Love Does No Harm

Love Does No Harm

Sermon for May 19, 2019, Easter 5C. An audio version will be available here for several weeks.

John 13:31-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

I heard something quite beautiful this past week, followed by something else, that made me sad.  I was listing to an interview with a person whose name you would know if I said it, but in the interest of not making this political I won’t, because, the specific politics, in this case, are beside the point.  

He was being interviewed because he had just written an article about why he cannot hate a person, also in politics, who had attacked him personally in the media.  He could have hated the person who attacked him and considered him an enemy, but he said that he remembered being struck by a powerful concept that made a lasting impression on him while reading Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  That concept was the call to love, even our enemies.  Dr. King quoted from Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew in that letter, calling his followers to love our enemies, bless them that curse us, pray for those that despitefully use us.  (Matt. 5:44).  That was beautiful.

By the way, that letter that Dr. King wrote from that jail was to clergy, both Christian and Jewish, who were alarmed at the civil rights protests which had become so violent, on the part of law enforcement and fragile, angry white people.  Those well-meaning white clergy were advising Dr. King to wait, saying his timing was wrong.  Dr. King replied that black people had been waiting for their God-given constitutional rights for 340 years, and that the word “wait,” so far, has always meant “never.”

Anyway, the man who wrote the article about his quest not to hate was then asked a question.  The interviewer asked, “…what does that look like on a daily basis?”   To which he replied, “I don’t know. I haven’t figured that out yet.”  I found that sad; in fact, tragically sad.  

In the text we have today, from the gospel of John, we hear Jesus saying, 

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

The fact that someone could know about the importance of love, and have the desire to implement love, but not know how is “really messed up,” as younger people might say.  I want to take just a moment to ask, “How did we get here?”


The ironies involved are profound.  Last week I told you a bit about the Gospel of John; how it was written six or more decades after Jesus life on earth.  I mentioned that most scholars believe that in John’s gospel, we do not have the literal words of Jesus, but the memory of Jesus, processed by a community that is trying to live as his followers in a different context.  In John we hear Jesus say all those, “I am” statements: I am the door, the vine, the light, the way, the good shepherd, and so on.   And at his conclusion, John’s gospels says that all of these have been written so that we might believe, and that in believing we will have life in his name.  

So, what we see developing is an understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus that is in the process of evolving.  This took some time, but eventually (by the 4th century) the church was saying that believing the right things about Jesus was the main thing.  They made creeds and forced everyone to say them and to say that they believed them.  The first of these that was the product of a church council is called the Nicene Creed, named for the town in which the council was held.   At Nicea, the main text they referred to was the Gospel of John.  

The huge irony is that in John’s gospel we hear Jesus say so clearly that the way to be known as his follower is not a list of correct beliefs about him, but rather, love.  How could we have lost sight of this?  

And John is not the only place this point is made.  In the other gospels, Jesus said that love is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses, and that all the Law and the Prophets hang on the commands to love God and neighbor.  Paul said that all the commandments are summed up in the love command, and then says,

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” 

(Rom. 13:10)

That last line is powerful, and we are going to reflect more on it in a minute, but let us just pause to take this in.  The church has been saying for years that correct belief is the main thing.  Jesus and the New Testament say love it the main thing.  

And that’s why it was beautiful that the man who wrote that article “got it” and therefore refused to hate in return.  But maybe the fact that the reason he had no idea about how to get there practically was that the church he was raised in spent so much time telling him what to believe instead of how to love.   Let that sink in a minute.  

Spiritual Technologies 

Someone I was reading spoke of having “spiritual technologies.”  A technology is a set of procedures and processes that help you accomplish your objective.  If our goal is to fulfill Jesus’ command to love, we need spiritual technologies to get there.  So I am going to pause right here to give you two.

The first has been called the Lovingkindness meditation.  When a person you feel inclined to hate comes to mind, you simply repeat this three-phrase mantra to yourself:

May he or she be happy, may he or she be well, may he or she be filled with kindness and peace.” 

Hatred is wishing harm to another person.  Love is the opposite.  Whenever hateful, vengeful, bitter thoughts, or even irritation thoughts arise in our minds, we do not have to allow them to stay.  We can intentionally, mindfully re-direct our thoughts that the lovingkindness meditation:

May they be happy, may they be well, may they be filled with kindness and peace.” 

I know that this sounds sappy; maybe even banal.  I tell you it is hard, but I will also tell you that it is an effective spiritual technology.  

The second spiritual technology which will help you become the loving person you want to be is simply meditation itself.   A regular discipline of silent meditation, which can also be called contemplative prayer, is an essential tool, in my opinion, that increases our capacity for compassion and our mindfulness of our non-compassionate thoughts.  If you need help to start a meditation practice, let me know; I would be happy to help you get started.  Meditation is simple.  The hard part, like keeping to a healthy diet, like physical exercise, is doing it.   


Okay, now back to the text.  Jesus speaks of being glorified.  That means being shown to be godlike.  Glory, or radiance, like the shining of a bright light, is about as specific as you can get about what God is like.  Later in John’s gospel, we hear Jesus saying that the glory he has been given by God he, in turn, gives to his followers.  (17:22) 

At the end of yoga, the instructor normally thanks the class and says, “Namaste,” which means, “the divine in me recognizes and honors the divine in you.”  That’s right.  We all share in glory because we all have been made in God’s image, and God’s Spirit is in all things, including us.  If we all have God’s glory in us, of course, we are called to love each other.  

Getting Practical 

Let’s make this practical.  I re-read all those biblical texts about how important love is, and how love fulfills the whole biblical law because “love does no wrong to a neighbor.”  There are a million things we could bring up here, but as I reflected on the news I’ve been hearing lately, one jumps out.  It seems clear to me that we are on a path towards doing great harm.   Here are some reasons.

According to the UN report

The rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world….The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever.” 

We now have a former coal lobbyist directing the EPA, and, by the way, criminal prosecutions for violations of environmental standards is now at a 30 year low.  Not only that, the EPA will not continue a scientific review panel that advises the agency about safe levels of pollution in the air, as if that were no longer a concern of ours. 

We also have a department of the interior secretary who had been a lobbyist for energy and agribusiness interests.  We are now apparently seeking “energy dominance,” including clearing the way to produce and export more oil and gas, instead of doubling down on renewable energy sources.

We are rolling back regulations on undersea oil drilling, like no longer requiring blowout preventers, as if we couldn’t remember the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.  

All of that in spite of everything we have been living through recently — from horrible fires to massive floods and storms of unprecedented power for destruction.

People Who Will Be Harmed

And I think of my newly married son, and wonder about the world we will be handing on to his children when they start a family.  How can we say that we love them if we are so willing to harm them?

Because that is what the climate emergency is about.  Our planet will survive us no matter what we do.  Our planet existed for millions of years without us and will continue to be here, whether it can support human life or not.  But the point is that what we are doing is going to cause massive harm to our own families unless we make serious and substantial changes. 

Even major companies like BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and Ford are calling for a summit of CEO’s to address the foreseeable economic impacts of climate change, and calling on Congress to produce comprehensive climate legislation before it is too late.   Just like civil rights, waiting is no longer an option.  We may have up to 12 years to fix this; maybe less.

It’s not merely a matter of loving the planet itself — which a person who believes it was created by God might be expected to do.  It is, even more, a matter of loving our grandchildren by not harming them.   Those grandchildren share the glory of God.  What will it mean for them to live in a world of far less bio-diversity, of rising sea levels, of increased land and ocean temperatures?  

