(This is the part where you say, Wait, what?)
Attend, little children: in this passage, Paul is trying to solve a pastoral problem. Jesus told his followers (more or less): “I will return before any of you die.” Yet some of those same followers were dying, and no Jesus. What gives? It’s an important question still today, but even more so in Paul’s day, when belief in resurrection was not widespread. Most people thought that life after death—if there even was such a thing—was a cold, dark, loveless existence. So, you know. Like Duluth.
At the same time, resurrection was a central tenet of Christianity. As Paul says, if you don’t hope because of Christ’s resurrection, you have nothing. So to ask about the dead was both an emotional question: Will we be forever separated from our loved ones? And it was also a faith question: You told us Jesus was coming before anybody died. That’s clearly not the case. ‘Sup with that?
Paul’s answer to this is essentially: don’t sweat it. If Jesus has the power to return and save you, he has the power to save the dead. He consistently refers to the dead as “the sleepers” in this passage. They’re alive, but asleep while they wait for Jesus. When Jesus does come (there’s no “comes back” here), they’ll be in the front of the line to be brought to him. Then come those of us who are living. Here, Paul adds a rhetorical flourish:
Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.
Yep, this is where the idea of the Rapture comes from. Jerome used the word rapere to translate Paul’s Greek. It’s the Latin word for what a raptor does: a sudden snatching or seizing, catching something up by force. That’s the sense used by the tribulation-minded: that God will suddenly snatch up into heaven the chosen ones, leaving you chumps behind.
Rapere, though, as you may have guessed, also gives us the English word “rape.” It meant at first basically kidnapping a woman, with or without sexual assault. Later it came to refer specifically to the latter part of that equation. That’s not what Paul meant, there’s nothing like that in the original. In the Greek, the word usually had a negative connotation: it’s the word you’d use to describe snatching something out of somebody’s hand, or grabbing something away by force.
But Paul apparently means something more positive: being caught up into heaven, God laying hold of you and plucking you out of the world of sin and death. Is this a literal belief? No, not exactly. It’s a mystical vision, similar to ones recorded in Paul’s other letters. The important part is the comfort it conveys: nothing in life or in death can separate you from the love of God in Christ, as he says in Romans. Whether or not it literally happens the way he describes it is of secondary importance, at best.
The literal interpretation given by people like Tim LaHaye has all-too-often been used to keep people in line. Do the right thing (as we, your social superiors interpret it), or you won’t get caught up by Jesus on the last day. This is a completely vertical cosmology. To cite Bob Marley, “most people think great God will come from the sky, take away everything and make everybody feel high.”
But while Paul promises that this vertical relationship with God will work out in the Thessalonians’ favor, he ultimately roots his word of comfort in the horizontal relationship with Jesus in community. Before his appearance on the last day, Jesus comes into the world again in how the Christian community lives and acts, exactly why so many of us are disgusted by Moore’s religious defenders.
It’s not an accident, then, that Paul concludes this passage with instructions for the church to comfort one another. Nor is it accidental that he concludes the letter with this exhortation:
Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the faint hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
While Christians wait for Jesus’ final return, our business is to be making Jesus real in the world, to anticipate his coming in our lives and our bodies. Much of that work is to extend the horizon of Jesus, to gather as many into the loving arms of the body of Christ so they too can be caught up in him when he comes. Paul says, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds.” There’s no qualifiers there. To paraphrase one of my commentaries, anyone who desires to be with God will be with God—is already with God. The job of the church is to recognize that truth and to give it as much substance as we can.
This, finally, is where those harmed by sexual abuse come in. There is no shame, there is no violation, there is no assault or diminishment, that can prevent God from loving you. Jesus came into the world to reconcile it: to put relationships right with justice and equity, and to draw all people to God. If it doesn’t matter if you’re living or dead, it certainly doesn’t matter if you’ve been harassed, or molested, or manipulated, or raped. God believes you. God sees you in ultimate dignity and worth. God loves you and wants to draw near to you in love and comfort. You too will have life. You too will have love. You too will be blessed, redeemed and made whole on the last day when the trumpet blows and the archangel calls.
Our job as the church is to be ready for that moment by making sure you’re ready for that moment. The job of the church is not to get you to behave like a good little Christian should, but to get you somewhere you can receive the grace to be offered.
