The Love That Matters

Even though I am not Muslim anymore, I still believe there is a lot of wisdom in the Qur’an. And there is something of an encounter with God in the words of the Qur’an. I especially love the Quranic accounts of the creation and fall of Man.

But there is a sentiment expressed very profoundly in the words of the Qur’an that I can no longer accede to. And it’s such awn important thing that the Qur’an says it four times. (All quotes are modified from the Khan and Al-Hilali translation.)

Say: “Shall I seek a lord other than God while He is the Lord of all things? No person earns anything except against himself, and no bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another. Then unto your Lord is your return, so He will tell you that wherein you have been differing. (6:164)

And no bearer of burdens shall bear another’s burden, and if one heavily laden calls another to his load, nothing of it will be lifted even though he be near of kin. You [singular] can warn only those who fear their Lord unseen, and establish prayer. And he who purifies himself, the he purifies only for the benefit of his ownself. And to God is the final return. (35:18)

If you disbelieve, then verily, God is not in need of you [plural], He likes not disbelief for His slaves. And if you are grateful, He is pleased therewith for you. No bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another. Then to your Lord is your return, and He will inform you what you used to do. Verily, He is the All-Knower of that is in your hearts. (39:7)

37 And of Ibrahim who fulfilled all he was given, 38 That no burdened person shall bear the burden of another. 39 And that man can have nothing be what he does. (53:37-39)

This sentiment — no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another (وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَى) — was once something I believed very deeply. Christian concepts of the atonement, that Christ bore the sins of the world, that he carried my sins to the cross, made no sense to me. I still think it’s an unreasonable confession, something that still makes little sense. The confession the Qur’an makes — that each of us goes to God alone with our deeds, makes more sense.

And it’s an idea even supported by bits of the New Testament — Matthew 25, for example, or Revelation 20 and 21.

But this is one of my beliefs that perished on 9/11. As I stood in lower Manhattan that morning and stared up at the burning towers of the World Trade Center, watching the flame and the smoke, watching helplessly while others died, I understood atonement. I understood our essential sinfulness in a way I had not prior to that day. Not in any way I can explain it.

I certainly cannot explain it any better than Paul does in Romans 5, where he writes:

6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11 ESV)

I remember not believing this. I also now know it is true. Perhaps it is the truest thing in the world.

I don’t think atonement is a thing we explain. It’s something we confess. I don’t like penal substitution language — Christ took the wrath of God so we don’t have to — because it strikes me as so profoundly untrue. Rather, Christ takes the wrath of God with us, so that we may rise with him in his defeat of sin and death.

But that is neither here nor there. The church has never agreed on the mechanics of the atonement. It is one of the few things the church has never felt the need to officially explain (in large part, I suspect, because there were no arguments over the fact of the atoning work of Christ). Any language we attempt to use will fall short, will somewhere become unreasonable and illogical. And that’s okay.

Because we still confess it to be true. We know Christ died for the forgiveness of our sins. He bears our burden — whatever that means — and in doing so, we are freed from the consequences of sin and death.

Which brings me to real point of this musing, a passage by Paul in Galatians 6 which, while it seems to say what the Qur’an says about burden, it doesn’t. Not really.

1 Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. 5 For each will have to bear his own load. (Galatians 6:1-5 ESV)

Bear one another’s burdens. I’ve thought a lot about this in the last few years, especially since my first disastrous pastoral internship, about what it means that carried our burdens and what it means that we are called to bear each other’s burdens.

I don’t say much in my book about what happened on my first internship, mostly because I was embarrassed, but also because I did not want to hurt any of the other people involved. (The only person I really felt I had license to malign, to call an asshole, to say was at fault, was me.) But I think what happened during that time in Wisconsin was a good exampled of how we compel each other, whether we want to or not, to bear our sins.

And it’s also a good example of how not to bear each other’s burden.

For those who haven’t read the book (pages 208-210 for those of you who have but need a refresher), Jennifer and I found ourselves in the midst of a community that welcomed and accepted us with wide open arms — something neither of us really expected. Jennifer and I, to different degrees, experienced both family and community as hostile, violent, and brutally and profoundly unwelcoming. I had been searching for acceptance, for belonging for much of my life, and I thought I’d finally found it — really found it — among the Lutherans.

But I had no idea how to live in the midst of people who really love and care for each other, certainly not as a pastor.

They hadn’t sinned against me. They welcomed me and loved me. By not knowing how to respond to their profound love in a pastoral way, but rather responding to that love as an excited 10-year-old looking for a mom and a dad might, I made them bear my burden. No one in that community was responsible for the violence done to me 30 years prior, but through my actions, I made them bear my burden.

Now, no one knew how to respond , and in that, I bore their burden.

