Learn from the wildflowers: a mini-sermon on Matthew 6:25-34

Wildflowers from last week’s trip to Maine.

Thankful for the opportunity to give another short sermon at Lake B a couple weeks ago. I’m always glad to have opportunities to preach – but really I’m mostly grateful to have been pushed to think a lot about this text.

Matthew 6:25-34 was actually one of the texts that I came up with as part of a group brainstorming session around a sermon series on uncertainty. I wanted to hear someone wrestle with Jesus’ words. How dare Jesus tell people not to worry – in the midst of all the brutality and poverty and Roman occupation and violence of their day? And what might this passage possibly have to say to us, in our own time of brutality and mind-blowing wealth inequality and oppressive governments and violence?

I wanted to hear someone wrestle with it – but I didn’t really want that person to be me. But here we are!

Thankfully, this is another one of those group sermons in which three people reflect on the same passage. I’m so glad to have Michelle Lang-Raymond and Paul Kim as awesome partners in the conversation. Check out the service here, if you like; the three sermons start around 19:49.

Anyhow, here’s the text, and then the sermon. Feel free to holler with all your worries – okay, fine, maybe all your thoughts about worry? – in the comments. (I also had so many random thoughts while studying this passage that I’ll probably be posting more reflections on it over the next few weeks, so…you’ve been warned.)

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 

26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 

28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?

 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” -Jesus (Matt 6:25-34, NRSV)

Jesus says, “do not worry.” Awesome! I hear that, and I immediately stop worrying about all the things I’m worried about. I’m done with worry, forever. Sermon over.

Just kidding. For most of us, I think, it’s not that easy. But this is how scripture passages like ours this morning in Matthew 6 can come across, sometimes. 

There’s a more recent-ish name for this sort of thing: toxic positivity. When people say things like, “don’t worry”; “don’t be so negative”; “think happy thoughts”; “look on the bright side”; “everything happens for a reason”; or, my favorite, “well, it could be worse…”

People call this toxic positivity because these kinds of statements tend not to be actually helpful for people who are going through difficult things. Life is difficult, and many of us have real worries – worries that don’t just magically go away if someone tells us not to worry. Even if that someone is Jesus.

So, if Jesus isn’t just dispensing toxic positivity here, what is he doing? How is this scripture good news?

I think part of the answer involves whom these words are for. 

Jesus’ words here are part of his Sermon on the Mount. Just a few moments earlier, in this sermon, Jesus said, “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be” (Matt 6:19-21).

And then, right before our “do not worry” passage, Jesus says, “you can’t serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24).

Jesus isn’t just saying “don’t worry” in general. He’s speaking to a particular kind of worry, here: worry about not having enough material stuff. What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?

He’s speaking about material stuff, and he’s speaking to a particular group of people: people who have enough stuff that it’s easy to want to store it all up, to want to gain more and more of it so they can stockpile the extra – storing up treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy.

I don’t think Jesus is speaking here to people who are struggling to pay rent or utilities bills, or to buy groceries. He isn’t telling these people “just don’t worry!” – at least not without also doing something to take care of their needs. 

I think Jesus is mostly speaking here to those who have plenty, but who still worry. As we tend to do. After all, everything in our society is geared toward this kind of continued, ongoing, chronic worry. Everything in the systems we live in tells us: Don’t be content with what you have. You need more. Look, that person has more. Don’t you want what they have? Keep working longer and harder to get more. Don’t complain or question the system. Keep storing, keep stockpiling. Keep accumulating. Never be content.

This is the fuel our society runs on. And it’s also killing us.

When people who have bought into this system take a step back, and begin to follow Jesus into a life not so focused on storing up material stuff, these people are freed to live bigger, fuller, more interesting and beautiful lives. As Jesus says, life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 

It’s not only that, though. The other thing that also happens, when people who have more than enough learn not to worry and stockpile, is that their extra resources are freed up. Their resources are no longer hoarded for themselves alone but are freed up to be shared with their community. 

And, in this way, the whole community begins to find that their needs are met. The whole community begins to find that – in reality, not just in a toxic positivity kind of way – no one needs to worry about not having enough material stuff.

All this not worrying, of course, is easier said than done. How do we make this transition, from stockpiling for ourselves to sharing generously with others? This can apply to anything we have, really – whether that’s money, food, or clothing, or gifts, skills, or insights, or a listening ear, or whatever it may be. Everyone has something to offer.

How do we learn to live in this not-worrying, interconnected, generously sharing, giving and receiving, mutually thriving kind of way? 

Jesus says, look at the birds of the air. Consider the lilies of the field – lilies, which could also be translated as wildflowers. 

Living beings like birds and wildflowers are exactly the kinds of things we tend to ignore when we’re focused on striving to build up wealth beyond what we need. Birds and wildflowers are the kinds of things we tend to overlook and undervalue while we’re busy running around in circles on the capitalist hamster wheel. 

Jesus sees the birds and the wildflowers, and he invites us to see them, too. 

When Jesus says “consider the lilies,” or “see the lilies,” in our translations, that’s actually a pretty strong word in the Greek. It could be translated as “examine carefully,” “observe well,” or “learn thoroughly.” Jesus says: Examine the wildflowers carefully. Learn thoroughly from them. 

Jesus invites us to consider: what might these wildflowers have to teach us – the ones who don’t toil or spin and yet are clothed so beautifully? What can we learn about value? About trust? About connectedness with the living beings around us? About worth, and worthiness? About beauty? What can we learn about growth? About how to live as part of the natural world? About how to live sustainably?

Spending time in nature often tends to bring a sense of peace – reminding us of beauty and wonder, of a world bigger than our worries. I think Jesus knows this as he invites us to consider the birds and the wildflowers. 

And I think Jesus also means to redirect our attention from the places it often tends to go. Jesus helps us sit at the feet of different teachers from the people people in our society tend to listen to. He invites us to learn – to learn thoroughly – from the natural world, to let the birds and wildflowers teach us how we might live.

