Super chill book review: How to be an Antiracist (Ibram X. Kendi)

I was on a hiatus from male authors for a while, but I made an exception for Ibram X. Kendi. I got over Kendi’s gender and read his book How to be an Antiracist because it felt like an important read…and also because it took so frickin long to get it from the library! 

(Side note: I put the book on hold again right after I returned it, because I ran out of time to jot down some notes. The second time around, I was able to check it out within a couple of weeks, I think, after having waited months and months and months before. Perhaps all the white people wanted to read books by Black authors last summer amidst all the protests, and our attention spans are short? Yikes.)

Anyhow, I thought How to be an Antiracist was worth reading. I’d love to share a few reflections on it—kind of like a book review, but super informal, and admittedly (or intentionally?) super duper biased, and without any attempt to summarize the book, because I think you should totally read it yourself if you have time.

Here are some things that stood out to me.

1. I thought it was helpful that Kendi made a distinction between being an antiracist and being an assimilationist. There are lots of ways to be an assimilationist, and I think I’ve participated in some programs, volunteer activities, etc. that perhaps bought into that mindset—or at least, maybe I was buying into that mindset while I was participating. 

Assimilationism often involves the mindset that, when racial inequity surfaces, Black people just need a little more support—a little more mentoring or tutoring, for example. Things like mentoring and tutoring aren’t necessarily bad, Kendi argues, and they can help individuals have a better shot at their educational and career goals, but they also don’t really deal with the root issues. The root issues are all of the structures and policies that keep things so unequal. 

Assimilationist programs operate, sometimes, as if Black individuals are the problem, and, thus, helping Black individuals better integrate into white-dominated society is the solution. And that’s just not true. 

An antiracist mindset, on the other hand, looks for the policies that perpetuate inequality, and looks to change these policies. It looks to figure out who is enacting and maintaining these policies, and looks to hold these people accountable. 

2. I appreciated Kendi’s distinction between being being “not racist” and being antiracist—the distinction between passively trying to stay out of things, keep the peace, and not make things worse, versus actively being involved in trying to make things better. As Kendi writes, “there is no neutrality in the racism struggle” (p. 9).

This might sound kind of harsh, but it makes sense to me, and I think it’s helpful. Passivity perpetuates the status quo, and the status quo is not good. In order for things to actually change, more and more people need to sincerely challenge and push back against the racial injustice that is the current state of things. It’s not enough to just avoid saying or doing racist things. 

3. Kendi describes the history of America as a dueling history of antiracist progress (i.e. things getting better and more equal) and racist progress (i.e. things getting worse and more unequal). On the one hand, he writes, we have “America’s undeniable history of antiracist progress, away from chattel slavery and Jim Crow”; on the other hand, we have “America’s undeniable history of racist progress, from advancing police violence and voter suppression, to widening the racial inequities in areas ranging from health to wealth” (p. 33). 

I thought this image of American history as a duel was really helpful.

When I was growing up, I definitely learned the narrative of antiracist progress, and only this narrative. I learned that things have gotten so much better for people of color over the generations, and, in particular, that the Civil Rights movement happened and everything has been just fine ever since. 

In college, I learned more about the current realities of racial injustice, and this narrative got more complex. It seemed that antiracist progress was slower, and much less complete, than I had previously thought.

In the years since then, as I continued to try to listen and learn, it began to feel like any idea of antiracist progress was a lie. Things really haven’t changed at all. Racism has just taken on different forms—the current ones harder (for white people) to see, but no better, really, than the older forms.

I like Kendi’s take better. American human rights history—for people of color, and, for that matter, for women, too—is definitely not a triumphant victory march forward. (It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah?) But it’s also not exactly a slow and incomplete march forward, and it’s not exactly a total standstill, either. It’s more like a war between two opposing forces, with different battles and skirmishes in each generation. There really has been lots and lots of antiracist progress—and, at the same time, there has been lots and lots of racist progress. We get to choose where we stand in the ongoing tug of war. 

