Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sibling Revelry: Sermon on Luke 10:38-42

Another July lectionary sermon, preached this morning...


There’s something about Mary—and Martha—that makes me want to break out in an old Rosemary Clooney song. You know the one:

Sisters, sisters, there were never such devoted sisters.
Never had to have a chaperone, no sir!
I’m here to keep my eye on her!

The fun thing about the song, and the reason it comes to mind, is this: it presents, on the surface, a picture of siblings who are as perfectly in sync as the harmonies they are singing. “Those who’ve seen us know that not a thing can come between us!” But anyone who’s ever heard it performed knows that there is a nod and a wink behind the song. “Two different faces! But in tight places, we think and we act as one!” they sing. And then they say, “Uh huh.” Which, roughly translated, is something along the lines of, “Yeah, right.” In other words, the sibling relationship is a complicated one. In our passage today we have stumbled upon a fairly intimate if tense family moment, in which that relationship is complicated by conflicting understandings of something rather straightforward. Let’s paraphrase the issue as this: Jesus comes to dinner. Then what?

It seems like Jesus is always coming to dinner in the gospel of Luke. While he certainly does eat in the other gospels, no gospel portrays Jesus at table so often as Luke’s gospel does—I counted Jesus partaking in at least nine different meals there, and talking about eating in parables and teachings besides. It seems that, in Luke’s gospel, there is something very important about the act of eating. There is something we are supposed to notice about the simple and common action of sitting down at table, in the company of whomever God has placed in our path, and sustaining our bodies with the bounties of God’s world.

Jesus comes to dinner, and—it stands to reason that someone has to provide the dinner, no? In our passage Jesus enters Martha’s home. There’s something remarkable about that statement. In Jesus’ day, it was rare to hear a home described as belonging to a woman. It was virtually unheard of. Yet, Luke mentions it almost casually—Jesus enters Martha’s home, Martha, head of the household. We learn quickly that Martha has a sister named Mary, and if this sounds at all familiar to us, we can remind ourselves that we’ve met this family before, in another gospel. Jesus is close to this family, their home is a place he feels at home. This is the home of Martha, and her sister Mary, and their brother Lazarus.

Lazarus makes no appearance in our story today. But we know enough about Jesus from our reading of the gospel to know that this is a rare moment indeed. Jesus does come to dinner a lot in Luke’s gospel, but it usually goes more like this: Jesus dines in the homes of disreputable people, like tax collectors and sinners; or, on the other hand, Jesus dines in the homes of the Pharisees and the religious elites, where he catches flak about the dinners with the disreputable people. In other words, most of Jesus’ dinners are working dinners—he could expense them, if God had seen fit to provide him with an expense account. Which, God did not.

So here is Jesus. And here is a rare moment when he is with, not the “in” crowd or the “out” crowd or the “up with Jesus” crowd or the “down with Jesus” crowd. Instead, he is, simply, with his friends, his peeps (as the young people like to say). Jesus can unwind. If his hair is up, he can let it down. If his shoulders are full of tension, he can let them unknot (or maybe even ask someone for a backrub). He is, purely and simply, at home, for a meal.

Jesus comes to dinner; then what? Tensions ensue. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home, while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to what he has to say. Now, as rare as it is for a home to be described as a woman’s home, it is just as rare, in the New Testament era, for a woman to be seen sitting at a man’s feet and learning. To sit at someone’s feet is to take on the role of a disciple. To sit at someone’s feet is to be someone who has committed himself (it’s always a “himself” and never a “herself”) to taking on the yoke, that is, the teaching, of that person. So—let’s pause for a refreshing moment here. One stereotype—that is, the typical role of “woman” in the ancient Middle East—smashed, twice over. First, by having a woman as head of the household. Second, by having a woman as the disciple of a rabbi. Hallelujah!

And yet, and yet, tensions ensue. “But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me’” [Luke 10:40b]. That word “distracted” really calls to me. I know what that feels like. As I type this sentence I have just returned from a phone call which distracted me from another phone call which distracted me from Facebook which distracted me from writing the previous sentence. I know distracted. The word in Greek is perispaomai, which means, literally, “pulled in all directions.” [1] Can anyone relate to the experience of being pulled in all directions? My heart goes out to Martha.