In the midst of devastating climate change, I think Jesus invites us to stop living as if we aren’t dependent on the health of the earth, as if we aren’t impacted by the earth’s sickness – that is, by the sickness humans and our profit-obsessed systems have caused, through all of our competitive striving, through our obsessions with stockpiling money, no matter what the cost.

Jesus knows there are real, legitimate things to worry about. He says, toward the end of our passage: tomorrow will bring worries of its own. 

And he also says this: today’s trouble is enough for today. He says, in effect, be present in this moment. Be present with today’s troubles. Don’t turn away from today’s suffering – in our world, in our communities, in the lives of those we love, in our own lives. Be present, today. 

And Jesus also says this: seek first the kingdom of God. He says, in effect, I’m building a different kind of kingdom. In this kingdom, you don’t have to keep striving for more. In this kingdom, we look to the birds and the wildflowers to teach us how to live. In this kingdom, we don’t stockpile but we share – and as everyone shares, everyone has enough. 

Jesus invites us to join him in this kind of kingdom – in this kingdom of peace, this kingdom of sharing, this kingdom of justice.

Look At Us: a short sermon on Acts 3:1-11

Thankful for another opportunity to join an awesome team of preachers at Lake B and give a mini-sermon on Acts 3:1-11. Here’s the passage, and then the sermon text is below!

(Or if you prefer to listen/watch, the worship service is on YouTube here, and my part starts around 34:00. Stick around for David Meade and Michael Won’s sermons too if you have time!)

Acts 3:1-11 (NRSV):

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. 2 And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. 4 Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” 5 And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 But Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” 7 And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. 8 Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. 11 While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.

The book of Acts is kind of a wild book. We’re only at the start of chapter 3, and already Jesus has been taken up to heaven, after telling his followers to wait for God’s promise. Then Pentecost came, tongues of fire and all, and Peter gave a sermon about how all of this was fulfilling what the prophet Joel said, a really long time ago, about God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh. The people who heard were cut to the heart, and three thousand of them were baptized that day. 

Then they all got to the messy and interesting work of figuring out what all this means in daily life, figuring out what difference it makes that the Holy Spirit dwells among us. This new way of life involved sharing fellowship, eating together, praying together, worshipping together, sharing material stuff, making sure everyone’s needs are met, and generally living simply and gratefully and generously and joyfully. In our competitive, greedy, often violent world, this is radical stuff.

In the middle of this description of the new community that is being formed, we read that “awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.” (That’s Acts 2:43.) Our passage today gives us a glimpse of one of these wonders. In the name of Jesus, Peter and John heal a man who has been lame from birth – or, literally translated, lame from his mother’s womb.

When Peter and John heal the lame man, they’re doing the same kind of work Jesus was doing throughout his life. Jesus was always healing people of all sorts of ailments, and casting out demons, and doing all sorts of wildly miraculous stuff that left the crowds astonished and amazed, and that often left the people who experienced these miracles praising God. 

This is one of the things that characterized Jesus’ life on earth. As Jesus puts it when some of John the Baptist’s disciples come to him to say, “soo…are you the one we’ve been waiting for, or is another coming?”, Jesus says, “go tell John what you’ve seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (That’s in Luke 7:22). Jesus is like, this is what’s going on. You can see it for yourselves. Nuff said. You tell me if I’m the one you’ve all been waiting for, or not.

Jesus’ work involved curing people of their ailments. But it wasn’t just that. It was also, at least as importantly, the work of justice. Jesus’ work involved teaching people to live really different kinds of lives, together, in a world that’s often harsh and brutal, where people are often cruel, caught up forcefully and sometimes unquestioningly in systems that deal death rather than giving life. Jesus came to bring a fuller kind of life, marked by love and community, and by the kind of equity and justice that has to happen if real love and community is ever going to come into being.

And so, when Peter and John interact with the lame man outside the temple, they aren’t just there to instigate the kind of miracle where this man’s feet and ankles are strengthened. They’re also there to instigate the kind of miracle where a new kind of community is being formed – one that couldn’t have existed while the lame man was still outside, excluded from worship, relating to others solely as one who needs something, rather than as one with something to offer.

Peter and John are there to look this man in the eye, while others rush by him, in their very busy and important lives, on their way to do very busy and important things, like go to worship. There’s a lot wrapped up in eye contact, or lack thereof, sometimes. When someone makes eye contact with us, it can help us feel included in a group. It can help us feel like people like us and care about us and value our presence there. And when someone withholds eye contact from us, it can make us feel excluded, rejected, or invisible. When this happens repeatedly over time, it can make us feel less than others, or even sub-human.

Peter looks intently at this man, and when the man doesn’t return eye contact – whether that’s because he feels ashamed of his position, or if he just isn’t used to people paying attention to him, or for whatever reason – Peter says to him, “look at us.” He says, in effect, John and I see you. And we want you to see us.

This is part of how real community forms: we see others, and we are seen. We want to know others, and we want others to know us – beyond the basic visible facts, like what we look like, or where we’re located, or what we’re doing for work. Peter can see all these things about the lame man. But he wants to know who he is on a deeper level. He’s saying, in a sense, the things I can see right now – the fact that you’re not able to walk, that you’re located outside the temple, that you’re dressed a certain way, that you’re begging – these things don’t tell me everything I want to know about you. Peter looks intently at him, beyond the things that would normally keep people who are entering the temple from being friends with someone who is begging outside the gate. 

Peter and John are there to invite the man into a new kind of relationship, of knowing and being known – the kind of relationship where we see one another eye to eye, as equals.

They’re also there to say, I know what you’re expecting to receive from us, but that isn’t what we have to give. When Peter says “I have no silver or gold,” more literally, from the Greek, he’s saying something like “silver and gold do not exist for me.” I kind of picture him saying, what even is silver? What even is gold? What are these things supposed to mean? What even is this system, where some people get to go worship in the temple while others are left outside? Where some people have gold and silver and can give alms as they wish, while also keeping all the power for themselves and not really changing anything?

Peter says, there’s something better. There’s something that can go beyond just helping you get through the next day, although that’s important too. There’s something that can actually bring into being a new and flourishing kind of life, for all of us, together. There’s something that can shift the power dynamic here, so you don’t have to keep on being the needy one, but instead you can enter the temple, we can all enter the temple together, and we can worship God together as equals. There’s transformation. For all of us. And we all need it. 

