To You Is Born a Savior

I’m sorry it’s been a while since I have posted.  Dan and I hope to begin blogging more often once we settle into the routines of our new positions at Monmouth College.  Since the Monmouth College semester ends on December 14th, we celebrate Christmas on December 4th through our annual Christmas Convocation. The following sermon is from this year’s convocation.  May God bless you all during this sacred season.

“To You is Born a Savior”

Luke 2: 1-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

December 4th, 2012 – Monmouth College Christmas Convocation

One of the most often quoted movies in the Ott household is Will Ferrill’s classic comedy Talladega Nights.  I can’t recommend the whole movie to you, clearly Anchor Man is Ferrill’s best work, but there is one gem of a scene from Talladega Nights that is worth quoting.  In this scene Ricky Bobby, the NASCAR racing sensation played by Will Ferrill, sits down with his wife, Carly, and his family to say grace before enjoying a fine meal of Domino’s, KFC, and, in Ricky Bobby’s words, the always delicious Taco Bell.  Ricky Bobby begins to pray…

“Dear Lord baby Jesus, I just want to say thank you for my family, my two beautiful handsome, striking sons, Walker and Texas Ranger, and of course my red hot smokin’ wife Carly.  Dear Lord baby Jesus, we also thank you for my wife’s father, Chip.  We hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. Dear tiny infant Jesus….

Carly interrupts… “Hey, um, Ricky, ya’ know—Jesus did grow up.  You don’t always have to call him baby.  It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.”

Ricky Bobby responds, “Well I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace.  When you say grace you can say it to grown up Jesus, or teenage Jesus, or bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”

Carly sighs and Ricky Bobby begins again. “Dear 8 pound 6 ounce newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly…but still omnipotent.  Dear tiny Jesus with your golden fleece diapers and tiny little fat balled up fists we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars that I have accrued (Whoot!) over this season.  Thank you for all your power and your grace, dear baby God.  Amen.”

Now, as silly as this movie is, there really is some truth to us liking the little baby Jesus, or the Christmas Jesus best.  The Easter Jesus doesn’t get nearly as much air time as the Christmas Jesus.  The allure of a newborn baby is inescapable as we oooh and ahhh over the colored lights, tinsel, and greenery strung up to celebrate his birth.  But as we tickle this newborn’s toes and delight ourselves over his gummy smiles, Luke breaks into our romanticizing, our commercializing, and our trivializing to remind us that Christmas is about something more.  In the words of Luke, Christmas is about good news of great joy for all the people…for to you is born a Savior.

Written at the beginning of the 2nd Century, the Gospel of Luke tells the story of a down-to-earth, country prophet named Jesus who became a sage of the people.  Through his masterful storytelling, Luke’s Jesus found broad appeal as the author sought to unify and universalize the Christian identity.  For Luke the birth of Jesus the Christ really was good news of great joy for all the people because Jesus transformed his society’s consciousness and offered real hope to the empire’s vast underclasses of hard-pressed and overworked children, women, and men.[1]  Jesus really was their Savior by highlighting the injustice of their social and economic circumstances and by proclaiming the Good News that their suffering was not of God.

What about those of us living in the 21st century?  How might this 1st century, country prophet, be our Savior?  What forces of oppression would Jesus highlight in our lives?  From what do we need to be saved?  I have long believed that we must acknowledge what is killing us, before we can know what will save us.

So ask yourself, “What is killing me today?”

Of course your first response will likely be “FINAL EXAMS!  That’s what’s killing me today!!”  Well, you’re on your own with those.  Jesus is not going to earn those grades for you.

But perhaps your anxiety is killing you, or your fear of failure.  Perhaps what’s killing you is the idea that “real life” and the “real world” come later, that today and today’s actions don’t really count.  Perhaps your dependency on alcohol is killing you, or a deep insecurity that tells you you’re no good.  Perhaps it’s your anger that you struggle to keep in check, or your failure to maintain a healthy relationship.  Or perhaps what’s killing you is the feeling that you are completely out of control, that the world is conspiring against you and that there is nothing you can do about it.

I imagine this was what was killing Mary and Joseph when they were told that the Emperor’s census would force them to travel all the way back to Bethlehem.  Traveling in your third trimester is painful enough.  Just imagine traveling by burro.  There are no ‘thought bubbles’ above Mary and Joseph’s heads, but their inner monologues could not have been pleasant.  Then they arrive in Bethlehem and what do they find?  There is no room for them in the inn.  All we have to do is imagine our connecting flight being cancelled leaving us to spend Christmas Eve at O’Hare, to understand how frustrated, and tired, and upset Mary and Joseph must have been.  I imagine they felt completely out of control and it was killing them.

These were the circumstances into which Jesus was born.  The Christian birth narrative tells of God entering human life precisely at that moment when we realize that we are not enough, that we cannot do it all, that we are not in control, and that we cannot save ourselves.  That’s when Jesus enters the picture–a beautiful, precious, newborn baby, his whole life ahead of him– is born into all of this mess.  Why?  Well, perhaps to let us know that the mess is not all there is.

The hope, inherent in the Gospel of Luke is that there is something or someone to turn to for salvation. In Luke this turning, or metanoia in Greek, is a turning away from the oppressive forces that kill and a turning toward the saving forces that offer the possibility of new life.[2]

For as long as I have been leading Christmas services such as this, I have always recognized someone sitting in the congregation who did not expect to be there.  Perhaps he was dragged there by a zealous mother-in-law, or perhaps he had just decided on a whim to check out why scores of people were pouring into the local church on a cold, dark Christmas Eve.  He usually sits somewhere in the back, or in a far corner of the balcony, with body language that conveys he feels completely out of place.  Unbeknownst to him, though, he can be clearly identified from the pulpit as he leans in to hear the Christmas story and as his eyes reveal a longing to be included in the good news of great joy. Sometimes those eyes even start to shine as his tears betray the reality that he is dying inside.

It is this person, this dying person, whom Luke desires to expose in a full spotlight of grace.  Luke’s spotlight sears the darkness of this person’s despair with messages of hope.  You are welcome here!  You are included in all of this!  Your suffering is not of God!  Your life means something!  You are worthy of love!  Luke invites him to reorient and transform his life around the saving hope that the darkness, the mess, and all that is killing him today, is not all there is.

Christmas reminds all of us that there is something more.  For to you is born a Savior.

When I finish we will sing O Come, All Ye Faithful.  I chose this hymn because I love it!  It is big and grand and beautiful.  I asked our organist to play it loud.  I asked the Chorale to sing it big!  Because this is a hymn that beckons to us, it calls us to Come!  Come!  Come and know the saving power of God breaking into the darkness, of God breaking into all of our mess.  Come and hear the saving message that your life means something, that you are worthy of love, and that grace abounds.  Come, let us adore him, because Christmas reminds us there is something more.  Christmas reminds us of the good news of great joy for all the people…for to you is born a Savior.

Now to this Savior, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

*Let us stand and sing together, O Come, All Ye Faithful.

[1] Richard A. Horsley, “The Message and the Kingdom,” (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2001), pgs. 226-228.

[2] Joel B. Green, “Body, Soul, and Human Life,” (Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2008), pgs. 106-139.

Grasshopper Theology

Grasshopper Theology

Isaiah 40:21-31

Daniel J. Ott

Good morning little grasshoppers!  Are you ready to do some theology?  Imagine:  There you are one fine day in a field of tall grass, doing whatever it is that grasshoppers do – going about your grasshopper business.  Suddenly, the thought occurs to you, “I wonder what’s beyond.”  So, you decide to take a look.  You rouse your strength and take a leap up beyond the grass-line.  You strain your gaze upward and to your amazement you see the most brilliant, beautiful blue – as far as the eye can see is magnificent bluishness.  When you land back safely in the field you think to yourself, “What a wonder!  Surely this must be the divine.”  Smitten, you decide to make another go of it.  With all your might you leap up and look out toward the horizon.  There you see great rock formations thrust up into the sky.  Their purple hue mesmerizes and you only come to your senses after you’ve been returned to the field for some time.  Another time you leap up and in the distance you see a field of color – yellow and purple stretching out across the earth.  You’re ecstatic as you return.  “Surely God is sublime.  What a God of beauty and grandeur.”  Drunk, you leap again with reckless abandon.  But this time the wind catches you, upends you, spins you.  The colors whirl and flash.  The shapes become horrible.  The fantastic becomes frightening.  You’re disoriented and thankful when you land with a jolt back in the safety of the field.  You decide that looking for God might be riskier than you first thought and so you cease your leaping into the beyond for the day.

The next day is wet.  The earth rumbles in the distance.  With the new day, your courage is renewed and, though hesitantly, you leap up.  Immediately, you wish you hadn’t.  God is dark and imposing.  There’s a crack.  Light rips down from above.  God booms!  When you return to earth, you are perplexed.  Does God have a dark side?  Is God angry today?  You decide not to jump again, lest God notice and take a crack at you.

The field dries quickly the next day.  You spend the day trying to put the pieces together – the blue, the field of color, the booming God.  Soon you decide you need another look.  Now you leap and find yourself in the presence of blinding light.  The light is hot.  It is not possible to be in God’s presence today.  The light is inaccessible and the heat is consuming.  You land and wonder:  Which is the true God?  Why is God so absolutely complex?  Who is this God?

And so it goes thereafter.  You can’t not leap, for your curiosity is piqued.  It’s more than curiosity really.  It becomes a drive.  You must know this God.  You long to be in God’s presence.  But every encounter is inexplicable.  Every attempt to understand falls short.

