“Aslan is on the Move”

Luke 9:51-62

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.”

In C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, four children find their way into a magical land called Narnia ruled by an oppressive queen – the White Witch – who forces all of Narnia to live in an eternal winter. I’m not sure, but I understand that it’s sort of like February here two years ago.

Near the beginning of the book, the children, wandering through the woods looking for a friend, stumble upon movement in the snow and go closer, wondering what it might be.

“Whatever it is,” says Peter [, the eldest boy], “it’s dodging us. It’s something that doesn’t want to be seen.”

“It’s — it’s a kind of animal,” says Susan [, the eldest girl].

Then follows Lewis’s careful description:

“They all saw it this time, a whiskered furry face which had looked out at them from behind a tree. . . . [T]he animal put its paw against its mouth just as humans put their fingers on their lips when they are signaling to you to be quiet. Then it disappeared again. The children all stood holding their breath.”

The children eventually find themselves taken in by what turns out to be a talking beaver, whose name is, well, Beaver. Beaver tells them many things of Narnia and the White Witch, including telling them about Aslan, the Lion, Narnia’s hope — and as many of you know, Aslan is one of the Christiest-Christ-Figures ever to grace the pages of literature.

Early on in the book, though, we don’t learn much of the character of Aslan himself, except what Beaver tells us on that cold winter night. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Beaver tells them: “They say Aslan is on the move — perhaps already landed.”

Lewis continues the story:

“And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning — either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into the dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in its inside.”

Last week, we talked about how freedom can be scary: like a “blast of cold wind that burns your face when it wakes you up.” This week, the fear comes in full force. The kind of words that, if you grasp them, might make you jump a little inside:

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem was not prosperous or joyful in those days. Though it was not in eternal winter it, too, was governed by an oppressive ruler: the Roman Empire.

Luke’s Gospel, you see, is the first part of a two part series, of which the book of Acts, after John’s Gospel in the Bible, is Part II. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus begins outside of Jerusalem and begins to move towards the Holy City, setting his face towards it, then going there to die — at the hands of the Romans and the religious authorities — only to be raised on the third day. After that, when he ascends, Jesus says “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth!”

Everything moved towards Jerusalem, Jesus died and was raised, the world was turned upside down, and then everything radiates from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

And it begins when Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem.

Aslan is on the move.

Jesus is on the move. Freedom is on the move. And everyone in the passage begins to feel quite different.

What follows in our Gospel text for today is a set of seemingly unrelated stories. We are told that Jesus sends his disciples out ahead of him to a Samaritan town, and that they “did not receive him” because his face was set towards Jerusalem. Luke does not tell us the content of their objections. He does not tell us if they insulted him or refused to listen to him or argued with him. What we do know is that their rejection was harsh enough for the disciples to suggest calling down fire from heaven to consume them. Whatever it was, it seems clear to me that not only did these Samaritans really not get it, but they were really harsh and ugly about it.

So the disciples ask if they should call down fire on these morons.

We may get down on the disciples here, but if you’ve ever read the comments on a Huffington Post Religion piece on Facebook, you understand.

But Luke tells us that Jesus turns and “rebukes them harshly.” There will be no calling down holy fire on his enemies. And abruptly, they move on.

Aslan is on the move.

Jesus is on the move. Freedom is on the move.
And so Jesus and the disciples move on, and a series of people come up to him and tell him that they will follow him. If Jesus is on the move, they feel a strong sense that they need to go with him, with one exception: each has a seemingly legitimate excuse of what they need to do beforehand: burying fathers, saying goodbye to families.

But Jesus responds with a series of perplexing statements: one about having nowhere to lay his head, one about how a man cannot follow if he goes back to bury his father, and yet another where Jesus tells someone that he’s not fit for the kingdom because he wants to go back and say goodbye to those at his home.

This seems harsh. Is Jesus being a jerk here? A man can’t go to his father’s funeral if he wants to follow? And is it really so much to ask to go back and say goodbye before giving your whole life to something? This seems out of character with the loving, caring Jesus: the one who teaches us to love one another and points us towards a better way of being with one another. It seems hard to believe that that Jesus would encourage someone to leave without saying goodbye.

Unless.

Unless it’s really that urgent. Unless something is happened that does not allow time for goodbyes or funerals.

Aslan is on the move.

