Sanctuary Community Survey: Dinner Church

Sanctuary’s Leadership Team (sometimes called the “Sub-Force” since it’s a subcommittee of our larger Presbytery-connected Task Force) meets monthly to plan future gatherings, create needed policies, and set vision and strategy for the big questions of Sanctuary’s mission. This month, we met to reflect upon Dinner Church and set a course for our gatherings and events next six months. We are proposing a change that we want to hear input from the broader community before making a final decision about its implementation. We hope you’ll take the time to read below then fill out a four question, multiple choice survey

Survey Link: https://forms.gle/3Hd4GYBaqgNSYeRp7

Nine months ago, Sanctuary shifted from meeting two Sunday evenings per month to meeting weekly on Monday evenings. The hope in making this change was to create more consistency and to better reach the neighborhood where God has called us. We had observed that Lawrenceville was a neighborhood with many thriving small businesses, which were open on Sundays, but not on Mondays. We hoped to match the Sabbath of neighborhood restaurants, bars, and shops by meeting on Mondays.

Since then, our paid staff changed from two part-time pastors to one part-time pastor with a more active volunteer leadership team. We have bumped into our limitations as we’ve sought to continue to meet weekly on Mondays. Looking back on the past nine months, we made several observations:

-The consistency of Monday evenings has been helpful. We remember when Dinner Church is happening and can tell others about it easily.

-Sharing a meal together is central to who we are as a community. We do not want to get rid of the meal all together.

-Most of the people who come to Dinner Church work on Mondays. It is difficult to have the energy to go, especially as it is the first working day of the week. It is often impossible to help with cooking or set up.

-Meeting weekly has limited our ability to engage in the neighborhood. Our pastor and our “regulars” do not have margin to experiment with other forms of gathering community or to meet neighbors through service and other events.

-Meal rotations have been almost impossible to create, as most people are unable to contribute a main dish on a weekday evening.

There are many beautiful things happening at Sanctuary and through Dinner Church. As we seek to build on what we have already created in this community, we are committed to our mission: To create a community that is rooted in the way of Jesus for the flourishing of our neighbors and neighborhood. Dinner Church is a primary way for us to create a community that is rooted in the way of Jesus, yet in its current form, we have been hindered from turning outward for the flourishing of our neighbors and neighborhood. 

We propose a new rhythm of meeting to create the space in our community schedule for more neighborhood engagement, outreach, justice work, and gathering neighbors in ways that help everyone to flourish: Dinner Church would meet one Sunday evening per month, year-round. This change would occur in June. Pub Talks will continue as they have, one Sunday per month, September-May.

We want to hear your feedback on this proposal, as well as your observations of Dinner Church and how Sanctuary is living into our mission. Please take five minutes to fill out the survey. Our Leadership Team will take a final vote on proposed changes in the coming weeks.

Survey Link: https://forms.gle/3Hd4GYBaqgNSYeRp7

Go with Trust & Doubt

Text: Matthew 28:16-20

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

———

Go with Trust & Doubt

We have reached the end of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew moves from the resurrection of Jesus straight into this scene on a mountain, where Jesus claims his authority then passes it on to his disciples as a commission, a sending out. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus has tried to give a picture— through parables, through miracles, and through his own embodied action—as to what the Kingdom of Heaven is like— what God’s Kingdom, which Jesus says is near, and that he will rule over in the world, will look like. Each time the Kingdom is described or hinted at or embodied, it is a surprise. It completely redefines what the word “kingdom” means.

Some contemporary theologians and church folks have begun using the word kin-dom because 2000 years later we still struggle to allow the mental picture of Kingdom to be transformed enough by Jesus. You would think that when Jesus, the “king,” went without violence and retribution to the cross then was raised from the dead— that would be the culmination of this king and kingdom being different. That would be the big reveal, no more surprises. But the way of the Kingdom of God goes even further than non-violence to the grave and the divine love of God conquering sin and death in the resurrection. Christ as King, as conquerer of death and sin and violence, as the firstborn among the dead, as a force stronger than the strongest Empire— He claims his authority on the mountain, then hands it over. 

The disciples had begun to worship him. This verb looks different than our modern worship services. It is physical. They bow to him. They treat him as King and Lord. They are ready for the next step of the Kingdom coming. But the next step is Jesus sending them. The next step is Jesus physically leaving, and the Spirit empowering them. Jesus will be with them, as he says, but in a very different way. 

The Gospel of John comes at this same reality through a conversation between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Mary mistakes the resurrected Jesus for a gardener, which is a beautiful image, and when Jesus says her name, she realizes it’s him. And his first response seems so harsh. She’s been morning his death, remaining with him as he was tortured and executed and buried. Standing by the tomb. And Jesus tells her, “Do not cling to me.” Don’t hold on. The next thing won’t look like the last thing. Jesus isn’t going to be an emperor, even a really good and compassionate one. He’s again laying down his authority to empower others because that’s how the Kingdom is built.

