On Resisting Tyrants

Text: Matthew 2:1-23


2 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men,[i] he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men.[j] 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazarean.”


———

On Resisting Tyrants

Migration and movement have always been a part of the story of God’s gathered people. From the movement out of the Garden of Eden to the confusing of language at Babel to Ruth following her mother-in-law to a foreign land to the Assyrian and Babylonian Exiles. Often in the story of the Bible, migration is forced. Sometimes, it is chosen. This story from Jesus’ has three interconnected parts that hinge on movement and stability— a reactionary, dangerous, ruthless stability. 

///

First, we encounter the story of the magi, the “wise men” from the East. They weren’t kings and there weren’t necessarily three, but most likely they were Zoroastrian priests of Persian descent. The word “magi” elsewhere in Scripture is used to describe negatively a magician or diviner, but that’s not what’s happening here. Rather, the phrase “from the east” probably indicates a more particular reference to the understanding of the word magi in Persian culture, which is priest. Persians and Jews were influenced by one another during the diaspora (on of those forced migrations). And these Zoroastrian priests traveled an incredible distance to honor and witness to the Messiah of the Jews.


This is a chosen migration. A long journey, a movement to an unknown location in Roman-occupied Palestine. The magi crossed religious, political, and cultural boundaries to encounter and worship Jesus. They make a reasonable move after covering all this distance to go to Jerusalem. To seek out those in power and find out where the Messiah, the King of the Jews, was living. We’ll come back to Herod— but for the magi, they quickly learn that the seat of power in Jerusalem is not their destination. They continue their movement to Bethlehem and come to the home where the young Jesus is with his mother and father. They crossed miles and boundaries to arrive and pay witness to the Messiah of the Jews. But they do not stay— they go back, a different road to avoid Herod’s demands.


Jesus’ family, on the other hand, follows a different, unwelcome migratory path. And here, we come back to Herod. Herod, upon visitation from the magi is terrified. And “all Jerusalem with him.” All those at the seats of power— those who quickly come to give him information— the chief priests and the scribes—are terrified, not overjoyed, not even curious about the possible birth of the Messiah. I think, though, the religious leaders were less frightened of a toddler king than of Herod’s wrath. Herod’s unfathomable crime at the end of text was not totally out of character. Herod was a king on unstable ground. He was not considered Jewish enough by the people over whom he ruled, and his father was given the throne he now occupied by the Romans, to whom he was mostly a puppet king— in short, many Jews did not like Herod. They thought he was an illegitimate ruler. Pharisees and zealots, especially.

///

Herod sought to legitimatize his position in two ways: The first was to build. He completely refurbished the Temple in Jerusalem. In our text, those religious leaders who are fearful are those whose livelihoods depend upon the Temple and Herod’s good graces. The second, is through acts of brutality. He killed members of his family who posed a threat— real or imagined. He sought for the people he ruled to know that he was to be feared, that there was not a line he would not cross. 


A toddler, who powerful religious leaders from a foreign place come to pay homage to and call the King of the Jews, was a threat to Herod. His power required stability which required that all movement cease. All possible movements be squashed. So he tries to use the magi as political pawns, to tell him where this child is that he might eliminate the threat to him. But the magi, they are warned in a dream to not return to Herod. And they disobey the king of the land they are in to protect this child. They go back another way— putting themselves in danger. Serene Jones, a theologian and the President of Union Theological Seminary, said this week, “Civil disobedience lies at the heart of the Epiphany story: The magi receive an unjust order from a vindictive tyrant. Instead, they defy him.”


///

Soon after, Joseph is warned in a dream to flee with his family to Egypt. Joseph is warned that Herod is about to search for to destroy Jesus— Joseph does not need to be told twice. Knowing the king who rules the land where they leave, he packs up his family and flees in the night. And they make the long journey to Egypt. Jesus’ life to this point has been migratory. In utero, Mary carries the unborn child from Galilee to Bethlehem, forced by Imperial powers for a census. That’s about 100 miles. Then Mary and Joseph take a very young Jesus to Egypt, forced by a fearful and brutal king. That’s about 600 miles. The Holy Family crosses religious, political, and cultural boundaries as they are forced to move by the powers of the world. They stay in Egypt until Herod’s death— because Jesus could not be safe while Herod sought to stabilize his thrown through bloodshed. When they eventually return, they end up back in Galilee, avoiding Bethlehem, as Herod’s son reigns in a striking similar way to his father.


King Herod was furious when the magi didn’t return. And in his fury and insecurity, he does the unimaginable and orders that all child two years and younger in Bethlehem be executed. And Herod’s guards or army or whatever force he had do it. They do not defy him.  I didn’t quite finish Serene Jones’ quote about Epiphany, “The magi receive an unjust order from a vindictive tyrant. Instead, they defy him,” and she adds, “May we do likewise.” 

///

We follow the fleeing child, not the tyrant king. The one who identifies with the slaughtered, with the refugee, with the homeless. We honor this true king like the magi— by crossing boundaries imposed by religion and politics and culture. We honor and bear witness to Jesus by resisting tyrant kings, wherever they are found. Tyrants in the way of Herod are fearful and they move others to fear. Tyrants in the way of Herod consider children, the most vulnerable among us, expendable for the sake of their power and political aims. Tyrants in the way of Herod demand that ethics bend to their will. 


We can see tyrants in power today— in the White House, on Capitol Hill, on Wall Street, in pulpits, in corporate board rooms, in small start ups, and in family homes— tyrants in the way of Herod trample on the vulnerable to accumulate and protect their power. They demand stability to keep power. So we must be a movement people. The very start of the Gospel story shows a way to resist and defy even the worst of tyrants: Follow Jesus, bear witness like the magi by crossing boundaries—religious, cultural, political. In more current vernacular: We defy tyrants by standing in solidarity. And let me add this: If you find yourself in danger of a tyrant, following Jesus can also look like fleeing to safe haven for a season. 


