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The Protection of the Truth
I pulled into a parking lot yesterday. Only one space available. The owner of the Lexus apparently figured that his car was worthy not only of its space, but also of about 10 inches worth in the next space over—not surprisingly, the only space open in the lot.
What am I going to do? My kid’s got drum lessons. So, I pull my admittedly anti-earth-friendly Dodge Ram pickup into the extremely cramped but only open space, leaving an impossibly small gap between our two vehicles.
I say “impossibly small,” by which I mean it appeared impossibly small to me. It seemed doable, however, to the Lexus-owner, who appeared as I put the truck in park, and told his pre-teen son to get in the back seat.
The young boy did as he as told; he pulled the car door open, and surprise! He cracked the rear fender of my truck. I’m sitting in the driver seat watching all this. In response, the father says—not, “Careful buddy! Watch out for the truck.” He doesn’t look up at me sitting in the driver’s seat observing the whole thing with great interest and say, “Sorry about that! You know how kids are.” Nothing like that.
Instead, he yells over the top of the car roof, “Watch out for the guitar!”
Then, without ever once looking at me, he gets in the car and drives off.
And I thought, “You know, silence can be a form of lying, a way of avoiding having to take responsibility for your actions. You can stand by while injustice is perpetrated without saying anything for fear of ”getting into it.“ And though you never say a word, by failing to own your life, it’s possible to commit a sin against the truth.”
When you’re a kid, they tell you not to lie. Honesty is always the best policy. That’s what they tell you, isn’t it?
When you get older and you start reading the New York Times, they modify the wording a bit: “The coverup is always worse than the crime.” It all means pretty much the same thing, though.
Life is always a lot easier if you tell the truth.
Except it’s not always easier, is it? It’s way more difficult to tell the truth. It’s easier to fire up the Lexus and take off.
Honesty is always the best policy—unless you don’t get caught.
The coverup is always worse than the crime … that is, unless nobody ever finds out about the plumbers and the Watergate Hotel, or about Rielle Hunter and her baby—then lying looks like the most effective strategy.
So, here’s today’s moral lesson from Uncle Derek: Keep quiet. And if you can’t keep quiet, lie. Lie your rear end off … unless it looks like you’re about to get nailed. Then, by all means, sing like a canary. Roll over. Drop dime. Tell the truth.
Isn’t that what Jesus is getting at in today’s Gospel? Life is tough. If you get the chance, make it easier on yourself. Life is difficult enough. Following Jesus should be “user-friendly.” You shouldn’t have to put up with any more than is absolutely necessary. And, if anything arises that threatens to get your world tied up in knots—don’t worry, Jesus’ll fix it.
That’s pretty much the gist of it, isn’t it?
No? I can see the disapproval in your faces. Am I not getting this right? I should really read this stuff more carefully before Sunday morning.
All right, then. If I’m headed down the wrong track, let’s go back and see if we can get pointed in the right direction.
What’s going on in our passage for this morning?
The scene begins all the way back in chapter 13. Jesus and the disciples are gathered together. It’s Thursday night, the eve of his coming violent death at the hands of the Roman authorities. He’s washed his disciples feet, predicted his betrayal at the hands of one of his trusted lieutenants and a series of heartbreaking denials by one of the others.
Then, he starts talking about going away to a place the disciples can’t follow.
“What? You’re leaving?”
Things on the political front are pretty well stirred up. Something’s getting ready to happen. Everybody can feel it. Whatever it is is in the air.
Jesus has made all the wrong people mad, and the whole Judean population knows it’s getting ready to hit the fan.
You can imagine the disciples are pretty well freaked out by now. Their world’s about to implode, and Jesus is talking about bugging out.
“Who’s going to stay with us?”
“Don’t worry. I’m sending along somebody to look after you.”
Skittish. You can see it their eyes. “Come on, Jesus. Throw us a bone here. We’re feeling extremely exposed here. Can’t you offer us some assurance of protection?”
In our Gospel for this morning Jesus turns his eyes toward heaven and starts praying: “God, so here we are. You sent me here for this moment. Glorify me so that I may glorify you. You’ve given me some friends, Lord, and I showed them who you really are. So, I’m praying for them. Protect them. I’ve protected them since I’ve been here, but now I’m heading out, so you’re going to have to look out for them. Really, we kind of owe it to them, since everybody hates them now because of me.”
The disciples are doing well with this prayer so far.
“It’s tough out there, keep an eye on them when I leave.”
Good stuff. The disciples are kind of peeking, looking at one another, nodding their heads: “See, I told you he wouldn’t leave us high and dry. God’s going to look out for us.”
Relief. They were sure they were going to be left holding the bag, but it looks like Jesus is going to take care of them. Pressure’s lightening.
“As long as there’s a back-up plan, we should be good.”
Jesus keeps praying. He’s being realistic: “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.”
“Ok. Fine. We’ve got to stay here, but we’ve got some protection. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a start.”
But then Jesus makes a mess of things.
What’s Jesus plan? What are the amazing forces unleashed to protect Jesus’ followers from the evil they will encounter?
It’s got to be something good, right? Maybe an invisibility cloak, a long sword with maximum hit points, some kind of escape portal when things get tough. Something.
But what does Jesus ask for? Truth.
That’s it? Really? Sanctify them in truth? That’s the plan? The truth is supposed to protect them?
And I can understand that. I go to God, anxious, afraid … and I’m looking for God to do something big—if not “take me out of the world,” then at least more than what Jesus prays for.
If not “take me out of the world,” then at least jigger the world so it’s not such a threat.
Fix the world, Lord. That’s what we need. It’s too dangerous as things stand now. Life is getting too uncertain.
But instead, Jesus’ answer to the impending danger his disciples face is to ask that they be made holy in the truth.
What does that even mean? Sanctify them in truth?
In my experience the truth can get you into a lot of hot water. Tell people the truth and you’re setting yourself up for a great deal of animosity from people who are more than satisfied with the lies they embrace.
But Jesus doesn’t say, “God, things are fixin’ to get hairy for my friends here, so please help them to speak honestly”—although, of course, he expects that too. He prays that his followers will be sanctified in truth.
But if Jesus isn’t just saying, “Make sure to tell the truth no matter what,” then what is he saying?
I think Jesus prays that his disciples will be sanctified in truth, not as a way of “taking them out of the world,” but as a way of embracing the world in which they live—not the world they imagine God should surely want if God were paying attention to the way things are currently situated. The disciples are looking for a world where everything turns out well for the good guys, a world where it doesn’t cost anything to follow Jesus.
According to Jesus, however, this world is the only one there is—and God wants to bless it, not the one we think is worth blessing. This one … in all its messiness and violence and pettiness, in all of its craven sneaking around and brazen wantonness.
“But how is that going to protect Jesus’ followers? How is embracing the truth going to help, when what really appears necessary is a heart transplant?”
If you spend much time around people in recovery, you’ll eventually hear someone say, “I went through hell, but even if given a chance, I wouldn’t change it.”
“What? If you could go back and change your life you wouldn’t do it—even though it’s caused you and so many others inexpressible pain? Why not?”
“I could never be who I am without being who I was.”
Did you hear that? That’s called owning your life. It’s called the truth. And once you’ve been through the fire of truth, there’s nothing left to fear. If you can own your life, if you can tell yourself the truth about who you are, you need not be afraid—you’ve already confronted that which can harm you.
My first reaction is to want Jesus to pray for it to be easy. I want to him to protect me from the world by installing some kind of force field, some heat shield around me that won’t allow the slings and arrows to touch me.
But he doesn’t do that. He prays not that there be a protective wall around me to guard against the damage life can cause, but that I can endure the damage, that I can embrace the truth that life is full of fear and horror.
Implicit in his prayer Jesus promises not that we will be protected from the truth of an often hostile and scary world, but that the truth will protect us from being undone by that world. It is the crazy, paradoxical notion that we are protected by our vulnerability.
Growing up in Michigan, apparently unlike some folks in the south, I learned to drive in the snow. I had to. If you didn’t know how to drive in the snow where I’m from, you’d have to sit in your house watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island for about 5 months out of the year.
Anyway, they teach a few things about driving in the snow that are absolutely counter-intuitve—like if you start to skid, don’t hit the brakes.
“Are you crazy? Brakes, if you didn’t know, are those contraptions they put on modern motor vehicles as an aid to stopping. If you don’t put on the brakes, you can’t stop.”
I know it sounds crazy, but hitting the brakes when you’re skidding in the snow is about the absolute worst thing you can do.
Here’s another one: If your car starts to skid, not only should you not hit the brakes, you should steer into the skid. If you’re losing control of the car and it’s skidding to the right, you should turn your steering wheel to the right.
I know. Crazy ain’t it? I have neither the time nor the intellectual wattage necessary to explain why it’s true: leaning into a skid feels like the absolute worst thing you can do—but it can save your life. As someone who’s driven thousands of miles in the snow, you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.
“Jesus, the truth exposes us. We want some protection.”
