Monday
May182015

Us and the promise of God

Luke tells us a very funny story, easily one of the funniest in all of scripture. The disciples were having a conversation with Jesus when suddenly he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. What are we supposed to visualize here? Jesus floating up like a helium balloon or zipping skyward like Iron Man? Then there’s the moment when the disciples are standing there, gazing up to where they last saw Jesus, when suddenly two men in white robes appear and ask them, “Galileans, why are you staring up toward heaven?” It’s a perfect Monty Python moment just waiting for a hilarious punch line to pop.

It’s so easy to dismiss the scene as too fantastic for our sober minds and not quite fantastic enough for our imaginations shaped by Hollywood’s power myths and their mind-blowing special effects. At a church in Kansas City, worship on Ascension Day calls for special props. Hours before the service, five or six people show up and begin filling up balloons. They pump hundreds of white balloons full of helium gas and stuff them into an enormous bag made of bedsheets. Eventually the pile of white fabric is transformed into this big fluffy thing, and with a few deliberate pushes by the prop artists, a cloud begins to take shape. The volunteer cloud squad pins the only remaining opening shut and releases the magnificent cloud to float about the sanctuary. It dips and rises over worshipers, moving wherever it wants to go. Some years the cloud takes on unruly behavior, accepting a few too many ceiling fan currents, and divebombing the candelabra. There have been cloud squads who decided to tether the gigantic white blob with ten-pound fishing line and walk it around the sanctuary like Snoopy in a Macy’s parade. All eyes, of course, are on the visual prop. Most of the worshipers tilt their heads skyward for much of the service, and the net effect of this soaring-cloud routine are stiff necks and pinched nerves.[1] Not exactly what the risen Lord envisioned for his disciples.

Luke’s story won’t tickle our funny bone, though, when, rather than watch the scene from a distance, we enter it. What we discover is the disciples moving through yet another season of change and loss. For forty days – in biblical lingo that means a good long time – Jesus had presented himself alive to them, appearing to them and speaking with them about the kingdom of God. His painful absence after his death on the cross had turned into the new life of his confusing and joyful resurrection presence, but just when they thought they knew him again like they hadn’t known him before, just when they thought their world was now ready for God’s kingdom to come in fullness, he slipped away again. No wonder they looked intently to where they had last seen him.

Now the scene is not funny at all, but heart-breakingly familiar. “One thing is for sure: there is no sense of absence where there has been no sense of presence,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor.

What makes absence hurt, what makes it ache, is the memory of what used to be there but is no longer. Absence is the arm flung across the bed in the middle of the night, the empty space where a beloved sleeper once lay. Absence is the child’s room now empty and hung with silence and dust. Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood, the house in which people laughed and thought their happiness would last forever.

Where do you turn when your sense of God’s presence suddenly vanishes? Where do you turn when the visible becomes invisible, the tangible, intangible; the answer, a question; the presence, an absence? Luke tells us that Jesus didn’t go away, but that he ascended to heaven. Paul tells us that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.[2] That’s all about a Jesus, but what about us? What are we supposed to do?

Jesus says to us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” The absence will again become powerful presence, and we will be witnesses of the love that has found us, we will be messengers of reconciliation, truth tellers and ambassadors of the Lord’s reign to the ends of the earth. “You cannot miss what you have never known,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “which makes our sense of absence—and especially our sense of God’s absence—the very best proof that we knew God once, and that we may know God again.”[3]

Our gaze is stuck on that spot behind the cloud where we last perceived God’s presence in the person of Jesus, and the angels gently redirect our attention down to earth. It’s no use looking up if we want to see him. He will come to us. Our attention needs to be where his attention was when he walked on the earth. On the margins of our communities where life is far from flourishing. On the poverty of purse and of spirit that drains us of life and keeps us from recognizing each other as brothers and sisters. Our attention needs to be directed by his, and to the degree that we know what Jesus notices, we act, and to the degree that we don’t fully know where he wants to direct our gaze, we wait. He will come to us. We will be clothed with power from on high.[4]

Or so he told them, so he told the few who would become his apostles. But those were different times, simpler times, we imagine. They didn’t have Pew polls relentlessly reporting the declining numbers of believers; for them, then, it was just natural to believe in the promises of God and they, of course, weren’t nearly as busy as we are—or so we like to think. Annie Dillard wrote beautifully about this odd assumption:

A blur of romance clings to our notions of “publicans,” “sinners,” “the poor,” “the people in the marketplace,” “our neighbors,” as though of course God should reveal himself, if at all, to these simple people, these Sunday school watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves in their tattered robes, who are single in themselves, while we now are various, complex, and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.[5]

No need, then, to paint the past in a rosy glow, whether it’s the days of the apostles or the years of innocence after World War II when tall steeples went up like grass after a spring shower. There is no one but us. There never has been. Us and the promise of God. Us and the promise that we are not on our own, but that God is at work in the world. Us and the promise that we will be clothed with power from on high and be just right – just right, you and me, just right to participate in Christ’s continuing mission to the ends of the earth.

We have our VISTA event today, immediately after worship. As we look back to evaluate and look around to assess and look ahead to make plans, the biggest challenge will not be our goal to be done by 2, but rather to let the angels gently redirect our gaze from the place where we last saw God powerfully present to the places where Jesus calls us to be present. The biggest challenge will be not just to use our best wisdom and judgment, but to trust the movement and work of God’s Spirit in the world and to offer ourselves to be part of it.

Paul tells us that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. Far above doesn’t mean far away. The movement of God is not away from the world, but deeper into its brokenness in order to heal and redeem it. The movement of God is not away from us, but always to us and through us to the world. Christ reigns far above all rule and authority and power and dominion opposed to God’s kingdom, and we have the privilege to let our lives be a witness to this reign. There is no one but us. There never has been. Us and the promise of God.

 


[1] See Peter Marty, “Up, up and away,” The Christian Century, May 15, 1996, 543.

[2] Ephesians 1:20-21

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Boston: Cowley, 1995), 76.

[4] Luke 24:49

[5] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 56-57

Tuesday
May122015

Visiting Israel

I will soon be visiting Israel. This is a journey I have wanted to make for decades, but I could never figure out how. I knew I didn’t want to go as a tourist or on a family vacation or as part of a Christian travel group. I knew it would have to be something like a pilgrimage; I wanted to see with my own eyes and give thanks for the flourishing of Jewish life after the Shoah. Under Nazi rule, my people attempted to kill all European Jews and, Lord have mercy, almost succeeded. This “almost” has deeply shaped my life and my faith, and I have long wanted to walk and pray in the streets of Jerusalem. I just didn’t know how to let it be the journey it needed to be.

And then, just a few weeks ago, my friend Rabbi Mark Schiftan invited me to go with him on a trip for Christian clergy and Jewish leaders, planned and coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Nashville. I felt honored, humbled and blessed, and after carrying the invitation with me for a few days, I told him I would love to go.

Our group, nine Nashville Christian clergy persons and seven Nashville Jewish leaders, will board our flight early in the morning of May 27, my 55th birthday. We will visit Jerusalem, a kibbutz near lake Kinneret, the Golan heights, Nazareth, Tel Aviv and many sites along the way. We will have conversations with academic, political, and military leaders. We will pray and study Scripture together. We will share meals, including a Shabbat dinner, and we will talk about our impressions. We expect to return to Nashville on June 4th, transformed in ways none of us can predict.

We hope for the blessings of friendship and learning, for the planting of seeds that will make us more faithful to God’s vision of peace, and we ask for your prayers.

I know in my bones this is the trip I’ve been waiting for.

 

 

Monday
May112015

The Lord reigns

O sing to the Lord a new song,

for he has done marvelous things!

The psalmist invites us to sing, and what do we do? We ask one of us to open the good book and read the words for us. The psalmist invites us to sing, and what does the preacher do? He steps into the pulpit and speaks.

[Preacher sings] Am I the only one who thinks that’s curious and more than a little incongruent? [Continues, to the tune of HYMN TO JOY]

Curious, curious, no one’s humming,

no one’s chanting to the Lord;

Shouldn’t we all sing together

faithful to the word of God?

Shouldn’t we be singing, clapping,

dancing to the tune of love?

Saints on earth all joining voices,

praising God with saints above!

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. Marvelous things call for marvelous songs. The wonders of God’s overflowing love call for hearts overflowing with gratitude and praise.

We celebrate Mother’s Day, thankful for all the ways the life-giving and sutaining love of God has touched and shaped us through our mothers.

The life of God is love overflowing, bringing forth new life in and through us, around us, and sometimes despite us. The Lord has done marvelous things. Look around. See the faces. Remember the stories. Imagine the journeys. The daily routines and the great moments. Look around. The Lord has done marvelous things. Sing to the Lord a new song!

Ours is a singing faith. When Israel, on their journey to the promised land, escaped Pharao’s slave catchers, the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”[1] Miriam and the other women established a pattern of praise for God’s people: Sing to the Lord, for the Lord has done marvelous things. The Lord has brought us up, out of the land of Egypt. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has made covenant with us at Sinai and given us the commandments of life. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has brought us into a good land, flowing with milk and honey. Sing to the Lord! The Lord is the maker of heaven and earth, whom sun and moon and stars obey. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has saved us from our enemies. Sing to the Lord! The steadfast love and faithfulness of the Lord are from everlasting to everlasting. Sing to the Lord!

The destruction of the Temple and the exile in Babylon was a devastating experience of loss for God’s people, but even then the songs did not cease. The Lord’s judgments are right. Sing to the Lord!

Hope flourished among the exiles when the prophets spoke of a way the Lord would make in the wilderness. And then they began to return, and it was the Lord’s doing, and it was wonderful in their eyes.

O sing to the Lord a new song,

for he has done marvelous things:

The Lord has made known his salvation;

The Lord has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations;

The Lord has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.

The psalm has the familiar pattern of praise, but the radical newness of the moment of redemption and return pushes the language of praise to global and cosmic levels.

All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;

break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

God’s righteousness has been revealed in God’s dealings with God’s people. Every instrument is claimed and used to make a joyful noise, because the Lord reigns. The Lord’s faithfulness endures forever; and the Lord’s power to save extends to all.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

the world and those who live in it.

Let the floods clap their hands;

let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord.

The mighty waters offer thunderous applause while every living thing and every speck of dirt has its part in a cosmic symphony of praise. The Lord reigns and the Lord is coming to judge the earth.

The psalm is a song of gratitude mingled with bold expectation; those who sing it take the wonders of liberation and redemption already accomplished as an earnest of the full manifestation of God’s mercy in judgment, when God’s just rule will be established throughout the world.

The Lord will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.

The psalmist challenges us to see God’s judgment, not as a matter for private celebration by the righteous and, correspondingly, dread for the wicked, but rather as the occasion of cosmic jubilation: The righteousness of God will set things right. Few of us are inclined to rejoice at the prospect of judgment, but this song of praise invites us to examine our preconceptions and embrace judgment as a promise rather than a threat. Jubilation is the appropriate response to God’s judgment, because this judgment is characterized by righteousness, that is, by God’s abiding concern to sustain, restore, and enhance relationship with us, among us, and between us and rivers, mountains, and all living things.[2] The song of the redeemed includes the whole creation. God’s righteousness is a passion for wholeness.

Ours is a singing faith. Another Miriam, Mary the mother of Jesus, when she was pregnant with the promise of God, sang of the Mighty One whose name is holy.

The Lord has shown strength with his arm and has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever. Sing to the Lord![3]

As Christians, we recognize the fullness of God’s righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ. Mary’s firstborn is the salvation that God has wrought in the sight of the nations. His whole life – that is, his life and teachings, his death and resurrection – is the passionate assertion of God’s will for the world. He is our righteousness and our salvation, and through him we join Israel in singing a new song to the Lord, for he has done wondrous things.

John of Patmos wrote in Revelation, “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea—I heard everything everywhere sing, ‘Blessing, honor, glory, and power belong to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb forever and always.”[4]

The Lord reigns. This confession of God’s people is an act of profound hope, and more than hope. The God who brought Israel out of Egypt and who raised Jesus from the dead has poured the Holy Spirit on all flesh so that we, in the face of injustice and every form of brokenness, have the courage to defy such realities as we live under God’s claim and sing the song of God’s reign.

Ours is a singing faith. Miriam’s song of triumph on the seashore; the psalmist’s call to rivers and mountains; mother Mary’s song of good news for the poor; and in the end the cosmic choir John of Patmos heard: “I heard everything everywhere sing, ‘Blessing, honor, glory, and power belong to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb forever and always.’”

The Lord has won the victory over all that is opposed to God’s will. The righteousness of God has triumphed and will prevail over the powers of sin and death. The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, but the whole creation is already singing of its redemption. And what do we do? [Preacher sings, to the tune of HYMN TO JOY]

Mortals, join the happy chorus,

stars of morning, take your part;

love divine is reigning o’er us,

binding those of tender heart.

Ever singing, move we onward,

victors in the midst of strife,

joyful music leads us sunward

in the triumph song of life.

 


[1] Exodus 15:20-21; see also the song of Moses in Exodus 15:1-18.

[2] See Ellen F. Davis, “Psalm 98,” Interpretation 46, no. 2 (April 1, 1992), 172-173.

[3] See Luke 1:51-55

[4] Revelation 5:13

Monday
May042015

Bearing fruit

Some members and friends of our congregation are in Bethany Hills for the weekend; Bethany Hills is the campground for Disciples churches in Tennessee, and we’re very fortunate that it’s only about 40 minutes from here, near Kingston Springs. It’s a beautiful place, nestled between gentle hills, covered with lush forest. There are, of course, cabins under the trees and a dining hall, but there’s also a quiet pond, fed by a happy creek, and lovely trails lead to magical places hidden in the woods, waiting to be discovered. Cell phone reception is really bad out there, which makes it the perfect place to go when you want to get away for a little while and reconnect with the  beauty of nature, with others and yourself, and with the quiet and playful side of God. Bethany Hills is an unhurried place where sun and moon and stars determine the pace of life, and a bell calls you to dinner or prayer. Some of you, I know, are wishing now you could or would have gone with them, don’t you?

