Worship

Twenty-third Week After Pentecost

Sarah Goettsch

October 27, 2018

They came to Jericho.

These are the first words in our text from the book of Mark. The “they” is Jesus and his disciples. What this group does while in Jericho, we don’t know,; however, we do know that it must have been impressive, because, by the time they leave Jericho, their group has swelled from a group of 13 to a large crowd. This small band of people has managed, in a very short time, to become a sort of human caravan; they are a crowd on a journey. Where are they headed after they leave Jericho? It turns out, they are headed to Jerusalem. But wait, we’ll come back to that.

For now, they are in Jericho, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world; estimated to be around 10,000 years old. It is the city with the oldest known protective wall in the world. By the time Jesus and his disciples roll through town, Jericho was already around 8,000 years old! In other words, by the time Jesus shows up, Jericho has already seen a lot of stuff.

Excavations in Jericho have revealed evidence of dwellers from the stone-age, hunter-gatherers, and artifacts from the Bronze Age, which was the backdrop for the fall of the Great Wall of Jericho at the hands of the Israelites according to the book of Joshua, a pivotal moment for both Jews and Christians. Jericho reveals artifacts from the Iron Age. After the death of Jesus, Jericho saw the Byzantine Empire arrive in the 4th century, when Christianity first took hold there, by which time there were already at least two major Jewish synagogues. In the 8th century, Jericho greeted her first Muslim inhabitants. The Crusades ravaged her in the 12th century. Jericho was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century; blood soaked her soil during both World Wars I and II. Although Jericho technically has been occupied by Israel since 1967, Palestine has administrative authority over the city; however, Jericho is encircled by four roadblocks which significantly restrict Jericho’s Palestinians’ movement through the West Bank. So, suffice it to say, Jericho bears her share of battle scars and has seen some stuff.  

The city is so old and has seen so much history and human drama, one must wonder…by the time Jesus and his band of disciples show up–is there  anything new for Jericho to see? Surely, the city had seen it all, even two thousand years ago when Jesus rolls through town. So was this Jesus something new, or was he just another prophet or preacher, another healer from the country, passing through town?

It would seem Jesus is something new, as his numbers continue to swell. He enters Jericho with twelve; he leaves with a large crowd. And as the crowd moves prepares to leave the city, they encounter a blind beggar. When this blind beggar hears this man passing through town wais Jesus, he calls out to him. Many people tries to hush him but he only calls out louder, “Jesus, Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Jesus stops in his tracks and tells the man to come to him., A and the man jumps up and runs blindly to Jesus, and Jesus heals this man and the man follows Jesus, and the mob picks up yet another disciple as they move through town on their way to Jerusalem. This Jesus, prophet, healer, Messiah, is on the move.

The crowd, this human caravan, begins the journey to Jerusalem. The road from Jericho to Jerusalem was known as “The Way of Blood,” due to the amount of bloodshed from robberies and other acts of violence. It is a road both of heroism and hypocrisy, when two religious people pass by a traveler who has just been attacked and left for dead on the side of the road. The only one who stops to help him is a Samaritan, an enemy of the injured Jewish man. And yet he heroically stops while the other two hypocritically go on their way. Martin Luther King, Jr,  sums up this parable by saying the first two likely didn’t stop, because they are either afraid the robbers were still hiding closeby or else they suspect the injured man is faking it in order to lure them in and rob them, and so the greatest risk the Samaritan man takes by helping the injured man was–what might happen to me?

There is risk on this road from Jericho to Jerusalem. This human caravan, picking up numbers as it moves, could easily be ambushed. These are not soldiers or warriors, these are farmers, shepherds and fishermen. These are stone masons, bricklayers, carpenters. These are mothers, fathers, grandparents. These are not terrorists seeking to invade Jerusalem, these are humans following hope even at tremendous personal risk.

Jesus gives them hope that the sick can be healed, that sins can be forgiven, that life can follow death. Jesus gives them hope that they matter, that they are not merely a herd of cattle, but rather a caravan of beloved and precious Sons and Daughters of God the Most High. And so as Jesus moves from Jericho to Jerusalem, from celebration to crucifixion, the crowd moves with him. The blind man is compelled to move with Jesus; his only other option is to remain in the place where he once was blind, a place of shadow and judgment. Yet, he stands and moves.

God is on the move when hope mobilizes despairing people, when the road from Jericho to Jerusalem is traveled safely, when the road from Honduras to the US is traversed without violence, when a demoralized and impoverished people find their courage to get up and go, putting one foot in front of the other, emboldened by sweaty hope, carrying their children on their shoulders.

God is on the move when  three disciples becomes six becomes twelve becomes a great crowd moving from countryside to sea to mountaintop. God is on the move when 100 becomes 1000 becomes 15000 moving from village to city park to international border.

God is on the move when you proclaim with shoulders back and chin held high, “I will not be silenced,” when persistence prevails, when chants of “Yes, We Could!” become chants of “Yes, We Can!” and when the single human voice blends in with the throng of human chorus. God is on the move when, in the face of forced silence, the brave human voice says, “Listen to me, Jesus, Son of David!”

God is on the move, when your very foundation trembles and your Jericho walls fall and you witness with your own eyes the power of God, when you see walls continue to fall and realize you are free from whatever it is that holds you captive, when you receive a blanket instead of foil, a job instead of a handout and a home instead of a tent.

God is on the move when your eyes are opened to injustice and you find yourself saying and doing the bold thing, even though you are shaken to your core in fear, when you remember your brothers Abraham and Moses and take courage from them when God told them it is time to get up and move.

God is on the move, when you are oppressed or repressed or depressed, when you lack the strength to pull yourself out of bed, when you search every day for deep meaning, when you wonder what to do with your one wild and precious life; God is on the move, when walls between people crumble with a mighty crash.

God is on the move, whether you come to this place legally or illegally, whether you come here by land bridge or shackled to a ship, whether you are male or female or somewhere in between, regardless of whom you love,; God is on the move, whether you showered this morning or last week; God is on the move regardless of your native tongue or your cuisine or the origin of your name or the thickness of your wallet or the way in which you pray, God is on the move. Do not be afraid, be of good courage–God is moving towards you.


Twenty-fifth Week after Pentecost

Women are in the house today!

            Both in the House of Representatives and Senate in unprecedented numbers

            And in these 2 texts about widows and economic justice.

The last couple of weeks the widow of Zeraphath 

has been getting Johnny off to school 

and trying everything she can think of 

to turn around her lack-of-money issues. 

She went to her neighbor who interrupted her midsentence saying, 

“You’re so angry, it’ll be hard to get a new husband.” 

She went to a counselor who said 

he could help her work on her attitude. 

She went to the priest, who reminded her 

that the way the economic system works is that she needs to 

marry someone of means or 

wait till her son grows up—in the meantime, stop being so serious. 

She went to the magistrate, but couldn’t get a hearing because the clerks said 

she was aggressive and pushy, with a shrill voice.

Silenced

Dismissed

Silenced

Stuck in systems of propriety that don’t work for her real life

Silenced

Disempowered

Silenced.

She’s got one last supper.

She’s out grabbing the kindling and

Elijah shows up asking her for food.

            Can’t you hear her mirthful laugh?

“I have nothing baked, 

only a handful of meal in a jar, 

and a little oil in a jug;

I am now gathering a couple of sticks, 

so that I may go home and 

prepare it for myself and my son, 

that we may eat it,         and die.”

The Widow of Zeraphath was assaulted by an economic system that valued men as money earners.

