It’s About Relationships…

Today’s sermon from North Presbyterian Church.

The text is Mark 10:2-16.

We’ve got a doozy of a gospel reading this week. I call it one of our “damage control” passages because so many people have been hurt by it, a preacher has to unpack its meaning in order to get a decent sermon out of it.

If today’s gospel was a movie, and I had to give it a parental guidance rating, I think I would have to say it was rated R because of ‘thematic material’. This is a passage that is intended for ‘mature audiences only’. Taking Jesus’ teachings about divorce at face-value can be dangerous, especially if one doesn’t have a clear understanding of what Jesus does and doesn’t mean.

Unfortunately, “taking this passage at face-value” is exactly what Christians have been doing for centuries. This has led to a lot of people being hurt by the church during a time in their life when they needed that fellowship and support more than ever. So, with that in mind, I’m going to begin this morning by stating very clearly what you’re not going to hear from this pulpit on the subject of divorce.

First of all, I’m not going to tell you that, if you get a divorce, you’re going to hell. I don’t believe that. I think you know me well enough by now: that’s not how I roll. Second, I’m not going to tell you that, if you get a divorce, you should be banned from receiving communion or serving the church in an ordained capacity as an elder, deacon, or pastor. There was a time in Presbyterian history when that was the case. But since that time, we have developed an awareness that life and relationships are complicated and don’t always work out like we had hoped. An effective, Christ-like ministry is one that recognizes life’s complexities and leads with grace rather than judgment. Third, I’m not going to tell you that, if you get a divorce, you can never begin another relationship or get remarried and expect that relationship to be healthy and blessed by God. The God I believe in is the God of Plan B and second chances. If that wasn’t who I believed God to be, then I wouldn’t (I couldn’t) be standing in this pulpit today.

If you’ve been told any of those three things before, I want you to tell you today that you’ve been lied to. Getting divorced does not mean you are going to hell; it does not mean you are barred forever from Christian service; it does not mean that you can never again have a healthy, life-giving relationship that is blessed by God.

When Christians tell these lies, they often like to quote passages like the one we just read and sum it up by saying, “See? The Bible says very clearly that divorce is a sin! Therefore, any divorced person is a sinner, and no sinner could ever be called by God for service in this church.”

That’s what they say. And a lot of people get hurt when Christians talk like that.

One of the things I’ve notice about people who use the word sin in this way is that they talk about it in a way that emphasizes the so-called “sins” of other people, rather than their own. Whenever you ask about what’s wrong with the world, they can always answer: “It’s those people! It’s those sinners!”

I call this tendency “The Reality TV Phenomenon.” People watch Reality TV in order to feel better about themselves. No matter how dysfunctional one’s life currently is, chances are that it’s not nearly as messed up as the people on the Jerry Springer Show. It’s a convenient way to feel self-righteous and superior to other people.

Whenever Jesus encountered that kind of attitude, he called it hypocrisy. He would often butt heads with the Pharisees. These Pharisees, like so many fans of Realty TV, had a very precise definition of the word sin that they applied to people outside their religious in-group. They saw themselves as the guardians of morality and family values in their culture. They were upstanding citizens who attended worship regularly and knew the Bible inside and out. If anyone had a trustworthy definition of the word sin, it was them.

These Pharisees approached Jesus with a question on the topic of divorce. Rather than genuinely seeking advice from Jesus, they just wanted to put him on the spot so they could figure out whether his definition of the word sin was as accurate and comprehensive as theirs. But Jesus, as usual, is onto this little game of theirs and isn’t having any of it. He takes their question and raises it “to the next level”, so to speak.

The Pharisees come to Jesus with a question about the legality of divorce. Jesus reframes the question by placing it within the much larger context of relationships. He immediately starts talking about the story of Adam and Eve in the Torah. He talks about who God is and what God is doing. He takes this conversation about the technicalities of the law and turns it into a conversation about the meaning of relationships.

Jesus is arguing here that the Pharisees, with their very precise and thought-out conception of morality, have essentially missed the point. They thought they had this question of divorce already figured out. They thought they already had all the right answers, but Jesus shows them that they haven’t even begun to ask the right questions.

Their definition of the word sin left them feeling pretty self-righteous and superior. It allowed them to place the blame for all the world’s problems on the shoulders of “those other people” whose lives did not conform to socially acceptable norms. But then Jesus comes along and hits them right between the eyes with some hard truth. Even though all their legal ducks were in a row, he told them, they were still not free from the bondage of sin. Jesus was working with a far broader and deeper definition of the word sin than the Pharisees were.

