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I have to tell you, this was a hard preaching week for me. For one, today’s psalm is a difficult one. Someone once describes Psalm 23 as “burdensome in its familiarity.” I think that’s true. It’s the comfort of this psalm, what it has meant to many of us personally, that also makes it hard to see with new eyes.
I was also distracted this week by the news. The Boston marathon bombings. The fertilizer plant explosion. Poisoned letters. It’s been hard for me to focus. I keep getting pulled into news reports on the internet and the radio. These events have brought up an eerie memory for me from the summers I spent in the Middle East. This was years ago, almost a decade ago, during a time of unrest and violence. I can still feel in my bones this sense of the unease that filtered into every day, normal activity. A bus stop would be evacuated in a panic when a child accidentally forgot to pick up her backpack off the bench. Light skinned and dark skinned strangers eyed each other with suspicion in the street. You would say a quick but earnest prayer ever time you got on a bus.
This week I felt a familiar wave of nausea as I watched on television bombs exploding on a street I walked down countless times as a college student. Many of us felt the fear that comes from normal, familiar places becoming war zones. I know this is a week when many people turned to Psalm 23 for comfort. I was one of those people. But it also happened to be the week when the Psalm many of us know so well came up in the lectionary. So I read it this week like I never have before. And while it was comforting I was reminded of the need to reorient my expectations for that comfort. I was reminded that God never promises us that we will be safe. What God does promise is that he will be there with us.
I wanted to try and open up this psalm to you by giving three different translations. The first is likely the familiar version, or the one close to it. It’s comes from the New Revised Standard Version. The second was a contemporary translation called The Message. And the third is the Wycliffe Bible, the first translation of the Bible into English. This last version appeared throughout the 14th century.
One psalm; three translations. And as we move between them I think one thing we see emerge is that this psalm doesn’t hold up idealistic notions about God’s care. It doesn’t point us to naïve hopefulness. This is a psalm that comes out of experience – deep, gut-wrenching experience. The psalmist contrasts two phases of life here. The first are those incredible images of green pastures and calm waters. God has caused this sheep to find a place of rest.
But that’s not all. Life happens. The death shadow, or in Hebrew the tsalmavet, comes bearing down. “Shadow of death.” It’s probably one of those words we have heard so many times that we pass over it. But if we look at how it is used in the rest of the Old Testament we’ll see that there is physical and psychological horror in this word. The place we most often find the “shadow of death” is in the book of Job. For Job the shadow of death is the thick cloud of darkness that hovers over him as he loses everything – his health, sons and daughters, livelihood, and friends. He compares this darkness to the kind of places where miners go, places that have never seen the sun. This is the darkness of zombie-like murderers who go out searching to kill the weak and the poor. “In the dark they dig through houses; by day they shut themselves up; they do not know the light,” we read. Twice Job uses this word to describe his wish that he had never been born. This is the horror of non-existence.
Trust in God by the writer of Psalm 23 is the trust of someone who has been through the worst that life has to offer. And what I love about this psalm is that the hope we find in God does not come in the disappearance of the tsalmavet, that dark hovering cloud, the deepness of the mines. No, Psalm 23 puts us, and God, right there in the middle of it. The reason we can go on is that God is there, a God with a rod and staff. Now, I know the words rod and staff are used in these translations because these are the images denote royalty throughout the history of Israel. But there is a part of me that wanted to see the words “club and crook.” That’s the image we should conjure up – God with a club who beats back the wolves, lions, and bears who try to attack the sheep. And the staff is there to prod the sheep back onto the right road, to keep them from going over a cliff, or wandering out into places where he can’t protect them.
In other words, the shepherd is involved. He’s right there in the thick of it, in the middle of the hostility and blood and the pain. He’s there when enemies are all around. He is there when the sheep is about to faint from hunger and thirst. And somehow he manages to pull together this meal, not just a few scraps but as the Message translation reads, a six-course feast.
And while I like that picture of a more physical, more involved Jesus, I also know that those words – rod and staff – are important. So much of the beauty of this psalm is that God is with us and for us an individuals, that God cares about us in our uniqueness. But this is also a psalm about a community gathered for thousands of years. There are hints at Israel’s redemption all over this psalm. That meal and cup? That’s a reference to the Passover. That word “goodness,” the goodness that chases after us? That’s the word used specifically to talk about God’s covenant with God’s people. And of course, as you can guess, you never get one sheep at a time, you get a flock. The psalm consistently points back to the memory of God’s salvation in liberating the enslaved Hebrews from Egypt. Everything about this psalm calls to mind this incredible story that God is written onto the people of Israel, and upon us as those grafted into Israel.
Community gathering with God as we manage to make a way in places of distress. That’s what the church is. And that’s where we find abundant life. Psalm 23 reminds us that our enemies, those things we fear, are NOT going to be blasted out of the way. No, “this kind of abundant life doesn’t mean that God wants to give us a lot of money. Or that we can have all our desires fulfilled. Abundant life is about people, it’s about a community, it’s about you serving one another, finding God’s life as you give your life. It’s about turning Easter into a verb, making hope into a verb, something we do through God’s enlivening presence.”
I had a first hand encounter with this kind of abundant life when Nancy Thorne and I visited Donna Herring at Mayview, the care facility where she is staying. For those of you who don’t know her, Donna is a pillar of this church community and now she is living with dementia. Seeing Donna and her daughter I know that it is a horrific experience to slowly lose pieces of yourself or your loved one over time. Dementia is an enemy. And that, I think it why this visit with Donna has helped me better to read Psalm 23. Dementia is a shadow of death, a closing in of darkness. Yet, for Donna it is also clearly a place where God is present. God is with Donna, in the thick of it, and she told me that God keep showing up. Right now it’s as if Donna’s life is written down in this book. She opens up pages at random and reads aloud. I heard all sorts of stories from Donna – stories from childhood, her experiences with Native Americans, recent memories of a child at church asking what she could to help Donna, memories of her grandparents, memories of friends from her old apartment. All of this faithfulness, all these people coming together, all these people showing up to be with Donna. A life’s worth of God’s faithfulness.
At one point Donna broke from her stories to watch a hawk that was building a nest in a tree near the place where we sat outside. Her face was filled with surprise and wonder. “Oh, look at that!” she said. Then she turned to me. “God has been in my heart, in my life for so long that now I can see so many blessings all around me. It’s amazing to me how every day there are more and more.”
As I thought about my visit with Donna I kept remembering this quote from Fredrick Buechner that I’ve heard a lot of people mention this week, and for good reason. It is a kind of Psalm 23 in its own rite. It’s from his book Wishful Thinking. And I leave you with it this morning:
“Grace is something you can never get but only be given. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life….Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.”
Second Sunday of Easter
Have you heard about the “nones”? No, not those nuns. I’m talking about the box that could be selected on the latest Pew Research poll on religion in America. Along with the expected categories like Buddhist, Protestant Christian, and Hindu, there was a choice titled “none.”