So to all those victims of abuse out there: I believe you. I see you in dignity and worth. I want you to be a part of the body of Christ. At least, I do those things as best I can. In the meantime, as we await Jesus’ coming, I pray forgiveness for all those times I have failed you, and for strength to do better. Amen and the end.
In light of the news from Sutherland Springs, I’m going to do something you might think crazy: go back to scripture.
Today we, like many churches, celebrated All Saints’ Sunday. We read 1 John 3:1-3:
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.
That’s all a saint really is; a child of God who has died. Sadly, at least 24 joined the ranks of the saints today. At first, saints were simply people the church deemed worthy of remembering after their death. As time went on, the standards went up, of course. First, the saints became people of exceptional holiness. Now they have to be credited with an actual miracle.
But it’s worth noting that many of the earliest saints were martyrs: people who died (usually) through state-sponsored violence. Also worth remembering: those martyrs died not just because they claimed Jesus as Lord, but because to do so was to resist the violence of the state. Early Christians were communists—and they were pacifists.
When John says “the world does not know us because it did not know him,” this is part of what he means. The world did not understand the Prince of Peace. And the world rejected that light, the Prince of Peace, in order to walk in darkness.
But back to the saints. The very earliest meaning of the term, found even in Jewish writings, is simply a brother or sister in faith. Saints, then, are part of the past: they’re role models who have died. But they’re also part of the present. Saints, as the song goes, are people you can meet in the shops or at tea.
(In case you don’t know it.)
Saints are people in the here and now who strive to walk in Jesus’ way, to be like him, to purify themselves as he purified himself. No, it’s not about s-e-x. It’s not about drinking, either, or loving somebody the same gender as you. Let John tell it:
Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.
So sin is lawlessness, like, oh, say, the lawlessness of murder? Why yes, yes it is:
I know this is going to rock your world, but loving one another involves not murdering one another.
The saints were and always have been those who resist this kind of sin, who resist the ways of violence and death. Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, and he was right. The saints tried to purify themselves from the sin of hate, the sin of violence, the sin of murder. And they tried to strengthen one another to do the same, as should we.
Now, notice what I haven’t said: that the saints tried to introduce legislation or commonsense gun regulation or move votes. It’s not that early Christians (or Christians all along) didn’t try to change the world. They did. But at least in the time of the New Testament, the church was composed of people basically without much, if any, formal power. You didn’t get a vote in the Roman Empire!
So they did what they could: offered passive resistance and engaged in an alternative way of life. In that sense, saints are also of the future. We don’t know what will become of us when Jesus returns, when the world is changed. But we know that we will be like Jesus, who is, remember, the Prince of Peace. And so we work to bring that world into existence. The saints work to create the world of the future proleptically, even knowing that in the end, it is only God who can bring peace. But we know that we are created for love and destined for peace, and so we try to bring those things about even before Jesus comes back.
Let me say it again so you spread the word: We are created for love. We are destined for peace. We make love and peace real in the world. That is what saints do. And you are a saint.
In the end, those who have died today will join the great cloud of witnesses urging us on as we run the race of faith. That is, in our work of establishing love, peace, and justice as the norms of our world. They have joined the ranks of the saints, and I commend you to faith in the Prince of Peace that their deaths not be in vain.
You can do that by living and teaching peace, and/or by picking up the phone and giving your member of Congress an earful. Either way is perfectly legitimate, and perfectly faithful. What is not is to say, “Oh well, the world is evil, whatcha gonna do?”
End of sermon. Go be saints.
If there is a demonic force at work in American society, it is the sin of envy. Envy? Not greed, not racism? Yes. Envy is more powerful than either greed or racism, because it is their source.
Envy is more than just wanting what someone else has. It’s the feeling that their having it in the first place is illegitimate, that their blessings diminish what you have. Envy is a cancer that eats the soul.
People have been asking rhetorically why Trump attacks black athletes and other African-Americans who defy him. It’s envy. It’s not that he wants their athletic prowess or success. It’s that he thinks they don’t deserve that success. It’s that Trump thinks a successful black man cheapens what he, Trump, has accomplished in his life (such as it is). Because in his mind, of course, blacks (and Hispanics, and women and…) are lazy and unproductive cheats gaming the system. So to hear them demand respect, well, that must just make his blood boil. They’re undeserving and ungrateful!
