Local vendors contribute goods and discounts throughout the year to help provide for folks who are down on their luck.

However you might be joyful today, include that goodness in your joy.

However you might be hurting today, remember that people do care, and care about you.  Your pain is real, and you have every right to claim it and feel it.  And this congregation stands ready to walk with you in that pain.

And all of us, all of our experiences, stand together and hear God’s words of peace.

“They will not hurt or destroy all on my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals.”

The one who is more powerful comes as a baby – the most vulnerable of creatures.

That little child leads us to that day on that holy mountain, in ways that turn the world upside down.  In ways that inspire our repentance – not a way of feeling bad but a way of thinking differently, and ultimately acting differently.

May we bear fruits worthy of such repentance.

Amen.

 

Watching, waiting, and slowing down

I’ve not been able to post my sermons or blog for a few weeks, as I had a couple of large writing requirements due as I move towards ordination.  So here is my sermon from yesterday – the first Sunday in Advent.  A call to step away from the craziness of the season.

Matthew 24:36-44

36[Jesus said] “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you this first Sunday of Advent, from our Creator God through Jesus, our Emanuel, God-with-us.  Amen.

In case you needed a reminder that we are NOT yet in the Christmas season in church, this gospel should suffice.  No pretty Christmas villages or caroling choirs in this reading!

Keep awake.  Be ready.

These are curious commands to hear at this time of year, aren’t they?  Keep awake, when the days are shortening considerably and all we want to do is sleep.  Be ready, when the list of things to do in this season lengthens as much as the days shorten.

What if we look at these lessons today in light of last week, where we celebrated the end of the church year?

That would make today the “Happy New Year” for the church.  Break out the champagne!

What do we usually do around New Year’s, aside from watching the Rose Parade and an assortment of college football games?

We make resolutions.  We think about the year to come.

And I wonder if we were to see and hear Jesus’ words through that lens, the lens of New Year’s, it might give us some clarity.

This is an apocalyptic text, to be sure.  But Jesus is clear that no one – not even HE – has any idea when that time will come.  And interestingly, his description is the flip side of what is told in stories like the Left Behind series.

Instead of the faithful being taken, they are actually the ones left behind.

Such discrepancies in the biblical narrative suggest to me that taking them literally diverts us from what’s between the lines of Jesus’ words.  Church history is littered with the corpses of defunct predictions of the end of time; it’s gotten so ridiculous that the group Nickel Creek even wrote a song poking fun at the one about May 21st a few years ago.

So may I suggest that instead of parsing this text out, and trying to make every bit of it make sense, we step back and think broadly.

This text doesn’t call us to prediction, but to preparation.  A commentary I read this week talked about Jesus calling his audience to shape their lives as if they were living in the golden hour – that term familiar to photographers, the brief window of time just before the sun fully breaks.  The transitional period between the darkness of night and the light of day.  Jesus calls us to live as if day were just about to break.

Those commands of “keep awake” and “be ready” can sound like more work at a busy time of year.  But thinking about daybreak, I wonder if instead of more responsibility, this is actually more gift – gift from God.

You and I have been transformed by Christ’s death and resurrection.  Perhaps this is where we are invited to participate in the transformation of the world which is yet still in process!

In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray that God’s reign come and that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  In saying “keep awake” and “be ready”, Jesus gives us the opportunity to partner with God in answering that prayer.

Jesus describes an arrival of God’s kin-dom that disrupts everyday activity.  It’s not the same-old, same-old.  Life carries on as usual, until Jesus arrives.  Think about it: Mary’s pregnancy interrupts the usual procedures of engagement and starting a family.  John the Baptist’s own apocalyptic ministry, full of warnings about the judgment to come, is itself interrupted and reshaped by Jesus’ arrival.

When Jesus calls his first disciples, he disrupts them as they cast nets into the sea.  And then his arrival disrupts their fishing collective as they walk away from those nets and follow him.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ arrival exposes things for what they are.  It disrupts the delusions we hold about ourselves and our world.  As I read this lesson this year, I was struck by how Jesus’ mention of Noah reflects the issues of climate change that in our time have been reduced (in some quarters) to mere political scorekeeping.  Remember, we understand Jesus as the Word – from the opening lines of John’s gospel.  Since we live in the already-not yet – we wait not for Jesus’ initial arrival, but for him to come while we experience him with us in the here and now – so it feels like this word is one that indeed exposes things.  Hearing this reference to Noah today is something worth pondering, at the very least.

