Category: sermons

Thoughts on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost

When I was in Kindergarten, or maybe first grade, one of the things I loved the most about Sundays was everything after church. It’s not that I hated church, but “church” was Sunday school and memorizing Bible verses; “after church” was cookies and juice in the fellowship hall, and—perhaps most important—going home and watching the Lone Ranger on TV. I would spend my week wondering how the previous Sunday’s cliffhanger would be resolved: what would happen if they took off the Lone Ranger’s mask? Would the Lone Ranger get trampled by that stampede?

Batman ’66 was also good at cliffhangers, putting the searing questions on the screen to read: “Will the world’s greatest criminal mind egg-stract the true identity [of Batman]?” “The answer to these and many other terrifying questions tomorrow night, same bat time, same bat channel.’

Matthew starts this portion of the gospel by saying, “From that time on” — from what time on? From the time that Peter confesses Jesus as Messiah and from the time that Jesus starts to talk about “building my church.” From that point, Jesus begins to talk about his passion: his betrayal, his death, his resurrection. Matthew starts with the phrase “from that time on” because in order for us to grasp the context of this portion, we need to remember the previous portion where Jesus asks the disciples who others say that he is and then asks them who do they say that he is. Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah is critical to this passage. It’s on the basis of this confession that Jesus takes the disciples apart from the crowds and begins to instruct them.

This is the first time in the gospel that Jesus predicts his passion; he will teach the disciples about this three more times and even then, when his suffering and death occur, they aren’t prepared.

Prophets of old were persecuted and killed (2 Chronicles 24:19-21 and 36:15-16) and based on the arrest and execution of John that Baptist, perhaps Jesus knew that the only road he could be on was one that led to suffering and death. Or perhaps he thought that this would be the way that the disciples would understand the *why* of his death. Good prophets aren’t like by leaders, they’re persecuted.

Greek word perididomai means “delivered” and “expresses the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility at work in the suffering and death of Jesus.” In pursuit of God’s will, Jesus knows the road he must walk. It’s more than “fate” or “destiny” – God’s will isn’t a riptide that grabs us against our will or control and pulls us out into the ocean depths. God seeks our cooperation, our agreement. So Jesus isn’t delivered into the hands of the leaders and scribes like he’s a package from Amazon; he cooperates with the purposes of God.

Jesus cooperates with the purposes of God and wants the disciples to be aware of what is about to happen.

Peter, the Rock upon whose confession the Church is built, goes from blessed rock to rebuked stumbling block in short time—like any one of us would if placed in his shoes, even today. It’s possible that his understanding is confused by historical notions of being God’s anointed, or he personally doesn’t want to see Jesus suffer because of their relationship. It’s almost like the denial and bargaining stages of grief emerge at the exact same moment.

And while Jesus’ reply to Peter is just as shocking—I can’t think of anyone who would want to be called “Satan” by Jesus—I am reminded in this bit of name-calling of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness: “If you are the son of God…if you are the son of God, then you can’t die! God forbid it!”

Jesus, no, this is crazy talk. You can’t let the movement end. There’s so much left for us to learn!

What entertaining is that Peter doesn’t ask Jesus to explain what he means by “on the third day be raised.” He gets stuck on the suffering and dying part.  The threefold, suffering, death, resurrection will later become for the Church both a confession and the way of discipleship.

This is the first time Jesus predicts his death and resurrection but not the last. Maybe the recurrence of this teaching is proof that the disciples continue to struggle with the coming reality of Jerusalem, as well as with the cross as the image of discipleship.

And now, centuries later, when we have a better understanding of God’s atoning work in the life and death of Jesus we still need the reminder that Jesus dies for us, “but not to exempt us from the cost of discipleship.” Judaism is often referred to as ethical monotheism—maybe we need a reminder that anyone calling themselves a disciple of Jesus is called to be an ethical Trinitarian.  Anyone who would come after him—anyone who would identify themselves as a disciple, as a student, as a follower—let them take up their cross and follow.

Jesus death, in reconciling us with God, still calls us to embrace the cost of discipleship.  Historically, “The condemned criminal who carried the horizontal bar of the cross to the site of crucifixion would have been subjected to taunts, humiliation, rejection, and shame before finally enduring an agonizing death,” says one commentary. “The disciple who ‘takes up the cross’ is one who is willing to surrender pride, ego, status, comfort, and even life for the sake of the kingdom of God.”

Jesus’ call to take up the cross has—for Matthew’s community—a very literal connotation; in their time Christians had been and continued to be martyred. Peter was crucified in Rome. The call to take up the cross for the community that originally heard Matthew’s gospel was not an abstract theological concept. It was real. Just like it was real for Jesus and the first disciples. It is important for the Church today, for disciples today, to wrestle with what it means to take up the cross in a manner that is just as real, if not quite so literal.

Jesus is only teaching only the disciples, not the crowds. Matthew says, “He began to show his disciples…” “Restricting the address to the disciples has the effect of focusing the instruction on the meaning of discipleship to those who are already within the community, those who have, like Peter, made the…confession but are still ‘thinking according to human standards rather than the divine revelation.’ These words are not an invitation to discipleship for outsiders, but reflection on the meaning of discipleship for those who have already responded to the call of Christ.”

So what does it mean for us? What does it look like?

Jesus statement “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves take up their cross and follow me” is articulated by Paul in the letter to the Romans: “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor…Bless those who persecute you…do not repay anyone evil for evil…do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”

I think a great example of how easily we can fall into repaying evil for evil is the grim satisfaction so many people, myself included, felt when certain characters in the Game of Thrones series met their demise.  I’m not going to toss out any spoilers, no matter how many seasons back it may have happened. But if you watch the show, you know the satisfaction I’m talking about.

