Lost and Found

ONE Sunday

Luke 15:1-10

 Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?

 It was Lynn Turner’s idea.

I know I’ve told you that before, but I’m telling you again, not because I’m trying to blame Lynn but because I want her to get the credit.  I think ONE Sunday is a wonderful idea, even on a rainy day.  Lynn had that idea years ago just after our church made a difficult decision that left us uncomfortably divided.  Two thirds of the congregation had voted one way and one third had voted another and we needed something to bring us back together again.  So, Lynn started thinking.

Some of you may not even know this, but in addition to her role as Senior Associate Pastor I have asked Lynn to serve as our Minister of Christian Community, which I once described to her like this: “I just want you to keep the big, happy family of First Baptist Church big, and happy.”  Well, they were not happy in those days, some of them, and it was threatening our unity.  Lynn thought it might be helpful, after everybody had gotten back from vacation and school had started up again, to come together for one, wonderful Sunday in September.  We would start with Sunday school, follow that with a combined worship service, and then follow that with dinner on the grounds.  We tried it, and even though it didn’t solve all our problems it seemed to help.  We did it again the next year and the year after that, and if I’m counting correctly this is the twelfth year we have celebrated ONE Sunday.

I’m glad you’re here.

Because this is one of those times when we need to come together.  Along with the rest of the world our church is recovering from a global pandemic that has been a huge disruption to life as we knew it.  I remember walking into this sanctuary at 11:30 on a Sunday morning back in 2020 and finding it dark, and quiet, and empty.  I wondered then, “How many times has this happened in this church’s 240 year history?  How many times has the sanctuary been empty at 11:30 on a Sunday morning?”  Well, it’s not empty this morning, and I, for one, am thrilled.  It may not be as full as it is at 5:00 on Christmas Eve or 11:00 on Easter Sunday, but it is so much fuller than it has been on most Sundays since March 11, 2020, the day this global pandemic was declared, exactly two-and-a-half years ago today.

So, thanks to every one of you who got up this morning, got dressed, and came to church.  And thanks to every one of you joining us from home.  Even though you are not in the room we can feel your support: your virtual presence is real.  And thanks to every one of you who invited someone else to come with you today, and especially those of you who invited someone who used to come, someone you haven’t seen in a long time.

That’s what I spent a good part of my day doing on Monday.  I sent a text message to someone I hadn’t seen in a while saying, “Hey, I hope you will join us for ONE Sunday.”  And that was so easy I texted someone else, and then someone else.  Eventually I pulled an old pictorial directory off the shelf and started turning the pages, and I have to tell you—that was painful.  It was painful because so many of those people have died since that directory was published, but it was even more painful because some of them have gotten lost.  I’m not talking about those people who have gone to another church.  I always say, “When you move from one church to another the Kingdom of God doesn’t lose a single member.”  No, I’m talking about those people I haven’t seen in a long, long time and haven’t heard anything about.  I’m talking about people who may have gotten lost from God.

Those are the kind of people Jesus is talking about in today’s reading from Luke 15.  This is the chapter that includes the parable of the Prodigal Son, which may be everybody’s favorite, but it begins with the notice that all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to hear Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees were grumbling and saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them!”  You can tell right away that they have put themselves in a different category: scribes and Pharisees over here; sinners and tax collectors over there.  And you can tell that in their thinking it isn’t right to welcome sinners or to eat with them.  It would be like condoning their sin, which is not what Jesus is trying to do.  “And so,” Luke says, “he told them this parable.”  He said:

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?  When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”

I’ve read that parable a hundred times, and preached on it more than once, but what I noticed this time that I had never noticed before is the word having, right there in verse four.  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”  I’ve titled this sermon “Lost and Found,” but it occurs to me you can’t lose something unless you have it.  So it’s not just losing and finding that Jesus is talking about: it’s having and losing and finding.  It’s the plot of every romantic comedy you’ve ever seen, where boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy gets girls back again.  When he does there is great rejoicing, and maybe even a wedding.

So before we even begin to think about this shepherd seeking and finding his lost sheep, we need to think about him having it.  I can almost picture it, can’t you?  A young man, determined to build up for himself someday a flock of a hundred sheep, working at it for years until he gets to that place where his goal has been achieved.  Imagine his satisfaction when he brings them in from the pasture at the end of the day and counts them as they go under his stick and into the sheepfold: “Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, ONE HUNDRED!”  And then he closes the gate with a smile on his face knowing that they are all there, all safe, all sound.  Imagine that he does that for years, until he knows the names and the habits of every sheep in his flock.  And then imagine that one day while he’s out there in the pasture one of them goes missing.

He doesn’t even have to count.  He knows his sheep and his sheep know him.  He knows exactly which one has wandered away, as she always does.  He also knows she likes to explore the deepest canyons and the darkest crevices.  He looks around at the rest of the sheep, tells them to “stay,” and then he runs to find Maggie, the wandering sheep.  He goes back to that place where they stopped for water, finds her footprints in the mud, hikes up the ravine a hundred yards and there she is, stuck in a thicket, bawling like a lamb.  “Oh, Maggie!” he sighs.  “How do you get yourself into these messes?”  And then he pulls her out of the thicket, puts her on his shoulders, and heads back toward the flock hoping that nothing has happened in his absence.

When he finds that they are all still there, waiting for him and wondering what’s going on, he rejoices.  He keeps a close eye on Maggie for the rest of the day but that night when he counts his sheep there is an extra measure of satisfaction as he says, “Ninety-seven, ninety-eight, ninety-nine, ONE HUNDRED!”  He closes the gate and walks down to the local pub where he opens the door and says: “Boys, I thought I had lost Old Maggie forever, but by the grace of God I found her.  The next round’s on me.”  “I tell you,” says Jesus, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine who need no repentance.”

Because just as that shepherd had that flock of sheep, God has us—has all of us!  It’s not that some are righteous and some are sinners; it’s that all of us are human and sometimes we wander away.  Today’s lectionary readings make that point:

  • Psalm 14 says, “The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.  They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.”
  • In Jeremiah 4 God says, “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.”
  • In Exodus 32 the people turn against the God who brought them out of their slavery in Egypt, and instead bow down before a golden calf they have fashioned with their own hands.
  • In Psalm 51 King David confesses to the Lord, “Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.”
  • And in 1 Timothy 1 Paul admits that he was formerly “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.”  But thanks be to God, he says: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”

If Saint Paul thinks of himself as the biggest sinner who ever lived, and if David—the “man after God’s own heart”—can see that his own heart is full of wickedness, then what chance do we have?  What chance did the scribes and Pharisees have?  As Paul says in Romans 3, “There is none righteous; no not one.”  It’s not that we set out to sin (usually), but we do.  And when we do, in our shame, we often turn away from God.  We go our own way.  We get lost.  And that’s when Jesus comes looking for us.

I love this story he tells about the woman with ten coins because I can almost see her lying in her bed at night, blowing out the oil lamp on the bedside table, and then reaching under the mattress to pull out that little pouch of coins.  She undoes the drawstring in the dark, pours them into one palm, and then begins to drop them into the other palm one at a time as she counts.  There is a satisfying “plop” as the first one drops, and then a satisfying “clink” with each succeeding coin.  “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, TEN!” she counts, every night, until the night she only counts nine.

And then she flies into a panic.  She throws back the covers, leaps out of bed, lights the oil lamp, gets down on her hands and knees, looks under the bed, and when she doesn’t find it there she lights every lamp in the house, moves the furniture, sweeps out every dark corner, until at last she finds it wedged in a crack between the floorboards.  “How on earth did you get here?” she asks.  But she falls asleep with a smile on her face and the next morning goes down to the bakery, buys an iced lemon pound cake, and invites all her friends and neighbors to join her for afternoon tea.  “Rejoice with me,” she says, “for I have found the coin that I lost.”  “I tell you,” says Jesus, “There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

But have you noticed?  Everything Jesus is talking about is seen from God’s perspective.  God “has” all of us.  Jesus was sent to seek and save the lost.  The angels rejoice when a single sinner repents.  But what about us?  What does all this look like from our perspective?

Let me tell you a story:[i]

When I was in seminary I used to sit on the front pew during our weekly worship services so I could hear every word of the sermon, so I could get the “good stuff” as it came down from the pulpit.  And once I heard a preacher named Fred Craddock talk about his sister.  “We used to play hide-and-seek in the summertime,” he said.  “Just about dusk, when the shadows were getting long.  One time she was ‘it,’ and I hid under the back steps of our house.  Because I was small I could scrunch all the way up under there where my sister couldn’t see me.  But I could see her.  I peeked out through a crack and watched her walking around, looking for me.

“She walked all around the house, looked behind the bushes.  I saw her walk down the path to the barn, look inside the barn, walk around behind it, and as she came back up the path I thought to myself, ‘She’ll never find me.  She’ll never find me!’  And then, all at once, I thought, ‘She’ll never find me!’  So I stuck my toe out just enough for her to see, and when she got to the top of the path I wiggled it.

“She said, ‘One-two-three on Freddy!’ and I came out from under the steps pretending to be chagrined.  ‘Aw, shucks,’ I said.  ‘You found me.’”

And then Fred Craddock looked out at all of us who were sitting there in that chapel and said, “But what did I want?  What did I really want?”  And I knew the answer.  Sitting there on the front pew it was all I could do to keep from blurting it out.  “To be found!” I thought.  “You wanted to be found!”  And then it seemed he looked right at me, pointed his finger and said, “The same thing you want!”

And I almost burst into tears.

Either Fred Craddock knew me better than I knew myself or there is something in every one of us that is more lost than we know.

And more ready to be found.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

Demanding Discipleship

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

It is an incredible gift to be here and worship with you.  Not only because it gives me a chance to be in worship again with a friend I met in the last century.  But also because it gives me a chance to be in worship in a congregation that has made a tremendous impact of faithfulness not only in the city of Richmond, across the United States, but literally all over the world.  I would be remiss if I did not thank you for your partnership in the Gospel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, from our very beginning until now.  It is an honor to be one of your mission partners.  I would be personally remiss as alumnus of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, if I did not thank this congregation for the tremendous investment you made in the life of that school throughout its history, and if I did not assure you that its impact and its ministry and its legacy continues to the present day even though the last classes have been taught.  And I would be remiss if I do not thank you for the ways you are opening the imaginations of new generations of women and men called to the ministry through the Baptist House of Studies at Union Presbyterian Seminary, and through your witness it is truly possible even in these confusing times for a local congregation committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ to be used to bring the kingdom of heaven to Richmond,  VA.