Clinging always comes from a place of needing some control. We cling when we are fearful. We cling when we just want some security. I hate haunted houses and that’s what came to mind as soon as I thought of the word cling. The times I have gone to a haunted house, I have dug into the shoulders of the person in front of me with all my strength. Clinging for protection and control. Back seat drivers do this, airplane passengers do this. It’s instinct to cling. It is much harder to let go. But don’t hold on. The next thing won’t look like the last thing, so you have to loosen your grip.

———

Jesus tells his disciples to go, to make new disciples, to baptize them in the name— under the authority—of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and to teach others the way of the Kingdom, as he taught them. To not cling to him, but to go. And in their letting go and going out, he will be present with them. This Scripture, the Great Commission, has been used as justification for all sorts of abuse. It has been grounds for forced conversions, to persecute those of other faiths, as a way to justify genocide and stealing children from their parents, as a reason for war. It has acted more like a mirror held up to those who read it than anything else throughout history. What do we think it means to go and make disciples? To go and baptize? To teach all that Jesus commanded? What authority do followers of Christ believe they have been given? And how do they think they are to yield it? We can see the ugliness throughout the Church’s history that has looked back in that mirror, as the authority of God’s Kingdom has been immersed in the authority of worldly Empire. 

These verses can and have been dangerous taken out of the rest of the Gospel. If we are not formed by the Kingdom that Jesus describes and embodies throughout the Gospel story, the “Great Commission” becomes something entirely different than Christ’s commission. The text itself, though, gives us a way to approach it, understanding the abuse, while not throwing away Jesus’ final words to his disciples. “When they saw him,” the Gospel says, “they worshipped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them…” Of the eleven disciples, some in their worship doubted. They internally shifted between positions. What exactly did they doubt? I’m not positive, but in their worship they were claiming Jesus as King, as Lord, as God. They were aligning themselves to him and his Kingdom. And it had been a really weird few days, and they doubted. They weren’t so sure about that. They definitely weren’t sure what was coming next. And they were hesitant.

What if we, too, hear the words of Jesus with a spirit of worship (obedience and conviction) AND doubt (humility and hesitancy)? Jesus commissions the disciples TOGETHER. They were not meant to take this authority and message out alone. They were not meant to teach others alone. It was not stronger to be worshipful than it was to be doubtful— both were needed to carry out this commission. 

———

It is when we get too worshipful, too convicted, too certain, Scripture becomes nothing more than a mirror, than justification to do the things we were already going to do. It is a form of clinging. Yet, if we only doubt, we become paralyzed, stuck in the place of deciding between multiple positions. We let go in order to take the next step. To experience and participate in what God is doing now.

The commission of Jesus requires our both trust in Christ and the Kingdom of God, and humility and doubt about what God is up to. That is what we are invited into, and that is what we invite others into. We will continue to find Christ there.

Faithful Resilience

Matthew 28:1-10

28 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” 

8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

———

Faithful Resilience

Happy first week of Easter! We have entered the 50 day season in the church calendar of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, contemplating what that means for us today, and practicing new life. Our reading this evening is from Matthew’s account of what happened that Sunday morning following Jesus’ execution. The first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”— presumably not Jesus’ mother, but Mary the mother of James (a different James from Jesus’ brother) *I come from a family with a grandfather Bob, father Bob, and brother Bob, and this feels similar*—the two Mary’s go to see the tomb. There are several details of this morning that are unique to Matthew’s retelling. First, the Marys are not going to anoint Jesus because there are guards and they wouldn’t be able to get into the tomb. They go instead to just see it, to be there. Second, there is an earthquake. There is fear, like the other Gospels, but it is much more visceral. The earth shakes, the stone rolls, the guards pass out, an angel appears.

Matthew invites us into an Easter story that is not just flowers and joyful music. It is confusing, unsettling, and, at times, frightening. It fits in the story since Thursday evening— since the unjust arrest of Jesus, the teacher and healer and possible Messiah, since his trial, since the chanting of the crowds against him, since his public shaming, since his brutal beating at the hands of Roman soldiers, since his execution—humiliated and killed on the cross. There is an earthquake then, too, according to Matthew. Jesus died and the earth violently shook— breaking open tombs and spitting the curtain in the temple in two. Jesus is buried before the Sabbath, and we get no glimpse into that Saturday— only silence.

We could imagine that Sunday morning doesn’t feel much different than Saturday. The despair, the fear, the confusion, the anger all would remain. The disciples are in hiding. Yet, these two women show up at the tomb. The come to see it, to be there, even as soldiers stand guard, as if the real threats are these poor, Palestinian Jewish women, and not the Roman guard itself. Perhaps the two Marys come to stand vigil. To do something in the midst of an uncontrollable, uncontainable tragedy. Or, perhaps even more likely, they come with a glimmer of hope, knowing that Jesus said again and again that he would die and be raised on the third day. Might it be true? Might hope exist in the midst of this despair?