The hope of the way of Jesus and the way of the magi does not negate the pain of King Herod’s slaughter. Today, resisting and working for justice does not negate the pain of a migrant child held in a detention center or the pain of a child in an unsafe home or the pain of the many who have been abused by spiritual leaders. It does not negate that. But crossing boundaries to build the beloved community ruled by the refugee king Jesus, honors and bears witness to the victims of tyranny in all its forms. It creates pockets of the Kingdom of God here and now—a foretaste of the hope and justice that is to come. That is the task we have as we live in a time of tyrant kings.

May we be like magi, may we follow the path of Jesus, may we cross boundaries to confound and resist tyrants. May we do likewise. Amen.

Advent Pt. 3: On Liberation & [Extra]Ordinary Revolution

During this season of Advent, Sanctuary Dinner Church conversations are focusing on learning from Mary of Nazareth leading to the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

Text: Luke 1:46-56

 

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49  for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is God’s name.

50 God’s mercy is for those who fear God
    from generation to generation.

51 God has shown strength with God’s arm;
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;

53 God has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

54 God has helped God’s servant Israel,
    in remembrance of God’s mercy,

55 according to the promise God made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to God's descendants forever.”

56 And Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home.
 

———


On Liberation & [Extra]Ordinary Revolution


We have come to our final Sunday of Advent. In the Scripture reading, we hear the words of Mary of Nazareth— her interpretation of the events leading to Jesus’ birth. This song in the Gospel of Luke, sung by a woman at the bottom of social hierarchy in her time is a lens that we cannot interpret well the incarnation of God in Jesus, the coming of Israel’s Messiah, the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Christ, which leads to salvation— Jesus as Savior of the world. Because without Mary’s song, we are prone to a theology that views incarnation, messianic promise, and salvation as individualized, as less than complete liberation from all oppression, as something compartmentalized as “spiritual” with maybe a sprinkling of “social justice.”

 

Because of this, Mary’s words have wisely been viewed as a threat to those in power. “They were banned from being read or sung in India during the British colonial administration and in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980’s. Argentina outlawed them during the Dirty War years— the mothers of disappeared children put Mary’s song on public display and in response, the government forbade the words in public places.” (Taken from the post “Modern Mary: What a Pregnant Refugee Minority Teenager Would Sing Today.”)

 

Mary’s song— followed later in Luke by Jesus’ own words confirming his mission: 

“The Spirit of the the Lord is upon me

Because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To let the oppressed go free,

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

these are the proclamations of a new exodus. A complete liberation. Spiritual, physical, political, mental...liberation. Jesus is the Liberator of the World.

 

Miriam, the first prophetess of the newly freed Hebrew people, sang with her brother Moses (Ex 15):

 

I will sing to the Lord,

for God is highly exalted.

Both horse and driver

God has hurled into the sea.

 

“The Lord is my strength and my defense;

God has become my salvation.

The Lord is my God, and I will praise the Lord,

my father’s God, and I will exalt the Lord.

 

God has become my salvation. Freedom from slavery in Egypt was salvation. But it was not complete. Oppressive systems formed in Israel. And throughout the world oppressive systems continued to rule and battle one another— nations, religions, cultures, norms—that imprison, enslave, injure, and indenture (literally and metaphorically). A larger liberation than crossing the Red Sea was dreamed of, visioned, proclaimed by prophets. And Mary of Nazareth envisions this liberation on the horizon through her unborn child. 

 

I had the song Mary Did You Know stuck in my head as I was writing this. People tend to have love/hate feelings about the song...but it is catchy and, depending often on how its sung and who its sung by, it can either be beautiful or condescending. This is what Mary knew— that God is a God of liberation. Mary knew that deep in her bones. Her song does not speak of the future, but of what God has done and is already doing:

 

God has scattered the proud

God has brought down the powerful

God has lifted up the lowly

God has filled the hungry with good things

God has sent the rich away empty

 

God has done these things in Mary already. Mary praises God, and in herself embodies the work of God’s liberation that an unmarried, pregnant, Jewish woman in occupied Palestine will be called blessed by all generations. Mary prophecies revolution, and lives into that prophecy in herself. Mary knew what was happening, but like everyone else, she did not know how. God had put into motion God’s plan for salvation— for freedom from all oppression— but would it come through battle, through the words of prophecy, through religious means? Mary did not know, just as Jesus’ disciples didn’t know. 

 

So Mary lived in what she did know. God is a God of freedom. And God was in the process of raising up those on the bottom and toppling down those on the top. Mary would live her role in the story of salvation. She would bear and raise the one who the Spirit would be upon to bring that Good News to the poor. 

 

In Mary’s song, we have a lens, for understanding God’s salvation and Jesus’ life and ministry and death and resurrection...the Kingdom Christ began... as liberative, as world-changing, as all encompassing— individual, communal, political, religious, spiritual, physical...everything freed. AND in Mary’s song, in who she is as the singer, we have a lens for how we may live in that promise of liberation. Through parenthood (whether literal or metaphorical), through poetry, through prayer, through contemplation, through courageous yet seemingly small, unnoticed actions. God is a God of liberation. Mary calls us to place our hope AND our actions in that. Whether in the loudest, biggest ways or the quiet, small ones.

 

Amen.

