No Doubt: It’s Quasimodo Sunday

I don’t know how true this is anymore, in our confusing Zoom/hybrid worship era, but traditionally, this Sunday is called Low Sunday. Common wisdom says that it refers to the low attendance in churches usual on this day, after the big celebration on Easter Sunday. I love the story, though, of how back in the days after he retired, the beloved previous pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran in Buffalo would come back to preach. His name was Ralph Loew (L-O-E-W). So, of course, this was Low Sunday. You can see how the confusion came about. But neither of these is the real story. 

“Low” probably refers to the Sunday following the “high” feast of Easter, and neither to the low attendance usual on this day nor to Ralph Loew. This day actually has quite a few names: Low Easterday, Close Sunday (because it’s the close of the Easter octave, in other words, the eighth day after Easter), and – my favorite – Quasimodo Sunday. You’re probably familiar with the character, Quasimodo, from the novel by Victor Hugo or the Disney movie. This day gets the name from the first words of the opening words of the service for this day from 1 Peter: “Quasi modo geniti infantes” (like newborn babies). Quasimodo got his name either because he was an infant when he was abandoned at Notre Dame Cathedral or it was the day he was found – or maybe both. In any event, on Quasimodo Sunday we are called to welcome the newly baptized members of the Church. How cool is it that we have a baptism today!

If this plethora of names for the day isn’t enough, there’s so much going on in the readings that I’ve found it hard to focus in on just one. I think they must reflect what it was like in the early days after the resurrection, when people were telling stories about what they had experienced or heard, and others were asking questions trying to make sense of it all. It had to be an exhilarating time, as they tried to figure out what this resurrection business would mean in their lives and how they would become a community centered around the risen Christ. 

In a very basic way, it’s the same for us today we take a full fifty days to celebrate Easter to soak up the stories from long ago to share our own experiences of resurrection life and to ask questions as we try to make sense of it all. Of course, we’ve had 2000-plus years of institutionalized religion, but I think most would agree that the church is undergoing major shifts in how we understand the church as community. So as we move further into the Easter season, we’ll see what we can glean from these texts that can be used be of use to us at this point in time. 

First of all, we can lighten up on Thomas instead of continuing to call him by the derogatory name of Doubting Thomas and using him as a cautionary tale against our own doubts. We really should make him the patron saint of our post-Christian era because, then as now, people were questioning the claims about who Jesus was, debating whether the resurrection was spiritual and metaphorical or physical and literal.

We’re finally learning that there’s nothing wrong with questioning matters of faith. Doubt isn’t wrong. As the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote in the early 1900s, “doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” Theologian Paul Tillich said perhaps more clearly, “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” And best of all Frederick Buechner “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” 

So the better conclusion about Thomas is to remember that when he sees Jesus he believes wholeheartedly and as legend has it becomes the apostle to India. You might know that there’s a Gospel of Thomas, which may have been written within a few decades after Jesus’ death, but it’s not included in the final collection of books we call the New Testament. In her book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Elaine Pagels argues that whoever wrote the Gospel of John clearly was familiar with this Gospel of Thomas – and thoroughly detested it. She says, “What you’re seeing when you read John and Thomas together is an intense, contentious … I guess you could call it a conversation, but really, it’s more like an argument between different groups of the followers of Jesus. What they’re arguing about is the question: Who is Jesus and what is the good news about him?”

So, because we know that the gospel of John is a gospel of symbols and metaphor, most of which can’t be traced back to the historical Jesus, we can understand John’s reasoning behind creating the Thomas story in order to remove doubts about the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, that doesn’t rob his message of its meaning. Jesus comes into the room on two separate occasions and says, “Peace be with you” and breathes on them. This is John’s Pentecost. It’s very different from the one in Acts that we’ll read on Pentecost, but the point is the same: receive the Holy Spirit; as God sent me so now I’m sending you.  

Through this gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus gave them peace. You might say that by breathing on them Jesus gave the disciples breathing space. By conferring peace upon them so that even though they were still frightened, and a way forward was still fraught with danger, they could feel the presence of Christ with them. This peace, available to us in times of crisis as well in times of calm, is the recognition that Christ is with us in all seasons of life and will provide a way to the future when we can see no way ahead. 

Just consider what we are doing when we share the peace of Christ with one another every Sunday. Granted, sharing the peace has gotten a little strange since the pandemic. Handshaking and hugging are out and we’ve had to adapt to virtual peace on Zoom. Many of us mourn this “touchless” ritual, but frankly there are a number of introverts who are just as happy to avoid the love fest. During this ‘fast’ from our usual practice it’s a good time to think about how the sharing of Christ’s peace can be comfortable, yet still meaning for all people. 

Because the sharing of Christ’s peace is not a token gesture. It is a potent recognition of God’s presence amid our pain, our doubts, our fallibilities, and our fears. It’s breathing space in a mystical experience as real as any that can be taken in by the limitations of our five senses. The risen Christ breathes in and on us, imparting new life and energy to face our own trials and challenges. The church will have new life to the extent that yet that we open ourselves to divine breath and then from our breathing space we offer grace and love to others. This peace, this breath is not only for us in times of doubt or fear. it’s what fuels our building of the beloved community allowing the walls that we and others erect around us all enabling us to see all of creation as one resting within the body of God.

But, oh, if only the world could see this unity. Then the fighting would stop in Ukraine and all sides would join in the rebuilding of their country. Community members and police forces across the United States would work together toward reconciliation and forgiveness. Republicans and Democrats would put highest priority on the well-being of all the people they represent. Every nation would put maximum effort into environmental care. 

If only I could see it all the time. I get an email every day with a thought and insight for my Enneagram type. The one I got yesterday said that I should cultivate a quiet mind and allow processing of feelings especially of frustration and resentment. I know that if I could always have a quiet mind and better process feelings, I’d be a better person. and thanks to things like my daily Enneagram thought I’m reminded of my area of growth. I try, as I am sure that you try in your ways too, to be better people and in our best moments we do see it so clearly. the line between you and me disappears; the lines between us and everyone else disappear; the lines between humans and other creatures and all of creation disappear. in our breathing space we know the peace of the risen Christ and we see Thomas – not doubting Thomas, but Thomas the Twin. Our twin reminds us that we have seen we have been breathed upon and given the Holy Spirit not just on Easter Sunday or on Pentecost Sunday but on Low Sunday and throughout the whole Easter season. we have fifty whole days to breathe in Easter air. 

And then Pentecost. It’s especially special this year because it’s Confirmation Day for four of our young people. Confirmation – also known as the Affirmation of Baptism – comes forty-three days after Quasimodo Sunday, the day we welcome the newly baptized members of the Church. And how wonderful it is to welcome Wesley and his family on his baptism day. There’s no doubt about that!

The glory of Easter continues for five more Sundays. Not that it ends then; it doesn’t. It will never stop as we look forward to the rushing wind and the fiery flames of Pentecost, as we continue to live into our understanding and our actions as a community centered around the risen and living Christ. 

Amen

Quasimodo outline” by 天曉得。 is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

John 20:19-31

In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were for fear of the Temple authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Having said this, the savior showed them the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, “Peace be with you. As Abba God has sent me, so I am sending you.”

After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” It happened that one of the Twelve, Thomas—nicknamed Didymus, or “Twin”—was absent when Jesus came. The other disciples kept telling him, “We have seen Jesus!” Thomas’ answer was, “I’ll never believe it without putting my finger in the nail marks and my hand into the spear wound.”

On the eighth day, the disciples were once more in the room, and this time Thomas was with them. Despite the locked doors, Jesus came and stood before them, saying, “Peace be with you.” Then, to Thomas, Jesus said, “Take your finger and examine my hands. Put your hand into my side. Don’t persist in your unbelief but believe!”

Thomas said in response, “My Savior and my God!”

Jesus then said, “You have become a believer because you saw me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus performed many other signs as well—signs not recorded here—in the presence of the disciples. But these have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Only Begotten, so that by believing you may have life in Jesus’ Name.

How Can We Celebrate Resurrection in the Midst of War?

On Easter Sunday, it’s become my tradition to read two of the four gospel accounts of the Resurrection: the original short-form version from Mark (ending at 15:8) and one of the other three gospels. This year that will be Luke. I ‘stole’ this idea from Bruce Epperly, author of The Adventurous Lectionary blog, where he says:

The gospel accounts present two different perspectives on the resurrection,
and they need not be harmonized, without glossing over their differences, much as we as we often do with the Christmas stories. In contrast to the approach of many Christians today, the early church was comfortable with diverse witnesses to Jesus’ birth and resurrection. The differing stories are not stumbling blocks to faith or veracity, but reminders that resurrection is ultimately indescribable. 

And now – my Easter sermon:

This is part of my egg collection. Many of these are pysanky from the Broadway Market in Buffalo, from the years I lived there. Pysanky are the Polish/Ukrainian painted eggs – like the ones Katerina made for today’s fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees.

The Broadway Market was started in 1888 by Eastern European immigrants wanting to preserve their traditions and heritage. Every year before Easter I would make a pilgrimage to buy another egg for my collection. I haven’t gotten one for many years now, so am delighted to have this special one from one of our Confirmation student’s service project.

So, although Easter is next week for Eastern Orthodox Christians, I couldn’t help thinking about Ukraine as I prepared for our Easter celebration today.  And I wondered: how do can we celebrate the resurrection in the midst of war? 

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t intend my question to be a downer. Today is a day of celebration. But frankly there are so many things going on in our world right now that mitigate against believing that resurrection could have anything to do with us beyond a day 2000+ years ago when something happened.

And we don’t really know what that something was. The gospels aren’t much help; they each have a different version of what happened. Author Barbara Brown Taylor has noted that “the resurrection is the one and only event in Jesus’ life that was entirely between him and God.” So we just do not know.

Maybe it’s better that way. Years ago, when I saw the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, I was unimpressed with the portrayal of the first Easter morning. What I remember was a lot of flashing lights and people raising their arms and exclaiming, but there was nothing about Jesus that you could see – obviously. 

In the ‘Living by the Word’ column in this week’s “Christian Century,” Katherine Willis Pershey described her experience:
I once watched a video marketed to churches for use in Easter worship. A man wrapped in linens lay on a table. As an orchestra played dramatically in the background, the man slowly began to stir. The music billowed to a climax as the man sat up. I hated it. It reduced a miracle to a cartoon, a holy mystery to a crude farce.

But even if the gospel stories don’t give us consistent details about just what was happening to Jesus , they are informative in what was going on with other people.  
The women are grieving; they are coming to the tomb with spices to anoint the body. They are anxious, not knowing how they would roll the heavy stone away. Then, after their encounter with the young man (in Mark) and the two (in Luke), they are frightened, bewildered, trembling, terrified.

And what of the men? In Mark, the women don’t say anything to anyone because they’re so afraid. In Luke, the women do go and tell the others, but the men choose to disbelieve their news as idle tales (obviously, this is pre-“believe women” ). Peter looks into the tomb, sees the discarded grave clothes – and leaves. Luke says he was amazed – but at what?

We love Mary Magdalene recognizing Jesus in the garden, but just one of the stories.

Frankly, today I’m strangely comforted by the ones who are bewildered, doubting, if not disbelieving (we’ll get to Thomas next week), and amazed – but at what?

With news from Ukraine with horror upon horror, political mayhem, Dr. Fauci reporting we’ll never reach herd immunity, news of a friend’s recurring cancer, and you can add your heartaches to the list – we feel frightened, bewildered, trembling, and terrified.

