Identity

At the heart of all of our readings for today are stories of identity. These readings tell us about the identity of God and of God’s people, and how God called them into relationship and into the full use of their gifts. It’s fitting that we read these readings during Epiphany, the season in which Christ is made manifest to us, his identity as the son of God and the savior of the world revealed. But what do we do with these questions of identity? Why are they important?

The reading in Isaiah comes at a specific moment in time for the prophet Isaiah and the people of Israel. The people have been in exile in Babylon; this reading is bookended on both sides by the word of God calling them to return to their land. But in the middle, in this reading, we learn something of the identity of God and the identity of the people. 

The relationship between God and the people is a covenant relationship that stretches all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, to the days when God spoke to Abraham and said, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen 12:2-3) But that relationship has changed over time, as the people of Israel have turned away from God and then repented, turning back to God. This has happened over and over, even to the time of this passage: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity, yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward is with God.”

The people, being what people are, convinced themselves along the way that they did not need to rely on God, instead following their own path. But what came of this was being overrun by empire after empire, culminating in exile to a foreign land. But God, being who God is, remains steadfast and faithful to the people. 

As they prepare to return to the land God gave them, God reminds them of the promises God made to Abraham and Sarah and to all of their descendants. God keeps God’s word, calling them back to the land, calling them back into the covenant, and into the identity they find in their relationship with God. They find this identity in the God who calls them by name and redeems them from sin, slavery, and exile. They find their identity in being called by God beyond the restoration of Israel, to be a light to the nations and to bring salvation to the earth.  

Identity is also central to the reading from 1 Corinthians. Paul, who is well-known to the church in Corinth, identifies himself as an apostle of Christ – not one of the twelve, but an apostle nonetheless: one who has been sent by God. He begins by reminding the Corinthians of their own identity as the saints of Christ, together with the all the saints of every place. He goes on to remind them that their identity is found in Christ: they have received grace and spiritual gifts from Jesus. And if anyone should know, it would be Paul – he founded the church in Corinth, and led it for a year and a half before moving on to plant his next church. 

He wants to remind them of their identity, because the Corinthians are having something of an identity crisis. If we were to continue reading Paul’s letter, we would discover that the church in Corinth was divided over things such as who was baptized by whom, whether it was acceptable to speak in tongues, and whether having different spiritual gifts created any sort of hierarchy within the church. 

But in this morning’s reading, Paul opens his letter by reminding them of the importance of all spiritual gifts: namely, the presence of Christ is stronger among them because they have a plethora of gifts. In fact, Paul reminds them, they are not lacking in any spiritual gift.

Stop and think about that for a moment. What would it take for a community not to be lacking in any spiritual gift? Hang onto that for a few minutes; we’ll come back.

Their identity as the body of Christ has been fractured by their factionalism. Through his letter, Paul seeks to remind them of their identity as saints in Christ. He reminds them that they are spiritual heirs to the covenant God made with Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants, and renewed with the Israelites as they prepared to re-enter their land after years in exile. “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” 

Identity is central to our Gospel reading for today, as well. John the Baptist names Jesus the Lamb of God, who has come to take away the sin of the world. He claims his own identity in Christ as the one who was sent before him to prepare the way, so that Christ might be revealed. He, too, references the promises God made to the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, when he testifies that he came before Jesus so that Jesus could be revealed to Israel as the Messiah, the Chosen One, the one sent by God: “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” He goes on to claim his identity as a prophet, foretelling the coming of Christ, by proclaiming that God had told him that he would know the Christ when the Spirit of the Lord descended and remained. 

By this declaration, he identifies not only himself as a prophet of God, but Jesus as the Christ, the Anointed One, the Son of God, come to earth to take away our sin, that which separates us from God – that which causes us to turn away from our relationship with God, as the people of Israel had done and as the church in Corinth would do with their factionalism and their infighting. In other words, John the Baptist’s words were an echo of what Isaiah proclaimed to Israel as they prepared to return from exile; Paul would later echo John’s words in his letter to the Corinthians. In all of these proclamations, age to age, the message is the same: God’s identity is revealed as the one who keeps promises, who holds fast to the covenant even when God’s people turn away, who seeks to restore right relationship. 

And we see right away this desire to be in relationship with us, to hold fast to the covenant, as Jesus invites Andrew and another disciple of John to “come and see”; he calls them out of their identity as John’s disciples and into a new identity as his apostles, As he then calls Peter and the others, to be sent by him into the world to preach forgiveness of sin and the new covenant in Christ’s blood. 

Do you think that, before they were called by Christ into their new identity as his apostles, any of them would have identified preaching, teaching, or leading others as among their spiritual gifts? Possibly. But it’s also possible that these gifts were not innate to them, but that it was through relationship with Christ and the empowering work of the Holy Spirit that they were able to nurture these gifts. It’s possible that between the gifts God created them to have, the gifts Jesus nurtured in them through relationship and the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham, Sarah, and their descendants, and the gifts the Spirit empowered them to seek out in themselves and develop, they were able to grow into the identity Jesus called them into.

Let’s  come back to where we started: why are these questions of identity important? What do they have to say to us today? We know these stories. We’re familiar with the covenant God made with the Israelites. We’re familiar with Paul’s work as an apostle and a church planter around the Roman Empire. We’re especially familiar with the story of Jesus’ baptism and claiming by God. 

So how do these readings shed light on our understanding of our own identity as people of God? How do we understand ourselves as heirs to the promise made to Abraham and Sarah? 

Because we are heirs to the covenant – the new covenant, the expanded covenant, the covenant that was shed for all people for the forgiveness of sins. We, too, along with the members of the church in Corinth, the apostles, and the saints of every time and place have been brought into relationship with God, given new identities in our baptisms in Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit. 