Advent Pt. 2: On Spirit & Experience

During this season of Advent, Sanctuary Dinner Church conversations are focusing on learning from Mary of Nazareth leading to the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

Text: Luke 1:39-45

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

 ———

On Spirit & Experience

This may be the only passage in Scripture that passes the Bechdel Test. I may need a fact check on that, but it’s a remarkable text for it’s time and place. Luke follows Mary at the beginning of this Gospel narrative as she goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth. We didn’t read Elizabeth’s story—skipping it last week to jump into our Advent focus on Mary— but the short of it is that Elizabeth and Zechariah, her husband, were old and were unable to conceive a child. Luke makes a point to say both were righteous, which is important because theologically at this time a woman being unable to conceive pointed to a moral and religious problem—she had done something that caused God to withhold children from her. Zechariah was a priest, and while in the sanctuary of the Temple, a place only priests could enter by lot, an angel appeared to him and told him that Elizabeth would have a son who should be named John. That this son would be filled with God’s Spirit before he was even born and would turn many people of Israel back to the Lord. Zechariah was obviously scared by this appearance, and he responded, “How will I know this is so?” He was asking for a sign. The angel then made him mute until the promise became reality because his response stemmed from distrust. Elizabeth did conceive and went into solitude for the first five months, responding with gratitude and joy.


In Elizabeth’s sixth month, Mary has her experience with angel’s message, as we read about last week. Mary then makes the trek too see Elizabeth— at least 90 miles, probably more. Perhaps she goes to see Elizabeth to find out if it’s true that Elizabeth is pregnant. The angel, Gabriel, who visited Mary told her that Elizabeth’s pregnancy was a sign that God’s word would be fulfilled. Or perhaps she goes because she is an unwed woman expecting to have a child, promised by God, and it sounds far-fetched. She is likely to be shamed, to be rejected by her family and her community, but if Elizabeth is pregnant, maybe just maybe she will understand. Maybe she will even believe Mary. 


Elizabeth had endured that type of shame. She endured the judgment of a community that moralized her body. When she finds out she’s pregnant, she responds in part by saying, “The Lord took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” She knows shame. When Mary arrives on her doorstep, Elizabeth’s child, as promised is filled with God’s Spirit and leaps, but even more remarkably, Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit, and in hearing her cousin’s news, she responds not with shame, but with a blessing and a prophecy of hope. I think there are two things happening here, one divine and one human and they are impossible to separate—fitting for a season leading up to the incarnation of God in flesh and blood:


The first, is that this encounter is an embodiment, a tangible foretaste of how God’s Spirit re-orders the world. The Spirit is at work in the meeting of two women, who have or will be shamed and ostracized. They are the first to know, trust, and proclaim God’s work of salvation. The Spirit is at work in lifting up the prophetic voices of the most marginalized people— a work that continues and expands in the life and teachings of Jesus. The Spirit is at work in silencing Elizabeth’s husband, a priest, and inspiring prophetic voice in Elizabeth instead. Perhaps a larger work of the Spirit is at play: Priests were a go-between for God and the people of God. As the incarnation of God approaches, the priest is silenced. The go-between, which had become cynical, operating out of a lack of imagination and trust, was silenced so that the women prophets, those who already knew God in an incarnational way would have the floor to speak. And Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, in a time of uncertainty speaks words of encouragement, hope, and joy. God gives voice to the bold hope of the prophet, rather than to the cynical religiosity of the priest.


Second, Elizabeth’s response to Mary comes out of the very human place:Elizabeth’s own experience of shame, because of cultural stigma and particular Scriptural interpretations against women without children, enables her to recognize God’s presence, love, and work in Mary. Mary is not rejected for being pregnant, but is received with open arms and blessed. Like the word “favored” last week— the word blessed here is very different than what we in the modern West called, “blessed.” Mary is taking a huge risk to be a part of God’s work of salvation. She is blessed because she is an active participant in the Holy Spirit’s work. She is blessed because she reacts and acts out of trust in the midst of uncertainty. Elizabeth sees and deeply, intuitively understands Mary’s courage and blesses Mary out of her own experience.


As we continue to learn this Advent from Mary and her story leading up to the birth of Jesus, I wonder: 

Whose prophetic voice we need to seek?

Whose blessing and words of hope we need to hear?

Who has walked the path before us and can receive us where we are?

Who is the Spirit calling us to collaborate with, to find support in and give support to, and to participate alongside in God’s just re-ordering of the world? 

Advent Pt. 1: On Virginity & Favor

During this season of Advent, Sanctuary Dinner Church conversations are focusing on learning from Mary of Nazareth leading to the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke.

Text: Luke 1: 26-38

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Then the angel departed from her.

———

On Virginity & Favor

There is a thought experiment that Nadia Bolz-Weber proposes in a sermon (you can find the full sermon HERE): What if there were a bunch of women Gabriel went to first, who all said, “No,” and perhaps Mary was just the first to say, “Yes,” to God’s crazy commission. There is no evidence of this story as something passed down, but perhaps it would be a needed corrective to Mary as pure, sinless, otherworldly, perfect recipient. And that being the reason why God’s Word, promise, prophecy, and Son were entrusted to her. 

 

During the season of Advent— which begins today— our invitation is to learn from Mary of Nazareth. To see, hear, and seek to understand Mary leading up to the birth of Jesus without being steered by sentimentality or cynicism. In this “annunciation” story— this announcement to Mary that she will conceive a child who will be great, called Son of God, and be King over an endless Kingdom— I want to focus on two important words: Virgin and Favored. 

 

Let’s begin with what has been for centuries the most loaded: Virgin. Mary is called a virgin in Luke’s text before she is called by her name. Three times we are reminded Mary is a virgin. For a very long time in the Western church, both Catholic and Protestant, Mary’s virginity has been emphasized as purity. Jesus needed to come from a pure woman to be holy, the reasoning goes. A woman who had not been defiled through sex. But Matthew’s genealogy shows us that God isn’t very concerned with Jesus’ pureblood status of only sexually repressed or religiously virtuous women. The women in Jesus’ genealogy include:


Tamar, who tricked her unfaithful-to-his-promise father-in-law into sleeping with her by pretending to be a prostitute.
Rehab, a prostitute, who—if we read through a theology of purity— would have been problematic both because of issues of sexuality and religion.
Ruth, a Moabite, a person religiously and ethnically outside of Israel, who it could reasonably be read seduced an Israelite man on the threshing room floor.
”Uriah’s wife,” Bathsheba, who was a victim of a coercive and adulteress sexual relationship with the King of Israel.