4. I appreciated all the stories Kendi wove in from his own life. I was fascinated to read about his experiences as a Black kid growing up just a few years before I did. I could relate in some ways, and totally not relate in others. 

I grew up in a time and place (1990s – early 2000s, Seattle area) where everyone around me seemed to think that a) racism ended a long time ago, and/or b) racism was something only present in the South. Of course, neither of these things is true, but even though I know this intellectually, it’s always helpful for me to hear stories that put names and faces and real experiences to the particular ways in which it’s not true. I appreciate the stories Kendi tells, and his vulnerability in sharing these stories.

5. Relatedly, I appreciated Kendi’s willingness to share his journey over time, in terms of how he’s changed his mind about various things. He gave a lot of insight into some of the things he used to think, and why he no longer thinks these things.

What a great model of humility and willingness to learn—and also a reminder that we’re all on our own different journeys. If Kendi, as a Black person (who had to think about race a lot while growing up), can admit to realizing he was wrong about a lot of race-related things and needed to change his mind, then surely I, as a white person (who grew up not thinking much about race at all, and thus has a lot more to learn) can do the same. 

I appreciate Kendi’s courage, openness, and clarity about his own journey. Something to aspire to, for sure.

6. I appreciated Kendi’s attention to intersectionality—for example, exploring the intersections between race and gender, and race and sexuality. Each of these topics gets a whole chapter, and I think that’s great. 

For those of us who experience marginalization in one aspect of our identity and privilege in a whole lot of others, it can be easy to overlook a lot of the complexities of how different kinds of marginalizations intersect and interact. As a woman who’s privileged in pretty much every other way except gender, I’m taking notes.


Hope you enjoyed these reflections. Do you have any thoughts of your own—about these things, or about anything else in How to be an Antiracist, if you’ve read it? Feel free to holler in the comments!

Extraordinary Courage, Extraordinary Kindness

Sharing a sermon from a couple years ago: feel free to listen here, or the text is below! The passage is Ruth 2, where Ruth meets Boaz.

As I reflect on the story of Ruth, I wonder if the world of our heroines, Ruth and Naomi, might in some ways not be as different from ours as it may seem. They may not have social media posts and internet trolls and competing news networks on TV that present very different versions of events, but Ruth and Naomi lived in the time of the judges. They were no strangers to political chaos and troubling news.

In a very quick skim through the book of Judges, which tells us what that time was like, I saw war. Forced labor. Ethnic tension. Repentance and remorse, which always seem to turn out to be short lived. The people of God just doing what everyone else around them is doing. Widespread corruption, and stubbornness about it. People not listening to God. Violence. Poverty. Treachery. Broken trust. More war. Siege. Oppression and distress. Vicious vengeance. Betrayal. Murder. Devaluing and abuse of women. Making and worship of idols. Greed and selfishness. Everyone did as they saw fit.

There were good things too, of course. But there was a lot of evil. A lot of things to be distressed about and overwhelmed by, to be sad and angry about. Do you recognize some of these things? Widespread corruption, lack of accountability, tension between different racial and ethnic groups, devaluing and abuse of women, greed, selfishness? 

Like us, Naomi and Ruth lived in difficult and troubling times. And yet there is something about their story that feels like a bright spot in the midst of the time of the judges. It’s the story of ordinary people  who live their ordinary lives with faithfulness, goodness, agency, integrity, courage, and hope. In our crazy time, and in our own ordinary day to day lives, we need their story. We need the model of these strong women, to spark our imaginations of how we might live our own lives in our own time with the same kind of courage and faith.

This morning we’ll be stepping into the second chapter of this short four-chapter book, and we’ll look at it in three scenes. We pick up Naomi and Ruth’s story after Ruth, despite her mother-in-law Naomi’s insistence otherwise, has journeyed with Naomi back to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem. When we left off last week at the end of chapter one, Naomi was feeling bitter, like she has nothing. Now the two women have made it back to Bethlehem, still with nothing and no one except each other.

