Part of a recurring series on subversion in scripture in which I highlight how the bible repeatedly undermines our expectations about power and authority, our notions of who is “in” and who is “out.” When Jesus became a helpless child and then died at the hands of a great empire in order to conquer a much greater power and evil than any earthly empire, he upended our comfortable notions about how power works. But if we pay attention, we see these subversions of power over and over in scripture.
In this series, I’ve started by working through the four women named in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus: first, Tamar, then Rahab. Today we reach Ruth, the Moabite woman who became the great-grandmother of David, the king of Israel. Like Tamar, Ruth is rewarded for pursuing her right to have a son who will support her, although her methods are certainly less unorthodox than Tamar’s. And like Rahab, Ruth is an outsider who recognizes the power of Israel’s God and chooses to serve that God rather than those of her own community.
But where Tamar and Rahab are both motivated primarily by practical concerns for their own well-being — concerns for physical safety (Rahab) and future security (Tamar) — Ruth is motivated by her devotion to her mother-in-law Naomi. This devotion leads her to declare, in a passage often read at weddings, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me” (Ruth 1:16-17, NIV).
In this regard, the story of Ruth seems not particularly subversive. After all, Ruth decides to follow Naomi back to Israel after Naomi’s husband and sons (including Ruth’s husband) die, and she chooses to adopt Naomi’s home and God. We’re used to stories where that kind of love and devotion is rewarded.
But we should pay particular attention to the way that God takes the humble and the poor and raises them to a place of prominence in the story of Jesus, the story of salvation. Naomi is an ordinary woman turned refugee when famine strikes Israel and she flees her home with her husband and sons. She then falls even further in her social status as her husband dies, then her sons. She returns to her hometown in Israel with nothing but a foreign daughter-in-law who refuses to leave her.
And Ruth: she’s a Moabite; nothing in the story indicates that she has any special status in her own country. Then she voluntarily gives up whatever standing she may have in her own home in order to become a foreigner in Naomi’s home, reduced to gleaning what the reapers leave behind in order to scrape up enough food to eat.
But Boaz, the owner of the field where Ruth gleans, becomes intrigued by Ruth’s beauty and her devotion to Naomi — a devotion that led her to become a poor foreigner in Israel. Even though Boaz would likely face little, if any, social censure for making Ruth’s life even more difficult, he instead respects and cares for her. Eventually, Boaz marries Ruth, provides a home for Naomi, and goes on to become, along with Ruth, an ancestor of David and, far in the future, Jesus.
If we read this story as a sort of parable, Boaz is the farmer, the landowner, the representative of God who so often appears in Jesus' teaching. Ruth — widowed, poor, foreign — is the sort of person who seems unlikely to be raised to a position of importance: not quite a prodigal son, perhaps, but still not the obvious choice for honor.
But God builds the kingdom of heaven amongst the least, the poor, the outcast. When Boaz cares for Ruth, he mirrors the care God has for the poor, the widowed, the foreigners, all those marginalized by society. And not just care that keeps them fed but invisible, the sort of care that demands gratitude while keeping people marginalized; no, this is love that elevates and brings equality.
I think that, at this particular moment in time, we white Americans have much to learn from Boaz.
Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
— Matthew 28:16-20, NIV
It’s Trinity Sunday in the church calendar, the one church festival dedicated to a theological idea rather than an event or a person. We are now in the season after Pentecost, the long period of Ordinary Time. But this year, the change seems insignificant as we are not only still in coronatide but also, lenten-like, being called to repentance by the laments of our black neighbors.
And yet, this passage feels incredibly relevant. Here’s Jesus, risen from the dead, meeting with his disciples. What a mixture of emotions they must have felt: joy, confusion, excitement, anticipation — and doubt. What is it that they doubt? Matthew doesn’t tell us specifically, but surely they doubt the reality of what (who) they’re seeing. Surely they wonder if this man who died could really be the Messiah. Surely they are confused about what happened and what is supposed to happen next.
Still, however, the disciples worship Jesus. And instead of either lecturing them on their doubts or offering ironclad proof, Jesus give them the Great Commission and the great promise that he will be with them, always, no matter what. Along with the Father and the Spirit, Jesus sends us out to do the work of the kingdom with the promise that we will never be alone, even when we are filled with doubt. Sometimes, we need to wrestle our doubts. But sometimes, we worship Jesus in the midst of our doubts.
This is such good news to me. The power of the Trinity, the power of God to work in the world — even to work through me in the world! — doesn’t rely on my constant, perfect belief. Not that belief is unimportant. But wrestling with what I believe, wondering where God is in the midst of a pandemic and widespread social upheaval, doesn’t mean that God isn’t always already at work all around me and within me.