Then Mary of Narazeth, the virgin. Mary does not serve as some corrective to the sexual and religious impurity of Jesus’ line. She is rather an extension of God choosing those on the margins, those women who live in the risky in-between of men’s protection, desire, and ownership.
 

Virginity at this time was about social status more than our modern notion of sexual purity. A virgin was a woman, who was beyond the start of puberty but not yet married. Likely a virgin as we understand the term today, but the point was the liminal space. Mary was betrothed to Joseph. She was in between stages in her life of belonging to her father and belonging to a husband. Mary was in the space between responsibility to men. And her pregnancy is likened to Elizabeth’s— who follows a more common Biblical narrative— an older woman, assumed to be unable to conceive, who becomes pregnant by God’s grace and has a remarkable child that plays a key role in God’s liberate and redemptive plan.

 

Mary is like a barren woman, but without the shame that entails. For Mary, pregnancy would be shameful. Her in-between state of virginity, of belonging solely to no man, of no expectations of childbearing, yet being considered a woman, no longer a child puts her in a unique liminal space. It is from this place that Mary hears God’s Word and commission, and she can decide how to respond to it. And unlike the barren woman, the risk is in saying yes to what the messenger calls God’s favor.

 

This risk is very real. Mary in this in-between place called virginity, somewhat belongs to two men— her father and her future husband— but really is responsible to both while belonging under the care of neither. Her pregnancy, especially as poor woman, could easily wreck both protections. Yet, to not accept God’s commission to bear the Messiah, would be to accept a life of poverty as a Jewish woman in occupied Palestine. A difficult life to say the least. 

 

Mary, the angel says, is favored by God. Graced by God is another way to translate it. Mary is favored, chosen, as the prophets are in the Hebrew Scriptures. She is not more than human, but she is seen and known and loved and specifically set apart by God to play a particular role in the story of God’s liberation and redemption. Perhaps what makes her favored is that she is ready to play that role in the same way as Samuel was ready to play his and Isaiah was ready to play his, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” echoing the priest and the prophet. Mary, as a poor woman betrothed in Nazareth, perhaps was more ready than anyone for God’s promised Messiah to come and liberate God’s people from oppression. She responds to Gabriel— at first with a troubled look, considering what in the world was happening— but ultimately with the trust and assurance of a priest and prophet. Mary trusted God’s liberate and redemptive plan and was willing to play her role in that story at the risk of her own wellbeing. She never was going to be guaranteed a comfortable life. She was not favored by the world. And she threw her lot in with God the way that many prophets and priests called by God did before her. 

 

Mary has much to teach followers of Jesus. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “What was achieved in the body of Mary will happen in the soul of everyone who receives the Word.” There may have been others who said no, or maybe not, but we certainly have a choice of reaction in our own liminal spaces, in the places in between belonging, in between safety, in between differing paths. It’s in those places that God’s Word often finds us. God’s commission comes to us. That God’s favor— underserved grace and calling— reach us. And if received and trusted, that Word, grace, and call place us in the story of liberation and redemption.

For the Life of the World

Text: John 6:51-58

51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

52 Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

53 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
 

Note: For the Life of the World

This chapter, likely, is a collection of teachings Jesus gave at the synagogue in Capernaum. I mention that because often it is easy to assume that the Gospels are written like chronological biographies. Instead, there was a lot more freedom for the Gospel authors to say something, to make a point about who Jesus is, through the arrangement of the story. Reading John 6, as we have been, is like drinking out of a firehose on the subject of Jesus as the bread of eternal life. This mattered to John; it is important in John’s understanding and transmission of who Jesus is and what it means to follow the way of Jesus. Tonight, I want to attempt to get to the heart of what John wants the readers of this Gospel to get.

 

You have all heard the phrase, “You are what you eat." That phrase was first written in the late 1800s by a materialist philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, who believed that the material is what is. Period. None of this idealist, religious, speculation. Well, I’m going to butcher his point because “You are what you eat” has deeply profound implications that are both spiritual and material. You are what you partake in. 
 

The first people, as told through a poem in Genesis 1, were given the good, God-created world to partake in. God said to the humans God created at the end of the Genesis poem, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food. And it was so.” Everything that has the breath of life in it is given the created earth itself to eat, to partake in. The breath of life is sustained by partaking in God’s creation.
 

The Jewish listeners to Jesus’ “invitation”—to put it politely—to eat his flesh and drink his blood was the reasonable question, “How? How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” But Jesus wasn’t speaking literally—he was speaking truthfully, but a truth that necessitated metaphor. So “How” wasn’t the most pressing question, but rather “what?” What is the flesh of Jesus? What is the that which is given for the life of the world? What is the life of the world? What is the bread of eternal life? If we know what, then we can know how. 

 

The Gospel writer, John, reworked the Genesis poem at the start of his Gospel narrative. He saw the story of Jesus as beginning in the very beginning. The very life of the world involved Jesus. John writes, “Through him (the Word that would become flesh as the human being, Jesus), all things were made. In him was life, and that was life was the light of humankind.” Through this Word, who would become flesh in Jesus, was life, all life was made through him.
What is the bread of eternal life?
Jesus.

What is it that is given for the life of the world?
The life of Jesus.

What is the life of the world?
Jesus.

Who is Jesus?
Life.

 

The invitation Jesus gives is so often by Christian relegated to communion. Because it’s so weird, and relegating it to a controlled ritual is safer. But Jesus is using this metaphor of the bread of life to get at something so much bigger. It is the invitation to partake in life itself. In what Jesus later in John calls, “Life to the full” or “Abundant life.” The life of the world, the animating force of creation, the fullness of human life is the life of Jesus. Judaism at this time involved sacrifices. The point of the sacrifice was not the flesh and blood of the animal on an altar. The point was what flesh and blood pointed to—life. The sacrifice was about giving life to God, there were many reasons for that, but it gave life back to the creator of life. Jesus points to his own flesh and blood, and the invitation is to accept God giving life to us. 

