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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.

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“The Trickster Gets Tricked – a Love Story”

Genesis 29

Daniel J. Ott

 

I know my wife loves me.  And I think, in general, she’s pretty contented with me as a husband.  But I also think she could probably name a few minor points where I could use some improvement.  And I think one of those would be that she would like for me to occasionally sit down with her and watch what we call a chick flick, a romantic comedy.  But, unfortunately, I just can’t do it.  She is quick to point out that I did watch a few with her back when I was wooing her, but of course everything changes after you’re married.  In my own defense, its not that I think that I’m too macho or that I mean to be unromantic.  The problem with chick flicks for me is their unrealism.  Of course, the unrealism of Star Wars or Batman is completely acceptable, but the point is:  the kind of love that you see in romantic comedies just seems so unrealistic that, to me, it almost makes a mockery of love.

First, there’s the fateful falling in love.  The two bump into each other in the hotdog line at the Cub’s game and immediately there are stars in their eyes.  Or perhaps its slightly more complicated:  Middle aged guy is dating the younger sister, impressing her with his sports car and expensive dinners out.  He reluctantly goes on vacation with her family only to find out that he had once dated the older sister, now divorced.  The two fall in love and the plot untangles from there.  In any case, there’s always magic involved and we see the love in the lovers’ eyes from the moment they spot each other.  Then, comes the conflict.  Some sort of misunderstanding arises.  He says something he shouldn’t, or she sees something and misconstrues it, or he goes out on a night with guys that goes wrong, and as a result the two have a big fight and grow apart.  Of course, this only lasts long enough to play a few sad ballads behind scenes of him looking longingly into the old Italian restaurant where they used to dine and her sitting alone on the edge of the fountain into which earlier in the movie they dived in with all of their clothes on.   Then there’s the obligatory hear-to-heart with the best friend scene, thus leading to the reconciliation scene that takes all of five minutes after which the stars return to the lovers eyes, some uplifting music is played, a frolicking in the park scene, a wedding scene, and cue the credits.  Just like it happens in real life, right?

Interestingly, when our story about Jacob and Rachel begins, it looks like it’s headed to chick flick land.  The setting is common to betrothal scenes in the ancient Near East.  The well cues the reader that romance is on the rise.  Soon after Jacob arrives, it so happens that Rachel appears.  Sparks fly.  Jacob is so stirred by Rachel that without thinking he moves the stone from the well, a feat that would ordinarily require a collection of several shepherds.  After this show of virility, he then shows his caring and compassionate side by watering Rachel’s flock.  Then, in tenderness, he kisses her and even begins to cry.  She’s smitten, too.  She runs to tell her father what has happened and to seek his approval.  And, happily, her father accepts Jacob into his house with open arms.

What happens next is not the ordinary misunderstanding that we might expect from a romantic comedy, but it’s also not a complete surprise for those of us who are getting to know the ‘heel-grabber.’  Laban comes to Jacob with what seems to be a genuinely gracious offer.  Jacob has been tending his uncle’s flock for a month now without pay.  Laban says, “Tell me what your wages should be.”  This is just the opening that the trickster needed.  Without blinking an eye Jacob says, “I will serve seven years for your younger daughter, Rachel.”

Now, at first blush, we might think that there is nothing wrong with this proposition.  Seven years seems like a long time to work in exchange for the right to marry and, besides, the youngsters are in love.  What’s wrong with that?  Well, remember Jacob is in exile.  He has nothing.  Ordinarily, the suitor would offer the father a substantial bride-price, but Jacob has no way to pay.  In fact, where would Jacob stay and how would he work if it weren’t for his uncle taking him in.  Doesn’t Jacob owe Laban his labor just for shelter and sustenance?  Furthermore, Jacob knows full well that the father always offers his daughters in birth order, eldest first.  But of course what does Jacob care for birth order, right?