            The widow of zeraphath had two options—a wage-earning husband or a grown son

                        -neither were possible—her husband was gone; her son was young

            the clock was ticking—meaning, 

the jar of meal was dwindling, 

the jug of oil draining 

and no one had married her

Options are up—an oppressive system didn’t have room for her—she was making their last supper

An oppressive system, a system of assault, a harassing system that limits options has caught other women in withering webs.

The #MeToo Movement 

exposes the prevalence 

of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

In the first 2 days, 12 million comments were posted to Facebook

In the first 3 months after this hashtag appeared, 25,000 women tweeted confirming they’d been assaulted. 

The #MeToo Movement offers a major critique of culture and the imbedded abuse of women.

In 2006, it was Tarana Burke who founded the “me too” Movement. Here’s her story of how it began:

Text Box: The ‘me too’ Movement™ started in the deepest, darkest place in my soul.
As a youth worker, dealing predominately with Black children and children of color, I had seen and heard my share of heartbreaking stories—from broken homes to abusive or neglectful parents—when I met Heaven.
During an all-girl bonding session at our youth camp, several of the girls in the room shared intimate stories about their lives. …
The next day, Heaven—who had been in the previous night’s session—asked to speak with me privately. … later in the day she caught up with me and almost begged me to listen. I reluctantly conceded, and for the next several minutes this child, Heaven, struggled to tell me about her “stepdaddy”—rather, her mother’s boyfriend—who was doing all sorts of monstrous things to her developing body. I was horrified by her words, and the emotions welling inside of me ran the gamut.
I listened until I literally could not take it anymore-/which turned out to be less than 5 minutes. Then, right in the middle of her sharing her pain with me, I cut her off and immediately directed her to another female counselor who could “help her better.”
I will never forget the look on her face.
I watched her walk away from me as she tried to recapture her secrets and tuck them back into their hiding place. I watched her put her mask back on and go back into the world like she was all alone and I couldn’t even bring myself to whisper…me too.
– Tarana Burke
Founder, The ‘me too.’ Movement

Twenty-sixth Week after Pentecost

The so-called “Camp Fire” rages across California, 

consuming acres and lives in its searing path.

Battle-ground recounts rage through states with too-close-to call elections, 

consuming good will and trust in systems in their wake.

Hannah burned hot under the ridicule and severe provocation of her rival,

(Elkanah’s other wife Peninnah, along with her troop of healthy,     growing,      prosperous,            life-promising sons.)

consuming her well-being and happiness. 

Peninnah didn’t miss a chance to barb Hannah:

“Are you blessed yet to have a child, Hannah?” 

“I’m pregnant again, Hannah.” 

“What have you done to offend God, Hannah?” 

“I’m pregnant again, Hannah.” 

“Why do you even bother going to the House of the Lord, Hannah?”

At first Hannah was merely irritated.

Then she began to have tears overtake her as she was sweeping the house.

Then the tears forced themselves into public spaces—at the marketplace she would draw her scarf across her face and rush away from conversations she usually loved.

Then she stopped wanting to eat.

Then she stopped eating. 

But next, she stood tall. She said, “I’m going again to the house of the Lord.”

Hannah was distressed as she prayed

She was deeply distressed, but still she prayed

Eli knelt at his prayer bench and watched her swaying back and forth

She wept bitterly, but still she prayed

            Saying, “look at me, Lord

                        Remember me

                        Don’t forget me

                        Give me what I need.

Eli knelt at his prayer bench and watched her lips moving.

She swayed and prayed

Eli gathered up his robes and confronted her. “why are you here drunk?”

Hannah stood up—stood up tall and confronted Eli: “The only thing I’ve been pouring out is my soul before the LORD—speaking out of my great anxiety.” 

Eli took a step back. “I see” I think God will grant your petition.”

Hannah was soon “with child”

And she stood up again:

            This time to glorify God’s holy name:


Hannah prayed and said, “My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. “There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. The LORD kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world. “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. The LORD! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The LORD will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

The forest rangers were acused of mishandling the forests in CA

            Stood up, said no

            Stood up and resisted an oppressive interpretation

            Found some understanding 

            Stood up and praised the Creator of all forests and creatures.

In GA, one African American was shuffled from one place to vote to another, each telling him it was not his place. After 5 hours of being moved about the city, the polling places closed. He was told “You came too late.”

            He stood up and said “No”

            Stood up and resisted an oppressive interpretation

            Found some understanding

            Others stood up with him, saying No, this cannot be our best 

You stand up…

Twenty-second Week After Pentecost

Sarah Goettsch

October 20, 2018

In the early 1980’s, when he was at the peak of his fame, Billy Joel had this peculiar custom during some of his concerts. Every once in a while, he would buy out the front row of seats himself and, just before the concert, send his security up to the nosebleed section and escort those kids to the front row.  He said, “It’s no hardship for some rich guy to afford front row tickets; but the kids in the very last row, they’re the real fans.” Although his Jewish upbringing would likely prevent him from drawing a line from that to Jesus Christ, we as Christians certainly can, especially in light of the constant refrain we hear in the book of Mark of the last being first, of God honoring most those who are the least, and of the ridiculous demand by two of the disciples in today’s Gospel–that Jesus should give them the best seats in the house, one at Jesus’ left hand and one at Jesus’ right.

I am not claiming that Billy Joel is Jesus Christ, although one could make the convincing argument that the words to his ballad “Just the Way You Are” are a beautiful description of grace; furthermore, it’s hard to argue with his challenge to the church in his song “Only the Good Die Young,” where he claims, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints–the sinners are much more fun.” At any rate, we use his gesture of bringing the last row to the front as an image for today, as the disciples yet again miss the mark and fail to understand how very radically Jesus is upending the world, both now in today’s time and in the coming kingdom.

At first, however, it seems like James and John really do get it, by asking to be promoted from last place to first. “We hear you, Jesus,” they say, “and we want to be promoted from lowly fisherman to royalty. We could stand for some wealth and fame and power. We’ve been last, and now we’d like to be first–just as you have said. In fact, we want the best seats, right next to you.” But they have failed to hear a single word that Jesus has told them…Jesus has just predicted his arrest, torture and death for the third time. It turns out, this first place that they are clamoring for, these seats of honor, are not the trophy seats they think they are. The first place seats of honor they are demanding, it turns out, are not seats on a throne, with a bejewelled crown and servants. No, for Jesus, the best seat in the house–the first place position–means a place on the cross. For Jesus, first place means first servant of all. For Jesus, first place means dying for the sins of the world. For Jesus, first place means taking his place among the sinners, the prostitutes, the sick, the dying, the outcast. For Jesus, the best seat in the house is the one at the feet of his disciples.

Jesus knows the disciples don’t understand and that they haven’t listened, and he pushes them–really? You really think you want my seat? Can you drink from the cup that I drink? Are you prepared to lay down your lives for the sake of the world? And they say, “YES!” And the other ten, picking up on where Jesus is going, punch the two brothers and say, “Shut up, would you? By the way, Jesus, they don’t speak for us…”

Because even Jesus doesn’t always want to drink the cup he’s been given…even Jesus, in his humanity and in his fear in the face of his own unjust yet necessary death, prays to God, “Please take this cup from me–I don’t want it anymore.” And even Jesus, when dying, looks around for the ones who promised they would be with him and cries out in total abandonment. James and John, then, do not know what they are asking. Because, if they had really listened to Jesus, they would know that, when they ask to take a place at Jesus’ right hand and left hand, they are, in fact, be asking to be crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left…because that is the kind of unjust fate that often befalls ones who live a just life. We want to be at your left and at your right, they say; be careful what you ask for, James and John. Just lives often result in unjust punishments. James will discover this when he is executed by the sword, and John will learn this when his execution fails and he is banished forever.

