To Will One Thing. Jay’s sermon from June 26

Luke 9:51-62

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village. 57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the reign of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the dominion of God.”

“Purity of heart,” according to existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, “is to will one thing.” I find that idea at once exceptionally attractive…and also, somehow, entirely naïve. One thing? What could it possibly mean to want one thing out of life, to have the same goal and desire in each and every moment? I think I willed multiple things before getting out of bed this morning, and I expect that each one of us here has had days, probably recently, when your attention was required in several places all at the same time. There are demands at work and home and in the community. You want to give your time and energy here at church and perhaps your child’s school or to other volunteer opportunities. You wish to support movements for justice, to show up at meetings and marches, to write letters and meet with government representatives. You invest in relationships, strengthening bonds with family members and friends, while also building new friendships. You are genuinely needed in many places. Willing only one thing seems not only impossible but even unchristian.

And yet, ironically, it’s a message that Jesus seems to convey in the Gospel today. Discipleship, he says, requires singleness of mind and a commitment free of distractions. With his face set squarely on Jerusalem, he says to any who wish to follow, “Don’t look back, let the dead bury the dead, leave everything else behind if you plan to be with me.” His words sound harsh. Where is the compassion we’d expect from Jesus when someone earnestly wished to follow but just asked for a little time to grieve his father’s death, or even to simply say goodbye to family members?

Now I’m tempted to try to soften these hard words of Jesus. We know from looking at church history that God has done extraordinary things through people who owned houses and loved their families and attended funerals. I only need to look around the room to confirm that’s true. So maybe Jesus was just having a bad day, and we don’t need to take this passage so seriously. I can also say that some of what Jesus said really can only apply to the particular historical context in which he lived. This funeral comment, for instance, most likely had more to do with cultural expectations and lengthy, complicated religious requirements associated with death than it did with personal grief. These were statements uniquely relevant to a very different kind of funeral practice that we are familiar with. Plus, it was an especially urgent time in history that demanded risky action. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem to intentionally confront the political and religious authorities. This was a big moment, but obviously you cannot live your whole life with that kind of urgency.

That’s all true. And yet, I’m reminded that my unwillingness to acknowledge the urgency that this historical moment requires may be a result of my relative comfort and privilege. It can be easy for me to look at the problems of our world today—poverty, racism, discrimination—and believe them to be normal or unchangeable and therefore put off getting involved in solutions. Ethicist Sharon Welch says,

“It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort to merely enjoying it for oneself and one’s family… Becoming so easily discouraged is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs” (Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 15).

The call to follow Jesus that we read about in the Gospel, then, may echo the sense of urgent need for change felt daily by many in our community and throughout the world for a variety of reasons. In times of real struggle, certainly every moment matters. This is why immigrants and their allies keep working for immigration reform in the U.S. in the face of one setback after another. It’s why I hear many people of color saying we can’t wait until some later time to talk about institutionalized racism in our country and its effects on just about every sphere of life. It’s why friends in the LGBTQ community remind me that while we do celebrate marriage and other rights gained in the past, we can’t take our eyes off of the real goal of equality and dignity for every person. The call to follow Christ and to proclaim the good news of God’s love is as urgent now as ever.

And it’s probably true that most of us are just as good at coming up with sincere excuses about our own lack of urgency. Take family, for instance. While family responsibilities may be part of our holy vocation, could there be times when we make an idol of our families, narrowing our vision too much to the point of excluding other families from our concern? Or might we derive our sense of identity from family more than from being a beloved child of God? If so, then our priorities need adjusting. Are there other cultural expectations that get in our way of following Jesus, such as keeping up appearances, accumulating possessions, and maintaining a busy schedule to the point of ignoring our soul’s need for Sabbath? Are we guilty from time to time of dwelling in the past, either past successes or failures, in a way that prevents us from being present to what God is doing now? Do we ever feel that we’re just not ready, that we haven’t practiced enough our skills for being the kind of Christ follower we want to be but sure, we’re going to be better in the future sometime. If any of this is true, then today Christ says to you and to me, “Step back and consider what your commitment to follow looks like in this moment and this moment and in every moment of your life because God needs you in each one.” Following Jesus is not just one priority among many but a guide for everything else.

