parables as subversive act: “God! a Samaritan?”

good-samaritan

(http://www.blog.wildemeyer.com/search/label/Amy%20Watts)

Responsive Call to Worship
Division and divisiveness are easy.
Rejection,
denunciation, and vilification are easy.
Exclusion is easy.
Blame is easy.
Enemies are easy.
Not easy to deal with, of course.
Easy to allow,
and then to blame and exclude—
denounce, vilify, reject.
We, as those who follow God in the way of Jesus,
however,
are not called to easy.
And what seems easy
is often only so in the short term.
We are rather called
to transformation and possibility.
We are called to grace.
We are called to love.
It’s not easy,
but this way lies hope.

Meditations
Love is the only force
capable
of transforming an enemy
into a friend.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

It takes a great deal of bravery
to stand up to our enemies,
but just as much
to stand up to our friends.
— J.K. Rowling

If you want to make peace with your enemy,
you have to work with your enemy.
Then he [or she] becomes your partner.
— Nelson Mandela

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Reading from the Old Testament
Exodus 23:1-9
You shall not spread a false report.
You shall not join hands with the wicked
to act as a malicious witness.
You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing;
when you bear witness in a lawsuit,
you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice;
nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.
When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray,
you shall bring it back.
When you see the donkey of one who hates you
lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free,
you must help to set it free.
You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor
in their lawsuits. Keep far from a false charge,
and do not kill the innocent or those in the right,
for I will not acquit the guilty.
You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials,
and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.
You shall not oppress a resident alien;
you know the heart of an alien,
for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

Reading from the New Testament
Luke 10:25-37
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.
‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’
He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’
He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength,
and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’
And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer;
do this, and you will live.’
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus,
‘And who is my neighbor?’ Jesus replied,
‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,
and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him,
and went away, leaving him half dead.
Now by chance a priest was going down that road;
and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him,
passed by on the other side.
But a Samaritan while traveling came near him;
and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.
He went to him and bandaged his wounds,
having poured oil and wine on them.
Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn,
and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii,
gave them to the innkeeper, and said,
“Take care of him; and when I come back,
I will repay you whatever more you spend.”
Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor
to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?’
He said, ‘The one who showed him mercy.’
Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’

Witness of the Open Canon
Sting, “Russians,” 1985

In Europe and America there’s a growing feeling of hysteria.
Conditioned to respond to all the threats
In the rhetorical speeches of the Soviets.
MIster Krushchev said, “We will bury you.”
I don’t subscribe to this point of view.
It’d be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too.
How can I save my little boy from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?
There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence.
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too

There is no historical precedent
To put the words in the mouth of the president?
There’s no such thing as a winnable war,
It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.
Mister Reagan says, “We will protect you.”
I don’t subscribe to this point of view.
Believe me when I say to you,
I hope the Russians love their children too
We share the same biology, regardless of ideology.
But what might save us, me and you,
Is if the Russians love their children too

Witness of the Living Word
It’s a familiar Jesus story—
one of the most familiar.
And it’s been absorbed into culture like none other—
assimilated into the vernacular.
There is legislation named after it—
not to mention hospitals.
Ben Rodriguez just had surgery there this past week—
at Good Sam, as it’s called,
over there on Loch Raven Boulevard and Belvedere.

It’s a straightforward story—
really doesn’t need much in the way of commentary.

Other than maybe a little context—
much of which many of you already know.
And we’re not even going to consider
the frame of the story this morning, just the story itself.
So we could note that it’s a certain anthropos,
we read in the Greek—
which could mean a specific man,
but could also mean a human being.
Because anthropology is not the study of particular men, is it?
but of human beings.
There was a human being in the ditch.
We could remind each other of the specifics—
of that road from Jerusalem down to Jericho—
18 miles through the desolate Judean mountains—
dropping from some 2500 feet above sea level
to some 825 feet below.
We don’t really need to remind each other of how dangerous life can be;
we know all too well what human beings do to each other.
We could note that the priest and the levite passing by
set up an expected third passer-by,
whom we expect to do what the others, for whatever reason, did not.
We could call into question interpretations
that call Judaism into question
rather than two men who didn’t live up to the teachings of their own faith.
We could explore all that—
and more,

but the point of the parables
was … well, less that they made some point,
as that they made their impact felt.
Parables were and should be less about the head
and more about the gut.

And so this story’s not about robbers—
about the dangers of life—
what we all too easily believe people do to each other.
It’s not a story about the priest and the levite—
the Jewish religion—
its purity laws.
Nor is this a story about a samaritan, good or otherwise.

None of that’s what gets us in the gut.

Now there are … what shall we call them?
gutty dimensions?
to all of that:
to the dangers of our lives—
what we do to each other
(and depending on what’s just happened somewhere—
what’s in the news—that can hit hard,
but we forget it’s always somewhere).
There’s a gutty dimension to religious leaders
who don’t do what they’re supposed to—
don’t live in the way you would expect them to—
who focus on money or judgement or anger—on small—
and let their own faith down.
And we’re all moved by acts of unexpected goodness—
exceptional compassion.
Nonetheless.
Not what the story’s about.

Here’s another clue as to what it’s really about:
if the story were to go on,
how would it—how would it go on?
We wouldn’t follow the priest, the levite, or the samaritan, would we?
The narrative trajectory is into the reaction and response of the one
who was beaten and robbed.
So this story is clearly about a person who was in a ditch, a Jew
who wakes up
to discover—
what?
Not just what happened while he was unconscious,
but also that he now faces a critical decision—
to keep living as he had been—ignoring what happened,
or to make a fundamental change to his own perspectives and views—
to reorient his reality.

Because he wakes up confronted with the fact,
that he was saved by someone he wouldn’t want to admit saved him—
saved by someone who would make him think,
“It might be better if he hadn’t saved me—if I hadn’t been saved.
I can’t believe what he did to me.”

It is, you see, a misnamed story.
Commonly called the good samaritan,
it might better be called, as our sermon title this morning,
“God! the Samaritan?” (with just such an intonation!)

The trick is to reclaim some of the absolute shock
of those first hearers—
and of that human being who wakes up to wake up—or not.

“Yes, I know what human beings do to each other.
Look what some did to me—
taking my possessions, my dignity, almost my life.
But you’re telling me a samaritan did this?
Look what they do to us—
what they have done to us.”

“According to the Bible, Samaria had an earlier name, Shechem.
It was at Shechem that Jacob’s daughter Dinah was raped….
The second reference to Shechem/Samaria
is Judges 8-9, the story of the false judge Abimelech,
who murders his rivals…
(Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus:
Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi,
[New York: HarperCollins, 2014] 96).
Rapists and murderers.
And, you all probably know this,
Samaritans and Jews each had a temple—
the one in Jerusalem, the other on Mt Gerizim.
128 years before the birth of Jesus,
the Jewish king attacked Samaria and burned down their temple.
Samaritans and Jews both considered themselves
true to the Torah and the other as having deviated from it.
Throughout the gospels we get indications of this division—
Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John.
In Matthew Jesus warns his disciples not to enter Samaritan towns.
“In the chapter preceding our parable (Luke 9:51-56),
Luke recounts that a Samaritan village refused Jesus hospitality”
(Levine, 99). James and John suggest raining down fire.
Josephus recounts both stories of Samaritans killing
Galileans on their way to the pilgrimage festivals,
and of Jews plundering Samaritan villages (Levine, 100).

So this human being confronted with what had been done to him
must decide what to maintain—
and not so much just the same close-minded prejudices
as the accepted, taken for granted cultural norms.
Because here’s another thing to consider:
from what I can tell—
from what I’ve read,
this deep-seated animosity would have had less to do
with just personal experience in the present
than with those cultural norms
rooted in the stories of history and tradition.

So what we have here
is a cultural, national, systemic racism.
Well.
Well well well.

We looked, as you might imagine,
at a lot of images for a bulletin cover.
There are lots and lots of good samaritan images.
Most of them are of someone helping another.
But the help is not what’s most important.
It’s who’s offering it.

So in the image on your bulletin this morning,
note the different ethnicities of the characters.
Notice that the person in the ditch
looks like a cowboy,
while the person extending help looks native.
Notice how the one dressed like a cowboy
(cowboy boots—cowboy hat)
is wrapped in a bright, colorful native looking blanket.
Imagine a cowboy saved by an indian
in a culture in which the only good indian, don’t you know,
is a dead one.

