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
I have a really good friend who has said, more than once, that she hesitates to talk about her faith or God with other folks because she often feels like she doesn’t know enough—that she might mess up the theology or not get it just right. That, somehow, when it comes to God, she isn’t smart enough. Even though she is one of the most love-filled, faithful folks I know.
Maybe you feel that way too. Like you’re not “God-smart” enough to really get it right when talking with others. But did you hear Jesus’ answer today when John the Baptist asks Jesus: “Are you the One who is to come or are we to wait for another?” Jesus doesn’t give a creedal answer. Jesus doesn’t use doctrine or dogma. Jesus says: What do you see happening? “.... the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.”
It isn’t doctrine or dogma—saying the right things and having the right head knowledge that Jesus points to in order to know who God is and what God is all about—-it is participating and witnessing the signs of the kingdom. It’s all about the signs–God’s love breaking into the world. Now, don’t get me wrong—there is plenty of head knowledge about God. After all, I went to seminary for three years, I sure hope it wasn’t a waste of time. But Advent is about that head knowledge moving down into our heart and then breaking out as action—loving, life-giving, liberating action–out into the world. That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.
There’s just so much Good news today, Beloved. Isaiah tells us of a highway. Now, in Hebrew scripture and storytelling, this highway is the one created and walked smoothed by thousands of people on their way back home after exile. Isaiah tells us: “A highway will be there. It will be called the Holy Way. The unclean won’t travel on it, but it will be for those walking on the way. Even fools won’t get lost on it. No lion will be there and no predator will go up on it. None of these will be there; only the redeemed will walk on it.”
This highway is for us. After all, we are the ones who so often exile ourselves from God who is love; God who is our only home. We lead ourselves astray. I mean that’s the story since Adam and Eve—we choose to live in a way that exiles us from Eden. We choose self-centered ways instead of the other-centered ways that keep us in right relationship with others, which then keeps us in right relationship with God. After all, that’s home: when we live in right relationship with God and all others. A bible word for this is righteousness. And Justice. And Salvation. We complicate it with catechism and doctrine and dogma—using words that seem too high, too lofty, too out of reach. But it is simply put (although still very challenging): Love God; Love neighbor.
And the Way is this highway; this highway Isaiah tells us is holy. The word “holy” in Hebrew means “set apart”. Not in an exclusive way. Not in a perfect way. But set apart as in: “not like the everyday society and culture around us” kind of way. Because this Way of Love is all too often not the way this capitalistic, every person for themself, dog-eat-dog world chooses. The highway home to Love, Sacrificial Love, is holy—set apart. A new way to walk in the world.
And this highway is for everyone. Oh, I know what you’re thinking: Ha, Jane! You weren’t listening….Isaiah says the unclean will not walk on it and it is for the redeemed. Beloved, do you remember that story in the 10th chapter of the book of Acts—when Peter is told to eat the food that has appeared in his vision, food that religious law had told him is unclean—the Spirit makes certain Peter comes to understand that anything God has made is clean, not unclean. This later leads Peter to accept the Gentiles as God’s people. No unclean walk on this Holy Way because there are no unclean. Whatever God has made is clean. And yes, this holy way is for the redeemed, but as Jesus makes clear on the cross—redemption is for all people. There are no unredeemed. Because, according to the Word, Salvation is for all people. A gift for all. But like any gift—it must be accepted. It must be taken. It must be owned—for that gift to become mine. For that gift to become yours.
And not only is this Way for everyone; there is no “trap” set for you there—no lions and predators to eat you up if you get it wrong. And, in fact, if you keep walking the way: you can’t get it wrong. It is “fool-proof” for no fools walk there. All the anxiety, fear, and doubt in ourselves that we tie up into getting this right is our own doing. Man’s own creation. God makes it foolproof and all-inclusive. And asks us to begin by trusting our hearts to the One who set the stars in the sky. Giving sacrificial Love permission to unpack its suitcase and get comfy in our hearts, minds, spirits and bodies—as we become our truest identity. And Beloved, we are always becoming.
Theologian and scholar Marcus Borg wrote: “The Christian life is not about pleasing God, the finger-shaker and judge. It is not about believing now or being good for the sake of heaven later. It is about entering a relationship in the present that begins to change everything now. Spirituality is about this process: the opening of the heart to the God who is already here.”
This relationship with the Holy, when Love takes up residence within us and becomes our Why, it is an awakening, an epiphany, and it causes us to see our neighbor differently, this world differently, ourselves differently. As David Suzuki puts it: “The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore….if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber….if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity….then we will treat each other with greater respect. Thus is the challenge to look at the world from a different perspective.” Or as Isaiah says:...."Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared."
