SERMON It Is Enough

A reading from the Gospel of Luke, the 18th chapter.

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9–14 ESV)

There’s not much to add to this. Not really.

Well, except there is. This morning, I heard a preacher today speak of the virtues of humility, and how this saying of Jesus proves we should all walk humbly with God. He spoke of a priest, praying to God, saying, “I’m not like that pedophile over there…”

Yes, he really said it.

And pedophile, praying to God, “be merciful to me a sinner.”

Which one is justified?

This is a reason we should be humble, walk with humility, realize that we cannot and should not be arrogant. Because … our works, our virtues, our righteousness does not justify us.

All true.

And yet … I suspect for a number of people sitting in those pews, self-righteousness and arrogance and conceit are not problems. Arrogance is not their sin. They already beat their breasts, and wail before God, and they know — because everyone around them has shown them and made it clear — that they are of no value. They are sinners, enemies, lost and irredeemable.

Remember who the tax collector is. He’s not just a bad man. He’s not just a sinner. He works for the enemy, the conqueror, the occupier, and in doing so, he steals from and cheats and betrays his own people. (To an extent, maybe pedophile is a better comparison than I want to admit; doing the ministry I do, however, I’m hard pressed to want to forgive the abusers of children or even include them in notions of forgiveness.) To be a tax collector and say this prayer is to know, really know, just how bad your work is. To know, really know, how much that work separates you from the Pharisee, who is the keeper of what it means to be one of the people of God.

How much that work separates you from God.

The tax collector’s plea forms the core of the Jesus prayer, which I will sometimes sit and say 33 times (counting on the segments of my fingers). I’ve altered the version I say a bit, drawing from my favorite prayer in Numbers 10, and it goes something like this:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and deliver me this day.

Because mostly I feel worthless before God. I feel like I don’t belong to God’s people. I don’t know what I’ve done to be an enemy, but clearly I’m not good enough to be one of the People of God. I don’t fast and I don’t tithe and I don’t have a fancy title.

Because of this Jesus tells me I’m justified. I suppose. I’d rather have the fancy title and the nice clothes and belong. I don’t want to stand far off, and beat my chest, and wail that I’m not worthy. I want to draw near, and tell God I’m good enough. I’m tired of hearing I’m not good enough and I’m not welcome. I want to say, just for once, that I’m not like those other people, those sinners who are not me. And maybe, just maybe, for once I’d like to tell someone, “you are not welcome here, please go away,” and have that power, and make it stick.

But I don’t.

Am I exalting myself, even in my own mind, by wanting these things? Am I still justified? I don’t know. There are days — like today — when I’m not sure I care.

I know Jesus cares. I know Jesus cares most about those who stand far away, who know who they are — sinners, unwanted, unclaimed, people considered beyond the reach of God’s love and redemption — and that he goes to find them. Us. The lost.

So, I am one of God’s people, whether the others want me or not. Whether I much want to be one of God’s people or not.

And I am redeemed. And justified. And so are you. All of you who have stood far off, known that you are not welcome or wanted at this table where only the righteous can dine. Where only the decent and respectable are invited. You who are sinners, who know you are sinners, who know you are lost and unwelcome and unwanted, Jesus wants you. Has found you.

Has claimed you as his own.

Has justified you.

God is merciful, even when men are not. God is welcoming, even when men are not. Here, today, now, you belong. You belong to God.

Someday this kingdom will be bigger. Someday, it will feel like it really includes me. But right now, it is here, at this table. You belong. And I do too. That is enough.

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This is How it Works (Continued…)

This is shaping up to be that kind of day.

Catholic writer David Mills, over at the blog aleteia.org, has some very interesting things to say about the ability of partisan politics to destroy even basic sympathy and empathy within us, all in the name of whatever greater good or cause we are supporting.

One of the worst effects of political passion is that it destroys sympathy. Feeling sympathy has no political use. The partisans train themselves to fight for their man without care for the other side and all the people in the middle. They train themselves not to see and not to listen. I know this because I’ve been the partisan.

Vexing for me has been the way so many conservative religious men excuse or ignore Donald Trump’s hot mic comments, and others of the same sort. Some are real friends and some internet friends, and many of the rest allies. I’m also vexed with the way Hillary Clinton’s supporters so blithely reject the unborn child, but don’t have the same personal connections.

