On wealth, poverty, and caring without being overwhelmed (reflections on Luke 16:19-31)

16:19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.

16:20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,

16:21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.

16:22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.

16:23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.

16:24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

16:25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

16:26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

16:27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–

16:28 for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’

16:29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

16:30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’

16:31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

-Jesus (Luke 16:19-31)

What a story Jesus tells. It’s a story that might raise some big questions: questions of heaven and afterlife, questions of hell and eternal conscious torment, questions of works and faith, questions of wealth and poverty and its relation to salvation. So many questions.

I resist answering these questions here—both because this reflection is supposed to be brief, and because I think these questions are better wrestled with in community than explained with too-easy answers from just one person. 


I also don’t think these questions are quite the main point of Jesus’ story. I think the point is less abstract and more pragmatic. It’s not so much about what doctrines we believe, but about the way we live. 

And—although it feels worth noting that the materially poor person in our story is named, and that in this naming there is an affirmation of dignity—the story focuses much more on the rich person than on Lazarus. The rich person is the one who speaks, the one whose story is followed from beginning to end. 

It is this rich person who was aware of Lazarus’ illness and hunger, lying there at his doorway—he even knew him by name—but nonetheless ignored him. New Testament and Jewish Studies professor Amy Jill-Levine suggests in Short Stories by Jesus that perhaps Lazarus’ community had carried him there because they knew the rich person had plenty to share. But the rich person did not share. The dogs tried to take care of Lazarus in the way they knew how, by cleaning his wounds; the rich person did less than the dogs did. 

Even after death, the rich person is still trying to order Lazarus around. He still doesn’t quite seem to think of Lazarus as an equal, as fully human. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, he tells Abraham. Send him to my father’s house to warn my brothers. In other words, basically: I still think Lazarus is here to serve me. I have no regrets about the way I treated him in life. I don’t see what was wrong with it. Send Lazarus. Send Lazarus

As Dr. Amy Jill-Levine writes, perhaps the rich person “has not yet learned what landed him in torment in the first place. He wants to see his brothers saved from torment, not to ease the pain felt by the millions who lack food, shelter, or health care” (Short Stories by Jesus, p. 291).

In a world full of these kinds of pains, I wonder what Jesus’ story asks of us. Most of us may not be filthy rich like the sumptuously-feasting man. But perhaps the story asks of us, too: How do we see people? How do we treat people? Do we want to see people’s needs met and their pains eased? What would that look like? What might we do? 

Several years ago, I led a small group through a curriculum called Lazarus at the Gate, offered by the Boston Faith and Justice Network. One thing I still remember from that study is the idea that globalization has placed millions of “Lazaruses” at our metaphorical gate. We know so much more than people in other times in history did about what’s going on all over our world, including and especially the ways things are difficult and people are suffering. Climate disasters, wars, and displacement, just to name a few things, bring so many Lazaruses to our gates—or at least our phone and computer screens—every day we’re paying attention.

I feel this. I want to help. And yet, I also feel the reality that we as finite fragile humans were not designed to process all of the information that is thrown at us all the time. We did not evolve to be able to hold in our minds and hearts and bodies all the concerns of the world. It is too much for us. 

Humans spent most of human history living in villages and kinship networks small enough so that we could know what was going on with everyone—the good and the bad. We could serve and help one another well within this context. People’s suffering was not too much to know. It did not overwhelm us on a regular basis.

I don’t have easy solutions to these tensions. But I do want all of us to find the good that we can do and do it. To find ways of not getting so overwhelmed with the needy world’s needs that we can’t do anything.

I was recently reading Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil’s book Becoming Brave: Finding the Courage to Pursue Racial Justice Now. In it there’s a reflection from Catholic Bishop Ken Untener often known as the Romero Prayer. I was struck by these words from this prayer: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.”

We can’t do everything. But we can do something. We can do something to share food and other resources with one another, with our communities. We can do something to ease people’s suffering. We can do something to take care of one another.

And, in faith communities that share this as a value and a goal, we can do so much more than any of us could do on our own. Here’s to finding, creating, and building those kinds of communities. 

As always, all thoughts are welcome – about the story Jesus tells, about how you’ve been able to care for the Lazaruses around us without being overwhelmed, or anything else this makes you think about.

Gutsy faithfulness in a world where money fails (reflections on Luke 16:1-13)

I’ve got another church eblast reflection for you all – unabridged (read: slightly longer) version! 

This one’s on Luke 16:1-13:

16:1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.

16:2 So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’

16:3 Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.

16:4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’

16:5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’

16:6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’

16:7 Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’

16:8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

16:9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

16:10 Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.

16:11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?

16:12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?

16:13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

When we read parables like these, it can be tempting to try to figure out who exactly every character in the story represents. This is called allegorical interpretation, and many biblical scholars have pushed back against this approach.

Perhaps Jesus’ stories were meant to be just that—stories. Conversation starters. Feeling-evokers. Thought-provokers. Open-ended, with multiple possible interpretations and takeaways. Maybe that’s the beauty of the parables—even though it also makes them…difficult.

I mention this because I am not at all convinced that the “master”—a fraught word, if I ever heard one, given the U.S. history of slavery—in our story this week is meant to represent God. Not only does he engage in dubiously-just firing practices—he lets the steward go based on an accusation from a third party without even bothering to hear his side of the story (v. 1-2)—but also, on top of this, his massive wealth is persistently described as “unjust” or “unrighteous.” 

Perhaps the steward, then, feels free to play fast and loose with the master’s money because he knows the whole system is unjust. 

What does it mean to be faithful, in a world where a few rich folks hoard while masses of people go hungry? Perhaps crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s when it comes to wealth management takes a back seat to figuring out how to survive—and helping others survive too. Maybe strict adherence to rules and regulations is less important than mercy. And surely mercy is what the steward shows to the debtors when he tells them to lessen the amounts of their debts. 

The steward in our story is often referred to as the “shrewd manager,” but I feel like the word “shrewd” can have some funky connotations. In some church contexts, people use the story of the “shrewd manager” to say that we as Christians should also be more shrewd. As in, we should be more cunning. As in, it’s okay to manipulate or mislead people if it’s all for a higher cause. To me, this is hardly what it means to be “children of the light” (v. 8). 

Perhaps it helps to know that the word translated as “shrewd” is often translated elsewhere as “prudent.” I’m not here for the manipulative cunning, but I’m okay with Jesus encouraging his followers to be prudent.

Prudent, like counting the cost of our discipleship (see Luke 14:25-35). Prudent, like acknowledging that all wealth in our unjust system is in fact unjust—and, accordingly, holding onto material stuff lightly. Prudent, like refusing to spend our lives serving a cruel death-dealing capitalist system that does not love us—refusing to destroy our souls in service of wealth that will one day be gone (v. 9). 

