Arthur Dent found himself in an office building where he really wasn’t present but merely watching a recorded projection of a great event: The Day of the Answer. For seven and a half million years, the mega-computer Deep Thought had been pondering and calculating the answer to the great question of Life, the Universe and Everything. Loonquawl and Phouchg, two severely dressed men, were waiting upon the computer to come to life. They were the two anointed ones who would receive the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything and convey this answer to the expectant crowd gathered in the square below. There was a pause as the computer came to life and its lights settled into a business like pattern.
“Good morning,” said Deep Thought.
“Er … good morning, O Deep Thought,” said Loonquawl nervously, “do you have … er … that is …”
“An answer for you?” interrupted Deep Thought majestically. “Yes. I have.”
“There really is one?” breathed Phouchg.
“There really is one,” confirmed Deep Thought.
“To Everything? To the great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything?”
“And you’re ready to give it to us?” urged Loonquawl.
“Now,” said Deep Thought. “Though I don’t think you are going to like it.”
“Doesn’t matter!” said Phouchg. “We must know it! Now!”
“Now?” inquired Deep Thought.
“Yes! Now …”
“All right,” said the computer and it settled into silence again.
“You’re really not going to like it,” observed Deep Thought.
“All right,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the great Question …”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything …” said Deep Thought.
“Is …” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Yes …!!! …?”
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.
It was a long time before anyone spoke. Out of the corner of his eye Phouchg could see the sea of expectant faces down in the square outside.
“We’re going to get lynched, aren’t we?” he whispered.
“It was a tough assignment,” said Deep Thought mildly.
“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem is, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.” [The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams: p. 168-172]
Hmmm … you’ve never actually known what the question is! I couldn’t help but think of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy when I saw the gospel reading today. We’ve entered Holy Week once again – in the fall it’s kind of like sneaking in the back door. We focus in the spring on what happened to Jesus in his last week on earth. In the fall we focus on the teachings Jesus gave during Holy Week – the kind of things a guy might get crucified for saying. Today he is being tested by the Sadducees about the resurrection and its application in a levirate marriage. Now two things are in this story that we have a tough time dealing with: Sadducees and levirate marriage. Let me unpack both of them.
The Sadducees were a theo-political party (remember temple and state were one in the same back then). They didn’t believe in a resurrection of the righteous after death and largely served as scribes in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were the rival theo-political party who believed in the resurrection of the dead and largely led the worship in the many synagogues dispersed throughout the Roman Empire. After the Temple was destroyed in 70AD, the Sadducees ceased to exist. Judaism today is a descendent of Pharisaic Judaism – and in his teaching, Jesus was more aligned with the Pharisees in their resurrection theology. Now these two parties didn’t get along but, in a case of politics making strange bedfellows, they could both agree they didn’t like Jesus and both were out to trap him.
The Sadducees set up a question about seven brothers for one bride (not to be confused with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – that’s a musical). The illustration they use is of a levirate marriage law where, if a man dies childless, his widow is to marry the next brother and raise up children for the dead brother. Sounds weird in our culture (and it is in our culture) but back then when children were your social security, it was a way to guarantee some economic security. So they set up the question where the woman keeps marrying all these brothers and they all die childless and then the woman dies. Now if they had stopped there, I would have been all over this story! I mean “Hallelujah It’s Raining Men!” right?? I get to heaven and get seven husbands … and its heaven so I don’t have to do their laundry! That’s awesome!!
But then the buzzkill part comes: “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” The underlying question is “Whose property will she be, Jesus?” After all, women were considered the property of their husbands in that day.
Jesus’ response was much like Deep Thought’s – “You all don’t even know the question!” It isn’t about whose property she is and marriage is something of this world that doesn’t exist in the next. You’re paying attention to the wrong thing!
Notice what Jesus doesn’t do: he doesn’t give us a fully fleshed out answer as to what heaven looks like. He does say we will be different and that earthly institutions like marriage are irrelevant. And then he points out that the voice which came from the burning bush spoke to Moses of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob saying “I am” their God. But the verb form of “I AM” is infinitive – which is to say “I WAS” their God, “I AM” their God, and “I ALWAYS WILL BE” their God. Jesus points out that the tense of the verb matters – God will always be our God and we will always live in the present moment with God in the resurrected life.
The good news of this encounter with the Sadducees is that we don’t have to get the questions right in order for God to save us in Christ. In fact, we may get the questions all wrong. God can handle that. The key is to keep searching and reaching out for our loving God who has promised us that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love. We probably never really will know what the question is, let alone the answer. But in the resurrected life in God, our questions matter not … what matters is how well we love.
Last week, we heard two of a series of three parables from Luke 15 about losing and the limits of meritocracy in the parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin. I hinted (ok, actually I promised) that we’d get the story of the lost son today. Apparently, the Revised Common Lectionary had another idea! It’s supposed to go: lost sheep, lost coin, lost son. The lectionary says: lost sheep, lost coin … dishonest manager??!! Really? WTF: “Where’s the flow??!!” This is just shifting gears without a clutch! I understand the reasoning behind why the lectionary drops the Lost Son (a/k/a the Prodigal Son) story. They have, of course, rightly deduced that ALL of you were sitting right here on the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year C) to hear me preach that text … right? Of course … and I know because I can pretty much “take roll” of who is here by where you sit each Sunday. Want to mess with me? Sit in different seats next Sunday … it will totally blow my roll taking system to pieces … which is entirely consonant with the theme of grace in these parables.
Those of you from more Protestant traditions are familiar with pastors who do preaching series where they take a topic, make several sermons on it and weave Scripture into their sermons. I don’t roll like that. I’m a Lectionary based preacher and I start with the readings and work my way back into life. But today … I’m going to make an exception and continue a series … AND … (“But wait! There’s more!!”) weave in today’s Gospel reading too. So we’ll get Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son … and Lost Scruples.
So catching up from last week, we have sinners and tax collectors coming from all around to listen to Jesus and in the background, like a Greek chorus, are the Pharisees and scribes who say, “This man welcomes sinners … and eats with them!” Jesus then launches into three parables claiming how being lost is exactly what is required for grace to find you. He tells of a lost sheep (1 out of 100 – a 1% loss), a lost coin (1 of ten drachma – a 10% loss) and now he tells of a lost son (1 of 2 – a 50% loss). In each parable, the loss mounts. In this last one being both lost and dead come together.
There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father's hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe--the best one--and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
One of my favorite authors, Father Robert Farrar Capon, in his book Kingdom, Grace, and Judgment: Paradox, Vindication and Outrage in the Parables of Jesus calls this parable a “festival of death.” I love that! And he is right … pretty much everybody, with the exception of the eldest son, dies … at least metaphorically. It is a parable where the youngest son acts in a shameful way by telling his father to drop dead by giving him his share of the inheritance – and amazingly the father does just that. He divides the wealth between his sons: youngest son getting one third and the eldest getting the two-thirds double portion which was first century Palestine’s version of social security – eldest son would now take care of dad in his dotage. But in essence, the father ceases to be the pater familias – he is no longer in charge, he has dropped dead. The younger son goes off and “squandered his wealth in a wild lifestyle.” The Greek says he “scattered his substance” on a “riotous life.” In essence, he blew it all … and then some. It wasn’t just the money … it was his whole substance. In addiction parlance, we might say he was heading for rock bottom. And then a famine came and he had to take a job … feeding the … pigs! How low can a nice Jewish boy go? Evidently, just a bit lower because looking at hog slop and thinking, “That looks good!” is probably slightly worse. So he has figured out that living life on his terms is over - he's dead. He devises a way to go home by saying, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” It may sound like he’s still trying to eke out some shred of dignity with that last contrivance of being a hired hand. But I think there is another dynamic at work. Adding that little phrase on to the end gives his father a face saving way of taking him back. Let’s face it, he shamed the old man and the son knows it. He’s giving dad a way to take him back and recover his dignity. He's actually thinking of his father's well-being - getting out of his own selfish head for once. But we know the father’s dignity doesn't matter – he’s dead, remember? When you've died, you don’t worry about saving face. So when this son comes home his father runs to meet him, kisses him and the son gets out, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” That’s it … game over. There’s the unvarnished truth – he’s dead and he knows it. Now grace steps in. His father clothes him in a fine robe, puts a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet and kills the fatted calf for a party.