When I was a hospital chaplain, we chaplains were required to attend every Code Blue in the hospital. For those of you unfamiliar with hospitals, a Code Blue is a life-threatening situation, usually a cardiac or respiratory arrest. It is an “all hands on deck” call. Our primary job in these situations was to offer as much comfort as we could to the families: standing with them if they wanted to be in the room with their loved one while the medical team worked, sitting with them in the waiting room if they didn’t, being a liaison between the family and the medical staff when necessary. While we were not a part of the medical team, the medical staff at Emory highly valued us for our ability to attend to the family while they were attending to the patients. We were encouraged to operate on the same timeline as the rest of the code team: get there in five minutes or less.

As the experienced chaplain who trained me encouraged: “So get there in three.”

Those of you who have ever dealt with significant crises at work on a regular basis will understand: when a code happened, there was no time to finish what you were doing. In fact, if you did not react immediately, you were a huge jerk that was going to throw the whole team off.

If you had just sat down to eat your dinner, you weren’t getting dinner. There was no time. Throw it away or, if you’re lucky enough to be with someone else, have your colleague put it in the mini-fridge. You must respond to the code. There was no time to wrap up your conversation or even go to the bathroom. When the code happens, your job is to respond. Now.

This helps me shed a little light onto what was happening as Jesus set his face to go towards Jerusalem.

The code had been called. Freedom was on the move. Jesus had set his face towards Jerusalem and redemption was on its way. There was no time for anything but attending to it. Why would you want to? The world is about to be turned upside down.

You see, good religion has a reputation of being nice. Nice, peaceful, slow, quiet, undemanding. It offends and scares us when it is anything but those things because we think immediately of those who abuse religion for violent and harmful purposes. But if those who use religion for harm are the only ones with any sense of urgency, where does that leave us?

The world is always being turned upside down.

Jesus here points us towards something different. We are called not to violence but to radical love — made even more urgent by the violence that is done in the name of religion every day. Jesus calls us out of complacency and tells us to say goodbye to life as we know it. We are called to something new.

Aslan is on the move. Something is afoot.

Freedom is on the move, and it’s happening now. We are part of the Jesus movement that started way back then. People are still hurting. And God is still redeeming. There are people to be loved and fed. There are people hurting who need to hear the rumor of hope repeated just as Beaver did to the children: despite all evidence to the contrary, Aslan is on the move.

Jesus is still on the move, sending the Spirit to blow through new and unexpected places every day. The code has been called and there’s no time for dinner. It is a call to freedom: liberating and scary, all at once. It changes everything. And it requires an immediate response.

Jesus has called us to love all, welcome all, accompany all who are on this journey. People are hurting and there is no time to spare. I like to believe that the Jesus who loves us all fiercely has called us to get there in five minutes or less.

So let’s get there in three. Amen.

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“Freedom, Cut Me Loose!” or the Gerasene Demoniac and the Gospel According to Beyoncé

Luke 8:26-39

If there is one thing that I love obsessing over as much as church, it’s popular culture. Especially music. And I love to interweave them. So here you go.

This year, recording artist Beyoncé released her visual album, Lemonade, addressing issues of racism, sexism (the struggles of Black women specifically), infidelity, and a myriad of other issues in a stunning display of artistic, musical, and visual creativity. As I read this week’s Gospel text, I read about how this man possessed by demons in the country of the Gerasenes would break his own chains and run into the wilds. I read about he lived in the tombs in Gentile country, “opposite Galilee,” Luke tells us. This man was pushed to the margins not just by his demon possession, but by his race — he was a Gentile, non-Jewish, on the fringes of society, “opposite Galilee” both literally and figuratively. Jesus had no specific reason to go to him to heal him — he wasn’t Jewish, after all — and yet, he gets into a boat and he finds him.

And of course this made me think of Beyoncé lyrics.

In her track “Freedom,” she sings at the top of her lungs what could very well be the Gerasene demoniac’s anthem, as I can hear him saying her words:

“Freedom, freedom, I can’t move

Freedom, cut me loose

Freedom, freedom, where are you?

‘Cause I need freedom too

I break chains all by myself, won’t let my freedom rot in hell…” [1]

The man in our story today is pushed just about as far outside of the community as he possibly could be. He finds himself unable to control his own body, running around naked, possessed by demons, often shackled by others in an attempt to keep him under control.

I’ve often assumed that the demoniac breaking his own chains was just part of the demon possession, but I now believe that Luke mentions it for a reason. Beyoncé has me wondering if this wasn’t the man inside grasping against those demons for freedom however he can get it. 