In a world where multi-tasking seems to have risen to the level of virtue, it makes sense that we would assume we can follow the call of Christ right alongside various other calls of the world. But just as our brains can’t really focus on two things at once, you can’t be of two minds when choosing to follow Jesus.

So yes, I long for a life where I will only one thing, to follow the way of Christ in each moment, both ordinary and extraordinary. It is such a gracious invitation to place all other concerns in a secondary position and to let go of the myriad other worries that occupy my attention. I will confess, though, that I’m still on a journey toward getting there.

But in the end, this is not a passage about double-minded disciples like me. Not really. Most of all, this Gospel story is about the single-minded love of God revealed for us in Jesus Christ, a love that remained consistent and forgiving even to the point of the cross, a love that still seeks in every moment freedom and life for the world which God has made. It’s a love that tells us: You are enough. You are loved and needed and ready for discipleship just as you are right now. You don’t need to answer to anyone else first. You don’t need to prove yourself. Bring your talents and weaknesses, faith and doubt, worries and commitments and come and follow the way of Christ. God’s love accompanies us at every step, in every moment. Before all else, may we learn to set our minds on this love of God.

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Liberation

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from Sunday, June 19. Listen along here.

The gospel according to Luke, the eighth chapter:

26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

It was one year ago, almost to the day, that I stood in this pulpit and lamented the massacre at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina that claimed the lives of nine bible-reading, community-loving people of color. Today, I stand before you again and decry the massacre of forty-nine beloveds at a gay nightclub in Orlando. I’m relatively new to this whole preaching gig; why do I get the sense that I’m already repeating myself?

When we gathered for worship last Sunday morning, we had little knowledge about the events that had unfolded under the cover of night. In between services, Pastor Jay read a headline that indicated that something terrible had happened at the Pulse nightclub. The details were uncertain; the prayer petition that we quickly added as we processed up the aisle was vague: “We remember all those affected by the latest incident of gun violence in Orlando.”

We now know how insufficient that petition was. 50 people are dead. 49 of them had no idea when they showed up to the Pulse that they would encounter anything other than music and dancing and acceptance. In a gorgeous piece in the Washington Post, Justin Torres writes about Latin Night at the Queer Club, saying, “[W]hen you walk into the club, if you’re lucky, it feels expansive. “Safe space” is cliché, overused, and exhausted in our discourse, but the fact remains that a sense of safety transforms the body, transforms the spirit. So many of us walk through the world without it.” There, transfigured by disco light, Torres writes, “The only imperative is to be transformed…to lighten, loosen, see yourself reflected in the beauty of others.”[i] For those of us who feel bound by societal norms that we had no hand in creating, safe spaces like the club have the potential to feel like freedom.

The difference between being bound and being free is at the center of our gospel story this week.[ii] I actually think that the difference between being bound and being free is at the center of our gospel story most weeks. We don’t have to look back very far to see the pattern emerge: The man living in the graveyard in today’s reading. The unnamed woman who anointed Jesus’ feet last week. The mother next to her son’s casket the week before. And the Roman solider the week before that. Luke is filled with stories in which Jesus meets someone who is wrongfully bound by society’s chains and says “nope, I don’t think so, no more.” No more to the dominant culture’s expectations, no more to the isolation that comes from being termed “other.” Jesus has this wonderful ability to see the chains hanging from every single person he meets. I like to imagine that he chooses to remove them one link at a time with a big ol’ bolt cutter, so that his message of freedom cannot be misunderstood.

The truth is that all of us are bound—bound by fear, unforgiveness, anger, bitterness, disappointment, distractions, self-loathing, hate, revenge…[iii] It’s these chains that lead some of us to think that assault-style weapons should be freely traded on the streets; to think that violence ought to be enacted against the LGBTQ community; to think that woman are less worthy of society’s respect; to think that the color of one’s skin determines their value; to think that Muslim Americans for to blame for, well, just about everything. It’s these chains—that lest we try to fool ourselves, are wrapped around each one of us—that lead us to deny the image of God in the other with our words and actions or with our silence and inaction. It’s these chains that force me to preach sermons like this one more often than I would like.

