DISCUSSION

He Called Her Out of the Darkness: Mary

A Homily from Easter Sunday, 2017.

John 20:1, 11-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,[b] “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary wept in the throws of grief. Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary dragged herself out of bed after a sleepless night and walked to the tomb in a kind of trance. Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary cried—scared, confused, alone. Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary thought that the powers of death had the last Word. Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Mary heard a voice in the darkness calling her name—Mary.

Throughout this Lenten season, we’ve examined the ways that the powers and principalities hold us captive—how they push us towards securing our own survival, dominating others, using God for our own agenda. We’ve seen how in Jesus’ ministry, he’s constantly in resistance mode—exposing the powers for what they really are and envisioning an alternative way of living in the world. He describes this way as “the kingdom of God,” the living water we drink so we never thirst again, the light of the world. Jesus invites those who follow him into similar acts of resistance—to free us from the power money has on us by giving it away, to choose to see ourselves as Jesus sees us, resisting the shame that says I’m not enough, to practice Sabbath that contradicts productivity, to untie the grave clothes of someone who’s hands and feet are still tied in the trappings of death.

But all Jesus’ acts of resistance had a cost. All of the times he just wouldn’t shut up, all of the crowds he attracted because he actually noticed those who were normally ignored, the powers finally said enough is enough and put an end to his resistance the only way they could guarantee silence and division—by nailing him to a tree.

As Mary cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. There, she saw what the others had seen—the grave clothes sat neatly folded. Discarded. Set aside. No longer concealing the life that had been. This symbol of death, this marker of a breathless body, removed like the stone that had sealed his fate. And next to the graveclothes, on either side of the piles, sat two angels, dressed in white—and they asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken away my Lord. I don’t know where they’ve put him.” Mary said. They’ve taken away my hope and I don’t know where to turn.”

Just then, she turned and saw a man the shadow of a man behind her; a man she assumed was the gardener, his face unfamiliar in the darkness. He repeated the question—“Woman, why are you crying?” Thinking that perhaps he knew what happened or worse, that he was a culprit, she begged, “Sir if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” But Jesus interrupted her pleading, interrupted her desperation, and called her by name from the darkness, Mary.

Mary. He calls her name. Her name. The name that captures the particularity of her life. To the gardener, she would just be the crying woman. At other points in her life, she was the possessed woman, the woman who wasn’t enough, the woman on the outside of the group. Never nameless—but still unnamed. Never not Mary, but still, not known.

Early in the morning, while it was still dark, God defeated the powers and principalities in the ultimate act of resistance—resurrection. The grave could not contain the Lord. Even death wasn’t enough.

In the resurrection, God defeats the powers of death and shows that it’s God who has the final Word. Nothing, not even death, can keep us from being fully known by God. The powers try to have the final say on our names, our identities, the markers by which we measure ourselves, the systems that hold people captive or keep people in oppression. But Jesus calls us out of the darkness by name.

The powers say, “Guilty.” Jesus says, “Forgiven.”
The powers say, “Not enough.” Jesus says, “Enough.”
The powers say, “Slave.” Jesus says, “Free.”
The powers say, “criminal.” Jesus says, “Man.”
The powers say, “Poor.” Jesus says, “Rich.”
The powers say, “Dead.” Jesus says, “Alive.”
The powers say, “Stranger.” Jesus says, “Mary.”

On this Easter Sunday, we hear our Risen Lord calling our names from the darkness—Jesus, the resurrected one, the name above all names, the great I am, the Prince of Peace, the alpha and omega, the light of the world. The risen Lord has spoken.

This is the name unto which you were baptized. As you come forward and mark the sign of the cross on your forehead today, hear Jesus speaking your name from the darkness and drawing you into the light.
“Why are you crying?” I have called you by name, Mary, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you go through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched and flame won’t burn you.”

Lazarus Blessing by Jan L. Richardson

From our worship service on the fifth Sunday of Lent, April 2, 2017.

The secret
of this blessing
is that it is written
on the back
of what binds you.

To read
this blessing,
you must take hold
of the end
of what
confines you,
must begin to tug
at the edge
of what wraps
you round.

It may take long
and long
for its length
to fall away,
for the words
of this blessing
to unwind
in folds
about your feet.

By then
you will no longer
need them.

By then this blessing
will have pressed itself
into your waking flesh,
will have passed
into your bones,
will have traveled
every vein

until it comes to rest
inside the chambers
of your heart
that beats to
the rhythm
of benediction

and the cadence
of release.

A Sermon for Epiphany

On Sunday, January 1, 2017, Refuge joined Duke Chapel for church to experience a different kind of worship.  Pastor Megan was the guest preacher and shared some stories from Refuge in her sermon.  You can watch the service, including her sermon.  The Scripture reading begins at 31:50.

Exodus 17: Go to the Rock

Exodus 17:1-7: The whole Israelite community broke camp and set out from the Sin desert to continue their journey, as the Lord commanded. They set up their camp at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people argued with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” 

Moses said to them, “Why are you arguing with me? Why are you testing the Lord?”

But the people were very thirsty for water there, and they complained to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us, our children, and our livestock with thirst?”  So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What should I do with this people? They are getting ready to stone me.”

The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of Israel’s elders with you. Take in your hand the shepherd’s rod that you used to strike the Nile River, and go.  I’ll be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Hit the rock. Water will come out of it, and the people will be able to drink.” Moses did so while Israel’s elders watched. He called the place Massah[a] and Meribah,[b] because the Israelites argued with and tested the Lord, asking, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

Go to the Rock

“Is the Lord really with us or not?” “Is the Lord really with us or not?” Why did you bring us all the way from Egypt to let us die of thirst in this desert? At least in Egypt, we had water. At least in Egypt, we weren’t so thirsty. At least in Egypt, we knew what tomorrow would hold. At least in Egypt, we weren’t so thirsty.