Jesus’ words don’t go down easy today.  He speaks of things I would rather not consider much of the time.  And I don’t know how we live as if this “wokeness” is so all the time.  Even so, these things are as true as they can possibly be, and they are meant as gift – if only I can receive them as such.  Indeed, I need to be reminded of these things:

  • Don’t lose sight of what matters most.
  • Know that it will all one day end.
  • Live like that is so.

And through it all — on those days when I do that reminding myself well, and on those days when I don’t – there still comes the whisper of grace that I am still loved. As are you.

When my late husband was diagnosed with cancer, he vowed that he would not let the disease define him.  It might kill him, he acknowledged that.  But it would NOT define him.

In the wake of making that vow, he lived his life completely and totally in those three things I just mentioned:

  • Don’t lose sight of what matters most.
  • Know that it will all one day end.
  • Live like that is so.

I give thanks daily for the witness he gave my son and me.

How do you hear Jesus’ words today?

Do they make a difference for how you live your life?  Have they made a difference in the past?

We are able today to see glimpses of true existence in the kingdom of God that Jesus invites us towards in this lesson.  We can see pictures of Isaiah’s description of the peaceable realm of God.

On the hallway wall outside my office there is a map from Lutheran World Hunger of the places in the world where they are hard at work – and have been for decades.  The green places are places where one effort is happening, and the blue areas mark where more than one is happening.

I am heartened to realize that we are present, doing God’s work with our hands, in the majority of the world.  And at the same time, there is always more.  There is always much to pray about, as my best friend Suzie says.

I want to invite you all to think about what matters most now, in these waning days of the year, as the sun moves south and we gather in close.

It’s very easy for the busy-ness of this season to distract and overtake us, pulling our attention away from the things that matter.

And I’m as guilty as anyone: I love decorating for the holidays, baking cookies, and wrapping gifts to make the perfect picture under the tree.

But those are secondary to the things that last, the things that matter.  I have to remind myself constantly of that truth.

And so I wonder if what Jesus is really telling us when he says “keep awake” and “be ready” is: “pay attention.”

“Pay attention” is a prominent Advent theme.  As I meditated on that, this is what arose:

  • Pay attention to the people closest to me. How will I give and receive love in those relationships?
  • Pay attention to the people I encounter. How might those interactions become holy moments?
  • Pay attention to the people least like me. (This will likely be difficult.)  How will I learn from them?
  • Pay attention to God, and to what God is doing in the world. How can I awaken my senses to notice goodness and peace?
  • Pay attention to myself. (Self-awareness is highly underrated!)  How will I be awake to my body, soul, spirit, and values during this Advent?  How will that translate into how I spend my time?

I think that the season of Advent – a time of watching and waiting – is ideal for rediscovering the art of paying attention.  Of being attentive to.

Especially here in the Pacific Northwest.

We don’t have a ton of daylight.  I noticed just yesterday that it was completely dark at 4:45 PM, a full month earlier than it would happen where I used to live.

But as I watched the snow come down last night, I realized that this time of year is one that lends itself to slowing down, not speeding up.  Just as I told the children about the wagon wheel* for the Advent wreath.  It’s to get us to slow down.

To wait.  To make space to keep awake.  To make ready.

Amen.

*In northern European climates, when folks would be snowed in for the winter, they removed the wheels from their wagons so that the cold, and particularly the mid-winter warm-freeze cycles, wouldn’t warp the wheels.  Those became the frames for wreaths of greens to remind themselves that the trees knew spring was coming, and that the removed wheel was their reminder to slow down.  Spring and its planting time outside would be here soon enough.  The wheel continued to be used as Christianity spread and local customs were incorporated; the reminder to slow down is a striking coincidence to the season of Advent’s waiting.

God of the Living

My sermon from this past Sunday.  I’m a bit late posting it; I’m in a very busy week as a project comes to completion.

Luke 20:27-38

27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

+++++++

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our living God, through Jesus.  Amen.

Job says the great words, I know that my Redeemer lives.