But then … queue the ominous music … the older brother shows up. Yes, Captain Buzzkill has reported for duty! He’s not dead yet. He’s still in the merit badge business of keeping score. He throws a hissy fit and complains to his father that he’s worked hard, played by the rules and never had a party … “But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
Freeze frame … hold it right there … let’s admit it … we totally get the older brother. It doesn't matter how prodigal we may have been in our lives, we still see the inherent unfairness of this, don’t we? But the point of the parable isn't fairness – it’s about grace and grace is NEVER, EVER fair. Grace is … that’s all. Grace just is and we never, ever earn it. The older brother thinks we do, and sometimes we think we do … and the Pharisees overhearing this story definitely think we do … but that’s not how it works. What works is being a loser and dropping dead. God can work with that because it gets us and our small, finite, dead egos out of the way.
Which brings us to a really weird parable: the Dishonest Manager. Jesus is now going to use a really smarmy guy as an example … as if the Pharisees don’t have enough of a burr in their shorts already. This manager is brought up on charges he is squandering the rich man’s property – and the word for “squander” is exactly the same as the one in the parable of the Lost Son. Without an investigation or fair trial, the rich man fires the manager – so like the lost son, this manager is dead … or any semblance of his life is over. The manager (who is Jon Lovitz’s Tommy Flanagan in this version) thinks it through: “So … fire me will you? Well … two can play at that game. I’ll give you an accounting … after a few adjustments. Yeahhh! That’s the ticket!” I think he cooks the books for a couple of reasons. First, he ingratiates himself with the debtors who just might look favorably on him when he finally is out of a job (“Hey, you remember when old Tommy did you a favor??”). Second, he may actually have been able to collect some of this debt by reducing it and thus given his boss at least some return on the money and goods owed. The latter might explain why the rich man commends the dishonest manager in the end – not for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness: his ability to think on his feet and get out of an impossible situation. This guy who flouts the rules ends up exalted for his creative solution to an intractable problem.
And isn't this just what Christ does for us? Yes, I think the dishonest manager is the Christ figure in this story. Who else steps outside the lines of propriety, meritocracy and score keeping in order cook up a clever solution to the intractable problem of our lost, dead lives by getting nailed to a cross? Try as we might, no matter how we try to dress him up, Jesus is not a respectable guy! Remember? This is how the whole narrative starts … “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!” No respectable person would cavort with the riff-raff Jesus does! He has no scruples … at least according to human standards. That’s the point … Jesus is disreputable by the measures of polite society precisely because he blows off the merit badge system of earning “brownie points,” following the rules, and hanging out with the A-listers to dive straight into grace by a dishonorable death on a cross … which in the end is the only thing that saves us.
So for all of us lost sheep, lost coins, lost sons and daughters … are you ready to lose your scruples too and turn your lives over to a shady manager who stands ready to erase your debt?
Last Thursday marked the 5 year anniversary of the fall of Lehman Brothers – you know, the investment firm that started the domino chain of events resulting in our most recent economic crash; ironic this happened 7 years and 1 day after the attacks of 9/11. Both 9/11 and the market crash of 2008 have produced fundamental shifts in our culture. They both mark the end of a way of life we’ve known: a way marked by our country being a political and economic superpower. Oh, we’re still pretty powerful … but it isn’t the same and our world isn’t the same and if we are honest, it’s left us feeling anxious, vulnerable and even fearful.
And so last Thursday when I was listening to NPR’s Morning Edition, I overheard an interview with an economist from George Mason University name Tyler Cowen. Like most folks on the interview circuit, he’s promoting his new book in which he makes some predictions about our economic and social future. The first thing he says is that income inequality is increasing. Really? How could I have missed that??!! I guess being an economist is like being a priest – a major part of our vocation is pointing out the glaringly obvious (the difference, I suppose, is in the royalties). But he also goes on to say that he believes there will be a different kind of meritocracy emerging in America. Now we are a country founded on the mythology of meritocracy – the idea that one can work hard and get ahead because you are rewarded on your merit. Now in theory, that sounds great, right? Work hard, play by the rules, and get rewarded for it. Slack off, screw up and … well … you’ll get “rewarded” alright … but with a very different kind of reward. Now don’t get me wrong – we are a country where meritocracy does exist to some extent, imperfectly but that’s the nature of human experience. And hey, I’m a parent, rewards and consequences are something we need to teach our children so they can hopefully cope in this world.
But meritocracy has its limits … and the kind of meritocracy that Tyler Cowen sees coming I find profoundly disturbing. He believes that there will be a larger class of people who become “wealthy” (not sure what his definition of wealth is, but that’s another sermon). And he believes we will be recognized on our merits at earlier ages as long as we work hard and play by the rules. But (and this is a big BUT) the information age is creating a very ruthless form of meritocracy because of the sheer amount of data being collected on each and every one of us. And we’re not talking about the government collecting data – we are talking about corporations: JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, TransAmerica, Google, Yahoo, and others who are tracking all your commercial transactions – what you buy, where you buy it, your likes and dislikes, your credit score and whether you’ve declared bankruptcy. Add to this the for-profit insurance companies, doctors and hospitals who know your entire medical history and the legal system who knows whether or not you’ve been sued or arrested. There is a lot of data being collected on you and me … and most of it held by for-profit companies. Cowen’s theory is this data will be used to ruthlessly scrutinize us to see if we “play by the rules” and whether or not we get rewarded … with a job, a promotion, a good interest rate on that next loan, a pay raise. Cowen posits that for those who toe the line, the rewards will be great and for those who fall down, either through their own fault or by circumstances beyond their control, there will be no second chances … let alone third and fourth ones. One screw up and you are … finished. How do you feel about that meritocracy now? Makes me glad I got most of my screw ups out of the way before the internet came along!
But in all seriousness, this Orwellian vision of the future crashed headlong into today’s Gospel reading because it’s all about the futility of meritocracy and finding the lost. Luke tells us how the outcasts (sinners) are all flocking to Jesus to listen to him. This generates grumbling among the Pharisees and the scribes – you know, those guys who toe the line and play by the rules … the “A listers” of religious and political meritocracy. I mean really … this Jesus guy not only welcomes sinners but he EATS with them! Ewwww!! Like being a sinner gives you “sinner cooties” and you can catch them if you get too close. So Jesus, hearing the grumbling, tells two parables about why their merit badge system doesn’t count for much.
Now before we talk about the main point of the parables, I want to deal with what they are not about. They are not about repentance. I know, I know, Jesus talks about there being joy in heaven over the sinner who repents at the end of both stories. But the bulk of the wording of the stories focuses on being “lost” not repenting and the idea that a sheep or a coin can repent is just silly. I’m convinced the closing shot about repentance is kind of a snark-o-rama crack from Jesus aimed at the “play by the rules” gang who think they are not lost (they are, you know, they just haven’t figured it out yet).
