Becoming Sanctuary. 3/19/2023
In her book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans wrote: “Imagine if every church became a place where everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. Imagine if every church became a place where we told one another the truth. We might just create sanctuary.”
I think sanctuary—which is defined as a place set apart, a holy place, for protection, for refuge– sanctuary is wherever you are safe to be yourself and to become your self. Your best self: God’s creation, the Beloved
These past three Sundays we have heard stories of individuals who encounter Holy Love, the One we call Jesus. Each one of these folx hears Jesus, sees Jesus, experiences Jesus. And each story ends with the individual waking up to a changed understanding of how to be in the world, a changed understanding of what it means to be in relationship with God.
Two weeks ago it was Nicodemus: a Pharisee–a member of the religious establishment and authority—who comes to Jesus in the night because the establishment is threatened by Jesus. After all, this wandering prophet, who some think to be the Messiah, is presenting a different God than the One they sell; he’s offering a different way to understand the Torah, the law, that leads to the status quo not having all the power and knowledge, and so the authorities, the status quo, are having none of it. So Nicodemus comes in secret at night and Jesus tells him God can’t really be put into a box, clean and tidy with a bow on top. This God loves the world. All of it. Even the messy, unholy bits, and Nicodemus’ establishment-empowered little mind is blown wide open. God’s love is life-changing.
Last week we heard the encounter between the unnamed Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus. This woman on the edges of society hears the hope Jesus says can be found in living life as God would have us live it; she sees new possibilities. And her experience of Love-in-the-flesh compels her to share this story, to share this possible way of living, of loving, with her community. And her witness is so inspiring and irresistible that her neighbors come to check out Jesus for themselves. And they hear Jesus, see Jesus, experience Jesus—and they are captivated—they decide to turn to this new way of living. God’s love is liberating.
And now, today, we have the encounter between Jesus and this blind man by the side of the road. Left to beg because society deemed difference and disability as a moral judgment by God, so folks who fell short of the norms were literally left by the side of the road and thrown the scraps of life on which to survive. Unfortunately, Beloved, I am not so sure that we have traveled very far from this pitiful, sinful way of being as a society. Today, this blind man hears Jesus first. He hears Jesus upending this sinful way of understanding how God works that the disciples are spouting. They ask Jesus if the man is blind because he himself sinned, or perhaps his parents? So, obviously, they think, God punished the man for his or his parents' sins by making him blind. And Jesus says: NO. That is not how God works. You can almost hear Jesus’ deep sigh of disappointment as he pauses to realign his followers, yet again.
And then Jesus goes to this blind man sitting on the ground; Jesus spits onto the dirt–using everyday elements of creation to make some mud–and smears that mud on the blind eyes. Jesus tells the man to go to the healing pool at Siloam. And the man obeys. This man who has heard Jesus, and now at his healing touch, experienced Jesus; this man obeys. And then he sees. God’s love is life-changing; God’s love is liberating.
And if these three stories are any indication; God’s love is mysterious. It cannot be fully explained.We can not part and parcel it out to our complete satisfaction. But, oh Beloved, this love can be heard. It can be seen. It can be experienced. And that, my friends, is the work of the church. We are to host gatherings, opportunities, places and spaces for God’s love to be seen, heard, and experienced. But God is not limited to church buildings, church gatherings, or even, church people. God’s love is a fire that burns wherever there is oxygen to feed it.
These three stories reveal that the Jesus movement of the first century was a wildfire that spread far and wide—even in the ancient world with no social media or printing press—but it spread not because of an authorized, official religious institution. It spread in spite of it. It spread due to individual encounters and personal stories; it spread neighborly act by neighborly act.
Like Laundry Love this past week, where several individuals were met by loving neighbors from the Beloved Community who provided them the means and the opportunity to wash their clothes. Where human hearts had a chance to encounter one another. Where love was seen, heard, experienced.
Or last week when our littles went off for their learning circles and our youth went to their As One Youth gathering during our Sunday gathering. Building community–and sanctuary—one gathering at a time.
And like this gathering—each week we come together for an experiential encounter: with smells, and sounds, and sights, and tastes; we touch Love as we share the Peace, as we hug hello or good-bye, as we take the bread into our hands—making Love a sensory rendezvous right here in this space.
This past week I visited one of our older, wiser parishioners, and she shared some stories of when life had been really tough for, when she had been brought to scary edges and she said to me: Jesus was there. With me. Every time. She didn’t always recognize it in the moment, but as she looked back, she knew she had seen or heard or experienced this One who is Love. Jesus was there. Every time.
Church as sanctuary—a refuge of Love for every wandering and wondering soul who encounters it. Continually each week, sporadically or randomly–our own healing pool of Siloam. Jesus says: Go and wash.
Beloved, in two weeks we begin Holy Week. A week full of these encounters when we have several opportunities to see, hear and experience Jesus; to see, hear, and experience Love. This Holy week when we immerse ourselves in our story, the love story we are to know by heart, know in our hearts—this story that liberates us, changes our lives, this Love story that models how to lay down our lives for others. Because each life that saturates itself in this love is a life that re-stitches the unraveling that has been cast upon this world by hate, violence, blindness, ignorance, apathy and despair. Redeeming and repairing Creation by loving the world as God loves.
In her book, How to Live, Judith Valente tells this story:
“There is a beautiful scene in a film from the 1980s called The Year of Living Dangerously. Actor Mel Gibson plays an Australian journalist named Guy Hamiliton sent to cover the political turmoil in 1960s Indonesia. He is befriended by a sensitive, almost mystical photographer named Billy Kwan, played brilliantly by the actress Linda Hunt. Billy offers to serve as the young journalist’s guide. He takes him one evening on a tour of Jakarta’s slums. Guy has never seen such intense poverty.
‘Walking through the slums of Moscow, Tolstoy had a similar reaction,’ Billy tells Guy. ‘Tolstoy went home, collected the money he could find, and returned to give it to the poor.’
“Yes, but that would be a drop in the ocean,” Guy says.
“That’s what Tolstoy concluded,” Billy says. “Do you want to know what I think? I say you do what you can about the misery right in front of you. And by doing so, add your light to the sum of light.”
Beloved: may we be ones who add our light to the sum of light, and thereby, bit by bit, change the world in which we live. And all God’s people say: Amen
What Makes You Believe?
What makes us believe? Why does anyone believe?
Last week we heard about Nicodemus; he believed. Believed in Jesus. Even though the Institution that granted him power and status didn’t believe. Even though the education he had received didn’t believe. So he came at night; maybe so there would be less distractions, but also probably so no one need know he believed. In the midst of dark and night, Nicodemus came to see Jesus….because he believed.
Nicodemus believed because of what he had seen—lives that had been changed by this One known as Jesus. Nicodemus had seen and heard of life-changing events that can only come from the Source of all life. These stories of lives changing for the better, they brought Nicodemus hope and belief and made him brave enough to go and see and ask.
