Jesus 2020: Family Values

Scripture: Matthew 19:3-12

I’ve never preached on Jesus’ teaching on divorce before. I don’t think that’s been intentional – I’ve never actively steered away from it – but I’ve never felt especially compelled to wade into this territory, either. This feels like tricky ground. There are those of you here – probably more than I even know – for whom this passage is not just a theoretical debate about a matter of God’s law. It’s about your own lives and your own choices or the situations you’ve found yourselves in that you never chose at all.

I have not had the experience of getting or being divorced, but I have friends and teachers and mentors who have. Many of them are my colleagues in ministry. My mom was married and divorced before she ever met my dad, and I presumably wouldn’t be here if not for that severing of one relationship which allowed a new one to begin. I preach with all of these realities in mind.

This topic may seem like a strange choice for a series on politics – divorce really isn’t a focus of our political discourse today, for the most part, outside of the policy positions of some hardcore family values groups or perhaps the chance to comment on the character of some of our leading politicians. But the conversation Jesus has about it in today’s passage is a political one, if only because this is once again a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees over a matter of interpretation of Jewish law. And as such, it’s a chance to learn something about the values Jesus thinks should govern life together, which after all, is a lot of what politics is.

Once again, it begins as a test. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, teaching and healing in in the region of Judea across the Jordan River, and our Pharisee friends – remember them? – once again show up with a question. “Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife for any reason?” they ask. I do have to wonder what made them pick this question, in particular. Maybe, as one commentary I read suggested, it’s because at this point in the story John the Baptist has recently been beheaded precisely for opposing King Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law. It’s a topic in the news. Or maybe, it’s just a common enough feature of life in 1st century Judea that they think they’re sure to get some traction with the question.

Jesus answers this question more directly than usual. “Haven’t you read Scripture?” he asks – knowing they have. “Doesn’t it say that God made male and female and that a man leaves his family to become one with his wife?” What God has joined together, let no one separate. (We still say that at weddings.)

Our Pharisees seem to have figured that he would answer along these lines, and they are ready with their response: “Then why did Moses say all we needed was a certificate of divorce?”

“Moses said that,” says Jesus, “because of the reality of your hard-heartedness, but that’s not the way it was meant to be. I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife – except on grounds of adultery – and marries another commits adultery himself.”

There is, of course, lots of complicated and tricky stuff to unpack here. There is the fact that Jesus refers to marriage as between a man and a woman – and yes, he does assume that, though it doesn’t quite seem like the point of what he’s saying here to me. There is the fact that while the church today is all too happy to wax eloquent on the ethics of same-sex marriage, it is largely silent – at least on a political level – about the ethics of divorce, which is what Jesus is actually addressing here. There are accusations of hard-heartedness for those who have needed the possibility of a legal divorce and adultery for those who have chosen to remarry. A hard word to swallow, no doubt, for people who have tried their best to make it work, people who have spent hours on a couch in couples therapy, people for whom happily ever after didn’t unfold as planned.

A friend of mine got married right out of college and divorced her husband a few years later. “No one gets married thinking they’re going to get divorced,” she said once. “You get married because you think it’s going to be forever.”

One of my mentors in ministry said going through divorce was the worst pain he’d ever felt, worse even than sobering up. Is that hard-heartedness? Both of those friends are remarried now. Does God not honor those new commitments they’ve made, and the families that have come through that?

Jesus is supposed to be about grace, not judgment, right? Doesn’t this hard, unforgiving stance on the Law seem ironically more like a Pharisee kind of thing than a Jesus one?

Well, I don’t know. Jesus often raises the bar on the Law rather than abolishing it altogether. Maybe you remember this from the Sermon on the Mount. You’ve heard it said that you should repay someone only an eye for an eye, but I tell you if someone takes your shirt, give them your coat as well. You’ve heard it said that you should love your neighbor, but I tell you also to love your enemy. You’ve heard it said that if you get divorced you should give your wife a certificate of divorce, but I tell you whoever gets divorced and remarries commits adultery.

Jesus is not a legalist, but far from abolishing the Law, he wants us to hear the kind of life that the Law is supposed to point us to. Not that that makes it easier, here, to swallow his teaching on divorce.

Does God care about the promises we make to each other before God in marriage? I believe that God does. Even through hard times? Yes, of course. Is it a sign of the general brokenness of our world that we are not always able to follow through on those promises? I imagine most of you who have been divorced would agree there is brokenness involved. Does God also care about abundant life for people who are no longer able to find that in the marriage they are in? I have to believe that, too. And, honestly, I wonder if this had been a genuine question asked of Jesus by someone in pain, rather than another test from the Pharisees, if his response might not have been different.

And I also wonder what else we might be able to hear in this exchange in Matthew 19 if we listen to it again. First of all, who is the subject of the Pharisees’ question? Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife? This is no amicable, mutually negotiated separation in question. As usual, when we’re talking politics, there are power dynamics involved here.

What happens to a woman, in Jesus’ day, who is divorced by her husband? While businesswomen are not unheard of at the time, for the most part, women are economically dependent on men – first their fathers, then their husbands. Where does that leave a divorced woman? Potentially nowhere.

So maybe what Jesus means is that it shouldn’t be as easy as that, to just fill out a form and be done with someone. Maybe we owe each other more than that, not just as spouses, but as people. Maybe our obligations to love and care for someone who has been entrusted to us go beyond just what’s formally required.

Maybe Jesus’ interpretation of the Law comes down, once again, to protecting people who are vulnerable. Maybe we’re too good sometimes at finding loopholes in our obligations to each other.

I do have to laugh a little at the disciples’ reaction when Jesus says whoever divorces and remarries commits adultery. “If that’s the case,” they say, “then it’s better not to get married at all!” Really, y’all? Jesus, however, seems to say, yeah. In some cases, at least, it’s better not to get married at all. For there are eunuchs, he says, who were born that way, and those who have been made that way, and those who have chosen that status because of the Kingdom of Heaven. “Eunuch” isn’t really a societal role we have these days, but they were people who weren’t able, either physically or culturally, to be in an intimate relationship. Jesus says it’s possible to choose this. Neither marriage nor divorce is the end-all, be-all here: there is another possibility, of choosing another primary commitment, and that is also good.

In the end, that’s the primary commitment he asks of all of us, regardless of our relationship status: commitment to God, commitment to love and care for one another and especially those who are vulnerable, commitment to the Kingdom of God.   

But those things aren’t political, right? Well, again, if they inform the choices we make about living real life with other people in community, then they are.

The Law that Jesus comes not to abolish, but to fulfill, is a law that points us time and again to our inescapable obligation to each other – all of us, in all the different ways we might live into that. And there are no loopholes. But it is the only way, I believe, to find our happily ever after.

Jesus 2020: Religious Freedom

Scripture: Matthew 12:3-14

You may have noticed by now that the Pharisees are never the good guys in these Gospel stories. They are always depicted as Jesus’ opponents, hypocrites who are looking for ways to trap him; they are irredeemable legalists who love the law for the law’s sake.

You should know as we get into today’s reading that some scholars, Jewish scholars especially, have pushed back on this characterization of the Pharisees. The Pharisees, they say, were part of a Jewish religious movement focused on understanding God’s law and following it well. Some have even argued that Jesus himself was Pharisee, and that all the anti-Pharisee talk we find in the Gospels has more to do with the growing divide between Christianity and Judaism at the time they were written than with Jesus himself.[1]

We’re talking this fall about times in the Gospels when Jesus gets political, and we’ve already encountered and will encounter his political opponents “the Pharisees” a lot. It’s always easy to demonize our opponents. But I hope that we can hold two ideas in tension as we move into our story today: on the one hand, #NotAllPharisees. On the other hand, we can still hear the human issues at the heart of this conflict that Jesus finds himself in.

In our reading today, Jesus and his disciples are on the road, and they happen to walk through a wheat field. The disciples are hungry, and they begin to pluck some heads of grain and eat them. Not a big deal, probably, except that some of our Pharisee friends happen to be lurking in this wheat field as well, and it happens to be the Sabbath, and you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath, and to these Pharisees, that includes plucking grain.

Not all Jews would have agreed that plucking heads of grain was breaking the Sabbath. The Bible doesn’t say that. The Bible says you shouldn’t work on the Sabbath, and you shouldn’t make other people work for you, either (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5.) OK, clearly harvesting is labor; you shouldn’t harvest on the Sabbath. Well, then, what counts as harvesting? Do oxen have to be involved? Can you go out into your own field with a sickle? How about just plucking a few heads of grain?