Paul says to the Thessalonians, stand firm and hold fast.

Even our Psalmist today speaks in present tense.

God is not of the dead, but of the living.  To God, ALL of them are alive.

And yet these words come at the end of an odd exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees.  The first question I have about this encounter is, why are the Sadducees asking him questions about something they don’t even believe in?  They won’t believe the answer anyway, so why bother?

Well, they bother because they are trying to trap Jesus.  It’s basically the gotcha politics of the first century.  “What kind of questions can we ask him so that he openly commits heresy?  So that he does something that gives us what we need to haul him up in front of the governor, Pilate, and get rid of him?”

What Jesus is saying is important, but the context in which he says it is just as important.  Keep in mind, Jesus has already had his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, with palms and shouts of Hosanna.  Now he is teaching in the temple, and the Jewish authorities are incensed once they realize his parables are ways to teach against their corruption.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, don’t they?  These are not merely historical observations, they are the realities of the human sinful condition.

As Lord Acton said in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Jesus sees this clearly, and answers with words that disrupt the Sadducees’ intent as well as the societal norms it’s based on.

In Jesus’ time, such a question – whose wife would the woman be – wouldn’t be seen as strange.  Women were property.  Surely this is just a simple question of inheritance.

That way of thinking is very separated from real people.  When our theology fails to touch human bodies—when theology becomes disembodied—how easily we can move to a place of using that theology to justify an override of fair treatment of individuals.

Jesus’ response steps completely away from these assumptions of women as property.  He is speaking of “children of the resurrection” – in other words, an ethos drawn from the age to come.  The patriarchal model of women as property, given and taken to continue that patriarchal structure, is no longer needed.

Jesus’ answer is one that could be seen as envisioning marriage as something in which both parties fully consent and participate – a radical departure from the model of his day, one that only in the last few decades has even taken serious root in our own lives.

But I wonder if Jesus’ answer is more particularly meant to push the Sadducees towards a far more expansive understanding of the love and grace of God.

For if our pondering of their question were only limited to what we know of God in THIS life, then our answers would be likewise limited.

Jesus invites us in this answer to their limit-bound question to step into the place of limitless possibilities – the place of resurrection.

Jesus invites us to dream.  To truly live as children of the resurrection, who have been freed from the sin that has bound us in the past.

In so living, we also affirm that when Jesus invites us to dream, he is not advising us to disregard our obligations to care for this lifetime and the world in light of the afterlife. We are here and the world – us and our companions – is saved as much here as in an uncharted beyond.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians continues this hopeful vision: stand firm and hold fast.  God is faithful and will comfort you and strengthen your hearts for whatever is to come.  Indeed, we can use this passage to address our own faith in a time in which we experience threat to the predictable order of things, and in which the very existence of planetary life is at risk through human folly, war making, and greed.

Jesus knows the question the religious leaders have posed to him is a political one, wrapped in theological trappings. As usual, he responds to what lies beneath the trappings, exploding some assumptions along the way. Following on the heels of celebrating the Feast of All Saints last week, it’s an especially potent point that Jesus makes here: that in the eyes of God, there is no question of the dead versus the living, “for to [God],” Jesus says, “all of them are alive.”

ALL alive, on this side and the other side of the table.

On this side of the table, we feel the distinction keenly, and Jesus does not dismiss or disparage this. Bent as he is on breaking down the walls of division, however, he cannot resist pressing against this one, the wall we perceive between the living and the dead. With his own death and resurrection almost upon him, Jesus pushes against that wall, shows it for what it is, challenges us to enter anew into our living and into our world that is so much larger, so much more mysterious than we dreamed.

God of the Living
A Blessing

by Jan Richardson

When the wall
between the worlds
is too firm,
too close.

When it seems
all solidity
and sharp edges.

When every morning
you wake as if
flattened against it,
its forbidding presence
fairly pressing the breath
from you
all over again.

Then may you be given
a glimpse
of how weak the wall

and how strong what stirs
on the other side,

breathing with you
and blessing you
still

forever bound to you
but freeing you
into this living,
into this world
so much wider
than you ever knew.

