The Mark of Christ

This blog is based on the sermon I preached yesterday, titled Shaking the Powers (based on James Harnish’s book Easter Earthquake that is being read as a churchwide devotional). Normally, I don’t publish sermons because (1) preaching (especially with my preaching style) is an event and normally doesn’t translate easily into written text and (2) I rely upon outside sources whom I cite here (yet I tread lightly because I take intellectual property very seriously). I will be linking websites and an occasional Amazon reference so people have access to the full content. That said, I am compelled to write out the sermon in more detail and am honored to have had requests to provide it in a larger format.

The Mark of Christ

Matthew 27:62-66 and Mark 1:9-15

I was just three hours short of a minor in English when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree (because I wanted to graduate more than I wanted a minor). But I love English and, combined with my love of history, I frequently look for the etymology of words and look for various meanings behind the words we use commonly.

Additionally, I have always been fascinated with idioms and their origins. There are phrases that we use in everyday life that have little to do with the subject matter at hand: Hit the sack. Break a leg. Miss the boat. And one of my favorites: speak of the devil. They all have some backstory and it is fun to explore their origins.

The idiom for today is “saved by the bell.”  Many people believe this has to do with boxing or wrestling, but its meaning is much more morbid than that. In days before our modern science, there were instances where people were comatose and suddenly “came back to life” after having been buried or entombed. When someone would die, others would take precautions like placing a feather on the upper lip to see if it moved with a breath. The wake is based on the idea that we wait a day or two to see if the loved one will “wake up.” Despite their best efforts, there were occasions where the unthinkable happened and someone, presumably dead, was entombed or buried and who revived after having been buried.

To mitigate the fear that someone might actually be buried alive, a casket placed in a crypt was equipped with a string that led to a bell mounted outside the crypt. The caskets buried in the ground had a reed running through the dirt with a string that went from the hand of the deceased in the casket to a bell mounted on top of the grave. If someone awoke inside a casket or tomb, they would move and the bell would ring. People would rush to either dig up the grave or open the crypt, and the person would be “saved by the bell.”

Imagine the new perspective you would have on life if you had been “saved by the bell!”

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Our church is reading James Harnish‘s book, Easter Earthquake, and through it, we are invited into a new perspective on Lent. Worship and liturgy are largely drama. We are people who live out the Christian year re-enacting the life of Christ and the early church. So when we get to Lent, we often approach it like actors in a play who, in the moment of the opening of the play, do not “know” how the play will end. The great actor “re-enacts” each scene for nights on end as though they have no idea how it will conclude, and that is what adds drama to the play.

Harnish invites us to a new perspective acknowledging that we are Easter people. We know how it ends. This is a perspective that asks us to put on our Easter glasses and look back on Lent.

And this is the week that I needed this. I am approaching this sermon from a different perspective because of the events of this week. Another school shooting with mass casualties has rocked our nation. This time it happened on Ash Wednesday. I was struck when I saw this image.

Ash Wednesday Shooting.png
Credit: America: the Jesuit Review

What needs to be said? What is the tie-in here? This sermon has been tumbling in my mind from Wednesday evening until today. Like a rock being polished by a tumbler, I have pulled it out to look at it only to put it back. Then it hit me. The texts for today speak perfectly into a culture of violence that has existed for thousands of years.

While we have often claimed to be a civil society, when you look at our history, we have been anything but civil. We are people who have used violence to our advantage. I think we come about this honestly … even as Christians, we have to own up to our own story.

A careful reading of Genesis gives us some insight. In the second story of creation beginning in Genesis 2:4a and going forward, we read about the man and the woman who are created and placed in the garden. They then violated the covenant with God. After that, they had two sons, the older being named Cain and the younger named Abel. In Genesis 4, we read that Cain murders Abel because the sacrifice of the younger was accepted by God over the sacrifice of the older. Then Cain went off to establish “civilization.” When we read this in context, the Hebrew sages remind us that we are all children of Cain! Our tendency toward violence is our legacy!

Jim Harnish starts us off today with Matthew 27:62-66. Jesus has been crucified and the religious leaders have convinced Pilate to let them seal the tomb and post their own guards. That way, they can make sure the disciples of “that deceiver” don’t come and steal the body and then parade around saying he was raised from the dead.  The tomb is sealed. Jesus is dead. There is no hope.