Now if I had good sense, I would stop with the anthem, and the words of gratitude and invite my friend of decades to invite you to the Lord’s table.  But I come here today not just to offer a denominational announcement, I’ve come to ask you if you heard those words of Jesus for which you just a few moments ago you said, “Thanks be to God.”  To remind you that those words came from you in this room.  Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes even life itself cannot be my disciple.  When I was studying preaching in Baptist Theological Seminary in Richmond, Chuck Bugg would not have advised me to use this text for my first opportunity to preach to a congregation.  It’s strong language.  And if we’re going to receive a word from our Lord Jesus today, we need to ask ourselves are we hearing this text clearly.  And we ask ourselves why in the world is he speaking with such strength and intensity and vision to those crowds who were traveling with him.  Is Jesus really saying to us that in order to be his disciple we have to be willing to be in a place of animosity toward our immediate family.  Is Jesus really saying in order to follow him we have to be willing to literally hate our mothers and our fathers and our children, our kin, our very life itself.  In preparing to preach this morning I consulted a wide range of commentaries hoping I could find a lifeline to this spot that Jim had backed me in.  And I found out that while in the Jewish tradition that formed Jesus, it is sometimes possible to hear this word hate used to speak of an actual animosity, but there are also many times in the Hebrew scriptures where words like love and hate are used as aphorisms.  That is to say, where words like love and hate are used with an exaggeration to make a point.  That is to say, we’ll sometimes hear the psalmist pray that the righteous love justice.  The righteous love mercy.  The righteous hate wickedness.  The righteous hate immorality.  But in those cases, the psalmist is not trying to sow animosity deep within our bones, no the psalmist is trying to drive us to a place of clear prioritization.  That our life does not consist in kind of a wishy washy moderate, anything goes kind of identity but rather as people who are faithful, we are clear about what priorities guide our lives.  So heard that way, these words from Jesus have to be recognized as a challenge.  To make sure that he and he alone is the guiding priority of our lives, that no other relationship, that no other commitment, that no other love, that no other loyalty interferes with the loyalty that is supposed to be the highest loyalty in our lives.  Remember what you and I said, those of us who grew up Baptist?  We walked an aisle and gave our lives to Jesus?  I think we said, “Jesus is Lord.”  If you grew up in a church where you had a chance to do that on a Sunday night, there’s probably a good chance that when you walked the aisle, and you make that profession of faith, the congregation was singing something like that old hymn from the South,  All to Jesus I Surrender All to him I freely give, I will ever love and trust him in his presence daily live, I surrender all.  I give up everything to follow him.  Jesus says you cannot be my disciple if you’re not willing to sing I Surrender All and mean it.  You cannot be my disciple if you’re not willing to love me more than anyone and anything else.  And the language he uses to drive home that point is incredibly strong.  Why do you think he speaks with such intensity? That’s the question I’ve been pondering.  It’s not been that hard to wrap my mind the meaning of what he’s saying.  Usually with the scriptures what gives us the most trouble is not what we can’t understand, but what we can understand.  And what we can understand is spoken here with such an urgency and intensity I wonder why he is speaking in that way.  So then I noticed something in the text I have never noticed before.  I paid attention to the way Luke describes those to whom Jesus makes this statement.  But before I was so worried and preoccupied by the strength of the language, I didn’t pay any attention to the congregation for the sermon.  And it turns out the congregation for a sermon actually matters.  The congregation for this particular sermon recorded in Luke 14 is described as crowds who are travelling with Jesus.  Jesus does not call people to travel with him.  Jesus does not call people to be his companions on the journey.  These people to whom Jesus speaks are trying to do just that.  They are trying to be his travelling companions.  His buddies along the road.  He’s travelling to Jerusalem, and more and more people want to travel with him.  They want to be around him.  They want to hear what he says.  They want to admire his miracles.  They want to ponder his teachings.  They want to watch as he gets into the scrapes with the religious leaders as they get closer to Jerusalem.  They want to see all that and be spectators of it, and consumers of it, and weigh it in their world views and see what happens.  The problem is that Jesus does not call people to walk alongside him.  From the very beginning of the Gospels, the first words he spoke to those fishermen by the sea were not, “Come hang out with me.”  They were “follow me.”  And when Jesus sees people who are not in the right position related to him, he speaks with intensity.  If you don’t believe it, I want you to ask Peter.  Because in another moment along the journey of the Gospel narrators describe where Peter dares to walk alongside Jesus and give Jesus some advice that Jesus doesn’t seek.  You know why it is.  Jesus just said, hey, “Hey, we’re going to Jerusalem, it’s going to be ugly.  Terrible things are going to happen. I’m going to suffer.  I’m going to be killed.”  And Peter who is walking beside Jesus, who is a travelling companion to Jesus, who stands next to Jesus, comes next to Jesus and says, “Jesus I’m sorry, you’ve got your theology wrong.  What??  No, no Jesus it can’t be that way, didn’t you go to Sunday School, Jesus?  Jesus?  That can never happen to you, because see the scriptures say no.”  And do you know what Jesus says to Peter next according to another text around which sometimes you say thanks be to God?  He says, “Get behind me, Satan!”  Sometimes Jesus speaks really strong language to try to invite people to be in the right place, in the right posture when it comes to living in relationship with him.  I point this out this morning because the way I’m coming to see this text, it’s this text that brings us to a place of really important reflection.  It gives me at least a question, and I share it with you as a challenging gift.  Am I seeking to be a companion of Jesus, or am I thinking to really follow Jesus.  Am I seeking to live my life as one who walks alongside Jesus, or am I seeking to live my life as someone who gets behind Jesus and follows him wherever he goes?  If I live my life as a companion of Jesus, if I see myself that way, then it’s easy for me to progress in my thinking to the point where I say, well I’ve got a little room in my heart for Jesus.  I can fit Jesus into my busy schedule.  I’m willing to include Jesus among the number of authorities I consult when I’m trying to make a difficult decision.  It’s very easy for me to think about Jesus kind of on a level playing field with whatever I heard on a podcast.  Whatever some politician said.  Whatever some other book contains.  I’m willing to include Jesus among the authorities that I give consideration to when I face a real important decision.  But when Jesus and I are just travelling companions of one another, then guess who’s still in charge?  I am.  If I’m deciding whether I’m going to keep on walking with Jesus or not.  I’m deciding whether I’m going to pay attention to him, and when I’m not.  I’m lucky to be like Peter, and ask Jesus to play by my rules and serve my own agenda, or get caught and serve some other power’s agenda.  If that keeps on progressing to the point where Jesus is one many allegiances, like that’s deadly.  We saw evidence of the deadliness of it in Rwanda late in the last century.  You may remember that in Rwanda which by the way was the most evangelized nation on the continent of Africa.  More people in Rwanda had said they were going to follow Jesus than in any other nation in Africa.  More western missionaries have been in Rwanda preaching the gospel, planning churches, doing all that, and in those churches in Rwanda one year on Easter Sunday, Christians from different ethnic tribes worshipped together, they sang their hymns, they heard the sermon, they took communion, they went on their way, and then later that same week when the civil war erupted in Rwanda those Christians from different tribes took up machetes against each other and killed each other.  In his penetrating, paralyzing book “Mirror to the Church, Lessons for the American Church and the Rwanda Genocide,” African theologian Emanual Katongole says what was the problem in Rwanda is simply this, the blood of tribalism was allowed to run deeper than the waters of baptism.  In other words there were other commitments that were allowed to live alongside of faith in Jesus Christ.  There were other allegiances that were allowed to be rivals to the allegiance to Jesus, and that literally tore the church and the country and the world apart.  If you really, really loved people, and you saw them on a path that would lead to death and destruction and division would you let them just keep on walking on that path?  Or if you were the son of God who loved the world so much that you came all the way to the point of death even death on a cross?  If you loved the world that much that you gave your body and your blood for the salvation of people, and you saw them running off in so many directions, torn apart by so many allegiances, trying to travel with Jesus and everyone else at the same time and you knew where it could head, wouldn’t you turn aside to them and say, look unless you love me more than all of that, you cannot be my disciple.  There are still large crowds that want to watch Jesus.  There are still a lot of voices out there that want to be considered at least as much as Jesus.  But the question for us to come to the Lord’s table is, do we love him more than those?  Are we his companions or are we his disciples?  If we want to be a community to whom Jesus heals this world, there’s only one answer.  Amen.

© 2022 Paul Baxley

Taking Our Places

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost 

Luke 14:1, 7-14 

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely… 

I can’t remember why I was in her office, but there I was, talking to a young woman named Julie who had recently graduated from the university in the town where I was a pastor, and now here she was working for that same university.  She had been one of the students who regularly came to my church, and I don’t think I ever saw her when she wasn’t smiling.  So I noticed she wasn’t smiling that day and at some point I asked her about it.  “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, sighing.  “I guess I’m just having a bad hair day.”  I looked at her hair (which was perfect) and then I said, “You know, Julie, self-esteem is the way we esteem ourselves.”  But that seemed a little too obvious,  so I said, “The only person who can tell you how to feel about yourself is you.”  And she sighed again and said, “Yeah, I know.”   

But she didn’t seem convinced.  

We all know that feeling, don’t we?  When I was in first grade my mother once asked me to go with her to take something to one of our neighbors before school.  I hadn’t even gotten dressed yet.  I was sitting there at the kitchen table in my pajamas, eating a bowl of oatmeal.  But she seemed to be in a hurry so I pulled on a pair of my brother’s pants that were in the laundry pile and out the door we went.  I didn’t even have shoes on.  We were supposed to be back in five minutes but Mom and the neighbor got to talking and it got later and later and as we were hurrying home the school bus came to a stop right beside us and the driver opened the door.  My mom looked me up and down quickly and then said, “I guess you could go like you are.”  “No!” I thought.  “I couldn’t!”  But she nudged me up the steps of the bus and I spent that whole day trying to pretend that it was perfectly normal to come to school in a pajama top with no shoes on and your pants falling down.   

And then there was the time when my dad was cutting my hair when I was in ninth grade and had bangs that came straight down to my eyebrows.  When it came time to even them up Dad took the plastic guard off the electric clippers, asked me to sit perfectly still, and then lined himself up for the approach.  He was doing a pretty good job until one of my brothers slammed the back door and my dad jumped and then said, “Oh, no!  I’ve gapped you!”  And there’s just no way to fix that, not without shaving your head.  I went to school the next day with a big gap in my bangs and everybody in home room felt the need to tell me: “You got gapped!”  Like my friend Julie I was having a bad hair day, and it’s hard to feel good about yourself on a day like that.   

I’m sure something like that has happened to you, and even as I’m telling my stories you may be remembering a bad haircut or an unfortunate wardrobe choice or any one of a hundred other things that made you feel embarrassed or self-conscious.  If you are, then you also remember the difference between those moments and the moments when you felt really confident, like when you went to school wearing a pair of brand new white tennis shoes right out of the box (pause to appreciate).  There are those moments when you feel really good about yourself, and there are those moments when you don’t, and you have probably had enough of each to know the difference.  But I want you to think about how much everyone else’s opinion made that difference.   

If I had been barefoot on a deserted island, with my pants falling down, there wouldn’t have been a problem; I could have let them fall.  If I had a gap in my bangs there I could have lived with it; I could have lived with pigtails and a hair bow.  But I was at school!  Everybody was looking at me, everybody was laughing at me, and it affected my self-esteem.  Growing up was hard in those days, but these days it may be even harder.   

Not long ago I saw a middle school girl taking a selfie.  I can’t remember where I was, but I saw her standing to one side of the crowd looking up into her phone.  She was smiling and trying to look adorable (which she did), but I had this feeling that when she was finished filtering and Facetuning® that photo she was going to post it on Instagram and then wait for the world to tell her what they thought.  And that’s just asking for trouble, isn’t it?  That’s letting the world decide whether or not you’re cute.  If they do, if you get a million “likes” on that picture you might feel pretty good about yourself, but if you only get six, and those six are your parents and grandparents, you might not.   

This is why I work out at the Jewish Community Center.  I was taking a tour when I first moved to Richmond, and I saw an old guy in the fitness center pulling down on an overhead bar, raising about twenty pounds with a cable and a pulley.  I watched for a while and he said, “How old do you think I am?”  I guessed low.  I said, “Seventy?”  He said, “I’m 92!”  He was proud of himself.  I was proud, too.  That guy was my new hero, but I also decided in that moment to join the JCC because when you’re competing against 92-year-olds it makes you feel young and strong.   It’s the same reason I tell teenagers they should be on Facebook instead of Instagram, because the average age on Facebook is like, what, 72?  When they post their selfies there they will look young and beautiful.  The point I’m trying to make is the same: that when we start comparing ourselves to others it’s no longer self-esteem, it’s other esteem.  We are letting others determine how we should feel about ourselves.   

And that can be dangerous.   

In an article published earlier this year journalist Derek Thompson reported that the United States is experiencing “an extreme teenage mental health crisis.i  From 2009 to 2021, the share of American high-school students who say they feel ‘persistent feeling of sadness or hopelessness’ rose from 26 percent to 44 percent.  This is the highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.”  One reason for that sadness is social media, but Thompson is quick to point out that “social media isn’t like rat poison, which is toxic to almost everyone. It’s more like alcohol: a mildly addictive substance that can enhance social situations but can also lead to dependency and depression among a minority of users.”  He writes: 

“In 2020 the internal research division of Instagram found that while most users had a positive relationship with the app, one-third of teen girls said Instagram made them feel worse.  And if you don’t believe a company owned by Facebook, a big new study from Cambridge University in which researchers looked at 84,000 people of all ages found that social media was strongly associated with worse mental health during certain sensitive life periods, including for girls ages 11 to 13.”ii  Why am I telling you all this?  Mostly because I’m your pastor, and I don’t want anyone walking around sad if they don’t have to, especially not middle school girls who didn’t get as many likes as they hoped for on Instagram.  But also because one of the things that struck me right away about today’s Gospel lesson is that the people Jesus is talking to seem to be overly concerned with what others think about them.   