Beloved: in Scripture, the signs of God’s reign are never the rich getting richer or the powerful maintaining their power and authority and status. When love breaks in, it is always, ALWAYS when the poorest, the weakest, the marginalized and the outcast among us are lifted up, healed, cared for, included and restored to community—a homecoming. Shalom. That’s the Kingdom come. And it isn’t some ethereal, distant, disconnected God out there who causes it to happen. It is the God that lives within us—within humanity—the Living Body of Christ who is made up of both flesh and Spirit and who is always becoming and always raising the dead from life. Steven Charleston writes: I am willing to take the risk of love because I know the source of love.
When we are willing to take the risk of love, the sacrificial love we know in Jesus, when we can love others and all of Creation before profit, before convenience, before our comfort, our preferences, when we wake up to the truth that this Love lived out is the highway to our own wellness and wholeness, when we take the risk of this love—knowing many will call us nonconformists, foolish and rebels—then, Beloved: Peace on earth and goodwill for all peoples. Beloved, we know the source of love; let’s take the risk.
Lists. We all have lists. For example I bet right now, in your head—and probably in your heart too—you have a list of folks who you struggle to tolerate. People who really irritate you and you just do not like. They may be people you know or people in politics or people you haven’t met but who are in the news. They may be a type of person or a group of persons or even someone who was once a friend or neighbor, a co-worker or fellow church member.
When we hear this reading today:
"His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
We all have those folks from our list who come to mind and we think: Yeah, Jesus. Go get’em! Put that axe to that tree—throw that chaff into the fire.
Am I right?
But, Beloved, if we think the trees and chaff are people, that means God is perfectly fine with some people being axed down and some people being thrown into the pits of an unquenchable fire. And there are versions of Christianity that profess this as Biblical truth, as Gospel—and this reading is one of the reasons why they profess that.
But this translation of the reading would also mean that God’s desire for all creation—and all people—to be restored to right relationship to God and each other—that God’s desire is not going to happen. That salvation isn’t for all people, but only some people. That God is not going to get what God wants, and therefore, there is a power that is greater than God’s love.
Beloved, this cannot be the appropriate way to read and understand what John the Baptist is saying in the Gospel reading.
Today, I want to invite us to hear this prophetic description of Jesus’ role in the world just a bit differently.
Beloved, what if every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit isn’t a person? Or if the chaff isn’t bad people or the people on our list who get thrown into the fire? What if, instead, within each of us are thoughts, beliefs, habits and practices that get in the way of us living Love out fully and boldly 24/7? So within each of us are trees that need to be axed and chaff that needs to be burned. What if it’s not people who need to be cut down or people who are banished to the unquenchable fire but it is the pieces and parts within each of us that following Jesus puts an end to? A refining fire that burns away the dross to leave the gold?
After all, John the Baptist is calling us to repentance; the first words out of his mouth today are: Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven draws near. And of course, the Kingdom of heaven that draws near is Jesus. Within and through Jesus—his life, his words, his actions, his ministry—God’s reign can be seen, known, experienced and shared. As the Body of Christ comes near, so does God’s Kingdom come.
And John is telling us that repentance is required to see, know, experience and share that kingdom. This Kingdom we hear described in Isaiah when the way of life we are living right now, the way that is based on prey and predator, based on violence and warfare, based on imbalance of power and wealth, based on individualism rather than the Common Good–this way of life ends, and the Kingdom of heaven begins a new way of life. A way of life that is based on Love, on interdependent relationships. A life, a reality, where they will not hurt nor destroy no more on all God’s holy mountain. Repent, John tells us, Repent and Prepare the Way for God’s Love to come in through the wasteland that humanity has created.
Repent. This word means to turn around, do a 180, or as Biblical scholar Sara Ruden puts it: to change your purpose. In Jesus we see this as turning from a self-centered life whose purpose is me and mine to having an other-centered life whose purpose is we, us and ours. Turning from individualism to community, from us vs. them to we all belong to each other. We all depend on each other. We are all each other’s business.
It’s Advent: Repent. Turn around. Take up a new purpose. So, I’m gonna ask you a question—one that I do not want you to answer right now, but a question that I do want you to take seriously and to answer for yourselves. Maybe, when you are ready, share your answer with another trusted person who can help hold you accountable to your answer. Because humans generally need accountability when it comes to the hard things. So, here’s the question: What are you doing to turn around? To take up a new purpose? To identify the chaff within you that needs to be burned? And then what steps are you taking to let that controlled burn take place within you?
Beloved:The Kingdom of heaven draws near. And as the Prophet Isaiah tells us: On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
The root of Jesse—who we know as Jesus—-Jesus stands as a signal to all peoples. A signal: which is a sound, a gesture, an action that is used to convey information—that is used to begin a chain of events. Jesus stands as a signal to all people; his life is a series of actions that is meant to convey to us how to live— which then begins a chain of events– a ripple of effects of living differently that leads to loving, life-giving, and liberating repercussions which then change the world as we know it. This dog eat dog world is cut down at the root and thrown into the fire.