Julia, Hope, and Greg have created the retreat around Psalm 1 where those are called happy who delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. “They are like trees,” the psalmist declares, “planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” If you were a tree, which would it be? What kind of fruit would you want to yield? Peaches? Almonds? Apples? Cherries? Mangos? Pecans? In cultures across the ancient Middle East, the tree of life was the vine, and not just any old vine, but vitis vinifera whose fruit has been crushed for millennia to make wine. The grapevine is one of the oldest fruit crops in the Old World. Seeds have been found at early Bronze Age sites near Jericho, dating back to around 3200 BCE, and just recently, in northern Iran, archeologist dug up wine storage jars that are about 7000 years old.[1] Little wonder, then, that the first food crop mentioned in Genesis, after the flood, is the grapevine.[2] But the tree of life? Some of you may have visited a vineyard here in Tennessee or in California, and seen the rows of vines, and you wouldn’t call those shrubby things trees, would you? They’re just not tall enough to qualify. Apparently, height was not the primary concern for people in the ancient Middle East when they chose a tree of life, but rather the kind of life it gave. And besides, the grapevine is a vigorous climber, growing to a height of over 60’ if left unpruned.[3]

Quite a long time ago, I went to Kindergarten in a three-story brick building behind the church, and the entire wall facing the playground was covered completely by just two vines, growing from a sunny patch near the sandbox, all the way up to the roof. Somewhere in the middle, it must have been the second floor, there was a small balcony, just big enough for two chairs, and one of my most vivid memories of Kindergarten is a moment when I was out on that balcony with Sister Rita and there, just above the rail, almost completely hidden behind the jungle-like curtain of leaves that stretched from all the way down on the playground up to almost the clouds, I saw a cluster of little blue grapes. I had tasted grapes before, big green and black ones my mother brought home from the market, but the discovery of such delicious fruit growing right by my playground was magical. “May I eat one,” I asked Sister Rita, and she said yes. She watched as I reached over the rail, held one of the blue pearls between my thumb and the tip of my index finger, and carefully plucked the grape from the cluster. It wasn’t the juiciest grape I ever ate nor the sweetest, but for me, at that moment, that little blue pearl had the whole wonder of life in it.

When Jesus talked to his disciples the night before he was crucified, he didn’t ask them what kind of tree they wanted to be in order to lead fruitful lives after his return to the Father. Instead he told them, “I am the vine. My Father is the vinegrower. You are the branches. Abide in me.” I imagine just about all of them said to themselves, “Why don’t you abide with us? Why can’t you just stay here with us?” The events of the next few days would disrupt their lives like nothing they could have ever imagined. They would betray, deny, and abandon him, and he would be crucified. They would mourn his death and the loss of all that died with him—and then he would return to find them. He would return to bring them peace and send them.

But that night when he washed their feet, he talked about a deep rootedness amid the turmoil and the chaos about to descend on them. He talked about a connection between them, strong and life-giving and eternal. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me as I abide in you.” Abide he says, eight times the word appears in just four verses. Abide is such an old-fashioned word. Of the 17 uses listed in the Oxford dictionary, eight are obsolete. The word seems to belong to another time. “To abide” has to do with persevering, continuing, lasting, staying with it, being at home. No wonder the term is rare. What it means is rare, in this or any time and its absence diminishes us.[4] It diminishes us because we are being pushed further and further into fragmentation and isolation without the capacity to be and abide in a place, to be present in a moment, or to be committed to one another.

Abiding is a key word in John, where love means mutual indwelling or being at home in each other. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.” Fruitfulness is another theme woven into the text like a pattern into a fabric. Six times Jesus speaks of bearing fruit in these eight verses; our lives bearing the fruit of his life, his life bearing fruit in the fullness and wholeness of our lives. Even the words and phrases wind around each other like branches on a vine, and it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins, but the promise of fruitfulness emerges from the urgent and persistent rhythm of abide, abide, abide. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” My colleague, Nadia Bolz-Weber, climbed through the branches of this text, and at one point stuck out her head from behind the leaves and said, “[Vine and branches, and twigs off of branches] are all tangled and messy and it’s just too hard to know what is what. If I’m going to bear fruit I want it attributed to me and my branch. If I’m too tangled up with other vines and branches I might not get credit.”[5] She knows what she wants and she knows what we want. If it’s all about fruit-bearing, we want some credit for our productivity.

Apparently Jesus doesn’t just want to remind us of our need to be connected to him to be alive, really and fully alive. That alone is difficult enough for us independence-loving solitary trees who want to pick the best spot where we plant ourselves, thank you very much, in order to put down roots. But no, this is no Jesus garden where you find the plot you like and make it your place and start producing. Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, and “our lives are uncomfortably tangled up together. The Christian life is a vine-y, branch-y, jumbled mess of us and Jesus and others.”[6] And that is how we bear fruit. Together. Belonging to him and through him to each other. Abiding in him and through him with each other. The jumbled mess of us and Jesus and others is where life becomes real, whole, and true. He says, “Abide in me as I abide in you,” and he abides; he hangs in with us and holds on to us. We don’t make ourselves fruitful. We simply become fruitful by abiding in him. We bear fruit not by squeezing it out of ourselves but because we are extensions of the vine, pruned by the faithful gardener-God who wants us to be fruitful.

What might the fruit be and for whom is it grown? We know how much the gardener-God loves the world. The fruit is the wine of the kingdom. The fruit is the very life of Christ saving us from getting lost in fragmented isolation and flowing through us to touch and heal the wounded, love the unlovable, and proclaim God’s power and mercy. The fruit is the communion of God and God’s people.

 


[1] http://eol.org/pages/582304/overview and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitis_vinifera

[2] Genesis 9:20: Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.

[3] http://eol.org/pages/582304/overview

[4] F. Dean Lueking, “Abide in me ...” Christian Century 114, no. 13 (April 16, 1997): 387.

[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/yearb/easter5gospe/

[6] Bolz-Weber

Monday
Apr272015

The Lamb is the Shepherd

We want to know Jesus. We want to know who he is; who he is in relationship to God; who he is for us; who he is for the world. We want to know who he was when he told people the good news of God’s reign in Galilee and in Jerusalem, and we want to know who he is now that he is risen and comes to us in word and sacrament, in the stranger and the prisoner, hungry and thirsty. And we don’t just want to know about him. We want to know Jesus.

John knew him and he tells us he heard him say, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” This knowledge is not the kind one acquires by studying, but rather a deep familiarity, like that between parents and children, or the trust-filled openness between friends, or the intimacy between lovers. In John’s telling of the gospel, Jesus uses all kinds of metaphors to speak of himself and who we are to him; and the cup of language is not only brimming with rich imagery – it runs over. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches. He is the bread of life, we are hungry. Jesus is the light of the world, we are seeking a way in the darkness. He is the living water, and we are the parched and thirsty ones. Jesus is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, and we are his flock. Vine, water, bread, and light speak to us with incredible immediacy, but the shepherd comes to us from a very distant land. There are not a lot of sheep around these parts, these days, and most of us depend on movies or documentaries about sheep dogs or romantic poetry and paintings for familiarity with a shepherd’s world.Chances are that for a good many of us the first thing that comes to mind when we hear the word shepherd is Jesus – and the Jesus we know helps us fill the word shepherd with meaning, rather than the other way round, where the world of shepherding helps us get to know Jesus. But shepherds were common in the ancient world, and the image was all through the Hebrew scriptures: Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro when God called him to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.[1] David was keeping his father’s sheep when Samuel came to anoint him king over Israel.[2] In Israel’s imagination kings and leaders were shepherds whom God had called to guide, protect, and care for God’s people. When the rulers and leaders, in their quest for power and wealth, trampled the people, the prophets proclaimed God’s judgment and promise:

Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.

Thus says the Lord God, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.[3]

“I am the good shepherd,” John heard Jesus say. “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” The good shepherd doesn’t run when the wolf comes, the snatcher, the scatterer. The good shepherd doesn’t run when the promise of life in fullness is torn to pieces by our sin, but lays down his life to redeem us.

In the first four centuries of the church, the image of a shepherd carrying a lamb on his shoulders was the most popular depiction of Jesus. It was painted on frescoes over baptismal fonts and next to graves on the walls of the catacombs, proclaiming the good news of the shepherd who guides and protects his own throughout all of life. And even today, when you’d have a hard time finding a shepherd and his flock out in the hills of Middle Tennessee, you wouldn’t have to go far to find a stained glass window or an old tombstone with Jesus the good shepherd. We tend to sentimentalize and romanticize the image, but still, we connect to the reality of Jesus as caring and fiercely protective and particularly committed to the weak, the injured, the strayed, and the lost. But it’s one thing to understand the image of the shepherd, and quite another to be found and carried by him. It’s the difference between knowing about and knowing the good shepherd.

In her book, Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells her readers about Ken, a man in her church who was dying of AIDS, “disintegrating before our very eyes,” she writes, and who had lost his partner to the same disease. A few weeks after the funeral, she says, “Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had slid into the hole in his heart that Brandon’s loss left, and had been there ever since. Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. He looks like God’s crazy nephew Phil. He says that he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus, and us.”[4]

The shepherd and the flock. This is what being known and being found by Jesus looks like. But there’s more. Lamott goes on to talk about a woman in the choir named Ranola, who, she says, “is large and beautiful and jovial and black and devout as can be.” Ranola had “been a little standoffish toward Ken.” She had “always looked at him with confusion,” when she looked at him at all. Or she looked at him sideways, “as if she wouldn’t have to quite see him if she didn’t look at him head on.” Ranola had been taught “that his way of life—that he—was an abomination.” It was “hard for her to break through this.” But Ken had been coming to church nearly every week for the last year and it was getting to Ranola. “So,” writes Lamott,

on this one particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called Morning Hymn, we sang “Jacob’s Ladder,” which goes “Every rung goes higher, higher,” while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up. But he sang away sitting down, with the hymnal in his lap. And then when it came time for the second hymn, the Fellowship Hymn, we were to sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen—only Ken remained seated ... and we began to sing, “Why should I feel discouraged? Why do the shadows fall?” And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent down to lift him up—lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang. And it pierced me.[5]

How beautiful is that? Jesus can fill a hole in a man’s heart who has lost the love of his life, and this strong, gentle shepherd can free one sheep to let herself be so overcome with love for a most unlikely other that she becomes a shepherd herself, taking him in her strong and loving arms and holding him. This is what being known and found by Jesus looks like. This is what knowing the good shepherd looks like. This is the life to which we are called: to let ourselves be loved by God and learn to love each other. Knowing this shepherd changes us, in ways we have hoped and longed for, but also in unexpected ways. The paths in which the shepherd leads us are rarely the ones we drew on our life’s map when we set out on the great adventure, but he leads us toward fullness. We follow him trusting that in every circumstance we are led and protected by one who doesn’t run when the wolf comes, but lays down his life in faithfulness to God and to his own.

The lamb is the shepherd. I fear no evil. His love is the power that makes all things and restores all things. Even though I walk through the long hallway at the cancer center, you are with me. Even though darkness is creeping in from all sides, you are with me. Even though rulers and leaders, in their quest for power and wealth, trample the people, I will not lose heart. Your love has made all things, and your love will make all things whole. You lead us to the waters of baptism so that your life becomes ours. You prepare a table where enemies taste your peace and are reconciled. Your goodness and mercy pursue us, every last one of us, until we are all at home with you and with each other, so there will be one flock, one shepherd. You gather us in, Jesus, no matter how far we have strayed. Thank you.


[1] Ex 3:1-12

[2] 1Sam 16:1-13

[3] Ez 34:3-6, 11, 15-16

[4] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 64.

[5] Lamott, 64-65.

Monday
Apr202015

Opened minds

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Perhaps you’re wondering, “Didn’t we already hear this story last Sunday where the disciples are together and Jesus comes and says, ‘Peace be with you?’ Why are we hearing this again?”[1] That’s a very good question. Why would we hear the same story again? Because it didn’t take the first time, whatever that’s supposed to mean? Or because it’s so good that the church wants to hear it again and again, like a child with a favorite bedtime story that mom and dad get to tell for weeks? 

Last week’s reading was from the gospel according to John, and today’s reading comes from Luke. The stories are indeed very similar, but each is also unique in its witness; much like we are: together we tell the story of the risen Christ and with our lives we testify to his presence in the world in our own unique ways. There are significant commonalities in how we each present our witness, but there is also much room for the variety of our testimonials. By hearing a story again and anew through the telling of another witness we may discover new dimensions in the shared Easter reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Hearing the story again a week later also means we get to linger a little longer in that moment when the whole world is changed for good. It’s like we get to push the pause button and take all the time we need to look around and see how everything has become new because God raised Jesus from the dead. It takes time for the new reality to sink in and to reshape our imagination, how we look at ourselves now and at each other, how we think and act, now that Christ is risen from the dead; it takes time. “Christ is risen, time to move on,” shouts the world. All the Easter candy has gone on sale, 50% off, then 75%; the countdown is relentless, time to get ready for the next thing, no matter what it is. But the Holy Spirit whispers, “Pause,” and we get to step out of the hamster wheel of everyday; we get to take a breath and look around. We get to inhabit this wondrous and frightening moment when the Easter proclamation of the angels and the women becomes the resurrection life of a people.

It was and is a wondrous and frightening moment. They were talking about what had happened on the road to Emmaus and how Jesus had been made known to two of them in the breaking of the bread. And while they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and terrified; they thought that they were seeing a ghost. They had no words, no concepts for this newness, only the startling experience of Jesus’ presence who clearly was with them, but not like he had been with them before. They saw him, they heard him speak, they watched him eat – and we get to be with them in that moment with our own confusion and doubts, our own questions and our timid imagination that pulls us back from what our minds cannot grasp. Luke uses words like startled, terrified, disbelieving and wondering to draw us into the moment where the newness of resurrection life just erupted.

And how did the peace of the risen Christ begin to rule in their hearts? He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. To fully grasp the newness and fullness of resurrection life, their  minds had to be opened. Our minds must be opened to take in the newness.

