By Our Love

Child Walking Through Tall Grass

(Note: This post is from the text for a sermon delivered at First Baptist Church in Goldsboro, NC.)

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him.
If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.
Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

— John 13:31-35, New Revised Standard Version

The disciple John lived to be a very old man. By the end of his life, John’s followers said that he only ever had one sermon. “Little children,” he would say, “love one another.” We still don’t know whether they were admiring him or complaining.

God doesn’t love us because we achieve great things. God loves us because God is love.

We, on the other hand, seem more interested in being right.

And now I need to talk about the communion table.

It’s a Baptist distinctive. If you look up on the platform, there is no altar. Baptist churches have no altar. Jesus was the final sacrifice, and Baptists see no purpose or reason in continuing to represent or recreate it with the bread and wine on the altar. That’s something that distinguishes us from our Roman Catholic and Episcopalian sisters and brothers. Like baptism — for them, it’s a sacrament representing God’s claim upon us; for us, it is a symbol of our response to God. Two different points of view, and God is not particularly worried about it — such things are for us, not for God.

So we have a communion table. It’s down here, on the same level with everybody, as it should be. Baptists believe that nobody is closer to God, has more access to God, than anyone else. All believers are priests. I am no closer to God than any of you. None of you is closer to God than I. We can draw a lot of conclusions from that idea, but one is that you do not have to accept anything I say at face value. I might be wrong. You might know better. And it’s your task to reflect on what I say to see if there is anything good in it, anything of the Spirit of God. Or not. And to decide whether we can love one another.

Here’s why I wanted to talk about the communion table.

If I’m going to talk about loving people, and what that looks like out there in the real world, you might start to suspect that I’m trying to convert you to my way of thinking on politics and society. That’s not my plan. I’m not even running for President, even though it seems like everybody else is.

We represent a wide range of political and social views. The older I get, the more I read the gospels and the prophets, the more liberal I get. 

For you to see where I am on nearly any issue, you’d probably need to look to your left. Some of you would need to turn completely around.

And I don’t want you to sit there and wonder whether I am dancing around some position that would offend you. I’m pretty sure that I’ll offend somebody today.

For instance, I want to see better gun control. I’m sick of seeing children die, anyone die, because some hate-filled homegrown extremist had a semiautomatic weapon.

I want to see global warming stopped. I want to save the whales and the polar bears, though I don’t want to hug a polar bear. They all look too hungry these days.

I want LGBTQ people to have equal rights, and I want them to have a place at this table.

I want everyone to have health care. I want it to be viewed as a basic human right, something decent societies do for everyone — young, old, rich, poor, citizen, immigrant, deserving, undeserving, everybody. And I want to help pay for it. And I want to help find ways to make it work.

So you see, I’m way over there in left field. There are a few of you out there, too, but not very many. Really, to get past me these days, you’ve pretty much got to be a vegan wearing home made tie-dye clothes. Vegans scare me a little. And I’ve been in enough homes to know that “home-made” might be a recommendation and it might be a warning.

So you don’t have to wonder any more about my politics, if you ever did. But none of that is my agenda.

I could make good arguments. Duke University graduate. Seminary graduate, with Hebrew and Greek. I ought to be able to argue my positions well, and I can. And how many people would be convinced?


We don’t change our minds because of an argument. That’s so rare, it would be almost like giving sight to the blind. Raising Lazarus.

We change our minds because we begin to care about someone. Not an idea, but a person.

My purpose is to invite us to think about the words of Jesus of Nazareth. To think about what it means to love one another.

And yes, I know that getting people to think is not always welcome. Getting us religious folk to think is pretty much the definition of what got Jesus killed. He made religious folk think, people like us, and we killed him for it. We can’t blame the Jews or the Romans — pretty much everyone in the story was either a Roman or a Jew, including Jesus. No, the Rolling Stones had it right in ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ — it was you and me.

So I appreciate the thin ice under this pulpit.

And I’ve already given you a second problem. Since many of you don’t agree with my positions, you have to decide what is more important — being right, or loving one another? Being right is by far more fun, but there’s that Jesus thing.

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love.

And here, in this farewell passage, Jesus re-words the commandment. Did you notice?

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus tells everyone who hears him, disciple or not — Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.

But now we get this one — love one another, not as you love yourself, but as I have loved you. So that’s Jesus ratcheting up the pressure.

And neither version is a request, or a suggestion, or guideline. It isn’t optional.

Love the people you know. Love the people on the next pew. Love the stranger out there in the street. Love the people on the other side of the planet.

