A Shalom Community

Here is the sermon skeleton for the 2nd week after Pentecost Year A, 2017.

I’m attaching some stuff that doesn’t come up in the sermon, but that we can go back to in reference as we think about growing more and more as a Shalom church.

The inspiration for all of this comes from:
Nessan, Craig L. Shalom Church: The Body of Christ as Ministering Community. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

And here is a video of Dr. Nessan giving a brief overview of this book.

Also note: the “manuscript” section of my sermon is something I view as a “jumping off point.” I almost always open the floor for discussion, feedback, pushback, what-have-you. This sermon was written in skeleton form before the announcement of the verdict in the Philando Castile manslaughter case. If you’re coming to church tomorrow, we’re going to talk about the verdict. We can’t ignore it. Our Black siblings in and out of church are in pain because of systemic racism and white privilege, and the acquittal of the officer who shot Mr. Castile brings this up. Again. For the Nth time, just this year. As a community who strives to be a Shalom Church, how can WE (an almost exclusively White congregation belonging to a predominantly White denomination) be the hands and feet of Christ for our kindred in pain, and also see the face of Christ in them? What does a Shalom Church do in situations like this?

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Pentecost 2A (2017)

Last week our Gospel reading came from Matthew 28
where Jesus authorized the Great Commission:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and teach all nations, (make pupils of all nations/gentiles)
baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And, Jesus says, I will be with you always, to the completion of the age.

I gave us Lutherans a bit of a ribbing by commenting that
when Jesus says “Go,”
We quote Luther and respond, “Here we stand. We can do no other.”

Well, there’s a joke in every truth, and a truth in every joke.
And it’s no secret that Lutherans are really terrible at evangelism.
But to defend us for a moment,
I think that word “Evangelism” bears a big chunk of the blame.

It’s not so much the word itself, but the way in which it has been co-opted to mean
that we must go knock on doors
and harass people in the streets
pressuring them to say a sinner’s prayer
or asking them “If you died today, do you know FOR A FACT that you will go to heaven?”

Even the Roman Catholics have distanced themselves from Evangelism in that sense of the word,
and now they talk about the “New Evangelization.”
I don’t understand that word, because as far as I know
there is no verb, “evangelizate.”

In any case, Evangelism is supposed to be a sharing of Good News,
not a sales pitch for eternal fire insurance.
Scaring people with hell and fire and brimstone
or pressuring them to say the right words or what have you
isn’t spreading good news.
It’s spreading terror.
You might get a convert or two here and there, but not for the right reasons.

When Jesus COMMISSIONED those first disciples/apostles,
he was sending them out with authority
to show that his Good News was about healing and wholeness and peace,
concepts that are wrapped up in the Hebrew idea of Shalom.

He was forming a Shalom Society, a Shalom Church.

And he had already prepared his disciples for that work.
That’s what his whole ministry had been about.
And before the crucifixion, he had sent them out as interns in a way.
That’s where today’s Gospel reading comes in.

Now, this story of the sending of the 12 shows up in all 3 synoptic Gospels (Mt, Mk, Lk)
and one might argue that it also shows up in John 14
with the promise to his disciples that
You will do the works that I do
and greater works than these.
But John’s Gospel frames the story differently from the other three.
We don’t need to get too much into that today,
but it’s interesting to notice how the synoptic authors tell the story.

Mark, historically the 1st account, which Matthew and maybe Luke drew from
shows Jesus sending out the 12
with authority over unclean spirits.
They preached repentance,
cast out many demons,
anointed with oil and healed many sick people.

Luke 9 talks about the mission of the 12 in terms of Jesus giving the disciples
power and authority over demons, to cure diseases, and to proclaim the kingdom of God.

Luke follows that up in chapter 10 with a broader sending –
the sending of the 70 (or 72, depending on which translation you’re reading)
to heal the sick and to proclaim the kingdom’s at-hand-ness.
So, 2 sending stories in Luke.

And here in Matthew 9 – 10
Jesus tells the 12 disciples, whom he now calls “apostles” (sent ones, not just students)
to proclaim the at-hand-ness of the kingdom of heaven
heal the sick
raise the dead,
cleanse lepers,
cast out demons.
He gives them authority over unclean spirits to cast them out
to heal every disease and every infirmity.

There are a lot of neat little details that vary from one Gospel to the next:
Most of the versions talk about entering a town or city
and accepting hospitality where it is given
eating what’s placed before you
sharing peace if it’s there,
but shaking the dust off your sandals where there is no one to hear your message.
But in Matthew and Luke we get that curious little phrase about
how it will be better for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment for that town.

That’s just kind of interesting because people in the North American church
usually associate Sodom and Gomorrah with homosexuality
even though Ezekiel straight out says:
49 “‘Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom:
She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned;
they did not help the poor and needy.”

And Matthew’s version is the only place where Jesus says
NOT to go to the Gentiles or even to the Samaritans,
but instead to go ONLY to the “lost sheep of Israel.”
One could write a dissertation on that particular variation
and what that might mean.

So, there are some differences between the various Gospel accounts,
but what’s significant is what they have in common:
Namely, that Jesus is looking for willing Co-workers in this kingdom work.

God is coming to us to offer us PARTNERSHIP in bringing about the reign of God.
Jesus is building a community of Gospel partners:
NOT to harangue people about life after death or repeating a sinner’s prayer,
BUT RATHER to proclaim that God’s rule is coming to earth
and is, in fact here!
THAT’s what the Good News is.

Jesus gives us the power and the authority to put on display what God’s rule looks like:
peace and healing and wholeness
or, again, that fabulous Hebrew word: Shalom.

Jesus never commissioned us to go into the world and make Lutherans of all people,
teaching them to sing hymns in 4-part harmony
and to memorize the Small Catechism
to follow the Revised Common Lectionary when we meet every Sunday inside a fancy building.
It’s important to remember that all of those things are cultural trappings
— colonialist trappings, in fact —
that can sometimes get in the way of ACTUALLY proclaiming the kingdom of God in word and deed.

Those are things that we have to hold onto pretty loosely
unless we, too, want to be like Sodom and her daughters:
arrogant, overfed and unconcerned
unwilling to help the poor and needy.