An illustration comes, unexpected perhaps, from the world of seafaring explorers. Elizabeth Kolbert, writing about Christopher Columbus, noted that “what finally distinguishes [him] as an explorer is his reluctance to acknowledge the magnitude of what he had found. In four trips across the ocean, he never (…) came upon anything remotely like what he had expected: not only were the people novel and strange; so were the geography, the topography, the flora, and the fauna. Still, to the end of his days Columbus insisted that Cuba was part of China, and that he had arrived at the gateway to Asia. He didn’t want to have discovered someplace new; he wanted to have reached someplace old, and, as a result, was blind to the real nature of the world he had stumbled onto.”[2] He only saw what the boundaries of his mind allowed room for, nothing more.

When the first disciples stumbled onto the radical newness of Christ crucified and risen from the dead, they let their minds be opened by the risen Lord. It was the interplay of Christ’s presence and the study of the scriptures in his presence that gave them the words and concepts to speak about the meaning of Jesus in its true magnitude.

Speaking of minds being opened, for fifteen years, Harvey Cox taught a course called “Jesus and the Moral Life” to undergraduates at Harvard. Some of his students were Christian, and many were not, but the content of the course was so compelling that their numbers kept going up until Cox finally had to move the class to a theater usually reserved for rock concerts.

In his book, When Jesus Came to Harvard, Cox tells why he initially ended his class with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. The students came from a variety of religious backgrounds, he explaines, but “there was another reason why I had been trying to steer around the Easter story: Classrooms, at least the ones I teach in, are not viewed as the proper venue for testimonies. What is supposed to go on in classrooms is ‘explanation.’ But not only did I not know how to explain the Resurrection to the class, I was not even sure what ‘explaining’ it might mean.”[3] Eventually he realized, though, that by leaving out this part of the story he was not just being unfair to his students, he was “also being intellectually dishonest, a little lazy, and cowardly.” And so he decided that he would “sketch out some of the current interpretations of the Resurrection and suggest that they would have to decide among them on their own. (…) [He] set out to move from silence into at least some kind of conversation.” And when he did, he was in for a few surprises, chief among them a discovery opened to him by the witness of the prophets. “It immediately became evident that stories of raising the dead in the Old Testament did not have to do with immortality. They are about God’s justice. (…) They did not spring up from a yearning for life after death, but from the conviction that ultimately a truly just God simply had to vindicate the victims of the callous and the powerful.”[4] Resurrection hope was a thirst for justice, and the resurrection of Jesus was God’s affirmation and fulfillment of that hope. “To restore a dead person to life is to strike a blow at mortality,” wrote Cox, “but to restore a crucified man to life is to strike a blow at the violent system that executed him.” Cox didn’t ‘explain’ the Resurrection to his students, he opened windows for them to see how the proclamation of the early Christian witnesses was connected to the words of the prophets.

In Luke’s story, it is the interplay of Christ’s presence and the study of the scriptures with him that gave the first disciples the words and concepts to speak about the meaning of Jesus in its true magnitude. Luke tells it like all of this happened on the evening of the first day, but we mustn’t think that there was this crash course in “How to read the Scriptures after Easter” that quickly settled things once and for all. Yes, there was the initial moment of understanding that changed a group of confused disciples into God’s church, but the moment is ongoing: as disciples of Jesus we live in it in order to let the risen Lord himself open our minds so we see him in light of the scriptures of Israel and read their witness in light of his death and resurrection. The risen Lord teaches the church to read the scriptures properly, today as much as on the day when the women returned from the tomb with the happy news that he was alive. As Christians, we read the scriptures in the company of the risen Lord who shapes us as God’s people by opening us to the fullness of their meaning and opening them to us as nourishment for our hungry hearts and minds.

It is always good to remember that, but it is crucial after a week when our Tennessee legislators in the House voted to make the Bible the official state book. Governor Bill Haslam weighed in, as did Attorney General Herbert Slatery, and even Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey commented, “We don’t need to put the Bible beside salamanders, tulip poplars and ‘Rocky Top’ in the Tennessee Blue Book to appreciate its importance to our state.” Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris from Collierville was moved to declare, “All I know is that I hear Satan snickering. He loves this kind of mischief. You just dumb the good book down far enough to make it whatever it takes to make it a state symbol, and you’re on your way to where he wants you.”[5]

Thankfully the foolishness was stopped in the Senate, at least for this session, largely over obvious constitutional concerns; but that’s not all. The Scriptures of Israel and the church are sacred to Jews and Christians, and we won’t let the state, any state “dumb the good book down far enough to make it whatever it takes to make it a state symbol.” I don’t know what inspired Sen. Norris, but I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 


[1] The gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Easter was John 20:19-31.

[2] Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Lost Mariner,” The New Yorker (October 14, 2002) http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/10/14/the-lost-mariner

[3] When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004), 273-274.

[4] Ibid., 274.

[5] http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/politics/2015/04/16/senate-kills-bill-to-make-bible-official-tennessee-book/25871395/#

Monday
Apr132015

Jesus Lives

Mary had been a widow for six months. She and her pastor hadn’t had a chance to touch base in an unhurried way, only brief conversations at the door after worship.

“How are you doing, Mary?”

“Oh, I’m OK. I miss him terribly, you know, but I’m OK. Thank you for asking.”

Then one Sunday, during Coffee Hour, Pastor Susan saw Mary standing at the table with the cookies and the banana bread and went over to ask if she wanted to sit for a moment. As soon as she approached, Mary’s eyes welled up with tears. But after a few moments, she looked around to see if anyone was nearby and then she began to whisper.

I had a terrifying experience last week. You’ll probably think I’m nuts, Susan, but I have to tell someone. You know, the nights are the worst. I hear noises in the house, and I just can’t get used to sleeping in bed alone. It must have been three in the morning and I was staring at the ceiling… you know, those endless moments when thoughts run through your mind like wild things… and all of a sudden it happened. Martin came back. Martin came back and he crawled into bed with me. He was there. He didn’t say a word. He just appeared—and then faded away. I felt such peace, and now I don’t feel so alone anymore. You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?[1]

What would you tell her? Mary wasn’t crazy, far from it. She had been given a wondrous gift. When Martin died, all her love turned into pain and loneliness, and suddenly joy returned and stayed. Wild things in her head had kept her awake at night, and then peace found a way to surround her. Let others call her crazy; we laugh with her and let our hearts sing along with the psalmist,

You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.[2]

The disciples were far from singing that night. John tells us that the doors were locked. The room where they had gathered was dark with only just enough light for each to see the fear and confusion in the faces of the others. They still didn’t know what to make of the strange news Mary Magdalene had brought with her when she returned from the tomb, earlier that day. “I have seen the Lord,” she said, “and he spoke to me. He told me to tell you this: ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

It was dead quiet in the room. It’s a strange reversal, when you think about it. Jesus out of the tomb, risen from the dead; and the disciples, hiding behind locked doors, prisoners of fear. William James said, “Faith is the force of life, and when it is absent, life collapses.” What we see in that dark, locked room is collapsed life. Their faith had vanished. Mary had told them that she had seen the Lord, but her testimony, for whatever reason, hadn’t made the slightest difference. We don’t know if they thought she was crazy or if they couldn’t imagine just what her words might mean. I wonder if one day a gospel manuscript will be found with a couple of extra verses telling us about Mary pulling her hair in frustration. I wouldn’t be surprised: all she had were words, and her words were not enough to break the other disciples’ paralysis of fear and guilt, not enough to let them hear what she had heard and see what she had seen. It takes more than the words of witnesses to restore collapsed life.

John tells us that Jesus came and said, “Peace be with you.” The first word of the Risen One to the disciples was peace. The last time they had been together, that night when he washed their feet, he had told them, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”[3] And now he stood among them, after they had betrayed, denied, and abandoned him – Jesus stood among them and spoke peace into their troubled, fearful hearts. “Peace be with you,” he said, not, “Shame on you, you sorry bunch” or “OK, friends, let’s talk about this,” but, “Peace be with you.” They saw it was the Lord, and his presence transformed their prison of fear and guilt into house of laughter. It was Jesus. He was alive in their midst, he was the center of their lives again—again gathering them around him and centering them in his presence.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” he said to them. Now they were a people with a mission. He breathed into their nostrils the breath of new life, set their hearts on fire, and sent them. What had been a little band of disciples, held together only by their memories and their fear of the world outside, was now the church, commissioned and empowered by the living Christ. For almost two-thousand years, frightened disciples could be church because God keeps breaking in on us, pushing through our timidity and giving us the gifts of peace and forgiveness to share with the whole world in his name. And the world needs the witness of the church. The world needs to know that the powers of death and fear that lock people in cannot stand against the love and mercy of God.

Thomas was not with them that night when Jesus came, John tells us. Thomas missed the whole thing.

Speaking of Thomas, I was 15 when a little red pin was becoming quite popular among members of my youth group. “Jesus Lives” it said. I finally got one at a retreat, and the following week I wore it to school.

One of the girls who never even looked at guys my age, much less talked to them, saw I was wearing a curious little something on my shirt, came a little closer to read it, and said, “O really, tell me more.” And she said it not with the bored, superior tone of older girls who seem to be annoyed by anyone’s presence but their own, no, she really wanted to hear more.

It was a great moment there at the tram stop, a great moment to talk about mercy and hope and real life, about God being on our side against everything that wants to make us less than glorious human beings … It was a great moment, but I had no words then to talk about the wide open hope these two small words represent, and I had a hard time keeping my balance because, I swear, the pavement under my feet had turned into a water bed, and all I could say was, “Oh, the pin? I got that at a retreat with my youth group.”

I never wore that pin again. I wanted more than those two words. I wanted a resurrection that was more than somebody else’s words. I wanted a resurrection I could see and touch. Much like the Thomas whom the other disciples told, “We have seen the Lord.”  And he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later, John tells us, the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he turned to Thomas and said, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”

The Apostle Thomas is the patron saint of all who weren’t there. He was a latecomer like all of us and he takes our place in the story. He didn’t take anyone’s word for what God had done, but waited for God to act and the Risen One to make himself known to him. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” the risen Jesus said to him. God has ways to get through to us with new life, more ways than we can imagine.

Two more things; small, but important details for us to keep in mind: When Thomas stood up in the church and said, ‘Unless I see the marks of his suffering and touch them with my hand, I will not believe,’ he was not asked to leave. Nobody locked the door to keep him and his struggle outside; and we know that the church hasn’t always been faithful to that dimension of the gospel. There have been too many Christian communities where no one voices their questions or their struggles for fear of being excluded or declared spiritually challenged.

The second detail is related. When Thomas found it impossible to believe, he did not drop out. He came back a week later, and the church welcomed him. He remained faithful to the community of believers and was met by the risen Christ in the fellowship of the disciples. John reminds us that our openness to the presence of the living Christ has much to do with our openness for each other and faithfulness to each other.

Thanks be to God who makes ways to get through to us with gifts of new life, more ways than we can imagine. Thanks be to the living Christ who revives and inspires us with his peace and sends us.

 


[1] Susan R. Andrews, The Christian Century, March 24-31, l999

[2] Ps 30:11-12

[3] John 14:27

Monday
Apr062015

Who will roll away the stone for us?

Who will roll away the stone for us? I heard the news on Tuesday and groaned. A Tennessee Senate subcommittee had again stopped a bill that would improve access to health insurance for hundreds of thousands of Tennesseans. Like many I had hoped that there would be a full Senate vote, but apparently not in this legislative session. I thought about Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain, again putting his shoulder to the boulder, flexing every muscle in his body to push the rock up the hill, without rest, without promise, without hope.

I heard the news of an air plane crash in the Alps and groaned. What level of despair must have gripped a man’s heart that he waits for the moment when the cockpit door closes behind his colleague and then he turns and flies an airplane full of people into a mountain?

Who will roll away the stone? It’s too large for us, too heavy. Thursday morning I heard the news about a gang of armed thugs who had forced their way into a school in Kenya. They started killing students, dozens of them, systematically and allegedly with divine sanction. Such madness, such violence; it’s too heavy, it’s too much.

Who will roll away the stone for us? That’s what the three women were saying to one another on the way to the cemetery. They wanted to anoint the body of Jesus who had to be buried with haste the day before the sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea had rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. The women wanted to honor Jesus with a proper burial, they wanted to touch his body gently one last time after all the violence and abuse he had suffered. But who would roll away the stone? Then they looked up and saw that the stone, huge as it was, had been rolled back already.

Inside they encounter an angelic messenger who delivers the good news of Jesus’ resurrection like an administrative assistant explaining why you can’t have a quick word with the boss: “You’re looking for Jesus? Sorry, you just missed him.” If it’s Jesus they want, they will need to head back to Galilee. And the messenger sends them off with simple instructions for the disciples, “There you will see him, just as he told you.”

Now you may want a moment to sit and ponder the angel’s words and whether you believe that curious sort of thing, you know, angels and resurrection and such. But there’s no time for that now because things become much curiouser in a heartbeat. For just when we assume that the women would dash out joyfully to proclaim the good news that Christ is risen they clam up entirely, overcome by fear. Mark ends his Gospel in midsentence,

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid …

That’s hardly a shout of victory over death. Some would say, that’s no way to end a gospel. John does such a nice job with the woman in the garden and the breakfast on the beach, and Luke has the wonderful scene on the road to Emmaus, what happened to Mark? Did somebody rip out the last page? Or did he mean to end the story in this way?

Early Christian scribes who copied Mark’s Gospel tinkered with the ending. One added just a couple of sentences, indicating that the women did as they had been told.[1] Another scribe borrowed a few details from Matthew and Luke to compose a conclusion that would leave readers reassured that things were wrapped up nicely at the end of the story.[2] But what if this strange ending is exactly how Mark wants to tell this story? What if this gospel has this unfinished feel on purpose, and not because parts went missing? What if this gospel wants to leave us hanging in midsentence with a puzzled look on our faces?

