A door no one can shut

We’ve made it to Revelation 3:7-13, and this literal translation is an especially funky one, enough so that I was tempted to just offer the NIV instead. But then I figured it could be helpful to see them both side by side—or maybe to read the literal one and then take a look at the NIV for the parts that don’t really make sense. Choose your own adventure.

Here’s Revelation 3:7-13 translated fairly literally:

(7) And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia, write: these things says the holy one, the true one, the one who has the key of David, the one who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens; (8) I know your works, behold, I have given before you a door, having been opened, which no one is able to shut, because you have a little power, and you kept my word, and you did not deny my name. (9) Behold, I would give from the synagogue of satan, of the ones calling themselves Jews, and they are not, but they lie. Behold, I will make them come and worship before your feet, and they would know that I loved you. (10) Because you kept the word of my steadfast endurance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing about to come on the whole inhabited world to test the ones who dwell on the earth. 

(11) I am coming quickly; grasp what you have, in order that no one takes your crown. (12) The one who conquers, I will make him/her/them a pillar in the temple of my God, and he/she/they will certainly not go out (from it) anymore, and I will write on him/her/them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, the one coming down out of the heaven from my God, and my new name. (13) The one who has ears, let him/her/them hear what the spirit says to the churches.

And here’s Revelation 3:7-13 in the NIV:

7 “To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write: These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8 I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 I will make those who are of the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews though they are not, but are liars—I will make them come and fall down at your feet and acknowledge that I have loved you. 10 Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.

11 I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12 The one who is victorious I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will they leave it. I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on them my new name. 13 Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Unlike most of the seven churches Jesus speaks to in these first few chapters of Revelation, this church gets an “A.” Jesus has only good things to say to them. Gold star.

Maybe this suggests that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, churches actually can get it right. Churches actually can operate in a way that makes Jesus say: Well done. You’ve got it. You’re not perfect, of course, but you’re avoiding all the major ways churches tend to mess things up—things like being all about reputation over reality, or always wanting to learn new things rather than actually living out what you already know, or ignoring the content of Jesus’ teachings and following false teachings instead, or being so against everything that you forget what you’re for. Well done. 

It might be just one or two churches out of seven, but churches can get it right. They’re not all the same. Just because lots and lots of them have gone in some weird and messed up directions—like following the teachings of the Nicolaitans, or Balaam, or Jezebel, or Christian nationalism, or right-wing politics, or white supremacist patriarchy, or homophobia, or whatever it might be—doesn’t mean that they all have. Sometimes it’s worth looking—and looking long and hard, if need be—for the church communities that are getting it right. The ones that are consciously seeking to avoid these things, to learn to live together differently.

As Jesus speaks to this church in Philadelphia that is getting it right, he identifies himself as the one who opens and no one will shut, and who shuts and no one opens (v. 7). Then, again, in verse 8, Jesus, says, I have given before you a door, having been opened, which no one is able to shut.

I like this image of a door that only Jesus can open and only Jesus can shut. Only Jesus holds the key to this door. He opens it for the church in Philadelphia, and when he does so, no one is able to shut it in their faces. 

It makes me think of all the people over the centuries who have had the doors of churches, literally and metaphorically, slammed in their faces. Theologians and mystics whose interpretations of scripture and visions of Christian life were different from those of the people in power. Scientists who questioned literal readings of scripture that didn’t fit with what they were learning about the natural world. Black people who were treated so poorly in white-led churches that they left to form their own denominations. Women who felt a calling from God to preach or lead in other ways that their churches frowned upon. LGBTQ+ people hoping for the church to bless their marriages, or just to be a safe community where they wouldn’t have to hide. The list could go on.

A few years back, I was going through a bit of a hard time, and I sought out advice and perspective from a fellow campus minister who was leading a different Christian student group at Stanford. I had just admitted to the elder board of my church that I wasn’t entirely convinced gay relationships are the worst thing ever, and I was realizing that this put my hopes of being able to continue to work at the church long-term in jeopardy. As I processed all of this, I thought it might be helpful to talk with someone I respected who was very familiar with the evangelical universe but wasn’t connected to my particular church. So I met with (let’s call him) Greg.

I told Greg what was going on, and the first thing he said was something like this: “You told them you’re not against same-sex relationships? You’re lucky they didn’t run you out of the church right then and there as a heretic!” 

On the one hand, Greg was totally right. I do feel that the elders at my church were a lot more mature and respectful than lots and lots of other conservative church leaders would have been. They did their best to have some good conversations with me about what we all believed and why. And then they did their best to explore options for moving forward together in a way that would let them hold to their convictions without making me feel like I was unceremoniously drop-kicked out of the church. Greg was right. This was more than I could have expected at a lot of other evangelical churches.

On the other hand, though, what kind of world do we live in, where this is something to feel lucky about? What kind of universe is the evangelical church universe, such that the norm is being run out immediately as a heretic for telling your leaders you think differently—where you kind of expect to have the door slammed in your face if you reveal who you really are or what you really think about things?

Given all this, for me, there is a profound piece of good news in Jesus’ words to the church in Philadelphia: there are some doors that are just not ours to shut. Not mine, not yours, not any pastor’s or elder’s or bishop’s or pope’s. 

There is a door to life and community and love and hope and a healthy relationship with God and people and self and the world that Jesus opens wide, and no human can shut. People can and do make decisions that shut others out from the chance to flourish in particular churches or denominations. But they can’t shut people out from God. That door is open.

In a similar vein, I like what Jesus says at the end of this passage: I will write on them the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, the one coming down out of the heaven from my God, and my new name (v. 12). I think there’s a lot of power in this idea of being named by God. 

Just as there are some doors that can only be opened and shut by Jesus, there are some names that can only be given by Jesus. 