So what do these identities mean, anyway? Is this just one more piece of identification to carry around in our purses or wallets, a card to pull out and show off if someone asks if we’ve “found Jesus” or “been saved”? Is this just our get out of jail free card for these awkward conversations with the missionaries of whatever sect happen to knock on our door? Or does having this identity mean something more?

Think back to Paul’s comment about the church in Corinth not lacking in any spiritual gift. Think back to the followers of Jesus and the gifts they may have developed after being called to be apostles. When you think about your own identity and what spiritual gifts you possess, how do you make that list? Do you just think about what comes naturally – a head for business, say, or the ability to talk easily with visitors on Sunday morning? Do you just think about the gifts that God created you to have? 

What gifts come from your salvation in Christ? How has your faith grown, stretched, shaped you over your lifetime? What do you understand now about yourself that maybe you didn’t when you were younger, in light of your baptismal relationship with Christ?

What about the Spirit? Do you ever get glimpses of “I really would like to…” or “I wish I could…” or “if only…” How is the Spirit pushing you, guiding you, empowering you, to see yourself in a new light, to find a growing edge and explore it? If you give yourself time and imagination to think about these things, how does that impact your understanding of your identity? 

How are you called beyond yourself, as the Israelites were called to be a light to the nations, as the Corinthians were called out of their factionalism and into new relationship with Christ, as John was called to be a prophet and Andrew and Peter to be apostles?

Who is God calling you to be? What is your identity in Christ?

Holy Disruption

Here we are. “The most wonderful time of the year”, as the song calls it. The time when, even if only for a night, it feels a little bit like the world is a magical place, like time stops, and we feel just a little bit closer to God. 

Tradition helps this, of course. Tonight, we’ll end our service singing “Silent Night” by candle light, and then we’ll douse our candles, bring up the lights, and go out on a rousing rendition of “Joy to the World.” I love this as much as the next person, and those are two of my favorites. I can’t think of many Christmas Eves of my life where I haven’t engaged in this exact ritual, regardless of what church in what community I happened to be worshiping in. This tradition, along with our family tradition of lighting the Advent wreath, hearing Luke’s Christmas gospel again, and singing our favorite Christmas hymns – the ones we know by heart – helps contribute to the feeling that, at least for tonight, for these few hours, the Kingdom draws near to us, and we draw near to each other. 

It’s important for us to find meaning in our rituals and traditions. After all, that’s what they are for. But they are not why we worship.We worship God because we are people of faith, and as people of faith, we show our thankfulness to God for our salvation through acts of worship and service to others. Worship strengthens our faith and unites us as the body of Christ. We believe that reading, re-telling, and singing the stories of Jesus helps us to see him at work in the world around us and unites us with the church of every time and place. We believe that through the act of receiving communion, our faith is nourished, our sin is forgiven, and we are called to new life. 

These are the bones, the structure, the framework. THAT we worship is for God. HOW we worship is for us. The form that our traditions and rituals take – that is how we find meaning in our lives, how we understand God at work in us and in the world around us. And while this is important, it’s equally as important to understand that God is not bound by our traditions. Jesus Christ comes to us this night, and every night, in the midst of the busyness of life, candle light or no. The question is, do we see it, or do we only see Christ’s birth in the midst of our quiet and reflection?Do we need to be disrupted by God?

There is very little quiet or reflective in Luke’s Christmas story. Instead, this is a story about God the Disruptor. Mary was in her third trimester – aching back, swollen feet, probably emotional. Not the time you want to take a trip. But along came Augustus, declaring that there should be a census of the entire Roman Empire. Even Caesar himself would feel the disruption that Jesus would bring, as Jesus refused to bow to the might of Rome. 

According to Luke, this particular census required Joseph and Mary to travel back to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral home. We don’t know the route they would have taken for sure, but it would have been approximately 90 miles, or a walk of about four to five days. Think about that. Third trimester of pregnancy, a time already fraught with danger for a woman of that era, and then to have to walk or ride a donkey for almost a week. That would probably not have done much for either Mary or Joseph’s state of mind, to say nothing of the aches and pains that accompany pregnancy.  But Jesus came as a disruptor, to shake people out of their routines and help them see God at work around them in a new way.

Once in Bethlehem, we don’t know how long they stayed. But we do know that while they were in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor. We don’t know where they were staying prior to Mary going into labor. Maybe they were newly arrived. Possibly they were staying in an inn that had space for an expectant couple, or in an extra room of a relative. After he was born, Jesus was placed in a manger. Perhaps the innkeeper may not have wanted the hassle or the noise or the mess of a woman in labor or a newborn, or maybe the only secure place to put him was a feeding trough for the animals. But Jesus came as a new baby, and new babies are disruptive to the lives of everyone around them. They cry and coo, and they are demanding of time and attention and selfless love. They help us experience God in a new way.

The shepherds in the fields would have been on the lookout for wolves and other night-time predators. They were tasked with protecting the sheep, which were an important part of the economy. The shepherds themselves would have been younger sons, not well-off financially, the ones doing the job no one else wanted. They were disrupted at their labors: they were keeping an eye out for predators, determined to keep this precious commodity safe, when they were distracted by the glory of the Lord shining around them, perhaps lighting up the night until it was as bright as day. Luke tells us they were terrified – and why wouldn’t they be? Here they were, doing their jobs, when all of a sudden night turned to day and a messenger of God appeared out of nowhere to proclaim the good news! And was joined just as suddenly by a whole chorus singing praises to God! The angels came as disruptors, shaking the shepherds out of the complacency of knowing their place in the scheme of things, perhaps frightening not only the shepherds but the sheep, and in the midst of it all, proclaiming the birth of the Messiah – and not at all as the shepherds would have expected. The messiah the people were expecting would have come as a political force, overthrowing the might of Rome and freeing the people. The Messiah they got came as a disruptor, upending their expectations and appearing not just as a savior for that time and place, but as the Savior for all people in every time and place. 

