More than two decades ago, Bette Midler released a song that topped the music charts: From a Distance. (If you’re old like me, you remember it. If you’re too young to remember it, well, that’s what You Tube is for. Check it out.)
The song’s overall message is that all of us, across the world, share a great deal in common. We share common desires for hope and peace and we must learn to share this world and its resources. But I do take issue with the song’s recurring chorus that God is watching us from a distance.
Today is Christmas Eve. On this day followers of Jesus celebrate that God does more than watch us; that our God is not one who monitors the situation from a distance, keeping us at arm’s length. To be a Christian is to reject the notion of a “distant” God. The baby whose birth we celebrate today is a God who came to live among us (see John 1:1-14).
It’s a remarkable thing if you stop to think about it. The God of the universe chose to put on human flesh. And not just any human flesh. He came as a baby… which was particularly bold and risky. In the first century Middle Eastern world, children weren’t adored and doted over as they are in our culture today. From a first century perspective (read some first century writings and you’ll discover this is true) children had little value aside from their potential to grow up and become adults who could maintain the honor of their family and provide “social security” to their parents in their old age. The rate of infant mortality was incredibly high. To be a child in first century Palestine was to be in an incredibly vulnerable position. That’s why Jesus points to children as model citizens in the kingdom of God.
That the God of the universe chose to put on human flesh of any sort is astonishing enough. But to come as an infant makes it even more remarkable.
Right now we are living in a world where everything and everyone seems to be “amping it up.” We’re awash in rhetoric of power and dominance. But, if we believe the Christmas story at all, we must accept the truth that love is expressed (and life is truly lived) through vulnerability. Today is a “holiday” not for the mighty and powerful; but for the most humble and vulnerable among us. Luke (chapter 2) communicates that it wasn’t the Emperor Augustus who showed up to worship the baby in a manger; it was shepherds, blue collar laborers working the third shift. Matthew (also chapter 2) tells us that King Herod never made it in time to see Jesus (and slaughter him as he hoped to do). But little Jesus was visited and worshiped by a bunch of “heathen” foreigners with dubious religious and cultural customs.
Johann Christoph Blumbardt wrote: “The Savior of the world is one of us. He placed himself in the midst of our human condition. He is not like one who stands apart and looks high above us.” Our God is with us.
I know… Thanksgiving is already over – technically speaking.
When I was 5 or 6 years old, I remember learning about Thanksgiving in school; you know, the Pilgrims and the “Indians” all gathered round the table. We traced our little hands to make turkeys. Remember? (Just as a reality check, the first national day of Thanksgiving didn’t occur until 1863, under the presidency of Lincoln. Even after that, it was hit or miss. It wasn’t until FDR signed a joint resolution passed by Congress that Thanksgiving became a National Holiday.)
It’s important to give thanks and count our blessings; but I also think it’s important to have a clear theological perspective. I’m always troubled by those people who, when interviewed after a deadly disaster, give thanks to God for saving them (often adding that God must have a special plan for their life). That will segue into the next interview with someone who lost a loved one in the same disaster. Are we implying God did not want to save them or ran out of plans for them?
Here’s what concerns me most: When all the blessings in our lives become personalized as something God expressly chose for US, it can become an excuse for not doing more to address the suffering and injustice of others.
I’m not sure there has ever been a Thanksgiving when I have thought about this more than this year. I have followed the news reports about the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s protest over the Dakota pipeline which will run beneath Lake Oahe and could potentially leak and contaminate the Missouri River. There’s a lot of history behind this protest; 150 years worth of treaties the government has initiated and subsequently violated. I guess the Native tribes long ago missed their window of opportunity to build a wall to keep us from crossing into their territory.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to attend a Spanish immersion school here in the Midwest. The native speakers were all bi-lingual young people who were first generation Americans. I remember one young woman’s shocking story. Her parents had legally entered the country on a Visa with hopes of immigrating. They didn’t understand the legal process; but they gave all of their savings to an attorney to file the necessary paperwork. The attorney kept their money but never filed any paperwork. They wound up penniless with an expired Visa. Since then I’ve learned of many similar stories and experiences.