Putting it in the real world, though, we often express thoughts of hoping people get their just rewards—and we know that rewards are the last thing we’re thinking of.

I was reading an article recently that was talking about the beanball culture of Major League Baseball.  If you follow baseball at all you may recall a recent game between the Tigers and the Yankees that had multiple retaliatory beanballs and more than one bench clearing brawl that one writer described as “more like the brawl from the Naked Gun than any contemporary base-brawl.”

Paul says we’re not to repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good. That’s something that’s not easy. That’s something that requires growth and maturity.

There is an internet comic called Coffee with Jesus which depicts a few recurring characters, well, having coffee with Jesus and talking about the challenges of faith and discipleship.

In one comic, Carl says to Jesus, “It’s so hard not to be a jerk when someone is a jerk to me first, Jesus!”

“You’re working on it, Carl.” Jesus replies. “It’ll take time to get to the point of repaying insult with blessing. You’re in training and I like your progress.”

“Wait,” Carl says, “You mean it’s not enough to let the jerk be a jerk and let it go? I’m to repay the jerk with a blessing?”

In the final frame, Jesus says, “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Carl. You’re in training. That’s pro level stuff there.”

When I was ordained I was asked a series of historic questions from the Methodist tradition—questions that John Wesley asked those who would preach in the Methodist societies. There is a series of three questions related to sanctification and Christian Perfection: The bishop asks, “Are you going on to perfection?” And the candidates reply, “I am.” Then the bishop asks, “Do you expect to be made perfect in this life?” And the candidates reply with an uncomfortable laugh before answering, “I do, with God’s help.” The third question is, “Are you earnestly striving after it?” To which we all said, “I am, with God’s help.”

There is a pattern to those answers: “With God’s help.” Jesus says in the gospel, if you want to come after me, if you want to be my disciple you have to take up a cross.  You have forego parts of your ego and some of your pride; it will cost you some comfort and some satisfaction. But there’s no expectation that you do it alone or by your own strength.

While there are lots of stories about tit for tat, eye for eye, or harm for good, there are few stories that name the grace of repaying kindness for evil. There is one story however that is quite amazing and it is the story of Matthew Boger and Tim Zaal found here. Forgiveness is the ultimate kindness to be paid to those who have done us wrong and while many of us may not experience the dehumanizing pain that Matthew Boger has been through (or even Tim Zaal) we probably all carry around our lists of those we would love to see “get what’s coming to them” like Arya Stark does in Game of Thrones.

Jesus says in the gospel, if you want to come after me, if you want to be my disciple you have to take up a cross.  You have forego parts of your ego and some of your pride; it will cost you some comfort and some satisfaction. But there’s no expectation that you do it alone or by your own strength.

We have at the center of our life together, the table set by Jesus; the table that shows us the life and the cost of discipleship. When we gather at this table, we remember, and we are re-membered into the body of Christ. We hear, we see, we recall the atoning work of Jesus; and we see, we hear, we recall his words to follow after him in a life of vulnerability, love and sacrifice.

But in the midst of this hearing and seeing, we also pray for the power of the Spirit of God to be present among us and within us: “Pour out your Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts…that we may know the presence of the living Christ and be renewed as his Body for the world.” We pray for the Spirit to brood over our offerings and brood over us as a new creation in this world—that we may by the power of the Spirit, give life, give hope, give peace; in this power we are equipped to bless even when we are persecuted, to offer kindness even when given hate.

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Let It Grow

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Wheat Field with Crows by Van Gogh (image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat_Fields_(Van_Gogh_series))

Each spring as the winter brown of America’s lawns begins to show forth the new life of spring, there are certain flowers that are, by and large, the first taste of pollen for honey bees.  The flower, named Taraxacum Officianale, is a mediocre food source according to one website, but in the early spring or in times of dearth when little else is in bloom this little flower is better than nothing.  There is something else occurring at the time that the honey bees are hitting the McDonald’s of the wildflower world, however; in the name of the pristine lawn, or for fear of the home owner’s association, many folks are out with their containers of RoundUp killing this nasty little weed. Or is it a wildflower?

I did a Google search with the term “wildflowers” and as the search results came in, at the top of the page were four listings for “wildflower seed mixes” ranging anywhere from $62.00 to $9.95 for a 1/4 lb bag of seed mix.  Immediately after this listing of wild flower seed mixes for sale was the definition of wildflowers: “A flower of an uncultivated variety or a flower growing freely without human intervention.” (Unless you’re buying $62.00 worth of wildflower seeds…and if you’re buying wildflower seeds to plant in the garden at your house, are they really wildflowers anymore?)

Back to the Taraxacum Officianale — even if you think it’s a wildflower, your neighbors probably want you to stop growing weeds in your yard, even if it’s slightly beneficial to the honey bees, because Dandelions are the wildflower weed everyone loves to hate and hates to love.

We don’t’ really have an anti-dandelion agenda, we remember being kids and actually being excited about the white-topped wildflowers in our yards.  “Make a wish!” we’d say and then blow the little parachutes everywhere; it’s a great memory, right? But when the wind blows our neighbor’s little white-topped weed seeds into our yard, it’s another issue altogether.

Jesus tells this parable which says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a homeowner who invests good seed and good fertilizer into a pristine lawn and then while he and his lawn keeper were asleep, his next door neighbor leaned over the fence and “whoosh” blew dandelions everywhere.

Not really.  Dandelions would be easy to notice.  Tares (or bearded darnel), the weed that Jesus talks about, looks exactly like wheat as it grows in the field. The farmer literally cannot tell the difference between the two until right before harvest; the difference between weed and wheat is in the fruit.

