Mocked and Alone {into the story}

The soldiers also came up and mocked him…“If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
{Gospel reading for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost: Christ the King Sunday, Luke 23:33-43}

Scripture tells us that when Jesus hung on the cross, the religious leaders scoffed at him and the Roman soldiers mocked him. If it were not enough for Jesus to bend under the weight of the entire world’s sin, to be abandoned by friends and followers, to feel the Father’s dark absence – if all this were not enough to crush a man, then perhaps the ridicule of his persecutors would finish him off. I find that I can bear a good bit of pain and hardship, but the death-nail usually arrives with that one glancing jab, that one dismissive gesture – that moment when it finally lands for me – I am alone.

It doesn’t matter if (as for Jesus) an enemy delivers the word or the silence. Of course, we expect our foes to deride us; however, we also expect our friends to come to our rescue, to have our back. We expect our friends to see us in our distress and in our aloneness – to see us. As Jesus was scoffed and mocked, there were no friends, no rescue. Jesus was, in every way, alone.

As Jesus hung alone in agony, the soldiers attached a sign, a jeering act of sarcasm, above his bruised and bleeding head: This is the King of the Jews. The Romans didn’t believe this at all; they were heckling. Look here, he says he’s a king – and we’ve got him on a skewer. Even one of the criminals crucified next to Jesus piled on, deriding Jesus. You’re no Messiah – a Messiah would be able to save himself from all this. You’re a joke.

But in the strangest of turns, we find that these men’s taunts in fact proclaimed the bold irony of the gospel. Indeed, this was the King of the Jews. This was God come to humanity. This was the most impossible moment: God, in Jesus, surrendering himself to the most horrific anguish – all for the sake of love. And the criminal was actually right. The Messiah could save himself. Only, the Messiah chose not to.

If Jesus had saved himself, he could not have saved us. Jesus willing entered into the abyss so he could carry us out of it.

Wee Little Man {into the story}

And Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” {Gospel reading for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 19:1-10}

If you grew up in Sunday School, you know the story because you know the song. Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he… I’d hate to be known by young and old as wee, a sing-songy character relegated to children’s Sunday coloring projects.

Luke does tell us, matter-of-factly, that Zacchaeus was “a short man,” and that, in order to see Jesus, he had to climb a sycamore (or fig) tree. However, as Luke narrates the story, it becomes obvious that Luke holds Zacchaeus in high regard. Zacchaeuss was not a wee man but a courageous man.  Zacchaeuss had courage to run after Jesus, courage to follow Jesus, courage to throw the dice on whatever Jesus asked him to do.

When Luke makes the introduction, he tells us Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector (read: despicable tool of the Empire) — and rich. This addition is crucial. Any first-century reader would have assumed Zacchaeus to be rich. If you are a tax collector (and especially the chief tax collector) and if you get to doctor the books and add your “service” fees on the top and skim your pocket-money off the top of whatever you say is due – then, God knows, you’ve got money. You’ve sold your soul for it. Money’s the one thing, maybe the only thing, you do have. You’ve got no integrity, no friends, no dignity – but you are rich.

So why add this synonym? Why highlight this word?

It would seem this biographical note serves to push our memory back to the previous story Luke had just told, a tale of another rich man (Luke 18:18-30). This young, wealthy ruler came to Jesus, full of self-importance, asking Jesus to tell him whatever he needed to do in order to inherit God’s kingdom. Just tell me, he says. I’ve got it covered. Taken aback by such brash arrogance, Jesus lays down the law, literally.

“Well, you’re not that good. Why don’t you just go and keep all Moses’ commandments,” Jesus answers.

Remarkably, the wealthy ruler remains indomitable. “Yeah, all good there. Done. What else you got?”

What do you say in the face of such ignorance, such unabashed egotism? What do you say to someone who insists they have no problems, no weaknesses, no sin? Jesus upped the ante; Jesus hit him where it would certainly hurt. “Okay, then, if you are so almighty and good – go sell everything you own. And give it away.” Luke says the ruler simply walked away sad. This was the one thing he could not do. He could not surrender what he clung to for life: money.

