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“Go forth!” A sermon of following

(Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-4,15-17; John 3:1-17)

Preached on 3/16/14 at COSK in Portland, Oregon

“Go forth!” We could say, and we would be right to do so, that this is the first call to the Gospel recorded in the Scriptures. Abraham, the father of faith is called by God to go. Abandon what is known to you, depart from the familiar, the secure, the solid, the sensible, the self-evident, and go. The call of the Gospel, when it comes to Abraham, begins, as the Gospel must always begin, with a break. Just as we heard a few weeks ago from Jesus in the sermon on the mount, the Gospel always begins with a rupture, a radical disruption: “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . .” These words come to Abraham in Genesis no less than they came to the disciples from Jesus, no less than they come to us again and again in the course of our lives, which so easily slip back into the pattern of this world, into “the way things” are, or what our Gospel reading would call “that which is born of the flesh.”

It is this radical break, this calling to abandon all that has come before for the sake of receiving something new, something that, as far as we know does not yet exist, that pervades Jesus’s dialogue with Nicodemus in today’s Gospel reading.

Nicodemus is interested in Jesus, but he is interested in him as someone who can fit within Israel and its teachers as it stands. He, “the teacher of Israel” stands in utter need of redemption, of new birth into a new life, and a whole new community, the community called forth by the Gospel of the kingdom. He is a secret admirer of Jesus and John is careful to portray him as cowardly, inadequate, and in need of redemption through confession of Jesus and new birth.

For Jesus has not come to offer something that “fits”, something that can be “added” to things as they are in this world. He has come to bring and proclaim a different reality, a reality that calls into question all of our present arrangements, all things that are most natural to us. Jesus presents an entirely new reality into which people are invited and in which they are offered eternal life, which is being brought into the love of God, the love that is so radical, so deep, so universal that God sends God’s own self into the world in the form of the Son. What Jesus proclaims and what Jesus brings is as strange and astonishing and hard to understand as grown people being “born again”. What might some thing like this mean if not the introduction of something utterly miraculous, utterly new, something that calls all that has come before into question?

The reality Jesus offers does not “fit within” any of the existing realities, rather it explodes them and transcends them. It doesn’t fit within “natural Israel” and the only way those belonging to Israel or the nations can participate in it is through hearing Jesus’s word, trusting it and being given over to it. Jesus represents a total break with natural divisions and loyalties. He comes from above, from God and introduces a new reality into the world which interrupts the old order and rearranges people into a new form of life that cannot be readily incorporated into old structures of this world.

The abandonment of all that is most natural! That is what the Gospel of God proclaims ever and again.

And this call to go forth, to leave behind what is most fitting, most natural, most reasonable comes, not just to Abraham, not just to the disciples, not just to us, but also to the one who issues the call himself. The one who brings the Gospel also subjects himself to the demands of the Gospel, indeed we probably ought to say, that he alone has truly met the demands of the Gospel with full obedience and total trust. Abraham’s trust in the one who called him was utterly fragile and at times fell apart. He may have once believed that God would make a nation from his offspring, but that belief certainly faltered in the face of the impossible obstacle that was Sarah’s barrenness. Likewise the Peter may have trusted Jesus enough to step out of a boat into the water of a storm, might have loved him enough to follow after him even when he was arrested and dragged into court, but that trust and that love fell apart in denials and curses when his own safety was on the line.

No indeed, even amidst the cloud of witnesses, there is ultimately one true witness to the call of the Gospel of God. And this witness is Jesus. The one who journeys from Galilee to Jerusalem, from exaltation to humiliation, from life to death in obedience to the Gospel of God’s coming kingdom of life and liberation for all. The call “Go forth from your country, and from your father’s house, to the place I will show you” comes fully, truly, and ultimately to Jesus and only derivatively does it come to Abraham, the disciples, or us.

It comes to us because it has come to Jesus. The call to ever again be shaken up, called on, to go forth into the unknown comes to us because Jesus continues to come to us. The one who journeys from Galilee to Jerusalem, from safety to death on a cross continues to come to us, and to go on ahead of us: “He is going ahead of you to Galilee.”

The call to go forth, to be shaken up by the Gospel is not a one time event, not moment of conversion, but an ever-recurring form of life to which we are called: the life of repentance. The God who calls Abraham to go forth from his father’s house into the land he will be given is also called to leave that land and go down to Egypt, trusting that God will still be faithful. The disciple who confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, who is called the rock upon whom the church will be built, is called to turn again from denials and strengthen his brothers.

And this is truly where we can falter, where we can become like Nicodemus or worse. This is where we can blindly come to believe that we are being faithful when in fact we are simply living “according to the flesh.” When we assume that the moment of crisis and calling is behind us, that we are squarely on the path, that everything is coming together and we are on the right track. This is where we are most vulnerable to forgetting that the Gospel remains alien to us until the kingdom of God is all in all.

The call to go forth, to trust and believe that God is bring an altogether new reality upon us, this call does not simply come, but continually circles back until all is accomplished. It circles back upon us precisely when we think we are getting it right, when we are about to receive the promise, it is then that we are called to once again put it all at risk in trust that God knows and is really up to something greater. Abraham follows God’s call to the land, and then back out again in the time of famine. So also with Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. So also with the disciples, the apostles, and with us.

But before this was so with these witnesses, it was so with Jesus. With the one whose whole life in this world was a going-forth, a giving-up, a letting-go. At every point in Jesus’s life there were an array of non-risk option before him, as we saw in our reflections on the temptation story last week. “There are other ways this can go” — that is the call of this age, the call of Satan, the call of the wisdom “according to the flesh.”

Jesus is the one who has subjected himself full to this ever-recurring call of God to go forth into uncertainty, to put at risk, rather than to make secure, to give up, rather than to seize, to trust rather than to be suspicious. And this must, ever and again remain the call of the Gospel in this world, for we live after and before the promised end, the coming kingdom of life and liberation. Our lives are lived at the point of confrontation and conflict this present evil age, and the age to come, between life according to the flesh, and life according to the Spirit, between crucifixion and resurrection. In a world torn apart by the war between powers of death and the power of love the call of the Gospel will always and ever be the call of “Go forth!”

For we serve a God who has come forth to us and dragged us into life. We serve a God who has come to us in the world of power and and death in the form of a servant. We serve a God who believed before we ever knew there was a way out or the possibility of hope. For it was true about Jesus before it was true about Abraham, or about the disciples, or about us that  he believed in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

And so while we continue to live on, struggling together in this little local body to discern how to follow the call of the Gospel in this time and place, in insignificant, statistically unimportant, little ways let us remember yet again today, that the call of the Gospel remains the call of “Go forth!” That the direction of God’s movement in the world is forward and downward, into places where we would not wish to go. That this call will never be over until all has become resurrection.

And let us also remember that we follow a God who does not merely call, but has lived this call for us in Jesus. That the God who calls us to “Go forth!” is the God who has come forth to us, lived our life, died our death, and promises us a share in a life we have no right to claim. Let us remember that we can trust the God who calls us to go forth into uncertainty and doubt, not once, but ever and again, right we want it least — just as Jesus trusted amidst cries of abandonment and the sweating of blood before the cross. For if Jesus’s whole life could be given over to this risk of trust in this God, then the life of risk, of going forth into the uncertain, even into death, is not too good for us who would follow after him. For we serve a God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

 

Jesus brings himself: A sermon unto the kingdom

Matthew 5:21-37 & 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Preached on 02/16/14

Jesus comes to us with an antithesis. His words, in this text specifically, and the whole of his message and life and calling speak of and call us to a break. This comes straight to the forefront in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said . . . But I say to you . . .” These words are radical in the truest sense. They are radical not just because they seem to call for some pretty serious and crazy sounding things. They are radical because in them Jesus speaks with authority. Jesus takes up sayings from the law of Moses and the traditions deriving from it and sets himself up in contrast to them. For Jesus the law codes are not nearly serious enough and he sets himself up as an authority over-against and beyond them.

The subversive and radical nature of these claims lies, not first of all in how demanding or difficult the claims themselves are, but rather in the fact that they come from Jesus over-against other authorities. It is not in itself a radical thing to say that, if we shouldn’t murder, it’d be a good thing for us to go further than that and not harbor anger towards one another. That’s a pretty straightforward good thing that most people wouldn’t have a huge problem with. And the same could be said about most of the statements Jesus makes in this section of the Sermon on the Mount. In and of themselves the statements may be demanding, even seemingly impossible, but the fact that we ought to desire and strive for these sorts of things is not something unspeakable, dangerous, or radical in itself. What is unspeakable, and dangerous, and radical is the fact that Jesus presumes to speak to us as Lord.

Jesus takes up all the hard words of the law and says, not only that they don’t go far enough, but that he is the authority for this claim. This is the radical point: that Jesus is the authority above all authoritative voices that have come before. What is central here is not even primarily the message that Jesus brings — though of course that belongs to the center! — rather it is Jesus himself. Ernst Kasemann writes:

For the Christian there are absolutely no basic values if one takes the New Testament seriously. The Greek world knew of cardinal virtues, but Christ brings no new system of values, no particular worldview, no particular picture of human existence of an idealistic or materialistic stripe, no conservative or revolutionary norms and categories. He brings himself, thus the image of God, into a milieu in which God’s as well as our image are perverted by pride or despair. his program, his promise and summons, his cardinal virtue, and his basic value are described by a single word: discipleship. A Christian is one who follows the Nazarene. . . . The Sermon on the Mount opens with the Beatitudes because the Nazarene has appeared in their midst, has descended into the earthly inferno and takes to himself the victims of demons, takes those who protest and demonstrate against inhumanity, revealing mercy and salvation to the poor. (p. 122)

This is the important point to which I wish to draw our eyes: that Jesus comes to us, not to bring a new law, a new code of conduct, or a new morality — though he does call his followers to concrete and difficult things! — rather Jesus comes to us to bring us himself, to bring us to himself, and thus to bring us into God’s liberating kingdom.

And this really is the important point, the point that we must see if we are to hear Jesus’s statements in the Sermon on the Mount rightly. If we hear them simply as a new law, as a set of morals or virtues that are recommended to us on the same plane as other such recommendations, then there is no Gospel and no ultimate reason to be interested in Jesus. If we takes these sayings as abstractions, as nothing more than really, really rigorous commands, we are left in despair and hopelessness.

If however, these commands are to be heard, not primarily as commands, but as declarations of the life we are called to under the liberating rule of God that is coming for us, and coming to us from God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, then we have something far different.

All our human moral strivings, our religious constructions, our attempts to be righteous in this world take place “according to the flesh” as Paul puts it in our epistle reading. And it is precisely into this world, the world of powers, sin, and death, the world of human standards and measures into which Jesus speaks, and into which he proclaims the coming of God’s liberating kingdom which calls into question even our best attempts at righteousness and goodness.

When Jesus comes to us and proclaims that our righteousness must exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees and that we must be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, this is supposed to be good news. But if it is simply one thing alongside all of our other human strivings and attempts at righteousness it can only be a terrible burden, and impossible load. And yet, for Jesus, his message is precisely the opposite. Whenever we read Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount we all come immediately to a sense of its radical hardness.  Even if we believe it is possible, we know its not very likely.  However, if we avoid lifting these discourses of Jesus out of the context of Jesus’s proclamation of the coming, liberating kingdom of God, things start to look different. They start to look different  in that Jesus seemed to think the very opposite in regard to the message he was preaching. Jesus thought he was offering freedom, not merely really, really difficult lists of demands: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

In Jesus’ view, the call to discipleship that he was preaching was not simply something hard and burdensome, but rather a call to leave such burdens behind. Jesus seems to think that discipleship is is not the truly hard, the truly life-denying path, and that by contrast it is restless striving of the Gentiles and the burdensome commands of the priestly elite that is hard (cf. Matthew 6:32; Luke 11:46; 12:30).  In other words, Jesus viewed his call to radical discipleship in a way that is exactly opposite from how we view it when we encounter it.  What is to us an impossible demand that must have some other explanation is for Jesus the call to radical liberation from the dominating forces of slavery and death.

And this is the point we must see here. For Jesus the striving after righteousness under the law and the striving without the law are both being radically ruptured and called into question by the coming kingdom of God which proclaims a new freedom and a new life and a new world. Jesus’s “commands” then, are not items to be catalogued alongside other things in this world. To be sure they call us to concrete forms of life and action in the world, but they have meaning and reality as a message of the royal rule of the God of life and liberation who is breaking the world open in Jesus.