But there are important aspects of Lutheran identity that can HELP us in our evangelizing task:
Luther’s 2 Kingdoms thinking is one example
as long as we don’t think of them as separate spheres,
which is what got us in trouble in Germany in the 1930s and 40s.

[An oversimplification of 2-kingdoms theory holds that there is a right-hand kingdom that concerns itself with the things of the church and spirituality and there is a left-hand kingdom which entails life in the world. The actual theory is more nuanced than this, and Luther himself understood that GOD RULES BOTH KINGDOMS, but “popular” understanding of 2-kingdoms theory holds that these are two entirely separate dimensions of life: One is civil, the other is religious. It’s where the idea comes from that religion/spirituality should be held apart from political life, because it is “personal” and “individualistic/subjective.” It’s different than the separation of church and state as Jefferson would have framed it, but again in the popular imagination, there’s probably little distinction. And this is part of the reason that German churches didn’t, as a rule, involve themselves in a struggle against Nazism. Clearly, the situation is more complex than all of this, but that’s the idea in a nutshell.]

But if we think of those kingdoms more as God’s 2 “STRATEGIES”
we can have a healthier concept of what it means to be a concerned Shalom community in the world.

God’s right-hand strategy includes the task of disciple-making.
We are a part of Christ’s body
who are formed into that membership by the biblical narrative
and by thoughtful liturgical practice.

And God’s left-hand strategy includes the social ministries of our Shalom community:
Peace-making
striving for justice and equality for all people
caring for creation and responsible use of the resources we’ve been given
and respecting the dignity of all human beings as creatures made in the image of God.

Underlying this approach to being church in and for the world
is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s idea that the Church community —
the Shalom Community —
IS the presence and existence of Jesus Christ
through the empowering and gifting of the Holy Spirit.

The work Jesus calls us to is God’s Work.
The tools he gives us to do this work are one another:
Our gifts and talents put to use for the betterment of the world
Our proclamation and our prayers
Our “evangelism” in word and deed.

We have the power AND the authority from Jesus himself to work with him to bring Shalom to the world.

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Twenty Virtues of the Shalom Church

1. Commitment to inclusivity
2. Love for enemies
3. Readiness to forgive
4. Repenting of violence
5. Nonviolent resistance
6. Solidarity with the oppressed
7. Hospitality to strangers
8. Care for the physical needs of all
9. Preferential concern for the weak [ed. for those whom we have marginalized]
10. Just economic and legal dealings with others
11. Basic posture of praise and thanksgiving
12. Loving the earth as our neighbor
13. Readiness to learn a new paradigm for human participation in the world
14. Stewardship as care for creation
15. Holding one another accountable for the care of creation
16. Affirmation of the common humanity of all those created by God
17. Respect for the dignity of the [people/groups whom we have] marginalized
18. Commitment to building an inclusive church
19. Defending human rights
20. Immersion in the theology of the cross.

Twenty Core Practices of the Shalom Church

1. Praying for peace
2.  Interpreting the actions of others in the kindest way
3.  Forgiving
4.  Resisting violence
5.  Advocating nonviolence
6.  Hospitality
7.  Charity and generosity
8.  Healing ministry
9.  Restorative justice
10. Holding accountable the privileged and those in authority
11. Wonder
12. Simplicity
13. Attending to the local place
14. Living sustainably
15. Advocacy for the creation
16. Admiring the divine image in the face of the other
17. Expecting to encounter Christ in the person of the vulnerable one
18. Participating in the suffering of others
19. Principled opposition to genocide
10. Advocating for human rights

12 Representatives of Shalom Church

1.  Mohandas Gandhi
2.  Martin Luther King, Jr.
3.  A.J. Muste
4.  Dorothy Day
5.  Oscar Romero
6.  Mother Teresa
7.  Francis of Assisi
8.  Chief Seattle of the Suquamish
9.  Wendell Berry
10. Bartolome de Las Casas
11. Sojourner Truth
12. Desmond Tutu

 

 

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Atonement, Eucharist, Good News

Wow, it’s been a while since I’ve been on here. What can I say? Life has been busy. Since I last checked in, I’ve hit several walls and come pretty close to a few break-downs. For now, though, things are going OK.

Shifting gears.

For Lent, as we’ve been doing for the last several years, we’ve had “guest preachers” from the pews share their perspectives on the texts we use in worship, how they impact the lives of those who are doing the preaching, things like that. I love this practice, not only for the practical reasons (mainly that it gives me a break from writing a couple of sermons in an already busy season), but also and especially because it gives the rest of the congregation a different perspective than mine all the time,  plus I think it raises people to different positions of leadership in the congregation. It’s not that everyone is called to become a preacher or a pastor, but those gifts DO exist among the saints in the pews, even if not on a full-time basis. I just really love doing this, and I’m always impressed with how the lay people who feel drawn to preach on occasion are able to work with the texts and communicate with the rest of the congregation just what it is in those scriptures that moves and shapes them in their lives.

One of the other benefits of the lay preacher series is that I wind up with some more time to pursue other things in the congregation. Things like teaching. Which I also love to do.

This Lent we decided (on the urging of Augsburg Fortress, who produced a new version of this publication) to study Luther’s “Small Catechism.” We spent a week going over the 10 Commandments, a week looking at “The Lord’s Prayer,” a week on the Apostles’ Creed, another week on Baptism. This week we’ll be wrapping up with the Sacrament of the Table.

As I’ve been thinking about this, even though I’m teaching primarily in line with traditional Lutheran thought, my own theological life has been deeply touched by Girardian thought, especially as interpreted by theologians like Michael Hardin. With that said, I wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve been digesting from Michael and others. That’s what follows here. Feel free to comment, agree, disagree, call me a heretic, whatever. I hope it gives you some, er, food for thought.

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In the ancient world – let’s pick a date of 2000 BCE, just for argument’s sake – people in every culture believed in God, or more properly, in “the gods.” This wasn’t about intellectual assent to a god-concept or to a set of doctrines, but rather it was a set of practices including offering sacrifice to the deities. “Believing” equaled “making sacrifice.” Not making a sacrifice or making a poor one was a mark of infidelity and it brought about the curse or the wrath of the gods. But making a good sacrifice yielded blessings. The better the sacrifice, the greater the blessing. Firstborn boys and virgin girls made excellent sacrifices in most cultures.

