Messages

Sermons

18
Jul

Reflections for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

i
I come from people who were never surprised by bad news–people with hope, with enormous resources to go on, but with a genetic strand that encountered and accepted bad news like a bill in the mail. “Ah, there you are.”

The way that worked out for me was the expectation that good things came with bad things somehow hitched along: gifts required some loss; a given talent meant some corresponding inability; get something, give some other hope away.

Paul writes about his vision of heaven–this mystical insight beyond anything that could be said–and then he says “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” And on a really deep level I’m thinking “that sounds right.”

That way of responding to to God, through whatever it was afflicted him, seems to have been helpful for Paul. But I just got stuck there, without asking for removal, because I assumed the same reply Paul received: that it was necessary. And that, it turns, out, was often a really unhelpful story to tell myself, because the losses and absences and inabilities in my life were not and are not cosmic balance for some other gift.

I say that because maybe you’ve told yourself a story like that; maybe its easy for you to decide that the thorn has a reason. After all, its “a thorn in the flesh” that has place in our talk.

But maybe, too, the way Paul understood how and why this affliction came is a distraction from the reason he tells the story.

ii
Things are going badly wrong in Corinth.

Paul is in the midst of a long and painful argument. Its difficult to see
because of how 2 Corinthians is put together today, but its assembled from letters going back and forth, as Paul and the community reached a point of open rupture.

Other, very different people have acquired authority in Corinth; impressive people, perhaps even claiming themselves to be greater apostles. And the church seems to have been persuaded by their show of strength—maybe some of the same people who, from the beginning, cut away at Paul for his unpolished Greek oratory—“they say, his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.”

So, Paul arrives at the point of saying that if it has come down to boasting, ‘ok, I’ll boast.’ Its anger and heartbreak and it spills out of Paul so forcefully, that he seems to shock himself—-“I am talking like a madman” he says. He lists everything that’s happened to him since he began to travel and preach:

“imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.
Three times I was beaten with rods.Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

“If I must boast,” he says, “I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”

Paul has been naked against every storm. And more, he admits the inner toll of his apostleship-—how exposed his heart is to all that happens in the churches; “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?” He is no immoveable tower. His passion makes him vulnerable.

Why does he admit this? Why does he lay himself bare like this?

He tells a story about how, fourteen years earlier he had his vision and received his thorn. And he asked for it to be taken away three times, and Christ said to him “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So,” Paul says “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”

He’d never told them that before, but that–that word of Lord–is how he got through, the whole time. Through everything that reduced and terrified him.
Through everything.

Perfect in weakness—that’s the paradox of the incarnation. That’s a paradox of the cross itself.

The weak in Christ get to know something the strong never do: being loved for themselves. The weak, who know that the value of life cannot be understood in terms of what they can make, or do, or control, but in the irreducible value invested in them by God who made them; who know have nothing to grasp at, no false proof, but the company of God as a witness and assurance that they are loved. And, for most of us, that kind of knowing will be a lifetime’s journey.

18
Jul

Reflections for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 5:21-43

i

I want to meditate with you on the middle part of today’s reading from Mark: the interruption in the healing of Jairus’s daughter, when a woman breaks into Jesus’ attention and into the story.

First, I want to talk about a way we often think about this story that, is, I think, a problem for the church. Then, I want to point to a way that I think this story goes right to our experience of suffering and hope. And last, I want to look hard at the way we see Jesus in this story.

ii

Its common for this passage to be preached and understood as an example of Jesus crossing religious boundaries to redeem the dignity of a outcast woman.
It goes like this: because the woman had a flow of blood, she was perpetually ritually unclean, and probably marginalized by her community.
By touching Jesus, she committed a significant offense, transmitting her ritual impurity to him, making him unclean. Jesus apparently couldn’t care less about this
and has therefore, yet again, dismissed the ritual life of religious Judaism.

But here’s the thing: ritual impurity never gets mentioned in the passage.
There’s not much evidence to suggest that women were, in any meaningful way, isolated or shamed or shunned because of bleeding. And, really, that stands to reason. People just about couldn’t avoid ritual impurity in the normal course of everyday life.
If you were touched by a person with her kind of ritual unclean-ness, you became unclean only until sunset—not the end of the world. And if she has washed her hands in water, she wouldn’t have transmitted impurity at all. Being ritually clean mattered to Jews—it just doesn’t seem to matter very much in this story. And we can see the profound way in which Jesus affirms the dignity of this woman—God enfleshed calls her daughter!—without throwing her culture under the bus.

So, lets put that aside.

iii

Its also common for this passage to be understood as a teaching about the power of faith. In this way of reading, the woman is the center of the story. And, in some ways, she is the center of the story—the person we connect with. The woman who has been loosing blood; loosing station—Mark tells us she had given all she had to physicians, which means this illness has slowly devoured her prosperity;
loosing hope—she has suffered much under physician after physician, trying remedy after course of remedy, and had only gotten worse. She’s is dying in slow motion
and she is desperate. And as the crowd moves with Jesus on his way to Jairus’ house,
she seizes her moment to reach out and touch him, because she has seen enough of Jesus to believe—in spite of everything that has happened to her, every dashed hope—
that even a touch will heal her.

iv

But what about the part of the story that, maybe, we least know how to make sense of:
the picture of Jesus himself. The crowd moves together, and the woman wends her way toward Jesus from behind. She touches his cloak, and knows immediately that she is healed; the bleeding ceases. And here is what Mark writes:
“Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him,
Jesus turned about in the crowd and said,
“Who touched my clothes?”

