Proleptically Embodying the Eschaton

Isaiah 2:1-5

1This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:

2 In the last days/the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established/as the highest of the mountains;/it will be exalted above the hills,/and all nations will stream to it.

3 Many peoples will come and say,/“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,/to the temple of the God of Jacob./He will teach us his ways,/so that we may walk in his paths.”/The law will go out from Zion,/the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

4 He will judge between the nations/and will settle disputes for many peoples./They will beat their swords into plowshares/and their spears into pruning hooks./Nation will not take up sword against nation,/nor will they train for war anymore.

5 Come, descendants of Jacob,/let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Matthew 24:35-44

36 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; 39 and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.

42 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. 43 But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.

Happy New Year! I know what your calendars say; there is still a full month of December remaining. But I’m not talking about the calendar year, I’m talking about the liturgical year. The liturgical year begins with Advent, progresses through Lent, rolls along during the season of Pentecost, and then finishes with the creatively-named “ordinary time.” Each of these seasons focuses on a different part of the history of God’s people. Lent is a period of repentance leading up to Easter. Pentecost is the season when we consider the work of the church. And Advent is… I’ll tell you later what Advent is. No, just kidding. Advent is the season of waiting. Our theme for Advent this year is “What Are You Waiting For?”

What are we waiting for? Perhaps some of you have been waiting to put up the Christmas tree and to start listening to Christmas music on the radio (but then again, there are probably some who have not waitedJ). If you are like me, you might be waiting to start your diet until after the new year. Maybe you are waiting to see a friend or relative that you haven’t seen in years. Perhaps you are waiting on someone to say “I love you,” or “I’m sorry.” Or maybe you are waiting for someone you care about say “I need help.”

Advent is a period of waiting. We wait for the birth of Jesus, counting down the four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. One way we represent this in the church is through the lighting of candles, lighting an additional candle each week until we light the white candle on Christmas Eve.

But Jesus has already come into the world. He showed up about 2019 years ago, give or take a few years. Advent isn’t just about waiting for Jesus to enter the world as a baby, but also waiting for him to return to set things right.

Today we don’t simply have a feel-good sermon. Today we recognize the pain in the world, the suffering we experience, and the waiting. We wait for Jesus to come and set things right.

In Advent we often read two texts: an Old Testament text and a New Testament text. Both of these passages speak of the time when God makes things right. Both passages give a different image of those days, and I think that is okay. The point isn’t whether there will be a temple or not. The point is that all is made right. And for things to be made right, we need to recognize that not everything is as God intends for it to be.

Our Isaiah passage is interesting because this book of the Bible begins with the Babylonian Exile. The Israelites will soon be taken away from their homes and their land. The Temple, the center of their worshipping community, will be destroyed.

But our text provides a message of hope. Verse 2 says, “In the last days/the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established/as the highest of the mountains;/it will be exalted above the hills,/and all nations will stream to it.”

When God sets things right, there will be a new temple. And it will be higher than any mountain or hill. This is meant to be symbolic; nothing will be greater, nothing will be higher than this temple. And all nations will stream to it. The word translated there as “nations” is goyim. Goyim isn’t just a reference to countries, but people groups. Goyim is very similar to the Greek word ethnos, which is also translated as nations, people, ethnicities, or gentiles. In those days, Isaiah says, people from all corners of the world, people of every color, every ethnicity, will come to Lord. Even the gentiles, which is good news for those of us who do not trace our ancestry back to the Jewish faith.

This is a beautiful image, but when was this fulfilled? We are still waiting on this to happen today, and they were waiting on it to happen in Jesus’s day. Just before our passage from Matthew, we hear Jesus say, “How often I wanted to gather your people together, just as a hen gathers her chicks under wings” (23:37).

Our text from Matthew tells us about the gathering in of God’s people, and the setting right of all things. There is a lot of debate today about how this might take place. Popular books and movies have made Rapture theology a common way to understand the end of times. I’ve gone into that in detail before, but for now I will just say that I’m not one who adheres to this theology. Premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism. I don’t think it is worth spending a lot of time on, because this is the passage where Jesus says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (verse 36). I don’t worry about how God will set things right, what heaven and earth will look like. I trust God, so why fret? But I think there is a danger in assuming that we are in the last days.

I spoke about a similar passage a few weeks ago that I said did not refer to the end of the world, and we discussed a little bit about why people are always looking for the end times. One person mentioned the fact that thinking that the end times are near helps us escape our own fear of death and our mortality. If Jesus is coming back during our lifetime, we don’t need to wonder about death. That’s understandable.

There are also some concerns with how a belief that Jesus is coming back in our lifetime affects our lives. For instance, issues like caring for the environment don’t matter if we believe Jesus is coming back tomorrow. We have enough clean drinking water and air to breathe to get us through the next few years. There are enough trees to last until 2050. Why worry about illnesses like AIDS or cancer if this is all going to end soon? Why try to fix global poverty if everything is coming to an end?

I think we have a good reason for caring for God’s creation, for battling diseases, and caring for the poor among us. Our reason for doing so is simple: Jesus told us to. And as I often say, when we do the things Jesus taught, and live as Jesus lives, we are embodying the world that is to come.

The fancy word for the end times is “eschaton.” Eschaton is a fun word in and of itself, but when you make it into the study of the end times, the word becomes even more fun. That word is “eschatology.” Even more fun yet is when you use eschatology as an adjective, which makes it “eschatological.”

Another fun word that I’ve shared before is “proleptic.” Proleptic means to live as if something in the future has already occurred or is going on now. Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry. But we know that feeding hungry people doesn’t mean that they won’t get hungry again in a few hours. Healing someone who is sick doesn’t mean that they won’t ever get sick again. In fact, I think everyone that Jesus fed and healed while he was here got hungry and eventually died anyway.

But Jesus also taught that one day there would be no sickness, that one day there would be no hunger. Jesus didn’t heal the sick and feed the hungry because that was all they would ever need. Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry because of his eschatology. If we put all of the fancy words together, you could say that Jesus proleptically embodied the eschaton. And I believe we are called to proleptically embody the eschaton as well. It is the “already but not yet” kingdom of God. It is here now in a way, but will be fully realized one day.

You may have noticed that the sun is going down a lot sooner these days. Those who work a 9-5 job might even find yourselves driving home after work in the dark. I for one find this kind of depressing. And it is even worse in the northern parts of Canada and Alaska, where you might go months without seeing the sun.

Some churches have been holding what is sometimes called “The Longest Night Service.” Longest Night Services are usually held on December 21, which is the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice is the day when we get the least amount of sunlight. December 21 is the shortest day of the year, and therefore, the longest night.

Longest Night Services are a time to mourn, a time to express grief, and longing. This is so important in our world today, which is so caught up in looking perfect. We have our Instagram houses and post pictures of our perfect families on Facebook. Our world offers little time for longing and mourning because we are told that we must always be happy and perfect. But that’s not reality.

I think we as a church need to do a better job of listening to the suffering of the world. And sometimes the best thing that we can do is sit with people when they suffer or when they hurt. I remember well a story a friend told at a conference. A person his church had been relating to had a hard time paying his bills. The church helped as much as they could, but there was only so much this small ministry could do. When this friend called and asked if the church could pay his electric bill, my friend said, “I’m sorry, we can’t pay your electric bill, but I will come sit with you in the dark.”

Sometimes we are called to sit with people in the dark, both metaphorically and literally. And sometimes we are to bring the light to people.

It has been a few years ago since I read a blog post from someone I’ve met a few times, but don’t really know. He is a writer, speaker, and an activist. But I tried to chase down his old blog post, and failed. So I won’t share his name here in case he took the post down, as it was of a very personal nature. We will just call him Bob here.

Bob was a military man who served his time during the Gulf War and returned home to help his family run the dairy farm and begin a family of his own. But things didn’t go as he had planned. He had reoccurring issues with PTSD. Milk prices were low, and money was hard to come by. And that family he had hoped to start wasn’t coming as quickly as he had planned. Add to these concerns the fact that he lived in a part of the country that saw very little sunlight in the winter months, and it isn’t hard to see why Bob was depressed.

When Bob was discharged, he was able to keep his sidearm, a small pistol. I don’t know if this is normal, I assume that it isn’t, but that’s not the point. The point is that one night he nearly used that gun to kill his own demons. And he isn’t alone. The most recent data, released this past October, says that 17 veterans commit suicide every day.