Sacrifice, then, was practical theology. It was the way in which religion and culture were both formed and practiced.

This is no less true of the ancient Hebrews. The first major modification in their culture/religion is that they stopped sacrificing to the many gods, and began offering sacrifice to the One, True God. At first, this God they saw as the greatest among many, but eventually (perhaps because they stopped sacrificing to the many gods?) they came to believe in and sacrifice ONLY to the One God, seeing the many gods as mere idols. After some time, they stopped offering human victims to this One God (see the linguistic shift in the story known as “The Binding of Isaac”), moving to a “lesser” sacrifice of animals, especially goats, cattle, and sheep, but also turtle doves and other small animals.

By the time of the Prophets, even this lesser sacrifice was being called into question. Isaiah, Zechariah, Micah, Hosea, and even some of the Psalms begin to speak negatively about sacrifice.

While theologically-speaking, this diminished emphasis on sacrifice was occurring, on an anthropological, sociological level, the idea and practice of sacrifice carried on – not only among the Hebrews/Israelites/Jews, of course, but in all cultures — in other, less overt forms, especially through the practice of “scapegoating” a victim in times of tribal/cultural conflict or anxiety. As group cohesiveness would begin to appear threatened and anxiety began to rise, groups could find unity in locating and naming a guilty Other, then casting that person from the group, either by expulsion or by murder (usually carried out anonymously in mobs, so that no one person would bear the burden of murdering the scapegoat). Following this, the identified “problem” was “taken care of,” and unity would be restored … for a time. It would have to be repeated over and over again, but the more often it worked to restore unity, the more cemented the practice became.

There is also within this practice of scapegoating, a move by which the expelled/murdered victim moves from being seen as “the guilty one,” in terms of taking blame for the original problem, to being seen as holy, heroic, godly, because their death solved the group’s problem. They move from victim to rescuer of the people. The “sacrificial” killing of our victims gives us life.

It doesn’t require much of a stretch to see this applied to Jesus. The Gospel witness even attests to the unlikely friendship that developed between Herod and Pilate on account of the disposal of Jesus.

But Jesus was not to be the typical victim-turned-savior because this particular scapegoat returned from his expulsion “on the third day.” And in discontinuity with what most people would expect from a murdered victim, when he returned, rather than seeking revenge on his victimizers, he bore a message of peace. In forgiving those who denied and betrayed him, Jesus not only exposed the violent, murderous scapegoating process as a trap, thus giving humanity a chance to break the cycle of such violence, but also he took away the possibility for humans to use scapegoating as a means of seeing their violent activity as God-ordained. A murderous humanity actually attempted to sacrifice God to God, and as CS Lewis put it, the stone table (the altar) of death was shattered. The spell was broken. And a new possibility for living as non-violent, non-scapegoating, forgiving humanity grew up through the fissures.

This is a model of atonement most recently made popular by French sociologist Rene Girard, but the idea stretches back to the early church’s understanding of what God was up to in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In other words, this is actually an ancient understanding of “atonement,” at-one-ment – the way God in Christ heals the broken relationship between humans and God, as well as between humans and their fellow creatures.

But this understanding became eclipsed in the church over time, and by the 17th century, a theory of penal substitutionary atonement, as espoused by John Calvin and others, came into vogue, both in Europe, and then through European resettlement to the North American continent, in the New World.

Part of this Penal Substitutionary Atonement theory reaches back into archaic religion/culture, and views the death of Jesus as a self-sacrifice to an angry God, as a means to appease this God’s wrath. This God is so holy and so honor-demanding that He (sic) cannot bear the sight of sin. He demands a sacrifice as restitution for the disobedience of sinful humanity. And so Jesus, although himself sinless, offers his own blood in place of ours, bears God’s wrath in his own person so that we don’t have to, thereby effecting our salvation. Jesus bears the penance (hence “penal”) in our place (hence “substitutionary”), stilling God’s anger so that we can be saved or brought back into God’s favor (“at-one-ment”).

Now, there are all kinds of problems with this view of what God was accomplishing for us in Christ on the cross, but that’s another discussion for another time. The reason I bring it up has to do with the ties between the Passion of Jesus and the meal we call the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

St. Paul writes (and we hear again each week in the “Words of Institution”):
On the night in which our Lord Jesus was handed over
he took the bread and gave thanks.
He broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said,
Take this all of you and eat.
This is my body, which will be given up for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.

And after the supper was ended,
he took the cup and gave thanks,
then he gave it to his disciples, saying
Take this all of you and drink.
This cup is the new and everlasting covenant in my blood
which will be shed for you and for all people
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in remembrance of me.

According to Jesus, then, his body will be broken and given up “for you.” Likewise, his blood will be shed “for you and for all people” – for what? For the forgiveness of sins.

TO whom is Jesus being handed over to have his body broken and his blood shed? To God?
No. To the authorities: To Pilate as a representative of the occupying forces of Rome. To the Sanhedrin, the religious authorities. From Pilate to Herod, back to Pilate, to the people, who all cry “Crucify him!” It’s not God saying that. It’s the people, the powers, the principalities. But it’s not God.

FOR whom is he doing it? For God?
No. He explicitly says, “for you” and “for all people.”

This has nothing to do with appeasing a wrathful God, and everything to do with appeasing a wrathful, vengeful, violent humanity.

As Pastor Brian Zahnd puts it, “The cross is not what God inflicts upon Christ in order to forgive: It’s what God endures in Christ as he forgives.”
The prophets were right: God doesn’t demand sacrifice, never mind sacrifice of the Father’s beloved Son, in order to forgive sinful humanity. But humanity DOES demand the sacrifice of the rabble rouser Jesus, who flagrantly violates religious laws and traditions of the elders; who refuses to pay homage to Caesar, but remains faithful to the Abba alone; who stands out as differentiated from the common people. There’s nothing worse in any human society than someone who dares to be different. They make themselves conspicuous, easy to pick out, easy to place blame on when the going gets rough.