I have read that Tares/Bearded Darnel don’t bear fruit at all and I have read that the bearded darnel bears “fruit” that causes hallucinations and eventually death. Maybe no fruit would be better.

Either way, can’t tell until the grain pops out and by then the roots are so intertwined that to rip out the weed would damage the wheat.

(I learn SO MUCH about agriculture because of Jesus!)

Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like this farmer whose field of wheat is sabotaged by the evil one with imposters, a landowner whose servants want to cast out the bad crops but are told to be patient because to take out the bad will likely harm the good.

So is this a parable about “wolves dressed like sheep” or fake disciples mixed in with the good disciples? Is this a parable about the nature of humans: we’re either good or bad and there’s nothing to be done about it?

It is probably safe to say that Matthew’s world view is that that people are either Children of God or Children of the evil one, even if he also holds that the community of faith is what some call a corpus permixtum (a mixed body).  The body may hold a variety of people, but people are one or the other: good or evil.  That’s probably where Matthew is coming from.

And certainly history bears witness to individuals who are personifications of evil, just as history bears witness to individuals who are personifications of good. But I struggle with the idea that either people are evil or people are good.

Or maybe more appropriate to the context of Matthew’s community of faith, I struggle with the idea that there are people who are wholly right in their orthodoxy and their orthopraxy and there people who are wholly wrong.

The community of Antioch (Matthew’s community) began as a church of diaspora Jewish Christians following the initial wave of persecution in Jerusalem. It was a diverse and urban church and after the fall of Jerusalem, it became even more diverse. Gentile Christians started worshipping with Jewish Christians and the question of the community became, “How do we deal with those who seem like us but who reveal a difference through the expression of their faith and/or their actions.” Or as one pastor says, “[To be blunt,] it seems to us that some of our number are as worthless as weeds, so how and when are we to rid ourselves of them?”

It may not seem significant to us that there were Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the same community and that the the influx of Gentiles into Matthew’s community warranted the inclusion of this parable in his gospel, when we don’t see it in the others. But there was, and is, a big difference between the expectations of Jewish & Gentile Christians (just read Acts and some of Paul’s letters).  We’re talking at a minimum Sabbath observance, dietary rules, circumcision…or not doing these things—and this was a deal breaker for Jewish Christians.

Matthew works to unburden his community by sharing this parable: “It’s not your job to determine one from the other.”

“In the very act of asking [who is accepted by God and who is not] we so often assume that it is our job to draw up the specifications regarding the wideness of God’s welcome…

The strategy [revealed in the words of Jesus] makes room…for a holy and purposeful ambiguity…

The God who is glimpsed in this parable models for us an infinite patience that frees us to get on with the crucial business of loving, or at least living with, each other…

It is not our job to determine who is within and who is beyond this God’s attention. It is rather our job to imagine everyone as belonging to this God, and therefore, with all that we can muster, to endeavor to embrace….God’s wholly and purposeful ambiguity.” *

Matthew is not interested in saying that Kingdom of Heaven is “good and evil getting along and being accepted by God forever and ever, amen.” Let me be clear about that.  Matthew also not saying that the Church should be passive in the face of evil or that this i a divine command to ignore injustice or violence.  Matthew is saying that the difference between the good and the bad is demonstrated in the fruit.

So maybe the reality is that “each of us is some mixture of wheat and weed, of holy and unholy, of potentially fruitful and potentially destructive.”

One day I was sitting at a traffic light at the mall. Between me and the intersection was a guy driving a jeep and someone else in the pole position at the signal.  The jeep in front of me had a gigantic cross dangling from the rear-view mirror. The rear bumper was enhanced with an “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned” sticker. The light turned green, and after about two seconds of no movement…you know exactly what happened…not a polite “hey you awake” tap on the horn, but the full blown lean-on-the-horn-yelling obscenities-flipping-the-bird action. Wheat or Weed?

Or what about the members of churches who are so committed to their idea of church or their memories of what the church was that they cling to it so dearly that they choke the life out the very thing that they love. There is no doubt that they love God and that they love the community of faith, but they can’t let go of what was and they aren’t bearing any fruit.  Wheat or weed?

Before I entered seminary I worked as a caretaker for an Episcopal Church in Northern California. During Holy Week I met a lot of the church members who were helping set up for the services. Every day, as most of the faces changed, these two same people were there, helping clean, helping cook, arranging fresh flowers, reading liturgy.  As the week moved on I could see them getting tired but their love for God still managed to shine bright and they kept sharing their gifts with the community. I don’t think the week’s celebration would have moved as many people closer to God without their work; and yet, to many these two men living together in a long term committed relationship raise the question: wheat or weeds?

This parable shows us a God who is patient with us as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling.  There will be times when we look around the Church and see others that we perceive as useless weeds, and there will be times when others will perceive us the same way. Maybe that’s why Jesus says worry about the plank in your own eye before judging the speck in your neighbor’s.

The good news is that God has a long-view on what makes us wheat or weeds.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like this whole parable and nothing gets sorted until judgment—and the things that are really, truly evil will be dealt with and the things that are really, truly good will be dealt with.  In the meantime, let’s be about bearing good fruit; let’s be about reflecting the likeness of Jesus into the world, to act in his name according to the command to love.

*  Theodore J. Wardlaw “Homiletical Perspective on Matthew 13…” Feasting on the Word, Year A. Vol 3.

Thoughts on Easter Sunday

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There are two distinct parts, two distinct movements, two distinct encounters to this morning’s passage from John.  I think those two encounters also have a great deal to say to the church on Easter Sunday as well.

In the first movement of this passage Mary Magdalene and then Mary, Peter, and John have an encounter with an empty tomb.

