All Means All

“Who was I that I could hinder God?”  This is what Peter says when he realizes God’s grace and love are for EVERYONE.  I am exploring more of the Acts text this week, so I’m including that too.

John 13:31-35

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once.33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our embracing God, through the risen Christ.  Amen.

This gospel piece is the last passage of the longer one we read together on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.  This is the text that is pointed every year for Maundy Thursday, and we explored it in detail just over a month ago.  And so while this “new commandment” Jesus gives is the operative phrase of the day, I want to take a deeper look at the Acts reading.

Acts 11:1-18

11Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, ‘Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?’ 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5‘I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat.” 8But I replied, “By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.” 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were.12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, “Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.” 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’

Last week at our Synod Assembly we heard a dynamic speaker, Dr. John Nunes, who spoke about how to communicate in divided times.  Like many, he emphasized that relationship is the key, and pointed out that “whoever stops listening to others, soon stops listening to God.”

This is most certainly true.  If I stop listening to other people, I run the risk of convincing myself that I am the only one who’s right, the only one with all the answers.  There’s categories for this kind of behavior in modern psychology.

This is the spot in which Peter finds himself in our reading from Acts today.  He is being called out on drawing lines in the sand, according to his religious tradition, that determine who is welcome in God’s kingdom and who is not.

This is a great lesson, one that holds a lot for us to consider – and a lot of places where we might find ourselves reflected.  I know I sure did.

And Peter’s conclusion is so accurate:  Who was I that I could hinder God?

When Peter utters these words it is a transformative moment for him.  He comes to grips with the understanding that it simply is not possible to put God in a box.

He realizes that the overwhelmingly binary way he has used to move through life to this point will no longer work.  There’s no more either-or.  His field of vision has just been cracked open, and the line he’s always known dividing clean from unclean and sacred from profane has been irreversibly blurred.  He comes face to face with the truth that Jesus’ saving action, God’s amazing grace, is for everyone.  “The Spirit told me,” said Peter, “not to make a distinction between them and us.”  [finger snaps]

Peter goes through this whole vision he’s had – “he explained it to them, step by step” – which makes me think he must have been a good storyteller – and paints a very linear picture of how his thinking is now broad and expansive and inclusive.

In seminary we read a phenomenal book called “On the Mystery” by process theologian Catherine Keller.  She examines this either-or way of thinking as it relates to theology, and proposes a third way, one that is itself “on the way” as Karl Barth insisted all theology is.  Instead of the absolute and the dissolute, she proposes a third way, which she calls the resolute.  It is neither compromise nor midpoint, but an entirely new way of thinking about God.

I read a striking op-ed piece in the New York Times last Wednesday morning, one that read more like a regular article.  It’s called “President Trump, Come to Willmar.”

Willmar, as in Minnesota.  West-central MN, aka Luther Land.

Author Thomas Friedman’s aunt and uncle moved to Willmar in the 40s and opened a steel distributing plant there.  He visited them many times and decided to return to the town to see how it was doing.

I commend this article to you.  I will link it on my blog when I post this sermon later today.  It is a fantastic piece of journalism, one that I’m going to ask your council to read before our next meeting.

Friedman writes:

The cliché about America today is that we’re a country divided between two coasts — two coasts that are liberalizing, pluralizing, globalizing and modernizing. And in between is “flyover America,” where everyone voted for Donald Trump, is suffering from addictions and is waiting for the 1950s to return.

That’s not what I’ve found. America is actually a checkerboard of towns and cities — some rising from the bottom up and others collapsing from the top down, ravaged by opioids, high unemployment among less-educated white males and a soaring suicide rate. I’ve been trying to understand why some communities rise and others fall — and so many of the answers can be found in Willmar.

The answers to three questions in particular make all the difference: 1) Is your town hungry for workers to fill open jobs? 2) Can your town embrace the new immigrants ready to do those jobs, immigrants who may come not just from Latin America, but also from nonwhite and non-Christian nations of Africa or Asia? And 3) Does your town have a critical mass of “leaders without authority”?

These are business leaders, educators, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs ready to lead their community toward inclusion and problem-solving — even if formal leaders won’t. These leaders without authority check their party politics at the door and focus only on what works. They also network together into what I call “complex adaptive coalitions” to spearhead both economic and societal change.

Willmar has the right answers to all three questions. It has almost zero unemployment. If you can fog up a mirror, you can get a job in Willmar — whether as an agriculture scientist or as a meatpacker for the Jennie-O turkey plant. The math is simple: There just aren’t enough white Lutheran Scandinavians to fill those jobs.

Many of the people coming here for work are people who practice faiths not previously common in these parts, like Islam, Bahai and Buddhism; whose skin is much darker than the locals’; and whose women often wear head coverings that aren’t baseball caps. They also don’t speak with Minnesota accents like those folks in the movie “Fargo.”

Have no doubt, the battle for inclusion is a daily struggle in Willmar and across Minnesota — and in some towns the battle is still being lost. But if you are looking for a reason to be hopeful, it’s the fact that in places like Willmar, a lot of people want to get caught trying.

(Here is a link to the entire article:  Thomas Friedman, NY Times, 5-14-19)

This town has decided to abandon the binary thinking that was limiting its ability to thrive in the 21st century.  It has not come without struggle, and it is by no means perfected, but it IS on the way.

The reality of our world is that many, many things are throwing more of us together with more so-called “other” people, in more places, than ever before.  Things like economic opportunity, globalization, war, climate change.  Perhaps you remember the refugee resettlement after the Vietnam War?  The Lutheran Church was the primary agency assisting in that resettlement.  That’s why Clint Eastwood says in the movie Gran Torino, “Everybody blames the Lutherans.”  [I wear that badge proudly.]

But if you’ve seen that movie, you know what happens.  [Side note, if you haven’t seen it, see it.  It is a great film.]  What happens is that Eastwood’s embittered character is eventually drawn in by the hospitality of the Hmong family next door even after their son violates societal norms and trust.

What is happening in Willmar, MN tells you just how deep this unfolding diversity is going and why every town in America needs to get caught trying to make diversity work — or it will wither, says Friedman. It’s that simple.

