I’ve stood behind folks arguing about twenty-one cents on their grocery order before. Adamant, they don’t back down while others wait behind them. Clerks are often not very helpful looking with disdain at the person who bickers over two dimes and a penny. I admit sometimes I have been impatient when standing behind this scene.
Today I empathize with the panic of those who argue over small change.
With three dollars and fifty-four cents left in my food budget for 2-1/2 days, I went to the market in my small town yesterday. I was thrilled to find that there was an abundance of bananas left and, since this was the end of the week, they were only thirty-three cents a pound. I would have fruit!
Then to my joy was a new rack of Braeburn apples sale priced at 79 cents a pound. I would have apples and bananas to supplement my beige noodles and rice at home. Yes, I would have fruit! I couldn’t afford any more vegetables and all I had left at home was a quarter of a zucchini but, by golly, I was going to have fruit.
My order totaled $2.50 but since I am new to this living so very close to the edge, I didn’t realize a mistake was made. I was charged for one Braeburn apple at the 79 cent a pound and one Fuji apple at $1.49 a pound. That thirty-seven cents overcharge matters to me this week. It will buy a baking potato if I can find a small one in the pile.
When you’re poor and living near the edge every penny counts. When you’re days away from pay day or a refill on your food stamp card, of course, you argue over two dimes and a penny.
The Lord proclaims: Do what is just and right; rescue the oppressed from the power of the oppressor. Don’t exploit or mistreat the refugee, the orphan, and the widow. Don’t spill the blood of the innocent in this place. Jeremiah 22:3 CEB
Many followers of Jesus, it would seem, do so for a selfish reason. They are Christians because they want salvation. They want to avoid eternal damnation to Hell. For many, this is the beginning and end of faith. This is a selfish faith.
For others the preoccupation with salvation extends to concern for people who do not “know Jesus” or “accept Jesus” into their heart. In their understanding of faith, compassion requires them to evangelize nonbelievers aggressively for their own well-being. They are genuinely worried about others. (Sadly, it doesn’t feel that way to folks being told there is only one way to avoid fiery pits.) This is a worried faith.
This is not my faith or god. The One who loves extravagantly does not stop loving me when I do not love back. That is not love.
This does not give us carte blanche to act in evil ways. Hardly. The god that I experience keeps at us pushing us, encouraging us, and enticing us to respond to godself and others lovingly. Once we accept the love of the One, by whatever name, we want to be better beings. This is a loving faith.
You see, when we perceive the magnanimous, relentless salvific love of God, we want to love back. We want to love in the same way. And, so, we choose to co-create a world (with God) in which all feel the love that binds creation and the divine together. We begin by loving.
Loving One, your love is palpable if we but open ourselves to you. Help us to be extensions of your love to all our earthly family. Amen.
We often seek out information in times like these. We keep our TVs on, we browse to news websites, and we interact on social media. I suppose it is a way of feeling some sense of control, of making sense of senseless events.
Please be assured that our God, the One who loves with extravagance, weeps for those touched directly and indirectly by the explosions in Boston. God never condones or is part of evil.
I imagine God’s eyes moist with quiet tears at the actions and pain that led one of God’s beloved to perpetrate an act of hate. This is not what God imagines for anyone of us.
As you seek information, please also allow yourself quiet time to be in communion with God. Turn off the TV and computer, light a candle, and pray. If the words don’t come, sit in silence or turn to the prayer Jesus taught us:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be your Name.
Your Kingdom come.
Your will be done in earth,
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom,
And the power, and the glory,
May God’s will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. May we each in these troubled times care for our own souls so that we can be the people we’re called to be. Pause. Pray. Hug those around you. Often.
The phone rang at 2:00 a.m. Again. What was it this time? A false alarm? A drug deal on the parking lot? I threw on my jeans, bundled up in my warmest coat. I kissed Maggie on the forehead and said “I love you.” She mumbled, “I love you, too” and pulled up on the covers.