It was not a good bearing of burdens. Indeed, the church as it is constituted right now does a very poor job of what Paul calls us to do. The institutional response defaults to our trust in the tools of modernity — go get counseling and we’ll see if you’re fixed. It was a little like being trapped in C.S. Lewis’ essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” in which no one could speak of sin and wrong, but only about health and safety.

And if you cannot speak of sin and wrong, there can be no repentance and no penance. There can be no redemption. Just an indefinite sentence until the “experts” are satisfied you aren’t sick anymore.

I know, when I speak of this, that I am being a lot more vague than I would like, if only because the examples I could best talk about are ones I cannot. They are too personal, too close.

But I know something of the bearing of burdens. I have carried Jennifer’s. She has carried mine. And in following Paul’s edict here, fulfilling the law of Christ to love as we are loved, to live as Christ lived for us, we have both learned what love can really accomplish. We’ve seen how it is changed us.

I’ve long thought that the institutional church, especially the politically and theologically liberal church, no longer really believes in love anymore. (Jennifer goes farther in her sentiments.) The church believes in effectiveness, in programs and policy, in systems and structures, and the ache to accomplish or be part of something important in the world. It looks to the wrong history and tells itself the wrong story. In this story of power and progress, love is small thing, a grubby thing, and it doesn’t feed, serve, or save millions. It is ineffective.

The church has, at least since the late middle ages, been plagued by a beguiling but horrific dream — the desire to create a world in which burdens are lessened or even eliminated rather than borne together.

This bearing of each others burdens isn’t easy. And Paul knows that. He’s dealing with how to handle transgressions within the church here, and he’s counseling both caution and compassion. When a sister or brother sins, we should be gentle and bear their burden with them, but we should not get caught up in their burden. And he reminds us, that we aren’t made righteous because our sins our borne by those around us. Our work is our own, even as we carry — and are carried by — others.

But this love that Paul writes about is the most powerful thing in the cosmos. It meets us in our mess and doesn’t flinch. It conquers sin and death. It sweeps us up into itself, makes us one with each other and with God.

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The Lectionary This Week: Tell Your Children

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

Lectionary 22, the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

  • Deuteronomy 4:1-9
  • Psalm 15
  • James 1:17-27
  • Mark 7:1–23

Be doers of the word. For the sake of the world. That’s what both Deuteronomy and James are telling us this week.

The reading in Deuteronomy has God reminding Israel through Moses to remember what they had witnessed when some Israelites took to cavorting with Midianites and worshiping the Baal (lord) of Peor, and that those who are alive to hear Moses speak the words of God this day are those who held fast to their faith in Israel’s God. (This is all of Numbers 25, though it gets mentioned in Psalm 106 and Hosea 9, where it becomes part of the prophet’s general indictment of the northern kingdom.) God then tells Israel that this teaching has a value. Not just that Israel will prosper and inherit the land that God has promised, but that Israel will show the world what it means to have a teaching תורה torah, and have the Lord God as their God.

6 Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. ’ 7 For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? 8 And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:6-8 ESV)

Here, we see what makes Israel a “great nation” (גוי גדול, or goy gidol) — it is not wealth, or military might, or the conquest and control of great territories and many subject peoples. It is the torah, this teaching, that makes Israel great. That makes Israel stand out from the peoples around it.

In fact, God goes so far to say that this teaching makes the peoples around Israel stand up and pay attention. This is true wisdom, they will say. These are a wise and understanding people, they will say. This teaching will inspire. It may even, as Isaiah 55 says, draw some to Israel, to become part of this covenant, to share in this teaching. This wisdom. This understanding.

But God is clear to Israel — don’t just teach these things, but remember them. Because Israel has witnessed them. “Your eyes have seen,” God tells Israel. So teach these things to your children, and their children, that you may not forget them. That you may not forget them.

I try not to watch video or even look at pictures of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Because I was there, and I want to remember what I saw — what I tasted and heard and felt. I don’t want those images, those memories, contaminated with media pictures, with the CNN feed, with what the world saw mediated on its television screens.

I was there. I saw and experienced that day with my own eyes.

But in order to remember that day, I need to bear witness to it — to tell my story. Again and again. In the telling, I remember what I saw. What I felt.

The same applies here. We are witnesses to the teaching of God, to the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not because we were there, but because we have been told by people who have been told by people who have been told by people who were there. Who knew that that bear witness to a truth that they made real again in the telling. That’s what it means to witness. It’s not just watching, it’s telling. It’s both things. In telling the story, we make it real.

When I heard those words in my head on 9/11, “My love is all that matters,” I had no idea who spoke to me. I didn’t get an introduction like Saul did on the way to Damascus. I didn’t know quite who this was. It took meeting Jesus in the pages of the Gospel of John, meeting Jesus in the love of the people of Peace Lutheran in Alexandria, Virginia, to know who it was who spoke to me. I am a witness to the risen Christ, but only because I speak of what I experienced. And what I experienced makes sense only in the light of what others — in this case, the Gospel writers — have witnessed.

