12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life.
17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.(NRSV)
According to most biblical scholars, the writer of Timothy while certainly a student of Paul, was not the apostle himself. The greeting is one indicator. Authentic Pauline writings begin with expressions of gratitude to God, while Timothy thanks “Christ Jesus our Lord.”1 Another unique feature of the letter is the fact that, unlike Paul’s letters, this epistle is addressed to one specific individual – a young disciple named Timothy, who is being prepared for his own apostolic work. Whoever wrote this letter wants his young protégé to know that in Christ there is always the promise of deep and thorough redemption.
Speaking as Paul, Timothy’s mentor uses himself as an example. “I was…a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” he says. “But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of the Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
The attributes of the writer’s alienation from God – blasphemy, persecution, and violence – speak volumes. In the case of Paul and his followers, blasphemy meant more than just saying sacrilegious things about God; it meant assuming to speak for God – more specifically, to speak as God. Because Paul was so certain that his will and God’s will were in perfect accord, he believed that he could do nothing wrong. He felt neither reserve nor remorse about persecuting other human beings, especially Christians. Indeed, he apparently believed that he could impose any level of violence he chose and credit himself with righteousness in the name of God and country.
Taking on the persona of Paul, the writer declares that Jesus delivered him from that sin-soaked mire. And it was no simple transformation. Timothy’s mentor makes the dubious claim of having been the best at being the worst. In his mind, his unrivaled sinfulness required the “utmost patience” from Jesus in order to redeem him and to make of him an example for others. It’s enough to make you want to bless his heart, isn’t it?
Laying aside the rather sad grasping for attention and affirmation by claiming superlatives for oneself, the author of the letter is trying to illustrate a fundamental principle of Pauline theology: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2Cor. 5:17) And isn’t that the foundational announcement of Easter? Whatever may be, or may have been our reality, in Christ all things are being made new. By the gracious initiative of God, we and all things are in the process of being restored to our original goodness and wholeness.
One contemporary problem with all this before and after testimony is that the saying no longer appears to be all that “sure.” And there are fewer and fewer people willing to give it serious attention much less “full acceptance.” It seems that the “utmost patience” is needed not by Jesus for us, but by humankind for Jesus – or at least for his so-called Body, the Church. Let’s face it, as an institution, we’ve spent most of our patience capital on clergy sex scandals, on being more concerned with protecting wealth than welcoming the stranger, and on cozying up to power for the sake of perishable privileges Jesus never enjoyed, encouraged, and certainly never promised to his followers.
There’s the rub: The “sin” in which humankind is mired allows individuals and communities to justify self-aggrandizing idolatries of blasphemy, fear-fed persecutions and rejections of “the other,” and addiction to all forms of violence: militarism, consumerism, pornography, neglect of “the least of these,” and all the competitive meanness human beings sling around as if by divine right.
Now, I love all of you. You’re sweet people, but I can’t name a single, sin-free individual, myself included. If we don’t actually do the things we know are inconsistent with the call of Jesus, at some level, we willingly benefit from them. Unlike Paul, we are not acting “ignorantly in unbelief.” There’s just too much in our first-world arrangements making us feel comfortable, or even “blessed” to make us willing to repent.
As often as not, being redeemed and made new by Jesus is not something we really want, at least not at first. In all likelihood, the merciful redemption of Christ will lead us into lives that feel more demanding and less secure. But isn’t that the point? The here-and-now life of faith is our stage-one afterlife. It’s fraught with the mystery and paradox of Resurrection, and we enter it through open-handed trust in the one who was resurrected. We call the here-and-now afterlife “discipleship” because it requires discipline. It requires the intentional practice of a Christ-like approach to all of our relationships and decisions.
The here-and-now afterlife will make us political, but it puts us at odds with party politics. A here-and-now afterlife will make us fierce in the fight for justice, but steadfast in the universally beneficial means of compassion rather than the universally destructive means of violence. And in the here-and-now afterlife, our words will simply proclaim the eternal and merciful heart of Christ. They will not presume “equality with God.” (Phil. 2:6)
Contemporary author Anne Lamott has lived all her life in Marin County, CA, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. She was raised by devout atheists and lived her first thirty years in the throes of addiction, reckless promiscuity, depression, and, as she calls it, “raging narcissism.”2 When she was thirty, she had an experience of the real presence of Jesus. The next Sunday she found herself in a Presbyterian Church, and she’s been there ever since. Anne Lamott is not the kind of Presbyterian that all Presbyterians are comfortable with. In her speech, she remains edgy – and I’m being polite. She’s outspoken with her progressive political views. She’s nakedly honest about her past, her doubts, and her continuing struggles. And she’s also refreshingly grateful, even now in her 60’s, to have a new life to live.
In Anne’s beforelife, a setback or emotional darkness would send her scurrying for the liquor store or some other self-indulgent distraction. And while she acknowledges that she’s still a “work in progress,” she says that now – in what I’m calling the here-and-now afterlife – “when I’m in a bad mood…I’ll go out…and flirt with old people at the health food store, and if people need me, I will listen. I will bring them water, and I will listen, and that’s basically what Jesus did. Jesus didn’t say, ‘I will take away your problems…’ Jesus said, ‘I will keep you company, and I will be here if you need me.’ That’s what I try to be in the world, and some days go better than others.”