“Freedom, freedom, I can’t move,

Freedom, cut me loose…”

Jesus meets the man after the man has broken his chains yet again. Had he not broken his own chains, he would never have made it to Jesus. But he does, and the demons cry out to Jesus, knowing exactly who Jesus is. “What have you to do with me, Son of the most High God?” In other words, “What are you doing in Gentile country?! Leave us alone!”

Jesus commands the demon to come out of the man, and instead the demon begs Jesus not to torment him. Leave me alone, the demon cries. Go back to the Jews!

Jesus answers, significantly: “What is your name?”

“Legion,” Jesus is told, “for we are many.”

How many demons infect our world today? Legion. For they are many.

They are hatred, they are racism, they are sexism, they are terrorism, violence, sexual assault, homophobia.

Their name is Legion, for they are many.

We saw the result of them last Sunday morning, when fifty people lost their lives in a vicious attack on a gay bar in Orlando. We blame the 29-year-old young man who committed the violence, which is the obvious answer, but we all know it runs deeper than him. We’ve scrambled as a country to come up with answers, placing the blame on terror, guns, homophobia, twisted religion, hatred. And indeed, our problems run deep. As a nation, our demons have come to the surface, even as we scramble for answers.

And their name is Legion, for they are many.

And sometimes they fully infect the heart of a person who then does horrible things.

Meanwhile, the Latinx community and LGBTQ+ communities have come out to tell the nation about how violence and the threat of violence have always been a constant for them. The demons have been after them — after us — for awhile. It’s only now that they’ve made the news.

“Freedom, freedom, I can’t move,

Freedom, cut me loose, hey, hey

Freedom, freedom, where are you?

‘Cause I need freedom too!…”

Finally, in the Gospel text, Freedom shows up on the shores of the country of the Gerasenes, and even the demons know his name: Jesus, the son of the most high God.

He drives the demons into the pigs, and word begins to spread of what had happened. Now, let’s remember that this didn’t happen in 2016, when everyone had a smart phone. People did not see “Gerasene Demoniac Freed!” in a Washington Post article on their Facebook feed. News took time to spread. But by the time word spreads and the community comes out to see him, Jesus is still there with him, possibly days later, presumably with the other disciples too. And they find the man sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully himself, no longer tormented by the demons. Jesus didn’t just heal and dash. He stays with the man, eventually sending him to be the first missionary to the Gentiles: “Go and tell everyone what God has done for you.”

And the community’s response to all this, I think it’s important to note, is not gratitude for saving a member of their community or for saving the community from the man’s madness. Their response is to tell Jesus to leave. They are afraid of him.

Of this, my friend Joseph, an Episcopal priest in San Francisco, writes:

“Longing for freedom, being scared when it is offered, and doubting or fearing those who have experienced it are not limited to Jesus’ casting demons from a man across from Galilee. It’s discussed and experienced when talking about crab mentality [when crabs in an open bucket will claw to keep one another from climbing out]. Contemporary lyricist Greg Kotis notes it in the song ‘Run, Freedom Run’ from the musical Urinetown. Unlike crabs in a bucket… characters in Urinetown name their fear. Their revolutionary leader says, “[You are afraid], as well you should be. Freedom is scary. It’s a blast of cool wind that burns your face to wake you up.’” [2]

It’s amazing how we get used to living with demons so much that we are afraid when they are cast out of our community. How we challenge those who might name our demons of prejudice or hatred. How we react in fear when others get freedom.

When the Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage last year, one of my friends, a gay man, remarked that he was now even more scared of hate crimes. “Things have gotten better,” he said, “and now I worry that people will be so full of fear that they will act their fear out on us in hatred. I worry that now that things have gotten better, things might get worse.”

“Freedom, freedom, I can’t move,

Freedom, cut me loose!

Freedom, freedom, where are you?

‘Cause I need freedom too!”

Ultimately, we are all tormented by demons that we cannot free ourselves from. Whether they torment us from outside or from within or, as in most cases, both, we are all the Gerasene demoniac. We are all tormented by things that will not cut us loose. We can work, yes. We can work so that all Americans, and people around the world, might live without fear. We can work to break chains so that people might live freely as who they are, work so that all might be gifted with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That all may have clean water and bread. We may even occasionally break our own chains, but ultimately, like the Gerasene man tormented by demons, we cannot free ourselves. The demons always seem to find us again.

But Paul tells us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

May Freedom show up on the shores of all who are oppressed.

