Gotta Serve Somebody: Sermon for September 28th, 2014

When I was a kid there were these books that I would often read called “Choose Your Own Adventure Books”. The idea was simple. You started reading and after a few pages there would be a question. And you were given two options, leading you to two different pages in the book.

For instance, you are hiking in the woods and you are lost and it’s getting dark. Do you keep trying to hike your way through? If so turn to page 30. Or do you stop at the creepy abandoned cabin and stay there for the night? Turn to page 56.

As you can imagine, neither is a good choice. But they lead you to other pages where you have to then make similar choices. And choice after choice you work your way through the book. And, to be honest, a good portion of the time you end up dying some tragic death.

Somehow someone thought these were great books for children. But, honestly, I was a big fan, and so were my friends. And I think that’s because the books always gave us choices, and they always took those choices seriously.

Copyright, believed to be Nadia Bolz Weber (please contact me if this is incorrect and I'll be glad to change it).

Copyright, believed to be Nadia Bolz Weber (please contact me if this is incorrect and I’ll be glad to change it).

I am reminded of those books when I read today’s Scripture, not because everyone meets a horrible end, but because Jesus is presenting his disciples with a sort of “choose your own adventure” story. Jesus is teaching his disciples, and the religious authorities are getting worried. He’s gaining too much influence and so they ask him “who gave you the authority to do the things you are doing?”

Jesus answers the question with a question. He tells them, “I’ll answer you, but first answer me this: Who gave John the Baptist his authority?”

And he had them there. Because if they had said “God” Jesus could have asked “then why did you kill him?” And if they said otherwise, the crowd, who loved John, would have turned against them. And so, they just say “we don’t know”.

And so Jesus tells them this story: A man had two sons and a vineyard. And one day he asked both of them to go to work in the vineyards. The first son says “no…I’m not going.” And the second son says “sure, I’ll go”. But here’s the twist. That second son never goes. And the first son, who said he wouldn’t, changes his mind and goes.

So Jesus asks the Pharisees, which of those two sons did what his father asked? The one who said he would and didn’t, or the one who said he wouldn’t and did.

The Pharisees answer, “the one who went to the vineyard”.

And then Jesus delivers this stinger: Truly, the tax collectors and prostitutes, the ones looked down on by everyone, are going to be ahead of you in the Kingdom of God.

And that’s when the Pharisees get it…he’s talking about them.

It’s a dangerous thing to call out someone’s hypocrisy. I don’t suggest it, because usually it makes the hypocrite pretty mad. But being Jesus has its privileges. Jesus publicly exposes these religious officials, these people who like the second son are a little more talk than action, for what they are. And it infuriates them.

There’s something satisfying about that. There’s a reason that when a person who professes religious faith falls from grace it becomes a media field day. I remember being very young and watching televangelists be led off in handcuffs on the evening news. A few years later I would look around at my more outwardly devout neighbors who maybe weren’t living in such devout ways when they thought no one was looking. And I began to get a little disillusioned with religious people. And it struck me then that maybe not everyone’s words and actions lined up.

But years later, I’ve developed a little more sympathy for the Pharisees and the other hypocrites of the world. And that’s because I know now that I am at times a hypocrite too. And, more than likely, so are most of us. Perhaps my everyday hypocrisies aren’t as newsworthy or spectacular as the ones on the front pages of the paper, but they are there. More than I like to admit.

The truth is that I call myself a Christian, a follower of Christ. I say everyday that I will go to work in the vineyard. And most days I at least make it there. But some, I don’t. Because this is what I think working in the vineyard looks like. I think it looks like choosing to follow Christ, even when we are afraid, even when there are other things we would rather be doing, even when it’s hard.

I say I want to do that, but some days I know my own fears and limitations hold me back. I get distracted. I put my trust and faith in other things. I get it wrong. And I know that some days I am so busy serving other things, that I never make it out to serve in the vineyard. I’m too busy checking things off my to-do list instead.