People can throw all sorts of names at each other: Heretic, sinner, unorthodox. Loser, weird, weak, useless. Too broken, too messed up, not good enough. Different, wrong, outsider. Uppity, demanding, troublemaker. Rowdy, rude, divisive. Maybe you can think of some of your own. 

But as much as these kinds of names might get thrown around—and especially when powerful people aim them like weapons at less powerful people—they are not the names that define us. For those who want it, Jesus writes on them the name of God. Jesus claims them as his own, as beloved, as belonging, even if the church calls them other names and slams the door in their faces. Jesus welcomes and loves all of who God made them to be.

Knowing we are named by Jesus, first and foremost, can give us courage to persist in doing good and doing justice even when it is costly, even when we experience rejection because of it. 

Of course, if your church is shutting doors in your face or calling you rude names—or if it’s doing these things to other people—it’s probably time to leave and not go back. We’ve seen Beth Moore do that recently to the Southern Baptist Convention. Good for her. It’s rarely a happy or fun thing, but sometimes it needs to be done. And there are other churches out there that, like the church in Philadelphia, are more or less getting it right—that are less about door-slamming and name-calling and more about truly unconditional love and healthy, justice-loving community. 

The door that matters is not shut. And the name that matters has already been given to us. No one can take these things away, no matter how powerful they are, and no matter how hard they might try.

Reputation, reality, and getting called out

It’s been a minute (like, since MLK Day) since I’ve posted a reflection on the book of Revelation. But I want to come back to it, and do at least a couple more posts—especially since we’re already through four of the seven churches Jesus has stuff to say to, and since it feels like a lot of what Jesus has to say is still a little too relevant today.

So, even though this one sounds a little goofy in places, here’s my literal translation of Revelation 3:1-6:

(1) And to the angel of the church in Sardis, write: these things says the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: I know your works, that you have a name that you are living, and you are dead. (2) Become one who watches, and establish the remaining things which were about to die, for I have not found your works fulfilled before my God. (3) Therefore, remember how you received and heard, and keep, and repent. Therefore, if you do not watch, I have come like a thief, and you would certainly not know (in) what hour I have come upon you. 

(4) But you have a few names in Sardis that did not soil their garments, and they will walk around with me in white (clothes), because they are worthy. (5) The one who conquers in this manner will be clothed in white garments, and I will not erase his/her/their name from the book of life, and I will profess his/her/their name before my father and before his angels. (6) The one who has ears, let him/her/them hear what the spirit says to the churches.

Jesus says to the church in Sardis, you have a name that you are living, and you are dead (v. 1). He says, your reputation is that you’re living and thriving, but I know the truth: you’re dead inside.

Jesus says, basically, sure, I hear the good things people say about you. I see all your retweets and your Instagram likes. I hear all your fancy name-dropping. I see how many views your Sunday church services have on Youtube. But I don’t really care about those things. 

Jesus says, I don’t care that your church has a wide-reaching reputation of being awesome and cool and the place to be. I care about your works (v. 1). I care that you are watchful and attentive to what God is doing (v. 2, 3). I care that you actually follow through on the good things you like so much to talk about (v. 2). I care that you love God and love your neighbor, and that you seek justice. (After all, as Dr. Cornel West famously said, “justice is what love looks like in public.”)

One modern-day scenario that feels pretty relevant here is the whole Carl Lentz and Hillsong debacle that I mentioned briefly in my Where is the Love? post back in December. Since then, I’ve read this more recent Vanity Fair article, which offers a few different angles on the situation—including the perspective of a “Lentz insider” who said, strikingly, “[Lentz’s] name is bigger than ever and he knows that.” According to this unnamed friend, Lentz “wants to use all the attention he’s received to boost his post-scandal career, maybe land a faith-based Netflix reality series.” 

“His name is bigger than ever.” That’s what’s on Lentz’s mind these days, apparently. (As well as a Netflix reality series.) He isn’t sincerely working on himself, or genuinely apologizing to everyone he needs to apologize to and trying to make amends, or trying to establish the remaining things that were about to die (v. 2), or remembering what he received and heard…and repenting (v. 3). He’s just thinking of all the fun things he might do next, now that his reputation is bigger than ever. 

I was also reading rapper Lecrae’s memoir, I Am Restored, recently, and I was struck by Lecrae’s reflections on a similar kind of thing. “I started to see,” Lecrae writes, “how ‘Christian’ the entertainment side of the church actually was. I went on tours and saw substance abuse, womanizing, and other things most people would never expect. I was shocked to see what was acceptable even in greenrooms. So many were drinking and participating in debauchery to their heart’s content. To be clear, I was struggling with my own brokenness, so my response was not filled with judgment, just surprised at the facade” (p. 54). 

Lecrae wasn’t judging, and admits that he took part in some of these things, too. He wasn’t surprised that these things happened. But he was surprised at “the facade”—that these famous Christian musicians, speakers, and other entertainers perhaps had a reputation that they were living, but, actually, were dead (v. 1).

Of course, it’s not just celebrity pastors and big-name Christian artists and super-cool megachurches that can fall into this kind of trap. 

I’ve seen this sort of thing in less famous, less star-studded churches and organizations too. I’ve seen church leaders respond to difficult and complicated conflicts by controlling the narrative and throwing the “trouble-makers” under the bus, pretending to seek resolution and healing but actually just trying to salvage the church’s reputation. Things like this happen all the time. 

I’ve seen it in my own life, too. Especially when I was deeply invested in evangelicalism, I was very concerned about my reputation as a Christian. I had been taught what an ideal follower of Jesus looks like, and I wanted very much to come across as that kind of person.

For a time, I thought Christians were supposed to be, basically, total extroverts—people who were friendly to everyone all the time, as outgoing as possible, who loved to get to know (and make a good impression on) as many people as possible—and I tried to do these things. I was so happy whenever someone was surprised to learn that I’m an introvert. It was exhausting. It has taken years of unlearning to begin to embrace the introverted personality God gave me rather than trying to build a reputation of extroversion. 