What made the woman from Samaria in our Gospel today believe? She has no power, no status, no education—-she isn’t even given a name in our story. She is the opposite of last week’s visitor to Jesus. Instead of in darkness, she meets Jesus in the heat of the day. Now, she may have secrecy in common with Nicodemus, well, not so much secrecy as the avoidance of others. After all, most women come to the well for household water in the morning, before it gets too hot. But she is here when the other women are not—in the heat of the day. Alone.
This woman has nothing that should make her feel brave enough, nothing to make her feel worthy enough, to question this Hebrew, this Jew. But she does anyway. She is audacious. Maybe her thirst is even greater than Jesus’ thirst; after all, he never does get his cup of water. And in their common thirst—Jesus sees her. He sees her. He listens; And he answers her. Always drawn to the outsider, the outlier, the one kept to the edges is this Jesus.
He answers her and offers a long drink of hope. Even though she is one who society has deemed practically without value. This society where a woman without a husband has no home, no security; she has no children, so no future. It isn’t her poor character that is revealed by her succession of husbands. It is the society’s injustice toward women Jesus exposes. 5 husbands? If divorce is in her past it is because men could get a writ of divorce for a variety of reasons, and there wasn’t anything a woman could do to prevent it. If a husband’s death is in her past, the woman would have to remarry. Marriage is what provided her a home. Homes belonged to men, so women had to live with a husband or her father or another male family member. There are very few women who had any capacity to be able to live as an independent woman outside of marriage. Society would cast a long sideways glance at this unlucky woman for whom 5 husbands have failed to provide her security or a future. Like all women, her life is not in her own hands.
And in the heat of the day she comes for water. And meets the Christ. Who looks her straight on and sees her; He sees her; he knows her. And he gives this audacious woman answers. Answers that quench her thirst.
Is that why she believes? Because she is seen; she is known. She is accepted as who she is; the injustice that shackles her is named. She is accepted. Acknowledged. Seen. The conversation Jesus has with her is longer than any other conversation Jesus has in Scripture. She engages him more than any other leader, ruler, stakeholder, follower in the histories we have of Jesus’s life.That alone speaks to the mission of Jesus.
And then something happens. In my experience and in the stories from Scripture, something always happens when we find ourselves in the presence of Jesus. Jesus—who is Messiah, who is the Christ, the Anointed One. Love in the flesh.
This unnamed woman walks away from her Love Encounter Changed. Changed in such a way that she must go and give witness, give witness to Love: the Love offered, the Love taken, the Love that is possible. And here’s the amazing thing—this unnamed woman with no status, power, or education; this one who comes alone because her society has failed to see her value: she is believed. By the society that has not known what to do with her. She is believed. Think of how compelling this woman must have been. She must have been lit up from the inside out. Metaphorically Glowing somehow.
Her witness to love is so compelling that others go. She has used Jesus’ very own words: Come and see. And they do. The folx go and see and hear for themselves. They stand close to Love and the presence of Love changes them. And They believe! Authentic Love is that powerful. Raw love is hard to ignore, hard to look away from once you see it. Can you imagine this scene? Can you imagine yourself in this story? Have you known this thirst?
Or maybe you identify more with our Hebrew siblings in today’s story from Exodus? These ones who have been liberated, have been freed, and yet are still shackled. Their request is a simple one: We are thirsty; give us water. A basic human need. First level on Maslow’s hierarchy of human need. A need that cannot be ignored if we expect these people to continue. But Moses is annoyed. Please notice that it’s not God who is annoyed with the request for water. Moses is the one who feels he has been quarreled with and who claims they are testing God. Moses wants them to completely trust and get with the program already. After all, God opened a sea so you could walk through to your safety, people, just trust and believe already!
But, Beloved, let’s remember: Moses doesn’t completely share his fellow Hebrews’ history. He is a Hebrew son of a Pharaoh. He hasn’t known what his siblings know. He didn’t live what they lived. Enslaved. Oppressed. Shackled. For generations.
Oppression leeches into our hearts, our minds, our spirits. Often leaving physical scars, but oppression leaves psychological scars as well. Our Hebrew siblings in today’s story want to believe; they have believed, but when they are experiencing hardship— life-threatening thirst—they are brought right back to the generations of oppression. Wiping out hope. Drying up belief.
And let’s remember Beloved, many of our neighbors have experienced oppression. Maybe even some of us in this room. Poverty oppresses; prejudice oppresses; abuse oppresses; misogyny and the patriarchy oppresses. Human beings cannot move or change or grow if their basic human needs are not met. We cannot expect people to alter their expectations of life, their expectations for their own lives, when their basic needs are not a certainty they can count on; thirst comes in many forms.
But God is patient. 40 years of wandering in the wilderness patient. God doesn’t chastise them or shame them for the inability to believe in this time of life-threatening thirst. God meets them in their thirst and provides water from unexpected places and sources. Through human intervention, the disgruntled Moses.
Hmmm….maybe that’s a key to belief. Human intervention. A human intercessor. Moses, Jesus, this audacious unnamed woman who has been seen.
The power of the presence of Love in the flesh. This is what can change everything. Or, at least, create enough change to stir up hope, to foment belief.
Beloved: what makes you believe……?
Here’s the problem with God. We all want God to be OUR God. We want God to think like us, act like us, look like us. We are continuously making God in our own image.
Even in our reading from Exodus today, we try to have God behave as we would: Those who bless you, I will bless. And those who curse you, I will curse.”
Wait a minute, Jane…..are you saying God didn’t say that? It’s in the Bible. THE BIble. B-I-B-L-E….that’s the book for me.
What I am saying is that those who first told this story and then, eventually wrote it down, were telling their story of how they knew, understood, and experienced God. This is a story probably first told 5 or 6 centuries before Jesus.
Theologian Richard Rohr once tweeted (and as a theologian he is not alone in this belief ): Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God.
We have made Jesus into a transaction. This is how the transaction goes:
God’s mad at humanity because we are naughty and full of original sin, so Jesus came to pay a price we couldn’t pay, and Jesus died so we don’t have to, so now we are good (well, if we confess Jesus is our Lord and we do x,y, and z and believe the right things, then we are good). Excellent! Thank you Jesus.
But Beloved, what if: Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God.
God’s mind doesn’t need to change about us. From the beginning, from Creation’s Genesis, God loves us. All of us. Just as we are: incomplete and imperfect. And nothing, NOTHING, can change that. For God so loves the world.
Jesus came to show us this truth; Jesus came to show us what God in the flesh looks like. What it looks like to love a world that is bleeding and broken. What it looks like to love a world that betrays, that is violent, that is unrepentant. A world that doesn’t actually believe it is loved.
Now, you don’t have to agree with me, I might be completely wrong, but let’s ponder something together.
I don’t think God curses anyone or anything. I don’t buy it. And here’s why:
First, Jesus. Jesus had every reason under the sun to curse those who said they believed in him and then betrayed him and ditched him, but he didn’t. Instead he forgave them. Jesus could have cursed the Romans who captured him, jailed him, beat him and killed him. But he didn’t.
So, if we really want to believe in this Jesus story, then maybe the takeaway isn’t that God curses us because of our bad behavior or when we fall short, but that God does allow curses to exist in our world. That’s just undeniable.
