Sermons

Kinsman Presbyterian Church

Sunday, April 15, 2018

RE David Paulik, Pulpit Supply

 

The Revolutionary Church

by David Paulik

                As Reformed Christians, certainly we recognize the importance of growth and change. The motto in which guides Reformed theology, “the church reformed and always being reformed,” speaks to the constant renewal the church experiences as we grow, being guided by the Holy Spirit as we journey to follow Christ.

               Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer tells us as we grow and evolve as individuals and as the collective church, we should be mindful of God’s will. We are called to reflect, meditate, and pray about how God is calling us to move forward in God’s divine will.

               Our Denominational Research Center puts out annual statistics on all of the parishes in our denomination. Recently, statistics have shown that membership and overall participation in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been on a steady decrease over the past few decades. The denomination has witnessed a mass exodus of membership, whether it is in the form of death, or families withdrawing their membership, the pews of many of our churches are not seeing the same number of people as before.

               Does this mean that God is no longer relevant to our society? Does this mean that God has no place in our culture and in our lives? Of course, there has been much published about how mainline denominations are experiencing decline and many have hypothesized the causes: many will claim that denomination churches are too top-heavy; that is, they spend so much time arguing over the things that do not matter that the things that do matter are not addressed and placed on the back-burner. It is my hope that as a denomination church, the people of this particular congregation recognize the vital importance of God to our society and the vital importance of God to our individual lives. Things may look different now than they did a few decades ago, but it is my hope that as we continue to journey in faith together we will recognize that that realize is okay.

               The word “revolution” is synonymous with words such as “turn” and “change.” Change is probably the only constant we can be sure of in life. Change is inevitable in many situations, whether things seem to be going well or poorly, change seems to always be looming around the corner. I would like for us to spend some time today thinking about as Christians, how is God calling us to entertain change and what does it mean to change as the church? Is change the church folding to the pressures of the world? Or can change be viewed as God’s continued grace as we grow in ministering to the world God’s grace, mercy, and love.

               As an institution, the church is certainly not exempt from any ordinary changes that other institutions experience. When you survey American history, you will learn of the various changes that the United States as a nation has experienced over the course of time. Likewise, if you study businesses, you will see that business models change over time depending on cultural and economic trends.

               The church is currently amidst a spiritual and cultural shift. Christianity was once a commonplace practice to the extent where 25-30 years ago it was considered abnormal to not belong to a church or some form of faith community. The era in which “church-going” was the norm is referred to as Christendom. Under Christendom, people regularly attended worship, children were raised in the church and the church seemed to occupy many aspects of societal life.

               Today, of course, as confirmed by the data collected by Presbyterian Research Services, people are not attending church as regularly nor does the church appear to play a central role in society as it once did. While the era of Christendom undoubtedly had its benefits, the problem I see with it is that it appears most people attended worship out of duty or social obligation rather than seeking to experience God in a meaningful way.

               The walk of being Christian is certainly a lifestyle, and I think we can all agree that it is a lifestyle best not done under obligatory pressure. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his followers that he has come “so that they may have life and have it more abundantly.” Certainly, the abundant life does not have room to seek Christ amidst obligation. God desires that all will have a spiritually fulfilling, abundant life. Truly, this is the reason Jesus was sent into the world.

               In our Gospel reading for this morning, Jesus affirms that he is “…the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

               Immediately after making this assertion, the Pharisees, the religious zealots of the day fight back saying, “Here you are, appearing as your own witness; your testimony is not valid.”

               Essentially, in this rebuttal the religious of the day is saying “How can you speak of who you are? Where is your proof?”

               The life of being Christian is that of a dual nature. Unlike most other faiths, Christianity exists both in the individual and in a collective unit. You and I are individuals and we each have our own identity. To that end, we each also have our own walk with God. Together, though, we gather and we seek to serve God by meshing our identities, and throwing out our differences, by serving others in the name of Jesus.

               Christianity is certainly an intimate process. In order for our collective life as the church to be effective, we must continue to strive to grow in our individual relationship with God. The “proof” that the Pharisees wanted to see when they fought Jesus saying “Here you are, you are your own witness, therefore your argument is invalid,” can be translated “How can you call yourself the light? Have you transformed the lives of anybody else?”

               While Jesus responded to the Pharisees that he is not the only witness to the truth of his divine light, but that is Father is witness of it, too, the Pharisees were perplexed and could not understand. Jesus said, “I am going away, and you will look for me, and you will die in your sin. Where I go, you cannot come.” The Pharisees, being confused, thought that Jesus might kill himself, but really Jesus was speaking of a spiritual life inaccessible to the Pharisees due to their lack of awareness. The proof they desired to see in the assertion that Jesus was indeed the Christ, they missed due to their sin.

               Sin is an interesting topic, and I think that the church needs to spend more time discussing sin. Sin comes from the Greek word “hamartia” which means, “missing the mark.” All too often, I read and hear of churches professing in the name of Jesus that you will burn in hell unless your turn from your sin! This truly breaks my heart that the mission of the church has become to scare people into the pews. The sin Jesus spoke of was a “spiritual” missing of the mark. That is, we have a propensity to live our lives guided by our flesh and not of the spirit. When we are guided by the spirit, as Jesus was, we are given access to the immense grace and love of God. We are freed from fear, and given the hope and promise of new life.

               This is indeed the “proof” the Pharisees sought when they said that the testimony of Jesus being the light was invalid because he spoke of it himself. They wanted to see results. They wanted to see change.

               The tough question being begged here is, “Were the Pharisees correct in posing their rebuttal to Christ?” The church today is seeing a major withdrawal of people. How can we testify to the goodness of God and yet not see results. As Jesus told the Pharisees, they will die in their sin (that is sin of missing the mark or point of existence). The church is being called to reevaluate our existence, as well. Do we want to exist to see decline? To see our numbers continue to drop? Should this reality be the only discussion of our leadership meetings or topic of discussion? Or should we focus on what matters. Instead of missing the mark, hitting the mark, and showing others how lives are transformed in the grace of Christ; That no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are enough. God desires to be in relationship with you!

               As individual Christians, it is my hope and prayer that we will continue to strive and grow in our relationship with God through Christ; that as we study the Bible, meditate on God’s will, and develop community with one another and those outside of our building, we will strengthen our collective identity in Christ. Our mission should be simple: We exist to see lives transformed in Christ through one another.”

               In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

              

              

The Scars of the Nails

April 8, 2018

Rev. Susan H. Francis

 

Luke 24:26-48

I John 3:1-7

 

               Some of you have heard me talk about my friend and mentor, David Buttrick.   He once told of a bulletin cover that came out for Easter Day many years ago.  There was a lovely, young Natalie Wood-esque Mary Magdalene and an equally good looking, if somewhat demented, Kirk Douglass-like Jesus on the cover.  It was an attractive bulletin.  But there was something just not quite right.  It wasn’t so much the style, but something seemed wrong.  Still, no one could quite put their finger on it until the elderly janitor picked one up and figured it out in a heartbeat:  no nail holes.  Jesus’ hands were smooth as silk, and his brow—no crown of thorns had ever sat there.  A great and glorious looking Jesus but no hint that he was a crucified Christ.  In the Bible, the risen Lord is the crucified Lord. 1