We see foreshadowing of the disruption of Jesus’ ministry in his birth. He disrupted the status quo. The expectation would have been that the announcement of the Messiah would be made to the powerful, to the religious leaders of the time. After all, that’s who kings deal with: they deal with other leaders. But Jesus was not born in a palace, but to an unwed mother. He was not swaddled in silks and placed in a cradle made of precious material, but swaddled in bands of cloth and placed in a manger. The announcement of his birth was not heralded by official dispatches delivered by royal ambassadors, but by angels to shepherds – the second sons, the night shift, the lower rungs of the societal ladder. Throughout his ministry, Jesus healed people and raised them from the dead, overturned expectations about who the Messiah was sent for, and brought about the kingdom of God – not a kingdom of this world, one in which the powerful consolidated their power on the backs of the powerless – but a kingdom in which the playing field is leveled. A kingdom in which all people are holy, beloved by God, righteous. Jesus’ ultimate disruption was defeating death, to be resurrected and to bring with him the promised resurrection of all people. Jesus came as a disruptor, breaking the power that death had over us until it has become only a shell, just a shadow. A temporary condition while we await our resurrection in Christ.

This is what we celebrate tonight. This is what our rituals and traditions point to. They point to the birth of the Messiah and the coming of the disruption. They point to the presence of Christ in the busyness of our lives, in the day-to-day encounters that we have with the world. They point to the inbreaking of the kingdom into our world today. 

Jesus calls us to be disruptors, too. Jesus calls us to open the eyes of the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf. Jesus calls us to bring hope to the hopeless like streams in the desert, like an oasis in the burning sand. Jesus promises with the disruption of his birth, life, death, and resurrection, that we will not go astray. Jesus calls us to walk the holy way, to see the disruption in our world that Jesus brings and to share this good news with all people. 

Where are you in this story? Are you, with Mary and Joseph, walking a journey of faith, a journey that sometimes seems long and rocky? Are you looking for someplace quiet and out of the way to put this newborn Jesus, or are you embracing the call to selfless love? Are you among those who go through life just doing your work, surprised to learn that the good news is for you? Or do you expect that when it comes, it will come to you? 

Are you ready to be disrupted? 

As we walk through this magical night, this night when we engage in the tradition and ritual of Christmas Eve and celebrate the birth of Jesus, I invite you to look for the sacred. I invite you to contemplate the mystery of this baby, born to disrupt our journeys, our views of the world, our very lives – even our deaths. I invite you to look for the disruptions in your own lives. How are you disrupted this Christmas Eve? How is the coming of the Messiah overturning your life, changing your circumstances or your view of the world? How will you cling to the good news of this holy disruption after this night is over?

Long Expected

What happened to John the Baptist?

Let’s go back to last week’s Gospel. In the third chapter of Matthew, John was prophesying that the Messiah was coming, saying, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me….He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Just after the end of the Gospel reading for last week, John and Jesus met for the first time, at Jesus’ baptism. John said to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” He baptized Jesus and saw the Holy Spirit descending like a dove to rest on him. John saw clearly that Jesus was Messiah, the one foretold by the prophets, the one for whom he had been waiting and preparing the way. 

Now, this week, we are in the eleventh chapter of Matthew. We find John the Baptist in prison and sending word to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

So what happened to John the Baptist? Where did this doubt come from, 

this questioning, from no less a person than the baptizer of Jesus?

Matthew tells us that John was in prison and awaiting trial. He had been arrested for his preaching and prophesying of the coming of the Messiah, who would clean out all of the dead wood, burn the chaff, and restore righteousness and justice and bring about the reign of God. 

And now here John sat in prison, like so much dead wood. Like so much chaff. Awaiting his fate, and powerless to stop whatever was coming. 

I don’t think this is the reign of the Messiah that he was expecting. I think he was expecting that Jesus would come charging in, throw off the yoke of the oppressors, and bring about a new political reality. After all, this was the expectation of the Messiah: that a king would come from David’s line, ushering in a new era of peace, righteousness, and justice that would last forever. And John may have been thinking specifically about his own situation, too. He may have been thinking that the Messiah would get him and his followers out of prison, overthrowing Herod Antipas and bringing about the new kingdom foretold by Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even by himself.

Instead, the stories that came to him were likely stories of Jesus preaching throughout Galilee to the crowds that followed him. He may have heard of Jesus teaching the people a new way to pray, and of Jesus healing people and performing miracles. He may even have heard of Jesus forgiving sins and proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God. But he would have heard very little about Jesus overthrowing the government.

In the face of unmet expectations, it’s maybe not so hard to understand why John the Baptist was questioning whether Jesus was the long-expected one.

One of my favorite Advent hymns is “Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in thee.”

Do we really believe that? Or do we ask, with John, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 

Take a moment and reflect on your life. Think about the ways you love to spend your time, 

the things that bring you life. Are these the things you spend your energy doing, or do you spend most of your time and energy doing things you would rather not be doing? How’s your stress level? What governs your decision-making about how to spend your time: fear, or joy? 

Fear of missing deadlines, of losing connections, of missing opportunities now or in the future, 

of not being seen as compassionate or responsible or whatever adjective you use to describe yourself in your head?

We frequently find that we are in a prison of our own making. We are so busy navigating our way through our lives, acting in a way that we think we ought to act in order to fulfill our own understanding of who we are, that we miss what is going on around us. We find that we are so busy putting one foot in front of the other that we don’t pay attention to the walls closing in around us: the walls of fear, of expectation, of obligation and responsibility. 

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if someone else were to come along and fix everything for us. Is Jesus the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

Jesus’ answer isn’t quite what John expects. He says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” In other words, Jesus seems to be saying, “I can’t answer for you. You have to come up with an answer on your own. All I can tell you is what you already know.”