Friends, our gospel lesson gives us the most basic and simple of directions here:  love one another as Christ has loved us.

And it’s the second part of that phrase that bears consideration today.  As Christ has loved us.

What does that bring to mind for you?

For me, I think of utterly unconditional acceptance.  Of challenges.  Of encouragement to try something new.  Of an urgent yank backwards so that I am reminded to rest up before heading out again.  And the times of tough love, too.

And I hold all of that with the community organizing template spelled out in this profound article, and I think YES.  YES.  We do not live as Christians by withdrawing into our safe spaces, but rather by stepping out into the world to work with our neighbors near and far to make the world a better place.  As Jesus demonstrated in last week’s gospel, we let our actions tell the world that Christ dwells within us.

We are on the way, dear friends.  And thanks be to God that through all the shifts and changes this world brings, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.  For that is the only constant we need.

Amen.

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My sheep know my voice

This 4th Sunday of Easter brings us the familiar Scripture passages about shepherds (Psalm 23) and some not-so-familiar, like this passage from John.  What does it mean to actually listen, not just hear?

John 10:22-30

22At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”25Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30The Father and I are one.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you from the God who holds us close, through the good shepherd, Jesus the Christ.  Amen.

This 4th Sunday in Easter always uses scriptures that illustrate and break open the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd of the sheep.

“Good Shepherd” is a powerful image indeed, one that has been with humanity since we began tending sheep and even today in an urban setting holds deep meaning for us.  It is such a powerful image that there are many churches who have taken it as their name.

Show of hands, who has ever had the opportunity to engage with sheep, maybe in a petting zoo, or if you maybe raised sheep?

I raised sheep myself, in 4H.  I raised market lambs and eventually had breeding ewes too.  I really got to know about how sheep behave.

And like our gospel story today, they did hear my voice and they knew it.  (Now they may have only known it as the one who fed them, but still.)

Over the last few days I’ve been at the Pacifica Synod Assembly with your voting members, Betty Dagen and Kathy Mitzen.  The theme of the assembly was “O Lord, Open My Ears: Listening for God While Listening to Each Other.”

The desire for something around this theme has been building, so it may have been completely coincidental that it dovetailed with this gospel story.

Folks in our synod have been hungering for some practical work, ways to address the difficulty we have in our society of having a constructive dialogue around difficult topics.  We engaged in active listening in 5-minute breakout sessions, we heard from keynote speakers who are specialists in communication across the divides, and we spent time in quiet prayer, listening for God.

In our gospel story, the folks who have come to him – and again, this is better translated as “the religious authorities” instead of “the Jews” – are looking for a quick, pat answer.  Tell us if you’re the Messiah.

Now in all fairness, they are operating within their religious tradition, which also happens to be Jesus’ religious tradition.  But Jesus’ overall message has been and is that he is not the warrior Messiah they’ve been expecting; rather, his work of reconciling us to God is almost beyond scope and description.

But they make a mistake: they say “tell us plainly.”  So he does.  VERY plainly.  So plainly it’s almost rude.  It could almost be paraphrased as, you’re not paying attention.  I’m telling you and I’m showing you who I am but not only are you not watching, you’re not listening.  And that means you are missing out.

This is a little different from the gentle and gracious good shepherd picture we all have in our minds, isn’t it?

But if God’s love is meant to include the entire kosmos, then we do need Jesus to speak plainly about what sort of Messiah he is.

The key, of course, is to really listen when Jesus speaksAs we learned at Assembly this week, listening is different from hearing.

If Jesus’ audience here were to actually listen, with all their senses, to what he was saying, they would remember all they had heard about him, all they had seen him do, and realize that he is talking about being a different kind of Messiah.

Different, because Jesus is willing to let his works be his first and primary witness, instead of any words he might use.  In our modern vernacular, we would say “he walks the walk, not just talks the talk.”

Now this is by no means any endorsement of works righteousness – which is the concept of earning your way into God’s grace that moved Luther to action.  Instead I want to encourage us, as we read last week, to follow Jesus.  What would happen if we let OUR works be our primary witness?  What actions might testify most authentically to the presence of God in our lives?

In Scripture, the shepherd’s task is one with dangers on every side. The shepherd must drive away predators and navigate hostile terrain. The Good Shepherd risks injury, even death for the sake of his flock.  It’s the work and dedication of a shepherd that has made the image one that represents Christ.

Luther Glen Farm was added to the camp in Oak Glen some years ago now, and it’s become a place where young people learn about creation and God’s love for them while working with growing crops and interacting with a delightful assortment of animals.  Two of the goats, Sarah and Nugget, are visiting us today.

Our Lutheran camps are places where young people are encouraged to live lives that demonstrate what God’s love looks like in action.

Like all farms, this one has a dog.  Actually, Luther Glen Farm is blessed with FOUR dogs.

The senior lady is Gracie, an English Springer spaniel.  Her sight and hearing are questionable at her age, but she loves life on the farm.  She gets a senior discount; she doesn’t have any responsibilities.

But the other three dogs are working dogs.  They are Grands Pyrenees, some of the best protector dogs there are.  They are big and affectionate, but they are also vigilant when protecting livestock.  The matriarch dog of Luther Glen Farm, Annie, proved this in the fall of 2017.  She’s the sweet big dog on our bulletin cover today.

Fall is a somewhat quiet time at the farm.  Both the executive directors, Pastor Glen and Lauri Egertson, were off the property on business.  Nate and Anthony and the others were done with their day’s work and were in their quarters.  Pastor Glen arrived back at almost 10 PM, and as he got out of his car, Annie jumped the fence at the retreat center with a rattlesnake in her mouth.

It was still alive.

Pastor Glen raced inside to get his BB gun to dispatch the snake – relocation was not an option.  Annie was barking ferociously at it and had certainly fulfilled her guard dog duties of protecting the herd.

But no one realized what she had really risked until the next day.

The next morning, her face was horribly swollen, and she was having trouble breathing.  Lauri raced back to the farm, and the vet confirmed their worst fears: Annie had been bitten by the rattlesnake, more than once.

