1Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
10According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.
16Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”
21So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours,22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God. (NRSV)
Years ago, while serving my first call in Mebane, NC, I would occasionally jump in the car and just drive. No passengers. No radio. No stops for junk food. And in those days, no cell phone. In that prayerful solitude, I paid attention to whatever caught my eye – people, homes, farms, trees, clouds.
One day I passed a small, frame house set close to the road. The front porch was just an exposed, concrete stoop. The scalloped, dingy-white siding was probably asbestos. The random clumps of scraggly grass struggling in the neglected yard looked more like litter than lawn.
One detail made this otherwise forgettable scene memorable. To the left of the house, but attached to the rest of the structure, lay a cinder block foundation. Inside the foundation, a mound of lifeless fill dirt smoothed over by years of exposure glared like a desert. Was it an abandoned part of the original floor plan? Was it an unfinished addition? I’ll never know.
“No one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid,” says Paul. “That foundation is Jesus Christ. [And] each builder must choose with care how to build on it.”
Like the foundation of that house out in the North Carolina countryside, the Church’s foundation is always more spacious than we structures we build on it.
As an architect, Paul is frustrated with the Corinthian laborers. Having tried to build only on small, separate corners of the foundation, they’ve become fractured and fractious. Some build around Paul, others around Apollos, and still others around Cephas.
“Do you not know,” says the apostle, “that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?…God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Our foundation is the eternal Christ, and our human hearts and minds struggle to comprehend his fullness. So, in order to keep things reasonable and manageable, we often find ourselves, like the Christians in Corinth, limiting the holy potential of our lives. Instead of trying to love as broadly and deeply as we are loved, we often tinker around in the comfort and safety of our own tiny corners. Nonetheless, through us, and, when necessary, in spite of us, God is constructing something life-changing, something world-transforming.
And it is about us. The “you” in this passage is plural. A culturally appropriate translation might be: “Do y’all not know that y’all are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in all-a-y’all?” Paul is proclaiming a cooperative project. The foolish, worldly wisdom Paul refers to is the futility of individualistic discipleship. God’s wise foolishness links our hearts, minds, and bodies together as we follow the blueprint of love and build a worldwide community of grace. Sure, it gets cumbersome, but none of us can build the temple by ourselves. That’s why forgiveness and reconciliation are the fundamental tools of temple building.
One thing we’re doing today is dedicating a refurbished steeple. The Session thanks everyone who made that project happen. The end result is everything we hoped for. During the process, we learned that the repair was overdue. Had we waited much longer, the structure of the steeple would have experienced major damage. So again, we thank Gordon Edwards and the property/safety team who worked so faithfully to organize the effort, Pat Wolfe and the finance team who made all the numbers work out, and you who gave so generously to the capital campaign. We’re also grateful to recent generations whose generosity put us in a financial position to cover unpledged costs.
We also turn our attention even further back this morning, back to long-ago generations who stewarded Jonesborough Presbyterian Church through years of brokenness and division and into a new era of unity.
In 1868, three years after the Civil War, Jonesborough Presbyterian, like so many congregations in communities with divided loyalties, split into two factions based on northern and southern sympathies. They formed two congregations: one affiliated with the old southern denomination—the Presbyterian Church in the US, and the other affiliated with the old northern denomination—the United Presbyterian Church. At first, the two groups shared the space we occupy today by holding services on alternating Sundays. Each congregation had its own pastor, session, missions, and budget. They shared the costs of maintaining the building.1 This arrangement lasted through the 1870’s. In 1880, when the two communities could no longer cooperate, the northern group began the process of purchasing land and building their own facility on the corner of Main and Fox Streets.
In the early 1900’s, the two sessions (First Presbyterian—in this building, and Second Presbyterian—in the new building) tried to no avail to restore the fragmented family. Over the next three decades they made numerous failed attempts to reconcile. During the 1930’s, the southern congregation had dwindled so drastically that the building we occupy this morning was essentially closed for over a decade. It had no pastor, and was opened only for the occasional funeral.
In the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, the PCUS remnant and the UPC congregation began reaching out to each other, again. It took a few years of conversation, but the two communities finally reconciled and reunited. They set to work restoring and expanding this facility which had begun to deteriorate. The work was dedicated during the week of October 15-20, 1944, 75 years ago this week. Second Presbyterian’s building was sold to the Christian Church denomination and is now Central Christian Church.
In reading through the history of this congregation, one can become discouraged by the hurtful and petty arguments between the two factions. One can also find encouragement in how often the two bodies sought reunification. I feel encouraged because my sense is that these two congregations knew in their heart of hearts that they were one body. They were built on the same foundation, the foundation of Jesus Christ, and whatever might have been going on between them, they belonged together. Something deep within the membership knew that what God had brought together could not be torn apart—at least not forever.