Mary goes to the tomb and discovers that there is no body.  She runs back to where the eleven are, and reports to Peter and the Beloved Disciple this fact: “The tomb is empty;” more specifically she says, “They have taken the body of Jesus.”

Insult has been added to injury: we can’t even give Jesus a proper burial. Remember he was taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb before Sabbath began; Jesus’ followers have been in the house resting according to Torah, waiting until Sabbath ends to properly anoint his body and create the space for grieving.  That’s why Mary is at the tomb early on the first day of the week, she is there to anoint his body; she is there to grieve. And as far as she knows, the body is now somewhere else.  So she runs to the house where the rest of the followers are and tells them what she has seen. The tomb is open; the stone has been rolled away.

Then John tells of a dramatic footrace to the tomb, of Peter and the Beloved Disciple running together. I remember at command PT one day in Sasebo we were running sprints across the basketball court in the base gym.  I was lined up next to one of my RPs, who was quite a few years younger than me, but I pushed hard to beat him across the court. I tried, really, I did, but he outpaced me by a yard or two—a big grin across his face as he went by. Peter, likewise, tries to run with the presumably younger disciple, but the Beloved Disciple beats him to it, winning the foot race.

At the tomb the beloved disciple looks in, sees the wrappings, but does not enter.  Peter arrives shortly after and enters the tomb. I initially want to think that Peter goes into the tomb in his classic excessively enthusiastic style, speaking or acting without fully thinking it through. But then I imagine that, because he is on the heels of denying Jesus, that maybe his entry is more tentative, more tender.  He sees the wrappings used to cover the body of Jesus.  The beloved disciple then enters the tomb and together they see that the Body of Jesus is nowhere inside.  Then John says, “They saw and believed.”

Let’s stop for a moment and consider what did he/they see and believe?  There is no body: it has been taken/moved.  This is what they believe.  They believe that the tomb is empty; they believe Mary’s report.  John makes a point of saying, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture…”  They don’t yet believe, know, or understand that the empty tomb means Jesus is alive and that he has been raised; they don’t grasp yet that the grave cloths are cast aside because Jesus no longer has need of them, ever.

For them, in this moment, Jesus is like Moses; his body is in a place that no one knows. The tomb is empty. Happy Easter? And they go home, perhaps making up their minds to go back to life as they had known it.

And maybe there are a few people like this in the Church, maybe some here this morning. People who believe that there was an actual empty tomb on Easter morning, but they’ve walked away before meeting with the Risen One.  They’re going back to life as they have known it, they believe in the forgiveness of sins, but they haven’t met the Resurrected Jesus.  If it’s you, wait a while; Jesus is here. As one pastor said, “[for] centuries Christians have begun their journey of faith by running to the empty tomb.”*

They believed something, even if they didn’t know exactly what they believed: “there was something in the story that reached the deepest regions of their hearts and minds, where both doubt and faith are found. That is, in the resurrection God gave us such a miracle of love and forgiveness that it is worthy of faith, and thus open to doubt. The very doubts we may hold attest to the scale and power of what we proclaim. So the place to begin in the life of faith is not necessarily with those things we never doubt. Realities about which we hold no doubt may not be large enough to reveal God to us.”* Maybe the hope in our questions is that we are open to finding out more about what God can do, even if we’re not sure what that may be, even if that thing that God does is bigger than our ability to comprehend.

In the second major part of this passage we have Mary waiting alone and weeping. She’s been robbed of her chance at closure. She cannot complete the rituals of lamentation.

And whether it is because she can’t believe it, or maybe because she thinks that if she looks in the same place one more time he’ll be there, Mary looks back into the tomb.  (You know, like when you lose something and you look in the same place over and over and over again?)  That’s what Mary does. She looks into the tomb one more time. Maybe it was simply a way of saying good-bye.

As she looks in she sees two angels.  Sitting there among the wrappings that  once held Jesus’ dead body are two messengers there to attend to her in her grief.

Their question seems so obvious, but it’s an important question: “Why are you weeping?”

We’re taught to pay attention to the body language of people.  To look for signs of distress, not so that we can refer them to professionals, but so that we can be present with them in whatever moment of pain they are experiencing.  Aloneness in grief, makes grief that much harder to bear.  We’re invited to become messengers of hope for others, just as these angels are for Mary.

“Why are you weeping?”  They give her a place to name her pain and she takes it: “They’ve moved the body of Jesus and I don’t know where it is!”  And she turns as if to gesture to them the barrenness of the tomb, the emptiness of the garden, the vastness of places where his body could have been taken, and there he is.  There is Jesus.  But to her he is just the gardener with the same question as the angels in the empty tomb; she is blind with grief as he asks, “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”

It’s almost as if she can’t hear the second question or that to her it doesn’t matter—why would the gardener care who she is looking for? She gets right to the point.

“Where have you taken him?”  she cries.  “If you show me where he is, I will take him and tend to his body!”  To Mary he is just a gardener, and she is so blinded by grief and pain she can’t see him…until he speaks her name:  “Mary!”

I imagine like a parent comforting a child saying their name, rocking them back and forth, trying to get them to calm down.  “Mary!”

And in hearing the Risen Christ speak her name, she knows him for who he is.  And she falls to her feet in front of him.  The Gospel’s author says that her utterance of “Rabbouni!” means teacher, but it’s slightly more personal than that, a familiar, intimate name for a beloved teacher; she doesn’t just say, “Rabbi,” but “MY Rabbi!” Because Jesus spoke her name, Mary could move from mourning to dancing, from weeping to joy. From believing in an empty tomb to knowing the Risen Lord.

This is why I said to wait a while.  Jesus is here and he speaks our names: Daniel, Joey, Dianne, Angela… He speaks our names so that we will know him for who he is.

