Wonderings and Reflections:
Jesus wants to know what folks are saying about him. And the disciples say: They think you are the ones from the past who they have heard and learned about: Elijah, Jeremiah---or maybe even that dude down at the river who folks are talking about: John the Baptist.
Then Jesus leans in---getting intimate with those who follow him and Jesus asks: But who do YOU say that I am?
When it comes to our faith, when we are asked to explain what we believe or think---we often fall back onto what we have been taught---dredging up those phrases and answers from our catechisms, our Sunday school classes or our prayers. So often that question: What do you believe? Who is Jesus to you? Kind of makes us freeze. “Oh no!” we think, “I didn’t know I was going to have to answer that question.”
Or worse yet, we think: “My faith is private; people shouldn’t ask me that question.”
But, Beloved, our faith isn’t private. Now, it may be personal, but faith—by the very living example we have in Jesus and the truth we know in the Living Word---faith is communal, collective---not private. Faith is something that is to be shared; yes, in deed and action, but sometimes folks, God desires we use our words, our stories. God desires that we answer the question: Who do you say that I am? not only from learned knowledge, but from our lived experience.
This requires that we mature from simply reading and knowing about God to actually knowing God, having God as a companion, bringing our vulnerable and authentic selves into this relationship with the divine instead of just our spankin’ clean, decked out in church clothes, spit-polished versions of ourselves.
From this real, living relationship---a relationship that is full of doubt, questions, struggles, and a range of emotions---we then have stories to share. Sharing who we know this living God to be in our very real lives.
Who do you say that I am?
Maya Angelou once wrote: “Do the best you can until you know better. When you know better, do better.” Knowing God helps me to know better---and then to do better. That’s why I follow Jesus. Jesus is the lens through which I gaze upon God, learning a better way of life, of being. Jesus is so many things for me.
Jesus is the One who catches me. Many of you have heard these tales, so indulge me: When I was 18, almost 19, I found out that Murray and I were expecting our first child. But we were not yet married, and being our younger selves, uncertain of what to do. I left college for a semester and moved back home, and Murray and I ended up taking a break in our relationship---both of us struggling. You know, I was the priest’s kid, so having your priest’s daughter come home from college, pregnant and unmarried, isn’t the ideal situation. But this faith community of St. Anskar’s in Hartland, Wisconsin rallied around me. They loved me, gave me jobs babysitting their kids, even offered to be my labor coach. Now, my oldest sister was actually my coach, but think about how beautiful this offer was: this person knowing I was young, a first-time mom, probably afraid: this person said: I have done this before, I have been in that moment---I will help you if you need me. Now, that Beloved, that’s the love of Jesus. This community was the living Body of Christ and caught me when I was stumbling and struggling and afraid. Jesus is the One who catches me.
Jesus is the One who comforts and strengthens me. When our fourth and final child, Abe, was born prematurely, he couldn’t breathe on his own. He had to have oxygen; in fact, he was blue. And we didn’t know on that day what other consequences there may be to his arriving 6 weeks early. Lots of possibilities were mentioned: cerebral palsy, blindness, brain bleeds----all overwhelming to hear in that moment. Abe was rushed to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, also known as the NICU. I didn’t even get to hold him. Later that night, Murray brought our other three children to meet their baby brother and then they all went home after what had been a long and anxious 24+ hours for all of us. Then I was in my room, alone---looking at the psalms in my Bible for….something….while the tears flowed and the fear rumbled. I was saying over and over: Help me, Jesus, help me. I was so afraid; I couldn’t even summon up the courage to ask the questions of the nurses that I had about Abe because I was afraid of the answers. And then, Beloved, then Jesus walked into my room. And warmth filled the air. Jesus sat next to me on my bed, took my hand, looked me in the eyes and said: Everything’s going to be all right, Jane. I promise. Everything will be all right. And then Jesus was gone. And so was my fear. My tears stopped. Calm and peace invaded me. And I asked to be taken to the NICU where I asked all my questions. Because I knew---whatever happened, however this played out---here was this baby blessing and we would be okay. Jesus is my comfort and my rock.
But even more than that, Jesus is the One who gives me the breath and the desire to move forward---through tough times, through slow times, through boring, everyday times and through the glorious, once-in-a-lifetime times. Because Jesus comes to me in all those times through the folks I meet, you the Beloved Community, the neighbors we have, the students I’ve known, the colleagues with whom I partner. My children, grandchildren, and sisters bring me joy, laughter, and friendship. Through humanity with whom I rub elbows, Jesus keeps giving me breath, inspiration, and the hope and desire to progress, move forward and to take the next step.
You know, Beloved, the church often says that marriage is holy, a sacrament even, because in the covenantal relationship of marriage, we see the kind of love that God feels for us---particularly in the Christ. This sacrificial love that puts the other in the forefront, that shares the last cookie or runs to the store because you forgot something. This love who listens to your complaints and your triumphs, who laughs at your ridiculousness and forgives your momentary cruelty. This love that refuses to give up, even when it gets really hard, who chooses you again and again and again. When you have morning breath and bedhead, this love that still kisses you good morning and says: I love you. And says the words you need to hear in the moment you need to hear them; this love that loves all of you—even the not so wonderful bits---this love I know in Murray, my husband. And I can say the same thing about my momma---she loves me as God loves me. Who do you say that I am? Because of our marriage and the love of Murray, because of the love my mom has given to me since even before I was born, I know Jesus to be my home---no matter the house or town or state in which I live. How blessed I am to have this love, this love that is the nest from which I can fly high and this love to which I can return home when I need rest.
And Jesus is the One who challenges me. Jesus is the neighbor who tells me the story of their life of living on the economic edge, trying to move out from prison of addiction, but finding very few lifelines being thrown to them because we don’t understand why the first chance, the second rehab hospital, the losing their home and their job wasn’t enough to make them want to change. Because, of course, they want a different life, but addiction is a demon that is relentless and strong, and more than we’d like to admit: sometimes unbeatable. This neighbor, my friend, asks me to see outside the experience I have known---to listen to a reality that is foreign to me---and challenges me to that command: Whatever you do for the least valued of these…..love your neighbor…..feed my sheep.
Who do you say that I am? All those Sunday School classes, and Vacation Bible Schools, and seminary courses taught me many things. But none of those book answers are my personal answer to who Jesus is. Those teachings focused my sight and fine-tuned my hearing and sharpened my heart and mind so that I can know the living Christ---the God right in front of me---the God who dwells in humanity. Jesus died on the cross. But the Christ still lives. And the Christ isn’t a disembodied spirit floating around and descending from time to time. The Christ is the embodied presence of God here on earth in my neighbor, in my family and friends, in this church, in the one who stands before me and the one who sits next to me. Incarnation.
These are some of my stories. What are yours? Do you know them? Have you taken the time to look back and see where God has been present? Beloved, we are called to know our stories and then to live them out again in other people’s lives. Tell your story, tell the story, this great love story of us and God, this loving, life-giving, liberating God who refuses to let any of us go.
Who do YOU say that I am?
“Go….proclaim the good news: The Kingdom of heaven has come near.”
