A New Look at the Old Trinity

Trinity Sunday             May 30, 2021

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Back in 2015, I was a workshop presenter at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Salt Lake City. It was called: What Does It  Mean to Be a Christian in an Interfaith World? And it was based on the book I was writing. I was scheduled for Monday afternoon and on Sunday night I discovered – to my horror – that somehow my workshop had disappeared from the schedule. You see, there were hundreds of workshops and presentations throughout the five days of the Parliament, attended by almost 10,000 people from 73 countries. Schedule changes were constant, which is why there was an app that you needed just to keep up. So I knew how and why my workshop had gotten lost; I just didn’t know how to fix it. 

The Parliament had offices in the convention center, so off I went to get help. Only problem: it was Sunday evening and no one was there (I think many people had gone offsite for a concert by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir). Thankfully, there were still some volunteers roaming around and one of them obviously saw my distress and asked if he could help. I explained the problem and he started making calls. Finally, he said that he’d left a message for someone who could help, but we needed to wait for a callback. 

So we waited. The young man explained that most of the volunteers were local college students. He was a religion major, studying Christianity that semester. He himself was Hindu and said he welcomed the opportunity to ask about my religious tradition. “Sure,” I said, certain I could field any biblical or theological questions. Now – look at the name of this day on the church calendar. You can see it coming, can’t you? “Would you explain the Trinity to me?” 

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Troitsky Cathedral Saint Petersburg

Oh boy! The Trinity has become a bit of a conundrum for contemporary Christians who have been striving to place one’s relationship with the Divine above belief in doctrines and dogma. And Trinity Sunday is the only day of the entire church year that is dedicated to a doctrine – and one not even in the Bible. In fact, the eminent 20th century theologian Karl Rahner claimed that if the Trinity were to quietly disappear from Christian theology, never to be mentioned again, most of Christendom wouldn’t even notice its absence.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know most churches have progressed far past the days when we’d read the Athanasian Creed on this day. You can find it at the end of this post. It’s a reminder of our history, of what was  important to early Christians as they established the Church, and how they made sense of (or at least tried to make sense of the relationship of Jesus to God and how the Holy Spirit fit into the picture. The doctrine of God as three-in-one is how they explained it. It’s like St. Anselm of Canterbury’s famous motto: “faith seeking understanding,” which is what the early Christians were trying to do. They were asking: how can we understand our experience of Jesus the Christ; how can we comprehend our experience of the Holy Spirit?

Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century, was the strongest defender of the doctrine of the Trinity. The creed attributed to him expands on the Nicene Creed, which had been developed (to put it in a positive way) as a statement that would unify the key beliefs of Christianity, and (to put it in a more critical light) to condemn as heretics all those who disagreed with it. You can see how seriously they took this by the last line of the Athanasian Creed: “One cannot be saved without believing this firmly and faithfully.” 

Added to that, it’s the scholastic theology of the 11th-13th centuries that has dominated our approach to the Trinity. The goal of scholasticism was knowledge, understanding, rationality, and the demonstration of the reasonableness of Christian faith – hence doctrine.

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But times have changed. Adherence to creeds and doctrines and dogma have become more of a source of division than of unity. Still, we are a trinitarian church. We use trinitarian language in our liturgies, hymns, and prayers. Some Christians who have given up on the Trinity have asked me why I have not. To answer that, let me tell you a story that was told to Cynthia Bourgeault, author of The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three by her friend, the Abkhazian Sufi elder Murat Yagan:

“In the years following World War II, Murat had spent time in a remote corner of eastern Turkey, where he became friends with an elderly couple, with whom he frequently shared a meal. Life had been good to them, but their one sadness was that they missed their only son, who had left some years before to seek work in Istanbul. And although he’d become a successful businessman, they had  infrequent  contact  with him  and missed him greatly. One day when Murat appeared on their doorstep, the old couple were bursting with pride to show him the new tea cupboard that their son had just sent them from Istanbul. It was indeed a  handsome piece of furniture, and the woman had proudly arranged her best tea set on its upper shelf. Murat was polite but curious. Why would their son go to such expense to send them a tea cupboard? And why, for a piece of furniture whose ostensible purpose was storage, was there such a noticeable absence of drawers  and cabinets? ‘Are you sure it’s a tea cupboard?’ Murat asked them. They were sure.

But the question continued to nag at Murat. Finally, just as he was taking his leave, he said, ‘Do you mind if I have a closer look at this tea cupboard?’ With their permission, he turned it around and unscrewed a couple of packing boards. A set of cabinet doors swung open to reveal inside a fully operative ham radio set. That ‘tea cupboard,’ of course, was intended to connect them to their son. But unaware of its real contents, they were simply using it to display their china.

Cynthia Bourgeault says: “To my mind, that is an apt analogy for how we Christians have been using the   Holy Trinity. It’s our theological tea cupboard, upon which we display our finest doctrinal china, our prized assertion that Jesus, a human being, is fully divine. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just as it was not a  bad thing for the woman to set forth her prettiest teacups on the new piece of furniture. But what if, unbeknownst to nearly everyone, inside it is concealed a powerful communications tool that could connect us to the rest of the worlds (visible and invisible), allow us to navigate our way through many of the doctrinal and ethical logjams of our time, and place the teachings of Jesus in a dynamic metaphysical framework that would truly unlock their power? It’s simply a matter of turning the tea cabinet around and learning how to look inside.”

I love this story! And I believe we are finally beginning to look inside our tea cabinet, where we discover there have been other ways of understanding Trinity all along. Like so many other Christian concepts and symbols there is something archetypal about it. As Carl Jung discovered:

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Triads of gods appear very early, at the primitive level.
Arrangement in triads is an archetype in the history of religion,
which in all probability formed  the basis of the Christian Trinity.

So while we’ve traditionally explained the development of the doctrine of the Trinity as the need to give divine status to Jesus and the Holy Spirit while remaining monotheistic, it’s likely that from a psychological perspective it’s the other way round. Our unconscious disposition was already trinitarian, which then required a theological explanation. Three is often considered to be the perfect number, the unifier of dualities. And it appears, not only in Christianity, but across cultures, religions, and time.

Franciscan Richard Rohr, author of The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See writes:

Trinitarian theology was almost made to order to humiliate the logical mind.
If actually encountered and meditated on,
God as trinity breaks down the binary system of the mind.
For a Christian who lives in a trinitarian spirituality,
it makes either-or thinking totally useless.
Perhaps, in addition to everything else, the trinity is blessing,
to make us patient before Mystery and to humble our dualistic minds.

Medieval mystics, such as Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart and Julian of Norwich got it. For them, understanding the Trinity was possible only through experience, not through reason. Hildegard, who’d had a vision of the Trinity, wrote,

No one can comprehend the extent of Its glory and the limits of Its power
as It shines with the immense sweetness and the brightness of Divinity.

But it’s Julian of Norwich who really delves into the 3-ness of it all. When Julian was 30 years old, she had several visions and then spent the next 20 years reflecting on these visions and writing down what she’d learned from them. She concluded,

For all our life consists of three: In the first we have our being,
and in the second we have our increasing,
and in the third we have our fulfillment.
The first is nature, the second is mercy and the third is grace.

But probably the most famous of Julian’s visions was this one. And from this comes the portrayal we often see of her holding a hazelnut. She wrote: 

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“In this he showed me a little thing, no bigger than a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and I thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. But what is this to me? Truly, the Creator, the Keeper, the Lover. For until I am substantially “oned” to God, I may never have full rest nor true bliss. That is to say, until I be so fastened to God that there is nothing that is made between my God and me.”

