Who Raises Up the Despised?

Who Raises Up the Despised?

(A sermon, on Genesis 29:15-28 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-45. Audio is available here.)

Jacob, he loved Rachel,
And Rachel, she loved him,
And Leah was just there
For dramatic effect.

(from Rich Mullins’ “Jacob and 2 Women”)

The way the story is told, it’s not easy to understand what Laban was thinking when he pulled his trick on Jacob, and it’s even harder to know how Leah must’ve felt – whether she was glad to go along or not, she wouldn’t have had much choice in their culture but to do what her father told her to do.

We do know something about what Jacob felt though – we know he didn’t want Leah, he wanted Rachel. It would always be about Rachel for Jacob. It would always be Rachel he loved.

Unloved and unwanted. Leah lived her life as the despised wife, always competing with her sister for Jacob and always losing. It’s hard to imagine a more miserable situation.

But that’s not the end of Leah’s story. Later we learn that because she was despised, God gave her children, and ultimately the line of Christ came from the despised wife.

We have a God who sees the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raises them up.

Jesus, Leah’s many-greats grandson, always had time for despised women – a Samaritan woman with a less than stellar reputation, a woman caught in adultery, a widow grieving her only son. And it wasn’t just women – Jesus’ whole ministry was filled with the overlooked and unwanted: the men he chose as his closest disciples were all Galileans like himself, and Galilee was considered a backwater by Judean Jews. He spent most of his time with those despised by the religious as drunkards, tax collectors, and sinners, and he went out of his way to help those even his disciples thought were a waste of time – beggars, children, and Gentiles.

His parables were full of unlikely heroes – women, servants, a Samaritan. Over and over again, Jesus urges us to value what is small, hidden, and overlooked. A tiny mustard seed is hidden in the ground and becomes a tree large enough to provide a home for birds. A woman hides a little yeast in three measures of flour – that would be forty to sixty pounds of flour, and it is all leavened for enough bread to feed a village. Treasure and a priceless pearl are found hidden in fields.

This is where the kingdom of heaven is found, Jesus tells us – in small, ordinary things; in overlooked, hidden places. In people and things and places we so easily despise.

We have a God who sees the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raises them up.

And that makes me wonder, where are those things in our lives? In our communities?

Some of us know what it feels like to be despised – overlooked, unwanted, or even hated and rejected. And many of us really don’t know what that’s like.

I’m not sure which is more dangerous to us.

If we’ve been blessed not to have experienced being despised, that can make it all too easy to miss what we should see.

If we have been unwanted and despised, and have fought to find a place of acceptance and safety, it’s all too easy not to risk what we’ve gained for the sake of someone else who is despised.

We don’t have to hate someone to despise them; we only have to overlook them. To be uncomfortable enough to avoid them.

Who are those people in our lives and in our communities? The people who threaten the places we are comfortable? To be honest, I struggle with the panhandlers in my neighborhood, especially the ones who are more desperate, abrasive and louder, or who haven’t bathed in a long time. It’s easy for me to try to just ignore them instead of being willing to really see them as fellow human beings God loves.

In most communities, we struggle to include those whose language and culture are different. It’s easier to let them have their own spaces than to welcome them into ours. We struggle to welcome those who don’t think like we do, whose lives challenge our beliefs and call us to change. Humans tend to struggle with anyone who is different; we find our family and tribe and keep others out.

Are we willing to be uncomfortable in order to be more like Jesus? To show his welcome to the unwanted? Because that is what he calls us to do – to spread the “gospel,” the good news. At the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus proclaimed himself to be “good news” to the poor, and freedom for prisoners and the oppressed.

We have a Lord who sees the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raises them up.

Jesus is present with us in the bread and wine we will share, but he is present in the world through us, as well. And we take the bread and the wine because it is meant to change us – to give us the eyes of Christ to see the overlooked and the heart of Christ to welcome the despised.

Saint Teresa of Avila put it this way:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

The same God who chose the despised wife is the God who calls us to be the eyes and hands and feet of Christ in the world, who calls us to see the unwanted, the overlooked, the powerless, the despised, and raise them up.

Amen.

