May 31, 2023

When Jesus was Sick

Photo of a little white wooden church in the countryside.

Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Preached at Augustana Lutheran Church, Hyde Park, Chicago, Illinois on February 25, 2007
When Jesus was Sick

For forty days he was tempted by the devil! This was quite a remarkable beginning of Jesus public ministry. He stood the test, resisted the tempter, who, with his alluring suggestions was quite a remarkable political advisor; he knew how to be effective and offered his expertise to Jesus who apparently needed it badly—a messiah alone in the middle of the wilderness. Jesus was after all a late bloomer for the standards of the time.
Luke tells us that he was about thirty years of age when he began his ministry. And the devil was there to help. Jesus was ready as he had to be, standing strong on his feet, but there were three areas of concern that definitely had to be addressed. And the devil, ever the gentleman, was there to help. First, Jesus did not look good; he needed to take care of himself for the strenuous task ahead. Second, he needed to be in charge of the chain of command and have authority. Third, he needed some packaging, some promotional
material, some P.R. out there telling really who he was. Three great advises – self-care, authority, and P.R. – that would make him look really good. So, these three advises were the three temptations: feeling good, doing good, and looking good.

First, Jesus needed to take care of himself, and focus. He was not feeling good, he was distracted presumably by hunger, but it could also be some concern about housing, or a reliable means of transportation, or he could use some days in a spa by the Jordan to reinvigorate the beaten body. Certainly Jesus could do that. He could transform stones into bread. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch; to do it he would have to give up trust, trust in God and in the people who so often out of their hearts attended to him
and fed him while they nourished themselves from his words. This is the difference between turning stones into bread and water into wine, which according to the Gospel of John was the first miracle Jesus performed. The turning of stones into bread would be a self-serving miracle while the turning of water into wine was the overflowing gift for others, in thankfulness for what he received from them. And to this effect he quotes the
biblical passage which says that the people who were without food in the desert were fed with manna, a food that they did not produce but a pure gift born out of trust alone.

Second, to carry out a daunting mission as Jesus had, he needed the means and the authority to do it. And all of this would be readily available to him if he would just follow an old utilitarian principle of ‘the end justifying the means.’ In political terms, we would call this cunningness, but Jesus saw it for what it was and is: deceit, corruption and betrayal. All the kingdoms of the world and their glory could have been placed under his feet just for a small gesture. A good thing for a small price to pay, to do it in reverence to the one who, set up the empires of the world. That means that Jesus would have dominion, but nothing in the nature of the empires, the use of power and domination could change; that was the condition imposed. The means become the end; the medium is the message. That is what Jesus meant when he said that his kingdom was not of this
world; it was not of the way power is ordered. His Kingdom is about change, transformation, not from power trickling down, but from the power that emerges from the powerless that raises those of low degree and puts down the powerful from their thrones.

The devil is the power of sameness; Jesus had it clear that God’s power was subversive, that is, it comes from below. And again Jesus quotes the scriptures to rebut the deal that was nicely being cut for him.
And finally the prince of cleverness tries to catch Jesus on his own game. In the words of Shakespeare,

The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose
An evil soul, producing holy witness,
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.

Jesus’ strength was the subject matter of the third test of the devil. This third temptation of Jesus’ strength is about promoting an image that conveys success. After all he was the messiah, why would he not want people to know about it. He could definitely use an agent, a P.R. person to give him a marketing edge when so many false prophets were around deceiving the people. But that was the point, you do not know Jesus for what he does, you know what he does for who he is. And that is how you have to know him: the poor bastard child of a carpenter from the backlands of Galilee who wandered homeless, without a place to lay his head and ended up nailed to a cross as a convicted political criminal. Not his signs, not his wonders, not even his compliance with the scriptures are the source of his authority. Jesus himself refuses to be proven even by the text of the scriptures. If he would have come to make a display, God certainly would have chosen nobler means that this poor Jesus.

This was indeed a remarkable way for launching a ministry. It was done in defiance of the most seductive power, which we call the devil, who can even employ the scripture for his purpose. In the moment of his strength, Jesus resisted in trust and in faith teaching us that in our moment of strength, by faith and in trust, we can do it too. Yes we can resist too.

But what about our moments of weakness in which we don’t even feel like eating, much less kneading stones to make loaves of bread out of it? What about those moments in which we are so downtrodden that we don’t even see the empires of this world crushed under them as we often are, and times when we can barely hold on to our feet, let alone stand at the pinnacle of the temple to perform a stunt. How good is this example of heroic resistance for us in the hours of our wanting?

Yes, the eloquence of this passage regarding the three temptations, feeling good, doing good, and looking good, makes us skip over its first two verses. The ministry of Jesus did not start with these three temptations. It started forty days earlier in utter solitude and miserable wilderness. That was the beginning of his ministry.


Consider this. You have plans; you have a project just about to launch, or a career move ready to be made, a major trip to undertake, or a retirement around the corner just to be enjoyed. … And then you get sick, terribly ill. For days that you unlearned to count you are just miserable. Any breath you take is as precious as painful. Often you don’t even see a light at the end of the tunnel, and if there is any light you are in such moods and spirits that you just know that it must be a train rushing to crush you, and you even find
some comfort in that thought because it might be an end to your misery. Or then, you are right out of college, or you earned a Ph.D. and you are ready to give your contribution to society and unfold your marvelous dreams and gifts, and what you get is shut doors and for solace maybe only the shadow of a tree in a public park when you don’t even have a roof to stand under. Worse still, you are a foreigner and lost your work permit along with the dreams of a great vocation, what do you do? This is the time that finitude, the frailty of the flesh, the corruptibility of the body bring us to a state when we revolt because it is not fair, and we also feel guilty because we think we did not do all we could to prevent it. And we become hopeless. Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said that this hopelessness, this despair is the real sickness unto death.
If you have felt hopeless, if you feel yourself in that state of mind, if you know someone going through this ordeal, or if you are lucky enough and only think that you might eventually find yourself in such a situation, of course it does not help much to tell you that you are not alone. But it might make a difference to know in whose company you are going to find yourself.

The very first day Jesus took office, the office of the Messiah—the one to deliver good news to the poor, recover sight to the blind, and announce the time of God’s favor—on that very first day, Jesus got sick, terribly ill! The text only says that Jesus was tempted, but those forty days of temptation in the wilderness have nothing in common with the three temptations we discussed earlier. Here temptation does not mean what we normally understand by it in the English language today, which is, something that entices and
charms us into our own inner luring desires. Temptation in Greek actually means something else as well. It means being under attack, exactly as in an illness when we actually do not know how much it has to do with the genes we have, with the habits we indulge ourselves in, or with the air we breathe, or the bodies we touch. We simply don’t know and therefore we are helpless. That is what temptation is about, and it easily leads to despair. And in our hopelessness, in despair we are sick unto death.

Let us be clear about this. Jesus did not give up chocolate for lent. Jesus was sick, terribly ill, in the first forty days before his mission began. For forty days he did not eat. His body and his spirit were being torn apart. The devil was after him. The word Devil, diabolos, means exactly this: the force that throws us apart, rips, splits, and breaks us up. For forty days he was falling apart into pieces while the devil was at work. Forty days meant all that his body could stand. The number forty stands for anything that counts the number
that just about does it. It can be four feverish days, or forty days, or four months, or four years, or forty years, or eighty years. It is just the number we give to the time taken for the passage of an ordeal that is threatening to crumble our resilience. Forty were the stripes given as punishment for a guilty party in a dispute, and the text says: “but not one more,” because that was understood to be the limit of one’s endurance. Forty were the years the Israelites spent in the desert without crop, relying on manna, the pure gift from heaven that they could not produce themselves in their destitute estate. Forty were the
days Nineveh had left to be destroyed. Forty is a symbol; it is the number that quantifies anyone’s maximum resistance; it is the number that tells the limit of one’s endurance.