This is not just a clergy problem. This is a problem most of us who want to follow Christ have. We have the best of intentions when we are asked to go out into the vineyard, but good intentions don’t always get us out there. And, slowly, we begin to realize that maybe, just maybe, we are hypocrites too.

And this is where I am reminded of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books I talked about. Not because I think we are all headed for certain destruction. If so this would be the most depressing sermon ever. But instead because I think each day we get to make a new choice.

In the books one bad choice ends hope for you. But in the life of faith, we make bad choices all the time. And the good news is that God’s grace somehow reaches us even when we wander away from the vineyards. And, yes, even when we are hypocrites.

Every Sunday in church we say the prayer of confession together. And at first glance that might seem like a bit of a downer. Some churches, to be honest, have jettisoned it altogether because they don’t want anyone to feel bad about themselves, especially not visitors who might never come back. .

But to me the prayer of confession is about this: it’s about telling the truth. It’s about saying that sometimes we get it wrong, and it’s about believing that God can still use us anyway. When you think about it, church is probably one of the only places in our lives where we can so easily admit to being wrong sometimes.

I think there is some real grace in that.

I wonder about the son who tells his father that he will not go to work in the vineyard. I wonder if other days he, like the other son, told him that he would. And I wonder if he never made it there either. I wonder if on the day he was asked, he finally decided to tell the truth. And maybe that act of truth telling set him free to do more than just have good intentions.

Another minister I know shared a photo this week of a church’s sign. It read in big letters, “This Church is Not Full of Hypocrites!” A little defensive sounding at first, really. But then at the bottom it said this: “There’s always room for more!”

I think that’s what the church is about sometimes. It’s about admitting that we mess up. And it’s about sharing the good news of God’s grace with one another, assuring one another that God can still use us, and deciding to go together out into those vineyards. The church has never been about being perfect. Our purpose is not to exist as a club for saints. Instead, the church is a place for real people, living real lives, and facing real choices, who all the while are trying to follow Jesus Christ in this world.

It’s about understanding that God has given us grace. And it’s about responding to that grace. And, to me, the best way to respond to grace is always in gratitude. It’s about choosing to live a life of gratitude in a world that often gives us a lot of other choices about how to respond. That’s what the church is all about.

So getting back to choosing your own adventures. This morning I borrowed my sermon title from a song by Bob Dylan. In it he gives this long list of things that you might be: an ambassador, a rock and roller, a banker, or even a “preacher with your spiritual pride”, but he says no matter who you are “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

It may just be a song, but he’s right. We all end up getting to choose what, and who, we are going to serve each day. We all get asked that question every morning when we wake up, the same one asked of the two sons: Will you go to work for me today?

And it doesn’t matter where our day takes us. It doesn’t matter our profession, or our age, or what we have or don’t have in our bank accounts. It doesn’t even really matter what you say when you are asked. All that matters is this: When you decide which vineyard to go to that day, and there are a lot to choose from, will you choose one that will never be able to love you back? Or will you choose the vineyard that belongs to the one who loved you first, and always?

It’s like what I told our kids today in the children’s sermon: never give the best of you to something that can never love you back.

And so, in this book that is life, make good choices. But even if you don’t, don’t worry. There’s always tomorrow. And the pages can always be turned back. And no matter what you will still be welcome in this place where day after day we keep trying together to choose the one we want to serve. Amen.

A Ghost Story: Sermon for August 10, 2014

Matthew 14:22-31
14:22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.

14:23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,

14:24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.

14:25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea.

14:26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear.

14:27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

14:28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

14:29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus.

14:30 But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

14:31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

When I was about six years old, I went to a haunted house at camp. And looking back now, it was probably way too scary for a six year old, but none on the counselors were stopping us. And thought I tried to act like it didn’t bother me, it did. The ghosts and the people scaring you and the spooky scenes in the graveyards stuck with me.

2011082816icon_water_2_insideThis was especially true once it got dark at night, and it was time to go to bed. And just about every night I was convinced that there must be a ghost in the house somewhere. I’d hear a noise and get scared. Or I’d see something move and be convinced something was there.