Trump isn’t the only one, of course. Envy is the source of rural and suburban white complaints about “those people” in the cities. They’re cutting in line, and it diminishes what we’ve done through the sweat of our brows! Envy is also the source of those who get so riled up over protests at football games. Those pampered athletes have never made a sacrifice in their lives, not like our brave soldiers and sailors! (As I’ve said before, there’s an authoritarian Cult of Sacrifice in our nation using cops and veterans to keep people in their place.)
None of this is new. It’s exactly what Jesus is talking about in his parable of laborers in the vineyard. Understand, the guys he’s talking about are all poor. They don’t have their own farms to attend, so they work at somebody else’s. They get up before dawn to make their arrangements, then work—hard, manual labor—all day until the hot sun goes down.
You think they’re pissed off when the guys working only one hour get the same pay? You’re damn right they are! You think you’d be pissed off when the guys working only one hour get the same pay? You’re damn right you would be! All the more so since the jerks who worked the least get paid first. Those who worked longest get their noses rubbed in it. Grace (because that is what we’re talking about, really) is obnoxious. So is God’s generosity.
Because of course this is no ordinary landowner we’re talking about. What owner does the hiring himself, instead of sending a servant? As well, the “vineyard” was a common image for Israel in those days, and the hiring additional laborers suggests it’s harvest time.
So the landowner has a point when he says to one of the laborers, “Friend, I did you no wrong.” The owner and the worker settled on a fair day’s wages, and the owner paid up promptly. Fair is fair. If the landowner should choose to piss away his money on slobs who only work an hour in the day, that’s his business, nobody else.
And thank God he does, because we’re all recipients of his screwball economics. Psalm 145:9 says, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” Or as Matthew says earlier, “God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” Ain’t none of us alive solely by our own efforts, ain’t none of us making ends meet or more only by our own hard work. We all get lucky at some point, or in Christian terms, we are all blessed by the grace of God. And none of us deserve it, because none of us are God’s equals. It’s a free gift out of God’s love for the world.
So none of us have any business getting envious. It’s like a baby crying foul because his mother also breast-feeds his brother. We are called to live in gratitude and the sure knowledge that there is enough and more than enough to go around.
It irritates the hell out of me to see Trump flags hanging around town, or Blue Lives Matter flags, or Ol’ Dixie on some pickup truck. But I never begrudge their right to protest, to be obnoxious. It’s a free country, and there’s enough free speech to go around. (Remind me sometime to grab pictures from the neighbor’s yard who draws swastikas on flags because America tolerates abortion.) But of course, if your ego is weak, and your sense of self is fragile because you know at heart your accomplishments are illegitimate…Well then, you might lash out, too.
But you, you live with gratefulness, with thanksgiving for what you have, not envy at what somebody else has. You live knowing that when the kingdom comes, the last shall be first, and the first last. We might not be able to do much about that awful man in the White House, but we can look to a better day that has been promised us. Amen.
Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.
Let me open up some scripture to you (it will be relevant, promise). I preached on Romans 12:1-8 this morning.
The context matters here: Paul has spent much of the preceding eleven chapters sketching out his theology for a congregation that didn’t know him. This is preparatory for a planned visit so he can raise funds to expand his mission into Spain. So having introduced himself and his thought, in chapter 12, he’s making the transition to: so what? How does any of this change lives?
Paul starts with an exhortation to the Roman congregation: “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” This is, not to put too fine a point on it, ballsy. Remember, he’s writing to people in the capital, the very heart of the empire. And the empire requires sacrifice to its gods—including the emperor—at the cost of life for refusal. Disregard the haters and losers, he says. Make the real sacrifice: lay your body down for God in Christ. The nerve of some people!
But—and this is a very important but!—Roman sacrifice was understood explicitly in terms of winners and losers. It was a domination game. Winners made sacrifices, losers got sacrificed. This kept the world properly ordered. And Paul just stands that on its head. Don’t be the dominant winner, he says. Be the loser. Be the sacrifice, like Jesus was the sacrifice. All of this, says Paul, is “spiritual” worship, or logical worship—the word is actually logikē in the Greek—the rational result of worship. If you have faith in the God of Christ, this is where it leads you: to laying down your life for the good of others.