Is the Lord really with us or not? What kind of question is this anyway? How can the Israelites doubt that the Lord is with them? Wasn’t it this same Lord who heard the cries of the Israelites in Egypt, who knew their suffering? Wasn’t it this same Lord who called Moses and Aaron to lead the people out of Egypt, to confront the powerful Pharaoh? Wasn’t it this same God who spared Israel during the outpouring of the plagues upon Egypt? Wasn’t it this same God, who parted the waters of the Red Sea, creating walls the separated the water from the earth? And wasn’t it this same God who fed them in the wilderness with quail and manna every single day, until each person had enough to eat? And yet, they complain, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

For hundreds of years, Israelites told these stories to their children. These stories were passed down from family to family, generation to generation, narrated in campfire circles and to children at bedtime. When someone finally wrote it down, you’d think that they might have given their ancestors a bit of break on this one. Sure, maybe they would’ve told the truth about what happened with manna, how the Israelites grumbled to Moses about having no food because they’re stomachs grumbled to loudly to ignore. “But then,” the would story would go, “by the time they were thirsty, they knew that the Lord would provide… they demonstrated great faith that the Lord was with them in the desert! They were only thirsty for a moment before God split open the rock and living water poured out until their cups overflowed.”

But no, that’s not the story they give us. They are hard on their ancestors. They tell how it is. The elders who sat and wrote down these stories understood something about our bodies, who we are and how we work. After all the generations these stories passed through, they tell the truth about how quickly we forget, about how quickly we complain, about how quickly we grow thirsty, about how much we need water.

It doesn’t take long, does it. By the end of this sermon, I will no doubt feel thirsty, not from walking on hard dusty ground in the heat of the day, but just from speaking with you. Most of us wake up in the morning needing a drink. Our bodies depend on water. We cannot live without it. Thirst, then, doesn’t happen only one time. When the Israelites panicked that they had no water, they weren’t only thinking of the present moment. They knew what was coming! We need water to live! Without water, we will die! Even if we have water for today, we will need water again tomorrow! We can drink until we are satisfied, only to know that we will eventually be thirsty for more.

“Is the Lord really with us or not?” I’m confident these thirsty Israelites weren’t the first people to ask this question and they certainly aren’t the last. “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

The gospel of John tells a story about a woman who gave up on this question all together. She moved beyond wondering if the Lord was really with her, so confident God had forgotten her that she gave up wondering at all. Born a Samaritan into a world that valued other bodies as better than her body: male bodies, Jewish bodies, even married bodies. Even after encountering Jesus, she still leaves their conversation without a name, numbered as one of many, simply called, “Samaritan woman.” She too, was thirsty. Most believe that her shame led her to drink water in the heat of the day, when no one else would be at the rocky well, when she could get a drink alone, without experiencing the stigma and stares of others. When she came to get a drink, Jesus was also at the well, thirsty himself and in need of rest and water from the long journey through Samaria.

Jesus, seeing the Samaritan woman says to her, “Give me some water to drink.” Looking around and confirming that he couldn’t be speaking to anyone else, she asks Jesus, “Why do you, a Jewish man, ask for something to drink from me, a Samaritan woman?” In a kind of cryptic message, the way Jesus often speaks, he responds to her, “If you recognized God’s gift and who is saying to you, ‘Give me some water to drink,’ you would be asking him and he would give you living water.”

Later in John, Jesus says to the crowds, “All who are thirsty should come to me! All who believe in me should drink! As the scriptures said concerning me,[a]  Rivers of living water will flow out from within him.”

The Israelites aren’t alone. The Samaritan woman isn’t alone. They aren’t the only community and she’s not the only person who has found themselves in the desert…that have painfully swallowed with dry mouths and chapped lips. We are thirsty people. We need water to survive. But that’s not all we need. We also thirst longingly for the answer to the question, “Is the Lord really with us or not?”

The Israelites complaint for water sends Moses to the only one who can satisfy, the only one who can meet this need. Moses turns to God, “What should I do with these people? How can I satisfy their thirst? I’ve looked around, I’ve checked far and wide, turned the house upsidedown, looked under the seats of the car, at the bottle of every bottle, I’ve even looked for dew on the ground and under the lids of jars and there is no water to be found. Where do we go for water? Is the Lord really with us or not?

The Lord answers Moses, “Go to the rock. Go to the rock. Take your shepherd’s staff that’s been with you from the beginning. Go to the rock. When you hit the rock, water will come out of it so that people can drink.” And when the water comes out, they will get a taste, an answer to their thirst and an answer to the question.”

The Israelites who wrote down this story and allowed the ancestors to look like desperate complainers who doubted God and tested God, they were onto something. They knew that we are thirsty people. Jesus knew also. All who are thirsty, come! All who believe in me, drink this living water! We are desperate to feel God’s presence, to be bathed in the water of the Spirit, to know that this is not all there is, to feel a sense of belonging to the One who is greater than I. We can only make it so long in the desert, so long wandering from one trial to the next, without a drink.

And yet, Jesus also says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Notice with me: not blessed are those who are righteous, but those who thirst for righteousness. Not blessed are those who are righteous, but those who thirst for righteousness.   Blessed are those who thirst for relationship with God, to know God, to see God.

I wonder, “Does Jesus want us to keep wanting?” Does Jesus want us to keep thirsting? Many faithful followers of Jesus throughout history have never claimed their thirst was quenched, never fully satisfied. You know that moment when you quench your thirst, when you sigh with relief when your throat is at ease once again, that’s the opposite of how many of God’s children have described the life of faith. They describe wanting more, being satisfied at times, while knowing they will be thirsty again.

The Psalmist writes, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs after you.” One early Christian writer, Gregory of Nyssa, describes how God gives us a taste of God’s presence and a glimpse of God’s beauty, only to draw us forward again, wanting more and more. Each time we thirst for water or for God and taste, we have only more desire, more longing. Mother Teresa, the famous saint of Calcutta who devoted her life to the poorest of poor, describes great pain she experienced thirsting after God, without feeling like her thirst was clenched. Since she didn’t experience her own thirst going away, she devoted her life to what she described as satiating the thirst of Christ. On the cross, Jesus himself cried out, “I thirst.” Mother Teresa, then, in each act of kindness and devotion to those around her, worked to satisfy Christ’s own thirst evidenced in the poorest of poor. Unable for her own thirst to go away, she devoted herself to quenching the thirst of Christ in other people. Another Christian writer at the turn of the 20th century, A.W. Tozer put it like this: “Oh God, I have tasted thy goodness and it has both satisfied me and made me thirsty for more.”