And Jesus says, “Being exposed by the truth is the greatest protection you have. Lean into it. As someone who laid down his life in the name of truth, you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.”
So He Got Up and Went
On January 31, 1872, Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriett Beecher Stowe, of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fame, traveled to Yale to deliver the first Lyman Beecher Lecture on preaching — a lecture series that has included such homiletical luminaries as Phillips Brooks, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr, George and David Buttrick, and Fred Craddock. The lectures were named after Henry Ward Beecher’s Father, and it was thought fitting that Henry Ward should give the first lecture in the series. Frederick Buechner recalls what Beecher’s biographer wrote of the occasion:
He had a bad night, not feeling well. Went to his hotel, got his dinner, lay down to take a nap. About two o’clock he got up and began to shave without having been able to get at any plan of the lecture to be delivered within the hour. Just as he had his face lathered and was beginning to strop his razor, the whole thing came out of the clouds and dawned on him. He dropped his razor, seized his pencil, and dashed off the memoranda for it and afterwards cut himself badly, he said, thinking it out.
Henry Ward Beecher faced some very trying times as he mopped the blood from his cheek and prepared to go to the hall and tell others how to preach. The rumors about his relationship with the wife of one of his parishioners had ceased to be harmless gossip, appearing now in bold face type in the news. He was about to face, perhaps, a public trial for adultery.
The work that he cherished and the life that he loved were dangerously in jeopardy; and yet the word about the work he cherished and the life he loved could no more be silenced than the incoming tide at sunrise. Buechner comments on the situation:
So when he stood there looking into the hotel mirror with soap on his face and a razor in his hand, part of what he saw was his own shame and horror, the sight of his own folly, the judgment one can imagine he found even harder to bear than God’s, which was his own judgment on himself, because whereas God is merciful, we are none of us very good at showing mercy on ourselves. Henry Ward Beecher cut himself with his razor and wrote out notes for that first Beecher Lecture in blood because, whatever else he was or aspired to be or was famous for being, he was a man of flesh and blood.
Flesh and blood. Seems to me we’ve got an awful lot of that in Scripture too. Remember Moses? He stands barefoot on holy ground as God says, “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.” And what does Moses say? “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
Remember Jeremiah? God tapped him to go be a prophet to the nations. “Before you were born I consecrated you,” God says. And what does Jeremiah say? “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
Remember Isaiah? One day Isaiah sees the Lord sitting on a throne — high and lifted up. Isaiah, we are led to believe, experiences the vision as a call. And what’s the first thing out of his mouth? “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”
And how about Jonah? God says, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” And what does Jonah do? He doesn’t even bother to offer up an excuse, he just turns tail and sneaks off to Tarshish, the text says, “away from the presence of the Lord.”
We can understand that way of responding to God’s call. We know ourselves to be inadequate to the task. God calls and we have our defenses up in a heart beat.
I can’t go there.
I can’t do that.
I’m really not the one for the job.
If you really knew anything about me, you’d realize what a mistake this is. I’m just little ol’ me — nothing big, no bells and whistles. I can’t talk good. I’m too young. I’m not a very holy person. I actually don’t see the sense in it. Well, yeah, but my kids have soccer practice then. I have to work too much overtime.
Flesh and blood. Nick us and we bleed. For better or worse, we are all of us flesh and blood. And the fact that we’re imperfect is one that we lose no time in explaining when the call comes. So we understand all those characters who lit up the excuse-’o-meter when God came calling.
But, then there’s Philip. In our text for today, Peter and John have just returned to Jerusalem, and an angel of the Lord comes to Philip and tells him to pack his bags and head on down the road toward Gaza, which, parenthetically, we’re told is a wilderness road. That is to say, this is not the road to go walking on if you value your life.
You remember what happened the last time Luke had someone walking down a wilderness road? That road led from Jerusalem to Jericho, and the man who walked it, Luke says, “fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away leaving him half dead” (Luke 10:30), before a Good Samaritan finally wandered by to help.
So the angel isn’t telling Philip to put on his walking shorts, in order to see the sights and pick some daisies. He’s telling Philip to walk on the other side of the tracks—where smart people don’t go if they don’t have to. Lot’s of car-jackings and drive-by shootings.
How does Philip respond? What does he do? The angel comes, doesn’t even say “Hi. How’re the wife and kids?” and tells Philip to get up, pack his bags, and go for a walk in the wrong part of town. And the text says with eloquent understatement, “So he got up and went.”
Don’t you love that? No fussing. No arguing. No whining about how it’s too dangerous, and how he can’t speak, and how his in-laws are coming over for dinner, and how he promised his wife he’d clean out the garage, and how his back’s been hurting him—and he’d love to but this is just a bad time for everybody.
The angel of the Lord said, “Get up and go.” So he got up and went.
And on the way, apparently, there was an Ethiopian eunuch.
Now, let’s try to understand what’s going on here. Luke reports the encounter straightforwardly, but we must remember it wasn’t every day that—even when one was on business for God in the hinterlands—one bumped into a eunuch from Ethiopia.
The fact that the man was a eunuch was odd enough, but that he was from Ethiopia was downright amazing.
Why is that? Because Ethiopia was believed to be at the end of the earth. The Land of Oz. Timbuktu. Luke’s audience wouldn’t have been able to conceive of a place more mysterious, farther away. In Homer’s Odyssey, he wrote about those exotic Ethiopians from the other side of the world.
But all of a sudden, out in the middle of nowhere, Philip runs into a eunuch from Ethiopia. Kind of like walking from here to Seneca Park and bumping into a dwarf from Burundi.
What are the chances? That, of course, is exactly what we’re supposed to ask. How could that be a coincidence?
The point, you ask? The point is that God tells Philip to go, Philip goes, and the gospel is brought to an Ethiopian Eunuch—to the ends of the earth. Why does it happen? Because Philip went.
We keep thinking that it takes a seminary degree, or a certificate from the Mother Teresa school for the spiritually gifted. We think we have to be all that and a glass of ice tea before we can ever do something important for God. Important stuff is for other people. I’m slow of speech, slow of tongue. I’m too young. I’m not worthy. I don’t want to go. I have to do some things differently before I can do anything for God. I have to believe better, be better. Something!
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sets up a situation between a pastor and a troubled parishioner. The parishioner complains that he’s having a hard time with his faith. Bonhoeffer says that the pastor in this hypothetical situation ought to take the bull by the horns and say, “Only those who obey believe. You are disobedient; you are trying to keep some part of your life under your own control. That is what is preventing you from listening to Christ and believing in his grace. You cannot hear Christ because you are wilfully disobedient. Somewhere in your heart you are refusing to listen to His call. Tear yourself away from all other attachments and follow him” (p.61ff.).
“Gladys, we’ve prayerfully considered it, and we think you’d be the perfect person to teach this class.”
“Well, I’d love to, but I don’t hardly think I’m qualified. I’m quite busy right now. But thank you very much for asking. I’d really like to be of service, if you can find something that won’t take any time or ask anything of me. I’d love to do more—as long as it doesn’t entail speaking, cooking, lifting, cleaning, teaching, painting, mowing, or praying in public. But, believe me, if you could find something, I’d love to help.”
“Arthur, we’ve been talking it over, and the leadership of the church believes you’d make a great elder. We think you’ve been given gifts for service.”
“I appreciate the offer, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to decline. Being an elder is a big responsibility, and I don’t think I’m the right type of person for the job. I have all kinds of personal things I need to work through before I’d ever consider something like that. I mean, how could I tell someone else how to live, if I can’t even get it right? Right?”
My friend Mike has a young girl going to his church. Brandy’s 12. She’s been coming faithfully to Mike’s church all by herself for some time now. Not long ago, Brandy came to Mike, who is the pastor, and told him that she wanted to be baptized. Of course he was pleased. But he said to her, “Brandy, we need to talk about some things before you’re baptized. And, I also need to talk to your parents.” She said that would be fine.
So Mike went to talk to her folks, who don’t go to church, about Brandy being baptized. He introduced himself, and told them why he’d come, that Brandy had approached him about wanting to be baptized, and he wanted to check with her parents to see if they’d allow it. Brandy’s mom, looked puzzled—almost confused: “We don’t go to church.”
“Yes, I know that.”
“Well, we’ve taken sort of a ‘hands-off’ approach to Brandy’s religion. We want her to make up her own mind about God.”
“Hmmmm,” Mike said.
“You know, let Brandy make her own decisions.”
“Do you let her make up her own mind about using cocaine or playing with firearms? Because those things can prove to be a lot less dangerous than what she’s about to do.”
“Well, we’ve tried to let Brandy express her spirituality in her own way.”
“So you don’t care if we baptize her?”
“If that’s what she wants.”
“Let me get this straight. You don’t care if we baptize her. And you don’t care if we read the Bible to her, and help her understand how to live her life, and what to do with her money, and who she has the gifts one day to be? You don’t care if someday we may tell your daughter that she’s being called by God to go to Africa and work as a missionary, and that she may have to give up everything, including perhaps her life, in order to follow?”