She had had the anti-venom vaccine, of course; this is standard procedure in the back country and the mountains for dogs.  But being bitten more than once compromises the effectiveness of that vaccine, and Annie was struggling.  Even with steroid injections and all the anti-venom follow-up that was safe, she was likely seeing the foot of the Rainbow Bridge in the distance.

It was a very frightening several days.  When I arrived with women of my home congregation for a retreat, Annie was still sequestered, only allowing Lauri to be with her.  We had been praying for this sweet, brave dog, and she seemed to be holding on.

At the end of the weekend, I stayed on for a few hours to absorb the beauty and the calm energy of Luther Glen.  Lauri brought Annie up to the retreat center, and she was doing better.  “Don’t touch her face, though,” Lauri cautioned.  Understandable.

Annie and I sat out on the patio in the fall sunshine.  And after a time, she got up and walked carefully around the fenced perimeter, nose to the ground.  I followed her, and we explored the area together.  Eventually she laid down under the big oak tree and went to sleep.  I took that opportunity to help out by pulling some weeds around the retreat center.

Not fifteen minutes later, I came back around the corner and Annie was gone.

“You had one job!!!” I yelled at myself as I grabbed her lead and went tearing down the hill.

But I didn’t need to be afraid.  Annie had jumped the fence and was back down by the herd, checking on their welfare and making sure her younger cohorts were doing their jobs.

She, along with Jesus, is the good shepherd of Luther Glen Farm.  She quite literally laid down her life for the sheep.  And goats, and pigs, and chickens, and so on.  Today, she is as healthy as ever.  And if I were a rattlesnake, I’d stay far away from Luther Glen!

Jesus speaks to us today of the Shepherd’s voice.  It is a voice of promise.  It is a voice that promises stubborn protection and care.  It is the voice the flock hears and knows and follows.  It is the voice which is especially precious in times of struggle and pain.  And it is one we sometimes have to work harder to hear in better times when other voices especially seem to drown it out.  And yet even when those other voices overwhelm; yes, even when we don’t pause to listen – it is always there, inviting and comforting and urging us on.

And in those times when you can’t quite hear it, that is when the tangible, lived witness of others reminds us what it looks like to live with God in your life.  These are times of accompaniment, of walking with others who hear the shepherd’s voice and hold space for us until we can hear, and listen again.

And I am sure that if we listen closely, we’ll hear God’s voice speaking through those selfless actions of others.  For the family of Luther Glen Farm, they hear God’s voice speaking through the bark of a big white dog named Annie.

God is still speaking.  May we be found listening.  Amen.

A Fishing Story

My sermon from May 5 2019, 3rd Sunday of Easter.  Lots of fish.

John 21:1-19

21After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples.3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you from our generous and loving God, through the risen Christ.  Amen.

So as many of you know, I am an angler of many years.  It was one of the things my late husband, and my son and I loved to do together.  We fished down in Loreto in South Baja for years every June and July.  We also had boats from which we fished in San Diego waters over the years.  When I finally sold the house and downsized, we had over 150 fishing rods and who knows how many reels and how much tackle.

Suffice it to say – we loved to fish.

So our story today holds some interest for me.

I’m seeing Peter and some of the other disciples in a bit of a fog as the story begins.  Jesus has said “as the Father has sent me, so I send you” and honestly, I think they have no idea what he’s talking about, because they haven’t gone anywhere.  So they figure, well what the hey, let’s go fishing.  And out they go.

Any of you who are anglers are familiar with the next part of the story.  They don’t catch anything.  In the parlance of a fisherman: they get skunked.

Now, keep in mind this has been their livelihood for their entire lives; there are days where you come up empty.  And they’re a pretty short distance from shore when some joker on shore basically calls out “didja catch anything?”

This is long before those flags you could raise on your center console to show folks what you caught – marlin, tuna, whatever.

So the disciples reply that they’ve got nothing.  I’m thinking they’re expecting a little sympathy from the dude on the beach.

Well, dude on the beach then says: “try the other side!”

[withering glance]

Seriously??

As an angler, it’s SUPER annoying to have someone who knows nothing about fishing to tell you what you should have done to catch more fish.  THEY didn’t get up at zero-dark-thirty.  THEY didn’t deal with the boat motor with a bad attitude.  THEY don’t smell like anchovies or whatever bait you’re using.

But I’m guessing the disciples all mumbled, “oh great, one of THEM” – some smart aleck who thinks he’s got the answers to everything.  And so they decide, to keep it simple we’ll just humor him and let the nets down on the other side.  We’ll have the same result and maybe he’ll leave us alone.

Famous last words.

As they begin to haul in this epic catch, they all realize this is not some annoying heckler but JESUS.

Once they are all back on shore, they find that Jesus has a fire going, with fish cooking and bread to share.  Anyone who’s ever had trout from a mountain stream cooked over a fire after a long day can surely identify with this scenario.

And so the disciples gather around yet another table, one that is no more than a circle around a fire, and are fed by the Son of God with all they need to be filled.

And after they are filled, Jesus asks Peter three times “do you love me?”

This has been interpreted in the past to be a sort of ritual by which Peter is absolved of his denials and admitted back into the disciples’ club.  Three denials, three assertions.

It’s an interesting idea, but to me it sounds a little too neat and clean.  Almost contrived.  Almost – conditional.

And if there’s anything our Lutheran theology assures us of, it’s that God’s love IS. NOT.CONDITIONAL.

So let’s look at what Jesus says, after Peter’s three answers of yes.

Feed my lambs – tend my sheep – feed my sheep.

What an interesting response to “of course I love you.”

It’s a response that says “ok, then pay it forward.”  Don’t pay me – pay it forward.

And by that simple directive, there is a new way to walk in the world.

Instead of paying BACK we start paying it forward.

It’s a term we’ve heard more and more these days – pay it forward.  It works from the axiom of “it’s more blessed to give than receive.”  And while that is certainly true, I think I’d say that everyone involved is blessed.

Some years ago when I was in seminary, I was the recipient of such generosity.

I was in a tough financial spot.  Probably towards the beginning of the semester, when financial aid awards hadn’t yet been disbursed.  I was desperately trying to figure out how I was going to pay my mortgage and keep the power on when I had no money in the bank.  I posted something on Facebook about requesting prayer that I’d figure out how to pay all the bills.

