“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…and there was no more sea,” no more chaos and difficulty… “See, God’s home is among the people” (Rev 21: 1, 3). It is a vision of heaven. God literally brings heaven out of the sky and sets up house. It is a vision of God’s ultimate homecoming for us, and for God.
In this passage from the book of Joel, we hear God speaking, not to human beings, but to soil and animals. We get to eavesdrop on their conversation, to listen to the sorts of things they talk about, God and the soil, God and the animals, when they chat.
If we’re committed to the welfare of this country, to the people around us, to the people exiled from us in prisons, in detention centers—if we find our welfare in their welfare, how do we make sense of the contradictions? The contradiction that to be for the welfare of prisoners involves being against the welfare of the society that builds prisons, a way of life that depends on incarceration. What does it mean for us to be committed to peace, here, in this place where God has put us, when sinister violences hold it all together?
Repentance is how we say yes to God’s vision for our lives—to let go of all the ways we try to be something we are not, to release our grip on visions for life that aren’t good for us, visions that aren’t good for our neighbors, and instead entrust ourselves into God’s care, to trust that God will remake us and our world with the goodness we need. Jeremiah’s prophecy about the potter’s house is a word of judgment, a call to say no to what causes destruction in our lives and in our communities, in order to say yes to God’s goodness, to say yes to God’s grace.
There’s a tree in my backyard, actually a neighbor’s yard, but it’s branches reach above our house, a canopy of leaves over our backyard. A month ago there was a tree guy doing work on it, cutting away a dead branch that stretched toward our house. I asked him how old he thought the tree was. At least 150 years, he said. I stared at it from my backyard office for the rest of the day, thinking about what it’s seen. In it’s early years, it would have watched as Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation set enslaved people free, free from their Southern masters. Maybe the tree was planted in celebration of that liberation. An oak tree bearing witness to the end of slavery.
This stuff weights me down—for you it could be the situation in Kashmir or all the ice melting in Alaska’s seas, or all of this and more. I feel it in my shoulders, the tightness in my neck. Each body carries weight that pulls at us in different ways. I’ve named public trauma here, but I know each of us, each of you, have very personal traumas and heartaches, intimate anxieties that mess with your head, that affect your day to day life.
The Scriptures aren’t so much worried about the salvation of this person or that person, but in a collective future for the people as a whole. God saves a community, a people, God’s people, not just individuals, which means each person’s fate is bound up with all the others, my salvation is bound up with yours, and yours with mine.
Here’s the thing I learned from Amos this week, after reading through his prophecy. There’s so little concern with all the things I’ve obsessed about, as a Christian, for most of my life. God doesn’t waste time with the stuff I’ve always thought about as so important for my life, for my faith—all my conceptions about faithfulness, about what it means to love God, to live according to God’s will.
Jesus doesn’t pray for himself by himself. Instead he prays for his friends in their company. “I am asking on their behalf… protect them from the evil one” (13:9, 15). Jesus is single-hearted, wholly for his disciples, worried about their future, desperate for God to watch over them. Life seems unbearable, unimaginable, without them.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Jesus offers these words to his friends on his last night with him. Their evening together began with Jesus, taking the feet of his disciples into his hands, pouring water over each one and scrubbing them clean, then with a towel massaging them dry. As they ate their last supper, Jesus tells them that he loves them, that he will miss them, that he will always be with them, in their hearts, in their love, in their lives together, through the Holy Spirit, the divine comforter, the divine advocate, the presence of God.
We hope for a world where he can thrive, where our neighbors and the children of our neighbors experience the fullness of life. We believe in the God of life, in a world held in God’s hands, like Jesus holding his disciples close, Jesus holding us close, washing us with love, refreshing us with peace.
I dream of other worlds, ones like this one, with all of you there, but there’s something different, one difference that changes everything, the collapse of the old and a beginning for the new, like, for example, a world without guns, with no more weapons, without arms manufacturers and dealers, without rockets flying in and out of Gaza, a world without border fences and prison walls, a world without corporations making money off of detention centers and ankle monitors and bail bonds, a world without pollution, without factory waste dumped into rivers, without fossil fuel emissions, without the slow violence of environmental racism, a world without cancer, without disease, without sicknesses that sneak up on the young and lead to their death. I dream of worlds that still have all the people we’ve lost—your people and my people, your friends and mine, all our loved ones, even the ancestors we never met.
