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.”

(Reblog) The abusive theology of “deserved” tragedy…

Reblogged from Rachel Held Evans:

What’s worse than the world seeing Christians disagree with one another is the world seeing Christians remain silent when their own go on TV and tell the parents of children lost in a tornado that those children and their families got what they deserved. What’s worse than the world seeing Christians disagree with one another is the world seeing Christians remain silent and supportive when their own are accused of multiple counts of child abuse and appeal to the first amendment to try and avoid investigation. What’s worse than the world seeing Christians disagree with one another is the world seeing Christians perpetuate an abusive theology that teaches people that whatever abuse they are suffering, whatever pain they are enduring, whatever violence they have been subjected to, is deserved and perpetrated by God. 

Click here to read the full article

In the Fullness of Time

Excerpt from God Has A Dream:

There is a lovely phrase which St. Paul uses in his letter to the new Christian converts in Galatia.  And that phrase is “in the fullness of time.”  Paul speaks about how when Jesus was born it was at just the right time, all the pieces had fallen into place, the antecedents were just right, and it all happened at exactly the right moment.  A little earlier would have been too soon and a little later would have been too late.  When it happened it could not have been at any other moment.

Last year, many of us had a good laugh at the hype created by a fringe religious group who claimed to have exclusive knowledge that the end of the world was coming on May 21, 2011.  As you may (or may not) recall, the day itself came and went without event.  This was by no means the first time someone tried to cash in on apocalyptic hype.  At the turn of the Millennium, there was “much ado about nothing” regarding the Y2K computer bug.  In the 19th century, a man named William Miller made three unsuccessful attempts to predict the end of the world before his followers lost faith in him.  Even before that, at the turn of the previous millennium, Pope Sylvester II trembled in prayer in his church, convinced that the world would come to an end that very night.  Later this year, so we’re told, the Mayan calendar is supposed to run out, leading some people to speculate that this ancient civilization knew something we don’t about the apocalypse.

Predicting the what, where, and when of the end of the world has never failed to be a sensationalistic, money-making pastime for would-be prophets and their paranoid followers.  We Christians have proved to be especially vulnerable to these scam artists, mainly because of the presence of the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament.  Many claim that this document, when read and interpreted properly, provides a detailed road map for the end of the world.  It’s bizarre and cryptic imagery are said to contain secret messages about the Apocalypse that are meant to be decoded by those with the proper biblical study tools.  The downside of this approach is that every single prediction supposedly “decoded” from the book of Revelation has turned out to be wrong.  God’s plan, it seems, is not so readily available for human review and approval, but that hasn’t stopped people from trying to figure it out anyway.

Many of us might find it easy to laugh at them for their misguided pursuit.  However, I’d like to take a moment to sympathize with them.  My theory is that folks who tend to obsess over this kind of thing are looking for something.  I think they’re looking for a sense of meaning and purpose in life.  They want to believe that God has a plan for the world and that we’re not all just wandering aimlessly through history.  I can relate to that.

The next step that most of these folks take is to apply this concept of God’s plan to their personal lives.  They might say, “Not only does the universe have a destiny, but so do I.  I’m an important part of God’s plan.  Therefore, my life has meaning.”  Like I said before, I can respect that need.  I feel it too.  I think we all do.  But we have to watch out and make sure that we don’t carry this idea too far.

Our ancestors in the Calvinist tradition were famous for believing that God predestines the fate of every single human being.  They believed that some people were destined for eternal bliss in heaven while others were doomed to endless suffering in hell.  What makes the difference, they said, is “unconditional election” by God.  God chose who would be “saved” or “damned” from the beginning of time, and there is nothing that anyone can do or say to change their fate.  What’s more is that there was no way to know with any absolute certainty about which category you were in.  This theological belief, called “double predestination”, caused people a lot of anxiety.

