Empty Tombs and Open Futures

Easter

Sermon for Easter Sunday – April 4, 2021  

The reason I especially wanted there to be parts for readers in the gospels today is that I wanted to remind us that Easter is participatory, that we are included in this story. Easter is not just about a day long ago when something extraordinary happened; it’s also about today.

Years ago, I was talking with a colleague, who was bemoaning the difficulty of preaching anything new on Easter. “I mean,” he said, “how many ways can you say ‘Christ is risen’ year after year?” My answer back then was different from what it would be today. Back then I said we should preach, assuming there would be people in church that day who’d never heard the story. And while that might be true, today I’d say: tell the story and be sure to expand it beyond a one-time event in the past and even beyond a promise of life after death.

Not that those are minor details. The resurrection of Jesus was a cosmic event – whatever actually happened. We don’t know. As Marcus Borg asked, “If there were a video camera at the tomb for those three days, would it have recorded Jesus getting up and walking out of the tomb?”

It doesn’t do us any good to rely on the biblical witness, either, because as we can see very well from our gospel readings this morning, the biblical witnesses don’t agree – which is why I like to read from two gospels on Easter. Every year in the lectionary cycle, we get a choice. John’s version is assigned every year, with the others in a three-year rotation. If we took a survey, I’d expect to find that most people prefer John’s version, with its dramatic race of Peter and John to the empty tomb, the charming story of Mary mistaking Jesus for the gardener and then recognizing him after he calls her by her name, and then her climactic announcement of the resurrection to the other disciples. There is so much good sermon material there; why would we ever use any of the other versions?

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Honestly, most preachers I know don’t like to use Mark’s version, the one assigned for this year. Did you notice: there’s no Jesus? There’s someone telling the women what had happened, but no risen Christ. And the women take off running, because they’re scared senseless. What a contrast; two very different perspectives on the resurrection. In contrast to the approach of many Christians today, the early church was comfortable with diverse witnesses to Jesus’ birth and resurrection. So the differing stories aren’t a stumbling block, but a reminder that resurrection is ultimately indescribable. 

For example, many years ago, I got to go to the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany. This tradition began in 1633, when the villagers of Oberammergau, who had been suffering and dying from the plague (their pandemic), pledged to act out the story of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus once every ten years. The play is five hours long (there is a break in the middle). It’s pretty impressive except for, in my opinion, the resurrection scene at the end. There’s a lot of flashing light, but nothing that could be seen or known of what was happening. But, really, there’s no good way to depict whatever happened that morning. Each of our attempts, including those of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, ultimately fall short – at least in terms of historicity. But the message in all of the versions is the same: Christ comes to us in dire situations and rolls away the stone of hopelessness. Christ brings new possibilities, new ways, new life, even when we can see no possible pathway forward.

A colleague recently shared with me a question she was asked during her call process: if you were going to be stranded on a desert island and could have only one book of the Bible, which one would you take? My answer was the gospel of Mark because it was the first one written and, even though it lacks the details of the others, it’s undoubtedly one of the closest sources we have of the very first responses of the people who had encountered Jesus and had experienced that first Easter. 

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Now, if you look up the Easter story in your Bible, you may find that there is a resurrection account. Jesus does appear. Most Bibles do include these extra verses. Some put them after a paragraph break and a brief disclaimer. Some put them inside brackets or in a smaller font and in italics. But most scholars agree that this longer ending was a later addition – maybe by someone who was as uncomfortable as we are leaving off with Mary and the other women running away in fear.  

But the shorter version that we read is likely the original. That doesn’t take away the importance of the later stories, but if we ignore Mark’s version because it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of the others, we might miss a crucial point. Because Mark’s story is unfinished and all the details and questions are not resolved, we have to see that we get to be part of the story.

There’s a legend told about Mozart. There’s a version also told about Bach, but the point is the same (just like the gospels!). It’s said that every morning, Mozart’s father (some versions say his wife) would get him out of bed by going to the keyboard and playing a series of familiar chord changes. But they would intentionally leave off the last chord. The unresolved ending would drive Mozart to jump up, run to the keyboard, and play the final chord.

And that’s just what Mark has done – left off the last chord. He’s left his story unresolved, which means that we should be compelled to jump into the story to see how it plays out in our own lives. In Mark, the future is open. For us, that means that we can name the tombs that try to enclose us, and identify the places where the stone has been rolled away, where we can see the open futures for ourselves and others.

But make no mistake; resurrection life does not ignore the harsh realities of life. It takes the tomb and the time we sit in its darkness seriously. And there’s no time limit on tomb time or the time between an empty tomb and a totally resolved future. We’ve had to live with the fear and anxiety of the pandemic for over a year now. The future is looking brighter, but still unknown. We have begun to take the problems of racism more seriously, but as the trial of the police officer accused of killing George Floyd continues, we know we have a long way to go. 

And frankly it seems that we live more in a Good Friday world, in a Holy Saturday existence of uncertainty and waiting, of being entombed, not knowing how to move forward. This would seem to be a more realistic assessment of the human condition. 

However, today we come here to make an audacious claim: that assessment isn’t true; resurrection can still happen. There is a power beyond the tragedies, horrors, and all the everyday injustices. There is resurrection power that comes from the deep place where divine and human spirit intersect, where pathways of rebirth and renewal are created, where new hope, new energy, new life come to fruition – even in the midst of our life situations, in places where, with our limited vision, we might see only scarcity and impossibility. 

It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?  Hope for our warring world, restoration of ruined environments, healing of broken relationships? After we log off and the ‘Alleluias’ are no longer ringing in our ears, will the possibility of resurrection power still ring true? How can we keep Easter every day – which is, after all, what we claim to do?  

In her poem called “Holy Saturday,” Joyce Rupp wrote in this excerpt:

Who urges us to sit still, to be patient
in the nurturing tomb of darkness,
to enter its enveloping silence
with assurance?

Where do we seek steady courage
when sadness, distress, confusion,
and flatness
wall us in with airless depression?

How do we wait with a balance
of acceptance and yearning,
relinquishment and action,
hesitation and confidence?

The stones that block our light,
whatever they might be,
let us stop shoving them aside.
Let them be.
Give ourselves to required gestation
before hope’s fresh air unseals the tomb.

Do not hurry the soul’s metamorphosis. 
Trust in the maturation of essential growth. 
Remain trustful, focus on the Risen One.
Breathe in the possibility of some new joy,
for it hides in this very moment,
readying itself to slip past the stone.

Sometimes, all we can do is trust that the future is still open, the stone will be rolled away, there will be light.

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I read a recent piece by Barbara Brown Taylor, in which she tells the story of Jacques Lusseyran, a blind French resistance fighter in World War II, who wrote a memoir called And There Was Light. When he was seven years old, he had an accident that left him completely and permanently blind. The doctors recommended sending him to a residential school for the blind, but his parents wanted him to stay in public school and learn to function in the seeing world. His father told him after the accident, “Always tell us when you discover something.” And he did live a life of discovery.

He wrote: “I had completely lost the sight of my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore. Yet the light was still there. Its source was not obliterated. I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over; I felt how it wanted to spread over the world. I had only to receive it.” He also wrote: “The source of light is not in the outer world. We believe that it is only because of a common delusion. The light dwells where life also dwells: within ourselves.”

Taylor says that when she first read this, she thought he was speaking spiritually or theologically, but as she continued to read, she realized he was talking about what he actually experienced. With practice, he had learned to attend so carefully to the world around him that he confounded his friends by describing things he couldn’t see with his eyes, and yet somehow, he could see them.

It sounds mystical, doesn’t it? But not so mysterious. We have spiritual senses. And if we use them, if we’re in touch with the light within, which is the living Christ, then no matter how bleak and dismal a situation may seem, the future is still open. The last chord has not been played.

The resurrection of Jesus on the first Easter and resurrection life for us every day means that no life-diminishing powers can extinguish the light that resides within us. This light, says the Gospel of John, is in all people and is there to enlighten every individual. It shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

That’s true for our world as well. We become so discouraged by the seeming intractability of the problems we see all around us. But one Easter Sunday, the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, preaching at New York’s Riverside Church, reminded his congregation of their obligation to take the resurrection out of the realm of ancient mythand bring it to life: “It’s dark, the world’s at risk, there’s conflict, misunderstanding, poverty, racism, violence—but over here a group is working to do this, and over there a group working to do that, until it almost seemed like, despite the imperfections of the world, there might be a glimmer of hope—brought on by people just like us. By God’s grace, WE bring new life to the world.”

It’s our story, says the gospel according to Mark. The risen Christ is going on ahead of us. The final chord is yet to be played.

Amen.

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Mark 16:1–8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought perfumed oils so that they could anoint Jesus. Very early, just after sunrise on the first day of theweek, they came to the tomb. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to thetomb?” When they looked, they found that the huge stone had been rolled back.

On entering the tomb, they saw a young person sitting at the right, dressed in a white robe. They were very frightened, but the youth reassured them: “Do not be amazed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. Now go and tell the disciples and Peter, ‘Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will seehim just as he told you.’”

They made their way out and fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling; but they said nothing toanyone, because they were so afraid.

John 20:1-18

Early in the morning on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb. She saw that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance, so she ran off to Simon Peter and the other disciple—the one Jesus loved—and told them, “The Rabbi has been taken fromthe tomb! We don’t know where they have put Jesus!”

At that, Peter and the other disciple started out toward the tomb. They were running side by side, but then the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He didn’t enter, but bent down to peer in and saw the linen wrappings lying on the ground. Then Simon Peter arrived and entered the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings on the ground, and saw the cloth that had covered Jesus’ head lying not with the wrappings, but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the disciple who arrived first at the tomb went in. He saw and believed. As yet they did not understand the scripture that Jesus was to rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes.

Meanwhile, Mary stood weeping beside the tomb. Even as she wept, she stooped to peer inside, and there she saw two angels in dazzling robes. One was seated at the head and the other at the foot of the place where Jesus’ body had lain. 
They asked to her, “Why are you weeping?” 
She answered them, “Because they have taken away my Rabbi, and I don’t know where they have put the body.” 
No sooner had she said this than she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. He asked her, “Why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?”
She supposed it was the gardener, so she said, “Please, if you are the one who carried Jesus away, tell me where you have laid the body, and I will take it away.” 
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” 
She turned to him and said, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 
Jesus then said, “Don’t hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to Abba God. But go to the sisters and brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Abba and to your Abba, my God and your God.'” 

Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” Then she told them what the Savior had said to her.

Palm Sunday: Join the Parade of Revolutionary Love

Palm Sunday   March 28, 2021 Zechariah 9:9-10; Philippians 2:5-11; Matthew 21:1-11

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I love a parade! The tramping of feet, the beating of drums. My dad was a firefighter, so we would often go to watch the parade of firetrucks from all the surrounding municipalities.

Do you have a favorite memory of a parade? Thanksgiving Day? Rose Bowl? Mine isn’t of any of the big parades or even the firefighter parades. It’s from a time when I lived in a very little town in central PA. Whenever I hear Garrison Keillor talk about Lake Wobegon, I think of Millville, with its one stoplight and one little café and one little grocery store. On the 4th of July, there was a festival in the town park and a parade down Main Street. It was a pretty good parade: the usual high school marching bands and fire engines and convertibles with town dignitaries.

But the best part of all was at the very end. A real old-fashioned calliope loaded on a flat-bed truck and played by a woman who looked to be about as old as the calliope. But man, could she rock that thing! The best part of the parade was that when it got to the edge of town, there wasn’t anywhere to go – no streets, just corn fields – so the whole parade just turned around and marched back through town, bands playing, dignitaries waving and that little old calliope player still going strong. It was a hoot and a half. I still remember it almost 50 years later.

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So now we come to today’s parade. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t always understand what was really going on in the original Palm Sunday parade. I’m with Debi Thomas on the Journey with Jesus website: “I grew up celebrating Palm Sunday with loud, festive processions. As a child, I carried palm branches down the center aisle of my church, sang, ‘All Glory, Laud, and Honor’ with my fellow parishioners, and shouted “Hosanna” at the top of my lungs. I did this without even knowing what the word, “Hosanna” meant.  I assumed it meant some church-y version of “You’re awesome, Jesus!” or “We love you!” or “Rock on, king of the world!”

In fact, we turned Palm Sunday into a sort of Easter Lite, a little bit of celebration before we entered the tragedy of Holy Week. A while back, the day became one with a double name: Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday. The beginning of the service was the procession with palms, but by the time of the gospel reading, the mood changed and we would read the entire story of the betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus. The wizards behind liturgical reforms did this for a reason. Attendance at Good Friday services was going down and the concern was that many people were not having the opportunity to enter into the somberness of the Passion story before they got to the joy of Easter morning. 

That was sort of reasonable. It also allowed for the drama of the “Hosannas” of the Palm Sunday crowd turning to the “Crucify him!” shouted by many of the same people. I know that some folks didn’t like this, though. They liked the feeling of the happy, 4th of July-like parade and wanted to hold onto it. Except that “Hosanna” means something far less joyful than “Yea, Jesus!” In Hebrew, “Hosanna” means, “Save now!”  As in, “Jesus, we’re in trouble here. We’re desperate. “Hosanna, Jesus. Come and save us now!”

The other problem is that in short-circuiting the Palm Sunday drama, we missed a lot of the meaning behind the parade. It was Passover-time in Jerusalem; the high holy day of celebration for the release of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. As the week of Passover began, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. This wasn’t a last-minute decision, as if he decided to ride a donkey because he was tired or wanted people to be able to see him better. He chose a donkey because he was intentionally enacting a passage from the prophet Zechariah: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Your Sovereign comes to you without display, riding on a donkey, on a colt – the foal of a beast of burden.’” And everyone along the parade route would have known it. 

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It was more like a protest march than a parade. On the other side of the city a Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem. This happened every year at Passover time: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea down on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be in the city in case there were riots. Passover was the most politically volatile of all the Jewish festivals. With the governor came troops and war horses to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem. For Jews this was a terrible irony. They had come to celebrate their release from bondage in Egypt. But now they found themselves occupied by the Roman empire and living under the boot heel of Caesar’s army. It was a bittersweet time indeed. Into this scenario comes Jesus, riding on a donkey, blatantly proclaiming himself a savior – but what kind of savior?

