SERMON: And He Submitted

I preached this Sunday at the churches in the Lutheran Parishes of Northern Duchess, located in and around Red Hook and Rhinebeck, New York. It was an amazing Sunday, and I hope to be able to go back and do this again in the future.

Below is a text, more or less, of what I preached. And audio too! Because someone out there requested a recording of my sermon. (Requests from the ether!)

SERMON — Christmas 1 (Year C)

  • 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
  • Psalm 148
  • Colossians 3:12-17
  • Luke 2:41-52

41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. 43 And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the group they went a day’s journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” 49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:41-52 ESV)

And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

It’s Jesus, so it has to be true, right? What other 12 year-old boy is going to hold his own — no, is going to prevail — in a conversation with some of the best educated and most learned religious leaders of his time? If anybody can amaze and impress, it would be Jesus.

Even the young Jesus. Jesus the sixth grader, the junior high school student.

But I have a problem with what Luke writes here. He violates one of the first rules of story telling — show me, don’t tell me. He tells me that everyone was amazed and impressed with all that Jesus understood and the answers he gave. But we don’t have those answers. We don’t know what Jesus said. We have nothing here but a short description, “and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”

This isn’t the only time Luke does this. In chapter four, after the people of his hometown Nazareth drive him out of the synagogue and even nearly toss him off a cliff, Jesus heads down to Capernaum where he teaches on the Sabbath. “And they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.” Mark echoes this in his first chapter by saying, “And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.”

And we do get lots of Jesus teaching in Luke, lots of Jesus answering questions, and telling stories, and healing the sick and the lame. All of that teaching and preaching and speaking with authority, amazing crowds and stunning everyone around him.

But not here. Not in the temple. Not in Capernaum. His authority is marveled at, but we don’t see it. We’re told, but we’re not shown.

Why? I imagine the answers and opinions of the young Jesus, his insightful questions and his amazing responses, would make really good reading. Because even a 12 year-old Jesus would know more about God, God’s promise for his people, and God’s teaching, than you or I or anyone. It would be teaching worth having. I suspect it would provide a lot of answers to that question — What Would Jesus Do?

And maybe, just maybe, that’s why we don’t have it.

In this season of Christmas, we are called upon to remember something — the promise of God, the redemption of God, the Word of God, is a person. Not a book. Not an idea. Not a set of principles. Not a a philosophy or an ideology seeking to govern or order the world. The promise of God, the redemption of God, the word of God, is a man. On Christmas Day, we met that incarnation in a tiny, vulnerable child, laid in straw, squirming, helpless, utterly depending upon other human beings for sustenance, protection, even life itself.

Everything God has ever promised to us, to Abraham, to David, to Israel as it faced the wrath of God in the armies of Assyria and Babylon and lived under Roman occupation — to have a home, to be a blessing to all, and to have descendants more numerous than grains of sand on the shore of sea — is fulfilled in Jesus. Through him, our exile is over, and we are gathered home. Through him, we are now descendants of Abraham. Through him the whole world is blessed.

I’m certain that if a Gospel writer — if God — had decided it was important to have these very specific, amazing, incredible, authoritative teachings of Jesus, we would have had them. Remember the last words of John’s gospel

25 Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. (John 21:25 ESV)

That’s quite a boast, even in the ancient world, where books were scarce and had to be created and copied by hand. There’s a lot more that Jesus did that we don’t know. And will never know.

And that’s okay.

Because while we wonder and consider what we don’t have, we frequently miss what we do have. Jesus, the savior of the world, God’s promise fulfilled and God himself incarnate, is still a 12 year-old boy. Still not entirely self-sufficient, whatever he might be learning of his father’s craft, however he might be contributing to well-being of his family. Still subject to some kind of human authority.

So, even if we are amazed at his understanding of the teaching of God and of the prophets — and that may be all the more amazing because he likely had little or no formal education in any of it — we don’t understand him when he tells his parents, who have been frantically looking for him for several days, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

I mean, we understand him. As Christians we get it. Because we know the rest of the story. We know who he becomes, we know what he does, and we know how it ends.

But as parents, I suspect we also get that Mary and Joseph didn’t understand this. We share that incomprehension. “My Father? Young man, *I am your father*! We’ve spent days looking for you! And you need to come home with us right now!”

He didn’t have to, this pre-pubescent Son of God who had just amazed everyone with his questions, his answers, and his understanding of the Torah. But he did. “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them.” He didn’t have to, this Lord and Savior of the world, who would walk on water and calm storms, who would heal lepers and raise the dead, who would feed thousands with a few loaves and a pair of fish and turn water into wine.