May the Spirit blow through like a cold wind that snaps us awake and burns our faces. May it wake us up, even if waking up is uncomfortable, to realize that everyone, whether they are in our community or outside, whether they are “one of us” or “opposite Galilee,” is deserving of respect and love.

At the end of Beyoncé’s song “Freedom,” black recording artist Kendrick Lamar raps these words that are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them:

“Ten Hail Marys, I meditate for practice

Channel 9 news tell me I’m movin’ backwards

Eight blocks left, death is around the corner

Seven misleadin’ statements ’bout my persona

Six headlights wavin’ in my direction

Five-O askin’ me what’s in my possession

Yeah I keep runnin’, jump in the aqueducts

Fire hydrants and hazardous

Smoke alarms on the back of us

But mama don’t cry for me, ride for me

Try for me, live for me

Breathe for me, sing for me

Honestly guidin’ me

I could be more than I gotta be…

And when they carve my name inside the concrete

I pray it forever reads

FREEDOM, freedom, I can’t move

Freedom, cut me loose!…” [3]

Forty-nine souls are free, truly free, today, having joined the company of the saints in glory while we continue to wrestle with the demons here on earth.

But where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

Freedom is here and freedom is coming for all of us. Christ has set us free and Christ is setting us free. May we have the courage to recognize freedom and fight for it, realizing, ultimately, that all are made in the image of the living God.

And may God come soon to cast out the demons forever.

‘Cause we all need freedom too. Amen.

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[1] Beyoncé Knowles, “Freedom,” Lemonade, Parkwood Entertainment, Columbia Records, 2016.
[2] The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews, Proper 7C: “Freedom is Scary,” Modern Metanoia blog post, June 6, 2016, https://modernmetanoia.org/2016/06/06/proper-7c-freedom-is-scary/
[3] Kendrick Lamar, feat. on “Freedom,” Beyoncé Knowles, Lemonade.

 

For Orlando

The following are some remarks I made around the peace pole in front of Our Savior’s Lutheran, South Hadley, MA, at our vigil in honor of the victims of the Orlando shooting on June 12, 2016.

I love to be in places of joy and authenticity and community.

Places where you can be yourself, whoever you are, and you can laugh and sing and dance and bond with people just like you. Where you don’t have to feel weird. Where it doesn’t matter what happens to you – you have your community around you. Where you can bond over food and drink and love of one another. And together you can be strong, and joyful, and full of love.

It’s why I love the story where Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding — he kept the joy going. It’s also why I love church.

And it’s why I love bars like Pulse, where it doesn’t matter who you are, you can come in and have a good time.

For some of you who may have never been to such an establishment, you may have heard things about drug use or promiscuity. Those things are sometimes true. They are sometimes true of all clubs.

But what is also true is that they are places of joy and bonding and being carefree and safe, for once, especially when you feel abnormal to the rest of the world.

Because let’s be clear: had this happened on another night, in another city, I could be listening to my friends’ names. Or I could be absent from this gathering entirely.

People always find excuses to hate those on the margins: the victims of this act of violence were largely people of color in addition to most — but not all — of them being LGBT. And not even a year ago, nine precious children of God were slain in their own church — a black church, Mother Emanuel in South Carolina, another place of joy and escape from a world that may otherwise hate those who attend.

So what do we do? Now and in the coming days, people are and will suggest solutions. Some of those you will agree with, while others may make your blood boil. Other people will suggest roots of the problem. Some will blame Islam, others religion as a whole, still others will blame guns, and still others will blame homophobia.

I’m not here to find causes or solutions. The one cause I know of — the demon that infests the heart of every murderer, no matter what name it calls itself — is hatred. It’s not seeing another person as a human being, but as a demographic that it’s okay to hate: gay. Black. Latinx. Immigrant. American. Muslim. Christian.

The one problem that we can all agree on is hatred and dehumanization.

And that is something that oppressed communities know something about dealing with. It’s the reason that gay clubs and black churches become sanctuaries,  places of joy and community where it may not be safe out there, but it’s safe in here.

May we seek to be that kind of community to one another.

When he accepted his Tony award for his show Hamilton, the one I talk about all the time, Lin-Manuel Miranda spoke these prophetic words, naming characters from their musical about the American Revolution:

“We chase the melodies that seem to find us

Until they’re finished songs and start to play

When senseless acts of tragedy remind us

That nothing here is promised, not one day.

This show is proof that history remembers

We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;

We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer

And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.

I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story

Now fill the world with music, love and pride.”