Bob didn’t go through with it, and I’m thankful that he didn’t. For one, I believe that all life is precious. And two, he has had an impact on many through his writings. Bob now calls himself an Anabaptist, and much of his work focuses on healing and hope. While working with his Anabaptist friends, Bob came across RAWtools.

RAWtools is an organization that began with some blacksmiths who would gather guns and turn them into gardening tools. They aren’t the most efficient gardening tools, but that isn’t the point. They are conversation starters. They are symbolic. They are a reference to passages like Isaiah 2:4b, “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

When Bob learned about RAWtools, he knew that he had a piece for them to transform. He took them his sidearm, the very one he considered using to take his own life, and they turned it into a garden spade. A tool of death and been turned into a tool of life.

Today Bob works with RAWtools, traveling from city to city, talking and writing about healing and hope.

I know this sounds kind of wishy-washy, and utopian. Making changes in the world isn’t so easy. And I agree, it is work! But I think the idea of beating a sword into a plowshare is a great image.

How many of you have ever been in a real, working blacksmith shop? There is a working blacksmith shop at the Frontier Culture Museum that you can visit and see a blacksmith forging nails and door latches. There are at least two things that I think everyone notices when they walk into that blacksmith shop: it is dirty, and it is hot. The blacksmiths emerge from their shops covered in soot and sweat. They don’t look good, and they don’t smell good.

Just like real blacksmith work, metaphorical beating swords into plowshares is going to be work. And no, we won’t solve violence, and we won’t prevent every suicide. But we can make a difference. We can proleptically embody the eschaton.

When someone asks Bob why he has a garden trowel on his desk with a pistol grip and trigger, he can share his story of depression and his struggles with disappointment. Bob is not trying to provide a quick fix or wishy-washy theology. He isn’t simply telling this person to just pray and everything is going to be okay. Bob is sitting in the dark. But Bob is also beating swords into plowshares in the process. Taking thoughts of death and turning them into thoughts of life.

When you volunteer to feed the hungry at the Valley Mission, or you give financially to the Salvation Army or SACRA, you aren’t just helping someone in need. You are sitting with people in their darkness, you are bringing life to death, beating swords into plowshares. And when someone asks you why you do this, you can tell them that you are proleptically embodying the eschaton.

We proleptically embody the eschaton because we are living in a period between creation and recreation. We are living in a time when there is suffering and pain. Our job as the church isn’t to ignore suffering and pain, but to be present with people through the suffering and pain. And in the midst of that suffering and pain, as the people of this world wait for something better to come along, we show them glimpses of the world promised through Isaiah the prophet, and Jesus the Messiah. We proleptically embody the eschaton, not because we think providing a meal to a poor person or caring for a sick person will change the world. No, we do it because Jesus will set the world right, and he has invited us to help in the project.

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And I Feel Fine

Luke 21:5-19

5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

8 He replied: “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

10 Then he said to them: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.

12 “But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. 13 And so you will bear testimony to me. 14 But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. 15 For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. 17 Everyone will hate you because of me. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 Stand firm, and you will win life.

32 “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

We have been working through the book of Luke, on and off again, for the last year. We have addressed some really weird teachings along the way, teachings like marrying your brother-in-law and Jesus praising an unjust manager. We have also looked at some really beautiful passages, like the story of the Prodigal Son. I wouldn’t normally choose to preach on some of those texts, but I made the decision to stick with the gospel of Luke and see it all the way through. Now we are winding down the church year. Advent marks the beginning of the lectionary cycle, so we will soon be turning our attention to a different book of the Bible as we await the coming of the Christ child on Christmas morning. But not before we look at one more weird passage.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. You can’t not sing the REM tune: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine…”

Of course this passage is talking about the end of the world, right? Maybe not. What I want to say today is that this isn’t about the end of the world, but about getting back to what God had always intended. And I feel fine about that.

As always, it is really important to situate a story within its broader context. In Luke 19, Jesus rides into the city on Palm Sunday, goes to the Temple, and overturns some tables. He drives out the animals and those who are abusing the system to make some extra money. This starts a confrontation between Jesus and the keepers of the Temple, the Sadducees. Last week we looked at how the Sadducees tried to trick Jesus with a strange, hypothetical question. Then one of the stories that we skipped over is the story of the widow’s offering. In the opening verses of our chapter, we find a woman giving her last two coins to the Temple’s treasury. Jesus commends the woman for her act, but in parallel versions of this story, he is also very critical of the leaders of the Temple. He says that they “devour widow’s houses.” I’m not exactly sure where that idiom comes from, but it seems to be a critique of the leaders of the Temple. They are greedy and they are willing to consume everything this widow has. Even her house.

The last couple chapters have been a critique of the Temple system and the greed among the leaders. Now a question for you: whose idea was it to build the Temple in the first place? Was it God’s idea? Did God command that the people build him a big, fancy building? Nope, it was King David’s idea. David realizes one night that he is living in a big fancy house, but there is no such house for God. So David decides to build one. Ultimately, God allows, not David, but his son Solomon, to build the Temple. David has too much blood on his hands.

This reminds me of how Israel demanded a king; they wanted a king like the other nations had a king. God said no, but the Israelites would not give up. So God eventually gave them what they wanted. A king for Israel was never God’s idea. God was to be their king. The Temple wasn’t God’s idea, either. God wasn’t supposed to be domesticated, forced to live indoors. God was to be understood as out among us, out among the people of the world. Sure, God can’t be contained in any building. But it does affect how the people thought of God.

Solomon built the first Temple, and it stood for around 400 years, until the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 586. The temple was rebuilt after the exile, but by Jesus’s day, it needed a little sprucing up. It was over 500 years old, after all. So Herod the Great decided to renovate the Temple. Herod had a number of building projects like this. Historians say that he was trying to make a name for himself: Herod built things big and fancy. Herod’s renovation project began around the year 19 BC, and it was still being renovated in Jesus’s day.

It was this new and improved, fancy pants Temple that Jesus overturned the tables and chased out the animals. It was this new and improved, fancy pants Temple where Jesus and his disciples saw the widow giving her last coins. I have to imagine Jesus was pretty annoyed when he saw people getting rich off the widows and other people whom they were supposed to be helping.

This brings us to our text for this morning. Immediately after the widow makes her donation, Jesus and his disciples walk out of the Temple. Verse 5 tells us, “Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God.”

Jesus responds in verse 6, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

What is the appropriate response to such a proclamation? The appropriate response is to ask when is this going to happen. And that’s exactly what the disciples do. When will this happen, and what will be the signs we should be looking for in advance?

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven. But before all this, they will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name.”

Well, that’s something to look forward to, now isn’t it. Many Christians believe that Jesus is talking about the end of time with this passage, when Jesus will return to the earth and set all things right. Some have even made bold predictions as to when the world was going to come to an end. The Mayans believed that the world was going to come to an end in 2012. Y2K was also a popular prediction as we finished the last millennium. Books like the Left Behind series and The Late Great Planet Earth made end times conversations popular. More recently, we’ve heard about the four blood moons in 2015. And just to give you fair warning, a psychic named Jeane Dixon predicted that the world is going to end in 2020. So have a good couple months, my friends. It is all going to burn!

Wikipedia lists hundreds of end times predictions throughout the known history. Do you know what they all have in common? They were all wrong!  Well, we can’t say for sure about Ms. Dixon. We’ll have to wait and see.

But I respect the people who make a prediction about the end of the world, we pass that date, and they make another prediction. That’s bold! If you get bucked off the horse, you have to get right back on…or something like that.

Look again at what Jesus said would happen: there will be false messiahs, war, nations will rise up against nation, there will be earthquakes, famines and pestilences. And Jesus’s followers will be persecuted. What era did these things happen? All of them!

But here’s the thing. I don’t think that Jesus is talking about the end of the world in this passage. Sure, he does elsewhere, but not here. What he is talking about here is the destruction of the Temple. I’ll give you two reasons why. First, to read this as Jesus talking about the end times is to accuse Jesus of having ADD. They were discussing the Temple, and all at once he switches to talk about the destruction of the world? Second, to read this as Jesus predicting the end times makes Jesus out to be a liar, or just wrong.

In verse 32, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” That was a few generations ago. So was Jesus wrong, or was he lying to his disciples? I prefer to take a different approach and say that he was talking about the very thing that started the conversation. He was talking about the Temple.