What would it have been like to be Ruth at this time, at the beginning of this chapter, in this first scene? The narrator tells us that there actually is this wealthy man, Boaz, who is a relative and might be able to give her a hand as she struggles to find a place for herself and make ends meet in this new and foreign place. We know that, but Ruth doesn’t know that.

Back in Chapter 1, when the women of the city said, omg, it’s Naomi! She’s back! (that’s a Liz translation), they didn’t even mention Ruth. Maybe they’re not sure what to do with her, how to categorize her. She’s a stranger, a new person, a foreigner, in a place where she doesn’t know anyone and no one knows her. This is an intense time of transition. She’s left everything and everyone familiar to her (except Naomi). She left a culture she knew, and a community in which she had a place.

When Ken and I moved to Pasadena about a year ago, we experienced some of what Ruth might have felt as she left Moab and entered into the Bethlehem community. We left a life we had spent the last several years (eleven in my case and six in Ken’s) building in the Bay area. Work, friends, church, community, commitments. Knowing the best places to get cheap produce. Having a car mechanic I liked and trusted. All of these random things you take for granted when you spend a while in a place. We left all of that familiarity behind, like Ruth did when she left her family and community in Moab and went with Naomi to Bethlehem.

Can you relate to Ruth in her time of transition? Many of us here have recently started a new school year, or perhaps a new school entirely, or a new job, or are new in Pasadena, or in California, or even in the United States, or have undergone a big life change like getting married. These are big transitions. They can be jarring.

In times of transition sometimes we wonder things that maybe we didn’t have to wonder before. Things like, will I make friends, and who will they be? Will I find a church community, and what will that be like? Will I do well in my classes or my work? Will people notice me, respect me, think well of me? Times of transition can be vulnerable times.

For Ruth, moving from Moab to Judah had another layer of difficulty on top of all that, too. It wasn’t exactly like moving from NorCal to Socal…although there are some weird dynamics there too, where NorCal people throw a lot of shade at SoCal and talk trash about SoCal people, while SoCal people don’t really think about NorCal at all, it’s like it doesn’t exist.

But for Ruth, being a Moabite is a little different than for me, moving from the Bay area. There was a lot more historical animosity than that. In the view of the Israelites, the people of Moab didn’t look so good. They had their origin in a story of incest. They had been historically violent toward the Israelites, cursing them rather than welcoming them, and engaging in many battles with them over the years. They were seen as especially arrogant and defiant of God.

And Moabite women in particular were seen as sexually promiscuous and aggressive, sexual predators that posed a very dangerous threat to Israelite men, whom they might seduce and lead into idolatry. I’m sure the anti-Moab sentiment was stronger at some times than others, but on the whole, being a Moabite in Bethlehem is not an easy thing for Ruth. Everyone knows that she’s from Moab, the land of Israel’s enemies. The employee who answers Boaz’ question about who Ruth is, what family she belongs to, her identity, answers not with her name but with her ethnicity. She is the Moabite who came back with Naomi from Moab. Oh yeah, did I mention she’s from Moab?? 

Our sermon series is called strong women, but right now Ruth is so vulnerable! She’s young. She’s a woman. She’s only connected with Naomi, in a time when being connected with a man, like a husband or son, meant economic and physical security for women.

She’s a foreigner, an immigrant. She’s from a different ethnicity than the dominant one in Bethlehem. She’s associated with Judah’s enemies. She’s new and doesn’t know anybody, doesn’t know one field from another or who to trust. Can you feel her vulnerability in this time?

If I were Ruth, I might think, all right, Naomi, I came here for you. This is where you wanted to be, and I have no idea what to do here, and no one wants me here. Maybe I should have stayed with my family and my people back in Moab. You even told me, twice, to go back! Why did I come?

I might think, Naomi is depressed. All she does is talk about how cruel God has been to her and how she has no one. What about me? Well, Naomi got us into this situation, so I’ll wait until she gets us out. Maybe I’ll just watch a bunch of Netflix until she figures out what to do. At least that way I’ll be safe and not have to worry about all these things.