I had a friend in seminary whose mother died just before Easter in our senior year. I experienced her as a woman of deep faith. But on that Easter Sunday, she just could not feel it. She did not want to participate in the joy of the day. I have always remembered that incident – and the realization that just because it’s Easter Sunday, the grief we carry does not instantly disappear. And in the midst of the woes of today’s world, I found the entire Holy Week experience to be necessary.

On Maundy Thursday, we remembered the inclusivity of the Table, Jesus’ welcome, hospitality, and servanthood towards all people. And on Good Friday, we named and prayed for the woes of the world and remembered that God is with us in suffering. I even kept one of my eggs when it broke. Somehow it reminds me of the presence of God even in brokenness of the world.

We didn’t meet on Holy Saturday, but that day has always been meaningful to me. Even though I’m immersed in Easter bulletin and sermon, I recognize the importance of sitting in the darkness of the tomb – in that liminal space between death and life, between an ending and a new beginning. And I recall the wisdom of Sikh speaker and activist, Valerie Kaur (see her brilliant TED talk here):

In our tears and agony, we hold our children close and confront the truth:
The future is dark.
But my faith dares me to ask:
What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?

This is Resurrection hope – and it’s obviously even bigger than Christianity. So if today is going to be more than just a remembrance of what happened about 2000+ years ago, we need to embrace Revolutionary Love and relentless optimism. And this is her prayer:

In the name of the Divine within us and around us, we find everlasting optimism.
Within your will, may there be grace for all of humanity.

The new thing about to be born, the end of war, the solution to the problem – might not be today. You don’t even have to be happy today. The power of God to bring life out of death, peace out of war, hope out of despair – isn’t dependent on our acceptance of doctrines, dogmas, a specific version of the Bible, or a church holy day. It just is. It’s just how God works (or Spirit, Divine, Love with a capital L). 

So I can enjoy my pysanky eggs and celebrate Ukrainian culture, even while I lament and pray for the people of Ukraine today. We can lament all the death-dealing things of our world today. Easter doesn’t demand that we shut our eyes to reality. It does ask us to consider that there is something bigger, something better than us. 

Back in seminary, I had a professor who was known to be very difficult. It was rumored that he asked only one question on the final exam: “Who is God?”
The answer he wanted was: “the one who raised Jesus from the dead”.

I would now add “however that happened.” Because into my story, and into your story, and into our world’s stories of suffering and sorrow – we bring that Revolutionary Love and relentless optimism – that the one who raised Jesus will also raise me, you, our world into new life – however it will happen and whatever it will mean. That door is always open. Easter Sunday asks us simply to walk through.

Amen.

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 the week, they came to the tomb. 
They were saying to one another“Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked, they found that the huge stone had been rolled back. On entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, dressed in a white robe. They were very frightened, but he 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 see him just as he told you.’” 
They made their way out and fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling; but they said nothing to anyone, because they were so afraid. 

Luke 24:1-12

On the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn, the women came to the tomb bringing the spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled back from the tomb, but when they entered the tomb, they did not find the body of Jesus. While they were still at a loss over what to think of this, two figures in dazzling garments stood beside them. Terrified, the women bowed to the ground. The two said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is not here but has risen. Remember what Jesus said to you while still in Galilee, that he must be delivered into the hands of sinners and be crucified, and on the third day would rise again.” With this reminder, the words of Jesus came back to them. When they had returned from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and the others. The women were Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. The other women with them also told the apostles, but the story seemed to them an idle tale and they refused to believe them. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. He stooped down, and looking in, saw nothing but the linen cloths. So he went away, full of amazement at what had happened.

Join the Maundy Thursday Revolution

Did you know that tonight you are part of a revolution? It might not seem like it. Maundy Thursday has become a rather quiet part of Holy Week. It doesn’t have the festivity of Palm Sunday, the drama of Good Friday, or the exuberance of Easter. But, in light of current events in the world, consider this blurb from a book called The Holy Thursday Revolution. It came out in 2005, but seems even more relevant today:

How can the world evolve from a culture of war and domination to one of friendship and communion? Philosopher Beatrice Bruteau shows how the two teaching events of Holy Thursday: the Footwashing and the Supper incited the Christian revolution with the power to repeat itself on every scale of social organization–even now.

Wow! The power to repeat itself on every scale of social organization. Imagine if we really claimed that power. And by power, I don’t mean domination, but the power of friendship and communion. 

I would add servanthood, since the foot washing that Jesus did was the epitome of humble service. But tonight I want to stick with the image of the table – and the meal. When you read the gospels, you can’t help noticing that there were a lot of meals. In fact, it’s been suggested that Jesus’ primary work was organizing suppers as a way to embody the kin-dom of God. And Jesus welcomed everybody: no one was denied a place at the table – which was very problematical for his critics. 

In the Church, though, we haven’t always been so hospitable. I don’t know how it was here in the past, but in my experience, up until not very long ago, there were rules about access to the Communion table. Something like: “all those who are baptized and who believe in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine are welcome to receive Communion.” That rule is still in effect in many places, and in addition you must be a member of that particular church body. 

But in many churches the rules began to relax and the invitation in bulletins read simply: “all those who are baptized are welcome to receive Communion.” Even that barrier, though, began to fall. Once, in a church I previously served, a new family began attending worship services. The son had been coming to our summer day camp and he brought Mom and Dad to church. Mom and Dad were an interracial couple and they told me that they had felt unwelcome at their previous church. That church was one that did not baptize infants, and none of the three were baptized. One Sunday, at Communion time (picture a fairly good-sized sanctuary and a fairly small congregation), almost everyone was up and either going to or returning from the altar – except for this family. They sat all alone in one of the back pews and it was pretty clear – at least to me – that it was wrong to exclude them from the Table. So the next week, I invited them to come up for Communion. In my mind, I was thinking, “Please don’t anyone tell the bishop.” 

Fast forward to the ELCA Churchwide Assembly that September, where presented for approval was a document called “The Use of the Means of Grace: A Statement on the Practice of Word and Sacrament.” One section in it knocked down another barrier: the participation of children. As one pastor said, “Children know they are being excluded. One thing small children, and even infants, understand is that when family gathers around the table, with the understanding that Holy Communion is God’s family meal for God’s people, they know they are not being fed. Why are mommy and daddy being fed and am I not?” A lay woman said, “If you tell a child, ‘Jesus feeds the hungry,’ then you will have children put out their hands.  They, too, want to experience the presence of God.”

But then, then . . . Gordon Lathrop, professor of liturgy at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, author of many books, and the authority on all things worship-related was speaking. I confess I was only half listening, but then I thought I heard him say that sometimes it was OK to give Communion to a non-baptized person. Later that day, I saw him in the hallway of the convention center. I ran up to him – I had never met the guy, and I was a little (OK, a lot) intimidated by him, and said, “Excuse me.” He stopped and looked like he might not bite my head off. “Did I hear you say that sometimes it’s OK to give Communion to a non-baptized person?” He said, “Yes, sometimes the way to the font is through the altar.” 

Whoa! Gordon Lathrop said (in much more professorial language than mine) that I wasn’t a heretic. This was a game-changer. Barriers were falling all over the place. Indeed, we are part of a revolution. 

But the movement to include all people at the welcome table must continue. There are so many people who do not feel welcome, wanted, included, or even safe in our churches – even those who genuinely proclaim, “All are welcome.” Churches of all kinds are realizing that we have to learn how to be truly inclusive. It’s not enough to make the statement. We have to do the swork.

That’s why I’m thinking that the time has come for Good Shepherd to begin to look at the process for becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. If you’re unfamiliar with Reconciling in Christ (RIC), they’ve been around since 1983, helping faith communities to see, name, celebrate, and advocate for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions in the Lutheran church. And I’m happy to see that now their purpose statement adds: “to work for racial equity and commit to anti-racist work.” 

So, I am inviting you to the Holy Thursday Revolution, that is, to a movement to make our welcome table even more inviting, meaningful, life-changing, Christ-bringing to more people. You may think this is a strange way to commemorate Holy Thursday. But I can’t help thinking that Jesus, who included everyone at his table – even at that last supper, the doubter and the betrayer – would approve.

So if you want to help make Good Shepherd even more welcoming that it already is, in an explicit public way, I invite you to join me. If Beatrice Bruteau is right, the events of Holy Thursday incited – and can still insight – the Christian revolution with the power to repeat itself on every scale of social organization. In other words, we can be the Church as it’s meant to be – transformational both in our personal lives and in the healing of our broken world. 

Amen. 

Mary, Jesus & the Alabaster Jar

In 1970, God did a new thing in the Lutheran church and in 2020, the ELCA marked the 50th anniversary of its decision to ordain women. There was supposed to be a big celebration in Phoenix last July – but, you know, COVID. The event was actually known as 50-40-10 because it also honored the 40th anniversary of the ordination of the first women of color and the 10th anniversary of the ELCA’s decision to officially ordain lgbtq people. 

But let me take you back a bit further. The 25th anniversary of the ordination of women in the ELCA was in 1995 and there was a grand celebration in Minneapolis. The theme of the gathering was Breaking Open the Jar. The reference was to the alabaster jar of perfume used by a woman to anoint Jesus. Each attendee received a jar like this one. 

The story of the woman anointing Jesus is a well known, if sometimes confusing and intriguing one. All four gospels have a version of it, although the details vary. In Matthew and Mark, the incident takes place in the home of Simon the leper; the woman is unnamed; she anoints Jesus’ head with the oil instead of his feet. The disciples complain about the waste of the costly oil. 

In Luke’s gospel, the setting is the home of a Pharisee named Simon. The woman is called a “sinful woman” (there is no mention of her sin, but tradition has called her a prostitute). She kisses Jesus’ feet, washes them with her tears and dries them with her hair before anointing his feet with the oil. The one who complains in this version is the Pharisee who criticizes Jesus for interacting with such a person. 

In John’s version, the event takes place in the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary. Mary of Bethany (not to be confused with Mary Magdalene) is the one who opens up a pound of pure nard. 

Now this was expensive stuff. Nard, actually spikenard, is an oil extracted from a flowering plant that grows in the high mountains of Nepal, China, and India. Along with being a valuable perfume, it’s also used as incense, as a sedative and as an herbal medicine. This exotic perfume, with its strong, distinctive fragrance, was highly valued in ancient cultures; it symbolized the very best – in the way that “Tiffany diamond” does to us. If you smelled the aroma of spikenard, you knew that you were experiencing the best there was.  

But what was Mary thinking?! What she did at the dinner party in Bethany was so over the top in so many ways. First of all: the expense. Imagine buying a bottle of wine for your next dinner party that cost you a year’s salary. Extravagant doesn’t even begin to cover it. What was she doing with a pound of nard in the first place? Some have suggested that it could have been part of her dowry, which she sacrificed for Jesus.

So here they are, sharing a meal together, a celebration among the closest of friends – a celebration of that friendship, of good food, good wine, and most of all, life. But there must also have been an element of worry and fear at that table. John has set this dinner party after the raising of Lazarus, and notes here that Lazarus is at the table, so the scene already has a liminal feeling to it, of being on the threshold between life and death. They had to know that Jesus was a marked man, that his days were numbered. In John, it’s the raising of Lazarus that really sets the religious authorities against Jesus, and they decide he has to die. 

For us, reading this today, we know we’re about to enter into Holy Week, the time of remembering how the authorities did indeed carry out that death sentence. So Mary’s is a prophetic action – Jesus himself is about to enter Holy Week. The very next passage in John is the Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. 