There are quite a few studies about newborns recognizing the voices of mothers based on learning their voice patters in utero; there’s not so much support with regards to paternal voice recognition (sorry Dads), but newborns and infants will respond to—turn to—recognize Mom’s voice and eventually Dad’s when they hear those voices frequently.  It may not necessarily create stronger bonds, but our children know who we are.

Mary knows Jesus because he speaks her name.  Jesus speaks her name because he knows she will recognize him and know that she belongs to him.  And he speaks our names this morning so that we will know to whom we belong and so that with our words, with our actions, with our lives we will testify to his risenness.

So off Mary goes, once again, serving as the Apostle to the Apostles, the first witness of the Resurrection, to announce her encounter.

“I have seen the Lord,” Mary told the eleven.  “I have seen the Lord…and it is so much better than the empty tomb.”

 

* Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2010-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Location 13550). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Good Friday Thoughts

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I rarely preach on Good Friday (and in saying that I almost feel like I should have a meme of the Most Interesting Man here or something: “I don’t always preach on Good Friday, but when I do…”); I rarely preach because I believe that sometimes the narrative is sermon enough for the day, but there is also a place for putting words to our grief. And grief is something we should allow ourselves to experience on Good Friday.

I said on this past Sunday that I have difficulty staying present in the celebration of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem because my mind and my heart so quickly jump to what’s coming next; but I think many of us would rather rush from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the celebration of the empty tomb on Easter without pausing to allow for lamentation. I’m not convinced that the contemporary church is very good at, or very comfortable with the concept of lamentation.

My Bachelor’s Degree is in Art History. I had dreams of going to grad school to study the late medieval and early renaissance period of Eastern European art and standing in lecture halls pontificating on various works of the masters. I ended up in seminary with a Masters of Divinity degree, but before my graduation I had an opportunity to travel in Rome, Milan and Florence, Italy for about three weeks as part of a class in transcultural experiences. I finally felt vindicated in having a degree in Art History as we walked through museums and chapels. Standing, awestruck, in the middle of the Sistine Chapel looking up at that masterpiece of a ceiling by Michelangelo, and the Last Judgment painted over the altar; and seeing the work of the fresco artist Giotto in the Church of Santa Croce in Florence was humbling.

For an early fresco artist Giotto was a master at capturing expression. In particular there are frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua that depict the crucifixion of Jesus and his being taken down from the cross.  In each of these frescoes, Giotto adds angels soaring in the sky, weeping and tearing their robes, their faces twisted in aguish as God’s Beloved dies at the hands of fickle humanity.

On this day, we bear witness to the suffering servant of God.  We see the Son of God betrayed; we see the Son of God denied; we see the Son of God abandoned by his closest friends. We see, in so many ways, the suffering of Jesus.

And if we do not create room for grief, room for lamentation, we then there is little room to bear witness to the suffering servant of God.

It was Holy Friday at St. Innocent Orthodox Church in Eureka. The Priest took the Icon of the Holy Cross, gently laid the Icon of Jesus upon it and hammered the nails that would hold the icon in place. There was a dissonance between the care with which the icon was laid upon the cross, and the banging of the hammer on the nails. That dissonance was made apparent in the priest’s tears dripping on the icon. The lesson on the importance of lamentation was made clear and we were able to bear witness to the suffering servant of God.

In John’s gospel the depth of Jesus’ suffering are summed up in the words, “I am thirsty.” Three small words, and yet they are so relatable. I remember days in the Philippines with Marines where I could not keep enough water in my camel back and my blouse was dripping with sweat. While the quantity of sweat may be unique to me, we all have known moments of physical thirst; we all understand the importance of water for survival. And yet there are still places in the world where humanity attempts to get water for their thirst by squeezing fists full of mud into buckets. And we know that Flint, Michigan is still without a solution to their water crisis that began in April 2014. “I am thirsty,” Jesus says as his life seeps away and death closes in.

“I am thirsty,” Jesus says in a moment when his closest friends are hiding in fear, as his mother looks on from a distance. Perhaps he names the deeper thirst we all experience from time to time: the thirst of abandonment. I remember, twenty some years ago, gathering my closest friends and asking for support as I struggled with addiction, and seeing those whom I had asked to bear that weight with me walk away because the reality was too much to handle. I remember the loneliness of not wanting to tell my family about the trouble I was in.

In the play and mini-series Angels in America Louis Ironson and Prior Walter have to come to terms with abandonment as Louis leaves Prior upon learning that Prior has AIDS. As Prior is lying in a hospital bed asleep, Louis sneaks away saying to the nurse, “Tell him I said goodbye.”

“I am thirsty,” says Jesus from the cross.  And in those three words he identifies with the physical thirst of the poor in Central America and arid regions of South and Eastern Africa. And in those words Jesus identifies with the spiritual and emotional thirst of those who are lonely and abandoned and marginalized.

In identifying with the suffering of humanity, Jesus is at one with us and we are at one with God. In this act of giving all the suffering of humanity to God in the atonement of the crucifixion, Jesus calls us to a life of repentance.

Repentance is not just acknowledging that Jesus saves us from our sins in an “O Happy Day when Jesus washed my sins away” kind of way; it’s about calling us to repentance as we recognize that we are called away from suffering.

We are called away from the slavery of our own suffering, to journey in the wilderness like Israel learning what it means to be free.

We are called away from causing the suffering of others, and called to bind the wounds of those who suffer.

And as we bear witness to the suffering Servant of God, as we open ourselves to the lamentation befitting this day, we are also called away from turning a blind eye to the suffering of those around us. We are called to see, to bear witness, even to grieve, and then we are called to respond with compassion so that those around us who know thirst, also know, or at least begin to know, that they are not alone.