The Love Command

Today’s gospel is a call to the church to stop focusing on what we believe, and instead focus on the real point of our faith: following Jesus means implementing the love command.  The love command calls us not to cause harm.  Harm is a moral issue.  That is why the climate emergency, to us, is a moral issue.  

No amount of short term economic benefit justifies causing harm to our descendants.   No convenience that we are used to makes it right to cause harm to our grandchildren.  Harm cannot be love.

So, just as love called us in the past, and continues to call us, to champion civil rights for the glorious people of every race, just as love calls us to end discriminations of every kind, against God’s gloriously diverse people, so love calls us, not to sentimentality, but to action. 

We have heard the new commandment, so we pledge ourselves to the coming generations.  We love you.   We will not wait.  We will do all we can to see that you are not harmed.  


Being the Shepherd’s Sheep

Being the Shepherd’s Sheep

Sermon for May 12, 2019, Easter 4C. An audio version can be found here for several weeks.

John 10:22-30

At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”

I remember how bemused I was as a young person, when someone, probably my father, pointed out to me that the bad cowboys in the TV show we were watching wore black hats, while the good cowboys wore white hats.  That was my first introduction to the concept of symbolism in story-telling.  

When John tells his version of the story of Jesus, six or more decades after the first Easter Sunday, he loads his narrative with symbols.  We will look at the symbolism as key to the meaning, and then we will find a surprising conundrum that opens the door to our current situation and how this text speaks to us. 

Timing is Everything

In this scene, the first thing we learn is the timing.  The action in this story takes place, the author tells us, during the festival of Dedication.  If you are trying to recall when, in the Hebrew Bible, you read about it, do not bother; it is not there.  

Rather, this feast commemorates a time after most of the Hebrew Bible was written.  It was a time of re-dedication of the temple that had been desecrated by the Greek-Seleucid king, Antiochus IV.  He had been trying to wipe out Judaism and thought that by building a statue to either himself, or to Zeus (it’s not clear) in the temple, and offing a non-Kosher pig on the altar, he could ruin it for the Jews.  

Long story short, he was so aggressive and brutal in his suppression of Judaism that he provoked a predictable response; the people revolted.  The violent Maccabean revolution was eventually successful.  The Greeks were defeated, the temple was restored, and in December of 167 BCE, it was dedicated.  

So Jesus is in the temple, in the winter, on the anniversary of that Dedication.  What would that symbolic date mean?  Jesus is in that restored, re-dedicated temple, just at the time in which everyone was remembering the violent Maccabean revolution of the past, and many were wishing for the new violent revolution to begin, this time, against the Romans.  

I think if we wanted to grasp how this may have felt, imagine a memorial ceremony at the location of the Twin Towers on the anniversary of 9/11, at the dedication of smaller towers.

Location, location, location

The symbols continue.  John tells us that Jesus was in the part of the temple called the portico of Solomon.  Again, a symbol.  It calls to mind several thoughts.  

First that this re-dedicated temple was quite the contrast to Solomon’s temple as described in the Hebrew Bible.  How was it different?  For one thing, it’s much smaller.  

But more importantly, the High Priest in charge was not a descendant of Aaron, as the Bible required, but was appointed by Rome, for political purposes, and therefore under the Roman thumb.  

The local King, unlike Solomon, was not a descendant of David or even Jewish.  If you were Jewish and respected the Torah, all of this is a nightmare of in-authenticity, corruption, and oppression.  

But calling to mind Solomon also recalls what kind of a king he was — oppressive, self-aggrandizing, rich, and ultimately responsible for the division of Israel into  North and South, from which it never recovered.  

Jesus is in Solomon’s portico, in the days before a new unraveling of the nation that will even be worse.   By 70 CE it looked like the Twin Towers after 9/11.  By the time John’s gospel was written, that had happened.  

The Cryptic Messiah scene

So, in this symbolic context, the leaders of the people — which is what John always means when he says, “the Jews” — not everybody, but rather, the leadership — challenges Jesus about being the Messiah (meaning “the Christ”).  

By the way, Jesus’ voice, in John’s gospel, is quite unlike his tone and manner in the other gospels.  The overwhelming consensus among New Testament scholars is that in John, when Jesus speaks, we are not hearing the historical Jesus, but rather the Christian community’s decades-long reflection on the meaning and significance of this man Jesus, whom they experienced as the Christ, the Messiah.  

In John, Jesus speaks in cryptic ways, sometimes awkwardly, as he does here.  

So, they ask Jesus, 

“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” 

You would think that if Jesus wanted to be clear, this is his golden opportunity.  But instead, in this version of the story, he answers:

“I have told you, and you do not believe.”

Jesus then tells them the reason they do not believe him, in spite of the works that he as done in the Father’s name, which should have convinced them.  Jesus says, 

“you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”

Good Sheep, Bad Sheep

Now to a Jewish person, the sheep and shepherd symbol were well known.  It is not just the 23rd Psalm that makes the idea of us being God’ sheep famous, the prophets too, used the symbol.  The people were the sheep, and the kings and leadership were the shepherds.  

Throughout most of Israel’s history, they were horrible at their job as shepherds — unless fleecing the sheep for all they were worth was part of their job!  Protecting the sheep is not what they were in it for. 

So Jesus’ response could be read as a double insult to these leaders.  Instead of being good shepherds, looking out for the interests of the sheep, they were sheep themselves.  But instead of being good sheep, they were bad sheep.  Good sheep follow the shepherd’s voice, bad sheep do not.  

Jesus says, 

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

And of course, as the Good Shepherd, Jesus is looking out for his sheep’s best interest, as he says, 

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Eternal life,” in John’s gospel,  means the quality of life experienced by someone who knows Jesus as the Christ.  At one point in the gospel, Jesus says plainly that eternal life means knowing Jesus in a transformative way. (John 17:3) Then, Jesus says, as he only does in John’s gospel, a concluding sentence that seems to come out of nowhere, 

“The Father and I are one.”

Mystical Unity with God

If you tried to read this scene as a literal historical moment, it would be odd, to say the least.  But if you read it as John’s community symbolically describing their life-experience as followers of Jesus, who believe that the Christ was still among them spiritually, it makes great sense.  

So, let’s put these symbols back together.  Jesus is in the temple with memories of a successful violent revolution of the past, evoking the disastrous memory of Solomon, talking about the current leadership as bad sheep that don’t listen.  

John’s community is a community which is trying to follow Jesus, who famously refused to fight back violently, even at the cost of his life.  This is a community that practices non-violence.  

So they tell the story of Jesus, in contrast to the violence of the Maccabees, even in the face of the successful rededication of the temple.  Violence is not justified even by its success, as if might made right.  

But the story they tell was written after another attempted revolt, 40 years after Jesus, which resulted in the complete destruction of the temple where the story takes place.  As Jesus said,

those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

In this context you have to ask the question, why did so many people not want to follow the Jesus path of non-violence?  Why are people still so in love with the sword?  Why are we so ready to justify every use of force for every far-flung cause?  You still hear it today.  How do you explain our lust for blood and gleeful vengeance?  Or, our acceptance of so many of our children slaughtered in our schools?

It is hard to explain.  Maybe some people just have no intention of listening to this shepherd and belonging to his kind of sheep.  

But maybe we are in a new day.  Just a few years ago, a Vatican conference was held in which bishops called for rejecting the “just war” theory.  They argued that this theory has been used to justify almost every war anyone ever wanted to fight.  They called for a complete re-thinking of what it means to follow Jesus.  

One archbishop said that when Jesus, from the cross, said “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” he was referring to all of us, and that “In this statement, he united the whole of humanity under one father.”  source:

Ego and Violence

Where does this urge to violence come from?  From where this need to fight back, to inflict wound for wound, eye for eye, tooth for tooth?  