We might get so caught up in the street theater of the parade, the obvious slam at the imperial spectacle on the other side of town, that we miss a crucial characteristic of the man riding the donkey. The hymn that Paul included in his letter to the Philippians is perhaps the most descriptive insight we have into what was going on in Jesus on that day. 

It might sound odd, but it was at a spiritual retreat that I really came to understand this. You see, this was a Sufi retreat. Although Sufism is part of Islam, it is the mystical tradition of Islam. Like all mystical traditions, it is not concerned with institutions and doctrines, but with intimate connection with the Divine. What I discovered, as I became immersed in Sufism, was that Jesus is there, too – all over the place. Maybe not always in name, although Sufis hold Jesus in great honor. But certainly in the message – and one very relevant for us today. In three ways: 

1. Spirituality is the way of the heart.

2. The necessity of emptiness  – in order to find yourself, you must lose yourself.

3. In order to lead, you must lead with the heart, with love.

Both Sufism and Christianity are about transformation. Unfortunately Christianity became so institutionalized and doctrinized that we lost a lot of the core spiritual practices. Thankfully, due to renewed interest in Christian mystics of the past and present, we’ve been reclaiming our own tradition. 

So when I hear Sufi teachers talking about the way of the heart, I hear Jeremiah’s prophecy of a new covenant, in which God will put a new heart within us. And when I hear the Sufis sing about purifying the heart, I hear the psalmist praying, “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” And I don’t hear that as only a cry for forgiveness of sin, but as a longing for a complete transformation of being that is immersed in the knowledge of the Divine Presence. I believe that’s what Jesus experienced in his time in the wilderness wrestling with his temptations. He was being transformed, becoming thoroughly connected to his Higher Power. Becoming empty of ego, of self.

One of the teachings of Jesus that the Sufis quote a lot is that in order to find yourself, you must lose yourself. We must become empty; we must give up the strivings of our egos and lose ourselves in Divine mystery. This doesn’t mean lose yourself and become weak nobodies so that anyone can take advantage of us. The truth is that the more we lose ourselves in God, the stronger we are – with the right kind of strength and power. We reflect the non-coercive strength and power of God.

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This is what St. Paul reflected in the Christ hymn: 

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:
though in the image of God,
did not deem equality with God something to be clung to –
but instead became completely empty and was thus humbled –
obediently accepting death—even death on a cross!

And here is where we enter the Palm Sunday story: “Let the same mind be in you.” Become completely empty. Lose your life in order to find it. We can see what gave Jesus the ability to go to the cross – his transformation in the wilderness, his embodiment of the Spirit of God, his oneness with God, his emptiness and unattachment to the powers and principalities of the world. This is the Jesus we see riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, illustrating the prophecy of Zechariah, in which the victorious ruler comes riding on a donkey, bringing peace to the nations. 

And here again I was reminded by the Sufis that, in order to lead, you must lead with the heart, with love. That might seem like a ridiculous statement, given the violence in our world today. Two mass shootings in less than a week; even our outrage is tempered by cynicism about any changes in gun control laws. Love sounds like a terribly ineffectual response to domestic violence, exacerbated in these isolating pandemic days; to attacks on people of Asian descent, even here in our diverse Bay Area; to anti-transgender legislation, assaults on voting rights, and twenty years of war in Afghanistan.   

But violence, injustice, and oppression was no less of a reality in Jesus’ day. The call to lead with love has never meant a mushy kind of sentimentality. It’s about Love with a capital L. Consider that Caesar Augustus, the longest reigning Roman emperor, had bronze tablets made before he died and placed all over the empire extolling all the things he’d accomplished. On these tablets were the words “I conquered” and “I brought peace. The way of the Pax Romana was first victory, then peace. But consider also that in the 41 years of his reign, there were only two days the army was not in the field.

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Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day to announce an alternative program of active non-violence. Instead of “first victory, then peace,” its rallying cry is “first justice, then peace.” Peace through forgiveness, reconciliation, love for the neighbor (including the enemy), radical hospitality, emptiness of self for the sake of peace. This is a grassroots movement; it comes from the bottom up, not the top down. And we are all called to participate in it. 

And, of course, this is where it gets difficult. How do we participate in such a program when the need is so huge? I may believe that our American empire is just as committed to “first victory, then peace” as was Rome, but what can I do about it? You may believe that the Wall Street empire wages war on the 99% of us, but what can you do about it? We may think that something must be done about gun violence, but what can we do? 

What must Jesus have wondered as he looked around at all the people crying out for help in their need and despair? Did he weigh the prospects of raising up an army, fomenting a revolution, staging a violent insurrection, maybe even trying to assassinate the governor as he rode in on his war horse? I’m sure that’s what many of those lining the parade route wanted. But if Jesus ever entertained such ideas (and I don’t believe he did, not after his time in the wilderness), he abandoned them in favor of a better way. 

As the Sufis say, we must lead with the heart. This means that we need to nurture our spiritual practice, maintain our connection to Divine Presence, to the heart of God. One way is to meditate on the Philippians hymn: 

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Become completely empty. Lose your life in order to find it.” In our spiritual practice, we will find – just as Jesus did – how to lead with our hearts, how to know what we should do. In the words of Zhuangzi, the Chinese Taoist philosopher, born in 369 BCE:

Do not seek fame. Do not make plans. Do not be absorbed by activities. Do not think that you know. Be aware of all that is and dwell in the infinite. Wander where there is no path. Be all that heaven gave you, but act as though you have received nothing. Be empty, that is all.

The palms of Palm Sunday – whether paper cut-outs, the palm of our own hands, or branches you may have cut from a tree – remind us of the humble, yet powerful leader of our non-violent revolution of love. They will also serve to remind us of our call to participate in the realm of God, what John Dominic Crossan calls “God’s great cleanup of the world” – which he reminds us is not at some time in the future, but is happening right now. 

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One leading contemporary voice in this great cleanup is Valerie Kaur, founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, who declares: “The world is in transition. It’s time to birth the beloved community. Each of us has a role. Are you ready for a revolution of the heart?”

If you take the pledge to rise up in Revolutionary Love, this is what you’ll declare:

We declare our love for all who are in harm’s way — refugees, immigrants, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, queer and trans people, Black people, Indigenous people, Asian Americans, Latinx people, the disabled, women and girls, working-class people and poor people. We vow to see one another as brothers, sisters, and siblings. Our humanity binds us together, and we vow to fight for a world where all of us can flourish.

We declare love even for our opponents. We oppose all policies that threaten the rights and dignity of any person. We vow to fight not with violence or vitriol, but by challenging the cultures and institutions that promote hate. In this way, we will challenge our opponents through the ethic of love.

We declare love for ourselves. We will protect our capacity for joy. We will rise and dance. We will honor our ancestors whose bodies, breath, and blood call us to a life of courage. In their name, we choose to see this darkness not as the darkness of the tomb – but of the womb. We will breathe and push through the pain of this era to birth a new future.

Valerie Kaur is a practitioner of the Sikh religion, but I think that we can see the ancient wisdom that flows through many traditions. As followers of Jesus, we claim our inheritance of this wisdom. We claim the story of Jesus as the way of Love. We tell our stories in the context of our belief in the God who pulls us each closer to the Divine heart and pushes us out into a new future. Back and forth we go, into deep personal inner contemplation and reflection and out into healing the world. Jesus leads us in the way of Divine Love. 

This way will become more difficult in this coming week. We are about to enter the most solemn time of the Christian year. Even though colorful Easter decorations and chocolate bunnies can be found everywhere you go, we are still in the purple zone of Lent (although you might see scarlet in some churches during Holy Week. Scarlet is a color traditionally associated with the Passion, the color of blood but distinguished from the brighter red of Pentecost). We did not read the entire story of the betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus today. We will do that on Friday evening. And even if you are not able to participate in that service, I hope that you will read it on your own in preparation for Easter morning. Or watch the Easter Vigil being prepared by PLTS for Holy Saturday. I promise: the joy of Easter will be that much sweeter.

In closing, I offer this from the 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi. Maybe he was thinking of Jesus on this day: 

Through Love, all that is bitter will be sweet,
Through Love all that is copper will be gold,
Through Love, all dregs will become wine,
through Love all pain will turn to medicine. 
Through Love, the dead will all become alive.
Through Love, the king will turn into a slave.
Love is the Master. 
Love is the One who masters all things; 
I am mastered totally by Love. 

Amen.

Zechariah 9:9-10
Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Look! Your ruler comes to you; triumphant and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
This ruler will cut off the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be banished. This ruler shall command peace to the nations;
stretching from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth.

Philippians 2:5-11
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus:
Christ, though in the image of God,
did not deem equality with God something to be clung to—
but instead became completely empty
and took on the image of oppressed humankind:
born into the human condition, found in the likeness of human being.
Jesus was thus humbled—obediently accepting death—even death on a cross!
Because of this God highly exalted Christ
and gave to Jesus the name above every other name,
so that at the name of Jesus every knee must bend
in the heavens, on the earth and under the earth,
and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God: Jesus Christ reigns supreme!

Matthew 21:1-11
When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, “The Teacher needs them.” And he will send them immediately.’ This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,
‘Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,                   
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks  on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead and  that followed were shouting,‘Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds were saying, ‘This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.’

Entry into the City 
Swanson, John August 
Record number: [56544] 

Entry of Christ into Jerusalem
Morgner, Wilhelm, 1891-1917 
Record number: [54247] 

A New Covenant: A New Heart

Lent 5        March 21, 2021                       Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

Slide2When is the last time you made a promise? “I promise I’ll have that work done by tomorrow.” “I promise I’ll clean my room.” “I promise I’ll love you forever.”

When’s the last time you broke a promise? One of my pet peeves is when a character on TV or in a movie says, “I promise I you I will catch the guy who did this” or “I promise you are not going to die.” I want to scream, “Don’t make promises you don’t know you’ll be able to keep.” Because even though we don’t set out with the intention of breaking a promise, unfortunately it does happen. And it causes disappointment, pain, heartache, and sometimes even anger. There are consequences.

Now let’s get a little more legalistic. When’s the last time you entered into a contract? That’s a kind of promise, too, right? Two parties make a binding agreement, such as an employer promises to pay a certain amount to the employee for specified work. Or a church signs a contract for the installation of new carpet. There are consequences there too if one side or the other doesn’t fulfill their part of the deal.

Now let me ask a different way – when’s the last time you made or broke a covenant? We’ve been spending the Sundays in Lent on a tour of the covenants that the Bible tells us were made between God and God’s people. Still ‘covenant’ isn’t a word we use very often in everyday conversation. I know it’s a legal term used in finance and real estate. And the United Nations has an International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Maybe where we’re used to hearing it most is in reference to marriage. A covenant is a pledge, a formal and serious promise or agreement. But it’s not a word we hear or use a lot – except in the Bible, where there are covenants all over the place.

Blue,Sky,And,White,Cloud,With,Sun,Light,And,RainbowSo, to review. First, there was the covenant with Noah, with the rainbow as the sign of the promise made to all of creation to never again flood the whole earth.

The second covenant was with Abraham and Sarah, with the  beautiful, poetic promise that their offspring would be as innumerable as the stars in the sky and grains of sand on the seashore.

Then came the covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai. This contract, often known as “the Law” and included the Ten Commandments, was more fully developed than ever before as the way to live both in covenantal relationship with God (I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me. Don’t take the name of God in vain. Honor your father and your mother) and with our neighbors (You shall not kill, etc., etc). This was the way to live in right relationship, in covenant relationship with God and with one another.

UnknownSo how are we doing with these promises? If we go by Martin Luther’s explanations of the 10 Commandments, we have to admit that we fall far short of keeping up our end of the deal. For example, for the 5th Commandment Luther says that not only should we not kill our neighbors, we should also help them with all their physical needs.

And concerning the 8th Commandment, not only should we not bear false witness or lie about our neighbors, we should defend them, speak well of them, and always put the best construction on what they say and do. On those two alone, we have a lot of work to do. If we’re honest – and Lent is the season of honesty – we’ll admit that we continually play a part in breaking covenant with God. We do it in our personal lives in the choices and mistakes we make as individuals – those things for which we offer our confession and our intention to repent and do better.

shutterstock_88938097We also have to admit that we participate corporately in breaking covenant with God. This is what Jeremiah was talking about in his day. He was writing his prophetic proclamations in the midst of colossal failure in ancient Israel. The city of Jerusalem had been conquered and burned, the temple destroyed, the monarchy terminated, the leading citizens deported into exile. This all came about, said Jeremiah, because Israel had broken the covenant, disobeyed the commandments of Sinai, did not take justice seriously, and did not ground its life in the God of the Exodus. And so, he said, came the judgment of God.

Now we would not say that it’s God sending punishment. Covenant is not a quid pro quo deal: you scratch God’s back and God scratches yours. No, it’s about living in harmony in the body of God. But there are consequences when we don’t.

In 2014, Old Testament scholar, author and prophet Walter Brueggemann brought the brokenness of ancient Israel into our present day:
We see that in our society the fabric of human community is almost totally broken and one glaring evidence of such brokenness is the current unrelieved tension between police and citizens in Ferguson, Missouri (after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer). That tension is rooted in very old racism . . .

This is one frontal manifestation of ‘the covenant that they broke, as referred to in the Jeremiah text: a refusal of neighborly solidarity that leads, with seeming certitude, to disastrous social consequences. Of course the issue is not limited to Ferguson but is massively systemic in US society. We have, like ancient Israel, been on a binge of narcissistic self-indulgence.

Of course it was not limited to Ferguson. It boggles the mind to consider all the ways since 2014 that our corporate life – as neighbors, communities, as a country – has been broken. Brueggemann again:
. . . we know that a sustainable social life requires attentiveness to neighbor. Torah obedience is not a narrow moralism. It is rather realism and readiness about what is required for society to work in life-flourishing ways.

This is exactly what Jeremiah is addressing in his stunning oracle that we read today. The admission of the brokenness of his society allows him to anticipate a “new covenant,” a new beginning, a new possibility. He imagines a time when all of us will naturally “know” God. We’ll instinctively know how to be a good neighbor to all people. Our relationship with God will automatically define attitudes, actions, and policies.