Well, how about this for a beginning of one’s messianic ministry? No wonders, no deeds, no parables, no miracles, even the biblical text describing it is terse and lacks in eloquence. Jesus was alone in the wilderness with only beasts as his companions. He was miserably sick touching the edge of what was bearable. But his was not a sickness unto death. He resisted, and it was a resistance against despair.

This was Jesus’ first true temptation, his trial in the first forty days of his ministry. And here he is even in the flesh of our infirmities enduring our own frailty as one who knows. He knows because he has been there and is there with us, with the assurance that ours is not a sickness unto death as long as there is faith, as long as there is love, as long as there is hope. And faith and love and hope are there where Jesus is and he is with us in our walk through the wilderness of our trials. The one who lives is there in our own journey through the valley of lent, in the depth of our lament. As the letter to the Hebrews says, “The living one is not a High Priest that cannot be touched by our infirmities, but one who has been in every respect tempted and afflicted as we are.” Being with us, closer to our pain and suffering more than we ourselves are, was the first work of ministry that Jesus did and continues to do. Know that, feel that, and dispel despair for ours is also not
a sickness unto death, for the story does not end in lent, in a hospital room, in a cross, or in a tomb.

Unlearning Boundaries

II Kings 5:1-14
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes
and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became angry and
went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he
said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

Unlearning Boundaries
Moved, Touched and Saved

Naaman was his name. Naaman was a mighty man of valor. Under his leadership the Lord had given victory to Syria. Naaman was a powerful man. But (and there should be a “but” in this as in any story) he was a leper. Naaman, the mighty man of valor, conqueror of armies, could not conquer a terrible illness that was eating his flesh away. But Naaman nevertheless was a powerful man. And the mighty and powerful like company. He hears about this prophet in Samaria who could heal him and win the battle over his flesh. From this point on, a story of powerful men unfolds. Naaman goes to his king who writes a letter to the king of Israel introducing Naaman and requesting that he be cured. But the letter does not say anything about the prophet in little Samaria. Kings speak to each other, not to marginal subjects of the kingdom.

When powerful men meet each other, and when one is even mightier than the other, a request is not a request, it is a demand. And the failure to deliver is a total capitulation. It is a shame and also the assurance of pending destruction. The king of Israel knew this quite well. He knew that he must either deliver or else. The king of Israel in desperation rent his clothes. And it made news at the time. This is then the first lesson: when mighty men of valor meet they are moved only by the power they can summon. When Elisha, the prophet, heard that the king had rent his clothes he told the king to send Naaman to him. This is another lesson: When the powerful despair they will accept any help they can get, even from annoying prophets. A little humiliation is still better than total capitulation. So the king accepts Elisha’s offer and sends Naaman to him. Naaman goes with his whole entourage to the prophet’s house. One must imagine that Naaman
was already suspicious of this move. He was probably thinking, as the powerful do: the king of Israel is playing games in order to buy some time. And Naaman knew better. He would not be fooled around by this hide-and-seek game, designed only to postpone the inevitable. So, Naaman being a reasonable mighty man of valor decides to give the king a chance. And there he is at the prophet’s front door. Elisha sends him a messenger and tells him to wash in the Jordan seven times. This was more than the mighty man of valor
could take. Let alone the fact that the prophet did not even come to greet him or to perform personally the healing ceremony, asking him to wash himself in the waters of Jordan! Bathing in that insignificant creek called Jordan was adding offense to insult. Now Naaman had, so to speak, the smoking gun. He left the place in rage. This is then the third lesson: mighty men of valor do not like to be pushed around. Mighty men of valor do not like to feel that they are not in control. They especially do not like when they are told to take a medicine when they know that they have better and more potent drugs and powerful waters than the ones being prescribed. Mighty men of valor have better science, so they know better. They know, for example, how to compare the healing quality of waters. And between the rivers of Syria and all the waters of Israel
there was no comparison.

Great tragedy was approaching. And it was halted only because Naaman’s servants, wiser than he, proposed to him: If the prophet had asked him to do a great thing he would certainly do it. He had the power to do it. Why not give it a try and do—even if unworthy of his valor—a very simple thing, like dipping into the Jordan creek? Though not uncommon these days, mighty men of valor do not like to be mis-underestimated, Naaman conceded. And because he conceded and dipped into the Jordan seven times, exactly as the prophet had ordered; because Naaman suspended his well informed judgment on the prophet, whom he had regarded as a charlatan, and obeyed; because he left his pride and not only followed the prophet’s advice but also the wisdom of his own servants, he was healed, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, just like
the flesh of a little child.

The flesh of a little child, unlike the flesh of a leper, is gentle, with the color of life and very sensitive. A leper’s skin turns gradually snow-white and the senses are progressively impaired. Readings about Hansen’s disease, named after the scientist who isolated the bacteria that clinically cause leprosy, say that in ancient times many different skin diseases were labeled as leprosy, but they were not all that infirmity that Hansen
classified. Leprosy stood for a terrible condition in which one progressively loses the sense of touch. Hence, someone who does not feel the touch of another, who is not shaken, who is not moved is often considered to be a leper, and mighty men of valor fit this diagnosis: they often resist being moved, they resist the touch of another.

Consider then this question: What was Naaman really cured of? I think the point of the story is not a medical miracle, but a much more important healing. By entering the Jordan, by assenting to the prophet’s order, by listening to his own servants, by showing sensitivity, by submitting himself to those poor waters of Israel covering gently his whole body seven times, Naaman was healed. Naaman got his sensitivity back. That was his cure; this is what having a flesh like a little child means, a body that listens, is moved by others, is sensitive to others. Notice that in the stories in which Jesus cures a leper, as in the gospel reading, the point of the cure is that Jesus reaches out his hand and touches the leper. A cured leper is the one that knows she or he has been touched, has been moved.

As any sickness has an etiology, a cure has also an etiology. It starts somewhere. It starts with good news that might not even be at first acknowledged. It starts with a good angel, which means, with a good messenger. And there is an angel in this story. There is an evangelical beginning of Naaman’s healing. The text tells us that in a raid into Israeli territory a young girl was taken to be a maid in Naaman’s house. We do not know her name. We do not know how they took her. We do not know about the family and friends
she was taken away from. But we know that she was moved by Naaman’s condition. And she talked to another anonymous woman, Naaman’s wife. She was also moved, and she believed enough to tell her sick husband that there was hope in Samaria, not in his mighty army, but in Samaria, at the site of a local prophet. The fact that Naaman listened set in motion a healing that would finally restore him to health, to have a body that would feel the sensations of this world, that would be touched and known to be touched, that would be moved by words of promise and not of threat, having a flesh that would be sensitive
like the flesh of a young child.

That little girl whose name is not recorded, whose story we do not know except that she moved a mighty man of valor, was God’s agent for the healing, for the salvation of a man who did not even belong to the covenant people, but a man whose story is told to this day because more important than pedigree, more important than his power, he felt the presence of a touch that was caring, though it was just from a little maid, from a
countryside prophet, and from the waters of a river that was for him really not more than an insignificant dirty creek. But he let himself to be moved, he let himself to be touched. And in this allowing himself to be moved, in allowing himself to be touched there was healing. This is the story of a mighty man of valor, who finally did not resist grace, and so he was moved; he was healed; he was saved. Saved not least from the leprous
insensitivity of his might, his valor, his power.