About 30 years after Jesus’s death, the Jews revolted against the Roman Empire, and it wasn’t pretty. War broke out, nation against nation. In 64 AD, the Roman Emperor Nero blamed a series of fires on the Christians. He would later sanction their persecution and martyrdom. I don’t know if there were earthquakes or not, but there were people who claimed to be the messiah. And in 70 AD, the Romans seized Jerusalem and tore the Temple down. According to the historian Josephus, around one million people died in battle, most of them Jews.

So if this isn’t about the end of the world, why do so many people read it as such? Let’s consider an analogous story. At some point, most adults in our church have purchased a car. You purchased that car for several reasons. Perhaps the price, or the gas mileage were important to you. And surely you got it because you like the way it looks. But have you ever noticed that once you get a certain car, all at once you begin to see cars just like yours all over the place? If you get a red coupe, you are going to see red coupes all over the place. You get a black pickup truck and all at once, everyone seems to be driving a black pickup truck. Do you think that there are more red coupes or black trucks on the road just because you bought one? No, you just notice them, where before you wouldn’t have given that car a second glance. You’ve trained your brain, unintentionally, to see red coupes or black trucks.

I think that is what has happened with Luke 21. Through books, through television preachers, through radio programs, we have been conditioned to look for passages about the end times. The metaphor of the cars breaks down a bit here, because when we read our expectations into the text, sometimes we see things that really aren’t there. That’s not to say that Jesus doesn’t talk about the end times. He does. But I believe we see things that really aren’t there just because we are looking for them. I think that is the case for Luke 21, and I think that is the case with the book of Revelation.

A few years back I did a series on the book of Revelation and I explained it from what is called a preterist interpretation. Praeter is a Latin prefix that means past. A preterist perspective says that this has happened in the past. I believe much of Revelation has already happened, and I believe our text from Luke 21 already happened when Rome demolished the Temple in 70 AD. Jesus says he himself doesn’t know when the world will come to an end, so we need to stop guessing! Instead, we need to be asking what this text can teach us about today.

Think about what the Temple actually meant for the Jewish people of Jesus’s day. In a sense, God was believed to actually dwell in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies. It was in the Temple that the priests would make sacrifices, even the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. This is how they were made right with God. The Temple was the site for multiple pilgrimages each year, where all men had to travel to gather and worship together during feasts like the Passover celebration. Jewish children were dedicated there. A Jewish person’s entire life revolved around the Temple. And in 70 AD, when the Romans came and tore the Temple down, the world did end. The world as the Jewish people new it came to an end.

Now here’s the thing. I’ll ask you again, did God want or even need the Temple in the first place? No, that was a human desire. Our God cannot be domesticated. We talk today about a church building being God’s house, but I don’t think anyone here actually think that God sleeps, does his laundry, and watches t.v. in this building. No, we believe God is out there, active in the world. And even more importantly, we believe that God has a new temple. 1 Corinthians 6:19 says, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?”

God never wanted a temple. God wanted, and still wants, to live within you.

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Till Death Do Us Part

Luke 20:27-40

27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”

34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

39 Some of the teachers of the law responded, “Well said, teacher!” 40 And no one dared to ask him any more questions.

A pastor friend of mine recently share a story from his ministry. There was a man whose wife passed away, and he eventually remarried a woman a few years younger than he was. A few years later this man also passed away, leaving his second wife to mourn his passing.

As is sometimes the practice, various members of the family were given the opportunity to share a little story, memory, or thought about the dearly departed at the funeral. The man’s daughter shared a touching story, and ended by saying, “Dad, we miss you, but I know that you are up in heaven now and reunited with mom.”

A few days after the service, the second wife approached my friend and asked, “If my husband has been reunited with his first wife, does that mean that I’ll be alone in heaven?”

How would you answer her question? Would you answer her by quoting our text for today, that we will neither marry or be given in marriage in heaven? Or maybe you have some other insight that I don’t, because I don’t know the answer. Now I don’t think she or anyone else will be alone in heaven, but whose husband will this man be?

Ultimately, I don’t think that today’s scripture was meant to speak to a situation like my friend described. What I want to do today is to look at some historical background for this passage, consider the context in which Jesus was speaking, and show that while this passage isn’t speaking about which wife or husband is whose in heaven, it speaks about something beautiful in a different way.

When we think about marriage throughout the history of humanity, we soon realize that our concept of marriage is only a relatively new development. In the United States, two people meet, date for a bit, fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. Sure, there are people who marry for money or social status. But our main reason for getting married in the United States is because we love someone and want to spend the rest of our lives with them.

When Jesus was walking around the earth, his understanding of marriage would have been quite different. First, I should remind everyone that Jesus and the Apostle Paul were single. This isn’t a sermon championing marriage; our leader was single, and so was one of his most prominent apostles. But in biblical days marriage had two primary purposes: keeping women out of poverty, and providing a legitimate heir to the husband’s property.

Keep in mind that this was a very patriarchal society. Women did not work outside the house, as there were very few jobs available to them. That is why we find so many calls to care for the widows in the Old Testament. If they could not find work, their options were quite limited. Often they had to beg or rely on the hospitality of others. This is why polygamy was encouraged in some cases. The average life expectancy of men in Jesus’s day was between 35-40 years. That number is skewed a bit because so many children died of what are now preventable diseases. The high death rate of men was one reason why polygamous marriages were permitted, allowing a man to provide for more than one woman in a society where she could not provide for herself, and there tended to be more women than men.

The family lineage is a huge issue in the Bible. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 describes what we sometimes call the “Levirate Marriage” tradition. Levir is a Latin word, which means “husband’s brother.” Verses 5-6 tell us, “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.”

Let’s unpack this a bit. It was very uncommon for a woman to own property in the Old Testament. So in a Levirate Marriage, the brother who married the widow of his brother would then acquire all the land owned by the deceased brother. If the second brother was able to have a male child with his deceased brother’s wife, their son would be named after the deceased brother, and he would be considered the son of the deceased brother and his actual mother. When that brother would die, the son that he had with his brother’s wife would inherit the first brother’s property. That child would then be able to provide for his mother, again, because in this society, she could not provide for herself.

I know that was confusing, but keep in mind that the reasoning behind the levirate marriage was to pass on the brother’s property, to establish a lineage, and to provide for the widow. Now, just for fun, we can read the next few verses, which describe what is to be done if the next brother refuses to marry his sister-in-law. This is called the “halitzah” in Hebrew, and it is found in verses 7-10: “However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.’… His brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, ‘This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.’ That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled.”

We laugh because that really seems like a strange practice. But again, we cannot forget that this woman now found herself without a source of income, without a roof over her head, and without her basic needs being met. The levirate marriage, and marriage in general, were meant in part to care for the widows left behind after the death of a husband. This was an issue of caring for the needy. This was an issue of justice.

Let’s bring this background information to our text for this morning where we meet a group known as the Sadducees. An important bit of information on the Sadducees is that they were the caretakers of the Temple. They oversaw the sacrificial system. And what happened in Luke 19, just before our text for today? Jesus comes into the Temple, overturns the moneychangers’ tables, drives out the animals, and says, “You have turned my father’s house into a den of thieves.” The Sadducees took that personally. And they were probably getting rich off those sales.

The Sadducees were a lot like the Pharisees in that they were all looking to discredit Jesus. This interaction between Jesus and the Sadducees was always meant to be a trap. The Sadducees weren’t trying to learn something from Jesus, they were trying to show him how silly the concept of resurrection is, and do so in front of his followers. But the Sadducees and Pharisees differed in a few ways. Luke makes sure to remind us that the Sadducees didn’t actually believe in the resurrection.

The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection because they only saw the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as authoritative for the Hebrew faith. So they start their confrontation with Jesus by saying, “‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘Moses wrote…’” Moses, the author of the Torah, is their trump card. You’ve been talking about all this stuff, but Moses says…

“Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother.” We will come back to this shortly. Then the Sadducees launch into a weird, hypothetical situation based on the Levirate tradition, where seven brothers all marry the same woman. Each brother dies before the wife, which makes me think…that she’s not a good cook. Then they ask the question, Whose wife will she be at this so-called resurrection?

Jesus essentially tells the Sadducees that they are missing the point. They don’t understand the nature of marriage and why it will not be relevant at the resurrection. But again, this was never about marriage. This was about the resurrection. So Jesus tries to show them why the resurrection isn’t such a far-off concept.

In verse 37, Jesus says, “But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’”

Jesus seems to be saying, “Look, Moses doesn’t refer to God as the God who Abraham worshipped, the God Isaac worshipped, or the God Jacob worshipped. No, Moses called him the God of these men. Not past, but present tense.”