This is all a continuation of the work of Jesus, right? Really seeing people, and not being afraid to see people’s pain and vulnerability. Being brave enough to let other people see us, to be humble and vulnerable and needy. Making eye contact with people whom others exclude and dehumanize. Looking beyond the surface level, to know people and let people know us. Working relentlessly and radically toward building a community of people who operate as equals, across all sorts of human-made walls, like race, or class, or social standing, or ability or disability, or gender, or sexuality.

Peter and John continue the work of Jesus in this story. It’s like Jesus died, but in so doing, his spirit multiplied like the bread and loaves he broke open to feed the five thousand, and this spirit fills Peter, and John, and now the lame man, along with so many others we read about as we go on in the book of Acts. The now formerly lame man, filled with this spirit, “jumps up,” “walking and leaping and praising God.” His “leaping” here is a word that can also mean to “spring up,” like a spring of water that bubbles up. It’s the word Jesus uses when he talks with the Samaritan woman at the well, when he says, “those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (That’s in John 4:14.) The formerly lame man springs up, gushes up, bubbles over with praise, as Jesus’ spirit disperses and spreads and multiplies, and Jesus’ work of love and justice and mercy continues.

This same spirit invites us today to continue Jesus’ work in our lives and communities, together. To learn to trust and rely on one another. To give generously of whatever we might have to offer, and to know that we all have something to offer. To learn to be in unity. To worship together. 

May we, together, as a community, be filled with this Holy Spirit and continue the work of Jesus in our world.

Super chill book review: Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God (Kaitlin B. Curtice)

After most recently writing about a couple of old-school(-ish) books, it feels like a good time to come back to the present. Kaitlin B. Curtice is my age, and her very-much-worth-reading book Native: Identity, Belonging, and Rediscovering God was published in 2020. 

I found Curtice’s reflections on grappling with Christian faith as a young woman of both Indigenous (Potawatomi) and European descent fascinating. I think this is the kind of thing we really need—we, meaning all sorts of people who identify in some way with Christianity or have it as a part of our histories―in order to deconstruct the things that need to be deconstructed and figure out how to move forward together.

Below are a few things that stood out to me. They’re mostly critiques of (white) American evangelical Christianity―which is not at all the only thing the book is about, but I guess these parts stood out to me because they’re things I think about a lot. I’m grateful for leaders like Curtice who can help guide us in a better direction. Some thoughts:

1. As someone who was once pretty excited about Christian evangelism, I appreciate Curtice’s critiques of some of the ways evangelism is often done―or, maybe more precisely, of the mindsets that are often behind it.

Curtice asks, “What happens when white supremacy taints our Christianity so much that we would rather scream the love of God over someone than honor and respect their rights to live peacefully within the communities they have created and maintained for generations? If Christianity is able to de-center itself enough to see that the imprint of Sacred Mystery already belongs all over the earth, to all peoples, it would change the way we treat our human and nonhuman kin” (p. 50).

The screaming part reminds me of a middle school youth group service trip I went on, to Spokane, WA, the summer before eighth grade. It was kind of a life-changing trip, in the sense that I experienced a powerful sense of community, belonging, and unconditional love there, with all those weirdo kids and youth leaders, and that stuck with me. 

I also remember, though, being with a bunch of other middle schoolers in the church van on the way there, and―I would never have initiated this, but I may have followed along with the crowd―rolling down the windows and yelling “Jesus loves you” at random unsuspecting passersby. A+ for boldness, but…maybe yelling at people out of a car window wasn’t the best way to actually express love.

That’s kind of a funny story, and probably mostly harmless. But don’t Christians often do this in bigger and less harmless ways, too―that is, in Curtice’s words, “scream the love of God over someone” rather than “honor and respect their rights to live peacefully” in their communities? Saying “God loves you” but then expecting someone to come to your kind of church to experience that love, or to conform to your culture and ways of being―or thinking of them as a sinner or heathen if they don’t respond to this declaration of Christian love in the way you want them to―isn’t exactly love. 

I like Curtice’s idea of Christianity de-centering itself. I think this is challenging, when many of us have been taught that there is One Right Way to get to God, and it involves something like the Four Spiritual Laws, or the Roman Road, or the ABCs of salvation, or the sinner’s prayer. (All things, by the way, that were developed quite recently in the grand scheme of things. No one before that must have known God―including all the historical Christian theologians who shaped our faith as we know it, not to mention all the people in the Bible.)

I think it’s entirely possible for Jesus to be the way, the truth, and the life, the one through whom we come to God (John 14:6), and for this path to look very different for different people and different groups of people. It definitely doesn’t need to―and, for people who don’t share these cultural and ethnic backgrounds, it shouldn’t―look like historical European-ness, or current white American-ness. White Christians over the years have done so much harm by acting like it should.

2. At various points throughout the book, Curtice comes back to the idea of a God and a faith that is primarily personal and individualistic―and all the different things that are wrong with this, or that could be so much bigger and more beautiful.

She connects an individualistic notion of God to the church’s tendency to ignore the oppression of various marginalized groups of people (p. 49), and she connects an obsession with personal sin and salvation with being “ill equipped to go into the world to face systems of injustice, many of which we helped create” (p. 83). “If we stand on Sunday and sing songs about personal sins,” Curtice asks, “how are we to go out and challenge institutional systems of hate?” (p. 84).

On the flip side, she also connects individual healing with communal healing. She writes, “I thought about how our individual healing is tied to our universal healing and how breaking the bonds of colonization is an essential part of that…I belong to my ancestors, I belong to those who came before, to a vision of all of us that keeps us tethered. The work that we must do together…is to help each other see that vision of wholeness beyond colonization and hate. We must carry one another’s stories with grace and honor, and lead each other toward a kind of healing that heals whole systems, not just people. If we have learned anything from the church, and if we have learned anything from injustice, we know that it is individuals who act as part of systems that continue oppressive cycles, yet those same individuals can band together to create change” (p. 153). 