I think my parents wanted to find those camp counselors. But they were also sensible, and decided the best way to help me face my fears was to help me to find more reasonable explanations for what I thought I saw or heard. The hissing noise outside of my window was just the sprinkler coming on. The figure I saw moving in the hallway was just my mom’s shadow as she turned off the lights. The thump I heard in the early morning was just the paper being delivered and hitting the front walk.

For everything, there was an explanation. And after a little while I wasn’t quite so scared of the dark anymore. And I learned that when it came to bumps in the night, ghosts were the least likely explanation.

I was thinking about that while reading this week’s text, which is a ghost story of a different kind. Like me, the disciples saw something in the night that they didn’t understand. But it’s a little different with them because what they saw was so unexplainable that they couldn’t just say it twas shadows. No, they looked out and they saw something so unbelievable that the most plausible, most reasonable, most likely explanation they could think of was “it must be a ghost”.

To set the stage, this morning’s story falls right after last week’s story about Jesus feeding the 5,000. After he feeds them Jesus sends the disciples on and ahead of him in a boat while he stays behind to pray. And the disciples are out on the sea, being tossed in the boat all night. But early in the morning they look out and they see Jesus walking on water, coming across the sea to them.

And this is when they decide that they’ve seen a ghost.

Now, that might sound ridiculous to us now, but when you think of it, that was no more ridiculous than a man walking on water. In their mind a ghost was far more likely. So when Jesus calls to them and says, “it’s me…don’t be afraid,” they don’t believe him. And they do what six year old me would not recommend; they decide to talk to the ghost.

Peter, who is probably my favorite disciple, goes first. And Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. He runs away from Jesus on the night before he dies. He denies he knows him three times. He gets overly-excited and reacts quickly when people challenge Jesus. And he’s sort of the one we look at when we think about the disciples and think to ourselves, “boy they really got it wrong sometimes”.

But here’s the other thing about Peter. He was the one who was always willing to take the chance, and to take the first steps, stumbling though they may have been. And so he decides to test the ghostly Jesus in front of him and he says, “Jesus, if that’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus says, “Come on”. And so he does. He gets out of the boat, and somehow he walks on the water, and towards Jesus.

So, if the story ended here, it would be pretty amazing. Not only could Jesus walk on water, but his disciples could too. It would be proof that Jesus not only was who he said he was, but that just a word from Jesus could ensure that anything we put our mind to, even the most crazy of things, would be successful.

But it doesn’t end there. Because suddenly Peter realizes what he is doing. He sees the water under his feet, and he feels the wind picking up, and suddenly it clicks that he is doing something he’s not supposed to be able to do. And that’s when it all comes crashing in. He falls into the water. He starts drowning. And he calls to Jesus to save him.

Have you ever watched a small child learn to do something like riding a bike? I’m always struck by how quickly kids “get it”. They practice peddling with their parents holding on to the back of their seat and running, and then one day the parents let go, and the kid keeps going.

And have you ever watched what happens when they suddenly realize that the parents aren’t holding on anymore? Sometimes the kid is fine and they keep happily peddling away. But others times they realize they are there, doing it on their own. And what happens? They panic. And they ride into the grass or stop as fast as they can. And everyone else is cheering, “you were doing it…you got it.” But in the moment, the kid is not so sure.

I picture Peter on the sea as being a little like that. He was walking on water. He was doing it. But when he realized what was happening, and that what he was doing was unbelievable, that’s when it all went off the rails. It’s not until he panics that he starts to sink. It’s not until he thinks he can’t, that he can’t.

And Jesus pulls him up from the water, and all he says to him is this: “you of little faith. Why did you doubt?”

I think a lot of us can relate to Peter here. Because sometimes our fears and our anxiety mean that even when we are doing things well, we panic. Sometimes especially when we are doing something new, and something we couldn’t imagine ourselves doing. Call it self-sabotage. Call it lack of faith. Call it what you want. The reality is that ghost stories might scare us, but sometimes finding out we can do things we never imagined scares us more.

Peter found that out that day, and it terrified him. He took a step out in faith and then he nearly drowned. Because even though he trusted Christ enough to get out of that boat, he didn’t trust himself when Christ called him.