James approaches this from another angle. While God says we will impress the neighbors as a people of wisdom and understanding thanks to the teaching, James tells us that we will love the most vulnerable in our midst and around us because of this teaching.

James also says there is no real hearing without doing. There is no watching without speaking. There is no bearing witness to the love of God without loving.

And that, I believe, is why Jesus tells us that what defiles (makes common in the Greek) is what comes out of us. His list of things — evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness — dovetails nicely with the things James warns against as well.

Now, it’s easy to take these as matters of personal piety, things one avoids in order to be right and stay right with God. But that’s not what’s at work here. This isn’t about piety. It’s about showing the world what wisdom and understanding look like, what real religion (ceremonial or ritual observance here in the Greek) looks like. It is concern for the most vulnerable. This is a constant theme, especially once the prophets began to call Israel out for its sin and faithlessness as the armies of the Assyrians and Babylonians loomed. It is part of the constant reminder that we don’t use or abuse others, or ourselves. We don’t treat each other, or ourselves, as objects for pleasure or profit.

Because we are not objects. We are not things.

This is a tough task. The world is all about things. We are in the world (κοσμος, the thing God so loves in John 3:16) but are to be untainted by it, by its wisdom and understanding, by its way of doing business. This means, at least here, visiting those most wounded by the world, those most at risk at being objectified and exploited, those least capable of succeeding in the world according to the world’s terms. For James, that was widows and orphans. (And in many ways, it is still true, especially for orphans.) For us, it is likely to be the poor, the broken, the cast off and discarded people, refugees, anyone subject to violence simply because they draw breath.

And we treat them not as objects, but as human beings, children of a living God who has created them, formed them, shaped them, made them. As beloved sisters and brothers.

In this strange way, we are to show the “great nations” around us what understanding and wisdom looks like. Whether the peoples around us will be impressed or not hardly matters. (We have God’s assurance some will be, and the evidence of our eyes that some aren’t.) And what it is to have a God who is so near to us that he became one of us, lived and breathed and ate and slept and laughed and cried with us. Suffered with us. Died with us.

And rose so we might rise.

How to Meet Another Soul

A friend brought this heartening (and yet somewhat sad) piece on autism from The Atlantic to my attention this weekend.

Particularly maddening are the descriptions from time gone by of the emotional capabilities of people with autism. I remembering hearing things like this — to the extent any of them were ever mentioned — in the 1970s and 1980s, before such a thing as Asprger’s existed and people with autism were considered hopeless cases and lost causes, fit only for institutional care.

NeuroTribes amasses a disturbing number of statements by autism researchers who seem unable to make the trip themselves. One clinician describes autism as a terminal illness and autistic children as dead souls. Others consider them “shells” or “husks.” The most unnerving revelation occurs when Silberman profiles Ivar Lovaas, the developer of a common therapy known as Applied Behavior Analysis. In a 1974 interview, Lovaas says that autistic children “are not people in the psychological sense.” He combats an autistic child’s self-injurious behavior by striking her, and his therapy rooms deliver corrective shocks through gridded floors. Spoons of sherbet serve as rewards—a method that seems less sweet when Lovaas reports that “it is a pleasure to work with a child who is on mild food deprivation.” Today’s behavioral therapies tend toward Lovaas-lite, an exacting but benign regimen of small treats, but just last year the Food and Drug Administration held a panel to discuss the use of electrical shock to modify self-injuring and aggressive behavior among autistic patients. Although representatives of a Massachusetts clinic argued it was a necessary treatment of last resort, the panel recommended banning the apparatus used in the procedure.

I’m puzzled by such statements. I’m not entirely sure how anyone could arrive at them, unless the clinical study of human being is so utterly detached from actually being human, and meeting and experiencing other human beings, that it is simply incapable of actually seeing what is human in someone who isn’t “normal.”

And I wouldn’t doubt that. There’s lots to be gained from the “scientific study” of people, but science sees things as objects.

I’m reminded of an encounter with a young autistic boy Jennifer and I took care of for a time when we were in seminary.

His name was Georgi, and his mother was working on an MBA at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He was 10, and his mother was not married to the father. Jennifer babysat Georgi after school for a bit, and then his mother had to go to London for a series of job interviews one week, and some time later, she had to go on a week-long class retreat.

So, we got to take care of Georgi in our apartment for two weeks.

It took a little work, particularly on my part (I’d never ever done anything remotely resembling parenting before). The first night we had no schedule and no ritual and it was a disaster. Georgi was up to all hours banging around and bouncing off things.