Both of these stories focus completely on grace and how being lost is the key to receiving it. In fact, there are three stories in a row about “lostness” in Luke 15: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and next week we’ll hear about a lost son. Jesus, being a good rabbi, asks them a question: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Now I’m no expert on sheep, but this sounds like a really stupid idea. Leave 99 sheep in the wilderness?? What, so they can wander off and get lost too? In practicality, this doesn’t sound like a “good shepherd” at all … sounds like a dumb one to me. But that’s because I’m not the “Good Shepherd” – God is. And God isn’t worried about the 99 getting lost. So what if they do? God’s best work is in finding the lost. That’s the point! This is the same God who, even if all the coins get lost, will sweep the floor until she finds every last one. The one lost sheep or coin … or the 100 lost sheep and 10 lost coins (it doesn’t matter) … will be relentlessly pursued by God who is both Good Shepherd and peasant woman until they are found. All the sheep and the coin have to do let themselves be found.
You see, being lost is completely counter to the culture of meritocracy. Meritocracy says you can redeem yourself by your own efforts: your own cleverness, intelligence, and rule keeping. Oh, you may even buy into this myth for a time … until that day comes when your rule keeping efforts don’t seem to matter. You get laid off from that job through no fault of your own. You have a serious illness even though you followed the rules of eating right and getting exercise. You make a bad investment and lose your savings. Your spouse cheats on you or a loved one dies. You see, even if you play by the rules, you are still lost … and still dead. Lost and dead are closely connected in the parables. The lost sheep is as good as dead by itself in the wilderness and the lost coin is a dead asset.
The paradoxical good news of this is that no matter how much we want to resist being lost or dead by our merit based games, the truth is that God’s redemptive power can only work with the lost and dead. It is only when we hit that wall and the curtain is drawn back to expose that merit based living is a fraud with no lasting value that we can accept our being lost and dead as a good thing. In giving up the pretense that “merit badge” systems are important to God (which they aren’t), we surrender to being lost and dead and we come to know that getting found and brought back to life is going to happen not through our own efforts, but through the grace of a power outside ourselves.
And this is why these parables are even beyond good news … they are great news. These parables of lostness are not calls to repentance. They are not telling us that we need to have a moral change of heart before God will find us. No! As Paul said in Romans 5:8 – “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” We do not have to get our act together to be found (as if we could … and we can’t!). All God needs from us is to be lost and dead … and we’re actually quite good at that. When we own our lostness and deadness only then can we be found by God and receive the gift of grace. God finds us, not in the garden of merit and self-improvement, but lost in the desert of death; and through the power of the resurrected Christ, God carries us home across her shoulders rejoicing.
It’s back-to-school time … so that means it is fair game to open a homily with a pop quiz. Fill in the blank: “Six degrees of …” what? … that’s right … six degrees of separation. This is a theory which states that any two living people anywhere in the world can be linked by a maximum of six relational connections. Take me and … Archbishop Desmond Tutu - whom I have never personally met. I have a cousin in England who worked at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and knows the Bishop of London was at Lambeth Conference with Archbishop Tutu. In that case … just two degrees of separation. Then there was the movie by the same name. And eventually someone misheard “Six Degrees of Separation” at a party as “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” which spawned the Kevin Bacon Game where you could take any actor and link them to Kevin Bacon in six hops or less.
Well … it’s my theory (and probably mine alone) that the writers of the Revised Common Lectionary probably played the Kevin Bacon Game somewhere in their seminary careers because I’m not sure you could get more disparate readings than todays … but I could be wrong. First we have this reading from Luke with Jesus talking about hating everyone and even life itself (way to welcome people back from summer!). Readings like this make a preacher think, “Hmmm … wonder what’s in the Jeremiah reading?? Oh … potter with clay … ok. What’s the epistle? Um … runaway slave Onesimus returns. Greaaat!” After wrestling with this all week, I think there is a way these all come together and it has to do with the cost of discipleship and some reassurance when we are asked to give something up to be people of God’s kingdom.
Let’s look at Luke. We are still in the traveling narrative and Jesus is coming near to Jerusalem. I think the key to this passage is that “large crowds were traveling” with Jesus. People are basically herd animals, aren’t we? If there’s a crowd, we tend to be compelled to go over and join the crowd just to see what’s going on, right? And when there’s a crowd around somebody popular, there are a lot of people there for the wrong reasons. Maybe they are just curious or maybe they want to be cool and look good. No matter … it’s pretty clear that this large crowd had a significant bunch of posers in it and I think Jesus is firing a metaphoric shot across the bow about what his message and ministry really means. Hate is sure to separate the believers from the phonies! So Jesus speaks in hyperbole about what the cost of discipleship is. In essence, he’s challenging them with the question, “What are you willing to give up for the sake of the Kingdom of God?” … what are you willing to give up? It’s not that you’ll be asked to give up father and mother … but you might. Are you willing to do so?
He then goes on to tell two parables: one about a tower builder and another about a king. In both cases, each of these characters may be challenged to give up their dream or vision. In the case of the tower builder, if he doesn’t have enough money to build the tower, no amount of vision and imagination will make it happen. He may have to give up his dream. In the case of the king, if he’s outnumbered, he must relinquish the idea of expanding his territory. In both cases, these characters must let go of their plans for the sake of something greater. Jesus ends this passage with an exhortation to sell all your possessions – another bit of hyperbole but one to remind us to hold our possessions lightly and be willing to let them go for the sake of the Gospel.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we hear about a very concrete example of the cost of discipleship. This is a wonderful letter and shows not only Paul’s persuasive rhetorical skills, but also his vision of a new kind of family based on faith not blood ties or social privilege. He is taking up the cause of one runaway slave, Onesimus, whom he refers to as “my child.” We do not know the reason why Onesimus ran away from Philemon. However, we do know that under Roman law, Philemon as “pater familias” had the power of life and death over his entire household – wife, children, and slaves. Onesimus’ return would have been frightening for him as Philemon would have had the legal right to put him to death.
Instead, Paul writes this impassioned letter full of familial imagery. He speaks of Onesimus as his “child” and his “own heart.” He implores Philemon not only to receive Onesimus back as Paul’s equal but “confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” Paul is pressing for Onesimus’ manumission. The lectionary writers left out the next verse which says: “One thing more – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Not only is Paul making an appeal, he’s letting Philemon know he’ll be coming to check up on this situation!
In essence, Paul uses the rhetoric of honor towards Philemon to remind him that the cost of his discipleship is that he will give up his legal rights under Roman law. The law of Christ demands love – not beatings or death. The cost of discipleship requires Philemon to be transformed from identifying himself as a Roman citizen to knowing himself as a citizen of the Kingdom of God. This transformation requires change.
And this kind of transformative change is what our faith in Christ is all about. We may not have the power of life and death over others; however, we are still being called to change for the sake of God’s love. At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” In essence, Jesus asks us something similar: “My child, do you love me more than ?” … fill in the blank. That is our question and we will each fill it in differently. My attachments and yours are different … but we both have them. One that comes up for me periodically is when Christ asks me, “Do you love me more than … being right?” Oooooohhh! Yeah, that’s a gut punch … but a necessary one at times. Jesus is so like that! But it is a call to relinquish life on my terms to live for God’s terms.
