Grace In-Between the Lines

Sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter                 

Grace-BLOG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading Grace In-Between the Lines

Connected with Jesus on D’Vine

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Sermon
for the
Fifth Sunday
of Easter

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

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

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

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

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

Merton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amen

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

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

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

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

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

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Whose Good Shepherd?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Burlingame, CA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ the Good Shepherd. 

Amen 

Progressive+Lectionary+Commentary

JOHN 10:11-18

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

The Scariest Word In Church

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

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

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

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

So you have been duly warned.

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

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

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

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

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

That makes us witnesses, too.

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

Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s practice. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

peace

Luke 24: 36b-48

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

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

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

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

“You are witnesses of these things.”

Empty Tombs and Open Futures

Easter

Sermon for Easter Sunday – April 4, 2021  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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Mark 16:1–8

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

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

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

John 20:1-18

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

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

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

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

Palm Sunday: Join the Parade of Revolutionary Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Spirituality is the way of the heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Covenant: A New Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

 

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

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

Snakes on a Plain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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NUMBERS 21:4-9

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

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

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

JOHN 3:14-21

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

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

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

Holy Moses! Did Jesus Really Just Do That?!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, do you experience righteous anger? Ask yourself:

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

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

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

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

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John 2:13-22 

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

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

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

 

Sarah & Abraham: Standing on the Promises

Lent 2              February 28, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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