Every Wednesday, I gather with a group of folks that we simply call our worship planning team. In our worship planning as we were considering this story from Matthew 27, and it was Andy who shared a visual. We have narrative about Jesus all the way up until burial, and then we have narrative about Jesus on the day of resurrection when he is no longer in the tomb. But Andy wondered what would have been like for Jesus to wake from death inside the tomb. How would it feel to be alive in a grave?

That’s what this week has felt like. I have felt like I am alive in a grave with violent words begetting violent acts begetting more violent words. It is a deadly cycle in a culture of violence, and we are challenged to come face-to-face with our own violent tendencies! We are marked and marred by this violence!

Jim Harnish then also refers this week to Mark 1:9-15, which is the actual lection for today. In this story, Jesus is baptized and “driven out” into the wilderness. He isn’t issued a cordial invitation or encouraged to go on spiritual retreat. The act of his baptism (the giving of himself fully to God) and subsequently God’s full acceptance of him have forced him to a place where he would come face-to-face, not with the devil, but with himself. Satan here is the tempter … the diabolos who throws the ball across our path to distract us.

And while other Gospels tell us specifics about Jesus’s temptation, we are not told what they are here. Jesus is fully human (what incarnation really means) and must confront his own temptations. Jesus himself had the temptation to short-circuit the process.

Mark, however, doesn’t give us descriptions as to the details of the temptations of Jesus. He gives us room to insert ourselves into the narrative. Stop and think about your own temptations. Your own violent thoughts. How do we do violence to those we love with our words? With our gossip? When we label people as “other” and then live out an “us versus them” mentality. I confess that am tempted to this kind of violence. Our church celebrates Black History Month, and we, in our church family, are all too aware that racism and white supremacy are alive and well. Violence is everywhere.

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been reading Yearnings: Ancient Wisdom for Daily Life – Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Rabbi Irwin Kula. In further reading, Rabbi Kula teaches about mitzvah (which lead Christians to think about bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah when a Jewish boy or girl comes of age). The word mitzvah literally means good deed or commandment, but Rabbi Kula says there is a mystical meaning, as well, and that mystical meaning is “intimacy.”(Yearnings, p. 100)  Mitzvah is about knowing ourselves in the fullest possible sense … knowing God in the fullest possible sense … and working to create true human community in the fullest possible sense. Then he says that mitzvah has no meaning without temptation.

“Do not murder” invites us to meditate on who we want to murder. Who gets under our skin; who enrages us beyond reason; who cheats us, betrays us? … When we open our eyes, when we reflect on the commandment, we begin to see different forms of murder all around us…. On an interpersonal level, the sages taught that humiliation is a form of murder. When we cause the “blood to drain out of someone’s face,” we have committed soul murder. (Yearnings, p.106)

And Jesus came face-to-face with himself and gave all of himself … his “tempted-yet-God-loved-self”…  fully to God. So I invite you to join me on this Lenten journey. Maybe this is the time for us do a couple things: (1) use Lent to take an inventory of our own violent tendencies and (2) give ourselves wholly to the God who loves us. Then we are invited to work to create the community for which we have yearned! I am committed to doing that this Lent, how about you?

I am looking for a new perspective. And I found a great perspective in the person of Ann Voskamp. She is a spirit guide for me in many ways, and she speaks from a place of brokenness.

As I said, this sermon has been tumbling all week long, and Saturday morning, I received an email with her latest blog titled When Cancer, Gunfire, Grief, Lent and the Unfairness of God Wreck Us. You are invited to read the longer blog, but here is the excerpt that is most poignant for today:

When I stand in the kitchen, stacking dishes on the third day of Lent, our littlest girl flies by me on her wooden push bike, “Looooveeeee you.”

And a heart hurting for a hurting world, I mutter it more to her than to me, “What in this world does love even mean?

And our little girl comes to a full stop. Slides off her little Red Rider. And comes back to me.

“You wanna know what Love means?” She cocks her head, parrots back my words in her high-pitched 3-year-old lisp.

And I look over to her standing there in her mismatched socks and a lopsided ponytail.

“I know what love means, Mama!” She gently laughs like a laying on of hands that heals the rawest wounds.

“Love means this —— “

Ann Voskamp.jpg
Credit: Ann Voskamp – When Cancer, Gunfire, Grief, Lent and the Unfairness of God Wreck Us

And she flings her arms open as wide as they can reach. That wisp of a 3 year old girl, she’s standing there with her arms stretched wide open — cruciform.Not wearing a cross on her forehead — yet making all of her — ams, hands, body — into a cross.

And behind her, high up in the gable, on the dining room wall, is a canvas depicting the crucifixion, Jesus with His arms stretched a universe wide, not one of us beyond His rescuing.