I think that happens to those of us who are people of faith more than we realize. And it starts when Jesus calls us out of the boat. You might remember that all twelve of them were in there together, and I’m sure the boat was fine. Maybe a little crowded. Maybe a little sea-swamped. But fine. It was getting the job done.

But Jesus had bigger plans for the disciples than what could be accomplished in a small boat. And as much as Peter looks like a cautionary tale in this passage, he’s the one who has the courage to take the first steps. He gets out of what is comfortable and familiar, and he enters what is tumultuous and ever-changing. And as long as he trusts that even when the ground is shifting, Christ will remain the solid foundation, he does just fine. In fact, he does what is unimaginable.

That’s good news and bad news for us. Because those of us who are Christ-followers have for a long time had a pretty comfortable boat. It’s gotten the job done. And it’s seen us through some stormy sea. And everyone just sort of knew who we were, and where we were, and they wanted to get on board.

But now the world is different. Church isn’t a place everyone goes on Sunday anymore. Faith is not a given. Our friends might not understand why we are here on Sunday mornings, instead of out at brunch. And maybe it feels like the once solid ground we felt below our feet has given way to waves of change. Now our friends, our community, and our world, have to be engaged in new ways if we want to remain relevant, and share why exactly we believe this Jesus guy is worth following, and why we come to this place, and why we do what we do to love our neighbors and our world.

So, there are two options. First, stay in the boat, a perfectly fine boat, and hunker down. Or, look out across the water and find that Christ is already out there in the unknown, somehow standing in the midst of it, calling us to him.

I don’t know about you, but I want to follow Jesus. It’s great when things are familiar and comfortable, but in the end there’s not much that’s inspiring or life-giving about it. But when we step out in faith, and we trust that Christ will be our solid ground, we find ourselves doing things we never imagined. And when we refuse to let our fears and doubts drown us, we find out that the world outside the boat isn’t such a bad place after all. In fact, it can be amazing.

I’ll close with this. Like I said earlier, Peter sometimes gets a bad rap. He feels like the punch line in a bunch of Gospel stories. But the thing is he was also Jesus’ go-to guy. Remember, Jesus named him Peter, or “rock”, and said “you are the rock upon which I will build my church”.

This is the guy Christ chose. The one who sinks like a rock, and the one who comes up sputtering from the ocean after doubting. I think that’s good news for you and me. We are going to get it wrong sometimes. We are going to have fears and doubts. But in the end we just might find that our solid ground has been in Christ all along, and that even when what we are called to do sounds more scary than a good ghost story, Christ can still use us to do something amazing.

Amen.

Enough: Sermon for August 3, 2014

Matthew 14:13-21
14:13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.

14:14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.

14:15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”

14:16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

14:17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”

14:18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.”

14:19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.

14:20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

14:21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

When I was a college and seminary student in Atlanta there were two churches, both from the same mainline denomination, located on opposite ends of town. One church was very small. It only had about 35 active members, and it was located in a neighborhood that for years had been down and out. And for the life of them, no one could tell how that church managed to stay open year after year.

Loaves and Fish Roundel Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

Loaves and Fish Roundel
Zunti and Doepker, Saskatchewan

The other was a very large church. In fact, it was the largest church in the denomination, not just in that city, but nationwide. And on Sundays, in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Atlanta, thousands of people streamed through its doors to worship.

You might think from this set up that I’m about to preach on David and Goliath here. The small engine-that-could little guy versus the huge monster no one could stop. But this isn’t a story about good guys and bad guys. And it isn’t about one defeating the other. This is a different story. This is a story about what it means to have “enough”.

I’ll come back to those two churches, but first I want to talk about the story Lynne read for us. Jesus and the disciples are being followed by a large crowd that wants him to heal them. And as it gets later in the day, the disciples look out at the crowds and they start getting nervous. They see all these people and know they are about to get hungry.