I like this idea of a communal vision of wholeness and healing. If my healing is tied to my neighbor’s healing, and some of my neighbors have borne the weight of generational trauma that comes from a history of colonization, then all of our healing is tied to our ability to, as Curtice writes, “[break] the bonds of colonization” and “help each other see that vision of wholeness beyond colonization and hate.” 

There’s so much history, and so much present-day reality of injustice, that we have to work on confronting and breaking down in order to actually have real relationships across ethnic, racial, and other boundaries―the kind of relationships that are marked by equality and mutuality rather than further injustice, indignity, unequal-ness, and colonization.

3. A while back, I read a book called Believers: A Journey into Evangelical America by Jeffrey L. Sheler. I think I picked it up cheap at a used book store. Back in 2006, long before the era of Trump as president, Sheler was going around interviewing prominent evangelical leaders about faith and (conservative) politics and that sort of thing.

If I understood Sheler correctly, it seemed like his main point (or one of them) was that evangelical Christians, as a group, have taken a sharp veer toward the right in just the last few decades (since the 1970s), and now there are all sorts of very conservative, very Christian people trying to push the country right-ward in a variety of (sometimes sneaky) ways. If I remember right, Sheler contrasted this with the faith of his childhood, which tended to stick to the Bible and stay out of politics.

I remember thinking, I’m with Sheler that it’s bad that evangelical churches have gotten so right-wing political; I’m not with him, though, that it’s bad that they’ve gotten so political at all. I do think Christians should be involved in politics, and that (some) political things―or things that get labeled as political, which is really all sorts of things that matter in our communities, and especially to the most vulnerable among us―are totally fair game for sermons and other church-y conversations. 

All this to say, I appreciate Curtice’s take: “No matter what kind of work we do in the world, whether we are community organizers and activists or stay-at-home parents, we have work to do, and we can take part in caring for the earth and engaging in difficult and honest conversations. Often, our religious spaces are kept clean from these conversations, simply because the conversations don’t seem important enough, or they seem too political. So we must remind ourselves that even the inner work we do to learn about ourselves and to reorient our souls toward caring for the earth is inherently political work, work that stretches into our families, our social circles, our communities, and our governments. We must ask ourselves what we value and hold sacred, and work from there” (pp. 97-8).

“Even the inner work is inherently political work.” Our individual faith is tied to our family lives, the lives of our broader communities, and of our world as a whole. None of these things can be, or should be, separated from the other. Faith speaks into social issues, and social issues speak into faith. 

To me, the solution to becoming aware that the Religious Right is not exactly the religion of Jesus is not to withdraw from the political sphere, but to learn how to engage in that sphere differently―with less of a lens of imposing “biblical views” on society, and more of a lens of seeking justice, building communities where everyone can flourish.

4. Another related theme that came through strongly in this book is truth-telling. I’m super into it, even though it’s also hard. I think Curtice models truth-telling really well―she’s been courageous in digging into her own past and story, and digging into history, and unearthing the colonizing mindsets so present in the evangelical churches, even churches she is still a part of and loves. 

Curtice encourages the (white American) church to remember: to remember truthfully our own history, a history full of violence and colonization and oppression and white supremacy. And she encourages us to ask questions, to “take an honest look at our own intentions” (p. 45). 

She asks so many great questions of the church throughout the book. I could see church leaders, if they were willing, using the book as a guide for a several week long study, opening up conversations about some of the questions Curtice asks. 

5. Sometimes when churches start talking about justice and multiethnicity and that sort of thing, we start talking about the racial make-up of our communities and how we might diversify. I do think racial diversity, as well as diversity along all other sorts of lines, makes a community a richer, more complex, and more beautiful place. At the same time, though, I think it’s complicated.

Along these lines, I think, Curtice writes, “Approaching Indigenous culture with the goal of getting Native peoples in the pews isn’t an answer—it is merely an extension of colonization.” (Oof.) “Perhaps the church should consider that Indigenous peoples have more to teach the church than the church has to teach Indigenous peoples. Perhaps that would change how the relationship works. The important aspect of this relationship is that it is a partnership, a space in which listening really happens…Indigenous people shouldn’t have to spend our days educating non-Native people, but when we are willing to partner with institutions like the church for a better future, we should be heard” (123).

I appreciate that, oof-ness and all. The point isn’t to get more people from particular ethnic or racial groups into predominantly white churches. The point is to learn how to have healthy relationships, where the church is willing to take a humble―that is, Christlike―posture and learn. This is something I’ll keep thinking about in my own journey of figuring out what healthy multiethnic churches and justice-centered churches can look like.

There was a lot to this book, but these are just a few things I liked and am thinking about. Give it a read, if you get a chance, and let me know what you think!

The illusion of independence: Jesus, to the Laodiceans

Here’s a literal translation of Revelation 3:14-22—Jesus’ words to the last of the seven churches featured in the first few chapters of Revelation.

(14) And to the angel of the church in Laodicea, write; these things says the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of the creation of God; (15) I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I would that you were cold or hot. (16) So, because you are tepid and neither hot nor cold, I am about to vomit you from my mouth. (17) Because you say that “I am rich” and “I have become rich” and “I have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are miserable and pitiable and poor and blind and naked, (18) I counsel you to buy from me gold, having been burned from fire, in order that you might become rich, and a white garment in order that you might clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness might not be revealed, and eye salve to anoint your eyes in order that you might see. 

(19) As many as I love, I reprove and teach; be zealous, therefore, and repent. (20) Behold, I have stood at the door and I knock; if someone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter with them and I will dine with them and them with me. 

(21) The one who conquers, I will give to them to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered, and I sat with my father on his throne. (22) The one who has ears, let them hear what the spirit says to the churches.

Usually, when I hear people talk about this passage, they tend to focus on the part about being hot, cold, or lukewarm. And by people, I mean everyone from your pastor to your old school Katy Perry: you know, “you’re hot, then you’re cold, you’re yes, then you’re no…” (Just kidding).