Thoughts on Palm Sunday

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There’s that saying…stop and smell the roses…or stop and smell the flowers. I try really, really hard to cultivate that into my life: letting myself be overcome by the beauty of a sunrise, literally stopping to smell roses, or fresh herbs (especially rosemary or basil).  There is something in those moments where time seems to come to a standstill and I am just present, breathing in the scent of the flower, or the herbs; soaking in the grandeur of the sunrise or the sunset.

But for whatever reason, I struggle with stopping and celebrating the Entry into Jerusalem. As much as I may try to let myself get swept up with the crowd and their shouts of “Hosanna!” their cries of “Save us Lord!”—as much as I may try to be there, to be present, my mind races to what’s coming next. My heart races to the way the shouts will change from celebration to condemnation; from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify!”

I try.  Every stinking year, I try.

I even allow myself to think that if I just sing “Hay-Sanna, Ho-Sanna, Sanna, Sanna, Hay” from Jesus Christ Superstar that I can celebrate, but then I end up thinking that Jesus needed a PR person to help manage the expectations of the crowd and I’m right back where I started: I’m not in the moment of celebration, I’m jumping forward into Friday.

After all, this is such a backwards, upside down moment. We know this passage of scripture as “The Triumphal Entry Into Jerusalem.” But, Jesus is not on a white war horse, nor is he brandishing swords and banners, surrounded by soldiers.  He is not Gandalf riding down the hill at first light in the battle of Helm’s Deep; he is not Tywin Lannister riding into King’s Landing to save Cersei and Tommen. Jesus does not enter Jerusalem in a manner befitting a King.

He rides into Jerusalem on the back of a borrowed donkey. He is surrounded by a flash mob of sorts, a rag tag crowd of misfits—the blind, the lame, the outcasts, the marginalized. Even though we name today Palm Sunday, there are no palm branches, at least not in Matthew’s narrative. There are tree branches and cloaks, but no palms.  Maybe because palm branches would be too easily identified with the Maccabean revolt and were known as symbols of resistance against Rome.

Jesus enters Jerusalem in an almost anti-triumphal way, which is the way he does so much of his work. Jesus is the King of working in ways that no body really seems to understand. He is the embodiment of the passage from Isaiah, where the Lord says “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)

The triumph here is that we encounter a moment where Jesus allows himself to be publicly outed as the Messiah; this is what Matthew tells us with his references to the prophets.  Matthew frequently points to prophetic anticipation of the Messiah with his use of the phrase, “This this took place to fulfill what had been spoken…”

Matthew quotes both Isaiah and Zechariah in his prophetic fulfillment: “Say to daughter Zion, ‘See your salvation comes….” (Isa. 66:11b) and “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9)

I imagine that the people may have remembered these passages, or maybe Matthew puts them there because he is trying to convince the Jewish seekers of his church that Jesus is the awaited One. Either way, these passages of Messianic anticipation remind us that the people were expecting something, maybe something mighty, maybe a powerful display of anti-Roman sentiment.  Something like the cleansing of the temple—which three of the four gospels put in close proximity to Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem. Expectations are very high at this point and the crowds are ready to shout aloud because their king and their salvation has come.

I wonder, was the foal of a donkey a way of Jesus attempting to manage the expectations of the crowd?  Passover isn’t that far away; the people are gathering in Jerusalem in anticipation of the festival that remembers God’s mighty act of deliverance. There is an energy to the crowd because they have seen (or heard from those who had seen) Jesus healing those who suffer; the stories of healing and forgiveness and feeding have spread throughout the region and the crowd is there to witness the spectacle that is surely going to unfold in Jerusalem.

Will this be the time that he throws Rome out of the Holy City? Is this the day of our deliverance? Is the the inauguration of the great and terrible Day of the Lord? The onlookers are there and they hear the crowd and they see the parade; but wait, he’s on a donkey? Why a donkey?

Well, didn’t the prophets say Messiah would come on a donkey?

Hosanna, Lord! Save us, Lord! Do a miracle, Jesus! Heal me, Jesus! Hosanna! Feed me, Jesus! Hosanna! Save me, Jesus! Hosanna!

We aren’t that much different than the crowd. Not really. We have our expectations of what Jesus will do for us.  We come to Jesus, more often than not, looking to him for what he might do for us, not for how we might join him in his ministry of reconciliation. Wanting Jesus to give us this one particular thing, or for him to work in this one particular way.

What if we showed up in the celebration and waited to see how Jesus was going to move, or how Jesus was going to save, or how Jesus was going to work? What if we showed up in the celebration, trusting that Jesus will do something, but open to the mystery of what that thing might be?

Sara Miles tells the story of walking into a church in San Francisco, unsure of what to expect and yet, finding her life transformed:

“One early, cloudy morning when I was forty-six, I walked into a church, ate a piece of bread, took a sip of wine. A routine Sunday activity for tens of millions of Americans—except that up until that moment I’d led a thoroughly secular life, at best indifferent to religion, more often appalled by its fundamental crusades. This was my first communion. It changed everything…

Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations to a faith I’d scorned and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer at all but actual food—indeed, the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized that what I’d been doing with my life all along was what I was meant to do: feed people. (xi)”*

Palm Sunday leaves me unbalanced, in the same way Sara Miles describes her first communion. Maybe because we jump from the celebration and the Hosannas, to the narratives of betrayal, denial, torture and death. The thing is, regardless of how we may expect Jesus to show up, or what we may expect Jesus to do when he shows up, our reason for celebration with songs, and psalms, and palms, is that Jesus does show up. This is the thing that makes me stop on Palm Sunday; not the shouts of the crowd, but the One who sits on the donkey.  Jesus is there in the midst of our confused celebration and he is loving us and he is waiting; waiting for us to open our hearts the way that the gates of Jerusalem were opened.