And just what is a curse? Well, the dictionary says it is a great harm, injury or evil. So then to curse someone, as a verb, is to bring about great harm, injury or evil on another person.
It is clear that before Jesus (and frankly, even after Jesus), people believed that this is how God behaved. We have several stories with that as an explanation. Many stories that explain God is unhappy with people so God curses them or people don’t live up to God’s expectation so God curses them.
If those stories accurately portray God as God works in the world, then what do we do with Jesus?
Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us but to change our minds about God.
In the life and ministry of Jesus, no one is cursed, no one is condemned, no one is excluded, no one is declared exempt. No one. Not the Romans who were unjust or the tax collectors who were cheats or the thieves who failed to earn their keep. Not the woman at the well or the woman who was to be stoned or the woman who was bleeding and deemed unclean by society. Not Peter who betrayed. Or Judas who gave the killing kiss or the soldiers who taunted or the ones who just ignored the whole entire thing.
For every one of them, for each one of them, for every one of us, for each one of us, Jesus lived. And loved. And Jesus emptied his life—-not so that we won’t have to. But so that we will. So that we will do the very same thing. That we might so love the world.
What if all the blessings and curses were already here? Just a part of this thing we call life. And yes, as Creator, God has something to do with that. Maybe because we only grow if there are both: blessings and curses. We only change and adapt if there are both. The World only changes and adapts if there are both. But what if God’s job isn’t to bless or curse us as a response to our behavior—as a reaction to our goodness or badness. What if the blessings and curses are all just here—built into the system.
What if God’s job is just one thing: to love us. When we are blessed. To love us. When we are cursed. To love us through it all. For God so loves the world.
Beloved, there are many people—for good reason, and all too often that reason is the church—who do not believe God loves the world. Women who have been silenced and told to make themselves smaller by the church; folx in the LGBTQ community who have been dehumanized; the addicted and mentally ill who have been made to believe that their disease or condition is a moral failure. The young women who find themselves pregnant and labeled slut; those who have been imprisoned in a correctional system that has no intent of rehabilitation and who casts them out into a society who affords no second chances. People of color who have been denied authority, privilege, power, and basic human rights. The impoverished who have been deemed lazy so they probably don’t deserve shelter, healthcare, anything more if it means they don’t earn it themselves. For many of our siblings, it is mighty hard to believe that God so loves the world. It is mighty hard to even hope it could be true.
And that’s where we come in. This is the truth we gotta live. The truth we gotta tell. With our lives. With our choices. With our inclusion. With our equity. With our justice. With our sacrifices. When we share stories, as we build relationships and knit together community. God loves the world. The whole entire world. Every thing and every one in it. Not as an abstract or a religious thesis. But as a living, breathing reality. God so loves the world. One curse at a time. One blessing at a time. One person at a time. God so loves the world. With our hands, our feet, our voices, our bodies. God so loves the world.
Jesus didn’t come to change God’s mind about us but to change our minds about God.
Be like Jesus? REally....?
Today we hear the same story twice. Same story: different contexts, different characters. But the situation, the choice, is the same: Are you the Child of God or not? In our Gospel translation we hear: If you are the Son of God, but it can just as well be translated: Since you are the Son of God. Fear and evil know just where to strike us: at our identity, at the core of who we believe we are…..Since you are the child of God….
Both of these stories ask the same question of our protagonists: Will you be self-centered and meet your own needs as the snake and the devil lure us to be…..or will you be other-centered, which is to be God-centered, as we are made to be? Since you are the Child of God.
When the Adversary lures the Christ toward his own desires, Jesus responds by turning away from self-centeredness and turning toward God’s desires. This is a living definition of repentance. And do not fail, Beloved, to notice that the Adversary faultlessly quotes Scripture. Knowing Scripture can be used both as a weapon and as a centering guide. We would do well to remember this truth .
It is NOT the quoting of scripture that saves Jesus; it’s the turning toward God—again and again—even when he’s empty and hungry. Because, Beloved, that is always when evil tries to have its way with us: when we are empty and hungry. But even then, the Christ is not drawn away.
There’s an ancient monastic tale that says: an Elder monk said to a businessperson: “As the fish perished on dry land, so you perish when you get entangled in the world. The fish must return to the water and you must return to the Spirit.” The businessperson was aghast and asked: “Are you saying that I must give up my business and go into a monastery?” And the Elder replied: “Definitely not. I am telling you to hold on to your business and go into your heart.”
Go into your heart.
Beloved, here’s my question today: Do we really want to be like Jesus? I mean, really? Do we really want to have the life he had? No place to lay his head; itinerant wanderer; no wife or children; friends who betray him; friends who fail him, friends who refuse to hear him—over and over again.
If we are honest, we probably would rather be one of the Roman leaders: get the best food, the best clothes, better housing—to have some power, authority and status. Or at least maybe a Roman citizen who has a nice quiet life in town. Not bothered by others because you and your rights are protected by the law because you are part of the favored group. Do we really want to be like Jesus: a poor, unknown jewish man in the midst of the Roman Empire?
And if this is what Christianity is about: becoming like Jesus—what does it all mean anyway? Being like Jesus, having Jesus’ life, isn’t exactly the American dream. Why are we even here? What in the world are we doing? Good question.
Beloved, there is one thing that Jesus has that I want. Personally, it’s why I am here. Jesus has one thing that I really, truly want to have: Peace. Peace of mind, body and spirit. Jesus has the ability to handle whatever life throws at him and still see love. Still feel love. Still give love. I want that.
And for Jesus, this peace comes from knowing who he is. With great clarity. Jesus knew from where he came and to where he was going. As the Gospel of John tells us:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.
Yep, on the night before his death, Jesus didn’t go out and make sure he checked all the items off his bucket list; no Disneyland for Jesus. In his last moments, Jesus served his friends. Jesus got on his knees and served others: washed their feet. Their stinky, dirty feet. Jesus loved others—even in the face of death.
That. That’s what I want. I want to have the ability to face whatever life is going to hand me, and even in its scariest, hardest moments, to still be able to love, to still be able to hope, to still be able to have peace. To be so centered in and on love that fear doesn’t have the ability to take over the reins of my spirit, my body, my mind.
After all, courage is not the absence of fear; courage is the ability to keep moving forward in spite of the fear. And Peace is not the absence of conflict, struggle or tension. Peace is being able to remain calm and centered in the midst of those things.
And that, my friends, is what Jesus has—who Jesus is—that I want to have, that I want to be. When we are grounded and centered in Love, like Jesus, then that aching hole of “What does it mean? And Why are we here? And why did it happen?”---that aching hole is no longer at our center. In fact, that hole shrinks and disappears–filled by the presence of the holy, the truth of belovedness. And what is gained is clarity. Jesus has such deep, abiding peace because Jesus knows exactly who he is and Jesus knows exactly why he is there and Jesus knows exactly what it is all about. Because Jesus trusts God’s dream and plan of restoring all Creation back to unity with each other and with the Holy. Jesus is grounded in the truth of the Common Good and he knows he is part of it. He knows he is a sacrament (an outward and visible sign) of the Common Good, of the healing and restoration of all Creation. And, Beloved, when we wake up (maybe for moments or hours or days or years), but when we wake up to the realization that we are a sacrament of Jesus, a sacrament of the Christ, then we too have access to that clarity, that centeredness, that Peace.