In short, WE are the ones who break Jesus’ body. WE are the ones who shed his blood. WE are the ones who demand a sacrifice. God doesn’t command this or demand it in order to restore his pristine name, but rather God endures it. God doesn’t put Jesus on the cross in our place so that he can take the brunt of God’s righteous anger. We put Jesus up there. What God does is to allow himself to be pushed out of the world on the cross, as Bonhoeffer says. By us. And in the end, instead of wiping us out a deicidal sinners, he is persistently present with Jesus on the cross “in the world, reconciling all things to himself.”

So, when we come up for Communion, we’re coming forward not only with nothing to offer God (as beggars with empty hands, as Luther put it), but as a vengeful mob, looking once again to kill our scapegoat, to brutally consume his body and gorge on his blood so that we can suck eternal life out of his bones. And what does God dole out to us in this meal? Is it vengeance? Is it retaliation? That would be justice, but No. God’s response is forgiveness. Nothing but forgiveness.

UPDATE: In my original post, I inadvertently left a big chunk of material from Michael Hardin’s 5-part series on the Eucharist on here, uncredited. As I say, this was accidental. Here’s a link to his original material. Please read it. It’s fantastic! And while you’re at it, please also check out Rob Grayson’s response on his blog. These two guys are just awesome.

 

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Reflection on All Saints Day

Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson devote a chapter of their book The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity to the sanctoral cycle — a kind of liturgical calendar of its own (199ff) — which celebrates feast days of individual saints. The authors point out that the sanctoral cycle developed out of popular pietestic veneration of early Christian martyrs, generally on the anniversaries of their martyrdoms. Martyrdom was, for early Christians, “in all likelihood … understood as both a repetition of baptism or a substitute for it, and a sacrifice parallel and similar to Christ’s passion and the Eucharist, that is to say, as a redemptive sacrifice” (179). This manner of dying for the cause (as it were) sanctified the sacrifice and martyrdom became essentially synonymous with sainthood.

Bradshaw and Johnson state that, by the fourth century, several other categories of “saints” began to appear on lists of the Church’s annual celebrations: ascetics and monks, people who were confessors (and therefore “witnesses”), but who were not killed on account of their witness, per se, were nevertheless included as “martyrs by extension” (189). Bishops also began to make the list in the fourth century and, as the authors quote Pierre Jounel, “the difference between these two types of anniversaries must have been rather vague in practice” (190). Throughout that century, the categories continued to expand, and feasts for figures like Mary Theotokos, Emperor Constantine, and Theodosius I were added to the cycle, and so the sanctorum continued to grow, with localized variations, over time.

Laurence Hull Stookey (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church), along with much of contemporary Protestantism (in spite of continued anti-Catholic grumbling), embraces a much more expansive definition of a saint, citing the New Testament’s synonymous use of “saint” with “Christian” and “believer” (142). He points out that being a saint actually has nothing to do with being one of the “greats of History,” or indeed with any merit or effort on the part of humans, but rather, sanctity is necessarily intimately connected with and dependent upon identification with the holiness of Christ. We are ALL saints “because God’s [that is, Christ’s] sanctity is at work in us” (143).

Contemporary practice of commemorating a particular saint’s feast day still generally corresponds with that person’s death date (as it had been for the martyrs of the early church), unless some other festival or celebration (e.g. the Lord’s Day) takes precedence, or if the death date is not known, as is the case for biblical saints. Instead, those feast days are placed into the cycle largely according to convenience or in order to make a special comment on that saint’s “specialness” (e.g. Stephen, the protomartyr, who is considered noteworthy enough for his feast day to fall on the day after Christmas) (145).

In any case, the large number of saints whose lives are commemorated in the sanctoral cycle gives rise to a predicament: each day of the calendar year memorializes one or more saint’s lives. Stookey states: “Eventually a crisis developed, and a solution arose: Designate one day each year as a kind of omnibus occasion, a day on which to commemorate all the saints who cannot be accorded their own specific dates, and whose names have been forgotten” (148). The date of this commemoration, which we call All Saints Day, varies in the West (where it is often celebrated on November 1) and the East (where some rites celebrate it on May 13 and some on the Sunday following Pentecost) (148). And even in the West, there remains a disparity between Roman Catholics on the one hand, who celebrate only canonized saints on November 1, leaving “all other faithful departed” to be remembered the following day (the Feast of All Souls), and Protestants on the other, who celebrate All Saints Day, collapsing RC practices into one day: either November 1 or the first Sunday in November (148).

Protestant practice also makes no distinction between “recognized” saints (i.e. great historical figures) and the biblical “great cloud of witnesses,” including people who died in the previous year, many of whom belonged to our parishes and whose names we read aloud as part of our ritual celebration of the saints (148).

In our expansive definition of sanctity and in our ritual observance, we emphasize the catholicity of the church in all times and all places. We give thanks for the departed ones and for their faithful witness to the promise of God in Jesus Christ. Stookey writes: “[T]hese persons [, though departed, continue to] bear testimony to us concerning the One of whom it is written, ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ (Isaiah 53:4 RSV). Their stories point us to his story. And it is his story that enables us to bear all sorrow …. [It is] the sole source and focus of the entire liturgical calendar” (150).

The rites particular to All Saints Day manifest in the church’s use of time in the proclamation that all the saints across all times and places are sanctified in the holiness of Christ, which he shares with us as part of what Luther called “the happy exchange,” or what Orthodox Christians might refer to as theosis or deification. In other words, Christ takes on OUR sins which die with him on the cross. With us he shares, by his grace, the righteousness which belongs to HIM as the Son of God.

This Good News interacts with the faithful in our time in spite of the larger cultural orientation toward despair and the fear of death. As believers, we still grieve death — our own and that of those we love — but because God’s promise proves trustworthy, we can rest in the assurance that death does not have the final word. Instead, the final word belongs to God, whose promise IS life in Christ.

I think that All Saints Day aims, as a ritual event, to put us in mind, not only of all the saints who have gone before us, but also to remember that WE are the saints. Here and Now. We are examples in the world in real time. Our faith will also have impact on the generations that follow. Our understanding and way of being run counter to Culture (the “powers and principalities” of the kosmos, “the prince of this world”, “the patterns of this world,” etc.), and this gives us hope in the face of death and decay, in the face of every kind of darkness. It falls to US SAINTS to share this Good News, which we ourselves have already received — to share it with a world that desperately needs to hear it, aches to hear it.