The truth is that we will miss how radical the Sermon on the Mount really is if we look at it just as a collection of commands we ought to perform. What makes this message and this calling radical is not that it demands the impossible. There are plenty of crazier, more impossible things we could demand from people (and there are plenty of religions and philosophies that do just that). What is radical about Jesus’s message here is that it is a proclamation of a kingdom that promises to transform all creation into freedom and life. It is a message that life and freedom are breaking into the world in Jesus and thus death will not be the final outcome of history or of any of our lives. It is a promise that God will never abandon us and will be with us always, unto the end of our lives and unto the end of this age. It is a promise that when we are faithless, he remains faithful, that when we deny, God will not deny himself.

It is this proclamation that makes sense of the calling to go above and beyond any law or morality. It makes these things not only possible, but inevitable. It makes them not merely achievable, but liberating. It is only where we forget, when we deny in our thoughts and in our actions that this kingdom is real, and that it is coming that these callings become burdensome. This is a hard word, but if the Gospel is true, then this is in fact the reality. That these callings are not burdens but freedoms, not constraints, but wide open spaces into which we may run into the kingdom that is coming for us.

But even now, even as we try to hear this, and as I try to say it, and as we all try to believe it together, we know, we have that hanging-on thought clinging to the back of our minds and hearts and bodies. That fear, that suspicion, that worry that all this really is too hard. That the kingdom isn’t really coming for us, or even if it is, we don’t know that that is really true, right here, right now in your life and in mine. That it is true not just ultimately, but in this very moment, in this very scenario, in this point in my life and in yours. We don’t know if we really are believing that this is true, here and now, for you and for me. We fear that maybe this really is just a bunch of work, a calling that will use us up and leave us empty if we try to take it on.

All this calls to mind a similar story from Matthew, in which Jesus again proclaims the coming of the kingdom and the seemingly high cost of entering into it:

Now someone came up to him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?” He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have wholeheartedly obeyed all these laws. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he was very rich.

For you see, to take this act, to sell everything and follow Jesus, this would be the act of faith in a kingdom that is truly coming. To be free from the hold this world has on us and to turn to Jesus, walking after him unfettered, undivided, into the kingdom of God that is coming to make all things new. Just as in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers up the message of the kingdom, which sounds hard when heard according to the flesh, according to the law, according to the pattern of this world. But when heard according to the Spirit, according to the kingdom that is coming, this word comes as life abundant. The question is how we will be willing to hear it. Will we hear it as the coming of a new kingdom, a new life, a new world of possibility and hope, or simply as a new, and impossible law?

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven! Again I say, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God.” The disciples were greatly astonished when they heard this and said, “Then who can be saved?”  Jesus looked at them and replied, “This is impossible for mere humans, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16-26)

In this passage Jesus singles out the rich, but what seems central about this singling-out is the fact that the rich are well-connected to the pattern of this present world. There’s a lot going for us here, and the proclamation that all this is to be dissolved and transformed into a new creation is a threatening word for those of us that are well-connected. It is within this world that we know how to think, how to function, and even, how to be righteous and good. But Jesus proclaims something far greater than that, and thus more threatening. Jesus proclaims the shattering of this closed circle and the coming of the kingdom of God. He proclaims the loss of all our possessions), all our being in charge, all of our being in a position of control and management, and proclaims the coming of a life amidst death, of freedom in the face of slavery. He proclaims something impossible, something that we have every reason — according to the flesh — to walk away from. But, for God all things are possible.

We are still plagued with doubts about if this is really possible. If the kingdom really is possible for us, for our world, for our concrete broken lives. Even in our moments of confidence, of trust, when we step out of the boat, when we take the risk, even then, the shadows of doubt and fear linger. To that doubt I can give you no simple solution. We are not given that because Christ was not given that. The same Lord who proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God and the gift of the easy and light yoke is the same Lord who prays for the cup of crucifixion to be taken from him, the same Lord who cries out wondering where the hell God is on the cross. Servants are not better than their masters and if Jesus must suffer doubt, indecision, and uncertainty about the coming of the kingdom, then we are not too good for it either.

In the face of the proclamation of the kingdom and its radical calling we are are not given certainty, nor are we promised that our faith will not falter or that we will not be sifted and tried. We are not promised that our faith will not crash down in failure — what could be more of a failure than death, after all? But we are promised that where we are faithless Jesus remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself. And so we are given, not certainty but hope that our labor in the Lord is not in vain. We are given this hope because Jesus came, not to bring us laws, not to bring us morality, but to bring us himself. That he continues to come to us, and continues to bring us himself and so bring us to himself. And that in giving us nothing other than himself, his rejected, crucified, and resurrected self, that he is giving to us a kingdom that will never be shaken, even when we are. We have this hope, because Jesus does not bring us anything according to the flesh, according to the law, according to human standards, according to history, and power, according to realism and reason, but because Jesus comes to us and brings himself.

Rivenness

The Lord’s meal is about a body and its blood. The body and blood that the Lord’s meal is about is a body that is broken and a blood that is poured out. Those are the descriptions that matter in the Lord’s meal: broken and poured out. The body of Jesus comes to us broken, torn apart, riven. The blood of Jesus comes to us shed, depleted, poured out. Broken and poured out. This is the nature of the salvation, the life, the freedom that is given to us in Jesus. Jesus comes to us with brokenness and with outpouring. And this is appropriate, indeed it can be no other way for that is the condition into which this world has been plunged. In slavery to powers and rulers, this whole world and every life in it lives a broken, poured out life. Christ comes to us broken, torn apart, because we are broken and torn apart. This life, lived in this world, this world of sin, slavery, and death, is a life of being broken, of finding oneself poured out. Life tears us up. We may pretend at wholeness, we may put on a show of solidness, a veneer of stability, but these are the lies we tell to hide the wounds, the holes that this broken life has torn in us.

Jesus comes to us torn apart. He comes to the torn apart, not as one whole, but as the one most torn apart, the one who freely surrenders his wholeness, who never pretends at a false healthiness. Jesus comes to us broken and poured out, and because of this none of us can ever be alone again in our brokenness. The holes that life has torn open in our flesh, in our hearts, these need no longer be papered over, they need no longer be concealed under a mask of false wholeness. Instead, in the riven body of Jesus, our torn up bodies are liberated into freedom, the freedom to remain torn apart, not unto despair, but rather unto love.

For in Jesus the wounds, the holes that life tears into us are transformed, not closed. The wounds of Jesus remain open after the resurrection. They persist, no longer as a source of pain, no longer as the signs of death, but rather as the beginning of freedom, life, and love.

Christian Wiman writes, “They need not be only grief, only pain, these black holes in our lives. If we can learn to live not merely with them but by means of them, if we can let them be part of the works of sacred art that we in fact are, then these apparent weaknesses can be the very things that strengthen us. Life tears us apart, but through those wounds, if we have tended them, love may enter us. It may be the love of someone you have lost. It may be the love of your own spirit for the self that at times you think you hate. However it comes though, in all these, of all these and yet more than they, so much more, there burns the abiding love of God. “

When we come, then to the Lord’s table, to the Lord’s meal, the meal of a broken body and a poured out blood, let us leave behind the false pretences of wholeness, security, and identity. We are invited, by the riven body of Christ, by the Lord who chooses to be torn apart, to offer our wounds, our own torn apart bodies and lives to him and to each other that, right there, right in the midst of our rivenness, we may become open channels in which love may flow. Come to this table, not to be made whole, not to receive a solid identity, not to receive security and certainty. Come instead that your wounds may be left open, like our Lord’s. Left open to witness to the depth of love and freedom that has been given to us. The freedom to be torn apart in love, the freedom to remain broken, to abide in the rivenness. This is freedom indeed. Freedom from illusion, from pretence, from the arrogance that refuses vulnerability by choosing to construct a false self, to build an identity, to pretend at wholeness. Come to this table to remain broken, to have your wounds left open. Come to this table torn apart, and receive the torn apart body and the poured out blood, and in receiving it, offer your open wounds, your own torn apartness, your riven and incomplete lives, and watch them be transformed into open channels, into free and boundless spaces in which the love of God will burn. For the God who comes to us torn apart loves every broken thing.

Love’s rage

Scrawled on some pages on May 21, 2013

Love rages. It storms about in grief and sorrow, never shying from anger. Love without rage is merely the shallow attraction of gentle seasons. Love does not wither in the face of betrayal, sorrow, grief, rejection. No, love gives full voice to rage, mourning, weeping; love is not love that does not scream into the silences.

What then distinguishes love’s rage from mere anger, aggression, and malice? Love’s rage differs from all anger in this: it is a rage that transforms the lover. It may have no affect on the beloved, but love’s rage transforms the lover. Only through the journey of love’s rage does the lover learn the difference between mere pardon and forgiveness, between mere peace and reconciliation. A love that rages is a love that bleeds, that lays itself before the knife, that does not grit its teeth before the pain, but cries out under it, receives the full measure of its fruits. Only a love that has raged may be given to be a love that forgives, accepts forgiveness, liberates, and receives liberation.

Love’s rage is the birth pangs of freedom, the freedom that endures in gentleness, openness, willingness to yield, to receive.

Loves’ rage is love’s demand that all not-love, all un-love pass away and be transformed into love. Love rages because love is promise, promise that screams for fullness, for consummation.

Do not resist the pull of love’s rage, but give yourself to it’s waves. One need not fear the rage of love, for it leads not to wrath, but ever deeper into the ocean of love. The rage of love ends where love ends, in self-giving and rising to give yet again. It leads not to wrath, but to rapture, not to bitterness, but to freedom. Wrath and bitterness are born from refusing the rage of love altogether. Only by embracing it, by plunging in, by walking through the door, do we journey into love, and so, into freedom, into glory.

A (plagiarized) letter

From: His Exalted Darkness Malaphar, Denizen of Darkness and Strife, beloved Lieutenant of Beelzbul, Prince of Darkness and the Powers of the Air**

To: Barakiel the Accursed, Faithful Servant of Division

Re: COSK Portland 2014 Line Item Action Plan

My most foul, impish, and dear colleague, it gives me the most sublime delight to hear of your appointment to the task of crafting our glorious Master’s line item action plan for that paltry band of scum known as Church of the Servant King in Portland, Oregon. While we have been beset with failures of the worst order in our HR department this year, I believe that your appointment to this task is most promising.

You have certainly proved yourself worthy in you appointments to previous tasks, and, as you surely know at the outset, I expect nothing less than a perfect enactment of our line item action plan for COSK in the following year. Indeed, I expect your task to be all too easy. So much of the work is already done for you: they live in that veritable den of hipster laziness and hippy dirtiness that is Portland, Oregon. This alone you must see is a point in your favor. But more importantly they spend constant and consistent amounts of time together and this can only be to your benefit. One of the most amusing features of our Enemy’s most prized creation is how much they infuriate and annoy one another if only we can manage to keep them in the same room long enough. The natural tendency of every man and woman towards selfishness, frustration, insecurity, and dysfunctional power-seeking is always to our advantage when we are confronted with people who spend time together. And so that is where we begin, with their life together.

Poisoning Togetherness

This then will be your first line of attack: the shape of their time together, whether in small groups or large, formal or informal, you must at every point seek to orient their time together in ways that serve our ends. I will briefly list just three of the most important:

First, keep them talking about each other. This is one of, if not the most important way to shape and guide their time together to its proper end. Whenever possible, when any two or more of them are gathered together, induce them to always be talking about, and dwelling on the strife, weakness, and trouble that they may have with other members of the congregation. Let every conversation they have be a time to air grievances, annoyances, gossip, anger, and frustration with their brothers and sisters. But crucial to this is to avoid a grave misstep: make sure that their conversations are always with others, not with the sources of their frustration and difficulty. Indeed it is most important that they spend all their time being actively held back from actually talking to those who anger and consternate them. At all costs keep them talking to others about others. Never let brothers and sisters talk to one another in openness, lest in place of bitterness and distance, new closeness and trust might, catastrophically be formed.

Secondly, at all costs breed isolation. Whenever you can, help your subjects as much as possible to be alone with their thoughts. This will be difficult in a community such as this, but step 1 will very much help serve this end. And while complete isolation will not be possible, what is very much within your grasp is making people desire isolation in and through poisoning the time they do spend with others, as we have already begun to discuss. Continuing to encourage gossip is vital, but it will be insufficient if you do not also inspire passive-aggressiveness, bitterness, reluctance to speak openly, secret-keeping, and mistrust as much as possible. All of these will help guide your subjects apart, deeper into themselves, which is, of course, precisely where we want them.