At the beginning of chapter 14 Luke tells us that Jesus was at some fancy dinner party in the home of a leader of the Pharisees, and in verse 7, “he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor.”  Close your eyes and you can almost see them, jockeying for positions at the head table, pushing and shoving to get the seat closest to the host.  They care what other people think about them, in fact, they care too much.  First-century Israel was a culture in which the categories of honor and shame meant everything.  The worst thing that could happen to you was to be shamed, publicly.  The best thing that could happen to you was to be honored, publicly.  Get yourself into the right seat at a fancy dinner party and you would be the talk of the town, so that’s what everybody was trying to do.  But Jesus told them a parable to let them know how everything could go horribly wrong. 

“Let’s say you get yourself into a seat right next to the host,” he said, “and everything’s going fine, everyone’s looking at you and wondering who you are when the mayor walks in, late as usual, and the host turns to you and says, ‘Listen, whoever-you-are, I hate to ask, but would you please give up your seat for the mayor?’  And then there you are, standing up, brushing the crumbs off your lap, and looking around for the only place left which happens to be at the very foot of the table.  Imagine the shame!  But there’s another way to do this,” Jesus say, “a better way.  When you get invited to a fancy dinner party take one of the empty seats at the foot of the table, and then when the host shows up he will see you sitting down there and say, ‘Friend!  What are you doing down there?  Move up to a better seat!’  And then you will be honored in front of everyone.”  The moral of the story is in verse 11: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”   

But this isn’t really a plea for humility, is it?  It’s more like a strategy for exaltation.  Jesus isn’t asking his hearers to become humble; he is only asking them to act humble, to take the lowest seat at the banquet so that the host will invite them to come up higher, and then everyone will think they are important.  It would probably work, but it doesn’t sound like Jesus.  I can’t imagine him giving people advice on how to appear important unless he’s being ironic.  Maybe the next thing he will say is, “And if that doesn’t work you can always wear a sash across your chest that says, ‘I’m kind of a big deal!’  That will get you a seat at the head table.”  But maybe it’s just that Jesus doesn’t know anything about acting important because he’s never had to act.  From the very beginning he simply was.   

An angel told his mother that he “would be great, and would be called the Son of the Most High, and that the Lord God would give to him the throne of his ancestor David; that he would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and that of his kingdom there would be no end.”iii  Do you think Mary was able to keep all that to herself?  Don’t you think that she looked on his face when he was a baby and marveled at all that he would become?  Can’t you imagine that as he was growing up she might have occasionally let it slip that he was the Son of God?  So, maybe he wasn’t all that surprised at his baptism, when the sky opened up and a dove fluttered down and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased!”iv 

I think this is what made Jesus so selfless: he didn’t have to think about himself; he didn’t have to worry about what other people thought.  He knew who he was, and who he was was the beloved child of God.  But so are you.  The very first book in the Bible tells us that human beings were made in God’s image.  I believe we still are: that while we are being formed in our mothers’ wombs God presses his seal into the soft wax of our souls so that when he looks at us that’s all he sees.  He doesn’t see gender or color, age or ethnicity—he sees us!  And he sees us as beloved.  He doesn’t care how smart we are, or how much money we make, or how many followers we have on Twitter.  He cares about us, and because he does we can breathe a sigh of relief, because really, does it matter what anyone else thinks of you when you are God’s beloved?  This sounds better to me than self-esteem, which is what you think of yourself, or other-esteem, which is what others think of you.  This sounds like God-esteem: when you derive your sense of self-worth from what God thinks about you, and when you do you become a different person altogether.   

Just ask Jesus. 

I sometimes imagine that everyone in the world is holding a cup, you know, like a coffee cup with a handle on it.  Most people act as if their cup is empty.  They are always asking others to put something into it—money, or love, or a million “likes” on Instagram.  But you and I have a cup that is already full.  We’ve been holding it under the waterfall of God’s goodness and grace so that now we have more than enough, we have plenty to give away.  We can host a banquet as Jesus suggests and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, the people who would really appreciate it rather than the ones who can return the favor.  We don’t have to care anymore what others think about us—God loves us!  We don’t have to worry anymore about not having enough—God loves us!  We don’t have to compare ourselves to anyone else, anymore—God loves us!  Maybe, like Jesus, we can become the most selfless people in the world, giving ourselves away for the sake of others because we don’t have to worry about that anymore; we know who we are; and who we are is God’s beloved children.  So, friend, come up higher.  Take your seat at the Lord’s Table.   

There is no better place. 

—Jim Somerville © 2022 

Free from Bondage

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 13:10-17

 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.

I was talking to a pastor last week who had been doing some counseling for a couple that wanted to get married in his church.  Actually, they didn’t want to, but the bride’s grandmother was a member and she wanted them to and so they were trying to make her happy.  But they weren’t particularly religious and when this pastor asked them about their most deeply held convictions they didn’t have an answer.  “Then let me put it another way,” he said: “Why do you think you were born?  What is your purpose in life?”  But again, they didn’t have an answer.  Because you know how it is: when you’re born you don’t have to think at all, and then, when you get a little older, your parents make you go to school, and when you graduate they might want you to go to college, and when you’re done with that you’ll probably try to get a job, and then, if you find the right person, you might want to get married, and if you do you might decide to have kids, and if you have kids that will take up the next twenty years of your life, and one day—in your mid-forties—you will wake up and wonder why you were born.  We call that a mid-life crisis.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  You can think about those critical questions much earlier than that and church is the perfect place to do it.  In a recent letter to my brother I wrote, “One of the best things we do in church is to help people find meaning and purpose.”

And then I tried to explain.

I said: “I believe we find meaning by following Jesus Christ, and that the gospel provides us with a metanarrative: ‘a story big enough to live by.’  In Mark 8 Jesus goes so far as to suggest that his way is not only something to live for, but also something to die for. ‘Take up your cross and follow me,’ he says, which may be only another way of saying, ‘Volunteer to die.’  And that is part of his genius,” I wrote.  “When we volunteer to die the fear of death loses its power over us.  We no longer need to stockpile weapons and hole up in caves. We no longer need to post hateful messages on social media ridiculing the ideology of our enemies. We can love fearlessly and die selflessly just like Jesus.  That’s what I’m aiming for.  That’s what gives my life meaning.  How about you?”

It was a real question.  My brother and I had been arguing back and forth for several days over various political issues.  I wanted to know what was at the bedrock of his life: what he was living for and what was worth dying for.  And then I answered my own question.  I wrote, “If I could do anything that would keep people from shooting each other, hating each other, hurting each other; if I could do anything that would help to heal the deep divisions in our land; if I could do anything that would help us welcome the stranger, and love God’s creation, and care for the vulnerable, then I would want to do that.  I think the pulpit is a pretty good place to lift up those dreams week after week, and I pray that I will have the courage to do that, even if it costs me my job, even if it costs me my life. I don’t know that anyone will listen, I don’t know that anyone will act, but I wouldn’t mind if my tombstone read:

“Here lie the mortal remains of

James Green Somerville

He died trying”

Now, that’s a long introduction to this morning’s sermon, and I realize it is the third or fourth time I have shared a draft of my epitaph.  I’m still working on it.  But thinking about what you want to have chiseled on your tombstone is a good exercise.  It helps you focus on what really matters.  And it might help you understand why we spend an hour on Sunday morning singing songs about Jesus and telling stories about him.  It’s because we are trying to follow him; it’s because we believe that his way gives our lives meaning and purpose; it’s because we have found in him something worth living for and someone worth dying for.  And so when we have an opportunity like this one to reflect on a passage of scripture together—to look at what Jesus actually did and listen to what he actually said—we want to take advantage of it, because we are all trying to follow his lead, and we can learn not only from him, but also from each other, as we go.  So, here we are, in the thirteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, looking at a story about a bent-over woman who was miraculously healed.

Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  Some of you have been to the Holy Land.  You’ve seen the ruins of first-century synagogues.  You know that the place where Jesus was teaching would have been about the size of our chapel here at First Baptist Church.  And you may also know that when someone taught in the synagogue they would sit down to teach.  We stand, at the pulpit, but they would sit in what was called “Moses’ seat”—the seat of the teacher—and expound on whatever scripture passage had been read earlier.  Apparently that’s where Jesus was sitting and that’s what he was doing when this woman shuffled in.

Luke uses the Greek word idou, which means something like, “Behold!”  Jesus was teaching and, behold!  This woman appeared.  Luke says she had a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  “She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”  She slipped into the synagogue as discreetly as she could, in fact she may have come in after the service started so she wouldn’t have to say hello to the people around her.  But Jesus noticed her, he saw her, and that may be the first miracle in this story.  It is so easy not to see people in need, or not to let them see us.  I saw a man holding a cardboard sign at an intersection recently and found a way to get over into the other lane and hide behind another car so he wouldn’t see me, so I wouldn’t feel like I had to do anything for him.  I’m not proud of it, but it’s what I did.  Jesus, on the other hand, sees this woman come into the synagogue and right there in the middle of his sermon stops everything and calls her over.

She must have been mortified to be singled out like that, but what could she do?  Jesus was calling; she had to come.  And so she made her way through the crowd to where he was and he said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  And then he laid his hands on her.  Pause for just a moment and imagine those hands on your own back.  Imagine what kinds of unclean spirits would be cast out, imagine what kind of healing might occur.  This woman felt Jesus’ divine power flowing through her body and when she did, for the first time in eighteen years, she stood up straight.

I’ve been trying to picture that moment, and what I keep picturing is someone tying a rope to the top of a young sapling and bending it down until the top is almost touching the ground and then staking it down and leaving it alone and letting it grow that way for eighteen years, and then coming back with a knife and slicing through that rope so that the sapling—which is now a young tree—suddenly snaps upright and raises its branches to the sky.  That’s what this woman did.  Immediately she stood up straight. And then she did just what you should at a time like that: she began praising God.

If that were the end of the story this would be the end of the sermon.  You would look at your watch and say, “Preacher let us out early!”  And I could, except for one little word in the text.  It’s the word but and it’s right there at the beginning of verse 14.  Luke tells us that this wonderful miracle occurred, the woman who had been healed was praising God, but…“the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath day, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.’”

Why did he have to do that?  Why did he have to ruin that wonderful moment?  I’ve been thinking about that all week, and I’ve been thinking that in the same way this woman was afflicted by a spirit of infirmity that kept her bent over and unable to stand up straight, this man—this leader of the synagogue—was afflicted by some kind of spirit that kept him from rejoicing when a miraculous healing took place.  What was it?  Was it a spirit of jealousy?  Did he not like it that Jesus was getting all the attention instead of him?  Or was it a need to control things, to make sure that everything in the synagogue was done “decently and in order,” as Paul says.[i]   Or did he just love the rules more than he loved people?  Is that why he started saying, “There are six days on which work ought to be done.  Come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.”  Because on the Sabbath day no work ought to be done, and curing people, well, that was work, wasn’t it?  Ask any doctor in the room.

I’ve been trying to understand this man’s response.  I’ve been trying to feel some sympathy for him.  I was thinking of how I would feel if Justin Pierson, our pastoral resident, our speaker at next week’s healing service, actually started healing people: if they were getting up out of their wheelchairs, and throwing their canes away, and praising God in a loud voice.  “Wait!” I would shout, trying to make myself heard above the hubbub.  “Justin was only supposed to speak, not heal!”  But later I might ask myself, “Why could I not simply rejoice when people were being healed, no matter who did the healing, no matter who got the credit?  What is the spirit in me that needs to control everything, that needs to remind people of the rules?  Was I simply jealous of all the attention Justin was getting?  Was I simply wishing that people were singing my praises, instead of his?”

Whatever it was, the response of the leader of the synagogue was not the response Jesus might have hoped for.  Turning to him and all those others who were shaking their heads and wagging their fingers Jesus says, “You hypocrites!  Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to give it water?  And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”  I talked about that sapling earlier, that young tree that someone might have tied down for eighteen years, but if you were out walking in the woods and found an ox or a donkey that had been tied up for eighteen days, even eighteen hours, you would set it free immediately, wouldn’t you?  You would cut through that rope without a second thought, and you certainly wouldn’t worry about whether or not it was the Sabbath.  You would see it as an emergency, and you would do it as an act of compassion, and if someone tried to stop you, you might threaten them with that knife.  The fact that this leader of the synagogue didn’t see it as an emergency, and couldn’t understand Jesus’ healing as an act of compassion, says a lot about what kind of spirit afflicted him, and makes me think about what kind of spirits afflict us.