Isaiah says, “God sits above the circle of the earth and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.  To whom then will you liken God?  To what likeness will you compare God?”

A sixth century mystic puts it this way, “The fact is that the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming; so that as we plunge into the darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing.”  The understanding “now rises from what is below up to the transcendent, and the more it climbs, the more language falters, and when it has passed up and beyond the ascent, it will turn silent completely, since it will finally be at one with [the one] who is indescribable.”[1]

Grasshopper theology teaches us that God is great – great beyond measure.  God is so great that God is indescribable – our experiences of God ineffable.

This is Isaiah’s message today.  God is great.  God is great in mystery.  AND God is great in power.  Isaiah reminds us of God’s great power by reminding us of the creation.  God sits above the circle of the earth and stretches out the heavens.  “Lift up your eyes on high and see,” Isaiah says, “Who created [the stars]? It is God who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because God is great in strength and mighty in power.”  Surely, any good grasshopper will understand God’s strength and power when she looks on the wonders of creation.

But Isaiah doesn’t leave it there.  God’s might is not only witnessed in creation.  We see God’s might in destruction too.  “God brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.  Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble.”  God is the indescribable one, mighty to create AND destroy.

Sometimes we Christians want to smooth this idea over a bit.  Hinduism takes it very seriously, though.  The Trimurti, or Hindu Trinity consists of three gods that represent the functions of the ultimate.  Brahma is the creator God. Vishnu is the sustainer.  And Shiva is the destroyer or transformer.  Shiva is a strong warrior who vanquishes the forces of evil.  Shiva is a fierce roaring storm that consumes worlds.

And as if that weren’t enough.  Shiva has a female consort, Kali.  Kali is the goddess of time, death and annihilation.  Kali is as black as the darkest night.  Her eyes are red with the intoxication of rage.  Her tongue juts out over her fangs.  Around her neck is a garland of human heads.  In her four hands are a sword, a trident, a severed human head and, of course, a bowl to catch the blood that drips from the head.  She marks vividly the fact that ends and death are part of the divine, just as creation and preservation.

Isaiah wants us to know this.  God is great in power.  God creates.  God sustains.  And God destroys.  God is great in mystery – indescribably, unknowable.  And God is great in might.  He creates the stars and destroys the nations.

But why does Isaiah want us to know this?  Why does he so carefully craft such a beautiful ode to God’s greatness?  He does it because he wants us to know exactly who this God is who cares for us.  He wants us to know how great this God is who regards us.  Do not think, O Israel, that your way is hidden from God.  Do not think that God has disregarded you.  For God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.  The great God comes low.  The God of power regards the powerless.  Even though God is great beyond description – even though God is mighty beyond understanding, God cares.  This is what Isaiah wants us to hear and know this morning.  And this is what I want you to hear and know this morning as well.

And in order for you to hear this message well, I’d like to do something a little different this morning.  I’d like to end the sermon by leading you in a time of meditation.  The form of meditation that we will use is called Lectio Divina.  Lectio Divina means sacred reading and it’s been practiced by Christians for more than a thousand years.  The practice is simple.  We will take the last few lines of the passage and read them several times.  Each time I read them, you will ask yourself a different question.  The first question is “What does the passage say.”  The second is “What is God saying to me through the passage?”  The third is “What do I want to say to God about the passage?”  And the fourth is “What difference does the passage make in my life?”

So the first question:  “What does the passage say?”  In just a second, I will read the passage again and then give you some time to let the words soak in.  A couple of things to remember:  First, remember the first part of this sermon.  The God that were are hearing about is the great God that Isaiah extolls in the verses that precede these.  Second, think about the situation that Israel is in as Isaiah proclaims this message.  The people have been driven out of their homes.  Their homes are destroyed.  Their place of worship has been destroyed.  They’ve been taken captive to a foreign land to do forced labor for their conquerors.  They are wondering what this experience tells them about their God.  They are wondering if they can maintain their faith.  They are wondering if they have the strength to go on.

Close your eyes and hear these words:  “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”


Now I invite you to hear these words again.  What is God saying to you in these words?  Imagine yourself seated before God.  Imagine that God speaks directly with you: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”



Now I invite you to consider what you would like to say to God in response.  What burdens do you need to share with God?  What confessions do you need to make?  What words of love do you want to tell God in response to these words: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”

Finally, I invite you to consider what difference these words can make in your life.  What work of transformation can God do in you through these words?  What action will you need to take?  What attitude in you needs to change?  What new thing does God want to do in you through these words: “Have you not known?  Have you not heard?  The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.  God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.  Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.”






[1] Pseudo-Dyionysius, from Mystical Theology, as found in Louis Dupré and James A. Wiseman, Light from Light: An Anthology of Christian Mysticism, (New York:  Paulist Press, 2001), pp. 89-90.

Soul Authority: Mark 1:21-28

This is the first exorcism story in Mark’s gospel.  Jesus encounters a man who is possessed by a demon in the synagogue and he casts the demon out.  Talking about demons and the demonic is tricky business today.  I’m sure as soon as I mention the word demon some images come to mind.  We’ve all seen the cartoons of an angel on one shoulder and a demon on the other.  Perhaps we’ve read fantasy books or watched movies that featured some sort of demonic characters.  Talking about demons is also tricky because many fundamentalist and pentecostal Christians think and talk about demons in a very literal way.  When I was in college there was a pretty popular book by Frank Peretti called This Present Darkness.  I never read it, but one reviewer said of it, “Nearly every page of the book describes sulfur-breathing, black-winged, slobbering demons battling with tall, handsome, angelic warriors on a level of reality that is just beyond the senses.”[1]  I remember a young woman in the Christian Fellowship with which I was involved read the book.  She started seeing all of these demons that were just beyond our senses.  She even saw demons in our church.  She decided the pastor himself had a demon lording over him.

So understandings of the demonic can range from the silly to the absurd and can even sometimes be quite dangerous.  But there have been some theologians who have argued that we can’t altogether abandon the language of the demonic.  Daniel Day Williams argued that demons are not “supernatural beings flying about the world at the command of an archfiend.”[2]  Rather, the demonic refers to evil structures that emerge in society and in history.  Following Paul Tillich, Williams defines the demonic as “the meaning-destroying eruption of power that splits the personality and that fastens itself upon a society in such a way that freedom begins to be lost.”[3]  Williams identifies five structures of the demonic that will help us understand what he means.

“The first is fascination. The demonic quickens interest and excitement.”[4]  A boring demon is no demon at all.  The demonic draws us in.  It demands our attention.  It captivates us.  I’m always amazed when I see footage of the Nazi rallies in Germany.  People would line the streets ten and fifteen rows deep to watch the German army and the Fuhrer on parade.  As Hitler took the podium, thousands of hands would fling into the air in salute; “Sich heil!”  And then Hitler would begin to speak with sharp rhetoric and strident tone to which the crowd would answer in thunderous applause.  Now remember, these were an educated people – a cultured people.  But the demonic captivated them – fascinated them.

Secondly, the demonic begins to distort our perception.  Demons tell lies that pass as truth.  Their rhetoric infests our culture and we begin to see things differently, sometimes even against our own better judgment.  Think for a minute at how well our culture has shaped us into consumers and materialists.  The constant bombardment of advertising of products and services leads us to believe the lie that these things can make us happy.  We come to believe that we are indeed homo economicus – that stuff, a healthy economy, a leisurely life are the keys to happiness.  We begin to believe this so deeply that we even forget to question it.  These lies become the water in which we swim.

“The third characteristic face of the demonic is aggrandizement.  The demonic ecstasy feeds upon itself and demands more and more.”[5]  The leader becomes a tyrant.  The tyrant sees himself as the savior.  Before long, everyone regards him as not much lower than God.

The fourth structure is what Williams calls “the inertia of established systems of control.”[6]  We start to think that it’s always been this way.  We start to think that resisting the power of the demonic would be futile.  What is, just is and always will be.

I’ve been thinking and writing about peace lately.  And the main thing that I’m trying to argue is that peace is possible.  It’s not probable when we look at where we are today.  It’s certainly not immanent.  But can we at least agree that it is possible?  If not, how will we ever get there?  I believe it’s a demonic lie that violence and war are inevitable.  Our perception has been distorted and so we think that war has always been and will always be.  The inertia of war has taken hold.

The final characteristic of the demonic is that there is a depth to it.  I said earlier that the demonic is never boring.  It’s also never banal.  The demonic speaks in a distorted way to the very core of our being.  It lures us in with promises of security, or happiness, or power.  Remember how the demon tempted Jesus in the desert.  His offers were not trivial.  He offered bread when Jesus was hungry.  He tempted him with power and riches.  The demonic speaks to our deepest needs and desires offering treasures that are ultimately destructive.

Now, in our story, the demons clearly stand for the scribes and the temple leaders.  Mark artfully parallels the contrast of Jesus with the scribes and the confrontation with the demonic.  It’s Jesus’ authority vs. the scribes’ authority – holy authority vs. evil authority.

As soon as Jesus started to speak in the synagogue, the people recognized that he had a special authority.  They were astounded for he taught as one having authority.  But they also recognized immediately that his authority was very different from the scribes.  Now, to be sure, the scribes had some kind of authority.  First, they had the authority of the word.  They were the ones who could read and write.  They were the ones who knew what the holy books said.  They had the authority of the books.  They also had the authority of position.  They were connected.  The scribes were connected with the high priests who were supposed to be the most connected to God.  And if that’s not enough, they also had connections with the Romans.  If the temple authorities turned you into the Roman authorities, then you were in real trouble as we find out at the end of the book.  But even though the scribes seem to have all of this authority, as soon as Jesus speaks, the people recognize him as the authority and contrast him with the scribes.