 

So, as the Jewish people asked in John’s Gospel, how? How do you partake in the life of Jesus? “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” Remain, abide. When you partake in the life of Jesus, you do it by abiding in Christ. We partake, ingest, embody the life of Jesus. We abide by living into, by living the Way of Jesus. We do this spiritually, and we do this tangibly. We abide in prayer and by resting in God’s love. We abide by loving our neighbors, by sharing meals, sometimes by flipping tables, by seeking God’s Kingdom and justice and peace on earth, by laying down our privilege to love others, by resting, by cultivating friendships. We abide in the life of Jesus. We live in Jesus. That is life that not even death was able to overcome. 

That is what it means to partake in the bread of heaven. We are nourished and sustained by the life of Jesus lived out for the sake of the world—that world includes us. 

A Letter to the Community from Co-Organizing Pastor, Jane Larson

 

It is with both great sadness and a deep sense of peace that I announce my resignation as Co-Pastor of Sanctuary Faith Community. It has been a privilege to serve as a leader of this community both as an intern my final year of seminary and as a Co-Organizing Pastor, alongside Laura. This community created space for me to explore my call to ministry and to begin the work of integrating this call in a context where I could also be true to my identity. 

When I started on this adventure in church planting, I did not anticipate how beautiful and how challenging it would be. I am grateful, inspired, and encouraged by all the people who offered their gifts to this community. I have learned what it means to take risks and what it means to truly trust in God’s provision and love, offered by and through others. 

It is in this spirit of trust that I step down from my position. While discovering my call to ministry, I have also discerned a need for deep rest. At this time in my life, I am lacking the energy to invest in and to care well for this community I love. In order to continue to take care of my health and continue on the journey of discernment, I sense God calling me to take a risk of my own.

I have already started to grieve what it means for me to step down from leadership in this community. I do so trusting there will be opportunities for me in ministry in the future and trusting that God will continue to sustain and move in the life of Sanctuary Faith Community.

My last day will be Monday, September 17th. I welcome your prayers for Sanctuary during this season of transition and offer my gratitude for the opportunity to serve this community. I will cherish all of the sacred moments during my time with Sanctuary, especially the beautiful conversations and meals shared around the table. 

With love, 
Jane

Sunday Note: I Wait for the Lord

Text: Psalm 130

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
and in God's word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
more than watchmen wait for the morning,
more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord is unfailing love
and with God is full redemption.
The Lord Godself will redeem Israel
from all their sins.
 


Note


When I worked at a summer camp, I had a supervisor-- the Director of Adventure (best. title. ever.)-- who sang a surprisingly upbeat and moving version of this Psalm turned Christian hymn. A moodier version can be found HERE.

From the depths of woe I raise to Thee
The voice of lamentation; 
Lord, turn a gracious ear to me
And hear my supplication; 
If Thou iniquities dost mark, 
Our secret sins and misdeeds dark,
Oh who could stand before Thee?


I am at my core an optimist. I often have a difficult time fully embracing angst, woe, lament, and grief. Yet, a song (and a psalm) beginning with crying out from the depths resonates with something deep in my soul. Whether for a moment, in a particular circumstance or in a more persistent state, we all experience the depths of woe. We experience depths of woe of our own creation, dug with our own hand; depths of woe dug out by the sins or apathy of others; depths of woe that we fall into in the course of our human journey. We fall. Again and again we fall.

The depths that we dig on our own are perhaps the most difficult to emerge out of. Because, though we may be strong enough to power through the digging, once we are in the depths we are too weak, too weary to pull ourselves out.

Julian of Norwich envisioned the Fall-- the origin of humanity's capacity for sin and harm-- as this kind of a fall. A falling into a pit. A fall that injures and weakens us. She does not seem to be as concerned with where the ditch came from-- whether dug by us, dug by others, there by the forces of nature-- because her attention is on the One who rescues the fallen. Jesus, the Savior, who comes into the ditch and pulls us out.

This is a beautiful image and True on a grand scale, the macro story of God's love, grace, and redemption for the children of humanity God created. And it is in this hope that the Psalmist points to-- not yet knowing Jesus, yet trusting in the Lord's grace to redeem God's people, and through them the entire world. But that is not the bulk of this poem, this hymn. 

What do we do in the depths, in the woe, in the shame, in the lament, in the grief?

As the Psalmist cries out, he is undergirded by the faithfulness of the Lord. God hears. God is attentive. God is merciful. God forgives. God empowers to service. God is unfailing in love. God redeems.

The Psalmist, in crying out for God, in the very act of demanding God to listen, to show mercy, to forgive, to love, practices trust in the very God who is all of those things. The depths of woe, the lament becomes a song of hope and praise in the crying out and the waiting. The depths become a place of grace, a crucible of trust and hope. 

In another Psalm, it is written, "Even if I make my bed in Sheol (the place of the dead, what in the New Testament is transformed in some places to hell), there You are." Even in the depths of our own making God's presence is there. Even in the hells we chose to be in are places of God's grace.

This is a hard word, as it is much easier to assume the depths to be a place of godlessness, a place to be avoided at all costs, a place to pull people out of as quickly as possible.

Yet, from the depths of woe, we must wait. We do not only learn to "live alone by mercy," as the song goes, but we actually live alone by mercy. We are not afforded the distance to learn grace, learn trust, consider lament. We can only trust, hope, and cry out.

In the depths, I wait for the Lord. And this, too, is grace.

Sermon: The Love that changes the meaning of love

Text: 1 John 4:7-21

7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 This is how God showed God’s love among us: God sent God’s one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent God’s Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is made complete in us.