 

 

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Sermon notes: parable of the widow and judge

After the service today, a parishioner told me that her hearing aid had broken and she didn’t catch everything I said. Would I give her a copy of my manuscript, please? Well, unfortunately, I didn’t use a manuscript today, but I said I’d offer up my sermon notes, such as they were. That’s what you have here.

But I also wanted to say a couple of other things: First, this sermon was deeply inspired by Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s chapter on the Judge and the Widow in her excellent book Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. The whole book takes on the topic of anti-Semitic prejudices spewed from the pulpit (often unwittingly so), the ripping out of context of the various parables in a lectionary setting, and the seeming need to domesticate parables by turning them into analogies or fables or some other form of story with easily identifiable moral examplars. Levine warns preachers against doing that.

Second, with that in mind, I struggled in writing this sermon. With the ideas of justice, vengeance, persistence, prayer and so on so abundant in this parable, I really, really wanted to make this a social justice sermon. It would fit so easily, and this was my first inclination. I know a lot of preachers will have done that this weekend, and I don’t blame them. On the other hand, with Levine fresh in my mind, I really needed to preach a sermon that disturbed and challenged preconceived notions about this parable. In the end, I know there was ambiguity in the message I delivered, but I do think there was also challenge in the sense that our parable doesn’t give us any clear role models to be found in either the judge OR the widow. The only model we have, finally, is Jesus himself, who is THE righteous judge who refuses to judge (Luke 12:14, John 5:21 – 25; 8:15-16 where Jesus illuminates human history by the criterion of the victim who is the judge AS victim, and whose judgment is mercy, ultimately).

So, with those things out of the way, here’s a bit of the notation. Make of it what you will.

We read the entire lectionary passage, Luke 18:1-8, but re-read and focused on just vv 2-5, because this is the parable proper, without any commentary by Luke or Luke’s Jesus. Just the bare bones of the story.

What is a parable?
(Someone said it’s an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.)

Story.
Stories have 5 basic parts. (People named them: Theme, Setting, Characters (Antagonist and Protagonist), Action or Conflict that drives the final element, Plot. We mentioned that there’s sometimes a title in a regular story, but parables are a bit different: In the original manuscripts, there is no title, which is a good thing, because when we impose a title on a parable, we’re revealing something about what we think the story is about, who the protagonist and antagonist are, etc.

This parable is set in “a certain city” (that is, just some nameless city. Could be anywhere) some time in the past (indicated by the past tense verb “was”).

The characters include a judge, a widow, and the widow’s adversary.

The conflict occurs between the widow and her adversary, an between the widow and judge (and vice versa). When prompted, 3 people picked with widow as the likely protagonist. Nobody picked the judge, which leads me to believe that about 39 people abstained from the vote. 🙂

We identified the plot in the following way: There was a judge whom a widow kept pestering to grant her vengeance against an adversary. At first the judge refused, but eventually he relented, because he wanted the widow to stop giving him work to do.

The theme wasn’t terribly clear apart from Luke’s “help.” It was a matter of interpretation, and how we interpret it reveals something about us and about what we believe about the character of God (given that Jesus was telling the parable).

Protagonist and Antagonist?
People weren’t confident choosing.
I asked what a first century audience might have thought about which was which by asking, “What do we know about widows? What do we know about judges?”

Most people said that widows are marginal characters, oppressed, lacking rights, vulnerable.

But we mentioned several passages from the scriptures that indicated how widows (along with orphans and aliens) are a protected class, preferred somehow by God as vulnerable people.

People noted that judges were a bit of a mixed bag: meant to be righteous, but that was the ideal. Many were appointed injudiciously and were corrupt.

Then we challenged both of the preconceived notions we have about widowns and judges: THIS widow of the parable doesn’t appear helpless or voiceless. If anything, it’s the opposite. We don’t know that she’s financially oppressed. She couuld be well off, but the text doesn’t tell us. It just speaks of her persistence against an adversary, whom, frankly, we don’t know is a “bad guy,” either. Maybe her complaint against this adversary against whom she seeks vengeance (not “justice”) is itself unjust.

We know a little about the judge. He neither fears God (which the scriptures tell us we ought to do) nor does he regard human beings. Not fearing God need not be construed negatively: We can have very good Atheist judges, or Muslim or Buddhist or any other kind of judge, who does his or her duties conscientously and justly.

And it’s possible to construe this judge’s disregard of humans in a positive light – he can’t be swayed to injustice by reputation or wealth or anything else. Isn’t that what we desire in a neutral, objective judge?

But this judge finally IS corrupted by the widow’s persistence. Not by the justness of her cause, but simply because she’s a pain in the neck and he wants to get rid of her.

What we end up with between these 2 characters is no clear moral example to follow. Neither widow nor judge is CLEARLY in the right.

And with this kind of ambiguity, we’re left to wrestle with the parable. We’re left to allow it to disturb and challenge our presuppositions. We’re left seeking some kind of way to let this story by Jesus lead us to an ethic that can’t be found among people, but CAN be found in him — in his life, his teachings, his ministry, where the things that comprised HIS ethic were things like love, forgiveness, reconciliation. It’s also what we find in his death (Father forgive them) and his resurrection (Peace I give you, not as the world gives).

Once Luke puts in his two cents — that this is about persistent prayer, that this story can only be understood as an allegory where we are the widow and God is the judge who will do what we ask him if we just pester him enough (Prosperity Gospel, anyone?) — he really ends up killing the joke, domesticating the parable, solving the puzzle for us so that we don’t get to do the work that Jesus intended us to do.

At the end of the sermon, people DID seem baffled, disturbed, and challenged. Mission accomplished. 🙂

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A Revised Order of Service for Terence

Prelude
Community Welcome
A Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness

A Prayer of Lament for Those Who Cannot Breathe
by Rev. Prince Rivers
(Slightly adapted by Rev. Rob Martin)

Holy God,
a cloud of grief hangs heavy over my head
and I feel like I cannot breathe,
so give me the strength to pray.
I raise my hands toward the sky
and I lift my eyes to the hills
which is where my help comes from.
Lord,
when the names of people who have been
choked,
shot,
and assaulted
is too many to count
I know that not one sould has been forgotten by
mothers and fathers,
sisters and brothers,
cousins and friends.
They remember …
… laughs and smiles,
… dreams and struggles,
… talents and personalities.