© 2013 Jan Richardson

Dear friends: our lessons today don’t counsel us to passivity or to sitting on the sidelines, letting God take care of the future. We are called to live faithfully, to act lovingly, and to care for the earth regardless of what the future brings. Faithfulness is not about a divine rescue operation, but about becoming God’s companion through actions to save the world and bring justice and beauty to one another. Heaven will take care of itself; our task is here on earth, undergirded by the trust that whatever the future brings, we are in God’s hands.

Amen.

For All The Saints

All Saints Day is pretty much my favorite day on the church calendar.  I love this day where we remember those who have gone before us, and remind ourselves that we, too, are saints “on the way” together.  I had my congregation bring photos of folks (or pets) that have gone on ahead of us, “to the other side of the table” so that our worship would be surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses.

Luke 6:20-31

20Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 21“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. 22“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. 23Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Dear saints of God, grace and peace to you this day from our loving Creator, through Jesus.  Amen.

We have exquisite lessons today, especially the gospel and the second lesson.  The gospel, of course, is the beloved Beatitudes through the lens of Luke.  The second lesson is from Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus.  The root word of that city’s name is ephatha, which means “be opened.”

Be opened.  Isn’t that really the core invitation of Jesus?  Be opened to the possibilities that God offers.

And if we look at the Beatitudes through that window of “be opened” it enables a number of possibilities.  Each Beatitude, in fact, proposes a way to be opened.  They might be summarized like this:

Be opened to a completely new way of living.

Be opened to the potential for radical hospitality and inclusion.

Be opened to re-thinking your priorities.

Be opened to the world turned upside down.

And in so doing, be opened to the fullest experience of this All Saints Sunday.

Our first reading, from the Old Testament book of Daniel, describes a vision of Daniel and is generally considered to be a Jewish apocalyptic text.  Modern scholars hold that such writings are for the purpose of exposing a system of imperial domination, and countering that domination with an alternative view.  In Daniel, the systems and modus operandi of the earth are eclipsed by the inheritance of the kingdom of heaven by the faithful.

This is echoed in the Beatitudes.  Meaning, those who the world says are the winners, aren’t necessarily so.

The world is turned upside down in God’s peaceable realm.

The holy ones in the first reading are clearly on God’s side, on the side of good.  The beasts – that is, the empires of the world – will not be victorious in the end.

I don’t know about you, but I take some comfort in the understanding that this is not a concern that is unique to the 21st or even the 20th century.  This has been going on for a REALLY long time.  But I also take comfort in realizing that this claim by God’s people that the empires of the world will not have the last word, is a story whose ending is writ only in the mind of God.

I had a seminary professor who was fond of saying “such is the nature of the human condition.”  And this tendency towards empire-building is a part of that nature.  Understanding this helps me see humanity in the long view.  We haven’t brought this on ourselves only in the last 20 or so years; it’s just how humanity is.

But alongside the reality and endurance of empire, we must also hold the reality and endurance of the message of Jesus.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus truly sees the people in front of him.  People he has reached.  People he may have actually touched, or healed.  The “blessed” he describes may very well be the people sitting before him, along with the disciples.

And what does this text say about that “human condition”?  Jesus uses the present tense.

That doesn’t change for us.  We don’t say, “blessed were.”

I truly believe that in every gathering of human beings, each one of these conditions is present.  The poor (not necessarily in terms of income).  The hungry (maybe for something other than food).  Those who weep (for any one of a million reasons).  And also the others, who are termed “the woes”.  Those who might be seen as card-carrying members of the imperial structure.

But Jesus doesn’t leave them out here.  Rather, this is their invitation to shift direction, that familiar Greek word metanoia.  Jesus is proclaiming a kingdom that is truly open to all:  the “haves” can share immediately in the new existence God has instituted, to the degree to which they participate in Christ’s calling to enter into true solidarity with the “have nots.”

If that sounds a little uncomfortable, then I hope you will stay with me just a bit.

Jesus is describing ways of living that conform to God’s commitment to see the poor and unprivileged raised up.