Clearly, it is something we have within us.  It is natural, instinctive, and appeals to our sense of entitlement.  Nothing celebrates the ego like vengeance.  

And perhaps this is why John’s community concludes this scene with the awkward non-sequitur from Jesus, 

“The father and I are one.”

The Non-violent community

John’s community was a mystical community.  They believed that not only was Jesus one with the Father, but that all of his followers are one with him, one with each other, and also at one with the Father.  There is a mystical union that connects all of us with each other and with God.  (John 17:20-23)  How can you justify violence against people with whom you are one?

It is the tragedy of humanity that we do not know this.  It is not knowing, not understanding, not appreciating and living into our union with God and each other that keeps us identifying ourselves as separate, as not-belonging, as not-his-sheep.   

And from that mistaken sense of separateness, we feel that we must look out for ourselves.  We must fight back in kind.  

Violence, aggression, anger, it all comes from the same source.  It is our ego.  Our sense of self, or what Richard Rohr calls the false self, or the small self.  So, I think this text calls us all to do some serious soul-searching.  

The Conundrum of Listening

There is one more idea to explore here which is important for us.   I mentioned at the beginning that there is a conundrum in this text.  Here it is: in this version of the Jesus story, we hear him say,

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

The surface level meaning would be that our job is to listen to Jesus’ voice and commit ourselves to follow.  So what is the conundrum?  It is that the voice of Jesus we hear in John’s gospel is so different from the voice of Jesus in the three “synoptic” gospels which were written much closer to Jesus’ life on earth.  

Let me illustrate:  in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the subject of Jesus’ teaching is the Kingdom. In John, the subject is Jesus himself.  In John we hear all the “I am’s” — I am the door, the vine, the light of the world, the way the truth and the life, the good shepherd.   

So the conundrum is that we are being told to listen to Jesus’ voice, by a Gospel text that presents to us his voice in a very evolved form.  They have processed the teachings of Jesus through their experience of God, and have described Jesus himself as saying what they believe about him.  

In other words, they have found him to be their guiding shepherd, so in this story he “says,”

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

What does that mean for us?  This opens the door for us to keep considering what it means to be led by Jesus, asking questions that were not being asked back then, but discerning new answers.  

Jesus never spoke about plastics or recycling.  He never mentioned climate change or the use of drones and missiles.  He did not have an opinion about gun violence.  Jesus never said a word about gay people, or immigration, or even about slavery.

But he did say

Love your neighbor as yourself.” 

He even said,

love your enemies.” 

What would it look like to continue to hear that voice in our context?  

John’s gospel shows us what it is like to be a community of continued reflection on the significance and meanings of Jesus in our context.  

The only question that matters is, are we trying to listen?  Yes, this community is committed to continuing to listen.  We believe God is still speaking.  Our common commitment is to keep following.

The Abundance on the Other Side

The Abundance on the Other Side

Sermon for May 5, 2019. An Audio version can be found here for several weeks.

John 21:1-19, Season of Easter 3, Year C

After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Jesus died young.  He made a huge impression — on a relatively small number of people; all of them on the edges of the Roman Empire, most of them poor and uneducated.  But he died young.  He never wrote anything down — maybe one time, in the dust, but nothing that remains.  

We have only a few gospel accounts of his life and teachings, but these we know, are a combination of both history remembered, and history interpreted.  Interpreted means just that: the interpretation of the meaning and significance of Jesus’ life. That’s not the same as a purely historical account.   Scholars argue over how much is history, and how much is interpretation.  

That combination of history remembered and history interpreted is true of all the canonical gospels, but especially of John.  In fact, John is, in the opinion of many scholars, mostly interpretation; which is why it is so weird at times.  As I mentioned last week, the earliest extant comment from the ancient world about John, calls it a “spiritual gospel.”  

The weirdness comes from the author, who is trying to help the young Christian community to grasp the meaning and significance of Jesus.  Jesus is not just a figure of the past for them; he is a living presence, just as he is for us, two thousand years later.  

But what is the significance of Jesus’ life and teaching?  What do we need to make sure we get right?   What would “getting it wrong” look like?  What difference would it make?  There has been a lot of “getting it wrong,” throughout the history of Christianity, in my opinion.

The problem started soon after Jesus’ early life was over.  As I said, Jesus made a huge impression on people.  New Testament scholar, Marcus Borg has written extensively about Jesus.  He calls him a “Spirit man,” using a term from the field of anthropology, to describe a particular kind of person.  

Spirit people are those who have powerful personal experiences of the divine.  In some cultures, they are shamans or mystics or prophets, or priests.  They are people in whom we sense the presence of the divine.  They are often healers.  

That was true of Jesus.  People were drawn to him. They felt something powerful in his presence.  They listened to his teaching.  They came to him for healing.  They even brought their children to him to be blessed.  

So, after Jesus’ short life, people came up with various theories to account for how God was so actively a part of him.  Some said God “adopted” Jesus as his son, just as God is described as adopting the anointed kings of Israel as his son, upon their ascension to the throne.  

Others said Jesus was just a man but was full of the Spirit of God.  

Some said he was not really a human at all, but was God, appearing to be human, as for example, the Greek goddess Athena did for a bit, showing up to fight on the battlefields of Troy.  

Some said Jesus had the nature of both God and a human combined in one person.   So they debated.  

Finally, in the fourth century after Jesus, they came to a consensus — under the sword of the emperor — at the council of Nicea.  One view won, the other views were persecuted as heretical.   

The debates about how Jesus was related to God began very quickly after Jesus’ short life.  In this text we see John engaging in some of those debates.  But his engagement is not at all to make a metaphysical claim for one side against the other.  His quest is to make sure we don’t lose the point of the meaning and significance of Jesus.  

This text has many ideas we could investigate, too many for the time we have, so we will have to pick and choose some to bring our attention to today.  

The Unfruitfulness Theme

So, the text begins with Peter, announcing that he is going fishing, and some of the others join him.  But, those experienced, formerly professional fishermen, catch nothing.  In other words, the disciples are unproductive.  

One of the ways this gospel is weird is that John seems to have taken this fishing story from Luke 15, in which the disciples worked all night, caught nothing, but then Jesus tells them to put their nets down on the other side.  When they do, there is a miraculous catch which is so large it threatens to sink the boats.  John turns that story into a resurrection appearance story.  Why?  

Because, the truth is that you can think you are following Jesus, but end up being totally unproductive.  There are ways of “getting it wrong” and ending up with empty nets.  We will see the ways that can happen as the story develops.   It will force us to ask the question, are we getting it right?  

The Non-Recognition Theme

The next theme, after unproductiveness, that John engages is the non-recognition of the risen Jesus theme.  In John, Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, and the disciples do not recognize Jesus on the shore.  Luke does the same thing with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Why?  Because we do not find Jesus walking around in a body anymore.  So, how do we encounter Jesus?  

In Luke, the disciples on the road to Emmaus see Jesus as the bread is broken.  Then he disappears.  Similarly here, the disciples recognize Jesus, John tells us,  as:

“Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.”

Scholars of the historical Jesus suggest that some communities of Jesus-followers had a bread and fish liturgy, while others had a bread and wine liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, and this text is one of the reasons for that view.  They shared bread and fish.

The point is the same for both: when the community gathers around a common table and all share together a common meal, Jesus is present to them.  The same is true for us today.   In the breaking of the bread, we see Jesus, who was willing to be broken by the forces of the Empire on behalf of his suffering people. 