13 This is how we know that we live in God and God in us: God has given us of God’s Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

19 We love because God first loved us. 20 Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. 21 And God has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

 

The Love that changes the meaning of love


I’m going to guess that agape is the most tattooed Greek word on the bodies of non-Greek speakers. No shame— I have Hebrew tattooed on my wrist that I got long before I actually learned to read it. It’s for good reason that agape is found on wrists and forearms and ankles everywhere in America. It is a powerful word. At it’s core, it means love. Outside of the New Testament, though, this word for love wasn’t all that popular. And it did not have the particular meaning that Christians ascribe to it. If you read The Four Loves by CS Lewis or google agape and click on the wikipedia page—which exists—you’ll learn that agape means unconditional, sacrificial love. It is God’s love for humanity through Christ. But prior to its use in letters like 1 John, agape was used sparingly in Greek writing, and was used as kind of an affection for something. Affection that wasn’t sexual. When something or someone was held in high regard or there was a preference based on virtue or morality. For example, if my husband Ed lived in Greek antiquity and ice hockey existed there, he probably would have said, “I agape hockey because it is morally and virtuously the best sport.” Many of us would have disagreed. And that’s not quite the self-sacrificing, unconditional, highest love that agape became.

Christians transformed the meaning of agape by using it to describe a love that language did not yet have the capacity to describe. We read this morning 1 John chapter 4 versus 7-21: 15 verses. Agape is used 29 times in 15 verses. The least used word for love is used excessively here. What’s happening here is that the writer(s) of 1 John is tripping over themselves to describe the invitation and call and movement of God’s love. I read awhile back an earlier draft of Scott’s— a former professor and current friend and mentor of mine—manuscript. And there was a word in it used differently than I am used to reading it. It took on a different meaning than I attribute to it. And the first time it was used, I think there was a footnote explaining what it meant and why it was being used that way. But for a long while as I read, I would stumble every time this word appeared. But eventually, seeing it again and again in context, I began to re-define it in my mind. I began to create the capacity in myself to understand not just a word used differently, but the new concept that it pointed to.

This was the challenge of the church in the first and second centuries. Agape is not the only Greek word Christians transformed— “ekkelsia” (what we now call church), “gospel” were words that had their meanings changed after Jesus. The meaning of love need to be transformed in light of Jesus. The gods were not self-sacrificing for humans. Humans sacrificed for the gods. And love was from duty, from loyalty, from preference, from, perhaps morality and virtue. It was conditional.

But when you read of love 29 times in 15 verses, you start to get a glimpse of what is meant by it. You start to be formed into a new understanding of love just by having the words wash over you. So what is this love that changed the meaning of love…


---


Immediately preceding our Scripture reading this morning, the writer of this letter talks about discerning and testing the spirits. How can you tell when something is from God? How can you tell when someone is speaking truth? How can you tell the difference between a prophet and false prophet? This was a common anxiety for the apostles and the first generations of church leaders. These communities of Jesus followers, who had heard the stories of Jesus, who had passed down the teachings of particular apostles, who did not yet have a New Testament canon, and there were essential things itinerate preachers and teachers and people claiming to be prophets disagreed on. Paul— whose letters make up most of the New Testament—was really concerned about this. And for good, theological and practical reasons. He’d go to a place, proclaim the story of the Gospel, tell those who were not Jewish that they, too, were grafted in and part of the community of God through Jesus Christ. As they were. No conversion to Judaism, including circumcision, necessary. They, like Jewish followers of Jesus, were saved by grace, by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Then someone else would roll through and tell them that they were not included unless they got circumcised. Now— if you are a grown, Gentile man, you might want to know who is right. You want to follow Jesus and be part of Christian community, but does that mean getting baptized or getting circumcised? Essential question to answer.

At this later date, when this letter was written, we don’t know exactly what the debate was about false prophets versus real ones. It seems there were teachers coming through telling people that Jesus was not fully human, fully God, or was for a time, but the God-part got out of there during the suffering of the cross, some separated flesh and spirit so much as to call the flesh evil, others just less-than the spiritual, true self. Whatever the particular teaching the anxiety was still there. This question for early Christians of how do we know when it’s God’s Spirit or something else continued to be asked. 

If you have followed Jesus, if you have wrestled with Scripture as holy text, if you have practiced prayer and discernment, you have probably asked this question: How do I know when it’s God? How do I know when it’s the Spirit’s movement? The answer given in 1 John is, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” What a weird and seemingly unhelpful answer. This discussion of testing the spirits and listening to God’s Spirit, who acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh leads into our passage today about love. And I think they are connected.

They are connected because at the heart of this entire chapter is: INCARNATION.


---

I want to turn to John’s Gospel—and the story and teachings that seem to have most influenced the community responsible for this letter—the beginning of chapter 1…skipping around a bit

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…

9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world…

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.


The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Jesus— wholly God, wholly human; spirit and flesh united—that’s incarnation. That’s the measurement of God’s spirit speaking. That’s the crux of agape love. The love of John’s letter is an incarnate love. A love empowered by the Spirit and embodied. A love that unites spirit and flesh. A love that is from and of God, yet a love we cannot know without seeing it and experiencing it and participating in it with real, embodied people. John, with the one word agape, tears down the the dichotomy of mystic and active; of contemplative and justice-seeking; of personal and social faith. The love of God, John says in this letter, is made complete in us if we love one another. God’s love is not complete without embodiment—embodiment in us.

---

The love that we are invited to and called to this morning has the potential to make us all a bit uncomfortable. In the dichotomies that agape love breaks down, I find myself most comfortable with the active, justice-seeking, social faith expression of agape love. Love isn’t love unless its a verb. I like the way the NIV translation says that “God lives in us” and “Whoever lives in love lives in God;” it is it is movement and action oriented. And at this time, that speaks profoundly to me. And we need it. We are called to it. We cannot know God’s love without actively loving our neighbors. 