(This word translated as “be gone,” by the way, is actually quite strong in the original Greek; it could be translated as “fails,” “ceases,” or “dies.” As in, money will fail. Money will one day cease to exist. It will die.)

In light of all this, I wonder what we might learn from this passage about what it means to be faithful. Some of us may have been taught that faithfulness is a passive thing, measured by the sins we avoid and the things we do not do. But in Jesus’ story, faithfulness is active. It’s creative. It’s risky. It’s gutsy. It requires intelligence and courage. It involves trying something and being willing to face the consequences of our actions.

The steward is hardly a meek rule-follower. But there is something about him to be admired. With his actions he calls out the lie that unjust wealth is to be served at all costs. He points toward a different way.

Like this steward, we too take part in unjust systems. Under patriarchal white supremacist capitalism, a few rich folks keep getting richer, and any cost is acceptable in terms of human life and wellbeing. We may not be able to completely escape this system—but we can resist it. We can make choices that fly in the face of its logic. We can flout its expectations. 

We can rest. We can play. We can build genuine relationships that aren’t just transactional, based on what we can get out of someone. We can be radically for others and refuse to compete. We can treat ourselves with kindness and compassion. We can share resources generously, knowing there is enough for all. 

We can’t necessarily avoid unjust systems, but we can refuse to serve them as masters. We can build something new—something sacred and beautiful—in the midst of them. 

Peace to you this week. If you have thoughts about what faithfulness means to you (and how that’s changed over time), or how you live in unjust systems without serving these systems as masters, or anything else this passage makes you think about, holler in the comments or otherwise. I’d love to hear from you.

Switch those seats (reflections on Luke 14:1,7-14)

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.

“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.

But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

-Luke 14:1,7-14

This week I’ve got another (longer version of my) lectionary reflection from the church eblast for y’all—on taking up space, adopting a learning posture, expanding our circles, and questioning the assumption that some people cannot repay:

In our scripture passage this week, Jesus has two things to say. The first is for people invited to a banquet. Don’t sit in the place of honor, he says. Sit instead at the lowest place. The second is for those hosting a banquet. Don’t invite those who can repay the invitation in turn. Instead, invite those who can’t.

These are instructions born out of a world pretty far removed from my own. I don’t immediately relate to this idea of seats of honor—or, in the Greek, it’s possible that this refers to a whole different room, or at least a different table, where the most valued guests are seated. 

I also don’t readily connect with the idea of throwing a banquet for the people Jesus calls the poor ones, the maimed ones, the lame ones, the blind ones. For one thing, that sounds like it calls for more house space than I have on hand. The best I generally have time and energy for is inviting a couple people over for brunch. (My husband Ken makes a mean buttermilk pancake.)

The only time I’ve really come close to throwing a banquet was when Ken and I got married. But we made a seating chart and had everyone pick up a card with their name, table number, and dinner order on it as they walked in, so that everyone would know where to sit. No one needed to be moved from a more honorable place to a lesser one, or vice versa. Problem solved. (Although all of our guests pretty much fell in the “friends and relatives” category, so I suppose we didn’t exactly follow Jesus’ second instruction.)

I wonder if—for those of us for whom throwing massive feasts and being invited to such feasts is not necessarily part of our everyday lives—the specific context of a banquet is not the only way for us to understand what Jesus is saying here. I wonder if his words could be taken as a broader life philosophy—relevant, really, whenever we walk into a room. I wonder if they’re more about our general mindset as we approach life and show up in community.

We might not be explicitly ranking people by level of honor and seating them accordingly. But when we gather, there are certainly those who take up more space and those who take up less space. There are certainly those who walk into a meeting expecting to speak whenever they feel like it and be heard, and there are those who expect to mostly listen, perhaps speaking only when spoken to.

Cathy Park Hong’s words from Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning have stuck with me: “The man or woman who feels comfortable holding court at a dinner party will speak in long sentences, with heightened dramatic pauses, assured that no one will interject while they’re mid-thought, whereas I, who am grateful to be invited, speak quickly in clipped compressed bursts, so that I can get a word in before I’m interrupted” (p. 185). 

Maybe this is one way the idea of seats with more or less honor plays out in our world today. Who feels free to speak their mind, and to do so at their own pace? Who is struggling to get a word in? How can we all be more mindful of these dynamics so that those who tend to dominate can learn to make more room for others, and those who feel insecure can learn to speak confidently?

When Jesus invites us—and particularly those of us who would not naturally assume we belong there—to take the lowest place, I see this as an invitation into a posture of learning. I’m reminded of theologian Willie James Jennings’ reflections on “the tragic history of Christians who came not to learn anything from indigenous peoples but only to instruct them, and to exorcize and eradicate anything and everything that seemed strange and therefore anti-Christian” (After Whiteness: An Education in Belonging, p. 37). 

Christians as a group have often seated themselves at the head of the table. How different our relationship with the world around us would be if we learned to sit in the lowest seat—if we learned to engage with our broader communities as people here to learn, here to listen, here to serve. Not here to judge or instruct, and certainly not here to control or to try to eradicate anything we don’t like. We want to walk into rooms with a posture of humility and openness.

When Jesus talks about what to do and not do—or really, who to invite and not invite—when you’re hosting a banquet, then, maybe we can think about this too in the context of how we show up in community. 

Jesus invites us to expand our circles. To think beyond the people who immediately come to mind as the first people we want to hang out with. To take the risk of reaching out and trying to make a new friend—not knowing whether or not this person will be able to “repay” us in whatever ways are meaningful to us. 

More than just being open to expanding our circles, though, I think Jesus also invites us to consider what we’re hoping to get out of a relationship, and to be willing to hold these things loosely. We’re not just looking for a transaction. We’re not just looking for what we can get from others. We’re looking for a genuine, mutual relationship. 

Personally, I doubt that the host who throws a banquet and only invites those who supposedly can’t repay them really doesn’t receive anything in the process. They might not get a banquet invitation back—because who has the resources for that these days?—but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something in it for them—in a good way. The guests may have been written off by a society that only values people for their money or beauty or status, but I have no doubt these folks have stories and gifts and personality quirks and character qualities the banquet host would be honored to be in the presence of—not to mention just enjoy.  

It’s a matter of learning to see differently from how our capitalistic society sees. In God’s beloved community there is no ranking of people. There is no one unworthy of a seat at the table.

Those who come to the table thinking they don’t belong are assured that they do indeed belong. And those who come to the table with their own agendas and arrogance and assumptions are invited into a different way of being.

Peace and belonging to you this week.

The unbound woman (reflections on Luke 13:10-17)

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.

But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

-Luke 13:10-17

I wrote a reflection on this passage for my church’s newsletter this week, and I thought I’d share a longer version of it here:

I’ve been blown away by the stories we’ve heard these last couple Sunday evenings. One of the themes I’ve heard again and again is a longing for—and a great joy when we experience—a kind of Christianity that is more concerned with love than with rules and regulations. Many of us have spent time in religious communities that were perhaps a little too caught up in their own rules. Perhaps some religious leaders made us feel like there was a certain list of things to do (or not do) in order to be right with God and respected in the community.