This week, the news has been full of events leading up to the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the US-based journalist who has been missing since October 2, when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get the necessary paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancee, who was waiting for him outside. Khashoggi’s alleged murder has caused outrage around the world, as he is honored as a civil reformer, not a revolutionary, who sought to write the truth about human rights in Saudi Arabia. Details of his alleged gruesome torture and death are still surfacing in the news. Many human rights activists are horrified that such a just man would meet such an unjust death.

But intimidation, detention and murder are not new to those who lead just lives, according to reports and studies published by the Human Rights Watch and Freedom House. Such incidents are becoming the “new normal.” This year alone, 27 journalists have been murdered in Brazil, the Central African Republic, India, Mexico, the European Union and the US. Just last month, Saudi human rights activist Ghanem al-Dosari was violently attacked in London. Russian feminist and activist Pyotr Verzilov was poisoned by nerve gas in September, after running onto a field in Moscow during the World Cup Soccer finals in an anti-government protest. In Iran, 8 environmentalists still remain imprisoned without charge after 8 months of torture. Ogulsapar Muradova, a human rights activist and investigative reporter for Radio Free Europe, was tortured and killed while in government custody in Turkmenistan in 2006. While being a “new normal,” this pattern also reaches far back in history, including Martin Luther King, Jr, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a whole host of martyrs.

What we see here is that allying yourself with the social justice that Jesus commands is scary and often comes with great risk.  A few years before he was arrested and executed for participating in an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in the book The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Today, of course, we expand Bonhoeffer’s use of pronouns to include both men and women; he knows firsthand the cost of following Jesus, the cost of taking his place to the left or to the right of Jesus. It means risking everything for the sake of others; it means drinking the cup that is before you; it means becoming servant of all; it means stepping back so others can step forward; it means decreasing yourself so others can increase; it means using whatever power and privilege you have to usher those in the nosebleed section to the front row; it means relinquishing your honor for the sake of someone who only knows dishonor.

Ironically, this means that places of honor look nothing like what James and John are envisioning. These are not seats in a billion dollar estate in Florida. They are not seats on a private jet. They are not seats on a luxury yacht. They are seats in a detention center, in a freedom bus, in a homeless shelter.

The Gospels clearly show us what places of honor look like that James and John are demanding. When Jesus is executed, the one to Jesus’ left and Jesus’ right are crucified as criminals, same as Jesus. Are they thieves? Are they murderers? Or are they political prisoners? Are the social agitators? Have they also challenged the Roman authorities and threatened the pax romana? Who knows what their crimes are and whether they received a fair trial with adequate legal representation? The only thing we know about these two criminals is that one demands that Jesus save them if he’s really the Son of God and the other tells him to shut up, that they are getting what they deserve. Hmm. Their demands and their bickering sounds strangely reminiscent of the disciples….What we learn from this interaction is not so much who these two are, but who Jesus is when he encounters people in dishonored and humiliating places and places of fear and death.

We learn that Jesus does not flee from humanity when humanity is at its worst, when just people are criminalized, we learn that Jesus takes his place between the criminal to the left and the criminal to the right, that Jesus takes his place between you and me, and THAT is his place of honor, as one who knows what it’s like to be afraid of drinking the cup placed before him, who knows what it’s like when today’s lovely psalm fails you, when evil surrounds on all sides, when affliction comes near your dwelling, when angels do not bear you up on their hands and you strike your foot against a stone. Jesus takes his place beside you when the lion attacks and the serpent bites, when you are not upheld or delivered. Jesus takes his place beside you when you call, but there is no answer, when you are in trouble and there is no rescue and no honor. Jesus takes his place beside you when your life is cut short, when your just efforts meet unjust punishment, when you feel abandoned by God.  Jesus does not desert in any of this.

On the one hand, Jesus and the criminal on his left and his right, then, have much in common…in that, the end, all three die the same death. And yet, before their death, Jesus does something that sets him apart from all other social activists, human rights advocates, and political reformers–Jesus promises them salvation. Jesus doesn’t condemn them as being any worse than he is; they are, after all, all hanging on the same cross. These criminals, then, are no worse than we ourselves. So whatever they’ve done, whatever guilty verdict they’ve earned, Jesus is not deterred by their crimes or their guilt. Nor is Jesus deterred by your crimes or your guilt, whatever it is. Whatever you may or may not have done in life that has catapulted you to last place, you are not God-forsaken. Jesus takes his place beside you; it is his place of deepest honor.

These places of honor that Jesus calls us into don’t look like places of honor–the soup kitchen, the women’s shelter, the planned pregnancy clinic, places at a rally, in a demonstration, at a protest to cry out when other human beings are being oppressed and harmed and abused. Jesus calls us to the back row, the last place, the nosebleed section, to say to those who have lost hope, “You first.” You first for bread, you first for a place at the table, you first for a drink of cold, clean water. You first in God’s kingdom, then me. This is the miracle of Jesus Christ, the servant-God–who does not call down to humanity from his lofty throne in heaven; rather, he takes his place of honor among the criminalized, a just man who meets an unjust death, a servant-God who walks with all, lives with all, lives for all, dies with all, and dies for all.

Twenty-first Week After Pentecost

Sarah Goettsch

October 13, 2018

On Thursday this week, I drove to Jones Park in Cedar Rapids to watch the last cross country match of the season for Liberty High. This course was super hilly and challenging; plus, it was windy and about 45 degrees. I got there early, in time to watch the freshman/sophomore boys’ team start. While watching them run, I learned from one of the coaches that a runner must be able to complete the 5K in under 30 minutes in order to qualify. The coach gestured to one of his runners, who was by then decidedly in last place and said, “That boy always finishes at around 29:55. It drives me crazy.” I made no reply–how could I?–because I have so much admiration for anyone who is able to run any distance in any amount of time, ever. The coach ran off to do coach things, but I watched this boy as he finished the last half mile or so of his race. Then something happened that I’ve seen before in cross country, but each time, I’m overwhelmed by that unnamed human emotion you feel any time you discover hope in humanity.

This boy was struggling. He was running uphill into a prevailing wind. He was breathing heavily, and his steps were uneven. Suddenly his teammates appeared at his side, who had finished many minutes before, some even ten minutes before. They had completed their race, perhaps gotten a drink of water, maybe hugged their mothers and high-fived their teammates, possibly even stretched a bit. But then they returned to the course to run with their last guy. They ran alongside him and clapped and cheered. He finished the course in 19:57. The coach ran past me, growling.

I am not an athlete and never had the chance to participate in sports in school. While I marvel at those with athletic ability and cheer for those who come in first, I especially marvel at those who participate in athletics knowing they will be last. What drives them? Where does their motivation lie? Where does their strength come from, their tenacity? It’s one kind of strength to be the runner chasing the gator in first place; it’s quite another kind of strength to be the one the gator is chasing. Here’s to that boy, and all those out there like him, who participate knowing they will never get a ribbon, medal or place of honor. And here’s to the team who runs alongside him.

