This image conveys a different notion of sacrifice for me than the cross. Jesus on the cross, hanging alone, has always felt distant for me. I’m an “observer” to this act of love.When I consider the metaphor Jesus offers here, of himself as a mother hen, my imagination about God is peaked in new ways.
Explore and sign up for our series of weekly emailed reflections, which follow the Revised Common Lectionary liturgical calendar of readings from the Old and New Testaments. These reflections have been drawn from, and lend themselves to, sermons for preachers as well as private devotionals. All are rooted in perspectives “from below” that embrace abundance and peacemaking.
The whole scene is an invitation to recount the experience of Moses on Mount Sinai; however, there is a notable difference. While glory came down from above unto Moses, here the glory is emanating directly from Jesus. While Moses exudes a reflected light, Jesus is the source of his own light.
My usually precise colleague aimlessly fiddled with his food, pondering the proper tone with which to broach a delicate matter. He was looking for words to express his concerns related to me openly talking about my poverty during times when I preached and taught. He’d rather me use other language than “I’m poor.”
All the images I saw on the walls of my Sunday school classrooms were pictures of white children and a white Jesus who looked like a surfer. And then there were stories like today’s Gospel in which boys were the lucky ones. They were on the shore that day to receive the amazing invitation from Jesus to follow him.
Taking a deep breath, Jesus knows his proclamation will transform the cheering multitude in front of him into a mob of murderers behind him. He points to two stories that his audience would have known well.
Yes, the whole world is a burning bush ablaze with God’s glory, if we can only see it, calling us to join the wildly liberating work of God among the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. If this isn’t cause for celebration, it’s probably because we don’t easily identify ourselves as poor, captive, blind or oppressed.
“Will you renounce evil in all of its forms?” I’ve often wondered if I should ask those being baptized to list all the specific ways evil shows up in their lives, and how they plan to carry out their “renouncing.” (I don’t know if I’d actually use the word renounce…but I digress…).
Baptism is an initiation into our most sacred vocation—to become fully human and know ourselves loved by God. No moral system, no matter how good, can produce this vocation. We become human, not through morality, but by receiving and giving mercy.
This week we celebrate Epiphany, and next week the baptism of Jesus. What do these events say to our souls? How is God’s love transforming us as we meditate on these events?
I have always thought this to be an awkward Gospel story. Mary and Joseph lose their child and don’t realize it for a whole day! My sister has seven kids and forgot one at the mall once. But, Mary and Joseph only have one child—and they lost him? Talk about free-range parenting!
Her picture popped up on my computer screen this week after clicking on an email from a friend—a sweet, but seemingly exhausted, 5-year-old Honduran refugee. The email author: a Street Psalms’ friend and InnerCHANGE missionary, Nate Bacon. He had joined up with the caravan of Central American immigrants on their Northward trek to the U.S. When he finally caught up with them in Huixtla, Mexico he did not find a “band of marauding criminals” nor a “threatening throng of terrorists,” but “groups of family members of all ages set on pursuing life.”
Advent gives us an excuse to consider again the nature of a God who comes to be with and in a people. If the Incarnation is anything, it is the God-in-flesh ONE who turns things upside down and inside out, simultaneously scandalizing and comforting us. This is the God we are waiting for and the God we will welcome—anew.
A smartly dressed, well-heeled crowd pressed their way through a cold December evening in 1851, seeking to find comfortable seats within the warm confines of New York’s Metropolitan Hall. The hype for this event was incredible. It would become part of an annual phenomenon, featuring big and plenteous voices, gathered to sing out the scriptures, as arranged by George Frideric Handel in his oratorio, “The Messiah.”
Welcome to the first week of Advent. If you are new to the liturgical calendar, Advent is the four Sundays leading up to Christmas and it marks the beginning of the liturgical year.
On the eve of a battle in the year 312, Constantine had a vision. He saw a cross in the sky and he heard God say, “By this, conquer!”
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The city where I serve is no different than any other city in this country. A litany of the same issues show up on the city council agenda every two weeks: violence, unemployment, immigration, disparity in the education system, community safety, homelessness, policing, economic development and housing issues, just to name a few.
Joyful thoughts come to mind whenever I see my niece Shaianne; none of them begin with the prefix “dis.” She uses a wheelchair, but I never think of her as disabled or disadvantaged.
“Love God. Love People. Nothing Else Matters” became my mantra during my single, young-adult years; life seemed simple without the tether of expectation coming from academic degrees, job titles and the financial responsibilities of parenthood. Those words from the mantra of my youth are a paraphrase from Jesus in our Gospel text this week.
Beautiful questions yield beautiful answers. They open space for the Spirit to work, and involve us in our own transformation. Ultimately, they free us to see in new ways and act creatively. On the other hand, small questions yield small answers. The Japanese word “mu” can be understood to mean “un-ask the question.” Mu is the appropriate response when the question is too small fortruth to emerge. Throughout the Gospels Jesus is, in effect, saying “mu.” He is helping us find larger more beautiful questions, and he uses questions of his own to get us there.
I currently spend my days assisting staff at a nearby elementary school. Our team gets the call when students have serious issues with behavior or cooperation. This week, I was summoned to a normally tranquil kindergarten class, where a five-year-old was out of his seat, hiding in plain sight behind a giant smart board.
“I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
“I am suffering, it really hurts. It has been unbelievably painful for me to be confronted with the enormous division that exists in Nicaragua between those of us who profess Christ. Supposedly we make up 41% of the population but we have not been able to find any unity of response in the face of the deep woundedness of our nation. Those who are reacting in an active manner in the middle of this crisis are judging negatively those who have chosen to remain in their churches praying and fasting and those who have chosen to pray are attacking those who are practicing active resistance. And then there are others who have simply decided not to express themselves nor respond in any way whatsoever.”
In the text we’re tackling this month, Jesus is accused of being “out of his mind”…and worse. The scribes accuse Jesus of being Beelzebul, a demon who casts out other demons. Jesus absorbs the deadly accusation and turns it into a teachable moment. That alone is worth a lifetime of reflection.
I can imagine a mingling of terror, fire, and joy within Rev. Henry Highland Garnet as he hobbled to the podium on a chilly February Sunday in 1865. There was certainly a sense of terror during the last months of the Civil War and its steadily climbing death toll of 620,000 souls. Garnet’s fire came from his drive to abolish the institution of slavery and its horrors. Joy must have overtaken him, considering he had been born into slavery not far from the podium from where he spoke. And now he stood as the first African American to deliver a speech within the United States Capitol.
The ancient Greeks had four ways of talking about love. The highest, most idealized form was “agape,” which is divine love. It is the gold standard of love. The other forms of love were assumed to be lower, human or natural loves: “Storge” is the love of a parent. “Eros” is sexual or erotic love. “Phileo” is the love of a friend.
If learning to read the Word from below is challenging and liberating to our faith in God, learning how to read the world from below is challenging and liberating to our faith in humanity.
It’s cliffhanger season on TV right now. One of my favorite shows, “Grey’s Anatomy,” has their season finale tonight. I’m expecting something from Shonda Rhimes that will be both spectacular and frustrating. That’s the beauty of cliffhangers. When told well, they keep viewers expecting a great return next season.
To be one “as we are one.” Yes, this really is the heart of it! To become one. Union. Intimacy. The Gospel of Jesus opens us up to the possibility of becoming one in a way that seems utterly impossible – to enjoy unity without being in rivalry with anyone or anything. It is unity with and for everything – over and against nothing, not even death. This is the kind of unity that God enjoys and makes available to us. Impossible, but this is the promise of Jesus. This is Shalom.
We are approaching the 6th Sunday since Easter, and the circumstances of my life have seemingly all but erased the memory of the resurrection. I need a reminder of the Good News. At first glance, I’m not sure I get that from today’s text.
This week is Good Shepherd Sunday. Thank goodness, because I am feeling like a sheep in need of a good shepherd, and so are the communities we serve.
In this week’s text, Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd who, “lays down his life for the sheep.” I confess that my idea of a good shepherd is one who wipes out the whole pack of harassing wolves. I want Rambo, not a shepherd who suffers and dies.
Jesus shows his wounds. He doesn’t hide them. They were not miraculously healed nor did they disappear. He was not completely “made whole” again. He continues to bear the scars of his crucifixion.
When the news reached our house, the street lights had just begun to flicker; this was the universal urban signal that all well-parented children should put down their balls and jump ropes and quickly return home. I rambunctiously entered the house, sweating and ripe, like any seven-year-old in the pre-video game era. I expected to be greeted with Mom’s usual business and Dad’s normal immersion in some book or project. Instead, I saw the two of them sitting in the living room with the bright lights on, a rare occurrence when guests were not present. I had never seen them together like this, with equally somber stares, bathed in melancholy. Before I could ask what was going on, they announced, “They killed Martin Luther King.”
It’s Christ The King Sunday in which we celebrate the reign of Christ dawning in this age and in the age to come. But, as we’ve seen throughout the Gospel of Matthew, it is an unusual, upside down kingdom that redefines power and relocates God at the bottom, not at the top.
After dinner we walked to the vigil at the Plaza de la Constitucion in Guatemala City. When we arrived, the square was empty except for four women who stood around a lonely little fire at the center of the park. They were there to honor the memory of the 41 girls who were burned alive at a government orphanage on March 8, 2017 (March 8 is also International Women’s Day).
Joslynn, Nef, and Diane gazed thoughtfully during my clumsy response. They were confused about the many names Christians throw around. “What’s the difference between God, Lord, Jehovah, Jesus, Christ and all that?” was the question asked by some bright urban teens. Their continued attentiveness, a full ten minutes, was surprising. Even the most reticent-to-participate kid was listening carefully as clarity continued to elude me. So much for the notion that urban youth will only listen to Cardi B and The Migos.
I have a confession. Palm Sunday is confusing. It functions more like a parable than a celebration and it leaves me conflicted. The crowd that shouts “Hosanna, Hosanna” this week shouts “Crucify Him, Crucify Him” next week.
I had a great conversation with a young man recently who was going to be baptized. I asked him what he thought about God and what he believes God thinks about him.
Craig Sanders needed three surgeries to survive his injuries after awakening to a severe beating back in January 2013, while detained at Camden County Jail. Giving credence to inmate reports from the jail, accounts of such beatings no longer alarmed me. Those of us working at street-level knew the war stories coming from the overfilled facility…
The striking contrast of two completely distinct, but adjacent worlds, startled my senses and threw me into a state of disorientation. We were in Kolkata, India as part of a weeklong city consultation for doctoral students. One morning, without any particular instruction, we hopped off a bus in a neighborhood swarming with people. Drawn up in the movement of the crowd, we found ourselves in the midst of a high festival day for the Hindu goddess Kali; the crowd was flowing toward her temple.
It’s the second week of Lent and here we find Jesus teaching his disciples that, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).
One of my brothers was a college football All-American. He broke and set many conference and national records. He was a Heisman trophy candidate his senior year, and the third pick in the first NFL draft. This was in the late 1970’s—well before social media. But for what it was, there was quite a bit of media attention that surrounded him.
I admit to a certain cluelessness regarding the transfiguration. After countless years of exposure to cleverly executed sermons, teachings, and writings by the best of our preachers, teachers, and scholars, I still don’t get what it was all about.
In last week’s passage, we saw Jesus exorcising bad religion as he cast out the “impure spirit” of a man inside the synagogue. The reflection challenged the traditional reading of the text. What if the impure spirit didn’t so much reflect the possessed man? What if it was actually a reflection of the religious authorities?
In this week’s passage Jesus casts out a demon in a synagogue. The religious authorities are “astounded” and “amazed” by Jesus’ authority, which is so different from their own. Later in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus casts out those who maintain the sacrificial system in the temple (Mark 11:15-18).
During the season of Epiphany, I’ve committed to be more aware of the ways that God is present and at work in and around me each day.
I’ve rarely been called the n-word to my face, but I know what people are thinking. I’m a scary looking big dreadlocked 300-pound black guy who loves bench-presses and bicep curls. Racists tend to keep their biases to themselves or mask them in implicit language when I’m around.
John the Baptist appears in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and we are told that the “whole” Judean countryside and “all” the people of Jerusalem went out to him. It seems John has become quite the successful, suburban mega-church pastor with a huge commuter congregation. But he is clear that his show is not the best in town.
At age 84 my aunt helped lead her aging church through a very challenging process around a divisive issue. She did so with remarkable skill and grace. She’s always looking toward the future, even if it does not include her.
When the nativity tale declares, “there was no room at the inn,” I usually picture a robed man with a lantern sadly shaking his head “If you’d only gotten here sooner,” I imagine him saying, “I could have fit you in, but now, there’s no room.” But is this true?
First it was an alarm, next came water and last week it was light. God uses each of these elements to wake us up. As we approach the eve of God’s arrival, are we still awake? Are we alert? Will we recognize the advent of our God?
I tried to sleep in a few weeks ago but failed to inform my children of this plan. My daughter came into the room and flipped the light on. “Ahhhh!” Pain shot beneath my eyelids…
We would have called it the boonies or the sticks or perhaps BFE. Mark refers to it simply as the wilderness. Whatever the name, it was a place you didn’t so much go to as you went through.
It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
I hate to wake up. Yes, it beats the alternative, but it is so painful. The mattress, pillow, sheets and comforter offer such warm friendship while the cold, hard, dusty floor promises only pain. Like a bully smacking his fist, the cold air waits knowing I have to pass by on my way home from school (or in this case to the bathroom). With all respect to Neil Sedaka, it is waking up, more than breaking up, that is hard to do.
Jesus must have known this. Why else would he say it not once, or twice, but three times, sounding like the parent of a slumbering teenager on a school morning. What event is important enough to warrant three exclamation points? The answer: “You do not know when the master of the house will come…”
So, we are to stay awake so the master won’t find us asleep when he returns? This sounds reasonable. Even if the boss doesn’t come back until tomorrow, it seems fair to ask us workers to stay awake. But what if the next day passes? And then the next and the next? Are we supposed to remain awake? After two weeks? After two months? After two years are we supposed to remain awake? And what, I ask, are we to do if the master delays his return for 2,000 years? Is it fair to expect us to remain alert, aware and awake? This is a bold request, especially in light of what happens in the next chapter.
I imagine the disciples were full of amens and assurances no matter how long Jesus delayed—just like pew mates on Sunday morning. Their zeal carried through the Passover meal, the hymn, and out onto the Mount of Olives where Jesus only asked of them two things: be present and stay awake. Simple enough until the wine…the lamb…and the non gluten free bread worked their magic, causing every disciple to fail Jesus’ second request. They fell asleep not once, or twice, but three times. The master hadn’t even gotten out of the driveway before the servants were snoring. If such was true of Jesus’ first disciples, how can we be expected to remain alert after 2,000 years? Having failed in Jesus’ second request, the disciples quickly failed at his first. When the soldiers arrived, “then” Mark writes, “everyone deserted him and fled.”
Be present and stay awake. Perhaps there is another kind of invitation in Jesus’ words. Had Jesus been speaking today, he may have said something like, “Stay woke, cause you don’t know when I’ll show up.”
Jesus showed up at our food and clothing bank a few weeks ago. She was pushing a shopping cart and arrived late, of course. I knew her to be a notoriously tardy shopper near impossible to get to leave, so I told her to come back next week. Her face, already hanging low, fell even further, “I just need some clothes.”