This past year I’ve had two friends ask me why I’m a Christian. These are two people with whom I share a similar vision for life, a vision for a good world. We have similar commitments, in terms of how to picture ourselves in the world—everything is more or less the same, except for this one thing, which we return to in our conversations: Why do I need the added Christian thing?
Our Scriptures record a long discussion among the people of God, a back and forth over centuries, where one voice in the Bible is in conversation with another voice, one book speaking to another book, all about what it means to see God, to look at God’s face.
The U.S. government called it a felony, a felony to transport and harbor illegal aliens. But Southside Presbyterian called it sanctuary. When federal agents told the church to stop or else face prosecution, Southside offered a response, a letter they read at press conference, with church members gathered on the steps leading into the sanctuary, a wall of saints protecting the people inside: “We will not cease to extend the sanctuary of the church to undocumented people from Central America,” they declared. “Obedience to God requires this of us.”
“And he was speechless” (Matt 22:12). That’s what the parable says about the man who was at the banquet without the right clothes, the man who didn’t have a wedding robe like everyone else at the wedding feast. When the king’s eye catches a glimpse of the man with ordinary clothes, the king confronts him with a question. “How did you get in here without a wedding robe,” without the proper attire? (22:12). He has nothing to say for himself. Nothing to say to the king. No response. Only silence. “And he was speechless,” it says.
This is a story about a frivolous God who doesn’t weigh costs and benefits. God instead makes decisions based on love. In the kingdom of heaven, the only law is generous love, all people as deserving of the lavish providence of God.
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s what we hear today, on Ash Wednesday, as our foreheads are marked with the sign of the cross, with ashes. These ashes here in this jar come from Mary Jo and Tom’s back yard, years ago, when they burned the palm branches from our Palm Sunday service. We’ve been using them every year since.
Jesus must also know how entangled human life is with fear, how badly we would like to not be afraid, and how paralyzed we sometimes feel in the face of fear, the kind that makes it difficult to believe it is good for us to be here. Jesus must know all this when he tells the disciples not to be afraid. These are not words spoken from a distance, detached. They are words spoken up close, words that reach into us, words that are closer to us than we are to ourselves. There is patience in Jesus’s words; they will have to be said again.
I remember reading a lot of political theology when I was in seminary—books all about the revolutionary Christian politics, very serious arguments, very important ideas. And what always struck me, what I wondered about, was what are people going to eat, who was going to make the food for the revolution? That never seemed to be a pressing concern, when the theologians theorized about the revolution, the kingdom of God. They also didn’t worry too much about childcare, which always clued me into something weird going on in how they thought about the world. Who is going to make the meals and who is going to provide childcare when planning for the revolution? Church life has taught me to think about real life, our ordinary and vital needs, whenever we plan things.
This prayer is about big things and little things, about good things and hard things, about human needs and desires and power, about daily food and money and borders. In other words, this prayer has to do with our lives, with all of who we are, with our struggles and hopes, with our wants and necessities. Everything is included in Jesus’ prayer—all of the messy confusion of our lives, of our society, of our daily existence. There is nothing outside the domain of prayer—all of our passing thoughts are included, our wandering hopes, our rambling longings.
The story of Jesus is also our story. The Scriptures invite us to see ourselves through the light of these holy texts, these stories as revelations into who we are, insights into our lives. We are baptized into this life, into this Jesus—his life becomes ours, ours becomes his. To see him is to glimpse who we are. He is our representative. That’s the language from our theology textbooks, from Christian doctrine—that Christ represents us, that he represents our humanity, that we find our story in his story because Christ is our representative.
Today is called Epiphany, a day to focus on what happens after Advent and Christmas, when this one we’ve been expecting finally arrives. The word Epiphany means revelation, appearance, made known. So today is a day to focus on how Jesus appears and to whom he is made know—to notice who sees him and who welcomes him.
Part of the power of these pieces of devotional art, these pious images, is that they capture the shock of Christmas—that moment of revelation, the surprise of the story: that God becomes a child, vulnerable to the violences of this world, to the violences that threaten Mary day to day, as a young woman, pregnant out of wedlock, bearing the weight of oppression at the hands of the Roman occupation of her people. Whatever threatens Mary, threatens the life of Jesus, God in Mary’s flesh.