That sounds really good, doesn’t it? This text is so beautifully hopeful; we love to read it and believe that we are recipients of such a covenant. Make no mistake, though, and think that Jeremiah is talking about a covenant that will replace or surpasses the previous ones. All the covenants we’ve read throughout Lent are still in place. Jeremiah isn’t speaking of a new law, but rather of an upcoming era in which God enables human beings to follow the existing law by way of a transformation of the heart: “I will put my Law in their minds and on their hearts.” This is a Jewish idea picked up by Jesus and the early Jewish-Christian communities that followed him. It is an extension of the longing for intimacy and Divine guidance already present in earlier covenants.

unnamedWe can relate to that longing today. Like our Jewish siblings, we yearn for an inner transformation that would render sin obsolete and teaching unnecessary. Of course, even though the prophet says the day is “surely coming,” we’re quite aware that, to put it mildly, it’s not yet here. As a people, we are broken in so many ways. My taxes support our state of perpetual war. My fuel consumption poisons the planet. My government is gridlocked. My relationships with people who think differently from the way I do have been strained or broken. I don’t think I’m alone in this condition. We have much truth telling and repenting to do in Lent.

The pandemic has exacerbated societal inequities that have been festering for a long time. The killings of eight people in Atlanta has put a spotlight on yet another way that racism rears its ugly head – not only in the actions of the shooter, but in the ways our national attitude has long been one of closing our eyes and turning our backs. Even the discussion of whether or not this was a hate crime is telling. Even if (and it’s a big if) the shooter did not target those of Asian descent, he definitely primarily targeted women. The controversy shows us how poorly we see the interconnections of race, gender, class, sexual identity, orientation and expression, and other communities that are often oppressed or marginalized.

I’m part of a group in our synod that is dedicated to promoting awareness of intersectionality. Now let me explain that – because this is a big part of our mission. These days, it is very easy to become embroiled in a battle over who is more oppressed, like there’s a hierarchy of oppression. In fact, when we recognize that  oppressed groups are not in competition but are all part of an overarching system of domination, we are in a better place to stand with and support one another, not just in our own silo, but across the board.

It can also get carried into our own considerations of oppressed groups. In a conversation with a good friend a few years ago, she expressed her frustration with the Black Lives Matter movement. Her struggle came from the fact that she herself had been marginalized and her career as a pastor had been threatened because she is a Lesbian. But it’s not an either/or matter. And the fact is that many people belong to two or more groups, like the Asian-American women who were killed, like gay African-American men, like a disabled white man.

This is how it’s explained in the latest ELCA social statement, Faith, Sexism, and Justice:
The  experiences of individuals and groups are shaped and complicated by intersecting factors. These include race, ethnicity, national origin, nationality, religious identity, immigration status, sexuality, marital status, economic means, age, ability, embodied experiences, and education.

Unfortunately, many people on the conservative side of the divide have come to understand intersectionality as a new hierarchy of oppression, one in which minorities are now at the top and white people at the bottom. This could not be more false, at least from everything I’ve read and from the standpoint of living out our faith. It is all about bringing the un-hierarchical nature of the realm of God a little closer to fruition. It is recognizing the brokenness of our society and bringing covenant living to bear in whatever way we can.

When we live mindfully of our covenant with God, we know we’re not yet living inimages the fullness of the Divine will for us. But this magnificent oracle from Jeremiah is a vision of what can be, what God desires it to be. It’s the vision that was written on Jesus’ heart. Coming, as he did, out of the history and tradition of covenant of his study of the Hebrew scriptures, he longed to bring that vision to fruition in our own hearts.

But as we well know, that beautiful vision, that Divine-infused heart would not prevent him from being killed by those who had a vested interest in thwarting the fulfilment of that vision. There’s no way to sugar coat the reality of Jesus’ crucifixion at the hands of the Roman empire. There’s no way to sugar coat the reality of the ongoing crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of empire today. This far into Lent, it is hard to see Easter light at the end of the journey.

And yet, Lent is preparation for Easter. It’s planting the seeds of radical, inexplicable new beginnings. In this oracle, the admission of his people’s brokenness permits Jeremiah to anticipate a “new covenant.” It allows Jesus to go to death in expectation that the vision can still be true. It hopefully enables us to live, as Martin Luther called it, in the “now and the not yet” realm of God, in which we can operate “as if” the new covenant is already in place, “as if” it’s written on our hearts and embedded in our minds. It enables us to take seriously the promises of our baptisms, to serve all people following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. If Good Friday is to have any meaning, there has to be the promise that God can take what is broken and make it whole – that applies to us, it applies to our world.

But a covenant is never just one-sided. Are we willing to seriously live in covenant relationship with God, with God’s people and all of creation? Because it means commitment, accountability, neighborliness, community, hospitality – not good descriptors of our society today. It means taking action, operating out of the covenant in our hearts – not because it’s been programmed in us against our will, but because we have chosen to live in relationship with the Divine Presence, which can make broken things new. Why would we not want to abide in the heart of God?

Yesterday, taking a break from writing, I turned on the news. MSNBC weekend host Joshua Johnson had a commentary called “Losing loved ones to ‘the culture war.’ It was a moving call to acknowledgement of the loss that so many of us feel these days due to the political divide – loss of relationship with a family member, with friends; he even acknowledged splits in churches. And far from stoking the fires of our differences, he encouraged recognition of our losses and offered some ideas for beginning to get beyond our current gridlocked divisiveness. It seems that there is some movement from some quarters in reclaiming our covenantal bonds with those from whom we’ve been estranged. And I think Johnson had it right – by appealing to our universal feelings of loss, our common humanity, we might be able to find a way forward out of the wilderness.

Imagine how our world would be different if we really did take seriously Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment: to defend our neighbors (which means everybody), speak well of them, and always put the best construction on what they say and do. I’ll be honest, I need help. I need a new heart, a renewed heart, an infusion of Divine Presence within me to be able to do the work that is required of us in these trying times. And I believe we are coming into a time of new imagination, new creativity. New pathways are being opened through the wilderness and our broken hearts are being infused with Divine Love – much too much to be kept inside and in need of spilling out into the world.

Next week is Palm Sunday, then it’s Holy Week. The cross looms large. Jesus tells us that unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. Yes, he’s talking about his own death and resurrection. But he’s talking about us, too. “If you love your life, you will lose it; if you hate your life in this world you will keep it for eternal life.” Or as Matthew and Mark have it: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

To die to our self-centered ego-driven ways and live into the heart of the covenant into which we’ve been baptized, is to find those places where we can take an active part in the commitment, accountability, neighborliness, community, hospitality, compassion of the realm of God. The way is already written on our hearts – not because it’s been programmed in us against our will, but because it speaks to our deepest longings.

Some days, many days lately, the brokenness of our world seems intractable. As I’m sure it did in Jeremiah’s day. Yet he tells us to look up, to look ahead. Because God loves making and keeping covenants.

As I’m sure it did in Jesus’ day, too, especially when the powers of the Roman empire and the religious establishment conspired to quench the flame of love in that Divine heart. Except they couldn’t do it. Jesus also tells us to look up, the cross looms ahead. Jesus also tells us to look ahead, not in denial of the pain and suffering of the world, but in trust that to follow in the way of Jesus is to enter eternal life – now. That’s the promise. Cross my heart.

Amen

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Jeremiah 31:31-34
Behold, the days are coming, says Yahweh, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them up out of the land of Egypt—a covenant they broke, though I was their spouse, says Yahweh. But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my Law in their minds and on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they need to teach one another or remind one another to listen to Yahweh. All of them, high and low alike, will listen to me, for I will forgive their misdeeds and will remember their sins no more

John 12:20-33
Among those who had come up to worship at the Passover festival were some Greeks. They approached Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and put forth this request: “Please, we would like to see Jesus.” 
Philip went to tell Andrew, and together the two went to tell Jesus. Jesus replied, “Now the hour has come for the Chosen One to be glorified. The truth of the matter is, unless a grain of wheat falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies, it yields a rich harvest. If you love your life, you will lose it; if you hate your life in this world you will keep it for eternal life. Anyone who serves me must follow in my footsteps, and wherever I am, my servant will be there too. Anyone who serves me will be honored by Abba God. Now my soul is troubled. What will I say: ‘Abba, save me from this hour?’ But it was for this very reason that I have come to this hour. Abba, glorify your name!” A voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowds that stood nearby heard this and said it was a clap of thunder; others said, “It was an angel speaking.” Jesus answered, “It was not for my sake that this voice came, but for yours. Sentence is now being passed on this world; now the ruler of this world will be overthrown. And when I am lifted up from this earth, I will draw all people to myself.” By these words Jesus indicated the kind of death he would die.

Snakes on a Plain

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Imagine that you’re going on vacation. You’re on an airplane. The in-flight movie is about to begin, and you close your eyes for a moment as you settle in for a relaxing trip. Suddenly you feel something moving on your arm. You open your eyes and discover that you’re in a movie: it’s: Snakes on a Plane! Slithering snakes are dropping from the overhead compartments and people all around you are being bitten.

It’s horrible. People are screaming; people are panicking; people are dying. Now, I have no idea what actually happened in the movie. Even when it showed up recently on Netflix, I gave it a pass. I wouldn’t watch it if you paid me; the title alone is enough to give me the shivers. But the scenario isn’t really all that far off from the horror story in our first reading. The Israelites are on a journey, not on a vacation, but a time of wandering around the Sinai desert after their liberation from slavery in Egypt.

Now the Sinai Peninsula has two distinct regions. In the south are mountains, such as Mount Sinai of Ten Commandments fame. The region to the north is a plateau, which includes the extensive plain of Wadi Al-‘Arish. I’m no expert on biblical geography, and even those who are don’t agree on the route of the Exodus. However, it appears that the Israelites were on that northern plain at the time of this incident, so I think it’s safe to say that they, too, were having a “Snakes on the Plain” experience.

The reading attributes their infestation of snakes to God – actually to the people because of their grumbling. God supposedly sent snakes to bite and kill them. That’s an offensive picture of God, is it not? We should know better today that God doesn’t send plagues or pandemics upon us to punish us for our bad deeds. Let’s remember that the Bible isn’t a history book, but a telling of stories to explain theologically what people were experiencing. Clearly the people wandering in the wilderness were afraid of poisonous snakes and other dangers, no doubt of death itself.

You can just hear them crying: “We’re going to die out here. If starvation and thirst don’t get us, these snakes will. We shouldn’t have left Egypt. It wasn’t that bad. We could at least sleep without having to worry about these miserable snakes. This is all Moses’ fault. We should never have listened to him. Liberation, my eye! We were better off as slaves.” They beg Moses to intercede on their behalf.

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Now the story gets even stranger. Remember last week: the Ten Commandments? Especially “You shall not make for yourselves any graven images.” Here God says, “Make a snake and put it on the end of a pole. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will live.” It appears God can’t make up God’s mind. But there it is, one of the many discrepancies in the Bible. This might have remained an obscure folk tale had not the writer of John’s gospel used it in reference to Jesus being lifted up on a cross in order to give life those who looked upon him.

But thanks to John, we do get to interact with this story. What’s interesting about it is that the people don’t get what they ask for. They want God to “take these snakes away from us!” But the snakes don’t go away, nor do they stop biting. Instead, God tells Moses how the people who are bitten can be healed. They’re still bitten, but they live. It was a kind of “hair of the dog that bit you” remedy. Not unlike some of the vaccines we get that use live or inactivated versions of the germs that cause a disease. 

Or another way to think about it is that in order to get past their fear of these snakes, they had to look without flinching at the very thing that was frightening them – the thing they feared most, the thing that would surely kill them if God didn’t intervene and transform the instrument of pain and death into an instrument of healing and life. In order to be saved, the people had to confront the serpent — they had to look hard at what was harming, poisoning, breaking, and killing them.

Now we don’t have to literalize these snakes. We know that if Samuel L. Jackson had made some kind of snake and stuck it on a pole in the movie, the other passengers would have thought he was out of his mind. And we certainly don’t have to join a snake-handling church to prove our faith.

The snakes that threaten us are not cobras, mambas and rattlesnakes. Maybe you even like snakes. Our metaphorical snakes are the things that scare us, that poison our thoughts and feelings, that rob us of gratitude, and send us scurrying back to the slave pens of the way things used to be, where at least we knew what to expect. Then, when the venom of doubt enters, we ourselves become sources of poison for others.

In order to be healed and whole, we have to look at the very things that frighten us, to face our fear and stay with it. The imagined cries of the Israelites: “We’re all going to die. We should never have left Egypt. We were better off as slaves” isn’t that far-fetched. Think of some of the monologues that go on in your brain when you crank up your worry factory.  This story reminds us that, while the source of our fear might not be removed, our ability to live holistically and without anxiety is a real possibility.

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This is what the author of John’s gospel picks up from Numbers and compares the cross to the pole with the image of the snake. What I also like about these texts is that they redeem the image of the serpent, so tarnished in the second Creation story in Genesis. Here, we are reminded that the symbol for the American Medical Association is a serpent entwined around a staff – a symbol of healing.

An interesting sidebar to all this: a friend who is Hindu organized an event a few summers ago for the Hindu festival of Nag Panchmi, which honors the Snake God. There is a variety of ways that the festival is celebrated; for instance people visit temples specially dedicated to snakes and feed them milk. The reason for having it in July or August is probably because it’s the rainy season in India and snakes come out of their holes as rainwater seeps in and there is increased danger of snakebite for humans. So it seems that finding a way to ritually look up to snakes as a way to embrace life comes not only out of Judaism.

And then we get to Christianity, where the message is to look up at the cross, where we will find ‘eternal life’ – eternal life meaning both here and now in this world and also extending beyond death. In John’s gospel, the theme of sight and light is key; he uses it all the time. So the image of the snake ‘lifted up’ so people can see it and be healed resonates with the image of Jesus being ‘lifted up’ on a cross and so becoming widely visible to all who seek new life. 

If we interpret this gazing upon the cross in a homoeopathic sense, in that we contemplate an image of something that deeply frightens us – a man crucified for pushing the boundaries of what it means to be human, to make love bigger than hate and violence, to speak out for justice – by gazing upon it and refusing to run from it, we allow the healing power of Divine will to permeate our mind/body/heart/soul, as we gain a kind of immunity against fear and the temptation to run back into the safety of unhealthy patterns.

If nothing else, this pandemic has exposed our vulnerability, of our individual selves as well as communally as a nation. We have had to stare down not only the virus but also what it has revealed about us as a people. The Israelites in their wilderness time had to stare down the poison infecting them – which went much deeper than snake bites. They had to recognize their failure to trust in God who had delivered them from slavery, sustained them in the desert, and promised to guide them to a new home. They need to give more than intellectual assent to a set of abstract propositions about God, more than lip-service as a way of life. What they need is full-on body, mind, and soul confidence in God’s goodness and all-in commitment to the covenant under which they enjoyed God’s presence, provision, and love.