It can be easy to paint the women at the tomb as naive, even gullible. In the rare case they have been talked about, what I have heard emphasized and internalized is their blind faith. That they believed when all evidence pointed to the contrary. If that is the case, the reaction of the disciples, holed up somewhere in hiding is the reasonable response. But it’s untrue that there was no evidence, no reason for hope. Jesus had told them. Jesus had tried again and again to speak of his coming Kingdom, to embody in his ministry a new Reign that could not be founded in a triumphant march into Jerusalem or a paramilitary operation in Rome. The women were not showing blind faith on Sunday morning— they were showing faithful resilience. They understood and trusted in a way the other disciples did not.

At the Pub Talk two weeks ago, Leeann Younger commented on her predominantly young, white congregation, and their desire to end injustice. The way that they approach systemic racism and violence with a, “Not on my watch,” mentality. That defiance, that spark of resistance to injustice, is a good thing— yet it is not sustainable in the face of disappointment and failure. It is not sustainable when up against the powers and principalities of this world. I see this in myself, I see it in many of the people around me, in some who gather here— the creeping of despair as things just feel futile.

This is Peter’s story early on Friday morning. When the soldiers and religious leaders come to arrest Jesus, Peter pulls out his sword to stop it. He retaliates against the clear injustice. He tries to keep the pain of Good Friday from happening on his watch. And he fails. He goes against the nonviolent teachings of Jesus and is rebuked. And, ultimately, he is left powerless and fleeing as his Messiah is led away to a sham trial. Peter spends the rest of Good Friday in fear and despair—lying about knowing Jesus to protect himself and hiding out in a place of relative safety. Peter could not see a way forward outside of stopping Good Friday from happening. And once it did, he could do nothing but sink into hopelessness.

Things seem increasingly hopeless. From the individual pains of isolation and lack of community, dealing with mental health issues, increasing stress, financial burdens, struggles of identity, addiction and lack of support to the ever-present societal realities of oppression in its many forms, police brutality, injustice in our justice system, terrorism, climate change, war, nationalism…this list could go on and on. We all know Good Friday. We know Holy Saturday. And we know what it is for them to happen on our watch.

The resurrection does not erase the betrayal, the unjust arrest, the jeering of the crowd, the brutality of the soldiers and religious leaders, the violence of the cross, the state execution, the shame and humiliation, or the silence that followed. Yet, when we turn our attention from Peter and the other disciples, overwhelmed by fear and despair to the women early on Sunday morning, we see the promise of the resurrection. Friday will never be the end of the story. The women who showed up at the tomb understood and trusted Jesus when he said his way of love, of nonviolence, of prophetic resistance, of all he embodied and taught would bring about a new Kingdom. One that not even sin and death could overthrow. Jesus taught his disciples, including the women, what faithful resilience looked like. He taught them in parables and in sermons and in action, and ultimately, he taught them in the resurrection. Yes, injustice and violence and sin and death had seemingly won the day— but that was not the end. God was still present. God is still present. And until the way of love overcomes the way of hate, the story is not over.

Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James were faithfully resilient that Sunday morning. They could not stop the worst from happening, yet they still continued to trust in Jesus and showed up at the tomb with hope. And they were the ones to bear witness to the resurrection. They carried the Good News for all of us.

We are now in a similar position. We have been promised that God has not forsaken us in this in-between time. We have been promised the fullness of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Yet, we know it is not here, yet. Do we choose like (pre-resurrection) Peter to retaliate until despair forces us into hiding? Believing that history, in the words of Walter Benjamin, is “one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble.” Or do we cultivate faithful resilience in the way of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Mary mother of James? For the sake of ourselves, our neighbors, and the earth— trusting in the resurrection hope that God is with us, the story is not over, and bearing witness to the Kingdom as it comes.

That is the invitation of Resurrection Sunday and Monday and Tuesday…until the Kingdom is fully realized. Faithful resilience. I want that to be our mantra as we practice resurrection in the presence of the tomb.

Sheep, Goats, & Nations

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

31 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

———

Reflection

As we jump into another parable this week—this one likely familiar to you—I want to reiterate a few things I said last few weeks about parables in general. They are not systematic theology; they are sometimes hyperbolic; there is not just one right way to understand a parable; they do not stand completely alone from the rest of Jesus’ teachings and the accounts of his life; at their core, they are about Jesus and the Kingdom of God; and they often take the simple and make it complex. This is the last in a series of parables that Jesus tells in the Gospel of Matthew during the week leading to his death. Jesus tells these parables on the heels of his disciples asking when the temple will be destroyed, as Jesus predicted. What signs there will be of a new age. Jesus then tells a series of parables about timing and judgment. Immediately after, he reminds his disciples again that he will be crucified soon.

Before entering Jerusalem, Jesus had stopped on a hill and wept for the city. He cried for the city and said, “If only you knew the things that make for peace.” He then told his disciples as they walked through the temple courts that not one stone will be left on another. We often think of prophecy, especially in the Bible, as a type of fortune telling. Being able to tell the future. It is not really that. Jesus is prophetic, not because he sees into some static future, but rather prophets see the trajectory of what is to come if nothing changes. Jesus saw this for Jerusalem. He saw this for the Temple, for the religious institutions and structures at the time, for those who were ready for an uprising. He saw where it was headed. It was headed toward violence and destruction. 