Finally, you must, whenever possible incite jealousy. This is another vital step that you must never neglect, my faithful colleague. You must, at every point inspire in your subjects a deep spirit of jealousy. Make them constantly compare themselves with others and compare how others treat them with how they treat others. Comparison, comparison, comparison. That is to be your mantra. When they look at a brother you must have them thinking about how that brother cares more about someone else than them. Constantly impress on them a feeling of being neglected and slighted by others and soon you won’t even have to work at it. Humans are masters of fantasy, especially when it comes to feeling disliked and slighted. Their pride is always inflated and always fragile, so learn this tune and play it always: Comparison, comparison, comparison. Whenever they compare themselves and their relationships among themselves, our work is done for us. For comparison does not allow them to actually see each other. It hides them from one another, for all they see is what they don’t have, or don’t think they have from each other. We must keep them distracted in this way. For if they see each other, rather than what they want from each other, then we have lost altogether.

If you have begun by the strict observance of these points you have begun well, my noble colleague. But there is much more that is vital if you are to succeed at making this coming year one that truly serves our Illustrious Prince’s ends. We must not only fracture and poison their mode of relating to each other and being together, but we must undergird this with the strongest points of division to keep them estranged. Frustration, anger, even bitterness can all be put aside if a moment of openness breaks in on our well-crafted work. To prevent this as many walls as possible must be put between people to make these moments less likely. I will begin by introducing you to two of the most powerful of all our tools.

Let Money and Power Rule

Remember our blessed tool, money (which as you surely learned during orientation, is simply the most tangible form of power we have at our disposal in North America these days). As you are well aware, we have used money effectively to keep the human animals from their Creator’s hopes for them for millennia. But challenges ever arise as we continue to wield this great and mighty weapon, and it is easy to make mistakes, some of which could totally undo your purposes. Let me begin with the most important points.

Do not imagine that exorbitant greed is your best ally when attempting to drive people apart through the power of money. To be sure miserliness, hoarding, and unrestricted greed is a wonderful thing when we can instill it in the human animals, but this is often harder than we would like. Despite our best efforts to desensitize and deaden the human animals to it, such total givenness to the glorious power of money seems to leave them feeling empty, shallow, lame, and pathetic. Eventually it seems to wear out with the money being squandered and the human tragically becoming wiser to its devices, or with disillusionment, despair, and longing for something true and real that all too easily becomes an opportunity for our enemy to strike. So for many years I have encouraged an alternative approach: rather than greed, encourage a basic sense of possession and entitlement. It is not important that we make the humans into greedy hoarding beasts, as lovely as that would be. All we need is for them to feel like the money they have is their own possession, something eminently reasonable and rational. We want them to be generous so long as they remember that they are being generous with what is safely and securely theirs. Make sure that in every act of generosity and sharing, there is always a string attached, an expectation levied, and the seed of a resentment planted in the event that their giving does not produce the result they want.

What is altogether important is that nothing ever be truly and freely given. Pure and unconditional gift is the character of our most horrible Enemy, cursed be his name. What we require is that every attempt at gift-giving come with a string attached. Let generosity and sharing happen, yes, but make sure that there is always the string of expectation attached, which is always ever-eager to turn into bitterness and strife.

To this end it is important to instill in the people a sense of compulsion to be complete in and of themselves — and this is true in all areas of their lives, not merely in the financial sector. Let neediness and vulnerability always be thought of as something to avoid at all costs. Make them feel the shame of not having it all together. Make them feel powerless compared to others when they find themselves in need. And this is only too easy for us because humans are always  just one moment away from total and desperate need for one another. We must teach them to fear this, to avoid it, to scorn it. For if they were to embrace it, all our purposes would be undone and the power of money, indeed all of our most illustrious powers would suddenly fall away and they would again see each other rather than themselves and their own rights and wants.

There is of course the other side of this that must be kept in mind as well. For those with less power and money, you must cause them to resent this fact. You must teach them to hate their neediness, to be jealous, to feel entitled to what they do not have so that the result may be the same for all: loss of relationship, loss of trust, and the growth of bitterness and suspicion. This, my dear friend is our great endgame when it comes to money and power. And a great ally in this endeavor is to make them forget as much as possible that flexibility is strength rather than weakness. Encourage stubbornness, standing your ground, drawing lines in the sand, and staying the course at all times. Flexibility is an ever-present threat to this whole enterprise, because again, it offers these foul creatures another opportunity to do what we must prevent at all costs: see one another rather than what they want from one another or what they despise in one another. Because of this we must discourage flexibility at all costs. It leads, almost inevitably to openness, that vile and disgusting light.

But no, shut flexibility out by reinforcing distinction at every point. Make sure the weak know they are weak and the strong know they are strong and make sure they all know where they stand. Accentuate the differences between people and their stations and abilities whenever possible. All this will serve your ultimate aim: division. This is the key to money, and more comprehensively, power. Our work is to, at every point, accentuate and make plain the differences in power between people. The have-nots need to know that they are less, and the haves need to know that they are more. Our cause is destroyed whenever people begin to think “There is no longer….” It is our job to make plain that all the distinctions between people, distinctions of power, ability, wealth, competence, intelligence, and charisma are maintained. Where one person knows they are less than another and one person knows they are more than another, our goal is already accomplished.

This will be the brunt of your work among this people this year. To sow the seeds of distinction. The work is already begun for you. Convince the young and energetic that the old are uncool and out of step, convince them that their elders simply don’t understand them or the world of today. Convince the old that the young are naive, irresponsible, and reckless, that they are fools who know nothing and cannot be trusted. At every point, strive to insert distinctions. It is our Enemy’s work to cancel distinctions into a gross and vile unity. Our Enemy would have this people simply shrug and walk past these distinctions as if they don’t matter. This cannot be allowed to happen. It is your task to keep these distinctions healthy, to give these mighty fictions the appearance of strength. For with distinction comes distance, bitterness, suspicion, fear, and distrust. These are the fruits we covet. But all this is but preamble to that which is of first importance, and what we must come to at last as we begin the final stage of this tutorial.

The Priority of Self-Care

Listen well now, my dear friend and colleague, for this is the culmination, the apogee, the ultimate height for which we aim: the self. This was our enemy’s greatest mistake, that he would create human beings as individual selves, as persons who can either lose themselves in the lives of others, or claim themselves as their own — which is to say, ours. For as you know the person who lives for themself is finally and utterly ours. And this, of course is our fullest and most glorious aim: for every human person to think themselves self-possessed, self-enclosed, self-controlled, self-competent, and self-sufficient, for at that moment they belong to us. At that moment they function perfectly as citizen of our great Master’s kingdom.

But as we saw with money, we must realize that we cannot simply encourage the humans to become selfish monsters consumed only with their own desires. No, such excessive self-consumption, though glorious to behold, is extreme, unsatisfying, and unattractive to all but the most diabolical of human beings. Our course must again be the one of subtlety, of reasonableness, and rational explanation.

For what we must encourage, incite, nurture, and birth in this people is a sense of self, and self-care that is prudent, rational, understandable, eminently reasonable from any human point of view. We must make them believe, first of all in the power of sequence. This is the most crucial point, for it relates to what we have said above about power and money. It is of the utmost importance that these pathetic people, this miserable little body come to realize that that they must first care for themselves, so that they then can care for each other. The chronology here is most important, so pay close attention.

Our enemy, you see, has no place for sequence and chronology. In his cruelty and malice he would see his creatures serving each other, not out of their strength and wellness, but out of their weakness and sickness. He would see his creatures love each other, not out of well-established security and control, but out of complete insecurity and uncertainty. He would have them care for one another, not out of being whole, but out of being broken. He would have them heal one another, not by being well, but by being sick together. He would have them give to one another, not out of their excess, but when they have nothing. He would have them show hospitality to strangers, not when they have room and resources, but when they are crowded and exhausted. He would have them love one another, not out of attraction, but unto senseless self-forgetting sacrifice. We all know this is his aim.

What we must incite and secure in this people then is something that will sound almost right to their ears (and, fortunately they will find many friends who will believe the same wisdom). We must teach them the lesson of sequence. They must come to believe that they must first care for themselves and only then can they serve each other and the world. The sequence is everything, everything altogether. It is for us to convince them that when they think only of themselves, when they secure their own life, when they shut themselves off from others, when they hide in their houses and rooms, when they withhold their gifts, their words of encouragement, their actions of help and service, when they do all these things it is for us to convince them that they must do this first, so that later they may be able to help others.

This is the glory of our Great Father’s plan: all of our enemy’s prized creatures will love and serve themselves, and do so thinking that it is just the preliminary step to loving and serving others. They will think, when they keep silent, when they stay in their rooms, when they do not give, when they do not answer, when they take care of themselves, that they are doing so out of the purest and most Christian intent: to be strong enough to be good and righteous. They must believe this, my dear colleague. They must be made to believe our glorious message of sequence. First they must care for themselves, then they can care for others. If they believe this beautiful piece of our propaganda all else will fall into place without a word. They will think of themselves as taking the first step toward sainthood, when in fact they have fallen into the never-ending service of the self. This, my sweet friend is our goal, hope, and destiny.

Never let them imagine that they can love when they are stressed, and tired, and angry. Never let them believe that they can serve and give themselves away without first being centered, whole, and put together. Let them always worry and suspect that if they give up their strength, give up their control, and give up their power, that they will be trampled underfoot, emptied out and left for dead. Always make them worry that complete and total self-giving will use them up and leave them empty and alone. Make them think that responsible, reasonable boundaries are healthy, good, and ultimately will make them better servants. We know the truth: that once we have them drawing boundaries, the boundary is all there is. Make them fear vulnerability above all else. Make them ashamed of their weakness, of all the ways they know they are pathetic, small, and unfinished. Make them believe — not wholly or on the surface even, just in some small dark corner of their heart, that’s all it takes — that they are unlovable in their frailty, weakness, twistedness, and brokenness. Make them believe that to be together they have to have it together. That they have pull themselves up and make something of themselves, that they must prove themselves, establish themselves, take care of themselves. They will think they are doing this so they can then, consequently be for others, but that is precisely our great device: for once we have them for themselves, their self is all they shall have.

And this, my dear colleague is our ultimate aim: that they should be consumed with their own selves, with their own health, security, and boundaries, all the while thinking it is for the greater glory of our Enemy. And this is most critical now at this time, my friend. Nothing could be worse in the coming year than if this despicable band of followers of the false way were to forget themselves, their health, their security, and boundaries and pour themselves out into one another and beyond. After all we have struck great victories in the last year among them and among their dear friends in Eugene, Forest Grove, and San Francisco. We have done well in sowing seeds of strife and division, we have inflicted losses and led some who were once faithful away into delusion and folly. We have even killed, when needed and will do so again. All we need now is for those that remain to close slowly, imperceptibly in on themselves. All we need is for them to believe that it will never be truly good again, that joy will always be far away and they must, therefore, take care of themselves a bit in order to go on. All we need is for them to believe that their own selves need to be cared for first. And then they will love and serve each other. That is where we will catch them, where we will drag them down into the prison of self.

Nothing could be worse for us this year — and let me impress on you the seriousness of this, my friend — than for this people to truly forget themselves and throw their lives away for the sake of their brothers and sisters, both among themselves and among the communities of their friends. All our work could be undone in an instant we we to let this happen. Before we knew it they might become bold, energized, and fearless, and it would seem to them the most ordinary thing in the world. All that stands between them and their vile Master’s aim for them is the prison of the self. In an instant, all the powers that powers that we have crafted and engrafted into them might suddenly be tossed aside like worthless rags and they might forget themselves in the love of each other, and in the love of any other that they might happen upon! And this cannot be allowed. We have invested too much work in sewing seeds of division and strife to allow them to forget themselves and throw themselves into life. It is your responsibility to make sure this does not happen. You will be held to account for this.

Well my sweet Barakiel, with these exhortations I must leave you. I believe your task has been made clear. Failure, as you know, will not be tolerated, but do not worry. We have every reason, from a human point of view, to expect your success. I must now turn to others matters. As usual the home office is buried in mountains of paperwork to which I must attend. You know your task. Get to it. I shall be in touch soon and I shall expect a full and satisfactory report.

 

I remain yours always, in the service of his dark majesty,

Malaphar, Denizen of Darkness and Strife

** So, obviously the format of this is a blatant rip off of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. I wrote this as part of an assignment in my congregation to try to describe a year of us living life together in a “miserly” or fundamentally “withholding” manner. This is what I somehow came up with. I don’t know really if it’s right (though I think a couple of the paragraphs are pretty ok). I post it for enjoyment, or you know, whatever. Stay tuned for the Malaphar Family Christmas Special.