So the question today is: what scares you; what are your deepest fears; what does the worry factory crank out for you each night as you try to sleep? Rather than trying to push those thoughts away, it’s time to put your fear up on a pole and really look at it. Not expecting that God is somehow going to magically take away the source of your anxiety by depositing a million dollars in our bank account or having your boss transferred out of the country or turning the school bully into a pacifist. Not making the tyrants of the world disappear or restoring the damaged eco-systems of earth. Not removing the snakes. But giving us a way to live in spite of them.

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Jesus is going to be lifted up on a cross. God is not going to magically instill the Roman empire with mercy or take away the Temple authorities’ fear of losing their privileges as collaborators with Rome. The powers that be will act as powers that be will act. So, yes, Good Friday is coming.

But in that scene that so many will avoid looking at is the answer. Hope, healing and transformation come about in the midst of our own very real circumstances of pain, suffering and death. In Lent, we courageously confront our own ways that we have not lived into our covenant with God. And yes, it can be painful to look into the mirror and see our shortcomings. But this love that exposes truth about us – truth that often hurts – is also a love that heals. And at the same time it invites us into a change in perspective, a shift in understanding, a new way of seeing – everything.

The bronze snake of Moses’s day was not magical. It was not meant to be idolized. Neither is the cross we contemplate during this Lenten season. But because the cross invites us to look up, to reorient ourselves, and to depend wholly on God to bring life out of death, light out of shadow, and healing out of pain, then it functions as a means of grace. 

To believe in the healing, life-giving, transformative power of the cross is to rely on God for our very lives. It is to trust that in looking up to it is our most effective “anti-venom.” For God can turn anxiety into hope, fear into courage, despair into joy, even death into life. God can heal and create wholeness within us. And we can, in turn, spread the healing, like good viruses or good bacteria throughout every system of our lives and our world.

That’s the message of the cross. As a symbol it’s in need of some redemption these days, like the name Christian itself. But if we can redeem the reputation of the serpent in the Garden of Eden and the snakes on the plain of Sinai, we can recover the power of this one, too.  

Good Friday is coming. Holy Week is just two weeks away. Don’t turn away. Look up – and live.  

Amen

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NUMBERS 21:4-9

The Israelites traveled from Mount Hor along the road to the Sea of Reeds in order to avoid Edom. But the people grew impatient along the way, and they addressed their concerns to God and Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? We have no bread! We have no water! And we are disgusted with this terrible food!”

Then Yahweh sent venomous snakes among the people. They fatally bit many of the people. So the people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against Yahweh and against you. Intercede for us and ask that God remove the snakes from us.”

So Moses prayed for the people. And Yahweh said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it on the end of a pole. Anyone who is bitten and looks at it will live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then whenever the people were bitten by a snake, they looked at the bronze snake and lived.

JOHN 3:14-21

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so the Chosen One must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in the Chosen One might have eternal life.

Yes, God so loved the world as to give the Only Begotten One, that whoever believes may not die, but have eternal life. God sent the Only Begotten into the world not to condemn the world, but that through the Only Begotten the world might be saved. Whoever believes in the Only Begotten avoids judgment, but whoever doesn’t believe is judged already for not believing in the name of the Only Begotten of God.

On these grounds is sentence pronounced: that though the light came into the world, people showed they preferred darkness to the light because their deeds were evil. Indeed, people who do wrong hate the light and avoid it, for fear their actions will be exposed; but people who live by the truth come out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what they do is done in God.”

Holy Moses! Did Jesus Really Just Do That?!

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Is it ever OK to be angry? Whether or not it’s OK is a question we’ll delve into in a minute. But first we have to acknowledge that anger just is. If you check out any emotion chart – the kind that helps kids identify their feelings – or an emotion wheel that breaks the primary emotions down into even more categories – anger is on every one of them. Even so, “Don’t be angry” is a phrase often heard, often in church circles. Anger is seen as a negative, inappropriate, and definitely unspiritual emotion. 

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But in today’s scripture readings, we’re confronted with a dilemma: some of our greatest religious heroes got angry. The account of Jesus tearing up the Temple gives lie to the notion that he didn’t experience the full gamut of human emotion. And Moses – well, it wasn’t long after he was given the tablets that we know as the Ten Commandments, that he smashed them to the ground in anger as the Hebrew people danced around the golden calf they’d made while he was up on the mountain with God.

Today, we continue our exploration through Lent of the covenants that God has made with humanity over the eons. The covenant with Noah, the promises to Abraham and Sarah (by the way, did you notice that Abraham is in the news this week? Pope Francis made an historic trip to Iraq this weekend and yesterday visited the ancient city of Ur – traditionally held to be the birthplace of Abraham, patriarch of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity). 

Today brings us to the covenant with Moses on Mount Sinai. I’m really liking the way the lectionary has been taking us through the history of the relationship between God and humankind. We don’t often get to see the ‘big picture’ when we get just a snippet of a story here and there. But as we read all these covenants in order, we can see how God does relate to us: with steadfast love, forgiveness, transformation, and renewal. That story continues with us today. 

But today, with the gospel reading and knowing what comes next in the Moses story, I thought we needed to make a stop and consider this matter of anger. A year or so ago, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a book that Pastor Megan Rohrer is writing about chaplaincy. It’s supposedly going to be called something like The Body of the Chaplain and will have chapters like “The Chaplain’s Heart,” “The Chaplain’s Hands” – you get the idea. I was asked to write the chapter on  – are you ready for it? – “The Chaplain’s Gut.” 

So – I’ve been with you for a whole year now, so I’m feeling confident enough to share one of my deepest secrets: sometimes I get angry. Now don’t be alarmed. My philosophy of anger is described very well in the book, The Gift of Anger: And Other Lessons from my Grandfather Mahatma Gandhi. In it, Arun Gandhi describes how at age eleven he was sent to live with his grandfather, and for two years learned pivotal life lessons about social justice and community transformation. 

In an interview he said, “My grandfather said that anger is a wonderful emotion. It’s not something we should be ashamed of. It’s a very powerful emotion, but we need to learn how to channel it intelligently, so we can use it effectively. Anger is like electricity. It’s just as useful and just as powerful but only when we use it intelligently. It can also be just as deadly and destructive if we    abuse it. So we must learn to channel anger so we can use that energy for the good of humanity rather than abuse it and cause violence. If we learn to channel anger effectively and positively, it can turn into courage, it can turn into something positive that we can use.”  

I have a long way to go to achieve the level of Gandhi’s serenity, but it is a beginning on the path of channeling this energy.  

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Some of you may have heard me mention a spiritual tool called the Enneagram. If you know the Enneagram, you may know that there are nine types. I’m a Type One, which is often called either “The Reformer” or “The Perfectionist.” And, as a One, anger is almost as natural to me as my brown eyes. As Catholic Worker Movement co-founder Dorothy Day replied when asked to hold her temper, “I hold more temper in one minute that you will in a lifetime.”

These nine types are then divided into three centers of emotional responses: the Heart (or feeling) center, the Head (or thinking) center, and the Body (or instinctive/gut) center. The  personalities of the types in each center are particularly affected by a particular emotion. 

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As a One, I live in the Gut Center, where we use an intuitive way of making our way in the world. We process information through our instinctual responses. Each type within the Center processes anger differently, but anger is the “gut feeling” that fuels our energy. You might think it odd for a Gut person to function as a pastor or chaplain. Wouldn’t someone from the Heart Center be better suited to the job? But a good pastor or chaplain can come from any of the centers. Each type has its gifts and its areas of growth. Self-awareness is the key. 

Within the Gut Center, we Ones deal with our anger differently from our Eight and Nine siblings. You can always tell when an Eight is angry because they’ll immediately express it in a very forceful way (moving physically, raising voice). On the other hand, you might not even know that a Nine is upset because they’ll try to deny their anger, but then be passive-aggressive about it. You might not be able to tell that a One is angry either. Ones, on the unhealthy end of the continuum, try very hard to control or repress their anger, believing they have to always stay in control of these “bad” feelings. Because they don’t want to allow their anger to overflow, it will often show up as irritation and frustration. It can also often show  up as depression because the anger is turned inward. I have to pay careful attention to these signs of regression in myself. I am also aware that depression in others may be masking untended resentment and anger.

So, even though we are commonly told that feelings such as anger, sadness, and frustration are bad, the truth is that they just simply are. 

An animated movie from about five years ago did a pretty good job of getting at this subject of our emotional landscape. Inside Out tells the story of 11-year-old Riley uprooted from her midwestern home and transplanted with her family to San Francisco. The disruption of her world causes her feelings (the wonderfully voiced characters Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust) to take over. Sadness is the predominant one. But Riley believes, at least up until the end of the movie, that she can’t let her parents know how she feels. I loved this movie. I especially loved the Anger character, voiced by the ever-fulminating comedian Louis Black. That would definitely have been the main character in a movie told from my perspective! Still, the message of the movie is clear: there are no bad emotions!

But all too often we will retreat from friends, family, and other activities when we’re feeling “bad,” believing that we shouldn’t impose our suffering on others. Even some religious traditions discourage the expression of “negativity.” To them, doing so is a sign of spiritual dis-ease. But I believe that we have to honor all our feelings, including anger. 

I used to visit a man named Roger, who was in a skilled nursing facility for over 15 years after a tragic accident. Although his physical condition was very poor, his mind was sharp and alert. Almost to the day he died, he exhibited the intellect of a scholar and author. Roger was often angry, although more  often than not he was depressed. He still mourned the sudden death of his wife years ago. Between lack of control over just about everything and sub-standard care in the facility, he had every reason to be angry and depressed. He had every right to his grief. I never tried to talk him out of those feelings. Even when he wished for death, even when he railed against God for punishing him for some ancient sin, I listened and acknowledged his pain. For one thing, I had to admit that I’d probably have some of the same feelings if I were in his position. For another, I found that when I listened and his feelings were honored, usually after a while we were able to move into conversation about other matters.

I must confess that my ire is often kindled when I visit places like this. My fury is directed, not only at one poorly run facility and certainly not at any underpaid and barely trained employee, but at a health care system that leaves the elderly who have no financial resources at its questionable mercy. This is one example of how anger can become righteous. As an Enneagram One, I’m not called a “reformer” for nothing! We see what’s wrong with the world, get mad about it, and are determined to do some-thing about it. As Martin Luther wrote,
“I find nothing that promotes work better than angry fervor. For when I wish to compose, write, pray and preach well, I must be angry. It refreshes my entire system, my mind is sharpened, and all unpleasant thoughts and depression fade away”  (It’s generally believed that Luther was a One).

Or as Matthew Fox (channeling Gandhi) wrote in one of his daily on-line meditations: “The prophet trusts anger and one’s moral outrage and strives to mold that anger into creative possibilities . . . recycles the anger of oppressed peoples away from sublimation, denial, passivity or depression into ways of transformation, self-expression, and New Creation. Isn’t this what Gandhi and Martin Luther King did—give birth to social art? Lassoing anger so it served the greater good?”

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Is this what Jesus was doing in the Temple? Jesus, who we usually think of as more soft-spoken and even-tempered, makes “a whip of cords,” drives out the sacrificial animals, overturns merchants’ tables, dumps coins on the floor, and tells the moneychangers to stop making God’s house a market-place. When  stunned bystanders ask for a sign to authorize his violent actions, Jesus doesn’t bat an eye:  “Destroy this temple,” he dares them, “and in three days I’ll raise it up.” Not exactly gentle Jesus, meek and mild.


Biblical scholars have different theories about this story. Some argue that what Jesus is railing about in this ‘cleansing’ of the temple is the system of exploitation that the collaboration of religious authorities and Roman occupiers had created. At normal times, they levied exorbitant tithes and taxes. At Passover time, when Jerusalem’s population could be doubled or even quadrupled, powerful economic interests were at work. Jesus performs a kind of material exorcism. 

Others argue that what angered Jesus was a Sabbath-only kind of religion that separated Temple rituals from daily living, or a compartmentalization of faith that renders the temple “sacred” and the home “secular.”  As New Testament Professor Amy Jill-Levine describes: “The church member sins during the workweek, either by doing what is wrong or by failing to do what is right. Then on Sunday morning . . .  heartily sings the hymns, happily shakes the hands of others, and generously puts a fifty-dollar bill in the collection plate. That makes the church a safe place for those who are not truly repentant and who do not truly follow what Jesus asks. The church becomes a place of showboating, not of fishing for people.”

Either way, these interpretations point to a truth about discipleship: Jesus is not about “business as usual.” Jesus is not a protector of the status quo. Jesus has no interest in propping up institutions of faith that elevate comfort and complacency over holiness and justice. His righteous anger causes us to consider our own anger at oppressive systems and what to do about them. 

I have opened up this matter of anger knowing that there’s a lot more to be said. I do not want to appear to condone just popping off at everyone over every little thing. Sometimes, even though the emotion might indeed be there and acknowledged, there should be no action taken or words spoken. I don’t think we can criticize Moses for his anger over the golden calf incident. But his actions didn’t serve any purpose. He had to eventually make things right with God and go back up for new tablets.  

We have to make decisions about our own anger. In the chapter I wrote, I asked:

Now what about you? What is your relationship with anger? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I have difficulty expressing my angry feelings?
  • Do I express my anger in ways that are hurtful to others?
  • Does it get in the way of healthy relationships and/or cause work-related problems?

If any of these resonate with you, it might be time to seek help. Doing so in no way implies any weakness; in fact it demonstrates your strength of character in moving towards healing and wholeness.

Now ask yourself about your religious or spiritual belief about anger.

  • Was I taught that it’s a sin to be angry? Who told me that? Parents, pastor?
  • Have I ever thought that getting mad is un-Christian?
  • Have I ever been told that I’m not very spiritual because I have anger issues?

If any of these sound familiar, a pastor or spiritual director is someone who can help you work through the spiritual aspects of anger. Again, it’s a normal part of emotional and spiritual growth to confront the places within that trouble us. Pastors, chaplains and spiritual directors have done this work for themselves and are trained to help. 