I got an email later that day from a colleague in North Carolina.  She said “I don’t have much, but what I have is yours.  Let me know where I can send $300 to help you out.”

I was stunned.  I knew she didn’t have much.  I wrote her back immediately and said you don’t have to do this, but I can pay you back as soon as my financial aid comes through.

She replied well obviously I don’t have to do this, but I want to.  And I don’t want you to pay me back, I want you to pay it forward.  You’ll know when the time is right.  Keep that good energy moving through the world.

This is what Jesus is teaching Peter and the disciples: pay it forward.  You honor me best by extending me into the world.  Keep that good energy moving.

And finally, Jesus says to Peter, follow me.

Not “worship me.”  This is such a fascinating distinction.  It shows us that Jesus is about empowering all of us to be his hands and feet in the world, while we worship the triune God.

It’s a reminder that worship is both passive and active.  We have moments in worship of passivity, of sitting and listening to God’s word, and those of activity – offering our gifts, or standing for the gospel acclamation, or actively receiving communion.

In the world, we are active in serving others, and we are passive in resting and listening for God.

To return to the first part of our story today, I wonder if perhaps the disciples were rather passive as they let down their nets yet another time on the left side of the boat.

It’s only by Jesus’ comments that we know they had been fishing off the left side of the boat; he tells them to put their nets down on the right side of the boat.

I want to have us think of these two sides in mariners’ terms, because if we think “left” and “right” we are likely to drop into political categories, and that’s not helpful here.

So the disciples have been dropping the nets on the PORT side of the boat.  The left side of a boat, looking towards the front or the bow is known as PORT and the right side is STARBOARD.

PORT is a word that implies a place where you tie the boat to the dock.  When you come into port, you come into a safe place where you tie up and don’t go anywhere for a while.

STARBOARD doesn’t have any such connotations.

But the word STAR invites us to look out.

We look towards the stars.

And of course, in ancient traditional navigation, the stars are the compass.  “Starboard” is composed of two Old English words: steor meaning to steer, and bord meaning the side of a boat.

You steer the boat by the stars.

And the stars by which the disciples steered their boats are the same ones used by the ancient navigators in the South Pacific.  They are the same ones the crew of the Hawaiian voyagers of the Hōkūle’a use today.  Hōkūle’a is the voyaging canoe that has been sailing the world to keep alive the traditional sailing and navigating ways of the Oceania peoples.

The word Hōkūle’a itself means “star of gladness.”

Likewise, Jesus is our star of gladness.

When we follow Jesus’ invitation to let down our nets on the starboard side of the boat, we open ourselves to possibilities we can’t see.  Looking out towards the stars, knowing as we do now that there is much beyond them we can’t see, we follow Jesus’ lead to step out of what we know and into the place where he needs us to be, so that we too might tend and feed his sheep.

But make no mistake – the place where Jesus needs us to be is also the place where he feeds and tends us.  Where we are held and cared for.  Where we gather as people of God.

People of St Andrew, you are standing on the deck of your boat, holding your net.

Where will you cast it?

How will you steer your boat?

However you answer those questions, I tell you this: Jesus gives you all you need on your way.

Peace be the journey.

Amen.

 

Address Your Doubt

My sermon from April 28, 2019, 2nd Sunday of Easter, when we hear about Thomas and his doubts of the veracity of Jesus’ resurrection.  I also specifically deconstruct the phrase “for fear of the Jews” in light of Saturday’s shooting at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, CA. – it is critical that we acknowledge how Scripture has been used to justify such actions, and commit to fighting against such horrific misuse of what is essentially an incorrect translation.

John 20:19-31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our wondrous God, through the risen Christ.  Amen.

Every year on the Sunday after Easter we hear this story, which features the character we have nicknamed “Doubting Thomas.”

I’m not sure how Thomas ended up as the fall guy here.  I saw a cartoon this week with Thomas saying to the other disciples, “I’m just saying, we don’t call Peter ‘Denying Peter’ and we don’t call Mark ‘Ran-away-naked Mark.’  How come I get stuck with this title??”

A question worth considering, particularly in light of the part of this gospel reading that immediately precedes it.

The disciples are locked in the upper room, our text says, “for fear of the Jews.”  I do need to make a sidebar point here: “the Jews” is a poor translation; it really should say “the religious authorities.”  This is one of the passages that has been used for anti-Semitic purposes over the centuries, including the shooting yesterday in Poway, and modern biblical and linguistic scholarship has provided much needed clarity.

So we can more accurately look at this situation as, the disciples are locked in the upper room because they reasonably fear that what happened to Jesus is likely to happen to them.  The religious authorities, who are in a Vichy-like agreement with Rome, could easily come after them next.

Thomas is not with them.  We’re not sure why, other than it sets up the doubt story.

At any rate, he misses out on Jesus’ visit and breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples, so when he hears about it later, he doubts what they’re saying.  They are saying the same words THEY doubted when Mary Magdalene said them.  Poetic justice, perhaps?

So I wonder if Jesus’ words about who is blessed are directed just as much at all the disciples as they are at Thomas.  There isn’t a disciple in the room who hasn’t harbored doubt in the last few days.

And perhaps I might be so bold as to say that there isn’t a disciple in THIS room who hasn’t harbored doubt too at some point in time.

We’ve been told, or at least we’ve gotten the message, that when it comes to faith, doubt is bad.  It’s the opposite of faith.

I prefer to take to heart the words of the great 20th-century Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich, who said that doubt is NOT the opposite of faith.  Rather, certainty is the opposite of faith.

And that makes sense.  The letter to the Hebrews declares that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

But Thomas doubts, just as the disciples did before him.  In the other places we see him in the gospel stories, he’s a pretty pragmatic guy.  He needs to see Jesus to believe.  He wants proof beyond a reasonable doubt, to borrow a phrase from my legal past.

But if resurrection indeed is, like I suggested last week, a way of new living instead a one-time event – how do you “prove” it?

