Worry can be good?

When I was studying Matthew 6:25-34 to preach on it (see the post below for the full passage…and mini-sermon), I looked up the Greek word translated as “worry.” I wanted to see where else this word is used in the New Testament. I was surprised to find that it can be used in a positive way.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul likens church communities to human bodies, full of different parts that all function together as one complete, hopefully-healthy organism. At one point, while fleshing out (pun intended) this metaphor, Paul writes, “But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor 12:24-25, NIV). 

The word translated as “concern” in this passage is the same word translated as “worry” in Matthew 6. That last part of 1 Cor 12:25, literally translated, could read something like this: “the parts should be the same worried on behalf of one another”—or, slightly more natural-sounding, “the parts should be equally worried for one another.” Paul wants the different parts of body—that is, the unique and diverse set of humans who make up the faith community—to be worried about one another.

In another of his letters, Paul writes—this time to the Phillippian faith community—that he hopes to send Timothy their way soon for an encouraging visit. And Paul wants them to know that Timothy is hella dope (as the kids these days might say). He says of Timothy, “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare” (Phil 2:20). 

As you may have guessed, this word translated as “concern” here is also the same one that means “worry.” Timothy worries about the Philippian Christians’ welfare. And Paul considers this a praiseworthy thing.

It’s easy to say that worry is bad, that people of faith should not have worry in our lives. If we trusted God more, we wouldn’t worry.

At the same time, though, as people of faith, our first—maybe only?—job is to love God and love people. We want to love others, to care about one another as humans, to be concerned for one another. And when we care about one another, sometimes we worry about one another’s wellbeing. I think that’s all okay. That’s all good. 

When we hear Jesus say, then, in Matthew 6:25, “do not worry,” it seems important to remember that the sentence doesn’t stop there. Jesus doesn’t just say “do not worry,” period, with no context around the instruction. Rather, he goes on to say, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear.” 

It isn’t a general, across-the-board, “worry is bad; let’s get rid of it.” Jesus doesn’t guilt-trip worriers—which would really just give them another thing to worry about: that all their worry isn’t pleasing to God.

Instead, I think, God offers a hope of redirecting our worries. God offers a hope of being part of communities where all our needs are provided for, because we’re all sharing what we have with one another as we’re able. 

Perhaps if we were all equally worried for one another (as Paul puts it in 1 Cor 12)—or if we all had as much genuine worry for one another’s welfare as Timothy did for the Philippians (from Phil 2:20)—then, truly, none of us would need to worry about our own clothing, or food, or where these things will come from. These things would be provided for in the context of a community full of mutual concern.

Maybe worry isn’t always bad. Maybe worry can be good—when we’re worried on behalf of one another, looking out for one another in community, sharing our concerns and our joys with one another, genuinely caring for one another. 

Have you seen worry be a good thing? Other thoughts or quibbles? Holler in the comments!

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.

How (Not) to Lay Down One’s Life: A short sermon on John 10:11-18

(11) “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd places his life on behalf of the sheep. (12) The wage-worker, even, who is not the shepherd, of whom the sheep are not (his) own, beholds the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees – and the wolf seizes them and scatters (them) – (13) because he is a wage-worker and it is not a care to him concerning the sheep. 

(14) I am the good shepherd and I know the ones that are mine and the ones that are mine know me, (15) just as the father knows me and I know the father, and I place my life on behalf of the sheep. (16) Also, however, I have sheep which are not from this court; those, it is necessary (for) me to bring, and they will hear my voice, and they will become one flock, one shepherd. 

(17) On this account the father loves me, because I place my life, in order that again I might receive it. (18) No one takes it away from me, but I place it from myself. I have power to place it, and I have power again to receive it; I received this command from my father.” -Jesus, John 10:11-18 (my translation)

As I reflect on this passage I’m intrigued by how much Jesus talks about laying down his life. He manages to talk about laying down his life a full five times in these eight verses. 

I used to think I knew a lot about what it means to lay down one’s life. 

I thought it meant a whole of host of things having to do with putting other people’s needs above my own―and, in the process, often ignoring my own desires and gifts and needs, pretending they weren’t there, or thinking they weren’t important.

I thought laying down my life meant things like not weighing in on group decisions, even simple ones like where to go out to eat, because my preferences didn’t matter. Or, washing more than my fair share of dishes, and then feeling resentful that my roommates didn’t do more. Or, not complaining about things that felt wrong to me. Or, lacking boundaries, and not standing up for myself.

Of course, this was all some funky mash-up of what I thought it meant to lay down my life like Jesus, and what the world often expects from women, and what Christian leaders tended to preach about in the contexts I was in, and my own personality and tendencies.

But I share this because I think sometimes we get some ideas about what it means to follow Jesus that aren’t actually in scripture. In our passage this morning there are some things that complicate some of the notions we might have about what it means to lay down our lives.

Just before this passage, in John 10:10, Jesus says, “the thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” 

There are a lot of different ways we might identify with the different characters in the shepherd-and-sheep metaphor in our passage. While it’s not as straightforward as simply saying we are the sheep in this metaphor and that’s it, I do think that identifying with the sheep is one angle we can take. And when we do so, we find that we receive this promise from Jesus: Jesus wants us to have life. Jesus wants us to have life to the full.