The best stories lure us in
to thinking they’re stories about them
until we realize they’re stories about us.

And then we don’t just feel those stories in our gut,
they hit us in the gut.

Too much, we watch Star Wars and the dark side,
Harry Potter and the death eaters,
the fellowship of the ring and Sauron,
and never see the story in which we live—
never identify the empire in whose shadow we live—
the deep resonance with Revelation—with Scripture.

Whether it’s the Marvel universe
or Independence Day,
we look at aliens
and don’t see ourselves.
Can you believe what we do to each other?

Our fiction seduces us into processing stories as about them
until we realize they are always about us.

Now why is this so important?
Why so important to remember they’re about us?
And why are we thinking of parables as subversive acts?
Why would the subversive element be so important?

Because we are the resistance—
or not.

We are those who recognize the danger
in the stories of our culture.
We are those who recognize how different
the stories of culture are from the stories we tell.
We are those who confront the discrepancy.
We name the risk—
or we don’t.

If we hear the parable aright,
we are undone
to be remade.
Our world is undone
to be remade—
raised to newness of perspective—
newness of wonder and relationship,
commitment and possibility—
to be being redeemed.

Now we can pretend—
the church has historically done a great job pretending—
we can pretend the stories Jesus tells
don’t undo us—don’t undo our culture.
But what we then accept
is what the Jesus stories warn us of,
not what they invite us to.

And it’s not practical.
It’s not even necessarily what we call realistic—
or pragmatic—or safe.
But we are not called to practical
to what’s called realistic—
to pragmatic—to safe.
We are called to love—
in all its extravagance—
its grand gestures—
its hope—
its risk.

I remember proposing to Susie.
We were in Taos, New Mexico—the town square.
And I had planned this—
knew I was going to ask,
and yet I was shaking.
My voice quaked.
Because this was momentous
This question and this answer would change everything.
And it did.

There are moments.
There are moments—
particular questions and answers
that change everything.

The task the calling and the challenge of the church today
is to be a momentous threat to the status quo—
to the powers that be—
to the assumptions and categories and justification of our world.
Not to endorse—promote—approve—justify our culture,
but to question, confront and undermine it—
to sabotage it—
to resist.
To change everything.

And lest you’re overwhelmed or feeling argumentative,
no, we don’t have to resist everything
for everything to change.

And it’s not a call to anarchy I sound—
though you know as well as I,
there are significant parts to our culture
that run counter to our faith affirmations.
Ours is, however, a call to resistance,
not rebellion—
working transformation from within—
but clearly—indubitably
working for change—
to undo what is
that what may be
is other than what is.

We start by acknowledging the critical decision we face—
either to keep living as we too often do—
pretending Jesus is not relevant to our day-to-day living,
or to make a fundamental change to our own perspectives and views—
to reorient our reality.
And not just at a personal level,
but also at a cultural, national level.
We could start with—
oh, I don’t know …
our cultural, national, systemic racism?
There is a danger to our culture
by its very nature and being
that puts us at risk—
that puts at risk who we are called to be.
And so in response
we call ourselves to risk—
to risk who we are called to be.

You are the resistance.

Go with God.

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Luke 6:27-36
‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you.
If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also;
and from anyone who takes away your coat
do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
and if anyone takes away your goods,
do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
‘If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?
For even sinners love those who love them.
If you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.
If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.
But love your enemies, do good, and lend,
expecting nothing in return.
Your reward will be great,
and you will be children of the Most High;
for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

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a person of privilege and faith seeking appropriately relevant words to speak with integrity

I.

The real story is not the obvious story.

The real story is back story and context.

It’s history.

It’s the story some have tried, through the years,

to tell that’s been ignored.

The real story is below the surface

in the cross currents and rip-tides.

The real story—the deep story

is an ugly one

encompassing widely different educational options,

employment options,

the systemic injustice of our justice system,

and the myths we tell of equality and opportunity for all

when in fact, our country is a casino

advertising anyone can win

while the house takes it all to the bank.

God who hovered over the depths,

do not allow us to rest content on the surface.

II.

The media has not been a help in truth seeking.

You can find the truth in the media,

but you have to dig for it.

The media does not lead with it.

They lead with what fits the easy categories of the surface story.

Respect to those journalists and broadcasters

who resist that—

who dig.

But we, who read and watch, need to be ever vigilantly aware

that there is information; there is misinformation (information that’s wrong),

and there is disinformation (intentionally misleading information).

Our culture (which is synonymous with the privileged in our culture—

which is most of us—

though most of most of us don’t know that)

is invested in our having to sift through it all,

and not know—

assuming we will then give up

any quixotic seeking truth

and accept the apparent—the surface story.

III.

The system (which is again synonymous with the privileged—

us again)

is not invested in the whole

(despite any and all rhetoric to the contrary).

It is invested in those who rise to the top—who float on the surface.

It cares about what’s below the surface

only when the surface is disturbed.

and it is ruthless in maintaining a surface calm—

ruthless is suppressing (oppressing)

what rises from the depths.

IV.

Isn’t it interesting—disturbing—heart-breaking—

telling—revealing—

that the first story put out

was about the violence outside the baseball game—

about the bar patrons disturbed in their revelry by the thugs.

Only later did we begin to hear of those imbibing at the pubs

instigated chaos—inciting those marching.

The first story we heard was of the violence of the youth at the mall—

the destruction.

Only later, that the police had shut down the transportation system—

not allowing the youth to get from their school to their homes—

isolating youth not predisposed to trust police

and closing in on them in full riot gear.

The first story was of gangs making alliances to harm police,

and only subsequently did we hear that no such alliances were made.

It’s less heartbreaking though perhaps equally telling

that the first impulse is to laud the police.

And I am grateful for the good work of the police.

I tell my children that if they’re ever scared or lost or in trouble

that police men and women are good people who will help them.

I am grateful within privilege, I know.

And we have to—have to—question the almost $6,000,0000

paid out over four years, to settle grievances against the police.

We have to question our culture’s love affair with the myth

of redemptive violence—violence in the service of righteousness.

We have to question the assumption 

that the ends justify the means

when the ends are very much for some and not for all.

V.

The truth hard to hear

is that those who have spoken within the system—

worked within the system,

have been ignored by the system.

It is outside the acceptable channels of authority

that violence cannot be ignored

Does that excuse it?

No.

But neither should we focus on that violence

when the systemic injustice that spawned it

goes unaddressed and tacitly excused.

Blame is easiest to direct at the immediate

and the superficial,

not the deep.

The deep challenges too many taken for granteds.

If we’re going to get at the root—

if we’re going to get to the depths,

it’s not the violence of today.

It’s the violence of years gone by.

There are no true innocents when talking about systemic injustice.

Well, there are the children,

Yes. Always.

But no one else.

There is no quick fix.

Our truth was years and years in the making.

It will be years and years in the unmaking—the remaking—

the redeeming.

VI.

In these days of the social media,

in times of sudden turmoil,

there is the opportunity, the pressure, the temptation

of having the right thing to say—

and the opportunity, the pressure, the temptation

to speak to more than a local congregation—

to speak to a larger context—

to speak to the principalities and the powers—

the systems.

Some of that speaks to our immediate desire

manifest in the assumption:

surely there’s something to do to fix this.

I’ve always called this the male perspective.

Maybe it’s more truly the perspective of privilege.

But the deep truths are best seen in reflection …

or by those who have been in reflection.

Others should be silent

and commit to reflection and the living born of it.

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart

be acceptable to You, my God.

VII.

Yet I do have something to say.

We will keep being the church—

believing what we have been doing is vital.

We will keep praying

not believing that what is dictates what is to be.

We will keep studying the word week in and week out—

telling the stories—the ones that that call into question

the privilege we take for granted,

the systems that bestow privilege

and that justify its lack—

stories of a whole that values and celebrates all parts of itself.

We will keep having the conversations

of honesty and vulnerability and confession and of hope.

We will keep changing—growing—into grace and love—

discerning how to hover over the depths with the Spirit of God—

how to be in reflection—

and so to be prepared to speak—

to speak a word still being made flesh—

to live the story we hear and tell.

We are seeking transformation—

committed to being a part of transformation—

a reconfiguration of the depths and the surface.

“Let there be truth. Let there be light.”

the unseen and the too much seen

Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22

From the Old Testament, we have another familiar story
abstracted from the larger exodus story.
It’s the story of Moses hidden in the cleft of the rock
while the glory of God passes by.
“Rock of ages, cleft for me.”
And it’s another one of those stories
largely known for just one part of it.
For that image of Moses hidden
comprises just one scene—one image—one snapshot
from the story
with much of the larger context so much less familiar.