“We’ll fix you a bag of food.”
“Yes, but I still need a change of clothes,” she said a little louder.
“I’m sorry but we’re closing.”
Flakes of mascara became dark rivers as she cried even louder, “I’ve been wearing these clothes for four days and I can’t take it any longer.”
Like I said, it is hard for me to wake up. Sometimes it takes three alarms. “Of course, yes, what was I thinking. Come down and let’s get you some clothes.”
I used to question the sanity of the lectionary elves. In what world does it make sense to start the Christmas season with a passage about eclipses, falling stars and thunderous heavens? How could Santa find us in such extreme weather conditions? As time has passed, I’ve awakened to their genius. Advent is an opportunity to practice arrivals, not just of reindeer ornaments, Bing Crosby and tinseled presents, but of the God who shows up in unexpected ways, and unexpected places, through the features of human faces. Wake us up, O Lord, wake us up.
Senior Fellow | Street Psalms
Pastor | Manitou Park Presbyterian Church
In one of my favorite Ted Talks, Educational Technology Specialist Sugata Mitra discusses his experiments with “Hole in the Wall” computers. These are computer kiosks left in Indian slums, among children with no prior contact with PCs.
In one of my favorite Ted Talks, Educational Technology Specialist Sugata Mitra discusses his experiments with “Hole in the Wall” computers. These are computer kiosks left in Indian slums, among children with no prior contact with PCs. Mitra found that children, by pooling their knowledge and resources, learned how to operate the computers.
God comes to us in what Mother Theresa called “the distressing disguise of the other,” in the face of the despised and rejected. That, in a nutshell, is the Gospel. It’s Word made flesh!
If we view this parable through the lens of an honor-based culture, not a wealth-based culture, then this parable unlocks beautiful truth about where the Kingdom of God is located.
Awake and celebrate! Is there a more elemental invitation of the Gospel of Jesus? In this week’s text Jesus tells the story of ten bridesmaids and a wedding party. Five of the bridesmaids remain awake and join the celebration.
This week marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther famously nailing his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. The action brought attention to the rampant abuse inherent in the ecclesiastical structures of his day.
“Love God. Love People. Nothing Else Matters.” So reads a phrase on the many battered T-shirts stacked up in the back of my closet. I just don’t have the heart to discard them…
In this week’s text the religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus with a question about whether Jews should pay taxes to Caesar. But this isn’t really a question about taxes. It’s more sinister.
Stephen Curry, basketball star of the Golden State Warriors, said he wasn’t quite sure he wanted to visit the White House. He was hesitant due to the President’s statements concerning NFL football players and their protests during the national anthem…
I’m told there is no utility in my delusions but yet I choose to imagine, envisioning a world of fellowship and joy. In this, my alternate global reality, wooden ships are ushered through placid seaways as steady breezes push against their ample sails, all adorned with the sacred symbol of the cross.
“No! No! No!” My two-year old son screamed as we drove down the interstate at seventy miles per hour. “I want the door open!”
One of the disciples poses a question that is essentially asking, “How much do we really have to forgive each other?” Jesus’ response, as was his habit, came in the form of a parable.
18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”
In one of my favorite Ted Talks, Educational Technology Specialist Sugata Mitra discusses his experiments with “Hole in the Wall” computers. These are computer kiosks left in Indian slums, among children with no prior contact with PCs. Mitra found that children, by pooling their knowledge and resources, learned how to operate the computers.
More remarkably, he found that in nine months the children had computer expertise equivalent to that of a professionally trained Western secretary, and all this without any adult instruction or supervision. These impoverished children went far beyond any trivial computer operations, mastering understandings of character mapping and DNA replication. One group of children chided Mitra, telling him “You have given us a machine that only works in English, so we had to teach ourselves English to use it.” What Mitra sees as self-organized, self-promoting “Unstoppable Learning” can also be described as a mystically exciting feature of divine creation.
I’m sure Sugata Mitra’s friends, peers, and colleagues thought it an absolutely reckless idea to waste a valuable resource, such as a computer, by leaving it among the poor, ignorant children of India’s slums. What Mitra seems to have understood, and what his critics would have missed, is that all humanity has a blessed yearning and ability to figure things out. The little children of India’s slums have demonstrated that, by pooling knowledge and resources, the mysteries and conundrums of both heaven and earth can be unraveled, decoded, and resolved.
Jesus is no less reckless in instructing and entrusting us to pool knowledge and resources to figure out and resolve the mysteries and conundrums among us. He radically moves further to suggest that whatever we resolve here on earth will be honored and instituted in heaven. What an overly generous power we have been given. But why so underused? Perhaps it is a matter of pedagogy.
In the case of the children in Indian slums, they were left with no pedagogical resources, except for their community of peers, with whom they figured out the big questions placed before them. No doubt the process of mastering the use of the computers was wrought with disagreements, doubts, and conflicts. But it was the children’s ultimate points of agreement and affirmation that yielded the fruits of progress among them. Is it an over-reliance on a pedagogy based on hierarchies, traditions, and institutional processes that has robbed us of the childlike courage of these Indian slum kids, who embraced mysterious keyboards and curious screens with excitement, joy, and wonder?
Matthew speaks earlier about Jesus teaching the people, as in Chapter 5:2, “And he opened his mouth, and taught them…” The word “taught” here is rendered in a grammatical form know as a causative, which indicates that, unlike our typical top-down pedagogical approaches, Christ presents a new argument to the conversation, one that sparks or causes a new process of learning.
This is kind of like placing a computer before the slum kids and watching the thrill of a new process of learning as it quickly emerges. Like Mitra’s “Hole in the Wall,” Jesus plants us in an unexpected environment of extreme grace, liberty, and fellowship, where we are to work through disagreements, doubts, and conflicts and emerge with extraordinary community affirmations, harmonious fruit suitable to nourish both the heavenly host and the earthly masses.
As Mitra’s experiments have evolved, he has employed the services of an international collection of grandmas, who have the sole job of encouraging the children as they tackle the tough questions packaged within the computers. I trust the Holy Spirit plays the role of grandma in our quest to work through the big messy questions confronting our faith, making a big fuss over the smallest of our accomplishments, filling us with confidence and courage as we struggle together through our most difficult issues, and daily filling our hearts with joy. Jesus downloads powerful gifts into the slums of our brokenness, sharing with us the binding of things in heaven and on earth. To some this may sensibly point to an absolutely reckless pedagogy “but to us who are being saved, it is truly the power of God.”
Founder and Director | Watu Moja
“Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block (skandalon) to me, you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” “
In today’s world of instant news, we experience one story of scandal after another. Our news feed constantly tempts us with the tantalizing details of the latest political or Hollywood scandal. The details of this Gospel story seem so comparatively mild. Peter has become a “scandal” to Jesus for insisting that Jesus should live and not die: “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”
I can only imagine what else might have come out of Peter’s loose lips, “You cannot go back to Jerusalem Jesus. Why would you want to go back to a place where your own people are lying in wait to kill you? You are the long-awaited Messiah who has come to violently overthrow the Romans and to finally liberate us from their oppressive rule! That is my desire and the desire of all of us who have given our lives to follow you. You will destroy our movement and crush our hopes and dreams!”
“Peter, you are a stumbling block to me,” Jesus tells him. The Greek word that we translate as “stumbling block” is scandalon, the root word of “scandal”
What confusion, disappointment, and disillusionment, Peter must have felt. The problem, of course, was that Peter had in mind a definition of “Messiah” that was rooted in the misplaced desires of Peter’s community.
I imagine Jesus explaining his words to Peter: “You have adopted the dreams and desires of those around you and now you are trying to lure me into the same. If I allow myself to go down that path, we are toast. I will not allow the desires of your humanity to direct my path. Get behind me. You are a scandalous stumbling block.
“Your way of thinking is based on misplaced desire, false, disordered loves. They are deceitful and will lead to destruction. No, Peter, my Father has shown me a different path, a path that leads to life and freedom. I will not follow your desire. You must choose to follow mine.”
Following Jesus often means letting go of that which we think we cannot live without.
Peter’s misguided understanding of Jesus’ role as Messiah is crushed. In the place of those shattered dreams, Jesus lovingly reveals a new path forward, a path of unbridled freedom and all-encompassing peace. “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The exchange between Peter and Jesus in our text this week reveals the striking truth that desire is always fanned into flame – flames that either burn or illuminate. Oh, that our red hot coals of senseless violence and rivalry would be fanned into illuminating flames of love and sacrifice!
The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore captures this beautifully:
“Let Your love play upon my voice and rest on my silence,
Let it pass through my heart into all my movements.
Let your love, like stars, shine in the darkness of my sleep and dawn in my awakening.
Let it burn in the flame of my desires and flow in all currents of my own love.
Let me carry Your love in my life as a harp does its music, and give it back to You at last with my life.”
Joel Van Dyke
Director | Urban Training Collaborative
“Who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah,
the Son of the living God.”
The camp speaker joined us in our cabin and Harry was on the edge, struggling with Jesus again. Harry had been to camp many times and each time he’d said “yes” to Jesus. Each time he meant it. And each time he returned to his neighborhood where the peaceful clarity of summer camp gave way to the reality of violence that eventually swallowed him up.
The camp speaker, who had seen too many urban kids succumb to forces too big to deny, was pushing Harry hard. I sat silently, unsure what to do. Harry’s friend, named Junior, finally stepped in and said, “That’s enough!” Junior said that Harry had been to camp five times and each time he said “yes” to Jesus and each time he returned to the neighborhood where things got confusing. Each time he felt worse for having denied Jesus. Junior suggested that maybe Harry’s “denial” of Christ back home was harder on Harry than it was for Jesus.
Emboldened by Junior’s words, I asked the camp speaker to back off. The speaker left our cabin dismayed (mostly with me).
A year later Harry was dead, gunned down in the street by rival gang members, only a few blocks from my house.
In this week’s text, Jesus takes his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. It was the farthest away from Jerusalem Jesus ever travelled, (except as an infant, when his family fled to Egypt as refugees from state sponsored violence). Far away from the pressure cooker of Jerusalem, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am? Peter responds with clarity, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).
Not long afterwards, the clarity Peter found in Caesarea Philippi was swallowed up by the fear and violence of Jerusalem. Peter denied Jesus three times.
One way or another, we’re all headed for Jerusalem.
In retrospect, maybe I should have let the camp speaker push Harry further. Maybe I denied Harry the opportunity to name Jesus as the Christ one more time. Maybe I denied Harry again when we returned from camp and he came by my house one evening; he offered me his gun as a way to protect myself in a heated summer of violence. It was a generous and kind offer. I refused the gift. Maybe I denied Harry yet again when I stopped hosting our regular gatherings in order to reach out to younger kids. I denied Harry a lot more than three times and I am not alone.
Maybe I’m thinking about this because summer is coming to and end. I’ve enjoyed some underserved but much needed time away where I’ve experienced glimpses of clarity about Jesus, myself, and our mission. And yet there is a pit in my stomach. Jerusalem beckons. I’ve seen what happens when one sets their face toward Jerusalem. I know too well my own cowardice. A big part of me wants to stay in Caesarea Philippi and ponder what I’ve seen.
Harry was killed nearly 25 years ago. I don’t know if Harry is Peter or Jesus, or just a kid whose life has marked me forever. What I do know is that Harry keeps me honest about the Gospel and this crazy, beautiful, mixed up world. Harry bridges the gap between Caesarea Philippi and Jerusalem and beckons me to cross it. He insists that we proclaim a Gospel big enough to honor him as herald of Christ, denier of Christ and Christ himself, all the while being Harry, a kid from Portland who loved going to camp, and who is calling us back into the city where Christ is fully and finally revealed as the merciful one, not in spite our denials, but because of them.
11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”
28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
“Blood and soil!” “You will not replace us!” “Jews will not replace us!”
Some made monkey noises at the black counter protesters. Then they began chanting, “White lives matter!”
“F— you, f-gg–s!” “Go the f— back to Africa,” “F— you, ni–ers!” many also screamed. “Dylann Roof was a hero!” another yelled, referring to the white supremacist who killed nine African Americans in a church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. (As related in a recent Washington Post article).
These were some of the chants being screamed by marchers in the “Unite the Right” Rally in the state of Virginia (United States) last weekend. The marchers were making a statement, loud and clear…“We are human, and you are less than human. We are clean, and you are unclean. We are holy, and you are unholy.” Maybe they didn’t use those exact words…but that was at the heart of the message.
The questions of cleanliness, holiness, and ethnicity come up in both our Gospel stories for today. In the beginning of chapter 15, the Pharisees approach Jesus and ask, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat.” In all fairness to the Pharisees, they were defending an important ritual that had roots in the law. Regardless, Jesus counters, reminding them that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (15:11). There is an echo from Samuel in here, “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).
In the second half of the Gospel reading, we hear the disconcerting story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman. Interpretations abound as to the meaning of the story, but at face value it clearly wrestles with ethnicity, discrimination, and worth. By the end of the narrative, Jesus has declared the woman, an ancient ethnic enemy of his people, to be of “great faith.” A proclamation of the greatest honor in the New Testament, and one that is all the more surprising when we consider that Peter, one of his closest disciples, had just been declared “of little faith” a few verses earlier.
By the end of both stories, Jesus has come out on the side of those deemed “unclean.” God has joined with those who are scapegoated by society. And not just in a defensive manner. In a great reversal, the scapegoats are identified as the people who are actually closer to God…in other words, as the “Holy Ones.”
Jesus’ journey to the cross is filled with examples where he identifies with those from below…those who are considered less than human…who are scapegoated bc of their ethnicity, or their homeland, or their immigration status, or their gender, or their economic or physical condition. He stands with them. And his disciples, by nature of their “following” vocation, didn’t have much choice but to join him.
It was this way of life, of standing with the scapegoat, that led to Jesus’ death. He became the ultimate scapegoat. Do you see it? He died because his theology messes up the entire system—if God is not only on the side of the scapegoat—if God actually declares them the holy ones, then who do we have left to blame? What do we have left to do at that point but look in the mirror and face the hard truths of our own brokeness, either of commission or omission?
And so it’s done. Jesus hangs on the cross…bleeding, spat upon, mocked, dying…the inevitable conclusion of the scapegoating process lived out to its fullest. That feels dark and hopeless—because it is. And it will continue to feel dark for the days to come.
But there is a ray of light in the midst of it all. From the cross, Jesus undermines the very system that has brought us this far. He utters the most potent and least expected form of resistance to the scapegoating spiral threatening to consume us all. “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34).
These words—unsolicited and unexpected forgiveness—tear apart the very curtain of the temple which separated the “clean” from the “unclean.” These words destroy the distinction—they unravel the scapegoating system at its core.
A new way is now possible. Difficult? Perilous? Costly? Yes. But it’s possible.
May Jesus’ words of forgiveness, of new creation, grant us all new hearts today—new hearts to follow him as he joins with the scapegoated, as he becomes one with their pain and plight, as he denounces the powers that be, and even as he whispers words of forgiveness when they feel least deserved…maybe even when he whispers words of forgiveness on our behalf…because we can’t fathom doing so ourselves. If we want a different world, that’s where it will need to start.
Friend of Street Psalms
Tacoma, United States
28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”
29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.
Even the Muscle Dudes’ Knees Were Shaking.