               There’s something different about Jesus, something has happened to his body during the resurrection.  He keeps showing up, scaring the Be-Jesus into the folks who knew him the best.  The couple from Emmaus had just spent the better part of the day talking with him and had no clue who they were talking to until he breaks the bread.  Yet, just the time they get it, he’s gone.  Now he suddenly pops into the Jerusalem group while the couple is telling their story—pretty troubling.  Pre-crucifixion, Jesus wasn’t nearly so disconcerting.  Of course, there was that walk across the water during a storm at sea when the disciples didn’t recognize him at first, but maybe that was just the lack of light and the possibility they were blinded by fear.  But all the post-resurrection stories have him popping in and out, walking through walls, defying bodily limitations, doing things real human bodies don’t do, especially when they’re dead, and if we can’t count on the dead to stay dead, well? Granted, we could chalk up today’s event as some kind of group hallucination (maybe something was in the brownies at the funeral dinner).  Or maybe there was some kind of extended resuscitation, as in bringing an already dead-for-three-days corpse back to life, but that has some weird “living dead-ghoul-zombie” connotations that really don’t lend themselves to the makings of a good Savior.  Still, every resurrection story insists that his body is real, flesh and bone, just different.  And as if to prove that, most of our stories have him eating.  Of course, the dead don’t need to eat and who, here, wouldn’t be hungry after three days in a tomb?  But maybe Jesus is hungry for more than the food, but to share a meal, gather with friends, and celebrate life?   Maybe he’s hungry for them to trust the life-giving part of God?  Maybe he’s hungry to share bread with and become bread for his friends and strangers alike until everybody is having such a good time at the table that nobody cares who’s who as they eat until they’re all full? 2  And while we may not have many details about what resurrected bodies are like, don’t know what we will be when it’s us, we are promised our new bodies will be like his.  So, maybe all we can do is throw our hands in the air, bow our heads and stand in amazement when we think of resurrected bodies.

               “Look at my hands and feet” he says, and they know it’s him.  Any doubts they have disintegrate when they see the torn, gaping flesh, the nail holes.  “Touch them,” Jesus offers.  Funny how none of them seem to want to do that, come up close and personal with his hands and feet.  It’s easy to want to overlook Jesus’ tattered flesh, to want to smooth it out.  Let’s face it, we live in a world that likes winners.  We, in the church, can’t help but hope that if Jesus is a winner, conquering death and everything else in his path, that maybe that winning spirit gets passed on to us, the body of Christ, as well.  Then perhaps, the glory of the 50’s will return and we, too, can be tall steepled success stories, with sinners filling the pews until there’s standing room only.  Torn and broken flesh doesn’t look much like a winner; a nailed-down, absolutely powerless and weakened Jesus crucified doesn’t seem much like a success story, and should make us wonder a few things about God.  If Jesus is supposed to reveal the nature of God, then God looks like a God who dies in weakness for our sin.  Not the all-knowing God who controls everyone and everything, moving us like chessman, but the all-knowing that only comes through the suffering and dying that’s the full depth of our human condition.   Not the all-powerful God like we’d like, but power that’s defined by suffering, nonviolent, and self-giving love3, the kind of power that raises up Jesus and gives him God’s own stamp of approval so that the one who pardons is the one who was condemned, the one who justifies is the one rejected.  The risen Christ is the crucified Jesus4.  But even raised up, it’s the nail scars that define him.

               If we’re honest, the scars are caused by our sin, ours as much now as 2000 years ago.  Let’s face it, we all know how well that kind of Gospel message and kingdom really suits us.  Two thousand years ago we did Jesus in, and just fifty years ago we made sure one of his disciples who preached a pretty similar gospel, Martin Luther King, Jr. died as well.  The reality is the best intentions in the world put Jesus on the tree, by folks whose respect for the purity of their faith left no room for any interpretation outside a narrow view as they did their best to protect the God who didn’t and doesn’t need their protection.  Add to that the desire to preserve the community from the brutality of Rome.  Yep, we make sure Jesus is condemned nice and neat by state and religion—not us—we’re just following all the rules.  Clearly, sin touches even the best and most noble of us, and to say it doesn’t affect each and every one of us, to say we have no sin, claims a certain righteousness that not one of us has.  Sins of commission and sins of omission, what we do and what we don’t do, how we yell, “Crucify him,” at every turn by our actions, or just our failure to show up at the cross.  It’s seldom clear what’s truly the right thing to do.  We bumble our way through life causing damage and hurt as we go, complicit in the suffering of our neighbors and ourselves, yet, none too worried as long as we and our family are safe.  Racism, the growing financial spread between the poor and the affluent, short term solutions that make the future more grim—we rub our hands together insisting there’s little we can do as evil crouches close.  But it’s that kind of sin that puts Jesus on the cross.

               But jump for joy!  The resurrection refuses to let it end with sin.  Jesus returns to the same folks who were involved in his death.  He appears to the very people who denied him, who separated themselves from the cross, and who hid for the sake of their own skins.  Even after sin has done its worst, Jesus shows up breaking bread and eating fish sandwiches with the folks he loves.  Suddenly, they can see—we can see—that the resurrection is nothing if not a huge declaration of pardon by the God who is faithful to the covenant even when we are not.  In the midst of sin, in the midst of what should be our judgment, God’s love for us absolves us.  Perhaps, that’s a hint of the kind of character, the Christian character, that we, as God’s own children, are called to be growing into.  Because, let’s face it, God’s forgiveness of our own sins should be a constant reminder and an inspiration to forgive and accept folks we feel sin against us.  Perhaps it’s about as close as we can come to living out the love and welcome Christ shares with us.  Which doesn’t mean dividing the world into good or bad, holy or unholy, personal or political, but relying on God’s grace to direct us to be part of the healing in the brokenness of our world even if it seems unpopular, is considered countercultural, or raises a few eyebrows.   The love Jesus offers certainly was all the above.  Yet, God’s mercy is certain, a mercy that comes not from an undamaged Christ but a Risen Lord who embraces us with his broken hands.

               What would we do if Jesus should suddenly show up this morning in our midst, checking out what we might have to eat?  Would we think ourselves crazy or see it as a chance to repent of sin that holds Jesus to the cross as sure as any nail?  And when he reaches out to us with the scars of the nails still on his hands and feet, maybe then we can remember that as his community we are to bear the scars of the nails to everyone we meet, as well.

             

1Buttrick, David, The Mystery and the Passion

2Michael Coffey, "Jesus: Crucified. Died. Risen, Hungry," 

http://www.ocotillopub.org/2012/04/jesus-crucified-died-risen-hungry.html

came up with the idea of why at every encounter Jesus was always eating.

3Buttrick, David, The Mystery and the Passion

4Ibid

Clearly, this sermon is indebted to and made much richer by David’s book, The Mystery and the Passion

              

Unfinished Chapter

April 1, 2018

Easter Sunday

Rev. Susan H. Francis

Mark 16:1-8

I Corinthians 1:18-25

               This year an interesting coincidence occurs:  Easter Sunday and April Fool’s share the same day.  The last time such an event happened was in 1956, the next time will be 2029.  One “explanation” for the spring time day of pranks is that it follows nature’s lead, sometimes “fooling” us with fickle weather1.  This year seems no exception!  That said, perhaps the ladies at the tomb can appreciate the day, for unlike the other Gospels, Mark’s version of the Resurrection offers no evidence of a risen Lord.  No Jesus showing up, either at the tomb or in later appearances; there are no miraculous deeds or final instructions, just the confusion of women so palpable we’ve got to wonder if they feel they were just pranked.

