What’s in a Name, Good Shepherd?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”

This familiar line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is meant to convey that the name of a thing is irrelevant. Obviously, William Shakespeare was not Jewish. In the Hebrew language, the word ‘sheim’ (name) has the same letters as the word ‘sham’ (there). This is not a coincidence. A person’s name tells you what’s really there. It represents our identity not just because it’s a convenient way to distinguish us from one another. It is because the name defines us. According to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University in NY, names capture our essence. They are the keys to our soul.

That’s not a familiar concept to us outside of the Bible, where names are given or changed all the time to reflect the character of a person or place. In our day, names are often chosen because of their current popularity. I remember a song from the Jennifer era, when it was the No. 1 baby name for girls in America from 1970 to 1984, and in the top 10 until 1991. The song was “27 Jennifers” and the words were “I went to school with 27 Jennifers, 16 Jenns, 10 Jennies.” In my day, it was Joanne, Kathy, Linda, and Susan. Nowadays, according to the Social Security Administration, the most popular name for boys for the past five years is Liam, and for girls, Olivia, has been the reigning champ for the past three years. 

I don’t know if all Jewish parents adhere to the belief, but some sources say that parents are granted a minor degree of ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) when they select names for their children. According to Rabbi Blech: “Names are a book. They tell a story. The story of our spiritual potential as well as our life’s mission.”

So this got me to wondering, what about church names? Does anyone know how Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd got its name? I mean, I know where the name comes from – you can see it right on the stained-glass window in the front of the church. But who decided that that image would be the one to define this congregation? I did just learn in a Facebook exchange with daughter of the congregation Janet Griffiths that the window was installed maybe between 1972-78. She says, “I remember the purple panes before this window.” So who named the church in the first place? 

I was curious, so I started Googling how churches got their names. Without going into depth, reading just what appeared in the few lines in Google, I found a Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Lethbridge, AB where the first pastor was tasked with naming the new building. He decided that if people wanted to find a Lutheran church, they’d look in the phone book (this was 1957 when we still used phone books) under Lutheran, rather than look for a specific church name. So he settled on Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. Very pragmatic. 

At Church of the Good Shepherd in Holbrooke, NY, a Roman Catholic church established in 1970, Father Ronald Barry expressed his belief that “the people are the church,” so a vote by the members named the new parish. Very democratic. Another Lutheran church organized in 1965 did a similar thing. Each member wrote the name of their choice on paper, and the most repeated entry was “Good Shepherd.” 

Sometimes names get changed. The story is told of a seminary professor who met up with an old friend who had recently became the pastor of a certain church. The professor asked his friend the name of the church and his friend told him the name. The seminary professor, who was a Hebrew linguist, said, “Did you know that your church name means ‘House of Iniquity’ in Hebrew?” The pastor did not know that, but he returned to the church, called a congregational meeting, and promptly changed the church name. Thus, “House of Iniquity Church” was replaced with something more innocuous.

Then there’s the church in Williston, ND which changed its name from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church to the Shepherd’s Table: A Center 4 Community in Christ. Members of the congregation spent two and a half years asking themselves the question: “What is God asking of us?” and in January of 2020 began to transition into a new identity for the church. Pastor Nicole Martin said that while the church would still hold Sunday worship as usual, the biggest change would be in the church’s mission to create partnerships between community organizations to meet the needs of Williston. 

This story was of interest to me because it sounded like they may have gone through the same kind of process that our church council has been working on since December. We have been taking our time to be in a time of discernment, that is in Bible study, prayer, discussion, and listening for what God is calling us to be in this time and place. I’m not suggesting that we change our name; I just found it interesting that their discernment process led them to a name change. Sort of. They still obviously thought that ‘shepherd’ was still part of their identity and mission. 

Which brings us to us. Why are we Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd? How does our name define us?
How does it capture our essence and hold the key to our soul? 

I think there are two aspects of our name that define us. The first is pretty obvious: we look to Christ as our Good Shepherd, who loves us, cares for us, and keeps us gathered together. I’m reminded of the words from the end of the funeral liturgy: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” We can look up to our stained-glass window and feel secure in the sense of belonging to such a flock. 

Cyrus the Great

There are lots of places in the Bible where we find this kind of comfort. The 23rd Psalm, for one. Although not about Jesus, we can see how Jesus embodied the kind of shepherd-leader praised in ancient Israel – from Moses who saw the burning bush as he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks to the Shepherd-King David, and even to King Cyrus of Persia, who conquered the Babylonians and set the captives free. As Isaiah spoke God’s word: ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose.’