Jesus didn’t decide to heal her. She didn’t winningly plead for mercy, or convince him of her faith. A woman who has, in a real way, lost control of her own body—a body that bleeds and will not stop—touches Jesus and discovers he is not exactly in control of his body either. She touches him, and power goes forth from him.

In the same way that the woman was immediately aware that something had happened in her body—that the flow of blood had stopped—Jesus was immediately aware that power had left him.

All he knows is that someone, among all the people pressed and jostling alongside him, has touched him in a way that has claimed something from him.
“Who touched my clothes?”
He doesn’t know. He looks and he waits until the woman, awestruck and trembling, falls before him. She tells him the truth, and he tells her the truth: your faith has made you well. Then he tells her to go and be healed of your disease, which isn’t him deciding to heal her— that already happened. Jesus probably telling her “go, now that the bleeding has ceased; begin the seven days wait that Leviticus demands,
and then be washed and give a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Then live your life, healed.”

But she was made well when the power went out of him. And there seems to have been no boundary in, or around Jesus to limit or control how he received her when she came to him. But he was no less God in that moment.

Its never been easy for the Church to be at peace with the plain and concrete sense of this story. Because Jesus is so vulnerable here–things are taken from him.
But what if that’s the point for us.

Imagine—really, imagine now—how it would feel to learn that people who knew you thought about you, and spoke about you, as weak. Some of us would rather almost anything. Many of us would be debased rather than be thought of as weak. We want to be strong. We want to be masters of ourselves and of circumstances; we think about strength as the capacity to exert control—to dominate—rather than be controlled. We are drawn to that kind of strength, and we long to see it reflected in ourselves.

If we let it, I think this story opens up our eyes to see that even as Jesus was been going about astonishing with power, he is crowded, and claimed ceaselessly;
he can stop the storm on the sea, and he is almost defenseless. Jesus is not his own possession; and he is completely free to love.

10
Jun

Reflections for the Third Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 3:20-35

the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”

I
The Gospel from Mark today overflows any possible message with this picture of Jesus who is so confrontational—speaking of binding a strong man; speaking of an unforgivable sin; refusing his family to create something new. It overflows any message with questions.

I wonder if we might just imagine Mary.

II
“Is it true you tried to stop our Lord?”

There was no end to the questions pious people came to ask her,
hushed, awestruck.
Nobody was ever brave or coarse enough to ask Mary that.
And now the truth was hard to remember—if
she really had meant to stop him.
It was like trying to remember
how you felt around a stranger before you loved them.

“We didn’t understand,” she says.

“Jesus left to go find John at the Jordan and be baptized,
and I thought he would come back to Nazareth and his work and to us,
like everyone else had.
But then it was so long, and we didn’t know where he was.

“People from by the sea came and said he himself was going along
healing what couldn’t be healed. That he was casting out demons,
and saying that the Day of God had come. He had chosen the twelve.
We had no idea what was happening to him.
We heard about the crowds.
Jerusalem people were coming to measure him, all pressing in.
He was in Capernaum. So we went to him ourselves, to bring him home.

“Our kin decided he’d lost his mind.
I just wanted to look in his face.

“All the way we walked, I wondered what I would say to him.
We had a relative there who took us to the house where he was.
But we couldn’t get through the people to him.
The men from the Temple had given verdict
of a demon in him because he frightened them.
Except for the fear, they looked dead all the way through.
But we were all afraid. Even the silent, sick ones waiting for him;
the constable with the flitting eyes and the hand on his sword;
the woman with the pallid baby who kept mouthing “see us, Sir.”

“The boys were telling the people who we were,
shouting into the house.
I stood in the street outside the place,
listening to the crowd inhale and exhale,
imagining his voice in the middle of them, making that happen
and I thought: let him go far enough,
and whatever this wind, this spirit, is will just take him.
He was already letting go, already facing away from me.
And he refused to come out.

“He had other mothers and brothers
who listened to him, and he’d stay with them.
That was his answer that came back to us. You know that.
It didn’t hurt me when he said it;
there was always more of him than I could hold.

“He was my child.
The Christ was the boy who would go down
sometimes with me to wash
and would look back from the water, so perfect,
and somehow full of something
I prayed to see erupt into blossom,
and also feared more than anything
because it would mean his life.
God knows I loved him.

“Is that what you wondered at?” she says.
“That I was part of what had to be broken for him to be the Christ for us?”

“Did you leave people behind to follow him?
I’ll tell you the goodness of this:
He was talking about us that day.
You and I have become that family; he made us sister and brother to him now.
Grace and peace be with you.”

“Grace and peace be with you, Mary,
mother of the anointed one,
blessed among women.


Notes

I’m indebted to Matt Skinner’s recent commentary which gets to the heart of the conflict and the emotion in this passage: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3675

05
Jun

Reflections for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 2:23-3:6

Jesus entered a synagogue
and a man who had a withered hand was there.
Mark says that some of the Pharisees
who had been trailing behind Jesus were there too,
and they watched to see if he would cure the man on the sabbath.

There were differences in the way teachers, and religious sects,
and ordinary Jews interpreted and followed the law—
probably differences even in what they understood the precise words of the law to be.
What you could or couldn’t do on the sabbath
was a very live question in Jesus’ time.
But work was out.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work…
but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God;

The voice of God sounded the law
to the people in the desert at Sinai,
saying that the sabbath
is patterned into all life
from its very creation in the beginning:
“in six days the Lord made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
but rested the seventh day;
therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day
and consecrated it.”