Muscly New York City dudes ascended the multitiered stairway, making their way to the “H-2 Oh No” Waterslide somewhere out among the beauty of New Jersey’s Kittatinny Mountains. Yes, New Jersey does have a little mountain grandeur and yes, these hard-accented tough guys did break out into knee-shaking fear as they reached the top of the platform and gazed down at 100 feet of pure vertical terror. Most who approach this slide quickly change their minds, fearing it a bit too suicidal. But not Edwaan, he was a young man of faith.
Edwaan was a constantly-smiling kid, always ready for fun and adventure. His given name was Edwin but he loved It when I substituted a prolonged “a” for the “i” in his name, often extending the “a” to comical lengths as the situation dictated — sometimes Edwaan and other times Edwaaaaaaaan. His life drastically shifted with the death of his grandfather, who was the mortar that held together a fragile family. After he passed, Edwaan’s mother fell into catastrophic relationships and the deeper catastrophe of drug abuse. Once pampered by an attentive and caring mother, Edwaan soon experienced neglect and new levels of vulnerability. Curiously, the dramatic changes in his life never seemed to affect his faith. He had Peter-like faith.
Peter is best known in the Gospels for cluelessness, unchanneled aggression, and his lack of faith, like we see in today’s Gospel reading. That makes “Peter-like faith” a problematic concept. Jesus himself casts doubt on Peter’s faith in verse 31, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
And while the issues of Peter’s faith and loyalty inspire frustration and angst, I find his actions in verse 28 to be fascinating, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” The request is curiously complex. He neither requests a calming of the winds and waves, nor to have Jesus come aboard and comfort the terrified crew. Instead, he requests an invitation to dwell with Jesus — out on an angry sea. This ridiculous request points to a longing in Peter’s heart to move beyond rhetoric and symbolism and straight to salvific action in the midst of real danger — in the midst of real life.
Like Peter, like Edwaan, and like so many of us, there is a longing for belief out on life’s “danger waters” — those places removed from the placid nature of peace and plenty. Persecution, pain, and tragedy inspire deep longings, often taking the shape of foolhardy propositions such as Peter’s, “Save me in these dangerous waters or watch me die.” Later, Jesus chides Peter for his lack of faith, but I’m sure I would have been similarly guilty. Imagine the disorientation of being uniquely alive after a desperate invitation that rationally assumes a watery death. Such faith is deep, daring, ridiculous, and powerful — an Edwaan-like faith.
Painful upheavals in Edwaan’s world heightened his longing to realize active salvation. This, our common longing, worked itself out between us as invitations into our respective danger waters. So, as I told Edwaan to just keep his eyes straight forward and let go, he did so, assured he would die. Edwaan’s friends, tough guys from tough neighborhoods, watched with amazement as the least heroic of them hydroplaned down the imposing slide, embracing the frightening adventure. They quickly lined up and entered this faith, taking the swift ride down the “H2 Oh No Waterslide.”
Peter was not at the cross to experience the strange disorientation that comes when salvation amid the danger waters seems to have failed — when it feels like you have actually drowned. I could not escape such alienation as I was called to join Edwaan out among his danger waters on a warm summer night in 2004. This time a storm of bullets had him laid out cruciform on the dark asphalt of Ferry Ave. As his life slipped away, the police prevented me from coming out to where he was, reaching out and catching him. Our faith is truly tested in such waters, as our focus fades and Jesus’ face becomes obscured within the blends of horrid screams, pain-driven rage, and blood-soaked streets. The reality of such tragedies calls us to live as communities that request invitation into each other’s danger waters. For we are certainly not called to dwell on such painful seas alone.
Within communities committed to living among both our common and extraordinary perils, we find the power to embrace frightening adventures, faith to understand that there is life after the cross and after blood stained asphalt, and healing for the wounds and scars inflicted as we lose those we love so dearly. We are called to the danger waters within our own lives and those of our community. And it is precisely in the midst of those danger waters, the places even the “muscle dudes” won’t go, that we often encounter the living God.
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja
“And they all ate and were satisfied.”
As we drew close to the church building, we noticed a structure in very ill repair. Windows were broken, doors unable to close properly, large stains adorned rugs and ceilings, and the arresting smell of strong body odor pierced our senses. We walked through the hallway toward the main worship space.
As we approached the entrance to a large sanctuary, we saw the stern, uninviting faces of some church ladies sporting Sunday uniforms. Their disapproving severity juxtaposed against the radiant smiles of poorly-clad children speaking in Shona (one of the official languages of Zimbabwe) as they ran up and down the church hallways playing some version of hide-and-seek.
My son and I found ourselves in this Johannesburg, South Africa, church hallway at the invitation of Dr. Stephan DeBeer, Director of the Centre for Contextual Ministry at the University of Pretoria, and Leadership Foundations Senior Associate for the African Continent. We were in country for the Biennial Consultation on Urban Ministry.
And, before the event started, Stephan showed us around Pretoria and then Johannesburg, the capitol city about an hour’s drive away. I never tire of spending time with people who engage in a perpetual love affair with the cities where they live and serve.
We spent hours driving around Johannesburg learning from our masterful guide. Then, Stephan pulled his car over to the side of the road. He said only that he wanted us to see something unique. We walked across the street toward the large three-story Central Methodist Church.
Not until we were standing in the church hallway with stained carpets, stern faces, and raucous Shona-speaking kids, did Stephan began to tell us the story of where we were. When xenophobic violence erupted in South Africa in May 2008, thousands of resident aliens trying to survive on the streets of Johannesburg had nowhere to turn. In the midst of spiraling controversy, the church rector, Bishop Paul Verryn, decided if the church in the city was anything, it needed to be an inviting refuge for people who had nowhere else to go.
So he opened up the church as home to thousands of migrants, most of whom had fled across the Zimbabwe border in search of a life beyond poverty and political oppression. They began to occupy every inch of the church building, turning classrooms into dorms and closets into changing rooms. When we visited, about 1,000 refugees lived and gathered at the church every night to worship and take communion. At one time, we were told the numbers had reached nearly 3,000 refugees seeking shelter there.
Several days after our visit, at the conclusion of the consultation on urban ministry, all attendees were invited to a communion service presided by none other than Bishop Paul Verryn. After singing African worship and praise music in four different languages, accompanied by plenty of dancing in the aisles, we shared Eucharist.
The elements had been served. The communion service was complete, but there still remained a feast on the table in front of us. As he was about to give a closing prayer, a smile exploded on Bishop Verryn’s face. He took a deep breath. “It seems as if there is an overabundance of God’s goodness lying before us this evening. The sacrament is complete but before us lies an invitation to a party. Can the ushers come back up please and distribute the rest of what lies on this table?”
As the ushers did just that, the praise band erupted into music of celebration and joy. Everyone took handfuls of bread and extra cups of juice. A party of feasting on God’s superabundant goodness was truly underway.
Many authors have debunked the myth of scarcity that Bishop Verryn confronted in Johannesburg and Jesus confronted in our text this week amidst 5,000 hungry men (“besides women and children”). Mary Jo Leddy writes:
“The economics of God’s love is not based on a law of scarcity but rather rooted in the mystery of superabundance. The personal or political decision to declare that THERE IS NOT ENOUGH is the beginning of social cruelty, war, and violence on a petty or vast scale. On the other hand, the choice to affirm that THERE IS ENOUGH FOR ALL is the beginning of social community, peace and justice. The option to assume that THERE IS ENOUGH frees the imagination to think of new political and economic possibilities.”
In the shape of the verbs of Eucharist evidenced by what Jesus does with the 5 loaves and the two fish (Chose, Blessed, Broke and Gave), we see Jesus’s fidelity to the “mystery of superabundance” moving humanity from the bondage of fear-based scarcity to the freedom of God’s love-based abundance.
Whether standing in a stained church hallway while disapproving congregants watch immigrant children play in ragged clothes, or starving in a “desolate place” in a crowd of well over 5,000 others, in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus there is enough bread and fish for all, with plenty of left-over baskets. Can you see?
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
35“I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
The Jesuit Father, Anthony de Mello wrote that the shortest distance between a human and Truth is a story. In Matthew 13, Jesus tells a variety of stories (parables) to describe the kingdom of heaven. We move from mustard seed (a weed) planted amidst a crop in a field to the image of yeast, to a treasure hidden in a field, to fine pearls and then, in perhaps the most striking of all, we are told that the kingdom of heaven is like a net (v. 47-48).
The fishing technique of Jesus’ day incorporated the use of a dragnet. These are quite removed from modern day sport fishing with its variety of tailored lures and exact test-line — all used to land specific fish during specific seasons. The fishing culture in Jesus’ day was markedly different. The dragnet was tied to a weight that would go down to the bottom and scrape up everything from bottom feeders to the fish on the surface and all that came in between. It’s the least strategic way you can fish.
If Jesus’ real subject here is the spreading of the good news (euangelion) of the kingdom of God then the dragnet seems a wasteful (un-strategic) way to do the mission of evangelism. For the selective and economical evangelism today, the stated goal is to be very specific about the kind of “prize fish” strategically reached for Christ, carefully using particular evangelistic lures (techniques). In contrast, using a dragnet is a messy way to fish, and when applied to fishing for souls, it sure makes for complicated evangelism.
Why are we tempted to engage in what we think are better ways to “fish” than what Jesus taught? Aspiring evangelists (anglers) try to get really good at “winning souls for Jesus” using a host of freshly painted, pristine, specifically designed lures (programs, events, strategies and media). After all, we reason, in our modern world we certainly have better tools and techniques than Jesus’ disciples ever had.
It is difficult to argue for a dragnet ministry today, and even more difficult to fund, but if we are going to cross over vast dividing lines of separation and rejection, we must pursue it.
While the dragnet approach may sound like the opposite of what some theologians have described as the “scandal of particularity,” it is rather the other side of the same coin. Jesus was at once particular in his approach to individuals and scandalously indiscriminate about whom he loved.
The dragnet of God’s love reminds us that we must be careful about being too caught up in our evangelistic tricks and techniques that tempt us to selectively pursue “trophy fish.” With the dragnet approach, we’ll likely catch something we do not expect or even want and thus will be tempted to throw it back. However, the key is learning to live with and rest within the tension of a net that scoops up everything.
Last week our lectionary text invited us into the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24-30). Tares and wheat look so similar to one another that even the experienced farmer finds it very hard to tell the difference. Thus, Jesus instructs the workers to let the two grow together lest they attempt to remove the tares and inadvertently uproot some of the wheat in the process.
To have a dragnet ministry, we need to cultivate a wheat and tare discipline — one that humbly recognizes our limitations to often successfully discern the difference between good and evil. This is crucial because when we cast a dragnet among the least, last, and lost, we scoop up some strange specimens indeed, and the temptation is then to protect our ministry from the “bottom feeders” by separation — “I can’t have that gang member in my youth group. He will mess up everything.” Or “that girl with tight jeans from a non-Christian family is going to be a bad influence on the impressionable church kids. We must keep her away from our kids.”
This is why so many ministries are designed for only a particular kind of fish. If we cannot accommodate the “bottom feeders,” we end up prioritizing programs over people and adjusting our message to fit our program. Dragnet ministry in hard places is chaotic and messy. It sometimes only works as it did with Jesus, a dozen people at a time.
Looking at what our big net scooped up, we are tempted to take the job of separating wheat and tares into our own hands. However, boundary-breaking ministry demands that we humbly admit we should leave the separating for the harvest time. What might it mean to run a dragnet ministry with wheat and tare inclusiveness?
And if that’s not enough, it’s important to remember that an irony hidden in plain sight within this metaphor is that bottom feeders are some of the oceans most sought after delicacies (e.g. oysters, lobster, etc.). Not only that, but modern science has helped us learn they are also some of the most nutrient-dense of all their compatriots. The fisher who throws them back is the real loser in this metaphor.
Are we sport-fishing for the fish we think we desire, or laying a dragnet that brings in all kinds? Are we trying to sort our crops before the harvest or trusting the sower to do the harvesting? If we dare, a dragnet ministry with a wheat and tares discipline radically broadens access to the one whose cross welcomes all.
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City, Guatemala
*Adapted from Chapter 11 of Geography of Grace.
30“Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
There is a harvest of love happening in cities everywhere, if we can only see it. It’s an unusual harvest to be sure — one that sees good where we often see evil and reveals evil where we often see good. This harvest is the unveiling of reality. It is the work of the Spirit and God’s delight. When this liberating pattern is at work in our lives we not only suffer the humiliating shock of seeing things as they really are, we also discover the unspeakable joy of having gotten it all wrong.
This unveiling is at the heart of my own story. And yes, it is at once humiliating and freeing beyond measure. Like St. Paul, who presided over the persecution of the early church, I have been on the wrong side of many things, completely certain that I was right. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). I have joined the persecution of “evil” only to discover that I’m defending myself against God’s liberating good. The list is endless: the poor, women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, even the environment. And here’s the really dark part, now that I’m “enlightened,” I’m tempted do the same from the flip side. It’s a vicious cycle that always ends in “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42).
You would think something as obvious as good and evil would be easy for us to sort out, right? After all, how hard is it to judge between the two? If history teaches us anything, and if we are even the slightest bit honest with ourselves, it’s a lot harder than we admit. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to overstate the level of violence we have done (to ourselves and others) in our attempts to eliminate “evil,” all the while thinking ourselves “good.”
And so we come to the familiar parable of the Wheat and Weeds.
Jesus begins the parable by illustrating a wildly permissive God who lets the wheat and weeds grow together. Yes, suffering is sowed into the fabric of creation. Jesus invites us to accept this mystery. “Let both of them grow together until the harvest…”( Matt. 13:30).
I know we are tempted to rush to the judgment bit, but the key word in this parable is the word “let.” The Greek word is aphete. It means “permit,” or “suffer.” It is also translated elsewhere in the New Testament as “forgive.”
Can we see what Jesus is saying?
It’s only when we permit, suffer and forgive those we so desperately want to eliminate that we escape the damnation of our own blind judgment and avoid doing to those “evil ones” what we did to Jesus. Yes, Jesus is counted among the weeds of the world, which are ripped up and tossed aside with all the bloodthirsty enthusiasm that comes with self-righteous certainty. History is littered with this pattern of scapegoating much like my own: the poor, women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, Catholics and Protestants, liberal and conservative, anyone who does not neatly fit into our carefully crafted and self-affirming systems.
Jesus reminds us in this week’s text that unless we learn to suffer and forgive those who offend us, we will eliminate the very agent of God’s grace. When that happens, there is always weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The Gospels are clear; there is only one among us who has the wisdom necessary to discern wheat and weeds and that is the Crucified One. The Crucified One has what Rene Girard calls the “intelligence of the victim.” The Crucified One — the uprooted and cast out weed, judged to be evil by a system of self righteousness, is giving us the eyes of love and forgiveness necessary to recognize the harvest of love in our midst. There is more wheat out there than we realize. Isn’t that good news?
“A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.
Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”
I look for God’s activity in my life through the very mundane things that occur each day. Today was one of those days.
I looked down at my cell phone when it rang. It was a number that I was familiar with. Whenever this number pops up, I have to make a few quick decisions: Do I have time to talk? Do I have the energy? At the most, it’s a 10-minute phone call.