I’ve also seen people take the idea of God’s plan to unhealthy extremes in rather mundane matters.  When I was in high school, I worked in a bookstore that had a section where we sold religiously themed posters.  One day, I was walking through the stacks when I came across a woman who was kneeling on the floor, weeping.  She had two posters laid out on the floor in front of her.  The problem, it turned out, was that she couldn’t figure out which poster God wanted her to buy.  Just like those folks who are obsessed with predicting the end of the world and the early Calvinist belief in double predestination, this person in the bookstore had taken the idea of God’s plan too far.

When I think about the idea of a divine plan for my life or history, I try not to get too hung up on the details of what, when, and where certain things are supposed to happen.  If we occupy our time with those kinds of questions, I think we’re more likely to end up in an unhealthy state of mind.  Rather, when I think about God’s plan, I prefer to ask questions of who, how, and why.

God is far less interested in what you’re doing and more interested in who you’re becoming, how you’re living, and why you do what you do.  These are questions of the heart.  Answering these questions goes a long way in helping us forge a sense of meaning and significance in our lives.  For example, let’s take a young person in school who is trying to decide on a career path.  I don’t think God tends to care very much whether someone decides to become a lawyer, a doctor, or a minister.  Those are questions of what, where, and when.  Of greater concern to God is whether that person wants to become a lawyer in order to just make money or to serve the greater cause of justice.  In God’s eyes, a waitress in a diner with a heart for hospitality is more holy, more in step with God’s plan, than a minister who just likes to hear the sound of his own voice.  Who we are is much more important than what we do.

That’s why I tend to avoid the phrase “God’s plan” when it comes to the events of history.  I much prefer to think of “God’s vision” or “God’s dream” as Desmond Tutu calls it.  God’s dream is a dynamic thing.  It’s always changing and in motion.  God is the ultimate creator of this dream, but has invited each one of us to become co-creators with God and each other.  Archbishop Tutu says it like this:

It has often been said, “What we are is God’s gift to us.  What we become is our gift to God.”  What we become is not about status, it is about love.  Do we love like God, as God so deeply desires?  Do we become like God, as God so deeply desires us to be?

As for the substance of the plan itself, the shape it takes is up to us, and God works with and around what we bring to the table.  Again, in the words of Archbishop Tutu:

There is a wonderful Portuguese saying that God writes straight with crooked lines.  God works through history to realize God’s dream.  God makes a proposal to each of us and hopes our response will move His dream forward.  But if we don’t, God does not abandon the goal, He does not abandon the dream.  God adjusts God’s methods to accommodate the detour, but we are going to come back onto the main road and eventually arrive at the destination.

I love that phrase: “God writes straight with crooked lines.”  To me, it describes so well my experience of life in this world where things don’t always go according to plan.  Accidents happen.  Things don’t always go your way.  Life goes on.  It doesn’t mean that God isn’t present or working in this world and in our lives.  It means that, if we’re going to look for God, we have to look deeper than the level of surface appearances and random events.

When someone gets sick, or an accident happens, or a terrible tragedy overtakes us, people are prone to ask, “Why is God doing this?” or “Why did God allow this to happen?”  I have to be honest with you, I don’t think God had anything to do with it.  The God of love that I believe in is not in the business of causing cancer and car accidents.  I think these things just happen.  The God I believe in is the one who meets us in the middle of these disasters and leads us to respond in a certain way.

One of my favorite examples that I use to illustrate this point is the terrorist attacks of September 11.  Some people said that God allowed those airplanes to crash because God was judging the United States for one reason or another.  I don’t think that’s true.  I don’t see God in that at all.  I see God in those volunteers who climbed the smoldering piles of rubble with buckets in their hands to get the trapped survivors out.  I see God in the police and fire fighters who risked or gave their lives to save others.  That’s where God is.  That’s God’s plan, God’s dream, in action.

I don’t know if there will one day be an apocalyptic end to the world.  I don’t know if there will be a once & for all victory of goodness over evil “in the fullness of time”.  I don’t know if we, or our children, or our grandchildren will ever live in a perfect world.