But letting go of things is scary. I mean, if I give up this part of my identity, who will I be? How will I relate to the world around me if I change? This can be disconcerting and … this is where Jeremiah comes into play. Jeremiah is told to go down to the potter’s house. Now I’m sure many of you have made something out of clay at one time or another (think back to third grade art class). When you work with clay, it is malleable. If you make something and you don’t like how it’s turning out, you can squish it all up and start over. And this is the image Jeremiah sees and it becomes a metaphor for God’s reworking of his people through the catastrophe of the Babylonian conquest and exile. But it also is an image for us because even though the form of what the potter made changed it was still made of the same substance: clay. Clay didn’t stop being clay. And this holds a promise for us because when we are transformed throughout our lives and called over and over to give things up for the sake of the Kingdom of God, we need not fear this transformation because the real underlying substance of our true nature as children of God does not change. Our form may change … but our substance is not destroyed.
The cost of discipleship at times feels very high but it is necessary for us to relinquish our way in order to live more fully into God’s kingdom vision. We will be reworked as clay … but it will always be for the purpose of forming something more pleasing and useful to God.
As a note, my original sermon appears below; however, our youth and adult mission team had just returned from Clendenin West Virginia and planned to flash mob the worship service. In a "first ever at Grace" moment, they flash mobbed the end of this sermon to Audio Adrenaline's "Get Down." Stay tuned ... video to follow!
Today’s reading from Luke’s gospel is one of those ones that make a preacher think, “OK … a familiar parable … OH NO! A familiar parable!!” This story is so well-beloved and so colorful, that is captures our imagination and has become part of our popular culture. I mean, who hasn’t heard of the “Good Samaritan?” There are lots of hospitals with that name (one is even part of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore). We have “Good Samaritan” laws to protect the liability of those who stop to render aid to people in need. There’s even a “Good Sam” RV club – short for Good Samaritan. The problem with this being so familiar is we think we know what this is about … it’s about the Samaritan, right? Well … no … not really.
The story opens in the Traveling Narrative where Jesus is heading to Jerusalem. He encounters a lawyer whose intention appears to be adversarial – he is going to test Jesus. He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now Mark and Matthew have a rich young man asking this question – Luke tells us he’s a lawyer. No matter … the question appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus, being a good rabbi, answers the question with a question: “What is in the law? What do you read there?” The lawyer responds with quoting part of the Shema: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” and then he tacks on one of the good parts of Leviticus: “…and your neighbor as yourself.” Good answer! Jesus tells him “do this and you will live.” But the lawyer seems to want to parse words and drills down on who is his neighbor … and Jesus launches into the parable.
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho” – This literally was a downhill journey. Jerusalem sits at 2,500 feet above sea level and Jericho about 800 feet. It is a descent to an encounter with “robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.” Jesus then takes a dig at the temple religious system of the day: a priest and a levite (both who are on their way to perform their temple duties), pass by on the other side. Now to touch a dead body would have been to defile them, so they had their reasons. Then we have the Samaritan comes upon the scene and renders aid in a most extravagant way: he washes the wounds of the half-dead man with wine and dresses them with oil, puts him on his animal, takes him to an inn and pays for absolutely everything (I’ll be his wife was thrilled to get THAT Visa bill!). When rabbi Jesus asks the lawyer who acted like the neighbor, he replies, “The one who showed mercy” and Jesus admonishes him to “Go and do likewise.”
The problem arises when we take that closing line “Go and do likewise” and loop it back to the initial question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” We can end up with a troubling conclusion: Just do nice and merciful things and you will inherit eternal life. Whoops! That would be a form of works righteousness – and that’s a big problem because there is no salvation in it! If our good works of mercy could have saved us, we would have been saved about 15 minutes after Moses came down from Sinai. Doing good works and merciful works is not inherently bad – it just won’t save you. Our works need to be understood as an expression of thanksgiving for what God has done for us rather than understood as some “brownie points for God” program where we earn our way into eternal life.
So I want to pick up this parable, shake the dirt off the roots, and look at it from another angle. Let’s just say the priest, the levite and the Samaritan are not the central focus of this story. Instead, the focus, the Christ figure in this text, is the half-dead guy on the side of the road. Now admittedly, this is not a sexy way to market the story! We’d rather it be about a Good Samaritan, wouldn’t we? Besides, if you named your hospital “Half-Dead Guy By The Side Of The Road Hospital,” who would go there??!! “Yeah, I think I’m having a heart attack. Take me to Half-Dead Guy By The Side Of The Road Hospital – stat!” Not going to happen. But I digress…
The reason this is the Christ figure gets more obvious when we think of the story in context. Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem for a showdown. He will be stripped, beaten, flogged and left for half-dead by the political/religious authorities … and then they will finish the job on the cross! The insiders, the priest and levite, want nothing to do with Jesus and they will be part of the power structure that will kill him.
We’re not quite sure of where Jesus is when he tells this story. We know he’s not yet in Jerusalem and, it is not out of the realm of possibility that he is actually in Samaria when he tells this story. That would make it even more juicy! You see good pious Jews consider Samaritans … well … scumbags. Why? Well, the roots go waaaay back … all the way to the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE (yeah, these guys know how to hold a long grudge!). When the Northern Kingdom fell, Assyrian King Tiglath Pileser III (what a great name for a king, eh?) deported all of the leadership in the Northern Kingdom to other parts of the Assyrian empire. He then brought foreigners from other conquered lands and Assyria into Israel to run the governmental affairs in Israel and, more importantly, to intermarry with the locals and thus pull off an ethnic and religious genocide. These mixed race people became the Samaritans. Let’s just say, if the TV, and Facebook were around … we’d have a little girl pouring Cheerios on her Samaritan dad and a major flame war online over it!
OK … so the Samaritans are hated by the Jews … but this is why this guy stops and the others don’t. See he’s a loser … big “L” on his forehead. He’s considered scum of the earth and out of his loser-outsider status, he can connect with the half-dead guy by the side of the road. He has compassion because HE is the half-dead guy too! He gets it … from one loser to another.
You see salvation, real salvation, isn’t about how many good works we do, or how gifted we are, or having the right connections, or living in the “right” neighborhood, or driving the “right” car, or having professional success, or anything else this world tries to tell you matters. It … does … not … matter!! What matters is being last, lost, little, least and lifeless … and reaching others who are last, lost, little, least and lifeless too. The saving grace is our Savior took on “loser status” by dying on a cross so that we might inherit eternal life.
This is good news because you and I don’t have to have our act together … not at all. We reach each other out of our loser-ness – not out of our strength. We die, and rise, and die, and rise … and Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, is the one who showed us how. He showed us that we can trust that when things look like they are going down the toilet and we are falling apart and messed up, that God’s economy will use it for God’s glory and that nothing, absolutely nothing, is wasted and it will all be made new.
So fellow losers – welcome to what it means to bear the cross of Christ. Take it up and carry it in your bodies and souls – out those doors into your community. Be the half-dead guys and gals for all the other half-dead guys and gals who need to hear the words of life Christ offers us and them.
“Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him.”
Have you ever had someone steal your identity? Now we normally think of this as the “somebody stole my social security card number and took out credit cards in my name” or “somebody got my debit card and drained my bank account” kind of a thing. But if we crack open the definition beyond financial transactions to include such things as email spoofing where your email address is compromised and all your friends get a Viagra ad with your name on it, or your Facebook or Twitter accounts get hacked and all kinds of weird stuff shows up on your feed … now how many of you can say you’ve been the victim of identity theft? Deacon Tom had this happen with his email account. I got an email that he was in Barcelona and got rolled for his money and needed me to wire him some funds. Now if they’d have said Edinboro Scotland … I might have taken the bait!