The communion of saints—that intimate unity we share through Christ with one another, including those who have finished their race—creates a community, a new social reality. Jesus’ sermon describes that community as – well, odd. Its values do not match life experience, in terms of who typically experiences happiness and how. Nor do they conform to the cold logic of cost-benefit analyses. Jesus calls the church to more than acting differently or seeing the world differently. He calls us, each of us, to a new existence in which God’s generosity benefits the downtrodden. That generosity creates a culture formed and sustained by the mercy of God. Woe to those who are missing opportunities to experience tangibly the giving and receiving of that mercy!  Because oh, what blessedness they – or we – are missing.

I look around us today, at this great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.

What blessedness did they not miss?  What opportunities did they completely embrace, knowing that in such places and situations was the fullness of God?

I can only speak of my own experiences.  I’m sure you all have plenty of your own.

My father was an aerospace engineer, minted from MIT, class of 1950.  He began work at Bell Helicopter in Buffalo, NY after graduation, and shortly after marrying my mom, got an offer to relocate to San Diego.

As you can imagine, that was just about the easiest decision of their lives.

Dad worked on all the big projects of the Space Race – Gemini, Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and others.  And when he retired in 1992, he looked forward to being able to play golf as much as he wanted.

Only problem was, after a month of playing golf 4 days a week, he was bored.

He wandered over to my home congregation, where they were only too happy to put him to work on property management and analysis.  Then they got him hooked up with the senior center, and next thing I knew, my dad was a justice advocate for seniors.  He’d be in Sacramento more often than not, “making politicians uncomfortable” as he put it.

As he expressed to my mentor pastor, “shouldn’t we leave the world a better place, if we possibly can?”  And I know my dad did.  He worked tirelessly to make life better for seniors who were largely forgotten.

Dad did not miss the blessedness of serving others.  And I know you all have similar stories.

Even the folks whose photos or portraits surround us who aren’t personally known to us – we know that the path they trod on this earth was one that brought them blessedness, even in the midst of struggle, and oppression, and violence.

Because that path was one that told them “be opened”.

Be opened to walking alongside those whose existence you might not have noticed before today.

Be opened to the realities and lives that don’t align with yours.

Be opened to the possibilities that your presence might bring to others, by the grace of God.

Be opened to the very real likelihood that by and in your presence, God is working not only in their life, but in yours as well.

Who do we remember today?  Who lived this calling in our sight, whose dedication to service is seared in our memory?

When we gather on this All Saints Day, we remember those who have gone ahead of us.  That’s a simile, for “those who have died.”  We think of them as having died and gone ahead of us, to the other side of the table.

The other side of the table.  Christ’s table, that of Holy Communion.

There is an old tradition in church architecture, of a half-rail around the table.  We have something similar here.

That half-rail is where the faithful generally gather for communion, whether at the rail itself or simply on this side of the table.

When my husband died, a colleague wrote me: “At the moment Michael was welcomed to the “other side of the table” as I like to call it, we were likewise gathered to receive the Lord’s Supper on this side of the table.  This particular moment of sharing was an honor we did not realize we had been granted.”

The faithful departed gather at the other side of table, as we gather on this side.  And all are guests at the feast that has no end.

For all that has been, for all those who have been, thanks.

For all that will be, for all those who will be, yes.

Amen.

 

Before we sang our sending hymn, I read this poem for the saints among us today:

A Last Beatitude                     by Malcolm Guite

And blessèd are the ones we overlook;

The faithful servers on the coffee rota,

The ones who hold no candle, bell or book

But keep the books and tally up the quota,

The gentle souls who come to ‘do the flowers’,

The quiet ones who organise the fete,

Church sitters who give up their weekday hours,

Doorkeepers who may open heaven’s gate.

God knows the depths that often go unspoken

Amongst the shy, the quiet, and the kind,

Or the slow healing of a heart long broken

Placing each flower so for a year’s mind.

Invisible on earth, without a voice,

In heaven their angels glory and rejoice.

Always Reforming – Freedom as Release

Reformation Sunday can be a challenge for Lutherans.  How do we say something that hasn’t been said before?  What can we say that underscores the amazing reality that God loves us first, and that we are made right before God by faith – not by what we do?

It’s quite the counter-cultural thing to grasp – but I know when I finally understood it, it was like the wind had been knocked out of me.  I’m still sorting it all out!

John 8:31-36

31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

Dear people of God, grace and peace and freedom to you this day from our loving God, through Christ.  Amen.

That word.  FREEDOM.  That word carries some serious baggage for us as United States Citizens.