I don’t know much, but this is what I believe:

When I look out at the stars in the heavens, I see a harmony that human selfishness cannot touch.  We might destroy ourselves and each other someday.  We might even take our whole planet into extinction with us.  But the beauty of nebulae, quasars, and galaxies will still be there.  The impulse toward order and equilibrium will never be gone from our universe.  That same impulse exists in each one of us.  We call it life, we call it justice, and we call it compassion.  I call it God.  As long as there is a universe to exist, God will never stop working within it to shape darkness, death, and chaos into light, life, and love.  As long as we are alive in this world, God will never stop inviting us to join God in this continuing mission.  I close this sermon and end this series by going back to the words of Desmond Tutu himself:

All over this magnificent world God calls us to extend His kingdom of shalom—peace and wholeness—of justice, of goodness, of compassion, of caring, of sharing, of laughter, of joy, and of reconciliation.  God is transfiguring the world right this very moment through us because God believes in us and because God loves us.  What can separate us from the love of God?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  And as we share God’s love with our brothers and sisters, God’s other children, there is no tyrant who can resist us, no oppression that cannot be ended, no hunger that cannot be fed, no wound that cannot be healed, no hatred that cannot be turned to love, no dream that cannot be fulfilled.

Jesus Gets His Hands Dirty

Last week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.

The text is John 9:1-41.

One of the most annoying things about Jesus is that, when you ask him a question, you almost never get the kind of answer you expected.  He has this way of turning questions on their head.  His response tends to shed more light on the person asking the question than it does on the issue at hand.  Such is the case in today’s gospel reading.

The scene opens with Jesus and his disciples encountering a blind man while they are in Jerusalem for a religious holiday.  As they pass by, one of them asks a question that has plagued philosophers for thousands of years:  “What is the nature of suffering and evil?”

This question is especially troubling to those of us who believe in God.  People have come up with all kinds of theories that try to find an answer.  Some suggest that God is loving but not almighty.  In other words, God cares about suffering but cannot do anything about it.  Others say that God is almighty but not loving.  God could solve the world’s problems but just doesn’t care.  Finally, some suggest that God is both loving and almighty, but that all suffering is merely an illusion or a misunderstanding on our part.

For Jews in Jesus’ day, the most common answer was judicial.  They believed that everything happens for a reason.  If someone was happy, healthy, and prosperous, then that person was being blessed and rewarded by God.  If someone was suffering, then that person was being punished for their sins.  This judicial theory is probably what Jesus’ disciples had in mind when they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Even though they had their own pet theory to explain why this person was suffering, it didn’t answer all their questions.  In fact, their pet theory left them with quite a dilemma.  You see, the man in question had been blind from birth.  There was no way he could have violated Jewish law before the onset of his blindness.  Therefore, God was either punishing this person for someone else’s sin or God was punishing this person for a sin that had not yet been committed.  Either way, God comes across as unfair.

Jesus doesn’t resolve this dilemma for them.  He lets it stand out like a hole in the middle of a donut.  He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Rather than taking a side in this debate, Jesus once again turns the entire question on its head.  He says, in effect, “You’re asking the wrong question.”  His response seems cryptic and mysterious because Jesus is answering the question they should have been asking all along.  He continues, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

What does that mean?  It means that Jesus is trying to shift their attention.  He’s saying, if you really want to look for God in the midst of these tragic situations, don’t waste your time looking at the cause of the pain; look instead at the response to the pain.  The most important thing, to Jesus, is that we be doing God’s work.  And what’s the very next thing he does?  The text says, “he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes”.  In other words: Jesus got his hands dirty.  While other people were standing around and arguing about philosophy, Jesus was busy healing those who hurt most.

But the scene doesn’t stop there.  The recently-healed blind man quickly became the center of controversy in Jerusalem.  This time, the debate was all about whether Jesus had the proper credentials to work such a miracle.  Witnesses were called while scholars debated back and forth about the issue.  All the while, the healed person is stuck in the middle.  He doesn’t have any answers.  He was probably still using his brand new eyes to figure out the difference between red and blue.  When they push him, he says, “I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”  He stays true to his experience and simply tells the world what happened to him.