In the desert, in this desert, in the hospital bed, in the hours of sleepless nights, in the valley of the shadow of death, in the overwhelming work load, in the suffering and wondering and doubting and questioning, in the painful, throat swelling, dry mouthed thirst of the wilderness, we cry, “Is God really with me or not?” And we hear that prompting of the Lord in the desert, “Go to the rock. Go to the rock.”

What will be waiting for you at the rock? Will the water gush out, bursting forth, covering you from head to toe with God’s presence, drenching you in hope, cleansing you from the dust that’s caked to your feet and renewing you for a new day, a new hour, a new moment basking in the presence of God?

What will be waiting for you at the rock? Will the water drip slowly, quenching your thirst for but a moment, giving you just a glimpse of God’s spirit? Will it be so hard to get the water from the rock, that you’ll have to bend down, get underneath that dripping water to try and catch a drop? Will it be just enough for you to know, if only for a moment, that God is really with you? Will it be just enough to satisfy you for this hour, but keep you coming back for more?

What will be waiting for you at the rock? What if it seems like the water has run out, like there isn’t a drop left, the way that Mother Teresa described? What then? We follow her example. She still goes to the rock, over and over again, not to get water quench her own thirst, but to relieve the thirst of God’s other children.

What will be waiting for you at the rock? Is the Lord really with us or not? The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead to the rock. Take your shepherd’s rod. I will be standing there.”

 

This post was adapted from our sermon series on Interpreting Exodus.  Pastor Megan preached this sermon at Butner Federal Prison complex on August 30, 2015.

Labyrinth: Reflections by Tony Whitaker

On Father’s Day 2015, we gathered for worship at the labyrinth in front of UNC hospital, having devoted the month of June to exploring the question, “What happens after we die?”  Many have watched their father’s die in this place or other similar spaces.  We shared in a time of both remembrance and prayer/meditation, participating in the ancient spiritual practice of walking the labyrinth.  A labyrinth is a kind of maze, laid out in a circle. 

Tony graciously shared the following reflections from his experience at the labyrinth on the hot June day.

Labyrinth
It’s smaller than I expected, stark and hard‐surfaced, with no landscaping for ornamentation or shade. I don’t know what to expect from it… or from myself. But that’s part of the appeal. I stand at the entrance, hesitating, trying to clear my mind. This doesn’t work very well, so I just start walking.

Almost immediately, the path presents itself as a linear and chronological symbol of my life’s journey. Like my physical lifetime, it has a beginning and an end, with an as‐yet undetermined amount between. This could be interesting. I like it so far… although I’m insecure about my style… and unsure about proper protocol. Is someone staring at me? Do I have to meditate? How slowly should I walk? Is it better to focus my thoughts… or to simply let them come? Will I control this thing, or allow it to control me?

I begin to see each step as an increment of elapsed time, an irretrievable expenditure of life energy. I equate my initial discomfort to the natural immaturity of my childhood years. I gradually move beyond it, into metaphorical adulthood. This is much better.

Most of the path is a series of gentle arcs. These are fairly easy to maneuver, like my comfortable life. But these segments are connected by intermittent sharp turns, mostly 180‐degree switchbacks. I see these as representing significant life changes or challenges, requiring more concentration and skill to negotiate. I notice that I am executing some of these turns mechanically, and some more gracefully. I begin to anticipate upcoming turns, and try to maintain good form around each one.

I can’t see much of the path ahead, nor the end. I spend a significant amount of mental energy dealing with this uncertainty, constantly wanting to know my real‐time ratio of “distance walked” to “distance remaining”. This is a recurring distraction.

Today is Father’s Day, and my Dad is on my mind. He recently completed his well‐walked journey, and is now watching me… even if as mere metaphor… or only as an element of my own (self‐) consciousness. I feel his presence embedded in his absence. I’m aware that it’s not only my turn to walk… it’s my only turn to walk.

I think about my children, grandson, soon‐to‐arrive granddaughter, and their descendants. The familiar succession of life, death and new life seems magical, divinely‐derived, and strangely better than living forever. My role is limited, but critical. I love the part, and embrace it.

I am acutely aware that others are journeying all around me. These are friends of mine. We meet, almost brushing, as we walk. The path seems purposefully narrow, perhaps perfectly so. I suddenly understand that it is impossible to walk this close to others without being affected by them. I affect them too… seen as small adjustments in their position or posture. As we meet, I try not to encroach too much, but making sure not to pull away. I put creative energy into maintaining the perfect degree of separation between our bodies. This feels like more art than science… each friend deserving a customized approach. This closeness seems good to me.

There is a much younger walker behind me, getting ever closer. I’m clearly holding her back. Maybe this means that the younger generation wants me to hurry up and get out of their way. I remind myself not to stretch the symbolism too far… as I pick up my pace.

I now see the end of the path ahead. I have been expecting this part to be emotionally complicated, but it is not. The final section is round… large and unrestrictive… a qualitative change from the narrow linear pathway. The circle opens up to welcome me. It is easy to step into, a perfectly natural thing to do at the end of my walk. Inside the circle, I am centered… comfortable… peaceful… thankful.

The Songs of the Fishermen

A reading from Mark 1:16-20:

16 As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” 18 Right away, they left their nets and followed him. 19 After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets. 20 At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.

This is a story about 4 fishermen, Simon, Andrew, James and John. It’s a normal morning at the docks. Each one of them is going about business as usual. They arrived at dawn, bundled up in the cool morning air and started work without much conversation. Simon and Andrew are working on one fishing boat and see the Teacher approaching. “Hey. There he is,” says Andrew. Jesus from Nazareth. You can’t go anywhere without hearing about him lately. What’s he doing down here?” They paddle back to shore, not wanting to miss any trouble this Jesus fellow might stir up. Simon and Andrew get the beach and Jesus comes over to talk to them. It’s like he had come there that morning just to find these two guys. Jesus didn’t say much, “Come and follow me.” Jesus invited these 2 fishermen to be his disciples, to follow after him, to walk behind him, tracing his every step.

