Howard Thurman, the great African-American teacher and pastor, wrote extensively on what Jesus said “to those who stand with their backs against the wall: the poor, the disinherited, and the dispossessed.”[i] Thurman drew his inspiration from Jesus, who grew up in poverty. Because of their race and religion, Jesus’ people had for decades been cruelly subjugated by the oppression and discrimination of the Roman Empire. For his first thirty years, Jesus would also have faced the ignominy of his own birth. Either he was born to a mother out of wedlock; or his mother and father, Mary and Joseph, were fabulous liars and blasphemers; or both parents were mentally unsound. How could this be, the “miraculous” story of Jesus’ birth? Jesus faced prejudice and persecution from the very beginning of his life.
When Jesus finds his voice, one word recurs in Jesus’ speech and actions: power. People would ask, “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[ii] In the end, as Jesus was coming down from the Mount of Olives, “the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen” (Luke 19:37). And his departing words were about power: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth” (Acts of the Apostles 1:8). Power.
That’s a lot of love, what Jesus is saying again and again in this Gospel passage appointed for today. In three verses, Jesus names “love” 8 times. How to live? Live loving. Love. Love. Love. Love… With each repetition, Jesus is clearly trying to catch our attention, but how? What does Jesus’ word “love” mean for us? We need to do some detective work, because the Greek of the New Testament has four completely different words for “love,” words which are indistinguishable in English. What love – which of the four loves – is Jesus talking about here, and repeatedly? (And, in our short lesson from the First Letter of John, the word “love” appears five times, and it’s the same word for “love” that Jesus is talking about here.)
- In English, we speak of the love parents have for their newborn baby.[i] They love their precious little girl.
- Or there’s the love we have for a close friend. I write a note to a friend, and I close the note with, “Love, Curtis.”[ii]
- Or there’s the love between two people who have “fallen in love” with one another. They are smitten with passionate love for one another.[iii]
- Or there is the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live.[iv]
In English we use the same word, “love,” to describe all of these experiences of love, but in the Greek, these are four completely different words. Which of the four Greek verbs for love is Jesus talking about here? It’s the latter, the self-sacrificing love of one person on behalf of another, someone giving up their life out of love so that another can live. In Greek, this word for love is “agápē,” and Jesus lives up to this kind of love in his crucifixion. It’s with that kind of love Jesus is calling us to live our lives: the self-sacrificing love of our own person on behalf of another, so that they can live. Jesus normalizes this love.
As a child, Jesus would never have said this about himself: “I am the good shepherd.” Jesus is saying this when he’s in his early 30s. But as a child, Jesus would never have thought of himself as “the good shepherd.” He was not a shepherd: good, bad, or indifferent. At least there’s no record in the scriptures that he ever kept sheep. It would never have occurred to him to think that he was “the good shepherd.” As a child, Jesus would have learned and prayed Psalm 23 in the same way that we have: “The Lord is my shepherd.”[i] The Lord was his shepherd. He would have known Psalm 78, about the good shepherding of God for his people: [The Lord] brought his people out like a flock; he led them like sheep through the wilderness.”[ii] The God whom Jesus called “Lord” was the good shepherd.[iii] In a land where sheep abound – their wool to make blankets and clothing; their meat for the daily diet – metaphors about sheep and shepherds would be in common parlance. In the scriptures, there are more than 300 references to sheep and shepherds. Jesus would have known about sheep, and the Lord being his shepherd, but he was no shepherd.
At a young age, Jesus would also have known that ancient Israel’s kings, beginning with King David, were known as shepherds of the nation. Clearly, Jesus was no such shepherd-king. He certainly did not appear royal. He grew up in Nazareth and the reputation was that nothing good could come out of Nazareth. We are not even sure if Jesus was employed. So what happened? When did Jesus’ sense of identity shift. Why did he come to understand himself as a shepherd, a good shepherd, and identify with the Good Shepherd? Why and how? We know some things for sure, and other influences we can conjecture. Just like for all the rest of us, many things influence us. A whole collage of things form, or deform, or reform the tapestry of our calling in life – our vocation. So it was for Jesus. Something evolved in his identifying with shepherds. What happened?
Our psalm appointed for today, Psalm 103, speaks of “our youth being renewed like an eagle’s.” The scriptures make reference to the eagle more than 30 times as an image of strength, deliverance, and protection. An eagle became the emblematic symbol for the Gospel according to John because of the eagles’ soaring into the skies pointing us to the heavens, from where “in the beginning” God abides and creates. And soar they do, with a wingspan upwards to 8 feet and extremely keen eyesight, eagles fly into the heavens from which they look upon earth, observing, then hunting with great speed and power. They also typically nest – they abide – high up in rocky ledges or in trees. In the scriptures, eagles appear as one face of the four mighty cherubim who attend the throne of God.[i]
Many centuries after the psalmist, the Prophet Isaiah would proclaim: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”[ii] The image of the eagle’s renewal of strength (and therefore our renewal of strength) is twofold: for one, eagles live to a relatively old age for birds, upwards to 30 years: the renewal of our strength in older age. And then, that eagles molt their feathers, so that they are freshly clothed, as it were, with a new garment of plumage, a seeming youthfulness and exuberance regardless of their age.