Although I am not a runner like that boy, I do know what it feels like to not measure up, to feel like I can’t possibly make it, to feel like I will not be able to cross the finish line, and I suspect you do, too. I know, and perhaps you do, too, what it feels like to know there is a wrong I cannot right, that there is a person whose love I cannot earn, that there is a destroyed relationship I cannot repair. For example, today is my mother’s birthday. 36 years ago, when I was 10, she left my brothers and me. Today, in our estranged relationship, I know that whatever I do–or don’t do–today in honor of her birthday, will be wrong. If I text, I will use the wrong words. If I don’t text, there will be judgment as well. As a result, in my own mothering, there are times I feel like I cannot possibly succeed. I cannot possibly do a thing that was never taught to or modeled for me. But it is precisely at those times, when I am at my most despairing, when I turn to other mothers whom I trust, who run alongside me in this race, who cheer me on. Genetics be damned, motherhood is an earned title, earned by those who are there to give you strength when you are running uphill into a prevailing wind. We then gather strength from the ones who run alongside us in life and cheer us on, who love us in our faltering steps and our gasping breath, who do not demand our love simply because of shared blood that runs through our veins. It is what prompts Jesus’ question, “Who are my mother and brothers?” and pointing to his disciples, he says, “Here are my mother and brothers.” The ones who run alongside Jesus and love him and cheer him on, not perfectly, but to the best of their ability.

A rich man comes to Jesus and asks him how to get into heaven. “Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor,” Jesus answers. This man is used to winning, he is accustomed to the taste of success, and suddenly, Jesus’ words seem to send him to the back of the pack, leaving him crushed and grieving by Jesus’ seemingly impossible challenge; the disciples, however, who overhear this conversation, protest with much and maybe even deserved indignation and say, “Hey–wait a minute!!! We’ve DONE all that! We HAVE left behind our money and our families and our jobs and our lives to follow you! We listen to your sermons and feed thousands of people and assist with your miracles and deal with the people you offend! Tell us that we’re saved, at least! If WE’RE not in first place, then who is?” And Jesus says, “You can’t enter the kingdom of God on your own. It’s like trying to fit a camel through the eye of a needle. It’s impossible. You can only enter God’s kingdom because of God’s effort, not because of your efforts.” With this, all are bumped to the back of the pack. While our efforts are needed in the world, they do not earn God’s love, God’s forgiveness or God’s kingdom. Those things are all God’s doing, simply because God loves us.

This is such amazing news to those of you who feel like your efforts don’t measure up, like you’re that last kid running in the race, like you’re that mom fumbling her way…this is glorious news to the ones who find themselves in last place, because we encounter some pretty amazing people at the back of the line, in the back of the bus, in last place. We shake hands with Rosa Parks, herded to the back of the bus but defiantly taking a place at the front. We shake hands with Vincent Van Gogh, dying in mental anguish, unaware of his own genius, having sold only one painting in his lifetime. We shake hands with Walt Disney, who, as a young man was fired from his first job because he was told he lacked creativity. This is not to say being shoved to the back of the line will ensure success or prosperity. But it does ensure company. The back of the bus is always crowded. Economy class is always booked full. Homeless shelters are always at capacity. Suicide prevention hotlines always have a wait, ironically. Immigration detention centers are bursting. Life is lived in the back of the line.

And these are the ones, these who have been moved or shoved to the back of the line, these–along with the ones who can’t measure up no matter how hard they try, the ones who will never finish first, no matter how great their effort, the ones who fail to achieve whatever standard they feel they should achieve, these ones who finally throw their hands in the air and say, “I can’t take one more step,” it is then they turn to see Jesus running alongside, sweating and gasping, fully human in this human race. This is Jesus’ redemptive work, not ours, to finish the race when we falter. On our own, it is simply impossible for us to enter the kingdom of God; it is the grace of God that gathers us all in, leaving no one out, starting at the back of the line, whether we run a 5 or a 15 minute mile, whether our mothers love us or abandon us, whether we have our stuff together or are falling apart at the seams, can enter into God’s kingdom on our own.

And the justice of the kingdom of God is that when this world kicks to the rear the ones who are tired and poor, the huddled masses who yearn only to breathe free, Jesus gives up his crown, his royalty and his majesty and runs alongside, cheering and loving and forgiving and saving. It is Christ who runs at the back of the pack, having been thrown into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, who was himself cast out and kicked around, who encounters us running uphill against a prevailing wind. Because of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, all things are possible, including salvation for you and for me, accomplishing that which seems most impossible, whether that be running a race or simply surviving the day. Jesus takes the very last place in the world, a lonely death on a cross, in order to give you first place, which is a seat in his kingdom. Jesus becomes last in order that you may be first.

Christmas

Text: Isaiah 12:2-6

Red flares peppered the sky 

and the sound of gunfire rang through the halls       

at Tantur,     an ecumenical study institute 

between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. 

We’d all been drawn out of our rooms 

by the ominous booms 

and found ourselves congregating 

in the common room with a terrace that overlooked 

the hills including Beit Zait, an Israeli settlement, 

and Beit Jala, a Palestinian town. 

The flares of the firing guns lit up like foreboding red fireflies 

on the Beit Zait hillside, firing across the valley into Beit Jala. Someone flicked on CNN. 

People gaped out the windows; 

we’d come to study the conflict for the summer, 

but we hadn’t expected to get such a first hand account 

of the evening attacks. 

The phone rang; 

it was my then-fiancé, Steve. 

6,000 miles away, he had on CNN too. 

He wondered how safe I was 

as he watched the gun fire on the screen

—that showed gunfire 

from a hill labeled “Beit Jala” (Palestinian) 

onto a hill labeled “Beit Zait (Israeli).” 

Having only CNN’s optics, 

he asked if I had known that the Palestinians 

were going to fire on the Israelis tonight. 

I was confused. 

“The gunfire is coming from Beit Zait—the Israeli settlement.” I said. It was only then that my colleagues looked closer at the television 

and another pastor said, “They’ve mislabeled the hills.”

What we could see with our own eyes

—an Israeli attack on a Palestinian town, 

was accidentally    or “accidentally”   mislabeled by CNN 

so that they were reporting the opposite 

to a much wider audience.

In our text for today, Isaiah says, 

“Surely God is my salvation;     I willtrust, and will notbe afraid.”

I’d like to create a place to question Isaiah for a moment 

because I experience a lot of reasons not to trust and 

sometimes I’m reasonably afraid

Can we acknowledge what gives pause to our trust and 

what fears we really do face?

I’m gonna tell you some real things that create a lack of trust for me 

And I want to know what they are for you, too.

I grew up on a struggling farm in the farming crisis of the 80s

I learned early that you couldn’t trust people to judge you 

on “the content of your character” 

since the quality of your blue jeans 

seemed to matter so much

Now, I’m perplexed by the acceptance 

of the number of lies put out by 

the current president and those around him

—direct statements that are contradicted later 

by receipts, emails, phone calls, 

and new direct statements. 

                  And my trust is rocked by 

                           The extent to which prominent people 

advising or in the government will go 

to cover up previous lies 

about which they are directly asked.

                  It doesn’t jive with the values I grew up expecting from politicians

I really want the government to work for ethical change 

that benefits the most vulnerable. 

Yet, what I read in the news night after night 

doesn’t instill trust 

that the current leadership cares 

about truth or 

those who find themselves vulnerable. 

Fears are around us. I got to teach at a middle school yesterday 

and some things middle schoolers told me they fear are:

         People finding out          who you like         in middle school

         People thinking you’re uncool

         People making fun of you because of your beliefs

         Running out of time to study for a test

I remember being afraid of being uncool. 