Still, her action is not proper. What she does goes way beyond inappropriate – unacceptable in polite company in that culture and time: she loosens her hair as women did only for their husbands or when they were in mourning; she pours expensive balm on the feet of Jesus (not like the anointing of a king, when the oil would be poured on the head), and she touches Jesus even though she’s a single woman – which is so not appropriate – and then wipes his feet with her hair. Her action is sensual and intimate. But Mary clearly adores Jesus. 

And wrong as they are, we can see how many readers of the gospels have taken Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene and the ‘sinful woman’ in a story from Luke’s gospel and conflated these women into one – and that one, a prostitute. Mary of Bethany is most certainly not the same person as Mary of Magdala. Magdala was located 50 miles north of Jerusalem. Bethany was just on the edge of Jerusalem, just one mile east of where Jesus was heading to his death.

We don’t know who the woman who broke open the alabaster jar of ointment in the other gospels was. Like so many women in the Bible, her name is not given. In Matthew and Mark, she’s simply a woman; it’s not until Luke gets ahold of the story that she becomes a ‘woman who was a sinner.’ It’s of particular offense to women that all of these biblical women have been labeled as prostitutes, even though the nameless woman’s ‘sin’ isn’t identified (Could she have been a thief, a liar, a gossip? How is it that sexual sins are much worse than all others?) Even more offensive is the defamation of Mary Magdalene’s character. But that’s another sermon for another day. 

Here, at this table, Judas is having none of it. In this version, he’s the one complaining about the wastefulness of it; the money could have been put to better use. We might be inclined to agree with Judas here (whether or not we buy John’s characterization of him as a thief), but John pulls us back and reminds us that, in this story, it’s Mary who teaches us what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. He doesn’t negate the call to serve the poor; it’s just not what this is about. After three years with Jesus, the disciples had learned that care for the poor characterizes the people of God. But here he reminds them that there’s even more to it. Full-bodied adoration. Mary recognized that she has encountered the lavish, over-the-top love of God, and she adores Jesus for it. She’s experienced the sumptuous love of God through Jesus and responds with an extravagant act of love. She takes the best of what she has to offer – her whole self – embodied in that jar of nard – and breaks it open as a fragrant offering to the One she adores. 

Father Gerry O’Rourke, one of the founders of United Religions Initiative, the San Francisco Interfaith Council, and the Interfaith Center at the Presidio lived not far from here at Atria Park during the last years of his life. Not long before he died, I interviewed him for a website called Virtual Grace that Bishop Megan and I used to do. In the interview (you can find it on YouTube), Father Gerry got onto the subject of abundance, how so often in the church today we operate out of a sense of scarcity, of being afraid of not having enough. As he said in his wonderful Irish brogue, “There’s nothing scarce about Jesus.” 

Well, Mary obviously got that. She recognized the generosity of love that Jesus had for her; she in return poured out her devotion to him. And neither the original disciples nor we should begrudge her act of devotion, emotion, sensuality – and the foreshadowing of his death, because nard was also used to prepare a body for burial. 

We have to recognize what a stunning act this was. In the culture of that time and place, it was taboo for a man to be touched by a woman not his wife. And loose hair on a woman was considered too sensual to be seen by men in Galilean culture (just as it is in some places today). But Jesus had transcended his culture. He didn’t have a problem with being touched by women or seeing them with their hair down. He didn’t have a problem with talking to a woman at the well or having women as friends and disciples. Remember the Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet in this version of the story is the same Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, who sat at his feet to listen and to learn.

But history has a way of layering over some of the extraordinary nature of this event. After Jesus died, the radical inclusivity he manifested toward women became more restrictive. Mary Magdalene came to be portrayed as a prostitute, as did the unnamed “sinner” in Luke. Women’s bodies, women’s ways were declared sinful. 

Consider these writings from some of the patriarchs of the early Church:

From Saint Clement of Alexandria: “For women, the very consciousness of their own nature must evoke feelings of shame.”

From Tertullian, the father of Latin Christianity: “Woman is a temple built over a sewer.”

From Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo: “Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God.”

And from our own Martin Luther: “The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.”

It’s no wonder so many women found remaining in the Church untenable. I used some of these quotes in my presentation at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in 2018: Dismantling Patriarchy in Religion. Afterward, I met a number of people who had attended the workshop and learned that many of the women had left Christianity for other spiritual paths.

Part 1
Part 2

So I see the ordination of women as a “new thing” that God has done. And in lifting up the woman with the alabaster jar, not as a prostitute or even a “sinful woman,” we participate in the gift given to us. In the oldest version of this story, the one found in Mark and Matthew, Jesus makes a remarkable comment on her action: 

“Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

What she has done. With tears, of all things: such a sign of weakness; who doesn’t fear breaking down and exhibiting such vulnerability? But here, there is no shame in crying. 

With her hair. Clergywomen’s hair was still an issue not that long ago. A friend was told by her (male) bishop when she was called to her first congregation that she should get her long hair cut short and permed. 

With her hands, providing ministry in a tactile way: hard to do today with our fears of being accused of having boundary issues. Still, we know that one of the sorrows of the pandemic lockdown was the loss of human touch. 

With her respect for Jesus – recognizing that his body was about to be dis-respected, brutalized, and destroyed – she reminds us of the innate goodness of human bodies. Mary debunks the hierarchical, dualistic view of reality that we inherited from Greek philosophy and Church patriarchs, in which, for example, the rational mind is valued over the intuitive, spirit is valued over matter, the human is valued over nature, man is valued over woman – and the soul is valued over the body. 

And Jesus concurs. In Hebrew thought, the soul was the whole of a person, the life force. Spirit wasn’t isolated from the body, but the body itself in complete harmony. It was the Greeks who created the dualism of separation of the soul from the body, which we’re still trying to get beyond today. 

With Mary’s help, we remember that Jesus has a body. Jesus is a body. Jesus is a human being, with aches and pains, joys and sorrows. I’m sure after all his teachings and travels, as he prepared to go into Jerusalem to certain death, being recognized as a human body and treated lovingly was just what he needed. Not more arguments from the Pharisees or questions from the disciples. Simple bodily care. Maybe he remembered Mary’s gift to him when he got up from the dinner table, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

What does all this mean for us? We should now go around touching each other, crying on one another’s feet? I don’t think so. Boundaries are important. But as we move closer to Good Friday, the humanity of Jesus looms larger. Although we’d like to jump quickly over to Easter and get past the ultimate human reality of death, Good Friday will not let us forget the ubiquitous presence of suffering as part of the human condition. And Mary will not let us forget how to love ourselves and others in the midst of it all. 

To deny the physicality of our humanness it to deny the physicality of the Word made flesh. It’s also an invitation to unhealthy distortions. I watched the movie Spotlight again a little while ago. It’s about the uncovering of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of priests’ sexual misconduct in Boston. While watching, I couldn’t help thinking that a system that continues to promote the hierarchical dualism of spirit over physical, celibacy over marriage, and men over women, that implies a lesser state – if not shamefulness – in sexuality, will produce dysfunction and the misuse of the God-given gift of sexuality. 

The problem is not homosexuality; it’s our distortion of human sexuality. And until this underlying foundation is dismantled, no manner of punishment of individuals will change the fact that human beings need to be whole. That is, we need to be at home in our physical selves, as well as our spiritual selves. We need to be comfortable with both our feminine and masculine selves – and today we even go beyond that binary. 

I’m not just picking on the Catholic Church here, either – although I think they need to deal with it better. But remember, we’ve got Martin Luther’s legacy to deal with too. We’re not perfect. We’re all products of a culture which if often confused about its physical self. We think we’re not worthy if we don’t look like the airbrushed models in magazines. We have a national obsession with cosmetic surgery. There was the controversy over Facebook’s removal of pictures of women breastfeeding their babies. Protestors rightly pointed out the numerous pictures of near-naked models, actors, etc. that did pass the morality test. 

We are a mixed-up bunch. But let’s not use Jesus as an excuse. He’s profoundly appreciative of Mary – or whoever the woman was – and her care for his weary body. And let us not forget that “Wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

All of this talk of extravagance and wastefulness should sound familiar to us. Last week, I quoted the late Bishop John Shelby Spong: 

“the only true way to worship God is by living fully, loving wastefully, and having the courage to be all that we are capable of being.”

This might be a very new way of thinking for many of us. Being wasteful is generally not considered a positive thing. So we have to really ponder this as we try to apply it to ourselves as followers of Jesus and as the church. 

We often talk about God doing a new thing among us. Even before COVID, many, instead of bemoaning the decline of the church or sounding the death knell, were looking expectantly to the church being reborn or re-formed. And as we slowly begin coming back together, that expectancy has become even stronger. But it’s hard to pull ourselves out of a scarcity mindset.

I’m sticking with Father Gerry: “There’s nothing scarce about Jesus.”

And I’m keeping my alabaster jar “in remembrance” of Mary – to remind myself to “live fully, love wastefully, be all I can be.” And to lead our congregation – made up of beautiful bodies – into the new thing God has in store for us. 

Amen

John 12: 1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Attribution:Pittman, Lauren Wright. “Anointed”, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57085 [retrieved April 5, 2022]. Original source: http://www.lewpstudio.com – copyright by Lauren Wright Pittman.

Dad Always Liked You Best

In the book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, & Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner writes that parables like The Prodigal Son can be viewed as comedy. So here’s a little video clip to get us started on this biblical tale of two bratty brothers.   Smothers Brothers clip

Like comedy bits, parables can be funny. Last week when we read the Parable of the Unproductive Fig Tree, I said that parables can be curious. But mainly, I said, the real purpose of the parables of Jesus is to provoke us. If we’re not challenged or moved out of our comfort zone, then the parable hasn’t done its job.  

And to be perfectly honest, the Parable of the Prodigal Son does indeed provoke me. In my opinion, the father is a foolish enabler. I mean, didn’t he ever hear of tough love? And I’m not so sure that the younger son ever really did repent. He realized he could eat better back home than in the pigpen, so he rehearses a good line for dad, who he already knows to be a pushover, and off he goes on his self-serving way. 

Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, who is Jewish and writes extensively on how Jesus’ first century audiences would have heard these stories, has said, “I should admit right up front: I don’t like this kid” – the kid being the prodigal son.

So I should admit right up front, too: I don’t like him either. OK, maybe it’s because I’m the eldest child in my family of origin, but I identify with the elder brother: hardworking, responsible, always trying to do the right thing. Frankly, the whole scenario with the father gushing over the wastrel younger son pushes a whole lot of my buttons. It’s just not fair. 

Over the years, I’ve read commentaries and heard sermons praising the father for his generous, unconditional love and forgiveness, applauding the younger son for coming to his senses and humbly crawling back home, and chastising the older brother. Then we’re asked to think about which brother we identify with, presumably not the resentful, churlish one. Needless to say, I have always been provoked. 

I remember well during my long-ago internship year arguing with my supervisor about his sermon, which went on and on criticizing the older brother. At the next meeting of my support committee, I was griping about it. And the next week a wonderful elderly woman (whose name I wish I could remember) brought me an article from a journal called Daughters of Sarah, an early Christian feminist journal. It was called The Parable of the Elder Daughter. And it talked about the experience of many women as the caregivers of the family, who were expected to put aside any personal ambition in favor of supporting others. 

Although feminist theology / biblical studies had been around for a while, they hadn’t gotten too far yet into seminary curricula or congregational preaching, so I was absolutely delighted to discover this way of looking at the parableThe article not only validated me and my experience, it also taught me to not stop at the surface of the parable, at what seems to be the obvious. It said that it’s not only OK to be provoked by the parable, but one should be annoyed enough to dig more deeply into it. 