So between Jung’s archetypes and Julian’s mystical experiences, we have an entry into a much bigger, much richer way of approaching the mystery of the Trinity. It makes sense that we’d use three to break our concepts of God into three parts to better understand this person, this being, this presence, this reality – this ‘this’ we call God – knowing that we’ll always be limited by the smallness of our imaginations and capacity for wonder, yet knowing also that there have been those who have seen the totality, the unity of the three. And have seen also our place within it. What the mystics have described is the communal nature of God, the inherent relationality of the Trinity. The Creator, the Keeper and the Lover are not self-contained, self-sufficient entities in a pantheon of gods. Rather, the Trinity is a dance of Love, with us dancing in the midst of the circle as well. It is a dance of communion and of community.

Not just in Xianity. Even in Judaism, there are those who see precursors in the mystical teachings of The Kabbalah, which says that the three original emanations from Ein Sof, the Kabbalistic concept of God as “The Endless One” or “All That Is,” are Nothingness, Wisdom and Understanding. These three emanations are the basis upon which all other existence upon the Tree of Life was formed and the essence of which followers were urged never to try to understand.

Elaine Pagels wrote in The Gnostic Gospels that early Christian concepts of the Trinity were molded from traditional Judaic terminology. Of course, Judaism  – like Islam – rejects the Trinity based on their belief that giving Jesus divinity at all was blasphemous. Nonetheless, “three” is present in both and is perhaps a way through the interfaith roadblocks caused by the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Trinities appear in eastern traditions as well. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the “Three Bodies of Buddhahood” as three levels of existence: the ordinary body, which becomes the Emanation Body; speech, which is the Beatific Body; and the mind, which is the Truth Body. The three Buddha Bodies correlate with body, mind and spirit. There are also trinities in The Tao Te Ching in the “Three Jewels” or “Three Treasures,” which are the Buddha, the Dharma (teaching) and the Sangha (community). The Jains recognize the trinity of samyag-darsana (correct insight), samyag-jnana (correct knowledge), and samyag-caritra (correct conduct). In The Bhagavad-Gita, there is the threefold nature  of  the Self, as told to Arjuna by the Hindu God Krishna: “Threefold is the faith of the embodied, which is inherent in their nature: Sattvic (pure), Rajasic (passionate) and Tamasic (darkness).”

And Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh had no difficulty seeing the correlation between Western and Eastern concepts of the Trinity. After a meeting with Christian clergy, he said, “all of us have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us, the capacity of healing, transforming, and loving. When we touch that seed, we are able to touch God the Father and God the Son.” He presents Trinity as a process of direct knowing of the Divine that transcends all religious labels and names.

So, if we go back before all the controversies of early Christianity, the hurling of anathemas at theologians  who disagreed with the winning side at the Council of Nicea . . . and back before epic battles, such as whether to say “We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father” or “ We believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” – which was a  huge deal back in the day and one of the reasons for  the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern  Orthodox Church . . . and back before our modern attempts at explaining the Trinity with shamrocks, triangles, interlocking rings, and science project displays of water, ice, and gas . . .  we find that our ancient ancestors understood the  triune  nature  of existence on the deepest level of the subconscious, which then translated into symbols and archetypes found in our origin stories, myths and fairy tales, like The Three Little Pigs and Goldilocks and the Three Bears and children’s songs like Three Blind Mice. And in religious texts.

As we move further into the Age of the Spirit (which I talked about last week), as we become more adept at using our right brains to re-imagine – as best we are even capable of doing – what God is like, we will see Trinity (this number three), not as a literal, limiting number, but as a process of union with the completeness and perfection of All That Is whether you call that: Father/Son/Holy Spirit, Creator/Redeemer/Sanctifier, Creator/Creating/Creation, or (as St. Augustine suggested) Lover/Beloved/Love Itself.

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Trinity is the very nature of God, and this God is a circle dance, a centrifugal force flowing outward, and  then drawing all things into the dance centripetally. If this God names himself/herself in creation and in reality then there must be a ‘family resemblance’ between everything else and the nature of the heart of God.

I personally appreciate the imagery of Trinity as the Divine Dance. As Richard Rohr has described:

Process, dance, circle, heart of God. This is not the Trinity of doctrine and dogma and creeds – although some do find meaning there. I would not exclude anyone’s preferred access to Divinity. As long as we don’t mistake a ham radio set for a tea cupboard. 

Following from all of this, we, on this Trinity Sunday, might ask ourselves what it means to be a Trinitarian congregation. David Lose, former president of the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia, defines a Trinitarian congregation as one that sees itself as called and sent by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed for the sake of the world God created and loves so much. Not a bad mission statement at all! Therefore, may we remove the china cups and knickknacks from our spiritual shelves and discover the treasures that are inside. In the name of Lover, Beloved, and Love Itself. Amen

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The Athanasian Creed 

Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic* faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally. And the catholic* faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance. For the Father is one person, the Son is another, and the Holy Spirit is another. But the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. As the Father is, so is the Son, and so is the Holy Spirit: the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Spirit uncreated; the Father infinite, the Son infinite, the Holy Spirit infinite; the Father eternal, the Son eternal, the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet there are not three Eternals, but one Eternal, just as there are not three Uncreated or three Infinites, but one Uncreated and one Infinite. In the same way, the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, the Spirit almighty; and yet there are not three Almighties but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God; and yet there are not three Gods, but one God. So the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord, the Holy Spirit is Lord; and yet there are not three Lords, but one Lord. Just as we are compelled by the Christian truth to acknowledge each distinct person as God and Lord, so also are we prohibited by the catholic* religion to say that there are three Gods or Lords. 

The Father is not made nor created nor begotten by anyone. The Son is neither made nor created, but begotten of the Father alone. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son, neither made nor created nor begotten but proceeding. Thus, there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits. 

And in this Trinity none is before or after another; none is greater or less than another; but the whole three persons are coeternal with each other and coequal so that in all things, as has been stated above, the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped. Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity. 

But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is the right faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man. He is God, begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages; and He is man, born from the substance of His mother in this age: perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father with respect to His divinity, less than the Father with respect to His humanity. Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ: one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh but by the assumption of the humanity into God; one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the rational soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ, who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again on the third day from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, from whence He will come to judge the living and the dead. At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. 

This is the catholic* faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved. 

* catholic = universal 11 

Zooming into Pentecost – Again

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John Stuart, used with permission

I’m glad to see that so many of you remembered to wear red today. I know it’s not as easy to remember as wearing green for St. Patrick’s Day or red and green for Christmas. Pentecost isn’t one of the big cultural holidays. But it wasn’t always so. In fact, from early times Christians have come up with some pretty wild ways to celebrate Pentecost and remind folks of the fiery tongues and mighty wind that we read about in Acts.

Most of these customs come from medieval Europe when church festivals were the dominant force in daily life. And Pentecost was one of the biggest days on the church’s calendar. So for instance, in some churches when the priest said, “Come, Holy Spirit,” the choir would make whooshing noises in imitation of the wind. Although, in some countries, like France, the effect was achieved by sounding trumpets. In Italy they scattered red rose petals from the ceiling of the church. In Finland there’s a saying that if you don’t have a sweetheart by Pentecost, you won’t have one during the whole summer. In England, there is the charming custom of cheese rolling associated with Pentecost. It’s not clear what the origin of that is, probably originally a Pagan rite, but since the 15th century cheese has been rolled down hills, and people have competed to catch it.