There is no such thing as a twelfth of the love of God, a pondion of the love of God


Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o”clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o”clock, he did the same. And about five o”clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o”clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

This sermon was preached at the occasion of the Book of Concord conference at the Christ the King Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas
There is no such thing as a twelfth of the love of God, a pondion of the love of God.

In the poor countryside of western Brazil every morning at day’s break was the familiar scene of the unemployed gathered in the town’s square, waiting for farmers’ trucks to come. The farmer’s men would select them, and then take them for a day’s work in the soybean plantations. After the young and the strong were first picked, left behind, almost always would be men and women, children or the elderly deemed not strong enough, or looking too frail for a day of hard labor. The selection process was not so complicated. The farmers’ deputies would just count those that were first able to climb up the truck to the number of laborers needed for the day, and the rest would be pushed away. That scene in itself became a parable for me, not a parable of the kingdom of God, but a parable of the kingdom of this world, a kingdom in which people trample over each other to gain recognition, to displace others and gain the right to be recognized as worthy of dignity, worthy of having the right to work and be rightly rewarded for it. And right reward meant getting a share that was better than those who did not work that hard or whose skills could be outmatched. Properly recognized meant getting on first to the back of the truck.

Those left behind would not wait for a second or third truck later in the day which incidentally never came.
But listen to the other parable, the parable of the kingdom of God. What prompted Jesus to tell this parable were the questions that he was asked: what does it takes for one to be saved and what is God’s criteria in awarding rewards? Is God going to reward according to what each had done? What is the hierarchy in the Kingdom of God? If we have the right confession, the right piety, how much is its cash value in the kingdom of God? If we are the finer church with the better teaching, the most successful charity, the greatest
devotion, the most impressive architecture, the most inspiring hymnody, the richest liturgy, so what is in it for us, Jesus? Indeed, we strive to do our best, but it is only the best if it is better than what others have done. That is not so bad, is it? But, Jesus had something different to say.

If we were to follow the rules of analogy, that which we think is a good example for the ways things are among us should be likewise in the Kingdom of God, only better. So if we say that we know what love means, we know something about God like God is love, except that God is even more so. If we know what being rewarded means so we would also know what God’s acceptance means, only that in God this is magnified. But this is not what the story of Jesus is about. It is not about analogy as the disciples thought. It is about another world, another way, as other household, another “plantation.” This household is of a different kind as Jesus explains to them. Jesus tells them a story about another way of handling rewards, a parable of another economy that in the ears of those who came to him was unsound. It is about a ridiculously illogical economy of a man that goes out early in the morning to hire laborers to work in his vineyard and agrees with them on a good pay for a day, or in modern terms enters into a contract with them, after which he goes out another five times throughout the day, the last one being barely one hour before the day’s labor is over, and finds more unemployed people hanging around. He offers them work and promise them the right payment without saying what that would be. And at the end of the day comes the surprise. Those who worked barely for one hour are paid first and worse they are paid exactly the same as those who worked all day, a denarius each. The cry that springs to our lips is: that is not fair! Justice does not seem to be served. The fundamental principle in the noblest tradition of legal thought that goes back to Cicero, to give to each what to each is due, is broken. How can a late comer be rewarded the same as those who have for so long labored in the field of the Lord?

Is this then a parable that says that the only criterion for distinguishing the right from the wrong is “anything goes”? And is this interpretation of it a naïve defense for the argument that nothing much really matters? So why bother with dedication, quality, work ethics, productivity, bonuses, etc.?

It is neither about ‘anything goes” nor is it saying that nothing much really matters. The context is another one. The question of justice goes deeper than the fair exchange between labor-time and wages. The great Jewish historian of the first century, Flavius Josephus, writing about the social conditions of that time registered the enormous amount of unemployed people in Palestine, and particularly in Jerusalem. And the text of the Gospel confirms it in the answer the workers give to the question as to why they were there all day long: “Because no one has hired us.” Unlike those hired early in the morning, those hired late did not know till the last hour whether they would bring bread home to feed their families when they would get back in the evening. Indeed the parable proposes another way of seeing justice.

As per the ways of the world, according to the merit earned, a denarius should be divided (like a dollar divided into ten dimes or a hundred pennies and so forth) in such a way that the payment or wages would seem to be fair. A denarius was regarded a good wage for a day’s labor. And actually there was something called a twelfth of a denarius. It was called a pondion. This is what those hired for the last hour of labor should have rightfully received. However, the point of the parable is that you cannot divide the love, mercy and
justice of God. There is no such thing as a twelfth of the love of God, a pondion of the love of God. You might have come late; you might not have been quite straight. Yet, if you were there, ready to join the crew when the Lord called you, as insignificant as your contribution might seem, rest assured that this response alone gives you what is plenty. It puts you there, first in line with the saints, and, yes, even with the great confessors and the martyrs of the faith.

Each individual in the parable and each of us who stand at the market place of this society built on merit, waiting to be recognized, waiting to be seen, each is given a worth equal to all the rest, total recognition, regardless of the worth of our contribution. And that is what the parable is about: the worth of each individual. And that is the reason that this story tells us something about individualism. Individualism measures the worth of a person against another person. But the parable tells about our worth in God’s eyes. It is about the new definition of justice: Jesus Christ the son of God. A God of Love that does not parcel love. A God that does not make a cost-benefit analysis. And if we need this love just so bad enough to stand there through the day of our lives, the call will come. And when the day is over we will rejoice in thankfulness and surprise, for we all are late comers. This is the story of our lives. No one was really there at day break. This is what we call our sinful condition. And as long as we don’t realize it, we try to raise ourselves over an above the
rest of the crowd, to be someone on our own, and thus impress God. That is when we also miss the call that invites us into another economy: Offering a vision of the kingdom that is indeed already among us, in the signs of the things to come, in a gesture of undeserved love that is a gift, which is neither a pay-back nor an investment for a return, but plainly a gift.

The Swedish film director, Ingmar Bergman (son of a Lutheran pastor, and someone who struggled with his Christian identity) once wrote about his calling as an artist. He knew the meaning of this parable better than he probably realized:

There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightening and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed—master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one
knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres. …

… it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; “eternal values,” “immortality” and “masterpiece” were terms not applicable in his case.
The ability to create was a gift.

Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral in the great plain. I want to make a dragon’s head, an angel, a devil—or perhaps a saint—out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts. Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian [or a Lutheran] or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral.

This parable of Jesus attests the response to a call that came in a given moment. It may or may not be the first hour and it need not be the eleventh hour either but very well could be. But what is pertinent is that when that call came it was faithfully answered. What is asked of us is to respond to the call and thus do our share in the vineyards of the Lord as Bergman did and do neither more nor less than what his passion was eager to give, and ready to receive his gift. What is expected of us is to be no more than one of those anonymous faces who built the cathedral, to be no more and no less than any one of them and yet now and forever beheld in by the glory of God.