But Jesus points the way for John. John is given an opportunity to reflect on the walls that have closed in around him. Matthew tells us he has been imprisoned and awaiting his fate 

since the start of Jesus’ ministry; any word he has of Jesus’ acts would have come to him second-hand. He appears to be doubting and in need of reassurance, as we all are from time to time. 

And I think Jesus provided just that – not by placating him or telling him what he wanted to hear, but by re-engaging him, by prompting him to think again about what it might mean that the Messiah had come. Jesus provides a catalogue of miracles that he has performed, each one seemingly more miraculous than the last: those who could not see to navigate the world around them are able to do so. Those whose only hope of making a living was to sit by the city walls and beg are now able to work. Those who were so sick they were banished from society 

for fear of contaminating others are now declared clean and welcomed back into their families. 

Those who could not hear their employers or their loved ones or the prayers of the priests are now able to fully participate in the life of the community. Those who were dead have found new life and with it, hope for the coming resurrection. Those who were in a prison of poverty, so that all they could do was put one foot in front of the other and try to make it through one day after the next, now find that they, too, have hope for a better future.

And if what John is looking for is the coming of righteousness and justice and the eternal reign of God, maybe the person of Jesus is even better than a political figure who would turn the world on its ear. Maybe John finds renewed hope in a God that won’t spring him out of prison, 

but will do something even greater. Maybe John discovers that this good news is for him – good news not just for a season or a political cycle or for those oppressed by the Roman empire, but for all people of every time and place.

“Israel’s strength and consolation, hope of all the earth thou art, dear desire of ev’ry nation, joy of ev’ry longing heart.”

Jesus’ message to John is also pointing the way for us today. Jesus’ invitation to John to reconsider his imprisonment is an invitation to us, too, to reconsider what our prison walls are made of. Jesus’ litany of the miracles he performed is an invitation to us to consider where we see Christ at work in our world today. 

I invite you to think about all of the families that were served at the ministries that we support this year. Think about the St. James food pantry, and the MLM pantry and the other regular services they provide, and the Christmas store, which served over 850 families. Think about the Gathering Table. It’s easy to see our part in all of this – the items we collect and make, the volunteers who serve, the people who do the drop offs and the organizing, the administrative work that goes into it all. But I’d like to invite you to take a step back. Think about Harvesters. 

Think about the grocery stores that donate goods to all of the food pantries around the city. Think about the schools that hold canned food drives. Think about the farmers who grow the food, and the plants that process it. Then think about where you see Jesus at work in the world today.Think about how you see Jesus at work in the world today. Think about what would happen if you stopped giving your time, your talents, your treasure. Would Jesus still bring the good news to the poor?Is Jesus bringing the good news to you?

Let me ask you again: what governs your decision-making: fear or joy? Are you driven by a sense of “if I don’t do it, no one will,” or are you driven by gratitude and joy?The joy of catching glimpses of the bigger picture, of our place in the grand scheme of things? The joy of knowing that we are able to contribute, even if only in a small way? The joy that comes from knowing that even if no one will fix all our problems, we are the recipients of hope, a hope that has been the joy of every longing heart for thousands of years? The joy of seeing Jesus at work in the world around us?

We are tempted sometimes to ask John the Baptist’s question of Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” As he did with John, Jesus points the way to the answer for us. Jesus has come. Jesus is among us. Jesus will come again.

The Long Game

Jeremiah has words of assurance this morning, for those with ears to hear. He speaks to a people who are scattered, driven away by evil rulers who did not care for them. He prophesies of the promised king,the heir of David, who will be attentive to the people and will defend and preserve them, so that they can live in confidence, knowing they are safe. 

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord…” Those words speak of promise, of salvation, of the coming of the Kingdom. They speak of hope in the midst of fear. They somehow foretell action in the midst of our longing for safety and relief from the storms of life. But sometimes we don’t hear them that way. Sometimes they speak of a promise that seems so far off in the future, it doesn’t feel real. Doesn’t feel like something we can count on.Doesn’t feel like a word of promise that we have ears to hear.

Jeremiah was born into a tumultuous time in the history of Israel and Judah. He was called to be a prophet during the last decades of Judah’s independence. He saw the reigns of the last Judean kings, who turned increasingly away from worshiping God and toward worshiping Ba’al. He saw the might of Babylon massed on the border, ready to invade and conquer. He lived through the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and the first wave of exile, in which some Hebrew leaders were forced to resettle in Babylon. He saw the resistance of the last king of Judah against the might of the Babylonian empire. This culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Templeand the completion of the exile. In the midst of all of this turmoil, Jeremiah was faithful to God, speaking the words that God gave him to speak and warning the Judeans of the disasters that would befall them if they did not repent.

But that doesn’t mean that the people listened. To people in a desperate situation, “the days are surely coming” sounds an awful lot like a promise for the future, not a promise for today. It can be hard to hold out for something that will be coming some day, a hope for the future when our needs, our fear, our problems are right now. 

In a period of unrest and rapid change, we look for comfort and stability where we can find it. We look for easy answers. And the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has never offered easy answers or quick fixes. God plays the long game, which can make us uncomfortable. Resting on God for promises of safety and stability in the future can feel almost impossible when the sands are shifting under our feet right now.

Think about the promise that God offers in our reading for this morning: “Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold…” The remnant. Not exactly comforting, is it? Kind of leaves you wondering, in the midst of all of the uncertainty and fear that plagues us. Am I part of the remnant? How will I know? When will I know? 

I have to imagine that the Judeans who heard Jeremiah’s words in their exile asked those same questions, and struggled to find answers. We tend to trust people who tell us what we want to hear, leaders who speak to our fears and provide reassurance. But what happens when when our expectations are not met and our fears are realized? Many of us tend to draw in on ourselves, to shut down, to stop believing the promises we hear. To look for reassurance elsewhere. And many Judeans exiled to Babylon would have found that reassurance in community with their neighbors, in prosperity in a new land, in marriages to Babylonian people, in new families and new opportunities. 