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“St. Stephen’s Cathedral – ‘Holy Ghost’ Hole” by pennhoosier is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The one I like best, though, is the Holy Ghost hole. It seems that many of the great cathedrals were actually built with Pentecost in mind. Hidden in the domed and vaulted ceilings were trap doors that were used just on Pentecost. During worship, some brave parishioners would climb up onto the roof and at the appropriate moment during the service, they would release live doves through the trap doors, through the painted skies and clouds of the cathedral ceiling. The doves would come swooping down on the congregation as living symbols of the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, the choir would make whooshing and drumming sounds, like a holy windstorm. Then, finally, as the doves were swooping and the wind blowing, the trap doors would open again, and bushels of rose petals showered down upon the congregation, symbolizing tongues of flame.

Even smaller churches had these holes in their roofs. But instead of live doves, a large painted disk portraying a white dove surrounded by golden rays on a blue background was lowered by rope from the Holy Ghost hole as the choir hissed or whooshed or drummed. Then, as the disk hovered over the congregation, rose petals would rain down upon them. In some places lighted straw was tossed down instead of flowers. But, as you can imagine, the danger of setting the congregation on fire led to the eventual demise of this custom.

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Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? That tricky Holy Spirit, so difficult to define and explain, inspired those medieval folks to come up with some pretty creative ways to do it. Today, many churches try to keep up the holy chaos by filling their sanctuaries with red balloons or red geraniums, using red paraments and vestments, and inviting members to wear red. If we were able to meet in person and share food together, we might have a Pentecost cake to celebrate the birthday of the church This church festival encourages us to break out of the usual routines, engage our creativity, push the boundaries and sail on the wind of an uncontained Spirit.

Pentecost on Zoom – again?
But here we are in our second Pentecost on Zoom (although Zoom does sound a little rushing-wind-like, doesn’t it?). Still, no balloons, no cake, no red flowers on the altar again this year. It might be hard to enter into the spirit of Pentecost. Although last year was more challenging. Pentecost Sunday came just six days after the murder of George Floyd. And we had the idea of the breath of the Spirit juxtaposed with a man gasping, “I can’t breathe.” This year, while many of our societal ills are as pressing as ever, we are beginning to see a light at the end of the long tunnel of our pandemic isolation. As restrictions are loosened, we might feel as if a fresh breath of air is blowing through our windows.

But we must admit that emerging from isolation is not completely anxiety-free. Even though the CDC announced that we could take off our masks if we’re fully vaccinated, there’s been a lot of confusion and hesitation among some. As we do move toward greater freedom, we must also acknowledge the traumatic time that the past fourteen months has been. And we need to be gentle with ourselves and with others as we all try to navigate the “new normal,” which could be different from one day to the next – at least for a while. 

And what about church?
Last week I was part of a video seminar on planning for doing church post-pandemic. One of the best words of advice I heard was: make a plan, have a roadmap for going forward, but be ready at any time to change that plan. Being able to pivot quickly will be crucial. I thought about that advice as I re-read the letter that was supposed to go out to the congregation about our plans for reopening in September. Then the CDC announcement came and there was a flurry of excitement and confusion about what this could mean. Gov. Newsome has said that California will be fully open on June 15. But what does that mean for doing church? The letter we wrote needs to be updated; the plan to send it out was put on hold until we can get better clarification on what guidelines will still have to be followed. 

I’ll be honest, it’s been frustrating. Promised updates have not come through. Some protocols are buried in long memos about other venues, businesses, schools, etc. Most of the guidelines are still from the time before most people have been vaccinated. I did get an email last week from the San Francisco Interfaith Council with an update from the SF Department of Public Health. Finally on page four, there was information for church’s about creating fully vaccinated sections. But still not much information about what this means in terms of singing, passing the peace, and receiving Holy Communion. All this is to say that we’re watching closely as the protocols develop. The health and safety of every person is the bottom line, so there will be no rush to return until we’re clear on how to best ensure that. 

Hybrid Church???
In the meantime, other plans for our return to the church building are going forward. One of the things that I would say a majority of congregations have learned is that some form of online presence is here to stay. And just as we scrambled to learn how to do Zoom Church last year, our new challenge is to learn how to do hybrid church, that is a combination of both in-person and online opportunities for worship – and other church activities. At our book discussion group last week, I asked two questions (we’re reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together and the first section is all about the church community): how has Zoom Church made being in community better; how has Zoom Church made being in community more difficult? The answers weren’t really surprising, but I think that it will be good for us all to answer those questions for ourselves as we think about returning. 

But returning to what? I have been realizing more and more how we are about to enter into a time of unknowing in the church such as we have never experienced. I don’t mean unknowing the beliefs of our faith. One of the speakers in the seminar told the story of talking once about the future of the church and changing the church and a man spoke up to say that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. And she said, “Yes, but not the church, you know, or maybe yours is, and maybe that’s why you’re losing members.” That is to say that indeed Jesus Christ is the same, but how we communicate that through the church must adapt. 

Our dilemma right now is that we’re not yet completely clear on how we will need to adapt. So we’ll keep making a plan, and we’ll hold it lightly enough to modify or change it as needs arise. Michael and I will be attending a three-part seminar on “How to Do Hybrid Church” starting this week. The sessions (out of Luther Seminary, St. Paul) are at 7:00 am our time, so your prayers are definitely welcome. Thankfully we’ll have access to the recordings so we can go back over what I may have dozed off through. 

The benefit of being there live is that we’ll meet and talk and share with other worship leaders who are working on these same issues. If there’s one big lesson I’ve learned from this past year it’s that none of us can go it alone, especially these days. So, hopefully we’ll gain a good support network of hybrid church developers. 

I’ve learned a lot already. Two things, in particular. One: whenever we do go back into the church building, doing church will not be the same as it was before. It may never be the same as it was before. And two: hybrid worship is not simply setting up a laptop on the altar and logging into Zoom. There is a bigger concern. And that is: how will we be a community in the “new normal”? What will we need to do to maintain and nurture our congregation as a community of faith? How will we invite others into being part of this community? 

Become disillusioned
In the Bonhoeffer book he talks about the need for us to become ‘disillusioned’ about what we think church is. That is, we have to let go of things that are not necessary for being a spiritual community. These might be things we treasure, that have had great meaning for us. But as we adapt and change, our treasures may have to be examined and maybe even relinquished. I can imagine how disconcerting this could be, especially if we have disagreements about what is needful and what is not. 

I’ll give you an example of one of my disillusionments. When we first went into lockdown, I had a vision for when we would return to our building. We would have a big ‘Welcome Home’ celebration and invite members, former members, neighbors, community dignitaries to come. Maybe we’d even have my installation. It would be a grand way to begin getting back to normal. But now I’ve come to realize that that vision is not realistic. Our return will be different. I have had to relinquish my idea of what that day should be and be ready to plan accordingly when we know better what will be. 

And I’ve come to realize that focusing on the protocols and guidelines is really not the most important thing before us. “When will we return to the building?” – even “How will we return to the building?” are the wrong questions. “Who are we going to be when we return?” is the overriding question. 

That might sound intimidating. After all, it’s easier to make decisions about nuts and bolts issues, especially when we finally get good information. The existential questions are not so easy to nail down. But isn’t this just what Pentecost is about? 

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Matthew L. Skinner, who is a professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, wrote this for Pentecost 2011. His words made sense then, but even more so today. He said: “Pentecost observances are more than a celebration of the past. They are not merely an end to Easter or a chance to launch summer programming. They are not opportunities for stoking nostalgia about the church’s supposed glory days. Who needs those? Pentecost is an invitation to dream. For when a community of faith quits dreaming dreams, it has little to offer either its members or the wider world. Like any good dream, these dreams involve adopting a new perspective on what’s possible, rousing our creativity to free us from conventional expectations. They help us see that maybe what we thought was outlandish actually lies within reach.” 

