Belonging to the Lamb
May 12, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
The Easter season continues. Resurrection power is still on the loose as the writer of John shares his vision of what heaven, or better, what eternal life looks like as he sees a divine multitude of God’s children gathered at the foot of the Throne where hunger and thirst, tears and death, poverty and war are no more—gone in the presence of everlasting joy as the great cloud of witnesses stand before God and the Lamb.
It’s quite a diverse group at the heavenly throne, a great multitude, not just a few, but a huge crowd, as they gather to worship the One who gave them life and then took them from death into more life, life everlasting. People from every nation, every tribe and language, young and old, the space filled with different colors, customs, and cultures in an array we can hardly imagine. Whenever I read this particular passage, my mind always, always, goes back to a wedding Dave and I attended in the early 80’s. The bride’s family was attached to First Pres in Youngstown. The mom was a custodian whom we dearly loved, the bride had been in our youth group, her older brother led the group with us. They lived in Smokey Hollow, below the church and university, an ethnic part of town where English was a second language for most folks. Need I say more? The wedding was at St. Columba’s, the cathedral, big and long. And let me tell you, when we got there fifteen minutes or so before the event, that place was already filling up. There were rows and rows of folks of every hue and color, from blackest black to lily white and everything in between. Older ladies from First Pres with gloves and rodents tail-in-mouth around their shoulders, young guys with suits straight out of Saturday Night Fever, wearing more jewelry than I owned, and babies, not hidden away as if the wedding would be ruined by a baby’s cry, but going up and down the pews, laughing as arms reached out for them. Who could tell if the folks passing them were relatives or just friends, because the little ones didn’t seem to know a stranger as they delighted everyone who reached out for them. And the languages whispering around us, a strange cacophony of Portuguese and Spanish, some Slovak, and English. Later, at the reception, different customs became evident as the typical wedding fare of chicken and pasta was enlarged to include rice and bean dishes. And the minute the congas started, while most of the older men from the WASP group looked down contemplating their navels, the Hispanic men, from 90 to three, jumped up, grabbed whomever was in their path to the dance floor and started moving in dances that were nothing if not pure joy. Maybe it’s surprising, with such a great party for the reception, that the wedding itself had filled the church. So often folks plan for the party and bypass the religious service as just the means to the end. But not at this wedding. People did not forego the worship to go straight to the reception, and while I can’t tell you a word that the priest said, I can tell you the place was full of people who came from diverse cultures, customs, and colors to worship, to celebrate, and to share their love with joy. It was heaven on earth.
Funny, isn’t it, if that’s what heaven’s supposed to look like, why don’t folks of a religious persuasion take more opportunities to be with others of the faith not like us, whoever the “us” is? Wouldn’t you think as a country that likes to tout itself as a Christian nation we would be a nation of people falling all over ourselves in search of others whose customs, colors, and cultures are different than our own, inviting folks who are unlike us into our neighborhoods, into our churches? Yet, as Martin Luther King, Jr said in 1960, “Eleven o’clock is the most segregated hour of the week in Christian America”1. That was 50 years ago; today, it’s not only color, customs, and cultures that are dividing us. Now, we find folks, even in “purple churches” like our own, are having a harder time sitting, worshiping, sharing communion, and loving each other. We’re becoming a people intolerant, convinced our way, our understanding is the only right way as we, in the church, reflect the culture around us that is increasingly cut off from one another. What an odd coincidence that May has been designated as Mental Health Month, as we as a nation, maybe as a world, witness a dangerous type of illness spreading. An illness that breaks and confuses the human spirit as loud, demanding, and persuading voices seek to control our hearts and minds as they schizophrenically pull apart the sanity of our centered souls2. We are a noisy culture; words clutter our airwaves, the internet, and the printed page with rudeness and accusations as some expert or official pontificates about nothing while ignoring what’s important, twists and turns any truth until it’s created in their image. What has been accomplished is that we’ve become increasing suspicious of anything and everything said, increasing suspicious of each other and possible ill intent, increasing suspicious of anyone not “just like us” to an extreme, and might I add, a dangerous extreme. In the midst of all the voices, how will we recognize which one is the voice of God, the voice the Good Shepherd we say we follow? In the midst of all the voices, how will we sift through them to listen to the Lamb who brings wholeness from the splintering tongues? In the midst of all the voices, how do we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd who leads us beside still waters and green pastures to restore our souls? The test, dear folks, is always the same. Does the One we follow lead us to life or death? And does the vision offered bring us to heaven on earth, or an isolated hell? By the grace of God, there’s only one voice, only one vision filled with richness and nuances worth listening to.
If we belong to the flock of the Good Shepherd, the very one who told us, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,”3 then we are part of a diverse group which is counter to the isolation and polarization present in our world. If we belong to the Good Shepherd’s flock, out of necessity we will find ourselves refraining from putting down our neighbors who might belong to another fold, renouncing stereotypes by seeing the individuals within them, ceasing to insist that our way is the only way, but instead finding ourselves open to other perspectives as we daily, hourly, walk in the footsteps of the Shepherd and live in the company of the rest of the flock. And even when we stray, as we inevitably will do from time to time, we will find ourselves somehow running into the arms of the Lamb of God, who does take away the sin of the world as he brings us home. Yet, if that’s how we choose to live, if that’s the flock we’re running with and the Shepherd we’re following, then we run the very real risk of being rejected by family and friends. We might lose a little social status, we might be scolded with remembering who we are and whose side we’d better take. That’s how our world works. But then again, the vision of the saints at the end of time that the writer of Revelation offers is a gaggle of folks who have been through an ordeal, a tribulation (read: their choices weren’t popular). God’s vision, God’s dream, God’s revelation for us isn’t about some future payoff in a heavenly place; it’s a vision for God’s people whenever and wherever we gather. The folks who first heard the vision were at odds with both the Greco-Roman world and the Jewish authorities because of their beliefs concerning Jesus. Like them, we who see and hear God’s vision now may find ourselves at odds with others. But, let’s face it, we need not play games for their approval. We can call out the sin-stained belief that the love Jesus has for us is ours alone and speak for God’s intense concern for all God’s children. And any tears we shed will be wiped by the tenderness of God whose living water will sustain us in our time and place as we live in community with a diverse flock—many perspectives and ways reflecting God’s vision.
The writer of Revelation has a vision that the Good Shepherd will gather all who belong to the Lamb from every nation and tribe, people and language, as songs of joy echo from heaven throughout the ends of the earth, in worship, in celebration, in love. It’s a vision for now, as God’s resurrection power sweeps through.
1Interview on “Meet the Press,” April 17, 1960.
2Andrews, Susan, The Tears of God: Jesus as Passion and Promise, “Recognizing the Voices.”
Resurrection Power on the Loose
May 5, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
A few weeks past Easter, past seeing Jesus not just once, but twice, in Jerusalem, life should be finding some kind of regular routine for the disciples. Yet, Peter and company seem to be back not in Jerusalem, but in Galilee, at the lake where it all began, where Jesus first commandeered Peter’s boat while teaching the crowds, and then sent him out for some fishing, assuring him that one day he’d be catching people1. Now at the end of John’s story, the disciples are back.
It’s been a long night for Peter and the other six. Jesus has recently changed their job titles from disciples to “apostles,” from simply following him to people who are sent out in his name, his envoys. Yet, here they are, acting as if, perhaps, returning to their old way of life may not be a bad idea. It’s one thing to have a job change and take a little R & R, but all night, nets empty, sounds a little more intense than relaxation. Makes us wonder, even though Jesus shared with them the peace that’s supposed to surpass all understanding, if maybe they took off for Galilee because they were, still, just a little ashamed about how really badly they botched things when it mattered most. Makes us wonder if maybe they felt like they didn’t deserve the trust he was placing in them. Or maybe they were overwhelmed, lost their nerve, unsure where or how to even begin. Perhaps, after Jesus blew the Holy Spirit on them he figured they didn’t need a forwarding address, that they’d listen to that quiet voice inside, discuss it in community, and make some decisions; but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So the disciples, like the rest of us, when they’re not sure what to do, do what they know, and what they know is fishing on the Sea of Galilee. But whatever brings them to the lake that night, they sure aren’t convincing fishermen, with empty nets, not a nibble, from a long night’s work. When somebody from the shore starts calling out advice, it’s like, really, what have they got to lose? It’s such a little change the stranger suggests, cast the net off the other side, off the starboard instead of the port, a little different angle, a changed perspective. And what a difference, what a haul, fish overflowing like wine at a wedding where once there was none. Like grace upon grace, as it hits at least one of them just whose advice they’re following, while Peter, ever impulsive, takes his directions from the one who recognizes, throws on a little modesty, and heads for the shore, leaving the rest of his friends in a boat spilling over with abundance, at the end of a long night.