I think part of being human, and of being involved in churches made up of humans, is that there are good things and bad things, beautiful things and messy things, brilliant things and flawed things, in and among all of us. I don’t think Jesus is blasting the church in Sardis for screwing up, or having conflict, or that sort of thing. That’s just natural. I think what he’s upset about is that they care more about maintaining their awesome reputation than about dealing with the stuff they need to deal with. Their focus on reputation keeps them from dealing with that stuff.

This is real. If we’re intent on maintaining our reputation at all costs, we won’t react well when someone tells us we’ve messed up. I think Jesus cares, deeply, about how we respond when someone calls us out on the ways we’re hurting people, the ways our reputation isn’t matching our reality. In this passage Jesus isn’t trying to discourage the church in Sardis, or shame them, or tell them they’re bad people. He says the things he says because he wants to invite them to turn around and walk a different path—to repent (v. 3). He wants them to become watchful, and to establish the remaining things which were about to die (v. 2).

I think this is really hard. I know from experience that it is easy to become defensive when called out. It is easy to make excuses. It is easy to find reasons to dismiss what someone is trying to say. It is easy to focus on our own good intentions, rather than the negative impact our words or actions have had. 

I think Jesus invites us to more. Especially in the areas in which we experience privilege, whether due to race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic status, or something else. I think Jesus invites us to listen, really listen, to people—and especially to people who have been marginalized in our society and in a lot of churches—who care enough to call us out on the ways our reputation doesn’t match our reality. This is the only way we can become people and churches who actually are living and thriving. 

Let’s not settle for the mere reputation of life when—hard as it may be, and however much painful change, repentance, and difficult growth it might involve—we could have the real thing.

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.

Jesus, Pergamum, and Trumpism

Continuing in the book of Revelation, here’s a pretty literal translation of 2:12-17:

(12) And to the angel of the church in Pergamum, write: these things says the one who has the sharp two-edged sword: (13) I know where you dwell, where the throne of Satan (is), and you are grasping my name and did not deny my faith, even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed in y’all’s presence, where Satan dwells. (14) But I have against you a few things: that you have, there, ones who are grasping the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to throw a cause of stumbling before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to prostitute themselves. (15) In this manner you also likewise have ones who are grasping the teaching of the Nicolaitans. (16) Repent, therefore; but if not, I am coming to you quickly, and I will make war with them in the sword of my mouth. (17) The one who has ears, let him/her hear what the spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give to him/her the Manna that has been hidden, and I will give to him/her a white pebble, and on the pebble a new name has been written, which no one knows except the one who takes (it).

It feels relevant―as, just a few hours ago, a mob of Trump supporters, many of whom are quick to voice their Christian religious affiliation, violently stormed the U.S. Capitol Building―that this passage is all about a church where people grasp tightly to the name of Jesus (v. 13), while some of them also grasp just as tightly to the false and harmful teachings of Balaam (v. 14) and the Nicolaitans (v. 15).

Since the language of “grasping” Jesus’ name, or “grasping” different kinds of religious teachings, isn’t necessarily the most natural-sounding thing in English, I don’t blame various translations for using different words here. The NIV, for example, speaks of “remaining true” to Jesus’ name, and of “holding” to the various false teachings. The (more literal) NRSV and ESV speak of “holding fast” to Jesus’ name, and, like the NIV, of “holding” to the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolaitans. 

There are lots of ways one could reasonably translate this Greek word for “I grasp,” which is κρατέω. “Hold” or “hold fast” are definitely among them, and “remain true” also seems like a reasonable interpretation. Other options include “seize,” “retain,” “keep,” or “take hold of.”

It feels important to me, though, that it’s the same Greek word that is used each time. Jesus commends his hearers in Pergamum for “grasping” his name…and then expresses frustration toward some of them for―just as easily, in the same sort of way―“grasping” onto teachings Jesus wants nothing to do with. They’re holding fast to Jesus’ name, which is awesome…but they’re also holding just as fast to some messed up stuff, which is not awesome.

I get the sense that these churchgoers in ancient Pergamum were as highly dedicated to their faith as could be―and, at the same time, one hundred percent wrong about what the actual content of that faith entails. They refused to deny Jesus’ name, even when one of them was killed for it (v. 13)―and yet when it came down to what Jesus was actually about and what he wants for his followers, they were all over the place. They were doing and promoting all sorts of things Jesus never wanted them to do or promote.

Some of them, perhaps, were not all that different from the people who carried “Jesus 2020” signs as they stormed the Capitol Building today. (For context, the “Jesus 2020” sign seems to be the sort of thing that was originally conceived as non-political, but, of course, has become pretty Trump-y in the meanwhile.)

It doesn’t take a highly trained biblical scholar to recognize that the things Trump says and does tend to be the polar opposite of everything Jesus said and did. And yet, there are those who grasp the name of Jesus tightly, and also grasp Trumpism just as tightly. 

As I read about Jesus speaking to the church in Pergamum, I wonder if he might speak to these Christian Trump-followers in a similar way. 

He might begin with some compliments―and sincere ones (as unnatural as this might sound to a lot of us who oppose Trump and Trumpism). He might say, as he says in v. 13: I see your willingness to stand up for what you believe in, even in the face of a lot of opposition and pressure to do otherwise. I see your loyalty―how you want to hold tightly onto my name in the midst of a rapidly changing world. 

I think Jesus would resist the urge to dehumanize these people―even if they have done plenty of dehumanizing of their own. I think he would speak to them with respect and dignity. 

And then Jesus would get down to it. He might say, I have a few things against you (v. 14). He might spell out the ways in which Trumpism is directly opposed to Jesus’ own teaching. He would call them to repent (v. 16). He would invite them to change their minds, to turn around and walk a different path. 