Another interesting couple of words in our translation are “many tasks.” This translates the Greek word diakonia, which may sound familiar to you, something like “deacon.” It means, literally, “table service,” but it’s used in the New Testament, primarily, to mean the work of ministry—the caring, serving, loving, helping hands and hearts of the community of faith.[2]

So Martha, God bless her, is pulled in all directions by her service. And now, we need to pause for a moment of silence for any member of any faith community who has felt pulled in all directions by her service. Or his service. Because that is what is happening to Martha. You have heard of the 80/20 rule? In any organization, 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people? This is the bind Martha finds herself in. Head of household or no, she is overwhelmed by what it takes to do the things she knows she has to do. And the stress of it all is coming out sideways, at her sister, through Jesus.

I wonder how most women, especially women who are what have been called the “Martha’s” of the church, hear Jesus’ response? I believe there is a possibility that it can be heard in a way that really feels bad. “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” [Luke 10:41b-42]. I can imagine being one of those who have spent a lifetime in service, especially “table service”—preparing the coffee hour, cooking the chili for chili night, baking the cookies for our night at Arnold Park, whipping up the Harvest Dinner or the Meal with the Master—I can imagine hearing this response and thinking, Well, Jesus. Thanks for that. I can imagine hearing this response and feeling, What I do has been devalued, trashed. And it feels really bad.

And worse, I can imagine hearing in Jesus’ words something that seems to pit women against one another, as in those trumped up debates of a couple of years ago about whether mothers who work outside the home are worse parents than those whose work is exclusively in the home. Some crazy notion that—hey, this is a zero sum game, some are winners and some are losers. And this time, Mary’s the winner and Martha’s the loser.

All I have to say about that is, if that’s our take-away from this passage we all lose. If we hear these words as devaluing any kind of service, we all lose. If we hear this sentence as being said to Martha with anything other than love, we all lose. If we hear Jesus scolding, or belittling Martha, or telling her that Mary is somehow a better person, more saved, more loved—we all lose. That is not what is going on here.

What is going on here is about wholeheartedness, about truly being where you are. Jesus comes to dinner, then what? Enjoy him. That’s all. Enjoy him. The first question of the Westminster Catechism: “What is the chief end of man [human beings]?” And the answer: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” To glorify God, and to enjoy God. That, according to the wise tradition of our church, is our purpose in life. You find yourself in the presence of God, of Jesus, the living body of Christ, the Holy Spirit? Enjoy. Revel in it. Drink it in.

Is this gospel passage telling us that service is not important? Absolutely not. If you will recall the passage we read just two weeks ago, the story of the Good Samaritan, service of those in need is pretty much a hallmark of anyone who is seeking to find a closer walk with God. It is not either/or. It is both/and. Our problem as a culture, and it appears it’s a pretty ancient problem, is that “doing” almost always wins out over “being.” We are called to both of these—serving God’s people and loving and enjoying God. And each of them reinforces and deepens and makes sweeter the other.

I’ve begun meeting with a small group of UPC friends who are reading a wonderful book about growing spiritually. One of the chapters talks about prayer, and we all own up to how hard it can feel to develop the discipline for a meaningful prayer life. But one of our group discovered, in this book, the simplest description of one kind of prayer, we were all so encouraged by it:

Let God’s presence fill your consciousness, and simply rest in the presence—just as you might with someone you love dearly and feel no need to speak to, just be with. [3]

This is the prayer of enjoyment—simply enjoying being in God’s presence. It requires no technique other than quiet. It requires no skill other than openness. It requires nothing except a desire to be with the beloved—much like you would be quiet in the presence of someone with whom you need no words—like a spouse. Or a brother. Or a sister.

Jesus comes into our lives—then what? We find ourselves gathered at tables in the presence of the body of Christ, God’s people all around us. People we love and trust and fight with and make up with. People we serve and who serve us. People we care for and who care for us. There is need of only one thing: to glorify and enjoy God forever. We do that when we serve and enjoy all God’s people, whether sisters or strangers, brothers or drifters, loved ones or outsiders. The call is the same. Only one thing is needed. Love and enjoy God. Love and enjoy one another. Not easy. But very, very simple. Thanks be to God. Amen.