But each time we open Luke’s gospel, there stands Jesus with the proverbial bolt-cutter. Nelson Mandela once said that “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s [own] chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” That’s what Jesus’ life makes so abundantly clear. From village to village, Jesus, who is freedom embodied, stands ready to liberate literally anyone he encounters.

And all along the way he’s teaching his followers to do the same—teaching them to cut the chains off of one another, because—Lord knows—it’s too hard to remove our own. To fear, he says “no more.” Unforgiveness [no more], anger [no more], bitterness [no more], disappointment [no more], distraction [no more], self-loathing [no more], hate [no more], revenge [no more]. With confidence and with tenderness, we remove them from each other link by link, y’all, because we know they keep us from living—really living.

Torres writes that “people talk about liberation as if it’ some kind of permanent state, as if you get liberated and that’s it, you get some rights and that’s it, you get some acknowledgment and that’s it.” But you and I know better. We know liberation is ongoing. We know that it will take years for the graveyard Geresene to learn to be in relationship once again. And for the woman anointing Jesus’ feet to learn how to exercise her voice now that people see and hear her. And for the Palestinian mama to learn to hold her resurrected son lightly even though she would prefer to grip him so tightly that she threatens to squeeze the life right back out of him. And for the solider to learn what the freedom he’s been given means for his life’s work. It will take years, but the gift of being reunited with their respective communities is that they don’t need to learn these things alone. The community is there to keep loving them into liberation.

Today, we baptize Jackson Norris Murray. We have the privilege of bearing witness to God’s “yes,” which my friend Marc says sounds like this: “You (the wet one there with all the water on you) are mine! I love you! I will not abandon or forsake you. You are part of my unending life—a life that includes and bears the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. A life that is poured out in abundance and joy. You belong to my vast and lovely family, which includes this sweet earth and its creatures. Together, we will love and heal the universe. This will include dark times and doubt and pain, but I will never leave you. We share a Spirit. All that I have is yours. This will not end.”[iv] This is God’s “yes.”

In baptism, there is also an implied “no” which we hear as good news. God and the community say “no” to anyone or anything that tells you, little babe, that you’re anything less than loved, exactly as you are. “No” to anyone or anything that tries to deny the indelible imprint that God has made on your tiny life. “No” to anyone or anything that tries to keep you from living—really living—the life to which he has been called. All around you, Jackson Norris, stand followers of Jesus Christ, who know there is a difference between being bound and being free. And, today, God, your family, and this community choose freedom for you.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


[i] Please read Justin Torres’ gorgeous opinion piece in The Washington Post here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/in-praise-of-latin-night-at-the-queer-club/2016/06/13/e841867e-317b-11e6-95c0-2a6873031302_story.html

[ii] LaDonna Sanders Nkosi pointed to this distinction in her reflection on the lectionary in this week’s “Living by the Word” in The Christian Century.

[iii] Again, Sanders Nkosi offered a starter list of things that bind us to which I added throughout the week.

[iv] We’re working with Marc Olson to create a baptism booklet. These words come from that resource.

Do You See This Woman? Sermon for June 12.

Luke 7:36-8:3

7:36 One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. 38 She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.” 40 Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” 41 “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” 48 Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

8:1 Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the commonwealth of God. The twelve were with him, 2 as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

 

After extensive study, psychologist Arthur Aron believes that he can make two strangers fall in love. In fact, more than 20 years ago, he claims to have accomplished that very task in his research laboratory. His process involves a list of 36 questions that participants are to ask one another and discuss. More than that, though, he has concluded that the thing that brings people closer to each other better than anything else is four minutes of eye contact. Four minutes of uninterrupted, silent, simple eye contact creates intimacy and trust and even love like nothing else can.

This week I convinced my spouse to engage in the experiment with me. Even after seven years of marriage, the exercise was a little awkward and uncomfortable. But in the end we found it to be moving and a gift to one another. So I would like to suggest to you that if you can persuade a family member or friend to spend four minutes with you in this way, I believe it is worth a try.