I’m reminded of a verse from the hymn by Samuel John Stone: “The Church’s One Foundation.” Though with a scornful wonder, we see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed. Yet saints their watch are keeping; Their cry goes up, “How long?” And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
It’s interesting: Just as we are celebrating 75 years of reunion, it took 75 years of separation to reunite. During those years of exile, church leaders led the communities in loyalties to particular histories and institutions rather than in loyalty to Jesus. Over time, old wounds healed because, it seems to me, those who had wounded each other finally died off in sufficient numbers to clear the way for new beginnings. Through it all, the foundation held. And that foundation called the people back into relationship and shared ministry.
I am truly grateful that our steeple has been refurbished. In final analysis, though, it’s just an object. What lasts, what makes a difference in the community of Jonesborough, TN is not the spire above our heads, but the foundation at the heart of our identity as Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. The men and women of this congregation 75 years ago knew that. And they found the grace to release all the painful memories that had been passed down to them, and to restore a community torn apart by the blind and bitter “craftiness” of loyalties to things of this world.
It occurs to me in all this that it was also roughly 75 years from the founding of this congregation to its division in 1868. Perhaps every 75 years this part of Christ’s body finds itself in a season of discernment and change. Whatever future may unfold beneath the steeple overhead, our calling is to remain grounded on the foundation of Jesus Christ, the foundation of eternal love, the foundation that is always deeper and more expansive than most congregations are willing to build on. As we follow Jesus’ example and his vision of radical grace, we expand the church. That is to say we expand our ministry with and for God’s beloved creation.
May love be our legacy. And in 75 years, may Jonesborough Presbyterian Church still be a place of welcome, worship, and service.
1All historical information about Jonesborough Presbyterian Church comes from Judith Haws Hash in her ETSU Master’s thesis, A History of First Presbyterian Church of Jonesboro, Tennessee, August 1965.
“What will be the work of sixty years among us? How few of the present congregation will be able to come back here at the end of fifty years, and revive the memories of this day? Time will have wrought great changes, and Death will have gathered a nice harvest. Our children and our children’s children will be in our places, and our names will have passed away…these walls will soon cease to echo our voices and our songs of praise, and these places know us no more forever; but there will arise in the Providence of God others, greater numbers, to sing his praise and worship his name, and preach his truth in a better manner than we have done.” (The Rev. Rufus Wells on the occasion of the dedication of the Jonesborough Presbyterian Church, August, 1850. Hash, p. 117.)
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Then 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?” (NRSV)
In his book The Kingdom Within, John Sanford tells the story of spending his childhood summers at an early 1800’s farmhouse in rural New Hampshire. The ancient house had no modern amenities and was served by a single shallow well just outside the kitchen door. Sanford remembers that well water as particularly pure, cold, and refreshing. As a boy, he was most impressed by the well’s constancy.
“Even in the severest summer drought,” he writes, “when others would be forced to resort to the lake for their drinking water, our old well faithfully yielded up its cool, clear water.”1
Eventually, the Sanfords modernized. They got electricity. They dug a deep well, and capped off the old one, figuring that they’d use it when necessary. Years later John decided to open the well and taste its familiar water, again. When he pried off the cap and peered into the hole, he expected to see his reflection on still water. To his surprise and deep disappointment, he had uncovered nothing but a dry pit. After asking around, he discovered what had happened. The old shallow well was fed by hundreds of tiny, underground rivulets where water flowed constantly. As long as water was removed from the well, more water flowed in, keeping the passageways open. But when water wasn’t removed, the passageways clogged up.
The old well had run dry because of disuse.
“The soul of a [person],” says Sanford, “is like [that] well.”2
The same is true of our spirituality. Without constantly drawing up Living Water, we run dry. There are lots of reasons we stop dipping into the well called the Holy Spirit: Busyness. Impatience. Frustration or disillusionment with God or with the Church. Influences that convince us that the life of faith robs us of freedom instead of opening us to a deeper and wider world. And to be fair, the Church often portrays faith as a restrictive set of doctrinal and moral limits to which one must submit in order to “get to heaven,” the only place where true meaning exists. And what a harsh, dry, uninviting place we create when we live that way.
Prayer is more than pious confession and desperate petition. It’s a way of life, and when we lay aside that aspect of our holy humanity, we not only dry out, we get used to dried out as a way of life.
In Jesus’ parable in Luke 18, we meet a judge who has given up on life. His lack of concern for everyone but himself has left him with a dried-out sense of justice. We also meet a woman who, without an adult male to advocate for her, must camp out on the judge’s door pleading incessantly until he finally acts on her behalf just to get rid of her. She knows that if she stops, she’ll be like the judge. The tiny streams of hope that fill the well of her faith in justice, and in her own sense of self-worth will clog up, and she will die.