There are also plenty of examples of what a shepherd should not do. Jeremiah ranted in his day about kings and religious leaders who were supposed to leads their people according to God’s ways: “For the shepherds are stupid, and do not seek God’s counsel; therefore, they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered.” 

Pastors are supposed to be good shepherds. In the ordination service, the passage from 1 Peter is read as one of the charges to the newly ordained: “Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, not under compulsion but willingly, not for sordid gain but eagerly. Don’t lord it over those in your charge but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.” And if you’ve ever wondered why our bishop carries a staff that looks like a shepherd’s crook, it’s because it’s a symbol of the role of a bishop as “shepherd of the flock of God,” particularly the community under their jurisdiction.

So this is the first aspect of our name. “We,” as Psalm 100 declares “are God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture.” And as such, we look to Christ, both as our very real presence as guide and comforter, and as a model of servant leadership for all who minister in Christ’s name. 

The second aspect is one that asks us to consider how a church called Good Shepherd embodies the characteristics of its namesake. And if the corporate identity of an entire congregation is one of servant leadership, called to guide and to comfort, then who is the flock? 

You know, the council hasn’t finished its discernment work yet, although we are planning to present something at the annual meeting on June 12th. It won’t be the final product, which will include intentions for action in the coming year, but it will give you a snapshot of the work. In this work of discernment, we were called upon to first of all frame the issue we most want to address in the coming year. And what we agreed upon was this: 
We will continue providing meaningful worship, while also connecting in a meaningful way to our community.

In light of that statement and this Good Shepherd Sunday, it seems clear that the flock is – us. We are both sheep and shepherd. But it doesn’t stop at these doors; we are shepherd to our community. In order to get congregations thinking about this, it used to be asked: if your church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone in the community care? We could put a more positive light on it and ask: if your church closed tomorrow, what would the community miss? 

In these days of church decline and pandemic, many churches are closing their doors. It might be interesting to ask the communities around them what they would miss about these congregations. (For one story, see Lament at the Closing of a Church.)

We’d probably get a wide variety of answers. The saddest of them all, however, would be: “Nothing at all.” 

Here at Good Shepherd, we already have a presence in our neighborhood, so no doubt we would be missed. The AA groups that meet here are part of our flock. How might we interact with them even more? The Good Shepherd Chinese Christian Church that liked our name so much that they took it for themselves, too. How might we explore with them what it means to shepherd in our communities? As we come out of pandemic isolation, Vacation Bible School can return. Many more ideas have been floating about for the 2 ¼ years I’ve been here. The work of the council will be to discern which of these will best contribute to our framing statement, that will be doable by a small congregation or in partnership with others, that will hopefully capture the imagination and generate excitement among us all. At this point, all I can say is Stay Tuned. 

I’m still interested in the question of how we came to be named the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd? And I’m still curious about how you all see how our name defines us? How does it capture our essence and hold the key to the soul of this congregation? As always, I’m interested in your thoughts. So I think I’m going to stop and see if anyone would like to share a response, idea, critique, or question.

For now, I’ll just say; Amen. 

Judaism and the Power of Names

What Should I Call My Church: Best Practices for Naming Your Church

No Doubt: It’s Quasimodo Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

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

John 20:19-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can We Celebrate Resurrection in the Midst of War?

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

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

And now – my Easter sermon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Mark 16:1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought perfumed oils so that they could anoint Jesus. Very early, just after sunrise on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. 
They were saying to one another“Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked, they found that the huge stone had been rolled back. On entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, dressed in a white robe. They were very frightened, but he reassured them: “Do not be amazed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. Now go and tell the disciples and Peter, ‘Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will see him just as he told you.’” 
They made their way out and fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling; but they said nothing to anyone, because they were so afraid. 

Luke 24:1-12

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

Join the Maundy Thursday Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. 

Startle Us, O God!

Startle us, O God, with the story of what happened this day:
a king coming in humility and vulnerability and with peace that passes our understanding. Startle us with the audacity of a faith based on that peace. Startle us with a love that comes all the way down to our city, our lives, our world, and bids us to embrace it and to follow the Prince of Peace, in whose name we pray. Amen.1

I was intrigued by that prayer because I don’t think we’re often startled in church. Maybe, hopefully, once in a while somebody has an ‘aha’ moment, a sudden flash of insight or new understanding. But ‘startled’ has a connotation of being surprised and frightened.