So the sabbath was given
as a way of living in response to God’s way of creating,
and God’s way of being with creation.
Sabbath is the day of delighting with God
in the goodness of creation’s turning
and growing and flourishing.
And if God could rest, so must God’s laboring creatures—
rest from their busy making and trust the ceaseless work of God
to sustain everything with enough.

When Deuteronomy narrates how Moses
spoke the law on behalf of God,
he commands that “you shall not do any work.
You, or your son or your daughter,
or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey,
or any of your livestock,
or the resident alien in your towns,
so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.”

So the sabbath was also given as a way of remembering that God is a liberating God, and that the people who were slaves once in Egypt, who now have people in their power cannot forget that God is still and always a liberating God. The sabbath is meant to restore peoples’ vision. Sabbath reveals and reminds of God’s intentions in creation.

The sabbath is near the heart of Israel’s identity as people made and claimed and liberated and accompanied by God. Following the commandment faithfully was what it meant to live as God’s people.

And so we shouldn’t be surprised
that how to behave on the sabbath was a matter of vital importance.
And we shouldn’t be surprised that the sabbath commandment came with teeth; Moses declares that anyone who works on the sabbath is should be put to death (and right down to the time of Jesus, Jewish writings suggest throwing the book at violators of the sabbath).

Here’s the thing: the Torah isn’t explicit about what work is.

That had to be figured out, and you wanted to err on the side of caution.

But when it came to the practices of healing,
there was a big interpretive problem—
The God-given law absolutely forbade work
on the day of sabbath rest for the sake of life.
Life was God-breathed and precious.
It was also precarious; Sheol was near. Sickness—
and who could say with certainty what sickness—threatened it.
So, could a person heal the sick on the sabbath?
Though some teachers held that you could intervene if death threatened, the broad answer was no.

So, here is a man in the synagogue.
He has a hand that doesn’t function.
There have been people crowding to Jesus’ seeking healing;
they cut holes in roofs; they grasp at him,
challenge him—demanding that he act for them.
And maybe the man with the withered hand
also hopes Jesus will heal him too,
but he doesn’t seem to have come to the synagogue to be made well—
he’s just part of the assembly,
in the synagogue because its the sabbath.
But the pharisees notice him.
They wonder if Jesus will notice him too,
both because he’s becoming famous as a healer,
and because they’ve just watched his disciples
picking grain on the sabbath,
which is work by anybody’s definition.
Challenged, Jesus claimed authority over the sabbath
to set aside a sabbath prohibition.
They were not impressed.

So now, the man with the withered hand becomes,
for them, an opportunity to find out just how
liberally Jesus will behave.
They look at him, and they see a useful trap.

Jesus does see him, and sees his hand.
He tells him to stand up in the midst of the crowd.
Jesus knows he’s being watched,
so before he does what he’s going do,
he challenges the watchers:
“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath,
to save life or to kill?”

That’s not really a question.
Nobody thinks its lawful to do harm on the sabbath.
Jesus is doing two things at once.
He’s pointing at the pharisees
and saying that they are standing here
in the synagogue on the sabbath
meaning to find a way to harm him.
And Jesus claims that what he is about to do is saving life.

Now most people probably wouldn’t have seen it that way.
The man could have waited until the sabbath was over.
His life isn’t in danger;
his hand has probably been like this for a long time;
maybe it has always been like this.
To heal on the sabbath was work.

But Jesus is revealing what the healing—
what all his healings—are about:
the restoration of people to the fullness of life.

And Jesus is here now,
in whatever synagogue he’s walked into,
and the man is here.
And, yes, its the sabbath.

The men watching him are silent.
And Jesus gets angry.
I don’t think he’s angry
because they interpret the law against work on the sabbath
in a way that he rejects as cruel.

He’s astonished and brokenhearted
that they cannot find it in themselves
to hope that some newness has broken in,
some rupture in the possible.
The someone of remarkable power
is standing in their very midst
and they cannot hope that the one with authority over the sabbath
will make this man fully alive.
To hope, even secretly, that even if the law is the law,
that Jesus will heal him anyway,
for the man’s sake.
They fail to love.

This is a story about the longings of the heart,
and the ones who get lost here, fail because their compassion fails.
They can’t see the man as a man with pain and hopes and dignity and potential,
and desire the good for him.

I’m not at all sure
that what we see here is a conflict between legalism and freedom,
or between conservative and liberal interpretations of the law,
or Jesus radically setting the law aside.
The law is good and a gift.
The law gives moral shape to the world.
And love is the highest commandment.

Jesus is teaching that the law is a grammar for love,
and sometimes love exceeds the capacity
of that grammar’s rules to express it.
And sometimes that is going to lead us into a woods, a wilderness,
where we don’t know how to hold the law and live out love.

But we are called to that sojourn.
And if we can’t keep our hearts awake in those places,
and be confused and disoriented by the conflict,
we’re usually going to solve our crisis by denying
the dignity and full humanity of the people involved.

The Lord we follow shows us to a better, and a harder way of that–a way of compassion that must be our way as we are changed into his likeness.

16
May

Reflection for the Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 10:44-48

A centurion named Cornelius lived in Caesarea, and he had a dream vision of an angel. The angel called him by name and said: send men to Joppa to bring back a man with two names, who’s staying at the house of a tanner.