As Christians I think we’re kind of pre-conditioned to laugh these questions off, but I don’t want us to do that. I want us to hear them as genuine questions about how to live faithfully. These are the kinds of questions Pharisees asked. But of course it’s possible to take this line of questioning too far; it’s possible that your answers and what you stake on them become less religious discernment and more political power play.

And such is the case with our Pharisees in this story. “Look!” they say to Jesus. “Your disciples are working on the Sabbath!”

I like to imagine the disciples looking up, wide-eyed, mid-chew. I like to imagine the look that Jesus gives his accusers. “Come on,” he says, “you know even David and his troops ate the offering bread off the altar in the Temple when they were hungry.” He’s establishing precedence, here. And the work of the Temple still goes on on the Sabbath. Don’t you know, he says, that something greater than the Temple is here?

As usual, Jesus didn’t ask for a debate, but he’s not going to back down from one, either.

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus says. Sometimes hungry people getting to eat is more important than perfectly following the rules.

Jesus is hardly upending Judaism here. In fact, he’s quoting the prophet Hosea. The idea that mercy comes before a rigid application of the law is itself ingrained within Jewish tradition.  Once again, it’s not the law itself that is the problem! The Sabbath was a God-given gift to God’s people, a respite from the grind of six days of labor, a protection for people and even animals who worked for other people, so they wouldn’t be exploited. The purpose of God’s law was never to weigh us down. It’s supposed to guide us in living well.

From the wheat field, Jesus follows the Pharisees into their synagogue, where they find a man with a withered hand. “What about him?” the Pharisees ask Jesus. “Is it lawful to cure him?”

Jesus shakes his head and says, “The Sabbath was never about preventing good,” and he heals the man’s hand.

The conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, you see, is never really about the Law. Rather it’s about a stance toward the law that makes the law the end rather than the means to abundant life. It’s his opponents’ overly tight grasp on the law that’s the problem. And remember, this is not a particularly Jewish problem (#NotAllPharisees) but, like most things in the Bible, it’s a human problem playing out in one particular place and time.

Like most political conflicts, this one is about power, because the Pharisees hold power if they hold authority over how the law is interpreted and wielded.

But it’s also about so-called sacred cows, and what happens when they’re challenged.

Have you ever challenged someone else’s sacred cow? One of those things that is so important to a person or community that one dare not even bring it into question?

These can often be small things, that may even sound funny to those of us on the outside. My pastor colleagues will often tell stories about how they stumble upon these things in church – who would have known that one particular piece of art on the Fellowship Hall wall was Never To Be Moved?

And sometimes they’re bigger things. A flag in the front of the sanctuary. A statue in a public park. A certain way of telling history that has turned out to not be so historically accurate.

Maybe a better question is this: have you ever been the one who had a hard time loosening your grasp on one of these things?

A few months ago my high school came up in the local news. I went to a magnet school where you had to take a test to get in. The school consistently ranks very highly among the people who rank these things. It’s also been the case since I was there that there are very few Black and Latino students at this school; the student body is mostly white and Asian. That was the case again this spring when admissions data came out, and the number of Black students admitted was recorded as “too small to count.”

In the alumni group, people started talking. They talked about how standardized testing has been shown to contain inherent racial bias, and how the dearth of Black and Latino students doesn’t really serve anyone well, and how maybe the whole concept of the school needed to be reconsidered.

I read that and I felt myself getting defensive. Because of course I loved my school, and you know, the status quo had worked out OK for me.

And I noticed the gut reaction I felt at the thought of changing something that I liked, something that made up some small part of my identity, and then I thought, oh, maybe this is how people feel about those Confederate statues.

The fight over my high school went on to the School Board, which just this weekend voted to remove the admissions test from the application process. They didn’t totally abolish the concept of the school, though to hear some of the reactions, they might as well have. I’m sure there’s room for legitimate disagreement on this topic, but it seems to me that wanting to keep the status quo, wanting to maintain some level of control over the whole admissions process, does have to do with the power and privilege we so often fight to maintain. Of course those aren’t the main arguments that people would make, but I say that because I think that’s what it was for me.

Jesus has a way of challenging these sacred cows.

Sometimes just because I think something’s important doesn’t make it good for everyone. It doesn’t mean that thing serves the church’s mission, or that it furthers the cause of liberty and justice for all in our country, or that it reflects God’s ultimate will.

God’s will is always abundant life for God’s children. That was the purpose of the Sabbath law in the first place. When it came down to a question of ritual observance vs. meeting basic human needs like hunger or healing, of course the human needs win out.

And yet in today’s Gospel passage, it’s enough to make this group of Pharisees want to “destroy” Jesus.

I wonder what those places might be where we have trouble letting go of our own stuff in favor of mercy and justice. Because as I now understand, it’s not just a problem for Pharisees. It’s a problem for me, too. And maybe, in some aspect of your life or our life together, it’s a problem for you.

But Jesus Christ is Lord of the Sabbath and Lord of our lives. And there is something greater in our midst than anything else we so tightly hold onto. It’s the Kingdom of God, where all God’s children are fed, and healed, and treated with dignity, and free. It’s that to which the Law points us. And it’s that toward the Spirit guides us. And it’s that for which Jesus invites us to let go of whatever is holding us back.

[1] Cf. Amy Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus; Hyam Maccoby, “Jesus the Pharisee” in Jewish Quarterly, Vol. 51, Issue 2, 2004.

Jesus 2020: Foreign(er) Policy

Scripture: Matthew 8:5-13

Back in 1997, comedian Ellen DeGeneres made waves early when she came out as a lesbian on the Oprah Winfrey Show. That, however, was a long time ago. When she became the host of her own daytime talk show in 2003, Ellen made a career out of being about as uncontroversial and unpolitical as it gets. Other people talked about the news; Ellen pranked other celebrities, shared funny drawings by kids, encouraged kindness, and – always – invited people to dance.

In the past couple years, Ellen has been back in the news a few times. Why? For her friendship with George W. Bush. She and her wife were first shown sitting with the Bushes at a football game late last year. Some people thought this was charming: two unlikely friends reminding us that we can transcend everything that divides us! But Ellen happened to have a lot of fans who were not necessarily George W. Bush fans, who in fact thought that George W. Bush had done some pretty problematic things, and they were not amused. Ellen pushed back: “When I say, ‘be kind to one another,’” she said, “I don’t only mean the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”[1]

I’ll let you make up your own mind about Ellen and George and their unlikely friendship. I’m not here to preach about that. What I am here to preach about is times in the Gospels when Jesus gets political. And sometimes, something as simple as who you choose to associate with can be political.

In today’s story, Jesus is approached by a person in need of a miracle. That in itself isn’t unusual. People in need of miracles seek out Jesus all the time. In this particular case, the man has a servant at home who is paralyzed.

Somewhat more unusual is that the person looking for a miracle in this story is not Jewish.  Jesus does interact with Gentiles from time to time in the Gospels – after all, they were part of the world he lived in, too. Usually, though, when we read about Jesus interacting with a foreigner, it’s not by accident. Our ears are meant to perk up a little.

It may sound quaint, this idea that just interacting pleasantly with someone from a different part of the world would be somehow notable. And yet perhaps we’re not as far removed from that kind of thing as we think. I’m not just talking about our attitudes toward literal “foreigners.” I mean anyone we perceive as different, as other, as outside the fold in some way: people of different races, religions, socioeconomic strata, sexual orientations, or – dare I say? political affiliations. In fact, these days that last one seems like it has more power to overtly make us foreign to one another than anything else.

As Ellen and George show us, even interacting nicely with someone across that boundary can still make some ears perk up.

The “foreigner” who comes to Jesus in this particular story is not just a Gentile. He’s a centurion – an officer in the Roman army, which is to say, the occupying army. He plays an active role in the oppression and subjugation of Judea. His literal job is to promote Roman supremacy. He is not just someone from a different place or someone who bears a different identity; he is someone who consciously or unconsciously has chosen a side.

Knowing this, what will Jesus say?

It is possible that we do hear a note of reluctance in Jesus’ voice at first. The text renders his response “I will come and cure him,” but the Greek probably reads more like, “You want me to come and heal him?”

The centurion is unfazed. “I know how these things work,” he says. “I obey commands from someone over me, too, and I know all you have to do is say the word, and it will be done. You don’t even have to come.”

And Jesus shakes his head in amazement, and the centurion’s slave is healed.