A done deal---the Kingdom is near, God’s Kingdom, right here and right now—not some far away place or time----not after we are dead and buried----but here, Beloved, now. This might be hard to believe during a pandemic, during this time when the ugly reality of the divisive and prejudiced nature of our nation is being revealed, but it is still true, still Gospel, still the Good News: The Kingdom of heaven has come near.”
What does that Kingdom look like? How will we know Kingdom Living when we see it? Friends, there’s no mystery here; the Christ tells us: “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.”
Cure the sick: Wear masks, wash your hands regularly, maintain safe physical distance. We do these things to keep others healthy and safe, particularly the vulnerable. Such simple things to do, especially after 430,000 deaths in the world; over 117,000 dead in the United States and rising toward 1,000 in our state of Wisconsin. In a matter of months. Surely, these simple tasks: keeping a safe distance, washing hands, and wearing masks in public are things we can collectively do to slow the rise of these death rates. Right now, in this pandemic, this is how we can cure the sick.
Beloved, by eradicating poverty, demanding a living minimum wage for all, ensuring food security, ending homelessness, companioning those with addiction and mental health issues, protecting our immigrant and refugee siblings who live oppressed lives in the shadows---even while they are working to provide for our food and economic structure--- when we free our siblings from poverty, from hunger and homelessness, from fear and inadequate or non-existent healthcare---we raise the dead.
Cleanse the lepers, Jesus tells us. While we may no longer fear leprosy as we once did, we still treat too many people as the outcast and the marginalized. But, I don’t think those who are outcast and marginalized are the ones with the disease; I think those of us who have status and privilege and who don’t work toward justice for all are the ones who are sick, unhealthy, and diseased. Just this week our trans-siblings have had their healthcare protections in our nation eroded. When we use our voice and our political influence to pushback whenever those who have not been fully protected and welcomed in our society are threatened, we cleanse ourselves of our human tendency to marginalize and ostracize those with whom we are uncomfortable. And Beloved, there’s still a lot of cleansing to do.
We are feeling and seeing the need for cleansing with every protest, every cry from another black mother or father who has lost a child to racism. With every new lynching of a person of color, every blind eye turned to the poverty and lack of clean water for our indigenous and native siblings, every time we allow women to be subjugated and be stripped of her right to make decisions about her own body, every time we allow racism, prejudice, bigotry, hatred and fear to speak---we have demons among us. And these demons are given life by us: by our mindsets, our privilege, our indifference, our laws, our mores and customs, by our systems and our governing rules. And we, those of us with status and privilege, authority and power---we are the ones who must cast these demons out---once and for all.
Today God tells Moses to tell us---we who are bound and tied through the waters of baptism to those first Israelites wandering in the wildernss of Sinai---God tells us: “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” And our ancestors said: Everything you tell us, God, we will do.”
Beloved, we know how that turned out. Now, they probably meant everything they said, just as we do when we say the Creed, or renew our baptismal vows, or pray the Lord’s Prayer. We know our ancestors got lost, just as we get lost, that they promised just what we also promise, but then go and do another thing. Why is it so hard, this Kingdom living? Sometimes it is just so very hard to do the right thing, the God thing.
So, right now, Beloved, I want you to close your eyes. Close your eyes and hear God’s Kingdom call to us again: Cure the sick…..raise the dead…..cleanse the lepers…..cast out the demons…..
Take a deep breath. Look within your own heart. What is keeping you from fully living out that Kingdom call? What keeps you from living and giving the love of God in these life-restoring ways, these means of salvation and redemption?
Is it busyness? Blindness? Discomfort? Do you doubt your ability? Have a lack of desire? Is there a misunderstanding? Apathy? Lack of resources? Are you self-centered and inwardly curved? Beloved, where does the sin of racism, the poison of seeing another as less valuable or less worthy live within you, within your heart?
(open your eyes now). Beloved, whatever it is---the obstacle, the barrier, the weed to be rooted out---I invite you to turn that over to God. Now, if you’re like me, there is more than one---so start with just one. One at a time---put that broken piece, that hindrance---right at the center of your prayer life. Ask God to remove it, to mend it. Maybe you need to start by asking for the desire for it to be removed, cleansed, transformed. But, Beloved, this is our work to do---and God is with us in this work, God is for us in this work. And as our hearts, minds, and beings are reformed, we can walk deeper into the Kingdom that has drawn near; we can see and hear and taste it more clearly. And then share it with others---widening the Beloved Community, relationship by relationship. Living together as the holy nation, a kingdom of priests. God’s Kingdom come near.
American Philosopher Dallas Willard puts it this way: “We don’t believe something by merely saying we believe it or even when we believe that we believe it. We believe something when we act as if it were true.”
Beloved: it has been a hard week. On Wednesday we learned that America now has more than 100,000 deaths due to Covid19. And the death count is still rising.
This past Thursday, I was reading an article in the Milwaukee Journal, reporting on America’s ghastly record of 100,000 deaths due to coronavirus. In the article, the daughter of a man who died from the virus in Connecticut said : "For people whose lives haven't been threatened or where the virus hasn't been as rampant through a community, I just think numbers or not, it's still so abstract to so many people. It doesn't matter if it's 200,000, 100,000 or 10. It doesn't mean anything until you're personally affected by it."
It is all too easy to think: “Well, the virus is not too bad here, so we don’t have to be as cautious as New York City.” Or to think: “I am in relatively good health or younger, so I don’t have to worry.” But, Beloved, we know that this virus is made more dangerous because a person can have the virus without having any symptoms. This is why wearing masks is what love looks like right now because the statistics show that if there are two people together, and one is a Covid19 carrier and one is not, there is a very high rate of transmission to the nonCovid person. If only the non-Covid person wears a mask, the possiblity of transmission drops to 70%. If only the Covid19 Carrier wears a mask, the possibilty drops to 5%. And, Beloved, if they both wear a mask, the possibility drops to 1.5%. Why wouldn’t we wear masks in public?
Consider Hong Kong and Singapore, The Wall Street Journal reports that these two cities reported their first cases of the virus in January. “Four months later the densely packed Asian metropolises, with a combined population of about 13 million, have seen 27 fatalities between them.” Only 27 fatalities. Let me put it to you this way: 27 of 13 million is .000002%. America’s death toll, if we had the same percentage of deaths from the Coronavirus as Hong Kong and Singapore ( .000002%) America’s death toll would be 656 deaths. 656. Not over 100,000.
What’s the difference between us and Hong Kong and Singapore? One big difference is that in the Asian culture, people wear masks in public whenever they think they may be sick out of respect for other people. This cultural mindset of the other’s wellness being prioritized over my comfort or convenience or preference has saved thousands of lives. Because prioritizing the wellness of the other, prioritizing the wellness of our siblings at the forefront is how we live salvation. But if our mindset is: “Well, I don’t think it’s going to affect me, so I am just going to keep on doing what I do and living how I live”.......then we reach over 100,000. If our mindset is “I don’t think it’s going to happen here or it isn’t affecting people I know and love---it is happening over there”......then the death rate keeps growing and growing and growing..