Jesus already has breakfast going as the disciples draw in. He will feed them, both literally and figuratively. The disciples may have pulled in a load of fish, but the grill’s already going, bread and fish cooking, as the rest of the group begin to recognize Jesus, not by his looks, but by his actions. Jesus offers up a meal reminiscent of the one he once provided for 50002, as his love for them takes tangible form. But if we’re honest, there’s nothing like someone being nice, acting with love, to make us feel worse when we’re already having trouble confronting our own guilt and fears. Coming face-to-face with our past mistakes and shortcomings makes a lot of us tuck tail, wanting to avoid the whole thing. But how can we tell Jesus to go away because we’re just not up to all the disciple stuff? What to say when he blows off our denials and failures and tells us instead to “feed my sheep,” “go and care for the folks I love, go feed the flock of the Good Shepherd, feed them in my place with whatever gift I’ve given you”? Truth be told, most of us are only too aware of our inadequacies. We suspect we are unqualified for whatever Jesus may come up with and are much more comfortable hiding the gifts we have under the proverbial bushel basket. But Jesus will have none of that. He refuses to let disciples on the beach, or in the pew, forget who we are. According to the writer of John, the question Peter denies three times isn’t “Do you know him?” but “are you one of the man’s disciples?”3. It’s a question of our identity. Jesus isn’t there to blame or shame Peter or the rest of the group, he’s not into drawing out humiliation, he’s not testing Peter or doing some kind of ethereal math as if three declarations of love cancels out three denials. Instead, he’s affirming who Peter already is, and who he needs to be. Peter needs to be a disciple, and he needs to be the shepherd Jesus has called him to be, not only for Jesus, but also for himself, and that goes for the rest of us, as well. Of course, we will stumble and fall and make mistakes, but that doesn’t disqualify us from being used by God. If that means some folks are disappointed, might judge us, not like us, or even reject us unless we play it safe and hide our gifts, then maybe they need to get to know Jesus better. Jesus calls us to use what he gives us to “feed his sheep,” to make abundance happen, to be his presence. So he draws us to him, sits us down, and feeds us with what we need.
Funny, how resurrection power works. When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he invites everyone, even folks we’d least expect. “Saul, why do you persecute?” “Simon, Son of John, do you love me more than these?” Nora, Dave, Kay, Arlene and on and on, including each and every one of us. God’s resurrection power has been turned loose on the world, convincing and convicting us, whether we’re on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, or the road to Damascus, or on Rt. 7, or 5, or 87, as we find ourselves called to play our part in the dawning era of abundant grace. The kind of grace that turns our world upside down, or maybe turns a world that’s upside down right side up. The kind of grace that causes dumbfounded disciples on a seashore to travel to the ends of the world, feeding the folks God entrusted to them. The kind of grace that transforms Saul, the most anti-Christian, who wanted only to silence, jail, and kill off disciples, to tirelessly minster to outsiders, foreigners, and skeptics. And the kind of grace that causes us who are perfectly comfortable to look around and see what needs to be done, roll up our sleeves, and set about making our part of the world better. On Monday night, I had the privilege of joining our AA group for their anniversary. I am aware of the history, how while there were lots of inquires sent to local churches, there weren’t many takers willing to entertain the possibility of having meetings in their space—in God’s space—but how this church, not without lots of discussion, opened the door, took a step into an unknown, and has participated in the witness of folks whose lives are being transformed by the grace of God’s resurrection power, even as we, too, are transformed by that same power. The same can be said for so many of the other “opportunities” God has placed before us. The God who transforms something as terrible as a Roman cross into the “Tree of Life”4 asks us to offer the gospel to any who are searching for meaning, for hope, for the courage to be all that God has made us to be; and in doing so, we find that we, too, are being redeemed. That is the life we are made for, not located in our pasts, but being part of a future through the resurrection power that has been turned loose on the world.
During Eastertide, the risen Christ shows up all over the place: Damascus, Galilee, Kinsman, very much at work and asking us to follow him. Yet, he seems to know there’ll be times when we’re ready to quit, when we’re tired, when we’re hungry, so he provides a meal like he did on that Galilean shore, that we might be nourished while he draws us into the future as we live into the resurrection power with abundant grace.
4The language of transformation of Roman cross to Tree of Life comes from the commentary SALT, Easter III, Year C.
The Word... Again...Becomes Flesh
April 28, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
The Sunday after Easter. The Sunday after all the excitement, all the “Christ has risen, He is risen, indeed!” all the family or friends in and out. The second Sunday of Easter often leaves us with a kind of “now what?” But our “now what?” is a lot less terrifying than the “now what?” of the first disciples.
The disciples are scared. No wonder they’re hiding out. That first Easter evening (they didn’t have to wait a week for the “now what” feeling) the doors are locked for fear of the religious authorities. Granted, the disciples all heard Mary Magdalene’s message that “Christ is risen,” heard the couple who went home to Emmaus only to come rushing back, swearing it was Jesus who broke the bread. But while witnesses of Christ’s appearances are interesting, if unbelievable, in the daytime, they aren’t at all that comforting at night when the disciples are expecting to be the next arrested. They saw what happened to Jesus, and it sure wasn’t pretty; nail studded straps do a number on the body of a man. And dead is dead. Any notion of an eternal soul is a foreign Greek concept. It certainly isn’t found in the Hebrew Bible. The disciples, like Jesus, understand that body and soul are in unity. When one stops, so does the other; no detachable soul flutters free. Since, in the words of Isaiah, “all flesh is grass”1 (read: impermanent), that impermanence carries over to the soul, as well. There’s none of the 21st century confusion or arrogance of the soul’s indestructibility, that part of our humanity, our soul, is instead as eternal as the divine. There’s no misunderstanding between immortality and resurrection. About the best the disciples can hope for is the possibility of Sheol, a shadowy place to hang out until the final resurrection at the end of time, and none of them wants to make the trip tonight. They’re scared to death they’re next on the list to die. But if they’re scared of the living, it’s nothing when they realize Jesus stands among them. How can they believe what’s before their eyes? What’s believable is repeatable, and nobody’s ever seen anything like this before. Even Lazarus, when Jesus raised him, was pretty much the same old, same old. Yet, Jesus is with them now, no longer weighed down by his body, no longer limited by walls or locks, but is somehow redeemed, transformed, not through some human power within him, but through the grace of God, alone. He’s not some disembodied spirit making an appearance. He comes to them the risen Lord. Their fear of the living is nothing compared with their fear of the dead, now alive. The security of the room cloistered from the outside is gone. And the disciples are scared.
But Jesus stands there and offers peace and then gives his disciples the Holy Spirit. He always has, and he continues to do so. The risen Christ returns to the very disciples who have denied and deserted with greetings of “Peace be with you,” not once, but twice. And yes, of course, that is the customary greeting, and certainly when Jesus sends out disciples before his death he instructs them to enter homes with such a greeting2. Still, his offer of peace recalls his words of farewell, when Jesus promises, “Peace I leave you, my peace I give you” and then later adds, “in me you may have peace”3. What reassurance to folks dealing not only with grief but also guilt when they see his wounds. Fears over what might happen next are laid to rest when the “Shame on you” that’s expected is instead, mercifully, “Peace be with you.” The reality is disciples throughout the ages, all of us, have in one way or another denied or deserted. The wounded Savior who bears the wounds of the world, including ours, heals us with his words and then breathes the Holy Spirit on us. Funny how, in the Hebrew the word for “breathe” and “spirit” is the same. “Ruach.” Just like God breathes over the chaotic void, bringing possibilities to our emerging universe, just like God blows life into the first earth creatures at the beginning of time, the Risen Jesus blows new life into trembling disciples who are still being fashioned into the “being-saved” community, the Body of Christ. By his breath we are given the power, creativity, and authority to become the church. Jesus gathers and constitutes the community of believers through the ages with his gift of peace and the Holy Spirit.