Focusing on these verses works pretty well for evangelical pastors. They can read this and say, well, you’re all clearly being lukewarm Christians right now, because you aren’t that excited about evangelism; or, because you aren’t giving enough money to the church; or, because you aren’t spending enough time volunteering to serve in the church’s ministry programs; or, because you aren’t [fill in the blank with whatever else I want you to be doing right now].”

(Slightly less cynical version: fill in the blank with whatever I think God wants you to be doing right now…and I definitely know what God wants for you, better than you do. Oops, I guess that was still a little cynical. #Mood.)

I’m not totally sure what to say about the cold/hot/lukewarm thing, except that these kinds of interpretations can’t be right. It’s not at all clear what exactly Jesus means when he speaks to the church in Laodicea about being hot or cold, but it certainly doesn’t involve twenty-first century American evangelical churches’ budgets or growth rates. 

Besides, is tepid food or drink to be blamed for its tepidness? It’s not like it can “fix” itself. It’s not like it can force itself to become hot or cold by sheer willpower, by trying harder, by doing more of the “right” Christian-y things. 

Maybe a more helpful line of thought, here, begins something like this: If you’re in a place spiritually where everything feels tepid, why might that be? What’s going on? Were there things that you were genuinely excited about in the past, and, if so, what changed? 

Asking open-ended questions like these can help us do some meaningful self-reflection. There are no right or wrong answers. Often there is no one in particular to blame. It’s just a means of self-discovery, of trying to be aware of what’s going on in our hearts and minds and bodies and spirits.

We might also ask some questions that have a little more forward momentum to them: What might you still be excited about? Where might these things be found, or how might they be brought to life? Are there things in your life that you really are passionate about, and what might it look like to lean more into these things? Do you feel like you have God’s permission to pursue these passions, whether or not they have to do directly with church-y stuff? 

This sort of reflection feels to me like a better, more open-ended, less manipulative way to think about the ways in which we might be hot, cold, or tepid.

Temperatures aside, though, there’s another part of this passage that strikes me as just as interesting, or maybe even more so. It’s this: Because you say that “I am rich” and “I have become rich” and “I have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are miserable and pitiable and poor and blind and naked, I counsel you to buy from me gold having been burned from fire in order that you might become rich, and a white garment in order that you might clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness might not be revealed, and eye salve to anoint your eyes in order that you might see (v. 17-18).

I am rich, and I have become rich, and I have need of nothing. Isn’t that kind of the American dream? I worked hard and pulled myself up by my bootstraps. I made myself independently wealthy. I have all the material things I need and then some, and I live happily ever after in my big house in the suburbs, where I don’t have to worry about money, or interact with anyone I don’t want to interact with, or do anything I don’t want to do. I have need of nothing.

Unfortunately for those who have bought into this dream, independence is a lie. Having need of nothing is a lie. You can be as rich as you’ve ever dreamed, and yet still be miserable and pitiable and poor and blind and naked. You can find yourself, as T.I. might say, “unhappy with your riches cause you’re piss poor morally” (from Live Your Life, ft. Rihanna…apparently my pop music from 2008 game is strong today).

If we start to think that we don’t need others, we become among those whom Jesus calls pitiable and poor. This is not how life was meant to be lived. We all need so many things that money can’t buy: love, friendship, community, peace, joy, connection, purpose, belonging. We are miserable without these things and blind if we can’t see that we need them.

Plus, even in the times when it does feel like all our needs are being met (hallelujah!), there are likely others around us for whom this is not the case. It is a lie to think that we can flourish while we sit back and say I am rich and I have need of nothing—go me!—as others suffer from not having enough. 

Contrary to a long American legacy of white male supremacist ways of thinking (I recently read Ijeoma Uluo’s book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America—highly recommend!), the point of life is not to win, to end up with more than others, to come out on top without caring what happens to everyone else. When we make everything hyper-competitive and are willing to sacrifice others’ wellbeing to try to get more for ourselves, everyone loses. 

Not to mention all the things Jesus says about how the last will be first and the first will be last (Matt 20:16), and how we should care for the least of these (Matt 25:40), and that sort of thing.

When some people, or some groups of people, try to win at others’ expense, we all lose. The point is not to get ahead so we can have need of nothing, but to learn how to live together in healthy communities, where we all love one another as equals. 

This does not come naturally to many of us, perhaps especially those of us who grew up swimming in a sea of white American culture. So let’s buy that new kind of gold from Jesus, and that new garment, because the way a lot of us have been conditioned to think about things is completely upside down. Let’s put on that eye salve and perhaps learn to see differently, perhaps learn to see how interconnected we all are.

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.

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.

How Far We Were

How Far We Were

I did not know 
    how far we were 
        from one another

til 2020 blasted into light
    the light years that had always 
        been between us,

like a looking glass 
    intent on showing
        wrinkled scars 

where we expected to 
    see youth. 
        Sometimes 

I wish I did not know
    how much we do not hold 
        in common. 

Before, 
    when we were younger,
        and the world was, too,

we felt we could afford 
    to talk of high and lofty love
        as though it were a concept

academic and abstract. 
    It was a more naive
        and happy time when I

had no idea what shape 
    these thoughts would take
        incarnate in your hands.

Before,
    we could agree
        on pleasant-sounding thoughts

in inoffensive-sounding words,
    but this year’s traumas
        tipped our hands

and pushed us toward specifics.

Yet, it must be better, still,  
    to know, to see 
        which friendships

can survive these storms
    and which were always built 
        on something sinking.

It must be better, still, 
    to learn to speak
        the things we really think,

to learn to talk about
    the things we see 
        so differently―

and where we cannot talk, 
    perhaps to let our journeys drift,
        for now, apart.

We could not live forever, anyway,
    in blind denial of the things
        each other’s souls

truly believe.

It must be better to reveal,
    apocalyptic though 
        it may all feel,

and be.