“If that’s what she wants.”
“If you don’t want to take responsibility for her, we’ll be more than happy to.”
Let me ask you something: Why? Why would we take all the trouble of baptizing and raising someone else’s kid?
I’ll tell you why. Because we know what Brandy’s mom has no way of knowing: A little girl in the church’s hands, a weak minister with blood on his chin, or a stuttering sheep herder who will hear the voice of God in a burning bush, or a deacon who’ll follow the Holy Spirit to Timbuktu can change the world. It doesn’t take much.
God’s not picky . . . but God’s awfully persistent.
In Truth and Action
(1 John 3:16-24)
John appears to be hunting big game today—perhaps the favorite target of everyone sensitive to religious excesses. As far as the quarry goes, it’s huge, slow, and tough to miss. As I said last week, I don’t know of any studies, but just going on my own experience, I’d be willing to bet that it’s the most frequently cited reason for giving up on Christianity—either leaving the church or deciding never to start up.
Oh sure, some will say that the problem of evil sits at the top of the list. And other folks will mention the church’s irrelevance in a modern, scientific culture. But for my money, you’d have a hard time beating hypocrisy as the favorite choice of the religiously disenchanted.
So, when John says, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action,” it seems he’s on the trail, about to bag the big one. Seems pretty clear what he’s getting at, doesn’t it? Word and speech occupy the realm of the fluffy and insubstantial on this reading.
You know what I’m talking about. Show me a sermon, don’t preach me one. Conventional wisdom in some circles has it that the church is populated with hypocrites—people who’ve got the “word and speech” part down, but are a little light on the “truth and action.”
When I was in middle school, we got a new student from Detroit—Wesley. Wes was a nice guy. We liked him. But, boy, he told some whoppers. He said he was related to Magic Johnson, that he played pick-up ball with NBA players over the summer. That kind of stuff.
One day, Wes was late to school. We asked him where he’d been.
“Well, man, it was awful. I was walking to school, like I always do. I looked up, and saw this red Ferrari coming down the road, straight at me—like 100 miles an hour. I didn’t have time to do anything, so I jumped up straight in the air—and that car went right under me. The thing is, I didn’t get quite high enough, and the roof clipped my heel. I flipped like three times, and landed in the ditch. I don’t know how long I was there. When I finally woke up, I was a little wobbly. But I knew I had to come to school—so here I am.”
“Where are the marks. You look fine to me.”
“I got hurt mostly on the inside—where the marks don’t show. Man, I was lucky. I coulda been killed.”
Ever know anybody like that? So many stories—too good to be true stories—you find it hard to believe them.
The first question that pop into your head is, “How do I know that’s true?” I mean, anybody can say stuff like that, right? The world is full of people claiming to be something they’re not. Talk’s cheap. You don’t get to be that interesting in my mind until I’ve seen some results.
We learn early on to negotiate the world, more or less, in precisely this fashion. You remember from the playground. There was always that kid who was your rival. There was this kind of competition. Unlike many adults, for whom the response to rivals is passive-aggression—kids haven’t yet learned all the subtle nuances and are completely satisfied with just plain old active-aggression. “I’m faster than you.”
“I can draw better than that.”
And what’s the standard reply to the “my old man can beat up your old man” strategic assault?
“Oh, huh. Prove it.”
So when John throws out “truth and action,” over against “words and speech,” we figure he’s calling Christians on their commitments: “Prove it,” John says.
And that’s just it, isn’t it? On a casual reading, it looks like he’s merely saying, “Refrain from being a hypocrite. It’s more important to do it than to talk about it.” And, to be honest, I have some sympathy for that reading—except, of course, when it can be applied to me.
But you know what I’m saying. Gandhi said, “Be the change you want the world to see”—the implication of which is, “Don’t just talk about change—do something.” I’m sold. Part of my job as a minister is to convince people that that’s true. We’ve got things that need doing around here, and I’m supposed to persuade you to do them.”
On the other hand, I also get paid to muck around in a garden of “word and speech,” so I don’t want to walk exclusively down the other side of the street. In fact, I’d make the case that words are a form of action. I believe words do things. They don’t just fill the space between our mouths and our ears.
In fact, the Hebrew word davar stands for both word and act. When God speaks a word in the Jewish Scriptures, for instance, God’s already acted. When God says, “I will bless you,” God doesn’t say, “I intend to bless you—all things being equal and the transmission problems on my Dodge Omni don’t turn out to be serious.” Rather, for God to speak a word is already to have that word realized, enacted, alive, moving. Think the incarnation. Think Jesus.
Jesus stands right smack in the middle of what John is trying to say in our text for this morning. Rather than merely arguing against hypocrisy (Who, after all, would argue in favor of it?), John is driving at something else.
Notice the parallel construction of verse 18: “word and speech” are set against “truth and action.” In other words, John opposes “word and truth,” and “speech and action.”
Now, of course, we get the “speech vs. action” part—the hypocrisy clause. What seems less clear is the “word vs. truth” part. In the binary word/truth, “word” obviously means falsehood. That is to say, John’s not coming down on words, in general, as necessarily inferior to action, but rather words that are spoken falsely.
But what kind of truth is John after? What kind of action would qualify, on John’s reading of things, as truth? Simply put, according to John, those actions are true that are loving. We act in truth when we act in love.
We hear that, though, and we say (rightfully, I think), “Loving in what sense? Love how?” We live in a culture that has systematically worked love over—from “Love is all you need” to “What’s love got to do with it?” from “Love is the answer” to “Love stinks.” So, we may be forgiven for wondering just how it is that “love” answers the question about truthful action. After all, a lot of horrible, unspeakable things are done in the name of love. People kill and manipulate and abuse, claiming love as the motivation—so love as a generic principle proves less than satisfactory as a set of moral guidelines.
But John doesn’t let love stand alone—a word without content. He puts some flesh on it, “We know love by this, that Jesus laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” According to John, we aren’t to love falsely by saying pretty things, while living another way.
We love in “truth and action,” the way Jesus did—which is to say, sacrificially, sold-out, all-in. We follow Jesus in offering up ourselves to be used by God for God’s purposes rather than our own.
It’s not enough to avoid hypocrisy by acting in congruence with our words—that is, it’s not enough just to be who we say we are. Realistically, who would ever argue otherwise?
Moreover, we’re not just trying to be loving by some broad calculation of human niceness. Rather, we’re trying to be loving in the way Jesus was loving.
The truth we’re after is not the truth of love defined as the world defines it—in a million different ways—most of the roads of which lead inexorably back to me and my grasping, clutching little self. The truth we’re after is the truth of love demonstrated in Jesus, who gave himself up, who laid his life down.
And all of this might remain at the level of abstraction if we left it there. It would be possible, if that was all we said, to leave here feeling edified, having been exhorted to lay down our lives like Jesus laid down his life. “That’s nice dear, but what’s for lunch?”
John’s not satisfied with abstraction, though—not content to let us feel affirmed in our determination to live quiet, honest lives—uncontaminated by controversy or expense.
John gets particular: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
Ouch! Give preachers enough time and we’ll find some wiggle room in there for you—but I’ve got to tell you, it’s hard. John doesn’t seem to be opening things up for a long series of qualifications: “I would help, but you know the kids have oboe lessons, and the in-laws are coming for the weekend. The Dow’s down, and if things don’t improve, we’re going to wind up having to dip into savings to maintain the box at the race track. Times are tight.
“Plus, if you start helping those people, pretty soon they’re going to start expecting it. Then, what’re you gonna do?”
In fact, there are some politicians who think the best way to help those kind of people is to cut ‘em off, let them learn to start doing for themselves. Don’t help them more; help them less.
John’s not having it. He’s got a pretty narrow view of this issue, if you ask me: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s good and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”
I much prefer conditional sentences: If the brother or sister in need seems redeemable, then you should help. If he’s an American citizen who appears to bathe semi-regularly, then it’s o.k.
If she keeps having babies when she can’t afford it, then you don’t need to worry about her.
If they were smart and got a good, fixed-interest rate mortgage they could afford, then maybe they’re worth helping.
Conditions. Simple, really. If this, then that. In not this, then don’t bother with that.
John’s not into conditional sentences, though; he’s full of declarative sentences: “Do this, whether or not that.” He says, “Little children, let us love . . . in truth and action. Obey God’s commandments. Love those in need.” I’d love to find some wiggle room in there, but I’m afraid I can’t help you.
Mother Theresa, the saint of the gutters, who gave herself to the dying on the streets of Calcutta, had a hard time following God. You’d think with spiritual superstars that it’d be easy. But, as most of us have probably heard, Mother Theresa struggled mightily with her faith. She regularly questioned the existence of God, feeling alone and isolated, abandoned by the one she felt called to serve. But, in spite of doubts that would paralyze most people, serve she did.