It’s more than just getting yourself killed, of course. Paul says: don’t get uppity about it, but you all have gifts and talents, given by God for the betterment of the people of God. We don’t all have the same gifts or talents, and that’s a good thing. We all have different roles, and different strengths to bring to them.
Then Paul rattles off a list of gifts: prophecy (interpreting God’s will), ministry, teaching, exhortation (coaching, more or less), giving, leading, compassion. Don’t worry if you don’t have any of these gifts. There are others. Paul’s just giving a bunch of “for instances.”
Point is, we all have some way to build up the community, and it’s up to us to figure out what that is, and start using it. If you’ve ever had developmentally disabled folks in worship with you, you know that even just a smile can be a gift. I’ve know many people who could “only” give the church the gift of cutting grass or sweeping up or putting hymnals away. It’s all good.
So I told the congregation: find what you’re good at and do it. Tell others what their gifts are. Accept the compliment when it’s given. Because God wants:
- All of your hearts.
- All of your minds.
- All of your spirits.
- All of your bodies. Not for himself, but for the good of the community, because God also gives all of these away to the beloved children of God.
So now, here’s the relevant part, the part you’ve been waiting for.
You ever wonder why Trump seems so fershlugginer incompetent? He, after all, is a baptized Christian. Shouldn’t he have received his share of gifts and talents? Well, yes. But remember, those are gifts and talents to be used to build up the body of Christ. The gifts aren’t ours, and they’re not reason for us to boast. In fact, boasting is one way to know the gift isn’t from God. So is using the gift for your own benefit, rather than that of others. This is precisely where Trump fails.
Because he is so broken, such a damaged and self-serving person, there is never any thought about using what he’s been given for others. He didn’t go into business to help people, he went into it to get rich, to get praised, and to get laid, not necessarily in that order. Trump’s one constant throughout his life is the dominance game: it’s always zero-sum with this guy. I win, you lose. He didn’t go into the presidency with any thought of service or making his supporters’ lives better. He could give two shits. He cares even less about helping people who are—oh, I don’t know—being drowned in a catastrophic flood? They’re an abstraction. It is always and ever will be about his own domination of the world around him. He wouldn’t know from sacrifice.
The result of this brokenness is that any gift, any talent, any tiniest drop of goodness that he might have been given—they’re all concealed, unused. You can’t be good at anything if you’re too short-sighted and insecure to cooperate with others. That’s Trump.
No, if anything, Trump’s powers are demonic, originating the organized chaos that arises in opposition to God’s plan of love, because the demonic is blind, unreasoning, unthinking except insofar as what this has to do for me. To paraphrase that great prophet Declan McManus, Trump wants what no one can: he wants to know the names of all those he’s better than.
That’s the voice of evil. As long it has possession of him, Trump’s bound to be a failure, because he can’t use his God-given gifts. We, our nation, God help us, put that in charge of the government. All those Republicans thought they were getting an alpha dog leader, but they didn’t realize he would hump their legs, too. America did not use its sober judgment, as Paul might say. It did not give logical worship or discern the will of God. It putzed.
We’re experiencing the judgment for that failure right now. “Good luck!” he says, as a city drowns.
Yet, there is good news, which is you still have gifts and talents, and the means to use them for good of your community. And having been given them, you should use them. You ought, for you can.
- You can donate to relief efforts for Houston. Suggested agencies are floating around. (Church groups typically give 100% to relief, no overhead or management fees.)
- You can help people register to vote. You can drive them to the polls.
- You can form a community of support for vulnerable people.
- You can meet people who are deeply different than you, and listen to them.
- In a thousand and one ways, you can resist the demonic forces that divide us one from another and focus us on our wants and desires.
- You can go to town hall meetings. You can write letters to the editor. You can talk to your neighbors. (Comforting the widower next door is as surely a political act as anything I do on Twitter.)
- You can discern the will of God, and interpret it for those who will listen. You can minister to the needs of the people.
- You can teach people the truth, and what is right and wrong. You can coach them to do more and better.
- You can give and give and give, because it really is true: you can’t take it with you.
- You can lead with diligence and expect other leaders [cough cough] to do the same.
- If nothing else, you can be Little Miss Sunshine, a ray of cheerfulness and compassion.
Anyway, those are just examples. If you’ve got other ideas for how to use gifts and talents, feel free to drop them in a response. End of. Go and do likewise. Make a real sacrifice. Amen.