What the Pew researchers discovered is that the people who checked the “none” box are on a dramatic rise. In 1950 just two percent of respondents claimed no religious affiliation. In 2010 that number had jumped to 16%. By 2012 that number rose again, this time to around 20%. Based on these results around 46 million Americans claim no religious affiliation.
The greatest number of people who consider themselves “nones” are under 30. In fact, 1/3 of all men and women under the age of 30 claimed no religious preference. The number is even more dramatic if you focus on youth after high school. Around 70% of youth will leave the church after they graduate. A decade later, when they have their own children, only half of these young people will return.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re slowly morphing into a country of atheists and agnostics. While the 20% includes those with confused or no belief in God, it also comprises those who consider themselves spiritual but don’t adhere to or have left an institutional religion. These people say that they pray regularly, almost every day. But not only are they disconnected from religious community – a vast number aren’t even seeking it. They continue to call themselves Christians, but they don’t affiliate with a church body. They have been lost to church participation.
As you can imagine, this news has garnered a wide variety of responses. Some mourned over these statistics, calling this the death of Christianity in the West. They point their fingers at the increasingly secular culture, and the influence of video games, television, and music. Others just shrugged. So what? Who cares if people are dropping out of religious communities? As long as people are leading good, moral lives. Others rejoiced at this news. In these numbers they see the end of cultural Christianity, with a renewed hope that personal, invested faith will push out superstitious tradition.
For me this hit a little closer to home. As I went through the research again, reading through the articles, blogs, and statistics I thought about the young people in this congregation. I saw their faces. I thought about their questions, their honest doubts, their struggles with the Gospel. I thought about all the things that pull their hearts and heads in a hundred different directions. I thought about the world they are entering, the job market, the expectations placed on them, the fears they carry with them. And all of this brought me back to today’s Gospel lesson, to the story of Thomas.
Poor Thomas. It just so happened that he was the one who was gone when the risen Jesus finally showed up. Jesus appears, showing his hands and his feet and his side to the other disciples. The disciples tell Thomas all about it. But instead of believing the testimony of the others, Thomas has to see Jesus, too. So Jesus finally appears to him and after truculently lifting his shirt to show the wound in his side, Jesus rebukes Thomas, saying, “Stop doubting and believe.”
Isn’t that so often the story we have heard of Thomas? Some of us may hear in this story a rebuke of our inability to believe. Despite the Enlightenment, despite the scientific evidence, despite rationality, despite it all we are expected to believe that a body actually, really and truly came back to life. And we’re supposed to believe without questions, without doubts.
The research tells us that this is how so many of our young people experience church. The Barna Group recently published a book called You Lost Me that looks at the reasons youth are leaving the church. The number one cause they identify is that young people think we as the church are out of touch with the real world. The young people surveyed described the church as stifling, risk-averse, and fear-based. Another reason cited is the shallowness of worship, and the lack of connection felt to God during the service. Young people interviewed by Barna also said the church appeared to them as antagonistic towards science, simplistic and judgmental on sexual issues, and unfriendly towards those who doubt.
And perhaps in our traditional reading of the Thomas story that is what we hear. The judgment of doubt. The refusal to allow for questions. A disconnect from the reality. But if we read Thomas’ story this way we I think we have forgotten the character of the Jesus who stands before the disciples in the upper room. We have forgotten that this is the same Jesus who embraces those who are far off, the Gentiles, prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans. We have forgotten the Jesus who again and again patiently works through the rash, thoughtless comments of those closest to him.
It is this Jesus who encounters the Beloved Disciple, Simon Peter, Mary Magdalene, and the disciples at the tomb and then in the upper room. If we remember the character of this Jesus perhaps we can greet the story of Thomas with new eyes. No, Thomas does not require any more than the other disciples. None were asked to believe on testimony alone. None were asked or expected to believe without seeing first. The Jesus who comes to Thomas does so full of grace. He gives to Thomas exactly what the other have been given, exactly what he needs – a real and personal encounter with his body.
So, for the Gospel of John, seeing Jesus is the first step towards a lived faith. As you look at how each person in the Gospel of John comes to believe Jesus has risen the one thing they have in common is that they saw something. John 20 and 21 a version of the word “to see” is used ten different times. The first person in the Gospel of John, the first person to get to the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene sees that Jesus has been removed. Next, the unnamed Disciple Whom Jesus Loved and the Apostle Peter both see the linen cloths. After these two run off Mary is left alone, weeping, that is until she sees the angels and then sees Jesus. Not long after the rest of the disciples also see Jesus, now in the flesh among them. Everyone has now seen Jesus, or evidence of Jesus’ resurrection at the empty tomb, everyone except Thomas.
Of course, the next part is written for us, for those of us who don’t have the physical Jesus in front of us, those of us who cannot put our hands in his wounds. “Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now, technically you and I both have to fall within this category of blessedness that John describes. We’re living 2000 plus years after Jesus. Jesus has ascended to the Father. But if I am truthful, I will have to exempt myself from this group. Because I have seen Jesus. I wouldn’t be a Christian today if I had not, if I did not see Jesus on a regular basis.
I saw Jesus on Maundy Thursday in a picture in the NYTimes. This photo showed Pope Francis in a break with papal tradition, washing and kissing the feet of a Muslim woman at a juvenile detention center. I saw Jesus when a group of pastors from Durham begged on the median between traffic lanes. They were protesting an anti-panhandling ordinance approved by the City Council. I saw Jesus when people gathered around Noelani Puryear after we announced her surgery and people wept, and prayed, and held her. I saw Jesus on Easter morning when I looked into the faces of those who had lost loved ones this past year, and I said with them, for them, and to them, “for us, for us the lamb was slain.”
I have seen the risen Jesus. And I bet some of you see the risen Jesus, too. For some he is in the thick silence between our Taize chants. For some Jesus is present in laughter and conversation when we gathered over soup dinner at Advent. For some Christ is there at the breaking of bread in Communion. And for others you have met Christ in acts of service, or when you have received help at a most desperate hour.
There is a grace to this diversity, a grace we witness in today’s Scripture. Because we also find in the Gospel that Jesus meets each person in John 20 and 21 in the way they need to be met. There isn’t uniformity to this encounter. While each person sees Jesus, there is more to the story. Mary sees Jesus, but her belief doesn’t ignite until she hears him say her name. For the disciples Jesus must breathe the Holy Spirit upon them. And for Thomas the faith to journey with the risen Jesus, even though it will lead to death, this faith is found in touching Jesus’ wounds.
I wish I knew the answer to the question of the “nones.” And I don’t wish for these answers simply because my job depends on people showing up for church (although that is indeed the case). I want to know the answer because I don’t think that God destined us for the loneliness of spiritual individualism. I want to know because my encounters with the risen Jesus have changed me. You at Raleigh Moravian have changed me. I want to know the answer because I don’t think church is about showing up every once in a while on Sunday, but that it’s an adventure, that it’s about participating in changing the world into a place where justice, mercy, and grace abound.