Finally, do you experience righteous anger? Ask yourself:

  • Does a news story about some kind of societal injustice make my blood boil?
  • Am I affected by knowledge of oppressive systems, such as racism, homophobia,  poverty, etc.?
  • Am I involved in any activities that address these issues?

If you are not involved, you might find joining a cause to be an outlet for your emotional energy. A quote often attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas says: “Anger looks to the good of justice. If you can live amid injustice without anger, you are immoral as well as unjust.” The note of judgment is a little too harsh to my liking, but I appreciate the acceptance of righteous anger and the call to action

But if you are already involved in such activities and are still troubled by your angry feelings, it might be helpful to find additional ways to release your anger. There are a variety of ways to do  that and it’s up to you to find what works for you, with help if necessary.

The bottom line is that anger is a natural part of being human. How we deal with it can cause us difficulty, but there is always hope and help. My chaplain’s gut lets me know when I am angry and it tells me how I can best respond to that feeling. Yours can too! 

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John 2:13-22 

Since it was almost the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the Temple, he found people selling cattle, sheep and pigeons, while moneychangers sat at their counters. Making a whip out of cords, Jesus drove them all out of the Temple—even the cattle and sheep—and overturned the tables of the money-changers, scattering their coins. Then he faced the pigeon sellers: “Take all this out of here! Stop turning God’s house into a market!” The disciples remembered the Words of scripture: “Zeal for your house consumes me.”

The Temple authorities intervened and said, “What sign can you show us to justify what you’ve done?”

Jesus answered, “Destroy this Temple, and in three days l will raise it up.”They retorted, “It has taken forty-six years to build this Temple, and you’re going to raise it up in three days?” But the temple he was speaking of was his body. It was only after Jesus had been raised from the dead that the disciples remembered this statement and believed the scripture—and the Words that Jesus had spoken.

 

Sarah & Abraham: Standing on the Promises

Lent 2              February 28, 2021

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There’s an old hymn called “Standing on the Promises.” I thought of it the other day when I saw the typo on the sign on a little grocery store in my neighborhood. It says, “No loitering is allowed on these promises.” 

Well, thankfully we are still allowed to stand on the promises that God has made to us. and today we continue our Lent exploration of some of the most important promises in the Bible. Last week, we sailed off in the ark with Noah and heard God’s covenant with all of creation to never again destroy the world with a flood.

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This week we have part of the story of Abraham and Sarah, patriarch and matriarch of both Judaism and Christianity. Their son Isaac and his wife Rebecca follow in their lineage; then their son Jacob, with wives Leah and Rachel follow them. When we hear God referred to as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – or to be inclusive, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob, Leah, and Rachel – we’re hearing about the covenant that God made to make a great nation from these people: “I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars in the heavens. All the nations of the world will be blessed through your offspring.” Of course, Abraham is also the patriarch of Islam, through his relationship with Sarah’s slave, Hagar. God promises that their son Ismael will also be the beginning of a great nation. 

That’s a pretty cut and dried summary of the start of what we call the Abrahamic religions, the continuation of the covenant with all of creation has now focused in on these people. We could say that in these covenants, God has chosen to go “all in” with humanity. Some of the best stories in the Bible revolve around these ancestors. These are the heroes of our faith. But the thing I love best about their stories is that the Bible doesn’t leave out the messy parts. All of them are flawed human beings. In spite of knowing about God’s promises to them and promising themselves to be “all in” with God, they make mistakes, they have doubts, they try to make things happen on their own instead of following God’s way, they fail, they repent, they turn around and doubt again. 

Sarah’s response to the promise that she’ll have a child (kind of a necessity if you’re going to be the mother of a great nation) is to laugh out loud in disbelief.
Then, as Abraham and Sarah journeyed to the place God said they would be shown, Abraham passed his wife off as his sister to King Abimelech of Gerar. The motivation for this rather odd act is fear. As Abraham says to Sarah, “Look. You’re a beautiful woman. When the king sees you, he’s going to say, ‘Aha! That’s his wife!’ and kill me. But he’ll let you live. So say you’re my sister. Because of you, he’ll welcome me and let me live.” So that’s what they did. But God appeared to King Abimelech in a dream to warn him about Abraham’s deception – and Sarah was saved.

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Many years later, their son Isaac, proving that sins can be passed down through generations, also tried to pass Rebekah off as his sister. In the next generation, Jacob cheats his brother Esau out of his inheritance.  

Let’s just admit it, these people are sinners. In spite of knowing that God has been and promises to always be  all in for them, they succumb to fear, doubt, anger, jealousy, and every other kind of human failing. In other words, we can relate to them. So this notion of covenant, while perhaps not an idea we often think about in our own relationship with God, is actually pretty important. In a life of covenant, every moment of our lives exists at the intersection of God’s “I will be” and our response of “We shall do.”

The spiritual life is living within the naturalness of our natural lives,
as creatures of the earth who work and eat and labor and die,
but to try to turn these occasions into markers of praise and thankfulness
before God, the Life of all life. – Walter Brueggemann *

Of course, we know that standing on the promises of God on a daily basis in the midst of all our daily challenges is not always easy. How are we able to find a way to avoid at least the most egregious failures to follow on the right paths?

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I don’t believe that I have ever quoted Ronald Reagan on anything, but this seems to apply here. When dealing with the former Soviet Union, Reagan used the phrase “trust, but verify.” He had to find a middle way between those who were pressing for some restraint on the arms race by leading with trust. But he didn’t want to appear too soft, so he qualified trust by requiring inspections, evidence, and verification. That combination might help us here as we continue in our Lenten journey into covenant faith.

It helps us to be reminded of both the promises of God and the fulfilments. That’s what Paul did in his letter to the church in Rome. He wrote to them as they were trying to decide how to move forward into the future. We can pick up some hints that they were getting bogged down in squabbles about what was required for faith and conduct and about who was most qualified to be in leadership. They also seemed to have had some divisions between the Jewish Christians, steeped in the past, who kept all the requirements of Torah and the Gentile members, who liked to brag about their freedom from the past. 

But Paul wasn’t having any of it. He tells them that no one is really qualified because of their past, because all have sinned and fallen short. He also tells them not to absolutize requirements for faith in the present tense – because we are being summoned into the future that God is creating right now. We are required to trust that future and walk into it. In order to convince them that their trust wouldn’t be in vain, Paul reaches back to Abraham and Sarah. Despite having no heir and too old to get one, which in their world translated to being “as good as dead,” God enters into this dead-end existence and announces a future that required incredible trust: “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

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“In other words,” God says, “I’m all in with you and yours from now on.” The ones with no future will have a full and rich future, all because of a gift from God. Paul then transposes this old memory onto the church’s future, a future that rests on grace, the unfathomable  gift of God’s generosity that can shatter all our expectations. All it requires is faith, trust, and readiness to receive. 

That depth of trust is not an easy matter. We hold ourselves back. We’re suspicious. We want to wait and see before we take such a deep plunge of faith. But that’s what’s required in covenant living with the One who has promised to always go all in for us. To go all in is to give ourselves over to the inexplicable power for life that breaks all of our defenses of fear, anger, anxiety, and despair. It’s the plunge into bottomless love that appears at the intersection of God’s “I will be” and our response of “We shall do” – the intersection when God tells Abraham and Sarah to pick up and go into the unknown to a place that God would show them and (as all Genesis says in stunning brevity) they went. 

But Paul says more: 
They never questioned or doubted God’s promise. They grew strong in faith and gave glory to God. They were fully persuaded that God could do whatever was promised. Did they make mistakes along the way? Of course they did. There was that “my wife is my sister” incident, after all. But the main point of their story is the story of walking into the future given by God. And we can read the same point in the stories of so many other biblical heroes, as well as those of people throughout the ages who went all in trusting the future given by God. 

But what about verification? Trust but verify. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m comparing God to the former Soviet Union, as if we need to keep a watchful eye on a possibly untrustworthy covenant partner. But the truth is that we can verify God’s reliability. There is evidence of God’s responsibility to following through. 

The stories are many. The birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham. From them, descendants were born, as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. The reconciliation of brothers Jacob and Esau, the formation of a people, the liberation of that people from slavery and again from exile. 

The stories of faith in the time of Jesus: from Mary and Joseph to Paul in 1 Corinthians, “Jesus appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve, then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” 

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And of course, the story of Jesus, in whom we see the flesh and blood manifestation of the “all in” nature of the covenant. Although it’s hard not to think of those disciples, who had been drawn to this charismatic teacher and spiritual guide, only to be told that being his follower would be much harder and more all-consuming than they could imagine. They would be required to “take up their cross” in order to be part of the deal. Talk about all in! Wouldn’t you think Jesus would have found a way to describe discipleship that isn’t so off-putting? Who is able to be so fully, completely committed to upholding our end of the “I will be”/“We shall do” covenant?

In spite of their flaws and mistakes, the disciples were. They discovered their ability to take up the cross, to live sacrificial lives of love and service. Their stories are verification of the power of that plunge into bottomless love where anything and everything is possible. 

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We could say the same for disciples today. The definition of carrying a cross can change in every time and circumstance. Certainly today, we could ask, “What does taking up the cross mean right now, for us, in this pandemic? What does it mean for us to be “all in” – for God and for each other. Perhaps at no other time have we been so aware of how closely we are connected to people we don’t even know. But we know we need to be in solidarity with one another, to help each other stay alive. The threat is so universal that our response to it must be all in – we need to bear one another’s burdens not only for our safety but for that of others.

We take up our cross when we help one another get through this long slog to a day of greater security. This is but the latest response of “We shall do” to God’s promise of “I will be.” And we don’t have to look very far to find the stories of sacrificial love and service: from parents and teachers making sure children are cared for and education is continued; health care workers literally putting their lives on the line, generous donors to food pantries and shelters, volunteers staffing vaccination centers, chaplains tending to sick, dying, and grieving. 

Verification of the goodness to be found in God’s creation can be found all around us – even in the midst of trial and tribulation. Verification of the never-ending source of love and spiritual renewal can be found in the stories of today’s heroes of the faith. 

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Verification can be found in a church brave enough to try new technologies in order to remain in community, ready to go all in and imagine a new future, to hear God’s call to go to a place it will be shown, and willing to go. The stories of trust and verification continue to be written. 

If we pay attention, we’ll find that the world teems with verification: life in the midst of death, hurts that have been healed, estrangements that have been reconciled, bondage that has turned to freedom, it’s all around us. Perhaps your story is one of them. I know that some of mine are verification enough for me. God has promised to be there. God has been there. I can trust that God will always be there. And when times get tough, I remember. And live my life accordingly.

And yes, just as Ronald Reagan’s “trust and verify” policy was, in fact, a complex, complicated, partial accomplishment, so our invitation to “trust and verify” is also complex, complicated, and partial. We are human after all, and despite our best intentions of being all in, there will be times when we fall off. Thank God for the promise – and verification – of grace. We never fall completely and are always welcomed back. The covenant is more than a contract that can be broken and discarded. Even if we try to break it, God never will. 

In this Lenten season, as we contemplate what it means to live in covenant, to stand on the promises, what it means to live at every moment at the intersection of God’s “I will be” and our response of “We shall do,” we can look to the future – beyond the pandemic, beyond anything that threatens our life or well-being, to a place that God will show us. And even though we don’t know what that will be, we rest in the promise of the covenant. Hope, resurrection, new life, a new future of gospel possibility!

Amen

* Walter Brueggemann, “The Future: Trust but Verify” https://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2012/030412.html

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared and said, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in my presence and be blameless. I will make a covenant between you and me, and I will increase your numbers exceedingly.” Abram fell on his face before God, and God said, “This is my covenant with you: You will be the ancestor of many nations. You are no longer to be called Abram (“Exalted Ancestor) but Abraham (“Ancestor of a Multitude)” for you are the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you most fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and rulers will spring from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you, and your descendants after you for generations to come. I will be your God, and the God of your descendants after you.” God continued, “As for Sarai (“Princess”), her name will now be Sarah.* I will bless her, and I will give you a child by her. I will bless her, and she will become nations; rulers of peoples will come from her.”

Romans 4:13-25
The promise made to Sarah and Abraham and their descendants did not depend on the Law; it was made in view of the righteousness that comes from faith. For if those who live by the Law are heirs, then faith is pointless and the promise is worthless. The Law forever holds the potential for punishment. 

Only when there is no Law can there be no violation. Hence everything depends on faith; everything is grace. Thus the promise holds true for all of Sarah’s and Abraham’s descendants, not only for those who have the Law, but for all who have their faith. They are the mother and the father of us all — which was done in the sight of the God in whom they believed, the God who restores the dead to life and calls into being things that don’t exist.

Hoping against hope, Sarah and Abraham believed, and so became the mother and father of many nations, just as it was promised. Sarah and Abraham, without growing weak in faith, thought about their bodies, which were very old—he was about one hundred, and she was well beyond childbearing age. Still they never questioned or doubted God’s promise; rather, they grew strong in faith and gave glory to God, fully persuaded that God could do whatever was promised. So their faith “was credited to them as righteousness.” The words, “was credited to them,” were not written with them alone in mind; they were intended for us, too. For our faith will be credited to us if we believe in the One who raised Jesus our Savior from the dead, the Jesus who was handed over to death for our sins and raised up for our justification.

Mark 8:31-38
Then Jesus began to teach them that the Promised One had to suffer much, be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and religious scholars, be put to death, and rise again three days later. Jesus said these things quite openly. Peter then took him aside and began to take issue with him. At this, Jesus turned around and, eyeing the disciples, reprimanded Peter: “Get out of my sight, you Satan! You are judging by human standards rather than by God’s!”

Jesus summoned the crowd and the disciples and said, “If you wish to come after me, you must deny your very self, take up your cross and follow in my footsteps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it. What would you gain if you were to win the whole world but lose yourself in the process? What can you offer in exchange for your soul? Whoever in this faithless and corrupt generation is ashamed of me and my words will find, in turn, that the Promised One and the holy angels will be ashamed of that person, when all stand before our God in glory.”

Lent 1: Noah and the Rainbow Covenant

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The Great Flood of 1972

It was 1972 and Hurricane Agnes had made landfall in Florida and was moving quickly up the East Coast. By the time she was done, there was extensive damage all the way from the Caribbean to Canada. Damage was heaviest in Pennsylvania, not from high winds but from severe flooding. Most media attention was on the Susquehanna River, which is the longest river on the East Coast and cities along it – like Harrisburg, the state capital, where some buildings were under 13 feet of water. 

