In the Middle East, it’s hot. Which means decomposition sets in quick, and the stench of that rotting process is heavy in the air. So if I had been four days in a tomb, in the heat — essentially the tomb becomes a warmed oven — I think I would have been too ashamed to come out.
And on top of that, there’s the problem of the bindings. The text describes how “his hands and feet were bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.” In the burial customs of the time, strips of cloth were tightly wound around the body — they bound the jaw closed, the feet together, and the hands to the side of the body. Which means that even after the shock of finding himself alive in his tomb, Lazarus is faced with the problem of exiting the tomb. He cannot walk with his feet bound together. He cannot even crawl with his hands tied to his side. The text doesn’t describe what must have been Lazarus’s struggling exit from the tomb; we can only imagine the movements of rolling and shuffling and squirming that must have taken him from the darkness to the light.
I would have stayed in the tomb. It would be less painful to stay dead than to suffer the humiliation of exiting on my belly and the shame of exposing the community to the stench of my death.
And that’s not to mention life after the tomb. In a culture where the dead are considered unclean, untouchable — where does an undead person go? what does he do? who will be near him, eat with him, care for him?
In commanding “Lazarus, come out!” — rather than going in, gathering up Lazarus in his arms, and carrying him out like a fireman making a rescue — in commanding Lazarus to come out, Jesus is asking a lot of his beloved friend. Jesus asks for Lazarus’s struggle and his exposure. Jesus asks for him to risk living with social stigma. Jesus asks for his full participation.
I would have stayed in the tomb.
Unless, perhaps, it becomes too painful to stay in the tomb any longer. I think we all reach this point, in different ways, at various moments of our life.
Perhaps it’s physical — our body is in pain or we suffer an addiction, and we know we can no longer keep living the way we have been, that our lifestyle habits have become a kind of tomb that we must leave in order to have real life.
Perhaps it’s relational — something about the person I become when I’m with this other person has turned my home into a kind of tomb, has bound me up in some way that I no longer feel like I have agency, and I need to crawl to someone who can unbind me.
Perhaps it’s societal, living in a system that bends toward injustice and it even though it will be really difficult to get out, staying in the tomb, staying with the way things are, is just no longer an option.
Jesus did not prevent his friend from dying. Mary and the Jews have a point: If Jesus had been there, Lazarus would not have died. So it seems that Jesus did not come to rescue us from going through difficulties.
And on the other side of death, at the tomb, at this scene: Jesus does does not rush into the tomb to deliver Lazarus out like a fireman rushing into a building burning. Rather, Jesus invites Lazarus to participate in his own salvation. Having done what he could do in raising Lazarus to life, Jesus expects Lazarus to do what he could do by making his way out of the tomb.
It’s when each of us is in a place of death — of pain and suffering and stench and shame — it’s when we feel trapped and bound and unable to act — it’s in death that Jesus offers the possibility of new life. Jesus calls to us. He calls to us: Come out! He invites us: Come out! He offers us hope that there is new life waiting to be had. Come out!
Jesus looks at something dead and see it as full of potential for life. Jesus looks at a corpse in a dark tomb and invites a living body into the light. Jesus looks at his beloved one and shows that death does not have to be the end of the story.
Having done what he can do in inviting us to new life, Jesus expects us to do what we can do to in our own movement and struggle out of our tombs.
This Spring, I handed in my final master’s work, called an Integrative Project, titled “To Play with a Child Named Sorrow: Engaging Sin, Grief, and the Self-in-Relation through Myth and Fairy Tale.” I spent 15 months to write and then whittle down to 70 pages, and then whittled further until I had a 10minute presentation. The abstract is below; click through here to see the presentation.
Western theology’s understanding of sin on pride has focused on pride, which has furthered the oppression of women. In the last 50 years, feminist theology has made great strides in explaining how pride (“masculine sin” developed by male theologians) oppresses and has named “feminine sin” (which I term echoism) as diffuseness, a lack of a sense of self, a defining of one’s self by relationship. However, theology has failed to discuss the ways in which these sins interact with one another and how we interpersonally move from sin to grace. In “The Myth of Echo & Narcissus,” we see the ways in which pride harmfully emphasizes the self and how echoism harmfully emphasizes relationship. In “The Tale of the Handless Maiden,” we come to see the transforming process of grief, which frees us to love. This is not simply a balance between pride and echoism; this process is a transformation of human character that comes through an active process of receiving God in the midst of grief. The burden is not on humanity to find a way to manage or balance our sins. Rather, as the tale shows us, characterological change frees us from the constraints of sin (with emphasis on either self or relation) and frees us to love as selves-in-relation.