He sent them. Meanwhile, Peter was in Joppa on a rooftop having a dream of his own,
about a descending sheet full of animals. And a voice told Peter to kill and eat.
But some of the dream-sheet animals were forbidden to Jews for eating. So Peter said, essentially, “nope; some of these things are unclean.” And the voice said: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

So Peter sat on the roof, thinking about this confusing dream. And the men from Cornelius the Centurion showed up. A voice told Peter that they were sent by the Spirit, and that he should go with them. So he, and a group of Jewish believers, went.

He must have kept on wondering about that sheet and the animals and the voice on the walk to Caesarea because, once he saw the crowded house waiting for him, he said “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” He asked what this was all about,
and Cornelius told about his vision, and said they had gathered to hear what the Lord has given Peter to tell them.

“I now realize,” Peter says, “how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, announcing the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” But he told them again—told them the good news of what Jesus had said and done.

And then right in front of them, the Holy Spirit fell on Cornelius, his friends, his slaves, his family. And “the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.”

Cornelius was a Gentile—a non-Jew. He was born outside the ethnic and cultural boundaries of the people God had made covenant with. Jews were blessed and separated, but knew that being outside the covenant people of God, not a descendent of Jacob, is not to be outside all covenant or outside the love of God. Peter says “I realize how true it is that God…accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”He’s not being struck with a new idea; he’s being confronted with something he knew already, but hadn’t fully reckoned with: God had always promised a wideness of blessing among the nations and peoples of the earth. And here is Cornelius—a Gentile who has seen an angel, who prays to God and supports the poor of the synagogue, who Luke describes as “a devout man who feared God.”

When the New Testament writers—when Jewish writers of their generations—
talk about a Gentile who “respects God,” they’re talking about a particular sort of person:
a God-fearer. A God fearer was a person who, in the stew and swirl of the Roman-dominated Mediterranean world, had encountered Judaism, and were drawn to trust the power of the God Jews worshipped. Many adopted parts of the way of life that came with that relationship. They went to pray and hear the Scripture read in synagogue; some ate the way Jews ate. But they had not abandoned their ancestral gods. Jews were glad to accommodate Gentiles who fell into this category. For God-fearing Gentiles to go further meant circumcision but also—and in a way that can only have been traumatic—abandoning your whole way of being a person in community, in a world where acting out loyalty to the religion you had inherited meant everything.

Cornelius and his household haven’t gone that far. He probably respected and devoted himself to all kinds of gods. Actually, as a Roman Centurion, that would have been inescapable. But he’s more than a casual, curious, occasional attendee at the synagogue. He and his family have come to know a particular and powerful relationship with the God of Israel. They are God-fearers and, from the perspective of neighboring Jews, they’re righteous Gentiles. They’re pagans who get it. But they have not given up their old, inherited identities. And I think that matters. It isn’t like Cornelius has been banging on the door to Judaism and the Jews have kept him out. He could have accepted circumcision, given up the other gods, and been a Jew like that. He didn’t.¹

Turning to God alone, with all its painful consequences in their social world, is going to be the central demand made on Christ-believing Gentiles. That’s what Paul will go to the Gentiles preaching. And, if we could hear what Peter and his friends spent those next days talking about with Cornelius, it would probably be just that. But Peter doesn’t say a thing about that here; he’s just retelling them the good news of Jesus that they’ve already heard, and that has charged them with anticipation. But there’s probably an altar to some other god in plain sight while Peter’s talking.

The household of Cornelius, as they were, turned to hear what God had to say.
And as they were, the Holy Spirit fell on them.
If that surprises us—that God would act like this—then maybe we can recognize
how we still get to share in the astonishment Peter and his friends experienced.

We see difference easily.
Its fairly easy for us to decide that the ways we are different make us unequal. That’s the endless wound of human tribalism and we all participate in it, in large ways and small.

We also participate in a different kind of storytelling—
a kind of storytelling in which we regard one another as equals
by identifying with others in a way that renders our differences superficial, illusory.
We decide that we are the actually the same, and so we’re equal.
We do this. We say things like, “I don’t see color.”
And what we’re doing is erasing each others’ particularity—erasing one another’s histories, stories, perspectives. We look at someone else and just see ourselves,
which means we can’t actually see them at all.

What radically strains our hearts, is to accept someone else as both actually different from us, and also equal. That way of seeing and regarding is what we are called to in this story.

The Pentecost of the Gentiles is not the destruction of “us and them.”
There are Jews, and there are Gentiles, and difference between them is meaningful.
What’s happening is the shocking, undeniable, inrushing of the Holy Spirit in a way that forces Peter and his fellow disciples to confront that they are different and of equal worth to the God who pours our grace with scandalous impartiality. “The Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning,” Peter says.

We need to hear this.
We need to hear this because we are embedded in connected but different histories.
We embody histories, and we have different stories. We do not experience the world alike.
We are different—we have constructed difference, made it real—
and we cannot erase one another by denying that.
We cannot look say we are the same
when that refuses the truth of one another’s experience.
That is not the community called together and gathered up in Christ,
the communion born through the Spirit.
We are different and not erased in that body. We are equal,
and absolutely and equally beloved by God.