At the church where I did my internship year, we had an Easter vigil. Not like the Easter Vigil service you might be familiar with. A group of us stayed up all night and took turns going into the sanctuary to pray for a time (an hour, I think). Picture a big downtown cathedral church, with stained glass Tiffany windows, choir loft. A beautiful space, but that night it was completely dark except for a few candles. About 1:00 AM, the woman who was taking her turn came back down to the parish hall. Breathlessly, she said that there was a man in the church. He’d come out of the dark sanctuary, and she was so startled, all she could do was run. It turned out that the man, who was homeless had hidden out in one of the nooks and crannies in the building until everyone (he thought) had left for the day. I’d bet he was just as startled by a woman kneeling at the altar in the candlelight. 

That’s how I think of being startled. But other synonyms broaden the meaning: amazed, astonished, dumbfounded, flabbergasted, marveling, openmouthed. and my favorite: electrified. So again, I don’t think we’re often startled (or electrified) in church. And if I’m wrong about that, I would love to hear your story. 

In any event, in our prayer we ask God to startle us by the story of what happened this day, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, our remembrance of the betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and death of Jesus. It might not feel like a day when such suffering is at the center of it. It’s more of a festive day. Some even consider it a kind of dress rehearsal for Easter, equating “Hosanna!” with “Hallelujah!” and skipping the hard parts of the story that come in between. 

Or as the writer Anne Lamott said, “I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion. I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection. In fact, I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of the kids in our Sunday School, who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside the tomb: everlasting life and a basketful of chocolates. Now you’re talking.”

My usual admiration for Anne Lamott aside, the story – our sacred story – the whole sacred story – demands our attention. And today our attention is on the parade into Jerusalem. An old, familiar one to be sure. But maybe today something will leap out at you and leave you flabbergasted. 

The Palm Sunday story is in all four gospels, and what Jesus did that day is still a hot topic of discussion. When the book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem was released in 2007, it was rather startling. It stirred up both interest and controversy – and a new excitement about this day beyond waving palm branches and quickly moving on to Easter: do not pass crucifixion; do not collect 40 lashes. From this telling of the story, many have concluded that Jesus had carefully planned his entry into Jerusalem; the parade was a bit of street theater that mocked the Roman Empire.

Fred Craddock, who was Distinguished Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, expanded this focus on the parade. He asked – and answered:

What is this: a parade, a protest march, or a funeral procession?
It is all three. Without a doubt, it is all three.

The parade was not just any old parade. It was a royal parade. The Palm Sunday procession was the triumphant entry of a king. The messiah who would be like the great King David, who would defeat the despised Romans. “Hosanna! Save us!” they cried, as they laid branches and even their clothing on the ground before him. 

Of course, Jesus offered a different way of being a king. This king 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 the passage from the prophet Zechariah: “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.”

Jesus came defenseless and weaponless. But he clearly understands the role of power. Riding in on a donkey has all of a sudden become very political, as he all but cried aloud the bottom-line truth that his rule would have nothing to recommend it but love, humility, and sacrifice. These priorities would have political implications. 

Now we know how the story will go. Jesus will not take on the mantle of a ruler who will lead an insurrection against Rome. The way of Jesus was not one of military might, violence, or hierarchical power. Rather the way of Jesus is a way of peace, a way that involves self-emptying and setting aside of ego, and willingness to be “all in” for the cause of righteousness, justice, and liberation. And that will get him killed. Don’t think for a minute the Roman authorities missed that gesture. They were always on the lookout for people who might be a threat to their power and they played hardball when they found them. Crucifixion was a vile part of their occupation toolbox. The fact that we know what happens next does serve to rain on our parade. And even though we know that Easter will follow Good Friday, today we’re still in Palm Sunday time, where we join in a celebratory parade, full of hope and joyful expectation. 

At the same time, this parade was a protest march. Jesus knew that on the other side of the city another parade was getting ready to march. A Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem. It 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.

Why would a lovely religious holiday like Passover be an occasion for riots? Think about it. Passover celebrates the release of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, their escape long ago from lives of oppression under Pharaoh and his army. And now where did they find themselves? Occupied by the Roman empire and living under the boot heel of Caesar’s army. Passover was a bittersweet day indeed. And it could enflame protests and rebellions against this current situation of bondage.

“Cleansing of the Temple
Alexander Smirnov (Russian, 1947–

Into this scenario comes Jesus, riding on a donkey, blatantly proclaiming himself as a ruler – albeit a ruler of peace. It’s no wonder that the crowds lined the street and cheered him on. And where did Jesus go and what did he do after he dismounted that colt? He went to the temple and drove out the money changers. Talk about being startled! He confronted the religious leaders who were exploiting the poor and powerless and cleansed the temple of corruption, at least for a few hours. Authorities, both political and religious would not have been happy with Jesus. and they were already plotting to arrest him and get rid of him. In the words of Dr. Craddock, “You could hear the groan of God each step along the way. He was not marching into a welcoming city, but to his own grave.”

