Wisdom's delight

Sing, O muse, of the lumbering opossum, of the nearsighted, stumbling opossum, whose only defenses are a hiss, a hideous scowl and a rank scent emitted in terror. Let us rejoice in the pink-nosed, pink-fingered opossum, her silvery pouch full of babies, each no bigger than a honeybee. May your young thrive to ride upon your back. May they fatten and grow large and stumble off on their own to devour cockroaches and carrion and venomous snakes. May their snuffling root out all the ticks in our yards and all the snails in our flower beds. When they faint in the face of marauding dogs, we call back our baying hounds and wait for them to wake. We cheer when they rise and shake themselves. We send them with our blessings as they blunder back into the night.[1]

Margaret Renkl writes columns in the New York Times about life in her backyard, her backyard being the American South as well as, quite literally, life around her suburban Brentwood home. “Sing, O muse, of the lumbering opossum” is the opening line of her Praise Song for the Unloved Animals, in whose stanzas she also invites her readers to

consider the whine of the mosquito, the secrecy of the spider, the temper of the wasp — who among us could love you? Who could love even one of you, bearing your poisons and your pain into the heavy summertime air?

And she answers, with wisdom and delight, “We could.”

We could love you if we remind ourselves that no creature is made up only of poison, that no life is only a source of irritation or pain. We could love the mosquitoes for feeding the chittering chimney swifts wheeling in the sunset…We could love the spider for spinning the silk that holds together the moss of the hummingbird’s nest, the silk that stretches as the baby birds grow. We could love the wasp for eating the caterpillars that eat the tomato plants. We could love you all if only we remembered the [chimney swifts] and the hummingbirds, if only we remembered the taste of … tomatoes still warm from the sun.

To me, modest but growing delight in the lumbering, nearsighted opossum came late in life, but tomatoes still warm from the sun, together with peaches so juicy that you can only eat them over the sink, have defined the taste of summer for me for as long as I can remember. But wait, don’t close your eyes and drift off just yet to your garden of Eden with its fruits of every kind, for Renkl’s earthy psalm has yet another verse.

Behold the rat snake gliding silently through the nighttime weeds. Behold the sleek skin, cool but not damp, and the clever darting tongue, sniffing out the contours of the world. Watch as she finds the crack under the toolshed door. Understand that she is finding too the tiny bald mice in the corner of a drawer full of painting rags — the tiny blind mice hidden in the soft remains of ancient bedsheets fallen to ruin. Pity the young of the poor field mouse, born for just this purpose. Always there are mice — more mice than the world could ever hold if not for [the good order] that includes this beautiful, sinewy creature, this silent celebration of muscle and grace.[2]

Margaret Renkl sings of unloved creatures, and sharing her verses she invites us to behold, to watch, to understand, to pity, and to love — to love the unloved creatures not for what they do for us, but for the unique place they inhabit in the interconnectedness of all living things. She looks at her lawn in April and she delights.

The flowers I love best are the tiny ones, so tiny they’re mostly invisible from a car window. Exquisite little flowers, most of them smaller than my pinkie fingernail, are blooming all around my house right now, and they have wonderful names: woodland violet, spring beauty, daisy fleabane, pitcher’s stitchwort, bird’s eye speedwell, yellow wood sorrel, purple dead nettle, creeping Charlie, stickywilly, dandelion and a host of others I can’t name.

“Most people call them weeds,” she writes, and you can almost hear her heart breaking. “Most people don’t love them.” You can tell, she wants us to love the unloved creatures – she wants us to see them, learn their names, watch them, marvel at them, begin to understand them, love them, not for what they do for us, but for what they are and how they participate in the miracle of life, each in its own wondrous way.

Anybody who’s paying attention would see them for the gifts they are: flowers that arrive, through no effort at all, to feed the bees and the butterflies. But Americans generally aren’t paying attention. Too enraptured with the idea of a lawn that unrolls from the street to their very door, a carpet of green that remains green even when grass is supposed to be dormant, they see these homely little wildflowers as intruders, something to be eradicated.[3]

In the passage from Proverbs we heard this morning, Wisdom speaks in the first person.

On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it.”[4]

She seeks to lift her voice above the fray of conflicting voices, all vying for the ears and attention of all who pass by; she wants to persuade all who hear of her inestimable worth and authority. Claiming an intimate association with the Creator and the creation, she hopes to capture our imagination and eventually our allegiance.

Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—when [the Lord] had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.

She recounts God at work in carving, anchoring, stabilizing, establishing, circumscribing, and setting boundaries to shape places where life could flourish.And in all that, she is no detached observer. Every step and facet of creation is graced by her playful, attentive, and delighted presence. William Brown writes,

By her own testimony, Wisdom revels in a world that is both secure and enthralling, a world of discovery and delight. There is no chaos lurking around the corner, or under the bed. It is a world in which fear is banished and joy reigns. As a child grows in wisdom by interacting with her environment, so Wisdom actively engages creation in her delight.[5]

And she clearly expects the delight of her playful and attentive engagement with all God’s creatures, in all their wondrous complexities and relationships, to be contagious… that you and I would want to see the world, and ourselves in it, through her eyes… that we would fall in love with life and the wondrous gift that it is… that we would know ourselves as beloved children in whom God delights, and learn to see each other and all of creation with equal delight.

Have you seen starlings flock together in flight? Have you watched them whirling and wheeling, diving, darting and swooping in tight, fluid formations and marvelous synchronicity? It’s a spectacular mass ballet, a dance of multitudes moving like a single body, but not like a North Korean birthday parade, not at all like that. I just learned that we call it a murmuration, ranging from small groups of a few hundred starlings in a ball to undulating seas of millions of birds that might block out the sun.[6]

You watch them and you go, Wow! and you can’t help but wonder, “Do they know we’re watching? Do they know how breathtakingly beautiful this is? Is there a choreography? And if so, who’s the choreographer? How do they communicate with each other? How to they do that, murmurate?”

In 2008, a group of scientists in Italy set up cameras around the rail station in Rome, and they filmed several starling murmurations. Then, after reconstructing their positions and movements in 3-D computer models, they were able to show the rules that were being used. “What they found was that starlings sought to match the direction and speed of the nearest seven or so neighbours, rather than responding to the movements of all of the nearby birds around them.”[7] Seven neighbors – almost has a biblical ring to it, doesn’t it?

“Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise,” is one of the sayings collected in the book of Proverbs.[8] Another says, “Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is one who meddles in the quarrel of another.”[9] But not a single verse about the opossum, not in Proverbs, nor anywhere else in Scripture. Yet wisdom still calls us to go to the opossum and consider its ways, and be wise.

Jesus taught us to consider the birds of the air. Perhaps he only meant to use them as examples for a life free of worries, but perhaps he also meant to teach us to go to the starling and consider its ways, and be wise. Perhaps he would delight— and I believe he would— in the surprising observation, that for thousands of starlings to move as one, it doesn’t take a bird king or a chain of command from general to platoon leader, but only that each pay attention to seven neighbors. How about that, church?

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/27/opinion/praise-ugly-unloved-animals.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/15/opinion/nature-lawns-environment.html

[4] Proverbs 8:1-5

[5] William P. Brown, “Proverbs 8:22-31,” Interpretation 63, no. 3 (July 2009), 288.

[6] see some great pictures of murmurations at https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2019/01/photos-murmurations-starlings/579286/

[7] https://phys.org/news/2019-02-starling-murmurations-science-nature-greatest.html

[8] Prov 6:6

[9] Prov 26:17

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The kingdom tongue

Luke paints a big picture on a big canvas, a map of the world with Jerusalem at the center. Jesus, risen from the dead, had told the disciples, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” They had no idea what exactly they were waiting for and what it would feel like to walk around dressed in power and what sort of power it would be. But devoting themselves to prayer, they waited.

And then it happened. It started with a sound like the rush of a violent wind that filled the entire house, and then it burst into tongues like firy flames, one resting on each of them, and all of them began to speak in languages none of them had ever learned, and the house could not contain all that. A crowd gathered and they were bewildered, because each heard them speaking in their own native language.

At this point, Luke adds a list dreaded by most when called upon to read Scripture in worship on Pentecost. We know how to say Egypt and Libya without a question mark at the end of each syllable, but the rest are like me trying to pronounce the names of Welsh hymn tunes or Icelandic volcanoes—my tongue just goes stumbling.

But the challenge here is not just a matter of pronunciation. The world’s finest New Testament scholars wrestle with what to make of the nations listed here. Jacob Myers writes about “Luke’s wonky list of Pentecost observers gathered in Jerusalem – a motley patchwork of Elamites, Cretans, and Arabs sewn together with folks from Egypt, Lybia, and Rome!”[i]

Elamites? The Elamites had been nearly wiped out by the Assyrians in 640 B.C.E., and the Medes had been extinct as a distinct ethnic group for over five-hundred years! What are Elamites and Medes doing in 1st-century Jerusalem?