*Sara Miles, Take This Bread. (Ballantine: New York, 2007).

 

Thoughts on the 5th Sunday in Lent

I recently heard a story about seminarians from differing traditions having a deep theological discussion about baptism. Each tradition has different methods of baptizing: some will immerse, some will pour, some will sprinkle. In an attempt to get a definitive answer about how much water is required for a good and proper baptism, the students gathered with a career theologian and scholar and asked, “How much water is required for baptism?” The scholar answered, “Only what is required to drown a person.” In the story, the scholar rambled on about the comparisons between baptism and drowning and how baptism is meant to symbolize our dying and rising with Christ.

But saying, “Only what is required to drown a person” doesn’t really solve the dilemma the students found themselves in, nor do I think it was meant to. You can drown in an inch or two of water as easily as you can in the ocean or in a river. Any amount of water that can cover the mouth or nose is enough water to drown you. And maybe knowing that such small amounts of water can drown a person is not what anyone wants to hear on a day when their child is being baptized, then again maybe it makes you happy that we just pour water over their head.

But the thing is, it’s not about the amount of water. It’s about the Spirit of God present in the moment, working a new and marvelous and mysterious thing that the water points to. It’s about the Spirit, the wind from God, hovering over the waters of creation way back in the beginning, when God began to create the heavens and the earth.

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It is about the spirit, the wind from God, that Ezekiel is told to prophesy to—it’s the same word in Hebrew “ruach” that we read in Genesis and in Ezekiel. The Spirit is called to breathe life into bodies so dead — into bones so old—they are bleached and dry.

The story is so dramatic you can almost hear the sounds of bones joining and sinews creaking and a long, slow, rattling breath being inhaled as the spirit-wind is breathed into the valley.

The spirit present in baptism is the same spirit-wind present when the waters parted for Israel to leave the life of slavery.

It is the same spirit that hovered over the waters of the Jordan on the day Jesus was baptized.

It’s the same spirit working through Jesus that breathes life into the four-days dead Lazarus.

It is the same spirit wind that Jesus breathed upon the disciples after his resurrection, and that filled the upper room in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost.

Baptism isn’t so much about the quantity of water as it is about the presence of God’s Spirit; and as parents, god-parents, and the community of faith, we teach and we remind the one we baptize that they are new creature, that they are God’s Beloved with whom God is well pleased; and every day is a chance to breathe in, not just the perfectly balanced mixture of air that we find here on earth, but also to each morning, each day, each evening—EVERY BREATH—to breathe in the spirit-wind of God, remembering that the first breath from God that was given to the first human is waiting for us to inhale it once again.

And then to make something of that spirit wind breath filled body.

There is an 11 minute short film called Moving the Giants that is about David Milarch, an arborist from Michigan, who died in 1991 from renal failure, and came back to life with a vision and a mission to save Redwoods. He is cloning old-growth Redwood Trees—trees that are upwards of 2,000 years old, more than 30 feet in diameter and can—each tree—clean 1,000 tons of CO2 from the air.  He is taking the new life given to him and using it to make new life here on the earth, sharing that passion with children and grandchildren—teaching them that life is a gift that is given to do something with.

Each day we are given the chance to take that first breath of the day and think, either, “Oh, God. One more day of being a slave to the grind.” We can have the mentality of being trapped in the tomb, or lying in the valley of dry bones.

Or we can take that first breath in, feeling in it the spirit wind of God and know that we have been breathed into again for a purpose.

But there is the problem of the bones of those in exile; the problem of the beloved friend in the tomb; the problem of those “Jesus if you had only been here” moments. Because that is part of the baptized life, too.

When Ezekiel is asked, “Mortal, can these bones live?” it’s somewhat humorous that his reply can only be, “O Lord God, you know.” The hope of new life is perhaps at its most powerful when we feel far and removed from the power of the God’s spirit wind—when our health is ravaged, when our energy is sapped from serving, when our eyes have been cried dry. Maybe the question is often reversed as we look over the unexpected or unintended wreckage of life and ask, “What now? God, can these bones live?” Those dry bones moments are the things we teach our children to live through and sing through, like the old spiritual that says, “I know it, deed I know it, dese bones gwine to rise again.” Or the one that sings, “I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger, traveling through this world of woe; ain’t no sickness, toil, or danger in that fair land to which I go.”

These passages are important passages to remember as we continue our journey through Lent and as we remember our baptisms, because “More than anything else human beings can hope for, [John] Calvin claimed, the resurrection of the dead is so utterly dependent upon God that there can be no doubt that it lies outside of our powers.” (Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2010-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Location 4609). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.)

Because if baptism symbolizes or points to our identification with the death of Jesus, even more our baptism points to our hope of rising like Jesus.  While the scholar may have said that you only need enough water to drown someone—because of the ways that the baptism promise links us to the death of Christ and our forgiveness—we must remember as we look at how we might live and sing and dance through seasons of struggle or despair—of how these bones might live—that our baptismal hope is rising to a new life, our baptismal hope is resurrection.  And what we make of that new life, how we choose to use that new spirit breathed resurrection life, many times requires the same utter dependence upon God as our hope in being raised like Christ.

Thoughts on the 4th Sunday in Lent

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The season of Lent begins with the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The words remind us of our making and of our inescapable demise.

“Remember, O Mortal, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.” It’s fancy language for a very literal “come to Jesus moment.” It’s like that old preacher in the second Poltergeist movie yelling into the house, “You are gonna die in there, all of you! You are gonna die!” Because we will die—it’s one of the common threads of all of humanity.  “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

But in a less depressing way, those words remind us of one of the other common threads of all of humanity. We are breath-animated dust creatures. “Remember that you are dust…” Remember your humanity…

Remember that when you were made as God intended you to be, God took dust and breathed the God-life into it…you are dust and you are Spirit…you are human.