It’s no wonder we want to skip over that part. In one of our Confirmation classes, the question came up of why – if Jesus defeated the cross – is it the central symbol of our faith. Great question. And as we enter into a week in which suffering will take center stage, it’s the best question. We talk about the cross, not  because Jesus suffered to keep us from suffering. He suffered because we already suffer. His suffering shows us God’s vulnerability, God’s identification with us. We don’t go seeking the cross. The cross already stands in the midst of life. We’re reading When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner in our book discission group. And early on, the author makes one important point. He says that people often refer to the book as Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People. He tells them – and us – it’s not about why suffering happens, but when. 

The theology of the cross – a term coined by Martin Luther – reveals to us a God who doesn’t stand aloof, a God who doesn’t wag a finger at us, but who empties God’s self for us, who is with us when we hurt, and even suffers along with us. 

Fred Craddock, who I mentioned earlier, explains it like this: a child falls down and skins a knee or elbow and comes running to mama. The mother picks him up and says, “Let me kiss it and make it well.”  She kisses the skinned place, holds him in her lap, and all is well. Did her kiss make it well? No. It was that ten minutes in her lap. That does more good than all the bandages and medicine in the world.

Then he sees his mother crying. “Mama, why are you crying? I’m the one who hurt my elbow.” 
“Because you hurt,” the mother says, “I hurt.” 

The story of Jesus coming to dwell among us begins on Christmas and ends on Good Friday. It is the story of God stooping to pick us up. We thought if there were to be business between us and God, we must somehow get up to God. Then God came down to the level of the cross, all the way down to the gates of hell. And God still stoops, in your life and mine. Craddock asks:

What is the cross? Can I say it this way?
It is to sit for a few minutes in the lap of God, who hurts because you hurt.

I can’t think of a better story to lead us into Holy Week. Today’s triumphant royal parade, edgy protest march, and grim funeral procession – all rolled into one – has many treasures for us to unpack. Maybe there’s something new in there that has been amazing, astonishing, or at least interesting. But if you take nothing else away from this day, I hope that you will remember that in this week between Palm Sunday and Easter is the heart of our sacred story. When we partake of the events of Holy Week, we enter into that story – not only as a remembrance of what happened long ago, but what happens in the lives of you and me. 

In our times of doubt, of pain, of fear, of suffering – God is there. And the greatest gift we could ever receive is to sit for a few minutes in the lap of God, who hurts because you hurt.

Amen. 

Luke 19: 28-40

After this teaching, Jesus went ahead to Jerusalem. Nearing Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of the disciples with these instructions: 
“Go into the village ahead of you. Upon entering, you will find a tethered colt that no one has yet ridden. Untie it and lead it back. If anyone should ask you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Rabbi needs it.’” 
They departed on their errand and found things just as Jesus had said.

As they untied the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you doing that?” 
They explained that the Rabbi needed it. Then the disciples led the animal to Jesus and, laying their cloaks on it, helped him mount. 

People spread their cloaks on the roadway as Jesus rode along. As they reached the descent from the Mount of Olives, the entire crowd of disciples joined them and began to rejoice and praise God loudly for the display of power they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!” 
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” 
Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they were to keep silent, the very stones would cry out!”

1 Sermon, “A God Who Stoops,” Joseph S. Harvard
https://firstpres-durham.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/04.17.pdf
2 Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005, p. 140.
3 Fred Craddock, (Cherry Log Sermons: Why the Cross)

Mary, Jesus & the Alabaster Jar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 1
Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

John 12: 1-8

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

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

Dad Always Liked You Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen         

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

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

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

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

And the celebration began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give a Fig for Jesus

A classic tough-guy movie scenario goes something like this. One macho type says to the other, “Is that a threat?” The other one, swaggering and hitching up his pants, replies with a menacing glare, “No, that’s a promise.” 

Today’s New Testament readings could be said to have both a threat and a promise in them. Although I’m not so sure that we don’t usually hear the promise as a threat, too. 

In the gospel reading, Jesus starts out by dismissing the threat that says that God inflicts suffering on people as a judgment for their sinfulness. 

We know that way of thinking. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good people. Remember Job? Job’s friends sought comfort in this idea when they see disaster upon disaster piled upon their friend. “There must be something you have done to deserve this,” they insist. “Repent of your sin.” But Job maintains that he’s innocent. When God finally shows up, even though we hear nothing to explain why Job suffers, God’s response to Job’s friends was (and I paraphrase): “Shut up you idiots!”

Jesus likewise showed little patience for pious speculation on the suffering of others. In response to the story of Pontius Pilate’s cruel violence against some Galileans, mixing their blood in with their ritual sacrifices, and the report of eighteen people killed by a falling tower, he asked, “Do you think because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? And he answered his own question: “No.”