Really though, watching most Christians, it looks like our Bibles say something different, something like, “they will know you are my disciples because you are right.”

Based on the way all of us act, myself included, I think it must be in there somewhere. Of course, we believe plenty of things that aren’t in there.

There’s a wonderful film called Second Hand Lions. Robert Duvall and Michael Caine. The character played by Robert Duvall says, “Just because something isn’t true, that’s no reason you can’t believe it.”

Well, just because something isn’t in the Bible is no reason we can’t believe it. We Christians prove it every day.

We love our rules more that we love our neighbors. And we love being right more than anything in the world.

Rules can be good, but they’re not very dangerous, because none of us is very good at following them. Telling the truth. Not envying our neighbors. Not cheating on our spouses. Not to mention all the smoking, drinking, cussing.

Yeah. We’re not good at following our own rules. And we got past that whole thing about pork being an abomination, so no worries there.

But being right? Oh, we’ve got that down pat.

Loving someone requires that we stop thinking of how different we are and start thinking of how much we have in common. This kind of love isn’t a feeling. It isn’t sexy. It isn’t driven by hormones or lust or loneliness. This kind of love, any real love, is a choice. True love keeps people committed to one another long after the fire has burned down to embers.

James puts it this way. “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it?”  (James 2:15-16)

I have told you before that I am an MAWG, Middle Aged White Guy. I ran into that phrase in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. He’s the writer who came up with the term cyberspace. Brilliant, especially if you like science fiction.

As a Middle Aged White Guy, I’ve come to realize that there are a lot of things I don’t know. And paying attention to what we don’t know can be educational. It can be humanizing and liberating. If we begin to understand other people, if we begin to empathize with people who are not like us, we can begin to love them.

Longfellow wrote, “Every heart has its secret sorrows which the world knows not, and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad.”

Other people can be puzzles.

As a Middle Aged White Guy, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. I don’t know what it’s like to have the man beside me paid more for doing less. I don’t know what it feels like for a bunch of middle aged white guys make badly written laws about what I can and cannot do with my own body. I don’t know what it’s like to have men question whether God would call a woman to ministry. As if Mary Magdalene asked permission before she went to the tomb.

I’m not black. I don’t know what it’s like to be a black man in America. For that matter, I don’t know what it’s like to walk down the street with skin the color of Jesus in America — to look like such an average middle eastern man than nobody even bothered to write down a description of his appearance. Four gospels, all those letters, and nobody mentions the color of his hair, his skin, his eyes. I can tell you that if Jesus was blonde and blue-eyed, someone would have mentioned it.

It’s hard to cross the race lines, even today, and especially on Sunday morning, still the most segregated time of the week. There are so many black people who are angry at us Middle Aged White Guys. And there is so much fear and resentment in the white communities. 

We can find hope in words from that later letter from John’s community — “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 John 4:18)

I’m not gay, so I don’t know what that’s like. I don’t know how it feels to have grown up afraid that someone would find out, that I might lose my job, my home, my business. Think about hearing that old “hate the sin love the sinner thing” — when being gay it isn’t something they do, it’s who they are. Did you know that something like 30 – 50% of the homeless youth on the streets are out there because they are gay — and their families threw them out. Lots of them were thrown out of Christian homes.

I’ve never been homeless. I don’t know what that’s like. The homeless people I’ve met are not the people I thought they would be. And their journey into homelessness may have begun with something as simple as a repair bill they couldn’t afford for a car they needed to get to a job they lost.

One of my favorite words is liminal. It means those boundary places where we slip from one thing to another — beaches, twilight, dying. There are thin margins between those of us with ordinary means and those without. People without a place to live, without regular income. People trying to find a bathroom to bathe in before walking to a job interview for work they won’t get.

We talk about freedom in this country. But freedom is an economic principle. We aren’t truly free unless we have the means to live. We aren’t free without the means to support ourselves, our families, the ones we love.

I look at the marginalized people we are supposed to love, and I think of Jesus’ warning. Not the “Well done, good and faithful servant,” but the “Depart from me, for I never knew you.”

Jesus said to love our neighbors and love our fellow Christians. That covers everybody.

So what does that look like? To love one another, I mean. Sometimes it looks like a simple kindness. Holding a door. Helping someone down the sidewalk. Sometimes it looks like social justice. Medical care.

Well, I’ve got some good news. Jesus never said we had to like one another. Love, yes. Like, optional. That’s really good news for me. I’m still with Linus — I love humanity: it’s people I can’t stand.

Anyone with a family understands the difference between liking someone and loving them. It’s nice when you like the people you love. But that isn’t always the way it works.