We have heard and read the whole story, from its beginning to this moment. We witnessed Jesus’ baptism where the heavenly voice declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We were there when Jesus began proclaiming the good news of God in Galilee. We heard him preach and teach about the kingdom, watched him inaugurate God’s reign by healing people and breaking bread with them, forgiving their sins and driving out demons. We heard him tell us three times about his death and resurrection. “After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.”[3] He did tell us, didn’t he? We were there when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and the disciples couldn’t keep awake. We were there when Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, and all the disciples deserted him. When Jesus was arrested, questioned and judged, mocked, abused and executed, we were there, because Mark took us there. We know that the women were the only ones who didn’t run away. Not until now, that is. They fled from the tomb and said nothing to nobody, for they were afraid.

Now everyone has fled, but the story is not over. We have heard it; we have read it. We have lived through its every moment, and now it’s up to us what happens next. If we want to read on, we must let our own lives become the writing. Will we trust the promise and go to Galilee? Will we go back to the beginning and follow Jesus on the way?

Not going is an option, as is silence. We can deny the whole thing, act as though it never happened, and continue to live in the Friday world where Jesus is in the tomb. Or we can begin to live in the world where Jesus is on the loose. We can head back to Galilee and catch up with him in the places and among the people where he’s at work. We can continue to immerse ourselves in the whole story in order to know where to look for him and what he may be up to. We can continue to try to fully understand that he doesn’t play the world’s violent power games, but has an authority that makes the demons scream and run. We can continue to discover that the cross was not a stop on the way to greater things, but the character of Jesus’ greatness. For followers of Jesus, Galilee now is the name for the world through which the way of Christ leads to Jerusalem. Galilee is the land of promise and faith where he is going ahead of us. Nashville is in Galilee. Every place on earth where human beings hunger and thirst for righteousness is in Galilee.

Peter, James, and John were the disciples who first followed Jesus; Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary the mother of James were the followers who stayed with him the longest, and all of them, Mark tells us, fled, overwhelmed by fear. But the risen Christ didn’t choose a new team. God raised those frightened men and women to live as witnesses of the living Christ. Mark doesn’t tell us that, but we wouldn’t be reading Mark if it hadn’t been so, and if it didn’t continue to be so. Bill Sloan Coffin noted years ago,

Not only Peter but all the apostles after Jesus’ death were ten times the people they were before; that’s irrefutable. (…) I believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as memory, but as presence.[4]

I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and on many a day it’s the only thing I believe in; the world gives me more than enough reasons to become a cynic, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead gives me hope and courage to carry on.

Easter is not about memory, it’s about presence, disruptive and transformative presence. The gospel Mark wrote down is only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ—the story is still unfolding with us as participants.

The women ran away from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. If Jesus had been raised and vindicated by a mighty act of God, and if by raising Jesus from the dead God had indeed changed everything – who would they be? How would they live? Little wonder they were afraid. If Jesus is defeated, crucified, dead, and buried – it may break your heart, but it also confirms everything you have suspected about the world all along: Might makes right. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for more of everything and take what they want. But if we can open our small, fearful hearts to the promise and reality of today, new life begins to flow in.

Who will roll away the stone for us? In Mark’s story this is the last question on the lips of those who used to follow Jesus. Who will roll away the stone for us? We know that stone. It lies heavy on us. It slows us down; it blocks our movements; it suffocates our courage. It’s too big for us; nothing we can do can move this stone. This is when Mark says, “Look again and see. The stone has already been rolled back.” And the angel says, “He has been raised. He is not here. He is going ahead of you to Galilee. There you will see him.” God calls us to trust the promise and let it be our path. God calls us to practice resurrection by following the Risen One.

 


[1] Mk 16:8b “The Shorter Ending”

[2] Mk 16:9-20 “The Longer Ending”

[3] Mk 14:28

[4] William Sloan Coffin, Credo, p. 28; my emphases

Monday
Mar302015

Jesus shall reign

They had been in Bethany the night before. At the home of Lazarus, yes, that Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from death to life only days earlier. Mary and Martha were there also, and they were having dinner.

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.[1] The stench of death had lingered over this household only days ago, but now the fragrance of love and devotion filled everything.

Mary shows us what discipleship is. Judas thought pouring the equivalent of some $20,000 over Jesus’ feet was extravagant and wasteful.[2] Extravagant? Yes. Wasteful? No. Nothing done out of love is ever wasted. On Thursday, we call it Maundy Thursday, Jesus would wash his disciples’ feet and ask them to repeat this act of service for one another—to approach one another not as masters, but servants. He would tell them that everyone would know that they were his disciples by the love they offered in response to God’s love.[3] Mary poured out her love over Jesus’ feet. She knew how to respond without being told. She gave boldly of herself in love.

We talk about stewardship of time, tallent, and treasure, and we talk about budgets and the cost of ministry, and all that has its place; but Mary shows us the foundation of all those conversations: Mary shows us faithful discipleship in offering her love in response to God’s love in Jesus. The house was filled with the fragrance of love responding to love. And the world is waiting to be filled with the fragrance of love responding to love.

We went back to the house of Lazarus in Bethany to remember that the next day when Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, he brought that fragrance to the city. It travelled on a breeze ahead of him, and throughout the Passover crowd children were tapping their parents knees and tugging their sleeves, “Mom, Mom, what is this? It smells so good.”

“It’s the fragrance of God’s Anointed, dear, the king of Israel, he’s coming to Jerusalem.”

Their hopes, their hunger, their longing for freedom, their memories of Israel’s greatness under king David poured out of the city with them to meet him, and they greeted him like a warrior king, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel!” Such joy. Such expectation. And then they saw him, riding by on his little donkey. Do you imagine they all fell silent immediately? John is telling the story, and it is John’s voice, not a voice from the crowd, telling us, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”And John tells us that even Jesus’ disciples did not understand these things at first. This would not be the expected coronation. The fragrance of his anointing was the announcement of a kingdom not from this world.

Meanwhile, a kingdom very much from this world was asserting its power in spectacular fashion. Every year, in time for Passover, the Roman governor moved his headquarters from Caesarea by the sea to Jerusalem. Passover made the empire very nervous. Large crowds were difficult to control under any circumstance, but add the hopeful memory of Israel’s liberation from Pharao’s yoke, the celebration of the exodus from the house of slavery to the promised land, and the situation could turn quickly from joyful worship to revolt. So Rome made its presence and power known. The governor, Pontius Pilate, entered the city riding on the biggest horse he could find in his stable. Behind him, elite soldiers on horseback, followed by rows and rows of foot soldiers; you could see banners and golden eagles mounted on poles, the sun’s bright beams reflected by helmets and the tips of countless spears; you could hear the beating of drums, the marching of feet, the clinking of metal against metal. The procession was designed to impress and intimidate. Rome knew how to project power and quell any outbursts of enthusiasm that might escalate into a governor’s nightmare. The heavy beams used to crucify the most dangerous troublemakers had already been stacked at the governor’s headquarters; Rome was prepared.

On the other side of the city, the crowd was pouring out through the gate, ready to greet their king: God’s anointed who would rally his people, organize the militias into an army, and drive out the foreign occupiers. “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel.” And then they saw him, riding by on his little donkey. There was a fragrance of promise about him, but he wasn’t entering the city to take over the system and put himself at the top. He came to reveal the power of redemptive love; he came to undermine and topple the logic of domination. A few days later, the two met, Jesus and Pilate, at the governor’s headquarters. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asked, and Jesus responded, more than once, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Pilate spoke and understood only the language of power and violence. He didn’t know what to make of a rebel who not only didn’t play by the rules of his game, but played an entirely different game.

We look at the scene from the other side of the cross, from the other side of Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension to the throne of God. We have heard the witnesses, we have seen glimpses, moments of great clarity when we knew that this servant’s love reveals the heart of God. Jesus shall reign, we sing as we watch him riding by on his little donkey.

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun

does its successive journeys run;

his kingdom spread from shore to shore,

till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Jesus is riding on, past the churches with the big steeples, past the office buildings and the shiny bank towers, past the university campusses and the corporate headquarters, and the court house, and just watching him ride down West End and Broadway we realize how much we depend on him to redeem us from playing Pilate’s game.

To Jesus endless prayer be made

and endless praises crown his head;     

his name like sweet perfume shall rise

with every morning sacrifice.

There it is again, there it is still, the sweet perfume, the fragrance of love responding to love. And Jesus is riding on, but before he turns left to ride up to Legislative Plaza and Capitol Hill, he turns right and rides around Music City Center, wondering about the NRA and its firm grip on the imaginations of our legislators, and we wonder, too, because we’re the ones proclaiming that he shall reign.

Blessings abound where’er he reigns;

all prisoners leap and loose their chains;        

the weary find eternal rest,

and all who suffer want are blest.

That’s a good hymn to sing over in those parts, you know, over by the Mission and the Campus for Human Development, but not only in those parts. All of us carry a measure of weariness, all of us long to rest in the love of God, long to live in a world where Jesus reigns.

I want to talk a little bit more about a world where prisoners leap and loose their chains. Right now, the chains that tie prisoners to their past are heavy and strong, even after they have been released from prison. Landing a job is no small feat. Aside from figuring out where to sleep, nothing is more worrisome for people leaving prison than figuring out where to work. And finding a job is not just a matter of learning to stand on one’s own two feet again, or wanting to contribute, to support one’s family, and to add value to society at large. Finding a job allows a person to establish a positive role in the community, develop a healthy self-image, and keep a distance from negative influences and opportunities for illegal behavior. And beyond all that, most state parole agencies require parolees to maintain gainful employment, and failure to do so could mean more prison time. So finding a job is crucial, but it’s harder than it needs to be. Nearly every state allows private employers to discriminate on the basis of past criminal convictions or even arrests without conviction. It’s understandable; employers are cautious, they want to avoid hiring somebody who may pose a risk to their business, to their other employees, or their clients. The church wouldn’t hire a nursery worker with a conviction for child neglect and abuse, and a business owner wouldn’t want a bookkeeper with a criminal record of embezzlement and fraud. Rebuilding trust takes time, and it may be better for somebody with a child abuse conviction to seek employment in other fields such as construction or transportation, or perhaps bookkeeping. But many ex-offenders have difficulty even getting an interview, because of the box on job applications in which applicants are asked to check “yes” or “no” if they have ever been convicted of a crime. And it doesn’t matter if the crime had anything to do with the job they applied for. In too many cases, ex-offenders’ applications will automatically go to the bottom of the pile or be tossed out. Those men and women may be out of prison, but they’re still chained to the past.

In the early 2000s, groups in San Francisco and Boston began urging local governments to remove questions about convictions from job applications so that people can be judged first on their qualifications. Their past convictions would still be considered, but not until later in the hiring process, when an applicant has been identified as a serious candidate for the position. And then he or she would have a chance to talk about their record face to face, instead of being reduced to a label. Today there are 14 states, the most recent one being Georgia, and more than 90 cities and counties that have adopted such fair chance policies. The executive order signed by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) in February states that “such policies allow returning citizens an opportunity to explain their unique circumstances in person to a potential employer.”[4] There’s an effort underway here in Nashville through a charter referendum to remove questions about criminal convictions from the initial application stage for Metro government jobs, and you can support the effort this morning by being one of the 6,847 voters whose signatures are needed to put the referendum on the ballot.

Jesus is riding into the city to reveal to us the power of redeeming love. Asking a city to consider removing a box from a form is nothing spectacular, but it may open windows for the restoration of community. It may open windows for the fragrance of redemption to spread.


[1] John 12:3

[2] A day laborer’s wages for a year of work (300 denarii), calculated with a minimum wage of $7.25/hr., would be between $17,400 and $26,100, based on an 8-12 hour workday.

[3] John 13:35

[4] https://gov.georgia.gov/sites/gov.georgia.gov/files/related_files/document/02.23.15.03.pdf

Wednesday
Mar252015

Renounce and embrace

If you want to see Jesus, where do you go? You can go to a museum or find a big, glossy art book, or you can watch a movie to see pictures of Jesus. But you’d probably know the entire time that you’re looking at actors and models, not Jesus himself.

You could read all you can about Jesus and create your own mental image of him; that’s like seeing him, in a way, although you could never be quite sure how much of yourself has gone into your picture of him. If you want to see him in person, where do you go?

Dr. Who fans among us will suggest a short trip on the Tardis to Nazareth, Jerusalem or Capernaum, except that you’d have a hard time giving the time-traveling doctor the proper coordinates since the gospels contain only a very rudimentary calendar.

It was on Passover, John tells us, in Jerusalem, when some Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” People had been talking about him. Over in Bethany, they said, only days ago, he raised a dead man from the tomb, and he was dead for sure, he had been in that tomb for four days. People were interested, people were curious, and Jesus’ opponents said, with worry in their voices, “Look, the world has gone after him!”(12:19). And as though to prove them right, some Greeks came to Philip and said, “We wish to see Jesus.”

Did they know they had found one of his first followers, or were they just happy to have bumped into a man with a Greek name who could perhaps speak Greek and give them directions they would actually be able to understand?

It’s a curious scene, as so often in the gospel of John. He tells us that Philip was from Bethsaida, a detail we could easily look up ourselves in the first chapter, but he never tells us whether these Greeks got their wish. Philip told Andrew, and then he and Andrew went and told Jesus, and Jesus’ response, Jesus’ response leaps out of the story and addresses every last one of us.

“The hour has come,” he says, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

This is where you go, if you want to see Jesus. To the word that speaks of his glorification in his death. But what kind of glory is that? Where is the radiance of life, the splendor of the light of the world in that? Let’s sit with the word and our questions for a moment. Let’s sit together and meditate on this scripture, not just because it’s a good thing to do. I don’t know if I’ll ever be old enough to preach a decent sermon after reading John, so meditative reflection is the best I can do.

Jesus tells us a parable.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

In giving its life, the single grain doesn’t become lifeless, but rather fruit-bearing fullness of life. Later in the unfolding story of his final days, Jesus talks about branches that bear much fruit because they are connected to the vine. Jesus’ life bears fruit in the lives of the people who abide in him. His life-giving, selfless love multiplies in the life of all who believe in him, all who serve and follow him.

