Us and Them: sermon by Laura, 11.20.16

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  It’s a Good Friday question from a haunting old spiritual. But it is also a question we are asked today, on Christ the King Sunday. Instead of throne room splendor, Luke’s Gospel presents the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion. It is not an easy or comforting scene to enter in your imagination, and you may resist allowing yourself to go there.

But I invite you to close your eyes as I read the scripture, to see all the figures arrayed around the crosses at Golgotha, and to listen to the Holy Spirit within you, answering the question: Were you there—and with whom were you standing in that place?

Read Luke 33-43.

Abruptly we arrive at the place called The Skull. Telling us what happens next, the text uses a simple pronoun: “They.” “They” crucified Jesus and two criminals, one on his right and one on his left. “They” cast lots to divide his clothing.

It’s a vague word, broad and nonspecific. We are not given names or characteristics to pinpoint exactly who “they” are. And from our vantage point, far off in history and location, we might feel it gives us permission to answer the question: Were you there when they crucified my Lord?—No, of course not. It was not us, but them.

Luke sketches this scene with quick, blunt strokes. He could have been more descriptive. He could have shown us a vivid picture of the horrific suffering involved in crucifixion—as the movie “The Passion of the Christ” did.

But let’s not forget what crucifixion was about. It was a means by which one group of people controlled another. One scholar notes, “Crucifixion was more than a means of death. It was a weapon of terror, exactingly designed by the Romans to produce…a slow and degrading death …Luke spares us these details…”[1]

Luke’s original audience would have been all too familiar with crucifixion; but even so, I think Luke spares details here in order focus us elsewhere. He wants us to clearly see all those present at the foot of the cross, all those encompassed by that vague pronoun “they.”

First, there are the crucifiers, the people whose job it is to actually carry out ‘the mechanics” of execution, people “just following orders.”[2] Then there are the “leaders.” Perhaps Luke is pointing here to the chief priests and religious authorities, people who saw Jesus as a threat to their power in the present status quo. Maybe Luke is also pointing to Pilate, the Roman procurator, who authorized this politically expedient execution, despite his awareness of Jesus’ innocence. Likely Pilate himself was not actually present,but there’s no doubt it is his power moving the hands which hammer in the nails.

Then there is the crowd. Luke says they “stood by and watched.” Earlier, Luke mentions women, wailing in mourning for Jesus on his walk of pain. Maybe some of them are in that crowd. Maybe others are disciples who fled and abandoned Jesus to the authorities. And maybe still others are people who’d shouted words which freed Barabbas, a violent revolutionary, and condemned Jesus; people who were caught up in mob emotions, who shouted things at a rally, they would never have said elsewhere, people who didn’t realize what the full consequences of their vote might be; people who now find themselves complicit in a grave injustice.

Then three voices sound out with challenges to Jesus’ identity and worthiness, mirroring the tests he faced in the desert. The leaders scoff: “If he is the Messiah, let him save himself.” The soldiers bellow, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself.” The criminal next to Jesus sneers: “If you are the Messiah, save yourself and us!”

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Of course we weren’t there…but then Luke shows us, in those faces and in those voices, a world we know all too well. An ugly, broken world of shame and fear-driven violence, a world which sets “us” up against “them” in bankrupt comparisons to decide who is worthy and who is not, who is deserving and who is dispensable.

We were there…because we are here.

For while Jesus’ crucifixion may be ancient history, not so long ago in the United States of America, people not so different from us, dressed in Sunday best stood by and watched fellow human beings get lynched. Not so long ago, here in the Pacific Northwest, people not so different from us stood and watched as Japanese neighbors were sent off to internment camps. And in these days after a difficult election some people have used it as permission to degrade and hurt other people in the name of “making America great again.”

The scene of Jesus’ crucifixion is nothing special, just the business as usual of an “us” or “them” world, in which a calculus of comparison fuels our most inhumane behavior. It’s there in “if…then” logic of those who jeer at Jesus, kicking a man already down to push themselves up. It’s the base language of a culture which proclaims, “You get what you deserve.” Clearly, if you can’t save yourself, you don’t deserve to live.