The Tin Drum

Mk 10.13-16
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Preached at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
The Tin Drum

Gunther Grass in his novel, The Tin Drum tells the story of a child, Oskar, during the Nazi period in Germany. Sadly enough, Oskar seemed destined to grow up under the regime of the Nazis. But then that did not happen. Oskar decided to stop growing and to remain a child. And from the point of view of this child the story of a whole generation is told. With his tin drum he would play at the most inopportune occasions. Thus Oskar was the only possibility of resistance and subversion in an order in which brutality, oppression and discrimination was clothed with the mantle of reason and devotion. Oskar, the child that decided not to grow up, knew that only a child’s unpredictability, playfulness, and the tragic seriousness with which a child looks a the world could survive in a world in which madness was the established order. It was not that he was not at risk. On the contrary, by being constantly at risk in a world forbidden to children, he could see the madness of it all; a madness hidden to both the collaborators of the regime and the opposition. Through his childish subversive act, that is, with his drum, he could turn a military march into a waltz and the strictest Nazi officer would dance. With his childish strident voice he would break any glass with apparently no point in doing it. But these are the kind of things that children do.

Whether we like it or not, childhood is the time, the only time in life in which transgression is the rule. A child doesn’t know the rules, the laws or the customs. A child learns it by punishment or positive reinforcement by being on the edges of the permissible. This is why children are either protected or sacrificed, or else, either repressed or encouraged. But they themselves never compensate, never sacrifice, and never negotiate. The Pharisees of Jesus’ time regarded and treated children according to what was common knowledge at that time. Children, they said, are innocent, but by themselves they can’t be saved for they lack the knowledge of the law. Their salvation depends on their parents’ righteousness. Sadly, even 2000 years later, we act likewise .

In most of the legislations we regard indigenous peoples as minors, meaning that they are not accountable for what they do and also incapable of deciding what they want. Society, so goes the argument, will provide for them.

And it is these people, the little ones that were brought to Jesus. We don’t even know who brought them. The point is that they did not come by themselves. They were brought to Jesus. Not even this was their choice. There they were, standing in front of Jesus, already known as a religious leader, a rabbi that would gather the people around himself, teaching them and performing wonders. In other words, he was a public man concerned with his people with presumably no time to fool around with children. This is probably what the disciples thought when they attempted to send the children away. Not yet capable of learning the law how would these little ones ever be able to know what the meaning of gospel was, let alone understand it?
Innocent to the point of not knowing what condemnation was, how would they ever be able to know of liberation?

But they were exactly those whom Jesus chose to illustrate what the Kingdom was like. Be like a child, because only so will you inherit the Kingdom. And he certainly did not mean the children in the TV commercials, nice and well behaved. Be like a child, cute but also misbehaved. Be like a child who can say mom and dad, but who very unlikely would say sir and madam. But, alas, unlike a doctor, a clerk, a teacher, a mechanic or a pastor there is no training that will enable you to be a child. Unlike Oskar, you cannot decide to remain a child for life, and even if you could, it is obvious that it was not your choice. No amount of knowledge or wit can make that happen. You might learn that you need to be a child to inherit the Kingdom, but you cannot learn to be one because that simply cannot be learned.

What is the point of all this then? We are on a road from which there is no return. But in it we are driven to the edges of existence. On that road of no return we come to the limit of what knowledge will grant us and it will not be enough. In that journey we will learn that what we can know drives us to the limit of knowledge itself and that what we can do will never be adequate. And further what holds us together, race, cast, profession, religion, age, social class will not be enough in the face of all that sets us apart. And when we know all of that, when we reach the limit of whatever we are, only one thing remains: the child in each of us hurried under the weight of so much we have attempted ourselves to be. And this child, the same child that Jesus took in his arms and blessed, is the one born out of the waters of baptism. There, and only there are we one. There and there only are we a people, a new nation, hurried to all that we have construed and born to be a new republic. This is why our differences can be our differences; this is why we won’t need to build our identity and unity. The waters of baptism have given us the permission to be children again, always and ever. Nothing else is required. This is why it is not correct to say that we baptize children. We baptize persons into childhood.

The Glory Down Below

Matthew 6:25-34
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do
you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’
For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Christ in Our Midst: The Glory Down Below

Look at the planes in the air; they are neither silent nor cheap. They take us where we want for a price which includes, after the ticket is paid, a widening hole in the ozone layer and a significant increase in the noise around us. Aren’t they more important and impressive than we are? Or then, consider the litter of the fields, the dumpsites, the garbage in the parks, alleys, and streets, and the waste all around and in our midst, the
surplus of the glory of those who have more than they need. Don’t the poor clothe and feed themselves from what they find there? Should you not be anxious about tomorrow? Should we not be concerned about what we will leave for the generation to come? Let the day’s own trouble be not sufficient for the day.

Consider these words for a new sermon, not a Sermon on the Mount 2000 years ago surrounded by meadows, valleys and fields and a clean air that would qualify as a scene for a picture to be featured in a Sierra Club calendar, except that there were people in it, people that did not seem to merit the glory of the landscape. Consider these words for a new sermon, a Sermon in the City where the air is stiff, the birds sick and the fields are covered by brick, mortar, glass, and asphalt, and where there are people as well, and a lot
of them, and many that seem invisible in face of the glory of some imposing architectural designs. Consider a Sermon in the City proclaimed for that tomorrow Jesus said would have its own anxieties. We are the tomorrow of those words of Jesus, the tomorrow that would bring its own problems, the troubles of our days. Indeed not the troubles of the days Jesus walked over hills and fields. During those days there were people that did not seem to merit the landscape, now there are those who don’t merit the skyscrapers. Then
they were the waste in an environmental harmony, now they harmonize with the environmental waste. Then the trouble was to recognize the dignity of the human over and against a pristine creation. Now the trouble is to recognize the dignity of creation, including the human creature, over and against a culture of exploitation. Christ in their midst was God exalting those of low degree and putting down the mighty, identifying
with the poor, associating with the out-caste, partying with sinners, dying in the midst of thieves, and, in all that, reconciling the ungodly into the very heart of God. Would Christ in our midst be anyone different than who has been, is, and will be the one there where God’s creation and creatures are defiled and where sin stains the heart as much the ghetto walls, where sin stinks like the rotten body of a leper or the carcass of animals trapped in a receding habitat, where sin contaminates souls and rivers, pollutes the spirit and the air,
and poisons the heart and the soil?

God came to assume the most deplorable and debased condition of God’s own creation in order to reconcile all onto God’s own self, reaching deep, so deep down as not to lose any and redeem all that was created. In the troubles of our days how could that be stated in any way but to include all, from the defiled ozone to the polluted springs, from the biological crash to the greenhouse effect, all that shares and suffers in the midst of this economy of destruction, all even human beings. Yes, all even human beings.

Those were the days in which women and men, children and the elderly bore the stigma of pollution and the gospel was proclaimed as to say that even that low has God’s grace reached. In a beautiful passage by Athanasius in the fourth century this is well described:

Now, if they ask, Why, then, did God not appear by means of other and nobler parts of creation, and use some nobler instrument, as the sun, or the moon, or stars, or fire, or flowers, or forests, or air, instead of a human merely? Let them know that the Lord came not to make a display, but to heal and teach those who are suffering.

Do we follow the logic? Are we with Athanasius or with the gospel for that matter? Christ in our midst is not a display, he is not marketable. Christ in our midst is not what you go out shopping in the malls and arcades. Christ in our midst is not in the rising stock market. Christ in our midst is not depicted in screen projections from Hollywood or Bollywood, not even or even less when it is a story of The Passion. Christ in our midst
can only be found where the human and natural environment bleed from their wounds. There, bleeding along is the healer. Can we see it?

