Love of a Sinful Woman (Money, Sex, and Power)

Good morning, My name is Lydia. We’ve been in a series called “Training in the studio of LOVE” in the past 7 weeks, talking about love of neighbor, unselfish love of self, love of our world, and we’re wrapping up with love of God today. Training because we think even a simple thing like love, takes practice, we can get better at it, so we’ve been training, working it out, in this studio, so let’s go, on how to love God. Let me read this story from the Bible, I’ll pray and get us started.

Luke 7:36-50 (NIV)

36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”

40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”

“Tell me, teacher,” he said.

41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,[a] and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”

49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”

50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Let’s pray. Loving God, we come to you this morning, longing to experience something bigger than ourselves, curious of what you might have to offer us today. We come into this place, for some of us with great shame and distress, unsure of how we could possibly find love. Or for some of us, things have been so mundane and steady that we’ve become numb and uninspired to the holiness around us. Or for some of us, we’ve been so busy and distracted, it’s nice to just have a moment of quiet. Wherever we are this morning, would you remind us, that you created us in your image, and called it good. That no matter how far you might seem in this moment, that you mean to pursue us with abundant enduring love, and you run toward us to restore us wholly and completely. Would you convict us of that today, perhaps through this story, we pray, Amen.

So, we read this story in a Women’s Bible Study Group I lead last year. It was through a practice called Lectio Divina. Where you read, sit in silence, and reflect. At this particular meeting, after we read, we sat in silence together, waiting for someone to share—holy zoning out I call it. I think I might have said something like, “touching feet, that’s pretty weird.” Cause you know I like being awkward—just saying, it is weird! But then a woman started sharing, that her grandfather had just passed away. She shared how they sat around him in the room in the last few moment before his death. She remembered how irregular his breathing was, and whenever he would stop, they’d all sort of hold their breath together, wondering if he was still “with us”. And as they did so, they would constantly check his feet, because apparently when someone is getting close to passing, the temperature of their hands and feet drop. She remembered lifting the blanket, and touching his feet, checking up on him again and again. She’d never touched someone’s feet like that. It was how they were able to care for her grandfather in that time. What a picture of love and intimacy. Of care, tenderness, and connection. Feet. Touching. Love expressed. Hearts poured, body mended.

What was it that compelled this sinful woman such devotion and release of love? Something utterly and totally took over her being, leading her to this intrusive and courageous act. What caused her to treat Jesus as someone she loved and cared for so dearly and intimately?

She loved because Jesus loved her first. How? What happened? The Pharisee was confused too. Why was she acting like this?  To explain, Jesus tells this story.

A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii,[b]and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?

Last week Ivy used a text about taxes to talk about God’s love. This week, I’m using one about moneylender and debt! Well, I’m not. Jesus is. And there is something here. Why is Jesus telling this story to explain her love? We take this lightly in Christian jargon—Sin, debt, forgive our sins as we forgive our debtors—almost interchangeably. But what is the relationship between sin and debt?

Let’s look at debt first. To be in debt means essentially be tied to, responsible to, one could say even enslaved to the one whom you owe money to. During the housing crisis, people who couldn’t make their mortgage ended up losing their house to the bank. They owned your home. If a house was foreclosed, it’s as if someone died there or something, like a disease that took over the house, a darkness. I had a close friend who ran a fashion boutique for a while, but then during the financial crisis in 2008 had to close down and apply for bankruptcy. Not only was she out of money, but her livelihood, her purpose, her moral, took a hit as well.

The Pharisee in this story calls her a sinful woman. And to most of us we simply think that she must’ve done something wrong or bad. The word sin, not only describes someone who was morally deficient but a sinner was actually “anyone who was outside of the law”. And outside of law meant those who were considered “unclean” and couldn’t participate in the temple rituals. Which include the disabled, slaves, those in debt, even those who just gave birth. According to Leviticus 12, after a son you were unclean for 33 days after giving a son, for a daughter 2 weeks, and you would bring a lamb or a dove for purification. Then you’re clean. Then you are reinstated back into the temple life (which was basically all of life, it’s where the farmer’s market happened, where the festivals were, where you paid taxes—everything). There were many rules that would consider one a “sinner” which would thereby cut you off from the community. Frankly, for the Jews, any Gentile was pretty much a sinner.

And it’s also curious that most people assume this sinful woman was a prostitute, when the text does not say so. Even in the popular bible translation the Message, Eugene Peterson writes, “Just then a woman of the village, the town harlot…” when the original text says nothing about that. Just like the Pharisee here, and pretty much the rest of the religious leaders thereafter, tried to make it about “sin” to exclude people, when the reality was, that was just their way of categorizing someone who is unworthy of a flourishing life. Unworthy of being touched. Unworthy of entering the temple.  Unworthy of power.

Maybe this story of two debtors that Jesus tells isn’t just a hyperbole. Whatever “sinful” state this woman was in, it probably simply meant that she was an outsider with an impossible “debt” to society that locked her in that indebted role. Jesus was saying, whatever debt you think this woman owes, I forgave it. And so of course the Pharisee’s like, who is this guy who think he can “forgive sins” aka “erase debt”. It’s like if I walked up to Sallie Mae and I was like, hey you know all these student loans, they’re fine, it’s taken care of, don’t worry about it. They’d be like, “don’t worry about it?— who are you?”

What if the point of the story isn’t that Jesus forgave her sins, but liberated her from the system of debt that oppressed and kept people locked in their label bracket—”sinner”.

Economy historian Michael Hudson, in his book ...and forgive them their debts: Lending, Foreclosure and Redemption From Bronze Age Finance to the Jubilee Year (what a name of a book!), makes the case that the Bible and Jesus was actually more occupied with debt than sin. And in fact, that’s what got Jesus killed.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, in Luke 4, Jesus stood in a synagogue reading from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,

   because he has anointed me

   to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners

   and recovery of sight for the blind,

to set the oppressed free,

19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

With this he announced the “year of the Lord’s favor”. He was talking about the long tradition of the year of Jubilee. Jubilee was the fiftieth year in which you return the foreign slaves to their home lands and return the property to the original clan. It was the year of debt forgiveness and liberation of slaves. This was Jesus’ mission: “to proclaim the good news to the poor, free the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free.” Jesus came to announce and fulfill the year of the Lord’s favor, mercy and freedom to all. This proclamation of Jesus confused and angered the elites. It was too political. Too dangerous of a uprising, a revolution! And it ended with the execution of Jesus.

And that’s why this was good news to the poor. And again, the word “poor” wasn’t just about people who didn’t have money, but outcasts, foreigners, thieves, ethnic minorities, the sick, the unemployed—the other. Jesus turned the order upside down by telling the story of the debtors, and lifting up the woman to be greater than the Pharisee. Through this story Jesus was reinstating this woman from sinner to a free person, liberating her from the economic system and bringing her back into the fold of the society and community. Jesus was turning classism upside down.

But not only class but gender and sex too. This whole story is actually altogether quite sensual. She’s sitting behind his feet. Crying. She lets her hair down, which in that culture was a no no, and she’s wiping his feet with her hair. Like I said, feet, weird! I guess I’m like the Pharisee, seeing this story, going, “gasp, how could she!?” But Jesus defends her. He sees this very physical sensual moment and doesn’t twist it.  He normalizes her act. He honors it and lets it be, in fact he lifts it up to be the right act.

We twist things like money and sex. Both of them aren’t inherently evil. The love of money is evil. And sex, well the church does a horrible job of talking about sex for the most part, well except, my 2nd or 3rd Sunday at Reservoir was about Patriarchy and Speak Out Sunday about the #metoo movement, but seriously THAT’S so rare. Usually churches are like—sex, just don’t! Unless you’re married, then do. And like that’s about it on sex.

For Jesus to let a woman touch her was crossing gender boundaries. For her to be able to let her hair down and touch him was to respect her sensuality. It wasn’t creepy or weird or awkward. He accepted and received her love and physical expression of that love. What would it be like to see sensual, sexual love as a revelatory metaphor for loving God? It’s like the biblical understanding of God’s love according to the book Song of Songs. Which is actually long erotic love poetry about a man and a woman. Why is this in the Bible? Again and again, it always found its way into the Bible even when some didn’t think it belongs, because God isn’t even really mentioned. The whole book is about sexual desire, and it’s been kept because romantic love is a strong metaphor for how God loves us. (And side note: it doesn’t mean that you can’t know or experience God’s love if you’re asexual or not in a relationship, it’s just one of many metaphors that only help. Like we’ve never had a king but we use that metaphor all the time.)

When we were taught in Youth Group to not date—cause it’s sin—and that Jesus is our boyfriend, I always asked, how do you make out with Jesus? The Bible Study leader didn’t like that question. But jokes aside, what would it be like to see God as our lover—our intimate partner? I think it could be helpful because we think about love or finding the one or romance, a lot in our culture (it’s a bit overemphasized and put on a pedestal—I think that makes the metaphor even more accessible for us, more than a king I’d say!). Could some of the ways we think and feel about romantic love shed light to how we are to be in loving relationship with God? I think so! God seeks intimacy with us. God wants to know us deeply and honors our sexual bodies.

I got this from one of your Instagram, a quote by Rob Bell, a popular pastor—he says, “The word sex comes from this ancient Latin word where something was “sext” – meaning “cut off”. So your sexual energies are your desires to be reconnected with everything you’re here to be connected with. So we in some ways are born in these disconnections and we know they’re not right. And for many people, they’ve been taught that sex is just two people fumbling around rather than sex being the transfer of energies that happens all the time because we’re all longing for connection.”  

God wants to connect deeply with us and seeks to restore our sexuality with the self and with one another, and express God’s love through such connection.

In a new book called Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, she was talking about how churches often use people’s financial giving, tithing, as a sign of spiritual health. And she adds, “Maybe a good sex life—whatever that looks like for who we are as individuals—can also be a sign of spiritual health. As your pastor, I want that part of your life and your relationship to be good. I want your sexual life to be free from fear and shame and to be joyful and true to who you are as individuals, because it is a holy gift from God.”

What would it be like for you to see your sexuality as something God wants to restore, accept, and love? What would it mean for God to affirm your sexuality, healthy and good and I don’t mean just pure—sigh… is feet touching pure? It’s real, it’s bodies, it’s humanity. I’m pressing this point because I think that some of our evangelical history has been not just toxic, but detrimental to our sexuality with things like purity culture. It was like a thing for folks to do a ceremony with young girls and their dads (like that’s weird—why not moms?) and get these promise rings to not have sex. I do believe there were good intentions and wisdom they were trying to get at but it’s also been a cause of so much shame and isolation of our sexualities. Look, sex is complex so I’m not here to lay out a new sexual ethics for us right now but, don’t you see? God is not afraid of your body. So much so that God decided to become a body as Jesus. And be kissed by a woman, with long hair, with oil. And if you’re feeling uncomfortable, I mean, I feel kind of vulnerable talking about this as a woman here to be honest, but we’re all feeling that because we’re human and we have bodies—we’re sexual beings, and we have senses, and that’s okay!

Friends, our finances and our sexuality, money and sex are important to us. And God sees the corruption of our economical system and our sex culture. Jesus was never about be a nicer person, but he was raising the bar on everything and turning whole eco-system upside down. He wants to liberate us from it all, to restore us to freedom, in and with our money and with our bodies. And when we realize that, that’s exactly what happens, freedom and power with our money and our bodies. I should’ve named this sermon, money, sex, and power, because here’s what happens.

This woman, having been so moved by the message of Jesus’ liberation, and being accepted wholly with her full being as a woman, her response was this powerful bold move. She walked into this Pharisee’s house, mixed in with her tears and shame, I just imagine her shaking nervously but also strangely determined to do this. That jar she poured out—they say it might been worth a year’s worth of salary. This was an expensive sacrifice. I mean, I have a nice skin care product from Sephora, a serum, that I got as a Christmas gift. It’s got this fancy dropper, and it’s glass, and every time I use it, I’m like so afraid I’m gonna drop it. Skincare products are so expensive—why, they’ve got little viles costing 100-200 dollars! But her, she was able to generously pour out her precious perfume at the feet of Jesus.

It doesn’t say this in Luke, but this similar story is in each of the 4 gospels and other accounts of the stories actually has her anointing Jesus for his burial. And Jesus points to her and says, wherever the gospel is preached, it will be done so in memory of her.

This story, actually is one that brought me into ministry. I’ll wrap up with my personal story.

At the end of my time at UCLA, I was feeling pretty worthless and defeated. I was actually graduating “late,” I walked the ceremony but had to take like extra 6 classes over the summer to graduate in time, which was a huge source of shame, especially in the Asian culture—you are like considered like, “oh she graduated late, yikes”. I didn’t have a job lined up after college. And part of it was—honestly—I partied a lot. Los Angeles has a way of seeping into your skin, and as a young woman it’s not the best influence. Like, I’m not even a football fan, but a few weeks ago I was like yeah L.A. sucks, go Pats! Beat L.A.! Oh L.A. L.A. L.A. I remember one time, I was hanging out with some girlfriends who were all models, cause that’s what you do in L.A., all tall skinny and beautiful, and it was the funny that got to tag along, they said we were going to some fashion show or something so we got dressed up and ended up somehow all getting into this Hummer Limo. And then I saw at the other end of the limo that they were doing cocaine! I was like—where am I, and had this realization that made me go, I’m very lost. And by the way, we finally got to that “fashion show” and it wasn’t a fashion show at all, but a VIDEO of a fashion show was playing on the screen! I think promoters just called it that to get models to come—so fake. So L.A.  As I occupied myself with the L.A. Thing, going to certain parties that “industry” people showed up—so cool—I became more and more distant to God and stopped going to church. I had once grown up in the church and that’s where I usually had community, but I started to become very isolated.

So when one day I decided to go to church, which I did from time to time if I wasn’t out the night before, and heard a sermon on this story, I just began to sob uncontrollably. It all came crashing down on me—the shame. How that Pharisee talked about her, that’s how I felt. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I was always judged for not being the kind of good quiet Korean Christian girl. I wasn’t shy, I didn’t laugh like this, I’d walk around laughing like this and it confused them. So when Jesus, stood up for her, and said, “do you see her?” I felt so seen by Jesus. I felt embarrassed to even be at church—how dare I, knowing the things I’ve done. I talked to myself like the Pharisee.

Even when I started feeling a call into ministry, I thought, how could I preach from the Bible? People will say, do you know what kind of a person she is? That she is a sinner! And I still feel that. I’m not the most holy person, or the most patient. I’m not that Christ-like and I don’t pretend to be. I really tried to curse less when I first became a pastor, and now I don’t even try. Honestly, it is a scandalous thing that I should be up here preaching the gospel.

But you know what? I’m here for Jesus, and damn it, Jesus says it’s okay for me to be here, to worship him with all my guilt and shame. To sit at his feet and let my hair down. And if I can, since he lets me, I don’t mind bringing all my gifts—my most precious things, my time, my energy, my money to his feet to bring him glory, to honor him, to anoint him. And then as I grew in faith I realized, Jesus wasn’t just forgiving me my sins but turning everything new. It was bigger than my own personal moral failings. God was changing the economy, racism, sexism, and that gave me greater hope with greater audacity to serve. Like her, I wanted to anoint the feet of Jesus. And I thought, well the Church is the body of Christ. Maybe I can serve there, and that would be okay.

Will you let God see you? Will you come sit at the feet of Jesus, no matter what anyone else might say? My invitation to you this week is that you try doing that. Come to the feet of Jesus. To the places where others might say, what are you doing! Why are you doing that?