The Physical Jesus Theme

Here, we see John engaging one of those early Christian debates.  It is important that we get it, that Jesus was a real human person, not just a divine spirit pretending to be human.  Jesus could cook and eat breakfast.  He conveyed the Word to us, as John says in the prologue to his gospel, but importantly, the Word was flesh.  

Jesus was not a ghost, but a person.  He got tired and thirsty and asked for a drink from a woman at a well.  He was every bit as human as we are.  

The Love Theme

So what does it mean then, to be a follower of Jesus?  What does he want from us? How do we “get it right” so that we are not unproductive?   That brings us to the next theme: the love theme.

Here we find Jesus asking Peter three times if he loves him.  Three times Peter responds that he does love him, and, he says, Jesus knows that very well.  Each time Jesus responds nearly the same, but with variation.  He says, “Then,

“Feed my lambs…Tend my sheep…Feed my sheep.”  

There are many things we could unpack here, but we have time for only one, and that is the most obvious.  The way to show love to Jesus is by service, specifically service to real people.  Feeding and tending people is how to follow Jesus.

Now that should be the most obvious thing in the world, but consider for a moment how it has been missed.  In all the debates about the question, “How was Jesus related to God?”, people came to think that believing the right answer to that  question was the main point.   

So they had church councils and wrote creeds about the right answer, the right belief.  They eventually settled on the belief that Jesus had two natures, one fully human and the other fully divine.  They even invented a new word for it: the “hypostatic union.”  

Then, they reasoned that if Jesus is fully God, as well as fully human, then the way to follow him is to worship; to develop liturgies, build beautiful churches, and have a weekly pageant proclaiming our devotion to him.   

That’s fine, but that’s not what he said.  He said we show our love to him by feeding and tending real people.  Notre Dam was beautiful, before the fire, but Jesus seems to have had in mind something that looks more like the Sack Lunch program.  

The Other Side Abundance Theme

That’s the point of that weird scene we skipped over about fishing on the “right side” of the boat.  If you have ever been in a boat, you know very well that on the water, you can point in any direction you choose.  There are no lanes on a lake.  There is no single right or left side, like the banks of a river.  They have been fishing without catching anything, unproductively, so Jesus tells them to fish from the right side.

Whose right side anyway?  Well, the point is, of course, to go to the side opposite the one you have been working on, whichever that one was.  

In other words, go to the side that has been overlooked, the side that has been neglected.  There, instead of being unproductive, instead of scarcity, you will find abundance.  Instead of empty nets, you will experience fullness.  

Putting the Themes Together

Let us put these themes together.  John is saying that we will recognize the risen Jesus as we gather at a common, inclusive table and share a meal together.  

We will remember Jesus’ words and example, and remember that we show love to him by feeding and tending people in need of feeding and tending.  

And where will we find these people?  Among those who have been overlooked, on the other side.  

And when we look for the overlooked, we will not be unproductive, we will not experience the scarcity of empty nets, but we will experience abundance.  

Who are the people who have been overlooked in our day?   Who are the people on the other side?  In our culture, they are the ones we call the “other.”  The people who are not like us.  The people we felt free to enslave, to imprison en masse, to discriminate against for being non-cis-gendered or for having non-heterosexual orientations.   

The overlooked also include the poor, the homeless, the unemployed and the underpaid.  For many years, we must admit, the overlooked included half the human race, as women were excluded, underrepresented, under paid or simply ignored by the white men in power.  

This is why we are so committed here to full inclusion and to justice.  That is why we take ministries of mercy and compassion, like the Sack Lunch program and the Second Sunday Supper so seriously.  

That’s why we give to our special offerings.  We have listened to Jesus.  Do we love him?  Yes.  How?  By feeding his sheep, tending his lambs, in particular, the ones on the overlooked side of the boat.  That is where we find our abundance.  

In his short life, Jesus never gave us instructions for worship. He left us free to figure it out for ourselves.  Our traditions have evolved over the centuries.  We now have a beautiful church, beautiful music, and thoughtful liturgies.  But we do not confuse any of this with the love of Jesus we show as we feed and tend overlooked humans.  

Jesus and the Price of Peace

Jesus and the Price of Peace

Sermon for April 28, 2019, Easter 2C. Audio will be here for several weeks.

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Probably the hardest learning we ever have to do is unlearning.  When we have “learned” something that later we discover is untrue, or so insufficiently accurate that we need to think differently about it, it’s hard.  It’s like learning to speak a new language.  

But unlearning is necessary. It is entailed in growing up, becoming adult, “putting away childish things” as Corinthians says.  

We are going to be challenged to unlearn a couple of things by this text today.  Or maybe I should say by these texts (plural)?  There are two scenes here in which Jesus makes appearances to his gathered disciples in their locked room and their fearful condition.  

Because nothing is said about Thomas being missing in the first, and because the second is all about Thomas’ reaction, some scholars conclude that these two appearance stories were originally separate and distinct.  

But now they have been brought together.  Why?  It turns out that the author of John’s gospel has done this intentionally, to make a point — to help us unlearn things, which we will look at today.

Faith and Belief

The first thing we must unlearn is what faith or belief means.  For most of us, through no fault of our own, we have understood faith as the opposite of knowledge, and belief as accepting something as true — assenting to its veracity.  

This is what faith and belief came to mean, but not what they meant in the bible.  Faith is the noun, believe is the verb.  Originally they meant trust.  

To trust in God, to have faith originally was not to have a list of statements about God or Jesus or any other line from a creed to which you assented.  It became that, but that is a distortion that we need to unlearn.  

What does trust mean?  Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the metaphor of floating on the surface of deep water.  As long as you relax, you are buoyant; if you start to struggle, you sink.  

That’s what the gospel scene of Peter walking on the water is all about.  As long as he looked at Jesus, with trust, he stayed up.  When he looked away, toward the wind and the waves, he sank.  To trust is to relax and to know that we are being upheld at every moment of our lives by God. 

If you have ever taught a child to swim, you know that the hardest part is helping them to learn to relax and trust that the water will hold them.  As long as they fight it, they keep sinking.


So what about doubt?   Doubt is baked into the cake of faith.   According to theologian Paul Tillich, faith is something everyone has.  Not that everyone has faith in God, necessarily, but in something.   

Everyone has a sense that their lives have some kind of purpose, which is significant enough that they would be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it — they would be willing to die for it.  Tillich calls this our “ultimate concern.”   

For some people, their family is their ultimate concern.  For others, it’s their career, or their social status or political power.  For some, it is their nation.  

But how do you know in advance that the thing you have identified as your ultimate concern, the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning, the thing you would make the ultimate sacrifice of your life for, is worthy of your one precious life on earth?  How do you know?  You cannot know for sure.  

Many people die for their nation. Even for really bad nations, by our judgment today.  Think of all those who lost their lives for the Third Reich in the Second World War: had they chosen correctly?  We would say, no.  

So, because we cannot know in advance what is worthy of our ultimate concern, what is worthy of our faith, then there always must be some measure of doubt.  To have faith in anything is also to have doubt.  They exist together like two sides of a coin.  

So when Jesus is depicted in this very mystical and ethereal story, in which he appears through the walls of a locked room, and confronts Thomas about believing and not doubting, he is telling him to trust, and not stiffen up and resist, like the child who hasn’t learned to swim.  

In other words, Jesus is not asking Thomas not to doubt the lines of a creed, like the virgin birth, for example.  He is asking Thomas to trust.

But here is where the story gets profound.  Think of that metaphor of trusting as floating.  What would “fighting it” look like?  What would cause someone to stiffen up and sink?  The key is found by the way the author has joined these two originally separate stories together, so that now they become mutually interpreting.   

