Fear is the Killer

Saul told his son Jonathan and all the attendants to kill David. 
But Jonathan had taken a great liking to David and warned him,
“My father Saul is looking for a chance to kill you. Be on your guard tomorrow morning; go into hiding and stay there. 
I will go out and stand with my father in the field where you are. I’ll speak to him about you and will tell you what I find out.”
 
Jonathan spoke well of David to Saul his father and said to him, 
“The king should not do wrong to his servant David; 
he has not wronged you, 
and in fact what he has done has helped you greatly. 
He took his life in his hands when he killed the Philistine. The Lord won a great victory for all Israel, and you saw it and were glad. Why then would you do wrong to an innocent man like David by killing him for no reason?”
 
Saul listened to Jonathan and took this oath: 
“As surely as the Lord lives, David will not be put to death.”
So Jonathan called David and told him the whole conversation. He brought him to Saul, and David was with Saul as before.
 
Once more war broke out, and David went out and fought the Philistines. He struck them with such force that they fled before him.
 
But an evil spirit from the Lord came on Saul as he was sitting in his house with his spear in his hand. 
While David was playing the lyre, 
Saul tried to pin him to the wall with his spear, 
but David eluded him as Saul drove the spear into the wall. 
That night David made good his escape.

1 Samuel 19:1-10

Maybe it is just me, but somehow I think I am probably not the only one who has been feeling as though these last few months have been marked by a great deal of loss.

I have watched as so many in my church community have carried their grief—grief over the suffering of loved ones and neighbors and how their losses impact our own lives, despair for a world reeling from conflict and violence with barely a moment to catch our breath, sorrow for the many innocent people who have had their lives devastated by hurricanes and other natural disasters that have been made worse by climate change. 

This week, so many friends, neighbors, and church family have carried a tender grief for one of our own as they comprehend a world without their beloved child, who died at the age of 16 in a car accident last week. They have cried their tears. They have offered meals. They have shared their own stories with each other, sorrow over children that they have buried too soon.  Their wounds are deep. Their wounds are real.

In a world where we can, and often are, wounded, it can be easy to live out of our fear. To draw into ourselves. To see dangers around every corner.  To let fear animate not just our words but our actions. The poet Hafez once wrote that “fear is the cheapest room in the house,” and I think he was on to something there. Because fear is the easiest place to find ourselves. It doesn’t require much imagination at all. And it is an awful emotion to live our lives from.

Now, King Saul knew a thing or two about fear. That should be clear enough from our Scripture lessons today. Right on the heels of David’s victory over Goliath, Saul has taken the young champion into his care, and has watched as his own son has “become one in spirit” with David. He has observed as David has risen in stature despite everything that should work against him as a pretty boy from nowhere and the youngest of seven sons. He has listened as the city has fallen in love with David. David, who has slain tens of thousands. David, whom his own son loves more than himself. David, to whom everything seems to come so easily.

Friends, Saul is afraid.

I think back to the times in my life when I have felt insecure in myself, when I have worried that the person that I am is not enough. It is such an awful, isolating feeling, isn’t it? To doubt your own worth? To worry that the people with whom you share your life are just looking for a reason to walk away? When I remember myself in those moments, I can have compassion for Saul. He truly seems alone here—yes, he is the king, but the story he is telling himself, and the story that scripture seems to be telling us, is that everyone has abandoned him for David. There is nothing more awful than being scared and alone. And there is little that is more dangerous than a powerful person who is scared and alone.

Our own history can be a helpful teacher here. January of 1933 was a similar moment in Germany. This was shortly before Hitler came to power, and in Berlin unease was widespread. Speaking to his own congregation in a moment of great fear, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected 

“the overcoming of fear—that is what we are proclaiming here (point at sanctuary). The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith—all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings. Fear is, somehow or other, the archenemy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.”[1]

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “Overcoming Fear,”

Fear tells us that we are alone in our suffering. It tells us that nobody will help us. Nobody will save us. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that, in our fear, we tend to make awful decisions. Like Saul, we resort to violence, we lash out at the people around us. Fear takes away our humanity.

So what is the alternative?

That is the question. And one answer, I think, is sitting in these pews with us every Sunday and is gathered around the table every time we choose fellowship over going it alone. You see, if fear tends to eat away at the ties that bind us to God and to others, then perhaps the antidote to fear is the hope that we encounter when we choose to be in community with others. It is what happens when we struggle against the temptation to turn inward, and instead look for strength in one another. In our Scripture this morning, David could not withstand Saul’s fear on his own—he is able to negotiate this incredibly awful situation with Saul because of his friendship with Jonathan. With a friend at his side, David is literally able to dodge the slings and arrows of death. Friendship is what saves him.