Jesus saw this on his own path, too. He was headed toward the same forces of violence and destruction. His message couldn’t continue without being met by deadly force. Yet, he continues to see the trajectory of the Kingdom of God. Prepared at the foundation of the world and unable to be destroyed through violence. The Kingdom of God was not a Kingdom forged by violence and not a Kingdom that would be overthrown by violence. Rather, Jesus seemed to see (or at least the gospel writers thought) that his death was really a type of coronation as king. A new age would begin when violence was overcome by life and love in the resurrection. 

We’ll come back down to the parable itself in a moment, but I think it’s so important before we do to grasp the core of Jesus’ teachings and movement in a time when the loudest voices of Christianity do not address what the Kingdom Jesus spoke of was most about: The hope and building of a society—a people, a nation, a kingdom— without violence, without poverty, without oppression, that welcomes and cares for the most vulnerable—the stranger, the widow, and the orphan, one that is in line with God’s will for the world.

In Jesus’ final parable, Jesus paints this picture of the nations gathered before him—the Son of Man— as he sits on a throne to judge them (the nations). Our English translations unfortunately make this sound as if Jesus judges individuals in this parable, but that’s not the picture here. The nations come, and some are sorted to the right and some to the left. Those on the right are called righteous or just— they cared for the “least of these” and by doing so, cared for Jesus. Those on the left are called unrighteous or unjust— they did not care for the vulnerable, and so, did not care for Jesus.

The Temple, Jesus tells his disciples, is going to be destroyed. Jerusalem will not know peace. Jesus, the Messiah, Savior, Son of God, will be killed. That is the trajectory of the kingdom of the world Jesus lives in. The trajectory of religious elites, the Roman Empire, even the radical Zealots plotting for freedom— wealth, violence, and oppression lead to destruction. Injustice leads to this judgment. I do not believe this is about heaven and hell the way we most often think of it— as individuals going before a throne and being sorted for eternal bliss or torment. And it is not some collective version of that—where we’re all stuck before God’s throne with a stamp of “American” on us. This, like the other parables, at its heart is about Jesus and the Kingdom. And that’s what would have been most offensive at the time.

Jesus is the one who judges— he positions himself as the Messiah and as the King of God’s Kingdom. And, as Robert H. Smith says, “The Son of God stands deliberately and voluntarily in the shoes of the powerless, the weak, the defenseless, the hated, the tortured. He began as a refugee and he ends as a condemned criminal.” Jesus is the king and is the oppressed. And he shows the trajectory of other kingdoms— nations, institutions, religions— some who are on a trajectory to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”— the Kingdom that is the underpinning of how things actually are and are meant to be. And the trajectory of other kingdoms, who are on a track to continue down the path of injustice, of punishment, of violence.

Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. Ultimately, King saw the Kingdom of God winning out. This parable gives Jesus’ followers the same hope—and warning. It shows the trajectory for how we collectively might bend toward justice, toward God’s Kingdom. Yet, all that doesn’t do that—the ways of ruling, the institutions, the religious systems, whatever unjust ways we order ourselves—Jesus tells his disciples, will not last.

Wisdom, Judgment, & Bridesmaids

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

1 "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a shout, "Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' 7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish said to the wise, "Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' 9 But the wise replied, "No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' 10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. 11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, "Lord, lord, open to us.' 12 But he replied, "Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' 13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

———

Reflection: Wisdom, Judgment, & Bridesmaids

Because we’ve had quite a few parables come up in the past few weeks, I’ve gotten to talk a little about parables in general— of the way they don’t have one “right” interpretation, of how they were meant to unsettle their audience. Parables have been seen at times as simple stories that make the complex understandable. I actually think they are oftentimes the opposite. They are complex stories that make the simple difficult to understand. Jesus even quotes Isaiah in this same Gospel story saying that he speaks in parables because:


‘You will indeed listen, but never understand,
    and you will indeed look, but never perceive.

For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and their ears are hard of hearing,
        and they have shut their eyes;
        so that they might not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
    and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it. (Mt. 13:14-17)

Parables are purposefully complex, misunderstood, and upsetting. The reactions people have Jesus’ parables range from confusion to wanting to kill him. Lastly, Jesus is not pointing afar in his parables. He is pointing back to himself. At their core, parables are about Jesus. They are about the Kingdom of God that he embodied. Pope Benedict XVI said, “The punchline to every parable is the death and resurrection of Christ.” I would add his life, too.

Once we get to Matthew 25, where our reading tonight comes from, Jesus’ parables have gotten darker. More dire. Jesus is in Jerusalem where he will soon be killed. He has already entered the city on a donkey to shouts of Hosanna! Which is a shout both of praise and a cry to be saved. We will talk more about that following Palm Sunday, but Jesus is in this time between being welcomed as a king and dying as a traitor. 