Beloved, what if this lent, we begin with the premise that the wilderness we are called to wander these 40 days is the wilderness of our hearts? Go into your heart. And as we wander, we can fast from those ways of being that keep us from love (in the particular and in the general), and we can intentionally and mindfully, feast on the practices, the habits, the inspirations that feed Love within us. Letting the angels—who are the messengers of God, the harbingers of Love—-care for us as we come home to our selves. Growing Love within our minds and bodies. Strengthening our muscles for compassion, mercy and grace.
I’ve quoted Rachel Macy Stafford recently, and repeatedly, and now I do so again: Today I will choose love. Tomorrow I will choose love. And the day after that, I will choose love. And if I mistakenly choose negativity, distraction or perfection, I will not wallow in regret. I will choose love until it becomes who I am.
Since you are the Child of God…..
Who is the God you are Following?
Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Matthew 5:21-37
There is a lot to unpack here—particularly in the Gospel, but also in our reading from Deuteronomy today. But, Beloved, I am not going to tell you what to hear or understand today—well, not exactly. Instead, what I hope I do is to give you a tool to use whenever you are reading/hearing Scripture. A key that can unlock some deeper understanding, some relevant threads to your everyday life, your daily discipleship as followers of this Way of Love. And that key is knowing who your God is. By that I mean, how do you see God?
Do you understand God to be a God of retribution or reconciliation? Retribution means payback, generally it means punishment for an evil deed, a bad act. Reconcilation, of course, is all about mercy, grace, and forgiveness. It is the process of mending, restoring, and putting things to right.
How you hear today’s readings reveals who God is for you—deep down in your DNA.
If God is a God of retribution, then when you hear the reading from Deuteronomy, you hear a threat. If you choose well, then you will be rewarded, and if you choose poorly, God will exact punishment on you and you will not live long. Better get it right, Beloved.
If God is a God of retribution, then in the Gospel you hear Jesus spelling out things in black and white—absolute answers to situations in life—and divorce is off the table and you better mean what you say or God is going to get you.
This God of retribution is a popular God; it is how the Hebrews understood God; it is how many Christians today understand God. It is the God of much of American culture.
But I want to invite you to consider understanding God differently. This is a shift that I myself had to make the longer I followed Jesus, the deeper I moved into my relationship with God and took deeper dives into the Word and held it up to the life, ministry and death of the Christ. The God I know is a God of reconciliation and transformation. This God doesn’t exact punishment for bad behavior because our bad behavior exacts its own punishment. This God isn’t continually watching to catch me when I get it wrong, but continually holding me and catching me when I do get it wrong so that I can stand back up and try again.
This God isn’t interested in figuring out who should be in and who should be out; this God loves and includes all. Without exception. Providing as many chances as we need—in this life and for eternity—for us to come to realize just who God is and how much we are loved, how much we are Beloved. This God gives us as many times as we need to know that we belong, that we are an integral part of the restoration of all Creation. In fact, this God of reconciliation refuses to accept an eternity without me. Without you. Without any one of us.
Beloved, let that sink in. Marinate in that. God can’t bear to go on without you, but God does continue, with openness and receptivity, to invite us to return until each one of us is finally gobsmacked with the truth of just how precious we are, just how precious each bit and bob of Creation is, just how precious every single human being is to the Creator.
So, with this God in mind, we can hear that the reading from Deuteronomy is simply Genesis 1 and 2 all over again—declaring God provides us a choice. We can live as God desires us to live—the Way of Love—and have a full, abundant life (abundant not in possessions, but an abundance of peace, wholeness, wellness) or we can choose our own ways and suffer the consequences of self-centered choices. Again, God doesn’t exact our punishment, but our choices and the choices of others certainly do.
We hear this again in Jesus’ message today. Jesus isn’t transgressing the Law, the Torah, Jesus is transcending it—radicalizing it. In the Lutheran way of understanding Scripture, this is the difference between Law and Gospel. Law is often a black and white, absolute and literal reading of the Word. The Gospel gets at the Spirit—the lifegiving truth that is within the Word—transcending the letter of the Law in order to hear the liberating, loving, and life-giving Good News.
Yes, murder is against the Law, but Jesus is calling us to look at the root of it–our anger, our hate–and calling us to deal with the root–to move toward the tending and restoration of reconciliation. This is not a call to simply end murder, but also to put an end to hostility that kills relationships, that kills possibilities and collaboration, that kills our unity and at-one-ment.
Yes, adultery is a sin, but in Jesus’ day it was a sin only a woman could enact, for she was the man’s property–as were her children. Adultery was about a man’s exclusive right to a woman. Radically, Jesus isn’t addressing women when he speaks of adultery; Jesus is talking to the men and their behavior. And Jesus calls people to the root of the issue, yet again: the intention of the heart. You see in Scripture God is good and evil is anything that opposes God’s will, God’s way of love. So Jesus says when your heart begins to wander from your covenanted promise to your partner—either due to what you see (the eye) or what you do (the hand)---then you must stop immediately. Reconcile that relationship. Which, Beloved, we know might mean that the relationship is restored to a new start with lots of work rebuilding trust OR it might mean that the relationship is ended well. With lots of forgiveness and reparation of wounds. Reconciliation doesn’t come in one kind, but many—and it always leaves whole and well humans behind, not desecrated bodies.
That’s why Jesus says what he says about divorce. In his time it was a man’s right to divorce a wife—leaving her without security, no home, no future. It was using divorce as a means to desecrate another human. Retributive rather than conciliatory. Jesus calls us to a different way. Telling us over and over today: Tend to your relationships. Make Forgiveness, grace and mercy the center of your promises and relationships—not punishment. Not vengeance. Not payback.
How we understand who God is completely colors how we hear and enact the Word, this Good News. If God is simply my God, then the Good News only needs to be Good for me. If God is the God of all, then the Good News needs to be Good for all people.
If God is a God of retribution then God is a judge waiting to determine if we are good enough. If God is a God of reconciliation then God is Love waiting for us to see and know we are the Beloved and we are enough. We are worthy. That all people are enough and all people are worthy. And God allows us to choose between the two. Because to force our hand is not love, but tyranny. Love demands choice.
And here’s the thing: God cannot be both a God of retribution and a God of reconciliation. We cannot hold both as truth. Retribution negates grace and grace refuses retribution. God cannot be both. So, Beloved, who is the God you follow?
Let’s end with this prayer by Padraig O’Tuama of the Corrymeela Community:
God of Reconciliation, You demand much of us—inviting us to tell truths by turning toward each other. May we leave our trinkets where they belong and find our treasure by turning towards each other. Because you needed this. Because we all need this. Amen.