I could make this a sermon about bridging our divides and how we can all just love each other despite our differences. I could, but I don’t actually think it’s that easy. In last week’s passage, Jesus was standing up to the hypocritical Temple elites, turning their accusation of a powerless woman back on them. I really wrestle with the fact that in the Gospels, Jesus spends so much time condemning the Temple leadership, the local leaders in cahoots with the Roman government, and yet seems to take such a moderate stance toward the actual Roman oppressors. Don’t get me wrong, Jesus does his own part to subvert the power of the Roman Empire in favor of the Kingdom of God. But never once does he look a Roman in the face like he does the Pharisees and say “Woe to you.”

In fact, in this case, he says “In no one in Israel have I found such faith.”

But this faith is the faith of the oppressor.

And so his response is political. Certainly many of his fellow Judeans would have seen it that way. Because sometimes who you choose to associate with is political. Who you sit with at a football game is political; who you say woe to and who you heal and who you praise, all of that is political.

And I struggle with it, I do. I struggle with the fact that this centurion is surely just a regular guy, doing the job he was taught to do, valuing the things he was taught to value, just like all of us surely are, on both sides of the so-called aisle or neither; and yet he is actively part of a system doing real harm. I struggle with the calls I sometimes hear to just be friends, and find unity despite our differences, despite the real injustices at play, despite the real people “unity” inevitably leaves behind. Because it’s one thing to disagree over taxes, right? And it’s another thing to disagree over whether white supremacy should or should not be condemned, and still go on with your dinner party.

But Jesus doesn’t go into all that. Instead what he sees is someone who needs a miracle – and not only that, but someone, even, whose “foreign” life experience has taught him something about what faith means. Jesus many initially be taken by surprise at the centurion’s request – but in the end, he refuses to put this human being before him into any of the boxes that the surrounding world has drawn.

And still, last week Jesus was standing firmly on the side of the powerless, and the week before that he was preaching good news to the poor. And I struggle, I do, with how to hold it all together, how to be uncompromising and unflinching in my stand for what is right, how to live into my baptismal vow to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves; while refusing to let my heart be hardened against those who may not see things the way I do.

And I really don’t have it figured out. But somewhere in the struggle I hear Jesus calling me to both.

And maybe, just maybe, there is grace in the struggle. And maybe, just maybe, we can struggle together.


Jesus 2020: Criminal Justice

Scripture: John 8:3-11

Some people choose politics. You’ve probably known some of these people in your life – from an early age, they’re shaking hands and making deals and charming people into doing what they want. I’m not knocking that; these are gifts and skills that can be used for good! Sometimes people with a lot of money or some fame decide to go into politics as their life’s next adventure. You can probably think of some of those people too.

For some people, though, politics chooses them. These are people who never saw themselves as politicians, or wanted to be one. Instead, they meet a person or have an experience that leads them to be involved in a cause. Maybe, for example, you never so much as went to a PTA meeting until your special needs kid wasn’t having their needs met in school, and before you know it you’re running for School Board, not just for the sake of your own kid, but for every kid who deserves not to be overlooked.

This fall, in the leadup to our upcoming national election, we’re talking about times in the Gospels that Jesus gets political. This week’s story seems like a good example of a time when Jesus finds himself in the middle of a political conflict that chooses him.

Don’t get me wrong – Jesus has been having it out with the religious leaders, the scribes and Pharisees – for a while already at this point in the story. They don’t just randomly walk up to him one day and demand that he play judge and jury in this adulterous woman’s case. I doubt that Jesus was born in flesh just to be a thorn in the side of the religious establishment in Jerusalem, to be honest, but if that’s what loving God’s people and proclaiming God’s just, inclusive kingdom demands, then he’s not going to walk away from that fight.

It happens one morning when Jesus is teaching in the Temple. Some religious leaders come to him with a question about the Law. They haven’t come alone. They’ve brought a woman with them, and they unceremoniously push her in front of him and say, “This woman was caught in the *very act* of committing adultery.”

I imagine him looking up, surprised, taking a moment to recognize what is going on. Then he realizes, and his eyes meet theirs.

“The Law says we should stone this woman,” they say. “How about you? What do you say?”

It’s a trap. The Law does indeed say that both parties caught in adultery should be stoned. That is no longer the customary route for dealing with such things, in Jesus’ time. And they haven’t brought the required witnesses for a real trial. But if he gets into the legal minutia, he’s already lost.

He can say no, and reveal that he does not actually honor the Law. Or he can say stone her, and reveal something much worse about himself.

Jesus bends down, and begins to write.

You can almost feel the scene, which is already rife with tension, start to get awkward. What is he doing? Is he going to answer? Did he hear the question? They keep questioning him, but you can sense them getting nervous, because already he isn’t playing into their hand. He keeps writing. Finally he looks up and says, those famous words, “Let anyone among you who is without sin throw the first stone.” And he bends down to write again.

One by one, they walk away. Jesus is left alone with the woman before him and he says to her in what I hear as almost mock confusion, “What happened to everybody? Is there no one left to condemn you?”

The woman, probably still shaking, says, “No,” and Jesus says, “Neither do I.”

I was going to preach this sermon about the value of mercy – the mercy Jesus shows to this presumably sinful woman. After all, the passage ends with him telling her to go and sin no more. Mercy can be a political act. In fact, it very often is. It can be political on a very local level – you may have experienced this if you’ve ever reconciled with a family member only to feel the wrath of another. It can be political on a more cultural level – can this latest politician or celebrity be forgiven for the offensive thing they once did or said, or should they be #canceled for good? Or what about when a president issues a pardon – to a friend, or someone on death row, or someone convicted of a high-profile crime?

How about this woman? If Jesus acquits her, does he effectively say that adultery is fine? That her sin doesn’t matter, that it hasn’t hurt anyone?

And yet if he condemns her, what does that say about God’s mercy? Does the punishment, in this case, match the crime? Is there room left in her story for redemption?

I was going to preach that, but the fact is that’s not quite what this story is about, is it? This is a story about power, and who has it, and how they use it. Which is, of course, also political.

I have to wonder what this woman’s story was. We have no way of knowing if it’s true, if she was in fact caught in the very act itself; if the religious leaders are acting on the accusation of a jealous husband; if they simply grabbed an unsuspecting woman out of nowhere to play their little game with Jesus here.

It’s possible she didn’t really have a choice in the encounter. It’s possible if we knew her story, we might understand a little better.

It’s possible it was just true, of course. It’s possible this woman was as guilty as the day is long.  The details don’t really matter, because in the end, her guilt or innocence is not really the issue in this story.

Who are the real guilty ones in this scenario? The ones who tried to use her as a pawn.[1]

And maybe that’s the sticking point when we talk about mercy sometimes: we want to forgive and forget, to justify, without addressing any of the deeper issues of power and injustice that are part of a situation.

I recently started reading Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow. It’s about the mass incarceration of black men in the US. One point she makes is that our definition of crime itself isn’t necessarily neutral. In fact, she says, “what gets defined as crime, and who gets surveilled and punished, generally has more to do with the politics of race and class than the harm that any particular behavior or activity causes.” For example, big banks in the leadup to the Great Recession of 2008 committed fraud, bribery, rate-rigging and all sorts of things that ended up leaving 44 million people in poverty. Some banks had to pay fines, but few of the upper-class, white-collar people involved actually went to prison.[2]  Yet a poor person who robs a liquor store is likely to be siphoned off into a system where they never fully recover their ability to work, vote, and create a life for themselves.

We can talk about mercy for the person who robbed the liquor store; that was a decision someone made, and likely not a good one; but if all we talk about is whether they can be forgiven or redeemed, we’ve already lost the game. What we should be talking about is people with power using that power to put themselves in the right and keep others in the wrong; and that’s where Jesus shines the spotlight here. Jesus is always on the side of those who don’t have power. And nothing makes Jesus madder in the Gospels than the hypocrisy of the elite who do.

“Let anyone who is without sin throw the first stone”: with this he turns the accusation around on the ones who culturally and politically have the power to define crime and sin.

Perhaps we would do well to see the world through Jesus’ eyes. Perhaps we would do well to see things this way, when the crime of resisting arrest brings the sentence of a knee to a neck, when destruction of property meets destruction of life.

So I decided not to make this a sermon about mercy. And yet it is about mercy, right? Because in the end, a woman walks free who might not have. We may not know all the details of her case, but Jesus doesn’t deny that she has made a choice; he doesn’t deny that it is sin. What he says is that her choice, if she has indeed made it, need not be the end of the story.

Maybe the bigger question, though, is this: can there be mercy for those who would have stoned her?

I think there can be. I hope there can be. Surely we see throughout the Bible that God’s mercy is big enough to be surprising and even offensive. But grace is not cheap. It can never simply be a matter of papering over the past. It can never simply be a matter of saying we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God while the powerful still bring the powerless to trial.