And as I said, love is not, at least not always, a feeling. Love is a choice. Love is what we do. If you come to me hungry, I feed you. I don’t have to like you or enjoy your company, but I have to feed you. If you find me lying on the sidewalk needing medical care, you help me. You don’t have to like me. You do have to call an ambulance and try to stop the bleeding.

We like to keep things in their boxes. When we sit in church and talk about love it is easy. If our faith and real life never overlap, our faith isn’t worth having.

We can’t keep Jesus in a box.

We say that trying to apply that love thing in real life is complicated. Maybe so. I’ve noticed that when we really don’t want to do something, or admit something, or own up to something, we say it’s complicated.

Life is complicated. People are complicated. Love is as complicated or as simple as we make it.

And there are implications. We can’t separate our Christianity from our participation in society. In each case, with every issue, we know what love looks like and what it doesn’t.

Immigration. We can have a difference of opinion on immigration policy and still be Christians and still be friends. But we can’t let those children at the border come to harm, do nothing, say nothing, and still call ourselves Christians.

Gun rights. Americans love guns. I grew up with them. For several reasons, I have a concealed carry permit. Does that surprise you? I’ve taught my daughter how to handle a gun safely, how to shoot, how to shoot well, in fact. She loves her .22 Browning target pistol. But we can’t love our guns more than we love people, and too many people are dying. That is not what love looks like.

LGBT issues. If a church doesn’t want to support LGBT people, that’s their privilege. That is freedom of religion. When a church refuses to condone or conduct gay marriage, that is also freedom of religion. But when they try to interfere with LGBT people having lives, having jobs, homes, families, that’s discrimination. When they try to use laws to enforce their beliefs on everyone, including other churches, that’s the opposite of religious freedom; it is the entire reason we Baptists here in North Carolina and Virginia worked so hard in the late 1700s for the Bill of Rights to be added to our Constitution, to keep the government out of our churches.

Health care. Many of us believe that people who get free medical care or some other free benefit should work, have jobs, test drug free. That might be great. I do know that the good samaritan didn’t put any pre-requisites on helping the man he found in the ditch. And healthy people are more likely to make good decisions and contribute to society.

There’s an opioid epidemic out there. Crazy synthetics mixed with street weed and heroin. People are dying, children are dying, and plenty of Christians are out there saying terrible things. Those drug addicts don’t deserve our help, they say. They got what was coming to them. No reason to spend our dollars trying to save them.

Imagine standing beside Jesus, or a parent who just lost her child, and saying all of that out loud. It’s a good test for all of our social or political views.

Decent, law-abiding people, people who have worked hard and saved and made the right choices all their lives, are bankrupting themselves to pay for their medicines. That isn’t what love looks like. Drug companies draining the poor to make a handful of very wealthy people much wealthier isn’t love. 

There’s nothing wrong with having wealth. There’s plenty wrong with loving profits more than people. It was never money that was the root of evil, it’s the love of it.

Child Walking Through Tall Grass

Feed the hungry. Tend the sick. Help those who are imprisoned, marginalized, oppressed. Jesus called it tending his sheep. That’s what love looks like in Jesus’ book.

However complicated that is, or however easy, loving people is something we have to do out there. Where people are.

We don’t even have to like them, and they don’t even have to like us, although we might be surprised. Love God, Jesus said. Love the people. And being right will take care of itself.

And now I would like to leave you with better words than mine.

1 Corinthians 13

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

— from the New International Version (NIV)

The Enemy

Art by Banksy. Stolen from his/her/their website.

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany  |  Luke 6:27-38

Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. So who thought this was a good idea?

Do to others as you would have them do to you. Most of us are good with this one. We can wrap our minds around it, and it isn’t even specific to Christianity — there are other flavors of the golden rule floating around out there. We like the idea, until we realize that “others” includes everybody, including our enemies.

Loving our enemies? It makes no sense. It’s impractical and unproductive behavior. Unpatriotic, one might say. From people in the next booth at the Waffle House to military strategists, everyone will tell you that helping your enemies is not a sound principle.

What we all really want is to discourage, even punish, negative behavior — anything negative toward us, that is. Whether on a personal or a cultural or a national level, we want to intimidate our enemies. Nuke the bastards. Turn their houses into radioactive ash heaps, and you won’t have to put up with them anymore.

Art by Banksy. Stolen from his/her/their website.
Art by Banksy. Stolen from his/her/their website.