The synagogue ruler in our story from the gospel of Luke was one of these leaders. Jesus cures a woman from an ailment that literally, physically caused her body to be bent over for eighteen years. The appropriate communal response would be joy, delight, wonder, celebration. Throwing a big party. Praising God, as the woman does (v. 13). Rejoicing with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15, 1 Cor 12:26). 

Instead, this particular religious leader is indignant (v. 14). He’s displeased. He’s angry. He’s pissed because Jesus didn’t follow the rules. He misses the wonder of a sacred moment of healing because it didn’t fit his prior expectation of what holiness looks like. 

The synagogue leader, then, instead of addressing Jesus directly, speaks to the crowd. He tells them to come to be healed on the other six days, not on the Sabbath. It’s as if he’s blaming the woman who was cured, trying to make her feel ashamed for her own healing. 

And she didn’t even do anything. She didn’t talk to Jesus, grab onto his cloak, shout at him, fall on her knees before him, or do any of the other things people often do in other gospel stories when they want Jesus to notice them. She was just there (v. 11). Jesus was the one who initiated with her. He saw her, called her over, and told her, you are set free (v. 12).

The rule about not working on the Sabbath is important to the religious leader. But perhaps it’s important for the wrong reasons. Perhaps in trying so hard to follow all the religious rules, he’s missing the point of them all. He’s missing the point of Sabbath—a time of restoration and healing. 

On the Sabbath, as Jesus points out, even the most rule-abiding religious leaders would not hesitate to do what is necessary for the wellbeing of one of their oxen or donkeys (v. 15). Just so, Jesus does not hesitate to do what was necessary for the wellbeing of the bent-over woman. The analogy is even clearer in the Greek: the same Greek word is used for loosing or untying the ox from the manger in v. 15 and for loosing or untying the woman from her ailment in v. 16.  (A related word is also used in v. 12 to say that the woman was released from her ailment.)

I like this image of loosing or untying—as a donkey is loosed so he can go take a drink, and as a woman is loosed from her bent-over-ness. The word unbound—also the title of Tarana Burke’s memoir about starting the Me Too Movement— comes to mind as well. Jesus unbound this woman. Perhaps this is one image that can help us better picture what liberation can look like. 

Sometimes ideas like justice and liberation can seem a little vague. What do they actually look like? Sometimes, at least, they look like loosing, like untying. They look like people who have been bound for many long years becoming unbound. Standing up straight. Walking with the confidence of a beloved child of God, whether or not the world around them affirms this reality. Finding spaces where this reality is affirmed.

As a community, we can cultivate liberating spaces where we unbind one another. Many of us have been bent over by spirits of white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, materialism, greed, selfishness, narcissism, toxic individualism. The good news is that Jesus is here to untie us, to set us free. 

Sometimes we wonder where God is in this world. I think God is wherever liberation is happening. Where there is curing, unbinding, healing—that’s where God is. Where there is beloved community, that’s where God is. Religious rules optional.

What does the metaphor of untying or unbinding make you think of? What other images might help us understand what liberation looks like?

Post at Feminism & Religion – Jesus, temptation, and gender

I’ve enjoyed being able to contribute a couple of articles to Feminism & Religion in the last couple months. Here’s another!

It’s about the second temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, as told in Luke 4. We talked about this passage in a church small group a few weeks back, and our conversation got me thinking. How might Jesus have been tempted differently if he had been a woman?

The piece is pretty speculative, but I’ve really come around to the view that that’s often how scripture operates at its best. It brings up questions, makes us think about things, gets us going off on what might seem like tangents but really are the things that are real and pressing in our lives – and I think we’re meant to bring all of this to the Bible and faith and church and everything.

So, check out the article, and feel free to holler here or at Feminism & Religion or otherwise if you have thoughts!

God lifts the lowly: reflections on Mary’s song

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

50 His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” -Mary (Luke 1:46-55, NRSV)

In these verses, Mary breaks out into a song often known as the Magnificat. To me, Mary’s song is kind of what Christmas is all about. So, with Christmas pretty much here, I thought I’d offer some reflections on this songadapted from a sermon I wrote for a preaching class back in the day (well, three and a half years ago) in seminary.

When Mary breaks out in spontaneous song, in rich prophetic poetry, she starts with her own situation. I imagine how she might have been feeling: 

God―the God of the universe and of my ancestors―God has visited me! Out of the blue. I thought I knew God, loved God, wanted to serve God, but I never would have imagined this. God has chosen me for an incredible and miraculous task. Me! Not someone older and wiser, or from a rich family, or from Jerusalem, the center of everything, or at least a nice little suburb of it. God chose me.

“My soul magnifies the Lord” and “my spirit rejoices.” I feel my whole being bursting forth in irrepressible praise of this God. This God is Lord―powerful, authoritative. This God is Savior―the one who sees those who suffer, and delivers them and sets them free. And this God―Lord and Savior―has looked with favor on me! 

God is doing something. The angel talked about a kingdom with no end. The throne of David. This is big! And I get to be a part of it. Surely all generations will call me blessed. 

This is a great thing. This is a holy God.

Mary reflects on her own situation and praises God from the bottom of her heart for God’s work in her life. That’s all in verses 46-49. 

Then, around verse 50, something changes. The scope gets broader. Mary starts talking about what all this means about God in general. From generation to generation. About God’s character. About what God does in the world. 

Mary says that God is merciful. God is strong. God is powerful. God helps. God remembers. God keeps promises. God lifts up, and God brings down.

Mary starts talking about other people, too. In particular, two kinds of people. On the one hand, we have those who are lowly, those who fear God, those who are hungry. On the other hand, we have those who are proud in their hearts, those who are powerful, those who are rulers, those who are rich. This is how the world is. 

But for Mary, this is not how things remain. God reverses the expected order of things. God does not leave the lowly down low, but lifts them up. God does not leave the hungry starving, but fills them with good things. God does not leave those who fear God without help or without mercy. 

And God does not leave the proud to think they’re all that; God scatters them. God does not leave the rulers in their thrones; God brings them down. God does not leave the rich thinking they have everything because they have money; God sends them away empty. 

Mary is full of hope and bursting with joy and good news. She bursts into song! 

But is this good news to us? Maybe? Maybe a mixed bag. 

It depends: Who are we in this passage? Are we the lowly who are lifted up by God, or are we the powerful who are scattered by God? How do we know? How do we feel about this total reversal of power and money and status? 

Let’s talk about the rich, proud, and powerful first. Are there ways in which we fall into this category? One way of thinking about this may be to think about what we feel entitled to. What are our expectations for life? For how people and systems and the world will treat us? What kinds of things are we surprised, or bitter, or disappointed not to get?