Well my friends, it is a matter of where are we looking at. So let us remember the first lesson that the followers of Jesus had to learn after Jesus left them. The very first lesson was not for them to know when Jesus would return. After all he said he would be always with them to the end of the ages. How could they know that when in his ascension they were gazing up into the skies? The question was one of the gaze. So let us learn the first lesson that the disciples had to learn when the master they loved was lifted away from
them. There they were standing in utter bewilderment, gazing at the clouds on high, gaping at the skies, probably wondering about his last words that said it was not their business to know about the time reconciliation would happen. Now that the master was gone from their sight they had to learn where to turn their vision to. Not when but where does Jesus return was the point. Where should the gaze be fixed at? Two men stood by the disciples when they were staring up heavenwards. And they were told the followers
that theirs was the wrong quest. “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” This is what is called a rhetorical question. Those who were asking for the time of Jesus return, were now being told that Jesus continuing presence, his parousia, his being-there was not a question of when, but of where. The text of Acts that tells us that Jesus’ ascension is the way, the very same way he comes to us: it is always from down below. The narrative of Jesus ascension is only a story to tell us about his descent. “This Jesus, who was taken up
from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” It is from down below that he comes. Don’t look into heaven. It is from down below that glory emerges. Don’t gaze up, look down. Look down where life is broken, where creation is tortured, where nature is abused. Down there in the troubles of our days lies the glory as much as it once was found in the womb of a poor peasant maid of Galilee, or
lying in a manger in the midst of dung, animals, and flies.

Consider then the homeless old woman in the city street and know that Christ is there and that NATO’s whole air force in all its glory is not armored as she is. So, do consider the lilies of the field, but consider as well the pollution, the waste, and the violence against which the blossoming of the most simple flower is already a triumph that beats the odds and tells a story of ascension. I share with you this hope in the words of a Brazilian poet:

Tied to my class and some clothes
I walk pale through the gray streets
Melancholy, merchandises gaze at me
Should I go on until nausea sets in
Can I, without weapons, revolt
A flower blossomed in the street

Pass away, streetcars, busses, rivers of steel of traffic.
A flower still pale
Deceives the police, brakes through asphalt.
Be silent, stop all business
I assure you: a flower blossomed
Its color is elusive.
Its petals are not quite open.
Its name is not in the books
It is ugly, but is really a flower
It is ugly. But it is a flower. It broke through asphalt, tediousness, loathe and hate.

May the glory down below shine through our lives in its unseemly fashion so that we might know that what God assumes God redeems and then we will also know that we don’t need to be anxious about tomorrow, for we know the places where tomorrow begins.

On Eating Disorders

Ezekiel 37: 1-10
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath* in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath
came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Preached at St. Olaf, a private liberal arts college, chapel, on March 11, 2008

On Eating Disorders

In the most dramatic of his many visions, the prophet Ezekiel is carried to a valley filled with dried bones. The vision conveys the desolation of the exiled people of Israel. Dry bones are the last of the remains of a living creature. All the signs of life are now only vague reminiscences inscribed in the bones. These bones were once bodies with flesh and blood, sinews, nerves and muscles and finally a breathing human being, and that means a spiritual being like you and I, for spirit is the very breath we breathe, ruach. Ruach in Hebrew means wind, breath, spirit.

Exiles are people cut from the ground of their existence like an uprooted plant left to dry and die under the sun. Exiles are homeless people that long for their place of belonging. They are like dry bones. It is to them that the prophet is commissioned to prophesy. And these words of prophecy are not words of divination; they are not about a lofty but elusive and improbable future that is to come. They are words that do what they say and say what they do, even if the prophet’s audience is just a huge pile of bones. Mind you that Ezekiel was not commissioned to carry those bones back and lay them to rest in their holy land. His prophecy was to restore them to life in the valley of death, to give them flesh and blood and declare them alive. And the prophet tells us: a rattling of bones was heard as they joined themselves, bone to its bone, sinews grew and flesh covered the bones, and skin came upon the bodies.

Yet they did not breathe, but this does not mean they were not alive or biologically functioning. No, the point is that they were not yet spiritual beings. That means: they did not have a voice. For all that it was worth the prophet had only convoked an army of slaves with no voice and no rights, still in a foreign land that had abducted them from their own soil, robbed them their dignity and killed their dreams and visions. That is what is called “mere life,” barely functioning organisms recruited to be exploited used and abused as disposable bodies. Have you seen “mere lives”? They clean houses, work in farms and restaurants, do menial labor and leave their jobs when someone asks for documents. “Mere life” is when visions die, dreams are crushed, and the will suppressed.

A second act of prophecy is needed for life to be more than “mere life,” more than barely tied to vital signs, a life with dreams and visions. So the prophet called upon the spirit, the wind from the four corners of the world to breathe unto them, so that as spiritual beings, they could stand even in a foreign land, the land of their exile. And by the power of the spirit breathing in them, they could stand on their feet; they could weave through their own words their visions, the words the spirit would allow them to utter with courage. These
were the words that the wind in them in-spired, coming not from Jerusalem alone, but from the four corners of the world. And they became a people, a vast multitude with a spiritual life, with a spirituality.

But prophecy can only be done by those who already have their voice, those in whom the spirit dwells, those who have spirituality. They call things for what they are, and because of that they can envision what they are called to be. They see dry bones which was the condition of the people of Israel in exile. But the prophet knew that they were to be functioning bodies, merely functioning, but still so. And the prophet knows that
prophesying is not fulfilled until the prophet is no longer needed, for then all and every one will have voice as the spirit prompts them to speak. Prophets are midwifes of the dreams of others, they breathe upon others words that in-spire, that instill the spirit through which others gain their voice and dream their dreams.
Being a prophet, however, is not a profession, it is more like a confession that comes with a protest. Take Ezekiel. He had a profession. He was a priest, the only priest in fact among the biblical prophets that we know of. The rest of the prophets were in other trades. Yet prophecy also requires schooling, but schooling without standardized tests or a unified curriculum, but still a certain kind of schooling. Different were the prophets’ schoolings.

One walked around with a yoke on his shoulders, another was made to marry a prostitute, another had his mouth burned by a live coal, and some went through prolonged periods of fasting. But it was different with Ezekiel; his schooling was a strange dietary experiment that did not teach him words; he was made to eat them. This is why Ezekiel is the prophet whose words are embodied; literally so!

We are indeed told as to how Ezekiel gained a voice that kept on giving voice to others. God comes to him and gives him the scroll of a book with “words of lamentation and mourning and woe.” We are not even told what this book is exactly about. We don’t know whether it was canonical or not and we will never know because that book had a strange fate. Habent sua fata libelii, is an old Latin saying, that all books have their fate apart from what the reader thinks of it. And this book indeed had a curious fate, for God handing him
this book said to Ezekiel: “Mortal, eat this scroll, and go, and speak to the house of Israel … eat this book that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it [says Ezekiel]; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.” (3:3)

How do you swallow a book in the first place and on top of it, a book full of lament and woe, bitter as Job or the book of Lamentations and have in your mouth the sweet taste of honey? Eating, ingesting and swallowing have the connotation of taking in something, embodying it, believing it. Ezekiel did exactly that. He not only did listen to spoken words, but ingested them, took them in, digested them and they became part of his own being. Ezekiel ate a book and was emboldened to prophesy; his body was invigorated so that he could breathe out words that he had not only listened to but words that were ingested and digested. Much before McLuhan coined the phrase, Ezekiel lived out what the medium being the message was about.

Prophets, at least some of them, eat books. And the books they eat are full of bitter lamentations because that is what the book of our lives tells about. But when it comes down to it, when they are ingested for what they are, the prophet knows of the sweet aftertaste that comes from trusting the one who gave the book, as the one who will restore the damaged life, the dried out existence, and the shaken bodies. Is this not what great works of literature do once you have tasted them? We read books that narrate human tragedy and
misfortune, telling things as they are, and one does not come out of the experience of digesting them without the sweet taste of hope in the midst of dismal tribulations of the dried out bones they testify to.