 


Notes

1. In thinking about Cornelius’ identity as a god-fearer, I’m indebted to Paula Fredriksen’s scholarly exploration of early Christian belief in the context of ancient near-eastern religious life. For more about this discussion of god-fearers, see especially her article “Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the study of Christian origins who’s time has come to go” http://www.academia.edu/15574563/_MANDATORY_RETIREMENT_Ideas_in_the_Study_of_Christian_Origins_whose_Time_to_Go_has_Come_
and also an essay “How Later Contexts affect Pauline Content, or: Retrospect is the Mother of Anachronism” http://www.bu.edu/religion/files/2010/03/CRINT-13-Fredriksen-offprint.pdf

24
Apr

Reflections for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (And also Earth Day)

John 10:11-18

The good shepherd lays down life for the sheep given into their care. They do more than place their life in danger; they choose final sacrifice. That’s what makes the shepherd good. Jesus says that the Father loves him because he lays down his life freely, and he lays it down for the sake of the sheep he is gathering up into one flock—that know him with the same perfect comfort that is between Father and Son.

Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” I once heard a preacher say that answering the question that Jesus asks pointedly in three of our Gospels— “who do you say that I am”— leads inescapably to another question: “who does Jesus say that you are?” Well, Jesus seems to say that we’re gathered and incredibly beloved sheep. Sheep who listen and follow his voice. And since Jesus says, again and again, that his way of life and death should become our way of life and death, the Good Shepherd, seems to be calling us to see that being his sheep means being good shepherds too.

So, you’re a shepherd in ancient Palestine. You don’t own sheep. You hang out with somebody else’s sheep. You keep them together; you keep them moving over good grass and watch out for hurt ones and sick ones; you face whatever threatens them in the middle of nowhere with a stick.

We get swept up in this metaphor because it speaks of God’s selfless, self-emptying, love. And we get swept up into the metaphor because we know we’re the sheep here. Saving us at the cost of everything seems awesome because of how we value what’s saved. We have dignity, worth. We matter. Actual sheep matter less.

I’ve known and liked sheep. But if its ever down to me or a sheep….

So here’s the crux of this metaphor about shepherding: Allowing yourself—precious and remarkable you—to be killed for the sake of something like a sheep. Deciding they are worth your life. And who here is going to watch the bandits or the wolves come down the hill, and think, “this seems like a good trade.” But if we’re imagining ourselves into the parable, that’s what happens. And there you are dead in the valley. The sheep don’t have any capacity for gratefulness; they’re munching grass around you like you’re a weird rock. Those who find you will not think this was noble. They will figure you tripped and something inexplicable happened. No one in your family can write, so your people will remember until they don’t; nobody is going to carve a stone that says, “died for sheep.”  There’s a deeply uncomfortable, almost tragic, smallness to that right?

But that’s what the good shepherd does. What the good shepherd does smashes against our instinct to weigh everything against ourselves; the constant evaluation we’re in the midst of: is this person, this place, this thing worth me, a piece of me, all of me.

Jesus doesn’t choose the sheep he cares for. They belong to him because the sheep have been given to him. And he lives out the demands of love for them because it is the command of the Father who sent him into the world, out of love for the world.

What are we given to be shepherds of?

Articles appeared this last week that described the data and conclusions of a just completed survey of the Great Barrier Reef—those multitudinous galaxies of coral that have arced the northwest coast of Australia since a time when humans were wandering tribes; before agriculture; before bread;

fifteen thousand years before the faintest trace that humans imagined cities or kings. In the summer of 2016, water warmer than ever possible since this great reef began, briefly smothered its northern reach. The same phenomenon developed last summer in a different stretch. The effects were instantly recognized as catastrophic, but what’s clear now is that half the living coral along its 1,400 miles starved or died in the heat. The reef in those places now is an archipelago of bones: what the reef has left behind, as some new, radically different and radically less diverse system emerges.

These smothering periods of warm water began in the late 1990s, and marine scientists expected that the sensitive corals would suffer as Coral Sea and earth’s oceans warmed and their circulation altered. But there’s shock nonetheless that in the space of two summers this much of the reef, and the vast web of life it has nourished, has collapsed. The expectation has been that if dramatic and immediate transformation of the way humankind pollutes the atmosphere arrests that warming of our planet below an increase 2 degrees Celsius, the reef would survive in some form. That’s not what is happening.

That isn’t happening because so many remarkable ways of human flourishing are bound up with the burning of fossil fuels. The human experience has been transformed, and continues to be transformed, by an outwardly racing horizon of knowledge, mobility, sustenance. Staggering newness and possibility. It goes on. But our way of being in this world is absolutely dependent on pollution on a vast scale. And we are being overtaken by the costs.

The reef is being destroyed—this planet is being devastated within the space of human generations—because God set us in the midst of creation to be its caretakers but we have been thieves, and we have been bandits, and sometimes we have behaved like hired hands, but we have refused to be creation’s shepherd. Would you lay down your life to redeem a billion—a billion—dead corals?  God forgive us that in unison we would say no in our hearts.

And thank God for so loving the world. The scripture does not say that God so loved humankind. God so loved the world: the whole creation that has its breath and tide from God. And we should consider the possibility that the God who set us in a garden has not willed our salvation as an end in itself, but for the sake of the whole groaning creation. Consider that we are being made fit creatures to dwell as a part of this. Made fit to live as God’s image-bearing creatures in the world—to be God’s shepherding creatures, as Christ has shepherded us. And that no more diminishes us than the Good Shepherd, who laid down life for his sheep, is diminished by his sacrifice. That is Christ’s glory. And the only glory of humankind is to reflect that glory in our capacity to take up the caring, loving labor of God in the world.