When the One who is Love becomes our signal, we become the Living Body of Christ in the world today. After all, that is what we profess. That is what we declare when we are baptized and say yes to God as our King. We are not just saying yes to trying to be good or trying to be nice or trying to do the decent thing most of the time. We have signed up to be the LIVING BODY OF CHRIST IN THE WORLD TODAY. The very place God dwells. Generation after Generation.
As St. Teresa of Avila reminds us:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which Christ looks compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are His body.
Christ has no body on earth now but yours.
“...they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Sounds like a dream. And it is: God’s dream—for all of Creation and all of humanity. But to our ears, it sounds like a “wish” dream—like an impossibility, an improbability. This God vision Isaiah shares with us today seems so far off because the human ego would never choose it; the human ego never does.
This is why we are called to put our “Christ” on—to let the holy, the divine, be born within us. This is the revolution Jesus initiates and instigates into the world—the overthrow of our self-centered hearts—a complete regime change within individual hearts that turns the world as we know it upside down. But actually right-side up.
Beloved: how do we get there from here?
At the first Advent, Jesus as Love-in-the-Flesh is born into the world. So that the world might know that living this Way of Love as a human being is possible. So that we may begin to believe that this is Our Way.
Thus begins the Second Advent: Humans learning how to live as humans are meant to live: with love at our center. What Love asks of us is that we choose this Way for ourselves. We cannot control or demand this from anyone else. We can ONLY choose it for ourselves. It is so much more than attending a worship service each week or joining a committee that does the church work or earning a badge for attending the most Sunday school classes. Those are all good things—but only when they are practiced in order to seek a deeper and more meaningful purpose. These practices, these habits of worship, study, prayer and gathering—we are called to them all so that we can tend to our interior lives—these practices are markers and pitstops on a path to a deeper interior life. The revolution within us that unleashes revolutionary love into the world.
Each year, the Church gives us this Advent season to do the work of cultivating, of fertilizing, of cleaning up and making room so that Love can take root within. Or, if we have been around for a few seasons, for Love to be pruned and strengthened, for the roots to sink deeper and spread wider all so that our lives can more consistently, more intentionally, and more purposefully harvest and midwife Love out into the world: the third Advent. That time when instruments of warfare and destruction will be turned into tools of growth, nourishment and life.
And the purpose? Why do this? Why live differently? Why bother? After all, we know we will probably not live to see those swords turned into plowshares and those spears become pruning hooks. But Peace is still within our reach—and if Jesus is any clue—we can actually have Peace 24/7. Because Peace isn’t primarily when there is war no more (although I still believe that is the ultimate desire of God). But even in the midst of warfare: external and internal; even in the midst of loss, disease, and struggle, we can have Peace. We can give peace.
Because Peace means having the ability to remain whole, to remain centered in the middle of whatever life brings. That the chaos and pain of life can not completely undo us. Peace means we know who we are and whose we and we trust that we are held in a larger narrative which exists beyond the close narrative of our everyday lives, the “in-our-face” narrative of social media and politics and human cruelty. Peace believes there is a goodness, a wholeness, a force of Love that exists beyond this limited, earthly narrative, that there is a Power to restore us outside of this time continuum, this earthly life, this narrow band of existence that begins with our birth and ends with our death.
With every fiber of my being, I trust in this truth of another narrative beyond the dash between my birth and death. I believe in a forever reality that sometimes shimmers for me beyond the veil. It shimmers whenever I see Love exchanged; compassion cultivated; when kindness overcomes cruelty and we live as good neighbors. I think this may be the truth that Jesus tried to breathe into those gathered disciples who were witnessing his life beyond death. This “Peace be with you” Jesus extends three times to those scared witless friends who were coming to realize just who this King, this Messiah, really is. And as they were just beginning to realize what they must let go of in order to truly gain their lives.
I think this is why Christmas–and holy days like it: Hanukkah in Judaism, Rohatsu in Buddhism, Winter Solstice for Pagans—why these holy days are so loved, so treasured. Even by those who do not believe in the existence of a God. Because in our DNA—in the marrow of our bones—we do believe in this better reality that shimmers just beyond our touch. We do believe we know better, that we can do better, that we can be better.
So, Beloved, let us lean into the conversion of our hearts. Let’s do the work of Advent—cleaning up and making room in our interior lives for Love to move in as our constant companion. So that as we approach our neighbor, like our Buddhist siblings, we can say, “Namaste: The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” Maybe when we share the Peace, we should say: The Christ in me greets the Christ in You. Or even better (and more challenging): The Christ in me sees the Christ in You. Or The Christ in me loves the Christ in You. For this, Beloved, this turn, this labor for Love to become our heart and well-spring—this is how we, as humanity, can actually move beyond the human ego. This is how we can choose the better Way. How we live a better world into being.