A hard week, indeed. And, Beloved, in Minneapolis on Monday, George Floyd was pinned down to the ground, a white police officer’s knee on his neck. George asked for the knee to be removed saying: I can’t breathe. It hurts. It hurts all over. He called for his mother. He repeated that he couldn’t breathe. The knee remained on George’s neck for almost nine minutes; for the last three of those nine minutes, George was unresponsive. George died on Monday. Riots, looting, and protests erupted in Minneapolis and around the country as another black man has needlessly died in the hands of those we trust to keep us safe.
Now hear me, Beloved, hear me: there are many, many good and wonderful police officers; the vast majority of police officers are people who keep us safe, who lay their lives down on the line every day. But we have a sin that is woven into the fabric of American society, a sin that grows from the same root of indifference to others that we are seeing in the spread of the virus in America. This sin can infect even those who have sworn to serve and protect all citizens. And it is the sin of racism.
Beloved, it is hard to come to grips with this sin that we have woven into our ways of being on every level: laws and principles, education, the workforce, entertainment, the Church, housing opportunities, socioeconomic realities----all of it. The truth is: White people—we have authority and status in this country simply because we are white. Our white privilege doesn’t mean we haven’t suffered or struggled. It means our suffering and struggling isn’t due to our skin color.
Even the poorest white person in this country has more opportunity, more safeguards, more protections than most people of color. We Americans do not live out our Constitution that all people are created equally. And we Christians are not living out our baptismal vows to seek and serve Christ in every person, to respect the dignity of every human being. Most of us probably think: “Well, I’m not racist. I don’t have a problem with black people or brown people, with indigenous peoples or Asian people. I’m not racist.”
Beloved, I want to invite us to consider that if we are not actively working against racism in America, then we are racist. If we are not actively learning the truth of how racism works in our legal systems, our justice systems, our housing, our education, our financial and social structures, then we are turning a blind eye because as a white person---it doesn’t affect us. Allowing racism to continue to exist without actively fighting against it is racism.
Racism is born from our indifference to one another and it erodes our connectedness, our unity, our oneness. The very thing the Christ came to earth to show us in Jesus: We are one: with each other and with God. This is the Gospel Truth that is meant to be at the center of everything we do, we sing, we pray, we preach, we live. The wellness and wholeness of my sibling—whether in China or in New York or in Plover or in my house; whether the color of my sibling’s skin is black or brown or white or any shade under the sun; whether my sibling’s name is Ahmaud Arbery or George Flynn---the wellness and wholeness of my sibling is to be my priority. Our priority. If my sibling says: I can’t breathe. There is no peace
Beloved, indifference and racism kill. According to Medpage Today, “Predominantly black U.S. counties are experiencing a three-fold higher infection rate and a six-fold higher death rate than predominantly white counties. Camara Phyllis Jones, MD, PhD, former president of the American Public Health Association said, “There is nothing different biologically about race. It is the conditions of our lives. We have to acknowledge that now and always."
More black Americans are dying of Covid19 because since our country began, we, white people, have looked away from the rampant racism that riddles our country. Our racism has led to people of color having less access than white people: less access to affordable housing, good education, well-paying jobs and advancements, adequate healthcare. We white people have allowed humans to be treated inhumanely, to live as if they are less valuable than ourselves------not because we are monsters, not because we don’t have hearts: But because it didn’t touch OUR lives. It didn’t affect our house.
Beloved, the Christ shows us and tells us that all of Creation is our household. God’s kingdom is our house. Our lives are inextricably and irrevocably connected to all lives. As people who follow Jesus, we are called to set a new normal, a new standard, a new human behavior toward suffering and pain. Like Jesus, we are to put ourselves in the suffering person’s shoes. Because the suffering person---whether she is suffering from Covid19 or his suffering comes from a knee on his neck---the suffering person is our brother, our sister, our beloved.
On this day of Pentecost, I want us as the church to remember that Rain School from our children’s message. The school in that story isn’t the building. The building serves a purpose---to form and build up a community of children, who then form the community of people. And next year, after the storm, that building will look a bit different. And there may even be some new faces and some other faces may no longer be there when they return. But the growing and the forming and the learning will continue---as long as the people who make up the school and who attend the school and who provide for the school remember what they are about.
Same goes for us. Right now, we are feeling the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit—moving in and around us as the storm of the Coronavirus threatens to completely dismantle what has been built. And friends, like the school, America needs a good storm to blow through. We need a storm of justice to blow through us--and dismantle the racism we have built with our own hands. Like Jesus, we are to live as if black lives matter. Because here’s the thing: all lives can’t matter until black lives matter. So, my white friends, we must no longer remain indifferent. We can no longer turn our heads or our hearts away from the ugliness that is ours to dismantle----we have created it, and now we must eradicate it. Starting tomorrow, on our website, there will be a page called: Eradicate Racism. The page will contain things we can do as individuals, and as the Beloved Community, to put an end to this sin of ours, including a new 10 week class/conversation called Sacred Ground that will begin the third week of June.
So, come wind of the Holy Spirit---blow down the barriers we have built in our hearts between us and others. Pour down the rain of God’s love and drown our self-centeredness, our greed, our indifference. Let the walls of what has been be washed away so we can rebuild and start anew. Let us breathe life into our virus-riddled nation by prioritizing our sibling’s health and let us work to put to death the systemic racism that is destroying us from within.
Beloved, the Word tells us that when we are baptized, we take on more than a new name, a new family. We take on a new body. We are clothed with Christ’s body. Beloved, if we are going to call ourselves Christian, if we are going to be the Church, then it is time to put our Jesus on.
Beloved: do you know who Cameron Dallas is? He is a 25 year old social media influencer. He uses Youtube and Vine to make short videos and in many ways, it has made him a star. Netflix even offered him a show. What about Huda Kattan? She is a social media influencer who is a make-up expert. She has 29 million followers. Then there’s Marian Ezzedine who posts “Cooking with Mimi”; 2.4 million folks check in with her to get ideas about how to make their at-home meals tastier. Together these three influence almost 55 million people.
An influencer is someone who has the power to affect the decisions of others because of her/his knowledge, authority, position or relationship with the audience. For Cameron, it’s all about the relationship that he is building with others via his videos. For Huda and Marian, it’s about relationship and their knowledge—all three of these have a following in a distinct niche with whom they actively engage. 3.48 billion people actively use social media---that’s 45% of the world’s population. Wowza! That’s a lot of influence potential---that’s a lot of folks.
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Beloved: God is calling on us to be influencers---yes on social media, but also in every way we can be. We are called to be Influencers: our knowledge is the Way of Love; our authority is that we are God’s Beloved who have been given, and continuously have access to, the Holy Spirit; and our audience is everyone we have contact with----in public, in private, and on social media. And right now, Beloved, we really need to pay attention to social media because it is what is connecting us in new ways, to new folks, and with lots of possibility to share and spread this Way of Love.