Empowerment and authoritarianism and the armor of God, with shout-out to the Black Panthers

Here is one way I might translate Ephesians 6:10-17 (emphasis added):

(10) Henceforth, (y’all) be empowered in (the) Lord and in the strength of his ability. (11) (Y’all) put on the whole armor of God for the purpose of y’all being powerful to stand up to the schemes of the devil; (12) because the wrestling, for us, is not toward blood and flesh, but toward the rulers, toward the authorities, toward the world-rulers of this darkness, toward the spiritual things of evil in the heavenly places. (13) On account of this, (y’all) take up the whole armor of God, in order that y’all might be powerful to resist in the evil day, and, after accomplishing everything, to stand. (14) Therefore, (y’all) stand, after girding y’all’s loins in truth, and after putting on for yourselves the breastplate of justice, (15) and after shoeing the feet in readiness of the good news of peace, (16) in all things taking up the shield of faith, in which y’all will be powerful to extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil; (17) and (y’all) receive the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, which is a word of God.

As you may have gathered from the italics I added, I got interested in what these verses have to say about power. In particular, I thought it was interesting that the Greek word δύναμαι tends to be translated a bit more weakly than it needs to be.

δύναμαι is used three times in the eight verses above, so it seems pretty important. On top of that, a closely related word, ἐνδυναμόω, is used in v. 10 (also italicized above).

In most translations, δύναμαι is rendered here as “can” or “is able.” In the NIV, for example, the relevant phrases read:

  • “so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (v. 11)
  • “so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground” (v. 13)
  • “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one” (v. 16).

I’m not saying I think this is a bad translation, but I am interested in the fact that δύναμαι could alternatively be translated not just as “can,” or “is able,” but as “is strong,” or “is powerful.” It’s the word from which we get our English words dynamite and dynamic.

I wouldn’t go quite so far as to translate δύναμαι as “is dynamite,” as fun as that might be―boom!―but I do think it’s interesting to try to incorporate this idea of power into the translation. Thus, we might have:

  • “for the purpose of y’all being powerful to stand up to the schemes of the devil” (v. 11)
  • “in order that y’all might be powerful to resist in the evil day” (v. 13)
  • “taking up the shield of faith, in which y’all will be powerful to extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil” (v. 16).

I’ll add another one, just for fun, from the closely related verb in v. 10 (ἐνδυναμόω): “be empowered in the Lord and in the strength of his ability.”

I think sometimes Christians have the idea, even if we might not quite put it this way, that all power is reserved for God―and this means that we as humans aren’t meant to have any. We are meant to be small, and powerless, and weak, and frail, and all-around worm-like in every way.

But the God I believe in―and the God Paul believed in, back in the day―is not an insecure political leader who hoards power for himself and tries to keep others as small and powerless as possible. 

The God I believe in does not hoard power, but shares it. God’s ego is not threatened by the thought that ordinary humans might learn to stand and walk in their power. God wants to empower people. 

God wants people to be powerful―powerful to pursue truth (the belt), and justice (the breastplate), and peacemaking (the shoes). Powerful to stand up to evil and to resist unjust schemes. Powerful to hold onto faith like a shield and extinguish all the flaming arrows of evil. 

I think Paul wants people to know that this is what God is like. Paul wants the average, everyday churchgoers in the city of Ephesus to be empowered (v. 10). He wants them to put on God’s full armor so that they can be powerful (v. 11). 

Paul hopes that, in the “evil day”―in the times when the presence of evil is particularly obvious and oppressive―these ordinary people might be powerful to be part of the resistance (v. 13). And Paul has every confidence that these humble unassuming ordinary people will in fact be powerful (v. 16). 

I find this idea of empowerment via the armor of God particularly striking in the context of Paul’s immediately preceding words. Right before this passage, Paul speaks directly to both wives and husbands (Eph 5:22-33), both children and parents (Eph 6:1-3), and both slaves and householders (Eph 6:5-9). 

Whatever else we might say about these passages (and feel free to click the links above for some of my thoughts), at the very least, it is clear that Paul writes to a church full of all kinds of people, with all sorts of different amounts of power in the structures and systems of our world: husbands, who had a great deal of power in their marriages, and wives, who had very little; parents, who had a great deal of power in their relationships with their children, and children, who had very little; householders, who had a great deal of power in their homes, and slaves, who had very little. 

And now, when he writes about the armor of God, Paul makes no distinctions among any of these groups. He writes to the whole church, to everyone in it: I want you to be empowered by God. Whether you have all the power in the world or none of it, put on God’s armor, and be empowered. Stand up to evil. Resist oppression and hatred and deception and greed, wherever you see it. Truth, justice, peace, and faith belong to you. 

I am reminded of a slogan of the Black Panther Party: “All the power to all the people.” 

(I just learned this recently, from a documentary called The First Rainbow Coalition, which follows the story of alliances formed among the Black Panther Party and other working-class community movements in Chicago in the late 1960s or so, including a Latino group and a group of southern whites.)

I think sometimes (white) Christians are afraid of things like this. Not only because we tend to be racist―which we absolutely do―but also because we get nervous about the idea of people having power in general. Sometimes this is for good reason, as we have seen powerful people abuse their power and do a great deal of harm. Sometimes we want to limit power to the tiny group of people whom we think have really earned it.

But perhaps God knows that power can be so dangerous and awful precisely because it tends to accumulate in the hands of just a few―because, when we get a bit of it, we tend to hoard it for ourselves. 

Perhaps if power were actually distributed more evenly among more people―among all people―we would see less in the way of authoritarian abuse of power, and more in the way of ordinary people rising up to work together for the health and wellbeing of the community. 

I don’t think God wants us to think we are worms, weak and gross, always groveling for mercy and thinking we’re the absolute worst. I think God wants to empower us to figure out how to live in a way that honors God, other people, ourselves, and the natural world. I think God wants us to be powerful to be fully ourselves. Powerful to be about truth and justice and peace and faith and healing. 

This is not an easy thing. Often it’s easier to be small. 

It’s hard to stand―that’s why we need the “full armor of God” for it. But it is good. 

So, be empowered in the Lord. God shares God’s power―God’s awesome, good, truth-exposing, justice-seeking, peace-making power―with us. All the power to all the people.

To the people with power

In Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul gives a series of instructions to δοῦλοι (slaves or servants―people in a position of subservience or subjection), and then to κυρίοις (masters or lords―people in a position of power). 