I think Thomas moves in this story from the one-time event to the new way of living.  I actually think he is the disciple who first seems to get it.  He does see Jesus, bodily standing before him.  He is the one whom Jesus invites to touch his wounds, to acknowledge in a very physical way that the Savior of the world, risen from the dead, bears the scars of his crucifixion.  They do not magically disappear in resurrection.  Thomas is thus transformed by the realization that no matter what his life will be from this point forward, Jesus has been there/done that and will gladly walk alongside him through it again.  The wound marks Jesus bear no longer identify him as one of the dead, but as one of the living.

At the same time, the more I thought about this story, the more I could see how it reflects some of how society regards institutionalized religion today.  They have a lot of doubts about it, for a lot of reasons.  Most of those reasons have to do with not seeing Jesus in the public face of the church.

I’ve engaged with a number of folks in that camp, both friends and strangers.  I want to hear what they have to say.  It makes for an interesting conversation.

And what I hear them actually saying is that what has turned them off is the church’s arrogant swagger of certainty.

A certainty that results in the church’s inability to admit its wrongdoings and confess its shortcomings.

A certainty by which the church has engaged in reprehensible behaviors and refused to repent for them.

Now, these folks I talk to are still very much interested in the divine.  In a place that creates a sense of community.  A place that takes Jesus’ call to serve the downtrodden seriously.  A place that loves and doesn’t condemn.

But what they have observed as the public face of the church, at the very least, gives them plenty of doubt.

And I wonder if instead of throwing a new program at this sort of thing, if we began with ourselves, how would that look?

An example of this is the work our ELCA Lutheran Church has done, in collaboration with the Lutheran World Federation, on refuting the anti-Semitic writings of Luther and the damage they have caused through the centuries, through official apologies to the Jewish people.

How can I possibly hope to address the doubts others might have about God, if I don’t address the doubts and failings I have myself?

I used the word “address” and not “resolve” on purpose.  They have very different meanings.  And if you’ll indulge me in some humor for a moment, perhaps I can make my point clear.

In the great comedy series “The Honeymooners” there is an episode called “The Golfer” where Ralph Kramden, angling for a promotion, ends up with a golf date with the manager of the department.  Ralph (who doesn’t play golf) and his sidekick Ed Norton check out a book from the library about golf, and Ed demonstrates preparing for the swing: address the ball.  And perhaps you recall Ed’s classic line:  “Hello, ball!”

This is really what I mean when I say address our doubts.  Acknowledge them.  Hold a chair out for them.  Because that’s how we start to get to know them.

And that’s when they become a part of our faith – when we ask hard questions of God and don’t always get answers, at least not the answers we want or in the time frame we’d prefer.  And so instead of certainty – which sounds good on paper, but in practice is useless and ultimately false – we learn how to exist in the uncertainty.

That sounds uncomfortable at first.  But I think that it’s what is required for us to be continually open to God’s voice, to the Holy Spirit being breathed upon us by Jesus, for us to be able to hear his words, “as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Certainty is finite.  It says, ok we’re done, that’s a wrap.

Uncertainty says, I wonder what else there is?  What else, God?

That’s a variation on that Hebrews quote:  faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

There is, however, a certainty in which we are grounded: the certainty of the love of God in Christ Jesus, from which nothing at all can separate us.

Do we really need any OTHER assurance?  Any other certain thing in this world?

Is that not the certainty that sets us free from sin?

Is that not even the certainty that gives us the freedom to doubt, to question, to wonder, to rail against God, even, when the days turn dark?

It is the certainty that reminds us that no matter how much we question, how far we wander, how much doubt we harbor – God understands.  God is right beside us.

And it is also the certainty that reminds us of those words of Jesus: as the Father has sent me, so I send you.

I send you, he says, to those who are hurting.  Those who are lonely.  Those who need prayers, even from a distance.  To those who need to see that Christ is alive, that Christ’s followers DON’T have all the answers, are plenty uncertain about lots of things, and are just trying to figure it all out, day to day, in a community that does its best to practice resurrection.  That our struggles and doubts are part of what defines us as followers of Jesus.

When we hold faith and doubt together, we practice resurrection.

And God’s love in Christ makes that resurrection a reality.  Amen.

“I have seen the Lord!”

Here is my sermon, with some after-delivery re-arranging to reflect my improvisations.   It is greatly inspired by a column by Karoline Lewis, professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota.

Happy Easter!  Christ is risen!

John 20:1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Dear friends, grace and peace and Easter joy to you this day from our God of love through the risen Christ.  Amen.

I have seen the Lord!

Mary Magdalene’s shout to the disciples is the truest sermon ever preached – and quite possibly the shortest one too.  It says it all.

I have seen the Lord.

When we walked out of church on Good Friday evening, in complete silence, following the eternal flame – the one thing that had been left on Maundy Thursday – there was a deep and aching sense of what the disciples might have felt that long weekend.

All was gone.  Nothing remained.  Not even a benediction was heard; those are withheld in Holy Week until today.

Our hearts are left aching for more.  We want to see the Lord.  And so we gather this morning because we are people of the resurrection!  We know the rest of the story!  Christ is risen!  (He is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

I mentioned on Thursday that God was transformed from vengeful Old Testament God to loving God of Eternity – this happens on the cross, and it is made complete by the resurrection.  Death is defeated and so, sin is defeated. Without Jesus’ resurrection, death is the ultimate and eternal punishment for sin.  When God raises Jesus from death, we are freed from that eternal punishment.  Forgiveness becomes God’s way.  Resurrection turns our human assumptions about who God is and how God acts upside down.

In JRR Tolkien’s masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf remarks that it is the small acts of kindness and love by ordinary people that keep the darkness at bay.

The commandment that Jesus gave his followers on Maundy Thursday to love one another is what draws us in as workers in the kingdom of God. This is a promise we make at our baptism – we are drawn into God’s circle, and we are then part of realizing the peaceable realm of God on Earth, the Kin-dom of God as it were.  Surely the small acts of kindness and love that we as followers of Jesus carry out daily are part of the ongoing struggle to keep the darkness at bay.

Because there is still darkness.  There is still difficulty and struggle, many times far more than we think is remotely reasonable.  Evil still roams this earth, as we have heard in the awful news of the bombings in Sri Lanka this Easter morning.  It is in times like these that I am most keenly aware of what Good Friday and Easter mean together.