Eventually, it becomes pretty clear to this guy that he is simply a pawn being used in someone else’s religious and political agenda.  What I like best about this guy is his moxy (chutzpah).  Once he realizes what’s going on, he’s not content to play his part and go home.  No, he stands up and gives them a piece of his mind.  In more ways than one, his eyes were open.  Better than anyone else in the room, this “ex-blind man” was seeing things clearly.  So he stands up to this room full of rabbis and tells them off!

Well, these rabbis weren’t used to being spoken to like that!  After hurling a few choice insults about the nature of this man’s parentage, they voted unanimously to kick him out of the synagogue.  He was anathema, excommunicated, dis-fellowshipped, dishonorably discharged, and “don’t let the door hit you in the rump on your way out!”

So, there he was.  His situation seemed hopeless.  For years, he had been excluded from the life of his community because of his disability.  Now, he was kicked out and called a heretic.  What was he supposed to do now?  He probably felt further away from God than ever before.

I love that Jesus decides to show up again at this point in the story.  It says, “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and… found him”.  Then Jesus affirms what the blind man had suspected all along: that he could “see” better than any of those rabbis and scholars.  In spite of their educated debate over this controversy, they had completely missed the point about what Jesus was doing.  But this blind man got it, and Jesus wanted to make sure that he knew it.  Jesus said, “I came into this world… so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”  Once again, Jesus makes sure that those who fall through the cracks of controversy and debate find their honored place in heaven’s economy.  The pawns become the kings.  The victims become the heroes.  Jesus shows us that these suffering and forgotten people are the ones who matter most to God.

For the past month or so, the world has been watching in horror at the multiple disasters that have befallen the country of Japan.  As if earthquake and tsunami weren’t enough, people are now facing the perils of radiation and nuclear meltdown.  The death toll has almost reached 12,000.

In times like this, many people instinctively search for answers in the midst of suffering.  They engage in controversy and philosophical debate because it’s easier than facing the reality of tragedy.  In the days immediately following the earthquake, one Christian blogger posted a statement in the style of the Old Testament prophets.  This person went on for quite a while, offering an itemized list of Japan’s sins.  The post read (speaking for God in the first person), “I will punish you for your sins with my passion, and destroy you completely Japan by earthquake and tsunami.  I will get you, the little island, back into the water, where you came from, and where you will be just like a piece of wrack (sic) sinking into the bottom of the sea.”

It’s easy to stand at a distance and pass judgment on an entire nation.  It’s harder to do as Jesus did: to get our hands dirty in the business of healing.  Our controversial issues and philosophical debates keep us at arm’s length from the suffering of our fellow human beings.  But Jesus goes out to meet these forgotten and suffering ones right where they are.

Thankfully, there are those who are doing just as Jesus did in the midst of this tragedy.  Earlier this week, I received an email from friends of my family in Japan.  It’s a statement made by an American living in Tokyo who is not a Christian.  He works in the Tokyo office of Goldman-Sachs.

Here is what the email said:


The response to the earthquake by many of the westerners here in Japan has been to head straight to the airport and get out of the country.

The Christian missionaries here have done just the opposite; they collect relief supplies and go straight to the disaster area to help out.

It is truly amazing what they have accomplished.

They collect supplies through donations from local citizens and international aid associations.

Then they get trucks, road permits and take the supplies to the 400,000 people who have lost their homes to the earthquake, tsunami and evacuations from the exclusion zone around the nuclear reactors.

Churches in the affected region are often used as distribution points.

Some of these churches have been damaged by the earthquake, and some are even without electricity.

This has been a 24/7 job for many of my missionary friends, but I have not heard a complaint from even one of them.

If someone were to ask me where I think God is in the midst of the Japanese tragedy, I would read them this letter.

When we go looking for God in the midst of suffering, whether it’s our own pain or the tragedy of an entire nation, let’s not get lost in philosophical debate over the causes.  Rather, let’s follow Jesus and get our hands dirty in the work of healing.  That’s where we’ll find God in all of this.