But notice too that as soon as the people recognized Jesus’ authority something else happens.  Immediately a man with an unclean spirit cries out to him.  The demon says, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”  The demon recognizes Jesus immediately.  AND as soon as the people recognize Jesus’ authority they also recognize the demon.  There was no mention of the demon before Jesus’ authority came into play, but as soon as Jesus’ authority is evidenced, then, immediately we know about the man with the unclean spirit.  Jesus’ authority shows the demons for what they are.  Finally, Jesus evidences his authority fully as he rebukes and casts out the demon.  And the people were again amazed.  They could sense that there was something deep within this man that made his teaching different.  It was a new teaching – with authority.

Mohandas Gandhi, the great liberator of India, also had and taught this kind of deep spiritual authority.  He called it satyagraha, or soul force.  We might also translate it soul authority or soul power. He told the Indian people that if they wanted to be free from British imperialism then they first had to be free in their minds and hearts.  When they were free in their minds and hearts, then they could begin to act as if they were free.  And once they started to be free in their hearts and their actions, then their actual freedom from British authority would follow.

So freedom begins with soul authority, soul power.  This is the soul authority that Jesus had and the soul authority that following Jesus offers us.  Jesus was a satyagrahi and by following him, we too can be satyagrahi.  Gandhi describes the satyagrahi as one “who is ever forgiving, who is always contented, whose resolutions are firm… who is not afraid of others, who is free from exultation, sorrow and fear… who has a disciplined reason… who is pure.., who has dedicated mind and soul to God…”[7]  The satyagrahi is the one who is ready to fight evil with good, who is able to fight hate with love, who counters the demonic with the divine.  The satyagrahi is the one whose sole authority is soul authority.

And when your sole authority is soul authority, then all of the other authorities have no power over you.  The scribes can’t control you.  The religious leaders can’t control you.  The government can’t control you.  The culture can’t tell you who you are.  The media can’t control what you think.  All of the demonic forces are seen for what they are and they lose their authority over you.

So the question for us today is what are the demons that we face.  And how will free our selves from them?  What are the fascinating lies that have power over our lives – that are gaining momentum, demanding more and more, appealing to our deepest needs and desires?  I’ll leave that question for you to answer.  I’m sure you see some demonic forces at work in our culture and in our world.  I’m sure you also encounter some demons in your own personal life.  There are lies that you’ve taken for truth that need to be cast out.  What are the demons that we face today?  That’s an important question.

But let me end by encouraging you to be strong and courageous.  You and I, can have this soul authority, too.  By dedicating ourselves – heart and mind – to God, we too can find this power within ourselves to face the demons, to rebuke them, and to cast them out.

[2] Daniel Day Williams, The Demonic and the Divine, (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1990), p. 3.

[3] Ibid., p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p. 7.

[5] Ibid., p. 9.

[6] Ibid., p. 10.

[7] Mahatma Gandhi, The Essential Gandhi, ed. Louis Fischer, (New York:  Vintage Books, 1962), pp. 62-62.

 This is more of a confession than a sermon.  Earlier this week I received an email from a good friend whom I met in seminary.  He’s a pastor in Maryland.  He was writing to catch up a little and ask about some theological resources.  I tried to address his needs, but then in the end, I too realized that I needed a little help.  Here’s what I wrote:

“I’m really struggling in my preaching (did you know that I’m supplying a little church here?).  When I read the gospel, it just seems so radical to me.  The way I read it, only people like Jesus, Francis of Assisi, etc. are really true to what is being said.  I’m not really ready to respond in full obedience and I don’t think the people of my church are either.  Really, I think most of us are neither as desperate as the Galileans were, nor as corrupt as the Herodians and Temple Priests were.  We need a gospel for the people in between.  But I’m not sure what that looks like – especially when we read this radical gospel every Sunday.  Any suggestions?”

Now you may be wondering why I had this crisis this week.  We’ve wrestled with some fairly tough texts over the last six months.  Why did this familiar text about Jesus calling his first disciples throw me into a tizzy?  Well, the fact is that I’ve been having this struggle all along, so it’s not really new.  But the other part of it is that this text is not nearly as benign as it appears at first blush.  Let me share with you just three features of this passage that make it extremely radical.

First, the setting:  The story takes place after John the Baptist was arrested.  Pause there a second.  John, the great prophet, a hopeful figure of a new day and new way, has been arrested.  And he’s not just going to spend a few days in jail.  Like so many before him, before long he will be killed by the people in power for the truth that he spoke.  So the time is after John is arrested and the place is the Galilee.  Now in many ways to say that the story takes place in the Galilee is to say that the story takes place in Nowheresville.  Nobody important lives in the Galilee and nothing important ever happens there.  It’s far from Jerusalem.  It’s even farther from Rome.  It’s not important geographically, economically, religiously or otherwise.

But in another way to say that Jesus came to the Galilee is to say that Jesus went straight to the heart of the heartache.  The Galileans were sorely oppressed.  They’re economic and social lives were being upended by Roman imperialism and local rule.  Herod Antipas who ruled the Galilee for Rome was a horrible ruler and drunk on taxes.  In addition to the Roman taxes, Galileans were paying taxes to Herod so that he could build two cities from the ground up.  They were attempts to impress the Roman occupiers, so they included Roman style buildings and stadia and other things that the Galileans simply could not afford.  The poor economy and high taxes were driving Galileans out of their villages and off their farms to take part in the imperial economy in the cities and by the Sea of Galilee.

This leads us to the second feature of this passage that is more difficult than we usually think.  Often we have romantic notions about these scenes of fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee.  This is no doubt due to the beautiful bucolic paintings that we’ve seen in illustrated Bibles or on Sunday School walls.  And the truth is that not long before Jesus’ time, fishing may have been a rather wholesome, communal endeavor.  It probably was the case that before Roman rule, fishing was done predominantly by farmers who would band together and fish for a season to augment the food supplied by the fields.  But by the time that Jesus called out to his first disciples by the Sea of Galilee, the imperial economy had changed all of that.

Bible scholars, Horsley and Silberman, explain that recent archaeological evidence shows that fishing had become a huge production.  The Roman occupiers brought with them techniques for salting and pickling fish.  They established salting and packing plants near the Sea of Galilee so that large quantities of sardines and carp could be processed into sauces called garum and chopped pieces called salsamentum.  These were then shipped all over the Roman Empire.  Horsley and Silberman write, “And anyone who thinks that fishermen on the Sea of Galilee in the time of Jesus were just picturesque peasants in rowboats does not appreciate the sheer weight of fish flesh that had to be hauled in ever day and transported to [the] processing centers to be salted, pressed, fermented, and refined to produce even a modest output of garum and salsamentum.”[1]

So when Jesus asks Simon and Andrew and then James and John to drop their nets and follow him, he is not only asking them to leave behind their livelihood and home, but also to stop participating in the imperial economy.  Their rejection of the job is a rejection of Roman occupation and therefore a prophetic political act.

And this leads me to the third and final point I want to make about the radical nature of this text.  The line, “I will make you fishers of men,” or “I will make you fish for people” as the NRSV has it, has always been a favorite of American Evangelical Christianity.  It’s been something of a motto for our evangelizing efforts and we’ve even made it into a catchy children’s song.  But we may have missed its full meaning by quite a bit.  The phrase really can’t be reduced to telling people about Jesus or inviting them to church.  The phrase has prophetic overtones and the original Jewish hearers of the phrase may well have thought of a text like Jeremiah 16:16 ff:

I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Holy One, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.  For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight.  And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.


So when Jesus calls the disciples to follow him and become fishers for people, he is calling them to a prophetic vocation.  Like John the Baptist, they will leave everything behind and risk everything in order to speak truth to power.  Yes, they will share good news with the Galileans, but the Galileans’ good news will be a threat to the Romans and the Herodians and the Judean religious elite.  Jesus’ call to be fishers for people is a call to leave everything and take up the cross.

So, do you see now, why I was troubled by this text?  As I said in my note to my friend, the problem is that we are neither in the situation of the oppressed Galileans nor condemnable as their oppressors.  We’re somewhere in between.  Now perhaps we do contribute in some ways to the poverty of others or the oppression of others in as much as we participate in a materialistic and militaristic culture.  But are we, you and me, really called to drop our nets, drop everything and take up the prophetic way of the cross?  Well, I don’t know about you, but even if I’m called to do so, I’m far from ready.

So what do we do?  What is the gospel for the people in between?  Well, I’m thinking that perhaps we can take just a little license with Jesus’ proclamation in verse 15.  Jesus says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news.”  The kingdom of God has come near.  What does the “near” mean?  Well even Bible scholars are divided on the issue.  Some say it means that the kingdom of God has come in Jesus but is not yet wholly fulfilled.  Others say it would be better to read it as “the kingdom of God is at hand” suggesting that the word is about the kingdom’s immanence – it’s right here, near at hand.

I’d like to suggest that maybe the “near” gives us a little latitude.  Maybe we don’t have to drop everything and live completely in the kingdom.  Maybe we can allow the kingdom to come near.  If nothing else, perhaps coming nearer to the kingdom will allow us to be better prepared to eventually answer the kingdom call more fully.  In any case, for my part, I think I might be ready to draw a little nearer, even if I’m not ready to drop my nets completely.

So, I’ve thought this week about what I’m willing to do and what I might be able to invite you to do with me.  And I’ve come up with three suggestions.  We’ll keep the list short and simple so that we actually have a chance of accomplishing it.