Jesus won’t play our games.

But he does invite us to imagine that things could be different, that the structures of power we know so well might even one day be reversed, that mercy might one day be willingly extended from the powerless to the powerful; that we might claim God’s mercy for ourselves, even as we extend it to others, equals in the eyes of God.

“Go and sin no more”: these are words of new beginning for the adulterous woman, and for her accusers, and for us, too. Go, and see this world through the eyes of Jesus.

[1] Gerard Sloyan, Interpretation: John, p. 97: “The actual issue in the story is the far greater guilt of the accusers than the woman.”

[2] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 10th Anniversary Edition, p. xli

Jesus 2020: Poverty

Scripture: Luke 4:16-21

Maybe you’ve heard that there’s an election coming up here in the US. It’s kind of a big deal. Depending on who you listen to the fate of our great nation might hang in the balance. Not all of us may be able to vote; some of us may be more directly affected by the results than others; most of us probably feel pretty aware of our political reality these days.

So I thought it would be a good time to talk about politics in church.

There’s this idea that you shouldn’t do that, talk about politics in church. To be honest, I probably expect that response less here in DC than I would elsewhere. Here we’re used to politics being a fact of everyday life. It still feels like a bit of a landmine. Start getting too political and we might quickly learn that our unity in Christ is in fact kind of tenuous. And I’m sure some of us just want one hour a week when we can focus on something else.

The Bible, however, is a book about politics.

It’s not primarily about politics. It’s about who God is and who we are and the story of God’s relationship with God’s people. But you can’t tell the story of Exodus without telling the story of the uprising of an oppressed minority against an oppressor. And you can’t tell the story of Israel without telling the story of kings and queens and the shifting of power and empire in the Ancient Near East. And you can’t talk about Jesus without talking about a guy who spoke divine truth to power and paid the ultimate price.

This series that we’re beginning today is not about US politics. This is a series about the times in the Gospels that Jesus finds himself “getting political” in his own time and context. Now, of course, our politics are about our values and our moral choices made in community, and so I hope we will find that some of those Gospel values do make a difference in the choices we make in our lives today, inside the voting booth or out.

Jesus Christ is not running for president. But I want to start this series off today with what I think his campaign slogan would be if he was. And to do that, I want to back up. Today’s Scripture reading comes from the beginning of Luke. Jesus has just returned from the wilderness after his baptism and he begins to travel around the region of Galilee, teaching and gaining fame, and the people love him. He’s a rising star.

And then he comes to his hometown of Nazareth, and on Saturday morning he goes to synagogue, just like all the other Saturday mornings of his life, and he volunteers to read Scripture. Someone hands him the scroll of Isaiah, and Jesus opens it carefully and reads these words:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

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

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To let the oppressed go free,

And to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.


And he rolls up the scroll and hands it back, and we read that “all eyes were on him.

He looks at them and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

It gives me chills.

This is the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and his first public appearance in the Gospel of Luke. If we were going to use church language I’d call this Jesus’ mission statement, but since it’s election season I’m going to call it his campaign slogan. Obama had “Change we can believe in.” Trump has “Make America Great Again (Again).” Jesus: Good news to the poor. This is the lens through which we can understand the entire rest of Jesus’ earthly ministry, at least as Luke describes it.

If you went back and read this passage in Isaiah, in chapter 61, you’d know that it’s a prophecy of restoration after exile. The prophet is speaking good news to those who have been removed from their homeland, who have seen their holy Temple burned down to its foundations, who had a hard time believing that God was with them anymore.

By Jesus’ time, however, Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled, at least in its original sense. Jewish people once again live in Jerusalem. The rebuilt Temple stands in the center of the city. And so it might be tempting to try to understand Isaiah’s words metaphorically as Jesus applies them to himself. This time around, “the poor” and “the oppressed” and “the captive” must mean anyone who finds themselves separated from God by sin.

Luke, however, will not let us make this language too metaphorical. Throughout the Gospel of Luke, Jesus focuses his ministry on the actually poor and marginalized. He associates with women. He lambasts the Temple leadership for “devouring widows’ houses” and tells the story of a rich man sentenced to eternal damnation because he never acknowledged the beggar at his gate. In Matthew, Jesus preaches “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In Luke, it’s simply “Blessed are the poor.”

Luke wants to make sure we’re clear: the Gospel of Jesus is literal good news to the poor.

And that’s political.

It’s not too political if we keep some neat limits on what good news really means. It’s not too political to say that God loves rich and poor alike. It’s generally not too political to try to help people in our own personal lives. We know that’s our Christian and even human duty. It’s not political to be sad at the plight of others, or to say we wish poverty didn’t have to exist.

There was a Brazilian priest, Dom Helder Camara, who served as archbishop during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s. A quote of his used to hang in my campus ministry building in college. He said, “If I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”

There’s nothing wrong with feeding people. We do it here every day. Jesus feeds people, too. To be honest, if you’re hungry, not that much else matters. Here in his mission statement, though, Jesus isn’t just talking about helping people get along from day to day. He’s talking about breaking chains. To proclaim release to the captives. To let the oppressed go free.

That’s political. And it’s also good news, to any and all of us who have ever felt the weight of invisible chains.

What if we, as Jesus’ followers, had the same mission statement: to proclaim good news to the poor?

I ask this knowing that we are a diverse group, and that we may or may not understand ourselves to be part of “the poor” ourselves. I ask it knowing that we may mean different things by that phrase, that part of the problem in our national political discourse is that we can’t even agree on who the poor are or who’s really being oppressed.  I ask it realizing that a phrase like “the poor” can come across as condescending these days, as if we are trying to define a hugely varied group of people – other people, of course – by one characteristic – though I’ll stick with Jesus’ and Isaiah’s language here.

I’ll ask it anyway: how is your life proclaiming good news to the poor?

I believe that, as Christians, when any of us walks into a voting booth, when any of us fills out an absentee ballot – again, recognizing that not all of us will be doing that in the coming months – the question we should all be asking is, who is this good news for? How does this choice I’m making affect those who are most vulnerable in our society? We may not all answer that question the same way. We can all ask the same question.

But Jesus never in his life got to vote, and surely we let ourselves off easy if we think that’s all that’s asked of us in the face of the world’s injustices. I’ll ask it again: how is your life proclaiming good news to the poor? To people being held in ICE detention centers on our border? To black men incarcerated in wildly disproportionate numbers? To communities still in the grips of the opioid epidemic in Appalachia? To people right here in Arlington who can’t afford to live here, to our neighbors on the streets, or who get out of jail with nowhere to go and no idea how they’re going to start over?

To be honest, I’ve been thinking lately that I may need to get a little more political in my own answers to this question. Feeding people is good. Maybe I need to be asking more about why people are poor.

Luke tells us that when Jesus is finished, everyone is amazed and everyone speaks well of him. Which is surprising, maybe, that he hasn’t been controversial at all. But then again, all he did is read from Isaiah, right? Well, spoiler alert: we’re not even to the end of chapter 4 before these hometown neighbors are trying to shove Jesus off a cliff. Talk about poverty and power is never really neutral.

But it is the stuff of God’s kingdom, where the mighty are brought down and the lowly lifted up. And it is the stuff of good news, ultimately, to all of us, loved fiercely by a God who breaks our chains so we can live as God’s children together.  

The Courage to Rebuild

Scripture: Haggai 1:1-8

Most of you know that in our Sunday Bible Study we’ve been reading through the Bible in a year: we’re doing the abridged form, with about a chapter of assigned reading a day. Today we’re going to be finishing up the Hebrew Bible, talking about the last three of the so-called Minor Prophets, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, and I thought I’d bring you all along for the ride here in worship too.

Not all of the Minor Prophets are easy to preach on – join us later on to hear more! – but as I was reading the prophet Haggai this week I did think that Haggai might have a good word for us today. He is not one of the more well-known prophets – even I didn’t remember much about Haggai before putting this week’s study together – so let me start by telling you telling you a little bit about him.

Haggai was a prophet around the year 520 BCE. Years earlier, in 587 BCE, the Babylonian army had laid siege to the city of Jerusalem, broken through the walls, and destroyed the Temple along with the entire city.  The religious and economic elites of Jerusalem, the ones who get to write the books, are led away in chains and scattered across the Babylonian empire, while the poor are left to farm the land. It’s not a stretch to call this the defining event of the Hebrew Bible. The Bible becomes the Bible in light of this event. Even much earlier stories and scriptures are edited and compiled in light of the destruction of Jerusalem and what becomes known as the Babylonian exile.