Passing their bedrooms, I paused to peak at my sleeping children all snug in their beds. I cranked the engine of my cold car. The seat beneath me felt so hard in the frigid weather.
When I got to the Children’s Center, the police were waiting for me. I opened the front door and let us in. I disarmed the alarm and flipped on the lights as the police began their walk through the classrooms: the toddler room with the tiny chairs, the baby room with the cribs filled with pastel bears and frilly blankets, the twos with the big climber and painting easel, and the fours & fives room with the huge book area and large wooden blocks.
They stopped in the three-year-old room — my own son’s classroom. That’s where I caught up with them. One of them was on his radio in the housekeeping corner among the dolls and dress-up clothes. The other two were next to the large picture glass window in this converted store front. The woman officer waved me over. She pointed out the three bullet holes. There’d been a shooting in the street in front of the center. Fortunately the glass was not completely shattered. The board up company could wait until morning.
I cried on my way home. I sobbed releasing the fears and horror at what my mind imagined if …
… if the children had been present.
If LaCinda or Isaac or Maria had been playing in the water table when the shooting took place…I shuddered.
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more. Jeremiah 31:15 NRSV
I suspect a lot of those over-achiever preachers who had their sermons done on Wednesday, had to rewrite their
sermons given the tragic events of Friday. I suspect that some may even have completely thrown out the scripture the lectionary gave us for today. How does this passage from Luke, in which John the Baptizer calls people “broods of vipers” have any word for us today?
How does an angry John speak to us after twenty children and eight educators were gunned down in cold blood?
Well, consider. Imagine our passage from Luke a little differently. Imagine John speaking to you and to me. Today. Two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary and less than a week after the mall shooting in Portland.
You see, the Bible is a living document. God speaks a new word through it each time that we open it.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Luke 3:7 NRSV
This is a little confusing. Why would John the Baptizer be angry at people who came to him to be baptized? Isn’t that the point? But we get a clue in the next verse,
Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; …..for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Luke 3:8 NRSV
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” … Ah, so John is upset because these folks who’ve come to be baptized, to commit themselves to living as God would have them live — in short to be good Jews — aren’t acting like very good Jews.
And John is a little more than miffed. He tells them God can make children of Abraham out of stones if God has to. Then he tells them the axe is already to chop them down — as if they were trees — and throw them in the fire if they don’t bear good fruit.
Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’ Luke 3: 9 NRSV
So, what does this mean to us? What does this have to do with us viewed through the lens of Friday’s tragedy? Hear these three verses again. This time from the NRTIV, the New Revised Tim’s Imagination Version.
John said to the crowds that came out to be comforted by him after another shooting, this one in a school. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come? Who told you to run here to me for comfort? Don’t even start with that, “but I’m a good Christian stuff. God promised me salvation if I just say I believe in Him.” God can make Christians in name only out of rocks. Act like you believe in God before it’s too late!
While there might have been someone there who said to John after his rant, “Chill dude! I just came here to be baptized! Take a pill!”, the Bible — the real one not my imaginary version — tells us that the people who came to be baptized heard his frustration.
And they responded calmly and rationally, asking, “What then should we do?”
Instead of shouting about gun rights or gun control…
Instead of shouting about prayer in schools…
Instead of posturing to have a fight with John or with each other about what good people they are…
Instead of all that, they paused to listen to the man who points to the messiah. They paused to consider what God might desire from them. What God willed for them at this point.
Not being shy, he told them. He told them to share their coats — their possessions with others. He told them to feed the hungry.
The tax collectors who — routinely and openly — collected money over and above what Rome prescribed, asked John what they should do. And instead of arguing economics, John said … to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Luke 3: 13 NRSV
Even the soldiers, those who were part of an occupying enemy, asked what they should do? And John told them, too. ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ Luke 3: 14b NRSV
These were ordinary people. The soldiers, the tax collectors, and the others. They were everyday normal people like you and like me who have little control over political events and wonder what it all means. They were people who yearned for a better way to live. They loved their families, and were trying to be faithful to God, though too often failing.