I have to admit: I like it when things are done decently and in order.  Maybe it’s because I grew up Presbyterian, where that’s their motto, but maybe it’s because I sit down with the other members of the worship planning team every week to put together a service of worship that we hope will usher you into the very presence of God.  We’re thoughtful about it, intentional about it.  And when Robert Thompson welcomes you to worship by saying, “something might happen today that’s not even in the bulletin,” I know what he means.  He wants you to come to worship with a spirit of expectancy, even excitement.  But there is some spirit in me that doesn’t want that to happen.  I want everything to go exactly as planned.

But what if God has other plans?

I wasn’t here on that day, but I heard about a Sunday morning several years ago when one of our homeless neighbors who appeared to have been drinking came down the aisle.  He was making demands, and making them loudly.  Every deacon in the room was on full alert.  Security was called in.  He said, “Let’s sing Amazing Grace!”  But it wasn’t in the bulletin.  Someone tried to usher him out, gently, but he insisted, “No!  I want to sing Amazing Grace!”  And then someone stepped in who was a little more forceful and he was removed from the sanctuary, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.  As I said, I wasn’t here and I don’t know what I would have done.  I probably would have been right there with everyone else trying to hush him up and get him out.  But what if someone had said, “Hey, this guy wants to sing ‘Amazing Grace.’  We know how to do that.  Let’s do it!”  And suppose we did, and that’s how the service ended that day: with that troubled soul standing there at the front of the church, singing Amazing Grace, with tears streaming down his cheeks?

At the end of today’s Gospel lesson, and only because Jesus had his way, Luke tells us that “his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.”  May we, too, learn to rejoice at all the wonderful things Jesus is doing,

Even if they’re not in the bulletin.

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] 1 Cor. 14:40.

Ultimate Concerns

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 12:49-56

 I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

Not all of you know that my brothers and I accidentally burned down our house when I was a boy.  There is a thirty-minute version of that story I have told a hundred times, but let me see if I can sum it up in three minutes:

We were trying to build a volcano in the back yard.  We piled up a big mound of dirt, dug a deep hole in the center of it, and then poured every flammable liquid we could find into the hole—gasoline, turpentine, nail polish remover.  We wanted the volcano to erupt, and it did, spectacularly.  My brother Ed nearly lost his eyebrows but other than that it was very satisfying.  We had some lunch and then went to my bedroom in the back of the house to relax.  I was reading a Superman comic book, Ed was reading the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Scott was reading Volume IV of the Encyclopaedia Britannica when we heard my mother scream, “The house is on fire!”

We sprang into action and ran to the kitchen where we had heard our mother’s voice.  We didn’t see her, but when we opened the door to the back stairwell we saw that the whole upstairs was on fire.  We threw a few buckets of water up the steps, but when we saw that it wasn’t doing any good we grabbed whatever we could carry and got out of the house as quickly as we could.  The fire department got there soon after and those brave firefighters did their best, but the wood in that house was as dry as a matchstick, and the whole thing burned to the ground.  Nobody was hurt, but our home—that big, beautiful, ramshackle place we had been renting for twenty five dollars a month—was a total loss.

There: I think I did that in less than three minutes.  The thirty-minute version is a lot funnier and if you’d like to hear it sometime I’d be happy to tell it—again!  But I want to go back to that moment when my mother screamed, “The house is on fire!”  That was the moment my brothers and I sprang into action, because that’s what you do when the house is on fire.  You don’t turn the page in your comic book and say, “Did you hear that boys?  Mom said the house is on fire?”  No, that moment is a moment of crisis: it calls for action.

Which may be why Jesus seems so frustrated in today’s Gospel lesson.  Remember that he is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die.  He knows it, and has already told his disciples—twice!—that it’s going to happen.  This is the “baptism” with which he must be baptized, the one that has him under so much stress.  He knows that every step he takes brings him closer to his own execution, and yet his disciples don’t seem to get it, no matter how plainly he puts it.  In Luke 9:22 he tells them, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes and be killed….”  Later in that same chapter he says, “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands” (Luke 9:44).  But Luke tells us “they did not understand this saying; its meaning remained concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it.  And they were afraid to ask him about it” (Luke 9:45).

So now, three chapters later, they’ve moved on.  They’re looking ahead, and beginning to get excited about the Festival of the Passover.  I can picture one of them walking alongside Jesus and saying, “Teacher, won’t it be wonderful when we get to Jerusalem and they crown you king?  When you run the Romans out of Israel, and sit on the throne of your ancestor David?  When you usher in a whole new era of peace and prosperity?”  And I can just imagine Jesus turning to that disciple and saying, “You really don’t get it, do you?”  But as long as we are being honest let’s admit that we don’t get it either.

It might help to review what’s been happening here in Luke, chapter 12, because it’s a long chapter and there’s a lot going on.  Two weeks ago we heard the parable of the Rich Fool, and Jesus warned his hearers to be on their guard against any kind of greed, because life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.  And then he told them that they didn’t have to worry about those things anyway, what they would eat or what they would wear, because it was their Father’s good pleasure to give them the Kingdom.  But then he reminded them that the Kingdom could come soon, it could come at any time, and their job was to be ready.  This was not the time to be lying around reading comic books; this was the time to be wide awake, loins girded, ready for action.  “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Jesus says.  “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!  Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”

In her comments on this passage Debie Thomas writes: “Jesus’ words compel us to move beyond soft, saccharine Christianity, and wrestle with the hard, high costs of discipleship.  Descriptive rather than prescriptive, they declare in honest, unflinching terms what will happen if we dare to take our faith seriously.  What will happen in our families, our communities, our churches, and our world if we allow the ‘fire’ of God’s word to burn through us.  Bottom line?  If ‘[gentle] Jesus, meek and mild’ is what we prefer, then this week’s Gospel lesson is not for us.  If feel-good religion is the comfort zone we refuse to leave, then we’re missing out, because the peace of God is about so much more than good feelings.  Or to put it differently, if neither you nor anyone within your sphere of influence has ever been provoked, disturbed, surprised, or challenged by your life of faith, then things are not okay in your life of faith.[i]

I remember getting a call one Monday afternoon from a church member who was still upset about the sermon I had preached the day before.  He had found it a little too challenging.  He said, “That’s not what I want when I come to church!  I want a sermon that makes me feel better, not worse.  I want to go home feeling good!”  I can’t remember what I said in reply, but Jesus might have said, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”  In other words, I haven’t come to make you feel good, I have come to create a crisis!

I can still remember learning that word in Greek class.  It comes from the verb krinō, which means “to judge,” or “decide.”  But a crisis is when you have to judge or decide something right then, right there.  In a previous sermon I said, “It reminds me of an old Russian novel, where a young woman is standing on the station platform with her mother and father, her sisters and brothers, when the man she loves gets on the train and then, suddenly, turns around and holds out his hand to her.  ‘Come with me!’ he says, and she has to decide: do I jump on the train with the man I love, or do I stay here on the platform with my loving family?  It’s a crisis, because the train is picking up speed.  She can’t put off the decision forever.  She has to make it in the next few seconds, and she feels herself torn between what matters and what matters most.  She may not even know which it is: the man on the train, or the family on the platform.  But there he is, holding out his hand, and she has to choose.

“The moment is as sharp as a sword.”[ii]

In today’s Old Testament lesson from Jeremiah God says, “Is not my word like fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jer. 23:29).  In Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “Do you think I came to smooth things over and make everything nice?” (The Message, Luke 12:51).  No!  Jesus’ words in this passage are like fire, like a hammer, like a sharp sword that would divide us from anything that might keep us from following him.  “From now on five in one household will be divided,” he says, “three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luke 12:52-53).

And we know what he’s talking about.

In these politically divided times members of the same family have been unable to sit down together for Thanksgiving dinner, because two of them voted one way and three of them voted another and somehow their attachment to political figures, or parties, or platforms have become more important to them than their own families, so that they can’t even sit down and enjoy a meal in peace.  But then, Jesus didn’t come to bring peace.  He came to ask: “Is there anything in your life that is more important than following me? (And yes, that would include our political affiliations).  Anything more important than God’s kingdom and his righteousness?  If there is, let the sword of my words sever those attachments.  Let me divide you from anything that threatens to take my place.”  And let’s pause to consider what some of those things might be:

  1. Earlier in chapter 12 Jesus warns his disciples that life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions, but sometimes we forget that. It’s possible that the things that threaten to take Jesus’ place in our life are actually things.  We might become so set on having bigger, better, and nicer things that we begin to strive for them (like people who aren’t even Christian), rather than striving for God’s kingdom and his righteousness.  I asked a young woman recently, “If your house were on fire, what would you rush back in to save?” and she said, “My phone.”  She probably wouldn’t say that she loves her phone more than Jesus, but today’s Gospel lesson raises that kind of question:  “What is your most valuable possession?  And is there anything—any thing—that you love more than him?”
  2. But maybe it’s not a thing at all; maybe it’s a person. I remember saying years ago, before my children were born, that it was harder for me to love God than it was to love Christy, my wife.  Because I could see Christy, I could talk to her, I could hold her in my arms.  God is so immortal, so invisible, that I don’t always feel very close to him.  That’s why he came close to us in Jesus.  That’s why they called him Emmanuel: “God with us.”  But there are days when even Jesus doesn’t feel very close, when it is far easier for me to pour out my love on my wife, or my children, or now my adorable grandchildren.  “Even so,” Jesus might say, “I need to be first in your life.  I need you to ask yourself if there is anyone more important than me.”
  3. And then (not finally but additionally), our not-so-humble opinions. Are they more important to us than Jesus?  I’m surprised sometimes by how hard I can dig in my heels when someone suggests that my way is not the right way.  I’m surprised by the way my face flushes and my heart begins to beat faster when someone challenges my convictions.  And sometimes the one who is doing the challenging is Jesus.  He reminds me that I’m not in charge.  He tells me to seek God’s kingdom rather than my own.  He tells me to love my enemies and turn the other cheek.  That’s not the way I would choose to do it but if I’m really going to follow him I need to be willing to give up my way in favor of his.

My friend Don Flowers once spent two months filling the pulpit of a Baptist church in Bali (I don’t even know how you get a job like that).  But he told me about meeting a woman there who had grown up Hindu, one who had, at some point, decided to follow Jesus.  Her family told her quite frankly: “If you become a Christian you will no longer be part of our family.”  She struggled with that for a long time, as anyone would, but eventually she made a choice between what matters and what matters most.  It’s as if she were standing there on the station platform with her family, and the train began to pull away, and Jesus held out his hand and said, “Come with me!”  He created a crisis; he forced a decision; the moment was as sharp as a sword.  But in that moment she decided to follow him, even if it meant leaving her family behind forever.

That’s all Jesus is really asking for in this passage—everything.  He’s asking us to follow him even if we have to leave our friends and family behind.  He’s asking us to open our hands and give up the money or things we are clutching too tightly.  He’s asking us to seek God’s kingdom before any other political entity or figure.  He’s asking us to walk with him on the road to Jerusalem, even if it leads to death.  That’s all.  And as he says at the end of this passage, if you can read the signs of the times you can see that this is the time to decide.  This is the moment of crisis.  Your house is on fire.  You need to decide now what matters most to you, and then spend the rest of your days living as if it does.  Are you ready for that?  Am I ready for that?  God, help us!

And let us pray…

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Debie Thomas, “Disturbing the Peace,” Journey with Jesus, August 11, 2019 (

[ii] Jim Somerville, “Not Peace But a Sword,” a sermon preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on August 18, 2013.

Treasure in Heaven

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 12:32-40

Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven…. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Some of you know that I was at Preacher Camp last week.  It’s what we call our annual sermon planning retreat, where six of us who have known each other forever get together to plan our preaching for the following year.  But we also spend a good bit of time simply talking about what’s going on in the world and in our lives and in our churches.  Last week we were wondering if people come to church primarily for the fellowship, or the worship, or the mission, when it struck me that maybe it’s none of those things, primarily: maybe they come to church for the wisdom, and I don’t mean mine.