Andrei Rublev’s icon, above, is titled The Trinity, but it’s a representation of the three men who visited Abraham (Genesis 18). These men bring the message that Sarah and Abraham will have a child in their old age, and upon hearing this Sarah laughs. I always imagine it as incredulous laughter: what ridiculous thing are these men saying? It’s the laughter of profound doubt, the laughter of encountering something too ludicrous to be true.
But Sarah’s doubt doesn’t stand in the way of conceiving Isaac. And when Isaac is born, the name she gives him means “laughter,” a name that will constantly remind her that even in the midst of her doubt God worked a great miracle for her.
Even as the disciples doubted, they obeyed Jesus and began to spread the news about the coming kingdom of God. And that has been the case over and over throughout history: doubts are endemic to the Christian life, but they do not prevent God from working and they also need not prevent us from obeying and from living as members and ambassadors of the kingdom of God.
This is a time, for me at least, of many doubts, including the doubt that God is with us. As a global pandemic continues to kill, as political norms continue to crumble, as the voices of the oppressed rise louder and louder, it’s easy to wonder where God is in all of this.
But whether we believe or doubt, Jesus is still with us. The end of the age hasn’t come; viruses and social unrest and even our own doubts cannot keep Jesus away from us. And so let us look for where God is at work around us, and let us join that work in the confidence that we are never alone.
On Saturday, Fr. Joshua Steele preached this sermon for my church. It’s an excellent reflection on why the doctrine of the Trinity should matter to those of us who are Christians in this specific moment in time.
I’ve watched the news this week with sadness and horror as the egregious police killing of a black man has erupted into protests, both peaceful and violent, across the nation. I feel sick watching, yet again, as a person of color is dehumanized, reduced to a threat, and treated as disposable by people in positions of authority.
And I feel sick watching the violence erupt, not just because of the violence but because of the pain and the rage behind the acts of destruction. This pain and rage has so often been actively dismissed or passively ignored until it causes an inconvenience — and then it is condemned. But dismissing, ignoring, and condemning those who cry out under injustice only exacerbates the pain.
And something feels different this time, for me and for many of my white friends. Maybe it’s because police violence against people of color — and particularly black men — has displaced even a global pandemic in our news cycle. Perhaps it’s because there have been so many deaths in the news in just the past few weeks, from Ahmaud Arbery to Breonna Taylor to Floyd George, plus the viral video of a woman telling the police that a black man was assaulting her when all he did was ask her to leash her dog in an area where dogs are required to be leashed.
Maybe it’s because I’m tired of the hesitation and caution that give my own cowardice a more palatable veneer.
It’s easy to find excuses for that cowardice: I’m white, I’m still learning about racism in America, I don’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t want to pick fights. I don’t want to make it all about me. Truthfully, though, these excuses often mean: I don’t want to make waves. I don’t want to invite pushback or judgement that I could avoid by just keeping my mouth shut. I want validation that I’m a Good White Person, instead of doing the work to actually be an anti-racist.
But here’s the thing: racism is everywhere. We participate in it even when we don’t actively choose to do so; it’s an evil that must be actively resisted, at least in today’s America.
And since I write as a Christian, racism is both an individual sin and a corporate evil. Racism is one of the powers and principalities that exist in opposition to the Kingdom of God. When churches and Christians fail to acknowledge their racism and their complicity in racism, they have given up in their fight against the powers of evil. They have abdicated the calling to love their neighbors. They have ignored the call to view others as better than themselves.
This is primarily a failing of white Christians in majority-white congregations, both evangelical and mainline — and given the segregation that exists in our churches, most white Christians in the U.S. worship in majority-white churches.
So, fellow white Christians, what do we do?
We must listen to people of color describe their experiences, and we must be open to believing that their experiences are vastly different from ours. Especially for those of us who are white and middle-class, it’s hard to hear that what we thought was a meritocracy is actually stacked in our favor.1
Discomfort is valid, as all feelings are valid — but it doesn’t negate the experiences our brothers and sisters of color have. Sit with that discomfort, work through it with friends who are a little further in their journey towards anti-racism, and learn to accept that discomfort is nearly inevitable when confronting the ways in which we participate in racist structures. Also, don’t burden your friends of color with these feelings of white guilt! It is not their job to reassure you that you are one of the Good Ones or to absolve you of your discomfort.
Two books I have found helpful, particularly for describing the experience of black individuals in the church: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown, and Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism by Drew G.I. Hart.
We must learn when to humble ourselves and elevate the voices of people of color. Privilege gives people the expectation that their voice will be heard if they speak, and this expectation can be so deeply ingrained that we might not notice when we’re speaking over or on behalf of those whose thoughts matter as much, or more, than our own. As a woman, I know how powerful it is (even though it’s also infuriating) when a man amplifies my voice or creates a space for me to speak; those of us who are white should create space for others to speak.