And what did John tell them? He told them to be kind. To be honest and to create a culture — in their personal interactions and habits — that was loving and reflective of God.
So wondering what John told us in my version of the Bible? Are you wondering what the NRTIV, has to say to us two days after twenty children and eight adults were gunned down in cold blood?
And the people in Connecticut, and the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and Columbine, and Clackamas, and even in Ione asked him, ‘What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, whoever has health insurance and a good income, share with anyone who has none. Whoever has food, prepare and send backpacks to the school and bring cans of food to Christmas caroling. Give generously at every opportunity. And, by the way, don’t cheat in your business dealings.
Listen to one another and find the truth in what the gun control proponent and the gun owner says. Find the truth in what those who disagree with you are saying. Be Christ’s own in a world that chooses otherwise. And always — always — speak out of love.
In both the NRSV and in my interpretation, John told them — he tells us — to be kind. He tells them to be honest and to create a culture — in their personal lives — that is loving and reflective of God. The alternative, John implies is, to be the children of snakes — a brood of vipers.
We have the same choice today. We can be a brood of vipers or the children of God. And though as children of God we will sometimes fail and rattle our tails, we can’t be both.
We can fill Facebook with words and photos that support our opinions and dismiss those who disagree with us as completely and totally wrong. We can be a brood of vipers.
We can let our need for guns or our distaste of guns become so strong that we don’t listen to one another. We can get so angry with one another that nothing changes. We can let people with agendas control us. When we do that we are a brood of vipers.
We can argue about prayer in the schools versus religious freedom and miss the point that our fellow child of God is trying to make. When we do that we are a brood of vipers.
But. But when we love our families, hug our babies, when we show up for concerts and games and preschool dinners. When we teach our children that each and every human being has value, then … then we are acting like children of God.
When we listen to those who are hard for us to listen to… When we listen to those whose worldview seems completely crazy to us, and when we try to understand before we start spouting our own views…
…then we are acting like the children of God.
When we have never met another human being who we could not — given time and sometimes a lot of effort — see within them the Image of God, the spark of the Divine, then we are acting like the children of God.
When we choose to act out of love rather than out of fear. When we choose to trust one another — despite what some politicians and some interest groups encourage — then we are acting like the children of God.
When we pause. Take a deep breath in…and out. When we read our Bibles. When we pray. And when we choose to act out of love we are living in the unfolding realm of God. It’s like walking around in a bubble of the Kingdom of God.
John the Baptizer points the way to the messiah. He points the way to the baby whose life, death, and resurrection changes the world. He reminds us that our God is a dependable God. Our God is a God of resurrections and extravagant love.
Our God is a God who continually lures each of us and encourages each of us to act out of love. And, when we — like the shooter at Clackamas or Newtown — ignore God’s desire, God is disappointed. In the case of Sandy Hook elementary, I’m convinced that God sobs just like many of us have sobbed this week.
But the God of resurrections never gives up on us. Whether we are shooters or innocent children. Through the generations, God has kept working on us. God’s promises, God’s covenant with us is real and palpable. You can taste it!
Just as God responded to Rachel’s bitter tears for her children, God responds to ours.
Thus says the Lord: Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears; for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord: they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, says the Lord: your children shall come back to their own country. Jeremiah 31:16-17 NRSV
So, though we are shocked. Though we lack words to describe our horror at the shooting of elementary school children, John points the way for us.
When we are looking in the direction in which he points. We are looking toward, and being a part of, the unfolding realm of God on earth.
The next morning, a little draggy from my late night excursion, I found lots of reasons to avoid my desk. The budget would wait. The United Way report wasn’t even due until Friday. Even the phone calls could be returned tomorrow. And so I did what I always did when I had nothing left to give to paperwork and administration. I hung out with the children.