In any case, Laban agrees, figuring that Jacob is better than any of the other lads he’s seen hanging around.  When the seven years are up, Jacob insists sharply and crudely, “Let me have my wife and let me bed her.”  Perhaps because of this rudeness or perhaps it was his plan all along, Laban then begins to unfold his trick for the trickster.  Laban hosts a feast and gets Jacob drunk.  And when the time comes he makes the switch.  Rather than giving Jacob Rachel, Laban gives him Leah, his eldest.  Here the fairy tale ends.

Jacob is enraged and he shouts at Laban, “What is this that you have done to me?  How could you deceive me?”  One of the old Rabbis also imagined that Jacob complained to Leah herself, “Didn’t I call out Rachel in the night, and you answered me!” She said, “There is never a bad barber who doesn’t have disciples.  Isn’t this how your father cried out Esau, and you answered him?”[1]  The trickster’s tricked and he doesn’t like it one little bit.

Laban makes a concession and offers Rachel for another seven years labor.  When Leah’s wedding week is done, Jacob marries Rachel whom he will always love more.  In fact, the text says that Leah was despised.  ‘Despised’ says what it means in the sense that Jacob harbored ill feelings for Leah, but this term is also a technical term for the un-favored, second wife.

And here’s where the real love story begins.  So far, we’ve seen a fairy tale beginning and we’ve seen the kind of twists that a love story can take.  We’ve seen that often love is tainted by tricks and often love for one implies un-love for others.  But the real love story here is not the one about Jacob and Rachel, but the one about God’s love for Leah.

“God saw that Leah was despised and God opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.”  God blesses Leah with sons.  And Leah hopes with each birth that she will finally earn Jacob’s love.  The first son she names Rueben, literally ‘look, a son.’  “God has seen my suffering,” she says, “Now my husband will love me.”  The next she names Simeon – close to the verb ‘to hear.’  “For God heard that I was despised.”  The third she names Levi, a play on the word meaning “will join.”  “This time at last my husband will join me, for I have born him three sons.”  Finally, she gives up on Jacob and gives into God’s love.  She’s blessed with a fourth son, whom she names Judah.  “This time I sing praise to God.”

When Leah suffered, God saw.  When she cried out in despair at being despised, God heard.  When she could not win the love of her husband, when she was loveless, God loved.  Now there’s a love story worth telling.

There’s a Buddhist monk named Tich Nhat Hanh whose teachings have been very important to me in my own spiritual journey.  I often hear his voice in my head.  In the recordings I have of him, he speaks softly and slowly, peacefully and tenderly.  When I read about God seeing Leah’s suffering, I heard his voice and one of his central teachings.  He says that we all suffer very much. We all have inside of us a little boy or a little girl who suffers.  Each of us has inside of us a little girl or a little boy who longs to be loved, who feels forgotten, or despised, or rejected.  And if we want to ease our suffering, then we will need to take good care of that suffering little boy or little girl inside ourselves.  We will need to touch her tenderly and tell her that we know that she suffers and tell her that we love her very much.  And if we want to ease the suffering of our wife or husband, or if we want to ease the suffering of our daughter or our son, or if we want to ease the suffering of our father or mother, or sister brother, we will have to care for the suffering child in them.  We will have to tell that suffering child, “I know that you suffer very much.  I love you.  Let me help you.”

And it seems to me that this is the kind of love story that we see over and over in scripture.  God sees the despised.  God hears the oppressed.  God visits the exiled.  God comes to the loveless.  Over and over again, God comes and says to them and to us, “I know that you suffer very much.  I love you.”

And God also calls us to be agents of this kind of love in the world.  If we want to know what love is, if we want to live our own love stories, then we, too, will need to see the suffering, and hear the cries of the oppressed, and love the loveless.  God calls us to love the suffering and loveless ones in our homes, here in our church, here in our community and even to the ends of the earth.