So three things of note to note:
first, the larger context of the story
that leads to this familiar image—this one snapshot.
This story follows the stories of the making of the golden calf—
of God’s and Moses’ response to the golden calf.
And the last word we heard from God before our text
was that Israel was to proceed—
“Y’all go on up to the promised land
but I’m not going with you!
Because if I spent any more time with you than I already have,
y’all wouldn’t make it!
I would surely destroy you!” (Exodus 33:1-3)

Our story starts with Moses in conversation with God—in prayer,
trying to figure out what Israel,
having forfeited their right of covenant expectations,
can now legitimately expect from God.

And Moses asks God, “You’ve told me to bring up this people.
(You can almost hear disdain dripping from God’s “this”—”this” people)
“But you have not let me know,” Moses goes on, “who’s going with us—
with us.
Moses remains committed to the people.
“What messenger will accompany us? Guide us? Provide for us?
What sign of your presence will be with us?
You have said you know me and that I have found favor in your sight.
If that’s the case, then show me your ways
so that I can know you and find favor in your sight.”

God responds, “My presence (literally, my face) will go with you
and give you rest.
Now God’s promise here is made to you singular—to Moses specifically.
You, I’ll go with you.
In spite of what God had just said (“I’m not going with you”)
when Moses asks, God will go.

But Moses isn’t, apparently, totally convinced, because he goes on,
“If your presence will not go ….”
What did God just say? “I’ll go.”
“But if you don’t, do not carry us (us) up from here.
For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight?
I and your people, unless you go with us (us).
In this is our distinction, mine and that of your people.”
In face of God’s rejection of this people,
Moses affirms, over and over again,
not just that he remains committed to this people,
but that this people remains God’s people.

And note this: it is precisely the consistent affirmation
of the presence of God
that comprises the distinctive sign of the people of God.
Do we know that?
The consistent affirmation of the presence of God.
Do you do that?
How do we do that?

And God said, “I will—
I will do it okay?
I will do the very thing you have asked
for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.
How many times do I have to tell you this?”
You see, the prayers of one righteous person,
redeem even the great sin of the people’s idolatry!

What we have here is a model for daring, insistent prayer
(Walter Brueggemann, The Book of Exodus: Introduction,
Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1994] 942).
Moses keeps pushing!
Moses refuses to let God determine the limits of asking
(Brueggemann, 942).

And then Moses says, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
And God responds, “I will make all my goodness pass by
and will proclaim before you the name, the Lord—Yahweh,
and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious
and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,
but—but you cannot see my face;
for no one shall see me and live.”

Now did Moses hear that dangerous combination of affirmation and warning
we’ve noted so often before in Scripture?
Did you hear it?
When God said “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious
and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy,”
is that a hopeful word for Israel? Is that affirmation?
Or a subtle reminder that God is not always gracious?
Does not always show mercy?

If Moses picks up on that, he doesn’t push that!
He asks rather to see God’s glory.
And God says Moses can’t see God’s face—God’s self.
For God’s glory is God’s face is God’s self.
So for the first time, while God offers assurance,
God does not give Moses what Moses asked for—
still gives so very much.
“Yahweh responds to three different pleas from Moses,
each carrying the interaction one step farther”—a little deeper
(Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus in Interpretation
[Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991] 296).

It’s not true for everything, but maybe when it comes to knowing God,
the more we ask, the more we experience—
the more there is to ask—
the more there is to experience.
I love that verse from the Gospel of Thomas:
“Know what is in front of your face,
and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you”
(http://gnosis.org/naghamm/gosthom.html).
The perfectly insistent prayer keeps asking more—
keeps wanting to know more,
and if God is, in truth, God,
anyone in their relationship with God can always go deeper—
even if it’s not always exactly what you wanted.

Finally, we get to Moses standing on the rock by God,
and God says, “When my glory passes by, I’ll put you in this cleft,
and cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by;
then I’ll take my hand away and you shall see my back;
but my face shall not be seen.”

So the second thing of note to note is that Moses,
contrary to what’s so familiar to us,
was not hidden in the cleft of the rock.
Read it carefully.
Moses was placed in the cleft and hidden by the hand of God.
Which is to say:
the presence of God protected Moses from the presence of God!

And it’s a very strange image to try and picture.
Almost as if God is watching a God parade with Moses.
“Here stand by me and we’ll watch my goodness go by,
and then we’ll listen to me proclaim the name the Lord,
and you can watch my graciousness and my mercy,
but when my glory comes, I’ll cover you with my hand
until I have passed by. Okay?”

Third and finally, we’re left with how to understand
this whole business of seeing God in the larger context of the wider story.
At the burning bush—in Moses’ initial encounter with God,
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:6)—
nothing said about it being dangerous to see God.
Moses was afraid.

There has been affirmation of the hiddenness of God—
God hidden in the cloud, God hidden in the fire,
God hidden in the darkness (Exodus 13:21; 20:21).
There’s even an explicit warning about the danger of seeing God:
“Go down and warn the people not to try and break through to the Lord
to look; otherwise many of them will perish” (Exodus 19:21).
And yet (it’s what makes Scripture so much fun!),
we read that Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu,
and seventy of the elders of Israel went up,
and guess what they did?
They saw the God of Israel (Exodus 24:9).
In the verses directly preceding our story, we read:
“When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend
and stand at the entrance of of the tent, and the Lord
would speak with Moses … Thus the lord used to speak to Moses
ready? face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:9, 11).

So what’s going on?
Can you see God’s face or not?
The easy answer is probably that whole JEPD thing—
you know that there were different writers and/or editors
with different theological and religious agendas
responsible for different parts of the Pentateuch, the first five books.
But I’m not sure the easy answer is the best one.

Terence Fretheim, an Old Testament scholar I appreciate,
observes it “does not say that God cannot be seen.
Rather, it assumes that God can be seen,
but one cannot live if this happens”
(Fretheim, 300).
But Moses did.
Aaron did. Nadab, and Abihu,
and seventy of the elders of Israel did.
So actually what I think it assumes is that
to see the face of God is to risk death.
It is to encounter death.
There is always dying involved.
But that maybe it’s some kind of dying to the self—
that whole “our dross to consume” we sing about
in “How Firm a Foundation.”
There are parts of us/there are dimensions to us/there are aspects of us
that cannot survive the presence of God.
Are you going to risk that?
It is a dangerous thing to risk yourself in the presence of God.
But God protects us from God …

which is such a good transition to Jesus!
But before we go … wow!

When it comes to our gospel text, once again,
religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus.
It’s their favorite game.
This time an unusual alliance of the disciples of the Pharisees
and the Herodians.
This clearly falls into the logic of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

They try and butter Jesus up with oily compliments
(You can read that whole section. It’s very greasy.)
before asking him about paying Caesar this tax.
They were referring to “a particular tax, the ‘census,’
the Roman head-tax instituted in 6 CE,
when Judea became a Roman province.
This census triggered the nationalism
that finally became the Zealot movement,
which fomented the disastrous war of 66-70”
(Brueggemann, 420).

“Show me the coin,” says Jesus.
Now they had one.
They shouldn’t have. Theoretically.
Whose image was, after all, on the coin?
Caesar’s—a man claiming to be a god—
which made of each coin a what? A portable little idol.
They shouldn’t have had one.
They don’t get it.
“Yes, we have one!” All excited.
It’s the teacher with the oblivious student.
“Okay, well that was supposed to be the end of this.
You shouldn’t have one and you do … oh, never mind.
Whose image is on it?”
“Caesar’s!” Enthusiastic. They know this.
They’re clueless!

“Well give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
It’s a subtle devaluation of money, by the way.
But pay God what is God’s.
And we, by the way, are not Caesar’s.
We do not owe Caesar ourselves.
We owe God ourselves.
It’s a devaluation of Caesar, isn’t it?
Indirectly, but indubitably!

It’s ironic, by the way.
What is inscribed on our money?
“In God we trust.”
The irony, of course, is that it’s money we trust, right?
And the irony is sharpened because (you know this, right?),
the only reason the phrase “in God we trust” can be on money
is because it doesn’t mean anything!