There are those who say that the pandemic has forced the church to change in ways that it should have been doing all along. We were already in the midst of a decline. And while some saw that as an opportunity to try new things, others dug in their heels. Now we don’t have a choice. There’s no going back to normal. Now we really do have to rely on the Holy Spirit. And we have to rely on each other. In baptism we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own. We are the community of saints – sinners, too. We’ll need to remember that as we work together to create the new presence of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd on the corner of Burlingame and Channing. Will we always agree? Nope. Will we always love and respect one another as beloved children of God. Oh, yes.  

The Age of the Spirit
In 2014 the late Phyllis Tickle, who was a leading author and speaker in the progressive Christian movement, wrote a book entitled The Age of the Spirit. Her hypothesis was that we have had the Age of the Father, which was the Old Testament with its teachings, its ways of understanding God, and God’s ways of interacting with Creation. Then came the Age of the Son, marked by the birth of God in human form and the growth of the church. Emerging after that would be the Age of the Spirit, when humankind would relate primarily to the third member of the Trinity. This time would be marked by a decreased importance in church structures, sacraments, creeds, and clergy, when all people would begin to relate more directly to the Divine.

That doesn’t mean we just forget about God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer. But it may be time for the oft-neglected Spirit to come into her own. 

Pentecost

We just might be there. Which means every day could be Pentecost.  Every day could be an experience of the lively Spirit of God, blowing freely and wherever God wills, God’s gentle and occasionally wild presence, that transforms lives and communities, breaks down barriers, and gives life to weary and uncertain persons and communities. revives the dry bones.

Are we ready for a holy adventure? If so, strap on your seat belt, put on your helmet, and get ready. We just might be in for a wild and exciting ride. Happy Birthday, Church!

Amen 

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Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost arrived, the disciples all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.

Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome – all Jews or converts to Judaism – Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!” All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.” 

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “People of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it is what the prophet Joel spoke of: 

‘In the days to come – it is our God who speaks – I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’”

Grace In-Between the Lines

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter                 

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Today I want to talk about grace in-between the lines. I’m sure we could all come up with stories about how grace – a full-out, unwarranted, undeserved, wonderful thing – happened in your life. The birth of a child, falling in love, being forgiven by a friend, getting an unexpected windfall at just the right time, feeling completely in tune with life and with God –are examples of the kind of grace we could name and celebrate. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the grace that’s there even when we don’t know it’s there, that is in-between the lines of the stories of our lives and we could easily miss it – or just as easily believe it isn’t even there at all.  

Martin Luther wrote this in his commentary on the Book of Romans: “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that one could stake one’s life on it a thousand times.”  Let that sink in for a moment.

“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that one could stake one’s life on it a thousand times.”

When I read that, I couldn’t help thinking about a man who got up and spoke at a seminar that was supposed to help religious leaders learn how to minister to returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Speakers had addressed the spiritual and moral wounds of war and the fact that most veterans were unlikely to enter our churches. There is a variety of reasons for that, but what this man had to say was the most heart-breaking. He was a therapist who counsels vets, and he described the inability of many veterans, in light of things they had seen and things they had done, to get back into ‘a state of grace.’ Imagine being in that dark and lonely place and hearing Luther’s words. Faith as “a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that one could stake one’s life on it a thousand times” might seem like an impossible dream. 

Another example is the man I used to visit in a skilled nursing facility. He would often reminisce in great detail things he had said in anger or mistakes he had made – over 50 years ago.  He ruminated about these things all the time, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t let go and enjoy the living, daring confidence in God’s grace available to him. 

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“Per un grapat de monedes // For a Handful of Coins” by~Oryctes~ is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

And that brings me to Judas. Now- don’t get me wrong. I’m not going to compare veterans – or anyone else – to Judas as a betrayer. I know that as soon as we hear the name, we think of words like villainy and treachery. But that’s not where I’m going. So stay with me for a bit.

Let’s go back to today’s reading from Acts where the early Christian church was having its first organizational crisis. The disciples had to call a congregational meeting so they could hold an election to fill the vacancy left by Judas –  because somewhere, somebody had decided there had to be twelve apostles to symbolize the twelve tribes of Israel. And now they were down one apostle. Verses 15-17 give the explanation for the vacancy; 21-26 explain the nomination and election process.   

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“the death of judas” by andrevanb is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

But notice that there are some verses missing in the passage from the lectionary. Where are verses 18-21? What happened in between verses 18-21? Well, what happened was the death of Judas, the gorier of the two accounts of his death. In between the lines of the story is a desperate act of disbelief in God’s grace.  

But wait a minute. Why should we care? Don’t we believe in the wickedness of Judas, his utter unredeemability? How could we think there could have been any grace available to him in between these lines? Aren’t we supposed to accept some version of the horrific picture painted by Dante of the ninth circle of Hell, where Satan gnaws on Judas for all eternity?  

Maybe not. There are some other possibilities for thinking about Judas that not only see the historic Judas as redeemable, but also his name which for so long has been synonymous with traitor. 

One of the most convincing arguments is that in the earliest writings of the church Judas is not a treacherous character at all. In the letters of Paul, the first one written around twenty years before the first gospel, there is nothing hostile about Judas, at least by name. Paul does write about “the night in which Jesus was betrayed,” but says nothing about it being by one of ‘the twelve.’ Also, when Paul described the experience of resurrection, he said that Jesus was seen by ‘the twelve’ – not the remaining eleven. So Judas is still among them, according to Paul. 

Where Judas begins to take a hit is in the gospels. Starting with Mark, the first gospel written, you can see the image of Judas becoming increasingly negative. By the time John wrote, Christianity was breaking away from being a sect within Judaism, and we can read the hostility in John’s references to ‘the Jews’ – of whom he was one, but of a different church body (and we know how nasty church fights can be). 

Continue reading Grace In-Between the Lines

Connected with Jesus on D’Vine

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Sermon
for the
Fifth Sunday
of Easter

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Remember this scene from last September? I certainly won’t ever forget waking up that morning to dark orange skies. Those of us who weren’t directly affected by the catastrophic wildfire season got an unnerving taste of the apocalyptic conditions not very far away. Of course those who live and work in burned over areas can tell us all about the devastation they experienced. One industry especially hard hit was winemaking. Vineyards are not only still recovering from the 2020 fires but are busy working with municipalities to put in place safeguards for the coming fire season. 

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Here in California we know that grapevines are precious commodities. Our hearts break at scenes like this one of burned over vineyards. We know that the loss of these vines has a profound effect on everyone – from vineyard owners, to local economies, to firefighters and first responders, hospitals, homeowners, the environment – and us, as we found out on that orange day in September when the clouds of destruction blew over us. It was a tragic time, and we pray that won’t see one like it again.  

When I read the gospel text for today, I couldn’t help thinking about grapevines in a much more concrete way. Sure, “I am the vine” is a metaphor. We know Jesus wasn’t saying he was a literal vine; that would be silly. But just as the “I am the Good Shepherd” imagery resonates in a special way with a congregation called the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, our being so close to wine country gives us a special relationship to “the Vine.” 

Of course, image of shepherd and vine would have been very familiar to the early followers of Jesus. We’re reminded how many of the ancient symbols of our faith are derived from nature and agriculture – and how they still work, even in our urban environment.

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This is now the fifth of the seven weeks of Easter, and the second of four weeks that delve into what it means to live in intimacy with God. And I have to say that I feel some reluctance to even talk about it any further, that we should just sit quietly and actually practice getting in touch with that place within each of us that is intimately connected to the Divine. I’m reminded of a retreat I once attended on the theme of prayer. We learned about the history of prayer, about different kinds of prayer, about authors who wrote books about prayer. But we never actually prayed! Sounds ridiculous, right? So I don’t want to repeat that retreat leader’s mistake. 