The word sin, I think, has surprisingly little to do with legal requirements and moral laws. I think it has a whole lot to do with the quality of our relationships. Sin is a tendency that exists within all of us, regardless of our moral, legal, or religious status. We all have an inner drive toward selfishness. Therefore, none of us has any right to feel morally or spiritually superior to anyone else, no matter how socially unacceptable or dysfunctional others’ lives may appear to be.

When we try to identify the presence of sin in our relationships, it’s not enough to simply label some behaviors as “sins” while others are “okay”, because even the most apparently righteous actions can be tainted with sin and selfishness. Just look at the Pharisees and you’ll see what I mean. If you look at what they were doing from a legal standpoint, they came away looking squeaky clean all the time. But if you look at how and why they were doing what they did, their self-righteous and judgmental hypocrisy becomes clear. They came to Jesus with a loaded question about a legal contract but left with even bigger questions about the nature of relationships.

With this broader and deeper understanding of sin in mind, let’s revisit that initial question: “Is divorce a sin?”

Does a failed marriage necessarily exclude a person from the benefits of salvation, full-participation in the life and ministry of the church, or God’s blessing upon future relationships? No. Absolutely not.

But, on the other hand, if someone were to ask me whether I think divorce is a product of human sinfulness (i.e. our inner tendency toward selfishness), then I would have to say Yes: our marriages fall apart because of the brokenness and the selfishness that exists in all of us, not just a few.

This way of thinking about sin has significance for all of our relationships, not just marriage and divorce. To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s look at the Ten Commandments and imagine them, not just as a list of “Thou shalt nots…” but as benchmarks by which we can assess the quality of our relationships (marital or otherwise):

  • You shall not murder:
    • Do we seek to give life to one another or do we suck it away?
  • You shall not commit adultery:
    • Are we faithful to one another or do our hearts belong to something/one else?
  • You shall not steal:
    • Do we willingly share our lives with one another, or do we simply take what we want from each other?
  • You shall not bear false witness:
    • Do we speak the truth about who we are to one another or do we maintain a façade for the sake of appearances?
  • You shall not covet:
    • Are we grateful to and for one another or are we constantly looking over our shoulder at how good everyone else has it?

As we honestly answer those questions, we start to get a general sense of how healthy our relationships are or are not. This can be applied to all relationships, not just the ones between spouses or partners. It works just as well for relationships between parents & children, bosses & employees, siblings, coworkers, friends, you name it.

You can even ask these questions about your relationship with yourself. Who else do we try to hide from more? I think there are a lot of people walking around this world right now in a state of being divorced from themselves. They feel alone and exposed, hiding their deepest fears and covering up their insecurities, even as they’re looking into their own bathroom mirror.

Far more important than particular legal question about divorce is the question of relationships. We selfish and broken people are all reaching out to connect with something or someone outside of ourselves, hoping that we will be able to discover through that connection the meaning of our existence.

As you go back out into the world this week, I want to encourage you to be mindful of how it is that you conduct your relationships with others. Don’t get caught up in these squabbling debates about legalities and technicalities. Instead, do like Jesus does: Raise your own level of awareness in order to ask the harder questions about all your relationships.

May you find on that difficult journey a sustaining sense of connection and meaning in your life that draws you ever closer to the sacred source of all life: the loving God in whom we live, move, and have our being.

Recovering the Good News of Predestination

Originally posted on Eclectic Orthodoxy:

How can the Church recover the preaching of predestination? The key, I believe, is the recognition that in Holy Scripture predestination is good news. It is not a philosophical conundrum to be solved; it is a form of the gospel to be proclaimed—and specifically, a form of the gospel to be proclaimed to the baptized. No theologian of the Church has seen this more clearly than Karl Barth:

The truth which must now occupy us, the truth of the doctrine of predestination, is first and last and in all circumstances the sum of the Gospel, no matter how it may be understood in detail, no matter what apparently contradictory aspects or moments it may present to us. It is itself evangel: glad tidings; news which uplifts and comforts and sustains. Once and for all, then, it is not a truth which is neutral in face of the antithesis…

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The Presence in the Absence

Originally posted on Hopping Hadrian's Wall:

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes get a bit discouraged when I read the stories and poems of the Bible.  It seems that people back then had a much more immediate sense of God’s presence than we do today.  On almost every page, there are tales of visions, voices, angels, and miracles.  Meanwhile, even the most spiritually-inclined of us today have to rely on powers of reason, conscience, intuition, and imagination when forming our ideas about who God is and how God relates to us.  It’s easy for us to feel left out when we read the Bible because most of us haven’t had the kind of direct and intense mystical experiences described in its pages.  After all, who here has ever walked on water or seen the ocean part in front of them?  My guess is that not many of us have.  If only there was someone…

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Rich phrases, poignant and powerful

Source: Rich phrases, poignant and powerful

Rich phrases, poignant and powerful

…the Daily Office offers us a chance to pray in union with Christians around the world, and to pray in words made familiar through long repetition.

The Confession, the psalms, the Scripture lessons and canticles, the Apostles’ Creed and the suffrages, the General Thanksgiving and St. Chrysostom’s “golden-tongued” prayer — far from heaped-up words, these are “rich phrases,” poignant and powerful.

There’s not a wasted word in the Daily Office, no needless repetition, no hedging, no hemming or hawing.

We simply pray in the way that our Lord taught us, and his early followers practiced, and the women and men of the desert whetted into sharpness, and the Benedictines rounded and smoothed seven times a day, and the choirs adorned with ravishing melodies, and Archbishop Cranmer organized, and the publishers bound with ribbons between leather covers, and the developers turned into a clean app and website so there’s no barrier to our praying.

So, when you pray … pray like this.

Welcome to Hadrian’s Wall

By Velella (Personal photograph taken by Velella.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsBy Velella (Personal photograph taken by Velella.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Velella (Personal photograph taken by Velella.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dear Superfriends and Blogofans,

For the past five years, I’ve maintained this blog as The Theological Wanderings of a Street Pastor. I started it as a place to reflect on the out-of-the-box ministry I was doing as Community Chaplain of St. James Mission, a position I left in 2012. Naturally, the shape of this blog has changed since then.

These days, the theological questions that vex me revolve around worship and the intersection of ecclesiastical traditions.

I am the world’s only Anglo-Catholic Presbyterian.

What exactly does that mean?

It means that I am a Presbyterian pastor with a High Church Anglican heart.

A part of me is very Presbyterian:

I believe…

  • The Reformed tradition works with a balanced polity and an even-keeled openness.
  • The Protestant Reformation was a movement of the Holy Spirit in the Church and a much-needed corrective to the abuses and distortions of its time.
  • Biblical literacy is essential to the work of the Church.
  • Ecclesia Reforma, Semper Reformanda (“The Church is reformed, and always being reformed”).
  • Salvation comes by trusting in God’s sovereign grace alone.
  • The royal priesthood of all believers.
  • No earthly authority can claim absolute obedience or infallibility.
  • I see the Holy Spirit at work in my denomination’s leaders and in the whole people of God every single day.
  • It was God’s call that brought me to my current congregation where I get to serve the most amazing group of people as pastor.

Another part of me is very Anglo-Catholic:

I believe…

  • The ministry of the Word by itself, without the Sacraments, leads to the equally dangerous pitfalls of fundamentalism and rationalism.
  • Informed sacramental worship, rooted firmly in the mystery of the Incarnation, should lead Christians naturally into the streets to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.”
  • “The Holy Eucharist [is] the principal act of Christian worship on the Lord’s Day” and not just something extra to be tacked onto the end of the service one Sunday a month.
  • Christ is really, objectively present in the Eucharist.
  • Whatever their form or administrative function, all denominations should retain the office of bishop within the lines of apostolic succession as a visible sign of Christian unity.
  • Fragrant incense, liturgical vestments, and Gregorian chant enhance our worship.
  • It is appropriate and spiritually beneficial to ask the prayers of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints in heaven.

This is the bizarre combination of qualities that I find within myself. I don’t really know what to do with that tension, except to hold it. That’s why I’m writing this blog.

I exist somewhere on the theological border between Anglican and Presbyterian. For those who don’t know church history, Anglicanism is the form of Protestant Christianity that took root in England in the 16th century, while Presbyterianism is the form that caught on in Scotland. The English remained relatively close to their Catholic roots, while the Scots followed the more drastic continental reforms of John Calvin. The spiritual territory I occupy rests squarely between these two traditions. And what ancient Roman edifice marks the long-standing border between England and Scotland? Hadrian’s Wall.