So now when I read this story, I see two siblings. They could be brothers or sisters; it doesn’t matter because the point of the parable isn’t who dad (or mom) loved best. It’s about coming home, about being at home. And by ‘home,’ I don’t mean a geographical place, but a spiritual one in which we are at home with ourselves and in harmony with the One who created us. In this story it’s the father, but it could just as easily be the mother – or both parents. 

We were created to be in right relationship with God. But instead of abiding in the unconditional love, peace, and fulfillment of that relationship, we become alienated –not only from God, but also from our true nature. Often, instead of living out of the golden core of Divine love planted within us, we allow the layers of wounding experiences, negative messages, mistakes, shame, failures, and all kinds of things alienate us from our true selves. Often, instead of being centered in Divine Love and seeking after Divine Wisdom, we follow our egos into ventures that promise wealth, security, fame – none of these bad in their own right. But by investing solely in our accomplishments, we become alienated from the true center of our being.

The younger son became an alien by leaving his home, by leaving behind a relationship of such generosity that we can hardly imagine it. We tend to compare the extravagance of God to our human parents and it’s too much. You know, one definition of ‘prodigal’ is one who spends or gives lavishly and foolishly. In this sense, it’s the father who is the prodigal. It’s God who lavishes love on us – even when we think we’re undeserving or beyond redemption. Maybe the kid didn’t really repent. Maybe his motives weren’t entirely pure. Maybe he would break his father’s heart again some day. But it didn’t matter. There was way more than enough love to welcome him home that day.

And what of the older brother? He was alienated, too, even though he stayed home. He believed that his worth was tied to what he did. As long as he took care of his father’s business, he could justify his existence. But imagine if for some reason he became unable to continue to be productive, how would he have reacted? Probably the same way we do when we place all of our worth in what we do. By clinging to his belief that he had to be the responsible one, that if he didn’t do it, it wouldn’t get done right, he alienated himself from his inheritance of unconditional love and acceptance based, not on his productivity, but simply on his belovedness. By staying away from the party and refusing to be reconciled with his brother, he remained alienated from his true self.

But this is not an either/or story. We can be both of these brothers at different times in our lives, when we turn away from God until we feel the longing to go back home, into the welcoming embrace of Holy Love. I love the way that the late Bishop John Shelby Spong describes life as prodigals who have returned home. He says:“We are resurrected when we learn that God is present –when we live fully, love wastefully and become all that we are capable of being.”

The parable doesn’t tell us if either brother learned this or became this. It doesn’t tell us if the younger brother learned his lesson and never took his father’s generosity for granted again. It doesn’t tell us if the older brother ever got over his bitterness, and it doesn’t tell us if the members of this family ever became reconciled to one another. But the point Jesus was trying to make was not about them, but about us. 

As we move through this Lenten season and ever closer to the celebration of Easter, the parable asks us in what ways we feel alienated: from loves ones, from life, from what’s going on around us, from God, from our true selves as unconditionally loved. It asks how might we have contributed to our alienation? What decisions that we’ve made might be reconsidered? What attitudes could be reevaluated? 

Our alienation is part of our human condition, our sinfulness, if you will. This is why Lent is a time of repentance, that is, of turning back to God, our Source of Life, Love, and Being. Our Lenten journey through the wilderness is about finding our way home again. Our spiritual practices are meant to help draw us into the center, past the layers of experiences and the needs of the ego. If they are not helping, perhaps we need to try something else. Without living from the center of Divine Grace within us, how could we ever learn how to live fully and become all that we are capable of being – let alone love wastefully? 

In the parable, it’s the father who does all of the saving action – embracing, welcoming, preparing a celebration. Going back to Frederick Buechner who said that parables like The Prodigal Son can be viewed as comedy. He continued: 
I think that these parables can be read as jokes about God in the sense that what they are essentially about is the outlandishness of God who does impossible things with impossible people.

Well, thank God for that. I know I can be impossible at times, how about you? And I am grateful for the times that God has done the impossible with me and for the times I’ve seen the impossible happen in the lives of others as well. 

As we live out our own versions of the Parable of the Prodigal, may we feel the outlandish, extravagant, unconditional love that comes to us, not only from the outside through Word and Sacrament, but also from within as our Source of Life and Love and Being works in and through us for the healing and wholeness of ourselves, our loved ones, our communities, and our world.

Amen         

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
Meanwhile, the tax collectors and the “sinners” were all gathering around Jesus to listen to his teaching, At which the Pharisees and the religious scholars murmured, “This person welcomes sinners and eats with them!”

Jesus then addressed this parable to them:
“A man had two sons. The younger of them said to their father,                                             ‘Give me the share of the estate that is coming to me.’ 
So the father divided up the property between them. Some days later, the younger son gathered up his belongings and went off to a distant land. Here he squandered all his money on loose living. After everything was spent, a great famine broke out in the land, and the son was in great need. So he went to a landowner, who sent him to a farm to take care of the pigs. The son was so hungry that he could have eaten the husks that were fodder for the pigs, but no one made a move to give him anything. 

Coming to his senses at last, he said, ‘How many hired hands at my father’s house have more than enough to eat, while here I am starving! I will quit and go back home and say, “I have sinned against God and against you; I no longer deserve to be called one of your children. Treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 
With that, the younger son set off for home. While still a long way off, the father caught sight of the returning child and was deeply moved. The father ran out to meet him, threw his arms around him and kissed him. 

The son said to him, ‘I have sinned against God and against you; I no longer deserve to be called one of your children.’ 
But his father said to one of the workers, ‘Quick! Bring out the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. Take the calf we’ve been fattening and butcher it. Let’s eat and celebrate! This son of mine was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now he’s found!’ 

And the celebration began.

“Meanwhile the elder son had been out in the field. As he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the workers and asked what was happening. The worker answered, ‘Your brother is home, and the fatted calf has been killed because your father has him back safe and sound.’

“The son got angry at this and refused to go in to the party, but his father came out and pleaded with him. 

The older son replied, ‘Look! for years now I’ve done every single thing you asked me to do. I never disobeyed even one of your orders, yet you never gave me so much as a kid goat to celebrate with my friends. But then this son of yours comes home after going through your money with prostitutes, and you kill the fatted calf for him!’

The father said, “But my child! You’re with me always, and everything I have is yours. But we have to celebrate and rejoice! This brother of yours was dead and has come back to life. He was lost and now he’s found.’”

Images
JESUS MAFA. Prodigal Son, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54662[retrieved March 27, 2022]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact). 

Bratislava, Slovakia. 2018/5/22. A relief sculpture of Jesus Christ embracing a person. Made out of modelling clay by Lubo Michalko. Displayed in the Quo Vadis Catholic House.

The Prodigal Son” by f_snarfel is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.

Gospel for the Brokenhearted

Back in 2020, Michelle Obama wrote in an Instagram post that she was “pained “and “exhausted by a heartbreak that never seems to stop.” She was responding to the news of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police. I don’t want to take anything away from that horrific event, but I think that her words just might echo the feeling that most people in the world are experiencing today. Our theme for Lent is Our Whole Hearts, and the word for today is ‘Brokenhearted.’  

So much grief in the world. We thought we might be through the worst of the COVID war, only to be hurled into another maelstrom. The Bible study for today in Our Whole Hearts asks these questions: 

  • What is breaking your heart right now?
  • Where is God in the heartbreak for you?

I’m not having any trouble answering the first question: what’s breaking your heart right now? And I’d bet you’re not either. I mean, just pick a story or a picture. The mom, who was a tech worker in Palo Alto, and her two children killed by Russian forces as they tried to flee the town of Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv. The bombing of a maternity and children’s hospital in southern Ukraine. Meanwhile, the number of known Covid-19 deaths around the world surpassed six million. And just two weeks ago, Oscar Grant would have celebrated his 36th birthday, had he not been shot and killed on New Year’s Day 2009 at the Fruitvale BART station when he was just 22 years old. Sadly, I could go on and on. And we could add our own personal heartaches. What is breaking your heart right now? 

That question, unfortunately, has easy answers. The second one: where is God in the heartbreak for you? – maybe not so easy. Or maybe it is an easy answer – at least on the surface. We can surely think of ways we could or should respond. We can certainly turn to scripture: 

  • You, O God, are a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. You have never forsaken those who seek you. – Psalm 9:9-10
  • You are my hiding place; you’ll protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance. – Psalm 32:7
  • God will fulfill all your needs in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:19
  • We know that God makes everything work together for the good of those who love God and have been called according to God’s purpose. – Romans 8:28
  • When evildoers attack me, spreading vicious lies about me wherever they go, they will stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, I will still be confident. – Psalm 27

    These words of scripture can be great comfort to us in times of trial. But when we’re in the midst of it, it can be hard to see how these words of assurance can possibly be true. We might be drawn more to words of lament. Although we might hesitate, thinking that lamenting is a failure of faith. But it’s not; lamenting is part of faith, an act of faith. We cry out directly to God because deep down we know that our relationship with God counts; it counts to us, and it counts to God.

Lamentation, a prayer for help coming out of pain, is very common in the Bible. Over one third of the psalms are laments. Lament frequently occurs in the Book of Job and in the prophets. 

  • 2 Chronicles, the people cry, “We are powerless before this vast multitude that comes against us. We are at a loss what to do, so our eyes are turned toward you, O God.”
  • Jeremiah moans: “Why is my pain continuous, my wound incurable…?” 
  • Psalm 130 wails: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God!”
  • One whole book, Lamentations, expresses the confusion and suffering felt after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.

How lonely sits the city
   that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
   she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
   has become a vassal. 

She weeps bitterly in the night,
   with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
   she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,

they have become her enemies. 

And of course, Jesus in today’s gospel reading:
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird gathers her brood under her wings, yet you refuse me!

It seems to me that in these times, lament is the appropriate response. For some reason, what popped into my head was a video from back when the pandemic had just started, and everything was moving online. This video was made by a very sweet-looking music teacher who said she’d written a song to help her process the transition to online teaching. Smiling, she began playing a little upbeat tune on her ukulele. After a little introduction, she kept on playing, but she also started screaming at the top of her lungs. The video went viral because who couldn’t relate to her screams? Maybe she gave the rest of us permission to scream, too. 

And that’s what these biblical laments do, too. Father Michael Guinan, Professor Emeritus at the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley has said, “When we hurt physically, we cry out in pain; when we hurt religiously, we cry out in lament. Lamentation can be described as a loud, religious “Ouch!” I hear that “Ouch!” as the kind you emit when you stub your toe on a rock, or you step on a stray Lego, or when you close the car door on your finger – a long, wailing, “Owwwwwwwwwwwww!”

Another way of expressing this is through the Via Negativa, which is an ancient Latin phrase meaning “by way of negation.” Its origins can be traced to a way of seeking to understand God by negating everything that God is not. Naturally, once you remove everything God is not, you get the definition of God. 

But Episcopal priest Matthew Fox has a bit of a different take on it. In his system of creation spirituality, he describes a spiritual process consisting of four paths. I’ve probably spoken on this before – and probable will again because I’ve found it so helpful. I’ll get to the Via Negativa in a second, but I want to start with the first path: the Via Positiva. To put it very simply, Via Positiva is the path on which we befriend Creation in a positive way, not from a place of a fallen humanity but as recipients of original blessing. It’s a place of awe, wonder, and delight. Listen to Fox’s description: “The experience of divinity is light. Awe is what triggers our intuition and wakes us up; it ignites and surprises us – like falling in love with another person or with music, science, flowers, poetry, and the earth.” 