How many of us are bound up in this mindset, focused on saving ourselves? If I just work harder, if I earn more money, if I diet and exercise or take the right meds, If I please everyone around me and fulfill all their needs, If I stay out of trouble and don’t rock the boat…Then I’ll deserve to live.

This mindset keeps us focused on ourselves—how hard I work, how much I’ve earned, what I deserve, what I am owed. Even worse, in this mindset our identity, our dignity, and our worthiness is set up over and against other human beings in a zero-sum game in which the winner takes all and the loser is left with less than nothing.

This self-centered, self-serving attitude cannot fathom the possibility that a powerful leader might refuse to use his power to save his own life or share it with others. [3]

But then, against this bleak tapestry of inhumanity, a thread of royal gold shines out. The scoffers and the silent watchers cannot tempt Jesus to despair. He knows who he is; he knows what it means to be the Messiah, the king of kings, the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. He does not pit himself against those sheep; he does not pit the sheep against one another.

Lifted up into kingship in this dire hour, he brings healing, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Even as he suffers the shameful abuse of the cross, Jesus speaks words of costly grace: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

There is that pronoun again: “them.” Thankfully, the way Jesus uses it, it is broad, vague, non-specific. We don’t want to distance ourselves from this one. Still, we must ask, who are the “thems” for whom Jesus asks the Father’s forgiveness? Who is included in the suffering King’s compassion and mercy?[4]

Who are those who “do not know what they are doing,” who are those, throughout history, who have pushed themselves or another down attempting to save their lives? Pilate, the leaders, the scoffers, the soldiers? Yes. The criminal on the right? Yes. And the criminal on the left, too? Yes, yes, yes.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Friends, the good news for us all is that, wherever we recognize ourselves in relation to Jesus’ crucifixion, wherever we recognize ourselves in relation to the crucifixions of our world, Jesus’ forgiveness extends to us.

Whether we have consciously participated in diminishing another human being for our own gain, or whether we have just come awake, shocked, to an awareness of our unwitting complicity in injustice, Jesus forgives.

In the mystery of the cross, all of us were there—and so all of us receive the grace Jesus extends at the center-point of history. We are all “them.”    “They” are us.

Ohhhh…Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble…

My friends, the grace of Jesus’ forgiveness is not cheap.Jesus bears the cost in his own body. But notice, there are no strings attached. Jesus offers it to those who don’t repent or ask for it, who don’t even know they need it. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus tells the man who asks to be remembered. There is no test to see that he truly deserves it! Nor does Jesus turn to the scoffing thief thereafter and say, “But you—you deserve to die!” There is no calculus of “deserving” applied to Jesus’ grace.

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Yes, I was there, gratefully forgiven. And yes, I will be there. I will not look away when, in our “us or them” world, I come across those who think they must push others down to lift themselves up, or cut off others’ lives to save their own. I will face the ugliness of our world with courage, and whenever I can, I will not just stand by and watch. I will stand with and watch out for those who have less power or regard than me; I will also stand with and watch out for those who, like me, are all too often caught up unwittingly in the competition and division which seeks to dignify some people at the expense of others.

For the One raised up and crowned on a cross is my Lord and my King. I choose to follow his lead and act in his power, his power shared generously, his suffering borne willingly, his forgiveness offered lavishly, his life poured out freely, that others—all God’s children—might live abundantly.

And what about you? Were you there? Where are you now, and where will you be?

May Christ’s Kingdom come in the reconciliation of all God’s children and the whole creation beginning today, beginning with us.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.





[1] Craig T. Kocher, Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 2.  Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 326.

[2] Edward A. McLeod Jr. Feasting on the Gospels: Luke, Volume 2.  Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014, 328.


[4] McLeod, 330.