This unique time we are living in is providing us a unique opportunity to live into our Beloved interconnectedness beyond our walls, beyond our local community and state, even beyond our nation. Through technology, we can build relationships with folks around the world, around our country, inside our city and within our own Beloved Community. You, Beloved, you are whom Jesus is talking to when Jesus says: You receive the power from the Holy Spirit. This isn’t about clergy and the institution of the church; this is about us as the Body of Christ---as individuals and as a committed community of faith. God wants you, wants us, to be social influencers---influencing the circles around us and beyond us to live the Way of Love.
This means God is calling us (not just me, not just leadership) but all and each of us to figure out how to connect with others---even in this time of pandemic---especially in this time of pandemic. Beloved: listen to the Spirit, discern in prayer, and then share your thoughts of how we might continue to support one another and grow a wider Beloved Community---online, with social media, and also as we do more testing and our numbers change: in small groups maintaining safe, social distance and wearing masks, continuing to stay safe and keep connected.
And perhaps this is just a new way to say the same old thing I always seem to be preaching, but today I want to touch on something specific from our everyday lives, something that is gnawing on my heart and spirit. In the reading from the First Letter of Peter we hear: “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” This verse is an option to be read during the service of Compline or Night Prayer in the prayer book. We used to do Compline to end every day at church camp each summer. And this line always provoked a strong mental image in me: I could see that lion prowling---seeking me out---I could hear its roar.
Now, people may want to “dismiss” the devil saying: Aw, the devil’s not real. But, Beloved, the devil is real. Now, I don’t think the devil is some dude in a red suit with horns and a pitchfork. The original name for the Devil is Ha Satan. This means Adversary. The Opposer. The Devil is anything and everything that opposes God’s life-giving, loving, re-creative force in the world. So, Beloved, sometimes we are the Devil because sometimes our words or our actions or our choices work against God’s life-giving, loving, re-creative force. Sometimes we know this and still move forward with our choices, and sometimes our evil is done unintentionally. That’s why I love the words from the Confession found in Enriching Our Worship. In that prayer we pray: We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. Ha Satan. The evil that opposes.
Beloved God is calling us to be social influencers who help each other to turn from Ha Satan’s ways and to lean into love instead. And where I see and hear that roaring lion prowling around in our lives, and in my life, is the human tendency to divide. Our reaction to label and to separate. Liberal and conservative. America or China. Black lives or Blue Lives. Fool or savior. These divisions are used as weapons to separate us from one another. We use them and speak them ourselves. Marketers use them to divide us. Facebook and social media bots are using them to influence us toward a certain candidate or away from a candidate---spreading false information and inflammatory posts so that we will live and move from hate and fear rather than love and unity. And, if I confess freely, sometimes my words may even do that. In our need to “be right” we often demean and belittle the other side, the one who disagrees, or the one who has another viewpoint in order to proclaim our rightness.
So, what to do? How then shall we live? God doesn’t call us to be “milktoast” and be lukewarm about the Gospel message. How can we strongly and boldly proclaim this message of inclusivity, of providing for the needs of all because all are equally deserving of having enough---no matter what; how do we stand against racism, fascism, homophobia, queerphobia without language that divides? How do we fight against poverty, injustice, and exclusion while maintaining unity?
Well, if I was in possession of a “how-to” manual, then I could make millions. And friends, the Bible isn’t really a “how-to” manual on this. Our young adults are reading Rachel Held Evans’ book, Inspired, and we have been talking about this---how we come to the Bible thinking it has clear and certain answers when what it really has is a variety of viewpoints, a cacophony of voices, and possibilities of choices and ways forward. And that space there---in the middle of the variety, the cacophony, and the possibilities---is just enough space for that prowling lion the devil to take advantage and push a wedge between us.
So, let’s look to Jesus: Jesus who sits down to dinner with religious leaders, powerful authorities, the elite of the day as well as lepers and sinners, tax-collectors and fisherman—the general riffraff of the day. Based on what he says, we know Jesus has issues with how both, and all, groups choose to live. And yet, Jesus builds relationships with all of them----particularly seeking out those who are disenfranchised, those on the margins and edges, the immigrant and the refugee, the sick and the ostracized---because Jesus knows the powerful and the elite don’t have the same need as these ones. The powerful and elite have resources to meet their basic needs of food, water, shelter, healthcare and the primal need for community and touch. The powerful and elite do not need the Christ to provide that for them. So the Christ goes to the ones who cannot (or because of how society is set up---are not able to) provide for those needs. And Jesus sits with them, heals them, breaks bread with them. Jesus turns to his followers and say: You give them something to eat. You go out, 2 by 2, and heal them. You love them. You have the Spirit, the authority, the influence----you do it.
Let’s think about that table at which Jesus sits with sinners---the tax collector, the Judas, the Pharisee and the religious elite. This table, Beloved, is where our salvation begins. Because this table doesn’t just serve food; it builds community. A new community where everyone belongs---fools and saviors, liberals and conservatives, Americans and Chinese, Black lives and Blue lives. At God’s table all belong. And all share things in common. As one of the young adults said in our conversation: “We all want to provide for our families, have homes, feel secure.” Beloved, The Christ begins with our commonalities rather than our divisions, inviting us to sit at the table based on our humanity, not our exceptions nor our expectations.
I still don’t have all the answers of how we do this exactly---how we live it out as individuals, as families, as cities and as the Beloved Community. But, that’s okay. The Spirit has answers and she is providing situations and opportunities for us to do this work of uniting rather than dividing. Our work is to be mindful of the prowling lion. Oh, it will continue to get the better of us, but our mindfulness can change how we use our authority, our knowledge, and our social media posts to influence one another toward Love and away from Hate. Can we state the Gospel without denigrating those whom we believe are shunning it? Can we actively work from Love and Justice without spitting into the faces of those we think are defying Love and Justice? Even when they don’t play by the same rules? Even when they spit on our faces? Think of those nurses in face masks who go to the protests to open up states---silently facing down their neighbors who raise signs demanding haircuts and their individual freedoms, those neighbors who are terrorizing and not protesting because they have brought their assault rifles. What is it that these nurses do? They stand there. No words. Wearing their face masks and uniform, they proclaim the Gospel. In defiance to hate. In resistance to Ha Satan. In collusion with Love.
Sometimes, Beloved, when I read a Facebook post or a Twitter post that proclaims something I think is foolish or dangerous or hateful, my fingers itch to use my words to flatten the sender of the post like a bug. Or maybe I should say, my tail twitches and I growl from my throat as I use my sharpened lion claws to rip their post apart and reveal their idiocy or their inhumanity or their complete and utter disregard for life.
Anyone else? That space that is between me and the writer of the post is all the space the Devil needs to get me to forget the Christ and respond from the deep, dark pit of my human nature instead of the spark of the divine within me. And when I do, evil wins the moment. And Hate takes hold. And Fear insulates and fertilizes……..
But, Beloved, I have been blessed and baptized to know another way, and thanks be to God, something in my day always brings me back to my senses, back to the Christ. Maybe it’s a friend who speaks the words of love to me or I see an example of love lived out on a screen or read it in a book or I am re-centered in our Belovedness through prayer or song or Word. So many ways---ways and practices that being part of Church has helped me to develop my Christ muscles, that has strengthened that divine spark within me to shine brighter. Frankly, Beloved, sometimes it is simply the Spirit who whispers in my ear: Remember who you are. Remember whose you are. And so I turn—an internal revolution that happens again and again and again.