And I kneel down.

Kneel in front of our little girl with her arms stretched out in the meaning of love — kneel at the foot of the cross hanging behind her with Jesus stretched out in outreach that reaches even the brokenhearted.

Look for Christ in both of the images shown here – in the beautiful little smiling symbol of the cross and the tear-stained smudge of the Ash Wednesday cross practicing love’s embrace at a school where body bags are coming out one after another.

Today, friends, may the mark of our violent, mortal nature be overtaken by the mark of the divine. It is true: we are Cain’s children, … but before that … above that … more than that … we are God’s children, and we are brothers and sisters of this Christ: this “bell who saves us!”

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

Amen.

The Beginning of Wisdom

I have lived most of my life in a state of “not knowing.” Sometimes I have thought of it as just plain ignorance, but for the most part, it is about living with uncertainty … living with mystery … living in a psychological and mental state of not knowing. I am currently reading Yearnings: Ancient Wisdom for Daily Life – Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life by Rabbi Irwin Kula, and his work is an insightful description of much of my life and thought.

In the chapter, Dancing with Uncertainty, Rabbi Kula posits that we are a world that greatly values certainty, yet we see uncertainty to be a huge liability. We pay lots of money to people who preach prosperity and certainty, whether in life or in business or in faith.

In matters of faith, particularly, we want to know that God has a plan. In times of grief, as my own family has experienced, the most unhelpful (even harmful) approach to tragedy is when people say that this tragedy is “God’s will” or “in keeping with God’s perfect plan.” That tends to bring me to the edge of rage (especially when it is said in the presence of my children or grandchildren) precisely because it tends to create this false assumption (1) that God is either not in control or, worse yet, a sadist and (2) that God’s plan is even knowable. We reduce God to a manageable size and then we attempt to rid ourselves of the anxiety of uncertainty.

Yet I admit that much of my life has been spent trying to “know” things. I often feel that, if I preach from the place of unknowing, the congregation would grow restless and anxious. After all, if the guy speaking up front doesn’t know for sure all these things about God, then why are we here?

Rabbi Kula has a response:

The biblical sages understood that the anxiety of not-knowing is the beginning of wisdom. There isn’t a single character in the Bible who understood beforehand the outcome of any journey he or she underwent. What makes these characters so special is not that they are somehow superhuman, wiser, or more evolved. It’s that they don’t scale down their dreams to the size of their fears. They are masters of the dance between uncertainty and certainty. (Kula, Yearnings, pp. 88-89)

As I read this, it struck a nerve because, when I think of “the beginning of wisdom,” my mind goes quickly to Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” And I began to ponder how that plays out for me. As you might suppose, I have a guess (though I admit my uncertainty as to the absolute nature of my thesis).

When we think about the fear of the Lord, we often think of fear as being afraid or scared. This really isn’t the same thing. The Hebrew word יִרְאָה (yi’rah) is translated into the Greek φόβος (phobos from which we get the word “phobia”), and they both mean “fear based on not knowing.” It is anxiety producing. It is awe-inspiring. It brings us more often to a place of confused silence in the face of the enormity of what we have experienced.

I am a man of many words (just ask the congregations I have served or do a word count on this blog), yet when our son-in-law died and we had flown to Hawaii to be with our daughter, I suddenly was without words. I sat in silence a great deal of the time. At some level, I was anxious and angry and generally grief-stricken as much for what was happening to my daughter and granddaughter as my own sense of loss at losing a young man who was more son than son-in-law. Above all that, however, I was standing with my toes at the edge of the abyss of uncertainty … of not knowing whether anything I had previously thought or preached were true … of what felt at that time like a sea of ignorance.

I was both angry at God and afraid of God because suddenly I had no grasp. I was forced, kicking and screaming, into my primary theme: Let Go and Let God. I did not want to let go, yet there was no way to hold on. I was spiraling.

Then it hit me … in the weeks and months that followed … that I had discovered a deeper wisdom. It is a wisdom I have seen in my daughter and other family members who have made efforts to add meaning to the tectonic shift in our family. The wisdom, believe it or not, is not based on certainty. It is not arrogant or self-serving, but it is bold. I am boldly resting in the arms of this God about whom I apparently know so little.

And that’s where wisdom begins: in the fear of the Lord … grappling with the uncertainty of life and faith. So I invite you to this wisdom. Enter the uncertain world of faith (which is the truest definition of “faith” itself), and experience the wisdom that begins with the simple act of not knowing.