A School of Love
Isaiah 58, verses 9-12 from the Message translation: “If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, If you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out, Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness, your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.I will always show you where to go. I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places--firm muscles, strong bones. You’ll be like a well-watered garden, a gurgling spring that never runs dry. You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again. Just a note: the “you” here is 2nd person plural: all y’all
During the pandemic, I found myself hungry for my momma’s homemade bread. Toasted. With butter. But my mother was not yet healed enough to make it. In fact, even though she has rallied—not once, but twice—from major surgeries since 2020, she probably will never make that bread again. So, my momma gave me the recipe; and I made it. And I continue to make it. That recipe is actually my grandma’s recipe; I love seeing her recipe with her handwriting. And I love that bread.
But my momma made it just a bit differently than my grandma; she changed one small step because she had different tools and utensils than my grandma so her shift to the recipe made it a bit easier. Grandma’s bread 2.0. And, after the first time I made the bread, I made one small adaptation myself. Just a bit less salt. So now it’s grandma’s bread 3.0. It’s still grandma’s bread, but it is now in its 3rd iteration. (well who knows: grandma probably got it from her momma and changed it a bit too.) But it still feeds the body and soul (not to mention it smells like heaven), but a bit of the what and how of the recipe has changed.
Church is like my grandma’s bread. It is iterative. It is always becoming.
But most of us think and treat church as if it is a done deal—all already figured out and created—and our work is to simply keep passing it forward. And we can do that, but we are finding, and will continue to find, that if we do that, the body of people we pass it forward to will be a smaller and smaller number. Because the iteration of church that worked in the past—or the one that works for us—-isn’t the iteration of church that works for the present and upcoming generations. Now, that’s some Gospel truth. Each generation isn’t meant to pass forward what’s been passed to them, exactly as it was given them. Each generation is to receive, but then adjust for the current reality and world they are living in—and to make room for what is upcoming and pass forward this thing that has space built in it for the next generation to adapt for their reality. Church is a movement, not a monument; it is always becoming. Like God, it is created and is always creating.
Take Redeemer Lutheran. We started 30 years ago with thoughts and plans about who we were as a body of people, and how we would be that people. And some of those thoughts and plans are in place, and some have had to be let go of because they no longer fit the current reality. Redeemer started in Bannach school, then this part of the building was built. We used to have a Preschool, so the gym and some classroom space and smaller gathering areas that are in the newer part of the building that was built in 2010/2011 was used for them. The Preschool is no longer here, and continuing to expand the building no longer seems like the best use of money and time. The reality we are living in is not what it was back in the 1990s. (and frankly most of my colleagues who have bigger buildings because that was a sign of a successful church, wish they didn’t.) The way forward that was dreamed of in the 1990s may not be the way forward we dream of in the 2020s. Even in 30 years there’s been a big shift. And if we hold onto the dreams of the 1990s and demand that’s the path we build, we will be building a path for a reality that no longer exists.
Or what about the Episcopal Church of the Intercession? It started 170 years ago; I bet those church dreamers would never have dreamed Intercession as it is today. They would not have dreamed of us in this space. And they certainly would not dreamed I would be standing in front of you---a woman with a collar!
So, were they wrong? Were they short-sighted? Those Redeemer and Intercession dreamers?
No. You can only dream in the time you are in. But the trick to dreaming, the trick to building a community is that as you dream—standing in the present—you have to look to the future and train your eyes and hearts to see what is coming rather than to turn and look back to what has been. Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62
Here’s the other thing about church: it isn’t mine. It isn’t yours. It is always ours.
Often we treat church as if it is the YMCA. We pay a customer fee, and then we come and take part in services, or we expect to receive services. We’re a member, and it is the staff and the workers who put the things we wish to attend together and we come and take part as it benefits us. But the church is not the YMCA; it is not a fee-for-services kind of organization, and we are not consumers here. We are disciples.
A church is a school of love. It is where we learn love, where we practice love, where we embody love. It is where we see what love looks like and come to know what love costs.
A local church is a collective. A collective with a mission. Our mission is to restore all of humanity and all of creation back into right relationship with God and one another—through the way of Love that we know as Jesus.
Collectively we fund the mission.
Collectively we provide the energy and effort to live and move forward the mission.
Collectively, we invite, welcome and connect people to build and grow the community.
Collectively we bring our talents and time to provide gatherings that will train us and equip us to live out the mission.
Collectively we dream and sow the seeds that will build the mission, that will give the mission legs and movement, carry it forward to the next generation, the next iteration.
Collectively: as a body of people whose eyes are focused on the one needful thing: Living Love Out Loud.
Listen, it would be easier if church was something that came in a box and all we had to do was read the instructions and put the pieces together and choose which stickers we put on and which stickers we throw away and then we just use the hell out of it until we die, or it dies. And we can do that. Frankly, I think we have done that in Western Christianity—acted as if we were handed a box with all the answers and if we just do it hard enough or loud enough or pretty enough….
But, at its heart, a local church is a gathering of folks who are dreaming together, listening together, so that they can be the living body of Jesus in this world today. In the present moment and reality while preparing to be able to live and move and continue the mission in the moment and reality that is coming over the hill. We are making ourselves available to learn and be equipped to meet the folx on the margins and bring them to the table–or to bring the table to them. We are committed to be vessels of healing, of connection; to be bringers of hope, joy and peace. Beloved, the why has never changed; the why is our mission. But the what and the how change with the times. Sometimes slightly, sometimes shockingly different. If we demand the how and what to remain the same, the why gets lost, like a candle that finally flutters out–overcome by the melting wax—it sputters out.
Recently I read this marvelous book, it’s a children’s book called The Orphan and the Ogress by Kelly Barnhill. I want to recommend it to you. If your child is old enough to read it themselves, get it for them. Or get it and read it together as a family. Or, if you want, we could have a short-term book club for it. It’s that good. Let me just share this bit with you; This bit that reminded me of what church can be:
“A kind of place situated in the midst of a less than kind community. And perhaps that is why someone chooses to give to us. Or perhaps it is because we ourselves are kind. Or because the benefactor is kind. Or because we desperately need that kindness. Or because the benefactor has more than they need and feel obligated to share. Or because they simply enjoy sharing. Or perhaps it is some other reason that we can’t even think of. But the reason for kindness is never as important as the fact of kindness…….
….It was remarkable….how it took only one person deciding to do good things and then convincing others to join us, to create a cascade of good deeds, each one sparking the next. Just think if everyone decided to do good. Just think if everyone decided to do so every day. Or, if not everyone, what if some did, and it still expanded?....
We have been told since we were small that the bad outnumber the good. But I do not believe that is true……One good person can inspire other people to do good things. Good is not a number. Good is more than that. With good, the more you give, the more you have. It is the best sort of magic.”
Pickles and Lightbeams. 1/15/2023
Beloved: You are called. You are.
Not just those who wear collars. Or those who are elected leaders. Or those who seem to have it all together.
None of us has it all together.
All of us are holy.
All of us are worthy.
All of us are called.
Called by the One who set the stars in the sky.