Merton

I would much rather create a space where something amazing could happen, something like what Thomas Merton experienced. Merton, the Trappist monk who died in 1968, wrote about a day in 1958, when he was running errands in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. He described it this way:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly over-whelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. 

And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are.  If only we could see each other that way all the time.

As far as I am concerned, that’s a perfect description of intimacy with the Vine! But just as Merton hadn’t done anything to plan or prepare for this revelation, so it often happens with us – as a wonderful surprise. Although I will offer something that might be helpful. Here’s a guided meditation on the “I am the Vine” saying and you might find it helpful in entering into a meditative space.

For now, a few words about what was going on back then for Jesus and the disciples and what the take-away might be for us. The larger context of this passage in John is that Jesus is in the midst of what’s sometimes called his “farewell discourse” to the disciples (John 14-17). It is a passage of consolation; Jesus is assuring his dismayed disciples that he’s not abandoning them. What’s coming will not be distance but rather a radical closeness. Remember that John is writing maybe sixty years after Jesus had died. But rather than being a made-up fiction about what Jesus said and did, it is a testimony to what these followers had experienced. I imagine it to be similar to what Thomas Merton described. John wrote of what he knew – deep in his soul – to be true. So as Jesus assures the disciples that they won’t be abandoned, he’s also assuring us. 

The image of the vine and the branches is a word of solace. The connection between Jesus and the disciples will not be severed, even by death. That connection would be so organic that separation would be virtually unimaginable. Their very lives would be signs of that connection, just as the life and fruit of a branch are signs of its ongoing connection to its vine. 

Unfortunately, there are some Christians who hear this passage as a threat, like “If you want to live, you’d better stay connected to me, or else.” The pruning part is especially worrisome. A colleague wrote this:

As a teenager this metaphor freaked me out. In my conservative Evangelical church being fruitful meant converting others to believe like us. The pressure was on: to avoid being pruned and burned we needed to go get converts (“bear fruit”)! BTW, we were not speaking about bringing people to faith for the first time. This was mostly about persuading Anglicans and Catholics to switch across to our little Evangelical sect, renounce their infant Baptism and their sacraments, and start all over again in the Christian life with us. All that made me very uncomfortable. It seemed my spiritual status in that group was on the line, and that God was always looming with pruning shears and matches.

That’s not what this is about. Rather it is about Jesus saying: “Take heart: I will be with you, and our companionship will be even closer than it is now. Today we walk side by side — but in the days to come I will live in you, and you in me. Today, you walk in my footsteps — but in the days to come you will walk, so to speak, ‘in my feet,’ and I will walk in yours. Indeed, you will be my hands and feet for a world that needs healing and good news. Friends, I’m not abandoning you! On the contrary, I will abide in you. You will abide in me. I will not leave you alone…” https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5

That’s not a threat. Not that pruning isn’t part of our relationship with the Divine. We know that it is also a rich metaphor that can be understood by any gardener. Pruning means cutting away for the sake of new and greater growth, more fruit, more abundance, more life. Even I, with my less-than-green thumb know that! What’s harder is to recognize what needs to be pruned in ourselves and then do what is necessary for us to grow – in faith, in relationship with ourselves, with others, with the world. Thankfully, it’s clear that Jesus isn’t intent on banishment, but on helping each and every branch bear fruit. When he says, “apart from me you can do nothing,” it’s not a threat or sneering assessment of our hopelessness, it is a promise of help. “I will abide in you. You will abide in me. I will not leave you alone…”

Ripe grapes in fall. autumn harvest.
Ripe grapes close-up in fall. autumn harvest.

This idea of mutual indwelling runs throughout John’s gospel, and through the Bible as a whole. Genesis depicts human life itself as possible only with the divine breath. In Galatians, Paul says, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” and in Acts, he preaches to the Athenians that God is the One “in whom we live, and move, and have our being.” And here in John, because Jesus’ “I am the vine” is the seventh and last of his “I am” statements in the gospel, it’s the culmination of his teachings about how God, Jesus, and human beings are related: Jesus abides in God, and we abide in Jesus, as deeply, closely, organically related as a branch is to its vine. As John tells it, the ultimate goal is not merely to follow Jesus or obey his instruction, but to live in Jesus as he lives in us. Obeying his instruction will then be a natural effect or consequence of that intimate companionship, since our lives and his life will be one.

So what does such mutual indwelling look like in practice? It would look like Jesus, and at the same time it would look like us — that is, it would look like us being the people God made us to be. In a word, it would look like love: incarnate, tangible, down-to earth, intertwining, intersecting, growing, fruitful, vibrant love.

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It would look like reaching out to outsiders, the ones who are otherwise relegated to the margins of community. Take, for instance, the man in the Book of Acts known only as an Ethiopian eunuch (although in the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition, he is remembered as Bachos). Bachos asked Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Actually there was quite a bit to prevent him. Eunuchs were sexual outcasts in Jewish religious society. According to Womanist biblical scholar Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, in the Ancient Near East and North Africa, it was the custom for men who worked for monarchs to be surgically altered. This was to diminish the chances that they might attempt to establish a dynasty of their own. So there was a class of men who were highly educated, wealthy, and served in high-ranking positions, and who were, in an important way, different. Despite being a prestigious figure in a foreign royal court, Bachos is nonetheless an outsider. 

He’s reading from Isaiah and we have to wonder if he had chosen that passage because of his own experience of rejection. He’s returning in his chariot from a visit to Jerusalem where he was worshipping at the temple, even though he could never participate fully in temple worship because of his status as a gender minority. Yet, he’s a spiritual man; he’s drawn to the texts of the Hebrew Bible. By coincidence (God’s incidents?), he meets up with Philip. 

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We might wonder why this powerful man in his fancy chariot would invite a perfect stranger to come up and read the scriptures with him. He must have known somehow, must have known that this was a holy moment, a divine opportunity. And after reading and discussing scripture together, he knew something else, deep in his soul. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he asked. Nothing. Nothing stood in the way between Bachos and the promise of God. And he knew it. He knew it in his  bones. That even though he may not have been seen as ‘whole’ at the temple, he was whole. He was worthy. He claimed the promise that God offered him right there on the spot.

Bachos is the one God chooses to bring a message of belonging back to Ethiopia and “give birth” to the African Christian Church.

His story here reflects an expanding circle of inclusion that is all-too-often neglected in the church. In our current times, we should be asking ourselves: who are the outsiders, the disenfranchised, the excluded (whether we intend to exclude them or not) — and how can we reach out to them, build bridges with them, learn from them, create a new community with them? 

It may take some pruning for us to truly answer that. However, if we live into our connectedness with the Vine, the answers will undoubtedly become clear. We may have our own experiences of ‘God incidences’ when – if our connection is strong – we’ll be able to respond to the needs of a stranger with authentic, holy love. But we shouldn’t only wait for them to come to us. The measure of our health as branches on the vine will be our willingness and ability to find ways of breaking down walls of division, of building up communities of inclusion. As the Spirit flows through the vine, into the branches, sprouting leaves, putting forth good fruit – the true Christian community will thrive. It’s not about numbers (although the more who are included, the better); it’s about the quality of life as branches on the vine. 

We want to be a healthy, strong green vineyard . Jesus said, “Those who abide in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” We could turn that around and say, “Those who abide in Jesus will bear abundant fruit, for with Jesus you can do anything.” 