My hometown, Pottstown, is not along the Susquehanna. It’s further east, along the Schuylkill River, a much smaller waterway. But the stories that are still told about the flooding there have an additional feature. 6 million gallons of used crankcase oil were washed into the river by the flood waters that swept over the storage lagoons of a company that reclaimed dirty oil. The flood carried the oil over 14 miles of the Schuylkill, spreading oil for acres in all directions, causing the worst inland oil spill in US history at the time. As the flood waters receded, houses and trees were covered with oil as high up as 20 feet. I wasn’t living in Pottstown anymore by that time; I was actually part of a church group that helped clean up houses after the flood up in Portville, NY along the Allegheny River. But the pictures and stories of the flood and oil spill of 1972 continue to this day. I recently saw a bunch on the “Good Old Days of Pottstown” Facebook page. 

As you can imagine, epic events like this are forever woven into the fabric of the history of these places. That’s true for any disaster, natural or otherwise. People in Texas will forever remember the freezing winter of 2021. Questions about ERCOT’s culpability for the failure of their power grid reminded me of similar questions about PG&E’s role in the pipeline explosion in San Bruno and in some of our devastating wildfires. We want to know who or what was responsible. But some catastrophes need a bigger framework, a way to tell the story in a way that it speaks to bigger issues. Karen Armstrong, author of “A History of God” says, “If you witness a terrible natural disaster, yes, you want a scientific explanation why this has happened. But you also need to something that will help you to assuage your grief and anguish and rage. And it is here that myth helps us through that.”

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THE Great Flood

Now, the book of Genesis wasn’t written until the 5th or 6th century BCE, possibly during the time of exile. But the story was evidently seared into the collective memory of the people, passed down orally from generation to generation, and eventually written into the story of Noah – not as a history lesson but as a theological message about their relationship with God – who was very different from the gods of the Babylonians. 

Water was a very important part of the way the ancient Hebrews understood the world and their God. In the beginning, Genesis 1 depicts pre-creation as a watery chaos, a formless void. The Hebrew creation story portrays God bringing order out of this chaos. And it was all very good.

By the time we get to the Noah story, we’ve seen how humanity has messed up God’s beautiful garden. The great flood was interpreted as God’s way of reversing creation and returning earth to its previous state of chaos and nothingness. You can see what a profound theological concept this was. God, creator of everything, had had it with us. Humanity had gone too far and there was nothing worth saving. Well, not quite. God was not completely done with us. There was Noah. 

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And so, the rainbow. When the flood was over and Noah and his family were back on dry land, God makes a to covenant with them to never do that again. And as a sign of this promise, God sets the rainbow in the clouds and says, “Whenever my bow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between me and all living things on the earth.”

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We love this story. It’s a favorite motif for children’s books and toys. There are Noah’s Ark themed Bible school curricula, Noah’s Ark Precious Moments characters. But we might want to take a closer. I’ll never forget the lesson our Sunday school teacher had prepared one Sunday. I didn’t hear about it until after, or I might have intervened. She brought in a big metal tub filled with water and proceeded to tell the Noah’s Ark story complete with drowning people and animals. She was distraught as she told me the horrified reactions of the children. The thing is she was literally correct in her telling of the story. According to the Genesis writer, God did that. The problem is the literal details are not the point. The point is the covenant that God makes. 

Covenant-making is something that God does a lot of in the Bible This one with Noah is one of the first. During Lent this year, our Old Testament readings will lead us through the story of God’s saving purposes in human history by way of God’s covenants. And the interesting thing is that, taken as a whole, they make it a little difficult to pin down exactly what a covenant is. The easiest definition is that a covenant is a contract: if you do, this, then I’ll do that. The problem with that is that it’s transactional. There’s quid pro quo. That’s not how we want to think about God any more than as someone who kills innocent people and animals. 

But the reality is that throughout the Bible, there are contradictory definitions. Abraham and Sarah are given a unilateral, unconditional covenant: “I will make of you a great nation. . .” There’s no quid pro quo; it’s all about what God is doing. On the other hand, Moses is given a bilateral, conditional covenant: “If you obey my commandments, then you will be my people.” Even the covenant with Noah gives God an “escape clause,” promising never again to send a flood, but silent about other disasters. So what are we to make of this seemingly contradictory God. And how does this idea of covenant help us as we navigate through this season of Lent. 

The Lentiest Lent We Ever Lented

As an aside, on Wednesday I talked about how last year there was a meme going around that said “Lent was the Lentiest Lent we ever Lented” because we were in the first stage of the pandemic, sheltering in place, sacrificing human contact, scrambling to find hand sanitizer and toilet paper, and thinking it would be all over by Easter. This year, we know better. The Lentiest Lent has become our new normal, at least until another new normal can be established. The pandemic is an epic disaster. Last summer, the wildfires were epic disasters. Texas is in the midst of an epic disaster. Climate change is an epic disaster. 

Thankfully, we don’t blame God for creating them – at least not usually. I do find it interesting to note that those who claimed that God caused the 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina because of the sins of New York and New Orleans have been silent about Texas. It seems for some God is selective in which sins to punish. If we want to hold to only the punitive interpretation of the Noah story, we’d better be prepared to be included in the indictment. Many disasters – like the one in Texas – can be attributed to human sin.

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OK, so we’re not going to take these stories historically or literally. But unless we believe that God is out there somewhere, uninvolved with us, then we do still want to try to make sense of how God does work with us in our world today. And this messy concept of covenant can help – as it would help Jesus as he continued in this tradition and we continue in this tradition through the sacraments of Holy Communion and Baptism. It’s no accident that we hear Jesus say in the Words of Institution, “this cup is the new covenant in my blood . .  .” or that we speak of the covenant we make with God in our baptism. It’s no accident that the passage from Genesis is paired with Mark’s version of Jesus’ baptism today as we take our first steps into the Lenten wilderness.

It may sound trite, but covenant is all about relationship. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann defines covenant as
“the deep and pervasive affirmation that our lives in all aspects depend upon our relatedness to this other One who takes the initiative in our lives and who wills more good for us that we do for ourselves.” *

Keep that definition in mind as we go through the five covenants before us this Lent. Don’t be thrown off by  contradictions – because the biblical tradition is saturated with deep contradiction. Brueggemann’s theory is that “God possess a rich internal life . . . that is always processing, adjudicating, and reengaging God’s people in a covenant that is unsettled,” flashing back and forth between “punishment and pathos, judgment and mercy.” 

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We may be uncomfortable with a God whose mind can change and can feel remorse. That idea is threatening if we demand certitude from an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent God. But remember further along in Genesis when Abraham dickers with God over how many righteous people there would need to be in the city of Sodom for God not to destroy it?

Abraham challenges God: “What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? You won’t forgive it for those fifty?”
“OK,” God says, “if I find fifty, I’ll forgive them all.”

But Abraham’s not done: “What if five of those fifty are lacking? You’ll destroy the whole city because of them?’ 
God says, “No, I won’t destroy it if I find forty-five righteous people there.”

Abraham again: “What if there are forty?” 
God: “For the sake of forty I won’t do it.” 

Abraham: “Oh, please don’t be angry if I speak. What if thirty are found there?’ 
God: “I won’t do it if I find thirty.” 

Abraham, “Just one last time, allow me to speak. Suppose twenty are found there?” God: “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.”

The last verse says, “After speaking with Abraham God departed and Abraham returned home.”

Do you get the impression that God might have finally just gotten exasperated with Abraham’s persistence and just gave up? But on the other hand, God was willing to listen to Abraham. 

Or consider how in the Noah story, God sets the bow in the clouds as a reminder to God’s self:  “When I bring clouds over the earth, my bow will appear in the clouds. Then I will remember the covenant that is between me and you and every kind of living creature, and never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh. Whenever my bow appears in the clouds, I will see it, and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature on the earth.” The rainbow is indeed a wonderful sign and symbol to us, but it is God who admits the need for the reminder. 

When we think of covenant as a contract, it’s too easy to see it as an uneven deal. One party has power over the other. One party can punish the other. In fact, some of the Old Testament covenants are modeled on Near Eastern suzerain/vassal treaties between a greater and a lesser party. The greater party, the suzerain, provided benefits such as military protection and land grants to the lesser party, the vassal. In response, the vassal owed the suzerain financial tribute and fidelity. 

But taken all together, what we find in these stories is a way to go beyond the ancient models to in order to embrace a covenantal existence that is always a two-way conversation, a biblical faith in a God who is always reaching out to us and calling us to reach out to each other.

Fidelity is the hallmark of covenant with God, but not based on coercion, but on love, compassion, and truth. The biblical witness can be messy and contradictory, but is ultimately about God’s commitment to being with us through all the messiness and contradictions of our lives. As Christians, we see this commitment to us, personified in Jesus, that carries God beyond punishment to a love that will not let us go. 

Covenantal living then is recognizing this “love that will not let go” in every circumstance of our lives. It is entering into the conversation with God and with one another both in order to mutually support and nurture the body of Christ, but also to move outward into the world in ways that are faithful to our covenant. 

My first congregation was a covenant church. That is, it was a church that had drawn up a covenant when it was formed that outlined the responsibilities of church members. Each year at the annual meeting, members would sign the covenant and recommit to those responsibilities. I don’t know how that practice found its way to a Lutheran church. It’s usually associated with the Baptist church. Anyway, by the time I got there as their third pastor, the board with the covenant written on it with signatures of members had been relegated to the back of a closet. When I discovered it and asked about it, I felt sad that the tradition had died. That congregation no longer exists. I don’t claim to think it was because they broke their covenant, but I wonder what would have been different if we had taken it out, dusted it off, and renewed it. 

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Actually, though, we don’t need a board with a covenant and signatures. We are in covenant already by virtue of our baptisms. Remember I said that water was a very important element of the way the ancient Hebrews understood the world and their God? And he Genesis creation story depicts God as bringing order out of the watery chaos? And the Noah story is a myth signifying a return to that chaos, the undoing of the goodness of creation through the waters of the flood? Fast forward to the Jordan River with God pronouncing Jesus “my beloved” at his baptism. 

At our baptisms, we entered into a covenant community. If we were baptized as adults, we took on the responsibilities of Christian life for ourselves. If we were infants or small children, adults made the promises for us. In either case, it is the responsibility of the community to remind ourselves and one another what we signed on for. We did that not long ago in January on the day we celebrated the Baptism of Jesus. But it’s meant to be a daily awareness and commitment to this covenant that, as Walter Brueggemann defined it, “is the deep and pervasive affirmation that our lives in all aspects depend upon our relatedness to this other One who takes the initiative in our lives and who wills more good for us that we do for ourselves.”

On Ash Wednesday we made a sign of ash on our foreheads, the same place where the cross was traced at our baptism. We recognize the messiness, the ash-iness, the contradictions of life – and we take heart because we are created in the image of the One who created us out of the earth and water and who has redeemed us through water for our life on this earth. Everything we do should come from this foundation. It’s our contract, our covenant, the best deal we could ever have.

Amen

*LentWalter Brueggemann, “Neither Absolutist Nor Atheist Be”

Genesis 9:8-17

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God said, “Here is the sign of the covenant between me and you and every living creature for ageless generations: I set my bow in the clouds, and it will be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, my bow will appear in the clouds. Then I will remember the covenant that is between me and you and every kind of living creature, and never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all flesh. Whenever my bow appears in the clouds I will see it, and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature on the earth.”
God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all living things on the earth.”

Mark 1:9-15

It was then that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan River by John. Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Then a voice came from the heavens: “You are my beloved, my Own. On you my favor rests.” 

Immediately the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness, and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him. After John’s arrest, Jesus appeared in Galilee proclaiming the good news of God: “This is the time of fulfillment. The reign of God is at hand! Change your hearts and minds and believe this good news!”

Jesus, Darwin, and Hermione on Transfiguration

Well now, what was that all about? We call this event in the life of Jesus his transfiguration. But what is transfiguration anyway. Here’s a quote I found when trying to find a good explanation. See if you can tell who said it:

I do hope they start right away; there’s so much to learn. I’m particularly interested in transfiguration, you know, turning something into something else.
Of course, it’s supposed to be very difficult.

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Got it? It’s Hermione, in the first Harry Potter book. Transfiguration was a core class at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which taught the art of changing the form and appearance of an object or a person. It was considered very hard work and more scientific than any other form of magic.

Although the transfiguration of Jesus was about something – or rather someone – turning into something else, I think it’s safe to say that Mark, the gospel writer wasn’t referring to a magic spell. But it did get me thinking. 

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The Transfiguration of Jesus is a big deal in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have versions of the story. It’s also referred to in the Second Epistle of Peter. And while it’s not specifically in John’s gospel, some think that it’s what John means when he says, “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld this Word’s glory, the glory as of the only begotten of God, full of grace and truth.” So this strange event obviously had a great deal of meaning for those early followers. 

We celebrate the Transfiguration on the last day of the Epiphany season, the season we’ve focused on the revelation of Jesus to the world. Transfiguration is sometimes called the “Small Epiphany” – the “Great Epiphany” being the Baptism of Jesus at the start of the season. This is also the last day of the first half of the Christian church year. Transfiguration is the bridge between the Advent/Christmas/ Epiphany cycle (the birth and revelation of Jesus) and the Lent/Easter/Pentecost seasons (death, resurrection, and the Church). 

OK, so here we are, sitting on this bridge recognizing that transfiguration should be as important to us as it was to Hermione. But maybe we’re still not sure why. I have always loved the Transfiguration as the culmination of Epiphany. It’s a magnificent ending to this season of awe and wonder, like the grand finale of the biggest and best fireworks display ever. And I never really questioned what happened up there on that mountain, how it happened, what could scientifically explain not only the appearance of two long-dead biblical heroes but the being of brilliant light that Jesus became as he talked with them. Science, I thought, can’t always explain what went on in the spiritual realm. Or can it?

The second part of the description of the class at Hogwarts claimed transfiguration was more scientific than any other form of magic. Now, fear not, Harry Potter isn’t the only place I’ve found a connection between science and religion. In fact, today is also Evolution Sunday. No, it’s not on the church calendar. 

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Evolution Sunday began as The Clergy Letter Project in 2004. The school board in Grantsburg, WI had passed some anti-evolution policies and biology professor Michael Zimmerman felt a call to action. Working with  clergy throughout Wisconsin, they prepared a statement in support of teaching evolution. Zimmerman said, “For too long, the misperception that science and religion are inevitably in conflict has created unnecessary division and confusion, especially concerning the teaching of evolution. I wanted to let the public know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith.”