Mills continues:

These men gave up, because their politics requires they give it up, the sympathy to see how such remarks affect others. The men I’m thinking of aren’t normally so callous. But politics.

They know rape is bad, but that’s as much as they’ll admit. Every form of sexual abuse, even being “handsy” and making suggestive remarks, has a place on the spectrum with rape at the other end. Each violates the woman’s integrity and dignity and each includes the threat of further violations. Each objectifies the victim, de-humanizes her, and thereby makes her vulnerable.

Many men would be surprised at how many women they know have such stories and how angry they are about it. Christian men might be surprised at how often these stories involve Christian men.

I want to tell such men: If you can’t understand how this experience affects women in general, try to imagine a man talking like that about your wife or your daughters. How would you feel if you walked into a room and found an older man being “handsy” with your 22-year-old daughter or making flirtatious remarks to your wife about her body?

What would you say or do then? That’s what you’re not saying or doing when you say the hot mic remarks are just the way guys talk, or declare “He who is without sin, cast the first stone,” or demand Christians forgive the speaker though he hasn’t repented, or change the subject to the political issue you think is at stake, or try to divert attention by pointing to the other side’s problems, or in one of several other ways rationalize away such talk. You are not caring for the least of these as Jesus tells you to.

Listen, Mills says, to the stories women tell. I may not like so much of the talk about wives and sisters and daughters that has come out of conservative politicians since it was revealed that Donald J. Trump, billionaire presidential candidate (who owns a mansion and a yacht), is also an admitted abuser, assaulter, and molester of women, but that talk at least least gets them to understand what’s at stake here.

The whole point of listening to stories is to hear pain, suffering, sorrow, endurance, and strength — what it takes, sometimes, for some people to get up and live. In the face of our partisan political projects, in which we use ideology as both brick and mortar to build and fortify our tribal ideas, stories are supposed chip holes in those walls, let a little light and breeze through, so that in it all, we can encounter someone as a human being.

Ideology blinds us. It hardens our hearts, and makes it hard — perhaps impossible — to see or encounter our shared humanity. It turns compassion and kindness into weakness. It sees nothing but evil in enemies and nothing but virtue in allies no matter how bad they are.

And this leads me to a tweet from that moral reprobate Dinesh D’Souza, who had this to say about President Barack Hussein Obama:

I grant that D’Souza, a washed-up liar and a fraud who has fallen to such intellectual depths he can no longer think straight or honestly anymore, is probably not worth dealing with here. But I couldn’t simply pass the sheer spiteful awfulness of this tweet by. He doesn’t even hint or suggest at his horrible conclusion, he just comes out with it — Obama’s father abandoned him not because the father was a careless or even bad man, but because there was just something in this tiny child worth abandoning.

Obama’s mother didn’t leave him to be raised by her parents because she was self-involved and preoccupied with other kinds of work, but because a ten-year-old child was not worth raising.

And that the child’s abandonment should tell us something, something we should have known about this man when he ran for president. The child Obama was responsible, at fault, for his own abandonment. And we should have known — should have known — when he ran for president. This is man worth abandoning, not worth caring for. Not worth loving, encouraging, admiring, or respecting.

Not worth electing.

Goddamit, who are these people claiming the moral high ground (remember, they are all defending something they keep referring to as Christian civilization) who cruelly blame a child for his own abandonment, and refuse to see any accomplishment or character in the ability to overcome that abandonment, to find some kind of meaning and purpose in life in it or because of it?

I’ve long thought one of the unspoken presumptions enfolding our whole approach to foster care is that if God really loved these kids, if they were really valued by the cosmos, they would just have families, they wouldn’t have been left to be raised by the state. And that this deeply unspoken assumption about the world means we really don’t care what happens to kids in foster care. Not really. They don’t matter.

We can do whatever we want to them. We can abuse them and break them and use them and throw them away.

After all, if they’ve been abandoned — for whatever reason — that should tell us something about these kids. They aren’t worth wanting. They aren’t worth loving.