01
Apr

Reflections on Good Friday

All the careful, distinguishing detail—
all the detail
in which the Gospel writers
tell their stories of Jesus’ judicial murder—
arrives at a common silence:
When the procession—Jesus;
the scattering of disciples, mostly women,
who would have been waiting outside Pilate’s headquarters, sick,
not knowing what was happening until he emerged with the crossbeam;
his executioners; the military and religious functionaries—
when the procession arrives at Golgotha,
and all of the accounts simply say “they crucified him.”
The whole process of breaking a human being onto pieces of wood.
The tools of it. The executioner’s craft. The flinching outcry of nerves.
All of that, disappears within a
verb.
“They crucified him;” they made him into a dying person.
And I am struck by the ordinariness of it—
how the act of crucifixion itself required no explanation,
the particular experience of a person merited no elaboration,
because if you had seen one person tortured like this,
you had seen them all. Flesh is flesh.
The instinct to survive is what it is.
Nails are nails.
Jesus enters a horrifying
commonplace.

John tells us that a handful of women
came to stand near the cross
— his mother, his aunt, Mary Magdalene.
This is nearly the last, before Jesus turns away from earth:
he looks at them.
He sees his mother, looking at him.
He watches her, watching him
breath out the life that had bloomed in her body.
They are entwined in this pain;
their gaze is an exchange of sorrow,
a bottomless wound.

This is how God,
the Mother of creation,
has always watched her children.
Near. Willing anything to make it stop.
Refusing to look away.

26
Mar

Reflections for Palm Sunday

Mark 11.1-11

Why are you holding strips of palm right now?
I don’t mean “why” like this is catechism class, like Question: why do we wave palms on Palm Sunday? Answer: to remember Jesus’ entry into the holy city of Jerusalem when the people met him with leafy branches like a King. The prayer of blessing over those palms asks that they be signs for us of his victory. But why act it out in the parking lot? Why do I have, as one of my few, really vivid childhood memories of church, an indifferent-looking donkey being led up and down a lawn?

Partly, its tradition.
We don’t simply listen to this story because Christians have always walked and waved this story. If you were a pilgrim to Jerusalem just a few hundred years after the Jesus came, you would have gone with crowds carrying branches and palms, following the Bishop from the Mount of Olives into the city. Was it probably easier for them to squint and see it happening,
right there in the self-same dust? Easier than our parking lot, I mean. Probably. But they were still asked to go into it with their bodies, into the jostle of bodies, the smell of hot olive leaves, the glimpses of the donkey, the disjointed wail of psalms. And maybe, for a second, some piece of you could say: “Here I am. Its that day and I showed up.”

What could we be asked to imagine?

Another passover. But maybe its the Passover. The last Passover. The people know Jesus is going to Jerusalem. He preaches that the kingdom of God is at hand, nearer than it has ever been. Something is going to happen. So when Jesus leaves Jericho the crowd goes with him to Bethany, just outside the great city, where he stops. He sends disciples into the village to fetch him a donkey and to let word spread into the city that the Teacher has come and is waiting to enter.

The City of David is swollen with pilgrims from the countryside. From far off in Syria, in Aegyptus. Hundreds of thousands pack the streets and the marketplaces—working their way into the courtyards of the Temple to bring their offerings, to be ritually purified by the sprinkling of the thousands of priests, trying to get a place to stay—a room, a roof—so that their household can eat the passover meal. Eager, impatient, excited, frustrated. And armed. A man in each household, at least, goes with a slaughtering knife in their belt as a symbol and the actual instrument of the sacrifice of the lambs. It is the festival of blood on the doorpost and dead Egyptians on the beach, YHWH fighting for Israel—an Exodus that wasn’t yet complete. Its heated anticipation. Its piled, dry brush.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor over Judea, wants as little as possible to do with the actual management of Jerusalem. His purpose is to preserve the peace, and his instrument is the High Priest of the Temple; Caiaphas runs the city and the temple guards keep order. But things have gone wrong at Passover before, so Pilate leaves his villa and headquarters at the coast and processes down into the city with his command of Roman soldiers. They’re hated, their presence itself is an offense. Its a fine line: menace with the sword, without starting a riot. Place a really sharp incentive behind your man Caiaphas to keep a reign on the crowds and douse any sparks before a fire gets out of hand.

But that’s about to happen.
The herald disciples find a donkey for Jesus, and word spreads.
A crowd—is it Galileans who’ve heard him, is it Jerusalem people who’ve heard of him?—goes out to meet Jesus and the band coming with him.
They’re heard what he’s saying, and now they’ll say it for him with their bodies and shouts. They greet him like a conqueror with this rare and profound gesture of praise, spreading their cloaks out on the road for him to walk on. Then they assemble a proper triumphal procession,
some going ahead of him, and some following him. And he rides, an unarmed king. And the people go with him shouting “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” They bless him, shouting this thanksgiving hymn, this ancient victory song. They know what they’re doing. They’ve showed up on the day the Messiah and the Kingdom comes.

But they don’t know what its going to look like.

Whatever faction assembled in Pilate’s courtyard to condemn him in the end, whoever shouted “crucify him,” the crowd was with Jesus. The crowd was so volatile and energetic in its enthusiasm for Jesus that Mark describes how the chief priests, again and again, agree that Jesus must be gotten rid of, but they don’t dare do anything for fear of the people. They ultimately need Judas—Judas is only useful as a betrayer—because he offers a way to get Jesus away from the crowds, while everyone is eating the passover.