A young girl rolls in the cool fountain water some distance from where our feet dabble. She calls over to us: “What does God look like?”
Her mom smiles and whispers to me, “She likes the light and easy questions lately.”
“Mom! What does God look like?” the daughter insists.
“I don’t know, honey.”
“Do you know?” her sincere eyes turn to me.
Well… God looks a little bit like your mom. And God looks a little bit like those ballerinas practicing in the grass. And a little bit like that man playing the saxophone. And a little bit like each person walking by and driving by. God looks a little bit like me. God looks a little bit like you.
I want to say that, but I hesitate, attempting to gauge what the mother’s reaction might be, and before I can resolve to risk it, the mother answers her again: “No one knows. God can’t be seen.”
The mother and I look to the girl, the girl looks down into the rippling water, and the moment is gone — but for the whisper in my head: Everyone who has eyes to see knows just what God looks like.
Before he was King of Israel, David was a shepherd boy. He was the youngest of eight sons; when he wasn’t doing the very unroyal work of tending sheep, I imagine he was picked on by his older brothers. And then, one day, an old man shows up and names him King. He was just an ordinary guy, more or less content with his position in life — then suddenly holds the responsibility of a Kingdom. David rises to the challenge in relationship, in military strength, in religious commitment — he is not only a good leader, he’s a good person, described as “a man after God’s own heart.”
Until one afternoon when David saw her bathing on the roof and her beauty overthrew him. Now, David knew how to keep his head about him. When confronted with the well-shielded, well-armed giant Goliath, he remained cool enough to lethally aim a pebble. We wouldn’t expect this man to commit a sin of fiery passion — yet he does.
Afterwards, in his guilt, he tries to cover his sin by sending Bathsheba’s husband to the front line of battle. All his life, David had worked consistently to bring about the Kingdom of God — conquering Jerusalem, naming it his capital, vowing to build a temple there. He’s the last person we would expect to order the slaying of one of his own men, the last person we would expect to commit a sin of cold calculation — yet he does.
We have, in our cultural collective, a certain types. We say things like “He’s the type of person who would give you the shirt off his back” or “She’s the type of person who would sell her own mother to make a buck.” We have similar types of people for the kind of person who commits adultery, or the kind of person who commits murder. David, we might say, doesn’t fit the type — yet he sins.
Which is why I sometimes hear this description of David: “He was one of Israel’s greatest Kings, except for that Bathsheba business.” But I take some comfort in “that Bathsheba business,” find solace in the fact that David fell into such terrible and — let’s just say it — such obvious sin.
I take comfort because David seems, on the surface, to be the exemplary person who has his life together. Scripture tells us that he’s handsome. He’s an intelligent strategist. A strong warrior. He’s King of the Chosen People of God. He has absolutely everything by which we would mark success — the title, the house, the body, the wealth, the respect. The strong prayer life, commitment to God. And yet his sins here reveal that he doesn’t have it all together — they show that he’s as human as I am.
David is a person committed to God. David exploits his power in order to fulfill desire; David exploits his power in order to conspire a murder. In all of this, David shares our humanity.
The King and I seem to have little in common. We’re certainly separated by three thousand years of time and half a globe of distance. We’re separated by culture, social status, power, authority, privilege, and gender. And yet, to fail to read David’s humanity as intimately linked to mine denies the ways in which, on my best days, I am just like him — beautifully and brokenly human. Caught up in sins of passion, conspiring in sins of calculation. Exploiting the power and privilege I do hold.
For although I am not royalty, but I do have power and agency in my own small domains, as we all do in our jobs, our friendships, and our family systems. I have the power to treat others with dignity and respect. Power to exploit or manipulate others for my own ends. Power to ignore others as though they don’t carry the image of God.
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It’s an oft-spoken saying that preachers should have a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other, and it was in reading the news these last few weeks that I began to see the gift offered us in David’s psalm. For what makes David a great leader isn’t the military strategy or the political savvy, it’s this moment, this psalm. What makes David a great person is the ability to see his actions as wrong, to admit to that wrongdoing, that sin, and to move toward reconciliation. What makes David a great leader is that he confesses his sin as publicly as the sin was made, that he sees his personal actions as intricately tied to the national systems.
I mentioned that I only began to recognize this modeling as a gift when I put my bible in one hand and my newspaper in the other. As I read about the act of terrorism at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston; as I read about the following acts of terrorism in burning black churches throughout the US South; as I read the countless tweets, facebook updates, blog posts, and journal pieces of African American people begging our nation to collectively realize we have a race problem — David’s psalm became such a gift.