Seems like a weak argument to me. Why didn’t Jesus quote Daniel 12:1b-2, which says, “But at that time your people—everyone whose name is found written in the book—will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” That seems like a much stronger case for the resurrection than the fact that Moses used the present tense instead of the past.

Jesus didn’t appeal to the book of Daniel, because Daniel is not a part of the Torah, and therefore the Sadducees didn’t see it as authoritative. It is like making an argument with a Democrat by saying, “But I saw of Fox News…” or with a Republican by saying, “But Nancy Pelosi said…” A Democrat doesn’t trust Fox News, and a Republican doesn’t trust Nancy Pelosi. That’s why Jesus says, “You want to talk about Moses. I’ll talk to you about Moses. Here’s what Moses had to say…”

This text ends with a strange twist. We are told that the teachers of the law commend Jesus, telling him, “Well said, teacher!” These teachers of the law have been against Jesus all along, but at least he helped them with those pesky Sadducees.

Let’s summarize all that has happened here before we look at some practical applications. We have these two reasons for marriage in the biblical era: continuing one’s lineage and an issue of justice, caring for women, especially widows. But neither of these issues is even relevant because at the resurrection, there will be no need to have an heir to continue your lineage. You will continue your lineage! There will be no death. And men will not have to provide for women. God will provide all we need, and there will be no shortage. And you sure won’t need some man to get it for you. At the resurrection, there will be perfect equality and perfect justice.

Now we can get practical. One of the things that is lost when you take a perspective like the Sadducees, that there is no resurrection, is the hope for ultimate justice. Without resurrection, there is no hope for the world to be set right. The best you can hope for is to make this world a bit better; we’ve been trying to make it right for thousands of years, and in many ways, we’ve failed miserably.

We live in a world where cancer exists, and where people die way too soon. We live in a world where millions of Jews were killed in the Holocaust, where 70% of the Tutsis were wiped out in Rwanda, and where today thousands of Rohingya are displaced from their homes in Myanmar. Without resurrection, we lose hope for a restored body for those who pass away at a young age. Without resurrection, we lose hope for justice for the victims of genocide. Without resurrection, death wins. Without resurrection, pain is the victor. Without resurrection, despair is the only reasonable attitude.

In a way, those who do not believe in the resurrection may do a better job working for justice here on earth if they believe this is all there is. You have probably heard the saying, “Don’t be so heavenly minded that you’re of no earthly good.”

I think we need to be somewhere in the middle as Christians. We need to be somewhere between sitting back and doing nothing because God is going to take care of it all, and being filled with despair because of the injustices of this world. I hold out hope that one day God will make all things right, but I also know that we are also called to help make this world as close to that perfection as possible. That’s why we have the line in the Lord’s Prayer, where Jesus invites his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Marriage, particularly the Levirate Marriage, was meant to be a step toward justice. As patriarchal as it sounds, these widows were cared for by their husband’s brother and then their offspring. This is what Jesus speaks of when he talks about caring for the “least of these.”

While today women are able to provide for their selves, and some of them make more money than their male counterparts, there is still a long way to go for women to be treated as equals in this country and around the world. The fact that there are still people who don’t have enough to eat as we approach the third decade of the 21st century is rather depressing. Yes, there will be a time when there is no hunger, but our job isn’t to sit back and wait for the resurrection when all will be made right. No, that’s why we work at the Valley Mission and volunteer at the Relief Sale, giving these people a taste of resurrection. We long for the day when genocide will only be something we only read about in the history books, but we also seek to teach the world that all life is valuable, as all people are created in the image of God. We do not sit back and wait on resurrection. We embody resurrection today.

So to the dear old lady who asked my friend, “If my husband has been reunited with his first wife, whose husband will he be when we all get to heaven?” I simply will say, I don’t know. But what I do know is that God has promised his followers the gift of resurrection. And God has promised to make all things new. Though these questions aren’t unimportant, I’m going to choose to trust that all will be well.

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Zacchaeus Reimagined

Luke 19:1-10

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

What if I told you everything you know about this story is wrong? Okay, that’s a bit strongly worded. What if I told you some of the things you know about this story could be interpreted in a different way? Don’t worry, I’m not going to suggest anything you haven’t heard before. But there may be another message in this text that we have missed because of the way we have always read it.

I’m going to offer you a warm-up example. We know very little about Zacchaeus; our text tells us that he was a wealthy man who was employed as a tax collector. But if I went to most people, ages 2-200, and asked them who Zacchaeus was, they would probably say, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he.” After “Jesus Loves Me,” is there any song that is better known than this one about Zacchaeus?

We get this from verse 3 of our text for this morning, which says, “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature” (NRSV, which is more consistent with the Greek).

Now, let me ask you, who was a wee little man? Zacchaeus or Jesus? We know the first “he” refers to Zacchaeus because it says “He was trying to see who Jesus was…” Especially in the Greek, it is hard to say which person is short, Jesus or Zacchaeus. And either interpretation works. If Zacchaeus was short, he would need to climb a tree to see Jesus over the crowds. And if Jesus was short, Zacchaeus would need to climb a tree to see Jesus over the crowds.

Is your mind blown? Does this new revelation rock your foundation? I hope not. Nothing really changes if Jesus was short or tall. Sure, we tend to think of Jesus as a tall, strapping young man, and many pictures of him on the cross reveal impeccable six-pack abs. But his height doesn’t affect what he said and did in any way at all.

There is an advantage to reading different translations. The NIV changes the word order a bit and it becomes a little clearer that it is Zacchaeus who was short, which is probably the right interpretation. But I encourage you to read multiple translation and think about things at a deeper level. Maybe which of these men was short doesn’t make a difference, but perhaps something else may.

That was your warm up stretch. Are you ready to be stretched again? Let’s start by walking through this text and reviewing the traditional understanding.

The story is usually understood in this way. Jesus is traveling to the city of Jericho, and a large crowd has assembled to see him. Among the crowd was Zacchaeus, a tax collector. And not just any tax collector, he was the chief tax collector, the boss over all the other tax collectors. Zacchaeus has made a pretty good living for himself in this business. He is said to be wealthy.

Tax collectors were not popular in the 1st century. First of all, they were employed by the Roman Government to collect money from the Jews to fund the same Roman Army that was occupying the Jewish territories. They were working for the enemy. And Zacchaeus was the highest ranking of all the tax collectors in the area, so there was more reason not to like him.

Tax collectors also had a bit of a reputation for taking a little extra for their selves. If someone owed $50, they could collect $70 and keep the $20 for their selves. In my mind, I see the Sheriff of Nottingham from the 1973 animated film, “Robin Hood.” The Sheriff takes all the money out of the church treasury, he takes everything the people have, and even takes the few coins old Otto has hidden in the cast on his leg. Nobody likes that guy, don’t be like the Sheriff of Nottingham. Nobody liked the tax collectors in Jesus’s day, either.

Earlier in the Gospel of Luke we find another reference to tax collectors, but this time from John the Baptist. In chapter 3, a number of people are coming to John for baptism. In verse 12-13 we read, “Even tax collectors came to be baptized. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’

‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.”

Obviously, they had a reputation, and it wasn’t a good one.

This wealthy tax collector hears that Jesus is coming, and he wants to get a good look at him. And since one of them was short, Zacchaeus climbs a tree to see Jesus better. And as the savior passed that way, he looked up in the tree. And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down! For I’m going to your house today. For I’m going to your house today!”

The story shifts at this point. Now the crowds get into it and they say “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner” (7b). And Luke tells us that the crowd “grumbled.”

It seems like the crowd has been grumbling for a while. You may recall that the crowds were grumbling in chapter 15, saying “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” It seems like the crowds are always worried about who Jesus is eating with. In chapters 15-19, Jesus spends time with widows, pharisees, children, blind men, and tax collectors, and now there is more grumbling.

Zacchaeus isn’t going to take this grumbling sitting down. In verse 8 we read, “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.’”

Witnessing Zacchaeus’s conversion leads Jesus to say in 9b, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” Zacchaeus’s response seems to be caused by Jesus reaching out to him, treating him as an equal. Zacchaeus is now going to give away half of his possessions to the poor and return 4x what he has stolen, and Jesus has announced that Zacchaeus is no longer an outsider, but a member of the Kingdom of God.

That’s how the story is usually told.