I want to close by telling you a story about a time when I saw someone answering God’s call to love the loveless.  There was a couple in one of the little churches that I pastored in South Carolina who took in foster children.  The couple didn’t have a lot.  They were your basic working-class folks who lived in a very nice double-wide on a piece of family land.  They took these children in and gave them everything they had, they treated them no differently than they would their own children who had grown and left the house.  I don’t want to make them sound like saints, because that would ruin the story.  They were just generous and loving parents, generous and loving parents like you and me who sometimes get frustrated and annoyed and sometimes do a better job of parenting than others.

Well, one of the little girls that they took in turned out to be a little more than they bargained for.  I think she was eleven or twelve when she came to them.  She was a smart and attractive little girl who liked to sing and fit in well with the other kids at church.  She was doing pretty well, but soon her foster-mother began to tell me that they were having some rough spots at home.  At first, we all thought it was the kind of thing that is to be expected of a foster child in a new home.  But as she began to get a little older and enter into puberty things got worse and worse.  She began to do outlandish things.  She threw tantrums and became violent.  She vandalized some property while away at church camp.  Her foster mother suspected that she might be acting out sexually.  Through all of this, my friends were steadfast in their love for the girl.  Folks at church were praying for her and pitching in to help.  The couple took the girl to counseling and attended family counseling.  They were keeping several appointments a week, working with psychologists, social workers, and others to try to figure out how best to love this suffering child.  Eventually, the psychologist diagnosed her with Reactive Attachment Syndrome.  This means that the girl, probably because of early childhood neglect, was not able to make healthy attachments with others.  Good attention and bad attention didn’t make any difference to her.  She didn’t understand intimacy and sought it from the wrong people in the wrong contexts.  Her frustration boiled over and she lashed out with no inhibition since she was truly incapable of caring and love.  My friends found out that they were truly loving the loveless.

Of course this story didn’t have a fairy tale ending.  Eventually, the girl had to be institutionalized.  But that didn’t stop her new parents’ love.  They visited her and took their pastor to visit her.  They listened patiently to her fantastic stories and her insatiable complaints.  And at the end of every visit they hugged her and kissed her and told her, “We love you, Baby.”

Thanks be to God, for love stories like these.

 

 


[1] Robert Alter, Genesis (New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, 1996), p. 155.

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Do Not Fear — Isaiah 35: 1-10

My time as the pastor of Cameron Presbyterian Church is coming to a close.  What follows is the sermon from this past fourth Sunday of Advent.  I have two more sermons to preach for my church, one on Christmas Eve and one final sermon on Sunday, December 26th…my last Sunday.  I will post my Christmas Eve sermon here on the blog but I am debating posting my final sermon.  It may just be too personal to post.  Thanks to all of you, near and far, who have been following our blog.  Dan and I definitely plan to keep the blog up and running and will post our sermons, theological reflections, and random musings in our new positions at Monmouth College in Monmouth, IL.  May God’s peace be with you all as we celebrate this holy season and move into our new year full of new beginnings….

“Do Not Fear”

Isaiah 35: 1-10

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

December 19th, 2010 – Fourth Sunday of Advent

We live in frightening times.  People are afraid.  People are anxious and afraid for their children.  People are anxious and afraid about their jobs.  People are anxious about losing the life that they have self-constructed and they are afraid because they know that the loss of these things is inevitable.[1] We live in frightening times.  But it’s not just these times…because we humans are also timelessly afraid of death and of loss.  We are timelessly afraid of the stranger.  We are timelessly afraid of those who think and act differently.  We are timelessly afraid of change.  We are timelessly afraid of all that we cannot control, of all that is beyond our human power.