The crowd was with Jesus. They knew that this healer, this reconciler of the lost, this lover of souls, riding on a donkey was the one God had sent into the world with might to turn it upside down.
And when I say knew, I mean that some part of them caught that possibility by their fingernails before it blew away.
They hoped.

As the city stirred awake later that week they found that Pilate had him on a Roman cross with a sign above his head reading “King of the Jews.” Pilate and Caiaphas could have quietly murdered him. But Pilate meant Jesus himself to be a sign—a sign to the crowd that they were wrong about the man from Nazareth, and to get back on with their lives. Which is what very nearly everyone did.

What had they been a part of?
What did that victorious procession into the city mean?

Those of us who’ve walked with this story know that Jesus had told his friends what was going to happen when the power of God coming into the world met the powers that ordered the world: A cross. That would be the last procession, the consequence and fulfillment of his life— God’s life—in flesh here with us.

And it is the beginning of the world again.

I’m talking about crowds so much this morning because we have long read the Jerusalem crowd as a seething mob that hailed Jesus but, in the end, demanded that Jesus’s life be wrung out of him, no matter the evidence in our own holy texts. And that is simply mangled, distorted history. Pilate and elites of the city had Jesus publicly humiliated and killed because the crowd was with him. And reading against the evidence, the reading of a crowd that pivots violently, has shaped the accusation hung around the necks of the numberless Jews hounded across continents, dispossessed, murdered, for centuries.

In recent times, we have tried to hold onto that traditional reading in light of that history, by identifying ourselves with the crowd. We have made the crowd ourselves, and the condemning crowd a story about the ways we refuse and reject Jesus. And that has become its own reason for continuing to read and proclaim this text as an indictment. That’s why the congregation is usually invited to take the part of the crowd when the Passion Gospel is read.

I won’t ask you to say “crucify him,” to give your voice the words of those who wanted rid of Jesus. I won’t, because I look at you now and I know that something has happened in your life that told you that Jesus, and the way of Jesus, offers life. Inextinguishable life. An answer to our traps, our endless cycles of grief and wounding. Or maybe you are longing for a reason to believe. You hope.
And hope can be fleeting, darting. So hope. Hope with the people who saw him ride into Jerusalem and grasped at him. Hope with the ones who saw him hanging, and thought
“maybe, still, somehow.”
Hope.

And come. I invite you to stay on the journey though Holy Week together, to come together as we face the events, and meditate on the meaning, of Jesus last days in Jerusalem. His passion and death. We are standing within the heart of the our Christian life.

13
Mar

Reflections for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

John 3:14-21

More than the other accounts,
John’s gospel is a meditation on Jesus’ presence in the world
as an encounter, a conflict,
that seems to casts everything into sharply defined oppositions-
life and death, light and darkness, sight and blindness.
And it wrestles with how a person moves between these places,
or doesn’t.

And because John also starts at the very beginning of things,
lets begin there too.

Just as the snake slides into the poem
and the long narrative of struggle begins,
the creation account in Genesis ends by telling us that
human beings, the man and the woman,
were together in the garden and they were naked,
and they were not ashamed to be.

They didn’t know they were naked,
because there was no such thing as being naked.
Nakedness means that something is uncovered that shouldn’t be,
which isn’t how animals work;
nothing in that walked or crawled or swam
doubted that it was complete.
Nakedness is a judgement;
it requires the ability to imagine how other minds see you,
and to perceive that there is something wrong with the way you are.
The human man and woman have no thought like this;
they are creatures, confident
that they are what the LORD
intended them to be in their skin.

So the man and woman
talk to the snake and eat the
fruit of the tree of knowledge.
And what do they know then?
That they are naked.
The first act of human labor
is to sew skirts of leaves to hide themselves.
They had discovered shame.
When they heard the LORD walking in the garden,
they hid themselves away in the trees, out of sight.
So that the LORD, looking for them, called ‘where are you?”
And the human called back
and said “I heard you walking,
but I was afraid because I was naked.”

There is one of the important stories
Genesis seems to be telling about humanity:
we sense that something is wrong with us,
and we are afraid of our wrongness being exposed,
being reflected back to us
to show that we are unfit to be with.
And so we refuse to be seen, we become secret;
we hide ourselves from each other, and from God.
I would rather hide from relationship
than see that I am unfit to be with.

John shows us Jesus flinging the reach of salvation wide.
As wide as the whole world;
announcing that he was sent into the world
out of love and not anger,
not to condemn people but to save.

But some are condemned already,
Jesus tells his conversation partner,
because they have not believed in the name of the Son of Man,
which is another way of saying,
trusted in the power of God present in the Jesus.
But while there’s breath and light,
in what sense is anyone condemned already?
That might sound like the outworking of destiny,
if Jesus didn’t go on talking.
He says, the judgement that condemns is this:
light came into the world, and people preferred the darkness.
Why did they love darkness?
Because their deeds were evil.
Not, Jesus seems to say,
because they were wrapped up in misplaced desires,
in some comfortable, seductive sin.
While those who do what is true come into the light,
carrying the history of their deeds, where they can be seen.
Those who refuse to come to the light, they stand in the dark for fear,
imagining that they can remain secret there, unexposed.
In other words, the Lord came into the world
and is going about looking for them, and they are hiding.