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the witnesses tell us – the glory of life and light, of grace and truth, love and compassion. With all that he is and does in the world, Jesus embodies divine love for the world, the same love that unites him and the one he calls Father. These relationships are his life. Now the hour has come for the Father to glorify his name and for the Son to be glorified in death and resurrection, to reveal the unbreakable bond of their love and give birth to the church, the community of  his friends who continue to embody divine love in his name. The Word became flesh, and on the cross, the gracious movement of God’s incarnation into the world is not ended or simply reversed, it is consummated in the hour of Jesus’ free, surrendering love. The Jesus we encounter through the gospel of John lays down his life in sovereign love for God and his friends. His death is not the tragic end of a beautiful life, but the complete gift of his beautiful life for the glory of God and the life of the world.

Those who love their life lose it, but those who love life (like Jesus lived to love) will find eternal life in communion with God. Those who hate their life in this world are not life-haters, but rather men and women who renounce life shaped by the categories of the world and embrace the life that Jesus’ gift of love makes available.

Renounce and embrace. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, and it presents the world with an urgent choice: Will we respond with faith to the invitation to find life in communion with God? Or will we cling to the promises of the ruler of this world?

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

The world and its ruler will sit in judgment and condemn Jesus to death by crucifixion. He must die because domination, violence, and death are the world’s ways under the ruler’s reign, and all that does not fit must be eliminated. Jesus does not fit. There’s no room in the ruler’s world order for fearless truth-telling or self-less service or table-flipping temple-cleansing. Jesus can’t be silenced. Jesus can’t be bought. Jesus must die.

“If my kingdom were from this world,” Jesus tells one of his judges, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” But his kingdom isn’t from this world. His kingdom is the end of this world. He refuses to fight. He refuses to respond in the ruler’s own violent terms. He lays down his life and dies.

He lets the world have its way with him. He dies as though the devil were in charge, but the devil doesn’t know that Love makes of the cross a throne. The devil doesn’t know that death has no power over the Word of life. And that is how what looks for all the world like the judgment of Jesus is in truth God’s judgment of this world and its ruler. Jesus, lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to himself. Love makes of the cross a throne, and from the throne the king of grace and truth draws all people into communion with God. Women, men, and children from every tribe and nation are drawn into the community of believers, a community that participates in God’s reconciling presence and work in the world, giving testimony with our words and actions to the light and life we receive from the crucified and risen Christ.

Where do you go, if you want to see Jesus? You follow him. “Where I am, there will my servant be also,” he says. You let yourself be drawn by him. You let yourself be drawn more deeply into the kingdom of God. You renounce and embrace, again and again. You renounce the ruler of this world and embrace the life of Jesus. The moment is always now, again and again. You renounce the logic of violence and embrace love. You let yourself be drawn by him, knowing that he won’t draw you around the world’s hatred, around the world’s rejection, around the cross. He draws you to the cross, into the hatred and rejection he faced with love. You let yourself be drawn, trusting that the bonds of love cannot be broken, knowing that the world wouldn’t hate the disciples of Jesus if they belonged to the world. You let yourself be drawn by the one to whom you belong, the Word of life. The world will hate you; you will encounter forces of evil just as he did, and you will be asked, in each encounter, to completely surrender, as he did – not to evil, never to evil, but to God. The way of life in Christ is the complete surrender to God’s love.

Wednesday
Mar252015

Prayer Vigil During Holy Week

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Lent. During this week, the church is immersed into the final days of Jesus' earthly life and ministry, particularly the meal he shared with his disciples on the night before he was betrayed and his judgment and execution the following day.

We will have prayer services in the sanctuary on Maundy Thursday (April 2) and Good Friday (April 3), each beginning at 6 p.m.

Jesus said to the disciples, "Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial," when he himself was praying in Gethsemane. We will keep a prayer vigil from 7 p.m. on Maundy Thursday to 6:00 p.m. on Good Friday. We have divided the hours into segments of 30 minutes, and invite members and friends of the church to pray during those hours. Please add your name to our vigil schedule. If you wish to come to the chapel or sanctuary to pray, please let us know so we can make the necessary arrangements. 

The youth have made votive candles from Christmas candles we lit to celebrate Jesus' birth. Now we will each light one while we pray and reflect on Jesus' complete gift of his life. We will have the candles available for you to take home this coming Sunday and at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service. If you are unable to come to church then, please let us know and we will gladly bring a candle to your home.

On Good Friday, those of us who are able to come will bring our candles to the sanctuary for the concluding prayer service.

 

Monday
Mar162015

But God

About ten years ago, Janet Parker, a pastor from Virginia, went to Rwanda, where, ten years earlier, in just 100 days between April and July, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people had been slaughtered. Most of them had been members of the Tutsi minority, and had been targeted for extermination by members of the Hutu majority. Janet was in Rwanda to attend a church conference.

“I saw a beautiful land and a lovely people, whose smiles almost hid the haunted look behind their eyes. But as they opened their hearts to me and shared their stories, as they took me around to the countryside, I glimpsed the horror that still stalks this wounded nation like a wraith.”

“Rwandans themselves do not fully understand what happened to them. Again and again they said that the genocide was ‘insanity,’ that ‘it didn’t make sense,’ and ‘cannot be explained.’ Most poignantly, Violette Nyirarukundo, a survivor and a Presbyterian church leader, thanked us for our presence and said, ‘Please tell us the truth. We need to better understand ourselves.’”

Janet felt both moved and humbled by that statement. Later she realized, “We should have asked our Rwandan friends the same question. As representatives of an international community that failed to respond to the unfolding genocide, we might ask Rwandans and the other neglected victims of violence in the world, ‘Please tell us the truth. Help us to understand ourselves (…).’”[1]

We need one another to understand ourselves; we can’t do it by ourselves. Here in the U. S., we live in a different country, but a wounded nation nonetheless, stalked by the horrors of slavery and racism. Earlier this month, the Civil Rights Division of the U. S. Department of Justice published a report of its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Somebody had to go there on our behalf and tell us what was going on, and not because Ferguson is a particularly racist town and we’re always looking for a scapegoat. Somebody had to go there and tell us the truth, because we need to better understand ourselves.

I read the report and I want to share some of the findings with you.

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. (p. 2)

(…) The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. (…) Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on “productivity,” meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue. (p.3)

The numbers are remarkable:

Of the $11.07 million in general fund revenue the City collected in fiscal year 2010, $1.38 million came from fines and fees collected by the court; [the numbers in fiscal year 2011 were similar]. In its budget for fiscal year 2012, however, the City predicted that revenue from municipal fines and fees would increase over 30% from the previous year’s amount to $1.92 million; the court exceeded that target, collecting $2.11 million. In its budget for fiscal year 2013, the City budgeted for fines and fees to yield $2.11 million; the court exceeded that target as well, collecting $2.46 million. For 2014, the City budgeted for the municipal court to generate $2.63 million in revenue. (p. 10)

Not surprisingly, racial bias becomes obvious in traffic stops: African-American drivers in Ferguson are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops despite the fact that they are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers.

But the bias isn’t just statistical:

In email messages and during interviews, several court and law enforcement personnel [including supervisors] expressed discriminatory views and intolerance with regard to race, religion, and national origin. The content of these communications is unequivocally derogatory, dehumanizing, and demonstrative of impermissible bias. (p. 72)

A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” (…) A June 2011 email described a man seeking to obtain “welfare” for his dogs because they are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are.” An October 2011 email included a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.” (p. 73)

In the days following the publication of the report, City Manager John Shaw, municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer, and Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned, but again, the value of the report, beyond good and much needed recommendations for reforming the system of law enforcement in one of our towns, is to help us understand ourselves better. This report illustrates how collectively we create institutions that reflect and embody our racial biases and our contempt for the poor, and how those institutions in turn shape and form us and our children.

The wickedness exposed in the findings is small and ugly, but it is greater than what can be addressed via personal morality or public policy. The mess we’re in is much greater than we want to admit. We want to hold on as long as we possibly can to the illusion that we just need to try harder. Better schools, better laws, better legislators, better judges, city managers, and police chiefs – nothing wrong with that, except that the wickedness is pervasive; it is not just around us, it is between and within us. We are captive to destructive forces larger than us, wicked forces that drain love and justice from our life together. And we are slow to admit that we need saving. Trapped in death, we can be convinced that life’s just like that, or worse, that it’s supposed to be like that. Our whole life can be twisted around a lie and we’re convinced it’s the truth, because it’s all we’ve ever heard.

We need saving because we live in a world that is estranged from the Holy One who made it. Estranged from God, we become confused about the purpose of life and who we are, and we lead lives that are destructive for others and for ourselves.

“You were dead,” we read in Ephesians. Which is to say, you were caught in a futile way of life obedient to selfish desires, seeking the approval of a culture built on greed and oppression, helpless to disentangle yourself from the web of lovelessness. You were dead.

“But God,” the witnesses in Ephesians interject, but God, rich in mercy and overflowing love, God loved us even when we were dead and made us alive together with Christ and set us in a place where all of life is at home in the constant presence of Christ. A place of reconciliation where all of us are and know one another to be children of God, brothers and sisters, showing and proclaiming in the world how divine love disentangles the mess of sin and frees us to be truly alive together. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the life God prepared for us, no longer following the course of this world, but walking in the way of Christ, embodying and reflecting the gracious love that is God. “Have mercy on us and forgive us,” we prayed earlier, “that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name.”

As God’s own, we’re not being saved by being taken out of the world, but rather by being taken deeper into it as people of hope and messengers of reconciliation.

Sin is the name we have given to all that alienates us from God and therefore from each other, from the earth, and from ourselves. Sin is pervasive. But God, rich in mercy, is at work in the world. “For all their power to cripple, control and alienate,” wrote Fred Craddock, “all hostilities in the universe will not only cease ultimately, but will be reconciled. For redemption in Christ to be complete, it must range as far and wide as the forces of evil.”

As people who discovered by the grace of God that we cannot save ourselves, we have tasted the freedom of the children of God. And because we have tasted our true freedom, we live toward its fullness.

We read portions of Psalm 107 this morning, a redemption song whose verses sing of our need to be liberated from our many troubles and of God’s power to deliver us:

Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
    prisoners in misery and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
    and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
    they fell down, with no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he saved them from their distress;
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
    and broke their bonds asunder.[2]

Sin is the name we have given to all that alienates us from God and therefore from each other, from the earth, and from ourselves. Pride, envy, greed, and racism are just some of the ways in which sin entangles us in lovelessness. Sin is pervasive. But God, rich in mercy, is at work to redeem us.

God tells us the truth: we are forgiven sinners. We are reconciled to God, we are alive with Christ, not because of anything we did, but only because God’s love overflows. This is the place where the healing begins.

 


[1] Janet L. Parker, “Can These Bones Live? What the church must learn from Rwanda,” Sojourners magazine, April 2006

[2] Psalm 107:10-14 (NRSV)

Monday
Mar092015

Crosswise translation

David Sedaris had moved from New York to Paris and was taking French lessons. One day, when the Italian nanny was attempting to answer the tacher’s latest question, the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?”

It would seem that despite having grown up in a Muslim country, she would have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.”

The teacher called upon the rest of us to explain. The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and… oh, sh*t.” She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid.

“He calls his self Jesus and then he die one day on two … morsels of … lumber.”

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

“He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”

“He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”

“He nice, the Jesus.”

(…) Part of the problem had to do with vocabulary. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as “to give of yourself your only begotten son.” Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.

“Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian nanny explained. “One too many eat of the chocolate.”

“And who brings the chocolate?” the teacher asked.

I knew the word, so I raised my hand, saying, “The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.”

“A rabbit?” The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wriggling them as though they were ears. “You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?”

“Well, sure,” I said. “He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have a basket and foods.”

The teacher sighed and shook her head. (…) “No, no,” she said. “Here in France the chocolate is brought by a big bell that flies in from Rome.”

I called for a time-out. “But how do the bell know where you live?”

“Well,” she said, “how does the rabbit?”

(…) Over time it became impossible to believe that any of us would ever improve. (…) It was mid-October when the teacher singled me out, saying, “Every day spent with you is like having a caesarean section.” And it struck me that, for the first time since arriving in France, I could understand every word that someone was saying.

(…) The teacher continued her diatribe and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult.

“You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain, do you understand me?”

The world opened up, and it was with great joy that I responded, “I know the thing that you speak exact now. Talk me more, you, plus, please, plus.”

David Sedaris’s story, Me Talk Pretty One Day, sheds little light on Easter, but it does illuminate just how difficult it is to learn a new language and translate one’s culture into the language and world of another.

Paul struggled with translation. Just about everybody in Corinth spoke Greek, as did Paul, so that wasn’t the issue. The problem was using eloquent, sophisticated speech to talk about the cornerstone of faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Corinth was a cosmopolitan city. Situated between two sea ports, it was an economically vibrant and culturally diverse community where countless languages were spoken, traditions mixed and mingled, and all manner of goods, services, and ideas were exchanged. The young church in Corinth was a microcosm of the city, but things didn’t mix and mingle well. Competition among members had plunged the community into conflict. Some said they belonged to Apollos, others to Cephas, and still others to Paul. Each faction praised the theological acumen of their respective apostle or teacher while disparaging the others, significantly bolstering their own egos in the process, since they were the ones recognizing true greatness!

Corinth was a hub in the Roman Empire, and Corinthians were involved in global trade and imperial politics. Among the elites, rhetoric was a major part of education; in business and in public life in general one had to know how to sway others with the right word at just the right time. People quickly identified eloquence and cleverness of speech with power, wealth, and success. Correspondingly, the lack of refined and polished speech indicated low status. In Corinth and in other cities of the empire, Me Talk Pretty One Day was a line about upward mobility, about success and belonging. Clever speech was seen as a ticket to the top, and great orators were celebrated like rock stars.

Apollos apparently was a much more impressive speaker than Paul, and so a heated debate erupted in the church over who was more eloquent and hence the greater apostle. Paul was out of town, but had heard about the divisions and wrote a letter to the church.

“So, I understand some among you shout, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and others, ‘I belong to Apollos;’ and still others, ‘I belong to Cephas.’ Who then is shouting, ‘I belong to Christ?’ Huh?—Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name?”[1] He could have borrowed a line from David Sedaris’s French teacher and sighed, “You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain, do you understand me?” Except that Paul wasn’t exhausted by their foolishness, but by their loveless ways and their insistence on using what passed for wisdom to judge the meaning of Jesus. Against their waves of clever speech, Paul held up a single word: the cross.