In the Old Testament there was this idea that life was a journey that presented you with a series of choices.  Again and again you might find yourself standing at a fork in the road, wondering whether to go right or left.  If you were wise you would make the right choice.  That’s what the Book of Proverbs is all about: it’s a collection of short, memorable wisdom sayings, offered in the hope that if people can learn to make good choices they will stay on the path that leads to life.  And this book claims to contain the proverbs of Solomon, the wisest and wealthiest person who ever lived.[i]  If you could learn his secrets you might live a very good life indeed.

So, maybe that’s why people come to church: because life is a difficult and confusing journey, because they often find themselves standing at a fork in the road and it would be helpful if someone were standing there to point the way, someone they could trust.  The Old Testament had Solomon but the New Testament has Jesus, the greatest Wisdom Teacher of all time.  We lean in close and listen to his words because we believe they will guide us along the path that leads to life.  Only you don’t have to listen long to realize that the wisdom of Jesus is very different from the wisdom of Solomon.  Solomon points you to a life of health, wealth, and happiness while Jesus sometimes points in the opposite direction.  At the very least, we might say that his is an unconventional wisdom and the question is, are we willing to follow it?  Can we trust that if we do what he says, we will end up in the place we want to be?  And before you say yes you might think about where he ended up: hanging from a cross like a common criminal.  Is that the place you want to go?  Or would you rather end up in Solomon’s palace, with more wealth than anyone had ever seen and more wisdom than the world had ever known?

Tough choice, I know.  It might help you to read the Book of Ecclesiastes, also attributed to Solomon, in which he confesses that he had it all, everything the world could offer, and found it to be completely unsatisfying.  “Behold, all was vanity and a striving after the wind,” he writes.[ii]  I think about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, sitting on the deck of his $500 million yacht in the Mediterranean, looking back at the twinkling lights of St. Tropez after finishing up a gourmet meal prepared by his private chef and pouring himself one more glass of Chateau Lafite.  Ah!  It doesn’t get any better than that, does it?  But what if that were your life day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year?  When would you get tired of sitting on your yacht, indulging yourself in fancy food and wine, while the crew buzzed about anticipating your every need?  When would you be ready to scream and jump overboard?  Hard to imagine, I know, but not impossible.  Almost anyone can see there has to be more to life than that.  And Jesus offers us more.  He offers us abundant, overflowing, everlasting life, not only in the hereafter, but also in the here and now.  Yet in order to have what he offers we have to trust his wisdom.  We have to listen to what he says, and then do it.  But much of what he says is hard to hear, and even harder to do.

Today’s Gospel lesson picks up a few verses after last Sunday’s.  We are in Luke, chapter 12, where Jesus has just told the story of the Rich Fool, the one who decided to tear down his barns and build bigger ones so that he could store his enormous harvest.  The line that stays with me from that story is the one where the man says to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years.  Relax!  Eat, drink, be merry!”  As if his soul could not relax until he was sure he had enough.  And maybe you know how he feels.  Maybe you are trying to save for your retirement and wondering how much is enough.  Even the most frugal financial advisors will tell you that a little more couldn’t hurt.  And so you keep on working, and keep on saving, and your soul is like a clenched fist.  It can’t relax.

If that’s you then you are the person Jesus is addressing in the very next paragraph, verses 22-31.  It’s not in today’s lectionary reading, but it should be.  Jesus says:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, you of little faith! 29 And do not keep seeking what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the [heathen who] seek all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Jesus doesn’t really answer the question of how much is enough, but he does speak to the condition of a clenched soul.  He says, “Relax!  Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will wear.  Your father knows what you need.  He’ll give it to you.  Just seek his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be added to you.”  Jesus isn’t talking about money; he’s talking about worry.  He’s talking about how we worry when we think we won’t have enough money.  And he is dismissing that worry with a wave of his hand.  “You’ve got a heavenly father who loves you!  One who is able to provide for your every need!  Why should you have to worry about anything?”  And yet we do.  Of course we do.  We worry so much that Jesus has to continue this conversation in the next paragraph, today’s Gospel lesson, where he says, “Do not be afraid little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

I explained it like this in a previous sermon: “Jesus is saying that God, who is the king of the universe, wants to give us his kingdom.  He calls him our ‘father,’ and suggests that we will inherit what belongs to him just as surely as children inherit what belongs to their earthly fathers.  And what belongs to God is everything: as I said, he’s the king of the universe!  We are the young princes and princesses who sit around his supper table, swinging our legs.  Which makes our anxiety about our lives, about what we will eat and what we will wear, almost laughable.”[iii]

Jesus doesn’t want us to worry and he doesn’t want us to fear.  He wants us to trust the Father’s love and generosity so completely that we can do the next thing on his list, which is to sell our possessions and give alms.  It’s right there in verse 33.  But for all the people who say they take the Bible literally I don’t see many people taking this verse literally.  I don’t see many people selling their possessions and giving the money to the poor.  If everybody did that, even if only every Christian did that, there might not be any poor people in the world, and if I were Jesus, that’s probably what I would want them to do.  But I believe Jesus was talking to poor people when he said it, people who were clutching their handful of possessions as if those things could save them.  “No,” he said.  “Only God can save you.  And that is God’s intention.  It is his good pleasure to give you not only what you need to survive, but also what you need to thrive.  God wants to give you the Kingdom.  In light of that you don’t need to cling to your possessions any longer.  You can sell them and give the money away.”

Because here’s the thing about possessions: they can possess you.  When I took up sailing on a friend’s boat recently I decided to give away my canoe, the one Al Hopper gave me fourteen years ago when I came to Richmond (thank you, Al).  I gave it to my niece, and now I don’t have to worry about it anymore.  And when Christy was cleaning out the basement recently and asked me if I still wanted to keep my bicycle, the old Panama Jack beach cruiser that I rarely ride, I said no.  The next day it was gone.  But I’ve been enjoying my friend’s sailboat and every once in a while I get an itch to buy one for myself, you know, just a small one.  But then I will remember the old joke that “the two best days in a boat owner’s life are the day you buy a boat and the day you sell it.”  That tells you something about the burden of caring for things, and if you have a lot of things the burden can be enormous.  You can lie awake at night worrying about thieves breaking in and stealing, or moth and rust destroying.

It’s like I say to people who are struggling with addiction: “You have to know who is the master and who is the slave in this relationship.  If you can’t say no to something then you are the slave, not the master.”  And for people who are addicted to money or things one of the best ways you can show them who’s boss is to give them away.  On Facebook yesterday my friend Linda confessed that one of the biggest challenges of her marriage was when her husband came home from a deacons’ meeting and said they needed to start tithing.  She said she struggled with that, trying to find a loophole (“Ten percent?  Really?”).  But in the end she bit the bullet and wrote the check.  She said she had to work on the “cheerful” part of being a cheerful giver.  But over time her heart changed and her checkbook opened.  She wrote, “This was over fifteen years ago.  We haven’t wavered on this giving since.  God does provide what you need.  He blesses you so can bless others.”  As I’ve been saying, when the clenched fist of your soul relaxes and opens up, God can fill it with good things so you can share them with others.

I think Linda might say what Jesus says here, that when you can learn to overcome the fear and the worry, when you can find the courage to sell your possessions and give alms, then you will have treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.”  That is unconventional wisdom, especially these days, but let the one who has ears hear this: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

And that’s just true.

I think about those first disciples.  When Jesus called them to follow they could have said, “Well, we’d love to, but we have all this stuff: these boats, these nets, this business.”  But that’s not what they said.  They just dropped their nets and followed.  And there must have been times along the way when they wondered where their next meal would come from or where they would sleep at night, but that didn’t stop them from following.  They followed Jesus all the way to the end.  And I think if you had asked any of them even on their worst day, even on Good Friday, if they would do it again they would have said, “Yes.  Absolutely.  Following Jesus is the greatest thing I have ever done.”  And if you asked them if the life they had discovered in him was a life worth living I think they would have said, “Yes.  Absolutely.  It’s the only life worth living.”

And that’s unconventional.  There aren’t a lot of people interested in a life like that.  They would much rather follow Jeff Bezos, and end up on a yacht somewhere in the Mediterranean than follow Jesus and end up standing at the foot of the cross.   But I have this feeling that if we were brave enough to try it, if we could give up our worry and give up our fear, we might find that those disciples were absolutely right: that a life of following Jesus is the only one worth living, no matter how hard it is, no matter how much it costs.  And when we get to heaven we may find that our hearts got there ahead of us, and so did our treasure, because hearts and treasure, treasure and hearts—they always end up in the same place.  So, here we are in this place, standing at a fork in the road with a decision to make: whose wisdom will we trust, and which way will we go?

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] See Proverbs 1:1

[ii] Ecclesiastes 2:11.

[iii] Jim Somerville, “Where Is Your Treasure?” a sermon preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on August 11, 2019.


Easter Sunday

Luke 24:1-12

 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”

Dearly beloved: we are gathered here today to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ.  The word in Greek is anastasis, which means, literally, “to stand up again.”  It’s a reference to the fact that on Good Friday the enemies of Jesus knocked him down, they nailed him to the cross, they hung him up to die, they laid him in a tomb, but “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” he stood up again.  “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angels said to the women.  “He is not here, but has risen.”  That’s the word of the day.  That’s what we’ve come to celebrate.

But that’s not all.

Today’s epistle reading is from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s famous “resurrection chapter,” in which he argues that not only Jesus, but also all of us who belong to him, will be raised from the dead.  He argues so passionately and so persuasively that the resurrection of the body, rather than the immortality of the soul, became the official doctrine of the early church.  In the Fourth Century Christians began reciting the Nicene Creed, which says, “We look for the resurrection of the dead.”  The Apostle’s Creed, written sometime later, makes it more personal.  It says, “I believe…in the resurrection of the body.”  Even now, the idea that our physical bodies will someday rise is the orthodox teaching of the church, but that doesn’t mean that everyone believes it.

The question of bodily resurrection came up after one of my sermons a few weeks ago, when I talked about the Hebrew word nephesh, the one that is most often translated as “soul.”  Tim Mackie from the says, “That’s unfortunate, because the English word soul comes with lots of baggage from ancient Greek philosophy.  It’s the idea that the soul is a non-physical, immortal essence of a person that’s contained or trapped in their body to be released at death.”  But that is not the biblical view.  According to Mackie “The Hebrew word nephesh refers to the whole person.  When the life-breath goes out of a person, the nephesh remains.  It’s just called a dead nephesh, that is, a corpse.  So in the Bible, people don’t have a nephesh; rather, they are a nephesh—a living, breathing, physical being.”[i]

One person came looking for me as soon as church was over, saying, “Wait a minute!  I’ve always heard that when your body dies your soul goes to heaven, but you’re telling me something different.”  I said, “I’m only telling you what the Bible says.”  Someone else wrote to me later that week with the same kind of concern.  When I said, again, that the immortality of the soul is not the biblical view he wrote back and said, “Well, it’s the one I feel most comfortable with, so I’m keeping it.”  I didn’t say so, but I was thinking, “Are you going to believe things that aren’t biblical, just because they’re easier?”  I wondered what was so hard about believing that when we die we are completely dead, and that when God is good and ready he will raise us up?  And that’s when it hit me that the hard thing for this man, and maybe for most of us, is time.

Let me use a personal example.  My father died a little more than seven years ago.  My mother died a few years after that.  The two of them are buried on my brother’s farm, on a beautiful hillside in West Virginia that faces the rising sun.  Their tombstone says, “In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, here lie the mortal remains of James and Mary Rice Whiting Somerville.”  You could ask me, “Do you believe your parents are there, in those graves?” and I would say, “No!  I believe they are with the Lord.”  “But what about this tombstone, that makes it sound as if they are just lying there, waiting for the sun to come up on the Day of Resurrection?”  Well, here’s what I believe, but try to stay with me, because it’s complicated:

I believe that the clock started ticking on the first day of creation, when God said, “Let there be light.”  And I believe that someday the clock will stop ticking, and time will come to an end.  If you stretch out the time line in space it might look like this [pulling hands apart as if pulling a string, to a distance of about two feet].  But God is bigger than time [drawing a large oval around the time line].  That’s how he could be with Moses on Mount Sinai and with Jesus on Mount Calvary at the same time.  But we’re different.  We are stuck on the timeline.  We are slaves to the ticking clock.  Slaves, that is, until we die, and when we do I believe we step off the timeline and into the presence of God (which may explain why Jesus could say to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise”).   One of my seminary professors put it like this: “The only thing that separates the day of your death from the day of your resurrection is time [holding a pencil between his palms], and when time drops out of the equation [dropping the pencil] the two come together, like this!” [clapping his hands].  He clapped his hands together so loudly some of us dropped our own pencils.