For too long a message that Christianity has put out into the ethos—pretty much from every denomination or flavor of Christianity—is the message that some folks are not legit. Not legitimate enough.
They are not baptized.
They have messed up too badly.
They do not believe the right things
Or participate in the right practices.
Beloved: this is not Gospel. Nor is it Jesus.
Oh, I know—at the start of Jesus’ ministry—before he begins, he gets baptized. Not because he needs it so much, but because Jesus is showing us, as fellow humans, what we need.
And at the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’
But friends, the Baptism ritual—the sacrament of Baptism–did not exist at that point. It began later in the church as a way of bringing folks into the community. And yes, John the Baptist was baptizing, but that was a ritual about forgiveness—more like what we call reconciliation when a person seeks a confessor and asks for absolution (which is available and offered in both the Episcopal and Lutheran traditions).
When Jesus says Go and baptize folks in every nation, Jesus wasn’t talking about the ritual, the sacrament. Jesus was talking about helping folks to begin a new way of life. Walking with folks and introducing them to another way of living–the Way of Love, the Way Jesus shows us with his life, his ministry, his death. This isn’t about ritual; it’s about how we live.
Now, for me, the ritual can have very great meaning. And humans are wired for ritual. There’s something about ritual that helps the purpose and meaning behind the acts to sink into our bones, our spirits, our hearts. I am not saying the ritual has no purpose. I am saying we have missed the point.
We think the ritual makes folks legit. Beloved, in God’s eyes, everyone is already legit. Everyone always has been; everyone always will be. The ritual is a means to empower us to let go of a life that prevents us from knowing the wholeness and wellness God desires for us–no matter what situation or circumstances or physical realities we find ourselves in—to let go of that old life and to reach out and receive the life God desires for us. The life where and when we recognize our connectedness to all others, all of Creation, and to the Holy Three who is a One. The life that equips us to live the truth that we are bound in a web of grace, caught up in salvation, if only we can believe it, expect it, anticipate it and learn how to trust that as our foundation, our identity.
This Baptism isn’t a one-time event; it’s an ongoing process. I have shared with you before that the Greek word, Baptizo, is the verb that is used to describe pickling. Yep, pickles are simply baptized cucumbers. This verb, baptizo, means to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge. It isn’t just that moment on a Sunday morning when the family wears their best and lots of photos are taken. Baptism is every time we hold our hands up to receive the blessed bread and wine and consume Jesus—kneeling next to friend, foe and stranger because we are all guests at the same table. It’s every time we let the Word pierce our hearts and change our understandings, our worldview, our judgemental opinions. Baptism is all those moments we recognize the divine in beauty—be it art or music or nature or silence. In Scripture, God and beauty and holiness are all wrapped up in one another; is it any wonder that beauty engages our soul?
Our baptism, our pickling in the brine of Jesus–which is simply the juiciness of love–happens when we recognize a person as a fellow human, a sibling, and treat them accordingly. When our neighbor’s suffering becomes our own; when our neighbor’s joy becomes our joy. When injustice makes us so angry that we feel the need to turn tables, and then we actually go and do it by demanding change to oppressive and unjust systems and policies. These are all baptismal moments and events that shape, reshape and form us.
Did you notice the first thing Jesus does after he is baptized? He gathers with others. Come and see he says, soon to be followed up with and Come and follow me. Gathering with others, building community, is step one of baptism because Jesus knows this work of healing Creation is not a one woman or a one-man job. It is community’s job, the work of all humanity. Together It’s my gifts, and your gifts, her gifts, his gifts, their gifts—working together. My resources, your resources, her resources, his resources, their resources—working together. Come and see; Come and follow. Baptize. Gather. Go.
That Giving card we sent out this past month—often referred to as Stewardship—that’s not just the church asking for money. Don’t get me wrong, to continue as the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran we need money–and most of our income comes from you. But giving, our generosity, is baptism. It’s a moment of pickling. Of recognizing that what I have isn’t really mine; I have been given the opportunity to be a steward of what I have so that I have the opportunity to use it for the work of Love. In my life, my family’s life, our community’s life, in the re-creation of Creation. We ask you to fill out the Giving card because it is discipleship; it is a chance to be like Jesus, the One who laid everything down so that all can have more, so that all can have enough.
That’s why we are here. For another dose of pickling. To gather with our fellow cucumbers and pickles-in-the-making and to submerge ourselves in the Jesus brine. So that we can go. Go and do whatever bits of creation healing we can do as this upcoming week unfolds. Knowing that we will return next week, for another dip into the baptismal waters, holding our hands and hearts out for more Jesus as we become more and more like Jesus—-agents of Love, Healing and Mercy. This is what it means to be church; what it means to be Beloved Community.
As Isaiah reminds us today: God says, "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up [only] the tribes of Jacob and to restore [only] the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
That’s you, Beloved, that’s you. Pickles and Lightbeams. And all God’s people say: Amen.
What's In a Name? 1/1/2023
What’s in a Name?
We hear two different names in our Nativity stories, assigned to this newborn baby: Emmanuel, meaning God is with us, and Yeshua.
Yeshua is the name Mary and Joseph were told by the angel to name their firstborn. Yeshua, meaning the one who saves, that we translate as Jesus.
The One Who Saves: Salvation is at the heart of the meaning of the name of this One we proclaim and profess to follow. But there are all different means and ways of saving. And as the church, a gathering of followers, perhaps we should especially focus on how it is that Jesus saves. Not doctrinally or dogmatically, but experientially. How did Jesus save as Jesus lived, as Jesus loved? What does this saving actually look like in the flesh?
In the story of the woman at the well, the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in Scripture, Jesus walks up to this unaccepted and cast-aside woman—joins her where she is, listens, accepts what she has to offer, and builds relationship. A relationship that leads to transformation for the woman and many others in her community.
In the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman, Jesus is required to humbly re-think what he has learned and allow for this woman to enlargen and enlighten his view, his own doctrinal wisdom.
In the story of the young girl who is believed to be dead, Jesus arrives, believing in—seeing— her life rather than her death. Jesus takes her hand and calls for her to rise up. Talitha cumi: rise up, young woman and live.
In the story of the Good Samaritan, we hear of a neighbor who gives of his own time, his treasure–who sets aside his schedule and agenda to meet a dire need of a stranger. Taking the wounded to a place of refuge and calling in others to help with the healing, providing what is needed because he can, and then vowing to return—not simply considering his work finished because he has done what he can in the moment; this is not a transaction, but the blossoming of a relationship—whether it be short or long. A relationship of healing, of presence, of laying down one’s life for another.
In the feeding of the thousands, when the disciples are overwhelmed by the task to feed so many hungry and ask Jesus where the food is going to come from, Jesus says: you feed them. And the process of each seeing what they have to create a commonwealth of food, drink, of sustenance begins. And together they discover not only do they have enough, they have more than enough, an abundance with baskets and baskets of more.