And if we are a righteous, God-fearing people — we may substitute the name of our country, people group, or militant bridge club here — God is on our side, right? It isn’t about resentment or petty retribution. It’s now the judgment of a wrathful God upon our enemies. Right?

I confess that I have a list. There are people whom I’d like to see fall through an open manhole cover into a disease ridden sewer to land on the snout of the largest, most evil, ravenous, albino (because that’s weird and more frightening), man-eating, ebola-infected, urban crocodile ever imagined, with only prolonged and ragged screams ever emerging from that darkened pit.

Ok, maybe I’ve spent a little too much time thinking about it, but I’m not the only one.

The gospel message is that we ought not feed the darkness. To a degree, as with the Do Unto Others teaching, we can go along with it, but for most of us the notion that there is something worthwhile in every person loses steam in the face of certain individuals. Hitler is the classic example, but I’m sure we could all name less famous folk, some a great deal closer to us.

James Thurber wrote a story called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It’s a hilarious tale of an ordinary man who fantasizes about being extraordinary. A famous pilot. A brilliant surgeon. We laugh, until Mitty’s secret fantasies begin to hit home for us, and then we smile to cover our discomfort.

Most of us have pictured ourselves as heroes, destroying the bad guys. If we’re more passive, we imagine getting the phone call informing us that our enemy is humiliated, or ruined, or dead. And plenty of quiet grandmothers have imagined using a cast iron frying pan in non-culinary and extremely satisfying ways.

Most of us spend too much time thinking about the past. We drag up old resentments, slights, losses, injuries, and we make them into the central plot of the mental play of our lives. The movie plays in our heads relentlessly, and we keep watching, never imagining that we could change the channel. 

Let’s be honest. We don’t want to love our enemies, even if we knew how. That’s the whole point of having them in the first place.

Paul, writing to early Christians in Rome, tried to put some spin on it — by doing good to our enemies, he wrote, we pour coals of fire on their heads. That sounds encouraging, and I can think of at least a dozen people who’d look great with their heads on fire. Unfortunately, Paul didn’t explain the mechanism by which it works, and we remain unconvinced.

Test yourself. Think of the worst person you know, the bottom (or top as it may be) of your list, and then imagine that you were given carte blanche. You could do anything you liked, and no one would ever know — no reprisal, punishment, or rocks to be thrown your way. What would you do?

Me, too. I wouldn’t even have to ponder it very long. It’s why so many of us secretly enjoy the Beatles’ Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.

So what do we do with this Love Your Enemies business? Most of the world’s inhabitants ignore it as dubious advice from a man who ended up crucified by his enemies. See where it got him?

Moby Dick, illustration from 1892 edition
Moby Dick, illustration from 1892 edition

On the other hand, if we do have the inkling (let alone actual faith, but who has that?) that there is a God, or if we consider that we are all connected, or if we can accept that there is something greater than our own personal interests, then we’ve got to consider some possibilities.

For one thing, maybe doing good to our enemies introduces, activates, or confirms some value, worth, and possibly life changing power in their lives. Damn it. Maybe they are our enemies for reasons we do not see — in the movies playing in their heads, we are the ones who acted wrongly or who deserve their disdain. Or maybe they are truly loathsome people — some people are — but the nature of our response can undermine their world view. Maybe.

Another possibility is that doing good to our enemies adds intrinsic value to the universe. There may be other universes, other planes of existence, but here we are in this one. Making our universe a better place is our responsibility. Nobody is going to do that for us.

The best reason may be personal — doing good to our enemies has some intrinsic value for us. Yes, my imagination fails as well, but there it is. Helping another person, particularly when there is little question of reciprocity, has a greater effect on us than on them. It changes our estimation of their value as a person. It shifts the plot of the movie in our heads.

You don’t even have to be a Christian for these ideas to work. Compassion and forgiveness are embraced in many traditions, religious and non-religious ones. Compassion makes us better humans. Empathy and understanding make for more peaceful communities. And it is difficult to put out a fire by adding fuel.

The whole point is to stop thinking of ourselves as separate from everyone else. That’s hard to do, particularly in America, where our entire national mythos is built around the rugged individual.

This Gospel notion, though, isn’t for me, or you, or for that jerk over there. It’s for all of us. All inclusive. This Kingdom of God idea includes everybody, or at least invites everybody. No exceptions, no matter how much we’d like to submit a list of rejects. In Buddhism, the notion of connectedness hasn’t been diluted by western individualism, but Christianity has to reach for it.