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”[2]

Centuries of use as a religious symbol have dulled the impact of the words cross and crucifixion. The cross has all but lost its power to scandalize, but not so in Paul’s day. As a particularly horrible form of public torture and execution in the Roman Empire, crucifixion was designed to demonstrate that nothing but complete surrender to the power of Rome would be accepted. Crucifixion was reserved for non-citizens, for slaves, prisoners of war, and insurgents—anyone who threatened the divinely sanctioned order of Rome. The cross was an instrument of degradation, humiliation, and shame, and crucifixion an obscenity not to be discussed in polite company. Cicero, one of the great Roman orators, was defending a senator against a murder charge. The prosecutor was seeking the death penalty and was apparently suggesting crucifixion. Cicero declared, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.”[3] And that very word ‘cross’ is what Paul holds up for all in Corinth to see.

Years ago, a young friend of mine was shocked by the sudden realization that the cross was an instrument of torture and execution. “Isn’t that like putting an electric chair in the middle of the chancel,” he asked. “Isn’t that like hanging a noose above the baptistry?” Degrading, humiliating, and shameful. Crucifixion was designed to demonstrate publicly that any attempt to defy the powers that be was futile. Paul, however, declares that far from proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, the crucifixion of Jesus has shattered the logic of power. Humble obedience to the God who loves even the enemies of God has broken the logic of power. Paul’s gospel is a scandal, an insult to the sensibilities of educated men and women, an ugly interruption of any polite conversation about politics, the law, or religion where everything is in its proper place. Paul proclaims Jesus Christ, and him crucified. He does not make pretty talk of the cross, or clever talk. He holds it up. He holds it up until we see how the cross disrupts everything we think we can say about the divine, or about justice, or power, or love.

We want signs. We want God to do something big and spectacular, something like a Super Bowl of truth where Jesus wins 40:0 while the whole world is watching; instead we must look at the cross. We want wisdom. We want the gospel to be philosophically elegant and aesthetically pleasing; instead we must listen to the cross.

The power of God is both hidden and revealed in the cross: Where we expect power, weakness is given. Where we expect wisdom, foolishness is given. God acts to judge and save us in ways that subvert our ways of knowing and doing.

Around the cross, God gathers a community shaped by the love and obedience of Jesus Christ, a community of mercy. In the world as we know it, power is the ability to inflict suffering or escape from it, and all our knowing and doing serves to gain and maintain that power. But the God who hides and meets us in the cross of Jesus Christ is not part of the world as we know it. The cross marks the end of the world as we know it and the beginning of the world redeemed by God, the world where mercy reigns.

As a people gathered around the cross we no longer outmaneuver, outsmart, or outtalk each other in the race to the top; our life has a new direction: we walk together in the way of Christ, sent as ambassadors of reconciliation to the places where our loveless ways have fractured life. We let the mercy of God translate all that we are, our thinking and speaking, our sufferning and our doing into wholeness.

 


[1] 1 Corinthians 1:11-13

[2] 1 Corinthians 2:2

[3] The Speech In Defence of Gaius Rabirius, sec. 16

Monday
Mar022015

Joining the Song

The gospel of Mark was written to be listenened to in its entirety in one setting. It was written to be read aloud in the assembly from beginning to end. Mark’s story is just the right length, about 70-80 minutes, for an audience to be drawn into the life of Jesus as participants in the unfolding of his ministry.

In a rapid and urgent sequence of events listeners witness Jesus driving out demons, touching lepers and healing them, forgiving sins, baffling the authorities, telling stories of God’s reign, feeding thousands with just a few scraps of food, restoring a little girl to life by taking her hand and saying, Talitha cum, little girl, get up – and when the waves beat into the boat that evening on the stormy sea and he rebuked the wind, everyone asked, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Everyone asked.

We have followed Mark as our guide into the life of Jesus since the first days of Advent, we have watched and listened, wondered and questioned – and now, about halfway through the story, Jesus turns to the disciples and asks, “Who do people say that I am?” We tell him what we’ve heard along the way, “Some say, the Baptist, others, Elijah or one of the prophets.” But Jesus isn’t interested in what people think or say. He asks us, “But who do you say that I am?”

Halfway through the unfolding story of his life and ministry, Jesus becomes a question to his followers – and the answers we give inevitably determine who we are as his followers. If we think of him as a wisdom teacher, we will think of ourselves as students. If we think of him as a miracle worker, we will think of ourselves as journeying from one spectacular moment to the next. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us, and Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Which is to say, you are not another one of many wisdom teachers and miracle workers who have come before and gone, not another healer, master, prophet, or preacher – you’re the one. You’re the Messiah.

We’re now at a turning point in the course of the story. We’re near Caesarea Philippi, a city built by Herod’s son, Philipp, a city surrounding a splendid temple dedicated to the worship of the emperor of Rome, the real power behind the power of Herod the Great and his sons. “You are the Messiah,” Peter says to Jesus, and we wonder if he’s saying, “You’re the one anointed by God for the final battle. You’re the one anointed by God to restore the kingdom to Israel.” The air is charged with expectation in the villages around Caesarea Philippi and Mark continues to tell the story.

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Peter can’t hear the good news in the new teaching; too much talk of suffering, rejection, and death – he misses the word of resurrection.  Peter can’t face the way laid out by Jesus and so he takes him aside and rebukes him; he stops following and gets in the way; he stops listening and gives voice to the powers that oppose the coming of God’s reign in the person and the way of Jesus. Does he want to follow a Messiah who marches on, from triumph to triumph, until all is well and God’s people live in peace on God’s land? Jesus rebukes him, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We’re at a turning point in the course of the story. This is the point where we begin to grasp that identifying Jesus as God’s Messiah doesn’t mean that we get to press him into the mold of our hopes and desires. Getting behind him, we surrender our expectations to him and his way of suffering, rejection, death and resurrection. Jesus is not the fulfillment of our kingdom dreams; he himself is the kingdom in whom even our dreams are converted to the way of the cross. Jesus is not the fulfillment of our visions of salvation, he himself is God’s salvation who transforms our entire imagination to the way of the cross.

We don’t press him into the mold of our hopes but rather are invited ourselves to be remade in his image. He says,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who will lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Halfway through the unfolding story of his life and ministry, Jesus becomes a question to his followers – and identifying him as God’s Messiah inevitably determines our identity as his followers. When we let go of our ideas what a proper Messiah is supposed to be and do, we also let go of our ideas of ourselves. He calls us to let go of what we think we know and need, to let go of what we fear – and to find life with him.

“The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “Your real, new self (…) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for [Christ]. (…) Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life.”[1]

The call to discipleship is the call to let go completely of our concern with ourselves and our obsessive compulsion to secure our own life, likability, and even afterlife. The call to discipleship is the call to turn our eyes and attention away from ourselves and toward the One who is going ahead of us.

“Self-denial means knowing only Christ, no longer knowing oneself. It means no longer seeing oneself, only him who is going ahead (…). Self-denial says only: he is going ahead; hold fast to him,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He knew self-denial had nothing to do with blending into the background so as to become invisible. He knew that love of God and neighbor meant speaking the truth without fear under the dark fog of the Nazi empire and even sinning bravely by conspiring to murder Hitler. “The cross is neither misfortune nor harsh fate,” he wrote. “Instead, it is that suffering which comes from our allegiance to Jesus Christ.” He didn’t know at the time he wrote these words that he would be executed by the Nazis for his allegiance to Jesus, the Messiah of God. But the cross is not limited to the possibility of a martyr’s death. The cross is the reality at the heart of being a disciple; it marks the place where our old life comes to an end and our new life begins. Again Bonhoeffer, “The first Christ-suffering that everyone has to experience is the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ. (…) The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus.”[2] Following Jesus, we die to our anxious self-absorption and live ever more fully in the community of love where we are no longer strangers or enemies, but brothers and sisters.

Last Thursday night, I stood with a group of fellow students in the parking lot outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. We were near the end of a pilgrimage through cities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, honoring the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans and trying to comprehend the shameful failure of too many white churches to recognize that struggle as a matter of faithfulness to Jesus Christ and the gospel of reconciliation. We were standing in the cold parking lot, listening again to a speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave on April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple. He had led a march that day protesting low pay and cruel work conditions for black garbage collectors in Memphis. Dr. King had warned in previous sermons that he might die before the struggle ended; he had been living with death threats for years. That night he ended his speech, saying,

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Andrew Young said the next day was one of King’s happiest. Surrounded by his brother, his staff and close friends of the movement, he laughed and joked all day until it was time to go to dinner. Then he stepped onto the balcony outside his room, checking the weather to decide whether to bring a coat. Ben Branch, a musician who often led singing at protest gatherings, asked King what he would like him to play at a rally later that night, and he asked for Precious Lord. Moments later, he was fatally shot.

There we stould under the balcony in the cold parking lot, mourning the death of America’s prophet who gave his life for the sake of the gospel. In silence we prayed for the nation still torn by racism and that we would have the courage to live in Christ’s community of love where we are no longer strangers or enemies, but brothers and sisters.

One of us started singing, Precious Lord, take my hand …, and we joined the song.

 


[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 175

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 86-88.

 

Saturday
Feb142015

The Meaning of Jesus

A couple of weeks ago, I heard the news that Marcus Borg had died at age 72. Many remember him as a member of the controversial Jesus Seminar, and while some called his scholarship blasphemous, others found his work engaging and eye-opening.

Borg loved to debate, but he was never a polemicist. With N. T. Wright, an Anglican New Testament scholar whose views on the Gospels were and continue to be more traditional, he co-authored “The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.” The book, first published in 1999, remains a fine example of disagreement bounded by mutual respect and friendship. I have read both authors, and find myself in the happy place where I often agree and occasionally disagree with each!

This is my invitation to friends and church members to read “The Meaning of Jesus” with me during Lent, both to honor Marcus Borg’s life and work and to engage in conversation about the meaning of Jesus for us personally.

We will meet on Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m. for about an hour to an hour and a half, beginning on February 25. Depending on the size of the group, we will meet at church or take turns meeting at each others’ homes. The group is likely to meet about eight times, given the eight parts of the book. If you would like to be part of this Lenten study, let me know. I won't buy copies of the book since it is widely available and some folks prefer reading the electronic version. So there's no need for a deadline.

The Meaning of Jesus | Wednesdays at 7 | starting February 25

Tuesday
Feb032015

Flirting with Idols

"Now concerning food sacrificed to idols," what do you prefer? At our house a favorite on Super Bowl Sunday is Rotel dip, a blend of a chunk of a cheese-replacement-product commonly known as Velveeta, and a can of diced tomatoes and green chilies. It’s easy to make, and actually tastes pretty good with tortilla chips. The dip is the perfect accompaniment to the annual grand liturgy of the American game, with the fly-over, the flag, the anthem, the half-time show, the commercials, and the properly inflated ball. Of course I’m only half-joking, but you know that. When it comes to sports, patriotism, and making money, we’re flirting with idols.

The context in Corinth was only slightly different. So let’s go there. Corinth was a vibrant and bustling Greco Roman city, located between two sea ports, and Paul started a congregation there. He didn’t stay long, though, because there were so many more cities where he had to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. So he came, preached, impressed upon the converts that the Lordship of Christ was to be lived out in their daily life as witnesses, and moved on. Questions remained. In his absence, answers were created by other missionaries and various locals with a mind to imposing them upon the others. That didn’t go well. Competing arguments and power plays fragmented their assemblies. Chloe’s people finally located Paul in a distant city and told him what was happening back in Corinth; some of the leaders went to Paul for advice, and at some point a letter was written from the church to Paul containing a list of issues that were troubling the fledgling community of Christ in the pagan city. That letter is lost, but Paul responded to it in writing. “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote,” he opens chapter 7 and replies to their questions with a word of the Lord or his own best judgment. If my spouse is not a Christian, they asked, should we stay together? May widows remarry? Is being married less spiritual than being single? Are we to dissociate ourselves totally from old friends? Is it proper for a woman to pray with her head unveiled? How do our common meals differ from those we once had at pagan temples?  What are the most important gifts of the Spirit? When will you be back?

One of the questions in that letter was about meat: Should Christians in Corinth eat meat that had been offered to idols?

A typical sacrifice meant that an animal was killed, a portion was burned to honor the respective god, a portion was given to the priests, and the rest was either consumed with family and friends in a festive meal in one of the temple’s dining rooms, or, if it was too much for one meal, a portion was sold in the market. Just about all the meat available in a city like Corinth would have been offered at some shrine or other, and many temples functioned as butcher’s shops and restaurants. Wealthier Corinthians with a pagan background would have been invited to meals in such places as a regular part of their social life, to celebrate birthdays, weddings, or other important occasions, or simply to entertain business partners.  For those Corinthian Christians who were among the wealthier class, their public and professional duties virtually required the networking that occurred through attending and sponsoring such events. To eat the meat served on such occasions was simple social courtesy; to refuse to share in the meal would have been an insult to the host. Within the social circle of the poorer Corinthians, however, such meat-eating would not have been commonplace. Meat was not an ordinary part of their diet; it may have been accessible only at certain religious festivals when public officials and their sponsors distributed meat to the entire city population. Consequently, the wealthy and powerful among Corinth’s Christians, who also had the most advanced education, would take the eating of meat in stride, “What’s the big deal? We know idols aren’t real…” At the same time, the poor might regard any meat as laden with strong religious connotations. Some members of the fledgling church did not think of idols as manufactured pseudo-gods, but still knew them to be powerful; they simply could not eat such meat without stepping back into the symbolic world of their former life outside of Christ.

The answer seems simple: Christians know idols are the creations of human minds and hands. Therefore, meat ritually slaughtered and dedicated before these idols is just a piece of meat and can be consumed with no second thoughts. If a brother or sister fresh from baptism is still bothered by such practices of so recent a past, abstain in the presence of these persons. That settles it.

Well, not really; things were much more problematic. Such simple answers they already had. They knew these things. In fact, in asking the question they made sure that Paul knew that they knew the right answer. “There is no God but one,” they said. Right! “No idol in the world really exists,” they said. Right! “We all know this,” they said. Right!