The Word again takes on flesh whenever Jesus comes to disciples locked in houses of fear and sends them out living, breathing men and women to continue his ministry. He commissions us with, “As the Father has sent me so I send you.” In life, Jesus preached, taught, broke bread at the Table, forgave, and formed believers in a common faith. Suddenly, the same activities begin to take place among his earliest followers. What had been the work of Christ among disciples was now taking place within the community, and it still continues today. His word still comes in the often clumsy preaching; his freeing spirit enlarges our own cramped spirits; his love flowing bubbles from our midst; his courage, his unwillingness to compromise taken up by disciples no longer hiding behind locked doors, but men and women willing to face authority and speak the Word of Truth into being. The message the world hoped to stop on a Roman cross, the message the religious authorities hoped to stop by orders and jail, would fill Jerusalem and spill out beyond the borders and boundaries of all places and time, and continues with you, each and every one of you, as together in community that word continues to take on flesh in our lives and the lives touched by this community of faith. No longer will the world see the physical Christ walking on earth, but will continue to see Christ in the ministry, in the mission, of the church and the courage of the people in it. As we tell the story, his story, we are confronted with our own choices, no different than the early disciples. Just as Peter and the apostles wrestled with whether they could be, would be, reliable witnesses to the person and mission of Christ, whose authority would they obey, and how much were they willing to risk for the One they followed, we, too, in the church continue to wrestle with the same questions as we strive to remain loyal to the Christ we serve. Granted, we don’t do it perfectly; at best we are a patched-together group, not always of one mind or opinion. But we can accept that some wounds remain, even after resurrection: our backgrounds are different, our experiences different, our perspectives are different, but the Holy Spirit can make even differences holy. No wonder we continue to need the peace, power, and mercy of the Holy Spirit as we live out our shared life in Christ, practicing resurrection with each new day as the Word again takes on flesh and dwells among us.
So on the second Sunday of Easter, what now? We have been called to be part of Christ’s risen life on earth, so our fragile words of witness, our clumsy actions of ministry continue, as we look for opportunities to serve Christ and the folks around us in such a way that they will say, “We have seen the Lord!” as the Word takes on flesh through the presence of Christ who dwells among us.
2Luke 10: 5
3John 14:27, 16:33
Remember What He Said
April 21, 2019 (Easter)
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Crucified, dead, buried. Jesus warned his followers at least three times, yet, somehow, not by his own power, but by the power of God, he is raised. Easter, the dawn of a new day, a new way of life, where love and justice, shalom and joy, will have the last say when we remember and live out Jesus’ words.
The ladies go to the tomb with few expectations. They know Jesus is dead, real deal, and they know what that means. They are the women who have been with Jesus since the beginning, traveling the countryside of Galilee. The women waiting with him at the cross, watching the whole gory thing, keeping vigil during the day, seeing the spear thrust into him as blood and water spew out, watching Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take down his body, wrap it in linen, and carry it to the newly hewn tomb. They are the ones entering the tomb as the men lay him down, seeing how his body is laid. Then going home, while everyone else rests during the Sabbath they’re preparing the spices and ointment for a proper burial, the minute the law gives them leave. That’s how they spend their Sabbath, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary, the mother of James and the others. They could have just as easily been named Nora, Gayle, and Susan when the details of death need to be cared for by the living. They knew who to call—the ancient equivalents of Mona, for her signature white almond sheet cake, Judy, for any number of specialties, and all the rest of you, women and men, who show up and get in line to do what needs to be done time and time and time again. The women go to the tomb because they know that grief, no matter how great, can’t get in the way of all that death requires. But when they get there, the stone is moved. Jesus’ body is gone, the tomb emphatically empty. Still, in the shadowy light of dawn, when it’s hard to tell the difference between what is and what seems to be, appear two men. The ladies, brave enough to enter an open tomb, even if momentarily terrified by the male presence, neither faint nor flee, but stand their ground as they are asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Remember how he told you on the third day?” Remember? Remember? It’s only after prompting from the angels at the tomb that the women recall Jesus’ prediction, not just his announcement that the journey to Jerusalem will likely end in death, for even in the face of all their denials and avoidances how could it have ended otherwise? No, not only the prediction of his death, but the hint of something more, something beyond death, beyond the limits of any understood reality. The hint that had been lost as it boggled their minds when first spoken is now remembered as the past bears on the present in a way that surprises them. Only then, do they realize that they do not come to care for a dead Jesus, but that they serve the risen Lord. Doubt and confusion give way to deep seated conviction and they leave the tomb passing by the stone of logical expectation as they see a future filled with promise.
The women bring back good news, but then it stops. It doesn’t take the ladies long to return to the group of Jesus’ closest friends, Jesus’ grieving friends. Over and over they recite their tale. A story of an empty tomb, of angels, and of a new day dawning, but to no avail. The women, having seen a sight to behold, are energized with good news and run right into a brick wall of skepticism. “Idle tales,” say some of the guys. “What nonsense,” say others, as if the women are suffering from some kind of “group hysteria”—as if they are fuzzy-headed children, rather than the formidable women that they are, who have kept the entire group afloat. Still, it’s no wonder, the others are hesitant to believe, their disillusionment huge. Later that day a couple from the group will tell a stranger who walks to Emmaus with them “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” The disciples, men and women, have given up their families, their livelihood, their very lives to follow Jesus, believing him to be the Messiah. Yet, three days earlier he was hung on a tree like the worst of criminals; their hopes have crashed and burned, and for all they know, they may be next. Jesus’ followers, who have had a front row seat to the unanticipated and unexpected as they followed him, have forgotten his words and have little room for resurrected bodies within their realm of reason. Easter faith makes no sense to folks who want their faith to be tangible, practical, and rational. Yet, good old Peter, the tale of the women propels him to investigate for himself, and while he may not return convinced, seeds of amazement begin to take root, and once begun will, in time, grow deeper. If he’s skeptical for now, he’s in good company. The reality is whenever the Easter message is shared, some will be amazed, and faith will slowly begin, while others will find it humbug.
Yet, it’s only by “remembering his words” that the good news takes on life. It’s only in remembering that the Easter message begins to make sense. Unless there’s a frame of reference, unless there’s an experience, how can folks believe? It will take the breaking of bread on the road to Emmaus. It will take Jesus appearing to his disciples, reminding them of his teachings in Galilee, before the disciples can accept a mystery so great as Easter. The story of resurrection only finds its meaning when it’s connected with the life and words of Christ. When the first disciples made the connection, they realized that his life, death, and resurrection was the way God had brought the Kingdom Jesus preached into being. Jesus’ death wasn’t the completion of his ministry, his resurrection was. With it, a new day had dawned. They understood that the Kingdom wasn’t some future in the Sweet By and By, but is “present-tense now.” That’s what gave the first disciples, who had denied and run away, the courage to stand before the crowds, before the authorities, and continue his message, the courage to pool their resources and live in community, the courage to move outside of their tribal norms, outside the “-isms” of culture, race and religion, to accept even Gentiles like Cornelius. The good news of Easter was shaping them even as they were re-shaping their part of the world because they remembered what he said and they started practicing what he preached. Maybe we, too, need to remember, and let Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection re-shape our lives as well. Maybe we who have heard the old, old story need a little re-tweaking that we might live it anew, live out the Kingdom in the “present-tense now,” as well. Like the women who go to the tomb, taking care of all that death requires, so believers take care of all that life lived abundantly requires, as well. So who are the lowly who could use a hand up? Who are the folks who are falling outside of our so called safety nets, and what are we doing to cause the nets to enlarge or shrink? Who do we ignore, allowing their choices, their rights, to evaporate like smoke on a windy day? Surely we don’t have to look too hard. The remembering that disciples do, regardless of whether it’s the first or the 21st century, is more than memories flitting across our collective minds, but a tangible kind of remembering that takes on flesh and makes a difference. And while there always seems to be evidence that evil has the upper hand, that Easter is just an idle tale of nonsense, fear not, God’s grace will ultimately overcome as surely as the tomb is empty and Jesus is resurrected. And we know it when we remember what he said.