Beloved, it is Holy Name day. What does our Name—as followers of the way, really mean? As the church we are being called to reconsider how it is we see ourselves. Historically, as we have “served others,” we have seen ourselves as the Benefactor. The one who has the resources, the answers, the proper and correct ways of being that we then offer to the less fortunate. We are the blessed and we bestow God’s blessing by giving to the less blessed. Our way of living and giving allows us to see ourselves as the great Benefactors, often casting ourselves as white saviors. This is a hierarchical system that then requires the receiver to exist on a lower status, a less-blessed, less-privileged position.
Jesus lived and moved from a status of mutuality, of reciprocity. Knowing that each of us needs the other, that our wellness comes from interdependence, not hierarchical generosity. Jesus knew the hungry among the thousands had much to share. Beloved, I wonder what inspired them to loosen their grip so that what they had was no longer “mine” but “ours”? What will inspire us?
Systems of mutuality have a primary purpose to satisfy common needs instead of growing private and personal profit. Mutual societies are managed according to principles of solidarity and unity rather than creating pockets of privileged preferences and desires. Jesus lived by the code of: I will walk with you and together we will know the wellness and wholeness God desires and provides for us in this life that has both glory and misery, both suffering and sustenance. Jesus moved from the Mystery of love’s generosity–which can not be fully captured by data or numbers, but is best shown and known through story and relationship.
Beloved, let us re-order ourselves and our lives to become who we most truly and authentically are called to be: a mutual community of reciprocity, of love, of compassion and healing. We may very well become a mystery to many around us as we incarnate this one we know as Yeshua–the One who Saves. Let us be neighbors instead of benefactors.
Oh, I know. Being a true neighbor is much harder than being a mere benefactor. Just ask anyone who volunteers down at One Big Tent. We are constantly messing up, relearning, and challenging ourselves as we learn how neighbor is different than benefactor. It requires relationship rather than transaction. It requires vulnerability, authenticity, and intimacy rather than a distanced giving. It is a laying down of one’s life, a giving of one’s very self–the meaning of both the cross and the manger.
For the incarnation, Jesus’ birth, is one moment given to teach us an eternal truth: I am in God; God is in me. God is in you; you are in God. We are in each other. God dwells among us.
Yeshua: the One who Saves.
What’s in a Name? It all depends on how you live it out.
What Good is It? 12/24/2022
Meister Eckhart wrote: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”
What good is it? Isn’t that our question? It is our question about Church—going to church, belonging to a church. What good is it? It is our question about Christianity, about religion, about faith in general. What good is it
What good is it when there are church buildings all over the place and the world is still a hot mess? If there is still poverty, hunger, and many folks who are unhoused? If God still allows racism, misogyny, warfare and gun violence? What good is it if God doesn’t come down here and fix these problems?
Beloved, that’s not how God works. Christmas tells us that. This beloved story that is our story tells us that God doesn’t magically fix things because we are good or perfect or holy. Or because we get our religion just right. Unlike humans, God doesn’t move from a “quid pro quo” mindset. We may have been taught to believe that if we get our religion just right, then God will be pleased and fix things down here. And—of course—and then we will get to go to heaven.
Beloved: that is just not how God works; it is not the point; and we really need to let that understanding of God and faith go. Following Jesus is not about earning the golden ticket into heaven. In fact, none of the major world faiths are about that. They are about how we live. Here. Now.
Christmas shows us how God works. In the midst of the Roman empire–when folks are struggling—working hard and still not making ends meet. When too few have too much, and the tyrant makes life miserable for so many, God doesn’t wave a magic wand and collapse the empire. God sends a baby. God joins humanity. More than that—-God dwells, God lives, IN humanity.
And Beloved, there’s something that happens when the Holy, the Sacred dwells within us. It seems to release what Abraham Lincoln called our “better angels.” The holy within releases the force and power of love inside us. Christmas, after all, is a conspiracy of Love. Because Love attracts Love. Love empowers love. Love begets Love.
The holy resided within the One we know as Jesus—completely and entirely filled his being. And so his life was a life of healing, of restoring the outcast and marginalized back into their rightful place in community. His life was forgiveness and reconciliation, of feeding and providing water to the thirsty. He was a Kingmaker of Hope, of Love, of Peace and wellness.
And then there’s Mary. Mary who says yes, consents to becoming pregnant with Love and then giving birth to love. And this birth was like all other births: dangerous, painful, sweaty, bloody—requiring her focus and giving everything she had to birth Love into the world.
Our Christian faith gives us Mary and Jesus so that we will understand who we are. Who we are already and who we are always becoming.
Because the work of Jesus and Mary is now our work. Each generation’s work; every follower’s role: to say yes and become pregnant with Love. And then to do the hard labor to birth love into the world, again and again and again.
And not just any kind of love, but the love that in the Hebrew Bible is known as “hesed” Judith Valente in her book, How to Live; What the Rule of St. Benedict Teaches us about Happiness, Meaning and Community, tells us that hesed connotes “...a kind of mother love, an extravagant love, a lasting love, a love pulsing in the gut, filling the bones. (75)
What if Christmas is more than a story with a “Hallmark” moment when we feel temporarily warm and fuzzy, joyful and generous—and instead: What if we understand Christmas as God’s ongoing conspiracy of love that heals and restores all things?
Beloved, as we allow Love to fill us, to become our what, become our how, become our why—then we become empowered to move to the hostile places, the gaps, the wilderness spaces and simply be. Be who we are. Love. And that love attracts more love. And then Love finds ways to fill the gaps, bring order to the chaos, and grow new life in the wilderness. Love is the power and force that turns hostilities into hospitals where reconciliation and healing take place—restoring Creation, and humanity to its balanced glory. Peace on Earth and good will for all people.
We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God—and this broken, beautiful world—is always waiting for love to be born. What good is it? Oh, Beloved. It is the very good that turns this upside down world right side up again. Happy Christmas.
James Baldwin wrote: Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can change if it is not faced.
Each year the Church calendar invites us to focus on Mary; for this I am grateful. But, Beloved, Mary—the mother of the Holy One—the woman who was chosen and asked; the woman who said yes and consented; the woman who gave birth to Love, to God, into the world—-she has been hijacked. By the very Institution for which I work and the reason we come together–the Church.
And part of that hijacking takes place in our readings today. Today’s reading from Isaiah took place when Israel was at war. At this point of time, it wasn’t the Israel we know now with boundaries and certain geographical locations. There was an element of different tribes of people—different nations within it. And different kings and rulers. Ahaz was the king of the southern part of Israel—known as Judah. But the northern kings of Israel and the area known as Aram–which is Syria today—were working together to invade Judah and replace Ahaz with a puppet ruler who would support their coalition. Ahaz was worried for his nation, his people—but also for Jerusalem and the prophecy that someone from the line of David would always rule there. As we learn in Matthew chapter 1, verse 9, Ahaz is a descendant of David. So not only the nation and the people, but a central prophecy for the Hebrew people was on the line.
After Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, which God had already offered to give, God ignores Ahaz and sends Isaiah to share the sign: A young woman of marriageable age–in Hebrew the word is almah—will have a son and the son will be named Emmanuel. And by the time the child is old enough to know the difference between good and evil, these Northern Kings and Aram will be gone. As will the threat to Judah. It is not a promise that the warfare will immediately end, but that Judah will still be intact—along with the prophecy—when the dust settles. All shall be well. So this sign—not of a virgin, there’s a specific Hebrew word for that–but the sign of a young woman of marriageable age giving birth to a son who is known as Emmanuel is given to Ahaz to assure him, to give him hope, during a very difficult and fearful time.
But the language and purpose of this verse changes when we hear this same quote from Isaiah as it is in Matthew’s Gospel. Even though Matthew most likely had access to the scrolls on which Isaiah’s books were written, he offers us just a little bit of a different version. The Greek in Matthew’s Gospel says: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God with us”. No longer just a young woman of marriageable age, but very specifically a virgin.
Now folks, times change but humans are humans. Even back in Jesus’ day young women of marriageable age had sex before they began to live with their husband. Back then it could be a punishable offense—even to the point of death—but it depended on how it was handled. It could be embarrassing for both families or settled within both families. Or as we hear today, settled by Joseph choosing grace and courage thanks to God’s messenger giving him some insight.
But why the heck does Matthew make a big deal of Mary’s “virginity”? Well, for a couple of reasons, one of which you may or may not know. At that time and in that culture, a virgin birth was a sign of importance. Jesus wasn’t the only one in history to be called a “God-man” —one who is both God and man. In fact, the Roman Emperor when Jesus was born made this claim. From the article “One of Many Virgin Births,”
A virgin birth, or a conception between a god and a woman, was a commonly understood and accepted concept in ancient times…….When ancient people wanted to make someone out to be more than a normal person, they [included details] for their story that showed how he received his divinity from someone or something. We know this because the ancients said so themselves. When Caesar Augustus was claimed to have been the son of Apollo, it wasn’t to show how Apollo had done a miracle; it was to show that Augustus was a son of god and had a right to rule. God and the Gospel writers seem to have had a very specific reason for the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus: there was a new king in town. ……The way ancient people figured it, to have a god-man here on Earth, you needed two things: a source for his godness and a source for his humanity…..The miraculous births in these stories show their audiences that these godmen were different from regular men.
The evangelist, Matthew, had a very specific agenda: he was trying to convince folks that this Jesus was THE MESSIAH. He was shoring up the newly formed church (writing about 50 or so years after Jesus’ death) and also trying to convince the rest of the Hebrew family that this Jesus was the One.
But Matthew was doing something different with the God-man here than had been done before. Rather than, as the Emperor Caesar Augustus had done—using Apollo only to shore up his own reputation; Matthew was also declaring God’s capacity to do the improbable and the impossible in and through humanity. This was a two-for-one purpose: elevating the status of Jesus in this society by using the means society offered while also revealing God’s capacity to do miraculous things.
I have no real quarrels with the Virgin Birth; I am not denying it. I can wrap my head around it as Mystery, and I can also hold it gently with a more logical explanation. It is a tenet of our Creed—for good or for ill. My quarrel is what the Church has done with it.
You see, back in the day and for generations and generations—frankly right up until the last couple hundred of years: the Church’s narrative shaped human thinking, human culture, human expectation and human beliefs. It shaped how we see each other and it shaped the hierarchy of human worth and value. And the Church took that word “virgin” with the purpose of creating a “Gold”, a “God”, standard for women that has devastated, oppressed and crushed women ever since.
Beloved: the world is created for all of us, but all of the systems that we live in were created by and for the male of our species. And so is the Church. And while our world, our systems, our institutions and hierarchies have been forced to allow women to have some power and some status, some voice and some authority in their realms, the systems haven’t changed. The systems do not adapt their ways of being and how they are structured and function. Instead, the expectation is that women will adapt and reshape themselves to fit into these male-centric ways of being and structures. And as all my sisters here know: that is exhausting. And it erodes our gifts that are game-changers when they are brought to the table. And many times we do not even know we are adapting and changing: silencing ourselves, asking for permission to offer our suggestions and ideas, making ourselves smaller so we take up less space—we do not even recognize we are doing it because it is our 24/7 reality and just how things are. We learn how to do it right along with talking and walking and breathing.
Beloved, it does something to the human spirit when you realize that when you are at your best the world around you requires you to be something less than that in order to be heard, to be seen, to be taken seriously. OH, I could go on and on, but there is only so much time right now.
Perhaps even more devastating is what happens to our infant girls, our toddlers, our school-age girls, our teens, our young women—to all women with that word: Virgin. If Virgin Mary is the gold standard, anything less is shameful. That is the message we get so very early in our lives. That a key characteristic of our goodness is tied into our virginity, our sexuality—not our brains or our capacities or our gifts and talents—but to our ability to say no to sex until the Church has deemed it allowable. Even though our male siblings are not held to the same standard; in fact, they are encouraged otherwise. Their maleness is tied to their virility while a woman’s is tied to her chastity. The Church set up the dichotomy of Virgin or Whore and every female since then has suffered for it in one way or another.
The church had a choice with Mary: what would its focus be: the theotokos—the God-bearer, the one who says yes in faith to the Holy and courageously and boldly gives birth to Love in the world…….or to present Mary as the Virgin Mary: meek and mild, submissive and calm, playing her part—but not too loudly, thank you very much.
I know: I may be making you uncomfortable. But I am comfortable with that. I am comfortable because as a 56 year old woman, I have lived with the Church’s intended or unintended consequences my entire life. I still do. I am comfortable with making us all a bit uncomfortable with this Truth because I have a daughter, nieces, granddaughters for whom I want the world to give them more room to breathe, to embrace their feminine gifts that go beyond the shape of their bodies. I want them to have room to utilize their God-given gifts and to grasp and demand the power that is theirs to offer toward the healing of Creation. When all the institutions, systems, governments, and ways of being are male-centric—this 50% or more female and nonbinary Creation becomes broken, violent, destructive and unwell. Beloved, we can and must do better.
I know those of us sitting in this sanctuary were not at the tables when the Church made these choices and decisions. But we are sitting at the table where this choice is still served and consumed. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can change that is not faced.
Oh, Beloved, Advent and Christmas is nothing if not an opening for new life to come to being. It’s not just silver bells and situational joy and merriment. IT is space for the real work of Christmas to be born and raised up. So let me leave you with this poem by poet Kaitlin Shetler:
god is a mother
and with that
the world stops
the world always stops
when woman and
as if the
when in reality
it embodies it
when jesus turns water
but when women turn breasts
a broken man’s body
is celebrated each sunday
while a broken woman’s body
is just hidden away
and it’s no wonder
that mother is a word
used by men
to demonize those
who don’t claim the name
and weaponized to shame
those who step out of line
plays the role of nurturer
built and led by them
she is neither quiet
she leads confidently
she questions authority
she commands respect
which might be the problem
for mother god
did not gather us up
but took her time with it
she fed us milk
birthed our souls
and broke her body
and the permanence
can be uncomfortable
and to disentangle god
to disentangle god
because seeing god as mother
is one step closer
to seeing god in me
and it’s in that
i am truly
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.