Happy New Year, Beloved. It is time to begin again. Stay alert. Love is always longing to be born.
So, an unusual thing happened on Tuesday, I was working here in the church building and came out of the sanctuary into our welcome area, and there was a man who used to belong to Intercession, but who–when the Episcopal Diocese decided to allow same-gender marriages–who felt we had gone beyond the pale and chose to leave Intercession. So, I hadn’t seen him for 5-6 years.
But there he was and he said he needed to speak with me; that God seemed to have some lessons for him to learn. He started with reminding me that he was a pretty black and white thinker and then he shared that their grandson had recently come out as transgender. And he and his wife loved his grandson and they want to support him, but they had spoken with their pastor, and they believed his choice of lifestyle was a sin. The man was seeking a second opinion of sorts.
I tried to explain that his grandchild wasn’t choosing a lifestyle. She was choosing her life. I asked him what it would be like if he looked in a mirror and saw a woman staring back, and the world treated him like a woman—even though he knew he was a man. The pain that would cause. The unbearability of it. I told him his granddaughter was making it clear that she could not live the lie any longer—that the lie was more dangerous and harmful to her than the pain and struggle that will come from living her truth. We talked longer and further, and I am glad to say that when the man left he felt as if perhaps he would be able to sleep for the first time in a long time. And then I said, Following Jesus so often requires us to unlearn what we have learned in order to grow deeper, and go deeper, with God.
Unlearning….letting go of what we have learned—from society, from our parents, teachers, from friends, from experiences,--even (and sometimes most importantly) from the Church. Unlearning in order to make room for the Truth, God’s truth.
That’s at the heart of what I am taking away from these lessons this time around…
In the letter to the Corinthians, Paul says: Let’s not test Christ, like some of them did, and were killed by the snakes. Let’s not grumble, like some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example and were written as a warning for us to whom the end of time has come.
This is a way of understanding God that we see and hear all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: If you are good, God rewards you and if you are bad, then God punishes. It is a way of understanding God that we still, all too often, believe today. This understanding leads us to say things like: Why did God make this happen to me? Why is God doing this to me? We think when bad things happen it is God’s doing. That God is choosing suffering for us; that God is causing our pain.
And then there’s also this nugget in Paul’s letter: No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities.
This nugget often gets reiterated as: God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.
Beloved: That is bunk. Absolute bunk. And, it’s a very poor interpretation of God’s Truth.
Frankly, Paul’s got it wrong. Wait! What! How can I say that? What’s that preacher woman talking about!
First of all, let’s remember—Paul is processing theology. Just like us, he has become enthralled and enraptured with the Way of Love, and as Paul seeks to expand Jesus’ movement, he is also trying to figure it out and what it all means—just like you and I. And even though Paul is living in the midst of Jesus’ recent life and has had an incredible story of transformation, he still gets it wrong sometimes. Just like you and I.
Too often, we think of Paul as unable to err, but Beloved, Paul is a human, like us. A human being who has become convinced that his life is God’s, and out of utter gratefulness, he seeks to share and spread what he knows of God. But, sometimes, he gets it only partially right, because like us, sometimes he has to unlearn in order to learn.
And the second reason I can say that Paul probably didn’t get it all right: Jesus. In Today’s Gospel the people come to Jesus and say: Didn’t those Galileans die because they sinned? And Jesus says: Nope. Jesus goes on to say: Do you think those that died when the Tower of Siloam fell on them were being punished? Nope.
Nope, Jesus says: And then Jesus says: if you don’t want to die —Then, Beloved: Change your hearts and lives. Live differently. Be transformed. Turn from your ways to God’s ways. Jesus unequivocally denies that God is a God who punishes us due to anger or disappointment. This isn’t the only time in Scripture Jesus says such things, but it is one.
And not only do Jesus’ words today make it clear that God is not a God of quid pro quo. God does not live by tit for tat. We do, but God does not. As Isaiah reminds us: My plans aren’t your plans, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my plans than your plans.
Jesus tells us, and then Jesus shows us in his life and death, that God is not a God of punishment. God is a God of covenant, a covenant from which God refuses to walk away. God is a God who delights in life, not death. God is creative and recreative, not destructive. God is loving, life-giving and liberating. On the cross God says: I forgive. God says, come with me to Paradise, God does not say: now you just wait and see what I’m gonna do to you. Boy, are you in trouble. Beloved,God says: Forgive. Come.
Yes, sometimes, like with the Galileans, our actions have terrible and painful consequences—for ourselves and for others. But God does not cause our suffering—sometimes our actions do. Sometimes our words do. Sometimes our choices and beliefs do. And then, God comes to us and finds us in the midst of the healing, the reconciliation, the forgiveness, the mercy and the grace that must follow.