Beloved, today Jesus calls us to be witnesses---social influencers---influencing and compelling those in our circles---online and offline---publicly and privately---known and unknown---to choose love. Choose unity. Choose our commonalities rather than our divisions. Fools and saviors. Chinese and American. Black and blue. Liberal and Conservative. Saint and Sinner. The world may tell us one is more worthy than another. Our neighbor may demand it. But Beloved, God refuses it. Jesus’ life and ministry denies it. And our infuencer, the Christ, calls us to effect change and revolution in an entirely different way. “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
And all God’s people said: Amen!
Just when the disciples are most in need of pastoral care---on the eve of Jesus’ departure in today’s Gospel reading---Jesus promises the gift of the Advocate who will come and walk alongside them. This animating Spirit will companion them in their time of great need and fear and uncertainty, restoring life and hope and helping them to live into a new way. Because starting tomorrow for these disciples, their lives as they knew it will be all turned upside down---and there won’t be any going back. The cross lies just ahead.
And Beloved, at this time—as we continue to live in this time of pandemic, this time of moving toward re-opening, as some of us are afraid to go too fast and some are worried about the economic effects if we move too slowly, into our troubled hearts and our wrenching questions and anxieties, into the very real grief and loss that some of our Beloved have experienced firsthand and many of us are feeling at one level or another, the Spirit comes. She is here. Ready to re-animate us, inspiring us again with the Divine breath of the Creator, companioning us toward new life, new hope, new ways of being.
The Spirit is here as we gather—yes differently, but still united and bound together---as we gather to give thanks, to name our blessings, to share our burdens and loss, to speak and sing our story and our Truth. This gathering grounds and roots us in our truest identity as God’s people. People who vow to live lives of caring for one another and all others, lives of compassion and mercy and forgiveness, lives of seeking justice and an end to oppression for all of humanity—no matter their nation, their language, their orientation, their skin color, their faith, their mistakes, their failures, their political party, their socioeconomic status. For people of God know the Truth: that we are one human family, one clan of Creation. So as God’s people, our borders encapsulate all; we do not value one life as more important than another. Nor do we abdicate our responsibility to provide for one another. For we vow to live and move with the eyes and heart of the Christ who came to gather all things together, on heaven and on earth.
The Spirit reanimates and breathes life into us as we find ways to “keep in touch” and build relationship. Through the written words on note cards, the phone calls made more often, the online chats and posts and comments. As we live physically separated, we are renewed by these relationships---and our loneliness is eased, our fears are dampened, our joy is kindled.
And our prayer, Beloved, this ongoing stream of Spirit-breath that moves from us to God to others to us to the world to the need to the loss to the grief to our hearts, and minds, and spirits and bodies. This is the Advocate in action. For an advocate is: one who pleads the cause of another; one who defends or maintains a cause; one who supports or promotes the interests of a cause or a group. And Beloved, as God’s people: our Cause is Love. Our interest is Unity. Our Group is all of Creation.
Beloved, the Advocate’s presence in our lives, our receiving of the Spirit, moves us to then become Advocates for others. Through us, the Spirit is bringing hope as our ministers take Boys and Girls Club meals out to Junction City, to Rosholt and to Almond/Bancroft. She is breathing new life into the hard spaces caused by poverty, unemployment, and this pandemic as the gifts you provide go to help folks get food and meds and provide quarters and soap for clean laundry, with help from our Community Wellness Coordinator, Gracia. The generosity of your gifts inspire our Compassion Response Team to partner with others in our community, like CAP services, to help folks get through this pandemic by granting them funds to pay utilities, rent, filling gaps in their budget. And the Compassion team is working with Migration ministries to help those who so often do not have an Advocate for they are seen as aliens, strangers, and foreigners. But we, we who are God’s people, we have heard God tell us over and over: When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34).
God’s words and call to us are why our Leadership team has just voted to sign a resolution calling our legislators to stop the proposed deportation of our Hmong siblings, for no matter their nation of birth, or their parents’ nation of birth, their home is here. Their lives are here. We belong to one another. And these words of God are why our Social Justice Advocacy team are also inviting all members of the Beloved Community to join in a letter writing campaign to our legislators using your voice to enact God’s word.
Beloved, while we have been in this pandemic now for weeks, there is currently a shifting taking place---as we all long for it to be over, but we also desire to move back to communal life safely. As communities, as a state, as a nation, this is the time when we need guidance and leadership---helping us to discern the best ways for all---the smartest ways for the common good---to restore our economy and our life together.
Did you know the word economy comes from the Greek word for household, and it means the management of material resources for the household?
What household? Yours? Mine? Portage County’s? Wisconsin’s? America’s? Well, yes, sure. All of those things. But here’s the thing, Beloved, as God’s people---we don’t start or primarily move from the smallest economy (mine and yours), because we are first and foremost, stewards and safeguards for our largest economy---God’s household. God’s oikonomia---which is all of Creation. That’s why we who already know God see things differently, and hold things differently, and God hopes: respond and choose differently. Beloved: as God’s people our household is large---all of Creation. All nations, all races, all plants and animal-life, all languages, all people.
And our household is at a turning point. Right now, as we live on the cusp of trying to move out from the oppression of the pandemic into a new life, we are all---every nation, every state, every family, every individual---we are all going to have to decide: How shall we live now? Some may desire to simply return to our old ways. But those ways brought us to this day. We, Beloved, we can be the casters of a new vision, a new way. Right now the Spirit empowers us to weave a new dream, build a new path, lead creation into the greener pastures of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus warned in today’s Gospel that the world “cannot receive, because it neither sees God nor knows God.” Jesus knew the world would be estranged from God—and let’s not fool ourselves, we as Christians are often the estranged as well. But Jesus did not mean that someone who doesn’t know or believe or trust God will NEVER receive. Jesus was telling us that a shifting is required, an internal revolution, a change within so that what was once unknown can become known. This is what we hear Paul attempting to do for the listeners in the reading from Acts today. To make known what was once unknown---meeting people in their own spiritual landscapes, speaking differently than we would to folks of our own faith community---but speaking our Truth, our command, God’s cause of Love in such a way that it can grab hold in places that once knew it not.
Beloved, we know our highest Authority; we know the voice of our Shepherd. We know our Greatest Law, the Law of God’s land: and it is love.
So, then, Beloved: at this moment in history, how can we be advocates for love—this grand cause and proposal of God that we live as one Creation. That we care for all of Creation. That we share the abundance God provides because all are equally deserving? And Beloved, this includes those we consider fools and those we think are saviors. How can we be advocates for love as we have conversations with our government and our representatives---encouraging and, frankly, demanding that we have a new way forward that isn’t crippled by partisanship and division, but instead that our new way of governing will be to work together for the Common Good, the greater good—the gift of rebuilding a true democracy. Where every voice matters. Every voice counts. Where people mean more than profit. Every person is valued and no one is left outside our care and protection.