Alyce McKenzie, in a sermon on fear, suggests it’s a good practice to name our fears, to name the knots that fear has balled up in our stomachs.   Illustrating this point she tells the story of Gary.  “Gary is a computer analyst in his mid-forties and he has been married and divorced twice, most recently about three years ago.  For about a year he has been dating a wonderful woman…named Gina, also divorced and with an adorable seven-year-old daughter she is trying to get full custody of.  Gary and Gina came to me [McKenzie writes] last winter and asked if I would marry them at the end of April.  Our counseling and wedding planning were going along fine until, along about mid-March, Gary began to develop a case of very cold feet.  When he shared this with Gina…instead of getting angry, she suggested he go away for a daylong retreat to be alone with God and himself, to get clear about things.  Gary started driving with no particular destination.  He ended up at a beautiful site near Lake Texoma.”

“[Gary] got out of his car and began to walk [McKenzie continues] to soothe his jangled nerves, to center his thoughts on God.  He sat down on a bench that overlooked the lake and he tried to unravel the knots in his stomach.”

“As he stared out at the lake…it became clear to him that there were three knots in his stomach, and each had a name.  One of the knots was his fear that he would just keep repeating the same relationship mistakes.  The second knot in his stomach was the fear of the chaos and pain that could come from the custody battle facing Linda.  And the third knot in his stomach was maybe the hardest, knottiest of all:  it was the fear that maybe he was just not worthy of another person’s love and was destined to have to face his future alone.”[2]

McKenzie concludes her illustration by suggesting that it is wise to take some time, to find a quiet spot and get some focus on our fears.  Name the knots in your stomach.  Name that which is physically causing you stress and anxiety so you can bring it into proper perspective.

Do your knots hold the names of the people you are worried about?  Spouse.  Parent.  Child.  Sibling.  Is your knot named after your marriage?  Is your knot named after your uncertain future?  Is your knot currently on a moving truck to Illinois with all your worldly possessions?  Oh….I need a minute….

Focus on your fear.  Name your knots.  And then hear these words from the prophet Isaiah.

Strengthen the weak hands,

And make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.[3]

Perhaps the most pervasive command in all of scripture is, “Do not fear!”  From cover to cover our scriptures proclaim, “Do not be afraid.”  When the glory of the Lord shone around those shepherds and an angel appeared, they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid!”  And Jesus constantly encouraged his disciples not to live in fear.  He constantly encouraged them because they were constantly afraid.  When he decided to go to Jerusalem, the disciples were afraid and begged him not to go.  When he was arrested, they all fled in fear.  After his crucifixion they cowered in fear in a locked room.  And when a few of them ventured to the place of burial early Sunday morning and found the tomb empty, the encouraging words came again: “Do not be afraid!”[4]

The bible tells us over and over again not to be afraid and it does so because fear is the enemy of life.  John Buchanan, in an article on this passage, writes, “Fear is such an enemy of life.  It’s hard to love when you are afraid.  It’s hard to care passionately when you’re afraid.  It’s impossible to be joyful about anything when you are afraid.  Fear limits life, constrains life, pollutes life.  Fear can be a good thing when it alerts us to danger.  But…when fear becomes overwhelming….it takes over.”  Living in fear is not really living.  Fear is not life-giving.  So the bible tells us over and over again, “Do not fear.”

Of course, this is easier said than done.  We do, after all, live in frightening times.  There is much to be afraid of.  So how do we escape being ruled by our fears?

At a preaching conference I recently heard Dr. Craig Barnes speak about fear and about how we might escape it.  Dr. Barnes wisely said that the only way to get rid of fear is to be loved out of it. Think about it, he said, you can’t argue anyone out of their fear.  You can’t rationalize them out of it.  The only way to get rid of fear is to be loved out of it.  When your little child wakes up in the middle of the night terrified and screaming because there is a monster in his room, you don’t get up and go to his door and say, “Now Isaac, we’ve talked about this…there’s no such thing as monsters and they certainly don’t live under your bed.”  No!  Barnes’ said.  You rush into the room and pull Isaac into your arms and you love him until he’s no longer thinking about monsters but instead about those loving arms that are embracing him.[5] Again, the only way to get rid of fear is to be loved out of it.