And yes, sometimes towers fall upon us. Accidents happen. Bad luck, bad timing falls our way. Disease happens. God is not choosing those things for us to see how we will handle it all. God mourns with us. God despairs for us. And then God comes. God comes in the healing, the reconciliation, the reparation,the rebuilding that must follow.
If you walk away with nothing else, here is the unlearning I hope sinks in today: God does not cause our suffering. God does not give us suffering. From the Book of Wisdom, chapter 1, verses 13 and 14: God did not make death, and God does not delight in the death of the living. For God created all things so that they might exist; that they might live.
God is a God of life and resurrection. And God, the Creator, knows that pain and suffering will happen, does happen, and in fact, is inevitable. Death and resurrection is part of what sustains and equips this Creation.
Beloved, God’s promise is not if you are good enough or follow the rules closely enough or that if you show up into a church building 52 Sundays a year you will not have pain or suffering. That you can, somehow, avoid death. And none of this—not a lick of the Way of Love—is about getting into heaven. But, when we live the Way of Love–we taste heaven. We experience heaven; we embody it for others and make it reality for others.
God’s promise is not about a golden ticket into the happily ever after. God’s promise is that God will carry us through. Carry us through whatever life brings. Carry us through when our choices have mucked it all up. Carry us through when our boat is swamped in the storm. Carry us through as we stand beside the tombs and wail our pain. Carry us through when we feel alone in the wilderness, when we hunger and thirst because we know that there is more to be had but it seems beyond our reach, when we are besieged by injustice and the cruel inhumanity that we serve up to each other.
And Beloved, our God of the covenant just keeps showing up. God shows up in the silence , during the storms, in the war-torn maternity hospitals and at the empty tables of hunger and poverty. And in Jesus, the promise is that God will show up for us and with us in human form. God shows up in the friends who listen, bring us dinner, write us cards, lift up prayers. The family who comforts us, sits by our bedside while we heal. The strangers who show up just when we need it. The neighbor who reminds us of our own humanity. The child who reminds us that we are made in God’s image.
So, let’s end back up to where we started—with the story where I began. The man who came to see me admitted that he was a “black and white thinker” —often having trouble accepting folks he called “atypical.” Beloved—we often want a binary world: this or that, good or bad, male/female, friend or enemy…..And when things, or people, do not fit our binary schematic—we deem them “atypical” or “broken” or a “mistake.” Recently, someone asked me why God would create someone whose body didn’t match their gender.
All I can say is that God created a Creation that includes male, female, and many other gender identifications. God created a Creation that includes heterosexual, homosexual, asexual, pansexual, polyamorous…..
These spectrums are not only in humanity but are all throughout Creation. What if the unlearning we need to have is that the “normal” isn’t binary? What if Creation’s normal is a spectrum? Not this nor that, but all of the beautiful above. Just imagine what letting go of that learning might do in leading us toward Shalom.
To quote W.H. Auden:
All I have is a voice
to undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Beloved, we must love one another or die.
A thin, frail black woman in her seventies stands up slowly in a courtroom in South Africa in to face evil. In front of her are several white security police officers. One of them, Mr. van der Broek, has just been tried and found guilty in the murders of this woman’s son and husband.
van der Broek had come into this black woman’s home---as a white police officer in South Africa. He took her son, shot him at point blank range and burned his body while the other white security police officers partied nearby. Several years later they came back. This time van der Broek and his partners took her husband. She heard nothing of him or from him for two years. Then they came back to fetch her. They took her to a riverbank where she saw her husband for the first time in two years. He was beaten and bound, lying on a pile of wood. As van der Broek and his cohorts poured gasoline on him, she heard her husband speak his last words: Father, forgive them….
This woman stood to face evil in that courtroom on that day. She listened as van der Broek confessed to his crimes. A member of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission then turned to this now elderly black woman and said: How should justice be done for this man who so cruelly destroyed your family?
“I want three things,” the woman calmly said. “I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned to gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.” She paused. “My husband and son were my only family. So I want Mr. van der Broek to become my son. I want him to come twice a month to my house and spend the day with me so I can pour out on him whatever love I have remaining in me.”
“Finally,” she said, “I would like Mr. van der Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus Christ died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. So I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. van der Broek in my arms, embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven.”
As the court assistants came to lead the woman across the room, van der Broek fainted, overwhelmed by what he had heard. As he struggled for consciousness, those in the courtroom---family, friends, neighbors of the black woman, all victims of decades of oppression and injustice---began to sing softly and assuredly: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me….”
Love one another as I have loved you. This, this is that kind of love. This is that all-forgiving, sacrificial, lay-down-your-life-for-another Jesus kind of love. This is a love that puts another’s interest first; in fact, this love recognizes that the other’s interest is my best interest.