But the second night, we figured it out. He would help me set the coffee maker and get the coffee ready for tomorrow morning (Georgi would run the grinder for exactly one minute), and then Jennifer would help him brush his teeth, wash up, and go to the bathroom, and then I’d tuck Georgi in bed, read him a chapter (each night) from Winnie the Pooh. And then we’d pray.

And he slept. Soundly. All night.

Georgi would play with my legos. By play, I mean he’d get out my lego set, get out the instructions, and build to the design. He wouldn’t really play with it, not like I did. And he wouldn’t make things up, either. He needed the instructions.

Georgi liked listening to my songs. He was also obsessed with videos of elevators, and it was taking care of Georgi that I learned one of the greatest gifts of the Internet is that it allowed autistic people to connect through their obsessions. Who knew there was a whole community of people out there took videos of elevator rides, pointing out all the features of elevators and the buildings they were in?

Georgi rarely spoke in complete sentences. Much of his thinking was very concrete — one night, Jen and I sat with him in a seminary classroom while he drew corporate logos on the chalkboard.

But he could talk in complete sentences. For the time we took care of Georgi, Jennifer and I allowed ourselves one cocktail each night, because caring for Georgi was draining. Our friend (and fellow seminarian) Joy would occasionally come over, drink with us, and let Georgi play with her iPhone. Which Georgi really loved, between the games and the elevator videos on Youtube.

One evening, I got the cocktail shaker down from the cupboard and Georgi got excited.

“Joy must be coming over!” he said. And ran to the window to wait for her.

The emotional connection came one Saturday morning. I’d just come back from one of my typical unpleasant encounters with the ELCA’s Metropolitan Washington DC candidacy committee — the folks overseeing my now-defunct process to become a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — and a good friend, Mark (who is now a pastor in Kansas), wanted to know what happened.

Well, I got angry. I yelled. And then I started crying. Because it was a miserable and difficult — even abusive — process. (Lutheran church bureaucrats are incredibly good at being callous and abusive.) After we all made sure the Georgi knew I wasn’t angry at him, I went into my bedroom and sat in my comfy chair to regain my composure.

That’s when it happened.

Georgi came in, sat on the bed across from me, and put his hand on mine. And he held my hand for a bit. He never made eye contact, and he never said anything, but he just sat there with me, holding my hand. Some combination of “it’s going to be okay” and “I care that you hurt.” It was a very compassionate response. A very empathetic one.

It still makes me tear up when I think about it, that amazing moment. I will never forget it as long as I live.

So, “not people in the psychological sense?” What kind of person is willing — is able — to so carelessly and easily say such a thing? What attention aren’t they paying? How important is it that human beings fit, or can be bent or folded, into the precious scientific categories we’ve made for ourselves?

We are lesser people for having made folks with autism solely the objects of study and care. (Just as we are lesser people for having reduced any human being to that status of object fit only for study, or worse, consumption, abandonment, or destruction.) For failing to see how they are human, and how their humanity adds to ours, makes us whole, a complete humanity. And for failing to see what autism tells us about God — the very same God in whose image Georgi is made. Whole and complete, without flaw or blemish, a child of the living God.

I’m saddened and angry that our pitiless modernity has done this to so many people, bent and broken and destroyed so many human lives. But I’m also glad people with autism are claiming their own identities. Creating their own communities. Making sense of their own lives. Writing their own stories.

Asserting their humanity.

Odds & Ends

Blogging has been light of late. I apologize for that. I have been easily distracted for the last 10 days or so, and more engrossed in job hunting (pray for me!) and actually resting, thanks to our host in Maryland, who has been one of the kindest of the Good Samaritans we have met along this particular road to Jericho. We’ve been amazingly blessed.

First, a report on book sales. According to Wipf & Stock, my publisher, so far I’ve sold 200 copies of The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death. (According to Amazon’s Author Central website, I’ve moved 156 copies through them — usually one or two a week, sometimes more, and sometimes none, like last week.) This does not count copies given away. I’ve sold (or given away) roughly 100 copies, so we’re about in the 300 neighborhood. Not New York Times bestseller territory, but about average for a non-fiction book these days.

And we’ve just started… 🙂

I’m hoping some of the radio interviews I’m doing in advance of the anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and the Pentagon help that. My publicist did yeoman work, but having finished his part of the deal, I blitzed a bunch of Christian radio stations and have booked a few interviews — WIHS in Middletown, Connecticut; Go Mix Radio, a network in eastern North Carolina;  Spirit FM, a Catholic network in Nebraska; Lift FM in New Jersey; and with Advantage Radio Ministries’ Second Chances show. There’s also a radio network in New Zealand which has contacted me, but so far we’ve not worked anything out.

