Those who Jesus identifies himself with, those he calls "my brethren" in the parable, are people who are hungry, strangers, prisoners. That should not be surprising, since that is what Jesus told his followers to expect: "If they persecuted me, they will persecute you" (Jn 15.20). And Paul described the apostles' experience of this:To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless... We have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things. (1 Cor 4.11,13)So it makes sense that Jesus would say "as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me," when "these" refers to those who are suffering as Jesus' followers, those walking closely in his footsteps.
Yet when we think of those who are hungry, strangers, prisoners, we usually do not think of Christians. We think of Christians as responsible, upstanding, respected citizens. We think of Christians as those in charge of soup kitchens and other relief organizations. We don't think of Christians as those in need of help. But Jesus' own life, and his teaching, and his disciples' experience, all show the Christian life as an experience of persecution, vulnerability, need. Sheep amidst wolves.
In the final judgment scene of the parable, however, "the least of these my brethren" are no longer under attack from the world but the world ("the nations", ethnos) is being judged according to the way they treated Jesus' persecuted brethren. They may not have encountered Jesus in person, but they encountered him in his followers. For some this is a dire revelation. But for others, this is very good news.
Which brings up the comforting aspect of this parable for me. There are some who, though they are not quite aware of what Jesus is doing in the world (or what he looks like in the world) yet they come into relation to Jesus through their compassion for his followers. And this is a great good for them: "he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward."
This makes me hopeful, because though I don't find too many people (even among "Christians") who are willing to follow Jesus' example very closely themselves (perhaps because they see that it leads to being one of "the least"), there are many more who are at least willing to show kindness and help someone who is trying to follow Jesus closely. And I have to feel good about that. Because though it's disappointing that they cannot see and more fully experience life walking close with Jesus now, I can imagine them one day hearing these words:"Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me."
Let's see what else I have.... How about Homer Simpson (because we had a rare treat of pork chops tonight).
In 1 Peter we read: "Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.... When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but entrusted himself to the one who judges justly" (1 Peter 2: 21, 23; cf. Romans 12: 18-21). [I think it's also worth seeing part of the Romans passage he refers to: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' No, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink..."]
The close association between human nonviolence and the affirmation of God's vengeance in the New Testament is telling. ...Without entrusting oneself to the God who judges justly, it will hardly be possible to follow the crucified Messiah and refuse to retaliate when abused. The certainty of God's just judgment at the end of history is the presupposition for the renunciation of violence in the middle of it. The divine system of judgment is not the flip side of the human reign of terror, but the necessary correlate of human nonviolence. Since the search for truth and the practice of justice cannot be given up, the only way in which nonviolence and forgiveness will be possible in a world of violence is through displacement or transference of violence, not through its complete relinquishment.
[Quoting Jewish scholar Henri Atlan:] "The only means of prohibiting violence by ourselves" is to insist that violence is legitimate "only when it comes from God."
...One could object that it is not worthy of God to wield the sword. Is God not love, long-suffering and all-powerful love? A counter-question might go something like this: Is it not a bit arrogant to presume that our contemporary sensibilities about what is compatible with God's love are so much healthier than those of the people of God throughout the whole history of Judaism and Christianity? [For example, earlier he notes: "The Anabaptist tradition, consistently the most pacifist tradition in the history of the Christian church, has traditionally had no hesitation about speaking of God's wrath and judgment."]
...My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect non-coercive love. Soon you will discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God's refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.
But it looks much better framed, and I like how we got it. It feels more like a gift this way. Who would have guessed she'd find the very same picture?
Our God comes, he does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
round about him a mighty tempest.
"Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
"What right have you to recite my teachings,
or take my promises on your lips?
For you hate correction,
and you cast my words behind you.
"You let your mouth loose for evil,
and your tongue shapes dishonesty.
You sit and speak against your brother;
you slander your own mother's son.
"These things you have done and I have been silent;
you thought that I was one like yourself.
But now I rebuke you, and lay the charge before you."
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
A picture of the fire, taken by a friend. Since then a few things have been recovered from the house, including a bible, most pages still readable, just charred along the edges. Click here to see what the house looks like now.
The family has moved into our retreat guest rooms, which allow all seven of them to stay together. And it sounds like there may be a house they can move into in about two weeks.
God grants human beings freedom of will, but I’ve come to believe that everything besides the human heart is under God’s control. And that all things that happen are allowed and ordered by God for our good.
This is often denied because the things that happen often seem chaotic, without meaning or purpose. Or so painful and destructive that we cannot imagine that God could allow such a thing, or that it could be for the good of anyone. But our idea of “good” is usually defined primarily by physical pleasure. A long, secure, comfortable life is our goal. But if our true good is union with God, then pleasure, security, and long life are not always in our best interest. Often it is not in times of comfort or security that we turn our hearts towards God but in times of pain and confusion, when we feel vulnerable and threatened. Often we are not willing to seek or accept God’s will until our will has been completely frustrated. And it is often painful or “bad” experiences that bring us to this point. So both pleasurable and painful things can be for our good, serving God’s purpose, if they help us turn our free hearts and open ourselves to God.