Despite Jesus’ rejection of this kind of judgement, we know that in some Christian quarters, that kind of thinking is still around. Some of us may remember how after the 9/11 attacks, Jerry Falwell – co-founder of the Moral Majority – quickly blamed LGBT people and feminists for bringing judgment upon us. In 2005, televangelist John Hagee claimed that Hurricane Katrina was the result of New Orleans’ toleration of homosexuality. And who could forget the tornados that ripped through Minneapolis on August 19, 2009 as the ELCA was voting to do away with the ban on openly gay clergy? When news that the steeple of the church hosting the assembly had been damaged, the warnings flew. A Baptist minister said on the news that evening, “The tornado . . . was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA: turn from the approval of sin.” 

Funny how these judgments are always about sexuality. Doesn’t God have any warnings for us about war, or gun violence, or economic disparity? But Jesus dismisses all of this kind of judgmental blaming: “Do you think the people who were killed by the falling tower in Siloam were more guilty than anyone else? No.” Oh, whew! We’re all off the hook.

Except then he says, “You’ll all come to the same end unless you change your ways.” Uh oh, definitely a threat implied there. But then, he goes back into “promise” mode. In the parable of the fig tree, he offers hope to those who haven’t been living up to God’s expectations. But then again, the twist: If it doesn’t bear fruit next year, then cut it down.” Uh oh again. We’ve got a real mixed bag here of threat and promise. Same with Paul in the Corinthians text. He does veer awfully close to the threat side in his letter to the recalcitrant Corinthians: “Don’t test God like those ancient people did. Remember how they were killed by snakes?” He, too, comes back around to the good news, but I’m afraid that oftentimes the promise part of what he and Jesus say is overshadowed by the threat. It’s like when you have an employee evaluation and hear nine nice things about yourself and one criticism. What do you remember most? The one criticism, right? I think it might be the same with threat and promise here.

That’s why I’d like to spend a little more time with this fig tree parable. Parables are curious things. They’re stories that are intended to make us think. Jesus often used parables to get a point across. The problem with parables (the challenge) is that the point is not always obvious. Actually, when it seems to be obvious, we’ve probably missed the point. Another problem is that we’ve become so familiar with the biblical parables that we stop listening: “Oh, right, Parable of the Good Samaritan, got it.” 

When we know the end of the story, we’re no longer surprised. When our interpretation of it boils down to a nice moral platitude, the parable has lost its edge. We don’t allow Jesus to challenge us or to provoke us with hard truths. So, let’s see if we can find any challenges or surprises in this parable.

It starts out on a promising note. A gardener intervenes on behalf of an unproductive fig tree, asking for a year to try to get the tree to produce fruit. If his efforts fail, then he’ll cut it down. The end. 

Oh no. Wait a minute. What happens after a year? Does the tree produce figs? Or did it end up being compost for another, more productive tree? We don’t find out whether manure and a gardener’s tender care end up making any difference whatsoever. But let’s say that it does. Our fig tree survives. 

(Does anybody have a fig tree?) 

It turns out that fig trees are pretty interesting. They’ve been around since ancient times, and from what I’ve read, they’re pretty adaptable plants. They can grow in dry and sunny areas, with deep and fresh soil, but also in rocky areas and places with nutritionally poor soil. Another kind of fun fact about fig trees is that they require pollination by a particular species of wasps to produce seeds. 

As metaphors go, there’s some good stuff here. Our faith is able to thrive in the good times, in places conducive to nurturing hope and trust. But it can also grow quite well in the rocky times. In places where there’s little spiritual nutrition, we’re able to put our roots down deep to find what we need. 

But those wasps. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like wasps. They sting; they’re to be avoided. Except, for the fig tree they’re necessary for regeneration. That reminded me of the time a spiritual director encouraged me to see difficult people as gifts from God who could teach me about patience, compassion, and other spiritual gifts. Hmm. Could these people and even situations that sting be like those wasps? I admit that I didn’t like hearing that advice any more than hearing that wasps are beneficial to the web of life. But there it is. Gifts from God.  Every one of them.

Another reason I’m fascinated with this story is that Jesus wasn’t saying anything particularly shocking about the fig tree. We know that in nature things that are useless eventually die out. Take for example blue whales (another fun fact). Blue whales used to have teeth. But they don’t anymore. In their evolution from land to sea mammals, they’ve developed something called baleen combs in the front of their mouths, which filter the plankton, krill, and small fish they gulp in with the water. 