Then what is the problem in a church that knows the answers to its own questions? Paul understood that this was not just a quarrel over what’s for dinner. The problem may seem petty, but if the lives and relationships of a body of believers are seriously affected, could there be any bigger problems? And so Paul reached for the widest possible horizon as the context for his response.

Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor 8:5-6).

Remember, he told them without saying it, remember when you struggle with this and that and the other, remember the size and significance of our confession:

One God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

A congregation that is not continually nourished by its confession of faith, that is not daily called to think, act, and live the abundance of its trust in the grace and judgment of God the Creator; a congregation that is not experiencing and reflecting upon the life-giving presence of Jesus Christ, will turn to slogans as substitutes for the confession. In Paul’s absence, some members of the Corinthian church captured the truth in catchy slogans that also happened to serve their interests remarkably well. “There is only one God.” “Idols are nothing.” “We know the truth.” Paul himself was drawn into the slogan game for a moment and responded with one of his own: “Knowledge puffs up, love builds up.” Then he caught himself.  He realized how the conditions of that church were reflected in those one-liners. Slogans capture some aspect of truth. But that is the problem: they capture and display rather than engage and share responsibility in the issues of our faith. Slogans are the coinage of those unable or unwilling to discuss or wrestle with the immensity of the gospel, those who desire to possess the truth in simplistic quotable bits, thereby ending thought, stopping growth, and owning rather than being owned by the Word. Or, in Paul’s terms, knowing rather than being known. The Corinthian congregation was trapped in the slogan game, competing in the creating and marketing of answers that are clever, quotable, and, of course, final. Truth was captured, reduced, packaged, and pronounced; case closed. No open sharing; no vulnerability; no risk; no arms or legs or heart of faith. Answers, always answers, short, simple answers, painless answers without Gethsemane, without wrestling all night with the will of God. Slogans are the undernourished church’s substitute for the gospel. But it is not so where our baptism into Christ is remembered and confessed. So Paul quickly withdrew from agreeing or disagreeing with the slogans and reminded the Corinthians whose they were:

For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

The truth isn’t something we know and quote strategically, the truth is who we are together in Christ. Any “knowledge” that causes the knowledgeable ones to despise those who are ignorant or uncertain is not in tune with our baptism into Christ. Through baptism we become members of the one body of Christ, we are given to each other to embody the truth. My actions are no longer simply mine, determined solely by my understanding of my liberty. I’m not free to be who I want to be, because I’m only free in Christ, and in Christ I am part of the community Christ has chosen, not I. For Paul, love in the community does not necessarily mean that I have to like the other people in the community, or that I have to agree with what they decide or how they understand the world. It does mean that I owe you and you all owe each other more than slogans. It does mean that we owe each other more than self-assertion. Insisting on my rights, even insisting on my rights as a Christian, Paul tells us, is a sign that something else other than the true God is being worshipped. Outside the love of Christ, I’m flirting with idols, no matter how certain I am that “no idol in the world really exists.”

For us there is one God, the Father,

from whom are all things

and for whom we exist,

and one Lord, Jesus Christ,

through whom are all things

and through whom we exist.

Monday
Jan262015

Can you believe how they turned?

Jonah and Nahum are neighbors in the Bible, they live on the same block, as it were, but they can be hard to find. Each book is only a few pages long, and flipping through the prophets you can easily fly from Obadiah to Habakkuk as though they weren’t there. The two share not only a scriptural neighborhood, they also each have an intense relationship with a city, Nineveh.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyria, a middle eastern power before the rise of the great empires of Babylonia and Persia. Geographically it was about where Mosul is today, in northern Iraq. For Israel, Nineveh was not just the name of a city; it had become a symbol of violence and oppression. Nahum’s entire proclamation is infused with pain and rage against Nineveh, the whore:

Doom, city of bloodshed—all deceit,
full of plunder: prey cannot get away.
Cracking whip and rumbling wheel,
galloping horse and careening chariot!
Charging cavalry, flashing sword, and glittering spear;
countless slain, masses of corpses,
endless dead bodies—they stumble over their dead bodies!
Because of the many whorings of the whore,
the lovely graces of the mistress of sorceries,
the one who sells nations by means of her whorings
and peoples by means of her sorceries:
Look! I am against you, proclaims the Lord of heavenly forces.
I will lift your skirts over your face;
I will show nations your nakedness and kingdoms your dishonor.
I will throw filth at you;
I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.

Only violence and public shaming for the city of murder and treachery, according to Nahum. The book ends without even a hint of pity,

There is no remedy for your injury; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has not suffered from your continual cruelty?[1]

Nineveh was completely destroyed in 612 BCE and never rebuilt. In the imagination of many it remained as a symbol of brutal oppression until other cities of wickedness took its place like Babylon and Rome, all of them serving as examples of the fall of the mighty who refuse the demands of justice.

I suspect we wouldn’t be talking much about Nineveh anymore if the curious and delightful book of Jonah hadn’t given the city a very different treatment. Most of us know the story, not in great detail, but we’re familiar with the plot, especially since the children’s choir only a few months ago performed the musical version. The Lord told Jonah, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.” And Jonah, instead of taking the road North, went West as far as his feet would take him, until he stood on the beach, with his toes touching the waves of the Mediterranean Sea; and that wasn’t far enough. He found himself a ship going to Tarshish, a port far beyond the horizon, at the end of the world, as far away as he could from the presence of the Lord. Jonah ran away to go where God was not, only to find out that there was no such place. Then of course there was the mighty storm and the waves threatening to break the ship in pieces, and Jonah telling the sailors, “It’s all because of me. The Lord wants me. Throw me overboard.” At first they wouldn’t, but then they did – and the sea ceased its raging. And then, well, everybody knows about the whale and how Jonah got swallowed up; and three days later the big fish spewed Jonah out upon the dry land – the very beach where his adventure at sea had begun. There he sat, whale slobber all over him, when the word of the Lord came to him a second time.

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

And this time, Jonah went as he was told. Not a word in the story about how he felt or what was going through his mind. But you can’t help but notice that running from the Lord’s presence and call is not just really, really hard. It’s pointless; Jonah tried it. So he went to Nineveh and started proclaiming, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s just eight words in English, five in Hebrew. Without a question the shortest prophetic utterance in all of scripture. Jonah didn’t scold or accuse his audience nor did he give any reasons for his announcement, he just made it. And not a word about how this was a campaign that took years given the size of the city and the evil ways of its population. No, Jonah made his announcement and the people heard it as a call to repentance and repent they did like nobody’s ever seen, a whole city – it was a prophet’s happiest dream come true. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes with his people. Now who’s ever heard anything like that? Then came the royal decree proclaiming a fast in the city, no food or water, only prayers and repentance; even cattle and goats covered with sackcloth, and you may think that’s a little over the top, and it probably was, but all in the city turned from their evil ways and from the violence on their hands.

“Who knows?” the king wondered. “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Jonah didn’t like it; he was angry. Perhaps he wanted to see the city of bloodshed publicly shamed and humiliated, perhaps he wanted it destroyed.

Violence is a terrible temptation. For as long as human beings have lived in cities or been part of city economies, the city has been a symbol of prosperity and of systemic poverty, of freedom and of oppression, of community and of fragmentation. Nineveh, in the imagination of Jonah’s people, had become the epitome of an evil system: godless, unjust, violent, oppressive, and invasive.  

I’ll be traveling to Montgomery and Selma in a couple of weeks, and on to Jackson, Mississippi and Little Rock and Memphis, and in preparation for the trip I have read too much and not nearly enough about the struggle for civil rights and human dignity these city names represent. I have been particularly interested in how Christian faith shaped attitudes and actions or was shaped by them. It is hard to read the words of prophets fifty and sixty years later, knowing how few, how very few people in positions of privilege were willing or able to hear them. It is hard and it is humbling, because I ask myself, “Who are the prophets and which are the voices that I am ignoring or dismissing?”

Martin Luther King said to the brave ones who fought segregation with nonviolent means and organized for stronger communities,

Remember “that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces. It is evil we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races. (…) The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice.”[2]

It is so easy to confuse the unjust system with the people caught in it and to forget that when godless, unjust, violent, oppressive, and invasive systems fall, and fall they must, the people caught in them are men and women made in the image of God who desire to live and flourish.

At the end of Jonah’s very curious story, God has the final word, and God asks a question,

“Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left (…)?”[3]

The book of Jonah keeps the door open for a different path than the inescapability of divine punishment for the worst of human injustice. Nineveh is more than a symbol, it is a city inhabited by human beings, and human beings, as much as we have been shaped and bent by unjust, evil  structures, human beings can change. Nineveh, the city of bloodshed that was destroyed never to be rebuilt, must not remain a paradigm for how the God of justice deals with human injustice. In the very curious book of Jonah, Nineveh thrived and flourished, because acts of repentance on earth were met by mercy from heaven. Nineveh, the city of “can-you-believe-how-they-turned?”

I mentioned that Jonah and Nahum are neighbors in the Bible, but not next-door neighbors; perhaps the wise ones who compiled the books thought Nahum’s vision of public shaming and destruction, and Jonah’s vision of repentance might clash, and so they inserted Micah between them. And Micah decries injustice and corruption in the cities with the passion of Nahum, but he also keeps the door open for hope, the small door through which the redeemer enters the city,

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?[4]


[1] Nahum 3: 1-6, 19 (CEB)

[2] From an article in the Christian Century, 1957; reprinted in A Testament of Hope, 8.

[3] Jonah 4:11

[4] Micah 6:8 (NRSV)

Wednesday
Jan212015

We are not our own

On Mondays, Katie, Greg and I meet to pick the hymns for the coming Sunday, and usually it’s a quick meeting. Katie comes prepared with a list of suggestions, and we talk about which hymns would best fit at what point in the service, and usually we’re done in under half an hour. Usually. But try to find a hymn that goes with fornication. Or perhaps I should rather say a fight song that strengthens our resolve to shun fornication, as Paul clearly urges his hearers to do in this morning’s passage from his letter (1 Corinthians 6: 12-20).

I thought I would talk about sexuality and spirituality today. Many seem to think that the two are worlds apart, and I thought I’d take Paul’s profound reflections on the body to explore how deeply connected they really are; then we’d sing “Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee,” consecrating our whole being to the glory of God. 

I thought I would talk about sexuality and spirituality today. But I couldn’t get Charlie Hebdo out of my head. In response to last week’s cowardly murders in Paris, the men and women who now create and publish the magazine, put together a special edition and started printing. Before the assault on its Paris headquarters, Charlie Hebdo had a circulation of around 30,000. They had planned to print a million, but quickly tripled that number. Yesterday the magazine announced it would increase the print run to 7 million to keep up with international demand. Purchasing a copy has become a statement against violent intimidation and for freedom of expression. I thought the cover was a moving tribute, very well done (compared to what they usually put out), but then I heard the first reports about demonstrations in Pakistan and elsewhere – many people were deeply offended. I’m still trying to understand if the offense is the depiction of the prophet Muhammad itself or a perception of disrespect in the caricature or both. I realized again how small the world has become and how little we know about each other’s worlds. In Europe, in Russia and the Americas we have a long tradition of satire, caricature, and political jokes; we poke fun at people in power and at things we hold sacred – and we defend freedom of expression, particularly when it comes to irreverent expression, or even tasteless and offensive expression – we defend it because tyrants will do anything to prevent it. We bring that history, that struggle for freedom to every conversation about the press or Hollywood or protest marches that slow down traffic just when we want to get home for dinner after a long day at work.

Tomorrow our nation observes Martin Luther King day to remember how costly the struggle for freedom is and that it is far from over, because none of us are truly free until all of us are. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” Dr. King wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail in 1963. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Charlie Hebdo: the inescapable network of mutuality has become global in ways unimaginable in the 60’s.

What does it mean to struggle for freedom today, to imagine freedom, to think and talk about it? Freedom is a key dimension of our faith, with more facets than I could name this morning, so here are just a few: The freedom to be who we have been created to be. Freedom from slavery and oppression. Freedom to worship God without fear. Freedom to hear and interpret God’s word. 

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul declares in his letter to the Galatians. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). Freedom was very much part of Paul’s gospel proclamation: freedom from sin, freedom from death, the freedom to live as children of God through faith. But some believers in Corinth apparently were hearing a different tune: 

I’m free to do what I want any old time. The cross marks the end of the power of the law and I’m free. “All things are permitted for me.”

The only law still in effect in their circles was the law of desire, supply and demand. They ate what they wanted, with whom, when and where they wanted. Only weak believers had scruples about eating meat that had been butchered and prepared in pagan temples; they stood above that, they were strong. They also slept with whom they wanted. There were plenty of temple prostitutes and they hosted some of the best parties in town. The only law still in effect was the law of desire, supply and demand. I’m free to do what I want and am able to afford.

“All things are permitted for me,” they proudly declared, and Paul calmly added a caution, “but not all things are beneficial.”

“All things are permitted for me,” and Paul didn’t necessarily disagree with their slogan, but quietly replied, “I will not be dominated by anything,” reminding them and us that misdirected freedom can easily turn into servitude to compulsive desires more powerful than our will. We may think of ourselves as free masters in control of our fate when in reality we are slaves of our appetites.

For Paul, freedom is not independence or individual license. On the contrary, freedom is about belonging to nothing and no one but Christ. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” he asks and he continues, saving for last the part most important and most difficult to hear in ancient and in modern times: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that you are not your own?”

We are not our own. In baptism we are set free from the powers that oppress us, but not in some abstract fashion so we can be whoever or whatever we want to be; we are set free by being made members in the body of Christ, and we are set free for being members in the body of Christ. We are free because we are his. We are free to become who we were made to be because we are not our own.

John Calvin wrote in the 16th century,

We are not our own; therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature. We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours. 

Calvin continues with a second set of three brief statements, each one beginning, “We are God’s” – and that is of course as easily misunderstood as when Paul says, “we are free.” “We are God’s” is not spelled gods, but uppercase God’s.