We must accept that we will make mistakes and be open to correction. This is a big one for me: I don’t like looking foolish. I don’t like making public mistakes. I’m sure I’ve made many already in this (very long) post — and I know that criticism will sting.
But the alternatives are silence and defensiveness, neither of which address my own racism or the structural racism of my world. Losing power by being humble, being open to correction, and being willing to stay silent and listen is difficult at times. I love how Rachel Held Evans used to say that loss of power isn’t persecution — but it is without doubt often uncomfortable.
We must be willing to take action. Perhaps this means that you join a march or a demonstration. Maybe it means that you write your local sheriff or chief of police to ask what they are doing to prevent police violence. It could be researching candidates' positions on racial issues when it’s time to vote — and being willing to let those positions effect how you vote.
Action definitely includes educating yourself — reading books like The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, or listening to podcasts like NPR’s Code Switch.
And action also involves a willingness to point out racism or raise uncomfortable questions, like why that candidate of color doesn’t seem to “mesh as well with the company culture” as the white candidate. We can’t be, and shouldn’t want to be, white saviors; we need to take action carefully and in ways that reflect the actual needs and concerns of people of color in our communities or organizations. But we white people built racism; we benefit from racism; we have the power to perpetuate it — and that means we also have the power to dismantle it.
And finally, for those of us with younger children, we must raise our children to see racism — and we must help them de-center whiteness. I find the second part simpler: my girls are avid readers, and I make sure that they read books by people of color and books with protagonists that don’t look like them. I’m not as good at making sure they see diversity in their shows, but I want to make sure that they don’t assume that every hero shares their skin color — or assume that they can’t identify with characters of different races. Middle grade books are, slowly, improving on this front, but we as parents need to be proactive. This website is a helpful starting point in finding more diverse books.
Making my kids aware of racism is harder. I stumble over these conversations, both because I don’t quite know how to explain police brutality to an 8-year-old and because I don’t want to crush their innocence. I don’t want them to know that the world can be such an awful place — and, because they’re unlikely to experience racism first-hand, I don’t need to open their eyes to this dark side of our society.
But the truth is, my oldest daughter has a friend who is black and 12 years old, just like Tamir Rice. He already knows how ugly people can be towards black boys; how can my daughter be a good friend if she doesn’t?
A quick google search will bring up many, many resources for talking to your kids about racism. In my experience, though, preparing for a single big conversation isn’t helpful — instead, we need to be willing to talk to our kids about racism whenever it may come up and however awkward we may feel. When everyone is talking about Trayvon Martin. When they wonder about a friend of color. When it’s Black History Month and they come home thinking that Martin Luther King Jr. ended racism. When you watch a show together and see stereotypes or damaging portrayals.
We must perform the very Christ-like action of setting aside our privilege and power for the benefit of others. This command is for every follower of Christ, but I don’t believe that we can lay down our power until we acknowledge that we have it, which is this case means acknowledging our complicity in racist structures in the U.S.
Privilege is complicated and intersectional, but 1) if you’re new or slightly resistant to the idea of privilege, I highly recommend [this essay] by John Scalzi explaining privilege through the metaphor of video games; and 2) it’s not particularly useful to play oppression olympics; every individual is different. But generally speaking, the path to success for a white person in America has significantly fewer potholes and detours that the path for a person of color.↩
Click here to access this week’s passage — John 11:1-45 — which is worth reading but probably longer than what I wrote below!
I named my blog “Into Resurrection” because the idea that Jesus is the resurrection now, that the kingdom of God is breaking in all around us now, has been transformative to my faith. It means that I’m not just waiting for some future salvation, but that I’m watching for the places where God is working salvation in the present. It means that I’m not just saved from something (hell), but saved for something, for working towards building God’s kingdom in the world around me.
There are plenty of theological clarifications and nuances I could make here, not least of which is the constant tension between looking for God’s kingdom now and also hoping for its full arrival later — and the question then raised of how our work now fits into the coming kingdom.
Nevertheless, believing that Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life right now, in ways that directly impact my life and the lives of those around me, has given me immense hope and peace.
So it shouldn’t be at all surprising that I love today’s gospel passage, John’s account of the resurrection of Lazarus.
Of course I love the story of resurrection literally breaking into the world, as Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb. But what I most appreciate about this story is how it reflects the tension between the already and the not-yet, how it fully acknowledges the pain and grief of the not-yet-fully-redeemed world while simultaneously showing us the glorious hope of the resurrection.