“It’s Just What We Do”: 10.6.13 Pentecost 20C; World Communion Sunday

Scripture Readings: Luke 17:1-10; 2 Tim 1:1-14

Writing this sermon on Friday, I got hungry, so I took a break and walked over to Kneads Bakery.  Sure enough, I received just what I “kneaded”—a little sustenance and inspiration, in a chocolate almond croissant and a conversation. As I broke into the buttery layers, baker Leah Starr told me, “I make my own almond butter. I could have used Nutella, but then you know there’s all sorts of other ingredients. I wanted to keep it simple, just chocolate, almonds, flour, sugar, butter, and a little salt.” Tasting that homemade filling, I appreciated the baker’s craftsmanship, the pursuit of quality, a wholeness and simplicity which actually required extra effort. I get the feeling Leah’s not going to cut corners to make things easier or cheaper. Baking excellent food is just what she does.

“Craftsmanship is doing what you love and doing it right…” writes one author.[i] Another notes, “Craftsmanship…isn’t something that just happens. It requires a great deal of time, patience, and effort… Traditionally, craftsmen developed their skills through apprenticeship to those masters of the craft who came before them.”[ii] Craftsmanship is the passionate pursuit of excellence in which making something excellent is its own reward.

As we attempt to digest Jesus’ teachings this morning, imagine Jesus as the Master craftsman, speaking to his apprentices. But in this case, the craft isn’t something as tangible as a croissant; it is the building-up a particular kind of community, the church, and the subtle craft of person-to-person relationships, in which we share the good news of God in Jesus Christ as we share together the fullness of our lives.

Jesus’ words in Luke 17 sum up a long stretch of teaching, and we have to go back to understand them in context. Remember in Ch.15, the Pharisees and scribes muttering about how Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them?” That complaint launches Jesus into the parables, the lost sheep, lost coin, and the prodigal son, which all reveal God’s extraordinary forgiveness for the least and the lost and question listeners’ attitudes and practices. Then in Ch. 16, Jesus takes on attitudes toward wealth. The conventional understanding, then as now, was that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing; poverty was a curse an individual had brought upon him or herself.

But Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus overturns that idea. In the upside-down reign of God, the least, the lost, the poor and the broken-hearted are closer to God’s heart than those with pride in exemplary morality or financial prosperity.

Keep in mind that the Pharisees and scribes listening are upper-middle class leaders in their community, people respected for their religious practice, people of means with resources to share with others. Further, they, like Jesus and his disciples, were Jews, children of Israel, a people who understood themselves to be God’s chosen.  They, among all peoples, had received the Torah, precious instructions on living whole and holy relationships with God, one another, and the land, that they might be a light to the nations.

Now, Jesus is not undoing the Torah. As he says in 16:17, “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” Rather, Jesus is the master craftsman, revealing the errors of apprentices and encouraging them to aim for a higher level of craftsmanship. They themselves are far from being the least or the lost; rather, the chosen people, blessed to know God’s ways, are called to be shepherds and seekers of all who do not yet know God’s steadfast love and mercy.

In today’s text, there’s a change. Here, Jesus’ words are addressed to “the disciples,” the whole community of Jesus-apprentices. He is also the “the Lord,” speaking across all generations to the church universal, which is another iteration of God’s chosen people, a people blessed to be a blessing. Here the Master tells all of us apprentices in no uncertain terms, that the gold standard of gospel living, the key to the highest community craftsmanship, is forgiveness.

“Be on your guard!” Jesus says. “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance you must forgive”—not just once, but even seven times a day, as much as is necessary, as seven signifies a complete number.

Wow, these are challenging words. First of all, how many of us readily “rebuke” another disciple who “sins”? I’m guessing many of us associate rebuking with an authoritarian style of religion of which we want no part. We’re Presbyterians, after all! So when we are hurt by someone in our congregation, we’re not likely to rebuke. We’d sooner just sweep it under the rug, pretending nothing happened or just dropping out of the community. If we can’t see it, it can’t hurt us further, we rationalize. The trouble is that avoiding the problem does not allow the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. How many grudges have festered for years in congregations because hurt people refuse to encounter the one who has hurt them?  How many folks have simply dropped out of community rather than do the hard work of forgiveness and reconciliation?