But he submitted. God, in becoming human, submitted to the indignity of humanity. He submitted to helplessness, to dependence, to neediness, to sickness and discomfort and the frailties and limits of our bodies — especially as they grow and develop. He’s God, and because he’s God, he had to submit to everything. To feelings, to confusion, to frustration, to uncertainty, to not knowing, to desire, to sorrow, to joy, to friendship, and to love. To the limits of our flesh.

And so, he submitted. To his parents. He didn’t have to. Anymore than he had to submit to the Judean religious leaders who demanded his death, to the mob who clamored for it, or to the Romans who actually killed him. But he submitted, and that’s what’s important for us to know.

He submitted to us. Again and again. God made himself one of us, bereft of divine power, and surrendered to us, dying with us, dying at our hands. Submitting to his parents is really not that big of a deal given what Jesus will face — Satan in the wilderness tempting him, and the cross that he must die upon. The cross that we, the very people came to save, will kill him with.

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My Next Job?

The Guardian has a three-part series of stories on life in North Korea (originally from NKNews), with this one focusing on young adult life — military service and university education — for the country’s young adults.

This bit struck me:

About a sixth of the population does go to university, which is a high proportion for a country with such a low standard of living. Of course, universities have their own hierarchy.

The most prestigious institution is the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (Pust), which was created by Kim Jong-il and has some strange traditions.

All courses are taught in English by professors who are all foreigners. Any foreigner who is not a citizen of South Korea is welcome – regardless of qualifications – to become a professor. However, given that professors are not allowed to leave campus without permission, are not paid a salary, are not compensated for their trip to North Korea and are fed badly, very few people volunteer.

The majority of North Korea’s Number One university professors are Christian fundamentalists, whose trips are sponsored by their church. Still, it is one of the few places in North Korea where you may talk to a foreigner and learn something about the outside world, and is considered very prestigious.

Of course, with two masters degrees (one from Georgetown University), I could easily teach a foreign language or something akin to Middle East studies (if such things are allowed) at PUST. It might be an interesting way to spend a year.

So, is this my next job? Because something about this really, really intrigues me…

Preaching This Sunday!

I should have posted this earlier in the week. For anyone who is interested, has a free Sunday, and is not far from Kingston, New York, I am preaching at the following three churches (yes, three) on Sunday, December 27:

  • Memorial Lutheran Church at 1232 Route 308 in Rhinebeck. Service begins at 8:30.
  • Third Lutheran Church at 31 Livingston St in Rhinebeck. Service begins at 9:45.
  • And finally, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at 7412 S Broadway in Red Hook. Service begins at 11:00.

All three congregations are part of the Lutheran Parish of Northern Duchess County, and I will be filling in for Pastor William Starkweather (thank you for the opportunity to serve God’s people this way). If you can come, please do, and hear the word preached!

A Desolate Woman in Her Brother’s House

I wanted to write this blog many weeks ago, but out of deference to a couple of people very dear to me, I refrained.

Because this about rape. In the Bible. And I wasn’t sure an essay on this subject would be helpful.

The first thing to consider is that scripture does not speak of abstractions. Scripture does not weight in on the morality of ethics of most things, and certainly not as abstract moral acts. Scripture has nothing to say about war, whether it is good or evil. Scripture is neither pro-war nor anti-war. Or rather, scripture seems to be both pro-war and anti-war. There is a lot of war in scripture, and God is present in some of it, acting on behalf of God’s people (Exodus 14, Joshua 6, Judges 7, 2 Chronicles 20, much of Jeremiah). There are even rules set out for the conduct of war in Deuteronomy 7 (the conquest of Canaan) and Deuteronomy 20 (other kinds of warfare). But for much of it, God is utterly and completely absent.

What strikes me as strange, at least from where I sit as a modern, Western Christian, is that God seem to neither condemn nor endorse war, to make the act morally proper and the actor — the soldier, the warrior — morally righteous, and thus without sin, for fighting. God commands fighting, but we cannot infer from that fact that God believes the fighting to be morally correct. In fact, one instance, in Numbers 31, God actually demands some kind of penance — a ritual cleansing — for Israelite soldiers who has exacted a divinely commanded vengeance upon Midian.

We like our Bible to give us clear guidance, to tell us right from wrong, to make our actions as Christians morally correct and untainted with sin.