We might even find that people we think are our enemies really aren’t. They may not even give us much thought. Of course, that isn’t always the case. There are dangerous people out there. Hate groups. Neo-nazis. Terrorists. Thinking that our response to our enemies is a purely personal act, as opposed to a broader cultural or national one, is also dangerous. It limits our possibilities, and it limits our understanding of our responsibilities. How we as individuals choose to act is important, but we are not relieved of responsibility as members of a community, a culture, a religion, a nation, a civilization.

What does it look like, this doing good to our enemies? A lot of it is obvious. Some of it isn’t.

If I see a person in need and do nothing, am I their enemy? If I see someone being harmed, oppressed, held down, injured by individuals or by society or by some groups in that society, and I do nothing, am I their enemy? Maybe I am.

And religion, particularly Christianity, doesn’t have a good track record on this one. Plenty of Christians used faith based arguments — wrongly, of course — to justify slavery. Today, plenty of Christians use faith based arguments against LGBTQ people — again, wrongly, although this would be an entire topic of its own. How is hatred and exclusion and intolerance furthering the kingdom of God? Even if Christians could manage to justify regarding some people as enemies of their faith, the gospel commands a response of love and of doing good.

Instead, Christianity has often become a bastion of exclusion, intolerance, and hatred disguised as religious observance. That’s not what the gospel preaches, people. I don’t know what label to put on the exclusionary and intolerant form of religion often practiced today, but it isn’t Christianity. It is something else, dressed up in the forms and language and symbolism of the Church.

To put it another way, Christianity has become its own worst enemy. Being excluded by Christians can be harmful, in real and in dangerous ways. Being within the Christian world can also be toxic — we may find that we are our own enemy. And it may be that loving our enemies begins uncomfortably close to home, maybe even inside our own heads.

When we love our enemies, we are reaching. And we’re remembering that we are not able to place ourselves in a different world than they occupy. We’re in this thing — love it or hate it — together, and we need to embrace it. And one another.

Bernard of Clairvaux, in his work On Loving God, concluded that the best and strongest reason to love God is God — love is its own reward. In Luke’s gospel we hear that “the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

Perhaps that is the reason to love our neighbors, our enemies, ourselves. The love we give is the love we get.

Art by Banksy. Stolen from his/her/their website.
Art by Banksy. Stolen from his/her/their website.

The Real Thing

The Harvest, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888. Collection of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany |  Luke 6:17-26

Reading Luke’s beatitudes, we want to make them about spiritual things. Is that so wrong, to read a Sermon on the Mount passage, and to want it to be about spiritual things? Maybe. It’s wrong, if we pretend Jesus was not addressing practical things, because that lets us ignore what he said.

Blessed are you who are poor, we find in Luke’s Gospel. We prefer the other wording — blessed are the poor in spirit — but that is Matthew’s version, not Luke’s.

Sermon on the Mount. Print by Sadao Watanabe, 1968.
Sermon on the Mount. Print by Sadao Watanabe, 1968.

It’s our version, too, if we’re honest. Over the centuries, the church tends to quote Matthew for this material, not Luke, just as we tend to use the Lord’s Prayer as found in Matthew, not the shorter, more terse, prayer from Luke. In Matthew, all of this sounds better, and all of this sounds less practical, more other-worldly, more to do with heaven than with earth.

Blessed are you who are hungry, we read in Luke, but we want it to be a spiritual thing — by which we mean not a physical, human thing. Not real hunger. Not like a child who hasn’t eaten, not like those people fleeing the beaches of Africa in leaking boats, not like homeless people sleeping under garbage bags on the sidewalks of the richest nation on earth. 

Blessed are those who weep, this gospel says, and we want the tears to be somewhere inside, unseen. Something spiritual that we can gloss over with words. Nothing that requires a tissue or a handkerchief, nothing that would let our tears wet our fingers. Nothing that would cause us to ask what was the matter and have to help make it right.

If you are truly poor, maybe reading this on a screen in a distant place, then I want to say thank you. Past that word of thanks, I am not sure I have anything else for you in my words. If there are blessings in hunger and in poverty and in being hated, you already know them. I am really addressing myself and people like me — we who have so much more than most of the world. Homes. Steady income. Plenty of food on hand. Clean clothes, air conditioning. Medical care.

In Matthew, when Jesus teaches the people to pray, he includes the phrase “on earth as it is in heaven.” Luke doesn’t.

Van Gogh's The Sower at Sunset. Kröller-Müller Museum. June, 1888.
Van Gogh’s The Sower at Sunset. Kröller-Müller Museum. June, 1888.