Stories of Jesus interacting with people are powerful because we get to see and experience God’s love for them. Just as this story personally impacted me, there might be a story that God speaks to you through the Scriptures. Try picking a story, maybe a story you’ve heard about, Zachhaeus, or the rich young ruler, or the one where Jesus healed the paralytic. Whichever, here’s what I suggest to people often. If you’re not sure what’s in the Bible, google it! And then go look up the text in the BIble, and read it slowly. Let it wash over you and enter into that story. You can try that Lectio Divina, with the guide in your program. Let God enter into your whole being: your mind, your heart, your body, your everyday life, and know that God loves every bit of it and wants to restore and transform it completely. Will you let God do that?

Let’s pray:

Holy and Gracious God, You have created us good. And then things got kind of complicated, with our own mistakes, systems and culture. Would you take over every part of us that is broken or tainted and bring it back to your original intent. We long for that loving healing power in our lives. Spirit would you move in us to see and experience that love, that we may be humbled and kneel before you, with all that we are, ready to serve as you call us to do. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Come down to the feet of Jesus. To the humble places. To the dirty work, and make it holy. Anoint the least with your presence. Notice the unpleasant places and try engaging it. Pick up trash and throw it away. Do something that is unglorious, behind the scene, that no one cares about.

Spiritual Practice of the week:

Try doing a reading of Scripture in the practice of Lecito Divina (holy reading).
Here’s how:
  1. Read the text aloud once. Simply receive and notice the story. What word or phrase stood out to you?
  2. Read the text a second time. Analyze what’s going on. What do you have questions about? What did you notice further?
  3. Read the text one last time. What came up for you personally as you read the text?
End the time with some silence to bask in your experience.

What Do You Think?

I’m so glad that Kaiti and Steph were able to share this morning about Soccer Nights. I’ve got to say that Soccer Nights is one of my all time favorite weeks of the year, and for a lot of the reasons we’ve been exploring in this series of love. It’s such a picture of God’s love, which we will get to a lot more of in just  a minute!

But first I’d love to welcome you here in this space right now.

I’m not sure how your weeks have gone.

I’m not sure if they were pleasing, or nondescript, or particularly bad.  Or a mixture of all.

I’m not sure how much you want to release, or let go of as you sit here today, or how important it is for you to hold tightly to things that you are cherishing, or that you need.

And I’m not sure why you are here.

Maybe for some of you, you can quickly detail the reasons you are here: the music, the kids’ team, the prayer, community, the amazing sermons ;).

Maybe you are here out of obligation, whether internal or external

Maybe you are here and you don’t know why—God, and faith, have been lost on you for quite some time.

Maybe you are here because there are bagels and coffee. Not a bad angle.

Maybe you are here because the love of God is felt and is easy here, and you need easy, because you are tired.

Maybe the best you can say this is morning is— “ya know what? I’m just here, let’s just leave it at that.”

And in all that I want to welcome you here and now.

We are in our 7th week of our sermon series, called Training in the Studio of Love. Next week is our last week in this series, and our pastor, Lydia, will be up to round out the series! Our series was inspired by Brian McLaren, a long-time friend and writer and pastor. He has encouraged churches to take a fresh look at perhaps one of the greatest “calls” for us—not only as followers of Jesus, but a call for us as human beings who walk this earth—the call to love.  The fact that he suggests we might need a curriculum of sorts for “love”—might in some ways feel a little elemental and also pretty redundant, right?  “Yes – yes – life of love, posture of love, lead with love, etc… I get it, of course.” But I think he’s hitting at something in there, and it’s also something Jesus kept showing us, too, throughout scripture. We can read that he talked and taught a LOT about love— so many of his stories and parables, and also his endless actions, demonstrated this very powerful thru-line of love. He loves the eunuch, the prostitute, the woman at the well, Zaccheus, to love himself, his prosecutors, the vile, the dirty, the cast away,  right up until death.

Jesus bombards us with these pictures of love. And in some ways, I can think that we are meant to be taught something new in each setting—some new content. This is likely true to some extent, but I also think that he’s giving us that abundant picture to remind us, to invite us to see just how many opportunities we have to love in our days—reminding us that we have all the content we need, as many stories, and as much parable potential through people and earth, here and now, (as Jesus did), to love.

And yet we have the tendency to compress the greatest commandment to, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. AND love your neighbor as yourself,”  down into bite-sized chunks. We are inclined to gather the content in our life that we deem “loveable” and strain out the that which we don’t.

I think I’ve done this unconsciously as much as consciously, as I’ve run up against rifts and division and hate that vie for my attention and heart, as much as our opportunities to love.  As I do this, I succeed in augmenting where I see the image of God.

No longer is the image of God as readily found in my neighbor for example.  The greatest commandment is now sliced up into short phrases. I “love my neighbor” over here in my week, I make time to love myself on this day of the week,  “I love God” during this slice of my day—and it’s no longer this continuous, flowing expression of my life. The commandment has become disjointed in my lived experience.

This is why McLaren and Jesus’ age old call to love is not redundant. It is not elemental, but crucial and necessary. It is what our last few weeks of this series has hoped to call out, that to fully experience the love of God is to push against our tendency to disconnect the love of God from our lived life, and instead be reminded that love of neighbor, selfless love of self, and love of our environment are all one, and are the means to this great love. It’s a whole package deal—one that Jesus calls LIFE and perhaps what he meant when he said,
I have come for you to have (and live), life – and have it abundantly”.  Connected— to see the full stretch of my love—all throughout your lived life.

The challenge in this—and this is what I want to spend more time talking about today—is that we have to keep thinking about why this matters—why love matters. Love can become a word that loses it’s depth—it can fall into disrepair in our human landscape. We need to be deeply convinced at a feet-to-the-ground, face-to-face-neighbor level that love can be readily found in all of our spaces and offer healing and transformation to ourselves and the world.

Relying On Another’s Voice

Thinking is what will  keep the love of Jesus expanding beyond the constraints of Sanctuary walls and church systems—preachers mouths and worship sets—and expanding into your much-lived places and much-filled heart, and beyond.

If we can enter into this studio of love (which I think is actually our lives), and train there, then I think we can see this as spiritual formation and growth in its purest and loveliest sense—not for our own measure, but for the measure and reforming and reshaping of the world and people around us in love.  Aided by our great Christian tradition with prayer, scripture and spiritual practices, but powered by the life we actually live and experience, here and now.

A couple of years ago I made a tiny tweak in my life for a stretch of time.  I stopped listening to podcasts and to some extent stopped reading any books/essays/articles/etc.

I was listening to a variety of podcasts on my way to work —mostly spiritual/faith-centric ones that offered a bunch of unique commentary/thoughts and viewpoints, of course, on a myriad of scripture and theology, and they were mostly great! But I found myself beginning to lean on these voices as a primary means of acquiring knowledge.  *(Now there’s many, many ways I think it’s super helpful to integrate/compliment our own thinking with others viewpoints—it’s how we discover our blind-spots and expose our biases).  But as a means to knowledge this road I was on started to X-out my own voice, my own thinking, and X-out the value of my lived experiences in life as content and knowledge.

I’d find myself in conversations or meetings saying, “well I heard so-and-so say this pithy thing on a podcast a few days ago.” Or I read this essay on “xyz theology.” And I couldn’t follow up with “and those thoughts relate to my life, in this way” or “that perspective makes me think about my neighborhood in this way.” So my words were more “statements of thoughts” just deposited in a space (but not really alive).

The detriment for me was that I had muted the convivial listening with the world and with Jesus, who I believe is always asking “Well Ivy, what do you think about that?” “why does it matter”?  “Who does it affect?” And this is detrimental because “What do you think?” is an intimate question of Jesus to us, and one that is the authentic means to not only knowledge but to love.

And so I started reading poetry almost exclusively.

And after a stretch of time I bounced back, “I read again!” And I had a more refined picture that everyone and everything I encounter on this Earth is an opportunity to love God more.  And that what I think of all these experiences only electrifies that love of God.

I was reminded of that season recently as I was riding in a car with a long-time friend over Christmas this year. She was talking about her own journey in her faith community, excited about the idea of forming a “women’s ministry” – and hanging in the air around the conversation was perhaps the (unspoken), larger question of just what a woman’s role in the church should be. Her faith community currently has no women on the Board, as deacons or as preachers. And it was interesting because, our conversation bounced from what her white, male Pastor thought about women in leadership, to the reality that there are a lack of women mentor’s in the community, to the seminary books that she was hearkening back to, that offered her interesting thoughts and truths to wade into her internal process of just what is a woman’s rightful place.

It was clear to me that the question, “What do you think?”, was not a comfortable question. External knowledge found in books and other’s voices was more credible.

I wish I had asked her, “What is your lived experience as a woman?”  What do you notice about women who are not given platforms for their voices to be heard?  Why do you think there might not be women mentor’s in your community? What do women around you who are pastors (like me in this car, with you right. now.) think? What have they experienced? How have they wrestled with what scripture says?

“What do you think?” is a bold and direct question—slices right to the heart, if we let it, as much as the head.  And if we frame it as a question that helps us lift our head and look around and engage with the life next to us, it becomes not a question that rests on a separate doctrine or theology (where we might think only Jesus is found), but becomes a generative question that is born and explored from exactly where you stand – and where lo’ and behold Jesus is too.

Conceptual and Relational Belief

The interesting thing about what we think – is that it can quickly be tied into systems of belief… that can take on a life of it’s own – as well as take on our thoughts as no longer produced out of lived experience, but taken on as an immovable creed or doctrine.

Here, I think it’s helpful to talk a little bit about conceptual and relational beliefs (Spiritual Migration, McLaren 216).

Brian McLaren says that conceptual beliefs are beliefs that are often easily expressed as statements or propositions, and when expressed in a sentence, are often right alongside the word that. My long-time friend in my previous story might say, “I believe that women can not be in church leadership.” Or “I believe that the headship of a church is only represented by the male gender.”  Or “I believe that hell exists” or “I believe that miracles can happen” – etc… and it’s a stake, a claim that something is real, true or in existence.

In contrast, relational beliefs are often followed by the preposition in. And they are less statements and more birthed out of a personal authenticity—lived experience that offers a confidence and sense of loyalty which permits thoughts like, “I believe in you,” “i believe in scripture,” “I believe in peace,” “I believe in my kids,” etc.

It can get complicated pretty quickly—religion or churches for example often demand statements of conceptual belief as proof of loyalty or belonging. And furthermore might offer rewards or punishments based on conceptual beliefs (acceptance or rejection—honor or shame—employment or unemployment—life or death, heaven or hell) .

This gets us into the territory of replacing conceptual beliefs as a construct over our own thinking caps.  Placing a thin, invisible barrier in our minds between the beauty and the goodness and the value of the world around us, and constricting our own experience of God’s love.

Relational beliefs allow for this question, “What do you think?” In fact to some degree they are built on this, and therefore the freedom and the health that this affords an individual and a congregation if we are talking along systemic lines allow for a foundation of LOVE.  It allows us to stay in the car together and see the passenger next to us, sort of speak!

Without freedom of thought, we offer and experience only an impoverished love.

Jesus invites us to love. And much of his ministry is spent trying to expand the systems of his day – beyond the conceptual beliefs that so many of the religious experts of his day rest on. At one point he says to these religious experts –  “How terrible it will be for you…. You give to God a tenth of mint, dill, and cumin, but you forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith. You ought to give a tenth but without forgetting about those more important matters. 24 You blind guides! You filter out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23:23-24)
Oh, how I love it when Jesus talks about gnats and camels!

Here maybe we can see the conceptual beliefs for these religious experts is to uphold the belief that one should give away a tenth of their belongings to God… but it comes at the expense of a relational belief in people!  Where real issues of  justice, peace and faith play out.

You can’t have conceptual beliefs and X-out all the relational beliefs and say you are truly “loving” God, lest we choke on our own…

Is love present?  Is love felt? In a system that erases the eye for our world, what do you think? And how do we think in this vein if we don’t engage an active, living posture to the world around us?

I think this is what Jesus keeps prompting us with – through all his provoking and quirky words, actions and relations, “Can we imagine a christianity of the future that gathers around something other than a list of conceptual beliefs?” (McLaren) – A question he posed to the religious leaders of his day – and one that he still poses to us now…

Let’s take a look at one of the most beautiful, obvious scriptures that is abundant in God’s love for us – and the world at large:

Scripture:  Matthew 17:24 – 27 (NLV)

24 On their arrival in Capernaum, the tax collectors for the Temple tax came to Peter and asked him, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the Temple tax?”

25 “Of course he does,” Peter replied.

Then he went into the house to talk to Jesus about it.

But before he had a chance to speak, Jesus asked him,

“What do you think, Peter?

Do kings tax their own people or the foreigners they have conquered?”

26 “They tax the foreigners,” Peter replied.

“Well, then,” Jesus said, “the citizens are free! 27 However, we don’t want to offend them, so go down to the lake and throw in a line.  Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a coin. Take the coin and pay the tax for both of us.”

Right?  Isn’t this your go-to scripture when you want to be reminded of God’s love for you? Hmmmm… taxes and fish and coins!

Let me tell you there are no pithy thoughts out on podcasts, or scholarly commentary about this coin in the fish mouth scripture.

The context here is that:

Peter has just come down from the mountain with Jesus, where he’s witnessed the transformation of Jesus.  He watched as Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes turn white – and a voice from God, booming from the clouds said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him” (Peter fell on his face in awe)

It’s a pinnacle moment—confirming his loving relationship to Jesus, the human who he’s walked alongside, and linking it to the mysterious love of God.

It’s a moment for Peter, that maybe is akin to one of your more potent spiritual moments in life—where you have felt as though you are on a mountain top, so close to God and God so close to you, that that love and that experience feels almost unbelievable.

Only of course to be interrupted by the real facts of life—a phone call, a time constraint, someone tugging at you, needing something from you, or, as in Peter’s case, a tax collector.

A tax collector asking for payment to the temple in Jerusalem that most Jewish men are meant to pay for its’ upkeep.

This moment of intimacy and love of God, felt by Peter on the mountain top, likely dissipates pretty quickly.

And we see here in these verses, I believe the dynamic again of conceptual belief and relational belief  on the table – with the question at hand – should Jesus and his followers have to pay this tax?

Peter’s impulsive answer is “Yes – of course my teacher pays the tax”.  “I believe that all Jewish men should pay the temple tax”.

An answer that Jesus doesn’t seem to disagree with …….  but what follows in the text, I believe is a deeply powerful move, that demonstrates Jesus’ love and value of each of us – to keep THINKING.  To keep thinking about the conceptual beliefs that we impulsively answer to …. And to also hold, to not overlook or x-out, the relational wonder-land of Jesus’ love in front of us….

“What do you think, Peter?”  It’s an invitation I believe that is going to help Peter see that the mountaintop experience, is available in all his settings – even the most mundane and annoying.

Everyday Sacred Spaces

And the same is true for us.
At the end of the summer, I was watering in an Outdoor Classroom that I teach in – at our local school.  And I was feeling mostly tired, hot and annoyed – and I was in a rush to get to an appointment. And of course out of the corner of my eye I could see an older woman, likely in her 70s, coming toward me. I tried very, very hard  – in my most loving posture – to not make eye contact with her… She was pretty determined thought to get my get my attention, “Excuse me – can you help me? Excuse me! Can you help me, please?” (insert internal groan)…

I turned and saw that she was carrying a large piece of a lawnmower in her hands.  As she’s walking toward me, she’s explaining that she’s trying to get the grass collection bag over the handles, but can’t quite muster the strength. <insert another internal groan>…  We wrestled for the next few minutes to get the piece connected and in that short, divine window I gained a more expansive view of who God is and where God’s love can be discovered. I learned about her life, her grown kids (who 35 years ago went to this very same elementary school), how her hands use to be so much stronger, how she mows her lawn every week, how she loves watching kids walk by her house to school,  how the guy on the phone from the hardware store gave her a pro-tip, a short-cut to getting this bag on the handles, which was to “turn the lawnmower bag inside out to swiftly get it on” (ummm….. great!).