 

God’s Fiction: A Sermon of Vulnerability (Luke 18:1-6)

Preached at Church of the Servant King, Portland (10/20/13)

Then Jesus told them a parable to show them they should always pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

 

Losing heart is shockingly easy. We are endlessly vulnerable in this world. We are made vulnerable by powers that rule over us, we are made vulnerable by the frailty of our bodies, by our own self-deceptions, by the weakness of our own hearts, by our loves, by our selfishness. No matter how we live, what we choose, how powerful or weak, how virtuous or corrupt, how saintly or sinful, we share one thing in common: we are endlessly vulnerable. We are not in control.

No matter who we are we are ultimately no more in control than a widow, a powerless, lonely, and bereft soul, who lives totally at the mercy of the powerful. At moments of clarity, true honesty, or crisis, I think this is clear to us. We know that we don’t have what it takes. That we don’t have some scratch from which to start. That at the end of the day we are not deciders, but people utterly vulnerable. Our illusions of competence and control may persist, sometimes for quite a while, but at any point they can, and do, and will come crashing down. At any turn we can be denied justice, life, or love, at any moment our hope may be swept aside by power, by rejection, by violence, by mere circumstance.

There is literally nothing in this world that makes more sense than losing heart. Every fact about this world, this age, this life points to it: we are vulnerable, we are hurting, we are weak, we are failing. Losing heart makes all the sense in the world. All the facts point to it. There is every reason for despair.

Despite the way the parable turns out, we have no reason to think that every widow’s persistence will get her some justice. People in this world die and fall to despair constantly while hoping, while longing, while crying out for justice. This is a fact. The facts of this age and its wisdom are all too clear and all too real. It is a fact that power rather than love rules this age. It is a fact that every risk of love we take may be and often is met with indifference and rejection. It is a fact that we may cry out for justice night and day and hear nothing but the cold emptiness of a tomb. It is a fact that we are vulnerable, that we don’t have a way out, that we can’t fix it. It is a fact that we may long to be transformed and work, day and night at it, and still find ourselves in the exact same struggle. It is a fact that our loneliness may be met with nothing but more loneliness. All of these things are facts. These are the facts of this age. Look around and you will see them. They are all around us. They are wielding power over us from above and they wielding power in our hearts.

When Jesus tells us “Won’t God give justice to his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? I tell you he will give them just justice speedily.” We have to reckon with the fact that this sure doesn’t seem true. Every fact I can see is against it. To be sure we could skirt around the severity of this by theological abstractions (“With the Lord a thousand years is as one day” and so forth), but to do so is to engage in the world kind of religious dishonesty. A kind of pharisaical fantasy in which we whitewash tombs and ignore the corpses inside. A kind of blindness to the fact that the forgotten martyrs cry out always “How long, O Lord?”

The truth is that I don’t know if God will really answer me if I cry out to him day and night. The truth is that I don’t know if my failures will be transformed into new life, if my loneliness will be transformed into love and being loved, if my sin will be transformed into holiness, if my death will be transformed into resurrection. I don’t know any of these things, and all the facts, every last one of them stands against them.

Against the whole world of facts, evidence, and settled certainty Jesus claims “I tell you God will indeed give you justice speedily.” Against the whole world of the obvious, the undeniable, John the Revelator claims “Surely he is coming soon!” Against the whole world of facts and circumstance the prophet Jeremiah claims “The days are surely coming.” Against against every fact of this world we are met with a Word that promises something completely counterfactual, something that by any realistic account can be regarded only as some sort of imaginary fiction.

This what the poetic, prophetic word that Jesus and the prophets proclaim, this is what the word I stammer and sputter to you today proclaims. It proclaims something that has no basis in the facts. There is no reason, based on the facts, to believe this word. “The poetic/prophetic utterance runs great risk. It runs the risk of being heard as fantasy and falsehood” (Bruegemann, Finally Comes the Poet, 5).

Against the facts of this world, and they really, truly are facts, there is another word that breaks in on the scene. An imaginative word that speaks of things that are completely baseless. A word that perhaps really can only be described as some sort of fantasy of the imagination, a fiction. And perhaps this is not a thing for us to fear or shy away from.

“The notion of fiction . . . is not so precarious or easily dismissed as we might imagine. It is precisely the daring work of fiction to probe beyond settled truth and to walk the edge of alternatives not yet available to us. It is this probe behind our settlements that makes newness possible. . . . The poet/prophet . . . does not flinch from ‘fiction,’ for the alternative envisioned in such speech is a proposal that destabilizes all our settled ‘facts,’ and opens the way for transformation and the gift of newness. . . . a ‘fiction’ drives us beyond known truth. From the great narratives of Israel to the prophetic poems to the testimony of the early Christians, the singers and storytellers spoke dangerously about dangerous matters, about new possibilities. The settled, entrenched, and certain heard only fiction, but it was a ‘fiction’ more powerful than facts” (Bruegemann, 5-6).

This, brothers and sisters is why we are here. This is why in the midst of all my failures and sins, in the midst of my uncertainty and loneliness, in the midst of my selfishness and my sorrow I am here, saying these things. I am here, you are here, we are here, because of God’s fiction that he has told about us. We are here in spite of all the facts because we have heard, tasted, even here and there perhaps we have seen, a fiction that is truer than the facts of power and certainty and fear and loneliness and death. We have heard a fiction that is fragile, vulnerable, and uncertain just like us. We have heard a fiction that in all its fragility, all its uncertainty, all its vulnerability, all its insecurity, awakens a senseless foolish hope.

I am here today about as unfinished and uncertain and vulnerable as I have ever been. But I am hear to today to say, to myself and to you that though I know the facts really are against me, against us, and against everyone, that I believe in the fictions of of God in defiance of every human fact. I am here because God has told a fiction about me. Because God has told a fiction about you. Because God has told a fiction about us. Because God has told a fiction about this world.

In this fiction death is being swallowed up by life. In this fiction neither height nor depth nor any fact in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God. In this fiction God will surely hear us when we cry out and come speedily to help us. In this fiction we truly will never be left alone. In this fiction our deepest most long-standing failures will be transformed into something greater than we could ask or imagine. In this fiction our loneliness and uncertainty will be met by love. In this fiction the days really are surely coming. In this fiction graves will burst open and the dead will live again. In this fiction no fact counts for anything, the only thing that counts is a new creation.

And so I invite you, I beg you, I call on you to hear, remember, and believe, against all the facts that God has told a fiction about this world. That God has told a fiction about us. That God has told a fiction about you. That God has told a fiction about me. I call on you to believe this again with me, to help me believe it too. To help me live it too. To help me pray and not lose heart when the facts about this world drive me despair. When the facts seem like the last and final word, I call on you to remember and to help me remember that God has told a fiction about this world. That God has told a fiction about us. That God has told a fiction about you. That God has told a fiction about me.

Believe that with me today. Proclaim that with me today. Believe that for me today. Proclaim that for me today. I have wagered my life on this fiction. We all have. That is why we’re here. But the facts of this world are damn powerful. And they seem damn true. Today the facts of the world seem really damn true. I need you brothers and sisters. I need you to help me believe again and and anew in the fictions God has told about us and promised us. That in the face of all the evidence, all the facts, that life is coming for us, that love is coming for us.

This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The fictions of God are truer than than the facts of men.

Use Mammon: A sermon of freedom (Luke 16:1-17)

Preached at Church of the Servant King in Portland, Oregon.

As with many of Jesus’s parables, this one sounds utterly strange to our twenty-first century ears. Here we have, seemingly, the story of an utterly corrupt middle management employee. He is embezzling from his employer, gets caught, and in a last-ditch effort to avoid becoming utterly destitute, he further defrauds his employer in order to make some friends who will take him in when he gets fired.

And yet, explicitly, Jesus holds up this pattern of behavior to his audience as a pattern to follow: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out you will be welcomed into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9 NET). Our middle class, financially responsible thoughts turn immediately to questions of how this sort of financial dishonesty could possibly be right, of how on earth Jesus could be saying what he seems to be saying here, namely that in God’s eyes it is righteous to deal with money and employers dishonestly and fraudulently if you do so in such a way as to . . . make friends?

Of course, part of the problem here is precisely our twenty-first century eyes—though that is by no means the whole problem. Let’s start out with a contextual point: the employer in this parable is identified by the dubious moniker “a rich man.” The most cursory reading of Jesus’s parables will reveal rather quickly that whenever a character is identified as “a rich man” in these stories, they tend not to come off so well. The most immediate and dramatic example is provided for us in the very same chapter, which is the story of “a rich man” and Lazarus. The rich man here, very possibly the same exact rich man, mind you, given how closely these stories are linked, ends up burning in eternal torment due to his refusal to care for the poor man Lazarus.

This, I think should caution us against reading this parable as if the employer should be viewed as the victim in the story. And perhaps it also bears being said that our own instinct to immediately view a wealthy employer as a potential protagonist and victim in a story says more about us and our attitudes towards money than anything else.

Another point that is important to make here is a historical one. One of the very serious realities of peasant life in Palestine at the time of Jesus was the phenomenon of absentee landlords who charged their sharecroppers exorbitant rent to work their land, sometimes up to half of their total crops. This of course was on top of the taxes collected by Herod for the Roman rulers. And all of this was administered by managers such as the one in our story who, as the collectors, tended to further defraud the tenants of the land by charging them even more and keeping it for themselves. All of this would have been intimately familiar to Jesus’s audience.

So then, heard in this context, a different reading of the parable begins to emerge. The dishonest manager here is found out by his employer; he is skimming off the top of what the absentee landlord is ruthlessly trying to collect for himself from his impoverished tenants. Having been thus found out, and facing the end of his position and resources, the manager decides not to take his master’s impoverished tenants down with him and instead charges them the proper amount for what they actually owed from their crops, rather than the grossly inflated numbers that they were being charged by the landowner, and himself (for more in this see John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, 67-69).

Faced with the loss of his own position and security he chooses to use what last resources he has within the monetary system of his day to make peace with those he had formerly exploited in the hopes of making them into friends on whom he can rely for help. And this is precisely what Jesus praises as the proper use of mammon, of unrighteous wealth. Use it to make friends, Jesus says. And somehow, this is what Jesus holds up as faithfulness:“The one who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and the one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you haven’t been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches?” (Luke 16:10, 11 NET).

In a way that is profoundly out of step with our natural western middle class instincts, Jesus speaks of the world’s money as a “very little” item and describes the shape of being faithful with it as using it to make friends, to bring about fellowship, to turn enemies into friends. He seems to care nothing at all about whether those in power are getting the return on their investment that they “deserve.” Rather he brushes aside the whole system of financial responsibility that enriches the powerful and impoverishes the weak, and claims that for his followers, the faithful use of mammon lies in using it to make friends, and especially to make friends with those we may have neglected or exploited.

But this story is about even more than that. It is a story that is fundamentally about the shape of God’s own kingdom economy, of salvation itself: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by how you use worldly wealth, so that when it runs out you will be welcomed into the eternal homes” (Luke 16:9 NET). This call to forsake serving money, and the whole system of “financial responsibility” built around it—all of which is predicated on exploiting the poor—is not just about justice, but about salvation. It is not just about making friends, making peace with others so that we may have our physical needs met, not merely so that when the money runs out we can have a home to take us in, but also somehow that in, with, and under all this lies our very welcome into “the eternal homes,” into God’s kingdom itself (cf. 16:16).

What we are seeing here in the story of the clever manager is the story of grace itself unfolding. Grace unfolds, at least to those of us in positions of power and self-sufficiency, precisely as the event of our power begin brought to an end in weakness. True salvation, true faithfulness is revealed, not as the “responsible” management of the world’s resources within the world’s system, but as being brought out of that system altogether and being welcomed, precisely by one’s former victims into “the eternal homes.”

Grace here does not produce well-adjusted, responsible members of the social and political order of this present evil age. Grace instead brings our collusion with money and power to an end so that we may gain true riches, the true and holy wealth: friendship, hospitality, reconciliation between victims and victimizers.