He might even add: it’s not too late. Repentance doesn’t need to be shameful. It’s okay to admit you were wrong. Repentance can be freeing and awesome. There is grace. You don’t have to keep grasping to the things you’ve been taught, or your family believes, or your pastor keeps saying. You can choose a different way.

And then he would let them know he’s serious. He might tell them: Trumpism is freaking dangerous, destructive, and deadly. If you don’t repent, there will be consequences. I will come to you in judgment (v. 16). You can’t keep grasping my name and also grasping these hideous things that are no part of me at all. That’s not how this works. I want better for you than that, and I want better for all the people who are harmed by these teachings you’ve followed.

Just as he would resist the urge to treat these people disrespectfully, I think Jesus would also resist the urge to excuse the path they’ve taken and pretend like it’s okay. I don’t think he would pretend that Trumpism is just another valid political view―something we can set aside when we come to church, so we can all sing How Great is Our God together like one big happy family. I think Jesus would speak to these people clearly, seriously, and urgently. Repent, or I am coming to you with a sharp two-edged sword.

As v. 17 says, whoever has ears, let them hear.

From Jesus, to those who are suffering

Here’s a pretty literal translation of Revelation 2:8-11:

(8) And to the angel of the church in Smyrna, write: these things says the first one and the last one, who became dead and lived: (9) I know your affliction and your poverty, but you are rich, and the blasphemy from the ones who call themselves to be Jews and they are not, but a synagogue of the Satan. (10) Fear none (of) the things that you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw (some) from among y’all into a prison in order that y’all might be tempted, and y’all will have affliction for ten days. Become faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. (11) The one having ears, let him/her/them hear what the spirit says to the churches; the one who conquers will certainly not be wronged from the second death.

When I read this message from Jesus to the faith community in Smyrna, I see a lot of suffering. 

The church in Smyrna is a group of people who know affliction (a word that could also be translated as tribulation, distress, anguish, trouble, or oppression) and poverty (v. 9). They are being blasphemed (or, alternatively, judged, slandered, or vilified) by people who claim a religious identity, perhaps even a religious authority, but whose claim is false (v. 9). And they are about to suffer even more―some to the point of being thrown in prison; some, perhaps, to death (v. 10).

I read what Jesus wants to say to these people, and I think about some of the ways Christians have often tried to address the idea of suffering, and, by extension, people who are suffering. I have heard and read a lot of explanations for suffering. There is no shortage of (straight white male economically privileged Christian?) people who hear the age-old human question in the face of suffering―why?―and think they have some answers.

Pastor Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, for example, devotes a chapter in his book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism to the question: How could a good God allow suffering? In this chapter Keller offers what I would consider to be very well-stated versions of some of the traditional Christian apologetic answers. For example, suffering often brings about growth in “insight, character, and strength” (p. 25) like nothing else. And, God may have “good reasons for allowing [suffering] to continue that [we] can’t know” (p. 25). 

Arguments like this are…fine. Maybe they’re not totally wrong. If they’ve been helpful to anyone, I wouldn’t want to try to take that away.

But they’re not what Jesus says to the suffering faith community in Smyrna. 

Instead―to a people whose lives are full of suffering that will continue and get worse in the days to come―Jesus says, I am the first one and the last one, who became dead and lived (v. 8). Jesus wants them to know that he was there before the suffering began and will continue to be there long after the suffering is over. He wants them to know that he, too, suffered, even to the point of death, and that he knows this suffering intimately, experientially. He also reminds them that he now lives, and that his resurrection can offer hope to those who suffer―even, or especially, those who die especially painful, untimely, or unjust deaths. 

Jesus says, I know your affliction and your poverty (v. 9). He wants them to know that he knows what it is like to live in times of tribulation, to feel distress and anguish, to be in trouble, to live under oppressive systems. He knows what it is like to live in poverty―to suffer the particular sufferings of those who are swept aside and kept down by unjust economic systems.

Jesus says, I know the slander you suffer (v. 9). He wants them to know that he is not fooled by what people say about them. He knows what is true. He knows that just because people are respected religious leaders doesn’t mean that they are actually speaking truth and doing good things. Others might be fooled, but he is not. He wants them to know that it’s okay to be rejected and slandered by these people.

Jesus says, in all these things, do not be afraid (v. 10). In all these things, be faithful (v. 10). 

Jesus does not try to explain away their suffering or answer any of the questions they might have about why it’s happening. He does not try to prove logically that the presence of suffering in their lives should not make them doubt God’s goodness. 

What he does do is identify himself with them. He assures them that he is with them. He tells them that there will eventually be an end to their suffering. He encourages them to live with courage and faithfulness. 

To be fair to Tim Keller, Keller goes on in his chapter about suffering to say some of these things, too. And yet―maybe because of the title of the chapter, or maybe because of the tone of the whole thing, and the way he starts off in a vein that sounds more like argument than empathy―the chapter as a whole still feels, to me, more like a logical defense of the idea of God’s goodness than an assurance of Jesus’ identification and presence with those who suffer. 

Jesus, in this passage, speaks to people who are suffering, not just about them. He speaks words of comfort and encouragement to their hearts. He is not interested in speaking to the outside world about people who are suffering, using them as an object lesson to prove something about God. He is interested in embodying God to them, with them, for them, in the midst of their suffering.

When we talk about suffering, I would rather preface the conversation with honest reflections on real-life experiences than with apologetic arguments. Maybe something a little less like Keller’s chapter and a little more like what Kate Bowler writes in the introduction to her book Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved), about her experience being diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in her mid thirties:

“Married in my twenties, a baby in my thirties, I won a job at my alma mater straight out of grad school. I felt breathless with the possibilities. Actually, it’s getting harder to remember what it felt like, but I don’t think it was anything as simple as pride. It was certainty, plain and simple, that God had a worthy plan for my life in which every setback would also be a step forward. I wanted God to make me good and make me faithful, with just a few shining accolades along the way. Anything would do if hardships were only detours on my long life’s journey. I believed God would make a way.