And Chaplain Mike over at internetmonk.com has said he is interested in interviewing me in the run-up to 9/11.

So, good things are happening.

IMG_0391
Would you buy a used gospel from this man?

First, I’d really like to thank everyone who has read my book. And responded to me. I never imagined writing a book, but this book, it is for the wounded, the abandoned, the unloved, and the unwanted. Over the last few years, I’ve come to see that the purpose to human life — well, at least my life — is to witness to the love of God for the entire world ο κοσμος. And that there is no life so disordered, so chaotic, so lost, so misguided, that God cannot use it to witness to the incredible love that God showed for God’s people (and the world) in calling Abraham, forming Israel, redeeming them from slavery in Egypt, leading them through the wilderness, and delivering them from exile.

This is the love Christ showed for the world in calling disciples to follow, to feed sheep and tend lambs, in drawing the crowds to them, in teaching them, in healing them, in casting out their demons and feeding them. In living with us, suffering at our hands, and dying before our eyes, and rising on the third day.

My life bears witness to all this. I don’t know how well the book says any of this, but it is what I am called to do. And to be.

Along those lines, I keep looking for work. My hope had always been that someone would read the book and go, “he needs to be our pastor!” That hasn’t happened (at least not yet), and I don’t know if it will. My great concern about the book was that this was such a non-standard narrative, an odd story, one that didn’t easily fit into preconceived notions from either liberals or conservatives about what a good story of a redeemed sinner ought to look like, that no one would quite know how to market this book. I appreciate my publicist’s efforts, but I’m not sure he quite knew how to publicize my book. (I’ve only gotten the notice I have tying the book to the Christianity Today piece and the 9/11 anniversary.) I know my publisher believes they’ve done a good thing with this, but they also know this is a book that defies easy categories. A recent acquaintance has called it “literature” and has compared my narrative to Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. All of my Amazon reviewers have given it five stars.

Speaking Christianity Today, I did write a nice little piece for them, and it has gotten more than 1,000 shares on Facebook (!!!!), so I’m pleased with that. I’m not enamored of the title, but you don’t choose those. I didn’t even choose the title of my own book, but I like it, and it really works.

So, I pray for all of you who read this blog every night, and thank God for you. Please pray for me as well. I still don’t know what will become of me — I’m a bit like Nadia Boltz-Weber without the tattoos and the modicum of institutional support (or, to be blunt, the best-selling book and the worldwide acclaim); had the ELCA felt compelled to find her a call (as opposed to letting her start her own church), she likely would have fared no better than I did in their miserable candidacy process. I hope to find a small congregation out there willing to take a risk on a pastor who wants to preach and teach (and sing!) the gospel, care and tend for them in their joys and sorrows, and yet by simply breathing lives outside just every Christian comfort zone imaginable. I appreciate how difficult that is for a lot of Christians, especially in a time of deep, existential crisis for the American church, when safety, comfort, and ease are desperately sought but nowhere to be found. But it’s also difficult for me, not finding a place to fit, or a people to live out my call among. It may be how I have always lived, but it is no less difficult for me.

I suspect I will have to start my own worshiping community. (Waters of Babylon Missionary Lutheran Church, here we come!!) Which is okay, though it would also mean some kind of work elsewhere. I would rather be tied to a community of support and accountability, and to a bigger tradition than myself, but I think I scare too many church bureaucrats and unsettle too many sheep. And the sheep are what Jesus called us to serve and care for.

However, as a certain incarnate Lord and Savior once said:

And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:16 ESV)

There are sheep without a shepherd, people out there, looking for me, waiting for me, hoping and praying for me. To be their pastor. The happy accident that will bring us together has not happened yet.

But my life has been full of happy accidents. Amazing, wonderful, life-giving, accidents. (I’m thinking of y’all, Jennifer, Michaela, and Molly!) I don’t see that changing. Ever.

How Sex Is Different

I wrote at length earlier this year about sexual ethics — who Israelites were not allowed to have sex with, who Israelites are allowed to marry, why God’s marriage to Israel/Church is a really awful marriage, and who apparently is not off limits according to the law of God — in order to show that homosexuality (or rather, homosexual acts) are no different in scripture from adultery or cavorting with one’s daughter-in-law. Or the neighboring Canaanites.

Because homosexual acts — specifically men lying with men as with women, whatever that might mean — are bundled with a whole bunch of other acts in Leviticus 18 & 20 which are condemned, and which Israel shall not do “as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” (Lev. 18:3) So, while homosexual acts may not be different from any other breaking of the covenant in Leviticus, sex itself is different from all the other rules and teaching God gives to Israel.