We are God’s; let us, therefore, live and die to [God] (Rom 14:8). We are God’s; therefore, let [God’s] wisdom and will preside over all our actions. We are God’s; to [God], then, as the only legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed.1  

Men and women baptized into Christ don’t ask, “What is permissible? What is permitted, what is lawful, legal and what is not?” They ask, “How do we let Christ direct our life? How do we glorify God in our body – individually and collectively?” Paul picks up the thread from chapter 6 in chapter 10 where he writes, “’All things are permitted,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are permitted,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). Christian freedom presupposes an orientation toward the other and an obligation to foster his or her flourishing. Christian freedom is oriented toward the building up of a community that reflects our reconciliation in Christ.

So what does it mean to struggle for freedom today, to imagine freedom, to think and talk about it? I believe Christians have much to offer in those struggles and conversations, because the concept of freedom Paul gave us is not an expression of individual autonomy. Seeking to let Christ direct our lives to God we don’t strive to secure ourselves and thus increase rivalry, competition, and angry conflict. Our freedom is an expression of our belonging to Christ and in Christ, to each other. Dr. King called it the Beloved Community. In a speech in 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, he said, 

“the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of [humans].”

Amen.

1 Institutes 3.7.1.
Wednesday
Jan212015

Divine Solidarity

We give you thanks, Eternal God,

for you nourish and sustain all living things

by the gift of water.

In the beginning of time,

your Spirit moved over the watery chaos,

calling forth order and life.

In the time of Noah,

you destroyed evil by the waters of the flood,

giving righteousness a new beginning.

You led Israel out of slavery,

through the waters of the sea,

into the freedom of the promised land.

In the waters of Jordan Jesus was baptized by John

and anointed with your Spirit.

By the baptism of his own death and resurrection,

Christ set us free from sin and death,

and opened the way to eternal life.

We thank you, O God, for the water of baptism.

In it we are buried with Christ in his death;

from it we are raised to share in his resurrection;

through it we are reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We say this prayer every time we have a baptism. Those who wish to live as followers of Jesus and members of his church come to the baptistery and before we lower them into the water, we give thanks to God – thanks for the good news of life’s creation and redemption, and for the water that flows through it all like a river extending from the beginning of time to the city of God.

Water nourishes, sustains, and protects life – in the sea, in the womb, and all over the earth. But water also drowns, overwhelms, and destroys life. We don’t think much about water when we turn on the tap and expect the goodness to flow, fresh and clean, warm or cold; but when the Cumberland rises after heavy rains and claims new banks far above Second Avenue, words like awesome and devastating quickly come to mind. Water runs through all our stories like a river from the beginning of time, and today we celebrate that Jesus stepped into that river.

In Mark, there is no Christmas story at the beginning; only a long-awaited messenger who appears in the wilderness. John called people out into the wilderness to repent and be baptized in the Jordan to be prepared for the coming of the stronger One, the One who would come and baptize them in the Holy Spirit. And they came, from Jerusalem and the entire Judean countryside; they headed down to the banks of the Jordan to listen to John’s preaching and be baptized by him. One by one they stepped into the water. They could smell wild honey on his breath, they could see the light of his eyes under the dark brows as they said what needed to be said. Then they let his strong, sun-burned arms plunge them beneath the surface, into the silent depth. Long ago, their ancestors had entered the promised land crossing this river between the wilderness and the land of milk and honey. Like them, the men and women who came to John wanted to begin again, they wanted to live as God’s covenant people on God’s land as though they had just crossed over into it. They prayed that the river would wash away their transgressions and their guilt and the shadows of all they couldn’t undo; they prayed they would emerge from the chilly depth with their lives scrubbed clean as new, prepared to face the coming One, the holy One who would set all things right.

Jesus came like the rest of them had come, walking on dusty roads, waiting in line in the heat of the day, and finally stepping into the water, like the rest of them. Jesus began his ministry where sinners gathered, ordinary men and women with the desire to begin anew. So many were gathered at the river, you couldn’t have picked him out from the many faces, and the way Mark tells the story, neither could John. Standing in the water, he didn’t realize that his arms were holding the one whose coming he had been announcing. He plunged him beneath the surface like the rest of them, into the cold silence, down into the darkness at the bottom.

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The beginning of the good news of Jesus is like the beginning of creation: Water, Spirit, and the voice of the One who creates, beholds, and names.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth darkness covered the face of the deep and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters, and God said: Let there be light! And there was light. And God saw that the light was good and called it Day.

Water, Spirit, and the voice of the One who creates, beholds, and names. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. God was delighted. And when Jesus emerged from below the face of the deep, God was delighted. It was a new beginning for the world, a new day.

Twice in the gospel of Mark, the divine voice from heaven speaks, here and at the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8); here only Jesus hears the words of delight, at the transfiguration, three of his disciples hear the divine voice. Twice in the gospel of Mark, a veil is torn, here where Jesus sees the heavens torn apart, and at his death when the curtain of the temple is torn and when the voice affirming that he is the Son of God is the human voice of a Roman soldier (Mark 15:38). What is merely opened can be closed again, but what has been torn remains open: in the life and death of Jesus the veiled mystery of God has been made manifest. God does not remain hidden in the heights of heaven, but descends to earth, to the depths of earthly human experience, in this man’s life, Jesus of Nazareth. The tearing of the heavens only Jesus sees and he alone hears the voice of affirmation, but the tearing of the temple curtain that eliminates the separation between the Holy of Holies and the world, the second tearing at the time of Jesus’ death is for all to see and the soldier’s human witness is for all to hear. In this man’s life God has come to us. Jesus Christ is the one who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit; the one who stepped into the river and let himself be baptized with us, acting in loving solidarity with all human beings, disappearing in the deep, not to be washed, but to drown and rise.

“You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” is what Jesus hears in the river.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him,” the disciples hear on the mountain.

“Truly this man was God’s Son,” is what all can hear, it is the testimony of men and women who recognize the Holy One in this man’s life, Jesus of Nazareth.

He made us all his own, the moment he stepped into the river. Because of him, we emerge from the water assured of our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters, assured of our kinship with God and with each other and with all those on the river banks hoping for a new beginning, a new life. Baptized into Christ, his life becomes ours, his story our story, his way our way. No matter who you thought you were before you were immersed in the life and death of Jesus, you are God’s own, God’s beloved, God’s child.

Many of you know Janet Wolf; she used to serve as the pastor of Hobson UMC over in East Nashville. Now she works for the Children’s Defense Fund, but our paths still cross now and then over at Riverbend prison, where the good news of Jesus has continued to draw us both. Janet tells the story of a woman named Fayette who one day found her way to the Hobson church. Fayette lived and struggled with mental illness and she was homeless. At Hobson, she joined the new member class, and of all the good things she learned the best was about being baptized. Again and again she would ask, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And the class learned to respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she would say, and then the class could go back to their discussion.

On the day of her baptism, Fayette went under, came up spluttering, and cried, “And now I am…?” And all sang, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she shouted while dancing all around the fellowship hall. Two months later, Janet received a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the hospital. Janet wrote,

I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, “I am beloved...” She turned, saw me, and said, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and...” Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and…” She looked in the mirror again and declared, “…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!”[1]

Fayette had been pushed to the bottom of life’s river who knows how many times; the waters raged and the waves thundered over her violently, but she clung fiercely to her identity as a precious child of God. She refused to let anyone but Jesus tell her who she was. It’s how Fayette spells salvation: Don’t let anyone but Jesus tell you who you are.


[1] Janet told the story in Disciplines 1999 (The Upper Room). I stumbled upon it in Jan Richardson’s blog, The Painted Prayerbook http://paintedprayerbook.com/2010/01/03/epiphany-1-baptized-and-beloved/

Monday
Dec152014

We sing of the gardener

There was a time when children in Sunday school were given homework. In those days, the memory verse was as common as video clips are today. In those days, little Sally knew that on Sunday morning Ms Beulah might look at her over the rim of her reading glasses, and say, with a rare combination of warmth and authority, “Sally, would you share with us the verse you learned this week?” Little Sally would be forever grateful to her friend Charlie who had shared with her, just as they were walking down the steps to Sunday school, the secret that had been passed down through generations of young Bible scholars: “John 11:35 – Jesus wept.” The shortest verse in all of Scripture – short enough to memorize on Sunday morning in the hallway on your way to class. Ms Beulah was a kind and wise teacher, and she praised those young disciples every time one of them, usually with great relief in his or her voice, recited the verse. She praised them because she wanted the children to remember when they were sad that Jesus knew their sadness and wept with them. There were days when Ms Beulah’s heart was heavy with sorrow and all she could do was cry – and she was grateful that God not only knew the burden weighing on her heart, but cried with her. But Ms Beulah also made sure to tell her young charges a little known secret of Bible scholarship. “Children, the shortest verse in all of Scripture is not John 11:35, short as it is.” She certainly had Charlie’s attention. “Repeat after me,” she said. “First Thessalonians – 5:16 – Rejoice always.” And then Ms Beulah told them stories about the Apostle Paul:

“The Apostle loved the Lord, and he wanted the whole world to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. The Apostle was a serious man; he thought long and hard before he spoke or wrote – and he spoke and wrote a lot! But he was also a man whose heart was full of joy. Many times he was thrown in jail because some people didn’t like what he said about God’s love for all people. But he would sit in his cell and sing, and every time the guards opened the door to look what was going on, he smiled at them. God had given him a joy that was bigger than anything else in the world. One time, on his way to another country far away, he was in a shipwreck. He barely made it to shore, he had lost all his luggage, he was alone, he had no idea where he was, but when the locals found him, he was walking down the beach, singing and praising God. Paul was a man of great joy because he knew God. He knew that God loved the world, and that God would bring to a glorious end all that Jesus had done. Paul knew and remembered that nothing in the whole universe would ever be greater or stronger than God’s love. That’s why he taught us, ‘Rejoice always’ – 1 Thessalonians 5:16.”

Ms Beulah was a good Sunday school teacher. Generations of young disciples learned from her how faith in Jesus Christ nurtures a joy that resides deep in our lives, deep enough to sustain us in days when the world gives us little reason to smile.

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances.

Paul was not just good at avoiding the bad news. He was not one of these annoyingly happy Christians who wear their faith on their t-shirts, but want to have little to do with the world God loves. He listened attentively to visitors who told him about conflicts within the young mission churches and about hostilities believers had to face from neighbors and local authorities, and yet he taught,

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.

Paul’s joy didn’t depend on circumstances. Earlier in his letter to the Thessalonians, he wrote,

“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy! How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”[1]

Paul sang because in cities stretching from Jerusalem and Antioch to Ephesus, all the way to Macedonia and into Achaia, men and women heard the good news of Jesus Christ and responded with the work of faith, the labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in God’s saving purposes. Paul rejoiced and taught the churches to rejoice because every faint spirit refreshed by the gospel is a life renewed by grace and reclaimed for the kingdom of God. His joy was rooted in the promise and the coming of God’s reign. He rejoiced because in his soul he knew that the One who calls us is faithful.

I asked Ms Beulah why it is so difficult for so many of us to tap into that deep current of joy that runs through the life of faith. She looked at me over the rim of her reading glasses and said, “I don’t really know, but I think it’s because we are afraid to trust God. We are prisoners of our own fear.” I thought about that a lot these past few weeks. We are afraid to trust God. We are prisoners of our own fear.

I’ve been reading about addiction these past few weeks. Hard to read stories about families passing on abuse, generation to generation, helplessly, trapped in prisons of pain and fear. And I read deeply moving stories about the miracle of hope and the journey toward healing that begins when a survivor discovers, “I am not alone.”

Many of us have been discussing these past few weeks the legacy of slavery and racism in this country, and how it’s like a wound we pass on from generation to generation, a prison that seems designed to keep us each trapped in our own cells of pain, prejudice, and fear. But then hundreds in this city, and thousands across the nation come together to protest against the ways the curse corrupts our criminal justice system, and to state publicly that they are no longer willing to accept the status quo as the best we can do.

On Thursday night I went to Riverbend prison to celebrate with a group of men their graduation from SALT – Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation. The men gave testimony about the joy of talking with each other about things that matter and being listened to and heard; they talked about the joy of discovery and how their time together had transformed them, individually and as a group, unlike anything they had ever experienced in a class room.

Our prisons are places where the painful histories of family abuse and addiction and the reality of racism intersect and overlap in unique ways, but even there, behind bars and tall fences topped with concertina wire, even there, liberty is being proclaimed to the captives and release to the prisoners. To the degree that community is possible even behind those walls, liberation happens, healing occurs, and life is restored.

We heard again this morning the strong, beautiful words from the prophet Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

The prophet spoke these exuberant Advent words of promise and hope when Jerusalem was in ruins; the temple had not been rebuilt; the streets were empty, as were the markets; the towns of Judah were devastated by poverty. The return of the exiles from Babylon had been a powerful experience. They felt like those whom God had brought out of Egypt, to a new beginning in the land of promise. But when they saw the city, their hope and joy gave way to tears of sorrow and despair. And Isaiah sang,

I will rejoice, rejoice, rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Isaiah sang like bridegroom and bride on their wedding day, filled with joy, full of happy expectation and confidence concerning all the newness about to happen. He sang amid the ruins the song of Zion, the exuberant song of salvation, of Jerusalem rebuilt, the ruined cities repaired, and the former devastations raised up – and you know people asked him, “How can this be?” Isaiah’s answer was remarkably similar to Paul’s: The Lord is faithful. The promise is greater than the circumstances.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

We bear the wounds of abuse, and God cries with us. The legacy of slavery is perpetuated among us and by us in ways we do not fully understand, and God keeps vigil with us. The good word of God’s faithfulness is for us who mourn, whose spirits are faint and whose hearts are broken; and the good word is against the fears that paralyze us and the idols that hold us in thrall, we don’t know how. And so we sing. We sing with Isaiah, with Jesus and Paul and Ms Beulah, we sing of the gardener who has sown the earth with righteousness. We praise the Lord God whose Spirit is upon us, who has anointed us and sent us to bring good news to each other, to bind up each other’s wounded hearts, to proclaim liberty and release, to comfort, build up, raise up, and repair until we are what we really are: the planting of the Lord, to display the glory of God.

 


[1] 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3; 2:19f.; 3:9