Perhaps this seems too simple, and yet remember: the God who came to us in Christ, who told us to not be afraid, offers us the gift of fellowship and friendship over and over again:

  • Come to me, all you who are weak and heaven laden, and I will give you rest. 
  • Fear not, for I am with you. 
  • Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. 

Perhaps you believe that there might be something better than living only for yourself, worried only about your own difficulties and concerns. Perhaps you are tired, so tired of carrying your fears and disappointments, your anxiety and the hurts that can become like a heavy yoke, holding you down. Perhaps you are weary of trying to fight your fears alone.

We seek out one another, I think, because we know that God desires for us something better than a life lived in fear. We come to worship because perhaps we believe the church can help us to live differently. That somehow, when we gather together, when we lift our voices as one to the Creator who made us and called us by name, we will find a strength that we didn’t know was in us to withstand the fears of this time.  And that when we cannot find that strength in ourselves, others will be there to hold us and to whisper words of hope on our behalf until we are strong enough. In worship, if we are lucky, we encounter the great affirmation of a God who loves us, and gathers us together and bids us banish fear, not just for ourselves, but for the sake of a world that is crying out for healing.

So let us lean deeply into that hope when we have the strength to do so. And let us trust one another to hold fast to us when we are broken with sorrow. Let us live out a faith that is wide and broad enough to hold the fears of this world, and to answer that fear with the persistent hope found in a God who gathers the brokenhearted together and calls us friend, neighbor, beloved.  


[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “Overcoming Fear,” https://politicaltheology.com/overcoming-fear-sermon-dietrich-bonhoeffer/

Peace and War: Son of Jesse

Early in the morning David left the flock in the care of a shepherd, loaded up and set out, just as Jesse had directed him. And he reached the encampment as the army was going out to its battle positions, shouting the war cry. Israel and the Philistines were drawing up their lines, army against army. Then David left his things with the keeper of supplies, ran to the ranks and greeted his brothers.

As he was talking with them, behold, Goliath, the Philistine champion from Gath, stepped out from his lines and he spoke these same words again, and David heard him. Whenever the Israelites saw the man, they all fled from him in great fear.

Now the Israelites had been saying,  “Do you see how this man keeps coming out? Surely he comes out to defy Israel. The king will reward the man who kills him with great riches and will also give him his daughter in marriage and will make his father’s house free from taxes in Israel.”

Then David asked the men standing near him,  “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he has taunted and defied the armies of the living God?” So they told him, “That is what will be done for the man who kills him.”

When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard what he said to the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “What are you doing here? And who is watching our few sheep in the wilderness back home? I know you—you are overconfident and your heart ain’t right; for you have come down only to see the battle.” David cried, “Now what have I done? Was it not a harmless question?” He then turned away to someone else and brought up the same matter, and the men answered him as before. 

Now, when the words David said were heard, the men reported them to Saul, and Saul sent for him.

David said to Saul, “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”Saul replied,  “You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a young man, and he has been a warrior from his youth.”

But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep.  And when a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the lamb from its mouth, and when it rose up against me, I seized it by its whiskers and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear, and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has taunted AND defied the armies of the living God. The Lord who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.”

Saul said to David, “Go, and the Lord be with you.”

Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head.  David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried to walk, but he could not, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.”  So he took them off. 

Then he took his shepherd’s staff in his hand and chose for himself five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag. And then, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.

The Philistine came and approached David with his shield bearer in front of him.  And when he looked and saw David, he derided and disparaged him, for he was just a young man, healthy and handsome.  He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?”  And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the field!”

David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the corpses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, so that the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel, and that this entire assembly will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and He will hand you over to us.”

As the Philistine rose and came forward to meet David, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him.  Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone,  he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone penetrated his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.

So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him. David ran and stood over him, grasped his sword and drew it from the sheath and killed him, and cut off his head with it.

When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they fled. Then the men of Israel and Judah stood with a shout and pursued the Philistines as far as the entrance to the valley and the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the way to Shaaraim, even as far as Gath and Ekron. When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp.

Then David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem, but he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent.

As Saul watched David going out to meet the Philistine, he said to Abner, commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is that young man?” Abner replied, “As surely as you live, Your Majesty, I don’t know.”The king said, “Find out.”