Make no mistake about it, the story of grace unfolding is not a story of heroes. The clever manager is not virtuous in any way. He, like all of us has found a way to comfortably exist within the systems of domination and power that rule this present evil age. As far as we know from the story he doesn’t have a crisis of conscience and decide to do the right thing, he doesn’t have some revelation of how wrong his behavior has been, or anything like that. Rather his collusion with money and power simply runs it’s course. The illusion of control he had over his life melts away when his schemes and maneuvers are found out. He has no virtue, no moral fiber, nothing in himself that makes him a worthy candidate for salvation or even survival. The only thing that happens to him is that he runs of out power. He loses his handle on his life. Suddenly his standing in the world of calculation and control, power and profits, supply and demand has run out. The only thing going for him, the only thing that makes him a candidate for salvation is that his power has been brought to an end in weakness.

And this is precisely why this parable continues to proclaim the gospel to us. To us who instinctively side with precisely the wrong character in the story, who all too easily think that faithfulness means fitting in smoothly and functionally in the world’s system of money and power. The gospel message to us here is much the same as it was to Jesus’s original audience. Namely that we are always already caught up in the world’s power, in the illusion that we can grab hold of our lives and steer them, if we just manage to get hold of the right resources, if we just have enough money and power to secure our future. But the good news is that this isn’t true. That the “very little” that is mammon is going to run out. That our attempts to have power through the world’s system are going to fail. That our power is indeed going to be brought to an end in weakness whether we like it or not. And there, precisely there is where our salvation will begin. As we learn, by God’s grace, again and again the truth that “what is highly prized among men is utterly detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16:15 NET).

This, truly is the good news to us again and again, that we will be saved, not because we are worthy candidates for salvation. Not because we are responsible, effective, competent, or have any ability in ourselves to be faithful. But rather simply because our attempts to make something of ourselves, to secure our lives by the power of mammon and control are doomed to fail. Our power will be brought to an end in weakness. And it is there, at the end of our power that we may begin anew, by disregarding the world’s system of money and power. We may simply let go of the slavery that trying to secure our lives has locked us into, and start using these petty things like money for making friends, for making peace, for forming new relationships. And the good news is that precisely there, precisely where the world’s power, the world’s money no longer holds sway, that is where we are, all of us, being welcomed into the eternal homes, the very kingdom of God which is coming upon us.

No Escape: A Short Sermon

(Preached in trust and great weakness at COSK Portland, on Psalm 139)

The heart of the gospel is God. At the center of our proclamation, at the center of our life together, at the rock-bottom core of each and every one of us lies God. What we have to proclaim is God. Why do we keep getting up every day and striving to live this life in the midst of all our brokenness, all our wounds, all our failures, all our arrogance? There is only one reason. It is only because of God. God is why. We do not have ourselves, our accomplishments, our holiness, our religion, even our bits of faithfulness to proclaim. What we are given to proclaim is God and God alone.

The Psalmist today speaks of God. He speaks of the God who was and is and will always be with us. This is a God who searches us out and knows us. Wherever we are and whatever we are doing, this God finds us out and never lets us go. This song of praise does not know or speak of a distant omnipotent ruler, a divine lawgiver, or a supreme abstract being. This song is concerned with a God who is fundamentally present. This God is right there in the thick of life and uncertainty, sorrows, dangers, and sin. The God of the Gospel surrounds us, touches us, is there with us wherever we are.

Where can I go to escape? That is the Psalmist’s question. From the heights of heaven to the depths of death, there is no escaping this God.

This is the God of the gospel. The God from whom we have no escape. We will not escape God. God has found us, and if we have been found, we have been redeemed; and if redeemed, loved; and if loved, never abandoned. The good news is that there is no escape. That there is no darkness in this world or in the deepest recesses of our own sin and failure that could hide us away from God. None of our darkness could ever be dark enough to hide us away from God. There is no darkness in you, there is no darkness in me that will shield us from God. God cannot be kept out by darkness, even the darkness from which we see no escape and in which we cannot even find a way to hope. This darkness is not dark enough. The world’s darkness is not dark enough. Your darkness is not dark enough. My darkness is not dark enough.

This is the great wonder of the gospel! That our darkness is not dark enough to keep out God. That wherever we attempt to escape to, God is already there waiting for us, already there welcoming us home. Already there watching us, searching us out, encircling us on all sides. When are sinking down into depths we cannot imagine being freed from, God is already there raising us up. When we are sitting under the weight of unknowing, of uncertainty and anxiety, God is already there, speaking peace to us. When we don’t even know how to start, how to get back up from failure after failure, God is already there, bringing resurrection.

This is truly the scandal, truly the glory of the gospel of God, and how difficult indeed it is to fathom! How vast indeed is the sum of God’s glory, wisdom, and inescapable love! That regardless of the world’s darkness, regardless of your darkness, regardless of my darkness, failures, and complete and total inability to ever have what it takes, to ever have a chance of making it through, of ever getting it right, that God really, truly is already there. That there really is no escape. That this is true not just in a grand cosmic and theological sense, that it is not just something that will come true at the end of history or when we die, but that this is really true now, in your case, and in my case, that God really is already here. That God really will never give up on us. That God really will never give on you. that God really will never give up on me. That we really never will find a place to escape from God, that, no matter how much evidence seems so glaringly to refute it, that it is true that God really will have his way with us. That God really will have his way with you. That God really will have his way with me. That this good news is really true, here and now for you and for me.

 

 

Already Overtaken: A Sermon on Luke 11

(Preached at Church of the Sojourners in San Francisco)

One cannot honestly read the gospels, and especially this particular gospel story without discovering Jesus as one who fundamentally interrupts the world. Jesus springs onto the scene, seemingly in every story and vignette, with a rigid and brazen starkness. He speaks of things in a manner that is so bright, so alarmingly clear, that it seems almost too harsh, or perhaps insane.

Jesus speaks as one who proclaims and embodies something completely and utterly different from what came before him. He does not speak as a wise teacher alongside other teachers, or even as a prophet among other prophets. He speaks rather as one who has come to break the world as it is wide open, he speaks as one who is here to set fire to everything that “is”, as one who has come to tear down everything the world knows, understands, and relies upon. Jesus speaks to his hearers, and to us, as one who forces us into a position of decision. There can be no casual debating, no informal philosophizing about Jesus’s claims. Jesus speaks to us as one who divides, who forces a division among those who hear him. In the face of Jesus’s words he will either be heard as a raving and dangerous agitator, some sort of addled terrorist proclaiming and seeking a dark and terrible anarchy; or he will be heard as the sheer and stark voice of God himself, as the bringer of a revolutionary new kingdom, a never-imagined new humanity, an utterly unexpected and unprecedented new creation.

Jesus really permits us no other way of approaching him if we are willing to really listen to him. He will not allow himself any admirers or any respectful debating partners. For Jesus “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23 NET). Jesus leaves us no middle ground—since his purpose is to break the foundations open so that a new world may break into all that is—we must be either for or against him. We may divide, scatter, rob, and murder with the powers of Satan, or gather, receive, hear, repent, and give with Jesus. With Jesus there is no both-and, it is either-or all the way down.

Jesus does not levy this either-or, this “for or against” ultimatum because he is some kind of ego maniac. He does not present himself as this stumbling block, this fundamental dividing point because he thinks he is so inestimably important, special, or glorious in himself. No, what is so vital, so fundamental, so utterly singular about Jesus is what he proclaims and embodies, what he pours forth into the world, that is, the kingdom of God. The reason all of this is so important, so fundamental, so all or nothing, such an either-or is because it concerned with the collision of God’s liberating rule, God’s absolute commitment to set all creation free from the powers of slavery, sin, and death.

Jesus speaks here with such force, such severity, such anger and rage precisely because that is how seriously God takes the redemption and making new of this broken and enslaved world. This is so serious because that is how serious God is about making human beings free. God, revealed here in Jesus, will allow no middle ground, will tolerate no half-measures when it comes to the liberation of each and every human person. This is not a realm where one might debate opinions, views, or perspectives, it is rather the point of collision between two kingdoms, and at this point, we are all, each and every one of us, serving either one or the other.

For this is truly the force of Jesus’s claim that “But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you” (Luke 11:20 NET). He speaks not of an idea, a new truth, or even of a call to begin a movement, but rather of a reality that is already breaking in on us, of a freedom that has already overtaken us, taken us by surprised, jumped right into our life out of nowhere. Jesus speaks of the fact that God’s liberating invasion of the world, that the coming of the Holy Spirit to to make all things new has already started happening.

Jesus speaks here of the complete upending of the moral, social, and religious universe of his hearers. He speaks of something so revolutionary, so singular that it may render the things we thought of as truth, as light, as in fact, being nothing more than our own darkness. So many things, so seemingly innocuous and innocent are blown off their hinges by the kingdom that Jesus claims has already overtaken us: simply wanting certainty (a sign, v. 29), wanted to be honored and respected (v. 42-42), and being clean and pure according to human standards (v. 37ff). All these things that, from a merely human perspective seem, at least understandable, and certainly natural, are declared to be the works of Satan and his kingdom.

All the trappings of normal human religion and righteousness are cast aside by Jesus in light of the kingdom that has already overtaken us. Certainty, secure identity, respect, purity, power, control, all these things are swept aside, along with the works that follow from them: neglect of love, of justice, placing burdens on others, not easing the burdens of others, withholding knowledge of the truth, hindering others from entering into freedom. These are the marks of Satan’s kingdom, the false kingdom that has now, in Jesus overtaken us already.

How then do we live in this new kingdom that has suddenly overtaken us? At the point of most intense conflict between the powers of death and the invading kingdom of life, what does Jesus call for? While we might expect calls to great feats of virtue, valor, resolve, and heroic sacrifice—ideas that, all too often stem for us still from the old kingdom that has been overtaken—we see something different here in Jesus’s call. The words that Jesus commands are striking in their simplicity, in their smallness and complete unspecialness: Ask, Search, Knock, Hear, Obey, Repent, Listen (9-10, 28, 31). What Jesus calls forth is not skill, not ability, not accomplishment, but simply openness, simply receiving the life that is coming and not hindering others from receiving it (cf. v. 52).

What is so striking about all of this is how much it turns on trust. To ask, to seek, to knock, to keep asking, to keep seeking, to keep knocking, to continue to knock. To knock on the door to the point of exhaustion, to knock on the door even when that door is the door of a tomb. To do this requires, fundamentally, trust. To ask, to seek, to knock, to repent, to reject things as natural as being honored, respected, and in control of one’s life. To do this requires trust of the most radical sort. It requires trust that out of darkness we are indeed to see light. That out of the fullness of loss and being lost that we have been, are being, will be utterly found. That out of the silence we will hear and be heard. That out of deserts and dust will flow streams and rivers. That among all the imprisoned, all the enslaved, in the life of everyone forgotten and cast aside, that liberation will come shattering in. That in the cold reaches of tombs and crypts, in the company of corpses and carcasses, an inexplicable and impossible life will break forth. It means trusting that death itself will be swallowed up by life.

This sort of trust is a strange, daunting, and finally, a foolish thing. This sort of trust would have us believe that a Jewish peasant, forsaken by his followers, crucified and dead in a tomb is in fact the strong man, tearing down Satan’s kingdom and making this whole world new. This sort of trust would have is believe, in the face of insurmountable and unhealable divisions that nothing shall ever separate us.

And yet, in the face of this call, to a seemingly impossible and idiotic trust, Jesus speaks a different word: “How much more?” If we who are still so often in the grasp of the present evil age would still not give snakes for fish and stones for bread, how much more will God give us the Holy Spirit? How much more, beyond all we could ever ask or expect will God bring new grace and freedom to us in the very midst of our own slaveries and pathologies? How much more will God shower us with resurrection in the very midst of the million little deaths we choose every day?

The different word that Jesus speaks to us, right at the very moment when the call to trust in him, in the kingdom, and in hope seems the most foolish, is one of this audacious excess, this divine assurance that not only can we trust this foolish word, not only can we rely on what, humanly speaking is utterly impossible, not only can we endure and make it through—not only all this, which is miraculous enough!—but further, “How much more?” This is the same word that Paul spoke when declaring “But the gracious gift is not like the transgression. For if the many died through the transgression of the one man, how much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one man Jesus Christ multiply to the many! And the gift is not like the one who sinned. For judgment, resulting from the one transgression, led to condemnation, but the gracious gift from the many failures led to justification. For if, by the transgression of the one man, death reigned through the one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one, Jesus Christ!” (Romans 5:15-17 NET).

This, truly is the greatest, most surprising and glorious truth of it all. Beyond all that daunts us, all that continues to enslave us and pull us back, we are given, not certainty, not security, and certainly not power. But neither are we given mere endurance, mere survival. In the face of all the powers of the false and fading kingdom of Satan we have already been overtaken by a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The kingdom of God has already overtaken us, brothers and sisters. We have been made new ever and again, in the depths of all that the old kingdom could throw at us. We have been found when we were lost beyond any finding. In the midst of all our failures and in the throws of our unhealable divisions, nothing shall ever separate us.