Jesus warns us there can be no cutting corners on forgiveness. Disciples are apprentice shepherds and seekers, sent out to find the least and the lost. We must live in ways which will not cause them to stumble. And it turns out that one of the biggest causes of stumbling is a community which lacks forgiveness. Andrew Prior puts it this way: “The scandal is not that someone sins and offends me. The scandal is if I do not forgive, and thus cause them in their even weaker faith to stumble…They were never here because of their good behavior! They were here, and they are here, because God loves them.”[iii] For excellence in Christian community, Jesus tells us we must be willing to come face-to-face with members who have hurt us, honestly naming the harm, and accepting and aiding repentance as we forgive again and again.

And so I can certainly understand why the apostles react by saying “Increase our faith!” It seems like we’ll need spectacular supplies of it to live this way! But Jesus disagrees, and tells two parables. Mustard seeds are famously tiny, but that’s all the faith we need to command incredible changes in the landscape. In effect, Jesus is saying, “You have more than enough faith; Any faith at all is enough!” And it turns out that seeking a “bigger and better” faith actually misses the point. That’s what the second parable is about.

Now, I’m uncomfortable with Jesus talking about slavery in such a matter-of-fact way, even though I know it was just part of the social context he lived in. But I think what bugs me more is that I’ve been well-trained to work hard for rewards.  The anticipation of a little treat at the end of the day sometimes gets me through the most laborious parts. And when I get it, I think, “I deserve this for all my hard work!”

But despite the religious training many of us have received, what Jesus is telling us here is that working for rewards fails when it comes to the kingdom of God. There is no need to make our faith bigger and better because, at the end of the day, there will not be an increased reward for working harder and longer.

And, as counter-intuitive as it sounds, this is the good news! We are not accepted and loved and brought near to God because of increased faith; neither is our acceptance by God a reward of our good behavior or stellar worth. We are loved and accepted by God because God has chosen to love and accept us. Nothing more and nothing less is necessary.

Only our joy in experiencing God’s unshakable love can truly motivate us to practice the challenging craft of Christian community. We love and we forgive because we have been forgiven and we are loved. In loving forgiveness, we find our identity and our direction, passionately pursuing excellence which is its own reward. Forgiveness and love are just what we do.

We are freed to a craftsmanship of elegant simplicity: less is more. We can stop working so hard at increasing things, we can stop fretting about our limitations, and we can trust that whatever God provides will be enough. We can stop looking over our shoulders, seeking recognition for our good works, because we are already receiving Christ’s loving forgiveness. We can start looking at all our brothers and sisters with deep compassion for the broken, human persons in whom the Holy Spirit is revealing God’s image. We can work smarter, no longer cutting corners in our hurry to increase, but investing ourselves deeply in relationships right here and now, risking vulnerability, speaking up when we are hurt, and repenting when we find we’ve hurt others, trusting we’ll find forgiveness.

It’s just what we do, we Christians who live with and for one another, not from our own tiny faith but the amazing faith of Jesus Christ, in whom God chose to become the least and the lost, walking the road of human suffering to death on the cross; the faith of Jesus Christ, in whose resurrection God revealed that death cannot vanquish self-giving love.

But as it turns out, when we come in from a hard day of shepherding and seeking the lost, we have a Master who does in fact say, “Come here at once and take your place at the table.” Our Master does not call us “worthless slaves,” but valued friends, and he gives us his own life to nourish us! He gives us his body and his blood, joining us forever, across all space and time, all continents and all cultural differences, joining us in communion with him and everyone who trusts in him.

In that communion, joined to the very life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God in Community, Holy Three in One, we have all the inspiration and sustenance we need to be a people blessed to be a blessing.  It’s just what we do. May it be so, this World Communion Sunday, and forevermore. Come Lord Jesus! Amen.

(An earlier sermon on these passages can be read by clicking here.)

When Repentance Happens: Sermon by Laura, 3.10.13 Lent 4

Text: Jonah 3-4

Friends, we’ve passed the midpoint of Lent; we are on the fourth leg of our pilgrimage through some of the Bible’s 40-Day Journeys. So far, we’ve floated the flood with Noah and heard God’s promise to stick with his creation no matter what; we’ve been up and down Mt. Sinai with Moses and heard God’s promise of forgiveness; and we’ve endured wind, earthquake, and fire with Elijah and heard God’s promise of profound purpose. In each adventure, alongside each towering figure of scripture, we’ve encountered a God whose majesty is matched only by his mercy.