Hear the good news: God is in no way like that judge. God craves our attention. And like any mutual relationship, our relationship with God requires intentional mindfulness and constant communication.
So we pray as a way of life. We watch and listen. We taste and feel, speak and sing, cry and laugh, work and play. And woven throughout such prayerful living, God reveals to us God’s presence, encouragement, challenge, and purpose. God answers not with single strands of Yes/No, Do this/Do that, but by walking with us and creating meaning through all the struggle, heartache, and joy. The fruits of a life of prayer are not simply deeper understanding, but a transformed life in, with, and for the creation around us.
Years ago I read a book entitled Faithful Travelers. It’s the true story of a six-week fly-fishing excursion a man takes with his daughter. Having paid attention to other things, the man and his wife had capped off their relationship, and it dried up. On their trip, father and daughter were trying to understand what was happening and what the future might hold. The father had enough faith to trust that in spite of his family’s heartache, somewhere and somehow something new, good, and meaningful would break through.
In the next to last chapter, the engine in the man’s pickup truck dies in the tiny town of Hinton, OK. It’ll take three days to fix. So, deciding to make the best of things, the man and his daughter settle in to enjoy the small town and its friendly people.
On their last day in Hinton, they meet an elderly woman who had survived the agonizing dust bowl days of the depression right there in Hinton. She tells them about the hardships of keeping body and soul together in a land choked almost to death by drought. Then she tells them a remarkable story.
One day the people saw a huge gray cloud moving toward them across the plains. She asks the girl, Do you know what that was?
Rain? says the girl.
No, says the woman. Birds.
A plague-sized swarm of migrating birds descended on Hinton one evening and was gone the next morning, but not before leaving a slurry, white glaze on just about everything.
Shortly after that the rains returned, and a year later folks began to notice an astonishing thing. Everywhere that the birds had been, trees began popping up.
At first the people had considered the birds a scourge, an insult to injury. A year later they recognized them as a ceaselessly-prayed-for blessing.
“We lived on scraps and faith,” the woman said. “We’re so grateful…[And] those trees are our blessing from the Lord.”2
God is always calling us to and engaging us in prayer. Even now, into our own dry wells, or into what may seem like manure piling up on us and fouling our lives–into all of this, Living Water is flowing.
Here’s the thing: A renewed life of prayer often begins not with an overwhelming sense of peace, but with dehydration. To recognize Living Water, we must name and honestly confront our truest and deepest thirst.
I pray that each of us makes room for prayer in all moments of our lives so that we recognize prayer as a meaning-seeking and meaning-making way of life, something we do ceaselessly as we interact with and care for God’s people and God’s earth.
The well that is the Holy Spirit never runs dry. So, come to the well. And may Living Water flow into you. May it restore what is dry and aching in you. And may it flow through you to make of you a fountain of blessing and new life for others.
1John Sanford, The Kingdom Within, J. B. Lippincott Co. 1970, p. 15.
2Ibid., p. 16.
3James Dodson, Faithful Travelers, Random House Publishing, 1999. (Pages not known.)
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’
3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’
5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’
He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’
7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’
He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’
He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’
8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (NRSV)
Deuteronomy 23: “You shall not charge interest on loans to another Israelite, interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.” It’s called usury, and the Torah lists it as a sin. So, how many sinners in here have money earning interest in a financial institution? My father-in-law was a banker, so for my wife’s sake, I won’t ask who has ever lent money at interest or benefited from family or friends who did.
That’s one way to come at what may be Jesus’ most troublesome parable. It’s conceivable that the dishonest manager lowered the two debtors’ payments by the amount of interest the landowner had charged them. In that case, the reduction of the payment might be viewed as an act of righteousness according to the law, but another instance of mismanagement according to the landowner.1
We might also imagine the manager doing business like a tax collector—charging more than the landowner charged in rent and interest in order to get a cut from the farmers’ payments.
The problem in either case is that the dishonest manager lowers the debts for selfish gain. He reduces the debts “so that,” he says, “when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” He forgives a portion of the men’s financial debts in order to make them debtors to himself. When Jesus commends the actions of the manager, we find ourselves saying, Wait…what?! This flies in the face of virtually everything he has said and will say.
So, what’s going on? That’s the $64,000 question. Writing on this passage, New Testament scholar Charles Cousar said this: “Luke 16:1-13 is one of the great exegetical mountains of Scripture. This bewildering parable and the positive use Jesus makes of its shifty protagonist may never be satisfactorily solved until faith is made sight.”2
So, anything I might say about this passage is just one more guess, or one more repetition of a guess. But a couple of things stand out.