We have already been overtaken by the kingdom, my friends. Who among us here has not been overtaken by grace precisely when we lay face down in the furthest depths? Who among us here has not suddenly found themselves snatched into resurrection from the fullness of death and despair?

How much more have we received from God than we could ever have expected? How much more? In all the fragility and uncertainty of our lives, in all the brokenness, sorrow, and guilt of our lives, in all the slaveries, pathologies, and deaths of our lives, how much more will God shower us with life? For this is precisely where these two colliding kingdoms fundamentally differ: the old kingdom, the false reality of this present evil age that is passing away, this kingdom can only contract. Satan’s kingdom can only grow ever smaller as it shuts down possibilities, forecloses on lives and hopes. This kingdom grows ever smaller as again and again it’s fundamental uncreativeness manifests itself: the old kingdom has only one power, death. And death is nothing but limitation, closing down, shutting off.

The power of the new creation however has no such limits. Indeed it picks up precisely where the old kingdom lies exhausted and impotent. The free gift truly is not like the transgression, brothers and sisters, no! It is not like it! Where sin, death, slavery, loss, guilt, pain, sorrow, tears, separation, abandonment abound; precisely there does life, grace, forgiveness, life, reconciliation, embrace, gift, and resurrection abound much more! This is the word of the gospel, the word of the one who comes to us, starkly, severely, with utter seriousness, saying that there are only two kingdoms and you must serve one of them.

But, the great news brothers and sisters, the “ever-so-much-more” of grace is this: the kingdom of God has already overtaken you! There is no depth to which we may sink, no sin which we might commit, no loss we might suffer that can snatch us out of this new creation that has already overtaken us. And because we have truly, undeniably been overtaken by this kingdom of freedom, life, love, and healing, we are left, not wondering how we might manage to trust, but rather in wonder at how much more God has yet to give. For this is the God who has already overtaken us in Jesus, the God who descends into the furthest reaches of our depths, who dies our death, and shakes us into an indestructible life. Wherever we find ourselves, let us go forward together knowing this, that there is nowhere we might go where this new kingdom, this new creation, this new world has not already overtaken us.

And if we have been overtaken we have been found; and if found, redeemed; and if redeemed, loved. And it is this love from which nothing shall ever separate us. Brothers and sisters, we have been overtaken, and there is nothing, literally nothing in all of creation that could hold us back from going on together in love. The strongman has been bound, the stone has been rolled away, death is swallowed up in victory. So let us then, with reckless abandon, go forward together. Let us ask, search, knock, hear, repent, and rejoice together. For we have been overtaken already, and nothing, nothing shall ever separate us.

The Truth about Love: A Resurrection Sermon

And now, after the end, now at the beginning, will shall speak, yet again of Love. Love eludes us. Only slightly more frequently and more intensely does love seize us, make us love’s own in the very moment when we find ourselves most lethargic, most unable to take another step. At the moment when we know nothing of love, love owns us, makes us transparent to the actions and call of love.

Love is implacable. It will be satisfied with nothing other than the complete consumption of our whole self, indeed of the very notion of self. Love cares not for our self-thought, cares not for our constant introspection. Love is movement, the movement that happens precisely as our bitterness, anger, sorrow, and rage seem to consume every fiber of our being. Love is the short-circuit that somehow breaks through, somehow catches hold when every element of our feelings are captive entirely to hate, cynicism, rage, futility, tears.

Love brings us to our knees, draws forth our hands, making them to reach out in both supplication, and in service, precisely at the moment when all that we are clenches our fists. Love brings us to tears when our eyes have never been more tightly shut. Love is an openness that flows nonsensically, from a frozen, cold, dead, unopenable heart.

Love is slavery. A slavery more mysterious, more nonsensical than any we have known till now. It is the slavery of joy, a joy that persists in the face of all sorrow. It is not taught. It cannot be learned. The slavery of love cannot be bought, obtained, trained for, or made real by any power or process we could devise. One never knows it until it happens, until it takes hold. When suddenly, in a moment that calls for nothing other than wisdom, for measured, well-thought out decision-making, there isn’t even the faintest hint of a decision to be made. In that moment all that stands before us is the inevitability of the call of love. The call that can only call forth in us the response of obedience: “Here am I! Send me!”

Love is freedom. It is a freedom that persists in the midst of grief. It is a liberation that persists, dwells, never forsakes those who suffer at the hands of its call. Love is the liberation of the traumatized, the forsaken, the forgotten. But more than that love is the liberation from our petty dramas unto a life of self-abandonment. It is a freedom that breaks every fetter, save for the fetter that it, itself is. It makes all else irrelevant, inconsequential, utterly bereft of power. The freedom of love is the freedom from being held back, even by one’s most deep-seated pathologies, sins, violences, lies, and dysfunctions. The freedom of love is liberation unto gift, mission, shouts of praise—amidst the fullness of lament, protest, rage, and yearning that this world might give way to the coming Kingdom.

Love is desperation. Love screams for the consummation of its promises. Love never ossifies. Love calls forth, unceasingly. Love demands that love alone remain. Love cannot be contained, cannot be limited, cannot be reasonably dispensed, cannot be orderly. Love, being love, can do nothing other than demand, proclaim, and scream for its sovereignty, its victory, its fullness.

Love is hope. Love believes a future when the foundations crumble and explode all around us. Love believes a future when we sit in dust and ashes. Love screams against any resignation that would see our present distress as the final word. Love is a senseless, stupid hope, a hope against hope that there yet is another Word, a dawning Kingdom, a New Creation, a making right that is coming, and that cannot be stopped.

Love is boldness. It is a boldness that remains in the face of insurmountable fatigue. It is that small, imperceptible movement, that unnoticeable gesture of a hand, raising itself in protest against death. It is a resolve that remains when all reasons for hope have vanished from memory and thought. Love believes all things.

Love suffers. Love that does not suffer is no love at all. Suffering is the mark of true love. All love that seeks to hold itself back from suffering is the most repulsive of lies, the most abominable of counterfeits. No, love is only as it places itself in the path of pain, only as it abandons its safety, its desires, its rights, its reasonable requests, it’s hopes for satisfaction, for respite, for being cared for in return. Love is love when all these things melt away in the sheer gravity of Love’s imperative. Love is love when it suffers freely, asking nothing in return, save only to be remembered.

Love dies. Power triumphs over love. Love is trampled underfoot. It is the destiny of love to be defeated. Love is love precisely in that it gives itself over to defeat rather than dominate another. Love that refuses death has nothing to do with love. Love comes to an end because its gaze always lies outside itself. Love cannot secure its own survival, indeed, love is nothing less than the rejection of survival as a thing to be pursued. Loved only pursues the other. Love lives only for them.

Love rises. Love triumphs over death, over power, over reason, over fairness, over hate, over nature, over logic. The love that suffers, the love that dies, that very love has complete victory. Love is the movement from an unimaginable, extinguished future to a confidence that nothing shall ever separate us. Love is resurrection. It is the cry for resurrection and the coming of resurrection. It is death and life, abandonment and salvation.

Love will never leave us alive. Love will kill us. To love is to die. To love is to lose. To love is to weep, scream, and yearn for a victory that we can never own, never produce, never anticipate. To love is to give ourselves up to death.

Love will leave no one among the dead. Love will not finish its work until death itself is defeated. Love is death’s death. To love is to rise. To love is to have nothing, yet possess everything. To love is to have one’s tears wiped away, to shout for joy, to rejoice in a victory that we never owned, did not produce, and did not anticipate. To love is to be caught up, inexplicably in an indestructible life.
To love is to die alone, forsaken by God and humans alike. To love is to be resurrected into a life beyond anything we could ask or think. To love is to share the ambiguity, suffering, death, and future of Jesus of Nazareth.

Love is never something we do, never a practice we perform, never a thing we learn, never a craft in which we become proficient. Love is an inexplicable, unconscionable, and immoral grace that we learn only by undergoing it. Love is what God does to us, for us, with us, in us, and on our behalf. Love is God’s robbing us over ourselves, our sin, our power, our narratives of success, of victimhood, of all forms of self-seeking.

Love is the suffering of God. Love is the power that lies beyond all powers. It is the power of God to abandon everything for the sake of the worthless, the rebellious, the sinners, the unclean. Love is God’s refusal to let go of even one of us wayward creatures. Love is what God puts Godself through so that we might never be separated from God.

Love finds us. The only thing more true than love’s elusiveness is its coming to us in power. We are those who have been seized be love. In spite of ourselves—and really, really, it is in spite of ourselves—we have been found by love. Oh how love could be dismissed as foolishness had it not so surely found us! Had it not stormed forth from the tomb, wounds and all and gone ahead of us to Galilee! How easy it would be to brush it off and move one with real life had we not been found, been seized, been transfigured, been redeemed, been unforgettably loved, and loved yet again! How easy it would have been!

But such easy paths are no longer possible for us. Something far more difficult, and infinitely more wonderful has happened to us. We have been found by love. Our bloodlines have been redrawn by the coming of Love. Our flesh, our bodies have been claimed by the fire of an unquenchable love. We are left in the wilderness of love. We are left clinging to each other as the death continues to rise up in our sinews and souls. We weep together, we bleed together, we die together, we live together, we laugh together, we sing together, we shout together. We are together. And this is the work of love. And this love will triumph, for in Jesus, it has.

Hope Entombed, Hope Unleashed: A Holy Saturday Sermon

And so we will speak further of the journey of Love. We have spoken already of many things, of the refusal of Love to accomplish its ends through power (Palm Sunday); of how Love refuses to come to us, even in our moments of darkest betrayal as anything other than a servant (Maundy Thursday); we have spoken finally of how the world and all its forms of power, of life, of order, righteousness and justice must finally treat the coming of Love (Good Friday). The Love that makes no distinctions between the righteous and the wicked, the Love that washes feet, that weeps, that cries out, the Love that proclaims the justification of the ungodly, the unholy, the lost, the forsaken, this Love must be destroyed.

One cannot be a friend of emperors, governors, and high priests and allow this Jesus to live. If one wants to live, to thrive, to have hope and a future, one must cast this Jesus out of the world. “We push God out of the world and onto the cross” (Bonhoeffer). At last the world has had it’s way, at last this insurrectionist, this agitator, this wandering crazy has been put in his proper place: among the dead. Here then is the end of Love’s journey: to be among the dead, to find no place among the living, the speaking, the healthy, the wise, the established. To love with the love of Jesus is to find one’s end among the refuse, the carcasses, the silent corpses. It is to find oneself entombed, securely locked out of the world of light and life.

And yet, even as words fail us and fall silent in the face of the cold tomb of Jesus we find that while we may be out of words, we have not yet ceased to hear the echoes. We have been brought to silence, our lips have fallen mute, and yet even now the gravity of Love remains, abides. We find ourselves drawn, even to his corpse.

We find ourselves occupying a non-space, a place we do not know, a place without foundations, a “middle” of remaining in the abyss of trauma, of the unresolved and unresolveable, a yearning, a hoping that cries out, not for survival, or persistence, but for radical newness. Inhabiting the nullpoint, the zone of death, the Holy Saturday moment cannot create a stable place for us, it does not give us answers or assurances, but rather names movement-in-remaining-together, an abiding that looks beyond itself, a remaining that remains only as it yearns. To remain without yearning, without really and truly yearning—not in a metaphysical, but in a profoundly historical, existential, and fundamentally personal sense—is to be ossified, immobilized, left merely to spin for ourselves spiritual forms of propaganda that might satiate our despair. To yearn for the new is not to deny or seek for some sort of escape from the depths, it is rather to cry out for every depth to be lifted up, and likewise for every high place to be made level. Indeed, can we not only inhabit the depths, the day of silence, the Holy Saturday moment in the mode of yearning? Is it not that yearning that alone establishes this space as something that can be meaningfully called a “middle” rather than un ultimate and final ending? And seen thusly the very naming of these depths as a “middle” speaks of the ultimate act faith, an act of utterly audacious hope. It dares to name what, by all accounts is an irrevocable end as something else, as a space into which the new may irrupt in as yet unimagined forms. To speak of “remaining” in the “middle” in the “depths” is to speak of a very odd kind of remaining indeed. It is to speak of a remaining that can never be satisfied with cheap answers, with mere perdurance, mere survival. It is to speak of a remaining that remains precisely as a mode of lived hope that can only appear in this world of death as utter foolishness. And yet it is only such foolishness that can truly, patiently, for the long haul, remain.