               The story goes, the three ladies are on their way to the tomb.  They saw Jesus die.  It was no joke.  They had been there watching when he gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  Jesus, the one they thought was the Christ was emphatically dead.  They saw Joseph of Arimathea hurriedly wrap him in a linen sheet, no mention of the pounds of embalming spices found in another Gospel.  It’s a hurried affair according to Mark.  Time is short; what with Passover coming, things had to be done quickly.  So now, now, they can take the time to anoint him.  Better late than never, but it had to be a real act of love.  Let’s face it, two days in the heat, the stench would be gag-worthy.  Likely, they know what friends and family are saying:  how foolish to throw their lot in with a crazy preacher like Jesus.  Just look what happened.  Everybody knows God punishes folks who play hard ball against the authorities God puts in place, how God blesses and protects the righteous and curses the sinners.   Nobody in their right mind could think a convicted felon might be sent by God.  That’s just too hard to believe.  If anyone ever plays the fool, it’s Jesus. Their families think it scandalous that anyone might compare him with the majesty, the power, of King David, God’s anointed, before whom nations bowed.  Even foreigners, like the Greeks who believe God is Ultimate Perfection, have no place for a crucified Jew in their definition.  Yes, he may have had some good things to say, but really, their families say, capital punishment is reserved for the most disreputable, meant to degrade and humiliate.  It is nothing short of a divine curse.  If Jesus is of God, he is the foolishness of God.  That’s what the ladies hear time and again as family and friends shake their heads and promise nothing good can come out of following the guy from Nazareth.  But hey, that day, they have other things to worry about on their way to the tomb, like how to move that stone so they can get to work, and then get back home.  No wonder they’re surprised to see it already rolled away, but that’s nothing to what they see when they walk inside and find a young man hanging out.  If clothes make a man, this kid has some kind of heavenly authority, and they can’t help but notice where he sits:  in the very place the guys in their group argued about earlier.  There he sits, almost as if he’s waiting for them.  No wonder they’re alarmed.  Instead of a blocked entrance, they find the stone rolled away, instead of a corpse, they find a young man.  But they know Jesus should be there; they watched him die.  No wonder they’re alarmed.

               That said, the young man assures them Jesus is no longer there.  They’re welcome to check the place out, but he’s not there, he’s been raised.  It sounds like some kind of cruel April Fool’s joke, but maybe, there’s something to the guy’s story.  Let’s face it, the worst thing that could possibly happen has happened:  Jesus, who the ladies care about enough to anoint, to embalm a beginning-to-decay corpse, has died.  So just maybe, the worst thing that can happen, his death, isn’t the last thing to happen, but only the next-to-the-last-thing that will happen2.  For the gospel has a funny way of turning all our expectations on their head, and maybe what the young man’s saying is no more ridiculous than when Jesus preached that out of losing can come winning, and that putting yourself out for others can be some kind of guiding light.  Maybe, Jesus’ absence from the tomb, where they watched Joseph put the body, is no more ridiculous than that somebody nailed to a tree can be the Savior.  Maybe, that’s no more ridiculous than the idea that God can transform torture into salvation, and that Jesus’ resurrection can be God’s sign that the life he lived, the kingdom he preached, the death he died are all part of understanding who and what God is for them and their world.  If that isn’t enough to make their brains start to explode, then the young man says to them, “Go, tell…he’ll meet you in Galilee” and all of a sudden, the ladies remember all the old predictions and promises Jesus had said earlier.  Not only the dinner conversation at the Last Supper, that he’d see them in Galilee, but the prophecies about the disciples’ abandonment, Peter’s denial that came to pass, and other promises he made about God’s resurrection powers.  No wonder they were terrified and ran out of the tomb.  They’d come looking for a past  and what they discovered was a future.  They had come to care for a corpse and found that their Risen Lord was on his way to Galilee.  No wonder they’re speechless.  Again and again in Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been begging people to keep quiet about his activities, but now, at the empty tomb, the young man gives them the message that it’s time to share, and the ladies are so scared, they say nothing.  Maybe it just takes some time to wrap their heads around the words of resurrection the young man shares.

               But it doesn’t end there.  It’s not the end of the story.  It’s not even the end of the chapter.  Mark knows no story about death and resurrection can be neat and tidy.  He leaves us with no one willing to share the good news of resurrection.  But God uses unlikely and unwilling witness all the time, and somewhere along the line the mystery of the cross and the stench of death is replaced with the cool breeze of a new morning when knees stop shaking and tongues begin to loosen.  The tomb and the angel challenged the ladies to live boldly, as the God who is able to create something out of nothing starts resurrecting them on their way to Galilee and before they know it, they and their community find themselves changed.  Disciples stop hiding and start seeking, they stop making excuses and start moving mountains.   They share what they have and find they are quite comfortable defying the authorities who want to compromise them, and they never stop saying who gives them the courage to do such things.  The failure of the cross to have the last word assures us there’s no cosmic, demonic, institutional, or personal evil that can’t be overcome by the power of God that has been let loose on the world, and that’s the good news of Jesus Christ.  But still the story doesn’t stop.  Generation after generation each adds to the tale; each picks up where the last leaves off, adding to Mark’s tale.  Now it’s our turn, for Easter means nothing if the good news of Sunday doesn’t slop over into Monday.  Jesus continues to go on ahead of us, preparing the way, and we can’t stop and rest in graves of complacency and compliance.3  It’s time for us, too, to be a resurrected people, to move mountains, banish fears, love our enemies, and change the world.  Just this past Monday, some of us heard from folks at the AA Anniversary tell of how the power of God has given them the strength to turn their lives around, to make amends where they are able, and to live with a situation that is constantly drawing them towards death, but they work to resist. Just this week a popular TV anchorwoman, feeling quite comfortable taunting a survivor of the Parkland School shootings on Twitter finds herself on vacation when he responded by urging folks to boycott her advertisers, eleven of which have dropped her show4 in a present time David and Goliath response to bullying.  Just this week, disciplinary actions were taken by the Baton Rouge police, the first serious consequences for the officers after both state and federal officials declined to bring criminal charges against them, even though the actions of one contributed to the death of another human being.5  Resurrection acts of grace.  Resurrection acts of justice.  But God’s not done yet.  Jesus is still ahead of us and we are never without direction or purpose as long as we seek Christ’s way in the world.  Jesus breaks through impassible boundaries, up from the grave, inviting us with him, and the story and our chapter continues.

               The tale of what God is doing in and through Jesus isn’t over at the empty tomb; it’s only getting started.  The last chapter in Mark’s book isn’t closed in silence; it’s chapter doesn’t end in fear, but in invitation to live resurrection lives that tell of the good news that Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.

 

1Encyclopedia of Religion and the Encyclopedia Britannica

2A thought from Frederick Buechner, but not sure which book

3”Graves of complacency and compliance” is a nice turn of phrase I found in an article by Karoline Lewis... although she uses it differently, the phrase is hers not mine

4https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/mar/31/fox-news-laura-ingraham-david-hogg

5https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/30/us/baton-rouge-alton-sterling.html

 

A Change in Perspective

April 1, 2018

Easter Sunrise Service

Rev. Susan H. Francis

 

John 20: 1-18

Funny, John alone is the only Gospel writer who describes the burial place of Jesus as a garden.  Matthew and Luke say only that Jesus is laid in Joseph of Arimathea’s new tomb hewn in the rock, suggesting a place of large stones or boulders.  Mark agrees, adding that a large stone is rolled against the door of the tomb.  Only John describes it as a garden.  It seems even the Evangelists, like the rest of us, can get so focused on seeing things from a particular perspective, a particular view, that they, like we are blinded to what else might be there.  I guess it all depends on your perspective.