The focus of Easter isn’t when Jesus breaths his last, but when he leaves the “linen cloth of death” behind. Today, we are called to be resurrection partners, not passive bystanders. Perhaps, with us, by God’s grace the world begins all over again if we will remember what he said, that a new day has dawned. If we remember what he said, bring in the kingdom.
It is Finished
April 19, 2019 (Good Friday)
Rev. Susan H. Francis
John 19: 16b-30
We gather tonight because Jesus died. The method of execution not something neat and clean, like a lethal injection, but a cross that’s whole purpose was to kill as slowly and painfully as possible. We, Protestants, fill our sanctuaries with empty crosses, taking comfort in our focus of resurrection, making it easy to skip over that someone first was on it. But to do so allows us to visually avoid the whole gory mess of death, as if an occupied cross will cause us to fixate like we do with strangers in a bad accident. Only this is no stranger, but Jesus, God’s own flesh and blood, the One with the power to heal, to cast out demons, to raise others from the dead, and it’s all he can do from his vantage point to mutter, “It is finished.”
How did we get to this place, to Good Friday, to the very end where Jesus says, “It is finished” and dies? It sure doesn’t sound like what the God who brings worlds into being, who breathes life into creation, would have planned. It sure doesn’t seem like what Jesus, the one with the “in” on God’s will and full of God’s power, would have hoped. Such a God doesn’t make a convincing case for “cradle to cross” theology—Jesus born to die, with everyone, including Jesus, playing pre-ordained roles in God’s plan of salvation, like puppets on marionette strings—if God is truly the source of life. That doesn’t seem to be how God works. Just because it happens doesn’t mean it’s God’s will. There are lots of things that happen that fall short of the abundant life God wishes for each of us, including Jesus. If we’re honest, we know there are other powers at work in our world. God’s will isn’t located in a vacuum, and every one of us has a choice whether we will fulfill or frustrate what God desires. Jesus, the one who actually lived out God’s will, wasn’t naive but had to know that when fear, jealousy, and power are on the line, what is fair, just, and right doesn’t have a chance. All along the way he could have changed his outcome, could have stopped operating in the open, gone underground, stayed across the river instead of raising Lazarus. When they came to arrest him, he didn’t have to step into the light of the torches like he had a bull’s eye painted on him. “Are you Jesus of Nazareth?” they ask, and he gives them his alias, “I am.” It’s God’s name from a different perspective, the same name given to Moses at the burning bush, “I am who I am, and I will be who I will be.” It’s not the only answer that could have been given, but maybe it was the only one he was willing to give. It’s no wonder they decided, come hell or high water, he was finished. It’s the world’s “no” to God’s “yes” that brings Jesus to the cross, dripping life’s blood. A life given, rather than taken. Perhaps the defeat of God’s will, but also the perfection of it.
“It is finished,” Jesus says. Just what’s finished? The pain, the suffering? Pain may be the biggest test of faith that any one is called to face. It’s only human to avoid suffering, to run from it. It’s a natural reflex, a physiological response to painful stimuli. It warns us that something’s dangerous. Pain and suffering are things Jesus was all too familiar with, growing up around Nazareth, going to Jerusalem for the high holy days, traveling the countryside. He grows up seeing the various results of rebellion to Rome’s occupancy. And the punishments are never painless, the worst offences Roman crosses that lined the roads. He knew that kind of suffering was meant to deter others, like himself, from making choices that would land them there. He knew of the beatings with a leather strap, nail studded to rip down to the muscle, he knew what the weight of a body held in place by spikes could do to flesh and muscle, he saw what the suffocation that would eventually cause death looks like. Jesus was no stranger to suffering. Maybe, it was such firsthand observations that spurred him to try to eliminate suffering where and when he could, casting out demons, healing bent backs and blind eyes, and raising a few from the dead. Jesus seems to make a point not to turn from suffering, but enter into it fully. It seems like he did the same when it comes to his own, as well. Rather than run from it, he seems to confront it, deciding that whether to suffer isn’t the question, only how, as he is hurt to death on the cross. But as bad as that might be, it probably hurts a whole lot less than the betrayal of his friends, folks who sleep when he needs them the most, who sell him to enemies, who deny ever knowing him, who are no-shows as he waits for three hours to die. Let’s face it, physical suffering is always dimmed by emotional pain, the nails in his hands not nearly as bad as the nails through his heart. There’s some sad irony that the One who did so much to relieve suffering would find himself in the midst of the worst of it. So here he is, his life not taken as much as it’s given, since he always knew it could end this way if he continued with his Kingdom of God message, riding his pain all the way to the end until he says, “It is finished.”
“It is finished,” Jesus says. Just what’s finished? Has he completed what he came to do? Jesus comes preaching God’s kingdom, God’s vision for the world, refusing to back down from the message he was born to bring: that God so loved the world that God has made a major investment in flesh and blood. Jesus comes loving us that we might grow into the fullness of our humanity, a humanity that can sometimes sparkle with the divinity of the One in whose image we’re created. Jesus loves us, not with a sticky enabling love, but with a fierce love that insists that the spirit of the law is at least as important as the letter of the law. A fierce love that will not watch the widow go hungry or the leper shunned. A fierce love that will turn over tables rather than see God turned into a commodity. From start to finish Jesus maintains his course, refusing the temptation to play to the crowds, to curry social favor, or get in good with the in-group. Jesus dies because he won’t be seduced by compromise and ambition. He won’t stop being who he is, even if who he is upsets a lot of folks as he turns the world upside down, eating and drinking with the wrong folks, offending the right ones, or challenging any authority with a different view of God and God’s law. Jesus could have chosen another route, but he felt God calling him to Jerusalem through valleys of conflict and persecution even as he shows the crowds glimpses of holy along the way. Jesus spends the last three years of his life refusing to compromise God’s vision but instead trusting in God’s will, which seem to be the very things that have put him on the cross. As he is held by nails of fear and anger, Jesus completes what he came here to do: proclaim the reign of God, refuse to compromise, hold on to his integrity, and when he gives up his life it is a choice, not a capitulation. What is finished is any separation between Jesus and God. Then Jesus gives up his spirit, his thirst quenched, and dives back into the stream of living water from which he had sprung and swims all the way home.1
“It is finished,” Jesus said. We have done our worst to him. He has breathed his last breath. Perhaps, his work will culminate not with his death, but with his resurrection, but for now Easter is still just a rumor, and Jesus has breathed his last.
1 I know I have read this somewhere, I believe it is from one of Barbara Brown Taylor’s writings.
*This sermon has been shaped by the writings of David Buttrick and Barbara Brown Taylor and any “stealing” has been accidental
April 14, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29
Palm Sunday celebrates, in reality, the genesis of the Christian Resistance Movement, a movement that continues even in our here and now. If we’re honest, the questions of what or how to resist a lawfully constituted authority are as difficult today as they were in its beginning, for when people of faith rise up, while the world may change, it is always opposed. To deny that is to deny the history of the church. Certainly, the civil rights movement came out of Christian resistance, as did the church’s stand against South Africa’s Apartheid and the Nazi regime. Even the American Revolution was, to a large extent, a religious rebellion, known as the “Presbyterian Revolt” in British circles. Before that the Reformation was viewed as a massive resistance movement, as was the Magna Carta of 1215, the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), the arrest of Peter and the apostles1, and all the way back to, you guessed it, the event we name as Palm Sunday. Makes us pause, doesn’t it? All the palms we waved as kids and then turned into palm crosses, the shouts of Hosanna, all part of our inheritance of a resistance movement that operated in broad daylight.