Hence, the new name for this blog.

All of the former articles are still here and available to read. The old domain name still works. It’s the same old blog, but with a new name, a new look, and a whole new set of questions to explore.

The Street Pastor is still wandering and you’re all invited to come along!

Pax Vobiscum,
Wandering Street Pastor
Anglo-Catholic Presbyterian

Fr Ken Leech (1939 – 2015)

J. Barrett Lee:

Tribute to Fr. Ken Leech

Originally posted on St Chrysostom's Church News and Views:

FrK 1Fr Ken Leech (b.39), a great priest, prophet and writer in the Church died yesterday in the evening (12th September). We were sorry to learn of the death of this great priest, and friend of St Chrysostom’s.

Ken was born in a working class family in Manchester, and from an early age felt a call to priesthood. He often told how as a young man he came to St Chrysostom’s to attend a vocations conference which set him on the path to become a priest. In 1958, as a student, he went to live in the East End of London. For him that was to be ‘a real turning point,’ he wrote:

The East End has shaped me more than any place. Much of my time there, since 1958, has been involved with fighting fascism, working for decent housing, trying to create communities of resistance and solidarity.

Fr Ken became…

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And There Is More…

This week’s sermon.

The text is Mark 8:27-38.

“Have you been SAAAVED?”

People ask me that sometimes.

I say Yes, I’m a Christian. I’ve been baptized, confirmed, and ordained. I serve as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church.

And they ask me again, “But are you SAAAVED?!” They want to know whether I can identify a particular moment in time when I made a decision to “give my heart to Jesus.” Depending on the theological orientation of the person asking the question, they might also want to know if that decision was accompanied by baptism by immersion, falling down under the power of the Holy Spirit, or ecstatic speaking in tongues.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to disparage or discredit any of these phenomena; many faithful Christians (including not a few Presbyterians) have experienced changed lives as a result of them. My only problem is when people treat these blessings from God as criteria by which one person can judge whether or not another person counts as “a real Christian.”

People who speak of being “saved” in this way typically think of salvation as a one-time event, but I think this conception falls short of what we find in the pages of the Bible. What I take away from my reading of the Scriptures is that salvation is not a one-time event, initiated by the Christian through an act of faith, but an ongoing process, initiated by Christ through an act of grace.

My favorite response to that question (“When were you saved?”) comes from the prominent 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth. Someone asked him, “Dr. Barth, when was the exact moment when you were saved?”

Karl Barth responded, “I was saved at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, on a hill outside the city of Jerusalem, in the year 33 A.D.”

When people ask me whether I’ve been saved, I want to say, “Yes, I’ve been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved, thank God, not by virtue of my own merits or pious experiences, but by the limitless grace of God that has been made known to me in Christ Jesus and never stops working in me to finish the good work that was begun at the creation of the universe.”

So, are we saved? Yup.

Salvation is a process: an ongoing process whereby we are continually growing in our knowledge and love of God, our neighbors, and ourselves. There is not a soul on this earth right now who can rightfully claim to possess the fullness of salvation. There is no one who has achieved (or received) perfect knowledge and love of God. No matter how good or wise we are, there is always room for us to grow. With God, there is always More.

Jesus talks about that very thing in today’s gospel reading. He asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And he gets the answers then being generated via speculation in the rumor mill. Unsurprisingly, these ideas conform to the religious concepts and categories of their time. “Jesus is a prophet,” they say, “like Elijah or John the Baptist; he is a messenger, sent by God, to tell the people of Israel something important.” And to this, Jesus says in effect, “Yes. You’re right. I am a prophet, I do speak truth to power, I am here to set God’s people back on the right track… but there’s more.”

So, he asks his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter takes it to the next level, he says, “Okay Jesus, I get what you’re doing here. You’re a prophet, but not just a prophet; you’re more than that. I say you’re the Messiah: God’s anointed leader who will march into Jerusalem by the power of the sword, kick out those pesky Romans, and usher in a new Golden Age of purity and prosperity.” As Peter speaks, I imagine the Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the background:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
he hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword;
his truth is marching on. Glory! Glory, hallelujah!”