I know this is hard to grasp.  None of us has ever lived outside of time.  So, here’s another way to think about it.  Imagine that all of us are on our way to the Promised Land, like those Hebrew children of long ago.  We’re walking on a wide road that winds through the wilderness.  We’re singing old hymns as we go.  But then, every once in a while, someone falls to the ground and dies.  It just happens.  But when it does an ambulance comes, only it’s not blaring that awful siren, it’s playing, “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder.”  The paramedics get out, load the body gently into the ambulance, and then drive off toward the Promised Land, ahead of us.  When we finally get there, weary from our travels, there they are!—those saints who went before us—standing on the other side of the Jordan, alive and well, smiling and waving and welcoming us home.

That hymn, “When the Roll Is Called up Yonder,” was one of my mother’s favorites.  Near the end of her life she suffered from dementia; she couldn’t remember much of anything.  But one day I took her for a drive in the country and I started singing that hymn.  She sang it right along with me.  Do you remember the words?

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound

And time shall be no more (!)

When the morning breaks, eternal,

Bright, and fair;

When the saved of earth shall gather

Over on the other shore,

And the roll is called up yonder,

I’ll be there.

My brothers and I sang that hymn at my mother’s funeral, wiping tears from our eyes while her simple pine casket rested under a cedar tree, but I think if she could have spoken she would have said, “Oh, children!  I have been there and done that!  I’ve got the T-shirt!  Only it doesn’t say, ‘When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there,” it says, ‘When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be here!”

My mother believed in the resurrection of the body, and so do I.  But in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul anticipates our next question.  He writes: “But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’’  People have asked me that question.  Especially when a loved one has been cremated people want to know how bodily resurrection works when there’s not much of the body left.  I usually say, “I don’t know how it works, but I trust the God who made the first man out of a handful of dust to re-make your loved one out of a handful of ashes.”  That’s what I say.  But Paul (who must have skipped that class in seminary where you learn how to be gentle with people) says, “Fool!  What you sow does not come to life unless it dies.   And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.  But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.”[ii]

It’s an analogy, but a good one.  I can still remember how disappointed I was, as a boy, to buy a packet of seeds at the hardware store with all those brightly colored flowers on the front and then open it up to find only those dry, brown, shriveled-up seeds.  But my mother helped me plant them and water them, and in a few weeks’ time there were flowers in my back yard more beautiful than those on the seed packet.  It really is a miracle, isn’t it?  Paul simply claims that what happens to the bodies we bury in the ground (or reduce to a pile of ashes) is no more, but certainly no less, miraculous than that.

It’s an analogy: a way of comparing something we don’t understand with something we do understand in an effort to make sense of it.  Jesus did it all the time.  The author of John’s Gospel tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word (meaning Jesus).  The Word was with God and the Word was God.  All things were made through him and without him was not anything made that was made.”  But then the Word became flesh and almost immediately the Word had a problem: how do you explain the wonders of heaven in the words of mere humans?  It’s hard.  You have to use similes, analogies, metaphors, and parables.  That’s what Jesus did.  He told his hearers that the Kingdom of Heaven was like a mustard seed, for example, or like finding treasure in a field.  “He did not tell them anything without using a parable,” Matthew says.[iii]

He didn’t have a choice.

Maybe Paul didn’t either.  In 2 Corinthians 12 he says he knew a man who was taken up to “the third heaven,” which seems to be a modest way of talking about one of his own spiritual experiences.  What did he see while he was up there?  We don’t really know, and when Paul tries to talk about those things he, too, has a hard time putting them into words.  He opens his mouth in a parable.[iv]  He says that our resurrection bodies will be like the beautiful flowers that grow from a handful of dry, brown, shriveled-up seeds.  In that same chapter he says, “Lo, I tell you a mystery!  We shall not all sleep (that is, die), but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the sound of the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and [those of us who are still alive] will be changed!”[v]

Do you know what he’s talking about?  I don’t.  And anyone who tells you they know what happens to you after you die, or what kind of resurrection body you will have, or when all of this is going to happen, is probably someone you should avoid.  It’s a mystery.  But recently I had an experience that seems like a good analogy, one the Apostle Paul may have used if the Apostle Paul had used a smartphone.  Because here’s what happened:

My phone was dying.  I’d had it for five or six years and the battery just wouldn’t hold a charge anymore.  I’d charge it up overnight, take it with me to work, and by noon the battery would be down to ten percent.  Plus the memory was nearly full, which is another way of saying that, like me, my phone was having trouble remembering things.  I put it off for as long as possible but on my birthday I ordered a new phone from Amazon.  Well, not a new one (and this is what makes this such a good analogy).  I ordered a renewed smartphone: one where they had taken an old phone and brought it back to life again, with a new body, and a new battery, and an upgraded operating system.

It was delivered that same day, and when I took it out of the package it was charged and ready to go.  The instructions said that if I wanted to transfer the data from my old phone to the new one, all I had to do was put the two side by side and let modern technology work its magic, so I did, and about an hour later my new phone was ready to go.  And here’s the amazing thing: when I picked it up and turned it on there was my grandson’s face looking back at me.  How did it know?  How did this phone, that had been renewed in some distant factory, and delivered from some random warehouse, know that was my grandson?  And how did it know me?  Because when I started looking through the apps there were all my photographs, all my contact information, even my daily Bible reading plan was up to date.

It seemed like a miracle.

But what a good analogy of the resurrection body!  Because my new phone has a battery that lasts practically forever, and my new phone has more memory than I will ever need, and my new phone can do things my old phone could never do.  I want a resurrection body like that.  I want a resurrection body that will download all the information from my old body, but make it new.  And if Paul could talk to me now I think he would say, “It’s coming.  It’s at the factory now.  It will be in the warehouse soon.  But when the time comes, it will be waiting.”

Frederick Buechner says, “The thing that God in spite of everything prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of a human being but a new and revised version of all the things which made him the particular human being he was and which he needs something like a body to express: his personality, the way he looked, the sound of his voice, his peculiar capacity for creating and loving, in some sense his face.” [vi]  And more than his face, I suspect: his arms.  Her arms.  Arms that can hug you and hold you and welcome you home.  Why would you settle for a disembodied soul when you could have all that?

Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] Tim Mackie and Jon Collins, “Soul,” (

[ii] 1 Cor. 15:36-38

[iii]  Matt. 13:34

[iv] Psalm 78:2

[v] 1 Cor. 15:51-52

[vi] Frederick Buechner, “Immortality,” Wishful Thinking (

Truth Revealed

Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9:28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.

This is the last sermon in a series called “The Truth about God” that started on the first Sunday in January and now has taken us all the way through February.  It’s been a good series, hasn’t it?  We’ve been focusing mostly on the Gospel lessons from Luke, but operating on a principle from John 1:18, where it says: “No one has ever seen God; it is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  So, if we want to know the truth about God, we have to look at Jesus.

This seems especially relevant after last week’s sermon in which I quoted Karen Armstrong, a scholar of world religions who pointed out that in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity there is a shared belief that you should “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—the so-called Golden Rule.  How did those three different religions end up with the same belief?  Maybe because each of those religions would describe itself as monotheistic, that is, each of them has only one God.  And if I could be so bold, I would say that each of those religions has the same God.  But there is a difference, and it is this: Muslims look at God through the lens of Muhammad; Jews look at God through the lens of Moses; but Christians look at God through the lens of Jesus.  And Christians would tell you that Jesus has not only seen God, but is God.

Today’s Gospel lesson makes that abundantly clear.  I’ve been trying to think of a good way to explain it, and I keep coming back to the analogy of the sun and the moon.  When I was a boy I heard people say that the moon was made of green cheese.  I don’t think they actually believed it, but that’s what some of them said, and the truth is they didn’t know: nobody had ever been to the moon.  But on July 20, 1969, I stayed up late and watched on a neighbor’s black-and-white TV set as Neil Armstrong came down the ladder of the lunar module, stepped onto the surface of the moon, and said, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”[i]  One of the things we learned from that mission is that the moon is not made of green cheese.  Armstrong and his fellow astronauts scooped up samples from its surface and brought them back to earth.  I can almost remember how disappointed I was when I learned that the moon was nothing but a big ball of dust and rocks.

And yet the moon hasn’t lost its romance.  When you see it rising above the horizon it still moves you, doesn’t it?  My wife, Christy, went out for an early morning walk near the end of 2020 and was surprised by an enormous full moon that seemed to follow her everywhere she went.  She ended up writing a children’s book[ii] about that experience that includes the line: “I see the moon, so big and bright, he shines in the sky like a big flashlight.”  But Christy knows, and you know, that the moon has no light of its own.  It’s just a big ball of dust and rocks that reflects the light of the sun.  But it’s hard to remember that sometimes, especially when the moon is shining so brightly you could almost read a newspaper by its light.  It’s hard to remember in those moments that it’s not a flashlight, but a mirror.

Some of our readings for today pick up on the theme of reflected light.  Exodus 34 tells us that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai his face was shining “because he had been talking with God.”  Paul alludes to that event in 2 Corinthians 3, when he talks about Moses putting a veil over his face, initially to keep people from being frightened by the glory of God that was still shining there, but eventually because the glory was fading, and he didn’t want them to know it.  Paul suggests that there is still a veil between the people of Israel and the glory of God.  “Indeed, to this very day,” he writes, “whenever [the Law of] Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed….  And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”[iii]  Which is to say that the more we look on Jesus, the more we become like him, the more our faces shine.

Can you see why those readings were selected for this day, this Transfiguration Sunday, when Jesus goes up on a mountain and his face begins to shine like the sun?  Technically, it’s only in Matthew’s version of this story that his face shines like the sun.  Luke says that his face was “changed,” and his clothes became “dazzling white.”  But I’m going to borrow that description from Matthew because it makes it clear that Jesus’ face was not shining like the moon; it was shining like the sun.  That is, it wasn’t reflecting light, it was revealing it.

This is the way Christians talk about Jesus.  Some of the earliest Christian confessions affirm that Jesus was the “only begotten Son of God,” and they make much of that word begotten, which means “to bring into existence.”  The Nicene Creed puts it this way:  “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”  The word in Greek is homoousia.  It means “one being,” or “one substance.”  I keep picturing it like one of those solar flares[iv] that erupts from the surface of the sun and shoots into space, except that in this particular instance that ribbon of white-hot plasma shot all the way to earth and became the Son of God, and on the Mount of Transfiguration his true identity was revealed.  His face was changed.  It began to shine like the sun that he was.  Or, rather, like the son that he was.  Do you see how we do that, we Christians?  Do you see how we talk about Jesus as if he were God?  Muslims don’t do that with Muhammad.  Jews don’t do that with Moses.  But we do that with Jesus, and this story is one of the reasons.  Luke and the other Gospel writers don’t want us to have any doubt in our minds.

Luke tells us that while Jesus was standing there, with his face changed and his clothes dazzling, Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet suddenly appeared in glory and began talking to him about his departure (or in Greek, his exodus).  For those who have ears to hear these two represented the “Law and the Prophets”—which was what they called the Bible in those days—and when God says later, “This is my Son, my Chosen: listen to him,” it seems to be a way of saying, “Listen to him even above the words of Scripture.  Let his words be for you, ‘The Word of the Lord.’”

Thanks be to God.

Peter and his companions were “weighed down with sleep,” Luke tells us, but since they had stayed awake they “saw his glory,” the same glory Moses saw on Mount Sinai, when a cloud settled on the mountain and the Lord descended in fire, and the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain shook (Ex. 19:18). Do you remember how John writes, in the story about Jesus turning water into wine, that his disciples “saw his glory and believed in him”?  Here, too, the disciples get a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, and although Luke doesn’t say so, I think they believed in him as never before.