I’ve had my fair share of these calls from friends who are serving time in a correctional facility. Do people just want to catch up and talk? Or do they need money put on their books? Or do they want me to locate a family member? Do they want to talk about the NBA playoffs? Or do they want to talk about God?
I figured I had 10 minutes. I sat down. And I answered.
We greeted each other with our normal “Wassup? How you been doin’?” stuff. We talked about the latest happenings both “out here” and “in there.” And then out of the blue:
Him: Hey, you remember that story in the Bible about the Sower and the seeds?
Me: Yep. (side-note, this particular passage is not one of my favorites….)
Him: Lina, I have been every type of soil you can imagine. You know that. I’ve been so reckless with my life. I’ve been rocky, thorny, unproductive – just bad soil. But God keeps after me. God is still sowing. After all this time. I don’t know why. He is so good. Why hasn’t he quit on me?
We chatted a little longer about that, and then we hung up. Without thinking too much about our conversation, I sat down at my computer to see what passage I would be writing about today. As I looked at the revised common lectionary passages for this week, here it was… my favorite: “The Sower and the Seeds.”
My friend’s question was the absolute right question. It was a beautiful question. Because it takes us to the heart of the story – which really isn’t about the SOIL so much but rather the intent of the Sower.
What Sower would sow seeds among thorns or a stony path? Who would knowingly sow where birds would swoop down and devour the seeds? Who would sow seeds in places where there was no chance of flourishing. And while there was seed that fell on good soil, the nagging question remains, what about those other seeds that were wasted?
Either the Sower was not very good at the job or they knew something about the soil that we do not.
Or perhaps the Sower has an abundance- an endless amount of seeds – to WASTE – to sow lavishly in hopes that somehow, some way, even the seeds that fell into bad places would have a chance to sprout even a little bit.
This parable isn’t first about seed or soil. It is first about the lavish, extravagant nature of God.
“Why is God wasting His grace on me?”
It was a profound, beautiful, deeply theological question that didn’t come from the halls of academia but from a state correctional facility. It came from an inmate, a friend, pondering the soil of His own life and the seeds of Grace that have fallen his way. Even he sees that those seeds are redeemed, regardless of the soil. Every. Last. One.
This is the Economy of God…where Grace is sown in such an abundant fashion – and is wasted on soil that isn’t even all that productive – or at least that’s what it looks like. That seems so wrong and offensive. And scandalous. And – well, it just seems like Grace.
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms
64Rebekah also looked up and saw Isaac. She got down from her camel 65and asked the servant, “Who is that man in the field coming to meet us?”
“He is my master,” the servant answered. So she took her veil and covered herself.
66Then the servant told Isaac all he had done. 67Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.
Poor Isaac, dying in a state of deception, betrayal, sorrow and loneliness. Yes, in our reading we encounter him comfortably ensconced within his mother’s tent, basking in the early hours of love at first sight, but things go very wrong by the time we get to chapter 27! There, the family of the patriarch is divided as rivals, Isaac and Esau on one side of the breach, and Rebekah and Jacob on the other. Can such soap-opera-caliber mess be the fruit of God’s plan for Isaac’s family: brothers at war over inheritance, Mom and Dad playing favorites among their children, lies, trickery, and deceit? In the end, fear leads Isaac to give his beloved Rebekah over to another man, an act that mimicked his father’s failures. Despite the moment of love and contentment we see in our reading, it seems this patriarch is destined to continue in family tragedy and community chaos, and to die in sadness and regret.
Unlike most central characters of today’s blockbuster movies or yesterday’s ancient literature, Biblical figures are not casted as heroes. They are otherwise unremarkable figures who accomplish mighty things only when attuned to God’s voice. They court absolute disaster when they tune out God’s gracious words. We see this with Noah, unquestioningly following God’s precise directions in building his humanity-saving watercraft. Soon after, he fails to seek any divine instruction but instead gets drunk on wine and cruelly curses his innocent grandson. Similar failure befalls Abraham in the disastrous aftermath of his exploitation of the sex slave Hagar, a probable gift received as payment for exploiting his own wife Sarah. Blessed outcomes when God’s voice is in the mix; disaster when biblical figures hit the mute button. These are the lives of the patriarchs, the kings, the prophets, and the judges of Israel.
We are incredible creatures who, when in harmony with God’s voice, accomplish transformative feats of love, kindness, goodness, and grace. I imagine God’s frustration when, like the patriarchs, we are so capable while heeding his voice and so flawed when allowing other voices to block, distort, and override the divine conversation. We should take note of the absence of divine conversation within the disasters of the patriarchal saga. It was Abraham’s prejudicial worldview, not any divine instruction, that led him to incestuously seek a wife for Isaac from within his own family rather than from the people God had sent him to live among and learn from. We see how that worked out. It was Isaac’s prejudicial worldview that led him to favor Esau over Jacob, as it was Rebekah’s prejudicial worldview that led her to prefer Jacob over Esau. And prejudiced worldviews continue until
this day to block, distort, and override the voice of God.
16“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
If you’ve seen grace at work, you may recognize that it dwells beyond words and rides along the rhythms of song. God has so richly blessed us with a melody for all seasons, be it joyous songs celebrating love, beauty, and wonder, or the restorative refrains for times of loss, pain, and longing. Imagine the sense of frustration and disappointment Jesus carried as he considered how those of his day had missed the opportunity to live within the heavenly lyrics of God’s song. Instead, they looked at John the Baptist, with his words of repentance, justice, and truth, and in allowing their prejudiced worldview to block out the music, mistook the divine for the demonic. Similarly, hearing the gracious and tender words of Jesus, they called reprobate that which was redemptive. Jesus reminds us, there is no winning with those whose prejudiced worldviews prevent them from dancing to the happy music and crying with the sad.
God’s song is wild, unpredictable, and ever evolving with greater and more vibrantly intricate rhythms. Prejudiced worldviews, attempts to selfishly bend rhythms to the tune of our cultural accommodations, or to limit it within strict notations of past arrangements, serve to distort, block, and override the empowering guidance and understanding of the divine melody. Really good music bids us come and dwell within its lyrical splendors, entangle ourselves within its transcendent basslines, and exuberantly dance at its direction and cry at its prompts.
May God bless all of us with ears to hear his voice clearly, and a desire to join in the divine conversation, or more appropriately, the divine song. It’s lyrics and rhythms produce movements that are truly free and joyful.
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja
“And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
Our Gospel reading this week draws from just three little verses at the end of an incredibly dense Matthew 10. The chapter is full of missional directives, which are bookended by the topic of missional hospitality we find in verses 40-42.
There will always be a call for disciples of Christ to “go out” and “live into” the harvest, embracing an often harsh and not-so-inviting world through the artful dance of Gospel subversion. Those sent will need to depend on the hospitality of others. Jesus says of missional hospitality, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40).
In the world of the New Testament, identity was intimately tied to family and community. The act of welcoming someone was more than embracing an individual; you were embracing the entire community who had done the sending as well as the family whom the “sent one” represents. Therefore, welcoming a disciple of Jesus meant (and still means) receiving the very presence of Jesus himself along with the one who sent him.
For the past 15 years, Street Psalms has experienced missional hospitality through the planning of and participation in vision trip experiences in partnership with colleagues around the world. (You can read more about how we see the distinction between vision and mission trips here.)
This past April, four fathers from Tacoma, WA traveled to Guatemala City with their sons to engage in a unique father/son vision trip. We spent significant time discussing the gift of blessing; our classroom was the dance of the Spirit within the hospitable soul of the Guatemalan people. As a part of our trip, the participants embarked on a journey to discover what it meant for fathers to bless their sons in the spirit of the Father’s blessing of Jesus: “I love you and I really, really like you.” (“This is my son whom I love, in him I am well pleased.”)
One afternoon, I had the privilege of accompanying the group to a large informal settlement (La Esperanza) on the outskirts of Guatemala City. A family from the ministry network of CMT Guatemala has chosen to live there. Ageo and Irma Perez, along with their sons Angel and Samuelito, open their humble home in the afternoons and weekends to the children of La Esperanza.
We arrived just as a Bible study was beginning. They asked me to come forward to bring the children greetings from the visiting group. I hadn’t planned anything ahead of time, so I was spitballing a little and decided to grab 14 year-old Mitchell, asking him to share with the children in Guatemala a little about his life in Tacoma. When he finished, I asked the children if any of them had questions for Mitchell. To my dismay, none of them responded. So, in a minor panic, I looked for the one little girl whose name I knew — 6 year-old Graciela.
“Graciela,” I asked, “do you have any questions for Mitchell?” A sheepish smile crept over her face…after a pregnant pause she proclaimed, “No tengo ninguna pregunta pero quiero que él sepa que Dios le quiere bendecir. Que Dios te bendiga Mitchell.” (I don’t have a question but I want him to know that God wants to bless him. May God bless you, Mitchell). It was a life-changing encounter with resplendent missional hospitality for the 14 year-old “missionary.” A cup of cold water (grace) had just been delivered to the “little” disciple on the vision trip, and it will take a lifetime for him to unpack the significance of the reward he received that day from Graciela’s blessing.
To understand God’s mission, and how the church reflects that mission, we need to celebrate the cupbearers of cold water — the Gracielas of the world who proclaim the blessing of scandalous Grace. They, who hospitably receive those “sent by the Lord,” may actually embody the key to authentic Gospel expansion. They, in fact, are the one’s who are “sent.”
“Go” and “receive those who are sent” — waiting for you is the smile of Graciela’s resplendent blessing of scandalous grace.
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
27“What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.”
“God who are you and who am I?” St. Francis once prayed this simple prayer all night. He set the world ablaze with what he heard in the dead of night.
Jesus whispers in the dark. As this week’s text suggests, it’s his preferred mode of communication. These covert conversations deal with the elemental essence of things; in that sense they are life-giving, world-changing and, yes, quite dangerous. The whispers are dangerous because they uncover secrets that have been “hidden since the foundations of the world” (Matt. 13:35). These secrets are killing us, which is why Jesus says, “nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known”(v.26).
So what are the secrets Jesus is uncovering? Our moral failures? Our shameful acts? Our lustful thoughts? No, Jesus has bigger fish to fry. In my experience, St. Francis’ prayer can be trusted to attune our ears to the whispers in the dark and the secrets that Jesus uncovers there.
Who Are You?
The first whisper has to do with who God is. Jesus whispers the secret
name of God. It seems obvious enough to say that God is good and God is love. So, let me phrase it differently to try and recover something of the shock of this first whisper. God is non-violent. There is no violence whatsoever in God. God is not who we thought God was. Jesus whispers the delightful news that we got it wrong. He whispers, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 9:13). Of course, if we’ve read much of the Old Testament or been raised in a theological tradition that insists that God can and does use violence, or even if we are just being honest about our view of God, we can see why this might be a little disorienting and hard to hear. It might even raise questions about which Spirit is whispering in the darkness. Can we really trust what we are hearing?
Who Am I?
The second whisper has to do with who we are. Jesus whispers our secret name. We too are good and loving in as much as we are created in God’s image. We are the embodiment of original blessing. Jesus whispers, “You are God’s beloved in whom God is well pleased (Mark 1:11). It may be the hardest of all the whispers to trust. But here is where things get tricky and a bit more complicated. Yes, we are beloved ones, whose belovedness is being revealed, but we are also violent ones whose violence is being revealed. It’s no secret that when pushed we are all capable of great violence.
What remains hidden to us are the ways we are constituted in violence and have projected that onto God. In fact, we are so blind to this pattern that it goes unnoticed. We are easily convinced that certain forms of violence are necessary acts of righteousness sanctioned by God himself. Jesus whispers our complicated full name in the dark, and it’s here that I pause to say thanks for the whisper, for when our belovedness meets face to face with our complicity in violence, the results are deafening, soul shaking, and hard to endure no matter how soft the tones. Some fall to their knees asking for mercy. Others rise in anger ready to defend.
Perhaps now we can understand why Jesus warns his disciples that proclaiming in the light what they heard whispered in the dark is not only the salvation of the world, but it is also quite dangerous. For example, Jesus is called Beelzebul. Jesus warns us that we can expect the same. There is simply no way to bear this cross unless we’ve heard Jesus whisper in the dark.
So here is my prayer. May we share in the light what we’ve heard in the dark. It’s the hope of the world.
1The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.
Founder and Director, Watu Moja
19Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
The command to “go” and to “make” disciples has defined Christianity for centuries and has probably been one of the most formative parts of our Christian narrative. We are supposed to share our faith. We are supposed to lead people to Jesus. We are commanded to “go and make.” Period.
I wish I could hear how Jesus “sounded” when these words were spoken. I’d like to believe there was nuance in his voice — and that it didn’t sound as harsh as it reads…Or as harsh as it was taught to me by my bible study teacher; a white male encouraging us to “pray and consider Africa as a place to ‘do’ mission.”
Even back then, when I was a “new” believer, and a young leader, something didn’t feel right about this passage to me. It felt, and still feels…well…it feels violent.
Before everyone calls me a heretic, let me explain.
I am a Pacific Islander. My family comes from the islands of Samoa.
The London Missionary Society sent missionaries to the islands in the South Pacific in the early 1800’s.
In I832, the missionary John Williams landed in American Samoa, in the village of Leone. The First Christian Congregational Church in American Samoa was founded here. In front of the church, a monument was erected in honor of John Williams. HE was responsible for bringing Christianity to the Samoan Islands. I had mixed feelings about Viliamu (Williams). The Samoan Christian Congregational Church of Samoa was the denomination of my parents and grandparents. Several years ago, I visited Leone and the site where Christianity came to us through the missionary movement. I saw this monument erected in honor of Loane Viliamu (Missionary John Williams). I remember standing in front of this monument with a million questions, totally conflicted and with tears in my eyes. Not all of them were happy tears.
What did they see? How did they view my people? Did they see us as uncivilized? Savage? Did they did they discern the indigenous ways of knowing God that were there long before they arrived — put in us by the God they were sent to proclaim? Did they know of our values of aiga (family), tautua (service), tausiga o va (love of neighbor) and could they recognize this as God’s grace already present with us, to us, among us? In reading journal entries from missionaries sent to the South Pacific islands, I found the following entry from John Williams:
“The more hideous their depravity, the more urgent was the need to lose no moment in bringing to them the means of salvation. Not merely was it to be a message to save the soul, but the missionary was also to teach useful arts and crafts and all the blessings of civilization, from arithmetic to plastering houses.”
That’s how they viewed my ancestors.
I’m sure these missionaries came as a faithful response to the Great Commission. By the way, Jesus never called it that. It was a branding idea that came about in the late 1700’s to get people interested in foreign mission. It worked. Thousands of missionaries were sent out to all corners of the world. I suppose I should be grateful for them coming. It resulted in my family — great-grandparents, grandparents and parents, becoming Christian — along with the rest of the islands.
It is difficult to reconcile feelings of being “acted upon,” which is how I read Williams’s journal entry, AND how I read Matthew 28. Perhaps the writer of Matthew is assuming that after 27 chapters of seeing, hearing, and being with Jesus, the disciples will know the “way” in which mission should happen. Their “mission” should’ve been informed by beautiful parables of the Kingdom of God where Jesus is constantly turning expectations upside down — where those in power are called to sacrificial service. Where the first are last, and the last are first. Where prostitutes, lepers, religious outsiders, INCLUDING women, are elevated by Jesus as examples to religious people of what it means to truly know and worship God.