I changed a baby or two — the teachers were always happy to have a little extra help. I painted with the twos and danced with the toddlers. With the threes — my own son’s classroom — I always seemed to end up on the floor with a big pillow propped behind me and little bodies all around me as I read picture books.
From where I sat, I could see the boarded up window that represented all my fears of what could have happened if…if the children had been present.
And, so, I read with great vigor. I gave hugs generously. I channeled my passionate fears and sadness into passionate love.
Pause. Take a deep breath in…and out. Read your Bible. Pray. Look to the one who follows John. Look to the baby under the star and respond in love.
This is the sermon I preached at Ione Community Church in Ione, Oregon two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
I found this print in the gift shop of an historic church in Albuquerque several years ago. I wasn’t going to buy it. I didn’t need it, I told myself. We couldn’t afford to buy a lot of trinkets on this vacation. I kept circling back to it in the shop. As testament to my strength, I left the shop.
Later, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. This image has a spiritual power that beguiles and enchants me. We later came back to the shop for the express purpose of purchasing this print.
It is not lost on me that this image of Jesus shocks our Puritan roots, our Anglo prudishness, and our deeply ingrained thinking that the body and anything remotely sexual is inherently immoral.
The power of this image by New Mexico artist Diego Gabriel Gonzales is not the result of American oversexualization and titillation. It does not draw me in because breasts are sexual.
The power of this image is in the humanity of Jesus. What draws me in is THAT baby!
Jesus had a body like each of us have a body. He had a mother who nursed him at her breast. He undoubtedly cried, whimpered, got the occasional sniffle, and needed his diaper changed. He probably had to be burped from time to time. He may even have spit up once or twice on Joseph’s shoulder.
Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was human.
In the ancient world, there was a deep, cavernous divide between the spirit and the physical worlds. In greek thought — which heavily influenced western thinking — a god could not be human. A god by definition is spirit and cannot be incarnate, cannot be physical.
And, yet, we have Jesus.
There are those who clung so desperately to this idea of spirit-good, body-bad that they came up with wild theories about how the divine Jesus could appear — appear being the operative word — appear to be human. Some even came up with an invasion of the body snatchers theory in which God simply inhabited someone else’s human body.
And we still have this greek idea within our culture and too often within our faith. There’s a reason that many traditional theologians and scholars got totally freaked out recently over a scrap of parchment that seemed to imply that Jesus had a wife. To be married would have been to be physical with another human being. And we just can’t abide that the divine Jesus is also the human Jesus.
We are afraid of an angry Jesus, a sobbing Jesus, a laughing Jesus, a Jesus who is tempted to swear when he stubs his toe, and, yes, we’re afraid of a Jesus with sexual urges.
I suggest we’re afraid of all these things because we fear them in ourselves, because we cannot control them in ourselves. We are uncomfortable with a fully human savior because while we’re human, we have neglected the love, the divine image of God within us. We too often fail to,
…love the Lord [our] God with all [our] heart, and with all [our] soul, and with all [our] mind, and with all [our] strength.” (Mark 12: 30 NRSV)
We equate our physicality as separate from our spirituality because we can’t reconcile the two. We’re trapped by the greek thinking that spirit is good and body is bad. So, if we can’t be human and spiritual, we find it difficult to grasp that Jesus could.
And yet he did.
We underestimate the One who was born to a human mother, who nursed at her breast, skinned his knees, had conflict with other boys, and still grew up to be the Lord and savior of the world.
As an adult, Jesus was asked by a scribe, what is the greatest commandment? In typical Jewish fashion the faithful asked one another questions to help them to process and figure out the meanings of the scriptures. It’s not unlike what we do in our adult Sunday School class when we go back and forth about different aspects of the Bible passages we’re discussing.