We judge some lives good
and we judge lives to have been lived bent away from the light,
chances to love, chances at companionship, wasted.
Good and bad; part of us wants to sort the world out that way.

But here’s what you and I know well:
humanity is not divided
into those who do evil and those who don’t;
there is no hard edge to the shadow
dividing darkness and light in us and among us.

We’re here in Lent,
with its disciplines of introspection-
we’re here at all-
because we are in struggle
with the evil we accept into us and that we harbor;
that damages our capacity
for friendship with God and one another.
We do things we should not
and we neglect or outright flee things we should face;
we withhold what must be given.
We do wrong.
And we stand in need of forgiveness
again and again.
Our life as people being saved,
our life as people being transformed by grace,
is life with a gradually slackening but never absent
instinct is to pull darkness around those parts of us,
to fill up every space and silence where we might meet ourselves.

Christ came into the world determined to forgive.
To not allow what we have done,
whatever its consequences—the pathetic, petty, ordinary sins,
and the terrible, the fearful, the soul-hollowing-sin—
to separate us from God.
Whoever you are.
And saying yes to that
means trusting the God who encourages us
to a terrible step, into that space
where nothing is hidden,
because that’s the only way
to discover that what we fear will make us unfit for God
does not, and we need not be ashamed.
We will keep discovering forgiveness,
how we are being saved by a love that does not fail.
We’re given life again.

11
Feb

Reflections for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 9:2-9

What happens in Mark’s gospel this morning
is the event the Church calls The Transfiguration—
this moment on the high mountain
when Jesus metamorphoses, becomes something
different than what he appeared to be
as he’s been with them. And a cloud comes down,
and a voice comes down out of it and claims Jesus the Beloved,
and commands the disciples to listen to him.
If you’ve been around the Episcopal Church for a while,
you may have noticed—but don’t feel badly if you haven’t—
that our tradition has a special Feast day to remember the transfiguration of Jesus. 
Its in August. We’re in February.
We’re hearing the story this morning
because this is the story that always comes last before Lent begins.
Its always the hinge between our wondering together about the meaning
of Jesus’ having come to be with us,
and our wondering at the meaning of his death.
Its the hinge in Mark’s story of Jesus’ ministry,
that begins with his baptism, and he’s healing and teaching, 
and outside of Caesarea Phillipi,
Jesus starts telling his friends that he must die and be raised.
And then, before he goes to Jerusalem and events tumble toward the cross,
he takes Peter and James and John up a mountain.
My dad was an artist, a painter.
Half the house was his studio.
In there, it smelled like linseed oil and turpentine,
and on tables around his easels were ranks and piles
of twisted aluminum paint tubes,
and the palettes with their beads and swirls
of ochre, umber, viridian,
where he was stabbing with his brush,
scrubbing them together in search of a color that was true.
Cobalt, cerulean, ultramarine;

these were what he had to work with.
Pure, dense pigment, and what an extraordinary luxury!
Until the eighteenth century,
the only way to make the stable,
ultramarine blue was from a stone, lapis lazuli,
dug out of a valley in Afghanistan, drug across
deserts to Italy and ground into the dream of painters.
There was no other way to achieve or even imagine holding that color. 
It was the stripe in the hood of a flower the day it opened,
a racing iridescence across the wet body of a fish;
it was the possibility of painting sky as luminous as the sky feels.
It was the possibility of catching the truth beyond the surface of things,
the deeper pulse of life. 
So here is something that catches me about this story of Jesus’ transfiguration:
Marks writes that, when it happened, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white.
His clothes became whiter than any cloth-handler on earth could make.
It was a fairly dingy world. It was hard to make anything clean,
let alone scour wool bright white—
even the robes of the precious people that were
pounded in alkali baths, fumed with sulphur looking for real white.
But in those moments on the mountain,
the ordinary, probably miserable clothes that Jesus wore,
became a color beyond color.
Something beyond earth.
Something divine,
but entwined with earth. 
But Jesus is still Jesus—
he’s still recognizably a human being in a man’s clothes;
he doesn’t blur out of comprehension,
or dissolve into earthquake and fire:
the way the people of Israel once saw Godself on a Mountain.
Jesus is a person. God has become entwined with humanness.
He is not God pretending to be a person.
Mark recognizes that this isn’t a moment that Jesus stumbled into—
his words about separating from the disciples
except Peter, James, and John,
“privately leads them them up alone to a high mountain,”
mean care for who and how this will be witnessed.
But as for what they saw and heard,
we have four staccato sentences:
Jesus was changed somehow;
his clothes became dazzling;
Moses and Elijah appeared and talked with him;
there was a cloud, and a voice sounded.
But the memory of those moments, however fragmentary
opens the greater mystery of God with us:
the dazzling and metamorphosed Jesus is a revelation
that everything the man Jesus did was a revelation of God,
that he was God as much everywhere he went, and everything he did,
as he was on the mountain.
And in the same way that all we see and touch becomes a part of us
—in the same way that everything that happens to us marks us—
everything that Jesus passed through in his human life
is a part of the life of God.
John’s gospel tells us Jesus rose with the wounds of the crucifixion. 
Luke writes that, when the risen Jesus
appeared among the disciples, he said
“Look at my hands and my feet—that I am myself.”
God came as Jesus into the world that God made-
God chose to be revealed like that–
because our Creator is willing to be in pain
with the world as it goes wrong, 
so that everything might be transfigured into its promise.