Today is International Women’s Day. In honor of that celebration, I invite you to consider these women from the Bible. I’ll name twenty, but believe you me, there are plenty more I have to leave out so as not to bore you to death.
- Eve, who has been blamed often for the original sin, as if that fathead Adam weren’t standing right there next to her when it happened. But she was a co-worker in the Garden, and a symbol of the primal wholeness between the sexes.
- Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who delighted to think she would “know pleasure” again in old age, and who laughed at God and got away with it.(Can you imagine somebody telling God straight up, “Uh, no, I didn’t laugh at you?”)
- Hagar, Sarah’s handmaiden (i.e., slave), used by Abraham to produce an heir and then sent away into the desert by Sarah’s jealousy.
- Tamar the widow, whose brother-in-law Onan spilled his seed rather give her an heir to support her in old age. Tamar took matters into her own hands, slept with her father-in-law, narrowly escaped execution for her “harlotry…“…and became a named ancestor of Jesus.
- The midwives of Egypt who defy Pharaoh’s genocidal order to kill male Hebrew infants.
- Moses’ mother, who in hope refused to kill him outright and instead sent him floating down the Nile.
- Pharaoh’s daughter, who subverted her old man and raised Moses as her own, only to have him reject the palace as an adult.
- Miriam, Moses’ sister, a prophet in her own right, and a political operator not afraid to challenge Moses’ power among the Israelites.
- Deborah the fair judge, who overcame tribal rivalry and led the Israelites to military victory.
- Ruth, who stayed with her mother-in-law Naomi through famine, rejecting the safety of going home to her own people to provide for her family.
- Esther saved the Jews of Persia from slaughter and got the rat bastard Haman hanged on his own gallows. (Esther is the only book in the Bible not to mention God, by the way.)
- Now, moving to the New Testament, Mary, the very-young woman who was unafraid to accept a risky mission from God, who didn’t bother to consult with a male relative before she said Yes, who didn’t mind challenging her son, but who stayed with him when his friends deserted him for fear of their own lives and watched him die a violent and disgraceful death, who was a prophet, received the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and whose memory was treasured by the early church.
- The unnamed woman with the hemorrhage (i.e., an uncontrolled menstrual bleed) who didn’t hesitate to touch Jesus and be healed by him.
- The Syro-Phoenician woman, desperate to have her child healed, who gives a smart answer to Jesus’ smart remark. (“It is not right to take the children’s bread and feed it to the dogs,” he says, meaning to help someone who is not Jewish. “Yes,” she says, “but even the puppies can eat the crumbs from the table.”)
- The Samaritan woman, ostracized in her community, who listens to Jesus’ teaching, and boldly spreads the word about him.
- The Forgiven Woman, saved from execution by Jesus, offered God’s forgiveness and Jesus’ compassion.
- Mary Magdalene, often slandered as a prostitute, one of Jesus’ first and most loyal disciples, who preaches the first Christian sermon. (“The Lord is risen,” she tells the disciples on Easter morning. Pfft, they say. Typical men.)
- Martha and Mary, one who serves and one who listens, who may represent the stable communities of the early church (Martha) who provided hospitality to itinerant, mendicant preachers and apostles (Mary).
- Lydia, the “dealer in purple cloth,” who Paul calls a co-worker, who helped found the church in Philippi.
- And last but not least, Phoebe, called a “deacon” by Paul, who brings his letter to the Roman community to another town, showing that women were early, active, and equal leaders in the church.
I can’t do these women justice here. Some of them have had entire books written on them. In fact, we can’t do justice at all by the women of the Bible. They were hurt, raped, killed, oppressed in too many ways to mention.
But we see throughout scripture women unafraid to defy the norms of their day, to work for their communities and on their own behalf. We see women who set the pattern for and far exceed the faithfulness of the men and who change the course of salvation history itself. No women? No Moses. No Mary? No Jesus.
Whatever you think of the treatment of women in scripture or the church, I invite you to consider how different each would be without them. God is unequivocal even when the people aren’t: women are beloved, deserving, and equal children of God. The end. Whatever you think of the treatment of women in scripture or the church, I invite you to consider how different each would be without them. God is unequivocal even when the people aren’t: women are beloved, deserving, and equal children of God. The end.