I have no idea if D’Souza believes any of this or not. It sure seems like it, though, at least based on this tweet. Obama’s is a life he’d of thrown away, and I have to ask — who else would D’Souza consign to the scrapheap of history because they had the tremendous misfortune of having parents die or go to prison or simply disappear? Or parents so self-absorbed they cannot be bothered to meaningfully parent?

Maybe listening to D’Souza’s story would tell me something, would help me understand why he has become this man, and see something human in him.

Maybe.

But if this is civilization-saving, moral, Christian conservatism, then Lord, let godless, pagan, Molech-sacrificing, hedonistic secularism bash down our walls and lay waste to our city. And bring it down upon us quickly.

Because it can’t possibly be any worse than this.

God’s Work, Our Hands

Jennifer and I have been attending a Catholic church of late, and while they mostly follow the Revised Common Lectionary, there are some differences. The RCL’s reading for last Sunday, 16 October, was the Genesis 32 struggle between Jacob and the mysterious stranger, which seemed to work well with the Gospel reading about the persistent widow and the unjust judge in Luke 18.

However, the Catholics read this from Exodus instead:

8 Then Amalek came and fought with Israel at Rephidim. 9 So Moses said to Joshua, “Choose for us men, and go out and fight with Amalek. Tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the staff of God in my hand.” 10 So Joshua did as Moses told him, and fought with Amalek, while Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. 11 Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. 12 But Moses’ hands grew weary, so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side. So his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. 13 And Joshua overwhelmed Amalek and his people with the sword. (Exodus 17:8–13 ESV)

As I was reading this passage, I realized I will have more to say about Amalek later, but what struck me on Sunday when this was read in church was just how many hands were needed here to do the work.

We don’t have an explicit statement here, as we do elsewhere, that God is fighting for Israel. This is Israel merely fighting in defense. This is a miracle, but not like at the Red Sea, or Jericho, or during the long battle with Benjamin. Israel fights, and Moses watches.

And he watches. And as long as his hands are raised, Israel prevails. Which is tiring, because battles in the ancient world, especially once soldiers closed with each other and melee was joined, were long, bloody, and disorganized knife fights. Knowing Moses is tired, his assistants provide him a place to sit, and hold up his hands.

No one man is responsible for this victory. Joshua leads the army, Moses inspires that army, and when he grows weary, Aaron and Hur help him. So the victory is won. And Amalek is defeated, at least for today.

Many hands make light the work.

We all have some kind of role to play in the kingdom of God. A few are called to lead the armies, more are called to wield the sword, some are called to inspire from the sidelines, and others … others are called to move rocks so that leaders may rest and hold up their arms so the inspiration can continue. I’m certain there are others, unnamed, unremembered, whose work makes possible the work we are called to do. That too is God-inspired, Spirit-filled, faithful work, the love of God working itself out in the world.

Nothing done faithfully in and for the kingdom, even if it’s only moving furniture, even if its holding someone up, is wasted. All of it is important.

All of it.

JUDGES We Forget

A reading from Judges, the second chapter.

7 And the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great work that the Lord had done for Israel. 8 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died at the age of 110 years. 9 And they buried him within the boundaries of his inheritance in Timnath-heres, in the hill country of Ephraim, north of the mountain of Gaash. 10 And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers. And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.

11 And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. (Judges 2:7–11 ESV)

“And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel.”

So it is that we do not know. I am reminded of another place in scripture where someone does know, where things that were done become mere stories we may or may not tell, and because of that, where the reality we face suddenly becomes mysterious and undecipherable, something we are no longer capable of understanding:

8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us.” (Exodus 1:8–9 ESV)

We forget so easily what God has done for us. A new Pharaoh forgets what Israel did, what Joseph did, to save Egypt, and sees not allies and friends but a threat so large it must be dealt with. Israel has forgotten its redemption from Egypt, God’s provision of manna and water in the wilderness, the guidance of the pillar of cloud and fire. Israel has forgotten that the walls of Jericho fell without effort, how the sun stood still over Gibeon and how the birds came and dropped stones on the army of Adoni-Zedek, and how God gave Canaan into the hands of Israel.

Israel has forgotten. Because it has all faded into memory. It has all become stories.