If GOD’S LOVE, at its core is about connection of all things (neighbor, self, earth) – that this is what allows for our sense of belonging….then my hope is that the intersectionality of where I encounter God and where I encounter people is all the content and all the knowledge, that I need for an experience of God’s love.   We are yearning and eager to be seen and known and included.  And – as we keep thinking – I believe we are quick to sniff out spaces that offer a system only of conceptual beliefs.

About mid-way through my assembly of this lawnmower with this 70-year old woman, I noticed that we were putting the grass bag on completely wrong (despite the hardware store dude’s advice on the phone).  But I didn’t want to stop the process and correct it. I wanted to follow this error all the way through, until we both realized it together and had to re-calibrate and start the process all over again together.   I wanted more time to laugh at us struggling to make sense of the plastic snaps, and more time to hear the grunts and groans as we tugged and pulled, and more time to watch our hands together – strong and weak, old and young(ish) – create something together, even though in the end it was completely nonfunctional. I realize again and again in moments like these – on sidewalks, lawnmowers in hand, in the most inconvenient moments of life – that I can find a living, breathing sanctuary in the form of another human being, in the midst of the most expansive sanctuary – our Earth,  and this is where I find – I want to keep thinking – where I go for knowledge… in these everyday, sacred spaces.

Paidrag O’ Tuama, an Irish poet says that “belonging creates and undoes us both”.  …likely follows I think the same sentiment of love…. It creates and undoes us both.

Jesus wants Peter to be undone by his love… in all of life.

Peter’s quick reply to the tax collector, might have signaled to Jesus that the tendency of his thinking might veer more conceptual than relational and that a mountain-top experience could be compartmentalized in Peter’s mind as a distinct experience, under special circumstances.

It seems by Jesus’ next move, that a conceptual God is not the image that Jesus is interested in putting out in the world.

Not only does Jesus ask Peter this most loving question, “What do you think?” as a way to bridge the conceptual and the relational systems.

He then guides him a bit in how to get to thinking…, “GO OUT”, he says.  “Go to the lake, go to the shore – go fishing”. A place Peter, as a fisherman knew incredibly well.

The places we know so well where we work, live and play, it seems, are teaming with not only God’s deep love, but also miracles.

Ok—let me jump to one other personal story and then circle back to flush out why I think the miracle of Peter finding the exact tax needed for both him and Jesus – in the coin in the fish’s mouth is one of the most understated miracles.

Surprised By Humanity

Swim meets are interesting events.  You sit in a very, very moist and warm environment – very, very, very close to other human beings for many, many hours.  You watch your own swimmer, maybe swim for a combined time in all their races, of 48 seconds. 🙂

It’s a pretty solitary experience as a spectator though – most people have their own racer they are waiting to watch and otherwise mostly disengaged for the majority of the time.   Inevitably though there is a moment in a swim season – where a swimmer gets put in the wrong race, or a swimmer’s goggles fall off on the start, or for whatever reason hasn’t been trained well for the race they are in … and the result is often that this swimmer, is far, far behind the rest of the heat.

What I’ve noticed in these moments, is that somehow the collective attention of the entire arena becomes stilled and hushed, as people notice this lagging swimmer.

It’s not just the stillness in my experience… it’s then the eruptive cheering, clapping and screaming that is explosive in the space – that has pulled people’s attention out of their books or knitting.

We have NO idea who’s kid this is – or what team they are swimming for… and it doesn’t matter! Your sweaty shoulders – and this person’s sweaty shoulders – are leaping from our seats – CHEERING this kid on to their finish.. Like they have just won the Olympics.

Everyone becomes awake and alive again to what is infront of them!  And I look around and think “i’m not crying – you’re are crying”.. .and then I look around and  I see – “oh jeez, you are crying”… “and you are crying, too”! Etc…

What is this?  What is this sensation of being swept off of my feet into goodness and beauty with 100’s of strangers, in unassuming spots and being surprised by humanity?”

Jesus I think says – “oh yeah, that’s the treasure… that’s the coin/treasure in the mouth of your EVERYDAY fishing zones”.

As we THINK, As we become awake with our hearts, and minds and souls – with lived experience as our data and content…. We start to perform the miracles of today…. BECAUSE we transform ourselves and the way we see and engage with the  world around us… that it can not be merely just a place to inhabit, but instead the world around us is this living sanctuary, breathing and pulsing with Jesus’ deep love.

Sanctuaries free of walls – FULL of GOd’s love – found on pool decks and in gardens and at desks and hospital rooms, and found through the human sanctuaries in our midst at every turn.

Here disconnection and judgement crumbles.

And these ways of thinking about and experiencing God – don’t come with a risk of compromising Jesus or Scripture… It doesn’t suggest that we need to have a wholesale rejection and replacement of any prior system.  Each new discovery of God – “includes or integrates its antecedents, even as it transcends or expands beyond them. When Moses is given the Ten Commandments, he doesn’t say that Abraham’s religion was wrong because he didn’t have them. And when Solomon builds an elaborate temple of stone he doesn’t say Moses’s religion was wrong b/c he only had a tent of cloth…and so on is the pattern throughout scripture… which suggests that religion should expand, evolve and learn and grow… the same is true with Jesus – right?  He came not to eradicate the law – but to fulfill what came before him “ (p. 103).

God’s love takes care of all that, as we see it in its expanse—it creates and undoes at the same time.

Jesus, I believe sends Peter out to fish.. To show just this – that Jesus can still operate within the constrains of everyday life, taxation included – and with conceptual beliefs present… But his love and intimacy expands beyond systems, won’t be threatened by law – and is EVER-EXPANDED as we think, move and live our lives.

HOW DO WE DO THIS? How do we keep thinking?  How do we know if we’ve stalled? Or are caught up in compliant responses?

Peter gives us the shining hint….in his move right after he answers the tax collector….as compliant and impulsive as it is – … it seems he has this relational twinge within himself..  And it says he “went into the house to talk to Jesus about it”.


That’s the bridge right there… that’s the lightning moment  “Jesus I have to talk with you about something”.. IT KEEPS US CONNECTED TO THE SOURCE OF ALL LIFE.

And likely, most times he’s going to say “What do you think?”, and point us right back to our very life – but boy, oh boy, you better be ready for a miracle in the middle of it…

After these two stories I just told, it could be easy to walk away and say “wow, that was a sweet moment, with a sweet older woman – I’m so moved, I’m so grateful”.  “Wow, what an incredible collective response in an ordinary setting, a swim race”. And call it a day. Maybe share it with a friend or two.

OR I could walk away from those ordinary encounters (that by the way are abundant in their opportunities)… and say “HOLY JESUS”!  “HOLY, HOLY LOVE of JESUS”!

And that’s the coin in the fishes mouth, my friends – THAT”S the miracle of today. Truly.

To think – to talk to Jesus about it – and to see THAT JESUS LOVE IS IMMERSED IN EVERY. EVERY think we touch – -the earth, the people, ..

This lawnmower woman undid me.  The pool moment undid me.

All of our moments have the Jesus potential to create and undo – it’s His specialty, I believe.  He invites us again and again, “what do you think?-IT IS THE underlying QUESTION OF LIVING”. Roam around in that question my friends… feel joy… feel strength, feel perplexed, feel awkward, feel connectedness… feel time sharpen and slow…..   But above all be prepared to FEEL Peter’s mountaintop experience of God’s love.

“What do you think?” It’s a blunt question  – one that doesn’t beg for devotion, but one that drives straight to the heart…….  To your true self, a question that demands authenticity. It’s a question, that I wish my friend could have asked me in the car.  “Ivy what do you think about the role of women in the church?”

Maybe we could have discovered the treasure//the miracle in the midst of us.. The bridging of our conceptual and relational viewpoints..and see that Jesus is big enough to cover us both.

Maybe I might have answered, in concrete ways from my lived experience and maybe, I might have invited her to look at Scripture too, to see the Bible, not just as an “answer book”, but as a book that invites us to think and to explore the world around us – here and now.

A rich text that encourages us to deepen our moral imagination so that we can co-create a new future – in partnership with so many for this next generation!  For the youth that are watching her move and think and live ….

As Jesus continues to teach us –  may we strive hard to bombard this next generation with stories, parables, actions, invitations to think …  of Jesus’ great powerful, mysterious and altogether wondrous love.

And may we implore our next generation to think from their own vantage points on the mighty words of Jesus, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”

An Invitation to Whole-life Flourishing:

Ask yourself, “what do I think of that? What does that mean, and why does that matter?” as a regular practice of love; love of neighbor, self and God.

Spiritual Practice of the Week:

Practice the prayer, “here”.

Word “here”.

“Here”.  I’m here, God. You’re here. We are here together”.

Staying awake to God’s presence and love—which is above me, before me, behind me, beside me, beneath me and within me, as the old Celtic blessing puts it.

Full Prayer of St. Patrick:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven;

Light of the sun,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of the wind,

Depth of the sea,

Stability of the earth,

Firmness of the rock.


I arise today

Through God’s strength to pilot me;

God’s might to uphold me,

God’s wisdom to guide me,

God’s eye to look before me,

God’s ear to hear me,

God’s word to speak for me,

God’s hand to guard me,

God’s way to lie before me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s hosts to save me

Afar and anear,

Alone or in a multitude.

Christ shield me today

Against wounding

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in the eye that sees me,

Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today

Through the mighty strength

Of the Lord of creation.

Liberation in the Land: A Reading of Exodus for the Ecological Crisis

I am honored to be with you on this Sunday morning. Over the last 14 years, beginning with the wake up call of what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, God has helped me to see the crucial connection between our lives and the life of the planet. And in the past few years I have become so deeply aware that the liberation of all people cannot happen without restoring the delicate balance of creation. Furthermore, we will not be able to stop the degradation of our planet without addressing the systems of injustice that not only lack respect for the sanctity of water, of plants—but of human beings. I want to thank the leadership of this house who have created the space for me to share what God is speaking to me.

The reality is that this sermon is the beginning of a sermon series which, God-willing, will someday become a book. The series looks at the first 20 chapters of Exodus as a way of understanding the times in which we find ourselves. I promise that I will not try to fit all 6 sermons into this one sermon, but I hope it will give you an overview of how I have come to see God anew in these chapters in Exodus. If our goal is to facilitate the kindom of God on Earth, I would like to suggest that we need to examine the text anew and see what it can say to us for this time.

I also want to issue a disclaimer. This sermon started with my looking at the plagues in Exodus to think about how they connected to our current environmental crisis. I started this sermon, as I do all sermons, with a deep dive into the socio-political context of that time. I did not seek to add or subtract anything from the text. However, if you see any uncanny correlations between their context and ours, well…

I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In our tradition we don’t see any separation between our daily lives and what some people might label to be “political.” As the descendants of slaves, we know that the “political” sphere impacts every part of our lives including our freedom to worship God and to be acknowledged as children of God.

Every Biblical prophet speaks about the politics of their time as does Jesus. I say this because, while the message I am going to deliver is completely in line with the Black church tradition I grew up in, I have had the opportunity to talk to many white pastor colleagues and learned that what is considered normal in my tradition is more controversial in some Caucasian church communities. I was taught in my AME preaching class that the job of the prophet is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. So if folks feel uncomfortable please don’t blame Pastor Steve.

I know that you all have been focusing on the topic of Training in the Studio of Love. This is also Black History Month and so I have chosen a passage for this morning which is one of the central passages in the Black Christian tradition – the book of Exodus. In exploring this text I approach it from the perspective of Cornel West who says that justice is what love looks like in public. I will say that again: Justice is what love looks like in public.

This morning I invite you to meditate on the topic, Liberation in the Land: A Reading of Exodus for the Ecological Crisis.  

Please turn with me to Exodus 1:8-14

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites

They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

‭‭Exodus‬ ‭1:8-12, 14‬ ‭NIV‬‬

This passage sets the stage for what is one of the most important stories in the Biblical tradition. This story is central to the Jewish faith, and it has also been a foundational text in the Black Christian tradition, because it speaks to a people who find liberation from the dehumanizing conditions of slavery—a people who have been told in both subtle and explicit ways that their lives do not matter. Our text starts with the rise of a new king in Egypt. It says that the king did not know Joseph, which is to say that the king did not know his history. See, Joseph was a Israelite who came to Egypt in chains and rose to be the right hand of the Pharaoh. Joseph was the Vice President, the Secretary of the Treasurer, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Chief of Immigration rolled into one. It was because of Joseph’s attention to God that Egypt was saved from the famine that beset many surrounding kingdoms. Another sermon in this series explores how the intervention of Joseph creates the economic prosperity in Egypt that allows this new king to ascend into a prosperous nation. Maybe he imagined that he had risen by pulling himself up by his own sandal straps. We can’t be sure, but for the purposes of this morning we notice that the fact that this new King didn’t know Joseph is a clear sign that the King really didn’t know much about his history or how he got to the place he was.

So this King rises to power and he is not interested in listening to Joseph. When he looks at the Israelites he doesn’t see them as great neighbors or productive citizens, he does not recognize all the ways that have contributed to Egyptian society, but instead in Exodus 1:9 the pharaoh exclaims, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more power than we. Come let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape the land.”

What led Pharaoh to see the Israelites this way? The scriptures do not speak of some precipitating event, but we can surmise that it could have been that a slump in the economy made people start asking about whether they should have to spend their tax dollars to educate Israelite children. Or it could be that Pharaoh was just a skillful politician who realized that fear-mongering and nativism could help him to win more support from his base. I believe we can understand the motivations of the King based on a textual clue: in verse 8 he is described as a king but by verse 11 he is called a pharaoh. We often use the words interchangeably, but a king is a ruler. Whereas the term pharaoh can be loosely translated “great house”, a pharaoh does not just rule the people, he projects his power through his familial dynasty and through the building of great edifices, and to this day people go to see the amazing structures built by the pharaohs. So this slight change of description leads me to believe that this man was not just about ruling the people but he was set to make a name for himself with the biggest structures he could build; he would cover the region in his pyramids and temples—you know, the ancient version of towers. In verse 11 it mentions that Pharoah immediately set the Israelites to building the garrison cities of Pithom and Rameses.

Publicly, the Pharaoh states that his motivation for enslaving the Israelites was for reasons of national security—that the Hebrew population was dangerous. They were having so many babies and they might rise up to be a weapon of mass destruction within Egyptian borders. Yes his stated reason was to put Egypt first, and to keep Egypt safe from the invading hoards. But if I can be honest I surmise that it was really free labor, that was his motivation. I mean let’s be realistic, how was he going to complete these massive construction projects if he was constrained by paying a living wage? How could he become a great ruler with massive structures bearing his name if he didn’t cut a few corners in the labor department? Driven by his desire for fame and fortune, Pharaoh mobilizes his forces to enslave the Israelites and puts them to work building his new cities. Egyptian “progress” is built on the backs of the Israelites much like American “progress” has always been built on the backs of “foreigners”—stolen African slaves who tilled the soil producing cotton, tobacco and other cash crops, Irish, Polish, and Italian immigrants who toiled in coal mines and wove in textile mills, Chinese laborers who blasted through mountains and laid thousands of miles of railroad tracks, and even now Mexicans, Haitians, and Vietnamese workers who pick crops, catch shrimp and even lose limbs in slaughterhouses.