Think of the most upbeat, celebratory church service you’ve ever attended – maybe Christmas, or Easter, or Pentecost. Or a child’s baptism, or a wedding. Maybe your own personal encounter with the amazement and overwhelming delight in the Divine Presence – the ocean. That’s Via Positiva.

The second path of this spiritual process is the Via Negativa. Via Negativa is the path on which we befriend uncertainty, darkness, suffering, and letting go, in which we recognize those things that sometimes get in our way, such as pain, emptiness, silence. When we don’t deny ourselves the opportunity to feel, and express, and lament our griefs, we can recognize how powerful they are – and also how connected we are to one another, to the earth, to God. It can be painful, yes, but it can also be powerfully cathartic. 

In a worship service created by Matthew Fox, the Via Negativa is experienced by literally weeping and wailing, expressing through the body the suffering of the world. And not for just a few seconds, either. You do it long enough to get over your self-consciousness and allow yourself to go deep and wrestle with those truths you’re willing to find. I tried it once in a congregation. It went over like the proverbial lead balloon. Sunday morning church probably isn’t the right setting. But I hope you’ll think about trying it some time. Make a video, like the music teacher. She found a way of catharsis that went viral. 

Somehow, we need to find our way into a gut-deep, full body lamentation for the sorrows of the world. Frankly, right now, as we watch the news from Ukraine, this is what is needful. It’s where Jesus was when he cried over Jerusalem, when he screamed words from Psalm 22 from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.” Or as Fr. Guinan puts it, “I call to you, O Lord, and all I get is your voice mail!” 

This is where we try to answer the question: Where is God in all this heartbreak for you? Part of it is knowing that God is with us in times of suffering and heartbreak. It might not feel like it; we might lament the silence of God, the seeming absence of Divine Presence. But we do not go by feelings alone. We rest on the foundation of what we have learned and what we have experienced in the past. 

I often think of Psalm 51 in the midst of Via Negativa, where the psalmist pleads, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation; and uphold me with your free spirit.” Via Negativa can be seen as being part of a theology of the cross.

And then, in this spiritual process, through our lamentation and soul-searching, we eventually move into the Via Creativa. Via Creativa is the path on which we befriend Creativity, exploring how we bring beauty into the world, how creativity is a form of birthing something that wasn’t there before. Via Creativa can be seen as part of a theology of resurrection, which is the most elemental, inner-most and deeply spiritual aspect of our beings. This is where we begin to imagine a better way. Fox says, “Imagination brings about not just intimacy but a big intimacy, a sense of union with the cosmos, a sense of belonging and being at home, of our knowing we have not only a right to be here but a task to do as well while we are here.” Through our creativity – whether that is nurturing children, making art, gardening, writing, teaching, building houses – we connect to the Divine in us and bring the Divine back to the community. 

Going back to Michelle Obama who lamented, “I’m exhausted by a heartbreak that never seems to stop,” but continued, “if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It’s up to all of us — Black, white, everyone — no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out . . .  it starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own and ends with justice, compassion, and empathy that manifests in our lives and on our streets.” 
 
Another example is the late Phyllis Tickle’s response to the 2015 Pew Research Center’s report, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” The report verified what we already know – that the religious landscape is dramatically shifting as more people move away from organized church. And there’s a lot to lament about that. But if we stay stuck there, we won’t get to the creative and transformative stages. Phyllis Tickle, who wrote the landmark book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why, responded to all the anxiety produced by the report by saying, “Christianity isn’t going to die. It just birthed out a new tributary to the river.” She also said, “Christianity is reconfiguring. It’s almost going through another adolescence and it’s going to come out a better, more mature adult. There’s no question about that.” That’s Via Creativa!

Which leads us to the fourth path where we bring all of our grief, love, and creativity together. The Via Transformativa Via Transformativa is the path on which we befriend New Creation, which shows the way of the future as a time that can be present, images of God in motion in the world and at work in people everywhere. It’s about justice, healing and celebration. Via Transformativa has been called part of a theology of the Holy Spirit and provides a way for our creativity to move into areas of compassion and justice.

Creativity by itself isn’t enough. Obviously, we humans can take our creativity to negative places. Creativity can make bombs, for example. So creativity needs direction. That’s where our spiritual teachings come in: to channel our imagination into ways of compassion, healing, justice, and gratitude. That’s the purpose of being Church, to move into these ways together – honestly wrestling and confessing, grieving and letting go, visioning together how to channel our corporate creativity for the sake of the world.

So how does all this relate to the chaos that is all around us today? 

1. It gives us permission to celebrate – even with bad news all around. You know that Sundays don’t count as days in Lent because each Sunday is a service of resurrection, Easter. So even amidst our lamentations, we can find joy. I call on each of you to take in as much awe and wonder as you possibly can. Stare into a child’s beautiful face. Marvel at a cat’s paw or the perfect symmetry of a flower. Or how about this – look at your own face with delight. Ignore the imperfections; we all have them. See the unique masterpiece that is you. Say “Wow!” out loud.

2. It gives us permission to grieve. We have so much to lament; it can indeed feel overwhelming. One place we can go is the Psalms. Find the psalms of lament. Be aware of all the feelings the psalmist expressed. And then don’t be afraid to express all your feelings in your prayers. Surely God’s heard it all and knows how you’re feeling anyway. Allow yourself to be immersed in the Via Negativa. Cry and scream for Ukraine, for George Floyd, for the earth, for 6 million COVID deaths, and all the other heartbreaks on a list far too long. People in biblical times would cover themselves in sackcloth and ashes. We’re too civilized for something like that – or so we think. Maybe a good collective, national cry or scream is what we all need about now.

3. Here’s where it gets pretty radical. By following this path, we are choosing to open up some space in the world, in our church, in our hearts for a new thing to be born. It’s a radical kind of faith that trusts in the creative power of God to bring it into being. The Via Creativa is the path that can find solutions to conflicts, better ways of living together in harmony. Maybe you’re part of a group working on something right now. But even if you’re not, don’t wait. Let Via Creativa work in you. The Holy Spirit will take the seeds you plant, however small, and make something of them. 

4. Then Via Transformativa is the promise of Easter. We’re not there yet, even though it’s Sunday. It’s still Lent; the ‘alleluia’ is still buried. But resurrection is real. It is ours. It is what will channel us into those paths as yet untrodden, into ways of mission and ministry that will contribute to the healing of the world. This is no pie-in-the-sky naiveté. God has done it before and will do it again and again, despite how the powers of this world rant and rave. 

I’m under no illusion that things will suddenly get better, that Putin will give up and go home any time soon. But as they say, it’s a marathon not a sprint. It’s no reason to give up.

Via Negativa is not depression; it is not despair. It’s an honest part of faith, part of the spiritual process. We have to take it seriously, be honest about it, while at the same time knowing that it’s not the only part of the process. We’re in this for the whole race. Or athe great African-American pastor S. M. Lockridge preached it, “It’s Friday. But Sunday’s comin’.” Violence, oppression, death and destruction will have their day, but they will not have the last word.  

“It’s Friday. But Sunday’s comin’.”

Amen.

Luke 13:31-35

Just then, some Pharisees came to Jesus and said, “You need to get out of town, and fast. Herod is trying to kill you.”
Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘Today and tomorrow, I’ll be casting out demons and healing people, and on the third day I’ll reach my goal.’ Even with all that, I’ll need to continue on my journey today, tomorrow and the day after that, since no prophet can be allowed to die anywhere except in Jerusalem.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird gathers her brood under her wings – yet you refuse me! So take note: your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the One who comes in the name of our God!’ ”

“Make Art Not War” by street artist/social activist Shepard Fairey 

Teleidoscopic Jesus

You probably know what a kaleidoscope is, right? The most familiar kind is a tube with mirrors inside and bits of colored glass or paper. When you turn the tube, you can create intricate symmetrical patterns. But have you ever heard of a teleidoscope? It’s similar to a kaleidoscope, but it doesn’t have any colored objects inside. It does have mirrors inside, but it has an open view, so you can form kaleidoscopic images of whatever you’re looking at outside of the tube. So I could look at you and see a multitude of psychedelic images that change each time I turn the tube. An interesting side note is that, while the kaleidoscope has been around since the 1800s, the teleidoscope was invented in 1970 by John Burnside, an inventor and gay rights activist who lived in San Francisco. 

So why am I telling you this? I’ve been thinking that looking at Jesus is kind of like looking into a teleidoscope. Depending on what picture you look at or what story you read or who you ask, you can get a different image of who Jesus was. Even when you read the gospels. When you turn from Matthew to Mark to Luke and to John, you see the same person, but the picture is a little different. 

I realized this while I was reading the story of Jesus from the gospel according to Luke, where Jesus is reading from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue. This scene, as we’re looking at it through our teleidoscope, is the inaugural speech of Jesus, the opening (at least through Luke’s eyes) of Jesus’ public ministry. This is a different scene from his first public act in John’s gospel, which was turning water into wine. There, the setting was a wedding. Today when we turn the teleidoscope, we see him in the synagogue. And, just as many of you do, he had volunteered to be the reader that day. But after he read from the book of Isaiah, he added a little commentary of his own. He said, “Today, in your hearing, this scripture passage is fulfilled.” 

By presenting Jesus in this way, the writer of the gospel of Luke shows us his image of Jesus. Same person as the one John described at the wedding in Cana, but with a twist of the teleidoscope. In a way, John Burnside’s little invention is perfect for Epiphany, the season of revelation, in which we look to see how Christ was revealed then and how Christ is being revealed today.  

Here in Luke, he says,
God has anointed me
to bring Good news to those who are poor,
to proclaim liberty to those held captive,
recovery of sight to those who are blind,
and release to those in prison –
to proclaim the year of God’s favor.

Can you hear the echo of the song of Mary in the Magnificat, from back in Advent?You have shown strength with your arm; you have scattered the proud in their conceit; you have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.

The story of turning water into wine revealed Jesus as one who could show us the abundance of the kindom of God. This story in the synagogue shows us Jesus as the one who brings God’s justice. Same Jesus, with just a turn of the teleidoscope. Two ways that two different gospel writers presented Jesus to the world. And that was just the beginning. 

I was thinking about all the different ways we do look at Jesus. One way to find these is to look at church names: Christ the King, Church of the Redeemer, Christ the Liberator, Christ the Healer Church, Church of Our Savior, Christ the Servant, Christ the Way Church, Christ the Word Church, Church of Christ the Worker. And of course, Church of the Good Shepherd. 

If we were sitting in our sanctuary today, we would be looking right at the stained-glass window depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Imagine if our beautiful window was also magically a teleidoscope and could cycle through all these other images – and more – of who and what Jesus was revealed to be.

But now we turn to the challenge that this multi-faceted Jesus presents to us today. Many people don’t know any of these faces of Jesus. Unfortunately, Jesus’ reputation has been tarnished in the eyes of many – he’s just part of an antiquated, irrelevant religious institution. 

Those of us still in the Church would do well to take seriously these questions that are asked by Gregory Jenks, editor of the book, The Once and Future Scriptures: 
* How do we represent Jesus to our world?
* Can the Jesus of hymnal and creed still capture the imagination of the 21st century person?
* Do we need latter day Luke’s to fashion fresh representations of Jesus for the 3rd millennium?
* Will they be found inside the churches or only beyond their boundaries?

In other words, does Jesus need an Extreme Makeover? And who’s going to do it? Well, guess what. I think each one of us is qualified to be a latter-day Luke. We are part of the revelation of Jesus to our world. But the question still looms: how can we capture the imagination of the 21st century person – especially in a place like the Bay Area, with our religious diversity, secularism, and spiritual independence?