They say to Jesus, “send them away…have them go and feed themselves”. And I’ll bet that deep down the disciples were worried they weren’t going to be able to hold on to the little they had for themselves. Especially when Jesus tells them “give them something to eat”. And all they have with them is five loaves and two fish. Which when you think about it, was probably just enough for the disciples and Jesus to have at least a little something. And Jesus is trying to give it away.

So about now, if you put this in corporate terms, people could be saying that Jesus didn’t have a very good business plan. He clearly did not have adequate supplies, and hadn’t budgeted well. Here he was at the height of demand, and he didn’t even have the supplies he needed to meet the basic needs of the people who worked for him, let alone the consumers.

In short, Jesus simply did not have “enough”.

But the thing is, in Christ we find that our own definitions of “enough” rarely hold up. He tells them to bring the bread and fish anyway. He tells the thousands of people to sit down, and he blesses the food, and gives it to the disciples. And they give it to the people. And, somehow, everyone on that hillside eats. In fact they eat until they can’t eat anymore, and they end up collecting baskets of bread that hasn’t even been touched.

Enough.

It turns out that Jesus didn’t just have enough. He had more than enough.

But how often does that happen? Here’s a question to answer for yourself: Do you have enough? Could you use “just a little more”? Have you ever said to yourself “if only I made a little more” or “if only I had this” or “if only I didn’t need to deal with that” then you would finally have “enough”?

If so, you’re not alone. Few people I have ever met, including people with extraordinary wealth, have ever thought they had “enough”. In fact, sometimes those of us who have never questioned having access to what others might feel is extraordinary, things like clean water and enough to eat and a home free of violence, are the ones who seem to least appreciate how close we really are to having “enough”.

And when times are the tightest, we want to hang on to what we have even more. We become a little less generous with what little extra we have around. We squirrel away what we don’t really need in storage units. We hunker down, and make sure that at the very least, we will be okay. And slowly we stop focusing on our neighbors, and start to look only at ourselves.

I think that Jesus knows what that was like. And so did his followers. As they watched Jesus literally take their dinner out of their hands and give it away, I’ll bet they were pretty anxious. Times hadn’t been good for them either. In fact, they had found themselves heading out to this deserted town all by themselves because Jesus needed a break. In the passage immediately before this one in Matthew we find out that his friend, and family member, John the Baptist has been killed, and the writing on the wall for Jesus, and for all of them, is becoming clear. And so, they wanted this time alone. To mourn. To pray.

But Scripture says that when Jesus saw the crowds following him, crying out for healing, he had compassion for them. And he doesn’t say “I don’t have enough to give right now” and he doesn’t send them away. He instead finds what he does have to give. And he serves them with it.

Those two churches I told you about at the beginning of my sermon both did amazing things in their ministries. They touched many lives. But that little church, the one with 35 members, did something nearly unbelievable every night. They invited homeless men in from the streets, and let them sleep in cots in their sanctuary. They fed them hot meals. They helped them secure housing and healthcare. They walked with them on their journey.

The pastor of the larger church occasionally used to invite the pastor of the smaller church to speak in worship. And the big church pastor was a good Christian man who inspired great things, but he always struggled with the fact that his church never seemed to think they had “enough” to do more. Despite thousands of members and millions of dollars, there was always this sense of scarcity, and not abundance.

And so when the small church pastor would come, and tell the congregation about his ministry, the big church pastor would then slip in this fact, hoping his congregation might hear it. “You know,” he said, “this little church manages to do all this ministry every year on a church budget that is less than our own church’s electric bill.”

It was a sobering statement. And it brought into sharp contrast the difference between living a life ruled by the fear of scarcity, and one driven by belief in God’s abundance.

Just about every doubt we have as individuals comes from the fear of not having, or being, “enough”. Not rich enough. Not smart enough. Not good enough. Not creative enough. Not old enough. Not young enough. You get the picture.

But just about every extraordinary thing that is accomplished comes from trusting that we can make what we have “enough”. And it’s not recklessness or foolishness that gets us to that place. It’s faith. That little church had stepped out in faith and started their ministry even though everyone had called them foolish or crazy. And yet, somehow that little they had was blessed. And the world was blessed for it. And, somehow, there always seemed to be “enough”.