Even as Pharaoh subjugates and oppresses the Israelites, they continue to have hope. Their hope motivates them to maintain their traditions, their hope gives birth to children and even in the midst of back-breaking labor their numbers keep growing. So Pharaoh decides that to control the Israelites he must decrease their population. He tells the Egyptian midwives, that when they go to deliver a baby that if the baby is male that they should kill the baby. Now I want to take a moment to challenge the efficacy of this strategy. I would assert that if his goal was to have more builders it probably would have made more sense to kill the girls rather than the boys. Furthermore, if his goal was to stop the growth of the people, it makes the most sense to take out the folks who are actually able to give birth. Finally if you want to kill the hope of a people, then in my experience you want to take out the women, because it is often the women and the mothers that speak life into the next generation. It is the women who often hold the spiritual traditions even when the men have lost their faith in God. Pharaoh’s blinding patriarchy leads him to a strategy that devalues women’s lives and asks women to participate in his genocidal project and the Egyptian midwives resist this plan. And even when Pharaoh enlists the entire Egyptian population to participate in this genocide, Pharaoh’s own daughter rescues the Hebrew boy who will later lead his people out of slavery. Throughout this text, women mount a quiet resistance to Pharaoh’s imperial policies. We don’t have time to go deeper into this, but some other day I will share the sermon “The Real Midwives of Egypt – A Story of Subversive Sisters.”

Focused on “progress” and control, Pharaoh had no respect for the lives of the Israelites—the Hebrew people—and there was no limit to his oppression. And yet more than forty years after Pharaoh tried to kill all Hebrew boys, this same baby who was raised in Pharaoh’s house comes back to confront him.  Moses sees the suffering of his people and comes with a divine anointing to confront not just the king but the Pharaoh—the Great House—the system of oppression on which the wealth was created.

And in this story we see something that bears out time and time again in the scriptures and in our own history. We see that any system built on oppression is a system that God will eventually interrupt.       

So despite his many protests, Moses answers the call of God to return to Egypt, reunite with his brother Aaron, assemble the Israelite elders and tell them that he is called by God to confront Pharaoh. And the Scripture tells us in Exodus 5 that Moses says to Pharaoh – “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” While the ultimate goal is the freedom of the Israelites, Moses starts with a simple request that the people be free to worship God in the beauty of the creation. And Pharaoh makes it clear that he does not acknowledge the Hebrew God. Again,, Pharaoh does not remember how it was God, through Joseph, that allowed the Egyptians to survive through famine. All he can see is that if he lets the Israelites go he will have no way of maintaining his building projects. I want to give Pharoah a little bit of credit: maybe there was a piece of him that was slightly charitable, maybe he made donations to children’s organizations or maybe he was good to his top executives, but in the end he had to be clear that his lifestyle and standard of living were built on the backs of others. He saw himself as the ruler, and there really wasn’t room for a God who might put demands on him that would counteract his lifestyle.

Pharaoh would not acknowledge God, he would not turn from his wicked ways, he was more committed to his standard of living than his standard of justice and so when he would not listen to the prophetic words of Moses, God allows the message to come through the creation.

Water into blood (Exodus 7:14-24) Lead and other pollutants in the water
Frogs  (7:25-8:15) Proliferation of invasive species
Lice (Exodus 8:16-19) Lyme disease
Flies (Exodus 8:20-32) Wooly Adelgid eating Hemlocks
Diseased Livestock (Exodus 9:1-7) Mad Cow disease
Boils (Exodus 9:8-12) Zika virus
Thunderstorms of Hail + Fire (Exodus 9:13-25) Hurricanes & Wildfires
Locusts (10:1-20) Drought that swallows up crops
Darkness for Three Days (Exodus 10:21-29) Disintegrating of the Ice Shelves
Death of the Firstborn (Exodus 11:1-12:36) The Unnecessary Death of our Children

These signs give a physical manifestation to the corruption that was already in the soul of the Pharaoh and in the society he was leading. Pharaoh would not—could not—admit to his own moral bankruptcy, so God lets the truth be seen in the natural world. It is only when he loses his son that Pharaoh is finally willing to let the people go. Only when his hubris and stubbornness has caused him to lose the son that he loves. Only then is he willing to relent.

My deep fear is that we too will not get the message until it is too late. Is is possible that our love of comfort will not be broken until we have sacrificed our children on the altar of consumption.

We too have a system where oppression is too often baked into the equation. From mass incarceration to sweatshop labor to education inequity to gentrification our world is filled with so many examples of our disregard for the lives of the least of these. We care so little for those who matter most to God. We have all the resources that we need to feed everyone, to house everyone, to educate everyone—but we steal and we hoard such that people don’t get what they need. God is not pleased and God is making us face our injustice in the groaning of creation.

As each year gets hotter than the last, we have politicians who still question the science of climate. Even as we know that we must transition away from fossil fuels we continue to destroy conservation land—land that is as God made it—to secure our right to cheap oil. Even though Oklahoma had more than 800 earthquakes in 2015 as a result of fracking waste-water disposal, their governor refused to put the safety of the people above the profits of energy companies. As the cost of our lifestyle becomes more and more evident, I wonder what it will take to recognize that an economy built on the profits of the few maintained by the labor of the many that is fueled by stealing the planetary inheritance of future generations, is not an economy worth maintaining? The problem is not climate change; it is our commitment to a system that does not value all of the life that God created—a system that allows us to topple majestic mountains and depress human dignity in the name of “progress” is an unjust system in direct opposition to God’s love.

The responsibility lies not only with our elected leaders but within our communities, as we must make decisions not just for freedom of the individual but for the benefit of the whole. How much disruption has to happen before we consider the folly of our way of living? How many many forest fires will it take before we stop cutting down virgin forests to build McMansions? How many drought warnings will it take to realize that it is not natural to have golf courses in the desert? How much pollution will we breathe in before we question whether we need so many mass produced goods?

Some of us have read this story countless times or watched the movie version and undoubtedly imagined ourselves always in the role of the Israelites. Some of us became congregational leaders or activists, wanting to be like Moses or Aaron or Moses’ mother and sister who saw the vision early on. But this afternoon I want to challenge us to realize the ways that we have also been complicit with the Pharaonic order, the ways that we have aligned our thinking and our habits with “The Great House.” We call out those who are running to be in the Great White House, but are we willing to recognize the ways that we have allowed our minds and our habits to align with oppressive systems?

We denounce the government for going to war but happily fill up our tanks with oil. We call for action on climate change but will not divest our pensions or university endowments from fossil fuel companies. We decry unjust wages but continue to fill our closets with unnecessary cheap goods. Yeah, we cannot speak about Pharaoh without recognizing that as Americans we are often lieutenants in the Pharaonic order even when we don’t mean to be. 

So when the call goes out to pray, to hear from God and to turn from our wicked ways so that God can heal our land – that call is not just to someone else, but to us as Christians and to the church particularly the church in the developed world. We need to examine the ways that we have linked “God’s House” to the “Great House.” How we have cozied up to political figures in ways that stop us from speaking the truth to power. How is our lifestyle in direct contradiction to God’s love of every human being and also every living organism including ones that we can’t even see with our eyes.

We must consider the way that our division along lines of race, class, sexual orientation, and many other fault lines has prevented us from being a prophetic voice for change in the world.

We must challenge our theologies of “blessing” that are really an excuse for over-consuming in ways that are killing our planet and that have us thinking of cheap goods as our “birthright” even when those goods are produced by underpaid and overworked human beings that are supposed to be our brothers and sisters. Or that have us overeating and under-exercising in ways that are causing us to have terrible health outcomes in our community.

Only if we are willing to ask tough questions and take bold moves, if we are willing to consider the lilies of the field, the sparrows, the Lazarus’ at our gate and the needs of future generations, then our loving and forgiving God will create a way of escape for us.

This message is not just for someone else but for me. It was not until I saw the deaths of my people in Hurricane Katrina that I started to realize that it was time to address the ecological crisis. It was when I could imagine my own neighborhood in peril that I started to take up this call. But as I have grown in my love for God’s people and all of God’s creation, I have come to a greater love for my God.

More and more, I have come to see how there is a deep connection between so many of the things that God has called me to work on in the world. Hurricane Katrina really helped me to see this, but the connections have continued to be made clearer to me. One Thursday in October 2016 I was going to the meeting of an interfaith climate group when I got the call that one of my mentees, John Peterson Cesar, had been shot in the head. John I met when he joined the non-profit, Project HIP-HOP, for which I used to be the Executive Director. He was a gifted thinker, speaker and leader and I knew that God had placed me in his life to help him walk away from his street life and into his calling. When I went into the hospital room I could feel that his spirit had left his body and so over the weekend I helped the family through the process of taking him off of life support. The next Monday I flew to Baltimore for the Green the Church conference—a gathering of Black churches concerned about ecology. It was a space where I could see God working to raise up our congregations as a voice for justice, and it lifted my Spirit. Then I flew home to deliver the eulogy at John’s funeral, my first-ever eulogy. The following week, while still working through the pain of his death, I was on a plane to Standing Rock, North Dakota to join a clergy delegation in solidarity with the Oceti Tribe who was standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

I was honored to give an address on behalf of the African-Americans who were there in solidarity. At Standing Rock I was reminded how this battle for the sanctity of water is really about a battle for the sanctity of life—All the forms of life that God has created. God created them and said that they were good and the question is, who are we to go against the word of God? Who are we to decide that some human lives are expendable? Who are we to exterminate a species of bird or reptile because their habitat is the most convenient place to build a strip mall?

It was the lack of love and respect for a great God, the belief that we can be gods that was at the foundation of the Egyptian system. The Pharaonic order then and now is killing our children—sometimes with guns and sometimes with pollution, but the root is the same in a system which lacks respect for God and sees lives as expendable.

Oh Lord my God – The God of Moses and Miriam, of Esau and Esther, of Harriet Tubman and Henry McNeil Turner, the God of my grandmother and the God who watches over me—Oh Lord My God.

When I in awesome wonder Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made – When I recognize that in your infinite wisdom you created this planet, and many others.

I see the stars – I look up and can’t even fathom how you imagine the solar system. In the light and air pollution of the city I forget that you created millions of stars and you know each of their properties.

I hear the rolling thunder – your sign to us that the great rains are coming to nourish the earth, the reminder that you are awesome.

Thy power throughout, The universe displayed – not just in the loud manifestations like thunder but the fact that you created microscopic phytoplankton in the ocean and even though I can’t see them they are producing half of the world’s oxygen. You had the power to create them and me and pull this all together.

Then sings my soul my Savior, God, to Thee – My soul worships you because you deserve all of my praise.

How great thou art – in my life.
How great thou art – in the earth.

Then sings my soul
My Savior, God, to Thee

How great Thou art
How great Thou art

I am so glad that I serve a great God

A great God who can do new things—who makes a makes a way in the wilderness and brings streams in the wasteland. When we let got of the systems of our own devising then we can make space to truly love God, to love each other and to love all of the creation.

Finding Your True Self Again

We are half way through our winter series about the centrality of love the teaching of Jesus. We’re following this sequence that the author Brian McLaren has recommended – moving from neighbor to self to whole world to God. This being our second week on unselfish love of self. We follow this sequence because when we jump right in to Jesus’ first commandment to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, it’s easy for that to be abstract or disembodied. Love of God can be reduced to believing a statement of faith, or to ideas we have in our head about the divine, or to like a really small number of loyalty tests — like if love God, here are the short list of things we do or don’t do.

The scope of this series is meant to ground us in what love really looks and feels like — kindness, generosity, respect, justice, freedom, a holy yearning for the highest good. And it’s meant to ground us in our real communities and lives and settings because, as I like to say, reality is the friend of God. Our present lives and circumstances are the only place we can experience the goodness and love of God, and they are the only laboratory in which we can learn to love. Our present lives and circumstances are the only studio in which we can train in God’s ways of love for us and through us.

Our reality is God’s friend, but it’s not always our friend. Or we don’t think it is. Sometimes the real us that God loves is not the person we’re trying to be.

I remember, for instance, the day I decided that if I was going to be a leader, I was going to have to become guarded and humorless. It happened like this. I was a new principal of a school, and I’d been encouraging more hands-on, discovery-based learning. Kids were bored in class, the work was too often meaningless, and I was inviting teachers to consider how they could connect their teaching with more real-world discovery and connection. So I was thrilled when I learned over email that the whole middle and high school social studies department had introduced a new kind of summer project. Rather than required readings, they were asking all students to visit a monument and to notice and do certain things. Well, I thought that was the greatest, and I wanted to encourage them. So I chimed in on this email thread where I had been included. And I said: How great is this. Who knows what amazing monuments our kids will discover and visit? Maybe one of them will even go here:

And I included a link I found. It was a picture of a monument constructed in Russia in 2008, a monument to the enema. I kid you not — this is a real thing. As you may imagine, one of a kind as well. Yeah, these three cherubs are holding an 800-pound bronze syringe bulb.

I thought this was hysterical and just the kind of thing a clever high school kid would try to visit in a monument project. So I sent the picture with my congratulations, and got a couple of cool, Gee, thanks, Steve, emails came back. But then the next day, at the end of the school day, my boss, the city’s superintendent, called me into her office. And her assistant superintendent was there as well, and they said — Steve, we need to talk. And they gave me this dressing down about how leaders have to watch what they say and email. I guess one of the middle school faculty who didn’t know me thought I was mocking their work and that the whole enema monument picture was in poor taste, which — fair enough — maybe it was. But I still hold, it was funny.

Anyway, there was something for me to learn, I’m sure, about being careful with my communications, particularly with people that didn’t know me. But the way that meeting went, I left ashamed of myself, and determined to never get in trouble like that again. I remember saying out loud, I guess if I want to do this work, I need to kill off my sense of humor, or at least bury it for a while, and I need to be on my guard.

And you know who lost out because of that? Everybody. Everyone.

This might not be the only reason, but I spent the rest of my tenure in that position more guarded, more sober, less cheerful, frankly less childlike than I actually am. Parts of true me got covered over, I put those parts of myself into hibernation, and I think my work and I both suffered for it.

Sometimes in our work, or in other areas of our lives, we lose our true selves. We cover it over with the false self we try to become or that we project to the world. We reject or hide a part of ourselves that God dearly loves, and that we’d flourish if we were to love as well.

Today I’ll talk about this concept that psychologically astute theologians have written about — it’s the true self and the false self. Part of loving ourselves as Jesus calls us to is uncovering, inhabiting, and appreciating our true selves — not the fake self we wish we were or the image we wish we could present to the world — but the one who we are, who we were made to be, the real person God loves today.

We’ll see that the recovery of the true self is one feature of what Jesus and the scriptures call salvation.

Let’s meet someone else, a man from the pages of Jesus’ memoirs, who in his work has lost his true self. He’s a man famous for being short, and for being a collector of taxes, and his name’s Zaccheus. Here’s his story.

Luke 19:1-10 (CEB)

19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. 2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” 6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.

7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. 10  The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”

I love this story so much. We think sometimes about sin as these rash choices we make that hurt us or someone else, and virtue as these quietly good habits of ours. But in Zaccheus’ life it’s the reverse — his sin, his missing the mark, is this long, steady descent into a life I’m sure he never wanted for himself. But he reverses course in this rash, impulsive choice toward goodness and justice.

So much we don’t know about this man Zaccheus. A few things we do know, though, and then a few things I imagine might be so. We know that Zaccheus is short of stature, a line about his height but also a hint about his reputation — not fully accepted by the Romans and now also resented by his fellow Jews. A man who does not belong.

We also know that he is wealthy, and that his wealth came through questionable means. He’s a highly placed collaborator with the Roman Empire. I talked last week about how Rome pushed violence and massive taxes out to the edge of its empire to create prosperity and peace at its center. Residents of first century Palestine faced a huge tax burden that didn’t much benefit from, and local tax collectors made their wealth through charging extra and skimming it off the top. As a chief tax collector at this point, Zaccheus is benefiting from a whole team of collectors selling out their own culture, with Zaccheus skimming off what they skim. He has cheated a lot of people.

What drives a person into this line of work? How do you start betraying your own culture, and participating in an oppressive economic system? How do you end up rich, but alienated and unhappy?