To remain, to abide in this mode, this mode of apocalyptic yearning, is to remain unsettled, to remain ever ready for action and for new calls to action, risk, and suffering. It is to continue to hope even when one does not know how to draw breath for the next moment, when one cannot bear the thought of enduring another day. It is to know an unshakeable love, only known as such because, in being utterly bereft, so utterly broken, so utterly hapless before the burdens of the this life, we find ourselves unable to turn away from those we find ourselves remaining alongside. To remain in yearning is to somehow find oneself acting in faith, somehow believing for inarticulable reasons (with sighs too deep for words) that the suffering of these dark days, weeks, and years is somehow not the harbingers of an end—even though it appears to us as nothing but end, termination, finishing, failure—but rather the last futile struggles of defeated death, somehow promised to be transformed into life.

Remaining, abiding, here names not a mode of resignation, not a struggle for survival, but rather the constant state of finding oneself bizarrely sustained in the midst of death. We remain, not because there is a way to make it through, but because, precisely having no ability, no potentiality, no hope of ever making it out, we yearn. And we yearn with a yearning that somehow, again, inarticulably, can only be if it is met. This meeting, eludes our grasp and denies us any stable possession of it. If it comes to us it will come as life, as promise, as hope, as transfiguration, and yet, in the end all we can say for sure is that it must come to us. This, this grace, must meet us. And it is in hope this meeting, this inability to deny that even before the tomb of Jesus, we still yet yearn, with wordless cries, we still,yet cry out for the coming of a Kingdom. Bringing the balms and ointments for our Lord’s corpse, we still yet come yearning. We come, knowing that we have been met with something, with something beyond all that we could ever ask or think, it is this stumbling block, this foolishness, this Love that has ended in death and silence, that impels us on, that calls us to remain, to abide in the shadow of death, and somehow, idiotically, to hope and work for new life.

And as we come, silently, inexplicably, to the tomb of Jesus we are confronted with the full breadth, the horrifying weight of what must be if our yearning were to be met with new life. The Love that loves unto death, has died, lies cold and alone in the depths of the dead. If then this Love were to somehow have victory, if somehow, even among and with the dead this Love might live, what then would that mean? It would mean that all our visions and imaginings had been too small, utterly blind and off kilter. It would mean that liberation from oppression, conversion, repentance, forgiveness of sins, that none of this is enough. That all this was but the beginnings of the true and final revolution. If the corpse of Jesus were to live it would mean nothing less than the dissolution of all that is. It would mean that nothing of this world can be fixed, that it all must pass away and be transfigured by something utterly new, wholly new, something beyond imagination and thought must come to us from God. If there is to be any hope on Holy Saturday it cannot be a reduced, measured or realistic hope. It is all such responsible hopes that are crucified and buried with Jesus. The only hope left to us is the irrational mindless hope that looks for something inconceivable. The hope that yearns before the tomb of Jesus can only be a hope for everything that is to be made nothing, it would be a hope that could only be satisfied by an impossible new creation, an impossible new kingdom, an impossible new life that conquers death itself.

On Holy Saturday all reasonable hopes have been brought to an end. Before the tomb of Christ, and before the tomb of every life, beloved by God that has been snuffed out, extinguished by the god of this world–before the tomb we can have no measured or realistic hopes, no hopes for justice, for righteousness, or even for our own salvation. The only hope left to us is the hope that manifests itself in “mutual silence and screaming, that the world which has forced us into distress together might pass away and Your kingdom come to us” (Bonhoeffer). It is a hope that cannot be satisfied with being rescued from the depths of sin and death. No, the hope that is left to us on Holy Saturday is not a hope of climbing out of the depths, but rather a nonsensical hope that the depths themselves might be transformed (Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma). The hope that is left for us can now only be the hope of extremists and lunatics, the deviant and the deceived. For at the tomb of Jesus the only hope that is left for us is the hope that death, which undeniably holds dominion over us all, might be swallowed up by life. It is a hope so ridiculous it can barely be spoken, but it is to this hope that we are called to witness. For us, gathered at the tomb of Jesus, there can be no more shallow hopes. If we are to hope together, we shall hope for the coming of an infinitely greater glory. And we shall hope for it, live for it, yearn for it here, at the tomb of Jesus.

We only know it will be love: A sermon on 1 John 3:1-7

Brothers and sisters, here is the amazing thing that we have to deal with, that is so hard for us to understand. That is even harder for the world to understand. The thing that trips us up, the thing we cannot catch up with, that we cannot ever grasp is how great, how singular, how unprecedented, how utterly surprising and evernew is the love that God the Father has given to us in Jesus Christ. Through his act of love, uninterrupted, untainted, unqualified love, God has made us, in him, to be God’s own children, God’s own family. Make no mistake about it, brothers and sisters, that is what we are. And we are that, only in, through, and by God’s radical act of love in Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, the one we crucified, the one that the Father raised up, and who came back to us again speaking peace to us. The thing we cannot catch up with, that we can never grasp, never fully understand, is that somehow, through some miracle, God has made us part of God’s own life. We are God’s children! That is what we are!

And that, brothers and sisters, is why the world is confused by us, why they do not understand us when we speak about the Gospel. They don’t recognize us because they did not recognize Jesus, the one who has made us what we now are. Brothers and sisters, this is the miracle, that we are God’s children now. And yet, there is so much about this that eludes us. It is so weighty, so much greater than we can know and comprehend, indeed we cannot understand it. What this all means, what it will be, how it will be revealed, how we will live forever in God, what God’s victory shall look like, and what the world made new will be, brothers and sisters, these things we do not know. We cannot possess them, catch hold of them, grasp them, explain them, and hand them out to others as if they were goods and services. All of this is too wonderful for us.

There is only one thing we can dare to say we know. We know that when Jesus is apocalypsed, when he is revealed, manifested, when his transfiguring kingdom breaks forth in its ultimate fullness, when all this comes to pass we know this: that we will be like him. We will see him as he truly is. We will see, with unveiled faces, the fullness of the singular, radical, uninterrupted, and evernew Love that Jesus is. And then, brothers and sisters, on that day, we will be like that. We will finally shed all that remains of our blindness and our self-deception, and we will see the Love, the so-great Love of God that Father that is Jesus. And when we see it, we will be transformed. We will be like that. We will be loosed from all our hidden shadows and darknesses and be transformed. We will live, without reserve in that one great Love.

This is our hope, brothers and sisters. And every one of us who hope in this find ourselves working. We work, we struggle, we cry out, we yearn together to be made single-mindedly devoted to this Love. We strive to unify our divided hearts so that we might love without interruption, just as Jesus loves without interruption. We work for this, we encourage one another in this, we pray for one another in this, we weep with one another when we fail in this, and we keep on going together in this. We search, we pray, we yearn, we work, we study, we listen—all so that we may grow up into the Love that Jesus is.

And when we sin, when anyone sins, we shy away from this undivided Love. We cease to let it be the one true thing, our one true “law”. We seek to be unmoored from single-minded devotion. We long to divide things up once again into secret spheres where we can rule our own lives. When sin we are guilty of the worst sort of anarchy, an irrational refusal to have our lives transformed in the glory of the single-minded, uninterrupted Love of God that is Jesus. Sin is the refusal of this Love. It is the refusal to make this Love our one and only “law”. Sin is lovelessness.

And you know that this is why Jesus came to us brothers and sisters! This is why Christ apocalyptically came on the scene: To take this lovelessness away! In him there is no hint of lovelessness, but only the Father’s uninterrupted act of Love, the love that brings life out of death, new creation out of the present evil age, hope out of despair, praise out of sorrow, shouts of joy out of cries of grief. This is the Love that Jesus is. There is no lovelessnes in Jesus, no hidden shadow, no dark side. He came for one reason only, to destroy lovelessness wherever it exists in this world.

This is why, brothers and sisters, that no one who has been made part of God’s family through this Love continues to live in lovelessness. Those who keep on embracing power, control, domination, fear, and death, they haven’t understood this Love. They haven’t seen it yet. They haven’t tasted and known it yet. And when you, my brothers and sisters, when we fall back into lovelessness, we forget, we cease to live as what we are: God’s children. We pull ourselves back from the Love that God is and stumble backwards into the darkness that Jesus came to take away. When we are living in the Love that Jesus is, there is no room left for lovelessness.

So brothers and sisters, don’t let anyone make you believe the lie. The lie that one can be righteous, be moral, have integrity, be worthy  without living totally by Love. Everyone who lives out this Love is living in righteousness. There is no other ground, there are no other standards. To be righteous is to live the Love that is Jesus. There is no other righteousness, no other virtue, no other integrity, no other morality, no other standard by which we can assess ourselves. The only righteousness that God honors, that God creates, that God shares is the righteousness of self-abandoning Love. The only righteousness is the righteousness of crucifixion and resurrection. This is the only place we can live, this is the only hope we can stand on, this is the only life worth giving ourselves to.

Some truths to embrace:

  • The world does not know Jesus. To the extent that they know us, that we make sense to the world, to its way of running, we are not living as what we are, the children of God.
  • Our only hope, the only thing we have, is that who Jesus is will be our future. We know nothing else, we must seek for nothing else.
  • When we really hope for the Love that is Jesus, we find ourselves working together to love better. When we really hope, we really work, and we can’t imagine not doing it.
  • Sin is refusing to allow Love, the Love that is Jesus, to be our one and only law, our one and only rule, our one and only criterion for life and hope.
  • It is more important to refuse to be deceived than to figure out everything that we should do, or how to answer every question. The radical “No” of God to all forms of lovelessness must always be before our eyes. Only when we let God’s “No” to lovelessness reign can we hear God’s resounding “Yes” of uninterrupted Love.
  • The definition of Love is Crucifixion and Resurrection.

 

Freedom from innocence: A Sermon on 1 John 1:1-2:2

Brothers and sisters, let me tell you what I am doing in speaking to you today. Let me tell you what exactly I am trying to declare and proclaim to you. I’m here to tell you about that which is eternal, that which is ultimate, that which is greater than any and every created thing. I’m here to proclaim to you the things of first importance, that which we heard, and saw firsthand in Jesus, the Word of God who made us alive. Jesus was revealed to us, brothers and sisters, revealed right here, among us, he came to us and made us alive when we were dead. We all have seen this, and we all are bound and determined to talk about it, to make it known. We saw the mystery: the very life of God, the eternal life of the Living Father, this was apocalypsed to us in the Crucified and Resurrected Jesus. When Jesus came, we saw and experienced the eternal life of God. That is who Jesus was. That is what we saw, that is what we can never stop speaking about.

And why do we keep talking about this? What is it about this Life that has come to us as Jesus that makes us continue to declare it over and over again? Brothers and sisters, we keep on talking about this because if brings us together! When we share this Gospel, this message of Life abundant, we share in it together, in its trials and tasks, its joys and sorrows, its callings and blessings. When we declare this truth, the truth that in Jesus God made us alive when we were dead, when we affirm this together and live it out together, brothers and sisters, we are bound together in unity, in love, in fellowship. And this isn’t just something for us, some sort of enjoyable group friendship that we enter into, no. When we declare the Gospel together, when we live the Gospel together, we are drawn into unity with the Father, and with Jesus. This is no mere human friendship we get to enjoy, no, when we speak the Gospel, when we live the Gospel, God’s very own self, God’s very own life comes to us, abides with us, endures with us, and sustains us.

That is why we’re talking about this yet again, so that we can fully and completely enter into the joy of life in God!

So here is the message for you again. Hear it and believe it once again, brothers and sisters. This is the truth we must speak and the truth we must live:

The truth is that there is no dark side of God. God is nothing but light, nothing but unfettered, undistorted, abundant love. There is no shadow, no underside, nothing behind the curtain. God is pure and undivided light. So then, brothers and sisters if we claim to be living the life that God in Jesus has given us, the life that is pure light, pure love, pure self-giving, if we claim to be living that life and yet harbor hidden darkness, we make ourselves liars. When we carve out little spaces in our life that we order and control by methods other than self-giving love, we deceive ourselves. When we claim to be God’s people, the people of the truth, a people of forgiveness and love, and yet build up spaces in our life together that are run by the powers of control, dominance, self-assertion, fear, and self-protection, brothers and sisters when we do this we lie. When we do this we stop living the Gospel and fall back again into sin and death.