Jesus going to Jerusalem the final time sounds like some kind of espionage work, something concocted by an underground, or some kind of ancient Mission Impossible show, “Should you decide to accept this mission.” Let’s face it, when it comes to Jesus’ ride for the parade, either he’s remarkably clairvoyant or he’s made plans ahead of time, pre-arranging the password, “The Lord needs it,” so that the colt would be ready, just waiting for pickup and delivery. He sends out two disciples, like advance agents, full of secrecy, sign and countersign exchanged, as Jesus moves from orchestrating things to literally going for a ride. And it doesn’t seem to be an accident, according to the author of Luke, that a whole multitude of disciples, maybe from independent cells unknown to each other2, gather as the folks from Galilee (with whom Jesus tripped around the countryside for three years), and a second cell from Judea (around Jerusalem, a group to whom the colt belonged, perhaps familiar with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus), at the same particular time swell the streets already busy with Passover pilgrims. Throwing down their cloaks like an ancient red carpet, his followers shift the usual Passover blessing from “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” to “Blessed is the king who comes” as they shout Hosannas, meaning nothing like: “God, You really rock” or even “Praise to You,” but “Save us”; that’s what Hosanna means. The very request a people under foreign occupation would ask of a king, they ask of Jesus, as God’s agent picks up the mantle of Messiahship. All timed with the thoroughness of an underground movement, meaning to make a difference in the world they know.
Who’s at the center of the intrigue but Jesus, there in the midst of what is arguably the most volatile and political of any of the Jewish festivals? The very word, Passover, a kind of shorthand for the entire Exodus experience: leaving Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, becoming God’s own at Mt. Sinai, the commandments, the wilderness, and the Promised Land all drawn together at the Passover meal. It is a holiday meant to invoke the memory of rescue, of liberation, by the God of the Jews from the greatest superpower of their ancestors’ time, ever so much like their present time Roman conquerors. It’s the reason Pontius Pilate leaves the comfort of his coastal home in Caesarea Maritima for parochial Jerusalem, along with his regiments of soldiers. When Jesus decides to go to Jerusalem, he knows he’s placing himself in a cauldron of political danger. Pilate’s known to have no love for the Jews he oversees. His cruelty, legendary. He’s already mingled the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices3, and Jesus has no reason to think Pilate would treat him any differently. But it’s not only the Romans; Jesus has to know that entering Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives will lead the folks who surround him to expect he brings God’s promised new era4, a kingdom they expect to be forged from military conquest and endowed with amazing prosperity. The trouble is, it won’t take long for the parade to decide he is a disappointing imposture when the Romans grab him . And when the cries of “save us” are met with silence, when the king is seen as less efficient, less aggressive, than the standard the crowd insists upon, then disillusioned parades will become angry mobs fast. What is Jesus thinking as he places himself in the crosshairs of both the Romans and the Jews, unless his carefully made plan simply reflects his commitment to live out the Kingdom of God rather than the kingdom the people expect, even if that means going to the city that will reject and crucify him—not because he wants to die, but that he wants the good in him, the good in us, the good in everyone, to live. He’s been warning disciples of his possible death all along the long trek to Jerusalem. The cross that has been in the distance now looms directly before him. To face it takes a certain kind of bravery, not the bravery that’s instinctual (that pushes someone to throw themselves over a child in front of an oncoming car, although that is courageous), but the kind of courage that sees danger coming from a long way off, has the time to process and come up with alternative paths, yet chooses to remain faithful, enduring growing fears as he stays the course. Jesus becomes a model for folks who would follow him by resisting forces immoral and unethical in the name of the God to whom he answers, putting himself at the center of intrigue to bring us to new expectations for our lives.
Of course, a cloak of silence can be a good camouflage. Sometimes it may be wise to bide our time, while at other times it’s just a cop out. Caution, some of the Pharisees advise. Not all Pharisees oppose Jesus; remember, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are part of the Sanhedrin and it was some Pharisees who warned him earlier of Herod’s displeasure5. Addressing him as teacher, perhaps they offer words of caution for good reason, understanding that such a display of royalty might bring retaliation from the folks in power? Can’t he just tone it down a little and see where his actions are leading? Doesn’t he get the cost, and they’re not just talking money? Their concern is a mixture for the people, themselves, and even for Jesus. Maybe a part of us agrees with the Pharisees. We are a people obsessed with efficiency, prosperity, and certainly, safety. Just what compromises are made to our faith when we consider the costs and risks of his claim on our lives? And just how well do we think Jesus’ message would sit with today’s centers of power if they would actually listen to him? Yet, Jesus’ words challenge us to focus not so much on what lies ahead, but on the One astride the colt. Jesus takes part in an act of resistance that the good in us might live, and asks the same of us. But it’s up to us to decide whether we’ll embrace integrity and hope or hide behind security and smallness. Some of our choices might be painful: we can deny and turn away or reach out and touch them. That’s the crux of Palm Sunday, that’s the crux of Passover. The rabbis tell us that the miracle of the Red Sea wasn’t the parting of waters, but that with a wall of water on either side, the first Jew walked through. It took trust in God to do what should be done, just as it takes trust for Jesus to go into Jerusalem and do what is needed, just as it takes courage for us to follow him now. As in Jesus’ time, we are surrounded by situations that have solutions. Most of them aren’t so different now than in Jesus’ time: care of the widow, the orphan, the alien, figuring out who is our neighbor and how shall we treat them? Funny, how the more things change, the more they stay the same. But the good news is the Scriptures have much to say about all such matters, all the while challenging us to be honest and ask ourselves if we speak of morality while acting immoral, if we complain about violence while we practice it, if we act religiously and forget the Gospel. Like Rome we can suppress opposition and deny questions, like Jerusalem we can stone prophets, or we can follow Jesus and stand up for the good, the right, and the true, participating in Kingdom work, no matter the cost. God knows, Palm Sunday praises without the passion make a hollow and dangerous religion. It’s up to us to decide who and what will guide our voices and our actions. It’s up to us to decide if we’ll turn our backs or join the parade, as the stones prepare to sing out.
Just when it would be great to enjoy the parade and think of chocolate bunnies waiting to be eaten, we find ourselves on a crowded, noisy road on the way to Jerusalem, caught between the Romans, the Pharisees and Jesus, caught between keepers of the systems and the Word of God, caught between the status quo and a resistance movement, and the choice is ours as to which we will join.
2A theory a very credible colleague of mine had years ago... It seems to work in this passage.
Gestures of Love
April 7, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Jesus comes to Bethany six days before Passover. Bethany is a mere two miles to the east of Jerusalem, on the east side of Mount of Olives, from which glad “hosannas” will ring out. No wonder he comes to his home away from home, a place where he knows he’s loved. The religious leaders are hot on his trail. Healing a bent woman, returning sight to a blind man on the Sabbath is one thing, but raising the dead is something altogether different. Coming from the safety of the far side of the Jordan to raise Lazarus, practicing what he preaches, means he trades his life for the life of a friend. It’s put Jesus on the most-wanted list. He knows it. His friends know it, as well.
It seems Mary’s in her usual place when Jesus comes to dinner, attentive to him, at his feet. Maybe that’s no surprise since Martha’s busy commandeering the kitchen and the serving of the guests, and Lazarus is hanging with the guys, each in their usual spots as well. What is surprising is when Mary breaks open the jar of spikenard. Its heady, sharp fragrance, somewhere between mint and ginseng, fills the entire room, the entire house. They all know things are dicey, that death is near, but Mary also knows that in times of trouble, peril, or pain the thing that carries us through, what creates the most comfort, is found through the holy sacrament of skin and tears1. She’s aware that shortly after he leaves he will enter the city of Jerusalem, and he’ll need the comfort, the security, of knowing that he is loved if he’s to show the extravagant love of washing his disciples’ feet, as Mary washes his, of handing himself over to be arrested, of withstanding the beating he takes, of carrying his cross to Golgotha. Mary’s actions, her refusal to hold anything back, is an echo of the God who holds nothing back from us. And if there’s any doubt, the world will see, very shortly, God’s love spilling out on a cross in abundant love. Mary recognizes the rarity of the moment and she seizes the opportunity to show her commitment to the One she believes in, as every detail points to her faithfulness. Her gift, exceeds all expectation, like the wine at the wedding in Cana, as she anticipates what his future will be. But even her extravagance can’t erase the smell of death that wafts in the air like the stench from Lazarus’ tomb. Death can’t be erased or even overcome in its inevitability. That’s the truth of living, of incarnation. To live means to die, and even the promise of resurrection can’t take that reality away. Mary can’t erase the smell of death, but she can match it with a fragrance that will drive it back for a time as she cares for him, as his need presents itself at her doorstep and around her table.