I believe God blesses us and saves us. John’s gospel tells us that God so loved the world that he sent his Son (John 3:16-17). And I also believe that God can bring good out of even the worst of circumstances (Romans 8:28). But I also want to remember that some of my “blessings” of status are the unhealthy by-products of injustice and, while I may not be able to address all those injustices, I can – at the very least – acknowledge them for what they are.
In the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a Good Samaritan. It’s definitely one of Jesus’ best-known parables; so well known that all 50 of our states have some kind of Good Samaritan Law.
As a pastor, I always remind people that – when it comes to bible stories – context is critical. And many of us forget the context in which Jesus told this parable. A “lawyer” (an expert in interpreting religious commandments) asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Since the man is an expert in religious law, Jesus tosses the question back to him. The man must be good at his job because he responds to Jesus’ question with an answer straight out of Old Testament law about loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Jesus gives him a “thumbs up.” But the story doesn’t end there. The man pushes the question a little deeper by asking “Who is my neighbor?” As someone married to a professional educator, I know teachers love it when students ask clarifying questions. It’s generally a good sign. But, our gospel writer gives us insight into the motivation for this guy’s question: he wants to “justify himself.” That word for “justify” is a relational word. Like it or not, Christianity is a relational belief system. It all boils down to the kind of relationships we have – not just with God, but with other people.
Anyway, Jesus proceeds to tell the lawyer a story about a man who gets the modern equivalent of car-jacked: beaten up, robbed, left for dead on the side of the road. Eventually a priest comes along. But he’s not interested in stopping. Neither is another high ranking religious professional. We don’t know why they didn’t stop. Our gospel writer doesn’t tell us… although people have loved speculating about it. But, does it really matter? Finally a Samaritan comes along. Remember that Jesus was Jewish; his disciples were Jewish; nearly all of the people who followed him were Jewish. And Jews despised Samaritans.
The Samaritan stops; he applies first aid to the guy, then he provides him with transportation and takes him to an inn (no Urgent Care or ER’s in those days). He pays the inn keeper to continue taking care of the guy as he recovers. He even promises he’ll be back that way later to see if there’s a balance on the bill. If there is, he’ll pay it. Jesus’ parable ends with a final question Jesus poses for the lawyer: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man…?” I find it interesting that the man can’t even say the word “Samaritan.” Instead he responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says.
I think of the parable of The Good Samaritan every voting season. Have you ever noticed how many politicians proclaim to their constituents “I’ll work for you.” But who is the “you” they’re going to work for? Will they be protecting my interests or your interests? What if my personal interests are in conflict with your personal interests? For what it’s worth, here’s what I think the question of Christians should be when we go into that voting booth: “Which candidates’ policies are most likely to ‘show mercy’ to those in life’s most vulnerable circumstances?” Now admittedly, it’s sometimes challenging to evaluate a candidate’s record. That takes a lot of work and I confess, I don’t always do as much research as I should. But it doesn’t take much research to define those most vulnerable; our bible gives us plenty of clear examples: widows, orphans, foreigners living in our land, the poor, the sick, the broken, the hungry, the imprisoned. Those are our “neighbors;” those are the ones most in need of our mercy.
Jesus asked, “Which of these was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “God and do likewise.” Go and vote likewise, my fellow Christians.
[On Election Day between noon and 1:00 p.m. stop by Trinity United Methodist Church (404 North 6th St., Lafayette to pray for our nation. Prayer resources will be available. Simple brown bag lunches will also be available for those in a hurry to return to work.]
When I was in the 5th grade, we had a substitute teacher at school one day. It was a small school and we rotated class rooms (with our classmates) throughout the day to prepare us for Middle School the next year. As we moved along the hallway, students began to whisper about the substitute teacher. She’d never subbed at our school before and she seemed mean and frightened them. I arrived, quite nervously, at her classroom that afternoon. Her behavior frightened me too. When the bell rang, I exited the room with a sigh of relief. A friend was outside the door, waiting to enter. She asked me about the teacher. I confirmed, she was mean and she scared me. Unbeknownst to me, the substitute teacher had exited the room and was standing behind me. Suddenly, I felt fingernails dig into my arm. She grabbed hold of me by my hair (long at the time) and began to shake me as she verbally berated me. I cannot remember anything she said to me. I can only recall my feelings: sheer terror. I don’t even recall how I got from that hallway to the principal’s office. But somehow I did and my next recollection was hearing the principal speaking with my mother by phone. There’d been an unfortunate incident and my big brother (13 years my senior) had been dispatched to pick me up and take me home.