Now I wish that the content of my fear could be dealt with through introspection and just growing up

But I feel afraid that climate change is as serious as University of Iowa scholar Connie Mute (not to mention scores of scientists, and evidence of rising sea levels) says it is

So, how does Isaiah have any right to come into my living room and invite me to trust and not be afraid.

The First Isaiah hears my complaints.

And does a sort of jujutsu—using my own momentum against my own fear

First Isaiah says, “I know, remember the Assyrians were at the door 

when I became recognized as a prophet. 

I didn’t trust that our leaders could stop them. 

And I certainly didn’t trust the Assyrians.”

“I know, Assyria overthrew us and deported scads of the population of the Northern Kingdom—

including Jehoiachin and the rest of the royal family. 

I was afraid.”

“I remember. 

We were left without military people, 

without political elites, 

without craftsmen; how could we thrive? 

What power did we have to change it?”

So I can’t write off Isaiah as a silver spooner who is out of touch with reality…

Still, Isaiah insists that you must trust.

Isaiah does not back down: you must not fear.

At the same time, 

Isaiah doesn’t seem to care if the world isn’t very trustworthy,

Or if there are legit fears.

Isaiah spends        not one breath       on trusting things in this world.

Isaiah spends all his lines          imploring you to trust in God.

         “for the LORD GOD is my strengthand my might”

Isaiah even suggests something 

that is quite different from orthodox western theology

—Isaiah says “God has becomemy salvation” 

…has become my salvation 

through this process 

of coming to trust in God 

as might 

and strength.

I feel like Isaiah can be my ally 

in becoming able to trust God 

in the midst of a world that teaches otherwise, 

because in Isaiah’s day 

governments were unstable and untrustworthy. 

Fear was real and acknowledged.

Alright Isaiah

I guess its ok to not trust what is not trustworthy (I suspect that is the Good),

and yet remain a person who is able to trust 

And I guess its ok to fear things that are fearful (I suspect that is the Good) 

And yet, preserve our lives as ones with good courage. 

And it is possible to call out as untrustworthy, the untrustworthy, 

when emboldened by a real relationship of trust

And it is possible to set parameters for fear—here, and not everywhere

—when relaxing into at least one true relationship of hope

A pledge to do just that is a confidence in the truly trustworthy name of the Lord.

So pluck up your courage cause we’re joining Isaiah on this one. 

  • draw waterfrom the wells of salvation.
  • Give thanksto the LORD, 
  • callon God’s name; 
  • remind yourself of God’s deeds

I’m particularly taken by streams of living justice

I will believe day in and day out in God

 who accompanies us in the confusing pits of life.

I trust this God because God showed up after our miscarriage, 

when I couldn’t get out of bed

I trust God because during some of the darkest years, 

new sisters showed up…

You, too, choose trust in God, in order to point out untrustworthy practices here

You, too, find courage in the one who will not leave you—courage enough to name real fears.

Sing praisesto the LORD, for God has done gloriously; 

Notice thegreat One in your midst      –it’s the Holy One of Israel!

Twentieth Week After Pentecost

Sarah Goettsch

October 6, 2018

Is there room in today’s world for a love story?

In the tangled web of human relationship we see, not only in our own lives, but on the news, we wonder–is there any hope for human relationship?

As our nation watches brave witnesses of sexual abuse come forward and get discredited and even mocked, we are left astonished, wondering, “Where are things like mutual consent, respect and trust between people?” It is a twisted time, when a brave one comes forward to speak about profound harm done, in some cases harm done recently, in other cases harm from long ago, and is told, “We do not believe you.” We are living in a time when victims are plainly told, “Your reality does not count.” And what this does in human relationship is give permission to the dominant power to have his way, assuring him that his reality will prevail, that his version of history is that which will go on record. With this being modeled on a national level right now with Kavanaugh being nominated for the Supreme Court, it casts a sinister light on human relationship.  In current events, in our own current relationships, we wonder, “Is there room in today’s world for a love story?” Or are relationships doomed, out of fear and distrust and suspicion?

Our reading from Genesis has long been used by the church to establish a clear hierarchy between male and female, indicating that the order of creation, first Adam, then Eve, indicates a priority between the genders. Furthermore, this has often been used to justify abuse, dominance and harm by men to women–”we were created first, therefore we are superior and you are inferior, and that is God’s will, now just submit to me.” But is this the objective of the authors of Genesis? Or is Genesis less about this misguided male/female dynamic and more about the need for trusted human community, whether that be heterosexual, homosexual, asexual, platonic or whatever? Is it perhaps about the basic human need to somehow exist in connection to another human being, that to be alone is undesirable and scary? Perhaps the miracle is not that woman and man are created and man is created first, because we all know what Jesus says about those who claim the right of being first in anything, that there is a kingdom reversal about the first being last, and perhaps this, then, is more about the creation of community.

And what we see unfold in this story is that even when the community of human hands soil what God has created good, God does not abandon. This does not give permission to abusive powers, with the claim that God will simply wash clean whatever human hands make dirty…because there is a reckoning, there is judgment, there is a time when we all stand toe to toe with God and make an account of our actions and our lives–there is justice, both worldly and godly, even if wordly justice doesn’t always prevail…but does God not show in this reading from Genesis that whatever harm we bring to human relationship, whatever mess, that God is in…and will not abandon? I often say that, in my opinion, the words that most reveal the grace of God are found in this passage from Genesis, as the third chapter comes to a close, where, after Adam and Eve have destroyed the goodness of the garden of Eden and God expels them from the garden as punishment, God sews clothes for them before they go. Does this image not reveal the goodness of a mother God, who lovingly clothes her children before shoving them out in the cold, because she loves them, and does this image not show that she is in–that although there is punishment and periodic estrangement, there is no abandonment? In the messiest of the mess in relationships between one another, as Adam and Eve’s blame laying shows, or in the mess of human relationships with God, as our disobedience in eating the fruit in the first place shows, God is in, God does not abandon.

And this carries through to the Gospel today, where Jesus is once again put to the test by the Pharisees–”tell us, Jesus, what do you think? Is divorce wrong?” And Jesus, familiar with this game, says, “God doesn’t want you to break up things that God puts together.” And in the anticipated way, the Pharisees say, “Ah ha! So, then, divorce is a sin–just as we thought!” And maybe it is. But is Jesus not also referring to all the other ways that we break up the things that God puts together–including the commandments, our relationship with creation, our relationships with each other, our relationships with ourselves, and our relationships with God? Does God not also piece these things lovingly together, only to have us break them apart? It reminds me of when Philip first learned to walk and would teeter into the living room, where his brothers had just carefully constructed a world created entirely out of Legos. And to their utter horror, what took them hours to create, Philp swiftly destroyed within minutes. Were they angry? Yes. Did they punish him? Yes. Mostly by putting him in a laundry basket and pushing him down the stairs. But did they ever abandon him? Did they exile him forever, did they cut him off from being their brother? No. His destruction of their creation just made things messy; but it did not destroy their relationship.  

I stand before you today as a divorced person, I am not afraid to admit that to you. I remember when the divorce unfolded in the midst of my pastoral ministry to two rural congregations in eastern Iowa. So many people said to me, “Pastor, I am sorry, but I don’t believe in divorce.” To which I replied, “I don’t either. But I do believe in Jesus.” In other words, sometimes death happens in relationship. And we as Christians know where there is death, there is resurrection. In the mess of human relationship, Jesus does not say, “Divorced people are cast away from my grace,” or “There is no room for you in my kingdom.” Given Jesus’ own family ancestry and genealogy, he himself comes from a long history of deceit, incest, rape, murder and unfaithfulness. But it is from this human history that the Savior comes. Jesus doesn’t transcend human history, he emerges from it.