Further down the beach, the same scene repeats. This time, Jesus walks directly up to James and John who are focused on repairing their fishing net. Jesus says the same thing to them and now all four fishermen walk behind their rabbi with no idea of what’s ahead of them.

It’s a big deal! The four normal guys, working a normal job, on a normal morning, decide to follow Jesus. Maybe you’ve wondered like I have, how is it that Simon, Andrew, James and John do it? How do they drop everything to follow Jesus? What were they thinking? How did they feel?

It’s interesting. The story doesn’t tell us. There’s nothing about how they felt. It doesn’t say they were excited, or moved, or scared, or joyful or resistant. This story about four fisherman gives us only verbs.  Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea.  He saw two brothers. He said, Come, follow.  Then, Simon and Andrew left and followed.  Jesus saw James and John.  Jesus called them.  They followed him.

We are left pondering their actions only, not their feelings. They decided to follow Jesus. That’s what Mark wants us to notice.  There’s a old song about this:

I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.

This is a story about four fisherman who decided to follow Jesus.

This is also a story about fishing. I’ve been fishing been fishing three or four times. Once I realized that fishing was primarily a crack of dawn activity, I knew it wasn’t really for me. Jesus uses a kind of puzzling image about fishing. He says, “Come, follow me, and I’ll show you how to fish for people.” I don’t know about you, but this I find this to be very strange. I realized this week why his image is so confusing to me. What do you imagine when someone talks about fishing? What I imagine when I hear the word “fish” or “fishing” is a fishing pole, the rod, reel, bait, tackle box, worms, that kind of fishing. So I’ve always interpreted what Jesus said this way.

To confirm my association of rod/reel fishing with this story, there’s the silly song and the yellow boat. The church I grew up in had wall-to-wall blue carpet, a deep sea blue. In one of the Sunday School classroom at my church, there was a yellow wooden boat that sailed the blue carpet sea. It was a legitimate play boat, way bigger than all the other toys. The base was like the legs on a giant rocking chair. It had two benches, big enough for three little kids each, and perfect for acting out all the different sea venture bible stories. You could throw a kid you didn’t like off the boat and blame it on Jonah. You could see Jesus off in the distance walking on the blue-carpet water towards you.  And, of course, pretend you were fishing while singing another song that goes with this story.  Perhaps you know this one too:

I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men. I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me.

I’ve always imagined Jesus inviting the disciples to fish for people with a fishing pole, a kind of selective fishing where you cast out a line and get one fish if you’re lucky. But they weren’t using poles to fish–they were using nets. They cast their nets into the sea, into a broad expanse of water. Jesus is inviting these four fishermen to join him in casting, not individual fishing poles, but a massive net. Jesus’ net is huge! In the book of Ephesians, Paul prays for the believers and describes this net of God’s love—“May you have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.”

The road Jesus invites these four fishermen to follow him on will mean casting a net of love and welcome to people that they do not anticipate. Jesus will cast his net into the sea of a broken world, filled with sinners, people who have messed up, people who are outsiders, who don’t belong. Jesus will stay in the homes of poor, be guilty of associating prostitutes and touching the hands of people with communicable diseases. Jesus will throw his net into the sea and invite everyone in. Jesus will eventually be arrested and executed because those in power decided his fishing net included a few too many of the wrong people. This is a story about fishing.

This isnt only a story about four fisherman, or only a story about fishing. Its also, and perhaps, most importantly, a story about God.

If this is only a story about four fisherman who decide to follow Jesus, the pressures on you and me! After all, aren’t we too called to follow Jesus? Called to be his disciples? Wasn’t that the invitation you first heard when you first heard about Jesus? God has called us and we must decide. Jesus wants us all to follow him, to be like him, to walk in his footsteps, to do what he does. Of course this story is about that! And they do it, don’t they? Simon, Andrew, James, John, they do it! They decide and they do follow Jesus, imperfectly at that. Still, it’s a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility. If life becomes all about what we do for Jesus, something is missing.

If this is only a story about fishing, have some of us failed? Is it too late for us? Some of us might not be the best at fishing, not all the great about casting Jesus’ loving net to our brothers and sisters.   His net is sometimes, or maybe more than sometimes, a bit more expansive than we might be comfortable with. He calls us to be like him and fish for people, and yet, sometimes we can barely get the net into the water. Perhaps for others, we aren’t even convinced that Jesus would include us in the net at all, no matter how deep into the water he goes. He can really mean me? Would his net really reach me? There’s still more to the story.

This is a story about God, who God is, how God acts, what God does. Before Andrew, Simon, James and John follow Jesus, Jesus finds them. Before they follow Jesus, Jesus comes to them! They don’t have to go searching, they have been found. Jesus saw. Jesus spoke. Jesus called. Jesus said, “Come. We don’t follow Jesus in order to find him, to prove our worthiness with what we do, or even by showing Jesus how big our nets are. We follow Jesus because he first came to us. He came down to the beach to meet these four fishermen. He came specifically for Simon and for Andrew, for James and for John, for you and me.

God will stop at nothing to come to each of us.  God comes to Moses in a burning bush, to Hannah after her sleepless nights of despair, to Elijah in silence, and to Mary through an angel sitting on the stone that was rolled away.  God comes to us while we’re working a normal job on a normal morning when we least expect it.  God comes to us with love so unconditional and welcoming that we finally find ourselves at home for the first time.  God comes to us through the voice of a friend.  God comes to us in our lowest moments and in our shame.  God comes to us when we’re tired, when we’ve had enough.  God comes to us when we are all alone, when there is no left at our side.  This is who God is. God comes to us first, before we ever go searching. Jesus saw. Jesus spoke. Jesus called. Jesus said, Come.

It reminds me of another song, the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard. This song is more profound, more moving; it’s hard to describe it. It doesn’t have a simple chorus like our first song or the silly motions of the second. It’s the song that never ends, the song of the mountains and hills, the beat to which trees of the field clap their hands. The choir that sings it…I have no words. See, without an audition, without ever finding out if we can carry a tune, read music, or tell the difference between a C minor and G major, God reaches out a hand and invites us to join this choir, to sing this song. God comes to us and asks, “Will you sing with me?”