For many years, I avoided this passage altogether. I wasn’t motivated to share the Gospel in this way — by going to them, making them into disciples, baptizing them, teaching them, etc….it all felt too…”colonizing.”
Imagine how relieved I was when a colleague shared with me a different commission from John 21: “As the Father has sent me, so I send You.”
It turns out that the most important, instructive missional word in all of scripture is a tiny: AS.
It’s an incarnational word, like another small incarnational word: WITH.
To run out the door with good intent and fervor, armed only with a Matthew 28 charge and zeal does damage. It diminishes people. It creates a power dynamic between “us” and “them” — those who have the Good News and those who “need” it. Matthew 28 needs John 21 in order to give us, not just the “what” of mission, but also the “how.” If we don’t hold those together, we risk bearing witness, often through our deeds, of a disincarnated God. And that couldn’t be further away from the truth of Jesus that we are commissioned to share.
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you…. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”
For many in the United States, the end of May is full of graduation parties for aspiring high school seniors — a transition into a new life as adults. While exciting, for student and parent alike, the season can also be filled with fear and doubt.
We are six weeks removed from the narrative journey of Holy Week that led us through the crucifixion, the disorientation of Holy Saturday silence and the unbridled joy of an empty tomb. “The resurrection is God’s Amen to Jesus’ statement, ‘It is finished,'” writes S. Lewis Johnson.
While the tomb that had held Jesus is now empty, our lectionary text introduces us to disciples who are staring at a very different world than the one they were comfortable with. There has been a “graduation” of sorts, and now they feel paralyzed, incapable of moving forward, self-entombed behind walls of fear, doubt and disillusionment. They have not yet experienced the truth of the resurrection; they cower in fear behind locked doors and covered windows.
Here, in the midst of that darkness, Jesus shows up to his group of graduating seniors and delivers a commencement address — life’s great forward-looking ceremony. He slips into the room as the forgiving victim and vividly creates the experience of Easter. His delivery may be more important than the message because the resurrection cannot be explained; rather, it must be experienced. When it comes to life’s deepest mysteries, experience trumps explanation every time! When it comes to the resurrection, the Gospels offer no explanation as to how it happened. Instead, we are given a series of personal encounters with the risen Christ delivering mini commencement addresses that forever change the world.
The first word from the resurrected God, in a locked room of “graduating” disciples drowning in doubt and shaking in fear, is “Peace be with you.” He then lovingly shows them his wounds, and commissions them to be ambassadors of forgiveness for the world — the very forgiveness they are now experiencing. And then, the risen/wounded one performs a stunning act of intimacy. He “breathes” on them.
The breath of God is the kiss of God that remakes the world. In this divine kiss Jesus is modeling the very core of mission, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” In kissing us into existence Jesus empowers us to do the same — to forgive as God forgives, in a courageous act of union and communion. This is the meaning of the kiss. This is how creation and re-creation unfolds. The disciples have been “commenced.” They are kissed into the world anew, addressed to be a blessing to the waiting world around them.
Sadly, many of us have yet to experience the kiss of the risen Christ. We have perhaps heard the “words” of commencement but have avoided the terrifying, life-giving experience of encounter with the commencer. As a result, we “retain” (bind up) the sins of others and spend precious time and energy justifying our self-destructive behaviors of rivalry, bitterness and resentment. Jesus addresses us all with these forward-minded words and actions of this commencement address.
Mercifully, the risen Christ continues to deliver his commencement address even today by entering the locked rooms where we, like the disciples before us, self-entomb. He gently and gracefully (with a kiss) enters the doubt, fear and disillusionment of our lives. All he asks is that we allow ourselves to be breathed upon, knowing full well that the person kissed by the risen Christ will naturally and eagerly participate in the ongoing act of Creation itself.
This is the glorious truth of what it means to be “commenced.” We have been addressed with the kiss of the resurrected Jesus and are invited to leave the rooms of self-locked doors that have previously held us captive. The world awaits the touch of graduates who have been kissed into life by the resurrected Lord.
“Oh God, hear our prayer!! Easter yourself within, around and between us that we might receive your kiss and thus, as bright-eyed graduates, experience you as the dayspring that dissipates our dimness.”
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
“…’Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’… While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy…” (Luke 24:49-52)
Imagine the victim of a violent crime asks you to return to the scene of the crime-a crime that you were (in part) responsible for. Now imagine that this experience becomes the animating center of your life, which, despite your dread, fills you with great joy, and clothes you with a power that transforms you and the world. This is the miracle we celebrate in the final week of the Easter season as Jesus ascends into heaven.
After the crucifixion, the disciples fled Jerusalem in fear. The crucified risen Christ appears to them in the resurrection and instructs them to return to Jerusalem. A rag tag band of frightened and confused disciples return to the scene of the crime (the fingerprints of guilt are everywhere). They “stay in the city” and become a joy-filled community of courageous leaders “clothed in power.” It’s from this new center of existence that the world is transformed.
Joseph Campbell writes, “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. The very cave you are afraid to enter turns out to be the source of what you are looking for. The damned thing in the cave, that was so dreaded, has become the center.”
Campbell beautifully describes the counterintuitive journey of our faith! The dreaded thing that has us fleeing in fear is the very center of our existence, if we can only turn and face it.
The bestselling novel, The Shack, by William P. Young, is a great illustration of this. A man is invited to return to the scene of a horrific tragedy that involves the brutal murder of his daughter (it was not his fault, but he feels responsible); there, he is given a new center. His view of God, himself, the world, and the tragedy itself is transformed. He discovers a joy that is big enough to hold and honor all the pain that he’s endured. His wound becomes a womb of new creation, bearing seeds of new life.
Is there a greater, more beautiful mystery than this?
One more thing. The text has this odd line, “While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them.” How does one bless while withdrawing?
Three years ago, while my father was on his deathbed, he blessed me. His blessing was wordless. He couldn’t speak. He simply laid his hand on my head and blessed me. His body was withdrawing from this world, but without a doubt, his spirit had never been more present to me. This is true even today. Perhaps this gets at what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “It is to your advantage that I go away” (John 16:7). Yes, the risen Christ is available to us in way that the bodily existence of Jesus doesn’t allow. The absence of Jesus makes room for the presence of Christ, who “is all and in all” (Col. 3:11).
It’s true; the presence of the crucified risen Christ is in all things, calling forth life. It’s with this blessing, which fills our hearts with love’s confusing joy, that we return to the scene of the crime again and again to discover the very center of our existence. It’s from this place that our cities and our world are transformed.
P.S. Whether you’re the victim or the perpetrator, it’s only wise for us to return to the scene of the crime (whatever that is in our life) when we have some sense of being led there by blessing. While the “dreaded thing” is the center of our existence, it will only be a life-giving center when we are ready to receive it. Until then, even the best gifts are experienced as curse. Go as you are blessed…
I bless you in the name of the Father who is for you, the Son who is with you and the Spirit who unites us all in the never-ending dance of love.
Since my father passed away some years ago, I’ve had a fascination with the last words and days of a person’s life.
My father struggled with lung cancer–breathing was a chore. Every breath he took was measured, had meaning, and was intentional.
His final words to each of my siblings were very thoughtful. On his last day, I was next to him on his bed. He motioned me to move closer to him so that I could better hear him. He said, in almost a whisper, “Promise me one thing.”
“Sure dad, anything,” I said. And I waited for some important, life-changing words to come from his mouth.
He drew a long breath, as deep as he could.
Then he said, “Please promise me that you are going to take better care of your car from now on. I’m not going to be here to do that for you anymore.”
I thought to myself, “Really? That’s it?” So, for lack of better response, I said, “Ok Dad. I promise.”
I’ve thought about that conversation thousands of times since. His last words to me mattered a great deal to him.
Here we are, nearly 6 weeks past Easter. The gospel lectionary passage will not let us forget the days before Jesus’ death…and the words…the last words he spoke to his disciples. Jesus is measured and intentional with what he wants them to know and remember…and here it is…
“The Spirit will be with you and is in you.”
In other words, you will not be alone in this world.
This promise of solidarity seems to be the tone of Jesus’ last conversations with his disciples.
That’s quite a promise, Jesus… we will never be alone. You will be with us? How does that actually play out anyway?
How does the Spirit work and move in our personal lives? How about in the lives of people and communities where everything would suggest exactly the opposite? Sometimes it feels like God is not present, or at the very least, very hard to find.
Here’s what I continue to discover. The Spirit needs a Body. The Spirit of God needs to be embodied–in a person, in a people.
God’s presence, Jesus’ promise to be with us, is embodied now through the very imperfect, very conflicted, very frail Body of those who are called CHURCH. He is with us and in us. Ironically, it’s the presence of God at work in the church that frees us to see God’s presence outside the church as well: especially in the marginalized, outcast, and forgotten corners of the world.
There is plenty in the Gospels that suggests this “presence” within God’s people will be messy. The Incarnation was anything but neat and tidy. It was unpredictable. It crossed boundaries. It created tension. It was counter-cultural. It was scandalous.
It was beautiful.
The deeper we move into our communities’ stories, the further we move away from the things that give us privilege and control. The further we go, the more awkwardly beautiful the whole notion of presence becomes. I don’t understand how that works. But, it seems to be the way God prefers to be in the world. He became fully present to us only when he died. That’s a mystery I’m not sure words will ever explain.
57“But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.”
With a quick glance at Taina’s bushy hair, one knew they had entered a wholly unique experience. As other students sat awkwardly on secondhand office chairs, Taina perched herself high against the opposition, sitting like an 8th Street Queen, atop one of the secondhand computer desks. The African, the Arawak, and the Taino all met at the center of Taina’s cute, baby-like face. But one should be warned that her charm and her bushy ponytail belied her true nature as a warrior queen. Taina was determined to stay one step ahead of a system determined to vanquish all within her realm and to hold them under the grip of common ghetto oppression.
My first encounter with Taina was on a North Camden street corner as I waited to pick up some young people for a field trip. I saw her, bushy ponytail in full display, running all activity going on at the corner. I thought, “Look at this cute little brat, out here bossing all the thugs around.” The brilliance I suspected that day was confirmed when she joined our alternative education program. Taina possessed the distinct qualities of Camden’s warrior class: a piercing street apologetic, an anger born of the crisis state within the immediate environment, a determination to hustle into survival, and a fervent longing for something real. These street soldiers are known for their keen intuition, smartly tuned BS detection skills, and their insistence on justice. With them, one had better come with the correct story or risk accusations of fakeness. Sitting atop the secondhand desk, Taina was about to unleash the real story on the local Libertines gathered in opposition to her.
Libertines were one group identified as having seized Stephen, the central character in our reading today from Acts chapter seven. The Libertines have only one biblical mention: a sect comprised of Jews carried away as prisoners of war who had been emancipated. They resettled in Jerusalem and built a synagogue there. Though still clutched within the tortures of Roman imperial domination, the Libertines embraced an illusion of being “Freedmen,” as their name indicates.
Such illusions of freedom, surviving within systems of oppression, are established upon carefully fabricated stories that seek to obscure and misemploy details of an authentic narrative. An authentic narrative threatens the comforts earned within sacredly held illusions. False notions of reconciliation, inclusion, acceptance, fairness, and fraternity are all put at risk as the true story spills out from boldly inspired lips. This was the Libertines problem with the Stephen and his detailed retelling of God’s redemptive history with Israel and its culmination in the person of Jesus the Christ. Stephen’s reliance on God as the only refuge for Israel, and Jesus as the path to redemption, certainly threatened those reliant on systems of power, domination, and empty religion. They seem to echo the call of those in the Prophet Isaiah’s time who urged him
“Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions.”
– Isaiah 30:10
But Stephen, like the truth-tellers throughout history, would not speak of inauthentic pleasantries. He spoke of God’s work from below, through Jesus.
“When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord”
– Acts 7:54-57
Taina sought neither pleasantries nor illusions as she listened to Camden’s Libertines. These were the officials who had gathered, attempting to sooth tensions after an incident between the police and a fellow student. The student was pencil thin and no more dangerous than an average canary. Yet, he had been harassed, abused, and arrested by burly police officers for the mere crime of waiting outside the corner store as his cheesesteak sandwich was being prepared. The police brass and police chaplains gathered there to proclaim a narrative of good policing and neighborly relations in a city known for rampant police corruption and abuse.
Taina would have none of this and, rising from her secondhand throne, she challenged Camden’s Libertines, first recounting the many incidents of police abuse in her neighborhood and then declaring, “Some of your policemen run the drugs in our neighborhood. You want to know their names?” With this, the police chaplains’ faces turned red and their teeth gnashed. Some of the brass ran to quiet her while others yelled “Woooo, Woooo, Heyyy, Heyyy,” in attempts to drown out the authentic narrative. If Libertine eyes had the striking force of stones, Taina would have met the same fate as the martyred Stephen. In some ways, her continued isolation, alienation, and targeting cloak her in daily-lived martyrdom.
“In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.”
– Psalms 31:1
The witness of the martyrs should move us to respond within the systems we live among. In a world where social climbing, compromise, and adoption of false notions of peace and righteousness seem the safest route to success and abundance, I find special beauty in those spaces where God is working to provide refuge for the challenge of an authentic and life-changing narrative. Would that we worked with God to create such spaces within oppressive systems where the voices of the martyrs and the street queens can speak the truth to the powers on behalf of the powerless and survive the stones.
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja
“I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and will find pasture.”
Street Psalms leads a collaboration of 13 training hubs (UTC) in cities around the world; together, we seek to develop incarnational leaders who love their cities and seek their peace. We have a strong sense of what UTC Hubs are called to do on a communal level. But, we can sometimes lose sight of where we, as individual leaders, are guiding people to on a personal level.
This short poem arrived in my inbox the other day. It has haunted me ever since:
“I lost my identity trying to fit into your shadows,
until I realized you reek of an emptiness no one can fill.”
– Tasneem Kagalwalla
While the poet here wrote as one deeply disappointed in the emptiness of the other (likely a failed romance), it left me considering my legacy of leadership as a spouse, father, pastor and ministry leader. How many people do I erroneously lead down a path into the emptiness of shadow? While our UTC Hubs are successfully calling forth incarnational leaders for their cities, what is the destination for those close to us who follow the trajectory of our lives on a personal level?
Richard Rohr wrote a very compelling book exploring a spirituality for the two halves of life entitled, “Falling Upward.” He writes, “your shadow is what you refuse to see about yourself, and what you do not want others to see….We never get to the second half of life without major shadowboxing and I am sorry to report that it continues until the end of life.” When I live my life out of an alignment to misplaced desires (what Ignatius referred to as “inordinate attachments” or “disordered loves”), I lead others to a destination filled with shadows — the fake news of my own invention.
A key for authentic leadership is the ability to confront your shadows. Failing to do so leads others to a destination of falsehood and emptiness. Authentic leaders, often rising out of personal suffering and failure, learn to embrace the necessary courage to shadowbox with an acknowledged foe.
I have sat with this week’s lectionary text from John 10 on many occasions. What struck me this week, in light of the piece of poetry above, was verse 9, where Jesus says that the sheep he leads will find pasture.
Much has been written about the Biblical imagery of shepherd and sheep. Sheep, as has been well documented, are dumb animals that can only live under the care and protection of a shepherd. There are no “wild” sheep. They have no sense of direction, cannot feed themselves, have no way of protecting themselves and cannot get up if they fall over. Thus, the image of sheep portraying humans living in shadows is an ample picture indeed.