This is Peter’s idea of what it means to be the Messiah. This is his answer when Jesus asks him, “Who do you say that I am?” And Jesus says again, “You’re right: I am the Messiah… but there’s more.” I am marching to Jerusalem, not to conquer and kill, but to be killed. And our people will not receive me, but reject me. Peter’s definition of Messiah is entirely inadequate. There is more to Jesus than that…

And Peter, bless his heart, does exactly what any of the rest of us would do in his situation. Does he sit back and rethink his previously held assumptions? Does he thank Jesus for this valuable perspective and insight? No, he gets angry and rebukes Jesus for challenging his preconceived notions.

Don’t we all do the same thing? We don’t like it when people challenge our assumptions about the world. Jesus is like that neighbor kid who comes over to play and breaks all our favorite toys. That’s just who Jesus is. No wonder nobody likes him. No wonder the people rejected him and had him killed. No wonder his closest disciples betrayed him, abandoned him, and eventually denied they even knew him. Jesus doesn’t know how to play nice. He’s doesn’t leave well enough alone.

But what we fail to see is that Jesus does these things to us, not because he’s the mean bully from down the street, but because he loves us. Jesus loves us exactly as we are, and refuses to let us stay that way. He knows there is more to life than we have heretofore conceived. And he wants us to experience its fullness in abundance, but first he has to pry us loose from those old ways of thinking and behaving. He has to deconstruct our feeble, limited ideas about who he is and what he means.

The people said he is a prophet, and he is more than that. Peter said he is the Messiah, and he is more than that. Christians say he is our Lord and Savior, and he is more than that. Theologians say he is God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, and he is more than that. No human words or ideas can ever sufficiently sum up the totality of who Jesus is. Anything we can say about him, he is all that and more.

The journey of the Christian spiritual life is about following this Jesus, who is “all that and more.” Christian spirituality is about remaining continually open to these new depths and new dimensions of God that are being continually revealed to us in Christ. Our task, as believers, is not to plant our flag on a particular ground of theology and defend it against all comers. Our calling is to keep on following, to keep travelling forward into the next truth that Jesus wants to reveal to us.

I love this sentence by the famous Trappist monk and spiritual author, Thomas Merton: “If the you of five years ago would not consider the you of today a heretic, you are not growing spiritually.”

Salvation is a journey. It is a process. It’s not about having the theologically correct answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s about letting Jesus ask us that question over and over again. It’s about growing in love and wisdom, outgrowing the answers we thought we already had. It’s about following Jesus, one step at a time, toward an unknown Promised Land.

Brothers and sisters, we are about to embark on a journey of discovery and discernment this week, as a parish. We have already completed the first phase of New Beginnings assessment program. Now begins the task of looking over the data and deciding together what we will do with it. We may find ourselves facing difficult decisions in the days ahead. We may hear Jesus challenging our assumptions about what it means to be the church.

Because being the church is not about the beauty of our buildings, the success of our institutions, the size of our bank accounts, the style of our worship, or the effectiveness of our programs. Church is about much more than that.

It was two years ago this week that my family and I first arrived in Kalamazoo, so I could begin this call as pastor of North Church. Within a week of our arrival, I made a point of sitting down with my predecessor, our pastor emeritus, Rev. Bob Rasmussen. Over lunch, I asked him, “What do you think this church needs most?” And I’ll never forget what he said to me. It was three words: “Just the Gospel.”

And that’s it. That’s what it means to be the Church. To follow Jesus Christ. To know and love our God, our neighbors, and ourselves. To let Jesus ask us that question, again and again, day after day, “Who do you say that I am?” That’s all there is to it.

We could have the rest of those aforementioned trappings or not. We could go back to being like Eliza Valentine and our first ancestors at North, a crowd of misfits, meeting in the woods, fending off stray cows with sticks, and we would still be the Church of Jesus Christ.

“Just the Gospel.” That’s all we need. I want you to remember that as we begin our process of discernment this week. And if you can’t hear that from me, then hear it from Pastor Bob.

On the surface, it might seem like Jesus is that mean kid who comes over and breaks all our toys, but deeper truth is that he loves us. And he does what he does in order to free us from the trappings that hold us down, the lies that prevent us from experiencing the abundant life he has prepared for us to walk in. Jesus loves us and stands in front of us, two steps down the road, beckoning us forward with the question, “Who do you say that I am?”

What he wants from us is not a final answer, but another step forward in faith. He wants us to keep asking ourselves that question with the ever-present realization… that there is always more.