Dr. Barnes’ words were very wise.  And they are good for us to hear especially during this season of Advent.  I recently read a devotion that suggested that—just like we give up something for Lent each year—that we give up fear for Advent.  Give up fear?  Is that even possible?  Well, perhaps it is when we consider what all we are celebrating.  During Advent we prepare ourselves for the birth of the Christ child, for the birth of Emmanuel, or God-with-us.  During Advent we remember that God loves us so much that God chose to be incarnate, that God chose to be flesh with flesh, that God chose to live with us, to live among us, and to live among all that frightens us.  During Advent we remember that God risked everything, entering our scary and frightening world as a vulnerable newborn baby.  God did this, God took this risk so we could feel and know and experience the embrace of God’s amazing love.

The great poet Madeleine L’Engle writes:

This is no time for a child to be born,

With the earth betrayed by war & hate

And a comet slashing the sky to warn

That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,

In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;

Honour & truth were trampled by scorn—

Yet here did the Savior make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?

The inn is full on the planet earth,

And by a comet the sky is torn—

Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.[6]

We live in frightening times.  There is much to be afraid of.  And our fears certainly could rule our lives.  But this Advent, perhaps we could give up that fear.  Perhaps we could give up our fear because God has heard our terrified screams, has come rushing to our room and is here to love us out of our fear.  God is here to pull us into God’s arms and to love us until we’re no longer thinking about monsters under our bed, but about those loving arms that are embracing us.

Strengthen the weak hands,

And make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.[7]

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


[1] Dr. Craig Barnes at the Lectionary Homiletics 2010 Conference in Nashville, TN.

[2] Alyce M. McKenzie, “Novel Preaching,” (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010), pgs. 127-128.

[3] Isaiah 35: 3-4

[4] John Buchanan, “Preaching the Advent Texts,” in Journal for Preachers, Advent 2010, pg. 11.

[5] Dr. Craig Barnes, from his lecture at the May 2010 Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, TN.

[6] Madeleine L’Engle, “The Ordering of Love,” (Waterbrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO, 2005), pg. 155.

[7] Isaiah 35: 3-4

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Why We Kill Prophets

Why We Kill Prophets

Luke 13: 31-35

Daniel J. Ott

Edward R. Murrow spoke these words as he watched the massive funeral progression of Mohandas K. Gandhi in India in 1948.  “The object of this massive tribute died as he had always lived – a private man without wealth, without property, without official title or office. Mahatma Gandhi was not the commander of great armies nor a ruler of vast lands. He could not boast any scientific achievement or artistic gift. Yet men, governments and dignitaries from all over the world have joined hands today to pay homage to this little brown man in the loincloth who led his country to freedom. In the words of General George C. Marshall, the American Secretary of State, “Mahatma Gandhi had become the spokesman for the conscience of all mankind. He was a man who made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires.” And Albert Einstein added, “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

Gandhi’s assassin was a man named Nathuram Godse.  He was one of Gandhi’s people; not a British or a British sympathizer, but an Indian and a Hindu.  He had supported Gandhi’s efforts to free India from British imperialism.  He may have even joined in Gandhi’s nonviolent efforts early on.  But he and his co-conspirators had grown angry with Gandhi’s efforts to make peace with Muslims and after three failed attempts, Godse shot Gandhi three times in broad daylight with many witnesses.

Scholars aren’t sure when and how the idea that Jerusalem kills its prophets emerged.  The books of the prophets don’t really tell us about the prophets’ fate.  Jeremiah, at one point, was thrown into a cistern and left for dead.[1] And surely all the prophets took on their vocation with trepidation, knowing that to speak truth to power is risky business.  But the idea that Jerusalem kills the prophets develops in Jewish tradition not in scripture.[2] What’s clear is that Jesus anticipates being killed by his own because of the prophetic word that he is called to enact.  He doesn’t weep for Rome or for Herod, though they will play crucial roles in his death.  He weeps because his own people will kill him; because his own people will reject him.  He weeps because the word of God and the love of God will be rejected by the very people who need it most.