And this is precisely when the glory and beauty of Jesus shines most brightly, when the brokenness and sorrow over wrecked human relationship seems to prevail, Jesus welcomes the little children to crawl all over him. This is not a diversion tactic or a distraction by showing people how cute babies are. Children, we all know, are a the epitome of mess, and Jesus pulls the little ones onto his lap, not groping them or molesting them or harming them, but rather letting their messiness ooze all over him, their slobber and sneezes and coughs and germs and kid-sweat and their tears wept over things they do not understand. And so Jesus is soaked with the humanity, And still, he’s in. And does not abandon. Even when all others abandon him. He’s in. Till the bitter end and beyond, by bringing the future reign of God into our present time.

Is there hope for human relationship? Is there room for a love story in these dark and shadowy times? Yes, absolutely, I heard and saw traces of it just this week. Walking one night, I saw a neighbor boy walking a classmate home, using his cell phone as a flashlight. They got to her front porch and he said, “Well, here you are! Also I think you’re pretty great!” And she yelled, “I think you’re pretty great, too, and I’ll walk you home tomorrow!” as she ran inside and slammed the door. I saw my oldest son run off on his first date, with a girl who bought the tickets to the movie only if he agreed to buy lunch, thus splitting the tab and sharing the power of this first encounter. Asking permission to hold the hand, splitting s check, taking turns walking one another home–this is the new love language. Yes, but these are merely children, we cynical adults say. Maybe, but they are exactly the ones Jesus lifts up today as models of human relationship, because we adults have gotten it wrong. And so we look to them and learn from them, praying that the holiness God is working in our young people will stir us older folks to action, to bring about the goodness of human relationship intended by God. We all play a role. May God’s grace so work in us that the love and respect and consent in relationship might be restored and finally celebrated, the way God intends..as a love story between broken and faithless human beings and gracious and faithful God, who will never abandon and is in this, in all of our mess and in all of our glory.

Nineteenth Week After Pentecost

Sarah Goettsch

9/22/18

Jesus rarely deals in superlatives. He never speaks of himself as being “the best.” He doesn’t describe his procession into Jerusalem as drawing “the biggest crowd ever.” He never reports his miracles as being “the most amazing miracles ever.”  While he does use superlatives when explaining the commandments–this is the first and greatest commandment, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind–he doesn’t use these words in pointing to himself. In other words, Jesus never says, “I’m number one” or “I’m the greatest.” In fact, he does quite the opposite in today’s Gospel.

When the disciples argue about who among them is greatest, Jesus says, “In my kingdom, the last will be first.” And he lifts up a child and explains to them that when they welcome someone who is vulnerable like a child, they welcome him. He doesn’t point to Caesar Augustus and all his wealth. He doesn’t point to Herod the Great and all his power. Instead, he lifts up a little child and says, “When you welcome a little child like this, you welcome me.” In fact, the kingdom of God is concerned entirely not with those who have the most, but those who have the least–the least wealth, the least brawn, the least advantage, the least resources.

In this way, Jesus completely overturns the traditional image of power. Unlike earthly power, which is manifested in crowns, armies and titles, the kingdom of God is revealed in unexpected, vulnerable and even small ways, like the ways of a child. Instead of mandating social classes, Jesus heals the sick, the lowly and the outcast and then restores them to community. Instead of wearing a crown of jewels, Jesus wears a crown of thorns. Instead of ascending a mighty throne, Jesus ascends the cross. Instead of boasting, “Look how amazing I am!” he points to a baby crawling on the floor and says, “Look how amazing that is!”. He uses stories to illustrate the kingdom of God by using images of small things, like a mustard seed, a precious pearl, a valuable coin.

Julian of Norwich lived in England in the 14th century. She was a religious hermit, a brilliant theologian and a Christian mystic. Her book “Revelations of Divine Love,” written around 1395, is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman. In contemplating the kingdom of God, she sees a hazelnut as a manifestation of God’s kingdom. She writes, “In my vision, God showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut…I looked at it…and thought, “What might this be?” And God answered, “This is everything that I have made.” I wondered how it could possibly last, because it was so small. And God answered, “It will last forever, because I love it.”

Can we, in our smallness, can be assured of God’s abiding love, knowing God is not looking for us to be the best or the prettiest or the smartest or the richest? God doesn’t demand any superlatives of us.  God does not require you to be the best, the strongest, the most confident, the most attractive, the biggest. On the contrary, God notices and takes delights in your smallness and my smallness and nothing can change that. However, God can work great and mighty things through us, we who are small…even the smallest mustard seed grows to a great tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. God can and does work mighty things through us, as well, not because we are the best or the strongest or the wealthiest, but because God’s power and strength work in and through us.

So when Jesus lifts up and small child and says, “This is who inherits my kingdom,” our thoughts turn immediately to our southern border, where immigrant children are living in tents, having been ripped from their parents’ arms. Currently, 12, 800 migrant children are being indefinitely held without a parent or guardian, according to the New York Times in an article on September 12. Think of Jesus lifting up one of these small children, who are displaced, afraid, anxious and depressed and saying, “These ones are first in my kingdom, even though they are very clearly last in your world.” Jesus uses superlatives only when lifting up those who are held down–the least in our eyes are the greatest in his eyes.

If we adjust our vision, we can catch a glimpse of Jesus’ fascination with seemingly insignificant things and his ability to see the entire universe unfold in a mustard seed, or in the value of a pearl, or in the joy in a lost coin that is found. These are not merely descriptive illustrations of God’s kingdom; they are in fact examples of it. Ask most new mothers about this, and they will understand; their entire world is contained in the body of a squirming and blinking 8-pound infant. Her baby isn’t just an expression of her love; her child embodies every ounce of her love. Henry David Thoreau experienced a similar fascination as he watched a colony of ants at Walden Pond. He didn’t watch them in a detached sort of way as if on television; instead, he was fascinated by their behaviors and patterns, which he perceived to be also very human. Author Mary Oliver watches a grasshopper and writes, “Instructions for living a life–pay attention. Be astonished. Talk about it.” Julian of Norwich isn’t merely amused by a hazelnut, she recognizes God’s entire cosmos contained in it. Jesus sees a child, and doesn’t just bounce the child on his knee and giggle at its cuteness; rather, he sees the innocence and helplessness and vulnerability to be at the very essence of his kingdom. Just like a mother or father MUST serve the little child because they are unable to do anything for themselves, so, too, does Jesus come to serve the least of these.

So when we encounter a hungry person, a poor person, a lonely person, a grieving person, an immigrant person, an oppressed, we are not amused by these people; Jesus calls us to see in them what he sees in them–value, preciousness, worth…They are not pious hobbies to occupy ourselves with while God’s kingdom unfolds somewhere else, among other people…it is precisely among them and through them that God’s glory is revealed.

Compared to the abuse and misuse of power we see every single day, where the vulnerable are sexually abused, taken away from their parents and left to live in tents, forced into human trafficking, jailed for crimes they did not commit, held in detention unjustly, pushed to beg for food on the streets, driven to live on the streets with undiagnosed and unmanaged mental illness, God’s kingdom radically reverses the order of things and exalts these ones who have been hurt, neglected, abused and mocked and says, “When you encounter one such as these, you are staring directly into my kingdom.”

