All Other Ground is Sinking Sand

Scripture: Matthew 7:24-27

It’s been a year this week. I heard Kai Ryssdal say that on NPR at the beginning of Covid and it seems to fit now as much as ever.

When I was doing my worship planning for this fall, I intentionally left this week blank with the note “pastoral response to election.” As I sat down to write this week, though, I just kept thinking – how do you respond pastorally to something when you don’t even know what’s happening? Here at the end of the week, now, we do know that Joe Biden has been declared the winner, though there are probably still recounts and perhaps legal challenges that lie ahead.

I don’t claim to know what all of you have been feeling this week, but I do know it has been a week of feelings running high. Maybe at different times this week you’ve felt anxious, hopeful, afraid, angry, relieved. I have felt all of these things this week too. I know for some of you, this election season has caused or heightened rifts within your own families. I know there are those of you to whom it has seemed like this race was a referendum on your identity, your family, or your rights. There are perhaps those of you who watched a speech last night by a vice-president-elect who looks like you or your children, for the very first time. I also know there are those of you who are worried about other things going on halfway around the world while everyone seems so riveted to this one thing. I imagine most of us, on either side, feel a little bit of despair when we realize again just how deeply divided our country is.

And what I thought was no matter what, in the midst of all of this, what I wanted to do today is to remind you that Jesus Christ is Lord: not Biden, not Trump, not anyone else we will ever cast a vote for. None of them will usher in the Kingdom of God here on earth, and what’s more, none of them will prevent it. That’s why we’re celebrating Reign of Christ Sunday now, two weeks early in the Christian year, because I think it does us good no matter whether we are celebrating or grieving or still anxious about the future to remember that this one thing holds true. And while we may have certain hopes for our country, our ultimate hope is always in Christ alone, and not in anyone else’s promises to us. As the hymn goes, On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. Those are words that have been playing over and over in my head this week as I’ve needed something to hold onto.

But then I began to wonder if I did want to preach that today. To simply proclaim that Christ is Lord in a world that is suffering may seem like a way to absolve ourselves of any concern about what’s actually happening on the ground, here and now. And we are not absolved of that. It may sound good to think that we can stay calm and hopeful, fixed on heavenly things, while the storm of politics swirls around us, but politics are about people’s lives. For some of us the decisions made at high levels about immigration, racial equality, LGBTQ+ rights, the economy and healthcare are very personal. And for those of us for whom it all seems less personal, if we’re going to love our neighbors, we have to care about the politics that affect them too. That statement, of course, goes far beyond one presidential election.

It’s complicated, though. I’m sure we all like to imagine that our own political beliefs and values are perfectly aligned with God’s will for our country and our world. One of the frustrating things about the Bible, though, is that it doesn’t always do a lot to directly support our specific policy positions.  This was something we talked about a lot in Bible study last year when we were studying what the Bible has to say about immigration. The fact is that the Bible never sets forth a God-approved border policy. Why should it? At the time the Bible was written, borders weren’t the same as they are now. Certainly kings and nations marked out and fought over territory, but if you traveled from one land into another, there was no checkpoint where you had to stop and show your passport and your visa. At the same time, we read in the Bible over and over how God commands God’s people to treat the foreigner among them as one of their own. It’s up to us to figure out the specifics of how that applies in our modern context, but any Christian conversation around immigration has to start there.

At the same time, we’re all tired, right? We don’t need another sermon telling us yet again that we need to do more and work harder to make this world a better place no matter who’s in charge. We need a sermon to give us reason to hope in something bigger than all of us and bigger than all that divides us. On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. I hear those words and can visualize myself, standing strong, no matter what storms may come.

I think it’s interesting, though, to hear what Jesus actually says in this passage from which that hymn borrows its image. This comes from the very end of the Sermon on the Mount, after Jesus has taught the crowds all his most famous teachings: Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Don’t judge. He wraps it up like this: “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise builder who built a house on bedrock. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house. It didn’t fall because it was firmly set on bedrock.” The counter-image, of course, is that of a builder who built their house on sand, and when the storms came and the wind blew, the house collapsed.