The Temple was where God resided on earth. When the Temple is destroyed, then what? Well, either God is absent, or your theology has to change.

But that was all before Haggai came on the scene.

By the time Haggai is part of the picture, Babylon itself has fallen. Persia is now in charge in the Ancient Near East. In 539 BCE, King Cyrus tells the exiles to go home, and he sends them with resources to start rebuilding. For this, Cyrus is called no less than God’s anointed, in Hebrew mashiach, Messiah. Back in Jerusalem, reconstructing the Temple is the first order of business. That way, God can dwell with God’s people in Jerusalem once again. The returned exiles get down to work on this holy project that God has called them to – work God has given them both the opportunity and the responsibility to undertake.

You can imagine it’s probably not as easy as all that. The small surrounding nations and some questionable newcomers to the city itself see the Temple beginning to be rebuilt, and they start to feel threatened. What happens to them if Jerusalem starts to gain power again? So they actively work to subvert the process.

And the people get discouraged. They start to believe their neighbors. And the project comes to a halt. It’s not necessarily a grinding halt, as far as I can tell. It just kind of…peters out. And maybe sometimes the people will walk past that half-rebuilt Temple and feel a kind of pang, you know, but mostly they try to push it out of their mind – the Temple was before. And hopefully someday it will be again. Just not right now.  

Maybe there’s some connection here to the way I imagine a lot of us feel right now, discouraged and despairing that life will ever be the same. I’m not saying it’s the same as being forcibly exiled from your home (there are those in our country, out in the West, who are experiencing a version of that too) but I think it’s fair to say that many of us are experiencing a sense of exile from life as we knew it right now. Once in a while there are some signs of hope, some promise of a return to something normal, and discouragement as we realize it’s just not that easy and it’s just not the same.

I’ve experienced this as my kids have returned to preschool, only to have our new rhythm interrupted by the need to quarantine. Young adults are starting college only to be told to return home. Some of you have been through Plans A, B, and C for major life events this year. Or you’ve found new jobs and lost them. Trying to find “life” in all of this just isn’t that easy, and maybe trying to find God in all of it isn’t so easy either.

And so the people say, we’ll build the Temple later. Later, when it’s easier. Later, when resources are more abundant. Let’s just regain our footing, here, and then we’ll get back to God’s work.

That’s where Haggai comes in with a word from the Lord.

At first his words sound angry, or at least disappointed. “These people say, the time hasn’t come, the time to rebuild the Lord’s house….Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?”

Think about it, God says, “You’ve sown much, but it has brought little. You eat, but there’s not enough to satisfy. There’s clothing, but not enough to keep warm.” And what it sounds like to me is that the people think they just don’t have enough to really invest in anything right now. They’re just trying to survive, here, to get through, and someday, when things are better and easier and more abundant, then we’ll build the Temple.

No, God says, go to the highlands and get some wood. You all are waiting for things to get better, but actually what would make things better is for me to dwell among you in that Temple again.

We call the Bible the Living Word of God because, even though it was written in and about specific circumstances in specific times in history, it still has the power to speak to us today, and this week, Haggai did to me. Because how many times during this whole pandemic have I said I’m just trying to survive here, I’ll worry about the rest later?

On the other hand, that’s not all wrong, is it? Sometimes just trying to get through a rough period is all you have, and I have to believe God understands that. I think there’s been something good, even, about having to pare things down to the minimum this year, and having to face that question of what really matters and what’s just been keeping us busy. God has never cared if you used this year to write your novel. God has never cared if your house is clean.  God does need us to care for ourselves. God does want us to be well and whole and not just overwhelmed all the time.

So I wondered if this was, in fact, the right word for today. Maybe it’s really not time to talk about rebuilding yet. Maybe the time to bring out Haggai is after there’s a vaccine, after all of this is over, but it’s still hard and we’re still figuring it out.

Maybe I’ll preach this sermon again then. But I still think Haggai has a word for us today.

Building the Temple is doing God’s work, and that’s what the people are stalling on, saying they just can’t focus on it now, they don’t have enough to invest in it now, and it’s to all of those excuses that God says no, it’s time.

I’m not talking about the pressure to accomplish all the things you wanted to accomplish this year; what I’m talking about is doing God’s work, whatever that looks like for you: the work of being part of a community, the work of caring for our neighbors, the work of pursuing justice, the work of prayer; the work I have so often gotten away from in the past six months as it has been so easy to turn in on myself and my own stress and my own fears and my own scarcity. At various times in these past six months I’ve heard God telling me, no, it’s not going to be better later, you’re not going to have more time to help out a neighbor or support a cause for justice later, you can do that now, and your life will be better for it.

What is God asking of you now? Not someday when things are better and you have more time and more money and it all seems generally safer, but now?

Life is different now, but it’s not on hold. That’s what God needs God’s people to know. The time for rebuilding is now.

I am with you, God says to God’s people, and they start to get to work.

The next words of Haggai are words of encouragement. Be strong, Zerubabel, says the Lord. Be strong, Jeshua, says the Lord. Be strong, all you people of the land. Work, for I am with you. Do not fear. When you’re done here, it’s going to be even better than it was before. Not the same! Not the same. But even better.

So who here needs to hear a word from Haggai today?

A Debt of Love

Scripture: Romans 13:8-10

Let’s talk a little bit about debt.

(Are you uncomfortable yet?)

If so I don’t blame you. Money is a hard thing to talk about in general, and the lack of money maybe even harder. No one wants to be in debt. And yet, for many if not most of us, debt is a part of our lives. We have student loans, car payments, mortgages, possibly medical debt if we haven’t been lucky, or we’re behind on our bills, we’ve run up our credit cards. Sometimes debt is about personal responsibility. A lot of the time it’s about social justice. Have you ever been in the position of having to turn over your car title for a 300% interest loan just to pay your rent for the month? I hope I never am.

By the way, it’s not stewardship season yet. In fact, this sermon isn’t really even about money.

In today’s Scripture reading, Paul is writing to the church in Rome, and he has something to say to them about debt. “Owe no one anything,” is how he puts it in the (NRSV) translation we read; the CEB says “Don’t be in debt to anyone.” This is a church that is dealing with its own internal conflict between its Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian members, and Paul is writing to them that both kinds of Christian have a place in God’s story, that all are called to live lives that are transformed by God’s grace. Living lives transformed by grace means living well in community with each other and also living well in relationship to the outside world. Show respect to your governing authorities, Paul says. Pay your taxes. Settle your debts.

Strange words, maybe, for a guy who offended the governing authorities enough to get himself thrown in prison a number of times. There’s a lot of conversation around that that can be had, but that’s a sermon for another day: in the end, Paul may not believe the church should conform to the world (12:2) but he does believe in living peaceably and respectfully within it as much as possible (12:18).

“Owe no one anything,” Paul says, “except – except – to love one another.”

Like I said, this sermon isn’t really about money.

Which is great, right? I’d rather owe someone love than money. I think.

Actually, when you get right down to it, this talk of love being something that is owed makes me uncomfortable, too.

Talking about love is all well and good. The Bible talks a lot about love. We as Christians talk a lot about love. We all know it’s a thing God wants us to do and we’re generally OK with that at least in concept. Love is a nice, uncontroversial thing to preach about – as long as no one gets too specific.

But it makes me uncomfortable because, again, I don’t like being in debt. I’d rather give and show love out of my own abundance, freely and joyfully, and not because I owe anyone anything.  In fact, that sounds almost antithetical to the Gospel, where we are freed from sin in order to love fully, where our debts are forgiven and there are no ledgers anymore.

And Paul, of course, believes that too, that Christ’s death frees us for love. You could call this talk of owing love just a rhetorical move on his part. He goes from living as good neighbors and settling debts to the real crux of a life transformed by grace, which is loving one another.

But I also find this uncomfortable question to be a meaningful one: what does it mean to owe someone love? To be obligated to them in some way for the sheer fact that they are another person God has created?

I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean that I’m supposed to be a doormat for anyone or endure their abuse or give them anything they want. Nothing like that. This question has come up for me, though, when someone comes to me in need. What does it mean to owe this person love? How much am I obligated to? I’m just one person, after all, and I have other stuff going on, and there are other needs in the world than the one right in front of me, and of course, I suspect that this debt of love I owe is not one I’m going to be able to easily pay off.