Peace; Forgiveness

Here is how it works.  In story one, Jesus, who has just three days earlier been tortured to death in the most excruciating way appears.  Why did that happen to him? Because the Romans captured him.  Were there no people to defend him?  No, they had abandoned him and fled.  

Consider that.  Jesus is appearing in front of his betrayers.  He has a lot to hold against them.  His hands and feet had been nailed to a cross.  Someone speared him in the side.  The wounds are still there, visible for all to see.  

Vengeance, wrath, recrimination, accusation, condemnation, could all be expected.  All would have been perfectly justified.  They were guilty, and they knew it.   But that is exactly what did not happen.  The very first words Jesus says, in both appearance stories, are,

“Peace be with you.”

In other words, “I forgive you.”  

Friends, this is one of the most radical and fundamental teachings of Jesus.  God forgives us.  We must forgive others.  Even those who, like the disciples, have run away, and let the Romans get you.  In the only prayer Jesus ever taught us to pray we say, 

“forgive us our debts (Matthew) or sins (= missing the target) Luke) as we forgive…”

What are those debts — the things people owe us, or those sins — the cases in which someone has missed the target and we were the ones caught in their line of fire?  They are the wounds we have received at their hands.  And we all have been wounded by others.  

No one gets through life without being wounded by others in a multitude of ways.  And wounds leave scars, memories, sometimes even traumas.   We will come back to this, but let us continue with the story.

So Jesus appears in the room where they are all locked up, fearful, and says, “Peace.”

Then, in that first scene, the author describes Jesus as saying a few phrases which seem unrelated and jarringly haphazard.  He says, 

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

So what is going on here?  Is this a commissioning scene: “I’m sending you?”  Or is it a Pentecost scene: “receive the Spirit”?  Or is it on some kind of conferring of cosmic authority to either forgive or retain sins, as if we were able to do God’s job?    

It all makes sense if we see that it is still about what those men had done to Jesus three days earlier.  It is still about those wounds, those scars Jesus wears.  

The easiest way, I think, to understand this is to turn our attention to the little early Christian community, who would be hearing this text read in their house church on Sunday morning.  They would hear Jesus saying to them, first, “Peace: you are forgiven.  Whatever you have done, I forgive you.”

Second, he says, you should consider yourselves not only forgiven, but sent out on a mission.  

How will you have the wisdom, the energy, and the strength for the mission?  You have the Spirit in you — you know that.  Every time you have felt that tug, that lure towards goodness, towards the next right thing, that is the Spirit in you, helping you to accomplish the mission.

The Mission

What is the mission?  It is huge; it is profound; it is to stop the cycle that poisons our relationships, our communities, our nations, and our world.   It is the cycle of retribution.  It is the cycle of violence.  It is the cycle of quid pro quo.  

The fact (not the magical power, but simply the fact) is, that if you forgive the sins of any, then they are forgiven; period.  If you stop the cycle, the cycle stops.  

If you don’t, then it turns around again, claiming new victims with each rotation.  Forgiveness stops the cycle.  The mission we are on is the mission of stopping the cycle.  How? By forgiveness.  

It starts on the personal level in which we forgive the very people who have wounded us, the people who have put the scars we wear on our skin, our hearts, our psyches, and our memories.  


So what is forgiveness?  It is not saying “It’s OK that you did that to me.”  Not at all!  Forgiveness does not trivialize evil.  Forgiveness does not pretend evil is not evil, nor deny, or minimize the damage done.  Look at Jesus — he was tortured and killed, and still had the scars to prove it.  There is nothing trivial about it.  

Rather, forgiveness means I will not seek retribution.  I will say “Peace to you.”  I will not make you suffer because you made me suffer.  I will not even wish for, or fantasize your suffering.  I will wish instead, for your redemption, for your restoration, for your healing. 

This does not mean that justice does not have to be done, when, for example, crimes have been committed.  But it means that my motivation is not revenge, but restorative justice, meaning that the world should be one in which actions do have consequences, and the guilty do not walk away to freely continue to victimize people at will.  But there is no pleasure in punishment for me.  You have been forgiven.  The cycle can stop here and now.

Thomas and Us

So now, back to Thomas.  The question to Thomas is: Can you trust that the world can be one in which you can be a cycle-stopper?  Or does that feel too risky?  

Those are questions to us as well. In other words, can we trust God enough, as Jesus did, to support us in our forgiveness mission?  Or are we going to stiffen up and demand proof in advance?  Will we float, or sink?  Thomas has to decide.  

So Jesus says, in effect: Look at the wounds and scars, Thomas; your cowardice on the night of my arrest helped put them there.  But here I am saying “Peace” instead of “punishment.”  Can you trust my way?  

That is the question this text leaves with us.  Can we deny the demands of our egos for self-justification, for getting even, for vindication, and for vengeance?  Can we be cycle-stoppers?  Can we forgive?  

Because the amazing truth here, is that if you forgive the sins of any, then they are forgiven; period.  If you do not, then they are not, and the cycle turns again.

But you have been forgiven.  You have heard the words, “Peace to you.”  You have been given the Spirit.  You have been sent.   This is our mission!

Scaling Up

We have been speaking so far about the personal level. Does this work on a larger scale?  Well, it has worked.  

There has been healing and reconciliation in Rwanda, even after genocide.  There has been political calm instead of a blood bath in South Africa, even after all the suffering of apartheid.  

The Jesus way of forgiveness is not a fantasy.  If there is enough of a consensus that retribution only spins the cycle around again, that the odds against getting even are the longest odds ever, that the cycle can be stopped; peace is possible.  

That is our mission; we have been sent.  We have been given the Spirit.  Let us not doubt, but trust, not struggle, but float on grace and mercy, and so experience peace.

Death(s) and Resurrections(s)

Death(s) and Resurrections(s)

Sermon for Easter Sunday, Year C, April 21, 2019. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

Luke 24:1-12

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.

My brother and I have these amazing conversations about everything from consciousness, to ancient literature, to modern ethics. He is a lot smarter than me, so when we disagree I usually lose.

But there is one subject we disagree about on which he has not persuaded me to change my mind. It goes like this: according to him, when you look at the world we live in, and how we got here, what do you see? It looks like prey and predation are the way it always works. Organisms prey on other organisms to survive. “Eat or be eaten” is the simple way to say it. We are all in competition for scarce resources.

Generally, that is undeniable. But is that all that we can say about how our world operates? Look around: it is spring now. Everything is budding and blooming; my allergies are in full bloom too. The Azaleas are showing off, the leaves have returned, the grass has greened again, and the new eggs are about to hatch open with new life.

It is not simply that all of this is happening, what is even more astounding is that we are here to be aware of it, and to love it. We are here to love the sunrises and the colors of spring, to rejoice in beauty and the wonder of nature, in a way that no other animal has any idea about. The dogs I have owned over the years have been like members of the family; nearly human. But they have never marveled over flowers.

What I am trying to argue is that there is a significant word that must be said, in my opinion, after saying “prey and predation.” I want to say “but”. Predation happens, yes, but tooth, and claw, and blood on the ground are not the last words.

I believe that the very force of evolution itself, even though it does include predatory nature, also has a direction that is amazing and wonderful. We have evolved to be animals with rational minds, we have the gift of speech, and we are conscious: conscious of ourselves and of other selves, and of beauty, in so many forms. Teeth and claws do not have the last word. Yes, nature has designed many deaths into the system, but also many births, and, I believe, many new births, after death.