In August 1982, Pope John Paul sent her to war-torn Beirut so that the victims of war would know of his solidarity with them. Mother Theresa determined shortly to go into the heart of the killing fields in West Beirut to rescue a small group of the victims of the violence. Everyone warned her against going. It was too dangerous. She would only be able to help a handful. It wasn’t worth it.
She ignored them, and said she’d pray for a cease fire. On August 12 at 4:00, she lit a candle she’d brought with her to Beirut, and started praying. At 5:00, the shooting stopped. Shortly thereafter she went to a place where there were 38 Muslim children, ages 7 to 21—all mentally or physically handicapped—all starving, dirty, and frightened—for all practical purposes, left for dead. She organized their extraction from the war zone. Two days later, she went back and brought out 27 more children.
Before she came, nobody wanted these children. Too sick, too much trouble, too much else going on. After her journey into West Beirut, however, people began to step up. Neighbors started bringing food. Pretty soon the government officials and the doctors showed up.
One of the Red Cross officials who admitted quite candidly that his initial reaction to Mother Teresa’s presence had been that a saint was not what he needed most, afterwards acknowledged that he’d been astonished at the efficiency and energy that went hand in hand with her spirituality. She was, he said, “a cross between a military commander and St. Francis”
Mother Theresa, in her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech said, “It is not enough for us to say, ‘I love God, but I do not love my neighbor,’“ since in dying on the Cross, God had “[made] himself the hungry one — the naked one — the homeless one.” Jesus’ hunger, she said, is what “you and I must find” and alleviate (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1655415,00.html).
That’s how Mother Theresa said it. The way John said it was, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”
So how do we know love? According to John, we know it when we see it.
That Kind of Church
(Luke 24: 36–48)
As a kid growing up in the Evangelical heartland in Grand Rapids, Michigan, one of the things I learned early on was that God expected me to evangelize. We called it witnessing. You know, tell people about Jesus.
I believed in some vague way that God would hold me accountable for the people I failed to lead to Jesus through, what occurs to me now was, a kind of celestial sales pitch.
Now, please don’t misunderstand. I’m not making fun of my upbringing. I’m not ashamed of where I come from; there are some sincerely wonderful Christians who—like the rest of us—are working their way toward God in the best way they know how.
But this whole witnessing thing weighed heavily on me. On the one hand, I’m a pretty good talker. I think I can be fairly persuasive when necessary—a quality much prized by those who took evangelism seriously.
On the other hand, I’m an introvert. I’m shy. Oh, I’ve learned how to act like an extrovert when I have to—my job sometimes demands it. But temperamentally, witnessing always struck me as the same kind of affair as cold calling as a Cutco knife salesman—a job at which I failed miserably.
There was always this premium on having the right words at exactly the right moment. If they say this, then you can counter by saying that—which sounds good, until you’ve had somebody do it to you. Then it’s not brilliant verbal jiujitsu that gives you control over your conversational opponent; it’s just annoying.
“Mr. Penwell, what would say if I could save you 50% on your monthly long distance bills?”
“I’m really not interested.”
“You’re not interested? So, you like giving money your money away.”
“Yes, I like giving my money away. It saves me the trouble of having to pretend that I want to talk to people who call me on the phone in the middle of supper.”
Being a verbal ninja for Jesus was always a big deal growing up. Unfortunately, it felt too much like being a telemarketer—always trying to steer people in the direction you want them to go, having to be unwilling to take “no” for an answer.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing words. I love words. I use them frequently—every so often, well.
One of the problems with words, however, is that in order for them to be helpful (persuasive even), they have to line up with reality.
The fifth step on the Buddha’s Eightfold Path is “Right means of livelihood”—meaning, the way you make your living matters. In other words, if you’re seeking enlightenment, there are certain jobs you cannot do.
When I talk to my students about this, someone will invariably say, “What I do isn’t who I am. It’s my job. It’s not me.”
“The Buddha would say, however, that if you’re walking along a certain path to a final destination, anything that causes you to turn around and walk in the opposite direction is leading you away from where you’ve said you want to go.”
Puzzled looks. Then, I say: “If your life’s work and passion is to see equal treatment for women, you have to live and work in certain ways to sustain that passion and see it succeed. If your day job is as an advocate for women’s rights, you can’t punch out at the end of the day, and go to your second job as a pole dancer. It just doesn’t work like that.”
When I speak with my students about the “Spiritual but not religious” question, many of them are really positive about “spiritual,” but really negative about “religious.” That’s not unique to my students, though.
When I ask why, it usually comes down to two complaints: 1) Dead structures and rituals, or 2) Hypocrisy.
“What do you mean by hypocrisy?” I ask.
“You know, people saying one thing and doing another.”
And there it is: Words are important, but they have to have at least a vague relationship to reality, which is to say, the words and the actions have to occupy the same conceptual space.
What the young people want to know is: Do you actually live this stuff, or do you just talk about it?
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus ends his appearance to the disciples by saying, “You are witnesses of these things.”
The suffering, death, and resurrection of the Messiah. “And that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
As our text for this morning opens, the disciples have heard a story from Cleopas and another unnamed disciple, who’ve met the resurrected Jesus on a road trip to Emmaus; and Jesus was revealed to them in the breaking of the bread. So, the disciples are listening to this bizarre tale when Jesus all of a sudden appears in their midst, saying, “Peace be with you.” Luke tells us that the disciples were “startled and terrified.”
And who could blame them really. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen very often.
The disciples keep trying to figure out how a man, who just a few days before had been laid out cold on a slab, could be standing there asking whether anyone had saved him his 3-piece fish combo from Long John Silver.
What are they supposed to do with this?
Jesus says, “All this stuff? The stuff I’ve taught you, the stuff you’ve seen? Go. Be my witnesses. Do something.”
And do something they did. Acts, the second half of Luke’s account of the early days of the Jesus revolution, reports that the disciples witnessed every chance they got. They could hardly keep their mouths shut.
The early church produced some notable preachers. People good with words. Their words get a lot of attention.
Peter preaches on Pentecost and over 3,000 people convert. Paul gathers people together whenever he goes to a new town, preaches, and BOOM! A church is born.
See, but here’s the thing: These words came at great cost. These words weren’t carelessly strewn about. No, sir!
The words of witness did things. Acts shows us that speaking these words built churches, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and provided for the poor. Heck, these words even got people killed.
As angry folks raised the stones they would eventually use to kill Stephen because he wouldn’t shut up, nobody stopped to wonder: “You think he meant that?”
No. Everybody knew. And they killed him for his words. Those are words that do something, words backed up by a commitment to being something, someone.
You see, that’s the thing with witnessing. For a witness to be successful, she has to be believable. And in order to be believable, her life has to correspond to the words she speaks.
“Of course,” you say.
“Everyone knows that,” you say.
Unfortunately, at least according to my students, most religious people with whom they come in contact aren’t able to pull it off. A recent Georgetown University and Public Religion Research Institute study found that young people (those born between 1980 and 1999) are leaving the church in record numbers. The fastest growing religious self-designation among this demographic is “none.”
In fact, while only 11% of young people were religiously unaffiliated during childhood, fully one quarter now don’t affiliate with any religious body—a 14% increase of people walking away from religion over the course of a few years!
The church across the board is losing people, in large part because who we say we are, and how we live seems too far apart. Our witness, if you will, apparently leaves much to be desired.
But the good news is: When we get it working together, when our words and our actions line up, when our witness is solid, we can change the world—or at least that part of it we occupy. And that’s a start.
Tony Campolo, a sociologist and theologian from Eastern College in Pennsylvania, tells the story about a time he went to a conference in Honolulu.
One of the things about Honolulu is that if you’re from the East Coast, you wake up at 3:00 in the morning because of the time difference. So, Campolo woke up and went out to find something to eat.
He wandered up a side street and found an all night greasy spoon. After sitting down at the counter with a cup of coffee and a donut, he looked up to see 10 or 11 prostitutes come in. The sat down around him.
Campolo says that the one sitting next to him was extra boisterous, and she leaned over to one of her friends and said, “You know, tomorrow’s my 39th birthday.”
Her friend said, “What do you want me to do about it? Sing ”Happy Birthday?“ Get a cake? Throw you party?”
“I don’t want you to do anything. I was just telling you it was my birthday. Why do you have to hurt my feelings? Besides, I’ve never had a party in my whole life. I don’t expect one now.”
That did it. After they left, Campolo called the guy tending grill over. His name was Harry. And he said to Harry, “Do they come here every night?”
“The one sitting next to me? The one with the birthday?”
“Oh, that’s Agnes.”
Campolo said, “It’s her birthday tomorrow. What do you say we have a party for her tomorrow night? She’s never had a party in her whole life.”
Harry grabbed Campolo’s hand and said, “Mr., that’s beautiful! Beautiful! Nobody ever does anything for Agnes, and she’s one of the good people in this town. I know what she does for a living, but she’s a good person inside.”