But scripture doesn’t do that. And even when it seems to, it doesn’t. Not really. Not on war. Not on marriage. Not on sex. Not on much of anything, except maybe idolatry and the worship of false gods (God says: don’t, or else, and he means it). Our clear teaching as church on these matters is frequently grounded less in the actual story of scripture — which is a murky, messy, complicated, and very violent story — then it is on snippets of scripture and some general philosophical principles that only relate tangentially to the biblical story. There may be little alternative to this, but it isn’t as faithful to the biblical narrative as I think it ought to be.

And so it is with rape. A subject you’d think scripture would have something to say about. And it does. But not how you think.

First, there is a little guidance in the Torah.

Exodus 22 says this:

16 “If a man seduces a virgin [בְּתוּלָה or young woman of marriage age] who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride- price for her and make her his wife. 17 If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins. (Exodus 22:16–17)

An important thing to understand about the biblical world is that people were not autonomous individuals as we understand them. So, the person wronged in a rape is not so much the woman (though we shall see she is wronged), but the family of the woman. Women weren’t property, but they were possessions with value (in some ways that is a difference without a distinction) and virginity was valuable because you could at least more or less guarantee the patrimony of a first child (and thus guarantee proper inheritance of wealth). So, here, a man who rapes a young woman — a marriageable woman — is required to marry her, and if the father will not allow it, he has to pay the going bride-price anyway as compensation. For what he took.

Deuteronomy 22 deals with this in some more detail:

23 “If there is a betrothed virgin [בְתוּלָ֔ה], and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, 24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

25 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, 27 because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.

28 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.” (Deuteronomy 22:23–29)

City girls beware! You’d better cry out for help, because anything else will be seen as consent!

However, the focus of most of these laws is the young woman who is betrothed — promised but not yet given, married without the final act consummating the marriage. (I have long believed that there is no such thing as pre-marital sex in scripture. There is marital sex — sex within marriage and the sex act that makes a man and a woman married — and non-marital sex. But there is no sex before marriage when the sex act itself is what makes two people married.) So this is not so much about protecting young women as it is protecting marriage arrangements and families. There is a “mercy” provision here, if you can call it that, in that the teaching here gives a woman the benefit of the doubt when there is no one around to hear her cry out.

But cry out she must, according to this, or else she is an accomplice. Complicit in robbing her family and her betrothed of her value.

And there is a repeat of the Exodus injunction about rapists being required to marry young women not yet betrothed. A bride price must be paid — fifty shekels of silver — but no choice is given as to the marriage. In fact, the man is prohibited from divorcing his wife, the only prohibition against divorce in the Torah, I believe. (And just how many “happy” marriages were made this way?)

So, to sum up, the teaching on this subject from Exodus and Deuteronomy is fairly specific, aimed at young women of marriage age who have not yet had sex (if we take בְתוּלָ֔ה to mean nubile girl who has not yet had sex, because such a girl would be a wife) who are either betrothed or not. The law is designed largely to compensate the father and protect the future husband. Not the woman.

It says nothing about older women, married women, and women who no longer have “value” or “virtue.” The law can be extrapolated, and the rules about sex in Deuteronomy 22 and Leviticus 18 & 20 are quite clear about sex with “your neighbor’s wife.” (Who is my neighbor?) But these laws that deal with “rape” are limited to certain kinds of woman in certain very specific social situations.

There is one other set of teaching from Deuteronomy 21 that touch on this subject because they deal with what Israelites can do with female captives:

10 “When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, 11 and you see among the captives a beautiful woman [אֵ֖שֶׁת יְפַת־תֹּ֑אַר literally, “a woman lovely of shape”], and you desire to take her to be your wife, 12 and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. 13 And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. 14 But if you no longer delight in her, you shall let her go where she wants. But you shall not sell her for money, nor shall you treat her as a slave, since you have humiliated her. (Deuteronomy 21:10–14)

So, you’ve just killed her family and defeated her people’s army, plundered her village and possibly burned it down. She’s clearly going to eagerly and happily say, “yes, please, take me now.” So maybe this is why God (speaking through Moses) mandates the 30-day cooling off period. But she clearly has no choice in the matter — she is a captive, and not a willing participant. Thirty days to mourn her losses and accept her new situation, but I hardly think that makes “going into” any more consensual. And while consent hardly mattered for much of human history, especially for captives and slaves, this teaching sets forth who Israelites may rape under the limited conditions of war and captivity.

It’s depressing reading, this teaching on rape.