I also want to know because creating a god in your own image isn’t going to bring life. For as much as Jesus meets Thomas with everything he needs Jesus also demands something of his apostle. He demands the response of a faithful life. “Here, you have what you need,” Jesus says. “Now that you have it do not doubt but believe.” And that is going to mean giving up on the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect church. As Lilian Daniel’s reminds us, “The church is something you enter at your own risk. Because you might actually bump into humanity there. You might hit up against something you disagree with. You might have to listen to music you don’t like. You might get asked to share your stuff. You might learn from a tradition far older than you. You might even be asked to worship something other than yourself.”
While I don’t have the answers on my own, I think that we can live into them together. I think we’ll find them in older people investing in younger people, in younger people sharing their needs and ideas with older people. We will find out by showing Jesus to one another, in the variety of ways that each of us needs to encounter the risen Lord. We don’t need to be afraid, to hole up in the bunker of religion, because we have seen that an encounter with Jesus is what changes people, what sets people free from loneliness, shame, and hate.
As we think about Thomas today, as we remember the Jesus who graciously, openly met each of his followers according to their own need, but also changed them, let us remember that that it will only be in one another that we now encounter the risen Lord. Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth century Spanish mystic conveys this message of the body of Christ, the church, so beautifully. Today I want to close with her words as the hope and the challenge of Easter stretches out before us.
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Preaching on the theme of “Help” for the first of the Moravian Church’s Holy Week readings I decided to turn to Karl Barth’s sermon “Saved By Grace.” Here is a shortened version of his sermon that I preached in the evening.
(Karl Barth, in a sermon on the topic “saved by grace” tells the story found in a Gustav Schwab poem. A horseman is riding through the night, anxious to reach the town that lies on the edge of the great Lake Constance. His plan is to spend the night and the next day take to cross the lake by ferry. He rides and rides, never knowing how far he has gone or how fast he has traveled. When he finally reaches the town after dark he asks a woman how much further to the lake. She then tells him that he is passed the lake, on the far side of the shore and ferry. It then dawns on the rider that he crossed the frozen lake by mistake. He is overcome by the fear of what could have happened to him, falling through the ice in the darkness.)
Every prayer for help, the great and the small, the prayers for help we don’t even know to make, each is caught up in the phrase “you have been saved by Christ.” This Palm Sunday, as we once again let the truth of these words sink into our bones, as we set off on the Easter path, I offer to you words that aren’t my own. I want you instead to hear a part of Karl Barth’s sermon on what it means to have our prayer for help answered in the cross of Jesus Christ:
“But now listen. Into the depth of our predicament the word is spoken from on high: By grace you have been saved! To be saved does not just mean to be a little encouraged, a little comforted, a little relieved. It means to be pulled out like a log from a burning fire. You have been saved! We are not told: you may be saved sometimes, or a little bit. No, you have been saved, totally for all times. You? Yes, we! Not just any other people, more pious and better than we are, no we, each one of us.
This is so because Jesus Christ is our brother and, through his life and death, has become our Savior who has wrought our salvation. He is the word of God for us. And this word is: By grace you have been saved!
You (now know) the legend of the rider who crossed the frozen Lake of Constance by night without knowing it. When he reached the opposite shore and was told where he came from, he broke down, horrified. This is the human situation when the sky opens and the earth is bright, when we may hear: By grace you have been saved! In such a moment we are like that terrified rider. When we hear this word we involuntarily look back, do we not, asking ourselves: Where have I been? Over an abyss, in mortal danger! What did I do? The most foolish thing I ever attempted! What happened? I was doomed and miraculously escaped and now I am safe! You ask: ‘Do we really live in such danger?’ Yes, we live on the brink of death. But we have been saved…
But more important than the fear of sudden death is the knowledge of life imparted to us: ‘By grace you have been saved!’ Therefore, we have reached the shore, the Lake of Constance is behind us, we may breathe freely, even though we still are in the grip of panic, and rightly so. This panic is but an aftermath. By virtue of the good news the sky truly opens and the earth is bright. What a glorious relief to be told that there I was, in that darkness, over that abyss, on the brink of death, but there I am no longer. Through this folly I lived, but I cannot and I will not do it again, never again. This happened, but it must not and it will not happen again. My sin, my captivity, my suffering are yesterday’s reality, not today’s. They are things of my past, not of the present nor of the future. I have been saved! Is this really so, is this the truth? Look once again to Jesus Christ in his death upon the cross. Look and try to understand that what he did and suffered he did and suffered for you, for me, for us all. He carried our sin, our captivity and our suffering, and did not carry it in vain. He carried it away. He acted as the captain of us all. He broke through the ranks of our enemies. He has already won the battle, our battle. All we have to do is to follow him, to be victorious with him. Through him, in him we are saved. Our sin has no longer any power over us. Our prison door is open. Our suffering has come to an end. This is a great word indeed…
Dear brothers and sisters, where do we stand now? One things is certain: the bright day has dawned, the sun of God does shine into our dark lives, even though we may close our eyes to its radiance. His voice does call us from heaven, even though we may obstruct our ears. The bread of life is offered to us, even though we are inclined to clench our fists instead of opening our hands to take the bread and eat it. The door of our prison is open, even though, strangely enough, we prefer to remain within. God has put the house in order, even though we like to mess it up all over again. By grace you have been saved!–this is true, even though we may not believe it, may not accept it as valid for ourselves and unfortunately in so doing may forego its benefits. Why should we want to forego the benefits? Why should we not want to believe? Why do we not go out through the open door? Why do we not open our clenched fists? Why do we obstruct our ears? Why are we blindfolded? Honestly, why?
One remark in reply must suffice. All this is so because perhaps we failed to pray fervently enough for a change within ourselves, on our part. That God is God, not only almighty, but merciful and good, that God wills and does what is best for us, that Jesus Christ died for us to set us free, that by grace, in him, we have been saved–all this need not be a concern of our prayers. All these things are true apart from our own deeds and prayers. But to believe, to accept, to let it be true for us, to begin to live with this truth, to believe it not only with our minds and with our lips, but also with our hearts and with all our life, so that others may sense it and finally to let our total existence be immersed in the great divine truth, by grace you have been saved, this is to be the concern of our prayers. No human being has ever prayed for this in vain. If anyone asks for this, the answer is already being given and faith begins. And because no one has ever asked for this in vain, no one may omit praying like a little child for the assurance that God’s truth, this terrible, this glorious truth, is shining even today, a small, yet increasingly bright light. By grace you have been saved. Ask that you may believe this and it will be given you; seek this, and you will find it; knock on this door, and it will be opened to you.
This, my dear friends, is what I have been privileged and empowered to tell you of the good news as the word of God today. Amen.”
I recently entered an essay contest with the following entry. I didn’t win. But I thought someone might enjoy reading this riff off my Master’s thesis.
At Home in the Body
I have always been fascinated by voices from church history that proclaim the continuity of our earthly and resurrected bodies. Despite their keen awareness of the suffering we bear in the flesh, many of the foremothers and fathers of the church turned us toward making the body our home. They did so at great cost, taking stands against the popularity of Gnosticism and the allure of a body essentially different from the fraying skin and bones we drag across this earth.