Through the events of Good Friday, God became fully human to even more of an extent than God was, I think, at Jesus’ birth. And in that experience of suffering God is forever intimately tied to humanity.  God weeps with us, walks with us, mourns with us.  And God makes a new promise, a new covenant of love for us through Jesus’ resurrection.

Here’s the thing about resurrection: it has limited traction as a third-person confession.  If we only think of resurrection in terms of how we recite it in our creeds, then it is not much more than a historical possibility.

Resurrection is not, I think, a one-time event but rather a way of life.  It’s a first person testimony, a truth that we might witness for ourselves and to which we might bear witness, every day.

Now in case you think I’m about to ask you to do something weird like make a John 3:16 sign to hold up the next time you go to a Dodgers game, or stand on a street corner with a microphone and speaker and yell out “I have seen the Lord!” – you can rest easy.  No such demonstrations needed.

Because I think that time is better spent looking for signs of resurrection all around you.  And believe me, they are there.

Resurrection is not only the promise of life after death.  That would be enough, just as the Passover song “Dayenu” claims: “if God had only led us out of Egypt, that would have been enough…”  But resurrection is also the assurance that God’s love will ALWAYS move the stones away from in front of the tombs of fear, and hatred, and rejection; of sorrow, and grief, and despair – God will and DOES roll those stones away.  And when the air of decay in those tombs hits God’s breath of new life – the death in those tombs is truly no more.

For all of our Lutheran understanding that God moves first, the promise of the resurrection is certain not only because God raised Jesus from the dead, but also when we speak it into our own lives and the lives of those who need to hear it.  The words “I have seen the Lord!” are God’s love rolling stones away so that all life might be free to know dignity and regard and respect.  A way of being in the world that is shaped by resurrection, embodying all that is life-giving and merciful.

Let me be clear: by saying this I don’t mean that the truth of the resurrection requires any action on our part; it is true regardless.  But what if it becomes more true for each one of us if we can walk into the future of this and all days, looking for places where we can say, “I have seen the Lord!”?  Imagine being able to speak that truth into the life of someone who can’t see the Lord, because they have only seen the inside of their tomb for too long.  That in itself might be a place where you both see the Lord.

To say “I have seen the Lord” is to point out the signs of new life when all that seems visible is death.  How fitting it is that even while holding the tragedy in Sri Lanka in our hearts, we see the rose on the altar today that honors the birth of a new baby in our extended church family.

To say “I have seen the Lord” is to proclaim love in the face of hatred – as we saw when the members of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Atlanta forgave the young man whose shooting rampage claimed the lives of their brothers and sisters.

To say “I have seen the Lord” practices decency and goodness when the vitriol and anger that is too much a part of our society finds only more and more followers.

If we were to start looking right now for signs of the resurrection – well, we’re kind of surrounded by Easter-y things.  Images that come to mind are sunrise, lilies, flowers, bunnies, chocolate.  Many claim that chocolate is a sign of the resurrection; nothing wrong with that!

But what if we expand the signs of resurrection to include Yo-Yo Ma playing the Bach cello suites at the border in Laredo, Texas earlier this week, to build a cultural bridge? Could a sign of the resurrection be the fact that the bees on Notre-Dame’s roof survived the fire? The deep snowpack in the Sierras that promises adequate water? The hundreds and hundreds of butterflies that descended on Southern California this year, along with a wildflower superbloom for the ages?  Or the fact that no matter what yesterday was like, birds begin each new day with a song?

What does Easter look like, feel like, smell like, taste like, sound like to you?

Where are the places in your life where you can imagine saying “I have seen the Lord”?

I’ll go first.  I have seen the Lord in my own life.

After my husband died, when I had looked and looked for work as a paralegal and I had no idea how I was going to make ends meet, I saw God in my dearest friend, leaning forcefully over her kitchen island as I made yet another excuse for why someone wouldn’t hire me.  “You put your call aside to marry Michael, and that was a good thing.  But now – you’re doing it again!  And you don’t have to!  Follow your call!”

It’s been a long and rocky road, but here I am, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else.

I have seen the Lord in the birth of the first baby goat at our church’s Luther Glen Farm.

I have seen the Lord in the work of my colleagues as they organized the New City Parish in Los Angeles in 1993, after the riots, against plenty of opposition.  It is still serving the people of South Central LA today.

And I have seen the Lord here.

I have heard many stories of your past as a congregation, and I’ve seen the Lord in the honoring of those stories and the people that created them.  But I’ve also seen the Lord in what is happening all around us.  In both large ways, that are quite visible, and in small ways that we really have to bend down and seek out.  In places where God makes a way out of no way.

To be honest, I have usually seen the Lord after I have been willing to spend some time in hard and barren places.  Places where there are no easy answers.  Places that have a distinct darkness to them.  Jesus generally shows up in that darkness.  I don’t always recognize him, but one thing’s for sure: he doesn’t let me cling to old or useless ideas.  When I think I see him clearly, he tends to disappear – back to the person through whom he worked, or the place or event.  But in that moment, he calls my name, and I recognize us both.

Mary Magdalene’s experience is the first we know of an encounter with the risen Christ.  It’s one that plays out for us.  So I think that the question Easter asks of us is not whether we believe in the doctrine of resurrection.  That’s a simple, cerebral yes.  Easter is far greater than that, far more profoundly earth-shattering.

No, Easter asks of us, “have you encountered the risen Christ?”

My prayer for you this day, and every day, is that your path will lead you to the places and times where you’ll be able to answer that question with a resounding “YES!  I HAVE seen the Lord!”  Because when that is how you move through this life, you will see the Lord.  Amen.

 

 

Only Love Can Do That

Maundy Thursday’s service last night was so full – scripture, song, handwashing, the Lord’s Supper, stripping the altar – truly a drenching in sensory experience.

I was grateful that my congregation was willing to try handwashing.  Foot-washing is an incredibly intimate experience, one that for many people breaks too many boundaries.  I’ve found that hand-washing, with a blessing of peoples’ hands for service in the world, is a really viable alternative.  To have your hands gently washed, dried, and blessed by someone is a powerful experience – and it was for me doing the serving.