Thankfully, scripture no more follows its own teaching on rape than it does its own teaching on sex. Because there are three fascinating stories in which rape is as central to the biblical narrative as the rape of Lucretia was to Brutus toppling the Roman monarchy or the kidnapping of the barely marriageable Helen for immoral purposes led the Greeks to declare war on Troy.

The first story is the rape of Dinah in Genesis 34. Dinah is the only named daughter of Jacob, and as Israel and his twelve sons wander around what is now the northern portion of the West Bank, they encountered the Hivites. Dinah “went out to see the women of the land” (perhaps like Smurfette, she was lonely being the only girl in a family of boys) only to meet Schechem, son of the Hivite ruler. Genesis says that “he seized her and lay with her and humiliated her,” and that may very well be, but given as she was drawn to the company of the Hivites (lonely as she was), she and Schechem may have fallen in love. The humiliation wasn’t hers, but her family’s — her father’s and her brothers’.

Schechem does want to do the right thing — what will later be the biblical thing. “Get me this girl for my wife,” he tells his father Hamor. And Dinah may very well have been willing.

But Jacob’s sons are not. “The sons of Jacob had come in from the field as soon as they heard of it, and the men were indignant and very angry, because he had done an outrageous thing in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.” (Genesis 34:7) Hamor makes a deal with them — later telling his son privately they will get to inherit all of Israel’s wealth this way — to offer their daughters and sons to each other.

The sons of Jacob state the bride price — all of the Hivite men must be circumcised. “Then we will give our daughters to you, and we will take your daughters to ourselves, and we will dwell with you and become one people.” And so … the cutting was done. And so, on the third day with all the Hivite men still in pain from having their foreskins clipped, Simeon and Levi rampage through the Hivite village killing all the men they can find. And plundering what remained — including “all their little ones and their wives.”

Which gets us to the ambiguous end of the story:

30 Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizzites. My numbers are few, and if they gather themselves against me and attack me, I shall be destroyed, both I and my household.” 31 But they said, “Should he treat our sister like a prostitute?” (Genesis 34:30–31)

The question is left unresolved. Both Simeon and Levi make a coherent case for protecting the family/tribal honor. And Jacob makes a coherent case for their act putting the entire family/tribe at risk. There is no resolution, except that Simeon and Levi are both “disinherited” at the end of Genesis — because of their violence, they will not receive a portion of the land of Israel. Instead, they will be scattered, and have no allotment of their own.

But also note well that in this tale, a rape prompts swift and brutal vengeance.

Which brings us to our second story, the Levite and his concubine in the last three chapters of Judges (19–21). I have dealt in some detail with this story — the most gruesome in all of scripture — so I will only summarize it here.

A Levite and his concubine (young woman not a wife) are traveling around the West Bank when she is unfaithful to the Levite and flees him to live with her father in Bethlehem. (Already this is a happy relationship.) He comes and tries to woo her back with kind words. Eventually, they leave and go north. She wants to stay in Jebus (Jerusalem), but he won’t stay in a city of full of foreigners, and they make their way to Gibeah in Benjamin. They were going to stay in the city square when an old man invites them to stay with him and tells them “do not spend the night in the square.”

After dark, the whole of Gibeah descends upon the old man’s house. “Bring out the man who came into your house, that we may know him!” the men of Gibeah clamor. (Some hospitality.) The old man offers his daughter and the concubine, but the men of Gibeah don’t want girls — they want the Levite. So, the Levite grabs his concubine, tosses her out of the house, and “they knew her and abused her all night until the morning.” (Judges 19:25) She dies grasping hold of the doorposts of the house, trying in vain to find sanctuary from the horror and violence done to her.

Sadly, this story gets worse. The Levite then cuts her up into a dozen pieces, mails each piece to a tribe of Israel, a counsel is assembled, and war is decided. If Benjamin hands over the evil doers, so that they may be put to death and justice done, all will be well. Benjamin, the smallest tribe in all of Israel, proceeds to tell the rest of the Israelites to fuck off, and war ensues. On the third day, after Benjamin successfully holds off and twice defeats much the much larger combined army of Israel, God gives Benjamin over to Israel and the Israelites kill all but 600 Benjaminite men.

In effect, Israel has committed genocide. Against one of its own.

Which Israel quickly comes to regret. “Why has this happened today that there should be a tribe lacking in Israel?” However, Israel has also sworn not to give any daughters in marriage to any of the remaining men of Benjamin. How to solve this problem? Israel finds a village that did not participate in the war — Jabesh-Gilead — and they kill every man and every woman “that has lain with a male” in that village. They get 400 “young virgins who had not known a man by lying with him” and give them to the surviving Benjaminites as wives. So that the tribe may not disappear from Israel.