The culture of polemic in the second century frequently led these theologians into the absurd. Their resolute conviction was that the body and soul were irreducibly knit together; to be without one is to be bereft of the other. In his treatise On The Resurrection of the Flesh, Tertullian reasoned that even human bodies eaten by wild animals will be made whole in the resurrection, regurgitated and reunited like an intricate jigsaw puzzle. In another essay he goes as far as to warn ladies about their jewelry and clothing choices, as these will be the fashions worn by their resurrected selves, forever.
While I am grateful for Tertullian’s ferocious yet joyful literalism, my imagination about the resurrection is most indebted to Irenaeus’ writings, a kind of poetry of material renewal. Here he returns us to the biblical narratives of the risen Jesus. From his exegesis on the last Supper and the church’s practice of Eucharist, Irenaeus concludes that the primary, eternal activity for risen humans will be eating together. We are to be gathered around the banquet table where, having abandoned our occupations of fruitless toil, God serves us the feast. We spend the rest of our days cultivating vineyards and building homes, in fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecies
To eat without hunger. To build without labor. To plant and reap without toil. Irenaeus envisions a kind of embodiment that can reverberate into eternity. There are no ethereal spirits here, no translucent ghosts. Here you will find no Edenic perfection, extra-human capability, or meta-rationalism. The body in which Jesus wept, bled, and died is the same body that rose into the presence of the disciples. These are the muscles that even in their resurrected state flexed and strained against the hills of Jerusalem as he climbed his way towards ascension. This is the jaw that chewed the fish, the forearm that wiped its grease, the mouth that laughed as his friends sat beside the Sea of Galilee in wonder and awe.
Irenaeus and Tertullian found a pattern for eternal life in this resurrected Jesus. The picture they painted is of human beings most fully human when they make home in physical bodies – at work, in play, and in giving care to others. These are the activities that intertwine the enfleshed soul.
So it is that when Irenaeus gives us the image of fertile land that forever feeds the resurrected community, he construes resurrection in such a way as to parse out need from suffering. What distinguishes desire in our earthly, temporary home is its unquenchable character – a long road of unmet longing that culminates in our death. In death, the soul is un-homed. That which is put together is unnaturally, diabolically, torn asunder. To reunite the body and soul — to feel our desires satisfied, to have our wants fulfilled, to know that every need will be met with abundance — this is for death to lose its sting.
This kind of wholeness at the same time presents itself to us as irrational. Who of us can comprehend the incongruity of adventure without danger or care that is not a response to harm? As such, Irenaeus’ vision of a land that literally speaks to its workers, of grapes that shout out God’s glory to those who harvest, reminds us that there is something within yet beyond our earthly categories to describe what we will encounter when the body is finally and fully at home. The Jesus who appears as a resurrected body after crucifixion–still bearing the wounds of the cross–reveals the ways in which glorified bodies will be both familiar and strange. For Rowan Williams this means that,
The risen Jesus returns as a loved friend and brother, and at the same time holds us off: he shows the marks of familiar pain, yet refuses to be only a consoling mirror-image of our suffering…. He will not be either friend or foe as we understand those words; and it is not being controllable by our wishes and fantasies that he appears akin to God, a true son of the Father who is both unimaginably close and unimaginably strange.
At the heart of this strange familiarity is the resurrected Jesus who shows us “a place where the meaning of ‘God’ and the meaning of ‘humanity’ overlapped.” This confluence may be unsettling because, as Williams reminds us, seeing “the exalted Jesus, the Jesus who belongs with God, is disturbingly like meeting any human being – disturbingly, because the shift of perspective which recognition and confession involve is that much more dramatic.” Categories are blurred, or more accurately, what we have imagined to be divinization is actually the making-holy of ordinary life.
And so it is that there is a holiness, and eternality to our day-to-day. Without this recognition how strange it is that Jesus spent thirty of his thirty-three years on this earth doing no miracles, healing no sick, toppling no government, and gathering no followers. For three decades he was a worker, a friend, a brother, and a son. The resounding absence of the miraculous in the Gospels over the course of these many years tells us that central to God’s plan of salvation was cultivating a life very much like our own.
I am reminded of this whenever we eat around the communion table. At the church where I worship with my family we share a ritual Lord’s Supper several times a year, but occasionally the Eucharist is followed by a potluck. I have always appreciated how the two meals blend into one. There we are gathered – a prison inmate out on a day pass, college students helping mothers’ juggling plates and babies, children patiently waiting as an older member moves through the line with his cane. Just for now there is enough of everything.
Like the original Passover meal Jesus shared with the disciples our Communion is just that, a meal made by human hands. Yet, something as necessary as eating, something we do day after day to keep us alive also makes us one in Christ’s body. In taking the bread and the wine, as much as the corn casserole and the buttered rolls I reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins insight on work: “To go to communion worthily gives God great glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives Him glory too. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dung fork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give Him glory, too. God is so great that all things give Him glory if you mean that they should.”
These things begin in the pattern of Jesus who we celebrate each Christmastide. This is the God who is with us and for us, the one who made the tent of his body here among us. In him we once again come up against the profound mystery of our faith – that God entered into life, every day life, and told us it is holy. Though these bodies fray and wither, we are even now, here in ordinary time, about the eternal work of making home in the body.
 Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 3, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapidss: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990).
 Tertullian, On the Apparel of Women, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. 4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapidss: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990).
 Irenaeus, “Against Heresies,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1981), chs 32-33.
 Rowan Williams, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel (London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1982), 84.
 Ibid., 87.
 Ibid., 91.
 Gerard Manley Hopkins. Address based on the opening of “The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola” (1963), p. 144.
February 17, 2013
Lent may not be a season of the church year that you particularly look forward to. As my daughter said wistfully as she went to bed the night of Shrove Tuesday, “oh well. It’s time for the sadness.” Lent certainly has a heaviness to it, one that often feels at odds with broader culture, which does its best to keep us distracted from sadness.
To make matters worse, many of us associate Lent with giving something up. We may think of it as the season of steely self-control. Over the past few days you’ve probably heard someone tell you how they are giving up chocolate, meat, cigarettes, or facebook for Lent.
And in those moments some of us have thought, “well good for you and your self-improvement project. No way I’m going to do that!” Others of us may have said, and I’m thinking here of you parents of young children, “I’m living in a perpetual Lent. You really expect me to give up something else?” For some Lent sounds like six weeks of self-hatred and guilt. Why on earth would we wish that upon ourselves?
But let’s give Lent another look. After all, Lent is one of the oldest Christian holidays. It was first mentioned in the second century, in the writings of Irenaeus of Lyons. Back then Lent only lasted a couple days. It wasn’t until 325 that the Council of Nicea put Lent officially on the church calendar. At this time it was primarily a time of preparation for baptism and the season was defined by fasting. Only one meal a day was eaten each day, in the evening. No animal products were to be consumed.