Jesus’ Context

If you were alive in Jesus’ world, you might conclude that life was only “nasty, brutish and short,” as Thomas Hobbes concluded, many years later. Jews had lost their independence in 63 BCE to the Roman Empire. They had a local king over them who was not even Jewish, whose delusions of grander were costing them dearly, as they were taxed to pay for his opulent building projects. The local aristocratic elites controlled most of the land. Most people were illiterate, landless peasants, without even the benefits of aspirin for their pain.

All of this may be why the emotional tone of Luke’s version of this story is amazement and disbelief.

Sidebar: I don’t know how you read this story. You are free to take it literally, if that works for you. For me, any story with an angel or two in it, is a story that, I think, the author is signaling, should be read like a parable. It is trying to say something true, using all the symbols that the author has in his or her took kit.

I think what Luke is trying to say, with all that amazement and disbelief, is that the story everyone else is telling, about how bad life is, is not the only story, and certainly not the last word. And, I believe, that the central Christian story, that we celebrate on Easter, our highest holy day, is that resurrections happen!

Scholars of the historical Jesus and early Christian movement do not dispute the fact that Jesus’ followers had experiences, powerful experiences, that led them to believe that Jesus was a living presence. Paul had one of those experiences as well, several years later. They concluded that you could look for, and find Jesus, “not among the dead, but among the living.

How? Luke, for his part, believed that the way to see Jesus was to gather around a table and break bread in memory of him — as the two disciples on the Emmaus road discovered.

Matthew said you found Jesus in the faces of the poor and oppressed, the “least of these.

In other words, the passionate vision of Jesus had lived on, and lives on. Jesus’ passion for the poor lives on. Jesus’ opposition to systems of domination and oppression live on.

Jesus’ orientation to God as Abba, or we might say, “Papa,” as good and as “for us” instead of harsh, judgmental and against us, lives on, and continues to be transformative.

And, most importantly, Jesus conviction that death was not the worst thing that could happen to you, but that living inauthentically, or unjustly, or apathetically, and certainly arrogantly may very well be.

And so he was willing to proclaim the kingdom of God, knowing, and accepting, that it might cost him his earthly life, which it did. The Christian story is that death is not the last word.

As the Christian community grew, it frequently used the symbols of death and resurrection to try to communicate this amazing, and nearly unbelievable message: that deaths are necessary but that resurrections follow.

So, for example, the letter to the Colossians, advises:

“put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature.”

Col. 3

Why? Because, it says,

“you have been raised with Christ.”

Col. 3

That is it, right there. There are deaths you have experienced, and can, and should experience, because you have already experienced resurrections.

What Spring Teaches

So, all of that made me reflect, this Easter season, on my argument with my brother over wether prey and predation was at the heart of the structure of the universe — which is where that conversation goes.

I want to say, “no;” I believe in Springtime; I believe in beauty; I believe that the world-as-it-is, is not the world-as-it-has-to-be. I believe in justice, and I believe in equality, and I believe in human dignity — as true of all humans, without any exceptions. I don’t believe anyone is “trash”!

It sounds trite to say it, but, I’m sorry, it must be said, in my opinion: I believe in love. In fact I believe that love is at the heart of the structure of the universe.

I believe that the very Ground of our Being is an emerging process that is ever-renewing and ever-presenting us with new possibilities for better future states, for goodness, and truth, and for beauty. It is spring; look around!

Two Levels of Resurrection

There are two levels on which the good news that resurrections follow death can be explored. I will just briefly mention the first one, that deserves so much more time, and focus on the second this morning.

The first is that there is new life, and a good life possible, after every death that we experience. All of us face deaths. We lose people we love, relationships die, careers crash and burn, we lose our health and our abilities; there are many ways we experience the awful, soul-chilling horror of deaths.

But death is never the last word. Resurrections from each of those is possible. God, I believe, is present to us, and for us, in every experience of suffering and dying.

We are not alone. We have not been abandoned. God is there, even suffering with us, and giving us the strength — which Christians call grace — to rise up and live again. That’s one level.

Necessary Deaths

The other level is the one Colossians was talking about. There are, indeed, things we need to “put to death” intentionally, in order for something new to be born. This is what Jesus was talking about when he said we should “take up our cross daily and follow him.” There are things that we need to die to.

To be succinct, the primary one is the ego. The ego is that voice in our heads that says, “I must be recognized, I must be in charge, I must be taken care of, I must have my way.”

The ego says the world is a place of scarcity, in which “me and my people” need to be looked out for. So, other people need to move to the back of the line, stay across the border, stay in the closet, and stay out of my neighborhood.

That ego-orientation creates and maintains the world-as-it-is; a world of discrimination, of injustice, of haves and have-nots, of enormous and obscene disparities between rich and poor, and conditions like mass incarceration, for-profit prisons, and the blasé acceptance of mass shootings.

That ego-driven life needs to be “put to death,” so that a life-for-others can rise up. For humans, the ego-driven life creates the very world of prey and predation that undermines the enormous advantages we have evolved to possess: empathy, compassion, cooperation, and yes, even reconciliation and restitution. In other words, resurrections.

This may be a story of nearly unbelievable amazement, which is how Luke tells it. That’s the story I want to tell. That’s why I want to win the argument with my brother.

We humans are no longer wearing animal skins and running around with bones in our noses. We do not have to live lives of ego exclusivity and xenophobia. We can die to that world, and be raised to celebrate the kingdom of God.

We can be, like Jesus, welcoming-kinds of people who are willing to put down our privilege and grow out of our fragility, to embrace the full, richly diverse world God has made, which announces itself in the invitation to resurrection we call spring.

I used to think it was rather scandalous that the timing of Easter was determined by the moon, to coincide with the arrival of spring. Now, I understand better. I think it’s perfect. If the earth can practice resurrections, why couldn’t we also? We can be the people who do not “look for the living among the dead.” We believe in the paschal mystery of resurrection.

The Fragrance of “Yes”

The Fragrance of “Yes”

Sermon on John 12:1-8, for April 7, 2019, Lent 5C . Audio will be available here for several weeks.

 John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Part of my quest every time I preach is to help us see how the biblical text is relevant and meaningful for us today.  But there is usually another goal I have at the same time, and that is to help us understand the nature of scripture itself.  It is rarely simple.  

The gospels started out as stories of what Jesus said and did, which were passed on, by word of mouth, from person to person.  We call this the oral period.  Then they began to be written down.  Eventually, someone put them together into one coherent narrative, or story, but not until several decades after Jesus.  Mark was first, then Mathew and Luke.  The gospel of John was written even more decades later than the others. With that in mind, we will look at the text from the gospel of John.  

Two in One

There seem to have been two stories that made it into the written gospels, in which Jesus is anointed by a woman.  One is in Mark, which Matthew took up virtually as is, and the other is in Luke.  They are not the same.  

Mark’s story is set in Galilee at the home of Simon the leper.  Luke’s story is in the home of a Pharisee.  The woman is unnamed in both stories. 

In Mark, the woman anoints Jesus’ head; in Luke’s, she anoints his feet.  

In Mark, she anoints his head with costly perfume, but nothing about her is reported.  

In Luke, the woman is called a “sinner” who anoints Jesus feet, not with perfume, but with her tears, and then wipes them off with her hair.  

Some New Testament scholars conclude that in John’s gospel,  these two stories have come together in a new setting, at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  In John, the details get combined.  Jesus’ feet are anointed, but not with tears, rather with the expensive perfume.  Then the perfume is wiped away by Mary’s hair.  Why tell the story this way?

Further, in Mark’s version, multiple unnamed disciples object to the prodigious wastefulness of a perfume, costing a working man’s annual salary, being used this way, instead of being sold to help the poor.  It seems like a sincere concern of theirs.  After all, helping the poor was what Jesus was all about.   