We have a choice. The American Revolution and the early church both found their roots in the midst of being hated, pushed out, outside of what is considered normal, and bucking the status quo, even in the face of danger. That is where both American Revolution and the Church found its song.

So may we build the walls of our church strong with the love of Jesus, and may we continue to be a community filled with joy, authenticity, and community, striving to stay together no matter what hatred rages outside.

And may we remember:

That love is love, it cannot be killed or swept aside.

I sing Jesus’ symphony, Mary Magdalene tells her story.

Now fill the world with music, love, and pride. Amen.

Who We Are Instead (1)

I bring you greetings from the New England Synod assembly, where Lutheran lay folk and clergy from all over New England came together in Springfield this weekend to make a few decisions, talk about our life together, and share stories over tables in a convention center or over food and beers after plenary sessions. One difference I noticed from my home synod in the Southeast is that tables in the convention center are grouped by conference, so by smaller geographical reasons. I had hoped that this was for a game of Risk, so we could take over the other tables. I had my eye on one of the Vermont/NY tables before I was corrected.

Meanwhile, the outside world marched on.

I don’t know if the other women in the room feel this way, but it’s been quite a few weeks to be a woman recently. There has been a story on the news, again, of a woman raped on a college campus, whose assailant got away with a very light prison sentence. And again, people defended the judge and the defendant and questioned the woman: her morals, her conduct, and what she was wearing. And again, everything crashed in on women, or at least me, as we were reminded how far we have still to go to make the world a safer place to be a woman — as if women didn’t already know.

Also this week, no matter what you think of the woman herself, a woman all but sealed the nomination for President by a major political party, and that has never happened before. Of course, history is rarely simple, but a woman being nominated for President is about to be something that has moved from the category of something that could happen to the column of something that has happened. At a very basic level, that matters, especially for women.

But talk about conflicting messages. We are in an age where we’ve come so far on gender, but we still have so far to go.

With that in mind, I think that it’s pretty fitting that our Gospel text today puts women in the spotlight from start to finish. This is particularly remarkable because in the first century Middle East, unlike today, little girls did not grow up seeing women lead companies and nations and even religious groups like they do today. Instead, most women depended on their fathers, then their husbands, then, if necessary, their husbands’ brothers. If they had sons, they depended on their sons. If all the men in their lives died, they were typically destitute, as we talked about last week. They simply had few options.

Here and there, a particularly crafty woman may forge a trade for herself. Sometimes, that trade was in merchandise, like Lydia, whom Paul mentions in the New Testament. Other times, that trade was selling themselves — and prostitutes, if they managed to survive physically, then found moral condemnation. Other women found themselves under the scrutiny of the religious authorities. Then as today, religious authorities laid claim to women’s bodies. Like still happens in some parts of the world today, women who were found guilty of — or even accused, is the thing — of sexual sins were outcast. A woman who was even accused of adultery by her husband would quickly find herself, at the very least, an outcast, destitute, shunned by her religious community.

We find Jesus today at the home of a religious leader — a Pharisee named Simon. They are having a nice, respectable dinner when all of a sudden, a woman comes in. And not just any woman — a woman with a reputation. She kneels at Jesus’ feet, behind him, and started kissing his feet. She weeps on them. She wipes them with her hair.

This is a familiar story, but in case you missed it: This scene is an absolutely, outrageously unexpected and even awkward turn of events.

Any interruption of dinner is always a bit jarring, at least to me. You have to get up to go see what the dog is barking at. There’s an urgent phone call for someone at the table. Eating is sacred to us in a lot of ways, and any interruption of dinner jars us out of what we were doing.

So if Diego can interrupt my dinner by barking at a fox in the parking lot, I’m guessing that I would be more than a little weirded out if a woman that I did not even consider a friend came crashing into my dining room to cry on my guest’s feet.

This woman, this already marginalized member of society, obviously condemned by the religious authorities over the sins that everyone found out about, weeps on Jesus for quite awhile. We don’t know if they’ve ever met before this. Luke doesn’t say, but I imagine they have. I sense a backstory. She says nothing to him: no confession, no nothing. I can’t imagine what would’ve warranted this reaction if she’d never seen him before, so maybe this wasn’t the first time. Maybe he caught her eye days before in the crowd and she just knew that this man, whom they said was the Messiah, would not condemn her but would let her be part of what he was doing. Or maybe they had a whole conversation, like with the woman at the well. Unlike many religious leaders, Jesus had no problem talking to women he didn’t know. Or maybe they hadn’t talked or met — maybe she’s just heard about him.