I cannot know the hearts of others, or what experiences would be most helpful to them at any moment. Even if I could control the events of their lives, I don’t know how those events would impact them. But God knows our hearts. God knows what the experience will be like for us if certain things happen to us or to those we know and love. And God can control what does happen to us. Through the workings of nature and through preventing or allowing others to act out their intentions, God can offer to us the experiences that are most valuable to us at any moment in our lives. God doesn’t control our response to these experiences. I can reject the opportunity of the moment and turn my heart away from God in a painful experience, and I have often. But I have become convinced that there is meaning and purpose in the things that happen to me, and that even the most painful and confusing situations are allowed by God and meant for my good. Every experience is meant to draw me closer to God.
Perhaps the most striking example of this belief in Jesus’ life was at his arrest. This was a situation that horrified his disciples and threw them into a panic. Peter pulled a sword. But Jesus said to him, “Should I not drink the cup that my Father has given me?” (Jn 18.11) These words did not justify the arrest; it was still a horrible injustice. It is easy to see the evil at work in the hearts of those who brought violence against an innocent man. Yet Jesus sees God's hand controlling what was happening. People were acting with evil intentions, but God was allowing the things that would provide the opportunity for good.
Believing and experiencing this is crucial to understanding Jesus' response to the situations he found himself in and being able to respond in similar ways ourselves.
We ran over and everyone was already out safely, but they hadn't been able to save much. And by the time the time the fire fighters arrived and got set up (there's no hydrants out here), there was little they could do but contain the blaze. The house, a duplex, is pretty much a total loss.
It's terrible for the family, who were already struggling. They were in the process of leaving the community here, trying to get enough together to get their own place and make the move. A daunting task with the large family they have. And now they have to start again from practically nothing. It's also a terrible loss for the intentional community here, who owned the house. They didn't have insurance, a decision to accept the risk. Now there's nothing left but the horrible blackened wreckage to clean up. There's been a growing separation between this family and the community for quite a while, but now they share this great common pain.
Our worship this morning reflected this, too. Very meaningful and a greater sense of togetherness and community than I've felt here in a long time. Everyone seemed to contribute something, a reading or prayer or song or food for the meal afterward. One woman sang this beautiful Hebrew blessing. And Heather sang the song she wrote with her friend Katie, a haunting prayer for the dark times. Here is Katie singing an early version of it: "The Paths We Walk"
Everyone was trying to offer comfort or encouragement or hope. I think, though, that in situations like this it's especially important that we offer a real hope. It's easy to just say hopeful words but not really tell the truth. And that's not helpful. This morning someone said that we saw the power of the fire (a truly awe-ful sight), but God's power is greater and not destructive like the fire but life giving. I've seen, though, in my own experience and also many times in scripture, that God's power is often very much like that fire, awe and fear inspiring in the same ways, so you just want to run. We need to face that truth. It's better to face that truth, troubling as it is, than try to make God who we want him to be. Or excuse him from the horrible moments. When we can't understand or accept God's presence in the terrible events of our lives, then we should just be silent in the terrifying mystery, waiting to be shown the truth. And have faith that God's love remains even then.
I remembered these lines from the song "Holy Darkness":
I have tried you in fires of affliction;
I have taught your soul to grieve.
In the barren soil of your loneliness,
there I will plant my seed.
I have taught you the price of compassion;
you have stood before the grave.
Though my love can seem
like a raging storm,
this is the love that saves.
When I went out back for a closer look, Heather noticed that our little redbud tree is beginning to flower. Beginning, as in, it's never flowered before. I read that it takes seven years before they produce the characteristic "red" buds, and we didn't know how old the tree was; it's still pretty small. Just after we moved in, Heather suggested planting a redbud behind our place. But when I started researching the tree (so I could find one to transplant it), we realized that the little sapling back there was a redbud. And now it's starting to bloom.
About a year ago I'd tried to contact the pastor of that church, because of a couple good recommendations, to see if they might like to send people from their community to our retreats here. But I hadn't had much luck connecting with him then, and had pretty much given up. When I called him last week, though, he was quite willing to meet with me when we're visiting his church. So maybe God is opening a door again that I thought was closed.
After the foot washing as people came in, four different people read John 13.12-17, John 12.24-26, John 17.20-22, and then Luke 22.19-27 before communion. And at the end of communion, each of those readers said lines from their passages like this:
Unless a grain of wheat falls and dies, it remains alone
Do you know what I have done for you?
This is my body, which is given for you
That you may all be one
Let the greatest among you become as the youngest
That you may all be one
And the leader as one who serves
For I have given you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you
I. your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet
I am among you as one who serves
And where I am, there my servant will be also
That you may all be one
If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them