Our expectations and entitlements can take many shapes. Perhaps we’ve felt entitled to be offered a job we applied for. Maybe we expect to get an A on a paper when we spend a lot of time on it. We might feel entitled to get a raise if we’ve been working hard, or for our kid to be accepted to a certain college if they’ve been working hard. We might expect that if we invest wisely, the stock market will generally go up and make us some money. Perhaps we have enjoyed good physical health and assume we always will, or we have not had any mental health issues and assume we never will. 

Maybe life is going well. Perhaps we are among the people favored by the way the world works, and we expect that that will continue.

When we’re in this place, and things are going well, the kind of reversal of expectations that we see in our passage does not sound like good news. It can be offensive. It can be threatening. It up-ends the social order that has benefited us. What are we to think of a God who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly?

Maybe a first step is to try to enter into the experience of people who may be or may feel lowly, hungry, or poor.

In our culture sometimes we separate out things like physical hunger and thirst and poverty from spiritual hunger and spiritual needs. In Mary’s time and culture, in Mary’s worldview, all of these things tended to go together. Mary lived in poverty among a minority people, a minority ethnic and religious group, oppressed by a very powerful and often ruthless empire. For Mary, the lowly are those who fear God, and those who fear God are the hungry, and those who are hungry are Israel, the servant of God, and Israel is the community that needs God’s help and mercy. 

These are the people at the bottom of the social order. The people who know they need God to do something.

What does it mean in our time and place for people to be lowly? Are there ways in which we identify with the lowly, the humble, the hungry?

Some of us might be underpaid, or undervalued. We may feel that we’ve failed in some way, or that life has not treated us well. Some of us belong to groups that are considered lowly or are not treated well in our society―perhaps groups based on gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, language, citizenship status, mental health status, socioeconomic class. 

God lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud. 

God affirmed and lifted up the dignity of a peasant girl from the middle of nowhere in Nazareth. God affirms and lifts up the dignity of underpaid employees. God affirms and lifts up the dignity of people working in all sorts of professions that might be undervalued, maybe even considered lacking in dignity: of people who take out trash, and drive buses, and clean buildings, and flip burgers, and wait tables. 

God affirms and lifts up the worth and value of people who do not have a job, who are unemployed or underemployed. God affirms and lifts up people who don’t have adequate housing, or who don’t have housing at all. 

God affirms and lifts up people who live in fear of deportation. God affirms and lifts up communities of color who are on the receiving end of racism and violence―from individuals, and from government systems that are not set up in their favor. 

God lifts up the lowly.

Mary says, surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed. Mary―a young woman from the rural underclass of society, in a time when women’s testimonies were not considered valid in court―raises her voice and testifies to this God who lifts up the lowly. 

Mary knows that God fills up the hungry with good things. The world honors and lifts up those who have money and power and self-assurance, but God honors and lifts up those who are hungry, and lowly, small, and humble. Mary knows that this is who God is, because this is who God has been to her―and because there is something about the baby she carries that brings hope. 

Jesus brings hope. The child of God chose to be carried and birthed and raised by Mary. He chose to be born into poverty in the middle of nowhere, born lowly. He identified with hungry and hurting people wherever he went.

God chose to become flesh and dwell with us, in the incarnation, in Jesus. God’s incarnation shows us the kind of kingdom that has come and is coming. It is a different kind of order from the social orders we have now. Jesus shows us that God lifts up the lowly. That there is justice. That there is unexpected reversal. That there is mercy. That there is hope.

In the ways in which you identify with the lowly, how might you lift up your voice like Mary and give glory to this God? To see and join in the ways God is lifting you up and lifting up those around you? To speak about your reality and about justice and about God’s mercy? 

In the ways in which you identify with the powerful, are you ready to listen to the lowly ones God raises up? To be in relationship with people for whom life has been an uphill battle rather than smooth sailing? To live in a way that bears witness to the truth that there is more to life than wealth and power and fame? To see and join in with God’s work of lifting up the lowly?

God lifts up the lowly. God is merciful. There is hope for us all.

Wishing you a joyful, omicron-free Christmas. And stay tuned―I plan to be back next week with some of my favorite books from 2021.

Look up, receive sight: a community-minded take on Zacchaeus

I’m thankful for another opportunity to give a brief sermon at my church, Lake Burien Presbyterian. If you prefer a video version, it’s on YouTube here, and my part starts around 40:15.

Here’s the passage—it’s a long one, since we’re using this thing called the “Narrative Lectionary,” which tends to look at longer passages of scripture all at once as opposed to chopping them up into more digestible pieces with less of their surrounding context intact—and then the short sermon is below it.

Luke 18:31-19:10 (NRSV)

31 Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. 33 After they have flogged him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise again.” 34 But they understood nothing about all these things; in fact, what he said was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.

35 As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” 38 Then he shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 39 Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 40 Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me see again.” 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.” 43 Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Our passage this morning is made up of three stories: first, Jesus tells the twelve apostles about what’s going to happen to him in Jerusalem, and they don’t really get it; then, Jesus restores sight to a blind person who is begging outside Jericho; then, we get Jesus’ interaction with the chief tax collector Zacchaeus. 

In thinking about what ties these three stories together, something that stands out to me is the idea of “looking up.”

There’s a Greek word that’s used four times in this passage, that can either be translated “look up” or “receive sight.”

We see it three times in Jesus’ interaction with the blind man. When Jesus asks, what do you want me to do for you? the blind man answers, literally, Lord, that I might look up, or Lord, that I might receive sight. Then Jesus says to him, look up, or receive sight, your faith has saved you. And, immediately, Luke tells us, the blind man looks up, or receives sight

In the next story, Luke uses this same word to say that Jesus looked up and saw Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree. More on that in a minute.

The only section of our passage where this word is not used is the first section. Here Jesus takes the twelve apostles aside and gives them some real talk—not for the first time—about how he is going to be mocked and flogged and killed, and then rise again. And all these things that Jesus says here are hidden from the apostles. In other words, the apostles do not look up—they do not receive sight—to understand what Jesus is saying.

I like this idea of “looking up.” It sounds really hopeful to me, and I need that. 

For any musical nerds among us, it’s the opposite of the song Jean Valjean and his fellow incarcerated people sing at the beginning of Les Mis: Look Down. Look down, they sing. Keep your eyes on your work. Don’t think about the injustice you’re experiencing. Don’t think about the people you love. They’ve all forgotten you. There is no hope. You’re here until you die. Look down.

Look up is the opposite of this. It’s suggesting that, however improbable it might seem, there is still hope.

I wonder, in our own time and place, with all of its different forms of unjust incarceration, and immigrant detention, and economic exploitation of all sorts, and everything that is wrong and unjust in our world, what might it look like to look up, to receive sight?