So, here we are, a small group of people, most of who have been around the church for a long time. Surely, we have each developed a picture of Jesus in our minds. I’m assuming it’s a positive one, otherwise why would we be here? And when we put all these pictures together, we have a repertoire of stories, images, and experiences that comprise a beautiful teleidoscopic panorama. The challenge is how to tell our stories, images, and experiences. We don’t want to be identified as “that kind of Christian,” wearing our religion like battle armor and offending religious and non-religious alike. 

How can we be followers of Jesus without lurking at either extreme of the spectrum – neither a street corner evangelist, like a John the Baptist nor a silent disciple, like Nicodemus coming to see Jesus under cover of night? With the decline of the institutional church, Christianity’s engagement with other religions, and now a pandemic – we are forced to do what we never really had to do before: answer the question that Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” And decide how we’re going to convey that answer to our community. 

Some years ago, I was part of a Muslim/Christian dialogue group. We read a book together called Islam’s Jesus. I wrote a blog post that December with the title Christmas in the Qur’an. I was surprised to see a quote from that post appear in the Bay Are Interfaith Connect. I had written, “As we listened to our Muslim friends tell of their devotion to both Mary and Jesus, we were challenged to rethink our own understandings of who and what Jesus was and is.”

That question also arises in our encounters with those who identify as spiritual-but-not-religious or spiritually independent, as well as those who have been wounded by the church in some way. So I think having to wrestle with the question “Who do you say that I am” is a good exercise for all of us. Because the more secure we can be in our identity as followers of Jesus, the more articulate we can be in telling our stories, the better we will be at representing Jesus to our world and capturing the imagination of the 21st century person. 

We do not want simply to claim that we’re not like “those other Christians” with whom we disagree. We do want to be able to say what we do believe about this Jesus we profess to love and follow. And just like the naming of our churches and the turning of the teleidoscope, we’ll each have different things to say and different ways of saying it. 

The logical place to begin, it would seem, is to flesh out what our congregation’s name means to us. Thankfully, we’re not Third Lutheran Church of Burlingame. We actually have an image of Jesus right there on our sign and in our window. So my first question is: what does it mean to you that Jesus is the Good Shepherd? The second is: how do we convey that to those who walk and drive past our church? And of course, the third is: how do we do that even when we’re gathering only online? 

I was thinking about it this week when I happened to see an ad for Ashes to Go for Ash Wednesday. Lent is, after all, less than six weeks away. Ashes to Go has been around for a number of years. The idea is to take the church out of the building and into the places where people go every day. Some have gone out to commuter train stations, some to public parks, some have had drive-through stations in their church parking lot to distribute ashes along with a blessing. I’ve never done Ashes to Go before, but it seems to me it could be a way we might embody Christ the Good Shepherd in our community. These COVID days are challenging us to get creative – and while COVID is not a good thing, the call for creativity is. 

Remember, though, that’s just one turn of the teleidoscope. Other images of Jesus can show forth, too. When we hear again the mission statement that Jesus proclaimed in Luke and we affirm that as followers of Jesus his mission is also ours, we ask ourselves: how are we bringing good news to those who are poor, proclaiming liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison; how are we proclaiming God’s favor? 

Our Epiphany blessing bag project is one way. Yes, we’ve been delayed, but it just gives us more time to collect toiletries and other supplies for our neighbors who are homeless. And there are so many more opportunities. As we turn our teleidoscope and contemplate each image of Jesus we see in our private devotions and in our corporate worship, we should also be mindful of how we are presenting that image in the witness of our lives and of our congregation. If we are going to accept the challenge to be latter day Luke’s, and if we commit ourselves to presenting fresh representations of Jesus for the spiritual-but-not-religious, those wounded by the church, those who never followed us onto Zoom and might never come back, then wrestling with the question “Who do you say that I am” is a good exercise for all of us. 

Jesus himself had to go out into the desert after his baptism to wrestle with the question of who he would be. But when he came back – as Luke tells us – in the power of the Spirit, he was as clear as clear could be about who he was and what he would be about. The wrestling we do over our Jesus stories will yield the same results – in beautiful teleidoscopic images that will continually re-capture our imaginations. 

And this is how we will represent Jesus to our world.  

Amen. 

Luke 4: 14-21
Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and his reputation spread throughout the region. He was teaching in the Galilean synagogues, and all were loud in their praise. Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. Entering the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his habit, Jesus stood up to do the reading. When the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed him, he unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:

“The spirit of our God is upon me:
Because the most high has anointed me
to bring Good news to those who are poor.
God has sent me to proclaim liberty 
to those held captive,
recovery of sight to those who are blind,
and release to those in prison—
to proclaim the year of our God’s favor.”

Rolling up the scroll, Jesus gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he said to them, “Today, in your hearing,
this scripture passage is fulfilled.”

                                                                                                

Baptized into Beloved Community

Did anyone bring your baptism certificate with you this morning? Do you want to share anything about it: when was it; where was it; how old were you; who were your sponsors/ godparents; who was the pastor that baptized you? Here’s mine. I was baptized on November 4, 1951; I was just over a year old. This was at Grace Lutheran Church in Pottstown, PA and my sponsors were my grandmother and my Aunt Helen. Edgar Brown, Jr. was the pastor, but he retired in 1955, so I really don’t have any memory of him. My baptism certificate is actually a little booklet with the whole baptism liturgy, but I’ve framed just the part about me. It doesn’t say what time the baptism was, but I know that back in the day baptisms were not usually held during the worship service the way they are today. And the baptism font was in a separate little room, called the baptistry. 

The Sunday after Epiphany is the day we remember the baptism of Jesus, which signaled the beginning of his public ministry. Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, but through the ages there have been different ways that baptism has been understood – rightly and wrongly. 

Story #1: In my first congregation long ago, I was visiting with a couple who wanted to have their baby baptized. Being the sort of person who likes to ask people what they think before I start in on the pastor spiel, I asked them why they wanted their child to be baptized, what it meant to them. The mother’s answer was: “You have to be baptized so you can go to heaven.” 
I call this the “getting your admission ticket to heaven punched” view of baptism. 

Story #2: In the same congregation, a couple tragically experienced the death of their infant son. The next Sunday in church, a member of the congregation made the unbelievably insensitive remark that “it’s too bad you didn’t have him baptized before he died,” implying that either he had not gone to heaven or was lingering in some kind of limbo. This is on the same order as #1, except baptism is seen as a ‘get out of limbo free’ card. 

Story #3: At the second meeting with a new mom about having her son baptized, she informed me that after being pressured by her grandmother who was Catholic, she had agreed to have the baby baptized at grandmom’s church, but she also wanted him to be (as she said) baptized Lutheran. My explanation that the baptism at the Catholic church was valid, totally recognized by the Lutheran Church and there was no need for a re-baptism fell on deaf ears. As was an offer to have a ceremony of Affirmation of Baptism. 

Story #4: On the other hand, there’s the story of my brother and sister-in-law who were re-baptized. That was because the church they had joined was in the Anabaptist tradition, which does not baptize infants and. Instead, believers’ baptism happens when a person is old enough to make a commitment of faith – which, of course an infant cannot do. 

Story #5: A student from Japan, studying at the University of San Francisco, had been raised in a very conservative Christian church back home. She began attending church here and liked our more open way of looking at scripture and beliefs. At one point, she began to cautiously approach the subject of baptism. She had not wanted to be baptized in her home church, but now wondered if there was a different way of thinking about what baptism is and what it means to be a baptized Christian. 

Story #6: And finally, from the father of a three-year-old, who says, “I was sitting in church one day, watching a baptism from the front pew with my three kids. The pastor was pouring water on the head of a tiny baby. My son was quite taken by this, and I could see that something profound was brewing. With a puzzled look on his face, he turned to me and asked: “Daddy, why is he brainwashing that baby?”

With all of these understandings and misunderstandings about baptism, how do we think about this sacred ritual that is so central to who we are as Christians? Certainly, as we’ve been more exposed to other religious traditions and have accepted their belovedness in God’s eyes, it’s hard to see baptism as a necessity.   
In the book we’re reading in our book group, Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans writes from the perspective of evangelical Christianity, but her questions should resonate with us. She wrote:

“After high school, I attended a conservative Christian college that was supposed to answer all my lingering questions about Christian doctrine but instead propagated them. Chief among those questions was how a good and loving God could condemn to hell the majority of human beings who live on this planet, most for the misfortune of being born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. If only evangelical Christians went to heaven, I reasoned, this left out millions, even billions, of people who had never even heard the name Jesus. It left out whole continents and generations of men, women, and children raised in other faiths. It left out Anne Frank. We read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in middle school, and Mrs. Kelly told us that Anne and her sister had succumbed to Hitler via typhus. I prayed for weeks afterward that God might somehow work a posthumous miracle and pluck her from the eternal fire in which I was sure she was being unfairly tormented. I couldn’t accept that a good, loving, and gracious God would burn Anne Frank forever.”

So, what does it mean to be a baptized? And why do it? Many parents today, having given up belief in a punishing God who sends unbaptized infants to hell, don’t even pursue it – unless grandma and grandpa pressure them and they do it out of obligation. Which is not the best reason. 

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Martin Luther King, Jr. We celebrate his birthday tomorrow, but as the Senate prepares to begin debate on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, how can we not recall the 1963 March on Washington, DC for civil rights? On the 20th anniversary of that historic march in 1983, a crowd of 200,000-400,000 people came back to Washington. I was one of them. I wish I could say that I remember the speakers and musicians. I read that Pete Seeger was there. Stevie Wonder led the crowd in singing happy birthday, in an appeal that the birthday of the late Dr. King be made a national holiday. 

John Lewis was there, as he was in 1963. This is what he said, “We have a mandate from the martyrs who have given their lives in the struggle for human rights. We have a mandate from the masses who have worked together, prayed together, stood up together, sat in together, were beaten together and went to jail together. We have a mission to create a new agenda for America, to create a better world, to create the beloved community.”

The Beloved Community. MLK talked about it often. He wasn’t the first or only, but it was the essence of his dream: “Let us live together in peace and love in the Beloved Community.” So when we read in the gospel, “When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “You are my own, my Beloved,” how can we not take notice? At this point in the story, there’s nothing about sin or death or judgement; it’s about being named Beloved. So it is at our baptism. We are named Beloved and incorporated into the Beloved Community. This way of thinking of baptism isn’t about creating an in group of the saved, those with a one-way ticket to heaven. No, the Beloved Community is now. 

Not that the dream has been completely realized. In the way that Martin Luther talked about the kingdom of God as being both “now and not yet,” so it is with the Beloved Community. Here’s a little bit from a resource called Becoming Beloved Community Where You Are: A Resource for Individuals, Congregations, and Communities Seeking Racial Healing, Reconciliation and Justice:

“Walking the road toward Beloved Community is an adventure, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, and no Christian should ever expect to arrive at the destination. This is a spiritual practice, after all, and no one ever finishes with spiritual formation. We are always praying. We are always reading scripture. We are always seeking to love and serve our neighbors. And we are always learning and practicing Jesus’ way of love, especially as he calls us to cross racial, cultural and ethnic lines, to examine structures of oppression and their impact on our own and others’ lives, and ultimately to nurture Beloved Community.”

The juxtaposition of the Sunday we remember the baptism of Jesus and the birthday of MLK, helps us see the two-directional nature of baptism. As we affirm our own baptisms, we acknowledge that we have heard – and taken to heart – the fact that the God of all the universe loves us. This is an inward adventure, because there are many voices, including our own that try to convince us that we’re not good enough, not worthy, not lovable. Living into our baptismal covenant involves leaning into the vision that God has of us, believing it, and living out of it – which means that we live into the vision of the Beloved Community. 