Now these men and women are gone.
Father,
how long must we listen
to the cries and screams
as blood stains the sidewalk?
How many videos must we watch
before we begin to see a change?

Help me, God.
Help us.
Help the people of St. Paul, MN
[Help the people of Tulsa, OK
Charlotte, SC
Baltimore, MD
Ferguson, MO]
Help Baton Rouge, LA.
Help our nation.

Help us examine ourselves.
[Silence for examination]

Help those of us who are sad and angry
not to let these deaths be in vain.

We do not pray for vengeance,
but we do thirst for justice.
We hope for healing
between neighbors and officers called to protect and serve.
We long for the day
when young men will live long enough to be old men
and parents will not have to say Good-bye too soon.

[Our] hope is in you, God.
Deliver [us] from all [our] fears.
Oh God,
come quickly to help us.
O Lord,
come quickly to save us.
In the nameof the one who came
that we might have life
and have life more abundantly
[, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord].

Amen.

Gathering Song:
“Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life” (ELW 719)

Pastoral Greeting
Kyrie
[Congregation, please be seated.]

Psalm 146

Gospel Reading: Luke 16:19-31

Sermon

In 2007, David Kinnaman,
President of the Barna Group,
released a book interpreting a survey of young people,
ages 16 – 28,
about their views on the Church
and Christianity in general.

The study group consisted of young people
both within and without the institutional church.

Of those outside the church
91% reported that they find Christians to be judgmental.
85% reported that they find church people to be hypocritical,
and their biggest complaint
was that we no longer “look like Jesus.”

That was in 2007
so those young people are now 25 – 38 years old.
And the older end of the spectrum is now
a generation of people with young kids
whom they are raising with this negative view of Christians,
who fail to look like the One they claim to follow.

Now, this is devestating for the institution of the Church.
But that’s not the Bad News.

The truly Bad News is that,
we who have an interest in passing on the institution
seem to care more about how people view us
and how that view is causing people to stay away from our congregations in droves
than we do that we’ve forgotten what it means to look like Jesus,
what it looks like to FOLLOW Jesus.

“By this people will know you are my disciples,
that you are self-righteous and judgmental?
that you’ve faithfully carried on your denominational doctrines and dogmas?
that you have a really nifty theology?
that all your members tithe
and have an excellent intellectual grasp
of what it means that the Real Presence of Christ is in the Eucharistic elements,
properly distributed according to your local traditions?

NO!

By THIS people will know you are my disciples:
That you have LOVE for one another!

What is the greatest commandment?
“You shall love the LORD, your God,
with all your heart,
and soul,
and mind,
and strength.”

And the second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

On THIS, Jesus tells us,
hang ALL the Law and the Prophets.

The church
followers of Jesus
MUST be known
by our love of God
and our love of neighbor.

This is a radical stance
in a world where we are taught to be divided
into in groups
and out groups.
Where the our institutions and systems are designed
just for that purpose.
And much of the time, we don’t even realize our part in the game.

So Love of God and Neighbor is a radical stance
and it’s one that requires us to do a LOT of introspection.
I’m not talking about navel gazing
but rather introspection that causes us to see our complicity
and draws us to work for change
to work for justice
and to work for reconciliation
for the sake of God’s kingdom.

I know this is hard for Lutherans to swallow.
We have a phobia
an irrational fear
of kingdom work,
because we’ve been taught to be wary of “works righteousness.”

Sometimes it seems like the only time we ever paid attention in Confirmation
was the lesson on works righteousness.
We took that one to heart
and forgot just about everything else.
It’s a pity.

On top of this,
Lutherans tend to be a quiet people.
Ironic, I know,
since the reason that Lutherans exist
comes down to a priest who refused to be quiet.

But we have been quiet for too long.
We were too quiet in the 1920s and 30s
as the Nazi party came into power
with virtually no resistance.

We were too quiet until quite late
in the face of South African Apartheid.

And now we seem to be pretty quiet in the face of our OWN Apartheid:
systemic racism in the United States of America.

Why are we quiet?
Maybe we don’t recognize the reality.
Maybe we’d like to fall back on the luxury of waiting
until we hear “all the facts.”
And meanwhile, unarmed Black and brown men and women
are dying in the streets and on the sidewalks
and on their own porches.

That quietism is proof of our privelege.

What’s the matter? Don’t Lutherans get angry?
I can tell you first hand that we do.
When to pastor changes the liturgy at the last minute,
we get plenty angry.
When children are recruited to serve the already consecrated Communion elements,
we get angry.
When we are asked to sit together as a congregation
instead of sitting in our places of comfort during worship
oh, we get angry at that, too.

That’s the problem.
It’s not that we DON’T get angry:
We get angry about all. the. wrong. stuff.

I don’t want to drag on too long, so all you’re doing is hearing my voice.
In a minute I’ll close my mouth,
we’ll finish the service,
and then I’m going to invite you to stay
and begin the conversations that need to happen
about race in this country.

It’s going to be uncomfortable.
I can guarantee that.
And it will be long, hard work.

But I do want to say just a couple of things about our Gospel reading first.

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus
is a very provocative story.
It can be
and has been
read as a cautionary tale about wealth.

It has also been read as a proof text for the existence of heaven and hell.

That’s fine.
I don’t care to debunk or discuss either of those right now.

But I do want to point out
that there is a clear message here from the lips of Jesus
about a fate that exists
whether you believe this relates to life now or an afterlife
for privileged people
who ignore the plight of those who are suffering in this world.

Check this out:
We don’t know the name of the rich man,
but the rich man definitely knows Lazarus’s name.
He’s aware of Lazarus’ presence
but is indifferent to his plight.

The only comfort that Lazarus has in this world
is that the dogs come and lick his sores.
But the rich man, who wears fancy clothes
and dines richly every day
can’t be bothered to care about poor Lazarus and his suffering.
Can’t be bothered with Lazarus at all
except until they’re both dead and in the place of the dead.
Even there, the rich man still can’t see Lazarus as anything
but a fetch-it boy,
a servant who ought to know his place,
which is to bring relief to the rich man.