In our text, for the blind person who was begging, it meant being able to navigate day to day life more easily. Being able to see things that are beautiful in the world. Being less vulnerable to being taken advantage of by others. Being able to work. It meant having people praising God because of him, rather than assuming he sinned in some way to deserve his blindness. 

This blind man shouts out his needs even though others tell him to be quiet, and Jesus listens. Jesus asks and cares about what he wants. Jesus brings healing to his body in a way that affects his whole life. 

The blind man looks up, receives sight, dares to hope that things could be different. He dares to value his own healing and restoration to community.

What about in the story of Zacchaeus? It might sound a little odd that Jesus is the one who looks up or receives sight here. 

On the other hand, we know that Zacchaeus is a tax collector. We know he was working on behalf the Roman Empire to extract taxes from his own people, to economically exploit his own people. We know he was an active participant in the heartless ways of the empire.

And not only was Zacchaeus a tax collector, he was a chief tax collector. This is the only place in the whole New Testament where that word, “chief tax collector,” is used, which seems to imply that it was a pretty rare thing, a pretty high-up position. To riff off of Miguel Escobar’s analogy from two weeks ago, maybe Zacchaeus isn’t just your ordinary developer working to gentrify the community, but, rather, the head of the whole redevelopment project—and the one who’s making the most profit off of it all. 

When the text says that Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus because of the crowd, I wonder whether it was really just that he was short, or if it was also that people kind of elbowed him out of the way. I wonder if maybe they saw him, and recognized who he was, and intentionally tried to close off his line of sight and shut him out. After all, they had plenty of good reasons to hate him. 

Given all this, I wonder if Jesus, in his humanity, had this moment of looking up at Zacchaeus, and receiving sight—receiving the insight, or realizing—that this was the person he needed to talk with. This was the person God wanted to deal with in this moment—this complicated person, who was doing a lot of harm, who was a perpetrator of economic exploitation, and who was also genuinely curious about who Jesus was. 

Jesus, like the blind man, looks up, receives sight, dares to hope that things could be different. He dares to value Zacchaeus’ healing and restoration to community.

In a typical white evangelical mindset, where everything is just about me and Jesus, it’s easy to make this story just about Zacchaeus and Jesus. But the actual story we get here is not just about Zacchaeus and Jesus. Instead, it’s deeply embedded in the community Zacchaeus is a part of. 

Jesus says, Zacchaeus, hurry and come down from the tree, and Zacchaeus does so. Then the next piece of dialogue we get is actually from the community. All the people who see begin to grumble and say, ‘he has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Then, the very next thing that happens is that Zacchaeus stands and says, look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.

I think it’s easy sometimes, at least for me, to read people’s grumbling in this passage as a bad thing, like they just don’t get what Jesus is doing. But I wonder if, at least in this case, the grumbling is actually really important.

Zacchaeus’ community is naming the wrong Zacchaeus is doing. They’re voicing how their community is stressed and suffering because of it. They’re publicly calling Zacchaeus to account for the ways his actions have harmed others and especially the poor. 

And Zacchaeus responds to their complaints. He takes some significant steps to try to make things right. He makes a public commitment to engage in economic redistribution—in something like reparations. Zacchaeus engages in a kind of restorative justice, trying to make things right in his community.

Zacchaeus is not just a greedy or sinful person in some abstract sense, where he just needs to confess his sins to God and be forgiven and feel better about himself and move on. Zacchaeus has been doing things that harm his whole community.

And so, likewise, the restoration Jesus brings is not just for Zacchaeus but also for the whole community. Jesus says, today salvation has come to this house—not just to Zacchaeus as an individual but also to all of the people Zacchaeus is in economic relationship with. 

As Pat Thompson pointed out two Sundays ago, in reflecting on the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son, the whole is not complete without the lost piece. And Jesus says at the end of today’s passage, the son of man came to seek out and to save the lost. Zacchaeus has been lost, and the community was not complete without him. The community was not whole and healthy while Zacchaeus was still cheating and defrauding and oppressing and getting richer at the expense of others. And Jesus’ healing is for this whole community.

With this Jesus, with this kind of God, we can look up. We can receive sight. We can have hope. 

We can have courage to explore what economic redistribution might look like for us, in our communities. We can look up and see that there is enough to go around. And we can join Jesus, and join Zacchaeus’ community, in calling to account the chief tax collectors, so to speak, in our own communities. We can be hopeful that there might be some like Zacchaeus who are willing to learn to see things differently. We can be hopeful that we might see our communities restored and healed.

To dust you will return: the Good Samaritan, Martha, and Lent

Below is the text of Luke 10:25-42, followed by a brief reflection, an edited version of which is a part of my church’s Lenten devotional series. The idea of the series is to connect narrative passages from the book of Luke to Lenten ideas like lament, fasting, sorrow, repentance, and humility, and to reflect on the questions people ask in the text as well as the questions the text might surface for us.

25  Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  26  He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”  27  He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  28  And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” 29  But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

30  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead.  31  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.  32  So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  33  But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.  34  He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  35  The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’  36  Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  37  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

38  Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.  39  She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.  40  But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”  41  But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;  42  there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

As I think about Luke 10:25-42—the story of the Good Samaritan, and then Martha’s interaction with Jesus—in light of the season of Lent, I think about the traditional words of Ash Wednesday: remember you are dust, and to dust you will return. With these words we acknowledge our human mortality, how fragile and vulnerable and brief our lives are. 

I see this to dust you will return vulnerability in the man beaten by robbers and left half dead. I see it in the way the priest and the Levite pass him by.

I’ve often assumed that the man was left unconscious, but as I read the story again, I wonder if we are meant to imagine him watching, injured and helpless, as one religious leader and then another glances at him, sizes him up, decides it isn’t worth getting involved, crosses the road, and keeps walking. Sometimes being abandoned and ignored in our distress is a kind of secondary trauma every bit as weighty as the original wounds.

In Lent, we remember that we, too, are vulnerable. Sometimes we are the ones who show mercy; sometimes we are the ones whose vulnerability calls forth mercy in others. We are all neighbors to one another, God’s children together—in need of mercy, and invited to be merciful.

I also see this to dust you will return vulnerability in Martha’s question to Jesus: Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Jesus, don’t you see the things that overwhelm me with anxiety? The people I feel let down by? The difficulty of changing anything, or of even hoping that something might change? The powerlessness I feel?

These are vulnerable, honest questions. And I think Jesus loves them. When he replies, Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing, perhaps he is not so much reproaching Martha as inviting her to let go of some of the many weights she has been carrying, and instead to find one thing—just one next good thing—to do, and do it. Maybe this is how Martha learns to love herself, so she can then love her neighbor as herself.

What vulnerable, human, difficult, honest, messy, beautiful questions have surfaced for us in the midst of the various kinds of to dust you will return vulnerability we have experienced in the last year or so? How can we choose to lean into these questions together in this season of Lent (and beyond)?