Jesus summed up this encounter with his disciples: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” And the disciples and those listening and all the first readers would have sat dumbfounded. What? How can this be… For them, the rich (by honest means – so long as you weren’t a Roman tax collector) were those closest to God. Wealth signalled God’s blessing. If the rich who’ve got it all together can’t get in…

But then, we come to a second rich man, Zacchaeus. The first rich man (the young ruler) was the one everyone assumed was righteous – and he went away without God. The second rich man (Zacchaeus) was the one everyone assumed to be evil – and the story ends with Jesus, at his house, having a party and ticking off all the religious elites. In an act of humble contrition, Zacchaeus offered this: “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay back four times the amount.” And Jesus honored and embraced him.

It is as though the point was not at all about the amount the rich might give away but about the heart that acknowledges it has nothing to give, nothing to lose, a life fully cast onto God for mercy. That is the place to be – because Jesus is quick with mercy, quick to embrace.

Zacchaeus was not a wee little man. Short, perhaps – but his heart was huge. His heart was open to God.

I had a piece this week in the Washington Post. Take a peek.

Wrestling Under the Moon {into the story}

Jacob was left alone, but a man wrestled with him until daybreak. {OT reading for the 24th week after Pentecost, Genesis 32:22-31}

It is not good to prevail when one is wrestling an angel.
{John Walton}

Such a strange story. Jacob embarks on the long trek home after his exile for stealing his brother Esau’s birthright when he receives word that Esau and his warriors are heading their way. Jacob fears the worst. Though decades have passed and both brothers have aged and secured their own wealth and powerful family-clans, Esau may still have a taste for revenge. No one loves like brothers, but no one hates like brothers too – it’s a sad theme of the human saga.

So late in the evening, Jacob sends his people across the river, with an elaborate, ingenious stratagem for how the family is to split up and how they are to meet Esau in waves and what they are to say with each encounter – all scripted, just as we would expect from one whose name means schemer. Jacob schemed to get his father Isaac’s blessing. Jacob schemed to snatch Esau’s birthright. Jacob schemed to secure the cattle he wanted from his father-in-law. Jacob was a schemer par excellence.

But now Jacob was alone, alone with his fears and the weight of his years maneuvering and plotting and working the angles. Jacob must have sensed everything crashing, unraveling. He’d put together his best plan – but Esau was stronger, more powerful. Esau’s warriors were men of the sword, and Jacob’s conniving efforts were futile if Esau decided on payback.

What do we do when our skill and ingenuity are spent, when there is nothing else we can do – and when all indicators point to the fact that our best effort simply won’t be enough?

Jacob sat alone, under the dim moonlight, when a figure leaps from the shadows. And an epic wrestling match ensues. At this moment in the story, we are told that Jacob is grappling with “a man,” but later we discover Jacob is actually wrestling God – or an angel sent by God which, though I have no experience in such things, I would imagine is (for us mortals) pretty much the same as wrestling God.

Jacob and the angel wrestled through the night, and Jacob, true to form, proved scrappy. He had spent his life fighting, and he wouldn’t go down easy. Only this time, Jacob couldn’t win. When the angel tired of the contest, the divine wrestler touched (only touched, a flick of the finger, as if to say, “Now, you didn’t really think you had a chance, did you?”) Jacob’s hip.

And Jacob was done. Incapacitated. Finished. All Jacob could do was hang on, as Buechner says, like a “man drowning.”

This is the moment all of us schemers must come to — the point where we are finished, worn out, exhausted. Drowning. So long as we are convinced we’ve got life by the scruff of the neck, we will scheme and manipulate and keep God a safe distance. At some point, though, if God is kind, God will wrestle us to the ground and hold us there until we cry “mercy!” Mercy is what God longs to give – but we have to receive it.

God will love us with mercy that heals or with mercy that hurts – but from God, it’s mercy all the same. In the wise word of George MacDonald: “There are victories far worse than defeats; and to overcome an angel too gentle to put out all his strength, and ride away in triumph on the back of a devil, is one of the poorest.”

Mustard and Mulberry {into the story}

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 
{NT reading for the 22nd week after Pentecost, Luke 17:5-10}

I’ve never much liked this story. While there’s some debate about whether or not Jesus actually referred to a mustard seed (poppy seed is one of the other possibilities), it makes no difference. Either way, the point is the same: the seed is tiny, minuscule, next to nothing. And Jesus says that if we have even itty-bitty faith, just a dollop, we can command a mulberry tree to lift its roots out of the crusty earth and walk its way right down to the sea. Matthew’s account is even more dramatic – there, we are told that pint-sized faith moves mountains. Moves mountains. What??