When I first read this story, I was overwhelmed and inspired. And yet, at the same time, I thought to myself: I don’t think I could do that. I don’t think I have that much love or forgiveness in me. But, I want to. I want to love like this. Oh, Jesus, I want to be able to love like this.”
And that, Beloved, is just the crack the Holy Spirit needs to invade our hearts.
Did you hear what Peter did in today’s reading from Acts? Peter, a regular guy---a lot like you and me---but a guy so swept up in the passion of Jesus, the passion for Jesus--- that Peter decides to trust in a new way, a new path. You see, Peter had been taught that Gentiles were out. They were outside the circle of salvation. But then, God sent a vision and God sent Peter to meet Cornelius—a Roman centurion—and then we hear Peter today as he talks to his fellow Jesus followers and he explains what he has experienced, the vision of inclusion he has been given, and Peter declares that he now believes Cornelius, a Gentile, has already been saved---just like them, the believers---Peter declares that God desires all, even the Gentiles, to be in the in-circle of salvation.
As Peter is talking, the Holy Spirit falls on them all---a radical outpouring of the Holy---and Peter (and the early church) is presented with an opportunity to learn something new concerning divine persistence to act on behalf of those who have been excluded. The early church’s perspective of who was in and who was out, of just who is the Beloved Community, was being changed---not by their own doing—but by the intervention of the Holy Spirit. By the extravagance of the Holy Spirit and the wideness of God’s mercy.
Neither Peter nor Cornelius were able, by themselves, to cross the boundaries that the world and the early church had set between them. Both of them required the Holy Spirit to intervene---to pour Herself out on them in order to love in this bold, inclusive Jesus kind of love.
It’s the same for us. We need the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to ease into the cracks of our hardened hearts and minds---to break down our barriers and knock over our boundaries that keep us from loving others as Jesus loves us. And Beloved, some of these barriers and boundaries have been taught by the Church. Some have been embedded in our structures and systems, so they are part of our culture, society and laws. Some have been taught to us by our history books and our families. All of them need to be demolished. Because in Jesus we see that there are to be no boundaries or borders between God’s people that prevent them from pouring out love upon one another. There are no barriers between God and God’s people---at least none that God has made, but we can certainly do a fine job of building them ourselves.
Beloved: daily we see stories that verify we—as a people, as a nation, as the Beloved---we do not yet know how to live out this radical love and inclusivity, this equity for all of the beauty of human diversity, this stewardship of the entire Creation. But, Beloved, if we are willing---if we allow ourselves to be cracked open, the Holy can and will mend, restore, make new. And not just our hearts and minds and spirits need to be cracked open, but if we are willing to allow our systems, our structures, our cultural expectations, our religious beliefs, our erroneous racial identifications and our petty categorizations of humanity to be cracked open---then not only we as individuals, but we as the Beloved Community, we as Americans, we as global citizens---and yes, even the globe itself---can be put on the track toward wellness and wholeness, to mending and repair.
The Rev. Stephanie Spellers writes in her book, The Church Cracked Open: “Our cracked-open hearts are at last roomy enough to hold the lives and hearts of others……Once your heart is cracked open---or the heart of your institution has cracked open---you are positioned to give your life, privilege, and power away specifically for love of peoples who have suffered under the knee of oppression. This is how we all draw near to our crucified and risen God.” (1875 in Kindle)
God tells us today that the world’s boundaries, divisions, and barriers, they will be defeated. By our belief and trust in the Holy. Because this belief and trust enacted, putting flesh onto our beliefs, is to love one another. As Jesus loves us. Sacrificially. Laying down one’s life. Not waiting until the other deserves it but because this radical love is who we are. And it is who we are because it is who God is. God’s will is Love. God’s will is Love.
C.S. Lewis once wrote: Don’t waste time bothering about whether or not you love your neighbor. Act as if you do.
Act in love, act from love, act through love. The love that recognizes meeting the other’s best interest is meeting my best interest. This love that sees that we are bound to one another because God has bound us together. This is the love that changes the world; this is what defeats evil; this is what conquers our separation from one another, and therefore, from God. As Jesus followers and Jesus lovers, we are not allowed the luxury to think along the lines of: my kind, not my kind. Beloved, for those of us who love God, there is not a single person on the face of the earth who is not our kind.
A devotional I once read talked about how throughout history, people have done radical things to try to please the god or gods they believed in. Animals, and even people, have been sacrificed. Crusades have been waged. Witches have been hunted. Heretics have been burned. Men in white robes with white hoods, calling themselves the Ku Klux Klan, looted and burned, maimed and lynched black bodies in the name of Jesus Christ.