Now to be clear, it is not only many evangelical Christians who have trouble reconciling faith and science, but fundamentalist atheists as well. As John Worrall, professor of philosophy of science stated: “There is no way in which you can be both properly scientifically minded and a true religious believer.” The Clergy Letter Project would disagree.

The project began with 200 clergy signing the statement. As of today that number is 15,658. And that’s just Christian clergy. In addition to the Christian Clergy Letter, there is a Rabbi Letter, a Unitarian Universalist Clergy Letter and a Buddhist Clergy Letter. 

Then, in 2006, congregations were invited to participate in the first Evolution Sunday (later changed to Evolution Weekend to be more inclusive) The date chosen is the closest to Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12. The stated purpose is “an opportunity for serious discussion and reflection on the relationship between religion and science” and an effort “to elevate the quality of the discussion on this critical topic, and to show that religion and science are not adversaries.” “Religious people from many diverse faith traditions and locations around the world understand that evolution is quite simply sound science; and for them, it does not in any way threaten, demean, or diminish their faith in God. In fact, for many, the wonders of science often enhance and deepen their awe and gratitude towards God.” 

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I have to say that I love the picture I sent along with your bulletin of the Jesus fish and the Darwin fish kissing – seems appropriate for Valentine’s Day today!

I signed the letter back in 2006 and decided to sign up my church for the first Evolution Sunday. One member of the congregation, though, wondered why we were doing it since no one there needed to be convinced of the compatibility of science and religion; after all we had scientists in our congregation – as we do here. But I felt it was important to take a public stand on the issue and I’ve been observing the day ever since. Although I have to say that in the beginning it was rather a perfunctory effort.

That is until I began to learn about evolutionary Christianity, which goes beyond the realm of mere support of evolution theory and more deeply into the heart of Divine Mystery, in which the Christ of the cosmos is a central figure.

Usually, when we hear ‘evolution,’ we think about the history of the earth and the development of human life. But evolutionary Christianity says there’s even more to it and says that, just as the universe is evolving, so is Christianity and so is the Church. As Rev. Bruce Sanguin, author of If Darwin Prayed- Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics writes: “We are meant to evolve. If the Spirit is involved in the evolutionary process – as I believe is the case – then we need to start thinking about our lives in Christ through an evolutionary lens.”

There are a number of thinkers and writers on evolutionary Christianity who see the evolution of the universe as an ongoing sacred story connecting all people, all cultures, all religions, and virtually all of creation. But the grandfather of them all has to be the paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And lest you think this is some new-fangled, new-age nonsense, Teillard (as he was known) was born in 1881 and died in 1955. He was a Jesuit priest. He was also a scientist, trained in geology, botany, zoology and paleontology. He participated in the discovery of Peking Man in 1926. In his 1929 book, The Divine Milieu, Teilhard synthesized scientific discoveries of his day with what he believed about God and how God was at work in the world. 

As is often the case with new ideas, his religious superiors would not allow the book to be published. The French edition was not published until after his death. The English translation was not available until 1960.

In an unpublished piece written in 1933, “Christology and Evolution,” he re-envisioned the gospel message, shifting the emphasis of a redemption-centered theology to a creation-centered one.

So rather than seeing life on Earth as a test for worthiness to get into heaven, and Earth to be a dangerous place full of sin and temptation, Teilhard saw Earth, our home, as an unfinished divine project, brimming with opportunities toward the fullness of life, and open to continual improvement. He saw Jesus’s teaching as integral to a universe in continual evolution. He wrote, “If we are to remain faithful to the gospel, we have to adjust its spiritual code to the new shape of the universe.” 

For him, evolution is the underlying force driving growth in the kingdom of God. He calls the gospel “the very religion of evolution.”

Now, this isn’t just a heady theological exercise. Not only are we invited to rationally understand ourselves more fully as part of the body of the Christ of the cosmos, but to experientially become mystics who are continually in awe and wonder of where we live. Teilhard said that we exist in the ‘divine milieu.’ For him, the most important spiritual fact of our existence is that at every moment we are swimming in a divine sea. Like fish who live in a milieu of water yet are unaware of its importance until they are taken out of it, we are at every moment inhaling and exhaling the divine life. In the divine milieu we live and move and have our being. 

For Teilhard, the divine milieu is the Cosmic Christ. He resonates with the theology of St. Paul and others in passages such as: “Christ is the image of the unseen God and the firstborn of all creation, for in Christ were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and invisible, thrones, dominations, sovereignties, Powers—all things were created through Christ and for Christ. Before anything was created, Christ existed, and all things hold together in Christ.”

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We can go still further back than Teilhard. St. Hildegard of Bingen, along with other medieval mystics, expressed her experience of this Cosmic Christ. Through music, writing and painting, she formulated a cosmological vision that transcended male/female, human/divine, earth/heaven duality. Her visionary work, Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works), is a result of what she called “an extraordinary mystical vision” in which she experienced insights into the cosmic dimensions of the Prologue to John’s Gospel. One of the ten visions Hildegard illustrates in this work is of the cosmos, with a human figure at its center, inside the womb of divinity: a visual portrayal of the Cosmic Christ. Hildegard explains: “From the primordial source of Divine Love, in whom the cosmic order rests, shines her exceedingly precise ordering of things. It comes to light in ever-new ways, holding and tending everything there is.”

Ilia Delio, who bases her theology of the “ecological Christ” on the cosmic Christ mysticism of St. Francis and St. Bonaventure, concludes: “Every age must discover Christ anew. Our traditional Christology – the formal study of Jesus Christ – was formulated in the 4th and 5th centuries: Jesus Christ is true God and true man, fully divine and fully human without change, without confusion, without separation, without division, two natures in one person. The language is a mixture of  New Testament, Greek metaphysics, and Plato and Aristotle, and reflects an understanding of the universe as fixed and unchanging, not dynamic and evolving.

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Which brings us back to the Transfiguration. I read someplace once that physicists are the new mystics. Now I’ll be the first to admit that much of what I attempt to read about quantum physics and even quantum theology is way beyond me. But I am intrigued. For instance, in recent decades there’s been continuing debate over what really happened at the resurrection of Jesus. One side argues for the absolute truth of the biblical witness, even though the versions in the gospels vary greatly. The other side argues for the absolute truth of the impossibility of a physical resurrection; the story is myth created for the grieving followers of Jesus. The Transfiguration itself has often been described as a resurrection story, either misplaced in the timeline by the writers or a vision of the resurrection and new creation to come. 

But a new way of looking at it, combining science with theology, sees the Transfiguration as more than the historical self-revelation of the divinity of Jesus on that mountain. It’s also the basis for a new form of perception, a new mode of existence, a transformed way of being in the world. On that mountain, the possibility of a new unity between matter and Spirit became reality. Even time became blurred as the lines between the dead and the living were erased. Scientists and theologians are coming together to help us make sense of the wide universe in which we live, as well as the small places in which we shelter. 

“A case for consonance between science and theology: The cosmological Christ as the scriptural and confessional focal point for dialogue”

Evolutionary Christianity might seem like a foreign language to us. We may feel more like Hermoine, worrying that transfiguration is supposed to be very difficult. But evolutionary Christianity offers us some new ways of thinking about and experiencing our faith, as well as promoting an ecology theology that is much more helpful and hopeful for our planet.

It also gives us hope as we navigate the evolution of our world as we adapt to the pandemic, the aftermath of the pandemic, the future of the church at large, as well as the future of our own little congregation. 

We might not understand all the theories and scientific and theological language, but we can rest assured that the bottom line of the life and love offered to us in Christ never changes. But we do. Transfiguration is about transformation. And in the freedom of that love and grace, we can grow into what we will become. 

Amen 

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Continue reading Jesus, Darwin, and Hermione on Transfiguration

This Is No Mother-in-Law Joke

She appears in the story so briefly, you might miss her. There’s a lot going on in the first chapter of Mark and it goes by quickly. Mark likes the word ‘immediately;’ he uses it 41 times in his gospel. After Jesus is baptized, the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He says, ‘Follow me to Simon and Andrew’ and immediately they leave their nets and follow him. Then he sees James and John and immediately calls them. He touches a man with leprosy and immediately the disease leaves him. So we have to pay close attention so we don’t miss the two very important verses in this passage. Jesus gets baptized, goes out into the desert to be tempted, and then begins his ministry by calling the first four disciples. They go off to the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus teaches. A man is there, described as one with an unclean spirit, and Jesus heals him. After that, they head over to Simon and Andrew’s house. 

And there she was. Simon’s mother-in-law. Wait a minute; Simon Peter, the Rock on which Jesus would build his Church, the first pope, has a mother-in-law? But we don’t learn much about her, not even her name. She may be a widow, living there with her sons and evidently her daughter, Simon’s wife. We don’t know much about her, either, although she’s mentioned in 1 Corinthians as accompanying Peter on his missionary journeys and writings by Clement of Alexandria mentions that they had children.

Well, this was intriguing. I wanted to know more about what Simon’s mother-in-law was doing there in the very first chapter, on the very first day of Jesus’ ministry. I started to look at these two little verses with a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion,’ which is a fancy way of saying look a little more deeply into the cultural biases of both then and now, especially when it comes to some of the women in the Bible.

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I’ll tell you how I learned about this way of reading scripture because it was an epiphany for me. Back in my first New Testament class in seminary, we were reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he commends to them, ‘Phoebe a deaconess of the church . . .’ This was 1982, so we were still using the Revised Standard Version, considered to be the best translation then. But, as our professor pointed out, the Greek word diakonos, translated as ‘deaconess’ for Phoebe was the same word elsewhere translated as ‘servant’ or ‘minister.’ Well, this was a revelation. Although the Lutheran Church had been ordaining women since 1970, there was still a lot of resistance to women ministers, much of it based on scriptural references. But here was an example of how cultural biases had seeped even into our Bible translations. 

POPE GENERAL AUDIENCE

It was interesting to note that, when the New Revised Standard Version came out in 1989, Phoebe had gotten an upgrade. It now read: ‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church . . .’ Although, in the Anglicized edition, which uses wording more familiar to British readers, there is a footnote for deacon that reads ‘or minister.’ This revelation started me wondering: where else had women been or still are mistranslated or misrepresented in the Bible? It’s tricky because oftentimes, women aren’t even named, or their identities are tied to their father, husband, or sons. That was the way it was. Still, if we dig we can unearth some rich gems about some of these unnamed or underrated people. 

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And so it is with Simon’s mother-in-law. And to put a more vivid face on her, I’ve decided to call her Naomi. I actually stole the idea from Maren Tirabassi who has a really wonderful blog post called “How She Taught the Teacher Communion.” She says that Naomi is a good mother-in-law name. And I agree.

In the traditional reading of verses 30-31, Naomi is really just a secondary character to Jesus. Her only contribution to the action is to get up off her sickbed to wait on them.

(I don’t know about you, but that’s rather off-putting – healed just in time to make dinner). 

But there’s something odd about this story. In the usual healing story, Jesus commends someone’s great faith, or declares someone’s sins forgiven. But there’s none of that here. This healing is ‘just because,’ so something else must be going on. Naomi’s condition is described as “lying down” or even “laid aside” because of a fever, which in those days could be deadly. She’s unable to perform her usual duties, which for all intents and purposes puts her aside in her community and her household.

When Jesus learns of her condition, he goes to her. And he doesn’t just heal her; he raises her up – it’s the same word used in descriptions of the resurrection. “Raising up” is not simply a description of a physical movement from prone to upright or even of healing. Her raising up is an invitation into something new. Her response is variously translated: “she waited on them,” “cooked for them,” “served them.” But here, at the very beginning of the first gospel, we should note that the Greek word used for her action is diakoneō, from the same root as the word describing Phoebe. 

Naomi’s response is the first explicit example of discipleship in the Gospel of Mark. So what we might at first read as a matter-of-fact statement about a woman resuming her normal duties becomes powerful illustration of the meaning of discipleship. It’s about service. We don’t hear of her going off with Jesus and the other disciples (and evidently, for some of them, their families). She remains in place, at home, doing what she does best – but now in service to Jesus. 

Maybe that’s an important lesson we’re learning in this pandemic. I mean, we hear a lot about service nowadays. It used to be that a service job was seen as somehow inferior. According to conventional wisdom, when we’ve become successful, others serve us. But these days essential services, essential workers are keeping us going – often at their own risk. But Jesus, who did not come to be served but to serve, reminds us that ser­vice for the sake of others is the higher calling; it’s the mark of true discipleship.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of diakonia lately. For one thing, I’ve been learning more about what being a ‘deacon’ has meant here at Good Shepherd. I don’t know what happened this year. Somehow it’s gotten away from me; things I’d planned to accomplish got moved to a back burner – or completely off the stove. One of those things was to thoroughly read our constitution and by-laws and get a good understanding of how things work. So when I finally started reading about the required roles of deacons (as well as elders and trustees), I admit I was flummoxed. It was the first I’d heard about it. Now, the good thing about this is, as I’ve been sharing my surprise, I’ve been learning a lot of history, a lot of what deacons have done in the past.  

Diakonia

We’re going to be looking at those by-laws in the coming year, and whether or not we keep the same names or duties or terms, etc., the one thing we will keep is the concept of diakonia, with the understanding that each of us is a diakonos – a deacon, a minister, one who serves. From the one who is ordained, to the one preparing for ordination in seminary, to the lay leaders on church council, to the ones who go about serving in some way or ways in their everyday lives, whether in or out of lockdown. Naomi, who got up and made a meal for Jesus and his friends, was no less a disciple than her son Simon would be. 

This should be really good news for us. Service can be done in big and small ways. Serving Jesus can be done at the altar or in the pew, on the church council or in some other way. It might not even be in church. I have no doubt that health care workers are serving Jesus, whether or not they’re even Christian. Wherever healing is done, compassionate care is given, mourners are comforted – there is diakonia. 

Martin Luther was big on this idea of our callings or vocations. He didn’t mean only the ordained ministry. All of us, beloved and forgiven children of God, are mediators of God’s love in the world. This is not an abstract notion. We do it concretely in the various places of responsibility we find ourselves: family life, job, citizenship, church. Ordinary work is turned into diakoneo, faith active in love. What better example could there be of this holy work than Naomi? We might wonder how her service continued. Maybe it didn’t change at all; she’d always been a giving person. But since her encounter with Jesus, maybe she came to see her work in a new way – not simply because it was her assigned role in her culture, not simply because it was what was expected of her, but because it served the mission of Jesus. 