But they were still 200 girls short. So, Israel told the remaining Benjaminites to go and kidnap young girls from the annual festival at Shiloh. Which they do.

23 And the people of Benjamin did so and took their wives, according to their number, from the dancers whom they carried off. Then they went and returned to their inheritance and rebuilt the towns and lived in them. (Judges 21:23)

Ir’s an ugly story. Rape leads to war which leads to genocide which leads to regret which leads to more kidnapping and rape. And then everyone is happy. Well, except maybe the young women of Jabesh-Gilead and Shiloh.

But the point of this story is that a rape — a horrific gang rape at that — prompts vengeance, vengeance which leads to war and genocide.

No bride price is paid here.

Lastly, we go to the story of Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar in 2 Samuel 13–18. Amnon is one of David’s sons, and he falls in love with his beautiful sister Tamar.

And Amnon was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar, for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her. (2 Samuel 13:2)

He pretends to be sick, and she comes to feed him, and he tries to talk her into his bed. She isn’t having it — half-brothers don’t have sex with their sisters, not in Israel, she says, and how would she bear the shame?

14 But he would not listen to her, and being stronger than she, he violated her and lay with her. 15 Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, “Get up! Go!” 16 But she said to him, “No, my brother, for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.” But he would not listen to her. 17 He called the young man who served him and said, “Put this woman out of my presence and bolt the door after her.” (2 Samuel 13:14–17)

He gets what he wants, and then throws her away. She, disgraced and a “desolate woman,” goes to live with her brother Absalom. David their father is angry, but like Jacob in Genesis 34, he just sits there and doesn’t actually do anything about it.

But Absalom does. He kills his brother Amnon. This sets off a chain of events which leads Absalom to sense his father’s weakness, and so Absalom overthrows David, who flees from the city, leaving behind ten concubines to look after his house. Absalom is proclaimed king, and the first thing he does is to publicly humiliate his father in front of all Jerusalem:

21 Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house, and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself a stench to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.” 22 So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof. And Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. 23 Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God; so was all the counsel of Ahithophel esteemed, both by David and by Absalom. (2 Samuel 16:21–23)

(If there is a porn epic to be made from a biblical story, it’s this one.)

David eventually regains his nerve, support for Absalom begins to crumble, and the usurper is killed after losing a major battle in the forests of Ephraim. David mourns the loss of his son, and after a little confusion, eventually returns to Jerusalem and resumes his kingship.

It’s a wonderful, complex, and fascinating story. The point for my purposes today is that a rape leads to vengeance — murder, revolution, and war.

Again, no bride price paid here. Now, a case could be made that such a marriage — between Amnon and Tamar — would have been “illegal” according to the Torah (Leviticus 18:6, 20:17). But that never stopped anyone before (See Genesis 20:12).

Instead, we get with rape in the Bible what we see a lot in antiquity — vengeance and war. Bloody, horrific war. Revolution. And ambiguity. Because none of these stories ends well. Simeon and Levi may have been right to seek vengeance against the Hivites, but their revenge cost them their patrimony — their piece of the promised land. Israel may have been right to demand Benjamin do something about the events in Gibeah — because gang rape really is a lousy form of hospitality — but genocide, which required more killing and even more rape — was hardly the answer. And Absalom was right to be incensed over his half-brother’s cruel assault, and then abandonment, of his sister Tamar. Even to the point of killing Amnon. But he was hardly justified in overthrowing his father, and raping David’s own concubines publicly — all events which led to his own ignominious death while stuck hanging from the branches of an oak tree.

What scripture does in the story, however, is take the violation of women — and of family honor — so seriously that it is a cause for war. Rape is that big a deal here. It is such a big deal that a lid needs to be put on the possibility of vengeance. And this may be one reason the Torah gives us such banal rulings — compelled bride prices and enforced marriage. Because the cost of this act, not merely to the woman or to her family, but to an entire people, is so potentially staggering. War. Genocide. And nothing really solved at the end of the day.

What no one does in scripture is blame the woman. What no one does in scripture is question her motives or actions. What no one does in scripture is malign her past, or wonder if she dressed provocatively. (Yes, in the case of Dinah and the unnamed Levite’s unnamed concubine, who they are and what they want doesn’t count.) Instead, the men in her life — for better or worse — take up arms. It doesn’t get them much of anything (except dead rapists), and in this we see an appreciation of the tragic, that many very human situations simply don’t have a morally neat resolution.