Now, you might expect today’s journey with Jonah is a sea-faring adventure. It certainly begins that way! Commanded to proclaim God’s word in the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Jonah flees in the opposite direction instead, getting on a boat to Tarshish. When a great storm overtakes it, and the ship is about to break into pieces, the sailors toss Jonah overboard. God provides a large fish, which swallows Jonah. After three days and nights, the fish spits Jonah out on dry land, and God gives Jonah another opportunity to live out his calling. It’s the journey of that second chance we follow today, a dry-land adventure which takes us from the cool water into the blistering heat, both of a desert plain outside a doomed city and of Jonah’s burning, angry heart.

Anger. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to dwell on my experiences of it. Many of us have learned to fear anger, our own and others’, and we anxiously rush to douse it when we begin to feel its heat. But Eugene Petersen offers another view in his book Under the Unpredictable Plant, studying Jonah’s story as her reflects on vocational ministry. He writes, “Anger is most useful as a diagnostic tool. When anger erupts in us, it is a signal that…[s]omething isn’t working right…Anger is our sixth sense for sniffing out wrong in the neighborhood…Anger is infused by a moral/spiritual intensity that carries conviction: when we are angry, we know we are on to something that matters, that really counts.”[1]

Petersen’s perspective will be useful in Nineveh, where Jonah does go, albeit not very enthusiastically. He does the minimum necessary to comply with God’s call, walking one day into the enormous city, proclaiming, “Forty days and Nineveh will be no more,” It’s arguably one of the least inspiring sermons on record. But it turns out to be one of the most effective!

What happens next is, honestly, a little over-the-top. If you think a whale swallowing a prophet is fantastic, the repentance of Nineveh is even more so. Nineveh was infamous as a bastion of brutality and corruption. Yet, the extraordinary good news of this story is that, even for the worst of the worst, repentance happens. The people of Nineveh believed God. As soon as they hear Jonah’s words, everyone from the king on down to the sheep and cows drop everything and begin fasting, wearing sackcloth, sitting in ashes, and crying out to God for mercy. Just picture for a moment all those hungry cattle roaming around wearing sackcloth– No half-measures for those Ninevites! “All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands,” the king decrees. “Who knows? God may change his mind.”

And that’s just what happens. God sees Nineveh’s repentance, and God relents from destroying the city.

Now, it seems to me that whenever people take God at God’s word and open themselves to transformation as profoundly as the Ninevites in this story, there ought to be much rejoicing. But how does Jonah react? He’s just helped facilitate a notoriously violent city turning from its evil ways.  Is he pleased, or at least awestruck that his meager words have had such an impact?

Nope! Jonah is not pleased, not pleased at all! Venting his anger at God, you can almost see him stomping his feet like toddler in a temper tantrum. But we finally learn why he fled to Tarshish when God first called him. “I knew this would happen!” he says, before delivering the punch line of the whole story. “For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Now, these words are part of a formula describing God which is found throughout the Hebrew scriptures. We just heard a more elaborate formulation of them with Moses in Exodus 34, when God forgives Israel for the golden calf incident. That version of the formula heavily weighted God’s compassion, but it also clearly asserted God’s righteous judgment: yes, God keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generation and forgives sin, but God by no means clears the guilty.

But Jonah’s version of this formula leaves judgment entirely out. From his perspective, God is being too merciful to Nineveh, a city full of the enemies of his people, who, in fact, wipe out Israel’s northern kingdom in 722 BCE. Jonah wants Nineveh punished, and God is not acting the way he believes God should. God’s mercy is absolutely overriding God’s justice. In his anger, Jonah feels asks God to take his life on the spot.