None of these things are bad things. Assimilation into a new culture is only to be expected for people who were forced to move perhaps halfway across the known world. But as assimilation occurs, people find themselves unwilling to return to what they had before – or perhaps what they never had, but only knew from their parents’ or their grandparents’ stories. And so a remnant is left of people who cling to the faith of their ancestors, faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

We face many of these questions in the church today, even if we don’t phrase them this way. We have increasing demands on our time that take us away from involvement in church. We notice that some people who we used to see in the pews on Sunday are no longer here every week; maybe we see them when their schedule allows, or maybe we don’t see them at all. Some of these people move away, or transfer to different congregations. But others undergo cultural assimilation like what many Judeans underwent.

Some people find that they can’t keep up with the competing demands on their time. Others find that time with friends becomes more important than church. Others perhaps see things in the world that they don’t think are compatible with the God they believe in: a society that seems more violent, or climate change, or decreased civility. They may find their faith shaken, and don’t know what to do to get it back on solid ground. Or they remember the church of their youth, and they grieve for what no longer exists. They may look for a replacement for this – and the ones who don’t transfer to another church find themselves looking for another group to join, where they can find the friendship and the connections they are looking for. Some people fall prey to a false gospel, a promise of prosperity or easy answers or a return to the “good old days,” whatever they are longing for in the midst of troubling and turbulent times. Assimilation occurs, and people find themselves unwilling to return to what they knew before – or what they may never have known, except from their parents’ or grandparents’ stories. 

None of this makes the people who leave the church bad people. Our culture has changed, and continues to change, at a dizzying pace. From time to time, this can leave all of us wondering where to turn and who to trust. Even the remnant of us who continue to be people of faith in an increasingly secular society.

Where do we turn? In whom do we trust? When do we get to live in the days Jeremiah foretold, when we shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed? 

If only I had the answer. Instead, all I can say is to remind you that our God plays the long game. “The days are surely coming,” we hear God promise, “when I will raise up a king who is in it for the long haul, practicing righteousness and justice, and bringing safety and salvation.” 

This is the assurance that God offers us – the coming of the kingdom, when we will be able to rest on the promises of God and be comforted. When we will not feel the sands shifting under our feet; when the turmoil of this world will fade away, and we will find ourselves safe and secure, resting in God’s love and mercy for all people.

But there are always naysayers – people who doubt. And the devil uses those people to make us doubt our faith, to make us doubt the steadfastness of the Lord. The devil shows us the world: one more mass shooting, or the warming climate, or the turmoil in Washington that leads us to question whether our leaders have our interests at heart at all. The devil shows us all the existential crises of our time in one sweep of his hand, and whispers, “don’t you think Jesus could fix this all if he wanted to?” 

This is a bold play, trying to get us to doubt our faith, to doubt the assurances that God offers us. “The days are surely coming…” we tell the devil, but the devil responds, “Ah, but can you wait that long?”

We hear the same doubts, the same naysayers in our Gospel reading for this morning: “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” You can almost hear the devil at work. I can imagine him whispering, “If he really is who he says he is, he should be able to get out of this mess right now. Then you’ll know beyond a shadow of a doubt what to believe, who to follow.” 

How do we address our immediate fears and insecurities when our Savior, our Messiah, the Lord who is our righteousness, plays the long game?

What is the difference between the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus? Both committed crimes worthy of execution under Roman law. We do not know whether both criminals joined Jesus in paradise, although I believe both were welcomed. No, the only differences that we know for certain are that one had faith, and one did not.  One sought and received assurance, and one did not. One was comforted, and one was not. 

And this is the difference between those of us who cling to our faith in the midst of the turmoil of this world, and those who turn away. The difference is not who is saved; the difference is who receives assurance in the here and now. The difference is who has the faith to rest on the promises of God and be comforted, awaiting the coming of the kingdom.

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Let those with ears to hear, listen and be comforted.

We are playing the long game.

Changing the Narrative

We are confronted with a difficult Gospel reading today. The Sadducees challenge Jesus on a question of how far marital authority extends under the law. Jesus points out to the Sadducees, and to us, how little we understand about the resurrection, if we think that the power structures we live under today will continue. Using the example handed to him, the example of a woman given in marriage to seven brothers, Jesus shows us the value God places on each one of us, our bodies as well as our souls – even those of us who are devalued or oppressed in our society. 

There is a long history of viewing women’s bodies as expendable. For millennia, the authority to determine what happens with a woman’s body has rested with men. When a woman could marry, who she could marry, how well-educated she could be, whether or when she got pregnant and what happened once she did, when she could be set aside, what sort of work she could do. All of these things – essentially, every aspect governing a woman’s life – was something men have had the authority to determine. 

Take our Gospel reading for today. The Sadducees tell Jesus a story of a woman who is married to a man who dies, leaving her childless. She is married to his brother, and the next brother, and on down the line, seven in all – all leaving her childless. The question the Sadducees seem to be concerned with is, who will she belong to in the resurrection? In other words, who will have authority over her?

This question is not out of left field. The whole twentieth chapter of Luke is concerned with the question of authority. In the early part of the chapter, the chief priests and the scribes are questioning Jesus’ authority to preach the good news. He denies that they have the authority to demand an answer to their question. They start spying on Jesus, pretending to be honest while looking for an opportunity to arrest him and hand him over to the government – an authority that they must have figured he would have to respect. 

Then, along come the Sadducees. Again, there is a question of authority. The Sadducees were essentially the noble class of Israel; they had the authority of their position, as well as the authority of the Temple. And they spoke from a place of authority. The practice of Levirate marriage, in which a childless widow marries the brother of her late husband so that she can bear sons, was a well-established practice under the law of Moses. The purpose, at least in theory, was so that widows who had no other source of income or support beyond their husbands and children would be supported. In practice, it didn’t always work this way. The story of Tamar in Genesis 38 is a prime example.