[1] Brian Stoffregen, “Luke 10:38-42, Proper 11, Year C,” at Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks,
[2] Ibid.
[3] Marjorie Thompson, Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Life (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 50.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Acts of Mercy on the Road: Sermon on Luke 10:25-37

I came across this approach to teaching "The Good Samaritan" years ago, as a youth leader using the Presbyterian "Connections" curriculum. I still think it's a great way to breathe new life into a story we think we're too familiar with.

Preached this one before vacation. Went off lectionary because in July I was doing another thing.


We are going to do something a little different this morning. Has anyone here ever heard of “M@d L!bs”? Well, we’re going to do one now. I will ask you for a bunch of words, with which I will fill in the blanks in a story. When we’re finished, we’ll hear how the story came out. Ready?

1. Name a place you consider dangerous—a really bad location, one you would be afraid to walk around alone.
2. Name a job that commands a lot of respect—you would assume it was being held by a person you would consider really trustworthy, beyond reproach.
3. Name another job, with the same ideas in mind.
4. Now name someone you would consider to be very shady—someone you would never trust, whom you would not expect anything good to come from.
5. Name two different things your mom would use to take care of you when you had a pretty injury.
6. Help me guesstimate two days wages for someone who worked on the assembly line at a manufacturing plant.

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied “A man was going down 1._____________, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a 2._____________ was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a 3.____________, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a 4.____________ while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured 5._______________ and 6._______________ on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out 7._____________, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

~Luke 10:25-37, retold by the congregation of St. Sociable

I’m pretty confident you know this story well. That’s the problem, really, with some of the stories and parables we find in scripture. We know them so well it’s hard to enter in with fresh eyes and ears, to find new insights. But we can have confidence in the endless beauty and art of scripture: it can be fresh each time we read it, because it’s the living Word of God.

And so, there are always ways we can enter into this living Word. How about through this door: Let’s pause with each character in the story. Let’s see if we can enter into their experience, come to the story from their perspective. First, there is the lawyer. In Jesus’ day, lawyers had a different role than they have in ours. They were the ones who studied the law of Moses, and advised people how to apply it. The lawyer asks a question that would surely be at the forefront of his own concerns: “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” If helping people to understand what God wanted from them was your job—and that was what the lawyer did—don’t you think maybe you’d be interested in Jesus’ answer? Especially if you were worried about the kind of teaching you had been hearing from Jesus—teaching that challenged the religious establishment.

We can’t really avoid the fact that the text tells us, right up front, that the lawyer is “testing” Jesus. Remember who else “tests” Jesus in Luke’s gospel? The devil. So. We know the lawyer’s motives are to challenge Jesus, to put him on trial. That becomes crystal clear once he’s asked his second question: “And who is my neighbor?” It seems as if the lawyer is hoping he can narrow the scope of those to whom he is to show love. He is hoping for a nice, manageable prescription. “My neighbors are A, B, and C, and those persons only.” The lawyer is looking for his escape hatch.

Next, let’s think about the traveler. We are in the midst of a big travel season—I will be doing it myself in just a few hours. We don’t know why the man is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho. But we do know something about that road that he was traveling on. It was notoriously dangerous. The road ran through a steep-walled valley created by a seasonal river torrent—a wadi—and there were (there still are) plenty of places for those who are up to no good to lay in wait for vulnerable travelers. Has anyone here ever hitchhiked? Have you hitchhiked, and then found yourselves in a situation that made you wish you hadn’t hitchhiked? Have any of you ever been walking alone down a street where you felt unsafe?

Lots of us have experiences that can connect us to the vulnerable traveler. Lots of us have known fear; sometimes, real terror. Army vets who know what it is to be in the thick of the battle, or engaged in jungle warfare. Women and children who have been the victims of domestic violence. Young men who don’t fit “the mold” and find themselves being menaced in the locker room. The traveler’s worst fears come to pass. He is beaten so badly Jesus calls him “half-dead.”

Then, a priest passes by—a priest, a male member of the tribe of Levi, whose job it is to serve in the Temple in Jerusalem. One thing the priests had to be very vigilant about was the need to maintain ritual purity. If a priest came into contact with anyone or anything considered “unclean,” it would mean he could not perform his duties. The prohibition against coming into contact with the dead is particularly strong: Leviticus states, “The priest … shall not go where there is a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother” [Leviticus 21:10-11]. The traveler was left for dead. For the priest, his duty to the Temple trumps all other considerations—even that half-dead traveler.