Maybe Matthew is thinking more of the spiritual life, or maybe the intent is to point out the gap between the here and now and the then and there. Maybe both gospels intend to point to the discrepancy between what we say and how we live, between the spiritual and the physical life, the widening chasm between heaven and earth. Maybe the idea is to close the gap that we ourselves have created. Luke knows that the reality of life is nothing like we imagine heaven to be. Not for the hungry, or the weeping, or the poor, the hated, the excluded.

We also like Matthew’s spiritual beatitudes because there are no woes listed, no negative pronouncements. We can fool ourselves into thinking that the woes of Luke do not apply to us.

Woe to you who are rich. Woe to you who are full. Woe to you when all speak well of you.

I have to admit that all three of those things apply to me. And I want to turn back to the kinder Matthean vision, a gospel where I can fool myself into believing that we are spiritually poor, spiritually hungry. Ironically, I am, but not in any sense that is going to let me escape those woes. I don’t get off cheaply — there is no cheap grace here. There is no cheap grace anywhere, not if it is real.

Of course, there is no line, no division between the physical and the spiritual, not really. Not if we are to be human. Many Christians complain that there is not enough attention paid to spiritual matters, spiritual truths. Usually, they mean rules of behavior and methods of controlling other people — one’s family, one’s friends, one’s society. Not surprisingly, if we followed the very practical advice of the New Testament letter of James — feed the hungry, find clothes for the poor, see to their very physical needs — we would be astonished to find that the spiritual lives of everyone involved were enriched. Healthier. More alive. And life on earth would be that much closer to the ideals of heaven.

Deep Water

Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany | Luke 5:1-11, Isaiah 6:1-13

We don’t know what Jesus told them. A story centered on Jesus sitting in a boat and teaching a crowd, and we don’t hear a word of what was said. That’s odd.

We do hear from Peter, a fisherman willing to let this wandering teacher use his boat as a platform, the water’s edge as an amphitheater. More than that, Peter is willing to take their nets, the ones they were washing out and putting away, and drop them back into the Sea of Galilee. (Yes, same place — Gennesaret, Galilee, Tiberias.) Whatever Jesus had been saying must have made an impression.

When tired fishermen pull in two boatloads of fish, that makes a bigger impression.

Peter’s reaction is the most interesting part. That is where this gospel story is focused — not on the teaching, not on the miraculous catch that’s so large we’re still telling the fish story 2,000 years later, but on how Peter responds.

If Peter had no depth of character, he would have asked Jesus to come back and repeat the miracle the next day. If he had been a religious man, Peter would have questioned Jesus, his claims of authority, this sign of his miraculous power. If Peter were a little bit more religious, he would have asked for blessings — not fish, but other gifts. Power. Something to be gained from the divine.

If Peter were extremely religious, carrying around the guilt that religious folk specialize in carrying around and handing out, he may even have asked for forgiveness. He doesn’t do any of that. Instead, he asks Jesus to leave.

“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Maybe that’s what Jesus sees in Peter. Not his sins, likely as plentiful as our own, but his heart. His lack of self-deception. His focus on what he himself lacks rather than on what someone else might do for him.

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord….” That is the beginning of the matched passage the lectionary gives us from Isaiah. King Uzziah had been king for over 50 years — since long before the prophet was born, it is thought. A father figure, a symbol of authority and stability, a personification of national identity, is dead. It’s a crossroad, a moment of change, and the prophet has a vision of God.

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Sound familiar? It’s the same kind of heart. Peter might have said the same thing, given a better vocabulary.

Today, it’s popular to focus on the other person, but not in a good way — here’s why she’s wrong, why he’s not like us, what they should be giving us, why we think God is going to condemn them and love us. Peter and Isaiah are self-centered, but not in a bad way — here’s what keeps me humble, what makes me understand that the universe does not revolve around me.

Peter saw everything clearly, and he found it to be a humbling experience. May we learn from his example.

There were other similar stories in the gospels, of course. Here’s a re-telling of one set later in John. It’s from my novel, I,John.

I was left remembering all of it, at least I was left remembering those days. They were in my mind with the vividness of dreams, the ones that somehow seem more real than memory. Not that all of it was the same. Some moments stood out more than others, as with any memories, and not always the moments that I would have thought. One might think that the crucifixion was my most vivid memory, but it was not. Oh, I remembered that day, certainly, but it was not what haunted my dreams or crept into my waking thoughts. I remembered blind men, and Mary. I remembered Peter’s great bobbing head as he made his way through the crowds. I remembered the bread that Jesus gave us.

Most of all, I dreamed of that morning at the shore.