As Moses and Elijah were preparing to leave Peter said, “Master, it is good that we are here.  Let us make three tabernacles—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!”  He didn’t know what he was saying, but it’s not the craziest thing he might have said.  When Moses was on the mountain God gave him detailed plans for the construction of a tabernacle, a “dwelling place.”  Peter may have been offering to do the same.  But even as he makes the suggestion a cloud comes and covers the mountain.  Matthew calls it a “bright cloud,” and I can almost picture it, lit up from the inside with lightning and rumbling with thunder.  The disciples were terrified, but from within that cloud they heard a voice say, “This is my son, my Chosen; listen to him.”  Or in Matthew’s version, “This is my son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

If you were there on that mountain, and if there were any doubts left in your mind, they would have disappeared right along with that cloud.  You would have found yourself, like Peter, James, and John, alone with Jesus, the Chosen One, the Beloved Son.  And along with later generations of believers you might have testified that he was “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one being with the Father.”[v]  Yes.  All of that and more.  That’s what the story of the Transfiguration is trying to teach us.

In her comments on this passage[vi] Debie Thomas says, “Growing up, I was taught that the Transfiguration is important because it does the following: it reveals Christ’s divine nature, confirms his Sonship, foreshadows his death, secures his place in the stream of Israel’s salvific history, exalts him above the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), and prefigures his Resurrection.”  And then she writes: “I don’t have any particular arguments with Transfiguration theology—it’s all lovely, I’m sure.  But it leaves me cold.  Maybe this is because my eyes aren’t on the clouds this year; they’re pretty earthbound.”  Thomas wrote those words in January, 2016, but they might have been written this morning.  Our eyes, too, are “pretty earthbound.”  We are saying prayers for the people of Ukraine, and holding our breath to see what will happen there.  All this talk about Jesus and his shining face seems strangely irrelevant.

And yet, not for Luke.  His eyes are on the ground, too.  Immediately after this story of glory on the mountain he tells a different story altogether, one that is often included in today’s Gospel reading.  Listen to the words of Luke 9:37-43a:

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

It’s a very different story, isn’t it?  And yet Debie Thomas tells it in a way that makes the parallels between the two stories clear.  Listen to the way she describes the first scene:

On the mountain, a man bent in prayer erupts in sudden light.  As glory leaks from every pore, three sleepy disciples cower in the grass and watch their Master glow.  Two figures appear out of time and space; in solemn tones they speak of exodus, accomplishment, Jerusalem.  The disciples, comprehending nothing, babble nonsense in response—“Let’s make tents!  Let’s stay here always! This is good!”  A cloud descends, thick and impenetrable.  As it envelops the disciples, they fall to their faces, certain the end has come.  But a Voice addresses them instead, tender and gentle. “This is my Son, my Chosen.”  The Voice hums with delight, and the disciples, braver now, look up.  They gaze at their Master—the Shining One—and a Father’s pure joy sings with the stars. “This is my Beloved Son.  Listen to him.”

And now, listen to the way Thomas describes the second scene:

In the valley, a boy writhes in the dust.  He drools, he cannot hear, and his eyes—wide-open, feral—see nothing but darkness.  Around him a crowd gathers and swells, eager for spectacle.  Scribes jeer, and disciples wring their hands in shame.  “Frauds!” someone yells into the night.  “Charlatans!”  “Where’s your Master?” the scribes ask the disciples an umpteenth time.  “Why has he left you?”  “We don’t know,” the disciples mutter, gesturing vaguely at the mountain.  Panic wars with exhaustion as they hear the boy shriek yet again—an echo straight from hell.  He flails, and his limbs assault his stricken face.  A voice—strangled, singular—rends the night.  “This is my son!” a man cries out as he pushes through the crowd to gather the convulsing boy into his arms.  Everyone stares as the father cradles the wreck of a child against his chest.  “Please,” he sobs to the stars.  “Please.  This is my beloved son.  Listen to him.”

What becomes clear in the way Thomas tells the story is that the heavenly Father has a Beloved Son, but so does this earthly father, so do most of us—at least most of us have people in our lives whom we love, and for whom we would do almost anything.  The people of Ukraine do.  But in Thomas’ telling of this story it becomes clear that God’s Beloved is here for all those other beloveds.

There’s a place in the Book of Exodus where God explains to Moses what he is up to.  He appears to him in a burning bush on top of a mountain, a bush that was blazing and yet not consumed.  Moses turns aside to see this “great sight,” and God says, “I have seen the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.”  And there you have it: an epiphany on a mountaintop where God makes it clear that he has come down because he cares about the suffering of his people.  In today’s Gospel lesson there is another epiphany on a mountaintop, and in the story that follows God makes it clear that in Christ Jesus he has come down because he cares about the suffering of all people.  This is the truth about God, and it is revealed by Jesus, not because he is the lens through which we see God, but because he is God himself.  Listen to how Luke finishes the story:  “Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.  And when it was over everyone who had witnessed it was astounded at the greatness of God.”

The greatness of whom?

The greatness of God.

—Jim Somerville © 2022


[ii] Christy Somerville, “Walking with the Moon,” Amazon, 2021 (

[iii] 2 Corinthians 3:18.

[iv] Technically a “Coronal Mass Ejection” (CME), but I didn’t want to sound like a know-it-all.

[v] From the Nicene Creed.

[vi] Debie Thomas (yes, that’s how you spell her first name), “The View from the Valley,” The Journey with Jesus, January 31, 2016 (

Unconventional Truth

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Luke 6:27-38

 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

At the beginning of today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies.”  I can imagine a long pause after that before he says, “And to you who are still listening: do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.”  Because the sayings in today’s passage are not among Jesus’ most popular, but they may be among his most important.

As I was looking at them last week I was reminded of a TED Talk from 2008 by Karen Armstrong, a British scholar who has written more than 20 books on faith and the major world religions.[i]  As she puts it, the people at TED led her very gently from her “book-lined study into the 21st century” and onto a stage where the little talk she shared with an audience went “viral.”  I want to share the first few paragraphs of that talk with you, and maybe you can see why it was so popular.  I won’t do the British accent, but see if you can picture Karen Armstrong, a former nun, standing uncomfortably under the spotlight and saying:

Well, this is such an honor. I’m intensely grateful for the opportunity to speak to you today.  And I’m also rather surprised, because when I look back on my life the last thing I ever wanted to do was write, or be in any way involved in religion. 

After I left my convent, I’d finished with religion, frankly.  I thought that was it.  And for 13 years I kept clear of it.  I wanted to be an English literature professor.  And I certainly didn’t even want to be a writer, particularly.  But then I suffered a series of career catastrophes, one after the other, and finally found myself in television (laughter).  I said that to Bill Moyers once and he said, “Oh, we take anybody!”

And I was doing some rather controversial religious programs.  This went down very well in the U.K., where religion is extremely unpopular.  And so, for the only time in my life, I was in the mainstream.  But I got sent to Jerusalem to make a film about early Christianity.  And there, for the first time, I encountered the other religious traditions: Judaism and Islam, the sister religions of Christianity.  And I found I knew nothing about these faiths at all—despite my own intensely religious background, I’d seen Judaism only as a kind of prelude to Christianity, and I knew nothing about Islam at all.

But in that city, that tortured city, where you see the three faiths jostling so uneasily together, you also become aware of the profound connection between them.  And it has been the study of other religious traditions that brought me back to a sense of what religion can be, and actually enabled me to look at my own faith in a different light.

And I found some astonishing things in the course of my study that had never occurred to me.  Frankly, in the days when I thought I’d had it with religion, I just found the whole thing absolutely [unbelievable].  These doctrines seemed unproven, abstract.  And to my astonishment, when I began seriously studying other traditions, I began to realize that belief—which we make such a fuss about today—is only a very recent religious enthusiasm that surfaced only in the West, in about the 17th century. The word “belief” itself originally meant to love, to prize, to hold dear.  In the 17th century, it narrowed its focus to mean an intellectual assent to a set of propositions.  Originally, when someone said, “I believe,” it did not mean, “I accept certain creedal articles of faith.”  Rather it meant: “I commit myself. I engage myself.”  Indeed, some of the world traditions think very little of religious orthodoxy.  In the Quran, religious opinion is dismissed as “zanna”: self-indulgent guesswork about matters that nobody can be certain of one way or the other, but which makes people quarrelsome and stupidly sectarian (laughter).

So if religion is not about believing things, what is it about?  What I’ve found, across the board, is that religion is about behaving differently.  Instead of deciding whether or not you believe in God, first you do something.  You behave in a committed way, and then you begin to understand the truths of religion.  And religious doctrines are meant to be summons to action; you only understand them when you put them into practice.

Now, [the most important of these practices is] compassion.  And it is an arresting fact that right across the board, in every single one of the major world faiths, compassion—the ability to feel with the other—is not only the test of any true religiosity, it is also what will bring us into the presence of what Jews, Christians and Muslims call “God” or the “Divine.”  It is compassion, says the Buddha, which brings you to Nirvana.  Why?  Because in compassion, when we feel with the other, we dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and we put another person there.  And once we get rid of ego, then we’re ready to see the Divine.[ii]

I’m going to stop quoting Karen Armstrong for a moment and go back to quoting Jesus.  He told his followers to love their enemies, and just as a reminder he didn’t mean that we should have warm, cozy feelings for our enemies: he meant that we should act in their best interests, no matter what.  “Love your enemies,” he said, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you.”  He didn’t say it quite this way, but he seems to imply that if you do this (and please pardon my use of a theological term) you will surprise the hell out of your enemies.  Love will be the last thing they expect; it will catch them completely off guard, it will “mess with their heads,” so to speak.  So, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.  Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.”  Finally, Jesus says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

This is the Golden Rule, but as Karen Armstrong points out it was around long before Jesus.  Five centuries before Christ, when the disciples of Confucius asked him what one thing they could do all day, every day, he said: “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”  He insisted that if they could practice that one simple rule consistently it would lead them into a transcendent value he called ren—a kind of human-heartedness that would be a transcendent experience in itself.  Five centuries later the famous Rabbi Hillel, an older contemporary of Jesus, was challenged by a pagan to recite the whole of Jewish teaching while standing on one leg.  “If you do it I will convert to Judaism,” the pagan swore.  Hillel did it.  He stood on one leg and said, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the Torah.  The rest is commentary.  Go and study it.”

Karen Armstrong says,

“Go and study it” was what he meant. He said, “In your exegesis, you must make it clear that every single verse of the Torah is a commentary, a gloss upon the Golden Rule.” The great Rabbi Meir said that any interpretation of Scripture which led to hatred and disdain, or contempt of other people—any people whatsoever—was illegitimate.  Saint Augustine made exactly the same point.  Scripture, he says, “teaches nothing but [love], and we must not leave an interpretation of Scripture until we have found a compassionate interpretation of it.” 

But now look at our world.  We are living in a world where religion has been hijacked. Where terrorists cite Quranic verses to justify their atrocities. Where instead of heeding Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies,” and “Don’t judge others,” we have the spectacle of Christians endlessly judging other people, endlessly using Scripture as a way of arguing with other people, putting other people down. Throughout the ages, religion has been used to oppress others, and this is because of human ego, human greed. We have a talent as a species for messing up wonderful things.[iii]

But, as Armstrong says so powerfully, compassion is a way of “dethroning” the ego.  Compassion means to “feel with” another person, and that’s why it’s different from pity, which is feeling for another person, or mercy, which is letting someone off the hook.  As she says elsewhere, compassion is an act of the imagination: it is a matter of putting ourselves in another person’s place, feeling another person’s pain, and then acting in a compassionate way toward that person.

When I’m talking with young people about what it means to become a Christian I sometimes say, “Imagine that somewhere inside you is a throne room, and in that room there is a glittering golden throne, and then imagine that you are sitting on that throne, wearing a crown, holding a scepter, and ruling over your life.”  If you look at their faces in that moment you can tell that they enjoy that idea very much.  “But then,” I say, “imagine that Jesus walks into the room, and as soon as you see him you feel unworthy, you slide down off the throne and invite him to sit there instead.  And suppose that he does, and from that moment on he is the one ruling over your life.  That’s what it means to become a Christian: it means that Jesus is Lord.”  And they often look a little disappointed, as if they don’t want to give up ruling over their lives, so I tell them, “Don’t worry!  Jesus loves you.  He wants the best for your life.  The things he tells you to do will make your life so much better than you could ever make it on your own.”  But they don’t always seem sure, especially when they come to a passage like this one.  “Love my enemies?” they ask.  “Is that supposed to make my life better?”