(Reblog) Remembering well: 9/11 reflections from a captain turned priest

Fr. Christian Hawley, an Air Force officer who became an Episcopal priest, has penned this article in remembrance of the terrorist attacks we witnessed on September 11, 2001. This is the best expression I have yet heard of #NeverForget.

Here are the one-liners he uses to form the shape of his article. Reblogged from Ministry Matters.

  • We are never safe.
  • We are never alone.
  • We are never innocent.
  • We are never beyond redemption.
  • Violence begets violence.
  • Sometimes love begets violence.
  • Love anyway.
  • Reconciliation begins within.
  • Be gentle with yourself.
  • Reconciliation can’t be done alone.
  • Be gentle with others.
  • Never forget.
  • Remembering is a process.
  • Christians remember well.

Click here to read the full article

Christ our Mother

The text for this sermon is Mark 7:24-37.

[Editorial note: I didn’t realize until after I wrote this sermon that it’s Labor Day weekend.]

I saw a video this past week of two guys who believed their wives were exaggerating when it came to the pain of childbirth. The two of them were talking real tough as they walked into a hospital together. But while they were there, a doctor hooked them up to electrodes that caused contractions in their abdominal muscles of a comparable severity to labor contractions for just one hour. The result was hilarious (and the best part is that their wives got to see the whole thing). Let’s just say that, after all was said and done, those guys weren’t talking so tough anymore.

Obviously, I can’t speak from firsthand experience, but I trust the mothers around me when they tell me that childbirth is one of the most painful things a human being can experience in life. And I also believe those same mothers when they tell me that the pain is worthwhile.

What makes the pain of labor worthwhile is that it is pain with a purpose. It is meaningful pain. A mother willingly undergoes this suffering for the sake of the child, who she loves, and to whom she is giving the gift of life. I have seen this joy that redeems the suffering in my own mother, my wife, and in almost all the mothers I know. They tell me it’s worth it and I believe them.

I was thinking about motherhood and labor pains this week as I read this Sunday’s Gospel. In these verses, there is a tremendous amount of maternal imagery that Mark uses. The first is obvious, as we follow the story of a mother, the Syrophoenician woman who would stop at nothing to relieve her daughter’s suffering. Her motherly love gave her the faith to defy the cultural, religious, and gender stereotypes of her time and stand up to Jesus, demanding healing for her child.

The second maternal reference is less obvious. It takes place a few verses later as Jesus takes a hearing-impaired man with a speech impediment aside to administer healing in private. After placing fingers in the man’s ears, spitting, and touching his tongue, St Mark tells us that Jesus looked up to heaven, “sighed and said to [to the man], “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.””

The key word here is sighed. In the original Greek, the word is estenaxen. In other parts of Scripture, this word is translated as “to groan” or “to grieve.” One word study I consulted defined estenaxen as “to groan because of pressure of being exerted forward (like the forward pressure of childbirth).” Estenaxen is the Greek word that is used to describe the kinds of sound that an expecting mother makes in the delivery room. Now… I don’t know about you but, based on this working definition, I think it would be fair to say that our English translation (the NRSV) might be a little too conservative when it translates estenaxen in this passage as “sighed.” I would like you to imagine Jesus crying out with the same intensity as a woman in childbirth. This is an expression of deep, gut-wrenching pain that is undertaken for the sake of love and giving life.

Most immediately, the birth happening in this passage is that of the man who cannot hear or speak. Jesus says to him (and we can imagine him screaming it) in Aramaic: “Ephaphtha!” “Be opened!” Christ’s healing power is opening the doors of communication in this person’s life: allowing him to understand others and be understood by others for the first time in his life. This is no small miracle, especially for us as we read it today in this polarized society where the channels of interpersonal communication are being cut off by the barriers of race, class, politics, and religion. The ability to communicate is central to our identity as human beings, made in God’s image. Jesus gave this man that gift: the gift of humanity that can be seen and recognized by all. When I read the headlines from Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and Houston, when I see videos of reporters being gunned down on live TV and photos of dead immigrant children washing up on the beach, I pray that Jesus will once again give birth to that kind of miracle in us today. Lord, open our ears to hear and our tongues to speak clearly because we have obviously stopped communicating with each other.