We forget. We come to not know. We live in the midst of circumstances we have inherited and we do not entirely understand how. We do not remember the gifts our ancestors and forebears received from God, the gifts that got us here.

And so we abandon God.

We do not know the work because it is undone in our midst. Maybe we tell stories, but likely, we do not really believe them. God didn’t actually do any of that, we say.

We forget. We become those who did know. We worship what we find around us — the idols of the people we are conquering, who land and places we are inheriting.

It is easy, this forgetting. Israel forgets even when the acts of God are fresh in its memory and experience — why else worship a golden calf a Sinai when only recently our God drowned the oppressor’s army in sea? It’s a lot to expect that we will remember a generation or two removed from the saving.

We forget. Even when we tell stories. We forget and we abandon God. That’s just our nature.

But there is good news. As we shall see, this forgetting gives God a chance to intervene in our lives, again and again, to redeem us. So that we can become people who know the Lord, and the works he does for us.

SERMON Wounded by God

A reading from Genesis, the thirty-second chapter.

22 The same night [Jacob] arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. 24 And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. 25 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. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh. (Genesis 32:22–32 ESV)

We have here what may very well be my most favorite story in all of the Bible.

Jacob is the trickster, the younger son (of twins) who cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright and his blessing. Esau was the strong brother, mighty, a man’s man, hunting and fishing and farming and doing all those that strong men have always done. Esau is his father Isaac’s favorite.

Jacob stays inside — maybe he’s clever and bookish and probably a bit of a sissy. He’s certainly a mama’s boy. He is not a man’s man. He has lived by cunning and trickery most of his life (Jacob and his uncle Laban struggled hard to get one over on each other), and now he’s on the road — meeting all sorts of heavenly characters along the way — and he has decided to take his chances with his brother Esau.

Jacob has, after a fashion, done well for himself. And maybe the years of having to try and keep one step ahead of each attempt by his uncle to cheat him have finally gotten to him. “I have sent to tell my lord [Esau], in order that I may find favor in your sight,” he commands his servants to tell Esau.

But he’s scared. He stole everything from Esau. We speak of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Esau. This man is the recipient of the promise of God not by birth, but by fraud. “Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come to attack me …” Jacob prays as he sends his wives and all his children away on separate path so that he may meet Esau alone.

With his offering.

“Perhaps he will accept me.”

Alone, Jacob meets a man, and they fight. That man grabs hold of Jacob, and Jacob grabs back. And the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob… So he fights dirty. And Jacob still doesn’t let go. “Give me a blessing,” he demands in what has to be excruciating pain.1 “Tell me your name. Give me a blessing!”

And wounded, in pain, Jacob does not let go.

This, sisters and brothers, is faith. Our faith. We have come to identify the man — this stranger — as God himself. “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” God meets us in moments of fear, in the pitch black darkness of night, when are most alone and vulnerable, ambushes us and grabs hold of us.

And we grab back. Not knowing who or even what we’ve got ahold of.

But notice … God cannot prevail. The almighty cannot beat us. Omiscience and omnipotence and omnipresence cannot defeat us. Cannot prevail over us. Cannot win in his struggle with us. God himself has to resort to trickery, and even that fails to shake us. We do not let go. “Give me a blessing,” we say of this God who grabbed us in the middle of a dark night, who ambushed us when we were at our weakest, when we were at our worst.

This is faith. To grab hold of God when God grabs hold of you. To not let go. To demand to know who’s got you, to demand a blessing. And realize, God fights dirty. God wants to make the struggle stop.

And yet, frighted and wounded and alone in the inky black darkness, we don’t let go. We don’t give up. We prevail. Over God.

We prevail.

That, sisters and brothers, is our faith.


  1. In seminary, I recall reading a Jewish physician and sometime scripture commentator noting this wound was either physically impossible or such that Jacob would have been in so much pain that he would have been utterly incapacitated. The physician suggested the description of the act itself — putting the hip joint out of it socket — was a euphemism, and that God was possibly raping or attempting to rape Jacob. Which is truly fighting dirty. This is speculation. But consider for a moment what it might mean for God to fight that kind of dirty against us. ↩︎

The Future of War … And Politics

Paul Mason has this to say over at The Guardian about the future mercilessness of war currently on display in Syria, but also in Yemen and elsewhere:

To understand the renewed popularity of killing sick people in hospital beds, it’s not enough to point – as MSF does – to the new techniques of war, such as drones and special forces. Something has been eroded about our perception of humanitarian principles.