Two small human eyes, no bigger than a hazelnut, contain the entire universe. Following Jesus’ lead, let us pay attention to the little things, for contained within them are the mysteries of the universe as they unravel. Let the booming voices of ego sound their ridiculous proclamations, let them occupy themselves with the most grandiose, the best and biggest, the pagentry and drama of human production. Let us, instead, look to the smallest, the least, the unexpected, for in these places–often no bigger than a hazelnut–we see the kingdom of God looking right back at us.

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Eighteenth Week After Pentecost

Sarah Goettsch

9/22/18

Jesus rarely deals in superlatives. He never speaks of himself as being “the best.” He doesn’t describe his procession into Jerusalem as drawing “the biggest crowd ever.” He never reports his miracles as being “the most amazing miracles ever.”  While he does use superlatives when explaining the commandments–this is the first and greatest commandment, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind–he doesn’t use these words in pointing to himself. In other words, Jesus never says, “I’m number one” or “I’m the greatest.” In fact, he does quite the opposite in today’s Gospel.

When the disciples argue about who among them is greatest, Jesus says, “In my kingdom, the last will be first.” And he lifts up a child and explains to them that when they welcome someone who is vulnerable like a child, they welcome him. He doesn’t point to Caesar Augustus and all his wealth. He doesn’t point to Herod the Great and all his power. Instead, he lifts up a little child and says, “When you welcome a little child like this, you welcome me.” In fact, the kingdom of God is concerned entirely not with those who have the most, but those who have the least–the least wealth, the least brawn, the least advantage, the least resources.

In this way, Jesus completely overturns the traditional image of power. Unlike earthly power, which is manifested in crowns, armies and titles, the kingdom of God is revealed in unexpected, vulnerable and even small ways, like the ways of a child. Instead of mandating social classes, Jesus heals the sick, the lowly and the outcast and then restores them to community. Instead of wearing a crown of jewels, Jesus wears a crown of thorns. Instead of ascending a mighty throne, Jesus ascends the cross. Instead of boasting, “Look how amazing I am!” he points to a baby crawling on the floor and says, “Look how amazing that is!”. He uses stories to illustrate the kingdom of God by using images of small things, like a mustard seed, a precious pearl, a valuable coin.

Julian of Norwich lived in England in the 14th century. She was a religious hermit, a brilliant theologian and a Christian mystic. Her book “Revelations of Divine Love,” written around 1395, is the first book in the English language known to have been written by a woman. In contemplating the kingdom of God, she sees a hazelnut as a manifestation of God’s kingdom. She writes, “In my vision, God showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut…I looked at it…and thought, “What might this be?” And God answered, “This is everything that I have made.” I wondered how it could possibly last, because it was so small. And God answered, “It will last forever, because I love it.”

Can we, in our smallness, can be assured of God’s abiding love, knowing God is not looking for us to be the best or the prettiest or the smartest or the richest? God doesn’t demand any superlatives of us.  God does not require you to be the best, the strongest, the most confident, the most attractive, the biggest. On the contrary, God notices and takes delights in your smallness and my smallness and nothing can change that. However, God can work great and mighty things through us, we who are small…even the smallest mustard seed grows to a great tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. God can and does work mighty things through us, as well, not because we are the best or the strongest or the wealthiest, but because God’s power and strength work in and through us.

So when Jesus lifts up and small child and says, “This is who inherits my kingdom,” our thoughts turn immediately to our southern border, where immigrant children are living in tents, having been ripped from their parents’ arms. Currently, 12, 800 migrant children are being indefinitely held without a parent or guardian, according to the New York Times in an article on September 12. Think of Jesus lifting up one of these small children, who are displaced, afraid, anxious and depressed and saying, “These ones are first in my kingdom, even though they are very clearly last in your world.” Jesus uses superlatives only when lifting up those who are held down–the least in our eyes are the greatest in his eyes.

If we adjust our vision, we can catch a glimpse of Jesus’ fascination with seemingly insignificant things and his ability to see the entire universe unfold in a mustard seed, or in the value of a pearl, or in the joy in a lost coin that is found. These are not merely descriptive illustrations of God’s kingdom; they are in fact examples of it. Ask most new mothers about this, and they will understand; their entire world is contained in the body of a squirming and blinking 8-pound infant. Her baby isn’t just an expression of her love; her child embodies every ounce of her love. Henry David Thoreau experienced a similar fascination as he watched a colony of ants at Walden Pond. He didn’t watch them in a detached sort of way as if on television; instead, he was fascinated by their behaviors and patterns, which he perceived to be also very human. Author Mary Oliver watches a grasshopper and writes, “Instructions for living a life–pay attention. Be astonished. Talk about it.” Julian of Norwich isn’t merely amused by a hazelnut, she recognizes God’s entire cosmos contained in it. Jesus sees a child, and doesn’t just bounce the child on his knee and giggle at its cuteness; rather, he sees the innocence and helplessness and vulnerability to be at the very essence of his kingdom. Just like a mother or father MUST serve the little child because they are unable to do anything for themselves, so, too, does Jesus come to serve the least of these.

So when we encounter a hungry person, a poor person, a lonely person, a grieving person, an immigrant person, an oppressed, we are not amused by these people; Jesus calls us to see in them what he sees in them–value, preciousness, worth…They are not pious hobbies to occupy ourselves with while God’s kingdom unfolds somewhere else, among other people…it is precisely among them and through them that God’s glory is revealed.

Compared to the abuse and misuse of power we see every single day, where the vulnerable are sexually abused, taken away from their parents and left to live in tents, forced into human trafficking, jailed for crimes they did not commit, held in detention unjustly, pushed to beg for food on the streets, driven to live on the streets with undiagnosed and unmanaged mental illness, God’s kingdom radically reverses the order of things and exalts these ones who have been hurt, neglected, abused and mocked and says, “When you encounter one such as these, you are staring directly into my kingdom.”

Two small human eyes, no bigger than a hazelnut, contain the entire universe. Following Jesus’ lead, let us pay attention to the little things, for contained within them are the mysteries of the universe as they unravel. Let the booming voices of ego sound their ridiculous proclamations, let them occupy themselves with the most grandiose, the best and biggest, the pagentry and drama of human production. Let us, instead, look to the smallest, the least, the unexpected, for in these places–often no bigger than a hazelnut–we see the kingdom of God looking right back at us.

“The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

Seventeenth Week After Pentecost

Sarah Goettsch

9/15/18

Our ears ring with countless clamoring voices. Not only do voices assail us from TV and radio and computer but also from crowded malls and busy restaurants and noisy classrooms. Add social media to this mix, and our lives become a literal cacophony of voices. The challenge is this–which voices to listen to? Whom do we allow access to the ear and mind and heart, and whom do we filter out?  It is a difficult task to tease apart which are worth listening to and which are to be ignored. Indeed, this is challenging enough when discussing the news or current events, but it becomes particularly challenging when discussing one’s self, specifically the question Jesus asks in the Gospel reading for today—who do people say that I am?

I refuse to be that 40-something person who tries to use current slang, but my LCM students told me how they would sum up Jesus’ question in today’s Gospel…and that’s, “What’s the tea, sis?” The rest of us would say something like, “What’s the scoop? Or what’s the skinny? Or simply, what’s the gossip?” But in this particular case, the question Jesus asks is, “What’s the gossip about me?”

While Jesus lived 2000 years ago and therefore was not susceptible to bombardment of voices on social media as we are, as a self-aware human being, he was not immune from wondering what other people thought of him and what they were saying; in this Gospel, Jesus boldly asks the question we are all too afraid to ask….who do people say that I am? How am I spoken about when I am not around? What do people say about me when my name comes up? These questions hit directly at the heart of human vulnerability and insecurity; these questions fuel those voices inside our heads that challenge our sense of worth; alas, even the most confident and poised person, from time to time, tosses and turns, wondering, “What are people saying about me?”