A few weeks ago one of my neighbors posted in our community Facebook group. Her next-door neighbor, Sharla, was living alone while Sharla’s husband was in the hospital with heart issues for an indefinite amount of time. Sharla suffered from muscular dystrophy and had lost the use of her legs. She had no way to take care of herself. So, the first neighbor and her husband had been taking Sharla three meals a day, checking in on her, feeding her cat and changing the litter.

We need help, this first neighbor said. We can’t do this alone.

My first thought was, what good neighbors this couple was. A need arose and they met it, even though it was more than they could realistically take on. My second thought was, I have too much going on to get sucked into this very open-ended situation. My third thought was, what do I owe a neighbor in need – to both neighbors in this situation?

Not just what would it be nice to do if I felt like it. What do I owe?

I told the neighbor who wrote the Facebook post that I could bring Sharla lunch the next day. And I did. Jon cooked, and I brought it over, and I chatted with her a bit and made sure she had what she needed, and I left. I said maybe I would be back at some point, but I didn’t make a commitment. And as I drove the few blocks home I thought, “What now?” Because I knew this debt I had was not paid up, and I also despaired of how much more might be expected of me – not just by my neighbors, but by God.

But then, over the next few days, I watched neighbors jump into action. One made an online sign-up form. Other people signed up for meals, until Sharla’s husband eventually came home from the hospital. And I thought, this is what happens when we share that debt and pay it off together.

And you see, in that way, that debt we bear is actually a gift, because it’s what connects us to each other in community: our duty and responsibility to each other, which we call love. And it points us back to the one who first loved us, who loves each of us to an extent we can never repay.

What do we owe each other? It’s a question that goes beyond bringing lunch to a neighbor. What do we owe each other, even the people we know with the most offensive political views we can imagine in the leadup to a national election? What do we owe each other, the most vulnerable members of our society – the poor, the sick, the historically oppressed? Not just what can do we if we feel like it or for extra credit. What do we owe to someone, simply because they are here and alive and created in the image of God?

Nothing, says Paul. Owe no one anything. Except – Except – for this debt of love, which is kind of everything.

Which maybe makes you wish sometimes you could just write a check.

But that’s not how things work in God’s economy, where grace is free but never cheap, and where we have already received more love than we could ever give away.

So I’ll end today with what is probably some questionable financial advice for you: go ahead and rack up some debt. You’re never going to pay it off anyway. You’ve been given too much already. But you might as well live your life paying it forward.

You know it’s not really about money.

It is about love, and grace, and the abundant life we share together.

Pray and Act Boldly

Guest preacher: Rev. Cathy Abbott

Scripture: Acts 4:23-31

Friday, thousands of people came out to march in DC on the 57th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Representative John Lewis’s death on July 17 also reminded us of the witness of faithful people devoted to ending injustice.  He is remembered for many things—for his historic work in the civil rights movement; for his clarion calls for justice throughout a long political career; even for preaching to chickens as a child.  He was a man of God, who named the injustices of our world without falling into despair.  I treasure this tweet from 2019:

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.” 

One Sunday morning, I was feeling parched and dry, and in need of some inspiration. So, Ernie and I headed downtown to the Martin Luther King Junior memorial.  Who here has been there? 

We walked around the massive image of King: emerging from a wall of stone.  Surrounding the image is a great wide circle of stone wall.  And as you follow the wall, there are all these sayings of Martin we used them today in our litany.  Now Martin…well, Martin had a way with words, didn’t he? Mulling his words, I tried to imagine what it would be like, to be a black preacher in the south at the beginning of the civil rights movement.  It was not an auspicious time.  There were many injustices; many hardships; many trials that Martin and his people faced.  And where, I wonder, did he get his courage?  Where did he find hope in the midst of that struggle?  Before the successes of the civil rights movement, there were many times when it looked like they would fail.  Many times, when Martin could have despaired.

As Ernie and I walked around the Memorial, we went out through this narrow slit between the walls—and turned around…and saw through these high sentinels, the “wall of stone.”  On the other side of that wall, Martin emerges from the rock–tall, powerful, leading.  But you don’t see Martin. 

What you see, off in the distance is the Jefferson Memorial—a symbol of hope; a symbol of freedom; a symbol of democracy at its best.  And on the stone out of which Martin Luther King Junior emerges is written:

Out of the mountain of despair; a stone of hope.

A stone of hope.  Where do we find hope in our own “mountains of despair?”  In this season, there is plenty to despair about:

  • Our nation failing so utterly to protect us from the ravages of this pandemic
  • Racism more deeply imbedded in our culture than we care to admit—the heavier toll of the pandemic on people of color than on people like me.  One more police shooting of a black man.
  • The economy
  • The state of our political discourse
  • The anxiety and fear that pervades our world.
  • And I am wondering, how many Zoom meetings at work just… exhaust you?
  • I could go on, but I won’t!

How do you live with hope when you are drained—tired and empty?

I confess that I have succumbed to near despair myself at times.  There was that year at Arlington Temple when Joan Cure, our long-time church secretary went to the hospital on Dec. 20th—-and died in March.  That was the year that my Dad came home to live with us for hospice care—and we had no idea what we were doing or how long he’d be with us…It was that same year that Kathy Lewman, my beloved lay leader, died—suddenly in the night, alone in her Rosslyn apartment.  Nobody knew she had a heart condition—and I had to go and identify the body. 

When I get into that “pit of despair,” I first try my feeble “it’s not so bad” self-talk:

  • I don’t have it as bad as Martin Luther King Jr—shot to death 48 years ago.  It’s one thing to risk your own life for the sake of justice—but to when the lives or your small children and your wife are placed at risk as well—that’s a heavy burden for a man to bear.    
  • I don’t have it as bad as Nadeem Khokhar did, a pastor who worked here while at seminary.   Nadeem was living in Pakistan when his Muslim business partner became so impressed with the way Nadeem conducted business that he, too wanted to become a Christian.  It’s not safe to do that in Pakistan.  And when the man was baptized and became a Jesus follower, his relatives threatened Nadeem…threatened him with death. 
  • Nadeem fled to the US, leaving his wife and three children in hiding.  (Blessedly, he has now been reunited with his family, and is serving a church in Blackstone.)
  • I don’t have it as bad as the apostle Paul, in prison for proclaiming the Gospel.

This self-talk works for a while…but it never holds.

Jesus says:

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”  (Matt 7:7)

What do we do when our troubles build up…and build up…and build up into a “mountain of despair”?

We can pray.  Sue Nilson Kibbey introduced me to a new way of praying.  She says there are three types of prayer:

  • “Threshold” prayer, which brings your current broken reality to the threshold of God; and asks for God to do a new thing; asks for hope; asks for possibility.  This is the kind of prayer Anne Lamont calls “Help, Help, Help.”  We’ve all done this kind of prayer:  you’re running late to the airport, and pray:  “Please, please, please Lord—don’t let me miss my plane.”  Or you get a call from your sister, there’s something wrong with the baby:  “Help, Lord!”  Or you hear about the latest police shooting of a black man, and all you can do is cry out to the Lord in pain and anger.
  • “Arms of God” prayer, which asks the Lord for healing of all kinds.  This is the kind of prayer we often turn to—your child has a spot on her shoulder—it’s cancer; a childhood friend attempted suicide–again; a neighbor has a terrible accident.   Or, we pray for the church—struggling to connect with a new generation—we pray for healing and for hope.
  • But then there is a third kind of prayer; “Breakthrough” prayer, in which we ask God boldly to break through the current reality and bring us to a new future reality.  It is as if we are asking God to put extra oxygen into our own feeble human efforts.

In her work in Ohio for the Methodist Church, Sue has found their most powerful tool for bringing real and dramatic change to congregations is teaching “breakthrough prayer.”   Too often, our prayers are too timid, and our God is too small. 

Teaching churches to pray boldly for a powerful breakthrough brings new life to lukewarm congregations.  There is something Biblical about praying together as a church—the power that comes when, together, we trust God to bring about a future we cannot.  Citing Oswald Chambers, Sue testifies that just as food is fuel for our physical bodies; prayer is food for the spiritual body of Christ.  Retired Bishop Cho always said:  “There is no church vitality without spiritual vitality.”

Breakthrough prayer is about praying—and then acting—and praying again.  This pattern of trusting God to make a breakthrough, but then stepping up and taking action was central to the movement that King led.  Training in prayer was part of the rigorous process that anyone who wanted to march with Martin went through.  Potential marchers had to sign a covenant of how they would behave—and prayer was a core part of that discipline. Protestors had to be prepared to meet violence and hate and anger by turning the other cheek—with nonviolent resistance. 