The Red Cross was, at its inception, both a global humanitarian movement and an alliance of national, military-aligned volunteer units. The two did not seem contradictory. As long as a nation’s army’s hospitals obeyed the Geneva strictures – separating themselves from defensive military positions – civilian medics could volunteer on the understanding they would not be deliberately harmed.

That could not be further from the ideological framework under which modern wars are fought. Since the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides, and with the fragmentation of numerous states along religious or ethnic lines, the essential story of modern conflict has become “we, the normal folk, against an inhuman, alien and irrational foe”.

I think that pretty well describes what politics has descended to in the United States as well — a contest not of fellow citizens who see that shared citizenship with each other even as they compete, but rather, a no-holds barred contest for victory and supremacy against an “inhuman, alien and irrational foe.”

Who must be defeated at all costs. Who is worthy neither of consideration nor consideration, and who deserves no mercy.

It isn’t that civilization is at stake. It’s more primal than that. We, the tribe, are at stake.

While tribalism has always been with us, one of the reasons it is becoming so intense is because the order created by modernity is so fundamentally alienating for so many people. Whether it succeeds or fails in its promises (such as consumerist individualism, or equal national citizenship and accountable governance), modernity destroys the very flesh and blood connections that make it possible for us to really be human and see the humanity even in others, and even in the stranger.

To borrow a Qur’anic concept, tribalism, a sense of us as a separate and unique people, makes it possible for us see the human in the other.

O’ Mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. (4:39 Khan & Al-Hilali)

But if our humanity is constantly threatened, so much that we are hard pressed even to see ourselves as human, then it becomes difficult — perhaps impossible — to see others as anything more than alien and irrational.

And the web of tribal organization that thrived in mid-century America — Churches, families (often extended), neighborhoods, civic associations — that made it possible for people to be embedded in a web of human relationships, are gone. This was a often not an ideal web, and it could frequently suffocate (though big cities often provided space for nonconformists to find their way), but it worked for most people and it gave their lives shape, meaning, and purpose.

It made them intelligibly human to themselves. And that gave them a fighting chance of seeing, truly seeing, the human in the other, the stranger, the alien. Of seeing the reason in the irrational.

As Andrew Bacevich writes over at Commonweal in his review of Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, about soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Members of a squad or platoon form a tribe of sorts, linked to one another by bonds that Junger believes have otherwise all but vanished from our hyper-individualistic, consumer-oriented society. For boys grasping at maturity, in other words, war offers a rite of initiation, all the more alluring given that elsewhere in American society such rites have fallen out of fashion.

In place of communities, ours is a society consisting of market segments, delineated by personal consumer preferences. So when present-day veterans return from Iraq or Afghanistan, they are duly welcomed and then duly expected to repair to their assigned niche in the marketplace. Thank you for your service. Now shut up and shop.

We aren’t in this together. We were once, but not anymore. A sense of shared obligation and responsibility is gone — everyone, but especially the wealthy and the successful, are angry and entitled, convinced the only people they owe are themselves. The aspiration for absolute equality and absolute freedom — both false and dreadful promises made by modernity — destroy any sense that anyone has a duty or responsibility to another. To their safety or their wellbeing.

This doesn’t get better. It gets worse. None of our institutions is set up to foster this sense of obligation and responsibility, to promote mutual self-giving and mutual self-surrender within a social hierarchy. Between the statism and the libertarianism of the age, we are incapable of even conceiving how a good life could be made when we live together, obligated by ties of kinship and faith and closeness that we didn’t choose. We are spinning, whirring, exhausting ourselves in a fit of unfocused rage that can only end in sorrow and suffering and possibly even destruction.

The desire to belong, however, to be part of something, to owe others as one is owed, is there, it just doesn’t know what to do or how to express itself right now. It will out at some point, when there’s little left, when we have been atomized and consumerized into almost non-existence. When we have become such strangers to ourselves that we aren’t sure we see human beings in the mirror anymore.