Matthew 25 groups together three parables, beginning with this parable of oil and bridesmaids. It is followed by the parable of the talents (where a master gives servants a bunch of money, and two trade and make more money and one hides it in the ground for fear of losing the master’s money), and ending with the parable of the sheep and the goats— which contains Jesus’ very famous line: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

All three have a stark element of judgement at the end. They all have the common thread of someone returning— a bridegroom, a master, the Son of Man—and those who are present being either included or excluded. But what is the basis for being included or excluded? And what is the inclusion and exclusion these parables point to?

Let’s begin with bridesmaids. Bridesmaids have a much different cultural expectation in this text than in our current context. Their job was very different than bridesmaids today. They were to welcome and celebrate the bridegroom. This would usually happen in a grand procession during the day. The lamps were to light the way home at the end of festivities. The wise bridesmaids were extremely weird to pack extra oil. They were prepared for the groom to show up at an unexpected time and in an unexpected way. The bridesmaids who Jesus calls foolish expected things to go the way they had planned—for the groom to show up when and where he was expected. And when he didn’t, they went off to try to refill their lamps (which I don’t know where in this time what market you’d get oil at midnight) rather than continuing their primary job of waiting to welcome and celebrate with the bridegroom.

Oil also has a bit of linguistic nod that we don’t get in English. Oil was used for lamps and for what were known as acts of mercy, like anointing the sick. The words oil and mercy are similar in Greek— Elaion and Eleos— and could be interchanged as a play on words. Even further, olive trees also have a striking similar name because the trees were named after God’s mercy for the way that they provided oil so generously.

What might be happening here with the bridesmaids and the oil?

The wise bridesmaids are wise in two ways— they are prepared with an abundance oil and they stay focused on their primary task. The foolish bridesmaids are foolish both in expecting things to go as they had planned and leaving the primary task to scramble to find oil. This parable is about Jesus, positioned in this Gospel mere days before his death. If there was anywhere unexpected for Jesus, the bridegroom, to show up, it is on the cross. Yet, the Kingdom of heaven, as Jesus says, will be like this. If there ever were foolish bridesmaids, who run off when they were not prepared for things to go array, it is Jesus’ closest followers. If ever there were wise bridesmaids, who brought their oil, who waited in hope, who were not bent by the words of the foolish, it was the women at the cross, at the tomb, and on Sunday morning of the resurrection.

Yes, Jesus was looking toward his own death and resurrection, but we can go further still. How might we, too, not be excluded, not miss these appearances of Christ and the celebration of new life in places that are dark, when it is late, when we are tired of waiting? What ought we be primarily concerned about? Perhaps it is by cultivating abundant mercy and hope within us—carrying plenty of oil and waiting for the bridegroom. Next week the lectionary takes us to the final parable of Matthew 25, the sheep and the goats, which lays out that Jesus is among the sick, the imprisoned, the stranger, the vulnerable. We are to keep awake and not miss Christ in our midst. 

The men disciples missed Christ in his death and in his resurrection. The women had the privilege of being let into those holy moments and bearing witness. That’s judgement, inclusion and exclusion. We are invited to be like the wise: bearing an abundance of mercy and awake to the presence of Jesus in unexpected places. Yet, when we are foolish, may we do as the men disciples will later do, accept forgiveness and continue the journey to wisdom.

Seeking the Welfare of Our City

Text: Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

29 This is the text of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders among the exiles and to the priests, the prophets and all the other people Nebuchadnezzar had carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.

4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord.

10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”

———

Reflection: Seeking the Welfare of Our City

Jeremiah was pretty much a prophet of doom when no one— especially those in the upper echelons of Judean society— wanted to hear it. Jeremiah’s warnings happened. Judah was overtaken by the Babylon. Many were killed in the sieges of Jerusalem, and many were exiled to Babylon, especially (but not limited to) those who were prominent citizens. They were marched nearly 900 miles from Judah to Babylon to live as conquered foreigners. Throughout the story of Jeremiah, there are constantly false prophet— those claiming that everything is fine and will be alright— saying the things that the people they speak to most want to hear. Apparently, this trend continues in Babylon. Jeremiah writes this letter, probably from Mizpah, where he ended up after the exile— he was not taken to Babylon, and in it warns of those who are speaking falsely— those claiming that this will be over soon. Jeremiah writes with a very different hope: That they are called to settle down. They are to build and marry and live. They are to not cloister, but to seek the shalom— the welfare or peace or wholeness— of Babylon, and in that, they too will experience shalom. 

The prophet Ezekiel writes about the exile, too. And he has a vision that is very strange—as is the entire book of Ezekiel. The Temple is destroyed in Jerusalem. The place where God was found. But Ezekiel envisions God’s glory on a throne that looks something like helicopter propellers ascending and traveling East, the direction of the Jewish exiles. God goes with them in their exile. God lays judgment to and leaves the place of comfort where they were and follows in the direction of the exiled.

I thought about exile this week, and about peace and welfare, and about the Hallmark-y Jeremiah 29:11— For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. Our definitions of peace are weak. Our understanding of God’s hope and future are often weak as well. I had those words on a cutesy cross— which is a really odd thing in and of itself— in my dorm room during college. Was I exiled in the stress of my paper writing? No. I have most heard these verses used to speak of the current state of the mostly white, mostly affluent, Protestant, mainline church. Are we truly exiled? As an institution, no. Nor have many within those churches. I will speak at least for myself that I do not have the trauma of experiencing violent loss of life around me. I have never been displaced from a home. I have not felt like a foreigner, a strange, an enemy in the midst of my daily life. I have not been looked upon with fear or disdain. Perhaps you have faced these types of exile.