Then along comes Judas—there’s always one in the crowd. Somebody’s always got to complain, as if no good deed can go unpunished. We live in a world with such a tendency to whitewash bad choices that it’s easy to be suspicious, critical even, of good intentions. As the fragrance of the nard fills the room, Judas takes it upon himself to call attention to, to scold, what he deems as Mary’s misguided generosity, claiming concern for the poor. It’s a criticism that gives us pause; maybe he’s got a point? Aren’t we supposed to do all things in moderation, use restraint, avoid any shows of ostentation, be prudent, and tuck something away for a rainy day? Isn’t our Presbyterian byword to be decent and in order? Mary’s gift is lavish to any practical minded economy. Yet, Jesus blesses it, instead, warning Judas to leave her alone. It’s not like Jesus is suddenly pulling rank on the poor, it’s not like he hasn’t spent the last three years making a regular practice of putting others’ needs before his own or healing them so they could work and feed themselves, or teaching them to care for and help each other out. Jesus has lived his life reflecting God’s overarching call to care for the neighbor and pushing society towards a goal of “no one in need.” But if Judas was honest, the poor aren’t really the point, but a cover for his tight-fisted greed that Moses, as Jerry read, instructs against. Judas entirely misses that along the way, there are milestones when special acts of generosity, of extravagance–in-love, are fitting2. Mary gets that it’s no ordinary dinner. She knows the end is near, so she honors Jesus in the shadow of death. But Judas doesn’t have the kind of relationship with Jesus to understand the love or care that goes into a relationship. He doesn’t know that a relationship with Jesus is more important than thirty pieces of silver, or anything else. Instead, he uses Moses’ commandment as a tool to criticize Mary.
Perhaps, that’s the difference between folks who believe, who viscerally take into themselves the meaning of faith, and folks who are one step removed, observant, but not invested, not living into their call. It’s easy to forget that it’s really Jesus we serve when we honor, when we love whomever God places before us. What won’t always be with us is the opportunity to care, to make a difference in that person’s life. The Kingdom of God is here; the choice is how shall we live into its promise? Do we choose measured risk and miss out on what could be? Or do we offer extravagant care and live into God’s vision? Will we honor gestures of love as sacred to God or hold back with suspicion or apathy? We all hold a jar filled with time and energy; for whom will we spill it? Today we will be recognizing a group of folks who have offered such care. Who have, on their way to Jerusalem, found themselves at milestones where specific acts of generosity, of extravagant love, were called for. And they have poured themselves out, showing up most Wednesday nights to cook, or to sit patiently and work with one student or two, going over homework, drilling flash cards, reading a book, and listening to a young person in need of an ear. Folks who have poured themselves out, loving kids into a future they may not have had, in quite the same way, without the impact of such folks, making a difference in lives by being in relationship and living into their call by living into the Kingdom. But let’s face it, tutoring is only one way, one opportunity, in a myriad of ways, to make a difference in the world. So look around, see what or who God has placed before you. There’s always the choice to live with indifference, or to love like Mary; to complain about the waste of it all, or break open the jar and breathe in the fragrance; to watch from the side, or be a person moved by your faith.
Mary’s anointing of Jesus is a rich story full of treasures we can carry with us as we travel towards Jerusalem with Jesus. As people of the incarnation, we are called to break bread, share the fruit of the grape, shed tears, sit with uncertain students, and a multitude of other acts that are sacred gestures of love given to the world around us, given to the Lord we serve.
1Journey with Jesus
2SALT, Lectionary Commentary for Lent 5, April 2, 2019.
March 31, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
II Corinthians 5:16-21
We all know the story. It’s one of the best known and best loved of the parables. One of my favorite preachers warns that it’s a tale that can become limp from too much handling1, the tale of a loving father and his two sons. One of which takes off only to, predictably, squander everything he has; the other, the good kid who stays home. Maybe, our challenge today is to hear it with fresh ears. Like the old Greek said, you can’t enter the same river twice2, perhaps, if we listen we won’t hear the same parable twice without finding something new.
“Father, give me my share,” the younger son says. The kid orders his dad, as if he’s in charge, absolutely unheard of in the ancient world, far less acceptable than such abrasiveness is now. And when we realize somebody has to die for it to be an inheritance, we suddenly get that the kid’s just ripped the old man’s heart out, as well, as he takes the money and runs, only to lose himself in wine, women, and song. How can we help but think he’s an impetuous, demanding, self-centered, and self-serving little scoundrel? Yet, there’s something about him that should give us pause. Who among us, at one time or another, hasn’t felt a gnawing for freedom, self-expression, hasn’t hungered for a depth or passion or an exotic elsewhere that is far from the Table. Maybe, we can sympathize with the kid a little, we get the hungering, but, for most of us, what is a desire for a taste for him is utter gluttony, and he bellies up to the bar always in search of more. Life is great until it isn’t. Without two cents to rub together, it’s amazing how quickly his new-found friends abandon him. The younger son soon finds the cuisine in a pigsty not to his liking (not surprising for a Jewish boy), and suddenly the adventure is over. We’ve got to wonder if he’s still hungry to the core for what drew him from his father’s table, or if he’s just hungry to the core when he decides there are three square meals to be had back home. Goodness knows, if you’re already a con man it doesn’t take much to feign a little contrition and open your hand out for a meal ticket. And that’s exactly what he does. Even his dire straits aren’t enough to convict him. No, human beings have an amazing ability to talk ourselves out of becoming a new creation. He may acknowledge his sin “before heaven and you, Father” but there’s no “I’ll amend my ways and change my life.” That’s not part of the deal. His aim is to eat, as he continues his opportunistic ways; con man that he is, he’s still saying, “Father, give me my share.”
But the younger son isn’t the only one with the words on his lips. Funny, the older son says the same thing, “Father, give me my share,” “Where’s my party, the goat for me and my friends? “Give me what I’m due,” never realizing it was already there for him to take. Our sympathies go out to the oldest son. He’s the kind of guy who always pays his bills, calls his grandmother regularly, and changes his oil on time. We can’t help but wonder if he, too, once had dreams of leaving home but didn’t go because he was busy being responsible. We get him standing outside the house appalled and furious at the sound of music and laughter as the smell of cooking meat reaches his nose. He’s sore, tired, and sweat-soaked after working all day, wanting nothing so much as a hot shower, a decent meal, and a bed, but now the wandering child has come home and his dad has the nerve to rejoice. Where’s the justice in that? The lack of fairness makes us seethe as well, to see his father’s love so wild and unfettered, all tipped on the side of generosity and love. Which part of it all can’t the older child, can’t we, stomach? What is it we resent, the grace, the inclusion of someone we deem as unworthy, or the welcomed back without penalty? Rightness is on his side. I suspect he would find Paul’s words about regarding no one from a human point of view a bitter pill to swallow. He has no intention of forgiving any trespasses. Forget about grace upon grace, how about punishment upon punishment. He is, in the words of Mark Twain, a good man in the worst sense of the word. The problem is, while his brother left home and squandered his inheritance, the older son stayed home and squandered his. He’s never noticed his dad loves him, too, because it’s not love he wants, only his due. The fatted calf, the best wine, the party could have been his anytime he wanted them, except he’s never thought to ask because he’s been too busy dutifully trying to earn them. There’s no grace in goodness that must be earned. That’s when goodness becomes its own prison, especially if that’s all you’re depending on. The shame of it is, he’s never said to his dad, “Help me find joy in what I’m doing. Help me embrace what is mine so that I’m not so angry at my brother or so resentful towards you for continuing to look for him. Help me to accept myself. Show me how to love.” Instead, he stands in the cold at the door, lost in a distance from his brother and his father so great he can’t figure out how to close the gap—one hundred percent right, one hundred percent alone, having squandered his real inheritance, saying, “Father, give me my share.”