Well, we don’t know, but I imagine how it might have been, and to tell you what I imagine, I have to tell you about this insight from the therapist Dan Allender. Dan Allender has written a lot of books on faith and psychology, he has a center now at the Seattle School, and he’s got this podcast I listen to sometimes too. And on the podcast, Dan Allender had three episodes on delight as a really useful compass in decision making.

And in that teaching, Allender pointed out that grownups so often make our decisions out of duty, debt, or necessity. We do what we think we ought, or we have to, or we must. And plenty of times, this is fine — this is just called being an adult. We’re supposed to do a chore in our household, and we do that chore — people are counting on us. Or we have student loans, and we do what need to do to pay them. This is part of life, and finding a way to satisfy our duties and debts and necessities with commitment, and with a measure of gratitude and joy is central to any good life.

That said, Allender observes that when we live primarily out of duty, debt, and necessity, we end up with a life of pressure and boredom, and a lack of life and vitality. We feel the pressure of our mounting debt and duties. And we don’t much like the life we’re living, so we get bored and we lack enthusiasm and energy. That describes my guarded, humorless phase of leadership pretty well. More cautious, more of what others would call responsible, but under pressure, less myself, less alive.

Can you feel me on this at all?

In your work, are you primarily driven by duty and necessity? In your finances, is the main story about your crushing debt or your anxieties? Is all this leaving you bored, or pressured, or just sucking the life out of you?

I wonder if this is what happened to Zacchues. Perhaps he was afraid of the empire’s might, and responded to their call to duty, to serve Rome? Maybe he or his parents had debt, and he saw a way to earn good money and be out from under it? Maybe he started out as a tax collector, not knowing how corrupt he’d become, or how resented he’d by his whole community, but once he’d put in time and experience, he saw no other way out, just a necessity in continuing with what he knows.

Whatever the story looked like for him, more and more he became this different person. He was small and wanted to project an image of strength, and so he did. Or he followed necessity and duty and debt into this life of wealth, but lost his center in the process. Either way, he now inhabited this false self — the person he was never meant to be.

There’s two clues in the text that I’m onto something here. One is about the tree. When Zaccheus wants to see Jesus, he climbs into a sycamore tree. Which it’s been pointed out is a tree that can look like a fruity fig tree, but in fact bears no fruit. Jesus used fruit and the fruit of fig trees in particular to represent a good life, a life whose good center is producing good, healthy, visible results. This tree isn’t that — no fruit. And then this word Zaccheus uses for what he’s done wrong – he’s cheated or defrauded people. There’s a play on words here, in that linguistically connected to the word “fig” as well — figs being an important part of the ancient near eastern economy.

Zaccheus himself is a “false fig.” No stature, and no fruit. He’s lost his way. He’s the false, unhappy, fruitless version of what he was meant to be.

The second clue is what Jesus calls him. When Jesus sees him up in the tree, in Jesus’ mind, the obvious next step is to say: we have got to share a meal together in your home. Which nobody else was doing, right? Because they hated Zaccheus, the feared him probably — go to this guy’s house and he’ll take your money. They certainly resented him, he was a sell-out; he had lost his belonging in their community.

But not to Jesus. After Zaccheus experiences Jesus seeing him, Jesus’ welcome of him, he makes this extravagant pledge of justice and economic restoration. Then Jesus says of Zaccheus, good stuff is happening today, you’re seeing salvation, because this too is a son of Abraham. This is a real Jew! This man belongs in our family. He’s good people.

Jesus sees the true self. The guy who’s great with money and the guy who’s great with communication and relationships, but who’s now using those skills the way they were meant to be used. The real you is finally showing itself, Jesus says.

The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton wrote,

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him… My false… self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.

Another writer, William Shannon says the false self “is a human construct that we bring into being by our own actions, especially our habits of selfishness and our constant flight from reality. It is an empty self. This is the self that we protect at all costs and shelter with fabrications.”

We all have these versions of ourselves that we’re trying to be—the image of who we wish we were, or the image we’re trying to project into the world. These days, our social media self is part of how we do that. Look, I’m so happy, we say to the world.

Perhaps our false self is the person of our fantasies, perhaps as I talked about last week, it’s the reaction to the story someone else wrote for our life. Or perhaps our false self is the person that our duty or debt or necessity has led us to become.

God sees through this false self to the real you, the real me. In fact, theologians tell us God can’t see our false selves at all, because they don’t really exist. God can only see what’s real and true. So Jesus looks at Zaccheus and didn’t see that sold out, empty soul tax collector. Jesus didn’t love Zaccheus despite who he was. Jesus loved the true Zaccheus he could still see. He still saw the real son of Abraham, the good and just and generous guy of his true self.

Just like back when in reaction to necessity and fear, I made my vow of humorless caution, Jesus looked and still saw childlike, enthusiastic me, waiting for the true self to be released again.

I love Jesus’ favorite nickname for himself we get in the last verse. It’s normally translated Son of Man, as a title, as it references some important Hebrew scripture about a Son of Man. But it also literally means son of a guy, like a human being, or as the editors of this excellent translation call it – The Human One. The real person.

Jesus is the only human who always was his true self, and only sees the true self in everybody else. The Human One is looking for us. The Human One has come to seek and save the lost. The Human One knows the real you, and the Human One is looking for that real you to show, friends. For you to love your true self.

Sometimes Jesus finds the real us in worship, in prayer and meditation, in the vulnerability we practice in community — these are all places we can be our real selves and find that we known and loved by God, and come to know and love ourselves.

But it’s fun when this happens in public life too, like when it happens at work. I had a cool experience of this recently as a supervisor. This is a story about one of our beloved pastors, Ivy Anthony, and I share it with her total permission.

Ivy and I were having her annual review, talking about her work last year, and some things she’s learned. And one of her comments was that over the past three years as a pastor, she’s learned something important about who she is as a person and as a worker, I guess. She said she’d always known she was good at compliance. She worked in finance and business, I think in the area of compliance in particular. And she knew how to that because always, since she was young, she knew how to follow all the rules. Ivy, the person of compliance.

But you all know, if you’ve been part of this community very long, that over the past three years, Ivy has been the driving force behind some of the most beautiful innovation, the creations of sacred space. She’s envisioned and led our retreats and our occasional participatory liturgies on Sundays when we change our service to a less verbal, and more interactive experience. She’s designed these experiences in which we can take a breath and be with one another and try to notice the God who is with us in all things as well. And I’m talking with Ivy, and she’s like, this creative person, this person who designs space and experience for community and connection with God and one another — this isn’t like this thing I’ve done on the side, this is an important part of who I am. Not just compliance but innovation and creativity.

Which is such a gift to us all for Ivy to share her gifts with us, but so awesome for her to, to more and more see and love her true self, the self Jesus sees and loves as well.

This is what Jesus, the Human One, does for us all — see us, see the real me, the real you, invite himself over to spend time in our houses, saying this too is my kind of person. I love this one!

And in this, if we let it, salvation comes. The uncovering of the beloved, true self. The release of the full you and the full me.

I love this enthusiasm that is released in Zaccheus. It’s kind of over the top. He’s not thinking about what a massive and fraught program it is that he’s announcing. I’m gonna pay back everybody, and all the ones who’s suffered injustice, I’ll pay them all extra!

How will he do all this? How will he see it through? We have no idea, but we see this moment of delight. When Zaccheus shifts from duty and necessity and debt to the kind of deep goodness that brings not just temporary release or pleasure, but deep satisfaction.

In his case, Zacchues goes from a leech on his world to a force of reparative justice and generosity. He goes from boredom and pressure and no vitality, no life, on the edges of community climbing up in that tree, and he goes into community, and into a life of joyful purpose, into the delight of his real, true self.  

It’s hard to drop the false self we’ve wanted to be or made ourselves look to be. So much grumbling with Zaccheus. People are upset when Jesus goes to his house. It would be easier in a way to keep his distance and just keep being that duty and debt and necessity-driven not-so-great false self he’s lived into.

But he seems to want something new too much. He’s not satisfied with the false self anymore. He wants something better. This is what loving ourselves looks like, not always just doing the next thing duty or debt drives us to, but also not just doing the next easy thing, even the next easy distracting or pleasurable thing.

Loving ourselves includes learning to live out of our true self. Asking, what would deeply delight me and bring me joy? What contribution do I have to give the world, must I give the world, really, for me to be alive? What incredible story of love and justice do I long to be part of?

To find our way back to your true self is to say yes when you can to what deeply delights you, to the real aspiration of your soul. To find your way back to your true self is to be at peace with the real you that God made and finds delightful.

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Where do you feel pressure or boredom or a lack of vitality in your primary work? Is there a primary motivation of debt or duty driving this? Is there anything truly delightful you can pursue in this setting, something that will draw out your truest self?

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Welcome Jesus into the home of your false self. Tell Jesus about the person you are trying to be, or the image you are trying to project to the world, that isn’t you, that isn’t real. Ask Jesus for a vision of work that is true to who you are, that is just, generous, and delightful.

The Liberated, Loved, Gift-Giving Self

So, a couple weeks back, we highlighted this church’s community groups and invited everybody who likes to be part of one. They’re our church’s best way to connect people and to help us all make a new friend or two. I love our community groups—all of them. But one of the groups I’m especially delighted by—one that I had a chance to visit last year—is our Women of Color group. There’s so much that’s special about this group, including how they’ve done some beautiful things for others together, particularly for youth.

One of those things was when they raised money for 100 local youth of color to watch a private screening of Black Panther together, which went awesome. Turns out they were on to a trend: this happened in many places last year—around the country, there were groups of Black Americans renting out theaters to watch Black Panther together.

I found out about this trend through a podcast called Freedom Road. The host, Lisa Sharon Harper was talking with a scholar Dr. Reggie Williams, about the identity formation of Black men. And early in the podcast, Dr. Williams said that he’d seen Black Panther in a rented theater along with about 1000 other people from his very large, historically Black church in Chicago. Dr. Williams was part of that thousand along with the students from the graduate school class he was teaching. And ever since then, Reggie Williams mentioned on the podcast, he’d been watching parts of Black Panther as a spiritual practice – daily.

They talked about what an amazing movie Black Panther was, how it’s a beautiful Afrocentric work of art, how it celebrates Africa’s rich history and resources, with interesting touch points to African American history as well. All that is reason enough to like the movie, or watch it a couple extra times.

But Reggie Williams said, the reason he was watching it daily as a spiritual practice, is because it helped remind him of who he is. It speaks truth to his identity.

We’re going to watch just a little clip, not the most exciting one, but the last couple of minutes at the end. The film begins and ends in Oakland, once home to America’s own Black Panther party. And if you haven’t seen it, this is when the King of Wakanda – the great African civilization of the movie – has decided to end his nation’s isolationism and offer their great gifts to the world, and particularly to marginalized Black people. He brings his little sister to Oakland to share the big news.

This is what happens when you play show and tell with your spaceship. People stop and look, and this kid asks T’Challa, “Who are you?”

It’s a question that animates the whole film, from near the beginning, when T’Challa ascends to the throne and his mother cries out, “Show them who you are!” Through the center of the film in so many ways, right up to the final moment you just saw.

Who are you? Who are you? the film asks.

Reggie Williams says this question is worthy of daily meditation for him because as a Black man in America, he’s been given so many stories of who he is. Many of them shaped historically by White men, who have created constructions of Blackness to separate and elevate our own status.

But Reggie Williams won’t keep accepting that story. He says, I’m not the pet or the threat I’ve been told I am. I am not a possession to be used or commodified, just as I’m not a danger to be feared.

I am a free man, liberated, loved, holding within myself and my history gifts to give that will enrich and bless the world. That’s who I am.

I thought – so good, isn’t that true of us all? Many of us of course don’t share the specific identity formation experiences of a Black man, and I don’t want to take away from that particularity, but I also think there’s something for us all here. We are all – some of us more than others – but we are all fed garbage stories about who we are, diminishing stories of who we are, stories we’ve taken in without realizing it. But all of us are meant to be liberated, loved people of peace, holding gifts we can freely give to enrich and bless the world.

We’re spending 8 weeks at the start of the new year looking at the way of love at the center of the teaching and practice of Jesus and today begins two weeks of invitation to grow in an unselfish love of oneself.

Growing into our free and beloved and gift-giving identity is at the heart of Jesus-centered faith. And today, I hope that we can all begin to name the untrue stories we’ve been told about ourselves. I hope that we can better notice the oppressive stories our parents, our culture, our economy, our country, our enemies have told us about who we are. And I hope we can experience Jesus releasing us into our real identity as free people, as loved people, as people that have great gifts to give the world in love ourselves.

Can I pray for us?

Let’s read today’s passage.

Luke 8:26-39 (CEB)

26 Jesus and his disciples sailed to the Gerasenes’ land, which is across the lake from Galilee. 27 As soon as Jesus got out of the boat, a certain man met him. The man was from the city and was possessed by demons. For a long time, he had lived among the tombs, naked and homeless. 28 When he saw Jesus, he shrieked and fell down before him. Then he shouted, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don’t torture me!” 29 He said this because Jesus had already commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had taken possession of him, so he would be bound with leg irons and chains and placed under guard. But he would break his restraints, and the demon would force him into the wilderness.

30 Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“Legion,” he replied, because many demons had entered him. 31 They pleaded with him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32 A large herd of pigs was feeding on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into the pigs. Jesus gave them permission, 33 and the demons left the man and entered the pigs. The herd rushed down the cliff into the lake and drowned.

34 When those who tended the pigs saw what happened, they ran away and told the story in the city and in the countryside. 35 People came to see what had happened. They came to Jesus and found the man from whom the demons had gone. He was sitting at Jesus’ feet, fully dressed and completely sane. They were filled with awe. 36 Those people who had actually seen what had happened told them how the demon-possessed man had been delivered. 37 Then everyone gathered from the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave their area because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and returned across the lake. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged to come along with Jesus as one of his disciples. Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return home and tell the story of what God has done for you.” So he went throughout the city proclaiming what Jesus had done for him.

So there are two common readings of what happens in this story. The first, the most traditional is deliverance from demon possession. Most human cultures for most of history have in some form believed that evil or harmful spirits can take up home within a person or impact them adversely over time. Many of us in the modern scientific age have trouble with this, but we still use this language as metaphor when we talk about our inner demons. Because experience teaches us that we sometimes have less control of our thoughts and actions than we think we do.

In this reading, Jesus is what every priest or shaman wishes they could be – raw goodness and light and power. The forces that have come to control this guy become clear, and Jesus removes their influence from him. Frees and delivers him into peace and sanity.

A second reading, one that sits easier in our culture, is to see some of the first century demon language as their best way of talking about self-injurious internalized trauma and mental illness. Many of us have experienced ourselves or known friends or family whose internal struggles have led to a life of chaos and self-harm, sometimes even close to death.

On these terms, Jesus is a profoundly compassionate healer and familial presence, who in this particular encounter accelerates what’s usually a years or decades long process – clarity about the impact of trauma and pain, and profound movement toward wellness and peace of mind.

I can’t say enough that readings like these aren’t meant to make us dismiss the importance of therapy or medical care or medication for mental illness or recovery from trauma. But it does indicate that even the most extreme human suffering isn’t beyond hope or beyond touch.

Jesus is eager to see and touch this man and to restore him to peace of mind and to belonging in community as well.

And I hope these readings would move us toward compassion and hope for ourselves or for others whose demons run deep.

But I want to share with you a third reading I’ve come across, one that better notices the history and culture surrounding this passage. This region of the Gerasenes, is part of modern-day Jordan, then part of a ten-city Roman colony called the Decapolis. This was a non-Jewish, or Gentile, region. So Jesus crossing the lake to take his students there was an unusual choice for a Jewish rabbi. This may have been, for some of them, their first ever trip across the lake, away from their home turf. This field trip could have only been an intentional way to bring them out of their cultural comfort zone.