If our ways of trying to follow Jesus are making us feel resentful, burned out, or bitter, like someone is stealing from us or destroying some important part of us, that’s not Jesus. If we’re laying down our lives in ways that don’t also bring fullness of life in return—not that it’s easy or problem-free, but that there’s joy and a sense of being true to who we are and what God made us for—if it’s not these things, maybe we’re missing Jesus.

The word Jesus uses when he speaks of “laying down” his life is actually not necessarily about sacrificing, abandoning, or rejecting. It’s a very simple verb that’s translated in a lot of ways, including “put,” “place,” or “lay.” It can involve putting something in a particular location, or placing something before someone, or appointing or assigning something, or establishing something. 

This range of meanings helps me see how Jesus is making this conscious choice, throughout his life, to place his life on behalf of the sheep—to arrange his life on behalf of the vulnerable people, the ones he loves, the ones who belong to him. That’s where he puts his life: with them, in awareness of and solidarity with their needs and concerns. That’s where he assigns his energies, how he establishes his direction in life.

The word translated as “life” here can mean life as in living and dying, but it can also mean something more like the soul, the whole self, the center of inner human life and emotion and personhood. You get the sense that Jesus moves from his very center, from his soul, from his core, to intentionally direct his words and actions toward love, toward justice, toward whatever makes for the wellbeing of the flock.

This is where Jesus wants to place his life: on behalf of the sheep. And he doesn’t leave. He doesn’t give up. He doesn’t run away, like the hired hand, when things get hard. Jesus places his life consistently in solidarity with the sheep. 

Just as, toward the end of his life, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, throughout his whole life he set his whole being toward people who were on the margins, oppressed by empire, taken advantage of by corrupt religious leaders.

Jesus arranges his life in this way, and then, in turn, he then receives it again. He says, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again” (v. 17-18). He, too, ends up having life, and having it to the full.

Jesus is very clear that it is his choice, his determination, his own agency that he exercises in laying down his life. It is his choice alone. He says, “no one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (v. 18). 

This is a powerful thing. Our world is full of people trying to tell other people when, why, where, and how to lay down their lives.

We see white people trying to tell people of color the proper ways to protest the violence being done to their bodies and communities. We see men trying to tell women that women’s equal rights aren’t worth focusing on or being divisive about, and straight people telling queer people the same about their rights. We see people who have never lost anyone to gun violence trying to tell those who have that the lives lost are a reasonable price to pay for our unrestricted access to guns. 

These kinds of things are not peace. They are violence—violence against the dignity and humanity of people of color, and women, and queer people, and people who are most vulnerable to being victims of gun violence, and people who grieve lives lost.

No one gets to tell someone else how to lay their life down—especially not people with more power to those with less.

As we follow Jesus together, the people with less power in the structures of our society find themselves strengthened to stand up for themselves, and their dignity, and the health of their communities. They find themselves powerful to choose the directions they will orient their lives and energies and talents, to choose the causes they would, or wouldn’t, risk their lives for. 

And the people with more power find themselves realizing that God’s vision is that there be one flock, one shepherd. They learn to stand in solidarity with those with less power. They learn to be part of a community that lays down lives for one another, in relationship, as equals. 

Ultimately, of course, the result of Jesus placing his whole life, all his teachings and healings and words and actions, on behalf of others, is that he does end up laying down his life, as in, dying. He ends up accepting the penalty enacted on him by the state and the religious authorities that resulted from living the kind of life he lived, as he messed with all their systems and oriented himself toward justice at every turn. 

Nobody made him do it. The cross wasn’t a vengeful, violent God taking out his wrath on Jesus instead of us. It was God in Jesus choosing to show the extent of his love, choosing to bear the consequences of a life placed on behalf of the ones who are his own.

The beloved community comes about not through some people setting aside their own needs, dignity, gifts, uniqueness, and full personhood to help others flourish, but through all of us learning how to direct our attention, energy, and power toward the good of one another, toward the good of the whole. And we find joy and life in this process, which doesn’t deplete us, but renews us, energizes us, and gives us back life in return.

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.

Place of Manna, Place of Silence (a Good Friday poem)

This poem sits somewhere at the intersection of Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday, and George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Derek Chauvin, and the reflective wilderness-themed space currently set up in the sanctuary at my church.

Place of Manna, Place of Silence

Wilderness spaces
forlorn places
take a rock 
and toss
it in the river
plop
and now it’s gone.

Life is 
that short.
Some have 
no shame.

And some are murdered
by the state
in broad daylight
with everybody 
watching.
Many want to help
but are not able.

And some double down
on their excuses
for the inexcusable
while others 
double over 
in their pain.

And the “if only”s
are too much.
How could they not be?

Questions 
at the cross
unanswered
pour like blood
like water 
from the sides
we hardly dare 
to show
they’ve been so
wounded. 

Sound
the breath
the silence.

Did you want 
your death 
to be an object 
of reflection
subject of our art
subject to our
wounded imaginations?
And which parts
of all that
honor you?

So many questions.
Bring them.

And so 
many limitations.
Bring them 
here.

This is the place
this is the site
where what has 
gone to waste
may someday sigh
and struggle shivering 
with signs
of life.

This is the time 
of tombs
of spacious 
grasping
gasping yawns 
of trauma.

This, the place 
of manna
daily 
not too much.

And though I hunger
for a feast
tonight I’ll settle for
the knowing 
gnawing
through my soul
that you were not alone
and so
it's possible
neither am I.

So see the river
in the distance
wilderness
so stop and listen
stay a while
let it flow
for now
away.

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

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

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

Luke 18:31-19:10 (NRSV)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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