Anne Lamott does much more than just be nice to people, of course. She writes openly about her Christian faith. She’s an activist for peace and justice. She teaches Sunday school. She’s a new creation living her own here-and-now afterlife. She’s living redeemed and redeeming relationships because she’s living in a new relationship with the God revealed in Jesus.
Indeed, like the writer of Timothy, Anne Lamott might be willing to say that Jesus “display[ed] the utmost patience, making [her] an example [of the real, here-and-now presence of] eternal life.”
1Mitchell G. Reddish in his article Exegetical Perspectivein Feasting on the Word, Year C/Vol. 4. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010. P. 67.
2All references to and quotations by Anne Lamott are taken from her essay, “Lives Well Lived” in The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the Worldby Bob Abernethy and William Bole. Seven Stories Press, NY, 2007. Pp. 379-386.
4Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? 6They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?”
7I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. 8The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.
9Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. 10Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing.11Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.
12Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, 13for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. (NRSV)
Jeremiah is speaking to Israel in the waning years of its sovereignty. Babylon and other aggressive powers are encroaching on Judah, and by the time Jeremiah finishes his work, Jerusalem has fallen to Babylon. This happens, says the prophet, because the people have strayed from the covenant with Yahweh.
Israel has created for herself a deep theological quagmire by equating God’s presence and favor with their own geopolitical and military dominance. The argument goes something like this: If we affirm that God is God, and that God is good, and that God is OUR God, then our nation will be prosperous and mighty. Problems arise when Israel expects prosperity and might to be indicators of divine favor. Correcting that kind of self-serving theology is the whole point of Jesus’ Beatitudes.
For all the scriptural images of God as warrior, lion, raptor, and such, the truth seems to be that those images of God create both idols, “gods [who]…are no gods,” and broken cisterns leaking living water into the ground.
Israel doesn’t want to hear that, of course. Having yearned to be “like the nations” since the days of King Saul, they’ve ignored almost every prophetic teaching, warning, and invitation. Having chosen to mistake comfort and security for blessing, and entitlement for faith, Israel “defiled [the] land, and made [God’s] heritage an abomination.” God’s deeper concern seems to be that fact that Israel doesn’t reflect on her situation. So, Jeremiah’s task is to wake them up, to get them to say, What are we doing? What’s going on?
Most commentators on Jeremiah 2 point to trial language as the defining characteristic of this text. And “Therefore once more I accuse you” does sound like something one hears at an arraignment. Twice in this passage, however, God laments the fact that neither the people in general nor the priests in particular is asking, “Where is the Lord?” God wants the people to ask about, to wrestle with experiences of God’s apparent absence in the life of the community.
Asking “Where is the Lord?” is not a sign of weakness or faithlessness. It’s an inevitable part of the faith experience. During the Exodus, the Israelites wail their despair to Moses asking why they ever left the fleshpots of Egypt for the God-forsaken wilderness. (Ex. 16:2-3) Eventually, Moses begins to wilt under the people’s complaining and suffering. He challenges God: What’s going on? Where are you? The people are about to stone me! (Ex. 17:4)
I encourage you to read Psalms 22, 44, and 88, especially during some experience of suffering. These vivid examples of the community crying out in dark and lonely despair remind us that we’re not alone in wondering where God is. The first verse of Psalm 13 uses a memorable image to ask the whereabouts of God: “How long, O Lord?…How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)
Perhaps more disturbing than its inevitability, the Where is God? question is indispensable to our relationship with God. In his latest book, The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr describes the “human-divine love affair [as] a reciprocal dance. Sometimes,” he says, “in order for us to step forward, the other partner must step a bit away. The withdrawal is only for a moment, and its purpose is to pull us toward him or her—but it doesn’t feel like that in the moment. It feels like our partner is retreating. Or it just feels like suffering.
“God creates the pullback too,” says Rohr, “‘hiding his face’ as it was called by so many mystics and Scriptures. God creates a vacuum that God alone can fill. Then God awaits to see if we will trust…God…to eventually fill the space in us, which has now grown more spacious and receptive…Mystics,” says Rohr, “…knew that what feels like suffering, depression, uselessness—moments when God has withdrawn…are often acts of deep trust and invitation to intimacy on God’s part.”1
That sounds a lot like the old adage, “everything happens for a reason,” something that I personally cannot accept because it allows us to keep human suffering at arm’s length. It allows us to say, Since your suffering is God’s doing, you either deserve it or need it, so it’s not my concern.The prosperity gospel offers such a god who is no god.
Learning to ask Where is God? as an act of faith is about learning the humility required for living as grateful, generous, and compassionate disciples. So, if Rohr’s observations have merit, if God really pulls away, it happens at those moments when we are tempted to think that we know God more thoroughly than our human minds can know. If God pulls away, the Where is God? question reminds us that we are, in fact, not God. And at that point, by grace, in the strength of honest humility, we can respond to the invitation to move closer to God, by standing in more expansive awe of God.