So, my friends, try this dietary experiment: eat books. It does not matter which, but books that attest to dried-out lives, books that walk us through valleys of bones. Eat them. It does not matter whether it is Job or Becket, the Torah or the Koran, Psalms or the Vedas, Homer or the Beouwulf, Dante or Marx, Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Augustine or Darwin, Chaucer or Camus, St. John or Morrison. They are not going to come alive in you; you will be alive in them. Just eat them, and when you are in a valley of dry bones you will have words in your mouth that will cover these bones with flesh and blood. You will breathe upon them the breath of the spirit, through which they will tell their own story.

No gesture of love is ever lost

Matthew 10: 40-42
‘Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.’

No Gesture of Love is Ever Lost

“Whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward.”

This is not quite how it happens in everyday life, is it? Well, things are indeed different with the gospel than with what normally happens in our everyday life. A small, a very small gesture of love is just enough for the greatest reward to be bestowed, for the fulfillment of God’s promise to be with us always. And is not God’s promise of presence the gift of life abundant, of joy, of peace, of eternity? The gospel lesson teaches us three things and leaves us with one assured promise. The first is that God’s economy is not ours. The investment is totally disproportionate to the reward. The second is that those who we least expect to be able to reward us are the agents of God’s reward for us. It might seem ludicrous in the eyes of the world, but so has God chosen to run God’s kingdom. The third is that God does not reward us for our own merits but that God makes us into those in whom God is present.

A writer is without any paper to write on. Writing is the pleasure of her life and she is distressed at not having a single sheet of paper to write on. But you have a sheet of paper, a single sheet of paper which costs hardly anything. And you give this writer the sheet of paper which is hardly of any worth. Now the writer takes the sheet of paper and starts to write on it immediately. And instead of keeping the paper to herself she hands it back to you. And even more odd is what is written on it! It is a promissory note of a million dollars payable to you. This is not only bizarre but undoubtedly an unequal exchange. Well, what the gospel text talks about is something similar. A totally disproportionate exchange between the smallest gesture of love like giving a cup of cold water to a thirsty and poor fellow human and receiving in return the greatest gift of all, God’s very
presence in our lives, now and forever.

It may not be too much, in fact it is only very little that we can do, but as negligible in value as it might seem, if done in love, for the sake of the little ones, God’s promise will not fail and the reward is infinite. We do not know as to how this works for it belongs to the mystery of God’s infinite love, but it is like that writer who in receiving a simple sheet of paper of negligible worth returns the gift with another of incomparable value.

Now to the fable of the lion and the mouse. One day a mouse runs into a lion and it is struck frozen for it knew that it was about to turn into a meal. The poor mouse started pleading for its life. The mouse begged for a gesture of compassion from the lion, for the lion to give up its natural instincts for once and save the poor mouse’s life. And as part of the micely-measly bargain, the mouse tried to convince the lion that he would one day repay the lion for the sparing its life. The thought of a tiny mouse saving its life was so
ludicrous that the lion started laughing and told the little mouse that he would indeed curb his nature and show some compassion. The lion would not eat the mouse, but as far as paying back, that sounded ridiculous. How could a mouse save a lion’s life even if it wanted to? Well, it so happened that one day the lion was trapped by a hunter’s net and the more he struggled to untangle himself the more caught he was. There was no hope.

But there came the little mouse and saw the lion trapped by the net unable to get out. The mouse that had been laughed at as incapable of saving a lion’s life starts to gnaw on the strings of the net until the lion was set free. So much for the ridiculousness of a mouse saving a lion! It is not only that a simple gesture of love and compassion multiplies itself in the reward but it requires from us a certain amount of restrain. Like the lion that had to curb its predatory nature, so too are we. Love and compassion requires that we abandon for a moment the logic of this world, which would be natural to us. It asks us to stop calculating the possible return in our investment. It demands of us to stop asking the question: “Is it worth?” It may seem not worth the effort to give a cup of cold water to a little one, for the little ones are those who apparently cannot pay anyone back. It seems ludicrous to expect a reward from those who don’t have the resources. But that is the point. We might laugh at the prospective of a return of our investment because it was done for those who don’t seem to be able to repay us ever. But that is when the reward becomes of infinite value. As the letter to the Hebrews remind us: “Be sure to welcome strangers into your home. By doing this, some
people have welcomed angels as guests, without even knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)

This brings me to the third lesson that this passage is teaching us. By doing even the smallest gesture of love and mercy we become that which we, by nature, are not. Any one, says the text, who welcomes a prophet as a prophet, will be regarded by God as prophet themselves, regardless of how weak and unfaithful one might be. Anyone, says the text, who welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person, will be regarded righteous by God, despite not having been quite righteous in her on his life. And anyone, says the text, who receives the little ones as if they were Jesus, will be regarded by God as God’s beloved child. We become what by nature we are not. By the rules of this world we are regarded as guilty by association. In God’s rule the contrary happens, we are saved by association, we are regarded holy by association. Indeed we become divine by being with those God most cares for, the little ones.

So, listen. Love is not cheap, for it goes against the ways of the world. It requires from us to go against the grain, a departure from the rules of the world. Love is not cheap, but it is gratuitous. It is the giving of the gift that keeps on giving and multiplying itself. But most important is the assurance, the promise that no act of kindness and mercy will ever be lost. No gesture of love will ever be lost! And the reward is already ours if we only believe.

Justice is to know Christ

Matt 5: 1-12
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Justice that makes us blessed

“Oh taste and see that God is good; blessed are those who trust in God.” (Ps 34:8)

The beatitudes notwithstanding, consider this:

Cursed are the rich in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Hell
Cursed are those who rejoice, for they will be tortured.
Cursed are the proud ones, for they will be disinherited.
Cursed are those who have their share, for they will thirst and hunger.
Cursed are the cruel, for they will find cruelty.
Cursed are the deceitful, for they will see the devil
Cursed are the warriors, for they will be called children of evil
Cursed are those who are rewarded, for theirs is the Kingdom of Hell
Cursed are you when people commend you and promote you and say all nice things about you.
Lament and be sad for your punishment will make the flames of Hell seem pleasant

Not as comforting as the text of the gospel, is it? It is not supposed to be, for my sake and for yours. Most of us are predisposed to domesticate the passages we like most, and they would certainly be featured in bold red letters in our Bibles.

This parody of the beatitudes is aimed at making the all too nice sermon of Jesus strange. It is strange because of the fact that these beautiful consoling words in the Gospel of Matthew are addressed not to the crowd that followed Jesus, but to the disciples. However, unlike Luke, who supposes a larger audience, here every blessing is addressed in the third person, except the last one. The last one, about persecution for Jesus’ sake, is conditioned to the adverbial clause “when”: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you …” Blessed are you; but who is this “you”? And when? Who is included and who is excluded to remain under the curses implied by this exclusion. Cursed are you; but “you” who?

Where is the divide that separates heaven and hell? It is disturbing that Jesus did not pronounce even to those faithful followers of his an unequivocal “blessed are you.” No, he did not! And by not doing it, the shadows of the curse were hidden in any and every blessing that was pronounced. And in face of these implied curses, their hearts, you must imagine, were saying the hopeful but doubtful words: “Surely, not I.” Disturbing, dear Christians, is that Jesus failed to say, “blessed are you, for you are here.” And certainly he did not say, “blessed are you for you have joined the School of Theology at the Mount.”