That’s not Ruth. Ruth takes initiative, exercising her God-given agency to say to Naomi, hey! I heard your people have this practice of gleaning. I hear people who are down on their luck and don’t have land and money can follow behind the workers harvesting the barley and pick up what gets left on the ground. I’m going to go do that. And I’m going to try to do that not just anywhere, but I’m going to try to find someone in whose sight I may find favor. Someone who will notice me here in this strange place and not just see me as a hated Moabite, but see me as me. Someone who will treat me with kindness and respect. I’m going to get to work. I don’t know if anyone else will treat me with dignity and honor, but I know that I’m worth these things, and I’m going to go look for it.

We feel Ruth’s vulnerability, and we also see her courage, her strength, in the midst of it.

I think God loves that about Ruth. That she takes initiative, takes action, exercises her agency as a human being to see what needs to be done and do it. To go. To try. To figure out how to obtain the things she needs and the things Naomi needs, basic things like food, and more complicated things like kind people, community. To figure out what she needs from other people in this process and to ask for it.

I think God loves that Ruth is not passive. The text doesn’t say this directly, but I see this in the sense we get, that God is ever-present and is blessing the efforts of these women. “As it happened,” she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz. I think that’s a bit of a “wink wink” on the part of the narrator. The field could have belonged to anyone, but it just happened to belong to Boaz. And “just then” Boaz came back from the town to visit his field and his workers.

Ruth had no idea what the lay of the land was like and whose fields she was in, but she “just happened” to come to Boaz’ field, and Boaz “just happened” to come visit the field once she started working, and so she ends up in this situation that’s far better than what it easily could have been. I don’t think anything in this story “just happens.” God is behind it all. God is with her. God blesses her and provides the favor she seeks as she takes initiative and steps out in courage in the midst of her vulnerability.

In this next scene, I want us to shift gears a bit and think from Boaz’ perspective. First Ruth took initiative to get to work and try to find favor, to take advantage of Israel’s God-given gleaning laws and to gather grain as well. Now Boaz takes initiative in noticing and starting a conversation with Ruth.

In these interactions he goes way above and beyond what Ruth asked for. She asked to glean and gather, and Boaz says, yes, you are welcome to glean and gather here (v. 8). But also! Follow closely behind my employees who are harvesting so that you get first pick of everything they leave behind (v. 9). But also! I am not blind to the ways you are vulnerable as a woman, and I am making sure my male employees will not harass you, verbally or physically. But also! Here’s water if you want it (v. 9).

She is taken aback and says, I was looking for favor, but this is much more than I expected to find. Also, do you know I’m from Moab? Why have I found favor in your sight? (v. 10)

Boaz says, I have seen everything you’ve done for Naomi. I know you’re from Moab, but I don’t see you as an enemy. I see how you have suffered the loss of your husband and persevered with strength and courage. I don’t see you as the stereotype of a sexually aggressive, dangerous, idolatrous Moabite woman; I see you as doing what my esteemed ancestor Abraham did, when he left his father and mother and native land and came to a people he did not know before (v. 11). You talk about yourself like you’re a foreigner without value, but you know your value, and I know your value. The way you’ve acted shows that you trust God as a refuge, and I hope you experience that (v. 12) 

Ruth finds comfort in Boaz’ remarkable kindness to her (v. 13).

Then there’s more! At lunchtime he says, but also! Come eat with me, from the good food, bread and wine, the same food I’m eating. Sit with me and my employees, we want you to belong with us and be one of us. Have as much food as you like. You won’t be hungry here (v. 14). Also! Harvesters, pull out some extra handfuls of grain for her to make her work more productive and less difficult and backbreaking, and don’t reproach or rebuke her. Don’t just not assault her, but treat her with respect and dignity, speak kindly to her. Accept her as one of our kin (v. 15-16).