We can’t ask Luke, but we can look for hints. In the first chapter of Acts, the disciples asked the risen Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Their deepest hope was long-held and concrete, God’s Messiah would restore the kingdom to Israel; the only open question was when this would take place. But the outpouring of the Holy Spirit expanded their vision far beyond what they could imagine. God’s redemptive work would extend not only to the ends of the earth in geographical terms, or from Pentecost into the future in historical terms, but also into the past to include Elamites and Medes and every tribe and nation under heaven.

“Whoa, preacher, easy now,” some of you might be thinking. “The part about being witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – that we can see, that we can trace on our maps, and the spread of the good news into Asia and Africa, Europe, the Americas and Australia, that we can follow – but Elamites? I don’t know, preacher, are you sure it was only coffee you were sipping this morning? We hear words like bewildered, amazed, and perplexed in this story, and they capture well how we feel, we’re baffled.”

No wonder some of the observers in Jerusalem concluded the disciples were drunk. But Peter said they weren’t. “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning,” he said, as though inebriation followed a schedule — not exactly what you and I would call a strong point. But then he started reciting the bold prophecy with Joel’s name on it. In the last days God’s Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh – not just some people, note just male people or church people, but all people – male and female, young and old, slave and free. All would see as prophets see, and tell as prophets tell, and the dreams of all would be given voice. God’s Spirit would blow across all borders, through any of our boundaries defined by ethnicity, culture, status, and language to bring us together in unity.

Pentecost was the eruption of God’s vision for humanity: it was resurrection writ large, all of creation transformed, all things made new, even the past. Those first disciples were indeed drunk, not with wine, but with life and the promise that it would be whole and one. The church wears red on Pentecost, because the passion, the fire and light of the Holy Spirit is loose in the world, claiming us as Christ’s own, empowering us to live and proclaim that vision of a world at peace.

In 1492, as in any time and season when the church has sought to live inspired and empowered by the Spirit of God, other visions reigned. Christopher Columbus was on his way West to the lands beyond the ocean, when in Salamanca, Spain, a scholar by the name of Antonio de Nebrija presented to Queen Isabella his latest book. Gramática de la lengua castellana (Grammar of the Castilian Language) was the first textbook of what would become known as Spanish. Nebrija had already written a grammar of Latin, the language of the church, of the law, and of scholarly treatises, but this was a grammar of the ordinary language spoken in fields and markets, in homes and on the streets.

When the book was presented to Isabella, she questioned what the merit of such a work might be; Fray Hernando de Talavera, bishop of Avila, answered for the author in prophetic words, as Nebrija himself recalls in a letter addressed to the monarch:

After Your Highness has subjected barbarous peoples and nations of varied tongues, with conquest will come the need for them to accept the laws that the conqueror imposes on the conquered, and among them our language.[ii]

In his dedication Nebrija wrote to Isabella that language was “the instrument of empire” and suggested that his grammar would prove useful as [her Highness] conquered peoples who spoke languages other than Castilian.[iii]

“I have found one conclusion to be very true,” he wrote, “that language always accompanies empire.”[iv] Wherever the conquerors landed, the natives had to learn the imperial tongue – be it Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, English, Italian or German. But on Pentecost, a very different vision and reality erupted in the world.

Amazed and astonished, people asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

In the kingdom of God, there is no imperial tongue. In the kingdom of God, differences of culture and language are not violated and eliminated under mandatory sameness, but affirmed and honored. The Holy Spirit, free and uncontrollable, allows all of us to hear and become the good news of God. The Holy Spirit sanctifies our differences in a kingdom culture that affirms who we are and celebrates where we have come from and glorifies God in every tongue and every ear.

Amazed and astonished, we wonder, “How can this be? What is drawing us together in this miracle of community? What explanations can we stammer when all we know is that it is not our doing?” Jesus told the apostles to stay in the city and wait until they had been clothed with power from on high. And clothed they were along with all who heard them. All they could say was, it didn’t begin with us; something, someone got a hold of us in ways that didn’t violate who we were and allowed us to see a world where all of us can be who we are and yet be together. It was, and continues to be, God’s initiative, God’s mission, with us as the body of Christ in the world, for the sake of the world and life’s wholeness.

During his final meal with the disciples, Jesus said to them, according to John, “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.”

He had told them he would go away, but that he wouldn’t leave them orphaned like abandoned children, and that we would come to them.

Where Luke describes the drama of Pentecost with stunning visuals and spectacular sound, John presents a quiet scene of profound intimacy, defined entirely by the words of Jesus.

“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.”

The next day he was crucified, and their hearts were troubled. And on the third day, the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene came back from the tomb and told them, “I have seen the Lord.” They didn’t know what to make of her words. And that evening — they were together, hiding behind closed doors for fear that the darkness they saw all around might overcome the little light of love Jesus had lit in their hearts — that evening Jesus came and stood among them, and he said, “Peace be with you.”

And their hearts were no longer troubled, and their fear was driven out by the love they remembered and experienced anew in the presence of Jesus, risen from the dead.

“Peace be with you,” he said. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

The world’s hostility did not keep Jesus from embracing it in love, and that evening he sent his friends to continue his mission.

As those who witness to the love of God in Jesus, we will experience the world’s hostility, and not just in others, but in our own resistance to the demands of his love. Jesus was the divine Word embodied in human flesh and blood, and on the evening of that first day he sent us to make him known in the same way: not as conquerors, but as a community in whose life and ministry the world would continue to encounter his presence and peace. In our life together, in our small and bold commitments to love each other well, the world would continue to meet the God whose love knows no end.

“How can this be? How can we be the living proclamation of life in communion with God, we who struggle daily with our failure to love God and neighbor? What is drawing us together in this miracle of community?” It can only be because we are participating in God’s loving movement into the world. It can only be because we aren’t being sent by some far-away monarch who resides in his castle beyond the clouds, but by the God who desires to be at home in the world – for the sake of the world and life’s wholeness. It can only be because Jesus, that night, breathed on his friends and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” There was no sound like the rush of a violent wind, there were no divided tongues, as of fire, only Jesus breathing out peace and new life, and his friends breathing in — and out, clothed with power from on high.

[i] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1296

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gram%C3%A1tica_de_la_lengua_castellana

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_de_Nebrija

[iv] Isaac S. Villegas https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/unconverted-difference-acts-21-21

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Blessed conviviality

One of the most memorable clergy meetings I have been a part of happened a few years ago here in Nashville. We didn’t have a speaker; we didn’t have a topic to discuss, and we didn’t have decisions to make. We sat in a circle around a big table, and we didn’t know each other particularly well: Each of us knew at least one other person in the room, but only one of us knew all of us.

Our host invited us to go around the circle and tell the others about the joys and challenges of our ministry. We could talk for as long as we needed. Then the person sitting next to us in the circle would pray for us, out loud, right there and then.

Not your typical ice breaker, is it? I remember how very awkward I felt at first. I had never done anything like that before, but I got a sense that several of my colleagues around the table were quite familiar with the practice. I don’t remember what was said. I don’t remember what I said, and I don’t remember what Tim said when he prayed for me. But I do remember his hand on my shoulder, and that he spoke with kindness and care. I felt safe and honored and held.

I thought of that surprising intimacy when I read and reread the scene in the gospel of John we just heard. It is the final scene of Jesus’ farewell meal with his disciples. He had been at table with them. He had washed their feet. He had instructed and taught them. He had spoken at length about what was about to happen and how they would continue to live as his followers and friends after his return to the Father. And then he turned from teaching them to praying for them. No more instructions and exhortations. He prayed for them, for us, for all who had come to see in him what it means to be human and for and all who would. For all who had come to see in him who God is and all who would. His final words that night were words of prayer. He prayed that we may all be one. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” He didn’t talk about the intimacy of the divine life, but spoke into it and from it; he let us witness and participate in this intimacy by letting us overhear his intercessions. He drew us in, drew us into the loving intimacy of the communal life of God. “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

I thought I would preach today about the unity of the church as a gift we struggle to live into. I thought I would be talking about how Jesus explicitly linked the truth of his life and message to our life together. “How we live together [as Christians from so many cultures and such diverse backgrounds] is the most persuasive sermon we’ll ever get to preach,” Christine Pohl wrote just a few years ago, and I thought I would quote her today in a sermon about our unity. “The Word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, expects that our relationships with one another will also be characterized by grace and truth,” she wrote.[1]

Communities characterized by grace and truth, in loving resistance to the climate of lies, division, and disgrace that is unraveling societies around the world. I thought that would preach— believers living into our God-given unity, but the words didn’t come, only groans and sighs. There had been another mass shooting, this time in Virginia Beach. Eleven of the victims were civil servants, the kind of people who worked on construction projects and water quality and right of way issues. Another was a local contractor who had come by the office in Building 2 to talk about a permit. It was supposed to be just another day at work.