First, I suggest that we try not to smooth over the radical nature of the Gospel.  I will commit to conveying to you what I think is the best Biblical scholarship and trying to tell you what the text really says – radical or not.  You will have to commit to listen with patient ears and an open mind.  We may often find that the text doesn’t speak to us as directly as we had hoped or that the text offers more challenge than inspiration.  I will still try to be hopeful and inspiring in my sermons, but let’s not smooth over the rough nature of these texts merely to satisfy our own comfort.  When the Gospel is radical, let it be radical.  And we will work together to figure out what we do with that radical Gospel, even if we’re not fully ready to heed it.

Second, let’s get our hands dirty.  I was glad to hear that you were thinking similarly when I mentioned this at our recent congregational meeting.  Let’s do some things together.  If we’re not poor and oppressed like the Galileans, maybe we can understand the Gospel a little better if we get to know some folks who are.  Maybe we’re not ready to drop our nets and become prophets, but we can at least do some more to serve the least and to ease suffering and pain.

So, I will commit to organizing a couple of opportunities for volunteer work over the next couple of months.  We’ll go to the Jameson Center or to the Armory and help out a little.  I also think that Linda’s idea of a garden to grow vegetables for people who can’t easily afford them is fantastic.  When the weather breaks, let’s get to it.  That’s getting your hands dirty.

Finally, let’s put our money where our mouth is.  Now I know that whenever the preacher starts talking about money, some people get very nervous.  But, rest assured, I am not necessarily asking you to give more to the church.  From what I’ve seen, our church finances are pretty well in order and if folks continue to give as they have been we should be just fine.  What I’m asking of you and committing myself to do, is to look at your spending and giving and consider if you might be able to make some changes that would allow you to reallocate your money to better promote justice and peace.

Actually, in some ways I think we could learn something from our Muslim sisters and brothers when it comes to stewardship.  One of the five pillars of Islam is zakat or almsgiving.  But zakat is different from offerings and tithes in the Christian tradition.  Zakat is a requirement that every Muslim give 2.5% of their total worth to the poor each year.  They give it to the poor – not to the mosque.  The mosque is run like any other non-profit organization.  The mosque does fund drives and the like to pay for its building, staff, etc., but this has nothing to do with zakat.  Alms are given to the poor and oppressed.

Now of course, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give money to the church, nor am I discouraging you from giving more money to the church.  But I am encouraging to think again about your finances and see if there’s a little more that can be put to better use.  Maybe you give a little more to the church.  Maybe you give a little more on mission Sunday.  Maybe you give to the Presbyterian peacemaking program or hunger program.  Maybe you give directly to a local agency or some other benevolent society.  Maybe I’m preaching just to myself and you’re doing all you can.

What I’ve tried to do with these three suggestions, though, is to think about how we can let the Gospel be the Gospel and let the kingdom of God come near – at least near.  Jesus said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  What will we, the people in between, do with this good news?

[1] Richard A. Horsley and Neil Asher Silberman, The Message and the Kingdom, (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1997), p. 25.

The Light of the World

“The Light of the World”

Isaiah 9:2-7, Luke 2: 1-20

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

Monmouth College Christmas Convocation 2011


On December 3, 1933, the year Hitler rose to power in Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon using the image of a mine that had caved in, trapping those working inside, in order to describe the season of Advent.  He said Advent was like that dark cave in which the miners were trapped.  There is silence all around them and the miners have little hope of being saved.  But then suddenly they hear the sound of tapping, and then the breaking of rock off in the distance.  And even more unexpectedly a voice cries out to them in all that darkness that says, “Don’t give up!  Help is on the way!”  As the air grows thin around them they wonder if their Savior really will come.  They wonder if they will ever know anything else but the darkness that presses down on them like a thick, wet blanket.  And all they can do is listen intently to the tap, tap, tapping of their Savior trying to break through to them.  Such is the season of Advent.

But on Christmas, the light breaks through.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

On Christmas, we celebrate the light that has broken through our darkness; the light that penetrates the dark caves of our souls; the light that brings us hope and peace because with this light comes the reassurance that our Savior has arrived; our Savior who is the Light of the World.

“Do not be afraid,” the angels announce, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”  It is important to note that The Light has not just come for a few.  The Light has not just come for those of generations past.  The Light has come for all the people. The Light of the World knows no boundaries, it knows no exclusivity, it knows no prejudice.  The Light of the World is for all the people.  And to “all the people” the Light promises big things.  The light promises to break through our darkness, it promises to transform our lives and our world, it promises to bring us peace.

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace, goodwill among people.”

Too often, we Christians devalue the scripture’s understanding of “peace” by spiritualizing it or by saying that it only has to do with a feeling of inner comfort or inner calm. We reduce the biblical understanding of peace to something like a stress ball or a worry doll that we keep on our desks; when the stress of final exams overwhelms us we can aggressively mush and mash our ball of peace to make ourselves feel a little better and get on with our work.  But this understanding of peace doesn’t delve deep enough, it doesn’t come close to what the Light of the World truly promises.  This understanding of peace doesn’t come close because it doesn’t touch the darkest darkness of all the people and of our lives together here on God’s good earth.

Peace, true biblical peace, is the end of violence and of all that leads us to it.  Peace is harmony and goodwill and shalom.  Peace is love and respect.  Peace is a commitment to the well-being of the other.  Peace is the moment when, as the prophet Isaiah puts it, “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.”  This, this peace, is what the Light of the World promises us.  The Light promises us big things.

Some say too big.  Reinhold Niebuhr, a public theologian, rose to national prominence during World War II as he debated the merits of the Christian understanding of peace in the midst of a violent and horrific world war.  Niebuhr concluded that the law of love and the biblical understanding of peace was “finally and ultimately normative” but that it was an “impossible possibility” in a sinful world.[1]  Many agreed with Niebuhr.  His words resonated with people whose faith led them to hope for the possibility of peace, but who believed, realistically speaking, that peace was simply impossible.  Today, as our troops still fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, as Israel and Palestine continue in conflict, as warring tribes in Africa still wreak havoc on the land and on the people, as evidence of our violence and our evil against each other still make the daily news, we too might agree that peace is the impossible possibility.

Yet….maybe we can still find some reason to hope.  A few years ago I heard an author interviewed on a book he wrote about the story of the World War I Christmas Truce.  No one has ever been certain as to how the Christmas Truce of World War I began on December 24th of 1914.  The day had begun just as every other miserable day.  The British, French, Belgian, and German troops were only 60 yards from each other in their trenches.  They could see each other and hear each other.

The conditions these soldiers were living in were miserable.  Cold rain had flooded the trenches mixed with the bodies of their fallen comrades.  Rats, lice, filth and mud had made the floor of the trench so swampy that it forced the soldiers to move constantly and sleep standing up, leaning against dripping walls.  It was this stomach–churning atmosphere that both sides shared that Christmas.  It was this atmosphere of war and suffering that made the soldiers seek a time of respite, a time of peace on Christmas Eve.

The Germans had been sent Christmas trees from their supporters at home.  They bravely lined their trench with these trees and lit the candles clamped to their branches.  The British witnessing this Christmas declaration responded by sending gifts of pudding, chocolates, and cigarettes to the Germans.  Christmas carols began to float through the air that had suddenly become cold and clear and the soldiers learned that they knew the same songs.  We’re not sure who crawled out of their trench first, but eventually both sides met in the middle, in the space between them called “No Man’s Land.” Here they encountered so many bodies that they decided they could not be friends until their fallen comrades had been buried.  So the cease-fire continued as the bodies were buried and the dead were mourned.  Then the enemies returned to “No Man’s Land” and decided to play soccer.

For two whole days they played soccer in that place of death between their trenches.  For two whole days they fraternized with the enemy, at the risk of being court-marshaled.  And in this place and time, the soldiers realized that on each side of the rifle, they were the same.  As the power of peace grew among them, they exchanged addresses and letters and expressed deep admiration for one another.  So when angry officers finally ordered the men to start shooting again, many could not do so.  The enemy now had a face, and a family, and a story.  They could no longer demonize the enemy, so they aimed their guns harmlessly high overhead, shooting into the air.  Eventually the troops on the front lines had to be replaced.  They had to be replaced by men who hadn’t witnessed the miracle of that cold Christmas Eve in 1914.[2]

This is one of the most amazing Christmas stories I have ever heard.  It’s exactly the kind of story I want to hear at Christmas because it gives me hope and I want to feel hope, especially at Christmas.  But as I considered this story and as I considered what I wanted to preach today I wondered if I was just being nostalgic in this hope?  Was I ignoring reality?  Was I reducing the promise of peace to a once-a-year sentiment just to make me feel good at Christmas?  Because it was true that after the miraculous Christmas truce of December 24th, 1914, World War I raged on for four more years and three more Christmas’.

So, is there reason to hope?  Is peace possible for you, and for me, and for all the people?

Well, I think I was finally convinced that my hope was more than mere sentiment or nostalgia by my husband, Dan, in a paper he recently wrote about peace.  In Dan’s paper he listed a number of successful nonviolent movements in the last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st through which peace was not only possible, but made a reality.

Dan’s list included:

  • Mkhuseli Jack’s nonviolent movement in South Africa that finalized the end of Apartheid.
  • Peaceful protests and strikes led by Chilean workers that were successful in ousting the ruthless tyrant, Agusto Pinochet.
  • The work of Otpor!, a nonviolent youth movement in Serbia that was credited in the successful overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic.
  • The Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement, which brought an end to civil war.
  • The Orange Revolution in Ukraine, a nonviolent movement that challenged government corruption and electoral fraud.
  • And, of course, the recent Arab Spring, within which nonviolent groups like the April 6 Youth Movement had a leading role in the dramatic and transformative events that took place in Tahrir Square, Cairo.[3]

Certainly, Dan’s list is not exhaustive.  And of course, when we speak of successful nonviolent movements for peace we also must recall the classic examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.  But might it be, in light of this evidence, that peace is possible, genuine peace, if we believe it to be so and if we live and work toward that end?