It’s not unlike a young person heading into the world with more defiance than confidence.I know everything my parents know and more, they say to themselves. Or maybe they say it to their parents. When their parents open their arms to let their children go, the parents’ arms stay open ready to receive them back, whenever that might be. The Where is God? question can be asked in many different ways, and when it’s part of the reunion, everyone finds that there’s more room for relationship than there had been at the time of the parting.
For Christians, Saturday may be the ultimate metaphor for the Where is God? question. On Saturday, the disciples give up, and their despair bleeds into Sunday morning. They dismiss the women’s story as an “idle tale.” They huddle in a room “for fear of the Jews.” Peter surrenders to hopelessness saying, Jesus is gone, so I’m going fishing.
We are Easter people, but we have only one foot in Sunday right now. We always have another foot in Saturday, another foot in that place of loneliness, grief, and sometimes outright despair. But Saturday is crucial to our faith and spiritual practice. Saturday is an all-important Jeremiah day, a day when we’re invited to reflect on Friday, and to recognize how it exposed all the idolatries and broken cisterns of human selfishness and fear. On Saturday, we realize how incomplete our knowledge of God really is – and what a blessing that is.
At the same time, Saturday clears interior space for us to receive Sunday’s gracious “pullback,” the revelation that God is so much more than we can ever imagine.
1Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Convergent, NY, 2019. P. 78.)
4Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 5“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
6Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
7But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, 8Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”
9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” (NRSV)
It was September, 1986. I was 23 years old. Marianne and I had been married fourteen months. As I began my second year at Union Seminary in Richmond, VA, all I was learning was the fact that I did not belong in seminary. I sensed a call to ministry, but going to seminary and preparing for the ministry are not always synonymous. Very young and painfully naïve, I had gone to Union to avoidwhatever it was that would prepare me for ministry.
The following January, Marianne and I moved into a cookie-cutter apartment complex in Richmond and worked minimum-wage jobs. That June, we moved back to GA. Unemployed through all of June and July, it was early August when I backed into teaching middle school.
My failure at seminary, my exile as an under- then un-employed twenty-something college-graduate, and my six-year stint teaching public school proved to be transformational experiences. They became blessings not simply because they happened, but because, in time, I reflected on them. When I began the process of returning to seminary, Savannah Presbytery made me write my “story.” Repeatedly. Writing all that stuff down meant re-living it through a heart and mind that had learned important things no textbook can teach.
My experience really has more in common with Isaiah’s call story that Jeremiah’s. When God asks “Whom shall I send,” Isaiah jumps up and says, “Here I am, Lord.” God then touches Isaiah’s lips with a hot coal. As much as that might make our stomachs turn, it’s also a memorable metaphor for God tempering the ego of an over-eager prophet. In Richmond, I was less over-eager to do ministry than I was to escape adult responsibility, still, the slog of time between quitting and returning to seminary was one long kiss on a hot coal.
According to Jeremiah, when God called him, he began more humbly. Who me? I’m only a boy, Lord. I can’t be your spokesperson! And God simply touches Jeremiah’s lips, and says, There. Now you can. As we’ll see, that’s not the whole story.
Humility is, paradoxically, one of the most powerful spiritual gifts. Like Moses, Jeremiah is the right person for the job precisely because he questions his own capacity to do it. Without humility, there can be no real faith. Pride prevents us from recognizing that we need and are given help. Because it requires a person of faith to sit in open-handed trust before God, humility alone prepares the way for honest gratitude, selfless generosity, and authentic service to God and God’s people.
In the fourth chapter of Daniel, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, surveys his domain and takes absolute credit for all he sees. “Is this not magnificent Babylon,” he brags, “which I have built as a royal capital by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?” (Dan. 4:30) Let’s remember, like Egypt, and like the United States, most of Babylon’s foundational “greatness” was built by slaves, conquered peoples who were forced into labor, people whose spirits were broken by being removed from their homelands and separated from their families. Oblivious to reality, Nebuchadnezzar claims a kind of equality with God, but he holds power through brutality and hubris, not by doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
“While the words were still in the king’s mouth,” says Daniel, God’s “voice came from heaven: ‘O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: The kingdom has departed from you! You shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the animals of the field. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen…until you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals and gives it to whom he will.’” (Dan. 4:31-32) Humiliated, Nebuchadnezzar slinks off into the wilderness until he has learned that to declare oneself equal to God is a blasphemy that inevitably destroys communities and nations.
Even Jesus demonstrates this truth. “Though [Jesus] was in the form of God,” writes Paul, “he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2:5-8)
King Nebuchadnezzar eventually discovers this truth, but only through the long and humbling hot-coal-kiss of exile and reflection.
While Jeremiah’s call story reflects the prophet’s humility, his wider story reveals that Jeremiah has to learn the finer points of the gift the hard way. Preaching the ways and means of a creative, just, and loving God never endears prophets to people addicted to power. When Jeremiah faces resistance, he finds himself wanting to hang up his haircloth. “O Lord…I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me…For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” It only adds to Jeremiah’s angst to realize he can’t not prophecy. If I go silent, he says, ‘then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” (Jer. 20:7-9) We can feel him kissing that hot coal, can’t we?