There’s an alternative version of the story of the loaves and fishes that I’ve heard told by well-meaning commentators who want to give a more plausible explanation for what happened that day. They say that maybe Jesus didn’t somehow made those loaves and fish multiply. Maybe instead what happened is that people saw the first act of generosity, Jesus giving away those loaves and fishes, and their fear that there wouldn’t be enough ended. And they reached in their own bags, and pulled out their own loaves and fishes, and started to share. Maybe, the fish and bread were there all along on that hill.

I don’t think that’s actually what happened. I like to let Jesus’ miracles be miracles. But it’s an intriguing thought, isn’t it? The idea that maybe when we finally understand that abundance we have been given we can’t keep it to ourselves. The idea that we had “enough” this whole time and now we can share it.

You and I may not be sitting with that crowd on that hill, waiting for some bread and fish, but my guess is that we are all wrestling with what it means to have “enough”, and what we would do if we ever had it.

The good news is that like that crowd we find that when Christ is around we sometimes always seem to have enough…in fact, if we look closely, we might just find that we have abundance. Just like the overflowing baskets that were filled even after everyone was full, we find that Christ somehow has blessed what we refused to hold back. And we find don’t have to hold on out of fear anymore.

So here’s my question for you today? What would you do, if you finally believed that you had “enough”? Whatever that “enough” means to you, whatever it is “enough” of, what would you do if you felt like you had it? And how might that “enough” bless the world?

As we prepare to come to a table where a simple meal, begun in a time of great uncertainty, has for centuries proven to be “enough”, may we be strengthened by the bread and the cup to ask ourselves that question, and then to step out in faith to answer it. Amen.

Turn the Other Cheek?: Jesus on the space between passivity and “stand your ground” – Sermon for February 23, 2014

Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.

Safety cards handed out in the aftermath of the Otherside Bombing in 1997.

Scripture: Matthew 5:38-48

If you have ever gotten into a discussion or a debate about religion, you probably know what it’s like to have a bunch of soundbites from the Bible thrown at you. I’m always interested in how people who mostly seem uninterested in church or faith seem to know how to quote the Bible when it supports their argument. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. “Those who don’t work don’t eat”. “”Wives be obedient to your husbands.” Spare the rod and spoil the child”. (Actually that last one isn’t even in the Bible.)

The point is, we hear certain phrases over and over, and we are told they come from Scripture, and we internalize them without really knowing the context or where they come from or what they might really mean. And in doing so we go down this dangerous path where the Bible is the book full of one-liners that we can pull out when we need them, and not a book about a man who changed everything. And today’s lectionary reading is no exception.

Today’s Scripture passage comes from the Sermon on the Mount, a series of teachings Jesus gave after he was baptized. And this sermon contains a lot of the phrases of Scripture you may know: the meek shall inherit the earth. Be perfect as your Father is perfect. Blessed are the peacemakers. Our Father who art in heaven.

And it contains this phrase that I’m sure you’ve heard before. Jesus starts this passage saying, “You’ve heard it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.

Turn the other cheek. You’ve heard that before, right? Maybe as a kid you got in a fight with a brother or sister and your parents told you to be the bigger person, to turn the other cheek? It’s come to mean “brush it off” or “ignore it” to us. And maybe that doesn’t sound half bad sometimes.

But sometimes that line gets used in some dangerous ways. Once years ago I was doing some pastoral care with a woman who was being abused by her husband. And when I would ask her what her plan to get out of this abuse was, she would tell me “well, Jesus says to just turn the other cheek”.

At its worst his passage has come to mean a sort of passivity in the face of what is very wrong. An acceptance of being mistreated and degraded. Even a sort of self-destructiveness…you’ve hit me once, so hit me again.

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus ever meant it to be. A Biblical scholar by the name of Walter Wink talked about this passage in his writings and he clarified the context a bit. He talked about how for those who were slaves, who were considered to have less rights than others, those in authority would strike them when angry by hitting them with the back of their hand on their right cheek. They wouldn’t hit them with a fist, or on their left cheek, because they wouldn’t even hit them directly. Even the manner of violence suggested that the person being hit was less than human.