These instances of what’s called “ceremonial deism”—
“in God we trust” on our money, “under God” in our pledge—
these things that people get so wound up over,
are legally appropriate because they have “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content
(http://www.firstamendmentstudies.org/wp/pdf/1st_religion_ch3.pdf)
God’s on our money and in our pledge precisely and only
because it doesn’t mean anything.
It’s a devaluation of God in the language of God.
Yuck!

Roman coins name a man God who wasn’t;
American coins name God God,
but with the underlying assumption that it doesn’t matter.
Which is more blasphemous?

Listen carefully.
What Jesus is doing here is so much more
than advising people to be fine upstanding, law-abiding citizens,
and within their obedience of the law of the land to follow God.
No, Jesus is breathtakingly juxtaposing two completely different realities
both of which make claims on us,
and asking which one will we sink ourselves into?
Each one makes some claims on what we will do,
but which one will we allow to claim who we are?
Such that our being—
the story of who we are—
becomes a retelling of that particular story?
Are we the story of Caesar or the story of God?

You give of yourself to gods.
It’s inevitable.
Whether that’s a golden calf,
or Caesar, or money, or Yahweh.
And to the extent you choose idols,
mystery and grace and love are all cheapened—
made shallow,
and so are you.

To the extent you’re in the realm of Caesar—
under the dominion of Caesar,
the world is subordinated to power,
and so are you.

To the extent you invest in money,
the world is commodified—
it’s objectified,
and so are you.

I’m going to take a side step now
into an apparent digression.
I think it’s an apparent digression.
I think this all fits together,
but it may just fit together in my head!

Jim Somerville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church
was asking yesterday,
about a connection between authenticity and vulgarity.
He had just seen a movie and wanted to know why what’s vulgar
is granted an authority and an authenticity in our culture
that is, by in large, denied the church.
If you say it foully, people listen.

And there is much that is so very vulgar in our culture.
I would add that there is much that’s so terribly violent.
There is much that is obscene.
And in each case—you’ve noticed this, I’m sure,
the vulgar, the violent and the obscene are
at least in part defined—no, they are actually to great extent defined—
by pushing the boundaries—
the boundaries of what’s acceptable,
of what’s deemed appropriate,
of what’s permitted and allowed,
of what’s condoned.

Now when those boundaries are pushed,
where do they go?
Well, the point is they’re pushed—
they’re extended, right?
They’re moved further out,
and the next comedian, the next movie, the next advertisement
has to go further.
You’ve seen this before, in those movie series.
In the first movie something bad happens, to start things off.
Well, in the second movie, something worse has to happen—
to be edgy—
to be perceived (and this is important)—
to be perceived as outside the establishment—
to be outside what’s inside the boundaries—
outside what’s accepted, deemed appropriate,
permitted, allowed, condoned.
Because it’s what’s outside that is given an authority—an authenticity—
because there’s apparently insight granted from the outside.

And once you’ve pushed those borders, I might add—
once you’ve extended them,
you don’t get them back.
Not as the norm.
Not as what society will expect anymore.
Only as chosen by the individual—the group.

In our Gospel story,
the context of the story Matthew relates
is how when you push Caesar,
Caesar pushes back.
That tax led to the Great Revolt.
Well the Great Revolt led to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
When you push culture, when you push status quo,
they push back.
They do not protect you from themselves.

In our Exodus story, Moses was pushing the boundaries—
pushing the boundaries of God—
pushing the boundaries of love,
and what we find out,
is that when you push God’s boundaries—when you push love—
God and love give ever more of themselves.
And when it gets dangerous,
God protects you from God.

I think you then find yourself with the authority—
the authenticity
of that outside perspective.
Not because you’ve pushed the borders
of what’s appropriate and acceptable so far out and you’re looking in,
but because you’ve pushed love so far—so deep—so wide,
it’s received you into a whole
that’s hard to fathom.

We, as followers of God,
have too often doubled down on precisely what culture pushes against./
And however important that may be, I tell you,
we are less perceived as against what’s vulgar—
against what’s violent—against what’s obscene,
as we are stodgy, rigid, and judgmental.
We’ve doubled down on what’s being pushed
instead of sinking ever deeper into love,
and that, I believe, has made all the difference.

Here’s the thing: love isn’t edgy.
Not like culture’s options.
Not like vulgar and violent and obscene—
which defines too much of our policy and our politics
and our cultural life.

Love isn’t edgy—
until—
love isn’t edgy until you reach so deep down into it
that you find yourself loving those others don’t.
Love isn’t edgy until you reach so deep down into it
that you find yourself loving those no one else does.

As we move forward—if we move forward—if we move forward,
that will make all the difference.
Are we going to double down against what people are pushing against?
Or are we going to sink ourselves into love?

So go from here to push deeper into love—
deeper into God—
to make a whole our culture cannot comprehend.

What a possibility.

the evolution of foolishness

I remember one Sunday,
probably a few years ago now,
Janet Trockenbrot came up after one particular worship service
and said, with a smile, “Sometimes, you just need to
get it out of your system, don’t you?”
And I was grateful for the smile,
and for the freedom.
And this morning, I confess to you,
I just needed to get this out of my system!
So strap in, hang on, and thank you.

I think we have some idea
that the evolution of foolishness
leads to wisdom.
And it doesn’t.
We have some idea that you grow out of foolishness—
and you don’t.
At least not in Scripture—not in the Bible—
not in the stories of God—not in the truth of God.
Quite the opposite.
There is, rather, a consistency to the foolishness—
a necessary consistency to the foolishness.

We read in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians:
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom,”
and (here’s the thing) it must remain foolish to remain wise.
It must remain foolish in the eyes of the world
to retain the wisdom of God.
Right?

As much as we, as followers of God, might crave
the world’s validation—
the world’s appreciation—
the world’s celebration,
the foolishness would thus be compromised—
inevitably compromised.
It would become wise—
or, God forbid, strategic.
And if it makes sense to the world—
any kind of sense to the world,
how can it then be a part of the not-making-sense of God?

And yet we confess, even as followers of God, who know this,
that we still want things to make sense.

That’s why, on the one hand,
longing for resolution—yearning for vindication,
and not getting it,
we tell stories of the end—capital “E”—
when it will all make some kind of ultimate sense—
some kind of final sense—
because we all know right now it doesn’t.

And why, on the other,
we tell the story of the end that happened in the middle.
that’s another way of talking about Jesus—
his life, his ministry, death and resurrection, right?
God tipping God’s hand, and showing the royal flush to come.

And within our history we have this host of—memories—
I guess that’s the right word—
memories we can’t shake—can’t get out of our minds.
We have these memories
of stories we’ve heard, over and over again, of younger sons
within the context of primogeniture,
in which it’s always supposed to be about the first-born sons—
stories of daughters in a context of patriarchy
in which it’s always supposed to be about the sons—
stories of orphans and widows and aliens—
stories of the poor and the sick—
we have these memories of characters,
not always—rarely, in fact, heroes—
rich, real characters though—
the characters of Scripture.
And it’s not so much that the stories change the context,
as that they are consistent within it.
How foolish is that?!

And we have these memories of some few people
throughout church history
who foolishly thought they mattered
when they really shouldn’t have.
Or people who, equally foolishly, treated people
who shouldn’t have mattered
as if they did.

We may have memories of such people in our own stories—
who loved us when we weren’t loveable—
who forgave us when we were stupid and mean
and rude and so very, very self-centered.

We have these memories—
all these memories that won’t let us go
try as we sometimes might to let them go.
And it occurs to me
that considering the church,
its checkered past,
its monumental failures—
considering the church,
it is the fools who redeem its history.
It’s St. Francis and St. Clare,
Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu.
it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero,
Dorothy Day, Clarence Jordan,
Flannery O’Connor, Howard Thurman,
Martin Luther King, Jr.—
not perfect people by any means,
imperfect as anyone,
but people of that wonderful foolishness—
that prioritization of the least of these,
that rejection of the status quo,
its structures of power
its strictures of the imagination.
It’s the fools who redeem the history of the church—
and who make possible a relevant future with integrity.

Oh, and, well, Jesus—that magnificent fool from Galilee!
He who is perhaps best known for teaching (and living)
the exhortation to not just love those who love you,
to love your neighbor as yourself,
to love your enemies.

What about the resurrection, you might wonder—
here at the end of EasterTide?
Isn’t Jesus best known for his physical, bodily resurrection?