Maybe it’s human nature to want to do drastic and radical things to please God---or perhaps, I should say, maybe it’s human nature to falsely do things in God’s name in order to appease our own notions of who belongs or who is worthy or our own “rightness.” Too often we can convince ourselves that God hates or disowns people or groups of people---and interestedly enough: it is always the same people we hate or disown.
Today we hear the Holy declaring a new nature for humanity, a new radical act to please God: Love. Love everyone, regardless of whether we agree with them, understand or even know them. How? Forgive them---somehow. It might take a lifetime. But even when we haven’t yet reached forgiveness, love them. By working for the benefit of all people---working toward the Common Good---this is how we can love all others. Work for the flourishing of Creation and every human being in it. This is a radical thing to do, a huge thing to do---so huge it requires a God-sized love to do it. The Good News is: that’s exactly what God gives us.
Do you ever wonder how to know what is the right thing to do? What should I do to help this situation? Looking at this sticky mess---what is the right thing? Confession time: I often feel this way right now because there is so much in upheaval: the climate crisis, the economy, the pandemic, our great political divide and politicians who refuse to work together, poverty, racism, insurrection, violence....unfortunately the list goes on...And then we have those more personal upheavals: broken relationships, trauma and tragedy we know personally, illness, loss, grief, isolation.....
How can we know what to do or how to move forward or what the right thing is for each struggle, each upheaval, each weary battle?
Now, Beloved, I know this reading from 1 Corinthians might seem really strange and distant to us, Paul talking about whether it’s right or wrong to eat meat that had been offered to idols and other gods; we might think this really has nothing to do with our lives today. But, Beloved, Paul is simply trying to help out folks in this new church of Corinth when there’s a conflicting issue in their society, in their community—trying to help them determine what is the right thing to do. Like us, Paul is helping the Corinthians to answer the question: How do we live as followers of a new way in the midst of followers of the old way? So, let’s set aside the particular (whether to eat meat or not) and get at the Gospel Truth Paul is offering.
Paul says: You might know a lot about this situation, but knowing alone isn’t enough to determine what is the right, the just, the good thing to do. Paul says the right and good (or we might say: what is meet and right so to do) is found when we look through the lens of Jesus and ask: What will help my neighbor? What will hurt my neighbor? Knowing what is right comes from considering what will be the ramifications of our choices on others. Not how will it work out for me, primarily, but how will it affect my neighbor and the world in which I live?
And Beloved, Paul isn’t just talking about your besties, the fun neighbors you like to hang out with, Paul is talking about the neighbor you don’t understand or who has a different world view or with whom you vehemently disagree. So, maybe, Beloved, this strange reading about eating meat has a lot more to do with us and our reality than we would think.
And here’s the thing, this putting each decision in the context of neighbor requires a great reversal---a metanoia—turning from an inward, self-centered stance to an outward, other-centered posture. And this metanoia requires a letting go of my view and living into a wider view, a Creation view---God’s view.
And here’s where the Gospel Good News comes into the mix. In Today’s Gospel, we are the man with the unclean spirit, the demon-possessed one. Because the truth is, each one of us has our own demons; those sharp edges and ragged corners within us that allow us to believe some folks are less worthy or unworthy. Not worthy of our time, our compassion, our patience or our listening hearts. That some folks don’t know better or do better so their lack of what’s needed to thrive is on them. Those jagged bits of us that knows there is inequity in our society, but it doesn’t affect us personally so we’re willing to let it slide. The bits that let us sit in our comfort while others know no comfort. Those judging, condemning morsels within us that relish in pointing out how others are so very wrong (thank God we are in the right!), and making sure they know we know how very wrong they are.
Beloved, we have demons that keep us separated from friends, families, neighbors, community members; demons of self-righteous anger, pride, lack of humility, unwillingness to be uncomfortable or inconvenienced, and of course, let’s not forget delicious gossip. Yep, we’re that guy---the demon-possessed one. But, Beloved, let us not wallow in regret, shame or guilt. That won’t get us anywhere. That, Beloved, that is a waste-land.
Today’s good news is that Jesus, this Holy One, has authority over these demons. God has sent a prophet among us who can show us how to be truly human, how to be authentically human, our best selves: people who can live into the dream of the Beloved Community.
And our first step toward the Beloved Community is to name our demons, expose our demons to the light and love of this Holy One, this One who saves and restores. This revolution we long for, Beloved, this new world we desire that can transform community, nation, and Creation---this revolution begins small, not big, it begins within us. Begins in our hearts, minds, spirits and bodies. If we truly desire to live into the wholeness and abundance of God’s promises, into this dream of Beloved Community, then we need to be willing to be vulnerable with God: the God who is Spirit and the God who comes to us in the form of our neighbor. God with skin on. This God who longs to know us and to be known.
This year we are calling one another, as the Beloved Community, to take intentional steps into this vulnerability with God through prayer. We are calling on each other to commit to a year of intentional and formational prayer that can strengthen our bonds to one another, to our neighbor and to God. You will hear more about that next Sunday.