Because it’s not only a personal and inner endeavor. Baptism brings us into community. Not an exclusive community that keeps others out, but a community of people committed to living out the love of God. Church is meant to be that kind of community. And often is. In these days of COVID, though, it’s harder to define what our little corner of the Beloved Community looks like. How do we maintain our connections to one another? How do we maintain our connections with those we haven’t seen for almost two years? How do we envision our connections with our neighbors? 

I don’t know if you’ve seen the article about the housing developments being planned for Burlingame. Part of Rollins Road is being rezoned to allow single-story warehouses to be replaced with six-story apartment buildings. I’m not sure about this, but I think we might be the closest church to these new homes. And I wonder, if we want to reach out to new residents with an invitation the Good Shepherd, how will describe the community we’re inviting them to? 

In Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans says this: “Most of the openhearted wanderers I’ve encountered are looking not for a bulletproof belief system but for a community of friends, not for a spiritual encyclopedia that contains every answer but for a gathering of loved ones in which they can ask the hard questions.” 

A community of friends, a gathering of loved ones, a beloved community . . . hmm, seems to be a theme here. How do we tend the precious kinship we already have here? And how do we extend it to others? Of course, there is risk in doing that. Rachel Held Evans also wrote: “I have come to believe that wholehearted faith, like all wholehearted living, requires taking risks, cultivating vulnerability, and embracing uncertainty – both in our individual lives and in our communal life together. It demands that we admit all that we cannot know, and it encourages us to pursue it nonetheless.”

In other words, the baptismal covenant is also outwardly directed – to our neighbors, to the earth, to the work of dismantling racism, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression. As Howard Thurman, one of MLK’s mentors, co-founder of The Church for The Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco in 1944, wrote in his poem The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone, 
When the kings and princes are home, 
When the shepherds are back with their flock, 
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

We are going to remember and reaffirm our baptisms in just a few minutes. If you have your baptism certificate, keep it nearby. Have some water ready. you will be invited to dip into it and anoint your forehead or your wrist – with a cross, if you wish – as a sign of remembrance. As you do, pay attention; listen closely. You just might hear the rustle of the wings of a dove as the Holy Spirit hovers over you and a voice from the heavens whispers in your ear, “You are my Own, my Beloved. And I love you!”

Amen


O God, we long to co-create with you the Beloved Community, which looks to the common good; privileges all equally and creates societal systems which celebrate the humanity and the gifts of all.

Help us to listen to your voice, to hear your call to be drum majors for justice, peace and righteousness.

When the work of peace and justice overwhelms us and building the Beloved Community seems impossible, renew our strength and resolve – and our awareness that we are bound together in an inescapable network of mutuality and tied to a single garment of destiny. Amen. 

Creating the Beloved Community: Service Prayers for Martin Luther King, Jr., Weekend was written by the Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson, Founder and Director of the Center for Spiritual Light, New York City.

Copyright 2014 Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH  44115-1100.  Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education.  All publishing rights reserved.  

Going Home By a Different Road (or Your Spiritual GPS Is Recalculating)

I think it was Yogi Berra who said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.” It sounds like Yogi Berra, well known for his mangled, often-contradictory quotations. But on this one, I’m with Yogi. When I go on a trip, I need to have a good map, precise directions from Google Maps or an up-to-date GPS.  

On Epiphany Sunday, however, that idea gets thrown out the window. The Magi, whom we are told were very wise, didn’t have any of these on their journey from Persia to Bethlehem. As Matthew tells it, all they had for their journey to find Jesus was a mysterious star. And so, with them, we find ourselves in the uncharted waters – or I should say skies – of Epiphany. 

Now Epiphany is not just a ‘church’ word. We’re probably all familiar with the word as it’s used in an everyday sense. If you tell me you’ve had an epiphany, I’d assume that you’ve had an illuminating insight or discovery or realization, an “Aha!” moment. Psychology Today defines an epiphany as “a moment of sudden or great revelation that usually changes you in some way.” 

For example, Oprah Winfrey talked once about learning she had a half-sister she never knew about because her mother had kept it secret for almost 50 years. She described leaving her mother’s home after talking with her about it and said several times with tears in her eyes that she’d had an epiphany: the realization that her mother carried so much shame about getting pregnant that she could never fully embrace the child she’d given up for adoption. Describing this profound, emotional moment of revelation about her mother, Oprah used the word “epiphany” because it’s the perfect word to describe such a powerful experience or  life-changing awareness. Maybe you have your own story of this kind of revelation.

In church, when we use the word “Epiphany” (with a capital E), we’re talking about a day on the Church calendar, January 6, when we celebrate the coming of the Magi (sometimes called the Wise Men or Three Kings) who journeyed to a far-off place in order to bring gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the baby Jesus. And in so doing, they symbolized the revelation (showing) of God’s extravagant love for the whole world, born in Jesus.  

And when we talk about the Epiphany season, we’re thinking about all the ways that Divine Presence and Divine Love is revealed to us. It’s about undertaking our own journeys of following a star, of being open to the mystery of Divine guidance in every aspect of our lives, of recognizing the “Aha” moment when it appears. 

“But wait,” as the infomercials say, “there’s more.” The challenge of Epiphany is to also be the shining star that shows others the way. We also look for the “Aha” moments when we are able to share the extravagant love of God with others. 

I think I’ve told you before that this is actually my favorite holy day in the entire church year, more than Christmas. Maybe that’s because it’s so counter-cultural, at least here in the US. Even though there are 12 days of Christmas, the season pretty much ends on New Year’s Day. The festivities are over. Stores have moved on to Valentines Day merchandise. In other parts of the world, though, it’s a different story. Many other countries have very vibrant traditions around Epiphany.

Three Kings Cake

Here in California, we see a lot of the “Dia de los Reyes” tradition (Three Kings Day) celebrated in Latino communities in the US. This is the day when children get presents – from the Three Kings, not Santa Claus. At bedtime, they leave hay or dried grass and a bowl of water outside for the animals that the kings ride. 

Another wonderful thing about Epiphany is its sense of mystery and wonder. Who were these visitors who were guided by stars and dreams? Some say they were astronomers or astrologers, some say Zoroastrian priests, others say learned scholars from the East. And who knows even if there were only three? Matthew doesn’t say, and his gospel is the only one that tells about the visit of the Magi. They are shrouded in mystery yet have enchanted us through the ages. Many people have tried to come up with possible answers to how a star could move through the sky to guide these travelers on their way. 

We could get hung up trying to figure out how all this could have happened. But then we’d miss the point of the story. Matthew has created a story, a midrash, that on the surface is enchanting – plum parts in annual Christmas pageants. But there’s a lot of meaning packed into this tale. 

The Magi remind us of the wisdom of allowing Divine Presence to work within us and to step out onto an unknown path. They inspire us to give up some of our tightly held handholds and trust that the path forward will be made clear – by being led into a way of light, by listening to our dreams, by receiving the gifts that wise men and women have to offer. 

As I wrote this, I was reminded of a poem by Susan Ruach that I found years ago in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants and it has always meant a lot to me. It’s called “A New Way of Struggling” and it’s become even more meaningful in these days (years) of the pandemic.

To struggle used to be
  To grab with both hands 
And shake
And twist
And turn
And push
And above all not give in, 
  But wrest an answer from it all 
  As Jacob did a blessing.
 

But there is another way
To struggle with an issue, a question. 
Simply to jump 
  Off 
  Into the abyss 
And find ourselves 
  Floating 
  Falling 
  Tumbling 
Being led
Slowly and gently 
But surely 
  To the answers God has for us
  To watch the answers unfold
  Before our eyes and still to be a part of the unfolding 
But, oh! The trust
Necessary for this new way!
Not to be always reaching out
For the old hand-holds. 

See, while the story of the Magi and the star might seem to be out there in a mysterious, celestial realm, it’s also very down-to-earth. It lives in the real world. Matthew created his story to illustrate what the life and death of Jesus meant to him. You might remember the song We Three Kings which describe their gifts. The verse about myrrh hints at darker days to come:                                                      

Myrrh is mine: Its bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom                                                                                                        Sorrow, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.                                                                                                      

Not the most cheerful song. But Matthew wants us to know that Jesus was often going to be in opposition to the powers-that-be, cultural, religious, and political. It, of course, started right away with King Herod, who so obsequiously asked the Magi to come back and tell him about the child so he could go and pay homage, too. If this were a movie, we’d be shouting at the screen, “Don’t believe him!”

Angel’s Warning to the Three Wise Men, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29202 
Copyright Permission: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike – CC-BY-SA-3.0

Thankfully, they’re warned in a dream not to report back to Herod and they go home another way. As the Magi discovered, having one’s plans thwarted, changed, or even destroyed doesn’t mean it’s the end of the journey. It simply means (as my GPS often tells me) that we are “rerouting” and going a different way. I say simply, but it’s not usually that simple, is it? 

We may not have a king fuming after us, but we all have situations in which the old handholds are no longer working. When you expect things to go a certain way, anticipate one outcome, but then have to let go of it and embrace a different path? Sometimes we get to choose another road, but other times not. All kinds of things can force us onto paths we would not have chosen: job loss, illness, accident, divorce, natural disaster, national upheaval, pandemic, Zoom church, hybrid church. We make our plans, but often have to go forward, not knowing where our new path will lead.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we are left with no guidance system. If the Epiphany story tells us anything, it tells us all about Divine guidance. A star in the sky leads the Magi to Jesus. A dream warns them to go home a different way. And when Joseph, too, is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt, he too, ensures that the Light will continue to shine on.

I think this is why I love Epiphany so much. It doesn’t allow the Christmas story to stop with a sweet scene in a stable on a silent night. It zooms the birth of Jesus out into the real world with a realism that we recognize all too well. Realism that doesn’t ignore the challenges that we and our world face. But a realism that also recognizes that realism (as we think we know it) isn’t the only reality there is. Angels, Magi, stars, and dreams are still part of our stories today – if we’re open to the mystery and wonder of Divine Presence.

So while many are weary from the holiday season, the fact is that the story still continues. I saw a resource from the ELCA that calls Epiphany “the Season of Aha!” I’ve often called it the season of “So what?” We’ve just come through Advent, a time of waiting for the birth of Jesus and Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus. Now, Epiphany asks us to ponder: so what did that all mean, what impact does it have on my life, here and now? In Advent, we asked ourselves: what is preparing to be born in us this Christmas? In Epiphany, we await the revelations, the revealing, the uncovering of that new birth in us and in our church. 

That’s what this season of Epiphany is going to be: a season of revelations. We’ll hear stories from scripture of how the person, the message, the work of Jesus was revealed in his day. They will lead us into a journey of discovery of how the person, message, and work of Jesus is revealed to us today. 

And of course, we don’t travel alone. The dazzling truth of Epiphany is that there is a star that guides us. Holy Wisdom, Divine Light beckons us both inwardly, into where our own heart of wisdom resides – and outwardly, into the world where we can walk unknown paths with un-rational confidence. We, too, are caught up in the wonder and mystery of it all- beyond the stories of the first Christmas as told by Matthew and Luke; beyond all the trappings that have come to surround this season – as we acknowledge our part in bringing to birth God’s extravagant love in the world.

Finally, another poem, this one by Katie Cook*: 

Let us go in peace now;
For our eyes have seen God’s salvation.
We have stood, dumbstruck,
before the manger.
We have exchanged glances with the shepherds
and looked, sheepishly, out of the corners of our eyes at the wise men.
We have listened, with terror and delight,
to the messengers with their extraterrestrial song. 
We, who have walked so often and so long in terrible darkness,
have been flooded with holy light.