Whatever the case, this is her reaction: a lavish, display of emotion and love.

And Jesus makes no attempt to stop her, and this is when the dinner host, Simon the Pharisee, gets judgy. Jesus can’t be a prophet, he thinks, because he doesn’t know that this woman is a sinner and she’s touching him. You might’ve missed it, but he thinks all this and doesn’t say anything out loud.

But Jesus seems to straight up call him out anyway: “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Simon, forget the principal. You’ve been called into the Messiah’s Office.

And Jesus tells this story about how people who get themselves in debt deeper love their master more when their master forgives them, and he makes Simon say his point out loud: that those who have messed up more love more. This is what you call getting called on the carpet by the Savior of the world.

After that, Jesus does not go on to talk about how big her sin is, like we might expect. He talks about the ways that she has shown better hospitality than Simon himself. And the Middle East as today highly valued hospitality. This is like telling a Southern lady that she’s not a good hostess. It cuts deep.

Ouch. Sorry, Simon the Pharisee, the sinner’s got quite an edge on you.

The ones that the world calls the biggest screwups are the ones who get it — how to show hospitality, how to pour out love.

That’s the kind of God we’re dealing with, folks. The one who recognizes the biggest love in the ones the religious authorities have written off. Those who have been pushed to the margins appreciate being seen as fully human and fully loved. She doesn’t come in to beg for forgiveness; it wasn’t necessary. She comes in knowing forgiveness and pouring out gratitude. She is known, she is loved, she is welcome. She is beloved. No begging necessary.

And then, just in case we weren’t sure where Luke and Jesus stand on women in ministry, Luke mentions several of what my friend Kathleen refers to as Jesus’ ministry “sugar mamas” — women, mentioned by name, who poured out resources to support Jesus and the disciples. Who’s included in the kingdom of God? Even women.

Throughout Scripture, God both reaches out to and uses the gifts and resources of the marginalized. People pushed to the edges of society — the freaks and the outcasts — aren’t just people whom Jesus serves. It’s not just that Jesus reaches out to the poor little people to show charity. Jesus invites them to contribute. He doesn’t just listen to them and forgive them; humbles himself and relies on them.

I get the feeling Jesus isn’t really into our traditional social hierarchies.

You see, regardless of how much I may want to make it one, this isn’t just a cheerleading infomercial for women. Women are only one category of the pressed down that are lifted up here. Also included are all those — of any gender — who have been pushed to the margins, of society or of your own social circle or your own family: by your gender, your sexuality, your race, your own mistakes, real or perceived, or the sins of someone else. If you have been distrusted — with or without good cause — you are welcome. Those shunned by everyone have the first seats at the table. And everyone — regardless of social status, regardless of history — has something to offer, to do to build God’s kingdom on earth, to feed the hungry, befriend the lonely, to give the world a charge of hope in the face of despair.

To give others the love that God has given to us simply because we breathe.

During worship at synod assembly last night, the preacher, Pastor Linda Forsberg gave a bang up sermon. She talked about how baptizing children always chokes her up — I’m one baptism in, and I get that. To take a child in your arms and say “You are God’s beloved, kiddo — welcome to the family” is powerful and beautiful. She said that she knows, though, that soon enough, there will be other voices. The child will get older and go to school. Kids can be mean, and it doesn’t get much better in adulthood. As kids the insults are “too tall,” “too short,” “too skinny” or “too fat.” In adulthood they get worse: lazy. Worthless. A drunk. Or, like in the text today, sinner. But you fill in your own blank. We are so good at pushing each other to the margins.

Linda said her prayer for each person baptized is this: out of all those voices, “may God’s voice always be the loudest voice you hear.” You aren’t the worst things they say about you or even the horrible things you may say about yourself. You are beloved, child of God.

She had us repeat it, over and over. “May God’s voice be the loudest voice you hear.”

The woman in our text today hears God’s voice: “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” And that’s how one of God’s beloved broke up that nice Pharisee’s respectable dinner party.

It’s been an interesting week for women, for sure: a week of something new and a week of despair. But life is not only complicated for women.We all hear complicated messages about our own worth.

But God’s voice transforms us into something else. It transformed the woman from “sinner” to beloved child. It transformed Mary Magdalene from demoniac to disciple. The nameless wife of Herod’s steward became Joanna, benefactor to the kingdom. God’s voice changes drunks into healers and the “worthless” into inspirational teachers. God takes what the world sees and changes it into what the world needs just because of love.