Bonhoeffer’s image of the miners trapped in the cave is a good one.  The darkness of our world often feels like that cave, like a hopeless dark trap from which we believe there is no escape.  But listen…listen….can you hear it?  Can you hear the tap, tap, tapping of the Light trying to break through?  It’s getting louder now; loud enough now for us to know a little hope; loud enough now for us to hear the voice of our salvation; loud enough now for us to believe.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.  For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

Now to the God who promises this Peace, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church is Not Pacifist” as reprinted in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, ed. Larry Rasmussen, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), p. 241 as quoted by Daniel J. Ott in “Toward a Realistic, Public, Christian Pacifism,” unpublished.

[2] Stanley Weintraub, “Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce,” (The Free Press, New York, NY, 2001).

[3] Daniel J. Ott, “Toward a Realistic, Public, Christian Pacifism,” unpublished.

Hell’s Vestibule, Investments and a Hard God

Matthew 25:14-30

Daniel J. Ott


The parable of the entrusted money is a really tricky one.  I’m not real sure who the good guys and the bad guys are here.

Well of course we know who the baddest bad guy is.  That must be the one who is called a “wicked and lazy servant.”  But I have some sympathy for the poor guy.  First of all, he’s the underdog, and I always want to root for the underdog.  When the boss doles out the cash at the beginning of the story, he gets the least. One gets five bags of gold, another two bags, and to the last one bag of gold.  Now it sounds like all of these are pretty goodly sums, but still, the last servant kind of gets the shaft.  And what’s more, the parable tells us that the boss gives to each of the servants in proportion to his abilities.  So, the boss from the start doesn’t expect much from the poor guy.  Why is he judged so harshly, then?

Well, we might think it’s because he takes the money out and buries it.  Who just buries money, right?  I’ll tell you, I’ve been thinking about burying a few bucs the way the stock market’s been lately, but never mind that.  It actually was pretty acceptable practice at the time to burry money.  Banking wasn’t as sophisticated as it is today and it sure wasn’t insured by the government.  Any kind of investment, even with ‘the bankers’ wasn’t a sure thing.  And evidently this boss is a hard case.  The last servant is scared.  He’s probably already been flayed by this guy a time or two.  So the poor schlep goes the easy rout and finds a good hiding spot in the back yard.  Who can blame him?  Not me.

But the guy telling the story and the boss in the story sure let the last servant have it:  “You wicked and lazy servant!  Take the money from this servant and give to the first servant. I don’t care if does already have ten bags of gold.  And throw this useless servant into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Ouch!

This reminded me of a couple other passages where the not-so-bad go in for pretty harsh treatment.  You might remember John the Revelator’s message to the church in Laodicea.  “I know your works; you are neither the cold nor the hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”  Ancient writers didn’t like people who play it safe, evidently.

And neither did medieval writers.  Dante reserves a special place in hell for the lukewarm or those who lived life with no blame or praise as he calls them.  Actually, they’re not quite in hell, but in the vestibule.  He writes, “these wretches have no hope of truly dying, and this blind life they lead is so abject it makes them envy every other fate.”  So, they might rather be in hell, but instead they’re in the vestibule caught in a rushing, whirling wind chasing a banner that never takes a stand.  Get it? – never takes a stand?  Dante describes them as “an interminable train of souls, so many that I wondered how death could have undone so great a number… These wretches, who had never truly lived, went naked, and were stung and stung again by the hornets and the wasps that circled them and made their faces run with blood in streaks; their blood, mixed with their tears, dripped to their feet, and disgusting maggots collected in the pus.”[1]  Perhaps I should have read this last week for Halloween.

But the message is clear, if overstated in all three cases, to take the easy road, to be lukewarm, to never take a stand, really is to not live at all.  The one who buries his treasure will never gain anything.  The one who is neither hot nor cold, really has no temperature at all.  Only the one who does nothing with her life can avoid all blame or praise. If I were going to play it safe with this parable, I would tell you simply not to play it safe and end the sermon here.  But there is some sort of irony here that begs me to press on.

Let’s consider the first two servants for a minute.  We’re clearly given a clue that these are the good guys in the story.  The boss praises them, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.”  We’ve all heard these beautiful words at the funeral of a faithful loved one.  What fitting words they are on such an occasion.

But what did these servants in the story do to earn such praise.  Well, they took the money they were given and put it to work.  And they did so quite eagerly.  The first servant “began immediately to invest the money and soon doubled it.”  The second servant “went right to work” and doubled his too.  Surely this is good service.  This is certainly the kind of behavior we want in a financial advisor or a stockbroker.  Put that money to work!

But does it translate easily or well to the life of faith?  Should we be looking for a return on our spiritual investments?  Should we expect the boss to reward us for faithful service?

I have known people who think about service and giving in this way.  I’ve had more than one person tell me that they truly believe that when they give generously to the church, God will bless them.  And they mean financially!   The more money they put in the plate, the more money God will put in their pocket.  Unfortunately, I’ve never had the heart or the guts to tell them that I think such a philosophy is at best wrong-headed, and at worst delusional.  This is not why we give to the church.  We give to give, not to receive.  We give because we have already received so much, not because we have expectations of reciprocity.

And even if we translate the giving into giving of our time and talents – after all the word talent finds its origin in this story – even then the theology is all wrong.  Surely we don’t mean to say that those of us who preach, or make soup, or serve on the session, or come to church every Sunday, have any corner on God’s blessings.  Surely nothing that we do earns us God’s blessing, right?  God’s commendation, “Well done, my good and faithful servant” is not reserved for the ones who gave the most money, or had the most talent, or spent the most time at church.

I’m not at all sure that God and the boss in our story tally up the sheet in the same way at all.  In fact, I think we better hurry up and say that the boss of this story and God cannot be the same person.  The third servant describes the boss as a hard man, who “harvests crops he did not plant and gathers crops he did not cultivate.”  That sound like not just a hard man, but a thief to me.  And the boss makes no effort to deny it.  In his rebuke of the “wicked” slave the boss exclaims, “You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  Then you ought to have invested the money I gave you and brought me the interest.”  And then he says the most damnable thing, “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”  God cannot be the hard man that says that.  God is not a hard God.

God does not reap where he does not sow.  God sows and sows and sows some more.  God does not harvest a crop for which he doesn’t care.  God cares and cares and cares some more.

God does not say, “To those who have much more will be given.”  Instead God says, “The last will be first and the first will be last.”  God says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  And blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”  God is not a hard God, like some suppose, blessing the noble and damning the wretch. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is ready to pardon our iniquities and forgive our transgressions.

In the end, surely it will be the lowly servant, the humble and mean slave to whom God says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.  Enter into the joy of your master.”

[1] Mark Musa, trans.  Dante, The Divine Comedy:  Volume 1:  Inferno, (Penguin Books), p. 90-91.

On Idolatry

            I think it was Karl Barth who said that we should do our daily reading with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.  Sometimes it’s almost spooky the ways in which they overlap.  This week my Bible was open to Exodus and the story of ‘the golden calf,’ while news headlines where dominated by images of the bronze bull that stands near Wall Street.

The pictures of Wall Street’s bull this week of course had protestors lying beneath it or, later, barricades around it with police officers standing guard.  The Occupy Wall Street movement actually began a few weeks ago, but it has somewhat unexpectedly picked up steam this week and people are taking notice.  And as people take notice, one of the things that people are wondering is what exactly these protestors want.  Protests that we’ve seen before have had identified spokespersons, clear goals, and practicable demands.  This movement seems to lack all of the above.  Instead, this protest seems to be more of an expression of dissatisfaction and uncertainty.  It may be that the protestors are so uncertain that they can’t even quite put their finger on what would make the situation better.  So, they’ve gathered around the bull in search of some direction, or a leader, or a solution.

Interestingly, the bull itself was erected amidst uncertainty.  A New York artist created the bull in response to the 1987 stock market crash.  He said it was a testament to “the strength, power and hope of the American people.”[1]

I guess there’s something deep within humans that says when in doubt make a bovine statue, because the Hebrews, too, decided to construct a bull and hold a rally.  And they, too, did it amidst uncertainty.  Moses had led them out of Egypt and into the wilderness and they had been in the wilderness for some time.  Now Moses had gone up to the mountain where he was receiving the covenant and the law.  He’d been gone for a while and the people are growing restless.  “Is he coming back?  Where did he go exactly?  And why?  Are we left here without a leader?  Are we just going to camp here and wait for him forever? And where is God?  I thought God was going to take us to a great and fertile land, but here we sit in the middle of nowhere.  When is God going to do something?”

The people are uncertain and it is this uncertainty that makes them begin to act strangely.  They gather around Aaron and they make an interesting request.  “Make gods for us, who shall go before us.”  Now surely even ancient people understood that you just can’t decide at the drop of a hat to “make” a god.  You can fashion an idol or an icon, but that icon refers to something beyond itself, something transcendent that already exists.  You can’t just “make” a god.

But the people are desperate.  They’re scared.  They’re uncertain.  They want something tangible.  They want some assurances. And who can blame them?  It indeed can be frustrating to worship an intangible God.  It can be scary to try to follow God who is invisible.  We too find ourselves asking, “Where did God go?” When we lose a job, we ask, “Where did God go?”  When the economy is tanking we ask, “When is God going to do something?” When tragedy strikes, we ask, “Where is God?”  When we’re in the wilderness and not sure what the future holds, it’s almost natural to ask “Where did God go?”