So tend to your branches. Seek communion with the Divine Presence that abides in you. Know in your bones that in Christ you are whole and you are worthy. Claim the promise that God offers to you. And together are a community of love and inclusion – in the spirit of Bachos, and Philip, and of course Jesus, our True Vine.

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Amen

Acts 8:26-40
An angel of God spoke to Philip saying, “Be ready to set out at noon along the road that goes to Gaza, the desert road.” 
So Philip began his journey. It happened that an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury had come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage and was returning home.  He was sitting in his carriage and reading the prophet Isaiah.

The Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and meet that carriage.”
When Philip ran up, he heard the eunuch reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do  you understand what you are reading?”
The eunuch replied, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” 
With that, he invited Philip to get into the carriage with him.

This was the passage of scripture being read: 
“You are like a sheep being led to slaughter;
you are like a lamb that is mute in front of its shearers: 
like them, you never open your mouth.
You have been humiliated and have no one to defend you.
Who will ever talk about your descendants 
since your life on earth has been cut short?”

The eunuch said to Philip, “Tell me, if you will, about whom the prophet is talking – himself or someone else?”
So Philip proceeded to explain the Good News about Jesus to him. Further along, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water right there! Is there anything to keep me from being baptized?”
He ordered the carriage to stop; then Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God snatched Philip away; the eunuch did not see him any more and went on his way rejoicing. Philip found himself at Ashdod next, and he went about proclaiming the Good News in all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

John 15: 1-8
Jesus said:
I am the true vine, and my Abba is the vine grower who cuts off every branch in me that does not bear fruit, but prunes the fruitful ones to increase their yield. You have been pruned already thanks to the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit of itself apart from the vine, neither can you bear fruit apart from me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. Those who do not abide in me are like withered, rejected branches, to be picked up and thrown on the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you want, and it will be done for you. My Abba will be glorified if you bear much fruit and thus prove to be my disciples.

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Whose Good Shepherd?

The Good Shepherd - John 10:1-16
JESUS MAFA. The good shepherd, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48288

Well you learn something new every day. At least it seems I do. After 30-plus years in ministry and probably hundreds of times reading the Good Shepherd passages in John’s gospel, I learned something new. Maybe you already knew this, especially those of you who’ve been part of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd for a long time. The thing I learned was that the image of Jesus as a shepherd was one of the most popular images in the early Christian church. Oh sure, I knew about the fish symbol in the catacombs, so it’s not surprising that there would be other symbols as well. But when I read recently that the figure of the shepherd was much more prevalent than the cross in early Christian art, I was skeptical.

As were Rebecca Ann Parker and Rita Kashima Brock, authors of Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. In response to their exploration of early Christian art, they wrote: “It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? This question set us off on a five-year pilgrimage that led to this book. Initially, we didn’t believe it could be true. Surely the art historians were wrong. The crucified Christ was too important to Western Christianity. How could it be that images of Jesus’s suffering and death were absent from early churches? We had to see for ourselves and consider what this might mean.

“In 2002, we traveled to the Mediterranean in search of the dead body of Jesus. We began in Rome, descending from the blaze of the summer sun into the catacombs where underground tunnels and tombs are carved into soft tufa rock. The earliest surviving Christian art is painted onto the plaster-lined walls of tombs or carved onto marble sarcophagi as memorials to the interred. 

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Good Shepherd Mosaic, c.425: Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy

“In the cool, dimly lit caverns, we saw a variety of biblical images. Many of them suggested rescue from danger. Abraham and Isaac stood side by side in prayer with a ram bound next to them. Jonah, the recalcitrant prophet who was swallowed and coughed up by a sea monster, reclined peacefully beneath the shade of a vine. Daniel stood alive and well between two pacified lions. Other images suggested baptism and healing, such as the Samaritan woman drawing water from a well, John the Baptist dousing Jesus, depicted as a child, and Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus also appeared as a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders like Orpheus. We could not find a dead Jesus, not even one. It was just as the angel had said to the women looking for Jesus at his tomb, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here.’” 

So it seems that it’s true. And so, on this fourth Sunday in the Easter season, we’re switching gears. If you recall, the gospel readings for the first three weeks were resurrection appearance stories: Jesus in the locked room, on the road to Emmaus, at the lakeshore eating breakfast with the disciples. But now, in these next four weeks we’ll be leaning more into how Jesus teaches us to live in the Oneness of God, living into resurrection life. 

Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Burlingame, CA

And so we have the Good Shepherd. People utterly unfamiliar with Christianity, with church symbolism might wonder ‘why a shepherd?’ They might ask (when they get to visit our church in person): “Why does your church have a stained glass window of a guy surrounded by sheep?” Of course, you’d know to direct them to John’s gospel and to all the places in the Old Testament referred to shepherds. But relating it to today? I mean, who here has ever even seen a shepherd?

I’m pretty sure that for most followers of Jesus the image still works. Even though we’re not sheep herders, we get the idea. We long for and pray for and give thanks for the care that we receive as the sheep of Jesus’ pasture. 

Jesus the Good Shepherd is indeed a comforting figure. But perhaps we urbanized non-sheepherders need to be reminded that shepherding was (and I suppose still is) a dangerous job. The shadow of death (as the psalm puts it) hovers just beyond the frame of the pastoral scene in our beautiful window.

Or as Pr. Bill Wylie-Kellermann said: “If today’s gospel calls up for you images of a familiar stained-glass window, the good shepherd with a lamb cuddled over the shoulder, then it’s probably best to envision it with a brick being thrown through.” Yikes!

Koenig, Peter. True Shepherd and the Wolves, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=58510

“The tension of this reading is between the . . . the tenderness of love for the flock and the predatory violence of the beast. The stillness of waters and the rushing of the wolves.”

You know, the role of pastors is modeled on this shepherd. But the fact is that the job description according to Jesus is not only to love, nourish, comfort, stand by, and lead – but to be willing to die for the flock. That should give pause to many seminary applicants, although it’s not in any ordination or installation service I know of.  

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And I admit that this passage gave me pause this week. The combined effect of the revelation (at least to me) of the plethora of shepherd imagery in early Christian art, the mental picture of a brick crashing through the stained glass, and the enigmatic statement by Jesus about having other flocks caused me to look again at Jesus the Good Shepherd. And the question that kept popping into my mind during the week was: whose shepherd is this?  

Of course, Jesus is my Good Shepherd. And of course yours. I imagine any Christian would make that claim. But then, as I recall the shepherd’s presence with those facing the threat of violence or death, I can’t help connecting it in recent weeks with the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd. No matter how many times we see the video of those 9.29 minutes and hear the agonizing testimony of witnesses, there is no way to blunt its dreadfulness. And then, two weeks into the trial, 20-year-old Daunte Wright was fatally shot. And ten 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. And then 13-year-old Adam Toledo. And on and on it goes. The shadow of death hovers not far from the frames of our communal life.

We know that the Jesus story entered history in a time of oppression, injustice, violence, and death. Jesus’ teachings tell us that those ways of being in the world are not God’s ways. The resurrection story tells us that those death-dealing ways do not have the last word. Today I see Jesus the Good Shepherd standing with George, Daunte, Ma’Khia, and Adam and all the others in their moments of crucifixion and welcoming them into the open arms of Paradise. I also see Derek Chauvin, Kimberly Potter, Nicholas Reardon, and Eric Stillman – all officers caught up in a death-dealing system and suffering the consequences. All of them, all of us sheep of one flock. 

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The image of the Good Shepherd as the gentle Jesus with a lamb cuddled over his shoulders is shattered as we see the one willing to lay down his life for the sheep, who identifies with the least and the lost, who suffers for their sake – and then who pushes us out of our comfort zones as we seek to be Christ now in the world, to overturn systems of oppression, to reform institutions, to advocate for the least of these. It can be overwhelming to even know where to begin.