It is striking to me that our firm foundation here, which holds up against the storm, is not our strongly felt or loudly expressed faith in Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. It’s whether we hear his words and put them into action. It’s whether or not we actually turn the other cheek and refrain from judging and love our enemies and our neighbors. And – you know – not just the neighbors we want to be able to have over for dinner without it being awkward, but especially the neighbors who are the most vulnerable as the winds of politics blow.

And at the same time, how can we do any of those things if Christ himself is not that solid rock on which we stand – if our ultimate hope isn’t in him and this Kingdom that he invites us to be part of? If we don’t believe that these everyday acts of heeding the words of Jesus are part of something bigger, are pointing to something bigger, that really is different from anything we know?

Christ is Lord. We cast our votes and check the news and hold our protest signs and call our representatives, but in the end, every other person and every other thing in which we put our faith will disappoint us.

We cling to that hope in this midst of the storm, and then, we face into the wind and take a step, following as he leads toward justice, and dignity, and mercy, and love.

We still don’t know what’s to come – between now and January, or even after. It’s still hard to see where our country as a whole is going. But the good news is our promise is not the American Dream, not Biden or Trump, not blue or red, but in Christ and the grace he gives us to live fully as part of the Kingdom of God, right here, right now.

All other ground is sinking sand.

Jesus 2020: Citizenship

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

We’ve now spent the past six weeks talking about times in the Gospels when Jesus gets political. We have heard Jesus fight with religious leaders over interpretation of the law and debate with them about taxes. We’ve seen him stop a sham trial and work a miracle for an enemy officer and get political in his preaching in synagogue.

The political issues Jesus deals with in his own ministry are very often not ones we find ourselves grappling with today. I’m pretty sure that neither working on the Sabbath nor the legal aspects of divorce have come up in any of our recent presidential debates. I do hope that as the final day of voting draws near, we’ve been able to hear the more eternal values that undergird Jesus’ politics: good news to the poor, protection for the vulnerable, commitment to our neighbors’ flourishing, our ultimate commitment to God in all aspects of our lives.

Today we come to the account of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to shouts of Hosanna. It will be a familiar one to most of you, but it is a little strange to read it at this time of year. But I thought this passage was a fitting end to our series on the politics of Jesus, because there is perhaps no more overtly political act that Jesus performs in the Gospels than this entrance into Jerusalem.

A few weeks ago we read the account of Jesus’ interaction with a Roman military officer who came to Jesus seeking healing for his servant, and I expressed my own struggle with that story – that as much as Jesus gets in the faces of the religious leaders of his own people and says “woe to you,” he never says “woe” to this Roman officer, even though this officer is part of this ultimate oppressive system of empire.

We see hints of Jesus’ own brand of resistance to the oppression of empire in the Gospels. In the Sermon on the Mount, for example, when he tells people that when someone makes them walk one mile they should walk two; or if someone sues them for their coat they should give them their shirt as well, these can all be read as ways to quietly expose the cruelty of the system by taking it to its logical extreme. But it’s in this Palm Sunday text, I believe, when we start to hear clearly Jesus’ final answer to Rome.

Scholars John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg (The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Last Days in Jerusalem) would have us imagine that there was not just one, but two parades that day. From west of the city, the Roman army would have been marching in, ready to keep any would-be freedom fighters in line as Jerusalem prepared to celebrate its annual festival of liberation. They describe it like this: “A visual panoply of imperial power: cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, banners, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold.  Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums” (p. 3).

And meanwhile, from the east, one man rides into the city on a donkey colt, surrounded by a ragtag group shouting their hosannas. Save us, Hosanna means.

Jesus, intentionally or unintentionally here, is acting out a scene described by the prophet Zechariah: “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war-horses from Jerusalem,” God says through Zechariah, “and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.”

From the west, the war horses snort. From the east, a king enters his city in humility and peace.

One parade, you see, is a parody of the other.

And the question for everyone watching is whose entrance into the city do you hail? And the bigger question wrapped up in that is who do you name as Lord – Jesus, or Caesar? And the question that comes from that is where do we claim our citizenship – in the empire, with all the protection and security it has to offer? Or in the Kingdom ushered in by this humble, peaceful king?