(Feel free to name your questions or other reactions in the comments!)

Always Reforming: a short sermon on Luke 6:1-16

I’m thankful to have had another opportunity to give a short sermon at my church, Lake Burien Presbyterian Church (aka “Lake B”). If you prefer a video version, here’s the church service. My part starts around 35:14, but David (before) and Miguel (after) are very much worth listening to if you have a few minutes.

Here’s the passage, and the sermon! Please feel free to holler in the comments section if you have thoughts. I’d love to hear any ways you resonate with this, how you think about tradition and faith, if there are any particular traditions you see a need to re-think, etc.

Luke 6:1-16 (NRSV):

6 One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 3 Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” 5 Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

6 On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. 7 The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. 8 Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. 9 Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

12 Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

In one of my first classes in seminary, I was totally mind-blown to learn that early Protestants during the Reformation had this motto: ecclesia reformata semper reformanda—meaning, “a reformed church will always be reforming.” In other words, the Reformers knew that the things they wanted to change about the church back in the 1500s were not the only things that were ever going to need to change. Semper reformanda. Always reforming.

This was mind-blowing to me because, before seminary, I had been part of a more conservative church tradition, where sometimes it felt like the church was very resistant to changing anything at all. Sometimes it felt like faithfulness meant staying true to the teachings of the people—in this case, the white men in the 1950s—who had founded the church.

In our passage this morning, in Luke 6, we see Jesus engaging his own religious tradition, and we see him challenging the ways it’s being interpreted by some of its leaders. 

I think it’s interesting to watch these religious leaders, the Pharisees, in this passage. It’s interesting to see how they interact with Jesus, and how Jesus interacts with them. 

At this point, Jesus is traveling around. He’s teaching and healing. He’s got a ragtag little crew of random people following him. They’re not even the slightly more organized group of twelve apostles, yet. We don’t get that until verses 12-16, at the end of our passage.

But, even at this early point in Jesus’ ministry, he’s begun to attract the attention of some of the powers that be. Spoiler alert: it’s not positive attention. 

In the last couple of stories in Luke 5, right before this passage, the Pharisees are unhappy about the company Jesus keeps. They ask, Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? They’re kind of the worst. And he says, I didn’t come for the healthy, but the sick. Then, right after that, the Pharisees complain that their own followers fast, and John the Baptist’s followers fast, but Jesus’ followers are eating and drinking. And Jesus says, Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is here with them? Then he talks about how new garments can’t be used to patch up old ones, and new wine can’t be poured into old wineskins. 

The religious leaders want to hold onto the things that are old, but Jesus is doing something new. And, just to be clear, it’s not about Judaism being old and Christianity being new. Both are living traditions. Both are still being interpreted and understood in different ways with each new generation. It’s not a comparison between religions here; it’s a tension within one tradition. It’s a tension between holding onto particular ways of understanding what this tradition means, and being open to something new that God might be doing. Being open to something that challenges previous understandings of what it meant to be faithful.

So here we are, with lots of people starting to follow Jesus around to learn from him…and some religious leaders also following him around, but for different reasons.

They start off asking him a question. Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath? Jesus takes this at face value, as if it’s an honest question and they really want to know the answer. He tells them a story, appealing to the holy scriptures that they all share in common, and appealing to the memory of their famous ancestral king David that they all share in common. The religious leaders don’t answer.

Then, on another Sabbath, we meet the man with the withered hand. And the religious leaders are back again—still watching, still standing on the sidelines with their arms folded. This time, they don’t say anything. They don’t ask any questions. They don’t even pretend that they actually want to know why Jesus is doing what he’s doing. They don’t even try to look like they think they might possibly have something to learn from him. They just silently watch and look for something they might accuse him of, as v. 7 tells us. Jesus reads their minds, because he does that, and he asks them to reconsider: he asks them, Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or destroy it? And then he heals the person who needs healing.

We’ve seen the religious leaders progress from asking Jesus questions, to not even bothering to engage, but just quietly looking for something to accuse him of—and now, they’ve progressed to being furious. This word here in verse 11, often translated “furious” or “filled with fury,” might also be translated as “madness” or “folly.” It’s not necessarily just anger. In one phrasing, it’s “madness expressing itself in rage.” It’s a flammable combination of ignorance and anger. 

All Jesus did was let his disciples eat, and then heal someone who needed healing. All he has done are good things—the kind of things that should be non-controversial, non-partisan, just basic human rights kinds of things. 

And then we get this huge, disproportionate backlash from the religious leaders. They’re filled with this “madness expressing itself in rage.” 

Our passage here, in verse 11, says that the religious leaders start “discussing with one another what they might do to Jesus.” That might sound a bit ambiguous, but there are a couple passages very similar to this one, in Matthew and Mark’s gospels, that put it more clearly. Those passages say that the religious leaders began plotting how they might kill Jesus.

Jesus fed, and healed. And then the powers that be turn irrationally violent against him. Because, of course, Jesus wasn’t just feeding. He wasn’t just healing. He was messing with their systems. He was messing with the way they were used to seeing things. He was messing with their sense of control and authority. 

He was re-framing the tradition of Sabbath. He was re-interpreting the purpose of the Sabbath: that it’s meant for people’s flourishing, and not for restriction or deprivation. In a very similar passage in the gospel of Mark, Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)

The Sabbath was made for people. And not just for some people, but for all people. Jesus sees his tradition as flexible and changeable if at any point it becomes clear that it’s not working for everybody. Everybody, including people who are hungry, including people who are sick; including, as we see throughout Luke’s gospel, people who are marginalized or oppressed in any way. Really, everybody.

Sometimes we, too, might find that the ways we’re used to reading Scripture, the people we’ve been trained to look up to as religious authorities, the books we’ve been given to read, the theologians and theologies we’ve inherited—aren’t actually working for us. Or, if they are working for us, that they’re not actually working for everybody. When this happens, we, too, have freedom to improvise. We have freedom to reinterpret, to take another look. Freedom to listen to different voices. To listen to one another. To listen to our own spirits within us. 

We have freedom to be part of this reality of the church that is semper reformanda through the generations: always reforming, always needing re-examining, always needing us to bring our hearts and brains and experiences and full selves to its interpretation. 

We follow a God who is always inviting us to weigh what’s lawful, what’s traditional, against what is good—and, when these things conflict, to choose what is good. We follow a God who is always calling us to choose to save life and not destroy it. This is what Sabbath is about. This is what Jesus is about. We belong to this Jesus, to a faith that is for everyone’s flourishing, to a living tradition, always reforming.

Marginalized Women, Bold Prophetic Speech: an Advent sermon on Elizabeth & Mary

I guess I’ve thought for a little while now that Luke 1:39-45 is a pretty awesome Bible passage. I wrote about it a little bit last December, in this post, toward the end of “25 Days of John the Baptist.”