First, in 16:1, Luke says that Jesus is speaking “to his disciples.” In the verse that immediately follows today’s reading, Luke tells us that “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed [Jesus].” I imagine Jesus doing a version of what many of us underhanded preachers do in worship, namely speaking to the congregation while delivering the children’s sermon. Jesus certainly speaks to his disciples, but he also speaks at the Pharisees who are listening and waiting to pounce every time he says something that challenges their theological hegemony and their social status quo. And as “lovers of money,” the Pharisees have a lot in common with anyone, ancient or contemporary, who confuses material wealth with divine favor.
Jesus is getting downright meddlesome, isn’t he? He seems to be saying that material wealth, and all the greedy lusts and self-serving entitlements that owning it inevitably creates, necessarily result in the idolatries that lead to everything from envy, hunger, depression, and racism, to war itself. While it’s tempting to deny this, today’s reading ends with Jesus’ unambiguous and unsettling statement: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” What do these words say to us? What do they challenge us to do differently as disciples in our wealthy culture? And are we still “children of light” if we rationalize our way around this teaching whose roots run deep and wide in scripture and in the spiritual practices of many faith traditions?
The second thing has to do with a nuance that gets lost in translation. In verse 4, the manager decides to manipulate the process of debt collection in order to make friends who will “welcome me into their homes.” In verse 9, Jesus makes the bizarre statement, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” In verse 4, “home” is the Greek word oikos. It refers to an established household. Our word economics comes from oikos, and it means “practiced in the management of a household or family.”3 In verse 9, the word translated “home” is skénas, and it means “tents.” Commentator Scott Bader-Saye says that the parable hinges on these two words. “Jesus does not promise ‘homes’ but ‘tents,’” he says. “Jesus doesn’t not promise to provide what the unjust steward sought, the stable abode of those who have possessions and security. Rather, Jesus promises the unstable abode of the wanderer, the refugee, and the pilgrim, whose mobility requires the dispossession of goods.
“Perhaps,” says Bader-Saye, “the Jesus who told this parable calls us to dissipate wealth as the steward did, but in order to be dispossessed of the desire [to make others indebted to us]…Only as we are freed by our holy squandering are we made able to live the pilgrim life of those nomads who have relinquished the possessions that possess them.”4
In principle, most of us would like to think that we’re not owned by the things we own. In practice, however, we tend to get defensive. I just can’t afford to contribute. My life is just so busy right now, I can’t participate.
As neurotic as I am about being liked, I wish there were a more palatable way to say this, but discipleship is neither easy, nor convenient, nor inexpensive. Indeed, Jesus compares discipleship to taking up a cross. He says that the way to discover one’s life is to lose it. Wealth, then, may always be tinged with dishonesty until we are released from its hold on us and it is shared with those who don’t have enough. Only then does it become a true blessing.
Think about people who have an overabundance of material wealth and who have political power. Most such folks find themselves owned by what they own, and to be honest, I feel kind of sorry for them. All-too-often, they’re not able to make real friends. Instead of relationships, they make interest-bearing investments or alliances, because the people around them always want something from them. And while that kind of clout can be a drag, it can also be a drug. It’s addicting to have people indebted to us. The institutional Church has made its share of self-serving investments and alliances. Since the days of Constantine, we have sacrificed faithfulness to Jesus for the sake of patronage of powerful people and nations.
Honestly, I don’t worry about the life to come for you, or me, or anyone else for that matter. I trust God to be far, far more gracious with humankind than most institution-sanctioned theologies are willing to allow. The salvation Jesus offers all of us is the often unwanted, but here-and-now deliverance from the idolatries of power, wealth, and individualism. The salvation Jesus offers is a genuine and lasting freedom to live in relationship with God by living in relationships of mutual compassion, forgiveness, and joy with our neighbors and stewardship of our one and only skénas called Earth.
I shared only half of Charles Cousar’s quotation about “the great exegetical mountain” of today’s text. After acknowledging it as “bewildering” to the point of inscrutability, Cousar says this: “In the meantime, perhaps the best we can hope is that our joining the quest for a solution [to this parable], the grappling of God’s people with even the difficult parts of God’s book, produces a weary but earnest friendship among the children of light in this generation.”5
We are in that “meantime.” We’re in that nomadic, tent-dwelling interval in which everything we say and do exposes what we hold as real and eternal. On this shared journey, Jesus is delivering us from the life-diminishing entanglements of greed, fear, and the love of all that is perishable.
May all we have and all we are be gratefully received and generously shared, so that as “children of light,” we may love and serve God and God alone.
1Charles Cousar, “Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010, p 95.
2Ibid. p. 97.
4Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010, pp. 94&96.
5Cousar, p. 97.
“The Here-and-Now Afterlife”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
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.
“Where Is God”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
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.)
“Humility, Reflection, and Call”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
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.
“A Gracious Arson”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
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.