I don’t believe that anymore” (xiv).

Let’s talk about our oppressions, anguishes, hurts, and afflictions. Let’s give each other the gift of empathy and presence in the midst of it. Let’s stop trying to explain it and excuse it, and start reminding each other of Jesus’ presence in it―perhaps just by our own presence and solidarity with one another in times of pain.

Where is the love?

Continuing in the book of Revelation, in this apocalypse that is 2020…

Here’s a pretty literal translation of Revelation 2:1-7:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus, write: these things says the one grasping the seven stars in his right hand, who walks around in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: (2) I know your works and weariness and your steadfast endurance, and that you are not able to bear evil things, and you tested the ones calling themselves apostles, and they are not, and you found them liars, (3) and you have steadfast endurance, and you bore on account of my name, and you have not grown weary. (4) But I have against you that you have left your first love. (5) Remember, then, from where you have fallen, and repent and do the first works; but if not, I am coming to you, and I will move your lampstand from its place, if you do not repent. (6) But you have this, that you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. (7) The one who has ears, let him/her hear what the spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give him/her to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. 

I don’t know if it would be very fun to be a part of this church in Ephesus. It sounds like a lot of work. A lot of weariness―a word which could also be translated as toil, labor, or trouble. A lot of endurance―or, in an alternate translation, perseverance. A lot of having to test so-called apostles to see if they are actually good and faithful leaders, or if they are liars―or, in other translations, false, deceitful, or untrue―and a lot of them are liars. (This is all from v. 2.)

It sounds like there were a lot of hard things to bear, and a lot of reasons why one might grow weary (v. 3). On top of all this, there was also a religious sect called the Nicolaitans who were behaving badly enough that Jesus says he hates what they are doing (v. 6). 

(Side note: it seems important that Jesus says he hates the works of the Nicolaitans, not the Nicolaitans themselves. In a similar vein, in v. 2, I’m not sure why most translations read something like “you are not able to tolerate evil ones.” The Greek word here could actually mean either evil ones or evil things, and it makes more sense to me as evil things.)

At any rate, this was the kind of stuff you had to deal with if you were a part of the church in the city of Ephesus at that time. Lots to endure, lots to hate.

In the middle of all of this language of perseverance and weariness and evil, v. 4 says, but I have against you that you have left your first love. In other words, Jesus is asking them what The Black Eyed Peas have been asking us since 2003: Where is the Love? (The love…the love…where is the love, the love, the love.)

Jesus says, well done for all of your endurance, even though I know it’s hard. Well done for hating the bad things the Nicolaitans are doing. (Perhaps things like, I don’t know, creating a special VIP section in your church and making celebrities sit in it, or treating church volunteers like piles of poo, or cheating on your spouse…see this NY Times article about recently fired Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz if none of that rings a bell.)

Jesus says, well done for being against the right things. But what are you for? 

He says, remember your first love. Remember the earliest days of your church community, when faith felt like a buried treasure you dug up in a field that you would sell everything for (like the story Jesus tells in Matt 13:44-46). Remember when you were all so excited and happy to be able to get together and eat and pray and share everything you had with one another (like the early Christian community in Jerusalem, described in Acts 2:42-47). 

This church thing is not just about enduring, and working hard to resist evil, and being against the right things―although, in this world full of so much injustice and evil, all these things are very real and necessary. It’s also about celebrating the ways God is present, right in the midst of this unjust world and the darkest places in it. It’s about finding things to be thankful for, and sharing that joy with one another. It’s about connection and belonging, about being a community of radical acceptance and welcome. It’s about love.

It’s about learning to trust that God is love. It’s about learning to love one another, and learning to love ourselves. 

When I read this passage and think about those Christians in Ephesus, who were marked by a lot of hate―not in a bad way, since they hated the things God hates―but not by a lot of love, I think of a phrase I often hear in (evangelical) Christian circles: we want to be known for what we’re for, not (just) what we’re against. It’s sort of another way of saying, we want to be known for what we love, not (just) what we hate.

Which is what Jesus wants for the church in Ephesus. Sort of.

It seems that, somewhere along the way, somebody snuck in this idea of what we’re known for. The idea that we have to worry about what we look like to people outside of the church. As if there are loads and loads of people out there who don’t identify with Christianity but who are actively thinking about Christians and churches all the time and watching to see what they look like.

The sense is that (evangelical) churches’ problems are mostly a matter of public perception. We need to develop a better reputation. We need to look better. We need to be known for better things.

I don’t know where people got this idea―that what we look like to the (imaginary, perhaps, or aspirational) “watching world” is so important. 

Maybe it’s just easier to say gosh, people don’t think very well of us than gosh, we’re kind of the worst sometimes. It’s easier to say that we have an image problem than to admit that we have a substance problem. It’s easier to try to brush up our public appearance than to admit that there are real, substantial things we actually need to change.

I don’t think Jesus―the one who grasps the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven lampstands―wants the Ephesian church to look better to outsiders, to give a better impression, to appear more loving. I think he wants them to actually be more loving. To actually experience more of God’s love in their lives, and to embody that love more fully to one another and to the world around them. 

Who cares what people think. Let’s care about what we’re doing, how we’re giving and receiving love in our lives.

Let’s be about enduring and bearing the hard things together, about resisting evil and injustice together, and about celebrating and sharing and living lives of love together. All of the hard things of 2020 and of this world we live in call for nothing less.