“The Word who became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, expects that our relationships with one another will also be characterized by grace and truth”— but he knows in his bones that our relationships with one another are also characterized by violence and all manner of lovelessness. And that is why he prays for us and wants us to know that he prays for us. We have been entrusted with making the love of God tangible in the world. Jesus wants us to know that we are not alone in our struggles to live faithfully in this love. He is praying for us, praying with us, letting his heart be broken with ours, mourning with us, loving with us, loving us.

He is praying for us to be drawn into the communion of love that is God and he doesn’t just make it so, because there is nothing coercive about this love. He speaks into, and his words emerge from, the loving intimacy of the divine life, and by letting us overhear his intercessions, he invites us to let ourselves be drawn into the open circle of this life where the mutuality of love reigns supreme.

Jesus loves us, and the new commandment he has given us is new not in commanding us to love one another, but to love one another as he has loved us.[2] His radical hospitality for any and all of us, revealed on the cross, defines both the center of the circle of love as well as the radius that determines its circumference. His radical hospitality means that there is nothing exclusive or conditional about God’s love. The circle that has the cross as its center is as wide as creation is old. We are one in Christ whether we agree with each other or not. We are one in Christ whether we like one another or not. To become a member in the body of Christ is to become a part of the beloved community; a part of the life that is one as God is one.[3]

Belonging is a given. It doesn’t matter who you voted for. It doesn’t matter on what continent you were born. It doesn’t matter if you have the documents they demand to see. It doesn’t matter if you identify as queer or cisgender heterosexual. You belong because you’re beloved.

Churches are communities where this truth is embodied: Belonging is a given. You belong because you’re beloved. Churches are communities where followers of Jesus wrestle with this truth. Pastor Josh Scott told Brian McLaren, “Part of our work [as a congregation] is to teach people how to disagree generously, how to be open to thoughtful critique and discussion. Our values aren’t up for negotiation, but we can engage in conversation that helps us all understand one another a bit better … we regularly have people from various political or even religious backgrounds engaging on topics from theology to health care to immigration. All voices are given space, as long as they are respectful. One person asked, ‘How long can we live in this tension?’ My reply was simple: ‘As long as you can and are willing, so are we.’”[4]

The more fully we let ourselves be drawn into the divine life, both individually and communally, the more faithfully our life together will reflect the radical hospitality of Jesus. Division in the church distorts our witness and keeps the world from believing in Jesus as the embodiment of God’s love for the world. But our willingness to live in the tension and to fully see and hear each other, open up to each other, and embrace each other as God’s beloved, creates countless moments in our days for the glory of God to shine forth.

Chris Hobgood, the former General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who died on Friday, said in 2004,

“I believe that God does not care as much for the renewal of the church as for the renewal of the world. If we think that God loves only us then we’ve been smoking some theology that is very dangerous. Yet our actions sometimes convey this. … All of this is to say that we are true to God’s call only when we recall that there’s a world out there, and if we spend all of our energy trying to fix ourselves while the world burns, we can be sure of God’s pained displeasure.”

The world is burning. The world God loves is on fire with hatred, injustice, ignorance and violence. But the world is also aflame with the unquenchable fire of God’s love, and the Spirit of God teaches us how to tend this fire in the name of Jesus. God has entrusted us, fragile and prone to failure as we are, with making the love of God tangible in the world.

The Word who became flesh and lived among us, was a stranger in the world. “The world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him,” we read in John.[5] The stranger in whom we have come to see the face of God invites us to live as strangers in the world by becoming his friends. He invites us to become resident aliens in the realms of fear that hold the world captive. He invites us to be at home in God’s love for the world, for the sake of the world.

And while we struggle to simply live the life given and entrusted to us,  Jesus prays for us. He continues to pray for those who follow him until all of life has become completely one in the blessed conviviality of all creatures and their maker, of lover and beloved, of heaven and earth.

[1] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-02/our-life-together

[2] John 13:34 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.”

[3] See http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1637

[4] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/how-be-purple-church-red-state

[5] John 1:10

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Sing as wayfarers do

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” They were shouting, perhaps singing, a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, along with angels and elders and four mysterious creatures. “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

According to the book of Revelation, the risen Lord appeared to a man named John on the island of Patmos in the eastern Mediterranean, and gave him messages to be sent to the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia, the part of the world we know today as Turkey. John was then caught up into what he described as the heavenly throne room, where he saw a book with seven seals which no one but Christ was able to open.

The vision unfolds with each broken seal; the seventh seal opens into seven trumpet scenes, and the last trumpet announces another set of seven: bowls of divine wrath poured out. John sees plagues and devastations, climaxing in the destruction of Babylon, the “great city.” Then he sees visions of the final triumph of God as Christ returns: the dead are raised, the final judgment is held, and the new Jerusalem is established as the capital of the redeemed creation.

Revelation raises many questions, but for all who hear John’s witness the most important question is, will we orient our lives toward “the great city” that is already fallen, Babylon the great, or will we have the courage to keep our eyes on “the holy city” where God is at home among us, the new Jerusalem, already descending from heaven?

Revelation is meant to be read in its entirety in worship, perhaps with the congregation singing along with the many doxologies and anthems woven through the text like threads of gold, uniting the saints on earth and the saints and angels in heaven in worship. The whole thing feels like a script for a cosmic-scale performance, and it’s no coincidence that the rich, symbolic world of Revelation has inspired poets, musicians, painters, and even architects. However, the same symbols, writes L. T. Johnson, have also “nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing (…) Few writings in all of literature have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation. Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation.”[1]

Revelation was written to fledgling churches during a period of oppression and persecution. It was written to strengthen their faith in the God who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead during a time when the Roman empire was making claims on believers’ allegiance that made it challenging and costly for them to hold on to their confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. Revelation was written as a letter of encouragement, urging believers to keep the faith as the worlds of empire and kingdom were clashing.

Most of the letter’s first audiences probably knew how to read it; they were immersed in the language of the Hebrew prophets, they were familiar with John’s world of symbols and the letter’s countless allusions to other parts of Scripture. But it didn’t take long before the book began to be read as “something akin to a train schedule” for the final years of the world. Rather than a source of hope, the text soon became an instrument of fear and abuse in the hands of those who claimed to know the true, but hidden, meaning of its bold declarations.

“My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book,” wrote Martin Luther. “For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”[2] John Calvin wrote commentaries on every book of the New Testament, except Revelation. Chances are that already among the seven churches to which it was originally addressed not everyone accepted it as authentic Christian teaching. The book contains plenty of material that is difficult to absorb if your faith has been shaped by the Jesus who embodied love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. In scene after scene, God, the heavenly armies, or Christ are presented as violent perpetrators. There’s no turning the other cheek, no prayer for those who persecute, no love of enemies. Eugene Boring writes, “The reservations of some [against Revelation] have been based on the real dangers that have emerged when [the book] has been interpreted in foolish, sub-Christian or anti-Christian ways. Although every biblical book is subject to misinterpretation, no other part of the Bible has provided such a happy hunting ground for all sorts of bizarre and dangerous interpretations.”[3]

The way to read Revelation faithfully is to keep our eyes on the throne that stands at the center of the heavenly worship John was privileged to see and hear. Amid the scenes of unimaginable destruction and cosmic upheaval John lets us see the heavenly throne where God is seated together with the Lamb, the crucified Messiah, risen from the dead. Amid the chaos of every fear and terror imaginable, we get to look into the very heart of the universe, and we see Jesus.

When German voters put the Nazis in power in 1933, the churches were unbearably slow to respond and Christians failed almost completely to resist. Protestant churches in particular were paralyzed not only by the pervasive fear but by generations of teaching that, according to Romans 13, “there is no authority except from God (...) [and] whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.”[4] Only a handful of Christians remembered Revelation 13, where the state is pictured as a beast emerging from the sea, uttering blasphemies against God and persecuting God’s people. Only a handful of Christians had the courage to call Berlin Babylon, the great city, already fallen; only a handful had the courage to orient their lives to the holy city, the new Jerusalem, descending from heaven. Only a handful kept the faith and stood up against the Nazi terror.

In South Africa, when the system of apartheid seemed firmly established, Bishop Desmond Tutu was among those who remained faithful. He saw clearly that much of Johannesburg was in truth Babylon, and he joyfully affirmed that Babylon the great had already fallen. Bishop Tutu got used to having members of the Secret Police in the pews on Sunday; he could identify them easily since they were the only ones taking notes during his sermons. One Sunday morning, he looked two of them in the eyes and said, “I know who you are; I know why you are here; you have already lost, so why don’t you join us?”