The next night Campolo went into the diner at 2:30 in the morning, and decorated the place. Put crêpe paper all over, put a big sign on the mirror behind the counter that said, “Happy birthday, Agnes!”
Word got out. “By 3:15,” Campolo said, “every prostitute in Honolulu was crammed into that diner. Wall to wall prostitutes.”
At 3:30 Agnes and her friends walked in and everybody screamed, “Happy birthday, Agnes!”
He said, “I’ve never seen anybody so stunned in my life. Her knees buckled. We sat her down on a stool. We sang happy birthday. But when they brought out the cake, that was it, she lost it.”
After the candles got blown out, she turned to Campolo and said, "Mr. I don’t want to cut the cake. Do I have to cut the cake?
“It’s your cake. You can do what you want to with it.”
“I want to take it and show it to my mom.”
“I just live two doors down. I’ll take it and bring it right back. I promise.”
She lifted the cake like it was the holy grail, and she walked out.
Campolo said, “We were all just standing there. Awkward silence.”
Finally, he said, “Would it be ok if I prayed?” A request, that in retrospect seems like a crazy thing to do under the circumstances—a sociologist leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner at 3:30 in the morning. But it turned out to be the right thing to do.
He said, “I prayed that God would deliver her from what filthy men had done to her, probably starting when she was too young to know what was going on. That’s how these things start, you know, some kid gets messed over by some filthy slob, and she’s destroyed, and we blame her when we ought to be blaming him. And I prayed that God would make her new, because we’re here to give witness to the claim that no matter who you are or what you’ve done, Jesus can make you new.”
Campolo said, “When I finished, Harry said, ‘Hey, you said you were a sociologist. You’re a preacher! What kind of church you preach in?’”
And in one of those moments, when you come up with just the right words, Campolo said: “I preach at a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning.”
And in an unforgettable response, Harry said, "No you don’t. No, you don’t. I would join a church like that!
“Wouldn’t we all? Wouldn’t we all love to belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning? I’ve got news for you, that is the kind of church Jesus came to create.”
I can talk all I want, witnessing about how people need Jesus. But until I’m prepared to start throwing parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning, until I’m ready to live all this stuff out, what good is going to do? And maybe even more harm, once people see I don’t actually live what I say I believe.
Until the church can be that kind of church, it better prepare for even more young people to keep walking back out through those doors.
But if we were that kind of church? What if we were that kind of church?
Who knows what kind of craziness God could unleash through us?
My favorite moment of this sermon?
This God of justice is no dreamy idealist, but a God with dirty hands and a broken heart.
And we who claim to love and serve this God had better be too.
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Good News (Isaiah 61:1-4; 8-11)
You might not have noticed. Christmas is coming. Two weeks from today. It's a quaint little celebration we have every year. It's pretty subdued. We don't make too much out of it in our culture. If you weren't paying attention, you'd hardly even notice it. A little tinsel here, a bow, there. An occasional cup of eggnog. Nothing fancy. Not that big a deal, right?
You know as well as I do that frantic parents are going to be camped out on E-bay, hoping to spend hundreds of dollars to buy the hottest toy on the market–the one Wal-Mart sold out of by early October. Guilty spouses will be haunting the crowded malls, longing to find that special something that says, “I’m sorry ignored you all year. I really feel terribly about it (Not terrible enough to change, of course). But, well, I hope this will make up for it.”
“Surely,” some folks think, “if only I could give this or receive that, things would be different.” Not you or I, of course. We’re far too sophisticated to be sucked in by all that commercial hype. Right? We never spend more than we have to give our children the kind of Christmas that will absolve our bruised consciences.
We’re not the ones walking up and down the aisles at the last minute trying to figure out whether an electric dog-polisher is something grandma can use, or if slipper socks send the wrong message to the crazy sister-in-law with the big hair.
You and I wouldn’t spend each night leading up to Christmas running from one activity to another, trying to please everyone else, while at the same time trying to capture that evasive “Christmas spirit.”
It’s the unwashed masses who dread that day in January when the mail carrier lumbers up the sidewalk carrying the Visa bill, the reminder of all those broken promises to ourselves about how this Christmas was going to be different.
That’s not us. We’re much more on top of things than to be seduced by the false promises of a purchasable “peace on earth,” a consumable “good will toward humanity.”
Then, one day we wake up after our endless striving to reproduce the perfect Christmas we saw on television, only to find that the presents lay in the closet collecting dust, and all the turkey and pumpkin pie have turned to ashes in our mouth. Christmas, as it is popularly observed in our culture can be very oppressive, indeed.
But, come on. There's real oppression out there, right? It'd be nice to think that there's nothing more pressing in our world than whether or not we're going to finally get that iPad, but our world is much more complicated than that, isn't it?
We live in a world where tension over immigration and race continue to exist, in a world where adults abuse little children, in a world where people are trying to figure out if the retirement funds will be there when they need them, if the job, the health insurance, the house will still be there for them come this time next year.
And if there are jobs to be had, will they demand soul-killing labor that asks of us to surrender whatever dignity we've been able to hang onto . . . in exchange for a paycheck?
We live in a world where young people watch for the bus in dread of another day of being subjected to the torments and depredations of bullies because of their sexual orientation, in world where the the poor, the homeless, the jobless are told that they ought to blame themselves if they're not rich, that their children ought to be made to clean toilets--presumably as training for the jobs to which they might one day aspire, in a world in which young people are under intense pressure to take on a mountain of debt to educate themselves for careers they may never find.
It's tough out there.
We live in a world where nations sit tensely, waiting for another drone to drop something deadly from the sky, waiting for another ordinary looking Datsun to explode in a crowded market, waiting for news about whether other nations will be kind enough to save the ruins of your economy from sinking all the way into the toilet, waiting to learn whether the country next door truly is building nuclear weapons, waiting to see if your government really can put a stop to the killings.
In a broken world, sometimes we act as though our biggest fears are about whether we’ll have enough money to buy one more bottle of Hai Karate or one more pair of Isotoners—when, in reality, we (all of us) have bigger fish to fry. There really is oppression and brokenness and dread and anxiety in our world that extends beyond whether two-day shipping really means two days, or whether we'll get the guest bedroom cleaned in time for Aunt Gladys.
The people to whom Isaiah speaks understand oppression. They’ve spent a fair amount of time in exile in Babylon. In our text for today, they’ve recently returned home to find that home is just a big pile of rocks. Jerusalem lies in ruins. Their fields and orchards, untended for all these years are overgrown with brambles.
While they were in Babylon, all they could think of was getting home. They saw in their minds the homes about which their parents and grandparents used to reminisce. Over in Babylon they sat around telling stories about the good old days back in Judah. They painted lovely pictures about the old home place. And the kids sat around their Babylonian digs, dreaming about that day when they might finally get to go back and reclaim their heritage. They had such big plans about what they’d finally do once they made it home.
But now they’re home, standing knee-deep in the rubble. They’ve finally gotten to the place they’ve dreamed of for so long, and they can’t get the taste of ashes out of their mouths. It’s possible, you know, to be oppressed by your desires, a prisoner of your own expectations.
Conditions are less than optimal. People are hungry. They've returned to find the homes that had kept their hopes alive over in Babylon are in ruins. People died along the way. They've been oppressed, exiled, imprisoned, beat down. Now this?
You can hear, if you stop for a moment, the sounds of people choking back tears, covering their faces, shaking their heads. Dejected.
But Isaiah comes to them in the midst of their despair with a word from the Lord: “He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion–to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
Good stuff. Lot of great infinitives in there--to bring good news, to bind up, to release, to proclaim, to comfort, to provide for, to give.
That's good news, isn't it? How do you argue with those kinds of verbs?
The problem is not the verbs, though; it's the objects of the verbs that go down so hard. We live in a modern sophisticated society. So, we're all about those kinds of verbs--bind up, release, comfort, provide for. The problem that confronts our society, however, is that we want the objects of those verbs to be deserving. Helping people is fine . . . as long as their the right people.
And if Isaiah had just left it at rhetorically satisfying verb phrases, just left it abstract, it wouldn't be hard to get everybody on board.
But Isaiah's not content to let things stay on a conceptual level, not satisfied to speak theoretically. No, he throws in objects--gets all practical, puts a face on these lofty sounding verbs--bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, release to the prisoners, to comfort and provide for all those who mourn, to give this whole sorry lot a garland instead of ashes.
This good news comes, in other words, not to those who've just had temporary setbacks, to those inconvenienced by ripples in the stock market. This good news is announced to those who've been on the bottom so long, it's hard for them to remember there's a top. This good news is delivered to those folks on the edge of despair, just short of giving up.
Fine. But why . . . you know . . . those people?
Because, God says, "I love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing." Those who've been at the mercy of the tyrants of this world, sorely used and oppressed, now find themselves under the protection of a ruler who loves justice, who hates the abuse heaped on the poor and the powerless.
And how do we know this good news isn't just more high-flown grandiloquence?
You'd be forgiven for not catching it right off; it's tucked away in verse 2: "The LORD has anointed me . . . to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor."