Beloved, can you feel it? The Spirit is re-animating us, inspiring us to advocate for the Way of Love. Now is the time. Now is the day of salvation. Let us use our voices, our consumer power, our choices and decisions to lead. Lead as God’s people and midwife a new world. Instead of waiting for our political leaders to forge a new way, let us take our cue from Scripture and cry out for a new commandment amongst us: Love one another. Love your neighbor. Through our words, through our actions, through our economy. As God’s people, we cannot be silent. As God’s people, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and take our places at the front of the crowd to take those first steps, at the sides of the crowd to make sure there’s protection for everyone, especially the weak and the vulnerable, and at the back of the crowd to make sure that we leave no one behind—leaving no one orphaned.
Resurrection is upon us. From the tomb steps forth new life. This is our Truth. Now, by God’s grace and strength and spirit, let us love, let us live, let us lead.
“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart….”
On Friday, Beloved, I got a phone call from our daughter Meg who was teaching at SPASH. She was calling to see if I might be able to pick up our grandson Gus, if needed, since all schools in the District were in a “lockdown.” A threat had been received, so in lockdown mode nobody can come in or go out---for the safety of students and staff.
My heart began to race a bit, and of course, I became distracted by the thought that Meg, our granddaughter Annahleah, and all the lovely folks I know from the Beloved Community who are students and staff in the School District were in a position of possible danger.
And I know you can’t keep your loved ones completely safe. When I left teaching in 2008, we were already beginning to practice lockdowns and drills for if a shooter entered the school building. And I also know there are some folks who would rather I not talk about gun violence because it often leads to a conversation about gun legislation and we don’t all agree on that issue. And that’s okay; we do not need to agree on it in order to remain in community. We can disagree about what should or shouldn’t happen; we can disagree on what will or won’t help. But I would hope that we can find a way to agree on the Gospel: that Jesus came so that all might have life and have it abundantly, that God is the creator of life and calls us to be co-creators and co-sustainers of life in God’s realm.
So Friday, distracted by the threat at Stevens Point schools, I was haunted by the many interviews I have seen of residents who live in places where there have been one of the many school shootings, and those interviewed usually say: “I never thought it would happen here.”
Because most often, it’s not until it touches us that it becomes our problem to solve. And while we haven’t had a mass shooting at Stevens Point schools, or the schools in our area, and Friday’s threat was merely a hoax, thanks be to God, and we are probably saying to ourselves: “it won’t happen here,” that doesn’t mean it isn’t already touching us.
Beloved, I am so thankful for the soldiers and police officers, past and present, who have chosen to defend and protect---and by choosing that route, they know they may face AK-47s and weapons that can shoot multiple bullets before ever reloading. What a sacrifice they choose for others’ safety. God bless them. But here’s the thing, as a teacher, I never made that choice; I did not sign up for that. Our teachers today haven’t made that choice, nor have our students. This possibility of a shooting in a school building from a weapon that can wound and kill many people in mere minutes shouldn’t be possible. Simply having to go through a shooter drill, having to experience a lockdown, having to hear about students and teachers dealing with colleagues and friends murdered simply because they went to school----this alone is traumatizing. And these drills are not something we should have to practice. It isn’t something one just shakes off, and I pray to God, it doesn’t become our new “normal.”
On Friday, I was thinking of the other school shootings in just this past year where students and adults have died, and how a common response is “You are in our thoughts and prayers.” And that led me to today’s Gospel. Because I think Jesus is saying something to us today about “thoughts and prayers.”
Jesus tells us about our need to pray always and, as today’s translation puts it: not to lose heart. The Greek here can also be translated as not to have a loss of hope-----or a loss of courage (because of course courage and heart come from the same word). Another fun translation is not to be remiss or not to be slothful, idle or inactive.
So, what exactly do we promise when we say: You will be in our thoughts and prayers? Does it mean anything more than “I’ll think good thoughts and ask God to take care of you?” I think Jesus is telling us: Yes, Yes, it means more. Jesus tells us not to have a loss of courage…..not to be remiss or negligent….not to be idle and inactive. Instead, our prayer should help us to have the courage…..the courage to take the action or actions needed to not only heal the wounded, but to end the injustice.
Let’s look at this parable Jesus tells today. One way to “listen” to the Word is to ask: where is God in the story? Where am I…where is humanity in this story?
What if this judge---who doesn’t revere or obey God and who doesn’t have respect for others…..what if this judge is us---humanity? What if we are the ones who sit in judgment of others, the ones whose lives do not show reverence to God, the ones who do not have respect for others? Jesus goes even further and says this judge is “unjust” using the Greek word: adikias which means unjust, unrighteous, vicious, deceitful…..” Maybe the simplest way to think of unrighteousness and injustice is any way of being or acting which opposes or works against God’s plan for abundant living for all of Creation. And then, friends, then I think we can safely say that all too often humanity fits this description.
And if humanity is this unjust judge….what if that persistent widow is God. God who repeatedly and persistently comes and knocks on the judge’s heart saying: Get justice for me! Get justice for me.
Get justice and enact righteousness on the issues of gun violence and school shootings. God knocks persistently, asking us to grant justice against God’s opponents of poverty, homelessness, warfare, refugees and immigrants being kept in cages, racism, white supremacy, our climate crisis and the disappearance of entire animal species, incarceration for profit, bullying, and the genocide of indigenous peoples…..Beloved, the list is far too long. And God is knocking; God is calling out: Grant me justice against my opponent!”
Beloved, do not lose heart for as the Talmud states, "Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Jesus promises us that God hears our cries, day and night, and God works for justice with swiftness.
And today, Beloved, Jesus asks us, we who are God’s living agents of justice in the world today, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?
2 Kings 5:1-15; Luke 17:11-19
A foreign, slave girl helps her master and for her kindness---what does she receive? We don’t know. That’s all we are told about her. She sends Naaman in the right direction for healing.
And it’s Naaman’s connection to the King (who sends him to another King who isn’t the answer, but at least this King has a wise prophet healer in his land) that eventually affords Naaman the ability to be connected to the healer. The healer who is connected to God.
Of course, Naaman thought money could buy his healing, so he brought a lot of it. But, not as helpful as he had hoped. However, his connections were helpful. Naaman’s connection to the King led to the invitation to be seen by the healer in Samaria.
If Naaman had not been connected, what would have happened? If it was the young, foreign, slave girl with the disease--would she have been allowed to go to the healer? While it seems this healer would have seen her no matter what---Elisha doesn’t seem to be moved by power or by money, but seemingly by God’s vision of wholeness and wellness for all of Creation, Elisha probably would have met with and worked toward the healing of this young, foreign, slave girl. Even without the connection, without the money, without the power.
But that girl would never have gotten there. She is oppressed. She is owned. She is a slave, a possession. There are systemic obstacles in her way that do not afford her the privilege to meet with the healer.
This story of healing, of the path to wholeness---this story, to me, sounds much like our world. Where it often takes power, privilege, position and money to be able to access the means to wholeness and wellness.