I’m in a group that has been working on implementation of the ELCA social statement “Faith, Sexism, and Justice.” We’ve become more and more convinced of the intersecting issues of sexism and racism and all isms that privilege one group over another. Everyone in the group right now is white and there’s a lot of discussion about how to be good allies, how to recognize and get beyond our own prejudices, defensiveness, and just plain ignorance. 

One thing we agreed to do, as a very tiny first step was to read a book together. We chose A Womanist Midrash by Wil Gafney. I’ve known about womanist theology for a long time. I knew it began as a corrective to feminist theology that has been criticized as addressing only the experience of white women, while womanist theology is grounded in the experience and perspectives of Black women, particularly African-American women. It’s a small step outside the comfort zone, but a needful one as we navigate these difficult times. 

I’ve been doing some thinking about the name of our church. There is some confusion about whether we’re Good Shepherd Lutheran Church or the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. Does it matter, I wondered. Maybe not, except as a legal matter. But it seems to me that there is something about saying that we are the church of the Good Shepherd that conveys something important. We are the church that belongs to the Good Shepherd. We enjoy the benefits of comfort, compassion, and life-giving care. We are the sheep of his pasture.

We are also the church that carries on the work of the Good Shepherd. Now what does that mean? Remember that the job description according to Jesus is to love, nourish, comfort, stand by, lead – and be willing to give one’s life for the flock. I have to say that I am both comforted and challenged by Jesus’ statement, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” Wait. Who are these other sheep? We know from the gospels that the Jewish messiah, would also embrace Gentiles. After the resurrection, Jesus says, “I will draw all people to myself.” And here he echoes the same theme: “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.” These other sheep are is not specified; that’s the shepherd’s business, not ours. The practical effect of this inclusive statement is that we can trust that there is no one outside of the care, comfort, and compassion of Jesus. 

The challenge is that no one is outside of our care, comfort, and compassion. As followers of Jesus and sheep of the Good Shepherd we have our work cut out for us. And as I’ve learned from being part of the social statement group, the labor is not just the external activities we do out in the world. There is a lot of internal work. In order to be truly comforting, compassionate, and caring we must know ourselves. No matter how progressive, liberal, open-minded you may think you are, you carry within you life experiences, family history, cultural identity, and learnings that may or may not be correct about another person or group of people. This isn’t an accusation or indictment against you or me; it’s just a fact about each and every one of us. And step one is acknowledging it. 

Step two is listening to the stories of those who are different from you, truly listening even if you feel defensive, asking questions, being genuinely curious about someone’s experience of the world. 

Step three is becoming an advocate. Become educated about others. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t expect them to do the work for you. Learn about micro-aggressions, what makes a joke racist, sexist, or homophobic. Be open to learning, even when you feel resistant. Don’t take it personally when you’re corrected. 

Step five is being humble and courageous. I was once a facilitator for a church exchange program in which mostly white suburban congregations were paired up with mostly African-American ones. This was in Buffalo, NY, where most of the old mainline churches had long ago fled the inner city. As some of us gathered in front of the Black church where we would meet one another, the pastor of the suburban congregation pointed to the cornerstone of the old brick church: Emmaus Lutheran Church 1919. Already we had something in common. Later, a member of the suburban congregation expressed the fear that he’d had in agreeing to the gathering. He was afraid, he said, of unwittingly saying something offensive. I noted that it had taken courage to show up and humility to confess that we often don’t know what we don’t know, but we are open to learn.

It seems to me that being the Church of the Good Shepherd in this time is a call to break through an image that is only the comforting, personal Savior who cares passionately about each one of us – although that indeed is one very important aspect of that image. But when we break it open, we find that we have not subtracted any care for ourselves but have added all the other sheep of all the other flocks. Nothing can take away the love we have in Christ Jesus; that love can only be multiplied. 

I wish we could be in our sanctuary today, with all this attention on the Good Shepherd. More than that, though, I long for the time when we can be together, when we can reach out in more tangible ways to our neighbors, to other communities, other churches, other traditions. I’m looking forward to finally being able to get to know the people of  Good Shepherd Chinese Church. And while I’m sure the virtual interfaith iftar next week will be lovely, it can’t replace the relationship-building we can do in person. 

But the time will come. We will gather back under the ever-watchful eye of our Good Shepherd. Perhaps we will come back with a new way of gazing at the beautiful colors and light streaming into our sanctuary. It will be glorious to bask in that light. It will also be a challenge – to ask ourselves: Whose shepherd is this? Who are the sheep that Jesus is calling us to tend to?

As we switch gears now, mid-Easter season, to a mode of going out into the world to bring hope and healing, what better icon to send us on our way, to guide us on our way, to comfort us in the hard times, to challenge us when we become complacent, to inspire us to love, to nourish, to comfort, to stand by, to lead – and to give the very life of this congregation for the sake of those Jesus loves.

Christ the Good Shepherd. 

Amen 

Progressive+Lectionary+Commentary

JOHN 10:11-18

Jesus said: “I am the good shepherd. A good shepherd would die for the sheep. The hired hand, who is neither shepherd nor owner of the sheep, catches sight of the wolf coming and runs away, leaving the sheep to be scattered or snatched by the wolf. That’s because the hired hand works only for pay and has no concern for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me. In the same way Abba God knows me and I know God—and for these sheep I will lay down my life. I have other sheep that don’t belong to this fold—I must lead them too, and they will hear my voice. And then there will be one flock, one shepherd. This is why Abba God loves me—because I lay down my life, only to take it up again. No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again. This command I received from my Abba.”

The Scariest Word In Church

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Young,Girl,In,A,Concert,Crowd,Holds,Smoke,Bombs,With

Warning: this is going to be one of the scariest sermons you’re ever going to hear.

I’m invoking the poet and author Annie Dillard, who said, It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares.

So you have been duly warned.

Now you might be thinking that I’m going to preach a fire and brimstone sermon about the wages of sin and the threat of eternity in the flames of hell. But you’d be wrong. Or you might think this is going to be one of those intimidating stewardship sermons, which will end with a plea to log into Vanco right now and give until it hurts. Nope, not that either.

Today, I am going to be talking about a word that makes Lutheran Christians shake in their shoes. I’m talking about witnessing. I’m sorry, I really am. It’s unavoidable. Jesus has the last word in today’s gospel reading: “You are witnesses of these things.”

Granted, we’re not the only Christians who quake at the idea of witnessing about our faith. But since Garrison Keillor made a living out of portraying Lutherans as shy, unassuming, self-effacing people, we have a reputation to live down. So, while I know that some people do find it easy to do, I’m going to make a wild guess that 99% of you would say that – even if we were not sheltering in a pandemic – you would not relish the idea of walking out your door and start talking to passers-by about your faith.

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Well then, what are we to do with these words of Jesus? For starters, we could say that he wasn’t talking about us. He was talking to those eyewitnesses who had seen the post-resurrection appearances, had seen Jesus walk through doors, heard him ask for something to eat, met him and talked with him on the road, read the scriptures and broke bread with him. We’re not eyewitnesses to these things. Whew! We’re off the hook.

Except then we’ve forgotten the words from last week that Jesus spoke to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That makes us witnesses, too.

The gospel writers took great pains to convey the stories of eyewitnesses to appearances of Jesus after the resurrection. And as much as they can cause us to scratch our heads and wonder what exactly happened in these sightings, we can understand that they experienced a profound encounter with Divine Mystery.