What does that mean? Why is that such a big deal?
The year of the LORD's favor is a reference to the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus. Every fifty years, according to Jewish law, all debts were to be canceled, all prisoners and slaves set free. Everyone was to return to their home place. It was the ultimate in wealth redistribution.
The Year of Jubilee, the year of the LORD's favor was a reminder to everyone in Israel that they all had been held in bondage in Egypt until God delivered them--which is to say, everyone is equal in God's sight. Consequently, the poor could never get so low that they wouldn't have hope, and rich could never get so rich that they weren't accountable to the whole community.
Concrete. Real life. Practical. This God of justice is no dreamy idealist, but a God with dirty hands and a broken heart.
And we who claim to love and serve this God had better be too.
Because, guess what? The good news of Advent isn't just something we sit around waiting for, twiddling our thumbs with stars in our eyes. The good news of Advent . . . at least in part, is supposed to be us.
Disappointment. Devastation. Ruin. Enslavement. Oppression. It’s still out there.
And in the middle of it all, you have a chance to be the good news somebody's waiting to hear.
It's better than slipper socks any day.
Sometimes, good news depends on who's hearing it...
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In Days to Come
A social worker just told me a story a couple of weeks ago about an internship where she worked as a night manager at a homeless shelter. “Part of my role,” she said, “was to round up the women and children and make sure lights were out by 10:00 pm. One night a boy was abandoned by his mother. I sat with that little 4 year-old boy until finally CPS showed up and took him to the Home of the Innocents. As he cried in my arms that he wanted his mother, I’m not sure that I’d ever seen such pain, felt such helplessness before. That night I decided I wanted to be a social worker…I wanted to combat the social evils of the world.”
And there are plenty of social evils in the world, aren’t there? We see them all around us. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see the pain and despair. Walk out those doors, take a right, and have a seat at that bus stop right out there. You’ll see a whole new world of social evils 150 yards from where you’re sitting right now.
It’s a tough world we live in. The poor, the homeless, the addicted, the unwelcome, the widow, the orphan—all the social evils of the world—it’s difficult to ignore.
Isaiah knows that. Isaiah understands. God, if you’ve read chapter one, isn’t pleased with Judah. Things haven’t been going well with the children of God. They’ve acted faithlessly, and God’s fixin’ to throw down: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Is. 1:15). Not good. Not good at all.
Jerusalem, God’s city, the city of peace—once faithful, God says, has become a “woman of questionable virtue,” a city full of murderers. “Your silver has become dross, your wine is mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:22-23).
God, as you might have been able to tell, is ticked: “Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!” (1:24b). Things can’t keep going like they’ve been going. God’s angry; but God’s anger is redemptive: “I will turn my hand against you: I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city” (1:25-26).
Things are going to get dark. You can count on that, God says. You’re not going to be able to see around the corner, but I’ve got other things in store for you.
Have you noticed here that, according to the tellers of the story, God’s judgment moves in a particular direction? God will not abandon Judah, but Judah will have to get to the end of her rope before understanding God’s great mercy.
Wait a minute. You’re not going to talk about judgment, are you? I mean, it’s one thing to talk about judgment if you’re a pre-modern yokel from the Palestinian sticks, but it’s another thing to start talking about judgment among sophisticated modern smart-phone users like us.
And that’s the way most of us think, isn’t it? Judgment went the way of witch-burnings and the Inquisition. In fact, calling someone judgmental is among the most potent of epithets in our culture. “You can’t tell me how to live. I’ll live the way I want to live. Who are you to judge me?” Next to being a child-molester, you can’t get much lower in the food chain than being judgmental. Pharisees. Bottom-feeders.
But here’s God saying, “I will pour out my wrath on my foes.” Sounds like judgment to me. “Well preacher, that’s all well and good, but we serve a God of love.”
To which I reply, “So did the children of Judah.” We modern folks, however, have a rather idiosyncratic notion of love. Whereas love has traditionally meant concern for the other, nowadays love is often used as a way of avoiding having to be concerned for the other.
What? What does that mean?
Well, typically, people talk about love in ways that indicate that what’s meant is not love, but rather not wanting to get involved. Sometimes the truest form of love is saying no. The easiest thing to do, and sometimes the least loving thing to do, is not to confront, but to let it ride in the name of “keeping the peace.”
But that’s not peace, is it? That’s just a cease-fire, without resolving the underlying issues. And in that sense, what’s communicated is, “I’m more concerned about myself and about avoiding the stickiness of true love than in your long-term good.” True love is impossible where people refuse to confront one another. Deep down we know it’s true.
We need a God who refuses to give us what we want, but who holds out, determined to give us what we need. Perhaps the truest love, the truest grace is a God who’s willing to stand over against us, willing to hold us accountable for our boneheadedness—unwilling simply to let it ride in the name of “keeping the peace.” Because what God wants isn’t a cease-fire, but a people committed to God’s vision of life in the reign of God. And if we’re truly to be the children of God, principally concerned with equipping disciples for God’s new reign, sometimes that will entail the painful but necessary process of speaking the truth to one another in love.
Sometimes the most loving thing the church can do is speak the uncomfortable truth, rather than letting things ride in the name of “keeping the peace.”
Perhaps, it isn’t until God refuses to bend to our will, and holds us accountable to a standard of behavior that we didn’t devise for ourselves, that we can begin to understand the vision that Isaiah, son of Amoz, saw.
Perhaps it isn’t until God, through the face of someone who truly loves us, says that our lives—the way we’ve constructed them—aren’t working, that we can finally begin to submit ourselves to the true mercy of being transformed into the people God wants for us to be.
Perhaps it isn’t until we’ve lived through the darkness of the former days, when we search for God and can never quite find where God had gone, that we can be open to the alternative reality of God’s peaceable kingdom in days to come.
It’s a hard word, isn’t it? You’ve got to walk through the darkness to get to the light. You’ve got to live with the uncertainty before you get to the serenity of peace. That, of course, is the hard part about Advent. Advent isn’t just an excuse to stretch out the Christmas festivities for a month, like some sort of ecclesiastical Wal-Mart. Advent is a time of preparation, of taking stock, of waiting. And if you’ve ever been on the other end of a telephone line expecting a call that will not come, you know that waiting is just about the hardest thing in the world to do. You get tired of standing on your tip-toes after awhile, peering out into the darkness, looking for familiar headlights to crest the driveway.
No. Advent is the season when we recognize that the world—as it’s presently situated—holds great danger for us, forcing us to turn our “eyes toward the hills from whence cometh our help.” Advent is a scary time of waiting to see how it’s all going to shake out.
We’re hopeful, but it’s not with us now. You only have to read the front page of the Courier-Journal to know that. We can’t see what it’s going to look like in all of its glory; the mist blocks our vision. But we get glimpses, tiny snatches of light. We stand waiting for Christ to be revealed, but the darkness appears to rule. Bullets fly. Children die in the dry night. Governments hire people to invent ever more ingenious ways to damage one another. God is not satisfied with the world as it is presently arranged. And we hear Isaiah say, “In days to come . . .”
In former days, we lived in the flat land, hemmed in by fear and terror on every side, but “in days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.”
In former days, God’s displeasure with the way the world was ordered blackened the sky, but in days to come a star shall shine in Bethlehem and the horizon shall be lit by the faces of ten thousand angels announcing God’s desire for a world in which the poor are not trampled, and the orphan is defended, and the cause of the widow is heard in the land.
In former days, your silver turned to refuse, your wine turned to water, and your princes turned into rebels and companions of thieves, but in days to come, your swords shall be turned into plowshares, and your spears shall be turned into pruning hooks, and your enemy shall be turned into your friend.
In former days, your hands were full of blood and you housed murderers in your city, but in days to come, says the LORD, nation shall not lift up sword against nation, and neither shall you learn war anymore.
We who live in the aftermath of September 11th and the wars that still wage a half a world away, we who live in a world where 13.3 million people are officially unemployed and 45 million people live without the benefit of healthcare, where the poor and the widowed and the orphaned continue among us, we find it difficult to see for all the smoke and dust in the air. But Advent is here, and it’s hard to avoid the darkness around us.
Judgment is tough for us to hear. We who have much ought to take care that we’re part of the solution and not part of the problem. We who are well situated might find the refining of Advent much less inviting than the popular picture of old-fashioned Christmases that get pitched to us between episodes of “The Walking Dead.”
But if you’re an abandoned 4 year-old, maybe this kind of judgment is just what you need to hear. Maybe to hear that God cares enough about you to get angry about the way you’ve been treated, the way you’ve been forgotten and left behind, is exactly the kind of Good News the gospel of Advent announces.
Isaiah spins for us a vision of God’s new kingdom, and we get a glimpse, just a peek at what God has in store for those who endure. Just a glimpse in the night of the kind of world where the abandoned are reclaimed, where the forgotten are remembered, where the lost are finally found.