When some read this account, it stimulates exciting, supernatural possibilities. That’s all we need, a thimble full of faith – and look what could happen. Hold on, everybody… When I read, though, I am bewildered. I’ve never moved a mulberry tree, certainly no mountains. A couple weeks ago, my mom received word that she has bone cancer. I’d love to take a drive to Texas, say a blessing over her and know that vile cancer would evaporate. But I can’t. I don’t possess that kind of faith.

I’m wondering if that might be (at least partly) the point.

When Jesus spoke these words, no disciples jumped up to start tossing trees. In fact, a wider reading suggests that the disciples were confused, perplexed – humbled, we might say. The disciples consistently attempted to commandeer Jesus’ kingdom imagery and displays of power into resources for their own agenda. And Jesus would always refuse. Jesus would say something outlandish that would put them in their place. For instance, Jesus would invite the disciples to gather up their 1/2 teaspoon of faith and rearrange the hillside. An offer like that is bound to take a person down a notch.

Perhaps Jesus’ response to the disciples’ mixed-motives request for an increase in faith wasn’t intended to help them gain a positive vision of their endless possibilities, a divine pep-talk. Perhaps the nod to mulberries and mountains was to show the disciples how small they were, how much they needed God.

God isn’t one we use, one to provide us with material for divine magic tricks. God is, well, God. God is the one we worship. The one we love and obey. The one we hope in. The one who, in Jesus, died and rose again to defeat evil, embody redemption and commence new creation.

With the mountains and mulberry trees, perhaps Jesus was suggesting we don’t first need bigger faith. We need a bigger view of God.

Heart-sick Tears {into the story}

O that my head were a spring of water,
           and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
           for the slain of my poor people!
{Old Testament reading for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Jeremiah 8:18-9:1}

Jeremiah, known as the weeping prophet, did not stand distant from his people. Jeremiah was immersed in their story, their life, their tragedies. Have you ever encountered a man quick with tears? It’s a powerful thing, genuine tears  – and most of us are uncomfortable with this raw, unmasked power. We admire it from a distance, but usually we don’t want it up close. Tears make us shifty, our eyes desperate to find a safe way to look away. We want to make the moment better, make the tears stop, fix something.

But Jeremiah just wept. Jeremiah cried because what he saw, what he experienced, demanded tears. This world is not as it should be, and the awake soul does not force a smile but rather echoes Jermiah’s words: “My heart is sick.”

My wife Miska is a weeping prophet. If a conversation strikes deep, as Miska always hopes it will, chances are that tears will soon follow. These tears are one of the burdens she bears in this world. At times, tears make her feel alone. They always make her vulnerable. It’s wrenchingly hard to feel the weight of other’s pain. But Miska’s tears are also gift; her tears heal. One of my favorite experiences is watching Miska’s powerful presence, coupled with her powerful tears, touch a wounded place in another’s soul.

Sometimes, tears speak for themselves, communicating truths that words would only diminish. I think there is a reason that the shortest verse in the Bible says, only, “Jesus wept.”

Who Loves Jesus More? {into the story}

The tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus.
{Gospel reading for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, Luke 15:1-10}

This morning, on the one day a year the calendar explicitly tells us to cease from our labors (God suggests once per week – I prefer that rhythm), we walked to brunch at the Blue Moon, perhaps the hippest breakfast joint in town. Where else would you find a large picture of Willie Nelson hanging above the fireplace, dine amid the home turf for the Charlottesville Derby Dames (our local roller derby squad) and hear someone ordering gourmet pancakes and whisky?

The walk was perfect – the first nip of Fall and good conversation with the boys. Much of the time I spent with Seth. Lately, I’ve noticed Seth’s eagerness to be with me. We’ve always enjoyed each other; but for as long as I remember, Seth has provided me a humbling refrain: “I like you, dad. But I like mom better.” Seth never intended to wound. To him, second place is pretty darn good.

Sometimes, when he would get carried away with his affection, he would tack on a qualifying line, just to make sure his loyalties were clear. “I love you so much, dad,” Seth would gush. And then pause, wrinkle his brow and add, “But I do love mom more.”