Here is the passage in the NRSV translation:

5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; 6 not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. 7 Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, 8 knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.

9 And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

I hope it’s obvious that this passage is, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable one. 

It has a hideous history of being used to try to justify chattel slavery in the US. It was spoken often by white enslavers to black enslaved people to try to keep them from rising up, running away, or expressing any other kinds of resistance to the brutal, inhumane system these white enslavers perpetuated.

I notice that (white) Christians now―likely either feeling guilty at some level about how the Bible was used to justify slavery, and/or in denial that this was the case―tend to read this passage with various sorts of disclaimers. Most pastors would likely say, “of course these verses don’t mean that slavery was or is okay! Let’s find another way to think about this.”

(This, by the way, is another reason I find it so galling when Christians read the immediately preceding passage, Ephesians 5:21-33, as a literal prescription for the way wives and husbands should relate to each other today, but then are unwilling to do the same for the verses about masters and slaves. It’s as if we somehow all just “know” now that slavery is wrong…but we’re not so sure about patriarchal marriage.)

I want to acknowledge the pain and awfulness these words about masters and slaves have caused. 

And, as I mentioned in my post last week about wives and husbands, I don’t want to excuse Paul for failing to push back against the hierarchical power structures of his time and place―for women, or for slaves/servants.

What I do want to do is offer some thoughts about these verses that might help push the church today in a better direction. To do this, I want to focus on verses 8 and 9. I want to focus on the “masters”―the people with power. 

In verse 8, Paul writes that whatever good thing each person might do, this he/she will receive from the Lord (literal translation). This, according to Paul, includes both enslaved people and “free” people―people without power and people with power. 

Then, in verse 9, Paul addresses masters. And he tells them to treat servants in the same way as, in Paul’s worldview, servants should treat them (literally, “do the same things toward the servants/slaves”). He then goes on to say, literally translated, that “their and y’all’s lord/master is in the heavens,” and that there is no partiality in this heavenly lord’s presence.

I’m not a huge fan of how Paul instructs everyone equally in these verses. He kind of tramples over and ignores the differences in power and social location between the slaves/servants and the masters/lords. 

But I do like how Paul addresses people with power. I think it’s worth paying attention to. What happens when we go back and read verses 5-7 with the “masters, do the same things toward the servants/slaves” part in mind? 

I’m thinking here of people in all sorts of positions of power. Employers, bosses, supervisors. Leaders and influencers of all sorts. City councils, judges, congresspeople, governors, presidents, and other elected officials. Police and military. Counselors and consultants. And, of course, pastors, elders, and other church leaders.

What “same things,” exactly, are these kinds of people instructed to do? How are they to think and act toward the people they lead and influence? 

Paul wants people with power to treat others with respect and fear, and to live with sincerity and singleness of heart (v. 5). To live their private lives in a way that matches their public persona. (Which, by the way, probably does not involve taking weird pants-unzipped pictures with your wife’s female assistant, and then giving an even weirder drunk-sounding non-apology for it.)

Paul wants people with power not to try to win others’ favor, but to do the will of God from the heart (v. 6). (I enjoy the literal translation: “not according to eye-service like people-pleasers”―two fun compound words in Greek.) Not just to be seen and make a good impression and move up the food chain―and not to be so concerned with self-protection and image management once on top―but to seek God humbly. To try to do what is right and good and just. 

Paul wants people with power to serve wholeheartedly, as if serving the Lord, not people (v. 7). To see their leadership not as self-aggrandizement, self-fulfillment, or an ego boost, but as service. And to be willing, whatever the cost, to choose to please God rather than people―one’s superiors, public opinion, etc.―when these two things conflict.

In the world of churches and Christian organizations, I think all this would involve leaders doing more (and deeper) soul-searching to figure out what it looks like to serve God in their context. Listening, broadly and intentionally and carefully, to the wisdom and experiences of people in the congregation. Digging beyond what was taught in seminary, what worked well for other churches, what people demand, and what wealthy donors want to fund. 

I think it would involve leaders caring less about what things look like and more about how things actually are. When it comes to race, for example, it would involve moving from questions like “do our website photos show lots of happy people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds?” to questions like “are the people of color in our congregation represented in leadership? Are they respected as important voices in decision-making? Do they feel free to exist and worship as they are, without conforming to white norms? Are they acknowledged and honored as thinkers, leaders, and co-creators of theology?”

I think it would involve, as one more example, leaders being more upfront about their churches’ stances toward LGBTQ+ people and relationships―e.g. whether the church prohibits openly gay people from serving and leading in various ministries, whether the church performs gay weddings, etc.. (And if a leader finds herself hesitant to own up to a particular stance, for fear that it would make the church look bad―for example, that a non-affirming stance might make the church seem unkind, unwelcoming, or judgmental―perhaps it’s worth considering whether this stance may actually be some of these things.)

I don’t want to excuse Paul from the ugliness of the way he takes master/slave relationships for granted. 

But I do want to see what would happen if more people with power started taking Paul’s instructions more seriously. 

I want to see the kinds of churches and communities we can build together when leaders live and lead sincerely, from their hearts―not to make things look good, like people-pleasers, but doing God’s will, as well as they can understand it, guided by love and justice, from the bottom of their souls. 

I want to see people with power using this power for good and not evil. 

And maybe, in this way, Paul’s words here―which have been used for such evil―can be turned around and used for good.

Wives and participles and Bible and I’m done defending Paul

I thought I might write a post exploring how the original Greek of Ephesians 5:21-33 comes across a little less patriarchal―or at least a little more ambiguous in some ways―than our English translations suggest. 

And there are plenty of things that could be said to this effect. 

I could write about how Paul’s call to submit in verses 21-22 is not actually a command form, as many translations would have you think. For example, these all sound like commands:

  • “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (NIV).
  • “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord” (NRSV).
  • “And submit to each other out of respect for Christ. For example, wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord” (CEB).

In the Greek, however, the word translated as “submit” or “be subject” in verse 21 is actually in its participle form, not its command form. This means that a more literal translation might start off, “being subject to one another…” or “while y’all are submitting yourselves to one another…” or something along those lines. The action is ongoing and assumed, not instructed or commanded. 