Tamar was widowed when she was childless. She was married to her husband’s brother, who was careful not to impregnate her, and eventually died. Her father-in-law did not want to marry her to his youngest son, having lost two sons already. She was left without hope, resources, or a future, until she tricked her father-in-law into providing for her.

What we see, over and over again in our world, is the reality that whoever controls the narrative holds the authority. Whoever has the power to get the most people to listen is able to control the narrative. 

And for the most part, in public discourse governing women’s bodies, the power resides with men. And they keep this power by talking in hypotheticals. Instead of talking about a specific woman in a specific circumstance, the conversation is broadened to encompass all women who may ever hypothetically be in that situation. It changes the narrative, and allows the person speaking in hypotheticals to try to claim the moral high ground, direct the conversation, and retain the power.

We see this in the debate that continues to rage over abortion, where the legislatures and courts that are making the legal decisions are made up mostly of men, debating the question of what women can do with their bodies without appearing to take into consideration actual practices or trends, painting a picture of a woman who has an abortion that may not be accurate. 

We see this in family leave policies, which frequently grant women maternity leave but seldom grant paternity leave to men, leaving families no choice about who will stay home with the baby, once the woman heals from childbirth, and not taking into consideration what the family’s preferences are or who the primary breadwinner might be. 

We see this when we judge women who choose to to be stay-at home moms and women who choose to be working moms, even though we don’t judge men who make similar decisions. 

And we see this – perhaps most dangerously of all – when we see women who are victims of violence, and blame the violence on them: “Why doesn’t she leave him?” “She shouldn’t have been dressed like that.” “If she hadn’t been drinking, she never would have put herself in that situation.” We do this, rather than blaming the violence on their abusers.The woman becomes the object – the thing on which actions are taken and the thing about which judgments are made. For women, the power to create our own narrative is diminished.

Consider when allegations are made against a powerful man – whether that man is Donald Trump or Bill Clinton, Jeffrey Epstein or Bill Cosby. Until there is an overwhelming body of evidence against him (and sometimes not even then), our default societal position is that the woman must be lying, because she has something to gain – money, or notoriety, or a platform. Until recently, we have not considered as a society how power and authority emboldens men to be abusers, or how to tip the scales toward justice.

Most men are not violent towards women. In fact, most men condemn violence towards women. Many men even speak out against it. But I think many men are unaware of the narrative that places the power over what happens to women’s bodies in the hands of men.

If you read the story of Tamar in Genesis 38, you’ll discover that her father-in-law believed he had the right to determine what happened to Tamar’s body, leaving her in poverty and in limbo, until he was confronted with the truth. And the Sadducees hold a similar position – that it was their right to make decisions governing their women, because they held that authority.

When I read this passage in preparation for this sermon, the first thing I noticed is that the Sadducees did not give the woman a voice. If the law – the authority of God, upheld by men such as themselves – dictated who she would be married to during her lifetime, perhaps they thought that the same law – the same authority of God – would dictate who she would be married to in the resurrection. They assumed that she would be married to someone, but it did not occur to them that she should have any say in the matter at all. As it was in life, the choices governing what happened to her body would continue to belong to someone else. 

But Jesus’ reply is very much in keeping with how he has answered other questions of authority in this chapter and throughout Luke’s Gospel. He tells them they’re asking the wrong question. He denies their authority to speak in the hypothetical, and insists on talking specifics. He says that in the resurrection, people do not marry and are not given in marriage: the men do not take wives, and the women are not given as wives. In other words, in the resurrection, women are no longer chattel. Their bodies matter. It will not be up to the authority of men to determine what happens to them. 

And Jesus continues to be specific, reminding the Sadducees that God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And he points out that it was to Moses that God first claimed this name. God does not claim merely to be the God of those who are alive currently; God actively identifies Godself as the God of Moses’ ancestors, saying in effect, “Because I am still their God, they are alive in the resurrection.” The point Jesus is making is this: because God is the God of the living, and because God is still the God of those who have gone before, there is a resurrection – and those who have gone before are alive in the resurrection.But, Jesus says, the resurrection does not mean what you think it means. It is not merely a continuation of life here on earth! In the resurrection, the power and authority of this world will be subverted. 

Think back to the sermon on the plain that Jesus preached early in his ministry: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven….” This is the same word of hope that Jesus has preached to those who are oppressed, dehumanized, or subjugated by the power and authority of the world. The narrative is changing. The powers and authorities of this world, who cling so tightly to their authority by controlling the narrative, lose their grip in the Kingdom. The power to define others’ places in society by speaking in the hypothetical is lost; in the Kingdom, God demands that we speak in specifics. That we recognize that each of us has the authority to determine what happens with our bodies.

The writer of 2 Thessalonians addresses this same issue from a different direction. He reminds the people of Thessalonica that the power that the devil holds in the world is the power to control the narrative, clutching at authority that has not been granted to set himself up on the throne of God. And the devil is clever, co-opting the authority structures already in place in our world, and distracting us from the specific people in front of us, with hypotheticals and made-up situations. But the writer reminds the Thessalonians that they are Kingdom people, called and strengthened by Jesus so that they stand firm, not distracted by the devil into hypothetical narratives and the power structures of our world.

We are also called to be Kingdom people, to live as if the Kingdom were already here. We are called to not be distracted by the hypothetical narratives that uphold the power and authority in our world; instead, we are called to recognize and name the specificity of the people in front of us. We are called to recognize that in the Kingdom, there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage; neither dominance nor subjugation of women, or of any other group of people that is traditionally without power, objectified into submission by refusal to treat them as having authority over their own bodies. Instead, we are called to recognize that in God’s Kingdom, bodies matter, even – or perhaps especially – those bodies that do not matter in our world. All the resurrected people of God have the authority to live into the narrative God wants them to have, without fear or privilege. And we are called to live as if that is already our reality on earth.