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Let Your Yea Be Yea

Let Your Yea Be Yea

A couple of weeks ago, over the course of two days, pretty much everyone in the church felt betrayed by Eugene Peterson, a man whose life and work as a pastor has deeply impacted and formed so many of us. He is a prolific writer, and everything I’ve ever read from him – whether it was about discipleship, or theology, or ministry, or even his translation of the Bible, The Message – came out of a pastor’s heart. As I worked on my own Master of Divinity degree and considered my own work in pastoring (something that, while I’ve never held the title, I’ve found is nonetheless part of my life), Eugene Peterson has been a significant model for me.

On Wednesday, Peterson affirmed that if he were pastoring today he would perform a same-sex marriage if asked to by Christians of good faith, and millions of Christians who are convinced the Bible condemns same-sex relationships felt betrayed. On Thursday, he reversed that affirmation, and LGBTQI+ believers who have fought for their faith felt betrayed.

Between Wednesday and Thursday, LifeWay Christian stores threatened to stop carrying all of his books, including The Message. LifeWay is the largest Christian bookstore chain in the country and is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. “LifeWay only carries resources in our stores by authors who hold to the biblical view of marriage,” they said, by which they mean “our interpretation of the biblical view of marriage.” LifeWay has a lot of weight, and they are willing to throw it around.

And on Thursday, Peterson retracted his earlier statement, saying, “To clarify, I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything.”

I can only imagine what it is to be Eugene Peterson, and I don’t know why he did what he did. He’s 84 and has spent his lifetime trying to live faithfully as a pastor and a pastor of pastors. I continue to love him, and respect him in many ways.

But he doesn’t get a pass from me on this. I don’t expect him to be perfect, and I don’t expect him to have everything figured out. But I do expect him to take responsibility for his words. All of them.

Particularly their pastoral implications on the real lives of real people who are rejected and ostracized by the church every day.

When I was in grade school, I was the opposite of popular. I was bullied – overtly rejected and ostracized day in and day out. The other girls weren’t interested in playing with me, didn’t even want to be seen with me. But my parents were friends with some of their parents, and most of us went to church together. When our families were visiting, or we were alone for some reason, some of them would play with me. We would have a good time together. Sometimes they even seemed to actually like me – for a little while. Then we would be back at school and it was like those times never happened.

There was one girl in particular – she was one of the most popular. We both had to walk to where we would wait for our parents every day after school. We weren’t allowed to walk alone, and she agreed to let me walk with her, but told me I had to walk half a block behind or in front of her so she wouldn’t be seen with me. Once we arrived, we’d play and have fun together while we waited, but not if any other friends were around.

After college, I found myself at the same church with her, and we became friends. I asked her about it once. She didn’t even remember any of the things that were so painful to me. “All I remember,” she said, “is how afraid I was they would reject me.”

It gave me a certain sympathy for her – she’d been a child acting out of her own insecurities. She was too afraid of what others would think to be a friend to me, and she let those who would reject her control how she treated me, the one who was rejected every day.

Eugene Peterson is no child. Lives are at stake, and those lives aren’t those of straight conservatives with traditional views on gender and sexuality. LGBTQI+ kids in non-affirming communities have exponentially higher suicide rates than those in affirming communities. And every voice makes a difference.

We all have journeys. Change is a process, and it’s sometimes appropriate to honestly say, “I don’t know – I haven’t figured that out yet.” It’s one thing to be in process. It’s another to say yes or no.

Either Wednesday was true, or Thursday was. Either way, Eugene Peterson owes an apology to the LGBTQI+ community.

The Life of the World to Come

The Life of the World to Come

We said it in church this morning – that last line of the Nicene Creed. The one that reads, “We look for…the life of the world to come.”

For years that meant the life after death to me, and it held deep personal significance. In “the life of the world to come,” I’d see my daddy again. But it was more than that.

When my grandmother was in the last few years of her life, missing the friends and family who were gone, never quite happy, always wanting more of her only grandchild and unable to enjoy me for who I was, I learned to love her beyond what chafed and hurt by believing that in the life to come, she would finally be everything she was meant to be, full of joy and understanding. When I met her then our relationship would be everything it could be, everything it was meant to be.

That same hope got me through several break ups and many bouts of unrequited love. And as I began to realize that so many of the mentors and teachers who have given me the most cannot understand or approve of where their gifts have taken me, I have hoped that in that “life to come,” they will see their way clear to be proud of who I am.