But in these Bible stories, honor — familial and individual — and love matter enough to put everything at risk. And that is something worth remembering.

A Beautiful Night

A few months ago, I wrote this little essay on the church in America and its problem welcoming people:

Oh church, I’m trying to remember the last time you actually welcomed me. I’m trying to remember the last time a priest or a pastor asked me my name, said “thank you for coming,” much less asked me anything about my life. …

And I’m trying to remember the last time you actually, seriously, intentionally asked me what my gifts were (rather than just shoving a piece of paper in my face), how I wanted to or could participate in the life of the community, expressed surprise and joy at what I bring to you. (I might still be in the ELCA if a certain Chicago bishop had followed up his “I can’t in good conscience present you to a congregation as a pastor” with a “but you do have gifts for ministry, and we’d like to help you find out where and how to use those gifts” — something I’m told he’s actually said to someone else about me.)

But no, church, you’ve done none of these things in the last two years. All the places I have been, all the different ways we’ve worshiped, all the Latin chanted and refrains of “Lord, I love you!” sung. Occasionally, other worshipers have said hello. A timid, perfunctory, hello. One born of proximity, because I’m impossible NOT to see when I’m sitting close. And when Jesus’s command to “pass the peace” is repeated. But all the contacts, all the greetings, all the “tell me about yourself,” those have been mine. Me, reaching out to you.

And you… well, you’ve been uninterested in reaching back.

This isn’t quite so true now as it has been. I’ve been very busy at a couple of churches, playing music and being part of worship, and the AME Church in Chatham has been incredibly welcoming. I’ve been preaching a lot (thank you, Pastor Nelson, for your connections), and the little Reformed Church in Chatham says they want me to preach on a regular basis. I’ve preached once there, and am scheduled to do so again in January and February. So, maybe, just maybe, once people who aren’t church bureaucrats meet me, hear me proclaim the gospel in word and song, and actually spend a little time with me, I’m not so disreputable as some ELCA bishops are convinced I am.

Our time here has been good, and praise God. We don’t plan on staying here — Jennifer and I have a church planting project to do in Spokane, and we will relocate just as soon as tax season (and my full-time job) is over at the end of April. But I’ve done more preaching and pastoring here in the last few months than I’ve done in the previous two years combined.

And that’s a good feeling.

Sitting in my friend’s church on Christmas Eve, listening to him preach, listening to the congregation sing, smelling the candles, I realized that for all I’ve been through — for the apparent waste the last decade since I left The Oil Daily has been — I am grateful. For Jesus. For his church. For the grace it proclaims.

I am grateful to my wife Jennifer for introducing me to all of it. I say that because as much of a church girl as she is, she tenses up in church — she has been so abused and mistreated by the church that she has come to expect callousness and neglect and even abuse. And that saddens me.

It is possible for our lives, our experiences, our situations, to fundamentally do injustice to our natures. Jennifer is a church girl who has never really been allowed to be at home, safe, and to belong at church. My “daughter” Molly is a daddy’s girl who spent a life being treated abysmally in foster care, never really having a father of her own.

And me … I’m just a kind, nurturing, gentle man who aches desperately to be accepted and to belong, every time he has to justify himself to people in authority, is viewed as some kind of unacceptable outsider, a stranger, or even a potential monster.

If we’d all had better upbringings — proper upbringings — me and Jennifer and Molly wouldn’t have to try so hard to figure out our lives, to try to make sense of ourselves given that the world has done such violence to us and set our lives at odds with who our natures want us to be.

I watched Jennifer tense up in Andrew’s church last night, knowing how much she believes, and how hurt she has been despite or maybe even because of it all.

And I told her I was grateful.

For everything. Because of her, I would never have met Jesus. Never have found my purpose. Never have discerned my nature as a man who preaches the gospel and cares for, finds and nurtures, the lost and the wounded. I thanked her even for seminary, for a candidacy process that meant sitting in front of callous and cruel church people who could think of me as nothing but a problem or a liability. I thanked Jennifer for all of it.

I am grateful for a God who has come into the world, and called me — me! an angry, resentful young man who for a time wanted nothing more than to set the world on fire and burn it down to ash! — to receive love and then proclaim it to that same world whose destruction I once fantasized about. I am nothing without that love.

I am nothing without Jennifer’s love. She is very nearly God’s perfect love.