Aaron must empathize with the people’s desperation and frustration, because without objection he quickly commences fashioning the calf out of gold.  And notice what happens next.  When the calf is done, the people say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  Now that’s a classic statement of idolatry.  It’s almost a definition.  The people have put something that is not God in God’s place.  But keep reading.  Aaron hears this and builds an altar and calls for a festival.  But notice what he says, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.”  The Hebrew reads, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to Yahweh.”

When we think of idolatry we usually think of someone turning their back on God and devoting themselves to something else.  But here the gods that Aaron fashioned have not replaced Yahweh.  Instead they are set beside Yahweh.  And this may be how most folks engage in idolatry.  I suspect that this is the way that we church folks usually engage in idolatry.  We don’t completely turn our backs on God, but we may from time to time set something along side of God.  We hedge our bets.  In God we trust, but maybe we could also hold on to some things that are a little more tangible.

I remember very vividly the Sunday after 9-11-2001.  We had held a short, impromptu prayer service on the evening of the disaster.  But by Sunday things had settled in our minds a little more and we were all struggling to come to terms with these events.  I was very nervous about my sermon, because I knew people would want some help in making sense of it all.

I remember entering the church at the back of the sanctuary and seeing immediately that the American flag had been brought forward and placed right next to the pulpit.  My whole being cringed.  In my mind, whoever moved that flag was hedging their bets.  They had placed the flag, a symbol of national pride, next to God.

Now don’t hear me wrong.  I’m not saying that we can’t be religious and patriotic, too.  I’m not saying that the flag itself is an idol.  I’m not saying that all nationalism or national pride is idolatrous.  What I am saying is that we need to remember that we are a nation under God.  What I am saying is that it is “In God we Trust,” not in the United States of America.  What I am saying is that we may take great pride in who we are as a nation, but as soon as we set nation alongside God, we are dangerously flirting with idolatry. When we set economic boon alongside God, we are dangerously flirting with idolatry.  When we set our own success or happiness alongside God, we are flirting dangerously with idolatry.  When we set anything alongside God, we are flirting with idolatry.

Paul Tillich, the great theologian of the 20th Century, wrote “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned…”[2]  Faith is centering your life on something.  Faith is placing something at the center of your life around which everything else orbits.  And Tillich warned that the danger is that we may find ourselves ultimately concerned with something that is not ultimate.  This is idolatry.  Idolatry is putting your faith in finite things.  It’s centering your life on something that is not ultimate, not eternal, not lasting, not from above, not Godly.  Idolatry is placing something limited and passing at the center of your life.

And when we do this, we may very well feel God’s wrath.  In our story, God’s wrath is characterized in narrative form.  God gets angry and mocks the people.  He says, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.”  God tells Moses, “Step aside!  Stay out of my way, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”

This is a powerful scene.  But we can see the results of God’s wrath even without imagining such a heavenly conversation.  You see… nations rise and fall.  Economies boom and bust.  Jobs begin and end.  Love is fleeting.  Happiness passes.  And this is why we cannot center our lives on such things.  We see the tyrant fall with the state.  We’ve seen one too many stock-broker or vice-president commit suicide when the stuff hits the fan.  We see people lose their sense of self-worth when they lose their job.  We see that divorce not only breaks homes, but often breaks people.  We see this because what we’ve done in all of these cases is centered our lives on something finite.  We’ve put our faith in something that is passing.  And when that thing is no more, then we are crushed.  We’re lost.  We’re consumed by God and feel the heat of God’s wrath.

But, thanks be to God, this is not the end of the story.  Moses intercedes.  He starts begging for God’s mercy on behalf of the people.  He asks God to remember.  First, he asks God to remember all the good that God has done for the people already, how God delivered them from Egypt and brought them through the wilderness this far.  Then, he suggests that God consider what others would think, if God were to bring them this far only to destroy them.  Finally, Moses asks God to remember the promises that God made to Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob and all the people of Israel.  And God does remember.  God remembers the works, and the people and the promises and God repents.  God’s mind has changed.  God chooses to remember rather than destroy.

And the psalmist is quick to point out the irony.  The people forgot, but God remembered.  When enslaved in Egypt, the people forgot God’s love and power.  But God remembered and delivered them from the hands of their oppressors.  The people forgot again in the wilderness and grumbled against Moses and God.  But God remembered and gave them manna to eat and water to drink from the rock.  The people forgot and exchanged the glory of God for the image of an ox that eats grass.  But God remembered, had mercy on them and brought them into the Promised Land.

We forget, but God remembers.  When things go badly and we feel uncertain, we forget and so we start to hedge our bets. We put our faith in finite things and center our lives on that which is passing.  But God remembers. God remembers, breaks down our idols and breaks loose our chains.  God has mercy upon us and forgives us for forgetting.  When we forget, God remembers.  Thanks be to God.

“No Bargain At All”

Matthew 20:1-16

Daniel J. Ott

We’re all looking for a bargain, aren’t we?  My father-in-law and I are big internet shoppers.  We often compare notes when we get together.  “I found a universal remote for twenty bucks that lists for $89.99.”  “I got some new speakers for my computer – 70% off.”  We’re all looking to pay less and get more, right?

Maybe we’re even looking for a bargain when it comes to work.  Sure we say that all we want is a fair wage for a fair day’s work, but working a little less and earning a little more wouldn’t hurt.  You have to haggle a little when you take a new job.  You have to ask for a raise now and again.

The first group of workers in our story knows this.  They may be a little down on their luck.  They’re trying to scrape things together as day laborers, but they’re far from stupid.  The landowner comes around and they know that they should agree on a price ahead of time.  They’re about to work a twelve hour day and they want to make sure that they get what’s coming to them… or maybe a little more.  So they bargain a little, but I guess the landowner was better at the bargaining game, because they settle for the usual day’s wage.  Can’t blame them for trying, though.  Give less – get more.  That’s our motto.

I have the impression that some people live by that motto even when it comes to religion.  Their religion starts with one simple prayer that earns them a spot in heaven.  They like churches where not much is required:  Just go hear the band, a sermon that’s easy to understand, and slip out the back.  They like to hear the preacher talk about forgiveness and grace, not so much holiness or service.  Religion for them is a private matter, a personal affair.  Just a little talk with Jesus now and again and everything will be alright.  Give less – get more.  Who can blame them?  We’re all looking for a bargain.

But if we can’t get a bargain, then I guess we’ll settle for what’s fair.  That’s what the next sets of workers do.  The landowner keeps going back to the marketplace every three hours to get more workers.  I guess the harvest was plentiful that year.  And unemployment must have been up, too, for all those workers to be standing around.  Perhaps that’s why they don’t bargain.  The landowner simply tells them that he will pay them what’s fair and they go quietly to get to work.

That’s a good Midwest mindset, right?  We like a person who just keeps her head down and does her job.  We all just kind of expect that if you work hard, things will work out in the end.  Just do your job and take care of your business and everything will be alright.

And this mindset can bleed over into religion too.  He says, “I’ll be alright.  I never drank much or gambled.  I’ve always put food on the table for my family.  I went to church when I could.  I’m sure the Lord will be alright with me.”  She says, “I’ve always tried to be nice to people.  I’ve helped out when I could.  I took care of Mom when she got old.  Surely, God will see that I’m basically a good person.”  It’s just what’s fair, right?  We live a pretty good life and God should give us what’s coming to us in the end.  There’s no reason to bargain or haggle.  Just give us what’s fair, God.

Well, amazingly, the landowner goes back to the marketplace one last time, just an hour before quitting time.  And wouldn’t you know it, there are still some poor schlepps standing around.  He asks, “Why are you standing here all day.”  They state the painfully obvious, “Because no one hired us.”  And he sends them out to work in the field.  These must really be some desperate folk.  Maybe they figured the landowner might at least feed them supper for doing a little clean-up work.  I guess when you can’t get what’s fair, you’ll take what you can get.  Maybe they’ll at least get a scrap or two.  An hour’s work is better than nothing.

During my time teaching at St. Andrews in North Carolina the make-up of my classes became pretty predictable.  I would always have pretty similar sets of students.  I would have the religious studies majors and the students planning to go to seminary.  I would have a handful of zealots, who were often new to their faith and wanted to learn more about religion.  Of course, there were always some who just needed to fill in a space in their schedule and thought that a religion course might be interesting or easy, or both.  But for a couple of years I had another group that were following me around that left everybody wondering, including me.  I called them my motley crew.

They weren’t bad students, but not the cream of the crop either.  It was well known that several in the group probably smoked a little too much weed.  None of them had any interest in majoring or minoring in religion.  They were far from churchy or even religious, really.  At first, I thought it was just that they enjoyed a little banter about God and my conversational teaching style.  Then I began to learn their stories.  One of the young women had lost her brother at a very young age.  Another was in the process of coming out of the closet and dealing with a family that wasn’t very accepting of her sexuality.  One of the young men had a very difficult relationship with his father.  They all had big questions and lots of them.

Thinking about them through the lens of this parable, I think they were just looking for a few scraps.  The church was offering way too much and not nearly enough all at the same time.  They weren’t looking for any churchy bargain.  Some of them also probably thought that they weren’t worthy of a fair deal.  So they took a few religion courses.   Slowly they started asking their questions and wrestling with them.  They spent their hour in the field and were happy to do so.