And the discomfort for me is that the contemplative, the personal, and the mystic is essential to this love. Another way to translate the “lives” word I like, is abide. God abides in us; whoever abides in love, abides in God. A stillness. A rooting.

Others of you may find your comfort in the mystic, personal, contemplative love. Your comfort may be in love, not so much as an active, pushy verb, but as a noun, a state of being. Perhaps you, too, see the profound need for this in this time and place. A profound need for us to know deeply our belovedness. To be rooted and still. Because God is love and God first loved us. 

And the discomfort for you will be the active, the justice-seeking, the social. Because whoever lives, moves, tries and fails, walks alongside their siblings in the streets, shows up, lives in God and God in them.

On top of discomfort, there is a cost required by agape love. When we allow Jesus of Nazareth to define this incarnate love, it is clear there is a cost. John writes, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent God’s Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Jesus’ life and ministry was an embodiment of agape love. Spirit and flesh unified. Love incarnate. And the powers and principalities— political, religious, economic, along with a mob, and human sin and corruption, and what the Bible calls Satan, the spirit of accusation—in a word: sin—collective and individual— killed him. Communal embodied fear killed the embodiment of complete love. Human and divine, flesh and spirit— love hung on a cross. That is the pinnacle of love and the pinnacle of love’s cost. We are not called by God to bear guilt, to bear shame, to bear the sin of the world— Jesus has freed us from that in his death and resurrection.

But we are freed to live in the same embodied, agape love as Jesus. And that means to come up against these same systems and communal sins, to come up against this embodied fear, to come up against those things in ourselves, in others, and in the world. To love incarnationally will cost us our pride, as we stumble and ask for forgiveness, will cost us our self-righteousness as we forgive, will cost us our time, our resources, our tribal identity, as we love across enemy lines. It will cost us our vengeance; it will cost us our preferences; it will cost us privileged comfort if we have it.

But in the discomfort and the cost, there is this love that is God. There is unity with God. There is the force that is reconciling all things to God in Christ. There is the love that overcomes sin and death. There is the love that will outlast everything. It is the love that you are already caught up in, and are now invited and called to live and abide in.

---

I know for being a sermon on embodied love, this has been a bit heady. But I hope that you’ll allow it to sink down into your bones. To help that along the way, I reached back to a sermon Martin Luther King, Jr preached on loving your enemies. Because this gives sight of the cost and the ultimate liberation of agape love. The movement lead by Martin Luther King, Jr. gives us an example of what this complete agape love looks like in context.

Let me lay bare the undergirding concern of this sermon: I am convinced that right now we need Spirit-empowered, embodied love. And for far too long, especially in whiter, more privileged churches and writing and speaking, there have been two paths laid out. To be firmly rooted in God’s love for you, in the sacrifice of Jesus, and in individual devotion to Jesus’ teachings and way in your life is incomplete agape love. To be on the streets marching side-by-side with our siblings in Christ, to embody love to our neighbors in need, to work for justice and healing in our world is incomplete agape love. Both paths are forged with love, both are of God, both are good— but they are incomplete.

Hear these words from Martin Luther King, Jr. on what agape love of enemy looks like:

To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

That is love that drives out fear. That is agape love, empowered by the Holy Spirit, deeply rooted in the beloved child of God, and embodied in the world. This agape love is not reserved for spiritual giants or social movement leaders— it is for and with and in you.

---
 

The love we need and are called to at this time— in a fear-filled time, a time of great need, a time of falsehood and false prophets— is the same love that these early Christians were called to by John centuries ago. It is the same love that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached. It is agape love. It is the love incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. It is the powerful love that lives and abides in you and in us. The love that proclaims good news to the poor, that sets prisoners free, that gives sight to the blind, that stands with the oppressed, that cancels debts. The love that heals, that turns over tables, that forgives, that overcomes sin and death is in your and in us.

That is the call on us today: To be deeply rooted in agape love and boldly active in agape love.

May it be so. Amen.

 

Sunday Note: Practicing Compassion

Text: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

...

When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
 

--------


Note: Practicing Compassion


Jesus’ disciples return from their journeys to different towns, where they proclaimed that the Kingdom of God was near and that the people should repent, healed the sick, and casted out demons. They are excited to tell the amazing stories of their missions to Jesus, and they are exhausted. Jesus, presumably, has continued his work of preaching, teaching, and healing, and he, too, is in need of rest. 

There are necessary, healthy rhythms that we must honor or we will feel it in our bodies, our minds, and our souls. One of the most important of these rhythms is work and rest. When we only work, and go past our capacity to do all of the things, we feel it. We get sick, we can’t sleep well, we change our diets, we can’t focus, we can’t think clearly, we are irritable, we feel it further in our bones, we lack connection with the Divine, we lack deep connection with others— our bodies and minds and souls must have rest. Real rest. A quiet space. Equal and opposite reactions occur when we don’t have meaningful work. Not necessarily a job or career or school in our context, but work, purpose, a doing, a happening— something that moves us from being still, quiet in ourselves to action and connection in the world. 

This rhythm of work and rest for Jesus and his disciples is interrupted in this week’s lectionary text. If you are a parent, you know this feeling. You just need some sleep, but your child wakes. If you leave your email notifications on, you likely know this feeling. You sit in the quiet, pause for a moment, and *ding* an email. You’re body is trained to respond. There are a thousand ways we experience these moments— we sit for a minute, we start to read, we go for a walk, we go on vacation— and whether it is the external need of others or the internal inability to quiet down, we are interrupted by work, by purpose, by doing.