Commemoration of George Herbert
Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the calendar of the church, we commemorate today a 17th-century Church of England country parson named George Herbert.[i] Down through the centuries, he is most remembered for his arresting, revealing, passionate poetry.
How Herbert’s life ended is not how it began. The combination of his family’s tremendous wealth and privilege, his keen mind, his excellent education, his charismatic oratorical skills, his internal drive to be fabulous, and who knows what else, had brought him to the top of the heap. By age 30, he was counselor to two kings and a member of Parliament. He had gained the whole world but never found his soul.[ii] Two things happened, two breakdowns.
After Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers shared their memories of him, trying to make sense of what he had predicted. That is often the case as we look back on life, the “ah-hah” experience that comes when we remember and understand someone or something from a new perspective: “Oh, I get it. That’s what he meant when he said such-and-such.” “Oh, that’s what was going on then. I can see it now.”
- Jesus had earlier predicted that when he arrived in Jerusalem he would be killed, not crowned. Most of his followers had not understood him at the time.
- That after his crucifixion he would regain life, be resurrected. When they first heard it, most of his followers had missed what he was saying.
- That he would then return to his “father” – he would leave them, but not leave them without comfort or power. God’s Spirit would come to be with them. When they first heard it, most of his followers could not make sense of that.
- That his followers would take up their own cross and suffer. They had not missed that, because of what had been happening for decades. The Roman Empire had found Jesus’ followers seditious and treasonous; they were like sheep to be slaughtered.[i]
Our first lesson, from Saint Peter’s second letter to the church, was written around year 65, more than a generation after Jesus had finally left them, had ascended. One last promise that Jesus had spoken, his followers clung to: that he would return to earth, that he would come again in their lifetime, so they understood.[ii] They had lived with that hope. But Jesus’ return had not happened, and there was every imaginable explanation why. Peter is writing here about the meantime, in a very mean time, how then shall we live in the absence of Jesus’ return? “What sort of persons ought we to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness?” He answers his own question. Peter’s words still pertain.
- Peter writes that we are waiting on the Lord, but it’s actually the Lord waiting on them.” Why? For our repentance: to realign ourselves to life on Jesus’ terms and to change our ways: to repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.
- And then Peter calls his readers to “lead lives of holiness and godliness, at peace,” he says, “without spot or blemish… and not carried away, such we they lose their own stability.”
Lent is upon us tomorrow. The forty days of Lent remind us of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. For Jesus, those forty days were not a time when he would confront the misaligned political and economic powers that surrounded him, about which he was well apprised. Rather, those forty days were a time to re-align himself to why God had given him life: to claim the right purpose, the right power, the right voice God had given him. There he was in the desert to be purged of anything in the world that tempted him to stray from his reason for being.
And for us, Lent will give us forty days for the purgation of our own souls, where we may have colluded with the very powers we condemn. The focus of Lent can create space anew for the light, and life, and love to Jesus to teem in us and through us to our desperately broken world. Lent is to help us.
[i] Romans 8:36.
[ii] See Matthew 24:34; Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32. See also Acts 1:11.
The issue that Jesus and his disciples did not wash their hands was not the Pharisees’ concern about the spread of germs. This is about ritual purity. The Mosaic Law defined certain kinds of uncleanness which required a kind of ritual washing to make oneself again worthy. The Pharisees believed that Moses received other commandments from God communicated privately to the Pharisees down through the generations.
Many, many people were labeled unclean – because of their birthright (being a Samaritan, for example); because of their vocation (being a shepherd or a tax collector, for example); because of their poverty (because they could not afford to purchase a clean animal or bird for temple sacrifice to atone for their sins); because of their sickness (because they could not afford to see a doctor); or simply because of their humanity (for example, a woman who had given birth to a child). All these people, and many other types, were unclean. Whenever a Pharisee came from the marketplace or public gathering, hand-washing was required to ritually cleanse oneself, if only because of having accidentally touched an unclean person. Before and after every meal, a ritual hand-washing was required according to certain ceremonial practices. All cups, pots, brazen vessels, and sitting places also had to be ritually cleansed.