In John, however, only one objects: Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer.  John alone adds the detail that Judas kept the common purse for the disciples, and that he was a thief.  His concern for the poor was spurious.  Why tell it that way?

John ends the story the way Mark does by Jesus’ explanation that this was an act of pre-death embalming, and then, making a reference to the poor.

So why would John tell this story, and tell it this way?  Let us look at this story and try to imagine how its original readers may have taken it.  As we do, we will see how this story, told this way, is relevant to us.

The Setting and Context

First the setting.  Jesus is having a meal at a table with his disciples in a home.  This is what Jesus was famous for: table fellowship, specifically inclusive table fellowship.  In fact, scandalously (prodigiously) inclusive table fellowship, which included both men and women.  

That is what the young Christian communities continued to do: to meet in homes in a  scandalously inclusive manner, mixing genders, social classes, and ethnicities as if none of those categories mattered anymore.  

How do we picture this setting?  We should not picture a modern dining room with a table and chairs and sufficient lighting.  Their tables were only inches off the ground.  There were no chairs.  They lay on their sides, supporting themselves on their elbows, heads close to the table, feet extended away.  The lighting was by oil lamp, so it was dimly lit; most of the room was in shadows.   

What is going on in Jesus’ life at this point in John’s telling?  Opposition by the Jerusalem elite has been growing.  There are people plotting to kill Jesus.  He is only a small hill and valley away from Jerusalem.  The danger is increasing, and they are all aware of it.   And with death looming, Jesus is moving towards it.  He is heading for Jerusalem.  Why head towards death?

The Characters

The way the Gospel of John tells the story, attention focuses on three characters, Mary and Judas, who are both in relation to Jesus.  It’s as if there are two alternatives with respect to Jesus.  

Both Mary and Judas are notable for what they value.  There is a lot of money at stake here; as I said, a whole year’s wages worth of perfume.  Mary values Jesus, Judas values the money.  Those are the alternatives.  One is the means towards the good life; the other, likely death.

So, Mary moves to Jesus’ feet, anoints them with the perfume and then wipes his feet with her hair.  What would it mean to be a woman in that situation, in that culture, letting down your hair?  Normally, women only did that in front of a husband.  Original hearers of this story would think that Mary was being embarrassingly vulnerable.  

Anointing is normally done to the head, as in Mark’s version, so what would it mean that Mary used the perfume on Jesus’ feet?  That was something you would do to a corpse.  It was, then, a foreshadowing of what she expected would happen soon: death.

So, what would it mean then, to wipe the perfume with your hair?  Again, it is embarrassingly vulnerable and intimate.  Mary would end up wearing it too.  Was that her way of signaling that she was all in; that she would be willing to embrace the same fate of death, along with Jesus?  

The Money Issue

The cost of the perfume is enormous.  Would any single village woman have a bottle of perfume worth a year’s wages, just sitting around?  And remember, in the story, the way the Gospel of John tells it, she had recently buried her brother Lazarus.  Certainly, they would have used perfume to embalm his body before burial.  And after that, she still has this much expensive perfume available?  

Realism has given way to symbolism.  The act of wiping perfume with her hair shows again and in another way that she is all in.  There is no cost she would not bear.  Jesus, after all, had given her her bother back from death.  Jesus had let her sit at his feet like a male disciple, as he taught.  Jesus has given her a whole new way to imagine God as “for her” instead of “against her.”  

Mary represents one alternative way to relate to Jesus that has included the acceptance of death.  In fact, Jesus has taught this early Christian community the central truth that the path of descent is the way to life.  One author put it this way:  

“To accept death is to live with a profound sense of freedom. The freedom, first, from attachment to the things of this life that don’t really matter: fame, material possessions, and even, finally, our own bodies. Acceptance brings the freedom to live fully in the present. The freedom, finally, to act according to our highest nature. . . .”

Philip Simmons, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life

Judas represents the other way.  He feigns commitment to the cause — he complains about the waste of money, as if he would have used it to help the poor.  But he would not have helped the poor.  He had his hand in the till, and was disappointed that the till wasn’t deeper.  He was not all-in, at all, and money is one of the reasons why not.  He was not interested in the path of descent.  

In the end, Judas gets a rebuke.  Mary has done the right thing.  Mary has come to the understanding that death is necessary before new life.  She learned that with Lazarus.  Now she accepts it for herself.  

The Point

There is a famous prayer that says, “For everything that has been, thanks.  For everything that will be, yes.”  Mary has said “yes” to what will be.  

(Prayer source: Dag Hammarskjöld)

The first hearers of this story see the two alternatives.  You can seek to save your life, like Judas.  Keep it protected — money seems like a good way to do that.  But you will end up losing it.  Or you can lose your life for Jesus’s sake, and, like Mary, you will find it.  

Mary has come to the second half of life, having done the spiritual work.  She knows what to value and what to let go of.   She is not attached to whatever money could do for her.  She is at a place in her life that Angeles Arrien calls the “Gold Gate.”

The Gold Gate, … is where we awaken to the deepest core of who we are, and are asked to let go and trust. . . . It is the gate of surrender, faith, and acceptance, where we learn to release and detach… At the Gold Gate … we learn to befriend death and prepare for its arrival…We practice the art of dying while we live… Non-attachment, surrender, and acceptance foster our deliverance, while courage and faith strengthen our capacity to face our own suffering, pain, or sadness. . . .

Angeles Arrien, The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom (Sounds True: 2007, 2005), Richard Rohr’s email Wednesday,  April 3, 2019.

Early Christians, in their little Christian communities, at their house churches, where they broke bread around a common table of inclusion, in the shadowy dimness of oil lamps, would be asking themselves if they had come to Mary’s Gold Gate yet?  Jesus’ way, is the path of death, before resurrection. 

Jesus let dangle that last comment that you always have the poor to help.  He was actually half-quoting a verse from the Law of Moses 

Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I, therefore, command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

(Deut. 15:11)

Helping the poor is what you naturally do when you have come to the conclusion that life is not all about yourself.  You have died to the idea that “life consists in the abundance of possessions.”  You have come alive, in the second half of life, to love; and yes, to love is to give.  To die to ego is to live.  

I am glad that the Gospel of John told this story, this way, to set out, so clearly, the two alternative ways of being.  If you have been following Richard Rohr’s daily email reflections, you have been reading about this theme recently.  Thursday he quoted from Philip Simmons’ book, Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, which sums up the message here beautifully: 

When we learn to fall, we learn that only by letting go our grip on all that we ordinarily find most precious—our achievements, our plans, our loved ones, our very selves—can we find, ultimately, the most profound freedom. In the act of letting go of our lives, we return more fully to them.

Mary learned to fall; Judas never did.

“The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” 



Sermon for March 31, 2019, Lent 4C, on Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (after reading Lev. 5:1-6). The audio version can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable:

There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”‘ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.

As you may know, I taught primarily Hebrew Bible, or “Old Testament”.  I actually had planned to teach New Testament, but the college at which I was teaching had a greater need for  Old Testament teachers.  Lots of people don’t like the Old Testament for lots of reasons.

The text I selected for us today from Leviticus is an example of one of the reasons.  As you heard it this morning, I’m guessing most of you probably were thinking some version of “yuk!”.  I understand.

But I chose that reading to make a point that I hope will help us understand the gospel text better.   We all have heard this parable called the prodigal son.  

Prodigal means lavish; even wastefully lavish, extravagant.   If this is the story of the prodigal son, then yes, it is a story about a recklessly, self-indulgent young man who extravagantly wasted his whole inheritance.  