In 2015, Rep. John Lewis returned to the Edmund Pettus Bridge to re-enact the Selma march.  Fifty-five years ago, he was so badly beaten that they feared for his life.  How do you resist returning violence for violence when a police dog charges and bites you?  How do you continue to march nonviolently when the fire hoses are turned on you?  You do it through prayer—lots and lots of prayer.  In our lesson from Acts this morning, we see Peter and John facing imprisonment and beatings through prayer.

I imagine that Martin Luther King, Jr practiced his own form of breakthrough prayer.  He dared to dream that one day, “justice would roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” But he didn’t just dream—he gathered a community of people to work and to fight until that dream was realized.  The great Jewish rabbi Abraham Heschel spoke of marching with Martin as “praying with my legs.”  Martin prayed; and acted; and prayed again.

Breakthrough prayer is like the King memorial—we look through the narrow slits, and see…far off in the distance, not the Jefferson Memorial, but the Kingdom of heaven.  And just as Martin Luther King, Jr became a stone of hope amidst a mountain of despair, our churches can become places of hope when we radically rely on God’s power.

So, I am wondering, what would happen here at Arlington Temple if we began to practice and to teach “breakthrough prayer.”  What would happen if we began dreaming dreams so big that only God could fulfill them? 

What would happen if this church began believing that God could indeed “breakthrough” our toughest and most worrisome reality?  What if?

In the Book of Acts, Peter and John speak boldly about Jesus, and are threatened with prison and beatings unless they cease.  But the apostles continue to preach and act boldly.  They pray, they act, and they pray again.  Hear again their prayer:

“And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness…When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness.”  (Acts 4:29-31)

Breakthrough prayer invites us into a collective pattern of life of praying and acting with boldness.


Ruth & Naomi: Soul Friends

Guest preacher: Rev. Cathy Abbott

Scripture: Ruth 1:1-18

My younger son Tim delights me with his devotion to his first born, Lily.  There is just something about little ones that fills our hearts with joy and with hope in the future.  Tim’s wife, Alya, moved to the US from Russia when she was 10.  Her grandparents and elderly aunts speak primarily Russian.  And while her parents function very well in English at work, with their friends, and at home, they are most comfortable speaking Russian.  And so, Tim and Alya have decided to raise Lily to speak both Russian and English. 

When I asked Tim why they were teaching Lily Russian, he said it was all about relationships:  they want Lily to be able to communicate with her grandparents and other relatives in the language in which they are most comfortable expressing themselves.  For immigrant families, what to keep and what to shed of their “culture of origin” is an important source of identity and discernment.

In today’s world, 258 million people live in countries not of their birth:  19% of this total live in the US.  In N. American, 42% of the population growth from 2000-2015 was from migration.  Germany has taken in more than a million immigrants since 2015, many fleeing war and chaos in the Middle East and Africa.  When we visited S. Africa, we were amazed at how the local African population resented the migration of Africans from other nations, fearing they were “taking our jobs.”  The world-wide pandemic has created even greater stressed on immigration.  Many Asian Americans in the US report greater discrimination and racial slurs since the pandemic began—even though epidemiologists have found that the primary strains of the virus came to us from Europe—not China.  How many here came as immigrants or have parents who came as immigrants?  (show of hands) You know this story well. 

Today’s story is a story of immigration.  Naomi and her husband left their home in Bethlehem because there was a famine in the land.  They immigrated to Moab.  Ironic, since Bethlehem means “the house of bread” and was renowned for its grain. Most Israelites considered Moab to be a place of death and destruction.  But when you are in the middle of a famine, you do what you must do.  In Moab, Naomi’s husband died.  Then, her two sons married two local girls, Orpah and Ruth.  Life went on. 

Naomi’s life was hard:  first one son died, then the other.  Suddenly, Naomi has no one but her daughters-in-law.  She urges them to stay in Moab and make a new life for themselves in their homeland:

“Go back each of you to your mother’s house.  May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.  9The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.”  Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud.  (Ruth 1:8-9)

Naomi was a stranger in a strange land.  In ancient Israel, names have meanings.  Naomi means “sweet.”  But, whatever sweetness there was in Naomi’s life had shriveled up and died.  Naomi decides to go home—and her daughters-in-law offer to come with her.  She discourages them:

Turn back, my daughters, go your way…No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the LORD has turned against me!  (Ruth 1:12-13)

Sweet Naomi has become bitter.  Bitter people often choose isolation; they choose lonely roads. Naomi plans to return home alone—to Bethlehem—where the famine—the physical famine—has ended.  But the spiritual and emotional famine in Naomi’s life–the one that took her husband and her two sons– has made bitterness her ongoing companion.  This bitterness of heart and spirit now causes Naomi to push away the only family she has—Orpah and Ruth.     

Naomi feels cut off from her family—because there are no children—and from her homeland far away.  At such a time as this—some word must be spoken.  Ruth knew that.  She speaks a powerful word to Naomi:

 “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!   Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.   May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”  (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth decides to leave her homeland and accompany Naomi back to Bethlehem.  For Ruth, Naomi is “family” and she will leave all she knows so that Naomi will not be alone.  Through her decision to accompany Naomi to a place she’s never been, Ruth creates a future for Naomi.  Ruth reminds Naomi her love. What Ruth is saying is, Naomi, your people ARE my people; your God IS my God; therefore, where you go, I will go, where you stay I will stay.  I am here for you!

Naomi thanks her daughters-in-law for their “kindness.”  The Hebrew word hesed that is translated kindness here is actually far more expansive.  A better translation would be “fierce covenant loyalty.”  Mama-bear kind of love—or a kind of positive “Tiger Mom.”  This word describes the nature of God.  It describes moments of grace, undeserved love and mercy.  Naomi is saying that in the kindness of Ruth and Orpah, she has experienced the love of God.  Even though Ruth and Orpah are from another culture, and were raised in a different way, Naomi (a foreigner) experienced the love of God through them.  Who has shown you this kind of love?

Ruth and Naomi set off for Bethlehem together.  It is here we can see the depth of sadness that has enfolded Naomi.  As she enters Bethlehem, some old friends see her on the road.  “Are you Naomi?” they ask. 

She said to them, “Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.  I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?”  (Ruth 1:20-21)

Naomi is in such deep despair, she tells her friends to call her “Mara,” which means bitterness.  This once sweet woman has taken on a new identity—a woman bitterly disappointed by life and by her God.  This is the story of many immigrants—they travel to a new land, fleeing persecution, fleeing famine, fleeing war, or simply seeking a better life.  But that new land does not always become the “promised land,” does it?  Bitterness can come and inhabit our hearts when life disappoints us. 

When we are unmoored, and bitterness eats away at us, we can end up in a “far country” –like the Prodigal Son.  At such times, we are sorely in need of companions to journey with us, to guide us.  I wonder what lessons we can learn from the story of Ruth and Naomi?  Let us see what happens when Ruth becomes the immigrant, and Naomi the guide:

So, Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab.  They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.  (Ruth 1:22)

This is a foreshadowing.  The Lord is going to use Ruth’s adaptation to the culture of Israel to bring a harvest into both Naomi’s and Ruth’s lives. 

Ruth and Naomi are both widows—they have no way to sustain themselves.  Ruth is a stranger and doesn’t know the Israelite culture and ways.  So, Naomi instructs Ruth on how things work.  She sends Ruth to ask permission from the landowner Boaz to glean the grain that falls to the ground during the harvest. 

Allowing widows and the poor to glean the “leftovers” from the harvest was one way that ancient Israelites helped  those in need in their community.  Another way the community provided for widows was that the closest male relative could marry the widow and purchase, or “redeem” the property owned by the dead son. 

Thus a “redeemer” is someone who buys back something; someone who frees someone from captivity or oppression. 

When Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz the landowner, she knew that he was a potential Redeemer.  Boaz was in the family line and could redeem her son’s name and property.   Ruth’s fierce covenant love for Naomi brought them both back to Bethlehem—but Naomi’s instruction of Ruth led to a future for both of them.  How?

Well, Ruth gets to know Boaz as she gleans in his fields.  Boaz negotiates to become her “redeemer”—marrying Ruth and purchasing her husband’s property.  They wed and have a child.  What we discover is that Ruth’s covenant loyalty to Naomi actually became the path to redemption, a way out of the famine and their vulnerability, to a great harvest. 

When Alya’s parents came to California 25 years ago, friends from Russia had paved the way.  Their friends helped them find jobs, told them where to rent an apartment (near good schools, the grocery story, and the bus line), and helped them learn “new ways” so that they could thrive in a new land.