Jesus we see, is a boundary-crosser. He goes to people and places that other people ignore or stereotype or stay away from. And he says to his followers – then and now – that to follow Jesus is to yourself be a boundary-crosser, to be in relationship with people and places outside your home turf.

But sometimes, what you find when you get there. The Decapolis, and this area around Gerasa in particular, was a region that had known immense trauma and suffering. It was conquered by Alexander the Great, and then again by Rome. And experienced considerable violence under both empires. Rome, in particular, had a policy of pushing trouble out to the edges of its Empire in order to promote peace and prosperity at the center. Like our country will bomb far away lands to promote a sense of security within our borders, Rome pursued a program of brutal violence and high taxation at the edges of its empire in order to subjugate its most recently colonized residents.

This is where the practice of crucifixion came from. A brutal, public humiliation, torture, and execution of enemies of the state, so people would think twice about becoming one themselves. And wherever you had crucifixions, wherever Rome was asserting its economic and military power, you’d have a legion – a unit of the Roman army, about 5,000 soldiers.

There were sometimes legions stationed in and around Palestine and in this area of the Decapolis. And actually just after these events Luke is narrating, but before the publication of Luke’s gospel, the Roman General – later emperor – Vespasian and his legions conducted a brutal campaign in this region – killing up to a thousand young men, plundering people’s possessions, taking women and children captive, and burning whole communities.

So when Luke’s first readers heard: The Country of the Gerasenes, whether or not it was this exact site along the sea, they’d immediately think of one of the most violent, brutal, traumatic acts of war in their lifetimes. Maybe how you’d react if you heard a story set in Northern Iraq, or somewhere along the Pakistani/Afghan border. You’d be ready to be plunged into a climate of enormous violence and trauma.

And when they heard this scared, troubled man call himself Legion, they’d think, My God, he’s taken into himself the chaos and violence and oppression of the Empire. Violence, trauma, pain have become his story.

On this reading, the man Jesus goes to see has become defined by his internalized oppression. He is the deep residue of his trauma. Modern psychology has helped us understand that we carry in our memories and even in our physical bodies the impact of our trauma. Modern sociology has helped us learn that we do that throughout whole cultures as well. I heard an interview recently with the sociologist Arlie Hochschild. She has for decades studied the sociology of emotion. And she’s talked about how whole cultures carry experiences of reality she calls “deep story.” It’s like a lived framework that shapes our morals and hopes and fears and even the facts we are or aren’t willing to believe as true.

Well, it just may be that this man Jesus encounters lives a whole deep story of cultural trauma. You see this with whole peoples who have experienced great trauma and violence – how their story is attached to the worst of their experience, the reductive impact of trauma, the names they’ve been called, the script for life they’ve been given.

I see this all the time when I meet with people. They may or may not be attached to generational violence and trauma, but they’re so often operating within the script that their family, their teachers, their economy has given them. They’re living by that script even when that leads to constraint, even when it leads to more death than life.

I remember one of the students I taught. Unlike many of his cousins, he wasn’t able to test into one of Boston’s examination schools. And at every gathering of his extended family, people talked about this. They called him stupid. His own parents didn’t use that word, but they never defended him, and they never told him any differently.

This was a kid whose experience by the time he was a teenager already told him he was marginal in this society. He was poor, he was a child of immigrants, a person of color. He didn’t see people like himself represented as leaders or success stories. His interactions with authority figures left him hassled, not protected. And then this, from his own family, confirming in his mind that he was indeed a nobody.

Now as a teenager, evidence pointed to the contrary. I found this guy to be an exceptionally loyal friend, which is an extraordinary quality to have. He was also a bright student, and – once he found his voice and some technique – a  gifted writer as well. I wasn’t the only one who saw these things. He was accepted into an incredible scholarship/internship program. But part of him always thought we had all picked the wrong person to believe in. He had such a hard time believing in himself and thriving because of the internalized script he’d been given that he was marginal and stupid – that identity held so much power.

How do find a truer, better identity? The first step is often to expose the bad one. To be free of these limiting scripts we carry, they need to be revealed for what they are and we need to replace them with a better, truer story we can believe in.

I had this happen for me last year, in a really small way, but one that mattered to me. One of the scripts I was given was that I was an accident prone kid. I had quite a few sets of stitches when I was young. And so the story I was given was that I was always managing to get hurt. What’s wrong with me? Which is a little thing, it’s not a script or identity born of trauma or violence. It’s even kind of funny.

But a part of me felt uncomfortable with this script, because it diminished me a little bit. In my family system, it was attached to this story that I was reckless, that I couldn’t be trusted. And even decades later, when I had enormous responsibilities over my own life and many others, my family wouldn’t trust me with some basic things.

And part of me was uncomfortable because not only was the script outdated – I wasn’t walking chaos anymore, but I wondered if the script was ever true. Just about every one of my sets of stitches happened when I was really little, when I was under the direct supervision of a caregiver, or at least should have been.  

And so there was an extended family dinner last year, and someone brought up this script – ha, ha, wasn’t Steven such an accident prone child?  And I think gently, politely, I just said, you know, interruption here, I’m not so sure this story is true. I don’t call myself accident prone anymore, and in fact, I’m not so sure any of those accidents when I was little were my fault at all. I was like two, three years old. I think it’s more likely that someone didn’t have their eye on me.

As you can imagine, awkward moment, no one really said anything that I can remember, and the conversation moved on.

But later, on the ride home, I was really, maybe irrationally happy. That interaction felt so good to me. Because I had exposed and interrupted this little script to my identity that was constraining. I was rewriting a truer and better story for myself that I may have been minor league neglected here and there, but that wasn’t my fault. And life’s moved on, and I am a capable, trustworthy person.

Again, a small thing, but I think we see from Jesus’ interaction with this man who calls himself Legion the significance of exposure of the false scripts we’re living by, the importance of the exposure of the stories that constrain us, no matter where they come from.

I think the whole weird thing with the pigs relates to this. Right, there’s weird moment in the story when the demons are like – Jesus, don’t send us to the abyss, and Jesus is like, fine – enter that giant herd of pigs instead. Which is a mean thing to the pigs, I get that. Not Jesus’ best moment with animal-rights.

On the one hand, as a Jew, I don’t think Jesus was raised to think much of pigs, so can cut him some slack there. But also, there’s an exposure happening. In the first century spiritual consciousness, demons came from this underground netherworld – a place of the dead, an underworld abyss – sometimes associated with the depths of the sea too. And the demons are like – we don’t want to go back there. And so Jesus lets them leave the man and go to the pigs. But then ironically, the force of their chaos drives the pigs themselves off the cliff and into the abyss anyway.

Like I said, totally weird. Very first century. But it’s exposing that this story for the man – that I am the some of the pain and trauma and violence this empire has wrought. That I am know chaotic violence and pain in my life, played out again and again – that is a violent, destructive identity. And it’s one that’s bound for death, without me.

When Jesus asks, “What is your name?” he is exposing the false identity forced onto this man, exposing the false self, and revealing it as the death-dealing force that it is. And this begins the man’s liberation.

To be liberated from the name our trauma has given us, to be liberated from the name of the deep story of our times, we need that exposed. To be freed from the burden of other’s names for us, free of the burden of trauma, shame, unfair expectations, criticism, we need to name those constraining sources of identity.

Think of what history or culture has said about your race or gender or anything else about you. If you find, as Reggie Williams did, that there are lies about you in that, Jesus wants to ask you: what is your name? And how can you be free of the false names that have become you?

If your parents or boss or teachers or anyone else in your life – present or past – has reduced you to anything less than a free and beloved child of God with great gifts to give the world, then Jesus wants to ask you: what is your name? And how can you be liberated from the false scripts that have driven your life?

Jesus travelled with his students across the sea not just to name the truth about the oppression this man had internalized, but to set him free to a liberated life and to do that for us all. To ask – what is your name? And to expose and free us from any internalized oppression.

My friend Mako Nagasawa did some writing about the theology of the Black Panther. I think Mako will join us late this spring to guest preach in a different series. But Mako highlights that in the Black Panther, and in Jesus-centered thinking, and I see in this encounter we’ve read today as well, to live our true identity is not just to expose false stories about who we are but to replace them with good ones that say, I am liberated, loved, and empowered. I am a person of peace, a person who can be sane again. And I am a person with great gifts to give the world.

The man who was named Legion – who now is free and sane and at peace – wants to join the disciples. He’s like, Jesus, let me follow you. Just before that, when we hear he’s sane again, he’s sitting at Jesus’ feet. This is first century, almost technical language for being a student of a rabbi, for being an apprentice.

Free at last, this man wants to attach himself to Jesus’ school. But Jesus says, in your case, there’s a better way to do this. Go back home and tell people everything I’ve done for you.

Go back home – be restored to your culture, be restored to community. Perhaps be a liberator of other people in this trauma-soaked land from which you come. Give them the gift of this good news that you can be free, that you can be sane again, that you are meant to be at peace, and you are a gift-giver.

To be released from being defined by trauma and defined by the oppression of the world’s criticism and shame and false stories about who we are… To be released from all of that is to have peace and be sane. This story shows us the the radical shock of a person who is truly, fully sane – less common that we might think! To be released from false stories about ourselves is also to know that we have gifts to give.

Our church has developed a close relationship with this Indian NGO called Asha, that I like to talk about, as they’ve been very influential in my life. Asha works with people in Delhi’s slum communities, people who have often experienced displacement and marginalization and trauma, who’ve been fed tremendously diminishing stories about themselves as well.

And Asha aims to liberate communities and individuals, to restore them to an empowered love of self. It’s really quite beautiful.

And Asha does this work guided by a set of ten values, expressions of Jesus-centered life that sit well within Indian culture.

I’ve decided this year to make the Asha values my touchstones for prayer for the year – one value per month, and the first Asha value, and so my key word for prayer for the month of January has been dignity.

They define dignity as “the consciousness that we deserve honor”, as “understanding who you are and taking your rightful place in the world.”

I thought that praying about human dignity in January would start with other people. After all, I’m really aware of the many times I don’t treat all kinds of people with the full dignity they deserve. My family members, my friends, strangers – I feel like I often don’t give them all the honor they deserve. I don’t fully esteem them as much as I’d like. And all this love of neighbor stuff is indeed important.

But often in my prayers around dignity this month, I’ve been drawn back to myself. Will *I* understand who I am? Will *I* take my rightful place in the world?

Not too high, not above anyone else. But also not too low, not afraid or diminished or despairing. Will I face my life and work and calling with courage and enthusiasm? Because I too have gifts to give each day, and it’s easy to shrink back and not give them.

It’s hard but beautiful and vital work, friends, to really love ourselves. This is not shallow work of puffing up our egos. This is the deep work of knowing who we are – not the image of everything our parents and cultures and pain have told us, but free, loved, sane. And this is the deep work of discovering the gifts we have to give the world, and giving them freely.

This is to love ourselves. More next week, but we’ll wrap up for today with two ways to practice.

An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing

Our marketing, our job evaluations, our report cards, our families and cultures of origin are all telling us stories of who we are. Critically filter stories told about you. Tell better stories about others.

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Find a daily touch point for sanity and a liberated identity – whatever helps you deeply know that you are a person of peace and promise, with a gift to give the world.

His Banner Over Us is Love

Last week, we started a new, 8 week series called Training in the Studio of Love. It feels so great to kick this new year off looking at love.  It’s a word we hear about, talk about and orient around a lot as people who think about faith—and who try our best to live out a life of faith with Jesus at the center—but maybe less often, consider it something to train for. Our series is inspired by an old friend of our church, Brian McLaren (author, and in the pastorate), who has spent a lot of time thinking about just how we are called to lead a life of love, and he has come up with a curriculum of sorts to help us also think about it!

So last week and this week we will look at what love of neighbor looks like. Steve over the next two weeks will talk about the unselfish love of self, and then we’ll follow with love of the world, and wrap up our series with 2 weeks on the love of God.

If I think back to the first time I remember hearing the word “God”. I also remember hearing the word “love.” “God is love,” “God loves,” “God is loving.” “God loves you.”

And it did indeed feel like God was wrapping me in this “great banner of His love.”  This direct association, that I picked up on at an early age suggested to m, that if I were to become interested in following God, that I, too, might just want to lead a life full of love and loving others. It was so compelling.  And at this young age, it seemed easy enough to do—love seemed like something God gave “freely,” “without an agenda,” “for everyone”—a love that made me feel warm and special (an experience of love).

And this stayed true, until I turned, like… 5. And the unfolding of just how quickly the words “God” and “Love” could become intertwined with structures and systems started to occur in family, organizations and churches—it augmented my original association of “God” and “love,” to something much more complex.     

It seemed to me that that  “His banner over me” as love, became graffiti’d with extra words – extra bullet points of what “love and God” could mean.

At different points along my faith journeyI became entrapped in some of these meanings—but also at points, I ushered the meaning out as gospel:

Love meant I should be passive.

Love meant I should take on a certain set of political and social views.

Love meant following very specific religious beliefs.

Love was meant to be wielded as a weapon.

Love meant truth at the cost of exclusion.

And I learned how quickly words can take on all our human flaws and frailties!

And how quickly the free-floating banner around us as “love” comes crashing down to become a wall—a barrier between just who Jesus calls us to love: our neighbors, ourselves, and even God.

This is why I’m incredibly excited about this series.  Because I’m more and more convinced that we, indeed, are helped by practice and training in this radical love that Jesus professes as the most central meaning and source of life:  to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our being, with all our strength, and with all our mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

It is not a platitude to hide behind, but our most powerful way to live.

Training in this studio of love may just help us resurrect, His banner over us as Love.

We love stories

I have this deep inkling that many of us really like stories. Is that true? Do some of you like stories?  I think we do. We love to tell stories. We love to hear stories. We love to watch stories (insta-stories on Instagram).  For years now this has been the marketing strategy of most advertising firms—put more stories out there for people to connect with a product.  We at Reservoir are not excluded from this with our own “stories” section of our website! (it’s really good you should check it out). We really love stories, and we love to create stories too!

I always thought I was really bad at telling stories. When my kids were little this was often part of our “play” routine or “bedtime” routine. There was always a “tell me a story” request.  I was terribly uncreative in this vein. Most often the bedtime stories I would create were full of the things little kids nightmares are made of: “One day as baby skunk was leaving the house to meet her friend at the playground, Mommy skunk said ‘make sure you go the route by Mrs. Badger’s house so you can water her flowers’ and baby skunk disobeyed and went the short route over the bridge to the playground.”

And then baby skunk got “eaten by a troll”.

The end.

Sweet dreams. Nighty-night.

I wasn’t ever creative enough to deviate from the theme “always listen to your mother,” but I was generous in letting my kids choose their own animal character!

So, it’s actually true, I’m not great at creating bedtime stories.  

But I’m actually creating stories all the time—in my head and subconscious—of the world and people around me.

Last week Steve spoke on Jesus’ radical call to all of us to “Love our neighbor as ourself.” We started with love of neighbor because it stretches us, it pulls us outside of ourselves, and helps us think about what love really is and isn’t.

And we’ll continue today with this love of neighbor and take this greatest commandment to the fullness of it’s design and message—to “love our neighbor”—yes those close to us and the ones we are already in relationship with —but to also love our neighbor who we regard as the stranger, the alien, the one that make us feel uncomfortable, the outsider, the misunderstood,  the outcast and the enemy.  

Actual Neighbors 

*We have neighbors. Physical neighbors, directly flanking us on both sides.

And we’ve definitely had our ups and downs with loving them (some more than others). I’ve spoken before of one neighbor whose small, wire fence I ran over two times, out of anger.