So, as Jesus is walking with his disciples to a village, he asks them, “Who do people say that I am?” They reply with a variety of amusing albeit inaccurate replies, some say this, others say that–all wrong. He doesn’t seem deterred or even remotely bothered by this. But then, Jesus asks them, “Ok, but who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” In four words, he nails it. Peter gets it. And Peter’s answer matters to Jesus; we know this because only a few verses later they are arguing, which you really only do with people you care about.

But what makes Peter’s answer so different from what the crowds are saying? Why does he get it right, while the crowds don’t? Because Peter knows Jesus, he’s his friend. He eats with him, sleeps beside him, walks with him. He listens to him preach, watches him heal people, witnesses him touch and love and give life to ones that society has cast out. Peter struggles and argues and wrestles with what he sees and hears and is far from perfect, but if there’s one thing he knows, it’s who Jesus is, even if he denies it six short chapters later. At this moment in time, Peter gets it and confesses it all to Jesus–you are Messiah, the one who comes to save, but one who must nevertheless die, and for that I hate you, because I don’t understand any of this, but I also love you –summed up in four short words. You are the Messiah.

Jesus holds the opinions of others at arm’s length, because they are not among his intimate and trusted 12. Peter’s answer, however, matters to Jesus, because Jesus knows Peter and trusts him. Jesus models something brilliant and beautiful today in regards to how to exist in a world that is filled with voices and opinions and answers. Jesus teaches us to trust the voices of those closest to us and to let go of the rest. This is is a necessary survival skill for being a savvy Christian in a crazy world.

You simply cannot listen to every single voice that weighs in on who you are, what they think about you, what they say about you. Oh, friends, if you only knew how I struggle with this,  so today I stand firmly with those in need of this liberating Gospel. If you listen to every single external voice that has an opinion about you, you will implode, like a submerged submarine, collapsing under immense pressure from the outside. On the other hand, if you listen only to the voices from within, you explode from pressure built up from within, as the ego bursts forth in unchecked power. But Jesus teaches us a different way, a better way, a wise way. Find the voices you trust and listen to them, let them help guide you as you navigate your way through life. In this reading, Jesus commends to us trusted and authentic–but not perfect–community.

I lived in Seattle, WA, for a year when I was completing my chaplaincy requirement for seminary. At this training, as were a variety of religious and spiritual traditions, including a Catholic, a Methodist, a Wiccan, a pastor from the local FourSquare Church, a Quaker and me, so you can imagine the spirited discussions that ensued. I got to know the Quaker woman very well, in fact, we were best friends during that year. Her name is Susanne. She and her boyfriend Doug were considering getting engaged. She described to me a Quaker tradition called the listening circle, which was, in their case, an opportunity for their friends from their worshiping community to come together for an entire day with the sole purpose of helping them discern whether or not they should be married. The prayer circle looked like this, as she describes it–a circle of chairs with two chairs side by side in the middle. She and Doug sat in the middle, and the community gathered around them. At first, they sat in silence, as they pondered the two, both as individuals and as a couple. This silence lasted over an hour, which apparently isn’t unusual for listening circles. And then the friends began to speak, offering insight and perspective into how they experienced this couple. They offered prayer, they voiced concerns, they shared memories, they conveyed hope for the future, they offered blessings. When the listening circle finally ended, the couple and the community had participated in a sacred and authentic experience, with trusted voices engaging the question–who are we as a couple? She and Doug married, they still live in Seattle and are raising two lovely daughters. I came to trust and admire this community so much, that even now, 21 years later, I still FB message Susanne when something is weighing on my heart, asking for her silence, her critique, her prayer and her insight.

Today we ponder the holiness of the human voice–the comfort it can offer, the wisdom it can convey, the inspiration is can invoke. Consider for a moment those voices in your lives, those trusted ones you turn to when you need an authentic voice. What voices do you listen to when confronted with a decision or are uncertain about a path to take? Who is your trusted circle, small or big, to whom you turn when you need to hear an authentic, even if difficult, word of truth? We give God thanks for these voices in our lives, for their support in navigating difficult waters, for without them, we are adrift.

Without the guidance of our trusted voices, we open ourselves to voices who do not deserve access to our inmost selves, who seek to accuse and wrongly determine our worth. Without these trusted voices, we open ourselves up to angry voices, which only make us angry. Without these trusted voices, we open ourselves up to racist voices, which make us racist. Without them, we open ourselves up to misogynistic voices, which make of us misogynists.

We see this contagion of negative voice all around, with elected leadership spewing vitriol at every opportunity, their voices bellowing from TV and Twitter, cruelly telling grieving Midwestern farmers who are losing their farms “they would have lost them anyway,” telling Texan ranchers their land is now home for a wall that divides not only herds of cattle, but families and communities, disregarding migrant children, whose numbers are at all all-time high and are skyrocketing, who are living their childhoods in cities made of tents.

We cannot be consumed by these angry voices: however, we must listen to them sometimes, because they offend our sense of humanity, motivate us to action, and embolden our sense of empathy and justice. But these voices must be tempered by Gospel, by the voice of Isaiah–a voice that sustains the weary with a word, by the voice of the Wisdom of Solomon–a voice of light and beauty and endurance, by Peter’s confession–an authentic voice identifying Jesus as Messiah.These are the voices that prevail, and we are mouthpieces of those sacred voices, we are now prophetic voices that call for things to change, for unjust laws to be repealed, for the immigrant not to be forgotten, for the hungry to be fed, for the homeless to be housed.

Jesus knows what it’s like to have ears ringing with voices. He himself was the object of many voices throughout his life–prophetic voices announcing him as the Son of God, thundering voices from heaven proclaiming him as God’s Son, jubilant voices from the crowds shouting hosanna to the Son of David. But he also heard cynical voices ask him just who do you think you are? and he heard suspicious voices accuse him of blasphemy and he heard hateful voices demand his crucifixion and he heard mocking voices on the cross and groaning voices of dying men on either side and sobbing voices of his mother and his own voice screaming out his final breath and then the voices were no more, save for the earth lifting up her voice in heaving grief in earthquake and trembling and shadow. And then the earth was silent and all the voices contained within it.

That is, until the bewildered voices said, “He’s not here and we don’t know where he is,” until the jubilant voice said, “He isn’t here, he is risen from the dead,” until the triumphant voices sang together, “Worthy is the lamb who was slain for the sins of the world, who now sits at the right hand of God.”

Jesus, then, is not so troubled that the vast majority of the people don’t understand him. His friends know who he is, even in their imperfections and flaws and fumbling. But most importantly, Jesus knows who he is, even though at times he doesn’t always like who he is.  Jesus urges us to also know who we are, even though at times we might not like who we are, to stand strong against our debilitating voices from within and the prevailing winds of inhumanity from without. Jesus urges us to cherish our trusted friends, in their gloriously imperfect authenticity, and to lean on them as a guiding compass when we lose sight of who we are.

Thus strengthened and supported by our treasured trusted voices, we then discover as we journey through life that fewer and fewer voices can harm us, that when the howling winds quiet and the hurricane subsides and the volcanoes belch their last belch, that there is a silence, like the one which Elijah encountered, where the still, small voice of God can be heard, which answers our tormenting question of “Who am I?” with the only answer that matters, “You are mine.”