 

This blog post was adapted from Pastor Megan’s sermon at Butner Federal Prison on January 25, 2015.

Praying the Psalms: Introduction and Suggestions

The life of faith consists of seasons. One scholar suggests that we can categorize these seasons of life as seasons of being securely oriented, painfully disoriented, and surprisingly reoriented. These generalizations could apply to our self-acceptance, our relations to significant others, and our participation in public or private life. We might think about these seasons as passages of life, stages of growth, or even identity crises. Acknowledging where we find ourselves in a particular season can allow us to be honest about where we are at in our lives and where we are in relation to God.

The Psalms, a collection of prayers, songs, and poems addressed to God, correspond to these seasons of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation. As we read through the book, we find Psalms where the writer is full of thanksgiving to God, securely oriented in life. We also find Psalms that demonstrate disorientation, perhaps categorized by loss, transition, grief, suffering, or even anger. Finally, some Psalms are written from a perspective of reorientation, wherein the Psalmist transitions from a period of being disoriented to being reoriented in relation to God and others.

The Psalms can become our partner in prayer. Giving us words when we have none, we pray the Psalms joining with all those who have prayed them before us and all who will pray them after we are gone. As we pray the Psalms, we find permission to be utterly honest with God about our feelings and situation, free to speak openly and deeply to God about what we are experiencing. Praying the Psalms also helps us to envision God’s future when we can’t see it ourselves. Lastly, the Psalms guard us against religion or merely thinking about God. Using their words in prayer brings us into direct conversation with the living God, in language we may never have imagined would come from our lips.

Ideas for how to pray the Psalms:

-Pray a Psalm of Orientation:
Take a moment to pause and slow down
Pray the Psalm as a prayer of thanksgiving
Following your prayer, offer your own words of thanksgiving to God
-Pray the assigned Psalm from the daily lectionary, with set Scriptures to read each day. Click here to see today’s readings, subscribe to the daily readings by email, or download the app.
-Pray the Psalms using the practice of praying in color. Click here for an excerpt from Sybil MacBeth’s book that gives instructions for praying in color. I have the book available if anyone would like to borrow it. You can read more about praying in color on her website.
-Pray a Psalm, followed by journal writing. Consider these prompts: Where do I find myself in this Psalm? Where do I find my community? How am I being oriented to God in this prayer? What images or metaphors do I find striking? Explore the image more deeply.
-Pray the Psalms as you pray the hours with the Book of Common Prayer
-Pray through a list of Psalms, one per day or the same one each day for a week.
-Pray them as a family or with housemates at mealtime or bedtime.
-Pray abbreviated Psalms as breath prayers. A breath Ppayer rhythm is simple: Breathe in slow and deep as you whisper or think on a phrase… Hold your breath… Then exhale.
Abbreviated Psalms of Orientation:
Psalm 145: Praise the Lord, my soul; I will praise the Lord in my life,
I will sing to my God as long as I am.
Psalm 8: Lord, our master, how great is your name in all the earth.
Psalm 104: Seek the Lord and his power; seek his face forever. Remember the wonders he has done.
-Pray the Psalms using lectio divina. For instructions on praying lectio divina individually or in groups, click here. There are also instructions for doing lectio divina in color from Sybil MacBeth’s book.
-Pray a Psalm from the category of life within which you find yourself—orientation, disorientation, or reorientation.

Here is a list of example Psalms for prayer from different categories:

Psalms of Orientation: These Psalms reflect a confident belief that the world is well ordered, reliable, and life-giving to the person of faith.
Psalm 1 Psalm 111
Psalm 8 Psalm 112
Psalm 14 Psalm 119
Psalm 33 Psalm 131
Psalm 37 Psalm 133
Psalm 104 Psalm 145

Psalms of Disorientation: These Psalms reflect the brokenness of life, when it is no longer orderly but savage. Spoken out of the depths, they are still bold acts of faith.
Psalm 13 Psalm 79
Psalm 22 Psalm 81
Psalm 32 Psalm 86
Psalm 35 Psalm 88
Psalm 50 Psalm 130
Psalm 51 Psalm 137
Psalm 73 Psalm 143
Psalm 74

Psalms of New Orientation: The pit is not the end of life; there is more. New orientation Psalms reflect the surprise of new possibilities that are experienced as pure gift from God. They are full of thanks.
Psalm 23 Psalm 100
Psalm 27 Psalm 103
Psalm 30 Psalm 113
Psalm 34 Psalm 117
Psalm 40 Psalm 124
Psalm 65 Psalm 135
Psalm 66 Psalm 138
Psalm 91 Psalm 150

Citations: The Message of the Psalms and Praying the Psalms by Walter Brueggemann and Getting Involved with God, by Ellen Davis.

Joseph’s Final Chapter: Do Not Be Afraid

Joseph’s story opens in Genesis 37 and it’s a long one. Joseph was one of 11 kids, the youngest son. In Genesis 37, the story says, “Now Jacob (Joseph’s dad) loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was born when Jacob was old. Jacob had made for him a long robe. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him and couldn’t even talk nicely to him.” Sibling rivalry, jealousy, family drama—maybe a little too familiar for some of us.

Just when you want to feel bad for Joseph, show him sympathy, “Poor kid—he can’t help that he’s the favorite,” Joseph makes himself quickly unlikeable. When Joseph’s head hits the pillow at night, he has vivid dreams about the future, dreams where he rules over his brothers. In one of these dreams, he’s in the field working with his brothers. They each tie a bundle of grain together…I imagine it like a hay bail. His bail rises up, towering and floating in the air above the others, while each of his ten older brother’s bails of hay, bows down to his bail, as if he’s ruling over them like a king. What’s worse—he didn’t keep his mouth shut about his dreams. Nope. He went ahead and announced them at the dinner table. When I imagine this scene, I’m reminded of the importance of friends. He seriously needed a friend to say, “Dude, listen, you have some dreams where you’re awesome and your brothers treat you like a king. They hate you, man. Keep your dreams to yourself.” Joseph lacked such a friend, so he bragged about his dreams—that combined with his fancy North Face jacket that Daddy bought for him only and the favoritism their dad showed him, brought his brothers to plot about how they might rid themselves of this pesky brat forever.