Jesus never led an uprising against Rome – thought plenty of people hoped and expected that he would. But he did resist it: not just Rome itself but all of the trappings of empire. He resisted it by inviting people to live out something different. He told them it was possible to say no to the idols of power, peace ensured through force, status, hierarchy, the amassing of wealth on the backs of others: all the things on which empire is built. Instead he said it was possible to live by the values of love, mercy, self-sacrifice, a belief in God’s abundance, and solidarity with the poor.

America, of course, is not Rome – not exactly. I’m sure that many of us would say that we love this country. Some of us were born here; some of us have chosen to be here. Some of us have worked for the government. It is possible to love America, I think, and not put our trust in the trappings of empire. It is possible to love one’s country and still claim one’s ultimate citizenship elsewhere.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, we should not think that it will save us.

A seminary classmate of mine recently put it this way in a Facebook post, referring to one of the recent presidential debates: “Sure, I’ll vote,” she said, “but I prefer not to waste my one wild and precious life obsessing over political theater. I’d rather use my time, energy and power to actually CREATE and PARTICIPATE in alternative possibilities. That’s why I serve as a pastor of a tiny church, it’s why I’m so excited to be more connected to my neighbors in South Durham…: these are real, tangible, immediate spheres where another way of living is not only possible, it is ALREADY HAPPENING. Vote and then go keep living as if God’s new reign of mercy and justice were already here (because it is); we’re going to need a lot of us pulling in that direction together in the coming years.”

What happens Tuesday will not save us. But there’s one who will, and he comes now, riding on a donkey, exposing the power and grandeur of Rome for the lies they are, inviting us to join an entirely different parade.

And to him, we shout Hosanna.

Jesus 2020: Taxes

Scripture: Matthew 22:15-22

If you grew up in the US, you probably sometime in high school read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), written about his retreat from the materialism of society to the isolation and supposed self-sufficiency of the woods. One thing you may not know about Thoreau is that he once went to jail for refusing to pay his taxes. The tax in question was a poll tax, or head tax, levied on every individual without regard to income, and his objection was that this money would go to fund an imperialistic war with Mexico and a government that permitted slavery.[1]

Thoreau only spent one night in jail. A relative ended up paying the tax for him. Thoreau wrote his essay Civil Disobedience from the experience. Still, the event illustrates what we probably already know, and that is that taxes can be polarizing. We can, of course, go much more modern with this: like to the most recent tax reform enacted by Congress and the Trump administration, which some of us may have feelings about one way or the other; or we could talk about President Trump’s tax returns themselves (but we won’t!) As the saying goes, nothing is certain but death and taxes – and (I’ll add) the fact that we’re going to disagree about taxes. We disagree on who should pay them (is it right for the wealthy to pay a high percentage of their income?) how high they should be, and what they should go to. (Ongoing military action in the Middle East? Various social services? Abortion?)

Unsurprisingly, taxes were also controversial back in Jesus’ day.

The taxes in question would not have been taxes levied by a democratic government on its people, however begrudging, for the supposed common good. The tax in question was a tax paid to the Roman Empire by those in its conquered territories, for the privilege of having been conquered. It was payable by every adult male. Remember in the Christmas story when Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem for the census? No one in that story is conducting a census for the purposes of ensuring equal representation. It’s to make sure everyone pays their taxes. And obviously people in Judea who were not so keen on being ruled by Rome were not so keen on paying taxes to them, either.

It’s an interesting crew of people who approach Jesus today with a question about this tax. They are disciples of the Pharisees, who we have come to know if not love over the past few weeks, but they also add some so-called Herodians to the mix. The Herodians were a group that politically supported Herod, the local king who was underwritten by Rome. They would have supported paying Roman taxes. The Pharisees, however, were known NOT to support paying taxes to Rome. They still paid them. They didn’t actively resist. They were just grumpy about it.[2]

What these two groups have in common is they don’t so much like Jesus, so, they come together to trap him.