In the 600s Lent’s beginning moved from Sunday to Wednesday in order to match up with a very important number in the Bible – 40. This number is a big deal in the Old Testament. Forty is the number of years the Israelites wandered in the desert. The fasts taken by Elijah and Moses were also forty days long. For Luke, the fact that Jesus goes to the wilderness for forty days is the way we know Jesus is the continuation of the story of God’s work with Israel, not a brand new thing. It’s no wonder that hundreds of years later Gregory the Great would insist that the church celebrate Lent for forty days, starting with Ash Wednesday.
Over the next thousand years the restrictions on Lent became looser. At first meals were allowed after three in the afternoon. Finally in 1966 the Catholic Church declared that fasting was only required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Since then people have become much more creative about the way they participate in Lent. As a result we’ve seen people being a part of Lent with thoughtful and intentional practices. We’ve come to discover that Lent isn’t “one size fits all.”
Jesus himself helps us to see how this is the case. In today’s Scripture we encounter that text that formed our Lenten tradition – the temptation in the wilderness. Our version of the story comes from the Gospel of Luke, were we get a lot of details about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. As such, it is from Luke that we inherit the tradition of an extended preparation for the season of Easter. Luke reminds us that there’s something important about taking time to figure out who this Jesus is. In the same way, Lent helps us to be ready for the cross and, eventually the empty tomb. As Fred Craddock reminds us, “If one does not walk the road, the destination is reduced by half its meaning.”
And right here, at the beginning of that story, we find Jesus coming to terms with who he is. Just before Jesus temptation in the wilderness we get the big revealing of Jesus’ identity. In this scene John baptizes Jesus. As Jesus emerges from the water the sky opens and a dove lands on him. A voice comes from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And from there, led by the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes into the wilderness.
Following Jesus’ example we can think of Lent as a mirror that we hold up to ourselves. It’s a season of honest encounter with who we are, what we’ve done, and the world we inhabit. In today’s Scripture the one holding up the mirror for Jesus is Satan. In his conversation with Jesus Satan confronts three points of Jesus identity: his social, political, and religious identity. Jesus, looking in the mirror of himself, must then discern what kind of mission he is actually on. What kind of Savior will he be?
The first question Satan asks concerns Jesus social mission. “If you are the Son of God,” he says, “command these stones to become a loaf of bread.” Satan wonders about Jesus’ ability to offer real, bodily salvation. Will Jesus use his power to miraculously provide for all the people of earth? Will he meet all temporal needs? Jesus looks in the mirror and says “no.” People require bread, but also more. Jesus knows his mission is about changing structures, upending kingdoms, transforming the ways we think of power and privilege. People can’t live on bread alone.
Next, Jesus must reckon with his political identity. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. The state capital in Raleigh. The White House. The Hague. Parliament. “Just think,” we imagine him saying. “Think of all the good you can do with this power. Let me give you this. You could end poverty. You could cure disease. You could stop all the violence, war, and death that plague your world. All you have to do is worship me. Stop for a minute and think of the greater good.” And to this Jesus once again says, “no.” He sees in the mirror that it is the right worship of God that will animate his ministry, that the power to transform everything rests there, not in the things that the world considers powerful.
Finally, Jesus is brought to the top of the Temple, to ask the question of his religious identity. Satan tells him, “prove to all these people that you are who you say you are. Put them in a position where they have no other choice but to worship you.” And again, Jesus looks into the mirror and says, “no.” It will not be through coercion that Jesus brings each of us into the kingdom of God. The kingdom will come through something utterly incomprehensible to Satan, through death. It will be happen through the opening up of the kingdom to the poor and the outcast. God will exercise power in a new and unexpected way.
As we can hear, the first step in Jesus’ journey to the cross begins with asking the question, “who am I?” That too is the path we are on this Lenten season. We are asked to hold up a mirror to ourselves and to our world. Often times it will be painful for us to see what is looking back at us. In the Christian tradition that brokenness, the pain of that encounter with what reflects back at us is called sin.
Lent is an opportunity to put our bodies in a position to come to terms with that brokenness. It’s also a time to remember the fact that we have already been welcomed into the wholeness and healing of that brokenness. This is why Lent is sometimes called a “bright sadness.” As my friend Brad says, it’s about letting our bodies surrender what rules over us, from which Christ has already delivered us.
Traditionally the church has engaged in certain practices that help put our bodies in position to encounter this forgiveness, then to take hold of it and make it our own. The first is prayer, daily attention to the voice of God speaking to us. The second is fasting. Most of the time fasting does not mean we get rid of something bad, like yelling at our kids or drinking too much. By all means, be about that work all the time! But fasting for the church is usually from something that helps engage our senses, our stomachs, and our minds in the craving for the good things God provides for us each day. It’s a metaphor – a physical embodiment of the longing that is fulfilled as the sun rises on Easter morning. The last traditional form of Lent-keeping in the church is almsgiving. We are invited to participate in giving away thereby showing the world the way God is bringing the kingdom into being.
While these are the traditional avenues for Lent-keepers, we also know that not everyone will benefit from these practices in the same way. Over the past week I’ve encountered some wonderful examples of how others are holding up the mirror of Lent, and how we might find creative ways to prepare our hearts, minds, and bodies for the coming of God’s kingdom in the resurrection of Jesus.
My friend Meghan is a writer, more in the essay genre, so for Lent she challenged herself to write a poem every day. She explains it this way – “Simone Weil wrote that prayer consists in paying attention, and this practice made me pay attention to the world around me, and to myself in it. Poetry made me do this more than other writing, because I am not a poet. It pushed me outside of the usual ways I use words, and I noticed things I would not have otherwise noticed. I found beauty in the wilderness. I found it, because I was looking for it.”
This year Meghan held up the mirror and what she saw was loneliness. Meghan is an introvert whose current status as a student allows her to get much deeper into herself and away from others. She writes that, “I can tell myself I want or need to be a hermit, but in times like these I can see how that spirals into loneliness and despair.” So this year Meghan is writing a letter each day of Lent, a real letter – the kind that require paper, pen, stamp, envelope, and time. She’s using this discipline, the time it takes, to push back against that despair that easily crowds in, by connecting with others.
My friend Jonathan is a community-worker who lives in an intentional community in Durham called the Rutba House. Jonathan’s Lenten practice involves holding a mirror up to the city he and I both live in. Recently our city council put restrictions on panhandling that effectively eliminate begging from our streets. During Lent Jonathan will be writing to our council members, encouraging them to lift the ordinance. He will stand with those in court who are being fined for violating the ordinance. Finally, if the ordinance is not lifted Jonathan will join others in an act of civil disobedience, an intentional breaking of the ordinance to beg on behalf of those in our community who cannot afford not to beg but also cannot afford the fine begging would incur.
For Jonathan, this is a way of walking on the long road to the Cross. He writes that, “This way of the cross is not comfortable for anyone, but we invite all of Durham to join us because we know that love is stronger than the powers of death. We look ahead to Easter, when Jesus rose from the grave. And we celebrate that this same Jesus is alive, walking among us in the world—even knocking on our door, asking to come in. “When you did it to the least of these, you did it unto me,” Jesus says.”