Mary Magdalene’s in the dark in more ways than one.  She goes to the tomb while it’s still dark.  Goodness knows, it must be hard to see.  She’s grieving:  her teacher is dead, tragically, intentionally, shamefully.  All she wants to do is to gain a little closure so she can move on, even if the pain and hopelessness take a while to get through.  But even in the dark she can see something’s not quite right.  There’s the smell of damp earth.  The stone seems a little off from where it should be, maybe rolled away from the doorway.  She knows, without even looking, that someone has taken the body.  True, it’s just her assumption, her perception, but what other answer could there be?  Maybe they (whoever “they” is) thought the place would become a shrine for his followers, coming just like she is.  Maybe they were worried someone would try to make him into some kind of saint.  Of course, she knows what happened with Lazarus, but she’s sure it was Jesus who did the raising that day.  Jesus’ body is all there was left of him and now even that’s gone, and God only knows where.  She doesn’t know what to do but run back for reinforcements.  Yet once the guys have looked around, seen what she says is true, there seems to be nothing left for them to do but go back home, leaving her there alone, crying not only tears of grief, but tears of confusion, tears of frustration.  Unsure what to do next, she stands at the mouth of the tomb and only then goes in.  Granted, in an unlit tomb it’s hard to tell if what she sees are really angels, and she has to wonder if the shadowy things on the ground are really grave clothes.  Who knows what she hopes to see, what she expects to see?  She’s already decided what is.  Like blinders on a horse bridle, no other possibility is in her line of vision, and even the angels don’t convince her there could be any answer than what makes sense to her.  No wonder she cries:  her world is in the midst of some kind of shattering.  No wonder, when she sees the man behind her she doesn’t really see him.  She doesn’t see him because they have taken her Jesus away.  She doesn’t see him because Mary is looking for a missing dead man, not a risen Lord1.  Looking for anything other than her missing teacher would be foolish, irrational, impossible in the eyes of the world.  When she sees the man she’s blind to who he is.  Even when he asks “Whom do you seek” in a way reminiscent of her teacher’s invitation to his disciples, she cannot see him.  No wonder—she’s stumbling in the dark.

But her perspective begins to shift in light of their conversation.  When he addresses her by name she comes to a moment of crisis, a moment of decision, a moment of recognition as she hears not only her name, but the voice of the Master, and like a sheep who knows the voice of the shepherd, she recognizes the voice of her teacher.  In that moment the light of dawn begins to pierce the darkness.  Life is transformed and she takes on new life as she recognizes Jesus as Rabbouni, Teacher, seeing what she could not see and knowing what she did not know before.  With his voice Jesus breaks through the world’s possibilities and impossibilities and she is able to both acknowledge who he is while validating who she is:  his disciple.  Funny, how Jesus responds with “Don’t hold me.”  Maybe he hears in her voice that she wants him back the way he was so they can go back to the way they were, back to their old life where everything was familiar and not frightening like it is now.  How easy it would be to be co-opted by the needs and wants of all his old friends, their hopes and their fears, but Jesus can no longer be limited to only their needs and hopes.  Jesus can only be the Christ when disciples allow him to be Christ, when disciples, then and now, stop holding him to who we want him to be for us.  For if we define him by our hopes instead of allowing him to embody God’s hopes, we will never know what it is to be born anew.  New life can only be found when we give up our need to confine or mold him to fit our labels and categories of what is possible.  Mary calls him Rabbouni, but that was his Good Friday name.  Today is Sunday and none of us can go back to Friday2.  Jesus isn’t on his way back to her, or the community of disciples, or even Jerusalem.  He’s no longer limited to time or space, no longer contained by a particular body or belonging to a particular collection of folks.  He’s on his way to God and taking the whole world with him as he creates a new world in which we are called to live, the only world in which new life is possible.  Easter begins the moment Mary is able to hear her name and know who speaks, and her perspective changes.

But it doesn’t stop there.  Both her perspective and her identity continues to change as a result of being in the presence of the Christ.  Jesus doesn’t tell her he’s been raised from the dead, but rather that he’s “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” words of promise words of hope.  Yes, his resurrection means release from the grave, but really that’s what zombie movies are all about.  It’s not so much  his resurrection as his ascension that offers us an abiding relationship with the Father.  For Jesus is committed to holding the divine and the human together.  Just as he embodied them in his life he continues to do so after death, confirming that his relationship with God will now be God’s relationship with every believer, for in his oneness with God and his oneness with us, he creates a community in which we are all brothers and sisters, all children of God.  And when Mary returns to the community with her message and when they finally begin to believe her, she finds her identity is forever changed as she becomes the preacher, the apostle to the apostles, as the disciples find a new perspective and the contours of their old reality changes—even as they change as well—finding themselves no longer hiding or making excuses.  Instead, they start moving mountains.  They begin laying their hands on the sick, they defy authorities with their laws that put walls between groups of peoples, and they never tire of telling folks who gives them the courage to do such things.  They become known for their joy and generosity.  Like them, across the generations of time, God calls us, disciples in the 21st century, into God’s future with new callings, new purposes, and new identities.  In a world that is constantly changing, the message is clear:  don’t hold onto the past, but be as willing as the early disciples were to allow God to crack open the Easter eggs of our relationship with Jesus’ God and our God, Jesus’ Father and our Father, and pour all that love out on a world that is in desperately in need of grace (through blessings like we see in the CMA sponsored “Stepping Stones” that helps so many, and the Presbyterian’s Tutoring Program that has really become an ecumenical effort to give the kids of this community a hand up, and the Drug Awareness seminar that you in this United Methodist Church will be putting on in just a few weeks).  For Jesus’ resurrection and ascension mean little if they’re just a part of our ancient faith history or some future hope when we die and not what we live on a daily basis.  Instead, Jesus’ resurrection and ascension have to translate into patterns of redemption lived out in the community that God has placed before us, in the here and now.  Only then can we say with Mary, “I have seen the Lord,” through a change of our perspective that makes the impossible possible.

Moments of clarity.  Changes of perspective (when we see how things are really meant to be) are sometimes given.  We can ignore them, forget them, even deny them, but lives are changed not only by God’s raising Jesus from the dead but by God’s raising us from our own darkness and death to new life.  Like him, we can be risen, risen indeed.

 

1Gail O’Day

2Barbara Brown Taylor

 

 

Save us from Ourselves

March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday

 Mark 11:1-11

Philippians 2:5-11

               Remember the old days with kids carrying palms, sweeping them around like it was a 4th of July celebration, re-enacting the heart-felt praise we like to think the early followers had on the first Palm Sunday.  Hate to tell you this, but they were reading from a different Gospel.  Mark’s more muted, more restrained, maybe more honest Palm Sunday seems to have grown as each Evangelist writes his version.  Matthew contributes the children, John adds the palms, everybody but Mark describes the parade going into the streets of Jerusalem.   Only Mark stops them at the entrance but at least we hear “Hosanna,” Save us, save us now.