So the owner of the vineyard was simply expressing the truth of evolutionary biology. He wasn’t seeking to punish the plant; he was simply acknowledging that the tree wasn’t fulfilling its purpose.

What that says to me is that we each need to consider why God has put us here. In a book called The Evidential Power of Beauty, Thomas Dubay elaborates on this. It’s a bit philosophical, but bear with me: “Form is the deep root of a being’s actuality, which gives it its basic whatness. It is the actualizing principle of a thing, the mysterious taproot that makes that thing to be what it is, and thus why it is different from every other kind of being. The inner form . . . of a palm tree makes it different from an oak, a corn stalk, indeed, a squirrel—even though all are made of atoms.” In other words, you have a basic and unique whatness?

Do you know what that is? And can you say how are you making use of the gifts that God has given only to you? There are no easy, cookie-cutter answers to that question; it’s a matter of discernment – that applies to congregations as well as individuals.

Another lesson from the parable is that the fig tree took nutrients from the soil but didn’t give anything back, and nothing that only takes can ultimately survive. So it is with us. More than the usual moral sins that are hauled out to accuse others, maybe a bigger sin is failing to strive to give back and make the world a better place. I was at an event recently where two people who have had very serious challenges in their lives spoke eloquently about how they had been called upon to do things they hadn’t anticipated, yet these challenges have turned out to be extremely life-affirming.

After their talk, I had a long conversation with a young man sitting next to me. He’d been very moved by the two speakers and now was questioning his own “whatness.” He was on a very successful career track, which he enjoyed. However, he ‘d been feeling drawn to doing something completely different – perhaps not as lucrative, but something that would be more about giving back. Although he never mentioned God or used any kind of overtly spiritual language, he seemed to be moving into the realization of something more. I would describe it as a Divine lure going on within him. You could say that he’s like the fig tree, perhaps not failing to produce fruit, but being drawn to produce fruit of a different kind. 

Now, to be perfectly honest, the process of discernment can be long and it can be unsettling. Having been through a few of these myself, I think maybe that’s what Jesus was referring to with the fertilizer – the process can sometimes stink, but it’s often what leads to growth. And the pruning (not mentioned in this text, but elsewhere) can be painful – that’s just how spiritual growth works.

This may sound just as harsh as the threats we infer from Jesus in the gospel. But now we come to the gospel of the second chance. The fig tree should have flowered within the three years, but it didn’t. Nevertheless, it was given a second chance. As are we. Even a third, a fourth and so on. Our baptismal promise is that each new day, we rise anew, past sins forgiven, with a new day in which to live out our basic whatness, as first of all beloved children of a loving God. 

Yes, we sin. Lent is about sin and repentance. But not in the sense of some kind of Divine behavior modification program with punishments and rewards. Rather it’s about turning and returning to our source of life. And in the process of being faithful and loving disciples, in following the beckoning of a holy lure, in opening ourselves to being pruned and fertilized, in bearing fruit in service to the world, the Divine whatness that is all around us grows and thrives. 

The theme for today within the wider theme of “Our Whole Hearts” is “Tending to the Heart.” And I see our calling is to tend to the ‘basic and unique whatness’ of ourselves. 

One of my very favorite quotes is from the author Frederick Buechner: 
“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” 

Perhaps today we could revise that just a bit: “Tend to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” 

As a symbol of the hardy fig tree and of our own discipleship, I’ve brought Fig Newtons today. We’ll have them here for coffee hour. And for those on Zoom, so you think I don’t give a fig, I’ll have them here for when you can stop by. And for those not in the area, here you go; get a screen shot and keep it with you as a remembrance of the promise – not the threat – of your evolving spiritual journey and of all the good fruit you will continue to bear for the sake of the world.

Amen

Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them–do you think they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’

The gardener replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

Gospel for the Brokenhearted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

they have become her enemies. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s Friday. But Sunday’s comin’.”

Amen.

Luke 13:31-35

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

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

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

Transfiguration in a Time of War

I usually love Transfiguration Sunday. It’s the grand finale of the Epiphany season – the spectacular revelation of Jesus on the mountaintop with the two biggest heroes of Jewish faith and history. The glorious spectacle almost reminds us of Easter.
And as we stand in the doorway between Epiphany and Lent, we could see this as a bookend, paired with the splendor of Easter Sunday to come. 

I also love the mystery of the mountaintop experience witnessed by the disciples, the rending of the veil between heaven and earth. We can’t fault Peter for wanting to capture the moment, store it in a structure, to be savored over and over. Having such an up-close encounter with the Divine would be both amazing and unfathomable. I envy Peter and the others who were there. So, yes, I love the glory, the mystery, the brilliance, the knowledge that such encounters can even be possible. 