As soon as David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul, with the head of the Philistine in his hand. “Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asked him. David said, “I am the son of your servant Jesse of Bethlehem.”

1 Samuel 17:20-58

Well.

That is quite a story.

A story that, I suspect, you have heard mannnny times. Perhaps the single most recognizable story about David that a person is likely to know.

It feels like something out of a movie, or a novel, or a comic book, this hero story of David, the someday king of Israel, and his magical ability to fell a big bad guy with nothing but a rock and a sling.

Who wouldn’t love a guy like that? As a story, it is utterly seductive.

There are some interesting things, however, going on in this story, right under the surface, that I would like to unpack together on this World Communion Sunday, a day when we mediate on words from scripture like those that David uttered when he said “that it is not by the sword or the spear that the Lord saves.”

Let’s begin by orienting ourselves. Remember that, in this moment, Israel already has a king. King Saul, the first King of the Israelites. And King Saul’s first task has been to take the fight, as it were, to the enemies of Israel. 

And it isn’t going so well for Saul. Sure, his army is encamped against the dreaded Philistines. But they are all shaking in fear at this great warrior, Goliath, who scripture tells us is raining down terror with a mix of self-confident taunting and a rather intimidating appearance.

What was that that scripture told us just last Sunday? That God looks not at what is on the outside, but on what is inside the heart? Well, the army didn’t get that memo. Goliath looks terrifying, and they believe him when he says he will utterly destroy them. They are shaking in their armor.

And along comes this–how does the story say it—handsome, un-battle tested youth. The reason they keep calling him handsome, here, by the way, is to emphasize that he doesn’t “look” like a warrior. Not enough battle scars. David, the son that was left behind while the big boys went to war. Someone had to bring supplies to the front, and take care of the sheep. Someone, in other words, had to keep things going while everyone else picked up a sword.

Somehow David, is the only person who *isn’t* incapacitated by Goliath. This young man who doesn’t hide with the baggage but runs to the front, isn’t cowed by words from a giant of Gath. And yet his reaction—we have to *do* something about this—is met with anger from his brother, and dismissal from Saul. They are all convinced that the only way to solve this problem is with more force. But when they look at David, all they see is weakness.

We hear this story on a Sunday in which the church traditionally focuses on our call to peacemaking. Which feels, at first glance, a little incongruous. What could this story possibly have to teach us about peacemaking?

What if stories like this are EXACTLY why we need to talk about peacemaking? Whether we like to admit it or not, the stories of the bible are marked by violence—the violence of war, the violence of conquest. The violence of the cross. 

When we talk about peacemaking, it is really important that part of that conversation include a reckoning with our own tendency toward violence. We cannot pretend that we do not stand on the wreckage and ruin of countless bloody wars and conflicts that brought us to where we are. As Christians, as Americans. Chris Hedges once wrote “war is a force that gives us meaning,” and if we are to be peacemakers, we must reckon with that truth.

Because the truth is that we are *not* peacemakers, not most of the time. We are far more like David, gaping at the battlefield, or like the Israelite army, either caught in the midst of it and filled with fear or lust for battle. We must reckon with the fact that we live in a world that glorifies militaristic conquest, and enshrines it in the national story that we tell. That leans less on the wisdom of God, and more on the power of those who wield weapons.

The call to make peace must also reckon with the fact that, even if we are creative and imaginative in avoiding violence, this violent world will still find us. We cannot run from the violence of the world. And if you don’t believe me, believe the witness of the cross. 

So what, then, does it mean to transform a violent world with peace? What is all of this reckoning for?

Perhaps for the same purpose that these stories exist in our bible at all. The remind us where we have come from. Of the moments of greatest triumph, but also of our greatest mistakes. To reckon with our history is the gateway to choosing another path. Perhaps, if we are lucky, even a better one. 

I first moved to Philadelphia in 2008 for a summer pastoral internship. The other seminary interns and I had been attracted to this worshipping community because its mission was, in part, to work to transform the city through solidarity and hospitality to the marginalized and the oppressed. But before we got there, one of the first things that the pastor who was our mentor asked us to do was to read a book. It was called “A Prayer for the City” by Buzz Bissinger, and it told the story of Philadelphia in the late 90s. As a California Girl with absolutely no context for understanding Philadelphia, that book became a sort of compass—it helped me get to know my adopted city, and to understand some of the things that made it the way it was. It helped me to see the ways in which the problems that city faced were larger than just what was in front of me—violence, homelessness, poverty, racism–all of these problems have roots stretching back into the past, and if we want to be a part of the solution, we have to be willing to do the work to understand where they came from. And so it is with the work of peace as well.