It’s different because God says something very specific about the consequences that will flow from Israel’s failure to adhere to these specific rules:

24 “Do not make yourselves unclean by any of these things, for by all these the nations I am driving out before you have become unclean, 25 and the land became unclean, so that I punished its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. (Leviticus 18:24-25 ESV)

and

“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. (Leviticus 20:22 ESV)

The word vomit here comes from the Hebrew root קיא which means roughly what it says — to spew out, throw up, disgorge, cast out. It’s a very physical act. And an unpleasant one, an involuntary one, something a person does when she or he is very sick. Or poisoned.

Israel faces a lot of penalties for failing to keep the covenant — disease, pestilence, famine, conquest, exile, slavery. But those are all externally imposed. They come from outside the land of Israel, in the form of Assyrians and Babylonians. Only in the case of these sexual sins does the land itself threaten to grow sick and expel Israel.

That’s what makes sex different, and what makes these acts unique. (The passage does not say why sex is different. We are free to speculate, but any conclusions we come to are just that — speculation.) They poison the very land, which grows so ill that it will expel Israel, just as God expelled the Canaanites so that Israel may take possession of the land.

But that said, nothing I wrote in my first essay on Leviticus 18 & 20 is changed. Israel is still built upon a violation of these very commandments — Abraham married his half-sister; Jacob took two sisters as wives; Judah impregnated his daughter-in-law; and Moses, Aaron, and Miriam were all born because their father took his aunt to be his wife. Granted, all of these things took place before the teaching was given (though the teaching was given to Moses, who by all rights should be excluded from the assembly as per Deuteronomy 23:2 because he was born of a “forbidden union”), but Israel would not exist — would not be standing before Mt. Sinai or wandering in the wilderness receiving this teaching — were it not for its sister(s)-marrying and daughter-in-law-fucking ancestors.

Again, this sounds like so many of the if/then, else/then construction that comes with the Torah. If Israel can stay clean, can keep from worshiping other gods and doing all these things it is told not to do, then Israel can stay in God’s good graces and keep the land. The land won’t be poisoned with its sin and will not vomit Israel out.

But none of this can be seen as an abstract command to the people of God. It cannot be read outside of the story. And in this story we have, Israel cavorts with other gods, it sacrifices its children to Molech, and very likely continues to do all of the things condemned in Leviticus 18 and 20. Because of this, the Assyrians and the Babylonians come. Israel is conquered. And exiled.

The land does vomit Israel out.

Israel pays a harsh price for all of its sin, for all of its idolatry, for all of its faithlessness.

But never does Israel stop being the people of God. Never, after God’s initial pique of rage in Exodus 32 to destroy Israel and start over with Moses, and a terrifying threat to walk away completely from Israel in Judges 10, does God ever disown Israel. Or abandon Israel to the ultimate fate of annihilation. Resurrection always looms as a promise. Jeremiah’s valley of slaughter becomes Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, and the very breath of God makes new life where there was only stillness, silence, and death.

Where there was only the faint memory of a people.

Christians have longed feared the consequences — both collective and individual — of sin. We read the Bible and fear the wrath of God. Sinners didn’t just put their eternal souls at risk, they also put the wellbeing of the entire community at risk as well. Famine, pestilence, rebellion, and foreign invader were all seen as consequences of allowing sin. So we teach ourselves to keep the law, to adhere to the teaching, if for no other reason than because that’s what virtuous and upstanding followers of Jesus do. And possibly because to do otherwise invites divine retaliation, the punishment of God, upon all of us.

But that’s not what God really tells Israel, not in the Old Testament nor in the New. The promise of God is not prosperity and success for those who walk the straight and narrow path (not even in Deuteronomy!), but resurrection for those of us who have perished in our sin. Christ came not to bear a burden for us, but with us. His defeat of death is the defeat of sin. It is the promise that whatever the judgment of God upon our sinful, chaotic, and deeply disordered lives (as individuals and as the people of God), our bones will not lay bleaching in the sun forever. Our dust will not moulder in the graves for eternity. Death has no hold over us. We are raised with him who rose.

We are raised with him who rose.

Two Stories

I focus a lot in my book, The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death, on some very important Bible stories that have helped me make sense of who God is, who I am, and what it means to have met Jesus and to follow as Jesus has called me to follow.

Today, I’d like to focus on the two most important of those stories.

The first is from Genesis 32:22-32, the story of a frightened Jacob who meets a mysterious stranger at a crossing of the wadi jabbock and wrestles with that mysterious stranger.

Jacob is scared. He is getting ready to see his long-estranged brother Esau, whom he cheated out of his birthright as the first son (by a few minutes) and then out of his blessing from their father Isaac. He has divided his people — his wives, his children, his slaves and servants, and his possessions — so that some portion of himself will survive an attack from Esau. He has sent gifts ahead to his brother. He has left his family, and gone on ahead — alone — to meet Esau. And he prays for God’s protection:

10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12 But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude. (Genesis 32:10-12 ESV)

Alone, Jacob meets the mysterious man, who grabs hold of him. Jacob grabs back. They struggle all night.