The violence of apartheid was real and painful, but it couldn’t last. The Nazi empire of death was real and painful, but it couldn’t last. The terrors of slavery – pervasive and persistent – will not last. All of the hurtful and cruel incarnations of our dreams of domination, asserting themselves with such power, will not last. They have already been conquered by the Lamb, John declares. They have already been conquered, the witnesses tell us, conquered by the love of God who embraces the enemy. They have already been conquered, we dare to confess only in the power of the Spirit, conquered by the men and women who walk in faith in the way of Christ, their eyes fixed on the city of God.

John saw a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, and singing. John saw humanity gathered together not by imperial order, nor by coercion or ideology, but by the gentle gravity of Jesus’ life.

John heard one of the elders say, “The Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Our dreams of domination are powerful and dangerous. Just this past week we received another reminder in a report about humanity’s impact on our fellow creatures on this planet. As many as a million species of plants and animals are under threat of extinction over the next few decades. The ways humans live in our shared home pushes other inhabitants into oblivion, and we are only beginning to grasp that this path of extinction is ultimately suicidal. We are only beginning to grasp that God’s creation is indeed one, fearfully and wonderfully made, carefully knit together, intricately woven into one gorgeous fabric.

There is much in the book of Revelation that worries me. Too much room is given to vengeful fantasies that don’t reflect the grace and compassion of Jesus. But I love the affirmation that the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd. It’s a curious, species-hopping play with metaphors: a human being likened to a lamb, and the lamb in turn likened to a human figure of care and protection.

As believers we trust that the Lamb at the center of the throne will indeed shepherd and guide us to springs of the water of life. We trust that the life to which Jesus is calling us will not be less than what we have seen and heard, smelled and tasted, felt and known in our most joyful moments of participating in the miracle of creation. We trust the promise that life will be fulfilled, creation completed in communities of mutual blessing, one life, peace without end.

To God and to the Lamb, I will sing, I will sing … To God and to the Lamb, I will sing—
To God and to the Lamb, Who is the great “I AM,” … While millions join the theme, I will sing, I will sing! … While millions join the theme, I will sing.

John saw them, a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, singing along with the angels, praising the wondrous love that heals creation and fulfills the covenant of life.

“God’s praises are sung both there and here,” wrote St. Augustine.

Here they are sung in anxiety, there, in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live for ever; here they are sung in hope, there, in hope’s fulfillment; here they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country. So let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do—sing, but continue your journey. … Sing, but keep going.[5]

[1]Johnson, L. T., The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation (Rev. ed.), (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 573.

[2] Martin Luther, Preface to the Revelation of St. John [1], 1522, Luther’s Works, vol. 35 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960), 398-99.

[3] M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (Interpretation), (Louisville: John Knox, 1989), 4.

[4] Romans 13:1-2.

[5] Augustine of Hippo, quoted in Gabe Huck, A Sourcebook about Liturgy (Chicago: LTP, 1994), 35.

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The high priest slept well that Friday night. The streets and squares of Jerusalem were quiet again. Decisive action had brought an end to the daily disruptions this Jesus had brought to the city and the temple. Now he was dead and buried. Friday night was, from the high priest’s perspective on life, peaceful. As was the Sabbath— peaceful and quiet. The Romans had taken care of the man from Nazareth, and it appeared his followers had gotten the message. The high priest was proud of himself— he had nipped the problem in the bud. He was done with Jesus, done with civil unrest and excited crowds. Things were under control. The temple would once again be a place for orderly worship. The high priest slept well, two nights in a row.

On the first day of the week reports of rumors began to trickle in, disturbing rumors. A handful of men and women, followers, no doubt, of this Jesus, were making claims that they had seen Jesus, that he was alive because God had raised him from the dead. Soon the high priest heard reports that Peter and John were in the temple just about every day, teaching and healing, and attracting large crowds. People came not just from the city but even from the surrounding towns, bringing the sick and the tormented, and the buzz was the followers of Jesus were healing them. “Hello, insomnia,” the high-priest sighed.

In the first chapters of Acts, Luke paints a portrait of the church as a movement of fearless Jesus followers whose witness brings wholeness and hope to many in the city— not to all, because what was joyful news to some, was considered subversive by others. No wonder, the high priest was nervous; institutions and the people they invest with power want stability more than anything: any kind of change must occur only on the terms and under the control of those in authority.

The followers of Jesus didn’t meet those requirements. Like their master, they acted with a different kind of authority. Soon the chief priests, elders, and scribes assembled to discuss the matter: “What will we do with them?”

They called in Peter and John, and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. Peter and John in turn met with the other disciples and talked about what had happened at the council meeting. And they prayed. Lord, look at their threats, and grant your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. They prayed for courage to speak and act in the name of Jesus, and their prayers were answered.

Their boldness gave the high priest a headache, and after yet another sleepless night he took action. This Jesus thing had to stop, whatever the cost. And so he had the apostles arrested and shut up in prison. He slept a little better that night. But while he was dreaming of restoring peace and order in the city, an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors, and the apostles walked out. Before the sun was up, the good news of Jesus was again being proclaimed in the temple and in the streets of Jerusalem.

Again the high priest had the apostles brought in and stand before the council for questioning. “We gave you strict orders, didn’t we, not to teach in this name. Why have you defied the express directive of this council to desist this preaching?” And Peter and the apostles answered with disarming simplicity, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

It was human authority that killed Jesus to silence him. It was human authority that denied his authority to teach and forgive. It was human authority that accused him and found him guilty, convicted and executed him. It was human authority that did all it could to put an end to Jesus. But God raised him up and exalted him, the apostles declared, and we are witnesses to these things. You forbid us to witness? You might as well forbid us to breathe, or tell the wind to cease to blow! This is who we are, now that Jesus is risen from the dead, and this is what we do. His life is our life, his mission our mission.

Who would have thought that one day Peter would speak like that? Who would have thought that these frightened followers would have the courage to take a stand like that? That they would look human authority in the eye and defy it with such bold grace? That they could be so fearless and free?

In today’s gospel passage from John we see a very different scene. The disciples have locked themselves in a room because they are afraid. It’s a terrified little band, huddled in a dark room with a chair braced against the door. The air isn’t moving, and nobody is saying anything. I wonder what it was like for Christians in Sri Lanka today. Did they go to church or stay home, just to stay safe? And if they chose to gather for worship, did their hearts stop every time they heard the door open and close? I wonder what it was like for Muslims in Sri Lanka this past week who fled to their mosques when Christian men, in wounded fury, attacked their homes and shops in retaliation for the bombings of churches on Easter Sunday. And our Jewish neighbors yesterday, on the last day of Passover, six months after the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, facing yet another deadly assault on a congregation gathered in a house of prayer? The scene in John’s gospel  feels awfully current— people of God afraid for their lives, mortal danger lurking just outside the doors.

It’s a powerful temptation to withdraw even more behind the walls of our fear, to close windows and blinds, to lock doors, to point cameras in every corner we cannot see, and to pretend that these rooms we’re in aren’t tombs.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. She came back to us to tell us, “I have seen the Lord,”— but what are words against the cold grip of fear? John knows what it’s like for followers of Jesus in a world where the darkness of Friday is deep and unrelenting: we are a community that will have only one thing going for us— the risen Jesus himself and the power of the Holy Spirit.

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”

Roman, one of the new disciples who were baptized on Easter, read, like the others, a statement of his belief, a statement of who God is for him, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and I have memorized one line of his, simple, beautiful, and true: “Jesus is unstoppable.”

Jesus is unstoppable. Death cannot hold him. The life he is and gives is unstoppable. He comes to us through any wall, any fear, any despair. He is unstoppable.

Three times Peter denied that he knew Jesus. And the same Peter soon after boldly declared before the council, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” He had encountered the Living Christ and his peace.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says to us as he said to the first disciples and every new generation of disciples since. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The difference between a group of frightened men and women hiding behind locked doors and the same men and women fearlessly living the Jesus life— the difference is the Holy Spirit. The difference is our relationship with the Unstoppable One, a relationship so intimate and close that his breath becomes ours as his life and mission become ours. The pull of his love is stronger than death, stronger than our fear.

Thomas was not with them that night when Jesus came, John tells us. “We have seen the Lord,” they told him, but he needed to see for himself, and more than that. Thomas refused to believe his eyes alone and demanded to touch and probe Jesus’ wounded body. And Jesus responded by inviting him to “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.”

On Christmas we hear and celebrate that “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” We are drawn to the wonder of God coming among us in human vulnerability. We are drawn to the wonder of God living and knowing life through our flesh— flesh that can be touched gently and violently, flesh that can be honored and tortured, anointed and abused.