Speaking more broadly, I believe that Jesus endures the pain of childbirth for all of us in his passion and death on the cross. In this saving work, Jesus is our mother who gives birth to us, in a spiritual sense. This image of Jesus as a pregnant mother might seem strange or disturbing to us, whose theology has been shaped by centuries of sexism in the institutional church, but I assure you that it is thoroughly biblical and orthodox.

You don’t even have to take my word for it; look it up for yourself in Matthew 23:37: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus did not shy away from referring to himself as a mother.

Writing about a thousand years ago, an English theologian and monk named St Anselm of Canterbury said:

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; *
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Often you weep over our sins and our pride, *
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, *
in sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying, we are born to new life; *
by your anguish and labor we come forth in joy.

A few centuries after Anselm, another English monastic, a mystical visionary named Julian of Norwich, wrote:

Christ came in our poor flesh *
to share a mother’s care.
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death; *
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.

Jesus is our mother, who suffers the pains of childbirth for us and for what he intends to be born in us. In the pain of our lives, we too are in the process of birth. St Paul writes to the Romans:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… We know that the whole creation has been groaning (there’s that same Greek word again) in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan (there it is again) inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

All of us, along with Jesus himself and the whole universe, are screaming with the pain of childbirth. The pain in our lives is not meaningless. I cannot and do not claim to know why particular instances of pain and suffering occur, why they take the form they do, or why they are so intense for some and so mild for others. Let me say it again: I know nothing of these things.

But what I do not know, I believe. I believe that our pain can be meaningful, that our pain, if we let it, can make us stronger, braver, more empathetic, and more compassionate toward our fellow suffering human beings (i.e. more like Christ himself). I believe that we will discover the meaning of our pain, not by looking back and asking “Why me?” but by looking forward and asking “Now what?”

I believe the meaning of our pain will become clearer as we hold onto each other’s hands, breathing together like pregnant women in labor in the same maternity ward at the same time, working with Jesus, our mother and our midwife, who is giving birth to himself in us.

“Therefore,” it says in the New Testament book of Hebrews, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart… lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”


First Steps Toward Freedom

“Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

This is a slogan we often use in the recovery community. And I find that it is accurate. For those who are recovering from an addiction, or those who care for those in recovery, denial is often the first and greatest obstacle standing between the addict and sanity.

Before the journey toward freedom can begin, the addict first has to admit that there is a problem.

This is why the first of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps is: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” Those who are able to honestly take this one step find themselves on the road to recovery and a new life. In the words of the Chinese sage Confucius, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” On the journey to recovery from addiction, that first step is the overcoming of denial and the admission that there is a problem.

As many of you know, I worked as a substance abuse counselor before I was ordained. During that time, I encountered a lot of denial in my clients.

Typically, this denial would take one of two forms:

  1. Outright denial. This is the voice that says, “There is no problem.” This is the addict’s first line of defense against reality. They minimize and hide their dysfunction for as long as possible. They are lying (mostly to themselves). Their families and partners are usually complicit in the lying: trying to survive and present to the world the image of normalcy (this is what we refer to professionally as codependent behavior). This is the strategy that most addicts and their families will maintain for as long as possible.
  2. Deflection. This is a more sophisticated strategy that addicts use when the situation has become so dire that it is no longer possible to deny that a problem exists. Deflection is the voice that says, “The real problem is not with me [or my drinking/drug use/gambling/eating/working/sex-life] but with [this other thing].” Deflection is what happens when someone says, “I only drink because my [partner/family/boss] stresses me out!” They blame society, the past, bad luck, or anything else they can think of to take the focus off themselves and their addiction. Most of the time, addicts have become so good at deflection, they’ve even tricked themselves into honestly believing what they’re saying. That’s what makes denial such a big obstacle for addicts on the road to recovery.

Now, I don’t think this logic of denial and deflection applies only to those people who struggle with the compulsive use of substances or behaviors that we typically think of as addictions. I believe that we are all addicts at some level. It’s just that some addictions are more socially acceptable than others. We find it easy to look down on those who are addicted to things like alcohol, drugs, sex, or gambling. But we admire those who have an addictive relationship with family or work; we call them dedicated, when in reality, their behavior is destructive to themselves and others. I’ve come to believe that political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism are also forms of addiction (see September 11, 2001 and the Holocaust as examples). These addictions are just powerful and dangerous as any drug.