Wild Jesus: the Jesus that John did not make up

Here’s a pretty literal translation of Revelation 1:9-20:

(9) I, John, y’all’s sibling and fellow sharer in the afflictions, and kingdom, and steadfast endurance in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (10) I was in a spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a great voice like a trumpet, (11) saying, “that which you see, write in a book and send to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

(12) And I turned to see the voice that was speaking with me, and, after turning, I saw seven golden lampstands, (13) and in the middle of the lampstands, one like a child of humanity, having been clothed in a garment reaching to the feet and being girded across the breasts with a golden sash. (14) And his head and hairs were white like wool, white like snow, and his eyes like a flame of fire, (15) and his feet like burnished bronze, like they had been burned in a furnace, and his voice like a voice of many waters, (16) and, having in his right hand seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face shines like the sun in its power.

(17) And when I saw him, I fell to my feet like a dead one, and he put his right hand on me, saying, “do not fear; I am the first one and the last one (18) and the living one, and I was dead, and see, I am living, forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and of Hades. (19) Therefore, write the things that you saw, and the things that are, and the things that are about to happen after these things. (20) The mystery of the seven stars which you saw on my right hand and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”

I’m struck by how wild this description of Jesus is. There is nothing gentle, meek, or mild about it.

He’s got lampstands lit with fire, and blazing white hair, and eyes like a flame, and feet like they’ve been through a fiery furnace, and a face that shines like the sun at its brightest. Did I mention fire? 

He’s got a voice that sounds like a trumpet (v. 10)…and also like many waters (v. 15), like an ocean. Either way, it’s loud.

I spent a lot of time earlier this week working on a sermon on Luke 1:39-45, in which the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, and Elizabeth greets Mary by “crying out with a great clamor” (v. 42). Luke literally uses three different Greek words here to try to describe just how loud and clamorous Elizabeth’s voice was. 

More on that to come―I’ll likely post the text of the sermon here next week. 

But John’s description of Jesus’ voice reminds me of Luke’s description of Elizabeth’s voice. It’s loud, clamorous, like a trumpet. (Not sweet and melodious like a clarinet…and no, as a clarinet player, I’m not biased at all.)

Since we are coming up on the Advent season and Christmas and all, maybe it’s also worth pointing out that Jesus has to tell John, do not fear―just like the angel Gabriel had to tell Zechariah (Luke 1:13), and Mary (Luke 1:30). Apparently, angels are hella scary. And so is the resurrected Jesus, at least in John’s vision.

The description John gives of Jesus sounds to me a little bit like a description you might try to give when something is, in fact, not at all describable. Every feature of this Jesus is shining brightly, and yet is also clearly visible. He’s got seven stars in his right hand―casual―and a sword coming out of his mouth.

It reminds me of the angels that Ezekiel sees in a vision and tries to describe―the ones with wheels and lots and lots and lots of eyes (see Ezekiel 10:9-14). One gets the sense that Ezekiel was trying to describe something so strange and abstract and dream-like that a coherent description was beyond him. 

I kind of like that Jesus has such a stunning, intense, wild appearance in John’s vision. I kind of like that he’s so terrifying that John can’t help falling on his face in terror. I kind of like that he’s beyond description.

These kinds of things give me hope that perhaps John encountered something Barbara Brown Taylor might call “the God I did not make up.” 

(If you aren’t familiar with Barbara Brown Taylor, she is a former Episcopalian priest, former “World Religions” professor, and the author of several delightful books. Or, if you prefer her own words, which are more fun than mine, she is a “Writer, Speaker, Spiritual Contrarian”―the tagline of her website.)

In her book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, Barbara offers the reader this definition of spirituality from a friend of hers: spirituality is “the active pursuit of a God you didn’t make up.”

Sometimes people make up images of Jesus. In my experience, at least, these made-up images tend not to look like the Jesus John describes. 

When we make up images of Jesus, they tend to look like us. And, since Europeans and people of European descent have dominated so much of Christianity for so long, that means that there are a lot of images out there of a Jesus who looks awfully like a person of European descent. It’s harder―not at all impossible, but harder―to find an image of Jesus that has hair like wool (v. 14) and feet the color of burnished bronze (v. 15). 

This is an image of Jesus that John did not make up. With all of its fire and flames and double edged swords and great voices like many waters, it’s an image that startles and terrifies him. But it’s real. 

There’s so much wildness in all of this. So much that’s beyond our control, beyond our full understanding. 

Not only is Jesus’ appearance wild and hard to describe, but when he speaks, he says that the seven lampstands around him represent seven churches (v. 20) located in seven different cities (v. 11), and that the seven stars he holds in his right hand represent the angels of those churches (v. 20). This is also kind of wild.

It’s an intense but also kind of cool way to think about churches: each church―in some sense, whether literal or figurative―has its own angel.

Barbara Brown Taylor has some thoughts about this part too. This is from another lovely book of hers, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith:

Every church really does have its own angel, I think. Some of those guardians are still burning brightly, while some have lost their tail feathers and others are dead though not yet buried. Sometimes all you have to do is walk through the door of a church and sniff the air to know which is which. When I was deciding whether to go to Grace-Calvary, an experienced friend of mine gave me his advice. ‘Be sure you like the people,’ Bill said; to which I would add, ‘Be sure the angel is alive’ (pp. 217-8).

It’s interesting to think about this―not just in first century Asia Minor, but here and now too. In some sense, there may be some kind of unique spiritual entity that dwells in, characterizes, watches over, and empowers each church―an entity that is a bit wild and a bit beyond our understanding, but that is also real, and good, and vital to the life of that church.

I’m not totally sure I know what Barbara Brown Taylor means about sniffing the air. I’m not at all convinced that every person who walks into a given church would have the same sense of whether the angel there is thriving, or surviving, or sick, or dead, or dying. 