But here’s the thing, that’s not the only message we can get from this text. Look at verse 8 again, this time from the NRSV (emphasis added), Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Now the NIV, “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

What the NIV is attempting to do is deal with the fact that in the original Greek, Zacchaeus doesn’t use the future tense. He doesn’t say, “I will…” The NRSV just translates a present-tense verb as future. Literally, Zacchaeus is saying “I do give half of my possessions to the poor,” and “I do pay back four times the amount” to anyone I’ve cheated. Read literally, this isn’t a statement of what Zacchaeus will start doing now or in the future, it is a defense of what he is already doing.

The people grumble about Jesus eating with a sinner, and Zacchaeus says, “Look, I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing.” I mentioned the encounter with John the Baptist earlier for a reason. John told the tax collectors, “Don’t collect any more than you are required to.” Now Zacchaeus seems to be saying, “That’s what I’m doing.”

If we look at the Old Testament, we find different times when the Hebrews are commanded to give a portion of what they have to help others. We find one explanation of this practice, which we call the tithe, in Deuteronomy 14:28-29: “At the end of every three years, bring all the tithes of that year’s produce and store it in your towns, so that the Levites (who have no allotment or inheritance of their own) and the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns may come and eat and be satisfied, and so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.”

This is a tithe designated for the poor. Tithe is an Old English word that means 1/10. A good Hebrew was supposed to give 1/10 of their earnings or crops to help the poor. What does Zacchaeus say? He already gives 50%; that’s 5x what was required of him.

Let’s look at another Old Testament passage. From Exodus 22:3 and 4, “Anyone who steals must certainly make restitution…they must pay back double.” I’ve cut out some of the details about particular animals and if they are still alive. But the point I am trying to show is that if someone steals, the Torah says they are to repay the other person double what they took. What does Zacchaeus say? If I cheat someone, I already give back, not double, but 4x the amount.

And one more supporting argument: When someone repents in the Bible, what position do they usually take with their body? Usually the kneel, or lie prostrate on the floor. Let’s look at verse 8 one more time: “But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord! [I already] give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I [already] pay back four times the amount.’”

When Zacchaeus was accused of being a sinner, he didn’t lie prostrate on the ground. He stood up and defended himself.

What if this story isn’t about Zacchaeus repenting but instead is a critique of the people who are grumbling? Maybe this is a story about how people are quick to jump to conclusions, to point fingers, and to judge one another without ever actually taking the time to get to know that person? The word “repentance” is never used in this story. And the word “sinner” is only used once, by the people. Not by Jesus.

If the people had known Zacchaeus, they would know that yes, he is a rich man, but he gives away half of what he makes to help those in need. If they had taken the time to get to know Zacchaeus, they might find out that he isn’t the kind of person who cheats others. But if he finds out that he did cheat someone, he’s repays them, not double, but four times the amount.

I think we can make arguments for either interpretation, and I think that the message of both interpretations is appropriate. Yes, Jesus does call us to repentance, and it is true, Jesus does tell us to not judge one another. Perhaps they are both correct interpretations, even if only one was the intended message.

But when I read this as Zacchaeus defending himself, it makes me think about how I’ve judged people. We assume that Zacchaeus is a bad guy because of his job, and I wonder if I do that with people as well.

There are some organizations that I could not work for. If we look at extremes, I could never work for ICE, or border patrol. I couldn’t work for Halliburton, the large oil company that has had a number of run-ins with environmental organizations, as well as having a significant involvement with the Gulf War. I couldn’t work for Lockheed Martin, one of, if not the largest supplier of military weapons for the United States and other nations as well.

But that’s low-hanging fruit. What about a police officer? Mennonites have traditionally not served as police officers, in part because police officers carry guns and at times may be required to use lethal force. I remember very well when my children started preschool at a local, non-Mennonite church. The first day I took Paxton to class, there was a police car in the parking lot. It was a dad, dropping off his boys for their first day of preschool, on his way to work. He was in full uniform, which means that he was also carrying his standard-issue 9mm handgun.

I didn’t care for that one bit. Here we were, pushing through the crowded hallways, kids running around, parents and children crying, and he had a gun? I considered talking to the pastor of that church, asking if they had any rules against such a thing. Maybe I would ask the officer to leave his gun in the car next time. Instead, I said nothing, and spent my time judging this guy. Day after day, we would drop off our children. And most the time he wasn’t in uniform, but I still thought of him in that way.

When Hadley was old enough to attend the same preschool, that police officer had another child in her class. And he must have shared with a buddy how good of a school it was because there was a second police officer’s daughter in Hadley’s class. And not only was I judging the police officers for occasionally carrying their guns into the preschool/church, this was also the time when police violence against unarmed black men was gaining a lot of attention. I had even more reason to judge these two men.

Maybe I’m just a slow learner, but I eventually did something rather radical. I spoke with these men. I really couldn’t avoid it, seeing them every week for three years. It turns out that we shared a lot of experiences. Obviously, we have children the same age. We were interested in the same sports. We had similar types of humor. And as strange as it would seem to a version of me from even just five years ago, I now have friends who are on the police force. It turns out I have friends who work for the Other political party. I have a friend who is a career military guy.

Here’s the point that I want you to take home today. I could never do what these people are doing. I couldn’t do it based on my reading of the Bible, and I couldn’t do it because of my religious and ethical stance. But my friends on the police force, the other political party, and active military shouldn’t be lumped together with the worst of the worst in their occupations. If we take the alternative reading of the Zacchaeus story, yes, he was a tax collector, but he did his job in the best way he could while staying faithful to God. My police friends aren’t shooting unarmed black men, and my military friend calls himself “darn near a pacifist.”

I couldn’t do what they do, but that doesn’t give me a license to judge them. These people, my friends, are doing their jobs in the best, and most god-fearing way they know how. And when I think about it, there have been a lot of people in my profession who have stolen from the church and abused their power in many different ways. I don’t want to be judged by the worst in my profession, and I assume my friends don’t want to be, either.

Is the story of Zacchaeus a call to repentance and to make things right? Or is it a critique of the grumbling crowd who judge Zacchaeus because of their limited knowledge of him? I think either interpretation provides a helpful reminder for how we are called to live as followers of Jesus Christ.

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New Identity

Genesis 32:22-32 New International Version (NIV)

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?”

“Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.”

But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there.

30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

31 The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. 32 Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” ― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet.

These are the words of a love-struck woman who is, by the way, in love with the enemy. Juliet is a Capulet; Romeo is a Montague. How many people can recall the reason for the feud between these two families? None is actually given, but we know who the enemy is. Blood has been shed, boundaries have been crossed. And even though they may not know who is to blame for what, they do know the enemy.

What other famous feuds do we know? We have the Capulets and the Montagues, the Hatfields and the McCoys. The Redskins and the Cowboys; Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick (yes, I did a little research). And how about Jacob and Esau.

What do we do with a character like the biblical Jacob? From the very beginning, Jacob has been tangling with others. He shared a womb with his twin brother, Esau, for nine months, and as he came out of the womb, Jacob was grabbing at his brother’s heel, a foretaste the trouble he is going to cause.

The younger child, by only a few minutes, Jacob was always second. His brother was the big, outdoorsy one, hunting and working with his hands. Esau was his father’s favorite. And when it came time to pass on his possessions and a family blessing, Esau stood in position to receive the best of what his father had available.

But Jacob was his mother’s favorite, and together they found a way trick Esau and Jacob’s father, Isaac, into giving Jacob the best of everything. Jacob trades some food for Esau’s birthright, and tricks Isaac into blessing him with the blessing normally designated for the first-born son.

I don’t think I would have liked this young version of Jacob. He was not trustworthy; a bit of a trickster, to say the least. We could argue that the system wasn’t fair; why should Esau get the blessing and the birthright? But that’s not the picture the Bible paints of Jacob. He tricked his brother and his father, and now he has to flee for his life. Big brother is not happy, and as a hunter and outdoorsman, Esau would have had access to a number of weapons.

Yet, when he runs from Esau, we find God blessing Jacob. And surely this says more about God than it does about Jacob. In Genesis 28 we find the story of Jacob, running for his own safety, lying down one night, using a rock for a pillow. There, as he slept, he had a vision of angels, climbing a set a stairs or a ladder. And in verses 13-15, we find God speaking to Jacob, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

In spite of all his deceitfulness and trickery, God has chosen to bless Jacob. And through him all peoples on earth will be blessed. Over the next few chapters, we find Jacob growing, maturing, and developing into a better person. Jacob flees to his uncle, Laban, to find a wife. There he is met with the difficult choice of…which of his cousins he wants to marry. It was a different time and place, people. Hold your judgements!