Our reading from the Second Book of Kings would make would make for a great scene in an adventure movie or mythology novel: the Prophet Elijah’s ascending into heaven in a whirlwind with horses of fire and in a chariot fire. And there’s also the scenes when Elijah’s cloak – his “miracle mantle” – is used two different times to strike the Jordan River, which then miraculously divides in two, one side to the other, to open a dry passageway for a walkthrough. It’s such spectacular power!
A fascinating and inspiring way to read the Scriptures is through the lens of power. In virtually every page of the Bible, there is a supernatural manifestation of power, the intervention or infusion of God’s power in everyday life:
- Power in the form of words being given to someone who is otherwise inarticulate.
- Power in the form of knowledge about something which is otherwise unknowable.
- Power in interpreting signs, experiences, dreams, languages, or what could seem as “coincidence.”
- Power to be wise amidst what is otherwise so confusing and undecipherable in life.
- Power in the form of physical strength, or moral integrity, or courage when confronted with strong opposition.
- Power in the form of an inner peacefulness in the face of strife, violence, or threat.
- Power in the face of disaster, imprisonment, censure, or banishment.
- Power in the form of provision: food, money, shelter, access to people of influence.
- Power in the form of healing mediated through words, through touch, through oil, through spittle.
- Power to forgive the otherwise-unforgivable.
One question trailed Jesus throughout his earthly life: “Where did he get all this power?” because Jesus teemed with power.[i] And Jesus’ parting promise to us was about our being able to do “even greater works of power” than he did because of God’s abiding presence with us, because of God’s Spirit.[ii] Christianity without power is like a country club for nice manners and good taste. Christianity is about engaging the powers and the powerful needs of this world with the force and provision of God.
Annie Dillard writes, “Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour…? Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? …It is madness to wear ladies’ velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” [iii] We have been created by the power of God to know and mediate the power of God.
There are lots of things in life for which we could be fearful. And so Jesus speaks endlessly about our not needing to be afraid, about our not needing to be anxious because he is with us, always.[iv] You may be in touch right now with fear or anxiety where you feel your vulnerability and need. But there’s more. You may be equally afraid – maybe even more afraid – of how you are powerful. If you are afraid of your power – and you do have power – you need not fear your power. Don’t be afraid. Remember the Blessed Virgin Mary who was visited by an angel announcing Mary’s life mission, a very powerful calling.[v] Mary was afraid, afraid of being giving such power, and then she found the grace to say “yes” to God. She finally prayed, “Okay. Be it unto me according to your word.” And so for you. You probably already pray about poverty and need, yours and others’. Also pray for God’s power. Pray your “yes” to God’s power to be at work within you and through you.
[i] Matthew 13:54, 26:64; Mark 6:2, 14:62; Luke 6:19; John 1:12.
[ii] John 12:12-14.
[iii] From Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, pp. 40-41. Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1975 and in 2014 received the National Humanities Medal.
[iv] Matthew 28:20.
[v] Luke 1:26-38.
“Truth shall spring up from the earth,
and righteousness shall look down from heaven.”
“Normal will never return. I hope not.” An African-American friend said this to me recently. She was speaking about the experience of injustice and suffering that has been so poignantly exposed during the coronavirus pandemic: the strains and inequities in healthcare, the economic disparity, the hijacking of hope and trust, the infectious cynicism, the splay of racism. We have right now both the need and the opportunity to make meaningful changes in how we live and share life together. How to begin?
Saint Paul presumed that Christ’s return to earth – his “second coming” – would happen within Paul’s own lifetime. In his last days, Jesus had said to his followers, “This generation will not pass away until all these things take place.”[i] These things Jesus is talking about are wars and rumors of wars, nation rising against nation, famines, earthquakes, tortures, betrayals…[ii] All of this was happening in Saint Paul’s lifetime. (Sounds familiar.) Saint Paul was convinced that Jesus’ return was any day. Therefore, we should live out our lives, Saint Paul says, with “watchfulness,” in a “spirit of hope,” and understanding “the present sorrow and suffering in light of the coming joy.” In Saint Paul’s day, there was plenty of sorrow and suffering because of the prejudice, injustice, and torture wielded against Christians. Again and again Saint Paul’s writings repeat the hope of Christ’s return. As we read in his Letter to the Romans: “…For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near…”
But Saint Paul dies before Christ’s return. He is martyred around year 65, and so the church had to reinterpret Saint Paul. If Christ’s return was not immediate (which is where Saint Paul’s letters begin), or if Christ’s return is not immanent (which is where Saint Paul’s letters end), then Christ’s return is sometime in the future. Hold on; be prepared. Meanwhile the appalling persecution of Christians continued for nearly three centuries until the Roman Emperor, Constantine, became Christian in year 310. But the reprieve of suffering was short-lived. A century later, year 410, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths, and the empire destroyed. The greatest nation in the world – a self-proclaimed Christian nation – had been infiltrated, divided, and conquered.