Jeremiah’s existential struggle is reflected in his call story, which is itself a reflection. “Do not be afraid of them,” says God, “for I am with you to deliver you.” Jeremiah has a challenging word for the people of Israel, people who have been seduced by the allure of Babylon’s violent power, her slave-generated wealth, and the glittering façade of her majesty. Jeremiah’s prophecy reminds them that they belong to Yahweh, who is known through humble, grateful, and generous love of God and of all Creation. Israel, God’s chosen people, is not a nation of wealth and might, but a global community of self-emptying testimony and service.
As Easter people, we share a call to Jeremiah’s work of plucking up, pulling down, destroying, and overthrowing, but only through means consistent with the example of Jesus, who never does anything violently or vindictively. He always approaches his work as someone who faced temptations to manipulate people with prideful celebrity and fear. Having prevailed over those temptations, Jesus lives in humble yet impassioned love for God, neighbor, and earth.
Jeremiah’s rhetoric was more fingernails-on-the-chalkboard than Jesus’ rhetoric, but he knew that he was a mere servant, and not The Chosen One, the Anointed, the Messiah, a label Jesus alone is worthy to claim. Through his experiences, through remaining faithful and humble, even when facing opposition, and through constant prayer and reflection, Jeremiah was able, when he finally sat down to tell his story, to begin with a bold faith claim, “Now the word of the Lord came to me saying…”
Such boldness comes, faithfully, not at the beginning, but at the end. It comes after looking back and recognizing that the difference he made came not when, like Nebuchadnezzar, the prophet railed out of hubris and fear, but when he listened and spoke out of humble faith and impassioned love for God and God’s Creation.
Late in Jeremiah’s ministry, he speaks for God when he says to Israel, “Surely I know the plans I have for you…plans for your welfare and not for your harm, to give you a future of hope. (Jer. 29:11) Untold billions of people never feel the energy and peace of that promise. And where such beloved bearers of the image of God live in pain and hopelessness, it is our calling “to pluck up…pull down…and overthrow” on their behalf in the humble and loving manner of Jesus, who, through the Holy Spirit, is our ever-present guide and strength. And in Jesus alone, through the power of Resurrection, is our everlasting hope.
49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!
52“From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three;53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (NRSV)
Early in Luke 12, Jesus tells the crowds, “Do not fear those who kill the body.” A little later he tells his disciples, “Do not worry about your life.” Last week we heard him say, “Do not be afraid, little flock.” It all seems wishful thinking, though. Chapters 12 and 13 of Luke convulse with Jesus’ own anguish.
“I came to bring fire to the earth,” he says, and “division” rather than “peace.”
“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”
In this section, Luke isn’t merely assembling stories about Jesus. He’s writing his readers into a diorama. He surrounds us with images of the crushing immediacy of all that Jesus faces on his way to Jerusalem.
In this climactic moment, Jesus declares that God has chosen him to spark a blaze in the Creation. This scene foreshadows and burns with all the agony of Gethsemane, and of Peter hearing the rooster crow. It recalls Joseph facing the brothers who betrayed him, Moses demanding that Pharaoh release the Hebrews, and David admitting his treachery against Uriah. It’s confession and liberation, death and resurrection.
I trust that if Jesus is behind it, if he’s alive within it, whatever it is offers new life to all Creation. I also trust that the promised newness will be achieved in ways consistent with the life of Jesus. He enters the Creation and discerns what is holy and corrupt in all things. Then he tenaciously commits himself to redeeming the Creation by nurturing God’s reconciling holiness into ascendency the way one blows on an ember and encourages it into a flame.
The fire Jesus sets is a gracious arson. It refines and enlightens. Its heat represents the com-passion of God – the burning with us of God. And through this mystic alchemy, our true selves are revealed, redeemed, and set free.
When Jesus pronounces division, I hear him crying out in lament, not threat. He knows that when faced with their holy truth and their earthly calling, his people will struggle with discernment like Jacob at the Jabbok, or Elijah in his cave, or Jesus at his temptation. Discernment is a place of refining and defining tension. It’s a fiery crucible where, through honest, prayerful, and often arduous deliberation, we learn the gifts of humility, gratitude, generosity, and justice. Without thoughtful discernment, lasting re-union doesn’t happen. Instead, assuming supremacy for ourselves or our group, we cave to the easy way. We cave to violence and to divisive judgment. Discernment demands more from us than division. But through its agony, all things can be liberated.
In refusing to walk to the back of a Montgomery city bus, Rosa Parks declared to herself and to the whole world, I am a human being equally beautiful and valuable as anyone else. I will quit acting otherwise. Her prophetic act of cultural arson helped our nation to face the entrenched reality of racism. She helped to push us deeper into a grueling, and still incomplete, season of discernment.
Think about it nationally. Who are we? Are we a society in which, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, a “self-evident” truth has, indeed,declared that “all [people] are created equal…[and] endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…[such as] Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”?