On the night the angels told shepherds

“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10–12 ESV)

and the heavens rang out with

“Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on Earth!”

I saw, and understood, the power of that love. I experienced its presence in a place — the church (and not a specific church; Andrew’s church has been very kind to us) — that has been little but self-centered and callous and more than a little judgmental. Even as I consider exploring another denomination’s ordination process, I ask myself — do I really want to subject myself to this again, and stand before another committee or panel and have to try and justify my life and my choices? Because I know when the issue becomes me, I lose. The church has no patience, and no place, for sinners such as I.

Because this sentiment from that earlier essay still applies:

You, church, don’t need to worry about me. You didn’t call me to follow and you didn’t make me a disciple, so you can’t undo that. You can ignore me and abuse me to your heart’s content (though I would take it as a kindness if you’d stop), and I will still be there. Because for me, it’s not about you. I see past you. I see through you. To the chalice and the loaf on table of the Lord.

Here, in this sinful, broken, risen body that is the church, there is grace. I have met it too. And I am grateful, truly grateful, for love enfleshed. For Jennifer, who showed me who and what Jesus was long before he walked into my life and demanded I follow. And for Michaela and Molly (especially Molly) who give me something to hope for, something to belong to, and a future that I can truly envision.

But mostly for Jesus. That helpless little baby who changed everything.

SERMON — The Bawling, Puking Promise of God

I didn’t preach last Sunday, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

Advent 4 (Year C)

  • Micah 5:2-5a
  • Hebrews 10:5-10
  • Luke 1:39-55

2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
5 And he shall be their peace.
(Micah 5:2-5 ESV)

46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
(Luke 1:46-55 ESV)

Do not be afraid. If there’s a single message I think you could boil down all of scripture to — all of Israel’s encounter with this strange God of ours — it wouldn’t be “God loves you,” as appealing and as true as that is.

It would be: DO NOT BE AFRAID.

Because we have so much to be afraid of. It’s hard to start with our fears — we have so many.

But all our fears begin and end with the fear of loss and the fear of death. All of them. Anything else we fear begins there.

And God, telling Israel, over and over again, as Israel experiences loss and death, conquest and exile — DO NOT BE AFRAID.

Our Micah reading is a reading of hope. From Bethlehem, the tiniest of cities, shall come a ruler. And not just any ruler, but one whose origin if from of old, from ancient days, and he shall shepherd the flock that is God’s people, and they shall dwell secure in them. “He shall be their peace,” Micah writes.

But missing from this reading is the context of Micah’s proclamation. This promise comes in the midst of war and violence.

Now muster your troops, O daughter of troops;
siege is laid against us;
with a rod they strike the judge of Israel
on the cheek. (Micah 5:1 ESV)

It begins with an act of violence, a siege, a humiliation. And this promise of peace in this shepherd who is from ancient days is immediately followed by a promise of war — against Assyria as it comes to invade. Shepherds of Israel shall rise to lead battle against the Assyrians, and they, in turn, shall “shepherd the land of Assyria with the sword.” The promised ruler, the promised shepherd who will deliver peace, will do so in a battle against those who have come to conquer. Who have conquered.

That’s the promise Mary understand here when she sings this song. She knows who her redeemer is. She knows the fulfillment of the promise of God.

And she knows that redeemer is coming.

Let’s be clear what that fulfillment is. It isn’t morning in America, or making America great again, or a man from hope, or change we can believe in, or a new deal or a square deal or a fair deal for everyone, or liberty, equality, and brotherhood. It isn’t workers of the world unite. It isn’t a political program or a campaign for office or even a set of ideas.

Redemption is a tiny baby, growing inside her. This scattering of the proud is a bawling, puking, helpless child that cannot even care for himself. This bringing the mighty down from their thrones is a newborn presented to the priest for circumcision and the regular offering for first-born sons. This exalting of the humble is a man who will wander the country, preaching and teaching and healing. This filling the hungry with good things is a Lord who multiply loaves and fishes and feed thousands. This sending the rich away empty is a teacher who will say “follow me” to poor fishermen and outcast tax collectors, making them the first receivers and bearers of the good news of God’s restored kingdom for God’s people Israel.

This helping of servant Israel and remembering God’s promises is a man who die innocent on a cross for the sins of God’s people, rising again to fulfill all of the promises God made long ago to a man named Abraham as he wandered what is now a war-scarred land.