Reading the Bible: What does it say (or not say) about LGBTQ+ people?

Week 3: The Bible

What are “clobber passages?” 6 verses/passages that have traditionally been used by anti-LGBTQ+ Christians to “prove” that being anything other than straight, cisgender is “sinful” or “deviant” – important as allies to be armed against them. We talked about them only briefly. For more information, please see “UnClobbered” by Colby Martin.

Genesis 19:1-25 – the story of Sodom. Not a story of consensual relationships at all; story of lack of hospitality, power, and rape

Leviticus 18:22 “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” and Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” The word from Hebrew that is translated abomination means betrayal of calling to live holy; to be indistinguishable from the surrounding nations. What is forbidden for Israel is not forbidden for others who were just passing through. Was not about morality or what was offensive to God; was about cultural identity

Romans 1:26-27 “For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” This is part of a larger section (vs 18-32) that Paul is using rhetorically: describes pagans as idolatrous. Does so in order to expose prejudices Jewish Christians held against Gentile Christians. But then says in 2:1 that the Jewish Christians are just as guilty of suppressing God’s truth by judging. He then spends chapters 2-4 explaining why verses 18-32 of ch 1 are not in line with the Gospel

1 Corinthians 6:9 (& 10) “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived!  Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revivers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” and 1 Timothy 1:10 (9-11) “This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurer, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the lesser God, which he entrusted to me.” Taking these two together – other translations commonly say “men who have sex with men” or “homosexuals” rather than “sodomites”. These are both frequently found verses if you do a Google search for “is homosexuality a sin?” But here’s the question: is heterosexuality a sin? More likely that Paul was condemning exploitative, transactional same-sex sex acts. Even though the concept of homosexuality was introduced in the 19th century, there have been same sex attraction and relationships throughout history, and Paul had the language to condemn them if he wanted to

Reading Expansively

How do you read scripture? How expansive is your reading? What is the lens through which you filter your understanding? 

Suggested filter: Is this reading, or your interpretation of it, life-giving, either internally (for yourself) or externally (for the community)? (See “Transforming” by Austen Hartke for more information.)

Read Genesis 1:1-19 and consider the following questions:

How do you interpret this?

What does this have to do with/say about LGBTQ+ people?

What about dusk? What about estuaries, where the freshwater (land) and the salt water (sea) mix together?

Then read verses 26-27: how does an expansive reading of verses 1-19 impact your understanding of verses 26-27?

Before reading Isaiah 56:1-8, first some background: in Leviticus 21:16-21, told priests cannot have physical blemishes or crushed testicles; in Deuteronomy 23:1, eunuchs expelled from worship, possibly from Israelite society

Now read Isaiah 56:1-8 and consider the following questions:

How is this reading similar to the blessing given to Abraham and Sarah? 

What would this have said to foreigners, eunuchs, anyone unable to have children?

What does this have to do with/say about LGBTQ+ people today?

Before reading Acts 8:26-39, the story of the eunuch and Philip, first some background: the eunuch was outside the circle of acceptability in 4 ways:

Gender: eunuchs were seen as neither male nor female

Race: he was Ethiopian, not Israelite. Outside the circle of Jewish acceptability Class: he was a slave – we know this because free men were not castrated

Religion: he was neither in nor out – not a Jew, but a believer

Now read Acts 8:26-39 and consider the following questions:

What does the wilderness signify?

Would Philip and the eunuch have been able to have this conversation in Jerusalem?

“How can I understand unless someone guides me?”

“What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Read Luke 24:38-43 and John 20:26-29, two readings about the reincarnated Lord after crucifixion, and consider the following questions:

What do these readings tell us about our bodies? Are they important, or just a vessel for our souls?

What does this mean for people who experience their bodies in a different way from the majority: due to sexual orientation, gender identity, race, disability status? 

What do Jesus’ treatment of his wounds say about our own wounds and scars: physical, spiritual, emotional?

Read Romans 8:22-27 and consider the following points:

Adoption = family

Redemption of our bodies

We don’t know how to pray, but this is ok – God knows what we mean. But do we give up?

What does this have to do with/say about LGBTQ+ people today?

“Your Faith Has Made You Well”

In the name of the God who makes us well, the Christ who suffers with us, and the Sprit who accompanies us. Amen.

“Your faith has made you well.” In some ways, these may be some of the most problematic words Jesus speaks in the Gospels. 

Oh, don’t get me wrong – Jesus says and does a lot of things that are controversial, at least to our modern way of thinking. We’ve talked about a lot of these statements and actions this year, as we have worked our way through the Gospel of Luke Sunday by Sunday.

But this one…at least in modern America, this one is definitely among the most problematic.

Close your eyes for a minute, and just think about what it means to you to be well. 

I can imagine that for many of you, a picture of wellness involves being free of disease, being relatively fit, blood pressure or blood sugar under good control, no aches and pains. If you’re troubled by arthritis or some other ongoing issue or disease, perhaps a picture of wellness involves not dealing with any of these chronic, and sometimes debilitating, concerns. 

And then we think about the story in our Gospel reading for this morning, and we think about being healed of leprosy, and being made well. There’s a kind of instant connection between health and wellness, between being healed and being made well, isn’t there?

You may be thinking, ok, but how is this problematic? What’s the issue here? 

I want to you to think about something specific now. Instead of thinking about someone who is living with arthritis, think about someone who is living on dialysis. Or who has stage four cancer. What do you imagine their future looks like? 

For many people with a terminal disease such as these, their futures include what can feel like endless appointments and tests, hospitalizations, and increasingly feeling weak and physically ill. 