And so when Jesus says, “turn the other cheek” he’s saying something powerful. It’s not “let them hit you again”. It’s, “make them see that you are their equal, and that if they are going to hit you, they have to at least acknowledge what they are doing. It’s a powerful way of changing the conversation. The one who is seen as subhuman refuses to be seen that way anymore. In the moment of attack, they claim their whole humanity.

And that is a big part of what Jesus’ message was. His followers were generally not powerful people. Some of them were people who had been oppressed their whole lives. They didn’t have much. Some were slaves. Some were very poor. All were subject to a brutal Roman regime and corrupt religious authorities. These were the powerless. These were people who knew what it was like to be struck on the right cheek.

What Jesus is saying is that you are not lesser anymore. Maybe you cannot change the way that the authorities treat you. At least not yet. But you can claim your whole worth as a beloved child of God, created as equal as anyone else. This is not a divine call towards being a doormat. This is a divine reminder that you are God’s creation.

It’s a pretty radical message when you think of it. It’s one that subverts everything, and changes the game. I think of the woman I counseled. I think of the children I saw when I was a hospital chaplain who were brought into the ER after being abused by parents. I think of people who have been treated as lesser for any reason, and I hear “turn the other cheek”. And now I know that it’s not Jesus saying “take it”. I know it’s Jesus saying, “refuse to take this anymore”.

Now, I want to be clear about what this is not. This is about claiming your full humanity and not being mistreated. But this is not “stand your ground” Jesus. This is not Jesus saying escalate the situation. This is not Jesus saying choose violence. Jesus does not tell his disciples, “if anyone hits you on the right cheek, deliver a stiff right hook to their left.”

See, Jesus is better than that. And Jesus wants better than that for us. He preceded the line about turning the other cheek by saying “you have heard an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” and then he presents “turn the other cheek” as an alternative. We love quoting “an eye for an eye” in our culture. We want to see the one who hurts others get theirs. But Jesus himself says, “wait…there’s a better way”.

Walter Wink calls this “Jesus’ third way of nonviolent resistance”. He cites many examples of people from Ghandi to Desmond Tutu to Martin Luther King as examples of this. They all refused to embrace the ways of the people who oppressed them and saw their people as lesser. But they all also refused to extract an eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.

What Dr. Wink calls “nonviolent resistance” I simply call refusing to stoop down and claim the ways of the bullies and abusers and oppressors of the world. I call it claiming the image of God in ourselves. We are not to be abused, and we are not to become abusers of God’s creation either. We are better than that. And we have to find better ways of responding.

When I was a junior in college, 20 years old, very early one morning the phone rang in my dorm room. My roommate answered and I could hear across the room that my mom on other line. And my roommate said, “Hang on, hang on…she’s right here.” And when I got on the phone my mom sounded scared to death, and she said, “Were you in the bombing?”

In the middle of the night, at a gay club only a few miles away, a bomb had gone off. I had known before that moment that there were people who hated people like me. But until that moment I hadn’t really understood that some of them wanted us dead.

In the aftermath I’m sure there were a few hot-heads in my community who wanted to retaliate with violence. But their voices didn’t win out. And there were those too who wanted to hide, and who thought that they would be safe by never going back out. But here’s what most of us did. We went and stood in vigil as close as we could get to the site of the bombing.

And that night we went to all the other gathering places of our community. We gathered in larger crowds than I’d ever seen before. We gathered to say that a bomb planted in cowardice in a dumpster would never make us too afraid to claim our humanity. Refused to be treated as lesser. But refused to stoop down to the level of those who hated us too. Had we, it would have done us more harm than good in the end.

I tell you that story as an example. Because I think things like that bombing still happen everyday. Sometimes on that level, with that amount of news coverage, and sometimes not. Sometimes we never hear about them, but they blow lives apart just the same.