So this World Communion Sunday, let us not speak as though the work of making peace is easy. It is not. It is likely the hardest thing we may ever strive for, and in the broad span of history, we may make but the smallest difference. But let us also commit ourselves to knowing the barriers that stand in our way, so that, like David, we might be creative in slaying the giant that stands before us.

Lessons Learned

Sermon based on text from Luke 14:1, 7-14

And it came to pass that Jesus was going to the house of one of the leaders of the Pharisees on the sabbath to break bread, and they all were watching him closely.

He began to tell a parable to those who had been invited, 

remarking how they were choosing the best places for themselves, saying:


“When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, 

do not recline in the best place, 

lest someone even more honorable than you might have been invited, 

and the one who invited you both might come to you and say to you, 

“Give your place to this man,” 

and then you should with shame take the lowest place.

But when you are invited, go, recline in the lowest place, 

so that when the one who invited comes, he might say to you, 

“Friend, come up higher!” 

Then you will be glorified before all of those reclining with you.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, 

and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Then he said to the one who invited him, 

“When you make a meal, whether in the morning, midday, or evening, don’t call 

your friends, 

or your brothers, 

or your relatives, 

or your rich neighbors, 

lest they return your invitation, and you would be repaid. 

But when you make a feast, 

call the poor,

The crippled,

The lame, 

The blind… 

and blessed you will be, because they have nothing.

They cannot repay you.

And you will be repaid in return at the resurrection of the just.

Politics and Religion.

Those are the two things that are off limits at my mother’s dinner table.  You can burp the alphabet, tell an off color joke, you can come to dinner dressed in the clothes you woke up in.  But you start talking about religion or politics, and You. Are. Done.

My mom says that it is because she is a good southern woman, and that it just is poor table manners, but I think really it is because these are the two topics that are most likely to start an argument.  Because we don’t all think the same things, do we?  In my family, we are all across the map—Baptists sitting next to atheists, sitting next to republicans, sitting next to self declared socialists.  So the potential for conflict, when it comes to religion and politics, is high. And once the door is open, everyone has an opinion.  Better to keep the door closed. Better to keep things safe.

Which makes for some really polite, but incredibly boring dinner parties.  Let me tell you, the dinners I remember best aren’t the ones where everyone behaved themselves. I bet you know what I am talking about.  In my family, there are some pretty epic stories about individuals who broke the rules, resulting in some pretty heated conversations.

Luke’s Gospel this morning describes one of those “memorable” dinner parties, I think.  Who knows why the Pharisee invited Jesus to his dinner party—maybe he was just trying to be friendly, maybe he was curious about the new rabbi in town.  

And like my mom, the ancient people had their own rules when they got together.  Most of those rules are pretty common sense–

What are the dinner party rules?  Guests are polite, right?  When I go to a party and I’m the new person, usually that means milling about quietly near the refreshments.  Maybe saying hi to a few folks.  And if we get to talking, what are people usually going to ask you about?  What do you do? Where do you live? Etc etc etc.

Not Jesus. It quickly becomes clear that Jesus is “that guy”—you know, the guy at the dinner party that everyone can’t stop staring at, or listening to, because he is making a scene.

It all starts with a sick man.  There is a man at the party with Dropsy.  Anyone know what dropsy is?  It is severe edema.  Probably caused by severe heart failure.  The man is swollen up like a balloon.  Makes you wonder what he is doing at a dinner party—edema can be incredibly painful, and was essential as slow, painful death sentence in Jesus’ Day—people who suffered from it slowly drowned in their own bodies.

So of course, Jesus draws their attention to this man, whose suffering is on full display while they eat and make merry on the Sabbath.  He asks them—if your child or your ox was drowning in a well, would you save them on the Sabbath?  What about this man, who is drowning in his body? Is there a difference?

But Jesus isn’t done.  He just can’t help himself.  He moves on to the guests themselves.  All of a sudden we are getting advice from the Rabbi about seating assignments and guest lists.  He is like the ancient Jewish version of Ms Manners, only none of these people asked him for advice.

Whenever they ask prospective presidents who they would like to meet someday or have a meal with, and they say Jesus—I think of this dinner party.  Because clearly, Jesus isn’t interested in playing by anybody’s rules.  Jesus isn’t going to behave and be polite.  He is going to speak truth.  To the poor and the sick, and to the wealthy and powerful.  Doesn’t matter who you are, Jesus is going to say what needs to be said.