Smoke was rising from a small fire on the beach, and I saw him standing next to it. He was looking over the water toward us as we made our way to shore. I thought I knew him, even from that distance, but I couldn’t place him.

No one was talking. Peter’s boat was creaking, leaking slightly from having seen little use for the last three years. Maybe it was good that we had caught nothing. We probably would have torn the nets and sunk the boat with us in it. A fine bunch of fishermen we were. Perhaps we had forgotten how to fish, forgotten how to live like regular people, make a living.

Peter was mending a hole in the net. He dropped the netting shuttle, and I could hear him muttering and cursing as he felt around in the coils of rope for it. He had a curse for everything, all manner of language rearranged to suit the target. When his muttering died down, the only other sound was made by waves gurgling on the side of the hull.

“Friends, have you got any fish?”

I heard his voice over the water. Friends, he said. Something about the voice was like it was speaking inside me instead of from the beach, a crazy idea.

No, we told him. Nothing. No breakfast here. Go away.

“Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will catch some.”

All of us stared over the water at him, at the small fire, the smoke. That voice, I thought. We each turned and looked over the side of the boat. Nothing, no ripples, no flash from fish swimming in the morning light. We looked at our nets, piled in the bottom of the boat, wet and empty. Nobody spoke; we just started moving, pulling a net up, throwing it over the side.

The ropes pulled tight right away. We must have snagged something, I thought, and I leaned over the side to see into the water. Fish, schooling, a flashing churning shoal of fish, were filling the net, drawing it down. The others started pulling on the net ropes, straining against the weight. I was holding a mast tie, leaning out the other side of the boat for a counterweight, and I looked back to see him on the beach. He stood perfectly still, watching us, and I thought he smiled. That was when I knew him.

“It is the Lord,” I said, leaning out over the water. The boat lurched as Peter grabbed his tunic and jumped into the water, swimming for the shore. The rest of us struggled to get the net into the boat, fish piled gasping at our feet. As we made for shore I again held a mast tie and leaned out over the water, this time at the bow to listen and watch. It seemed to me that their voices murmured across the water, Peter and Jesus, but I could never tell what they said over the sounds of the oars and of the others talking in the boat before letting their words die as they also looked to the shore and to the one sitting with Peter on the beach.

There was a bump and the sound of sand dragging against the hull, and we were ashore. We left the boat and the fish, not bothering to cover them with our net or to wet them as was our wont. We stepped onto the sandy beach still unbelieving but wanting to believe, waiting for our vision to clear or the moment to resolve itself into something other than what we perceived.

Jesus was sitting by a fire, his arms around his knees as though simply sitting there was natural, was what he always did. He is dead, I thought to myself. I watched him die, slowly, crucified. Most of the others had run, not that I blamed them. I stayed. The women were there and somehow I could not leave them, could not leave him.

“Mother, behold your son,” he had said. I thought he meant himself. “Son, behold your mother,” he had added, and I knew he meant me, though at first I thought he meant to call me his son rather than Mary’s. Later I was not so sure he did not.

In years to come it was the sea that I thought of, blue green at the surface that day, black in the depths and shoaling with silver fish unseen from above.

The Magi

Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch

Epiphany  |  Matthew 2:1-12

A few years ago, I agreed to write a reflection each week, a post to match the gospel passage for each of the Sunday readings in the Revised Common Lectionary. It was a three year project, as there are three years in the lectionary cycle. In January of 2016, Epiphany didn’t fall on a Sunday, and there was no need to write about it; this year, Epiphany does, and if I am going to complete the series, there needs to be a matching post.

I didn’t foresee, when I started the project, how much work it would be, or how rewarding. There’s an old expression about something lasting a month of Sundays. Well, this took three years of Sundays — plus the odd ones like now.

Magi. Magicians. Sorcerors. There’s something intriguing, something you don’t see every day.

They aren’t kings, you know. “We Three Kings” is one of my favorite carols — I love the minor keys, and darker songs vibrate sympathetically with something inside me. Still, the Greek word is μάγοι, transliterated into English as “magi”, plural form of the word from which we get magic and magician. And not the kind with doves stuffed in their pockets or scarves shoved up their sleeves. This is the darker kind, or the more enlightened kind, depending on your viewpoint.

These are people who studied the stars, watched for signs. They paid attention to dreams, because truth bubbles up in them. They sought knowledge. (They may have tried to change lead into gold, because let’s face it, who wouldn’t like to know the secret of that trick?) Today, they might be called the three scientists.