Unknown

What’s particularly touching about Luke’s description of this appearance is that, even though the disciples responded to this encounter with a mixture of joy and doubt and wonder, they were still called to be witnesses. Spiritual experience, rational questions, and conflicting emotions were all bundled together in those very-human disciples, just as they are in us. They discovered that a big part of being followers of Jesus now, post-resurrection, was to be witnesses, even with their doubts and fears. And if it was true for them, then we’re certainly not exempt. We’re called to be witnesses to what God has done – and is still doing

Now, I get that there’s a further reason for us to shy away from this ‘witnessing’ word. We’ve probably all been accosted by enthusiastic believers who want to testify to their version of the true faith. So let’s be clear: I’m not suggesting that we join the crowd that tries to shove their faith down people’s throats or threatens them with eternal damnation if they don’t believe as they do. I’m sure that’s not what Jesus had in mind.

So then the question is: if we’re called to get over our shyness and be witnesses – but not that kind of witness – how do we do it? What do we say? How do we do it without being offensive? How can we take the scariness out of witnessing?

First of all, let’s take it out of a religious context. If you’ve been keeping up with the news at all, you’ve heard what witnesses have had to say about the deaths of George Floyd and Daunte Wright. Maybe you saw the video of the witness who described the killing of eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis on Thursday. Perhaps you have even been called upon to bear witness in court to something you saw. The point of telling your story is to hopefully contribute to the revelation of truth in the pursuit of justice. 

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I never had to testify in court but I did witness a bank robbery once. After the robber had run in, jumped over the counter, grabbed some cash and run out again, the doors were locked, and all the customers had to stay until the FBI could come and interview us. Once I told them what I had seen, I was allowed to leave. All I had to do was simply tell my truth.

That’s a dramatic example, but the fact is we do witness all the time. We talk about things that are important or of interest to us. We might tell someone (bear witness) to a great movie we’ve seen and think they’ll enjoy. Or a book we’ve read, a video game we’ve played, or a binge-worthy Netflex series. 

We bear witness to the accomplishments (or failures) of our sports teams. We bear witness to important events in our family or work lives. It’s as simple as that. We bear witness to things that matter to us.

So let’s practice. 

Think about something you often talk about, something you love – sports, work, family, school, tv, music, whatever. Think of something about that subject that’s happened recently. Don’t overthink it. Remember, we’re not talking about ‘witnessing’ in the church sense.  

Does anyone have something they’d be willing to share? This is a relatively safe place. Just speak simply and conversationally about it. Don’t worry if you’re doing it right. You can’t go wrong when you’re sharing about something you love.  Not too intimidating, right?

OK, now take a deep breath as we move into the church zone.

And let’s consider that witnessing is not all that different when it comes to your faith. Witnessing is simply saying where you sensed or experienced God in your life – at home or work, through a stranger or friend, a doctor or teacher or neighbor, something you read or heard, even through yourself. It could be through the work of the government or school or the church or through someone else’s life. Bearing witness is nothing more than saying where you think God is at work in your life and the world. We witness all the time; we’re just not used to thinking about doing it in terms of our faith. It doesn’t take any fancy church-y language. All it takes is a simple story of what you yourself experienced.

Here we are, almost in the middle of the Easter season. Easter Sunday was the high holy day of belief in the possibility that good can triumph over evil, beauty can overcome beastliness, that there can be hope for a way through whatever challenges confront us.

On one of the news shows the other night, in the midst of a difficult conversation on race relations in our country, Rev. Al Sharpton was surprisingly optimistic. He credited two things that give him hope. He said,

When I’ve lived long enough and fought in the civil rights movement long enough to see chiefs of police get on the stand against a policeman and Pat Robertson come out for police reform, I know there is a possibility that we can turn this country around. 

He didn’t frame it as such, but that was a witness to resurrection. Another panelist on the show was less optimistic – for some very good reasons. Oftentimes, we proclaim resurrection while we’re still entombed in Holy Saturday. But I like to think that his witness sparked some small flicker of hope in her that can grow and sustain her. Sharpton isn’t naïve; he ended the quote “I know there is a possibility that we can turn this country around” with “if we don’t get weary in our well-doing.” 

So, in these 50 days of Easter, I am encouraging you to be on the lookout for signs of resurrection life. Not just on Sunday morning, but in the news, with the family, at work, at school, at any and all places – even the ones most impossible to imagine such a thing. 

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Here’s another resurrection story. I recently read an article about 185 baby tortoises recovered from a smuggling attempt from the Galapagos Islands. In Googling around for more information, I learned that just six years ago ten baby tortoises were seen on the Galapagos Island of Pinzon. The ten new hatchlings were the first bred in the wild in more than a century. Recent surveys suggest that there are now more than 500 tortoises estimated to be now living on the island.

This is a resurrection story – good news to those of us who sometimes wonder if there is any hope for our planet. Now we could put this down to human activity, our conservation efforts. And we would be correct – to a point. However, I believe there is even more to it. The God of creation and redemption is never inactive. The story of the baby tortoises is a witness of God’s resurrection work in the world – working through us, through human repentance and commitment, as well as through the healing power of the earth that is part of the body of God – “if we don’t get weary in our well-doing.” 

Now, if I were to tell these stories in a non-church setting, I might say something like: “you know my pastor is always encouraging us to look for signs of hope in the world, especially in places you wouldn’t expect to find it. I’m going to tell this one next time in church.”

Of course, that might open you up to further questions – especially if they didn’t know you were a religious person. So you have to be prepared to say more. But don’t be afraid. Because you know what, those first witnesses were afraid, too – which was the reason for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, the coming of the Holy Spirit then and now, and the on-going support of our church community. So take a deep breath of Holy Spirit and speak your truth. 

So now that I’ve told you a couple of my witness stories, maybe you’ve had time to think of one of your own. What has God been up to in your life or in the world as you’ve observed it? Would you be willing to tell your story? Anybody want give it a try? If not today, that’s OK; we have another 35 days of Easter. And then it’s Pentecost, so who knows what might happen then! During Easter, we’re going to collect our resurrection stories. And we’re going to practice witnessing. Because like everything else, it gets easier with practice. 

Maybe you could even find a trusted friend or family member who could be your witnessing partner. You could each make a commitment to remember these times of noticing and share them at some point each week. That way you can practice with somebody you trust until you feel more comfortable and willing to tell your story to whoever happens to be listening – in your own natural, unassuming, shy-Lutheran way.

Then, when it’s not so scary any longer, all you’ll have to worry about are the fire and brimstone sermons and multiple offering plates. And I really don’t think you need to be concerned about them here.

You are witnesses of these things: the all-encompassing love of God, the compassionate justice-seeking of Jesus, and the power of Divine Presence to bring new life out of the many death-dealing experiences we face.

We are witnesses of these things. Together we are a community of witnesses. And we will not be afraid.

Amen

peace

Luke 24: 36b-48

While they were still talking about this, Jesus actually stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

In their panic and fright, they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said to them, “Why are you disturbed? Why do such ideas cross your mind? Look at my hands and my feet; it is I, really. Touch me and see—a ghost doesn’t have flesh and bones as I do.” After saying this, Jesus showed them the wounds.

They were still incredulous for sheer joy and wonder, so Jesus said to them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” After being given a piece of cooked fish, the savior ate in their presence. Then Jesus said to them, “Remember the words I spoke when I was still with you: everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the psalms had to be fulfilled.”

Then Jesus opened their minds to the understanding of the scriptures, saying, “That is why the scriptures say that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In the Messiah’s name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.

“You are witnesses of these things.”

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

Free image/jpeg Resolution: 1920x1440, File size: 250Kb, Crucifixion of Christ on the cross against a cloudy sky

 

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.”