Or – maybe she realized that she was being called to serve in a new way. Maybe she didn’t enjoy cooking for her family, what she really wanted to do now was minister to others who were suffering from fevers and other illnesses and needed a hand to raise them up. We don’t know. 

But the fact that her discipleship comes about as a result of healing should resonate with us today. We’re in the midst of a health crisis the likes of which we’ve never seen. Our sense of community has been shattered by social distancing. In the gospels, whenever Jesus heals someone, the healing is not just physical; the person is restored to their community. And don’t we long for that? Don’t we as a church long to be restored to the community, to figure out how we are invited – called – to get up serve? 

The part that is often a little daunting is figuring out what we are being called to do. The work of discerning our calling can be challenging. And it can come about in strange ways. I was reminded of my early days in seminary, when a friend who was quite theologically conservative and did not approve of women in ministry, invited me to lead a Bible study for his church’s women’s group (it’s OK as long as you’re not teaching men). At the end of the session, my friend had tears in his eyes as he said to me, “You have a calling.” I don’t think I ever received a more powerful affirmation. 

Spiritual Gifts Results

But it’s not always so clear. One way that I’ve used before is the spiritual gifts inventory that’s on the ELCA website. There are 20 categories, everything from administration (where I score well) to skilled artisanship (where I have no score at all). One of the categories is ‘hospitality,’ where I believe Naomi would have done pretty well. 

Sometimes one’s results need to be mulled over a bit – kind of like our star words. A former parishioner scored very high on the gift of leadership. “I’m not a leader,” she protested. “This test doesn’t work.” I reminded her of ways that she had taken on leadership in various ways, and eventually she admitted, “Hmm, maybe I am a leader.” That was proven out even more when, after the tragic death of her 5-year-old son in 1995, she began a foundation to assist abused/abandoned children and their families, locally and globally.

Not everyone has a dramatic story, but everyone does have a gift and a calling. I recommend going to http://elca.organd typing ‘spiritual gifts assessment tool’ in the search bar. Let me know how you do. You can question your result, argue about it, ponder it, maybe get some direction in the midst of this challenging time in our church and our world. I know, we could call it the Naomi project: being raised up by Jesus in order to serve. As Maren wrote:

Jesus lifted her up,
forehead burning virus and all,
and fever was broken,
compassion poured,
and, in gratitude for what he did for her,
she broke bread for them
poured wine into their cups.
and served them all …

As evening fell, others came ¬–
with illnesses of mind and body,
gaping holes of loss,
and he healed them through the night
as they clamored at the door,

but he had time to watch,
as she baked bread after bread, fried fish,
opened jugs of olive oil,
lifted a cup always running over.

And Jesus thought,
as dawn came up in prayer –
when I go,
perhaps this serving,
and these old hands of love

is what I shall leave behind
in remembrance of me.

Amen 

MARK 1:29-39
Upon leaving the synagogue, Jesus entered Simon’s and Andrew’s house with James and John. Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told Jesus about her. Jesus went over to her, took her by the hand and helped her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

After sunset, as evening drew on, they brought to Jesus all who were ill and possessed by demons. Everyone in the town crowded around the door. Jesus healed many who were sick with different diseases, and cast out many demons. But Jesus would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew who he was. Rising early the next morning, Jesus went off to a lonely place in the desert and prayed there. Simon and some companions managed to find Jesus and said to him, “Everybody is looking for you!”

Jesus said to them, “Let us move on to the neighboring villages so that I may proclaim the Good News there also. That is what I have come to do.” So Jesus went into their synagogues proclaiming the Good news and expelling demons throughout the whole of Galilee.

Are You (God) Talking to Me?

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How do you know when God is trying to get your attention?

How can you tell when God is calling you to do or to be something? And if you’re asking God for guidance about some-thing, how do you know what the answer is? I’m going to ask you to be open, as you listen to my words, to remembering a time that you felt that God was speaking to you. At the end, you can share your story if you want to. As I wrote this sermon, I was very aware of the power of story – the biblical stories, as well as my own and those of others. And I thought how powerful it would be to hear about the reality of God’s call in the lives of our friends and neighbors. 

How do we know when God is speaking?

As much as we would like to get a message in skywriting or in an email with an attachment with a very clear, detailed plan, that’s not how it works. But how does it? Well, our first stop in our search is to see how it’s happened for others, beginning with people in the Bible. We have two of them today: Samuel and Nathanael. Their stories illustrate both the confusion and the illumination of our own questions. 

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You might remember Samuel as the prophet who chose and anointed David as king over Israel. But that was in his old age. Our story today is from his youth. Samuel was the son of Elkanah and Hannah. Hannah had been childless before Samuel’s birth, which caused her great distress. She prayed for a child and vowed that if she became pregnant she would dedicate the child to God.  She did become pregnant. Her song of praise in the first book of Samuel is similar in many ways to the Magnificat of Mary at the angel Gabriel’s announcement of her impending pregnancy. Hannah remembered her vow and did take him to the temple and into the care of Eli, the high priest. And that’s where we find him today, maybe around 12 years old, as the priest’s apprentice who sleeps in the temple near the “ark of God,” the most sacred object of all in Israelite worship. 

His call story is almost like a comedy routine. God keeps speaking and Samuel keeps going and waking up Eli. Until the dime finally drops for Eli and he tells Samuel what to do – just say, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” So Samuel did and God spoke. The next verse in I Samuel is: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” 

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Under the fig tree

Nathanael, in the Gospel of John, is introduced to us as a friend of Philip. Philip, who was already a follower of Jesus, reaches out to his friend to tell him all about it. Again, what follows is comical. Nathanael hears only that Jesus is from Nazareth and quips, “Can anything good come out of there?” Was his response sarcasm, snarkiness, or just plain doubt? Either way, I think we can relate to his skepticism. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. And he was right to be skeptical – as are we. Now, as then, many people claim to be the messiah and their followers often discover tragically their mistake. Think of Jim Jones, David Koresh, and other cult leaders. Careful listening for God’s voice is crucial. 

Thankfully, Nathanael does accept Philip’s invitation to “come and see” and Jesus finds him sitting under a fig tree. “Sitting under a fig tree” is a Jewish figure of speech, referring to studying the Torah. In his study of God’s Word and his experience of Jesus, he recognizes the truth of what Philip had told him. 

So here we have two examples of being spoken to by God, of being called by God. But they’re not the only ones. Samuel’s call story is different from the one Moses experienced, beginning with a burning bush. Nathanael’s call story is different from that of the other apostles, the ones we usually think of, when Jesus says. Follow me” and they immediately drop what they’re doing and go. So if we learn nothing else from these stories, we see that hearing a word from God can take different forms. 

If you ask any pastor how they knew they were called, you’ll get a different answer each time. Not that this is about just the call to ordained ministry. God speaks to each and every one of us and calls each and every one of us to some kind of service to the world. But we still have questions: how do we hear and follow God’s call? If we do sense a prompting, an encouragement, or a tug from a particular direction, how do we know that it’s God doing the tugging?

Well, from Samuel’s story we can see that one mark of a divine communication is repetition, even if it’s not a voice we literally hear. So we might ask: Does this prompting or tugging persist or was it a fleeting idea? While many pastors will tell you that they always felt called to ordained ministry and followed that path without hesitation, many others will confess that even though they felt a calling, they avoided it until it just couldn’t be denied anymore. God can be very persistent. 

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Another clue is in Eli’s advice to be still and deliberately, thoughtfully listen, making time and space for reflection. The slogan of the United Church of Christ is “God is Still Speaking,” but I’m told that in UCC circles the response to that is often, “Yes, but is anybody listening?” Granted, it is not always easy for us to find that quiet time for thoughtful listening and even when we have the time we tend to fill it up with other distractions. But listening is the best way to hear what God is saying. 

Another potential sign is those “tingling ears” that God told Samuel about. Now what does it mean to have tingling ears? It sounds like one of the side effects of the ubiquitous drug commercials on TV. But I don’t think that’s what’s intended here. Tingling ears is the effect of the Holy Spirit working in us, challenging us and stirring us. It might actually be an uncomfortable sensation, but paying attention to it could mean that we’re listening and moving down the road God is calling us to follow.

I don’t know if this is an example of tingling ears, but back in 2000-2001 I was becoming more and more aware that my time at my congregation in Buffalo, NY was coming to an end. I knew it was time for change, but I didn’t have any idea of what it would be. I kept telling people (kind of jokingly), “I’m waiting for a word from the Lord.” But to my dismay and frustration no word seemed to be forthcoming. In the meantime, I was getting more and more involved in interfaith activities. One afternoon, as I was talking with my spiritual director, out of the blue she said, “I think you need to go back to school and get a degree in something to do with interfaith.” 

To my everlasting chagrin, I immediately said, “I can’t do that” and started listing all the reasons that was a bad idea. It was the end of our session, and I left. As soon as I got into my car, I burst out in tears. And I said to myself, “I’m going back to school.” And you know the tears weren’t tears of sorrow; they were tears of something like relief – at last, an answer. One that I almost disregarded. Now I can recognize that my ears had been tingling for quite a while, like when the bishop asked me to represent him in interfaith forums, committees, and activities. They were tingling when I was asked to co-chair the interfaith women’s initiative as part of the year-long celebration of the centennial of the Pan-American Exposition held in Buffalo in 1901. Tingling as part of an interfaith response after 9/11. Until finally, the road ahead became clear. 

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Like Eli with Samuel, my spiritual director got before I did that God was speaking. Sometimes, we need to hear it from someone else – although that doesn’t mean we follow blindly what they say. We still have to listen in the quiet of our own hearts, and possibly with trusted friends and spiritual directors.

Now with Nathanael’s story, we see another truth – God’s calling meets us where we are. While other  disciples were on board with Jesus right away, Nathanael engages in skeptical debate. In other words, there’s no one right way to respond to God’s call. And it’s ok to question and debate. In fact, it’s in the wrestling with our calling that we can find the place we’re supposed to be. 

Where you belong

As I was thinking about our seminarian who will be joining us soon, I was remembering Nick. Nick was the first student I supervised from PLTS. He was great, very good at planning and leading worship. But as we came to the end of the semester, he informed me of his decision to leave seminary – he was feeling that it was not his path. In the years since, I’ve kept up with Nick and his family. I knew that he had become a nurse, and when I checked his Facebook page to make sure that was still true, I saw that it was. And on the banner of the website where he works it says #whereyoubelong. 

O God, please send someone else!

There’s a much-loved definition of vocation by the writer Frederick Buechner that says: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” That is a lovely definition, and sometimes it does work that way. But sometimes it doesn’t seem to fit. Moses, for example, didn’t demonstrate “deep gladness” when God called him at the burning bush. His response to his call was, “O my God, please send someone else!” 

And Samuel wanted nothing to do with the difficult news of impending judgment that God called him to deliver to Eli and his sons. In the Gospels, too, the disciples eventually experience their calling as leading them into struggle, not away from it. In the end, Buechner’s definition is still a valuable discernment tool: what is your deep gladness; where do you see the world’s deep hunger? But its opposite can be used as well: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep discomfort and the world’s deep blessings meet.” The longer I look at those four categories (deep gladness, deep hunger, deep discomfort, deep blessings), the more I believe that they could be a powerful way to connect with the mind of God in discerning our calling. 

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Come and see

Finally, the words of Jesus (and then Philip’s echo of them) — “Come and see” — really stand out this week. Up to now, we’ve been thinking about only our auditory sense – how we listen for and how we hear God speaking. But for Nathanael, and for many others, seeing is believing. We want to see for ourselves. But as we know, the likelihood of skywriting or a personal email from God isn’t very high. In John’s gospel, the primary mode of spreading the good news and growing the community of disciples is to offer the invitation to “come and see.” So actually you are the embodiment of a sign from God – or you can be. Your invitation might be just the thing someone was waiting for. 

And that started me wondering: if I were to invite a friend to experience the best of our congregation’s life and use this simple, three-word invitation, to what specifically would I invite them? If you were to invite someone to come and see, to experience the best of what Good Shepherd has to offer, to what specifically would you invite them? Where and when do we most vividly, experientially embody the Gospel we proclaim?

These are a lot of questions, I know. And we’re not going to answer them within the 15 minutes of sermon time. My hope is that they can seep into our consciousness and keep on prompting, encouraging, and tugging on us – maybe even tingling our ears. 

Your story?

And now, I think I’m just going to stop and see if anyone has a story to share of a time you felt God speaking to you and or calling you to some kind of action. 

Amen

1 SAMUEL 3:1-10

Now the boy Samuel was serving the Lord under Eli. In those days, God’s voice was rarely heard – prophecy was uncommon. One night Eli, whose eyes had grown so weak that he could no longer see, was sleeping in his bed. The lamp of God had not gone out, and Samuel was sleeping in the Tent of Meeting, near the Ark of the Covenant. Then the Lord called to Samuel.
Samuel answered, and ran to Eli saying, “Here I am! You called. Here I am!”
“I didn’t call you. Now go back to sleep.” 
Samuel went back to sleep.
A second time, the Lord called Samuel, and he got up and went to Eli.
“Here I am. You called me.”
“I did not call you. Go back to sleep.”
Now Samuel didn’t yet know the Lord, and the Lord’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him. A third time the Lord called Samuel, and he got up and went to Eli, 
Here I am. You called me.”
Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy.
“Go back and go to sleep, and if you are called, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” 
And the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!”
And Samuel replied, Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

JOHN 1:43-51

The next day, after Jesus had decided to leave for Galilee, he met Philip and said, “Follow me.” 
Philip came from Bethsaida, the same town as Andrew and Peter. Philip sought out Nathanael and said to him, “We’ve found the One that Moses spoke of in the Law, the One about whom the prophets wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary and Joseph.”
From Nazareth?” Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
“Come and see.”
When Jesus saw Nathanael coming near, he said, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no guile.”
“How do you know me?” 
“Before Philip even went to call you, while you were sitting under the fig tree, I saw you.”
“Rabbi, you’re God’s Own; you’re the ruler of Israel!”
“Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You’ll see much greater things than that. The truth of the matter is, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the chosen One.”