Joseph’s brothers considered killing Joseph, but they settled on kidnapping him and selling him into slavery instead. That way, they wouldn’t have his death on their foreheads, without having to put up with him anymore. They took Joseph’s fancy coat and destroyed it, making it look like a wild animal killed Joseph. This they showed to their father, so that he would assume that Joseph was dead; their dad would never suspect they had any part in his disappearance.

Meanwhile, Joseph was taken off to Egypt where he worked as a slave. Though he did well there and followed all the rules, he became a victim for a second time, when his master’s wife accused him of a crime he didn’t commit. Over a period of 13 years, Joseph worked as a slave and spent years locked up in prison. After a series of unlikely events, some terrible and some remarkable, Joseph rose to power and became the king’s right hand man, his adviser.

With the king’s blessing and support, Joseph led his country in preparing for a famine, putting food away on reserve during seven years of plenty. When a famine struck the land, Egypt was in a good position, able to lean on the reserved food that Joseph had put away. The surrounding lands, including Joseph’s homeland, had to lean on Egypt for food or else they would starve.

The need for food drove his brother’s to Egypt and brought about unlikely family reunion. Joseph was managing the store where people came to buy grain and he recognized his brothers immediately. But some 20 years had passed, so they didn’t even recognize Joseph. After giving them the run around and deciding what he should do with them, Joseph has them all for dinner and reveals his identity. “I’m your brother Joseph! The one you sold to Egypt. Now, don’t be upset and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here. We’ve already had two years of famine in the land, and there are five years left without planting or harvesting. I have saved so many lives by helping Egypt prepare for the famine—I’m saving your lives with this food!”

Joseph shows his brother’s enormous generosity. He has them go home, pack up and move their entire family, including their elderly father Jacob to Egypt to be near Joseph. Not long after making the trip to Egypt and being reunited with his father, their father, an elderly man at this point, Jacob dies.

And the final chapter of the story opens. Jacob is dead. Their father is gone. Now what?

Genesis 50:15-21
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached[b] Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept,[c] fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Fear is a powerful force. Fear motivates and fear paralyzes.

There was a TV show that aired in the early 2000’s: Fear Factor! The premise of the show was that contestants would go on the show motivated by the appeal of winning money if they were able to conquer their fears or withstand periods of time in horribly frightening or disgusting circumstances. At the beginning of each episode, the host would say, “I’m Joe Rogan, and this is Fear Factor. The stunts you are about to see were all designed and supervised by trained professionals. They are extremely dangerous and should not be attempted by anyone, anywhere, anytime.” First, contestants would do physical challenges, like hang from a helicopter or jump from one building to another. The second challenge would be mental and almost always gross, like eating live bugs or immersing your head or body in a box with snakes or mice, something like that. The final stunt would be some kind of action stunt, like something from a movie, like driving a car into a river. People signed up for this craziness! The final contestant, who survived all the stunts, was the person who wasn’t paralyzed by the fear of the challenge at hand. The host would say, “Evidently, fear was not a factor for you.”

At the close of Joseph’s story, fear is definitely a factor for Joseph’s brothers. Their father is gone. They hardly have a chance to put his body in the ground before the fear washes over each of them. “What if Joseph was only keeping us alive for Dad’s sake?” they wonder. “What if he still bears a grudge against us for kidnapping him, selling him into slavery, and lying to our father about what happened to him?” They are so scared, in fact, that they approach Joseph with what seems like a made-up and manipulative story from their father. Dad told us to tell you, to give you this message: “Forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you. Please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.”

It’s a little funny how they phrase the words of their father. The brothers put a great deal of distance between themselves and Joseph. Instead of saying, “Our father told us to tell you…” they say, “Your father to us to tell you…” They distance themselves from Joseph and from the message that their dad supposedly gave them to pass along.

And then, they do it again. “Please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father,” his brothers say. They refer to themselves in third person—“the servants of the God of your father.” It’s not “our crime” that “we committed,” but the crime of these others.

They aren’t speaking directly to Joseph—they aren’t directly confessing or owning up to what they’ve done. But they’re also not directly asking for forgiveness. Fear prevents all ten brothers from coming face to face with their crimes and face to face with the one brother they have wronged. Their plea for his forgiveness is indirect and complicated, motivated not by reconciliation or the hope of a good relationship, but by their fear of Joseph’s power, their own insecurities, and how things might change now that their father is gone. Perhaps they don’t even ask for forgiveness directly for fear that Joseph won’t offer it, that he’ll respond by saying, “No, I don’t forgive you.”

Fear not only keeps them from confession, fear also keeps them from receiving forgiveness. They are scared for their lives the moment their father breathes his last, but haven’t they already been through this conversation with Joseph? At the dinner table, when Joseph revealed his identity to them, he tells them not to worry. “It’s ok. Yeah, it was awful, but look where I am! Look at how God has used me to help save those who would be starving now. I’m even saving you!” Joseph has already offered them forgiveness, but they haven’t fully received it. They haven’t believed what he’s said. Perhaps their views of themselves were so low that they didn’t see themselves worthy of forgiveness. Maybe they’ve carried the guilt for so long about what they’ve done, they fear what life will be like without it. It’s become so much an engrained part of their identity, they don’t know who they are apart from the guilt of what they’ve done. They fear receiving Joseph’s forgiveness. They fear forgiving themselves.

To the plea of the 10 brothers, to this made-up, manipulative, last cry for safety, Joseph has two responses. First, he weeps. His weeping—his display of vulnerability and emotion—causes his brothers to begin to weep also. There they are, 11 grown brothers, weeping on the floor of the house. Why did Joseph begin to weep? The story doesn’t say. Let’s notice, brothers and sisters—the road to releasing fear and offering and receiving forgiveness may not come without weeping.