The human rights organization Amnesty International also decided to give it a try and test Dr. Aron’s hypothesis. But rather than bringing together couples in romantic or familial relationships, they invited refugees from Syria and Somalia to sit opposite European citizens from Germany, Poland, Belgium, and the UK. A video of the experiment, posted on their website, showed men, women, and children looking into each other’s eyes. There were some smiles. There were a few whispered questions. There were tears. And then after the prescribed four minutes, the pairs reached out to one another with handshakes and hugs and conversation. Two young girls started a game of tag, remaining connected to one another the best way they knew how. Strangers became friends.

The video ends with a statement in white letters on a black screen: “Over a million refugees crossed into Europe last year. Just like everyone else, they all have their own story to tell.”

Jesus asked the Pharisee, Simon, “Do you see this woman”—this woman, the one kneeling at his feet in an extravagant show of love and gratitude? When Jesus asked Simon, “do you see this woman?” he wasn’t just pointing out that she was in the room. No, that was obvious to everyone, and in fact Simon had already been grumbling about her. Instead, Jesus was inviting Simon to really see her, to get to know her story. What did he know about her? She was a sinner was all. We’re not told what the sin was. She may have been colluding with the Romans to take financial advantage of the poor. She may have neglected the needs of her elder relatives. She may have stolen some bread to feed her family because as a woman she was not allowed to earn her own wages. She may have forgotten that she had really great talents to share with the community and convinced herself that she was not worth anything. Who knows what her sin was? Now, the assumption for generations of interpreters has been that she was a prostitute, which it doesn’t say in the passage, and which is yet another sign of the church’s patriarchal associations of women with sinful sexuality. Funny, isn’t it, that the church is so familiar with denouncing the sin of prostitution but less so the sin that causes the demand for it. In any case, whatever the woman’s sin had been, Simon had presumably only heard rumors of it. He had not talked to the woman directly. He had not taken the time to look in her eyes and find out her story. He didn’t know the suffering that she had gone through or the incredible experience of liberation when she encountered someone who took the time to listen and to introduce her to the grace of God which could actually set her free. All Simon could see from his curved in on himself perspective was a sinner who had interrupted his dinner party. “Do you see this woman?” Clearly, he did not.

It has been troubling to read this Gospel passage—along with the first reading about King David’s abuse of power and taking of Bathsheba—following the news out of California this week. Just over a week ago, a man there, a student at Stanford, was sentenced to only six months in county jail after being convicted of three sexual assault felonies. During the reporting of his trial, alongside his high school senior portrait, there was a lot of conversation about this perpetrator’s academic and athletic potential at his prestigious university and what his conviction would mean for his future. At the same time, many people asked questions about the woman, his victim—what had she been doing? What had she been wearing? Had she been dancing? And other forms of irrelevant speculation.

We need to be honest about unjust systems of privilege that would show more concern for this man’s loss of swimming potential than the harm that has been caused to his victim. We need to be honest that there is a particular kind of culture pervasive in the U.S. that avoids even listening to a victim’s story let alone looking into her eyes and trying to see from her perspective. The woman in the Stanford case has chosen to remain anonymous, which is understandable for the sake of her own privacy and safety. She says she has chosen to remain anonymous also because she doesn’t need labels or categories to prove that she is worthy of respect and being listened to. She is simply a woman who wants to be heard. How terribly sad and convicting it is that being heard is something she or any woman should have to fight for. Her message for the judicial system and for a culture that allows this sort of thing is like the words of the prophet Nathan who confronted an abusive king with his sin: “You are the man!”

And like Jesus speaking to Simon, she says, “Do you see this woman and all the others whose individual stories are covered up by assumptions and prejudices and hate?” Do you see this woman? Take four minutes, at the very least, to listen to her story.

When we confess our sin in worship together, we do so because we know two things are true. One, the wrong we do causes real harm to others, ourselves, and to the world around us. We haven’t listened to one another’s stories. We haven’t sought beloved community in the ways we could. But the other truth is that God is always seeking a new way for us. The forgiveness we receive is not about denying wrongdoing or the harm it causes; it is for the sake of creating a way forward that is life-giving, loving, and inclusive of all people and their individual stories. We tell the truth twice: things are not as they should be; and God, who sees each individual, will not give up on us.

What good news it is that God will be present in the most difficult moments and that no situation we have experienced or can imagine can prevent resurrection life. Being seen and known in that way, with that kind of care and mercy, well, it’s enough to inspire a great love. Thanks be to God.