Can you think of people who helped your parents, or you become “at home” in a strange land?  Can you think of someone who helped you figure out the norms of a new school when you moved as a child?  Or when you went to college—a new friend who made this new place “home” to you?  Someone who, just like Naomi, schooled you in not just how to survive, but thrive in a new place?

What is interesting to me about the story of Ruth and Naomi is that it is Naomi (the one more familiar with Israelite culture) who becomes the “guide” for helping Ruth navigate a future for them both—a future with hope.  This is in line with our usual way of thinking:  it is the older generation who instructs the younger.  But notice what is important here is that Naomi is familiar with the culture, and Ruth who needs to learn.  Naomi emigrates twice—once leaving home to go to Moab, once returning home from Moab. 

As she returns to Bethlehem—“the house of bread,” she is able to teach Ruth how to be “fed”—not just spiritually (by gleaning); and not just emotionally (by marrying).  Naomi teaches Ruth how to be “fed” by the Lord.  She is a blessing to Ruth, and in return, Ruth blesses her with a “son.”  The younger woman and the older woman mutually bless each other.  They become more than “in-laws”:  you might even call them “soul friends.”

So, I am wondering, who do you know who needs such a friend?  It could be someone who has suffered numerous losses—like Naomi.  It could be a new co-worker, who doesn’t yet “know the ropes.”  It could be a non-Christian, who will not know peace until their hearts rest in God.

Lily is older now.  But, I love how my son Tim is learning Russian so that both he and Lily will be able to have a stronger relationship with Alya’s parents and grandparents.  This “learning the language” is a sign to me of his “fierce covenant loyalty” to his wife and to her family.

Increasingly as churches in American, we have to “learn the language” of a new group of people—our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends:  people who have not been brought up in the church, who stopped going when they went to college, who do not know Jesus.  Who here knows someone like that (show of hands)?  Who amongst them might need you to become their “soul friend”?  For such people to come to know the living God, we need to learn how to speak their language—and to “translate” live-giving faith in ways that new people can enter into a relationship with the living God.  Your knowledge of the ways of God could provide the gift—not of earthly sustenance (of a husband, of food, of shelter…or an heir)—but of eternal sustenance—life with God.  As ATUMC plans to move off-site when our building is torn down and rebuilt, Pastor Allie has challenged us to think about how we can reach out to new neighbors in new ways.

What the story of Ruth and Naomi teaches us is that this challenge of evangelism is all about relationships:  relationship with God and relationship with new people who do not yet know the Lord.

When Ruth’s baby is born, no one is more delighted than….Naomi!  Indeed, the women of the village say:

“A son has been born to Naomi.” (Not to Ruth, but to Naomi!)  They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.  (Ruth 4:17)

Now David was the famous King David—and who is King David’s most famous descendent?  [Jesus]  And Jesus is our… Redeemer!

Out of Naomi’s bitterness—out of all the losses and brokenness in her life, sweetness returns when Ruth bears a son!  Even though her husband and her two sons die, through Ruth’s fierce covenant loyalty–Naomi now has a “son.”  The women say to Naomi:

Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without a next-of-kin…He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.  (Ruth 4:14-15)

And what brings about this transformation from death to life for Naomi?  A decision by Ruth to travel to an unknown country so that Naomi would not be alone:  a new life that began with these powerful words:

Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.   (Ruth 1:16)

With this commitment, Ruth and Naomi became more than in-laws—they became soul friends.  Where are you being called to go and do likewise? 


Essential: Witness

Scripture: Acts 2:42-47

Back in England in the 1730s, a young Anglican priest and failed missionary named John Wesley began preaching in the streets and the fields. He preached about grace and he preached about holiness, and most importantly he preached about Jesus and how the path to salvation was open through him. People came to hear him by the thousands, at least as his journal tells the story. They heard his message and they believed, and then they asked a question: “What next?”

This was the beginning of the Methodist movement: a network of small groups where people held each other accountable to living out their newfound faith in their lives.  Faith, Wesley believed, shouldn’t just change you on the inside, but on the outside too.

17 hundred and 30 years beforehand, another crowd had gathered, this time in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of Shavuot (Pentecost.) An ex-fisherman named Peter preached from the window of an upper room. He preached grace and he preached about God’s power and most importantly he preached about Jesus and how the path to salvation was open through him. And people stopped to listen, and they heard his message and believed.

In the story as we have it, at least, they never explicitly ask the question “What next?” But we do hear what comes next. “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This first verse describing the very first post-Pentecost church should be familiar to you now if you’ve been following along with this sermon series. What strikes me is that the first thing the new believers do when they hear the Gospel is they get to work. When people are convicted, there’s no time to waste getting started.

These new believers hear the story of Jesus and their lives change. It’s not just a matter of finding inner peace or joy, though there is joy to be found. Their lives change not just on the inside but on the outside: The patterns of their day. Who they understand to be their family. What they do with their property. What they devote themselves to.

We’ve spent the last five weeks focusing on this passage from Acts, asking what it has to tell us about the essentials of being the church, both then and now – and especially now as we are being forced to think about being church in new ways. We’ve talked about worship, teaching and learning, communion (both with a big C and a little one), prayer, and justice. These are the practices that define the church’s mission and identity. And when I first planned this series, I was going to leave it at that, because that seemed to sum up what they did. But I realized I had missed one part of this passage: “They praised God and had the goodwill of all the people. [My CEB translation says ‘Demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.’] And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

They demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. And once again, people responded, and they changed their lives too, and they demonstrated God’s goodness to others. And day by day, the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

The aspect that I missed when I first planned out this series was witness – because the believers did all these things, they worshiped and learned more and ate together and prayed together and shared what they had, and they also didn’t keep it to themselves.

As we’re rethinking these days what it looks like to be the church, maybe we have an opportunity here to think about our own witness to the wider world.

On the one hand, our worship and fellowship and study are now more accessible to many people than they ever have been before. Anyone, from anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection, can come learn about /Jesus and the Bible and how we live out our faith/ for themselves.

And on the other hand, we can now no longer count on someone seeing our building in the middle of Rosslyn and wandering in, as visitors and newcomers to the area have done probably since we’ve had a building. Some of them would come and go, but over time, some would make their home here, just as most of you decided at one time to do. That particular scenario is not going to happen for a while now, and it makes me wonder how much we have perhaps been content to let our building be our witness for us.

So what next? When we can’t use our building in the same way, it becomes even more important to be God’s people in the world.

Even that might seem harder these days. We are in our homes more and in the world less. And still now, all around us, there is death and fear. There is inequality and racism that threatens lives. There is loneliness and longing. All around us, there are people looking for community, and purpose, and hope.

Do we have something to offer them?

How might we use our new more digital reality for good, here? I was excited a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine who is local but not associated with our church sent me a screen shot of a post from a Facebook group she was in. “I’d like to invite you to our church,” the post said, and shared the description of worship for that week from our Arlington Temple Facebook page. I said yes! Someone is doing their job! Maybe you know someone a particular sermon would speak to. Videos are all there on Facebook and our church website; send them along. There is opportunity here.

And still, what made an impression on those newest believers who joined the earliest church wasn’t a fancy website or well targeted Facebook ads. Those things are tools to help us in our witness, but they are not our witness. Instead, for the early church, what happened is that people saw what they were doing. They saw them praising God and being together and God working wonders in their midst. They saw them sharing tables and sharing possessions. And they said, something new is happening here. And we want to be a part of it. The community itself WAS their witness to the story of Jesus. How they lived their lives and lived them together WAS their witness to what God had done and was still doing among them.

Back at the beginning of the year, back when no one knew what 2020 had in store, the Christian writer Brian McLaren wrote a blog post with three New Year’s resolutions for pastors. Number one was: “Smoke what you’re selling.” (His words!) “In other words,” he said, “be sure that you actually enjoy the abundant life you are proclaiming to others.”[1]

That question stops me in my tracks sometimes, especially these days, when so much feels like stress and fear and burnout, and I think I am not alone in those things. And yet, if faith doesn’t make a difference in times like these, then when? Maybe there’s a question for all of us in that: are we experiencing abundant life, together? And then, from that – are we demonstrating abundant life to others around us – not because we need to sell something, but because it’s true? And if not, then how? What’s next?

We’ll be out of our building, worship-wise, for a while now. But the church was never a building. The first church didn’t even have one, at least not their own. There’s a world around us waiting for some hope. There are streets, and parks, and stores, and people on the other end of screens. They’re looking for abundant life. We can offer what we have. These are hard times, but God is love and Jesus is Lord and the Holy Spirit is moving among us, and Pentecost can happen all over again.