Let us take a look into what these blessings are and make it broad, deep, and wide enough so as to extend itself all the way from the seventh heaven to the pit of hell. But it could not be done without, simultaneously, including the meek and the cruel, the peacemakers and the warriors, the rich and the poor, the persecuted and those who persecutors. And it could not have been done without betraying the very words of Jesus, who even to the holy disciples did not automatically grant the blessing, A curse is the other side of blessing. It is the reverse of hope, the inverse of salvation. A curse helps us to realize the scope of blessing; it is a genre we have grown unaccustomed to because of our polite sensibilities. But it is the very real yet other side of salvation, the underside of blessedness. So it is not that here Jesus is raising the religious expectations, it is not that here he is paying his tribute to the nice and the wise, the spiritually uplifted and the morally sanctified.

The blessings, I am afraid, are far too restricted to include the holy, even the holy. The sharpness of this distinction between holy and blessed is made clear by Martin Luther: holy many can be, and we ought to, but that still does not make us blessed, still does not bring us over the divide. Therefore: Cursed am I for I care for spirituality, but I am not poor down to the spirit; cursed am I for I have shown empathy, but I am not mourning; cursed am I for I am humble, but not meek; cursed am I for I don’t own a house, but I am not homeless; cursed am I for I work hard to keep my job, but I am not unemployed; cursed am I for I have strived for justice against many odds, but I am not really persecuted for the sake of justice; Cursed am I so nice, yet so damned, so holy, yet cursed.

The beautiful Sermon on the Mount opening with the consoling words of blessing doesn’t seem so consoling any longer, does it? The tone is no longer “blessed are you,” but a removed distant “blessed are those.” And in this remoteness resonates the question: “Am I the one, Sir?” It resonates in our hearts and minds as it did with the disciples, even the disciples. On which side of the great divide are we, blessed or cursed, apart from all the sanctity? Or have we forgotten the prophecy of Simeon, at the Presentation of Our Lord: “This child has been destined for the falling and the raising of many.” (Lk 2:34)

In an address about the state of the world delivered in 1982, Alice Walker remembers a curse prayer of an African-American woman that was recorded by Zora Neale Hurston. And she concludes her analysis with these words: “Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it. In any case, Earth is my home-though for centuries white people have tried to convince me I have no right to exist, except in the dirtiest, darkest corner of the globe. So let me tell you: I intend to protect my home. Praying-not a curse only the hope that my courage will not fail my love, But if by some miracle, and all our struggle, the Earth is spared, only justice to every living thing (and everything is alive) will save
humankind, And we are not saved yet. Only justice can stop a curse.”

Yes, we are not saved yet. We are not blessed yet. But justice can stop a curse. And it is this justice that makes us blessed, it is this justice that saves. This justice which we don’t invent, the justice we don’t administer, the justice we don’t create. It is the justice we receive. It is the righteousness in which we participate by the power and the wisdom of the one who has become justice for us. It is the new concept of justice, where, to use Martin Luther’s words again, “Justice is to know Christ.” To know Christ! But where can we know Christ? In our little canon within the canon that we so like or maybe in Chalcedon? Or should we go on a quest for the historical Jesus? Or should we take a different route and find him in the proclamation and
teaching of the community?

To know Christ is to know him in the suffering, in the cross, in the crosses of this world. To know Christ is to know him in the lives and in the deaths of those whom the justice of God raises with the promise: “You are right,” when they have always been said to be wrong. To know Christ in the crosses of this world, is to know Christ in the lives of those in whom the wisdom, the Sophia, of God grades them with the gift “you truly know,” when they have been said to be fools; it is know Christ in the lives of those whom the power of God raises with the trust “in you there is strength,” when they have been deemed weak. Behold the justice of God in the silence of the broken body. Behold the wisdom of God in the foolishness of those who are despised. Taste and see the power of God in the weakness of pain. Taste and see the embodied God in the bodies
of those impoverished down to the soul and the spirit. Do you taste it? Do you see it where it is not expected to be found; justice bursting out of brokenness; wisdom weaving knowledge in foolishness; and power and strength growing out of weakness? Then, come to the table. Savor the bread and the fruit of the vineyard and enjoy the offerings that we also bring for the eyes to see and for our ears to hear. Come then, “taste and see that God is good; blessed are those who trust in God.” (Ps 34:8) For if you taste and see the power of God raising the weak, the Sophia of God weaving wisdom where none care to look for, the justice of God in the raising of broken bodies, for if you taste this, it is also for you that it has been written:
Blessed are you. Blessed are you.

Jesus has Necrophilia

Acts 2: 5-12
Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and
Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?”

John 20: 19-23
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.”

Preached at Trinity Lutheran Church, Lanark, IL for Northwest Conference pastors’ meeting on May 14, 2008 (Pentecost)
Jesus has Necrophilia!

This is a strange scene describing the gathering of the disciples on the evening of the day of Resurrection. This was the day when the power of God was made manifest in the midst of this world, the power that overcame death and the devil, whose job is to keep the funeral business thriving, caskets closed, and tombs sealed. That day, the first of the week, a tomb broke open and the crucified one, the executed criminal, Jesus of Nazareth, defeated his executioners. And justice was served! On the evening of that day, however, the disciples of this Jesus were locked in; they created for themselves a tomb of defeat for they were overtaken by fear. Fear of the world outside. Fear of the people who would not understand why they were the followers of a loser. Fear that that the big mouth of Mary Magdalene and her story of having seen the Lord resurrected would get around and stir the hatred of those who had executed him. Fear was the disciples’ self-chosen tomb. They chose to play dead. They pretended to be corpses.

Yet Jesus had not only resurrected, but he continues to suffer from a condition that psychologists would diagnose as necrophilia. Jesus is necrophilic, there is nothing that stimulates and arouses him more than corpses. Nothing was more exciting to him than to descend to the dead as we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. And these corpses can be those found in cemeteries, or they can be pretending ones locked up in fear.
It was Jesus’ necrophilia that brought him to that closed up room on the evening of the first day. When Jesus appears in the midst of them they rejoice. Corpses as they were, they seem to be like those dried bones in the vision of Ezekiel that gain sinews, flesh, blood and skin. And like in the vision of the prophet there is something still missing. So Jesus says to them: “Peace be with you.” And we don’t know, but if they were liturgically sound they would have responded: “And also with you,” and they would embrace each other. But here something else happens. Jesus did not embrace anyone. Instead he showed them the still fresh three days old scars on his hand and on his side. Something was still missing. And the disciples did not get it.
Well, Jesus was a teacher. Just a couple of verses before the assigned reading, that is what Mary Magdalene calls him: “rabbouni,” my teacher. Teachers know what a Latin saying has enshrined: repetitio mater studiorum est, repetition is the mother of learning.

So, since they did not get it the first time, Jesus repeats: “Peace be with you.” And to be a good teacher, as he was, he paraphrases what he meant in the first place: “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” In other words: Get out of here; get out of fear. That is what peace means. Get out of fear. That is what it means to practice resurrection.

And as to how that happened we don’t know. And we also do not know what happened in the forty days Jesus was still with them, but ten days later at Pentecost, that is fifty days after the resurrection, the disciples got it. They, apparently, were slow learners. It took them fifty days for the lesson to sink in. On the fiftieth day after they heard the shortest sermon Jesus ever preached, they were all gathered again. But this time it was not a locked up room. It was a public place, so public as to attract people coming from all over
the known world at the time. Pentecost is one of the three most important holidays in the Jewish calendar, a day of pilgrimage to Jerusalem by Jews from all over the world. And there they were to saw those disciples of Jesus that finally got out of the closet, the tomb of the closed up room upstairs. So, now they were out, exposed to the very people they had feared so much before. Now there was no fear; now there was no hiding.