That’s the gift, friends, that Jesus gives us. The truth. So often, we worry ourselves sick over the impact that the truth might have—whose feelings it will hurt, how it will land, what the damage might be. And so we settle for pleasantries and half truths. We paper things over to make them sound better, and we do ourselves no favors. It feels safer, but there be dangers in these waters. We create for ourselves sinkholes and no go zones that impact not just us, but our children, and the world that they inhabit.

And that is not the world that Jesus wants for us. Jesus wants us to live honestly, and he models that in his every word and deed. So the question for us, today, I think, is this: what is the truth that we need to hear?

I wonder whether perhaps we need to hear that we have spent a lot of time worrying about things that don’t really matter.  

A friend of mine shared with me once that she HATES this text, because Jesus seems to single out all of these people based on their social statues or health status.  For her, this just seems wrong.  Aren’t we all just people, she asks? But of course we do this all the time.  If we are really honest with ourselves, we are constantly sorting ourselves against the people around us, ranking ourselves based on who seems to have the most, or the least; whose life seems better or worse than our own. And if we are honest, most of us would prefer to find ourselves, if not at the top of our pecking order, at least above the median. 

Why? Because many of us have been raised to believe that these are the things that define us.  That our job, our house, our stuff, even our health are the things that matter.  That our worth is roughly equivalent to our investment account or the appearance of our home. A fellow clergy person shared with me that when he was young his dad raised him to grow up and take care of his family.  So he did.  He got a job, and he lived at his job.  Barely saw the family that he was trying to provide for.  He was just doing what he had been taught.

And perhaps you may notice as well that these are things that we think we can control.  We decide what we do, where we live, what car we drive, whether we work on at the gym every morning. And if we can control them, it can be tempting to believe that others can too. So we judge the poor, the unemployed, the sick.  Can’t you just get a job?  Can’t you stay out of trouble? Can’t you just take care of yourself?  How quickly grace evaporates when we think we have control.  We do this. We do this.

But not Jesus. Jesus will have none of that.  For Jesus, dinner tables aren’t just dinner tables. They are practice grounds for the great banquet of the Kingdom of God, and in the Kingdom of God, everyone is invited to the dinner party.  All of our jockeying, all that sorting that we waste our time worrying over, none of that matters in God’s house.  If we are honest, those things can be a weight around our necks, pulling us down and away from what really matters.  And what really matters? Paul perhaps said it best when he said: let mutual love continue.  What matters is the community that gathers at Christ’s table—not where we sit, but that we are there. Together.  What matters is that the Jesus who sat at that table and pissed off the Pharisees didn’t preach anything he didn’t also do himself—for Jesus built a ministry out of welcoming the lonely, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, whether those people had everything or barely enough to get by. 

You know, earlier this week I was visiting a friend in North Carolina, and I went for a run. And while I was running, I started noticing all of this trash on the side of the road. Cups, bags, half eaten fruit, scattered everywhere along the freeway. Honestly, it was a little bit disgusting.

And I found myself thinking as I ran along, how often I look past the trash on the side of the road. How often I accept that as the price of admission for living with other people. How often we all agree that we will just pretend it isn’t there, or pay someone else to deal with it.

But then there’s that one person. In my experience, they are usually someone you never would have noticed. In my neighborhood growing up, it was an elderly immigrant from Vietnam. Every afternoon, I would see her walking along the side of the road that I passed almost daily, picking up the trash. Taking the time to pay attention. Noticing what was wrong and setting it right.

That is the goal, friends. Not a peaceful dinner table where we never talk about the issues that trouble us. Not a society where we look past the suffering of others. The table of grace is one where we notice what is wrong, and endeavor to set it right. Where we are willing to take the time, even if it gets our hands dirty, even if nobody notices, even it it seems like it doesn’t change a dang thing.

Why? 

Because we worship Jesus, who entered this world poor and weak and small so that he could teach us about a love that doesn’t rank or divide, or exclude.

We worship Jesus, who doesn’t care who you are or what you have—he just bids you come.

We worship Jesus, whose table is open to all of us, because whatever we have, we all get hungry and thirsty, and God would feed us.

We worship Jesus, who is the same today, yesterday and forever.

We worship Jesus. THAT guy at the table.

And that is enough.