It is in the process of marrying Leah and Rachel that Jacob learns a lesson or two. Laban pulls the old switcheroo on Jacob and Jacob ends up marrying the wrong sister. Laban is able to trick Jacob into working for him for an extra seven years just to marry the woman he wants to marry. The tables have been turned: the trickster has become the tricked. Jacob and Laban butt heads, on and off, for twenty years. Jacob works for Laban, watching his goat herds, and Laban keeps changing his wages, breaking promises, and altering the plans.

During this time it seems that Jacob learns a lot about breeding goats. But it also seems that Jacob learns what it is like to be on the receiving end of deceit. Twenty years have passed since Jacob left his home community; twenty years have passed since Jacob stole his brother’s birthright and blessing. During this time, Jacob has grown and changed. He isn’t the same man he was twenty years earlier. Now, in chapter 31, verse 3 we find God commanding Jacob, “Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you.”

Sometimes I feel like Jacob. To be clear, I’ve never pretended to be my brother to steal a blessing from my blind father. And I didn’t flee my homeland for my own safety. But I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago. I’m in a different place geographically, but also socially, financially, and spiritually. Twenty years ago, I was a college student, struggling to figure out what my professors wanted from me. Okay, maybe that one hasn’t changed. But I was looking for someone to date and perhaps start a family with. I was living with my parents, with nothing to call my own. And though I was a Christian at the time, I have no problem saying that I am not the same kind of Christian I was twenty years ago.

The last twenty years haven’t been easy for me. I’ve failed more times than I can count. I’ve been hurt more times than I care to recall. I’ve been hurt by people I care about, and I’ve hurt other people. But, like Jacob, I believe I have grown into a better version of myself. I want to challenge you all here, mid sermon, to ask if you are a better version of yourself today than you were twenty years ago. Can we, like Jacob, grow through adversity, disappointment, and pain?

We return to the story of Jacob. God has called him to return to his home country, which is where Esau lives. And while Jacob has grown, we don’t know about Esau. He might still be very angry about that whole deceit and trickery thing. So Jacob sends a messenger ahead, and the messenger returns to tell Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him. You know, just Esau and 400 of his men. Now Jacob is frightened, so he sends some livestock ahead and offers them as a gift to Esau. Jacob sends his wives and children ahead with everything else as well. Jacob hangs back for the night. And that’s when things get weird.

That evening, Jacob meets a stranger. And what would any normal person do when you are camping out along a river and you meet a stranger? You wrestle with them, of course. You wrestle with them all night long. Jacob and this stranger are equally matched, and neither can get the upper hand on the other. The stranger even tries his signature move on Jacob. Every professional wrestler has their own move, and this guy can displace a hip just by touching it. But this too does not work. So the stranger tells Jacob to let him go, but Jacob refuses until the man blesses him. Maybe Jacob still has a few things to learn. He has gone from tricking his father into a blessing to forcing a blessing out of a stranger. But before the stranger gives Jacob his blessing, he gives Jacob something else: a new name. In verse 28 we read, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

Now I want to ask you a serious question. Who was Jacob wrestling? If you look at the chapter headings in your Bible, you will find a couple of different interpretations. But remember, these headings are not a part of the original text. So, did Jacob wrestle a man? Did he wrestle an angel? Or did he wrestle God himself?

Looking at this text alone, the stranger is repeatedly referred to as a man. The man wrestled with him until daybreak. The man touched his hip. The man asked him his name. Was this just some human? Nowhere in this passage does it say that the wrestling partner was an angel, but throughout history the artistic expressions of this text depict this wrestler as an angel. This is because one little line in Hosea 12:4: “[Jacob] struggled with the angel and overcame him; he wept and begged for his favor.”

Why would we say that Jacob wrestled with God? Look again at verse 28, where Jacob is given the name Israel, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

And if we keep reading, who does Jacob believe he was wrestling? Verse 30 says, “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.’”

Please, someone tell me which it is! I’ve got arguments against each of the options. Was it God or an angel? Let’s be honest, Jacob probably would lose either of those fights. Was it a man? I’m wondering how many of you have ever wrestled, like in high school. Or even just hit a punching bag for a bit. Spend a few minutes on a heavy bag sometime and you soon realize just how much work this is. I don’t think Jacob and another man could wrestle all night long. You need a break! And whichever guy is in better condition will overtake the other.

And come on, who just starts wrestling with a stranger when you meet them along a river? It is a weird story, which is one reason I would have been happy to skip over this one.

But that’s the point. I could avoid this story, or I could wrestle with it.

Wrestling with this story doesn’t mean that I have it all figured out. Far from it! The more I look at stories like this, the more commentaries I read, the more questions I have. I said earlier that I’m not the same kind of Christian I was twenty years ago. I’ve admitted this before, and I’ll say it again now. There was a time when I recall thinking to myself, “I’ve got God pretty well figured out.”

Twenty years, and multiple college degrees later, I shake my head at that thought. I sometimes come back to a scene in the movie, Rudy, where Rudy is meeting with a priest, and the priest says something along the lines of, “There are two things I know for sure: There is a God, and I’m not him.” Or, if you’d rather, Aristotle said, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.”

Twenty years ago, I didn’t even know what questions to be asking, let alone have the answers for the questions I wasn’t asking. And I know that I’m not alone. In the field of psychology, there is something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is considered a cognitive bias where people think that they are smarter than they actually are. This phenomenon occurs in part because people aren’t exposed to other methods of thinking or understanding the world. Or something like that, I’ll admit, I don’t know what’s going on. But I found a helpful illustration that shows how as we gain knowledge and experience, we realize how little we actually understand.

So how does the Dunning-Kruger Effect come into play with our text this morning? I come back to the question, who was Jacob wrestling with: a man, an angel, or God? The answer is, I don’t know. The ancient Jews didn’t know. I’m not sure that Jacob knew. But, we all have our opinions. And I’m of the opinion that Jacob wrestled with them all.

I believe that the entire event of Jacob wrestling with the stranger was a vision of some sort. Jacob had a number of visions during his life, so it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a vision as well. When the stranger tells Jacob that his name will now be Israel because he has wrestled with God and men, I think that is absolutely true. It might be a metaphor, but it is still true. Jacob wrestled with his brother from day one. Jacob wrestled with Laban for twenty years. And Jacob wrestled with God’s leading in his life. And I think that through his wrestling with God and man that Jacob has grown and matured. He doesn’t try to trick his brother Esau when they are reunited. He tries to reconcile with him, not knowing if Esau is going to show up with 400 men and wipe him off the face of the earth. Jacob’s entire life has been a representation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. He has grown, matured, and now has a better understanding.

So what do we make of the limp? Verses 31-32 say, “The sun rose above him as he passed Peniel, and he was limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the tendon attached to the socket of the hip, because the socket of Jacob’s hip was touched near the tendon.”

To this day, practicing Jews will not eat what they call the “gid hanasheh,” regardless of which animal it comes from. The gid hanasheh is the sciatic nerve, which I don’t need to tell some of you runs from the spine right through the hip and down the leg. My friends, Jacob had sciatica. Today, an orthodox Jew will not eat a rump roast, sirloin steak, filet mignon, or leg of lamb unless this tendon, the gid hanasheh, has been removed. Gid hanasheh roughly translates as, “the tendon of forgetting.”

Here’s the thing. We’ve all been hurt. We’ve all been abused, misused, and deceived. We’ve all probably abused, misused, and deceived others. Perhaps the last twenty years have been even more difficult for you than they were for Jacob. Perhaps you, like Jacob, have had to wrestle with God and with your fellow man and woman day after day. And perhaps, like Jacob, you’ve come away with a limp. Sometimes, no, often, we come out of these things with a limp. But the story of Jacob is one of learning, growing, hurting, and being hurt, and coming out on the other side of it a better person.

The gid hanasheh is the tendon of forgetting. The Jews don’t eat this tendon, because they don’t want to forget. We wrestle, we hurt, but we grow.

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Identity Crisis

Luke 17:11-19

11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

We are continuing our walk through the Gospel of Luke today by turning to a passage that we tend to hear around Thanksgiving time. We often focus on that one man out of ten who returned to thank Jesus for healing him. Gratitude is absolutely central to today’s text, but I’m going to save that sermon for next month. Today I want to look at something a little different. I want to focus on identity.