Jesus’ response is unpopular in our current context. He and his disciples are on their way to be by themselves, to rest in a quiet, solitary place, for just a moment to be away from the crowds and away from their work. But people see them traveling to this remote place, and they run to meet them. A crowd gathers, work shows up. Jesus has compassion on the crowd, and he goes back to work. It is, honestly, difficult for me to write about because it pushes against what I have been told— guard your rest, practice Sabbath, prioritize self-care. If you believe these things, as well, please do not stop reading. I do not believe this text is to say we ought not rest, but it reorients our rest by placing in front of us the question: Why do we rest? It reorients our practice of rest to be in line with Jesus’ way of compassion.

Practicing rest and rhythms of work and Sabbath is for the sake of compassion. Compassion requires that we are fully present to another person, that we are fully present to a situation, to a people. Rest gives us the energy for this, and, perhaps more importantly, it is the practice of compassion to ourselves. It is the practice of being fully present to self. It is a practice of loving ourselves. It is a practice of loving God, whose image we bear. Rest is a practice of compassion for the sake of compassion.It primes us to be present to the needs and the person and the situations of others. 

And here is where it gets tricky. Sometimes our rhythm of rest will be interrupted by the needs, the situations, and the presence of others. Sometimes our rhythms— our good, thoughtful, life-giving plans— will be thrown out of whack by other people’s issues. Likely, you have experienced some version of this in the past week. And Jesus reminds his disciples and us through his reaction to this crowd that rhythms and practices and plans are for the sake of compassion. They cease to be good once they legalistically keep us from loving others. This is why Jesus chose to heal on the Sabbath, scandalizing the religious elites.

Practice rest. Practice self-care. Practice Sabbath. Know your limits. But also, know that the compassion you cultivate for yourself is meant to expand outward to others. Do not let your rhythms and practices and plans and boundaries harden your heart. Let them be entry points into the love of God, which is co-suffering, sacrificial, compassionate love.

Jesus and his disciples rested after they dismissed the crowds later in the day. Their work and their rest was all for the sake of compassion. May we go and do likewise.

Amen.

Sunday Note: Chosen Ones

Text: Ephesians 1:3-14

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For God chose us in God before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in God's sight. In love God predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with God's pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which God has freely given us in the One God loves. In Jesus Christ we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that God lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of God's will according to God's good pleasure, which God purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

In Christ we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of God who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of God's will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of God's glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in Christ with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of God's glory.

 

Note: Chosen Ones
 

The letter’s author, Paul wrote in Greek to the church in Ephesus, and in its original form this entire section is one LOOOOONNNNNGGGG sentence. Paul is on a roll, and no punctuation is going to slow him down. He is spilling out these words of blessing and praise and promise to the Ephesians— a church community made up mostly of Gentiles.

There was an understanding for a very long time that God— Yahweh, the one God who had chosen the Jewish people to be in a covenant relationship and bring about God’s plan of salvation for the world— chose the Jewish people exclusively and not those outside of Jewish lineage. God’s plan was for the world, but those who had a role to play were Jews— those who had inherited the lineage and the religious rituals of the Israelites. So Gentiles could be God-fearers, people who revered God, who believed in the one God that the Jewish people professed and worshiped, who were devote practitioners, but they could not be full participants. They could not enter into the Temple further than the outer courts. They were not in the family; they were outsiders.

Early in the life of the church, Paul and Barnabas and Peter— Jewish followers of Jesus— were led by God’s Spirit to share the good news of Jesus’ life, message, death, resurrection, and reign as Lord of all things with Gentiles. And not only to share this message that they might know and look in on the action from the outside, but to actually invite Gentiles into this new community of Jesus-followers, into this Kingdom of God, into the family of God. The claim Paul makes is even bolder: Gentiles were never outsiders. This inclusion, participation, and family was God’s plan before the creation of the world. Jews and Gentiles participating together in grand narrative of God’s salvation and redemption of the entire world— ALL THINGS, as Paul writes— was God’s plan from the start. God predestined these Ephesian Gentiles and Jews to be a part of God’s community and mission through Christ.

This word, “predestined,” has been used as an exclusionary concept for far too long. In my own faith tradition it has been used to separate people into camps— those chosen by God and those not chosen by God. Those deemed worthy by God (articulated as by grace, but always containing more judgment than that) get to play on the field, while the rest sit on the bench, or worse are thrown out of God’s game completely (the World Cup is on my mind, so please forgive the imperfect analogy). This is the opposite of what Paul is proclaiming in rush to the Ephesians.

You are included!
You are participants!
God has chosen you!


Even though you thought God didn’t want you, that you were excluded from God’s promises and community, even though you were told by religious people that you were an outsider: God chose you from the start. And in Jesus, we’re all included; we’re all participants; we’re all chosen.

But we aren’t chosen based on our worthiness. We aren’t chosen based on our devotedness. We aren’t chosen based on our religiosity, our lineage, our gender, our ethnicity, our geography, our intelligence, our goodness, our giftedness, our abilities, our personalities, or our charisma. We have not been left out due to our inability, our sins, our faults, our awkwardness, our limitations, our lineage, our gender, our geography, or our wrongness. 

We are in because of the riches of God’s grace that God lavished on us.

This may make you grateful to hear. This may make you angry at who else is included. This may make you think that God is a terrible judge of character. But trusting God’s grace, trusting the forgiveness Christ proclaims, and trusting the great story of God’s love and redemption of all things— that is our salvation. Here and now: It is my salvation and yours, it is the salvation of our shared life together, and it is the salvation of all creation.

Living in this trust, living in God’s grace, marks us, taps us into the power of the Holy Spirit, and catches our lives up in God’s love. We are holy and blameless in the sight of God as those drenched in grace and love. We are forgiven. We are being healed. We are loved more than we can imagine. This is the foundation, the center, the heartbeat of the life of a Jesus-follower. It is out of this reality, this gift, this calling that we get to play a part in all things being redeemed through Love. 

May we be a people who live out of this expansive love of God in Christ. 
Amen.