Ah, yes, well, my mind came to a fork in the road this week,
because it occurred to me—
I had an interesting thought with regards to resurrection—
y’all scared now?!
Because on the one hand, how appropriately foolish!
What an insane thing to believe,
a man crucified and dead, and yet alive?
And so, entirely in keeping with the foolishness
that is wisdom, right?
On the other hand though, it’s at least interesting to consider—
this is where my mind wandered and wondered …
and maybe got lost!
It’s at least interesting to consider a physical resurrection,
while certainly foolish to the mind (to what makes sense to us),
would constitute an amazing vindication in the eyes of the world
of God’s foolishness revealed as wisdom—
and so, no longer foolish—
strategic.

My mind came to a fork in the road
where two roads diverged,
and my mind took them both.
It’s been a confusing week!

Consider the profound witness of those who saw the failure
(in the eyes of the world)
of Jesus—
of his life and his mission—his ministry,
saw his humiliation and his death—
who saw no vindication,
but saw commitment,
trust, assurance, faith.
and so, nonetheless,
in spite of their witness,
committed themselves
to his priorities—
to his story.
That would be that crazy consistency within circumstance,
not the transformation of circumstance.

And when we think of the ongoing relevance—
the continuing significance of the church,
in spite of its all too regular shortcomings,
is it honestly the care with which people believe that we consider?
Is it the strict adherence to a particular theology?
The protectiveness of any given ideology?
No. Well, it’s not for me.
Is it even the physically resurrected Jesus
that gives the church its integrity—
honestly? relevantly? practically?
Most of the times, I don’t think so.
It’s the fools—
who live life in the image of Jesus—
who put their lives on the line
because of the life lived so long ago
and the presence of God with us even now.

Now later in 1 Corinthians, Paul will write
“If Christ has not been raised,
your faith is futile and you are still in your sins….
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).

But my mind is still going down that one fork,
and Jesus never preached the cross.
Oh, he preached the consequences of his way of life,
but not the cross—no kind of atonement—
no cross as the means of salvation.
That all came later. That was Paul.
So when we preach Jesus,
do we preach what Jesus preached,
or what others came to preach about Jesus?
Because there’s a significant difference there.

Another fork in the road—
two more divergent roads,
and maybe we need to take both here too—
not privilege one over the other.
Believe both.
Preach both.
Live both.

So in the swirling together of all these memories in our minds
of stories and characters and history,
these two—now four divergent roads—
and some kind of persistent divine foolishness
(I did mention it had been a confusing week, didn’t I?),
what evolves?

How good it has been to explore with you the 20th chapter of John
and to discover different ways of experiencing resurrection,
and so different ways of believing in resurrection.
Because I believe—
and I need to believe—
in resurrection.
But frankly, it’s not just that what I believe
might be different from what someone else believes,
it’s that what I believe is different just about every day.
And there are many days the physical resurrection means little.
And yet while I’ve never encountered the physical manifestation
of the resurrected Jesus,
I absolutely believe that the word of God continues to be made flesh.
I absolutely believe in the living presence of God,
and the resurrection of the story
in the foolishness of the people of God—
the consistency of that wonderful foolishness in history.

But sometimes I need to believe more than I know.
Sometimes I need the assurance of wisdom revealed in foolishness.
Sometimes I need to believe God has shown God’s hand
conclusively, and, already, ultimately—
that the power of violence and fear
never has the upper hand—
never had the upper hand—
that nothing can end the story that ends in love.
Of course Jesus was resurrected.

And I’m tired of the crazy fights.
The history of the church is so sadly and viciously scarred
from factions fighting each other—
and so is the church’s ministry—scarred, that is.
And it’s usually because someone feels
someone else doesn’t believe quite right.
You took the wrong road.
We’re on separate roads. and that won’t work.
Tell that to the folks from John chapter 20!

There’s more integrity to our fights with God—
when the anger and the questions
just get too big for our affirmations.

But in the end you see,
for me,
it’s not about who wins such fights.
It comes down rather to these fools who somehow seem wise,
who hold onto and are held onto by God,
in spite of it all,
who choose love when it makes no sense,
who extend grace when that, by all rights,
should be the last thing on their minds,
and who seem to hold, as well,
the integrity and the future of the church—
precisely in their foolishness.

So we need to resist our resistance
to foolishness—
in order to see the light,
and to see more clearly those who have seen the light—
the light that is the foolishness of love in history.

And, it’s true,
if you stop to think about it.
It’s ludicrous.
It makes absolutely no sense—
whichever way you think about it
to believe in a resurrection—
to believe in such a way of living and loving—
to believe in such a love—
such surprising initiatives of grace.
We really should let it all go,
and yet we can’t—
can’t let it go,
or maybe it’s that it won’t let us go.
And so it keeps us going—
keeps us hoping—
as what we hold on to that holds on to us—
the foolishness swallows us.
Thanks be to God.

Two roads diverged.
I took them both.
And that has made all the difference.
Sometimes, the more we encounter Jesus,
the more we live into Jesus.
Sometimes, the more we live into Jesus,
the more we encounter Jesus.
Sometimes my head believes; sometimes my heart,
and what my heart believes, my head doesn’t,
and what my head believes, my heart doesn’t.
And it’s all the same story.
I don’t believe,
and I do.
I am the fullness of the Thomas story—
all the time,
doubting and confessing, confessing and doubting.
I am all of John chapter 20,
and I need my community who stays in conversation—
who sometimes believes for me
so I can tell these stories
and follow these roads—
that I might believe—
that we might believe—
in a story big enough
to include us when we’re struggling
and doubting and angry
and thinking and feeling and hurting and needing—
that we might have life
in the name of the one
who foolishly lived gracefully enough
and foolishly loved big enough
to include us all all the time.
Now that’s good news, isn’t it?

Which leads me to this question:
how do you plan foolishness?
How do we plan foolishness?
How do we incorporate it into our ministry plan—
into our worship and into our budget?
If it’s that important to our integrity and our future?
Because it is—
whatever road you’re on, right?
Now here’s the line item with which we’re going to be foolish.
What does that even mean?
What would it look like?
What do you think?
It’s tricky.
Because I’m not talking about foolishness
as some sort of a grand gesture—
not talking strategic foolishness,
but foolishness as an implication of our faith—
as a consequence of our loving—
as an incarnation of Jesus—
a manifestation of God—
as resurrection truth.

And however we get there,
whatever we mean and believe,
today—
whatever we meant and believed yesterday—
whatever we will mean and believe tomorrow,
foolishness evolves,
I have come to realize,
not out of its own foolishness,
but into my living.
What folly is this?

Cue music: Muse, “Madness
and Powerpoint with lyrics.

Amidst the lyrics and music:
regular typeface, muse lyrics,
bold typeface type, my spoken word,
italic typeface, words included in the Powerpoint presentation.

(Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma…)

[What madness is this?
the foolishness of God,
the foolishness of love,
the foolishness that is truly, and finally, wisdom.
]

I—
I can’t get these memories
(St. Francis, St. Clare)
out of my mind,
(Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr.)
[memories of foolishness]
and some kind of madness
(Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. — Jesus)
has started to evolve.
(I really only love God as much
as I love the person I love least. — Dorothy Day
)
[in the lives of those who entrust their lives
to love
]
(Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma…)

I—
(There is something in every one of you
that waits and listens
for the sound of the genuine in yourself.
It is the only true guide you will ever have.
And if you cannot hear it,
you will all of your life spend your days
on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.
— Howard Thurman
)
I tried so hard to let You go,
(God does not love some ideal person,
but rather human beings just as we are,
not some ideal world, but rather the real world.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer
)
[Wouldn’t that make sense, God,
to let You go?
]
but some kind of madness
(Let us love, not in word or speech,
but in truth and action. 1 John 3:17-18
)
is swallowing me whole—
(I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts,
there can be no more hurt, only more love. — Mother Teresa
)
[a baptism as it were]
yeah.
[of faith—into faith—in foolishness]
(Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma…)

I have finally seen the light,
(Judging others makes us blind,
whereas love is illuminating.— Dietrich Bonhoeffer
)
[what really matters—
what truly and ultimately matters
]
and I have finally realized
(I have decided to stick with love.
Hate is too great a burden to bear. — Martin Luther King, Jr.
)
[the evolution of foolishness]
what you mean.
(We are made for loving. If we don’t love,
we will be like plants without water. — Desmond Tutu
)
[Love. That’s it.
That’s what You mean.
There’s nothing else.
There’s nothing more.
]

Ooh oh oh

[And as much as things may not change,
everything does
]

And now
I need to know is this real love,
(Let us not tire of preaching love:
it is the force that will overcome the world. — Oscar Romero
)
[Something to live into? to lean into? to trust?]
or is it just madness
(Love and ever more love is the only solution
to every problem that comes up. — Dorothy Day
)
[craziness? absurd? dangerous?]
keeping us afloat?
(Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma…)
[To what then do I entrust my living?]