Friday reminds us of our almost infinite capacity to inflict and suffer hurt— did we need to be reminded? No, we didn’t, but we need to be reminded that God is present in that suffering. And we need to be reminded that God’s determination to heal the wounds of our sin is unstoppable.

When Jesus came to the disciples in their tomb of fear, he showed them his hands and his side. His resurrected body still carries the wounds of his earthly life, and the Risen One is forever recognizable as the Crucified One in glory. The resurrection does not erase history and its many wounds, but redeem and glorify it. In the resurrection, the trauma of sin is no longer hidden, covered up, ignored or forgotten, but revealed and healed in peace.

So when terror and fear threaten to overwhelm us, we join our brother Thomas in looking for the God who bears the marks of our weary world in his own body.[1] And we trust the Unstoppable One who breathes on us the breath of new life.

[1] My thanks to Robert Hoch for this lovely line http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2808

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The light of life

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.

In Matthew, we’re told it was at dawn. In Mark and Luke, we read it was early, very early, when the sun had risen. Only in John are we told that it was still dark. And it’s not because they’re fussing about where exactly the sun was in relation to the horizon. It was still dark because the light of the world was gone.

Mary had spent the sabbath at home, but it had not been a good sabbath. It had not been a day of holy rest for her, a day to enjoy the beauty and abundance of creation. It had been an endless stretch of numb silence, interrupted only by her sighs and sudden tears. Mary had allowed this man to awaken hope in her. Because of him she had begun to believe in the possibility of forgiveness for all, the possibility of a community shaped by love, the possibility of life abundant for all, young and old, friend and stranger. Because of him she had felt more like herself than she had ever felt. Jesus had dared her and the others who had come with him from Galilee to imagine a world where masters wash servants’ feet, where the blind see and the lame dance, where the hungry are fed, and all who mourn are comforted. He had dared them to imagine such a world, and following him, they entered it. And now he was dead, and with him, her hope. All she had were memories, and this garden tomb, the place where Joseph and Nicodemus had laid Jesus’ body.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. The tomb had been tampered with somehow; the one place left in the world where she could go to be close to Jesus had been violated. So she ran back to tell the others, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” They had managed not only to quench the light of his luminous presence in the world, but to make his absence unbearably complete. Jesus gone.

Peter and the other disciple saw the grave cloths, carefully folded up, and they went home. John tells us that the other disciple saw and believed. Believed what? That the body had been stolen? But what grave robber unwraps a body, and folds the strips of linen with such care? Perhaps the other disciple believed that the tomb’s emptiness bore witness that Jesus had conquered death; that no one had taken him away, but that Jesus had left death behind. And yet, Peter and the other disciple went home – without so much as a whispered Hallelujah, let alone big anthems, shouts of resurrection joy, trumpets, banners, timpani and rumbling shutters. John’s account of this morning of mornings is much quieter than the full-on jubilation of our Easter worship.

Mary didn’t go home with the other two. She didn’t walk away from the confusion and bewilderment. She stayed. She stood outside the tomb, weeping. It was still dark.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” the angels asked her. Had she had any strength left in her, she would have asked them, Why am I weeping? Why aren’t you? Haven’t you been paying attention? Don’t you see what is going on here? Don’t you see how they take away everything that is beautiful, destroy everything that is promising, good and true, and pile up ugliness and death on every side? How can you not weep? They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.

What do angels know about death’s rule over life? What do they know about betrayal and denial? What do they know about hope and loss?

On Monday, news broke that Notre Dame in Paris was on fire. There were very few details, but the news spread around the globe, shocking people everywhere. One of the great cathedrals of Europe, more than 800 years old – the thought that it could be destroyed by fire in a few hours was simply unimaginable. The news coverage was extensive, and people around the world were relieved to hear that because of the heroic efforts of hundreds of firefighters the collapse of the main structure, only minutes away, was averted.

Amid the constant coverage, another news item related to church fires almost got lost. On Monday, officials in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, charged 21-year-old Holden Matthews with hate crimes, adding to three charges of arson that had been filed the week before. Over the course of ten days, between March 26 and April 4, three predominantly black churches in that Parish, west of Baton Rouge, had gone up in flames: St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, each of them in existence for more than a century. “All you see is charcoal,” Freddie Jack, president of the Seventh District Baptist Association, told the New York Times. “It’s a total, complete loss at all three sites.”

In Louisiana, authorities initially avoided suggesting that the three fires were racially motivated. Perhaps it was out of concern for an unbiased investigation; they didn’t want to jump to conclusions. Or was the thought that this kind of terror wasn’t a thing of the past, was the thought fraught with such guilt and shame and dread that they didn’t want to face it until it was undeniable?

I thought about these four church fires, and which of them was more devastating: Notre Dame in Paris or three little black Baptist churches in Louisiana? In simple dollar terms, it’s got to be Notre Dame. Even in terms of global cultural significance, I would say Notre Dame, although with some hesitation. But the most devastating fires were the ones in Louisiana. A human being carefully selected three targets for arsonist attacks, continuing the cursed legacy of oppression, hatred and terror against blacks and their houses of worship. The most devastating fires were the ones in Louisiana, because Notre Dame was an accident, perhaps the result of a computer glitch, but the church burnings were reminders of the deep darkness of hate that surrounds and assaults us all, and that won’t go away on its own.

On Aptil 10, the Seventh District Baptist Association started a fundraiser to help rebuild the three Louisiana churches. On Tuesday morning, the campaign had raised less than $100,000, but then a wave of donations started, following news about large gifts pledged for the rebuilding of Notre Dame in Paris. On Wednesday afternoon, the campaign had raised roughly $1.4 million, and by Friday the campaign had raised more than $2 million. Rev. Gerald Toussaint, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, told reporters, “What the devil meant for bad, God’s going to turn it into something good.”

That’s a fine Easter sermon, Pastor Toussaint. What the devil meant for bad, God’s going to turn it into something good.

Mary stood where her hope had been buried. She didn’t go home. She didn’t go back to her life before Jesus. She was still intent on finding a dead man’s body. Then she turned around and saw him standing there, very much alive, but she didn’t know that it was Jesus.

C.S. Lewis, in a book he wrote after his wife’s early death from cancer, said, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid ... At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says.” Mary couldn’t see Jesus through the invisible blanket of her grief. Easter didn’t so much burst forth with an eruption of light and sound as it slowly entered the scene, barely noticed, emerging from the darkness and the sorrow.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” the stranger asked, sounding just like one of the angels. “Whom are you looking for?” And a third time Mary talked about her loss and her desire to find the body of Jesus, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

On the night before his arrest, Jesus had told the disciples, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.”

They said to each other, “What does he mean by this ‘a little while?’”

Jesus told them, “You will weep and mourn, you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice” (John 16:16-20).

And there in the deep darkness he saw her, but she didn’t see him — until he spoke her name, “Mary!”

“Rabbouni!” she said, as suddenly, wondrously light and life returned.

The promise of God’s reign awakens hope in us, but the world knows a thousand ways to bury our hope. Whatever acclamations we cry out on Easter Sunday, be it with deepest conviction or with a little hesitation, eventually we’ll stand by the grave where our hope, our love, the song of our life has been buried. And if we can’t hear Jesus whispering our name, perhaps we can at least hear Mary tell us, “I have seen the Lord!” And because of her witness, perhaps we too can find the courage to stand in the dark after everyone else has gone; perhaps we too can find the courage to stay and weep, the courage to trust the beautiful proclamation that when the world snuffed the light of life on that darkest of Fridays, love had the last word.

The good news of this day of days is that the ruler of the world has been rendered powerless by the fullness of Jesus’ love. Death did not defeat Jesus. Jesus defeated death, and with it every shade of darkness that drains life of the joy of communion.

Thanks be to God who raised our brother Jesus from the dead.

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Whose peace?

Every Sunday, the children, as they are about to go to children’s worship, say, “The peace of Christ be with you.” Sometimes they say it together, sometimes one of them addresses us on behalf of all. And it’s not just a churchy way of saying, “Bye now. Take care.” They bless us with the peace of Christ – a peace that takes its particular character and promise from the life and story of Jesus.

They do not fully grasp, nor do we, what all that peace entails, but we envision it together as the consummation of life – the joy of belonging, the forgiveness of sin, the healing of brokenness, the release of captives, the homecoming of exiles, the liberation of slaves, the blessed conviviality of creation and its Creator. As some of us leave and some of us stay, the children say, “The peace of Christ be with you,” and we echo, “And also with you.” The words are gentle gestures, and in speaking them we surround each other with the fullness of our best hope.