Just not kings. There was a word for that, βασιλέως, basileos, like Herod. We get basilica from it — a building that would have been suitable for a king, στοά βασίλειος, stoa basileos, chamber of a king. We assume the magi were men, given the word μάγοι is a male form and is typically translated as “wise men”, but Matthew doesn’t say. Tradition tells us there were three of them, but again Matthew doesn’t say.

They came from the East. We do get that much. As origin stories go, that one’s a little vague, the East being a big place. Still, we all have things in the past we don’t want to talk about.

Van Gogh - The Starry Night
The Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

And they followed a star. A sometimes moving, sometimes stopping, erratic, miraculous star that somehow led them to the exact house (maybe in Bethlehem although Matthew doesn’t quite say, not if you read closely, does it?) wherein they could find Mary with the young Jesus. No, not the manger. Read the story. And give up trying to make Matthew’s tale match Luke’s — it doesn’t. This is Matthew’s story, and it is its own tale, with its own reasons and themes.

These magic fellows came at a different time than Luke’s manger story, to a different place, when the child was nearly two. That’s when they told Herod the star appeared, two years prior, and that’s how old you had to be, if you were a baby in Bethlehem and didn’t want to be murdered by Herod’s henchmen — over two. It’s not a pretty story. Even if there is nothing outside of this Gospel to corroborate the tale of Herod murdering children, there’s plenty of proof that all of the Herod clan were unpleasant. Herod wasn’t a magician, he was a king, and that’s how tyrants roll. They are afraid of what’s out there in the dark, waiting for them. Think of how afraid Herod must have been to order the murder of children.

So the magic star stopped, somehow indicating a single house (unless they checked around door to door — anyone seen a newborn king? — and nothing indicates whether they did or didn’t), and the Magi found Jesus and Mary and honored them with gifts. Then the Magi, listening to their dreams, went back into the fabled East without a word to Herod.

What do we make of all of that? How does it matter?

We could go full modern-day evangelical on it and try to prove that the star was real, match it to some comet. We could get so lost insisting that the story is true that we miss the truth of it. That happens a lot these days. You don’t have to go far or question much to find an angry evangelical Christian, ready to yell at the rest of us, or worse, in the name of God.

The star doesn’t matter. The location of the house doesn’t matter. Where in the East these Magi came from doesn’t matter. The gifts they gave are not important (although the gold might go a long way toward explaining how an older Jesus seemed well enough funded right from the start that he could leave his day job and go walkabout.)

It matters that we remember to look around, to notice the signs around us. I don’t mean there are traveling stars leading us, though that would be nice. Ordinary things can keep us focused, if we pay attention. A word. A dark song. Geese honking across our sky. Anything that jars us awake, makes us pay attention to being alive. We sleep through our lives, and how few of us follow either our stars or our dreams?

Dream of the Magi
Dream of the Magi. Carving by Gislebertus, Autun Cathedral, France, c. 1125-1135.

Dreams. There are several in Matthew. God speaks to Joseph four times in dreams, and he listens. God warns the Magi in their dreams, and so they traipse off into the night. In dreams, the barriers between what we allow our waking mind to think and what our unconscious mind knows can drop. We encounter our fears, our own truths. We should not dismiss the truth in the flight of birds, the beauty of the stars, the strangeness of the quiet voice in the backs of our minds and the depths of our dreams.

When we find something worthwhile, we should honor it. The Magi gave rare gifts of gold, frankincense, myrrh. We might give our time — it seems the thing we have the least of anymore. And let the finding be enough. The Magi didn’t try to move into Mary’s house. They didn’t overstay their welcome. And all they took away was the experience, which they knew was enough, and which is how we know they were wise, of course. We don’t have to own a thing, to hold onto it, for it to be part of us. A lion is more beautiful alive in Africa than dead on a trophy wall or covering someone’s floor. The Magi knew that if this child was God, there was no place on earth they could go where God would not still be with them.

Epiphany. ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia — an appearance. A manifestation. A revelation. Literally, the word means something like “a showing forth” or “a shining upon.” Today we use it to describe a moment of clarity, an ever more rare moment when we understand something that matters. Something that guides us. Something that resonates in our dreams.

Don’t be afraid of the dark. That’s the only place where we can see the stars.

And don’t be afraid of tyrants. Leave them in the dark, since they fear it.

And look around for something pointing the way to what matters. Look for those things that are true, and good, and pure. They are still in the world, pure and holy things, as simple and full of potential as a child, if we let ourselves find them.

And don’t forget to dream. The part that matters will stay with you when you wake, no matter how far you may wander.

Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch
Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch. Collection Museo del Prado, Madrid.