But I’m not going to talk about that neighbor today. We are cool (mostly).

But I want to talk about our neighbors on the other side of us.

These neighbors:  Do not like us and they are mean.
We’ve lived in next to them for 13 years now.

All of our conversations have been prickly, our interactions weird, awkward and laced with assumptions.  

Every ball that has ever gone over our fence into their yard, has never been returned.

They never shovel their piece of the sidewalk.

And so many more examples… in those 13 years.

And I realized I’ve been telling a pretty epic, dynamic story of these neighbors, for a long time.  And I realized this more recently when it culminated in a conversation we had with this neighbor.

Some pieces of information you should know.  We have one chicken. Her name is “Tiny.” She had two sisters originally—but one got eaten by a raccoon and the other met her demise by an errant, but forceful soccer ball kick in the backyard.

This conversation with the neighbor centered around our chicken. Our neighbor believes that all the coyotes in the town of Milton—ALL the coyotes from the BLUE HILLS—migrate to our street because of this one chicken.

WE are the coyote-whispers… because of our chicken “snack”.

And I was just like—these people are crazy. Like actually nuts. And exhausting.
Brian McLaren says that the greatest way to set someone up as your enemy, is to tell their story starting with point #2.  My starting point with this story of my neighbor has always been, (it’s how I told their story to you just now), that “THEY DON’T LIKE US AND THEY ARE MEAN”.

So in the 13 years that we’ve been neighbors, that has been the starting point of my narrative with them, and it has had its consequences, its real effects. We have never invited them into our house, not even in our backyard.

We have all the nice neighbors over that we love on our street—that are easy to relate to  and who we’ve created warm, peaceful narratives of—over to our house.

But I’m clearly entering into their story not at point #1 and that allows me to write/draw conclusions about who these people are.

And then that allows me to set up what “love” looks like for them.

Love looks like I avoid these people.  

And that I keep telling this story of them.

Perpetuate the story of meanness.  Create more distance. And if someone asks, I will tell them that our neighbors are “mean and they don’t like us.” I will do the work of setting up division and dehumanizing our neighbors to others(and to our kids).

And this can feel small scale.

But this seems to be the birthplace of all prejudice, misunderstanding: to create stories, tell stories and listen to stories where the narrative begins at point #2.

And it often starts in these tinier, personal/interpersonal ways—tiny story-tellings. But soon it can become generations of story-telling, communicating a particular narrative,  about a person or groups of people. And that sets up in our institutions and systems as agenda’d ways …….not to “Love”……, but to “other” our neighbors. To put parameters around who our neighbor is… and we start to use words like “safe” and “wise” and “prudent”. …  right? How much can I safely “love my neighbor”? What’s the wise way to love here? And we reduce love down into something that is very far from what Jesus offers us in loving our neighbor. We reduce love to an agenda.

You see in the center of every narrative we create that succeeds in “othering” our neighbor are the seeds of hate. Hate and love both occupy our hearts.  Who knows—their seeds might lie right next to each other in our hearts. Both of them seem to aim to grow into similar ways, with the hopes of multiplying, decentering and taking priority over anything else!

The difference though, is that:

Love isn’t an agenda. Hate is.

When we start putting forth agendas around “Loving our neighbor”—

We are no longer speaking in terms of love; we have intermixed the word “Love” with our agenda. An agenda may be framed in words of “Love,” But really it’s often, the “love” of our rightness—to love the position of rightness that makes us feel superior to someone else, to love our “security,” our “certainty” and “comfort”—but clearly lets no actual effect of love be felt. And isn’t this the test of love—not the stated intention, but the actual effect of that love in action?

With Jesus there’s no agenda in love.  Love is what matters, period. The radical love of Jesus offers us a more durable force, a soul-force that is not as fragile as hate. Radical love means that neither “beliefs nor words, neither taboos, systems, structures nor the labels that enshrined them mattered most.  Love decentered everything else;  love relativized everything else; love takes priority over everything else – everything” (McLaren p 42).

Go and love your neighbor.

So simple, yet so challenging. It’s like doing that exercise—the plank. It seems like laying on your elbows is something I could do for like 15 minutes, but after 20 seconds, my entire body is shaking. This too, is the feeling I have when I try to love to the extent that Jesus calls us to love our neighbor.

But Jesus says, “oh no,  you need to do this to strengthen your core of love!” And this is it, this is your training plan!

I want my coyote-conspiracy theorist neighbor to not fit into the ‘love your neighbor’ command. I want to disqualify the neighbor, to perpetuate the story: “too weird, too scary, unhinged.”  But really, that’s all my self-preserving agenda at work.

And my agenda is nestled in hate. It really is.

Mercifully Jesus is really great at helping us correct narratives that we’ve created, and agendas that we’ve run wild with. 

And here in the Gospel of Luke, the scripture that you find on your program, he spells out a pretty detailed training plan for us:

How do we correct our bad story-telling?  “Love our enemies”.

Luke 6:27-36

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

40 The student is not above the teacher.  But all students will, once they are fully trained, be on a par with their teacher”.

These are words of Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, (compared to Matthew’s account: The Sermon on the Mount).  Jesus is standing on level ground with his newly chosen disciples, and he is writing a new story here—a different narrative than the one that they’ve known!  He’s dismantling and “decentering old things – the religious rules, temples, sacrifice, hierarchies and the like and recentering the tradition on love..” (p. 46).  And tipping it all by saying that anyone who is willing to step into this new training studio of love can become a teacher of it as well! (v. 40): “But all students will, once they are fully trained, be on a par with their teacher.”

It’s a challenging picture of love and we can quickly say, “Oh this is how we love our enemy.” It’s a distinct teaching on this specific way to love.  But I think Jesus could be making the point that this is actually the training guide for how we love, period. That the people we already love or want to love—we can only love them as fully as we can love our enemy. And how we lead a life of love, and it hinges on our capacity to love our enemy.

We are going to need training to “up” that capacity.

I’ve talked before on these verses of “turn the other cheek, give your coat and walk the extra mile” as a passage that is powerful in its context and for us today of non-violent resistance—to uphold human dignity and to strive for justice—not a picture of passivity/doormat quality.

But today—I’d love to draw out two elements that surround these verses, that I think are essential and significant spiritual exercises that we need in becoming teachers of love-in-action that Jesus says we can be. These are: Proximity and Forgiveness.

I heard a story a couple of years back about a white nationalist,  Derek Black and an orthodox Jew, Matthew Stevenson. Maybe you are familiar with this story too… but I think it highlights these elements of proximity and a heart with a generous posture of loving.

Derek Black & Matthew Stevenson

Derek Black was the chosen heir to the white nationalist movement: the son of Don Black, founder of the massive hate site, and godson to former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke—perhaps the most known white supremacist and racist. Derek himself was the creator of a website for “proud white children” and the founder of a 24-hour radio network for white nationalists.

His ancestry dictated his beliefs.  He embraced the stories he was told, and these narratives became the platform by which he saw and interacted with the world (and how he framed “love”), and how he ran for a political sea—a local committee seat in Florida at the age of 19, running on the narratives that at least from my vantage start far beyond point #1. He ran on the belief that black people were more likely to commit crimes and had lower IQs than whites, that Jews controlled media and finance, that immigration and affirmative action were leading the country toward a “white genocide,” where white people in America are victims, not perpetrators, of racism.  He won the seat, but declined it and went to college in Florida.

Here, it wasn’t long before his ideology was outed—and as a result the campus exploded in outrage with active moves to get him expelled.

The short of this story is that a fellow student, Matthew Stevenson, who is an Orthodox Jew, invited Derek to his weekly, Friday evening Shabbat dinners, which Derek agreed to and attended for 2 years.

After 2 years of these dinners and conversation, Derek wrote to the Southern Poverty Law Center, disavowing his beliefs and renouncing his white nationalist ties.

This is quite a story! It’s a redemption story, a forgiveness story, a brave story—it’s a story of love. And I think we might love “love stories” the most. But we can tend to simplify love stories.

And I can imagine that an easy takeaway from this story is that everything will be hunky-dory if we just have more meals with people. Differences and evil will disappear, and we can move beautifully forward. And I think there’s some truth in this! But there’s more.


This too, is often how forgiveness is regarded: “I’ll forgive you and then we can just move on and forget”—that’s what Christians do.

Forgiveness, though, is a love story nestled in this great banner of  love. It’s much more powerful than that—not just a sentimental outpouring.

I can imagine that forgiveness was on the table at these Shabbat dinners. I can imagine that Matthew was able to forgive Derek, to recognize that the evil represented in this enemy-neighbor, sitting across from him, might not be his whole narrative. Matthew Stevenson said himself “I had to come to the table believing that the image of the creator might be somewhere inside of Derek.” And he was willing to see if there was a different starting point of Derek’s narrative, and willing to suspend his own agenda.

I think neither Derek or Matthew would say that this story was about forgetting, silencing or ignoring any evil – because of forgiveness.  

Forgiveness is not reconciliation.

Forgiveness is not an invitation to discard our healthy boundaries. (especially when we are speaking on terms of feeling safe).  


Forgiveness is the way forward in the studio of love.

Forgiveness is movement, in our hearts and relationships.

Forgiveness allows more space in our hearts for Jesus’ way of love to take up residence.

Forgiveness allows us to create and build new stories.

Forgiveness releases hateful agendas.

Forgiveness puts the power in the hands of the victim (Swan & Wilson, Solus Jesus). And is the best form of “self-interest, because it allows you freedom to no longer be tied to the one who’s done you harm” (Desmond Tutu).

Forgiveness, in the ways that Jesus shows us in these verses, replaces the in-kind system that we want to enact when we are hurt—an “eye for an eye,” “tooth for tooth,” “Slap on the cheek, for a slap on the cheek”—with mercy, compassion and kindness, even if the offender, as was true of Derek, asserts their innocence.

“Forgiveness  does not mean ignoring what has been done or putting a false label on an evil act.  It means, rather, that the evil no longer remains as a barrier to the relationship.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality, tragically divided against ourselves. Where there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us”(pg. 45 – Strength to Love). Forgiveness allows us to entertain this—that our enemy might not be completely evil—and that we might not be completely holy.

And forgiveness doesn’t mean that we stop pursuing justice. Derek Black says that he often gets worried that his story will be told as a piece of evidence that the only way to change people’s minds is to have friendly conversations, but he says it’s essential to speak up loudly and to pursue that which you seek justice for.

Forgiveness is not justice.

*Disclaimer on forgiveness:
If you’ve been abused—please know that I’m not purporting that forgiveness is a prerequisite for healing. The ways that you might feel resentment or anger or even loathing for the ones who brought harm to you is normal – and is not a reflection of whether you have adequately “dealt” the abuse.

And all of this takes trainingtakes practice! Because it goes against the natural instinct to pay back evil with evil.

(Studies show us what our brains look like on revenge: it hits the same spot that a brain who’s thirsty or hungry does when that craving is met. And we need training to help rewire this.)

But Proximity helps in the re-wiring.
The examples Jesus uses in this Sermon on the Plain—to love your enemy— require us to be close enough to feel the hurt/pain and hate (The sting on our cheeks) dealt from our enemy, and close enough for us to demonstrate love (for them to see it and witness it, but also to feel it).  And proximity is so important—Jesus says, “double down on your efforts in that regard” (Give your other cheek, give your shirt too, walk the extra mile). To be a teacher of love, you must be close to your students.

Derek Black was asked what moment transformed him. What made him renounce this hateful ideology? And he said it wasn’t a moment, “ it was 2-3 years of little events,” 2-3 years of intentional, proximal dinners with others,2-3 years where Matthew suspended hate, judgment and condemnation, 2-3 years of potent doses of radical love that probed and dismantled and shook Derek’s heart.  

And he says what shook his heart the most was that he received the pictures of mercy, kindness and love from the one that was ostensibly victimized by his ideology. Closeness matters. And loving those who do not know love matters.

Matthew Stevenson

We are told in scripture that without love, we’re nothing—just a bunch of annoying noise, clanging cymbals—that we can have mountain-moving faith and the strongest of creed affirming doctrines, but without love it has no meaning or value. And the same is true of what Jesus says here, too—If you love where love is already present.  If you do good where good is already present –  what credit is that to you? Beyond upholding your self-preserving agenda of comfort, and certainty? It seems, at least in the story of Derek and Matthew, that it would have come at a cost: a cost of transformation and healing, and growthspiritual growthif we don’t come close to our enemies, to truly love them.

We can’t call ourselves teachers of love if we are pouring our love out to students who have already themselves been trained. We need to get proximal with those who have not yet been introduced to the subject!  This is only where love is truly alive.

Derek says “I don’t think I anticipated what impact not being around a bunch of white nationalists would have had.” The fact that this orthodox Jew would go into the realms of where palpable hate is only present—where there was a void of love—is actually the classroom that we as teachers should seek.

Jesus knew that he could take the “in-kind” way of reparation that was written in the Jewish system out of the Law,  but it didn’t mean that it would be rooted out of the culture unless there were close, human interactions that demonstrated this new commandment of love. This is why we need to get proximal, to love up close, to root hate/prejudice/racism out of our culture.

In the Greek language, this radical love of God is expressed in the word agape,  which is understood as “understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all people.  An overflowing love that seeks nothing in return.  It is the love of God operating in the human heart.” (p. 46 Strength to Love).

I Facebook messaged Matthew Stevenson to ask him a few questions, like “what’s the take away here?”  

I didn’t hear from him.

But I bet he would say it was this: “That the love of God operating in the human heart” is a force like no other; That at these Shabbat Dinners this is what was witnessed as the only force that is capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. It is the only force that anchors us back to the truest of narratives, that “His banner over us is love!”And this is a Double Victory: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Witness transformation, and we too will be transformed. A double victory indeed.


Luke 6:40: “All students will, once they are fully trained, be on par with their teacher”. And as we are trained in the way of love my friends – we can witness the power of it’s reach, unleashed across religious, political, ideological and cultural lines.

“We can see how Gandhi in many ways popularized this radical love of Jesus, with nonviolent resistance, which is later picked up by Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, and then spreads to Muslim liberation theology through leaders like Farid Esack” (McLaren, Spiritual Migration)—and is also embraced by neighbors like Matthew Stevenson and, maybe somewhere in that story line, me and you.

This love spreads to a Hindu, then to a Christian, then to a Muslim.  This seems to be the beauty of not reducing Jesus down into a theological formula, but taking on his meaning and source of life as radical love.

This does not deny or compromise the meaning of Jesus, but it extends and grows and moves it forward,  fulfilling the potential of all that this “law of love” can provide.


I’m in training, my friends. Actually, I’m just at the start of drawing up my training program to reorient my heart and mind.

I’m trying as a starting point to observe more of my neighbor—not like creepily, with binoculars, but to pause and take notice with love.

It widens the narrative, and allows me to see them as a human being with human dignity. And this is a great starting point that might just suggest that the neighbor in front of me bears no resemblance to the way I have portrayed them in my script.  

So how many reps/how many sets/how much time do we put into this training?  
All. the. sets. All. the. reps. All. the. time.


The training in this studio of love is intense and yet grows in us this brawny muscle of  love, this soul-force that gets us back to the original narrative of God and Love. “God is love” without limitation or discrimination. So may His “banner over you as love” be less a flag that you have to wave to declare this as true, but rather a way of life that demonstrates that love, and makes it visible to all of your neighbors.

May it be so.

A Tip Whole-life Flourishing

Meditate this week on Jesus’ phrase to you, “My banner over you is love”.  As you go about your days, pay attention to the “neighbors” you normally would avoid or regard as your enemy.  How does this banner of Jesus’ love affect your soul, your heart, your actions?