Back in our story, when the last hour was up, the pay was doled out.  They lined up last to first: the one-hour laborers in front looking for scraps, next were the the three, the six and the nine, looking for a fair shake, and last the twelve-hour laborers ready to get what they bargained for.  Everybody looked on as the drama unfolded.  The one-hour laborers were given a full day’s wage!  Can you imagine the surge of energy in the room?  The motley crew must have been bowled over.  I’m sure they sheepishly collected their pay and disappeared as fast as possible, before anyone had any opportunity to change their mind.  The other workers must have been a buzz too.  “If these schlepps got a full day’s wage, what’s in store for us?”

Well, we soon find out.  The three-hour laborers come forward and receive a full day’s wage, too.  The six-hour laborers – a full day’s wage and the three-hours received the same.  We’re not told what, if anything, these laborers had to say, but I’m sure they went away murmuring something.  You certainly cannot call this ‘fair.’  But which way does ‘fair’ cut here?  That those who worked nine hours received the same as those who worked three is certainly an injustice.  But can you complain if you receive twelve hour’s pay for nine hours work?  Isn’t that a bargain?  Those promised fairness were left to wonder just what fair is.

Finally, the first laborers come forward and they probably could imagine where this was headed.   True to form they received what they bargained for – one full day’s wage for one full day’s work.  But they were indignant.  “This, decidedly, is not fair!  These last schlepps worked only an hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”  They’d forgotten about what they bargained for and now they were all about what’s fair.  And we can’t blame them, can we?  Obviously this is bad business.  You can’t pay people the same who don’t work the same.

And it’s bad religion, too.  Does this imply that the old drunk who makes a confession in the eleventh hour will be rewarded just the same as us?  Does that mean what we do in this life doesn’t matter?  Maybe we should live it up.  Why labor in the field and make sacrifices and work so damned hard at being faithful and living a decent life if this is how it comes down in the end?  Wouldn’t we be ticked, too, if this is how it worked?

Well, what comes next in the story is probably the most startling part.  The landowner fights back.  “I’ve done you no wrong.  I gave you what you bargained for.  Take what belongs to you and go.”  In effect, the landowner says, “If you don’t like it, get out.”

Now throughout the sermon we’ve been making the analogy explicit in its application to religion, so it wouldn’t be fair to stop short here.  Imagine it:  We get ticked and start wagging our fingers at God about the fairness of this whole exchange.  “This is no bargain, God, no bargain at all.  We labor all day and the one who comes in the eleventh hour gets the same reward.  It’s just not fair.”  And God responds simply, “If you don’t like it get out.  I do what I want with what’s mine.  Go on.  Get out!”

I thought about ending the sermon there.  That’s where the parable ends.  But I’m convinced that it’s not where the message ends.  You see, it really is no bargain at all.  In the end all of this talk of transactions and fair wages falls on its head when what we’re trying to talk about is grace.  Grace is no bargain at all.  There’s no hiring and haggling, no bartering and bargaining.  Grace is a gift, it’s not a wage.  Grace isn’t measured in more or less or when or under what conditions.  Grace is immeasurable.  Whether we’re looking for a bargain, or a fair shake, or just a few scraps, when grace comes we get much more than we bargained for.  Grace is the air we breathe and the life we live.  It’s the love we share and the forgiveness we’ve been given.  Grace is a precious, precious gift – no bargain at all.

On Forgiveness

“On Forgiveness”

Matthew 18:21-35

Daniel J. Ott


We all know that we should forgive.  But the question remains, “Just how much?”  If you’re like me, I’m sure you can think of many times when you have forgiven.  I think of myself as basically a forgiving person.  But I also can think of things that I have not forgiven.  There are some wrongs that have been done to me that I just can’t let go.  Some of these wrongs just seem too great to be forgiven; or they caused too deep a wound in me; or the person who did the wrong never did try to right the wrong, leaving me feeling as though the person was not worthy of my forgiveness.  Sure we all know that we should forgive.  But isn’t there some limit?  Do we have to forgive always?  Do we have to forgive everything?

Matthew’s parable wrestles with these questions.  And Matthew himself may get a little tangled in the answers.  And so may we.

Let’s start with the servant.[1]  In my study Bible the heading to this story calls him the “unforgiving servant.”  But is he really so bad?  A co-worker was having some trouble.  He loaned him a few hundred dollars.  So far so good, right?  Time goes by and the co-worker never pays him back.  Finally, he happens upon the guy and says, “Hey, what’s doin’?  Where’s that money I leant you?”  The co-worker says he can’t pay and asks for a break.  The servant has had enough, though, and decides to take the matter up in the courts.

Now I guess we could call this “unforgiving.”  But would any of us act so differently?  We all need to be responsible for our debts, right?  Our whole banking system, our whole economic system is based on this basic assumption.  We take loans and we pay them back.  If we don’t pay them back, there are legal ramifications.  What would happen if banks and mortgage companies just started forgiving debts left and right?  Are they “unforgiving” when they insist on repayment?

Of course, the reason that this servant seems so unforgiving is because of the contrast set up by the parable.  Just before the servant demands payment from his co-worker, he himself has been forgiven a great debt.

The story goes that the boss was reconciling his books.  He comes across our servant and sees that he owes ten thousand talents.  Now when I first read the story I thought to myself, “Oh, ten thousand talents, sounds like a goodly sum.”  But Matthew’s audience would have gasped at hearing that number.  A talent is worth fifteen years of a laborer’s wages.  Ten thousand talents is like a billion dollars.  How’s a regular schmoe going to pay back a billion dollars?  How in the world did he end up a billion dollars in debt?  What’s wrong with this guy?  So the boss comes to a fairly logical conclusion for the day.  Sell everything he’s got, including his family and him and get what you can.  What else can you do with such a deadbeat?

So the servant makes a scene and falls on his knees blathering and begging, saying, “Just give me a little more time.”  “Really?,” the boss thinks to himself, “Just a little more time and you’ll pay me back a billion dollars, eh?”  The boss has a flash of pity and decides to let the poor schlepp go.  He wipes the books clean and sends him on his way.

And this is the reason why we get so indignant about the servant’s unforgiving attitude toward his co-worker.  How can you receive forgiveness of such a huge debt and turn right around and harshly demand payment on a much smaller debt?  The servant had been forgiven an immeasurable debt, but did not learn forgiveness from this experience.

This is the ‘gotcha moment,’ of course.  The finger that wags and points at the servant turns right around at us.  How can we who have been forgiven of so much not forgive others?  God forgives us all of our sin.  God forgives the wrongs that we have done to God and the wrongs that we have done to each other.  God demands no payment at all for these sins.  When our account comes due, God simply wipes the books clean and sends us on our way.  And when we fail to forgive each other, we are that unforgiving servant who has been forgiven so much, but cannot see fit to forgive a little.

The force with which Matthew drives home this point is startling.  The boss hands the servant over to be tortured and Matthew puts these words on Jesus’ lips, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your sister or brother from your heart.”  Well, that’s not very forgiving is it?  The message can’t really be that if we don’t forgive, God won’t forgive.  This forgiveness business is tricky.  It’s hard to get our minds around the great mercy of God.  But I believe the message that Matthew was shooting for, even if he didn’t quite hit the mark, remains:  God’s forgiveness is limitless and so should ours be.

Two stories (ripped from the headlines as it were):

On October 2, 2006, a man named Charles Carl Roberts entered the one room West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster, County, PA.  At about 10:36 that morning the first call was made to 911 explaining that the gunman had let several adults, boys and small children go, but was holding hostage around ten girls between the ages of 6 and 13.  The police responded within minutes.  But soon after they arrived at around 11:07 shooting began in the school house.  By 11:11 the police on the scene alerted dispatch that there were 10-12 victims with head wounds.  Roberts had shot ten little girls before killing himself.  Five of the girls died in the end.  The five that survived live with various persistent injuries.

The world watched as a little Amish village in Pennsylvania dealt with their pain and grief.  We were all amazed by the scenes of forgiveness that followed.  Reports emerged that on the very same day of the shooting the grandfather of one of the murdered girls was overheard telling his family, “We must not think evil of this man.”  The family of the shooter reported that members of the Amish community reached out in consolation to them for their loss within hours of the massacre.  Amish community members attended Charles Roberts’ funeral and even established a charitable fund for the family that he left behind.  In an open letter to the Amish community thanking them for their forgiveness and grace, Marie Roberts wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need.  Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe.  Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”[2]

On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four passenger planes.  At 8:46 in the morning five hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center’s North Tower.  At 9:03 a.m. another five hijackers crashed United Airlines Flight 175 into the South Tower.  At. 9:37 a third plane crashed into the Pentagon.  United Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania at 10:03 after passengers struggled with that plane’s hijackers.  In the end almost three thousand people were dead including the hijackers.

The world watched as a great nation dealt with its pain and grief.  The question of forgiveness in the wake of this heinous attack is a difficult one, but what is sure is that the scenes that followed hardly resembled the scenes from that little Amish village.  Three days after the event, our then president stood in the midst of the rubble in New York City and vowed revenge.  The so-called “war on terror” was launched immediately.  American troops were in Afghanistan before thirty days had expired.  Not two years later, Iraq was identified as the central front in the war on terror and military initiatives were expanded.  Ten years later, the war in Afghanistan rages on and troops remain in Iraq.  On May 2 of this year, the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. troops.  Our current president told those of us who wondered whether this assassination was necessary that we should have our heads examined.

Our grief and anger have also led to ill-effects at home.  A nation that once prided itself on its immigrant roots has grown intolerant and insular.  Muslim Americans have become the targets of hate crimes and deep suspicion.  Ignorant Christians have hosted burnings of Islam’s holy book.  Congress has even held hearings casting a wide net and suggesting that all of Islam is threatened by radicalization.  Muslim Americans, who lost their own on 9/11, have had their patriotism put into question and been forced to become apologists for their faith.