For me, this season I am coming to realize how much I have come to believe the lie of scarcity. Each day I find myself confronting the whisper of voices around me, and voices within myself that say there isn’t enough – not enough time, not enough money; not enough energy; not enough love to give; not enough influence to change the brokenness of your world. I’ve started to believe those voices, and that is a sin. So each day in Lent I’m making space to remember that there is enough, the God has promised me that there will be enough. Sometimes that means taking a few minutes just for me, and pushing back the guilt that accompanies this self-care. Sometimes it means reading someone else’s words so that the truth they tell gets into my heart.
How will you keep a holy Lent this season? What will you see when you hold up the mirror to yourself? There are so many ways to begin to prepare for Easter:
-For those distracting themselves from the difficulty of self-reflection by constantly listening to music or the radio consider a fast from NPR, or commit to listening to only one album for the entirety of Lent.
-For those who use social media to avoid the messiness of real relationships you might think about giving up texting for Lent, committing to only talk on the phone.
-For those who hold up the mirror and see someone overworked and exhausted, you might try committing to working only 40 hours a week during Lent.
-If you struggle with your self-image, if you have a hard time believing that you are fearfully and wonderfully made, do the thing God gifted you to do excellently every day. Play that piece of music you play perfectly. Sing that song that was practically written for you. Look back on that test that you worked so hard to ace. And then say out loud, “I am God’s beloved.”
How will you keep a holy Lent this season? Read T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday poem every day? Write a daily thank you note? Call your state representatives? Spend five minutes a day in silence? Whatever it is, Lent welcomes you to a season of self-reflection, a time of holiness, as we put our bodies, hearts, and minds in a position to receive the forgiveness and healing that God stretches out before us.
God bless us and grant us a holy Lent.
The older I get, and the more children I have the harder it is for me to understand how the biblical writers got away with providing us no images of breastfeeding and childbirth to explore the relationship of God to God’s people. Of course I know the reason is that they were men. Let me say it a different way – I’m amazed by how much more powerful and deep images of breastfeeding and childbirth are than images of the courtroom. Eucharist may be the best example. “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood.” This actually makes sense when we’re thinking about a woman feeding a child with her own body.
I was reminded of these transforming images when listening the Fresh Air interview with Marie Howe earlier today. This is one of the best poems about/not about Eucharist I’ve read in a long time. “My body hurt her.”
My Mother’s Body: a poem by Marie Howe
By Marie Howe, from “The Kingdom of Ordinary Time.”
Bless my mother’s body, the first song of her beating
heart and her breathing, her voice, which I could dimly hear,
grew louder. From inside her body I heard almost every word she said.
Within that girl I drove to the store and back, her feet pressing
pedals of the blue car, her voice, first gate to the cold sunny mornings,
rain, moonlight, snow fall, dogs…
Her kidneys failed, the womb where I once lived is gone.
Her young astonished body pushed me down that long corridor,
and my body hurt her, I know that – 24 years old. I’m old enough
to be that girl’s mother, to smooth her hair, to look into her exultant frightened
her bedsheets stained with chocolate, her heart in constant failure.
It’s a girl, someone must have said. She must have kissed me
with her mouth, first grief, first air,
and soon I was drinking her, first food, I was eating my mother
slumped in her wheelchair, one of my brothers pushing it,
across the snowy lawn, her eyes fixed, her face averted.
Bless this body she made, my long legs, her long arms and fingers,
our voice in my throat speaking to you know.
I very much appreciate Ellen’s willingness to open herself up to the question of why Christians have biological children. As she notes, many of her decisions around PGD vs. adoption were made as much from emotion as ethics (43). I think this is true for most people. We have developed strong faith-based reasons for or against abortion but many of us have not thought through what is a much more basic concern. Why have biological children in the first place?
The reason, as Ellen points out, is that people who get pregnant without thinking twice (people like me) are never forced to consider these issues. “People with genetic disease or infertility are asked to walk down roads that most parents never glance at on a map” (44). Complicate this reality with the promise of a child who will not suffer, the money-driven culture of the fertility industry, and very little consideration of the issue by most religious leaders and you get the perfect storm.
Ellen answers the issue of biological children with natural law. We want kids who look like us, and our bodies were created with a drive towards that desire. Ellen writes, “My body seemed to confirm that bearing children was something I was made to do” (43). We are “hardwired” to want biological children (46). She goes on to say that, “For those who believe in God, then, it makes sense to conclude that God has created us to want and to have babies” (47).
I appreciate Ellen’s attention to the biological drive to have children. I do think that God implanted in us the desire for children, and that we are designed to love and care for the children we bear. Yet, I also find something wanting in Ellen’s conclusion. I’m looking for something that goes beyond biology.
One of the most startling and shocking aspects of the New Testament is Jesus’ call to renounce what by biology or tradition comes naturally. In Luke 14 we see Jesus telling his disciples that the call to follow him will trump all other commitments including children and family. In other places Jesus asks potential followers to give up their careers, their money, and their aspirations. Eventually Jesus will ask his disciples to lay down their lives.
This past Sunday our son was dedicated to the Lord. We stood before our congregation and promised that we would help him follow the Gospel, even if it led to his death. We take this call very seriously in the Mennonite church, probably because of our history of martyrdom. And it’s something I think about often. Am I willing to renounce even my most basic instinct to protect my son if the call of Jesus demanded his life? This is a haunting question. It forces me daily to confront a biological and emotional drive that can be compared to nothing on earth. Were I not a Christian I would find even the possibility of such a commitment unthinkable if not monstrous.
Yet, every day I give Wick (and T) back to the Lord. Every day I wrestle with my biological instinct of protection and care, knowing that only by the power of the Holy Spirit could I ever overarch my most genetic desire to protect my children, a desire so deep that I would rip my own heart from my chest if I knew it could save them.
I don’t have the answer to why we have biological children, but I do wonder if the drive of our bodies is enough. Maybe we are asked to look beyond our biological drive to the call all Christians have placed upon them to care for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. Maybe there is something to be said about keeping our biological desires in check, of submitting them to the Lord, and asking the Holy Spirit to clarify for us the ways we each can find our way into the messy, upending welcome of children. Beyond childbearing, I hope this call will disrupt and displace all our desires, realigning them with the kingdom of God.
I’m starting at the end, with Ellen’s chapter, “The Only Way is Hard.” In this chapter Ellen explains that all decisions that come with life in an advanced technological age will be hard ones for Christians. It’s hard not to have a baby. It’s hard to have biological children when there are so many who need to be adopted. It’s hard to forgo medical procedures we perceive will eliminate pain from the lives of our loved ones. Ellen writes that each choice is accompanied by high physical, emotional, and financial stakes. Her broad suggestion of a way forward is to listen to the stories of others. Her whole book is an experiment in this kind of investment in the personal – a narrative ethics approach to issues of reproductive technology.