And when I look back
at all the crazy fights we had,
(It is not enough to limit your love
to your own nation, to your own group.
You must respond with love even to those outside of it. . . .
— Clarence Jordan
)
[I mean consider Your followers through history!]
like some kind of madness
was taking control, yeah.
(Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
)
[and yet … and yet …]
(Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma…)

And now,
I have finally
seen the light,
(Children know by instinct that hell
is an absence of love …. — Flannery O’Connor
)
[illuminating truth—illuminating me]
And I
have finally realized
[in my evolution of foolishness]
what you need.
(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 help?
— 1 John 3:17-18
)
[You need me to love.
You need me to trust love—
to live into love—
lean into it.
]

Mmmm…

[You need people
who will risk love—
risk that crazy transformative foolishness.
You need people who will prioritize love—
will prioritize other people as those they love—
creation as that which we love.
Within life as it is,
you need me to love.
]

(We have never preached violence, except the violence of love, which left Christ nailed to a cross, the violence that we must each do to ourselves to overcome our selfishness and such cruel inequalities among us. The violence we preach is not the violence of the sword, the violence of hatred. It is the violence of love, of brotherhood,the violence that wills to beat weapons into sickles for work. — Oscar Romero)

(Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma…)

But now I have finally seen the end (finally seen the end),
(The final word is love.
— Dorothy Day
)
[And it’s love; the end is love]
and I’m not expecting you to care
(Let us not forget: we are a pilgrim church,
subject to misunderstanding, to persecution,
but a church that walks serene,
because it bears the force of love.
— Oscar Romero
)
(expecting You to care),
but I have finally seen the light (finally seen the light),
(Love your neighbor as yourself. — Jesus)
[illuminating all]
and I have finally realized (realized)—
(If there were love of neighbor there would be no terrorism,
no repression, no selfishness,
none of such cruel inequalities in society …. — Oscar Romero
)
I need to love.
[There it is. I need to love—
not in word and speech but in truth and action.
]
I need to love.
(The measure of a Christian is not in the height
of his or her grasp but in the depth of her or his love.
— Clarence Jordan
)
[I need to love.]

Come to me.
(you who are weary and burdened …. — Jesus)
Trust in a dream.
(I have a dream that my four little children
will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged
by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
)
Come and rescue me.
(This is the message we have heard from the beginning:
love one another. — 1 John 3:11
)
Yes I know, I can be wrong,
(For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?
Do not even the tax collectors do the same? — Jesus
)
[It is madness.]
maybe I’m too headstrong.
(Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister,
is still in the darkness. — 1 John 2:9-10
)
[Please God, don’t let me blow this.]

Our love is
(Love has no awareness of merit or demerit;
it has no scale… Love loves; this is its nature.
— Howard Thurman
)
(Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma…)
[All love, really, is
by definition …
]
madness.

And may it be so.

(I added Howard Thurman quotes to the manuscript
after a church member suggested him
as a worthy example of loving foolishness …
and baptist to boot! Thanks, Kathy!)

protecting the stranger

Leviticus 19:33-34
Deuteronomy 10:12-22

One of the things we work on at home—
as a family—
try and work on at home as a family—
on a fairly regular basis, actually,
is the tendency for deflection
of blame and responsibility.

Because in cases of misbehavior,
disrespect, loss of temper and control,
in cases of things said that shouldn’t have been said,
or things done that shouldn’t have been done,
it is, more often than not “someone else’s fault!”
Even when that makes no sense whatsoever!
Or in cases of chores or requests for help,
“That’s someone else’s job!”
“It’s someone else’s turn!”
It’s not my responsibility.

It drives everyone in the house crazy
when I do all that!

And I’m hoping we all continue the process—
suspect we will need to all continue the process
of growing out of what is essentially immature—
in order to grow up—
and accept responsibility.

Is that a familiar refrain to you too?
To parents, I’m sure—
anyone around children on a regular basis, really—
or anyone who needs to mature, regardless of age, right?
But more generally?

Read the newspaper much?
Listen to talk radio?
Follow politics?
Listen to much preaching?
Take a moment to think of just how much blame
gets thrown around
in the apparently usually validated hope
that it will not be recognized
as the blatant abdication of responsibility it is.
Whether that’s you know, because the 1% are buying our country,
or the poor are milking it,
or illegal aliens are exploiting it.
Whether that’s because of the current administration
or the previous one,
or because the devil made me do it, don’t you know?

And it’s not always people who are blamed.
Big business is often blamed—
though darn it! I keep forgetting they’re people now too.
It’s still not always people.
How often do we say “I just don’t have time for that right now.”
I have a friend who gets particularly irritated with that excuse.
“You choose not to make time for that,” she’s quick to correct.

And I’m guessing she might have an equal disdain
for sayings such as “Well the deck was just stacked against me.”
Or “now just isn’t the time,” or “the stars just weren’t aligned”—
any abrogation, really, of personal responsibility and initiative.

How much more we could accomplish,
just imagine,
if our conversation were modeled more along the lines of:
here’s the problem—
or maybe it’s not a problem—here’s the issue.
(That’s usually the easy part—
usually pretty obvious),
but what if the next part of the conversation were then,
and here’s how I contribute to it—the problem—the circumstances.
Here’s what I can do differently within my circumstances.
And here’s what I commit to doing differently.

Now that’s the mature language of having grown up.
“Don’t want to blame the rich for what they got.
Don’t point a finger at the poor for what they have not”
(Amos Lee, “Freedom,” Blue Note Records, 2006).
Where do you think we’re supposed to get that these days?
Where is that modeled and taught?
In the home? Sure, hopefully.
Though it assumes a level of health and maturity
we certainly can’t take for granted, right?
In school?
Sure, again, hopefully.
Though it sure is easy to blame the teachers,
the parents, the principal, the system, the curriculum.
In music?!
Our culture, in general though,
does not acknowledge responsibility
as much as it seeks to avoid responsibility.

Maybe we can learn it in church.
That is the model of our faith liturgy, you see.
Because in the faith language of our liturgy,
we look to ourselves, not others
(as often as the church has gotten that wrong).
We talk about the awareness of sin
(the problem—the circumstances),
followed by confession
(here’s how I contribute to the problem—the circumstances),
repentance (here’s what I commit to doing differently—
to work toward different circumstances).
and you know what follows that—
in the liturgy?
Words of assurance.

And in our Old Testament texts this morning
that come from the books of the law—
fundamental writings to the Jewish and Christian faith traditions—
fundamental to an understanding of God,
and fundamental to an understanding
of God’s expectations of God’s followers,
we are explicitly told those we’re most likely to blame
we are to protect and love and value.
Love the stranger. Love the alien.
Protect them, it reads in our psalm.

The Leviticus text is embedded in a section
that begins with God telling Moses to tell the people
“Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:1).
And the Deuteronomy passage on seeking justice
for widows and orphans and loving the stranger
follows the rhetorical question: what does God require of us?
To fear God, to walk in the ways of God, to love God
and to serve God with all your hear and all your soul
keeping God’s commandments (Deuteronomy 10:12-13a).

It’s a big deal.
One scholar identified 36 separate warnings
throughout the Old Testament of the obligation
of the people of God to aliens, widows, and orphans
(Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. The Book of Leviticus:
Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections

in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary
in Twelve Volumes: Volume I
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1994] 1135).

So amidst life, we’re to be as God.
Amidst the problems of life—
all the various circumstances,
we’re to be as God.

Here’s the thing.
I think we’re generally pretty good at recognizing problems.
We sure have enough of them!
And we know we need more words of assurance
in our lives and in our culture.
What we’ve lost is the middle part.
The confession and the repentance.
The work.
The taking responsibility.
Which is the being as God part, right?
And why have we lost the middle part?
Well, it’s the hard part—
the hard part that requires so much of us.

And that’s the crux of it, I do believe.
For our culture’s such a big fan of easy.
Oh, we talk in terms of convenience or freedom—
potential,
but it’s all too often, really, about easy—
about not hard—
not challenging.

And, as a matter of fact, it is true,
in difficult circumstances—
challenging, dangerous circumstances,
it’s far easier to blame someone else—
to shift the responsibility to someone else
(or to something else).