I decided to take a chance in my preaching and offer that Jesus brings a new narrative, one that stands over against the doctrine of an angry God needing some kind of satisfaction.  To follow that with handwashing, while the ensemble sang a beautiful arrangement of “Ubi Caritas”, was a moment I’ll not forget.

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

1Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
31b“Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Dear people of God, grace and peace to you from our loving God, through his Son, Jesus who comes to us this night as a servant.  Amen.

Each Wednesday evening through Lent, we gathered as a community around tables, we were fed with good soup and salad and sweets, and we experienced our senses in relation to God.

Tonight we’ve heard about another meal, another menu, and another set of sensory experiences that bring people closer to God.

Have you ever been to a meal celebrating a very special occasion?  Maybe a wedding, or a 50th anniversary, or a historical observance?

A meal comprised of many courses, perhaps.  Each course complemented by a carefully selected wine.  A centerpiece of fragrant flowers.

There’s a weight of importance that accompanies a meal like that.

Jesus and the disciples are celebrating the Passover meal, and it’s a meal that even today in the Jewish tradition is one full of memories, particular foods, and being at table with others.

It’s a meal, not unlike the ones we shared through Lent, that’s woven through with prayers and songs, questions and answers, and sensory experiences.

And then Jesus changes the character of the celebration forever as he proceeds to wash the disciples’ feet.

This Passover meal has always been a time of passive remembrance of the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt – but Jesus takes it from passive remembrance to active response as he washes the disciples’ feet.

Likewise he makes this something for everyone to do when he says to them “so you must do.” It’s not something that just Jesus does, that’s only reserved for this one particular person/God being, but is expected to be our response as well to the truth of the stories that we hold together as the people of God.

If we think about the Passover story and then think about the actions of the Jewish people and nation after they left Egypt, we realize that Jesus is firmly establishing a new narrative – not an alternative narrative but a new one – that is the peaceable realm of God. And his resurrection will disprove once and for all that redemptive violence is a myth.  Violence does not redeem; it only creates more violence.

Joshua and so many others, post-Egypt, acted in response to their situations by promulgating violence.  And now in Jesus’ time, in the first century AD, that violence doesn’t seem to have done much good.  The people of Judea are once again under foreign control, this time by Roman occupation.

I certainly can’t claim to know the mind of God.  But I wonder – could God have possibly looked at the whole mess, and with an aching heart wonder to God’s self “how can I reach my people?  How can I help them know that I love them?”  Perhaps God remembered God’s covenant of the rainbow to never destroy earth again, and decided to try something entirely unexpected.

God coming to earth as a baby qualifies as unexpected, in my mind.

And what Jesus has preached, what he has done over his relatively short ministry, has been unexpected too.

The thread running through everything Jesus has said and done comes back around to his answer to the question “what is the greatest commandment?”  The answer is the commandment he gives the disciples on this night:  love one another.

It is a stark contrast to what the people of Jerusalem saw just a few days before, as Jesus rode into Jerusalem.  What looked for all intents and purposes like an approaching coronation of a secular ruler has now turned irrevocably down the road to crucifixion.  And even with that knowledge, in that reality, Jesus urges the disciples to remember, and to live, that what makes them disciples is love.

One of the greatest gifts Lutheran theology has given the world is its cornerstone – the theology of the cross.  We don’t skip from the cradle at Bethlehem to Jesus risen, cooking fish on the beach for his friends.  The journey to the cross reminds us that God is found most particularly in the difficult times and places.  If we skip that journey, then Jesus’ message – most clearly defined by radical inclusion and concern for those who are forgotten – becomes disposable.

And Jesus’ message is what has brought him and the disciples to this place, this upper room in Jerusalem.  It’s what has earned him a reputation across Judea that profoundly unsettles the powers that be, both local and occupying.  Jesus’ crucifixion is not a part of some twisted divine plan by which an angry God is finally appeased enough.  Rather, his crucifixion is the result of his message; he is sentenced to the punishment Rome reserved for political subversives.  And yet – a message of love is not what we’re accustomed to hearing from political subversives.

God’s mission in the incarnate Jesus is one that intentionally refuses the path of vengeance.  It is one that shifts the nature of life in the reign of God to one that is guided by, expanded through, and drenched in love for the neighbor.  The vengeful God of the Old Testament has transformed to the loving God of eternity.

If we can see Christ’s passion as endurance of suffering by God, rather than the infliction of retaliation by God, we can begin to consider the fullness of what Jesus is saying to his followers, “love one another.”

This kind of love is what makes it possible for the resurrection to breach the seemingly insurmountable walls of hatred and hostility that have plagued the world since the abandonment of Eden.  Those walls can only be breached with the power of love.

This is God’s unilaterally disarming initiative.  And it is one that we, who know how this story turns out, need to remind ourselves of daily.  It is precisely the Way of the cross that leads home and that empties tombs.

In the final analysis, the failure to love the neighbor, whether friend or enemy, is to hedge on Jesus.  We are, as the Apostle said, “baptized into Christ’s death,” implicated by the failure of our own faithfulness.

But at the exact same moment, we are baptized into his resurrection: the promised new heaven and new earth, where every tear will be dried and death itself comes undone.  It is by walking the way of the cross that we learn the love that endures, the love that begins to build God’s kingdom here.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it as well as anyone:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Dear friends, let us love one another.  Amen.

 

Meanwhile, on the other side of town…..

 

Luke 19:28-40

28[Jesus] went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?”34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” 39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Dear friends, grace and peace to you this day from our sustaining God, through Jesus, the Son of David and the Prince of Peace.  Amen.

You may have noticed that in this account in Luke’s gospel of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – there are no palms.

Instead, we have an interesting phenomenon of the local people spreading their cloaks on the road, and the “whole multitude” of the disciples being the ones to proclaim Jesus as king.  Which sounds like a lot more than 12.

And you may have also noticed in this account that the word “Hosanna” is not present.

“Hosanna”, that word that shows up every time we sing the Sanctus, the Holy Holy.  Hosanna in the highest.

This multitude of disciples instead proclaims “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  Words that echo the angels’ song at Jesus’ birth all those years ago.