But the way Luke has recorded this parable, it is not about one son, but two, and a father, so there are three characters; this parable is about all three.

My hope is that we can hear this parable the way Jesus’ original audience would have heard it, with their pre-understandings in their context, and see what Jesus is doing, which was radical in its time, and still matters deeply to us.

First, this quotation from New Testament Scholar John Dominique Crossan:

If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed.

— J. D. Crossan, The Power of Parable, Kindle ed. p. 46

Let that sink in a minute.  “If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed.”

Jesus is radically changing his tradition in ways that fundamentally challenged ideas and perspectives that had been settled for centuries.  And thank God he did, because instead of destroying his Old Testament, he re-framed it in ways that make it possible for us to continue to draw wisdom from it.  

The Man with Two Sons

So, the story starts out “There was a man who had two sons.”  What provoked the parable?  Criticism Jesus was getting for welcoming the hated “tax collectors and sinners” that he famously ate suppers with.  That was too much for the “Pharisees and the scribes”.  

The Hebrew Bible has several stories of a man with two sons.  Abraham has Isaac and Ishmael.  Isaac has Jacob has Esau.  You can just hear the “Oh no!” as Jesus begins, “a man had two sons.”  They know that the elder is going to have a problem.  The younger is probably going to come out on top.   

But in this story, the younger brother is the problem child.  We know this story well; the younger son, it turns out, abandons the family and its traditions in every way possible.  

He dishonors his father — which, in an honor-shame culture was like a Class 1 felony that you never live down.  

He abandons his people, moving away from the Promised Land to a distant foreign country.  

There, he abandons all the morality of the Torah by his “dissolute living.”  

Then, broke, he has to become a debt-slave, feeding animals that Jews consider disgusting, and that the Law of Moses forbids; pigs.  And, as if it could not get any worse, in a time of famine, he fantasizes eating “pods that the pigs were eating.

Listening from the Purity Perspective

So how would Jesus’ original audience have heard this?  They would have been horrified.  Their whole religious landscape was comprised of two categories that everything fit into: pure and impure.  

That is why we read that text from Leviticus — it is a perfect example of how they saw the world.  If you touched something impure, it made you impure, and you were guilty of that impurity, even if you were unaware of touching it.  

Everything was either pure or impure: plants, animals, and even people.  If you were impure, you were guilty.  And if you were guilty, you needed to “confess the sin you committed” and pay the penalty by sacrifice.  Everyone knew that is how it worked; that is what God expected; that is what the Law that God gave Moses, on Mt. Sinai, said, so there is no questioning it, ever.  

The Parable

So, Jesus told a parable about a son who was as impure as he could possibly be.  He has committed a “prodigious” quantity of sins; he is guilty.  He needs to confess his sins, and then he needs to pay his penalty, back home in Jerusalem at the temple.

In the story, as he sits, hungry, in his pig pen, he composes his confession.  He says, 

“I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”

But no one hearing the parable would think that plan would be successful.  No dishonored father would take him back, confession or not.  His record cannot be expunged.   No one else in the village would hire him either.  Once you have done time like he has, in a foreign country with its impure people and its pigs, you never get restored.   

The Prodigal Father

So he returns.  And now the story gets completely absurd, in the minds of traditional people listening to the parable.  The father becomes the prodigal.  He is wastefully extravagant in his welcome of his son.  He even dishonors himself by running to meet him in the most undignified way.  He touches him — even embraces him, becoming impure in the process.  He restores his status as son in the family, and throws a feast of honor.  

That is too much for the older brother.  He is scandalized.  He refuses to join the party inside the house.  So now, the older brother has become the outsider in the family.  

He wags his shame finger in front of his father, who has come out of the house to plead with him — as no honorable father of the time would have done.  

The father lets him rant on, accusing him of injustice.  Now, the older brother is being prodigious as he launches invectives against his father.  

Then, after all of that, the father says to him,

Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

He says, in effect,

Even after shaming me, by making me come outside, and shaming me by your verbal assaults and accusations, you are still my son, and I am still with you, and all that is mine is yours.

The Point

So, who are the characters in the story?  Jesus is replying to the criticism that he has included impure people to his company and fellowship — tax collectors (we may as well say Roman collaborators) and the generic “sinners.”  

The attacking scribes (Torah scholars) and Pharisees (the self-authorized purity police) just like the older brother in the parable, are the responsible ones who have kept themselves pure, and have kept and the family honored all these years.  They are scandalized by Jesus’ failure to uphold the purity code.

But look what Jesus has done in this parable: he has totally reframed the notion of sinfulness and guilt.  Instead of impurity, Jesus has invented a whole new category: “lostness.”  

The father, in the parable, tells the older brother what Jesus is telling the Scribes and Pharisees about the impure people he has been hanging out with:

“we had to celebrate and rejoice, [these people were] dead and have come to life; they were lost and have been found.’”

This is the third in a series of three parables of lostness and found-ness that Jesus told, according to Luke.  First was the lost sheep, found by the shepherd.  Second was the lost coin, found by the woman of the house, and now the lost son, found by his welcoming father’s love and forgiveness.

What has become of his need for confession?  His father interrupted his speech before he could finish it.  What has become of his impurity?  It is simply and completely ignored.  What has become of his guilt?  He is not guilty, just lost.  What is the remedy?  Forgiveness that needs no temple, no priest and no sacrifice.  

What was the motivation of the father?  It says,

“while [the returning son] was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion”

The Compassionate God

What defines God’s relationship with us lost ones?  Compassion.  There is no judgment, no shaming, no bargaining or deal making; simply, compassion.  The lost son has been found; the broken family has been restored.  

This, I hope you can see, from the perspective of the tradition, is a total re-reading.  Some aspects of the tradition have been destroyed.  The purity pursuit has gone down in flames.  But the story of the creator God, who loves all the children of the world with extravagant compassion, has been saved. 

“If tradition is changed, it may be destroyed. If tradition is not changed, it will be destroyed.”

Why it Matters

So there are two ways this story matters to us. First, it has to be the story we tell ourselves about ourselves.  What is our truest self?  Sinners?  No, our truest selves are children, loved extravagantly by a compassionate God.  Do we get lost from time to time?  Of course we do.  But when we are ready to come back home, we will be welcomed with open arms.

Second, this changes how we see others.  Some folks are still in a lost condition.  Are they “sinners in the hands of an angry God”?  No. They are lost ones that need to come home to love.  

This new perspective has radical implications.  Who are the “prodigals” of our times?  Who are the impure, dishonorable ones in our culture?  Unfortunately, many people are, but chief among them are former convicts, especially convicted felons.

Our culture has made it nearly impossible for them to get any but the lowest paying jobs.  After serving their sentences, we make them pay fees and fines, court costs and reparations, and if they cannot, then, in states like ours, neither can they vote.  

For all kinds of reasons, most of them completely unjust, there are a disproportionate number of people of color who are convicted felons who are not able to vote.  You can make up your own mind if this is accidental or not, but that is our society.  It looks very much like a society of older brothers and their wagging fingers. 

I do not believe Jesus would treat convicted felons the way our society does.  Therefore, I feel called to work to undo some of the built-in, systemic injustices that cause so much harm.  

Yes, there are people who have gotten themselves lost along the way, but there is also the possibility of redemption. As a Christian, I feel called to believe in redemption.  Justice does not have to be merely retributive; justice can be restorative when we, like God, have compassion.  

[ For further reading on the subject of our criminal justice system and its effects on people, from a Christian perspective, I recommend Rethinking Incarceration: advocating for justice that restores, by Dominique DuBois Gilliard. I supplied the link, but consider shopping local. ]