But today – once again with news of the world intruding on our celebration – it’s hard to feel celebratory. Those of you from the Roman Catholic tradition may know that Transfiguration is celebrated annually on August 6 – which creates an interesting juxtaposition in light of current events.

August 6 is Hiroshima Remembrance Day. In 1945, the Enola Gay, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, dropped the first atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. There was a dazzling, blinding light from the blast followed by an overshadowing cloud. Sounds eerily like the description in the gospel stories.

Going back even further, August 6, 1456, Pope Callixtus III declared the Feast Day of the Transfiguration due to the victory of the crusaders over the Turks. Interesting, to say the least, how this day is intertwined with acts of war. What is a preacher to do?

The mountaintop experience of Divine glory seems far away from the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The image of Jesus and Moses and Elijah as the superheroes of the world seem pale beside images of political strong men and heavy artillery. I have always thought of the Transfiguration as the possibility of trans-formation for all of us, indeed for the whole world. But war brings feelings of hopelessness, of despair for the future of the human race if we cannot – or will not – live together in peace. 

You know, I used to not like the way the lectionary includes the next section of the gospels, where Jesus is confronted by a man with a son who had epilepsy (although Luke says the boy is afflicted by an unclean spirit, demon) and heals him. It felt to me like it took away from the majesty of the transfiguration. I guess you could say that I wanted to build a booth and stay up on the mountain with Jesus.

But one thing today’s juxtaposition of Divine revelation and military invasion has done is flesh out a little more of these two stories together and what they can mean for us. Think about that mountain. We don’t know what mountain it was, but I am imagining that from its heights Jesus and the disciples were able to see down into the countryside where there were hundreds of people crucified on Roman crosses. So even though they had their mountaintop experience, the realty of everyday life in Palestine was never far from their sight. So coming back down and encountering a real-life situation is not as jarring as perhaps we might read it.

Divine revelation and everyday life are not at odds with one another;
they are both part of the whole reality of faith and life. 

As Franciscan priest and mystic, Richard Rohr has written:
We have created an artificial divide or dualism between the spiritual and the so-called non-spiritual. This dualism is precisely what Jesus came to reveal as a lie. The Incarnation proclaims that matter and spirit have never been separate. Jesus came to tell us that these two seemingly different worlds are — and always have been — one. Rohr challenges a ‘mountaintop’ religiosity that divides the sacred and special from the secular and ordinary. 

I like to believe that’s true, at least I do when we’re talking about the ordinariness of everyday life. I do believe that our time with family, our time at school, at work, at play are all part of our spiritual lives. But war – that’s another story – as is any violent act, bullying, any kind of abuse. These should not be part of the ordinariness of everyday life. So what do we do with the ugly side of life, the view of crosses from the mountaintop?

Jesus certainly knew what to do. Even though he could see those crosses and could look ahead and envision one in his own future, he came down from his mystical, glorious, Divine mountain and back into the maelstrom of human misery and need. A demon had seized a boy and was making his life a living hell. We could discuss their understanding of demons and unclean spirits, but the point was that for Jesus, there was work to be done. And he did it. 

We could say that a demon or unclean spirit has come upon us. War is not part of God’s intention for God’s people. But lust for power and domination, violence have infected our world from time immemorial. The invasion of Ukraine is just the latest episode of our warring madness.

It is not part of God’s intention, but it is part of our reality. Our secular lives are not separate from our spiritual lives. And so we must consider what our response will be to this war, as well as to any part of the maelstrom of human misery and need.

Perhaps you feel that church is no place to discuss a political situation, that this hour on Sunday morning is sacred, our mountaintop, where we come to commune with the Divine, to get away from the worries of the world. And that may indeed be true. We do come here to be refueled by the Spirit. And that is as it should be. But like Jesus and company, even from the loftiness of our spiritual high, we can see the crosses. We might try to shut them out of our consciousness, but its hard to do. Especially when we have Jesus himself talking about going to Jerusalem to die. The cross always looms over Transfiguration Sunday. 

And we know what to do. Like Jesus, we come down from our Sunday mountaintop experience and back into the maelstrom of human misery and need. How do we respond to this latest war? Partly it’s up to each of us to decide how to respond based on our own sense of calling as a follower of Jesus. There are certainly many appeals for money for medical supplies, humanitarian aid, or refugee assistance. I’m sure organizations such as Heart to Heart International and Church World Service who have gathered hygiene and school kits in the past are in the process of mobilizing to do so again. I remember at the start of our Iraq invasion, there was an initiative here in the Bay Area to send school kits to the children of Iraq. We should be on the lookout for opportunities. 