And in our city, in our nation there is a lack of welfare, of wholeness, of peace. There is exile present, even if it is not felt by everyone. The shooting death of Antwon Rose II by a police officer, who has been acquitted of all criminal charges, is not only a sign of exile in our backyard but also must be a call to seek the welfare of this place— not welfare only for those for whom this is the most livable city in the country— but the type of welfare that is tangible hope and a future for those who have faced exile within it. 

Jeremiah’s letter does not give a blueprint for those who are not in exile themselves. It does not perfectly map our current time and place. But when we read it in light of what we know of Jesus: God who choose exile as a poor, Palestinian Jewish man in occupied Roman territory. Who choose to spend his time with the most exiled and seek shalom with them. Who called those violently opposed to the unjust systems around them and those fully complacent to a new way of being as his followers. Who answered the request of a Roman soldier, yet shamed Rome in his death at their hands. In Jesus, God became the exiled and showed the way to shalom, inviting those who followed to lay down violence, to lay down privilege, to lay down wealth and all ladder-climbing, to create a Kingdom where the least are the greatest and the greatest the least. A shalom-Kingdom.

If we follow Jesus, we must also strive to seek the welfare of our city, to seek the Kingdom of God here and now, not alone or as leaders, but as those seeking to follow and walk with the ones who have experienced exile. Because the flip side of Jeremiah’s words are also true— It is in their welfare that the city will find its welfare.

Beyond Equity

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. 2 After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 

3 When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; 4 and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. 

5 When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6 And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ 7 They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ 

8 When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ 

9 When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage.10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 

13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

———

Reflection: Beyond Equity

This is one of many parables that Jesus teaches his followers about what God’s Kingdom, God’s governance, God’s re-ordering of social structures, and ultimately, God’s justice looks like. This particular parable is one that maintains its jolt— what justice is this that those who worked for a full day are paid the same as those who worked for an hour? Though this parable can stand on its own, it is made all the more poignant when put into the context of Matthew’s gospel account. 

Just before Jesus tells this story, a rich young guy comes to him, and when he hears Jesus’ call to leave behind his wealth to follow Jesus, he walks away saddened. The disciple Peter then points out to Jesus that he and the other disciples have left everything to follow him. So what will their reward be? And Jesus tells him that they will inherit more than a hundredfold what they left behind— ultimately eternal life, which in the New Testament has a connotation that it just doesn’t in English. It is life that goes on past this current age— the idea of life in the Kingdom of God (a more earthly concept at that point) and life after death— AND a present possession of God’s life here and now. Jesus ends by saying, many who are first will be last and the last will be first.

It is very possible that Peter heard this as the reward is living to experience Jesus as ruler and God’s Kingdom overthrowing the current systems (probably militarily), and also being in a position of power within God’s Kingdom. It’s even more likely that the other disciples thought this, as right after Jesus’ parable of the vineyard owner—even though Jesus again says he will die in Jerusalem—the mother of two disciples asks Jesus to declare that her sons will sit at his right hand and his left hand in Jesus’ Kingdom. Following this, Jesus gives a more straightforward teaching that in the current kingdom, people try to rule over one another. But in his, those who want to be great will be like servants not tyrants.

So back to the parable. There are people hired at the start of the day, who agree to work for a fair pay. Then the landowner keeps going back out to the marketplace, hiring more workers every couple of hours, until eventually it is only one hour until the end of the work day, and the landowner comes across those still left without work. “Why were you idle all day?” He asks. And they respond, “No one has hired us.” Those hired later in the story jump on the opportunity to work, only being promised to be paid, “What is right.” The Kingdom of Heaven looks like a landowner who keeps going back out until everyone who wants to work in the vineyard is working. 

This is odd enough, but then the major plot twist. The landowner makes the last to show up, the third to show up, the first— everyone— equal to one another. The landowner takes a system that is not equal in opportunity—it is set up that some do not get work, and some do—and goes beyond “fixing” that problem to making it equal in outcome. Whether those who came later in the day woke up later, were slacking in some way, or were passed over— they still were given an equal outcome to those who were chosen early. And those who were first, though angry at their lot by the end, were not sent away with nothing. The promise of a full day’s pay was kept by the landowner. Their anger came not from what is owed being withheld, but from issues of status and money and fairness— but in this Jesus seems to say that fairness is not the hope, equity is not the end goal, but generosity. The Kingdom of God goes beyond equity and fairness, beyond equal opportunity to abundance and liberation for those most passed over WHILE including in that abundance those who have been first. 