Famously, this story of Lazarus contains the shortest verse in the bible: Jesus wept. Just two words; a factoid tucked away by every kid who competed in sword drills. But these two words are incredibly profound. Think about it: Jesus already knew that Lazarus was dead. And Jesus also already knew that he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. But instead of telling Mary to buck up, instead of telling the mourners to stop, Jesus sits down with them and weeps.
What a profound acknowledgement of the pain, suffering, and grief we experience now. Jesus doesn’t try to diminish or deny any of that — and in fact, Lazarus isn’t resurrected into a happily-ever-after but into death threats as an associate of Jesus. Our tears have not yet been wiped away; death still occurs; we do not live in the fully-realized kingdom of God.
And yet. And yet. Lazarus does hear Jesus' call, does emerge from the grave back into life, back into the arms of his sisters and friends. Resurrection has come, the kingdom has broken into this household of Martha and Mary, this village of Bethany.
Last week, I wrote about being a non-anxious presence in the world. This hope of resurrection, not just the future hope but the present hope of seeing it break into the world around us, sustains our non-anxious presence.
We aren’t surprised by brokenness and grief; we know that Jesus is weeping alongside us. But we also expect God to show up as we look for resurrection life all around us. We can’t stop this resurrection any more than we can stop the robins from returning and the first crocuses from blooming.
In the liturgical year, as in our lives, we are moving through Lent, through lament and suffering and pain and brokenness. We live in a world where Lazarus dies and his sisters weep. But Easter has come and is coming. Jesus defeated sin and suffering and death, and will defeat them once and for all.
And so, because of resurrection, as we live as resurrection people, we live with hope.
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures
and leads me beside still waters.
He revives my soul
and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I shall fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
you have anointed my head with oil,
and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
I’ve been avoiding writing all month, uncertain of what will come out when I start putting my thoughts to (virtual) paper. My bishop, Todd Hunter, very wisely encourages both clergy and laypeople to practice being a “non-anxious presence:” God is always already at work in the world around us, and so not only do we not need to worry ourselves, we ought to actively resist the anxiety and fear in the world around us.
I love this idea. I want to work towards it. But how in the world do I hang on to this non-anxiety in the midst of a global pandemic? How can I be this non-anxious presence?
Several things are helping me control my anxiety: my meds, of course; yoga; long breaks from social media; the field full of robins I saw on a walk last week; connecting with friends, even if we can’t be together in person; making space to pray the daily office.
But this week, we also have the liturgical gift of Psalm 23 in the lectionary.
This psalm is likely one of the best known passages of scripture. Familiarity can sometimes obscure fresh understanding, but this week at least I found the familiarity comforting; as so much is new and so much changes, the timelessness of this ancient poem soothed my heart.
And so this week, as I reflect on the lectionary, I’m not offering exegesis or even fresh insight. Instead, I offer this psalm as an invitation.
An invitation to remember that God is our shepherd, the good shepherd who cares for the sheep: even amidst the anxiety caused by the less-than-reassuring responses of our elected leaders, God does not abandon us.
An invitation to remember that the valley of the shadow of death is just as real as the green pastures and still waters, and that sometimes we’re not in the sunny field but the dark and terrifying valley. But the Shepherd is with us every bit as much in that valley as in the field.
Here’s where I can’t resist making a connection to Lent: during this season, we remember Jesus' suffering — and we’re nearly to Holy Week, when we walk alongside Jesus during the final week before his death and resurrection. But remembering Jesus' suffering isn’t meant to simply make us feel bad that God went through all of that for us.
No: Jesus' suffering should fill us with gratitude, yes, but also hope, because our God became a human being and walked among us. When Jesus the Good Shepherd walks alongside us in the valley of the shadow of death, he can comfort us because he too walked through that valley. And we have hope because he also walked out of the valley, and will lead us out as well.
Finally, Psalm 23 invites us to remember that this is not the end, that we will dwell with God forever. I want to be clear: this shouldn’t make us dismissive or fatalistic, and it certainly shouldn’t make us ignore the dark valley. But we can live non-anxiously now because we know it’s not the end of the story.
This is a dark and frightening time. Many people are suffering and will suffer, because of illness or financial hardship. It’s hard to say how much things will change when we come out from the other side of this pandemic. Everything, from grocery shopping to planning for the future, is wrapped in uncertainty.
But Psalm 23 reassures us that we have a God who doesn’t let us walk on our own, who doesn’t just promise to wait for us at the end. No, the Good Shepherd walks alongside us with the love and compassion that comes from having himself walked through suffering and death, having himself experienced anxiety and fear.
I’m still anxious, I’m not going to lie. I’m not to the point of easily being a non-anxious presence to those around me. But this psalm guides me to remember that God is still here, still with me, no matter what happens.