Let us go in peace now;
We have brought our gifts to the manger-
and for some of us
it was merely our broken selves—but now, like the shepherds,
we must go back to our fields; 
like the magi, we must go home another way.

Let us go in peace now;
May this Holy Child guide our steps
into the new year
And give us the courage
to give birth to God’s realm.

Amen.

*From Sacred Seasons, Seeds of Hope Publishers: 602 James; Waco, TX  


Matthew 2:1-12 

After the birth of Jesus—which happened in Bethlehem of Judea, during the reign of King Herod—magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem and asked,                                                                                                                              “Where is the newborn ruler of the Jews? We observed his star at its rising and have come to pay our respects.” 

At this news Herod became greatly disturbed, as did all of Jerusalem. Summoning all the chief priests and religious scholars of the people, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. They said,                                                 
“In Bethlehem of Judea. Here’s what was written by the prophet: ‘You, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah, because from you will come a ruler to shepherd my people Israel.’” 

Herod called the magi aside to find out the exact time of the star’s appearance. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, instructing them:                                                                                                      
“Go and get detailed information about the child. When you have found him, report back to me—so that I may go and offer homage, too.” 

After their audience with Herod, they set out. The star which they had observed at its rising went ahead of them until it came to a standstill over the place where the child lay. They were overjoyed at seeing the star and, upon entering the house, found Jesus with Mary, his mother. They knelt before him and paid homage. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then, after being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

Divorced on World Communion Sunday?!

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You might be familiar with Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. If not, Google her; you should know about her. She’s an author and speaker and is famous for her tattoos and outspoken views. She came out of very rough and tumble lifestyle, abandoning her conservative Christian upbringing, but finally finding her place in the Lutheran church. She founded the congregation House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver and in August was called to be pastor of public witness by the Rocky Mountain Synod. Her New York Times bestselling books include Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, the memoir of her journey from alcoholic stand-up comic to Lutheran pastor. I’m telling you all this because I want to tell you the story that she tells in her newsletter. She writes: 

House for All Sinners & Saints was only about a year old when I took a Sunday morning phone call from a young parishioner who had gone home to Grand Rapids for a weekend visit. I could tell right away that Rachel was crying. 

“Take your time, baby.” 

When she finally spoke, it was halting and in a whisper. “Nadia, I’m at my parent’s church and they’re serving communion and …. (her voice cracks) I’m not allowed to take it.”

Rachel hadn’t thought much about her childhood church’s “closed table” (the term for when a church only allows certain people to take communion) until now. But she had spent a year with HFASS, a community centered around the grace of an unapologetically open table, and without even noticing it had happened, she had been changed by it. Every Sunday she had seen a woman stand at the altar table (again, she had only ever heard a male voice from the front of the church, never one with a timbre more like her own), and had heard that woman say these words: “We have an open table at House, which means that during communion, everyone without exception is invited to come forward at communion and receive the bread and wine – which for us is the body and blood of Christ. If you choose not to commune, you can come forward with your arms crossed and receive a blessing instead.”

Jesus ate supper with more types of people than I myself would feel comfortable with. Sinners, tax collectors, soldiers, sex workers, fisherfolk, and even lawyers. And his LAST supper was the worst. He broke bread with his friends who were just about to abandon, deny and betray him. And yet, he took bread, blessed it, broke and gave it to these total screw-ups and said, “this is my body, given for you, whenever you eat of it, do this in remembrance of me.” He instituted the Eucharist by giving bread and wine to all the people who were just about to totally screw him over.

And then what does the church do in remembrance of him? – try and keep the “wrong people” from receiving the Lord’s Supper. Some would argue it is reckless to just feed all who hunger. That the Eucharist is too sacred to just hand it over to anyone. But maybe the Eucharist is too sacred to not just hand it over to anyone.

People of good faith disagree on this issue. I know that. There are those in my own tradition who say that only the baptized should receive and that there is a catechumenal path that can be taken for those who wish to commune. Baptism first, THEN communion. As if grace only happens in a certain order. Over the years there have been dozens and dozens of adult baptisms at HFASS – I’d guess more than at most Lutheran churches. But having experienced the unmerited and always available grace of an open table, these folks sought out the grace of the baptismal font.

Before hanging up with Rachel, I assured her she was loved and wanted in our community and then I said, “Would it be ok if I told some folks at church tonight about what happened?” and she said yes. As a small group of us stayed behind that night to stack chairs and put away paraments, I told them about Rachel’s devastation at having been denied communion at home. Without skipping a beat, Stuart (the church drag queen) said, “Well then we’ll just have to take her communion at the airport.”

So, at 10 pm on a Wednesday, eight of us showed up to Denver International airport with a cardboard chauffeur’s sign that said “Rachel P___” on one side, and “Child of God” on the other, and waited for her at the bottom of the escalator. We then made our way up to the interfaith prayer room, I spoke about how on the night Jesus was betrayed he gathered with his faltering friends for a meal that tasted of freedom, and then we handed her what had been withheld days before: the body and blood of Christ. If we are to be judged for having gotten this wrong, let it be that we sat more at the table than fewer. Because it’s not our table. It’s God’s.

Today is World Communion Sunday, a day promoted by the National Council of Churches to promote Christian unity. Begun in 1933, it’s an attempt to remind us how each congregation is interconnected one with another. In these days of divisiveness, it’s not a bad idea. But as Pastor Bolz-Weber’s story reminds us, there are still divisions, still gatekeepers whose job, they believe, is to say who is in and who is out. 

I like to tell the story of the three sisters who were part of the trip to Germany I took many years ago. All three sisters were Lutheran, but they could never take Communion together, at least in two of the churches where they were members. One was in a Missouri Synod church, the other a Wisconsin Synod church. On Pentecost Sunday, in a little church in Germany, they came to the altar together. And it was a very big deal – for them and to all of us sharing in this joyful banquet.  

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Now, the gospel reading today might seem like an odd one for World Communion Sunday, especially the first part. On a day focused on unity, talking about divorce would seem to be quite incongruous. Better to go with the second part. Wouldn’t everybody agree on welcoming children? But hold on; let’s look at this more closely. When we read the teachings of Jesus, we always have to ask, “who was he talking to?” Certainly, his words have meaning for us today, but we have to wonder how people then would have heard them. 

First of all, we have to recognize that the Pharisees were asking about divorce because they wanted to trip him up. Hmm, why a question about this law and not another? Could it be that the practice Jesus had of welcoming those who were outcast, those considered to be outside the bounds of society? The answer Jesus gives should remind us of the answer he gave about paying taxes. He answers them with a question. He’s not going to play their game. 
He asked them, “What command did Moses give?” 
They said, “Moses permitted a husband to write a decree of divorce and to put her away.”

That would seem to be the end of it. But wait, let’s see if there’s more to the story. And let’s first acknowledge that all of this is from a hetero-normative perspective. Same-sex marriage wasn’t on the horizon yet. 

It’s crucially important to know that in Jesus’ day, marriage was a profoundly patriarchal institution in which women and children were considered to be the property of men. And when it came to divorce, the husband had all the power, as is made clear in as Deuteronomy 24:1-4. 
Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she doesn’t please him because he finds something objectionable about her, so he writes a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.

Now, fast forward to Jesus’ day when there was dispute about acceptable grounds for divorce. Some said only adultery was just cause, while others stuck with the all-inclusive “something objectionable about her.” We know from other Bible stories of how precarious life was for women who were not attached to a man. Women and their children depended on marriage for their wellbeing, which put them in an extremely vulnerable position. We know Jesus that always cared about the powerless and vulnerable, so we have to ask: who’s vulnerable in this picture? Women and children. Now comes the shocker, as later he expands on this teaching: 
If a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery against her; and if a woman divorces her husband again and marries another, she commits adultery.

Wait a second. Did he just say “if a woman divorces her husband”? Yes, he did. The good news is that Jesus puts men and women in equal positions; each has agency in the marriage. The bad news is that Jesus is still critical of divorce. 

But – Jesus also recognizes the reality of the human condition. In effect, he’s saying, What Moses says about divorce is well and good, but remember, it was an accommodation to human struggle.

When two people become one in a marriage covenant, that relationship shouldn’t be broken apart. That’s the ideal. Isn’t that what every couple intends when they make their vows? But sometimes the ideal cannot be achieved. Sometimes divorce is the best option. Considering that this is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, sometimes divorce is the necessary option. Jesus still wants divorce reserved as a last resort, when the marriage is doing more harm than good, not when, “she does not please him,” or “there’s something objectionable about her.”

Like so many other situations in which we might find ourselves, when there is no good resolution, when sin is unavoidable, we have to do the best we can and then rely on God’s grace for compassion and forgiveness. On World Communion Sunday, we can recognize that we are all united, both in our human condition, with all our frailties and failings and in our access to grace. We could all be members of House for All Sinners & Saints. 

Then, there are the children. Again, remember that life for children in Jesus’ day wasn’t like it is today, at least it’s not supposed to be like it was then. Then, children had no power; they were property; they were expendable. The disciples wanted to shoo these nuisances away. But Jesus turns another societal norm on its head. Indignant, he orders them to let the children in and he blesses them. He even says that we’re all supposed to be as child-like and eager to see Jesus; “whoever doesn’t welcome the kin-dom of God as a little child won’t enter it.” We should be reminded of the status of so many vulnerable children today: immigrant children, foster kids, kids kicked out of homes for being lgbtq, kids who are neglected or abused – and remember Jesus’ example of welcoming them in.

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In both of these incidents, Jesus breaks down barriers. Women find agency; children receive blessing. Everyone is welcome as far as Jesus is concerned – especially these vulnerable ones. Would Jesus refuse anyone Communion? I don’t think so. Everything he said and did was about bringing us all together. So often he fed people or joined them in a meal. Eating together was almost a sacred activity. Communion is a sacred activity, a sacrament. We call it a Meal. Who would invite guests to a dinner party and then serve only some? 

I’m not criticizing churches who do not practice open Communion – well, just a little. That is their choice and they have their reasons. I just want to be very clear that here, at this table all are welcome – no exceptions. And if you ever find yourself left out of another Communion table, know that I and whoever wants to come with me will come to you – at the airport or wherever, with a sign with your name on it on one side and “Child of God” on the other. And we will share the most sacred meal of all together.

Amen

Mark 10: 1-16

Jesus left there and came to the districts of Judea and the other side of the Jordan. Once more the crowds gathered around and as usual Jesus began to teach them. Some Pharisees approached Jesus and, as a test, asked, “Is it permissible for husbands to divorce their wives?” 

In reply Jesus asked, “What command did Moses give?” They answered, “Moses permitted a husband to write a decree of divorce and to put her away.”
But Jesus told them, “Moses wrote the commandment because of your hardness of heart. From the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. This is why one person leaves home and cleaves to another, and the two become one flesh.’ They are no longer two, but one flesh. What God has united, therefore, let no one divide.” Back in the house again, the disciples questioned Jesus once more about this. He told them, “If a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery against her; and if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

Biblical,Scene,When,Jesus,Says,,Let,The,Little,Children,Come

People were bringing their children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples scolded them for this. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not stop them. It is to just such as these that the kin-dom of God belongs. The truth is, whoever doesn’t welcome the kin-dom of God as a little child won’t enter it.”

And Jesus took the children in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.

“Tammy Wynette 6488” by Nesster is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

JESUS MAFA 
“Jesus welcomes the children”