This is the text (in the NRSV):

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on this passage at Inglewood Presbyterian Church in Kirkland, WA, as part of a series called “Christmas from the Margins.” It was great to have an excuse to dig into the text a lot more. I feel like good things came out of it for me, and I share the sermon here in case good things come out of it for you too! I’d love to hear your thoughts or reactions in the Comments section.

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I understand that this Advent season you all are exploring the idea of “Christmas from the Margins.” I love that―both in general, and because I think all of the challenges of 2020 have impacted and maybe changed how a lot of us think about marginalization. 

Some of us may have experienced being on the margins ourselves in new ways―a sense of being pushed to the edge of a kind of stable center we used to have―whether that’s through disrupted plans, or isolation, or fear and anxiety, or sickness, or the sickness of loved ones, or the loss of loved ones, or through job loss and unemployment. 

The last few months have also brought movements toward racial justice and against white supremacy to the forefront of national attention. We’ve seen―highlighted, and made more visible for more people―some of what it’s like to be racially marginalized as a person of color in the US.

This is 2020. This is where we’re at. And these are the kinds of things I hope we can keep in mind as we think about our story this morning, and as we begin this Advent season.

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By the time we get to our passage this morning, a lot has happened already. 

An angel appears to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, while he’s serving as a priest in the temple. The angel says, you and Elizabeth are going to have a son, and you should name him John. Zechariah says, wha? No way, man, we’re both way too old! (Which, to be fair, is totally true. Some scholars think they must have been in their sixties.) But the angel says, this is going to happen, and, because you didn’t believe it, you won’t get to speak again until the baby is born. And Zechariah says…well, nothing. Because he can’t.

Then, about six months later, the same angel appears to Mary―not to Mary’s fiancé, or father, or any other male authority figure in her world, but to Mary―and says, you are going to have a son, and you should name him Jesus. Mary says, how, since I am a virgin? The angel says, that’s the power of the Holy Spirit! And Mary says, okay. Let it be as you say

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Can you imagine being Mary, here? An angel just appears to you, out of nowhere, just about gives you a heart attack…and then tells you, don’t be afraid. The angel says that you―you, in your small town in the middle of nowhere; in your youth, as a teenager; in your vulnerability and insignificance as a young woman who is not yet married or a mother, which would have given you a little more status in your world―you are going to miraculously give birth to a king, to the holy one who will be called the Son of God.

Talk about a disruption of the normal, humble life you planned on living―making life work, alongside your husband-to-be, in the midst of poverty; surviving together under the thumb of the Roman Empire; living faithfully to God, as well as you can, in your own quiet way. 

What do you do with this kind of life-disrupting news? Who do you talk to, about the angel and the miraculous pregnancy, and everything? Who do you go to, there in your small hometown, full of people who tend to expect things like pregnancy to work in the usual way?

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Mary remembers that the angel told her that her older relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. So, Mary sets off to visit Elizabeth. This is where we find ourselves in the story this morning. 

Mary grabs a water bottle and a granola bar, types in “Judean hill country” in Google Maps on her iPhone, hops in her parents’ trusty old Subaru, and heads off toward Elizabeth’s place. 

Just kidding. In reality her journey to the hill country of Judea was a slow one. It likely lasted around three to five days, depending on where exactly Elizabeth lived. The roads were known to be dangerous, full of robbers. My hope is that she found a caravan she could travel with that would help keep her safe. Regardless, it took courage to go off on her own like that, apart from her family and fiancé and hometown community. 

She must have felt it was necessary. I imagine her thinking, this is all so wild, and unexpected, and incredible, and awesome, and terrifying, and good, and very complicated. I don’t know if anyone will understand. But if anyone could, maybe it’s Elizabeth, in the midst of her own miraculous pregnancy. 

It was the only thing to do.

People on the margins are often people on the move. Taking risks, seeking safe places to stay, seeking compassionate communities who will welcome them. And God is with them as they do so. God is with those who, like Mary, find themselves desperate enough to make dangerous journeys― not quite sure what they will find on the other side, but knowing that they have to go.

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So Mary arrives, enters the house, and greets Elizabeth with the usual type of greeting. 

Elizabeth does not give a usual greeting back. There’s no what’s up?? So good to see you! Long time no see! Or whatever they said in those days.

Instead, Elizabeth cries out loudly: you are blessed among women! And the fruit of your womb is blessed too! And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. You are blessed because you believed that what the Lord said would happen.

Immediately after Elizabeth says all this, Mary launches into a beautiful, prophetic poem that we might know as the Magnificat. It’s all about God lifting up the humble―those on the margins―and bringing down powerful people who are proud. It’s about God being full of mercy, from generation to generation, doing mighty things, filling up the hungry, being faithful, keeping promises.

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When I read this story, and I think about the idea of Christmas from the margins, I think about the very patriarchal, very male-dominated world that Mary and Elizabeth lived in. 

Because she is a woman, Elizabeth is not a priest like her husband Zechariah―even though she is the daughter of a priest. She’s descended from the line of Aaron (Luke tells us this, earlier in the story, in v. 5). If Elizabeth had been around the temple area when Zechariah was chosen by lot among the priests to be the one to go inside, she would have had to stay outside, in a court called the Court of Women, which was where women could go to pray. It was outside the Court of Israel, where the men could go to pray. The worshipping women were physically distanced from the temple because of their gender―very literally pushed to the margins of the place that was considered holy.

We also see, earlier in the story, that Elizabeth was the one who was blamed for her and Zechariah’s childlessness. When Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she says, The Lord has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people (that’s in v. 25). For her, infertility was not only a source of sadness, and disappointment, and vulnerability in old age, but also a social disgrace. It was a source of unending shame that followed her around throughout her adult life, even into her sixties. 

Many people likely assumed that her infertility was caused by some sort of sin in her life. What was wrong with her, that she had never been able to have a baby? What awful thing had she done? People must have given her the side-eye and whispered behind her back. Maybe in her darker moments Elizabeth whispered these things to herself, too. What is wrong with me? Maybe she internalized the blame and shame that others kept placing on her.

We also see evidence of women being pushed to the margins in their world within this passage itself. Verse 40 tells us that Mary entered the house of Zechariah. The house was considered Zechariah’s property only, even though both he and Elizabeth lived there. 

Lest we think this world is so far removed from our own, remember that it wasn’t until the mid 1970s in the US that women were allowed to have our own credit cards, and to buy our own houses without facing blatant and totally legal discrimination because of our gender.

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In the midst of this male-dominated world, this scene, where Mary and Elizabeth greet one another, is incredible. It’s a man’s world, but there are no men to be found here. Zechariah is who knows where. The baby boys John and Jesus have not been born yet. It’s just a raw, unfiltered, real, beautiful, human interaction between two female relatives, one older, one younger.

In a world where women are supposed to disappear into the background, Mary and Elizabeth take up space. They take up space in Luke’s narrative. They take up space in the story of Jesus, in the story of God’s love and redemption in the world. 