The first time I ever had my identity stolen was when my debit card was compromised. I downloaded my account activity into Quicken and lo and behold … my account had been drained … in … Barcelona! Hey … wait a minute! No worries … it was a coincidence. What I remember, though, is how vulnerable and violated I felt. What a trespass of boundaries and by someone I did not know!! All of the strategies I had used to keep my card safe had failed (it was, very likely, an inside job through the vast network of banking that now handles our transactions). The bank was very understanding and they refunded the money and handled any overdrafts … but it was still a hassle!
Identity theft is something we can all relate to at some level. Some outside entity attempts to rob us of our name, our reputation, and seeks to exploit it for their own gain. This is exactly what has happened to the demon possessed man in our story today.
This story appears in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke), each telling with some slightly differing details. Mark tells us the man cut himself with stones. Matthew, who always like to double things, does so with his rendition – if one demoniac is good, two must be better, right? If we are honest with ourselves, this whole idea of demon possession is something we’d rather not talk about. When we think of demon possession, we often go down the road of Hollywood movies: The Exorcist, The Rite, or something along those lines. I will tell you that this kind of extreme demonic possession does exist … but it is very rare. So to connect us with this story in a more helpful way, I want to take off the Hollywood frame and let’s think of it as identity theft.
Why identity theft? Well, because Jesus specifically asks the man’s name but the response doesn’t come from the man, it comes from one of the demons: “Legion.” There is something terribly tragic going on here. This man has lost his name … his identity has been stolen. He isn’t identified as Joseph, or Elijah, or Simon – what possesses him identifies him. He is known by what enslaves him. I want you to consider two things. First, evil has two aims: forget God and forget who you are. Forget God and forget who you are … and not necessarily in that order. If the devil can get you to forget who you are, you will eventually forget God too because you will forget in whose image you are made. If you forget God first, you will forget the greater meaning and purpose of who you are and who you were created to be. Second, demons are not necessarily little red guys with pitchforks – they are anything which claims your soul.
So this Gerasene man has forgotten who he is and only his demons can answer for him. “Legion” they say. This isn’t a name it is a military term referring to a unit of Roman soldiers – 6,000 soldiers to be exact. This guy wasn’t just demon possessed – he was occupied! And so are we. We too are “Legion” … for our demons are many. We all have demons that plague us. It’s easy to point to something obvious like addictions and know they try to claim our soul. Whether that is alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, tobacco, eating disorders … all attempt to claim us and destroy our true identity as beloved sons and daughters of God. They might even cause people to label us so that we become known by our demons: drunk, junkie, slut, black sheep of the family. These are the obvious examples, but demons are often far more subtle: they can even be things that look really good like being professionally successful, having wealth or social status. When we obsess on these things and, in essence, make them an idol, we forget God … and then our identity as children of God is stolen.
Now in our story, we get to that place where the demons beg Jesus not to go back to the abyss and ask to go into a herd of pigs. Admittedly this sounds weird and some of us are really feeling sorry for the pigs; however, for a first century Jewish audience, this is the comic relief part of the story and full of irony. The man is unclean (remember, he’s Gentile) and is occupied by unclean spirits who beg to go into the unclean animals (pigs) and then rush into the water … which is a means of cleansing! It’s like a giant porcine mikvah bath. What Jesus is doing is naming and claiming the authority over that which had stolen the identity of this man. Then the swineherders go out and tell the townsfolk what happened and they return to find the formerly demon possessed man clothed and in his right mind.
And this scares them to death! Why? We might think they’d be overjoyed at this. But think about it. This guy living in the tombs and howling at the moon allowed the community to ignore their own demons, their own identity thieves. They could point to this guy, I mean he was the poster child for the demonic, and say to themselves, “Well, I may have my issues, but I’m at least as not as bad as he is!” We are creatures of rationalization, aren’t we? And what happens when the poster child gets well? Oh no! Now I have to deal with my own stuff! Well who wants to do that? The community doesn’t want any part of this at all and they send Jesus away.
Understandably, the man wants to go with Jesus. Why not? Get a fresh start somewhere far away from this one horse town where people still want to remember him as he used to be. But no, Jesus tells him he needs to go back to the town and back to his people and tell them what God has done for him. Why? Because he has gospel to tell – he has good news. Anyone who has worked a 12-step program knows this! Step 12 is share the news that healing is possible – share your good news with others who suffer. But be prepared: not everyone wants to hear it. For some, the known demonic identity thieves are less frightening than the unknown ones of living a whole and healed life. Some folks don’t want to get well. It’s tragic but true. However, and this is a big HOWEVER, there are people who do want to be healed! And they need you to tell them what God has done for YOU. This is what we are being asked to do: go and tell.
We come here as “Legion” for we all have powers which try to rob us of our identity as beloved daughters and sons of God. Each of us comes back to this place, to this community, each week to face our demons and ask for God to cast them out. And as we walk this healing journey, miracles happen and we find ourselves clothed in Christ and in our right minds. And Christ tells us to go out and share our story with others who desperately want to hear that they too can be healed. This is the power of what God has done for you and me … now go and tell.
When I was 26 years old, I served as the president of the Frederick County chapter of the National Organization for Women. We were very involved in the legislative process in Maryland to bring about parity and equal rights for women and men. We also were involved in community events to help raise awareness of gender equality issues. One event we attended was a women’s fair held at Frederick Community College. I remember being there with Lynn Burkett, who had been president before me, and Carol Antonowicz, whom I would later work with at Hospice of Washington County. The three of us were staffing a table at this fair when a woman walked up to our table and asked me if I was a member of NOW. I said, “Yes, I’m Anjel.” I held out my hand to shake hers and she refused to shake my hand. She then went on to say, “Well, I used to be a member of NOW until I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior.” At that point, I knew this conversation was headed downhill fast … and all at the name of Jesus, mind you. The woman went on to say, “Once I accepted the truth of Jesus Christ, I knew that what NOW teaches is a lie. God IS a MAN! And I will pray for your soul.” With that, she turned on her heels and walked away.
I was absolutely stunned and left speechless. I know, this must come as a shock to many of you – me speechless and all – but what do you say to something like that? I must confess that my capacity to come up with snappy answers wasn’t as finely honed at 26 as it is today, but even today I don’t think there’s much I could say to this comment. I remember turning around to Lynn and Carol who were just as gob smacked as I was. Lynn said, “What WAS that?!” I said, “I don’t know. I talked to God this morning and she didn’t say anything about being a dude!” Well, we did get a laugh out of that.
God is a man? Really??!! I’m sure if this woman came into Grace Church last week, she would have been shocked by my Pentecost sermon and my pointing out that the Holy Spirit is referred to in scripture by feminine names!
Today is Trinity Sunday: a day when we honor the mystery of the God who is spoken of as Triune – three persons in unity of being as one God. It’s been said that the biggest mistake a preacher can make on Trinity Sunday is to try and explain the Trinity, and many of you have watched the video I posted on my Facebook page with St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies. No matter how you try to illustrate the Trinity, you always end up in heresy. So I just will suffice it to say that Trinity is mystery which cannot be comprehended.
Father Richard Rohr speaks of Trinity as a type of Christian koan (koh-ahn). A koan is a Buddhist concept and consists of a riddle which cannot be solved: the most famous koan being, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” These riddles are designed to short-circuit the left side of our brain. The left side is the logic center which tries to make sense out of everything. We cannot enter a contemplative mindset when the left side of the brain is overfunctioning – which is how most of us operate in our Western culture. A koan is meant to frustrate the logic center until it just declares, “This makes NO sense … I quit!” That’s when the right side of the brain, the contemplative side, says, “Oh thank God you’ve finally shut up! Now we can settle down and listen for God.” So this idea of Trinity is one of those koans: a mystery which can be contemplated but never understood. It is a way of saying something true about God, but also knowing that speaking of God as Trinity is still not everything which can be said about God. We can never say all that can be said. But I am game for exploring and, hopefully, expanding how we think about the mystery of God.