It was not easy for me to get past the violence of that day. Violence never really leaves us. Its remnants are like an unpleasant, sticky residue that settles in our souls.
A few years ago – I don’t remember exactly when – I started a new prayer habit. At bedtime – as I snuggle in to my warm, soft bed with a kiss from my husband and my dogs settled in to their dog beds next to mine – I pray God’s mercy for those who do not know my blessing of a peaceful night’s sleep. It seems such a simple thing; but I recognize that around our world, it is not a blessing to be taken lightly. I think of families in places like Aleppo who cannot possible relax at bedtime as they await the next round of bombing. I think of people in places like Chicago’s South Side who lay in bed uncertain if a stray bullet might find its way into their home and find a target in the darkness. I think of people whose nationality or ethnicity means they must live on “high alert” for danger 24/7, even in their own home. I think of children who live in terror of the family member who will visit their bed in the dark of the night to do unspeakable things. I think of veterans and others who have suffered severe trauma whose persistent nightmares replay their horrors over and over again.
Jesus said, “Blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). First century Palestine was a tough place to be. The “look out for number 1” perspective of the religious leaders would lead them to offer Jesus up as a sacrificial lamb to save their own skins. And the “take no prisoners” mindset of Rome would lead to Jesus’ sentence of crucifixion, the most brutal form of capital punishment. Resolutely embracing the value of gentleness meant a lot of hurt and pain for Jesus… Perhaps that is why many of us, as his followers, still don’t seem very keen on the idea.
In a recent small group I led, I asked, “What does it mean for us to live as Christians today in counter-cultural ways?” Someone tossed out, “Is it about following the ten commandments?” Another person responded, “I wonder if it is about living out the Beatitudes?” (see Matthew 5:1-12) Hmmm…
Jesus said: “Blessed are the gentle… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you… on my account…”
[If you live near Lafayette, join us on 9/11 at 3:00 p.m. at Memorial Island in Columbian Park (http://www.lafayette.in.gov/Facilities/Facility/Details/Columbian-Park-7) for an Inter-Faith Service of Peace and Unity.]
A while back I heard a TED Radio Hour interview with Frank Warren, founder of Post Secret, the Community Mail Art Project. Warren founded the project in 2005. People mail Warren a postcard of their own artistic design that includes a secret that is absolutely true and has never been shared with anyone. Interestingly enough, new secrets are posted each week on Sundays… a sort of colloquial prayer of confession. As I’ve read some of the secrets and a little about the project itself, it has left these impressions with me… People have a lot of secrets. Down deep, they don’t want to keep them; they want to share them but fear rejection. As human creatures, we invest a great deal of energy into hiding those parts of ourselves that we think others would reject or judge as immoral, weak, ineffective, inappropriate, or just plain strange. One of the secrets Warren shared came from a woman who wrote that she still had saved on her phone the last voice mail ever received from her dead grandmother. Just before grandma died unexpectedly, she had called to wish her granddaughter a happy birthday. She sang a silly little song she made up. The granddaughter was embarrassed that she couldn’t bring herself to delete the message. As a pastor, can I just tell you how common that is?
If there is one thing I’ve learned in 22 years of ministry it is that people in churches are often just as reluctant to share our secrets with one another as is the general public; sometimes more so. Shame is a powerful thing and a destructive thing. Yet church, more than anywhere else, should be a place where we can be honest about who we are; a place where we can be honest about what we struggle with and be an encouragement and support to one another. God never intended for us to go it alone. It’s not how God built us. In Genesis, chapter 2, after God creates the man and places him in the garden, God evaluates: “It is not good that the human should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Genesis 2:18) It’s a shame that scripture is often restricted to wedding ceremonies because it has a broader, deeper meaning: as human creatures we were designed with an innate need for one another’s help and support.