I started Ellen’s book just after finishing Danielle Allen’s Talking to Strangers. I interacted with this book a lot over the course of writing a paper on abortion for my contemporary ethics class this semester and it was in the back of my mind as I read No Easy Choice. Allen’s book looks at the historical moment of the integration of the Little Rock public school system, in particular when a miscommunication occurred and Elizabeth Eckford was sent to school by herself and faced a rabid crowd outside the school. It’s a fascinating chapter in American history because this moment forced a recalibration of public/private space. What was an intensely personal moment (walking to school) took on public significance. From then on no longer could Americans envision citizenship merely as a matter of public acts like voting and paying taxes. Private moments were now meshed with the public in a way that demanded something of the citizen.
Stories matter. That’s one of the reasons Ellen wrote this book, to break open to conversation about reproductive technologies from the confines of disembodied medical ethics and public policy. And there’s a lot to be said about this approach, especially the way Ellen does it. Another intriguing aspect of Allen’s thesis is that those of us operating in liberal democracies refuse to recognize that the price for this form of governance is loss, and at times self-sacrifice. In order to protect the goods we all value as common commodities we have to accept that someone will lose out on the decision making. I reason that reproductive technologies are the most deaf to this reality. These are advancements that work off the notion, as Ellen deftly points out, that you should have the kind of baby you want when you want it. What happens to your fellow employes insurance premiums when we undergo expensive fertility treatments? What about the cost of medical care? What do we lose in terms of valuing vulnerable life when we destroy embryos that are unhealthy?
But on the other side of loss is trauma, and liberal democracies are equally poor at naming the trauma that comes with loss and finding ways to adequately deal with that trauma. This is where I think Ellen’s work is so incredible and essential. She provides vivid descriptions of what it is like to live with OI herself, and to experience the excruciating pain of seeing her child felled by broken bones again and again. If we are going to truly talk about the losses that come with reproductive technologies we also have to name and negotiate the very real and profound traumas associated with those who will lose out on those decisions. We have to be able to take seriously what they are telling us is the actual lived experience of living with a child with a profound disability, what it is like to grieve a stillborn child, to walk alongside someone who must face the reality of never being able to bear biological children.
At the end of the day, however, I don’t think this means that we end up weighing difficult story versus difficult ethical decision to see which one feels worse. This is because for Christians this kind of “love” is not the final answer. Jesus, God enfleshed, is to whom we owe our allegiance. And we remember that following this Jesus means finding ourselves nailed to the cross. This means that we can and must ask others to undergo the trauma of certain losses, but our hearts should break with them. Not only that we as the church, the body of Christ, must also find ways to carry those losses and to name those traumas. This is not where the church has been at its best. We tend to take political positions (pro-life/choice being the most obvious) without naming that there is profound loss on both sides of this issue. We don’t do an adequate job of naming what the common goods are that we try to cultivate through particular limits on reproductive technologies.
Ellen also names one of the very real challenges that comes with trying to tell stories – even as these decisions are both private choices with very real public consequences it is very difficult to have these conversations. Childbearing decisions, despite their reverberation into public policy, health care, health insurance, eugenics, and political office, are incredibly emotional decisions. Most of us know someone who’s struggles with fertility cause her to avoid or end friendships with pregnant friends, or to cry in the bathroom every time there is a pregnancy announcement at work. My experience is that the desperation around infertility leads people to make decisions without consulting their communities of faith or asking deep questions about the ethics surrounding their choices. Practically speaking, I feel a great sense of despair about being able to truly talk about these decisions in a meaningful way. And I’m not sure of the way forward. Ellen offers some interesting suggestions from her own experience of being on the side of trauma that I find very helpful. But I also think she is a rare bird in her willingness to be open in the way she is. I wonder if anyone else has successfully navigated these waters.
Over the next couple weeks I’m going to be writing a series of posts reflecting on Ellen Painter Dollar’s first book, No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced REproduction (John Knox Press: 2012).
This is a book ten years in the making. It follows Ellen’s story of having osteogenesis imperfecta (OI), or what most of us know as brittle-bone disease, and the reproductive decisions made by her family in light of this genetic abnormality. It’s a fascinating story that also provides up-to-date information about reproductive technologies and that possibilities and pitfalls of these new options. Ellen reflects thoughtfully on what these technologies mean for Christians.
I especially appreciate Ellen’s tone throughout the book. She isn’t preachy yet she is far from all-embracing. She manages to maintain certain convictions while allowing others to be uprooted and overturned. And she does so not in a medical ethics vacuum, but while living with the complications of excruciating physical pain, and knowing that this pain could very well be passed on to her children. It is a brave book.
I’ll be looking at several topics over the next few weeks including the possibilities and limitations of narrative ethics, why we have biological children, and the poverty of our current debate over the personhood of embryos. Rather than reviewing this book as an impersonal bystander, I will attempt to stay true to Ellen’s vision for the book by engaging from my own experience and offering my own feedback and critiques.
I encourage you to read along and join the discussion. You can keep track of Ellen’s work and happenings at her Patheos blog: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/ellenpainterdollar/.
My apologies for the extended silence. We’ve had great excuses. I’m currently 35 weeks pregnant and moving into the last two weeks of the semester here at PTS. Oh, and our baby did receive a thumbs up at her level II ultrasound. Of course, one of the realities of pregnancy is that you don’t ever know what you are getting. We continue to wait and hope.
I did finally come up with something to post. This is the last sermon I preached for class. Let me tell you, there’s nothing like preaching in a hot room with 50% lung capacity, weighing about 30 lbs more than you usually do. Talk about embodiment.
I wrote this sermon as a response to a challenge from a blogger who mentioned he’d never heard a sermon on adoption preached in church. I thought it was an interesting challenge because in a congregational setting there are a lot of people who aren’t even eligible to adopt (children, teenagers, the elderly) and others who simply are not in a place where this is a possibility (single, in debt, caring for a sick family member). Here’s what I came up with!
16 Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ 17And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ 18He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19Honour your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 20The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ 21Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When the young man heard this word he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Happy National Adoption Month! And happy National Pomegranate Month, Epilepsy Awareness Month, International Drum Month, National Novel Writing Month, and, of course, the month we celebrate Albanian Independence. As you can see, in November there are a lot of causes and times of remembrance that could take up our time. So why should the church care about National Adoption Month in particular?
For one, there are currently are 116,000 American children in foster care legally available for adoption. This means that a judge has severed parental rights or that the parent has signed over these rights to the court. These children now wait for a family to call their own.
Another reason is that this is an issue we as the church can actually do something about. To put it in to perspective, there are currently 16 million Southern Baptists in the U.S. Only one in 138 would need to adopt in order for every child to have a parent. Think about it: if each of our churches had only one or two families who welcomed these children there would be no more orphans!
Another reason adoption should matter to Christian is at its at the very core of our religious identity. The constant refrain throughout the Old Testament is the prophets’ call to take care of the alien, the orphan and the widow. And in the New Testament Paul uses the metaphor of adoption over and over again. In Romans we read that we the church have been welcomed with open arms into a preexisting family of Israel. In Galatians we learn that through adoption as daughters and sons we have been made righteous. Even our baptism is a reminder that it is not through birth or circumcision that we are brought into God’s family, but through faith. Baptism is the ceremony marking our adoption day!