Just a hint. Not much. But the message of Advent is that God doesn’t forsake the poor, the widow, the 4 year-old—expecting the same commitment to justice from those who claim to follow Jesus.
The message of Advent is that God can make a king out of a baby, which means that God can make a kingdom out of the likes of you and me.
And the uncomfortable truth of that, my brothers and sisters, is more good news than you ought to be exposed to in one sitting.
Rev. Penwell reminds us today that it's not just individuals who have talents, but congregations, communities.
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Something about me tends to surprise people when they find out about it.
They say, "Yeah, sure."
And I say, "But it's true."
"But you're a minister."
"Lots of ministers are," I say.
"How can you do your job?"
"It's a struggle sometimes. But after a while, you adjust."
"Do people know?"
"Oh, people I'm close to know, obviously. And other people sometimes figure it out."
"How do you cope?"
"I've got a job to do, so I do it. Most ministers like me, though, take some time to learn how to live with it; but in the end, you've got to. You don't really have a choice."
"Does your wife know?"
"She's my wife. She's known I had problems for a long time."
"And you're telling the truth? You're shy, really?"
"I'm shy . . . really."
As a minister, I've learned how to cope with it more or less. Meeting new people, walking into strange situations, confronting my fears. It's part of the job. But it takes work.
As a normal human being, though, I generally keep to myself when I'm out of my element.
My wife, she's always striking up conversations with the cashiers at Kroger. I'm a I'm-well-thank-you-and-you?" kind of guy. I'm not good at chit-chat.
At the Farmers Market yesterday, a kid—8 or 9 years-old—came up to the table where 4 of us were sitting, said hi, and told us he was going to play on the playground. None of us knew the kid. I remarked a the time, "That is one thing you could bank on that wouldn't happen if I were that kid—going up to a table of grown-ups and just start talking. I would *never* have done that." I just didn't have it in me.
I think shyness is only symptomatic of a larger issue, though. At the bottom of it, I suspect, is an overall fear of failure. I write a lot about failure and our need to make peace with it—not because I'm good at it, but because I need to hear myself say it over and over again if I'm ever going to be able to believe it. Going forward, knowing that mistakes will inevitably be made, is a tough one for me to wrap my heart around. I know the principle, but living unselfconsciously, knowing that failure's just a part of the gig, strikes me in my very deepest places as reckless.
Jesus, of course, is all too familiar with unselfconscious recklessness. He's the guy who's always walking into the middle of a potentially hostile crowd with what appears to be, perfect equanimity.
We've just been through an extended episode in which Jesus, after going into the temple and kicking over all the lemonade stands and then taking off for the night, comes back the next morning to the scene of the crime, and is accosted by the people at the top of the lemonade industry flowchart. For two chapters, Jesus stands there taking their best shot.
They want to know just who he thinks he is, coming in here like he owns the place. Then, they make various plans to trap him, to embarrass him, to unmask him as a fraud before the people. Two whole chapters get devoted to Jesus and his unselfconscious recklessness.
And it's probably important to stop and point out that this bull-in-the-china-shop thing is what's going to get him killed in a couple of days. Because remember, we're in the final week of his life, when all the bad stuff happens. And, I think, it's no mere coincidence that Jesus' grisly death at the hands of the politicians is preceded by perfect examples of his not being able to keep his mouth shut.
"That's right, pal. Just keep talking."
But right before Jesus is taken into custody, and immediately after his drawn out debate in the temple, is this section on the end times. Jesus tells the disciples, first what kinds of things will happen in the final days(signs-of-the-times kinds of things); and then he tells them the expectations of how Jesus' followers should act in anticipation of those times. We're in the second part this morning—which is to say, the part where Jesus fills the disciples in on what's expected of them in view of Jesus' revelations about what the last days will look like.
This is a pretty familiar parable—one that seems to find its way into the lectionary right at stewardship time. You know . . . the parable of the talents.
A man prepares to go on a journey by gathering his slaves together. To one slave he gives five talents. To another he gives two talents. Finally, to the last, he gives one talent. The footnote at the bottom of the page in your bible indicates that a talent was worth about 15 years labor—which is to say, a fairly sizable sum . . . no matter how you slice it. In fact, a talent was the largest unit of currency, figuratively and literally—it weighed something like 60 pounds.
The first two slaves call their brokers, invest the money, and turn a handsome profit. The third, however, digs a hole in the ground and buries it.
The man returns from his journey and asks for his money back. The first two slaves proudly haul out their earnings reports, and receive the master's praise. The third, brushes the dirt off the Hefty bag he's put the money in, and gives his master back the initial sum—one talent. The master's not pleased, calls the slave wicked and lazy and throws him out.
Now, as far as I can tell, the master's come home to a pretty good haul. By my account, he's just about doubled his money across the board. But he seems awfully cranky for a guy who's gotten a 93.3% return on his investment.
It's hard not to be sympathetic to the one talent slave, isn't it? We live in an economy in which wild speculation has brought whole countries to their knees—including ours. Somebody just trying to hang onto what they have seems, if not particularly bold, then at least prudent. How many people do you know personally who've been mercilessly thrashed by this economy—who, if they had it to do all over again, would've much rather stuck their money in the ground than in sub-prime mortgages or in credit default swaps or in risky financial instruments that ultimately tanked—and left everybody holding the bag.
And just so we're clear, burying one's money in the ancient Near East was a perfectly acceptable (and in many cases, preferable) alternative to the kind of banking options available at the time—which were profoundly risky. The people who originally read this parable would have been much more generous in their evaluation of the final slave's faithfulness. By burying the talent, the slave did a perfectly defensible thing. He played it safe, when most other options would have cost him.
What's the master so upset about?
I think it has to do without the fact that the slave has forgotten he's been given a gift.
Now, traditionally this parable has been interpreted as a call to individual resource assessment. In other words, the way this parable is usually handled, everyone is asked to do a self-inventory of resources—time, talent, treasure—and then figure out how best to put them to some kind of Christian use.
I want to suggest, however, that the bible is first of all a communal text. That is to say, notwithstanding the modern penchant for reading the bible as primarily directed at "me," the books of scripture were originally written to communities. We misread them when we understand them as concerned principally with individuals. That's not to say that the bible isn't *concerned* with individuals; it is, but it's always a concern about the ways individuals are connected to community—not individuals on deserted islands of self-concern.
So, if we're going to use this text to talk about stewardship, we need to think first about *communal* stewardship. Put more simply, this parable asks us as a congregation to think about our gifts—both the ones we receive and the ones we give.
Congregations have gifts, right? Look around at the people who are here, for instance. Think about the people who've come to us over the past year, who've decided to throw in with Douglass Boulevard Christian Church. Pretty amazing the gifts of people God's given us, don't you think?
Or think about the great ministries we've been able to participate in over the past year—the Farmers Market, the work with Fairness Campaign and the LGBTQ community, our unfolding relationship with Grace House and Freedom House and the Volunteers of America. In the past year, we've taken two trips to Mexico, bringing over 25 different people to work at the children's home. We've started a visitation program to the shut-ins. We've hired a youth minister, and started two different Sunday School classes for children. God's been pretty gracious to us when it comes to giving us meaningful challenges.
Financially, during one of the toughest economic periods this country has seen in over seventy years, we've continued to grow, year after year. People continue to give, and we continue to grow.
Oh, congregations have gifts! Douglass Boulevard Christian Church has been blessed in dramatic ways.
The question we have to ask ourselves is the same question posed to the slaves: How are you going to respond to the gifts you've been given?
I want to suggest that Jesus' understanding of what gifts are for, as illustrated in this parable, is radical. We could take the bestowal God has granted us and bury it in the ground. Christian congregations have a long history of doing just that—live in fear; act like this is all there is, and when this is gone (the general budget, the endowment fund, the children's program), that's all there is; cling to what you have, afraid that if you do anything other than just sit on it, the whole game will be up.
But the master in this parable says, "Do something with it. Spend it. Invest it. Put it on the number 9 horse in the 6th race. Lose it. I don't care—there's more where *that* came from. Just don't bury it. Burying a gift from God for fear that it'll be lost is tantamount to saying, "We're petrified. We don't trust you to be faithful, or ourselves to do anything other than wrap your gift in mothballs."
Jesus says, "Do something with it."
"Yeah, but what if we lose it?"
And what does Jesus say, "Look, in case you haven't noticed, I'm what's known in prison parlance as a 'dead man walking.' Losing, failure, dying I know. It's always standing pat when you're playing with house money that I can't tolerate. It's a gift, for God's sake! Give it away!"
It’s a gift. For God's sake, for humanity's sake, for the sake of the hungry, the poor, they imperiled, the dying, the frightened . . . give it away.
Give it away without expecting anything in return. Exercise the muscle that controls your generosity.
And it's not that churches aren't necessarily good at giving. Most are pretty good at it.
Unfortunately, churches often give for the purpose of getting something in return.