And once upon a time we knew how to live out our humanity; we celebrated life in union with nature and life in union with one another and life in union with God. Once upon time…before we lost our way.

Now we have lost our union with nature, many of us. And we have lost our union with God, some of us. And, most of us, we have lost our union with one another, and we walk around afraid of one another, of the harm that may come to us or to the ones we love. And we look with pity upon those who suffer, or—in the case of some of us—we look with contempt, wondering why they don’t do something to change their situation and make a better life for themselves. And in failing to see their humanity, in failing to recognize the breath-animated dust creature in our sister or in our brother, we have trouble seeing the humanity in ourselves. In failing to see the humanity—people are reduced to issues or statistics; humans become less than human as we discuss their state.

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” He’s not even there, not really. He is someone to be discussed—like many patients in a hospital who can be reduced to an illness or to a list of symptoms—he is someone to be discussed. “Who’s at fault for this man’s condition? Do we blame him or his parents for his blindness?” What’s not said, but can be heard lying under the question is, “Jesus, whose problem is he? Who is responsible? Who owns the mess?”

This man is just an object for theological discussion—he is just an “issue” to the disciples—an issue of sin and suffering. But Jesus recognizes the humanity of the man born blind.  Jesus sees more than just the symptom or the issue of blindness; Jesus sees the spirit-breathed dust creature who has become lost, become invisible. His community has lost his identity. The disciples don’t really see him either. And maybe because nobody else really sees him for who he is, he doesn’t really see himself anymore…But Jesus sees him, sees him as he really is and works to restore that original spirit-breathed self.

And what does he use? Jesus uses dust from the earth…and some sanctified spit…and he re-makes the man made from dust into something whole.

An article recently shared by a colleague of mine discussed the benefits of dirt, specifically a naturally occurring anti-depressant:

Mycobacterium vaccae is the substance under study and has…been found to mirror the effect on neurons that drugs like Prozac provide. The bacterium is found in soil and may stimulate serotonin production, which makes you relaxed and happier. Studies were conducted on cancer patients and they reported a better quality of life and less stress. Lack of serotonin has been linked to depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar problems. The bacterium appears to be a natural antidepressant in soil and has no adverse health effects. These antidepressant microbes in soil may be as easy to use as just playing in the dirt.”

So I really was happier back when I was a kid covered in mud! Maybe it’s when we think we’re “too old” to play in the dirt that we begin to lose a little bit of ourselves?

But it’s mud (and sanctified saliva) that Jesus uses to bring healing to the man born blind—(I wish I knew what his name was…but isn’t that the rub with people who are reduced to “issues” or “symptoms”? We don’t recall names, only the things that make them “other.”)—It’s mud that Jesus uses to bring him back into being.

But then what? Nobody knows what to do with him now!

“The first surprise is the community’s reaction; they do not recognize the man who was born blind. This is so odd. The man has lived in their midst all his life; his neighbors have interacted with him, perhaps helped him cross the street or draw water; they have worshiped with him. Why do they fail to recognize him after he is healed? Is it because the only marker of his identity was his blindness? Has the fact that he was differently abled been the only thing they could ever see in him?

This raises a pastoral issue for any of us who interact with persons who are differently abled. How do we identify and come to know people who are different from us? Do we allow disability to be a defining marker, or are we able to look beyond that and recognize the humanity of people?”*

It is important to see markers that make the experience of others different from our own. It’s a failure to “whitewash” the experience of people of color; it’s a failure to “straightwash” the experiences of the gay community; it’s a failure to “ciswash” the experiences of being trans; it is a failure to take our experience and say that it is a universal experience or the only experience—but we are more than our markers: people of color are people; people identifying as LGBTQ are people; people who are differently abled are people; underneath our markers we are all spirit-breathed dust creatures. And if in the midst of our journey with one another we can infuse the world with a little more shalom and a little more life and if it we can make where we live a little more like the beloved community that God intends, then maybe we can work some healing with mud and sanctified spit the way that Jesus does.

“On a bitterly cold day in February 1846, the French writer Victor Hugo was on his way to work when he saw something that affected him profoundly.

A thin young man with a loaf of bread under his arm was being led away by police. Bystanders said he was being arrested for stealing the loaf. He was dressed in mud-spattered clothes, his bare feet thrust into clogs, his ankles wrapped in bloodied rags in lieu of stockings.

“It made me think,” wrote Hugo. “The man was no longer a man in my eyes but the specter of la misère, of poverty…

During his political exile on the island of Guernsey, Hugo, finding himself at a loose end one day while waiting for a batch of proofs of Les Misérables to arrive, spontaneously invited 10 poor children to his house for a meal.

“The first diner des pauvres, or ‘poor dinner’, was a great success,” says Bellos. “Hugo decided to repeat it every other Tuesday.”

As news of the meals spread, the idea was replicated in the poor parishes of London and other cities. “It ultimately led to the introduction of canteens in publicly funded schools,” writes Bellos. “Free school lunches, which became a universal right in Britain and France only two generations ago, can be traced back directly to the initiative Hugo took.”” (original article here)

As we move closer to Easter, closer to that triumph over the lost parts of our humanity, look for the ways to be engaged in making wholeness a real thing again; look for ways of bringing God’s Shalom into the crowded streets of life; look for the areas where a little bit of mud (and sanctified spit) can restore the dust-breathed spirit creature that God formed you to be.

Amen.

* Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2010-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Feasting on the Word: Year A volume) (Kindle Locations 4436-4440). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.