The Good Shepherd, in comparison, leads his sheep in a very different way and to a very different destination. He enters with his sheep, calls them each by name, leads them out (as opposed to driving them with a whip), goes on ahead of them to protect them from any danger, and all the while creates the perfect scenario for sheep to follow. What is the destination of all this leadership (shepherding) activity exemplified by the Good Shepherd? Where are the sheep invited to follow the shepherd to?
The pastureland represents the sustenance of life, where one can eat to his/her heart’s content. It is the place representing the abundance of God’s love, provision and protection — the only place where sheep can thrive.
Pastureland, as a destination, is the antithesis of the destructive whims of the shadowland. In pastureland, one is able to embrace life as a liturgy of abundance. Shadowland, as destination, is the blind allegiance to the myth of scarcity. From the destination of pastureland, I can be fed and I can feed. I can release instead of hoard. I am free to proclaim peace as opposed to living incarcerated behind the bars of rivalry and fear.
In the conclusion to C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, there is a striking conversation ushering in the “farewell to Shadowlands.” Lewis writes,
“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are – as you used to call it in the Shadowlands – dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is over: this is the morning.”
The leadership of the Good Shepherd invites us out from under the darkness of shadows and into the new morning of abundant pastureland. As his sheep, we are invited to follow; what an incredible privilege it is to encourage others to do the same.
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
“Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Here at Street Psalms, our most transformative experiences have happened while walking the streets with urban leaders (“on the road”) and fellowship around a meal (“breaking of the bread”). This week’s lectionary text highlights both the road and the table as gateways to Gospel sight.
The road to Emmaus in Luke 24 begins in confusion and ends in communion. Along the way, there are a series of twists, turns and holy reversals that are the normative pattern of life inside the Resurrection.
Theologian James Alison points out that scholars have not been able to pinpoint the village of Emmaus. Perhaps, Luke is artfully suggesting that Emmaus is the metaphor for all the places in our lives that exist at the edge of Jerusalem. And perhaps, Cleopas’s unnamed companion is Luke’s way of inviting us to insert ourselves in the story alongside Cleopas as if to say, we are all on the road to Emmaus.
It’s also striking that Jesus appears to Cleopas and his companion as a stranger, or as Mother Teresa would say, “the distressing disguise of the other.” God has come, is coming, and will continue to come as the stranger among us. He reveals himself most brightly in the face of the forgotten and those who are least likely to be seen as Godbearers. This is the relentless truth of the Gospel.
Equally striking is that Jesus joins the journey to Emmaus as a student. He listens to the disciples “discussing” the events of the crucifixion. The word “discussing” in vs. 17 is the Greek word “antiballo.” Quite literally they were going “ballistic,” arguing intensely with each other.
It’s not long before the student becomes the teacher. Jesus re-narrates the entire law and prophets. Re-interpreting sacred texts is risky business, but this strange rabbi with a strange hermeneutic makes their “hearts burn within” (vs. 32). After a mind-blowing Bible study, Cleopas and his friend insist that the stranger be their guest for dinner. Then, true to Gospel form, the strange guest turns out to be a familiar host. Wow!
As host, Jesus uses precisely the same language that he used in the feeding of the 5,000 and the last supper.
“He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him” (vs. 30-31). Yes, all of life is being taken, blessed, broken, and given in love. This is the Eucharistic shape of life.
In liturgical traditions, the word “host” (as in the “host” offered at communion) comes from the Latin word “hostia,” which means victim. This is the interpretive key that unlocks Gospel sight and allows Cleopas and his friend to recognize Jesus. It is the victim who comes to us in the resurrection, forgiving us. It is the victim who walks with us on the road to Emmaus and becomes our teacher. It is the victim who hosts the meal of our salvation. It is the victim
who reveals the Eucharistic shape of life by which we see Jesus and all the other strangers among us.
Jesus, like the disciples who were blind to your presence until they dined with you in the Resurrection, we too are blind to your presence until you dine with us. You are the stranger among us, revealed as the loving host of the meal of our salvation. Open our eyes, Lord, to the stranger among us. We want to see and celebrate you at work in the world–creating, sustaining, and uniting all of creation in the meal of our salvation.*
*This Word From Below was originally posted on 5/2/2014.
When it was evening on that day…and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you…As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven…”
The Christian story begins at the end, at the resurrection. It is by the light of the resurrection that we begin to see what’s really happening. Until then, we are shrouded in what T.S. Eliot calls “hints and guesses.” It’s only when we see through the eyes of the risen Christ that we begin to make sense of Jesus’ life and our own.
This takes time, usually a lifetime.
Perhaps this is why it took so long for the Gospels to be written. Most scholars date the earliest Gospel (Mark) around 50. A.D., and the last Gospel (John) around 100 A.D. In fact, the Gospels were written after most of Paul’s letters had begun circulating. Why the long wait for something so important? If I’ve learned anything by experience, it’s that it takes years to be formed by the reality of the resurrection so that we can re-narrate life in a way that is faithful to the reality of the Gospel.
Let’s be honest, our lives are not a simple sequence of events, one thing unfolding after another. That’s not how we make sense of our existence. We don’t narrate our lives in the order we live them-front to back. We narrate our lives in reverse-back to front. The problem arises when we don’t have a point of departure, a place of discovery, an awakening, an interpretive key that unlocks the mystery of our life.
James Alison makes a distinction between what he calls the “order of logic” and the “order of discovery.” This distinction is critical to how the spiritual life unfolds.
The order of logic is all too familiar. We begin at the beginning. We faithfully tromp through life in chronological fashion till we reach the end. When we apply the order of logic to our faith, we begin reading the Bible in Genesis and end in Revelation hoping it will all make sense. It doesn’t! To read the Bible front to back is to die a slow and painful death. I’ve tried it many times. We get to Leviticus or Numbers, and if we haven’t given up because of sheer boredom, we give up because of the bloody, gory mess. We dutifully claim the Christian story, but if we are honest, when bound by the order of logic, the story lacks coherence or life.
The order of discovery is different. It begins, not at the chronological beginning of the story, but at a point of departure-a point at which something happens that awakens us, and changes how we see. It’s from this point of departure, or what is classically called “conversion,” that we re-narrate the past, but now from a whole new perspective. It’s from this place that we make meaning. It’s from this place that our lives are re-membered. The past becomes present to us in a whole new way.
The resurrection is the Christian point of departure. That is why, if we are to read Scripture Christianly, we read it through the eyes of the resurrected Christ. If we are to live our lives Christianly, we begin here, in the resurrection.
So, here we are in the first week of the resurrection with the disciples, locked in a room, filled with fear, unable to make sense of the events that have taken place. Suddenly, there is a divine break-in-the risen Christ enters into our prison and stands among us, completely and utterly at ease and unconcerned with all the ways we’ve betrayed and denied him. Not a hint of resentment! In fact, the first word of the risen Christ is “Peace.” He says it three times in this week’s passage!
Easter Peace is the place from which we begin to make meaning. It is the place from which we can see things as they really are. Easter Peace is the ground from which we begin to discover the truth of who God is. It’s from this place that Jesus breathes on us and we discover ourselves being forgiven. To give and receive forgiveness is what it means to bear witness to the resurrection. This is how we participate in the ongoing act of creation.
Perhaps now we can see why, for most of us, it takes a lifetime to faithfully narrate the gospel story at work in our lives. I am so glad the Gospel writers waited as long as they did to put pen to paper. Imagine how differently the story would have been told if they had written too soon, only half formed by love and mercy.
T.S. Eliot said it this way, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
It’s Maundy Thursday. We are entering the passion of Jesus by way of the love Jesus shows us today: a love that frees us to fail, desert, betray and still be called friends.
Our Lenten journey began with Jesus coming down the mountain of transfiguration. He told us not to say anything about the mountain top experience until after the resurrection. (See, Don’t Speak Until You’re Spoken To). Lent is about listening for the voice of the crucified/risen one.
So, I’ve been listening.
I just returned from Guatemala City where we heard from the crucified/risen ones of that great city, particularly the 41 orphan girls burned alive last month; I’m listening. Last week we heard the news of the tragedy in Egypt where 45 were killed; I’m listening. And what about the dozens murdered by chemical weapons in Syria; I’m listening.
As we enter the passion of Jesus, hear the words of the French Catholic monk, Christian de Chergé, who was executed in Algeria by terrorists in 1996. Anticipating his death, Father de Chergé had left a testament with his family to be read upon the event of his murder. The testament in part read:
“If it should happen one day, and it could be today, that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to encompass all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church, my family, to remember that my life was given to God and to this country. I ask them to accept that the One Master of all life was not a stranger to this brutal departure. I ask them to pray for me: for how could I be found worthy of such an offering? I ask them to be able to associate such a death with the many other deaths that were just as violent, but forgotten through indifference and anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other. Nor any less value. In any case, it has not the innocence of childhood. I have lived long enough to know that I share in the evil which seems, alas, to prevail in the world, even in that which would strike me blindly. I should like, when the time comes, to have a clear space which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of all my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down . . . .
Obviously, my death will justify the opinion of all those who dismissed me as naïve or idealistic: “Let him tell us what he thinks now.” But such people should know that my death will satisfy my most burning curiosity. At last, I will be able, if God pleases, to see the children of Islam as He sees them, illuminated in the glory of Christ, sharing in the gift of God’s Passion and of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to bring forth our common humanity amidst our differences.
I give thanks to God for this life, completely mine yet completely theirs, too, to God, who wanted it for joy against, and in spite of, all odds. In this Thank You, which says everything about my life, I include you, my friends past and present, and those friends who will be here at the side of my mother and father, of my sisters and brothers; thank you a thousand fold.
And to you, too, my friend of the last moment, who will not know what you are doing. Yes, for you, too I wish this thank-you, this “Adieu,” whose image is in you also, that we may meet in heaven, like happy thieves, if it pleases God, our common Father. Amen! – Father Christian de Chergé. Excerpt From: Brian Zahnd. “Beauty Will Save the World.”
4-5 This is the full story of what was sketched earlier by the prophet:
Tell Zion’s daughter,
“Look, your king’s on his way,
poised and ready, mounted
On a donkey, on a colt,
foal of a pack animal.”
Between 1979 and 1981, twenty-nine young black people fell victim to a serial murderer in Atlanta, Georgia. I don’t know any of their names. I do have the name of JonBenét Ramsey indelibly sketched in my mind. Unlike the black children in Atlanta, JonBenét was a white American child of promise; thus, obsession with the drama surrounding her murder swept the nation in 1996. As news ratings soared, and reporters gained new levels of fame, those of us in ghettos across the nation pointed frustratingly to the contrast in the coverage of these two tragedies.
It took twenty-nine murders for the country to notice Atlanta’s missing children, while the theater surrounding JonBenét emerged immediately and was sustained for years. Shouldn’t the death of all children be treated as equally tragic and heartbreaking?
The contradictory responses drive me to the story of Isaac and Ishmael, and ultimately to our Gospel for today. Isaac was a child of promise. Ishmael was not. Abraham, Isaac’s father, seems to have given little thought to sending Ishmael and his mother into the wilderness to die. I rarely hear much drama attached to the deportation of this young man and his mother. Like the children of Atlanta and so many of today’s deportees, Ishmael’s horrors seem obscured by the drama of a child of promise.
Meanwhile, Isaac’s impending death by sacrifice has garnered much theological attention throughout history, attracting the interest of biblical voyeurs, hungry for ever-increasing intrigue. Perhaps it takes a lowly ghetto-based theology to connect the story of the banished child to that of the child of promise. I imagine that Abraham was forced to confront the question, “If you think it’s OK to let kids die, then why does it feel so bad to see your own child of promise on the alter.” Like so many today, it seems Abraham needed the dramatic spectacle of his own son, being bound and dressed as a sacrificial offering, to be shocked into consciousness about oppression, injustice, and privilege.
“The Lord is God, shining upon us. Take the sacrifice and bind it with cords on the altar.”
In this week’s Gospel, we read about Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem. He comes representing the marginalized Ishmael, the children of Atlanta, and also the children of promise, akin to Isaac and JonBenét. His entry signals the truth: that injustice and iniquity certainly devour the disregarded but also sacrifice the children of promise. The makeshift path of honor and shouts of Hosanna certainly marked the Savior as a child of promise. But, his chosen chariots, a beasts of burden, surely fixed him among the most lowly esteemed, those whose horrors can’t compete with Hollywood headlines. His entry is a setup, intended to shock us into the reality that even highly favored children of promise are sacrificed at the altar of power-lust and injustice. Jesus seems to be crying out, “Take note of the praises but prepare to see what they do to your child of promise.”
There is a myth; it says that going along with oppression or maintaining a posture of silence in the face of it will somehow insulate us from the damages of injustice. The triumphant entry of the Blessed One “who comes in the name of the Lord” lays bare this myth. His celebrated procession toward the cruciform alter calls us to watch, reflect, and move to righteous action. We must, because iniquity continues its mission to devour all children, be they the forgotten ones living among the world’s trash heaps, slums, and ghettos, or those cloistered behind gated communities.
In the case of Ishmael, the problem child survives, as does Isaac, the child of promise. Jesus, on the other hand, the one who represents both children, does not. We are thus left to respond to the everyday spectacle contained within the drama of humanity; sin continues to devour forgotten problem children in ghetto streets and children of promise in addiction centers. We have much before our eyes to shock us into consciousness. May the crucified one help us to see through his eyes.
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja
44Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”
“The living Jesus is a problem in our religious institutions. Yes. Because if you are having a funeral, a nice funeral, and the dead person starts to move, there goes the funeral! And, dear brothers and sisters, Jesus is moving.”
Juan Carlos Ortiz
We trudge along this Lenten season towards the horror of the cross. Just two weeks away, Good Friday marks the day when the shadow of death will completely shroud us in darkness and despair. As the body of Lazarus lies entombed, wrapped in the grave clothes of death, we find ourselves also shrouded in darkness, wrapped in the grave
clothes of sin: fear reigning in our hearts.
There are certain men and women in the Gospels whom I long to meet one day. Not the individuals whose names are most famous in the New Testament text, but people like Bartimaeus, the woman caught in adultery, the friend of Cleopas on the road to Emmaus, and the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well. These are all folks who, after life-transforming encounters with Jesus, walk off into anonymity. I want to know the rest of their stories.
And then there’s Lazarus. Perhaps his (post) post-mortem story is the one I’d be most interested in hearing. In John 11, Lazarus has died and his body lies entombed for four days before Jesus finally shows up. Both Mary and Martha share their remorse that a quicker response from Jesus could have spared their brother’s life. The fact is, however, that death has won and swallowed up yet another victim. This time, the deceased is their own dear brother-a man Jesus himself deeply loved.
Jesus came to Judea, ostensibly, to “wake up” his friend Lazarus. But, there is something even more significant at play. The verbs used in the text (verses 33 and 38) reveal that Jesus’ initial emotive response is that of bitter anger and indignation. Theologian James Alison suggests that Jesus’ anger was directed at the culture of death around him. A culture evidenced by the professional mourners who wail as a choir in tribute to death as master and king. Jesus heads to Judea on a mission; he will revive his friend, redefine death, and in the process, erase the suffocating fear that has created a culture of death.