In his indifference to Lazarus and his suffering
and in his desire to remain in his privileged position as a man who desires to live in comfort
a great chasm is fixed between him
and the place where Lazarus now resides,
namely, the bosom of Abraham.

Even his plea to Fr. Abraham is self-serving:
Send Lazarus to my brothers.
Not send ME to my brothers to warn them.
Not even send someone to tell my brothers to find their own Lazaruses
and serve THEM,
but serve ME,
serve my FAMILY.

The tragedy of the story
is that the rich man never sees his privilege
and that is what creates the chasm between him and the suffering ones.

Abraham’s reply to the rich man is just,
Look. Your brothers have the Scriptures.
They know what the Scriptures instruct them to do:
To act justly,
to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with God.

Or as Jesus put it, following the Scriptures
to love God
and to love one’s neighbors.
And not only the neighbors, but also the ones we perceive as our enemies.

Dear Lutherans,
Dear Christians,
Dear disciples of Jesus,
We already know what we’re supposed to do.
We already know what we’re supposed to prioritize.
Our scriptures tell us that.

If we don’t believe them
and if we don’t act on them
then neither will we be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.
Amen.

Prayers of the People

Offering [To be donated to the family of Terence Crutcher for unexpected funeral costs]

Anthem
“For the Least” by Wayne L. Wold

Holy, Holy, Holy

Words of Institution

Lord’s Prayer

Communion Hymns
“Son of God, Eternal Savior” (ELW 655)
“Lord, Whose Love in Humble Service” (ELW 712)

Table Blessing and Prayer after Communion

Announcements

Blessing

Sending Song
“God of Grace” (ELW 705)

Brief discussion on racism

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The Church’s Role in Resurrection

Well, I’ve been thinking provocative thoughts again.

This time, it was spurred on by a guy named Chris Hoke, who is a prison chaplain in the Pacific Northwest. I’m currently waiting for his book (Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders) to show up. It’s not really a how-to for prison ministry, but rather a series of testimonies by Chris involving his deeply relational work in the jail system. I’ve heard him reading chunks of it, and can barely wait for the book to get here. Crazy powerful.

In any case, what inspires Chris Hoke to do the kind of ministry he does and to recognize it as Church begins with Hades. In Matthew’s Gospel (16:18), Jesus says to Peter, “You are Petros, and upon this rock I will build my ekklesia” (Ekklesia is some kind of assembly, and we usually translate that word as “church.” Rightly or wrongly.) But Jesus also said, “and the gates of Hades/hell shall not prevail against her.”

Different translations approach the text a little differently. “Gates of hell,” “powers of death,” or simply “gates of Hades.” This isn’t an afterlife imagery for Jesus. Hades is now. Hades is the realm of the dead. We kind of need all of those different translations to give us an idea of the multiple connotations Hades carries. What’s clear: it’s about death. It’s bad. Jesus is against it.

So Jesus has commissioned Peter with imagining how the ekklesia opposes these gates/powers of Hades/hell/death. In 1st Peter, we have the image of Jesus showing up there on Holy Saturday (and in the Orthodox traditions, there are extended stories about this), busting down the gates and setting all of death’s prisoners free. It’s the conclusion of what Jesus’ resurrection does for us: We die a death like his, and we shall have a resurrection like his.

The big idea here is that Jesus has commissioned Peter with the task of moving the church, not toward heaven, but toward the gates of Hades, which shall not prevail against the assembly. That’s freaking amazing imagery, isn’t it?! It makes church so, so, so much more than coming to a building once a week (or even twice a week) to sing some old songs and “get our Jesus” in a wafer and a sip of bad wine, just so we can go home and forget about church again until next time. It’s a job! And it’s MORE than a job: it’s a COMMISSION!

“Go!” says Jesus. And the Lutherans say, “Here we stand.” Ugh.

Chris Hoke’s imagination is what we need. We are a Resurrection people. We’re not just people who have been resurrected (or just resuscitated), but rather we’re people who are called together (assembled) to storm the gates of death. Not in the hereafter, but NOW! TO-DAY!

Where we see the power of death, we need to go knocking down some gates. Or else we’re not the church that Jesus imagined and charged Peter with. We’re … something else. Maybe a really poor version of a country club.

In John 11, we read the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus brings back from the dead.  When Jesus arrives in Bethany (lit. House of the Poor), Lazarus is already dead. He’s in the realm of Hades, locked behind the gates. Jesus speaks his name and tells him to come out.

Then he enlists ordinary people to remove the stone – a hand-crafted artifact designed NOT to be moved, so that the barrier between the dead and the living may be kept intact. But Jesus tells them to move it. This part is critical, because if Lazarus is resurrected behind the stone, he’s still stuck in the realm of the dead, isn’t he?

So the people move the stone. But Lazarus is still wearing his smelly grave clothes, so Jesus tells these same ordinary people, “Unbind him.” And finally Lazarus is able to return to the realm of the living.

Chris Hoke sees in this story a great metaphor for the work of the church. If we are called to crash the gates of Hades and to roll away stones and to unbind the dead so that they may live, it’s important for us to see where the realm of the dead exists for people living today. For hoke, it’s the prison system, especially people confined to solitary imprisonment with no human contact, no human community (except where they are able to subversively build it themselves. There are stories in the book.).

Once people are out of the jail system, it’s like being called back to life with the grave stone still in place. Unless there are willing people who will move the stone and help unbind the death cloths, the prisoner will just die all over again, fall back into the realm of death. For Hoke, those stone obstacles are things like: getting a driver’s license, paying off debt and debt collectors, paying bills, finding a job with a prison record, finding transportation to that job so that one can work and pay all the bills. All of these things, unless someone is able to help move the stone (ordinary people), the prisoner will just go back to prison.

And unless ordinary people will help the revived identify and understand the ways in which they are tied up in a mummy’s clothes, they can’t really be unbound. The gates of Hades will keep a hold on them.

These things are what the church was commissioned for. Moving the stone, unbinding the dead, knocking down the gates of hell. But we need to know where these things are located. For Hoke, it’s the prison system. For Comunidad de Esperanza, for example, it’s the immigration system, the health system, things of this nature.