This Sunday’s Gospel reading makes me wonder who it is that loves God more. I should be quick to admit that the text doesn’t talk at all about our love for God. Quite the opposite, it talks about God’s love for us. Like the shepherd who has 100 sheep and has 1 wander off, God leaves the many to go after the 1. The emphasis of the parable – and the whole of the Bible – is not how deep our love is for God but how massive God’s love is for his creation.

Still, there is a tenderness I see, the first hints at love perhaps, when the tax collectors and sinners –  the despised, the outcasts — shuffled close to Jesus. They wanted to come near and hear his words. I don’t know if they loved Jesus yet, but it was Love they were hearing, Love they were responding to, Love that made them gather ’round.

The dispossessed are always the ones drawn to the renegade. When we have no power and when the illusion of our own self-importance and our own kingdoms has been sufficiently pilfered, we are most able to hear the call of love. And then to gather ’round. To listen. To come close and find out if there might be something here worth hoping for.

The religious elites grumbled; they didn’t come to listen. The powerful Romans were nowhere to be found. Well, that’s not quite true. Some elites would come, here and there – and some Romans too – in humility, to receive. But when they came, they did not arrive as power-makers. They joined the long line forming, the line of sinners, the line filled with the desperate and the ruined. They came to be loved.

And then – and only then – would they have love to return.

Deprivation and Hope {into the story}

So, therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all of your possessions.
{Gospel reading for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Ordinary Time, Luke 14:25-33)

Jesus words’ cause distress for many of us. We look at all we have – and all that we want to have – and we wonder (hope) what else Jesus could possibly have meant. Must I hand over the house I live in, the car I drive, the computer I’m typing on in order to follow Jesus? 
But this isn’t a matter of me surrendering the title or the keys of anything over to God; this is a matter of me abandoning the illusion that the keys or the title were ever mine to begin with. Scripture’s most fundamental truth is this: God is King. God owns everything. Everything.
Whatever I think I own – it’s an illusion. Following Jesus means coming to terms with the truth that God possesses all things. Following Jesus means seeing the world as it truly is.
We’ve heard the mantra: It’s hard to be Jesus’ disciple in America because we own so much. I see it slightly differently. I think it’s hard to be Jesus’ disciple in America because we find it so difficult to believe that we don’t own a thing.
Karl Barth said that our temptation is to live in ways that suggest “the characteristic marks of Christianity [are] possession and self-sufficiency” when in reality they are “deprivation and hope.” I love that paradox. I am deprived. I have nothing. Try as I might to make something of myself (and I try, try, try), it’s a bismal failure. I have nothing.
But I do have hope. I have hope because the King of All has named me Beloved. And has welcomed me home. And even now prepares me a feast. To give up my possessions is to admit the truth that I don’t have any possessions. And then to receive God’s lavish, unbridled grace and kindness.

Angels Everywhere {into the story}

I’m beginning a new practice (at least for a bit), interacting with one of the lectionary texts for the upcoming Sunday. I’d like to ruminate on them ahead of time, and I thought you might want to join me. Not sure exactly how regular this will be, but we will see. If you are unfamiliar with the lectionary, it is a way for many Christians across the world to read shared texts and hear together our shared gospel story. So, into the story…

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people show hospitality to angels without knowing it. 
{Epistle reading for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, Ordinary Time, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16}

As a child, this was one of the Scripture passages that set our imaginations awhirl. Would I bump into an angel at the mall? Might I catch a mischievous wink from a cherubim on the corner?

This possibility of encountering divine creatures transformed the ordinary into the magical. Anything could happen. You could run into an angel absolutely anywhere.

The text seems to suppose that running across angels is humdrum. These angels are not met amid flaming bushes or a choir of heavenly hosts. They are met over dinner, breaking of break, coffee perhaps. Hospitality.

If there was anything we sunday school kids knew about angels, it was that they were God’s messengers. When an angel was present, God was present. And God is everywhere, ours to see if we’ll live with open eyes. It’s a good reason to pay attention next time we’re having a conversation, no matter the person and no matter how unlikely the space. You never know who you’re chatting with. You never know what you’ll discover in the story you’re hearing – and in the story you’re telling.