We tend to think of ‘freedom’ as a concept that gives us license to do whatever we want.

I think we all realize that as fun as that might sound, if it’s allowed to run rampant, it just doesn’t end well.

And so I would invite us to think about that word ‘freedom’ differently.  Let’s not think of it as freedom from some human tyrannical overlord or master.

Instead – what if we think of freedom as ‘release’?  Meaning, the broadest possible sense of ‘release’?

Release from rules that keep us from serving the neighbor.

Release from old stereotypes that keep us from seeing our neighbor.

Release from emotional baggage and worries that keep us from loving ourselves.

That kind of freedom is something that goes way beyond what the framers of the US Constitution had in mind.

That kind of freedom is something that eluded Luther in his early days in the monastery.  His dogged pursuit of seeking forgiveness for transgressions both real and imagined drove his confessor, Johann von Staupitz, nuts.  There is a story that once Luther went on for six hours, confessing every possible minute error to Staupitz.  Who is observed in some places as a saint for having put up with Luther.

But that kind of transcendant freedom is what Jesus is talking about here.

It’s a difficult thing to reconcile within our American civil structure, based as it is on personal freedoms.  But the freedom Jesus speaks of is one that is based on God’s love for all of creation.

It’s a freedom that opens us up to change.

There’s a saying that’s associated with the Reformation: Ecclesia semper reformanda est.  The church is always reforming.

Now, we might take issue with whether this is actually happening, but I think that it’s the situation to which we aspire.

The church IS always reforming.  That’s not to say, the church is always throwing out everything that came before and hitching up to every two-bit bandwagon that passes through town.

Nor is it to say that the church is clinging pathetically to a past that largely didn’t exist, along with doo-dads held perilously together with scotch tape and more clutter than any first-rate hoarder.

No.  What it IS to say is that the church is a living, breathing, CHANGING organism.  All organisms change in some manner.  And the change that the church is constantly undergoing is largely one of relevance.

Theologian Phyllis Tickle wrote in her book “The Great Emergence” that the church undergoes a massive shift every 500 years that results in a sort of dogmatic garage sale.  The first one occurred shortly after Constantine converted to Christianity and it became the religion of the empire.  The second was around 1000 AD, when the great schism between the western and eastern church occurred.  Then around 1500, when Luther set the Reformation in motion.

And the most recent one is in process as we speak.

This most recent one finds us at the convergence of a number of crisis situations for the church:

  • A massive shift in how society operates, including the expansion of work hours from Monday-Friday to one that includes weekends
  • Income challenges to many sectors of society, forcing more people to take on more than one job to make ends meet
  • An odd version of “capture the flag” where churches are involved in a considerable amount of in-fighting and name-calling across theological divides and power structures
  • A number of scandals across church lines that have deeply eroded the trust that churches used to carry in our society

I feel confident in stating that church as we knew it for the last 50-100 years is ceasing to exist.  I’m still not sure if feel HAPPY about that – but at the same time, I see tremendous potential in the future.

When Luther stood his ground at the Diet of Worms – and boy, isn’t that the strangest word for a meeting, “diet”, and an really unfortunate match with the city where it happened! – when he stood his ground, I don’t think he was necessarily happy.

But I’d be willing to bet he was convicted.  Determined.  Sure beyond the shadow of a doubt that this WAS indeed where he stood, he could do no other.

And I wonder if in that moment, he realized the fundamental truth that sometimes things have to die for them to realize new life.

After all, the whole point of our faith is that we believe in resurrection.  And we know that without death, there can be no resurrection.

I read a fascinating article this week written by Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, our presiding bishop with whom I’ve had the honor to work.  She is deeply committed to the church and is a really funny person.  She offers these thoughts around the Reformation:

This view of freedom – that freedom is the problem – is well illustrated by Robert Capon in his book, Between Noon and Three. He writes, “If we are ever to enter fully into the glorious liberty of the children of God, we are going to have to spend more time thinking about freedom than we do. The church, by and large, has a poor record of encouraging freedom. She has spent so much time inculcating in us the fear of making mistakes that she has made us like ill-taught piano students: we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but to avoid some flub that will get us in trouble.” Think of the systems we have erected, promoted and been trapped in to keep us all in line. We can’t hear the music. And what heavenly music do we miss because we cannot hear? The promise of freedom. The reality that our freedom has been realized through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In our bondage, it has become all about us. Luther’s definition of sin, “the soul curved in on itself” traps us in our own echo chamber.