Jesus knows that awaking Lazarus has officially initiated his own journey into the darkness of the tomb. After he’s buried, will his surviving friends and family fall into the same paralyzing fear of death’s power that surrounded Lazarus? Or, is Jesus here to reveal an ethic of life in place of the paralyzing fear of death?
What Augustine referred to as “timor mortis”(Latin for the fear of death) does more damage than any other phobia. We respond to it by burying our head in the sand or running away, both of which cause great harm and hold us back from the experience of unbridled freedom.
When we are free from the fear of death, we are free to live generous lives in service to the other, even our enemies. On our Lenten journey, we, alongside Lazarus, are dressed in grave clothes. But we will soon be called out of the relentless fear of death and into the intoxicating freedom of life. Lazarus’ miracle is our miracle. Death is conquered both for him and for us.
I cannot imagine what the rest of Lazarus’s life must have looked like. He had been to the grave and back again. And now, unhinged from the fear of death, he spends the rest of his life in the freedom of the resurrection.
The movie Of Gods and Men illustrates this kind of freedom beautifully. One scene in particular captures the crux of the film and the human predicament. Luc is a doctor who has been treating rebels wounded in the Algerian Civil War. The abbot, who is working through his own fears, warns Luc to be careful. Luc responds to the abbot:
“Throughout my career I’ve met all sorts of different people. Including Nazis. And even the devil. I’m not scared of terrorists, even less of the army. And I’m not scared of death. I am a free man.”
That’s Gospel freedom. Freedom from the fear of death as we, like Lazarus, will soon hear the glorious words of Jesus:
“Take off the grave clothes and let him (them) go.”
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
P.S. “To learn to follow Jesus is the training necessary to become a human being. To be a human is not a natural condition, but requires training. The kind of training required, moreover, has everything to do with death. To follow Jesus is to go with him to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. To follow Jesus, therefore, is to undergo a training that refuses to let death, even death at the hands of enemies, determine the shape of our living.”
39“I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (9:39-40)
Stanley Hauwerwas said, “You can only act within the world you can see.” In this week’s text, Jesus sees what others can’t. He acts and his actions give new sight. This is the hope of the world.
The story begins with the disciples speculating theologically on who is to blame for a certain man being born blind; they are convinced God is punishing him. Jesus refuses this interpretation and heals the blind man…an act that “divides” the unstable community; he robs them of their scapegoat. Blinded by their own dim judgment, and in an effort to preserve the status quo, the community “drives out” the healed man from their midst.
Jesus follows the exile to the margins where the two of them establish the possibility of a new community, one founded upon mercy, not the blind guide of sacrifice. This is the “judgment” for which Jesus came into the world-the judgment of mercy.
There are four groups that appear in this story: the disciples, the neighbors, the parents and the Pharisees. None of them celebrate the healing of the blind man, not the disciples, not even the blind man’s parents. It’s a stunning note of absence. Instead, all are eager to distance themselves from the blind man, even in his healed state. His very presence is a threat to the community, which stands over and against “the sinner.”
To celebrate the blind man’s healing would be to jeopardize the fragile solidarity maintained by a steady stream of scapegoats. To celebrate the blind man’s healing is to side, not only with a “sinner,” but with Jesus, who himself had become known as a “sinner.” In fact, the religious power structure had already agreed, “anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (9:22). Lest we rush to judgment and render ourselves blind, we do well to remember what a scary and dangerous thing it is to be locked out of the only community we know by standing with those who are despised. Mercy comes at a price; we are wise to count the cost.
This story is layered with irony; all of the actors are blind to the blind man. He is invisible to them, a non-person. The only one who actually sees him is Jesus. “He saw a man blind from birth” (9:1). The man is the source of endless speculation about everything except his own healing and humanity. In fact, while the community argues about who he is, the blind man tries in vain to be noticed and get a word in edgewise. “He kept saying, ‘I am the man'” (9:9). It’s a scene straight out of a Monty Python skit. They, not the once-blind “sinner,” are oblivious to God’s active presence in their midst. As a result, once healed, he is expelled from the very community that exists for healing and wholeness.
Father Greg Boyle, author of Tattoos on the Heart, talks frequently about the “community of kinship” that Jesus makes possible. He invites us to visualize a circle of compassion and then to imagine that no one is standing outside that circle. Finally, he invites us to act…to walk to the edge of the circle and stand with those who have been demonized in order to stop the demonizing. What a beautiful way to describe what Jesus does in this text.
In our Lenten journey we are nearing the cross, the place where Jesus will change the way we see forever and make visible that to which we are blind. Soon, we will find ourselves driven out to the extreme edge of the circle of compassion, where we will discover that the love and mercy of God widens yet again to include the excluded. This is God’s judgment of mercy; may he use the forty days of Lent to prepare our hearts for it.
6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon. 7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”
I was 24 years old, sitting at a youth camp, counseling a cabin full of girls. One of the speakers shared about the Samaritan woman at the well and her encounter with Jesus. I’m sure you know the story well. Jesus met her at the well when the sun was high. She was performing her daily task of drawing water-alone. According to our speaker, she had been ostracized by her community due to a bad reputation; she had been married 5 times after all, and was now living with a man who wasn’t her husband.
It was unheard of, he told us, that Jesus was having this conversation. Culturally, he shouldn’t have been speaking to her. Even if you put aside the issue of her prior marriages, her gender should have made her off limits.
Regardless, Jesus struck up a conversation with the woman, asking her to draw him a drink from the well. As youth workers, we were trained to see this request as Jesus’ way into a conversation with her.
She is very well aware that there are all kinds of boundaries that are being crossed in this interaction-“How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?”
So many boundaries…
If you’ve ever been marginalized, or experienced prejudice or bigotry, then you can instantly relate to her question. It’s not second nature; it’s first. She knew, deep in her bones, all the reasons this conversation shouldn’t be happening.
You see, marginalization makes you think twice about where you can go, who you might run into, what awkward conversations you could find yourself in, and what battles you’ll have to fight. You become an expert at code switching-the practice of alternating between the hidden social rules and norms of your culture and the rules and norms of the dominant culture.
Her question stands out to me…even more than the dialogue about living water. It stops me in my tracks. She essentially asks him, “Why are you talking to me?”
I hear fear, limitation, frustration, irritation, exhaustion and judgment in her question. I can feel the years of knowing, and being raised to know, her “place” in society.
As the conversation moves along, Jesus ends up challenging her understanding of worship and where/how it happens. I’m struck by the context of the conversation; it happens between two individuals that, for all intents and purposes, are enemies.
This shouldn’t be happening.
The idea of “worshipping God” in spirit and in truth cannot be separated from this holy conversation ; it is connected to the kind of worship where boundaries and walls come down. Jesus’ presence with this Samaritan woman is an authentic expression of the kinds of conversations that lead to transformative worship.
Jesus challenges her cultural expectations of worship-where and how it happens. The Incarnation will do that. In fact, he teases out the idea that TRUE and AUTHENTIC worship cannot be contained in a place, but in the hearts of a people who are seeking God earnestly. Part of this seeking happens when we engage with our enemies, or at the very least, those whom we judge or despise.
Every time I heard this story, it was preached by a man. They always stopped at verse 26 where Jesus let her know that indeed, he was the Messiah: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.” That is AMAZING good news, but stopping at this point implies that Jesus is the only significant actor to come out of this story. The news that liberated me happens just 13 verses later:
4:39 Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.”
This is what I thirst for-bold proclamation that Jesus’ interaction with those who are marginalized, including women, is on the front edge of God’s Kingdom work. Worshiping God in Spirit and in truth includes telling the whole truth about a God whose conversations begin in the margins. Jesus empowered a Samaritan Woman to do this “telling” of the Good News.
The Incarnation is unique in this sense. It crosses over and through boundaries, and it produces transformation in the hearts of individual people and communities. It incarnates, if you will, in the most unlikely of people and places. And it’s contagious.
As we continue our Lenten journey, may God bless us with opportunities to engage, and be engaged, by those we consider to be the “other”…especially those that are marginalized. That may be our best chance to receive the unexpected “telling” of the Good News…it may be the testimony that helps us believe in him.
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
Longtime Friend and former Board Chair, Street Psalms
Click to read Meal from Below: A Lenten Devotional
4Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
Geedy was just one word in the neighborhood’s descriptive lexicon for crack cocaine addicts. Sometimes called fiends, geezers, crack heads, or traps, crack addicts once dominated American’s blighted urban landscapes, representing a black, brown, and tan urban plague long before opioid addiction became a more respectable white crisis in healthcare.
As for me, I stood solidly situated like Nicodemus in my understanding of how life’s laws interacted with drug addiction. I held the firm and sincere conviction that such character flaws were remedied by exposure to the gospel truth of God’s free gift of salvation, confession of sin, and turning in repentance to a new life of faith. This was my message to the neighborhood crack addicts, a solid approach to redemption-orthodoxy as exact as algebra. Then I encountered a tall, skinny geedy.
I never got his name and unlike the usual stream of addicts and alcoholics that normally hit me up for spare change, I’ve only seen him once, on a balmy summer South Camden afternoon as I was rounding up neighborhood kids for an adventurous outing. There, amid the organizational chaos of lining up wildly energetic preteens, he called out in a voice that spoke much more of what he could have been than what he had become, “Excuse me my brother. I don’t mean to bother you but can you spare a couple of dollars?” The uninitiated may have mistaken him for some wandering aristocrat who had fallen to an incident of bad luck. I was solidly initiated and could see his true condition from miles away, or so I thought. His request, no matter how polite, was something I had heard so often, in so many dialects, attitudes, and in every denomination.
The tall, skinny geedy’s request was especially annoying because this man seemed to ignore the fact that I was working in the sacred space of children, who should never be mingled in among drug infested environments. I was building tabernacles and this tall, skinny geedy was interrupting my righteous labors. Instead of reaching into my pocket and giving enough change for him to proceed on his way, I determined to lay down the law. I offered a graciously firm reply to his request for change, “Brother, more than money, what you really need is to stop using those drugs.” I guess I told him. Then God spoke.
While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Matthew 17:5
Though we often neglect, miss, or dismiss it, the core of the incarnation is the startling, unpredictable, and serendipitously disruptive voice of God as it constantly emerges among us. Be it through Balaam’s donkey (Numbers 22:21-38), a mysterious finger writing on the wall (Daniel 5), the voice of silence that spoke to Elijah (1 Kings 19:12), or the voice from heaven in this week’s gospel reading, God’s call arises, pointing to a reality that takes us far beyond our human confidence in neatly crafted laws and conventions. The transfigured Jesus stood on the mountain, face shining and clothes gleaming, engaged in God’s eternal conversation. Peter, unnerved by serendipitous disruption, had a similar reaction to mine-to build lawful tabernacles within the realm of what we know and can control-suitable for containing any possible serendipity or divine disruption.
Having spoken truth to the tall, skinny geedy, I figured my task was complete. God didn’t need to speak because I already had. My disposition neglected any possibility of divine utterance; I faithfully turned my back and resumed tabernacle construction, loading kids onto the bus. The tall, skinny geedy anxiously called to me again, “Brother.”
I turned to see him suddenly transfigured, though in dingy grey clothes, with his espresso colored face gleaming with the sweat of a 90-degree day.
I’m not sure if it was a prayer, a rebuke, a sermon, or an injection into the eternal conversation but something in the words he sternly spoke to me opened my eyes to realities far beyond my neatly crafted laws and conventions. “You need to know crack calls me by my name at night,” he said with his burning eyes piercing right through me. And then he left, leaving me with the disorienting realization that my laws, conventions, and precise orthodoxy were no match for an addiction that held alluring conversations late at night.
His words left me imagining a world where we suspend our tabernacle building long enough to hear God graciously broadcasting assurances of his love and favor, long enough to see Christ mystically transformed into the image of the least among us-even in the person of a tall, skinny geedy, and long enough to see the power of God’s eternal conversation centered on showering gifts of abundance on captives begging for change in our streets. As the tall, skinny geedy made his way to the next possible donor, I realized that Christ once again had come to save me-that God had indeed spoken.
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”
After an encounter with the shadowlands of Ash Wednesday two days ago, we now sit silently in front of an opened curtain revealing the five-week theater that is the Valley of Lent. As is so often the case, the Gospel narrative for the first Sunday of Lent is that of the desert temptation.
Each of the synoptic Gospels signals the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry against the backdrop of an unnamed Middle Eastern desert. In biblical parlance, the desert is that place in Scripture where we go to figure out who is who and what is real. It is the place where souls are revealed.
Imagine Jesus after a long fast and a lonely walk in the desert. He sees a barren landscape, a wasteland-no gardens, or streams, no milk or honey, only rocks and sand and the occasional desert fox. The scenery matches his interior. The land is as empty as his stomach.
The introduction to the Lenten season that we received on Ash Wednesday culminated with the exhortations and questions that today, in the desert, animate our journey forward:
“Join me now in the wilderness. Taste now only dust. Learn with me what only hunger can teach. Pay attention to the empty regions you have busied yourself to ignore.” Can we accept this invitation, entrusting ourselves to the One who delivers it? Will we enter this long journey patiently and with openness?
After traveling forty long days and nights without food, Jesus rests. Exhausted and hungry, he meets the devil and so do we, for this is not Jesus’ story alone; It is our story, too. Jesus carries the fullness of humanity into this divine appointment with the Devil. We are thus invited to a pilgrimage down, into and through the dark night of the soul. It is an invitation to wander in the wilderness, to come face to face with the blurred contours of our own battered souls as we journey with Jesus to the cross.
I am reminded of a quote touching on a crucial element of pilgrimage that fueled the beginning of Lent several years ago for our Street Psalms community.
“The truth is that when someone sets out on the road it’s never in the name of an abstract idea. Ultimately, there’s only one path; to take another is merely to wander. But the voyager is the only one who knows it. Set out from where you are; otherwise, you’ll never arrive anywhere.”
Jean Sulivan – Morning Light
The last line speaks loudly to my soul this year. I am fighting the temptation to embark on the Lenten journey this year from a false place in search of a space that is not mine to occupy. Jesus’ path into the desert and his encounter with the Devil shows the way forward. We are compelled to begin the journey to the cross from where we actually reside…not from where we prefer to be. This, indeed, is invitation into grace-filled adventure.
Lest we be overwhelmed by images of Jesus’ desert temptation beckoning us forward into solidarity with his hunger and loneliness, it would do us well to remember what immediately precipitated the Spirit’s leading him into the wilderness. Jesus entered the desert “full of the Holy Spirit,” according to Luke’s account. The “filling” occurred because he had just received the commissioning words of his baptism, “And a voice from heaven said, This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
Thus, commissioned in love, we journey forward with Jesus, from the place “right where we are,” fueled by what Mary Jo Leddy calls “radical gratitude.” This is what fills the heart of Jesus while wandering in the wilderness; from that space we experience our own invitation for the journey with him to the cross, where all of life is re-imagined once and for all.
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City, Guatemala
P.S. The desert temptation centers around the symbols of bread, temple, and crown. For a detailed look at these symbols and their significance for the Lenten journey, read an excerpt from Geography of Grace HERE from which this Word from Below reflection was partly adapted.