It’s easier to blame the alien
and the stranger—
the ones not like us (whoever they be).
It’s their fault.
The violence in our culture, their fault,
they import it—
along with the drugs and all the other crime
and the weird music.
Our economic woes—
their fault.
They exploit our health system.
They take our jobs—
we’re educating their children
which leads to lower educational standards
because they won’t learn English,
or keeps our kids from their rightful place
because they’re too focused on discipline or study—
or meet some quota, right?
They drive property values down—
or keep us from the property we’d have if they didn’t—
make the roads dangerous—
driving their overloaded bad cars in convoys across the country.

How much easier to blame,
than to admit we’ve completely messed things up.
But if we think there’s something to our faith,
to our sacred texts, to our understanding of God,
then don’t we have to pay attention to that?

Throughout Lent, we’ve been identifying killing sin—
deadly sin.
And have you noticed that a good bit of that deadly sin
is pretty thoroughly integrated into our culture?

There’s a fairly explicit contrast set up in God’s word.
And it’s really so much less
a contrast between what we should and shouldn’t do,
than it is between
the way things are and the way God is.

We have a culture that trusts in violence,
and a faith that calls us to trust in God.
Who you going to listen to?
We have a Supreme Court that says “Listen to the money
and treat it as a person,”
while we have a God who says,
“Listen to the poor and disadvantaged.”
Who you going to listen to?
We have a culture that values stuff,
and a God who says not to worship anything made with hands.
A culture that says it’s all about the individual self,
that it’s all about winners and losers,
and a God who says we’re all in this together.
Who you going to listen to?
We have a church that to great extent prioritizes condemnation,
and a God who is grace.
Who you going to listen to?

For in just such a culture, we say,
we’re called to be about redeeming the world—
transforming it not being conformed to it.
We’re to be about reshaping the story of culture
by clinging to a story—a truth—that reshapes us.
And it’s not easy.
It’s hard.
But it’s fulfilling.
It makes for a rich and abundant life.
It makes for love.

Winning the blame game, you see,
has nothing whatsoever
to do with addressing, let alone fixing our problems.
And until we stop playing the blame game—
and allowing others to play the blame game,
no one will grow up—no one will mature,
and nothing will get fixed—
whether that’s in our homes with our kids,
whether that’s us,
whether that’s our leaders.
“Freedom is seldom found
by beating someone [else] to the ground”
(Amos Lee).

To be faithful—and healthy
and mature (growing), we must acknowledge,
that we are responsible for our problems,
and we are responsible for fixing them.
And that in order to do that, we need to change.
We need to change whatever it is about what we take for granted—
whatever it is that is creating—
whatever it is that is sustaining our problems.

Worship and community are there to sustain us—
to challenge us—to encourage us.
Not trying to figure out who we can blame
to whom we can shift responsibility
while thus continuing to ignore the fact
that the real problems goes unaddressed.

Now none of that is easy.
But it’s healthy.

Religion that makes of following God something easy
isn’t healthy.
Because life isn’t easy,
and if you think it is,
then someone’s footing your bill.
And that’s not right. And if it’s not right,
you have to put it right.”
(Tim Minchin, “Naughty” from Matilda
RSC: Matilda [Stratford, 2010]).

Southern writer Flannery O’Connor,
in one of her letters, noted that
“All human nature vigorously resists grace
because grace changes us,
and the change is painful.”
And grace is the change, to which we’re most often called.
Grace is the repentance most needed—
grace the reality that will most make a redemptive difference
in our lives and in our world.

This is the language of maturing—of growing up.
It’s the language of health.
And I believe, at the heart of our faith
is a mature health—
the recognition and affirmation
of the difficult work of taking responsibility
and making the personal commitment required
for a different tomorrow—a better tomorrow—
a more grace-filled tomorrow.

We partake regularly in our worship of a symbolic meal.
It is, in part, recognition of the need for sustenance—
a different kind of sustenance.
For the way we need to be—are called to be—
is sustained by nurture other than our culture’s.
It’s not an easy meal—
it cost Jesus a lot.

He asks for it to cost us something too.
Because the commitment to live love
is the hard way to grow up—
to not blame—
to take responsibility.
The rich, abundant way,
but the hard way.

So hear his voice this morning at our table:
“Eat this to remember—
not just how I lived but how to live.
Eat this for sustenance in thus living—
symbolic of the sustaining worship and community
we consistently need.
Eat this to remember what I paid, yes,
but not to dwell on that as much as you too often do,
but to ask yourself
is such a living—
and the reality such a living begins to shape—
is it worth your life too?”

do we know enough?

Daniel 1:8-17
1 Corinthians 6:12; 9:24-27

Throughout Lent
and our consideration of deadly sins,
we’ve been referencing Scripture
as we consider what sins remain deadly
to us and to our world.
I hope and I pray
that as we’ve touched on such issues as
how much death our culture fosters—
as we’ve touched on consumerism and materialism
and our hyper-individualism,
the ever growing disparity between rich and poor,
you have some sense—
you do have some sense of their deadliness.

In our culture and our theology, sin is too often personal—
part of that hyper-individualism.
Sin’s not about the norms and values of our culture
that seek to shape us and our children
in images not so much like God.
No, sin is what we confess to in private,
and thus, too often, never have to deal with in public.
Sin is not the way things are,
it’s the things we do we shouldn’t—
which makes of sin entirely too small—
too inconsequential a truth.

So as we’ve touched on these cultural realities,
I hope and pray you have had some sense
of their deadliness as sin,
and I hope and pray as well,
that in the ongoing conversation of our worship,
you’ve been given cause to consider
how our faith might offer an antidote to what’s so deadly—
how our faith offers such an important resource
for living in our world—
truth that is relevant, powerful, timely,
and potentially redemptive—
this can save us.

This morning, in our Old Testament text,
we read about Daniel refusing the rich foods and wines
of the royal Babylonian court in order to remain
healthy and alert.
We can only imagine what all he would refuse
driving down our neon-lit streets!
He then proposes to the worried palace master
whom the king had made responsible for the exiled Jews’ welfare—
responsible for the royal rations allocated them,
that his health and that of his companions
be compared after ten days of eating vegetables and drinking water
to the health of those who indulged in the richer diet.

At a very practical level, we know,
beyond any shadow of doubt—
we know, supported by scientific evidence and research—
we know that a diet heavy on fruits and vegetables
with lots of water to drink
is healthy.
We know that eating locally grown—
we know that eating less sugar and less salt,
less saturated fat, less of that corn syrup that’s in just about everything,
fewer processed foods,
eating out less,
eating smaller portions of carbohydrates, meats and sweets,
is healthier.
We know all this. We all know this.

Do we know enough?
Evidently not.
Or knowing isn’t enough.
Even supported by scientific evidence and research—
even knowing the stakes.

The Bible advocates the cultivation of a discipline
that promotes health—
physical, biological health,
but it’s a discipline,
in our culture of indulgence and extravagance,
that promotes health at a deeper level as well.
Our need for—expectation of—assumption of—
defense of—hope for—investment in—
abundance masks the more profound truth
of a fundamental fear—
the fear of not having enough—
the fear of scarcity—
a fear stoked in just about every advertisement we see
that itself masks the fear of not being enough.

I checked.
According to The New York Times,
the average person is exposed up to 5,000 ads a day.
This was back in 2007,
and it’s gotten nothing but worse since then.
There are, of course, some that dispute that figure,
suggesting it’s much much lower.
More conservative estimates range through the hundreds.
But I don’t doubt the thousands.
Buy this and be well.
And the consistency of the repetitive claim belies the promise.

In our Epistle texts, Paul notes
that we should not do everything we can do.
In his words, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.”
We should not do everything we can.
That’s about as close to sacrilege in our culture as you can get.
And it’s back to that idea of some kind of discipline
that promotes health.
Again, more than just physical, biological health—
some kind of cultural health.

We should not eat all we can.
Should not drink all we can.
Should not buy all we can.
Should not do all we can.
There’s more that’s legal than that’s right.
There’s more we’re free to do than we should do.
But in our vigorous defense of freedoms,
we don’t want to talk about the need for limits
(or we’re selective in that to which we’re willing to apply limits).

I am often critical of business—particularly big business.
Have you noticed?
I’m really not anti-business.
I’m anti obscene greed.
I’m anti profit over any and everything else.
And business lacks the same disciplines we all do.
They’re people too, after all, right? According to our Supreme Court.