The soul curved in on itself traps us in our own echo chamber.

Dear friends in Christ, this is the problem in our society.

If we are curved in on the self – if we are engaged what has been called “extended navel-gazing” – then we cannot hear anything other than our own thoughts, our own echo chamber.

We curve in on ourselves because we think we are not enough for God to love us.  We curve in because we are feverishly working to “be better” or “do enough” that God will love us.

Pro Tip: YOU DON’T HAVE TO DO ANYTHING.  You are enough and everything just as you are.

Theologian and pastor David Lose comments that the best way to observe the Reformation is NOT to celebrate it, but rather to REPEAT it.  To look for the places where change is needed, whether that’s in the community, the world, or even your own life.

Shepherd of the Hills has already taken several meaningful steps in this direction.

I wonder what our next step might be?

In the spirit of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses and inviting comment, there are Post-It Notes in the entryway and on the tables in the fellowship hall for you to post your own thesis.  What needs to change?  What is bothering you?  What do you want to see happen?  What do you want to celebrate?  I invite you to write those down and stick them onto a door, ANY door you see.  The kids did this already this morning so if you’re not sure what to do, ask them.

Ecclesia Semper Reformanda Est.

The church is always reforming.

I invite you to be a part of what that might look like.

And in that process, let us remember as our Psalmist claims, “God is our refuge and strength.”

Not studies, or initiatives, or programs, or anything else.

God is our refuge.  And that is truly freedom, defined as release.

Amen.

Running on Faith

As has been the case throughout this fall in Luke, the gospel story this week has a lot going on.  I touched on each of them, and am grateful for Barbara Lundblad’s solid connection of them from her 2019 Festival of Homiletics sermon.

Luke 18:1-8

18Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

+++++++

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you this day from our loving God, through Christ.  Amen.

I wonder if perhaps you had the same thought as I did when I read this gospel story this week.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.”

We’ve heard this phrase in particular circles, but it sure does work in this gospel story.

This widow persisted until justice was hers.

However, Luke begins telling us this story by saying the disciples were hearing a parable about “their need to pray always and not lose heart.”

I think that’s just one of the things this lesson is teaching us today.  I see not only prayer, but also justice and faith as inherent in this story.

This gospel lesson about a corrupt judge and a widow – one without standing in her society – rings true across all of history.  The one with power, and the one without.  The one who sits on high, and the one who requests access to the upper level of the hierarchy.

If we only see prayer in this model, then we might fall into seeing the judge as God, and us as the widow.  We’re supposed to keep on praying, that’s what it’s all about, as the old song goes.

The problem with that, of course, is that it concentrates on our works instead of God’s grace.  That’s something we call “works theology” – the idea that our standing before God is determined by our good-works scorecard.

Pastor Lia Scholl points out that this could lead us to think “we should just petition God for what we want.  And that if we annoy God enough, we’ll get whatever that is.  So if we wear God down enough, will God fix everything?

And if not, how does this interpretation work for us? If I believe that if I just ask enough, God will make me rich – then what does my poverty say? If you believe that if you just ask enough, God will give you the desires of your heart – then what happens when your heart is broken? And if I believe that God will heal my body if I only ask enough times – then what happens as my body wastes away?”

That’s backwards from what we understand in our Lutheran theology of the cross.  That theology says God meets us in the hard places.  Its opposite, a theology of glory, relies on our being rewarded by God after we’ve racked up enough good deeds to merit that reward.  That falls apart under pressure, for example when you’ve done ALL the right things and you are still just this side of bankruptcy.

The second theme that I see running through this lesson is that of justice.  We’ve been presented with an unjust judge – one who, says Jesus, “neither feared God nor had respect for people” – and the widow who petitions him over and over.  She is seeking justice from the one who has the power to grant it.

This judge who has no consideration for either God or humanity, sounds a lot like the forces in our world that run counter to God’s way of being.  This judge sounds like the powerful who abuse their power.  He sounds like those who exploit the marginalized, like those who ignore the injustices and suffering of all of creation around them.