The great reversal in this parable is not that the last take everything and the first are left with none, rather that the first and last are given the same provision. To those in last, this seems like unfathomable generosity. To those in first, it seems unfair. Productivity, output, privilege of being chosen, or luck do not change the outcome. The talented, the entitled, the passed over, and the slackers are all called. Might this be about God’s grace? I think so. And it may too be about God’s justice and mercy, God’s economy (meaning tangible, here and now provision), God’s gathered community of the church, even God’s imagination for our current society and systems. If our vision and imagination is capped by getting in charge and then demanding fairness and equity (be that in the material, relational, or spiritual), we are missing it. This parable instead jolts our imagination to expand beyond fairness to generosity.

I want to emphasize that word beyond. A fair wage is the foundation— whether that be metaphorically grace and inclusion or very literally a living wage for work— generosity goes beyond fairness to abundance. It goes beyond inclusion to celebration. It goes beyond an hour’s pay for an hour’s work, to provision for a full life. Generosity is the measure of God’s right ordering. And to his disciples, Jesus teaches, they get there by seeking to be servants, not tyrants.

The Good News of Lent

Text: Matthew 16:21-28

21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

27 “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

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The Good News of Lent

We are entering into the Church season of Lent. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, where many people will intentionally show up to a place to be reminded, “You are dust, and to dust you will return.” Ash Wednesday is one of— if not the— most countercultural and counterintuitive practices, especially in the West, that modern Christians have maintained. We begin preparation ultimately for the greatest celebration of the Church calendar, the crux upon which Christianity rests— especially for the earliest Christians— the resurrection of Jesus, by reminding ourselves of the reality of mortality. We remind ourselves that whoever we are, we will one day not be here. We remind ourselves of both our insignificance and great significance our limited time. And this begins a season of self- and communal-reflection— reflection on sin, on complacency, on suffering, on our shadows, on disconnection, and on death. The Church’s invitation to us is to prepare for the joy of new life, new creation, resurrection by looking the cross head-on.

I grew up in a tradition that spoke of the Gospel as both “bad news and good news.” There was a formula to it, that I’m sure others in this room have heard, that you need to know the bad news about yourself and your situation before you can understand and accept how good the good news is. You here is very individualized. And in my Calvinist leaning youth group formation, I learned that the bad new was that we were completely separated from God— dead in our sin. We could not, by our own intentions, seek God. We could not do anything about our sin and our disconnection from God, and by extension one another. God’s grace alone resurrects us— and that is the good news that we were to then accept into our hearts. Our spiritual death already happened— if we were saved, we were from now on to live in a way that reflected our “new life.” So Lent became a time to beat ourselves up about how we were not living up to the ideal of new life in Christ.

While there are aspects of this— like grace preceding our understanding or intellectual ascension to belief (and covering our sure-to-be incorrect beliefs)— I have not thrown out, this “bad news” before “good news” is not what I believe looking at the cross head-on means. Jesus invited his disciples to follow him— to learn a particular way of being in the world, to cultivate an imagination for the way the world could be, and to see clearly the world as it truly is. The freedom of the Gospel message is that seeing clearly the way things are (perhaps especially the way things are not good) and voicing it— confessing it— is not the enemy of the way things could be. It is a necessary step in following the way of Jesus to new life.

Though records of early church practices are sketchy at best, a theory on the development of Ash Wednesday goes something like this: It was a regular practice very early on in the Church to have people who were caught up in serious sin (I don’t know what all that would entail) to come to the community seeking a way to re-enter the church community in good conscience for the main celebration of the year: Resurrection Sunday. This was also the day that people would complete their catechism to be baptized. Those who had come with serious sin would be sprinkled with ashes— likely harkening to the Hebrew Bible’s records of those who are repenting wearing sackcloth and ashes— and then they were sent into exile from the church, to be in exile with God. They were sent out with the expectation that they would be restored. The exile was 40 days and was called their “quarantine,” which is Latin for forty. Soon it became common for those close to the one receiving ashes to also receive ashes in solidarity and to express that we are all sinners. The church began encouraging all people to repent and fast for 40 days prior to Resurrection Sunday, and in 1050 the pope made it a requirement.

(The paragraph above paraphrases from Rod White’s “Intro to Lent” blog post, which can be found HERE)

After Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus quickly begins to tell his disciples that he would be killed by the powers that be in Jerusalem. And he very adamantly gets any idea of some victorious kingship out of their heads— even referring to Peter as Satan when he says that Jesus cannot be killed. Jesus goes on in this passage to state what is now a very famous line, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” 

The cross lays bear the worst of the world as it is. It lays bear systems of oppression; it lays bear the sin of even the most self righteous; it lays bear the suffering of those for whom a reminder of mortality is unnecessary; it lays bear the result of fear encountering love in the form of what is “other”; it lays bear the sin in its most violence expression. As we come to the season of Lent, what might it mean to bear our cross and see ourselves and our world as it is. To stand with the “serious sinner,” and to stand with those who know their mortality. To own our complacency and our fear and our violence and our sin. Not as “bad news” so we can get to the “good news” on Easter. But instead in the freedom of God’s love, to confess and step more into life— the abundant life that the way of Jesus invites us to live.