The question that I would like for us to consider this morning is, “Why do we kill the prophets?”  Why do WE close our ears to the word of God and run away from the love of God?  Why do we kill the bearers of God’s truth among us?  Why do we, like Jerusalem, kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to us?

The first thing that can be said in answer to this question is perhaps the most obvious:  prophets make us uncomfortable – very uncomfortable.  Even when they’re on our side prophets make us uncomfortable.  Prophets are idealistic.  They are not adverse to conflict.  They push and when they don’t get a response, they push harder.  Even when we agree with what they are saying, we wish they would say it a bit more softly.

Can you imagine the response of the people to Jesus in our story?  They come telling him that the client-king, Herod has caught wind of him and wants to kill him.  Herod is in with the Romans. He’s very powerful.  He’s already beheaded John the Baptist. But Jesus doesn’t seem to care.  “Go tell that fox, that conniver, that he can come get me if he wants. But I have business to do, I have work to finish, and I won’t be intimidated or bullied.”  I can imagine even those close to Jesus thinking, “Well, that’s all well and good, Jesus, but now we’re playing with the big boys.  Let’s cool off here a minute and think this thing through.”  But Jesus doesn’t seem to have that pragmatic bone in his body.  He presses on to speak truth to power.  Jesus is a whistleblower and whistleblowers make us uncomfortable.

Can you imagine being a friend or coworker of Sherron Watkins as she began to expose the unthinkable corruption and abuse of power at Enron, where high ups literally plotted to steal from the purses of ‘little old ladies in California.’  Surely, her friends pleaded with her to take a minute to think through what she was doing.  Surely, coworkers had to be thinking of their own fate as the truth emerged.

What if Erin Brokovich were your sister or daughter or mother?  Wouldn’t you have urged caution as she bull-headedly exposed the poisonous pollution that Pacific Gas and Electric loosed on Hinkley, CA.  Or, coming a little closer to home, what counsel would you have given Jeffrey Wigand, the former tobacco executive who exposed the industry’s knowledge of smoking’s deleterious effects and the industry’s research and development that sought to increase the addictiveness of their products?

These whistleblowers make us uncomfortable because they boldly do what they take to be right and they do so with little thought to the consequences – the consequence to them – or us.  Why do we kill the prophets?

Another possible answer to the question is that we are not always sure the truth that the prophet brings is in fact the truth.  Jesus tells the Pharisees to tell Herod that he is casting out demons and performing cures.  He is overcoming evil and curing people, not only of their physical ailments, but of their spiritual and social ailments.  The prophets come to us and point out the evil that needs to be overcome.  They tell us that we are sick and need to be cured.  But very often we aren’t even aware that we’re sick.  We haven’t realized that we are participating in evil until the prophet tells us so.

Late in his short life, Martin Luther King widened his message.  Early on he devoted himself exclusively to the abolition of segregation.  But later he began to see that we are caught up in illnesses much larger and more complex than mere white supremacy.  In several of his later speeches he talked about the three interlocking evils of racism, materialism and militarism.

Now we moderate white folks have learned to accept King because none of us considers ourselves racists.  We like the dream speech and have grown comfortable with King over the years.  But when we consider the illnesses of materialism and militarism, we will probably wonder if we want the whole cure that King perscribed.

The problem with all three evils is that they strip people of their personhood.  Racism reduces a person to a skin tone, to an outward appearance, and then ascribes attributes to the person based on assumptions.  It allows people of one ethnicity to assert that people of another ethnicity are less than full persons and therefore do not need to be treated equally.

Materialism reduces us to producers and consumers – homo economicus.  People become cogs in a mass system of buy and sell.  Materialism makes us forget that we are created for faith, hope, and love and makes us think we were made for profit, greed, and pleasure.  We forget that we are persons created in God’s image, created for loving relation with God, and we reduce ourselves to our appetites and our material desires.