The other three gospels tell the story not only with Hosannas, but with both cloaks AND palms (translated “branches from the trees”).  Matthew and John both emphasize this action as a fulfillment of prophecy.

For Luke, palms and shouts of “Hosanna” are symbols of nationalism.  The proclamation of “blessed is the king” from this multitude of disciples is a call for peace, not for rebellion.  In Luke’s gospel especially, the King is associated with peace.  At his birth, Jesus is deeply connected with the angels’ promise of peace on earth.

And so given these varying accounts, I wonder if Luke is writing to set the record straight, in contrast to the stories in Matthew and Mark, both written earlier.

Regardless of these variations, one thing becomes crystal clear: Jesus has not come as the mighty warrior, ready to kick down the door and chase the Romans out of Jerusalem.  No one is playing “Hail the Conquering Hero” as he makes his way into Jerusalem.

On the other side of the city, however, a different scenario is playing out.

Remember that we are just a few days before Passover, the biggest Jewish festival of the year.  The Roman ruler of Judea (in this case, Pilate) would be sure to be in Jerusalem for all the major Jewish festivals.  So Pilate is likely riding into Jerusalem on the biggest, flashiest horse around, accompanied by a contingent of imperial cavalry and soldiers, heralded by crowds just like we’ve seen in every gladiator movie ever.  (Side note, those crowds don’t have a choice; if Pilate is passing by you’d better be out there or it won’t end well for you.)

Now, Pilate has not come to Jerusalem at Passover to observe the religious holiday.

He’s there in case there’s trouble.  Civil unrest.  And Passover – the biggest festival celebrating the Jewish peoples’ liberation from an oppressor – was a time ripe for trouble.

While Pilate is the subject of an imperial parade of one sort, Jesus is the subject of a very different kind of parade; a counter-march of sorts.

Where Pilate enters on a magnificent horse, Jesus enters on a small colt – some even say a donkey.

Where Pilate is accompanied by the mighty signs of empire, Jesus is accompanied by his followers – generally peasant and working-class folks.

Where Pilate represents not only imperial power, but imperial theology – meaning that the emperor is seen as a god – Jesus IS God incarnate.

But he is not like the God of the Old Testament, a god of anger and violence.  Jesus instead embodies God as a God of peace, of neighbor-love, of justice.  As one who speaks truth, and who dwells in the shadowy places so that they might experience light.

By his style of entry into Jerusalem, Jesus does not mock the Roman imperial powers so much as he transforms their model.  Where Rome brought occupation, Jesus brings peace.  Where Rome brought fear, Jesus brings love.

And in the midst of this parade, the Pharisees tell Jesus to tell his disciples to zip it.  Keep quiet.  Knock it off.

Perhaps they have observed that this is looking more and more like a counter-march, like a planned political demonstration.  They are deep in it with the Roman authorities and are walking the microscopically thin line between the Roman occupiers and the Jewish occupied.  They are forced into a position of defense, assuming they want to keep their privilege and position.

If only Jesus had toned down the political tone of his message, the Pharisees likely said to each other.  You know, if he had just walked with his disciples into Jerusalem, quietly chatting about God’s glory and majesty, we could all just go to brunch and let things be.  But with a parade like this??  With his followers saying things like “blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord”??  Do you people even realize how much trouble this is going to cause??  Jesus, tell your disciples to stop!

Where do we run into this today?

Maybe it’s a community group advocating for a position that favors, or at least helps, the marginalized.

Maybe it’s standing up for what you believe in, even if you are criticized for it.

Or you may identify with this because at some point in your life you’ve been told “don’t say anything.  Don’t make waves.”

Jesus’ answer to this way of thinking, of course, is no.  If his disciples stop, he says, the stones themselves would cry out.  This has always been considered a figure of speech, but in an era of climate change that is accelerated by human activity, we see creation drawn into and impacted by events that we think affect humans alone.

Maybe the stones WOULD cry out.

Jesus’ message is a message of peace for the favored ones, who in Luke’s narrative are quickly identified as the downtrodden and outcast.  That might even include creation itself.  Jesus’ message is one of division for those who resist it, and glory for the God in heaven who promises to secure it.  Jesus’ kingdom is not a kingdom on earth, tethered to the same political games and maneuvers of Rome and its supporters, but rather, a Kingdom sanctioned by God in heaven that brings to earth a different way of living.  And this kingdom, this message, cannot and will not be quieted for the sake of peace or good order.

Dear friends, we stand in a similar place today.  Our world is one that seems to have abandoned the concept of ethics, civil discussion and disagreement, and working together for the greater good.  Instead, we find ourselves surrounded by the ugliest and most virulent examples of greed and selfishness.  I would not be the first person to draw parallels between our current situation and the situation of the Roman Empire around the middle of the first century AD.

But the response of Jesus, both then and, I believe, in us now – is one of nonviolence.

Let me be clear: his response is NOT one of capitulation or surrender.  It is simply telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may.

In Jesus’ time and in ours, when we tell the truth we are bound to get ourselves into trouble.

Because when we tell the truth about things, we pull back the veil that has been carefully maintained across the ugliness of that truth.  We upend the status quo.

The truth about the status quo is that across human history, the status quo has been maintained on the backs of the poor and marginalized.

The status quo of Jim Crow laws in the American South and apartheid in South Africa were maintained on the backs of people of color.

The status quo of sexual harassment was maintained on the backs of those who suffered the harassment and dared not speak up.

The status quo of the church’s alliance with empire – forged with Constantine’s conversion in the year 312 – has been maintained ever since on the backs of, really, the entire church.

So when we hear the “whole multitude” of disciples shouting “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” how do we respond in our time and place?

As we hear these powerful cries from the disciples, as we enter into Holy Week and the height of our life together as church each year, their song seems to reverberate against the angels’ carols of the Christmas season.  Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel are not just rewriting the angels’ song, they are challenging us to sing our own songs of God’s glory and reign.

And I think for us to sing those songs, knowing as we do how this week progresses from parade to betrayal to death and beyond – to sing those songs instead of seek revenge is the ultimate nonviolence.

For if we believe this gospel – if we believe that Jesus is the son of the living God, who has come into the world – then surely the stones will cry out and join us in the songs of love and freedom.  Amen.