Yes.  Absolutely.  One hundred percent.  But, as Karen Armstrong suggests, it takes an act of imagination.  When you begin to feel with your enemy you dethrone your ego, and dethroning your ego is one of the very best things you can do.  Because your ego is so fragile, so vulnerable.  All it wants to do is defend itself.  For example: if someone criticizes one of your posts on social media your ego will spend hours, days, trying to come up with just the right retort so you can put that critic in his place.  “Oh, yeah?” you say, “Well, you’re stupid!”  That’s the ego speaking, and the ego will always try to defend itself.  But what if you did, just for a moment, put yourself in the place of your critic?  What if you asked, “What kind of pain is that person feeling to make him say such hurtful things?”  Do you think then you might respond in a different way?

We used to have a neighbor here at church I had trouble loving.  He didn’t like it that we had a ministry to the homeless because he didn’t like it when homeless people congregated on the sidewalk just across the street from his beautiful house.  He didn’t like it that we had church on Sunday, because our members and friends would park their cars everywhere and he sometimes couldn’t find a place for his own car.  He didn’t like it that we had activities on Wednesday night, and especially choir practice, because those singers would sometimes come out of the building at 9:00 at night, still singing.  He came to my office on more than one occasion and poured out his long litany of complaint, and he was not civil about it.

He was nasty.

After one of those visits I did this: I went to a specialty shop just a few miles from here and bought a wine and cheese gift basket and took it to his house.  It was a nice one; expensive.  He came to the front door, took one look and said, “What are you trying to do, buy me off?”  “No,” I said with a smile.  “I’m just trying to be a good neighbor in a great neighborhood!”  He took the basket, and I didn’t hear from him again, and not long after that he moved away.  But as I look at this passage today I realize I was trying to buy him off.  I just wanted him to stop complaining, wanted him to stop bothering me.  I didn’t take time to put myself in his shoes, to feel his pain, to imagine what was making him so unhappy.  I found a way to shut him up but I did not love my enemy, and I think Jesus would say that because I didn’t, I missed a blessing.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” he aks, “For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But you—love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:32-35).

This is the truth about God, and it’s a truth we learn from Jesus.  When we were hateful toward him, spiteful, willing to take whatever he gave us without so much as a thank you, he loved us anyway.  As the Apostle Paul says, “God has proven his love for us, in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  We probably won’t have to go that far for our enemies, we probably won’t have to die for them, but if we can learn to love them in the way Jesus has loved us we may prove that we, too, are children of the Heavenly Father.

Upside-Down Truth

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Luke 6:17-26

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.”

 This sermon series is called, “The Truth about God.”  How do we find the truth about God?  We look to the Word of God: the Bible.  But even then we need to remember that the Bible was written by people: inspired by God but limited by their humanity.  If we really want to know the truth about God we have to look to Jesus: the Word-made-flesh.  John 1:18 reminds us that, “No one has ever seen God.  It is the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”  So, we turn to the Gospels, our very best source for the things Jesus did and said while he walked among us, but even then we may not get the whole story.  Near the end of John’s Gospel the author writes: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).

If you have ears to hear it, John is admitting that he has picked and chosen from among the many things Jesus did in order to achieve his own objectives, and his primary objective is to convince his readers to believe in Jesus.  When I was teaching religion to college freshmen I used to say, “John has written this entire Gospel to make a believer out of you.  If you’re not a believer by this point, the Gospel will have failed, and you wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?  Well, would you?”  And that’s when they remembered that I was not only an adjunct professor, but also a Baptist preacher.  Making believers was John’s objective, but the other Gospel writers may have had different objectives.  They may have picked and chosen from among the things Jesus did as well, and according to John there was no shortage of those things.  The last verse of his Gospel makes the incredible claim that if every one of the things Jesus did were written down, “the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25).

This idea that the early evangelists were making decisions about what they would include or exclude from their Gospels is essential to a field of study known as redaktiongeschichte, a German word that means, literally, “the history of editing.”  It begins with the idea that Mark was the first Gospel written, and that Matthew and Luke each had a copy of Mark and an anonymous collection of the sayings of Jesus, which scholars refer to simply as “Q.”  From those two sources, and from their own sources, Matthew and Luke wrote Gospels that would achieve their own purposes.  Matthew, for example, seems to want his readers to understand that Jesus was the “prophet like Moses” mentioned in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 18:15-19), and that his life and ministry were a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.  For Luke, Jesus is the one who levels the mountains and lifts up the valleys.  He is the great equalizer, and in Luke’s Gospel Jesus seems to have a special concern for women and the poor.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount.  There he is, just like Moses, handing down the Word of the Lord.  And maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that in Luke Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Plain, that level place where the valleys have been lifted up and the mountains brought low.  It shouldn’t surprise us that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” since so much of that Gospel has a spiritual concern, or that in Luke’s Gospel Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” since, as a doctor, Luke would have been concerned for the most vulnerable in society.

Some people want to know which one Jesus actually said, but I want to know why it couldn’t have been both.  John tells us that if everything Jesus did and said had been written down the world itself would not contain the books.  Isn’t it possible that on one occasion Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor,” and on another occasion said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  Both kinds of people need blessing, and Jesus certainly knew both kinds of people, but the thing Luke remembered, the thing he held onto and included in his Gospel, was Jesus’ blessing on those who are actually, materially poor.

Gustavo Gutiérrez was born in Peru in 1928, a mixed-race child who suffered with osteomyelitis and spent much of his adolescence in a wheelchair, but it was in those days that he learned the value of hope through prayer and the love of family and friends, the things that made him want to become a priest.  He completed his theological studies in Europe and was ordained in 1959.  When he came back to Peru he was confronted with what he called the Latin American “reality”: the fact that 60 percent of the people in his country lived in poverty and 82 percent of those lived in “extreme poverty,” currently defined as living on less than two dollars a day.  He began to focus his efforts on the recovery of Christ’s command to “love your neighbor” as the central axiom of the Christian life and became known as one of the founders of Latin American Liberation Theology.

His impact on the church’s relationship to the poor was huge.  My own father, in his ministry among the poor in Appalachia, would often cite the teachings of Gustavo Gutierrez, especially these three bottom-line principles:

First, material poverty is never good but an evil to be opposed.  “It is not simply an occasion for charity,” Gutierrez said, “but a degrading force that denigrates human dignity and ought to be opposed and rejected.”

Second, poverty is not a result of fate or laziness, but is due to structural injustices that privilege some while marginalizing others.   “Poverty is not inevitable,” Gutierrez insisted; “collectively the poor can organize and facilitate social change.”

Third, poverty is a complex reality and is not limited to its economic dimension. “To be poor is to be insignificant,” Gutierrez said.  “Poverty means an early and unjust death.”[i]  Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino once said that for people who are extremely poor, “When they wake up, they know that because of poverty they may die before the day is over.  That is the greatest injustice.”  As Gandhi put it, “Poverty is the greatest form of violence.”[ii]

Which raises the question: Who is inflicting this violence?  Well, it’s whoever creates and controls the “structural injustices” mentioned in Principle Two, the ones that “privilege some while marginalizing others,” and in every era those people have been the rich and the powerful.  That was certainly true in Jesus’ time.  When he talks about the poor he is talking about the nation of Israel in general, crushed under the heel of the oppressive Roman Empire.  Most of the people he was preaching to that day were living in extreme poverty.  Most of them didn’t have two sticks to rub together, much less two dollars.  Luke tells us that “they had come to hear him and be healed of their diseases” (vs. 18), and let me just say, you don’t go to a faith healer if you can afford a doctor.  You go to a faith healer when you have no other options.  These people had come to hear Jesus and be healed of their diseases, but they didn’t know they were going to hear this:

“Blessed are you who are poor,” Jesus says, “for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…..  But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25).  It sounds like the start of a revolution, doesn’t it?  As if Jesus were inciting the crowd to march on Rome, to drag Caesar off the throne and dismantle the Roman Empire, to establish God’s kingdom in its place—an upside-down kingdom where the poor will have power, and the hungry will be filled, and those who are weeping will laugh for joy.  It sounds like the start of a revolution, but it’s not, and while Jesus would insist that ultimately God’s kingdom will come, I think he would also insist that it will not come “with swords’ loud clashing or roll of stirring drums.”  I think he would say that God will change the world the way he always has, one human heart at a time.

Think back to those other times when God’s people needed help.  What did God do for his people in Egypt when they were enslaved and oppressed?  He worked on Pharaoh’s hard heart until it was broken by grief and Pharaoh was willing to let God’s people go.  And what did he do for his people after Nebuchadnezzar had carried them off into exile?  He put it into the heart of Cyrus, the conquering Persian king, to let them return to Israel.  And what did he do for his people who were suffering under Roman occupation?  He sent Jesus to say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  In each case God made it clear that his own heart was on the side of those who were captive, impoverished, enslaved, and oppressed.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor,” he is once again telling us the truth about God.

Mark Gordon has a friend named Trish who sometimes asks him difficult questions after church.  Mark is a committed Catholic layman, but also the president of a local soup kitchen in his town.  One Sunday, after hearing a reading like this one from Luke 6, Trish asked him, “Does God love poor people more than he loves rich people?”  “On the surface, it would seem that he does,” Mark writes.  “In Scripture, there are nearly 3,000 verses concerned with justice for the lowly, the oppressed, and the stranger. Almost 400 of those verses specifically refer to “the poor.” In Deuteronomy 15:11, the Lord commands his people to “be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” The Psalmist declares that “the Lord hears the cry of the poor” (Psalm 34) and calls upon God to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed” (Psalm 82). The author of Proverbs insists “he who oppresses the poor shows contempt for his Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God” (Proverbs 14) and “the righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” (Proverbs 29).”[iii]

All that scriptural evidence could leave you with the impression that God loves the poor more than he loves the rich, but that’s not what Mark Gordon said to Trish.  He said, “NO!  God loves Bill Gates every bit as much as he loves the lowliest beggar on the streets of Calcutta.  The ‘preferential option for the poor’ [that Gustavo Gutierrez talks about] isn’t about God loving one person more than another. No, the option for the poor is about providing a counterweight to the inordinate prestige and privilege our fallen world confers on the wealthy and powerful. It is a call to justice, which in the biblical tradition implies the restoration of balance and equity in the relationships between individuals and among social classes.”[iv]

So, the truth about God is not that God loves the poor more than the rich, but that God loves the poor just as much as he loves the rich.  He wants the poor to enjoy every benefit and every blessing that he has to offer and he hates it when those who have wealth and power use it to push poor people away from the table of life.  He loves it when those at the table make room for the poor and pull up a chair.  Jesus has shown us that way.  He loved the poor and spent most of his time with them.  And when we who are his body on earth embody the way of Jesus, it warms God’s heart.  When we don’t, the heart of God is broken.

Not long ago I was driving to church when I saw a man sitting at the corner of Monument Avenue and Arthur Ashe Boulevard holding a sign that read, “Brain Cancer Patient.”  He didn’t look well.  He was sitting on one of those Rollator walkers that doubles as a chair.  His head was in his hands and as I drove by I could see the scars from his surgery.  I pulled over at the next available spot and then walked back to talk to him.  I was almost angry.  I thought, “Here is this man practically sitting in the shadow of First Baptist Church—a brain cancer patient!—and if we haven’t done anything to help him I am going to be ashamed and embarrassed.”  I said hello and then recognized him as Michael, someone my daughter had told me about, someone I had talked to before in another location.  I said, “Michael, has this big church on the corner done anything for you?”

And then I held my breath, waiting for his response, and thinking that if he said no I might just have to resign, because obviously I haven’t taught you anything about the love of Jesus in all these years.  But he said, “Oh, yes!  I go over there all the time to get food, and clothes, and hot showers.  They’re the ones who gave me this Rollator.  I couldn’t get along without it.”  And I breathed a sigh of relief.  I mean, we’re a long way from full equity.  Michael doesn’t have the things most of us have.  But he has a place at the table of life, and somebody at First Baptist helped him pull up a chair, and on that day at least (I know because I asked him), Michael felt blessed.

Thanks be to God.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] John Dear, “Gustavo Gutierrez and the Preferential Option for the Poor,” National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 2011 (

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Mark Gordon, “Does God Love the Poor More than the Rich?” Aleteia, January 7, 2014 (

[iv] Ibid.