However, when we give up our grasp on these spaces, when we let go of those corners of our life run by power rather than love, then brothers and sisters we enter into the very life of God. When we release those secret places and powers to which we cling so tightly we are delivered, by God’s unbreakable love, into life together, a new life, a life cleansed of all sin, all guilt, all slavery. When our hands open and our idols are allowed to fall to the ground, then brothers and sisters the blood of Jesus, the blood we spilled, it becomes a cleansing flood of mercy, grace, and love. A flood in which we are swept away together, immersed in new life, ever again for the first time.

The worst possible thing we can do brothers and sisters is pretend we are innocent. When we try to establish ourselves, to give reasons, to re-narrate and explain our sins away, brothers and sisters when we do this we deceive ourselves. When we do this we hang on to those secret spaces, we cling to those hand holds that keep us from being washed away in the flood of Christ’s love and grace. We shut out the truth when we try to establish our innocence. The quest for innocence, the quest for defending our own virtue, that is the quest for falsehood and sorrow. When we strive to be innocent, we lock the truth of the Gospel out of our lives.

The alternative is simple, painfully difficult, but simple in its beauty and freedom: we must begin, not with explanation, with rationalization, with self-defense, but with confession. The answer to the problem of our sin, and its ability to poison our life in the Gospel is not to establish ourselves in virtue, not to strive for a justifiable innocence, but to confess. When we confess our sins we are drawn back into the truth. The truth that God is the one who is faithful, who is righteous, just as we saw in Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. God is righteous and not us. God is faithful and not us. When we confess our sins our hands open and our idols are finally thrown away. The Faithful One, the Righteous One, the Crucified and Resurrected One, this One comes to us, and forgives us, cleanses us, and throws us into life together and service in this broken world.

Whenever we search for innocence, whenever we defend ourselves morally, whenever we try to establish ourselves in virtue, we deny the Gospel itself. When we do that we call Jesus a liar. We shut our eyes to the cross, and turn our faces away from the resurrection.

Now brothers and sisters, understand that I am saying all of this so that we will be encouraged and empowered to stop sinning. But never forget that when we do fall, when we scramble to piece together our idols, when we furiously rush to carve out secret spaces of control and power in our lives, when we fall back into these forms of death, remember that Jesus, the Nazarene, the Crucifed and Resurrected one, he advocates for us in the presence of the Father. When we turn our backs on him, he continues to pour out his life of pure, uninterrupted love on us. Remember brothers and sisters that he is the Righteous and Faithful one and that he poured out his life to the fullest to bring us to God, to cleans us from our sins, and to deliver us from the slavery of death. He did this, brothers and sisters, not just for us. No! Not for us alone, but for this whole broken idolatrous, wretched world. This is who our Lord is, the One who will not turn his back of any of the dark corners of this world of rebellion, death, and slavery. Jesus has made himself life for all the world.

And brothers and sisters, this, this is the Good News. That we are saved, not by our innocence but by the faithful and unbroken love of the God we meet in the cross and resurrection. The God who is nothing but light, nothing but love. The God in whom there is no darkness. Let us turn once again to this God, let us cease striving for innocence, and confess our sins. Let us, once again enter into freedom, light, and life by the blood of the One who was Crucified, the one who was Raised, the One who Lives and will not be without us.

C.S. Lewis Essay Prize at Notre Dame

For those who are interested, the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame has set up a new prize for popular essays dealing with problem of evil in relation to modern thought. The Lewis Essay Prize has been established to provide up to 10 awards of $3,000 each for essays published in popular venues that present the state of the art or make new progress on the topics funded through the Problem of Evil in Modern and Contemporary Thought project during the 2010-2013 academic years.

Essays must be at least 1,000 words in length and must be published in a popular, non-academic publication with a circulation of at least 12,000. Publications can be religious in orientation (e.g., Christianity TodayFirst ThingsChristian Century) or secular (e.g., Harper’sTimes Literary SupplementThe National ReviewThe Atlantic). Selected online publications will also be considered (e.g. Slate.com). Essayists are encouraged to consult with the Center’s director to determine the suitability of a proposed venue for prize eligibility. Entries must be accepted for publication between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2013.

Hard copies of entries should be sent to:
C.S. Lewis Essay Prize
c/o Michael Rea, Director
Center for Philosophy of Religion
University of Notre Dame
418 Malloy Hall
Notre Dame, IN 46556

Questions about the application process can also be sent to philreligion-at-nd.edu. More information is available online at the C.S. Essay Lewis Prize website.

A really wordy paraphrase of Ephesians 2:1-10

A Sermonic Midrash on Ephesians 2:1-10
Preached on Sunday, March 18 at Church of the Servant King in Portland, Oregon.

Hear, listen, understand, and know, brothers and sisters what state you used to be in. Do not forget the slavery you once labored under. Do not forget the bondage that once owned you, dominated you, and beat you down. Do not forget that you once loved your slavery to sin and death. Make no mistake about it, in your former life, the life that you lived to yourselves before Jesus intervened, in that life you were nothing less than dead. You were not simply sick, not simply weak, not simply incomplete—no, now for the first time we have come to know weakness, sickness, incompleteness and failure—rather you were dead. As dead as any lifeless corpse being returned to the earth. Yes, brothers and sisters, do not forget this fact. Dead is what you were. Nothing less than dead. Cold, lifeless, impotent, and completely and utterly helpless. You had no potential in you for life, for love, for hope, for change, peace, and a future. All of this was impossible. Your slavery was complete, utter, and unbreakable. Do not forget that you were dead in your sins, dead by your own transgressions, dead by the tyranny and power of the Devil, dead under the yoke of principalities and powers. In every way, shape and form you were dead to the fullest. And there was nothing to be done.

And you lived this way, this death, this complete and total slavery, this was what you lived in. You were tossed around by the patterns, currents, and trends of this world. There was not even a hint of freedom. Everything about your life, your living-in-death, was ruled. In those days, blind to it though you were, your whole existence was dominated by the Prince of this world. The great adversary, the one who stands behind and in all the powers that shape this world, the enemy of life, the great hater of creation, he was your ruler, down to the very core. And oh, brothers and sisters he is still at work. He still flexes his power over all those who are disobedient, who still cling to their living-in-death. He dominates, oppresses, and enslaves. And this was once your story. This was once the truest thing about you.

Indeed all of us used to live this way. Each and every one of us used to live in death, and, God forgive us, we loved it. It turned us on, it made us exited. It motivated us, it aroused us. It drove us to get rich, to get secure, to make names for ourselves, to pursue, possess and sleep with the people we thought most attractive. This living-in-death animated every inch of our being, determined every facet of our motivations. It suffused our senses, it taught us how to see everything perversely, to enjoy nothing rightly. It made us excited to twist things by our own power and to our own ends. This was our nature. We were the children of this reality, this living-in-death. Our essence was to enslave and be enslaved. Our full and fundamental orientation was towards wickedness and self-establishment. We were just like everyone else in this world. Like every battered woman and child, like every violent and vengeful man. Like every jealous brother, and every bitter sister. Like every resentful mother, and every negligent father. Like every fickle friend, and duplicitous companion. Like every murderous stranger, like every opportunistic thief. Like every helpless slave, like every tyrannical slavemaster. Like every terminally ill cancer patient, and every perfectly healthy millionaire. We were just like all of these. There was nothing different about us from the whole mass of enslaved and enslaving human beings. We were dead. We lived in death and that was the truest thing about us. And there was nothing that could change this.

But. Oh, brothers and sisters, but! Nevertheless, this, though it was the whole story from beginning to end, this was not all. In the midst of all this death, all this slavery, all this transgression, in the midst of the utter and undeniable reign of every power of death and sin and Satan, there came something new. Something impossible. Something that could never have been imagined to come.

But God! The one forgotten and abandoned by us. The one rejected, despised, and ignored above all. This One, this Love beyond all hatreds this mercy beyond all vengeance, this Life, this death-destroying Life: This came to us. In the very center of it all. Right in the midst of it. At the highest and lowest point of our living-in-death, this came to us. Overturning everything in its path this Love, the Love of God did something that had never been imagined, something utterly impossible according to every pattern and potentiality in this world: It made us alive.

Jesus, God in the flesh came to us and loved us with an indestructible love. He let it all fall on him. Everything that makes up this whole world of living-in-death. He threw himself in the path of all of it. He flung himself across the path of each and every single person in this world. He threw himself into our prison, into our fortress of death and slavery holding nothing back, giving himself utterly and fully to death. He embraced our living-in-death without reserve. He took it all in, and let it have its way with him. He took it all in, so that he might have us, so that, unimaginably we might be with him. And that is the insane newness that has come to is. That is the divine madness that has irrupted into our world. That when we were dead beyond all hope, an infinite Love did the impossible. It made us alive. But not just alive, borthers and sisters, no. It made us alive together with him. The Love that has impossibly come among us is not content to restore us to our own lives. No, this Love, the Love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit will do nothing less that make us alive together with Jesus, with God’s very self.

This is what we mean, brothers and sisters when we say that “by grace you have been saved.” When we say that, when we confess that, when we proclaim that, we remember and rejoice that this is what has been done. That we were dead—and nothing but dead—and now, impossibly, miraculously, madly, God has made us alive, not alone, or even together, but with Christ Jesus. God has done this.

And more than this, brothers and sisters, God has done something even more impossible, something even more mad. God was not content to simply raise us, for the first time to life, or even to make us to live in the presence of Jesus. No, God has done even more. God has seated us, brothers and sisters alongside Christ. His victory becomes our victory. His glory becomes our glory. His life becomes our life. His joy becomes our joy. His freedom becomes our freedom.

Why, brothers and sisters? Why has God lavished such unprecedented and underserved love, mercy, and glory onto us? What reason for this mad excessiveness could there be? What reason could God have to raise up emaciated child and vindictive murderer together and bring them into indescribable glory? Why did God do this? We know but one reason, because God wants to. The Love that God is desires to shower everyone he has made with immeasurable grace, with limitless kindness, with infinite forgiveness, with unending glory, with eternal joy. This is just what God wants to do, that is what the life of Jesus tells us, what it establishes, what it promises.

So do not be deceived, brothers and sisters. We are alive for one reason and one reason only. Because God has done this in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the faithful one. We are alive solely because God’s love has come upon us in the form of this One, this one who was faithful unto death. We had nothing to do with brining this about. Nothing of our own making, no potential within us, nothing we had contributed to this. It is nothing but God’s gift. No work we have done, no accomplishments we can claim contributed anything to this new life being given to us. We have nothing to boast about, nothing to claim, nothing to hold in our hands as if it were our own. No, we have nothing but empty hands in the face of what God has done in Jesus. God has made us alive and God alone has done that. We stand now with empty, open hands, hands which cannot grasp, cannot make, cannot seize, but can only ever remain open, stretched out to God in praise, lament, intercession, and joy, and to one another in welcome, embrace, forgiveness, and support.

And that is what God has now created us to be. He has made us what we are in Christ Jesus. Do not be deceived, brothers and sisters. Who you are now has nothing to do with any of that living-in-death that used to be true about you. It once was the only true thing about you, but now it is nothing but a lie. A false, powerless, defeated shadow. Do not imagine that it has anything more to do with who you are. Who you are now is who God has created you to be in Christ. In Christ God has created us to live towards God and towards each other with empty hands, with open arms. We are made, now, solely for praise and embrace. God has prepared this for us, brothers and sisters. He has set a way of life now before us, a life of empty, outstretched hands. A life where we can do nothing but move, reflexively from shouts of praise to God to unconditional embrace of all who cross our path.

God has prepared this path for us, brothers and sisters. For all ages God has destined us for this in Christ. To be set free from the living-in-death that was once our fate unto being alive with Christ, open to God, embracing all others in love. This is what God has made us to be. And that, now, is the only thing that is true about us. Brothers and sisters, do not fall back into the things that are no longer true, tempting though they may appear. We know that these things are death altogether. Brothers and sisters, remember, confess, proclaim, and enact the truth this day. The truth that God has made us alive with Christ, has enthroned us with Christ, has set us free from every slavery, from every domination, from every power of death and sin and hell. The truth that who we are is not who we were, but only who God in Christ has now and is continuing to make us to be. Open your hands and open your hearts to receive that truth, the one and only thing that is now true. That we are not who we were, that the world is not what it was, that nothing will ever be that way again, that the old age is passing away and the only thing that is something is a New Creation. Hear, brothers and sisters and believe that again. Turn again, with me, pray, praise, love, serve, repent, forgive, open, appeal, give, suffer, and rejoice together. For nothing will ever be that old way again. We are now what God has made us to be. That, and that alone is true.

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