In Luke’s gospel, this echo of peace spans the beginning and the conclusion of Jesus’ journey. At Jesus’ birth, an angel of the Lord says to a group of terrified shepherds, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Then, suddenly, there is with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Today, as we welcome Jesus into the city, Luke lets us hear, and be part of, the echo:

As Jesus was approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”

At the beginning of the journey, a multitude of angels sings of peace on earth, and now the multitude of disciples echoes their song with shouts of peace in heaven. Perhaps you find it curious that angels would be concerned about peace on earth and disciples about peace in heaven. Shouldn’t disciples, shouldn’t we, be concerned about peace in our homes and neighborhoods, our schools and streets and houses of worship, peace between groups and nations, peace on earth? I don’t know what to tell you, I don’t write the angels’ songs, but I love how the song of the multitude on the road to Jerusalem echoes the song of the heavenly multitude, weaving together earth and heaven in praise and peace. All things, all creatures come together in the name of Jesus, to the glory of God.

And so we spread palm branches up and down the center aisle like rose petals on a wedding day, and we cover the road with cloaks like patches of red carpet, and we sing with joyful exuberance, welcoming the Lord Jesus into the city.  Today, we pretend that the tall double doors of the front entrance are the city gates, and the table awaits the gathering of the guests who are coming from north and south, from east and west to feast at the royal banquet. We sing, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord,” because we do want him here, we do want him to rule and make all things right and good and whole – but we also remember that this week is not all royal welcome and “Blessed is the king on the donkey.”

And it’s not just they who get in the way of Christ’s reign – they being the temple priests and elders, the Romans or the fickle crowds or whoever else we think we can blame – we ourselves can’t let this king be the king he is, because we want him to be the king we want. Our own visions of a world made right often have more in common with imperial dreams of world domination than with the peculiar way of Christ. We get power wrong, and we half know it, and so we feel a little awkward standing in the gate of the city and watching Jesus riding by on a borrowed donkey. He’s turning our world upside down, and we half know that that is what it takes to make things right, but we only half know it and with the other half we resist the pull of God’s vulnerable love.

We get power wrong. We see the donkey and Jesus on it, but we still want the strong man in shining armor, riding high on a white stallion, who comes to save us and kick them. We get power wrong, because our hearts and imaginations have not been fully converted.We teach our children so say, “The peace of Christ be with you,” but we do it in a world where  other ways of making and keeping the peace have long been practiced and taught.

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 sacred memory of Israel’s liberation, of the exodus from the house of slavery to the promise 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. 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 to keep the peace.

Jesus entered the city from the East, on a donkey, in a very different kind of procession. Jesus didn’t ride at the head of a conquering army to take over the system and put himself at the top. He came to undermine and topple the logic of domination. He didn’t impose his will on anyone. He renounced Satan’s whispered proposals for global dominance. Humbly and boldly, he walked the way of obedience to God’s reign. Doing what love demands was the passion of his life to his final breath.

We call this week holy because the events we recall in prayer, and enact in baptism, draw us into the mystery of God’s power revealed in Jesus. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” the Apostle Paul urges us. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit … Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Such words were rare and foreign in a city like Philippi, which isn’t to say they aren’t rare and foreign in a city like Nashville.

The citizens of Philippi valued their connections to the imperial household, their privileges as subjects of Caesar. Roman culture valued force, competition, and honor-seeking, and humility was not considered a virtue. Roman society, much like ours, was built on the pursuit of status. You move up, and you socialize with the people who can help you move up even higher. And when everybody is busy moving up, the only reason to look around is to check out the competition with a quick glance over the shoulder; others aren’t even seen.

We call this week holy because in the final days of Jesus’ life on earth the heart of reality is revealed to us, and it’s not relentless competition and survival; it's relentless love and communion.

“You want to talk about status?” Paul seems to suggest. “OK, let’s talk about status.” Jesus had the highest status imaginable: equality with God. Only he did not regard his divine status as something to be used for his own advantage. He emptied himself. He humbled himself. He went down, his mind on nothing but the will of God, loving us with a passion and a vulnerability for which we have no words. On the cross, he died the most cruel and degrading death, reserved for slaves and for rebels against the peace of Rome.

We teach our children to say, “The peace of Christ be with you,” not because we have it or live it, but because we half know that we’re not being saved by being more powerful than others, but by letting ourselves be transformed in the image of Christ. We look to the cross and recognize what we are capable of doing to each other in the name of religion, in the name of justice, or just for political convenience. But we also look to the cross because this dark Friday truth has a glorious, hopeful side: God vindicated the way of Jesus. God raised Jesus from the dead and gave the crucified servant the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

We call this week holy, because the story of Jesus reveals who God is, not despite the cross, but because of it. We look to the cross and we see love that goes all the way for the life of the world, for the sake of communion with us, for the sake of peace.

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Mary's house

I will get to Mary, but first I want to tell you about Babette and Alice.

In a small town in 19th century Denmark lived an old man and his two daughters. The man, whom everybody called the Dean, was the pastor of a small Lutheran church, and he and his daughters led a puritanical life. After the Dean died, the sisters continued his legacy, keeping the church going and faithfully ministering to the poor. Many years later, the aging members of the community were often bickering and rather fond of bringing up past wrongs.

One day, a ragged-looking woman appeared on the sisters’ doorstep with a letter from a friend. He explained that this woman, Babette Hersant, had fled Paris for her life. He hoped that the sisters would be kind enough to take her in as a maid, as she had nowhere else to go, having lost her husband and son in an uprising. Babette assured the sisters that she would work as their maid and cook without pay, and the sisters agreed to the arrangement.

At first, they were wary of their new maid. She spoke only French; she walked the fields and collected wild herbs that she added to their food; and she was Catholic. But as they got accustomed to her, they realized that she was strong and kind, besides being a talented cook who could create culinary miracles with dried cod.

One day, just as the sisters were dreaming of planning a celebration of what would have been their father’s hundredth birthday, Babette found out she had won the lottery in Paris. She asked that they allow her to prepare the meal for the occasion, and the sisters reluctantly agreed. Babette left for several days to purchase everything she needed, and after her return bottles, boxes, and baskets of strange ingredients began arriving at the house.

Then the great day finally came. The guests arrived, they chatted and sang the Dean’s favorite hymns. And they sat down to the meal. Course after course, they ate food they had never tasted before, delicious food, and they drank the finest wine, and around the table, frozen faces began to melt, hardness softened, and the men and women of the congregation began to make amends for their recent bickering and grudges. Arguments were dropped. Past misdeeds were forgiven. They laughed and embraced and sang under the stars.

After the guests had left, the sisters found Babette in the kitchen, surrounded by piles of dirty dishes, pots and pans. They thanked her for the fine meal and for all of her work. Yes, she admitted, she had once been the chef at one of the finest restaurants in Paris, but when the sisters asked about her return to Paris, now that she had money, she told them that she would never go back. The sisters were surprised but also relieved. And then they realized that Babette had spent her entire lottery winnings on this one feast. She had given it all away—and yet something lingered. It was a sweet fragrance, difficult to describe with words, but unforgettable.

Alice worked in the loan department of a big bank. She was good with numbers and she was paid well, but she also drew a lot of satisfaction from knowing that her work allowed local businesses to expand and entrepreneurs to develop new business opportunities. It was a quiet kind of satisfaction, careful and sensible.

She felt different when she was involved in what she called her other job. She worked with a local non-profit whose mission was to address food waste and food insecurity. She was one of many volunteer drivers who collected perfectly good food from restaurants, stores, and other places—food that would otherwise have gone to the dump—and took it to a big kitchen where it was turned into meals for the homeless and the working poor.

So it was not unusual for Alice to stop by a doughnut shop early one Tuesday morning, before she had to be at the office. She picked up seven boxes of doughnuts that hadn’t been sold the previous day; six boxes of sweet deliciousness on the backseat of her Honda, two stacks of three, strapped down with seat belts, and another box on the passenger seat with her hand on it so a sudden red light wouldn’t send things flying forward. At the kitchen where she was headed, the chef would transform this portion of the daily harvest into a fluffy, crusty baked dessert with a vanilla custard, and in just a few hours, volunteers would serve it as part of a nutritious, tasty and beautifully presented lunch to folks in the city who often go hungry.

Alice was happy to contribute in a small way to that daily feast. She was humming on her way to the bank. Circling down into the garage she had a smile on her face, and she was still smiling when she stepped on the elevator that would take her to the twelfth floor. Three more people got in the car when it stopped at the lobby, and one of them, briefcase in one hand, phone in the other, eyes on the screen, suddenly looked up, looked around with big, happy eyes, and said, “It smells like doughnuts in here. I love doughnuts.”

There was a hint of a blush on Alice’s face when she told everybody on the way up about the joy of helping to convert potential food waste into delicious meals. When she got off on the twelfth floor, she had recruited the doughnut lover to come along on her next food-gleaning round, and she hadn’t even tried. There was a sweet fragrance that lingered in that car, and it wasn’t just the doughnuts; it was something difficult to describe with words, but unforgettable.