But I do think it’s worth thinking about. To use Barbara’s words, is the angel of your faith community “burning brightly”? Has it “lost [its] tail feathers”? Is it “dead but not yet buried”? What would these things mean―for your church, or whatever church came to mind when you thought about this?

I wonder if this line of thinking could help us get at some deeper questions about churches and their spiritual vitality than we might normally ask. If we’re talking angels, we’re talking something beyond all the programs, the staff, the production quality of Sunday services, the slickness of the marketing, the quality or style of the music, the pastor’s public speaking ability, the number of people who attend the church.

We’re talking about the spiritual vitality at the core of the community. How open people are to God’s wild, unexpected, sometimes terrifying presence among them. How open they are to seeing Jesus in places and people they don’t expect―to catching glimpses of the God they did not make up, the God who refuses to fit inside their boxes. 

May we embrace the wildness of this Jesus we did not make up. And may we embrace the mystery of the seven stars and seven lampstands, the angels of the churches.

Beyond Judging Doug: a mini-sermon on the parable of the talents

I had another chance to give an eight minute mini-sermon at (online) church this past Sunday. The text is below if you’re interested, or feel free to watch the video here. My part starts around 39:57. Esther Lee before me (starting around 33:43) and Michael Won after me (starting around 48:44) both have great things to say―it could be worth listening to all three perspectives on the parable if you have time.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section. What did you find interesting or helpful in the sermon? What questions does it raise? How do you make sense of this gnarly parable in your own life and community?

The Bible text is Matthew 25:14-30. Jesus is talking to his disciples here. Here’s the NIV translation of it:

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’ 21 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’ 23 His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’ 26 His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.28 So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

Here’s the mini-sermon:

One of the things that’s kind of awesome about Jesus’ parables, and sometimes kind of confusing, is that they can be considered from so many different angles. We can find ourselves in different places in the story. We can read the same story at different times in our lives and find that we ask different questions of it, and it asks different questions of us. 

This morning, as we consider this parable, I want to explore the story from a particular angle: the perspective of the servant who was given just one bag of money. And, because “the servant who was given just one bag of money” is kind of a mouthful, I’m just going to call him Doug. (Because he went and dug a hole.) Let’s think about this parable from the perspective of Doug. 

So, we’ve got this rich dude, who has all these money bags lying around―you know, relatable―and he goes on a journey. Before he leaves, he entrusts a bunch of his money to three of his servants. I’m going to call the rich dude a “lord,” because that’s the language of the text.

The text doesn’t tell us where our friend Doug is while his lord is giving five bags of money to one servant and two bags of money to another servant. But I imagine them being all together in the same room. 

The lord speaks to each servant in turn, in full sight of the others, and says, “here, you take five bags of money.” Then, “here’s two bags of money for you.” Then, finally, turning to Doug: “here, take one bag of money.”

Maybe the lord even says out loud what the text says he’s thinking: “I’m entrusting money to you according to your ability.” In other words, this is what I think of you, what I think you’re capable of. This is how competent I think you are.

This is a short part of the story, but I feel like there’s a lot going on here. What would it be like to have the person you’ve worked for, maybe for a long time, say, basically, this is what I think of you? I think you have, maybe, one fifth of the ability of this coworker, and, mm, about half the ability of this other one.

It can be easy to judge Doug―to join his lord in saying, as he says later on, you wicked and lazy servant. But I also kind of empathize with Doug. I can see how he might think, well, my lord clearly doesn’t think much of my abilities. I don’t want to prove him right by taking risks with his money and maybe losing it all. I’d better not make any mistakes. I’d better just make sure he gets his money when he comes back. 

Don’t we sometimes live up to―or down to―others’ expectations of us? 

I can also see Doug looking around and comparing what he has to what the other two servants have. I can see him thinking: I’ve got nothing. I have nothing to work with here. What does he expect me to do?

The thing we can see easily, from outside the story, is that a money bag, or in some translations a “talent,” is, in fact, a lot of money. Scholars estimate that in this context it was equal to around six thousand denarii―a denarius being the average daily wage of a worker. 

So―if y’all don’t mind some quick math―if we take the Washington state minimum wage of $13.50/hour, and we assume an eight hour work day, a denarius would be $108. And one of the money bags in our story would be six thousand times that, so $648,000.

That’s a lot of money! Doug could have bought a house in some parts of Seattle. 

And yet, in these terms, one other servant was given $1.3 million, and the other, over $3 million. It would be easy for Doug to look around, and compare, and envy others who have more. 

But what if, instead, Doug was able to see past these things. To see the abundance of what he has been given. To dream of the possibilities of what he could do with it. 

Maybe he could have even dreamed together with the other two servants: what can we do with these collective resources we have? How could we put them to work to benefit our community? Maybe they could have put all their money bags together, and used all of their collective perspectives and skills and areas of expertise to decide together how to invest it. 

And maybe―especially if Doug really did in some way have “less ability” than the others―maybe the others could have seen that and offered to help. They could have said, Hey Doug. We have more experience managing money than you do. Would you like some help figuring out what to do with yours? Maybe we could eat dinner together tonight and we could brainstorm some ideas together.

This might sound a little over the top. But we talked about a similar thing with the bridesmaids from last Sunday, in the story Jesus tells right before this one―why didn’t the five prudent bridesmaids offer to share their extra oil with the five foolish ones? Are these three servants terribly different?

I also wonder, here, if Doug has considered this question: why did his lord choose to entrust his money to these servants while he went on his journey? Wouldn’t it have been safer to dig a hole in the ground himself, and hide all the money bags there? 

I wonder if he took this risk because he wanted to empower his servants by sharing what he had with them. Maybe he wanted to give them some significant resources to work with, and see what they could do. Maybe he wanted to see how his resources could be put to work for good in the community in ways he himself hadn’t thought of or hadn’t been able to do. 

I don’t think Doug was able to see these kinds of possibilities.