The Levite would have had all the same motivations for staying away, for crossing to the other side—he also would have been prohibited from doing his work if he had come into contact with the half-dead man. And don’t forget, in the case of both priest and Levite—they’re on that same dangerous Jerusalem-Jericho road. They are also full of fear.

This leaves us with the Samaritan. One problem we have with this passage is the fact that the phrase “Good Samaritan” is so enshrined in our culture. We have “Good Samaritan” hospitals, we have the Samaritan Counseling Center next door. For many people, the noun “Samaritan” is always modified by the adjective “good.” But that most emphatically is not what the word “Samaritan” meant in a first century Jewish context. As one writer observes,

…most people today don't realize that "Good Samaritan" would have been an oxymoron to a first century Jew. Briefly stated, a Samaritan is someone from Samaria. During an ancient … war, most of the Jews living up north in Samaria were killed or taken into exile. However, a few Jews, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in Samaria. Since that time, these Jews had intermarried with other races. They were considered half-breeds by the "true" Jews. They had [compromised] the race. They had also [compromised] the religion. They looked to Mt. Gerizim as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the southern Jews. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans [was] so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. [1]

We know how the story wraps up. The Samaritan proves to be good. Not just good, exemplary—better by far than the priest and Levite who cut a wide path around the injured traveler. And it turns out that for Jesus, neighbor means neighbor in the original sense of the word (whether you’re talking about Greek or English)—the neighbor is the one to whom you are nigh, the neighbor is the one you are near. The one you are near is your neighbor. Crossing the street and diverting your eyes doesn’t change that. “Love your neighbor” means “Love the person who’s standing near you,” whether you are in your home or at the edge of the Grand Canyon or scurrying across Times Square.

It’s hard to get into the mindset of the Samaritan. He seems almost too good to be true. Picking up the one who is bleeding—who among us today would be willing to handle a bloody stranger absent some nice thick rubber gloves? And this brings me back to Jesus’ impossible admonition, “Go and do likewise.” Do what, exactly? Put ourselves in harm’s way? Risk exposure to all kinds of diseases? Spend our hard-earned money on people we don’t even know? People who might even be our enemies?

The answer is yes to all of these. Spend our hard-earned money on the 20,000,000 homeless of Pakistan, that place of not-so-secret terror cells. Notice how the lawyer responds, at the end, when Jesus asks, Who, in fact, was neighborly? And the answer is, of course, the Samaritan—a word the lawyer can’t even get himself to say. Instead, he says, “The one who showed him mercy.” Maybe the first step towards our being able to act like the Samaritan is being able to say, “The Samaritan did it. The Samaritan loved his neighbor.” Who are our Samaritans? For lots of US citizens, it would be very challenging to say, “The Muslim was the one who loved his neighbor.” But it just might be the truth.

One of the lessons here is that we have to be very, very careful when we presume to know who is holy, and who is not. We have to be ready to be wrong. We have to be ready to learn from those who are not like us—the “Others.” If Jesus has a theme that recurs again and again in his teaching, it is that we just might not have cornered the market on “goodness.” That someone else might have something to teach us, and it’s going to be someone who makes us uncomfortable. The ones who are so not-us it makes us frightened. The ones we believe we have good reason to suspect—like those Samaritans. Jesus seems to think they have something to teach us. The question is, are we ready to learn?

It’s still the season of travel. We are all travelers, in one sense or another, all journeying on roads that are fraught with peril and, at the same time, random, unforeseen kind deeds. We are all subject to the road, and the appalling and beautiful things that can happen there. Sometimes we find ourselves in the ditch, bruised and bloodied, and sometimes we see that another poor soul has landed there as we are trying to do the things we have to do that day. Maybe that’s the key to this oh-so-familiar tale: the truth that each of us has the potential to be on the giving or receiving end of callous disregard or heart-driven acts of mercy. I don’t suppose we can ever know how we will respond until the moment presents itself. But we know how our God responds. God climbs down into the ditch with us. God pours oil and wine on our wounds and sees that we are provided for. God expends all the riches of the universe to see to our care. God sends unexpected angels to see us home. And God hopes—fervently, optimistically, with all the stars in the great glimmering universe—that we will go, and do likewise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Brian Stoffregen, “Luke 10:25-27, Proper 10, Year C,” at Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks,

Monday, August 09, 2010

Your Father's Good Pleasure: Sermon on Luke 12:32-40

We have entered into the portion of Luke’s gospel which some have titled, “Readiness for the Coming Judgment.” I need to confess to you right here and right now, that this particular gospel theme is one I have very hard time with. In fact, I hate this stuff—this “the-world-is-ending-make-sure-you’re-ready!” stuff. I think it is the source of some truly bad theology, based on fear, and I don’t believe a fear-based faith is a mature faith.