In this world of conflicting messages, beloved people, may God’s voice always be the loudest voice you hear. And may God’s voice and the shocking and powerful knowledge of own worth as children of God light up our eyes and bring you back to life, transforming you into not just a forgiven child of God, but a healer, a disciple, a part of the kingdom.

Because if forgiven and loved people who know their own worth, regardless of what anyone else may claim — if people like that can bust up dinner parties, who knows what else we’re capable of? Amen.

(1) Sermon title taken from Jars of Clay album, Who We Are Instead, Essential Records, 2003.

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Zhuravlev, Firs Sergeyevich, 1836-1901
Vanderbilt Record number: [56161]

 

Resurrection for the Rest of Us

Luke 7:1-10

These words from today’s Gospel reading could be true in any age in human history:

“… a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town.”

It could have happened here, in South Hadley, yesterday. Or two thousand years ago in a town called Nain in Galilee. 

We don’t know how the only son of the widow died. It could have been disease. Or it could have been an accident. Or it could have been violence at the hand of a neighbor or a Roman soldier. All we know is that a mother’s only son is being carried out, and that her community has come to mourn with her.

And Jesus tells her not to weep. And with a touch, he rises again.

But I can’t help thinking of the mothers who don’t get their sons given back. Who don’t experience a miracle. Of all of us who have lost loved ones. What about us?

Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow tells a story from the point of view of a young seminarian. He has this conversation with a professor:

“So,” I said, “what I reckon it all comes down to is, how can I preach if I don’t have any answers?”

“Yes, Mr. Crow,” he said, “How can you?” …

“I don’t believe I can,” I said, and I felt my skin turn cold, for I had not even thought that until then.

He said, “No, I don’t believe you can.”

….I said, “Well,” for now I was ashamed, “I had this feeling maybe I had been called.”

“And you may have been right. But not to what you thought. Not to what you think. You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out—perhaps a little at a time.”

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

Here is a mystery that may take longer than a lifetime: where is resurrection for the rest of us?

We have two resurrection stories in our texts today: in the Old Testament and Gospel readings. Two beautiful stories where God transforms death into new life, which the Church believes is only the foreshadowing of what’s to come. But I always struggle with these texts because I’ve seen enough death that I can’t preach optimistic, feel-good grace anymore.

I admit that I wrote two sermons this week. The one you’re hearing is the second.

I’ve talked quite a bit about the vocation of preaching lately. And I realized that I’ve been talking about it in part because I love my own vocation, but in part because I believe that openly struggling every week to put words to the Story that guides our lives helps build up the church. Because while you all may not stand in front of people and give an organized talk about Jesus every week, you have to struggle with the exact same things I do, and you also may have to occasionally talk about why you keep coming to church and believing all this Jesus stuff. And you probably worry about the same things I do.

Like when I was lying in bed on Friday night and got hit with a wave of existential dread: the stark realization that tends to come to us only in the dark, after we’ve turned off the TV and everything has gotten quiet and it’s just us and the darkness and you think about things you’d rather not think about: namely, the end of it all. That death is a reality that is coming for us and everyone we love and yes, we have resurrection hope in Christ and we talk about it every Sunday, but none of us knows exactly what lies beyond. The Bible gives us fairly vague ideas, but as Paul says, we see now only through a glass dimly.

I’ve always admired and somewhat envied people with such strong faith that they never doubt, never waver, never wonder. People who know exactly where they’re going when they die. And admittedly, I do too, but less perfectly. I tend to be a little more stumbling than sure.

One of my favorite descriptions of the life of a preacher is from Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber who in her book Accidental Saints describes her role and mine this way: “Yeah, I’m a leader, but I’m leading us onto the street to get hit by the speeding bus of confession and absolution, sin and sainthood, death and resurrection — that is, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m a leader, but only by saying, ‘Oh, screw it. I’ll go first.’” (29)

So I’ll go first: I have to struggle constantly with the reality and seeming finality of death. Whether it manifests itself in fearing for ourselves or our loved ones: when we barely avoid a terrible car accident on the pike, when we wait for a loved one who should’ve been home already, when we worry about a loved one or friend with a serious illness, when we get called to the ER in the middle of the night. Because we love strongly, we worry, too. We don’t want our loved ones to come to harm.

And by the same token, there are those who have been taken from us too early. We’ve all gotten the out of the blue call at noon on Tuesday when we thought everything was fine. We’ve all felt the gaping hole left by the death of a loved one.