Spiritual Practice of the Week

Practice the Welcoming Prayer

  • Identify a hurt or an offense in your life.  
  • Name any feelings, emotions, thoughts, sensations and commentaries in your body.
  • Welcome God in all of these, by saying, “Welcome.” This could be anger, grief, sadness, etc.
  • Let go.  Hand over all the pain – yours and the world’s – over to God. Ask God for grace, compassion, forgiveness, or a word that resonates for the pain.

Resources:  Solus Jesus: A Theology of Resistance, by Emily Swan and Ken Wilson

Strength to Love,  Martin Luther King Jr.

The Radical Possibilities in Living by the Rule of Love

A couple of things happened late this fall. One of my boys was interested in checking out the sport of rowing. And then we found out that a rowing studio had opened up not far from where we live. Turns out it’s owned by a guy that went to the same small town high school as me, and he gave us a good deal on a starter membership. So, two or three times a week, I’ve been training with my two sons on rowing machines.

Something about trying a new sport and working on it in a training studio has been really interesting. I watch my boys working with a physical intensity I’m not used to seeing in them. We hear the trainer telling us over and over that rowing uses 86 percent of the muscles in our body, so the training is asking a lot of us, and it’s strengthening us. There are benchmarks for success in this activity – these feel motivating to me too. Just last week, I set a new personal record on one of these times.

Which I can do because I wasn’t very good when I started and I haven’t been doing this for long. But still, it’s energizing to be laying some new grooves in my fitness. So instead of just getting progressively weaker and creakier as the years go by, which at some level is just inevitable – I get that. But maybe I can also find new sources of energy and strength. Through training.

Now it doesn’t matter to anyone but me if I lower my rowing machine times or boost my power. It’s training in a rowing studio.

But we train in other areas of our life that matter to us as well, or we don’t, and we feel the cost of that. The professor who taught me developmental psychology when I was training to be a teacher was also a middle school science and health teacher. God bless him. Teaching middle school health is the work of the angels.

He told us how he taught sex ed to middle schoolers, and particularly about the kinds of relationships in which they’d start to experience romance or sexuality. And he would talk to them about the grooves we lay, whether we want to or not. Like skis make tracks in the snow, or sleds make a path down the hill that gets more and more fixed, harder to deviate from over time.

Or if you are my age or older, or if you’re hip and take your music on vinyl, you’ll know about record grooves, the spot where the needle sits as the record spins, so that it takes some kind of jolt to get it out of the groove. Human behavior and thinking are patterns like this. The more we do something a certain way, the more we are training our mind and our body to keep doing it that way. So he’d tell his 7th graders, think about the kind of romantic or sexual relationships you want to have later and start out in that same kind of pattern. If you want a series of shallow, unintimate, uncommitted, unloving partners later in life, then casual romantic contact without deep relationship—hook-up culture—will set the grooves to get you there. But if you want a committed, intimate, loving partner later in life, then practice commitment, practice self-control, practice emotional vulnerability and love and affection earlier too. That will set different grooves.

I thought this was a great way my professor was teaching about relational habits and grooves in the context of sex ed.

We do this kind of training, this habit-making, this groove-setting in all the parts of life. We do it intentionally and unintentionally. At Reservoir, we try to make this kind of practice of the inner life—of spirituality, of relationships, of character – as explicit as possible, so we can make choices about the kind of spiritual and relational and moral life we each want to develop. This is why we end just about all our teachings on Sundays commending a spiritual practice—a type of training for a deeper, more joyful, more resilient inner life and connection to God.

At the start of this new year, we wanted to make explicit why we do this, and to what end. If you want to be a person of faith, and specifically if you’re intrigued by the notion of following Jesus, or perhaps even committed to a Jesus-centered life of faith already, then what is at the heart of that life? Where is it going? Are there things like spiritual, or inner life, or relational personal records? How would we train for such a thing?

So for the first eight weeks of this year, we’re teaching a series called Training in the Studio of Love. The sequence is inspired by an idea that an old friend of our church, a writer named Brian McLaren, has been exploring. He’s noticed that religion in general, Christianity in particular, has been good at training certain mindsets, ways of thinking, many of which haven’t served well. But he’s also noted that Jesus was abundantly clear about the center of faith, about the end not just of religion but of all of life. And McLaren has suggested a system of training in Jesus’ way of love, one that we’ll follow in this series.

We’ll be reading this week, and each of these eight weeks, from the memoirs of the life of Jesus called the Good News of Luke, after the name of its purported author.

And we’ll jump right into the middle here, because there’s this moment in Jesus’ life when he gets right at the center of the things. What is most important in life, and how do we train to get there? It starts like this.

Luke 10:25-28 (CEB)

25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He responded, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

28 Jesus said to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”

So by way of context, Jesus has been training his disciples—his students, his apprentices. He’s been training them to do what he’s been doing, which in Luke is called speaking good news, particularly speaking good news to those who are poor. And announcing freedom, and healing, and liberation for people.

But this legal expert is somehow threatened by what Jesus and his students are up to. Or maybe he doesn’t understand it—it’s so unexpected, or simple, or out of reach for him, we don’t know. But he does what a certain type of person will do when threatened or confused. He tries to start an argument.

So, three things we’ve got here: how arguments work and don’t, the meaning of life, and theory vs. training.

Arguments. This scene is an argument that somehow never becomes an argument. As I mentioned, there’s this legal expert who likely is threatened or confused, but in his mind—and in everybody else’s mind—he’s an expert. And experts don’t like seeming threatened or confused, so this expert tries to start an argument. Luke says he was trying to test Jesus. He’s trying to ask Jesus a hard question, or a controversial one, or bait him into a conversation where Jesus will appear to know less that he does. But the argument that he was looking for never materializes.

Because Jesus won’t take the bait. Arguments just don’t seem especially interesting to Jesus, they don’t move forward what he cares about. So Jesus does what he does so often when he’s asked a question, which is that he asks a question right back. Not defensively or dismissively—we know what that sounds like—but curious.

Like—well, you’re the expert. You’re wondering about the center of it all, how you find deep and rich and good life forever. What does our law say? How do you read it?

I wish I’d remember this on Christmas Day where like 30 seconds into my conversation with one of my brothers, I was already embroiled in a weird, random argument. That did not add anything to either of our days. It did not in any way move either of us forward.

Arguments are rarely the best way to move an idea forward in a relationship. But they always take two people, and Jesus rarely let himself be one of those people. Because there’s always another way forward.

So, arguments and their alternatives.

Second, the meaning of life. When I was a kid, my friends and I thought this was the ultimate unanswerable question, the conversation stopper to stop all conversations. What’s the meaning of life? As if nobody knows.

So maybe it’s a great test, but again, Jesus asks: what do you think? And the legal expert responding to Jesus says well, in our tradition, we’ve been taught that the meaning of life is to love God with your whole self and to love your neighbor just as much as you love yourself.

And Jesus just says yes. Sounds good.

What does he mean—yes? Yes, this is what our tradition teaches. Yes, this is true. Yes, this is the center of where to aim our energy if we want to really live?

Yes. Yes, I think all of that. This is becoming a short conversation because Jesus just says yes.

The meaning of life is love, and not just romance, but to love what made you, to love where you come from, to love the source of all things, and to do that with your whole being. We might call this gratitude, we might call this wonder. We might call this resistance to a consumer culture obsessed with power and success and buying and acquiring. We might call this living into a story of grace or abundance or the relationality of all things. All this, yes. But the simplest and I guess the most traditional way to put it is just to say to love God with our whole selves.

And inseparable from that, right tied up in it, is to call other humans neighbors and to love them just as we love ourselves.

That’s it. Short, concise, but the very center of life, and the path to more and more life.

There’s a whole program here, and one that Brian McLaren suggests we take in a particular sequence we’ll use over these 8 weeks.

We start with love of neighbor, because it stretches us, it pulls us outside of ourselves, and helps us think about what love really is and isn’t. We’ll spend two weeks on that.

Then we look at an unselfish love of self. Because Jesus, and the whole tradition assumes that we know how to love ourselves, and that we know how that’s different from being self-centered or all wrapped up inside ourselves. But of course, we don’t know those things. So we’ll spend two weeks on that too.

Then we ask what it means to love this world around us. Two more weeks on that.

And finally, grounded in all that, we return to what it means to love God with our heart, our being, our strength, and our mind. So that’s our sequence for January and February.

So again, Arguments and how they work and don’t, second, the meaning of life and what we’ll be up to this winter, and then third, theory vs. training.

You’ll notice I’ve been talking about the meaning of life—an abstract, theoretical question. But the legal expert doesn’t exactly ask it this way, he asks how do we *get* life? How do we obtain real, abundant, lasting life? And Jesus, and his tradition, takes his slight drift away from theory and runs with it. Because Jesus is less interested a theoretical answer to this question about the center and source of life, and much more interested in the training that will take us there.

Jesus invites this man, Jesus invites us—ours minds, our bodies, and our whole selves—to the hard work of training in the way of love. Jesus affirms that the law of love at the center of life isn’t a thing to think about but to do.

This isn’t satisfying to that legal expert who wasn’t really looking for training in the way of eternal life as much as he was looking for an argument. So he tries one more time. We’ll read the rest of the passage now, as we stick on this training bit for a while.

Luke 10:29-37 (CEB)

29 But the legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves, who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31  Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 32  Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his way. 33  A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34  The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and took care of him. 35  The next day, he took two full days’ worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36  What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who encountered thieves?”

37 Then the legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Who is my neighbor?

There’s of course a radical expansion here. From the person that lives next door to you, or your spouse or kid or friend or co-worker. Out to a stranger, someone you’ve never met, in big trouble, in a dangerous place. And not just from friend to stranger, but from friend to stranger to other or enemy.

Jesus was remarkably good storyteller, and his story has a little rhythm to it here. There’s this priest walking by, and then there’s this Levite—which is broader than priest, but another big city establishment figure. And if you were a legal expert, particularly if you were part of this growing, dynamic party called the Pharisees, you’d expect to be next. Which would make sense—this guy is asking who is my neighbor? And so Jesus tells a story about neighboring. And there are two people who don’t love their neighbor. And this guy would expect somebody like him would be the third person, and Jesus would use that character to show how he should love his neighbor.

And on the one hand, the expectation is spot on. This is how stories work. The third person is the example to follow. Except with Jesus, his stories never quite follow expectations, so there’s this huge twist. This big, by the way, in the story, which is that Jesus says, by the way, your example is your enemy. The one who’s going to teach you how to love your neighbor, which is to say, the one who’s going to teach you the meaning and center of life, is the person you’ve written off and avoided and judged again and again and again. That person will show you the way. Go, and do likewise.

Your neighbor is your neighbor, and your neighbor is a stranger you’ll come across, and your neighbor is also the one you’d call other or enemy.

After this, what it looks like to actually love that neighbor seems kind of obvious to Jesus. Like he builds up to the last person being a Samaritan and then says, oh yeah, he did everything the person needed, and then more. He took care of stuff and set him up for a better tomorrow. He paid the bill, and tipped well. You know, what love looks like—that’s what he did. Try it out.

There are of course crazy stories of people going big with this kind of love. People humanizing and neighboring, and so disarming their racists or their oppressors. Socially prominent people connecting with their Internet trolls. Whole nations figuring out how justice and reconciliation and restoration fit together.

But there are ordinary ways people live this out in less dire and maybe less dramatic ways too.

I think of the time I switched companies for a big promotion, only to discover that most of the people on the big team I was going to lead were rooting against me. Some of them were ready to actively resist whatever I brought to the table. Because of political and budgetary dynamics I didn’t really have anything to do with. I was hardly lying on the side of the road, robbed and left for dead. But I was in a jam. I was positioned to fail, or at least be miserable trying to succeed.

But there were four people who were willing to work with me on a little advisory council to turn that dynamic, four people who were willing to count themselves as my partners in the work, and one of those four in particular who made every effort to befriend me, to encourage me, to share with me whatever he knew and had. Those four people, and that one guy in particular, saved my year, and maybe saved my transition. They were my good Samaritans, my neighbors.

The question I have about all this is how do you get there?

This is not natural behavior, it’s not for me. I’m happy to engage my inner circles with a modicum of kindness, sometimes even that’s a stretch. But at most times, in most circumstances, I’d rather ignore the stranger and avoid or argue with the other or the enemy.

We’re free to do this, or course, but Jesus will trouble us with the observation that this is to miss the meaning and center of life.

How do you become the kind of person who, when you have the opportunity to save someone, do so without thinking? How—when you have the opportunity to heal division, or be good news, or to take your generosity and apply it somewhere you hadn’t thought of—do you be the person who sees the moment and says yes?

Because this is hard work. It asks a lot of us.

How do you get there?

I think like anything else that counts, we get there by practice, by training. By doing the next thing in front of us each day to re-neighbor the world.

Our family has been noticing that Grace, my wife, has developed this habit of chatting up strangers, particularly women, and complimenting women out in public whenever she can. Their hair, their clothes, whatever. And we realized eventually that this was a choice she’d made, to assert her voice in the world, and to do it in a way that would build up and encourage other women. And that seemed really cool to me, for a lot of reasons, but including because it’s this kind of training—a choice to make a habit of how she’s going to interact with strangers, and how she’s going to use her voice in those interactions, to encourage people, to alleviate their insecurity, to say: I see you and I like what I see.

I thought of this just last night because I was heading to a social event where I knew I was going to end up grumpy, disengaged, and checked out—sitting in a corner with my food, checking my phone, waiting for it to end. And I thought, I want to practice loving my neighbors at this party. I can do this thing Grace has been doing, looking for ways to just take an interest in each person I meet, have something nice or encouraging to say to them.

It was maybe kind of pathetic that I needed to actively make this choice, but I did, and you know what, nothing special happened. I don’t think I changed anybody’s life. I certainly didn’t save anyone. But I also didn’t end up checked out and grumpy. And I think it was practice, training to nudge me into the kind of grooves that will help me see and love my neighbor more.

I take Jesus at his word that this is good for us, this command to love our neighbor as ourselves. I think there’s an opportunity here – not just to heal the world, but to find the life Jesus says we’ll get when we train ourselves in his way of love.

I think the opportunity to find ourselves, even as we’re alone in the world, to also be accompanied by friendship everywhere we go.

I take this line from a poem by David Whyte, a poem I love called “The Bell and the Blackbird” that is full of some of the beautiful paradox that makes us life. And at the end, there’s this bit:

That radiance

you have always

carried with you

as you walk

both alone

and completely


in friendship

by every corner

of the world



I was so gripped by that image at the end. We all know life can be lonely. I don’t need more ideas about how to press into that reality. But I found myself wondering why that image of being “accompanied in friendship by every corner of the world” was so gripping to me, so appealing. And wondering what it would look like to experience that as true.

And I thought, I think the Samaritan in the story gets that experience. To do all that he did for the man lying on the side of the road is sacrifice and is great help to that poor man, but it’s a profound experience of intimacy and connection and friendship for the Samaritan as well.

For Grace to go about sprinkling the world’s strangers with compliments and encouragement is to give her connection and tastes of friendship everywhere she goes. For me to choose to practice presence and encouragement to strangers last night gave me a much more connected experience of the evening than I would have had otherwise.

I think in loving all our neighbors, wherever we find them—training in this each day, pushing the boundaries of just who is our neighbor, and just how much we might love them—we have a chance to fulfill the mission of Jesus, to re-neighbor the world, and to in the bargain radically change how we experience the world, so that we are everywhere accompanied by friendship as well.

This is the meaning and source of life. Well, at least part of it. There’s seven more weeks where this comes from.

But I do invite you to training, to practice this week, to ask each day: how can I greet each person I see—friend, stranger, other, enemy—as my neighbor? And to ask God for the power and the inclination to not ignore, avoid, or argue with them, but to give who you are and what you have in love.

Do this, and you will live.