Still. For all my misgivings on the theme of “Apocalypse Soon,” I find great hope in the very first line of the passage: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” [Luke 12:32]. So I propose this: we will work our way through this passage together, and while we do, we will commit to keeping that promise at the forefront of all our reflections. Do not be afraid. It is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

Let’s start with a bit of a refresher as to the context. Where is Jesus, anyway? To whom is he speaking? What is their life like? Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem. This marks a great turning point in the gospel; once Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, the shadow of the cross looms over absolutely everything that takes place. So the first important piece of context for what’s happening is this: Jesus is looking death squarely in the eye. Most of us have a scenario we can play out for ourselves that goes something like this: “If I found I had only two months to live, here’s what I would do.” Insert “bucket list” here. Jesus is living that scenario. He knows the end of his life, the end of his ministry is approaching. He knows it will be violent, and he knows he will be at the mercy of a brutal empire that makes quick work of anyone who does the kind of thing Jesus does: inviting the people to an alternative allegiance, anything or anyone that might challenge their loyalty to Rome. Teaching people to love God, preparing people for God’s reign of justice and peace falls squarely in this category of “crime.”

Do not be afraid little flock, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

On his journey Jesus speaks to many people—to Jews and Gentiles, to students of the law and Pharisees, to his disciples and friends, women and men. Here he is speaking to a crowd that Luke estimates to be in the thousands—Jesus has developed such a following that the people are trampling on one another to get close to him and to hear the things he has to say. He’s a rock star. And we need to be clear: though the crowd may well contain a wealthy landowner here and a scribe there, the “crowd” generally consists of the peasants, the landless, those living at or below subsistence level. Jesus is speaking to the people at the margins. Jesus is speaking to the poor.

Jesus has been stirring things up with his criticism of religious leaders and his urging people not to fear the empire—“Do not fear those who kill the body,” he says, in the face of this own death. He is preaching a radical reliance on the Holy Spirit—so radical, he even has harsh words for someone who does what most of us would think of as a pretty sensible idea. Remember the parable we read two weeks ago? About the rich man who wanted to build larger barns to store his grain? Jesus roundly condemns him as missing the mark entirely, trying to be rich according to the standards of the world rather than having a rich and deep and living relationship with God. Today’s passage covers some of that same territory:

Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. ~Luke 12:33-34

Jesus is saying, ‘Keep nothing. Nothing I tell you! In the end, “things” don’t matter.’ Life does not consist of an abundance of things. This is Jesus in the last weeks of his life. This is Jesus, responding to the urgency of his impending death with urgent words for anyone who has ears to listen. And they are words that hit us right where we live, we who have health insurance premiums and rent and mortgages and credit card bills and car loans. I have this image of Jesus urging us to simply lighten up. Let go of the loads that weigh us down, whether those loads are our possessions or our worries. This prospect of lightness causes us unease. Who are we without these things that root and ground us, that identify us to ourselves? It unnerves us.

Do not be afraid, friends, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

Abruptly, the tone of the passage shifts. “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit,” Jesus tells us. Or, as the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is coming: Look Busy!” Jesus tells a parable:

…[B]e like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. ~Luke 12:35-37

Jesus is talking about a scenario that could easily reflect the reality of his listeners: he is talking to servants. In Jesus’ day, the distribution of wealth was even more skewed than it is today—the rich were even richer (if you can imagine), the poor were even poorer. And the belief was that the truly poor and marginalized could not have access to even the most basic needs unless they were somehow attached to a person of wealth—as servants, tenant farmers, etc. The poor depended on this “patron” to ensure they received enough goods to survive.