So what’s a father to do? The reality is, as much as he loves them, both of his boys have left home. One son breaks the rules, the other son keeps them, but on a deep level, both have severed their relationship with their father. Of course, the old man wants reconciliation. In the ancient world, reconciliation means someone, like an ambassador, serves as a bridge, a go-between, to restore the relationship. Usually the ambassador works for the one who breaks the connection, but, here, the father refuses to leave it up to the one who creates the break, but takes on the job of reconciling, himself. He refuses to stay in the house aloof and waiting, refuses to condemn either son, but instead publically humiliates himself, not once, but twice. First to the younger, declining to attack with, “You no good slacker,” but instead, he watches and waits for the kid. And when he sees him, he’s filled with compassion, running, not walking, to him, as if the old man understands the kid’s hunger, as if he knows the kid couldn’t return home without first leaving any more than he could taste resurrection without first dying, as if being lost has to happen before the kid can be found. And then to the elder, the dad doesn’t square off with him on the porch, telling him in a voice deadly quiet to “get in the house and stop airing our dirty laundry in public, we’ll talk later.” Instead, the old man, again filled with compassion, goes out to plead with the elder kid, loving him for all his “good” faults, only to be met with how he’s fallen short of the kid’s expectations. Yet, he continues to assure his son that he loves him even so, and has always loved him, and will always love him. To each son the father offers a costly demonstration of salvation—the lost is found, and joy—let us celebrate and be glad. Let’s face it, in the story the real prodigal, defined as profuse or lavish, even reckless, expenditure, is the father. Somewhere along the line the old man’s learned that celebration is a teacher and mercy is like the balm of Gilead, that when it comes to grace, no one receives what he deserves, but vastly more, and that love never ends but welcomes each child home. No wonder he insists on celebrating, and he can’t imagine a party without both sons present. He knows that grace doesn’t follow repentance, but enables repentance, and not just his sons’ but our repentance as well. It’s the story, not only of a father, but of God’s extravagant love, forgiveness, and grace for us, as God forgives us and our neighbors even before we repent. Indeed, it’s God’s grace that makes our repentance possible, our turning away from death and towards life. We’ve been welcomed home no matter what our transgressions, all of us standing in the need of grace. Even though we have an amazing ability to settle for the pods the pigs eat or tolerate banquets of bitterness, God comes out to meet us where we are, and invites us in.
Some lessons can only be learned as we laugh, some hearts can only be healed as we feast. It’s cold outside, a party beckons, the music is sweet, and the best communion fruit of the vine is poured. It doesn’t matter if you’ve come early or late, have a checkered past or are as clean as drifted snow. Come into the wholeness. Come home.
1Barbara Brown Taylor
2Haraclitus of Ephesus
For the Love of God
March 24, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Today’s reading has its start back in chapter 12, beginning with a hard promise of judgment. Our passage is the conclusion to a series of dire warnings Jesus has been preaching. He predicts, like an ancient version of CNN or Fox News, disruption in family life, economics, religious tradition, and I dare say, even human destiny, as he pushes the crowd to get ready for God’s new world coming near. Maybe it’s no surprise they hint that they need no further trouble, no extra disruption, from the religious faction. They’ve already got more than they can handle.
Folks come to Jesus with breaking news. Galileans have been slaughtered like the lambs they brought for sacrifice. While folks may be horrified at the tragedy, they’re probably not surprised. Pilate’s known for his brutality, his disdain for the Jew’s religious practices legendary. But did they deserve what they got? Or how about the eighteen who died in an architectural failure, much like the folks in the Ashtabula train wreck. Do you think their suffering was due to sinfulness, Jesus asks? If he hadn’t, someone else would have. Somebody always does. We 21st century Christians don’t like to think we equate suffering as a consequence of sin like the folks in Jesus’ day, that we aren’t so naive as to think tragedies necessarily have a cause and effect logic. Yet, when towers crumble and devout people are cruelly gunned down, we wonder why, trying to locate blame, sin, somewhere. If we’re honest, in most of us there’s a place deep down where our secrets live that wonders and questions, “What did I do to deserve this?” “Was it my fault?” And if we get no answer, we move on to the next person. “They should have instructed their pilots better.” “Her friends should have waited until she got into the house safely.” And when there’s no one left to blame, we move on to God. “Why did God allow it to happen?” “Why isn’t God healing the cancer?” “Why did God let the baby die?” For if God is truly all-powerful how can God let the terrible stuff that happens happen? It’s easy to forget that when God brings the world into being and calls it good, God shares with us some of the same creativity and freedom, making us not God’s puppets, without will or agency, but God’s children, created in God’s own image. But with our creativity and freedom, God has given up some control, not because God’s impotent, but because God is loving. When terrible things happen, it doesn’t mean God doesn’t care, it doesn’t mean God’s left the room. It doesn’t mean God’s far from us or tragedy. Our freedom, our choice, is what led us in jealousy, fear, and ambition to nail Jesus, God-with-us, to the cross. Even God lives within the randomness of nature, within the perversion of human choice. Stuff will happen. We chase the question “why” around and around, trying to put things into a logical perspective, as if that might make it comprehensible, as if that might make our world seem stable, as if we might cross our t’s and dot our i’s in just the right formula to avoid the pain around us. In a world of creativity and choice, evil will happen, and yet we ask why?
How’s Jesus respond, but by calling us to repent? Jesus follows up the news of the tragedies with a troubling reply: repent. What’s suffering have to do with repentance? Remember, in the Bible repentance has nothing to do with salt tears and sawdust trails, but everything to do with turning our hearts and minds, changing our directions and our lifestyles. Maybe Jesus is saying we need to change our direction when it comes to suffering from “why?” to “how?”, turn from looking backwards with blame as if that will bring healing and looking forward to how to live into, how to change things for the future. How do we endure in a world where unexpected disasters occur, be they natural, like the flooding in the Midwest, or human made, like last week’s massacre in New Zealand? How do we live in a world where suffering happens, but with repentance? Too often, we settle for gods of our own choosing and wonder why it just doesn’t get us anywhere. We spend money for that which isn’t bread and labor for that which doesn’t satisfy, rather than seeking the Lord while God may be found. We turn from God and succumb to temptation. For the love of God, repent, Jesus says, that we might bear good fruit. Repent for silence in calling out hate language wherever we hear it and move forward with better expectations. Repent for averting our glance when we see unjust decisions whenever it doesn’t affect our family or our tribe, and work for justice for everyone. Repent for tolerating excuses instead of getting to real issues. Repent of our complacency, our enabling, our refusal to treat others as we expect to be treated. Repent, or we will die. For the prophet Isaiah assures us when we forsake our evil ways, God’s grace provides all the transformative possibility we need. It isn’t contingent on our own efforts, just our openness to receive it. Let’s be honest, Jesus isn’t just sitting back waiting for the ax to cut us down. The Spirit blows where it will, and the Word of the Lord doesn’t come back empty1. Repent that even in a world filled with suffering, we might create a different, a better future. Repent, Jesus says, return to me, walk the way of life. Repent.
Then, of all things, Jesus tells us a parable, a story. What kind of segue, what kind of ending is that? What do barren fig trees have to do with the suffering that surrounds us, have to do with bodies under towers and a tyrant’s murder spree? Sit on down, Jesus says, let me tell you a story that might help you rethink the overwhelming challenge of how we can live into the future where we can find the strength, the courage, to change our ways, to alter our lifestyle not for a day, or the six weeks of Lent, but for a lifetime. Jesus invites us not to be hammered by insipid statements, tidy formulas, or theories we won’t remember, but to settle in and sit with possibilities found in a story. A story that draws us into recognizing how easily we’re tempted to act like a landowner, pronouncing judgment, labeling folks as unreachable and situations as unchangeable, all the while refusing to get our hands dirty, communicating in words, actions, or inaction that nothing is salvageable and the soil could be better utilized. Jesus tells us a story2 that jogs our memory of just how it feels to be a problem, a barren fig tree, whether we’re an accomplished, older, white male or a trailblazing, young, Hispanic woman. What it feels like to be viewed as not worthy of the space we occupy, not appreciated for what we might bring to the table. How dead it feels, how unable to nourish others. Who can flourish when we’ve been written off and made invisible? Jesus tells us a story that bids us to see the possibilities the gardener sees, that the folks around us who we have deemed dead are ripe for new life if they just had a bit more building up and support, how the situations around us can change with time and effort by someone who cares. Clearly God’s thoughts are not our thoughts as God pushes us to take an active part in redemptive transformation, pushing us to go knee deep in the manure, to pour our life and hope into a project with no guarantee of fruit. Only to find at the end that regardless of the outcome, we, too, have been nourished and given life by the absurd amount of grace that God has poured into us with no guarantee of our outcome. God gives us multiple chances to root ourselves in holy ways as God digs and fertilizes and patiently waits for the seeds of God’s own divine creativity to blossom in us, transforming and making us new, that we might live out the fruitful lives.