Our job as Christians in the world is to see everyone as a child of God, as a part of God’s creation. And it is to stand with those who are being treated as anything less than that. That means people who are being discriminated against, yes. But that also means people who are living with violence. Children who don’t have enough to eat. Teenagers who are being bullied. Elders who are being neglected. Young people fighting addiction in our Valley, and there are many, who are being targeted by heroin dealers. The ones who are constantly in life being struck on their right cheeks.

Our job is to make sure, first, that we are not the ones doing the striking. And then, to stand in solidarity and to turn the other cheek and say “you don’t get to treat people like that anymore”. You don’t get to do that because they are children of God. And, and maybe this is what they need to hear the most, you don’t get to do that because YOU are a child of God. And God created you for something better.

This week I’ve been watching the news coming out of the Ukraine, and there have been a few images that have moved me profoundly. Clergy of both Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions have been out in the streets, praying with both sides, and anointing the dying. They’ve been opening sanctuaries for those who have been wounded. And, most dramatically, in one situation they stood between protesters and armed forces, refusing to let the unarmed be hurt. They literally risked life and limb to make others see the true humanity in one another. They turned the other cheek, and they taught others how to do the same.

So, how are you going to turn the other cheek? First in your own life, but then as a person who lives in a larger community. How are you going to help turn the other cheek when you see something wrong happening? How are you going to turn the other cheek and demand the full humanity of all of God’s children? How are you going to turn the other cheek and change the game for everyone?

Christ himself has called us to nothing less. Because Christ himself has prepared a better way for us. We need this. Our community needs this. Our world needs this. Let’s get ready, and let’s follow him.

Questioning Advent: Day Seven – Breaking In

IMG_1926Several weeks ago I went to bed after a long day. It didn’t take me long to fall into a deep, sound sleep. But not long after that, I was awakened by a voice coming from someone standing next to the bed.

“Get up,” my wife said. “Someone is breaking into the house.”

Half-awake I turned on a flashlight, debated grabbing my heaviest putter, bounded down the stairs and, because I would be the first person to die in a horror movie, opened the front door and called out, “Is anyone out there?”

No one was out there. As we sat on the couch we heard the same noise my wife had heard a few minutes before. It was so windy that night that the storm door was blowing open and the doorknob was doing something that made it sound like someone was trying to force it open. I would have thought someone was breaking in too.

In this past Sunday’s Gospel reading Jesus tells us, “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24)

I was reminded of that passage this week while watching yet another yearly round of anger about the “war on Christmas”. Here’s my short take: Christmas is not under attack. Not from outside the church, anyway. People who say “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” are not killing the baby Jesus. Really. (For more on this, see this piece: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-emily-c-heath/on-keeping-christ-in-chri_b_1152761.html)

But, that’s not to say that we who are Christians shouldn’t be a bit concerned. I’m not talking about outside attacks here. They are as imaginary as the person I was sure was breaking into my house the other week. I’m talking about the way that in the Christmas season we Christians sometimes become so short-sightedly focused on perceived threats outside of our doors that we don’t see that Christ has already broken in to the world around us.

When Jesus said that the owner of the house wouldn’t know when the hour was coming, he could have been talking about us and our misguided anger over those who fail to “keep Christ in Christmas”. What if, instead of getting mad at every cashier who fails to wish us “Merry Christmas”, we looked around and saw the places that Christ is calling us to make Christmas merry for others? What is instead of growing angry over “holiday trees” we instead planted the seeds of peace that this world needs? What if instead of waging wars about nativity scenes on public lands we instead opened our churches in new and radical ways? What if we stopped charging after invisible intruders at the door and focused on looking instead for Christ’s coming?

This Christmas season there are signs of Christ’s coming all around us. We just have to pull ourselves away from the distractions long enough to look. And when we do, we just might find that life is a lot less scary, and a lot more joyful. A lot more like Christmas ought to be.

Question: This Christmas how are you living out the Gospel in ways that attract others, rather than attacking them?

Prayer: Holy God, help us to always be ready to greet you when you come to our door, and teach us to welcome others, whether they will ever believe like us or not, and to invite them inside our hearts. Amen.