And are we paying attention to the signs of the times? Jefferson said that our “experience [shows] that [hu]mankind are more disposed to suffer…than to right themselves by abolishing the forms” that enslave, humiliate, and oppress. And yet constraining “evils” have found new purchase on our liberated soil.
Jefferson was a member of the land-owning, slave-owning gentry when he declared independence, and when he wrote, he didn’t have in mind people of African descent. Still, his words marked the beginning of the end of slavery. Racism is another matter, though. Jefferson’s “long train of abuses and usurpations”has continued in subtle and overt ways. And is it not the “right…and duty” of oppressed peoples, wherever and whomever they may be, to “throw off” tyranny? And is it not our calling as followers of Jesus to add our voices to his fiery cry for justice?
In discerning her own full humanity, Rosa Parks declared her independence. And in doing so, she invited a divided household toward “a more perfect union.”
Now, maybe, in our increasingly divided society, part of our struggle to be at peace in community arises from our struggle to be at peace individually, our struggle to accept and love ourselves as we truly are at the core of our being. Maybe, before we can understand and heal the divisions among us, each of us needs to learn to understand, love, and forgive ourselves.
That’s certainly true for me. When I am most irritable, most impatient, most prone to make decisions that tear apart rather than bring together, those are times that I feel most conflicted within myself.
It seems to me that the divisions clawing at us right now are timely signs of the Gospel’s unnerving truth: In Jerusalem, life as we’ve known it comes undone. The path to Sunday necessarily passes through the trauma of Friday, and the isolation of Saturday. The gracious fire of Jesus guides us through this dark passage. His Friday-to-Sunday baptism completes our redemption. Whether or not we live in that completion, Jesus has shown us what is originally and finally true about ourselves and about all Creation. God has declared us “good,” and “beloved.” And no division can, ultimately, separate “us from the love of God.”
There’s a communion hymn that begins: “I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved, and free, in awe and wonder to recall His life laid down for me.” And the third verse says: “As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us makes us one, and strangers now are friends.”1
Pride is often listed as the last and least of the seven deadly sins. But I think pride leads to all the others, because pride makes idols of our own selves, our own tribes. Prideful idolatry is the fundamental hypocrisy by which we divide ourselves one from another.
Humbly and confidently offering the best of who they are, Jesus, and other whole-hearted folks like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai hold a burning torch to the best within us. When it comes to discernment, we’re not perfect. And while we’re not without forgiveness, we are without excuse. We know better. It’s just really hard to follow Jesus in this tension-wrought world.
“Do not be afraid little flock.” The Light of the World burns within you, and among all of us. And as stewards of politically divided, racially volatile, environmentally fragile times, we face an urgent call to claim and to declare God’s gift of liberating, reconciling, resurrecting love.
1“I Come with Joy,” Brian Wren (1968, rev. 1977). The Presbyterian Hymnal, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville/London, 1990. Hymn #507.
32“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.33Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.34For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
35“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit;36be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.37Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.39“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.40You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (NRSV)
When I was in fifth or sixth grade and my sister, Laura, was in Jr. High, our parents let us take a Trailways bus, by ourselves, from Augusta, GA to Montgomery, AL to visit grandparents. Before we left, Mom and Dad lectured us – briefly – on safety. “Be careful,” they said. “And watch out for shady characters.” That was it. Nothing specific. However, for a couple of sheltered kids who lived in a “nice,” all-white neighborhood outside a small city in the deep south, we knew which visible characteristics immediately qualified someone as potentially shady. Now, our parents didn’t push prejudice on us, but our southern culture certainly did. So, diving into shady-character-watch mode, we started a list. Before the bus even left Augusta, it was as long as my forearm.
During the trip, a flat tire stranded us in the Middle-of-Nowhere, AL. While we waited for Trailways to resolve the problem, Laura and I went on high alert. The old flat tire trick, we thought. Now that’s as shady as it gets. And the list grew until we arrived safely in Montgomery.
Parting words are often warnings: Be careful. Have a safe trip. Anything can happen, you know.
Do you remember this child’s bedtime prayer? Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take!
How does a four-year-old process those words after Mommy and Daddy turn out the light and shut the door? That prayer is borderline religious extortion. Sadly, it’s a reflection of the Church’s principal tool of evangelism over the last two millennia – fear. Why do people enter the fold more readily and remain longer when they’re more afraid of God than in love with God?
Now, I’m not talking about healthy fear – the fear that keeps us from standing too close to the rim of the Grand Canyon or swimming with alligators. That’s what “fear of the Lord” refers to – respecting the limits of our creatureliness before God.
I’m talking about fear as the natural consequence idolatry of oneself or unresolved guilt. That kind of fear is antithetical to faith. It eviscerates faith, exterminates hope, and asphyxiates love. Because it cultivates the incarnate hell which so many seek to escape, fear doesn’t draw us closer to God; it exiles us from God. We cannot be afraid of God and love neighbor.
Now, I understand that Be careful really is a way to say, I love you. Still, it seems to me that we have chosen to live in a state of relentless fear – which necessarily means treating our neighbors as shady characters, especially those who appear different from us. And when our communities are armed like the militaries of small nations, and when our hearts and minds are being warped more and more toward an at-any-cost self-preservation, preparedness means readiness not only to imagine the worst that someone can do, but to be able to respond in kind.