Certainly, per Eugene Petersen’s diagnostics, Jonah’s anger is saying with conviction that something is wrong in the neighborhood! But Petersen would also caution Jonah not to be too hasty to point fingers.  “What anger fails to do,” he writes, “is tell us whether the wrong is outside or inside us. We usually begin by assuming that the wrong is outside us—our spouse or our child or our God has done something wrong, and we are angry…But when we track the anger carefully, we often find it leads to a wrong within us—wrong information, inadequate understanding, underdeveloped heart. If we admit and face that, we are pulled out of our quarrel with God and into something large and vocational in God.”[2]

God does not take Jonah’s life, but asks a question, inviting Jonah to carefully track his anger.  “Is it right for you to be angry?” A more literal translation would be, “Is it good that it burns to you?” Now, the word “good” here can mean righteous or ethical, as our translation implies, but it can also mean “good” as in beautiful or pleasurable.

Have you ever taken pleasure in anger? It sounds strange, but I’ve seen it in action. I know a young woman whose older sister had been the terror of her childhood. She learned to tiptoe around this sister so as not to arouse her sister’s notable temper. One day, when the two women had grown up, the older sister entered into Alcoholics Anonymous and began to work the Twelve Steps. In steps 8 and 9, a recovering person makes a list of people they believe they have injured in some way, and then they seek to make amends with those people, except if doing so might cause further injury. The older sister came to the younger one and sought to make amends. At first, the younger sister reacted numbly, but later, her anger burned inside of her, and she threw the amends back in her sister’s face, and she felt a fierce pleasure recounting all the ways she perceived she’d been injured.

Forgiveness is not easy, not just because true repentance is in short supply, but because people who feel wronged do not easily release their anger. There’s a kind of dark pleasure in listing those wrongs that seems to make up for the lack we might otherwise feel. Our anger reliably heats us up with a self-righteous sense of ourselves in a great battle against injustice.

“Is it right, is it good, for you to burn with anger?” God’s question seeks the deeper truth, the way our anger can become a self-serving crutch which actually distances us from justice.[3] God’s question seeks to reveal the deeper truth: as we have received God’s mercy, we are called to extend it to others.

In the story of the sisters, forgiveness finally came, as the younger sister tracked her anger and realized her equal need for mercy. But, like many of us, confronted at the center of our sinful need, Jonah refuses to answer God’s question.  He just gets up and leaves the conversation, setting up camp where he can passively watch the city. Maybe in forty days, doom will still come for Nineveh.

But Nineveh now seems to be in better shape to God than angry Jonah! And it turns out that God may relent from punishing, but God’s mercy is relentless! Since a sojourn in a fish’s belly wasn’t enough for Jonah to make the connection between God’s mercy for him and God’s mercy for Nineveh, God appoints more, curious, messengers. The shade bush and the worm are deployed, revealing that however hot the heat of the day, the heat of Jonah’s self-serving anger is still more perilous.

“You are concerned about this short-lived bush,” God remarks, “Should I not also be concerned about Nineveh’s 120,000 people who are even more clueless than you about my steadfast love and mercy—and what about all those animals?” One of the things I love about the book of Jonah is that God doesn’t forget those poor animals wandering around in sackcloth!

The other thing I love is what this story does to us by ending with a question. And here’s a fun little exegetical tidbit. Jonah’s angry speech to God earlier in chapter 4 adds up to 39 words in the original Hebrew, just shy of 40, which is understood to be a “complete” number.

God’s speech in response to Jonah, ending with this question, also adds up to 39 words. So it turns out, the story is not yet complete. It’s not complete without us. We might have laughed at the miserable prophet, but now we are also called up to answer.

So I ask you this Lent, what is burning you? Is it right, is it good for you to anger? Will you sit there, stoking the flames while it burns you up, or will you let it go and enter into a much greater joy, receiving and participating fully in God’s incredible mercy?

Take heart, because if Nineveh can repent, than anything can happen! And the forty days Jonah proclaimed to Nineveh have only just begun. God’s mercy and forgiveness for us are not complete, until we begin to share that mercy and forgiveness with others.

How will you complete this story?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

[1] Eugene Petersen, Under the Unpredictable Plant, 157.

[2] Petersen, as above.

[3] Haskins, 79.