If I asked you to describe yourself, how would you begin? Often we talk about our job, “I’m the pastor at Staunton Mennonite Church,” or our family, “I’m father of two, husband of one.” We could go into physical descriptions, “I’m a 39-year-old, white male.” Or maybe you would talk about your likes, “I like gardening, long walks on the beach, and a good cup of coffee.”

What of that is essential to my being? And how much of my identity is meant to unite me with one people group and disassociate me from another? If I identify as Republican, that means I am not a Democrat, or vice versa. To say I’m a Mennonite means that I am not a Presbyterian. Today, I want to argue that our most important identity is that we are beloved children of God, and when we start by seeing others as also being beloved children of God, it changes the way we perceive the world around us.

Our text begins with Jesus and his disciples traveling along the border between Galilee and Samaria. As they are entering a town, ten men yell at Jesus from a distance, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” (v.12b).

Why did they stand at a distance and yell? That seems rude. If you need something, walk over to Jesus and ask him face to face. Luke tells us that these men had leprosy. This was their most important identifying characteristic. Even today, when we talk about this story, we call it the story of the ten lepers. (Not to be confused with the ten leapers, who are a part of the Christmas story.)

The term “leprosy” was a generic title given to any persistent skin disorder. Leprosy could range from a bad rash that wouldn’t clear up, to people who had fingers falling off from flesh-eating bacteria. I assume you all read Leviticus 13 today, so I won’t go into all the details. But the first 46 verses of Leviticus 13 are dedicated to the identification of leprosy. For instance, verses 2-3 say, “When anyone has a swelling or a rash or a shiny spot on their skin that may be a defiling skin disease, they must be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons who is a priest. The priest is to examine the sore on the skin, and if the hair in the sore has turned white and the sore appears to be more than skin deep, it is a defiling skin disease. When the priest examines that person, he shall pronounce them ceremonially unclean.”

Yep, 46 verses dedicated to puss, oozing sores, and the hairs found within these sores. I’d suggest not reading Leviticus 13 right before lunch.

The priest shall pronounce them ceremonially unclean. What does that mean? Verse 45-46 tell us, “Anyone with such a defiling disease must wear torn clothes, let their hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of their face and cry out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.”

They yell to Jesus from a distance because they aren’t allowed to come in contact with anyone who doesn’t have leprosy. They must live outside the camp or the city. They must dress a certain way, and even wear their hair a certain way so that people will know that these men are unclean.

They are outsiders, and that is their primary identity.

I don’t want to be too critical of these laws and practices. If we think about it from a medical perspective, why might God have instructed Moses to keep people with certain diseases separated from the general population? I’m among those who believe that these purity laws were put in place by God to prevent the spread of disease. It is the same reason my daughter got sent home from school last week with pinkeye. But again, my concern is with the identity of these people, with these ten lepers.

The men call out to Jesus, asking him to heal them. Verse 14 tells us how this went down: “When he [Jesus] saw them, he said, ‘Go, show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.”

Leviticus 14:1-32 tells us how a person who has been diagnoses with leprosy is to go about being declared clean. There is an 8-day ritual involving anointing with oil, animal sacrifices, and shaving off all of your body hair, even your eye brows. It’s in the Bible, folks. I couldn’t make this up. And this whole process takes place only after a priest inspects your skin and begins the ritual cleansing. This is why Jesus tells the lepers to go show their selves to the priest. It is as they turn to go to the temple that they are healed. There is a simple act of faith that leads to their healing.

This is where our Thanksgiving sermons usually pick up. Verses 15-16 tell us, “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.”

Only one man came back to say thank you to Jesus, and Jesus praises him for doing so. But I don’t want to be too critical of the other nine, because they are doing both what Jesus told them to do, and what Moses commanded of them. They were going to the priest at the temple to begin this process of being pronounced clean. The thing that I notice in this text is that the one who didn’t go to the temple is the one who would have never been allowed in the temple; he wouldn’t even be received by the priests.

The one who returned to thanks Jesus was a Samaritan, an outsider. Jesus himself recognizes this man’s status in verse 18, “Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”

The lepers were considered outsiders. Yet even within this group of outsiders, the Samaritan was considered an outcast.

Our passage concludes with Jesus saying to this outsider, this reject, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

I don’t like that translation. Others say, “Your faith has healed and saved you.” Here Jesus uses the word “sodzo,” while he uses a different word in verse 14 to describe the healing of the other nine. Something else has occurred here. I want to say that something that happened is that this man received a new identity. He now is made whole. And though he had spent who knows how many years as a double outsider, now he recognizes his identity as beloved.

I read a great book this week on identity, called The Lies that Bind by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah was born in Ghana to a Ghanaian father and a British mother. This makes an interesting combination, because Ghana was a nation colonized by Great Britain. So his mother is a white, Anglican, descended from the colonizers. His father a black, Methodist, descended from the colonized. What do you think Appiah writes about? Identity! In some ways, he seems to fit in everywhere, a citizen of the world! In others, he fit in nowhere, a man without a home, without a people group. Is he black or white? British or Ghanaian? Anglican or Methodist?

Appiah’s book looks at identities, and how we assign identities to one another and ourselves. These identities are real, but not as absolute as we would like to believe. For instance, I am from Ohio, and now live in Virginia. When people ask me where I’m from, I struggle to know the correct answer. But if I had been born a couple hundred years earlier, there was no Ohio or Virginia. Go back even further, there was no United States. So in some ways, my identity as Ohioan or Virginian or American is constructed, and rather arbitrary. Some dude with a map came along and drew a line and determined where one state begins and another ends.

This makes me think about how many other identifiers are somewhat arbitrary. Again, this isn’t saying that they aren’t real, but that they aren’t necessarily set in stone, and maybe shouldn’t be used to describe ourselves. Obviously, if we had been born in a different country, we would be French, British, or Russian. If we had been born in Iran or India, we might be a different religion. If you had different friends, maybe you would be a Republican or a Democrat. We might have different jobs or different homes if we had been born into slightly different situations. Appiah’s point seems to be that we need to be careful not to exclude other people because what separates us isn’t always as significant as we might want to make it out to be. And these identities should never prevent us from treating people with dignity and respect, caring for those who need help, loving those who need love.

Can you imagine Jesus healing only nine lepers, telling the tenth, “I’m sorry, you aren’t a part of our group.” In our lesson from today, Jesus never denies that the ten men who approached him were affected with leprosy. He never denies that the one man was a foreigner and a member of a different religious group. But he offered compassion and love to them all, regardless of whether or not they were clean, regardless of whether or not they were a part of the same group he was. Instead, he recognized these differences, but invited them all to take on a new identity. An identity that doesn’t erase all other identities, but an identity that does trump all other identities. He now invites these men, including the Samaritan leper, to accept their identity as beloved.

Early last week a picture began circulating on the internet. It was a picture from a football game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. The picture wasn’t of the football game, but of a few of the people in attendance. In one of the private boxes we could see comedian Ellen DeGeneres sitting next to the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush. This is in all ways a strange pairing. Bush is a traditional conservative, and one who led the US into the War on Terror. DeGeneres is a progressive comedian and activist, who frequently speaks out in support of LGBTQ rights. Not exactly who you would expect watching a football game together. In fact, I’m not sure that I would expect to find Ellen DeGeneres in Texas at all!

In the days following the football game, many people on the left responded to Ellen critically. How dare she sit with George W. Bush? Doesn’t she know his policies? Doesn’t she know his stance toward LGBTQ people? Doesn’t she know what he did in Iraq? Ellen addressed the criticisms on her television show, saying,

“Here’s the thing, I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think we’ve forgotten that that’s okay that we’re all different. But just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean I’m not gonna be friends with them. When I say be kind to one another, I don’t mean only the people that think the same way you do. I mean be kind to everyone. It doesn’t matter.”

My friends, George W. Bush is a beloved child of God. Ellen DeGeneres is a beloved child of God.

Time and time again throughout the scriptures, we see the outcasts getting it first, understanding things at a level that many of the religious elite didn’t. The tax collectors and the sinners are entering the kingdom before the rest. The Samaritan leper is the one who was made well and was saved. Maybe this surprises us, but maybe it shouldn’t. We put these labels on people instead of seeing them as Jesus sees them, as beloved children of God. Fallen children of God, for sure. But beloved nonetheless.