“Do not be afraid, little flock.” In a culture of fear, Jesus’ words are pie-in-the-sky nursery rhymes. So, we approach them from a standpoint of “Yes, but…”
Yes, I love God; but first I have to take care of number one – me.
Yes, I love my neighbor; but first I have to prepare to defend myself from him.
Yes, God is love; but it’s a cruel world out there, and only the strong survive. (Is it not a paradox when people of faith, in good faith, argue vigorously against evolution, and yet choose to live by its foundational principle of survival of the fittest?!)
When our treasure lies with only ourselves and our tribes, that’s where our hearts are: Fearfully seeking one thing: Survival. And survival is not the same as living.
“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” says Jesus. “Be like those who are waiting for their master to return.”
Many Christians hear those words as a call to live in constant anxiety of a vindictive god who is “coming soon,” brandishing a sword of judgment. That god’s vengeful passion is to punish – eternally no less – those who haven’t earned grace through right belief and right action. And isn’t it another paradox to think that one must, or even can, earn grace?
Jesus’ life and teaching reveal a much different God.
Jesus was formed by and preached from Hebrew scriptures laden with retributive theology. And yet, in his sermon on the mount, “An eye-for-an-eye” becomes, “do not resist an evildoer…[and] turn the other cheek.” (Mt. 5:38-39) “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy” becomes, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt. 5:43-45) And the Messiah isn’t a triumphant military leader, but an itinerant rabbi who rewrites scripture and dies a traitor’s death.
What does such a life prepare us for? How does it take care of us and those we love? The hard truth is that following Jesus sets us at odds with cultures that regard resentment and fear as the “realistic” approach to life.
“Be like those,” says Jesus, who wait on their master, a bridegroom, to return from his honeymoon. When he gets home in the middle of the night, what does he do? He straps on an apron and serves them a feast.
One can imagine the disciples cutting their eyes at each other thinking, The master serving the servants?
That’s right, says Jesus. So, be ready. Grace happens when you least expect it.
If we surrender to fear, “when you least expect it” warns us of the worst possible contingencies. When animated by faith in the loving and gracious God revealed in Jesus, “when you least expect it” invites us to live differently in the world – to live expectantly, graciously – and not just for ourselves, but for others, for neighbors next door and across the globe, and for the earth on which all of us depend for life, health, and joy.
The awareness to which Jesus calls us is not the kind of hypervigilance of police officers patrolling Bourbon Street at Mardi Gras, but the openness of the painter before a blank canvass, or a committee before a new idea – or problem. Such awareness takes time to learn and nurture.1 Gene Lowry, a well-known preacher and teacher of preaching, says that we must learn to “position ourselves to be surprised.”2 Fear prepares us to avoid surprise. Faith prepares us to welcome it the way the servants prepare to welcome the gift of their master’s hospitality in the middle of the night.
Right now, it feels like few of us expect the coming – much less the presence – of the Son of Man. Our sick culture is too busy not just preparing for, but empowering the next angry person armed with hate and fear. We can prepare for shady characters, and expect the worst from them – and only deepen the sickness in which we live.
Or we can follow Jesus, looking for and evoking the holiness around us, expecting to be surprised by signs of God’s presence and grace in the world even in the midst of its admittedly, and all-too-often invasively, fearsome brokenness.
Neither approach to preparedness guarantees safety or survival, but only the latter engages us with the power of Resurrection at work in the Creation. It allows us to live as witness to the ongoing advent of the gracious, creative, surprising God revealed in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the grace of Agape Love alone lies our treasure and our hope.
1David J. Schlafer in his article, Homiletical Perspectivein Feastin on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Volume 3. Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010. P. 339.
In the mid-700’s B.C.E., the middle east was rife with fertility religions. That allowed temple prostitutes to make a decent living “leading worship.” At God’s command, Hosea marries a temple prostitute named Gomer, who, to Hosea’s chagrin, proves to be something of a workaholic. The strained relationship between Hosea and Gomer is a metaphor for the strained relationship between God and Israel. God and Hosea keep forgiving and taking back their wayward spouses.
In 1957, a biblical scholar named Bernhard Anderson, published an Old Testament survey text whose fifth edition is still widely used in colleges and seminaries. Anderson describes Hosea’s historical context as particularly chaotic and violent. Assyria, under its brutal king, Tiglath-pileser III, was out to conquer the known world, including Israel.1 For some Israelites, capitulating to Assyrian rule and exile was a matter of life or death. Other Israelites, mostly leaders, men of privilege and influence, worked the angles of political and economic upheaval in order to profit from their own nation’s defeat. Hosea aimed his sharpest arrows at that latter group.