In the same way David doesn’t seem to fit the type, we don’t seem to fit the type either for this sin of racism. Most people don’t identify as racist — even White Pride groups say they aren’t racist, they just love their heritage. And if even they don’t admit racism — what are the chances that the average American will? What are the chances that a people concerned with matters of social justice will recognize their own racist tendencies?
And when I look at the people gathered here — well, I doubt any of you are donning white sheets and setting fire to the lawns and churches of your black neighbors. There are no confederate flags among us, on our cars or our clothing. We just don’t fit the type of person who is racist.
So David’s story gives me pause. David doesn’t fit the type of person who would be an adulterer or a murderer. Before Nathan came to him, I don’t believe David thought of himself as an adulterer and murderer. But when confronted, he responds: “Have mercy on me, O God…blot out on my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, my sin is ever before me.”
This confession is part of our holy scripture; it was public in the kingdom in which David reigned. Because he held public office, as it were, his sins were publicly known — people talk. And in his psalm, he models for us what repentance looks like by showing the way in which true confession is AS public as the sin. For him, the people likely all knew or had heard whisperings; his confession had to be public.
For us it is likely smaller. I recently read a piece about race in Seattle. The reporter, in researching, wrote that she had approached a young African American man and told him, “I’d love to interview you; you’re so eloquent,” and then immediately hears herself sound, in her words, “like one of those people who said candidate Obama was so well-behaved, well-groomed, polite — for a black man.”
She could have just gone on with the interview. She could have caught herself in her head, confessed to God (privately), and said nothing to the man. He would have answered her interview questions, probably eloquently; she would have gotten her quotes for the story; no real harm done. Just her lingering feeling of self-consciousness after using a word with a history and his lingering feeling of needing to perform for white people to notice to him.
Instead, the reporter quickly confesses to the man: “I can’t believe I just called you eloquent.” He gives her a knowing look, and then begins to laugh, a bubbling outpour of grace, and she is freed to join in his laughter — the reconciliation complete in laughter’s grace. And they carry on with an interview that, I imagine, was somehow more comfortable and authentic than it would have been had she refused to confess her sin as publicly as it had been made.
So, a confession of my own: I have, this week even, chosen a different route to walk because I saw a black man ahead of me; I am a racist.
Another confession: I am a white person talking about race, and I am very uncomfortable. This discomfort and unwillingness to talk about race is part of what makes me racist. And part of what makes me privileged; white people get to choose whether or not we discuss race.
Another confession: I’m only able to speak in this room, at this time, because education systems have privileged me — at least in part — because of my race.
I confess these sins; the reporter confesses her sin; David confesses his sin because the recognition of sin as sin and the appropriate confession of it are not only the first steps toward reconciliation, they are the direct cause of reconciliation.
I’m encouraged to confess my sins and to name my iniquities, because David does the same for sins that are, if we were to use a measuring stick (which we aren’t supposed to do, but if we were to), David’s sins would be “worse.” Adultery. Murder. And yet David is restored to God; it seems that nothing is beyond God’s capacity and willingness to forgive, even when justice cannot be served. David is restored to the community and reconciled to God even though Bathsheba’s marriage and Uriah’s life cannot be restored. God’s forgiveness of David is so complete that God blesses the union of David and Bathsheba in the form of their son Solomon — the wisest of all Israel’s kings. In a sense, we could say that wisdom is the result of confession.
That David is reconciled even though justice cannot be done — this lends me tremendous hope for the possibility of racial reconciliation. It will not be easy. It will require recognizing personal acts as sinful. It will require looking at national systems as sinful. It will require true confession and repentance. It will require a breaking open and cutting away of the callouses around our hearts, will require, as David says, brokenheartedness. David says “A broken heart, O God, you will not despise.” Today we might say, “A soft heart, O God, you will not despise.” It was modeled for us in Christ, who emptied himself, who refused to exploit his power so that he could be with us in our humanity and our suffering.
When it comes to racism in America, justice cannot be served this side of the coming of God’s Kingdom. We cannot undo slavery. We cannot reclaim the four million or more lives that were lost in crossing the Atlantic in cargo holds. We cannot bring back Trayvon Martin, or Michael Brown, or Eric Garner. We cannot bring back the nine victims of Mother Emanuel Church– Sharonda, Clementa, Cynthia, Tywanza, Myra, Ethel, Daniel, Depayne, Susie.
Have mercy on us, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out our transgressions.
Wash us thoroughly from our iniquities,
and cleanse us from our sin.
For we are learning to know our transgressions,
and our sin is ever before us.