What happens is an amazing story about being blunt and exposed. These two texts should be read together as they are in the Bible, just two pages apart. Jesus spirited them and now they are out very much like wind and fire, uncontrollable. They are just out there and people gather, and church happens! Yes, they were speaking in tongues that, presumably, they never knew. Paul recognized this as a charism, a gift of the Spirit, although not the greatest one if it were not interpreted for the whole community. But this is not the point of our text. The point of the text is exactly the opposite. It is not about speaking but about listening: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear them?”

Yes, it was the Galileans that were speaking that day at the gathering in Jerusalem. And Galileans were known as carrying a very strange accent when they spoke the language of the land, Aramaic. People often could not understand them. Speaking in tongues if it is to be a Pentecostal experience needs to be understood by the hearers. If not that particular experience is not Pentecostal, the Spirit is not present there. The presence of the Spirit gives one the courage to go out and express oneself, to truly believe means to communicate, to be able to be heard. It is like saying: “Are these not all Mexicans, or Brazilians, or Indians, or Saudis, or Southerners? How is it that we hear them?”

Pentecost is a feast of harvest, and harvest it was that day when people culled the fruits of the Spirit sown by Jesus on the day the Resurrected met his friends and said unto them: “Peace be with you.”
This is the miracle of Pentecost: listening! Understanding what peace means: rejoicing over justice.

He Comes, Ever Comes

Jeremiah 33:14-16
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
Luke 21:25-36
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also,
when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’

He Comes, Ever Comes

We live by faith not by sight! Right? By faith we live, not by sight, because what we see is dismal, frustrating, disappointing. Or is it really? I was wondering about this gospel text where words like “sign,” “see,” “look” are repeated just about every other verse, and not a single word about faith. Why are we invited to behold and expect to see this apocalyptic cosmic calamity, when we already live by faith? Things don’t look so bad
after all. We believe, and that is more than enough. And every year at this time of advent Christmas décor give colors to the great season, family visits are waited for, a break in a busy schedule is expected, all preparing us to sing Silent Night to welcome the sweet babe Jesus.

So, I ask myself: What is an apocalyptic text proclaiming fear and forebodings doing in a nice cozy season like advent? Have we not seen enough already. Still engraved in our minds are the scenes from the twin towers being hit by airplanes. And where was the triumphant and glorious return of Jesus for us to rejoice? But, thankfully, it did not take long for the media to cleanse the images, keep them out of sight; and faith abides. Yes, we heard about soldiers dying in Iraq or Afghanistan, but the bodies, the caskets were kept from our gaze and orderly interred somewhere and we are spared from the carnage; and faith abides. Yes, precise and clear computer graphs of the plunging market at Wall Street last year were telecast for all to see, but in fact it is not with the same definition that we have seen the actual victims and casualties it brought about; and faith abides. Yes, we might have seen some red lines in our school’s budget and read the announcement of
others being sold and people losing jobs, but we are assured that this is an opportunity to re-invent ourselves while the market bounces back, all the while keeping out of sight the victims and casualties of this war; and faith abides. Yes, we have heard about global warming and watched Al Gore’s documentary telling us of the apocalypse, but we don’t see with the same resolution those who have been first affected, already afflicted, and will continue to be those who will pay the highest price for the carbon monoxide emitted; and yet faith abides.

Yes, we indeed see many things, but are awesomely helped by an engineered tunnel vision aimed at fostering what has been called, “the culture of official optimism.” And the beautiful affirmation that we indeed live by faith not by sight, becomes a mockery, and faith is hope deferred. Monty Python’s movie “Life of Brian,” is a sarcastic parody of the life of Jesus, but in fact is a sardonic commentary on the present culture. At the end
of the movie, Brian, the main character, with dozens of others being crucified start to jingle in chorus: “Always look on the bright side of life.” (If my memory serves me right, those were not exactly the words of Jesus on the cross.) Tradition has it that advent was instituted into the church calendar as a response to the
mockery the small and persecuted Christian communities suffered when people guffawed at them and their apocalyptic imagery, as the one in the gospel of today, saying: “That will never happen, so Jesus won’t come.” The cosmic catastrophe was made into a comic fantasy. And it continues to happen through means and devises that create shows and displays that shield us from seeing the apocalypse now, which means, the revelation of the Christ in the midst of the crises of our days. We are skilled in hiding these crises. We
hide them so that we don’t see them, while being entertained by distractions that keep us from seeing what is indeed happening amidst us where lives are damaged and creation violated.

We need to remember that this text of the gospel presents words of Jesus said on the eve of that great cosmic calamity that we call the Passion, the apocalypse of Jesus Christ, when the very sun lost its light and the earth shook. And that very generation saw happening what had been foretold barely some days earlier. Indeed that generation did not pass until that happened. And the community to whom Luke was writing,
remembering the words of Jesus, was a community living in persecution and martyrdom.

They knew what was being said because they were living what Jesus had told would happen to them as well. That generation also saw what was foretold. The future tense in Jesus’ words on the eve of his passion soon came to pass for him, and the same words became the present tense for the community of the cross to whom Luke was writing. The point of the gospel is no longer the time it will happen, but when is the moment we are ready to see where Jesus the Christ comes, where the Christ event takes place in our midst. In the calamities he comes; in the margins that we hide he comes; in the pain of the world he comes; into the room of an ill child he comes; into prisons and hospices he comes. Even into our tombs or the ashes of our cremation he comes, for he has descended into the dead. Even there he comes, there is advent.

Indian poet of a century past, Rabindranath Tagore could not be more christologically grounded and Lutheran for that matter when he wrote this poem:

Have you not heard his silent steps? He comes, comes, ever comes.
Every moment and every age, every day and every night he comes, comes, ever
comes. Many a song have I sung in many a mood of mind, but all their notes have
always proclaimed, “He comes, comes. Ever comes.”
In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart, and it is the golden
touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.

It takes faith to have sight! It takes courage and attentiveness to see that from which we flee. It takes resolution and alertness not to beautify, to give a face-lift to the apocalypse in the midst of which we live and have our being. It takes indeed the boldness of trust to look at the revelation of the Christ now in every place where the Christ in the flesh indwells, as once it happened in a barn among dunk, flies, stinky animals, not to mention a crying baby with dirty diapers. Indeed he comes and keeps coming and this is what we
celebrate in advent, that which comes and reveals itself in the midst of the apocalypse.

This is the message of advent: It is not “wait in expectation”, but rather awaken, be alert, take heed of the signs of the time and never forget to be attentive to the signs of the places where the apocalypse is taking place, revelation is happening (and not postponed or deferred) because there we meet our God in the flesh, in the stuff of this world. Salvation there is in store for those who because of their faith are able to see. There we meet our redeemer in the midst of the entrails of this world. This is what it means to live by faith not by sight; or rather we live by faith in order to see, not a distraction, but a promise that this generation of you and me will not pass for those who are awake and attentive to see what takes place and trust the glory that comes from the unexpected. Be ready to meet God in the midst of the filth of a barn crying in dirty diapers. God keeps coming; she ever comes. And there is God’s advent, which might be here, beside us. In
this we truly rejoice. And we confess, as Simeon did in looking at the poor little bastard child: “my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.” In this faith there is sight.