"Sure, we could do this great thing. We could start a daycare, or have a festival and give back packs and school supplies to poor kids, or start another service that would appeal to people who have a lot of pierced body parts and tattoos. And if we do, maybe we'll get more people to come to church."
Why not be unselfconsciously reckless with the gifts we've been given, and just give them away—without the expectation that in so doing we will increase the membership rolls or the budget? Why not just do what we do because we've been blessed with so much, and because it's the right thing to do?
During stewardship emphasis month, all over the world congregations are telling individuals to do just that. Why don't we ask congregations to do the same kind of radical thing . . . and let God worry about how much is left over?
For people who claim to follow Jesus, the one who gave everything away, unselfconscious recklessness ought to be like second nature to us.
It's a gift. Do something with it.
Thank God, for our sake, Jesus did.
Humility the Hard Way
I remember one time I got told. My brother, Daren, who’s two years younger than I am, took me aside when I was 17 and laid it out for me.
I don’t recall why I was feeling especially put-upon, but I was going through our room declaiming about the injustice of some social slight or some bit of insensitivity I’d endured at the hands of somebody or other.
A little too full of myself, I wondered, “How could they do this to me? How could they say this about me? About me? I mean look at me. I’m one of the good guys., right? I do all this good stuff. I treat people fairly. Blah, blah, blah.”
Very difficult to be a martyr at 17, but I was giving it my best shot.
Like I say, I don’t really remember what prompted the conversation, but I do remember the part where my brother told me something I didn’t want to hear.
He’d been doing his homework on the bed, when he looked up and said, “You don’t suppose you’re a little too worked up about this, do you? It doesn’t sound to me like anybody was trying to offend you.”
“What’re you crazy? This is me we’re talking about here. I can’t believe someone would treat me that way.” Self-righteousness is never a virtue–especially in a seventeen year-old.
With a sort of calm, pastoral voice–he had this pastor-thing going on at 15 (I’m not kidding)–he shook his head and said, “You realize, don’t you, that at the heart of it, you’re a pretty selfish person? You tend to think of yourself first, and a bit too highly at that.”
Thunderstruck. Unbelievably, irremediably, jaw-droppingly … thunderstruck.
He was right, though. I was, and still am to this day, a selfish person.
I still think about my brother having the audacity to say that to me. It was one of the kindest, most loving things anybody’s ever said to me.
Surgery isn’t designed to feel good; it’s designed to heal you.
My brother told me the truth with surgical precision, blessed me with humility the hard way.
When I was a pastor down in Middlesboro, I went down to the west-end elementary school every Monday for a couple of years to read to second-graders. I was a part of a pilot literacy program called, “Real Men Read.”
The premise of the program rested on the sad fact that in Appalachia, a large percentage of the children grew up in homes where either there were no men, or no men who could read. That is to say, many of the kids in this second grade class had never heard a story read in a male voice.
We lived in the congressional district with the highest illiteracy rate in the country, so somebody thought it would be a good idea to teach kids who were learning to read that men–even though these children didn’t know many–could read.
Anyway, the first time I went, I was told to introduce myself–tell the kids a little something about what I did. Many of them didn’t go to church–had never gone to church. I was faced with a dilemma: How do I tell kids who don’t know what a minister is, what a minister does?
I did all kinds of stuff. I buried people, married their kids, taught, wrote, prayed, held hands with people who were dying, planned programs, talked to people who were mad or sad or afraid. You can see the problem, right? How do you boil all that down into a job?
At thirty years-old, I didn’t know how to adequately explain what I did to myself, much less to group of seven year-olds, who had no idea what the inside of a church even looked like.
Anxious about what I was going to say, something struck me on the way over to the school that first Monday.
It was simple (not easy, but simple). I still use it when I talk about what I do.
I said, “Hi. My name is Derek. I’m a minister. What does that mean? That means I get paid to tell the truth.”
I’m still convinced that that’s what ministers do. We tell the truth about where we come from and where we’re headed, about the world in which we live and how God relates to us, about what justice and mercy mean and what God expects from us.
We tell the truth … and not just with our words–with our lives.
Telling the truth is hard work, isn’t it? Especially in our culture, where we seem more comfortable with the casual lies we tell ourselves. People often don’t want to hear the truth.
And the truth is hard to tell, because we want people to think we’re nice. We want people to like us.
Jesus, it would appear from our Gospel this morning, doesn’t care nearly as much as most moderns do about whether or not people think he’s nice, or whether people like him. In fact, in today’s Gospel Jesus is only days away from being nailed to a tree because he’s gotten cross-ways with all the wrong people because he can’t keep the truth to himself. So on the “nice,” on the I-hope-people-will-like-me front … epic fail.
If you remember, Jesus has spent the last two chapters of the book of Matthew arguing with the religious authorities. Pretty much everybody’s been out to trip him up, try to make him look foolish. And he’s taken on all comers.
Finally, in today’s text Jesus has had enough. He turns away from the hoards of religious big shots who’ve been hounding him, and toward the crowds, and lets loose.
Oh, he begins innocently enough: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach, and follow it.”
But then he starts warming to the subject. “Do what they say … for sure. They know the stuff backwards and forwards–just don’t do what they do, for they don’t practice what they teach.”
Ouch! Oh, he’s just getting started: “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
Know anybody like that? Religious leaders and politicians are famous for this one. Do as I say … not as I do (or fail to do).
Then Jesus gets downright personal: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others”–after which he lists a few of their shortcomings in this regard–showy religious finery, sitting at the places of honor at banquets and synagogues, seeking to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, wanting to be referred to with honorifics–rabbi, father, instructor.
Finally, Jesus caps the whole thing off with this bell-ringer: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” In other words, humility’s coming … in a few short days, even for him.
Let me be quick to recognize that this passage (and what follows) has been used by Christians over the years to indulge a penchant for anti-semitism. Christians have mistakenly attributed the acts of the Pharisees to all Jews.
We should be clear, though. Jesus is a Jew, speaking to Jews. That he’s speaking about a particular group of Jewish leaders and not all Jews is something we need to keep very much in mind. The law, as delivered on Mt. Sinai, was never intended to be a heavy burden, but a source of moral identity. Jesus, in this passage, isn’t taking off on the law, but on a particular kind of misuse of the law by those who get caught up in the finer points of its demands, instead of in the beauty of being set apart as God’s people.
Even so, this is difficult to listen to if what you think Jesus came to do was to inflict niceness on an otherwise testy Near East. Jesus sounds so irascible, so cranky.
Couldn’t we get the nice Jesus–the one who loves children and little old ladies? This whole fire-breathing itinerant prophet thing is tough to witness.
I think it’s because that kind of honesty makes people uncomfortable, and our culture tells us that our responsibilities lie in lubricating the social gears rather than throwing sand in them. But sand is sometimes exactly what’s needed.
Remember why it is that Jesus has been in this marathon cat-and-mouse game with the religious leaders? We’ve talked about this a lot recently, working our way through these past few chapters of Matthew. The reason Jesus has been so severely set upon by those in power goes all the way back to his clearing of the temple at the beginning of chapter 21. Remember?
Jesus, after calling out the caretakers of God’s house for making it into a den of robbers, presses home the point by immediately receiving into that house the blind and the lame–those who’ve been denied access by those in power–the religious leaders who’ve mistakenly thought their job was gatekeeper instead of welcoming committee. Jesus welcomes the unwanted into God’s freshly cleaned house, and heals them.
For the rest of chapters 21 and 22, Jesus has had to take on the religious establishment, who feel threatened by his condemnation of their failure to keep in mind that the law is there not to preserve personal privilege, but to extend the bounty of God’s grace to those who’ve been systematically put out, shoved aside, made to sit in the back of the bus.
Sometimes justice has been forgotten, or misplaced, or ignored. If we claim to follow Jesus, we have a responsibility in those cases to speak the uncomfortable truth that God desires a world in which the lame and the blind get to sit at the front of the bus.
A world in which the forgotten and cast aside are remembered and brought back into the fold.
A world in which those who’ve been downsized, those without healthcare, those who’ve graduated from college but have a difficult time seeing a future that holds a place for them … are no longer afterthoughts in our political life, but children of God on whose behalf we need to find our voices.
A world in which the color of one’s skin or the country of one’s birth or the gender of one’s love interests aren’t the characteristics by which people are excluded, but are the very things we lift up and celebrate as God’s gifts to us.
This isn’t optional behavior to get sorted out after we get the right bumper-stickers; it’s the very purpose of the life to which Jesus calls us.
Jesus speaks the truth to those in power, not because he’s mean or disagreeable or because he temperamentally disposed to raining on other people’s parades … but because he loves us so much he can’t bear for us not to know the truth about the way things are ordered in the reign of God.
It’s a hard word Jesus delivers. Honesty can be difficut to hear. But telling the truth about God’s vision of the way things ought to be is the kindest most loving thing we have to say.
We who follow the one executed as a criminal are under no illusions about what telling the truth can cost.
On the other hand, we also know that finding humility the hard way can be the best gift we ever receive.