It reminds me of our world today because there was a bit of a Facebook viral firestorm this week---all surrounding a short video of Ellen DeGeneres. Ellen attended the Packers-Cowboys game and was sitting in the same stadium box seats as George W. Bush. And they were laughing. So people started to say: Why is a liberal gay democrat sitting next to a conservative Republican President? The video on Facebook was a clip Ellen on her show explaining that Bush is her friend and that she has more than one friend with whom she disagrees. She thinks people can be friends even if they have different beliefs. And she said she takes her show-ending motto: Be kind pretty seriously. She believes being kind to one another is important—even despite our difference of beliefs. A very Kingdom living declaration---and thus I shared the video on Facebook.
And then the day after this video went viral, many folks who are in, or who are allies of, the LGBTQ community voiced their opposition to Ellen’s statements. They stated it was spoken from a position of privilege and wealth. More than a few folks I know quoted a Black American author who wrote about the oppression of Racism, James Baldwin, as a response to Ellen’s description of being friends with George Bush and to being friends with people of differing beliefs. Baldwin’s quote says: “We can disagree and still love each other, unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and my right to exist.”
And, Beloved, I gotta tell you that I love that quote….I do. I have posted it myself in the past. I don’t believe anyone has the right to oppress others and to deny another’s humanity and right to exist. But, now, I also don’t know what to do with that quote. One of my dearest friends posted that quote, and for the first time I thought: And then what? You’re right, Mr. Baldwin….if one’s disagreement is rooted in oppression and denial of a person’s humanity and right to exist---then that disagreement should be silenced. But, then what? Where does that leave us? What do we do with the person?
I think Ellen is right that we need to be kind to one another---treat people as we wish to be treated----even if we think they are abhorrent idiots. Because our kindness is about who we are, not who they are. That’s grace.
But, I hear my LGBTQ siblings who do not have the power and the position of Ellen, and who, like the young, foreign slave girl—who still have a lot of systemic obstacles in their way and are not afforded the invitation to healing. Who will have to fight and claw and find a way to break out of the oppression they are under in order to move toward healing---freedom---to be made whole. Frankly, the oppression they experience in their lives often doesn’t leave room enough to take the deep breath needed to offer grace to someone who is oppressing them. Because in this story, Ellen is Naaman. She may have once been more like the young girl, but she finds herself in a different position now. She has a place at the table (or perhaps we should say in the stadium box seats). She is connected. And that’s privilege.
And so while I agree with James Baldwin-----I still wanna know: And then what? When we refuse to associate with the oppressors---then what? Do we stay on the margins? Do we all keep to our own kind? What does love require of us? Does the victim always have to be the one to “make nice?”
And then we have the healing story in the Gospel. 10 dudes who are ostracized because of a contagious skin disease. It’s illegal for them to come into the community. In some times, they had to wear bells around their necks to warn folks they were walking nearby. It’s illegal to touch them. Talk about oppression.
They have no privilege, no power, no status, no connection to a King who leads them toward healing. What’s a leper going to do? Go directly to the source.
But, here’s the thing: in the Gospel the source is out and about, making himself available. Jesus isn’t in a clinic or a synagogue. Jesus is out walking---on the border----as Jesus does. Crossing borders. And so these outcasts can approach the Messiah, the Anointed One, and ask for mercy. No obstacles to wholeness here. Jesus is walking and working outside of the system. Breaking laws and touching lepers.
The Kingdom of God has come near.
Those who are oppressed---like our LGBTQ siblings whose right to be protected as human beings was actually up for debate in the Supreme Court this week---again, talk about oppression---those who are oppressed need this kind of Gospel scenario----no obstacles to wellness and wholeness. They need the weight of oppression to be removed from them. They need, and deserve, the sources of healing and freedom to be readily available.
Beloved, we all do. That’s the point. Not just those with connections or power or money. The ones acting as God’s agent in each story---Elisha and Jesus---they each were freely willing to heal, to touch, to restore. In the Gospel, by moving out and about and crossing borders, Jesus removes the systemic obstacles.
But that oppressed, enslaved, young foreign girl? She might know the answer (and bless her she shares that answer with her oppressor), but she wouldn’t have the same clear pathway as Naaman.
So Ellen is like Naaman with his wealth and connections, and she no longer has the same obstacles to seeking wholeness as the young, foreign, slave girl does.
But, come to think of it, Ellen is like the young, foreign slave girl too. She shares the answer with her oppressor. She affords him a grace he does not particularly deserve. After all, George W. Bush backed a constitutional amendment to forbid marriage between two people of the same gender. Bush has been one of Ellen’s oppressors.
I don’t know where he stands now on this issue. I don’t know what he thinks. But, here’s what I do believe: Relationships change things. Relationships can dismantle ignorance and prejudice. Relationships can remove the scales from our hearts and our eyes. I hope that’s what Ellen’s relationship with George Bush is doing. But I don’t know. Does Ellen have privilege? Oh yes. She does. Does that privilege afford her some space to take breaths that many of her LGBTQ siblings don’t have. Yes it does.
I don’t know what the answer is. I think it may be a balance of both. After all, Jesus not only turned over tables in righteous anger in order to overturn the system, he also sat down to dinner with the Pharisees. But I don’t think we can ask both of each person involved in the struggle. Some have the capacity to overturn tables, and only some have the capacity to take the deep breath to offer grace. But both things can lead to healing.
We are not living the Gospel in its fullness yet. There are still obstacles between the lepers and Jesus in our world and in our systems. Ours is more like the story from the Old Testament. Where knowing the right folks, having the right connections, and having silver in our pockets gives us confidence that we will get what we are seeking. But, let’s not forget the grace of that young, foreign, slave girl. Who pointed her oppressor in the right direction---a merciful act of kindness.
None of this is simple. I don’t have any answers. But let’s keep listening. And seeking. Following this life-giving, loving, and liberating God. And always, always, turn our eyes upon Jesus, knowing that healing is continuously offered by this God who loves us unceasingly and unreservedly. And let us remember: we are the living Body of Christ in this world, called and Anointed to bring healing to the Nations. This is who we are, Beloved.
Living the Way of love, the Way of Jesus, requires learning to see how God sees, to move as God moves, and to love as God loves. Our human nature does not always align with God’s nature, so living the Way of Love actually requires unlearning. And new understandings require us to let go of previous truths, previous ways of being, previous knowledge. And that is hard. So we usually avoid it.
Following Jesus as a disciple, then, is about taking up practices, particularly those of worship, study, giving and service, so we can relearn and realign ourselves with God’s other-centered way of being, instead of remaining in our human self-centered way of being.
Today’s readings bring to the forefront our struggle between how we see and how God sees, how we move and how God moves---and how they are often not the same thing.
Take today’s epistle, for example, from Paul’s first letter to Timothy. While the reading is about having a life of prayer---there is one line in it, that doesn’t really have much to do with prayer, that just stops me in my tracks: “Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all”
This Christian truth is often broken down to the billboard or the bumper sticker: Jesus died for our sins. But what on earth does that mean? Because we all know that Jesus’ death didn’t just take away sin, right? Evil wasn’t really conquered once and for all on that day. So, it can’t be a simple debt paid now we can move on kind of thing.