An Abundant Imagination

Text: Matthew 14:13-33

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”


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Reflection: An Abundant Imagination

The narrative lectionary skips us around the Gospel of Matthew a bit here, and to put the text for tonight in context, I need to back us up for a moment. Our text starts with, “Now when Jesus heard this.” The “this” here is about John the Baptist’s death. King Herod, who was pretty much a puppet king with very little actual power outside maintaining order in Judea, was celebrating his birthday with a great feast. Prior to this, Herod had arrested and imprisoned John because John had been speaking out against Herod’s relationships with his brother’s wife. At the party, the daughter of Herod’s brother’s wife danced— and Herod, likely a bit drunk, promised to give her whatever she wanted up to half his kingdom. Her mom prompted her to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. And thought Herod grieved it, he had to save face and pride, so he had John beheaded in prison and he fulfilled the gruesome demand.


John’s disciples buried John’s body then went to Jesus and told him what had happened. That is where our text tonight picks up. Jesus has just learned of the horrendous circumstances of John the Baptist’s death. There are multiple layers, certainly, to how Jesus was processing this. Jesus and John were cousins, though from the Gospels it seems like they didn’t know one another until Jesus came to be baptized. Their ministries paralleled and sometimes conflicted— with John wondering in prison if he had pointed to the right person as the Messiah. But they were related and in relationship, even if distant. Jesus on a very personal level was grieving. At the same time, Jesus was involved in an equally dangerous call as John. Jesus was gathering followers, healing, proclaiming difficult teachings to powerful people, and eventually, he knew there would be a collision. John’s death was a poignant reminder of what those collisions look like— when a prophet and a prideful king crash. 


So Jesus gets in a boat and goes to a deserted place alone— he withdraws to the wilderness. For quiet, for prayer, to grieve, to be outside of the forces of Herod. But the crowds follow him on foot from their towns into the wilderness…they beat him to where he’s going, and when he arrives ashore in his boat, there are people gathered there waiting for him, pleading for him to heal their sick, to meet with them. And Jesus does. He has compassion— in midst of his suffering, he meets the people in theirs and he heals them.


The disciples come to him after—it seems—a long time, and in a way that the disciples rarely do, they give Jesus a recommendation. It’s getting late, we’re in the middle of the wilderness, there’s nothing for all these people to eat— you should send them to nearby villages to buy food. There are some commentators that are skeptical of the disciples here, reading unbelief or selfishness into this— but I don’t see that. The disciples are learning to love and care for the people, who are drawn to and cared for by Jesus. This is the way they know how to provide for them— give these people an out, tell them it’s time to go and get food. It’s reasonable, and it’s caring. But Jesus has a better way.


Jesus throws his own feast in the wilderness that is the ultimate contrast to the feast of Herod just verses earlier. From the guests— the people from surrounding villages, the oppressed, the poor, the sick, who come not with their riches and their skills and performances, but only with their need— to the food— not a lavish meal catering to the king, but a meager amount of common food shared until it grew into an abundance— to even the distribution of power— the King here, Jesus, prays and blesses but then, he hands over. There is no pride at work in this feast. The hands of the disciples work the miracle. Everyone is fed, and there is enough left over for twelve baskets— symbolic of the tribes of Israel, of the disciples, of abundance. There is enough to feed Israel. There is enough to feed everyone at God’s table made in the wilderness.


———

Now, the wilderness or deserted place in Scripture is not just meant as a geographical location. Wilderness is a dangerous, unknown, often times threatening space, as well as a place that is removed from the structures, the expectations, the ways of society. It is a place where in fear, scarcity, and uncertainty, people in the Biblical narrative encounter God and God’s provision. Likewise, in the second story for tonight, water has a deeper meaning than just geography. Water, too, is dangerous, unknown, and often times threatening. It was a shorthand for chaos. Yet, it too is a space of encounter with God and God’s creative provision. Jesus and the disciples moved from wilderness to water— and the disciples experience God’s presence and abundant provision in dramatically different situations.


Jesus walking on the water and Peter trying to walk out to him is such a strange story. And it is hard to see any connection with what just happened. But this is what I see. Jesus’ feast in the wilderness created a new imagination for the disciples. Jesus demonstrated a completely different way of power acting in the world from Herod, a healing rather than violent posture, a humble rather than prideful way of being. He created a feast in a deserted place. Abundance where there is thought to be nothing but scarcity. Free food to the hungry, healing for the sick, attention for the outcast— a people who were fed, not because of what they had to give, but because of their need. And most importantly for the disciples, they were the workers who multiplied the bread through their sharing. Yes, it was through Jesus, but the disciples participated— they worked the miracle. And these things expanded their imagination of not only what could be, not only what ought to be, but of what they could be a part of bringing about.


And so when in another scary, dangerous, unknown situation, Peter sees Jesus walking on water— his new imagination opens up. If that is Jesus, perhaps, Peter, too, can walk to him. And he does. He eventually sinks and Jesus doesn’t let him drown— but those steps are the testing of the imagination of God’s abundant kingdom that has been formed in Peter.

May it also be formed in us. Amen.

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. 

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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.

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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.”


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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.” 

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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.