Indeed, we were born guilty,
sinners when our mothers conceived us.
Let us hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that have been crushed rejoice.
Create in us clean hearts, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within us.
Sustain in us a willing spirit.
Then we will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver us from bloodshed, O God,
O God of our salvation,
and our tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
You have no delight in sacrifice;
if we were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
This sermon was written for St Paul’s Episcopal Church in Seattle, Washington. The lectionary texts included Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4:26-34.
Perhaps you’ve seen photos of people standing beneath mustard shrubs that are twenty, sometimes thirty, feet high. The shrubs are larger than some trees, looming over the people standing beneath, who smile in its shade. Sometimes the people beneath hold a single mustard seed between two fingers as they stand in the shade, grin at the camera, their smile saying: This tree started with a tiny seed like this one! The contrast is remarkable — the seed so small, and the plant it produces so exceptionally large! Offering rest and respite for the birds is nothing — these trees offer shelter to entire families of picnicking people.
The kingdom of God can perhaps be said to be like that type of growth. Perhaps the kingdom of God is like the movement from something small to something towering, a movement that is ever-upward into strength.
The photographed mustard trees, the way their power and might is glorified — we can liken the way we see them to the way the prophets of Israel viewed the cedars. Cedars are massive trees; they can easily grow up to 120 feet tall, some as high as 180 feet. They are symbols of nobility, power, and strength.
The prophet Ezekiel, whose words we heard this morning, whose words Jesus likely memorized as a boy, Ezekiel spoke of cedars as a metaphor for the kingdom of God; the people of Israel are birds who rest among its branches. From Ezekiel we heard:
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord.
The kingdom, in this text, is a cedar that God’s own self has planted, and under it the birds of the air will make their nests, the people of Israel will live comfortably.
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A few weeks ago, I went to the West Seattle nursery to pick out bushes for my front yard. While pawing and searching through the various adolescent fruit shrubs available for purchase, I came upon, for sale, a young blackberry bush.
I was bewildered. Blackberries are an invasive species in Seattle — a delectable invasive species, don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining, I love a good blackberry pie or blackberry crumble or blackberries in my morning yogurt, or blackberry jam…. I mean, I love them, but they’re essentially a very delicious weed.
They’re everywhere in this city. Right now, they’re in bloom — you’ve seen them, those thorny branches with the little white flowers. You see them in parks and by the highway and around parking lots and pretty much anywhere that has some spare soil. You probably passed some this morning on your way here, they’re that pervasive.
To use my own home as an example, if I’m looking to grab a fresh snack, I can walk ten feet west or twenty feet east and have a heaping bowl of blackberries. Not even like a personal size soup bowl, but like a mixing bowl, the biggest one I have. They’re abundant.
And those are just the ones I can reach without personal harm to my skin — there are even more on the inner parts of the shrub, places that only birds of the air can reach.
And yet there I was, in the confines of a nursery, I round the corner and here’s a potted, adolescent blackberry bush. Yours to own for $19.99 + tax. Who in their right mind would pay for a blackberry bush when they’re so abundant? And what’s more — who would plant something that’s essentially a delicious weed that will take over every corner of your yard?
+ + +
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what metaphor can we use for it? The kingdom of God is like a blackberry seed that becomes the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
+ + +
We don’t hear this as a majestic image, not compared to the 30-foot mustard plant. And yet… I’ve also seen photos of blackberry bushes that loom over people; like their mustard counterparts, these blackberry trees are exceptional. But hear that I mean that literally — the giant mustard plants and blackberry plants are exceptional; they are the exception. They are the tenacious seeds met with the perfect conditions of the proper amount of sun, the proper amount of shade, the proper amount of water, good growing temperatures and seasonal conditions, the appropriate type of soil. A lack of natural disasters. The vast, vast majority of mustard plants grow about 3 to 6 feet high.
Jesus used the same image as Ezekiel of nesting birds, the image of birds nesting in the shade of a plant that represents God’s kingdom. I suspect he knew what he was doing. I doubt it was a slip of the tongue that made him say “mustard seed” instead of “cedar sprig.”
So I don’t think he was going for an image of greatness. I don’t know that Jesus understands the kingdom of God to be about imposing displays of power or appearing impressive. I don’t know that he’s interested in the most powerful systems — the skyscrapers of big banking, the multi-billion dollar cosmetics industries, the most impressive job titles, the biggest weapons, the best stuff.
I’m not at all sure that Jesus is interested in a kingdom like a cedar. I’m not sure he’s interested in securing a nest for himself in a high-up bough. I’m not sure Jesus is interested in simply appearing impressive.