Often, people who are terminally or chronically ill and their loved ones pray for healing. Usually, what we mean when we pray for healing is to be free from disease, to be free from the signs and symptoms, to be free of the endless appointments and tests, the poking and prodding, to be returned to life before the weakness and the pain and the debilitation. 

But what happens when we pray for healing, and are not healed? What happens when the person who is sick continues to suffer from whatever illness is impacting their quality of life, or is drawing them closer to death? What happens to our faith, to our prayer life, when our plea for a return to health goes unanswered?

“Your faith has made you well.”

Do you ever think, “maybe I didn’t pray hard enough?” Do you ever think, “maybe my faith wasn’t strong enough?” Or conversely, do you ever think, “this must be part of God’s plan. God must have had some sort of purpose behind all this suffering, weakness, and pain?”

When we pray for health – for wellness –  and do not see our prayers being answered in a way we recognize, that can be challenging to our faith. We can sometimes begin to worry that we are failing some sort of litmus test Jesus set to determine if our faith is strong enough, if we are worthy enough, for our prayers to be answered. Or we can begin to see God as the cause of disease and suffering, a not-so-benevolent overlord who punishes our sins or causes some to suffer so that others can prosper.

Either road leads down a path that God does not intend us to take. When we believe we are not faithful enough to merit God answering our prayers, or when we believe our suffering is caused in service to some divine plan on a cosmic scale, we move away from belief in grace, a belief that God loves us just as we are and seeks to be in relationship with us. We move toward belief in a God who keeps score, who keeps track of how faithful we are, how many good things we have done, how often or how rarely we have doubted. We move away from belief in a God of comfort and forgiveness, and toward belief in a God of anger and retribution. 

I want to propose an alternative. Instead of our modern brains translating “your faith has made you well” to “your faith has healed you,” perhaps, Jesus was not referring to health or sickness at all. 

Perhaps, Jesus was referring to a spiritual wholeness.

Let’s think about this with an eye to the whole story in this morning’s Gospel. Most of us have some sort of basic understanding of what it meant to be a leper in Jesus’ day: lepers were people who had any one of a number of skin diseases that were thought to be highly contagious. They were forced to live outside of the community, leaving their families behind. They had to mark themselves as lepers – both by wearing torn cloths and disheveled hair, as well as by shouting “Unclean! Unclean!” when they saw people approaching. They could be declared clean only by a priest.

There are really two sections to the Gospel reading this morning, and I think it’s helpful to figure out where one section ends and the other begins.

In the first section, Jesus and the disciples are walking toward a village, and are approached by ten lepers. They acknowledge Jesus as one who can heal them and ask for mercy. Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests to be declared clean, and they turn away to do so. According to Judaic law, the priests were the only ones who could declare someone clean from leprosy and permit them to reintegrate into society. It is at this point in the story that all ten are healed of their physical disease – the point at which they turn away from Jesus and toward the priests.

The second section of the story is when this becomes more than just a simple healing. In this section, the healing has already happened; the disease is gone. One of the ten, a Samaritan, turns back, “praising God with a loud voice” and thanking Jesus for healing him. Jesus acknowledges that all ten were healed, but that only one – a Samaritan – has turned back to give thanks. It is in response to this that Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”

What was different about the Samaritan?

He had been an outsider as a leper. However, now that his leprosy was cured, he would be able to rejoin society – once he was declared clean. But as a Samaritan, this opportunity was denied him. He was still an outsider. He could not go to the Jewish priests to make his sacrifices and be declared clean, because the Israelites did not recognize the Samaritans as adherents of the same religion or as subject to the same laws. He was still an outsider – a man who believed in God, living in a community of others who shared his condition, but for whom a return to society through the Law was not an option. 

How often do we feel like outsiders? Feel like no one around us understands how we are feeling or what we’re going through? This is particularly true when we are dealing with ongoing health concerns, or when we are accompanying a loved one on their own health journey. We often feel alone, abandoned, stuck in our own suffering, distanced from God. We may find ourselves being sucked into the trap of feeling like we have done something to deserve our suffering, or that our faith wasn’t strong enough. “If only…”, we might say. “If only I had stronger faith, God would answer my prayers and I wouldn’t be suffering like this.” “If only I had been nicer to people, or more generous with my time or resources, I wouldn’t be so alone right now.” 

But feelings aren’t facts. We may feel alone, distanced from God, stuck in our own suffering, but the fact is that we are never alone. We are always accompanied by someone who loves us enough to become human, to experience loneliness, frustration, fear, sickness, suffering – even to the point of death on a cross. Because of the humanity of Jesus, because of the suffering of Jesus, because of the death of Jesus, God understands intimately both what it means to suffer and what it means to accompany someone in their suffering. 

“Your faith has made you well.” 

I think that for the Samaritan, this is what it means to be made well. There was something about his encounter with the Divine in Jesus that made him realize that he was not alone – that even though he was not a member of the Jewish community and could not go to the priests to be declared clean, he was not abandoned. He had one place he could turn, one person he could go to for comfort and grace. 

And the difference between none and one is infinitely large. 

The wellness the Samaritan has found, then, is not healing from his disease. The wellness the Samaritan has found is spiritual wholeness – a recognition that, no matter what suffering he was enduring, God was with him. And in response to that recognition, he rejoiced and praised God. 

And this is the message of grace that Jesus has for all of us this morning. We all suffer. At one point or another, we all feel alone. We all feel as though no one else could possibly understand what we are going through. But Jesus reminds us today that when we feel utterly alone in our suffering, we still have exactly one place we can turn. We can turn to the one who chose to suffer so that he would understand suffering, and could accompany us. 

And when we experience God’s constancy and unchanging love, even in the face of our suffering, we, too, rejoice and praise God. We live lives of thanksgiving and, in doing that, we find our own spiritual wholeness.

Our faith has made us well, indeed.