They are an important part of the story―not just because of the sons they will give birth to, but in their own right too. They are examples of faithfulness, of believing God, of working with God, of participating in the joy of what God is doing. 

And they must have found so much comfort in their time together. Mary ended up staying for three months, until Elizabeth’s son John was born. 

When we talk about Christmas, we often talk about Jesus as “Immanuel,” as God with us. Sometimes “God with us” can look like another person coming into our life and being a source of comfort and encouragement. Someone who has walked or is walking some of the same roads that we are. Someone who understands. Someone who can, just by being there, remind us of God’s presence with us.

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When the sound of Mary’s greeting reaches Elizabeth’s ears, little John the Baptist does a little jump inside Elizabeth’s tummy. Elizabeth interprets this as a jump for joy, or in exultation.

Elizabeth, then, is filled with the Holy Spirit. This exact language―being “filled with the Holy Spirit”―is only used a few other times in the New Testament. It’s used when the angel tells Zechariah that John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. Zechariah is then filled with the Holy Spirit himself, later on in this chapter, and he speaks his own prophetic poem, a few verses after Mary’s. Later on, the group of believers at Pentecost in the book of Acts are filled with the Holy Spirit, and they speak in other languages as the Spirit enables them. Peter and Paul are each described as being filled with the Holy Spirit in some parts of Acts, particularly when they have something especially bold and risky to say.

Elizabeth, here, joins the ranks of people―of men―like John the Baptist, and Zechariah, and Peter, and Paul. She is filled with the same Spirit. And she, too, speaks boldly. She speaks in a loud and confident voice. 

The Greek actually uses three different words here to express how intense her voice is as she speaks: she “exclaims”―meaning that she spoke out, or cried aloud. Her voice is “loud”―or, literally, “great.” 

And it sounds like a “cry.” This is a word that can also be translated as outcry, or clamor. This word is actually used by Paul when he writes to the Ephesian Christians that they should try to stay away from anger, and malice, and brawling, and clamor, and that sort of thing (that’s in Ephesians 4:31). 

It’s a fighting kind of cry―a loud, great, clamour. And, in Elizabeth’s case, it’s holy. It’s full of the Holy Spirit. It’s bold and prophetic and true and important…and very, very unladylike. 

While Zechariah, the priest, is at this point still unable to speak, Elizabeth, not allowed to be priest because of her gender, speaks loudly.

Women, as well as others on the margins, are often socialized to just get along. We’re told, in a million different ways, don’t make waves, don’t be too loud, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t stir up trouble, don’t make anyone upset. Hold your tongue, speak gently and quietly, defer to others, defer to men.

Add to all this the shame Elizabeth’s community has burdened her with. People use shame to push people to the margins, and to keep them there. To make them feel like their marginalization is somehow their fault. To keep them from speaking up. 

When the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, Elizabeth breaks out of all of these confines of what is considered respectable behavior. She has something important to say. She has prophecy to speak. She has inexpressible joy to try to express. And she doesn’t have time to take a step back and make sure her voice is gentle enough and her words are inoffensive enough and nothing she says is threatening to anyone.

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Maybe it’s jarring to think about Elizabeth in this way. Or, maybe, if you’re someone who feels marginalized in some of the same ways she was, maybe it’s freeing and healing. Maybe it’s a bit of both. 

Maybe for some of us, we’re thinking, yes! Speak up! Speak your truth! Embrace your empowerment by the Holy Spirit! You’re awesome! 

And yet, is that how we see voices from the margins today, who speak boldly as Elizabeth did, full of truth and fire and a longing for justice? How open are we to hearing from the marginalized prophets and prophetesses of our time? 

Do we expect them to conform to some sort of respectable standard before we’re willing to listen? Do we bristle and get defensive because some of them are too loud, or too angry, for our taste?

Elizabeth’s bold speech invites us to pay attention to who might be filled with the Holy Spirit, to who might be speaking prophetic words, around us in our world today. 

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And, the words that Elizabeth speaks, so loudly, after being filled by the Holy Spirit―these words are a series of blessings. You have been blessed, Mary, among women. The fruit of your womb has been blessed. Blessed is the one who believed.

Elizabeth, who wasn’t allowed to be a priest, embodies the priestly role of pronouncing blessing, of calling Mary blessed. She recognizes God’s incredible work in Mary’s life and names it as such.

Who do we tend to imagine, or assume, are the people who get to proclaim blessings? Who gets to be in that powerful and joyful position of saying with confidence: God is with you, God blesses you? 

Pastors? Powerful people? Influential people? Respectable people? 

Do we hope and expect to hear blessings from the mouths of people on the margins? Can we receive those blessings? 

Do we expect that people on the margins have something to offer us―that there are ways we can learn from them, even as we might also see their needs and try to serve them? Are we open to the wisdom they have, the things they can teach us? 

And, in the ways in which we might experience marginalization―whether from gender, or race, or ethnicity, or unemployment, or disability, or sexual orientation, or anything else―do we see ourselves as empowered to be a blessing, to bless others? Do we see ourselves as people who can speak boldly and call forth the best in others? 

As Kathy Khang writes in her book Raise Your Voice, “Elizabeth is unafraid and generous in her word of blessing and exhortation. I imagine that’s because she knows what I often have to remind myself: finding and using our voice isn’t a zero-sum game where we compete with others. Elizabeth isn’t competing. She knows this is a journey for both of them, and she sets the stage for Mary to speak out words we now call the Magnificat. Elizabeth isn’t there just to provide an audience or to be a foil or competitor. She’s the one whose presence and words remind Mary who she is and what is to come.”

Isn’t it beautiful, when we can do this for one another? 

Blessing people isn’t just for some subset of extra holy or powerful people. It’s something all of us can do.

And, blessing one another isn’t just for the times when everything is easy, and things are going well. It’s for the difficult times too. 

Elizabeth and Mary did not live easy, comfortable, happy ever after kinds of lives. Living in poverty as a religious minority in the Roman empire was no easy thing. Add to that the task of raising children who will both end up being killed as revolutionaries. Elizabeth and Mary lived difficult lives in difficult times.

Many of us in 2020 have not had a particularly easy, comfortable, happy ever after kind of year either. And yet, even in these times―maybe especially in these times―we can bless one another. We can call forth the best in one another. We can be present with and be a comfort to one another, as Mary and Elizabeth were. We can remind each other, this Advent season, of God’s presence with us.

And, we can seek out and listen to the prophetic voices from the margins. God is still speaking through them. We can hear their challenging, blessing, life-giving, world-altering, disruptive, uncomfortable words. We can receive and respond to the ways they are inviting us toward justice and goodness and wholeness, as people, as the church, and as a society. We can echo and amplify their voices to people we know who might not listen to them, but might listen to us.

May we receive the gifts and the challenges of Christmas from the margins this Advent season.