No, Jesus doesn’t use the image of the cedar tree. He uses the image of a mustard seed the unexceptional mustard seed. If Jesus were a Seattleite, I imagine he might use the image of the unexceptional blackberry seed. A common seed that will grow into a common plant, the type that grows waist-high and itself produces more seeds that produce other plants that grow waist-high and produce seeds that eventually take over a garden, and some time later they take over the city, and surrounding fields, and a generation after that, they’ve filled every bit of available soil from the Olympics to the Cascades. Without our having to do anything, these plants grow and spread and can’t be stopped.
The greatness of a cedar is in its height; yet a cedar can easily be cut down. The greatness of blackberry bushes is in their explosive, horizontal growth. As anyone who has ever tried to keep blackberries from their yard can tell you, they aren’t easily defeated. Blackberry bushes only appear less powerful than a cedar; precisely because they are low to the ground and their power is decentralized, they’re just about unbeatable.
+ + +
The Kingdom of God is among you. Will you fight back the invasive vines, cutting yourself on thorns in a losing battle? Or will you taste the delectable berries, taste the goodness being offered to you freely, feast on the fruit that came about by no work of your own doing — and build your nest in its shade?
In the opening scenes of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), we see Max (Tom Hardy) captured by War Boys of the Citadel. A prisoner of this empire, his body is under their control. The empire enlists him into service, finding use in him as an unwilling blood donor. An IV runs directly from his vein into the arm of Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of the many ailing War Boys. When the call comes for the boys to fight, Nux orders that his “blood bag,” Max, be chained to him so that he can drive into the battle.
And so it is that we find Max, our title hero, chained to the front of a speeding car as though he were a wooden figurehead on the prow of a Roman ship.
For most military ornamentation, the purpose is to demonstrate the wealth and power of the empire. An empire that has resources to put into unnecessary embellishment and decoration is certainly an empire with abundance, with surplus — an empire that rules enough land and manpower to produce such extravagance.
But here, in a land with few natural resources (Immortan Joe controls the people through controlling the water supply), there is no gold to be mined nor trees to be cut down for a figurehead. But what they do have is this prisoner; the Citadel shows its power through controlling Max’s body. It is impractical to do so; he’d be a much safer resource tucked behind the driver’s seat. But he’s up front, sand in his eyes, his weight a nuisance to the movement of the vehicle, so that this empire can show their might.
The empire controls the level of danger into which his body is placed. The empire controls his level of discomfort. The empire controls the pace at which his life-blood is drained from him.
In this sense, Max the Figurehead may be one of the best images our contemporary culture has of Jesus the Crucified One.
Jesus, like Max, was a prisoner of the empire. His body was used to demonstrate the empire’s control. The Roman empire used crosses the way naval ships and Nux use figureheads, as a symbol to say: We are strong enough to not only kill, but to control. We are strong enough to kill slowly, strong enough to control the blood’s slow draining.
As a culture, we have lost our disgust in response to the cross. The cross, today, is an decoration on the wall of our home, an ornamental tattoo on our shoulder, a bejeweled trinket that hangs on our necklace. We talk about finding comfort in the cross. We don’t feel any of the guttural responses the cross evoked in first century peoples living in fear of the empire. We don’t feel, in our guts, the repulsion, the deprivation, the dehumanizing cruelty that must occur in order to hang a body on a plank in the desert.
Max, the Mad One, the Holy One is here to show us: there is no comfort in the cross. This image of a man cruelly and unnecessarily hanging from the front of a speeding car, this man whose lifeblood is dripping from him, helps shape our understanding of what we are no longer able to see in the cross. This image in culture helps inform the image in religion. This image helps us to re-find–in our guts, in our disgust–the scandal of the crucifixion.
For just imagine, for a moment, that that man being used as a hood ornament is the Child of God, the Word made flesh, the hope and salvation of the world, the promised Holy One.
I was recently invited by OneLife Community Church to preach in their series on women in the bible, and chose to preach on the first woman, Eve. The sermon was a product of years of struggling and engagement with the story of “The Fall,” and I feel like this sermon gave me an opportunity to articulate the story in a way that generates new life for me — and I hope it does for you, too.
Sermon on Matthew 22:33, “Jesus Walks on Water,” originally delivered at St Paul’s Episcopal in Seattle, WA, at the 5pm Service. We practice a shared homily in which the homilist gives a few minutes of her or his own reflections before inviting the responses of the gathered community. May this homily encourage you to interact with this story afresh. If you feel so led, please share whatever thoughts of responses you have to the text or to my words in the comments.