Militarism denies personhood, too.  Bodies created in God’s image are blown apart and mutilated.  And we talk about these poor souls as casualties rather than victims.  Innocent bystanders become collatoral damage.  Our enemies, of course, need to be depersonalized too.  So they become krauts or japs, gooks, towel-heads.  Resorting to violence becomes too easy when we forget our personhood and the personhood of others; when we forget that all humanity is created good in God’s image.  A sickness overtakes us and we lose sight of the horror and evil that war really is.

But we like our security and our comfort.  I do.  I like my big house and the ability to buy most anything I desire.  I benefit from living in a rich nation with enormous power and endless reach.  And so why would I want to hear that I’m sick and need to be cured?  Why would I want the prophet to tell me that I participate in evil?  Why do we kill the prophets?

I have one last possible answer to our question.  And it may be the most difficult to accept and the most tragic.  Could it be that God’s truth is not the most difficult for us to receive from the prophet, but God’s love?  Could it be that the prophets bring us a radical message of God’s deep and powerful love, and it is this overwhelming love of God that we reject?

Jesus sang his lament over his people Jerusalem, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.  How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…  and you were not willing.”

Nikos Kazantzakis in his beautiful, fictional telling of the life of Saint Francis, pictures Francis similarly conveying a message of love but meeting with rejection.

“Saturday evening… The clouds had scattered, a cool breeze was blowing, the ribbons in the girls’ hair were fluttering, and the young men grew excited and eyed the women with longing and desire.  The first lutes already resounded within the taverns.

Suddenly: laughter, shouts, jeering.  Everyone turned to look.  Francis was visible at the edge of the square, hopping, dancing, his robe tucked up.  “Come one, come all!” he was calling.  “Come, brothers, come to hear the new madness!”

Behind him ran a horde of laughing children chasing him and throwing stones… more appeared from every street, and soon they all joined together and charged Francis.  He, calm and laughing, turned from time to time, held out his arms to the children and shouted, “Whoever throws one stone at me, may he be once blessed by God; whoever throws two stones at me, may he be twice blessed by God; whoever throws three stones at me, may he be thrice blessed by God” – whereupon a continuous stream of stones rained down upon him.

Blood was now flowing from his forehead and chin.  The citizens rushed out from the taverns, guffawing…  He was jumping and dancing rapturously, all covered with blood.

“Hear, brothers,” he sang, “hear the new madness!”…

“Tell us, tell us, tell us!” came from every side, accompanied by a chorus of guffaws.

Francis mounted the steps of the temple, opened his arms to the jeering crowd, and screamed:  “Love, love, love.”[3]

“Peace,” he shouted, “peace be unto your hearts, your houses, your enemies.  Peace be to the world!  The kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

His voice broke continually.  He said the same things over and over again, and whenever he could no longer speak, he began to weep.  “Peace, peace,” he cried, exhorting his listeners to make peace with God, with men, with their hearts.  How?  There was but one way:  by loving.

“Love!  Love!” he shouted, and then began to weep once again.”[4]

Why do we kill the prophets?  Why do we stone the messenger of love?

Does this amazing love make us uncomfortable?  Do we fear that this love will demand the truth and worry about the consequences of that truth?  Are we worried that this love will expose our sicknesses and the evils to which we are addicted?

Or is it because God’s love is just too overwhelming?  Do we take it to be madness?  Perhaps it seems to us too fantastic, too idealistic, too foolish that there is only one way to make peace with God, and with each other and with our own hearts… love.

The prophets come to us with a message of truth and peace and love.  Jesus comes to us with a message of truth and peace and love.  Why do we kill the prophets?


[1] Jeremiah 38

[2] Leslie J. Hoppe, “Luke13:31-35: Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word:  Year C, Volume 2, (Westminster/ John Knox, 2009), pg.  71.

[3] Saint Francis, pp. 110-111

[4] Ibid., p. 180

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