During the weeks of Lent is a good time to do some digging around, recognizing the places in our lives that could use a little turning, a little repenting, as we tap into God’s grace and patience. For the love of God, let us respond with new growth, for the world can’t afford our barrenness much longer.
1Jill Duffield, “Looking into the Lectionary,” Presbyterian Outlook, 24 March 2019.
2Debi Thomas, “Ask a Better Question,” Journey with Jesus, 24 March 2019.
The Comfortable Need Not Apply
March 17, 2019
Rev. Susan H. Francis
At the Transfiguration Jesus “turns his face to Jerusalem” and doesn’t look back. After spending time going to and fro in the countryside of Galilee and beyond, once he’s been to the mountaintop, his gaze narrows and he moves towards Jerusalem with purpose. It will still take a while to get there; he will continue to care for the sick, teach whoever will listen, restore community to people pushed to the margins, liberate folks held captive to spirits that would rob them of abundant life, and bless children along the way. But his path is focused: he’s going to Jerusalem.
Speaking truth to power isn’t an easy job. It’s not for folks who want a comfortable life. It is the job of prophets and they tend to be denied, ignored, belittled, jailed, or killed. Interestingly, it’s the Pharisees, often maligned by Gospel writers, who try to give Jesus the heads up that his prophetic disposition is about to bring unpleasant consequences. Herod’s reputation for cruelty is legendary: being on his radar is a ready recipe for suffering and he expects everyone in the sandbox to play his way. The human tendency to surround ourselves with folks who think and act like we do means when we’re the leader few will argue that it’s our way or the highway. Peer pressure, being what it is, like water wearing down stone, pushes most of us to fall in line—regardless of age—finding security in the “ethic” of if everybody’s doing it, it must be right. Just look at the halls of Congress, the playgrounds at the school yard, or even the four walls of our homes. It takes a lot less energy and is a lot more peaceful if everyone’s on the same page. Trouble is, few pages are pristine. Few of us are perfect, most of us blot the page, falling into lapses, limiting our values to only our perspectives, deforming truths we know by rationalizing. If we’re lucky, if we’re loved, that’s when prophets arise like mother hens, reminding us of who we really are—beloved children of God made in God’s image—naming the sin, the frailty that deforms us, calling us to turn around, to change our direction. Guiding us back to the truths we learned in kindergarten: to walk together when we face the danger of crossing the street; nap when we’re grumpy; eat when we’re hungry; share what we have with the new kid because there is enough to go around; and that we already know right from wrong, we just need to do it. Funny, though, our response to prophets, as if their reminders aren’t loving guidance but gnarled fingers unfairly pointing at us. And we react as if we couldn’t possibly have made a mistake, as if there’s nothing we could learn, as if any blot on our page is to suggest that we are less than perfect and anything less than perfect might be punished or destroyed rather than redeemed. We know when prophets are right, or we wouldn’t be so threatened, we wouldn’t react with such fear or hatred or violence to Jesus, or the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, or the Martin Luther King, Jrs. who come to us asking us to look at ourselves and do better. Instead, we kill them. When Jesus calls Herod a fox he isn’t saying foxes aren’t dangerous. He knows to continue his ministry means he’s marked with an expiration date, he’s in Herod’s crosshairs. Speaking truth to power might be the right thing to do, but it calls for righteousness and determination, for love and confrontation; it is needed but lonely. A prophet’s call sure isn’t easy.
The reality is, Jesus, like the prophets before him, like the prophets who follow him, looks at the world as it is and sees what it could be. Prophets plant themselves in the present, in the blessing and mire, and remind us all that God is right here in the middle of it with us, in the world God called into being and the world God continues to call into being. When Jesus hears of Herod’s murderous intent, both the world that is and the world that is becoming are held up for our examination. In the world that is, Herod is an icon of the powers that be. He uses ridicule, fear, hate, and death to shape the world to his liking. The Herods throughout the ages have held a mighty sway since the first kingdom captured the second, since the first bully squelched a weaker kid on the playground at the beginning of time, proclaiming “might makes right,” especially if we all acquiesce. But the world that is becoming, the one that we Christians are called, with God, to bring into being, is driven by the power of healing, creativity, compassion, and the ability to give life to whatever is dead and dying. Yet, in the world that is, the power of God is powerless against the person who chooses to oppose it. Jesus will get to Jerusalem, face Herod and Pilate, and he will die, just as dead as any son of any parent on the Friday morning massacre at the New Zealand mosque. The hands that healed the sick will be just as ruined as any dead man’s hands. Jesus’ defiant response will lead him to a cross. But it’s at his resurrection, not his cross, that we see the culmination of God’s saving work. The climax of Jesus’ story isn’t when he breathes his last, but when the linen cloths are left behind. Then Jesus will go back to Jerusalem. The city that kills its prophets will become the city where a new reign comes into being from which a movement goes out into all the world1 as the way of life vanquishes the power of death. As people of faith we live in two worlds, live in our embodied world with a heavenly perspective; we are in the world but we are not of the world.
Just as Jesus will not be deterred, if we follow him, then we can’t be dissuaded either. Jesus is determined to live out his prophecy, fulfilling his call as the Messiah, knowing who he is and what he needs to do because he heard it first in his lullaby as Mary sang her Magnificat. He spoke her words in his first sermon as the folks in Nazareth drove him out of town, and he continued to live them out as he journeyed to Jerusalem, healing, teaching, welcoming, blessing, and turning the world upside down. And the day we came up to the font by our own power or our mothers carrying us forward, we too were named, given our call, and set on our journey. Perhaps, we should have considered more fully what we were signing up for? But if we would truly follow him, then we, too, cannot be deterred. Calvin said it best: it wasn’t the apple or the eating of it, it was listening to another voice that takes us from the path we’re called to follow. But the Apostle Paul counsels us to hold firm, warning us against the many whispers luring us towards our own self-preservation that’s content with the status quo as long as we and our friends benefit, that compromises us to accept violence as how life has to be, and insists that we, not everybody, deserve a break today. But that’s not the voice of God who whispers to us, and it’s not the path Jesus walks. Instead, we have been called as a kind of advanced guard of the Kingdom, to live in its ways now. So when Jesus asks us to follow him, it’s to stand for justice that insists the most deserving, rather than the most wealthy, receive a place at the best schools; to refuse to indulge in the growing fear and hatred that is feeding the home grown terrorism of white nationalism, white supremacy, in so many countries; and to be led by children who have enough chutzpah to rally to protect the earth they will inherit. It’s not an easy road to walk. It takes a kind of character that’s built over a lifetime of facing our fears and accepting responsibilities that we could avoid, but refuse to do so. It takes a kind of character that comes from daring to make our part of the world a better place and then working to extend it further and further out. Only to find that along the way, the path we walk has taught us to care and do for others things that we might not have the courage to do for ourselves. When we do so God draws us into the shelter of God’s wings, that we might see that the love and courage at the core of Jesus is at the core of our being, as well. Just as what Jesus did between the Transfiguration and Easter matters, what we do day in and day out matters and we cannot be deterred.
In this season of Lent it takes courage to face the resistance we’ll find if we walk with Jesus on a path that refuses to abide within the confines of the powers that be but dances with the joy of caring for others, stands up for what’s right, and loves with a strength that is greater than death. It’s a path with costs, and folks looking to be comfortable need not apply.
1SALT, online lectionary Commentary, “Tender Mercy,” March 12, 2019.