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Mustard Seeds and Mulberry Trees

Luke 17:5-10

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

7 “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

Faith the size of a mustard seed. Oh, we’ve heard this sermon before, Pastor! All you need is a little faith, faith the size of that itty, bitty mustard seed, and you can verbally uproot a tree and throw it in the sea. Oh yes, we’ve heard this sermon before. Probably a few too many times for our own good.

I say that because this is one of those verses that are often twisted into something that Jesus never intended to say. This is a verse that is often used when someone is sick, perhaps with a terminal diagnosis. Or someone’s child has gotten caught up in substance abuse. Or someone’s job is on the line, the factory is closing, jobs are leaving. All you need is faith the size of a mustard seed and you can do the impossible. And of course, the message, either spoken or unspoken, when the family member dies, continues to abuse substances, or that job goes overseas, the message is that evidently you didn’t have enough faith.

Here’s the thing, I believe God can move trees, heal cancer, and save your relatives and our jobs. But that’s not what this passage is talking about. Rather, Jesus is telling his disciples and by extension us, that the power to do the unimaginable is already within you. But we’ll get to that shortly.

Let’s start with some of the agricultural references that Jesus is using here. We may not be overly familiar with the items Jesus is referring to, and he is specific, so we should be too. Jesus doesn’t just refer to any seed, he refers to a mustard seed. Seeds come in all shapes and sizes. Tree seeds, like coconuts, can be quite large. The mustard seed is quite small. Jesus contrasts the size of a mustard seed to a mulberry tree. I don’t know if the mulberry tree was the largest tree in Jesus’s region at the time, but it was a well-known tree. We might speak of a mighty oak or giant redwood in the US. The mulberry tree is an interesting choice for a number of reasons. I searched online for pictures of mulberry trees, and some of the websites came back with lists of trees you should never plant in your yard. Walnut trees, Bradford Pear trees, and mulberry trees were commonly on the list. Mulberry trees have an extensive leaf canopy, which can be so dense that it kills all the grass underneath it because no sunlight can get through. Also, mulberry trees are known to cause damage to sewer lines, underground plumbing, and home foundations because of their extensive root systems. Remember, any time you see wide-stretching branches, there needs to be a similar root system below to keep the tree upright.

So when Jesus refers to the mustard seed and the mulberry tree, he is taking something tiny and comparing it to something that is sprawling, sprawling in places you can see (the branches) and places you can’t see (in the ground). To uproot and move an entire mulberry tree is quite an endeavor.

A very important reminder this morning before we move forward. What is rule number one of biblical interpretation? You do not talk about biblical interpretation. Wait, no, that’s some other club. Rule number one of biblical interpretation is that you must always read scripture in context. Our text for this morning began in verse 5, but the interaction between Jesus and the disciples goes back a little further.

Ready to have your interpretation of this scripture rocked? Let’s look at verses 3b-4, where Jesus says, “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

The context of this passage about mustard seeds and mulberry trees has to do with forgiveness, particularly forgiving a brother or sister who has hurt you, even hurt you multiple times in one day. When the disciples realize just how difficult it is to actually do what Jesus is telling them, they ask for more faith.

Reading in context also means reading what comes after text. And after the mustard seed and mulberry tree, Jesus starts talking about a servant watching sheep or working in the field. This story is a little confusing, but Jesus mentions that these workers in the field don’t expect their master to say, “Hey, this is hard work, and I know you’ll never be able to do it all. Why don’t you just come in and join me for lunch? Leave the sheep out there; forget about the plow. Let’s relax a bit.”

No, a servant does what their master says. That’s their job; that’s what’s expected of you. Jesus ends this passage with verse 10, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

Now, let’s put it all together. Jesus tells his disciples they must forgive brothers and sisters who sin against them. The disciples say, “We can’t. Give us more faith, more power, more strength. Then maybe we can.”

But how does Jesus respond? He says no. “No, this is your duty. As my servant, your duty is to forgive, like a servant out watching the sheep or plowing the field, your job is to offer grace.” And this is where the whole comparison between the mustard seed and the mulberry tree comes in. Forgiving this person my seem impossible. It may seem as impossible as uprooting a sprawling tree using nothing but your voice, but you can do it. You can do it, because all you really need is faith the size of a mustard seed. And that faith is already within you.

Earlier in our church service we read the Old Testament Lectionary passage for today. The readings are chosen to go together, but this one seems a little out of place. We might know this Psalm first from contemporary music, including a recording by the Melodians. This is sometimes sang in an upbeat manner with a definite bounce to it. Even I will dance to this one…so you better watch out!

But when you read this passage, this is about the Israelites being taken from their land, from Zion, and forced to live in a strange land. This is the Babylonian Exile. And the Babylonians—the captors—tell the Israelites to sing a song, sing to Zion. But the Israelites can’t sing now. They hang their bows and their harps up in the poplars because this is not time or place to sing songs of joy.

Then we come to the end of Psalm 137, which the Melodians kindly left out of their version of the song. Verses 8-9, “Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”

Why is that last line included in our Bibles? Well, I don’t think it captures the heart of God, but it must capture the thoughts of the Israelites in captivity. I read an African-American Pastor reflect on these closing verses once, and he said something along the lines of, “If you don’t understand these verses, then you don’t know what it means to be enslaved.”

I don’t know what it is like to be enslaved. I am a white man living in North America. Sure, there are things that I get angry about. I was pretty worked up the other day while I was waiting at the pharmacy for the prescription that was only going to take 20 minutes to fill. And on Tuesday, I lost my favorite pen. Obviously, I’m trying to make a point through humor. I’ve been hurt, but really, compared to what others have endured, I don’t know what it is like to suffer. Unlike the Israelites during the Babylonian Captivity, I’ve never been forced from my home, my family, my place of worship, and my life. I don’t know what the disciples were experiencing at the hands of the Romans, nor do I fully understand what the Israelites were going through and their desire to smash the Babylonian babies against the rocks. But what I do understand is that Jesus commands us all to forgive. He never said it would be easy, but he did promise us that we have the strength to do so. All we need is faith the size of a mustard seed.

I woke up Thursday morning to an interesting story running across my social media feed. It was the story of Brandt Jean, an 18-year-old, African-American man offering forgiveness to Amber Guyger, the off-duty police officer who shot and killed Jean’s older brother. Guyger was convicted of murder for shooting Botham Jean when she mistakenly entered the wrong apartment and thought that Jean was a burglar. Guyger’s apartment was on the third floor, Botham’s on the fourth, right above Guyger’s.

For sure, there was is much ugliness in this story, and I don’t pretend to know all that happened. Did race have something to do with it? Was Guyger impaired in some way? What I do know is that Botham Jean was shot while sitting in his own apartment and Guyger was found guilty of murder. The day after Guyger was convicted, Brandt Jean was given the opportunity to address the court in what is called the “victim-impact statement,” which I believe is meant to affect the sentencing. This is when Brandt Jean, speaking from his convictions as a Christian, offered forgiveness to Guyger and told her that if she was truly sorry, God too would forgive her.

Then, in an unorthodox move, Brandt Jean asked the judge for permission to come down from the platform and offer Amber Guyger a hug. He whispered something in her ear, yet all you can hear on the recording is open sobs.

Like I said, this story was shared across many social media platforms. It was shared…by my white friends. There was pushback from various minority leaders who made a number of claims, some of which I think were valid. But yet I want to lift this story up as a beautiful example of grace, of forgiveness, and love. I have no idea what Brandt Jean was going through, nor do I know what the Israelites in Babylon or the disciples under the Romans were experiencing. But what I do know is that Jesus commanded his disciples to forgive.

Jesus didn’t give a timeline for forgiveness. He didn’t give limitations to forgiveness. Though I think the leaders who raised concern following the act of grace from Brandt Jean brought a number of points to our attention that still need to be address, I just want to remind you that forgiveness is not to be limited by race, social class, religion, or background. Forgiveness isn’t about justice. Our leader, a homeless, Jewish, Arabic man told us to forgive one another.

I know I speak a lot about forgiveness. But my friends, forgiveness is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If I was forced to define the Gospel in one word, I would say that the Gospel is reconciliation. If I could push that out more, I’d say that the Gospel message is that through Jesus Christ, we can be reconciled to God, to one another, and to all of creation. And that starts with forgiveness.

My friends, we gain nothing by withhold forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we allow others to continue to harm us or commit injustices. Forgiveness means we want to work together to make something right. And no, it won’t be easy. But you have the power within you already. All it takes is faith the size of a mustard seed.

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