This is remarkable kindness indeed. Think for a minute about everything going on here for Boaz. He heard through the grapevine that his relative Naomi had come back from Moab, accompanied only by a young Moabite woman. And now this young woman just shows up, there in his field. Think about all the things he might have said, or might have thought, or might have done. After all, it was the time of the judges, and everyone did as they saw fit. What might have been a more “normal” reaction from a person of Boaz’ wealth and standing, to a person like Ruth? Let’s think about this in terms of four different aspects of Ruth’s identity that made her particularly vulnerable: socioeconomic status, immigration status, ethnicity, and gender.

Take her socioeconomic status. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking: who does this poor person think she is? People are poor because they don’t work hard enough. Sure, she seems to be working pretty hard now, but she should have worked harder to make sure she didn’t fall into poverty in the first place. She’s taking advantage of the welfare system. I’ll let her do it, because that’s the law, but I don’t like it. I didn’t get rich by taking advantage of other people’s property, why should she? I’ll let her glean, but she’s not of my class, and she needs to know her place. Maybe she’ll move along soon to someone else’s field so I stop losing grain and money on her.

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth as someone undeserving of his kindness and respect, because he had wealth, and she didn’t have anything. Instead, he showed her kindness. Treated her as an equal. 

Or take her immigration status. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking: who does this immigrant think she is? She’s not from here. She looks different, talks differently, smells different, wears different clothes, has a different accent. And here she is, in my field, trying to take advantage of the laws of my country that were set up for my people. She isn’t part of the hard-working Israelite farming families that have lived on this land for generations and deserve to reap the fruits of it. This barley, these resources, are for my family and my employees. 

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth with disdain, resenting, fearing, or treating her as an other because she was an immigrant. Instead, he chose to welcome her in, inviting her to eat with him and his employees. He built bridges rather than walls and chose to recognize their common humanity.

Or take Ruth’s ethnicity. It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking, who does this Moabite think she is? I remember the stories my family always told about the Moabites. Violence, seduction, idolatry, incest, curses, battles. The Moabites have caused my ancestors pain, and my people remember that. And here this Moabite woman is, just casually gleaning away as if her people never did anything to wrong mine. The Moabites have been inhumane to us; do I really have to be humane to them – to her? 

Boaz could have easily treated Ruth as less than human, assuming the worst about her because of her ethnicity and the rumors he had heard and assumptions his community made. Instead he took the time to see who she really was.

Lastly, take Ruth’s gender.  It’s not hard to imagine someone in Boaz’ place thinking, who does this woman think she is? She can glean in my field, but I don’t owe her anything other than that. How my male employees treat her is none of my business. What happens in the field, stays in the field. Boys will be boys. There’s really not much I can do. Plus, is it really that bad, anyway? She’ll probably be fine. And if not, she can go elsewhere. 

It would have been easy for Boaz to downplay the risks Ruth faced as a woman, telling her it’s not that big a deal, dismissing or minimizing her experience, or recognizing the realities of sexual harassment and assault but placing his concern for his own reputation ahead of his concern for her wellbeing. Instead he chose to take responsibility, not only for treating her with respect personally, but for holding the people under his authority accountable to do the same. Boaz didn’t need a #MeToo movement to recognize the seriousness and prevalence of sexual assault and to do the right thing when Ruth showed up in his field.

Boaz goes out of his way, above and beyond what might have been normal or expected, to use his relative wealth, security, and power to affirm Ruth’s dignity and value. He did this in the midst of a world that, like ours, did not always value people who are poor, or immigrants, or minority races and ethnicities, or women.

In this last scene, Ruth goes into town to meet Naomi, her arms overflowing with an entire ephah of barley. That’s thirty or so pounds. Naomi sees how much she has gleaned – enough to feed the two of them for a couple of weeks! Maybe even, as time goes on, enough to sell the extra and obtain money to provide for their other needs beyond food. 