But alongside the comfort, there was also a kind of stuckness. Hope was out there, not here. The great reconciliation, true healing, and abundant life were all beyond the scope of this world.

And sometimes they are.

That’s the first line of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” It’s important, that bit. The whole prayer is named for it, after all.

But that’s pretty much where it stopped for me. God was sovereign, in control of all things and working them all together for good. What could I possibly do in light of that other than show my trust in him by waiting as faithfully as I knew how?

But there’s more to the prayer than serenity. There’s courage. And wisdom. And when it comes to it, serenity isn’t worth much without her sisters.

In the past year, I’ve also learned to hear those words in the Creed another way.

The “life of the world to come” starts tomorrow. And tomorrow is what we are making it today.

This life to come is the second part of the prayer – “the courage to change the things I can.” To change the things we can.

“We look for the life of the world to come.”

If the “arc of the universe bends towards justice,” it does so through us. Because we bend it that way. Because the life of the world to come is not yesterday, and tomorrow does not need to use the road maps of the past.

We look for the life of the world to come because we know there is more than this. More than death, yes. But also more than this, more than today. More than what we find ourselves with. There can be more, we can do more. We can make changes. We can take a step in the direction of justice, in the direction of Love.

And it’s never wasted. That’s what the concept of karma is really about. It’s not just that what you put out there will come back to you. It’s that what you put out there contributes to something greater than you. We are shaping the “arc of the universe” every day. We are making “the life of the world to come” – a life and world we will share.

So I have begun to look for life in this life. I look for life in each step, in each choice I make: what will bring life in the world to come? What will bring life to the world tomorrow?

And there’s always something. Something that in the midst of all the things I can’t change, that I can. It is wisdom that helps me do what I can rather than camp out at the door of all I can’t.

I lived there too long. It’s time to begin moving into the life of the world to come. Today.

The Life We Choose

The Life We Choose

Life is a funny thing. In so many ways, it chooses us. When we live, the family and communities we are born into, and where. The traditions we know, the language we learn.

We choose none of them and yet they form the foundation of who we are and how we see the world.

And for most people through most of history, that was it. Those parameters defined their lives, the choices available to them prescribed already.

But even the most constrained, I think, had to choose to live, choose to be awake to life. To seek beauty and goodness and faithfulness with each breath.

Born in this time, to my parents, in a place called the United States, I’ve had the privilege of more choices than most. The privilege to make choices for myself that matter. To choose where I live and how, to know that there is more to learn, and that what I believe need not be the same thing my parents believed.

In so many ways, a field of options has been opened before me.

But in all of those choices, I must still choose to live.

Near the beginning of the movie The Way, Martin Sheen’s character tells his son, “My life here might not seem like much to you, but it’s the life I choose.” His son replies, “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.”

They are both right, of course. We make choices that shape our lives – our homes, families, work, education, worship, beliefs – but we must still choose to live them.
And choosing to live our lives goes far beyond those other choices we make.

There’s an embroidered sampler that hangs in my kitchen. It is the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

There is so much I cannot change.

The faith I was given as an infant, its names and symbols and stories. They are with me – embraced or abandoned, I must wrestle them. But I can choose the shape of my belief and how I live it out. I cannot choose what that faith has done in the world – done to the world – for good or ill, but I can choose what it will do in the world through me.

For the most part, I’ve had no choice in the people I meet. But I can choose who I seek to know, whose lives I invite to shape my own, who I choose to partner in the project of humanity with. And I can choose to put myself in places to meet new people, to learn new stories, to allow my vision of humanity to be expanded and changed.

I cannot choose who will accept or reject me, but I can choose who I accept or reject. I cannot choose who will love me, but I can choose who I will love.

I cannot choose the days that will be given me to live, but I can choose to live them, all of them. The ones filled with the choices I have made, and the ones filled with the choices others made for me, and the ones filled with things no one chose or we all chose in some amalgamated impossible way.

The ancient text presents a choice to the people: “Today I have placed before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Now choose life.”

It is the one choice we have every day, with every breath. Today. Whatever it brings to us or we bring to it, we can choose to live it, to the depth of our lungs and the tips of our fingers and the reaches of imagination and hope.

Now choose life. This life. Your life.

Whatever you do. Live.