We all know that we should forgive.  But the question remains, “Just how much?”  When asked to put a number on it, Jesus said, “seventy times seven.”  In other words, as much as it takes.  God’s forgiveness is limitless.  What about ours?

[1] Throughout this treatment of the parable, I am following David Buttrick rather closely.  David Buttrick, Speaking Parables:  A Homiletic Guide, (Louisville, Kentucky:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), pp. 107-113.

The Law of Love

“The Law of Love”

Romans 13:8-10

Daniel J. Ott

As a pastor and a religion professor, I’m often asked some interesting questions.  Students, parishioners, neighbors, hairdressers seem to save up their questions and pop them on me when they get me alone.  And I don’t mind, but I’m sometimes surprised at the nature of the questions.  They are not usually about what God is like, or, “What is a Trinity?,” or “How should I pray?”  They’re almost always about ethical or moral issues.  “Let me tell you what my cousin did.  Do you think that’s right or wrong?”  “What do you think about premarital sex – or abortion – or divorce?”  These are not easy questions and I think I almost always leave the person asking the question a bit disappointed.  You see, I don’t give the most straightforward answers in the world.  And it’s not just that I don’t want to get on the wrong side of my hairdresser’s debate with her cousin as she cuts my bangs, it’s also because I don’t think morality is as black and white as we would like for it to be.  We’d all like to have a little rulebook where we could look up our particular moral dilemma in the index, turn to the applicable page and read the answer.  Problem solved.  Or even better, just corner the local expert.  See what he has to say.  But it’s just not that simple or easy.

When asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus famously responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest commandment.  And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  On these two commandments hang all the law and prophets.”  Paul likewise says succinctly, “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  Love is the fulfillment of the law.”  Jesus and Paul both rejected legalistic approaches to morality and emphasized that love alone has the power to put us into right relationships with one another and with God.  No set of rituals, no legal code however sound, no abstract ideals or moral postulates can ultimately put us in right relationship with God and neighbor.  The only thing that can set us on the right moral path is real, concrete love.

And that complicates matters.  That might sound funny to say, but grounding our morality in love complicates matters.  For one thing, love is boundless.  If we could consult a rulebook, we could just do what it says and be done.  But love demands that we go further.  Love shatters the law and asks not, “What am I required to do?,” but “What should I do?,” “What is the best I can do.”  Love demands that we go not only the mile required but a second mile, that we give not only our coats, but our cloaks as well.

Another reason why love complicates matters is that love is risky.  If we could ascertain the highest ideals or perfect our legal code, then we’d know when something was right and when something was wrong.  We could rest assured that if everyone would just abide by our guidelines, then the world would be all right.  But love gives no guarantees.  The famous psychologist, Erich Fromm said, “Love means to commit oneself without guarantee, to give oneself completely in the hope that our love will produce love in the loved person.  Love is an act of faith, and whoever is of little faith is also of little love.”

The third reason that love complicates matters is that love takes effort.  If love is to be the ground of morality, then it will demand that we press past moral deliberation or discernment toward the hard work of actually acting lovingly.  We can’t just think about it, we have to do it.  Love is work, hard work.  Love demands sacrifice and compromise.  Love demands that we listen to others and strain to understand them.  Love demands that we give of ourselves for the good of another even if the other may give no good in return.

But even though love complicates matters, even though love is complex and risky and difficult, Jesus and Paul boldly assert that morality should be rooted in love, that love is the greatest commandment and the fulfillment of the law.

Well, I was taught well that when talking about moral matters we shouldn’t stay too long in the abstract.  We should tackle some cases.  And lucky for us, Paul mentions a few.  Paul writes, “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love.”  Now at first blush this might seem a fairly random selection of commandments.  They’re not the first few or the last few as they’re listed in Exodus or Deuteronomy.  So it got me wondering about why Paul mentions these commandments.  Then it hit me:  Sex, Violence, and Materialism.  If that list doesn’t get at the heart of morality, then I don’t know what list would.  Let’s look at each.  I’m going to take them out of order.

First, materialism and covetousness:  I’ve been working with students this week, reading the Bhagavad Gita, a holy book in the Hindu tradition.  Hinduism teaches us that many people are on the path of desire.  Many people spend their lives seeking pleasure or success or some combination of the two.  But the Gita teaches that we should seek to transcend our attachment to things and to worldly accomplishments, because these things are only temporary and pursuing them can lead to suffering.  There’s a great passage:   “If a [person] keeps dwelling on sense objects, attachment to them arises; from attachment, desire flares up; from desire, anger is born; from anger, confusion follows; from confusion, weakness of memory;  weak memory – weak understanding; weak understanding – ruin.”[1]

I told my students that we could think about this in terms of a promotion at work.  I start thinking about the promotion.  I get attached to the idea of a promotion.  I start dreaming about it and planning on it.  It becomes the object of my desire.  I want that promotion.  I deserve the promotion.  I think the promotion is rightfully mine.  Then the numbskull in the cubicle next to mine gets the promotion.  Now I’m angry.  How could my idiot boss give numbskull the promotion?  How could numbskull get MY promotion?  Now I’m confused.  I start rehearsing what it is that I did or didn’t do.  I obsess over little things that were said and I even start to create my own story about what went wrong.  Soon the story takes on a life of its own.  My memory is tainted.  Now I know why numbskull got the promotion – He’s always been a kiss-up.  And my idiot boss never has appreciated me like she should.  Going to work becomes hell.  Every interaction with numbskull and my idiot boss drives me up a wall.  I can’t understand why they do the things they do.  They seem to have it out for me.  I’m ruined.  Soon my boss will have no choice but to let me go.

What law code could free us from this sort of moral failure?  We can say simply, “Thou shalt not covet,” but we see how things easily spin out of control, how we are trapped by our desires.  The law of love might free us, though.  And here the love does not even need to be for the other.  I could free myself from this vicious cycle by first loving myself.  If I love myself more than that promotion; if I love myself more than the things I possess or the things that I accomplish, then I will not be so attached to those things and I will not be tempted to travel the road of desire toward ruin.  Further, if I love myself more than that promotion, then the possibility of loving numbskull is opened up.  I can love numbskull, even if he has something that I thought I wanted, because I realize that both numbskull and I are much more valuable than things.  The law of love can free us from covetousness and materialism.

Test case #2, adultery:  Talking about the law of love is helpful in two ways.  First, as we’ve noted we realize that love is the fulfillment of the law.  Love sums up the law.  But it’s also helpful to note that love is a kind of law itself.  Love takes moral effort and requires responsibility.

Our culture can lure us into mistaking love for an emotion or mere sentiment.  Or maybe it’s even worse than that.  Sometimes we begin to think of love as a sort of primal drive or even a kind of magic.  We imagine that we fall in and out of love.  We forget that we are responsible agents when it comes to love.  A woman looks at her husband and thinks with wonder, “I just don’t love him anymore.”  And she thinks that this has just happened to her, that she has no responsibility in the breakdown of love in their marriage.  A man has sex with a woman who is not his wife and he thinks to himself, “I can’t help it.  I fell in love with her.”  Do you see what has happened here?  The word love becomes a tool to abort the law, rather than being the power that enables us to fulfill the law.  If we fall in and out of love, if love is some magic that happens to us, rather than an action for which we are responsible, then infidelity and unhappy and failed marriages follow quite readily.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke observed, “Like so much else, people have also misunderstood the place of love in life, they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure was more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, just because it is the extreme happiness, can be nothing else but work…”[2]   Love is work.  It takes effort.  It requires moral strength.  But love is blissful and has the power to heal our relationships and make us whole.  The law of love can free us from adultery.

Our final test case is murder.  There’s a fascinating documentary that I watched some time ago now, called “Flight from Death.”  I recommend it.  It’s based on the work of psychologist Ernest Becker and some contemporary psychologists who have furthered his line of research.  The basic premise is that our fear of death is one of the biggest psychological drivers in our lives. What we do is construct coping mechanisms that allow us to deny the reality of death or otherwise flee from death.  We become the heroes and heroines of our own stories.  We try to make ourselves immortal by building a financial empire, or creating the perfect work of art, or even rearing the perfect family.  Or another way to cope would be to connect ourselves to ideas and structures that help us to think that we are bigger than we are.  Our religions or our national identities become extensions of our selves that secure our immortality.

The problem is that when these false selves or extended selves are threatened, then we perceive the threat as a threat to our very lives.  This is when anger, violence and even murder arise.    When a liberal hears conservative rhetoric, she becomes inordinately angry…Why? – Because she takes it not merely as a threat to her ideas, but a threat on her life. When Western Christians come into contact with Arab Muslims, the clash of ideas causes the two to feel threatened to the core.  Anger, violence and even killing result.

Love, again, is the only way forward.  Jesus asked us to love even our enemies.  He asked us to love even when we feel threatened.  He gave us the example as he loved even from the cross.

Paul says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” – the neighbor next door with whom you disagree; the neighbor who lives down the street, but comes from another country; the neighbor across the aisle who sees the world differently than you; and the neighbor across the globe who has a different way of life, a different culture and a different religion.  The law of love can free us from violence and killing.

Sisters and brothers, owe no one anything, except to love one another for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  All the commandments are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  The law is love and love is the law.

[1] Stephen Mitchell, trans. Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation, (New York:  Three Rivers Press, 2000), p. 58.

[2] As quoted by Bell Hooks in All About Love: New Visions, (New York:  Perennial, 2000), p. 183.