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.”

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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.


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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.”


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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.”


///

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.

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.