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. (Genesis 32:25 ESV)

The man demands Jacob let go of him, and Jacob refuses. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he says. He demands to know the man’s name, and the stranger replies not with his name, but by giving Jacob a new name — Israel יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל — meaning “he has struggled with God” or “he has persisted against God.” (Though it could also mean “God struggles” or “God persists.” But scripture gives us a meaning, and we’ll stick with it.) The mysterious stranger is never identified, but we’re told Jacob names it Peniel פְּנִיאֵ֑ל, meaning “Face of God.”

This struggle with God is faith for me. It’s how I understand what it means to meet God. And what amazes me about this tiny story is that even though the entire story of God’s people Israel is about God’s faithfulness and their failure to be faithful to their God, this story is about one man’s refusal to let go of God. In fact, Jacob is so intent on fighting, on struggling, on sticking with this, that God has to fight dirty — has to put his hip out of joint (one rabbinical commentary I read suggested this was a euphemism, and that God either tried to or succeeded in raping Jacob) — to make the struggle stop.

In struggling with us, His created things, creatures of mud bearing a tiny bit of the divine breath, God has to fight dirty. And even that doesn’t work. Because we won’t let go of God.

Think about that. We won’t let go. That’s faith. A faith even God has to contend with.

There’s also the matter of the injury. Jacob walks away, limping, wounded, from his night-long struggle with God. It is wounding, it leaves us limping, meeting God. Struggling with God. Wrestling with God. Not letting go. We are wounded. We limp. (Though the same rabbinical commentary says the wound here described, putting out the hip, would leave Jacob screaming in pain and unable to walk.) We are not the same. Not after this.

Because we also have a new name. We have a blessing (we do not know what the blessing was here). We are very different then we were the night before, when we crossed this dry riverbed, frightened and alone. We are marked, in a way we weren’t before, as God’s.

This struggle, as I said, is faith for me. God grabs hold. I grab back. And my gabbing back, for all my fear, doubt, and unfaithfulness, is too much for God. Who must fight dirty to get me to let go. Very dirty. Leaving me wounded. Changed. Blessed.

The second story that is hugely important to me is that of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. A lawyer asks Jesus how to “inherit” eternal life? What does the law say, Jesus asks? Love God and love my neighbor, the man replies. You got it right, Jesus says.

But that’s not enough for the man.

“Who is my neighbor?” he asks.

The man wants to know who he has obligations to. And who he doesn’t. The command to love neighbors comes from Leviticus 19, but there is an implication in the Torah that whoever isn’t Israel isn’t quite a neighbor and certainly isn’t a brother. (This is explicit in Deuteronomy 23, when God allows Israel to charge foreigners interest on loans as part of God’s forbidding interest to “your brother.”) So, the man wants to know, who does he not owe this obligation of neighborliness to?

This is where Jesus gets interesting. When Jacob asks the mysterious stranger what his name is, the stranger replies by giving Jacob a new name — and never revealing his. Jesus doesn’t say who the neighbor is. The lawyer wants a noun. Jesus responds with a verb, a story of what it means to be a neighbor.

I suspect this story is well known enough so that I don’t have to do a blow-by-blow. A man — very likely a Judean — is on his way to Jericho from Jerusalem when he is ambushed, beaten, and left for dead. A priest and a Levite pass him by, and do nothing. A Samaritan — someone who is not of Israel, but instead worships the corrupted faith grounded in a version of the Torah — comes along and cares for the man, picking him up, binding his wounds, taking him to an inn, and paying for his care.

Who was the neighbor? Jesus asks.

“The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer replies.

“You go, and do likewise,” Jesus says.

This is the command to us. Go and do likewise.

There’s a twofold meaning here for me. The first is that the neighbor is whoever God puts in front of you, wounded and needing help. The help given is tangible, real, physical. This is about immediacy, about hearts and heads and hands. This is what we would call an act of charity. It’s not about policy or governance or making the road safer or bringing anyone to justice (though none of those things are precluded; they just aren’t what love means when someone is bleeding in front of you). It’s about meeting someone, unexpected, and being their help and their healing.

This is hard. We like to pick our causes. And we can. We’ve made a world in which it is hard to meet real neighbors. So we tend to focus our efforts on imagined ones, mediated neighbors. It’s not wrong to help those in need far away, and I won’t say they aren’t neighbors. But we can choose to encounter them. Or not.

Out and about, we can’t choose to encounter someone. We can choose not to help them, to walk around them as the priest and the Levite did. But there they are, in front of us.