So why does Jesus tell his disciples to remain quiet until they meet him in the resurrection? Here’s my guess. Until we hear from the Crucified One we, like Moses, are only half-converted to the love of God. Puffed up with vision of grandeur, the disciples descend into the chaos below. Very soon, their hearts will burn hot with anger, convinced their righteous indignation is from God. This mess will have them scaling another mountain. On that mountain, they will witness original speech from God that not even Moses or Elijah fully heard. They will hear the heart of the Crucified One say to his murderers, “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing” “
After the brightly lit meeting on the mountain with Moses and Elijah, where Jesus is transfigured, he orders the disciples not to say a word about this until after he is raised from the dead. What an odd command. Why are they free to speak after the resurrection but not before?
This week’s text calls to mind Moses’ meeting with God on the mountain. Remember that? Moses ascended the mountain to speak with God. He came down with the 10 Commandments. Upon his return all hell had broken loose. There was the “noise of war in the camp” (Ex. 32:17). Chaos had gripped the community and they had turned to the golden calf. “Moses’ anger burned hot” (Ex. 32:19). In a fit of rage he then speaks rashly. Violence escalated (as it always does). He orders the execution of more than 3,000 men in God’s name. A gory frenzy of fratricide ensued that was much worse than the original sin. Yikes!
In the wake of the violence Moses returned to the mountain to speak to God. He fully expected to meet a God whose anger burned hotter than his own. Instead, God spoke words never uttered before, I am a “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Ex. 34:6-7). Who is this God? In my view, Moses was spoken to by the Crucified One whose heart, like the stone tablets Moses had dashed, lay broken before him.
In his book Deep Memory and Exuberant Hope, Walter Bruggemann argues that each major failure in the life of Israel (beginning with this Exodus crisis) calls forth “original speech” from God that Israel had never heard before. In each case we hear something completely unexpected — not the anger and wrath that mirrors the human heart, but the intensification of grace and mercy that originates in the heart of God. To be sure, there are troubling regressions in the language that are attributed to God, but there is no doubt about its direction. God’s ever-increasing lexicon of grace unfolds in Scripture until it finally culminates in Jesus. Perhaps we can only hear good news a little at a time.
So why does Jesus tell his disciples to remain quiet until they meet him in the resurrection? Here’s my guess. Until we hear from the Crucified One we, like Moses, are only half-converted to the love of God. Puffed up with vision of grandeur, the disciples descend into the chaos below. Very soon, their hearts will soon burn hot with anger, convinced their righteous indignation is from God. This mess will have them scaling another mountain. On that mountain, they will witness original speech from God that not even Moses or Elijah fully heard. They will hear the heart of the Crucified One say to his murderers, “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Three days later in the upper room (think mountain) the heart of Jesus will speak again when he declares God’s “peace” yet again.
Next week we enter Lent. It is the annual journey into the resurrection by way of the cross. It can’t come soon enough. The “noise of war” is rising and golden calves abound. Bold speech is needed like never before, but like the disciples on their way to Calvary, we do well not to speak until spoken to by the Crucified One. Perhaps a Lenten vow of silence is in order.
I have a hunch that when the Crucified One whispers words of peace in our souls, it will be some very highly personalized version of what Jesus heard on the mountain of Transfiguration in this week’s text, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Matt. 17:5). Having internalized the original speech of God and our own belovedness, we are free to shout, sing and dance our own version of original speech in a hurting world.
*James Alison has a chapter with this same title in his book series called Jesus, The Forgiving Victim. I highly recommend it.
Click to read Meal from Below: A Lenten Devotional
48“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I use to think that the Sermon on the Mount was easy and beautiful. I use to think, “yeah Jesus, tell ’em what they are missing.” The Sermon on the Mount was clear and way better than the law. Plain language. No questions. When I learned that Jesus was actually the fulfillment of the law, it made so much sense. The law was not just words; it was Jesus. His life is the concrete picture of what God intended. Let me get my WWJD bracelet right now.
Well, I’ve realized the Sermon on the Mount, in spite of its beauty, is no picnic. It’s not easy. In fact, Jesus is calling us to account. He’s telling us that these teachings were actually going to do something the law was incapable of doing-bringing humanity into the picture. Jesus, in the flesh, was going to humanize the law; he would put flesh on it.
When I took my ordination exams, one of the questions was about the depravity of humanity. I will admit, that is still a hard one for me. Are we depraved? Perhaps so-but the depravity isn’t humanity per se…it’s our version of humanity. We’ve got the wrong picture.
Humanity is actually beautiful when understood in the light of Jesus-God becoming flesh to show us the power of love and humility. We don’t get there by focusing on the evil of humanity, but instead by remembering, by believing and seeing, that God made us HUMAN in the IMAGE of God’s own humanness and it is Good!
With that as the backdrop, the Sermon on the Mount and all that Jesus teaches us about what it means to be human is simply this-He is calling us to our original, intended selves. He is calling us forth into abundant life found in a new way of being. Jesus is inviting those who will follow to shed those things that de-humanize us and invites us to rightly claim what is already within-put there by our Creator.
I just got of the phone with a friend of mine who is serving time-again. We’ve had many conversations about this. He is coming into his true HUMANITY-and though he has lived a lifetime, or what some might call a waste of life, I choose to believe that the image of God still resides there. Why? Because, as marred and scarred and unrecognizable that it seems at times, his humanness belongs to God and it’s there. I know it. As people who are called to proclaim the Good News in hard places, this is perhaps one of the most difficult things we must do-persist in finding the God-HUMAN ness in all.
Back to my statement of faith in my ordination exams-someone pushed me on the question of the depravity of humanity. To be totally honest, it is hard for me to put those two words together in the same sentence. Why? Because humanity belongs to God. It was God’s idea. We’d be better served to start with the assumption that humanity is good because it was created by God. As a pastor, this is my constant tension-to look for the humanity in others and begin there. First. That’s not easy.
To forgive and love your enemy is true humanity.
To give generously to others is true humanity.
To turn the other cheek when someone has wronged you is true humanity.
Depravity of humanity in this context isn’t some “evil” that is different and distant from us. Depravity of humanity is unforgiveness. It’s greed. It’s retaliation. It’s inhospitality. It’s hating your enemy. It’s “othering.” These are all motivated by fear AND by some need we have to ensure that our own humanity is protected. Depravity is all that works against our ability to see and believe and trust that God is in the other.
The call of the disciple is to the OTHER. It is to love the OTHER. It is to find peace with the other. It can’t be done without the simple truth-GOD became HUMAN and showed us how to BE truly HUMAN to one another.
May God grant all of us eyes to see his image in those where we least expect it.
Rev. Lina Thompson
Pastor, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church
22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Denise stood nervously at the edge of the deep end of the Herman’s scandalous inground pool. I saw her out of the corner of my left eye, never imagining her plans. The Hermans lived amidst the towering spruce and maple trees and Victorian homes of little Collingswood, New Jersey. Denise and her 14 friends gathered at the pool lived amidst the towering crime rates and low regard of nearby Camden. This was the scandal—black, brown, tan, and yellow kids diving in a place long preserved as a sea of whiteness. The Hermans gloried in the scandal, which was certainly the talk of the town. The spectacle of this color spectrum splashing about on hot afternoons was in full view for neighbors and passing cars; less visible were the curious graces that always seemed to find their way into the Herman’s pool—graces called forth through faithful adherence to God’s commandments.
Commandments seem difficult in our age of unprecedented privilege. The very word “commandment” invokes notions of restriction, limitation, and boundaries. Surely enough, the world’s systems use commandments for such purposes, but God’s Kingdom moves in the opposite direction. God’s commandments are crafted for us to fully enjoy the immeasurably mystical and liberating gifts of grace. We hear the ensuing joys of such mysteries ringing out in the Psalmist’s voice.
Happy are those whose lives are faultless, who live according to the law of the Lord. Happy are those who follow his commands, who obey him with all their heart. Psalms 199:1-2 (Good News Translation)
The Hermans embraced the scandal of God’s commandment to extravagantly love black, brown, tan, and yellow kids from America’s most dangerous city. Though their neighborhood was known for its scarcity of grace, the act of opening a backyard pool to a group of suspect kids from a despised city affected a movement of inclusion and the emergence of abundant grace among those who dared to take a closer look.
Denise had not figured out all the stuff about commandments and grace. Lots of nouns floated above her head: Jesus, Christian, church, Baptist, Methodist, and heaven. But Denise lived in a world where verbs were much more important than nouns. At home, she was much more concerned about what the people around her did, not how they named themselves. She was bright, young, beautiful, and much too shapely for a 13-year-old. Her father was nowhere to be found and her mother’s boyfriend was an absolute lecher. Denise was the kind of girl who needed some assurances that people like the Hermans and myself took God’s commandments seriously—that our “yes” truly meant “yes” and our “no” meant “no.” Thus, after telling her “yes, we love you” and “no, we will not cast you out,” she still stood on the edge at the deep end of the pool.
God’s commandments call us to profound relationships, both with humanity and with him. This is the point of the litany of commandments Jesus gives us in our Gospel reading, taken from Matthew 5:21-37. These commandments guide us to be profoundly connected to our sisters and brothers, our friends, enemies, and spouses…and to skeptical teenage girls living in danger. Denise, having made a point to announce she could not swim, waited until my gaze was solely on her, with all the shock of seeing her at the edge of the deep end, and then she jumped. She knew if my yes was true and if I was serious about all God’s commandants I professed to follow, I would have to plunge in with all I had—eyeglasses, street clothes, wallet, watch, shoes, dollar bills and all—but only if I was serious about salvation. I’ve rarely seen such an act of faith or a more impassioned challenge to take God’s commandments seriously. So, there in the Herman’s pool the mystically abundant waters of God’s grace once again showed up as a soggy youth worker emerged from the bottom of the pool with a new believer named Denise.
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja
“You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.”
This past Sunday morning I attended a unique worship service with some friends. It was called “Street Church;” all the parishioners are homeless youth from a particular area of Guatemala City.
Street Church is coordinated by a ministry called Sigo Vivo, founded by Pastor Rudy Hernandez, his wife Tatiana and their teenage daughters. Rudy pastored an established church in the neighborhood for 16 years before they “let him go;” the leaders of the congregation were not happy about the presence of street youth attending services, using their bathrooms, receiving medical care from Tatiana (a family physician), and eating on the premises.
As part of their ministry, the Hernandez family and street youth now meet every Saturday and Sunday in a park down the street from their previous church. Ironically, the pastor’s former parishioners pass by on the way to their own sequestered service every Sunday.
As I sit with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:13-20, which immediately follow the listing of the Beatitudes, I can imagine Jesus having the Hernandez family and their young friends in mind. Church on the Street was a beautiful expression of the salt of the earth and the light of the world. The homeless youth led the worship music and the pastor’s daughter, Taty, preached. The young people repeatedly and politely raised their hands peppering Taty with questions, giving testimony by making application of the text to their everyday lives and, while quoting Scripture, exhorted their friends and street family to consider the power of the undying love of Jesus in the face of unspeakable obstacles, hardship and pain.
A lot of ink has been spilled trying to decipher what Jesus meant by the images of salt and light. Countless sermons and Sunday School lessons refer to salt as a purifying or cleansing agent, a seasoning for flavoring food/life, a mode of conviction (salt in a wound) or even the cause of thirst. Based on the context of Jesus’ audience, however, the most plausible application was salt as an agent of preservation. Salt slows down the rotting process, not by being nearby in a salt container, but by being rubbed into that which it is intended to preserve. The image of “being rubbed into the lives of others and having the lives of others rubbed into us” is a striking picture of the incarnation. An image so beautifully painted for me this past Sunday morning by the Sigo Vivo team. An image repeated on a daily basis by incarnational leaders all over the world that we at Street Psalms have the blessing of serving.
Salt and light are not moral platitudes that one can try to reach. Jesus is not suggesting or commanding that his hearers attempt to become salt and light; rather, he was commissioning them then, and us today, to live into the core DNA of our created being: “You ARE the salt of the earth, you ARE the light of the world.” Therefore, live up and into the fullness of what you have been created to be. Those who embody the heart of the beatitudes are the SALT of the earth to retard corruption, and the LIGHT of the world to reveal truth. We are commissioned to be both subtle salt and conspicuous light. As the Hernandez family so masterfully illustrates this on the streets of Guatemala City, so hundreds of Christ-following peacemakers seek to do the same in the current political landscape in the United States.
Our passage concludes with Jesus explaining how he has come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them as preserving salt that preserves and light that illumines. His followers are invited to follow into the great vocation of incarnational leadership.
Joel Van Dyke
Director, Urban Training Collaborative
Guatemala City, Guatemala
2“Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…'”
We are told that the three most important words in real estate are: Location! Location! Location! I don’t think God got that memo when, as Eugene Peterson puts it, “The Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood,” (John 1:14).
When God goes looking for a home, God does not pick the high rent district of humanity. God moves into what most of the world considered a cursed ghetto in the backwaters of the Roman Empire.
If the Incarnation means anything it is about the relocation of God’s blessing from “up there” to “down here.” It’s God’s Yes and Amen to this world. It is a blessing from below, in the most unexpected way-in and among that which we call cursed. This always comes as a shock to us.
In this week’s text, Jesus is doing a riff on the Incarnation. He is peering inside the reality of God’s Kingdom and how it works. He is teaching that God’s blessing is not where we think it is. The ones that we see as cursed turn out to be the ones on whom God’s favor rests. Is this because the poor, the mourning, the meek, and the hungry are more deserving than the rest of us? Not at all! God’s kingdom is not a meritocracy where favor is a reward for good behavior. Jesus is helping us see what has always been true though hidden. Namely, the “cursed” are not the object of God’s scorn as we thought; they are the objects of OUR scorn, which is why Jesus locates himself there and does the unimaginable. He blesses the world through that which is cursed! In a way, this is his inauguration speech that ushers in the upside-down Kingdom of God.
If we look into the face of the cursed one long enough we see two things. First, we see ourselves, or what Ronald Rolheiser calls our own “cursed consciousness.” A cursed consciousness is one that has internalized the curses of others and sees the world through the lens of self-hatred, bitterness and rivalry, projecting it outward. As a result, we see things, not as they are, but as we falsely see ourselves. Second, we see the face and grace of Jesus who returns us to ourselves, clothed and in our right mind. Isn’t this what happens on the Cross? The Cursed One, who is the object of our scorn (not God’s), breaks the cycle of violence with this life-affirming, world-healing blessing, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). He returns curse with blessing and in doing so returns us to ourselves. We become who we are, blessed ones.
Because of this, we can take the difficult and lifelong journey into our souls and those dimensions of our lives that feel cursed. We can even relocate ourselves and gladly be numbered among the transgressors. We can do this with confidence that God has pitched God’s tent there, and called it blessed and beautiful. It’s there that the Spirit transforms our “cursed consciousness” into one of delight. Only then can we bless the world. Whenever we see this happening we can be sure that the Kingdom of God is near.
Last week at the presidential inauguration here in the United States, rain began to fall during the ceremony. One minister saw this as a sign of God’s blessing on this administration and its “only America first” vision. In a sense, he was right. God’s blessing falls on all of us. God “sends rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). However, given the up-side-down kingdom that Jesus makes visible in this week’s text, we also do well to remember that the “last are first and the first are last” (Matt. 20:16).
O Cursed One, who is our blessing, return us to ourselves with delight that we might do the same for all the cursed ones who have long since forgotten their blessedness.
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