Writing again

It’s been a minute. 11 months to be exact, but the truth is that I haven’t been writing as much here at all lately. Over the last few years, time that I might have spent writing was instead handed over to the “realities” of daily life (translation: responsibilities to other people in my life). Rarely, if ever, have I been able (read: willing) to stop, take a breath, and to reflect on the simplest question: Am I happy? Is this the life I want for myself? If I could do it over again, would I make the same choices?

Would you? The most honest answer, for me at least, is no. One messy and inconvenient human truth is that most (ALL) of us are living a compromise. We have made choices, and those choices have set us walking a path before us, as well as carried us farther from other possibilities that could otherwise have delighted or sorrowed our souls.

Now, throw in a few companions on the journey, and, well, it becomes harder to change direction, doesn’t it? As someone who lives to please the people around me, I would be lying to myself if I didn’t acknowledge that often I will keep on going on a particular path because I don’t want to disappoint the people who have expectations of me (hi mom and dad!). And while some of my choices were worth every hardship, others are far more complicated, and the answers vary from day to day.

But what about disappointing myself? I don’t often ask that question. Do you? And how is that not just as important, perhaps even more important, than what others think of me?

It sounds so simple, and yet there is a whole cultural infrastructure built around keeping up our appearances. Our churches, our communities, our families would almost certainly prefer that we just “go along and get along.” They would prefer that we wear nice clothes, and say nice words, and tell pretty stories. Stay neat and pick up your trash. Carry on and whatever you do, pick up your mess before anyone sees it. Messy people rarely get to stay at the center of anything “important”–they end out on the edges quicker than toupee in a hurricane. (wouldn’t it be easy if we could just tell ourselves that we don’t care what other people think? But we belong to these communities because they are full of people we love. We want them to accept us. And so we convince ourselves that this is the price of admission.)

It’s particularly fascinating to me that my faith tradition of Christianity is so fixated on this notion that we need to have our shit together. That in order for the world to respect us, we have to be….respectable. We make up our vision boards and imagine a solid foundation, and while we use lovely words and invent clever turns of phrase, invariably it looks like some variation of: money, resources, power. We tell ourselves that we want to pursue the mission of Christ, forgetting that his mission would ask us to forsake everything, perhaps even our own lives, for the sake of a world in which there are no edges, where valleys are flat and mountains are brought low, and not a single little one is lost.

But damn if can’t let go of our need for influence and power. Damn if we haven’t silenced ourselves because it might make us unpopular, or put us at odds with the people whose money we crave. We wear our need to be accepted and acceptable like a millstone around our necks, dragging it along like the filthy bag of trash that it is because “it’s the way we have always been.” We have been carrying that baggage around for a long time, heaving it from generation to generation and don’t even think to question it (because if you do,… well, that would be messy). It’s been there so long that we started to believe that the grooves that formed in our shoulders were a part of God’s plan, rather than deformation.

We’ve carried it, and in the process, we forgot that the Word of God is a story for misfits and fucked up outsiders. We forgot that the ancestors of our faith were a hot mess. That they made SERIOUS errors in judgement on the regular, and those mistakes (only sometimes) made them better people. And that God loved them in that messiness. Even more: God found a way through that messiness to sometimes help us do some really amazing things. Because all God wanted for us was for creation to thrive. For ‘adamah to embrace the truth of imago dei within it, recognize God’s image in their neighbor, and maybe be a little less trash in the process.

So why am I wasting so much energy worrying about what will happen if I am a mess? If I am broken? If I am “too much” or “not the right sort of Christian?” If I am embracing God’s love for me, and seeking to live as one who is prepared to die (thanks, Ecclesiastes!), then isn’t that enough? How can that not move mountains?

by Ricardo Levins Morales, whose art speaks truth to me.

Just so we are clear: my people-pleasing-desperate-to-fit-in-and-be-loved self is screaming at me as I write this. She’s definitely not a fan. She’s convinced that I’m going to blow up everything, and that I will regret every mistake I make. She’s worked hard to make me who I am, and it is pissing.her.off that I want to blow it all up. She wants me to believe that it’s safer to avoid every risk. To push my ragged edges out of sight because what if people see them? What the hell would they think of that? I suspect she won’t shut up any time soon, either. But I’m trying to convince her that the person she should care about the most is the person I see when I look in the mirror. The person who desperately needs to feel alive, not just to others but to herself.

“The Good Shepherd Knows His Sheep”

John 9:1-38

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,

that he was born blind?”

Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned;
he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.