That’s not to say there aren’t some businesses
(as there are some people)
who have the perspective and the strength of will
to cultivate this kind of discipline we’re talking about today.
“In October 1994, … a consortium of semi-conductor companies
volunteered to give up (return, relinquish, give back)
a $90 million-a-year federal subsidy.
The consortium, Sematech, was created seven years earlier
to encourage U.S. production of semiconductors.
As a result, it began to produce them,
and by 1994 the future of the industry was assured.
So Semtatech decided to stop the subsidy
on the principle that they did not need it anymore”
(Michael Schut, editor, Money & Faith: the search for enough
[Denver: Morehouse Education Resources, 2008] 39).

Do we know enough?
Not always.
Or knowing isn’t enough.
But sometimes it is. Sometimes it is.

Paul goes on in his letter to the Corinthians
to later reference the discipline of the athlete—
the self-control required to excel.

And to some extent we understand the need to sacrifice
in order to succeed—
at least we say we do,
and maybe intellectually we do

Many of us followed the Olympics this past winter.
Many of us follow the Ravens or the Orioles,
the Blast or some other team,
and we have some sense of the regimen
elite athletes have to follow—
what they go through in order to excel.
Right?
The strict diet.
The hours of exercise.
The physical drills.
And the right balance of food and exercise and rest and practice.

We read horror stories of those who try and take short cuts.
Steroids.
Eating disorders.
Injuries.
Surgeries.
But we also know that short cuts are dreadfully tempting, don’t we?
And athletes, like businesses, are just people,
like you and like me,
some with healthy discipline. Some not.

And it’s not just sports, of course.
We know what it takes to succeed in music, don’t we?
Practice, right?
Lots and lots of practice.
To succeed in school—
work, right?
Study.
It’s not just going to happen.
To succeed at work?
Put in the hours—
maintaining—this is tricky—
some sense of of a healthy balance.

I think I’ve suggested before
the value of considering
the discipline of becoming me—of becoming you—
the danger of assuming it just happens.
Something does.
Something just happens,
But is the me who just happens
the me I want to be?
Or is the me I want to be
one carefully considered?
Shaped with self-control and discipline?

And there are some people
who have the perspective and the strength of will
to cultivate this kind of discipline we’re talking about today.
But what about the many more who don’t?
After all, how many elite athletes are there
compared to the population as a whole?
How many superb musicians?
Is it legitimate—
is it appropriate to talk about limits
within our freedoms
for those who don’t know how to live within them?

Herman Daly, an economist with years of service at the World Bank,
talks as many others do of ratios in earning,
what is sometimes called “limited inequality.”
Daly points out that “the military and the civil service in this country
both earn at a ratio of around ten to one:
the highest paid member of the military makes no more
than ten times the lowest paid member.
In academic circles the ratio is around seven to one ….
These ratios are in sharp contrast to CEO’s salaries—
the chair of General Motors versus the assembly line auto worker ….”
(Schut, 144)
To say nothing of Hollywood and professional sports.

We protect the freedom of people to make as much as they can.
Joe Flacco makes more than he needs or deserves.
But he makes what the market gave him, right?
And how dare we propose even the idea of imposing limits?
That’s the question, isn’t it?
Though I think our question, as followers of God,
as respecters of Scripture as teacher and guide,
ought be, how dare we not?

“Money is one of the most common subjects in the entire Bible.
Jesus spoke about it frequently. Opinions differ
as to the number of parables in the Bible.
In one count of 43 parables, 23 (or 62%) refer to money and possessions.
One of every seven verses in the Synoptic Gospels,
and one out of 10 in the four Gospels deals with money and/or possessions.
In the Bible there are 500 references to prayer,
slightly fewer than 500 dealing with faith,
but more than 2000 verses deal with money and possessions”
(Eugene Grimm, quoted in Schut, 39).

We are doing such a good job,
as the church in general,
of making peripheral to our living
what was central to Jesus’,
and of making central to our faith,
what was peripheral to Jesus’.

And the more we make what was central to Jesus
peripheral to our lives as individuals and as churches,
the more peripheral becomes our witness
as christians and as church in the world.

I’m always simultaneously tickled and embarrassed
when someone other than a follower of God
in the way of Jesus
articulates what I believe the church should be saying
so much more clearly and directly than the church tends to.
The English rock and new wave band, the Fixx
released a song in 1991 called “How Much Is Enough?”
that included these lyrics:
“Good enough’s not good enough
Don’t complain that you’ve got it tough
With all you have your life’s a bore
Can’t relax you want so much more
Blind needs won’t set you free
Can’t you see that
Time is slipping away?
But I got to say
How much is enough when your soul is empty?
How much is enough in the land of plenty?
When you have all you want and you still feel nothing
How much is enough?
(“How Much Is Enough?”
written by Ashley Woodman Hall, Cy Curnin, Scott Cutler
Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group, EMI Music Publishing)

Now please hear this carefully,
I don’t know how to tell anyone when enough’s enough.
I don’t think that’s anyone’s place.
Because we don’t know, do we,
who’s supporting parents, for example.
Who has medical bills.
We don’t know what all goes into meeting the needs of children—
of providing for our childrens’ futures—
how much is enough.
Can there ever be enough to feel like enough—
to feel like we’ve provided them the security we want to?
But that’s not the best gift we have to give them, is it?
That’s not a gift we can give them—security.
More important is the assurance—
a confidence in their sufficiency—their blessedness—
our love for them.

So it’s not my place to say this is enough for anyone else,
but I think it is my place, as minister, as preacher,
to suggest that our faith promotes a discipline
that requires an ongoing assessment
do I know enough?

Novelist, poet, essayist, cultural critic,
environmental activist, farmer,
Wendell Berry, who said in an interview:
“I’m not a Baptist in any formal way.
I go to the Baptist church ….
I am a person who takes the Gospel seriously,
but I have had trouble conforming my thoughts to a denomination.”
Wendell Berry writes, “The great obstacle is simply this:
the conviction that we cannot change
because we are dependent upon what is wrong.”
Now I’ve heard that before.
I’ve thought that before.
But here’s what makes Wendell Berry Wendell Berry.
He goes on to state:
“But that is the addict’s excuse,
and we know that it will not do”
(Wendell Berry, quoted in Schut, 11).

Part of our faith is supposed to be about helping each other
cultivate the discipline of recognizing enough—
knowing it’s a moving, changing target,
and then help each other cultivate the discipline
of, once having recognized enough,
to then say (and mean) enough.
Because just knowing is not enough!
It starts by saying this is what we talk about.
This is appropriately on the table.
It continues with us deliberately modeling the discipline of enough
in various realms of life.
Steve Nichols was telling me about the healthier snacks
he keeps in his office, and I can learn from him.
The WEE committee has had off and on conversation
about healthier snacks.
But it’s also about enough screen time,
and that’s not just kids and TV and video games,
but parents and iPads and phones and computers.
Enough stuff, enough work.
And healthy is more involved—more complicated—
requires more of us—
isn’t as easy.
But we’re not called to the easy life.
We’re called to reject a good life defined by easy—
to reject an abundant life defined by stuff.
We’re called to a good life—an abundant life
defined by the presence of God with us along the way.

We confessed earlier
to not knowing the truth, the depth and possibility of enough.
Hear now words of assurance.
Yesterday at Margie’s memorial service,
I was struck in both Joanne’s words (Gerri’s sister)
and Dennis’ (Joanne’s husband’s)
how little they spoke of stuff and even events,
and so much more about conversations
and a way of relating—a way of loving.
Margie knew enough.
That’s why we gather in community.

So my name is John. And I’m an addict—
part of an addicted society—
addicted to stuff and to more,
and I need your help
to live healthier—
to make the better decisions I can’t make on my own.

And that’s enough
from me.

we gather in worship

Our God,

we gather
in worship—
in Your presence,
and in each other’s,
to be reminded—
amidst all the trials and temptations of living—
and amidst all that makes life just sometimes so hard—
to be reminded to keep choosing
to live in Your way,
to be reminded of the richness and the wonder
of life in Your way,
the abundance and the joy—

to be led in that way,
through example of biblical story
and shared witness,

and to be sustained in that way
in word and liturgy,
in prayer—
in the comfort we receive in the midst of it all—
the comfort and the reassurance—
in and through all the love—
Your love and the love of those around us—

making a new tomorrow possible—
a different tomorrow—
a more grace-filled tomorrow

in Jesus’ name,
amen.