Let’s start with gender. If we take our scripture seriously, we confess a Triune God which includes both masculine and feminine characteristics. God the Father, the creator of all things in heaven and on earth, is admittedly masculine imagery. We have God the Son in Jesus Christ who, while biologically male in this lifetime, exhibited many emotional feminine qualities and engaged women in conversation as equals – not a common practice in 1st century Palestine. And then we have God the Holy Spirit, or shekhina or elohim ruach, names which are feminine and who often operates in more subtle, feminine ways. So, if God has integrated both the masculine and feminine, what does this say? One author had the chutzpah to suggest that embodying both masculine and feminine makes God a drag queen! Admittedly, this was a little off the hook, even for me; but, I am willing to say this makes God transgendered in the classic sense of the word: transcendent of gender. And if God has embraced all genders so as to transcend this issue, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to image God as embracing the closely tied issues of gender and sexual identity as part of the creation God loves.
Let’s think about what else God may be embracing and including. If we pay attention to the life of Jesus Christ, there is a point where he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:8) If this is so, Jesus speaks of himself as being homeless. If this is true, then our Triune God has embraced the homeless.
We also hear that Jesus was born to an unwed teenage mother. While Joseph stepped up to the plate to claim Jesus as his son, the birth narratives were written, in part, to address the legitimacy of Jesus’ lineage. So our Triune God has embraced those whom society might dare to call “illegitimate.”
We also hear in the Gospel of Luke, that there were women who accompanied Jesus and who provided for Jesus and the disciples “out of their resources.” The women were bankrolling the operation! Again, if we take our scriptures seriously, this means that Jesus and the disciples were recipients of what we might call 1st century Palestinian “welfare.” Now we have a Triune God who has embraced the economic vulnerability of welfare recipients.
And then there’s that whole crucifixion thing … admittedly, a big deal for those of us who proclaim Christ crucified and risen. When we hear of the post-resurrection appearances of Christ, what’s clear is that the marks of crucifixion are still on him: they didn’t heal or disappear. Jesus offers his wounds to Thomas in the Gospel of John: “Put your fingers here. Place your hand in my side.” Even in Mark, which has no resurrection appearance of Jesus but a promise he will meet them in Galilee, the messenger at the tomb says, “You seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here.” The way the Greek can be rendered, the messenger’s words can also be translated, “You seek Jesus the crucified one.” Crucifixion becomes part of who he is – ever crucified. So it appears the Triune God has embraced woundedness, and even disability.
Have you noticed a pattern here? The Triune God appears to have embraced and included all matters of gender, the economic vulnerability of homelessness and poverty, and even injury and disability. God has taken in everything that, if we’re honest, scares us to death! We are afraid of injury, disability, the vulnerability of losing our homes or being on welfare, and things about our gender and sexuality give us the yips! But God, being God and all, draws all of this in, embraces and includes it all. And if God has deemed it well to include all of the things which frighten us, why should we fear anything?
This Triune God is bigger than anything we can possibly say: bigger than Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Bigger and more expansive that my little pea brain can even begin to understand. But the love that is so deep, and broad, and high which can and does embrace all of our darkest places and deepest fears is good news for all of us. Nobody sits outside the reach of God.
St. Columba of Iona, that great Celtic saint of the 6th century, gave us another Christian koan. He said, “The nature of God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” It seems to me that the Christian church for many centuries has proclaimed the opposite by drawing circumferences everywhere – circumferences which kept some people out regardless of the evidence of the wideness of God’s embrace. As a result, the center of this sort of Christianity is … nowhere. I truly believe one of the great charisms of our Anglican heritage at this moment in time, is to reclaim Columba’s vision of God whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. And it is up to us to carry that message into a world that is weary of exclusions and who longs for God’s center – God’s very heart. By virtue of your baptism, you embody this reality of God’s presence with you and through you. You have a mission to share this with others wherever you go: to your schools, your workplaces, your relationships. You and I have work to do … let’s get to it, shall we?
Pentecost … a day that strikes terror into the hearts of lectors everywhere! (Pam – feel – ee – uh … ???) It’s the day often called the “birthday of the Church” and we hear about how the promised “Advocate” shows up in a rather spectacular way: the rush of a violent wind, fire on the head, speaking in strange languages (“No, really, we’re not drunk!”). What in the world is going on here?!
Admittedly, this story of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit can make Episcopalians really nervous … downright twitchy. I mean, it’s just so not Anglican! We’re known for being “people of the Book” – and I don’t mean the Bible. We like our worship orderly, don’t we? And I speak for myself when I say that I need the structure of the prayer book and the tangible Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament – but I suspect a few of you need it too. Left to my own devices, and my own personal ADD fueled mental gerbil wheel, my worship of God would be reminiscent of a balloon blown up and then let go – pfffth … flying around the room – lots of energy expended without a whole lot of direction! So this whole messy outpouring of the Spirit makes me nervous but conversely is the very person of the Trinity who captivates, loves and makes me new … over and over again.
One of the paradoxes of the Church is that Pentecost marks the beginning of the season we call “ordinary time.” We close the Easter season with this extraordinary story of the Holy Spirit infusing the disciples and sending them into the world in the power of that same Spirit to spread the Gospel with joy … and then we call it “ordinary time.” Really?! What is ordinary about that?? There’s nothing ordinary about it! If we followed truth in advertising precepts, we would do better to call it Spirit-infused Time, or Saturated Time, or Emmanuel “God-with-us” Time. It is anything but ordinary.
Between our disquietude about the messiness and unpredictability of the Spirit and our attempts to box it in with words like “ordinary,” we can be in a place where we get the whole Pentecost thing wrong. It may be precisely because this outpouring of the Holy Spirit doesn't follow our nice, neat rules that we tend to hear this story and compartmentalize it as a specific, particular event that happened in one time and place … in Jerusalem, 50 days after Passover (remember, Pentecost was a Jewish holiday first and we co-opted it). If we hold to that belief, we certainly keep God in a nice neat box, don’t we? But I am here to tell you, the Holy Spirit isn’t about to let you keep your nice, neat little god boxed up because the Spirit has been poured out in many times and in many places and she is still at work!
She?! Yes … you heard me right … she. While the Greek word for Spirit is gender neutral, the Hebrew words describing the Spirit are distinctly feminine. Now this just doesn’t square with the images of God in language which have been foist upon us in our patriarchal culture which elevates masculine attributes as preferable and desirable and downplays, or even denigrates, feminine traits. But if we are to take God seriously as Christians, we need to take seriously that the Spirit is a Lady … but she’s not “ladylike” in the patriarchal sense at all! She isn’t sitting down and being docile, quiet, and submissive at all. While the Spirit is not domineering and controlling, she is seductive and loving. She doesn’t shout … she whispers in your ear and pulls you towards her into new life – a life greater than you could ever have dreamed of or imagined! The Spirit doesn’t follow nice neat rules – she’s not one of the good old boys. She moves where she will – she’s unpredictable. She will take your nice, neat, orderly world and disrupt it … not because she wants to harm you, but because she wants to free you by loving you. The problem is your limited definitions of the Divine are getting in the way. She’s the one who surprises you because just when you think you are going to reencounter God the Father … you find her standing there with her arms open wide to catch you in a passionate embrace! She is the one who will lead you into all Truth … and draw you in so that you can fall in love with God … perhaps for the very first time in your whole life. This is heady stuff: It feels like a drunken revelry but without the hangover! And it is life giving for you, for me, and for the world.