I could also point out that verse 22, in the Greek, doesn’t actually have a verb. In other words, a literal translation would not read “wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands,” but rather just “wives to your own husbands.” Our translations take the verb “submit” from the previous verse and fill it in here. 

Similarly, moving on a couple verses later, verse 24 also lacks a verb. While the NIV reads, “as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything,” a more literal translation would read, “as the church submits to Christ, so also the wives to the husbands in everything.” The part about the wives has no verb in Greek, but translations take “submit” from the part about the church and add it in. 

I could write about how these details come together to make verses 21-24 sound less harsh and commanding toward women than one might think. 

I could also point out that the first time Paul actually does use a command form is in verse 25: “husbands, (y’all) love (your) wives, just as Christ also loved the church and handed himself over on her behalf.” It’s directed toward the husbands, not the wives.  

Husbands are commanded to love their wives, whereas wives are just assumed to submit to their husbands. Thus, maybe Paul isn’t trying to control women’s actions so much as influence and instruct men to be better and more loving husbands―which, of course, if we share for a moment Paul’s assumption of heterosexual marriage, benefits their wives. 

I could also say that, in reading this passage in Greek―perhaps because of the Greek itself, or perhaps just because the act of translating forces me to read more slowly and carefully―I was struck by how much this passage is not actually about marriage, but about Christ and the church. 

I could say―and I think I would not be wrong―that Paul’s main point here is to work from the cultural assumptions he shares with his readers about marriage, and to use these assumptions to say some important things about Christ’s relationship with the church. What he really wants to do here is help the church community better understand what Christ’s love is like.

He wants people to know that Christ’s love is deep, great, and sacrificial―the way, in Paul’s worldview, a good husband loves his wife. He wants people to see how the church is invited to submit to Christ’s leadership and follow Christ’s example―the way, in Paul’s worldview, a good wife submits to her husband. He wants to help them understand the profound, intimate unity between Christ and the church―not unlike the profound, intimate unity between two marriage partners. 

So here we are, with many things to say that might seem to make this passage more palatable, especially to women―and, perhaps, to all modern-day humans who have no particular interest in building their marriages on the dubious foundation of ancient Greco-Roman gender roles.

Ultimately, though, via something of a fraught and winding journey, I find myself now in a place where I no longer feel the need to try to soften Paul’s words or make them sound better. And it’s very freeing to be able to say that.

I find myself no longer able to deny what I very much wish were not true about Paul: the fact that he says some patriarchal, sexist stuff. 

(Or, more precisely: he says some stuff that likely made things a bit better for women of his time, compared to what they would have experienced otherwise―but which, when we try to apply it to our lives and marriages today, tends to have the opposite effect.)

After all, Ephesians 5:21-33 might be (relatively) indirect and gentle toward women in its tone in Greek―and it might be about Christ and the church more than it is about marriage―but there is a parallel passage in the book of Colossians that offers none of these sorts of caveats. And I don’t think we can speak honestly about Paul’s words toward women if we’re only willing to talk about one passage and not the other. 

Colossians 3:18 really does directly command wives to be subject to their husbands. There is no nuance of missing verbs, or participle forms, or anything like that. There is no analogy to Christ and the church that we can focus on to make us feel less uncomfortable.

There isn’t really any getting around Paul’s patriarchal instructions.

And I think I’m done trying to argue otherwise. I think I’m done defending Paul―trying to make excuses for him, sanitize his writing, make him sound more palatable and less sexist.

Paul really does, in both Ephesians and Colossians, write about husbands and wives in the same breath as masters and slaves, and parents and children―each, in Paul’s mind, clearly a hierarchical relationship in which there is some kind of analogous power dynamic. Paul takes commonly known Greco-Roman household codes and makes some Christian edits to them, but he does not really make an effort to change the hierarchical assumptions they are built on. 

(The master/slave part, of course, is a whole other can of worms―a critically important one, and one I’m also not particularly interested in trying to sanitize or explain away. But that’s another post for another time.) 

When I read passages like this, as a woman, I don’t think that I can settle for trying to find ways to make them sound gentler and more palatable as I apply them to my own life. The core of what they say and assume about women and men and relationships exists in too much friction with everything I am and want to be, everything I have experienced as good in this world, and everything I see Jesus saying and doing.

And I think that Paul’s letters are best read in relation to all these things. They are not meant to be read in isolation from the words and life of Jesus, or from our own lives and experiences. And they are especially not meant to be read in isolation from the lives and experiences of the people who are most vulnerable to being dehumanized, marginalized, or otherwise abused by them.

 We can take the Bible very seriously and believe very deeply in its truth while also admitting that there are some passages which, if applied in our time and culture in any kind of direct and straightforward way, diminish the humanity and dignity of women, or people of color, or LGBTQ+ people. And we can lament this and seek to walk a different path, rather than making excuses for it. 

The Bible is a complex set of books, not meant to be read like a list of instructions or do’s and don’t’s. It’s a lot more complicated than that―and a lot deeper and more interesting.

It’s meant to be read in community, among a wide diversity of people who are all empowered to speak freely and candidly. And in this diverse community that reads and understands the Bible together, women’s voices should be at the center of the conversation when it comes to passages like this one. 

(For that matter, communities would also do well to center the voices of single people and of LGBTQ+ people―people whose experiences of gender, sexuality, and relationships may be very different from the experiences of people in heterosexual marriages.)

The Bible is both a deep well from which to draw living water, and a set of ancient texts written in times and places very different from ours. There are so many things we can learn from it and so many ways it can be life-giving for us. And we can do this learning and life-receiving without needing to share all of each human biblical author’s assumptions about how things are or how things should be. 

So, I’m done trying to explain away Paul’s patriarchy. But I’m not done reading his writings and being inspired by them. I’m not done pondering what truths about God, life, and community lie among them. 

May we learn, in diverse communities together, with every voice heard and honored, to read and love the Bible in all of its beauty and its complications, without needing to airbrush its ugly parts or try to reduce its maddening, wonderful complexity.