The widow in this story got her only son back thanks to Jesus, and that protected her from what would have certainly been not only sadness, but abject poverty without him — ancient Israel was no place for a woman to be alone in the world, and there wouldn’t have been many prospects for her to make a living without a son or husband to provide for her. We celebrate how Jesus protected her and gave her son and her security back to her.

But during our Tuesday morning clergy meeting this week, someone mentioned the constant conundrum for nearly every reader when we read these resurrection stories — what about my loved one? It’s great, we think, to read these stories where God performs a great miracle to bring someone from the dead. We understand the value of such a story and the hope that it gives. But nearly all of us live in pain from having lost someone. It’s especially hard to preach texts like this one when sitting just feet away from the pulpit has often been the single mother who lost her son who did not meet Jesus in the flesh, and who had to go through the unfathomable pain of burying her child and facing the world alone.

How do we preach resurrection in light of that? Do we dare?

A hospital chaplain colleague of mine once accompanied a family to the morgue in the middle of the night. It was a frequent duty for us when family is not present at the death of a loved one. The procedure in our hospital is for the chaplain to receive the request for the viewing, then the chaplain calls the nurse administrator who contacts the morgue staff who prepares the body. The chaplain also contacts a security guard, which may seem harsh, but it was a safety precaution while emotions ran high. As soon as my colleague had done all this and received confirmation from the staff that all was ready, my colleague met the family at the hospital entrance and escorted them to the morgue where the staff and security were waiting.

Upon entering the morgue, one family member began to shake and pray. At first, my colleague couldn’t understand her, but then he realized that she was praying for resurrection. Right there in the morgue, she was praying for her family member to rise.

At first, my chaplain colleague didn’t know what to do. After several painstaking minutes of praying, getting louder and louder over the protests of her family members, she crumpled to the floor in a heap of tears and shouts of “Why?”

My colleague, a Christian pastor himself, waited and held her until she calmed. He admitted he didn’t know why her loved one was taken, but offered calm assurance that someday even this will be swallowed up in victory. That maybe the answer to the prayer for resurrection was not “No,” but simply, “Not yet.”

In a world filled with death I have to believe that resurrection has come and is coming into the world, and that our job is to care for each other and hold each other until we dare to believe it, then to remind one another whenever we forget.

To remind each other, through actions and words, that the Kingdom is at hand.

The one thing that I noticed this week in the Gospel texts was the two crowds that swirl in the text. One is around Jesus; the other is around the widow. Mourning was, in that world even more so than today, a community event. The crowds swirled, and resurrection was in the midst of them. There is a reason the Bible knows very little about faith in total solitude. Especially in the face of the constant fear and awareness and threat of death, we need each other, lest we forget, lest we lose hope permanently. I know I need you to help me remember: that resurrection has come and that it is coming. That the kingdom is at hand. Resurrection and new life are in the midst of this crowd — at once obscured from our view and so close we can taste it in wine and bread.

As she ends her book Searching for Sunday, author Rachel Held Evans talks about the kingdom — the ways that it has arrived, “not with a trumpet’s sound but with a baby’s cries, not with the vanquishing of enemies but with the forgiving of them, not on the back of a warhorse but on the back of a donkey, not with triumph and conquest but with a death and a resurrection” (253).

Beloved, God turned the world upside down when God became flesh, suffered the death we all dread with all its finality, and then shocked everyone by rising again. And so we continue to live into this mystery, to find resurrection hope in the midst of the crowd that is us: in bread, wine, water, words. Healing oil. Deep friendship. Meals cooked for the hurting. Arms of love wrapped around the grieving. In hot dogs and hamburgers after church, and frequent high fives. Beloved, we are here to remind each other that resurrection and new life are at the same time in the midst of us and well on their way.

The kingdom is at hand.

What Scripture gives us in these two resurrection stories is not simply a record of things that happened a long time ago, read so that we will be impressed with God. It’s far more important than that. It is a glimpse of the kingdom, a glimpse of what is possible even if we find it hard to believe sometimes. It’s a glimpse of resurrection.

Rachel Held Evans’ last words of her book are also my prayer for us together: “Even here, in the dark, God is busy making all things new. So show up. Open every door. At the risk of looking like a fool buried with his feet facing east or like a mockingbird singing stubbornly into the night, anticipate resurrection. It’s either just around the bend or a million miles away. Or perhaps it’s somewhere in between.

Let’s find out together.” (258) 

Amen.

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Raising of the Son of the Widow at Nain, unidentified artist
Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Record #56149