“Just as Gomer played the harlot,” writes Anderson, “so Israel had broken the covenant…this was the real historical tragedy, and all the contemporary troubles of Israel were only symptoms of it.”2
“The consequences of Israel’s betrayal of the covenant were seen in the regicides…the feverish foreign policy aimed at courting Egypt or Assyria, and the foolish reliance upon arms and fortifications…Stubborn and determined, Israel had insisted on being ‘like the nations,’ and as a result it was ‘swallowed up’ among the nations.”3
Anderson then makes this sobering observation: “Like other great prophets, Hosea knew that religion…could be a way of betraying God.”4 Captured by Assyria, and captivated by selfish desires, even Israelites “thronged to the temples, not to acknowledge gratefully their utter dependence on God who had brought them out of Egypt, but rather to ‘get something out of religion’”5 And almost everyone cashed in on the debauchery. Seeing both the fear and wanton lust, “Priests were ‘feeding on the sin’ of Yahweh’s people.”6 By accommodating to the pandemic idolatries, many priests began to distort their spiritual authority into political power. This infuriated the prophet.
“Let no one contend, and let none accuse,” says Hosea, “for with you is my contention, O priest…My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” (Hosea 4:4-6)
Most of Hosea reads like that. That’s why he is included among the “prophets of doom.”
Through it all, there are two oases of grace in Hosea’s chaos. One is a single verse buried in the sixth chapter: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6) Twice in Matthew’s gospel, the Pharisees (the priestly harlots of Jesus’ day) challenge Jesus for breaking with Jewish orthodoxy, and Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 both times. “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Mt. 9:13 – also in 12:7)
God’s desires, while hardly easy, are simple enough: We are to love and trust God by committing ourselves to mercy, justice, and integrity in all of our relationships.
The second gospel moment comes in chapter 11.
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
5They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes. 7My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.
8How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
10They shall go after the Lord, who roars like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. 11They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria; and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.(NRSV)
Chapter 11 stands in stark contrast to the rest of Hosea’s prophecy. When reading it, though, one realizes that herein lies the heart, soul, and substance of the prophet’s message.
Hosea acknowledges that Israel’s unfaithfulness has set them on a course for downfall. Having given themselves to the self-serving pleasures and fears, and to the easy demands of idols, painful days lie ahead. And a grieving God says that this is not God’s will for beloved Israel. But God is not Tiglath-pileser, and will not force God’s will onto those whom God loves.
The language in Hosea 11 is that of parental love, and you don’t have to be a parent to understand God’s and Hosea’s struggle. If you’ve ever truly loved someone – older than a toddler perhaps – then you know that loving that person often involves the heartbreaking work of allowing them to face the consequences of their own poor decisions.
So, God says, “They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they refused to return to me. The sword rages in their cities…and devours because of their schemes.” (In light of three mass shootings this past week, that hits home for our cities, doesn’t it?)
And yet, your very presence with that person, in merciful love, helps them – whether they recognize it or not at the time.
So, God says, “[T]hey did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks.”
Whether we have loved or been loved that way, such love requires a humility that is so deep and pure as to feel beyond our capacity. Loving humbly means seeing the other through God’s eyes, not our own, and that throws us into a grueling paradox. We see the undeniable externals, the poor and destructive decisions, and while we voice our concern, and perhaps encumber them with consequences – if that’s even an option – we refuse to judge or condemn the person. His or her actions cause enough suffering, and trying to heap punish on them becomes all about us, our own disappointment, anger, or even shame.
It can be painfully difficult not to insert ourselves and try to impose our will on them, but that’s the difference between authority and power, between love and pride. And Yahweh offers to Israel the authority of love, not the power of pride.
Even as he grieves his wife’s deliberate unfaithfulness, Hosea finds the grace to reveal and to speak from God’s heart: “When Israel was a child, I loved him…How can I give you up, Ephraim?…I will not execute my fierce anger…for I am God and no mortal…I will not come in wrath.”
God comes; and for all the prophet’s harsh words, God does not come in wrath. Wrath is our doing – or rather our undoing. To those who call themselves people of faith, God is crying out, calling us to lives that witness to a grace that defies both the all-too-real chaos around us, and the human reason on which we so religiously rely. We are called to live differently than the wrathful voices around us that would have us live as if our only concern is “getting” something – whether that something is wealth, or power, or “into heaven.” Such selfishness creates the God-betraying religion Bernhard Anderson talked about.
Hosea and Jesus call us to live in the paradox of God’s grace wherein our freedom not to judge is also freedom to speak out, fearlessly and graciously, in the face of humankind’s Creation-wrecking resentment, fear, and greed.
In that paradox, we witness to God’s redeeming love in the chaos. We enter the fray as “cords of human kindness [and] bands of love,” knowing that God brings us back, “trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria.”
By grace alone, God alone brings us home.
1Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, Fourth Edition, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1986. Pp. 301-316.
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (NRSV)
“He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished…”
I understand that Luke is hustling us past what would have been the uninteresting sight of someone sitting alone in silent meditation, but I find his abrupt account of the fact somewhat misleading with regard to prayer.
The “certain place” reference doesn’t bother me, and we’ll touch on that again. It’s the “after he had finished” line that bothers me. If Jesus went off by himself, his retreat had a beginning, middle, and end. But it seems to me that if any of us “finish” praying, we never truly started.