And of course, we should be in prayer – for both Ukraine and Russia. If praying for Russia seems extreme, remember Jesus’ words from last week: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Jesus was no stranger to violence, oppression, and war. He didn’t call disciples into a hermetically sealed bubble, safe from the realities of everyday life. We are not called to be followers of Jesus who seek only mystical union with the Divine. Those transfiguring, transforming experiences are of one piece with the gritty, messiness of human experience. He calls us now – to pray for oppressed and oppressor, to tend to the afflicted in whatever way we can. 

As we move into Lent and ever closer to the cross, it may be hard to remember the gloriousness of the Transfiguration or to anticipate the splendor of Easter. In the shadows of Lent, we embrace the suffering of the world – hoping and trusting that resurrection life will prevail, but unsure that it will. For Jesus, yes. But for our situations of discord and death and war? We’re not always so sure. But it’s not called a wilderness time for nothing. Our faith will be tested. Our discipleship questioned. 

Now is the time to remember Jesus on the mountaintop with the great heroes of faith, to bask with the disciples in that glory. The Divine Presence is in the world. Now is the time to go back down the mountain with Jesus into the needs of the world. We now bring that Divine Presence to others. As C.S. Lewis, author of Mere Christianity and The Chronicles of Narnia, wrote:

Christ became human in order to spread to other human beings the same kind of life. Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else.

The rhythm of the church year has brought us now to this liminal moment, this threshold between the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle and the Lent/Easter/ Pentecost seasons, this dazzling moment of timeless Holy glory and endless possibility. It has been said that the mission of the Church is to be a vessel where transformation can happen. Where lives are changed – from the bottom up, from the inside out – by the enlightening presence of God. We have to leave the mountaintop. But hopefully we go as transformed people. Something has changed or something has shifted. We’re not exactly the same as when we arrived. There’s a little bit of extra glow around us, a renewed vigor to be salt for the earth and light for the world. A re-energized optimism to believe in God’s vision for the world – a world of justice and true peace.

We can’t know what mountains and valleys lie ahead. We can’t predict how God will speak, and in what guise Jesus might appear. But we can trust in this: whether on the brightest mountain, or in the darkest valley, Jesus abides. Even as he blazes with holy light, his hand remains warm and solid on our shoulders. Even when everything else we’re counting on disappears, Jesus remains among us — Jesus alone. So keep looking and listening for the sacred, no matter where the journey takes you. Because Jesus is present everywhere. Both the mountain and the valley belong to him.

It is all of one piece. 

Amen.

Photos
Transfiguration, 1973
JESUS MAFA is a response to the New Testament readings from the lectionary by a Christian community in Cameroon. Each reading was selected and adapted to dramatic interpretation by community members. Photographs of their interpretations were made, and these were then transcribed to paintings.

Attribution: JESUS MAFA. Transfiguration, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.  https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48307 [retrieved February 27, 2022]. Original source: http://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr (contact page: https://www.librairie-emmanuel.fr/contact).

Gospels, Jesus heals a demon-possessed boy, Walters Manuscript W.592, fol. 48b by Walters Art Museum Illustrated Manuscripts. This work has been marked as dedicated to the public domain.

Transfiguration by Alexandr Ivanov, 1824
This is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. 

Luke 9:28-43a
About eight days after saying this, Jesus took Peter, John and James and went up onto a mountain to pray. While Jesus was praying, his face changed in appearance and the clothes he wore became dazzlingly white. Suddenly two people were there talking with Jesus—Moses and Elijah. They appeared in glory and spoke of the prophecy that Jesus was about to fulfill in Jerusalem. Peter and the others had already fallen into a deep sleep, but awakening, they saw Jesus’ glory—and the two people who were standing next to him. When the two were leaving, Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, how good it is for us to be here! Let’s set up three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah!” Peter didn’t really know what he was saying. While Peter was speaking, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and the disciples grew fearful as the others entered it. Then from the cloud came a voice which said, “This is my own, my chosen one. Listen to him! “When the voice finished speaking, they saw no one but Jesus standing there. The disciples kept quiet, telling nothing of what they had seen at that time to anyone.

The following day when they came down the mountain, a large crowd awaited him. A man stepped out of the crowd and said, “Teacher, please come and look at my son, my only child. A demon seizes him and he screams, and it throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth. It releases the boy only with difficulty and when it does, he is exhausted. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they couldn’t.” Jesus said in reply, “You unbelieving and perverse generation! How much longer must I be among you and put up with you? Bring the child to me.” 

As the boy approached, the demon dashed the child to the ground and threw him into a violent convulsion. But Jesus reprimanded the unclean spirit, healed the child and returned him to his father. All those present were awestruck at the greatness of God