Jesus is speaking about loyalty to the patron that goes beyond normal servitude—alertness, anticipating the patron’s needs, the willingness to stay up all night until the patron shows up, tipsy from the wedding feast. And then—the most wonderful reversal takes place, because, of course, this is no ordinary “master.” We are talking about the kingdom of heaven here. The master rewards this alert attentiveness by putting on an apron and serving the servants. And we have to wonder, what kind of “master” serves the servants? The kind who would die for them? Would this ever really happen to a servant, someone listening in the crowd? Is the kingdom of heaven really beginning to break through?

Do not be afraid, friends, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

And Jesus throws yet one more parable—just a single line—into the mix: “But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into” [Luke 12:39]. And here is the genius—and the humor—of Jesus, the Teacher. Just when the crowd is starting to get more relaxed, following a story of the dizzying prospect of the servants being served by their master—Jesus turns the tables again. Notice, he never tells stories allegorically—there are no fixed identities, no dependable interpretations. We may have thought the master was God in the last parable. Now it appears the Son of Man is… a thief? The one who comes in the middle of the night? The one who breaks into the house?

Do not be afraid, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

The “Son of Man” is one of those multi-layered terms whose meaning can be elusive. It can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures, where its earliest meaning seems to be “the mortal one,” or “the human one.” In the book of Daniel, the Son of Man “seems to refer to… the holy ones of Israel” exalted, in God’s presence.(1) In Luke, Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” more than in any other gospel—25 times—and he seems to use the term in different ways. Sometimes, he seems to be emphasizing his humanity—as if to say, I’m a human being, just like you. At other times, it seems to anticipate his death, and his conviction that God will vindicate him and he will return, triumphant. This is one of those times.

Jesus wants us—he warns us—to be ready. There is a whole industry out there concerning the return of Jesus—the great Left Behind phenomenon. The theology behind that particular set of beliefs is not terribly Presbyterian, and was just conjured up about 150 years ago. Still, there’s the baby, and there’s the bathwater, and the Left Behind theology is the bathwater. And we shouldn’t be dismissive of Jesus’ urging us to be ready. As our General Assembly has instructed us, “God has not revealed to human beings the time when all things will be fulfilled; this preserves in us a sense of urgent watchfulness.”(2)

Jesus wants us to be alert, awake, ready for the Son of Man when he returns. And his disciples were ready—the women went to the tomb on Easter morning and encountered angels and the Son of Man himself, vindicated, triumphant, the grave unable to hold him. Other friends and followers of Jesus were ready, open, expectant, to meet him on the road to Emmaus, and to hear him break open the scriptures, and to share with him as he broke open both the bread and their unseeing eyes.

We are called to be similarly ready. No one knows when Jesus may return. But if we are the body of Christ here on this earth—we have to assume Jesus returns every single day. We have to assume we meet Jesus repeatedly, on the road to Apalachin or in the aisles of Sam’s Club. We have to assume the Son of Man is coming like the person ringing the church doorbell, in hopes of being given a few dollars for gas or food. We have to assume we will meet him in the junkie living in the motel across the street and in the twinkling eyes of the homebound members of our congregation.

Do not be afraid, friends, it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. And this is the kingdom he wants to give us: the kingdom where everyone, everywhere is received and welcomed and honored and loved as Jesus himself. Thanks be to God. Amen.


(1) R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995), 18.
(2) Office of Theology and Worship, “Between Millennia: What Presbyterians Believe About the Coming of Christ” (Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Church (USA), 2001), 5.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Your Mother's Touch: Sermon on Hosea 11:1-11

During the winter of my fifth grade year, I came down with the flu. My memory is fuzzy, but I know that it started in the middle of the night, and instantly upon hearing the noises coming from my room, my mother was at my side. I remember the light being switched on, and my mom bringing a basin of water and a washcloth to freshen me up and cool me down. I remember her gentle touch on my feverish forehead. I was out of school for a long time, one of the perqs of which was the fact that I got to see the debut week of “All My Children” on TV. I was still sick on Ash Wednesday, and, a religious nerd even then, I was so distressed at not being able to leave the house that my mom managed to persuade the priest into giving her a little envelope of ashes, which she applied to my forehead with that same cool, comforting touch.