Beloved, God is calling us to Galilee---where the Christ heals and restores---heals and restores us, our neighbors, our relationships, our communities, our nation, and this world. Healing and restoration that require our participation, our engagement, our commitment. Come, Beloved. Come and see. Come and follow. Yes, it is hard to walk a new way amidst those who still cling to what has been, but the Holy One is with us. Leading. Walking alongside. Lightening the path and shadowing our footsteps. So, come. Let us walk each other into wholeness; let us walk each other home. Home to Galilee.
Sunday, January 24
This past week, I heard a leader from our previous administration say that America is not multicultural---that multiculturalism is not who we are as America. Beloved, you may agree with that statement or disagree; there does seem to be different understandings of who we are as a nation and as a people. I, personally disagree with this leader; I was taught that we are indeed a nation of many cultures, different faiths and many peoples, but Beloved, here’s the thing: for we who follow the Christ---this Way of Love personified in a person—then our truth of who we are doesn’t come from the definition of a nation. It comes from this Holy One who is Creator of all things---and therefore, we do recognize ourselves to be multicultural because multicultural is surely who God is. If humankind is made in God’s image, then there is no denying that God’s image is one of many languages, many colors, many cultures.
In the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul declares that he expects the Christ to come back soon----so soon, in fact, that Paul advises people not to make their own long-term plans because the time for Jesus is upon us. And Paul knows, and declares, that when the Christ, this Way of Love, breaks back in---then the present form of the world passes away. The present form of this world passes away….
Oh! Beloved! What good news. I long for the present form of this world to pass away---this animosity and anger that paints our landscape, this division and vitriol of humanity that weakens us, this poverty, this injustice of racism, this silencing of the voices of women and the LGBTQ community, this diminishment of refugees and immigrants, this desecration of Creation----oh how I long for it all to pass away….
And Beloved, the passing away of a world only happens when those who inhabit that world change (or as we often translate the Greek of Scripture, when there is repentance—a metanoia---a turning around). When we change our ways, our priorities, our views. When we turn from one way of being to another way of being, of another way living, another way of loving.
Like the people of Ninevah we hear in today’s reading. Of course, our friend Jonah wanted nothing to do with helping the Ninevites since they inhabited a world, this capital city of Ninevah, that was the center of the oppressive state (Assyria) which oppressed Jonah’s people, the Israelites. Jonah had no desire to help them or see them or speak to them. In fact, he ran the other direction. But God would have none of Jonah’s avoidance. Nor will God have ours.
And when, reluctantly and begrudgingly, Jonah decided to do as God asks, well then the Ninevites---they turned, they repented. They believed God. In fact, this translation of the Greek that we hear today as “believed” is too small for what this word really means. They didn’t just believe; they trusted. They trusted God---these non-believers, these misinformed, these non-followers. They believed and trusted God. They trusted there is another way to live, to choose, to share, to be in relationship with God and with neighbors—friend or foe.
Thanks to the work of this reluctant Jonah. The oppressors turned, repented, and then, Beloved, then the consequences that had once followed their oppressive, evil ways----these consequences were set aside, ended, because there was no oxygen to breathe life into the evil and oppression that once had been. And a wave of repentance led to a great reversal. A wave of repentance, turning around, led to a great reversal. Because, as the poet Amanda Gorman put it, we are not broken, simply unfinished.
When we, as individuals, but perhaps more importantly as a people, when we turn from evil ways: name-calling, finger pointing, placing more value on some rather than on all, when we turn from the evil of spreading misinformation, when we turn from demanding what is best for us and turn toward demanding what is best for all, when we step from the chains of self-centeredness that imprison us and turn toward the bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood that are central to God’s dream---then the world turns---turns from upside-down to right side up, turns toward God’s Kingdom come.
An old world passes away and a new world rises up. A world where all have enough because God has provided enough for everyone---as long as we learn to live together rightly and justly, when we recognize that none of this is mine, but all of it is ours, thanks be to God.
Last week’s Gospel told us that Jesus decided to go to Galilee and today, Mark puts it like this: Jesus came to Galilee. Galilee: where Jesus teaches and heals, where Jesus connects to all people, especially the disenfranchised, where Jesus feeds the hungry and quenches the thirsty, where Jesus levels the playing field and liberates the oppressed, where Jesus builds relationships and restores hope. Galilee where the Good News is proclaimed.
Beloved, the appointed time has grown short, the time for Jesus is upon us and God’s Kingdom is near. Turn. Turn, Beloved, toward the way of love. Love of God, love of neighbor, love of self. Turn and choose life. Come to Galilee.
Jane Johnson is the pastor and priest of the Beloved Community of Intercession Episcopal and Redeemer Lutheran.