And the widow sounds like anyone who stands up to say “no more!”

We also might see this story as a question of faith.  After all, that’s Jesus’ question at the end – “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Well, that depends on your definition of faith.  Each one of us has our own understanding of faith.  We’ll come back to this.

The overall posture through this entire story?  One of waiting.

Waiting for an answer to prayer.  Waiting for justice to be done.  Waiting as a work of faith.

I think we’ve all been in each one of these places.  And those places are difficult and painful.  And sometimes they seem mighty long.

How do we not lose heart and maintain the faith in light of the fact that Jesus is not returning as soon as we’d like?

How are we to act if God’s justice is not delivered according to our own timetable?

How do we go on in the face of injustice if God’s ultimate justice only arrives “suddenly” at Jesus’ return?

Luke maintains – and I agree – that our inspiration here is the widow.

We are not to wait quietly for Jesus’ return and accept our fates in an oppression-ridden world. We are instead to resist injustice with the resolve and constancy of the widow. As Jesus explains elsewhere (Luke 11:1-13), prayer is not a passive activity but one that actively seeks God and pursues God’s will.

Like the activity of the widow who was turned down by the judge over and over.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

The 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall is approaching.  I remember the peaceful determination of the people who gathered night after night in the St. Nicholas Lutheran Church in East Berlin.  Their action is largely what led to the dismantling of the wall.

In spite of the clear danger such organizing presented – nevertheless, they persisted.

In the face of ridicule and pressure from the other side of the aisle, and in the reality of failing health, Representative Elijah Cummings of Baltimore continued his work as Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform up until mere hours before his untimely death this past week.

Nevertheless, he persisted.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to be persistent in opposing forces of evil and calling for justice.  It’s such an integral part of what it means to follow Jesus that it’s written into our baptismal promises.

When Jesus compares God to the judge, the real point of comparison is one of contrast.  God is in fact not like this reluctantly responsive judge. God does not need to be badgered into listening, and when God does respond, God does so willingly. If anything, God is more like the widow in her own relentless commitment to justice.  That is what persistent prayer looks like.

And what about faith?

Before this story, Jesus remarks that “the kingdom of God is already among you.”

Framed in that light, this parable is about our faithfulness to persevere.  It’s about seeing God’s justice being enacted all around us, even if it is not yet fulfilled.  We are called to be the widow maintaining the voice of the prophet – not to God but to the unjust rulers of the day.  The question is not if God is hearing us, or if God will eventually be worn down by our prayers.  The question is, will we still be doing the work of justice when we are needed?  Will our faithfulness “keep on keepin’ on?”

For me, this story can be summed up in one question: what do we do with the maddeningly long arc of justice?

That’s the arc described by Dr. King, when he quoted Unitarian minister Theodore Parker: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Lutheran theologian Barbara Lundblad summed it up well:

  • If we pray without working for justice, our prayers are empty.
  • If we work for justice without prayer, we’ll think it all depends on us.
  • If we pray and work for justice without faith, we will fall to despair when justice isn’t done.
  • Prayer, justice and faith. What Jesus has joined together, let no one put asunder!

Eric Clapton recorded a great song on his 1992 album Unplugged, called “Running on Faith.”  It captures this prayer/justice/faith triad.  When he talks about “love come over me” it is mindful of Cornel West’s statement that justice is what love looks like in public.  And in the tough places of justice-seeking neighbor-love, sometimes we are simply running on faith.

Lately I’ve been running on faith
What else can a poor boy do?
But my world will be right
When love comes over you

Lately I’ve been talking in my sleep
I can’t imagine what I’d have to say
Except my world will be right
When love comes back your way

I’ve always been
One to take each and every day
Seems like by now
I’d find a love who cares just for me

Then we’d go running on faith
All of our dreams would come true
And our world will be right
When love comes over me and you

Then we’d go running on faith
All of our dreams would come true
And our world will be right
When love comes over me and you
When love comes over you

“Running on Faith”  music & lyrics by Jerry Williams

Love has found us – in God incarnate, Jesus the Christ.  And so our whole lives are about running on faith.

In spite of all that rises against us, nevertheless, with God – we persist.

Amen.