Joseph doesn’t only cry. He also speaks back, responds to their plea. He begins his response with the powerful words, “Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid”

Fear is a powerful force. Fear is an excellent motivator—moving us to do particular things and act in particular ways. But fear not only motivates, it can also paralyze, cause us to freeze right where we’re at, accept things for how they are. This final chapter begins with the brothers saying to one another, “What if…?” What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us…? Fear finishes the sentence, beginning in the words, “What if…?” Fear finishes the sentence. What if…he still bears a grudge against us? What if…we confess our evil to Joseph and he says that’s the end of us? What if…we ask for forgiveness and he denies it—if I say, will you forgive me, and he says, “no”?

“What if’s” sneak into our minds and hearts.

What if…I never get out of here?
What if I fail as a parent?
What if I don’t belong?
What if no one notices I’m gone?
What if I stand up for what I believe is right and it costs me my reputation?
What if I make a mistake at work and lose my job?
What if I risk opening myself up to someone and get hurt or betrayed again?
What if my body fails me?
What if I can never accept that the past can’t change?
What if I’m not worthy of God’s forgiveness or the forgiveness of those I’ve wronged?
What if I can never forgive myself?
What if…
you fill in the blank.

Fear motivates. Fear paralyzes.

To his fearful brothers, Joseph says, “Do not be afraid!” The refrain, “Do not be afraid” is repeated throughout the whole of Scripture. Before crossing the Jordan River, Moses tells the Israelites, “Do not be afraid!” Before Joshua takes his troops into the Promised Land, he beckons them, “Do not be afraid.” Through the prophet Isaiah, God says to fearful Israelites, “Do not be afraid.” When the angels meet the shepherds to announce Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, they cry out, “Do not be afraid.” When the disciples are on a boat and see Jesus walking towards them on the water, Jesus calls out, saying, “Do not be afraid.” When the women go to visit Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning and find it empty, an angel comforts them, saying, “Do not be afraid.”

We do not have to live in fear. We do not have to be motivated or paralyzed by it. Look at the God that we serve! Joseph explains how God has been with him. He says to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” Does this mean that God wanted or desired Joseph’s brothers to kidnap him, throw him into slavery and ruin his life to avenge their jealousy? No. God doesn’t desire that jealousy and revenge rule our lives. God doesn’t will for us to do evil or to harm other people. Rather, God is able to overcome evil and transform it. God can overcome evil! When Jesus was captured, tried as a criminal and sentenced to death, God overcame death, raising Jesus from the death.

Do not be afraid! God’s plans for good and for life trump the plots of fearful motivated actions. God’s plans for good and for life trump our wounded hearts. God’s plans for good and life restores movement to our fear paralyzed bodies. God’s grace creates the space for forgiveness, for living beyond fear. God interrupts our “What ifs” before we can finish the sentence. God interrupts with the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
when through the rivers, they won’t sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you won’t be scorched
and flame won’t burn you.
Do not be afraid, I am with you.”

This post was adapted from my sermon preached at Butner Federal Prison on September 14, 2014.

Blessed are Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Matthew 5:4

We were gathered at the plaza, right between the giant bull statue and the unattractive fences of a construction site. Luminary bags weighted with rice and lit candles marked the sacred space surrounding 30 of us, one to represent each person who died as a result of domestic violence the previous year in our state. The vigil began as planned, simple, but meaningful, to remember victims of this tragedy and raise awareness about the suffering that takes place behind closed doors. About halfway through the simple service, a woman stumbled into the vigil, interrupting the solemn mood without realizing that a group was gathered and someone was speaking. She stood silent for a few moments, listening to the speaker. When she realized that the speaker was talking about domestic violence, she began to interrupt, asking questions to the speaker, sharing details from her own experience with abuse. “What would you do…what would you do if…?” she cried. Then, as unexpectedly as she joined us and as abruptly as her interruption, she began to weep, uncontrollably crying for the rest of the vigil. A couple of women gathered around her and held her as she wept. Before long, it was my turn to pray. I barely got the words out…I could hardly project my shaking voice over her loud sobs.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” Jesus proclaims in the second line of the beatitudes. Blessed are those who mourn. How is this weeping woman, this victim of abuse, blessed? She mourns the injustices she’s experienced, her suffering, the ways her life has been shaped by pain and her inability to free herself from her oppression. Jesus says that this woman and all her sisters and brothers that mourn with her are blessed.

The Jewish culture that Jesus was born into has a rich history of mourning or practicing lament, stretching back hundreds of years before he was born. The prophets and the Psalms include poems, songs, and speeches, recounting the words of people gathered together for public mourning. This mourning wasn’t a kind of crying about having a bad day or because of a frustration at home or work. The mourning Jesus is referencing is the kind of mourning that is a response to injustice and oppression, those who mourn the impact of the powers, both material and spiritual, on the lives of the most vulnerable.

Blessed are those who mourn. Another beatitude and another paradox. Once again, Jesus’ words are outlandish and nonsensical. How is it that those who mourn are blessed? Aren’t those who are happy and fulfilled, aren’t they the ones that are blessed? Yet, in this beatitude, in this paradox, Jesus once again exposes the powers and envisions an alternative. Jesus exposes the powers that cause people to mourn in the first place, those who experience unjust suffering and loss, the same injustices that cause people to be poor in spirit. It’s these people, the mourners, that are blessed, Jesus says. These are the people that Jesus came for. In God’s empire, mourners are not written off or ignored as uncivilized, uneducated, or badly behaved. Instead, in God’s empire, they are the ones who receive God’s comfort and consolation; God’s hears their cries.

Our culture tends to restrict mourning or public displays of emotion to something appropriate for home life or private time. Further, spending time in mourning may be quickly relegated to a waste of time or an inactive posture. The expression, “Don’t just cry about it, do something,” illustrates this clearly. But mourning is not a useless waste of time or an inactive practice. Mourn is a verb. In fact, mourning elicits action and engagement. Mourning exposes the powers, shows their true colors. Seeing people in mourning is disorienting. It interrupts the lives we lead that are detached from suffering and injustice, forcing us to take another look, to pause, to listen, and to join.