In the month of August, I’ll be preaching a sermon series called “Tell Me a Secret.” I’ll be examining four “types” of secrets that are also struggles faced by bible characters. I’m not so sure it really does much good to share our deepest, darkest fears, misgivings, doubts, and shortcomings through an anonymous postcard. But I feel pretty confident that Christian communities are places where people should be able to open up to one another and be who they are and that – if we can do that with integrity and grace – we’ll really become the help to one another that God intended us to be from the very beginning, the genesis of time.
[May 1 I’ll begin a new sermon series – Built to Last: How the Church Can Thrive in Today’s Culture. “Call me Christian” begins the series.]
Did you have a nickname growing up? When I was in college, I wound up in the advanced Solfeggio class. [A musical scale… Think of the do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti- do song Julie Andrews taught the children in The Sound of Music.] I’m still not sure how I got put in that class. Lots of my fellow students had perfect pitch. I didn’t. I really struggled. It earned me a nickname through the entirety of my years in music school: “Ti-Fa Tracey.” So pervasive was its use that it became my email address: tifatracey.
Names mean a great deal to us. If we consider ourselves disciples of Jesus, we name ourselves Christians. Christian is a term put to extensive use in our country. It’s ironic that a label applied to people who worship a man put to death as an enemy of the state is so tremendously coveted by today’s politicians. In an increasingly diverse world, it seems there is enormous diversity of opinions as to what defines a Christian. In our post-modern American culture, it seems often wed to particular social or political positions.
The Greek form of the word Christian (Christianos) is only found three times in the New Testament and is always used in a negative or derogatory context. (If you’re a Methodist, you might recall that our denominational label was also applied to us by outsiders critical of our religious discipline!) Jesus never actually used the term; but he most certainly names the attitudes and behaviors of those who would define themselves in relation to him. A willingness to love, to serve and even to sacrifice for the good of others seems to be Jesus’ most consistent message. I wonder if that is still what we mean today when we say “Call me Christian.”
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.”
Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19:30
“Put your pencils down and pass your papers to the front.” Do you remember hearing those words when you took exams in school? It seemed to me that there were always at least a couple of questions on every test that I wasn’t quite sure about. After answering what I knew, I’d go back to those questions and turn them over in my mind. But any consideration, any deliberation was over when the teacher uttered those dreaded words, “Put your pencils down and pass your papers to the front.” It didn’t matter if your work was incomplete; you were finished. Tough luck.
In the gospel of John, Jesus’ final words (as they are translated in most of our English bibles) are: “It is finished.” But that’s not necessarily the best translation. After all, I may only be “finished” with something because time has run out; like it or no, “time’s up.” Put your pencil down.
In John’s gospel, Jesus refers to his ministry as “work.” In chapter 4, Jesus enters into conversation with a Samaritan woman while he is sitting by a well. In the course of their lengthy conversation, Jesus reveals his identity to her; it is the first time he has openly spoken to anyone about who he is. When the woman heads back into town to tell her neighbors about Jesus, Jesus’ disciples try to offer Jesus something to eat. Jesus’ answer is odd. He says to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”[i] It’s a statement that baffles the disciples. They may have only been concerned about his blood sugar dropping; but clearly Jesus has something else in mind when he speaks of food.
Jesus picks up this thread once again in chapter six. He had (most recently) miraculously provided food for a hungry crowd of 5,000. But Jesus tries to put things in proper perspective giving them a response that goes something like this (my paraphrase):[ii] You are hunting me down just to get another free meal. Forget about wasting your time working on that. Work on pursuing something that really matters. Work on putting your trust in me.
Jesus, throughout John’s gospel, makes clear that he is working God’s plan. Over the course of the gospel, Jesus explains that plan: he will lay down his life by being lifted up on a cross to die. That’s the plan and Jesus has been working it from the start; always aware of what lies at the finish line.
And so, when he reaches the cross, his work is finished. But it is more than finished; it is complete. In fact, that would be a better translation of the Greek word: It is complete. No loose ends; no unanswered questions. Jesus didn’t lay down his pencil; he laid down his life. And when he did, he did so knowing that his work was complete.
[i] John 4:34
[ii] John 6:25-40