As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

When he had said this, he spat on the ground
and made mud with the saliva
and spread the mud on the man’s eyes,
saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).

Then he went and washed and came back able to see.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?”

Some were saying, “It is he.”

Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”

But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”
He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes,

and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’
and I went and washed and received my sight.”

They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.
Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.

Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes and I washed, and now I see.”

Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.”

But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.

Text is an arrangement of the NRSV with minor revisions to facilitate storytelling.

So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”

He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind?

How then does he now see?”

His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind;
but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes.

Ask him; he is of age.
He will speak for himself.”

His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews. For the Jews had already agreed

that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah

would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God!
We know that this man is a sinner.”

He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know: I was blind, and now I see.”

They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again?
Do you also want to become his disciples?”

Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses.

We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from,

and yet he opened my eyes.

Text is an arrangement of the NRSV with minor revisions to facilitate storytelling.

We know that God does not listen to sinners,
but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.

Never since the world began has it been heard
that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.

If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?”

And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”

Jesus said to him, “You have seen him,
and the one speaking with you is he.”

He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him.

Have you ever noticed that, in the bible, exile seems not to be an uncommon experience? Many of our favorite characters—Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, David and Jonah, the entire nation of Israel more than once, and even the holy family, endure seasons of exile.

In each instance, life as they knew it was going along just fine—until something changed.  For Abraham and Sarah, it was a persistent voice calling him to leave everything behind.  Under Moses, the people of God are driven into the wilderness to freedom but also hardship; later, they are driven into captivity by conquerers and left wondering if they will ever again see their home.  Each time, the people of God had to set aside what they thought they knew, so that they could survive in a world that was suddenly very unfamiliar.  Each time, they had to learn a new way to be community, to worship God, to love one another.

Jesus himself was clearly familiar with what it meant to be an exile. As a child of the Jewish diaspora, he grew up hearing the story of his people, of their banishment from and later return to their own land, the very land in which he had been born, a land which was both their birthright, and also a place of displacement at the hands of a foreign occupier.  The people of Israel were both at home and at exile in the land that God had given to Moses.

And then there were those who were in exile from the exiles.  The outsiders, the blind, the lame, scores of sick and broken people, set aside for the sake of the health of the community, present but not accounted as persons in their own right, left to beg on the streets, left at the mercy of the people who passed them by. These exiles lived daily the stigma of knowing that they would always be defined by what they were not.  They carried their reason for their exile like a scarlet letter on their bodies.

Of course, it wasn’t personal.  In Jesus’ day, they didn’t know that blindness could be caused by something as simple as an infection, let alone have the tools to treat it. They didn’t have the miracle of modern medicine that today spares countless vulnerable people from preventable illness. And so they made difficult choices.  Better safe than sorry, was the general principle. They imposed restrictions on the sick and the impaired, enacting their own version of extreme and often permanent social distancing in order to contain illness and minimize its potential spread.

Certainly we know more now. It is easy to judge the people of Jesus’ day as cruel or heartless when you have ready access to antibiotics and anti-viral medication.  But perhaps in this moment we find ourselves in a special place, one where we might find it within ourselves to maintain a modicum of compassion for a community of people who, for all the love they had for one another, were terrified of getting sick or dying before their time, and who decided that perhaps it was safer to separate themselves from those who were.

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From that perspective, Jesus is truly reckless in this story. I will admit to you for myself that, given the moment we are living in, it is a bit terrifying to hear Jesus break numerous CDC protocols as he spits in the dirt, rubs his spittle it in his hands, and then touches the face of another person who has been cast out because he is sick.  I suspect his own disciples may have been a bit anxious themselves.  Of course, he had also been fraternizing with unclean Gentiles, and with a lot children, and conducting mass healings, so perhaps they were accustomed to it by that point.

But the same could not be said of the Pharisees.  You remember them.  A few weeks ago, Baron reminded us in one of his sermons that the Pharisees weren’t the “big bad wolf” that modern Christianity often makes them out to be. No, they were the ultimate insiders.  The keepers of tradition. The Pharisees were an important community of religious leaders who took the bible extremely seriously, and dedicated their lives to helping their community obey the law of Moses. During the political and social turmoil of Jesus’ lifetime and beyond, the Pharisees provided a promise of safety and a measure of control by teaching that the way to please God was to keep your head down and follow the rules for the good of the community.