In this case, the scribe was raising the question about what the unifying theme or principle of the scriptures are. Scholar Bonnie Thurston suggests that the question is more accurately put: “What is the one, fundamental thing, the building block or cornerstone, on which all the rest of the law rests?” (Thurston, Preaching Mark, p. 138)
And so when Jesus answers, he is telling us the core of our faith. The core of what it means to be a good Jew or a good Christian. He’s telling us not only that we must love God but about God’s nature — one — and about how to love God.
Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: Lord our God, the Lord is one; You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:29-30 NRSV)
We’re called to love God with our whole selves but…
But how can we love God with our whole selves when we reject an integral part of who we are? How can we love God if we reject our physicality as somehow inherently bad? Consider, Genesis 1:27 in which the biblical witness tells us that,
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 NRSV)
The creator God made us as physical and spiritual beings. Created in the Image of God, my body is integral to who I am no less than my spirituality. We experience life through and from our bodies. Human physicality and spirituality are intertwined just as Jesus’ humanity and divinity were intertwined.
And so when we turn to love God, to follow the commandment that permeates all of the Bible and the whole of our faith, Jesus — quoting and interpreting Deuteronomy 6:1-9 for us — tells us that we must do so with our whole selves.
With Our hearts.
With Our souls.
With Our minds.
With Our strength.
Ah, but Jesus goes beyond the scribe’s question in our passage today. Jesus gives him a bonus answer,
The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12: 31 NRSV)
Commandment. Not commandments but commandment. I love how Jesus refers to two commandments here and calls them one. The implication is that you cannot follow one and not the other. It is impossible to love god with all our hearts, all our souls, all our minds, and all our strength in isolation. We are created as communal creatures. We depend upon the pack. We need one another for survival. And so to love God is to love one another. To love one another is to love God.
To love God is to hurt when our community hurts. When the hopes of our kids are dashed by a loss at volleyball, we hurt because we love them. Likewise we ache when members of our community must give up independent living or face cancer. We desire the best for them. We love one another.
What happens to one of us, happens to all of us. Created in the image of God, we — like God — are one. We are physical and spiritual.
We are Andre and Jerry. We are Karsen and Jean. We are Chuck, who is down under, and Yvonne who is in Florida awaiting back surgery. We are Stacy, Lily, and Jason.
Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: Lord our God, the Lord is one (Mark 12:29 NRSV)
But when we love God with all our hearts, all our soul, all our minds, and all our strength we are more than just Ione or Morrow county.
We are one humanity. We feel the pain of our kindred in New Jersey, on Staten Island, in West Virginia, and in lower Manhattan. We ache for the woman whose two children were snatched from her arms by raging, angry waters!
We love our neighbors as ourselves.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ (Mark 12:29-31 NRSV)
Is this image shocking to our sensibilities, especially in church? Perhaps.
Consistent with the gospels? Absolutely.
Of course, Mary nursed Jesus because Jesus was not just fully divine, he was fully human and because she loved God with all her heart, and with all her mind, and with all her strength, she gave birth to a son, she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and loved him. She loved with her body to provide a necessity of life to the Galilean who became the One…
…the One who would be taunted, tortured, and killed but also overcome death to rise on the third day.
Our conversation began innocently as I prepared dinner and she caught up on Facebook at the end of her workday. I’m not sure how comments about our days resulted in a deep conversation. Regardless, I confessed my feelings about being the emotional caretaker and nag to a woman with chronic asthma and other health issues.
One of the roles I play in our marriage is to nag Maggie to take care of herself. Sometimes it’s necessary; much of the time it’s not. I’m also a sounding board when her too-often struggles to breathe do not fit with her desire to lead an active lifestyle. For example, she struggles with the likelihood that there are places I have hiked that she may never be able to see firsthand.
But this conversation was more about my psyche than hers and, with my permission, Maggie was “doing CPE” on me. (CPE refers to clinical pastoral education. CPE is a touchy feely part of pastoral education in which delving into a deeper understanding of motivations is idolized. It’s a form of deep communication, listening to your inner voice, and helping others to do the same.)