John takes us to Bethany, a little town just a couple of miles outside Jerusalem. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived there, and Jesus stayed with them for dinner the day before he entered Jerusalem for the last time. Just a few days earlier, Jesus had miraculously brought life to their house. The sisters had sent him a message to let him know that Lazarus was very ill, and when he arrived, his friend had already been in the tomb for days. Martha told him, “Lord, there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” You know the story. Jesus standing outside the tomb, weeping, and then shouting, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus came out, not like some White Walker or Zombie, but Lazarus himself, restored to life by the Lord of life.

Jesus came to Bethany six days before the Passover knowing full well that his opponents in the city were making plans to put him to death. He knew that his days were numbered and that this might well be his last meal with his good friends. Martha served the food, Lazarus was one of those at table with him, and no one had noticed that Mary had gone until she came back, holding a small jar in her hands. Without saying a word she knelt and poured the content of the jar on Jesus’ feet, a pound of perfume made of precious oils and exotic spices, and she wiped his feet with her hair. She didn’t say a word. She knelt, she touched, she poured, she lowered her head to caress his skin with her hair, but she didn’t speak.

Judas, it appears, did all the talking. He objected, pointing out that the perfume could have been sold for a lot of money, enough to feed an entire family for a year. It sounded like the voice of moral protest; it sounded like advocacy for the poor – but it smelled rotten, because it didn’t have love in it. It was just ugly noise.

Mary knew Jesus’ hour had come, she knew that death was closing in. She knew what lay ahead for him; she knew that he would hold nothing back; and with lavish extravagance, holding nothing back, she poured out her love and gratitude for the man who embodied the extravagant love of God.

Just a few days later, Jesus would spend the last evening with his disciples in the city. During supper, he would get up, take off his robe, tie a towel around himself, pour water into a basin, wash the disciples’ feet, wipe them with the towel, and he wouldn’t say a word until he got to Peter.

“Do you know what I have done to you?” he would say to them. “I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet. You also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Mary of Bethany lived that new commandment, even before it was given. Just outside the city where deathly plans were being plotted, her house became a house of prophetic witness to love and life. The stench of death was still a vivid memory there, but what lingered, what infused every room and corner of the house was the sweet scent of love’s extravagance. What lingered was the fragrance of a folk coronation just outside of the city, on the margins of worldly power; the coronation of a king who washes feet; a king who is servant of all; a king in whom the excessiveness of God’s mercy is made manifest; a king who inspires and commands those who follow him to love each other as he has loved them: with abandon.

We don’t do that. Mary did that, but we’re not Mary. We’re not Judas either, but a curious blend of the two. We love in Jesus’ name, but carefully, with a strong sense for what’s practical and sensible and useful and efficient. At home and at church, we craft responsible budgets that make the best use of every cent, so there is no waste.

We’re not Mary who poured out her love, beautifully mirroring the outpouring of love she knew because of Jesus. We’re not Babette who gave herself with humility and breathtaking generosity, creating a banquet with the kingdom shining through.

Perhaps we’re Alice who knows how to calculate carefully before taking a loan proposal to the deal committee. Alice who knows the numbers, and the institutional demands, and the markets, and the margins. Alice who also drives across town with a car full of yesterday’s doughnuts and a big smile on her face, humming.

We know that our giving matters, because the money we give to the church makes ministry possible. We raise funds to pay the bills, to support staff, to buy anthems and flowers, to resource and coordinate education and faith formation, to promote ministries like Room in the Inn, Week of Compassion, Luke 14:12, and more.

But in the end it’s not about the dollars. In the end it's about how we give ourselves, all that we are and all that we have, in grateful response to God’s gift of life and new life in Christ. It’s about the fragrance of giving, that sweet fragrance, difficult to describe with words, but unforgettable. Oh that the whole world would smell like Mary’s house…

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At home in love's embrace

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the story begins. It’s a story nesting inside another, and that one begins with muttered complaints about Jesus, grumbling voices, saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Yes, he does. Thank God, he does. Where would we be if he didn’t? This fellow  embodies the love of God. And that’s the real story.

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the parable begins. We’re invited to find ourselves in the story, to identify with one of the brothers, the father, or perhaps the mother who is conspicuously absent throughout. We don’t know  why she’s not in the picture, whether it’s for reasons of narrative economy or because of a cultural bias that sees little reason to tell stories of a mother who had two sons or a father who had two daughters.

I grew up the younger of two sons and the brother of a younger sister. I know  the feeling of being second in line, I’ve worn my share of hand-me-downs. My brother, forever three years ahead of me, never tired of telling me how easy I had it compared to him, the pioneer who had to clear a path through the thickets of parental insecurity all by himself.

“I know, I know,” I used to tell him, “it’s terrible being the crown prince.” Occasionally I would remind him of our childhood photo albums: his was filled with photographs from every stage of his development, lovingly illustrated with hand-drawn images in ink and water color. Mine opened with similar parental ambition, but after two pages the album turned into a general depository for any kind of family picture. I’m just so grateful they let me have a first-day-of-school picture without insisting on having brother No. 1 stand there with me at the top of the stairs.

The coat I’m wearing in that picture, though, is the same he wore on his first day of school.

One of the first stories in the Bible is about two brothers, Cain and Abel, and we know how that one ended for the younger of the two. The book of Genesis contains the story of our deepest roots and our oldest wounds, and in every generation of Abraham’s children, we encounter the pattern of the two brothers – Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, the older sons of Jacob (who act like one) and their little brother Joseph – and in each case, it’s the little brother whose story we remember and follow. It’s almost like there is a desire at work to rewrite the story of the first brothers, that painful story of rivalry and death.

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the parable in Luke opens. At some point in the past, Bible publishers started adding section headings to the text. Stories were given titles, and titles suggest how to read. “The parable of the prodigal son” it was called and that’s how we’ve read it, leaving the older brother standing in the field as though he wasn’t really part of the story anyway. No one thought of calling it “the parable of the prodigal father” or “the parable of the lost boys.” What would you call it?

You take a look at the two sons, and you notice that neither is a particularly attractive character. The younger is disrespectful, self-absorbed and reckless, perhaps manipulative. The older comes across as heartless, resentful, and jealous. But whether we like it or not, we can identify with either, at least to a degree, men and women alike, I presume.

We wonder what it might be like to be so brave and leave home to explore life beyond the horizon. Sure, he is reckless, but he follows his dream. Perhaps you were once just like him, or perhaps you wish you had been more like him, just a little.

Or do you find it easier to relate to the firstborn, the responsible one, the one who does what he says and shows up on time and takes care of the family farm? “Doesn’t he have a point?” you say to yourself. Perhaps you know all too well what it’s like to make sacrifices every day and no one seems to notice, let alone appreciate or celebrate what you do. Is it too much to ask to be treated fairly? The property had been divided, and each had been given a fair share, and the younger chose to cash it all in and squander it. It may be good and right to give somebody a second chance, sure, give him work to do and food to eat, give him a roof over his head—but a party? And this was no cold chicken and potato salad picnic with the family. They killed the fatted calf – enough BBQ to invite the whole town.

And then there’s the father who apparently doesn’t believe that children who are old enough to go away should also be ready to live with the consequences of their choices. When his son comes home – broke, humiliated, and hungry – dad is beside himself, acting like a fool. Forgetting just about everything that is proper for a patriarch in his culture and what most of us today would consider reasonable or wise, he runs down the road and throws his arms around the young man, shouting orders over his shoulder between hugs, “The robe—the best one—quickly. The ring—bring me the ring. And sandals, bring sandals, size 12.5!—And the calf, kill the calf! Invite the neighbors! Let’s celebrate! It’s my son; he was dead and is alive again!”

Only Jesus could come up with a story like this. In our version of the story, the younger son would have some explaining to do. In our story, the father would be waiting in the house, sitting in his chair, Dad’s chair, arms folded, with a stern look on his face. He would listen to what the young man had to say for himself, and then, perhaps, he would look at him and say, “Well, I’m glad you’ve come to see the error of your ways; I hope you learned your lesson. Now go and help your brother in the field.”

In our story, there wouldn’t be a party. But it’s not our story. It’s Jesus’ story for us.

Sinners felt at home in the company of Jesus; even notorious sinners who were shunned by everybody in town came near to listen to him, or just to be around him. He did not avoid them. He didn’t turn them away. He didn’t mind being seen with them, and he even broke bread with them, openly.

Some people were wondering why Jesus didn’t at least wait until those sinners had changed their ways. They found his actions confusing, and they were pulled back and forth between a genuine desire to understand and loudly demanding an explanation.

In response, Jesus told stories about the joy of heaven, God stories of a shepherd who searched the hills for one lost sheep until he found it and of a woman who swept the house from the attic to the basement, searching diligently for one coin she had lost until she had found it.