Before Session meeting last Tuesday, the elder whose turn it was to do the opening devotion let me know that he couldn’t be there, so, I filled in. Searching for inspiration, I picked up a book of short essays by Kathleen Norris entitled Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Scanning the table of contents, a two-page chapter called “Prayer as Mystery” caught my attention. Turning to it, I read these words:
“Prayer is…not words but the beyond-words experience of coming into the presence of something much greater than oneself…Attentiveness is all; I sometimes think of prayer as a certain quality of attention that comes upon me when I’m busy doing something else…
“Prayer is often stereotyped in our culture as a form of pietism, a lamentable privatization of religion. Even many Christians seem to regard prayer as a grocery list we hand to God, and when we don’t get what we want, we assume that the prayers didn’t ‘work.’ This is privatization at its worst, and a cosmic selfishness. Prayer does not ‘want.’ It is ordinary experience lived with gratitude and wonder.”1
I find Norris’s definition edifying. If I approach prayer as a flurry of words expecting answers, and bookended by “Let us pray” and “Amen,” I have privatized it. I’ve reduced it to a meeting between a customer service agent and a customer, a transaction in which I seek “satisfaction.” Then, depending on whether the prayer is “answered” or not, I’m tempted to judge my worthiness, the worthiness of the one for whom I prayed, or the compassion or even the very reality of God. Such outcome-oriented prayer is the norm in consumeristic religion.
The disciples seem to want prayer to be some kind of proprietary act, too. “Teach us to pray,” they say. Show us how to do it right. Show us how to do it successfully.
In Luke, Jesus’ instruction on prayer is five short lines – an opening word of praise, followed by requests for hope, sustenance, forgiveness, and deliverance. His teaching is so terse, it feels dismissive. Then we realize that it’s more like an epigraph at the beginning of a book, because Jesus breaks the notion of prayer wide open.
He starts with a parable: Imagine a friend shows up at your house in the middle of the night. He’s hungry and tired. The nature of friendship and the mandate of hospitality require you to welcome that friend and feed him. But you have no food. So, you go to another friend and ask him for help. Being in bed, he refuses at first. You have other friends. Go bother one of them. But you persist, and because of the nature of friendship and the mandate of hospitality, your friend finally gets up and helps you to help your other friend.
Jesus is saying that prayer is about more than getting a loaf of bread. It’s about being bread for each other. When Kathleen Norris defines prayer as “ordinary experience lived with gratitude and wonder,” she follows Jesus’ example and implies a humble response of generosity, compassion, and mutual empathy. If our only practice of prayer is the word-cluttered darkness of bowed heads and closed eyes, we’re missing more than half of the experience.
These last couple of months have been hard for much of the Jonesborough Presbyterian family. Deaths, illnesses, and anxieties have had their way with many of us. I’ve been asked repeatedly to pray for specific individuals and their situations. And I do so willingly, gratefully, and as faithfully as I know how. When I pray with you, I’m stepping into a holy paradox. I’m trying to stand with you in the thick of your particular struggles and our shared human vulnerability, while also trying to stand back to let the Holy Spirit work. I promise no outcomes, only to seek a shared experience of the presence, peace, strength, and purpose-creating redemption of God in the midst of our sufferings and joys. That’s where we find and receive the “gratitude and wonder” that keep us going, even when our bodies, minds, and communities fail us.
Jesus’ story about the friend who wakes the friend to help the friend, and his teachings about asking/receiving, seeking/finding, and his bizarre images of parents feeding children snakes and scorpions – all these things remind us that prayer transcends our efforts to pepper God with words and wants. Prayer is how we live our faith. And since neither God nor prayer are limited to sanctuaries or pious utterances, it follows that the “certain place” where Jesus prayed is everywhere.
Now, while all things can be prayer for us, we often waste prayerful energy clambering after false gods for material things or psyche-soothing certainties. And none of that creates genuine faith. The life and teachings of Jesus reveal that prayer has nothing to do with getting what we want until – and this is the crucial thing – until we learn how to want what God wants.
I do believe that God wants well-being for all individuals. I also believe that the Lord’s Prayer, which we often pray so mechanically as not to hear it, teaches us to pray by giving us words with which to confess the futility of praying for individualistic wants and fears. Through the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask God to re-orient our hearts and minds so that we might learn to embody God’s kingdom-creating will “on earth as it is in heaven.” The Lord’s Prayer makes it clear that prayer is not about bending God’s will to ours, but bending our will to God’s. And the most effective prayers for God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven,” are lives that actively seek God’s compassion, justice, and peace for all Creation.
I know people want their pastors to say prayers for them. And pastors sign up for that. Those prayers, those words, are vital. They can be comforting, sometimes even transforming. Pastors also sign up to make it clear that prayer encompasses every aspect of the messy business of being the Church. That’s what I told the session on Tuesday: All our committee meetings, all our conversations at family lunch and in the parking lot, all our Sunday school classes, mission efforts, film groups, book studies, and every visit you as well as I make in the name of Christ, all of this is has the potential to be prayer, because all of these things connect us more deeply to each other and, therefore, to God.
1Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith. Riverhead Books, New York, NY, 1998. Pp. 350 & 351.