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!)

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

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

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

Luke 6:1-16 (NRSV):

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some feminist-ish musings on Jezebel

Revelation 2:18-23 reads, literally translated, something like this:

(18) And to the angel of the church in Thyatira, write: these things says the child of God, the one who has eyes like flames of fire and feet like burnished bronze: (19) I know your works and love and faith and service, and your steadfast endurance, and your last works (are) greater than the first ones. (20) But I have against you that you put up with the woman Jezebel, the one who calls herself a prophet and teaches and leads my servants astray to fornicate and to eat food sacrificed to idols. (21) And I gave her time, that she might repent, and she does not wish to repent from her fornication. (22) Behold, I throw her on a sick-bed, and the ones who commit adultery with her into a great affliction, if they do not repent from her works, (23) and I will kill her children with death. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches innermost thoughts and hearts, and I will give to y’all each according to y’all’s works. 

This is the first half of what Jesus says to the church in Thyatira, according to John’s vision. (I’ll get to the second half next week.) There’s a lot going on here, and, as usual, I don’t intend to try to speak about all of it. But I do have some thoughts about Jezebel. 

Basically, I think it’s kind of bonkers that the idea of Jezebel ― of a female false prophet who leads people astray, or, really, just any woman cast as troublesome or villainous ― has become such an outsized religious and cultural image since biblical times.

For many (Western male) writers, preachers, and other people-whom-people-listen-to, Jezebel has been a go-to label for a woman who does not fit the confines of what is considered (by men in power) to be respectable and good, demure and feminine. Additionally, in some usages, it has been a racially-specific stereotype directed at Black women to further their intersectional oppression. It is also a label that has been reclaimed by some feminists who see the biblical Jezebel as a sort of icon of female empowerment.

Reading this passage in the context of what Jesus has to say to the other three churches before this one ― which I’ve been reflecting on in my last three posts (“Jesus, Pergamum, and Trumpism,” “From Jesus, to those who are suffering,” and “Where is the love?”) ― makes it pretty clear that the actual New Testament reference to Jezebel really has nothing to do with gender.

It’s not her female-ness that’s important; rather, it’s the content of her teaching. And the reference to fornication, or prostitution, or sexual immorality, or however you want to translate πορνεύω, is likely a metaphor for idol-worship and general unfaithfulness to the ways of the God of love and justice ― not a literal reference to female sexuality.

Jesus rails here against the teachings of Jezebel; in previous passages, he railed in a similar way against the teachings of Balaam (2:14) and of the Nicolaitans (2:15, also mentioned in 2:6). We don’t get any specifics about the teachings of the Nicolaitans, but we do know that the teachings of Balaam involved eating food sacrificed to idols and committing fornication (2:14) ― the exact same description as we get of Jezebel’s teachings in v. 20. 

To be fair, Jezebel has quite a history in the Old Testament (see 1 Kings 16-21) ― but then again, so does Balaam (see Numbers 22-24). And Balaam is referenced three times in the New Testament, by three different New Testament writers: here, in 2 Peter 2:15, and in Jude 11. Jezebel is mentioned only this once. 

And yet, (Western) men have latched onto the idea of Jezebel as an image of the kind of wicked woman who clearly needs to be brought under (male) control ― while Balaam, as far as I can tell, has been kind of ignored. No one sees a male leader doing something immoral and thinks, “ah, another Balaam,” or, “clearly this is why men should not be given power.” 

I’m also kind of interested in the simple fact that ― assuming “Jezebel” is being used here as a sort of code name for an actual woman who was teaching and misleading people ― this means that there was an actual woman who was actually teaching and leading people in Thyatira, and people were actually listening to and following her. Bummer that the people of Thyatira were being led to do bad things and believe things that weren’t true ― just as the people of Pergamum were, likewise, by “Balaam” ― but good for them for at least being open to seeing women as spiritual authorities.

It seems that, in some ways, late first century Christians weren’t really hung up on questions about whether women should be teaching and preaching and leading. (So much for our convenient myths of progress.) It’s kind of encouraging, in a way ― to think that, if this kind of church community where women taught and led freely could exist two thousand years ago, surely more of these kinds of church communities could be built today.

(By the way, if anyone says that it wasn’t a good thing that the people of Thyatira were willing to listen to and follow Jezebel, I would like to reiterate this: the fact that she was a false teacher had nothing to do with her gender. If we say that women should not lead because Jezebel led poorly, we also have to say that men should not lead because Balaam led poorly.)

I don’t exactly want to look to the biblical Jezebel as a role model ― although I don’t fault other feminists for looking for strong women in the Bible amidst a religious tradition in which strong women are often ignored or downplayed, and finding her. At the same time, I really don’t want to, in the language of  v. 20, “put up with” people trying to use this passage to imply something about women in general that it absolutely does not, or using Jezebel language to shame and silence women who step up and speak up in ways men in power don’t like.

Perhaps the image of Jezebel and the ways it has been used are the things that now need to be, in the literally-translated words of v. 23, “killed with death.”

Jesus, Pergamum, and Trumpism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Jesus, to those who are suffering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t believe that anymore” (xiv).

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

Where is the love?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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