Mary knows this. Zechariah knows this. Simeon the temple priest knows this too, and so doesAnna the prophetess. They all know. They have looked into the face of their salvation and seen a tiny, helpless child who cannot even save himself. And they are glad. They celebrate. The world is changing, and God is acting, and God’s people will soon be delivered from their humiliation and conquest, from their exile, from their occupation. From the enemies in their midst who rule them harshly, without mercy or pity.

God has acted. God’s people are being delivered.

By one who cannot even save himself.

Who Is My Neighbor?

Matthew Parris over at The Spectator struggles with a question many Christians I suspect are also struggling with:

Christianity has lost its bearings, as I’ve argued here before; but I don’t believe secular thinking has found them. The ache I describe — the lost chord — is (as, again, I’ve argued here) our failure to answer the question Christ himself never really faced up to, though He was asked it. ‘Who is my neighbour?’

Jesus appears to reply ‘Everyone’, but this is impossible as we cannot help everyone equally, and need an order of priorities. Who, and in what order? My elderly former secretary with severe dementia? The drug addict on the street? The migrant? The orphaned Syrian? Show us the mark and we’ll try to meet it, but we genuinely don’t know what to aim for, and no voice from our own age advises with authority. Who is our neighbour? This year’s agonising pictures of desperate migrants have sharpened the aching question in many western hearts.

Of course, this whole notion of “love your neighbor” and “welcome the stranger” isn’t simply Gospel — it’s also a central message of the Torah. But Jesus gets very specific in Luke 10 with the parable of The Good Samaritan.

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back. ’ 36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:29–37 ESV)

Yes, Jesus does appear here to say everyone is out neighbor, but note — he doesn’t. The young man in this parable asks the “who is my neighbor?” question because he wants to know who his neighbor isn’t, who he doesn’t owe anything to. Jesus does not oblige.

However, Jesus does, in fact, answer this question. But with a verb, and not a noun. Jesus describes an act here, how to be neighbor, and what to expect of neighbors, using the example of the hated Samaritans (the remnant of the conquered northern Kingdom of Israel whose worship of God was polluted and corrupted by their conquerors). He shows us what a neighbor does, so we can go and do the same — both care for strangers and enemies and be cared for by those same strangers and enemies.

But he’s noting something important here too — the person in need, in front us, right now, is our neighbor. Love and compassion is commanded not when it is easy, or convenient, but when it is hard, when it requires great risks, when it is costly.

It is easy, in our age, to pick and choose our causes, to consider — from a position of power — who we will help. And how. We can help people far away, and a flood of refugees becomes a problem to be managed — somehow. We agonize over policies and procedures, how all these things will change our societies and our communities.

We wonder, as Parris does, “who is our neighbor?”

I have no answer. Not to that question. I know that when we say “everyone” is our neighbor, then no one is our neighbor. Because we cannot love everyone, and because we can pick and choose who we will help just as much as if we decide certain folks — Muslims, refugees, foreigners — are not our neighbor.

In the last few months, because of a ministry I have done, God has given me some young people to care for. Teenagers beaten and left for dead by the side of the road. I would never have cared for them, or even considered the possibility, had I not been traveling that road to Jericho myself, and come across them. And understood my calling — to love them into some kind of wholeness, a wholeness they’ve never experienced because that beating on the road has been almost the entirety of their lives.

People put in front of me. To care for. Neighbors.

We like to think in terms of big pictures, in terms of policies and procedures that will help as many as possible. Or even solve problems. But that’s not called for here — Jesus says nothing about making the road safer, or punishing bandits, or establishing hospitals to care for the wounded, or lobbying those in charge for any of those things. (Many of these kids are wounded specifically because of the systems that are charged with caring for them.) He speaks of one man, beaten, and one man, stopping to care. And that’s all Jesus speaks of.

So I have no answer for refugees. I have no policy prescriptions. I almost don’t care about any of that.

I do care about the people God puts in front of me. Wounded, desperate, alone, in need of love. They are no more and no less deserving of that care than anyone else. But God gave them to me, and that makes them mine. My neighbors.

Love the people God gives you to love, the people put right in front of you. Care for the people God gives you to care about. Heal the people God gives you to heal. If there aren’t any such people in your life, then get out, wander the roads, take some risks — you might be beaten, and need the care of a neighbor yourself. That’s part of this parable too, I think. And do not worry about the rest, about the shape or form of society, the good order of the world, or whether someone else is winning or getting something over on you. That’s not the Gospel. As far as the world is concerned, trust God.

Fear not, trust God, and love your neighbor.