Every human being, Jesus taught, first of all and last, is a beloved child of God. Jesus lived to make that reality tangible, and he died as a witness to it. Regardless of how sinful or righteous we take others or ourselves to be, God embraces us with unfathomable compassion and mercy. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. God’s love, Jesus taught us with his life, is not the special reward for the good boys and girls. God’s love is the ultimate horizon of our world. Out of love God created all things, and in love God holds all things so nothing and no one can fall deeper than into the arms of God. And when all things come to an end, love abides – and we with it.

The younger son in the parable did everything he could not to think of himself as a child of his father and a sibling to his brother. But the father never stopped thinking of him as a beloved child. Never.

We are at the end of the parable. The elder brother is standing outside the house; light, laughter and music are pouring through the windows, but he can’t move. Or is it that he doesn’t want to move? No one has asked him whether he wants to be reconciled with this good-for-nothing wastrel. No one has asked him how he feels about wearing the second best robe, since the best one apparently has been given to this wandering squanderer. He is standing outside, arms crossed, fists clenched, fury in his belly. He refuses to go inside. Why? It feels good to know who’s right and who’s not.

But then the father comes outside and pleads with him to come in. He doesn’t want this to end with one brother rejoicing and the other grumbling. He wants this to end with a feast which fairness cannot host, but which love never tires to prepare.

We all get lost, whether it’s by wandering off in loveless self-absorption or by never leaving at all – it doesn’t matter how we forgot that we are not isolated strangers, but beloved children of God. What matters is for us to know that heaven rejoices when we begin to remember that we belong – to God and therefore to each other.

The parable remains open at the end. We don’t know if the elder son will enter the house of laughter and light. We don’t know if in the end being a child and a sibling will have more weight than being right and being hurt. But we can be confident, because of the one who told the story and lived it, that the feast will not be complete without him. Life will not be complete until every child of God remembers that we are all made to be at home in love’s embrace.

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A tree of remembering

It’s a powerful thing to know your story, your whole story. The whole set of stories that have made you who you are.

It was about 4 a.m. when the Reverend’s phone buzzed with a message from far away. He read it once, twice, three times before he woke his sleeping wife to tell her the news. “I’m a prince,” he whispered as she blinked herself awake. “A prince.”

I first heard about him on the radio, and then read some more in the Washington Post.

Jay Speights from Rockville, MD, 66 years old, had spent much of his life wondering about his forebears, probing public records until the trail went cold. Like many black Americans who are descendants of slaves, Speights could find little written evidence of his family’s history. In April last year, he turned to a DNA test from Ancestry in the hope that something, somewhere might turn up.

He learned that he was the distant cousin of a man named Houanlokonon Deka — a descendant of a royal line in Benin, a small nation, just west of Nigeria, that once housed West Africa’s biggest slave port. Four hundred years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia, Speights is grappling with his newfound identity as the descendant of slaves and the African kings who put them in chains. The king from whom Speights is probably descended was one of several who captured and sold slaves — typically members of rival tribes or captives of war — to European merchants, who then loaded them onto ships bound for Brazil, Haiti and the United States.

Speights said the more he learned, the more questions he had. Eventually he got the phone number of the king of Allada, a state in central Benin and the historical home of the Allada kingdom, and he called. The king didn’t speak English, only French, but the queen did. She asked Speights to see photos of his parents and grandparents. She inquired about his motivations — what did he want from them?

His response was simple: Answers.

“You are a descendant of King Deka, 9th King of Allada who ruled from 1746 to 1765,” she wrote in a message over WhatsApp. “We will be delighted to welcome you to your home, dear Prince.”

Last month, Speights traveled to Benin. The family pictures he had sent to the queen were plastered on big blue posters hung throughout the airport. “Welcome to the kingdom of Allada, land of your ancestors,” the posters said in French. As he stepped outside, Speights said, he saw what looked like a festival, hundreds of people dancing and playing instruments and singing. It took him several minutes to realize it was a welcome party — for him. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is serious,’” Speights said. “I thought I was going to go, hang out with the family, do some sightseeing. But this was something else.”

He spent the next week in what he calls “prince school,” learning local customs and visiting various sites and dignitaries. He was enthroned by the king, given white lace robes to signal he is a holy man, and several crowns. At night, an armed guard kept watch outside his hotel door. During the day, local journalists followed him around with cameras.

Speights said his relatives in Benin told him members of the royal family would not have sold their own people to slave merchants, but they could not explain how his ancestors wound up aboard a slave ship.

“No matter who did what, we all ended up the same way,” he said. “In chains.”

In Benin, a tree once stood near the city’s historic slave port from which more than a million people were shipped to the Americas. Before they departed, West African men and women would walk around the trunk up to nine times to shed the life they were leaving behind and accept the bondage into which they had been sold. It was called the “tree of forgetting.” Now Speights is walking around the tree in reverse, as it were, piecing together his story, thinking about his father, who died never knowing the truth of his family’s history; thinking about his grandfather, who grew up in the segregated South; thinking about his ancestors, who were chained and beaten, carried to a foreign place and sold as property.

“I thought about how much they survived — and what it means for me to return to this place, to restore our family,” he said. “I can’t tell you what that felt like in my heart. … This was the most beautiful thing I have ever done. I am the descendant of slaves. I am the descendant of a family who was involved in the slave trade. And I’m just starting to make sense of that.”

Before he left Benin, Speights said, the king gave him a new name: Videkon Deka.

It means the child who came back.[1]

It’s a powerful thing to know your story, your whole story. The whole set of stories that have made you who you are.

After forty years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites camped in the plains of Moab, near Jericho, across the Jordan. There Moses, who would never enter the promised land, recited one last time the commandments of God for them to observe as God’s covenant people.

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.[2]

They had been slaves and wilderness wanderers, but soon they would possess the land and settle in it, and the big question was, would they remember who and whose they were? Moses taught them rituals of remembrance, actions to observe and words to recite – he planted a “tree of remembering” for them to walk around, as it were, again and again, in order not to forget.

Three times in the first three verses of today’s reading the word ‘to give’ is heard, like a mantra:

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”

And then you put down your basket and tell your story, not because the priest needs to hear it, but because you need to remember it:

“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.”

It’s a story of hardship and deliverance. The ritual of offering and story is a tree of remembering, so Israel, plump from milk and honey, wheat and barley, oil and wine, wouldn’t forget the faithful Giver who made covenant with them in the wilderness.

The forty days we started counting on Wednesday echo the forty years. We’re invited to join Jesus in the wilderness, on the edge of the settled land, and like him, to let ourselves be led by the Holy Spirit in the wilderness and beyond, to the city whose architect and builder is God. We’re invited to forty days of intentional wilderness time in the company of Jesus, forty days of slightly unsettled lives, in order to remember that we are still on the way. It is good for us to be in his company, because, unlike us, he doesn’t forget that he is God’s beloved child and, unlike us, he refuses to listen to the voices whispering of other, more convenient, ways and sowing doubt.

The teachings of Moses come with concern for the particular danger of life in the land of milk and honey – “the danger that when the sojourners settle, they will settle for something less than the vision of hope for liberation and justice that sent them forth in the first place,” Heidi Neumark wrote. “It proved to be a valid concern: those who entered the land did eventually settle … as possessors who overlooked the dispossessed and disconnected.”[3]

There’s that moment when the citizens forget that their ancestors were wandering Arameans, aliens in Egypt, sojourners in the wilderness, refugees from political oppression and economic exploitation, from violence and war, driven by hunger for bread and freedom and home. There’s that moment when the new arrivals in the city of refuge start talking about closing the gates.

The forty days are a tree of remembering for us. We are a people on the way, in the company of Jesus, with all who long for liberation and justice and home. The final lines in today’s passage from Deuteronomy speak of a feast:

You shall set [the basket of firstfruits] down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the [landless] Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

We are invited to forty days of wilderness time to remember that we must not settle for less than celebrating the gift of God’s bounty together with all the wanderers and aliens; together with all who’ve been told by their neighbors or even their families that they don’t belong; all who’ve been told they’re too old or not old enough; all who’ve been driven onto slavers’ ships like cattle and those who have captured, sold, and driven them.

We must not settle for less than the whole story, that is, all our broken stories made whole by the loyal love of God. We must not settle for less than the welcome table where Jesus is the host.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/im-a-prince-after-years-of-searching-for-family-history-a-pastor-discovers-royal-ties-to-africa/2019/02/21/47238d0a-316e-11e9-86ab-5d02109aeb01_story.html?utm_term=.7efba443f222

[2] Deuteronomy 8:2

[3] “Aliens Welcome,” The Christian Century 124, no. 3 (February 6, 2007), 17.

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