And then there was Jesus.  He wasn’t a revolutionary, exactly, but he kept saying things that sounded, well, revolutionary.  He kept talking about a kingdom that was not of this world, one so unlike anything that anyone had ever seen before, or heard of, and so some people started wondering what exactly he might be planning.

Jesus seems to have had a habit of making the Pharisees nervous. He kept touching sick people and healing them, often on the Sabbath day as he was teaching the crowds. He kept pushing the limits of the purity laws by meeting with foreigners like the Samaritans, who many Jews considered to be mortal enemies.  He kept saying really strange things about being borne again, and calling himself the bread of heaven.  He was a problem: they knew it, and he knew it too.

And so it shouldn’t be surprising at all that, by the time he kneels down before the blind man and rubs mud in his eyes, the Pharisees have got their eye on him. This isn’t the first time he has broken Sabbath law—back in John 5, Jesus heals a man who cannot walk by the pool of Bethsaida. In fact, in John 5:16, the scripture tells us that “because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him.” In Chapter 7, we are told that the authorities have been looking for a way to kill him. He has been accused of being possessed by a demon, of being a Samaritan, of blaspheming the name of God.

And into the midst of this heated moment is thrown one, poor, man who was born blind.

Have you ever been minding your own business, going about your day, when suddenly you are thrust into the midst of something beyond anything you could ever have imagined? Something that changes everything?

It’s as though the blind man won a lottery that he didn’t know he had bought the ticket for.  Suddenly, he has been given the one thing that had exiled him from his community.  But there is only one problem: his community is not very happy about how it happened.

The author of John is a masterful storyteller, and so this episode is full of juicy details revealing what can only be described as a comical level of confusion as the people in the blind man’s life seek to make sense of what has happened: as soon as the blind man receives his sight, neighbors who had walked past him for years in the market place suddenly “see” him for the first time, but they cannot agree on whether it really is him or not. But whoever he is, he must be trouble, because there he was doing something on the Sabbath day. When the religious authorities question him, they are so confused by what has happened that they begin to suspect him of the hard to imagine sin of faking his blindness all along.  And his poor parents—they are so overwhelmed by the whole incident that they practically beg the authorities to leave them out of it.

In the center of it all is the blind man who never asked to be healed. Notice something: the more that people push him, the more his neighbors and religious leaders question and discount him, the more he is left to fend for himself, the more confident he becomes. Over the course of this story, he transforms from someone who claims to not know anything, to proclaiming Jesus a prophet, and finally to confessing him as the Messiah, saying “I believe.”

It is almost as though he is being born again right before our eyes—this man, who once was valued as less than nothing, who barely existed in the eyes of the community, begins to see himself as a person worthy of living.  And not just any person: he becomes a disciple of Jesus.  A child of God.  He can tell the world what God has done in him, and the world may finally listen.

It would seem that this ordeal opens his eyes—literally, spiritually—to the truth that should have been clear all along: that he is a beloved child of God, such that, by the end, when he has exhausted the patience of the religious authorities, who deny the miracle and condemn him as made in sin and unworthy of community, it is too late.  He is a brand new person. Their words no longer have power over him, because he has found a new life in Christ.

Later, in John 10, Jesus goes on to explain to the Pharisees and those who witnessed the miracle that he is the Good Shepherd, and that he has come to seek and save the lost. He has come to give the outcast children of God something more than living in exile—he has come to restore them in the eyes of God.  And by the time Jesus says this, we know that it is true, because we have seen it in that blind man.  We may not know his name, but the faith of the blind man—this man who has experienced the darkest valley and has come out on the other side, who once was blind and now he sees—how can we not wonder at the faith of this child of God?  His story has inspired countless Christians with his determination to name the gift that God has given him, with his persistent wonder at the goodness of God, with his stubborn refusal to be defined by his illness.

So often in this life, we are told that if something isn’t going as we want it to, we need to make a change.  But sometimes, change happens to you. Sometimes, everything seems fine until suddenly it isn’t, and everything you thought you knew becomes a question mark. We know this. Right now, many of the things we take for granted—the ways we are accustomed to being church, the ways we are used to showing our love and our care for or friends, our family, our neighbors, the vulnerable—are being tested.  And it can feel like we are at sea. Adrift.  Cast off.  Even in exile.

But the Good Shepherd knows his sheep.  Like the blind man, you have heard his voice, and he is speaking to you even now, even in exile. How we are church is being tested, but we are not broken. Everything looks different right now, but we are still the church. We can still be the church when we are apart. Because we still have each other.  The Lord is our Shepherd. We shall not want.