Since the 11th century, one understanding, or theory of this quote, is called the substitutionary atonement theory, or penal atonement theory. You may not know the name, but you know the theory: God was angry with humanity; we owed a debt to God for our sin, someone had to be punished for our wickedness, and no human could really pay that debt, so Jesus, as both human and the Son of God, paid it for us. Sound familiar?
It does to me: I sang it at camp and have sung it in bands and at Sunday services for the past 20 years: Lord I lift your name on high, Lord I love to sing your praises, I’m so glad you’re in my life, I’m so glad you came to save us. You came from heaven to earth to show the way, from the earth to the cross my debt to pay, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky, Lord I lift your name on high.
Not only do I know the song, I know the accompanying gestures. I’ve song it in the car, in the choir, in the shower, at prayer, humming it under my breath as I walk along and go about my day. Not stopping to really think about what I was singing. And Beloved, 90% of this song is wonderful; it’s just that one line: My debt to pay. What does that mean? Who is the captor? To whom am I in debt? If Jesus paid it, then where’s the freedom?
And it’s not just more contemporary songs. How many of us grew up singing: Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to war with the cross of Jesus going on before….?
Maybe you’re thinking: Who cares…..you’re overthinking this, preacher. What does this have to do with me, my life, our life together? But, indulge me a little and let’s unpack this a bit. This understanding of a God who is angry with humanity so Jesus is punished to right our wrong and pay our debt, this theory requires us to understand God as transactional. That God requires a payment and consumerism is how God works, much like how humanity works: there is a price to be paid for every commodity, every good deed, every necessity. If you want this, then you must do, or pay, that. This is how our entire economy works, right? There’s no such thing as a free lunch. And we see this understanding echoed throughout the Old Testament because this is how humanity has worked for centuries, maybe forever. We are a transactional people. You want this then you have to pay that.
But here’s the problem, while we can understand God acting that way since it is how we act, it isn’t actually the God we see in Jesus. God’s economy is not our economy. Beloved, if God’s nature is transactional then God’s love is conditional. If God’s nature is transactional, then this isn’t about grace. It’s about payment. Someone has to pay. But thanks to God, not us: Jesus! If Jesus has paid the price, then we are off the hook.
And let’s spin the yarn out a little farther. When we swallow the idea of God being transactional, then the next step is that God doesn’t love everybody no matter what…..God loves people only if……only if…….and then we arrive at who is in and who is out; we begin to determine who God loves and who God hates. We begin to think that if we follow the rules, we are in with God. And we can point our fingers to those who don’t follow the rules. After all, this is no longer about grace---a gift of love and mercy given freely by God---but it is about a transaction. If I do this, then God will do that.
And are you hearing what this means? Having a transactional God means we think our actions can control God’s responses. It’s part of the reason our hearts and minds like this theory. It makes salvation clear-cut and controllable: We do this, this and this, and we are in God’s favor and God will do that and that and that. And then, if we think we have fulfilled our part of the bargain but we are not seeing God live up to God’s part…..what’s the point?
Beloved, this theory, which is still so prevalent in our society, has been so destructive. It has led to wars and oppressions, to hatred and violence. It has led to people thinking Christianity is hypocritical and a lie. And yet, it is still a theory that is often widely accepted by factions and denominations within Christianity. It’s one of the reasons there are very different understandings of what it means to be a Christian in our society.
But our two denominations, the ELCA Lutheran and the Episcopal church, we have moved away from this theory because of its destructive outcomes. Because it changes God’s love from unconditional to conditional. Because it leaves no room for grace. Because it means that God’s nature is one of angry feudal lord who demands a payment from his people who have done wrong. This is a God who is willing to subject the innocent to torture and death.
Franciscan Duns Scotus said: “Jesus didn’t come into the world to change God’s mind about us; God so loves the world. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.”
So, let’s not forget the other part of today’s verse: Jesus came as a mediator. A mediator is one who attempts to make two sides see the situation in the same way. Jesus came to help us see as God sees because in Jesus God’s nature is revealed. And yes, Jesus got angry at least once and overturned the tables. Jesus showed righteous anger because the poor and the disadvantaged were being manipulated and used by the system in order to make the rich richer. Because in Jesus we see God’s nature is love, compassion, mercy (not a angry Master who demands punishment and payment). We see that God doesn’t create divisions of who is in and who is out: God sits with the sinner at the dinner table; God touches the lepers and the dead; God speaks with the woman who has been slut-shamed and outcast. God doesn’t cast out; God invites in. In Jesus, we see God crossing boundaries, breaking down barriers, turning the exclusive into the inclusive and demanding a bigger table instead of a wall because God believes all are worthy of having enough food, water, shelter, healthcare and safety.
So what do I do with this line from Scripture that clearly says: Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all? I sit with it. I listen. I learn and unlearn. I see it again---but through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Knowing that God so loves the world and God has called all of Creation very good, that this is a God of grace who is not transactional but who is transformational, I know it can’t be ransom as just “a debt to pay.” I know our freedom doesn’t come from a military battle that only creates winners and losers. So I dig deeper.
The word for ransom, antilutron, has many layers. This is a compound word, antilutron: Anti in Greek: meaning because or on account of + lutron: redeem, deliver, release, liberate.
Jesus lives and dies because we need to be redeemed, delivered, released. This isn’t about a debt; this is about a life sentence from which we need to be liberated. Liberated from the life of transaction into the life of transformational love, the life of sacrificial love we see in Jesus. And sacrifice, in the Temple of the Old Testament, wasn’t about payment for sin but, as theologian Marcus Borg explains, sacrifice was about making something sacred or holy by giving it as a gift to God. Sacrifice in the Old Testament was not a transaction, but an offering for transformation.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark are the only other places in Scripture that also tell us Jesus gave his life as a ransom---but in these Gospel verses we are first told that Jesus came to serve and not be served. So before we jump to our natural way of hearing ransom as a debt to be paid---an appeasement of an angry God---let’s remember the words of Jesus. Jesus tells us he is a Way to walk, a Truth to know, a Life to live. Not a simple transaction, but living a life of serving one another. Jesus as the way and truth is an offering of a life---with all its struggles, pain, joy, living and death---an offering of our lives as a gift to God in order to be made holy. Jesus is not a transaction, but a model to follow so that we, as a disciple and not a consumer, can be released from our prisons of resentment and conflict, worry and fear, by seeing and living in a whole new way.
But here’s the kicker: if I come to understand the cross in this transformational way, I have to give some things up. Unlearning requires letting go. Even letting go of songs that I have loved. Even if that song is 90% great. Because the 10% shapes me. Our words matter. Our music heavily matters because it is so formative. And more importantly, our way of seeing matters. As the Beloved Community of Lutherans and Episcopalians, we believe it’s all about grace. About unconditional love. Luke tells us that in God’s realm it is the living as Jesus, not a simple transaction, that sets us all free.
How would it change the world if we, as disciples and not consumers, lived this truth and sang this song?
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.