I have another memory, which is an exact counterpoint to my memory of being sick in the fifth grade. In the spring of her fourth year, Petra came down with the stomach flu. It got out of hand, and she became very dehydrated. I remember staying up with her one long, scary night, setting a timer to give her a tablespoon of water every fifteen minutes, as instructed by our pediatrician, which her body rejected each and every time. She was on the couch, and I was in a chair or on the floor beside her, reading a novel while I waited for the alarm to go off. In the morning, I realized I couldn’t wake her up, and carried her to the car, for the high-speed trip to the doctor’s office, and then to the hospital. As you have probably guessed, she was fine—she is fine. An overnight stay and an IV drip made her right as rain. But my memory of what it feels like to be the mother of a sick child—even briefly sick, with a minor easily-remedied illness—is a strong one. I know I will never forget what it felt like to worry over her, to try to make it better, to be afraid for her.

One of the ways we understand our relationship with God is through the lens of our human relationships. It makes sense, of course. According to psychologists, one of the predictors (though, of course, not the only one) of our ability to grow into mature, well-adjusted adults is whether or not we had what they call a “good-enough mother.” From the ordinary loving parent we learn about care and dependability and protectiveness. We learn what it is to be held. We learn what it is to have someone ready to catch us when we fall, literally, when we are learning to walk or ride a bike, or metaphorically, when we face disappointment or heartbreak. We learn what it is to be loved.

And all these things—whether by their presence or by their absence—are hints for us about the nature of God. If the ordinary exhausted, scared mother keeps vigil by her sick child, how much more does the eternal, inexhaustible love of God keep vigil by us, wounded, wandering and willful children that we are? If the touch of my mother’s hand on my forehead can be so soothing that I remember it these forty years later, how much more does the touch of the source of the universe have the power to heal our woes and hurts?

Our passage from Hosea speaks in a remarkable, extended metaphor of the motherly love of God for Israel, God’s child. “When Israel was a child, I loved him,” God says, “and out of Egypt I called my son.” God speaks of calling to the child, begging the child to come home, but the child resisting, going away. “Yet,” God says,

… it was I who taught [my child] to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them… ~ Hosea 11:3-4

In this day and age, when a father is just as easily likely to be the primary caregiver for a young child, these words don't have the same impact on us. But for Hosea's original hearers, make no mistake: these were the actions of a mother. Verse after verse, line after line, the motherly love of God is related. Finally, in response to what sounds like a suggestion that this loving mother simply give up on her recalcitrant child, God replies, “How can I give you up…? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender…” [Hosea 11:8].

A word about those words, “heart” and “compassion.” In English we have turned the word “heart” into a sort of a Valentine—we have made it sentimental, soft, something that indicates the part of us that is a pushover. In Hebrew the word translated “heart” contains layer and layers of meaning, including the “inner person,” the “mind,” the “will.” This word indicates something fundamental about personality… the truth of who one is, the heart of the matter. The truth of who God is does not will punishment or suffering on God’s children. Let me say that again. God does not will punishment or suffering on God’s children. “I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath,” says the Lord. In English the word “compassion” stems from the idea of “suffering with”—that one is able to imaginatively suffer with the one who is suffering. In Hebrew, though, compassion translates a word whose root means “womb.” The Hebrew idea of compassion means something like “womb-love.” The compassion of God springs from God’s very life-giving center. Taken together, these words tell us the core of who God is, God’s personality. And that core is forgiveness, tender care, and the desire to restore, not to destroy or punish.

One of the ways we understand our relationship with God is through the lens of our human relationships. It makes sense. One of the ways we can understand our relationship with God is in looking at the relationship of mother and child. Every metaphor has its limits, and this one is no exception. There are wonderful mothers who cannot save their children from unendurable pain, and there are dreadful mothers whose children overcome and thrive. But to embrace the metaphor as far as we can today: It is God who brings us to birth, who knits us together in our mother’s womb. It is God who holds us, who nurtures and nourishes us. It is God who leads us with cords of human kindness, teaching us the basics of what we need to know. It is God who heals us, holding us in the divine embrace.

We come to the table, perhaps, with many memories of dinners prepared by our mother—or maybe our father. And God is the host at this table, God is the provider of this meal, God is the founder of the feast. God has prepared this refreshment for us, this life-giving bread and saving cup, because God loves us. There is nothing we can do to earn that love. And there is nothing we can do that will cause us to lose that love. We are loved, completely, perfectly, passionately, by God, who is no mere “good-enough” parent, but the source and definition of love. And so we come to the table for the meal given to bring us life and strength, and we can trust that this motherly love of God will continue to touch us and heal us and make us whole. Thanks be to God. Amen.