They begin by buttering him up. “Teacher, we know that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth!” (We might imagine Jesus rolling his eyes here.) They continue, “So tell us. Should we pay taxes to the emperor – or not?”

It’s tricky ground. If Jesus says no, he is inciting rebellion. Not paying taxes is tantamount to rebellion, right – remember the Boston Tea Party? He would give the Roman government reason to arrest him. The risk is presumably more than a night in the county jail. If he says yes, that’s really not going to go over well with the masses of common people who follow him and see him as some sort of resistance leader.

The best way to get out of a trap is to answer a question with a question, and that’s what Jesus does. “Why are you doing this, you hypocrites?” he asks. (That’s not the main question.) “Show me the coin you pay the tax with.” It is a Roman coin, of course. They have one at the ready. “Whose face is on that coin?” he asks.

I imagine this is the point when the Pharisees and Herodians begin to suspect they are not going to win here. “…the emperor’s,” they say.

Jesus responds with this famous line: “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” You might know it better from the old King James: Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things which are God’s.”

His opponents have nothing more to say, and they leave, leaving us to grapple with this answer.

On the one hand, Jesus seems to say, yes, pay your taxes. And that’s how many Christians over the years have taken it: we can be faithful Christians and also good citizens of the empire of which we are a part. Perhaps we read this and understand that life can divided into two spheres, the worldly and the religious. In one, we pay our taxes and vote and argue about public policy, and in the other we go to church and sing hymns and read our Bible. Caesar gets his due, and God gets God’s, and everyone is happy.[3]

But I wonder if we’re missing something there. I wonder if end up focusing too much on the first part of Jesus’ answer: Render unto Caesar – and not enough on the second half: Render unto God.

Because what is that which is God’s?

Psalm 89 puts it this way: “The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it – you founded them.”

What is that which is God’s? Everything. The whole world. Our whole lives.

It’s almost as if Jesus says, “You’re asking me about paying taxes, but you’re missing the bigger question here.”

And it is a bigger question, isn’t it? Because no matter how we feel about it, paying taxes is easy – in the sense that we at least know how to do it. We usually know what Caesar wants from us. But what is that which is God’s? It’s not enough to just say “everything” and not have to think out the specifics. Our time belongs to God. Our gifts and resources belong to God. Our best intentions, our ultimate loyalties, belong to God. Our day to day actions and insignificant moments belong to God.

What does it matter to owe Caesar a coin, Jesus wants to know, when we owe God so much more?

We might hear Jesus’ answer as a rebuke to these hypocrites, who have Roman coins in their pockets the whole time.[4] They come with a question about taxes, but they are already participating in the whole oppressive Roman economic system. Maybe Jesus’ whole point is to show that Caesar has already gotten what he wants from them. Taxes or no taxes, they are already his.

Or maybe we are simply to understand that taxes are not the important question here. We should give Caesar his due. Not, in this case, because the emperor is good, but because there are simply bigger fish to fry than quibbling about coins that have his face on it in the first place. Maybe the claims of God and Caesar don’t always have to compete.

But sometimes they will.[5]

The hard part is that if what is God’s is everything, then that also includes the things Caesar claims for himself. Our money, in the end, belongs to God. The way we live life within a certain community or state or nation belongs to God. Our votes, and our politics belong to God, just as much as our personal lives and relationships and our prayers.

It is clear, when the two halves of Jesus’ answer collide, who wins: not a king who conquers and subjugates, but the very maker of heaven and earth and all that is in them.

I had trouble figuring out how to end this today, and I think the reason is that the statement is just meant to hang there. The Pharisees and Herodians leave because they have nothing to say. They know Jesus just said something biting and poignant and true, and they have to go figure out what it is.

I think that’s the invitation that Jesus has for all of us: to let it hang there. Give to God what is God’s. To let that statement question our days and our moments, our big decisions and our seemingly insignificant choices.

To the one who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them and all of us, be all honor and glory. Amen.


[2] New Interpreter’s Bible: Matthew, p. 420.

[3] Interpretation: Matthew, p. 254.

[4] Interpretation: Matthew, p. 254.

[5] Interpretation: Matthew, p. 255.

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.