Naomi could have said, this can’t be. I know the Lord afflicted me and brought me back empty. Ruth, what did you do, steal all this? Or maybe, well, that’s more than I expected, but nothing really matters if I am not able to have sons and continue my family line, and I am too old to have sons, and Ruth is a Moabite and I don’t think anyone here will want to marry her. I’ll take some grain and stay alive, but there is still no hope for me. 

Naomi doesn’t react in these ways. Naomi is overjoyed. She can hardly contain her excitement. Where did you glean? Where did you work? You went out this morning looking to find favor with someone who owns a field, and I was praying about it and worrying about all the bad things that could happen to you as you tried, but our prayers have been answered. God has provided for us, and God has worked through someone, some landowner, to do that. Who is he? May God bless him. May God bless him. God is kind, after all. And Boaz! That’s amazing. He isn’t just anyone, Ruth – he’s one of our nearest kin. If he chooses, he can legally help restore to us our land and our family name. Ruth, stay with him. This is good. You have found a work situation where your risk of sexual assault is minimal, and it could have been very high. Stay there. 

This is a new side of Naomi, a hopeful side. It takes courage, to hope.

Do you see these three ordinary people, Ruth, Boaz, and Naomi, in these three scenes we’ve looked at, living their ordinary lives with great faithfulness and courage? Do you see Ruth, in her time of transition and great vulnerability, taking courage and initiative? Do you see Boaz, who refused to write Ruth off as a poor person, an immigrant, an enemy, or a woman, but welcomed her into his community, seeing her for who she was, and treating her with honor and dignity? Do you see Naomi, who last chapter wanted to give up on everything, finding new vitality, hope, and sense of God’s presence and provision?

And do you see God, behind the scenes, in everything? God is mentioned directly only through people’s words: when Boaz and his employees bless one another, when Boaz blesses Ruth, and when Naomi blesses Boaz. But God is there, orchestrating Ruth’s gleaning location and the timing of her meeting Boaz; working through Ruth’s extraordinary initiative and courage; working through Boaz’ extraordinary kindness. Do we see God working in these kinds of ways in our lives, or if not, can we take the leap of faith of choosing to believe that God is at work even when we don’t see it? 

In the midst of a time when everyone, and especially the judges, the leaders, of Israel, were doing whatever they saw fit – in a time of evil governments and violence and greed and lawlessness and people not treating each other well – we see Ruth, a poor, immigrant woman, brand new and in transition and on the margins of Bethlehem’s society, exercise her agency as a human being created in the image of the living God; and we see Boaz, a wealthy and powerful man, choose to honor and lift up that agency that Ruth exercises. We see ordinary people taking action and doing difficult things, and God blessing them as they do so.

By the grace of God, may we be people who live our ordinary lives with courage, faithfulness, and agency in the midst of our own difficult and troubling time. And in so doing, may we find the favor of God and be part of God’s work in bringing new hope and life into 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.

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!)

Post-acquittal prayer

A prayer for mercy as the news of Trump’s acquittal in his second impeachment trial sinks in.

God, have mercy on everyone who grieves this.
Have mercy on everyone who rejoices.
Have mercy on everyone who is oblivious.
Have mercy on everyone who is numb.

Have mercy on everyone who carries disillusionment
like weight within their eyes
that weighs still heavier each day 
as justice is, again, again, 
again, denied.

Have mercy on those who were, somehow,
surprised. 

Have mercy on the ones who find no revelation
of American depravity 
in any way surprising, 
anymore.

Have mercy on the ones for whom the scales 
are finally falling from their eyes,
and on the ones whose eyes are weary
from the witnessing of yet another round
of scales falling, utterly exhausting.

Have mercy on the ones to whom America 
has not been merciful.

Have mercy on everyone wrongly convicted, 
often racistly convicted, 
and on all who love them,
as we watch the rich white criminals go free.

Have mercy on us in our wounds that fester
through the generations
and have not been aired to heal.

How can we go forward, stumbling, lurching 
into hope,
when half would leave the other half to die,
and laugh at all the stuff that makes 
their nightmares?

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.