What do we, as the ekklesia at First Lutheran, recognize as the stones and the grave cloths in people’s lives? If we can’t see where the gates of Hades are, we can’t very well get there to stand against them.

What say you? 

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Sermon manuscript (more or less accurate)

Pentecost 13 or something C
28 August 2016
Luke 14: 1-14ish

In John’s Gospel
Jesus defines himself as the True and Living Way
Or as our translations usually state it:
I am the way, the truth, and the life.
Both of those are valid translations from the Greek
And they can both mean the same thing.

Some people will say that it means
There is no other way to God than through Jesus.
I can get on board with that,
And John seems to bear that out in other places,
But that’s not what I want to focus on today.
It’s a good discussion for another time.

What I DO want to highlight here
Is that Jesus is telling us
That he has an ethic —
A way of behaving in the world.
And as his followers
His disciples
His students
He is the one we’re called to imitate.

We imitate one another all the time,
But that doesn’t do a lot of good
Because our imitation of one another all too often turns to rivalry
Which can lead to resentment and damaged relationships
And even, in extreme cases, to violence and death.

But we’re called to learn from Jesus,
This living and true path
To turn away from imitation of one another
And towards HIM.

Case in point,
The parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading.

When you are invited by anyone to a marriage feast,
do not sit down in a place of honor.

First of all, I should point out this idea of a marriage feast.
When Jesus talks about a marriage feast,
We ought to keep in mind that he’s talking about the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is like a marriage feast.
There’s an eschatalogical component to Jesus’ teachings about weddings
And feasts and banquets
And it goes back to Isaiah’s prophecies
Concerning feasts where the poor and hungry will be fed and so on.

Anyway, we should always keep that in the backs of our minds.

But
When you’re invited to a marriage feast
Don’t sit down in a place of honor.

Why?

Lest someone greater be invited to take YOUR seat
And you will be shamed and will be seated at a less honorable place.
That would be awkward, wouldn’t it?

No, when you’re invited, go to the lowest place
So that when the host comes and sees you there,
He’ll say, “No, you move up to a higher place.”
That way you’ll be honored in front of everyone.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say that you’ll displace someone else,
Causing THAT person DISHONOR or SHAME:
Just that you will be invited to greater honor.

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled
And he who humbles himself will be exalted.

Whoever claims honor for himself will find shame
But those who begin in humility will be honored.

See how Jesus is playing honor and shame off of one another?

We Westerners don’t really understand honor and shame
In the same way that people in other cultures do.
We’re too individualistic to really “get it,”
Because we care less about what THE GROUP
Or the rest of the culture thinks about us,
As long as we have our self-esteem, right?

Haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.
C’est la vie.

Adolescents probably get shame more than we adults do.
When we’re teenagers, our peers’ opinions matter a LOT,
Which is why so many people despair when bullies
Fat shame them
Or thin shame them
Or slut shame them
Or any permutation of that phenomenon.

It feels like permanent judgment to adolescents
But most of us,
When we get out of high school
Learn to take all that stuff in stride and move on.

That’s what Western society teaches us to do.
And there’s some good in that.

But that’s not the case in the Middle East, for example.
To be moved from a place of honor to a LOWER status
Meant social death.
That’s what THEIR society taught them.
Do this, avoid that, so that you may maintain honor and stay away from shame.

Our imitation of culture in the west teaches us to blow it off
Because the individual is more important than the group.
The imigation of culture in the Middle East
Teaches people to take what the group says seriously
Because the collective is more important than the individual.

Imitation.
Jesus, the living and true way,
Is telling us to learn – not from culture, but from him.
Go to the place of least honor first.
Not because dishonoring ourselves is good,
But because claiming honor for oneself means the dishonoring of others.
It creates rivalry
That can lead to discord and violence.

Take yourselves out of that system
Is what Jesus is telling us.
Go to the bottom of the heap
And you will be exalted.

The last shall be first
And the first shall be last.

Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it.
Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

This is the ethic of God’s Kingdom.
Pour yourself out for the sake of the other.
That’s what Jesus did for us.

He had every right to claim the throne,
But instead he chose the cross.
And in doing so, he was lifted to the Father’s right hand
And given the name above all names.

Take up your cross and follow me, Jesus says.
Not because it’s noble to suffer.
Not because it’s Good to be dishonored.
But because it’s the only way out of human rivalry that threatens to doom our species
And maybe all species on the planet.

As Americans, where do we claim the place of honor?
Most powerful nation on earth?
Maybe.
Once upon a time that was Rome.
Once upon a time that was Britain
And France
And Spain.
Where are they now?

Where else do we claim the place of honor?
In our rights?
I have the RIGHT to free speech.
I can say whatever I want, no matter how much it defames you.
There may be consequences to that, but I have the RIGHT to it!

I have the RIGHT to open carry my sidearm (and to dare and call it a peacemaker)
Even though the presence of this lethal technology might terrify and intimidate you.

I have the RIGHT to sue your ass off for some petty infringement on my liberties,
Even though doing so may bankrupt you and put you on the streets.

Our government has the RIGHT to defend its political and economic interests at home and abroad,
Even if it means a whole lot of “collateral damage.”

I have the RIGHT to an abortion,
Even though it snuffs out a human life,
Even while my neighbors might be suffering from infertility and wanting to share their love with an adopted baby.

(See, I’ll skewer the left as well as the right. Just so you know I’m trying to be “Fair and Balanced.”)

The point is,
We very often insist on our rights
Even when having them upheld means that others will suffer for it.

We’re ALL guilty of taking a seat in the place of honor
When taking a lower place would eliminate the curse of imitative rivalry.

The lowest place Jesus went was to the cross and to the grave,
Although he was God
He did not consider equality with God something to cling to
But rather he emptied himself
Taking the form of a slave
Taking the spot without honor at the table
He EMPTIED himself.
Of honor
Of dignity
Of his RIGHTS.

Let THIS mind be in you
that was also in him.

Amen.

[Inspired primarily by Michael Hardin’s lectionary commentary at Preaching Peace, and by Paul Neucherlein’s commentary on the Girardian Lectionary site.}

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