We, as an addicted society, have learned how to maintain our denial over our dysfunction by deflecting the blame onto others. We say, “I’m not the problem; the problem is with those liberal/conservative, black/white, feminist/misogynist, rich/poor, gay/homophobic, Muslim/atheist people.” We look everywhere for the source of our problems. Every place but one… within.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus shines the light of truth on a very similar process taking place in his own society.

It begins with the scribes and Pharisees, the religiously observant and morally upstanding pillars of the community (I like to call them the Upright Citizens Brigade …improv comedy fans take note). These members of the “moral majority” are grilling Jesus about his disciples’ failure to observe proper handwashing protocol before eating dinner.

Now, I can’t totally fault them for this because, as a parent, I regularly (daily) have to remind my kids about the importance of washing hands before dinner. Furthermore, the Jewish ritual of handwashing was not simply a matter of religious observance, but also a matter of public sanitation. Historians have noted that Jewish communities in Europe, for example, were disproportionately unaffected by plagues because their religion required regular bathing and other sanitary practices, whereas the Christian religion did not. So, the handwashing thing really did serve an actual purpose.

But Jesus isn’t faulting them over their concern for public health. He’s less interested in what they doing and more interested in why they’re doing it. The real matter, for Jesus, is not having clean hands before dinner, but having a clean heart before God. That’s what Jesus is concerned about.

What Jesus sees in the scribes and Pharisees is an attempt to deflect attention away from the condition of their inner lives by focusing on the externals of religious observance. Moreover, they were doing this in a way that was specifically designed to undermine Jesus’ authority as a teacher, thereby preserving their own power-base. They weren’t really concerned with religious observance or public sanitation, just making themselves look good at someone else’s expense.

That’s why I tend to be skeptical when I see preachers in the media with an ax to grind, bashing other people over the head with their Bibles. When I see that, I think, “Somebody’s deflecting.” There’s something they don’t want us to see (or don’t want to see in themselves), so they put all the negative attention on someone else in the name of truth and righteousness. It’s classic addict behavior.

But Jesus isn’t buying their act. He sees into people’s hearts, which is why he calls these religious leaders hypocrites and says, quoting the prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”.

He shines the light of truth on their denial and deflection when he says, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come”.

The problem, according to Jesus, is not what goes on around us, but what is going on within us. Jesus teaches his followers in the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.”

Again, it’s not about what goes on around you; it’s about what’s going on within you. The real issue is not the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but the log in your own. Recognizing this and admitting it is the first step on the path to sanity, recovery, enlightenment, and salvation.

Many years ago, there was an essay contest for a newspaper in Britain. The prompt was: What’s wrong with the world? And it was the famous Christian author G.K. Chesterton who wrote the winning response. It read:

Dear Sirs,
I am.
G.K. Chesterton

Are we willing to admit that about ourselves? Are we willing to look deep into ourselves, past the mental fog of denial and deflection, to that place where we recognize that the real problem with the world is not what goes on around us, but what’s going on within us?

That’s a tall order. It’s not an easy thing to do. In fact, I would venture to say that it would be impossible for us to even begin this task, were it not for the grace of God leading and loving us to honesty.

The first of the Twelve Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is “We admitted that we are powerless… that our lives had become unmanageable.” But that is only the first step. It leads immediately to the next two steps: “[We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” and “Made a conscious decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” These three steps form the bedrock of our recovery from any addiction, whatever form it may take.

Here in the Church, we follow a similar path in our liturgy each Sunday at the Examination of Conscience and the Confession of Sins. In that moment, we pause and take a break from our denial and deflection. We cease from pointing the finger and look instead within ourselves:

“Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, in what we have done, and in what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.”

We say this prayer each week, not to wallow in guilt, but to rest in grace: God’s amazing grace, which is given to us free of charge. God is not interested in making us feel guilty, but in helping us face reality. This is why the very next thing we do is listen to the words of the Assurance of Pardon:

“Almighty God has mercy on us, forgives us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthens us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keeps us in eternal life.”

These words are spoken to us, this grace is given to us, not just so we can get our tickets stamped for heaven, not just to get us a second chance with God, but to strengthen and empower us on the road to recovery (which we in the Church have historically referred to as sanctification).

This journey begins, continues, and ends in God, by the power of the Holy Spirit, as we go from strength to strength, from glory to glory, being transformed, one day at a time, ever more into the likeness of Jesus Christ, “the Alpha and the Omega”, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”