The woman who interrupted our solemn vigil for victims of domestic violence exposed the powers with her loud wailing. She made me feel uncomfortable, like I wanted to look away and get away from her as quickly as possible. And yet, her cries made it impossible for me to forget her. The sound of her weeping echoed in my ears for weeks following and if I try, I can still hear them now, over nine months later. Her mourning moves me to engage in seeking justice for others who have suffered like she has.

———-

Clarence Jordan reflects on mourning in his book on the beatitudes. Jordan, a white farmer who resisted the powers by living on a commune with blacks and whites in the 1940’s in rural Georgia, witnessed plenty of injustices in his lifetime. He makes a distinction between fake mourners and real mourners, encouraging us to be real mourners. He writes about what he calls fake mourners, saying, “There are people who look at the world and say, ‘Sure, the worlds a mess, and I guess I’m a bit guilty like everybody else, but what can I do about it?’ What they’re really saying is that they are not concerned enough about themselves or the world to look for anything to do.”1

Real mourners, according to Jordan, aren’t just people who sit around and cry or feel overwhelmed by the world around them. Rather, they are moved to action, flooded with creativity, empowered in the company of others, and determined to join the work Jesus began in bringing God’s empire to fulfillment on earth as it is in heaven.2

How is Jesus inviting us to mourn the injustices in God’s world? How might God transform us through mourning or being “real mourners?”

1. James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005., 45.
2. James Howell, The Beatitudes for Today, 46.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3

According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus saw the crowds, went up the mountain and began to speak. He opens his mouth and the first words in his lengthy Sermon on the Mount begin, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What was that exactly? Blessed are the who? The poor? Is there a typo on your sermon notes, Jesus? In the very first line, Jesus proclaims the unexpected. He announces what seems absurd. He reverses the expectations of his listeners and the way people function in the world. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed. Not cursed. Not out of luck. Not less fortunate. Blessed. For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

After the initial shock subsides, we may try to grasp what it is that Jesus is talking about in the first blessing of the series of blessings, known as “the Beatitudes.” To whom or what is Jesus referring when he says, “the poor in spirit?” One way to interpret the “poor in spirit” is to say that Jesus is addressing all of our spirits, a kind of state of being in which we might find ourselves at different points throughout our lives. Jesus is talking to me on a bad day—that’s when I’m poor in spirit. When I’m humble, downtrodden, distraught, poor, or fainthearted, that is when my spirit is poor and without riches or comfort. This interpretation seems especially apt when considering what Luke says in his version of the Sermon on the Mount. Luke says, “Blessed are the poor,” dropping the “in spirit” we read in Matthew. Luke, then, is referring to those who may be materially poor, while Matthew emphasizes our spiritual state.

There’s another way that we could interpret this line, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Matthew, far from removing the concrete nature of the blessing goes one step further that Luke. Matthew’s version of the line addresses both the material and spiritual dimensions of the powers work in the world. Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who are both economically poor spiritually poor. Charles Campbell puts it like this: “The deepest and most debilitating form of poverty occurs when the material, institutional oppression of people becomes internalized in their spirit. The powers must be addressed at this spiritual dimension.”1 When people who are poor are crushed, stripped of their dignity in their spirits, believing instead that the essence of their worth is summarized in the names others have called them: unemployed, welfare mother, homeless, abused, lazy, felon, pan-handler, addict, diseased. Who was it that was following Jesus around right before he climbed the mountain to begin this sermon?

Matthew 4:23-25 (CEB) provides some context:
“Jesus traveled throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues. He announced the good news of the kingdom and healed every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread throughout Syria. People brought to him all those who had various kinds of diseases, those in pain, those possessed by demons, those with epilepsy, and those who were paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from the areas beyond the Jordan River.”

I’m convinced that if the beatitudes are a kind of mission statement for the ministry of Jesus, then when Jesus says the poor in spirit are blessed, he means so much more than me on a bad day. Jesus refers to those who are barely making it, materially and spiritually, those who are crushed by injustice.

How can this be right? It doesn’t make sense. Blessed are the rich, those who don’t have to worry about money, with a three car garage, life insurance, a 401k and savings for their kid’s college. Blessed are those with job security. Blessed are those who never have to worry where their next meal is coming from.

And yet, this is not what Jesus says. It’s the poor in spirit who receive the kingdom of heaven. If this is who Jesus says is blessed and who receives the kingdom of heaven, I want to be a part of that!

Jesus, in this blessing and in each beatitude, exposes the power at work in the world and envisions an alternative.2 For example, in Caesar’s empire, blessed are the rich, the Romans, those who have servants, and positions of power. In the American empire, blessed are those with college degrees, a mortgage, well-behaved children, and an iphone in their pocket. In God’s empire, blessed are the poor in spirit, those exploited by injustice, those suffering from economic hardship, people who believe their worth is summed up in the names others call them. Jesus exposes the power, that it’s not the rich and privileged who are blessed, but the poor! Then, he envisions and alternative, for it is the poor in spirit who receive the kingdom of heaven.

As a faith community that primarily does not identify with being economically poor, what is Jesus inviting us into if we believe this absurd, upside-down blessing is true, if we believe that this is God’s reality and how the world works in God’s empire?

Jesus is inviting us to resist the powers of the empire, to participate in exposing the powers and joining the alternative reality that Christ has already set into motion. Jesus invites us to resist.

One act of resistance to the powers that we already participate in as a faith community is profoundly shocking in our culture. In our society, money is power, it is the key to happiness, it is everything! And yet, we give money away to the church! What a profound act of resistance! It’s shocking and destabilizing. In giving money away, we resist the lie that money is everything, the sum of our work and worth.

We participate in some acts of resistance in the way our church functions. We resist the need to purchase or rent a space for church, choosing instead to open our homes to friends and strangers alike, sharing our resources, and risking that the carpet will get stained and the valuables broken or stolen.

What are other acts of resistance we might engage or practice? Where else is Jesus inviting us to resist the world’s empire, and in doing so, proclaim the reality of God’s empire in our midst?

1. Charles Campbell, The Word Before the Powers. Louisville: John Knox Press, 2002., 17.
2. Charles Campbell, The Word Before the Powers, 96.