So, this story means, for me, that part of following Jesus in the world means purposefully living in it, not avoiding the places where we meet strangers and not turning away from their need. That means leaving a lot to chance. The people we meet are not always admirable, not always kind, not always people we would claim as neighbors if we could choose.

But we can’t choose. That for me is a major point of the parable. And of the whole Gospel. This is hard for moderns, because everything about modernity strives to create a world in which we can choose as much as possible — who we are, what we do, where we live, how we’re governed, who our neighbors are, who they aren’t, how we meet and deal with them.

Things most human beings have never been able to choose.

There is, however, another part of “go and do likewise” that intrigues me. While Jesus is clearly using a hated Samaritan as an example of how a neighbor acts, part of me also knows that Judean listeners would identify with the beaten man, and not the Samaritan. They would hear themselves as the victim here, walked around and left uncared for by their own.

Part of that risk we take in the world is the risk that we too shall be left beaten on the road to Jericho. That we will need care from absolute strangers — from hated enemies — and that care will come.

That’s an amazing kind of vulnerability that Jesus is teaching here. You too could be left for dead, and the only people who will care for you are enemies. And I cannot help but see some part of the coming judgment upon Jerusalem, the war that would see the city’s destruction, and the refugees who would huddle in the midst of the very empire that had made that war, finding no one to care for them but those they have avoided or consigned to outer darkness because of their sinfulness or faithlessness to Israel’s God.

Regardless of what is at work here, I believe Jesus is also telling the lawyer, and his disciples — faithfulness also demands vulnerability. It demands risk. You won’t always be a caretaker (which can become a position of power for Christians, who can come to see themselves as bestower of goodies to the world); you may also need care. And it will come from those least expected to care.

Perhaps this parable should be a reminder to the church that the world, as hostile as it may be, is still God’s world, and that God’s people should be open to the means God will use to care for the church in a hostile world. We may be surprised by who will care for us. And how.

Don’t Shoot the Lions

I’ve preached several times on the story of Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. I love the story. It shows any number of things that are worthy of our continued focus as followers of Jesus — that the kingdom we are to live out is a verb, it is made real by our very acts of self-giving love, rather than a noun; that we are to be vulnerable as we aid those in need, and as we accept assistance and help in our our vulnerability not simply from people like us, but from strangers and even enemies.

Most importantly, the main point of the story is that the neighbor, the one to whom an obligation of love is owed, is the person in front of you, the person you meet on the road. You don’t choose your neighbor — God puts a neighbor right in front of you.

Essential to every sermon I’ve ever preached about this has been some generic description of the Samaritan as stranger, or enemy. But this has always been just assumed, and no scripture its ever quoted to support this. So, we all remember something we probably heard — or think we heard — somewhere in seminary, and add it to the reading, to help parishioners understand just what it means to receive this kind of care and assistance from this kind of a complete stranger.

It’s lazy, but I suspect most preachers just kind of do it.

So, the other day, I’m scanning scripture for an account of the demise of the Northern Kingdom. I know it’s there — I wrote a song encompassing the entire Deuteronomistic history — but I didn’t remember any of the specifics. I found a 2 Kings account, but couldn’t find a similar account in 2 Chronicles.

But 2 Kings 17 tells as us all we need to know about who the Samaritans are.

6 In the ninth year of Hosea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. 7 And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods 8 and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. (2 Kings 17:6-8 ESV)

Idolatry. This is Israel’s sin — erecting idols to false gods and then worshipping them. “You shall not do this,” the Lord warned Israel (and Judah) “by every prophet and seer,” but, as the author of 2 Kings notes — “They would not listen.”

So, the Lord removed Israel “out of his sight.” Instead, the king of Assyria settles the land with people from across his kingdom. These settlers do not worship the God of Israel, do not fear Israel’s God, and so:

25 And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26 So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord. (2 Kings 17:25-28 ESV)

And yet, they still worshiped their own gods too. “So they feared the Lord but also served their own gods, after the manner of the nations from among whom they had been carried away.” (2 Kings 17:33 ESV) They did not follow the covenant of the people whose land they had conquered and settled (and likely intermarried with).

So these nations feared the Lord and also served their carved images. Their children did likewise, and their children’s children—as their fathers did, so they do to this day. (2 Kings 17:41 ESV)

These are the Samaritans. The remnant of Israel intermingled with its conquerors, who fear the Lord but have also tangled up their worship with other gods. With other practices. They are not quite the covenant people anymore. The have the teaching but they do not follow it. They have lost a sense of who they are. And whose they are.

And these are the people Jesus tells us we are to be vulnerable to. To be like. To care for the wounded we find, or, if we’re wounded, to receive their care. This is the person our God incarnate is using to instruct us in the ways of being a neighbor.

I’ve never seen this passage bundled in the lectionary with the Good Samaritan reading. I’m not sure why. They belong together.