               Coming into Jerusalem, it’s hard to tell if it’s a parade or a protest march.  At face value, it seems as if there’s an impromptu parade:  Jesus, teacher, prophet, miracle worker, whose fame has grown over the past three years, finally getting the recognition he deserves.  A spontaneous worship service as the poor, the lame, the vulnerable act like groupies waiting for their rock star.  But if we’re paying attention, we can see that Jesus isn’t the passive beneficiary of spontaneous adoration.  His entry into Jerusalem is an intentional pre-planned act of subversion (a surprise bit of theater drama not even his disciples seem to know about), staged to contradict Pilate’s entry from the west (also orchestrated with all his imperial majesty to remind Jewish pilgrims who’s in charge, granting that they can celebrate their ancient victory over Egypt if they want, but any real, present day resistance is futile).  Rome is watching.  Jesus’ counter-demonstration is equally transparent, drawing on the ancient Jewish stories, the symbols that every Jew knows intimately: a colt never ridden, reminiscent of animals consecrated to God, and Zechariah’s prediction of a king on a colt who brings peace to the nation.  It’s no innocent coincidence that Jesus comes from the Mount of Olives, where tradition insists God’s assault on Israel’s enemies is to begin with the result of the restoration of Jerusalem1. Jesus, looking for all the world like the hero of their not-too-distant memories, Simon Maccabaeus, who entered Jerusalem from the same direction in the 2nd century BC, taking the city by force from another foreign power, giving Israel back her independance2.  It’s no wonder the crowd thought Jesus a hero, a patriot, the soon-to-be king.  No wonder they cry, “Hosanna,” “Save us” to the one whose very name, “Jesus” (in Hebrew, “Joshua”) means “He saves.”  Jesus sets things up so the crowd has no other way of seeing a man on a colt other than as the expected Savior come to rescue them from their occupation and misuse.  The crowd isn’t glorifying God’s name; they’re simply demanding their liberation.  Save us now.  Save me now is the most basic form of prayer we all utter.  It’s about self-interest.  Save us from the occupied forces, alter the world we’re living in, and we’ll let our cloaks get dusty on the ground, we’ll join the parade and turn it into a protest march.

               Yet, in reality, Jesus had to know it was also a funeral procession.  He had to know it’s a parade that leads to Calvary, that there’s a cost to spitting in Rome’s face.  It’s the poignant paradox of the Gospels that an excited, hopeful procession turns fast into a week of betrayal, arrest, denial, trial, and crucifixion.  We who know the story well know that when the expected terms of salvation aren’t met, when the saving doesn’t come as they anticipate, what is once enthusiasm and hope turns quickly into cynicism and abandonment.  No wonder everybody’s mad.  While Jesus was still in Galilee he had upset the religious leaders in serious disagreements over Scripture and tradition, carried on a running debate about table fellowship and Sabbath observances, and that’s nothing to what he’ll do this week in the big city, at the Temple.  Not only the religious authorities, today’s parade upsets the politicians, too, with the whole allegiance to another Kingdom business, and now he’s going to disappoint the ordinary folks of his base by redefining the meaning of messiahship.  That’s three for three.  It’s not that he has a martyr complex or that God’s fated him to die, made him a sacrifice; although the apostle Paul may lean in that direction,  that’s not the thrust of “obedient to the point of death” that Gayle read this morning and it’s certainly not found in the gospels.  Jesus was no robot without a choice anymore than God, like any other parent, decides it’s okay to let one kid die so another will live.  His “mission” isn’t to die, but to announce God’s realm, God’s kingdom.  Still, the passion he inherits from the Hebrew prophets before him leads him to take bigger risks even as he points to the difference between what is and what could be, the disparity between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom God offers, even as he acknowledges the other kind of power, another kind of god displayed in another parade on the other side of the city.  In Christ’s kind of authority, folks bow down out of love, not out of fear of reprisal, contrary to the politics of the Caesars, then and now, and decisions are made in terms of relationships rather than coercive power—a Christ who is one of us, not who lords over us, who empties, not exploits.  No wonder he was a threat to everybody.  No wonder he still is.  Yet, still he came and he comes to save us from ourselves even when he knows it’s not the kind of salvation most us want, where we who hate might be wooed towards wholeness and salvation even if our cloaks mark the way of the funeral procession, and it costs him his life.

               Funny how such lines, such collections of people go.  Parades can become protest marches that become funeral processions, but sometimes they can turn themselves backwards, and funeral processions can become protest marches, and maybe someday even be marked with a parade.  Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’re aware that the streets of Washington DC, not to mention other cities as well, were filled with our nation’s children yesterday.  In a show of solidarity, kids were coming together to plead for common sense gun laws in the wake of another mass shooting.  They’re demanding their safety become a priority, that we consider their lives have value.  Fancy that, the idea of choosing life over death.  Kids, not necessarily against guns (who had armed escort), but against gun violence.  (Maybe I’m naive but I can’t quite imagine anyone for gun violence.)  Future voters come to Washington with something to say, and most of Congress and the President leave town for Easter break and hometown priorities.  Such a shame they couldn’t have waited.  Some of those teens were in the funeral procession of their classmates and teachers just last month after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.  Whether you agree with their protest or not, their message isn’t quite so different than parts of Jesus’ as he protested the ways of imperial might.  That’s why he came on a donkey rather than a stallion.  That’s why his crowd had cloaks and branches rather than the leather armor, helmets, and shiny swords meant to put the fear of Caesar’s god, the fear of Caesar’s might, into the crowd, while Jesus points to the love and healing of his.  If we’re honest, of course we all want to survive.  The horror of Holy Week is that we realize our self-interest usually wins.  We are quick to cry “God save us” and slow to shout “God save them,” or even “Crucify me, instead of them,” because we realize that the cost of compassion and community is far greater than the system of scapegoating, shaming, political partisanship and turning the world into “them” and “us.”  The authorities hoped that by eliminating Jesus they eliminated his threat to the way the world functions.  And to a point, they were right:  hate and violence are still strong.  But our faith is still here as well, and what was once a funeral procession has become what most of us can remember as kids, as nothing short of a Palm Sunday parade.

How strange that this particular Lenten Season began with Ash Wednesday on Valentine’s Day and will end next week with Easter on April Fool’s Day, and kids in DC, who just want to be safe, were protesting the day before Palm Sunday.  A weird coincidence of the calendar, maybe?  Make of it what you will, but perhaps now is a good time to decide if we’ll join the parade that builds community over self-interest, resistance in hopelessness, honesty that breaks down ignorance, and go to the cross with Jesus—the One who can save us from ourselves—or if we’re just going to shake off our dusty cloaks, step over the palm branches, and melt into the crowd once Palm Sunday is over.

1 Zechariah 14

2Second Maccabees

Seeing the Grain of Truth Before Us

March 18, 2018

John 12:20-33

Jeremiah 31:31-34

               We’re closing in towards Holy Week.  Jesus’ words are taking on a new urgency.  They’re dense, even as they are simple, as he tells his disciples as much as they are able to hear.  They’re hard words we 21st century disciples should take the time to struggle with as well if we want to claim we’re disciples who will follow him to the end.

               Like the Greeks, we claim we want to see Jesus, but do we really?  In the book of John seeing and hearing are the ways folks come to know him.  Remember what Jesus tells Andrew at the beginning of his ministry, “Come and see,” and to Philip, “Follow me,” get to know me.  So in trudge the Greeks who want to meet the Hebrew holy man who’s causing such a stir.  Makes us wonder if they’re curious?  Are they needing a miracle?  Are they checking out if his reputation is more than just “fake news?”  We get what it’s like to want to know Jesus:  to want to feel his presence and know that he’s with us, to sense his guidance, his voice in our ear directing us, to trust that when we are overwhelmed, he is not.  But we also know what it’s like not to want him so much as what he can do for us, like a friend of mine who watched a Jewish kid cross himself during a snow storm on a bus trip.  “Any port in a storm” was his reply to her raised eyebrow, not so different than what’s probably crossed most of our minds—a winning lottery ticket, extra help during a basketball game, a healing miracle—all would be nice.  If we’re honest, some of us might even prefer we don’t know him quite so well.  Life can feel easier without all the Jesus stuff in our lives, without the moral compass that, maybe, forced us to struggle and compromise with work issues, and the freedom to forget about everyone else and make life all about “me.”  It’s awful hard to get ahead in a dog eat dog world, that’s only becoming more so, if we pay too close attention to what Jesus said and did.  Lots of it doesn’t seem to make sense; there’s a reason why his family once came to take him home with them, thinking he had gone over the edge; there’s a reason why the crowds he collected for a short time quietly disappear and don’t stay with him.  Do we really want to see Jesus or is he just a nice idea that we play with from time to time?  Have we already decided what parts we want to see and what parts we might just ignore?  Maybe, we really need to think about if we really want to see him.