So what’s the big deal? Why wouldn’t this cause all of us to head straight to our nearest foster care agency and start filling out the paper work? The reason is that adoption is a good choice, but also a challenging one. When we really sit down to think about it, adoption requires a lot of us. There are the logistics of time, money and energy that come with welcoming any new child into the family. There is also the reality that many children, especially older children in the foster care system carry on them the scars of abuse and neglect.
Then there are our own limitations. Maybe you’re single, young or older and the idea of parenting a child is not in the picture. Maybe you’re already taking care of a family member. Maybe all your kids are in school and things are finally starting to seem manageable. For me, getting ready to both have a second biological child, and to take on the significant burden of sending my husband to medical school, the possibility of adoption any time soon feels very remote.
Adoption isn’t easy and welcoming a child from foster care can seem like a significant risk. It may even be impossible based on your life situation. So we’re all in a bit of a bind. We have this demand from God to take care of orphans. We recognize that we have been adopted by God. But we’re also aware that life makes moving on this challenge extremely difficult. We’re stuck somewhere in that place between the real desire to follow God and the difficult realities on everyday life.
Our Scripture today is about a man in the exact same position. Like us, he wants to be a disciple, to really and truly follow God. A rich young man approaches Jesus from the crowd and asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus response sort of blows him off. Sure, he names some commands for the man to follow. But Jesus doesn’t even name the difficult commands, the one that have to do with us before God, the kind of stuff that requires a remaking of our hearts. Jesus sets the base line pretty low. Don’t kill anyone. Check. Don’t lie. For the most part. Honor your father and mother. Done that. It’s not surprising that the man can answer, “all these commands I have kept.”
Yet this young man knows there must be something more, so he digs deeper. He wants a genuine answer. Like us, he doesn’t want to be a casual rule-keeper. He wants to know what it means to live in the rich abundance of a godly life. He wants to know how to become a disciple.
But the answer smacks him in the face. “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money away to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven: then, come follow me.” We read that the man goes away grieving because he has a lot of stuff.
Just in case we try to get away with making this Scripture less difficult that it actually is, we have the disciples to remind us that Jesus just said something completely out of control. They wonder, “if it’s true that a rich person can get into the kingdom like a camel getting through the eye of needle, who can be saved?” It’s pretty clear that Jesus isn’t talking about giving up a couple things, or sacrificing even half of what you own. He really, actually wants 100%. God help us.
Yet, reading this text at face value may let some of us off the hook. As a seminarian, there are days when I can honestly say with Peter that I have left everything to follow God’s call. Many of us struggle financially to make ends meet, as do many of our neighbors. As future pastors we may be content, even hopeful, to think that our financial sacrifices are all Jesus is talking about in this passage.
Now don’t get me wrong. Jesus wants your money. The consistent message of the New Testament is that wealth block access to full participation in God’s kingdom. And I don’t think it’s a mistake that first Jesus tells the rich young man to sell his things and then to follow Jesus. You can’t do the latter until you’ve done the former. But if we look closer at the text, Jesus is saying something so much more unsettling.
In the version of the Gospel we read today we hear the word “possessions” used twice, first when Jesus tells the man to sell them and second when we learn that he has many. In the second instance possessions is a pretty good summary of what the man has. He’s a rich guy. He’s got property, servants, and money. It’s a word that means wealth.
Now the first time the term “possessions” is used, when Jesus tells the man to give them up, it means something a bit different. This is a different word that comes from the root “belongs to or is devoted to.” While it includes one’s material possessions, it’s meaning extends to our circumstances and our advantages. It’s a word that has more to do with the stuff that makes up our very substance. Jesus is saying he wants the man to give up everything.
Here’s an idea of what I think Jesus meant. Some of you may remember the classic dorm room prank where you switch around two peoples’ rooms. In order for this prank to work you have to be meticulous. Posters have to be moved to the exact same spot in the other person’s room. Books have to be arranged on the shelves in the same order. Sheets and blankets are switched. Even dirty gym socks left on the floor are moved.
The urban legend of this room switch is that someone, somewhere was once able to turn the room upside down by nailing everything to the ceiling. I remember several late night conversations in my dorm room about how you could actually do this. It seemed fantastic, but can you imagine walking into your dorm room and seeing your exact room hanging there above you? That would be the magnum opus of dorm pranks.
And that’s what Jesus is talking about here. He doesn’t just want our stuff; he wants us to nail it to the ceiling. He wants to so radically shake up our sense of devotion about all the things that make up our lives are turned upside down. This substance includes our families, accomplishments, student debt, and relationships. It means our bills, responsibilities, the expectations placed on us by others, even the call we feel on our lives. All of that is totally reoriented in the call to follow Jesus. He wants to cause such colossal upheaval that, in order to keep living, we have let God teach us how to live on the ceiling. No wonder the disciples are so shocked!
It’s only then, Jesus tells the rich young man, that he can be perfect. This is another word in the text that may throw us off. But Jesus didn’t have in mind the kind of perfection that involves getting everything right. What he means is that in living an upside-down life we will find completion, wholeness. Were this story found in the Old Testament I think we could translate this word shalom. In opening our lives to this radical transformation we actually become the persons God created us to be.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that just before of the rich young man we hear about some little children who come to Jesus but are shooed away by the disciples. Jesus’ response is to rebuke his followers because the kingdom of God belongs to little ones. Jesus and the disciples knew that children are a risky, disruptive reorientation of the most basic aspects of life. The difference is that Jesus knew these were all characteristics of disciples.
Thinking about it this way, the failure of the rich young man may have had more to do with allowing the worry of wealth overwhelm him more than it did with refusing Jesus’ command. Reorienting the substance of your life is something that takes time, energy, and creativity. It always takes an act of God because, as most of us know, our substance can take on monstrous proportions. But the first thing we need is the desire to have our stuff reoriented. We need to be a people who seek after conversion rather than waiting for it to happen to us.
We know from this story that there are material ways to begin this conversion. This involves taking action steps towards putting our lives in order. When we think about this in terms of adoption this means that we each begin to make a life that is open to welcoming children. It may mean planning to buy a house with an extra bedroom or adding an adopted child into your plans for having biological children.
For others this will be less tangible. It may mean praying for openness to children, or addressing fears we have about parenting that come from our past. It may simply be asking God to give you a heart to love the children around you, for a patience you feel you don’t possess or for wisdom in making future choices.
Not every person in this room will one day adopt a child. But today’s Gospel reminds us that we need to work for conversion of our lives today. We have to ready so that when the call to have our lives radically altered comes we can answer “yes.” Otherwise, we might find ourselves like the rich young man, so deeply mired in the stuff of life that we have no choice but to walk away grieving.
The tough part of today’s Gospel is that we all have a lot of reorienting to do before we can begin to take seriously the cry of orphans. We have to figure out what may seem like the impossible logistics of nailing our very substance to the ceiling. But the amazing gift, the hope of the Christian life is that we never do this alone. It’s Jesus who will teach us, together, how to live on that ceiling. In doing so we will not only heed the call discipleship, we will become who God made us to be. Amen.