The text tells us that, instead of all these things that could have been, Doug departed. He goes off by himself, leaves the others, goes off to a place that only he knows about, digs a hole, and buries the money there―isolated from his fellow servants, or any sort of community.

Moving out of this story Jesus tells, and into our world today, we find ourselves still within the first two weeks after the US presidential election, and just over one week after the results were called. Many of us have been breathing a sigh of relief. Some have been dancing in the streets. Some might be skeptical or cautious, not quite ready to feel much of anything. Some might feel mournful about a lot of what we see in the news and where we’re at as a country.

Let’s continue to make space to feel any or all of these things, or however we might feel. And then, let’s get back to work. Let’s keep on putting what resources we have to work, for the good of our local communities, in all of their diversity and complexity and messiness and beauty. And there is plenty of good work still to do.

We might feel like Doug, with his one bag of money. We might look around and think, I don’t have much. Or, I don’t have what someone else has

Maybe in this time we’re being invited to resist these tendencies to look around and compare. To resist our tendencies to dig a hole in the ground and bury what we have―to make choices out of fear, or a scarcity mindset, or insecurities, or comparison, or isolation.

Maybe we’re invited instead to take stock of our resources, and to see that, collectively, we have resources in abundance: skills, and experiences, and abilities, and perspectives, and gifts, as well as material stuff. Let’s put it all to work―for healing and justice, in our communities and in our world.

Election Week Blessing

Because I wanted to be cool like Nadia Bolz-Weber (just kidding―I’ll never be as cool as Nadia!) and write some blessings of my own. (Check out Nadia’s beautiful “Blessed are the Agnostics” piece here, if you like. It’s really lovely.)

These words are loosely inspired by the beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12), and much less loosely inspired by a bunch of different pieces of news I’ve seen recently that relate to this week’s election.

Election Week Blessing

Blessed are those who stand and wait for hours
in lines that wrap around buildings and stretch into the street.

Blessed are those who take selfies at the ballot drop box
and do a little dance.

Blessed are the elderly whose bodies no longer move as they once did,
but who are determined to make it to the polls.

Blessed are those who receive death threats
and vote anyway.

Blessed are those who grit their teeth and vote for a candidate 
they did not choose and do not like.

Blessed are those who staff the polls and count the ballots.

Blessed are the postal workers.

Blessed are the employers who give people the day off to go and vote.

Blessed are the lawyers fighting legal battles for every vote to be counted.

Blessed are those who refuse to manipulate statistics
to make themselves look better, or to give false hope.

Blessed are those not too consumed by hubris
to admit when they have lost a contest.

Blessed are those who march to the polls,
stop and take a knee for eight minutes and forty six seconds, 
and are tear gassed by police.

Blessed are the Black Lives Matter organizers.

Blessed are those who hold vigil for lives taken violently before their time.

Blessed are those still in the streets after a hundred and fifty days,
who are desperate and will not stop knocking at the door of justice.

Blessed are those whose blood boils and hearts sink 
at the sight of Austin police officers posing with Proud Boys for a photo.

Blessed are those who have tried and failed to reform police departments.

Blessed are those who feared for their lives on that Biden campaign bus,
and those who felt sad and angry watching the video of the trucks surrounding it and trying to force it off the road.

Blessed are the white people who consider themselves recovering racists,
and who know the journey is a life-long one.

Blessed are the immigrants maligned as murderers and rapists,
called animals and hunted by a system that does not care about them.

Blessed are those who tremble at the thought of the results of this election,
because it might mean life or death for them or those they love.

Blessed are those who live among a violent people, in a violent nation,
and refuse to take up arms.

Blessed are the pastors willing to preach justice and hold out for real shalom,
though their congregants want to hear them say “peace, peace.” 

Blessed are the church leaders driven out of their jobs and their communities
because they refuse to toe the Republican party line.

Blessed are those less concerned with saving disembodied souls
and more concerned with living in a way that values every whole and complex person.

Blessed are those who sit in church pews and want to mourn the state of everything,
while everyone around them smiles and claps their hands to upbeat praise songs.

Blessed are the ones who know how to wail in lament.

Blessed are those who still have hope, 
and those whose hope is gone.

Blessed are those who have been gaslighted over and over again
and now know how to resist it,
and those who have not been able to resist.

Blessed are those who are not afraid to look at all these hard things.

Blessed are those who crave righteousness and truth and goodness
more than power.

Blessed are the poor, the mourners, the weak, 
the hungry and thirsty for justice, 
the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, 
the ones persecuted for their pursuit of justice.

Blessed are you.

What Does Such a Moment Ask?

What Does Such a Moment Ask?

What does such a moment 
ask of us?

Kindness―maybe―
but not the kind that cowers 
in a corner and will not articulate 
the jarring, rage-inducing, 
healing, liberating truth.

Love―maybe―
but not the kind that circles 
wagons, covers up injustice
and provides protection for abusers
to continue their abuse.

Humanity―maybe―
but not the kind invoked 
to excuse horrors as if 
they’re nothing but mistakes
that every human makes.

Peacemaking―maybe―
but not the kind that clutches 
to tranquility at any cost
and throws the rabble-rousers under buses
rather than make reparations.

Unity―maybe―
but not the kind that calls on 
the oppressed to bear the burdens of injustice
just a little longer, silently, 
lest they provoke unease in their oppressors.

Restoration―maybe―
but not the kind that minimizes 
damage done, that takes 
the easy route to placate 
but not satisfy demands for justice.

What does such a moment 
ask?

Perhaps the same things
God has always asked:

act justly―with the one 
who brings things done 
in secret into light;

love mercy―with the one
who hears the prayers 
of the oppressed and does not 
hesitate to take a side;

walk humbly―with the one 
who offers us the staff of Moses
when we need it, 
helping us to speak.