Holy Spirit, Hagias Pneuma, Ruach Elohim – whatever you call her – is here … alive and well among us and lovingly drawing us out of our shell. She is moving here at Grace Church … can you see it? I can! When I came here, there were about 15 people here on any given Sunday. There was no youth group. Coffee hour rarely happened (much to my caffeinated chagrin). There was no choir … for that matter, we didn’t have an organist either! We were members of the BEACON but our contributions towards that ministry were small and sporadic. Things felt … well … predictable … dare I say, ordinary …didn’t they?
God’s Spirit wasn’t going to let us stay there forever. The Spirit was ready to draw us into a loving embrace and help us give birth to something new – something extraordinary hidden in the ordinary. It wasn’t experienced as the “rush of a violent wind” as much as it was the gentle whisper of love in your ears. It was the Spirit’s whispering the sweet nothings – words of love from the God who drew you here. “Come to me. You’re burdened and you are weary. Lay it down and rest.” “Come to me. Your heart is broken. Let me love you into wholeness.” “Come to me. You are addicted to that which cannot give life and will never love you back. Let me love you into freedom and life.” “Come to me. You are dispossessed and a stranger. Let me welcome you home.” Whatever brought you here was the work of the Spirit and having fallen in love with God, you are finding ways to embrace others with that same love.
Pentecost is happening … right here … right now. We are loving God and each other through the Spirit and this is creating a new community where no one is a stranger and there are no outsiders. The joy we are experiencing is a manifestation of the Spirit. She’s the one who is building this community: bringing music to our ears and hearts through our music ministers and choir, laughter in activities like spaghetti dinners, beautiful worship which could not happen without the ministries of our acolytes and altar guild, opening doors to healing through our Wednesday healing service and the AA group which meets here, preparing our youth and adult missionaries to go and share her love (God’s love) in West Virginia this summer. As individuals and as a community, she is raising us from the dead! This is not ordinary! This is extraordinary!!
When the Spirit infuses us like this, we cannot help but see our world and our relationships with new eyes. Everything … absolutely everything … becomes extraordinary. Our everyday lives become extraordinary. Work becomes extraordinary; our lovers become extraordinary. The food we eat, the books we read, the people we meet, the homeless, the disabled, those with mental illness … all become extraordinary precisely because the Spirit has infused all of this creation … you, me, all of it. And this is the message we take into the world and I believe with all my heart it is one the world desperately needs to hear. The world is extraordinary because it is saturated with the Holy Spirit and she wants to draw all of creation into this loving embrace of life. And she has commissioned us to go into the world and be the incarnation of that message. This feels scary because it means the Spirit will move you out of your comfortable box by confronting and deconstructing all your prejudices, fears and limitations. But oh, when she does, she will sweep you off of your feet into the love of God which will never let you go.
The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, retired bishop of Alaska and member of the Choctaw nation, shared the following observation on his Facebook page last Wednesday:
I met a man yesterday who had been in prison for twenty-four years for a crime he did not commit. Intentional racism and an indifferent system had condemned him to the violent world of maximum security. And yet he was set free ten years before his release. God found him in prison. God healed him of his rage. God gave him hope. In time, organizations who fight for justice proved him innocent. Now he lives to serve the One who loved him against all the odds. Faith is not the soft sentiment of a suburban soul, but a power stronger than any force on Earth.
A timely reflection on the meaning of freedom in light of this week’s reading from the Book of Acts. This marvelous and vivid story of Paul and Silas in Philippi comes to us in this season of Ascensiontide – the time between the departure of the earthly person of Jesus and the coming of the “power from on high” which is promised in Christ and celebrated at Pentecost. We are hearing a story not only about the early Church, but one about what freedom looks like in the Reign of God.
We live in a country founded on the principals of freedom. Sadly, the concept of freedom often gets misconstrued. You see, there are two types of freedom: “freedom from” and “freedom to.” “Freedom from” is often how freedom is expressed in our culture. This is the kind of freedom wherein we believe we can do whatever we want to and nobody is going to compel us to do what we don’t want to do. Unfortunately, this interpretation of freedom will, when all is said and done, land us in a ditch. Why? Because it is inherently selfish and exploitative – it has no regard for our responsibilities towards others and is destructive. “Freedom to,” conversely, is a different kind of freedom – one which liberates us to be completely authentic and in so doing allows us to live for God and for others. Paul often spoke of this as a paradox: in being a slave to Christ, he experiences ultimate freedom.
Today’s story from Acts is a story about slavery and freedom. And as we hear it unfold again, pay attention to who is really free … it isn’t always who you think it is! Luke’s narrative indicates that he is an eyewitness to the events which unfold through the use of first person pronouns like “we” and “us” and he tells us they went to Philippi “a Roman colony.” This isn’t just any Roman colony – it is the site of a decisive and historic battle between the forces of the Emperor Octavian and Marc Antony and the murderers of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius. With the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavian rewarded his senior troops with land in the region. So this was a city full of retired military officers – a “capital ‘R’” Roman colony, if you will where law and order prevail. Paul, Silas and Luke are all headed for the place of prayer when they meet a slave girl with a spirit of divination.
This girl is triply enslaved: she is owned by others who are making a killing off of her fortune telling abilities, she is enslaved by this demonic spirit, and she is female with no rights of her own. Ironically, she speaks a truth: “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” It shouldn’t surprise us that demons speak truth about God – Jesus often is called out by demons for who he really is in the Gospel narratives. She says Paul and Silas will “proclaim to you a way of salvation” – in Greek the word for salvation, sozo, has another meaning: to be healed. But after a few days of having this girl being a walking advertisement for them, Paul gets annoyed and performs an exorcism. The girl is freed from the captivity of the demon. She is healed … but there is a price.
The girl’s owners, seeing that their business interests had been compromised, seize Paul and Silas and appeal to the governmental authorities over the loss of their profits (hmmm … government and business in collusion … doesn’t that sound remarkably contemporary!). The girl’s owners portray Paul and Silas as foreigners, outsiders, whose customs are unlawful and, by extension, contemptuous. They whip the crowd into a frenzy of xenophobic hatred and the magistrates have Paul and Silas flogged (remember that … there’s a twist coming later!). Paul and Silas are then thrown into the innermost chamber of the prison and locked in shackles.
By all accounts, our protagonists are prisoners … but are they really? While their outward appearance is that of imprisonment, their inward spirits are anything but shackled! Paul and Silas spend their time singing praises to God – not laments for how poorly they are being treated. The other prisoners and the jailer too are listening to Paul and Silas as they sing and pray. And then an earthquake shakes the foundations of the prison, opens the doors of the cells and breaks the chains of those imprisoned. The jailer, who up until this point appears to be in a state of freedom, draws his sword to kill himself as this was the only honorable thing to do. Evidently, he isn’t as free as we think. He too is enslaved by a system which would demand his life for a career failure.
At this point, the tables are turned. Paul and Silas, who outwardly appear imprisoned, do nothing to save their own skin and escape. If they had bought into the idea of “freedom from,” they would have booked it out of there! But they didn’t. They knew what “freedom to” meant – it meant that they were there for the jailer’s salvation too. They stay put, and we can surmise the other prisoners do too. The jailer, shocked that the prisoners would act this way, asks what he must do to be saved. Perhaps in that moment, the jailer realizes he is imprisoned by the oppression of Rome too. Paul and Silas tell him to believe on the Lord Jesus and he and his household will be saved. Notice it isn’t just the jailer, but also his whole household who will be saved. Paul and Silas have offered an exit ramp, an “opt-out” if you will, to a system which enslaves and oppresses this jailer and his whole household. The jailer, in a remarkable transformation, brings Paul and Silas to his home and tends their wounds. He and his household are baptized and all share a meal together and are rejoicing in their newfound freedom as believers in Christ.