               Let’s face it, he’s startling; no sooner do the Greeks ask for an introduction than Jesus starts ruminating about death—grains that fall and folks who love their lives and lose them.  Yet, when we look at his life he seems to really enjoy it:  just look at all the parties he’s always going to.  He and God claim to be one.  Sympatico with the God who brings creation and life into being and calls it good.  He’s not particularly doom and gloom-ish.  But he does seem to be saying that if we love our lives so very much that we’ll do anything and everything in our power to protect them just the way they are1, if we want to live in bubble wrap—no conflict, no pain, no chance to fail—that in the end we’ll find we have no life at all.  Our lives will be like that little mustard seed necklace so many of us had when we were kids, encased and lovely, without life or growth. But if we hate our lives in this world (which I take to mean hate the sell, the ways that make the world go round and that ultimately cheapen and demean our lives);  the spin, (that our comfort is the only thing that matters so its okay to rape, pillage, or plunder the resources the whole world needs); or that we have to protect ourselves from neighbors who are jealous and want what we have, or that the king of the hill wins (wins what?); if we refuse to buy into that sell; if we stop chasing after the phantoms of comfort, safety, and superiority and start chasing after what God promises through the covenant written on our hearts, to act like we love our neighbors or at least wish them no harm, and that what God says just might be more important than what the leaders of the world say, then maybe there will be no end to the abundant life that can be found.

Of course, such a choice may not add to longevity, may not mean we’ll make it to 100.  Jesus had that choice, too.  He had the choice to continue the way he was going or to play it safe.  He could hide out in Gentile territory or tone down his message about a different sort of kingdom, or even work to get along with the authorities who were just trying to keep everyone safe from the violence of Rome.  He knew to keep up the way he was going meant the possibility, the probability he’d suffer for it.  Not that suffering was his goal; it wasn’t, just the by-product of making the decision of living out the message he was given.  Granted, there’s lots of suffering in the world and frankly, most of it isn’t redemptive, like hearing your babies cry in hunger, or watching your dad sink into a bottle out of sheer frustration, or burying your kid at home or in foreign soil, suffering no one should have to endure.  But his suffering came from trying to be who he was created to be no matter the cost, and even if the cost was more than he wants to give, he’ll give it anyway.  Perhaps, he figures that if a grain of wheat can’t grow unless it’s buried, then, maybe, that’s what it takes.  That if the mustard seed in a necklace stays safe maybe it’s the grain of wheat that’s buried in the dark ground, and when its hour comes bursts out with a little green sprout of new life, pushing towards the sun and the rain, that ends up with a head full of grain.  Well, maybe that’s what it takes to fill the whole world with wheat so nobody is hungry again2  Jesus had already figured out we don’t love God so God will save us, tit for tat, but to love God is to already be saved.  It’s not about living for God to get to heaven, but that on either side of the grave living for God is heaven3  When the Greeks come Jesus isn’t talking so much about death as abundant life.

For sure, Jesus isn’t about playing it safe.  It’s the very thing that will land him on a cross.  Within a week, he’ll take on the violence, the contempt, the hatred and absorb it all into his body, refusing to return evil with any kind of evil of his own, making sure that at least that part of it dies with him.  The hour will come for his glorification.  Not the glory of March Madness when a Cinderella team like UMBC wins over the University of Virginia, or the glory of taking home all the marbles.  Not glory as the world defines it, but the glory of the cross that embraces even pain and suffering in a quest of loving, of saving, of helping to heal a world that rejects him.  He’ll do that by being lifted up.  Lifted up in crucifixion, on a cross of suffering and death.  Lifted up in resurrection from death’s hold.  Lifted up in the ascension, back to the One from whence he came.  Maybe it’s only then that we can see God at work drawing life from death as God’s power is made manifest, giving us eyes to recognize just who Jesus really is.  In a world that’s often colored by hate, judgment, and death, Jesus offers love, mercy, and life that are far stronger as he continues to invite and draw all people to him, loving without restraint, even to the point of death on a cross, not by playing it safe.

During Lent, our voices join the Greeks who come to Jerusalem that last Passover.  “We wish to know Jesus.”  So, then we need to listen to the grains of truth he offers through words that move us from self-protection to self-giving and actions that may lead us through fields of wheat that grow in the shadow of the cross with the promise that we can create heaven on this side of the grave.

 

1Barbara Brown Taylor, God in Pain, “Unless a Grain Falls”

2 Ibid.

3Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, “Salvation”

 

 

Lift Up Your Eyes

March 11, 2018

John 3:11-21

Numbers 21:4-9

               Jesus’ words, even so early in John’s Gospel, draw our thoughts both forwards and backwards. They look to the cross, while at the same time remember Israel’s ancient past.

John’s Jesus knows his history.  The tale of a bronze serpent on a pole is burned into his brain as he thinks of another time and place when Israel needed to be healed of what separated her from God.  A story told so long ago, it’s hard to tell if it really happened or if it was just a make-believe caution shared to keep the community in line, kinda like the warning we give kids who want to stray in the night—that the Boogyman will get them.  A story of an angry God (sounding more like you or me than a God of grace), sick and tired of all the grumbling, who is said to send an Exodus-like plague of venomous snakes—not your garden variety type garter or blacksnake—but fiery serpents, according to the Hebrew, to punish the thankless folks and shape them into some kind of Godly people.  Who knows if they were really sent by God, or if they just happen to live there; nowhere in our Scriptures does God call the presence of the snakes any kind of punishment.  Let’s face it, there’s been a lot of complaining the entire trip without catastrophe, yet once the Israelites have to keep their eyes open for nests of vipers, punishment seems to be the conclusion they draw.  But whether by design or accident, the snakes seem to have the desired effect:  the people confess, naming their sin, and asking Moses to take on the role of the intermediary, the lead man in the communication between God and themselves.  The word from God is that Moses needs to fashion out of bronze a serpent and lift it up on a pole.  God doesn’t remove the snakes, like St Patrick did in Ireland.  They’re still under foot and still biting with a venom that burns, but God promises that if the Hebrews will lift their eyes, if they look on the bronze snake, they’ll be healed.  Deliverance doesn’t come the way they expect, but it comes as the bronze serpent up on a stick becomes the very thing that heals them.