“I often feel like I can’t share my needs because you’re sick so often.”
“What would it be like if you did?” she responded.
As I pondered my response I felt tears welling up. Tears are simultaneously a gift of the Holy Spirit and a psychological sign that I’m close to my core feelings. I replied that, “A good husband places the needs of his sick wife before his own needs. Some of my needs conflict with your health.”
Aware that I wasn’t yet done, she remained quiet. I continued, “I genuinely worry about you. At times, though, I feel like I have to play the role of ‘the good husband’ just as I played the role of ‘the good son’ for my mother growing up. Sometimes I feel like I cannot do things for me because of your health.”
Like a good therapist, Maggie waited attentively as I processed both internally and aloud. To even name my needs feels selfish, I thought. A pivotal moment came when I said, “I’d feel vulnerable if I shared my needs.”
“Tell me more about your feelings of vulnerability. What’s that about?”
Of course those pesky tears showed up again. To even name my feelings and needs that conflict with my wife’s health needs, would tarnish my self-image as the good husband, as the perfect husband, as the one who has it all together.
We both laughed out loud at the absurdity. Feelings are real. Needs are real. Naming feelings doesn’t give them power; it allows us to problem solve and work together to find ways to meet both of our needs. It is when we shove those feelings and needs deep inside that they are more likely to sneak out in destructive ways.
I sighed and smiled. Here we were after thirty-three years of marriage still learning and growing and working together.
No, I’m not really suggesting that my wife is a god. That heresy is even beyond me. I suggest that it is in deep love that we glimpse the nature of the divine.
This is our double-trinity anniversary. My beloved, my imzadi, my soulmate and I were married thirty-three years ago today. In our three decades + three years the following are ways in which I’ve glimpsed the one I call God in our relationship.
Presence. Since the day we committed ourselves together Maggie has been present. When not able to be physically together she is within me. Even during my seminary years when we were separated by 350 miles and weeks, she would text me about little things in her day, seek my empathy, to check on something with which she knew I struggled, or to rejoice in my successes!
Unconditional love. Maggie’s love for me is unconditional. Even when I don’t deserve it, she offers me grace. Though, sometimes she must cool down, her love for me never wavers. The slammed car door as I drop her off unsettles me but not to my core. This is because I feel the depth of her love even when she’s angry with me.
Sustaining love. In the 70s, Harry Nilsson sang “I can’t live if living is without you.” The love that Maggie and I share sustains us. Her love transforms me. I am not the person I would be without her. I could more readily give up food than the love of my beloved.
Reciprocal love. She needs me as much as I need her. I don’t know why; it makes no sense to me. In the giving to her, I find a boundless supply of love. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her. I know that the same is true of her love for me.
Knows me & sees me. Maggie’s love, like that of God, is inexplicable. She loves me not despite my faults and annoying habits but through them and, because of them. What is more inexplicable than that?
Calls me out. Because Maggie knows me at the soul-level, she also knows when I’m taking the easy path. She sees when I’ve been sleeping, she knows if I’m awake, and knows if I’ve been bad or good. She’s also not afraid to make it crystal clear that I need to be the person I’m capable of being.
Takes my side, protects me. When the world hands me lemons, Maggie makes the lemonade for me. I know that no matter how bad a day I’ve had she will take my side. She will wrap me in her arms and hold her fist to the world at the same time.
Never gives up on me. Ask our kids. We’ve been known to have some metaphorical “knock down, drag outs” in our time as a married couple. Throughout it all, Maggie doesn’t give up on me. She can sometimes get pissed — beyond pissed — but we always reconcile our differences and do the work necessary to heal our conflict.
So, though my imzadi is not God, it is within our relationship, within the nature of her love for me, that I so often glimpse the extravagant love of the One.