But the story really doesn’t end there (yes, I think the revised common lectionary ended this way too soon!). Luke goes on to tell us:
When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.
Now the shock value of these passages isn’t always clear to the contemporary listener. The magistrates send the police in to quietly let Paul, Silas and Luke go free. Paul not only points out the injustice of being punished in public but dismissed in private, but he also states (for the first time in Acts) that he and Silas are Roman citizens. This is HUGE!! Roman law forbade the public flogging of Roman citizens! So who is the prisoner now? I suggest it’s the magistrates who, having given into the xenophobic, mob mentality of the crowd, violated their own laws by not checking on Paul and Silas’ immigration status. Paul and his companions are now, in a great reversal of fortune, demanding a personal apology from the authorities and a personal escort out of the prison … and they’re not leaving until they get it. Talk about non-violent resistance! Don’t you just love this??!! And … they get it! The magistrates come and make a personal apology and then they are politely asked … asked mind you … to leave the city. But, not so fast, before they depart Philippi, they go to visit Lydia one more time – they will leave the city when they are ready and not before!
This story is a reminder that for Christians, freedom isn’t a matter of outward circumstances as much as it is a matter of spiritual disposition. For Paul, Silas and the man Bishop Charleston speaks of, it is about God in Christ finding them and setting them free from the things of this world which bind and oppress them. All of us face powers in the world and in our lives which can enslave us. We can be held captive by racism, sexism, homophobia, economic forces, self-loathing over any number of issues, addictions of all types, immigration status … the list goes on and on. But the message of this story from Acts is that God in Christ is giving us an exit ramp – a way out – of all which subjugates us. In baptism, we are set free to live for Christ by living for others. It is a radically alternate reality where God finds us, heals us, and gives us hope. And in being liberated, we have the freedom to serve the One who loves us against all the odds.
Language is a terrible way to communicate … but, unfortunately, we’re stuck with it. We humans are built with an innate need to be in relationship and find connections with each other. We do this by communicating and this largely involves the use of language. But without a foundation of shared experience between two people, it is difficult to communicate an experience to another person. Let me give you an illustration: my husband and I spent time together in Germany, specifically in Bavaria. We have spent time together in my ancestral home of Nurnburg. Because we have a shared experience of that place, if I say “Lebkuchen” to my husband … he knows exactly what that experience is. Now some of you know what Lebkuchen is, but unless you’ve been in the Marktplatz in Nurnburg and eaten Nurnburger Lebkuchen … well, you haven’t had the real deal! Now, if Stuart or I were to try and explain to any of you who have not been in the Marktplatz in Nurnburg and eaten Nurnburger Lebkuchen … well … it is hard to explain. I can tell you what ingredients are in that cookie and you might be able to approximate the taste from your own memory of the ingredients or perhaps from having eaten something similar your grandmother made … but it just isn’t the same thing as being in the Nurnburger Marktplatz and eating Lebkuchen.
Now if language fails us in something so simple as communicating the experience of eating a food in a particular place, just imagine how it fails us when we are talking about the things of the Divine realm! Mystical experiences are downright impossible to transmit in the limited sphere of language. And when we grasp that, we can better understand why some of our Bible stories sound … well … weird. Today’s readings about the ascension of Jesus are just that – weird! Luke, who wrote both the gospel bearing his name and the second volume follow up we call the Book of Acts, is doing his level best to tell us about something mystical in the Divine realm and he’s hamstrung by the limits of language. The gospels of Luke and Matthew all end with Jesus giving a final discourse and John tells of Jesus in conversation with Peter; however, only Luke specifically mentions Jesus’ physical departure. And he uses the imagery which he derives from his Jewish heritage especially the image of Elijah being taken up bodily into heaven by a whirlwind. While we don’t get the whirlwind in this story, we hear he “was carried up into heaven” … and the passive voice reminds us God is behind this action. Of course this has given us all kinds of artistic images of the disciples looking up and Jesus floating away from them.
Former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright, remarked upon how we have come to view the Ascension this way:
"Many western Christians have been embarrassed about the Ascension over the years, because they have thought of heaven and earth in the wrong way. We have supposed that the first-century Christians thought of ‘heaven’ as a place up in the sky, within our space-time universe, and that they imagined Jesus as a kind of primitive space-traveler heading upwards to sit beside God somewhere a few miles away up in the sky. And we have told ourselves this story about the early Christians within an implicit modernist framework in which God and the world are in any case a long way away from one another, so that if Jesus has gone to be with God – whatever that means – we understand that he has left us behind, that he is now far away in another dimension altogether. And we have then thought that the point of this story is that we, too, will one day go off to this same place called ‘heaven’, leaving earth behind for good. But this way of understanding the Ascension is, quite simply, wrong on all counts." (“Spirit of Truth” – Rt. Rev. Dr. N.T. Wright, preached Pentecost, 2007 in Durham Cathedral).
This image of Jesus “flying off into ‘heaven’” in conjunction with dispensationalist rapture theology so endemic to our American culture presses upon our deepest anxiety that the disciples, and by extension we, have somehow been abandoned by the Lord and our job now is just to hang out until we can evacuate the planet too. But is that really what Luke is trying to say?
If we take seriously what Luke tells us about the disciple’s response to this event, it seems that abandonment is not what’s happening here. They are not grieving or depressed over this event. Not at all! They went back to Jerusalem rejoicing and were in the temple praising God. Clearly, Luke wants us to know the disciples experienced this event as one of rejoicing and expectation. This is not a replay of the crucifixion. It appears that what Luke is attempting to convey within the limitations of language is that the relationship between the disciples and Jesus had fundamentally changed – it had been transformed. Jesus, the flesh and blood human being who had embodied the fullness of God, was no longer going to be here as he had been. Jesus departed but Christ did not.
We sometimes forget that “Christ” isn’t Jesus’ last name. We would be more accurate to call him Jesus, the Christ. And it is important to make the distinction between Christ, who is a member of the Trinity (yet another mystery where words fail us … come back in a couple of weeks and we’ll talk about that one!) and Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth, the human being who lived in a particular place and time in history. The two are not the same! While they intersected in a particular time and place for a purpose, they are not the same. Christ has always been and always will be. Jesus embodied the Christ for a few brief years in a mystical act of God which bound the created to the Creator through a profoundly redemptive act. And just because Jesus, the historical human being, is no longer with us in the same way he was with his disciples after the resurrection, Christ is still with us, working among us and through us.
This is why we continue to proclaim the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again … which is what is depicted in this painting by one of our recently confirmed members, Lee Falk. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again (in Latin in the painting) is the affirmation that the ascension of Jesus has not changed the presence of the Christ among us. We see three verbs in three tenses. Christ has died recalls the historic past event of his death. Christ is risen proclaims the current and continuing reality of the resurrection. Christ will come again is a promise of the future realization of the fullness of the Reign of God to come. In this acclamation, past, present and future collide … perhaps even collapse … into the present – right now. I have heard it said that the definition of eternity is “now” – no past to regret, no future to obsess over – just now. And Christ is present … right here … right now. Contrary to our collective anxiety or just downright bad theology, the ascension of Jesus is Luke’s way of reminding us that while Jesus will not be with us bodily, Christ hasn’t gone anywhere. Christ is still with the disciples. Christ is still with us. And power from “on high” is coming.