               Jesus points to another pole on which to lift our eyes and find healing.  “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” as he proclaims God’s love for the entire world.  Jesus says nothing about the cross as a substitute for our punishment from an angry God, or as a ransom to pay off the devil, but that through God’s love even a cross, a place of suffering, can become a place for healing.  Just as the ancient snakes brought death and the bronze serpent offered life, so too, the sin in our world that brings death finds the possibility of healing, the possibility of salvation through Jesus’ cross—not that the cross is a tool or a mechanism that saves us, but instead reveals the sin before us. For in the Gospel of John sin is bigger than we are, sin is more systemic than individual1, and to save the world God loves requires replacing the injustice, hate and discrimination that put Jesus on the cross with the justice, mercy, and equality

God intends for the world.  God knows, that’s the only thing that makes us truly whole.  The cross reveals the sin and how much God loves us and our world as once again, God does the unexpected—not in some simplistic way of magically destroying sin, ridding it from our lives and saving only the people who believe—but by loving us enough to stay on the cross and dying, giving himself into our hands and then asking us to give ourselves into his, to change the world.  Maybe it’s no coincidence that our English word, “believe” comes from the German “belichen,” meaning to love2.  For to love Jesus is to believe what he says when he tells us he brings a different way of living, and if we love him then we believe in the kingdom he brings.  For love, like belief, calls for a response.  And once we believe that we are loved that fully, that unconditionally, how can we help but respond by loving God and showing God’s love with our neighbors near and far, sharing God’s love by throwing ourselves into their struggles and celebrations, their joys and their concerns.  John’s Jesus comes to us as the new Moses, bringing to life the truth and grace that the covenant at Sinai tried to bring, and in his crucifixion we see that healing grace with its life-giving power that draws us to an eternal life that is more than merely an endless existence, but life in the endless presence of God—if we lift up our eyes and see how great God’s love is and are healed at the cross.

               The only real question there is…is do you want healing and wholeness or not?  The condemnation, the judgment John writes of maybe isn’t so much about the future as it is the present, isn’t so much an accusation as it is an observation.  The reality is if we live very long then somewhere along the line—call it life, or God, or fate, or whatever—something will happen that will drive us to our knees or shake us to our core, whether it’s at a concert where somebody just randomly starts shooting, or the words “It’s malignant,” or watching the sheet being pulled over the face of someone we love.  Something will come along and push us into a crisis, a turning point, a moment of decision, and in that moment, regardless of the outcome, we’ll see for ourselves whether we have put our money on Jesus or the strength of evil; whether we decide to live with hope or live in despair; whether we choose the dark in which to hide, or live into the light.  For we cannot remain neutral in the midst of pain or wrongdoing or evil, and we will find ourselves taking a stand that shows who we are, what we stand for, and what we believe about the God who loves unconditionally and will always show up for us, whether or not we choose to step towards wholeness.  The reality is, God’s not looking for an excuse to be destructive.  We take pretty good care of that ourselves.  Instead, we’re told that Jesus comes not so much to judge as to save us, offering God’s vision for us and our world, dying, literally, that we can experience the fullness of God’s love and the chance to be whole if we want it.

               Making people whole is what God does best, giving us reason to lift up our eyes from the death of all the snake bites we encounter to the love shown by a cross that offers healing.

 

1I’m unsure which commentary may have noted John’s view of sin as worldly rather than individualistic, it may have been David lose.  In the meantime I am honestly unsure.

2Diana Butler Bass, Christianity after Religion

 

 

God Meets Every Body

March 4, 2018

John 2:13-22

               It's a familiar story John tells but, then again, not so much. John's timing is off. Matthew, Mark, and Luke find Jesus cleaning out the temple after Palm Sunday, the final straw that leads to his arrest and crucifixion. But not John. It's right here at the beginning, immediately after a more private affair in Cana where waters of purification are turned into the wine of celebration in abundance overflowing, as John's story has Jesus then turning to Jerusalem with a very public act that would have been shattering.

According to the Jews, the Temple was the place where God could be found, a more permanent version of the Ark of the Covenant, where God dwells during the exodus. And later, after the exile, when Israel comes stumbling back from Babylon, rebuilding Solomon's destroyed temple becomes the sign of their new beginning. And even later, in Jesus' time, when the land is overrun with alien armies, it's only the Temple that is Israel's alone. No wonder it becomes such a symbol of their identity, and no wonder during Passover the city swells with estimates of 100,000 to 2 ¼ million people coming in as every Jewish male within 20 miles and as many as could from all over the known world come to celebrate their divine deliverance from the oppression of Egypt, when the promise of God's steadfast love for God's people was made known in a real moment of their history—a promise with the hope for their present and future circumstances, as well. Into such a party, but also such a sacred space, comes Jesus. Of course, he finds animals and money changers. For the temple system to survive, with its rituals and sacrifices mandated by scripture, there had to be some form of transaction as folks from all over the Empire bought animals for sacrifice and changed their money to pay their tithes. Like churches today, like us, if the place is going to function and survive it takes money. Jesus' interruption is tantamount to and as welcome as somebody showing up at the Bazaar and trying to shut everything down. Why would he do such a thing at a homecoming when memories run high? But in he charges. And while the Synoptics give us one version of the story, drawing us towards an explanation of exploiting the poor by Jesus calling out the money changers as a "den of robbers," John says nothing about mismanagement or injustice, only that Jesus hits them where it hurts—stopping the cash flow—accomplished through saying, "making my Father's house a marketplace" as he brings all activity to a standstill in the very structure that functions to preserve the relationship between God and God's people. Stopping all activity is his point; Jesus isn't quibbling about their ethics, He's calling into question the whole system of where God is met.

Jesus does, indeed, point to a very different place to connect with God, and it's not one they'd ever expect. When he's asked just why he thinks he can close the temple down, what sign, by who's authority, his answer makes no sense. Like a lot of things in John's gospel, Jesus' response doesn't seem to follow the question, and we can't help but think, "Say what?? Who said anything about destroying the temple? Where'd that come from?" Even folks listening, right there in the moment, are confused. The writer of John tries to help us out, subtly reminding us not to get caught in literalism, as misplaced then, as it is now, hinting to us that Jesus is talking flesh and blood not mortar and bricks, as if to say "Here, here is where the divine and the human meet." For in John's gospel signs aren't given to prove a point, but to direct us into deeper understandings of who Jesus really is. Jesus' physical body is the sign. Through his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and by his gift of the Holy Spirit, history shifts as God chooses to relate with us in a new way, in a new place. In him, the divine Word and human flesh connect and everything is changed as Jesus shows us the heart of God, making the unknowable God, knowable, and the awe-filled God, approachable1; becoming the source of the waters that give us life, the light who guides our way, the vine who nourishes us that we might bear fruit ... and the evidence of the grace upon grace mediated through his resurrection open to all. Somehow in him, in Jesus, human flesh and divinity are joined and inseparable, God with him and in him. Jesus is the true temple; in him we meet the God whom we worship.

Yet, Jesus isn't the only place we meet God. Yes, Jesus' body is still the location where the divine and humanity come together, but let's not forget: as disciples we are also told that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit2, and that as a community we are joined with folks who have gone before us, and with them we become a dwelling place for God3. Granted, we don't always think of our bodies as sacred. Thanks to Paul's talk of the flesh and Augustine's take on that, we tend to think of bodies less as locations of the holy and more as centers of sin. Thanks to a marketing culture that commodifies bodies for the sake of profit in a number of questionable goods and services, we see flaws rather than dignity. Yet, Scripture points to something very different, reminding us that as temples and dwelling places for God we are people of the incarnation in the truest sense, which is why it's not possible to lean into God's love for our bodies without recognizing that God loves all bodies everywhere. For our lives together, as a community of faith have an impact on actual bodies: how we treat one another is felt in bodies and our decisions are experienced by bodies (which is why tutoring kids' minds isn't enough when moms and dads aren't home to give kids healthy meals, so we feed them as well; and why many of the monies donated to the Men's Group dinners that feed actual bodies are transformed into mission dollars that benefit other needs of the flesh). If we see our bodies as a place where God works, how can we stand by while the bodies of children and parents in Syria are starving and shattered without getting involved in some way? If we see human bodies as temples, holy places where heaven and earth meet, then don't we have an obligation to keep the conversation going in the gun debate, that ways may be found to keep bodies in schools, churches, concerts, and other venues as safe from harm as possible?  Hopefully, we can accomplish that as channels of peace, bringing love where there is hatred and hope to despair, but if not then, perhaps, like Jesus, our righteous indignation will open channels that have resisted anything short of passionate protest. Maybe during Lent is the right time to think about what it means to honor bodies yours, mine, and every other body as holy places, as homes of God.4

John's version of the cleansing of the temple tells a very different story than the other gospels, pointing to Jesus as the true temple where God and human flesh are joined together; such is the mystery of our faith. But our unity with him reminds us that through our bodies we have the power to worship, to rejoice with folks who rejoice, to mourn with folks who mourn, to deepen relationships, and to give honor to every body God places before us—each precious to the God who calls them into being and meets them where they are.

 

 

1 David Lose, in the Meantime, online blog, 2 March 2018

2 I Corinthians 6:19

3 Ephesians 2:22

4 Much of this move is indebted to an article by Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus,
online blog, for the week of 4 March 2018.

 

Facing What’s Before Us

February 25, 2018

Mark 8:31-38

Romans 4:13-25

 

                Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ passion prediction triggers a conversation about what it means to follow him.  The disciples have seen Jesus draw a crowd, feed a multitude, exorcise, heal, and heard him proclaim a new kind of kingdom.  Once Peter declares him the Messiah they’re maybe thinking Jesus is going to lead them in some kind of victory from Rome, but here he is, talking suffering.  They’re maybe thinking of the applause of the crowds, but here he is, talking death.  Whatever glorious expectations the Twelve might have come crashing down.  Jesus has no intention of meeting them.  They live in a bloody age:  Jesus realizes that his death is possible, even likely, if he continues, as he faces what’s before him.

               Like Peter, there are lots of things we don’t want to face, scary things that loom before us that we’d rather avoid.  The reality is the world can be a harsh place.  We’d like to think as long as we play nice in the sandbox everything should go reasonably well.  Life should work out.  We’re like the little kid in the front seat of the car with his granddad before the days of car seats and children located in the back.  If a dog runs out from behind the bushes, gramps hits the breaks, the kid flies forward, cracks his head and can only wonder why?  Why’d he get hurt?  Why was he punished when he was being so good?  We seem to think the world rewards the good and punishes the bad, so we make up elaborate lists of do’s and don’ts and try to stay on the safe side—that if we run everyday, we’ll never have a heart attack, if we don’t smoke we won’t have to worry about lung cancer, if we don’t dress provocatively rape won’t be an issue.  Until one day we finally figure out Reality 101, that being good, that doing the right thing, is no protection from the real life things that do us harm, many over which we have no control.  Bad things happen to even the best of us—just look at Jesus.  Granted most of us won’t face death on a literal cross, but all of us will die and all of us experience some form of brokenness:  betrayed by parents, deceived by spouses, faced with the death of our dreams.  And all of us wrestle with fear: the fear of losing our minds or that there won’t be enough money to make it to the end, a fear of standing up for what we believe or of telling the truth about who we really are.  Like Peter, we’d prefer to run from our issues, avoid dealing with whatever is so awful, or painful, or humiliating rather than face them.  We get why he raises such a fuss and wants to be in denial.  But Jesus will have none of it.  Rather than run from the realities, Jesus shows us a new way to live, to recognize the evil before us, to name it and yet live in its presence with all the abundance we can.  Maybe what’s so satanic is the very dishonesty and all the energy wasted in avoidance instead of facing what’s there and trusting that we are not alone, that God is present even in the midst of pain or evil or suffering, not making it happen but very much aware, guiding us through it.  Just like God did with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem and death, just like God did with Abraham and Sarah as they journeyed into an unknown future, Jesus shows us how to face the realities before us in a real life that’s not for sissies.

               It takes a lot of courage to face what’s before us, but it’s not only about us and our pain.  To take up our cross is to stand at the center of the world’s pain, as well as our own2.  The crucifixion Jesus faced was never about crime against an individual but was reserved for treason, a crime against the ruling society.  Jesus comes preaching a different way of life, a new Kingdom that is to replace the old, the Kingdom that isn’t just about personal transformation but about a whole world makeover.  When Jesus says to pick up your cross, he’s telling us to stand up against the places in society that are hurtful, harmful, and evil.  Business as usual is no longer an option for folks who would follow him as he sends us out to re-shape the world so that it looks like the kind of place from which God will rule.  Picking up our cross doesn’t mean that Jesus changes society for us, but asks us to involve ourselves with him and be part of, as he was, the suffering around him, to stand with folks aching, hurting, weeping, and dying, pouring out our energy in alleviating their pain.  Perhaps that will be standing with and believing someone who says “me, too;” or sitting in vigil and holding their hand as someone dies; or insisting that a nursing home not extend existence beyond a quality life with artificial means; or to call, march, or insist on action by our government that our schools can become safe.  It’s not enough to stand by like a voyeur and rub our hands in frustration and prattle “Now is not the time.”  Now is always the time to alleviate pain and bring justice.  It’s not enough to spout, “You’re in our thoughts and prayers” without something more, for religion that bears no fruit is worthless.  In the words of theologian Miroslav Volf, “There is something deeply hypocritical about praying for a problem we’re unwilling to resolve,”1 for what we say we believe must be indivisibly woven with what we do.  We don’t pick up our crosses to gain kudos from Jesus, to become worthy of the trust he places in us; but instead, we pick them up in response to the grace and love he has already shown us, embodying his actions by confronting the powers that be and standing with the pain and fear and suffering of others for a different kind of world—all the way to the cross.

               But pain and loss isn’t the end of the story.  God calls us not only to the cross, but to life.  Peter misses that part, and often we do, too.  Yes, Jesus tells us the way of the cross is hard and can lead to suffering and death, but he also assures us that there is life beyond suffering and death.  And when we have the courage to stand with the “Me, too” person, or sit vigil, or seek justice for folks who can’t, we become part of God’s resurrection, “for those who lose their lives for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save them.”  Jesus walks towards the cross knowingly and asks us to follow, not towards safety, but towards real, resurrected life all around us.  By picking up the cross before us we defy the idea that pain and death are the worst that can happen.  We carry our crosses not towards freedom from pain but towards freedom from the fear that causes us never to have lived.  For the question is not how shall we die but how shall we live as we walk with Jesus towards the dark places found not only in Jerusalem but in Kinsman, Ohio as well, trusting that along the way there will be the love, light, and life that God desires for us all, not because of what we have done, but because God is in the business of creating something out of nothing and bringing life to what is barren.  It’s not just pain and sorrow we face, but abundant life all along the way.

               In Jesus’ time crosses sometimes lined the roads into Jerusalem as a way of instilling fear.  We don’t have many crosses these days but we have as much fear as ever.  Still, we follow the Christ who isn’t intimidated or frightened by what is in Jerusalem, but faces it honestly and invites us, if we would follow, to join him as a people of faith, not fear, as we face what we find before us.

1 Attributed to Miroslav Volf by Kirsten Powers, "Why 'thoughts and prayers' is starting to sound so profane," Washington Post, Nov. 6, 2017.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/10/03/why-thoughts-and-prayers-is-starting-to-sound-so-profane.

 

2 David Lose, “In the Meanwhile,” online blog